Animation by Kayelle Allen at The Author's Secret
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Monday, December 12, 2011
There is a website, which shall remain nameless, to which you can pay a modest sum to have the ‘first page’ of your novel read and ‘critiqued’. For ‘first page’ read half of your first page and for critiqued read criticised and scored by passing readers.
I wouldn’t recommend this to my worst enemy! It is a thoroughly demoralising process – particularly for new writers – because it seems the majority of readers are other writers desperate to promote their own stories. They think the best way to do that is to annihilate the competition by ruthlessly voting other contributions down and selecting random negative comments. How can a new writer learn anything from that?
Obviously, they can’t. It’s certainly not the route to honest criticism, though, in fairness, there are some genuine readers who will vote honestly and give brief but useful feedback. But one valuable lesson you learn from such a process is the vital importance of getting those first pages absolutely right. They are our 'ambassadors' into the publishing world and we owe it to ourselves to make them as polished and perfect as we possibly can. (Though that’s not to say the rest of the writing should be allowed to lapse, of course!)
Writers are like overly-sensitive mothers: our stories are our babies, wrenched from our imaginations only after a long and painful labour and delivery. If our babies fail to make it past first base because they have defects which we, as loving parents overlooked in our affectionate ignorance, we then have to claw them back into our literary wombs and hide them from the world, perhaps forever.
But since we can’t trust random strangers with their own vested interests in bringing us down, then who do we entrust with our babies on their first outings? Not our loved ones, I fear. Family and friends will rarely be able to give us the kind of totally objective feedback we need. But not everyone can afford to pay for a professional reading service – and ideally you would need more than one reader. Writers are generally very experienced readers and are best equipped to critique and offer suggestions. In my experience they also give most generously of their time.
Forging good relationships with other writers and building a small network of friends, should ensure one or two readers who will be able to read at least those vital early chapters and give their honest opinions. It’s a symbiotic relationship, however, but in my experience, ‘swapping babies’ (temporarily, of course) is a very rewarding and valuable process.
I’d like to form a ‘First Three Club’ where writers band together to offer beta reading and honest criticism of those all-important first three chapters which we send out to agents. Who knows, such a club may already exist, but if one does, it’s a well-concealed secret society – at least, I haven’t found it yet.
If you know of one, please let me know. In the meantime, if I read yours, will you read mine?
Sunday, November 20, 2011
Well it all happened so suddenly! One minute I was having a whinge about the traumas of self-publishing and the next I was receiving a contract offer from a publisher for my debut novel ‘The Apple Tree’. How did that happen? Well, promise you won’t laugh…?
Being a newbie to this publishing game, I started approaching review blogs asking them very politely if they would like to review my new contemporary romance – I touched upon that briefly in a former blog. One of these ‘blogs’ turned out to be a site for a start-up publisher called ‘Inspired Romance Novels’. A lovely lady named Joan agreed to accept my submission and read it. Trust me to get it wrong, but who cares? Joan liked the novel and offered me a contract!
Not only that but, by submitting to her site, I had unwittingly entered my novel into her ‘kick-off romance writing competition’ – which I subsequently won! Since then the wonderful Joan has worked painstakingly with me to help me revamp my novel, find just the right cover art and prepare for its re-launch.
I’ve been so inspired and excited that I churned out my next novel in record time – true the idea was fully-formed in my mind – but ‘In Loving Hate’ (title still open to debate, by the way) was so much easier to write after that little confidence boost.
What I want to say to shy new writers (like me) is have faith in yourself. Approach the review blogs after first making sure that your work fits their wanted list and don’t give up hope. Joan was my fairy godmother – I hope you will find yours!
Excerpt: The Apple Tree
Copyright 2011 Lynette Sofras
“Ah yes,” Sonya cooed. “We hear you’ve already met our Nicko.”
Nicholas extended his hand to her for the second time that day. She noticed his well-manicured and scrubbed nails. Definitely an artist’s hands, she thought.
“Yes, Mr Masserman very kindly showed me around the garden center this afternoon...” She stopped suddenly, fearing she may have said the wrong thing and jeopardized his job. Nicholas only smiled.
“It’s Nicholas,” he corrected. “Nick, if you prefer.”
But not Nicko, thank goodness.
He helped himself to a drink before gracefully folding his lean frame into a rather low armchair placed at an angle to her chair. Robert began to fire questions about his garden center and whether Nicholas had omitted anything from his tour. She was able to reassure him unequivocally on both scores and Robert appeared satisfied at last while Nicholas laughed at the compliment.
“And I hear you’re a doctor like your sister and father. Genius must run in your family.” Sonya once again took the lead. Nicholas raised his eyebrows—it was his turn to be impressed—as Sonya continued. “What an exciting life you must lead.”
“Far from it, I assure you,” Julie said with a self-deprecating laugh that bore no trace of humor.
“And I don’t believe you. I mean, you’ve just returned from Saudi Arabia. How can that compare with our humdrum little lives?” Sonya persisted.
A sinking sensation dragged at her insides. She didn’t want to think about the past year, in fact, it was the last subject she wanted to discuss with anyone right now. From whichever angle she viewed it, it reminded her of her failure.
Saudi had been Simon’s idea. With his own future success guaranteed, a break in Saudi suited him and Julie had viewed it as an escape route and jumped at the move. Too quickly. She believed it would be a place with space to breathe, to recoup, to discover herself and re-evaluate her future. But it had been nothing like that. As much as Simon enjoyed his life there, she hated it. Yet another mistake.
She shifted her unhappy gaze to her hands, which still held her glass of vodka and tonic. A cube of ice cracked and splintered into smaller lumps, which proceeded to chase each other around the glass. How odd. It wasn’t until the liquid sloshed that she realized her hand shook. With surprisingly good timing, Nicholas pulled a small drinks table between their seats and set his own glass down, as if to demonstrate how it should be done. At the same time, he politely asked which part of Saudi, as if it was of no real consequence.
She looked straight into his eyes. “It was near Riyadh, and to tell the truth, I was pretty unhappy there. I’m very glad to be back in England.”
