Life after Rolo

Here’s a quick update on my writing life, starting with the bad news: My YA comedy drama The Reinvention of Rolo Rawlings has reached the end of its submissions journey with publishers, and no one has taken it on. Cue violins, quivering lip, 50 kilo shipment of Minstrels due any minute.

The good news is that Rolo clearly hit the right note on many fronts as it earned me a super-supportive literary agent, was shortlisted for the Bath Children’s Novel Award 2017, and gained a lot of love and praise from children’s publishers across the board.

So why didn’t publishers want it? Well some didn’t want it because it didn’t fit on their list, or was too old or too young for their particular market. A few didn’t gel with it. One or two felt it was too domestic. A few weren’t sure where to position it as they felt it fell between Middle Grade and Teen. Basically it seems that domestic comedy drama for teens is a high-risk genre at the moment. (The Middle Grade market, however, is a different story – pardon the pun.)

While all this sounds a bit doom and gloom, many of the editors who rejected Rolo, did so with constructive feedback and a lot of praise, which made it an easier pill to swallow. One editor said, “I think the humour and the writing and the style is all there – it’s wonderful, it made me belly-laugh and left me feeling very satisfied with life.” I seriously couldn’t wish for a better response than that! (Apart from one that says SIGN HER UP NOW obviously.)

What next? I’ve resisted the invitation to rewrite Rolo for a younger audience, and instead will get to work on a new project aimed at the 9-11 age group. My new story will have all the humour, warmth and grossness that Rolo had, but without the naughtier words and sexual references. Right. I’d better get cracking then. There’s a mountain to climb and I’m not even at Basecamp yet!

In the meantime, here are the first few chapters of The Reinvention of Rolo Rawlings, which I still hope, one day, will make lots of kids – and adults – smile.

Chapter 1

Saturday 23rd September

Lacey had gone too far this time.

We were supposed to be living life as normally as possible – not letting our “current situation” defeat us. So you could say that keeping up our sibling rivalry was about as normal as you could get. Only the rivalry had just been stepped up a notch, and had – thanks to my older sister – left normal levels eating her dust.

That’s how me and Jake found ourselves stranded, butt-naked, in the deep end of The Prince Regent swimming pool – clinging to the side with one hand, covering our crown jewels with the other. A few people who’d witnessed Lacey (also known as Satan In A Skirt) and her best friend Paige rip off our trunks ten minutes earlier, were pointing and sniggering. Worst of all, Mattie Clemence – who was idly doing backstroke up and down the pool – was likely to notice us at any minute.

‘For God’s sake, Jake! A handstand competition? You should’ve known it was a prank,’ I groaned.

You’re her brother, Rolo. You should’ve known!’ he protested.

Half-brother.’ I didn’t admit that I’d hoped my well-perfected handstand would attract Mattie’s attention. (It didn’t.)

‘Yeah, well I can’t help it if I get distracted by your sister in a bikini.’

Half-sister.’

‘I thought she was flirting with me…’ Jake rolled his eyes.

‘Jake, for the millionth time, she’s not interested in Year 9 boys. She’s not interested in anyone who isn’t Curt the Cock Cripps – except for Zac Efron.’

‘Well on the bright side, at least Curt the Cock isn’t here to make things worse.’

As if things could get any worse! My teeth were chattering and Jake’s lips were turning blue. I watched as Mattie completed another length, flipped around and kicked off again without taking her eyes off the ceiling. In under three weeks, Bevensleigh High’s newest arrival had somehow managed to take over my brain without even knowing I existed. And although I really wanted her to acknowledge my existence, now was seriously not the time.

Jake scanned our surroundings. ‘How do we get out without getting arrested for indecent exposure in a public place?’

‘Floats! We borrow their floats.’ I pointed to two boys aged about six or seven, gripping green, frog-shaped polystyrene floats and splashing their way towards us.

As someone who was teased at school for having an interest in amphibians, covering myself with a frog-shaped float wasn’t exactly an ideal solution, but I had no choice.

I paddled over to them, trying to keep my body vertical and my trunkless butt-cheeks undetected.

‘Scuse me, lads, can we borrow your floats a minute?’ I asked, treading water.

‘No,’ one of them replied, eyeing me suspiciously.

‘Just for a minute – I promise we’ll give them straight back.’

‘No, you’re strangers!’ He swam off. Fair play.

I pedalled an imaginary unicycle back to Jake.

‘Plan B?’ asked Jake. We looked at each other and understood what needed to be done. God was Lacey going to pay for this.

When our targets reached the shallow end, we casually made our way towards them, snatched their floats and swam like the clappers. As we clambered up the steps, we could hear shouting and crying, followed by the ear-splitting screech of a whistle. It didn’t matter – we were out, backs to the wall, our privates shielded by floats.

We side-galloped to the changing rooms, chased by a whistle-blowing lifeguard, only to find our path blocked by none other than Curt the Cock Cripps and Satan’s sidekick, Paige.

Before we could stop them, they whipped the floats out of our hands and tossed them back into the pool. Stunned by the shock of being ambushed, we froze – only for a nanosecond, but long enough for my scheming sister and a bunch of her stupid cackling friends to get a good eyeful of our fruit and nuts from the spectators’ gallery.

Hoots of laughter echoed around the pool. One of them shouted through cupped hands, ‘Didn’t know you were a streaker, Kermit!’

All I remember, before the lifeguard caught up with us and marched us to the changing rooms, was seeing Mattie Clemence standing in the shallow end, staring straight at me with eyes as wide as dinner plates.

At that moment I hated Lacey so much that I imagined her tumbling from the spectators’ gallery, landing with a smack and lying in a mangled heap on the wet tiles by the side of the pool. Relishing the thought, a semi-crazed smile spread across my lips as Jake and I were led away in front of an audience of sniggering swimmers.

For the record, I want it to be known that until that point, I was all for keeping life as normal as possible. I wasn’t the one stirring up trouble while Dad lay unconscious in a hospital bed, a life support machine the only thing keeping his soul attached to his body.

Up until now, I would’ve been happy to call a truce with Lacey. But she’d had her chance and blown it. This was no longer sibling rivalry. This was war.

Chapter 2

58 minutes later

I burst through the front door to be greeted by enthusiastic barking, tail-wagging and slobbery licks from Mozza, our “temporary” dog. The hook by the front door was missing a set of keys, so Mum was either at the supermarket or at the hospital, visiting Dad.

‘Where’s Cruella?’ I whispered, ruffling his head.

Mozza clearly understood who I meant as he rocketed into the front room where a giggling Lacey shoved her phone in her pocket and leapt off the sofa to face me.

‘Your face!’ she squeaked, her shoulders quaking with laughter. She gripped the mantelpiece to steady herself and crossed her legs tightly, tears rolling down her cheeks. ‘I’m gonna bloody wet myself!’

I charged at her, sending her toppling to the floor – her head narrowly missing the corner of the fireplace.

‘Stop it!’ she shrieked, trying to get up. But I leapt on top of her and pinned her down. ‘You’re hurting me – GET OFF, Freakshow!

