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LIBBY’S LIFE #90 – The Other Woman

Travel - Map Of The World  By Salvatore Vuono/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Travel – Map Of The World
By Salvatore Vuono/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Note to Libby readers: this week, you can download Libby’s Life: Taking Flight FREE at Smashwords.com. Simply enter the coupon code RW100 at the checkout to get your discount. 

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This week’s Libby’s Life comes from Oliver.

The phone buzzes in my hand, and I look down at the telephone number on the screen.

“I have to take this one,” I say to her. Even to my own ears, I sound apologetic. “It’s someone from work.”

As I get up from the sofa and head to the kitchen to take the phone call, she pouts and says, “You don’t have to lie to me. I know it’s her on the phone. Libby.”

*

“Oliver?”

Libby’s voice is echoey. She must be in the study which is empty at the moment, ready for its transformation next week into habitable living space. I love our new house — more than I thought I ever would — but it is an almighty money pit.

I pull the kitchen door shut so that our conversation won’t be heard. Or, more to the point, so that Libby won’t hear the other voice.

“I’m here, love.”

“Oh good. I thought the line was breaking up for a minute there. Are you all settled into your hotel?”

“As settled as you can be in a hotel room. It’s no fun, being on the road.”

“No fun for me, either,” she says. Poor Libs. I’m not at home much, these days.  “What do you say we go away for a couple of days when you’re back? One of those indoor water resorts, maybe, where we can pretend it’s summer? I’m so fed up of the snow.”

“Sounds great.”

Actually, it sounds hideous. The last thing I want to do after a fortnight on the road is to go away again to another hotel, even if it’s with Libs and the kids. Today, I had a six-hour flight from Boston to Heathrow, checked into an airport hotel for the next two weeks, and immediately got back in the car for an hour and drove here. Not that Libs knows about the last hour of that journey, of course; as far as she’s concerned, I’m still holed up in an anonymous room at the Heathrow Radisson.

A clattering of glasses behind me from the cosy living room, and the faint pop of a cork being ejected from a wine bottle. I know she’s been saving a special bottle of Rioja for my visit – it’s one from the year I turned 21. I cup the speaker part of the phone with my hand in case Libby can hear the sounds as well.

“Libs, can I phone you back in a couple of hours? I’m expecting a call from work — everyone’s still in the office where you are, obviously — and then I’ll need to get a few jobs done before they all go home.”

Libby agrees cheerfully and without question; if I felt like a turd before, I feel like King Turd now.

A few whispered niceties and exchanged promises of commitment, and I click the screen to finish the call.

Back in the living room, I pick up the glass of ’97 Rioja from the coffee table.

“Cheers.” I smile at her, but she’s already spoiling for a fight.

“You could have left that phone call,” she says, pouting again. Christ, this woman has a lower lip like a soup plate. “You didn’t have to answer it. We were having such a lovely time together.”

I briefly close my eyes.

“Don’t be silly,” I say. “Libby called to make sure I’d arrived safely. She’d be worried if I didn’t answer.”

Not to mention suspicious.

A sniff, a sharp tilt of the head to point her nose at the ceiling. We are past the pouting phase of the sulk now, and she’s going to make me suffer. I should be used to this by now and therefore able to ignore her, but I can’t. I seem to have stereotyped myself into the role of Peacekeeper.

“Come on,” I say, annoyed to hear a hint of pleading in my voice. “Come on. Let’s not spoil it. We don’t have that much time together.”

“And whose fault is that?” She fold her arms and stands in front of the fireplace.

“It’s no one’s fault!” I say. “It’s just how it is! I can’t change things. You’re here, and I’m over there, in Woodhaven.”

“You could change things. If you really wanted, you could change things.”

This is getting to be such hard work. I came over for a pleasant evening, to drink some wine, to have something to eat, to make up for the dreadful argument we had last time I saw her, but here we are, arguing again already.

“I couldn’t change things,” I say. “Not yet. I’m under contract to stay there for a few more years, as well you know.”

And frankly, it’s easier for me to see her in England while Libby is safely in Woodhaven. Keep the two of them apart. Libby would be none too pleased if she knew where I was today.

There’s a silence, and she stares down into her wine glass.

She seems to be getting over her tantrum — until she speaks again.

“You could always leave her. I have no idea why you married her in the first place.”

*

It’s so difficult, juggling a life with two women: Libby and her. I don’t know how other men manage, although plenty do, I suppose.

But I can’t let her last comment pass me by. Even though there are things I have to sort out with her after our last meeting – things that Libby won’t ever know about — I can’t let her get away with that last remark.

I stand up and rummage in my jeans pocket for the car keys.

“Right, that’s it. I’m off. I’ll come back when you’re in a nicer mood. Give me a ring at the hotel when you feel like being more rational.”

I head out of the living room to the front door, the one I painted white, years ago; the one that still has a gouge in it where Jack rammed it with his little wooden tricycle, the one through which, for a laugh, I carried Libby, hours after our wedding.

I’ve almost shut the door behind me, when her words run through my mind again — “You could always leave her” — and suddenly, I’ve had enough of being nice and being reasonable and trying to please everyone. Grow a pair, Oliver, for Chrissakes. Just this once.

I open the front door again. She’s sobbing in the living room, but I’m not taking any notice.

“And when I come back,” I shout; the sobs ebb a little, because she’s probably waiting for me to apologize and say it’s somehow my fault that she’s being a vindictive, possessive cow, “that spare bedroom had better be empty of all wildlife and reptiles, like you told me and Libs it would be, three months ago. Do you hear me?”

The sobs stop completely. I wait a second, nod to myself, and softly pull the door shut behind me.

Yes. My mother heard me, all right.

.

Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #91

Previous post: LIBBY’S LIFE #89 – Catching up

Read Libby’s Life from the first episode.

Want to read more? Head on over to Kate Allison’s own site, where you can find out more about Libby and the characters of Woodhaven, and where you can buy Taking Flight, the first year of Libby’s Life — now available as an ebook.

STAY TUNED for next week’s posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe for email delivery of The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of the week’s posts from The Displaced Nation. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Chris Pavone, author of “The Expats”, on why story and location are inseparable

Cover art "The Accident; Author photo Chris Pavone; Author photo JJ Marsh

Cover art “The Accident; Author photo Chris Pavone; Author photo JJ Marsh

In this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews author Chris Pavone, whose  first novel, The Expats, was published in 2012, and was a New York Times and international bestseller, with nearly twenty foreign editions and a major film deal.

The Expats was nominated for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize and a Macavity, and awards from the Strand Magazine Critics Circle, the Mystery Booksellers Association, and the International Thriller Writers. It received the 2013 Edgar Award and the 2013 Anthony Award for Best First Novel.

