Wouldn’t you feel cheated if the woman you’d imagined was the villain of your childhood turned out to be someone rather extraordinary?
Edwardian Brighton. A wide-eyed girl enters Mr Parker’s photographic studio and receives her first lesson about the rising medium that is to shape her life: “Can you think of a really good memory? Perhaps you can see it when you close your eyes. Now think how much better it would be if you could take it out and look at whenever you wanted to!”
2009: Disgraced politician Sir James Hastings has resigned himself to living out his retirement in a secluded Surrey village. He doesn’t react when he learns that the mother who had abandoned him dies at the age of 108: he imagined she had died many years ago. Brought up by his father, a charismatic war-hero turned racing driver, the young James, torn between blaming himself and longing, eventually dismissed her as the ‘villain’ of his childhood. But, when he inherits her life’s work – a photography collection spanning over six decades – he is forced to both confront his past and re-evaluate what he wants from his old age. Assisted by student Jenny Jones, who has recently lost her own mother to cancer, Sir James is persuaded to look at the photographs as if he is seeing through his mother’s eyes, only to discover an extraordinary tale of courage and sacrifice.
“Three. I have three stories,” Lottie Parker tells her solicitor while putting her affairs in order. “But it was Oscar Wilde who said that a story is almost certainly a lie.”
Targeted Age Group:: Adult
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I was reading a biography of Lee Miller, one of my heroines. I knew her photography but, as it turned out, very little of her life. She was an extraordinary, extraordinary person. One of the most sought-after fashion models of her day, who became a muse to surrealist photographers and artists such as Man Ray and Picasso. But she had always yearned to be on the other side of the lens and, in time, she became highly respected for her own work. At the outbreak of World War II she became dissatisfied with her fashion work and documented the Blitz for Vogue, then underwent yet another transformation to become the only woman in combat photo journalism in Europe, taking incredible personal risks. Lee also recorded the first use of napalm at the battle of St. Malo, the liberation of Paris, and she was there when the victims of Nazi concentration camps were liberated. Her personal relationships were never straightforward, but it a huge testament to the strength of her personality that all of her ex-lovers became friends.
Other things, I stumbled upon along the way. One of the things that happened while I was writing a book that spans the period of the First World War was the death of Harry Patch. I had been deeply moved watching and reading about the histories of the last of the Veterans, and admired him greatly for his decision to speak out after so many years’ silence. After all that time had passed, you could still see how raw his emotions were.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Lee Miller eventually settled down in Sussex with the artist and curator, Roland Penrose, with whom she had a son, Anthony. He knew Lee as an embarrassing mother and had no idea of her history until, after she died, he discovered her collection of work. I found his comment that he was cheated out of knowing someone really very extraordinary extremely poignant, and it set me on the road to discovering one of my main characters, Sir James Hastings. Estranged from his mother from an early age, he only discovers her when she leaves him her body of work in her will.
Sir James’s mother, Lottie Pye, had to be someone extraordinary. Brought up believing that she had survived a lightning strike, she thought she was invincible. We follow her journey from photographer’s child-model in Brighton to war-time London, where she finds success as a controversial award-winning photographer. The settings in this story are very important. The sea always has a huge draw for Lottie.
From Chapter 3
“How would you like to be remembered?” Mr Marsh prompted. Inserting itself into my filing cabinet of thoughts, his question seemed to relate to appearance. I was surprised he was unable to detect the red-headed girl inside my much-reduced frame when I felt her presence so vividly. “Beloved wife and mother?” he suggested.
“No!” I averted my gaze while I recovered myself. “Hardly for me to say.”
“Hmm.” He repeatedly clicked his ballpoint pen – his thumb accustomed to constant texting, no doubt – narrowing his eyes in careful thought. “I take your point.” The pen scratched the surface of his notepad.
“What’s that you’re writing?”
“Saying what, exactly?”
“In loving memory.”
My skin went cold. “Cross it out.”
“If you’re undecided…”
“Please.” I felt my nails digging into my palms. “Just do as I ask!”
His expression suggested he thought my protest disproportionate. “Then, can I suggest we keep it simple? Your name and the dates, perhaps…”
An involuntary noise escaped me, interpreted as dismissive. Silently, hands unmoving, Mr Marsh waited for me to expand.
“I had hoped it would be someone else’s job to do this, but they’ve all gone. No-one to remember me now.”
“All of them?” With the lick of a finger, he scooped back layers of notes in search of a fact to refute what I had said. He didn’t have to look far before his finger tapped on an earlier entry.
Though I doubted he’d ever lay eyes on my gravestone, it was because of James – the only blood relative I have ever known – that it was vital to get it right. “To be honest, Mr Marsh, I’ve never had much faith in words. Words are what lies are made of. I trust only what I see with my own eyes – which is considerably less than it used to be.”
