Friday, 14 January 2011

Short Story ~ Pen Pals

(Another short fiction story written a couple of years ago.)

Pen Pals

I’m the first to admit it, I’m an average person. I have an average life. I have a steady job with a middle income in a middle sized insurance company. This has led to a nice house that my wife, Savannah, has turned into a home for our two kids, Alice and Jack. I’m forty three, in reasonable shape and my name is David. We have two cars and a mortgage that, with any luck, will be paid in eleven years time. We go on two holidays a year and spend every Christmas with my family. In fact, I’m so average and not worth noting that you should have stopped reading by now except….
Except that any minute now, despite me not really comprehending it, my average little life is going to change beyond all recognition and the old proverbial is going to hit the fan. Big time.

It’s Christmas, a wet, dull Christmas this year and we have just pulled up outside my parent’s house. It’s a big red brick Victorian place bequeathed to my mum by her parents and it’s where me, my two older brothers, Julian and Simon and my sister, Louise all grew up. We are the last to arrive and the drive is already full of cars. Louise is busy unloading presents and bags from her little two-seater sports coupe. Louise is two years older than me and completely not average. She’s a high flyer. A creative entrepreneur who, by thirty, had made her first million and now runs her own international design company. You’ve probably heard of her, in fact, you are probably drinking your decaf out of one her mugs right now. Good for her, I’m not jealous; in fact she employs Savannah as a home tester for her kitchen products. It’s great to have the second income but sometimes, it would be nice if Louise was just a bit more…average. Alice and Jack adore her.

I unpack the luggage after a round of hugs and hellos. My parents usher us through into the conservatory at the back of the house where my two brothers are. They are twins and are four years older than Louise, six years older than me. It’s a big age gap and we don’t have much in common. They have both been married twice and divorced once. Their second wives are the type who play golf at the weekend and do lunch in London. Lucy and Andrea. Julian is a college lecturer. Simon is an editor for a publishing house. Like Louise, they have no children; I’m the only one with kids. This, as far as my parents are concerned is my one redeeming feature, I gave them grandchildren.

The conservatory is a sprawling glass structure reaching out into the garden and full of palms and orchids and old cane furniture. Pride of place is the Christmas tree, a Norwegian spruce, covered with fairy lights and dripping with silvered glass balls and stalactites. Louise and the kids are in raptures over it and Dad is organising drinks for everyone. Lucy, Andrea and Savannah are helping Mum with arranging presents under the tree while in the corner of the room the twins are chatting in front of the TV. The TV is, as usual, on the news channel with the picture flickering from story to story, the sound on mute. I wander over to the twins to say hello and I am stopped midway across the room by the picture on the TV screen, or rather the caption running under it. It is the name that stops me, makes my heart start racing, and my palms begin to sweat. Amy Sturdle. It’s a name I could never forget.
Julian and Simon pause mid sentence and, with their strange ETP (extraordinary-twin-perception) both stare at me gawping at the TV screen, frozen to the spot like some sad middle-aged mime. Amy Sturdle.
‘David? You OK?’ ‘You look like you’ve seen a ghost.’ Julian and Simon finish each others sentences as only twins or people married for years can.
‘Oh, uh, fine Julian, Simon. I think I left a bottle of Scotch for Dad in the car. Never mind…I’ll get it later. So how are you?’
‘Fine, fine.’
Over Julian’s shoulder I can see the TV screen still featuring a picture of a woman at a book signing. Underneath the caption reads, ‘Set to be an overnight literary sensation, with her first book already a bestseller, Amy Sturdle’s vivid and moving biography follows the harrowing tragic life of her childhood pen friend, based on the many letters written to her over the years. Already in talks with Hollywood…’
‘…and the children look well. David, are you sure you are okay?’ I drag my eyes away from the screen back to the twins’ conversation.
‘What? Sorry! Just wondering what the fuss about that book is. Not one of yours is it Simon?’
‘Hmm?’ Simon glances at the screen. ‘Oh, no, the Sturdle thing, no but wouldn’t have minded if it was. Set to be the book of the year and it’s barely been released. Another misery memoir but, because it has that novelty aspect, with the letters from the dead pen friend… Ah, here’s Dad with the drinks.’
I take the proffered glass with trembling hands. Amy Sturdle had written a book about her dead pen friend. The only problem was her pen friend was alive and well. Louise wanders over. ‘Are you alright David? You look a little stressed?’ She glances at the twins with raised eyebrows but they shrug their shoulders. Oh yes, Amy’s tragic dead pen pal was well and truly alive because she was the millionaire business women standing right in front of me, only Louise doesn’t know that she’s Amy’s pen friend because the person who wrote all those tragic, dreadful letters was me. I can’t think of anything to say to Louise, I’m too busy praying that Amy Sturdle changed the name of her pen friend in her book.
I need to regroup my thoughts and dash off up to the bedroom, claiming I have eaten a dodgy sandwich at work yesterday, locking myself into the en-suite where I sit, shaking and cursing on the loo. I try convincing myself it was alright, after all, who would equate the Louise in the book with our Louise. There must be loads of Louise Smith’s in the world. They were worlds apart. I could barely remember half of what I had written over the years but every time my sister had achieved some new success, my fictional Louise had some disaster.
It would be fine. I take a few deep breaths. I stop shaking. I splash water on my face. It will be fine, really.

