Story Time Part 1

At the end of 2017, before I had my publishing contract and when I had a bit of time on my hands, I submitted a couple of stories to competitions in Writing Magazine.  Writing competitions are a good exercise in disciplined writing, a tight word count does wonders for eliminating waffle. They can also provide inspiration during periods of writers’ block and the opportunity to diversify into different genres.  I’d entered Writing Magazine competitions before without success, but persistence pays off because to my great surprise this time, in both cases, I was shortlisted. Shortlisted stories don’t get published, or featured on the magazine’s website, they just fade into obscurity. So I thought why not give them the light of day.

This first entry had to include the words ‘without that it all falls apart‘ mid-story, and the second, which I’ll post up in a few weeks’ time is a science fiction piece (yes really!)

Today of All Days

The boy was back again.

Simon’s heart fell as he stepped through the front door and heard the soft murmur of voices from the kitchen. Not today. Not today, of all days.

Julia looked up. He’d got used to seeing the shadow of sadness in her eyes but her mouth smiled, as welcoming as always. She rose from the table, kissed his cheek, slipped across the room to refill the kettle.

‘I’ll make us all another tea,’ she said. ‘Isn’t it good of Zak to come today, today of all days.’

The boy turned. Simon was glad to see the flush of embarrassment on his face. The boy had wormed his way into Julia’s heart but Simon was not fooled by that mask of civility.

‘Hello, Mr Crouch.’

They’d never been on first name terms and they never would be. Some acts were unforgiveable, despite Julia’s insistence to the contrary. The counselling had given Julia a sense of stoic resignation Simon totally failed to comprehend. Thinking about what might have been doesn’t help, Julia had told him. Negativity solved nothing. We can’t spend the rest of our lives thinking about what ifs.

Simon could.

What if they hadn’t given in to Hayley’s demands to transfer to the local sixth form college? What if he’d had his own way and Hayley had stayed at private school to take her A levels?  Because then Hayley would have never met the boy. She’d never have started dating.

What if they’d said no when she’d asked about the trip to the festival? At least she asked, Julia had pointed out. Some kids would just go. How could they have said no?

What if she’d never got into the boy’s car?

She’d still be here. That’s what if.

‘Biscuit?’ Julia said, breaking open a packet of shortbread. They were Simon’s favourites, a deliberate ploy to force him to be sociable.

The boy’s once handsome face was pitted with scars. Simon was glad the boy would bear permanent evidence of his crime. Simon and Julia’s scars went unseen. Souls destroyed by grief. No visible signs. You just carried on, you had to.

Come to counselling with me, Julia had said. But he couldn’t because he didn’t want to sit in a circle with other bereaved parents and confess to a psychologist that he didn’t know how to come to terms with the death of his only child; how to re-assess, re-build, move-on. He didn’t want to talk about the hurt, and the hate, that consumed him. He found solace in work. Accounts, investments and taxation schemes still made sense when nothing else did. His clients needed him. He couldn’t just close up shop.

Everybody coped differently, Julia soothed, as if she understood, as if she didn’t mind his absence from the sessions. He immersed himself in his job while Julia poured out her heart and made friends with the enemy.

It was the ultimate betrayal. He couldn’t think of it in any other terms. The boy had killed their daughter and Julia had invited him into their house.

‘I could hardly leave him on the doorstep, could I?’ she said, the first time Simon came home to find the boy in their kitchen. ‘That’s not what Hayley would have wanted. I couldn’t turn him away.’

‘Yes you could,’ Simon argued. ‘He had no business to come here, upsetting you.’

‘He was far more upset than me,’ Julia insisted. ‘He was distraught. I didn’t know what else to do. He’s lost someone too, remember.’

The boy’s loss would never be as great as theirs. He’d barely known Hayley. What was a year, eighteen months, compared to a lifetime?

‘Don’t you see how important it is for him to maintain contact with people who knew her?’ Julia was on a crusade, almost as if she’d found solace in the boy’s visit. ‘We’re that link, however tenuous. We represent some part of Hayley, something tangible. Without that, it all falls apart.’