Pavone’s new book, The Accident, will be published in March 2014.


Which comes first, story or location?
For some books I think the story and location are inextricably intertwined: the story is about the location. My thriller The Expats is one of those, defined by taking place in a country that’s not the protagonist’s home. The plot is driven by this situation, by her sense of disassociation and isolation, by the necessity of her reinvention.

How do you go about evoking the atmosphere of a place?
I love walking around cities, looking around at the architecture and the shops and the restaurants, at the people and their pets. My characters do the same, using all their senses to inhabit the world around them. Of course walking around, in and of itself, isn’t the type of action that does much to drive a plot forward, so characters should also be doing something else while walking around. Something such as spying…

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
On the written page, I think the clearest evocation is via the physical landscape, especially when it echoes the culture. New York is the big brashness of skyscrapers and noise; London is the polite order of elegant uniformity; Rome is cheerful dilapidated chaos.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
As much as my characters. If they’re only in a city for a day, they don’t know that much about the place, and I don’t need to either. Both The Expats and my next book, The Accident, use a variety of locations, and the amount of time the characters spend in placesLuxembourg, Paris, the Alps, Amsterdam, London, Zurich, Los Angeles, etc.is roughly proportionate to the amount of time I’ve spent there.

Could you give a brief example from your work which you feel brings the location to life?
This is the final sentence of The Expats . . .

Kate watches them merge into the flow of the dense crowd, all the streetlights and lamplights ignited in the Carrefour de l’Odeon, a little red Fiat beeping at a bright green Vespa that’s weaving in the traffic, the policeman oblivious while he continues to flirt with the pretty girl, cigarette smoke wafting from the tables filled with wineglasses and tumblers and carafes and bottles, plates of ham and slabs of foie-gras terrine and napkin-lined baskets of crusty sliced baguette, women wearing scarves knotted at the neck and men in plaid sport jackets, peals of laughter and playful smirks, hand-shaking and cheek-kissing, saying hello and waving good-bye, in the thick lively humanity of early night in the City of Light, where a pair of expats is quickly but quietly disappearing.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
Hemingway was not only a master of evoking location, but also of using physical atmosphere as emotional metaphor. Empty barges on the Seine can represent a lot more than just boats.

Next month on Location, Locution:  award-winning author Amanda Hodgkinson.

 * * *

JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.

STAY TUNED for our next post!

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LIBBY’S LIFE #89 – Catching up

It’s snowing in Woodhaven.

I sit at the antique oak desk in front of our dining room window and watch the flakes fall onto the deck. They linger for a few seconds before dissolving into the wooden boards, but it won’t be long before they gang together into a hefty depth; eight inches of the little blighters before dawn tomorrow, if the weather forecast is correct. The outdoor thermometer, which gave a springlike reading of 45 degrees two days ago, now stands at 28 degrees, and the mercury is dropping fast.

Wait! Rewind.

I’m sitting in the dining room in Woodhaven. The room into which I wouldn’t go alone three months ago because it was the favourite spot of Jack’s invisible friend, Em.

How things have changed.

Yes, I know. It’s a while since you heard from me. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year — they’ve come and gone again for another year. But I’ve had a break, and you know what?

I needed it to regain my sanity.

When you won’t stay in a room, or even an entire house, because your kindergartener has convinced you there’s a nine-year-old poltergeist in it, you need to remember where you last left your sanity. It’s not as simple as remembering where you last left your car keys.

So this break was not just a vacation, it was a necessity. A necessary break to convince myself that cold dining rooms are due to ineffective central heating or over-effective air conditioning, not due to a spiritual cougar dreamed up by my five-year-old son because he can’t get a real girlfriend yet.

A break from watching my good friend Maggie turn herself from Germaine Greer into Betty Crocker, as she misguidedly resurrects her long-abandoned marriage to Derek Sharpe. Someone (me) needs to tell her (soon) that being alone isn’t the same as being lonely; that you can be lonely even when you’re not alone. An ex-husband who wants you to be his house-servant in your twilight years is not a satisfactory trade for being alone; indeed, this particular ex is not even a good trade for being lonely. I have so much to tell you about this man — but not yet.

And lastly, a break from Woodhaven, a break from being a foreigner. Instead, a few weeks in good old Blighty where people understand my accent and don’t incessantly comment how “adorable” it is.  (I get so tired, in Woodhaven, of being told how adorable I sound. I’ve even made a “two strikes” rule about it: if, during our third meeting, a new companion is still trying to copy the way I say certain words, there will be no fourth meeting.)

But, you might be asking, what’s happened chez Patrick since November?

After the Sandra-snakes-and-snails fiasco — another topic to elaborate on later — Oliver jetted off to Rotterdam to see his customers, and the kids and I stayed at a hotel near my mum’s place for a few days. It wasn’t ideal, but it was better than staying in the parental home; something I should have remembered from the last disastrous time I stayed there with Jack, just before we moved to Woodhaven, nearly three years ago.  While I love my parents because, well, they’re my parents, I would never want to live in the same house with them again, not least because it would result in news stories with intriguing headlines.

Elderly couple missing for two years found in their own freezer. Daughter pleads not guilty; says it was suicide pact.

Teetering along a fine line between “elderly” and “borderline senile”, my parents have forgotten what it’s like to have small children. After an afternoon involving one twin trying to eat a block of toilet cleaner (the sort that hangs from the rim; George thought it was a lollipop), the other twin sinking her teeth into the plastic bananas and pears in Mum’s fruit bowl, and Jack adding crayon stick-figures to the leather-bound journal in which Dad was writing his memoirs (as if anyone would ever read them anyway!) Mum and I tacitly agreed to meet at more neutral venues in shopping centres. Not Dad, though, who made a big deal of cancelling all engagements in order to rewrite his memoirs into a brand new, unsullied leather-bound journal.

When I’d spent more hours than is humane with Mum in “neutral venues” — mooching round Primark and M&S was her idea of an entertaining afternoon for small children and, being reliant on her transport, I couldn’t argue — Oliver finished his business in Rotterdam and came to rescue us. He turned up in an ugly, green Renault people carrier rather than on a white charger, but after a week in Primark and M&S I’d have loaded me, the kids, and the luggage onto a Shetland pony and trotted all the way to Heathrow.  Oliver had even managed to get us all tickets on the same flight to Boston, which was a relief. Going to the supermarket on my own with the sprogs is hair-raising enough, never mind going on my own with them across the Atlantic.

A few hours of assorted children crying at frequent intervals, squeezing into aircraft bathrooms to change nappies, and playing “I Spy” with Jack until even he got bored (“I spy with my little eye something beginning with A-C.” “Another Cloud?”) and there we were…back in Woodhaven.

