Yes, it’s arrived. My new book, Fulfilment is out and is available now as a paperback here – and for – pre-order on Kindle here – for delivery to your device on May 15th.
From the Back Cover
What’s it about? Well, it’s a contemporary second chance romance. It’s the third and final book in my series set on the Scottish island of Skye and brings the story of Jack and Rachel to a conclusion. Here’s what it says on the back cover:
The path of true love rarely runs smoothly…
When former Edinburgh police detective Jack Baxter met local author and crofter Rachel Campbell on the Scottish island of Skye, they fell in love. It was a second chance at happiness for both of them.
They both had emotional baggage. Jack helped Rachel cope with unimaginable grief after the death in combat of her soldier son, and Rachel was there for Jack after a criminal with a grudge almost ended his life. There were many bumps along the road but they believed they’d worked through and settled their differences.
However, Jack is struggling. Still suffering from post-traumatic stress, haunted by his past, and taunted by the demons of self-doubt, he feels Rachel deserves better.
Meanwhile, Rachel is busy preparing for the launch of her latest book – a book in honour of her son and aimed at promoting peace. So at first she fails to notice just how troubled Jack is.
Can Jack overcome his demons?
Can Rachel convince Jack he deserves to be loved?
Can they finally resolve their differences and fulfil their dreams together?
If you like mature, emotional and thought-provoking contemporary romance in a dramatic setting, then this is a book for you.
Needless to say I’m delighted to see Fulfilmentgoing out into the world. As I said above, it’s the third and final part of Rachel and Jack’s story and although it can be read as a standalone novel, I do hope that readers will read Displacement (book 1) and Settlement (book 2) first.
From the Scottish Hebrides to the Middle East, the settings for all my novels have been important to me. They’ve provided inspiration and they’ve influenced the content and direction the stories have taken. And judging by the reviews I’ve received, they’ve made a positive impression on my readers too.
Edinburgh is where I was born, grew up and spent a substantial part of my adult life. I also lived for many years on the Isle of Skye. And I have visited Israel-Palestine, where a dear friend of mine lives, on several occasions. So it’s probably not all that surprising that these places feature as settings in my books.
Indeed much of the action in my stories takes place while the characters are outdoors either working or simply enjoying being out in the natural world.
So in this post I thought I’d share my five favourite real-life, outdoor places that also feature in my novels.
The Hermitage of Braid, Edinburgh:
This is a wonderful park on the south side of the city. The water of the Braid Burn runs through it and it has Blackford Hill on one side and the Braid Hills on the other. In some parts it feels as if you’re deep in the woods or out in farming country rather than in the middle of a busy city. It has a semi-wild feel to it and is definitely not manicured parkland. I played in this park as a child, climbing trees and fishing for minnows in the burn, and I was brought on nature-study (as it was called back in the day) lessons from my primary school which was nearby. And it’s a place I return to nowadays if I’m in the city and feel like a good walk. So when I needed somewhere for Edinburgh school girl, Caitlin, and her friends to meet up in the school holidays in order to set out on their adventures in The Silver Locket, the Hermitage was the ideal setting.
Gullane Beach, East Lothian:
This is a lovely stretch of shoreline on Scotland’s east coast. There are dunes, a long sandy beach and amazing views across to Fife on the other side of the Firth of Forth. This is another place I visited a lot as a child and that has continued to be one of my favourite outdoor places since then. So when I needed a seaside setting for the home of Rosie, the main character, in Change of Life I chose Gullane and its beautiful beach.
Waternish Point, Isle of Skye:
A walk anywhere on this island is always going to be spectacular. The views and the scenery are breathtaking and second-to-none. But I’ve managed to choose two favourites that also feature in my writing. The walk to Waternish headland in the north of the island is the first walk that Rachel and Jack go on together in Displacement. And it’s a walk I did many times when I lived in Waternish. It takes you over streams and peatbogs, uphill and downhill, through a deserted crofting settlement and past two Iron Age brochs, before finishing at the lighthouse on what feels like the edge of the world.
