I can’t believe that I’ve been home from the annual Romantic Novelists’ Association’s Conference for almost a week. Six days of unpacking, clothes washing, lugging soapy bathwater out to spray the runner beans, catching up with emails—oh yes, and that little thing called work!—mean I’m all behind. I’ve got three days full of appointments next week, and I’m expecting the next set of proofs for Struggle and Suffrage any day.
Right now I’m playing a waiting game with the short story I’ve written for the Costa Short Story Award. I’ve finished the first draft, and put it away to mature for a few days before I attack the re-writes. While that is simmering at the back of my mind, I’m working on the follow up to Love Lies Bleeding. It’s got the working title of River Girl, and here’s the opening:
In three hours’ time, I’ll be with Sophia and studying the menu in Purslane.
A Sarah Jarosz soundtrack was DI Josh Miller’s only company as he followed diversion signs along the Ripple valley. He’d shrugged off freezing rain on the way to testify in court earlier, only to watch a second-rate defence brief stare down a novice prosecuting counsel. That had made leaning into sleet on his way back to the office harder to take. Gloucestershire could throw bad weather in your face whichever way you were walking. Josh hadn’t experienced that trick since he’d prowled the canyons of Canary Wharf, but the prospect of dinner with Sophia had insulated him all afternoon. Once she was qualified, she’d show them all at Crown Court how it was done.
At last he was on his way home. The orange lights of a gritting lorry flickered through the dusk. Josh eased off the Skoda’s accelerator. He wasn’t mad enough to overtake in these conditions. Staying well back as the t-junction with the Brackenridge Road drew nearer, he saw the gritter swing out, straight across a motorcyclist. There wasn’t time to wince. In the confusion of horns and brakes, a stone thrown up from the newly-resurfaced road shattered Josh’s windscreen.
In a house high above the road, Sally woke. She didn’t bother opening her eyes.
There’s no point.
The bedroom would be as black as her heart, her thoughts and her future. The Prospect was a long way from any streetlight, but William insisted on blackout curtains in all the upstairs rooms. He said they made it easier for him to sleep.
William said a lot of things, when he wasn’t working.
He had been away for one whole day.
A cortege of thoughts passed through the snore-free silence while she waited for sleep to return.
She uncurled her lower leg, pushing it experimentally down between the cotton sheet and the duvet. Relaxing felt wrong, to begin with. After a minute or two, she extended her other leg.
She opened her eyes, searching the dark. Nothing. Her mobile phone was only inches away on the bedside table. She’d know if William was trying to contact her.
He’d packed a few things and moved into the Brackenridge Travelodge, conveniently close to his CEO’s home. With snow forecast, William was in the perfect place to cadge a lift into work.
Shrewd, he called it. Very shrewd.
Commuting with William. Why could she remember doing that, when so much of her life since she stopped work at Atkinson Burrell blurred and seeped out of her mind like watercolours?
She grabbed her phone. William was bound to know…
…but then she would have to tell him Consuelo didn’t come back after going to the supermarket yesterday. If William thought lightning was going to strike twice, he would drive straight home to make sure she had company.
She dropped the phone, then heard his voice inside her head.
I’m good like that.
Yes. He was. Everybody said so, so it must be true.
She reached for the phone again.
Everybody says so, so it must be true.
She rolled onto her back. Then she eased her way into the middle of the emperor-sized bed.
Nothing bad happened.
Consuelo knew where the spare back door key was hidden. She could let herself in.
But what if she never came back—
never came back never came back never came back…I never came back for Jake and Mia. So they went looking for me, and….
Sally curled into a foetal ball again.
She closed her eyes.
But she didn’t sleep.
Josh snapped on his warning lights, shut the car’s vents and punched a big enough hole in the crazed glass to give him a view across the junction. The other vehicles were disappearing into the dusk. His car was the only casualty of the near-miss. Squinting into the icy breeze, he pulled over and parked.
The temperature inside the car dropped like sterling in a crash. Josh tried his phone. No signal. He got out. The winter air was full of knives.
The little Ripple was a tributary of the Wye, cutting through steep Forest rock to join the bigger river here, near the great horseshoe bend of Symond’s Yat. For most of the year, this was the perfect place for water sports. Uninterrupted by calls or texts it would seem, Josh thought as he paced about, searching for a better signal.
At the deserted canoe slipway, he found one. Before he could dig out his breakdown membership card, a distant gunshot echoed along the valley. The sound came from the direction of the Kneller’s smallholding, on the other side of the Wye. Noisy rooks catapulted into the sunset. It was legal for farmers to shoot foxes and crows, especially so close to lambing. They had to protect their stock, but the noise sharpened his senses. An owl quavered. He looked up. An apparition was moving through the trees scratched against the slope ahead.
It was a woman. She was moving toward the water.
Why she was drifting about this Godforsaken place, looking like Kate Bush on YouTube was anybody’s guess.
Josh went to find out…
There’s a lot of work to be done on River Girl yet (not least, discovering how to disable double line spacing in WordPress!). That means my mind is full of characters and twists when I should be concentrating on doing the watering. I managed to tip half a can of water over myself last night. At any other time, that would have been an unpleasant shock. During the long hot summer of ’18, it was quite a relief!