If I’d made this up, no-one would believe me. #dementia

Today, back to real life, sort of, in so far as my life is often like a badly scripted sitcom. Here’s an example.

As you know because heaven knows, I bang on about it incessantly, I am pre-menopausal. Basically, I feel pregnant and teary the entire time, and I have no memory. The only difference is that there’s no baby in there, just a lot of hormonal chaos shitting with my mojo and everything else. I also have parents who live a long way away and have dementia. They are lovely but it’s hard watching them go through this, especially as it started in Dad around fourteen years ago. Sometimes I wish they weren’t around any more. Not because I want them to die but because I can’t bear to see them suffering and after fourteen years, suffering with them getting pretty tough too. It’s a long time to know something isn’t right, to be ready to rush to their aid if required. The last four or five years have been extremely tough and I guess there are days when I just want release from the sadness I carry. Then I think how much tougher it must be for them.

This week, I felt particularly weepy and daunted at the prospect of a visit. Dad had cried for an hour and a half straight the week before and I knew that if he was like that again it would tough. So believe it or not, I prayed on the way down, for something, anything, to take away the pain or give me strength. I know it’s just hormones shitting with my arse, but some days it’s as if I can feel myself crumbling around the edges and this was one of them.

Perhaps, in some form, my prayer was answered …

You see, the thing that probably saves us all is that they haven’t lost their sense of humour and neither have my brother and I. And when I think all is lost and that I can’t hold it together any more, a visit like this one happens.

This morning, I arrived just after eleven and pootled around, as we usually do, had a sherry and some crisps and the lovely day relief carer served lunch. Meanwhile the also lovely live in carer, on her break, went for a long walk. The door bell went and it was from a friend of my parents who lives up the road. He asked if Mum and Dad wanted to go to the old people’s tea party up at the church. It starts at three o’clock which is perfect for me because I go at half two and the ladies who run it do the lifts for folks who can’t get there under their own steam then, as well. As the friend leaves he goes completely the wrong way and tries to leave the house through the sitting room, I point him back the way he has come and he finally locates the back door.

A few minutes later, Friend’s wife rings to confirm. Lovely Live-in has gone for her walk but will be back at half two so we hatch a cunning plan; the lift will come for Mum, Dad and the carer and they will also take the wheelchair. That way, if Dad gets twitchy and starts shouting, loudly, that he’s ‘fucking bored’ Lovely Live-in can pop him in the wheelchair and take him home. All is well, we have a date and I can go home as soon as they are picked up. So we have lunch and relax. During the lunch we have a cyclical conversation revolving round my car numberplate and the numberplate of my grandfather’s car when Dad was still living at home and his first car. He also asks me his age a lot. He is amazed I know the answers, not knowing that I’ve learned them as he’s asked me each question seven or eight times already. His name’s John, so we call this the John-tastic trivia game. He loves asking me questions and is always chuffed if I know the answers. I tell him I can slay all-comers on John-tastic trivia and he tries to catch me out unaware that these difficult questions are ones I’ve just answered. Despite the repeated nature of it all, he is very much himself. I exchange knowing winks with Mum as the conversation progresses, we laugh a lot and have fun.

At two o’clock the old dears are resting after lunch and I’m just finishing the washing and drying up when the phone rings.

‘Hello, this is British Gas,’ says a computerised female voice. ‘Please press any button on your keypad now.’

Stuff that for a game of soldiers, I think, it might be scammers. They do this. They ring you and when you press the button you are put through to a £40 a minute premium rate line. So I wait to see if anything more happens. After a few seconds of silence the plastic lady pipes up a second time.

‘This is British Gas,’ she says again. ‘We are about to send your bill but we do not have a meter reading for you. Please send us your meter reading by the second of October or we will have to send an estimated bill. You can do this by phoning …’ she gives an 0800 number too quickly for me to write it down but I remember the web address, which I write down on a piece of paper. As an afterthought, I 1471 the call and it gives me the freephone number I didn’t catch.

Well, that’s pretty straightforward. I go outside to ‘the boiler house’, the cupboard by the back door where the boiler and the rest of all that gubbins is and read the meter. Then I remember that Mum and Dad pay through Scottish Power rather then British Gas so rather than muddy the waters I decide it would be wise to ring them, instead. Also, I realise that there is bound to be some snappy sixteen digit account number or other that I need to give as well. I check the filing cabinet, find their last bill and, sure enough, there is. So I write it down and in a moment of incredible sensibleness, the actual Scottish Power phone number as well.

The 0800 number is answered by a message which tells me it’s been changed but not what to.

Excellent.

Undaunted, I ring the Scottish Power number. That has been changed too but like the 0800 number it demurs from telling me what it’s actually been changed to. I return to the filing cabinet for another rummage and find another number for Scottish Power. Good, here we go. I ring that and find that has also been changed and once again, helpfully, there is no mention of the new number.

Blow me down. They don’t want to be disturbed do they? I think.

A bit perplexed now, I attach my phone to Mum and Dad’s wi-fi because their house is dead to O2 and pretty much every other mobile operator barring Vodafone which I was with before, which does have a signal on certain special occasions. I dunno, when the stars align, the wind comes from the east and there’s n R in the month or something. I google Scottish Power’s contact details. When I ring the number given, this, too, has been changed but it does give me an alternative number. Marvellous. So I ring the alternative number, enter my parents’ account number followed by the meter reading and Bob’s your uncle! Done. And that’s when the trouble starts. The plastic lady, because this is still an automated thing, tells me the leccy bill is due too, explains that there is no meter reading for their electricity either and asks if I’d like to give that while I’m phoning.

Would I?! Two in one hit! I think, Bonanza! so I say yes and amazingly it understands my voice. I am in the study as I do this, so I nip back through towards the front door, at which point the alarm goes off that says Dad has got out of his chair. I meet him in the hall.

