Lexie Conyngham's Blog: writing, history and gardening.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

July's literary house

Finn Family Moomintroll (Moomins Fiction) by [Jansson, Tove]

Nothing better for summer than a little Moominsummer Madness, and this story is madder than most. It’s from Finn Family Moomintroll. The family have found a Hobgoblin’s Hat, and discovered that using it as a wastepaper basket has its risks. Nothing stays the same for long in there: eggshells turn to clouds, and the words in the Dictionary of Outlandish Words become little rune-like animals. However, the most spectacular transformation happens when the children are out one afternoon …

‘Moominmamma had gone upstairs for a snooze, but before doing so she had dropped the ball of poisonous pink perennials into the Hobgoblin’s Hat in an absent-minded moment. The trouble was she should never have tidied up really, for while the house lay deep in its after-lunch nap the ball of poisonous pink perennials began to grow in a strange and bewitched fashion. It twisted slowly up out of the hat, and crept down on to the floor. Tendrils and shoots groped their way up the walls, clambered round the curtains and blind-cords, and scrambled through the cracks, ventilators, and keyholes. In the damp air flowers came out and fruit began to ripen, and huge leafy shoots blotted out the stairs, pushed their way between the legs of the furniture and hung in festoons from the chandelier.
‘The house was filled with a soft rustling sound: sometimes the pop of an opening bud could be heard, or the thud of ripe fruit falling on the carpet …
Moominmamma woke with a start, and, to her amazement, saw that her room was full of small, white flowers, hanging down from the ceiling in leafy garlands.
‘Oh, how beautiful!’ she said. ‘Moomintroll must have done this as a surprise for me.’ And she carefully drew aside the thin curtain of flowers by her bed and stepped on to the floor… There was a small forest on the staircase, and the drawing-room was a positive jungle …
‘And the shoots grew up through the chimneys and climbed down over the roof covering the whole of Moominhouse with a thick green carpet, while out in the rain Moomintroll stood and stared at the big, green mound where the flowers went on opening their petals and the fruit ripened from green to yellow, from yellow to red. ..
‘As they pushed through the door a remarkable sight met their eyes: the Muskrat was sitting in the fork of a tree eating a pear.’

Well, the cucamelons came close to taking over the kitchen last summer, but it was nothing like this!

In fact, there are paper scraps all over the study floor, but it's only because I'm trying to sort out the plot of the next Hippolyta, temporarily (at least) entitled A Murderous Game. Have to start proper writing next week, but there's a good deal of furniture to shift first - and indeed the plot to sort out!

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Houses, gardens, books and wool

Well, it’s been a busy time recently, and none of it was writing, though I did fit in the odd bit of knitting, crochet and reading. I’ve had a work project on which was a bit intense, but is now done, and I’ve been helping a relative move into their new house which has required a fair amount not only of box shifting and unpacking, but also ringing workmen and sorting out estimates and orders and all kinds of work. To be fair, the man we had doing the wet rot work turned out to be something of a project manager and looked after the other tradesmen, which was great as the house was not habitable just then. He was a bit of a treasure! I bet he’s pleased to be shot of us, though.

Now it’s time to do a bit more gardening: the place is hopelessly overgrown and the allotment is rather undergrown, with two of the beds helpfully cleared by the incumbent rabbit population. My plot has been selected for the site of the humane rabbit trap, but fortunately I don’t have to supervise it. When I was last there I did still have courgette plants, potatoes, nibbled onions and broad beans, and very timid mangetout. At home I have tomatoes, peas, more potatoes, and peppers – and aubergines and squash if they ever get to doing anything interesting.

The knitting includes an Aran jersey, size XXL, to be finished by November, a tunic and a Norwegian jersey to be finished whenever, and a guest bed blanket which now only requires sewing on to its backing. There are as usual also gloves and seafarers’ hats around the place for casual knitting moments – the seafarers’ hats (along with socks and gloves) are for the Mission to Seafarers, to be distributed amongst those sailors who set off on a plane from the Philippines to join their ship in Aberdeen dressed in shorts and sandals, and are consequently a little chilly.

Reading has been varied. I’ve just decided to give up on a Stuart McBride – not a Logan Macrae one, and therefore lacking the humour that makes me go on forgiving the darkness. It’s just too noir. Started Post Mortem by Kate London, whom I saw at Granite Noir, and I’m enjoying it so far. TheHerring Seller’s Apprentice was daft and fun, with some dark insights into publishing. A Clash of Spheres was deeply enjoyable as usual, except for a couple of modernisms and a dearth of punctuation (reminds me of that Billy Connolly monologue where someone tells him breathlessly about Bonnie Prince Charlie coming to Dumfries and taking the shoes off the people, and he says ‘Listen, son, for Christmas – ask for a comma.’) She will keep ending on cliff edges, though: good, but I like to feel I’ve finished a book. The Ghosts of Ardenthwaite was better than its predecessor, I thought: more rounded, more satisfying, with a fairly believable plot. Midnight Crossroad was not, I thought at first, my kind of thing – not really interested in Midwest small town America – then I realised why it was a bit weird, and enjoyed it much more. This Crazy Thing ICall My Life was fun and touching in a balanced, well-written way as ever, while Long Spoon was a bit of a departure in some ways for the author but as always a satisfying read.

