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jacket image for CROOKED DAYLIGHT by HELEN SLAVIN The 1st book in Helen Slavin's series features the not-so-normal town of Woodcastle. Follow The Way sisters' adventures in magic, witchcraft & suspense.You find me slumped over the keyboard. It is a posture I often assume when writing, in the belief that it assists the word pixies in picking the stories from my brain.

Lake Lore was the heralded title for my new full length Witch Ways book, the first in the central spine of stories concerning the fates of the three Way sisters, Anna, Charlie and Emz.

“It’s the wrong title.” the word pixies whispered. Lake Lore was the title I’d worked with and so it settled at the edge of my head. There are many things settled at the edge of my head; mostly it is litter and roadkill but occasionally there is a hoard of Roman gold in there or a bronze sword.

So then Witch Wake bubbled to the surface. I liked it. It was alliterative and contained an abundance of ‘W’ one of my favourite letters. My other favourite is ‘Z’ but I couldn’t work that in.  I, and my merry band of editors trolled along with ‘Witch Wake’ for a time.

“It’s still not right.” the word pixies whispered, more insistently “That’s not a title, ‘The Witch Ways; Witch Wake’ is a bit of a tongue twister.”

Titles are notoriously hard to think up. Few people know that ‘Wuthering Heights’ was actually titled ‘Cathy Come Home’ until Charlotte pointed out to Emily that there were in fact two Cathys and she didn’t come home.

There were fisticuffs at the Parsonage that evening. Both sisters were skilled in hand to hand combat from the many times they had been called upon to rescue Branwell from a brawl at the Lord Nelson or other local hostelry. Anne, it was claimed, had a double headed penny so that when it came to the toss as to who had to head into the Haworth affray on any given evening, she would shout tails and so either Charlotte or Emily would have to perform this sisterly task. For this particular title bout, Anne stood as referee.

Charlotte was fleeter of foot but Emily possessed the superior uppercut combined with a blistering and ambidextrous jab that often left her opponent with small sparrows tweetling around their head.

As the two siblings windmilled and widowmakered their way around the mahogany table in the back room, a sudden violent squall blew up outside. Rain and wind hammered at the window and Anne, taking her eye off the contretemps, glanced out and declared,

“Imagine being up on the moor tonight! It must be wuthering at the heights.”

Emily halted abruptly.

“What? Wait, what did you just say?”

Charlotte, at this juncture, was unable to retract a speedy cross, punching a hole in Emily’s bodice and winding her. In light of this Anne declared the fight void. The novel’s title was decided upon and the hole in the bodice was easily mended, Charlotte having famously tiny hands.

Sometimes, to decide a title, I play a kind of lexicographical poker. I write keywords on scraps of paper and then deal them out. I arrange. Rearrange. Stick and Twist. I did this for Lake Lore/Witch Wake/Mongrel Offspring as it began to be called in my head.

Very soon my head was spinning. I resorted, as I always do, to tea, that well known cure-all, and headed into the garden.

I sat back in the chair beneath the shade of the sycamore, apple and hazel trees. The hazel is particularly splendid having been grown from an actual hazelnut, buried and forgotten by one of the squirrels. It was cool beneath the leaves and the sunlight blistered through here and there. I noticed how many apples there are on the apple tree this year and looked forward to the crumbles before a bee drew my eye. Then a bronze dragonfly, bigger than a wren, zig-zagged his way across the shade. My mind wandered with him.

“Oh, look at the light…” I thought in a daydream fashion “Look at the crooked daylight of the branches.”

Wait. Crooked Daylight.

Suddenly, I was in Havoc Wood. My heroines, Anna, Charlie and Emz, walking a few steps in front of me, halted their usual gamekeeping patrol to turn and look at me. There was a brief exchange of nods before I followed them, down to Pike Lake.

 

Crooked Daylight was published by IpsoBooks on 29 August and is available to buy right now

 

I was reminded of my schooldays recently whilst watching ‘The Belles of St Trinians’. It was the black and white original with Alistair Simm because, as you know, I am old school. Ah, those Belles, a rag taggle gang of inventive, resourceful and intelligent young women refusing to kowtow to Grenfellian authority. Racehorse rigging and the manufacture of bombs in Chemistry lessons, ah, the stuff of education.

 

So nothing like my schooldays I’m afraid. If I tell you that I moved, aged 11, from a quiet C of E primary school to the bustling Big School and that on the first day I saw a boy beat another senseless on a concrete step with a sound like a wet drum, you might paint yourself a mental picture. It was not, shall we say, much like the Chalet School. Although that said I haven’t actually read the Chalet School. Were they bloodthirsty? Did they have flick knives and smoke 60 a day behind a vandalised bike shed?