“Sonya comes from Australia, originally,” he said in reply before Sonya could speak again. “And like all Aussies who travel, she’s done the seven continents and seen all the wonders of the modern world.” His accent became more mock-antipodean with every word. Sonya was the first to convulse. “But you ask her and she’ll tell you what she’s always telling us. There’s nowhere like dear old England anywhere else in the world, possums.” This last was uttered in a perfect Dame Edna mimic and somehow, in the general merriment that followed, the subject of Saudi Arabia was sidelined and forgotten.
From that time on, it was an evening of almost undiluted hilarity and enjoyment. Julie finally stopped resisting the magnetic pull of Nicholas’s proximity when she realized with thrilling clarity at some point in the evening that the attraction was almost certainly mutual. Every time she moved her head, they made eye contact and with each fresh little smile they exchanged, another layer of resistance peeled away.
But the conversation over dinner left her feeling uncomfortable and guilty, threatening to spoil her pleasant evening. The topic was marriage—Sonya and Bob’s wedding in the autumn. And as sometimes happens, given the idiosyncrasies of human nature, the subject of marriage pretty soon turned to its opposite state—divorce, which drew from Nicholas such a powerful polemic as to render Julie breathless with surprise. Not so, Sonya, who was evidently familiar with Nicholas’s views on divorce.
“We all know your views on that subject, Nicko,” she said amid peals of laughter and then turned to Julie and said in an exaggerated stage whisper, “For such an enlightened, twenty-first century bloke, he’s more old-fashioned than my grandfather!” Then addressing the table in general, “But you need have no fears on my account, Nicko. When Roberto takes me for his wife, he’ll be stuck with me for the rest of his life.”
Julie looked down at her plate, experiencing a sudden stab of irrational dislike for Sonya. How could the woman be so gauche? And where did this irritating, seemingly-affectionate, pseudo-Italian habit of rounding off everyone’s name with an “o” fit in to things? Before the evening was out, she might have to respond to the name Julio! And why was Sonya so self-deprecating, as if she could barely believe her luck in finding a man to marry her? But as these thoughts coursed through her brain, Julie felt ashamed. The reason for her irritation stemmed from her own feelings and a vague, uneasy sensation of guilt.
She looked up and caught Nicholas’s eye, not too difficult to do by this stage! “As one in three marriages end in divorce, statistically that means if we all get married, then one of us around this table will end up divorced.”
“Not if you marry Nicky,” Sonya pointed out with a whoop of delight that almost crucified Julie with embarrassment. Robert and Sonya had to support each other through their mirth. When she was able to raise her eyes again, Julie saw Nicholas trying to hide his own amusement as he watched her struggle to justify her views. Dig, dig, dig. Will I ever get out of this hole?
“You seem to have very strong views on divorce,” she accused.
“I certainly do. The rising divorce statistics you referred to reflect all that’s bad about our disposable society, in my opinion. It’s the root of all the social and economic problems of our day...” A mock groan from Sonya interrupted his words.
“Not the rubber gloves brigade,” she teased.
“And the lowering of standards caused by cheap fashions which allow people to slip in and out of marriage like disposable knickers.” Robert put in.
Shocked and mystified by the banter, Julie looked on silently. Nicholas sat back watching the little charade unfold as though he had heard it all before.
“People shouldn’t be allowed just to slip in and out of marriage,” Sonya said.
“As they do a set of clothes,” added Robert.
“Like rubber gloves.”
“Or disposable knickers.”
“Such people ought never to be allowed to marry in the first place,” they chorused in unison.
Nicholas clapped, halting the performance. To Julie’s relief, he did not appear annoyed by this friendly mockery of his beliefs. If someone had attacked Simon’s views in such a way...here the speculation broke off, for she was unable to imagine how Simon might have responded. She turned to Nicholas. “Surely you allow for human error? Sometimes people simply make mistakes.”
Nicholas shook his head. “One should never make mistakes ‘simply’. But most people are too shallow and impatient to give sufficient consideration to the real meaning of the marriage contract and as soon as they encounter difficulties, off they run to consult their solicitors. Which accounts for the appalling divorce statistics in this country, the breakdown of family life and decline in moral values.”
“Nick hates solicitors.” Sonya gave a wink. “And not just because they are all so filthy rich.”
“Nick’s friends have to consult the Masserman Marriage Manifesto before contemplating wedlock,” Robert added. “I don’t recommend it. By the time you’re through reading it, you’re too old for marriage anyway. He keeps adding clauses, you see, so it’s impossible to finish it.”
“Then really it’s marriage itself that you’re against?” Julie asked.
Sunday, November 13, 2011
So this thing here then that they spend all day playing with when they think I’m sleeping is supposed to be something special, is it? I hear the word ‘mouse’ and my whiskers instantly start twitching but my nose tells me a different story. They don’t fool me. I’ve had a good look all around and sneezed for half an hour from the fluff behind the box thing, but there are definitely no mice hiding behind this glowing wall.
There’s a funny looking thing in front of it though which looks like it could be good for a game but there’s no real mileage in it for me. I have to do all the work while it just sits there saying ‘click’. Can’t say I’m impressed. Most of the time it just crouches, watching bubbles bounce around in front of it. Damn bubbles! I wouldn’t mind bumping off a few of those too but they hide behind another one of those walls, just like those twittering bird creatures.
Oh yes I’ve learnt the names all right. Couldn’t fail to, as I hear them all day: ‘Look at the bubbles, Mia.’ ‘Look at the birds, Mia.’ And I say ‘I’m looking! I’m looking, now open that damn wall-thing and let me get at ‘em!’
You’d think I could have trained them by now, but it’s not that easy. They're such slow learners. Still, I try not to complain too much. After all they’re pretty good at their other duties, like keeping me provided with supplies of fresh food and drink as well as tasty little treats, which almost make me forget about the mice and the birds. And they make sure I have plenty of warm, dry beds around so I can nap whenever and wherever I need.
Generally I find them respectful and willing to learn but they have one primitive habit I don’t think I'll ever manage to cure. I expect it has something to do with them being clockwork. They wind down at the same time every day and stop working for so long that I think their parts might seize up. Ridiculous! If they could learn to nap like me, they would function so much better. Instead it’s left to me to make sure they don’t unwind so far that they stop working altogether.