Now, perhaps, I can get back to work on the standalone I wrote in 2000 and am editing, and on the next Hippolyta Napier, provisionally called ‘A Murderous Game’, and due out in early December (but not yet started, help!). I’m also still thinking about a series set in 1785, and another one set in a very different time period which someone suggested to me but will need some considerable research to make it work. Again it might be a question of writing the first one and seeing how they go – though I tried that with Hippolyta and wrote two to see how they would go! Oh, well.

The mailing list subscribers are reading the novella, A Dark Night at Midsummer (at least, I suppose they are: perhaps they just wanted to use it as some kind of psychoanalysis tool). I need to take a week and do all the mending and sewing that is blocking up the study – and we hope this summer to move some rooms around so that my study is in fact in a different room (not something I’m particularly looking forward to, but maybe it will work!). This will involve – hey, more decorating and fixing and wallpaper ordering, and there we are, full circle!

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Literary house for June - or dwelling place, anyway!

Here’s another book I read again and again as a child, and the images are vivid in my mind.

The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge was published in 1946 but is set fifty years before that at least. Maria, an independently-minded (and occasionally almost stroppy) Victorian child, has been brought to live with a distant relative in a hidden valley, where she finds she has a great deal in common with others who lived there long ago. Loveday is a mysterious lady but quite enchanting, and it was a revelation to Maria to be shown her house.

“… Maria too walked round the rock, and there behind it, almost hidden by a rowan-tree that drooped over it from the hillside above, was a door in the hill. Loveday stood just inside it, holding it hospitably open and smiling as though this were a perfectly ordinary door to a perfectly ordinary house. ‘Come in,’ she said. ‘This is the back door. I’m afraid it’s a bit dark in the passage. Give me your hand and I’ll shut the door.’

When the door was shut it was pitch dark, but with her hand held firmly in Loveday’s warm strong clasp Maria felt no fear. They walked together down a narrow tunnel, and then Loveday lifted a latch and opened a door, and a lovely green light, the sort of light that Maria imagined lit the world beneath the sea, flowed over them.

‘This is my living room,’ said Loveday.

It was a large cave, but it had windows just like an ordinary room. There were two in the east wall and one in the west wall, diamond-paned windows set deeply in the rock. Outside, they were shrouded by green curtains of ferns and creepers, so that Maria guessed no passer-by could ever have known that the windows were there. The door by which they had entered was in the north wall, and beside it a stone staircase, so steep and narrow that it was more like a ladder than a staircase, was built against the wall and led to an upper room. In the south wall there was another door, with a bell hanging beside it. Hanging on a peg beside the bell was a long black hooded cloak, and upon the other side of the door was a fireplace with a log fire burning merrily upon the hearth, with a white kitten asleep before it. The room was furnished with a settle and table and chairs, made of oak; but in addition there was a dresser against the south wall with gay flowered china upon it and bright copper pots and pans. Pale-pink chintz patterned with roses of a deeper pink hung in the windows, and there were gay rag rugs on the stone floor. There were pots of salmon-pink geraniums on the window-sills and on the table, and bunches of herbs hung from the roof. In its simplicity and fresh cleanliness the room was so like Old Parson’s, though it was three times the size of his, that Maria guessed Loveday had arranged them both. She admired Loveday’s taste in arrangement, but not her passion for pink. There was too much pink in this room, she considered.”

Elizabeth Goudge wrote some fine adult books as well - The Dean's Watch is one of my favourites - but I’m afraid I can trace my love of geraniums, salmon, pink, red or white, to The Little White Horse!

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

A Dark Night at Midsummer

Today is midsummer, and we're celebrating with something a little different. Join the mailing list to receive a copy of the Letho novella, A Dark Night at Midsummer, free.

Darkness breeds when the sun is at its zenith, but is witchcraft abroad again on the longest day in Letho?

Subscribers to the mailing list receive a quarterly newsletter (two Hippolyta, two Murray), and alerts for offers and new publications.

You can read the first part of A Dark Night at Midsummer here!


Letho House
By Cupar,

To Charles Murray of Letho,
At Mr. Blair’s
By Lewes,
Sunday, June 22nd., 1817.

