Teen Time at YALC

If your teenager likes reading, he/she may surprise you with a request to go to the YALC at the London Olympia one July.

When this happens, say ‘Yes’. And if you like reading or writing, make sure you go along with him/her, because the Young Adult Literature Convention (yes, that’s what YALC stands for) is the highlight of the bookish YA year.

Put a booky teenager in a group of other teens and they’ll generally be shy and feel nerdy. But leave your teen at YALC and they’ll be in heaven.

Imagine a giant library with carpeted floors and cushions. Instead of library books, you have brightly decorated YA publisher stands giving away free samples of forthcoming novels, free proofs of yet-to-be-published books, postcards, bookmarks, badges, tote bags and lots more goodies. And as well as librarians, you have 100 authors, all mingling with their teenage readers and chatting to them during hours of book signings.

If you happen to be a budding writer, you can go to writing workshops, publishing talks and agent 1-2-1s, which are all included in the ticket price. Best of all, there are nonstop panels of authors talking about their work and discussing common themes.

I was lucky enough to be one of the authors invited to speak at this year’s YALC. As a newbie author, I was on a New Voices panel, which gave me free, 3-day access to the book bonanza – as well as a pass to see Benedict Cumberbatch, John Cleese, Pamela Anderson and Christopher Lloyd and lots of other film stars featuring in the Film and Comic part of the convention on the lower floors.

But I didn’t bother with famous filmstars in the crush of Cosplay fans. I was far too busy upstairs in the comfort of the bookish world.

To begin with I felt a little lonely as I watched the joyful reunions of authors from the UK, US and Ireland. But that all changed when my publicist arrived and took me to meet the wonderful YA book bloggers I’ve been chatting with on #SundayYA for the last 6 months.

photo Kelly

The most inspiring event for me was a panel with Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan, the co-writers of one of my favourite YA books, ‘We Come Apart‘. Did you know they co-wrote this verse novel while living in different countries? Listening to them talk about their approach to writing made me want to pull out my notebook there and then.

I instantly warmed to Patrick Ness, interviewed by Juno Dawson, because of the way he cares for teenagers. And I was encouraged to learn that Laini Taylor works in much the same way as me.

But the most amazing person there was without doubt Katherine (Katie) Webber, author of ‘Wing Jones‘ and chair of many panels. Her fun, efficient and friendly chairing largely set the tone for the whole event.

I didn’t actually do any work until my panel on Sunday morning – actually, that’s a lie: the hardest job of the weekend was helping out at the bookselling stand.

The brave Waterstones booksellers let me press buttons on the cashtill, scan books, swipe loyalty cards and stamp points cards for an hour.

It was really difficult! Don’t underestimate the concentration your booksellers need when they sell you a book. Luckily the YALC clients were patient, and the best moment was when I took payment for a copy of my very own ‘Tree Magic’.

Many of the non-teen audience were YA writers, and I joined them in several workshops – including a useful talk by literary agent Ben Illis and a meeting with Chloe Seager, both of whom were interested in my work.

photo by Steph

At last, Sunday morning arrived and, with a thudding heart, I joined the other 10 debut authors on stage. This was a huge number to manage, but Katherine Webber was more than equal to the task. I had read most of their books before YALC, so it was fascinating to listen to their experience of getting published.

The 2-hour slot for signing was hardly long enough to sign the, um, handful of copies put into my hands.

This is not really surprising, as I believe it’s as difficult for small publishers to get books placed in WHSmith and Waterstones as it is for writers to find an agent.

Anyway, I had lots of interest following my talk, and the signing quickly became a highlight of the weekend when the lovely Kelly from Kelly’s Ramblings gave me a packet of my favourite chocolates (Cadbury’s Boost, since you ask).

After 3 days of fangirling and being fangirled (well, a nice young lady did say, ‘Are you Harriet?’ when I sat in the empty chair beside her. That counts, doesn’t it?) it was time to leave the friendly faces.

Many thanks to the YALC team, to my friend Hester for hosting me and my publicist for organising the tickets.