Back home.

Home?

Yes. A couple of years ago I couldn’t think of  Woodhaven as home, but something keeps changing. The combination of paying a mortgage to the bank instead of rent to Melissa H-C, and the cold-water-splash reality check of visiting Milton Keynes — somewhere I used to call “home” but isn’t any more — made me realise where home is.

It’s not where you’ve lived, but where you make a life. Life is here, in this funny little house with the wood panelling, temperamental wiring, and uneven floorboards. It’s where my children are, where Oliver is — most of the time, anyway.

I look up from my journal. The snow is settling now; about an inch has gathered on the deck since I started to write.

The children are in bed, and Oliver is away, as usual, this time in Seattle. A floorboard creaks behind me, but I don’t turn round. This old house creaks all day long; the rise and fall in temperature and humidity in a wooden construction makes unexpected noises inevitable.

If it isn’t merely the falling outdoor temperature — and at night, alone, my stern self-admonishing to grow up and stop being so silly can lose its power — well, that’s OK.

Our home is where we’ve made our lives, of course.  But many other people made their lives in this enchanting house before we came along. I can understand if some don’t want to leave yet.

As I’m always telling Jack, George, and Beth — it’s nice to share.

.

Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #90

Previous post: LIBBY’S LIFE #88 – A silver trail

Read Libby’s Life from the first episode.

Want to read more? Head on over to Kate Allison’s own site, where you can find out more about Libby and the characters of Woodhaven, and where you can buy Taking Flight, the first year of Libby’s Life — now available as an ebook.

STAY TUNED for next week’s posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe for email delivery of The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of the week’s posts from The Displaced Nation. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

LOCATION, LOCUTION: JD Smith – from Cornwall to 3rd century Syria

Book cover art, Tristan & Iseult; JD Smith author photo; JJ Marsh author photo

Book cover art, Tristan & Iseult; JD Smith author photo; JJ Marsh author photo

In this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews  JD Smith, author of the novella Tristan and Iseult and the first in The Rise of Zenobia series, Overlord, based in ancient Palmyra, to be released in early 2014.

JD Smith lives in the English Lake District. She has worked in the graphic design industry for over a dozen years, and now specialises in book cover design and typesetting.

The pseudonym JD Smith was adopted as her preferred Editor’s title when launching the writing magazine Words with JAM.

Which comes first, story or location?
Always the story. The location is influential to the story, but the story is the most important thing, the part which excites me as a reader. The location is the background upon which the story is played out, and the history is the framework upon which it is hung.

How do you go about evoking the atmosphere of a place?
With great difficulty. In writing Tristan and Iseult I evoked the wet and wind the British know only too well. I’ve always lived on the coast, though in the north, not Cornwall (Kernow), but those salt winds and perpetually grey skies are the same. The Rise of Zenobia is based in 3rd century Syria, and I’m finding that much harder. I didn’t grow up with the atmosphere ingrained in me. I haven’t spent years of my childhood visiting the remains, the palaces and the fortifications. I rely on films a lot. Being a designer I’m an incredibly visual person, and seeing it played out, filmed in the locations I’m trying to conjure on the written page, helps immensely.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
All of the above, definitely. Although I think in order to relate better to a reader I am all in favour of sacrificing certain aspects which readers might not gel with, and using others to push plotlines forward. Of course, all of these things give a clue as to the time, as well as the place, in which a book is set.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
I’ve never visited Syria but I’m writing about it. You need to know it to a degree, but I think you need to know your characters more. Location is secondary. You can paint the background afterwards. Of course it depends. I write historical novels based on historical events and people, and knowing them and the history of the place, rather than the place as it stands, is key.

Could you give a brief example from your work which you feel brings the location to life?
These two extracts are my favourite descriptions of the weather in Britain which for me was a huge part of the setting of Tristan and Iseult:

Rustling emanates from the dense forest, even though the wind has dropped. White mist shrouds us. I tense to stop cold shivers taking hold. The rain is fine, yet a hand through my hair proves it is wetter than the streams in springtime and my footing slides on the muddy grass as we pick our way through undergrowth.

And:

‘Ireland is no home for me,’ she says. ‘I was at home with the sea and the sand and the shingle of my shores, with the salt spray in my hair.’

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
Tricky one. I tend to admire writers for their story, and their characters, not for their use of location. And for me it’s both the time and the place that work together as one with any author’s writing, because I love historical fiction. Time and place are tied so tightly together one does not exist without the other. Sarah Bower’s descriptions are second to none.  Philippa Gregory evokes the royal court with ease. And Bernard Cornwell can describe a battle on any field.

Next month on Location, Locution:  award-winning author Amanda Hodgkinson.

 * * *

JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Jeet Thayil on bringing location to life in a semi-dream state

Jeet Thayil

Clockwise from top: author photo Jeet Thayil; book cover art “Narcopolis”; author photo JJ Marsh

In this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews Jeet Thayil, author of  Narcopolis.

Jeet Thayil was born in Kerala, India, in 1959 and educated in Hong Kong, New York and Bombay. He is a performance poet, songwriter, librettist and guitarist, and has published four collections of poetry: These Errors Are Correct (Tranquebar, 2008), English (2004, Penguin India, Rattapallax Press, New York, 2004), Apocalypso (Ark, 1997) and Gemini (Viking Penguin, 1992). He is also the editor of The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets (2008). His first novel, Narcopolis (Faber & Faber, 2012), won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize and the Hindu Literary Prize 2013. He currently lives in Berlin.

Which came first, story or location?
I knew Narcopolis would be set in Bombay. I started with that city and that period in mind. It was about telling a story that hadn’t been told before, in a way that Indian fiction doesn’t really tell stories. Unsentimental, brutal and beautiful. When I realised that was what the book would be like, it revealed itself to me.

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?
When I was working on Narcopolis, I would work till very late at night, go to bed, wake up and start on it again, without really thinking. I found that when you’re in that oneiric, half-oneiric state, still slightly in the dream, very interesting things would happen. I’d come up with things I’d never have thought of later in the day. I was astonished about how much I remembered from that time, 25 years earlier, when I had no idea I would write a novel, when I was not exactly in the clearest of mental states. I was also surprised how unhealthy it was, the process of remembering.

A negative experience?
Absolutely. It was the opposite of cathartic.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
All of those. I’m a big fan of crime fiction, the bloodier the better. I’m addicted to crime thrillers. That, and poetry, is what I read on a daily basis. I’m sure a lot of that atmospheric noir milieu seeped into Narcopolis.

