The Day It All Began

21 January 2010

I was standing in the queue at Marks and Spencer’s, waiting to return a dress.

I was about to start a new job, sharing an office with a bunch of graduates only slightly older than my daughter and the last thing I wanted to look like was a 40-something freelance writer who’d just finished a temporary job stacking shelves at Waterstone’s – which was exactly what I was.

I’d spent too much time recently on possible ghost-writing projects that had come to nothing and my husband had begun to comment on my ‘ever diminishing hourly rate’. The dress was supposed to help my self esteem – but, to be honest, no dress, not even a Vivien Westwood, had that much power.

My mobile rang. I didn’t recognise the caller but the girls at the counter were busy so I took a chance and answered it.

“Is that ‘Elen Parker?” said a middle-aged woman in a broad Derbyshire accent.

“Yes,” I replied. There was a brief pause then: “I’m callin’ you because I think my life would make a good book. My friends are always telling me I should write down my funny stories and get them published. It’s taken me 12 months and now I need a ghost writer to take it to the next stage.”

Her voice made me think of strong tea and current buns but I was next in the queue so I only had one ear on my Derbyshire speaker and the other one on the M & S assistant.

I offered to continue the conversation when I got home. Janet Holt told me she was 59 years old and had farmed at Ball Beard Farm in Derbyshire for almost 40 years, 34 of them alone. She’d nurtured an organic herd of beef cattle on 40 acres just outside Stockport on the edge of the Peak District National Park as well as managing the rest of the business too; selling, marketing and transporting the beef direct to consumers.

Not only that, she’d had a ‘day job’ as a legal executive for a firm of solicitors at the same time. The cattle were now all sold and the farm was on the market and she was deciding what to do with the rest of her life.

She’d had a good offer for Ball Beard Farm and it looked like the sale was going to go through.

She said she hoped that writing the book would prove cathartic – but, unfortunately, that hadn’t proved to be the case.

What did she mean: cathartic?

I don’t know if it was her accent or her modesty (how many women do YOU know who could run a farm single-handedly while holding down a full-time job in an office at the same time?) but I felt myself warming to her as she spoke: she sounded forthright, intelligent and full of life.

And she told me she had funny stories by the bucket-load but first, she wanted to know exactly what a ghost writer did. She questioned me in a friendly but thorough manner. I liked her but couldn’t quite get to the bottom of what her story was actually about. I knew that funny stories weren’t enough for a book and I think she knew that funny stories weren’t enough for a book so I started gently:

“Are you married, Janet?”

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