Find out more about YALC from bloggers Kelly, Steph, Ellie, Bex and Cora.

Going Public

Sometimes I wonder whether writing a blog is a waste of time. An enjoyable waste of time, but still time that I could spend doing useful things like, um, writing proper stuff? Or testing my kids on their irregular verbs. Or making fab meals for my partner. Or maybe cleaning the greasy grime from my bath (actually, no; not that).

And then something like this happens, and my effort is rewarded.

Like what? I hear you ask.

Click, click, click… like this:

I was in the Pyrenees mountains on my writing residency in June and, to avoid being lonely in the evening, I wrote silly things on my blog about what I’d been doing each writerly day.

On my last day, I received an email via my blog contact page from Clare, a Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook website editor.

If you’re a writer and you’re thinking about publication, you’ll know that this red writers’ bible is published annually and contains listings of agents, publishers, magazines, awards and associations. It also has practical articles from writers talking about their craft.

Well, Clare had been reading my blog and wanted me to write an article for the Writers & Artists  website.

So I did. I wrote ‘Going Public’.

And from this surprise request, I have learnt that having a bit of fun and being yourself seems to be more effective than spending hours drafting queries and proposals.

(Hmm… talking of drafting queries: if you happen to be a literary agent and like my blog, feel free to contact me and offer me representation.)

Anyway, here‘s the article on the Writers & Artists website.

I hope you find it useful. Or interesting. Or something like that.

While you’re there, take the time to browse the website because it has loads of useful information on it. You can register for free and sign up for the newsletter too.

You might even find an article about how to catch the media’s attention via your blog…

Extraordinary Ellia:

Harriet thought she’d died in the accident. She was standing in a French library full of English books, and French libraries normally have just one English shelf. A heaven full of books seemed fitting to Harriet, though misfortune had placed the library in Angers, a four-hour drive from Harriet’s home.

I pinched myself and realised I hadn’t died. I wasn’t dreaming. This wasn’t heaven – and in any case I hadn’t had an accident (unless you count what happened in Angers’ English sweetshop, but that’s another story).

If you’re confused here, just read the beginning of Tree Magic, which is free to ‘look inside’ on the Amazon ebook page, and everything will become clear. Ish. Well, it may sound vaguely familiar.

Anyway, back to the library: when I met Phoebe at the St.Clémentin literary festival last year and she told me she worked in an English-Language library in Angers, I imagined a cosy little nook squeezed between two houses in a back street.

So when she invited me to talk to the library coffee morning group about my novel Tree Magic, I presumed the audience would be a handful of people huddled between bookcases.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Let me begin by telling you about this amazing library, which is a non-profit organisation called Ellia (an acronym for ‘English Language Library In Angers’, since you were about to ask).

It has 30 000 English books, 4 staff, 1600 members and 100 volunteers – making it the biggest English language library in the west of France. There’s a catalogue on the website so you can check if the book you want is there before you drive to Angers, and you can even borrow ebooks to download onto your e-reader.

But the library is far more than a series of numbers and a list of services. If you’ve read my blog posts about Le Kairn, the brand new bookshop in the Val d’Azun, you’ll know that I talked about how I believed it would soon become a hub for cultural activities.

Well, the 23-year-old Ellia library is exactly that: a community hub. It’s a meeting place for English speakers who love books, of course, but also a base for a diverse range of activities ranging from French conversation groups and English creative writing circles to gardening, knitting and film clubs.

Phoebe

What has made it so popular, in my opinion, is the warmth of the welcome that visitors receive. While I was having coffee with Phoebe (you get a bottomless cup of tea or coffee for a euro), she greeted the people who wandered in and chatted with each of them.

It’s hardly surprising there are so many volunteers – some of whom I met as they sat around a table covering books with plastic. The other staff and interns – including Mandy, Sandrine, Oksana and Dominique – are just as friendly. There’s absolutely no reason to feel lonely if you live in or near Angers and like books.

Half of Ellia’s funding comes from a combination of City Hall, the two Angers universities (students receive free membership) and Maine-et-Loire county council. The rest is made up from membership fees and fundraising events.

