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Friday, 29 June 2007

Just three dots…

What is your favourite punctuation mark?

Since the astounding success of Lynne Truss’s ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’ this is not the weird question it might once have been. Like every right-thinking writer, I treat the exclamation mark with suspicion and disdain, only grudgingly giving it house room in dialogue. I have always been a fan of the semi-colon; it gives a pleasing balance to a sentence.

But lately I’ve noticed a worrying addiction to dots of ellipsis in my work. There they are, all over the place, leading people to believe that this may be the origin of my Youwriteon username, Spotty Leopard.

I love the way they let a sentence trail off, leaving the reader to continue a thought in his head…

This can’t go on. I’ve got to get a grip.

Thursday, 28 June 2007

Rocking horses and writing a novel…

I am currently reading Wannabe a Writer? By Jane Wenham-Jones. An entertaining and informative read.

She says ‘It is a strange thing that few people assume, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, that they can paint pictures worthy of the Royal Academy, sing like Pavarotti or play the guitar like Segovia. Yet all sorts of otherwise sensible beings imagine that if they only had the time they could knock out 90,000 words that would get snapped up by the publishing world and then fallen upon by a grateful public.’

Funnily enough, people harbour the same delusion about renovating rocking horses. People sell them on eBay with the line, ‘I bought this intending to do it up, but didn’t have the time.’

Just as well for the poor old rocking horse. To make a good job of it, you need to know the history of rocking horses, a bit of woodwork, how to make and apply gesso, how to dapple authentically, how to prepare and attach a real horsehair mane and tail, how to make appropriate leather harness…the list goes on. Getting out the power sander and the paint left over from decorating the house just won’t hack it.

Yet, as with writing a novel, it’s invariably the lack of time that’s perceived as the real problem.

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

A rejection from a Chinese economic journal...

"We have read your manuscript with boundless delight.

If we were to publish your paper, it would be impossible for us to publish any work of lower standard.

And as it is unthinkable that in the next thousand years we shall see its equal, we are, to our regret, compelled to return your divine composition, and to beg you a thousand times to overlook our short sight and timidity."

Sunday, 24 June 2007

The Fantasy Novelist's Exam


I have just taken the Fantasy Novelist's Exam. Seventy-five questions, and if you answer yes to any one of them, you fail and are told to abandon your novel.

I answered yes to three, but I'm not admitting it. Or saying which they were.

If you want to take a look for yourself, here it is: http://rinkworks.com/fnovel/

Tor in the rebel cavalry


Some readers query the part in Rising Fire where my heroine, Tor, disguises herself as a man and fights in the cavalry. She’d never get away with it, they say.

Throughout history, hundreds of women have dressed as men and enlisted in the army or navy, usually in order to follow their lover/husband. Some have become famous, like Doctor Barry, who had a long and successful medical career, including work in the Crimean war. In a society where only men became doctors, and only men wore trousers, her sex was never questioned.

This is an excerpt from a book, published while she was still alive and passing as a man, by the Count of Las Cases. The Count wrote that on 20th January 1817:

"I received a visit from one of the captains of our station at St Helena. Knowing the state of my son's health, he brought a medical gentleman along with him. This was a mark of attention on his part, but the introduction occasioned for some moments, a curious misunderstanding. I mistook the Captain's medical friend for his son or nephew. The grave Doctor, who was presented to me was a boy of 18, with the form, the manners and the voice of a woman. But Mr Barry (such was his name) was described to be an absolute phenomenon. I was informed that he had obtained his diploma at the age of 13, after the most rigid examination, and that he had performed extraordinary cures at the Cape."

People see what they expect to see.

I can’t resist mentioning Black Agnes, who fought like a man but without pretending to be one. In 1334, she successfully held her besieged castle at Dunbar for over five months. After each assault on her fortress, her maids dusted the merlons and crenels (the top of the battlements), making a joke of the siege. How this must have annoyed her attackers.

Then, less than a century ago, there was the English war reporter Dorothy Lawrence (see photo on the right) who secretly posed as a man to become a soldier during the First World War.

I’m going to stop here. There’s a lot on the internet, for anyone who is interested to learn more.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

The Machine With No Name...

