A SENSE OF ENTITLEMENT - READ SAMPLE FROM NEW NOVEL

Saturday, 10 February 2018 / Leave a Comment


In the last few weeks, I’ve been busy writing a new novel (working title: A Sense of Entitlement). Like my acclaimed mystery thriller Isolation (Crooked Cat Books, 2017) the story is set in the mid-nineties, in and around the Essex fringes of east London. And like Isolation, the protagonist, Pete Monroe, is stuck in a mind-numbing, unfulfilling job, working for an insurance company, a job I myself endured for short period of time, answering the phone all day long, regurgitating a standard sales script, giving out incredibly uncompetitive quotes for home contents’ insurance. His whole life changes when he befriends a homeless man, a man who used to run a nightclub in swinging London, a man full of colourful stories, a man who was betrayed by his wife, tricked into signing everything he owned over to her and her new lover. Determined to help his newfound friend get justice, Pete is drawn into a bizarre, supernatural world where nothing is quite what it seems.
     Ordinarily, I would share the opening chapters with you, to give you a flavour of the story, but am currently engaged in a pretty brutal life and death struggle with the opening sentence (the other 99,986 or so words are pure perfection - well, maybe that’s going a bit far…), so it’s not quite ready for beta reader consumption yet.



Instead, I’ve pasted a short sample from a later chapter of the book, a stand-alone sample about a story Pete reads that has symbolic significance to the plight he finds himself in. To avoid any plot spoilers at this early stage (in a fit a of desperate, insomniac frustration, I could very easily delete the whole manuscript after seventeen straight days of no sleep, staring at the flashing cursor on my monitor, still unable to get the opening line right! – currently a mere fourteen words!), I will elaborate no more, and simply let you enjoy (hopefully) ten or so pages of my current work in progress:

