About the author
Sometimes you’re unexpectedly confronted with the need to make a decision that has the potential to change the course of your life, although you might not e fully aware of it at the time. On the face of it, I should have realised as soon as I read the letter that was waiting for me when I got home from work.
Out of the blue, the letter was offering me a job abroad that I had not applied for - and was not even aware it existed. When you have three children, two of whom are already in school, the prospect of moving them to live in a different country where a different language is spoken might seem a difficult decision to take. But we did not hesitate for a moment.
Within six months, we had sold our house in the UK and were living in a Swiss village close to the French border. The village was overlooked by castle ruins that were steeped in history and became a favourite playground for the kids. We never looked back.
I had applied for a job once before some 150 kilometres further north on the other side of border and was sent a contract all ready to be signed. But an unseen hand intervened and stopped me putting pen to paper, as if to say there was a bigger prize waiting further down the road. And it’s true to say that, as soon as we arrived, I felt a weird magnetism about this place along the road. Almost a sense of déjà vu, like meeting someone you feel you know, although you've never met before.
It was this that inspired my debut novel The Dark Frontier
My second novel, Flowers from the Black Sea, is set to be published in early 2024.
The Dark Frontier:
“an absorbing and mysterious drama that meticulously crafts a menacing tale” - Goodreads
“gripping” “definitely worth reading” - Goodreads
“A complex and absorbing read ... this book compels you to keep reading.
The plotline held echoes of ‘Cloud Atlas’ for me.”
Available from bookshops and online,
e.g. from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo,
Waterstones or Blackwells
both in paperback (ISBN 978-1-913962-18-0)
and as ebook (ISBN 978-1-913962-19-7)
The Dark Frontier
The death of journalist Frank Goss has cast a shadow full of troubling question marks over Ellen's bereavement. Above all, what led him to disappear from her life without any explanation?
When Frank arrives in Basel, Switzerland, to cover a referendum on women's suffrage in 1971, he is plagued by hallucinations. After admission to a clinic, he vanishes. And Ellen is left only with a mysterious verse that psychiatrist Dr Zellweger says he wrote before discharging himself. But not only do the descriptions of their patient not tally with the Frank she knows. The patient gave his name as Eigenmann. Had he been living a separate life she knew nothing about?
While she searches for Frank with generous support from Zellweger's wife Marthe, the story of Eigenmann gradually emerges: the drama of a man possessed, exiled in a border town beset by the bullying behaviour of its Nazi neighbours in the late 1930s and drawn by the allure of a beautiful woman. But was this all a figment of Frank's imagination? Only after his funeral is it brought home to Ellen that she was offered a clue to unlocking this mystery from the outset.
The Dark Frontier
It was a sunny afternoon in early spring. 1972. On any normal day at this hour in late March, Ellen would have been hurrying home across Putney Bridge. Still wrapped in her winter coat against the North Sea chill blowing off the Thames. But this was not London. And Ellen had not known normal for a good twelve months or more.
The sun that was doing its best to embrace Ellen on this particular afternoon shone over Locarno, Switzerland. And it was only now, sitting here on the Piazza Grande, that it finally sank in. She was never going to see Frank again. And the knowledge was driven home with an exquisite sting by the words of Vicky Leandros: ‘Aprés toi je ne serai que l’ombre’. The words wafted out from the café behind her. They sang of a cold dark solitude. A vast pitch-black shadow, made all the murkier by the light and convivial warmth on the piazza around her.
Those lyrics were all she had heard since Marthe first played her the song. Every radio in every café seemed to be playing it now. They kept intruding on Ellen’s mind wherever she went – from the moment she saw the last hint of his existence vanish for all eternity. That was last Friday. Ever since then, the song had been a constant companion on her journey.
It was already a good three weeks since she had last seen Frank himself. Neatly draped on the slab. In truth, the shock of seeing what had become of him after the long intervening months following his sudden disappearance was tempered by his prolonged absence beforehand. An absence that had gnawed deep gaping wounds in her knowledge and understanding of him. And she wondered now whether she had ever known him at all in any real sense of the word. For it had been a whirlwind romance. Barely three months into bliss before they married and then a few more months before he vanished.
Had he really been living a double life all the time, as events seemed to suggest?
The eyes that fixed their gaze on Ellen as she mulled over this history went unnoticed. It was a slightly furtive gaze. And carried a hint of trepidation. Sitting at the table next to Ellen, the elegantly dressed lady opened a large Louis Vuitton bag on her lap. And as if to calm her nerves with a little distraction, she spent the next few minutes busily burrowing inside it. Like a nesting bird.
It was this activity that eventually broke Ellen’s concentration. When she turned her head, the burrowing stopped for a moment. She caught sight of a brief glance in her direction before the elegant lady quickly resumed the search of her bag. Relieved to have some distraction from her own dark thoughts, Ellen watched, wondering what precious object lay hidden inside. And whether it would ever be revealed. She judged the woman to be late fifties to early sixties. Her thick grey hair still showed strong hints of a jet-black mane from years gone by that perfectly matched her black twinset with cream trim. Ellen had seen something very like it in a fashion magazine at Marthe’s place. She fancied it was probably from Chanel. Over the woman’s shoulders there draped a large scarf that hindered her search. And eventually she gave up.