Actually the new MFP has two names; the Nameless One, and my daughter insists on calling him, no, it, Buttons.

I printed out Rising Fire (in case the workshop burns down) and the print quality in places is not as crisp as Percy's. I shall try hitting the Best button next time. Personally, I think we should all do our best all the time, and not require a special button for it.

The Nameless One and I are not yet in perfect harmony.

Unbelievably, Pootle the robotic vacuum cleaner has stopped working. He's going back under warranty tomorrow.

Monday, 18 June 2007

PERCIVAL THE PERIPHERAL

Never give a name to an electronic gadget; you will feel like a murderer when the time comes to replace it.

This is Percival the Peripheral, the multifunctional printer which has served me well for two and a half years. He still looks like new, but he doesn’t print any more. It’s fifty pounds just to have him looked at, and a new MFP costs little more than that. His replacement arrives today, and Percy is destined for the local recycling centre.

He appears (as himself) in my short story Showing Them, which you can read at this link: Youwriteon.

I won’t be naming the new machine. Our relationship will be a purely formal workplace one. I shan’t pat him after he’s done a particularly good job of copying, or say ‘Thanks, Percy,’ as I switch him off.

Now I’ve just got the robot vacuum cleaner (Pootle) to worry about.

For the last time; thanks, Percy.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Plants in pots...

This blog is supposed to be purely for the purpose of promoting my writing, but hey, it's my blog, I can do whatever I like! The power!

This is a shot of part of my workshop balcony. I potter here if not too busy.

This year's unwelcome guests; vine weevil grubs, baysuckers, and scale insects. Last year we had ants and slugs too. I don't use pesticides, so it's just me and them locked in a war of attrition.

I relocated the slugs. (My daughter is fond of them. I quite like them too).

Monday, 11 June 2007

Pesky things, prologues...

My heart tends to sink when I open a book and there's a prologue. Frequently one can make little sense of them, and their significance only emerges well into the book.

But yesterday I found myself writing one for the start of Rising Fire, in an attempt to minimise the amount of back story in Chapter One.

It's brief, and not too gnomic. See what you think...

PROLOGUE

Poised on the balls of her feet, absolutely still and intent, Tor faced Attalor, feeling the unfamiliar weight of her new sword; at thirteen, she was just big enough for an adult one. Rain still dripped from the trees edging the clearing, though the sky had cleared; she was wet to the skin, her threadbare clothes offering scant protection.

Stealthily, Attalor edged sideways, trying to get her to go where the shafts of sun would shine in her face. He was a foot taller than Tor, with a warrior’s strength and speed. His eyes under fierce brows never left hers. She stood her ground, knowing he was choosing his moment to strike, and she must be ready. She grasped the hilt in tense fingers. Now! As his blade came down, hers rose to meet it, blocking his thrust and riposting.

He stepped back, lowering his weapon, and broke into a smile. ‘Well done, Tor. Soon you’ll be too fast for me. That's enough for today.’

‘Let me try again. I can do better, I know. I’m just getting the feel of it.’

Attalor laughed. ‘We’ve been here since dawn, I need another breakfast, and I’m sure you do too.’

‘Just once more?’

‘Have pity on your old grandfather. We'll come back tomorrow.’

‘All right. Let’s get some eggs on the way home.’

‘Sorry, Tor, I’ve no money. We’ve still got some bread.’

Tor grinned at her grandfather and fished about in her deepest pocket, then produced a silver sixpence in triumph.

‘Where did you get that?’

‘The squire’s hawk was stuck up a tree, right near the top, tangled by its jesses. I climbed up and got it. He was grateful.’

‘Eggs it is then. Clever girl.’ He ruffled her damp hair, and they left the forest and set off for Cramble, the small village where they lived.

Attalor went in to the cottage to get the fire going, while Tor slipped next door to their neighbour who kept a small flock of hens. She knocked and went straight in. Maddy looked up from her spinning wheel and tut-tutted.

‘Look at the state of you, Torbraya! You’re filthy, and that tear wasn’t there yesterday when I patched you.’

‘No, it got caught on a branch.’

‘Come here, let me look. You’re wet through! What’s your grandfather thinking of? He should have more sense, you’ll catch your death.’