‘Hello Dad, fancy seeing you here.’
‘Yes.’
‘I’ll get the bottle.’
‘No. I don’t need a wee.’
‘I see.’
He looks thoughtful and then gives me a twinkly-eyed smile. ‘Actually, do you know, I can’t quite remember why I’m here.’
‘That’s OK, but you should probably sit back down for a bit because I’m just on the phone and your lift isn’t due for another fifteen minutes.’
‘Alright darling,’ he says.

So off he goes.

Glad that it’s a freephone number I now head out to the boiler house and discover that I’m too sodding blind to read the electricity meter, but there’s a stepladder in there so I climb up a bit and by sticking my nose up close and taking my glasses off I am able to read it. But the electricity meter reading isn’t so simple. The plastic lady informs me that there will be two readings, a day reading and a night reading. I look at the meter. There’s one number. Definitely one number.

‘If you are having any difficulty say, “Help.”‘ the plastic lady informs me.
‘Help,’ I say.

Then she explains that the electric meters have a button and the day reading, which will start with a higher number, will be Rate 1 while the night reading, which is Rate 2, will start with a lower number. Excellent, she is correct. I start with Rate 1, the day reading, and the plastic lady says that it is unusually low am I sure? ‘Yes,’ I say. She’s so aghast she asks again. I confirm. Then we move onto Rate 2. The plastic lady thinks it’s unusually high …

Oh oh, I think. I stop climb up the steps and recheck the numbers and rates. Yes, I’ve definitely written them down right.

Balls. Looks like it might be wired in the wrong way round.

I ring off, head back into the house where ring the number again, this time choosing the option to speak to a human. Fool that I am, I admit that I’m not Mum but her next of kin. Oh, he says, we will have to authorise you then.

Fucking fuck. I think.

At that point, Dad’s I’ve-got-up alarm goes off again and he comes zimmering into the hall.

‘Hi Dad, won’t be a minute, just have to give the phone to Mum.’
‘I need to pee,’ he explains, quite loudly enough for the poor bloke from Scottish Power to hear down the telephone I am holding.
‘Oh lord, sorry, be with you in a minute then. I have to help my Dad to the loo,’ I explain to the guy, ‘Let me hand you over so you can do the bit with Mum.’

Dad and I go to the loo which is next to my parents’ front door. All is fine but he is having trouble weeing. I know that when he can’t go, the carer whistles. So I suggest I do. He thinks that’s a capital plan and because it makes the situation just that little bit more Python than it already is, and because I know it’ll make him laugh, I start whistling the Dambusters March. At which point, the doorbell goes and Mum, who has followed us, manages to intercept the lady giving them a lift to the tea party just in time before she walks into the hall and sees the loo door open and me holding Dad’s cock in a bottle while whistling the Dambusters March for all I’m worth. But of course, Mum also has the phone, with the man from Scottish Power still on the end, and tries to give it back to me.

‘Hang on, just let me pull Dad’s pants up,’ I say cheerfully because there’s no coming back from this now and the man has probably called for the padded van already. Then I get Dad going on his way back to his chair, empty the bottle, wash my hands and take the phone back. Dad is a bit unsure where he is going or what he’s doing so I usher him gently in the direction of the drawing room to sit down out of the way for a moment. But the guy hasn’t finished. He needs Mum to confirm her date of birth and then two lines in their address and then he has to read her some legalese.

‘J….. Ch…! You must be kidding!’ I say and then apologise for swearing. ‘Mum,’ I say.
‘Oh Lord does he want me again?’ asks Mum.

Mum gives her address and date of birth as instructed and then hands it back to me.

‘No wait,’ the man says, as soon as I get the phone back, ‘I have to read her something.’
‘Oops, sorry hang on,’ I say and give the phone back to Mum.

Legalese listened to, she hands it back to me,  at which point Dad leans in.

‘You’re not still on the phone are you? Who is it? I want to go out! Tell them to bugger off.’ Well, I console myself, at least he didn’t say ‘fuck’.
‘No Dad, I can’t, he’s trying to help us,’ I explain.

Apologising profusely to the man form Scottish Power who is doing manful work stifling his laugher, I move away into the relative safety of the study. The man suggests that we all go out for two hours, leave something running and have a look to see which of the numbers has gone up when we get back. I explain that I won’t be there and they are not capable but that I’ll do it next week. He is a sweetheart, especially after what he’s been through, and says that’s grand. He also explains that he’s given a permanent third party access on the account so I can ring up and sort stuff as myself rather than by pretending to be Mum. I think him profusely and we say goodbye.

Then it’s time to leave and I’m finally able to actually ask Lovely live-in, who has just arrived back, if she minds going with them and wheeling Dad back if he gets bored before Mum does. Bless her heart, despite going for an hour and a half power walk with ankle weights on over her break, she agrees.

By this time it’s quarter to three and I should have left fifteen minutes ago but the car that is giving Mum and Dad a lift is blocking the drive and I can’t leave until it moves without driving over the lawn. But then the three of them, and the wheelchair, won’t fit in the car. So I realise I will have to run the wheelchair up there in my car, but it only fits with the roof that side rolled up. Luckily it’s only a mile or so on village roads. I say good bye and get in my car, at which point Dad, who has already forgotten that I’ve said goodbye, shouts that I haven’t said goodbye, so I get back out of the car and say goodbye because he’s forgotten. I then realise I have to go now, right this minute, because the others aren’t going to and if I don’t he’ll forget again and I’ll be getting in and out of my car to say goodbye to him, probably all day. So I wave cheerily at them all and with a round of see you next week’s I do indeed drive over the lawn. In my lotus. And up to the church where I deliver the wheelchair. I am finally on the road just before three, and also, to my delight, just in front of a tractor.

If anyone put that in a sitcom, or as a sketch in Little Britain, people would say it was over the top and unauthentic. Hmm … welcome to my unrealistically hammy comedy life.

Mum and Dad’s wedding photo. Check out the hands. They’re hanging onto one another like they never want to let go. They still love each other as much, even now.

