We are very happy to be welcoming Sara Crowe back to Novel Kicks to celebrate the paperback release of her debut novel, Campari for Breakfast (which is released by Transworld tomorrow.) Sara has kindly shared an extract from her novel. Enjoy.
(Warning: some bad language.)
Sunday 4th January 1987
It was easy persuading Dad to let me leave. In my heart I’d hoped he would object, but since it would give him more time alone with Ivana, he didn’t. Persuading myself was easy too. Stay in Titford or go to Egham? Most of my friends are having gap years picking strawberries, living in communes, whereas I want to go straight into life with no gap, and earn good money doing it. And so Titford holds nothing for a girl of my ambition any more.
It’s an understandable and terrible fact that Dad’s taste has deserted him since we lost mum. I think he just got so lonely that anybody would do. He met Ivana at Titford golf club. She was playing a round with his boss and Dad was to take them to dinner. She’d really been after the boss, but settled for Dad’s attentions because the boss was a terrible lecture. I don’t know much about her, other than she comes from somewhere in Denmark. She just appeared out of nowhere like bad wind.
The only things I have to show for my life so far are a love of words and some interesting relatives, and mum always drilled me to make the best of what I’ve got. So in the end my decision has absolutely nothing to do with Dad or Ivana. Ultimately I think Green Place will be a good place to write.
Aunt Coral is my mother’s sister, though they are twenty-four years apart (my mother was a late addition) and this is what makes Aunt Coral a lot more like my nana than my aunt. She’s the sort of person who likes elderly singers in long gowns and floral teapots, so it was with a box of specialist teabags and a bunch of early daffodils that I arrived on her step at the start of the week. I was surprised when she opened the door, I’d forgotten how small she is and how clever, but she’s sociably skilled and made me feel at my ease pretty fast.
My first impressions of Green Place were actually second impressions because I had been taken there as a child to visit the various relatives, although we hadn’t been recently due to my Grandfather’s turbulant Will. It’s a grade two listed building, so big it has to be split into sections like countries within a continent. The West Wing is the only part of the house that’s heated, so I have to wear my coat in the rest of the house as if I am going outside. I could fit my house in Titford four hundred times into Aunt Coral’s; I never noticed how small it really was until now.
You approach off the B4532, Clockhouse Lane, and then towards the bottom you turn right between two brick pillars with lions on the top. The right hand lion is headless, just a body with chipped mossy paws, but the left hand one is intact and looks somewhat smug. Then a long drive bends this way and that for almost a mile, and after the second bend, Green Place comes into view. It hits you like a dream, like a beautiful private Palace, and you get the feeling that it isn’t really 1987 any more once you get to the top.
Glorious gardens flow up in graceful tears from Clockhouse Lane, and crumbling paths lead to sunlawns, framed by flowerbeds that need freeing from the thorns. An old Croquet Hut houses the mallets and hoops that have once seen busier times. There are orchards, rockeries and rose trails, a swing seat, and a house full of chairs. The back faces of the building command the rippling hills, and birds hover on distant currants like little specks of dust on the wind.
To the rear of the house off the kitchen there’s a magnificent sweeping terrace, with a private pool at the heart, where Delia, Aunt Coral’s companion, goes swimming every day, despite it being January. She is a hearty, bohemiam sort of woman, and often swims in the nudey. Her skin tone is peachy and fragrant, like a Victorian soap ad, and her hair looks freshly brunette, though her complexion appears born fair. Two forlorn, round eyes dominate an equally round face, under a holy page boy hair cut that requires daily tucking under.
Aunt Coral on the other hand is quite different. When she’s in her swimsuit she cuts a neat little figure, but is quite self-conscious at the poolside and walks backwards along the terrace if she knows someone is behind her, especially her lodger Admiral Little, who is the apple of her eye.
The first time the Admiral stayed at Green Place was during a blizzard. He’d answered an ad that Aunt Coral had placed in The Lady magazine three months after Grandfather died, which said ‘rooms require modest updating, would suit outdoors enthusiast. Two energetic ladies also in residence within the house.’
They weren’t prepared for him to stay overnight, but he had to, because he couldn’t get back down the drive. So they decided to put him to bed in the East Wing as a precaution, for they weren’t sure what to do with a man in the house when they hadn’t yet seen his references. (They knew he would never be able to find his way back to the West Wing once he was in the East.)
