One bag of light sandwiches, thirteen writers, buckets of tears, and an incredible coincidence.

Travelling with my mother is unlike any other expedition.  She is a whole destination without any sort of journey needed.  So when she texted me the night before one of my most looked-forward-to and nerve-wracking trips of the year and said she’d made a ‘bag of light sandwiches’ for the train, I felt both comforted and terrified.  What on earth did she have in mind if we needed ‘light’ sandwiches?

Having posted the sandwich ‘situation’ on Facebook, a frenzy of questions ensued – what on earth was IN the ‘light’ sandwiches?  It turns out, as we set off from Hull Paragon Station, they involved ‘best ham and Moroccan tomatoes, with a lick of butter.’

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A bag (okay, box here) of ‘light’ sandwiches…

And so the train headed for London, bound for two of the biggest book events I’d taken part in thus far – a talk about How to be Brave with the Royal Chelsea Pensioners, and the Orenda Roadshow in Waterstones Piccadilly with a host of esteemed and bestselling writers.

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All aboard for London…

At Selby a lovely couple got on and sat opposite us.  We got chatting (my mother will talk to a wall) and they asked about our trip.  As I told her about my book events the lady – Jean – began to cry.  Full on tears.

“I know this story,” she said.  I was speechless.  How?  It turned out Jean had known the other survivor from the lifeboat, Ken Cooke, and lived in the same village as his grandchildren.  It felt like a reunion with an old friend.  She bought a copy of my book – much to the curiosity of other passengers, who I told, “It’s on Amazon! Click now!”- and I happily signed it for her.  When we went separate ways at King’s Cross, having exchanged numbers, there were more tears; it was like saying goodbye to dear friends.  I’ve always felt there’s no such thing as coincidence.  That fate has a firm hand in such things.  And I knew we’d all been in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.

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Ken and Colin at their moment of rescue

It was on then to the Royal Chelsea Hospital, and the wonderful veterans who reside in the Grade I and II listed site.  They have served in Korea, the Falkland Islands, Cyprus, Northern Island and World War II, so it was an absolute honour to share with them the bravery of Grandad Colin, and read extracts from the book.  Emotional anyway from the surprise train ‘reunion’, I could barely keep it together as I shared the tragic death of Officer Scown, Colin’s guilt at losing it with another crew member, and the moment of rescue.

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“I’ll never be able to show my face in Yorkshire again,” I joked between chokes.  But these men and women have witnessed such pain, and they were wonderful.  They shared tales of their life moments, of journeys across sea, of lost friends.  I’ll never forget it.  Grandad Colin’s brother’s great granddaughter Lauren joined us and we met for the first time.  “Can’t beat that Yorkshire grit,” she said, and it was as though we’d known each other for years.

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With some of the wonderful Chelsea Pensioners

Finally, after a quick bite, my mother and I set sail for Piccadilly Waterstones, the last leg of our trip.  Here, the hard-working and passionate Karen of Orenda Books had rounded up thirteen of her writers to share readings and chat with a rapt audience.  I met again the delightful Amanda Jennings, whose book launch (and book) I’d loved, the doesn’t-look-a-day-over-forty-five David Ross whose Head in a Book I enjoyed last year, and Paul Hardisty who’d come all the way from Australia.  (Not just for me, you understand, for the event.)

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Orenda Roadshow – London

Then there were new friends to meet: lovely Yusuf Toropov who has championed How to be Brave endlessly and written one of the greatest literary works I’ve ever read; Steph Broadribb whose bounty hunter tales have me hungry for her debut; Michael Grothaus, whose font is quite different to mine; Matt Johnson who did the most moving read; gorgeous Kati Hiekkapelto who my mum said she ‘couldn’t take her eyes off’; Michael Stanley (at least the two lovely misters who are this one writer!); Su Bristow whose Sealskin sounds magical; and Michael J Malone who my mother asked, “What kind of writer are you?” and when he said, “A Scottish Writer,” she said, “A Sausage Writer?  Oh.  So what does that involve?”

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Yoko Ono turned up for the event.  Okay, she wandered into the store.  Same difference.  But that wasn’t as exciting as my meeting writers Jeanette Hewitt and Melissa Bailey.  Exclusion Zone and Beyond the Sea are two of my favourite reads this year, so to see them there was beyond incredible.  We hugged and I signed my book in a way Jeanette’s mum will truly love.  Also it was great to talk to Susi Holliday about the excitement of seeing bookshelves in stores and ‘knowing’ the writers.