The Dog’s Body
Even now, it feels strange to say that a book (or, more correctly, a short story) saved my life, helped me turn the corner, helped me come to terms with everything that’d happened, ’cause I’d never been much of a reader. The odd music or sporting biography, things gifted to me at Christmas, that was about it. Even the way the book came into my possession was hard to explain. One afternoon, after our exercise period, I returned to my cell to find a thin leather-bound book, no dust-cover, no nothing, resting on top of my pillow. Confused, I picked it up and opened it. A few pages in, there was a list of stories and different authors’ names, one of which had been circled in red Biro – The Dog’s Body by N.A. Randolph. For obvious reasons, that name resonated, making me think that it might have been written by the same Nigel Randolph who disappeared from a mental institute a few years’ back, the very same man who claimed to have fallen victim to The Black Brotherhood.
      Sitting on the bed, I flicked to The Dog’s Body story and started to read.
      From the outset, it was a weird yet compelling tale, written in plain, simple language, with short, concise sentences and very few big words, almost like a children’s book. The story was told from the point of view of a family dog who wakes up one morning in the grips of a debilitating depression. It can’t even look at the tinned dog food its owner scoops into its bowl. The thick pieces of jellified meat, once so tantalizing, appear gross and unappealing. The mere smell of the stuff makes the dog feel nauseous, and he trudges away and slumps down in his basket in the corner of the kitchen.       
      From this lowly vantage point, the dog observes the usual morning pandemonium as the rest of the household wakes up – the shouts up the stairs, padding feet on the landing, the sound of running water, the toilet flushing, the rumble of the boiling kettle, toast popping out of a toaster. The family itself consists of a husband and wife and a young son. A normal, happy functioning unit – the man and woman go to work each day, the son goes to school. Their lives are ordered, regimented almost, and this is perhaps (while not overtly stated) the roots cause of the dog’s malaise, how each morning is exactly the same as the morning that preceded it, how he is expected to play out his designated role – scampering eagerly over to each family member in turn, jumping up, licking hands and faces, getting under feet, being lightly admonished, pushed away, occasionally patted, stroked, hugged. But today, he has not the energy or inclination to participate in the charade. He wants to do nothing more than lie motionless in his basket.
        When it’s time for his morning walk, the dog fails to respond to the father’s calls, his usual breezy cajoling: ‘Come on, Bucky-boy, time for walkies’. In the end, the man has to literally drag Bucky from his basket, snap the lead to his collar, and tug him all the way out of the house. ‘Come on,’ he repeats. ‘Whatever is the matter with you?’     
      Outside it’s a bright, warm spring morning; rays of sun cast a revealing light over the ugly suburban estate, the rows of identical red-bricked houses, well-manicured strips of lawn, shiny hatchback cars parked in each driveway, accentuating the grey, dull ordinariness of the scene. The conformity. For it’s as if each householder is taking the family dog for a walk at exactly the same time. Sing-song greetings are exchanged. The odd car engine rumbles into life. Reluctantly, Bucky allows himself to be pulled along the pavement to a grass verge at the end of the road, where he is expected to perform his daily functions, to expel the waste products from his body. With great effort, Bucky cocks his leg up against the street sign and forces out a reluctant sprinkle of urine. Far from satisfied, the man ducks down and grabs Bucky by the chops. ‘Is that it, Bucky-boy? No number twos? We don’t want any accidents in the house now, do we?’ Due to the strict uniformity of their daily routine, the dog understands exactly what is being asked of him, that this big lumbering skin and bone presence wants him to defecate on request, that he is actually standing over him, almost ordering him to evacuate his bowels. In vague compliance, Bucky assumes the position, crouching, squeezing his eyes shut, and forcing a small, almost apologetic sliver of faecal matter out of his rectum. ‘That-a-boy, Bucky,’ says the man, with an absurd degree of enthusiasm, as if Bucky has just done something worthy of the highest praise. Ducking down, with an old Tesco carrier bag covering his hand, the man scoops up the freshly laid dog turd, deftly fastens the bag up, with a neat bow at the top, and walks both it and Bucky over to the dog bin on the corner. ‘Come on, Bucky,’ he says, after dropping the package inside the bin, ‘let’s get you home’.
       When the family finally leave for the day, Bucky returns to his basket. Such is the depth of his depression, he can barely muster the energy to swat away at the multitude of flies that land on his snout, body, hind legs. He can feel the delicate, ticklish tread of many tiny feet, but is indifferent to something that would’ve normally driven him to distraction, seen him jump up, shake his coat, head, wag his tail in a frenzy, do anything to startle the flies away. It’s as if his spirit has already left his body, as if he’s nothing more than a living corpse now.
     A little later, Bucky rises from his basket and ambles through to the front room. At the back of the house, there’s an improvised cat-flap at the bottom of some French doors, allowing him to come and go as he pleases, allowing him to relieve himself in the back garden. Ordinarily, at this hour, Bucky would go outside and root around the abundant flowerbeds, he would chase after birds and squirrels, bark at the far-off sound of voices, cars, other dogs from other houses in other back gardens, doing exactly the same thing that he was doing now. When the postman delivers the morning mail, he would usually dash back through to the front of the house, and snap and snarl at the letters deposited. But not even the creaky sound of the letterbox opening and swinging shut can rouse his interest.
      Going back through to the kitchen, he sniffs at the untouched bowl of dog food but still feels no appetite whatsoever. He laps half-heartedly at the fresh water his owner put down for him before leaving the house, but even in these increasingly hot, humid conditions, he has little or no interest in hydrating himself. Slumping back down in his basket, he falls into a fitful sleep.
       At the usual time, the front door clatters open. Excited voices and tramping feet sound down the hallway. A moment later, the young boy bounds into the kitchen, making a beeline for Bucky’s basket. ‘Hello there, Bucky-boy.’ He jumps all over Bucky, stroking and tickling him, burying his face into the dog’s familiar furry coat. But it soon becomes apparent that Bucky isn’t interested in playing this afternoon. He just lies there limply, blinking his sad watery eyes. This confuses the boy. It upsets the natural equilibrium of his day. Playing with Bucky after school is a regular thing, part of his routine. When he tries again, when he attempts to engage Bucky in a play-fight, like so many times before, the dog only whimpers pitifully and pulls away. He resents the boy’s efforts. He doesn’t want to be a clown for these people anymore. He doesn’t want to roll over onto his back and have his tummy tickled, he doesn’t want to have to sit down and get back up again, sit down and get back up again, he doesn’t want to run and collect a stupid rubber ball, or wrestle around on the floor. When this finally registers, the boy calls out to his parents. ‘Mum, dad, there’s something wrong with Bucky’. When they come and investigate, they see the untouched food and water and exchange a worried glance. ‘What’s wrong with him, dad?’ ‘Oh, he’s just a bit off colour, son. I’m sure he’ll snap out of it.’
       Later that evening, when the boy offers him food from the dinner table, chunks of prime meat glistening in rich gravy, the dog refuses it, turns and walks away. ‘Why isn’t Bucky hungry, mum? He always likes to share a bit of my tea. I always give him a little treat.’ ‘I’m not sure, love. But if he doesn’t perk up soon, we’ll have to get him checked out at the vets.’
     But the dog is exactly the same the following day and the day after that. He shows no appetite for food or water. He is ponderous and lethargic. He barely responds to the calling of his name. ‘Why don’t we take him down the park, dad?’ says the boy, hopefully. ‘Maybe a bit of fresh air will do him good.’
       While not particularly keen, the father agrees, wanting to do anything to cheer his son up, to allay his fears. But it’s a real struggle to get Bucky to leave the house again, let alone put in the requisite effort to walk to the park. What would normally have been a two, three-minute stroll full of excited chatter and the bouncing of balls, takes close to a quarter of an hour of tugging and pulling, stopping and starting, moaning and pleading, prodding and poking. ‘Come on, Bucky, pull yourself together’. In the end, the father has to pick Bucky up and carry him the rest of the way. But his exertions are wasted. For when he puts the dog down on the grass in the park, he is completely non-responsive. He ignores the other dogs dashing around him. Even when they approach, he displays such disinterest they quickly lose interest in him. There’s none of the usual sniffing and tail-wagging, the playful barking, the darting little runs, the expulsion of that mad doggy canine energy that is so endearing. ‘He’s clearly not right,’ father says to son as they walk home. ‘Maybe he’s eaten something that hasn’t agreed with him’.
       Next day, the family take the dog to the local vet’s. After a routine examination, the vet can find nothing physically wrong with him. ‘He’s in perfectly good working order,’ he says. ‘That being the case, I feel that he may be suffering from a psychological disorder of some kind. Have you just moved house? Were there any other family pets that may’ve passed away recently? Anything that might’ve impacted upon the dog?’ ‘No,’ says the father. ‘Nothing out of the ordinary has happened. Bucky used to be such a lively, happy dog. One morning, when we woke up, he just didn’t seem to be interested in anything anymore, as if he’d had all the spirit drained from him’. ‘Okay, I understand,’ says the vet. ‘If this behaviour persists, we’ll have to perform some more stringent tests’.
      Nothing changes. The dog is still morose and lethargic. To all intents and purposes, it looks as if he has completely given up on life. He can’t summon the strength or enthusiasm to clamber out of his basket, to eat or drink. It gets to the stage where they can no longer persuade him to leave the house, where he just lays around all day, where he urinates and defecates indoors. Unwilling to pay another hefty vet’s bill, in what they now see as a hopeless case, the family decides to house Bucky outside. ‘We can’t have him inside if all he’s going to do is wee and pooh all over the place, love,’ mother tries to explain to son. ‘So your dad’s going to build him his own little kennel in the garden. Perhaps it might be the ideal tonic. Perhaps being outside might help him get back to his old self’.
     That Saturday, the father builds the kennel. A skilled weekend carpenter, he takes real pride in his work, constructing a fine spacious dog house from the finest materials. The whole family join in, handing him different tools, making him cups of tea, helping him hammer in the last remaining nails. When the main structure is complete, the boy brings Bucky’s basket and food and water bowls out from the house and places them inside, making it the perfect little home.
     But this alteration to his living arrangements has negligible, if any effect. The dog’s behaviour remains unchanged. He still spends whole days curled up in his basket, only inside the kennel now rather than the house. By this time, Bucky has lost a considerable amount of weight; his ribcage protrudes through a once shiny coat that has now started to moult. A horrible smell of decay, of rotting from the inside out now pervade, not just the kennel, but the whole patio area, the neatly tended back garden space, with the wooden table and chairs, gas barbeque, the small landscaped pond, home to four impressive coy carp.
     The family don’t know what to do; so they do nothing. Each morning, they go to work and school respectively. Each evening, they cook and prepare their main meal, watch television, go to bed, and then repeat the process the following day.
     Unbeknown to them, however, something sinister is now afoot in the garden. Everyday, after they leave the house, a grey squirrel, an unrepentant scavenger known to plunder seed from family’s bird feeders, once a sworn enemy of the old, rambunctious Bucky, has become increasingly drawn to the new kennel. No doubt attracted by the smell of decay, of impending death, the squirrel has taken to creeping over and ducking its head inside, going so far as to prod the slumbering, barely breathing Bucky with its claws, testing the fading canine out, trying to get a reaction. In the past, the dog would chase the parasite out of the garden, barking, growling, attempting to clamber up trees to get at his adversary, but now he is not even a shadow of his former self, and the scavenger intends to take full advantage of this.
     A week after the kennel was erected, on a rare occasion when Bucky drags himself outside, the squirrel strikes. Leaping down from a tree branch, it attacks the dog, using its sharp claws to slash Bucky’s throat, to incapacitate him, sending him slumping down wheezing on his side, choking on his own blood. With a surgeon’s precision, the squirrel proceeds to completely eviscerate Bucky, tearing him to pieces, scooping out and feasting upon his major organs, draining his blood, tearing at the soft flesh around its haunches, greedily gnawing away at the prime meat, until all that is left is a fur and bone shell.
      When the boy comes home from school, he dashes outside to find the twisted remains of Bucky’s body, the patio awash with blood. He screams. ‘Mum, dad, Bucky’s been…’ Hearing the distress in their son’s voice, the parents rush out of the house. ‘My God!’ cries the mother. ‘Will, please,’ she says to her husband. ‘Cover it up. Get rid of it.’ ‘Rid of it,’ he repeats, confused, shocked, put out, knowing how much effort it will take to jet-wash the blood from the patio. ‘The body, the dog’s body. We can’t just leave it there, can we?’ ‘Erm, yes, of course’.
      While mother cuddles son, whispering soft, practised words of reassurance, the father digs an old hessian sack out of the garage, and with the aid of a spade, shovels what remains of Bucky’s body inside.
     After much debate, he decides to dump the body in the woodland surrounding the local park. ‘It’s the best way,’ he says, ‘hand’s-free, will save us the hassle of having to dig a big hole in the garden’. To be safe, he waits until its dark before leaving the house with the sack. But no sooner has he dumped the body deep in the woods than he hears a rustling noise in the undergrowth, panting, scampering feet, which startles him halfway out of his wits. And although her pretends he hasn’t heard anything, although he moves swiftly away, his flashlight bobbing up and down in the darkness, he knows that an animal, maybe a badger attracted to carrion, has pounced upon Bucky’s corpse, and is now stripping the remaining flesh from the dog’s body.
       When he gets back to the house, he goes upstairs to his son’s bedroom. Still distressed, the boy is laid out on his bed, sniffing and sobbing. The father perches himself on the edge of the mattress and brushes a few stray hairs from his son’s face. ‘It was the most sensible thing to do,’ he says, wanting to both comfort the boy and teach him a valuable lesson about life. ‘- dumping the body in the woods like that. It’s nature, Ronnie. Big things prey on little things. It’s part of the food chain. I know it sounds horrible, but that’s just the way the world works.’
      And that was it – the story ended.
      For days, I didn’t really know what to make of what I’d read. I didn’t know why someone had left the book on my bed even, and why they had circled that story in particular. I mean, it could’ve been a coincidence, that another inmate might’ve simply tossed an unwanted book into my cell, and that the Dog’s Body story had been circled by someone else, maybe the book’s original owner, for completely unrelated purposes. But the more I thought about it, the more I sensed that this story had been left there for a specific reason, that it symbolized the struggles that I was going to have to endure, that I was, to all intents and purposes, a dog trapped in a literal prison-like routine, that the other inmates represented that grey squirrel waiting to pounce should I show ultimate weakness. For that, and many other reasons – my growing attachment to Alice, my hopes and dreams for the future – I resolved to get my head down, to never show such weakness, to go about my daily duties with as much zeal and enthusiasm as I could muster.
      And it nearly worked. 