And it’s that time now. They’ve been wound down for hours. Time for me to stop tormenting this silly plastic lump they call a mouse and staring at myself in this boring wall. It’s time for me to do my bit and go and lure my best playmate out from its secret hiding place and raise hell on the stairs and passageways outside their doors until they start to take notice of me. Too much sleep is bad for the body. Frequent short naps – well spaced throughout the day – that’s the way to a happy, productive life. You’d think they’d have got the message by now. Slow learners!
Monday, November 7, 2011
You would think that a writer would have a good enough imagination not to be phased when it comes to finding a title for her magnum opus. Sadly, not in my case. When it comes to ideas for stories, it’s standing room only inside my brain, but finding titles for those stories is an entirely different…well, story.
A title needs to stand out, to grab the attention of potential agents, publishers and readers. It needs to inform, intrigue and entice and most of all, it needs to be relevant. It shouldn’t be boring, mustn’t sound pretentious and can't afford to be instantly forgettable. So, we’re not asking much of it, are we?
And is it any wonder that I develop something akin to stage fright when I have to come with a title?
I indulged in a little moan about this recently on Twitter. No one seemed to be able to offer me the magic solution, sadly. One Twit (sorry, Tweep) said he had the reverse problem, plenty of titles, no story ideas. After reflection that did make me feel slightly better, though it didn’t solve my problem.
I mean, take my first novel: ‘The Apple Tree’. I still cringe at just how unimaginative that sounds. One sensitive soul asked me what the relevance of the title was and was clearly unimpressed to hear that the heroine had an old apple tree in her garden which seemed to represent her childhood triumphs and achievements. It’s a minor character in the story, however, and tells nothing of the dramatic traumas the heroine undergoes as an adult.
My most significant novel (the one of which I’m still so possessive that I can’t yet send it out into the big wide world to try its fortune) still has its working title “Unworkers”. In fact it’s lived with that for so long that I doubt I could bear to change it now. A good friend kindly pointed out to me that I'd invented the word, which was meaningless. Not to me, it’s not! The work is women’s fiction (with a supernatural twist) and one of the characters explains its meaning in Chapter Two. “Unworkers”, she claims are those “Unpaid, unvalued, unnoticed [women] ... we’re like those little elfin tailors, beavering away invisibly, putting the world to rights with our neat little patches while we put our own lives on hold for everyone else.” Speaking as one of them, I think I invented a pretty good word…it remains to be seen whether it will work as a title, however.
And now my latest dilemma is to find a title for my current work – a romantic suspense. This has lived – untitled – in my mind for so long that naming it now seems almost wrong! But name it I must. So I put on my oversized thinking cap and went to work. The moment I stopped toying with ideas, one popped into my head. ‘In Loving Hate’. Now, why I had been thinking of Romeo and Juliet at that moment, I have no idea. So I asked my chief critic and mentor (my son) what he thought of it – and he told me in his delightfully honest way. ‘Don’t like it. Too commercial and common. It lacks sophistication.’ Well, I wonder how William would feel about that? I asked my good friend and fellow writer, Deb what she thought and this was her response: 'I LOVE the title!!! It's short and powerful, intriguing, and catches the reader's attention. And it has a Shakespeare connection'. Hmm...
So here is my question to any readers kind enough to respond. To be or not to be: ‘In Loving Hate’?
Oh, and if you have a secret for coming up with great titles, please share it!
Friday, October 28, 2011
Producing your ebook is the easy part in this almost-impossible quest for fame and fortune. Once you’ve uploaded your precious novel to the various portals that will sell it for you, your work then begins in earnest. Amazon won’t promote it for you, of course, and without promotion you are literally lost. After your loyal band of friends and family has bought their copies sales will grind to a halt unless you become very active.
So what do you do? Well you can sit on social network sites like Twitter and Facebook all day telling as many people as you can how wonderful your book is and begging them to buy it. Some people might find that easy enough to do, but I’m not one of them. Perhaps it’s my natural British reserve, but I never was good at blowing my own trumpet. I want people to discover the good things about me for themselves. Fat chance! With over 1.6 billion search queries a day, what chance does little old you stand of being noticed by the masses? Well, unless you have 1.6 billion willing followers, that is.
Of course there are success stories, but they are the exception, not the norm. The grim truth is, you have to put yourself out there, raise your followers up into the thousands and then, if you can bear it, spam them to death with tweets about your wonderful work in between thinking up encouraging or witty tweets to keep them interested! Now I can tweet like a good ‘un about other people’s achievements but when it comes to self-aggrandisement, I cringe with embarrassment. Writers need nerves of steel, but all the ones I know are as sensitive as dormice.
Review blogs are a great solution, but by no means an easy one. I’m an ace writer of polite - even grovelling - requests for superior bloggers to review my work of art in the hopes that a kind word from them will send readers flocking up the Amazon in their boatloads. The fact is that attracting the attention of popular review blogs is almost as difficult as finding a literary agent, which of course, if you had in the first place, you wouldn’t be self-publishing! Of those that do reply, some can be so abrupt, it’s like a slap in the face.
Of course there are some kind altruists in blogland who will accept your work, though they almost always begin with a warning about how busy they are. I had one who informed me she would get around to reading my opus in six months’ time. That’s genuinely how busy and in demand this wonderful and rare species of the human race is. After all, most do it for love in their spare time and who, nowadays, has an abundance of that in their lives?
Keeping up your own blog (and persuading people to read it), responding to others, writing interviews and guest articles to generate interest in your work is time-consuming indeed. Meanwhile your next piece of literary excellence sits on your computer neglected and reproachful. And of course, when you do finish it, guess what? You have to start all over again…
Sunday, October 23, 2011
Today Iris B from her blog (http://www.iris-b.blogspot.com) awarded me with
“The Versatile Blogger Award.”