‘You’ve really done it this time, Satan,’ I hissed, spit escaping through my teeth and spattering her face. ‘Give me your phone!’

‘Why would I give you my phone?’

‘To delete the photos you took.’

‘I didn’t take any photos – not that it wasn’t tempting.’

I pressed my knee into her forearm.

OW!’ Her precious long blonde hair was now a tangled bird’s nest strewn over her face.

‘Are they on Instagram?’

I told you – I didn’t take any photos. Like I’d want to get arrested for sharing nude photos of my brother! That would make me look weirder than you.’

‘I don’t believe you. Give it to me!’ I grabbed a handful of her stupid hair and pulled as hard as I could. Lacey let out a deafening scream as a clump came away in my fist. It was a few seconds before I realised that Mozza was barking and a third person had entered the room.

WHAT THE BLOODY HELL IS GOING ON?’ shouted Mum, dumping bags of shopping on the floor and storming over to us. ‘Get up, the pair of you!’

Lacey gave me a vicious pinch as I climbed off her. I swiped her back.

‘Enough!’ yelled Mum. ‘How dare you behave like this! Go to your rooms immediately.’

‘But Mum, she–’

Mum held up a hand. ‘I don’t want to hear it right now, Roland. We’ll talk about it later when you’ve both calmed down. If your dad could see you now he’d be ashamed of you both.’

He’s not my dad!Lacey retorted, her nose in the air. She pushed a tangle of hair out of her eyes and smoothed it behind her ears.

Mum glared at her, her nostrils flaring in and out, making her nose ring glint on and off like someone signalling in Morse Code. After what was possibly the longest minute in history, she addressed a pink-faced Lacey in a barely audible whisper.

‘You’re grounded indefinitely. Give me your phone and go to your room. Disobey me and the consequences will include the immediate cancellation of your phone contract. And that’s just for starters.’

I opened my mouth to protest – I needed that phone! I needed to make sure there were no incriminating photos on it. But the only sound that came out of my mouth was a croak. Two thoughts stopped me from speaking up:

  1. A) Although me and Mum were close, I didn’t want the exposure of my manhood in a public place to become a conversation at dinner. I must’ve been eight the last time Mum mentioned my “winky-woo” – as she liked to call it – and it was embarrassing enough then.
  2. B) If Mum knew that Lacey was the reason behind my indecent exposure, she’d go ballistic. Not that I didn’t want Cruella to get the bollocking of the century, but I was more worried about Mum and Lacey falling out big time. It wasn’t what Mum needed right now. She also didn’t need to worry about the crap I’d cop at school. (And I didn’t need her interfering and making things worse.)

So I closed my mouth. And swallowed hard.

You’d think Lacey would’ve cast me a grateful look, but no. This is Satan we’re talking about. She doesn’t do gratitude.

‘NOW!’ Mum held out her hand. Lacey took her phone from the back pocket of her skin-tight jeans and dropped it into Mum’s open palm. Then she tossed her hair over her shoulder, folded her arms and turned on her heel. She didn’t stomp upstairs or slam her door because she is The Devil, and therefore knows how to channel her fury in silent but deadly ways.

‘You too, Roly.’ Mum nodded towards my hoodie pocket. I resisted reminding her not to call me Roly, or pointing out that she now owed a pound to the swear jar, and reluctantly handed over my phone.

‘I’m sorry, Mum,’ I said.

‘I’m really disappointed in you. I know she can be difficult, but for Christ’s sake, Roly, physically attacking her is NOT the answer. If it happens again, I… Well, I’ll have to call social services. Because siblings of your age having physical fights is clearly a sign of a family in crisis.’

She put our phones in her dungarees pouch and disappeared into the kitchen. As I trudged upstairs to my room I heard the glug-glug-glug of wine being poured into a glass, followed by some mumbled swearing and the muffled sound of tears.

 

On top of my chest of drawers, Buster, my fire-bellied toad, was hopping around in his tank. I sat on my bed and watched him, wondering how hideous my life was going to be at school on Monday. I needed to find out if Jake had seen anything on Instagram or Snapchat, and discuss tactics for facing the storm ahead. I reached for my phone, then remembered I was phoneless. Instead I punched my pillow and pretended it was Lacey.

‘If I was allowed my own laptop, I could’ve found out by now,’ I moaned to Buster. ‘Then again, Mum would probably just confiscate that too.’

I tried to predict what would happen. If Lacey had posted photos of me and Jake online, she’d get into trouble, for sure. Even if she hadn’t, if Jake’s mum found out about my mutant sister’s prank, things could get really ugly for her – a satisfying thought that quickly evaporated.

‘Grown-up interference would only make things worse for me and Jake in the long run,’ I explained to Buster. ‘We’re on our own. And as he’s not as unpopular as me, it basically means I’m on my own.’

There was nothing I could do but sit and worry about the tsunami of abuse coming my way. My life was hard enough already having a ridiculous name like Roland (after a type of electronic synthesizer for God’s sake), getting teased for having an interest in toads, and not being the most confident kid in class. But while I could live with not being one of the cool people, I never imagined my reputation could sink to such an all-time low – thanks to my own sister.

What would Mattie Clemence think of me now?

I flopped face forward onto my pillow and let out a long, weary groan. As much as I wanted to find a way to shake off all the frog-related nicknames and gain some acknowledgement from my fellow schoolmates, making a name for myself as a flasher wasn’t what I’d had in mind.

Buster croaked at me from the rock next to his pool. I got up and pressed my nose against his tank.

‘My life’s over, dude. Year 9 has barely started and months of suffering lie ahead – all because of that monster in the next room.’

I pulled Lacey’s clump of hair out of my pocket and slipped it under Roy, the Venus Fly Trap on my windowsill. It was worth keeping in case I dabbled in voodoo in the near future. Also, it was a small trophy – a reminder that for a few seconds, I’d gained power over her.

I picked up the framed photo of Dad that lived on my bedside table and studied his face, his bright blue eyes, and his short greying hair. He was proudly holding up the latest camera to join his impressive collection – a 1956 Rolleiflex 2.8E, his pride and joy.

‘I really need you, Dad,’ I whispered. ‘It’s been nearly six weeks – you’ve got to wake up soon. My life’s gonna be hell now cos of her. If you were here, you’d know what to do.’

I could feel tears coming, but the last thing I needed was bloodshot eyes that made me look weak in front of her, so I turned his photo to face the wall. Time to get a grip.

Mum’s got this mantra: “We keep on trucking.” She wants us to think of Dad’s condition as “him simply having a much-needed rest” and “if we stay positive, we’ll get through it.”

Mum reckons when Dad wakes up to find that we finally varnished the garden fence, he’ll be so over the moon, he’ll joke forever more about the lengths he has to go to for us to help out with any DIY. That’s what we were clinging on to: the belief that he’d eventually wake up and make fun of us in true Dad-style.

I looked at my alarm clock. I’d been room-grounded for 45 minutes. I went and got Buster out of his tank to pass the time. As usual, he hopped underneath my bed. I lay down to keep an eye on him and noticed a book leaning against some old X-Box stuff. I dragged it towards me with a pang of guilt.

