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The Caretaker: Bishop's Stortford author Chrissy Smith recreates horrors of the Holocaust for second novel



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A fleeting encounter with a Holocaust survivor inspired Bishop's Stortford author Chrissy Smith's second novel.

The married mother of three spent two-and-a-half years researching and writing The Caretaker, with an unlikely hero at its heart.

Like her first book, The Pilgrim’s Rest, it contains autobiographical details and is set in the St Albans of her youth.

Chrissy Smith with her first novel, The Pilgrim's Rest
Chrissy Smith with her first novel, The Pilgrim's Rest

She said: "My novels are both based in mid-1970s St Albans as that was the time and place where I grew up. I had the best youth ever and I'm still very close to the town, visiting my mother very often, who is now 87 and a major character in my first novel."

Now a full-time writer and officially retired from her role as a medical secretary, Chrissy previously worked as Thaxted Parish Council's clerk from 2002 to 2007, and it was then that she met the man who inspired her novel's complex main character, Len Shulman.

She said: "Sadly, I only met him for a few moments, it was all too brief, and I've always regretted not speaking to him for longer, but it was an important moment in time for me and made a lasting impression. He was naked from the waist up – it was a hot day – but I felt he wanted me to see his tattoos, he was showing them off, almost as though he was proud of them?"

The Caretaker (53345376)
The Caretaker (53345376)

Much of the novel is set in a mansion house on the outskirts of the cathedral town where Chrissy's husband, David, a retired electronics engineer, lodged as a student.

She said: "I grew up in St Albans and my husband came from Lowestoft to attend Hatfield Polytechnic, now the University of Hertfordshire. In those days, students with cars were given accommodation some distance away from the poly so he lived at Fairshot Court in Sandridge and that's how we met.

"This was another source of inspiration for me as Fairshot Court wasn't your usual student digs. It was an old mansion house that had been converted into student halls and in a rather isolated location on the outskirts of town.

"The students in the story were all based on people I knew at that time – they were all bikers – and the pub, The Rats Castle, was also a local haunt, a bit rough and ready, and that's how the idea for the Hell's Angels in the story came to fruition."

Chrissy Smith with her second novel (53345378)
Chrissy Smith with her second novel (53345378)

Two other characters in The Caretaker – student Luke and his new girlfriend Joanna – meet at a disco called the Paradise Hotel and Chrissy used her own first meeting with David at the Haven Hotel to set the scene.

Other aspects of the novel required more intensive research. Holocaust survivor Len saw his mother and sister die and he harbours the secret of "a discovery he made during the dire days before liberation".

Chrissy said: "I did a lot of research about Judaism and the Holocaust, and it really upset me reading the sad stories related by the survivors, but I hope I managed to portray the time well and perhaps from a different perspective?

"I've had a good response from the Jewish newspapers and magazines I contacted. Mike Cohen, of the Jewish Telegraph, told me he still gets goosebumps whenever he meets a Holocaust survivor and sadly how few there are left now to tell the tale."

As with her first novel, Chrissy's family have been key to publication of The Caretaker.

"My husband, David, was the first person to read my new novel, giving me the thumbs-up and crying at the end – in a good way! He helped with the publishing and layout of the artwork for the cover. My daughter Hayley has contributed once more with her beautiful illustrations for the front, back and spine."

Hayley, who works for Pets at Home in Bishop's Stortford, is a former pupil of Herts and Essex High School while sons Andrew and Daniel attended The Bishop's Stortford High School. Older son Andrew – himself an aspiring writer – moved with his girlfriend Anna to Liverpool, where they live beside the River Mersey and both work for DHL. Daniel works for Stort Chemicals in Stortford and in his spare time is a music producer known as Casha Mour. "So it seems we're all quite creative!" said Chrissy.

She has already been inspired to write a third book – with a change of location in the offing.

"Very recently I gained some inspiration from the contents of a suitcase found in my mother-in-law's attic," said Chrissy. "She sadly passed away earlier this year, and while we were going through the house, we found in the attic an ancient suitcase belonging to her mother, Alice Goldspink, my husband's grandmother.

"Inside the suitcase were many small diaries, one for each year, dating back to 1946. Each contained fascinating information about the way they lived. There were mundane details about what they were eating each day, but then suddenly an interesting fact would appear such as the War Department notices on her house after it had been requisitioned during the war.

"So it's possible my next book might be set in Lowestoft in the 1940s and not St Albans in the '70s, we'll have to wait and see."

* The Caretaker is available on Amazon, priced £1.99 for the Kindle version and £7.26 for the paperback.



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