Learning to Breathe

Winner of the Aesthetica magazine Creative Works competition 2009


I’m home, he called, his belt buckle as polished as ocean stones, his tone an undercurrent more dangerous than the words…

Bubbles carry Kate’s hurt to the surface. Some spiral, fast, swirling like tiny kites caught in a playful wind. Others zigzag through freezing water, lazy, burdened with the heaviest of pain. She hears them popping at the meniscus, sees her worries dissolve in a soapy haze and fly out through the cracks in the tiles. It is all there is. She is. The water is. The bubble is. 

Dad pulled the cloth from the dinner table and the plates and cups scattered, sending spaghetti to the floor, and he yelled, you shoulda put a bigger brick in front of the garage door you bitch, you shoulda known that little one wouldn’t hold it, I had to get out of the car, open it, in that rain and wind; and he paused for breath, and on his way to the door he turned to Kate and said, your mother’s a clown, are you listening to me, you never listen, just like your mother…

Under the water there are no words. There are no tears. The salt does not run down her face, onto her tongue, bitter and sarcastic. There is cold and echo and the syrupy feel of water caressing her throat. She opens her eyes again. Hair floats in front of her face, fanning out like a mermaid’s tail. Swim little fish, swim to the bottom of the bath, where the words don’t penetrate. She waves her hand in front of her eyes, mesmerised by the graceful slow motion of her fingers, by the tiny, fairy bubbles that fly away from the movement, by the changing light, the changing life.


Mum picked at the spaghetti on the floor but it slipped through her finger like eels and she hid her face and said, Eat your tea off the floor sweetheart, for me, and then go do your homework and get your bath before he comes back, but don’t lock the door, I hate it when you lock the door, and it just annoys him, don’t annoy him, for me, for me…

Kate should breathe. It hurts a little now, but not like the words. She should float back up, inhale again, but she is waiting to hear the sound. She’s held her breath before, for longer, much longer, until her lungs throbbed and her head ached, before she gave in and burst back into the other world. The other world is far away now. She can see the plastic fish on the side of the bath, a green one with emerald fins and tail that spits out water if you squeeze its tummy, and she considers that they have swapped places. The fish has been drowning on the bath side for years and so is she, in her home, in the classroom, in her heart. She waits for the sound.

The click, click, click sound first captured Kate in bed, half asleep, half dreaming, protecting her ears from the bastard, bitch, whore words downstairs, good at the not hearing thing, at zoning out the external sounds, tuning in to the internal, to her heartbeat, her pounding eardrums, her blood, the oxygen, her self…

She wants to hear the clicking; it is worth the pressure building in her lungs and throat and head. So she concentrates on the cracked wall tiles, on the undulating lines in the lime mosaic, clouded by the water and the ache. Her heart slows. Her blood flow slows. It is not enough; she has to breathe, she has to breathe, she has to breathe…

Click, click, click was a frequency new, fast, high, intoxicating, following Kate into the bathroom where she ran water until it was cold and then dunked her head in the sink, following her into sleep where she swam with creatures that glowed silver and responded to their eerie burst-pulsed sounds in a voice all her own, there when she woke, like the breeze teasing the wind chimes outside the back door, there and then not there, in her mind, merging with the foghorn on the water, there and then not there, there and then not there, there and then not there…

The clicking begins. It was always there.

 …there and then not there, there and then not there, soon she would not be there…

There are no more bubbles. There is no more breath. There is no more pain.

Mammals Cute Wild Ocean Animals Rays Nature Wildlife Dolphins Dolphin Wallpaper

Homework done, Kate went back to the dining room where Dad stood over Mum, belt in hand, buckle flashing in fluorescent light, yelling, words that took an age to reach the air, words about defiance and slovenliness and antidepressants, and he raised his grey-sleeved arm again, in unison with her yellow fluffy one, his crashing down, hers pushing back, meeting in a mess of splattering red, and grey and yellow, and red, and words, and red…

The clicking is closer. They are here. They have come. She knew they would. She never doubted it, even when she doubted it. The mosaic tiles have fallen apart and drift away into the sky. The emerald-tailed fish is smiling on the bath side. I hope you locked the door, he says. She did. They will be cross. None of it matters. The bath sides dissolve; there are rocks and weed and red sea urchins.

Kate ran from the circling sharks, slammed the bedroom door, turned the TV as loud as it would go, so that the presenter’s words drowned out the thrashing below, and learned about the individuals that communicate using a variety of clicks, whistles and other vocalizations, who use ultrasonic sounds for echolocation, whose membership in pods is not rigid, so interchange is common, who  establish such strong bonds between  one other that they stay with the injured or ill; and she screamed when they thrashed in the nets, pushing against the mesh that tightened like a belt, clicking, thrashing, clicking, until the water filled with blood…

There is movement. Kate reaches out. There are two, then three, and then more. They are the grey ones. They surround her, from each side, in front and behind. Noses nudge gently, an invitation, so she reaches over and touches the one on the right and then the one on the left. They are as smooth as the leather lounge sofa in that other place, wet and warm, and it feels familiar. Do you remember? She hears the question in the whirl of clicking and whistling and splashing. The water cascades deep blue, and she cannot see, but she might remember.