Let it all fall apart, Simon thought, let the boy suffer and shatter into fragments as they had done. Why should Julia become the boy’s conscience saver?

‘Hayley had lots of friends,’ Simon pointed out. ‘Why can’t he go and have cosy chats with them instead?’

Julia had an answer for everything. ‘You of all people should understand how difficult it is to find someone you can open up to, someone you can trust.’

He didn’t like the inference that he and the boy shared anything in common. Simon had chosen not to open up. He didn’t want to delve into the chasm, because once he started, he knew he wouldn’t be able to stop. One of them had to stay strong.

‘He thinks he’s to blame,’ Julia said. ‘He holds himself responsible.’

‘But he is responsible,’ Simon replied. Back to all those what ifs again.

‘No,’ Julia said. ‘The van driver was entirely at fault. Zak did everything he could to avoid the crash. Didn’t you listen to a word at the inquest?’

Julia was too generous, too kind. Too forgiving.

‘I don’t want him here again,’ he’d said.

Yet here he was. Again.

Simon noticed the flowers in the sink, the type of cheap bouquet picked up at a service station or corner shop. Now he felt guilty. Guilty he hadn’t thought to buy flowers on the way home from work. Guilty that he’d dismissed his doubts that really he should have taken the day off.

She’d said she didn’t want to do anything that made the date significant. She’d insisted it would make matters worse, not better.  Sometimes Julia spoke in unfathomable riddles. How was he supposed to know what was the right thing to do?

The house phone rang. It had probably been ringing all day; Julia’s mother; his mother, friends, the bereavement group, that closed-circle who gave Julia her strength and from whom Simon felt so alienated. Whoever was ringing now would be offering sympathy and platitudes, talking of time being a great healer, the old clichés about the first anniversaries always being the worse, and how everything would get better from now on.

‘I’ll get it,’ Julia said.

The boy shuffled on his seat.

‘You’re not to come here again,’ Simon said as soon as Julia was out of the room. ‘It upsets my wife.’

‘I only came to bring the flowers,’ the boy muttered. ‘I couldn’t not do anything, not today.’

‘My wife is very gullible. This has gone on long enough. You coming here just makes everything ten times worse.’

‘I’m sorry.’ The boy kept his eyes downcast. ‘I never meant any harm. She should have said if she didn’t want to see me.’

‘Well, I’m saying it now.’

He thought the boy would get up, make a swift exit while Julia was still on the phone, but instead of making a move to leave the boy slumped further into his chair. He hung his head, ran his fingers through his shaggy hair, revealing more scar tissue. Simon recoiled at the intensity of the criss-cross of lines, seeing them close-up for the first time. He reminded himself the boy had walked away from the wreckage of his car, walked away, while Hayley had to be cut free. His attempt to stem the flow of blood from Hayley’s wounds had been admirable but amateurish, the coroner had said. If the ambulance had arrived five minutes earlier, if the van driver hadn’t stopped for a second drink, hadn’t been on medication…

What ifs.

‘I think about her all the time,’ the boy said. ‘Hayley was the best thing that ever happened me. I’d never met anyone like her. She was full of fun, so beautiful, generous, and I find it so hard to remember that, because all I see now when I think about Hayley are the headlights of the van coming towards us. I slam my foot on the brake but it’s all too late.  I hear her screams.  It’s a nightmare that won’t go away, that recurs day after day, and sometimes I wake up, and I think that’s all it is, just a nightmare, I’ll see Hayley at college today, and then I look in the mirror, and I can’t escape. I’ll never escape. It’s all my fault. I killed her.’

The boy sobbed as if his heart was breaking, sobs that came from somewhere deep within the pit of his thin, lanky frame, sobs that reverberated around the kitchen. The boy sobbed as Simon had wanted to sob when Hayley’s life-support was switched off.

‘Julia, your wife, Mrs Crouch, she understands,’ the boy mumbled on through his tears. ‘She listens to me. That’s why I come. Nobody else wants to know. They tell me it’s a year now, and I should be moving on, go back to college. Julia says I should go back to college too, it’s what Hayley would have wanted, but she doesn’t say it like they say it. She understands.’

