Nichol to Mandi!

scrapmetalaudioWelcome, Mandi! You said that you’d choose to meet Nichol from Scrap Metal – he had such a gentle and giving soul. I’ll hand you straight over to him.

Nichol:  It was funny at first. I mean, I got teased about it for years, and I never minded. There isn’t always time for gentleness on a busy working farm, and when I was growing up – when Alistair and my ma were still alive, when the business was thriving and old Harry really had his empire at his fingertips – things were pretty rough and ready at times. Lambing was the worst, just as it is now, and if the farmhands found a newborn whose mother hadn’t made it, up the cry would go – “Och, where’s Nurse Nichol? Gie the wee ‘un to him!” Which, translated (no wonder I developed a gift for languages early on) meant, “Nichol’s the only one soft enough and daft enough to sit up all night and day giving bottle feeds to the orphans.”

You see, we lost money on each orphaned lamb. The artificial colostrum they need costs the earth, and if you factor in the man-hours for care… Well, Harry never let one die if he could save it, but I overheard him telling Al one night that he’d have to, if yon halfwit bairn (that was me) wasn’t willing to sit in the barn or by the fireside with one lamb on the bottle by my feet and another getting warmed up down the front of my jumper. If they lived, Harry would put as many as he could to ewes who’d had a stillbirth, but still at the end of a few days I had a few wee followers, trotting around after me and bleating for their next feed. They attach themselves to the first living creature that warms and nourishes them, and that was me.

I suppose I should’ve grown out of it. God knows, Al was enough to toughen anyone up, and his laughter and the whole Nurse Nichol thing did alter me, but only to the extent that I was willing to sit up later, do my duty better and make it financially viable for Harry to let the little things survive. Six months later I’d be wondering why I’d bothered, when the tups were turning lairy and butting me round the yard, and the ewes were fat and complacent and anybody’s for a bag of turnips, but I suppose you could say it laid habits of gentleness in me, and a sense that in a tough world, somebody had to be kind.

Which makes it all the stranger that I was ready to shoot poor Cameron on that freezing night when he broke into the barn, because never was a lamb more absolutely lost, soaked to the bone as he was in his useless little jacket and thin-soled city-boy shoes. Of course everything had changed by then. No more Alistair, no more farmhands, no more business, just Harry and me hanging on by a thread in a farmhouse about ready to collapse into ruin around our ears. A thief in the barn was just the last straw, the final push that made me reach for Al’s shotgun. If I’d found some hardfaced thug in there among the bales, someone scaring or harming that year’s handful of orphans, God alone knows what I’d have done.

But it wasn’t. It was Cameron, and the sheep were scaring him. Looking back, I was still pretty mean to him, and he’s never let me forget it. I made him fix the window he’d broken, and I marched him at gunpoint into the house. He still calls me hair-trigger Nic when he wants to get a rise out of me, and does comedy dives for cover if he sees me off after rabbits with the gun. But he knows how fast he broke me. All it took was the offer of a cup of tea, a touch of kindness. I’d been living in such a hostile world. Oh, I was down and disarmed.

Because it works both ways – that’s the thing. I never grew my hard shell, even though I knew Al and my granddad were waiting for it to form, in the hope that I’d be stronger, a better farmer, less of a dreamer and a liability. I actually tried. I’d read in one of Al’s comics that tough lads went out on wilderness expeditions, pitched their own tents, killed their own food. So off I went one night – I think I must have been all of six years old – and tried to camp on the beach. I was stalking a seagull with my penknife when my ma swooped down to grab me and ask what on earth I was doing, and I was so glad to see her, and so sorry for the poor bird (which I’d never got anywhere near), that I let her carry me all the way home, great big lad though I was meant to be by that point, according to Harry’s school of thinking and Al’s.

So I largely blame Ma, for keeping me soft and willing to lay down my arms for handsome young strangers. Ma and the lambs. But I’m grateful to her, you know? Even to my granda and brother for trying and failing to toughen me up. Because I needed to be what I was, and I’d never have found that out without them. I had to wait a lot longer to discover it was all right to be that way, that someone could love me for exactly the strange combination I’d become. Once Cameron arrived and taught me that – oh, not right away; over all the lengthening days of that first springtime – the whole world transformed for me, and then I was glad that I’d never grown that shell, that tough hide, because I was awake and wide open for all the beauty of that new life. Awake and wide open to him.

