I typed Chapter 2 with a flourish at the top of a piece of paper, and then back spaced and underlined it. It was beautifully centred, and the secretarial college where I’d been stuck last year would have been very proud of me.
I don’t want you to think that because I’d typed Chapter 2 there was a Chapter 1, because there wasn’t. One of Mummy’s tips that she gives to struggling authors is to leap in with chapter 2 and then go on from there, but that’s not much good if you can’t get going with Chapter 2 either. And I couldn’t.
I decided I’d get my bicycle out and cycle into Chatton and buy some chocolate. The bicycle was a bit on the dusty side, and the chain looked a bit rusty, but I gave it a good kick, and after that, everything just about worked, though I wouldn’t have wanted to cycle particularly far.
The road from Pool Cottage to the shop was quiet and green, with a little bit of a breeze blowing through the trees. It didn’t take me long to get to the village shop, although it did take me a while to buy the chocolate. It’s funny how buying mere things like tins of soup happen in a flash but choosing the right bar of chocolate takes ages, even at my advanced age. Once I’d made up my mind, I paid, and then wandered outside and sat down on the verge near the green. And then I noticed that one of the cottages opposite had a new sign up, saying “Ye Olde Chatton Teashoppe”.
And then I did have an idea.
I liked food, jolly nearly as much as I liked ponies, so why not write a book about a tea shop? I could make it a frightfully jolly one that made up hampers for the local orphanage and teas for all the local horse shows that was run by a smiling woman who dispensed joy, and cake, to all. A sort of Basil the Birdsong Boy, but with cake.
Springing up with a yip of joy, I wheeled my bicycle out and set off back to the cottage.
And once I was there, I sat down at my desk, unwrapped my chocolate, and began.
My fingers flew over those keys. I understood now how some of those children’s authors you read about turn out a book a fortnight. It was as though I could see right into Dorothy’s world. The words just came.
I’d just got Dorothy into the orphanage, where she’d brought the orphans a surprise picnic of sausage rolls and cheese scones, still warm from the oven, and a big jam and cream sponge, and lots of sandwiches, which were the nice sort made with proper bread she’d made herself and lovely thick fillings, and I began to feel a bit peckish. I sat back and looked at my watch and found to my horror that it was six o’clock. I was supposed to be at the stables at six for supper with Ann.
I flung myself out of the house, grabbed the bike, which fortunately I’d left propped up by the front door, and pedalled off. It didn’t take long to reach the hill to the stables, and I freewheeled down, sticking my legs out to the side and yodelling. And don’t tell me you never do it.
There was a little rise after the hill, but I had plenty of speed left to get me up that without much pedalling, so I was soon clattering into the yard, and then off to the left under the arch to the house. I propped the bike up against the porch wall, when it promptly decided it had behaved for long enough, and crashed to the floor, knocking over a couple of pots of geraniums as it went. As I was scooping the geraniums and the soil back into the pots as best I could, and cursing the bike, I heard the door open.
“I thought it must be you,” said Ann. “What on earth are you doing?”
I explained that I’d had a little accident with the bike, and Ann snorted, and I put the geraniums down and followed her into the house. To my surprise, we didn’t carry on down the passage to the kitchen, but turned left into the dining room.
“Here she is, Mummy” said Ann, as she opened the door.
“Jill, dear,” said Mrs Derry.
“Oh, hello, Mrs Derry,” I said. “It’s been a frightfully long time since I last saw you.”
“Yes,” said Mrs Derry, giving me one of those looks that I knew meant my continued absence had been an endless joy to her and that she wasn’t quite sure what I was doing there now, cluttering up the place.
“You wanted to talk to Jill, didn’t you Mummy?” said Ann. “Do sit down Jill,” she said to me. “I’ve just got to help Robin with supper.” And off she whizzed down the corridor.
So Mrs Derry sat there, and I sat there, and neither of us said anything. I couldn’t think what Mrs Derry wanted to talk to me about, as the last time I’d seen her she’d spread herself quite spectacularly on the subject of Ann working at the stables, rather than being a florist, which was Mrs Derry’s great ambition for her eldest daughter. And she blamed me for Ann’s desertion from her mother’s ideals. There had been a bit of an atmosphere between Mrs Derry and Mummy after that, because Mummy had stood up for me. Things had thawed a bit now, because Mummy was an excellent bridge player, and there weren’t so many of them around Chatton that Mrs Derry could afford to offend Mummy. And Mrs Derry was very keen on bridge.
Mrs Derry sighed, and stared out of the window, and I sighed and stared at the carpet.
We both jumped as the door opened with a crash, followed by Ann holding a tray.
“Here you are,” she said, plonking the tray with its load of soup on the table. “Do sit down.”