If you enjoyed this sample, and are keen to read more of my work (but are unable to wait for me to get my thumb out of my arse and get that opening line right), why not head over to my amazon page and check out my published work to date:





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THOUGHTS ON WRITING THOSE BIG SCENES

Saturday, 20 January 2018 / Leave a Comment


New Year. New Novel. First drafts can be quite a slog after three weeks of writing anywhere between 3,000 and 6,000 words a day, when you know all you’re doing is putting in the essential groundwork before polishing and refining the story, before the real writing begins, before the novel really starts to take shape. But it is perhaps, day by day, the manner in which those big important scenes remain in early draft form that is the most frustrating part of the process, how a writer knows they will have to return time and again, how they will have go over individual words, sentences and paragraphs on umpteenth separate occasions until getting things just right.
      

Whenever I have to leave a big scene unfinished, no more than an outline, I think of all the great scenes from my favourite books and wonder how much rewriting went in to making them so powerful, effective, thought-provoking. For instance, I remember a brutal, harrowing scene from Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a story relayed by an old man about Japanese soldiers on a covert mission in China, how they are captured by a Mongolian detachment led by a sadistic Soviet officer. When one of the Japanese soldier’s refuses to cooperate, the officer gives orders for one of the Mongolians to skin him alive. It’s a hard read. Each incision, grimace, agonized scream relayed with such clinical clarity, it’s as if the reader is witnessing the barbaric horror first hand. A scene which stays with you long after you have finished the book.



Or the famous scene from Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum where the protagonist Oskar goes to the beach with his family. On a nearby rock, they see a man holding a thick rope out to sea, like a fishing line. Suddenly, he leaps up and begins to haul the rope in, pulling a horse’s head out of the water, full of wriggling eels trying to eat the remaining flesh on the skull from the inside out. The man starts to pull the eels out of the horse’s head from the mouth, through the nose, through the ears and stuffs them inside a sack. Horrified, Oskar’s mother (along with many a reader over the years) drops to her knees and vomits. Again: a scene that lingers long in the memory.





Or the poignant, symbolic scene from Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea when the luckless old fisherman, after hours of struggle, eventually lands the giant Marlin, hauling it in and fastening it the side of his boat, only for it to be attacked by sharks. No matter how hard the old man tries to fight the sharks off, battering them with oars, they still manage to tear off the choicest parts of the Marlin. This particular scene always resonated with me, for I see it as hugely symbolic of life itself, how a person can work hard for decades, struggle, scrimp and save, and still have nothing to show for it in the end, how there will always be some merciless predatory bastards hellbent on taking everything from you, and by whatever means.



But perhaps a scene that made the biggest impression on me can be found in Jean Paul Satre’s novel The Age of Reason. While best known for his philosophical works, Satre’s Road’s to Freedom trilogy set in and around the Second World War is incredibly accomplished, compelling work of fiction. In the scene in question, disabled patients at a hospital in Paris are being evacuated from the capital by train. Two patients, both crippled, a man and a woman, end up on stretchers in the same carriage. As the train shunts off from the station, they strike up a charming conversation, build up a rapport, there is a hint of romance in the air, that perhaps they will see each other again when they arrive at their destination, that something good and beautiful might come out of the grimmest and most unlikely of situations. But when the train grinds to a halt due to a damaged section of rail, the two characters are left unattended for hours. As time passes, they become increasingly desperate to relieve themselves. Seen from the point of view of the man, the tension builds up, an excruciating internal dialogue plays out in his head, where he is willing his body not to let him down, to embarrass him. Vividly he pictures how ashamed he would be if he soiled himself in front of the young lady who has made such a pleasant impression on him, awakening things he thought long since dormant. Just as he feels he cannot control his bodily functions any longer, he hears an anguished sob. A moment later, the horrible, unmistakable stench of faeces starts to waft around the carriage. The young woman could hold out no longer. I like this scene because it encapsulates both a lofty sense of humanity, two people randomly meeting, potential romance, intimacy, with our physical limitations, the way circumstance can render us helpless as a new born baby, how the inexorable march of history, fate, can trigger a global conflict, can kill, maim and displace many millions of people, as if they are no more than pieces on a chessboard in a perpetual state of imminent checkmate.



