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Outcast by Dianne Noble: Guest Post and Giveaway!

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Many people feel a nostalgia for school days, for friends known since kindergarten. There are school reunions, old school ties, framed photographs of children in uniform on doting grandmothers’ walls. The oldest pictures, Lucozade-coloured with age, show school hats: berets, Panamas, a topper if you’d been to Eton.
Spare a thought for those of us who were brought up in service families! Many attended a school for such a brief time there was no time – or money – for a new uniform. You were an outcast in your navy blue while everyone else sported bottle green. I went to fifteen different schools between the age of five and sixteen and it added a great deal to my life experiences whilst encompassing a far broader curriculum than a single school could ever offer. On the down side there was no chance of making, or nurturing, new friends.
The first interesting school I remember was when I was seven and we were on the troopship, the Dunera. It was transporting the Black Watch from Glasgow to Korea, as part of the peace-keeping force I believe, and we were being dropped off at Singapore. The first day at sea, before we reached the Bay of Biscay and the horrors of non-stop vomiting, I was sitting on deck in the sunshine, nose buried in Enid Blyton’s Ring ‘o’ Bells Mystery. I loved Enid Blyton with a passion, devoured all I could find and was totally engrossed in this one which my father had bought me for the journey. He was more than a little disgruntled to discover I’d finished it in a day and a half, told me I’d have to keep reading it as there was nothing else available. However, I digress. My reading was cruelly interrupted by an officious woman herding children before her for lessons. Lessons? It appeared we had to go to school for six hours a day for the next four weeks. The ship might founder, there might be flying fish off the starboard side, but nothing could interrupt classes.
School in Singapore was great. We started at 7.30 and finished at 1.30 to avoid the heat of the afternoon. Our transport there was referred to as a gharry, but it was a lorry painted air force blue into which we had to clamber before sitting on bench seats and holding on to a rope to avoid being thrown out when we crashed through the craters in the roads. In the playground we caught snails and centipedes, while in the classrooms geckoes (lizards) ran across the ceilings and dropped on the unwary.
Cyprus was a beautiful country in which to be educated. Very early starts again but now I was older there were trips to Kykko Monastery, Famagusta, the ruins at Salamis. As the threat of Turkish invasion grew, wherever we travelled had to be in an armed convoy, escorted by UN troops from Canada and Finland in their sky-blue berets.
But the best school of all of them was in the slums of Kolkata where I squatted on the ground, in the dirt, with the children who lived on the streets, and taught them English. Their eager little faces, happy smiles, desperation to learn were heart-breaking at times but it remains the most worthwhile thing I’ve ever done. I could write a book about it.