It was the leather-bound notebook that Dad had given me last Christmas. ‘A notebook to sketch, jot, doodle, plan,’ he’d said. ‘There’s nothing like a fresh pad of paper to get your ideas out and help get your life in order.’

It was time for a plan of action. Dad would be pleased to know I’d taken his advice on board. I reached for the biro on my bedside table and chewed its lid while I thought. Eventually I wrote:

 

  1. Get even with Satan.
  2. Get Mattie Clemence to notice me.
  3. Become someone people respect. (No more Freddo Frog or Kermit.)
  4. Figure out why Dad went up the old mill when he knew it was dangerous.

 

Chapter 3

That evening

When the curfew was lifted an hour or so later, The Satanic One remained in her room, abusing her guitar and butchering an Adele song. I went into the kitchen where Mum was sitting at her sewing machine, mending a hem on a customer’s dress and listening to a talk show on the radio. Mozza lay on the floor beside her, his chin resting next to her foot. (He likes the vibrations from the sewing machine foot pedal.)

‘Sorry about earlier,’ I said. ‘She just got to me.’

‘I can’t believe you’re still capable of such childish behaviour, Roly.’ She adjusted the pencil in the bun on top of her head. ‘You’ve just turned fourteen for God’s sake.’

Yeah, and we didn’t even celebrate my birthday properly – other than a hurriedly bought caterpillar cake from Tesco Express. (It was all they had left.)

‘D’you want a cup of tea?’ I offered, hoping that being polite and helpful would get me back in her good books again.

‘Please. You know, I thought you were more sensitive than that, Roly.’

That was my problem – too “sensitive”, too “nice”. Well not any more. I spotted the empty wine glass by the sink as I filled the kettle up.

‘Mum, can I have my phone back? I really need to speak to Jake.’

‘You can both have your phones back tomorrow.’

‘But it’s urgent – we’re doing a joint maths assignment.’

‘Then call him on the landline and make it quick. Just so you know, I’m pretty disturbed about what I witnessed earlier.’ She gave me a stern look over the top of her glasses.

‘But, Mum, she’s horrible to me – even when I try to be nice to her.’

‘Well try harder, Roly. Don’t forget she’s in Year 11 now – exam pressure has begun.’

‘It’s ROLO, Mum. And that doesn’t explain why she hates me so much.’

‘She doesn’t hate you, love! We’re all dealing with Dad’s situation as best we can. Sometimes we take it out on each other without meaning to. Besides, you two are in such different places right now – she’s not a girl anymore, she’s a young woman dealing with her first relationship and all the responsibilities that come with that.’

Oh God – she meant sex! I tried to block the revolting image of Lacey and Curt doing it from my mind. Too late.

‘And then there are things women have to deal with that men don’t, like periods, unwanted body hair–’

‘OK, OK, I get it! Stop!’ Mum was a major over-sharer. I passed her a cup of tea.

‘There’s no need to pull that face, Roland– Rolo. Every boy should understand what girls have to deal with – everyday sexism, avoiding pregnancy… It’s not a level playing field, love.’

If only Dad was here – he’d level out this conversation. Being outnumbered sucked.

Mum took a sip of tea. ‘Go on then, call Jake.’

‘I need his number – I don’t know it by heart.’

She pulled my phone from her pocket and held it out so I could tap in my pin. I looked at his number and repeated it out loud until I reached the landline in the hallway.

‘Jake, it’s me!’

‘About time! I’ve been Whatsapping you for ages!’ he said.

‘Mum caught us fighting and confiscated our phones. Did Lacey post any photos of us?’

‘I can’t find any – I think we’re in the clear.’

‘That doesn’t mean she didn’t take any. She could use them to blackmail us.’

‘What could she do with them, though?’ said Jake. ‘Taking a photo of someone naked without their permission is like a major crime – Lacey’s not stupid.’

True. Evil, yes. Stupid, no.

‘They’re still gonna slaughter us at school,’ I said.

‘I know. We’re so dead, dude. I’ve gone right off your sister.’

‘Finally!’ I couldn’t believe my ears. ‘Just don’t get sucked in again.’

‘I won’t. She’s like a Terry’s Chocolate Orange. Looks good. Smells good. Tastes shite.’

Mum gave a loud, fake cough in the background.

‘I’ve gotta go,’ I said. ‘Meet me on the corner Monday morning.’

I sighed. Mum needed to know that all those things she said about Lacey and what girls go through have got nothing to do with my sister’s spitefulness. I went back into the kitchen, and was about to make this point when the doorbell went bananas.

When the doorbell goes bananas, that means it’s Jim (Lacey’s dad), who still, at the age of 50-whatever, thinks it’s amusing to press the bell five times in a row. (One press for every year of his mental age.)

‘Let him in will you, love?’ Mum rolled her eyes. ‘Maybe he’s finally got that money he owes me…’

Jim always drops round unannounced – and more often since Dad’s been in hospital. On the rare occasions Jim makes solid plans to be somewhere at a certain time, you can guarantee he won’t turn up. On the other hand, if you don’t hear from him in ages, you can bet he’ll show up any minute – especially if a meal’s about to be served. Like a dog, he can smell a Sunday roast from several miles away.

Talking of dogs, Jim’s the reason we have Mozza. Jim found Mozza – a malnourished and filthy black-and-white mongrel – wandering the streets, so he took him in and named him after some ancient pop dinosaur. A week later, he came over for a cup of tea and brought Mozza with him. And when he left, he accidentally-on-purpose left Mozza behind. Mum tried to track down Mozza’s owners but without success. Four months later, we still had him – just temporarily, until Jim had a bit of “a quieter week to come and take him home”. The chances of that being the reason for this visit were unlikely.

‘Alright, Freckles?’ Jim slapped me on the back as he came inside. Why couldn’t anyone just call me Rolo? ‘How’s your dad holding up?’

‘No change.’

Mozza bounded up to him, barking like a crazed fan and giving him a hero’s welcome.

‘’Ello boy! Missed me, did ya?’ Jim patted him and commented on how much healthier he was looking. ‘Your dad’ll pull through, mate. Don’t you worry. He’s a tough’un.’ He winked at me and shrugged off his tatty leather biker’s jacket to reveal a faded AC/DC T-shirt that was struggling to contain his growing beer belly. Jim was the only bloke I knew who wore jewellery. Around his neck was a manky leather string with a silver rhinoceros skull attached to it, a crucifix and a chunky silver chain. He was also covered in tattoos, including a small bird on his middle finger who he referred to as Sid.

‘You taking Mozza home today then?’ I asked.

‘Er, well, I was hoping you lot might hold onto him a tad longer? I’ve got a gig – potentially.’

‘Who with?’ called Mum.

I followed Jim into the kitchen and grabbed my untouched cup of tea before he could steal it.

‘Well?’ Mum glanced at him over her glasses.

Jim sighed and flicked the kettle on.