Thank you Iris, I’m thrilled to receive the "Trophy", especially as I’m a newbie to blogging and, like you, I consider myself a rather lazy blogger. But I do plan to get better (every day, in every way…)
1. Thank the person who gave it to you and link back to them.
2. Share seven things about yourself.
3. Pass the award along to other, recently discovered blogs and let them know about it.
Now I need to tell you SEVEN things about myself! Goodness, thinking cap on here... (I may cheat and change these later if I think of more interesting things!)
- The obvious starting place I suppose is where I live. That’s in a leafy Surrey suburb in an old (early Victorian) cottage with one lovely son and one anti-social cat.
- I secretly believe my wonderful son, Alexander is a genuine genius.
- I worked as a teacher for about twelve years, and for around half of which was head of English.
- I gave up teaching to focus on writing and self-published a contemporary romance (‘The Apple Tree’) this year.
- My real ‘baby’ is my novel ‘Unworkers’ which is ghost story but very much contemporary women’s fiction and I would love to find a mainstream publisher for this. However, at the moment, I can’t seem to bring myself to start chasing literary agents and facing possible rejection.
- I’m a bit of a fanatic about the proper use of the English language – I’ve been known to correct misspellings and grammatical errors on public signs!
- I murder plants! Not wilfully, I promise – indoor or outdoor plants just seem to curl up and die rather than grow for me, which makes me quite paranoid – why me?
Now, here are some of the best blogs I’ve discovered this year and I’m awarding each the Versatile Blogger Award. Again, in no special order:
Carol Kilgore: http://underthetikihut.blogspot.com
Deborah Court: http://deborahcourt.blogspot.com/
Johanna KP: http://themanicheans.blogspot.com/
Emma Silver: http://emmasilverunpublished.blogspot.com
Congratulations! Hope you enjoy forwarding this "Trophy" as much as I did
“The Versatile Blogger Award.”
Tuesday, October 4, 2011
The best memory I have of my childhood is curling up on the upstairs landing (which only I knew had the warmest radiator in the house) on those bleak and desultory days of the seemingly endless winter holidays and losing myself for hours on end in fictional realms. TV was a paltry runner-up to the richness of my life in literature. I lived it and breathed it right alongside the characters in whose lives and dramas some kindly author had invited me to partake. The whole household could have collapsed about my ears and I would not have noticed.
I still frequently go AWOL from the real world when I become engrossed in a good story. I suppose I simply have no self-control, but the pleasure of reading makes me realise how thin so many other modern pleasures are. Read a good book and something permeates your soul and stays with you forever. Which, of course, is why I’m so sad that so many of our children today are missing out on that wonderful gift.
By ‘our’ I’m referring to children in a collective or national sense. You know, that ubiquitous ‘younger generation’ we oldies are all so worried about. I have certainly been worrying about this increasing problem for the past decade, but not for the more obvious reasons. My own son is an avid reader – always was, always will be. When I watch him devour literature and see him reap the rewards of something he does purely for pleasure, I feel sad that so many other young people are missing out on a wonderful experience.
I’m sure that wherever you are in the country, you’ve participated at some point in these ‘Good As New’ sales organised so beautifully by dedicated volunteers raising money for cancer research or similar worthy charities. These sales are a great way to dispose of good quality clothing, equipment, games and books while helping needy charities. For one reason or another I had a great collection of (brand new) children’s literature I no longer needed, all written by wonderful, award-winning children’s authors. I also had a collection of used Simpsons comic books.
I’d be disappointed in you if you didn’t know where I was going here! What sold? Yes of course, you guessed. What was disappointing was that even at giveaway prices – a tiny fraction of their retail value - parents did not see the value of buying high quality literature for their children. Incidentally, this sale was in one of the more affluent London suburbs and the car park was crammed to capacity by people-carriers carrying very few people.
As a former English teacher I’ve always been deeply concerned about the reading habits of the young. Correction, what I really mean is ‘lack of reading habits’. When I first began teaching – and believe it or not, that wasn’t back in the dark ages, reading was still considered to be acceptable, even pleasurable. Libraries were the hub of the school and book fairs the highlight of the term. When visiting authors came, the children would be held spellbound; happily spending their pocket money stocking up their bookshelves and writing appreciative fan letters en masse without any prompting.
I myself ran school book-clubs and from the day they placed their order until the day of delivery, children would stop me in corridors and playground asking me when their book orders would arrive. When I became head of English, my mission was not just to maintain that enthusiasm but to increase it. I wanted parents to be more involved as well, in order to capture some of those reluctant readers in the net. I spent three-quarters of my departmental budget on exciting new books which had all been carefully researched by caring staff and students.
But gradually I saw a decline in interest. Children no longer wanted to read. Year after year each new intake proved to be less literate than the last and even less interested in reading. Book fairs and book clubs dwindled away due to lack of interest and library lessons offered little more than opportunities for collective worship in the non-fiction section for boys or huddled gatherings of girls pretending to pour over an illustrated Shakespeare while they quietly discussed the latest gossip or read each other’s text messages.
The real crunch came a few years ago in the A Level classes, when students professing a desire to study English Literature at university claimed to hate reading. When asked why they had chosen Literature, the answers varied from: ‘Well I really enjoyed Pride and Prejudice. I mean Keira Knightley was okay, but Matthew Macfadyen...’; to ‘I like Shakespeare. Laurence Fishburne as Othello was really excellent.’
I harangued my students mercilessly every time they asked if there was a DVD of the text we were studying. (In my defence, I’m not claiming that films have no place in the teaching of literature, just that they should provide the little ornament on the top of the tree, not constitute the whole of Christmas). Students invariably said they found it so much easier to watch a film than read a book.
But as year upon year this antipathy towards reading – and in particular classical literature – grew and the internet made it (or so the students thought) so much easier to cheat on their essays, teaching literature became more about policing students than teaching them and sharing in their discoveries. Today more and more children simply cannot be bothered to read. Teachers don’t just have to worry about plagiarism anymore – there are numerous agencies all over the world employing people willing to write students’ assignments for a paltry sum. And sadly these are beyond the refined searching tentacles of Google. The system allows lazy students to avoid even glancing at the great literature they were meant to study. And the chances are, if they don't do it now, they won't in the future.