 

I hope you enjoyed your chat with Nichol, Mandi. Next Sunday we’re back in Cornwall with Gideon, answering this question from Helenajust…

Because I’ve just re-read the Tyack & Frayne series, I’d choose one of them. I’d ask Gideon how he feels about his increasing extra-sensory powers; he was always very understanding about Lee’s but regarded him as exceptional, so is he able to be as calm about his own?

 

Rayne to Susana!

SalisburyKey72LGWelcome to the Sunday blog! Tonight Summer Rayne from The Salisbury Key is talking to Susana, who said…

What a difficult question! There are so many of your characters I would like to meet… But as I can choose only one, it would be Rayne ( The Salisbury Key was the first book I read written by you, and it is very special), and I would like to ask him what he thought about Daniel the first time he saw him, when he was still with Jason…

Hi, Susana – Rayne here. Thank you for coming to meet me. I thought you might like it here in the riverside restaurant – it’s where I brought Dan on the day of Jason’s funeral, when we scandalised half Salisbury by having lunch together while the mourners went off to the pub. That was a hell of a strange day, and it got stranger and more scandalous after that…

But that’s not the day you wanted to hear about. The very first time I saw Dan, he was in handcuffs. I was on crowd control up at Stonehenge for summer solstice, and he’d just been arrested and carted off Salisbury Plain for trespass into the military zone. I’d felt his attention on me like a tug at my sleeve – hey, soldier-boy, everyone else is looking at me: why not you? Captain Marsh took the cuffs off, and he raised his arms and danced for the crowd, with his T-shirt riding up and his denim cut-offs so skin-tight you could tell he’d hoisted up his undies in a hurry.

I’m sitting here laughing about it now. And I wish I could take that moment, drop it in liquid amber and preserve it, because for all he was so absurd, such a mess – buttercup petals still in his hair – he was so bloody beautiful, so young and perfect. He’d had a tough childhood but the real terror of his life, the thing that would set marks on him, hadn’t happened to him yet. Jason was right there by his side.

Their story was just beginning. That look I shared with him shouldn’t have meant anything, but it did, for both of us. I filed him away in my brain as a beautiful nuisance I could never touch because our worlds were so far apart we’d likely never meet again, and just as well. He pissed me off. We were about the same age: how had he ended up dancing like a teenager while the hippies cheered him on, while I stood sweating in my uniform? I didn’t want to dance or wear cut-offs, but it would’ve been nice to have all those people laughing and on my side, not hating me as a symbol of authority. I had to remind myself that such popularity was cheap-bought, and it wasn’t the dancing boy they’d cry for if North Korea dropped the ball tomorrow and World War Three broke out.

Those were bitter thoughts for a sunny afternoon. And you know, when he looked at me, they melted away. He didn’t look as if he hated me, even if we were on opposite sides of the fence. He just looked… questioning, as if he’d seen something in me he hadn’t expected. And I saw something wholly unexpected in him – the look I know so well now, fastening on me across our hotel rooms, over tables in boring academic meetings when he’s had enough and just wants to drag me off home. I saw desire.

Yes, even though he’d just finished rolling on the plain with his professor. Ah, he broke his heart for that in later days, but it helped me open up the parts of him that were hurting the most and pull out some of his thorns. He believed – and it turned out not to be true, because Jason Ross was a big-hearted man, old enough and kind enough to forgive a lover thirty years his junior any amount of such small trespasses – that his awareness of other men, his appreciation, his desire – had contributed to Jason’s death.

And I held on to that moment too, that first glimpse. My world closed round me like a mantrap in the years that followed after. My ideals, my sense of duty, everything I’d hung on to in order to distance myself from that sunny, helpless hippie lifestyle – all of it went up in a blast of sand and dust in the desert. Somehow, for some reason, I kept Dan’s image tucked away. Jason’s, too – the way they’d looked together, Jason shadowed and sad even in the sunlight, but, oh, so bone-deep delighted to be there at Dan’s side, to know what his skin tasted like, to know how he sounded when he came. To know his adoration was returned. That first moment helped Dan, because I could tell him with absolute truth that if anyone could have saved Jason, he would; that he’d been the reason Jason had survived as long as he did. And as for me – I’d seen a pair of blue eyes, filled with such a love of life that I almost cried out in pain at the changes in them, the next time we met, in Colonel McCade’s office at Fellworth camp. I’d borne that sapphire blaze with me all the way across Afghanistan. In that one moment, I’d seen the future.