The next morning is grey and murky but no one notices. My parents are entertained by the kids opening their presents from Santa. Everyone is busy either cooking, eating or drinking until, at 1.00pm we all sit down at the long table set up in the conservatory to accommodate us all. By now the Amy Sturdle book is beginning to shrink in my mind to little more than an unfortunate coincidence and I am temporarily lulled into a false sense of security by an ample supply of wine and turkey with all the trimmings. Family tradition has it, that after the Queen’s Speech, the main present giving takes place around the Christmas tree. I leave the present buying to Savannah, for the simple reason that she is really good at getting people what they want whereas I am hopeless at it. This year she excels herself. For mum an orchid, for Dad an almanac of world news and so on until we get to Louise’s present. It is book-shaped. For a second or two I am happy, the rosy, content, over-indulged happiness that comes from eating a good meal with your family and then Louise unwraps her book.
‘Oh, well done Savannah, fantastic choice!’ No one even pretends anymore that I have anything to do with the present buying. ‘I’ve been itching to get hold of this. Did you know I nearly had a pen friend once, years ago, when we went on that holiday in Cornwall, do you remember Mum? Anyway, I often wondered what would have happened if we had kept in touch…’ the rest washes over me as my heart turns to ice at the words pen friend. Savannah had bought her Amy’s book.
The present opening continues and Louise places the unopened book on top of her growing pile of gifts. Soon there is a blizzard of wrapping paper across the room and presents strewn all over the place. People drink coffee or champagne and chat and, on the pretext of getting up to find the TV remote, I manage to kick Louise’s book under the chair hoping that once out if sight, it would be out of mind. Later still, when Louise is engrossed in a game of ‘Articulate!’ with Alice and Jack, I retrieve the book and lock myself in the en-suite again to find out just how bad the damage is. The pale blue front cover features a photo of a silver locket opened to reveal a picture of a dog who stares at me with unwavering accusatory eyes. I start to read:

‘Pen Pal
By Amy Sturdle
Foreword by the Author
This memoir is based on the letters written to me by dear friend and confidante, Louise, over the course of thirty years. I hope, by illuminating the tragic circumstances of her life and the way she dealt with it, she will give others hope in their hour of need and that her sad death, at the untimely age of forty three, will not go unremembered…’

I stop reading. Any warm glow from dinner is turning instead to a fiery acid eating into my guts, I return to the page and scan through but there is no mention of Louise’s surname. I read the first few pages, they are all too familiar in content, the whole book being laid out in the style of correspondence but apart from that, there is little actual evidence of who Louise really is. I start to relax slightly; I might actually get away with Louise not realising it is about her. There is a knock at the door and Savannah asks if I’m coming back downstairs because the pudding is about to be served.
‘Uh, yes, just revenge of the sandwich again, I’ll be fine. I’ll be down in a minute.’
When I return to the conservatory, the room is in darkness save for the lights on the Christmas tree and the flaming pudding Mum is carrying through to the table. In the semi-darkness I slide the book back under the chair, out of sight and out of mind.