Good teachers can inspire children in lessons, certainly, but much depends on students' willingness to go away and read, think and discover for themselves. Nowadays, sadly, children are less and less inclined to make the time in their fast-paced lives to do just that. If they can find a shortcut, they will take it. I didn’t set out to moralise on the rights and wrongs of this (though doubtless my position is fairly clear), I just feel depressed that it is happening and worry about how sadly impoverished future generations will be.
Maybe the media can compensate? Personally, I must confess that I doubt it.
Posted on Yahoo this week:
[I am 16 years old and so far i think I've read only 1 book lol. I think i will like books with mystery, science fiction. horror, fantasy, crime genre.I've been reading alot of manga .Its never too late to start .Bad english I hope you understand.]
Need I say more?
Monday, October 3, 2011
‘Julie? Little Juliet Somerville! I don’t believe it. Can it really be you?’
Julie had been busy dodging the lunchtime crowds but halted at the hearty exclamation and firm hand grasping her elbow. The force of this wheeled her bodily towards the voice. Impatient pedestrians, forced to stop in their tracks before sidestepping the pair, clucked their disapproval. She turned to her assailant, blinking as recognition dawned.
‘Robert! What a lovely surprise!’
Robert returned her smile and Julie scanned his face, searching for the inevitable changes etched by the passage of time.
‘What a blast from the past, as they say.’ He tilted his head to one side. ‘How many years has it been?’
She laughed. ‘I don’t know. ‘Five or six, I suppose. It’s so nice to see you, Robert. How are you?’
‘Five or six? Closer to eight I should say. We must celebrate...you’re not too busy, I hope?’
‘Not at all; just idling. I’d like that.’
He took her arm in a brotherly fashion and led her towards the nearby Crown Inn. ‘Now let me think,’ he began after procuring drinks and settling himself beside her on the claret-coloured banquette, new to the Crown since Julie’s last visit. ‘The last time I saw you would be when you went up to university. I haven’t seen Lizzie in almost as long, although I hear she’s doing okay for herself.’
‘Yes,’ Julie conceded, although he was wrong about the date. They’d met again the following year, at her father’s funeral, but perhaps Robert’s memory was being tactfully selective. ‘Liz has just been appointed as consultant at the hospital. Father would have been extremely proud of her.’
‘Yes, of course. And of you too no doubt - where are you working now?’
‘I’m not at the moment. I suppose I’m what actors fondly call ‘resting’. But never mind that...tell me about yourself,’ she urged, eager to change the subject.
‘Me? I’m doing very well, thanks. I have my own garden centre now, down on Longshore Road, and the business is doing pretty well.’ Robert would have been unable to conceal the note of pride from his voice even if he’d tried. ‘We’re doing more and more landscape gardening these days - I’ve got six full time staff and several part-timers. You must come and see the place, now that you’re back home.’
‘Of course I will,’ she assured him. ‘And are you married?’
He paused, replacing his drink on the table and eyeing it for a brief moment before replying. ‘I was, yes. I married Linda Henderson - I don’t think you knew her. But she died.’ He uttered this last statement with the brutal simplicity of someone who still found the subject acutely painful.
‘Oh how awful! I’m so sorry. Can you...I mean, would you rather not...?’
‘I don’t mind talking about it. It was quite a while back, you know - over four years now. A traffic accident...she was killed instantly...and she was...we were...’ he gave a little cough to clear the thickness in his throat and took a small sip of his beer. ‘She was pregnant at the time, so we lost the baby, too.’
Julie gasped and stared at him.
‘It was bad at first, of course. We’d only been married eighteen months. I suppose I fell apart a bit, but time and good friends have helped. And the work, of course; I couldn’t have managed without that.’
‘Poor Robert.’ She had known him for as long as she could remember. They had been neighbours and he and her older sister, Liz, were school friends. He always seemed to be present, somewhere in the backdrop of her childhood memories, always smiling, always cheerful. Good old Robert. Imagining him ‘falling apart’, in pain and suffering while she got on with her own life somewhere else in the world, was difficult. No stranger to the anguish of death, she might have done something useful for once in her little life if she’d known. A tear formed in the corner of her eye and spilled onto her cheek, but whether this was for Robert or herself, she made no attempt to analyse.
Robert, whose remaining speech had gone unheard by Julie, evidently saw the tear and jumped rapidly to his own conclusions.
‘Don’t cry, little Julie. As I said, I’ve made peace with it now. I’m over it. Scout’s honour!’ And like a good scout, he drew a clean white handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at the tear, before handing the square of cloth to Julie. She looked at it and then at him.
He was so transparent. Her tears probably touched his simple vanity. Robert always believed her to be too soft and vulnerable for the tough world of medicine and had told her as much years ago. He’d also said it saddened him to see her succumbing to the wishes of her father and sister. Of course she’d been young and naive enough to believe that just wanting something sufficiently was enough to guarantee success and set the whole world to rights.
‘Come on, now, this is supposed to be a celebration. Tell me about your life. Has some lucky, handsome doctor snapped you up, yet?’
Julie dabbed at her face with the soft handkerchief. What percentage of men still carried handkerchiefs? Was it the last sign of a true gentleman or merely a sign that Robert was never destined to make the transition into the twenty first century? She grimaced inwardly at her frivolous thoughts and shook her head; so Robert might be forgiven for reading this gesture as a response in the negative to his question.
‘Of course not...too busy forging a name for yourself in medical history, just like Lizzie, eh?’ He said.
Julie smiled. How typical of him to assume that she should follow in her sister’s successful footsteps. Elizabeth had never professed any interest in marriage being, in a sense, married to her busy career. But Julie was in no mood to discuss the complexities of her failed marriage and aborted career and accepted his easy dismissal of the subject gratefully and without contradiction.
This was a behavioural trait of Julie’s that was in danger of becoming a habit. She experienced a sense of helpless insight into her situation. Psychologists or behaviourists might label it a weakness. It mimicked an early form of denial, this taking refuge behind the mistaken assumptions of others rather than setting things to right by exposing the truth. Julie preferred to view it as the easiest way out of a tricky confrontation. But she felt a nagging guilt nevertheless. Characteristic or weakness, she had to acknowledge that old friends always deserved the truth.