I just didn’t know it was going to be mine.

I’d better get ready to go and meet him now. He’s been off talking to my brother, who is so painfully excited about something or other that he dragged us all the way back from a post-dig holiday in Thailand. Dan knows I’m liable to strangle Winter for that, so he’s kindly gone to deal with the lunatic alone. I get on much better with Win these days, but he’s best in small doses… It’s been lovely to talk to you, Susana, and thank you for asking that very interesting question!

 

Well, Harper here, if I can get a word in edgeways. That was great fun, Suzanne – thanks again. Next week it’s Mandi’s turn, and she says she’d like to meet:-

Nichol from Scrap Metal. He had such a gentle and giving soul.

Your wish is our command, Mandi, and we’ll look forward to seeing you next Sunday.

 

 

Aaron to Logan Penta!

LifeAfterJoe

Hello, Logan. I know you had a hard time choosing which out of all of us you’d like to meet, so I’m honoured that you decided you’d like a catch-up with me. Harper’s pleased about it too, because whereas she gets to visit a lot of her previous creations in the form of sequels and series, Life After Joe is never going to have a follow-up. Matthew and I reached our happy ending so perfectly, you see, and after everything he’d been through, all we wanted was a home of our own and a chance to start our lives together in peace.

Great losses make for complicated new beginnings, though. Matt won’t ever be the trusting lad he was before Joe screwed him over, and as for me, I’d never even begun to imagine how it would feel to lose somebody like Andrew Rose. The possibility had never even occurred to me, which was stupid in a high-risk job like ours. So both of us had lost a kind of innocence by the time we met. Matt’s faith in men had been shattered, and mine in some benign force of life that would protect young, vibrant guys like Rosie. In straight society, you’d say we were a widower and a divorcé trying to make a go of it, a second chance.

But the thing is, his broken pieces met mine with such perfection. We bought our house, not in Hexham as originally planned but in a place called Brampton, slightly further towards my workplace in Seascale than his in Newcastle upon Tyne. The way we went about it was typical, symbolic of our breakages and wholeness. We both still have a long daily commute, but it’s pretty much in the middle, if you take into account that I have to slog to the west coast and he has a straight shoot down the A69 to the east. We sat and worked it out together, our first real piece of shared business, and although we kept our decision-making factors strictly practical, I knew Matt wasn’t a guy who could cope with a home-at-weekends partner, just as he knew I couldn’t go a whole week without seeing him. It wasn’t a matter of trust on Matt’s part, or the lack of it – after he cracked and went through my emails that long-ago night, you never saw anyone work harder to mend the fracture-lines Joe had put through him. And it worked, too: his shadows cleared in record time. But I was never gonna make his scars ache if I could help it. So I turned down the offer of week-night accommodation at Seascale, and I made sure – still do – that he got a text or a phone call if I was delayed on my way home. He does the same for me, for different reasons. I guess if you were to haul out both our sets of fears into daylight, they’d look like this…

Matt: He’s late, and I haven’t heard from him. Once more life has proved to me that nothing I thought was safe and secure is real. I’ve done my best – cleaned up my act, become one of the smartest and best young doctors in the city, but I know deep down I’ll never be good enough to hang on to someone I love.

Aaron: He’s late, and I haven’t heard from him. Clearly he’s been involved in a horrific freak accident and I’ll never see him again.

