By Cheryl Burman
Publication Date: 2nd April 2021 Publisher: Holborn House Ltd Page Length: 320 Pages Genre: women’s fiction, historical fiction
At eight months pregnant, Raine shouldn’t be on a jolting bus crawling through melting snow on a mountain track searching for her husband. He might not want to be found. She might not want to find him. Raine didn’t plan to marry Teddy. His moods turn on a hairpin, he’s hot-headed and easily offended. But he’s the father of her unborn child, and in 1950s Australia being an unwed mother isn’t an option. Raine believes it just might work, that the troubles and tragedies of the past two years are behind her. Then Teddy abandons her. Teddy’s childhood mate, Alf, wavers between indignation and hope. Is this his chance? Or do old loyalties run too deep? A hurting Raine determines to track Teddy down. When she finds him – if she finds him – she’ll understand at last who her true ‘keeper’ is.
Mary Anne: Congratulations on your recently published novel, Keepers. Could you tell us a little about your new book and what inspired you to set your story in 1950’s Australia.
Cheryl Burman: When Raine meets Cockney Blitz survivors, the cool, languorous Teddy and his friendly, sweet childhood mate Alf. Both have feelings for her, but show it in very different ways. As for Raine, she’s unsure where her heart belongs. It might not be with either young man.
Keepers came about when I was mulling over bits of family lore I’d grown up with, and it occurred to me I could over-dramatise reality and get a good story out of these snippets. My parents did meet on a post WW2 migrant camp. My mother was Australian and my dad’s family did emigrate from bombed-out East London. It was a beginning. They often talked about the camp, fondly, as a time of fun, no responsibilities, good mates they hung out with. Motor bikes with sidecars, my granddad’s ancient Pontiac which my dad assumed meant Mum’s family must be rich (ha!), going to the funfair and being, well, young. In a new place, with your whole life ahead of you.
That’s where it started, but the story in my head quickly spiralled out of control. My mother would have adored living in a cabin in the hills, but she never did. And the closest Dad got to the Snowy Mountains was a day trip from Canberra when I was a student at university there. Raine, Teddy and Alf, their lives and personalities, are all in my imagination, though of course, as with all characters we write, there’s bits of (different) real people there.
I loved writing the story, imagining myself back in Australia, smelling the eucalypts and hearing the magpies warbling away. Fact: I got into trouble with one UK beta reader who insisted magpies don’t warble. I sent her a video of Australian magpies, and that shut her up! It really is the most enchanting sound.
Mary Anne: Does one of the main characters hold a special place in your heart? If so, why?
Cheryl Burman: Yes, and that’s Teddy, which may surprise people who have read the book. He’s complicated, carrying an outsize chip on his shoulder while convincing the rest of the world what a cool character he is. While all three main characters have to grow up fast, Teddy takes the longest to do so. He holds that special place because he was a challenge to write. I wanted readers to not hate him, but to travel his journey of self-awareness alongside him. Also, dare I say it? He has more than a little of my own father in him, who also had to grow up fast.
Mary Anne: While researching this period of history did you come upon any unexpected surprises?
Cheryl Burman: Given the story takes place in my home town of Adelaide, not too many years before I grew up there, I drew heavily on my own experiences to create the settings for the book. My research was therefore largely restricted to things like: what kind of non-traditional wedding dress might a woman wear in the early 1950s, or what prams were fashionable then? When exactly did petrol rationing end and what other things were rationed and for how long?
I did do more detailed research on migrant camps – or hostels as they were better known – and that threw up a tasty bit of history. Conditions in the hostels varied, and one of the worst was Rosewater. It comprised hastily and shoddily converted wool sheds, with chicken wire wall partitions and ceilings, where the over-heated residents could view the rats scurrying overhead at night. The British migrants housed there complained long and loudly, and Rosewater was closed. But, it turns out it wasn’t meant for Brits, but for European refugees, mostly displaced persons, with the view no doubt that they should be grateful for anything they got.
Mary Anne: What do you hope your readers take away from this book?
Cheryl Burman: I want them to put the book down, blink and sigh, and feel as if they’ve lived those three years of Raine’s life with her, and Teddy and Alf too. And that’s whether or not they’re truly happy with how the story ends. (It’s proving to be a ‘discussion point: my husband shook his head, another reader wanted to scream in frustration, and a third loved it but asked if I couldn’t do one bit just a little differently, please? Most seem happy though.)
From the reviews so far, this appears to be happening. In addition, I’m thrilled that readers say they become immersed in the time and the place, how the Australia of 1950ish comes alive to them, whether they’ve been to Australia or not.
Mary Anne: What advice do you have for aspiring Historical Romance authors?
