The legacy of losing my beloved Monica

Vampires, a magical axe, Black Death . . . and a teenage boy facing the biggest challenge of his young life.

Steven Russell

Vampires, a magical axe, Black Death . . . and a teenage boy facing the biggest challenge of his young life. Steven Russell meets the 72-year-old children's author who dreamed up this tale - and finds out about the lost friend who inspired it

THE bond between a man and his animals can be mightily powerful. They might not share many genes, or a language, but they connect on some primeval level. And, if something goes awry, it's emotional. So it was with Richard Innes and Monica, a harrier hawk he welcomed into his family about a decade ago, trained, adored, and then lost.

It was, he admits, earth-shattering. It happened seven or so years ago, about May time. “One evening I was putting her away in her little house here and some friends arrived,” he explains. “I ran across to see them and left the door open. During the night she popped out of her cage.

There was a big tree standing in the courtyard at that time and she must have flown up. In the night there was a major gale and she got blown down the valley. It was about a week before I found her, and by that time . . . well, once a hawk goes back to the wild, once they start killing for themselves, they won't like the sort of frozen food I took out of the freezer. So I couldn't get her back.

“I used to get up at four o'clock in the morning, every day, before it got light, because that's the only chance you have of getting them back - to catch them when they're roosting, as they start waking up. As they look around, if they see you there with some food, you have a hope of getting them down again.

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“I spent day after day wandering about down the valley and I found her on several occasions, but I still couldn't get her back.”

It must have been painful to experience.

“It was. She wasn't frightened of me, but she just wasn't bothered to come back. It was heartbreaking, actually, and I really did mind desperately; and this is why I came to write a book. I've always loved children's books - I've never grown up, really.”

Richard's story, The Face in the Sky, is his first - inspired by another kind of world where (if one imagines hard enough) Monica might have ended up.

The tale is set in the autumn of 1389 and King Richard is on the throne - England still haunted by the memory of the Black Death. At Caerafon, on the Welsh borders, vampires break through from another realm and steal a battleaxe whose magical powers had protected folk living at the castle.

The plague returns and everyone faces death unless the axe is recovered before the next full moon. All hope lies in the hands of Hal, a shy 13-year-old with a stammer and a best friend who is a hawk called Rilla. But he'll need to find the courage from somewhere to pursue the vampires into a strange and dangerous world.

The author confesses there are parallels with himself.

“Well, it is part of my life, actually. I had a dreadful stammer when I was young. No-one realised what a nightmare it is, actually. So Hal's stammer came from me. I had a very happy childhood: I was the youngest, so I was dreadfully spoiled, and Hal is spoiled by his parents. I think I was a bit braver than Hal. Hal was a bit of a weed! He had to find courage.”

Richard grew out of his stammer, though not until after he was married, really, did it fully fade. It was put down to a nervous condition. “You just shut up. You withdraw, really; which is probably why I like reading and nature.”

The youngest of four children - quite a bit younger, in fact - he frequently found himself making his own entertainment, so books were welcome companions. He remembers as a schoolboy, for instance, being captivated by the novels of Denys Watkins-Pitchford, known as BB, who wrote “wonderful books about the countryside”.

Brendon Chase was one - about young brothers who run away from their strict and frosty spinster aunt and spent eight months living as fugitives in a forest.

“I'd always been keen on falconry since I was a little boy. A very friendly schoolmaster let me keep a sparrowhawk at school. But that came to a sad end because I gave it to my friend to carry, he wasn't a very experienced falconer, and by mistake he let it go. That was a time when I was still training it and it wouldn't come back.

“As soon as I retired I started making inquiries about hawks and falconry and I found this splendid chap who helped me train my hawk. I got Monica as a young bird, six months old; must have been about 1998 or 1999. She was brilliant. We were real friends.

“Training a hawk demands limitless patience, because to start with you have to sit absolutely still. Monica used to hang from my wrist, upside down, and you had to coax her back to stand on your wrist again.

“The thing about training a hawk is you have to gain its confidence, to get it to eat. It's food, really, which is the key; once it starts eating on your wrist, you've won, basically.

“Then you have to get it to fly to you. You start with it on a fishing reel. Once they start coming to you, they're quite easy, actually.

The great day comes when you let it off its line and it flies free, and you think 'Oh my goodness! Is it actually going to come back to me, or fly off?' But you do it when it's hungry, and it associates oneself with food, and comes back to you.

“You can put your heart and soul into training a hawk. It's a major commitment - many hours every day - so that by the time it's trained it's almost part of you.”