So we take good care of each other, in unspoken, speaking silence. With those things known and understood between us, you wouldn’t believe how much joy there is to be had in hardworking daily life! Our house is set back on a hillside outside the town. My starting wage at Seascale was astronomical (especially by poor Matt’s standards, and I too will never understand why I’m getting six figures to mess around with radioactive sludge while he barely breaks £30K for helping people beat cancer), so we didn’t mess around: bought a red-sandstone Edwardian farmhouse with a walled garden, the kind of dream home you don’t realise you’ve been dreaming about until someone comes along to share the dream. It’s tumbledown and shabby, but we both need something real and strong to do (other than each other) in our downtime, and I’m not sure there’s any finer sight than my Matty with his shirt off in the sunshine, covered in brick dust, striding fearlessly along the top of a half-built wall because he knows I’m there to catch him – just as he catches me, a dozen times every day, and so we will continue, one fear faced, one catch made at a time, for as long as life gives us.

 
Thank you, Aaron, and to Logan too. Next Sunday we’re off to Salisbury, where Susana will be meeting up with Rayne from The Salisbury Key. Susana said…

What a difficult question! There are so many of your characters I would like to meet… But as I can choose only one, it would be Rayne ( The Salisbury Key was the first book I read written by you, and it is very special), and I would like to ask him what he thought about Daniel the first time he saw him, when he was still with Jason…

Excerpt from my latest!

Priddy 2There’s just no way at all that I’m going to hit my Sunday blog-question target. So sorry, all. As you know, I’m just back from Cornwall, and struggling to restore order from the post-holiday tangle.

However, I did not spend all my time down there sitting on a rock and singing whilst combing my hair. It is my greatest hope and intention that I will get my latest FoxTales novella, Priddy’s Tale, finished by the end of this month and published in early June, and I made great progress in between cream teas and meadery visits. 🙂 So, instead of my regular blog, here is an excerpt.

(Jem Priddy is a lost soul on his native Cornish shore. A drifter and a dreamer, he’s fallen into bad ways and worse company, and is struggling to cope after a near-lethal encounter with legal high. His best friend Kit has found him a job in his granddad’s remote lighthouse, where even Priddy ought to be able to stay out of trouble. One stormy night, he rescues a mysterious stranger from the sea…)

Excerpt

In the top room of the tower, a grizzled search-and-rescue flight lieutenant ran his hand over his hair. His mate was still out in the chopper, keeping her engines warm in the clifftop field where she’d landed. Priddy, having been helped back into his own lighthouse and courteously aided up the stairs – an endless process, it had felt like, and utterly surreal, Merouac no more concerned by his nakedness indoors than out – had decided to keep a low profile. The officer was fully occupied with Merouac, looking him over in some disbelief while he filled out the form on a tough-packed iPad. “So, Mr… Merouac, is it?”

“Oh, just Merouac. Please.”

The kettle finished its boil. Priddy took mugs out of the cupboard and spooned instant coffee into them, one for his guest and one for Flight Lieutenant Trewin, who looked puzzled as well as exhausted, oilskins dripping onto the lino. Merouac had turned one of Priddy’s kitchen chairs into a throne simply by sitting down in it. Thankfully he’d accepted a blanket, and turned that into a princely robe by wrapping it round his shoulders. He’d sat patiently through Trewin’s checks on his pulse, temperature, blood pressure. Covertly Priddy admired the beautiful set of his shoulders. The guy had to be a model, or an actor of some kind, or… Well, Priddy was as interested as Trewin in finding out what.

At present the flight lieutenant was stalled on line one of the form. “No first name, Mr Merouac?”

“First name? Oh, to distinguish an individual from his lineage? Yes, I suppose I should have one of those.” He stole a glance at Priddy, making him spill the sugar. “Let’s call me Jack.”

“Jack… Merouac?”

Priddy dropped a spoon. This was mortifying. He’d called out SAR for a man who no more needed rescuing than a dolphin from the deep blue sea, and now the bastard was winding the officer up. Priddy’s connections with Hawke Lake were tenuous – he was just the winter temp, the bulb-changer on a fully automated lighthouse – but he liked and admired the brave souls who launched themselves off into roaring Atlantic storms in the Sea Kings. This callout was his responsibility.

But Merouac was leaning in to glance at the form. He’d dropped his haughty demeanour, and Trewin was smiling reluctantly, shaking his head. “Oh, the French spelling of Jack, is it? Sure your last name’s not Cousteau?”

“No, but oddly enough he’s a friend of mine. A friend of my father’s, anyway. Lovely gentleman, and certainly knew how to keep a secret.”

“All right. Jacques. What about an address?”

