How do you find your missing sister? Who can you even ask to help when you live in a police state? Not the police, that’s for sure.

This short extract from The Girls from Alexandria goes back to February 1968.

Monsieur Jean, we called the man. It wasn’t his real name. I wondered if he’d ever been a real journalist. Rashida served him coffee when he arrived, and she, too, saw his frayed cuffs and made her disdain plain.

‘Who knows why she left? After all, the brain is a mysterious box, especially a female’s.’ Monsieur Jean spread his hands and laughed at his own wit.

How dare he speak about women like this, and what did he know of the brain, anyway? He was just some old journalist in ragged clothes.

He extended his little finger and sipped his tiny coffee with huge noises. ‘She hasn’t disappeared completely,’ he observed when he’d put down the cup.  

True, she hadn’t, because she’d sent postcards now and again. But she was no longer here in Alex with Mother, Father, and most of all me, her biggest fan, even if she did have a tendency to say I was a humara. Well, she could call me a she-donkey all she wanted if only she’d come home.

‘What is her name again?’ asked Monsieur Jean.

‘Simone. Would you like to see the cards she sent?’ Father handed him a small bundle.

‘Any letters?’


Monsieur Jean should have realised that letters took longer to reach Egypt, arriving weeks late, if at all, with a printed strip down one side of the envelope where the censors had slit it open then sealed it up again. Under Nasser, nobody ever wrote letters if a postcard would do.

‘Let’s see.’ The man picked up one of the postcards and held it up to the light coming through the only window. We were sitting in the basement, the one room that we were fairly sure wasn’t bugged. ‘Her handwriting is interesting.’

Father gave a polite smile. ‘In what way?’

‘I am something of an expert in calligraphy.’

Of course he was, I thought. ‘What do you make of her writing?’ I ventured.

‘It’s very mature,’ he said. Since Simone was twenty-four, this was hardly a revelation. He took off his glasses and twirled them in his fingers. ‘I suppose you have spoken to her friends?’

Mother fidgeted in her armchair. ‘Of course.’

‘In cases like this, there’s always something the family overlooks. But I have my methods,’ he assured us.

As a nice young Arab woman, I had to mind my manners, but it was hard to hide my impatience.

Father asked what he proposed to do, and the man outlined his plans. His account clearly aimed to impress, but it was just a long-winded way of telling us he would use the network of contacts he’d made over a thirty-year career in newspapers.

My parents thanked Monsieur Jean courteously, and he left, shoving on his battered hat and promising to be in touch.

C’est un pauvre con,’ Father said as soon as the front door had shut.

Mother glared at Father because un con is the height of vulgarity, and not at all the same thing as con in English, though he was probably one of those too. ‘But,’ she said, ‘he’s the only chance we’ve got.’

If that was the case, then we were never going to find my sister.


You can read more about Nadia and her missing sister Simone in The Girls from Alexandria. Shortlisted for the Rubery Book Award, it’s available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook.

How to Win the World Cup? Bingo!

The World Cup is approaching faster than an Arjen Robben sprint. As you stock your fridge with lager and prepare for weeks in front of the TV, spare a thought for reporters and commentators who don’t write about football but must stock up on the jargon nonetheless. Abell

Whatever the outcome of the World Cup, all the usual clichés will appear off the pitch as well as on it. Even if the article is about mortgages or gardening, I predict a journalistic glut of footballing terms.

This little chart is just right if you fancy a round of World Cup 2018 bingo.





















































Are any important phrases and terms missing? Please let me know.

RIP, Christina

It’s tough to blog this week without writing about my late colleague Christina Earle. So I won’t even try.

When emotions are less raw, it will be possible to look back through a happier lens. Right now, grief colours everything.  Needless to stress, it is so much worse for her family, including her husband Oli, than it is for colleagues and friends.

Aged 31, Christina died suddenly and unexpectedly last weekend.

There’s no point trying to make sense of that.

She was one of the best journalists I’ve worked with in over 20 years of writing for mainstream media. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s what the Press Gazette has to say

Working for a 7-day newspaper, Christina often needed copy in a hurry. Sometimes this was a challenge to provide, as on the day that, unbeknown to her, I was being wheeled away for surgery myself. But she was always considerate. Thank you, Christina, for persuading me to turn my mobile off on my wedding day.