The East Wing is a kin to the Arctic, even with a blow heater, blankets and whisky, but lucky for them the Admiral is a Naval man, and prefers the great outdoors, so he ended up taking the rooms and sparing their lady blushes.
I had to follow directions to get to his suite. You have to go up to the landing, turn left off the hall, right past the nursery, then left again into the East Wing, first right, and then follow the plates. The celebration pieces depict the royals in front of various sunsets, and act as a guide along the wall in case the Admiral loses his way.
When you eventually get to his suite, it’s a bit like a gentleman’s club, with a bed of Napoleon and a collection of Toby Jugs which belonged to Aunt Coral’s father. It’s definitely worth the journey, if only to view the antiques.
Unbeknownst to the Admiral, Aunt C hides behind the curtains in the mornings, watching in secret as he drives off in his car on errands.
‘Oh Sue,’ she confides, ‘I’m not dead yet.’
The interesting thing about the Admiral is that he is remarkably slow on the uptake and totally blind to Aunt Coral’s feelings for him. She could walk past him with no top on and he wouldn’t even drop his pipe.
Aunt Coral’s favourite daily custom is to have a drink with her tenants before dinner, (especially the Admiral). In winter they sit in the drawing room, where the early evening light is so nice. Conversations are punctuated by the Westminster chimes of the mantle clock: it has a deep tick and whir, and a sixteen-ding chime that’s followed by the count of the hour.
Dinner is quite a big business and is normally prepared by Mrs Bunion. She is cleaner, cook and housekeeper at Green Place and comes several days a week. Her tasks are many and varied, and include some light gardening and fisselling. She is also required to perform the duty of ‘Bat Patrol’, for Green Place houses many bats. Mrs Bunion finishes her work just before dinnertime, when she will leave something tasty on the stove, and then her finale job is to go and ring the dinner gong. The Ad and the ladies then come down and congregate for a drink before dinner. It’s a thousand miles from Titford, the microwave, and Dad and Ivana.
Mrs Bunion comes from a poor family. When she was young she was sent to Egham on an apprenticeship. She learnt her many culinary skills at the hands of a cruel Head Chef at Egham Grammar School, and feels she landed on her feet the day she answered Aunt Coral’s call. She makes all the Green Place food from scratch, even the bread, and every dessert comes with custard.
It’s all right for the oldies, they can eat all the full fat foods and then take heart pills, but for me it isn’t so easy and I am struggling to control my wasteline. Unfortunately nothing makes Aunt Coral happier than watching me eat, and nothing makes me happier either. For don’t the Chinese say ‘when there is sadness in your heart, you should feed your stomach’?
My new bedroom, the Grey Room, is in the West Wing, above the ladies’ bedrooms. It is a small attic room facing the pool, that was used for staff in the olden days. Late at night I conjure the faces of long-dead inhabitants out of the shadows. If I were a more nervy type I would certainly give myself the willies.
But the most unsettling thing about bedtime at Green Place is that Delia curses in her sleep. Sometimes she sounds like she’d like to give you twenty lashes with her bath cap, and I have to reassure myself.
Aunt Coral loves to tell you how her life was incomplete before she met Delia, which is why, after a few trial holidays together, she offered her bargain board to come and live here. Delia, like me, hasn’t got much money, but she’s an excellent and loving companion to Aunt Coral even if she does say ‘fuck’ in her sleep. They compliment each other perfectly: Aunt Coral is a traditionalist, a pragmatist, an hundred per cent Nana, whereas Delia is joyous and o’reverand and brings Aunt Coral to life. They’re both very interested in me and are always asking about my writing.
In spite of appearances, and her big house, I think Aunt Coral must be a little straps for cash, hence her taking in lodgers. And now she has to give me an allowance as well, but I think the Admiral at least pays a hefty rent, which must be where it comes from.
Campari For Breakfast is released by Transworld and will be available in paperback from 29th January 2015 from most major bookshops. It’s also available to download as an e-book. Click here to view on Amazon.
The tour continues tomorrow over at http://www.ittakesawoman.co.uk
Campari for Breakfast is Sara’s first novel. She began writing as a child and has also written comedy sketches for television and stand-up. She is also known as an actress appearing on television, stage and film (including Four Weddings and a Funeral.)