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Tour: Small Eden by Jane Davis

Book details:

Book Title: Small Eden

Author: Jane Davis

Publication Date:30 April 2022, eBooks / 30 May 2022, paperbacks

Publisher: Rossdale Print Productions

Page Length:394

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A boy with his head in the clouds. A man with a head full of dreams.

1884. The symptoms of scarlet fever are easily mistaken for teething, as Robert Cooke and his pregnant wife Freya discover at the cost of their two infant sons. Freya immediately isolates for the safety of their unborn child. Cut off from each other, there is no opportunity for husband and wife to teach each other the language of their loss. By the time they meet again, the subject is taboo. But unspoken grief is a dangerous enemy. It bides its time.

A decade later and now a successful businessman, Robert decides to create a pleasure garden in memory of his sons, in the very same place he found refuge as a boy – a disused chalk quarry in Surrey’s Carshalton. But instead of sharing his vision with his wife, he widens the gulf between them by keeping her in the dark. It is another woman who translates his dreams. An obscure yet talented artist called Florence Hoddy, who lives alone with her unmarried brother, painting only what she sees from her window…

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The air in the Greyhound’s bar room is thick with warming smells. Woodsmoke, pipe tobacco, penny Woodbines and whatever stew is on tonight’s menu. “I’m not sure I can stomach another lecture about treading a fine line between parkscape and wilderness!” Robert rolls his eyes. “I’m coming round to the idea of running a competition for the design.”

Frank takes up his tankard and drains the dregs. “You’ll get every young so and so who’s trying to earn himself a bit of a reputation.”

“That’s what I’m hoping. The more publicity the better.” The scent of hops – of resin and pine and citrus – rises up as Robert brings his mug to his lips. He isn’t really a beer man. “Meanwhile, I’ll start clearing the site. Get a feel for it.”

“Can’t work against chalk.” Frank points to Robert’s tankard. “Another?”

“I’ve hardly made any headway with this one.”

Frank scrapes back his chair. “No rush.”

He comes back from the bar with two brimming tankards, picking up seamlessly where they left off. “Thinking of clearing the site yourself?” Elbowed from his blind side, Frank turns to see who has almost spilled his pint of old and mild, a glare and a sharp word ready, but when he finds it’s the barmaid he brightens, winking his good eye.

“I fancy I might roll my sleeves up,” Robert says.

Frank looks scathing. “Show us your hands.”

Robert holds them out, palms uppermost. To his own eyes, they look deeply creviced, the whorls of his fingerprints puckered, fine vertical lines running the length of his digits.

“When’s the last time you held a shovel? Take a look at these. These are a working man’s hands.” Frank’s hands are a landscape of their own, each callous a badge of honour. He has cut chalk since he was old enough to grasp a spade. He leans back and looks under the table at Robert’s shoes. “Spats,” he scoffs. “I’ll wager you don’t even own a pair o’ work boots.”

“A wager you’d win.” Robert grins. He started his working life as an office boy. He filled inkwells, fetched files, ferried messages. It was a job that required a wing-tipped collar and polished shoes, things that at the age of twelve made him feel important. Though he’s progressed to business owner, a pen-pusher he remains. Robert may know what needs to be done and the best way to go about it, but he’s the man who does the deals and writes the cheques.

The fingers of Frank’s left hand drum the tabletop. “I’ve the time if you think you could use me.”

“I thought you’d be glad to see the back of the place.”

“What am I going to do with myself?” Frank’s face is plunged into shadow as he looks to the corner of the room. “We did things the traditional way. I was taught by my father and he was taught by his father before him.” Generations of Reynolds worked that plot; now, everything they achieved will be erased. “There are fewer places for skilled workers in this world of steam-power. The whole rhythm o’ life’s changed.”

Robert’s business relies on mechanisation. The extraction of poppy resin can’t be automated, but the process of distillation runs on steam, increasing output at a reduced cost. The quarry might have closed by the time his name was added to the deeds, but he’s played his part in the story of progress. He’s about to ask Frank if his brothers have found work, but Frank shakes his head wearily.

“Ventures like ours fall by the wayside – and I’m the wrong side of forty.” Then he takes a sip and brightens. “But you’re going to need someone who knows a thing or two about chalk.”

Robert had men in mind, men in need of a wage, while Frank has the proceeds from the sale. But Robert knows what it is to be uprooted. He owes it to old William’s memory, old William and his history lessons. A man who would share things Robert’s mother was incapable of sharing. Having worn every emotion on her sleeve while his father was alive, she kept them under lock and key in the aftermath of his death and assumed that Robert – a child – would understand what it was she was holding inside. More than that, she expected him to be her consolation, and he couldn’t. Not when she’d insisted they left the home where they’d been happy and come to the place that killed his father.

“I’d be glad of your help,” Robert says. “Though it might only be short-term.”

“You’ll be impressed by how useful I can make myself.”

“How much is this usefulness going to cost me?”

“Ten shillings a week seems fair.”

Somewhere between the wage of an agricultural worker and a bricklayer. “I think I can see my way to that.”

“And I’ve my two youngest. Good lads. They’ll want four shillings apiece.”

Robert’s eyes widen. “I dare say. How old are they?”

“Eleven and thirteen. Do you have boys?”

In a blink, his boys’ coffins. The size of them. At times like that, you stand outside yourself. How else could you do what must be done? Another blink and the vision is gone. “Girls,” Robert replies. “You?”

“Four boys and a girl, but we’ve only the two youngsters with us now. I’ll make sure you get a decent day’s work out of them.”

“I don’t doubt it.” They shake hands across the table.

“You drinking that?” Frank points to the second tankard he brought back from the bar.

The man can certainly hold his ale. “Be my guest.”

Hailed by The Bookseller as ‘One to Watch’, Jane Davis writes thought-provoking literary page turners.

She spent her twenties and the first half of her thirties chasing promotions in the business world but, frustrated by the lack of a creative outlet, she turned to writing.

Her first novel, 'Half-Truths and White Lies', won a national award established with the aim of finding the next Joanne Harris. Further recognition followed in 2016 with 'An Unknown Woman' being named Self-Published Book of the Year by Writing Magazine/the David St John Thomas Charitable Trust, as well as being shortlisted in the IAN Awards, and in 2019 with 'Smash all the Windows' winning the inaugural Selfies Book Award. Her novel, 'At the Stroke of Nine O’Clock' was featured by The Lady Magazine as one of their favourite books set in the 1950s, selected as a Historical Novel Society Editor's Choice, and shortlisted for the Selfies Book Awards 2021.

Interested in how people behave under pressure, Jane introduces her characters when they are in highly volatile situations and then, in her words, she throws them to the lions. The themes she explores are diverse, ranging from pioneering female photographers, to relatives seeking justice for the victims of a fictional disaster.

Jane Davis lives in Carshalton, Surrey, in what was originally the ticket office for a Victorian pleasure gardens, known locally as ‘the gingerbread house’. Her house frequently features in her fiction. In fact, she burnt it to the ground in the opening chapter of 'An Unknown Woman'. In her latest release, Small Eden, she asks the question why one man would choose to open a pleasure gardens at a time when so many others were facing bankruptcy?

When she isn’t writing, you may spot Jane disappearing up the side of a mountain with a camera in hand.

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Tour hosted by: The Coffee Pot Book Club

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