An example of an event is the food stand they’ll be manning at the street theatre festival Les Accroche-coeurs on 8-10 September. The festival’s 2017 theme is ‘So British’, which means discussions at Ellia are currently underway to decide on the most suitable British dish to serve.

If you have any ideas (please, no Marmite or jelly), let me know and I’ll pass them on.

Now you know a little about Ellia, you can appreciate how it was that over 30 people came to listen to my Tree Magic talk. (I stopped counting at 30, as they were looking expectantly at me and I thought I’d better begin).

It’s always scary to stand up in front of people and talk, so I was relieved when it was over. My relief, however, was short-lived.

‘Do you mind if Isma interviews you?’ Phoebe asked me.

‘Not at all,’ I said. ‘It won’t be filmed or anything, will it?’

There was a silence.

Silly me… This was the point at which I discovered that the computery stuff on the shelf was actually filming me for the whole talk. Which means that those scandalous secrets I accidentally revealed…

I sat in the armchair beside Isma and did my best to answer questions that were only difficult because I had to answer them on the spot.

It was decidedly worse that the radio interviews I did when Tree Magic was first published.

Am I the only person whose mind goes maddeningly blank when I’m asked questions in front of a recording device?

The best part of doing author talks is that you meet so many interesting people afterwards. I had a great chat with William, one Anne Woodford’s writing group members.

Anne is a talented writer whom I also met at St. Clémentin. Her short story was placed 2nd in the 2016 Segora International Writing Competition, run by the St.Clémentin festival organisers, and you can read it here (you’ll have to scroll down a little).

I had some lovely feedback about how people felt inspired to go off and write after my talk. Some people even bought a copy of Tree Magic!

If you have a chance to visit the lovely city of Angers, pop into the library. You’ll see exactly what I mean about Ellia being extraordinary.

 

 

 

 

 

Hide and Seek with Bears and Boys

Writing Residency Day 9 (last day *sobs*):

I understand now why mountainy people get up early:

1st photo: from my room at 7:30 am.

2nd photo: from the office window 7:35 am.

3rd photo: from my room again at 7:45 am.

So what does a writer do on the last day of a writing residency at Arras-en-Lavedan?

Easy: instead of doing one research trek, the keen writer does two. Especially when it’s so misty that there is zero visibility at the top of the mountain.

The first trek took me to the Col d’Arras, where I was sure I’d be able to find a path onto what looked like summer pastures under the Pic d’Arragnat. I wanted to know whether Eole, my protagonist, was hanging around up there.

Perhaps he was. But with heavy bracken vegetation and little grass, I didn’t think it was likely. OK, I admit I wasn’t very persistent. Nor would you be if you heard a kind of growly-barky roar in the bushes and you were very much alone on the mountain.

I hot-footed it back down the non-path, got lost, panicked, struggled over a barbed wire fence and landed on my butt in the mud. I felt much better on the other side of the fence, despite the ripped trousers, and even a bit silly. After all, I could easily have defended myself with my swiss army knife. Couldn’t I? That’s what the bloke in the shop said, anyway.

(Don’t tell my sisters about this: they already split their sides laughing the time, aged 10, I was chased by a herd of cows and ended up clinging to a pole in the middle of a field).

As I write this, I’m listening to brown bear noises on Youtube, and I must admit that the noise is exactly what I heard. Though I guess that’s like looking up illnesses on the Internet to check your symptoms.

On the subject of bears in the Pyrenees, the original race of Pyrenean brown bear died out and Slovenian brown bears were introduced in the 1990s. In 2016 there were 39 bears, of which 2 in – omigod – this area… perhaps its just as well I’m leaving tomorrow! And, reading on through my informative source, if you come face-to-face with a bear you should retreat progressively. Not panic and run. Oh dear.

My Col d’Arras mission had aborted but, happily unaware of the real possibility of meeting a bear, I decided to attack the mountain from further along. There was definitely a path from Arcizans-Dessus up to the Col de Liar, and it passed straight through the said pastures.