‘Oh dear,’ said Mum, prodding pins into her pincushion. ‘I take it it’s not The Rolling Stones then?’

He ran his fingers through his straggly grey hair and made a whimpering sound.

‘Oh get off your high horse, Jim Draper. Who is it?’

‘Toploader – reunion tour.’

‘Who are they?’ I asked as we pulled out chairs and sat down.

‘Exactly!’ Jim reached for the biscuit tin and crammed a couple of Hobnobs into his mouth. ‘The sort of pop pissants that bring my arse out in a rash.’

‘It’s not like you can afford to turn it down – seeing as you still owe me a hundred quid and I really need the money right now.’ Mum packed away her sewing machine and hung the dress on the back of the kitchen door. At that moment Lacey appeared in the doorway.

‘Nice of you to tell me you were here,’ she pouted. As if she didn’t hear the doorbell! I wanted to pull the rest of her stupid hair out.

‘Treacle!’ Jim reached out for a hug.

Lacey stayed put, arms tightly folded. ‘Our guitar lessons were supposed to start last week.’

‘I had a gig, babes.’

‘There’s always something.’

‘I can’t turn a gig down, Lace. Like your mum says, I need the money.’

‘Which is why your dad’ll be going on tour with Toploader,’ said Mum.

‘Whatever. Can I have my phone back now?’ asked Lacey.

Mum laughed. ‘Nope.’

‘But I need to text Curt.’ Or rather, she needed to check how many likes her latest selfie had got.

‘Too bad.’

Jim got up to give Lacey a hug. ‘You been naughty, Treacs?’

‘No. I’ve been trying to teach myself the guitar.’

She leaned sulkily into Jim’s embrace while he stroked her hair.

‘Caught them fighting,’ said Mum. ‘As if they were a couple of eight year olds.’

Jim chuckled. ‘She didn’t hurt you, did she, Freckles?’

As if.’ I helped myself to a Hobnob.

‘Well, we could squeeze in a guitar lesson right now?’ He checked an imaginary watch on his hairy wrist.

Lacey’s pout mutated into a grin. Jim glanced at Mum.

‘Go on, then,’ said Mum.

Jim sat back down and squeezed Mum’s shoulder. I noticed his hand stayed there for a lot longer than was necessary. A bit like Jim in general… He hung around like a bad smell when he wanted something. And he’d been doing a lot of hanging around since Dad’s accident.

Chapter 4

Sunday 24th September

The following morning Mum, Lacey and I went to the hospital to see Dad. I brought my pencil sketch of Mozza that I was pretty proud of. I showed it to Phil the nurse who went to find some Sellotape so I could put it up on the wall in Dad’s room. Mum brought some orange and geranium essential oils (“for energy and wakefulness”) to massage Dad’s hands and feet with. And Lacey brought in a copy of Heat magazine that she’d found in the corridor waiting area so she could catch up on celebrity gossip.

Mum and Lacey settled into the chairs on either side of the bed while I repositioned Kevin, Dad’s cactus, in front of all the Get Well Soon cards on the windowsill. (Dad had bought Kevin for himself, Roy for me and Mabel for Lacey about six months ago and suggested we compete to see who could keep their plant alive the longest. Mabel was long gone, having been starved to death from the day she arrived.) I got out my bottle of water and sloshed some onto the dry soil in Kevin’s pot.

‘Look at Dad’s arm,’ said Mum, rolling up his sleeve. ‘You’d never know it was black and blue a few weeks ago. Doctor Khan says his ribs are coming on nicely, too.’

‘He’s tough,’ I said picking up a Modern Toss card from the windowsill and sniggering at the cartoon on the front.

‘Who’s that from?’ asked Mum.

‘Uncle Baz – again.’

‘What did he write this time?’

Wake up, you lazy bastard! I’ll shout you a beer when you’re back to your old self.’ I looked at Mum.

‘Not if Auntie Vee has anything to do with it,’ she sighed, working the oil into Dad’s arms.

Apart from my voice breaking, Uncle Baz leaving Auntie Vee because he’d fallen in love with a man was the last notable thing to happen in my universe before Dad’s accident.

‘I thought she had a new bloke?’ Lacey turned the page of her magazine.

‘That doesn’t mean she’s over Uncle Baz,’ said Mum.

Funny how Dad’s accident made the Auntie Vee/Uncle Baz showdown seem like a million years ago now.

‘Lacey, could you go and get me a coffee, please?’ Mum looked up from massaging Dad’s hands.

Lacey reluctantly slapped her magazine down on the bedside cabinet. ‘I haven’t got any change for the machine.’

Mum pointed at her handbag with an oily finger. ‘Take a few quid and get yourself something – Roly, what do you want?’

‘Hot chocolate, please,’ I said, not looking at Lacey. All our conversations took place with as little eye contact as possible. If we kept this up for much longer I’d soon forget what she looked like – a reward worth putting in the effort for.

‘I’m just going to wash my hands.’ Mum winked at me as she and Lacey left the room. This was my cue to have some “one-on-one time” with Dad.

I sat in Mum’s chair and reached out to stroke his arm, which was still moist with oil. I leaned closer to his ear and inhaled the flowery smell.

‘Dad, I don’t wanna rush you,’ I whispered, ‘but I wish you’d wake up soon cos…’ I wanted to tell him about how Lacey and I were in danger of pushing Mum too far with our constant fighting, how my already pathetic status at school was about to sink to subterranean levels, how I couldn’t stop thinking about a girl who didn’t know I existed, and how Jim’s hand had stayed way too long on Mum’s arm.

But how could I tell him all that in his zombie-like state? It could upset him. It could get all jumbled up in the sleeping pathways of his brain, causing anxiety and depression – or even false memories? What if his unconscious mind got so stressed it had an effect on his body and gave him a heart attack?

We had to stay upbeat and have faith, Doctor Khan had said. ‘Interact with him as much as possible, in a calm, positive way.’

‘Me and Lacey are getting on well,’ I said in a calm, positive way. ‘Actually she’s doing my head in, but we’re making an effort to get along for Mum’s sake. We’ve still got Mozza by the way. I reckon you were on the verge of saying we should keep him before you… skydived off the old mill.’

This was my feeble attempt at a joke. Dad wouldn’t want us to get all doom and gloom, Mum said. He was always making us laugh – cracking jokes, playing silly pranks. Mum reckons Dad was a clown in a past life. On their very first date they went for pizza and Dad got some mozzarella stuck to his nose – which he’d put there deliberately to see how long Mum could ignore it for. When she twigged he was having a laugh, she took an anchovy from her pizza and placed it above her upper lip, like a moustache. This was when Dad realised he’d met his match and fell in love, or so the Rawlings family legend goes.

So the plan was to adopt a “PMA” (positive mental attitude) – which wasn’t a problem, except that no one seemed willing to talk about what had happened…to get to the bottom of what he was doing up a derelict old mill in the first place.

‘So, Mum’s theory…’ I said to Dad. ‘I’ve been thinking about it and I’m not a hundred per cent convinced. If you climbed up the mill cos you saw something worth taking a photo of, it must’ve been something pretty amazing. I mean, you made us promise never to go up there because it was dangerous. Then again, we all know what you’re like when you spot a good picture.’

