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The Goose Road

I’m turning hay in the top meadow when I hear the squeak of rusty wheels and look up to see Monsieur Nicolas, the postman, pedalling up the lane. I stiffen, suddenly afraid that I know the reason why he’s here.

            Please, God, let it not be Pascal.

Soft summer sounds surround me now that I’m still. Grasshoppers. Distant birds. The eternal hum of bees. The creaking of the bicycle is like some infernal machine, let loose in the Garden of Eden.

            Please, God, not my brother, Pascal.

I think about that other August day two years ago, when the jangling of church bells shattered the peace of the valley. Pascal and I dropped our pitchforks and ran to the village square just in time to hear the mayor announce, “Men of France! To arms!”

Father left straightaway, but Pascal stayed long enough to show me how to gather the harvest, how to scythe and how to plough. I was twelve years old and so excited. Now my hands are calloused and my back aches like an old woman’s.

Monsieur Nicolas clatters slowly past the orchard, waking the geese. They flap and hiss as they waddle towards the fence. Mother appears at the kitchen door, wiping her hands on her apron. Her back is very straight.

Monsieur Nicolas clambers awkwardly off the saddle and pushes his bicycle up the hill towards our gate. I hold my breath. My legs shake. My vision blurs with tears.

            Please, God. Not Pascal.

Monsieur Nicolas stops again. He rests his bike against our fence. The geese clamour and shriek as he opens the gate to our yard. Stifling a cry, I pick up my skirts and run.

 

Toulouse geese
Toulouse geese

 

It’s Father, Mort pour la France on some distant battlefield. The letter telling us is crushed in Mother’s hand. I bow my head and make the sign of the cross, then ask, “Who’s the letter from? May I read it?”

She turns hollow eyes on me. “It’s from your brother, my angel.”

Pascal! Is he safe? Is he well? Oh, Maman, does he say when he’s coming home?”

Relief bubbles inside me. I’m torn between laughter and tears. But when I reach out for the letter, Mother’s knuckles whiten as she tightens her grip on it.

“Your father is dead, Angélique. Have you no feelings at all?”

I hang my head, the pain in her voice cutting through me. For her sake, I try to remember something nice about him. One small thing. But I can’t. All I recall are his fists and his belt and his leather razor strop. Pascal got the worst of it, but sometimes late at night I’d hear Mother whimpering as well.

“Well?” she asks, sounding weary now rather than angry.

My gaze remains fixed on the earthen floor and the dust-flecked shaft of sunlight falling across it, while the ticking of the kitchen clock grows louder between us.

Am I wicked, I wonder, a heartless, unforgivable child because I’m not sad he’s dead?

I try to squeeze out a tear, but inside my head I can hear the thwack, thwack, thwack of his drunken anger, and Pascal’s sobs as he rushed up to his room, and Mother’s muffled voice through his closed door, hushing him, telling him not to fuss.

“I am sorry,” I say at last.

“Are you?”

I give a tiny shrug. “For you, yes.”

She sighs, then turns her back on me and takes her apron off.

“See to the animals,” she says, “then come in to change. We’ll go to Mass this evening.”

 

My mourning dress is stiff and tight, a laced-up hand-me-down. Mother is almost invisible behind her long black veil. As we walk down the lane to the village through the warm, rosy dusk, I half expect a bat to blunder into her or a fox to stop and sniff the air as we pass.

Outside the church the village widows flock around Mother like crows. There are Madame Villiard and Madame Arnauld, and poor young Madame Besançon, whose husband was just nineteen when both his legs were blown off at Verdun.

Old Madame Malpas draws me aside, wringing her bony hands and crying, “What’s to become of you, Angélique? You’ll very likely starve! La Mordue will go to rack and ruin without Monsieur Lacroix!”

“Pascal will be home soon,” I say. “Maman and I can manage till then.”

“Manage, child? When your corn’s still in the ground in August?”

“The farm men have been promised leave.”

“And you expect the generals to keep their promises?”

She sniffs loudly, then stumps off, calling to Mother, “Madame Lacroix! What terrible news! Tell me, did he suffer?”

My best friend, Béatrice Lamy, hurries over to me.

“That woman!” she says, rolling her eyes. Then she kisses me on both cheeks and hugs me tightly. “This is unbearable, Angie. I can’t begin to imagine how you feel.”

Guilt prickles me because, just then, I’d been thinking how much I hate wearing black and having to pretend to be sad. I wish I’d told her the truth before, but Mother always said the beatings would get worse if Father suspected we talked about him behind his back.