‘S’okay, I’m fine, I just came to buy some eggs.’ Tor held up her sixpence. Attalor was very particular about paying their way. He did not mind Maddy patching Tor’s clothes, but he drew the line at his granddaughter being given food as though they were beggars. Maddy fetched a bowl and put a dozen eggs in it, grumbling the while.

‘He’s got no idea, that man. He shouldn’t be bringing you up, it’s not right. Teaching you to fight every day as though you were a boy, what’s the good of that? Addling your brains with reading and writing, too, there’s no sense in it. Who’ll marry you, that’s what I want to know, when you can’t cook or sew to save your life? Where’ll you be once he dies and you’re on your own?’

‘He’s not going to die, so it doesn’t matter.’ Tor took the eggs and handed over the sixpence. ‘I’ll bring the bowl back tomorrow, is that all right?’

Maddy took three pennies from her purse and gave them to Tor. ‘Mind you change into dry things the minute you get next door.’

‘Will do. Thanks.’

Tor whisked out of the cottage before Maddy could remember that she only had one set of clothes.

Saturday, 9 June 2007

An extract from TRAV ZANDER...

Tor is working undercover in Carl of Thrales's palace, disguised as a maid. Jervaid, whom she knew before, happens to be there in the Palace Guard.

Given his packed social schedule, Tor was surprised that Jervaid continued to find time to see her. She supposed he enjoyed a challenge, but she thought it was also because they had first got acquainted in Tarragon when she was disguised as a man. Tor had been bored by her captivity there, he had welcomed a break from standing on guard outside her door, and their friendship had flourished. Normally Jervaid was too busy seducing girls to get to know and like them. Tor was the exception, his one female friend.

This evening after their meal, Jervaid had suggested a drink, overriding Tor when she said she really should be getting back. He was now regretting picking this tavern. The place was packed; they had got seats with difficulty, and a raucous group behind them made conversation impossible. Nearby a man carried a hawk on one hand while he drank with the other, and every so often it baited with a frantic flurry of wings before he lifted it back on to his wrist. The stir from its wings blew out their candle.

Jervaid reached to relight it from the one on next door’s table.

‘Tor, this is ridiculous, we can’t talk here, I can barely hear you. Come back to my place.’

‘Here’s fine. I’ve got to go in a minute, anyway.’

All the frustrations of his recent dealings with Tor, with the unsatisfactory end to the evening imminent, came to a head. He knew she liked him, he was certain she found him attractive, why was she being so evasive and difficult? He let his irritation show.

‘You really are the most exasperating woman I’ve ever known. It was just the same at Kallarven, you were always rushing off, or there were too many other people around.’ Jervaid’s sense of humour went missing briefly. ‘Do you realize any of the other maids would give their eye teeth to be with me now?’

‘Why don’t you ask them then?’ Tor said, standing up. ‘I’m going.’ She pushed her way out of the crowded tavern. Jervaid half rose to his feet, then gave up and subsided back into his seat. Morosely, he waved at the serving girl to bring him more wine.

When the flagon arrived, he filled his cup and drained it. As he put it down, he saw a man sitting where Tor had been, staring at him. His face was familiar; after a few moments Jervaid placed him. Back in Tarragon he used to materialise around Skardroft’s palace like a dark ghost. The Palace Guard had orders to let him in to see the King at any time. He was thinner, gaunter, older than before, his skin yellowish and dry like parchment.

After about a minute, Jervaid met the man’s stare and raised his eyebrows.

‘That was a striking-looking girl who just left,’ Corfe said. ‘Do you know her well?’

‘Not as well as I’d like to,’ said Jervaid with complete accuracy.

‘She comes from Tarragon, I believe,’ said Corfe. ‘Where you come from. Did you meet her there?’

Jervaid was disconcerted that the man seemed to know who he was. Why should he recall one guard out of so many? What was he after? He was tempted to tell him to clear off, but decided against it, and said instead, ‘Yes. Do you know her?’

‘What was she doing in Tarragon?’

‘Exactly what she’s doing here, turning me down,’ said Jervaid moodily. ‘Women.’

‘Was she working as a maid?’

‘That’s what she does.’

‘Did she work in Skardroft’s palace?’

‘I met her there. Why do you want to know?’