Envy was an irrational reaction, yet it stabbed at Simon like a knife, gauging into his shame.  He wanted to tell the boy to get a grip, to pull himself together, because that was the advice he gave himself, but that advice hadn’t worked. This boy provided Julia with the comfort and the empathy he could not. They had consoled each other and he had remained deliberately aloof.

He wasn’t aware of Julia coming to stand in the doorway, phone in her hand. He was just aware of the boy at the table who had been injured in the car crash that had taken his daughter’s life, a boy who shared his nightmares, his fears, his grief, his loss.

He tried to think of something he could say that would make it better, something Julia might say when the boy came here, seeking refuge. Really, there was nothing.

He reached out and put his hand on the boy’s shaking shoulder.

‘We don’t blame you. It wasn’t your fault.’

Perhaps it was the right thing, the only thing to say, today of all days.

 

The End

© Rosie Travers

 

You can check out some of my flash fiction here

The Garden of Dreams

A family day out is real rarity in our household. We are currently all living on the same continent, which is a bonus, but that hasn’t always been the case.  They always say you should feel proud as a parent that you’ve given your fledglings the confidence to flap their wings and fly away – but I do sometimes wish they hadn’t flown quite so far  (although to be fair to our children we  have done our own fair share of flying in the past). With our elder daughter on sabbatical from her job in Budapest and working in London for three weeks, we took the opportunity to meet up for some quality time together, plans which  included a visit Hampton Court Flower Show on one of the hottest days of the year.

My house in the UK has a fairly compact garden, but after spending a large part of the last nine years or so living in rented apartments overseas, I value my own personal outdoor space. I’d like more, but  that’s because I look back through my rose tinted spectacles to the days when we had a third of an acre plot, complete with our own bluebell wood and children who needed trampolines, pop-up pools and wendy houses. Those days are gone – and so has the industrial-sized lawnmower. It’s not a question of quantity, but quality.

I still watch Gardeners World, I grow my own herbs and salad veg, albeit in high-rise containers to defy the slugs. I have a choice of seating areas, where I can chill out with a book in dappled shade or full-sun;  we even have a pint-sized pond. I’ve crammed my borders full of plants to attract butterflies and ungrateful bees (I was recently stung), and we have visiting hedgehogs. It’s a little oasis.

Hampton Court was packed, and parched, and all around us elderly ladies were collapsing from the heat, but we viewed the show gardens and marvelled not just at the seemingly effortless planting, but at sunken seating areas and outdoor entertaining spaces, wondering if we too could find room in our postage stamp plot for that leather-look hot tub complete with wooden surround (surely we could?) as well as a circular shed to house a fully stocked cocktail bar…

While our young ladies revived themselves with Pimms, Mr T and I wandered around looking for further inspiration. I’ve now found the perfect solution to keeping occupied during long winter evenings when the great outdoors is out of bounds.  We don’t need a bigger garden – we can create horticultural masterpieces from the comfort of our own settee. A knitting project for me, and a lego one for him.

But of course the best part of the day was being together – so that the kids could squabble just like they did when we all lived under one roof. To be fair my girls get on a lot better when they live apart, there is some truth in that old adage that absence makes the heart grow fonder.

A day out anywhere provides inspiration for a writer, characters, settings, planting schemes, I soaked it all up. Even if I can’t recreate those show gardens in my own backyard, I can certainly transplant the ideas into my next book – The Garden of (My) Dreams….watch this space!

What A Difference A Year Makes

What a difference a year makes. It’s just over twelve months since I moved back to the UK from the Netherlands. I’ve had to adjust, to get used to living in the tranquillity of countryside after three years in of living in busy towns with everything on my doorstep.  I’ve had to rely on a car again. No point having a bicycle in my home village – there’s only one way out of it – uphill. I’ve had to re-establish friendships – oh you’re back again are you? (It wasn’t the first time we’d moved away).