That’s curious. Not a link I would have made. I was going to ask you if you had a guilty reading pleasure, but you obviously don’t feel guilty.
Not at all. I hold those books up proudly on the train.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
I’ve set poems in places I’ve never been to, and that can be a huge liberation. I think the worst is to know a place glancingly. To visit a place for a few days, get a false sense of it and then try to write about it. It might even be better to have never been there than read a guide about it.

Because it’s too superficial?
I think so. Either never go there or have been there too long.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
I mentioned my love for crime writers and the way they do exactly that, evoking streets and cities and ambiance. But I’m also tremendously fond of the fiction that’s set in the opposite of cities: William Trevor, Henry James, E.M. Forster. Writers that do evoke a sense of place but often in the most mysterious and indirect of ways.

Next on Location, Locution … JD Smith, author of Tristan and Iseult (12th-century Cornwall) and Overlord: The Rise of Zenobia (3rd-century Syria), to be released in early 2014.

 * * *

JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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LIBBY’S LIFE #88 – A silver trail

It’s a cozy enough scene, I suppose, if one were to look at it quickly through the living room window. Granny, Beloved Son, Doted-On Grandchildren and, OK, Tolerated Daughter-in-Law, all sitting in squashy chairs and sofas around a real (gas) fire. Tea and biscuits on a tray on the coffee table. Everyone chatting together, like people used to do before TVs and iPads and smartphones came along.

You could paint the scene and put it in the National Gallery: a snapshot of family life at the beginning of the third millennium.  A couple of hundred years later, some author would see it as an escape route from writer’s block, and write a book about it – a bit like “The Girl With A Pearl Earring”, only this would be “The Family Without Facebook” — and the idyllic life of the Patrick family would be immortalized in print as well as watercolour, on paper. Or whatever they make books out of in the 2200s.

The story two hundred years hence, of course, would be nothing like the reality of today. The reality of our get-together is less idyllic than it appears from that quick glance through the window.

Although pictures can say a thousand words, those words sometimes get lost in translation.

*  *  *

Oliver, in the armchair to the left of the fireplace, leans forward, his elbows on his knees. He’s tired and cross, annoyed that he’s had to come back to Milton Keynes for an emergency family summit instead of having a child-free lie-in tomorrow at an anonymous airport hotel. He should be so lucky. Since I opened the door of the fourth bedroom, the children and I have been staying in one room at the local Travelodge.

He looks in Sandra’s direction – at her left ear, her right shoulder – but doesn’t catch her eye.

“You do understand, don’t you, Mum?” he says.

Sandra sits rigidly upright in an identical armchair on the other side of the fireplace, folds her arms, and lifts her chin up. You don’t have to be an expert in body language to hear “Defiance” screaming from every limb placement.

Playing with a toy Ferrari on the floor at her feet, Jack announces excitedly to the room that he can see right up Granny’s nose and it has hairs growing out of the left side.

Sandra drops her chin a little to make her nostrils less obvious, and hunches her shoulders as she hugs herself. In doing so, her stance loses the defiance and becomes defensive.

“I said, you do understand?” Oliver repeats his question, but his voice is gentle. He is a much nicer person than I am, at least when it comes to dealing with his mother. “You see that we can’t let you keep—”

“They’re not doing any harm!” Sandra hugs herself more tightly as she blurts out the words. “They’re just minding their own business, in the spare room. I don’t see how any reasonable person can object to that.”

“Yes, but, when we agreed that you should live in our house, it was on the understanding that you didn’t keep–”

“You didn’t say anything about it.” Sandra hunches over even more, looking like a naughty child who’s been caught stealing chocolate biscuits after being told she can’t have any. “You only said ‘No dogs’.”

Oliver nods slowly, seeming to consider this miscarriage of justice. “That’s true,” he says at last. “When you put it like that, I suppose we don’t have any grounds to…”

Oh, for goodness’ sake. I leap up from the sofa.

“When Oliver said ‘No dogs’,” I say to my mother-in-law, pointing my finger at her, “it should have been perfectly obvious that he meant ‘No dogs, no cats, and no Boris The Tarantulas. Certainly no geckos, no turtles, no rats or mice, no giant African snails or any of the other slimy creatures you’ve got living in our spare bedroom, and —” I pause to take a breath, and the last part comes out as a semi-scream “— most definitely not a six-foot boa constrictor on the loose.”

“Libby.” Oliver tries to take control, but I’m on a roll. I shake my finger at Sandra again, and she cowers into the armchair.

“Are you incapable of using common sense, or does everything have to be written into the lease? Ah, yes, I forgot. Oliver didn’t want you to have a lease, did he? You’re family, he said. You’ll look after the house, he said. Clearly,” I say, shooting a slit-eyed look at Oliver, “having an exotic pet collection in what will be Beth’s bedroom in a couple of years is his and your idea of looking after the house.”

Oliver’s expression and body language echo those of his mother. Two naughty children caught in the biscuit tin.

“The animals…they’re not actually doing any harm in the spare bedroom. To be fair,” he adds.

I try counting to ten, and get as far as three. I’m not in the mood to be fair.

“When I went into that room to look for rainboots,” I say, as evenly as I can, “that giant snake had escaped from its box and was curled up under the radiator.”

“That’s why I call him Houdini,” Sandra says. “He doesn’t like being in his tank all the time.”

“It’s not a tank!” I shout. “I might not mind as much if it were a real, actual tank! It’s a plastic box, just like the one in the attic that we used to keep our rolls of Christmas wrapping paper in, and its lid is loose, just like that one…” I stop. “I don’t believe it. It’s the same box, isn’t it? You’ve recycled our storage bins into serpent bungalows.”

Sandra nods reluctantly. “I put the wrapping paper through the shredder and used it as bedding for the rats. It seemed the least I could do for them, give them a nice colourful bed before they were fed to Houdini. Now that the wrapping paper is gone, I give them the colour magazines from the Sunday newspapers.”

Surreal. I’ve had a lot of imagined conversations in my life, but not one of them has been about interior decorating styles for rodents on death row.

“What else have you done?” I ask. “What else has been recycled? Is the conservatory now a bird sanctuary, or the oven a retirement home for aged scorpions?”

“Libs…”

I wave at Oliver,  a dismissive “shut up, I’m not finished” flap of the hand.

“And this living room,” I continue. “Very convenient that you choose to get it decorated three days before we arrive, isn’t it?”

“That’s going too far.” Oliver stands up. “Mum had this room done to keep the place nice for us. It’s terrible of you to say she had ulterior–”

“It was the snails.” Sandra’s voice cuts across Oliver’s protests. We both turn to stare at her. “The giant African snails. I put them on the fireplace.”