_____________________________________________

On a lighter note, the lovely people at Kobo are doing a box set sale and mine is in. Basically all you do is enter this code, 30SEPT at checkout and you’ll get the whole K’Barthan Series for 30% less than usual.

At the moment it’s definitely running on Kobo UK, Canada and US and AU as well, I believe. So if you’re a Kobo user and you’re interested in picking up a bargain, click these lovely links here and enter the code at checkout:

Kobo US

Kobo Canada

Kobo Australia

Kobo GB

 

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Searching for the truth, at all costs #TallFamilyTales

As you will learn from reading this account, I was a perfectly horrible child in many respects and few stories reflect me in a poorer light than the one I am about to share. Sometimes the difference between genius and madness is failure. Other times, it’s a simple case of the idea being crap. This is the tale of an enquiring mind and a genuine desire to help turned bad. Very bad.

Gran-Gran, my dad’s mum, trained at the Royal Academy as a pianist. She used to play the piano at night when Dad and his brothers were frightened. The sound of Rachmaninov’s piano concerto drifting up from downstairs soothed him—still does. As a child, she, too was soothed by piano music drifting up from downstairs, but that was played by a friend of her parents; Chopin. I am ashamed at how little I remember of Gran-Gran, I know that at some point she had a nervous breakdown. After having a similar experience, but because of his Alzheimer’s rather than a breakdown, Dad told me how one morning Gran-Gran suddenly burst into tears at the breakfast table and couldn’t stop. He said it remains one of the most harrowing moments in his entire life. She went and lived in Bexhill for over six months with a companion. Then she was allowed to visit and finally, after over a year, I believe, she returned home.

When I was about eight or nine, I think, she got stomach cancer. Neither my brother nor I saw her for some time. Then she came to stay when she was officially recuperating from an operation to help it, although to be honest, I suspect it might have been classed as terminal by this time. She came to stay with us while ‘recovering’ I think to give Gin Gin, my grandfather, some respite from caring for her.

Before that point, I remember very little about Gran-Gran other than as a calm and benign presence—although I remembered more, then. She had dark hair—slate grey but it had been black, I think. She had a vein that stuck out a bit in the middle of her forehead, a joy which I have inherited, too. I can picture her sitting at the head of the dinner table in Byways, her and Gin Gin’s house, dishing out roast spuds and veg. She was a good cook, and I have the clock which hung on the wall beside her, a postman’s clock. Neither she, nor Gin Gin could ever persuade the number of dings, on the hour, to tie in with whatever number the hands were pointing to, at one point it even dinged thirteen times for one o’clock. I confess the dinger is in a chest, in pieces but I certainly intend to get it running at some point, although I’ll probably leave the bell side of it unwound. My husband and son did not grow up in a school so they are not able to sleep through anything quite the way I can.

What I do remember about Gran-Gran was that she was usually wearing the ghost of a smile and had a bit of a quiet twinkle around her eyes. She was also calm and lovely and clearly the glue holding everyone together.

However, after a two year absence being too ill to visit, when Gran-Gran came to stay with us, she didn’t seem to be the calm placid person that I remembered. Doubtless this was because she was ill, visually impaired and in a fair amount of pain but did that didn’t occur to young Einstein here? Oh no. Everyone else cottoned on but not me.

Gran-Gran’s blindness was caused by glaucoma. Everyone on both sides of my family has it. Basically, the blood pressure in your eyes gets too high for them and causes damage. There is no reversing this but if you get to it in time, it can be stopped. Gran-Gran would complain, often, that she couldn’t see although the evidence on many occasions suggested she could see a lot more than she thought—to my young eyes, at least. To be honest, I think it may have been less about not seeing and more about feeling a bit at sea, or perhaps it was a kind of shorthand complaint to sum up everything: that she was in pain and that she was, quite possibly, going to die of the disease she was fighting.

It must have been hard, staying with us; a draughty corridor-heavy house with a room at the top up about fifty stairs and the nearest bathroom down twenty six of them does not sound like an appealing place for an ill eighty year old. Unfamiliar surroundings, a strange and impenetrable heating and hot water system, a lavatory that would only flush if you pulled it just so … boys thundering around in adjacent rooms next door for most of the night, and the rats, of course, in the eves, behind the wall of our spare room, where she slept. The ones that scurried about above my bedroom. She must have heard those. And her Gin-Gin, my grandfather, who she loved, who tended to her at home, he wasn’t there—it was respite care, after all—and although she understood he needed a rest she must have felt very lost and lonely without him.

Now that I’m older, I realise she was pining for Gin-Gin and that she put up with a fair bit. But at the time it never occurred to me that our house was horrific by normal standards. Instead, I thought she complained a lot and I felt that was mean to Mum who was doing her utmost to make her stay with us as pleasurable and comfortable as possible. In my defence—though it isn’t much—I didn’t appreciate how ill she was. There were successes which I didn’t appreciate, too.

That stay, I believe, was the time when Mum discovered that Gran-Gran didn’t like burned toast but had it most breakfasts because one of her three sons, or Gin-Gin, my grandfather, would always burn and then spurn a slice of bread. Gran-Gran would eat it because she couldn’t bear to see it go to waste and eventually the myth was born that she liked her toast that way. At last, someone now realised that she didn’t like burned toast, after all. How happy she was to have a slice of normal toast that had not been purposely incinerated for her. She could have complained about the rats, too but she never once mentioned them, and she must have heard them. Mum and Dad were epic hosts, so doubtless she enjoyed the human part of the experience, or at least as much as she could through the trials of being ill and missing Gin-Gin. These are all things that were too subtle for me to see unless someone spelled them out in black and white, and that wasn’t the kind of thing you did in those days. All I could see was that Mum’s efforts seemed thankless and that Gran-Gran taking a great deal of my mother’s attention away from me and my brother. It was made worse by the fact that I was all at sea with this new grumpy Gran-Gran whom I felt I didn’t know. I wanted the old one back, without understanding that Gran-Gran no longer had the strength to be her.