 

There were, of course, bullies. At that time (the 1970s!) you could actually get a CSE in it, which included a Practical exam outside the school gates. Each morning the caretaker would slosh buckets of hot water and Jeyes Fluid across the tarmac to rinse away the previous day’s blood and bones.

 

I looked, in my white knee socks and Purdey haircut, a copy of ‘Day of the Triffids’ in my sagging schoolbag, like a likely victim. The bullies tried hard. I tried harder.

 

Actually the John Wyndham book was a revelation. My form teacher at the time, Mrs Willis, was stunned when she saw me engrossed in ‘science fiction’. I was,  back then, an avid Wyndham fan, ‘Chocky’ and ‘The Chrysalids’ still rank amongst my favourite books. My teacher was rather sneering “You can’t read science fiction…you’re a girl.” I did not think of this as sexism, my innocent 11 year old self had not encountered such, I just thought that Mrs Willis was stupid.

 

The bullies were stupid too. War waged. We were not big on swearing in our house, my dad’s harshest curse is still ‘Oh, Saints preserve us!’. This meant that I was one of the few schoolchildren who actually had to look up rude words in the dictionary in order to find out their meaning. Many I just hazarded a guess at, interpreting the ideas trying to be communicated through the vivid mimes and handgestures that were flung at me. The names were aimed like darts and so I needed to retaliate.  Fast.  William Shakespeare stood my Second in these verbal duels.

 

Hurling the Bard became my joy. Far from being a geek who gets punched you become an otherworldly and rather scary being when firstly you bite your thumb at your opponent and then in a loud and Sir Ian McKelleny voice declare them to be ‘secret, black and midnight hags.” or  “A pox damn you, you muddy rascal, Thou art the son and heir of a mongrel bitch.”  What a bully chiefly needs is submission, not a wild and roaring girl shouting words they don’t understand. I was like a Yorkshire Terrier on a bad hair day.  I mixed and matched the ‘toads’ and ‘worms’, the ‘rapscallions’ and ‘whoresons’ and learnt how to do a fencing lunge too. I would dart forward, arm outstretched, finger pointing fiercely, because although you could have a flickknife, you weren’t allowed rapiers on school property. “Fie on’t. Out of my sight! Thou art as loathsome as a toad.” I would declare with a flourish “Get thee to a nunnery! Thou dost infect my eyes.” It was powerful in its capacity to bewilder. I confused. I embarrassed.

 

Thus thwarted, the battlefield shifted. In the science labs there was the endless fun of a lighted spill and my polyester school jumper. The one practical scientific principle that my classmate bullies could comprehend was the making of fire.

 

One jumper might be an accident. Two jumpers carelessness. Three jumpers was a declaration of intent. Bill Shakespeare stepped aside and Einstein came to sit beside me on the high stools of the science lab.

 

Where others carved their initials, wrongly spelt, into the science worktables, I sat and took notes from our teacher Dr Keene.  Dr Keene, who did not care if you were boy or girl, he just cared about science and who always wore a white lab coat, even when he was in the supermarket.

 

While the bullies yawned with boredom and dared each other to sniff at poisonous gases I gathered in the materials for my ‘experiment’. One of the chief scientific facts of the Twentieth Century is that the most powerful explosions, Chernobyl for instance and the Hindenburg, have been caused by the meeting of heat and hydrogen.

 

I have said before that there was not a lot of Health and Safety in the 1970s school system but, that day in the Chemistry lab in 1977, I wore goggles. As I assembled my three feet high ‘Show and Tell’ Space Travel StarShip, complete with fuel tanks and copper nose cone, I noted, with satisfaction, that Dr Keene also reached for his goggles and stood at the back of the classroom. As I talked about light speed and distance I filled the fuselage with hydrogen from a handy tank,  and with my trusty lighted spill, I lit the gas as it escaped from a tiny aperture at the top. A neat flame and a whiny noise amused the front row. Dr Keene took ear plugs from his white coat pocket. At my wrist, my watch ticked off the seconds (ten) as I talked of space travel, (nine) waiting for the moment when, (eight) Hydrogen burning off at the top and air being sucked in at the bottom, (seven), the gaseous ratios would reach critical mass. (Six). As I talked I stepped to the right, (five) another larger step to the right, (four)  towards the open lab door. Dr Keene stepped nearer to the fire extinguisher.  Three, two, BOMB.

 

I won the County Education Science Prize that year and the school got a new state of the art science block. In recognition, I was given a white lab coat. These days I do the gardening in it.