And now it’s too late. I can’t speak ill of the dead, condemn a brave soldier Mort pour la France. What would Madame Malpas say?

“I’m fine, Bee,” I say. “Really, I am.”

She cups my cheek in her hand. “You’re so brave, Angie. I’d be in pieces if I’d lost Papa. How did you hear the news?”

I lean forward, hiding a smile, and whisper, “Pascal wrote.”

Pascal!

“Shhh, Bee. Not so loud.” I glance around, but the village women are too busy comforting Mother to take any notice of us. “Come on. Let’s talk inside.”

The cold stone church is empty. We sit in the front pew, the one allotted to the newly bereaved. Béatrice takes both my hands.

“Is Pascal safe?” she asks. “Is he hurt?”

“I don’t know. Mother wouldn’t let me see his letter.”

“Why not?”

“Oh, you know. She’s upset.”

“Of course. Silly question. I’m sorry.”

Her eyes brim again with sympathy.

Quickly I say, “Do you want to hear the good news?”

Good news?” Her eyes widen.

I smile conspiratorially. “The farm belongs to Pascal now – the house, the land. Everything! It’s his.”

“Oh.”

“Bee! Don’t you see what this means?”

She shakes her head.

“He can get married whenever he wants!”

“Oh!” Her eyes widen further. “But … Papa won’t let me. I’m too young.”

“Pascal will wait, I know he will. And when you’re both ready you’ll live with us, and we’ll be sisters, a real family. Won’t that be wonderful?”

Her eyes shine, then she blushes. “I do love him so much.”

We start to hug, but just then the door opens and the village widows seep inside like shadows, a horde of veiled and silent wraiths.

“I should go,” Béatrice says.

“No. Please stay.”

“But your mother– “

“She won’t mind.”

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely.”

I slip my arm through hers while we wait, each looking up at the brightly painted statue of Saint Joan of Arc, high on her pedestal. She’s wearing a full suit of armour, and spearing the devil through his blackened heart.

“I hate that statue,” Béatrice whispers.

“I don’t know,” I reply. “I rather like it.”

Buy The Goose Road here.

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WW1 & Votes for Women

Today, as the centenary of legislation which gave the vote to some British women is being celebrated by women MPs in the House of Commons, on an all-woman BBC Radio 4 Today Programme – at last! Hurrah! – and (hopefully) in schools across the country, here’s a quick look at The Representation of the People’s Act 1918, and how it passed through parliament during the First World War.

By 1916, two years into the war, the British electoral register was no longer fit for purpose. Had a new register been prepared along pre-war lines, only half of the country’s eligible electors would have been able to vote because war work had taken the other half away from their homes – and residency was a condition of registration. Politically, this was unacceptable since it meant British soldiers fighting abroad were among those disqualified to vote for the next government. The vital war work being done by women also undermined pre-war arguments against granting them the vote, too.

A Special Register Bill (1916) attempted a temporary solution, but failed to address the problem of disenfranchised soldiers; this Bill was dropped.

Finally, in 1918, all previous voting rights were repealed by The Representation of the People’s Act. The new act gave male soldiers aged 19 and over the right to a vote, as well as all men aged 21 and over. Women had to wait until they were 30 years old and married. They also had to qualify to vote in local government elections through property ownership – or be married to a man who was – before they could vote for their MP.

The 1918 Act did give single women over 21 the right to vote in local authority elections, and ended a ban on people in receipt of poor relief or alms from voting. Conscientious objectors, however, were prohibited from registering to vote until five years after the conclusion of the Great War.

Equal voting rights for men and women were never seriously considered under the 1918 Act. That was because gender equality would have given 14 million women the vote, a majority over men. At the time, it was considered unacceptable that men who’d fought in WW1 could be out-voted by women who hadn’t. Instead, the 1918 Act gave 8.4 million women a parliamentary vote so male voters would continue to outnumber females.

While special provisions were made for serving soldiers, including proxy & postal votes for those still in France and Belgium, munition workers who’d had to move house to be near armament factories were excluded from the 1918 Act, meaning they were unable to vote for the new government that came into power after the war ended. The Armed Forces voting provisions had been planned to expire twelve months after the end of the war, but in the final Act, there was no time limit and its provisions continued.

It took a further ten years before The Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928 gave equal voting rights to men and women for elections in the UK.

Interview with Kathryn Aalto about her “amiable field guide” to the 100 Acre Wood

Landscape designer and historian, Kathryn Aalto, created an “amiable field guide” to the Hundred Acre Wood, where Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet once wandered with Christopher Robin. She talked to me aboutThe Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh: A Walk Through the Forest that Inspired the Hundred Acre Wood” for Words & Pictures, the SCBWI’s online magazine.