Oliver and I look at the fireplace. I’ve always hated it: a relic from another decade, stucco-covered brick. We’d kept intending to rip the thing out and replace it with something nicer, but it was such a messy job that we never got round to it.

“You put the snails on the fireplace?” Oliver’s confusion matches my own. “What were you doing? Roasting them for supper?”

Sandra shakes her head. “I’d run out of eggshells.”

Oh, right. She should have said before. Everything’s perfectly clear now.

“What the hell are you talking about?” I ask.

Sandra sniffs. “Will and Kate — that’s what I call them — they need calcium for their shells, and I usually give them eggshells to eat. But I wasn’t very well, and I ran out of eggs and couldn’t go out, so I took Will and Kate out of their tank and put them on the fireplace, because that white bobbly stuff has calcium in it.”

“It’s true,” Oliver murmurs at me. “I’ve read about it. Florida has an infestation of those creatures, and they love the stucco on the houses there.”

“And then because I was poorly, I fell asleep and when I woke up, they’d gone for a little walk all over the walls.”

“Leaving a silver snail trail behind them.”

Sandra shuffles around in her chair and gazes at the carpet.

“And other things too. So when you phoned and said you were coming, I thought I’d better get the decorators in.”

Oliver turns to me. “Those things carry meningitis. And they’ve been crapping all over our living room walls.”

Much as I am sickened at this idea, I’m pleased that Oliver has switched from being Dutiful Son to Dutiful Husband. He finds it difficult to play both roles at once, but, to paraphrase a great Prime Minister, he will always do the right thing once he has exhausted all the other possibilities.

“They can’t stay,” he says to Sandra. “Either they go and you stay here, or they go and you go with them. But they can’t stay. Fergus and Boris are one thing, but Houdini and Will and Kate are another. I don’t care where they go, as long as they go safely. I don’t want to read in the newspaper a few days from now about cats and Yorkshire terriers mysteriously going missing in Milton Keynes. We’ll come back in a few days to make sure they’re gone, and I want that spare bedroom returned to human living quarters.”

“But they’re such good company!” Sandra wails. “They’re my babies!”

She could be right, I reflect. It would explain an awful lot.

*  *  *

“Now what?” I ask Oliver as I open the hotel room door at the Travelodge. “The kids and I can’t stay here for the next week and a half, and I’m not sure I could bear to stay with my own mother, even if she’d have us.”

We bundle the three kids inside the room before one of them decides to make a break for it down the corridor.

“We’ve seen the house, we’ve sorted out the problems. Stay here for a couple more days until I can get you an earlier flight, and then go home. I’ll follow in a week or so when I’ve finished my work in Europe.”

I think about this. It would mean being without Oliver in the house in Woodhaven for a while.  Just me, Jack, George, Beth – and Em.  But if there’s one thing I’ve learned this week, it’s that there are worse things to have around the house than centuries-old spirits of nine-year-old girls.

Em, at least, does not spread meningitis or slither around on my living room walls.

“Sounds good,” I say.

.

Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #89

Previous post: LIBBY’S LIFE #87 – Behind closed doors

Read Libby’s Life from the first episode.

Want to read more? Head on over to Kate Allison’s own site, where you can find out more about Libby and the characters of Woodhaven, and where you can buy Taking Flight, the first year of Libby’s Life — now available as an ebook.

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Janet Skeslien Charles, bringing Odessa to life through writing

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Images, clockwise from top: Moonlight in Odessa cover art; Janet Skeslien Charles author photo; JJ Marsh author photo

In this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews Janet Skeslien Charles, author of Moonlight in Odessa.

Janet, welcome! Tell us a little about yourself.
I grew up on the plains of Montana, in a town of two thousand people. I have always been a writer, with a journal for observations, prose, and poetry, though for me, writing is a very private activity.

At the University of Montana, I studied English, French, and Russian. I also spent a year on a university exchange at the University of Maryland. After graduation, I went to Odessa, Ukraine, for two years as a Soros Fellow.

I found a job in France and intended to stay for a year. On my first day in France, I met the man who became my husband, and I’ve been in Paris for over ten years.

Moonlight in Odessa is truly an international effort. The novel is set in Odessa, Ukraine. My agent is English. My editor’s assistant is Japanese-Danish, my copy editor is from New Zealand. I’m American. The book was written in France and typeset in Scotland. My first fan letter came from a Swede. Rights have been sold in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Brazil, Sweden, Iceland, Serbia, Romania, Taiwan, and Denmark.

When you’re writing, which comes first, story or location?
My novel was an ode to Odessa, a city I love. The story grew from the place.

How do you go about evoking the atmosphere of a place?
The way my characters speak, what they eat, how they dress, who they believe, how they love, and where they go are all very particular to the city of Odessa.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
For me, it is how characters react to situations. Odessa is the humor capital of the former Soviet Union, which means that my characters use humor as a shield to ward off painful situations. Odessans are capable of laughing at things that would make me bawl. Their mental toughness is impressive. So for me, the sense of city is the sense of self.

Also, trying to understand what is important to characters is important. My character Daria is defined by her ambitions, which exist because of her experiences in Odessa, a comsmopolitan sea port.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
I was immersed in Odessa for two years and am still in touch with friends there, so it was easy for me to write about the city, but I love that Jeanette Winterson wrote The Passion without visiting Venice. It is one of my favorite books and so evocative of time and place. I don’t think you need to know a place, though it helps. I think imagination and observation are the most important tools when creative a setting.

Could you give a brief example from your work which you feel brings the location to life?
Daria, my main character, is at a job interview and must decide whether she is able to do the job and stay ahead of the lecherous boss:

Chess. There’s a reason the former Soviet Union has more world champion players than any other country. Chess is strategy, persistence, cunning, and the ability to look farther into the future than an opponent. The bloodlust of killing off others, one at a time. Chess is every man for himself. Building traps and avoiding them. It is mental toughness. And sacrifice. In Odessa, life is chess. Moves. Countermoves. Feigns. Knowing your adversary and staying one step ahead of him.

I took the job.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
I absolutely love Venice in Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion. Michael Perry’s Population: 485 and Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents are also great examples of how place shapes the narrative. I have also read two unpublished novels by friends — one evokes North London, the other life in small-town France — and six months later, I am still savoring these two places I have never been.

The authors are Marie Houzelle, a French woman who writes in English, and Katya Jezzard-Puyraud, who wrote about North London so convincingly, I finished her novel feeling as if I had grown up there.

Next month’s Location, Locution guest  will be Jeet Thayil, the winner of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize and the Hindu Literary Prize 2013.

 * * *

JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.

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LIBBY’S LIFE #87 – Behind closed doors

I wish she wouldn’t do this.