 

I’m writing to you from The Past. If I write that really fast you might not think too clearly about it and be impressed.  The Past, that well known foreign country, is behind us, lurking.

Personally, I have a soft spot for History  – engendered in me by a childhood spent tramping round museums, Roman ruins and various castles.  History is the most present thing we have, since we lurch onwards on our various timelines, there is only the past, the present lasts a second, a millisecond, even less. We are, like it or not, history. I think I’ve also covered Science a bit there, what with the whole space/time continuum thingummy.  Yes, that is a technical term.

Castles have always been a particular favourite. Some other idiot on the net mentioned the other day that he felt he had a different view of castles now that he knew some of the bloodthirsty history. A castle, to the settlement it was built beside, or indeed, on, was a fortress of hostility. The stone walls were there to keep you out, or to keep you down.

Clearly, that person was approaching his castles from a different angle. I have never really regarded castles as picturesque or decorative. I don’t really want to wander around and say ‘Ooh, I like what they’ve done with the Great Hall.”  I like to roam around the broken walls and jackdaw filled towers and imagine how difficult it is to fight someone on a spiral staircase. I like to think of the armour clanking, of the swordsmith tempering steel in the yard as the smoke furls from his forge. I’m not interested in the kind of castles, Drogo, for example, that are not genuine. Castle Drogo, don’t misunderstand me, is a lovely place, we spent a lovely day there once on our way down to Cornwall. The building is very beautiful and it has a poignant family history but it isn’t a proper castle. It’s a home, not a fortress. The stones aren’t steeped in the blood of oppressed peasants or the spilled wine of barons.

Welsh castles are particularly spectacular whether those built on the Marches or the ones that litter the coast. You can go to South Wales and do a hiking trip and hike from castle to castle, Pembroke and Kidwelly are particular favourites but Manorbier has a bleak beauty and there is also the ghostly skeleton of Carew. Best of all, the epic majesty of Carreg Cennen which has to be a must for any visitor to Wales. Carreg Cennen holds for me, the idea of being both a fortress and a fairytale, rising as it does out of the landscape as if summoned by Merlin himself.

So once I’ve noseyed around an historic building I love to find out about the people who lived there. For me, the closest we have to time travel, to connecting with our ancestors, is not just the bricks and stones and battlefields, it is the personal artefacts. There is nothing more exciting to my historically inclined soul than to see a bone comb or a bead necklet or a mangled shoe. These objects, the small and everyday items connect us back. We were not all barons, but we did all comb our hair. What colour was the hair that this combed through? What thoughts were sifting through the mind beneath that hair? Who wore this necklet, was it a gift? A theft? How many miles did this old shoe trip or tread? Were the feet within, tired? Blistered? Bunioned?  Vindolanda, near Hexham in Northumberland is a veritable Jimmy Choo of historical shoes. These are not just the pickled leather leftovers, these are the footprints of history.

I’ve been following the Must Farm excavations recently where all our ideas about the Bronze Age have been turned on their head by the finds. Here we have textiles and threads, jewellery and pots on a scale not previously seen. The sight of a ball of thread posted onto Twitter recently sent me into paroxysms. This is the thread of time! Look at its worsted wonderfulness! My family thought I needed a lie down in a dark room. But I’m right. Look at it, it’s ravelled its way through thousands of years. Who spun it? What was her name? What did her fingers look like? Long and slender? Square and workaday? Did she sing as she worked? Who did she love? Which sheep was the fleece shorn from? Looking at that ball of thread is like looking down into a time tunnel. The best things about historic textiles is that they bear the fingerprints of time. Everything woven was made on a loom by hand before the Industrial Revolution robbed the weavers of their trade. This is the true Fabric of Time! It carries something of the person who wove it, the thoughts that drifted through their head trapped in the warp and weft.

By far the most controversial artefacts to be found have, of course, been the bog bodies. I’ve seen Lindow Man at the British Museum in a not terribly edifying, slightly ‘museumy’ display. However, I have also seen him, when he was first recovered from the bog in 1984. When the Lindow Man exhibition opened in the museum in Manchester, great care had been taken to display him in an appropriate setting. There was darkness and water, carved ancient stones and a sense of sacred place. It was a moving experience, he travelled through time to be here. The manner of his death, as a sacrifice, lends him a terrible magic. Whatever he thought that day in the Lindow Moss peat bog in Cheshire, he cannot have imagined how far he would come. He looks as if he is sleeping, bristles prickle at his chin. If only we could reach inside his memory.

 
 

‘a highly original talent’ – Beryl Bainbridge

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