I pulled out the nearest chair and sat down, and looked up to find myself meeting a glare of purest ice from Mrs Derry.
“Ann, dear,” she said. “You’ve forgotten the place cards. How do we know where to sit?”
“Oh Mummy,” said Ann. “It’s just us. We don’t need place cards. And anyway, I’m quite sure Robin doesn’t have any. Have you, Robin?” she asked as Robin followed her in.
“Definitely not,” he said. “I could go and get some paper from the office and make some if you really want.”
Mrs Derry sniffed.
“Just sit there, Mummy,” Ann pointed. “Next to Jill. Now, Jill,” she said, as she handed round the soup. “What did you think of Mummy’s idea?”
Mrs Derry sniffed again as she sat down.
“You haven’t asked her yet, have you?” said Ann.
Mrs Derry said nothing.
“The thing is,” Ann said. “Mummy’s writing a children’s book, and she thought you might be able to give her some advice on publishers. She didn’t want to ask your mother as her books are quite highbrow, and Mummy thought that with the sort of book you write, you’d be more likely to know the right sort of publisher.”
Ann’s stopped. Her eyes widened as she looked at me, and she looked hurriedly down at her plate.
“Well,” said Robin, hastily. “Why don’t we leave talking about books until later? I want to tell you about the plans Ann and I have for the stables.”
Mrs Derry snorted.
“Oh yes,” I said, ignoring this slight on my publishers, because from the filthy looks Mrs Derry was throwing in Robin’s direction she was definitely brewing something. It was like having supper with an unexploded bomb. “Ann said you were thinking of doing a cross country course.”
“Not just thinking,” replied Robin. “We’ve set one up. It’s just a small one, with six easy fences. We’ll use it in our own lessons and if that goes well, the plan is to construct some more difficult fences and hire the course out.”
“If you need anyone to test it out, I’m your woman,” I said. “I’d love to take Silvio over it. I do think he might be one of those ponies who really wakes up when he’s not inside the school.”
“I tell you what would be good,” Ann broke in. “You could try Sandy Two over it. We bought him from Mrs Darcy because she’s given up showing. You always got on well with him, so why don’t you come over tomorrow? Unless you’re busy of course.”
My diary, if I’d had one, would have shown nothing but blank pages stretching on over an endless lonely horizon, so of course I said yes.
“What I’d really like,” said Robin, in a thoughtful sort of way, “is to buy Blue Smoke.”
“Would Mrs Darcy sell her?” I asked. “Blue Smoke was always her special horse.”
“She’s not competing any more,” said Robin. “And it seems a waste to have such a lovely mare and not use her for what she’s best at.”
“But she is still riding her?” I asked.
“Of course,” said Ann. “But Blue Smoke is meant for better things than just dripping down the lanes.”
I have Ann a hard stare, because I couldn’t think of anyone less likely to drip down a lane than Mrs Darcy.
“Well,” she said. “It would do the stables so much good to have a really good horse. The publicity would be wonderful. And it would be lovely for Robin to have a first-class horse.”
“Or you,” I said. “You’re a really good rider. It’s about time you had a horse. I can just see you clearing everything at Harringay. And there are lots more girls who ride than boys. You’d be a much better advertisement.”
Mrs Derry scowled.
I appeared to have offended everybody. And then Mrs Derry piped up.
“I’m not writing a children’s book anymore,” she said. “I’m writing something quite different.”
“Oh really?” said Robin. “What?”
“Yes, do tell us, Mummy,” said Ann, obviously grateful for this change of subject.
“I’m writing a romance. Dear Susan’s mother says that everyone she knows reads romances, so I’m writing one. It’s about a girl from a very good family who got involved with the wrong sort – a dreadfully bohemian family. There was someone else who’d loved her from childhood, but she took no notice of him because she hated his sister, even though he was just right for her. That’s what always happens in these books. The heroine doesn’t realise until the end who is the best person for her. But she always does.”
I was sitting opposite Robin, so I could see the look of growing fury on his face.
“Oh but I must tell you what my publisher told me,” I said, seizing my moment as Mrs Derry stopped to draw breath. “Children’s books are selling frightfully well and he’s recommending that all his authors try them.”
Now you all know that this was a lie, because you know what my publisher told me. And then I did something really heroic.
“But I just can’t get started on a plot,” I said. “And Mrs Derry, I know how much Mummy always valued your advice on her books, so isn’t there some you can give me?”
Mrs Derry sat up and gave a little wriggle of satisfaction. And so, on through the soup, the shepherd’s pie and the apple crumble, she went on, a raging river of literary advice.
I staggered out at 10 o’clock, my head pounding, having made a hasty arrangement to meet Ann at the stables the next morning.
I think it’s fair to say the evening had not gone well.