‘I thought I recognised her, but couldn’t quite place her.’

There was a small silence.

‘Why did she come here?’

‘To find a job. To give me a hard time. I don’t know. You ask a lot of questions.’ I need to tell Tor about this man, Jervaid thought, I don’t know what he’s doing here but he seems to be on to her. ‘I know one thing,’ he added, ‘I shan’t be wasting any more of my time with Hettie. There are plenty more pretty girls in Ravendor.’

He got to his feet and shouldered his way out. Once outside, he found a dark doorway from which he could watch the tavern. He waited patiently for five minutes, and was rewarded by Corfe emerging and walking down the street. Jervaid followed him at a distance until he was sure he was headed for the palace, then he doubled back to Tor’s lodgings and knocked softly on her window.

Tor opened it. She was in her nightdress. ‘Jervaid, I can’t believe you came here,’ she said in a fierce whisper, afraid of the landlady hearing.

‘Tor, I had to see you…’

‘I said no and I meant it. How difficult is that to understand?’

‘Let me in, I’ve got to talk to you. Someone will see me standing here.’

‘Then go away.’

‘I think you’re being watched.’

Tor saw he was serious, opened the window wider and he climbed into the dark room. She wrapped herself in her cloak and lit the candle while Jervaid looked around him.

‘It’s a bit basic here, Tor. It doesn’t compare to your room in Tarragon.’ He sat on the bed, the only seat available, and leaned against the wall, his hands behind his head, smiling at Tor. ‘Sorry I got miffed back at the tavern. It’s because I fancy you rotten, I always have, you know that.’

He patted the bed beside him. ‘Why don’t you sit down?’ She looked at him suspiciously.

‘Who’s watching me?’

‘A tall thin man, long face, slightly stooped. I’ve seen him in the palace at Tarragon. Quiet voice. Difficult to guess his age. Has a way of looking at you…’ Tor’s eyes had widened. Without thinking, she sat on the bed, staring at Jervaid.

‘Corfe was watching me? What happened?’

‘Who is he?’

‘He was my grandfather’s undercover agent. He got hold of Pom and tried to make him say where the Knights were, he tortured him. Gwenderith broke a chair over his head. He’s here now working for Carl, I’m surprised you haven’t seen him. What did he say?’

‘He was asking about you, where I’d met you. He went back to the palace.’

‘You’re the second person he’s talked to that I know about. I don’t know why he’s interested in me if he doesn’t know who I am. He saw me one time with Skardroft, but if he recognised me why hasn’t he had me arrested?’

‘He didn’t seem to remember you. Maybe he’s got a terrible memory for faces…’ Jervaid’s attention was wandering from the conversation. He wound one of Tor’s curls round his finger.
‘I like your hair a bit longer…’ His warm hand slid round her neck giving her a pleasant frisson. It was true she found him attractive. ‘So do I get a reward for coming and warning you?’ he murmured, nuzzling her cheek and pushing her backwards on to the bed. There was a brief not unfriendly tussle then Tor succeeded in standing up.

‘All you get is my undying gratitude, I’m afraid. I’ll have to chuck you out now.’ She spoke with reluctant firmness, opened the window and stood by it.

‘Goodnight, and thanks a lot, Jervaid.’

Jervaid went off into the dark, a handsome figure striding along the quiet streets, his natural optimism in the ascendant once more. Too early to abandon hopes of Tor; she liked him; they were alone in Ravendor; she could not, surely, resist him forever. Meanwhile, there was that serving girl from the White Boar, Jenneth; she should be getting back to her lodgings from work about now, and he had no doubt she would be pleased to see him.

Friday, 8 June 2007

This is all pretty random thus far...

Hallo,

I've started this blog in case anyone should be interested in my novels or other writing. So I've begun by loading a short story, Comforted by Darkness.

I shall be getting to grips with this whole blog thing over the next few weeks/months, I hope.
Thanks for dropping by.

Lexi

COMFORTED BY DARKNESS (a short story)

Joss noticed the man at once as, smiling and weak with relief, she closed the waiting room door behind her and emerged into the wintry night. He was sitting on the wall in the yellow glare of the street light, his feet on the steel bench, dreary municipal shrubs threadbare behind him, and he met her glance and smiled back at her.