With hindsight I know it was a difficult visit. Mum let slip just recently, that at the end of her life Gran-Gran kept bursting into tears, perhaps that was then. Perhaps that was the tension I picked up on. And of course, we had to respect Gran-Gran’s wishes at all times and they were wishes that weren’t always compatible with a lively eight and ten year old.

She would quite often ask Giles and I to keep the noise down or stop doing something or tell us we shouldn’t do something. We were told she wasn’t well and to keep out of the way so we did; as much as possible. That particular brief that was easier for Giles at boarding school than me at day school. She kept saying she couldn’t see but at the same time, it was amazing what she could see if it was a child licking a knife at the dinner table, playing corridor football or generally doing something they shouldn’t. She was not afraid to tell us off when Mum wasn’t around either which, we felt, was not her job. She would ask my Mum for help with certain things which we would then see her happily doing on her own when Mum was out of earshot or there was no-one adult around. What I now understand was her saving precious capacity and only using it when she had to, I thought was her blagging help to get attention when she didn’t need it. These days, I also understand that glaucoma comes and goes, so she would genuinely have had days where the light was more amenable and she was able to see way more than on others, and also, her reduced sight must have frustrated her terribly, but did I realise this then? Did I bollocks?

‘Mum, she can see,’ I said petulantly, one day while Gran-Gran was upstairs resting after a particularly difficult session. ‘She says she can’t but she can.’
‘No sweetheart, she can’t.’ My mum said.
Poor fool! I thought. She’s being hoodwinked! I must show her the truth.

And that is when I hit on a plan to prove to Mum and Dad that Gran-Gran could see. A plan so simple, so elegant, that would be easy to carry out. A test of her visual skills that, I believed, I could implement without harming anyone. A plan with the straightforward logic, intelligence of concept and validity of results you might obtain with … say … the ducking stool.

Yeh.

When my brother came home from school, I explained my plan to him. He was now old enough to have a least the beginnings of an understanding of subtlety and nuance in the emotional landscape.

‘I’m not sure that’s a good idea kiddo,’ was all he said.

I thought about it a bit, decided he was wrong, it was a great idea, so I did it, anyway.

Carefully, I tied piece of cotton across the bottom of the stairs, stretching from the iron banister one side to the leg of a small chest in which we kept the shoe cleaning kit the other. I made sure I did granny knots rather than reef knots because if my quarry didn’t see the cotton I wanted her to just walk on through it without noticing or being hurt. At the top of the stairs to the middle floor I did the same but I had to tape one end of the cotton to the wall.

Yes, I’m afraid you read that right, I set a trip wire for my eighty year old grandmother at the top of a flight of carpeted, but concrete underneath, stairs and genuinely thought that was OK.

The rationale was simple, as I’d explained to my brother, Gran-Gran would either not see the cotton, in which case, my crap knots would untie as she walked through it and all would be well. If she did see the cotton and complained about it it would prove that she could see.

Having tied the cotton in place Gran-Gran failed to surface within a few nanoseconds so I got bored of waiting, wandered off and forgot about it. Some hours later, I gather Gran-Gran did see it, proving, conclusively that she could see. Except that, looking back on it, what I suspect she proved was that my granny knots were a lot less likely to slip easily undone than I thought.

I remember little about the aftermath. Apart from Gran-Gran being very cross with me and Mum coming and finding me and telling me to go and untie every single trip wire I’d set AT ONCE! Gran-Gran left soon after. Unsurprisingly she didn’t come to stay again. I hope I apologised to her, but I can’t remember so the last words I actually recall having with my paternal grandmother were a robust defence of what she saw as a sustained effort to murder her, and what I saw as a service to the community—in proving that her blindness was selective and reinforcing my belief that it was done to attention-seek. I am so sorry Gran-Gran, if you’re somewhere up there reading this.

As I believe I mentioned, I really was a vile child.

Looking back at it now, I realise how black and white things are to you when you are small. I feel the same, inside, as I did then but I am not the same person. The subtleties of what adults say, as opposed to what they actually mean, are no longer quite so lost on me. True, I am incredibly socially lumpy but at least I do understand that now. I am more tuned-in to my inability to see the world the way normal people do. I am aware of the grey, even if I cannot always find it or sometimes find too much. And I guess it’s these kinds of horrific blunders that taught me to be a bit more circumspect about what I do and say, about blurting out my first emotional response to whatever has happened. To double think, I guess, before I act.

Interestingly, I don’t remember my parents being angry after my Mum’s initial stern instruction to remove all the cotton, but I do remember the feeling of overwhelming sadness emanating from them as they explained that yes, they knew Gran-Gran could often see more than she pretended but that she was old, and ill and part of love is being tolerant of a person’s foibles now, for the sake of who they really are inside, and would be, had they not a burden of pain (and in this case, terminal cancer) to carry. I think I apologised when my parents explained. I hope to heaven I did. Doubtless Dad had got an earful from her, too, but I was the one who deserved it.

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A surprise house guest.

Today, an experiment. This is a chunk of one of the many works in progress. This one allows me to write when my heart is too full of family stuff to do fictional things. Basically, it’s the folklore of my family, stories passed down, mostly by my Mum so far because they’re easiest to remember but I hope to get some more of my Dad’s, if not from him, then from my uncle. Some are about me and my brother, too. I thought it would make the blog fun but also, reading Dawn French’s biography, there might be some mileage in it as an ebook. If I can make it funny enough.

