Diane checked the email, over and over. She sometimes teased her colleague at the insurance office, Monica, who was one of life’s “checkers” and said she was borderline OCD. Monica generally made one of two replies, or at times both – if she were, so were a great many of the icons of the arts and sciences (which was undeniably true) and that it was better to check properly than to face the consequences later (which was also undeniably true, though she had only once sent an email to the wrong recipient – yet!). But this time, not in the office, but in the cluttered spare bedroom that currently didn’t have a bed, and she called her study because there was a desk in it, she checked that email. Told herself she must have misread it. Though she generally liked living alone, she wished that there were someone else to verify it. Even Monica. Perhaps especially Monica.
We’re absolutely delighted to tell you that you have been awarded the first prize in the Lines of your Life writing competition for your excellent story Moving Day. Further details to follow, but your prize will include £500 and a writing deal with us for at least seven more stories, with a possibility of more to follow. Well done you!
Adam Solomons, Literary Editor, Lines of your Life.
No, she hadn’t forgotten about the competition. But she had pushed it to the back of her mind. They had said that winners would be notified within 4 weeks of the closing date, and those 4 weeks had now elapsed, so she had come to the conclusion that, not greatly to her surprise, she hadn’t been lucky. Or, if you had to put it that way, that her story had not been good enough. The competition had caught her eye, back in February, because it was free (which was always good!) and because she had one of those rare moments when an idea came to her straight away. She generally only wrote fiction and this called for a memoir, but she decided that she had the perfect story to fulfil the remit of recounting a significant episode in your life in 1500-4000 words. There were some that were more obviously dramatic (though not necessarily for public consumption) but she decided at once, without even needing to think it over, that moving to her current house was ideal.
There are times to move on, she began, Whether you choose to or not, whether it is what you would have wished to or not. And that time had come for me. It was time to leave the house where both my parents had died, and where I had let the wallpaper peel and the drive get overgrown with ground ivy and encroaching brambles. It was time to pack up some things and discard others. It was not easy to say goodbye, right to the very end. But it would have been harder to stay.
She’d had her doubts about the last 2 sentences, thinking they were rather trite, but decided despite the much-quoted advice some darlings could escape the authorial executioner’s axe. Anyway, they seemed to like them at Lines of your Life so who was she to argue. Well, she supposed there was probably something in the Ts and Cs, if she got round to reading them, about editorial alterations, but she could live with that.
She toyed with the idea of keeping the good news to herself, and that lasted until she arrived at the office the next morning, when she proceeded, with what she hoped was an air of undeserving humility, to regale everyone with her success.
Credit where it was due, they couldn’t have been more delighted. There were the predictable but pleasing remarks that she was a dark horse, which weren’t strictly speaking true, as she had mentioned, in passing, that she liked to write, and contradictory but equally pleasing ones that they had known all along she would make it one day.
“Well, I don’t know about “making it” – I’m hardly a bestseller!” Still, it was no bad start, and this time, thought Diane, surely a proper one, after the false starts of an odd “highly commended” in flash fiction and the odd poem in a women’s magazine. The boss brought in a bottle of Prosecco at the lunch break, and everyone signed a congratulations card for her. It was quite difficult to concentrate on claims for damaged garden sheds that afternoon, but as she reminded herself, she wasn’t a bestselling author – yet!
Her only regret was that her parents, particularly her mother, who had always said she had it in her to be a writer (though, alas, she had stopped saying it, as Alzheimer’s stole her away) had not lived to see this day. But there was the sad irony! If they were still alive, she might well still be living at the old house, and not had the subject matter for her story! She sighed, but then determinedly told herself that it was meant to be. She had finally come good.
The next week she seemed to live on two levels. She went to work (where she told herself she was quite relieved that the initial hubbub about her success had died down) and bought the groceries, and put the bins out and hoovered the carpet. But she kept looking at that email, and though, of course, she knew every word of it off by heart by now, it was still a lovely sensation.
The cheque arrived, and she told herself that she really must not spend ALL of it on a holiday and/or a stack of new books. But £500 was a funny amount. It was considerably more than she had ever won for any piece of writing (on reflection, £25 had been her upper limit!) and three times more than she earned in a week at the Insurance Office. But it wasn’t enough to change your life, and at the moment, amazingly enough, she didn’t have any outstanding bills (which made a change) and after all, there was that promise of payment for further stories ….. she compromised and booked a weekend break in Bruges, which would leave some over. Adam told her he’d like her to come down to London to have a word – and it went without saying that her train fare and a night’s accommodation would be paid for. Well, that would be like an extra holiday on top of it!
Adam was one of those men who, although he was quite young, possibly younger than Diane, managed to be avuncular. He was dressed in a smart suit as he sat in his office looking out over a park, but the effect was softened by a tie that didn’t, on closer inspection, actually incorporate a cartoon character, but looked as if it should. His air towards Diane was friendly and respectful, and ever so slightly proprietorial, but she told herself she didn’t mind that, after all, she was one of “his authors” and that was a decidedly good feeling.
She was, she admitted, a little disappointed to discover that at the moment publication was only online, but he said “hard copy” might well follow, and after all, that was the future of books. “If you’ll just sign here,” he said. Forewarned by Monica, she went through the motions of running her eyes over the document, but it appeared to contain nothing untoward. “I expect you’re already working on your next story for us,” Adam said, with a twinkle in his eye. Well, she wasn’t, but she soon could be, so she decided a little white lie was permissible. “May I ask what it will be about?” he asked.