Not to jinx things, I won’t tell you anything about the new novel that is taking shape each day, or any of the big scenes I’m so looking forward to working on in earnest in the coming weeks and months. If you can’t wait till then, why not check out my amazon page for all my published work to date:




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A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A DEATH

Friday, 22 December 2017 / Leave a Comment


Dear Readers, I'm pleased to inform you that my death as a short story writer has been wildly exaggerated. Whether it's a London bus thing - wait around forever, and two come at once - but I've been on a bit of a roll in recent weeks, writing five new stories, completing (tentatively, hopefully) my second collection, entitled (perhaps, maybe) A Day in the Life of a Death and Other Stories. It's strange how things come together. I had the title for the title story written in the back of my notebook for three years before I actually wrote the story itself! And the original title story didn't even make the final cut. In many ways, I see this collection as a kind of concept album, based on a theme: the impact (unwitting, intentional, well-meaning, malicious) other people - friends, strangers, heroes, terrorists, lovers, enemies - can have on your life. This is probably best summed up in the first story in the collection The Pinball Machine. In this story, a father consoles his son after he's been bullied at school. In a way he hopes he will understand, he tries to explain the random complexities of life:


‘You remember the other weekend, when me and your mom took you down to Coney Island? You remember how much fun we had playing in that amusement arcade?’ Eddie nodded, looking at his father in the exact same way Raymond remembered looking at his own father when he was a boy. ‘Well, life is a lot like a pinball machine. You know, with those flippers which send the little steel ball ricocheting all over the place, lighting up the table, clanging bells and careering up and down ramps. Only in life, there are millions and millions of those little steel balls, which represent different people, each one being propelled this way and that. And inevitably, these balls, these people, crash into each other from time to time. They get knocked down, knocked off course. It’s unavoidable. Because there’s just so many darn people in the world, Ed, all chasing after their own hopes and dreams.’


I would dearly love to put the whole collection out straight away, just to see what you think, but with three ex-wives, nine children, and an incredibly materialistic, much younger lover to provide for, I better try and sell them first. To whet your appetites here's the title and opening lines of each story:


The Pinball Machine
‘He’s not hurt – physically,' said Ellen. 'It’s just –’
      ‘Just what?’ asked Raymond, clasping the phone tighter to his ear.

       ‘Well, you know what kids are like. They say such horrible things. They can be so cruel.’

A Day in the Life of a Death
“That’s the place, over there.” Bachman pointed to an attractive three-storey house situated on the other side of the canal. “Hardly a man of the people, eh?”
      “And there’s only one exit?” asked Mitchell. “Only one way in and one way out?”
      “Of course there’s only one exit, you idiot! The rear of the building backs onto another arterial waterway.”
   Frowning, Bachman took out a crumpled newspaper clipping, carefully unfolded it, and smoothed it out on his lap.

      “Look.” He jabbed a red, nail-bitten forefinger at a smudged headline: LEADING ACADEMIC CALLS FOR GOVERNMENTS TO FINALLY NEGOTIATE WITH TERRORIST GROUPS. “He’s complacent. He thinks that he can live here, in this peaceful little suburb, and be immune from world events. He’s a hypocrite.”

The Cancer Diet Clinic
Patricia Carmichael was used to people staring at her. At school, kids routinely called her Fatty Patty, The Beached Whale or Jabba the Hutt. But there was something about today’s situation, that she happened to be sitting in a modern air-conditioned waiting-room, surrounded by people of similar size and bulk, bad skin, dry, damaged hair, dated, ill-fitting clothing, and questionable body odour, that made their stares that little bit more disconcerting.        


The Kid and the Whale 
Becca answered the door in her dressing-gown, that tatty pink thing, the one she's had for years.
      'Is he ready?' I asked, eager to collect Alf and get out of there as quick as I could. Since me and Becca split-up, chit-chat, being civil, being in the same room as each other even, had been a bit of a struggle.

The Jacqueline Prophecies
Jacob Fallada didn't know what shocked him more: that a hulking St Bernard was sitting on a stool at the bar, smoking a cigar, or that nobody else in the traditional hostelry was paying the immense canine any attention – not the morose-looking old-timers sitting at a nearby table, or the much younger, smartly-dressed couple deep in conversation in a booth by the window. 

Daddy's Girl
God knows why the hospital called me. Artie was married to Dawn. They had a young daughter, a pretty little thing called Matilda, who absolutely dotted on her dad. They were his next-of-kin so why hadn’t they tried to get hold of Dawn instead? But when I asked, the young woman on the other end of the phone said she didn’t know, that this was the name and number she’d been asked to call. And when you say serious incident, I said, what’d you mean, exactly? There was long, pregnant, bloody horrible pause. I think it’s best you get to the hospital, Mr Collings. The doctors will explain everything. Your friend really needs you right now.

Three Little Boys
Jacob Fallada heard the boys long before he saw them.Their shrill, panicky voices carried all the way down the deserted dirt-track leading to the dilapidated caravan he called home. Jacob was unused to such interruptions. His was a very solitary existence. He rarely interacted with other people. The nearest dwelling was several miles away. If Jacob required any provisions, he had to hike across fields and through woodland to a remote village shop. At this time of year, the entrance to the dirt-track was overgrown, concealed from the road, the surface itself boggy and rutted with potholes, almost impassable. How the boys had stumbled upon it, let alone made it all the way down to the bottom end, was baffling, an impossibility almost. For this reason, Jacob abandoned his artistic work, pulled on a thick winter coat, and went outside to investigate. 


You're the One for Me
Strangely enough, it was Cara's sense of humour, not her lovely smiling face that first attracted me.


The Price of Everything
William Sherwood walked around his desk.
“Good afternoon, Mr Trevelyan. We spoke on the telephone.”

     Terry Trevelyan shifted uncomfortably. This wasn’t his kind of environment. He wasn’t used to speaking to posh, educated people. He didn’t want to make a fool of himself, say or do the wrong thing. But he wasn’t sure if this dingy little office looked quite right, respectable, legitimate.

Good Mornington Heartache
I don’t know why I said it, ‘Can’t believe Rhea’s got another pash-rash!’ 


The Pinball Machine (Reprise)
All afternoon, Raymond Moss had been feeling agitated and out of sorts.