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With Melissa Bailey and Jeanette Hewitt

And it’s always great to see those gems from the book blogging community.  “What’s a blogger?” my mum had asked on the train.  A lifesaver, I wanted to say.  I was touched to get a Pretty Woman-esque whoop whoop from Anne Cater and Nina Pottell during my introduction.  And to see Vicki Goldman (a writer also) and Liz Barnsley and Anne Williams (from Harroga- Wakefie- um, Wetherby!) and Steve Wright and Karen Cocking there too.  Always a joy.  Favourite writer Gill Paul sat on the front row with my mother and thankfully kept her in check.

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With lovely Gill Paul, and Karen Sullivan, publisher extraordinaire

Thank you to Karen Sullivan for steering her publishing ship so well, and letting me be part of its incredible crew.  I’ll never forget London last week.

My Aunt Jane (Grandad Colin’s only daughter) said quite profoundly, “It’s as though you’re steering your own lifeboat, collecting friends and memories along the way instead of provisions.”  She couldn’t be more right.  I’m just lucky enough to have a bag of ‘light’ sandwiches on my journey…

An Escape Route

Tomorrow, 7th May, will be seventy-three years to the day since the incredible rescue of my Grandad Colin took place on the South Atlantic Sea, a rescue all the more profound because many years later it saved my small daughter’s life too.  These events inspired my debut novel How to be Brave, a book I wanted to write for a long time and only found the courage to in 2013.

So today I’ve been thinking about how Grandad Colin must have felt when he saw that ship.  I’ve been thinking rescue.  Being saved.  It happens in many forms, not just on the sea.  Our ship might be a friend calling at the right time, a song that cheers us up, a sudden chance opportunity to do something we never thought possible.  With these themes in mind, I decided to share a short essay I wrote a few years ago.

 

An Escape Route

 

If a fire started tonight, I’d know exactly what to do.

I’ve known since I first clicked our house’s image on a website ten years ago. About to pick up the phone and put an offer on a place we liked enough to buy but weren’t in love with, a voice (the one that talks to me when I nearly don’t do what I should) suggested I check if anything new had come on the market.  It had – a three-bed semi-detached house with overgrown bushes and sad windows.  Number thirteen; my favourite.

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You should love a house, I told my husband Joe on the way to view it.  The balding man in that TV show goes on about location, location, location, and his sidekick Kirstie reckons size matters, but if you don’t walk in and love a place then chrome fittings and real wood kitchen worktops won’t cut it.

Our first house had just sold (harvesting a tidy profit in two years) and we needed to buy somewhere fast or risk sleeping with our two children and three cheap wardrobes in the local park.  I’d rung Joe at work, insisted we view this house during his lunch hour, promising if it wasn’t right we’d buy the other.  Approaching the street, before even seeing the place, I said to him, I know the house.  I’ve been to it already, a long time ago.

I had.  My mum’s closest friend – a woman she met while in a mental hospital after attempting (and almost succeeding at) suicide – had owned it in the mid-seventies and I’d played in its triangular garden, and carefully navigated the step that led from the kitchen to the lounge and caught you out because the floor was the same avocado green colour throughout.

You’ll trip up on the kitchen step, I warned Joe as we parked outside.  I bet you a fiver you do and then we’re definitely buying it.

He did.  The people who now owned the house said they’d been very happy there.  It was the only question I asked.  While Joe queried ominous stains and wonky walls, it only mattered to me if they’d loved it.  My mum’s friend hadn’t; she insisted it was haunted.  A man had hung himself decades before in the front bedroom and he wandered the landing at night.  My children saw him, she insisted, and my marriage ended and depression visited number thirteen.

But I loved it and put her dislike down to incompatibility.  Like when you have a crush on someone odd and no one gets it.  I loved the uneven stairs and the original windows and the devious kitchen step that has never yet caught me out.  If there were ghosts, they must be friendly or long gone.  Joe said it had great potential and we bought it half an hour later.

If a fire started tonight, I’d know exactly what to do.

The man who fitted our new windows five years later looked like a much younger – and non sight-impaired – Columbo from the American detective TV series.  He had skin as brown as seventies decor.  But that isn’t why we employed him to replace windows that were not only ugly but also a serious fire hazard with their inability to open more than a crack.  He’d done our neighbour’s and they looked smart and had large panels that opened like doors.