Dear Sir,

Thank you for your letter of 3rd. inst. in which you were kind enough to enquire after Mrs. Robbins and the family. The boys are growing stronger each day, by the Lord’s grace, I thank you. The Reverend Mr. and Mrs. Helliwell have asked to send their regards and Mrs. Helliwell particularly enquires after Miss Augusta. I hope I may be allowed to send our deepest respects to Mr. and Miss Blair and our hopes that you and Miss Augusta are well and enjoying the Sussex countryside.

I regret that I must also write to you concerning some happenings at the house and about the place over the last two weeks, which have been both distressing and inconvenient, and the cause of some sudden changes amongst the staff. It is difficult to know quite how to explain the circumstances to you: please forgive me if I stumble over an account with which I do not feel quite comfortable, and in which most of my information does not derive from my own personal experience. Mrs. Robbins, however, assures me that it is an account that will at least make you aware of the vital points of the matter, and with that I fear that I, and therefore, sir, you, will have to be content, at least for now … 

Lizzie Fenwick, working in the serried garden of her little cottage on the edge of Letho village, heard a light footstep in the lane and put a hand to the sturdy stick she had left propped against the wall next to her. It was not that she feared anyone – or very few – but she had no particular wish for it to be generally known that she no longer needed the stick to walk. It suited her to be thought a little vulnerable, though her broken leg had now healed almost completely, and she had grown used to having the stick with her for support, in public, for poking into odd hedges and ditches, and for emphasis should she wish to make a point in a quarrel with her son-in-law. Now she arranged herself around the stick and brushed some of the dry earth from her long skirts, and waited to see who would appear on the lane that passed the cottage.
‘Mrs. Fenwick! I was hoping to catch you at home.’ The voice was Fife, but somewhat cultured from being in service away in the city for years. Mrs. Dean was neat and dark haired, a busy little woman, with the brisk efficiency one would hope for in the housekeeper for Mr. Murray at Letho House. A round bonnet kept the late afternoon sun off her pale forehead, and she wore respectable black with a good pair of gloves. The heat of the day meant she had no need for a shawl, but she had nevertheless arranged a light cotton one around her shoulders as a mark of her age and station. Her eyes were bright and observant and had Mrs. Fenwick’s full appearance from grey linen cap to earthy boots taken and catalogued in a moment, before moving on to the packed garden and the watering can dripping on the path.
‘Oh, but I’m interrupting you! Everything needs watering just now, doesn’t it? What weather!’
‘I’ve just finished, Mrs. Dean. May I offer you a cup of tea indoors?’
Mrs. Dean glanced up at the sky, then across at a plain wooden bench under an apple tree pebbled with tiny apples.
‘Would it be too much trouble to ask just to sit outside? It’s so hot.’
‘Of course, ma’am. Some ale, then? It’s been kept cool.’
‘That would be perfect.’ Mrs. Dean pushed open the little garden gate, and with assurance made her way to the bench. Lizzie Fenwick held the knop of her stick firmly as she stepped across to the cottage door, certain nevertheless that Mrs. Dean knew very well that she no longer needed it. She glanced at the housekeeper from the corner of her eye as she passed her, wondering what she was there for. The two women met occasionally these days, certainly, and on friendly enough terms, but Mrs. Dean had never come to her cottage before. All they had in common … well, they did have something in common, a shared experience. Lizzie Fenwick shivered. She hoped that Mrs. Dean was not there about that.
She managed the two cups of ale on an old tray in one hand, and Mrs. Dean kindly took them from her while she settled herself beside her guest on the bench. There was a moment’s silence as they drew their first appreciative draughts in concert, and contemplated the garden for a moment: lavender, roses, rosemary and sage formed the bulk of the beds, purple and white flowers against soft and deep greens. Tibbs the cat stretched and rolled in a dusty patch of earth, dulling his fine stripes, pink nose twitching with pleasure. The butterflies and bees were busy, the scents heady in the sunshine. It did not seem like a day to rush, a day for serious conversations. It felt like a day to relax and dream.
‘Mrs. Fenwick,’ Mrs. Dean’s precise voice broke across any hope of dreams, ‘we have a problem at Letho House, and I hoped you might be able to help me to solve it. Or that I might help you to solve it, if you would be so kind.’
‘A problem I could solve, ma’am? At Letho House?’ Lizzie considered, raking through local gossip she might have heard recently. ‘None of the lasses is in the family way, are they?’
Mrs. Dean smiled.
‘Not at present, I believe. Or not that I have been told, anyway.’
Lizzie sighed a little. Midwifery she could manage, very happily: she only occasionally helped a woman who was in dire need of being rid of a bairn, but she had a hand in most of the births about the village. Well, if it was not to be midwifery … her other principal skill was not as joyful a task, usually. She frowned.
