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Fiona Cummins on how the ever-changing seascape finds its way into her novels

Fiona Cummins on how the ever-changing seascape finds its way into her novels

On a winter’s morning, the estuary is wreathed in mist, and the cries of the brent geese, who have travelled from Siberia to my small corner of Essex, punctuate the groan of the foghorn.

In the golden light of an autumn afternoon, the sun hits the water and fills the air with a luminosity that is particular to this time of year, a loose and liquid warmth.

At twilight, on the first day of spring, the vast open sky is awash with the many colours that welcome the evening, the deep tones of the blue hour reflected in the ebb and flow of the tide.

In the depths of a sweating midsummer night, the swoop of a bat and the occasional splash of a seal break the stillness, and, when sleep eludes me, I sit on the moonlit beach, and breathe in my surroundings.

This passion for the ever-changing seascape, the sky and water and horizon, is found in some form or another in most of my six − soon-to-be seven − novels.

It’s hard to pinpoint when this love affair with the Thames estuary began, but as a child, my mother would take my older brother and I to Joscelyne’s beach in Chalkwell every day of the long summer holidays.

A picnic, a swimming costume, a book and a bucket and spade. Sometimes, we went with friends, sometimes, alone. Crabbing. Paddling at the water’s edge. Slathering our bodies in the thick estuary mud when the tide went out. An afternoon ice-cream from the kiosk on the corner, which always melted in fat drips onto the sand before I managed to finish it.

In the dying heat of summer, when the sun had slipped too low for us to see, we would visit the arcades in Southend, a few miles along the coast, with the hiss and ring of the slot machines, the gaudy lights of the funfair, and the greasy smell of doughnuts and chips, and every year, in the thin darkness, we’d watch the procession of carnival floats.

As a teenager, I would spend the evenings in the Old Town at Leigh-on-Sea, gathered in groups by the waterfront pubs. Later, as a young woman, I would walk the coastline to Shoeburyness and beyond, my footsteps carrying me through my first job, my first heartbreak, my first home.

These vivid memories are threaded into my books with messy stitches.

The cobbled streets and cockle sheds of the Old Town provide the perfect location for Mr Silver, the serial killer from my first two books, Rattle and The Collector, to hide. It is, perhaps, no surprise that the climax of the second of these books draws on the object of one of my childhood fears, an eerie crooked house in an old-fashioned amusement park that was once called Peter Pan’s playground. The final showdown between Mr Silver and the police unfolds in this oddly shaped house with its uneven floors and shadowy corners that terrified me as an eight-year-old girl, a stone’s throw from Southend’s famous pier.

At Leigh-on-Sea, the train station edges the estuary, and it was an image of a young man arriving one bleak morning, alone and troubled, that lit the creative touch-paper of the detective Saul Anguish, the disaffected teenage boy in The Collector who becomes a police officer in Into The Dark, my fifth novel, which was shortlisted for Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year.

The fictional Midtown-on-Sea, where Saul begins his job in the murder squad, borrows heavily from the aforementioned Leigh-on-Sea, an affluent coastal town which sits atop the cliffs and peers over the estuary, although the salt-marshes and mudflats are magpied from other parts of the county.

But my love of the seascape isn’t restricted to Essex. In All Of Us Are Broken, my sixth novel, the Hardwicke family travel to the Scottish Highlands to stay in a hotel that overlooks a loch, and the book finishes at Chanonry Point, a narrow peninsula that is home to an active population of bottlenose dolphins. A research trip to this beautiful spot on the Black Isle remains one of my favourite brushes with wildlife, the dolphins treating onlookers to a dramatic aerial display.

In my seventh novel, as yet untitled, the black depths of Midtown-on-Sea’s bay serve a more sinister purpose, but that’s all I can say for now, except, like people, a body of water can be just as mercurial and dangerous, and a place where a mistake might cost everything.

The small mammals, birds and insects that populate all of my books, including the feathered portents of doom in The Neighbour, and the spiders in When I Was Ten, are inspired by my love of the natural world. But it’s the theme of water that I return to again and again.

Like a visit to the coast, my books are seasoned with salt and the screech of gulls, the song of the wind and the feel of spray on sun-warmed skin.

All Of Us Are Broken is published in paperback on April 25 and is available from all good bookshops.
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