I wish my mother-in-law would be uniformly odd and infuriating all the time, so I can feel justified in complaining about her and accusing her of doing terrible things to my Sophie Conran wallpaper.

Instead, I bear the guilt of having to look at our beautiful, newly decorated living room — an elegant duck-egg blue I would have chosen myself – in our old house in Milton Keynes. If I’m honest, the place looks nicer inside after two years under Sandra’s care than it ever did under ours, especially after Jack added his own interior designs with crayons and dirty Tonka tyres. Maybe the house exterior needs a bit of TLC, but I suppose an outside paint job is our responsibility.

Oliver stands next to me, oozing smugness from every pore, and I want to slap him. He glances sideways at me, smirking with triumph.

“The house looks wonderful, Mum,” he says. “You’ve really looked after it for us. And the living room – it must have been done very recently, because I can still smell the paint.”

“They only finished two days ago.” Sandra crosses the room and adjusts the new, silver-grey, slub curtains so they hang evenly on either side of the patio doors. Surely they aren’t real silk? They look as if they could be. Even if they’re not, they’re a major improvement on the unlined drapes we’d left behind. “I’d decided to get the house spruced up, one room at a time. It seemed like it was the least I could do with me living here rent free. The decorators had just arrived, and then you phoned to ask if you could all come and stay. That’s why I was a bit off with you and had to let you know later if it would be all right. Didn’t want the kiddies sleeping in a house where there’s lots of paint fumes.”

Another puffed-out chest from Oliver, another I-told-you-so look in my direction, another pulled punch from me.

Except — and God forgive me if I’m wrong — this is Sandra talking. Sandra who, when Jack was a newborn, thought it was perfectly OK to feed him a bottle held in one hand and puff on a Benson & Hedges held in the other. Sandra, who thinks Red Bull is an acceptable beverage for a three-year-old. Yet suddenly she’s worried about her grandchildren inhaling paint fumes?

Either she’s taken a crash course in child care, or she’s up to something. Oh, come on. You know what I mean. What are the odds of us phoning her just as the decorators arrive?

There’s no point voicing my suspicions to Oliver, though. He’ll just say I’m being paranoid and nasty, and that nothing his mother does is ever good enough for me.

Without any concrete proof, he’d be right, too. But those nagging hunches persist.

Oliver runs outside through the rain to get the luggage from the car, while I show the children round the house. Jack, of course, spent the first three years of his life here, and he remembers parts of it, like the cupboard under the stairs where he once managed to lock himself while playing an overenthusiastic game of hide and seek with Fergus. I can tell he’s enjoying feeling superior to his brother and sister, whose first time it is here. But all the furniture Jack remembers is in Woodhaven, and this house in Acacia Drive looks very different with Sandra’s eclectic taste.

I say “eclectic”. “Eccentric” or “hippie” would be another way of putting it. A bead curtain in the kitchen, a hammock in the home office, a poster of Jimi Hendrix gracing the dining room. The important thing, though, is she hasn’t changed the infrastructure of the house, and any redecorating she’s done – only the living room, as far as I can tell – has been in keeping with our taste.

Jack and I are showing the twins Jack’s old bedroom (it’s still got his Lightning McQueen lampshade hanging from the ceiling, and Jack is very excited to see this old friend) when I hear Oliver trundling the suitcases into the hall and stomping his feet on the doormat. You forget how much it rains in England when you don’t live there for a while, and it occurs to me, too late, that rain gear didn’t feature highly on our packing list.

“I’ve put you and Libby in your old room.” Sandra’s voice wafts up the stairs. “The children are all in Jack’s old room, and I’m having the spare room while you’re here.”

That’s all fine and dandy, but bedtime will be a nightmare if all the kids are in one room. They’ll never get to sleep.

“Could I put Jack in the little bedroom?” I call to her. “Move his mattress in there?”

Sandra’s face appears over the banisters, looking up at me. “It’s full,” she says. “I use it as a storeroom. I’ve been collecting, um, china, and there are lots of breakable things in there. I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve kept that room locked. I’d hate the kiddies to hurt themselves.”

“You see?” Oliver mutters at me as he heaves the two suitcases on the double bed. Goodness, but it feels weird to be sleeping in someone else’s bed, in what used to be our bedroom. “You see? She’s looked after the place beautifully. She hasn’t even got any weird animals – not a tarantula in sight! You were worried about nothing.”

I don’t answer him.

My experience with Sandra is that, sooner or later, something will turn up to fill the worry void.

*  *  *

Oliver stays with us for a couple of nights before he heads off to his series of meetings in Rotterdam, and promises to be back the following weekend “if he can.” I’m not fooled by this. “Can” will soon turn into “I’ve got work to do and I’ll be more productive doing it in the hotel” which loosely translates as “I’ll be able to have a weekend lie in at the Marriott.”

The past two nights were sleepless for us both, due to all three kids operating on Eastern Standard Time and refusing to adapt to GMT. At least, as far as bedtimes go. They still haven’t got off to sleep before 1 in the morning, but are nevertheless happily bouncing around at 6:30am. Jack, in his leading role of big-brother-who-has-lived-here-before, has taken it upon himself to heave each twin out of its travel cot in the morning, and if I don’t get up to keep an eye on them all, that lovely duck-egg blue living room will need its paint touching up sooner than Sandra anticipated.

Sandra herself we don’t see much of, which has turned out to be a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it’s peaceful without her, of course. She’s got herself a little job now, working as a cashier in a pet superstore a few miles away, which I suppose explains why she hasn’t got a menagerie of her own anymore. She’s not there during the day to look after any dogs or tarantulas that her weirdo friends have foisted on her.

A curse, though, because it leaves the kids and me with a mobility problem – we can’t go anywhere. Sandra takes her car to work, and Oliver returned our hire car to Heathrow.

“You won’t need it, will you, Libs?” he said before he left.

“Not at all!” I said, throwing myself back into English living. “I’ll show the children what it’s like to get on a bus at the end of the road instead of driving everywhere! I’ll take them on a double-decker. They’ll love it.”

But:

“Taking the bus?” Sandra said with a smoker’s cackle, when I announced our plans for the first day on our own. “What bus? That bus route closed about two months after you moved to America. If you want to get a bus into town now, it’s a mile and a half to the nearest stop. That’s a long way in this weather.”

“Never mind.” I waved my hand around airily. “The rain will stop.”

Except it didn’t. Since Oliver left, we’ve been prisoners in our own house because my packing list didn’t allow for days of torrential rain. The children have only sneakers in the suitcase, and it hardly seems worth buying three pairs of wellingtons just to use here. We’ll never use them back home. In Woodhaven, you either need sneakers, flip-flops, or snow boots. Never wellingtons. Besides, we need wellingtons to get to the shops to buy wellingtons. It’s a vicious circle.

