I’ve been back to some favourite childhood haunts for this one, and it’s set during a beautiful Mid-Wales summer. I’ve adored remembering the Welsh hills, paddling in the river Rhiw, exploring Montgomery’s ruined castle and square – all places that have inspired the setting.
I’ve also been chuckling away while drawing on some characterful people from my childhood to populate the novel.
Here’s a taster with chapter one. Poppy Jenkins is out this summer.
Poppy Jenkins had been thinking just that morning how well life was turning out. Not perfect by most people’s standards, but Poppy wasn’t most people. A riverside walk on a sunny morning, glittering with promise for the year ahead, was perfection to her mind.
She smiled and squinted in the sun and gazed along the sparkling waters. The River Rhiw wound its course through a fecund green landscape, curving around shingle beaches, cascading over boulders and slipping into still pools that would tempt even the most staid to strip and bathe.
Spring flowers burst from the hedgerow, florets of cow parsley and splashes of yellow buttercups attracting a buzz of bees, and Poppy breathed in as if to appreciate the scent of her paradise.
It was balmy enough for Poppy’s summer dress, a light cotton garment vibrant with a pattern of green leaves and yellow lemons. The soft fabric glided around her body, giving her the freedom and pleasure almost of nudity. She faced the warmth and stretched up her hands to indulge the sunshine on every part of her body.
She was even having a good hair day. Her dark locks that, within a whiff of the ocean, would coil into a frizz the envy of any poodle, today hung in chestnut waves shining in the morning light.
Up ahead, her younger sister Pip gambolled along the path in that goofy energetic way that eleven-year-olds do, before they collapse into a sulky heap and claim that not another muscle could so much as twitch. Pip’s blue gingham dress and long white socks flashed through the hedgerow as she followed the path’s curve and a school rucksack jigged on her shoulders with every ungainly leap.
“Don’t go further than the bridge,” Poppy shouted, then she lost sight of the girl around the kink in the path.
Beyond, the village of Wells came into view, with its timber-framed and Georgian brick core surrounded by the odd Victorian terrace and odder 1930s development. The thirties must have been the end of the village’s heyday, because it was rare to find a building more recent and twenty-first century buildings were non-existent.
It was typical of the area – that bit of Wales that wasn’t the Valleys of the South or the mountains of Snowdonia in the North – that bit in the middle that nobody could say what was there. And truth be told, there wasn’t a great deal. So little in fact that it was called that-bit-in-the-middle or Mid-Wales for short. But that’s what Poppy liked about it: a rural idyll that time and people had passed by, where Wales rubbed shoulders with England and easily pronounceable names such as Clun nestled with the likes of Llansantffraed-Cwmdeuddwr.
Pip was dutifully waiting on the metal footbridge across the river, throwing flowers and watching them disappear under the bridge. She spied Poppy approaching and launched into another gallop. Poppy was about to shout again when Pip raised her hand. “I know, wait in the village.” Poppy smiled and her little sister raced ahead.
Within a hundred yards the first timber-framed cottages came into view. Mrs Morgan Morgan’s garden surrounded by white-washed stone walls backed onto the path. At this time of year blooms of pink hollyhocks and blue delphiniums erupted over the wall, and among all the vibrant colour was a patch of grey which bobbed diligently.
“Good morning Mrs Morgan,” Poppy shouted.
The grey mop shot up and revealed a surprised ruddy face.
“Ah cariad.” Mrs Morgan’s face creased into a smile. “It is a good morning. Almost as beautiful your dress.” She pointed with a gloved hand and pair of secateurs. “I was going to say ‘as beautiful as your smile’ but there really isn’t anything as good as that.”
Poppy giggled and her cheeks glowed with the praise.
Mrs Morgan was one of the villagers who Poppy had always viewed as older folk. Since Poppy was a child, Mrs Morgan Morgan’s hair had been permanently rollered and set, and it was difficult to tell whether it had grown over the past thirty years. But it had changed. Mrs Morgan had given up the rinses, and the natural grey silvered every strand now. It had caught Poppy by surprise when she realised Mrs Morgan would have been in her forties when Poppy was young, an alarming epiphany given that forty was now less than a decade away.
“So where are you off to looking so gorgeous?” Mrs Morgan continued.
“Taking Pip to school and then off to the café as usual. Just thought I’d give the summer dresses an outing.”
“Well, if there are any eligible young ladies in the village this morning you’ll catch their eye, no about that.”
Poppy beamed and felt warm at the compliment, but she was well aware that she’d be the only single woman of her persuasion out that day.
“And young Pip. How are you bach?” Mrs Morgan aimed the question up the path to where Pip twirled and scuffed the ground.
“Very well thank you.” Pip said it with a frown. “But I’m not small anymore.”
Mrs Morgan snorted. “Oh I’ll be calling you bach when you’re taller than me, and even when you’re grown up and married if I’m around that long. And how’s school? What’s your favourite lesson?”