In the brief embarrassed moment as she realized she was smiling at a total stranger, she saw he was lean, tall, and dark of hair and eye, with interesting lines of thought and experience on his face. Joss turned away to her bike, tethered to a lamppost, and began the tedious task of releasing it from its various necessary chains and locks. She had a feeling the man was watching her, and it made her clumsy. She removed the plastic bag from the saddle, rolled it and tucked it away, put her handbag into the box on the back of the bike, attached her bike lights, clipped on her reflective belt and fished in her pockets for her cycle clips. After putting them on, she realized her gloves were at the bottom of the box. As she opened the lid again, it spun out of her hands to the stranger’s feet.

He picked it up and handed it to her.

‘Oh, thank you.’

She dropped her gloves. He retrieved them.

She smiled. ‘Thanks.’

‘Don’t you have a helmet? You seem to have everything else.’

‘No, they squash your hair.’ He raised his eyebrows. Every non-cyclist she’d discussed the matter with had disapproved of her not wearing a helmet, and it never failed to irritate her. ‘I’ve been biking in London for twenty years without a problem,’ Joss said with asperity, skipping several stages of the argument. ‘They’d make death safe if they could.’ She wheeled her bike to the kerb.

‘You misunderstand me. I believe in living dangerously. Come and have a drink with me.’

‘What?’

‘I asked if you would like to have a drink with me.’

Thoughts whizzed through Joss’s mind. He’s got a nice voice, I’ve given up on men, he doesn’t look like an axe murderer, I’d be crazy to let a man pick me up on the street, how long has it been since I’ve had a drink (let alone anything else) with a man, I’m wearing my jumper with the hole in the sleeve, after all I’ve got something to celebrate…

Joss had gone into the doctor’s that evening chilly with fear, certain that the results he had for her would be bad news. Terminal news, in fact. She felt as if she had been holding her breath for the past three weeks. She had not wanted to tell anyone, because that would have made it more real. If she had been going to tell anyone, now that her sister was dead it would have been Sophie, but just getting Sophie’s undivided attention was a problem these days since she and Pete had had their third child. They had left London for the country, so Joss would have had to ring her, and it was not possible to talk for more than thirty seconds at a time before one of the children needed her. If Joss said she was afraid she was dying Sophie might not even notice.

But she was not dying; it was official, her tests were clear. The man stood there, dark eyes on hers. What the hell, she thought.

‘Yes, okay. If you can bear to watch me locking the bike again and dropping things.’
He pushed her bicycle for her to a bar nearby that Joss had often passed but never been in. Its d├ęcor was dramatic; deep sofas upholstered in black velvet, intimate round tables lit by black glass and crystal chandeliers and wall lights. Each table held a candle and a few flowers in a glass. Not many people were in there – maybe it got busy later on. Joss took off her coat, grateful for the gloom that might conceal the rattiness of her jumper.

Her companion looked at her thoughtfully. ‘I see you as a wine drinker…white wine. Not Chardonnay, my guess is that’s what you were drinking a few years ago. How about a Cape Sauvignon? Or Sancerre?’

Joss laughed in surprise (how did he work that out? And get it right?)

‘Sancerre would be great.’

He summoned a waitress, ordering her wine, and vodka for himself. He got a pack of Gauloises Disque Bleu out of his black leather jacket before taking it off and revealing further black clothes. If unexpectedly called on to play Hamlet, he wouldn’t have to change.

Slumped in the depths of the sofa, relaxed for the first time for weeks, Joss felt a wave of fatigue sweep over her and she yawned.

‘I’m so sorry, I woke early this morning. I can hardly keep my eyes open.’

‘Don’t worry about it. You needn’t talk if you don’t want to.’ He offered her a cigarette, and when she shook her head he lit one for himself, filling the air with rich fragrant smoke. She found she did want to talk; she wanted to tell him everything.

He listened to her as no one had ever listened to her before.

* * *

‘Joss, are you all right? You look exhausted.’

Joss was startled; did she look that bad? She had put concealer on the shadows under her eyes and some blusher she did not normally bother with.

‘Oh…I went out last night, that’s all. The Pale Horse, do you know it? Near the Angel.’