This time last year I was in a huge dilemma about my writing.  Whilst still in Holland I had received a positive response from one of the many publishers I’d sent my first novel to. On my return to the UK we met and they offered me a contract. I should have been over the moon, but I wasn’t…because by this time I’d finished writing The Theatre of Dreams and I liked it an awful lot better than Book 1. The contract I was offered gave the publisher first option on my second book. They already wanted changes to Book 1 to suit their style, and any subsequent books would have to follow a pattern. The Theatre of Dreams would take a fair bit of re-writing to fit the mould. So, what did I do?

I reminded myself how long I’d waited to find a publisher. I wanted to be a published author. Surely I could make the changes, a published e-book (there was no promise of a paperback) was better than no book at all. I could compromise…couldn’t I? Fate works in mysterious ways. I then saw a Twitter post from one of the big publishing houses requesting one line pitches, and I thought, why not? I was still dithering about the contract, so I submitted a pitch for The Theatre of Dreams – straight away I was asked for the first three chapters and a synopsis.  Although they quickly replied it wasn’t totally what they were looking for, a standard rejection response, they did say they liked my style. It was the kick I was waiting for.

I took a leap of faith.  I wrote to the first publisher and told them I’d changed my mind and I didn’t want to go ahead with the contract. Of course, I still had to find a publisher for The Theatre of Dreams, and I had to face a few puzzled queries from various quarters (including my other half) of what, you’ve turned a publishing contract down? But within a few months the deed was done. I found Crooked Cat, and now, twelve months on, I don’t just have an e-book ready for publication, I have a paperback. I have a novel that I’m proud of, that was great fun to write, and hopefully great fun to read.

Sometimes you do just have to trust your instincts. Book 1 has been well and truly consigned to a locked drawer and here’s me grinning away with the treasured first copy of The Theatre of Dreams

And as for adjusting to life back in the UK, yes there are still things I miss about the Netherlands, especially this – appelgebak met slagroom, but as I no longer consume vast quantities of calorie-laden Dutch delicacies, I don’t feel quite so bad about giving up the bike!

 

Flying By The Seat of My Pants

I’ve just typed The End on a first draft of a new novel.

When it comes to writing, I’m  a ‘panster’. I fly by the seat of my pants. I don’t start with a plan – or at least not a rigid, set in stone plan, or even set in a notebook or on a whiteboard plan. I don’t even have post-it notes, although they do come into play later on.

A panster starts off with an idea with in their head, and inevitably finishes up with something completely different on paper.

It could be characters, or just one scene, that ignites the spark.  Once I’ve got my characters, or at least the main protagonist and antagonist, I always know how the story is going to end – it’s just how the characters get there that needs working out.  It’s not until I’m several chapters in that I stop to take stock (or run out of steam).  Then I have to think – is this going anywhere? I might go back at this point, have a bit of a tidy up before deciding whether it’s worth continuing.  The best part of being a panster is when I hit the point where the characters I’ve created start talking to me, telling their own stories. That’s when I know it’s going somewhere – although not necessarily where I would like it go.

The trouble with being a panster is that it involves a lot of  jumping backwards and forwards. As a character takes shape, or a new sub-plot forms, I have to flit back to an earlier part of the manuscript and drop in a few clues. If I were a plotter I’d have dropped the clues in as I was going along in a orderly, organised fashion.  That’s when the post-its come in, by the side of my keyboard. I jot down new ideas as the story evolves, or scribble reminders to go back and insert a reference to a now vital scene.  Add to the chapter-hopping chaos, several mugs of tea, and the occasional glass of wine (I work in the evenings when home alone) and I end a with very cluttered work-space.  That wonderful quote ‘Creative minds are rarely tidy’ could be the family motto.

If I wrote novels that required detailed research, basically I’d come unstuck. I research as a go along. Setting stories in a contemporary time frame in locations I’m familiar with may seem like a cop-out, but the mythical ‘they’ always advise you to write what you know and it does make sense.

I’d like to be able to write every day but inspiration is not always forthcoming and sometimes life just gets in the way.

Having typed those magical words ‘The End’ writers are advised to sit on a first draft for at least a couple of weeks before picking it up again.  A second draft always requires detailed refining, and then there’s the third and the fourth…

First thing this morning I woke up with a brand new scene in my head, yesterday I decided another would work so much better if character A did this, instead of character B. Of course, if I were a plotter I would have known all this right from the start.

