At the end of the nineties, while still living in Spain, I applied for and was offered my perfect job. It was a job that I did for almost ten years. I taught English to visitors to the UK and as the years passed my classes increasingly included more and more ESOL students – refugees and asylum seekers from trouble spots around the world. I loved these students and was proud to teach them; their honesty taught me so much about the terrible things people are capable of and yet, at the same time and ironically, the hope and strength that can appear in the darkest of times. On balance, they taught me that maybe , just maybe, the world is not as terrible a place as I sometimes believed it to be .
In the last few years of my time there, however, things began to change. Without going into detail, I lost both of my parents within the space of a year and things at the college where I worked took a turn for the worse.The college began a journey along a path which increasingly I felt I could not with a clear conscious follow.
Eventually I felt that I had no recourse but to leave. It broke my heart and filled me with a terrible guilt that I would be leaving my students behind.
On the day that I left every one of my students helped me carry my belongings out to the car. We hope, one said, that one day we’ll be here to help you carry them back in again. I hoped so too.
On the week before I left, in a spare moment at work and filled with feelings that I had yet to understand completely, I began to scribble the beginnings of a story. Every night more and more poured out of me onto paper and on the night that I finally left I went home and wrote furiously for three hours without stopping.
On the next morning, the first day of the rest of my life, I suddenly realised that I had the makings of something that was developing a life of its own. I had the beginning and I knew the ending, now all I had to do was work out what went on in between. And what’s more, a sudden confidence emerged from nowhere and whispered quite clearly in my ear that I was capable of doing this.
Over the next four months, I worked part-time and spent every spare moment with this story and the characters who inhabited it. It’s a cliché I know but I have to say that, honestly, most of the book wrote itself. At moments when I had no idea what would come next in the story, I would finish a chapter and suddenly the first line to the next chapter would just pop into my head. This happened so many times that I learnt to trust the fact that it was all there inside of me. Somewhere. And it was.
At the end of four months, I finally reached the words: the end. By this time, I was a different person. The anger in me at my parents’ death and the way things had turned out at work, was finally beginning to subside. The book had helped me reach this place.
It is a story, I believe, for children. But not solely for children. It is about all the things that interest me: language, communication, what makes us different and what connects us, and, ultimately, how we act when faced with injustice. It’s influences are many and varied from 101 Dalmatians to Escape from Colditz via Nosferatu , Enter the Dragon and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Now I look back and can honestly say that until I wrote the first line of the story, I had never had even the vaguest desire to write a story for children nor the slightest inkling of the people and places who appeared therein. They appeared from nowhere when I needed them most. I gave myself up to them and out they came. I love them and even if they never inspire that feeling in one other person, I think that I can live with that. They appeared to me. For me. They helped me through the hardest time of my life. They fulfilled their main raison d’etre.
Now they’ve been sitting gathering dust for the last eighteen months and I feel that I haven’t done them the justice that they did me. So now I have decided to share. Re-write some sections of the book that don’t work as well as I would like them to and try (and this is the hardest thing) to make it a little shorter. I will post it chapter by chapter and await with eagerness for any comments (constructive please) from people (especially those who don’t know me and have no vested interest in keeping me happy) that can help me to make it a better novel.
I hope that you enjoy at least some of this story and if you do would ask you to let other people know about it – especially those with children of ten, eleven or above.
This is the most nerve-racking thing I have ever done. Deep breath, Graham. Here goes.