‘No. Anyone nice?’ Camilla knew Joss did not have much of a social life; of course it got more difficult as you got older. Funny really though, when she was quite good looking. Enviably slim. Camilla offered her a chocolate digestive.

‘Thanks. Yes, I met a man…’ Joss was not in the habit of confiding in Camilla; they shared an office amicably enough, but had little in common. And she did not know what to say about the evening anyway. She had never met anyone like him, and it had not been like any first date she had ever been on. He seemed very interested in her, but was not pushy at all; she knew nothing about him but felt as though they had been together for years. His eyes watched her with complete understanding and sympathy.

‘What does he look like?’

‘Tall, dark…and handsome.’ Joss laughed.

‘What does he do?’

‘He hasn’t said much about it. He’s some sort of actuary, I think.’

‘Will you be seeing him again?’

‘Yes, tonight as a matter of fact.’

* * *

After their second evening together, about to part on Joss’s doorstep he said,

‘I’ll see you tomorrow?’

‘Oh dear, I’d love to but I’m so tired. I think I ought to stay in and have an early night, recharge my batteries.’

‘Then let me come round and cook for you. I’ll wash up too, you won’t have to do a thing.’

‘You’ve just made me an offer I can’t refuse.’

‘Is there anything you don’t eat?’

‘Liver and kidney.’

‘Rats. I’d planned on making liver and kidney surprise, it’s my party piece.’

‘And I’m not keen on sprouts.’

He smiled. ‘Sprouts were the surprise.’

So Joss lay on the sofa while he cooked for her in the kitchen that ran along one wall of her living room, in her flat which had seemed shockingly expensive when she bought it, but a shrewd investment ten years on. She watched him concentrate on what he was doing, his face intent, his movements elegant but unshowy. The food smelled mouth-watering. He brought her over salted almonds and a glass of champagne, sitting on the edge of the sofa and clinking glasses.

As she had meant to, Joss went to bed early; he carried her there and she spent the night in his comforting arms, in the friendly darkness. With him she forgot everything she had wanted and not attained, or had once possessed and lost; the child it was probably now too late for, the bereavements, the past lovers, the career success she had never quite achieved; all the failures and disappointments that make up a life.

* * *

‘Hi, Sophie, it’s me.’

‘Joss! How are you? Hang on a mo, I’ll just put Freddie down.’

‘Is this a bad moment?’

‘No, it’s as good as it gets these days. The builders aren’t here and Jemima’s having tea with a friend. How are you doing, what’s happening?’

‘I’m great. Really good.’ Outraged yells from the baby came clearly down the phone to Joss’s ears. ‘Can you hear me?’

‘Yes…(you’re a pest, you know that, you should be asleep. Oh all right then…) Sorry, he didn’t want his nap today, and he got us all up at five. Okay, I’m listening.’

‘I had to tell you, I’ve met this amazing man.’

‘Joss, I’m so pleased for you. Tell me everything. Where did you meet him?’

‘He picked me up in the street. No, I’m being sensational, we just got talking and we went for a drink together.’

‘Doesn’t sound like you at all. What came over you?’

‘I’m not sure. He looked all right, and he is, he’s really nice. Better than nice.’

Sophie seemed to have reservations. ‘And you’re sure he’s not married or anything, like that creep Richard?’

Joss laughed. ‘Definitely not. He’s not a married sort of type. He’s gorgeous. I feel so lucky.’
‘You must bring him for a weekend as soon as the extension’s finished. (What is it, Sam? Well, can it wait a minute? Mummy’s on the phone.) Sorry. Why didn’t you tell me about him before?’

‘I only met him Wednesday.’

There was a pause. ‘Do be careful, Joss, won’t you?’

* * *

Camilla was scandalised when it emerged that Joss’s new boyfriend had moved in with her. How long had that taken, ten days? She had always thought of Joss as being rather prim. She gazed at her over the top of her celebrity diet magazine.

‘Hasn’t he got a place of his own?’

‘Only rented.’

‘You’ll have to bring him to the office party so we can all meet him.’

‘He doesn’t like parties. I’m going to skip it this year. I don’t feel up to it anyway, I’ve still got this bug hanging round making me feel lousy. I’m lucky to have someone to look after me at home.’