“Maybe – going back to when I was at university –“ she ad-libbed.
“Ah. Well, yes, that could have possibilities. We’ll have a little chat about it. But now just enjoy your day, my dear!”
Which she did. She was sorry when that day was over. When she checked her emails next, she was pleased there was one from Adam. Yes, he said, the university idea had possibilities, but there were quite a lot of student recollections doing the rounds at the moment. Perhaps she might put that on the back boiler and write about that traumatic experience at the hospital.
Aspiring author that she was, Diane would have struggled to describe a word for what she felt. She was vaguely panicky, and told herself she had no reason to be. She told herself it was nothing to worry about but couldn’t help thinking it was. And just how the heck did Adam know about it?
Not that it had been that terrible. Not really. She was sure to this day someone had spiked her drink, though the doctor told her they hadn’t. She preferred even now, not to think about the means of him finding out. Yes, she knew that feeling was familiar. Anyway, as she had been involved in nothing like that hitherto, they didn’t go TOO hard on her (though there were firm but kind lectures about both not wishing to see her in that state again and not going down a road that would not End Well) and there was no charge of being drunk and disorderly or anything like that. Luckily it had happened in a neighbouring town, and she didn’t think anyone she knew got wind of it. She told them she had broken her arm and cut her head open tripping on a paving stone – which wasn’t a lie, after all.
She must have misheard Adam. No, she hadn’t. Well, she msut have misunderstood what he was saying. Or how he meant it. “I’d really prefer not to,” she said.
His voice was still kind, but with a kindness that reminded her of the tone of the people in the hospital. “Diane, my dear, I did invite you to read the contract. But there’s no rush. Not much.”
She half-hoped and half feared she had accidentally thrown the contract out with the rubbish (and it had been recycling bins day). She had not. She retrieved it from the pile of paperwork on her desk, and read it. Properly. “The Prizewinner will be obliged to supply subsequent stories as and when requested by the company, with a subject matter of the company’s choosing.” Sod that for a lark, she thought. It will be a shame not to get paid for more stories, but I can find other openings – and without all this business. Something made her read on. “Should the Prizewinner, having signed the contract, refuse to cooperate in this matter, the company has the right to pursue them through the courts, and to print any relevant matters both in electronic and traditional media, without the prizewinner’s cooperation.”
She should have listened to Monica. PROPERLY listened to her, not just nodded in the right places. Some awful compulsion made her look on the website. Moving Day was already up there, and just as she had written it, clichés and all. They hadn’t taken away, but they had added. Added photos. Photos of the state of disrepair inside the house. At the moment they were fairly soft focus and didn’t show the worst rooms. But if he had those – he would have others – and a focus could be easily unsoftened!
She really didn’t want to read the email from Adam that came a couple of hours later, and her finger hovered over the delete button. But perhaps he was going to tell her it had all been a misunderstanding and it would be fine. It was not a hostile or threatening email. Nobody she showed it to could say it was. He merely made the helpful and flexible suggestion that perhaps she might prefer the shoplifting incident to be the subject of her next story.
To this day she didn’t know what had got into her, she wasn’t rich but she wasn’t poor, and she didn’t even like or want half the things she took. There had been something of a “fashion” for daring each other to shoplift when she was 14 or 15 in high school. She wanted nothing to do with it. No, she left it until later. Though she was in her late twenties, her mother had been the one who found out. And though she had loved her mother dearly, she had a way of making you feel small that made you truly think you’d taken Alice in Wonderland’s potion and shrunk. “I’m not going to frogmarch you in and insist you return them,” she said, “Not at your age, though trust me, I’d like to. I just don’t understand you!”
They were on poor terms for a couple of weeks, and part of Diane suspected that though she might have forgiven her, she never thought as well of her. She only found out later that one shopkeeper, at least, had known – Mr Ahmed at the convenience store. A less kind man would have reported her to the police. It must have put him in a terrible position. It was an awful thing to think, but she was glad Mr Ahmed had passed away three years ago. She would never have to wonder if he would have “told” about the stupid business. Not that she’d ever have really suspected him.
She switched off her computer and her phone, and poured herself a large glass of supermarket Shiraz – telling herself that she most definitely wouldn’t be walking along any iffy pavements. For ages afterwards – well, at least a couple of months – she hadn’t been able to face alcohol, but now she did drink in moderation, and if ever she needed a hefty slug of red wine it was now.
She would see a solicitor and ask if that contact was legally binding. After all there was such a thing as blackmail, and blackmail was a crime. True, he might think she was very stupid, but she thought that anyway, so it would make two of them.
For a while, the wine took the edge of things nicely, and made her complacent and defiant at the same time. It was a nasty business, and she had been naïve, but what was really so threatening about it.
Okay, she’d done some silly things. But she wasn’t the first person who’d let a house go to rack and ruin, or taken too much to drink, or even been on a shoplifting spree or four. Let him do his worst, if he must! More people were likely to think, well, we’ve been stupid, too, and have a surge of fellow-feeling.
But vino did, if belatedly, bring veritas.
Because there was that other matter, that matter that was a million times worse, that matter with the knife, that case that the police had never solved. The absurd crimson liquid ribbon. The knowledge that conversations, once casual, would now be forever stilled.
She drained her glass and switched her computer on.
A NIGHT I’D PREFER TO FORGET
I honestly didn’t think I’d drunk so much. Some drinks, specially those in pitchers with fruit floating in them, just seem to slip down, don’t they?