Rowena: Helen Macdonald said when she received the Costa Award this year that her memoir, H is for Hawk, is intended as a “love letter to the English countryside and all that we’re losing and have lost”. Does nostalgia play a part in your love affair with English landscapes?

Kathryn: My love affair with the English landscape is a torrid one, that’s for sure. It’s a mix of nostalgia as well as discovery. As an expat from California now living in Devon, I didn’t grow up with an ancient network of footpaths as we have here. They’re a revelation. A couple years ago, my family and I walked the Coast to Coast Path from the Irish Sea to the North Sea. The kids had direct exposure to nature: they navigated guidebooks, read maps and searched the landscape for trails. It was a pivotal experience, like A. A. Milne experienced in the 1880s, one he recaptured with Christopher Robin wandering in the Hundred Acre Wood. But in terms of nostalgia, childhood has changed so much since the first Winnie-the-Pooh was published in 1926. Since then, there’s been a decline in native English meadows by 90%, and children can no longer wander freely like their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents did. Milne had tremendous freedom to explore and indulge his imagination. Few children enjoy that today. I’m also nostalgic for childhoods before electronic diversions were so prevalent. With so many footpaths in England, there’s always a place for us to walk and explore.

Read the full interview here:

http://www.wordsandpics.org/2015/07/rowena-house-interviews-kathryn-aalto.html

 

 

Interview with Sally Nicholls for SCBWI writing retreat

Award-winning author Sally Nicholls led the SCBWI-BI Writer’s Retreat on 8th May – 11th May 2015. In anticipation of this event, I caught up with Sally for Words & Pictures, the society’ online magazine. Here’s a quick excerpt.

ROWENA: One thing that really struck me when I was reading your books for this interview was the authenticity of your young narrators’ voices. In Ways to Live Forever and Close Your Pretty Eyes, for example, you bounce us straight into the heads of your 11-year-old narrators even though they’re dealing with some dark and sophisticated psychological issues. How do you achieve that balance between a difficult subject matter and a young voice?

SALLY: Mostly it’s just remembering. When I wrote Ways to Live Forever, which is the one I wrote on the (Bath Spa University) MA, about a little boy with leukaemia, a lot my fellow students were quite frightened of dying. I remember thinking: Well, I don’t think I would have been frightened of dying if I’d had a terminal illness when I was eleven. I wouldn’t have wanted it, of course, but I just couldn’t image that I would have been frightened because you have quite a simplistic view of death as a child. So I talked to some nurses at a local hospital and they said, No, you’re not frightened at eleven. The parents are frightened, but the kids aren’t.

Read the full interview here:

http://www.wordsandpics.org/2015/04/writers-retreat-interview-with-award.html

Interview with David Almond: The Freedom of Knowing your Limitations

David Almond, the multi-award winning author of Skellig, A Song for Ella Gray, and many other beautiful adult & children’s stories, became a creative writing Professor at Bath Spa University the year I began their MA in Writing for Young People. His talks quickly became highlights of this fantastic course. Here’s an excerpt is from an interview he gave me for Words & Pictures, the online magazine for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, published in May 2013. 

Q1. What I’d like to talk about mostly is the ‘how’ of writing, but I am very aware that it’s arbitrary to disassociate the ‘how’ from the ‘what’. So can we start with a very interesting comment you made at a recent seminar at Bath Spa University. You said, ‘You only discover how to free your imagination by knowing its limitations. Discover your boundaries and then you are free to explore this world.’ Could you expand on that idea a little?

David Almond: For me it was a matter of accepting certain things about myself that were going to be the things that gave me my true voice and my true subject. It was to do with discovering the way I write, the way I speak which is kind of dictated by the language I grew up with. There were certain things about me that I couldn’t change like the fact that I had been brought up as a Catholic; that I had been brought up living in the North East. I spent a long time trying to struggle against those things and cast them out from my work. It was only when I got to the point of realising that that wasn’t working, and just sighing and saying, ‘Oh yes, that’s what I am’ and accepting those things, that they actually brought a great deal of richness and imagery to my work, and a language and rhythm which I had been kind of denying myself. But I don’t think I could have used them properly without first denying them. It’s a paradoxical thing. (US author) Flannery O’Connor was a big mentor for me. She said that thing about the imagination not being free.

Read the full interview here:

http://www.wordsandpics.org/2013/05/david-almond-freedom-of-knowing-your.html

‘Place’ in stories: where reality and our characters collide

Years ago, I was lucky enough to interview David Almond for the SCBWI’s Words & Pictures online magazine, and asked him about the philosophical themes in his books. His answer gave me a great insight into the importance of the concrete realities of place.