It is the summer of 1977 and I am twelve and obnoxious. There is no point denying it. My brothers are off cycling round France and it is just me and Louise left at home so Mum and Dad take us for two weeks in August to Cornwall. We rent a small caravan on a farm campsite a mile from the sea and I spend my days looking for crabs and shells in the rock pools at the beach and dripping rich yellow ice-cream down my legs while gawking at the sunbathers on the beach. That is, when I’m not trailing after Louise and making her life miserable.
On the second week of our holiday the next lot of campers arrive, a cavalcade of caravans and cars pulling trailers full of the latest camping gear. One car that arrives has a girl in it about Louise’s age. There are no children my age. As soon as they shyly swap names while buying sweets at the farm shop it is obvious that they hit it off and are soon best friends which means that as far as I am concerned, I can clear off and leave them alone. But I have other plans.
‘Other plans’ include following them and pinging them from time to time with chewed up pieces of paper blown through the case of an empty plastic biro and threatening to tell Mum and Dad every time they saunter along the harbour wall, making eyes at the local lads busy mending nets and hauling up lobster pots
for the trawlers. Needless to say, Louise and I argue a lot about my plans
for the week.
On the second from last day it rains so I trail after them to the cinema where they meet up with a couple of boys and spend the matinee performance snogging them three rows from the back. In disgust I sit behind them and decide to use bits of ‘Bubbly’ gum in my biro shooter which sticks remarkably well in Louise’s long, curly layered hair. Later, back at the caravan, Mum slowly tries to tease out the bubble gum out of Louise’s hair, it doesn’t work. As she gets out a pair of scissors to cut Louise’s hair and Louise starts to cry, I begin to realise I might well be in big trouble this time. Really big trouble.
I am grounded for the rest of the holiday and will have to pay for Louise to have a proper haircut when we get back home, out of my paper round money. I work out it will take three months of paper rounds to pay for it. Not only that, because Louise refuses to stop crying like a complete girl for a whole day, I am banned from going to the cinema again for six whole months. (It means at Christmas I miss out on seeing ‘Star Wars’ with my friends and become the only kid in the class who didn’t see it at the time.) Not good. I declare war on my sister for the remainder of the cinema ban and by war, I mean war.
Whereas I can really harbour a good grudge, Louise is the kind of girl who quickly moves on from any event in her life so, by the time we arrive back home, despite her shorn locks and promises to always stay in touch for ever with Amy, the holiday is already receding into the back of her mind at the prospect of the ‘new boy’ in her class and changing her Bay City Roller posters. When the first postcard arrives from Amy it is easy for me to sneak it into my parka as I leave for my early morning paper round and after that, to keep intercepting all Amy’s letters so that, by Christmas, Louise has forgotten all about her pen pal.
It was the first postcard that did it. I should have just torn it up and put it in the bin or, even better, snuck it back onto the table in the hall when no one was looking but instead, I read it:
‘Dear Louise,
Hope you got back OK. I’ve heard from Chris!!! Can you believe that! I’m not writing back – let him pine for me 4 ever! Was really upset you had to have your hair cut after the cinema incident! Hope the loathsome toad-creature (LTC) got into lots of trouble!!!!
Best friends for ever, write soon,
Amy xxx (SWABS - sent with a big smile)’

Loathsome toad creature! What was I supposed to do? I would make them sorry for that nickname. That night I wrote back to Amy, trying to make it sound like I was my sister.
‘Dear Amy,
Thanks for the postcard. David had to pay for me to have a proper haircut using the money for his paper round. He decided to take on an extra round as well to pay it off quicker. Last week he didn’t come back from his new round. There had been an accident on a very busy road. We are all in a state of shock. The funeral is next week.
Best friends for ever,
I had been very proud of that phrase ‘we are all in a state of shock’, I had heard Mum use it once and thought it leant a nice touch of gravity to my note. I posted the letter the next day and that was that. From then on, I would intercept any incoming mail from Amy and write back to her as Louise and every time Louise got me into trouble, excelled at something better than me or generally just annoyed me, I’d write another letter to Amy with the next desperate saga of my imaginary Louise. I must admit, if nothing else, I have a very vivid imagination.