I looked at his sleeping eyelids. ‘What photograph was worth climbing up a building with a giant danger sign nailed to it? Dad, can you hear me? Twitch your hand if you can hear me.’ I held his hand loosely and stared at it. No movement. Nothing.

‘When I took your camera to Jessops to get it repaired, they said you hadn’t taken any photos that day. So we’ve been trying to guess what might’ve caught your eye. Mum and Lacey reckon it was the misty sunrise or a fox in the distance, but that’s not your kind of thing. It just doesn’t add up.’

I watched his face for the slightest sign of consciousness – maybe he was willing me to guess again? But his eyeballs stayed still beneath their shadowy lids. Maybe I needed to talk about something more positive – something that would catch his attention. Something I’d been dying to talk about but didn’t know who I could talk about it with.

‘There’s this new girl at school called Matilda Clemence, but she likes to be called Mattie. Her family just moved to Brighton. She’s a bit of a bookworm – but she’s also super-sporty, too – I’ve seen her play hockey and she’s fierce.’ I stopped as I heard footsteps out in the corridor. They passed by so I continued. ‘She’s kind of a loner, but maybe that’s cos she’s still new. Don’t know why I’m telling you all this–’

The door swung open and Lacey strutted in carrying our drinks. She was smiling – not a happy “here’s your hot chocolate” smile, but a cunning “I’ve just come into some useful information” smile. I prayed she hadn’t overheard me telling Dad about Mattie. As usual, no eye contact was made as she put my hot chocolate down as far away from me as possible.

‘D’you want some time alone with Dad?’ I got up to retrieve my drink.

Lacey shrugged and took a sip of tea.

‘It might be good for him to hear your voice,’ I said, unable to avoid looking at her as my blood started to simmer.

‘Well if you say so, Roly-Poly.’ She leaned back in her chair and opened up her magazine. ‘So, Col…’ She looked at Dad and cleared her throat. ‘It says here that Taylor Swift dumped Tom Hiddleston because he’d been texting Jennifer Lawrence. Which is bullshit, cos anyone with half a brain knows that Taylor Swift’s far too ambitious to give a toss about a five-second fling with some nerdy actor. Everyone knows that Taylor is a hundred-per-cent focused on becoming the highest-selling female artist of all time. Respect, right Col? She’s set her sights on the top.’ Lacey tossed her hair over her shoulder and added under her breath, ‘Just like me.’

‘What’s your problem?’ I hissed at her. ‘What’s he ever done to you other than be there for you and love us equally?’

She cocked her head to one side and smiled to herself. ‘You wouldn’t get it.’

I imagined chucking my hot chocolate in her face. The thought made me smile. Luckily Mum returned at that moment and, seeing the expression on my face, assumed that yesterday’s battles had blown over.

‘Great minds think alike.’ Mum perched on the end of the bed, waving a copy of The Week. ‘I thought I’d start by reading him the “It wasn’t all bad” section. He loves that bit.’

‘I’m going to the loo,’ I said and excused myself.

I had to get out before I used Kevin as a murder weapon. I hurried along the corridor, down the stairs and into the foyer.

What was Lacey’s beef with Dad? They used to get on just fine – he always picked her up whenever she was out late, made her cups of tea in the mornings, cut stories about successful women out of the papers and encouraged her to read them. Once, a few years ago, he even took her and Paige to see Jedward in concert –sacrifices don’t come much bigger than that. But when she started going out with Curt, arguments began erupting. Dad had always tried to support her without stepping on Jim’s toes, but ever since Curt came on the scene, he couldn’t do anything right.

I stomped outside through the main doors and found myself in the centre of a cluster of smokers. I was about to do a U-turn and head back to the kiosk for a Cadbury’s Creme Egg when I spotted Mattie Clemence on the other side of the road, rummaging in her pockets while waiting for a bus. My heart hit the drums. She clocked me and quickly looked away. I cringed as I remembered her startled face in the swimming pool. She looked almost as startled now.

She started walking off – even though the monitor said the next bus was almost due. As she picked up pace, something fell from her pocket, but she either didn’t notice or didn’t care. I ran across the road and charged after her, calling her name, but she just walked even faster.

I stopped by the bus stop and spotted a new, unopened packet of strawberry bubble gum lying on the pavement. I picked it up and watched her figure shrink into the distance.

I could hardly blame her for pretending not to hear me. She was new, and new kids had to look out for themselves. To be seen talking with someone like me was (to use one of Jim’s favourite expressions) “professional suicide”.

The story continues…

Book Chat Back-Chat July 2018

Despite being struck by severe End-of-termitis and being a bit slow on the reading front (and being sucked into the vortex that is Love Island), here’s the latest instalment of Book Chat Back-Chat from my daughters (aged 12 and 14), my husband and myself, over a meal of Tortelloni that virtually cooked itself. (Simmer for one minute? My kind of meal!)

Mrs H: So R, what are you reading at the moment?

R (14): I’ve just finished The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas. I really enjoyed it. It’s about a girl called Starr who lives in a rough part of Los Angeles but goes to a top school in a posh part of town. Starr is African-American and feels she’s two different people depending on whether she’s hanging out with her white school friends or her friends from her neighbourhood. The story starts when one of her oldest friends is shot by the police. The police make out he’s a criminal but he didn’t do anything wrong.

Mrs H: I enjoyed reading it too. Did it make you think about racism?

R: Yeah, like how racism can be really subtle sometimes. Like one of Starr’s white friends doesn’t realise she’s being racist, and when Starr points it out to her she refuses to say sorry.

Mrs H: And has it made you want to listen to songs by the late Tupac Shakur?

R: Mum, it’s just Tupac.

Mr H: Or Mr Tupac Shakur.

R: Mum, I’ve already got loads of his songs on my playlist.

Mr H: Get with it, Mildred. Anyway I’ve been reading a non-fiction book called Factfulness by Hans Rosling, who’s this clever Swedish scientist bloke. It’s basically about how we view the world very negatively, from watching the news and believing that everything’s getting worse all the time – things like poverty and equality, for example. But Hans Rosling has done tonnes of research and actually the world’s getting better in so many ways, but that doesn’t make an interesting news story. You see, the media don’t often report the good stuff, which leaves us all thinking that there isn’t any good stuff. But there is.

Mrs H: I’d like to read that after you. What are you reading, B?

B (12): I’ve just started I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith. I really enjoyed the first chapter. It’s a sort of love story set in a crumbling castle where this family live, but they haven’t got any money anymore. I’m going to take it on holiday.

R: I thought that book was so boring. I gave up half-way through.

Mrs H: Didn’t Uncle Ollie give you that book for Christmas last year?

R: Yeah, two years running. He forgot he already bought it.

Mr H: Glad I’m not the only one having senior moments.

Mrs H: Didn’t Dodie Smith also write 101 Dalmatians?