She took the crumpled cigarette packet from her bag, smoothed it out to read Maria’s number then picked up her phone. ‘Hi, it’s Rose. We met…’
     ‘…at Unicef. I remember. How you doing?’
     ‘Homeless. D’you still have a spare room?’
     ‘Sure do. Now?’
     ‘Where are you?’
     ‘No idea.’
     ‘Get a tuk tuk to Sealdah Station. Meet you there in half an hour.’
     The buildings sprawled in an undisciplined mass around her. She watched a boy hobble by on the bow legs of childhood rickets, others fighting for ownership of the ring-pull from a Coke can. Noisy, hot, the sky a hazy bruise. Clotting traffic and petrol heavy air. She bought a bottle of water from a kiosk, checked the seal was unbroken then gulped it down. Warm and brackish. Should have bought some when she was having breakfast with Kishan. Her thoughts lingered on him for a moment until a man knocked into her. Standing with one leg either side of her case she hoped Maria wouldn’t be much longer. And then, a shrill whistle, audible even over the backfiring buses. Maria, in an eye-watering magenta kaftan was sailing across the road with one arm held in the air to hold back the tide. Squealing brakes, angry shouts but she appeared oblivious. Reached Rose intact and enveloped her in a hug. Smelt of cigarettes and talcum powder. ‘You OK, love?’ She peered into Rose’s face, the sun making an orange halo around her frizzy hair.
     ‘I am now.’ Rose told her about the night on the settee and Maria tutted.
     ‘They’re buggers, they really are. Grim reaper round every corner in this place.’
     ‘Met a nice man though,’ said Rose.
     ‘Did you now? You single then?’
     ‘Yes. You?’
     ‘Sometimes. He buggered off but he’s back. For now.’ She flagged down a tuk tuk.
     ‘I really appreciate this,’ said Rose, struggling to wedge her suitcase in the limited floor space. Maria crumpled with laughter.
     ‘Contain your enthusiasm until you see the place. It’s a dump.’ She grabbed the other end of the case. ‘If we put our legs over this it might stop it falling out on the corners.’
The driver pulled away as though he had not a moment to lose, and Maria lit up. She clamped the cigarette between her teeth, screwing up her eyes as she gripped the vehicle’s upright with one hand and scrabbled in her bag with the other, eventually pulling out a key.‘There it is. By the way, the flat’s not a smoke free zone. Is that a problem?’
Rose snorted. ‘What, with all this?’ She waved an arm at the black smoke belching from the bus beside them. ‘It’s like living in the lungs of a coal miner.’
     She dragged her case out and looked around. A narrow lane with a few open fronted shops. Beyond them were units, like garages, but a quarter of the size.
     ‘What are they?’
Maria paused briefly in her battle with the door lock. ‘Prostitutes.’
     ‘Prostitutes. They live on the streets, so when they have a customer…’ She kicked the door and it flew open, crashed back against the wall releasing a shower of plaster. ‘Bastard thing. In you come. Ground floor. Well, it’s the only floor actually. So no worries about fire.’ She grinned. ‘Apart from the bars on the windows.’
     A cauldron of stale air. Maria clicked on the light switch. ‘Shite. Power cut.’
Through the gloom Rose saw two wicker chairs crouching in a corner and a white plastic table with stools. On the walls were ghost squares where pictures had once been and the silent ceiling fan was dust-furred. The place smelt of unreliable plumbing.
     ‘Told you it’s a dump,’ said Maria cheerfully, ‘but it’s cheap. Leave your case here and I’ll give you the guided tour. No need to take your shoes off,’ she added with a laugh. The door creaked as she opened it. ‘My bedroom, bit of a mess.’
A bedroom in name only: a room with a bed. In reality it bore closer resemblance to a skip.
     ‘And this room here would be yours.’
A wardrobe without doors, two wire coat hangers dangling, looking like bat skeletons. Chest of drawers and narrow iron bed. Pillow like a sandbag, but clean bedding and a mosquito net. Rose crossed to the window to see if it really was barred, pulled back the thin curtains and the rail fell to the floor with a clatter. Her hand flew to her mouth. ‘I’m so sorry.’
     ‘Oh, don’t worry. They all do that. This is the bathroom.’
With a worried look at the curtains - and the bars on the window - Rose followed her.

Rose leaves her Cornwall café to search for her daughter in the sweltering slums of Kolkata, India.
In the daily struggle for survival, she is often brought to her knees, but finds strength to overcome the poverty and disease, grows to love the Dalit community she helps.
But then there are deaths, and she fears for her own safety.
Her café at home is at risk of being torched, and finally, she has to make the terrible choice between her daughter and the Indian children.
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I think I became a reader before I could walk. While other people had childhood memories, I amassed a vocabulary. I was born into a service family and at the tender age of seven found myself on the Dunera, a troopship, sailing for a three year posting to Singapore. So began a lifetime of wandering – and fifteen different schools. Teen years living in Cyprus, before partition, when the country was swarming with handsome UN soldiers, and then marriage to a Civil Engineer who whisked me away to the Arabian Gulf.
Most of the following years were spent as a single parent with an employment history which ranged from the British Embassy in Bahrain to a goods picker, complete with steel toe-capped boots, in an Argos warehouse. In between I earned my keep as a cashier in Barclays, a radio presenter and a café proprietor on the sea front in Penzance.
Ten years ago I flew to Kolkata, West Bengal as a volunteer to teach English to street children in the slums. I stayed for several months and kept a journal, primarily so that I could download the horrors I saw daily. A kind of de-briefing. Not that it was all bad, the children had a huge capacity for happiness which was truly humbling.
It was this diary that grew into a novel and I was thrilled when Tirgearr Publishing brought it out as an ebook March 2016. It has already attracted a number of five star reviews. ‘A richly told tale, emotive and evocative.’ ‘Has it all – humour, pathos, spirituality.’
I have two further novels in the pipeline, Oppression, which is set in Cairo, Egypt and tells the story of a forced marriage and One Hundred Hands Outstretched, again based in India.
My website promises ‘Atmospheric Settings, Women under Pressure’ and this is what I try to deliver. If you are a fan of books by Victoria Hislop or Rosie Thomas you’ll probably like mine.
My travels have taken me to China, Egypt, Israel, Guatemala, Russia, Morocco, Belize and my favourite place, India. I keep copious notes and constantly dip into them to ensure my settings are authentic.
I live alone, when not travelling, in a small Leicestershire village. A happy life for me is writing or reading – with breaks for chocolate and mugs of tea – and occasional visits to the theatre.
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