It is two days after the Christmas break and I am sitting in my office at lunchtime, having just dashed back from the local bookstore, staring at the cover of Amy Sturdle’s book. I have opened the book randomly twice already and tried to start reading but each time I can feel horror well up in me and my hands recoil from the page I’ve landed on. Each time, as I let go, the pages fan out and then the book snaps shut with the soft thud. Did I really write that? Did I really write that?
I have to read it, Savannah emailed this morning to say Louise was on her way over with a new job offer for her. This meant they would have time to talk about the book, if Louise had read it. I try again, this time from the beginning, trying to read it objectively. By the time I am ten pages in, my hands are sweating profusely. Two hours later I have finished it. I shall spare you the details but will instead outline the life story of my fictional Louise.

After I had written that brief postcard outlining my death, my next letter detailed how my fictional family had taken it very badly indeed. Within a year my parents’ relationship fell apart, Dad became work-obsessed, Mum became a reclusive alcoholic. By the following summer Dad had walked out, running off abroad with his young secretary and leaving Louise and Mum alone and penniless. Mum took to having dodgy boyfriends who, while supplying her with booze, variously made Louise’s life hell. One was an emotional bully, one used to beat her and then one abused her. To deal with it, Louise started to run away from home and fell in with the wrong crowd. Within four years, fictional Louise was an alcoholic teenager living rough when in reality she had just passed her A levels with A grades.
During her twenties, fictional Louise variously had an abortion or two, overcame her addiction to alcohol, finally tracked down her father, now a successful businessman abroad who promptly disowned her. Lost her mother (who died from cirrhosis of the liver after being admitted to hospital in a coma with a broken neck after falling down the stairs during a drunken brawl with yet another boyfriend) and had a miscarriage when her drug-dealing boyfriend dumped her.
In her thirties, while my sister’s business went from success to success, my Louise buried her two remaining brothers who were killed instantly in a car crash on a holiday of a lifetime, (they had suffered with various ill health throughout their short lives, due to being involved in a freak industrial accident at the factory they had both worked in.) was made redundant twice, lost her flat to negative equity and ended back up living rough on the streets. By the time I hit my mid-thirties, fictional Louise was back to drinking and turning tricks to survive and the letters to Amy had dwindled to one or two a year. In truth I was fed up of it. This pen friend thing had run its course and I no longer enjoyed writing the secret letters. So, when my sister turned forty-three, I killed off my fictional Louise.
She had just won her battles with breast cancer and the council for a new home and had taken in a stray dog she named ‘Victory’ who was turning into a loyal companion. She found a job as a drugs counsellor and set-up a soup kitchen, when Dad reappeared on the scene. His business had failed and his second wife had run off with a corrupt business partner of his. She had the greatest of pleasure telling him to clear off and was not the remotest bit remorseful when he washed up on a beach a few weeks later. But, despite all this change to her fortunes, disaster struck and my Louise contracted a superbug while at a routine check-up. Within two weeks she was dead. Of course, I had to forge a letter from the coroner’s office, there being no family left to write and tell Amy. I enclosed a cheap little silver locket on a chain with a picture of ‘Victory’ in it (I had cut it out of one of those missing dog ads that are regularly posted in the local Advertiser) as a final bequest from Louise and that, I had thought, was the end of that. How wrong could I be?

