Monday, 25 February 2019

Prequel to Bunny on a Bike - and my dream goddess bikini...

Bev in 1979 at Argeles-sur-mer in her dream goddess bikini (worn later for her job 'interview' at Playboy...yes, I know, please don't judge me!)

Carol and Bev met at Keele University in the north of England in October 1977.  They had no idea that they would be firm friends for the duration of their courses and beyond. In fact, no-one could have foreseen such a pairing.

Carol is matter-of-fact, down-to-earth and a no-holds-barred kind of girl, whereas Bev is prone to over-thinking, loves literature and thrives on the random workings of the human mind.

The prequel to Bunny on a Bike has taken me back to my youth once more, to a time when government grants enabled most people, who were able, to go to universtity without taking out a substantial loan and when, at the end of a degree course, you could more or less count on getting a good job.

Bev and Carol went through a lot together, the good and the bad, the memorable and the forgettable.  One Summer in France is based on the three months I spent with Carol in France in the summer of 1979 as part of my French studies.  It was one of the most rewarding and diverse periods of my life and, although the book reflects the youthful flippancy we attached to life, it also seeks to dig deeper into those moments when the human mind discovers the layers which lie beneath, be it through literature, people-watching, food-poisoning or nude sunbathing.

Our trip was hugely entertaining and, in retrospect, we were hilariously naive. It's been great fun to write and I hope you get lots of enjoyment from what must be some fairly universal experiences!

Click here to view on Amazon

I do write mystery/suspense, too.  All my books are listed on the right.  Just click and you can have a closer look.


Monday, 18 February 2019

A Few Days in La Rochelle

Blue sky, random packing, bra too tight, eating up those miles at sixty with a few bits of motorway where we can get out of the crawler lane and ramp up the petrol consumption.

Yes, it's a mini break to La Rochelle. Justification, if needed: we didn't get a holiday in 2018.

Mme. Peugeot has been ditched in favour of our very old but still gorgeous Audi tt.  We are escaping routine trips to LeClerc, office slavery, book writing, and unsolicited phone calls.

Le Champlain, our favourite hotel, is a haven of soft furnishings and elegance. Our little sports car is nestled amongst top of the range monsters.  Our adventure can begin with the knowledge that we have time to unpack and settle for more than a moment in our upgraded room, where the window opens onto a garden and the hot water is endless. There is squirty soap, too.

Sorting out a pair of tights and wondering how such things can be so badly designed to cut a body in half, I put on a dress and, (why not?) some BB cream.  Love the magnifying mirror in the bathroom - never has my eyeliner been so perfectly applied.  Boots, coat, trainers, hat, scarf, gloves in bag (just in case it snows).

Glorious sunshine.  Just the right amount of people. Archways, shops, the occasional dog turd.  What's that Al's saying?  Ah yes, bagels.  Cereal for me and cheese topped for him, both with chicken of some kind or other garnished with green bits.  Into Monoprix for two small bottles of Bordeaux (screw top).  A short trot to the harbour wall, where we sit among the pigeons, vocal homeless, and buskers for a picnic lunch.  Bliss.

Having decided not to discuss Brexit, we turn right at the Murder Tower (you will cry, if you go there), and follow the coast.  My face aches from smiling.  My greedy lungs swell with ozone.  What a wonderful thing it is to be alive.  I beam at Al and he tells me his ankle is only hurting a little, but veers towards an empty bench for a lie down. Peace, peace and peace.

Swiftly followed by gin and tonic at the casino, specifically, on the terrace looking out to sea.  There is a very elegant woman wearing a black lace dress and crimson lipstick - she sits opposite and waits for a friend who turns out to be a young refugee whom she has taken under her wing.  They discuss visas and freedom.  It's humbling.

We head back to the hotel for a rest before dinner, watch a terrible film, get changed and saunter down to our favourite wine bar: 'O bon 20' (Al worked it out before I did the first time we found it).
Gin and tonic (toxic quantities...) for me and a nic red for Al, to accompany delicious tapas: grilled chorizo, and a cheese platter served with bread - I would elaborate, but simple good food is best left free of adjectives.

No need for dinner.

And four more days to look forward to.  Formidable.

Monday, 11 February 2019

Excerpt from The Price of Love by Bev Spicer

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Rethymnon had not changed much.  His mother loved the place for its intransigence.  It kept itself to itself, she said, sniffing the air and turning a blind eye to the pettiness of tourism. But she would not have wanted to live there.  Xania, a little further along the coast, had more to offer to people who wanted ‘culture’.
Steve watched the wide street as it shimmered remotely in the afternoon heat and wondered what his mother would say now.  She would never guess that he had chosen Crete to escape to.

“Run to the bakery, Stephano, and bring bread!”
He raced down the cobbled steps, clutching the coins she had given him and staying in the shade.
The shop was near the harbour of his mother’s hometown, and so he did not go directly to the baker’s – he liked to watch the boats rocking in the water.
“Two breads, please.” He had spoken Greek then.
The baker joked with him about his blond hair and Stephano didn’t understand.  But he grinned anyway because he knew the baker would give him a lollipop from a saucer he kept behind the counter. 
“Come here, boy.  Come choose.” The man’s face was greasy and his mouth stayed open a little after he had stopped speaking.
“Thank you.  I would like the orange one, please.”
“Orange, like the sun in the evening.  Here!  Take it and go home to your mother.”  He clapped his hands together to see the boy jump, turn tail and run.   
Stephano could hear him laughing all the way home.

“Come, my love, we are ready to eat.”
“Why does the baker always make fun of my hair, Mamma?”
“Because it is rare, my child, and a sign of your true heritage.”
He knew she would say this.  It was a question he had asked before and he liked the answer, even though he did not quite understand it.  If his father was there, he did not ask. His father would say, “What rot!”