Neist Point, Isle of Skye:
This walk takes you to the cliff tops at Skye’s north-western tip. You can walk down the steep path from the lighthouse to the cliff edge. You see lots of seabirds such as fulmars and gannets and looking out to sea, you may even spot dolphins and minke whales if you’re lucky. This is another walk taken by Jack and Rachel and which features in Settlement.
Dead Sea and the Judean Desert, Israel:
And walk number five couldn’t be more different in terms of landscape from all of the above. This landlocked exceptionally salty lake is on the border between Jordan and Israel. My visit here left a lasting impression. For a Scot used to coolness, dampness and greenery it was a shock to the senses to be walking in such hot, arid and barren surroundings – but it was still beautiful – albeit in a different way from what I’m used to. But having made such an impression on me it had to feature as one of the places visited by Rachel in Displacement and it’s the setting for her romantic encounter with Eitan.
So there you have it – my five favourite walks that made it into my fiction.
Where are your favourite places to go for a walk? And, if you’re a writer, artist or musician do real life settings inspire or feature in your work? As always please do comment below.
Do I find writing to be a joyful experience? Short answer: yes and no.
Yes, there are times when it’s difficult, times when I’d rather be anywhere other than at the writing desk, and times when I think I’m kidding myself about being able to write anything worth reading and that I should pack it in.
Writing for survival
BUT those negative times are relatively rare. And no matter how bad the writers’ block or the procrastination or the self-doubt might be, I honestly can’t imagine not doing it. It’s vital for my health and wellbeing, it’s my purpose and my passion.
Writing for daily life
The everyday, practical, non-fiction type of writing – that is the lists, the lists about lists, the problem-solving mind maps, the journaling and the diary keeping – all help me work through problems, get organised and make decisions.
And when things are getting a bit too much – during times of stress, anxiety or depression – writing, for me, has really come into its own. At times like these writing, in the ways mentioned above, has been therapeutic and helped me find my way through and out the other side.
Writing for a living
As for the professional side of my writing – the creative, imaginative stuff that I do – well, that’s where the real joy comes in. I love setting out with one or two characters and finding out from them what their story is.
For me, writing a novel truly is a joyful voyage of discovery. Those first one or two characters introduce me to more characters along the way. They reveal where they live and they share their problems, dilemmas and challenges with me.
I love fleshing out the characters, creating the details of their homes and daily lives, providing the backdrop and landscape in which their stories take place. I also enjoy getting them out of the difficult or maybe even life-threatening positions I’ve put them in.
And it’s wonderful – if sometimes inconvenient – when having hit a metaphorical wall in a work-in-progress, the solution suddenly comes to me unbidden – when I’m in the shower, when I’m about to fall asleep or when I’m out walking. But inconvenient or not, I love it when my sub-conscious mind takes care of the difficulty.
Then there’s the buzz of seeing the finished article, of holding the book I’ve created in my hands. There’s nothing like it.
Apart, that is, from the even greater buzz when a reader tells you they loved it.
And it’s most certainly not about the money earned – although that’s helpful – but as long as at least one person reads and enjoys my made-up stories – probably even if that’s just me – I’ll keep on doing it.
A life-enhancing joy and passion
Yes, writing truly is an essential joy.
So, what is your passion – is it writing or something else? What drives you to pursue it? Can you imagine your life without it?
I love reading. I read both fiction and non-fiction and enjoy various genres. Romantic fiction is my favourite, with crime fiction a close second, but I also read the occasional historical novel too.
And when I write my own books I write the sort of book I would want to read. My novels are essentially romances with lots of other themes/issues woven into the mix as well. And one thing that struck me early on in my writing career was that in romance in particular the main characters in the popular novels I read were mainly young – i.e. in their 20s or 30s. But I wanted to write about characters who were a bit older than that.
So I was delighted to get the chance to explore this notion of age in fiction when I wrote a guest post for Linda’s Book Bag blog on this very topic.