The book is well written, heartfelt but not overly mawkish and, while there is no attempt made to hide the identity of the main character, there is little content about location of the family or when the events took place. I try to reassure myself that it could be any of hundreds of Louise Smith’s up and down the country, even if Louise had read it, she may not suspect it’s meant to be her. By the end of the day I have soothed my nerves and leave the office early, convinced the book isn’t a problem.
I arrive home and pull up behind Louise’s coupe that is still parked outside the house. I’m sure Savannah had said Louise was popping over to talk to her in the morning. From the road the house lights blare out from every window, casting strange shadows across the front lawn. Not a single curtain is pulled and the front door is open. As I sit in the car, a figure emerges from the door lugging a large suitcase and loads it into the boot of Savannah’s car. It is Louise. Then, she is followed by the kids, each with a bag. I stare for a moment or two unable to comprehend what is going on, then, with wave of panic I am propelled out of my car and up the drive, at a run, to find Savannah at the front door with another bag. She pushes past me as I try and grab her arm, missing and stumbling at the same time, ‘What’s wrong?’ I ask. She stops, mid-step and turns to me. The light from the doorway illuminates her expression with stark clarity. ‘How could you. Your own sister. Your mother, how could you write such stuff about her? What were you thinking…’ the anger and pain in her voice is a knife in my belly and I am paralysed with fear and confusion.
She loads the bag into the boot. As she walks back past me she announces coolly, ‘We will be staying at your mother’s until I decide what is best for us to do. Do not try and contact us there.’
As I stand on the doorstep, Louise bundles Alice and Jack past me, shushing their questions and helps them into the back of Savannah’s car. Then she turns and stares thoughtfully at me for a moment or two.
‘I don’t know why you did it, David…you must really hate me. Anyhow, I’ve contacted the publisher; the matter is now in the hands of their solicitors. I expect they will contact you in the next day or so, as will mine.’
Savannah reappears, carrying her jewellery box, she doesn’t even look at me as she climbs into her car and reverses off the drive, pausing long enough for Savannah to pull out in her coupe and then they are gone.

The next few weeks pass by in a fog of empty misery as lawyers and solicitors fire phone calls and letters at each other and Savannah and my family refuse any contact with me. Amy Sturdle’s literary reputation is in tatters as the ‘true story’ turns out be a work of fiction and the public’s affection turns tide into a wave of angry condemnation and I am threatened with legal action from the publishers, Amy Sturdle and my sister on behalf of my family. I am let go by my insurance company as they cite my behaviour bringing them into ill repute not to mention my erratic office hours and my car is repossessed. The weeks stretch into months, Savannah and I formally separate, my parents disown me, Savannah and Louise move in together, I am allowed to see the kids once a month, the house is put on the market and the lawyers sit back and wait for their pay checks as agreements are reached. Savannah and the publishing house decide that any more publicity is bad for business and, as I move into a hostel, it occurs to me that my life is beginning to echo my fictional Louise’s. I have lost everything and am at rock bottom.