“Writing stories,” Pip said, with a slight ease in her chagrin, “and art.”
“Ah creative like your mam.”
Pip looked up at Poppy from beneath furrowed eyebrows. “Can I get some sweets now?”
Poppy’s mouth opened wide in chastisement. “Pip.”
“It’s all right cariad. You get on now.” And Mrs Morgan Morgan turned towards her thatched cottage waving farewell with her secateurs.
Poppy skipped ahead to match her sister’s pace. “That was very rude.”
Pip rolled her eyes. “She always talks about the same things. I bet she said that word for word last spring.”
“She’s being sociable. It’s what people do.”
Pip looked up unconvinced.
“It’s pleasant.” Poppy laughed. “It makes people happy.”
“You’re too nice to people.” Pip tutted.
“Thank goodness, with pre-teens sulking around.”
“But you let everyone go on and on. All they talk about is what they had for dinner, or what colour curtains they made ten years ago.”
Poppy leaned in conspiratorially. “I’ll let you into a secret. Curtains are fascinating, in fact I have a fetish for them. I love a bit of haberdashery.”
Pip elbowed her, hard, in the arm. “You should do what mum does and pretend you’re composing a painting in your head and wander off halfway through in a trance.”
“Yes, well,” Poppy said. “Unfortunately I don’t think she’s pretending. She really isn’t with us most of the time.” And she meant it kindly.
They diverted away from the river, along the backs of the square, up to the main road entrance to the village. Pip slid her arm into Poppy’s and skipped beside her with the exhilaration of a child who knows she’s about to get sweets.
Poppy smiled at the view of the town. Being a Welsh village, of course it had a castle. The grey ruin watched over the square from a grassy hill and rocky outcrop. People joked that the medieval Welsh must have been a belligerent lot, but it’s likely they were a miffed about the small matter of the English invading. If it had been just the once, you could forgive the English for thinking the Welsh a little testy, but even the most jovial of people become peeved after a few hundred years of invasion.
The castle lay to the north of the village and the town square beneath was an appealing mix of Georgian brick buildings and timber-framed houses each at least three storeys high. It was disorientating setting foot within its perimeter, with jutting balconies and leaning walls, some by design, some with centuries of wear and tear. It gave the impression of movement and it was not unknown for visitors admiring the architecture to stumble about as if at sea. At the south end of the square was a stone bridge across the river, built to accommodate one cart with snug passing spots for pedestrians in triangular indents above the arches.
And beyond the river, naturally, was Llanfair – a church of St Mary. In fact the village had so many features that contributed to its original name, even the most entrenched Welshman was in danger of pulling a hernia when attempting to pronounce it. So, someone at some point, took pity on the sign makers and the tourists and the tongue-twisted locals and shortened it to Wells. Ironically, the location of the historic wells had long been forgotten and were the only feature of the original name that no longer existed.
The village shop was tucked in a corner beneath the castle. It was accommodated in two old houses of a contorted timber-framed terrace knocked together to make a long thin grocer, newsagent, chemist and every other small retail amenity.
Parked outside today was a sleek black Jaguar. It would have turned heads anywhere, but in the middle of nowhere where a mud-splattered Land Rover was the most common mode of transport, it definitely grabbed attention.
But it was the figure leaning in through the driver’s door that turned Poppy’s head, with long slender legs in slim-fitting jeans, smooth heart-shaped buttocks and a loose T shirt that rode high over a smooth tanned back. The woman’s face was hidden by blonde bobbed hair that cascaded smooth as flowing water around her cheeks. The haircut was expensive, even Poppy who went to the economical Super Snips knew that. The woman dipped into the footwell so that the T shirt hung low and Poppy was afforded a brief glimpse of bra. And what a fine thing it was, or rather, what a fine shape it made curving around ample breasts. Soft, voluptuous breasts.
Poppy cast a nervous glance at Pip – her sister hadn’t noticed the woman or Poppy’s admiration and was skipping eager to buy her daily allowance of sweets. When Poppy looked up again, the woman was standing on the pavement beside the car. Her face was in full view now. It was a face worthy of that elegant body, one of the most beautiful faces Poppy had ever seen, and one that she recognised without a doubt.
“Rosie,” she whispered. The recognition punched her in the stomach.
Even with a shocked expression disturbing her features, the woman could have passed for a model. Crystal blue eyes sparkled beneath arched eyebrows, whose elegant curves Poppy knew could express every emotion from delight to a withering dismissal. Those full lips could conjure a divine smile, but they didn’t look so cheerful today. It was a more mature face than Poppy remembered. Teen puppy fat had hidden what a beautiful bone structure she had, and the slimmer face of thirty-one-year-old Rosalyn Thorn was breath-taking. And indeed, it took Poppy’s breath away.