The rain was pounding against my window on a Saturday afternoon back in November 2015. I was deliberating whether to stay in my warm cosy flat or go to a book reading at the Idea Store’s Write Idea Festival in Whitechapel. I’m so glad I decided to brave the cold as I met author Kate Thompson and her interviewee Sally discussing the real stories behind Kate’s first novel the Secrets of the Singer Girls. The book is based on a group of women rag trade workers set in Bethnal Green during WWII. Kate brings the women’s stories to life and had me in tears with both laughter and sadness. A year later, Kate asked me to help her research her latest novel, The Allotment Girls. Set in my home of Bow, we had some fun afternoons pounding the pavements of East London that I didn’t even know existed; climbing locked towers of Bow Quarter that used to be the Bryant & May match factory and seeing where Gandhi slept in Kingsley Hall. The Allotment Girls is released today and Kate has shared her vintage story with Olive Road:
When a relative dies, you might take some comfort in inheriting a treasured keepsake, a couple of faded black and white photographs of family events, perhaps even a little bit of money. When my grandfather, Alan passed away six years ago, at the age of 91, he bequeathed us much more than a dusty old photo album and a savings account. We inherited Twinkle – an ageing Jack Russell with melting chocolate eyes, ears as soft as satin and breath so pungent it could strip paint. I had just given birth to my second son Stanley and I worried how Twinkle would react to being around two young boys. Yet this old girl, whom we assumed would retreat miserably to her basket, to doze through her few remaining days on Earth before rejoining her master, has had a surprising effect on my family. She has brought calm, order and love while at the same time finding the joie de vivre of a dog half her years.
My grandfather had found Twinkle three years earlier on a charity website devoted to matching old dogs with elderly dog-lovers and they turned out to be a match made in heaven. Like him, she was a little rickety, very sedate and clearly relished the prospect of seeing out her twilight years snoozing on his lap. Every time we visited Alan, we found her gently snoring, her nose tucked under his arm as he stroked her soft, white fur and smiled benignly. offers to take her for a walk were swiftly rebuffed. ‘Twinkle prefers to stay in the warm,’ he would say, lovingly feeding her crumbs of luxury Marks & Spencer fruit cake. Twinkle proved to be the perfect companion, slotting effortlessly into a quiet and dignified life built around books, art, classical music and the odd glass of red wine. He’d relished the company of dogs all his life. Before my grandmother Joyce, a tireless charity worker and magistrate, died in 2000 they’d had a succession of hyperactive hounds – most memorably Sheba, an assertive Boarder Collie who would round up guests and trap them in a corner. A rather energetic Bedlington Terrier called Larry had kept him company after Sheba passed away. But after Larry died in 2008, my grandfather lived alone until Twinkle, a little dog with an unknown past, was delivered to a loving future in Wimbledon in April 2009.
‘I’m very old to be getting another dog, aren’t I?’ Alan remarked to the woman from the re-homing charity. ‘I don’t think you should deny yourself the pleasure’ she replied kindly. Twinkle was about nine, although she was a rescue dog so no one knew for certain. it took just five minutes to melt my grandfather’s heart. After he died, I admit, I feared the worst. You hear stories of loyal dogs simply losing the will to live after a beloved owner dies. I wondered whether Twinkle, bewildered by her new surroundings, not to mention the challenge of living with two rumbustious boys, might just fade away. But I hadn’t accounted for just how adaptable this feisty terrier was, or the rejuvenating effects of youthful company.
Within days, somehow our ageing hound was galloping around the house in hot pursuit of the boys, terrorising any neighbourhood cat that dared to stray into her garden; and greeting the postman like a sworn enemy. on trips to the park, her little legs were a blur as she tore across the grass to leap on dogs twice her size and half her age. An animal-loving friend explained the reason for her new lease of life. ‘She’s running with the pack’ he said. ‘She’s just adjusted her behaviour to living with young boys – she’s trying to keep up’. Twinkle, it seems, had found her inner puppy.
Twinkle is now a pivotal part of our family. My sons adore her as she does them. Not a day goes by when I don’t thank my beloved grandfather for his parting gift. There may have been 87 years between him and his grandson Ronnie but Twinkle truly captured both of their hearts. When Ronnie strokes here, I can see my grandfather doing the same thing and somehow, it eases our grief. His memory is being kept alive by the love of a tiny dog better than it could be by any photograph. I watched Ronnie this morning, hugging Twinkle and kissing her nose over and over – despite me pointing out that he has no idea where that nose has just been. ‘Why do you love Twinkle so much?’ I asked him. ‘Because she is just so strokey’ he said, and somehow I know Alan would agree.
Kate’s latest novel The Allotment Girls is out now. Head to her Author’s page on Amazon to read about all four of Kate’s novels. Each one is set in East London and brings to life real historic events such as the Blitz, the Bethnal Green Tube Disaster and the Battle of Cable Street. The Allotment Girls is set in the iconic Bryant & May factory where the famous Match Women’s strike took place in 1888. The story starts during WWII but there are many secrets reaching back to the factory’s darker past.