After I dismissed his brief lecture on the history of the law with the announcement that that my son, too, was a solicitor, he remained determined to coax something out of me.
“What about poetry? Literature?” And then, unknowingly, he struck gold. “You’re not telling me you’ve lived as long as you have and you don’t have a good story or two.”
There was a time I liked to quote that the past always falls victim to the present but, in my case, the reverse is now true. The room seemed to darken, the urge to close my eyes and retreat into memory almost overwhelming. Before television, before the wireless, before even cinema, stories were our main form of entertainment. My favourite stories were true, those that had Daddy shaking his jowls and declaring, “You couldn’t make that up if you tried!”
“Three,” I gasped, fighting to ear-mark my place in the moment, not to slip backwards until I had the luxury of being alone.
Mr Marsh’s startled expression suggested he hadn’t expected anything so specific. “I beg your pardon?”
I felt light-headed in my breathlessness. “I have three stories.”
“Well, then.” A quick recovery, pen poised, he thought he had arrived at a neat solution.
“I’ll need time.”
“Time?” It was as if I were Oliver, asking for more.
“Yes. To think. Orson Welles hit the nail on the head when he said that a story is almost certainly a lie.”
“I understand.” Leaning back and folding his arms, Mr Marsh showed no signs of
departure. “Whatever you decide will be there for all eternity.”
I had to spell it out for him. “Give me a week.”
He raised his eyebrows dubiously.
“Don’t fret. I’m not going anywhere until we’ve settled this.”
Looking doubtful, Mr Marsh collected his belongings, pointing questioningly to the door as if an alternative exit might have opened up. “Perhaps you’ll give me a call when you’re ready.”
Closing my eyes, the reel began to run; flickering images coming into focus, the slightly speeded-up world of silent movies with its exaggerated expressions. A red-headed girl in a seaside resort at the birth of a new century. The sounds, the sights, the smells, the vastness of the sky and, below, the writhing sea, stretching to infinity – or France, whichever came first. Brighton! Mine for the taking.
“Tell me the one about Phoebe Hessel!” I would demand of Ma, whose stories took on the rhythm of dough being kneaded, accompanied by the clatter of kitchen pans.
I had discovered Phoebe during an elicit game of hide-and-seek in the oldest churchyard in Brighton. Crouching, my disbelieving fingers traced the lichened dates beneath the tangle of ivy. The calculations I made, counting on fingers and then out loud – “108?” – seemed, to me, incredible.
A hand was clapped on my shoulder. “Got you!”
Declaring loudly, “You can’t have, because I’m not playing,” I ran all the way home, clattering up the stairs to the kitchen.
“What’s that terrible to-do about? Is that you, Lottie?”
I recovered my balance with one hand on the doorframe, and panted, “I’ve just discovered the oldest woman that ever lived! Only she’s dead now.”
Bent over the table with a rolling pin, Ma merely turned her head, apparently unimpressed. “That must be Phoebe Hessel you’re talking about.”
“You’ve heard of her?”
“Ask around town and you’ll still find people who remember Phoebe selling gingerbread at the foot of Old Steine. That’s where Prince George first came across her.”
“A prince?” Gawping, I slipped into my seat at the table.
“The prince. But it was her early life that was a mystery. Some say, after her mother died, her father dressed her as a boy soldier so she could follow him into the army. But she would tell anyone who cared to listen how, at the age of fifteen, after she fell madly in love with a private from the King’s Lambs, she disguised herself as a man. And together they fought, side by side.”
Like a child with a picture book, I learned Phoebe’s story by heart, but it had the ring of a fairy tale when Ma told it: “When asked how she kept her secret for so long, she said it wasn’t safe to tell it to drunken men or children because they always tell the truth. Instead, she dug a hole big enough to hold a gallon and whispered it to the earth.”
“Tell me the part about the highwayman,” I begged, aware of every revision to the original: each stretching or concealment of facts.
“What highwayman?” Distributing flour liberally with flicks of a wrist, Ma pretended not to remember it was Phoebe’s evidence that brought the notorious James Rooke to justice.
“Josie tells me.”
Gripped tighter, the rolling pin hesitated mid-air. “Does she now? Then Josie and I will be having words.”
What Tennyson saw fit to immortalise in poetry, Ma thought too gory for children’s ears. If I couldn’t have the highwayman, a hero among villains, I was going to have the next best thing: “Tell me the one about how you found me!”
I was never under any illusion that I was Ma’s real daughter: I was so much more important than that. This was understood by the name I called her. I couldn’t say ‘Mother’ as other children did because it was never in doubt that I’d had a mother of my own. So in one of England’s southern-most towns, I used the northern version.
“If you’re not careful, child, I’ll put you back where you came from.”
“Just one more story.”
She raised her eyes in despair. “Lord, give me peace in my old age, if it’s not too much to ask! Sit yourself down again, child. You’re making me dizzy.”