You can read the post on Linda’s wonderful book blog here.
I can’t imagine not writing. I just love it so much. Even if nobody read my scribblings I reckon I’d still have to keep on doing it. But if even one person reads and enjoys what I produce then that’s a bonus. But of course I’m delighted when more than one person does.
I love getting positive feedback and reviews – even the less positive but constructive reactions are helpful.
I really appreciate when readers who have already done enough by buying and reading my books, also take the time and trouble to review them – whether that’s on one of the online retailer sites or on their book blogs. This all helps spread the word to other potential readers and it does my writer’s ego good as well…
And today I certainly got that ego boosted when I read book blogger Joanne’s wonderful review of Settlement. What I especially loved was that she totally got what I was trying to say in the novel and she appreciated the subtleties of the title. This was a thoughtful and, to me, very special review.
You can read her review on her Portobello Book Blog here.
From the upheaval of loss to insight, acceptance and love
This is the second of two posts where I share a bit about why I chose the theme of displacement for my novel of the same name. In the first post I talked about physical displacement – displacement from home and country. In this post I’m going to look at the emotional aspects explored in the novel.
Rachel, one of the two main characters, is a fifty-something woman. She lives alone on the Isle of Skye, one of the Hebridean islands off Scotland’s west coast. Her home is on a small farm, or croft as it’s called in the Scottish highlands. And as well as looking after her sheep, she also works as a children’s book illustrator and writer. Rachel has been through a lot of upheaval in her life––divorce, grief after the loss of her soldier son, killed in Afghanistan, and then as the story begins, the loss of her mother who she’s been living with and caring for.
And the other main character, is newly retired Edinburgh police detective, Jack. He’s coming to terms with his retirement, has just had heart surgery, and is feeling stuck in a relationship that has run its course. Like Rachel he is divorced. At the start of the novel he has just bought a rundown cottage in the (fictional) Skye village of Halladale. He plans to do it up and to use it as a holiday home.
Both Rachel and Jack have lost their way emotionally. Both of them need to come to terms with the changes in their lives and to find a new way of living. During the course of the novel both of them explore new ways of life.
Rachel goes to Israel-Palestine, where her brother lives. She wants to explore her Jewish heritage and to see if she too can settle and make a new life in the Middle East. And the people she meets there certainly open her mind to new ways of living and new possibilities. There’s Hana, a Palestinian woman who owns a guest house on the West Bank where Rachel spends a few days. The conversations Rachel has with Hana are life-changing. And then there’s Eitan, an artist, and best friend of Rachel’s brother. Eitan reawakens in Rachel what it is to be a woman and a person in her own right––not just a mother, daughter or ex-wife.
Jack meanwhile finds working on his cottage to be therapeutic. He also finds walking in and photographing the stunning Skye landscape provides him with time and space to decide what’s next now he’s retired.
And then there’s the relationship between Rachel and Jack. They establish a strong friendship before Rachel leaves for Israel and it’s a friendship that benefits both of them emotionally. But there’s also a complication––an undercurrent that both of them sense but neither acknowledge––they are strongly attracted to each other. Beginning a new relationship isn’t something either of them wants and it’s this emotional complication that drives the narrative of Displacementforward.
At its heart Displacementhas the question of whether Jack and Rachel can become new anchoring points in each other’s previously turbulent lives.
The reasons behind the plot and settings of my second novel
When I wrote Displacement, I wanted to explore what knocks people’s lives off course, what pushes them out of their normal place and space. I also wanted to examine the consequences of both physical and emotional displacement. In other words i wanted to look at what happens when people are forced by circumstances to change their location – both external and internal.
At the emotional level, I wanted to explore the displacement caused by grief, betrayal, illness and ageing and I’ll share more of the background to this in a subsequent post. But I also wanted to explore the long term consequences of physical displacement, of what happens when people are forced to abandon their home and culture in order to stay alive – and that’s what I’m looking at in this post.