Arcizans-Dessus is a tiny village that hugs the flank of a mountain – and boasts 22 watermills. Here are a few of them, lining the Anisaous stream and looking like a Pyrenean version of a housing estate. Some of the cute mills have been restored as cottages, while one serves as a demonstration mill.

The photo below resumes my morning’s research.

It took me an hour and a half of walking up steep z-bends to reach the silent, deserted Col de Liar. I did hear the eerie ring of bells through the mist on my way up, and there was a cold bonfire spot in the flat land at the top – but there was no sign of Eole and his sheep.

At least I determined that what looked like lush green pastureland from a distance was actually bracken (animals don’t eat bracken), so I guess that’s why this land isn’t grazed.

Coming back down, I was struck by a change in the mist. High up, its cold fingers creep down your back, soak your hair and drip dewdrops onto your eyelashes. But lower down it feels warm and steamy, like a Turkish bath, and the sappy, green tang of bracken gives way to the sweet aroma of elderflower. I’ve never experienced this with mist before – so my morning wasn’t a total waste of time, after all.

Back in the village I visited the church (Eole’s mum is dead religious) and found this guy sitting outside looking at MY mountain. He was made by Pedro Frémy, who also made the village carousel I mentioned in Day 6’s post as well as the other metal beasties around the Maison des Arts. Cute, eh?

Finally, I went to Le Kairn for my 5pm talk about my novel Tree Magic. Once again, I had to struggle through the crowd to get inside (actually, there was a crowd, but they weren’t interested in me).

It was lovely to catch up with my Lumineuse writing group friend Min, and I was delighted to see Bob from Laguépie, who I met at the Parisot Festilitt last year, and who had driven for 5 hours to see me.

Maybe they’d heard I’d be serving Pineau after the talk?

Pineau is the traditional aperitif in the Cognac area, and I’d brought a bottle for a farewell drink with all the lovely people who have hosted and befriended me this week: Françoise Gourvès, stained-glass artist extraordinaire and also my host at the Maison des Arts; multi-talented Karine from Le Kairn; Dominique Gainza with the strong, cheese-stirring arm muscles from the Val d’Azun sheep&goat farm; and Véronique the costume queen.

Many thanks to you all, and also to those who couldn’t make it: Alex from the mairie & Maison des Arts, Pascal Gainza, Valentine from Le Kairn, Caroline the costume-maker, Charles the Mayor and all the individuals who answered my (sometimes strange) questions.

And thanks to you who have followed these writing residency blog posts and those of you who came to my talks.

I’ll calm down now, and go back to my monthly posting habit.

Bye-bye, Arras-en-Lavedan. I’ll be back to say hello (with more bottles of Pineau) before too long.

Twilight in the Pyrenees

Writing Residency Day 7:

What have Transylvania and the Pyrenees got in common?

It’s easy to find an answer, but can you find my answer? Admit it, you’re struggling, aren’t you?

The answer is Dracula: vampires (hence this post title), although unfortunately not of the Robert Pattinson variety.

Of course, Dracula is no more indigenous to the Pyrenees than marmots and granite, but this summer, from 25th July to 6th August, you will find the Prince of Shadows at Gavarnie.

The theatre company Fébus have been producing outdoor plays with the Gavarnie cirque as a backdrop for 10 years, including Le Cid and Beauty & the Beast.

This year, they’re preparing their own version of Bram Stoker’s novel with their 12 actors, and I was lucky enough to be party to one of their preparation meetings. This involved the costumes, which Véronique Strub has been in charge of for the last 5 years.

If you’ve followed my writing residency posts, you’ll know that Véronique and her assistant Caroline are on a residency here at the Maison des Arts with me. This means that instead of writing in my room in the company of my mountain, I can be distracted and learn all about costume making instead. For a future story, of course. Everything counts as work when you’re a writer.

I was astonished by the rail of clothes already installed, particularly by the flowery frock. I expressed my surprise to Caroline.

“That’s Dracula’s summer dress,” she said.