I sat, my elbows on the table making circles in the flour, chin resting in my hands, halo neatly in place. “Please, Ma. I am sitting nicely, like you said.”
She closed her eyes and, while she drew breath, I held mine in readiness for a hasty retreat in case my nagging produced what I no doubt deserved. Ma pursed her lips, giving no clues as to her decision. “I had always longed for a little girl – don’t ask me why – but it wasn’t to be. My lot was to have boys but, one by one, I lost them to consumption.” A bowl landed heavily on the bleached white surface in front of me; translucent cubes of lard nesting on a bed of soft white flour. “Hands?”
Keenly, I held them out for inspection: fronts, backs and nails. “Make yourself useful, then. Breadcrumbs, fine as you can get them! And try not to get it in your hair like last time. Now, where were we?” Ma returned to her aggressive style of rolling. “You arrived in a late summer storm when all the fine folk had taken to the seafront for their afternoon strolls. The rain came on so sudden that everyone was caught out. Slanted rain made light work of cotton dresses, feathered hats wilted, and silks clung like second skins. I hurried along the promenade, clutching my shawl, while people darted here and there in search of shelter. Holiday-makers huddled in shop doorways, abandoning broken parasols as they raised their hands to hail hansom cabs. Even the fishermen took to the arches, which just goes to show.
“I counted the seconds after I heard the rumble of thunder to see how far behind the lightning was. If someone had told me lightning can strike miles from the centre of a storm, I would have told them not to be so daft. I wasn’t afraid for myself; it’s not as if I had any good clothes to ruin. As the pavement cleared of running feet, I faced the elements, blinking back raindrops. Thinking I was alone, I watched lightning fork into the swollen sea, still some distance off. The rain seemed to be easing when I became aware of a woman pushing a perambulator up ahead.”
I fidgeted: the first appearance of my mother.
“Don’t wriggle if you want to hear the end of the story, Lottie.” Ma slapped the wrist nearest to her, a warning glance. I angled the bowl so that she could inspect its contents. “Still too lumpy. You’re not done, not by a long way, Missy. Now, where were we?” Wiping her brow with the back of her hand, Ma left a tell-tale trail of powdery white. “The woman, she looked like a holiday-maker from behind, all fashionable-like, holding onto her fancy hat, dress nipping her in at the waist while its skirts dragged along the pavement, heavy with water. Both ruined! While everyone else had taken cover, with waves crashing about her feet, she continued her walk to the end of the promenade. As you know, I’ve got no time for tourists whose idea of disaster is a heel gone down a pothole, but this woman seemed equally foolish when there was a child’s safety at stake. ‘Madam!’ I called through the rumble of thunder.” She shaped her hands into a megaphone to demonstrate. “‘Let me help you find shelter for the little one.’ Just as the woman turned, open-mouthed with surprise, lightning pierced the sky and struck the wet pavement.” My breath was suspended in an inflated moment. “I watched helpless as she was lifted into the air like a rag-doll and thrown into the street right in front of my eyes. Freed from her hands, your carriage continued its journey towards the sea. There was no time to think. I ran after it and grabbed the metal handle, just as the front wheels reached the place where the pavement drops away. There you were, wrapped in white and screaming at the top of your lungs.”
“Show me, Ma.” Grabbing her hands, webbed together with the makings of pastry dough, I peeled away her fingers to reveal scarred palms. “Are you sure it didn’t hurt?”
“Ruined the nerve endings, the doctor told me. Never felt a thing in them since. Now, look at the mess you’ve made! What did I tell you, Lottie?” She attempted to shake me off. “Do you want to go to bed without hearing the ending?”
Conceding that I didn’t, I meekly returned my hands to the bowl.
“By this time, an audience of black umbrellas had gathered. They were none too keen to get too close to the poor lady where she’d come to rest in the sludge left behind by the horses and the rain. It was a white-haired gentleman who stepped forwards to do the decent thing, covering her with his cape, God bless her soul.
“No-one knew who your mother was. When she wasn’t claimed or reported missing, they assumed she was a fine lady on a day-trip from London. ‘Would you mind taking the baby home while we track down the father?’ a policeman asked me. ‘I wouldn’t want to be blamed for sending her to the workhouse if she doesn’t belong there.”’
Jane Davis lives in Carshalton, Surrey with her Formula 1 obsessed, star-gazing, beer-brewing partner, surrounded by growing piles of paperbacks, CDs and general chaos. Her first novel, Half-truths and White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award and was described by Joanne Harris as ‘A story of secrets, lies, grief and, ultimately, redemption, charmingly handled by this very promising new writer.’
For further information, or to sign up for pre-launch specials and notifications about future projects, visit the author’s website at www.jane-davis.co.uk. For suggested questions for book clubs and an extract of her novel, These Fragile Things, read on…
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