As you’ve probably guessed from the title, Summer At Hollyhock House is set in summer. I started writing it in earnest about this time last year, as gunmetal-grey skies rolled over bleak, spindly silhouettes of bare trees and the only sign of colour and warmer days to come was the crocuses and narcissi poking their cheery little heads through the relentless gloom. Maybe I was just craving some warmth and life and colour but it wasn’t so much the imagery of summer I had in mind when I was writing, as the feeling.
I grew up in a small village in rural Sussex that does summer very well. The village green, its crowning glory, is always packed in the warmer months, surrounded by majestic horse chestnut trees and playing host to cricket, football, rowdy mobs of children and families enjoying picnics and games of rounders. A walk around the outer rural lanes is like a stroll through the Chelsea Flower Show, magnificent gardens heavy with high-summer blooms sending sweet, heady scent wafting into the air. It’s always lively and busy, there’s always something going on, everybody’s out and about and full of chatter and activity and the odd inevitable complaint about how hot it is.
It’s impossible not to feel happy on these heady summer days, happy and hopeful and like you belong. That’s one of the feelings I was looking to capture with my novel, the sense of belonging.
But when I really think about summer, and what it means to me, and what it was I wanted the book to capture and reflect, I think about the mornings.
Now first things first. I am not a morning person. I drag myself protesting out of bed every. Single. Day without fail and while yes it’s easier in summer when there’s soft light pouring in through the windows and the air is balmy, I’d probably still rather just roll over and go back to sleep. I’ve always been this way, since I was a young child my mother had to shake me complaining out of bed every morning. In fact there was only one thing that could stir me into action voluntarily, and that was if I was going out to ride horses.
Horsey people start their days early, some yards get cracking at 6am. I worked for several such yards in my formative years and the prospect of a day of the irresistible combination of manual labour, the company of animals and time outdoors was enough to boot me out of bed and get me moving. Up, get dressed, eat breakfast half-asleep then out of the door and onto my bike. Even then I’d be half wishing I was still in bed.
Outside the sun would already have risen in the sky and the air would be fresh, not yet warmed up after the cool night. The dawn chorus would be in full swing and the village green would be basking in the early morning rays. On these mornings, there was rarely another soul to be seen, the odd solitary dog-walker maybe, making the most of the peace and quiet before the serious business of the day began. But usually I was alone. Just me and my bike and wherever it was I had to be. Whizzing past those gardens as their glorious displays began to unfurl themselves, ready for another day of basking in the sun. There were hardly any cars on the roads at such an early hour. At dawn the village didn’t belong to people. It was its own world, private, secretive and busy with the movement of insects and birds and foxes returning home after a night of pillaging, but devoid of human activity.
Despite the aloneness I never felt lonely. I felt infused and imbibed with the magic that surrounded me and it really was magic, not hocus-pocus but true and deep earthy magic. The dew on the grass, the fat, pale droplets gleaming irrediscent on the petals of roses. My favourites were the peachy-yellow ones that turned pink at the edges. I wondered if fairies drank that dew from the petals every morning, before the world awoke. If the sun was already heating up, mist would rise from fields behind thick hedges over which I could just see, from my vantage point on my two-wheeled steed. Rabbits often frolicked in the morning rays, even the odd deer, enchanting looking creatures of fable who would be alerted by the noise of my tyres on the road and raise their heads, startled, ready to run lest I pose a threat.
No, not lonely, I’ve always enjoyed solitude since I was very young, and the whimsical thoughts in my head seemed too uncool to consider voicing out loud. But it did often occur to me how much I would have liked to share this with somebody or something. If instead of the bike, I was riding along on my own pony, a chestnut Arab with a gleaming coat and pluming tail, skittering and darting at the shadows cast onto the road. Or a dog, trotting along faithfully at my heels, occasionally breaking away to bounce into one of the fields and pursue the unfortunate rabbits.
And then when I got older I would sometimes wonder what it would be like if that person was with me. That person, the one who saw right into my fanciful heart and didn’t scorn my notion that the world of the morning was a bridge between two realities, the one of people, and the one that lies beyond most of us. The world of my favourite childhood authors, where trees have spirits and animals can talk and there is magic and mystery beyond the human eye, visible only to those who really want to see it.
Sometimes, I wondered if I let my eyes lose focus and let the landscape around me meld into a blurry mass, radiant with colour and texture and scent, I would be able to see it. And then if I turned my head I would find beside me that person, they would have materialised next to me, and they would be able to see it, because they could see me too.