When I came to write Displacement, three examples of the forced movement of people were in my mind – two from the relatively recent past, and one that has existed since the 1940s and continues to the present day. The first was the forced eviction of people from their land in the north of Scotland. The evidence of the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries is still visible today. And this, combined with the earlier punitive measures put in place by the victorious Hanoverian side following the Battle of Culloden, meant that Gaelic culture came close to being eliminated. The wearing of tartan was outlawed as was speaking Gaelic. The organisation of Highland society by the clan system came to an end and thousands of Scots were forced to emigrate to Canada, America, Australia and New Zealand.
The second example of the forced displacement of people that I had in mind was the much deadlier clearance of a whole culture that was wrought in Nazi Germany. I saw an item on Scottish television marking the 75th anniversary of the Kindertransport that took place just before the second world war. This happened when Great Britain agreed to accept 10,000 Jewish refugee children from Germany and Austria. The children were taken in by British families and most never saw their parents again as they died in the Holocaust. Some survivors of the Kindertransport were interviewed about their experiences of arriving in and growing up in Scotland in their adoptive families. Their stories of stoicism and survival made quite an impression on me.
And the third example is that of the plight of the Palestinian people displaced from their homes by the establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948 following on from the end of the Second World War.
I brought the three together in Displacement by making the late mother of the main female character, Rachel, a Kindertransport survivor who was taken in by a family in Glasgow and who later married a native of the Isle of Skye (in the Scottish highlands) and settled there. Rachel lives on Skye, but her brother has followed his Jewish heritage and emigrated to Israel-Palestine.
And because of the significant emotional upheavals in Rachel’s life, she decides to visit her brother in his adopted homeland and see if she too can find a renewed sense of home by being there.
Hence the action in the novel moves between these two very different places and addresses many layers and levels of displacement as Rachel tries to decide where in the world her future lies.
And I was able to describe both settings from experience.
I’m a Scot and I live in the Scottish Hebrides so I’m steeped in that environment and its history. The wild and often challenging landscape, the resilience and resourcefulness needed to survive here, and the still visible evidence of whole townships abandoned and left to crumble when the inhabitants were forced off their land – all lend themselves to the exploration of the themes of upheaval and displacement .
I’ve also been to Israel-Palestine several times. It’s a country that fascinates me and it’s certainly no stranger to upheaval.
My link with the Middle East dates back to when I was fourteen and to my high school days in Edinburgh. A new girl joined the class and I was the one who volunteered to look after her. The new girl was Revital and she was an Israeli. Her father was doing a PhD at Edinburgh university and had brought his family with him for the duration. Revital and I quickly became friends. So much so that after she and her family returned home we kept in touch and in 1975 during my long summer holidays from university I travelled to Israel to visit her. As she was doing her national service at the time we could only meet up at certain times, so I worked on a kibbutz for a bit and did a bit of travelling. The kibbutz was on the Golan Heights – something I didn’t tell my mother who was worried enough about me visiting what she saw as a very dangerous country. I wasn’t worried though; I had the invincibility of youth. And I was smitten by the place – its beauty, its ancient landscape and its vitality.
I’ve revisited since then. One trip was in 1993 and coincided with the optimism which followed the signing of the Oslo Accord. The Palestinian flag flew from balconies, houses and cars – something that would have been illegal before the Accord. The atmosphere was relaxed, peace seemed to have been established. Revital and her husband were activists for the peace settlement and knew there was still a lot of work to be done, but were hopeful that they could now live and bring up their children in a new, constructive and co-operative society with all their neighbours regardless of background, religion, or race. Fast forward to my most recent visit in 2012 and the situation had deteriorated to worse than before 1993. All optimism for a peaceful and fair settlement was gone. Revital and her husband continued to work for a peaceful solution, trying to raise awareness amongst their Israeli friends of the true plight of the Palestinians. Her husband, an academic has written several books on the subject and speaks on it all over the world. You can view one of his many talks here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qblO4u0pF9M And Revital is part of Machsom Watch – who in their own words are
‘a volunteer organization of Israeli women who are peace activists from all sectors of society. We oppose the Israeli occupation in the area known as the West Bank, we oppose the appropriation of Palestinian land and the denial of Palestinian human rights. We support the right of Palestinians to move freely in their land and oppose the checkpoints which severely restrict Palestinian daily life.