‘Has someone died, then, ma’am? Do you need me to come and lay them out?’
‘No, no one has died. Well, not recently – not yet,’ said Mrs. Dean, her lips a little tighter over this odd statement. Lizzie felt a deep sense of foreboding, like a heavy cloud across that hot sun. She took another sip of ale, and said nothing, as if by that denial she could fend off whatever disaster was on the horizon, whatever Mrs. Dean had to say. Mrs. Dean was silent, too, though whether she hoped Lizzie would speak or whether she was collecting her own thoughts, finding the right words, was hard to tell. She sipped at her cup, and sipped again, staring at the herbs in front of her, then took a deep breath.
‘You’ll remember what happened, up at the house, and I suppose around the village, too, last autumn,’ she began tentatively. Lizzie saw that she could not avoid a glance down at Lizzie’s stick, and leg. ‘Of course you will. I think we thought at the time that that was that, that the business was finished that night, didn’t we?’ She did not wait for an answer. ‘But as time goes on I’m more and more certain that we didn’t do the job properly. Or I didn’t,’ she finished, with a little apologetic smile.
‘What makes you think that, ma’am?’ Lizzie asked, already wishing that she had not. Her throat was dry. Mrs. Dean straightened her shoulders.
‘It’s the feel of the place, if nothing else. It was never an easy place, not down in the cellars – were you ever in there?’
‘Once, long ago,’ Lizzie said shortly.
‘The staff won’t go there, not even Mr. Robbins now, and when Mr. Murray last went down – during the whole business last autumn – he and young Walter Fenwick saw something. A kind of ghost, they said, the ghost of an old woman.’
‘Oh, aye?’ Lizzie was non-committal. She was not looking at Mrs. Dean: she seemed to be gazing across at the white butterflies on a rosemary bush, but she could feel every nerve in her body wound tight like a badly spun thread.
‘And a few of us have seen something similar, about the place.’ Mrs. Dean glanced round at Lizzie, then away again. ‘I think it’s Grissell Gairdener.’
‘The witch that died in the cellar back in the old days?’ Mrs. Dean explained. ‘I think whatever we did last autumn roused her, and now she’s not going back.’ She waited again for Lizzie to speak, but Lizzie was not sure she had anything to say. What had happened that dark evening last autumn, and in the days leading up to it, were not happy memories for her: she had hoped to put them to the back of her mind for good. Mrs. Dean could never need her help, not hers, with anything of that kind, and Lizzie was fairly sure she had no wish to become involved again.
‘Did Widow Maggot ever say anything about that mirror?’ Mrs. Dean asked, almost casually. Lizzie, taken by surprise, looked round at her. The westering sun made Mrs. Dean’s face a shadow under her bonnet. Maybe this would be the way to get out of it. If she could put Mrs. Dean off altogether, that would be best.
‘The mirror? Do you still have it?’ She made her voice as ominous as possible: it was not difficult, for she was genuinely afraid.
‘I have the mirror, and the bowl, and the box. Kept separately, though,’ Mrs. Dean added quickly. ‘What do you know about them?’
‘Widow Maggot told me once that they had belonged to Grissell Gairdener, all three of them. And she told me they were dangerous, and that no one should meddle with them.’
‘No one at all? What did she have them for?’
‘She kept them safe to try to stop other people meddling with them. As far as she was concerned, they should never be allowed to fall into the wrong hands.’ Lizzie struggled to find the right words to frighten Mrs. Dean off. ‘You’re right to keep them separate, but you should bury them somewhere. The kirkyard, maybe: somewhere safe. Maybe across three kirkyards. And they should be broken. There’s no one,’ she said with heavy emphasis, ‘no one round here as strong as Widow Maggot was: no one around here could keep them safe the way she did.’
There was a thoughtful pause. Mrs. Dean smoothed her skirts with one gloved hand, and licked her lips nervously.
‘I wish,’ she said, ‘that I had asked you earlier, Mrs. Fenwick.’
‘Why? What has happened?’
‘Well, I thought - you know the mirror cracked across, that night.’
‘Oh, aye?’
‘I thought that that had stopped – whatever it was that escaped from the mirror – I thought it was stopping it going back. And of course we wanted it to go back and be trapped again. So I had it mended.’
Whatever it was that escaped from the mirror … Lizzie had a memory of that, a memory that fed her worst dreams. There had been claws, and teeth, and hot, nasty breath. She found she was shaking, but all she could say was,
‘Yes. And then I realised that the cracked mirror might have been the only way to hold it in. And now it’s in the house, and the ghost is appearing, and the staff are – they’re frightened, Mrs. Fenwick, to be honest.’ She turned to Lizzie, sideways on the bench, eyes pleading. Her own voice trembled. ‘Midsummer is approaching, and the family are away, safe in England. This has to be the right time, the perfect opportunity. Please, will you help me? You know yourself what can happen when their influence spreads. We need to be rid of the ghost and the thing in the mirror, before they do any more harm.’