Grabbing the belt from him, Mum shouted that the teacher was wrong; Kate should not be suspended from school for waving her hand, clicking, whistling, waving, shouting no, no, they communicate through the blowhole on top of the head, not the mouth, and they can see inside other animals, sensing a shark’s empty stomach and letting others know of the danger, sensing a beating heart, and pain, they sense the pain; Dad said that the other children laughed at their idiot child and the teacher told her to leave the classroom, and she did, clicking, as the children laughed; Kate smiled because only the red haired boy, who kissed her once and made her pores tingle, didn’t laugh, he shoved his desk mate, shouted at the others to stop, stop laughing, stop, laughing, stop… 

The grey ones are exchanging sounds, taking turns at pushing, pulling, guiding. They ask her to come and play with them. Follow us, you are perfectly safe. You need not fear; we are here to teach you about breath, and to remember. She does remember. She remembers the diving reflex, the water when she was a baby, her home. It is hard to keep up with her silver friends so they slow and allow her to catch them, and to change.

She ran to the bathroom, switched on the cold tap and jumped into the tub with water that spat, frothing and filling, splashing and calling, remembering when Dad pulled her out by the arm, bruising her wrist, and she begged him to let her go, to leave the water be, but he yanked out the plug and the sea swirled down the drain, taking her tears, her hopes, leaving only ache, until he’d gone, belt undone; she only wanted to be safe…

Now she is safe. She is changing, changing and remembering, and instead of arms and legs she has a dorsal fin and pectoral flippers, enabling her to swim faster, to keep up with the pod. Her body is sleek and grey, adorned with silvery dots. Though her sight has diminished she can hear the waves, the wind, the silent words. She has become one with the dolphins. She is a dolphin. She is home.

Mum yells outside the bathroom door that they are killing her, that she and he are destroying her, that she no longer talks, only sits in her room, whistling, and reading about the dolphins, but Dad covers Mum’s mouth, takes the words, warns her that he will take them forever if she doesn’t stop, and slaps her and pushes her and closes the bedroom door and locks it, so that Kate won’t hear the screaming; and she doesn’t, she doesn’t, just the clicking, faster, faster, faster…


She swims faster and faster. She breaks through surf, leaps in the air, flipping, turning, and dives back into the water where hundreds of fish scatter like sparks of rainbow. When the air within is gone she moves upward and blows with force, expelling the breath that has stagnated inside for ten years.

Dad kicks in the door and they are in the bathroom; Mum screams, Kate, for God’s sake, come back, come back, breathe, breathe…

She is breathing. She is not breathing. She remembers how. And then, with a great inhale of new air, she dives down again.

Mum calls, Kate, come to me, come back to me, click, click, click; Dad drops the belt and it falls, like a stone through water, onto the tiled floor…

Kate swims and looks back and swims and looks back. I was never there, I was never there, click, click, click. Kate’s voice is gone. The words are gone. There is only the music of the ocean, wordless, melodic, soothing, and the dolphin song, and the nets sinking, empty, to the bottom of the sea.
















Maria in the Moon Book and CD Giveaway

With the Hull launch of Maria in the Moon only next week, and the excitement of having Hull singer/songwriter Carrie Martin perform her beautiful song that accompanies the novel at the event, we decided to do a little giveaway.

First, enjoy the stunning video for the song, Maria in the Moon, from Carrie’s forthcoming album Seductive Sky. And it really is magical. I’ve been listening while I write. You can visit her website here Carrie Martin

So, here’s the giveaway. A signed copy of the Maria in the Moon novel, a signed copy of Carrie’s brand new, not-even-released-yet, album, Seductive Sky, which includes the song to accompany the book and is going to be huge, and a signed event poster.

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Just watch the video – like it if you enjoy it – and comment below to be included in the giveaway draw. Feel free to come to Hull Book Launch on 20th October too.

We will choose a winner from the names below a week today, on 16th October.


For the Bloggers, Reviewers, and Readers…

I had to write something – anything really – to acknowledge every reviewer and blogger and reader who has shared their thoughts at any time on anything I’ve ever written.

Thank you. I don’t know what else to say. So, I’ll say it again. Thank you.

Writers work in a bit of a black hole. And we’re completely alone in there. We have no idea whether what we’re creating is any good. We have to rely on our instinct (this first and foremost for me) and our skills (I want to be hip and write skillz, but this is supposed to be a serious tribute) and our wordplay. We have to hope that what we’re trying to do actually happens. Because we usually have exactly in mind what we want to conjure up. But have we?

Scribbling away ten years ago, while only dreaming of being publsihed.

Maria in the Moon (much like How to be Brave) came from a very dark place. And then she took ten years to get here. TEN YEARS. Multiple rejections. A few tears too. But when I wrote it – to a backdrop of hammering and drilling as flood houses around me were rebuilt – I was trying to stay sane. The book was therapy. It was my safe place because my real-life safe place, my home, had been destroyed.

So I’ve been indescribably moved by the responses to it. I try so hard to reply to every tweet and post and share, but it can be difficult in this modern age of a million notifications on social media. I’m the type who will lie awake worrying that I haven’t thanked someone individually. That they don’t know much what they wrote meant to me. Because it does. It has.


The blog tour – a whole month long – has blown my mind, and we’re barely halfway. Thank you everyone who has taken part. Some of the reviews so far have made me cry. It’s extraordinary that something I crafted out of nothing – it really felt that way, typing furiously at a rickety hand-made desk in a bare, rented room – has touched people. Real people. Human people. You people.