And amongst other things they, ‘conduct daily observations of Israel Defense Force checkpoints in the West Bank and the hamlets in the Jordan Valley.’ (taken from the Machsom website at http://www.machsomwatch.org/en/about-us)
When I visited in 2012 I accompanied Revital on one of these checkpoint observations. It was a bit scary – I’ve not been that close to a soldier on active duty before or to an automatic weapon – but it was an interesting and enlightening experience. Palestinians, including the elderly, the sick, and the pregnant are given a lot of hassle while just trying to go about their ordinary daily business such as visiting family or attending hospital appointments.
So all of the above was in my head as I wrote the novel and I incorporated some of my own experiences into the story – from Rachel’s life as a crofter to the realities of life in the Middle East.
Footnote re current refugees:
I’m not a historian, a politician or an activist, so I wrote simply as a human being reflecting on the plight of other human beings and on the injustices of enforced displacement inflicted by some of us on those we perceive as ‘other’.
But, as I mentioned above, I’m only too aware of the plight of refugees from Syria right now as they try to get Europe. I’ve donated to charities and written to my MP – as I’m sure many of you will have – and I will continue to do whatever else I can to help, albeit in a small way. I’m particularly proud that my relatively small and remote community is, as I write this, collecting desperately needed items for those refugees and as soon as there’s enough to fill the articulated lorry that is on standby, these items will be driven to Greece for delivery to those who need them.
So by way of acknowledging displacement as an ever-present and often devastating fact in human life, I thought I’d end by including the cartoon below. It has been shared a lot on social media recently in relation to the recent deaths in the Mediterranean and to the refugee crisis in general. (The cartoon is actually from 2014 and was created Australian cartoonist and fellow wordpress blogger Simon Kneebone, in response to the time when boatloads of people were trying to reach Australia from Indonesia.)
I’m interviewed over at Jan Ruth’s blog today. It was fun to do and I hope you enjoy reading it. You can, amongst other things, find out which character I fell in love with whilst writing him and can you guess my favourite word?
We’ve been home now for four days. Our stint as booksellers-in-residence at the Open Book second hand bookshop is now over for the husband and me. It was a great adventure. We hope we’ve left the Open Book slightly tidier and the stock a bit better organised – having built on the hard work of our predecessors in the project. Now it’s over to our successors-in-residence to continue the process.
You’ll have seen from my earlier posts on our time in Wigtown that we met all sorts of interesting and lovely people – both local and visitors to the town. We did a bit of exploring of this corner of Scotland and liked what we saw. It was good to visit the other bookshops in Wigtown as well. How wonderful to have them all, and to have people who are so committed to selling real books in real independent shops and who are prepared to work so hard to do so. It was an eye-opener as to how much goes into running a successful bookshop and it’s definitely a labour of love. More power to all independent bookshops!
During the fortnight, although there wasn’t a lot of spare time to write, I did get to do a bit of thinking and planning in connection with my writing. And I met several local authors and we shared experiences, thoughts and ideas – this in itself was such a valuable opportunity.
So thanks to the Wigtown Book Festival Company and all those behind this unique project, especially to project manager, Anne for the chance to be part of the Open Book. Thanks, too, to Joyce from the Old Bookshop, to the owners of the Glaisnock Cafe, (yummy), to Jayne and to Sarah from the writers’ group, and to everyone else who made us so welcome.
And most of all thanks to the Open Book shop. It was fun getting to know the best wee bookshop in the world.