Hey ho, back to the keyboard.

Paradise Found?

We came in search of paradise and found crocodiles in the creek and stingers in the water. Attractive as it may look, don’t be deceived, the North Queensland coast  offers a bevy of lethal hazards. At first glance, the beaches are idyllic, icing sugar soft sand and clear turquoise water, set against a backdrop of tropical palm trees. But those crystal clear waters are home to venomous jelly fish – one lash from a transparent tentacle and your number could well be up. Swimming areas are cordoned off  with nets but during our four day stay at the picturesque resort of Port Douglas even the safe zone had been infiltrated by those pesky little stingers and swimming from the beach was off-limits.

For our snorkelling trip to the Great Barrier Reef, the main reason people head up to this treacherous part of the coast, we were kitted out in ‘stinger suits’ – a glamorous protective all in one  complete with gloves and hood  (fortunately there are no photographs available). We had booked a day trip on the reef which took us to three different locations and included an underwater safari with a marine biologist. Snorkelling in the GBR is equivalent to being immersed in a tropical aquarium; the water is warm and the fish are abundant, in all different shapes and sizes.  We saw turtles, a stingray but thankfully no sharks (another Queensland hazard) and definitely no jelly-fish.

If swimming in a stinger suit had not been exciting enough the following day we booked a discovery tour of the Daintree Rain Forest, which is apparently the oldest rain forest on the planet, and set off cross country to search for the elusive Cassowary, a large emu like bird which hides out in the bush. Sadly the Cassowaries remained elusive, as did the crocs who inhabit the Daintree River. This is not the time of year to see them basking on the banks instead they lurk in the  muddy waters, ready to pounce on unsuspecting tourists. We later encountered some captive crocs in action at a local wildlife park & I have to say I didn’t feel I missed out at all by not meeting one in the wild.

Being able to see animals in their natural habitat has definitely been a highlight of our trip.  Ok so I did fulfil a childhood ambition of cuddling a koala, which is only legal in Queensland and South Australia and a no-no absolutely everywhere else, but in my defence  I did convince Mr T he really didn’t need to sample a wallaby burger or a crocodile steak (he was tempted) although we both ate plenty of very tasty local fish. How do you reconcile the joy of finding Nemo hidden amongst the anemones on a coral reef to tucking into a barramundi? It’s a difficult one.

If there was another creature I didn’t want to encounter in Queensland it was the mosquito, but alas, despite lavish applications of  l’eau de DEET they attacked with  a vengeance. A definite low, likewise the flies at Ayres Rock. Not pleasant.

Our adventure down under has almost reached its end. Now it’s just a question of packing our cases one last time in order to squeeze in those last minute souvenirs. I just hope the koala doesn’t wake up as we go through security….

Ticking Boxes

I could just let the pictures do the talking but I’m not sure they do the landscape justice. So far our road trip through the wide sweeping beaches of NSW and along the Great Ocean Road in Victoria and over the sea in Tasmania has lived up to all our expectations. And talking of taking pictures, there are a great many viewpoints on the GOR and a great many views. I can hop out of the car, admire the view and take a few snaps to bore the folks back home. I don’t understand why anyone needs sixty selfies  standing in front of said view, but apparently they do. I don’t get it – at the Twelve Apostles, probably the highlight of the GOR and viewing platforms organised on a Stonehenge-like scale, it really was elbows at the ready to see the Apostles (sea stacks – yet more O level Geography coming back to haunt me), let alone capture a photo of them without the added extra of a happy-smiley Chinese tourist.

But it’s not all about the scenery, its also about the wildlife. I now know that kangeroos are pretty common place, and I have actually stopped taking photos of them, but I did get very excited spotting that first one, and my first Joey.