She closed the Louis Vuitton bag, revealing the letters P.R. embossed in gold on the tongue, looked over at Ellen and smiled.
“I saw you in Basel recently. On the bridge in the centre of town,” she said. There was a conspiratorial edge to her words.
Ellen smiled back, unsure she was ready for any kind of conversation.
“You were with a friend and looked a little agitated,” the woman continued. “But it was the boots that really caught my eye.”
She cast a glance down at Ellen’s feet under the table next to hers. Ellen was still wearing the same high-heeled boots with thick platform soles that she had been wearing ever since she arrived in Switzerland. She had bought them at Biba in Kensington High Street just over a year ago. It was the weekend before Frank had flown out to Switzerland. He had been busy working on an assignment all weekend, so she had taken herself off shopping.
“I do admire girls these days. I’m sure I could never have worn boots like that in my day.”
By now, the mournful words of Vicky Leandros had been swapped for the catchy T. Rex melody ‘Ride a White Swan’. It seemed oddly out of place for a quiet Ticinese piazza. And the strikingly beautiful warble of Marc Bolan’s voice did nothing to lighten her mood, but reminded her of Frank with even greater poignancy.
“Is this your first time in Switzerland?” the P.R. lady persevered. Ellen was jolted from her thoughts, and for an instant she gave in.
“Yes. Well no, not really.”
“You don’t seem too sure.”
“I was here last year.” Ellen was conscious of sounding abrupt, but she was in no mood for further explanation and changed tack. “You speak very good English.”
“I had a very good teacher.” The words came with a wistful look that plainly held an entire chronicle of special memories.
Raising her left hand as she smiled across to the woman, Ellen attracted the waiter’s attention. She really had no wish to be drawn any further into conversation and, placing three francs on the table to cover any tip, she got up to leave.
“I have to get back to my hotel,” she said, and continued smiling politely across the table. “It was very nice talking to you.”
With a look of strangely knowing curiosity, the mysterious lady watched Ellen stride across the piazza towards the lake in her platform boots. They lent an air of confidence to Ellen’s walk that belied her underlying anxiety. When she reached the lakeside, she stood for a moment by the water next to a gelateria that was playing the ubiquitous background melody of Vicky Leandros.
A lonely bedraggled swan floated adrift beneath the jetty to her left. Ellen smiled and almost unconsciously began to hum the T. Rex melody to herself as she was reminded of the times Frank would take her mudlarking along the Thames when the tide was low. Of the shabby swans that swam past and would inspire him to poetry as he tugged an old camera from the mud. Or a broken vase. Repeated reminders of Frank that left Ellen trapped in the arms of one vast shadow.
She watched the activity around her: young families gathering for their ice cream; an elderly man and a woman admiring each other’s dogs; and out on the water a scattering of white yacht sails bobbing like lost punctuation marks against the backdrop of the mountainside.
Like a boat beneath a sunny sky. Those words from Frank came to Ellen as she watched the yachts out on the lake. They reminded her of the sunlit day they stood on Putney Bridge together. Watching the water. A solitary boat floated silently downstream. And under his breath, Frank whispered: “Still she haunts me, phantomwise / Alice moving under skies / Never seen by waking eyes.”
Ellen recalled gaping at him in bewilderment and saying something like: “Where did that come from?”
It was the first time she had noticed the trace of a soft Lancashire accent in his voice. The lilt brought memories of the Liverpool poets to mind and of the poetry readings Frank would often take her to. They were a far cry from the Coleridge and Wordsworth that she had read for A-levels. And they fascinated her. But the words he spoke now were a source of complete bemusement.
“Lewis Carroll,” Frank said. He seemed to her to be a million miles away as he spoke. “Like a boat beneath a sunny sky. It’s an acrostic. So beautiful. Such a lovely device.”
“A poem where the first letter of each line spells out a name,” he explained.
Ellen had never ceased to marvel at Frank’s knowledge and his way with words. And he in turn had always been in awe of her memory for the lyrics of every song that she had ever heard in her entire life. He found it hard to believe she had such a total recall for words as she claimed to have. But she never failed any test to which he put her. And for all the mystery of the words that Frank had spoken then, they were no less mystifying to Ellen now, as she slowly repeated them to herself – Still she haunts me, phantomwise / Never seen by waking eyes – and gazed out at the boats beneath a sunny sky on Lago Maggiore.
What did he really mean, who was he talking about when he spoke those words? Ellen wondered.
The white punctuation marks that were yachts on the water had already turned a light shade of grey. The sun was starting to fade. Even the bedraggled swan beneath the jetty had left the water and settled down in the dry. And for Ellen, the dark mountain that draped its twilight cloak right down to the shore on the other side of the lake held shades of menace – like a black glove remorselessly squeezing out every last drop of the day that remained.