If you can't wait until then, or are just looking for a good Christmas read, why not check out my other titles now available on amazon:


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FRAGMENT - LITTLE GIRL LOST

Monday, 13 November 2017 / Leave a Comment

Arthurs typed the dead man's name into a search engine. As expected, Randall’s official biographical details had been suspended indefinitely. For some time now, the Agency had tried to silence him completely. His books had been slowly going out of print. His name had all but vanished from public life. His image airbrushed from the archives. He was, to all intents and purposes, being gradually erased from the annals of social history.
      Arthurs tried to cast his mind back to Randall’s famous story, the short piece of creative writing which had catapulted him to international fame. If his memory served him correctly, it was the story of a little girl on a crowded train who had somehow become separated from her parents. Hard as she struggles through the mass of bodies, squeezing her way from compartment to compartment, along shunting corridors, she fails to track them down. When the train eventually comes to a stop at a busy station, the little girl is dragged down onto a bustling platform with the rest of the commuters. In vain, she looks everywhere, trying to locate her parents. Increasingly distressed, being bumped this way and that, it is all she can do to stop herself from breaking down in tears.
      Eventually she approaches a slightly older boy who is standing all on his own. In shaky tones, she explains exactly what has happened, how she had been aboard the train with her mother and father, how they had been fleeing some unnamed disaster (but something clearly symbolic of the one-party state movement and ensuing refugee crisis). To her (and the reader's) astonishment, the young boy tells her that he too has lost his parents, in the exact same manner in which she became separated from hers. Kindred spirits, in the same situation, they resolve to stick together, to help each other find their missing loved ones. But no matter how many different platforms and waiting rooms they search, they fail to find a single trace of them.
      Frustrated, they decide to ask a grown up for help. Only the station concourse is populated by such huge numbers of travellers, many of whom are rough, barely literate provincials, pickpockets, petty thieves, they are far too afraid to approach anyone. Towards the end of the day, they come across a man in his early twenties, sitting on a bench, elbows propped on knees, his head in his hands. Tentatively, the young boy taps upon his shoulder. When the man lifts his head, he tells him of their plight. “But I too am searching for my parents,” he interrupts. “Fifteen years ago to this very day, I disembarked from the very same platform from which you disembarked earlier. Only I couldn't find my parents anywhere. Each day, I have returned in the hope of tracking them down.”
      For the rest of the afternoon, the three newfound friends approach men and women of all ages and classes, asking if they have seen couples matching their parents’ respective appearances. Each and every traveller responds in the same way, telling them that they too are searching for missing loved ones. It’s as if everyone at the station is lost, accounting for the tumult and confusion, the sheer numbers of people trooping up and down both platform and concourse. No one is, in fact, waiting to board a train or for friends to disembark. They are waiting for parents who abandoned them to this most transient of all locales many years previous.
       There was something about the story that had always resonated with Arthurs, a subtly, be it in the backdrop of a busy station representing a world in flux, a metaphor for the chaos of modern life, or the vast number of hopeless, misplaced souls struggling to find a place for themselves in society. It was a simple yet beautifully executed, efficient piece of writing, worthy of the plaudits it received worldwide, the kind of rich, rewarding story any writer worth their salt would have wanted to have written. Why the author would choose to veer so wildly from his original artistic vision was as mysterious as his death itself.


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PICTURES OF YOU - EXCLUSIVE EXTRACT FROM NEW NOVEL

Friday, 3 November 2017 / Leave a Comment

My latest work in progress is a novel entitled PICTURES OF YOU. This is the blurb:


When Rhea ends her long-distance relationship with Philip, telling him to never contact her again, he’s devastated. But he respects her wishes and tries to get on with his life. Five weeks later, he receives another email from her. There’s no message, only an attachment: a photograph of Rhea having sex with another man.


Posted below are the opening three chapters:

1
Around midnight time, while still working on edits for a likeable if somewhat deluded fantasy author, I received notification of an email from Rhea. We hadn’t spoken for a few days, and I had started to fear the worst, that our long-distance relationship might be over. It was painfully ironic, as only a couple of months had passed since we met in the flesh for the first time, taking the plunge, seeing if the feelings that had developed online were real, spending a whole month together at Rhea’s house just outside of Melbourne. For that reason, I didn’t really see the end coming. I didn’t think this would be that dreaded break-up email.

I've had a lot of time to think the last few days - it's been good for me. I just know that we can't work together. I need to move on and be in a healthy relationship. I need something more secure in my life. It doesn't change the way that I felt about you for all those years. I may never feel that way about anyone again, but the angst about our situation was really starting to shadow the pleasure.

I think it's best that we don't try and contact each other again. Please understand that this is what I really need.

   Her words left me numb. I knew she wouldn’t have expressed herself so strongly if she wasn’t adamant. But our relationship didn’t seem impossible to me. Only last week, we spoke about another trip out to Australia. My freelance editing work provided a steady source of income, so money wasn’t an issue. I guess I hadn’t really appreciated her concerns about long-term visas, problems with her children accepting her relationship with another man, all the obstacles in our way. Still, I couldn’t believe that she had such serious doubts. We got on so well in Melbourne, had had the perfect time. She told me that she loved me, that everything that had built up between us over five years wasn’t just an internet infatuation, something to help us get through some incredibly difficult times in both our lives.
    Back then, I was in pretty bad shape, fragile emotionally, mourning the loss of my wife after a long battle against anorexia, while Rhea was in the throes of a messy divorce from a domineering man she had never really loved. We reached out to each other on a writing website, forging a solid bond. What started out as a literary friendship, the exchange of emails, book recommendations, turned into an obsession. Every morning, the first thing I did was check my inbox to see what Rhea had sent overnight. We spent hours messaging each other, talking about our lives, thoughts, feelings. When Rhea’s divorce was finalised, we came to an impasse. What should we do? Finally meet? Go for it? We had to. Not meeting up after all that time would have been a tragedy.
    Before Rhea, I had never really spoken to anyone about Lorraine’s death; I had never really grieved or told anyone about the pain and suffering I went through, watching her literally waste away like that, how powerless I felt not being able to help her, how I never really understood why a once vibrant young woman had been reduced to such a desperate state.
  In turn, I listened to Rhea’s marital nightmares, the complete breakdown of her relationship, the arguments, lack of intimacy, the separate bedrooms. I encouraged her to be strong, independent, to not stay in the relationship if it was making her miserable. Sincere, if not entirely honourable advice. For I always felt a strong physical attraction towards Rhea. She had a waifish look, glasses, dark tangled hair and alluring greeny-blue eyes. She had her own unique sense of style, dresses with Peter Pan collars, tights, cardigans, shoes with straps. She had that intelligent, sexy look a lot of men go for. I knew it was stupid to fall for someone over the internet, someone who lived so far away, but I couldn’t help it. We had so much in common, made each other laugh, liked the same books, films, music. I told her that we had been made in the same factory, and it was true, that’s what it felt like. And now it was all over between us, after everything we had shared, after holding a torch for each other for so long. To meet and then part a few weeks later seemed absurd. I found it so hard to accept, sitting there reading her final message, trying to understand why she would want to all of a sudden do this, why she wasn’t willing to give me a chance to go out and see her again. It felt like the least I deserved.
   I was devastated. I had no idea how I was going to get over it.
   In the days that followed, I tried not to think about things too much, to wallow in misery. I went to the gym as often as possible. I tried to avoid alcohol (the last thing I wanted to do was get drunk and send Rhea a series of pathetic, desperate emails), to keep a clear head, my emotions as well as my dignity in check. I resolved to let things go, to accept the situation, to concentrate on my editing work, maybe even try and resurrect my own novel, to lose myself in writing. And for those first few weeks, it worked. I tried to see things from Rhea’s point of view. I tried to put a positive spin on the situation. I knew that what we had shared was special, the hundreds if not thousands of emails and instant messages, the hours spent talking on Skype, the month we spent together in Australia, living like husband and wife. I have never felt closer to anyone – even Lorraine. And I knew that was something to be celebrated, that not everyone is lucky enough to make that kind of connection. Short-lived it may have been, but it was intimate and beautiful, and I didn’t want to be resentful of Rhea for ending things but to always treasure those memories.
    And I almost succeeded.
   But then something happened which changed everything, something so unexpected and cruel, I didn’t know how to take it. Five weeks after her last message, I received another email from Rhea, completely out of the blue. I can’t tell you how surprised I was, how hard my heart pounded against my chest when the notification box popped up on-screen. I thought she must have reconsidered, that everything was back on, that in a few short minutes we would be Skyping again, declaring our love. But the email contained no message, only an attachment, a photograph of Rhea naked on her bed, grappling with a man in a sixty-nine position. Bar a pair of hairy legs and a large erect penis, the male’s physical appearance was almost completely obscured by Rhea’s body. In one hand, she gripped the shaft of his bulging cock, the tip in her mouth, performing oral sex upon him. I couldn’t understand it. I felt physically sick. Why would she send me such an explicit photograph?  What did she hope to achieve? Why would she want to hurt me so much? And there was such a cold, harsh, unrepentant look on her face, her glasses off, eyes staring straight at the camera, a look which told me that she was really enjoying the idea of me seeing her like this, that she wanted to inflict as much pain as possible. The whole thing was so out of character, literally the last thing I would have expected from her. But there it was, in full colour, plastered across my computer screen.