‘I really am very sorry about your wife. I wish I’d known. But then Liz never tells me anything. She’s so cut off from the world by her work and research, and now this new clinic - she might as well be on another planet!’
‘That’s understandable. Liz is a very selfless woman, she always was.’
Robert was understanding to a degree that he actually sounded pompous! His curious choice of adjective bemused her. Selfless? What did that mean? The opposite of selfish? Hardly, not Liz! Yet it was a curiously apt word to describe her older sister who, at thirty-five and a strikingly attractive woman, had probably never paused longer than three seconds in front of a mirror to look at herself. Julie always thought that if anyone asked Elizabeth to describe herself physically, she would probably not even know the colour of her own eyes intimately. She was far too preoccupied with her career to gaze at her own reflection. She was the Mother Theresa of medicine - cardiology, to be more precise. Mother Elizabeth...Saint Elizabeth...
‘..So you must come to dinner and meet her.’ Robert implored, gazing earnestly into Julie’s face as she returned to the present with a guilty jolt. So engrossed in her musings about her sister, she’d caught nothing but the tail-end of his speech.
‘Yes of course.’ She agreed then worried about her eagerness. ‘I mean thanks! I should like that very much.’
‘Excellent. I know you and Sonya will like each other. Shall we say Thursday, then? About eight?’
‘Yes, that’s fine.’ Who might Sonya be and what else had Robert said? She could hardly ask him to repeat himself.
‘You’re staying with Liz, I presume? Are you home for good? You’ve barely told me anything about yourself,’ he reproached, perhaps just a little sheepishly, in the way that people who monopolised conversations often did.
‘I have no definite plans at the moment. Yes, I’m at home with Liz for now. I’ve been living and working in London, but I spent the last year in Saudi Arabia.’
‘Saudi? Good grief!’ He raised his eyebrows in surprise. ‘Working?’
‘Well, yes...but I was pretty miserable there. I’m just relieved to be home again,’ she added quickly, hoping that he wouldn’t pursue the subject further.
He didn’t and they conversed on subjects of a far more general nature for a further ten or fifteen minutes until the throaty hum of his phone, vibrating in one of his pockets, reminded him of his afternoon meeting and they took their leave of each other.
‘Until Thursday, then,’ he handed her a small business card. ‘Addresses, phone numbers, everything you need is on here; unless you find time to call in at the nursery before then?’
‘Oh I certainly intend to do that,’ she assured him, before their final parting. And she meant it.
On the pavement outside the Crown Inn, Julie watched Robert’s departing back until the purposeful lunchtime crowds swallowed him up. In her current state of lonely wretchedness, she felt his departure acutely. He represented an umbilical link with the ‘triple s’ of her childhood: safety, security and simplicity. He was a link with her mother and the uncomplicated bliss of childhood; with ponies and poetry and fun and flowers. And on top of those treasures, he had absolutely no connection with the more recent past and the confined, suffocating world of medicine that had dominated her life for almost a decade.
After her brief bout of self-indulgent wallowing, Julie continued on her own purposeless way, treading time, trying to get a step ahead of the decisions that were threatening to engulf her yet again.
Conversation with Elizabeth on anything other than medicine had always been a trial. Cardiology was her pet subject and with the clinical aspects of the heart, she was in her element, but the emotional vagaries of that organ were beyond her understanding. Liz had always taken an interest in Julie’s career, ensuring that she should not deviate from the central road of medicine onto the rockier path of surgery.
When Julie met and soon afterwards married Simon Gardiner, during her final year of medical school, Liz worried that he might lure Julie into the surgical network. But if Simon had tried, he would have failed spectacularly. Without his tireless help during her six months of surgery, she would certainly have failed to complete her pre-registration year altogether. So fundamentally convinced was she that she had chosen the wrong profession, she would have abandoned her career then and there. Since taking a break from both career and husband, those feelings returned more forcefully than ever.
Liz reproached Simon in his absence for his benightedness in marrying Julie too soon and in taking her off to Saudi Arabia so early in her medical career. Liz had never seen eye to eye with Simon, doubting his motives and resenting his intrusion from the outset. After all, she was in a far better position to help her sister in her career than some surgeon from the south of England.
‘At least your year in Saudi Arabia must have allowed you plenty of time to study for the exam,’ Liz observed. She was referring to the all-important Membership examination for the Royal College of Physicians.
Julie steeled herself to reply. ‘Actually, Liz, I don’t think I shall bother with it.’
‘Not bother?’ What on earth do you mean?’
‘I’m thinking of throwing it in.’
‘Throwing what in?’ Liz demanded, as if they no longer shared the same language.
Julie sighed. ‘Medicine, Liz. The more I think about it, the more I feel I’ve made a terrible mistake. I just don’t want to be a doctor.’
‘Nonsense! You are a doctor. Unless you mean that you’re back on that silly flirtation with surgery? He’s not persuaded you to take up surgery, I hope?’
‘No, of course not. I mean altogether. Give up medicine completely. I don’t want to be a doctor, Liz! ’
Possibly for the first time in her life, Julie’s sister had no reply. She stared, as though seeing Julie for the first time; as though she might be some alien being. Blinking, she recovered herself enough to articulate her thoughts. ‘You must be insane! Very well...so your marriage fails...these things happen...but, Julie, for goodness sake...’
‘Perhaps we could discuss it another time?’ Julie said to avoid, yet again, the detour down the path of failed marriages.
‘Nonsense. We must discuss it here and now. What would my poor father say?’
‘He was my father too,’ Julie knew that must sound sulky and childish. ‘And I think if he were alive now I’d be able to make him understand.’ There has to be someone, somewhere who can understand that I just want out, she thought wretchedly.
‘Understand? But he’s not here to understand anything, which is why we have a duty to respect his wishes. How could you consider abandoning medicine when that was his dearest wish for you?’
‘Was it?’ Julie’s voice broke. ‘Are you quite sure it was his wish, Liz? Only sometimes I wonder why any father would want to put his daughter through such torment. Yes, you heard. I hate medicine. I always have. I hate dealing with human misery, with sickness, pain and fear. And I know I’ll never be a good doctor.’