He said, “The danger of talking about transcendence or spirituality is that they can’t exist without reality. The important thing about my work is the realism in it … The language that I use is very ordinary. It isn’t abstract. It’s very solid, I think. There are lots of nouns and verbs. You can’t write abstractions. You have to write reality. You have to write stories about dust and dirt.”

Dust and dirt: the stuff of place.

His words were a great relief to me as place is pretty much where I have to start a story. In the intervening years I’ve built up a body of notes as to why this might be so, the gist of which I’ll share with you here.

  • Realism (even in fantasy) makes characters believable;
  • Realistic characters exist in time and space;
  • Place therefore grounds characters.
  • Also, every scene needs a setting. Physical, sensory descriptions ease us into thinking about the most important story questions: why is my character here (motivation) and what is s/he going to do next (intent)?

Whatever the genre, place is never accidental. It is the unique setting that shapes how our characters experience the events of this story, and where they create its outcomes.

Place also establishes genre. If we’re on a space ship, we’re likely to be in SciFi territory, a battlefield denotes action, a wizard’s castle fantasy etc.

But place as a writing tool is more than a rounded description of the physical setting: the sights, sounds, smells, textures and tastes etc. It includes the fluidity of things, their states of flux in time and space, foreshadowing or echoing the changes and conflicts of the story.

If our word choices create a particular tone and mood, then we’re talking about ‘voice’ as well, which instantly moulds reader expectations. No one who’s read Thomas Hardy’s opening description of Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native could possibly expect a romantic comedy to follow.

When I began writing, I allowed place to dictate my stories. Travelling the world as a journalist, then on a gap year, I let places inspire me, and followed ideas wherever they led. I’d love to have the luxury of time (and money!) to travel in this way again, and write ‘found’ stories; instead, I’ve consciously adopted a character-centred approach to place.

By this I mean that I try my hardest to forget that I’m telling a story. Once I’ve researched a place, I live it through my main character. It exists exclusively as their subjective experience of it. I see it only through their eyes and feels it through their skin. This approach helps no end when deciding what details a character would notice about this place at this particular point in time. They certainly won’t notice or describe anything familiar, for example.

It also forces me to decide early on how a character’s perceptions are coloured by their state of mind. Are they in some kind of emotion turmoil or struggling with inner conflicts, repressed or acknowledged? Are they grieving or in shock, guilt-ridden or in denial, facing a complex life decision or experiencing a sense of foreboding. How does their physical wellbeing or lack of it impact on the way they interact with this setting at this point in the story? A cocky young policeman won’t see a dark alleyway in the same way as the wily old criminal he’s chasing, or in the same way as a wealthy bond trader with cocaine in his pocket, or the terrified trafficked girl with a gang master hot on her heels – and the battery signal on her phone flashing empty.

Whatever the viewpoint character’s state of mind, if they react to a significant setting with apt and original language, the depth and realism of their stories will inevitably be enriched.

A year or so after that interview with David Almond, I discussed using place at the openings of stories with a local adult writing group I occasionally teach, using these contrasting examples:

Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies

Falcons

Wiltshire, September 1535

His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horseback, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air.

Annie Enright’s The Gathering

You cannot libel the dead, I think, you can only console them. So I offer Liam this picture: my two daughters running on the sandy rim of a stony beach, under a slow, turbulent sky, the shoulders of their coats shrugging behind them. Then I erase it.

Lee Child’s The Affair

The Pentagon is the world’s largest office building, six and a half million square feet, thirty thousand people, more than seventeen miles of corridors, but it was built with just three street doors, each one of them opening into a guarded pedestrian lobby. I chose the south east option, the main concourse entrance, the one nearest the metro and the bus station, because I wanted plenty of civilian workers around, preferably a whole long unending stream of them, for insurance purposes, mostly against getting shot on sight. Arrests go bad all the time, some accidentally, sometimes on purpose, so I wanted witnesses.

Joanna Trollope’s A Village Affair

On the day contracts were exchanged on the house, Alice Jordan put all three children in the car and went to visit it. Natasha made her usual seven-year-old fuss about her seat-belt, and James was crying because he had lost the toy man who rode his toy stunt motorbike, but the baby lay peaceably in his carrycot and was pleased to be joggling gently along while a fascinating pattern of bare branches flickered through the slanting back window of the car onto his round upturned face.