B: Dunno. Anyway, I also started reading a book from the school library called The Selection by Keira Cass, which I was really enjoying but I left it at school. It’s about a reality TV show where these girls have to compete with each other to get noticed by a rich prince.

Mrs H: Maybe we can borrow it from the library in town? So who wants to hear what books I’ve been reading?

[Silence.]

Mrs H: Anyone? Well I’ve been on a bit of a non-fiction roll lately. I’ve just read two books about meditation.

R: Oh my God, you’re turning into Grannie.

Mrs H: I’m most certainly NOT turning into Grannie. To be honest, I didn’t think I’d find these books interesting, but they were. One was called Not I, Not Other Than I by Russel Williams about a man who became enlightened just through working with circus horses – fascinating! And the other one (that Dad recommended to me) was called There’s Nothing Wrong With You by Huber Cheri, which is all about how harsh we can be towards ourselves without realising it. It’s written in a really simple way – I’d love it if you kids would read a few pages of it.

R: No thanks.

B: Bluuurgh.

Mrs H: But I’m sure, just like the majority of the human race, sometimes you tell yourself stuff like, “I’ll never be any good at that” or “Everyone else is cleverer than me” or “more successful than me” or “I don’t deserve blah blah blah”.

R: Yeah, sometimes.

B: Suppose so.

Mr H: I found it really helpful. We all need to learn how to be kind to ourselves.

B: Can I be kind to myself and not finish this yucky pasta but just have some ice cream instead? That’d be like two acts of kindness in one.

Mr H: Touché.

 

 

 

 

Book Chat Back-Chat

Despite everything I said about not joining a book club again, I still love to talk about books –especially with my family. Last night, over tea, Mr H, our two daughters, B and R, and myself discussed our favourite books that we’d read recently…

B (12): My favourite books that I’ve read recently are The Gallagher Girls series by Ally Carter – especially Book 2. Book 2 was the most exciting cos it was really unpredictable – not like “oh my god that person is so bad how can you not see it?” You just didn’t know what was going to happen next.

R (14): Those books were OK but I thought they were predictable, although I did skip forward to read the last page when I was half-way through.

Mrs H (46): NO! You can’t read the last page first. That spoils the ending.

R: I said I read it when I was half-way through. And you’re wrong, it doesn’t spoil the ending – it just adds to the suspense. Don’t look at me like that.

Mr H (47): So, R, what’s your favourite book that you’ve read recently?

R: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children series by Ransom Riggs. The books were so much better than the film which was like all three books squashed into one. The books were scarier. I also liked Twilight and New Moon by Stephenie Meyer, which I read after watching the films. And I loved the Murder Most Unladylike series which I started reading in Year 6 but carried on reading as they came out. I don’t care if it’s middle grade.

B: Murder Most Unladylike was rubbish.

R: Shut up – it wasn’t rubbish, it was really good.

B: You shut up! It’s my go. I also liked Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. It’s about a girl who writes fan fiction and has a big following on the internet and then she goes to college with her sister but they fall out with each other.

Mrs H: I read that one too. I found it a bit slow.

B: It’s brilliant.

Mr H: Does anyone want to hear my favourite books?

B & R: NO!

Mr H: So my favourite book that I’ve read in the last year is Wild by Cheryl Strayed, about a woman who goes trekking and camping on her own in the wild.

Mrs H: R, what are you doing with that wine bottle? Put it down.

R: Just sniffing it. It says it’s got a cherry and pepper aroma.

Mr H: Um, is anyone listening to me?

Mrs H: Sorry. Go on.

Mr H: There’s a film of it starring Reece Withoutaspoon which I think you girls would enjoy.

B: Dad, I think you’d enjoy Wonder by RJ Palacio about a boy with facial deformalities.

R: Deformities.

B: Whatever. It’s a really good book. Can I leave my courgettes?

Mrs H: No.

B: [Groans.] Mum, for you I’d recommend My Name is Victoria by Lucy Worsley which is like fiction mixed with non-fiction with a twist. Oops – I’ve given a spoiler away!

Me: I’m none the wiser.

B: And R, you should read the rest of The Gallagher Girls series. They’ve got them all in the school library.

R: Not happening.

Mr H: I think you’d all like 438 Days by Jonathan Franklin. It’s a true story about a South American fisherman who gets lost at sea for 438 days and miraculously survives.

Mrs H: Yes I loved that story. It was totally gripping. Right, my turn. The book that’s stayed with me the most is The Power by Naomi Alderman. I think all three of you should read it, although perhaps it’s a bit old for B at the moment. It’s about how the world changes when all girls all over the planet discover they’ve developed an organ in their bodies called a skein, which gives them an electric current that they can use to give people electric shocks. They soon realise this makes them physically more powerful than men – which changes everything. It’s very, very thought-provoking.

R: I’d like to read that.

B: I’d like to give people electric shocks.

Mrs H: [Presses fingers to Mr H’s neck.] ZZZZZap! Make me a cup of tea, NOW, man-slave.

B: [Zaps her dad]. Get me a chocolate biscuit, man-slave.

R: Man-slave, do you want to watch Love Island with us now?

Mr H: Very tempting, but man-slave seeks permission to retreat to his man-cave.

R: [Zaps her dad] You’re watching Love Island.

 

Why I won’t be joining another book club

Book clubs: friends, wine, Kettle Chips, book banter, Doritos, book banter, Thai Sweet Chill Sensations… What’s not to love? Well of course I love the actual get-together itself, but here’s why I won’t be committing to one anytime soon.

1. I’m a slow reader.

I always have a book on the go. It usually takes me a month to read a novel if I’m enjoying it, but if I’m not loving it, it could take me six or seven weeks. As I usually read two to three books on holiday, that bumps up my yearly average to about 14. So when I have to complete a book every five to six weeks for a book club, I feel like I’m racing against the clock. And if I’m not enjoying that book, it feels like homework. It’s all very well having a fun and fizz-fuelled book club night, but if the weeks spent reading in between aren’t such fun, is it worth it?

2. I usually don’t enjoy other people’s choices.

I get given/lent books every year by friends and relatives who are sometimes keen to discuss those books, and so I feel obliged to read them. A few years ago, Uncle Bill lent me Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour and said he’d be interested to know what I thought. When I eventually got round to reading it, I found it slow and, while beautifully written, could’ve easily given up on it at any point. But I ploughed on as A) I wanted to please Uncle Bill, and B) Barbara Kingsolver was a well-respected author and I should probably educate myself by reading one of her books. The next time I saw Uncle Bill, we talked about everything BUT Flight Behaviour. Another year passed by, and it finally came up in conversation. I told him I’d struggled with it. “So what did you think of it then?” I asked him, expecting a torrent of wild enthusiasm. Uncle Bill pulled a face. “Naah. Didn’t get on with it either.” Seriously? Two months’ precious reading time. TWO MONTHS!

On the other hand, sometimes someone hands me a real gem that I otherwise might never have discovered, such as Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See, which turned out to be one of the best books I’d read in years. But this is rare. 50% of the time, I plod through these lent/given books feeling little genuine enjoyment. So if other people’s book club choices are added to my already tall “obligated reading” pile, that leaves very little time to read anything of my own choosing.