Liz surveyed her sister at length before replying. ‘Look, Julie, I do believe this business with Simon has upset you far more than you led me to understand. You’re right; we should postpone this discussion for a week or two. You’ll feel differently after you’ve had a good rest.’
Several weeks passed quietly for Julie, as Liz made no attempt to resume the discussion. New text books appeared on her desk at regular intervals, which she idly perused but her mind absorbed little information. Julie felt woolly-headed and detached from the world of medicine now that it was no longer part of her daily routine. However, it surrounded her and engulfed her. She admitted, though only to herself, that before she could ever put it behind her, she must first confront it.
Eventually Liz brought up the subject again. ‘I presume you have entered for the May exam...I’ll quiz you tonight, if you like?’
Julie had not entered her name for the May examination, nor did she feel equal to a night of ‘quizzing’ from her sister. ‘Liz, I’m sorry! I haven’t been studying. I just can’t manage to organise my thoughts properly at the moment. But I promise I’ll enter for the November exam. And I’ll study.’ Even as she said the words, she regretted them. She had merely said what she knew Liz wanted to hear, to buy a little peace for herself for just a few extra weeks.
Mollified, Liz smiled. ‘Of course you can do it if you put your mind to it. Now I think we ought to start thinking about a job for you. Dr Richardson’s rotation is coming up shortly. Of course he’d prefer someone with at least a passing interesting in endocrinology, but I think I might manage to...’
‘No job! Please! I don’t want to work just yet. Don’t worry about me. Just leave me alone and I’ll sort things out for myself. I don’t want to be organised any more. Let me do things my own way.’
But left to her own devices, she failed to sort out anything. She managed to devote an hour or two of each day to studying but was in a constant state of agitation; a fever to be out of the house, driving or rambling through the countryside on long solitary treks or wandering the town gazing absently into shop windows. It was on one of these excursions that she’d encountered Robert Ashley.
The Thursday of her dinner engagement with Robert and the mysterious Sonya, found Julie driving along Longshore Road.
Nursery & Landscape Gardening
Marquee Hire and Container Planting
The sign in buttercup yellow letters on a green background caught Julie’s attention and she pressed on her brake and swung between the tall gates into the broad, semicircular drive which afforded ample space for cars. At the centre of the arc squatted a wide, low, glass-fronted building with an abundance of greenery in the windows. To the right of this was a low, rambling building, boasting on a blue and white sign: ‘INSIDE-OUTSIDE MARQUEES’ with a second door displaying the word ‘CORNUCOPIA’ in multi-coloured letters. To the left of the main building was a newer construction, smaller still and in the final stages of completion, but this had no sign to explain its function. A vast array of terracotta in all shapes and sizes lined the driveway, glowing warmly in the pale sunlight and lending a faintly continental feel to the place. Fronting the smaller building, a motley assortment of statues, ponds, trellises, fountains and a huge quantity of garden ornaments continued for some distance behind it.
As Julie drew closer to the main building, gazebos, pagodas and other such incongruous dwellings appeared in the vast stretches of land to the rear. She peered through the jungle of greenery in the central building but could detect no sign of life. Entering the cool and dim interior she allowed her eyes to adjust slowly in the bosky gloom.
A man emerged from an open doorway, wiping his hands on a square of cloth. Dressed in denim, his jeans tightly fitting, shirt open at the neck, with rolled up sleeves, very workmanlike, he surveyed her, tilting his head slightly to one side. He was perfect. In spite of her natural reserve, she stared at him openly, unable to draw her eyes away from the sight in case it faded back into the greeny ether. His eyes, keen and clear, met and returned her gaze coolly. And still her eyes refused to drag themselves away.
‘Can I help you?’ He asked at last, the flicker of a smile playing about his lips.
It was then Julie remembered to close her mouth and start breathing again. She gave herself a mental shake, a kind of pulling herself together exercise, and a strange, though not at all unpleasant tingle rippled across her skin. The exercise worked. She even managed a fairly normal-feeling smile. ‘I was looking for Robert. Robert Ashley. Could you tell me where I might find him?’
A frown creased his forehead and she resisted the urge to reach out and gently smooth it away, restoring the face to its former perfection.
‘He’s not here, I’m afraid. He’s over at Nettlesby this afternoon. Have you tried his mobile? We don’t normally open on Thursdays.’ He explained.
It was Julie’s turn to frown. She felt in her pocket and drew out Robert’s information-packed card, scrutinising it closely. There it was, in small print Early closing: Thursday. She tapped her fingertips against her forehead. ‘How stupid of me; I’m sorry.’
‘It’s not a problem. But as I’m here, maybe I can help?’
Julie shook her head. ‘Oh no. But thank you. Robert suggested I might call in when I was passing and have a look around. I should have checked his card. Silly of me. I’ll come back another day.’
His attractive face broke into a smile and Julie couldn’t help smiling too. It was involuntary, like the thrill she had felt as a child when the Christmas lights were switched on for the first time. His smile was every bit as delightful. ‘Well, as I’m here, why not let me show you around?’
And of course she protested and a polite verbal fencing match began but each objection was swiftly and skilfully parried until she gave in with gratitude and good grace and allowed herself to be conducted through cavernous greenhouses and long rows of hothouses sheltering exotic architectural plants, through shrubberies, orchards and tiny model gardens, while her good-looking guide answered her questions and drew her attention to anything worthy of more than a passing glance, like the external root system of some exotic palm.
His exquisite hands mesmerised her as he pointed things out. She had always thought Simon had attractive hands - typical surgeon’s hands, she used to call them - but she loved the way the gardener lovingly caressed the plants with his long, sensuous fingers as he spoke about them. She felt a tiny tingle of pleasure and half expected to see golden fingerprints or new life blossom into being wherever he touched. ‘Green fingered’ didn’t nearly do justice as a description.
‘You seem to get great satisfaction from all this,’ she remarked as they made their way back to the main building via ‘Cornucopia’ which turned out to be an area devoted to hanging baskets and decorative container planting.
‘Yes I do. I find it very therapeutic working with plants. I only wish I could spend more time here.’
