Thank you, Ben Huberman and Discover Prompts for today’s title prompt, Focus.  My inability to do just that has been a problem during recent weeks, and I’ve even just eaten my last biscuit without noticing. 

As the Coronavirus pandemic started to take hold, Discover Prompts decided to post daily prompts throughout April to help us all regain our writing rhythm and, for me,  it has been a blessing. Writing is a lonely business at the best of times, let alone when everything you know suddenly becomes an alien place.

The prompts have helped me to move away from the dark place my writing was falling into and they drew me out from my gloomy Life Under the Covid-19 Cloud posts. I suppose, confronting Coronavirus through our writing is something we all needed to get off our chests, but not if it takes our focus away from the writing we love.

I am not someone who is going to be writing a suspense novel about a pandemic-busting superhero any day soon. I just want to make people smile. I was well into my second novel, a murder mystery spoof set in the fictitious market town of Didsbrook when everything kicked off.  I had planned to finish it by the end of April. Then, poof! The pandemic pushed the comedic focus out of my head.

At my virtual Jersey Writers Social Group meeting this morning, I was asked. 

‘When are we going to hear more about Didsbrook?’

‘Soon.’ I said. But, you know what? Thanks to Discover Prompts, I’m ready to focus on what really matters in my writing life, and that would be, The Doyenne of Didsbrook.

Extract from the Doyenne of Didsbrook

©2020 Tessa Barrie

I was born on the 11th of July 1996, which coincidentally, is World Population Day. My mother, Joan, was marvelling at the content of the Fresh Produce section of Didsbrook’s new Coop in the old abattoir building in Stockyard Street when her waters broke. Legend has it, my father, John, with the help of the store manager, bundled her into a trolley and pushed her across the cobbled market place to the Didsbrook Cottage Hospital. Just after they wheeled her in, I popped out, and the World Population counter flipped over to include me, and the population of Didsbrook rose to 651.

Didsbrook is a sleepy market town nestling in the bosom of a conservation area. It can be accessed either by train or by car, but there is only one way in, and one way out by either means of transport.  It is a pastoral dead end, an idyllic haven, surrounded by rolling hills and lush, green countryside – one of the last remaining bastions of serenity in England’s green and pleasant land.

The tranquillity of our daily lives is rarely disturbed, other than by the shrill songs of the Yellow Hammer and Corn Bunting floating on the breeze. Or the constant, gentle rushing sound of the Didsbrook Rise, a shallow, stony brook, winding its way through the heart of town, on its way to feed the trout lake at Didsbrook Manor before joining the River Stoner.

Life has changed little since our medieval forebears first embedded their pitchforks here. Sometimes I walk along Didsbrook’s cobbled streets, and I imagine how life was in those days. Laughing women wearing frilly mop caps, carrying shoulder yokes, on their way to milk cows or collect water from the Didsbrook Rise.  Men dressed in wool tunics and breeches, smoking clay pipes or chewing on pieces of straw.  Some poor sod splattered in rotten tomatoes locked in the pillory in the Market Place, suffering public humiliation for perjury or subordination.

The town and the lush pastures of the South Downs surrounding Didsbrook are out of bounds to developers.  However, there is one blot on our rural landscape, the Elmsmere Dairy, where my father is Plant Manager.  It was built in the 1990s, amidst much controversy.  Our Town Planners eventually agreeing to tuck it away at the bottom of a hill, five miles outside Didsbrook; so, it can’t be seen from the town. The dairy is the closest any contractor has got to the township, and it serves as a constant reminder of why we need to preserve the natural beauty of the countryside. Despite its ugly presence, the dairy was a necessity. Didsbrook was in dire need of a pasteurising plant because the bovine population outnumbers its two-legged inhabitants by 5-1.

I consider myself blessed to have grown up free to frolic amid the Arcadian beauty of Didsbrook and the surrounding countryside. My older brother, Daniel, and I were like a pair of feral kittens, scampering over the unblemished landscape, climbing trees and falling over, returning home with scuffed knees. The only other children living in Didsbrook at the time were Betty Hargreaves the butcher’s daughter, who was in the same year as Daniel, and Kevin Harper, who was my age. Kevin was an odd child. He was awkward at school, and rarely interacted with our peers. Although Daniel was happy to include Betty in our adventures, we always tried to give Kevin the slip, which wasn’t hard to do. He was overweight, and we knew we could out-jog him, so when we sprinted, we became specks on his horizon within seconds.

Didsbrook has always been considered a safe place to live. Which will be the reason why I have no recollection of either of our parents laying down any rules about what we could or couldn’t do, or where we could or couldn’t go. In reality, the only other living souls we ever bumped into were four-legged. Friesian cows. Didsbrook’s primary industry has always been dairy farming. It still is.  The most threatening encounter my brother and I were ever likely to have, would have been to find ourselves in the same field as the Holstein-Friesian bull from Frogs Bottom Farm, known locally as Dave. I remember Daniel and I discussing our plan of action should we ever have a close encounter with Didsbrook’s Divine David. We agreed that, because Dave looked like a Friesian Sumo wrestler, we were confident we could outsprint him, just like we did with Kevin. Fortunately, our theory never had to be put to the test.