Windows matter.  They are both a means to escape and a vent to dispel smoke if you live too high up to jump.  Only if you’re on a ground or first floor should you attempt to flee this way, and even in this instance you should cushion your fall with any available bedding or cushions, and lower yourself rather than leaping.  I’ve tested our new windows – how wide they open – many times, and just to make sure (because things can get stuck, said the voice that talks to me when I nearly don’t do what I should) I have an old radio under the bed whose weight and angular edges will likely break glass if I need to.

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The house I lived in between the ages of nine and nineteen – with a couple of breaks to live at my grandmother’s and in an orphanage briefly and before permanently leaving home – had beautiful sash windows that lifted effortlessly.  I always had my bed right up against the glass, both to be away from unwelcome visitors through the door and to be seconds from escape.  Marilyn Monroe looked down on me from a black and white poster, her eyes like sad half-closed windows and her lips black as burnt wood.

I’ll tell you one day, my mum said during my fourteenth year.

One escape route isn’t enough; you should have a back up, like when you’re waiting to find a house or person you can love completely and you know if they don’t materialise you’ll consider one you ‘like enough to buy.’  If the main route is blocked you must call 999 and find the safest room to wait in until fire fighters arrive.  A safe room is one with the door closed, and damp towels stuffed beneath so unwelcome fires can’t invade, and its occupants lying close to the ground where the smoke is less dense.

I was in the bath when I realised, said my husband three weeks after we met, standing with wet hair on my doorstep, surrounded by snow, having ridden the five miles to my house to speak to me before turning and going right back.  I was just lying there and thinking about stuff and I thought, I love her.  And I thought I have to tell her, but properly, not like a phone call.  Like, right now.  So I got out and, well, here I am.  And I do.  I love you.

If a fire started tonight, I’d know exactly what to do.

My mum told me she’d attempted suicide six years after the fact, because at the time I’d been only nine.  Fifteen was old enough.  An all-night binge (hers not mine, I was quite the sensible teen then, busy planning schedules and writing stories and listening to voices) opened her up, a window letting smoky confession drift through in broken puffs of grey.  She’d planned her death quite meticulously, and I was kind of proud.  Planned that we four children would be safely in school and nursery, and counted all the necessary pills, and decided on a desolate location some miles away.  But a tramp blocked her escape route.  He found her in a disused building semi-conscious and called 999.  She survived; he disappeared.

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I think we should move her bed, I said to my husband yesterday, referring to our daughter.  I don’t like that it’s so high, and the ladder would be a bloody hindrance.  I want it nearer the door, so I can get straight up there.  I can’t sleep you know.  That bloody ladder.

If your clothes catch fire you should stop, drop and roll.  The instinct of course is to jump and scream and run, but this only fans the flames.  If a loved one is engulfed, wrap them in bedding or a coat and smother the heat.  When our son fries eggs or boils noodles I hover in the kitchen archway, on the devious step, reminding him to roll his super-flammable dressing gown sleeves up, lest the blue flames reach them and he flares up like a sparkler.

Stop nagging, Mum, he says.  I’m fine.

When water filled this house in 2007 the voice that talks to me when I nearly don’t do what I should was silent.  I closed all the windows.  It made no difference.  The rain that had steadily fallen for forty-eight hours, and risen above the gate and plant pots, spilled in over the doorstep, gushed up through the floor and trickled through the air bricks.  It hid the devious kitchen step, but I still never fell.

In our temporary accommodation – the Flood House as I venomously called it – the windows were painted shut and I warned the landlord (an obese, sweaty wastrel who wanted to charge a thousand pounds a month in rent because he knew the insurance company would have no choice but to pay it) that I’d smash every one of them if there was a fire.

At a family barbeque, when I was perhaps eleven, my aunt burnt the sausages.  We ate them anyway, coated in ketchup to disguise the taste.  My sister knocked the grill over, scorching the grass and inciting my mother’s wrath.  You’re a demon, she told my beloved but mouthy and wayward sister.  Later, with wine in her belly, my mum took me into her confidentiality, a warm place I craved.  She tests me the most that one, she said of my sister.  But if there was ever a fire in the house, and I could only save one of you, she is the one.  She is.  I’d save her.

If a fire started tonight, I’d know exactly what to do.