That’s what writing is for me. Connecting. Sharing. Healing.

So thank you. I don’t know what else to say. So, I’ll say it again. Thank you.

Dirty Bitches, Lovely Ladies

I was lucky enough to see an advance preview of Mucking Fuddles’ Dirty Bitches at Kardomah in Hull before I jetted off to Paris for my hols. Women of Words pal Lynda Harrison is at the heart of this beautiful, gritty, and well-researched play. She not only wrote it, sang the gorgeous song at the opening, and performed in it, but she also formed the diverse and ever-expanding theatre group herself. Dirty Bitches also took its glorious backside up to Edinburgh Festival…

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As the lights came up, a hush settled over the intimate space of Kardmoah’s theatre in Hull, and we were witness to a dark tale of broken dreams and stolen purity. But there is so much more to the two ‘bitches’ who have been brought together by a curious coincidence, and who bond as they wait to be ‘picked up.’ Weaved into the darkness are spatters of comic delight (Harrison is a natural comedian) and moments of acute tenderness. I left the venue in a hazy glow.

Afterwards, I caught up with Lynda, full of questions…

The song that opens your play is beautiful. Did you write it? Tell us about it.

No! The credit belongs to the wonderful Mr. Cole Porter“Love for Sale” is from the musical The New Yorkers which opened on Broadway on December 8, 1930 and closed in May 1931 after 168 performances. The song is written from the viewpoint of a prostitute advertising “love for sale”: Old love, new love, every love but true love.

What inspired you to initially write Dirty Bitches?

The inspiration for this writing arose when I was working in a department store and spent my lunch and break times chatting with other female employees. Light-hearted banter would more than often include the subject of sex; and it became apparent that some married women were using sex as a bargaining tool for either material or emotional gain, accepting this as the ‘norm’. I asked the question “Could this form of barter be regarded as prostitution?” … and so began my research into this age-old industry.

Lynda in full swing at Hull’s monthly Women of Words

Tell us about the process.

I contacted LIGHTHOUSE, a local charity who support street-workers, ex prostitutes and women who are/have been victims of abuse. They were very helpful and have in fact supported me throughout the process of writing and producing my play. I recorded interviews with them and an ex street-worker who generously allowed me to use her narrative in my play.

How hard was it getting it on to the stage?

Not hard at all. I have been producing plays for almost ten years and am used to the process of getting ‘stuff on stage’. Of course, there is the process of casting the right people for the parts but again I’m used to this and often I write with particular actors in mind.

What was it like performing at Edinburgh Festival?

Exhausting, nerve wracking and rewarding, all at the same time. There is so much talent there and it was a massive privilege to be part of this seventy year old festival. I am considering next year…watch this space!

How long has Mucking Fuddles Theatre group been going? Who does it involve? What do you have in the pipeline for the future?

I formed The Mucking Fuddles around three years ago. We have eleven players who ‘dip’ in and out as required. Alongside plays, we also do comedy sketch shows and often raise money for charities. The future for me involves writing, writing and writing. I am currently excited about an idea I have for a play inspired by the old song ‘Don’t put your Daughter on the Stage Mrs. Worthington’. Comedy of course, and destined for Edinburgh…

Ten Books Every One of Us Should Read


  1. A book we want to read, regardless of who does or doesn’t like it, regardless of whether it’s a ‘classic’ or not, or what bestseller list it’s on or isn’t on, or what award it has or hasn’t won, or who tells us we’re supposed to or not supposed to be reading it. If you like it, read it.
  2. A book we want to read, regardless of who does or doesn’t like it, regardless of whether it’s a ‘classic’ or not, or what bestseller list it’s on or isn’t on, or what award it has or hasn’t won, or who tells us we’re supposed to or not supposed to be reading it. If you like it, read it.
  3. A book we want to read, regardless of who does or doesn’t like it, regardless of whether it’s a ‘classic’ or not, or what bestseller list it’s on or isn’t on, or what award it has or hasn’t won, or who tells us we’re supposed to or not supposed to be reading it. If you like it, read it.DSCN0465.jpg
  4. A book we want to read, regardless of who does or doesn’t like it, regardless of whether it’s a ‘classic’ or not, or what bestseller list it’s on or isn’t on, or what award it has or hasn’t won, or who tells us we’re supposed to or not supposed to be reading it. If you like it, read it.
  5. A book we want to read, regardless of who does or doesn’t like it, regardless of whether it’s a ‘classic’ or not, or what bestseller list it’s on or isn’t on, or what award it has or hasn’t won, or who tells us we’re supposed to or not supposed to be reading it. If you like it, read it.
  6. A book we want to read, regardless of who does or doesn’t like it, regardless of whether it’s a ‘classic’ or not, or what bestseller list it’s on or isn’t on, or what award it has or hasn’t won, or who tells us we’re supposed to or not supposed to be reading it. If you like it, read it.DSCN0466
  7. A book we want to read, regardless of who does or doesn’t like it, regardless of whether it’s a ‘classic’ or not, or what bestseller list it’s on or isn’t on, or what award it has or hasn’t won, or who tells us we’re supposed to or not supposed to be reading it. If you like it, read it.
  8. A book we want to read, regardless of who does or doesn’t like it, regardless of whether it’s a ‘classic’ or not, or what bestseller list it’s on or isn’t on, or what award it has or hasn’t won, or who tells us we’re supposed to or not supposed to be reading it. If you like it, read it.
  9. A book we want to read, regardless of who does or doesn’t like it, regardless of whether it’s a ‘classic’ or not, or what bestseller list it’s on or isn’t on, or what award it has or hasn’t won, or who tells us we’re supposed to or not supposed to be reading it. If you like it, read it.
  10. A book we want to read, regardless of who does or doesn’t like it, regardless of whether it’s a ‘classic’ or not, or what bestseller list it’s on or isn’t on, or what award it has or hasn’t won, or who tells us we’re supposed to or not supposed to be reading it. If you like it, read it.DSCN0471.jpg