If …

The appeal is more in the characters involved than in what they actually did, I think, so a lot depends on how much I can bring their personalities out in what I write. At the moment, it tends to be just the bare bones of each story. The stories are officially true yet very possibly embroidered a little. Were we a tribe somewhere, these are the tales the shamen would tell. So this week, I thought I’d share a story about a hurricane we had in Britain. Here it is:

When I was at university, in 1987 there was a hurricane in Britain. They have happened on rare occasions and in this case the hurricane hit Sussex. Obviously, the trees and the houses of the Weald aren’t really designed to take this kind of punishment so there was a fair bit of damage both to houses and trees—half of Chanctonbury Ring disappeared and huge trees were blown down left right and centre, including one in my parents’ garden. Later the tree surgeon who came to fix it (a Mr Fish) said that on the morning of the hurricane it had taken him an hour and a half to drive five miles and he could only do that because he was driving a pick up with tree lifting equipment and a chainsaw in the back!

In the months afterwards, my Great Aunt, who had married a farmer, told me this story about one of the other farmer’s wives she knew.

The lady lived on a farm that had been in her husband’s family many hundreds of years and still occupied the original tudor famhouse. Like most of these, the house had a large chimney in the centre and the rooms were built around it so the chimney kept everything warm. As the winds began to rise, the lady decided that it was probably best to sleep downstairs so she got out a camp bed and bedded down next to the chimney in the central hall, which had the fewest windows. She reckoned it was also the most structurally strong part of the house and therefore the bit most likely to stay upright, and protect her, if the rest of it fell down. The power went off but she had a hurricane lamp and she sat and read for a while and then fell into a fitful sleep.

In the middle of the night she woke up, there was a massive bang and the sound of breaking glass. She guessed it came from the spare room, which was on the side of the house which was being most battered by the wind. She thought about going upstairs to investigate but decided that if the window had blown in there was little she could do other than get herself soaked for no reason and the door was closed, so the mess would be contained in the room, so she stayed put.
In the morning, she looked out of the window and could see bits of tree, garden furniture from the neighbouring farm and other detritus strewn about the lawn and farmyard. Taking her courage in both hands, she went upstairs to the spare room to see how bad the damage was. She opened the door and sure enough the window was smashed. However, the hole was a round hole and she surmised an object of some sort must have been blown through the glass. That’s when she took in the actual room and noticed what the object was. Standing implacably in the middle of the carpet, apparently unharmed, was a sheep.

What happened to the sheep? Well, believe it or not, it was fine. The lady discovered that it came from a field a couple of miles away and that it belonged to a nearby farmer. She had tracked him down and he’d come to fetch it by the end of the day—on foot, with a sheep dog I suspect since most roads were blocked with trees. It had been blown over two miles so it must have had a few stories to tell when it returned to its friends in the fold.

It’s Sean the sheep, it’s Sean the sheep … he even hangs around with those who … actually I’m not sure who he hangs out with to look like this. He was Meditarranean chicken.

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Sad

This is a difficult one to write.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, I decided I needed to get my books a re-edit.  I’d rewritten bits, added scenes and generally jiggled things about and I wanted someone to go over them. Someone who knew the things I didn’t know like what sized dash to use when and when to use a semi-colon and when to use a colon. I needed a gimlet-eyed grammar spud and the fellow I usually used wasn’t around.

As I pondered whether to wait or find a second editor a post about editing appeared on a blog I follow. I’d give you a link but it isn’t there anymore. After a brief comment saying I thought I needed a line edit and a proof read someone popped up in the comments saying I might not. She said her name was Kate and what she said made a lot of sense. She thought what I might need was just an edit. After a brief conversation in the comments she suggested we moved the conversation to email. She said she was a professional editor and would happily look at some chapters and let me know what needed doing. I said I doubted I could afford her. She said.

‘I’m actually dirt cheap. But I wasn’t offering to work for you, I was saying I would look at something for free and give you a pro opinion.’

So I sent her a chunk – the first ten chapters, I think. She came back with an evaluation, along the lines of, ‘the story is interesting, don’t touch this, this and this it’s fine but I think you should probably fix this and this, and usually that is done like so …’ etc. She asked me a whole raft of questions about how I’d want to hyphenate compound words and other stuff that just wouldn’t have crossed my radar, explaining that I’d need to think about these things so they were always done the same way.

You know how sometimes, when you talk to someone, and you can just tell, at once, that they know what they’re doing? It was like that. I decided to hire her. If she’d agree to work for me. I couldn’t afford her but she was prepared to work in instalments which meant I then could. I asked the author friend who ran the blog where I ‘met’ her if he knew anything about her. Turned out she edited his books and he recommended her highly, so I asked her if she’d work on mine. To my delight, because I’d corresponded with her enough to be pretty sure she was an all round good egg, by now, she agreed.

To start with, she asked me more questions. This took a while and it became evident, very early on, that she had a similarly sarcastic sense of humour to me. She was funny, wise and incredibly kind with her comments – as well as perceptive. Her emails always started with – ‘I like this’ or ‘this was good,’ before she asked for clarification on something that didn’t make sense or suggested a change. She was completely gimlet eyed on continuity and was impressed that I could email her straight back with answers to her questions about the worlds we were working in. I was impressed, in turn, that someone as smart as her could be impressed by anything my brain did!

Kate was absolutely honest, she would not stint in telling you what she thought of something, whether it was bad or good but she could deliver the direst verdict and leave your pride and your feelings in tact. You knew exactly where you were with her. We we spent the next eighteen months exchanging emails most weeks as she sorted me out with a house style for the K’Barthan things and fixed my books. She could make me laugh out loud so the whole process was a complete gas and she was even unfazed when she received an email from my cat.

When we were done, she spent another few months wading through my newly completed book at the time, Escape From B-Movie Hell, then it was the K’Barthan omnibus. She continued to ask a myriad of questions, sought clarification on continuity issues and wrestled with those pesky compound words. All the while she quietly worked her editorial alchemy on my writing so that, without my actually being able to see how she’d done it, she turned my books from not bad to good. I pointed this out and she said,

‘To me, a good editor takes something, makes it better and people don’t realise what has been done, just that it is easy to read.’

She did the same thing for my confidence in my ability, too, because if someone that astute that smart and that mentally agile thinks your stuff is good then you can’t help but believe it is.

