While the German forests were searched, the boy was looked after by the authorities but no pictures of him were released. Eight months later it turned out that ‘Ray’ had made it all up, including his name, and had in fact run away from home. A sad story, albeit different from the one which interested me. If that’s the short answer for the origins of my book, here’s the long one.
Firstly, music. I don’t play an instrument, I can’t sing very well, and I don’t read music to any sophisticated level, but I do listen to it for much of the day, and write with it on in the background. It’s a big part of my life and I liked the challenge of trying to put it into words. My father is a selftaught pianist and when I was young my bedroom was above our piano, and like my protagonist, Peggy, I fell asleep to its sound. Peggy’s father, James, makes his daughter a silent piano and teaches her to play when they’re living in the forest. I had to find a way of describing not only the creation of the piano, but the way the music sounded in Peggy’s head. I wanted her to learn a classical piece, but I don’t listen to much classical music, so it took me a while to find ‘La Campanella’, the only sheet music that Peggy and James have in their cabin. I looked for something that was short and difficult, but also very beautiful, and finally came across this étude by Liszt. And in a lovely piece of synchronicity, when I was researching which grand piano Ute should own and had decided on a Bösendorfer, I found a video on the manufacturer’s website which used ‘La Campanella’ as the soundtrack. It had to be!
The other music that is repeated in Our Endless Numbered Days is ‘Oh Alaya Bakia’, a traditional song that the Girl Guides have adopted and I learned when I was about ten. I taught it to my children, and we would sing it on long car journeys, and I have to admit that my now-adult daughter and I still sometimes attempt to sing the harmonies. It was the song that naturally popped into my head when I wanted Peggy to sing something with her father as they were walking to the cabin.
Many more of Peggy’s childhood influences are also mine. Just as she is obsessed with the album from the 1970 film of The Railway Children – so was I. My sister owned the vinyl record and I coveted it madly. I would play it whenever she was out of the house, and now, forty years on, I can still recite most of the words. And then there’s the fact that Peggy is allowed to stay up late to watch the 1970s television series Survivors – as was I. Survivors is about a small group of people who have survived a plague that has wiped out most of the rest of the world. I was both terrified and completely gripped by it. I watched some episodes again for my research and, as is often the way when you revisit a childhood television programme, it hasn’t stood the test of time. But the idea of small groups of survivors living off the land, using whatever resources they can find, certainly stayed with me.
Lots of readers have told me they’ve always dreamed of living more simply; giving up everything and running away to the woods. Our Endless Numbered Days may have put them off a little, but it has always also been a dream of mine. When I was growing up in the Oxfordshire countryside my family had a couple of pigs, a few chickens and ducks, and a large vegetable patch; we weren’t self-sufficient, but that ideal of living more simply has always had a strong hold on me. Peggy comes back to London after her time in the forest to find that in her house there is too much of everything: seven saucepans when there are only four rings on the cooker, nine wooden spoons when there are only seven pans, and a fridge full of food they can’t hope to eat before it all goes off. (My husband will tell you that I won’t throw food away until he can show me the mould.) The quantity of things we all own, the technology we discard because a new version has come on to the market, the consumerism that I, too, often enjoy without even noticing, is something I worry about, and a concern I wanted Peggy to share.
One of the biggest influences on Our Endless Numbered Days has, of course, been books. I didn’t start writing until I was forty, but in the years building up to that point (and still now) I was a huge reader. My local library was just outside the gates of my primary school and I would wait inside until my mother arrived to take me home. I’m sure this wouldn’t be allowed now, but around the age of nine I was regularly borrowing adult ghost and horror stories from the library and reading them under my bedcovers at night: authors such as M. R. James and Edgar Allan Poe, and then later John Wyndham and William Golding. As an adult, it’s still ‘dark’ books I like best: The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Legend of a Suicide by David Vann and We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.
But it’s not only books that have shown themselves in my writing, there’s also film. Dogtooth, a disturbing film directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, has had a direct influence on Our Endless Numbered Days. It’s the story of a father who controls his three children by deliberately misleading them about the world outside the compound where they live. And if I think about the films that I loved as a teenager and watched many times, they are equally dark: Deliverance, Don’t Look Now and Rosemary’s Baby.
The origins of all novels come not just from the research the author has done, but also from the author’s own memories and history, the things they’ve overheard, read, watched and listened to. I’m sure there were many more influences on Our Endless Numbered Days, including plenty I’m not even aware of.