END OF CHAPTER
It’s a long drive from Scotland’s National Book Town to our home in the Hebrides, so we broke our journey north on Saturday with an overnight stay in Glasgow. We stayed at a hotel in the city’s vibrant west end and so were able to enjoy a walk in the Botanical gardens and along the River Kelvin walkway, as well as a lovely dinner out at a nearby Italian restaurant.
Then on Sunday we drove the rest of the way home. And what a drive home it was. It was a beautiful day and the west of Scotland was looking stunning. Loch Lomond, Glencoe, Kintail, to name just a few of the places, were all showing off their full glory – Scotland was at its most jaw-dropping and glorious best.
It’s nice to be home. The weather has continued to be good and I’ve already had the chance to enjoy one of my favourite local walks.
Since getting back, I’ve also been catching up on all my own writing jobs and looking to further the plans I finalised while I was away.
There are two deadlines tomorrow.
One is for my contribution to Words with Jam, the online writers magazine that I’ve been on the staff of since its inception around four years ago. The theme of April’s issue is History and I got two pieces off to the editor yesterday.
The other deadline is for an application to be included in an opportunity being offered to writers by XPONorth. Below is an edited extract from the organisation’s publicity for the opportunity.
XPONorth (Writing & Publishing) is delighted to offer seven independent, self-publishing authors living in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, the chance to sell and promote their work at the Indie Author Fair 2015. The Fair takes place at Foyles Bookshop, London, on Saturday 17th April 2015.
The Fair is part of the London Book Fair Indie Author Fringe Festival, run by The Alliance of Independent Authors/Indie ReCon, and Triskele Books are hosting the 2nd Indie Author Fair at Foyles Bookshop.
Authors selected for the showcase will be offered support and mentoring in developing their marketing and promotional materials and platforms in readiness for the Fair.
Indie authors living the Highlands and Islands can apply to participate in this showcase either to be present in person with their books at the Fair (books, plus promotional materials), or to have their books available on the XPONorth display forsale and with promotional materials.
Whether for readers, writers, publishers or observers of the publishing scene, this will be an unmissable event – an opportunity to say hello to the best indie authors in the business, meet suppliers, talk to experts, buy/sell some books. The event will be FREE to the general public.
( XPONorth Wrtiting and Publishing is delivered by Emergents Creatives CIC Ltd, and the programme is funded by European Regional Development Fund and HIE.)
My application is away. I’m not planning to attend in person, but it would be good to have my books promoted and on offer there, so fingers are crossed.
A week from today I’ll be off back down to Glasgow. I’m attending the annual, weekend conference of the Scottish Association of Writers. So I’ve got travel arrangements to finalise and promotional materials to gather. This is a great opportunity to meet other writers, to catch up with my fellow members from the Edinburgh Writers’ Club, to network, attend workshops and to see if I’ve had any success in the Association’s conference competitions. I’ve entries in a few categories so maybe, just maybe…
Then, after I get home, it will be all systems go for the April publication of my first children’s novel. More of that in a later post.
And here is my shortlisted story – see previous post for details about the competition I entered.
Hansel and Gretel
[ story is copyright of Anne Stormont]
The decline had been rapid. Within a few years, Riversdale had gone from being a thriving farming community, populated by lively and growing families to being an unsettlingly quiet and barren place.
Now, the fields lay unploughed, withered and brown. Birds no longer sang in the sickly trees. The once, brightly whitewashed cottages with their red, pan-tiled roofs and pretty gardens stood neglected. Dark, paint-flaked windows, weeds choking and smothering the flower beds, children’s toys abandoned in the undergrowth – all told the story.
But it was the empty school that made the starkest statement about what ailed Riversdale.
One fine spring afternoon, Gretel sat on the schoolyard wall. She often came here to sit and think. She would stare at the deserted building with its sad black windows. She would try to imagine the schoolyard full of children as she’d heard it had once been. But she couldn’t. She had no idea what that would be like.