She’d lost weight, Camilla thought, and she was thin before. She might feel better for having a man in her life, but she didn’t look it. Her cheeks were quite hollow. He couldn’t be that good a cook with the weight visibly dropping off her.

‘I hope you don’t mind me saying this, poking my nose in, but he’s all right, is he? You hardly know him.’

‘I feel I’ve known him forever.’

* * *

Joss had some time owing to her, so she decided to take it, put her feet up at home, really rest and get back to normal. The past year had been a strain, one way and another. It was no wonder she felt ill. Once she got her strength back she would get a new haircut, spend some money on clothes, go on holiday.

‘I’ll take the week off too, if you like. I won’t bother you, I’ll just be there if you want me.’

‘Yes please. If it’s not too boring for you?’

‘I could never find you boring. I’d never tire of you, Joss. I’ll bring some work home with me for when you want peace and quiet.’

By day he waited on her, chatting, bringing her tempting snacks, and reading books aloud. She loved his voice. At night he lay close, holding her to him in the darkness.

As the short days and long nights passed Joss grew weaker and kept to her bed. Her energy seemed to be draining away. She began to suspect she was not going to get better, that whatever was wrong with her had the upper hand. She now doubted the doctor’s diagnosis. Tests could produce false negatives, doctors made mistakes. Day followed day as she put off making another appointment.

One morning, as the winter sun streamed through the window, thoughts that had been vague and unformed crystallized in her mind. He was sitting on the bed. She took his hand and stroked his fingers, turning the silver skull ring he always wore so its empty gaze faced her. At last she looked into his grave eyes.

‘I’ve worked out who you are,’ she said. ‘Not just my last lover…when you were outside the doctor’s, you were waiting for me, weren’t you?’

‘Yes.’

‘You came to get me. Why didn’t you tell me?’

‘Most people don’t want to know.’

Joss smiled and put her arms round him. A tear ran down her face.

‘Is this it, then?’

‘Yes. I’ll miss you, Joss.’

‘Kiss me.’

Their lips met for the last time. She clung to him and none of it mattered any more, everything faded to insignificance and was past and done with, life became as insubstantial as a sigh. He laid Joss back on to the pillow and gently closed her eyes, then collected his few belongings and let himself out of the flat.

* * *

It was a small gathering at Joss’s funeral; her immediate boss and some of the girls from work, a few of her friends and some family friends of an older generation. Joss had not been a churchgoer, and the service was a perfunctory one in an ugly crematorium in the middle of a large cemetery. Sophie had brought her baby as she was still breastfeeding, and his cries expressed the pain and outrage that Sophie felt. Eventually she took the baby outside and perched on a wall till the service should be over, sniffing and groping for tissues.

She could not believe poor Joss was dead. She wished she had seen more of her in the past year, but she’d been so busy with the children and the new extension. She’d planned to have her to stay when it was finished, had even decided (before hearing about the new man) who she would invite to dinner that Joss might fancy. Joss should have got married and had children, it was such a waste.

People trickled out into the thin sunshine.

‘I’m Camilla, I used to work with Joss. You must be Sophie. Joss used to talk about you sometimes, and the children. It’s terrible, isn’t it, first her sister dies then the same thing gets her?’

Sophie hesitated. There was no one else to ask. ‘Did Joss say anything to you about a new man in her life? I thought he would be here.’

Sophie had looked in vain among the other mourners for the gorgeous man Joss had described in her last phone call.

‘Yes. She sounded dead keen on him. He moved in with her really fast. But it was a bit funny, you know…did you know I found her?’ Their boss had sent her round on her way home to see why Joss hadn’t come back to work. When she got no answer, she’d tried a neighbour who had turned out to have a spare key to the flat.

‘No, I didn’t.’

‘Yes…it was awful. She was in bed, quite peaceful, but there was no sign of anyone else. Nothing.’ Camilla wouldn’t say it, but she had wondered whether the man was a figment of Joss’s imagination.

Sophie shifted the baby to her other arm, and glancing up noticed near the cemetery gates a man in dark glasses and black leathers getting on to a big black motorbike. A subdued roar came from its engine as he accelerated into the distance. He wasn’t wearing a crash helmet on his dark hair.