And I knew we would get on well together. (I was later told that the dresses had just been stocked there in transit for some sale).

Today’s meeting was with Fébus production & admin boss, Anne-Lise. On the table were the sketches Véronique and Caroline had produced so far, and they proceeded to explain their ideas to Anne-Lise.

Caroline has costume-making qualifications, and told me, as she modified her sketches in line with the discussion, that drawing was an important part of her course.

Véronique has done a huge amount of research, including collecting Balkan costumes on Pinterest and visiting the scene of the play so she knows how close the audience will be. This is vital for dimension decisions.

She has, of course, read Bram Stoker’s novel, concentrating on descriptions of the characters and their clothing. She even pulled out a Dracula picture book at one point during the meeting.

I was surprised to see to what extent the costumes were designed according to the physical build and the personalities of the actors. One character is new, added by scriptwriter and director Bruno Spiesser, and it was obvious that this made it more difficult to create a costume for her.

Bruno’s script was to hand, as was a summary of each act, showing who was on stage for each scene. As I listened, I realised that not only the physique but also the physical actions of each actor must be taken into consideration for the design.

For example, the vampires, who have to crawl on the ground at one point, have knee protections incorporated in their leggings. And the material covering their arms must be solid enough to take the weight of the wing supports.

Even the colour of Dracula’s climbing rope posed a problem, as its fluorescent colours didn’t match the décor.

Other parameters to be taken into account include the lighting, since a spotlight on a distinctive part of a costume can help the audience understand what’s happening.

Most surprising of all – yet completely logical, having heard the discussion – was how the style of costume has to correspond to the style of any music the actors play.

All in all, I realised how important it is for the costume makers to be involved with all parts of a play, from music to décor to the stage movements. With a fabric budget of 3000€ and three experienced costume makers working from now until 25th July, the visual side of the show, at least, looks promising.

If you fancy seeing the show, contact www.festival-gavarnie.com. There’s even a shuttle bus from Pau laid on for those who reserve in advance.

 

 

 

 

 

It was all very well sitting indoors with sewing machines and mannequins, but outside it was 30°C and the air smelt of newly-cut hay. I left the seamstresses and went to walk and think of writerly things in the shade of the forest above the little village of Sireix.

Since Eole and his sheep weren’t around, I took the opportunity to admire some beautiful trees, some curious insects, an interesting man-made feature – and some rare flowers, thanks to a botanical group I bumped into.

 

See you tomorrow for the final day of my writing residency.

 

 

Stories of Art and Legend

Writing Residency Day 6:

This was my view when I opened my shutters today. I almost jumped out of the window, I was so desperate to get outside and melt into the mountains.

But first I’d been invited on a guided visit of the contemporary art circuit in Arras with Alex, the cultural specialist at the mairie.

He was doing a special tour for Manoell Bouillet, who is going to use the circuit as a basis for a children’s writing workshop. This is an activity I’d love to offer, one day, so I was intrigued to see how Manoell built her project.

I’m a fan of guided visits, as I explained in my blog post Can I Waste Your Time?. At first sight, the exhibits in the village are pleasant to spot, but it’s not until you listen to a tour guide that you really look at and appreciate them. Unfortunately for non-French speakers, Alex doesn’t do the visits in English.

The theme of the circuit is the village’s heritage, and it is designed to make us think about what we have inherited – and what heritage we’re leaving future generations.

The visit began at the garden beside Le Kairn, which is NOT a private garden belonging to the bistro-bookshop. There are two exhibits here, and you can enter freely.

The first is a favourite with children. This pedal-powered ‘Carousel of Legends’ was created from scrap metal by local artist Pedro Frémy in collaboration with Richard Rewers. Richard is one of the members of La Machine, which is famous for its huge metallic animals that tour festivals in France and is based in Nantes.

Alex brought the legends to life with his storytelling. The Lake Isaby snake and Le Bécut (Cyclops) come from traditional Pyrenean legends, while the Ferme Andriu goat comes from a village legend. All of them feature local geography and monsters, and can be traced back to glaciation and the dangers of the mountains.