Her twin brother, Hansel, jumped along a grid of faded, numbered squares that had been painted on the playground’s dusty surface. Gretel had once asked her mother about the grid of numbers. Her mother began to explain that it was a game, but she became too upset to finish the explanation and Gretel hadn’t asked again.
Over by the school gate, Gretel noticed that the woman was there again. The woman came every school day – every school day at three o’clock – and she waited. She waited until her husband came to fetch her back at four o’clock and she listened – listened to him explain once again – as he always did. And she listened, every time as if it was the first time, to her husband telling her that their son wasn’t in school, that he would never be in school, that he was gone, taken by the Helpers. And every time she cried – as if it was the first time.
Hansel and Gretel were taught at home by their mother. The teacher left when the last school age child had gone from the village. Gretel and her brother were babies at the time. It was the year after the river dried up and the crops didn’t grow. It was the year the Helpers came.
Today, as she stared at the sad old building, Gretel wondered again what it would be like to go to school, what it would be like to be in a class full of other children her own age. She longed to be in a class full of other children. She longed to have other children, besides her brother, to play with. Hansel was all right – but he was a boy. He didn’t want to play Gretel’s games and he always seemed quite happy on his own. She wished she could have a group of friends – all girls her own age. Gretel did have one friend. She was called Lottie and she was the same age as Gretel. She was quite good company most of the time. She and Gretel talked a lot about all sorts of things. Lottie came for sleepovers and she was always there when it was Gretel’s birthday. ‘If only she was real,’ thought Gretel.
Gretel had asked – begged – her mother to move the family to the town – to let her and Hansel go to the school there. After all, wasn’t that where the Helpers had taken the other children – to Forestville -to the town? But her mother wouldn’t talk about it, wouldn’t consider it. She would only say that their father said it was a dreadful place and that he wouldn’t allow it. He wouldn’t even let Hansel and Gretel visit the town. They’d never been to Forestville – not once.
She’d also asked over and over again why the older children had gone. She’d overheard bits and pieces. Sometimes the grown-ups forgot she was there or thought she wasn’t listening. She’d heard her mother and grandmother talking, or sometimes it was her mother and Marta, the woman from next door. And some nights, when she and Lottie couldn’t sleep, Gretel would creep out of bed and sit at the top of the stairs and listen to her parents talking in the room below.
When Grandma and Mama talked about the arrival of the Helpers, Gretel would be sitting quietly reading and it was as if Grandma and Mama forgot she was there. They spoke of how the Helpers came after the river dried up. They came and they offered to help the families whose farms were wastelands and whose children were hungry. They gave the families money and said that they would take the children to Forestville and feed them and look after them and send them to school. In return the children could do a bit of work for the Helpers to earn their keep. Grandma would sniff, as if she was crying, and she would say, “Those poor people. Those poor, poor people and their poor lost babies. They weren’t to know they’d never see or hear from their darling children again.”
At other times Marta would come from next door. She and Gretel’s mother would sit at the kitchen table, drinking tea and talking. Sometimes Marta would speak about ‘my Peter’. And Gretel, playing a game with Lottie on the kitchen floor, would listen unnoticed. “My lovely Peter,” Marta would say.”I miss him every day. I should never have trusted those horrible Helpers. But we didn’t have enough food. We were so hungry. Our boy was so hungry. Our beautiful, beautiful boy…”
And then Marta would cry and sob and Mama would hug her and say, “Sh, now,” like she did when Gretel was upset. “One day they’ll be back, you’ll see. The Helpers promised to look after them while you couldn’t – but soon they’ll be back.”
One day Marta said to Mama, “Everyone says you’re so lucky. You’re so lucky that your Hansel and Gretel were babies when they came for our children – and so lucky that their father could find work in the town.” Gretel thought Marta sounded cross. And after Marta left, Gretel thought she heard her mother crying.
Sometimes at night, as she sat on the stairs, Gretel heard her parents as they talked. Then, one night, they seemed to be arguing. Their voices were loud. Both of them sounded angry.