Words and Music

This is one of the stunning images from the filming of the Maria in the Moon video yesterday. The beautiful song at its heart came from Hull talent, Carrie Martin, after we talked about my new novel a few months ago. I was describing its themes and story-line while she cut my hair. And as my locks fell, our words flowed…

Dancer Katie Hoyle. Credit for image to Laup Wilson

Let me tell you a bit about Carrie first. We go way back. She’s been my mobile hairdresser since my daughter was a baby and I couldn’t easily leave the house to have my unruly curls attended to. We’ve always talked words and music; she a bit of both, me mainly the words. We always dreamed together of a time when it ‘happened’ for us. When we might able to give up the day jobs. Be who we were supposed to be. We weren’t exactly sure what ‘happened’ would be, but I think it’s starting to ‘happen’ now. For both of us. And we’re right where we’re supposed to be.

Carrie is making waves with her music, playing gigs and big festivals, making us tingle with her gorgeous song-words and memorable melodies. Though she’s influenced by artists like Eva Cassidy and Ann Wilson from Heart, she is unique. Quirky, magical and all heart. Her album What If is a beautiful mix of moods, including appearances from Gordon Giltrap and Oliver Wakeman. Check out her stunning website – Carrie Martin

So back to that fateful haircut. I asked Carrie today what it was about the book that led to her creating the song. “The title for one,” she said. “I thought it was fascinating! The subject was a challenge; it had to be subtle. The line ‘innocence is pure, it’s like a daisy chain in our hands’ was the first lyric. It felt so poignant and strong that the rest just followed very quickly!” Naturally I’m beyond interested in the creative process so asked Carrie to tell me more. She said, “Okay, ‘The walls of faith crumbled but never quite fell down’ is another line that made a tear come. It really hits home that these things are reality, and the damage is often irreversible. I actually had the bars of the opening riff weeks before we talked. Its sad, mysterious sound left me wondering what I’d find to fit its feel. The minute you told me the story of the novel, I just knew this was the song. It felt right.”

Carrie filming the video to Maria in the Moon – credit to Laup Wilson

I also asked Carrie what it was like yesterday, filming the video. She said, “It was trying because of the terrible weather but it led to a massive team effort between Katie (our dancer), Charlotte (who plays ‘troubled Maria’ ), video guy Dave Caley, dance teacher Julie Hatton, and my manager David Micheal Ward. We were using brollies to shelter each other and working together to get the shots! We all stood there flabbergasted when Katie danced in the woods to the music blasting out – it was very moving. It prompted Julie to say ‘God, I need to buy this book, when is it out?'”

Actress, Charlotte, as Maria. Photo credit to Laup Wilson

Back in 2015, I was honoured when Carrie performed at the Hull launch of How to be Brave. She played A Thousand Years (because of the line, ‘how to be brave’…) to a rapturous room. So now, it seems utterly natural that she has written a song to accompany one of my books. We’ve always inspired one another, and now we can actually share the stage.

Dancer, Katie. Credit to Laup Wilson for photograph.

Watch this space for the release of Maria in the Moon by Carrie Martin. “It’s almost there,” she tells me, having been in the studio, recording vocals. “We have both worked so hard for this moment and I have a weird feeling about all of it. When I play at gigs, everybody takes to this song immediately. You triggered possibly the best thing I’ve ever written. I played it live in Sunderland last night, loads of people were asking about you and the book. I didn’t tell anybody what it was about, but it sparked their interest all the same. The guy in studio thinks it’s got something huge, and I have gut feeling it could be the one.”

Enjoy these beautiful images from the filming of the video until we can see it in all its finished glory soon…

How I Got Published

How did I get a book deal? It’s one of the things I’m frequently asked about at book events and festivals. How did I get published?

Unless the person asking – usually a hopeful writer, like I’ve been most of my life – has five hours, the determination to still keep writing despite my reply, and a pretty thick skin, I can’t respond fully. Time and a desire not to dishearten them prevents me answering in detail. Because my journey was long. Ten years long. People serve less time for serious crimes. It was littered with rejection upon rejection upon rejection. There was no satnav to tell me which way to go so that I arrived more easily at my destination.

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With Maria in the Moon, the first book I wrote, but my third release.

There’s no magical right answer to the question of how to get published. Every single author will likely have a different tale to share. Some might have enjoyed a quick trip from writing a first novel to book deal, some may have got lucky with their tenth book, but most are probably still driving down the motorway, looking for the right exit.

All I can share is my story. And here it is. Are you ready?