Among the talk about the projects in hand, the conversation ranged from pets to cars, to passing (or failing) the pencil test, Christmas, broken down cars, growing vegetables, adopting dogs (her) and cats (me). It really didn’t feel like work at all – I hope it didn’t for her either – yet all the while the project would move quietly onwards, despite the best efforts of fate, power cuts and other sundry disturbances of Gibraltese/Spanish (her) or British (me) life.

Frankly once she’d edited pretty much anything I’d written, and I had nothing new ready, I got serious withdrawal symptoms from our regular contact. But at the same time, we still exchanged regular chats on our respective blogs and as I knew she was working hard editing stuff for other people I tried not to pester her too often unless I stumbled upon something that I thought would really make her laugh.

However, after trouble with the Spanish power companies, she and Adrian, her partner, had to go off grid. So for some weeks the blog went quiet while she researched solar panels, gas fridges, windmills etc. I was therefore delighted when, six months or so after our completing work on the K’Barthan Box Set, I finally finished a short story. We started on it in July and I went on holiday, delighted that we’d be spending a month or so working on it together when I got back. But that was not to be. While I was away, Kate died, suddenly and unexpectedly.

Reading back our correspondence a few days after hearing the news, I found myself crying and laughing at the same time. I am so gutted that she is gone but at the same time, it struck me that I am also incredibly lucky to have worked with someone so multi-faceted, so interesting, such a genuinely good soul. Kate had principles, and she lived by them. I also try to console myself that, though she has gone, she lives on in the books she edited and the reviews she wrote. She is still vibrant and alive on her blog, Roughseasinthemed and in the many comments she wrote on the blogs of others. And she lives on in the hearts of all the people who were touched by her generosity of spirit and all round brilliance.

RIP, Kate Jackson. And thank you.

 

 

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Books anyone? A few words about MTMail, building a fanbase and Instafreebie. #bookmarketing

Building a mailing list or a fanbase.

Clearly every author wants to be successful, and the ones who are often make it look easy. But usually their success is the result of a great deal of hard graft behind the scenes. Yep, that swan-like author floating effortlessly across the retail waters is paddling like crazy under the surface.

There are many factors which can help an author to succeed but one that is key is an engaged and enthusiastic fanbase. People do business with people. Sure, they have to like your books but it helps a lot if they like you, too. Today, I’m going to give you a brief# explanation of how you can use Instafreebie to help grow your newsletter list and start to build that fanbase.

# Actually it’s not brief at all, it’s incredibly long, as usual, because I wrote it, but I hope it is useful.

If the idea of building a fanbase or a mailing list makes you feel like this, read on.

Ditch your preconceptions

Forget any tendency to view other writers as ‘the competition’. Since all anyone needs to access pretty much the entire world ebook market is a computer and an internet connection there’s room enough for each of us to find our niche. Think about it, one thing that unites readers is that they love books, and that means they read lots of them, and surely that means they’re going to love more than one author, just as they’ll like more than one band, or more than one TV show. Readers can, and do, follow lots of authors, while being big fans of them all.

Give your work away free.

Yes, I know this sounds counter intuitive but it does work. Preferably some of your best stuff so they’ll read it and think, ‘blimey this writer’s good! I must have more of that.’

Alternatively, only give your book away in exchange for the reader’s email address. That way you can let them know where to buy the rest of your books – should they want to – in a non-pushy, I’ll-just-leave-that-here kind of way. After which, it’s best to forget about trying to sell them things for a while and get on with the business of building a relationship with them. This is a long term strategy. Most readers have a big to read list and lots of books vying for their attention but the sooner you start, the sooner you will build up a rapport with them.

Work with other authors.

A group of people can be heard a lot more easily than one lone voice. That’s why authors often join together in groups and promote their books together. Target who you work with, make sure their books are in the same, or a similar, genre to yours so you are recommending the kind of things your readers are interested in.

It’s tempting to cast the net wide and go for numbers, but remember, you are aiming to bring together a group of readers who love your stuff and your genre. A huge list of 8,000 people sounds great but if only 100 of them open your newsletters you’re just wasting each other’s time. You’re building a fanbase, remember, and these are people, not Pokemon cards.

Once you’ve sorted some authors to work with, there are two main ways you can help each other:

  1. Individual Mailing Swaps. Find an author who writes similar books to you. Then organise it so they tell their readers about your book and you tell your readers about theirs. Caveat: Make EXTREMELY sure you’ve read their book before you approach them so you know you like it and can recommend it with confidence. Readers and authors alike will appreciate it if you write a quick review of the book and post it on some of the retail sites as well as in your newsletter.
  2. Group Promos. You can bundle the books by putting a page showing them all, with links to download them, on the website of one of the authors involved. Then you point people there, to browse and download the books that take their fancy.

Each author’s fans will discover new books to enjoy, while each author will be able to reach new readers. Bob’s your uncle. Happy readers, happy authors: win-win.

Making it easy for readers who want your book to download it.

This is where Instafreebie comes in handy. The whole point of their existence is to help readers find more books and help authors find more readers. Even better, gazillions* of authors and readers use them. That means it’s relatively straightforward to pull together groups of authors in similar genres who will join you in a promo. There are also organised promos you can join which you can find online in Facebook groups or places like kindleboards or Goodreads/Librarything groups.

Because Instafreebie want to introduce readers to new books it’s in their interest to reward authors who work at promoting their books. Keep passing the word on and your book or group author promo can get a mention in the Instafreebie newsletter – which will introduce a whole bunch of extra readers into the mix. On twitter they will often retweet about your promo, too, if you tag them #instafreebie.

There are two ways to use Instafreebie to distribute your free book as an author. If you are on a budget, you can use a free account to give your book away without collecting email addresses. If you put a link to sign up to your mailing list in the book, maybe in return for another one, or a short story or character profiles or the like, you will still get ‘organic’ sign ups but these will come more slowly.