She made a fine campaigning journalist for The Sun, and she achieved so much. Every problem had a solution. Well, it did when she was on the case. Colleague Lynsey Hope put this tribute together. 

It seems self-indulgent to mope when Christina was such a sunny and capable person with an infectious smile. 

But how is it possible to do anything else? Columnist Virginia Ironside pointed out that you don’t ‘work through’ grief. It works its way through you.

Grief is the occasion for acknowledging the great value of what you’ve experienced. In his book The Middle Passage, psychotherapist James Hollis explains that, because it has been experienced, it cannot be wholly lost. The experience is still there, says Hollis. It is retained in the bones and the memory, to serve and guide the life to come.

I’m hoping so, anyway.

The School Reunion: You Haven’t Changed a Bit

The smell of lino and neglected gym kit propels Harriet nearly 20 years back in time.  As soon as she opens the door of the hall, there’s a shriek: “Oh my God!  You haven’t changed a bit.”

Harriet returns the compliment then heads towards the drinks, remembering to push out her chest.  Amy aka the ‘Sweater Girl’ is bound to be here.

Harriet lives in the pages of my novel One Night at the Jacaranda. Today she’s escaped to attend a school reunion.  

She scans the room for Matt.  Back then everyone fancied him.  Now he sounds like Mr Irresistible.  She hasn’t read his book but, according to the reviews, it penetrates the very core of human condition.  Matt has arrived.

Though not here.   There’s Marcie who makes jewellery out of spoons, and an insurance woman who’s working the room.   She asks Harriet “What are you doing these days?”

“I’m a journalist.”  No need to tell her commissions are down to a trickle.

“Ooh, lovely! Who do you write for?”

“I’m freelance now.  Much prefer it.”   In truth she’s barely had 16 months on the staff since her degree.  “I write for a lot of the glossies, or whoever’ll pay me.”  She hopes the self-deprecating touch will make her sound witty.

“I’ll look out for you.  What kind of thing do you write?”

Best not to mention her last feature entitled What your loo-roll says about you. “I’m doing a piece on breast cancer at the moment” she lies.

unloved school piano

Tonight there’s a drinks table in the corner by the distressed piano, and by the drinks table there’s Amy cradling an orange juice.

“Oh my God, Amy, you look amazing” says Harriet.   As usual Amy’s wearing a clingy sweater, but now there are milk stains on her shoulder and her boobs are somewhere by the floor.  Oscar is just 17 months and Mia is 7 weeks.  She needs little encouragement to display the entire contents of her iPhone.

Harriet offers Amy a glass of wine.

“Oh well, just a small one.”

“Anyone seen Matt?”

“Not for years” says Amy, readjusting her bra.

Harriet helps herself to more Château Tannin and talks to a guy she can’t quite place. He’s an architect now.  “I designed the bus shelter in front of the Bagg building.  Have you seen it?”  But he isn’t expecting an answer.   He’s looking over her shoulder to see if anyone more interesting is on the horizon.

There aren’t many men, apart from a tight cluster by the window, all necking Bud from bottles.

“They’re not having a great run.  Arsenal, now…”

“The GTi probably.”

“Went belly-up, didn’t they?”

“Reckon Palace are for the drop.”

The smelly girl from the front of the class has changed.  A lot.  She doesn’t smell anymore and she’s morphed into an eye surgeon.  “Spent last year in Mali operating on trachoma patients.”

Harriet doesn’t dare ask what trachoma is, so she says “Is Matt here?”

He isn’t.  Harriet chats to someone called Caroline.  They tell each other they look incredible and agree it’s been years, or ‘yonks’ as Caroline calls it.  She’s started her own business, which Harriet can’t understand despite the long description.  Her clothes are expensive but she still looks a frump.  Apparently the scarf is Celine and the jacket was made to measure.   Harriet makes a mental note to stick to Zara.

white wineBack at the drinks table Amy has another glass of wine.   She burps and clutches her stomach.  “Sorry.”

“Are you OK?” asks Harriet.

Amy shuts her eyes and lets out a sigh.  “I think I’m pregnant again.”

“But you’re a fantastic mum.  You love children.”

There’s a pause before Amy says “Matt doesn’t.”