I’ve been writing since I could hold a pen. I filled notepads and exercise books with entire novels (chapters and contents page included) from the age of nine. Writing was then – and still is – pure joy to me. The place I escape to, the place I feel safest, the only place in the world where I really feel I know what I’m doing, and that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be. As a teenager, I started my own magazine to rival the school one, and told anyone who would listen that I’d one day be a world-famous novelist. (That I’m still hoping for.) Then life took over a bit when I got pregnant at nineteen…

Me aged about six, likely already with stories in my head…

In my early thirties, I sent some pieces I’d written to our local newspaper and was offered my own column, Mum’s the Word, in which I wrote for ten years about being a parent. I also began to write short stories. Lots of them. I sent some out to magazines, entered some in competitions. Rejections came thick and fast. I cried the first time. But only once. I got up, wiped the tears away, and decided I had to improve. I wrote more. Slowly, they began being accepted. First by small ezines, and eventually by national magazines. I shortlisted twice for the Bridport Prize.

That was what gave me the confidence to write a novel. Every bit of advice I’d read suggested a writer hone their craft via the precise art of producing short stories, and by joining forums to gain harsh critiques in order to improve. I’d done both. So, after we flooded in 2007 and I had more time due to giving up work to care for my ill daughter, I started Maria in the Moon. It took me six months. It was a labour of not only love, but of tears. When I write, I give everything, and that can be draining afterwards. I let it ‘settle’ and then edited it some more. Then I sent it out to every agent and publisher. Over a period of a year, every single one of them rejected it.

With the Hull Truck writing group in 2013. I learnt lots with these guys.

I took time to recover – it’s hard, there’s no denying it, when your lovingly created work is rejected by everyone – and in 2009 I started a second novel, The Lion Tamer Who Lost. I tried to use all the advice I’d been given on forums, and all the tips I’d read by successful authors, but most of all I went back to the place where I knew I was supposed to be. Writing. Six months later I sent it out to every agent and publisher. They all rejected it.

In 2011, I went back to Maria in the Moon and tried to improve her. I tried a couple of new agents. Success! (Or so I thought.) A lady from United Agents invited me to visit her. Carol really liked it and took me on. She did everything, but – again – all the publishers she sent it to said no. One of them liked the style and asked if I had any more ideas for a novel. I told her about The Lion Tamer Who Lost but she didn’t like it. I mentioned one I had in my head, and she liked the sound of it. So, in 2012, I wrote The Mountain in my Shoe.

My lovely agent Carol came to see me at London Blackwell’s when How to be Brave was released…

She said no. Carol sent it to other publishers. They all said no. Some had positive comments, but the general problem seemed to be what I was. Where I fit. I was that difficult creature – I didn’t fit into a genre. But I refused to conform. When I write I can only write what must be written. I can’t fit into some narrow niche. It isn’t me. But this was only going to make things harder.

Ironically, after being told that not fitting into a genre would hinder me, in 2013 I started the novel that was my most unusual and hardest to define – How to be Brave. This was one book that refused to kowtow to any market. I knew this would be my hardest sell, and yet I had to write it. Just as I finished, Carol told me she was retiring. She did everything to try and secure me another agent, but no one was interested. I was on my own again. I had written four books now.

I sent How to be Brave to every agent and publisher. They all said no. At the end of 2014 it shortlisted for a big competition. This is it, I thought. The prize was a book deal. And I was going to win. I wore my lucky red dress, told husband Joe that I knew someone in a red dress was going to win. We arrived at the prize-giving and another writer had on a red dress. She won. I was genuinely happy for her, because I knew how happy she must be. But I cried all the way back to the hotel. I was inconsolable.

Close… but not quite. At the prize-giving where I didn’t win.

I’ll admit, that was the hardest time. Friends asked how I could go on writing in the face of constant rejection. I said I did because I knew one day it would happen. I really did. But I began to lose my faith a little. I began to wonder if I could write a fifth book and go through it all again.

Then on Twitter I saw that a vivacious woman called Karen Sullivan was starting up Orenda Books. She wanted to publish beautiful books. Books she loved. I cheekily (this goes against all professional advice, folks!) tweeted her and asked if she would read How to be Brave. She said yes. She and slush reader Liz liked it. I had a tense wait for a definite answer, between Christmas 2014 and February 2015.

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The email I wrote Karen that changed my life.

Then on 9th February 2015 Karen emailed to say she loved the book, and of course it was a yes. I think, having read my journey, you can imagine how I felt. It makes me teary now to revisit. I know now that I only got rejected because I was supposed to be with Karen. She’s the only one who ‘got’ me. Got my books. Two years on, she has published the other novels no one wanted. Next year she will publish The Lion Tamer Who Lost too.

And I’m back to doing what I love, but without all the tears. Writing. I’ve started book five, loosely titled Star Girl. And it’s exactly like when I was nine and filled notepads with words. It’s where I’m supposed to be. What I’m supposed to be doing. And I’m glad I never gave up.


Made in Hull

I was made in Hull; I even lived in the city for a while. It was in fact the first place I lived, if only for six months, when my young parents rented a flat off Pearson Park. Apparently, I loved being pushed up and down the pathways in my pram, likely even then planning my next story.

Then we emigrated; we made the arduous journey to the West Hull Villages, where I’m one of those accepted outsiders, a child of the city who abandoned it for the suburbs, for Cottingham then Hessle, loyal but distant. I live now in the shadow of the Humber Bridge – if ‘in the shadow’ means that I can see the top of the north tower from my bedroom window.