2
At first, I thought it might be a nasty practical joke, that one of Rhea’s friends had photo-shopped the image to show how emphatically Rhea had moved on, to make a point, to make me realize how futile any attempt at rekindling our romance would be. But that didn’t really make sense. The Rhea I knew would have wanted to protect me from that. She knew how sensitive, how vulnerable I was, and wouldn’t have dreamed (for the want of a better expression) of trying to rub my nose in it. For Rhea to have sent me such a picture herself didn’t seem possible, either. She was a kind, sweet, considerate, artistic, cultured woman. Never would she resort to anything as crass as to send me a picture of her having sex with another man, in the bed where we had enjoyed so many intimate moments ourselves. But I couldn’t ignore the one and only irrefutable fact: I had received the photograph from Rhea’s own personal email address.
   Briefly, I considered messaging her straight back, full or reproach, telling her exactly how much she had hurt me. But that felt weak and self-defeating. Best to ignore it, I told myself, forget that the photograph had ever existed. But once I had gone so far as to delete it, I struggled to erase that awful image from my mind. Even before I had received the photograph, thoughts of Rhea with another man, doing all the things we had done together, maybe enjoying his touch more than mine, sickened me. In bed at night, we had made so many promises, how we could never dream of being intimate with anybody else, how perfect we were for each other. I guess in my naivety I still held Rhea to those promises, that I took her at her word, that I didn’t want to believe that her gushing sentiments could have been fake or insincere, or that a love like ours could ever die.
   That evening, I was due to meet an old university friend for a drink in Greenwich. I had been putting him off for weeks, I didn’t feel particularly sociable, as if I could go out and be anything close to good company, anything like my old self. I could only see myself getting drunk and emotional and blurting out the whole story – how wonderful the trip to Australia had been, the depth of my feelings for Rhea, how much I missed her, the contents of her final email, the explicit photograph. But I think I had got to the point, a peak of emotional congestion, where I needed to speak to somebody, to unburden myself, no matter how ridiculous and fawning it made me appear.
    We met in the big Wetherspoon’s pub near the train station. As always, the place was packed full of workmen in paint-flecked pullovers, veteran drinkers in cloth-caps, and a handful of awkward-looking students, but we managed to snare a corner table near the stairs leading up to the toilets, hemmed in by a flashing fruit machine. My friend Shaun had been a qualified psychotherapist with his own practice for years now, and was perhaps the ideal person to confide in. It didn’t take long before he asked me about Rhea, the trip away, the time we had spent together. In turn, it didn’t take long before I was relaying the whole story.
   ‘Hold on,’ he said, as I came to the end of my outpouring, as I told him about the email and explicit photograph. ‘She told you that she didn’t want you to contact her again, then five, six weeks later she actually sends you a picture of herself having sex with another man. No accompanying message. No explanation. Nothing.’
   ‘No. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever hear from her again. And I can’t really make out why she’d do something like that.’
   ‘That’s so odd – like revenge porn in reverse. And you hadn’t been hassling her, bombarding her with messages? You hadn’t been pissing each other off in any way?’
   ‘We had a few minor arguments, but that was weeks before she told me never to contact her again. She was struggling to see how we could keep a long-distance relationship going. I was telling her to be patient, that in seven or eight weeks I’d have enough money to fly out there again.’
   ‘And you didn’t try to get into contact with her?’
    ‘Not directly,’ I replied, honestly. ‘I put a few cryptic tweets out there, posted the odd song we both used to like on social media. Stupid sentimental stuff she just ignored.’
    ‘Then maybe she felt she had to make a big statement, do something so blatant and off-key, so hurtful, you’d realize there was no way back for you, that it was really over.’
    ‘That’s what I thought. It just seems far too extreme. If she felt the need to do something like that, all she had to do was tell me she was seeing someone else. That would’ve been more than enough to make me realize she meant what she said. Believe me. I just can’t help but think there’s something not right about all of this.’
    After that, the conversation drifted, lost momentum, flitting from one inconsequential subject to another – what old university friends were up to, my editing projects, the stresses of working in the mental health sector, his new relationship with a much younger woman. They were thinking of getting out of London in a few months’ time, moving down to Brighton and starting a family. I was really happy for him, but sensed he was reluctant to go in to too much detail, that he didn’t want to express his excitement for fear of stirring up recent bad memories for me.
   Eventually, he brought the conversation back round to Rhea.
   ‘You have been redefining the long-distance relationship these last few years, though, haven’t you?’ he said, cautiously, peering up at me over his third large Tanqueray gin and tonic. ‘I don’t know if I told you, but a while back I looked into emigrating to Australia myself. They’re crying out for qualified therapists over there. I could’ve got a visa no problem. But I’ve heard that they’ve really tightened things up over recent years.’
    ‘Yeah, they have. I think we would’ve had to have applied for a de facto spouse visa. It would’ve taken time but…’
    ‘Maybe you should just try and get back on the horse.’ He smiled weakly, as if sensing that nothing he could say, no matter how well-intentioned, would do much good right now. ‘Go out, meet new people.’
   ‘I know I should. It’s just hard to see myself getting back out there – dating, the single life.’
   ‘Why don’t you try a dating website? I could send you some links. That’s how me and Becky met.’
   ‘No, no, it’s too soon. I just need to get my head around the idea of things being over with Rhea – properly over.’
  ‘And there’s no better way of doing that than meeting someone else.’
   ‘You’re right. And I will. I just need a little more time.’
   Two days passed. I started another round of edits for a first-time writer who had decided to self-publish. He was really pleased with the original job I had done, and wanted me to look at a rewritten section, a quite large section of around one hundred and seventy pages, and help him get the book ready for publication. It was much easier work than the fantasy series, diverting, interesting, seeing what another writer had made of my suggestions for improvements, cuts, changes to the text, word choice. I loved to see the way different authors worked, how they went about telling their stories, right down to the way they constructed individual sentences. It was like a glimpse through a keyhole, into a magical workshop where something truly lofty takes place, something secret and alchemical, something only a chosen few are ever granted access to.
    Early evening, after a light meal of tuna and brown rice, I decided to do another hour or two of editing work before watching a bit of television. Since last logging-in to my laptop I had received a couple of notifications. Now my relationship with Rhea was over, these usually consisted of software updates or links to photographs that one of my Facebook friends had uploaded to Instagram. Thinking nothing of it, I clicked on the icon in the corner of the screen. When I saw Rhea’s name in my inbox, a cold, uncertain feeling fell over me. I had no idea what a second message, so soon after the first, could signify, no idea of what I was about to see, only that I had to open the message to find out. With shaky hands, I angled the cursor over the notification and clicked twice, opening the email. Once again there was no accompanying message, only an attached photograph, another picture of Rhea naked on her bed. This time she was spread out on all fours, her head titled at a slight angle, hair tousled, face flushed, eyes looking right at the camera (which must have been set up on one the shelves in the wardrobe built into the wall) with the same horrible, calculated look she wore in the original photograph. Directly behind her (if only his chest and part of one leg was visible) was a naked man, pressed so tightly up against her, it was clear that they were engaged in full-blown intercourse, like a still shot lifted from a porno film.
    I took a deep intake of breath and squeezed my eyes shut, attempting to swallow back my upset. When I opened them again, and reluctantly reappraised the photograph, I realized that the man in this picture was different to the man in the first photograph. His skin was light and chest hair sandy, while the first man was much darker-complexioned, with much darker hair. So not only did Rhea (or whoever had decided to torture me with these pictures) want me to know that she was having regular sex, she wanted me to know that she had multiple partners. But why? Why did she feel it necessary to send me vivid documentary evidence of the fact?
   Angry more than upset now, I felt that I had no other option than to email her direct, telling her to leave me alone, to never, ever send me anything like this again.