Cheryl Burman: I am no guru on this topic, as this is my first book for grown-ups. However, what I would say is this: don’t be afraid to step outside what might appear to be the accepted tracks of historical romance. I was worried that a book set in Australia in the mid 20thc, wouldn’t have wide appeal. But Keepers has fans in the US, the UK and Europe as well as in Australia. A relief!
Warm weather settled in and, over a plate of chips in the hospital cafe, Maggie proposed a trip to the beach.
Pop had had an up day which meant Raine was open to enjoyment.
‘Sea air would be great. Bit cold for swimming though.’
‘Guess so.’ Maggie waved a chip. ‘Although your so-called spring passes for summer back home.’
Maggie and Arthur, Alf, Teddy, Doris and Raine caught the tram to the Bay and walked the white beach under a sun which heated Raine’s cheeks. She tied her cardigan around her waist, rolled up the wide legs of her cotton trousers, carried her shoes and paddled in the lacy froth of the shallows. A soft breeze gently warned of summer’s heat. Raine sucked the breeze into her lungs, tasting salt and sunshine.
‘Almost warm enough to swim,’ she said to the air. ‘If you were brave enough.’
Teddy was the only one not to laugh.
‘Plenty warm enough,’ he said. ‘I’m going in.’
He pulled off his trousers to show off red bathing trunks which didn’t flatter his white, slim legs. Next came his pullover and shirt, this time showing off a hairless chest. Well-muscled though, Raine saw before turning away.
Other people wandered on the beach. Children dug in the soft sand. No one had dared the glittering blue water.
‘Coming?’ Teddy challenged Alf.
‘No fear, mate. Too cold for me.’ Alf hugged his arms around his chest and shivered.
Arthur snorted. ‘Might be sharks.’
‘Too cold for sharks,’ Alf said.
‘Lily-livered cowards.’ Teddy shrugged hugely, smirked at Raine and ran towards the sea, waving an arm in farewell.
The tide was out and Teddy splashed a long way, arms flailing, legs kicking up glittering sprays before Raine saw him dive into the water. His dark head emerged, then one arm and another as he swam on, in the direction he’d been running, towards the horizon.
They all watched.
‘Stupid blighter’ll end up home in England if he keeps on,’ Maggie muttered.
‘He can only go as far as the other side of the gulf,’ Raine said. ‘Won’t find much there.’
Teddy kept swimming, a black dot against the silver water.
Maggie shaded her eyes from the glare. ‘He should be heading back.’
Raine thought so too.
‘Silly bugger.’ Alf shook his head. ‘Hope there’s no currents out there.’
No one knew about currents. Teddy swam on.
‘Heading off into the blue, just like that.’ Alf snapped his fingers. ‘No thought about how he’s gonna get back.’
‘Should we shout for a lifeguard?’ It was Doris, chewing on a fingernail and casting quick looks between Maggie and the tiny figure out in the gulf.
‘Nah.’ Maggie pointed. ‘See, he’s stopped.’
Raine squinted. Teddy had indeed stopped. Was he resting? Or in trouble?
‘Come on,’ Maggie urged the group. ‘Let’s walk along the beach, pretend we never saw him.’ She laughed. ‘That’ll teach the bleeder to get us all agitated.’ She linked her arm in Arthur’s and strolled along the sand, head down searching for shells. The others followed.
Raine stayed where she was, her hand to her forehead, gaze fixed on the water. Someone needed to make sure Teddy wasn’t in trouble. Ah! Here he came, swimming, slowly, to the shore.
‘He’ll be all right.’ Alf stood a little way ahead, calling to Raine. ‘He won’t drown today. Coming?’
Raine dropped her hand and kicked at the soft sand. She was angry at herself for letting Teddy’s silly antics trouble her. She shouldn’t think about Teddy. She waved at Alf, shrugged her shoulders high. Better to think about Alf, looking out for her as always.
‘Coming,’ she called and turned away from the sea.
Originally from Australia, Cheryl Burman moved to the Forest of Dean, UK, in 2008 via a few years in Switzerland. The Forest inspired her to write, as it has inspired many before her, including Tolkien.
In addition to her new release, Keepers, she is the author of the fantasy trilogy Guardians of the Forest, written after the people’s successful fight in 2010 to save England’s public forests. Her flash fiction, short stories and bits of her novels have won various commendations, including long listing for the Historical Writers Association 2020 short story competition. Her latest project is a magical realism novel set against the backdrop of the Forest and the River Severn.
Cheryl is active in the Forest of Dean Local History Society, is the chair of Dean Writers Circle and a founder of Dean Scribblers, which encourages the creative writing spark in young people in the community. She is married with two grown children and a border collie, Sammy, who is the author of his own popular book, Sammy’s Walks.