I was made in Hull but here, on her outskirts, I’ve lived in some of the area’s most notable buildings. When my mother got divorced we resided briefly upstairs at Hessle Mount. The 200-year-old mansion became a school in April 1979 and my mum taught there. My siblings and I loved the weekend when we could explore the classrooms, play in the surrounding woodland, and fool around on the old piano in the buildings behind. At night, I scared my younger sisters to death, sharing stories of the infamous Jenny Brough whose suicide by hanging from a tree apparently gave the street nearby its name. I’ve always been a secretly dark storyteller…

After that we moved to The Cliff on Hessle Foreshore. Once the home of a sailor – sea people form a lot of my history, often in these surprising ways – the mansion was a place for ‘needy’ families in the late 1970s. We had an upstairs flat for the winter of 1979. It was damp and bitterly cold, but kids never care about that. We loved playing on the muddy foreshore, climbing the nearby trees, and (again) making up ghost stories. I can still hear the eerie foghorn on the river. This house inspired Tower Rise in The Mountain in my Shoe.

TOP LEFT – The Cliff circa 1979    TOP RIGHT – The Cliff as a new house   BELOW – Hessle Foreshore

In 1981, my two sisters and I temporarily stayed at another local landmark. Hesslewood House was one of the grandest mansions in Hessle back in 1823, another place facing the turbulent River Humber. In 1921, it became Hull Seaman’s and General Orphanage; we were taken in when my mother was ill. I remember tall ceilings, a long dining hall, an empty swimming pool overgrown with weeds, and a cupboard full of broken toys.


I was made in Hull; I’ve lived in some of her most beautiful buildings. And I’ve always stayed close to the water. My favourite places to walk are the foreshore – from what was once the Ferry Boat Inn to the Country Park – and along Hull Marina. Much of The Mountain in my Shoe was set here – young Conor falls from the pier steps, makes a call from one of our infamous cream phone boxes, and stops for the toilet in the Minerva pub.

My own son Conor stands where The Mountain in my Shoe Conor fell. Also, the pier, the Minerva Pub, and our infamous Hull phone box.

I was made in Hull; and so were my paternal ancestors. Though they too dwelled mainly in the West Hull Villages, my grandad, Colin Armitage, began his fated journey on the SS Lulworth Hill from Hull Docks. Like many men of the sea – and of Hull – he came back, no matter where he went, or what great places he saw. This was home. Sadly, some of his shipmates never saw it again. I honoured his ordeal – and his companions – in my debut novel, How to be Brave.

I was made in Hull; and so were my husband and children. I met Joe while we were at Riley College, our relationship cemented at Spiders nightclub, a place I frequented through my late teens and twenties.


I was made in Hull; we all were in 2007, when the floods hit. Though our city featured the least on the national news programmes that rainy June, we came together. We helped one another carry TVs upstairs, we shared bricks on which we raised our furniture out of the water, we bragged when we got the much-wanted dry certificate and repairs could begin on our homes. It was an extra tough time for us – our daughter Katy was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes three weeks after. My next novel, Maria in the Moon, was inspired by those times, and written to a backdrop of hammering and building work.

I was made in Hull; all my stories come from here, because I do. Even if they are set elsewhere, my themes pulse with gritty Yorkshire honesty, my voice is character-led, and my words won’t do as they’re told.

The Light Room

This mother wears a flower corsage pinned upside-down on her lapel – as though it’s saying goodbye to the gentle spring just passed – and she asks me if her daughter’s nose can be chiselled into something less monstrous. I tuck a wayward curl behind my ear and explain gently, without insult, that only shadow and shade are alterable, not size or shape.

“But all I can see in these pictures is nose, nose, nose.” This latest mother prods my computer screen like her finger is a wand that might undo the ugly and change her frog offspring into the desired princess. “You must make it right.  Isn’t that what you’re here for, dear?”

My screen bears the smudged mark of so many wands, its plastic a window onto a waiting world of wishes. I’m tired of asking the mothers not to keep touching it, but fear I’ll usher her from the shop if she does again. “Please, don’t-”

“There simply must be a way you can erase this unsightly bump – and how about the black lines under her eyes. Goodness, she looks like she’s in a Rolling Stones video, not getting married!”

“Lines we can smooth out,” I say, as soft as the white petal that falls from her corsage and lands by the counter. It settles there, a creamy O on our red tile floor.

“Can you? Oh, you’re just wonderful, dear. There’s hope after all.”

I endure so many mothers; they come in all guises, parade the shop floor like I’m to pick one over the other in some pageant; they discard sweet wrappers and leave lilac perfume in their wake. There are those who want to show off their daughters, whose eyes shine natural sunlight. There are those who want to change them, whose eyes narrow like November evenings. There are those who want them to be everything they never were but instead they say, well, she’s so wilful.

I’m the magician. I’m the airbrusher; more powerful than a photographer or dress fitter or lie. I enhance any image provided. With my brush strokes I improve every bride, smooth out dress creases a cramped car caused, whiten teeth an indulged childhood turned yellow, correct flaws, hide blemishes. I’m spring to their winter flaws.

“I went to One Click on the High Street and they wanted to charge me three hundred pounds.” The corsage-wearing mother flushes red and paces, her tick-tacking heels punctuating each word with an exclamation mark.  Her lost petal lies still. “My daughter’s nose needs help, but quite. Now, I want the weather changing too – can you do that?”