A few days later, on a sunny summer morning, I am sitting at my usual table in the corner of a cafĂ© near the river, eating a breakfast of egg and sausage and nursing a mug of weak tea. In front of me is a letter from my solicitor, it states that I am being sued by the real dog owners of the fictional ‘Victory’, and that the photo I used without permission in the locket was of their pet. The subsequent stress and anguish arising from the use of the photo on the book cover had forced them to seek compensation. Their dog, a pedigree champion called ‘Inestimable Fancy, Prince Handsome the Third’ known affectionately as ‘Han’ was stolen, ransomed but never returned, presumed dead. Their compensation claim was substantial. My solicitor’s advice was to declare bankruptcy. I find, when I notice that my hand is shaking and spilling tea, that I am both laughing and crying silently at the same time. The girl behind the counter scowls at me. My life is beyond tragedy and is now a comedy and I sit there, laughing and crying at the pointless absurdity of it all until a voice brings me back sharply to my senses. Someone has sat down opposite me and is watching me as I try and wipe away the tears and compose myself.
‘They said at the hostel I would find you here,’ she turns to the girl behind the counter and asks for a cup of coffee before adding, ‘I’m Amy, Amy Sturdle.’ She smiles a clipped, sad smile and I recognise her from the TV, although the style and colour of her hair has changed.
‘Look, you’ll have to talk to my solicitors if you want any more money. But I warn you I’m going to be declaring bankruptcy.’
She does not answer as the girl brings over her coffee.
‘Why are you here?’
‘Well, I was very angry with you, to begin with and then, as things unfolded I..., well I started to write again. Only this time the whole story, how you forged the letters. How the publishers bailed out, having my career ruined, the public condemnation, you losing everything, your life in ruins…’ She sips at her coffee and I notice her neat, shaped nails.
‘It turns out to be a much better story than your letters ever were but…’
‘It’s written from your perspective…with you as the main character. Your fall from grace…’
‘Great.’ I reply sarcastically. ‘I wish you well. Want did you want?’
‘I want your permission to ghost write your account of what happened. We can sell this story…I have already had an offer from Hollywood…a huge offer. As a team, we can make a fortune; this is much bigger than that memoir ever was. They want to make a film. A proper ‘A’ list film.’
She smiles the sad little smile again and hands over a manuscript and a card. ‘Look, read what I have so far and then call me.’
I stare at the manuscript as she starts to leave.
‘Wait!’ I call after her as she reaches the door. ‘Here, you might want to read this.’ I hand her my solicitor’s letter about the dog and she quickly scans it. Then, slowly, she starts to giggle and then laugh which sets me off laughing and crying again as I notice around her neck is the little silver locket containing the photo of Victory.

Three weeks later and here I am, packing a small suitcase of clothes and checking my passport is still valid. Amy and I are on our way to Los Angeles to finalise a deal with the studio executives. It includes worldwide rights on a film and book deal, plus a percentage of merchandising and plans for a sequel, a play and a musical. Amy was right. It is the deal of a lifetime. On the plane she hands me her finished first draft. I open the cover and look at the title, Pen Pals. I turn to the first page and start reading and I don’t stop till I reach the end, because it turns out, despite first appearances, there is nothing average about me or my life after all.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Reading matter for 2011

In the hope that I will actually get down to some reading this year I thought I'd note down the books on my reading list for 2011 (so far!).

Kate Mosse ~ The Winter Ghosts

Elizabeth Gilbert ~ Eat Pray Love

Ian McEwan ~ Solar

Carlos Ruiz Zafon ~ The Angel's Game

William Boyd ~ Brazzaville Beach

Robert Harris ~ Lustrum

Watching the winter garden

Winter arrived in November with a blizzard of siberian proportions, leaving behind a garden hidden from view, blanketed in deep snow. Over the last few months the snow and sleet, mist and fog, murky and freezing days have reminded me how temperate and pleasant our weather normally is.

Today is one of those rare, frosty blue-skied days that have been lacking so far this winter. But in every snow-laden storm cloud there is a silver lining and for a few months the garden has been full of birds.

Robin, wren, dunnock, wood pigeon, collared dove, blue tit, great tit, chaffinch, woodpecker, jay, magpie, starling, blackbird, thrush, the list goes on and it's been a delight to get to see these birds, not hidden shyly on a background of green but up close on the bird feeders and table. Keeping the bird bath unfrozen has been almost impossible, keeping the squirrels from running off with the fatballs they have pilfered from the hanging feeder absolutely impossible.

The garden has emerged from the snow over the last couple of weeks, dreary and bowed, the remnants of autumn leaves now a sludge across the lawn and various shrubs and plants broken and dead from the weight of snow and overnight temperatures that dropped into double figures below freezing. All around the remnants of last year's autumn still clinging to branches and fences, uncleared before the snow fell. But already I can see new growth and the delightful pale green of new shoots as the garden decides, for now, this winter tempest is over.

(click on photo for larger image)

snowfall over garden

cold buffet

robin and dunnock on buddleja globosa

willow covered in frost

ivy covered in frost