“The outback was like a vast, beaten plate of copper stretching out around them, shimmering in the distance where the heat warped the fierce light…”
Uluru, the sacred Aboriginal rock in the heart of Australia, gets its first mention in The City of Light, when Lizzie discovers her great-uncle’s journal and reads about the inma, or initiation ceremony, of David Maturwarra’s son. But it’s not until the most recent book, The Lady in the Moon Moth Mask, that any action takes place there, when Ashlyn activates a garden portal and finds David and his friends. There she discovers the harrowing events that have taken place following the arrival of the terrifying Liru Snake Woman.
In 2001 I visited my Dad who was living in Sydney and subsequently travelled around Australia. I was stunned by the beauty of the country, from the vibrant cities of Sydney and Perth, to the grand walking country of the Grampian mountains, and the fabulous coasts of Cairns and New South Wales.
But above all, I was in awe of Uluru and the outback. I loved the way the legendary rock changed its colour gradually throughout the day. How its smooth and chiselled escarpment tugged images out of your head. And the contrast of the austere outback with the intimate, scrubby paths that encircled the rock.
It was stunning. All the pictures in this post I took then (on print film). The descriptions are from The Lady in the Moon Moth Mask.
“Uluru’s massive terracotta flank loomed up beside them, seeming to throb with a life of its own…”
“The rock was mostly smooth like the brow of a giant’s head, but in places it was punctured with scars and pits. One section looked like a giant spoon had gouged through it, exposing a honey-combed, chocolate-orange mousse below…”
“‘This is where Kuniya Python Woman fought the Liru Snake Woman,’ said David. ‘That crack is the Liru’s head wound, made by the Python Woman’s digging stick. If only she had killed her for good…’ From a distance, the place where the Python Woman and the Snake Woman fought looked to Ashlyn like a giant barracuda’s head, with a long gash almost three-quarters of the height of the rock for its slanted eye, and a large broken cavern at its base for its gaping maw. That was one mean fish.”
“Even the trees were desiccated, standing like straps of parched, twisted bone in the pulsating landscape…”
The Lady in the Moon Moth Mask is the fourth and penultimate book in The Secret of the Tirthas. The cover is currently being designed, and I’m aiming to publish it early next month. In the meantime, here’s the (slightly edited) Prologue as a taster.
Suddenly, she was awake.
For a while Lizzie stared up, her nose still tucked under the duvet, watching the strip of moonlight that slanted across the ceiling. Then she reached a hand out into the cold and checked her phone wondering whether, with the clocks yet to go back, it might be nearly time to get up.
2.44. Back to sleep, Jones.
She shut her eyes and lifted the duvet over the top of her head. She could sleep forever. It was half-term after all.
But instead of falling asleep again, her mind began to wander. She found herself thinking of that first night she’d slept in this bed, almost a year ago, when she’d sat up and looked out of the window and seen the full extent of her great-uncle’s garden for the first time. His magical, rambling garden of rooms, with its neatly-clipped hedges criss-crossing in the moonlight, the narrow rill in the distance with the yellow folly, the Tower, at its end.
Why did she wake up?
Oh no, why had that question popped into her head? She wished her mind was a bit more rational and orderly. Why did it have to… why did she wake up?
She hadn’t heard anything in her sleep, had she?
She listened carefully, keeping as still as she could. She held her breath.
Nothing, no wind, not the hoot of an owl. Nothing.
So why did she wake up?
A little knot formed in her stomach. Suddenly everything felt strangely familiar, like she had already been in this time and place, experiencing this exact same sense of weird… apprehension… before.
Deja-vu. It was deja-vu.
She looked at the curtains, pale grey in the moonlight.
Look out the window? Don’t think so, not this time…
The feeling passed, and she relaxed slightly. She turned over and closed her eyes.
5, 4, 3, 2…1! It was no good. She pushed back the covers, sat up in her pyjamas, and pushed the curtain out of the way.
She didn’t even need to look around the hedges and rooms, her gaze fell straight on to the gleaming vision in white halfway down the garden, standing near the silver brook.
‘Oh my God!’ Lizzie sucked in breath.
Who was that? What was she doing out in the cold?
Squinting her eyes, Lizzie tried to make out more details of the woman. Yes, she was wearing a dress, a long white dress, that was what was so bright, reflecting the moonlight. But her face was… turned away. She was looking at the back of the woman’s head, at her short, or possibly tied-up, hair.
She felt a burst of panic. What was someone doing in the garden? She knew, her whole being knew from her hard-won experience, that nothing good, and almost certainly only something absolutely terrible, could come of this. What was she going to do?
And then her alarm ratcheted up to a whole new level as the woman began to turn around.
Lizzie’s eyes widened. There was something strange about the woman’s appearance, her face seemed large, somehow rigid, growing in brightness as it turned towards the moon hanging somewhere above Rowan Cottage, as it turned towards… Lizzie.
‘No!’ Lizzie whispered, as the woman fixed her shining face on her.
Moments passed, as they stared across the garden of rooms at each other.
After a while, Lizzie realized why the woman’s face seemed so stiff, almost mechanical – she was wearing a mask!
She couldn’t make out what type of mask, but it was both dark and shiny at once, with splayed out edges bigger than the woman’s face. Although, with all she’d experienced, who knew? Perhaps she was looking at some strange beast, why not an ogre with a gigantic head?
Why was the woman staring at her like this?
‘Don’t just stand there,’ Lizzie muttered. ‘Do something, won’t you?’
The Lady in the Moon Moth Mask, the forthcoming book in The Secret of the Tirthas, takes place in a fabulous country house based on Polesden Lacey, a property near Dorking that was almost bequeathed to the Queen but ended up in the hands of the National Trust.
My wife and I take our boys there on a regular basis, as they love amongst other things getting their hands on old stuff, grandfather clocks, the chickens when they’re not away on holidays, and, appropriately, the stone griffins. Plus the grounds are huge, and beautiful, so there’s plenty of space to run around.
I always wanted the series to be very diverse, with equal parts mystery and action, and a strong contrast between the exotic and well-known. After Lizzie’s harrowing ordeal in the Cameroonian jungle in The Dreamer Falls, I decided to revert to a gentler setting, with the emphasis once again on mystery and intriguing characters.
After watching an excellent BBC adaptation of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (and then reading the no-less-brilliant book) I knew Lizzie’s story leant itself to the same kind of set-up. So I did some research and took a lot of photos of the building, uncovering more of the absorbing story of Margaret Greville, who bought the house with her McEwan’s inheritance (‘I’d rather be a beeress than an heiress’), and who held regular country parties for socialites from London and the wider Empire.
Portrait of Margaret Greville, Polesden Lacey
Margaret Greville collected ‘people with the unerring eye of a stamp-collector’ according to the Evening Standard, and her guests included European Ambassadors, Earls and Countesses, writers and poets – and Maharajahs. A perfect mix for an intense and suspenseful story, in which Lizzie is left wondering whether guests are who they say they are – or whether they are demons in disguise, come searching for a lost Artefact of Power.
The Lady in the Moon Moth Mask will be out in the early summer. The final book in the series (currently with numerous working titles!) will be out early next year.
Margaret loved her dogs, all of whom ended up in Polesden’s famous pet cemetery.