I nod and look – not for the first time – at the photograph, at the rain-bloated clouds and budding branches behind this imperfect bride and her new husband. Her mouth is the loveliest I’ve seen; kind of wonky, shy, closed. She hides her teeth, keeps her lips close together like two hands joined, praying, like she knows she’ll later be analysed and is asking please for acceptance. But her eyes, they smile; they light up as if they have a choice.

“We can add sunshine,” I tell the mother, always reluctant to mess with what is. “Blue sky, an archway, full moon, flower garlands. How would you like it to be?”


The mother’s phone rings and she rummages in her bag for it. She cries out her conversation as though advertising our service – But they can improve you! Yes, really, dear! You need not have held your breath or clamped your mouth shut like you were doing long division in your head! You’re going to look divine, perfect! Really, they can make you that way!

“I think I’ll have to come back in a while,” she says then, to me. “I need to discuss with my obstinate daughter what’s to be done. She can’t see the need to airbrush. She actually likes the pictures, she says. She actually thinks I’ll hang her wedding pictures on my wall like that.”

My computer screen is once more prodded before I can react. On her way out, the mother picks up one of our leaflets (At Fantasy Fauxtograph we can transform your Magical Day into something really Memorable!) and the bell above the door – quaint compared with the minimalist décor – tinkles her departure like a wedding supper announcement. The white petal lifts and dances in the doorway’s breeze.

It’s time to make spring. But my hands turn cold.

I wish I could develop the images of this bride how they are. True. Leave her smile as wonky as a row of white towels on a line. I save the photographs, untouched. I’ll come back to them later. For now, I go into the dark room.

Fantasy Fauxtograph is the only place in town that has one. Digital photography has rendered them frequently unused but some dedicated artists still request we develop their images the old way, and so it remains. I prefer it. I love letting images develop as they will, no intervention, only time in charge. I love the smell of fixer, the tickle of chemicals on my skin, the soft slosh of liquid; the otherwise quiet.

With the corsage-wearing mother gone, and my boss out for a few hours, I go to this dark place. Prints are waiting to be developed so I turn on the safelight. Its amber glow warms my mood. Black and white papers are ruined by blue and green light. Colour paper however, being sensitive to all parts of the visible spectrum, must be kept in complete darkness until it’s properly fixed. These prints are black and white. After doing a test strip to ascertain the exposure time I immerse one of the papers in the developer and watch it sink.


I wait.

The image emerges, centre first, its heart.

I wait.

Black spreads like spilt tea, darker in parts, lighter in others.

I wait.

Faces appear, smiles, laugh lines, wind-blown hair, freckles; reality.

I wait.

The pictures are of children – three – and they’re clearly the customer’s own; a photographer cannot hide love of his subject. The children jump and he captures them forever in the air, weightless, flying. A girl – whose abundance of freckles suggests that despite the monochrome she must be a redhead – dances around a tree. Blossom falls like confetti. Another girl, younger, looks over her shoulder at the photographer, flirting with him. A third – clearly the oldest – waits by the bark, unsure, her hands at her mouth, hiding any expression.

We were three, I remember.

And I remember waiting; waiting for our mother.

It was spring. At Granny’s window, we didn’t know what car to look for, not even the colour, so each one that rounded the street corner was a possibility. Granny called from the kitchen –Don’t touch the glass! Don’t mark the glass! My little sister Jenny’s fingers had already left their impression and Baby Paul would soon add his. Mine never touched, not anything. I stood away from the window, away from the scene, from them. I knew. I don’t know how. I was only nine. No one told me.

I hated knowing.

When it came, the car was yellow, like hope. Our mother was with a social worker – time has since given her this title but back then she was just a lady in a smart coat. A lady who brought our mother from the hospital. Time has also given this place a name – Rowan Lawns, Mental Health Unit. Time airbrushes. The mind tries to resist, to listen only to the heart, but memories are coloured by all that has passed since, shaded by the all the versions given.

My memory cannot find Granny – I don’t know where she was when our mother stood in the hallway, hiding her teeth, keeping her lips close together like two hands joined, praying, like she knows she’ll later be analysed and is asking please for acceptance. We hadn’t seen her in eight months. Little Jenny wrapped chubby arms around her leg and Baby Paul raised his open, wiggly hands, asking to be picked up. She seemed not to know how to respond.

Outside, blossom fell.

In the living room, she perched on the rocking chair and smiled at the flood of questions. Have you brought my Barbie doll? Why have you been gone so long? Do you still love us? Can we go to Scarborough? How long are you staying? I didn’t ask; I knew. The social worker disappeared into the part of my mind where Granny was and I never saw her again. Our mother’s teacup never left the saucer. The gold clock on the mantelpiece next to Jesus accelerated, I’m sure, an hour, two, three, each time I looked at it.

And then we were in the hallway again, and Granny came out of the dark, to help me. Our mother was leaving. I had known. Little Jenny clung to her leg, desperate now, not elated, not hopeful, but knowing too. Baby Paul’s fingers opened and closed, like an imitation of ambulance lights. On the bronze table in the living room her tea grew cold. We would later play cookery when she’d gone, pouring the cold liquid back and forth between cup and beaker. Granny would call from the kitchen – Don’t mess the table!  Don’t mark the carpet!