‘Oh? Then you don’t work here full-time?’ She’d already determined from his mannerisms and speech that he was unlike any gardener she had ever come across. He must be one of those part-timers Robert mentioned. She wondered what else he did. Too old for a student, surely?
He laughed at her question. ‘Oh no. I wish I did. I’m just a casual helper.’
A casual helper, working the half holiday for a little extra overtime perhaps? He might lose even this tenuous position if Robert returned and found him wasting time with her instead of working. She wanted to help and a thought struck her suddenly. ‘My sister’s always complaining about the state of our garden. I wonder if you could use some extra work - in your free time?’
He frowned, looking more baffled than annoyed. ‘Gardening?’ He sounded hesitant.
‘Or landscaping’ she added quickly. ‘I mean whatever you think necessary. I’m sure there’s a huge scope for improvement. We have someone come in a couple of times a month but it’s all he can do just to keep it tidy. And you could fit in the hours to suit yourself so that you don’t lose time here.’ The words tumbled out and she realised she must sound far too eager. She was throwing herself at him in the most blatant and uncharacteristic way. Damn, it Julie, get a grip!
His frown was replaced by a smile of such evident amusement that it threatened to turn to laughter. ‘Well I’m not sure that I could take on such a big job personally, but I’d be happy to take a look at it and offer some suggestions. A low-maintenance garden;’ he considered it for a moment. ‘That could be good practice for me.’
Not take it on personally? But it was a gift! What did he do when he wasn’t working for Robert? ‘Oh yes, and then you could give us your quote.’ How lame, but she wanted to make it clear she meant paid work, not a favour. He probably thought she was too pushy. Her cheeks burned at what must seem like her eagerness to provide him with work. ‘Not, of course, that I can foresee any problems in that respect.’ Oh help. Dig, dig, dig. What is this hole I’m digging for myself? She drew one of Elizabeth’s cards from her bag and handed it to him.
‘Dr Elizabeth Somerville...’ he read aloud.
‘That’s my sister,’ she explained. ‘I’m Juliet, though everyone calls me Julie.’
His smile broadened. ‘And I’m Nicholas...Masserman,’ he offered her one of his exquisite hands to shake. She took it, savouring the thrill of touching those beautiful, long, sensitive fingers with her own. Perhaps he was a writer or an artist who merely tended gardens for pleasure or to supplement his income? She still held his hand and he gazed at it with that same quizzical amusement that threatened to erupt into laughter. She released it quickly.
‘Would Saturday afternoon suit you, Miss Somerville?’
‘To look over the garden?’
‘Oh yes, of course! That would be perfect. And it’s Julie, remember?’ He placed the card in the back pocket of his jeans and she felt a twinge of guilt at her deliberate deception. Perhaps she should have said Julie Gardiner, not Somerville; Dr Somerville, maybe, but Mrs Gardiner, in the eyes of the law. She had removed her wedding ring many weeks ago.
Like many married professionals, she’d retained her maiden name after marrying Simon. As they both worked in the same hospital, it avoided confusion. But that was in the medical world. To tradesmen she was Mrs Gardiner.
‘Julie.’ He repeated, as if trying it out for size. ‘And would you like to leave a message for Bob? I’ll be seeing him around six.’
‘Oh no. I’ll be seeing him tonight myself. I’m invited to dinner to meet his, um....’ She faltered at the realisation that she had forgotten the name of Robert’s mysterious friend.
‘Sonya.’ He volunteered.
‘Oh yes, of course. Sonya. Maybe I should take some flowers,’ she glanced around at the cut flowers crammed into so many pots and vases.
‘For Bob or Sonya?’
She looked back, unsure how to reply.
‘I really shouldn’t bother’ he assured her. ‘She always has a house full.’
Julie frowned. That suggested that Sonya lived with Robert. Not that that mattered of course, but if she didn’t, then offering flowers might seem a bit presumptuous. As well as stupid! The man owned the nursery – why would she bring flowers from his business to his house? And why hadn’t she listened properly to Robert the other day?
‘Perhaps flowers aren’t the right thing...a bit...inappropriate?’ She murmured unhappily.
‘Not inappropriate,’ he corrected, ‘just unnecessary. And as I’m staying at Bob’s house myself, I’ll be seeing you again tonight as well.’
‘You are?’ She blinked, unable to think of any suitable reply because of the multitude of feelings rampaging through her senses. Things were certainly looking up, but she felt suddenly exhausted, as if she was taking part in a play for which she’d received the wrong script. She turned towards the display of house plants. Good breeding has well-established roots. She ought to buy something. Randomly she selected an interesting-looking indoor palm.
‘My sister adores these,’ she lied, doubting that Elizabeth had any affection at all for house plants. He took the plant from her and proceeded, unskilfully to wrap paper around its terracotta pot. ‘How long have you been lodging with Robert?
He wrestled, all fingers and thumbs, with the sticky-tape dispenser. ‘A few years. Since Linda died. I trust you know about that?’
‘Yes, he told me.’ She handed him a twenty pound note. Did she dare tell him to keep the change? No, better not. He might be offended. He had to turn a key and tap a code into the cash register but evidently kept getting it wrong as the machine beeped in complaint. Julie had to look away to hide her amusement. She remembered Robert’s words about time and good friends helping him over his bereavement and felt irrationally pleased to think that this Nicholas with the sensitive hands was one of those ‘good friends’.
‘Thank you again for the tour,’ she said.
He reached around her to open the door for her just as her hand touched the handle. For the briefest moment his hand covered hers and he smiled at her. He’d insisted on carrying the plant to the car and she unlocked the back door.
‘My pleasure.’ He wedged it on the floor at the rear and tested it to ensure it was secure. ‘I look forward to seeing you again later.’
She smiled and nodded. And that, I can assure you, is entirely mutual.
Leaving the garden centre, she continued along Longshore Road for a mile or so before turning right towards the town centre, stopping to buy chocolates and wine for the evening. She hoped that Sonya would not also have a house full of chocolates or be one of those permanent dieters. And then, on a sudden impulse, Julie stepped inside an elegant and very expensive-looking dress shop.