Over the course of a year, I like to read a domestic noir or two, some magic realism, something funny and witty, a gripping true story, a story from a different culture, some YA, some wisdom-enhancing non-fiction, and something historical. I find some book clubs are a bit too high-brow for my tastes and some are so eclectic that hopes of expanding my reading repertoire soon turn to thoughts of how I can inoffensively A) drop out of the group or B) keep attending without reading the books.

3. I suffer from Obsessive Book Finishing Disorder.

Why not just give up on a book if I’m not enjoying it? Easier said than done. There’s always the chance it’ll get better and then I’ll have missed out on an awesome ending. I once yawned my way through Lionel Shriver’s So Much For That, but just as I was contemplating ditching it, it started to pick up about two-thirds of the way through, and the ending was in your face. I was glad to have persevered.

But it’s a gamble (particularly with literary books, which I’m generally not a fan of). Having loved All The Light We Cannot See, I rushed out to get another book by the same author: About Grace. The blurb sounded great and I couldn’t wait to get stuck in. But this was a polar-opposite reading experience for me. The story moved so slowly that I stopped caring about any of the characters. It was the first time I’d ever skipped entire pages in order to get to the end. (Which, again, took TWO MONTHS!) This was not long after I’d staggered through Flight Behaviour, so not only was my effort v pleasure ratio completely unacceptable, but my book tally for the year was a pitiful nine.

But back to book clubs. I was invited to one recently because I was reading the same book as my friend’s book group – Eleonor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. It was a lovely evening, the crisps were flowing. I’d enjoyed the book. There were different opinions about it – things I hadn’t considered, hence an interesting discussion with nice, interesting women, fizz, and most importantly, crisps. I was welcome to come again. But the next book choice on their list just didn’t seem my cup of tea, so I resisted the temptation and declined.

Would I join another book club again? Only if we don’t all have to read the same sodding book. Reading should be a pleasure, not a chore. And besides, I really need to avoid situations where I’m faced with overflowing bowls of crisps.

 

Things are looking up!

With my fellow shortlistees, junior judges, competition founder Caroline Ambrose and literary agent Sallyanne Sweeney at the Bath Children’s Novel Award Ceremony, Feb 2018

It’s been a long time since I talked about my writing journey, but there’s been a few sunny developments recently, so here’s what I’ve been up to over the last couple of years…

  • Jan 2015 – Decided to take a break from writing after my two latest projects (Blown-Away Man and The Adventures of Fartella Gasratilova) failed to find representation. Added them to my other self-published novels on Amazon and stepped away…
  • May 2016 – In an effort to hone my skills and develop a foolproof manuscript, I applied to the Curtis Brown Creative Writing for Children online course and got offered a place.
  • Spent the next 3 months developing my novel, The Reinvention of Rolo Rawlings (a YA comedy drama), under the guidance of award-winning author Catherine Johnson and my brilliantly creative writerly classmates. Re-wrote the first 5 chapters many, many times – taking it from a 1980s setting to the present day and from a diary format to a first person narrative.
  • March 2017 – Started the nail-biting process of submitting Rolo to agents.
  • Sept 2017 – Accepted an offer of representation with Lauren Gardner at Bell Lomax Moreton Literary Agency. Meeting Lauren and seeing her passion for Rolo was a surreal moment – especially after going it alone as an independent author for so long.
  • Dec 2017 – Had to pinch myself at learning I’d been longlisted for the Bath Children’s Novel Award.
  • Jan 2018 – Had to get the husband and kids to pinch me at learning I’d been shortlisted for the Bath Children’s Novel Award! In the end I didn’t win, but making it to the final 5 out of 750 entries was incredibly exciting and more confirmation that Rolo is my strongest piece of writing yet.
  • Feb 2018 – Am currently developing Rolo further under Lauren’s guidance and, all being well, hope to submit to publishers in the near future.

Back in January 2015 – after 10 years of gaining and losing literary agents, an endless river of rejections and some short-lived success at self-publishing – I hit a bit of a rockbottom on my writing journey. I knew I wasn’t going to give up, but I needed a break from trying. Now, three years later, I’m super-proud of Rolo and the response it’s achieved so far, and am looking to the future with fresh optimism. Watch this space… (she said, biting her nails…)

Creative courage and badass bling

As the countdown to Christmas gets underway, who better to discuss creativity with than Sarah Meredith, a Brighton-based jewellery designer whose mischievous and heart-warming brand Rock Cakes is selling like…well, hot cakes.

Your jewellery is bold, colourful and playful. Is “being true to yourself” an important element in your designs?

Rock Cakes is an integral part of my life, it comes in a close second after my family. I live and breathe it, and I think that shows in my work. The main ethos behind Rock Cakes is to spread happiness and make people smile. Traditional jewellery can be very safe and mundane so I try to pull in the opposite direction.

When I started Rock Cakes, I’d been suppressing my ideas for so long that they all just came flooding out. This was when I made the “Every cloud…” silver chains and some of the crowned animals and the crowned tooth — these pieces were effortless and are still some of my favourites.

I guess the playful element reflects how I think and behave. It can be challenging to keep that feeling going as the world around you changes — more pressures, less time, and a growing awareness of how other awesome designers are can give me a touch of designer’s block.

My self-awareness is growing: the more confident I become, the less I care about what people think and, in turn, the freer and stronger my work can be — but that definitely takes time. Being yourself within your work is really the only way you can have true uniqueness, create consistent interesting work, and stand out from the crowd.

Do you ever feel you’re taking a risk with a piece of jewellery — that maybe it’s a bit too… “out there”?

I think that risk-taking goes hand in hand with being successful at design and business. I’d say that I take risks frequently, some emotional and some financial. It might sound odd but I think it’s as much of a risk putting something out there that you’re not proud of, as it is putting something out there that people will think is weird or that exposes you a little.

My recent work has quite a lot of swearing in it. I’ve made a Christmas tree with an axe and the tree’s saying “fuck off”. He’s not really into Christmas — he thinks chopping down trees to drag into your house is ridiculous. I wanted to make some of these pieces last Christmas but I didn’t due to the swearing — I talked myself out of it.

I also make “Fucking Medals”. I enjoy making them and love people’s reaction to them, but I’ve received official warnings and had them banned on some of my online stores due to “bad taste”!!

Another risk I took was to make the planet ring in gold. I was pretty broke and it cost hundreds to make, especially as I wasn’t happy with the first one so we made it twice. It sold, so it was worth the risk but I could have been feeding my daughter beans on toast for weeks!

With time I think that knowledge and confidence suffocates risk. You learn what will and won’t work with your audience and which platforms you can’t sell certain products on.

Do you have any tips on finding creative courage?

Don’t overthink anything. If you have an idea write it down, sketch it out and act on it — trust your gut and literally just get on with it. Learning to be self-aware can build your confidence and, really, what’s the worst that can happen…? Overcoming the barrier of making what you really want can be huge. It can expose you, and lots of makers are shy and want to hide away. If you make something that’s precious to you and the reaction isn’t positive, it can hurt, so sometimes it seems easier not to do it. Some of my favourite designers are so true to themselves, I love the work of AdamJK and Cou CouSuzette — you can see they don’t hold anything back.