 Add to the list those sleepy koalas, friendly seals, a stingray at least a metre across, a whole menagerie of exotic birds, and now, in Tasmania, the local devils, wombats and  fairy penguins, and our trip is in danger of turning into antipodean Springwatch – although its actually autumn here. That’s something we hadn’t thought too much about – I just assumed Australia is hot therefore the holiday season lasts all year round. No it doesn’t. We have stayed in some places that are pretty deserted, cafes have closed up and business is over for the year.

Australia is a big country and out of the main cities it seems pretty empty. We’ve driven (or rather Mr T has driven) many miles from Sydney to the picturesque town of Port Fairy before looping back to Melbourne for our flight to Tazzie. We plotted our route at relative random but booked our accommodation before leaving the UK. We’ve been pretty lucky so far, staying in an eclectic mix of accommodation (including a quirky attic room in a pub with hens in the garden and knitted tea cosies on the breakfast table – not quite sure Mr T used to the luxury of corporate travel  has forgiven me for that one!). Embracing small town Australia has been a bit of culture shock – as in New Zealand we quickly learned that what passes for a town here, is very much on the scale of what we’d refer to in the UK as a village. I am impressed by the ready availability of public toilets (these things are important at our age), picnic areas,  playgrounds and bbq facilities, in even the smllest of communities.

Mr T and I hsve become adept speed tourists. With such vast amounts of ground to cover, we’ve had to cherry-pick but boxes are being ticked off.  If I am honest the novelty of living out of a suitcase is starting to wear off, and yes I could have got away with bringing less!

What’s that you say said, Skippy? Oh go on then, just one more photograph!

Back On The Bus

 I’ve already decided my next book is going to be entitled Back on the Bus – an entertaining tale of one bus; fourteen days and forty people. Add in some stunning locations (I might have to work on my adjectives – how many times can I use stunning in one sentence?), a perfectly matched tour-guide-driver comedy duo, et voila, the next best-seller.

Seriously, New Zealand continued to give, give, give. You name it, they’ve got it. Lakes, mountains, hot geysers, frozen glaciers, waterfalls, dry river beds, white water rapids and plunging canyons; gorges forged in the ice age, river valleys created by retreating floods, volcanic deposits, avalanches, and sheep. There’s lots of sheep.

We were on a hectic schedule. No lazy lie-ins for us. There was a whole country out there to see and thanks to our wonderful tour guide Laurel, a walking-talking New Zealand encyclopaedia, we learned all about Maori folklore alongside a  catalogue of NZ’s more recent history. The Maoris have an explanation for every feature on the landscape, every lake, every mountain is a legend embedded into their history. We learned too about the early European settlers, the farmers who were promised pasture but discovered a land covered in forests of deep bush, and the pioneers, determined to conquered unchartered territory and carve their way through rugged mountain passes from coast to coast.

New Zealand is a fascinating country. It not only looks beautiful but its people are welcoming and share a stoic sense of resilience and a great sense of humour. In our second week we travelled from Wellington on North Island to Christchurch in the south before heading inland and across The Southern Alps. We spent a couple of days in the adrenalin hotspot of Queenstown.  Youngsters from all around the world congregate here to ski and snowboard in the winter and bungy Jump and white water raft in the summer. We took a jet boat ride on the Shotover river which seemed pretty adventurous for us but probably quite tame by Queenstown standards. We travelled across vast plains and through mountain passes to the eerie wilderness of Milford Sound, we headed further south still to Dunedin before heading north again to spend our last night overlooking the majestic shores of Lake Takepo before moving back to Christchurch, which six years on is still reeling from the devastating earthquake of 2011.

We saw the weird and the wonderful – from the natural landscape of the Moeraki boulders to the Victorian melodrama of Oamorua, now a mecca fot steampunk fans everywhere and where incidentally our bus broke down….

As for the weather well Four Seasons in One Day is an understatement, jackets were on, then off; raincoats are a must but then so are sunglasses. NZ really is all its cracked up to be, and as for that bus, and those forty people well I admit we did start off in great trepidation but having covered 1800 miles in two weeks we bonded!  We made new friends and had great fun, and it now seems quite daunting to be setting off to Australia on our own….