“It’s a little embarrassing. I ran into some financial trouble, and to tell you the truth, I was living on the boat.”

“The yacht Lyonesse, you said.”

“That’s right. My pride and joy, she was.”

“You’re the registered keeper of the vessel, which ran into foul weather off Hagerawl Point tonight?”

“Correct, sir.”

“With only you on board.”

“Yes. I was quite alone, and would certainly have drowned had it not been for the courage and prompt action of that young man over there, whose name I haven’t yet had the chance to find out.”

Trewin squinted. “Why, that’s Jem Priddy, isn’t it? Don’t I know your dad?”

Priddy flinched in the act of handing him his coffee. If a Hawke Lake man knew Vigo, it was probably because a dodgy fix on a boat had gone wrong and landed some poor mariner in the drink. “I don’t know. Er – yes, I’m Jem Priddy.”

“Right. Jem Priddy, meet Jacques Merouac.” Trewin tapped at his screen. “I’ll have to verify your boat’s registration, Mr Merouac, as well as the details of your identity. I’d do it now, but the network for this bloody thing seems to be down.”

Merouac nodded. “I quite understand that, sir.”

“And as for you, Priddy-boy, you might want to think twice about calling out the chopper when you’ve plainly got the situation in hand yourself. Just as well we don’t take the launch cost out of your pocket money, because it’s eight grand a throw these days, more or less.” Trewin got to his feet, took his coffee and downed it in one. “Having said all that, well done for making the rescue. Not everyone would have had a go, not on a night like this. Good lad.”

Priddy nodded: cleared his throat, choked on thin air and tried to melt into the background. The circular room allowed no cover. No separate kitchen or bedroom, so unless he wanted to make a dash for the bathroom on the half-floor below, he’d have to cope with his reactions right here. Not easy. He’d had plenty of practice at swallowing tears of shame, but never shame’s opposite. He turned away and busied himself with the kettle. “Would you like another cup?” he managed. “One for your mate in the chopper?”

“Oh, right, because I’m going to carry it down all those stairs and up the cliff to him.” Trewin put his pad away, shouldered his kit and gave Priddy a jovial crack on the back as he headed for the door. “No, Dave’ll have guzzled his way through our whole flask by the time I get back to him. Mr Merouac, you don’t seem any the worse for your dip, but you should look after yourself tonight. Do you want me to put a call through to one of our tame B&B ladies in Penzance, get her to put you up until you can contact your friends or family to bail you out?”

“You’re very kind. No, Mr Priddy here’s kindly offered to let me stay the night.”

Had he? Priddy propped himself up by the sink. He couldn’t remember. But Merouac had spoken up for him. Good lad, the flight lieutenant had said. “Yes, that’s right. He can stay here.”

Trewin glanced at Priddy’s unmade bed. “What, in your bottom bunk? Rather him than me.”

“Oh, no,” Merouac said innocently. “Top, I think, Priddy. Don’t you?”

Priddy lost a breath. A blush tore through him, a heatwave that began in his toes and spread like a flash-fire in summer-dried gorse. If his hair could have changed colour, he’d have turned bright ginger on the spot. “Yes,” he croaked. “That’s the most comfortable one.”

“Well, I’ll leave you to it.” Trewin looked from one to the other of them, eyebrows on the rise. “I don’t doubt your word, Mr Merouac, but I do have to make those checks. Don’t leave the area for a couple of days – or, if you need to, report to the Hawke Lake admin offices first.”

He stamped out, leaving a trail of wet bootprints on the lino behind him. “Shit,” Priddy whispered, closing the door behind him. “You are very welcome to stay, mate. But what the bloody hell was all that about the bunks?”

Merouac’s chair was empty. Priddy glanced around the room with its complete lack of hiding places, and saw with a faint shock that Merouac had gone to bed. He hadn’t made a sound, and was curled up in the bunk – the bottom one after all – as if he’d been there for hours.

He was shivering. Priddy went to crouch by the side of the bed. “Are you all right? Do you want me to run after Trewin and tell him to airlift you out to hospital?”

“No, no. I’m just suddenly so tired, and – it aches, doesn’t it?”

“What does?”