As an aside, when I had to explain what wellingtons were to a blank-faced Jack, I knew he’d crossed an invisible nationality line.

Coming home, it seems, can be even more of a wrench than living away.

 *  *  *

In the middle of Day Four, as I look out of the window at more rain and black clouds and listen to the sound of three children with raging cabin fever, I remember about The Box.

The Box, or rather, a series of Boxes, is stowed in the attic in this house. It contains things like outgrown clothes of Jack’s, Christmas decorations, small electrical appliances that we couldn’t take to the USA but didn’t want Sandra to use, and — if I remember rightly — old clothes that Oliver and I used for gardening and decorating. Clothes like, for example, rubber boots. And I’m pretty sure that I never got around to throwing out Jack’s old, sturdy shoes. I bet I can find things up there to fit all four of us.

The hatch to the attic is in the spare bedroom. After making sure none of my offspring is strangling the other two, I walk upstairs and open the door.

At least, I try to, before remembering with a sigh that Sandra has locked this room safely away from prying little fingers.

I hunt around in kitchen drawers and bedside tables for a key — in the process discovering that the house’s tidiness is indeed only skin deep — but have no luck.

“Sorry, kids,” I say. “It’s another day in paradise. Yet another day of CBeebies.”

Jack’s memory comes to our rescue, however.

“It’s like when I locked myself in the cupboard under the stairs when Fergus and me were playing hide and seek,” he says. I’d told him the story only yesterday.

“It is indeed–” I begin, and then stop.

Because, if I remember rightly, I used the key from the spare bedroom to get him out. I remember talking calmly to him, telling him to wiggle the key on the inside of the cupboard door and pull it out, darling, so that I could put the key in the outside and turn it myself and let him out… I’d tried all the spare keys in the house, hoping that one would fit and that I wouldn’t have to call the fire brigade.

So if the key to the spare bedroom works in the understairs cupboard lock, that means it should work vice versa. Right?

The key to the understairs cupboard is still in the lock. I take it out, fit it in the spare bedroom’s keyhole, and — Yes! The key, with a bit of persuasion, turns. One step nearer to raingear and freedom.

And then, as I push the door open and step into the room, I understand exactly why Sandra wants to distract us with freshly painted living rooms, and why she keeps the spare bedroom locked, and why she isn’t keen on her grandchildren — or her daughter-in-law, for that matter — having access to it.

Given the choice between our resident poltergeist and what Sandra has in here?

Come back, M.

All is forgiven.

.

Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #88

Previous post: LIBBY’S LIFE #86 – Where the heart is

Read Libby’s Life from the first episode.

Want to read more? Head on over to Kate Allison’s own site, where you can find out more about Libby and the characters of Woodhaven, and where you can buy Taking Flight, the first year of Libby’s Life — now available as an ebook.

STAY TUNED for next week’s posts!

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Image: Travel – Map of the World by Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigialPhotos.net; “Suitcase” © Tiff20 at Dreamstime.com – used under license; portrait from MorgueFile

LIBBY’S LIFE #86 – Where the heart is

I twist around in the passenger seat of our rented car, which Oliver is driving at 25mph past some M1 roadworks, and look at the children. All three are fast asleep, their mouths slightly open. Jack is snoring. If only they had been like this on the red-eye flight from Boston last night, I think; instead, they chose to be “those children” who fidget, cry, kick the seats in front, and provoke people in the seats behind into making loud comments about kids needing to be banned from transatlantic flights and why do babies need European vacations anyway.

“They’re going to see their grannies, you small-minded, provincial hicks! We are a global family, unlike you, who apparently have never travelled outside your hometowns before!” I wanted to yell — but, of course, I didn’t. I didn’t yell it because it would a) have been rude and b) not the whole truth.

Yes, the Patricks are having a spontaneous couple of weeks in the old country, and the children are going to see their grannies. But that’s not all of it. Not by a long way.

The real reason we are here is that, with the nights drawing in and the autumn winds howling around the eaves at night, I don’t want to be alone on Halloween in our antique Massachusetts house after Oliver leaves for a long business trip to Rotterdam.

Not while Jack is still carrying on animated conversations with something or someone only he can see, I don’t.

It wasn’t difficult to persuade Oliver to let us come with him, because his mother has been dropping unsubtle hints about visiting us at Thanksgiving. Given the disasters that occurred last time she spent Thanksgiving with us, when I ended up in hospital twice — first with turkey-poisoning and then with a sprained ankle — Oliver was happy for an opportunity to avoid more medical bills. Four extra plane tickets seemed like a bargain in comparison.

It wasn’t just the thought of living with Jack’s pretend friend that made me want to pay a visit to Blighty, though. Getting Jack out of the awkward environment of his kindergarten class also played a part.

Patsy Traynor, flouting the wishes we voiced at the parent-teacher meeting, went ahead and arranged for Jack to see the school psychologist on a daily basis, without telling us. This subterfuge might have gone undiscovered if I hadn’t called into school one day with Jack’s forgotten lunchbox and found him sitting in the admin office with a grey-haired man, drawing a picture of a girl which he’d labelled “Mi Frend M”. When Jack saw me and jumped up to give me a hug, the grey-haired man hastily tried to hide the evidence of Jack’s art therapy, but it was too late. Words were said, threats were issued, and sabbaticals from school until the permanent teacher returned from sick leave were planned. It’s kindergarten, for heaven’s sake — what is the worst that can happen if a child misses a few months of kindergarten? He fails nap time? Two weeks away from school while everyone cooled down would hurt no one, least of all Jack.

And then the final reason: last month I was reading my diary and came across the New Year resolutions I’d made at the beginning of 2013. One of them, quite overlooked in the drama of having to find somewhere else to live in Woodhaven, was this:

2. Go to England and see what sort of a dog’s dinner Sandra has made of our house.

When Sandra moved into our house, in July 2011, she was supposed to stay for just a few months until she found somewhere permanent to live; yet here we are in October 2013 and she’s still dossing around there, rent-free.

Oliver has been no help at all. He doesn’t see it as an issue.

“It’s not a problem,” he kept saying, whenever I suggested it might be nice to have a paying tenant to help with the mortgage. “Money’s not everything. She’s keeping the place aired. It’s someone we know. She’s looking after it.”

Except I now know he has no idea whether she’s looking after it or not. He’s never been inside the house since the day we moved out. Although he visits his mother on trips back to the head office, I found out, after some careful questioning, that she always finds a reason to meet him in a coffee shop or pub, rather than at the house.