Monica, who had a wingspan of about four feet, had a little house in the corner of the courtyard, where she'd go at night, but during the day she invariably sat on a perch on the lawn or in the kitchen.

“She loved the kitchen, because things were happening. A lot of hawks aren't very clever; harris hawks are clever. They're rather like parrots, I suppose; they need stimulation. Monica loved things happening. And it was warm; they come from the southern states of America.”

Losing the beloved hawk was the trigger for his writing. He hadn't previously done much creative writing to speak of. “I will admit that, when I was working, I did quite enjoy writing reports - which most people thought was mad! - and I've always liked using words.”

And there's always been - still is - that love of children's literature: CS Lewis's Narnia chronicles, Roald Dahl, Tolkien (although the grandfather of eight children says works such as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are not really stories for youngsters). “At the moment I'm reading the vampire series by Stephenie Meyer. Philip Pullman - probably the best. I shouldn't say this, but he's far more interesting than Harry Potter!”

Richard started writing about a year or two after losing Monica, completing a first draft in about six weeks and then spending ages “revising, revising, revising. My first draft was twice as long, and rather rambling! This is much more focused. And, apparently, children get rather bored by lots of description; they want things to happen.”

How did those bloodsucking predators pop into his imagination?

“My vampires are actually rather sad! Underneath it all, they're rather nice people and want their lives back! And I wanted to turn things on their head a bit. People always think wolves are horrible and vultures are disgusting and rats are pretty nasty, but in my book they're all good and helpful to Hal.”

There's a nice touch in that illustrations for the book were drawn by Antonia, the oldest of his four daughters, who has a background in fashion design. Richard finished the book and then passed it to her, with suggestions about what he thought would make good illustrations. “Then she gave her view. We did it over the internet.” Antonia lives in Malaysia, though is currently visiting. “She used to mail her drawings through for me.”

A mental picture of his characters and scenes must have formed in his head as he wrote. How much did they match his daughter's own imagined visions?

Well, he laughs, some were quite different, while other were very much in accord. “One I really like is Mr Smith, a little tubby character. Muffie got exactly what was in my mind.”

Muffie? “It's a family nickname. She was born in Switzerland and I think it was someone out there who said she looked just like Little Miss Muffet, or something, and it's stuck.”

Richard is about a quarter of the way through a sequel. It features the same characters, basically, but will be longer than his debut offering and draw more on Norse mythology.

Writing is fun, and a challenge, but one senses it still can't dull the raw pain of losing Monica.

“I used to talk to her,” he admits. “She used to talk to me. We had conversations, about all sorts of things. She'd make little noises back; and then she would stop and wait for me to say something.

“When I was weeding in the garden, she used to sit beside me and watch what I did, and then she'd pop down and start pulling out the flowers. She thought she was helping!”

ONE of Richard Innes's claims to fame is that he once ran the only coal-mining company in Ipswich! Well, the office was in Suffolk, even though the coalfields themselves were many miles away.

Richard was brought up at Horringer, near Bury St Edmunds, and later moved to London, working for a mining company. The job also took him around the world. “It was terrific. As a young man there was nothing like it,” he reflects.

After about 25 years he decided to start his own mining company - “which was a complete disaster!” Why? “It was coal-mining, in this country - small underground coal mines - and it was the time of Mr Scargill, the miners' strike and all the rest of it.

“I was the only coal-mining company in Ipswich - had an office in Museum Street.” The operation had three mines: two in Scotland and one in Lancashire. “It was jolly hard work. I spent all my time commuting backwards and forwards.

“Sadly, because of the strike and because of what happened after the strike, it just didn't make any economic sense. The whole thing collapsed, really. And then I went to work for my stepfather, a splendid chap who had a concrete block plant over at Brandon. I spent about 12 years working for him until I retired about 10 years ago. Since then I've had an absolutely wonderful time.”

Richard was still working for that initial mining company when he came back to Suffolk. He and wife Tessa had spent five years looking for a place in the country and were staying with his mother in Horringer when they saw advertised an historic moated manor house on the edge of Ipswich. It was bought in 1972 and the move made from London.

The Face in the Sky (ISBN 978-1-4389-3789-2) can be bought through bookshops, by emailing or through the website - where a paperback copy costs �7.90 and a hardback edition �12.90 (both inclusive of UK p&p).

Richard Innes has a book launch at The Aldeburgh Bookshop to which everyone is invited. It's on Saturday, August 8 at 5.30pm.