Personally, I find it easier to have a paid Instafreebie account, and ask readers for their email address in return for their free book. If you do this, Instafreebie collects the addresses for you. When you’re done, you can either download the addresses from Instafreebie and add them to your mailing provider or you can join Instafreebie to your mailing service, choose a list and the addresses are automatically added for you. I really like this service.

* That’s a technical term.

Using Instafreebie for mailing integration.

I’m with Mailerlite and my paid Instafreebie account is linked directly to my Mailerlite account. You can do this with MailChimp too but they are a lot more expensive once you reach the paid tiers. At the moment, Instafreebie are doing a promo with Mailerlite so that Instafreebie paid account holders get a discount when they take out a paid subscription to Mailerlite. Mailerlite is free for the first 1,000 email subscribers but with full functionality so you can get a good feel for whether it will work for you.

It’s worth mentioning that Instafreebie are really good at letting you switch your account from paid to free so if you’ve no promotions planned for a while it’s easy to downgrade for a few months.

So once some readers have given their email addresses what then?

Woot! This is where you start to build a relationship with them. Start talking to them.

TO not AT, though, and act with integrity. After all, they trusted you with direct access to their email in box. That’s a big concession.

What to say to them.

Only you can answer this. Just be yourself, be genuine. Picture a good friend in your head. Got one? Good, now write your newsletter as if you’re talking to them. I try to always approach it like sending a letter to a friend.

Chat, ask questions, talk about books, share books you’ve read that you’ve loved. Give them things, previews of your work in progress, tell them interesting snippets you’ve discovered in your research, share jokes, silly names anything you like. Some of the most popular things I share with mine are quotes from my son, who is nine.

Experiment, with content, regularity, everything. I’ve tried sending newsletters weekly, monthly and every two weeks. As a general rule, my lot appear to like the personal stories and are happy with more links to click and a newsletter that arrives less often. Your readers may be different, the only way to find out is trial and error … oh and you can ask them from time to time as well. Google surveys is your friend!

Also, remember that if you want to turn intrigued readers into actual fans you must be patient.

Like any other relationship, an author’s rapport with her readers will take time to develop. This is especially true if lots of folks have downloaded your book. Give them time. If you force it, or expect them to instantly rush out and buy everything you’ve ever written you will be disappointed – and deservedly so.

That said, try not to fret when people unsubscribe. Far from making them ‘freebie hunters’, it’s more likely your book wasn’t their cup of tea. Be thankful for their honesty. There are few things more dispiriting than having a large email list and only a handful of engaged subscribers. It’s much better that folks who aren’t interested unsubscribe than that they sit there, costing you money, and never opening your emails!

But if you keep communicating, give your readers things they like and keep on writing books you will build a reader platform. And when you open your first email from someone thanking you for sending them a free book, or saying how much they loved it, it is a truly wonderful feeling.


Links.

If you think you’d like to give either Instafreebie or Mailerlite – or both – a whirl you can sign up using these links. NB, heads up, these are my associate links, so if anyone signs up to a paid account as a result of clicking these links, I get a voucher. If you’re not OK with that just delete everything that comes after the .com bit.


Instafreebie: https://www.instafreebie.com/authors?invite_code=CoufcgpalM


Mailerlite: https://www.mailerlite.com/invite/dd718ae601785

If you want a look at how it all works, you are welcome to view a giveaway I’m running right now, here:

https://www.instafreebie.com/free/QWCQM


Who is M T McGuire?

Well, you asked…

M T McGuire enjoys the real world but wouldn’t want to live here full time. That’s why she writes books. She grew up, or at least, got bigger, half way up a windy down in Sussex. Her home was also the first location choice for Hogwarts, in the Harry Potter films, so maybe it’s not so strange that she’s ended up writing spec-fic. Perhaps there’s something in the water up there, apart from chalk. She used to do stand up but sat down and started to write books when she got married. She now lives in Bury St Edmunds, in Suffolk, with a McOther, a McMini, a McCat and a selection of very silly cars. She hasn’t found a way to make any of the cars fly like the ones in her books, and none of them is fitted with ordnance either, but she and her team of evil scientists are working on that.

Despite being nearly fifty now, and supposedly, an adult, M T checks all unfamiliar wardrobes for a gateway to Narnia. She hasn’t found one so far but she lives in hope.

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Smashingly non-expensive books alert!

As I write this, which, by the wonders of modern science happens to be last week, the weather here is very mixed. That’s right, like a cat confronted with a freshly opened door the sun round here doesn’t know whether it wants to be in or out. As a result it will raining and a bit chilly one minute be hot and steamy the next. Four seasons in one day. Although no snow, not yet anyway. But if you are missing winter you can always pretend you are in the southern hemisphere where they are enjoying it right now. Oh yes, it’s always winter somewhere. There’s a thought to contend with.

We are well are into the school holidays and I will be in Scotland when you read this, enjoying our first mini break of the holiday period with the McParents. McMini has finally had his birthday party and I even managed to produce one of my famous cake wrecks! In this case a football cake – he supports Man United – I suppose someone has to.

Now, all that remains is a quick session forcing him to write his thank you letters at gunpoint and we’re done.

Clearly, doing the Mum thing and holidays, the writing has slowed up – although there still seem to be a lot of ideas bubbling up for Space Dustmen, and obviously, The World’s Best Editor is doing her thang with the other stuff. The coming month also includes a holiday, which will be epic and involve lots of time to read. Hopefully I’ll have some recommendations for you towards the end of the month.

On other matters …

Authors cutting their own throats with 99c books!

Remember, a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that Bookbub featured one of my books?

Well, as I was sorting that out, I noticed that there was another excellent promo from Patty Jansen, sci-fi author and general all round good egg, a few days afterwards. As a result, Escape From B-Movie Hell is also in that with over 100 other books.

If you’re thinking of nabbing a copy of Escape and haven’t done so, it’s still 99p and it will be in Patty’s promo with a lot of very good other books, but only until 6th August. Then it will go back to its original price.