“I hate it here,” Mama said.”And our neighbours hate us. They hate that we have still have our children and they don’t. We should leave. We should live in Forestville.”
“No!” Papa shouted. “Never, we will never live in that place.”
“But why not?” said Mama. “Living here is no good for us. Our children need to go to school, to have friends. This place is dead. It’s never going to recover.”
“No! Don’t say that,” said Papa. “The village will recover. One day we’ll get our water back and it will be like it was before. Families will move here. The village will come back to life.”
“When?” Mama cried. “When will that be? Next year? In five years, twenty years, when? It’s all right for you – you get to go to Forestville every day. You’re not stuck here – here in this desert – where no flowers grow, no birds sing, no children laugh.”
“Do you think I like going there?” asked Papa.
“I don’t see why you wouldn’t like it,” answered Mama. “I don’t see why you won’t let me go there. I miss it. Why must it be you who gets all our provisions? I’d love to see the shops and the grand houses again. And our children – they would love to see the parks and the gardens. At least let the children go to school there. I know we’d miss them, but it would be better for them-”
“No! No!” Gretel jumped when Papa banged his hand on the table. She hugged Lottie tightly as she listened to Papa’s words. “It isn’t safe. It’s not like it was before – before they came – before the Helpers came. You’ve no idea – no idea of the evil they do.”
“What evil? What do they do?”
“I can’t tell you. If I did, you would be in danger. They don’t want people knowing the truth – knowing what it is they really do. But me and a few of the other men we’ve been investigating and soon, soon we’ll know enough to prove what they’ve done – done to all of us. And when we do, then Riverdale will recover and the children will come home.”
“I don’t understand,” said Mama.
“Please,” said Papa, his voice was quieter now. Gretel had to strain to hear his words. “Please, my dearest, please trust me. Please, promise me you will keep our children safe here for a bit longer and soon all will be well.”
“I promise,” said Mama.
But it wasn’t long after that night that Mama broke her promise.
Papa had arrived home from work early. Gretel was sitting at one end of the kitchen table drawing and Hansel was playing with his toy farmyard at the other end. Mama was preparing their evening meal. Papa almost fell into the kitchen he was in such a rush. He stumbled over to Mama, who looked very surprised, and hugged her. “Come here, children,” he called, gasping to catch his breath as he beckoned to Hansel and Gretel.
The children ran to their father and he held them and Mama close.
“What is it?” Mama asked, looking scared. “What’s wrong? Why are you home so early?”
Papa let go of them and ran his hands through his hair. And now he looked scared too. Gretel wished that Lottie was with her.
“They found us out,” said Papa. “The Helpers – they found out what me and the other men had discovered about them – about their business and the terrible things they have done – to this community – to our children. They’ll come for us – me and the other men. They’ll stop us from telling what we know – so we must go into hiding.”
“What do you mean? Where will you go? What about your job? ” Mama was crying.
Papa put his arms around Mama. “I can’t go back to my job. The Helpers know where I work. It would be too dangerous. Me and the other men – we have a plan and a place to go where we think we will be safe until we can get to the authorities and tell them the truth about what is going on in Forestville. But I can’t tell you more than that. If I did, you would be in danger too. You must wait here until this is over and I can come home.”
Hansel was crying. Gretel was determined not to. Their father embraced them both quickly and then he was gone.
At first their mother tried to keep things going as normal. But the longer their father was gone, the harder it got. The money ran out and, soon after, so did the food. Then, one morning as Hansel and Gretel shared the last slice of bread and their hungry Mama watched them, the Helpers arrived.
It didn’t take them long to persuade Mama. They commented on how thin Hansel was and promised Mama he’d be fattened up. In fact, both the children would be fed and educated. In the afternoons they’d do some light work for the Helpers. The money they earned would be sent to Mama.
It didn’t take Mama long to pack a little bag for the twins to take with them. The last children in Riversdale were leaving. Hansel and Gretel were going to Forestville.