This is horrible, Rhea. Don’t send me stuff like this. It’s sick. What did I ever do to deserve this? If I receive any more pictures, I’ll go to the police. This kind of thing is illegal over here, you know?

   But within twenty or thirty seconds of pressing send, I got an error message telling me that the email had failed, that that address no longer existed.
     ‘What?’ I stared at the screen in disbelief. That was patently ridiculous. I had just replied to a message sent to me all of forty minutes ago. How could the email address no longer exist? For that to be the case, Rhea, or whoever had sent the second photograph, must have closed the account down straight after sending the message. And that just didn’t seem likely, feasible, that degree of foresight or calculation.
    I tried to send my reply again with the same results.
   Copying and pasting the error message into a new message, I emailed it to another old friend, a bit of a computer expert, asking him exactly what it meant.

Just that, he came back straight away, that the email address you’re trying to contact has been closed-down, put out of circulation. It’s easily done – click on account settings, and simply press terminate account.

    If I had had doubts about the legitimacy of the original email, I was now certain that something very wrong had taken place. To what degree Rhea was involved, or whether I was the victim of a distasteful prank (maybe instigated by one of her new lovers or old friends), I had no idea. All I knew was that I wanted it to stop. All I knew was that I didn’t want to have to look at another one of those pictures ever again.