It’s interesting to see how legends change over time, each storyteller interpreting and modernising the story so that it appeals to new audiences. This is a form of living heritage, and Manoell had ideas of using Chinese Whispers in her workshop to demonstrate this point.

The next landmark is one you can’t miss: a marmot pushing (or retaining?) a rounded granite rock on top of a hillock, surrounded by circular beds of fruit bushes. You definitely need a guide to understand that this exhibit is all about what belongs in the valley and how long we should live in a place before we can consider we belong.

Let me explain. The hillock is a drop of water falling into a lake and the circular gardens and ramps are the ripples that emanate from it.

The marmot is a popular symbol of the Pyrenees – yet it isn’t indigenous; it was brought in from The Alps. Likewise, the Val d’Azun is largely limestone. The lumps of granite we can find – such as the Pierre du Balandrau in Argelès-Gazost – are erratics, dropped by the glacier when it retreated.

The Val d’Azun is a hanging valley, and was once under 600m of ice. And did you know that the Lac de Lourdes is the furthest glacial lake from this glacier?

Both the marmot and granite are ‘foreigners’ in the valley, yet they are so integrated that they’re often chosen to represent it. There’s a lesson there!

The visit continued along the route of the black signs. These 26 signs, in black and pink (pink is the extension in the lower part of the village) draw your attention, via a quiz, to diverse landmarks in the village.

If you are disappointed because some don’t highlight the most aesthetic features, this is a normal reaction. It’s deliberate. We’re being encouraged to look at objects we don’t normally notice, such as fences and old TV aerials. These pollutants are part of the heritage we’re leaving future generations.

I won’t describe all the exhibits, but I liked ‘Birth of the Globes’. These three works were created by three different artists on the theme of how man continues Nature’s work. We’re talking about buildings, here, which is why the materials used are wood, stone and clay. If you do the guided visit, ask Alex how the tree and the granite stone arrived here.

The visit finished at the labyrinth outside the church, where I learnt about some original uses of labyrinths in France.

One use was for people to take a meditative walk to the centre (there were no dead ends) and prepare themselves spiritually to meet God before entering church.

Another type of labyrinth was used by the Compagnons du Devoir (an organisation for developing manual skills, dating from the Middle Ages), who used a labyrinth to check the people entering a site. The bona fide workers would pass through in minutes, while imposters would be lost in the dead ends.

Many labyrinths have been destroyed – and the purpose of this one is to make us think about the heritage we don’t pass onto future generations.

It was great fun to work with Alex and Manoell. As we walked, we brainstormed ideas for exploiting the exhibits to create fun and meaningful writing exercises for kids. I’d love to participate in one of her workshops.

After such a thought-provoking morning I headed up to the Col des Bordères – the site of Pascal Gainza’s summer pastures – and took a delightful stroll with my protagonist Eole.

 

We went up to the Pic de Predoucet, where I spent the afternoon writing, mountain-spotting and watching clouds sneak in from backstage and dress the peaks…

…Which reminded me of costume designers Véronique Strub and Caroline back at the Maison des Arts. Now they’ve got rid of the two dead birds they found in the storeroom they’re busy with their pencils and mannequins.

But more about that tomorrow.

In Pastures High

Writing Residency Day 5

Today I risked my life for my protagonist.

I would have been perfectly happy to sit and write at my desk all day, looking at the shy mountain from my window.

That’s what I did do until lunchtime. Then my protagonist – let’s call him, say, Eole – woke up. He’s a teenager, which explains the late rising.

“Let’s go climb,” he said. “Got to check on the sheep.”

It was nice to have some active company rather than the usual passive paper characters. My boots had dried out, the sun was kind of shining in parts of the valley and I had promised him we’d go out together today.

So off we went in the car to Aucun, then up the hairpin bends to the Col du Couraduque (1367m).

Eole’s weekend task is to check on the family’s flock of ewes, which graze up on the mountain pastures above the treeline from June to September. He has to check their feet, spray antiseptic on any cuts etc., and if any are hobbling too much he brings them back down to the valley.