So there we are, for some really good stuff to read, make a note to put 5th and 6th August in your diary for the Winter giveaway. Yes. Winter because Patty’s in the Southern Hemisphere where everything’s backwards – or forwards, if I’m backwards up here in Blighty.

To grab yourself some 99c or p books click on the picture below …

Lastly, more McMini.

He may be nine but he already has way more natural authority than I do. The other day he was trying to explain the rules of some complicated game he wanted me to play with him, probably to do with something I find a bit turgid like Transformers or Power Rangers because I’d zoned out a bit. And as my mind wandered I suddenly realised he’d stopped talking. I looked at him and he was eyeing me with a very stern expression.

‘Mummy,’ he said.
‘Mmm?’
‘I’m waiting for you to listen. Are you going to do this properly or are you just going to mess around?’
‘Sorry.’
‘That’s better. If you’re not going to take this seriously we won’t play.’

He also does a short version where he looks at me and says,

‘I’m waiting …’

when he thinks I’m not paying attention. I asked him if this is what his teacher said to him.

‘Yes, it is actually.’
‘Hmm d’you look out of the window regularly by any chance?’
‘Well, yes,’ he admitted, and he did have the good grace to look sheepish at this point. ‘I do. Quite a lot.’

Clearly a chip off the old block then. I have told him I’ll try to be more attentive for the rest of the holidays and he says that next term, he’ll make a special effort to be more attentive in class – although I think he may be a lot better than that sounds.

 

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Mind Expansion Anyone? #McMini #kids #parenting #children

McMini ‘wearing’ a head warmer.

Over the holidays I thought it would be fun to tell some of the funny stories about my family. There is ‘Catching Socks’, ‘Night of the Homeless Man’, ‘Tale of the Drowning Toddler’ and a famous one about my Mum for which I have no title, as yet.

However, I thought I would leave that for later because obviously, it being the holidays, I have been spending a lot of time with McMini and at the moment, he is in absolutely tip top form.

Indeed, he is greater evidence than anything else I’ve encountered that anyone who wants their mind expanding should skip the drugs and just talk to a kid.

McOther has his usual pre-holiday work panic on so after managing to clear the decks for sports day he had to miss the pic-nic lunch.

So there we were, McMini and I, eating our sandwiches and chatting.

‘Have you licked that spoon?’ asks McMini.
‘Yes, sorry,’ I say. ‘It’s covered in my yucky saliva.’
‘I don’t mind Mummy. My saliva is 50% yours. Your saliva is called Lady Penelope, Dad’s Saliva is called Geoffrey. My saliva is called Geoffrey Penelope.’

McOther’s reaction to this was to ask me if there was a source of mind expanding drugs McMini has access to about which we are unaware. But I think this is probably just how he is. I’ve never needed them, myself after all and McOther’s imagination is just as fertile so I guess it’s a given that McMini will come up with the kind of double dose that surprises even us.

Sometimes, McOther and I worry about what we have spawned …

Then this one…

Yesterday, I was happily minding my own business, reading the Searcher magazine on the loo when McMini appeared. It’s not so much you’ll never walk alone in our house so much as you’ll never cr- you get the picture, I’m sure. Anyway

‘I had a dream about you last night Mummy.’
‘Did you?’ I say. Uh-oh, I think. Dreams about me tend to involve my turning into some grisly monster and ripping his head off, dreams about his father, ditto.
‘Yes. It was quite scary, or at least it wasn’t exactly scary because it was funny but it was scary too. I dreamed I was in a kind of fairy tale. Cinderella was there but she had a black horrible face with red glowing eyes and she was dancing around and I accidentally went into her territory so she decided to kill me,’ – yep, her territory. I think we may have been letting him watch too many animal programmes – ‘But luckily you turned up, Mummy, and saved my life.’
Well that’s a surprise. I thought. ‘Oh dear,’ I said. ‘Still I’m glad I saved your life. Usually I kill you don’t I? so it makes for a nice change.’
‘Yes. But you nearly died. Cinderella had some zombie assistants, her ugly sisters were with her and they had crosses for eyes like when I draw dead people* and the Cinderella had a terrible secret weapon, she farted and that’s when you nearly died, the fumes nearly killed you but luckily I was there to save you by dragging you away.’

Have a kid and you, too, can have a loo like this!

When McMini plays video games, he doesn’t usually play the game that much, he spends hours dressing the characters in different clothes etc. He is clearly perfectly normal in this respect as the more recent the game the more secondary the actual game seems to be to all the extras, places you can go off menu, costumes you can unlock etc. But I found him playing Fifa 13 the other day.

‘Watch this Mummy!’ he said. Then as the goalie about to take a goal kick, he turned and put the ball in the back of the net. The game is not designed for people to do this so the Goalie then proceeded to put his head in his hands and look really upset. Which was kind of funny, in a surreal way.
‘What are you doing?’ I asked.
‘I’m being Chelsea. I don’t really like Chelsea so I have set myself up as Cheese McPiggyface, their player manager and I am making them lose so they are easier to beat next time.’
‘I’m not sure games work like that.’
‘Only one way to find out, Mummy.’

Hmm… well, I guess it’s cunning.

He also has a Ferrari driving game. To start racing you have to do some practise laps with Tiff Needell. McMini has never graduated to the actual racing bit. He drives the wrong way, backwards, into the wall and basically trashes the car.

‘What are you doing?’ I asked him.
‘I’m smashing the car. It’s hilarious! Look! I’ve cracked the windscreen.’
‘Why would you break a lovely Ferrari.’
‘Oh it’s much more fun than doing it properly, Mummy. Tiff Needell gets really cross.’

Ho hum … and don’t get me started on the weird stuff he puts in the freezer.

A lego figure in suspended animation. Our freezer is full of this stuff!

I dunno what’s going on here, more lego being iced along with a Kinder egg toy.

 

* And how The Beano draws dead things, too. Which is where he got it from I suspect.

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