3
Next morning, I felt predictably lousy. It was a struggle to lift the kettle and fill it with water. I just couldn’t get my head around the situation. Up until a few weeks ago, I counted Rhea as one of the sweetest, kindest, gentlest people I had ever met. Granted, we had the odd argument over the years, but that had more to do with frustration – that I lived here, and she lived over there. I never once thought she had a darker side to her character, that she was acting out a role, that she had fooled me into believing she was the personification of human warmth, when in reality she was a twisted bitch who got off on inflicting pain on others.
   As I slumped down at the kitchen table, all I could remember were the good times, how special she made me feel, how excited I used to get when we Skyped or sent each other emails, the things we used to talk about, the plans we had made. There were so many wonderful moments, things I could never forget. Like the time I asked her for a token of her affection, something to remind me of her, something I could wear around my neck, like those lockets Victorian sweethearts used to exchange, with little photographs inside. I didn’t really think any more of it; it was just one of those gushing things you say when you’re stupidly in love. Five or six weeks later, I received a small parcel from Australia containing a silver locket with attractive jade and amber casing. Inside was a beautiful photograph of Rhea, a sexy half smile playing upon her lips. I don’t know what it was – the gesture or loveliness of the photograph – but whenever I opened the locket and looked at her, I knew with absolute certainty that she was thinking about me, about us, the unlikely beauty of our relationship, how we had found each other on the other side of the world, and all the good times we had to look forward to when we finally met in person.
   I just couldn’t believe that things had soured between us to this extent. I couldn’t believe that she would want to taunt me like this. The one person I thought I knew best, who really understood me was trying to drive me out of my mind with jealousy and despair. 
    I hauled myself into the bathroom and had a cold shower, just to try and clear my head, to jar myself back to life, to not get dragged down trying to work out Rhea’s motivations.
   But it proved impossible.
    Later that morning, I received a third photograph via the email address that supposedly no longer existed. It was far more disturbing than the other pictures, mainly because there were two men with Rhea this time around. Predictably, she was naked, kneeling in the middle of her open-plan front room, right in front of the fire. Either side of her stood two strapping men, naked also, but visible only from the waist down. Rhea had an erect penis in each hand. Her face was covered in semen. A big arrow of thick white gunk dangled from her chin. Yet again she had that horrible, conceited look on her face as she stared right at the camera, her tongue poking out of the side of her mouth, as if to lap away at the seminal fluid pouring down her face, as if to show me how much she enjoyed swallowing other men’s come.
   Disgusted, I exited out of the internet session, shot to my feet, and began to pace up and down the room, trying to think of ways of putting a stop to this harassment. And that’s what it had become: harassment, pure and simple. If the shoe had been on the other foot, and I had taken to sending Rhea pictures of me screwing different women, she would have been well within her rights to call the police, to have an injunction put in place.      
   Determined not to act rashly, I sat back down at my laptop and checked Rhea’s social media accounts. If I couldn’t reply to her emails direct, maybe I could find other ways of confronting her. But it was no good. At some point in the last few weeks, she had blocked me on Facebook. Her Twitter, Instagram and Goodreads accounts had been closed down. Why, I had no idea. It was as if she was erasing every last trace of herself with the specific intention of making my life a misery. I typed her name into a search engine and scrolled through the list of results, but found no secret cyber passageway through which I could contact her. We always used to Skype so I never had cause to ask for her mobile phone number. Not that it would have done me much good. If the situation was as malicious as it now appeared, there was no way she would be willing to speak to me on the telephone.
   At a loss, I called Shaun on his work number. I needed to vent, to unburden myself, and he was the only person who knew what had been happening.
   ‘Jesus Christ, Phil, she’s really got it in for you, hasn’t she?’
   ‘I know. Only I can’t for the life of me understand why. I just want it to stop. Okay, we’ve broken up. I didn’t take it very well. But when things came to a head and Rhea told me to never contact her again, I didn’t. I swear.’
   ‘I understand. It’s such a weird situation, though. In my line of work, I hear some real horror stories from people, proper deranged individuals on the edge, with little grasp of reality. But this is a new one on me. I don’t know why Rhea would want to do this to you. Once, maybe, to show you that she’d moved on, that everything is well and truly over between you. But two, three times is truly nasty. I can’t help but think she’s not right in her own head, that something has happened that you don’t know about.’
   ‘What? Like a cry for help or something?’ I asked, having not really considered that possibility before.
    ‘I don’t know, Phil. Whatever her motivations, I’d leave her well alone if I were you.’
   ‘But what can I do to get it to stop?’
   ‘Contact the Microsoft Outlook administrator – that’s the email service you use, isn’t it? Give them Rhea’s email address, the one she’s been using to send you the pictures. Tell them exactly what’s been happening, and get them to block her account, or redirect anything she might send you to your junk file.’
   ‘But if she’s this determined she could just set up another email account and continue to send me pictures.’
   ‘Then why don’t you close your account, and set up a new one? Problem solved. She won’t be able to send you anything if she doesn’t know your new email address.’
   ‘But I’ve had the same email address for years. I use it for my editing work. If I changed it now it would cause me untold aggravation, having to go around all my old clients informing them. I could lose work. And I don’t think I’d want to risk that.’
   ‘I see,’ he said, slowly, as if weighing up alternative courses of action. ‘If that’s the case, then why not go with my original suggestion? – contact the Outlook people. At least it will put your mind at rest for a while. And who knows? She might get tired of the whole thing soon. She might leave you alone.’
   This I did, receiving a prompt standard reply informing me that it may take 7-14 days to process my request. Shit, I thought to myself, fearing another week or two of being bombarded with constant photographs. If that proved to be the case, I could always delete the messages without putting myself through the agony of staring at Rhea engaged in sexual contact with another man, or men. But that wasn’t really the point. It was the principle, knowing that she could get to me this much, that she was going out of her way to upset me in the most extreme manner imaginable. No. I had to try and put a stop to this thing today.
   When I visited Australia, a couple of Rhea’s friends had befriended me on Facebook. One in particular, Melanie, had been really chatty. We had similar tastes in music, and had struck up a bit of a rapport. If I messaged her on Facebook, telling her exactly what was happening, she might sympathize and speak to Rhea direct, telling her that I was thinking of reporting the matter to the police.
   Choosing my words carefully, so as not to come across as hysterical or in any way weird, like I might have a hidden, underhand agenda, I ended the message with the following appeal:
I know your loyalties will always lie with Rhea, and please believe me, I’m not out to cause trouble, or to wheedle my way back into her life. Our relationship is well and truly over. I know that now. I just want to be left in peace. So please could you have a word with her and tell her enough is enough?

Yours hopefully

Philip

    Her response, all of twenty-five minutes later, shocked and disturbed me.

How dare you contact me! Rhea has told me everything. She told me to expect a message from you – sooner rather than later. You’ve got one hell of a nerve, harassing me like this. I don’t believe one word you’ve written. I don’t believe that Rhea’s been sending you anything, let alone explicit photographs. Why would she? What a crock! Men like you should be locked up. Why can’t you just do as Rhea asked and leave her alone? She’s been through hell these last few months, trying to put an end to your relationship. Only you won’t let it lie, will you? Only you keep pestering and upsetting her. I knew, from the first moment I set eyes on you, that you were trouble. Time and again, I tried to warn Rhea off. Time and again, I told her it was madness to have an internet romance with someone who lives on the other side of the world. If only she had listened! Now don’t you dare try and contact me again. Okay? And stop spreading your nasty little lies about Rhea. She’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. She doesn’t deserve to have her life ruined like this. FUCK OFF!

   Still in shock, I read back over certain vitriolic sentences – which pretty much constituted the whole message. It was only by chance, as I exited out of the page, that I realized that Melanie had just blocked me as a friend, that I had effectively been cut-off from another part of Rhea’s life.
  The more I thought about it, the more her response stunned me. What could Rhea have possibly told her to make her react like that? What had I supposedly done these last few months that was so bad? Yes, I had tried to make Rhea change her mind, to stop her from giving up on our relationship. Yes, we had had a few fractious exchanges on Skype and instant messenger. But nothing that would provoke such a hateful outburst. More to the point, Rhea had been sending me those photographs, one was still sitting in my inbox right now, the other two in my deleted items folder.
   About half an hour later, I got a message from the Facebook Administrator telling me that my account had been suspended for forty-eight hours because several complaints had been made against me.

In the last two weeks, read the penultimate paragraph, two of our members have had cause to block you from their pages. We take issues of trolling, the posting of inappropriate material, and sexual harassment very seriously. If we receive any further reports against you, we will have no other option than to remove you from the site indefinitely.

   I had to smirk at the “trolling, the posting of inappropriate material, and sexual harassment” line, because if anybody had been the victim of those three specific cyber-crimes it was most certainly me. Regardless, Melanie’s response to my message was nothing if not revealing. It proved that Rhea had warned her in advance, that she was actively aware of the savage effect those photographs were having, that she had clearly formulated a plan to counter any allegations I might make against her. Still, no matter how I tried to frame all this in my head, I couldn’t help but think that something terrible had happened to Rhea to make her act this way, that there was something dark and sinister involved. Only I had no way of finding out what it was now.
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