Eole is too young to drive, so he often gets a lift up to the Col with his mates from the paragliding school, who run-and-jump from there. I think he spends more time watching the colourful wings floating in the air than minding the ewes.

I was relieved to discover that mountain roads are far less scary when you’re driving than when you’re a passenger.

(I was in tears last year when my partner drove us between the Col du Soulor and the Col d’Aubisque in a thick mist. As passenger, I was on the steep slope side of the road, which fell into swirling white nothingness. And he was going far too fast at 30kmh).

I parked at the Col, and Eole and I walked towards the rocky ridge.

“Just forget I’m here,” I said as I followed him up the path.

I think that was my error. Because – unusually for a teenager – he did exactly what I suggested.

Why is it that teenagers walk at the same speed as grandparents when they’re in town, but as soon as they’re on a mountain they race up it?

I was trying to take photos – so that we would remember the scenery when we’re back in Cognac and Eole returns to his passive state on paper – which meant I was much slower than him.

On and on Eole walked, higher and higher into the pastures until we found his sheep, grazing in a loose group and clanging their bells as they walked (yes, I know those are cows in the photo…).

To begin with, all was well. Eole threw himself down in the springy, heathy grass and gazed upwards, while I admired the flowers, insects, hoofprints – anything that was firmly on the ground. Above us, clouds skimmed the rocky heights, and he seemed fascinated by them, probably because there were no paragliders today.

But the sheep kept wandering off and climbing higher. Eole followed. I followed Eole, taking pictures and jotting down notes as I went.

At one point I saw the following sign: ‘Passages Délicats’, which translates as ‘dangerous paths’.

Last time I saw this sign, I nearly lost my daughter (flesh and blood, not a story character) down the side of a mountain, so you can imagine I was a little nervous. I mean, Eole wasn’t exactly going to throw me a rope or call the emergency services if I had an accident, was he? And there was nobody else about.

I suggested we could perhaps take the forest variant, but he just shrugged and jerked his head to the unperturbed sheep. “No grass in the woods.”

So on we went, me looking nervously down at the steep drop to one side and Eole looking up at the sky.

I was just getting used to it when we arrived at a ridge, a rocky crête, and there were suddenly two steep drops.

By now we were pretty high, and I noticed some birds of prey circling. A helpful information sign lower down had mentioned that Griffon vultures fed on dead animals up here, so this wasn’t reassuring either. All it would take was a slipping foot as I crouched to photograph a butterfly.

At which point I slipped

And rolled

A little.

Grabbed grass

And very quickly came to a standstill.

 

Strangely, I felt better after this. I threw myself down (well, lowered myself gently) into a safe-ish position and followed Eole’s example of looking up and around instead of down.

The view was stunning. I tried to remember the names the old man had given me and pin them on the peaks. There’s a quality to the silence – when combined with the cold, thin air and the view – that tastes of freedom.

I started to understand why Eole likes it up here; why he’s the one in his family who deals with the sheep all summer.

But I think there’s an additional reason why Eole comes up here. I think he has a secret.

Anyway, I let Eole do his stuff with the sheep, and, as I watched him, I realised that he needs a sheepdog.

The clouds were blackening, so I left Eole up there with his sheep and made my way down, having agreed to meet him tomorrow afternoon in a different pasture with a different flock of sheep.

Back at the Maison des Arts a plastic bag was waiting on the doormat outside the door. A present? For me? I picked it up.

Inside were two freshly dead birds.

I flicked through my knowledge of French superstitions and witchcraft, to no avail. Puzzled, I left them there and opened the door.

A lady was waiting on the stairs.

“Hello,” I said.

But she didn’t reply.

Well, she wouldn’t, would she? Not without a head.

Upstairs, three of her comrades were huddled together by my door: naked, beautiful – and also headless.

There’ll be no sleepwalking for me tonight.

***

Thank you for reading right down to here. I’d just like to remind you that I write fiction, so there’s no need to take everything in this post as being 100% true…