It’s interesting to stop and think, sometimes, about the roots of one’s work. If someone asks me where the ‘idea’ for my novel The Wicked Girls came from, it’s easy to tell the story of receiving a round-robin email calling for the death of a pair of British men who have never been forgiven for a crime committed in childhood; of emerging stunned from the cinema after seeing Heavenly Creatures for the first time; of seeing trial reports come over the wire at the newspaper where I worked, only to see almost unrecognisable stories appear in other publications; of watching a murder victim’s innocent landlord subjected to trial by tabloid as I wrote the book. But then other memories surface…
I grew up in Cotswold villages exactly like Long Barrow, where my girls’ original crime takes place: all thatched roofs and walls of golden stone and tiny medieval windows. There are scores of them, tucked away in lush green valleys, gathered round thousand-year-old churches, filled in the summer with camera-toting travellers, their eyes dark with bucolic dreams. These villages are the closest thing to the British dream: places where everyone believes that they could be happy.
The reality, of course, is quite different. Behind the Britain in Bloom contests and the jubilee hog-roasts lies a world where the class system never died out, where troubled families are as likely to be put in Coventry as helped, and where the only entertainment, if you don’t have a car, is the village Bench. The Bench can be found in every village, usually filled with a handful of sullen teenagers who fall silent when an adult walks past, a place where ‘nice’ kids are forbidden to go. The fiercest row I ever had with my mother centred around the fact that I’d been seen drinking cider on the Bench and had brought disgrace on her. Villages are like that: all judgements and pursed lips behind the mullion windows.
And every village has a Family. The one held up to all the other children as an example, the one people will cross the road to avoid. On the outskirts of my village lived the Broadhursts: a clutch of children ruled over by a bearded man who held his coat on with string. No-one had ever seen the mother. He was a farmer – well, he owned land on which he kept a collection of rusted machinery and some squealing pigs – but his main occupation seemed to be picking fights with the neighbors and threatening representatives of the local council.
We were the Posh Kids. There were plenty of us around; this was the Cotswolds after all. We spent most of our summers riding horses and occasionally dodging the odd small stone hurled from the village bench. Once I reached the age of 10 or so, the horses became a good excuse to explore one’s independence: for some reason the parents were under the impression, despite a healthy history of broken bones, that no real harm could come to us on horseback. My friends and I would spend our days ranging the countryside, swimming in the river, talking about boys. Not a bad childhood, as childhoods go, but sometimes our route took us across the Broadhursts’ land.
One afternoon in late June, when I was twelve – the crops waiting to turn and the sky high and blue – I was going to the next village to meet a friend when I arrived at Broadhurst’s barley field. The official right of way ran straight across his field, but he had planted over it so there was no sign of the path. On the far side, I could see him silhouetted against the sky, sitting on a chair atop an abandoned bus, a shotgun slung over his shoulders and supporting his draped wrists, like a character from a Mad Max movie. I pondered for a moment, then steered my horse along the hedge with the country person’s respect for crops. Broadhurst sat still and watched as I approached. When I got within speaking distance, I called a cheery country hello. He looked at me in silence.
I came closer. He stood up. Despite the heat of the day, his old woollen overcoat remained tied firmly to his body, as though it had grown to be a part of it. ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ he asked.
I didn’t have an answer for this.
‘The bridlepath’s over there,’ he said, pointing at the sea of feathered barley.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I didn’t want to damage your crop.’
‘You people,’ he said, and hoisted his gun down into one hand, ‘think you can do anything. There’s a path. You’re only allowed on the path.’
‘I can’t see the path. I thought it was better if I…’
‘And now you’ve damaged my land,’ he said, and lifted his gun butt to his shoulder. My horse, Bones, shifted beneath me, snatched at a tuft of grass.
‘I don’t think I have,’ I stammered. ‘I just rode round the edge.’
Bones suddenly jumped, as though he’d seen a tiger, or a blue plastic fertiliser bag, which, as everyone knows, is the most terrifying thing one can find in the British countryside. To my left, a child my age clambered onto the roof of an Austin Healey that had been there so long its wheel-rims were sunk deep into the hardened mud. She was wearing jeans that skimmed her ankles, an old pink t-shirt so tight it squeezed the blossoming breast-buds beneath obscenely, and her hair had been cut with the kitchen scissors. She stared at me, I stared at her. A sudden cloud passed over the sun.
‘If I see you damaging my land again,’ said the farmer, still pointing his shotgun, his voice quiet and filled with menace ‘you won’t get off so easy. There’s a path. Use it.’
I apologised humbly and squeezed Bones into a trot. Rode off up the track to the main road, my face burning, as Broadhurst and his daughter stared silently at my retreating back. I never went that way again. Never told my parents, either, for fear that our freedom would be curtailed and the dead hand of parental supervision would once again clamp down. But there, lurking quietly in my memory, was my character Jade, waiting for her moment to step onto the pages of a book.