Week Two New Zealand

We are now well into our tour of New Zealand, and sorry Sydney, but you have a rival for my affections. Mr T and I have never done a coach tour before, mainly because (a) we’ve never felt old enough and (b) we are usually very happy to potter about under our own steam. However, as we are doing our own thing for 4 weeks in Australia, when it came to planning what to see and what to miss in New Zealand – with tropical rain forests in the north, and fjords and glaciers in the south – we decided to let somebody else take the strain of choosing our route. I have to admit we may well be youngest in our tour group, but it’s not many a non-retiree who can afford to take the time off work and a trip to the Antipodes needs time, as we are rapidly finding out!

So, who has stolen my heart? The Bay of Islands and in particular the small town of Paihia, approximately 300 km north of Auckland. I dont need cities with glistening white skyscraper skylines, I’m a country girl at heart. Give me green spaces (and NZ has an awful lot of them) a sweeping coastline, and I’m happy. Add in dozens of islands dotted across the bay, palm trees, sand, dolphins, and I’m in heaven. We had a room with a view, and what a stunning view it was. We had apparently been bumped up from the usual ‘garden rooms’ at our hotel by the prime minister’s entourage. Thirty-seven year old Jacinda Adhearn (take note UK – young, woman, prime minister) was in Paihia along with several hundred Māori for the Waitaingi Day celebrations – the annual commemoration of the signing of the original treaty between the Maori population and the British and a national holiday in New Zealand. Pahia is a beautiful place, with an old fashioned ‘au naturale’ unpretentious, charm.

Our view and the hole in the rock – just one of many islands in the bay!

It was almost sad to leave, but leave we had to, because we had a lot of kilometres to cover and a lot more sightseeing to fit in. After another brief pit-stop in Auckland, the City of Sails and home to almost a quarter of New Zealand’s total population, we headed for Rotorua.   Rotorua is famous for its geo-thermal hot springs. When you are travelling with limited resources sometimes you have to improvise; in Paihia hairspray had been used to stupify a couple of rogue mosquitoes into a firm hold; in Rotorua, body spray doubled up as air freshener in an attempt to disguise the pungent aroma  of sulphur that permeates the town and infiltrated our hotel room.  At the thermal village of Te Puia, Rotorua’s  largest geyser Pohutu performed right on cue, sending up a steamy spout 30 m into the air. Sadly, the reserve’s population of endangered kiwis were not quite so forthcoming. Kiwis are nocturnal, and also very shy. We had to make do with a stuffed model during a talk by a kiwi conservation expert.

We couldn’t leave Rotorua without testing the medicinal properties of its thermal spa waters for ourselves.   They always say good things come to those who wait and we have waited a long time to make this trip. We arrived at the Polynesian Spa (one of the top ten spas in the world according to Conde Nest) to be told by the receptionist that a two people who had been unable to take up their pre-booked session had donated their ticket to the next ‘suitable’ couple. I’d never felt more suitable in my life!  There were five pools available to us in our much appreciated complimentary deluxe spa package, all overlooking the calcified and somewhat eerie banks of Lake Rorotua. We hopped from the anti-aging properties of Rachel’s Spring water to the anti-rheumatic delights of the Priest’s Pool. I suppose only time will tell whether the magic of the natural springs will work!

The downside of an organised tour is of course sometimes you are organised into doing things you wouldn’t always choose to do. I could have lived without the sheep shearing show, fun though it was,  but on the whole, so far things are turning out well.

And as for Rorotua, it might well be something of a tourist trap but there’s plenty to see and do. It’s just a question of getting used to that smell.

The Grand Tour Week One

 Our ‘grand tour’ has been many months in the planning. A six week sabbatical exploring Australia and New Zealand, our very own journey of dreams. First stop, Singapore; our chance to acclimate and recuperate. Jet lag is a horrible thing, always worse, west to east. A Singapore Sling seemed the perfect tonic, but the old Colonial institution of Raffles was closed for reburbishment, so instead we found Happy Hour on vibrant Clarks Quay, where we learned about the city’s history as an important colonial trading place, and marvelled at the light show at Marina Bay on a night boat trip. Singapore is a real mix of east meets west, great if you love shopping with a myriad of waterproof, air-conditioned malls, but I’m not a shopper. Instead Mr T and I took ourselves off on a clinically clean metro to the Gardens of the Bay, an impressive but Disneyesque ornamental display of horticulture, including giant fake trees and waterfalls, all growing  in a totally unnatural and alien environment.