Do ideas for designs come easily? Or do you sometimes struggle to find inspiration?

I know what turns my creative head on. I’m a magazine, stationery, book and fashion junkie. I’ve been cutting and sticking magazine pages since as far back as 1998 — so I always have inspiration I can reference. I also love my own company. I’m very happy to be alone and this gives my brain time to wonder ­– that’s when things like Tupperware parties and sharks with severed hands pop into my head. I jot everything down and have a mega list of things that I want to make.

Did you always want to design jewellery? What route did you take to becoming a designer?

It was always going to be either medicine or art for me. Chemistry hurt my brain and art meant that I could party my way through the late 90s and chase boys — so art won. It wasn’t until I discovered metalwork on my art foundation that things clicked and I knew I wanted to study jewellery design at uni.

I completely immersed myself in my degree, I adored the work, the freedom and the parties, and graduated with a first — not that anybody has ever asked…

Getting my first graduate job at a jewellery store in Kensington was a harsh reality check. My days were filled with silver dip and glass cleaner, it was dull and I was frequently spoken down to. My second job was my lucky break: I worked for a jewellery designer in Notting Hill and made my way up through the company until I was the production manager and “second in command”. I got to meet some iconic people, set up a show at the Design Museum, work on a collection for H&M in Stockholm, browse vintage jewellery archives on Place Vendome in Paris, and I was in charge of buying stones worth thousands of pounds.

I was the middleman between the designer, customers and jewellers — which I loved, but it was bitter-sweet. I saw a different side of life, a very wealthy one, but I was pretty unhappy as it could be pretentious. I had to be kind of invisible when at work as there were strong egos in play. I was suppressing my creativity and myself. In hindsight, to be happy I needed to be first in command, not second, and the whole “fashion highbrow” was fucking with my head. After seven years I made a somewhat abrupt exit and moved to Brighton in 2008 where I set up Rock Cakes…

What has been your proudest moment in your career as a designer so far?

I guess my biggest challenge so far was being interviewed on The Bottom Line last year on Radio 4. When it comes to public speaking, I’m a rabbit in the headlights. When the BBC contacted me, my head was saying “no way” but I found myself replying “yes, I’d love to…” I was very nervous and it took me a few weeks to recover! I’m proud of myself that I did it, but I’ll never listen to it again!

What advice would you give to anyone thinking of jewellery design as a career — whether a school-leaver or someone considering a career change?

Practical advice is to go to art college or to an evening jewellery course and start learning. I’d also 100% recommend working for a jewellery designer or in a jewellery store — I learnt most of what I know when I worked in London. I was often out of my depth and learnt on the job which massively built up my confidence and knowledge.

If you want your own business, take advantage of online sites and social media. There’s no such thing as 9–5 anymore, and setting up a business is easier than ever — you can work a 9–5 job and from 7–11 to kick-start your own thing.

I’d also recommend joining up with your local creative community. Brighton is uniquely creative but there are Etsy groups across the UK. Surrounding yourself with like-minded people can be an awesome support and it’ll spur you on.

My final tip is to take an old-school notebook and pencil everywhere you go — write and draw your thoughts and ideas, cos you never know when they might come…

 

10 Tips to get kids reading independently at bedtime

When my eldest child reached the age of about nine, I realised that making the change from bedtime stories to independent reading wasn’t going to happen overnight. It was going to be a transition phase, and if I wanted my children to truly discover the joy of getting lost in a novel, I’d have to coach them. It was a slow process with a lot of reluctance along the way, but now at the ages of 11 and 13, I’m chuffed to have two book-loving kids.

Below are some of the things I tried out to help my kids discover what a brilliant experience it is to get teleported into a fictional world…

  1. CHALLENGE! I challenged them to read 12 chapter books in 12 months. If they completed the challenge, they’d win a prize such as a day out somewhere special or a voucher to spend in their favourite shop. Funnily enough, they told their friends about it which led to a bit of friendly competition!
  1. Keep it easy. We started the challenge with a chapter book that was well within my children’s capabilities, ie: 50/50 illustration/text. I didn’t up the difficulty level each time as I didn’t want to put them off. This was about learning to read by themselves – not accelerating their reading age.
  1. Start them off. I’d often read the first couple of chapters to them to get them started. Or I’d read a couple of pages every night and stop just as it was getting interesting. If they weren’t willing to read to themselves, I’d get them to read a few pages to me, then ask, “What do you think’s going to happen next? Why don’t you read the next few pages to yourself to see if you’re right?”
  1. Break it down. Suggest they read one chapter per night – or five pages if the chapters are long. Before they turn out their light, ask them what happened in that chapter. Which characters do they like? How do they think the story will turn out? Did they come across any words they didn’t understand?
  1. Strike a deal. Sometimes my kids would complain that the book was boring, so we compromised: they had to read to at least page 40 or the halfway mark before they could give up. If it still wasn’t grabbing them by then, they could choose another book. Usually, by the time they reached the agreed page, they were immersed.
  1. Know when to quit. If my kids reached the agreed page and still weren’t into it, they were free to ditch that book. I soon realised my children weren’t interested in many of the books I loved as a child. Once I read them a Famous Five novel and they forced me to abandon it at the penultimate chapter and begged me never to read them another one.
  1. Know when to get tough. For kids like mine who watch an hour or so of TV every day, asking them to read one chapter per night at bedtime is not unreasonable. I told mine if they could do it, then they’d get to stay up late on Friday and watch a film. If they couldn’t be bothered to give it a go, then no screen time the next day…
  1. Start a book log. Keeping a log of the books you’ve read and giving each one a star rating is a fun thing to do no matter how old you are. My youngest even wrote a blog for a while, writing a short review of each book she read. The rest of us all kept lists, which would get us talking – which books would we include in our Top 10 favourites? Which books would we take to a desert island? Which is better, the book or the film? Who is the worst villain ever?
  1. Talk to them about what you’re reading. Once, on holiday, I was telling my husband about the book I’d started reading (And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini). The kids were playing nearby but also listening to our conversation. “So then what happened to the little boy?” my eldest asked. I ended up recounting the first couple of chapters of the story. “Did he ever see his sister again?” the youngest asked. “I don’t know,” I replied. “I’ll have to read another chapter tonight and tell you tomorrow.” They held me to my word. By the end of the holiday, I had recounted the entire novel (leaving out anything too disturbing) to my kids – at their request.
  1. Never say never. For years it seemed like my children were the only kids in the universe not to be interested in Harry Potter. They point blank refused to even watch the films. Then, one rainy afternoon (aged 10 and 12 respectively), they got bored. I dared to suggest a Harry Potter film again. They were so bored, they agreed. Since then they’ve watched all the films and read all the books. My youngest has just read the Philosopher’s Stone for the second time and is urging me to read it, too. We’ve come a long way…