In the dark room, I always find light. The customer’s pictures are born now, pure, untouched. I should have told them; I should have told Little Jenny and Baby Paul that I knew our mother wasn’t staying, that she hadn’t come to get us. I’m their memory now. I tell them things I remember, give them their history, but I’ve to be careful not to shade these moments with my own guilt. I must let their flashes colour it also.

I peg the images of the three children on the line to dry and return to the shop.

The white petal has settled in the middle of the floor, a blank paper, awaiting image. I know what I must do. The bell heralds the return of the corsage-wearing mother; the petal dies under her laced boot. Her remaining flower is squashed against a pile of boxes, two of which she puts carefully on the counter near my screen.

“I brought you some wedding cake, dear,” she says, removing one of her white gloves. “A piece for you and a piece for the other young man who helps you. Yours is the one with half of an iced shoe on it – I thought you’d like that.”


I shake my head, but can’t find any words.

“Now, dear.” She removes the other glove and places it atop the cake boxes. “I read your leaflet while I waited for my hair appointment and it says that you can remove people from pictures. People! You can make them disappear, like they never were there.”

From the place in my mind where Granny hid I find – No, I can’t.

“You can. It says here – look.” The mother opens our leaflet, waves her red-nailed wand at the words, the promise. “Now, in seven of the wedding pictures there’s my husband’s mother, and I want her out. Really, she should never have been invited after what happened, but I won’t go into that, not here, now’s not the time. I want you to do whatever it is that you do and remove her.”

“I won’t,” I say softly.

“But it’s what you do, dear. You’re a Fantasy Fauxtographer!”

I click open an image of her daughter – one where she’s closing her eyes to the blast of rainbow confetti, her fingers trapped in the froth of veil. “This picture is beautiful,” I say. “In its lopsidedness and in the slightly-stained sash and in the grey light of rain, it’s beautiful. I won’t touch it. Don’t you see? You’re changing the memory before you’ve even had time to let the moment pass and become one.”

“I’m making it perfect, dear.” The mother looks at me, disbelieving of my daughter-like wilfulness when I’ve no right. I’m not her child but I speak for the bride who is, for all of the daughters.

“I’m not going to change the picture,” I say.

“I’ll go to One Click, you know,” she snaps. “They’ll take my bloody mother-in-law out of the picture. They’ll trim my husband’s nasal hair.” She pauses, looks at the boxes, and then back at me. My expression must cement my words. Taking her gloves and putting them back on she says, “Oh, keep the darned cake anyway.”

The bell tinkles her second departure. The petal is gone too. I think I’d known she’d come back; I have a sense of these things. But I know she’ll not return now, that she’ll find what she wants at another place.

The mothers have come and they’ve asked me to give them the daughters they always wanted; they thought I could take away the times they’d argued over boyfriends and the times they’d called each other names and then didn’t speak for months. They said – with tears in their eyes – that I must clean all that had been sullied, bring back the seven-year-old girl who’d loved without condition, conjure up the ten-year-old who’d kissed upon request.

But I can’t.

I already have a mother – one – and that’s enough; and she’s imperfect and flawed and real and she’s hurt me, but, somehow, I still love her.

Writing – The Fantasy versus The Reality

The other day, I shared on social media a scrappily-put-together meme of the me I like to think I am when I write… and the truth. My publisher, Karen Sullivan, was rather tickled, and we invited other writers to do the same. And what delights were revealed in the wake of my honesty. Want to see them? Of course you do.

So here’s my #RealWritingFace…


The beautiful Claire King – author of The Night Rainbow and Everything Love Is – shared hers. I find this warm and comforting. I also want to get spectacles.


And then Mr John Marrs – author of Welcome to Wherever You Are and The One – pinged me this beauty. I recognise the hunk at the bottom, but not sure who that nobody at the top is…

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Amanda Prowse – author of way to many novels to list here, my favourite being Three And a Half Heartbeats – sent me her own treat. She and Claire King have the same fantasy. They should get together. Could be fun.


Craig Lancaster – author of the 600 Hours of Edward series – is quite a dandy. I reckon I need me a quilted jacket with gold trim…


Gill Paul – author of The Secret Wife and Women and Children First – fantasises about writing in a tidy, calm and orderly environment. Her real life is another matter. Nice bottom though. Have to admit that kind of derriere is definitely my fantasy.


David VideoCassette… sorry, David Videcette – author of The Theseus Paradox – adores writing. See how he needs no encouragement. See how happy he is at his desk.


Cassandra Parkin – author of The Beach Hut and Lily’s House – cheated a little. Her writing face is way too pretty. Boooo! Nice ‘almost going to cry at this writing malarky’ eyebrows though.


Louisa Treger – author of The Lodger – is Wonder Woman. At least she feels that way. So do I. Then I tighten my dressing gown, scratch my Brian May hair, and get on with real life…


Kate Furnival – she of The Liberation and White Pearl fame – is a creator of fiction in more ways than one. She tells guests she writes in a place at home that she doesn’t! Never in my life! Writers are such fibbers!


Hemmie Martin – author of What Happens After – also dreams of a trendy and minimalist writing space. Then she falls asleep in her chair…


Pete Domican apparently doesn’t turn the heating on. Me neither, Pete. I like to write as though I’m in 1800s Russia…



And Matt Wesolowski – author of Six Stories – has 1980s Stephen King-esque fantasies of creating his literature. The truth? Definitely more 2017…


And the gorgeous Lizzie Lamb simply sent me her #RealWritingFace… and it’s lovely.