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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