“The gravity. Dragging all the time on your poor, forky little stick-legs. I’d forgotten.”

Priddy released a breath, blowing his cheeks out thoughtfully. “Wow. That was a good act, pretending to be sane for the nice pilot.”

“What would he have done if I’d told him the truth? What will you do?”

“I’m not sure. Depends what it is, I suppose. Meantime I’ll fix you some coffee and soup, if you like.”

“Ugh, no.” Merouac shuddered, curled up tighter. “What I’d like now is the sweet clean inside of a fresh-caught herring, but that’ll wear off soon. I’m so, so tired.”

“Well – get some kip, then. You can tell me the truth in the morning.”

Merouac was two-thirds out already. His hand was trailing on the lino. “In the morning. Yes.”

“Look, are you sure there’s nothing wrong with you?” Priddy picked up the cold hand and tried to tuck it back under the sheet, then let it go, jolting back a step. “Jesus. I think there is. Your… Your fingers.”

“What’s wrong with them?”

“You’ve got some kind of skin growing between them. And – God, what is going on with your eyes?”

Merouac blinked hard. The silvery film that had hidden the irises and pupils disappeared. “Sorry,” he murmured. “Didn’t you ever have a cat?”

“Several. What has that got to do with it?”

“Did you never see their eyes, when they were out of sorts?”

“Yes, but you’re not a cat.”

“Nor yet a catfish. And not yet quite a man.” Merouac spread his hand in front of his eyes. “Glad the good lieutenant didn’t spot the webbing.”

“Why didn’t he?”

“He wasn’t looking. And if he had been, he wouldn’t have believed. You won’t believe it yourself in the morning, when I’m all dried off and finished and just like you.” With that, Merouac rolled himself up in the bedclothes and turned away.

Priddy crouched by the bunk. “Wait a moment. Are you really called Jacques?”

“Of course not. But I really did meet Jacques Cousteau.”

“I thought you said your father did.”

“Well, Trewin was trying to fill in his form. And he didn’t have a box for the year I was born, so… Do you always cross-question your guests like this, Priddy-boy?”

“Don’t call me that.” Priddy didn’t know why he suddenly minded. He’d had it all his life, from family and mates, until he’d stopped caring, but he’d never really liked it, not even from Kit. “Priddy will do.”

“I’m sure he will.” Merouac twisted back far enough to present a smiling, unreadable profile. “It’s a shame. If you didn’t live in Cornwall, and you steered clear of the States and anywhere else they don’t pronounce their Ts properly, you’d be all right, wouldn’t you? But you don’t want to live your whole life as nothing but the Rosewarne Bay pretty boy.”

Priddy sat back on his heels. He felt as if Merouac had hit him, or sent through him a sudden electric shock, shaking up the dust and sorrows of the years. It was true. There he’d been, pretty-boy since earliest childhood, with his blond curls and blue eyes, his inability to grow a beard or grasp enough of life’s realities to counteract his downward spiral into the Rosewarne sink. His sister had once crisply informed him that she was twice the man he’d ever be. The trivial outside edge of these realities snagged in his mind, and he asked, unsteadily, “How do you know where I come from?”

“Lucky guess. There’s always been a cluster of you lot at Rosewarne.” Merouac pushed up onto one elbow and looked at him directly. “Let me tell you something about your name. You’re either the pride of the waters – prid-eaux, like the French, the ones who came over with the Normans, right royal haughty bastards. Or – more likely for you, with that set of face and those eyes – you’re a branch of ap-Ridih, the kings of the mountain.”

Priddy swallowed. “There aren’t any mountains in Cornwall.”

“No, but there are in Wales, and greatly did Arthur, our undying king, value the ap-Ridih clans who rode by his side to the battle of Mynydd Baedan.”

“Mate, I haven’t got the least idea what you’re talking about.”

“Never mind. I won’t call you Priddy-boy, and you won’t call me Jacques. In fact, Merouac’s a mouthful for a landling. You can call me Merou.”

“Merry?”

Merouac chuckled. “If you like. Pretty and merry – won’t we make a pair?” Closing his eyes, he pulled the bedclothes up to his chest, and Priddy must have imagined the webs between his fingers – there was nothing there now but a glimmer, like fine-ground fish-scale dust.