 

Mantel’s is at once vividly English yet also deeply anti-religious, with the lightness of sight and movement shot through with that visceral ‘blood-filled gaze’ of the falcons, who are also Cromwell’s dead children. With intense economy, Mantel creates an overwhelming mental landscape that is, at the same time, utterly in the moment and also symbolic, poignant and beautiful. We are inside a mind transcending loss by a conscious act of will: he is freeing the souls of his dead women-folk not just from human existence but from God. No purgatory for them; no judgement or guilt, just lightness and air and the hunt. And by freeing them, he frees himself. Perhaps. Child’s analytical narrator explains as well as observes. His movement – the unending stream of witnesses – are part of the plan; nothing is left to chance. These are the rational words of a dangerous man with a tactical plan. How different from Trollope’s mother, boxed in with her noisy children, with only the baby enviably free to experience the flickering images outside. The make and model of the car don’t matter to the mother, whereas Lee Child’s Jack Reacher would have noted them both.

In each case the author has, by marrying the simple, observable realities of place – David Almond’s dust and dirt – with their character’s subjective perceptions and purposes, drawn the reader into that mysterious state where imagined stories are both believable and meaningful. Movement is also inherent in Enright’s running, turbulent sky. Her place is roughly textured (sandy, stony) but her narrator’s mental landscape is detached, a ‘picture’ offered to a dead man. ‘Then I erase it.’ For me, each opening ‘place’ is extraordinarily rich, beautifully setting the tone for the novel that follows.

Books as emotional stepping stones to the past

Before I could begin the story that became The Goose Road I had to give myself permission to write about a subject as shocking & sad as the First World War.

Today, after years of research, that seems odd. I now feel on firm mental ground in WW1, eager in fact to return. But back then I felt presumptuous. Almost guilty. How could I possibly begin to imagine what it was like?

Yes, I did a ton of research in books and online, in lecture halls and museums. I had to get the facts right out of respect for the dead. But that wasn’t enough. I needed a deeper, more visceral connection. With hindsight, two types of research were critical to building that emotional bridge to the past.

First was place, by which I mean being there physically, walking through the cemetery-strewn fields of the Somme and the rolling hillsides of Verdun, or standing in a zigzag trench at Beaumont Hamel, or paying my respects to the broken & greying skulls of French and German soldiers, laid to rest together.

Second came a few, critical books.

Out of everything I’ve read about World War One, fiction and non-fiction, I now believe it was just five books that led me to a sufficient level of understanding that I finally felt I had the right to trespass into – and then to inhabit – the world of the Great War. They were stepping stones, and I’ll always treasure them.

4 Wilfred Owen

The first, chronologically, was a venerable copy of The Complete Works of Wilfred Owen which I took with me to Étaples, the Channel port where I knew my story had to end. Owen himself had spent time in this place. Like all British Empire infantrymen and officers, he passed through the huge reinforcement and hospital camp, which dominated Étaples’ old town, on his way to the Western Front. I’d been deeply upset by his war poems when we studied them at school. And here I was, a grown woman, weeping over them again.

the price of glory

The second book, The Price of GloryVerdun 1916, is a brilliant piece of journalism and narrative non-fiction by Alistair Horne. First published in 1962, he resurrects the dramatic personae of that gruelling battle with dexterity and detail, populating the horrific statistics of slaughter with living, breathing men.

storm of steel

The third book that opened unexpected doors in my mind was Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger, a German officer who survived the war. Dedicated to The Fallen, Junger gives an alternative perspective to the ‘pity of war’ that is deeply embedded in the British tradition of remembrance, thanks in part to the anti-war poets such as Owen.

I brought Junger’s unapologetic account of courage and comradeship under fire in the bookshop at Thiepval, the Commonwealth war memorial to the missing of the Somme – that is, to soldiers whose bodies were so torn apart (evaporated even) by artillery bombardments that they were beyond identification as individual men.

The Ghost Road

The fourth & fifth books which stands out in my memory are both by Pat Baker, being the first and last in her Regeneration trilogy. If anyone asked me which single WW1 novel they should read, I would say The Ghost Road, the finale, every time.

It may be that Owen is important here too, since he is a character in these stories, and his death vividly told. His fellow war poet Siegfried Sassoon – at the time far better known than Owen – is central to the narrative too. But I think it is the complexity of Dr Rivers that makes these novels so compelling, and the depth of the irony that, as a military psychiatrist, his job is to make officers who are suffering the most awful mental torment as a result of what they’ve seen and done in battle, well enough to go back to fight and kill and quite probably die, like millions upon millions of others.

Dear God, never again.

This post first appeared in An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, the blogging site of the Scattered Authors’ Society, on January 15th, 2018.