“And you don’t find this arrangement suspicious?” I asked him.

He gave me a blank look. “Should I?”

For someone who is supposed to be intelligent, Oliver can be very dense at times. Particularly, as we already know, when it comes to his mother. He doesn’t find it suspicious that she, a woman who once covered herself and some swinger friends with white emulsion and daubed hand- and buttock-prints on the wall of the spare bedroom in a previous rented house, would prefer to meet Oliver in Starbucks or The Dog and Duck? Please.

Initially on this trip I’d planned on staying with my own parents and paying a surprise afternoon call on Sandra, but when I phoned Mum to break the glad news that her daughter and three grandchildren were descending on her house, the short notice of our impending visit sent her into a flat spin with a migraine.

“If only you’d given us more warning,” she kept saying at the end of the phone call. I could hear pill bottles rattling in the background as she looked in the medicine cabinet for Nurofen. “But the spare bedroom needs decorating, and Jack will have to sleep in your old room, and it doesn’t seem right to make a five-year-old boy sleep in a room with pink wallpaper, so that’s two rooms we have to strip and paint before you can come.”

Only my mother could think this a reasonable excuse.

“Stay with mine, then,” Oliver said, after I’d clicked the phone’s off-button as hard as I could. (I miss the old phones that you could bang down when you hung up on someone.) “It’s our house, after all — she can hardly refuse to let you and the kids stay because the bedrooms need decorating.”

He was taken aback, therefore, when Sandra was nearly as uncooperative as my own mother when he told her we were coming to stay for a few days.

Oliver, as well as being dense, can be very naive.

*  *  *

Oliver signals right, and we turn into Acacia Drive. It’s more than two years since I’ve seen the street where we lived for such a long time, and it feels both familiar and foreign at the same time.

We park in front of our house. It is not, I realise with a little shock, quite our home any more.

It’s not just because the paint on the front door is peeling, or that Sandra hasn’t pruned the yellow rosebush I was so fond of.

It’s as if a little of the love has faded.

It’s like bumping into an old boyfriend after a few years and wondering what you saw in him, and why you wasted time and energy crying when he dumped you at the school dance for that tart Zoe Watkins.

“Are you glad to be home?” Oliver asks. “It must be hard for you, coming back to the house with someone else living in it.”

I look at the house again. The picket fence we put up to stop Jack from running onto the road has lost a post and looks like a gap-toothed kindergartener itself.

I wonder what Sandra has done or not done inside, and am sadly surprised that I don’t care as much as I did even fifteen minutes ago.

“Not as hard as you’d imagine,” I say.

.

Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #87

Previous post: LIBBY’S LIFE #85 – A trick of the light

Read Libby’s Life from the first episode.

Want to read more? Head on over to Kate Allison’s own site, where you can find out more about Libby and the characters of Woodhaven, and where you can buy Taking Flight, the first year of Libby’s Life — now available as an ebook.

STAY TUNED for next week’s posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe for email delivery of The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of the week’s posts from The Displaced Nation. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

 

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Paulo Coelho, on the monuments that immortalise cities

2010-26In this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh talks with Paulo Coelho, the Brazilian best-selling author of The Alchemist, The Devil and Miss Prym, and The Witch of Portobello, among many others.

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When I asked Paulo Coelho to take part in the “Location, Locution” concept, he was happy to oblige.

But he wanted to do it his way. So in a change to our usual format, here’s Paulo Coelho on place.

The moving monument

I have visited many monuments in this world that try to immortalize the cities that erect them in prominent places. Imposing men whose names have already been forgotten but who still pose mounted on their beautiful horses. Women who hold crowns or swords to the sky, symbols of victories that no longer even appear in school books. Solitary, nameless children engraved in stone, their innocence for ever lost during the hours and days they were obliged to pose for some sculptor that history has also forgotten.

And when all is said and done, with very rare exceptions (Rio de Janeiro is one of them with its statue of Christ the Redeemer), it is not the statues that mark the city, but the least expected things. When Eiffel built a steel tower for an exposition, he could not have dreamed that this would end up being the symbol of Paris, despite the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, and the impressive gardens. An apple represents New York. A not much visited bridge is the symbol of San Francisco. A bridge over the Tagus is also on the postcards of Lisbon. Barcelona, a city full of unresolved things, has an unfinished cathedral (The Holy Family) as its most emblematic monument. In Moscow, a square surrounded by buildings and a name that no longer represents the present (Red Square, in memory of communism) is the main reference. And so on and so forth.

Perhaps thinking about this, a city decided to create a monument that would never remain the same, one that could disappear every night and re-appear the next morning and would change at each and every moment of the day, depending on the strength of the wind and the rays of the sun. Legend has it that a child had the idea just as he was … taking a pee. When he finished his business, he told his father that the place where they lived would be protected from invaders if it had a sculpture capable of vanishing before they drew near. His father went to talk to the town councilors, who, even though they had adopted Protestantism as the official religion and considered everything that escaped logic as superstition, decided to follow the advice.

Another story tells us that, because a river pouring into a lake produced a very strong current, a hydroelectric dam was built there, but when the workers returned home and closed the valves, the pressure was very strong and the turbines eventually burst. Until an engineer had the idea of putting a fountain on the spot where the excess water could escape.

With the passing of time, engineering solved the problem and the fountain became unnecessary. But perhaps reminded of the legend of the little boy, the inhabitants decided to keep it. The city already had many fountains, and this one would be in the middle of a lake, so what could be done to make it visible?

And that is how the moving monument came to be. Powerful pumps were installed, and today a very strong jet of water spouts 500 liters per second vertically at 200 km per hour. They say, and I have confirmed it, that it can even be seen from a plane flying at 10,000 meters. It has no special name, just “Water Fountain” (Jet d’Eau), the symbol of the city of Geneva (where there is no lack of statues of men on horses, heroic women and solitary children).

Once I asked Denise, a Swiss scientist, what she thought of the Water Fountain.

“Our body is almost completely made of water through which electric discharges pass to convey information. One such piece of information is called Love, and this can interfere in the entire organism. Love changes all the time. I think that the symbol of Geneva is the most beautiful monument to Love yet conceived by any artist.”

I don’t know how the little boy in the legend would feel about it, but I think that Denise is absolutely right.

© Translated by James Mulholland

www.paulocoelhoblog.com

Read JJ Marsh’s 2011 interview with Paulo Coelho for Words with JAM magazine

Next on Location, Locution: Janet Skeslien Charles, author of Moonlight in Odessa

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JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.

STAY TUNED for next week’s posts!

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Image: Paulo Coelho, 2010 – PauloCoelho.com, used with permission.

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