The next day we headed for the real botanic gardens, a UNESCO world heritage site, and a genuine oasis in the midst of a modern high rise city. I liked Singapore, but its hot and humid atmosphere left me feeling like a damp rag. No point unpacking the hair straighteners here, but an umbrella is essential.

Sydney, on the other hand was a completely different kettle of fish. We arrived early in the morning following an overnight flight with the added benefit of an unexpected upgrade.  We dumped our bags at our hotel then headed straight for the harbour front and joined a tour of the Opera House, spotting cockatoos, ibises, and even a pair of kookaburras in the gardens en route. Recently Sydney has  experienced record breaking temperatures but we soon stopped all that. On our second day we met up with old friends who emigrated 20 years ago. Tbey suggested a trip out to the Blue Mountains and the clouds came down and temperatures plummeted. The thing about the Blue Mountains is the views – but there were no views, only a thick layer of white mist that increased the higher we ascended. We could hear  the cascading waterfalls, but we couldn’t see them. If I’d paid my 140 aussie dollars for an organised tour I might have felt pretty miffed, but fortunately I hadn’t. We had years of catching up to do as we dangled over the shrouded rain forest of the Jamieson Valley in a cable car and took a couple of rides on the world’s steepest railway – an earlier foreruuner of a theme park roller coaster but in fact an old mining track – at Katoomba Scenic World. Incidentally Katoomba Scenic World is also the proud user of environmentally friendly ‘who gives a crap’ toilet rolls according to signs in all the loos. Australia is not a place for the faint hearted.

We ended our mini-break in Sydney as we began – back at the Opera House for dinner. In between we took a boat across the harbour to the surfer’s paradise of Manly Beach and we walked across the bridge – you can climb it for about 300 dollars but you can walk over it with the same views for free. Plus I’d already faced my fear of heights in the cable car. I didn’t feel the need to do it twice.

Our grand tour has been planned with meticulous precision, and although six weeks might seem like a long time, there’s a lot to fit in. It’s speed dating tourism – flirting with several cities in a very short space of time.  Singapore might be fun for a bit of a fling, but Sydney is the one I want to see for a second date.

A fake tree in Singapore or the Blue Mountains National Park – complete with its magical mist – you choose! 

The Year of No Resolutions

The first post of the new year is inevitably full of resolutions – I’ve done it all before, drink less, exercise more, give up cake and chocolate. This year, no lifestyle resolutions.  Setting unachievable goals only leads to disappointment. I know my weaknesses.   There’s no way I’m going to reach into the fridge to snack on a carrot stick when the Christmas box of Thorntons is sat on the sideboard.

As for the exercise, well that has already been curtailed. My running route is currently flooded thanks to exceptional high tides and Storm Eleanor – although I suppose that’s not really a valid excuse – I do have a gym membership and there is always sea-water swimming….

However, when it comes to setting writing goals, 2017 was a bumper year.  I am living proof of the old adage in the publishing world that you should never give up.

So what challenges is 2018 about to bring?  I’d like to say finishing another novel, but with an extended holiday to Australia and New Zealand fast approaching, I’m nowhere near the stage of starting another novel, let alone finishing one. Travel arrangements require meticulous research; I don’t book anything until I’ve read nearly every single review on Trip Advisor. And as for the packing dilemma of how many clothes to take for six weeks on a weight restriction of 20 kilos….several layers to be worn on the plane is my current thinking. After all, it’s the case that gets weighed, not me.

However, I am at the age when it’s a good idea to generate additional brain cells by learning new things. I’ve just had my first meeting with my publisher to outline what will be required in the coming months and it certainly feels like there will be plenty of opportunities in 2018  to acquire new social media and marketing skills – a slightly daunting prospect for a shy retiring techno-phobe like me, but probably far more achievable than giving up cake…