That had been a long time ago, when he had been a child, spending the summers in his grandfather’s house, playing by the harbour and staring at the boats, sitting together and watching the lizards on the garden wall.
He had returned to the island now, but not to the town.  He had chosen a place he did not know so well.
In front of him, moisture rose from the sea and disturbed the air, causing the surface to blur and swim.  He drew on a cigarette, narrowing his eyes against the smoke, looking out over the predatory women who glanced his way, choosing to ignore them.  He was preoccupied by the audacity of what he had done, brazen and without remorse.  He laughed involuntarily.
In the cloudless sky, Steve followed the line of the sun’s rays from ninety million miles away to the pavement at his feet – even this did not impress him.  He had done something so absolute, that the ordinary world seemed to have stalled around him.
Now, he would concern himself with the immediate and the manageable, and his present discomfort, with the building giving no shade, made him want to move. Over his shoulder, away from the sea, the shadows were cooler.  Next to a vacant, solitary chair, a boy started up a scooter, a shard of purple light with its metallic drumming.  Noise ran down the side street, climbing the walls of the buildings and spilling out onto the main drag.

“Be careful, Stephano.  Watch out for the boys!” 

By ‘boys’ his mother had meant boys like this one, who rode their scooters around the town, indifferent to the safety of pedestrians.
Steve squinted again, scanning the high houses with their crumbling stone and dark, cool windows, wondering what it would take to fix them up.  Some of the shutters were closed to the heat, or perhaps the buildings were empty.  Either way, it didn’t really matter.
The boy revved his engine and set a helmet on his head, its strap left dangling.  As the scooter started towards the busy tourist street, an old lady dressed in black emerged from a doorway and shouted something after the boy.  It seemed that he had heard her, but he did not look back. 
Bowing her head, the woman installed herself, her body awkward and graceless, on the waiting chair. She frowned, fingering the beads in her lap, gazing after the boy.

“Can I have Papou’s worry beads, Mamma?”
“Why do you want those old things, my child?”
His grandfather’s beads were Tiger’s Eyes, with small metal balls between and a silver shield where they fastened. Papou always left them for him, on a shelf in the hall.
“You may take them.  But remember to replace them where you found them.”  His mother’s eyes were darker than the Tiger’s Eyes.
“Yes, Mamma.”

The scooter drew level with the main street, the boy’s features sharp and symmetrical. He cast a lazy glance towards the tall stranger, looking for a gap in the pedestrian traffic, and slid past Steve with a nonchalance that had all the powerful disregard of youth.  The scooter rocked and righted itself, weaving through the crowd.  Steve followed its progress until it was out of sight.

“I saw a lady drop her baby today, Mamma.”
“Mother of God, what do you mean, my child?”
“She was sitting on the back of a scooter and it went like this, to go round an old man who had raised his stick.” He showed his mother how the scooter had swerved, with a movement of his small hand. “And the woman made a squeaky sound and dropped the baby.”
“Was it all right, my love?”  She had pulled him onto her lap and was stroking his hair.
“I think so, Mamma.  But the woman was crying and the man shouted at her.”
“Never mind, my love.  Never mind.”

The harbour wall took Steve’s attention now, and led his eye out to sea, his thoughts once more to England; more particularly, to a village church, chosen for its idyllic setting and pretty stained glass, its kissing gate and ancient willow tree. He sighed heavily and dropped his cigarette, stubbing it out with his foot. When he had been a child, life had been simpler.

It was not yet eleven o’clock; the sun would get hotter.  He had not yet eaten but felt no hunger in the heat, only thirst.  Nearby, there were people laughing and drinking, but Steve was loath to join the throng that had settled along the beachfront.  He preferred the smaller bars in the back streets, where a cold beer could be bought, accompanied by a plain dish of olives, nuts or even small, salty baked potatoes.  The veneer of the beachfront bars and cafés was not for him just now, although later he would seek them out.  He turned down the alleyway, moving with his usual subtle swagger, indifferent to the eyes that followed him.
As he came level with the old woman, he looked quickly past her, into the house she had emerged from.  There was a narrow passageway of cool stone.  At the end, he glimpsed a garden, luminous and startling, and in it, a man sitting at a table holding a glass in his hand. Steve did what he could to pass by slowly and when he looked back over his shoulder, as he knew that he must, the old lady was staring directly at him.  Steve had been certain that she had not paid him the slightest regard.  Her eyes were as blue as the Cretan sky. They were the boy’s eyes.  She must be the his grandmother. He smiled to himself.  There were hundreds like her on the island.  Old women dressed in black, waiting to die.

“Your grandmother was a beautiful woman,” Papou told him in his whispering voice. “She knew you would come.”  His grandfather always nodded when he said this, as though he were listening to her say the words, before he repeated them in a voice that was meant to be hers:
I know he will come.  He will have golden hair, like the sun.”  Papou  laughed then, and put his hand to his grandson’s cheek, before pinching him on the nose.
Papou!” But he was not hurt.  He only wanted to see the picture of the beautiful woman that was his grandmother.
     “Make sure no one is looking when you open it.  It was given to me by your yia yia, and your mother will take it from me.”  Papou put his hand inside his shirt and pulled out a locket, whilst holding a finger to his lips and looking from side to side.  “A grown man should not wear such an item!”  He sounded just like Stephano’s mother now, and he laughed at the mischief of it all.
     With their heads almost touching, the boy carefully opened the catch and pulled the locket apart.  He liked the tiny hinges and their resistance to his fingers.  Inside, was a picture of a young girl with dark hair and a long, straight nose just like his.  The glow of her calm expression made him feel warm from the inside.
“She is beautiful,” Stephano sighed and bent forward to kiss the photograph.
“Yes, your grandmother was a beautiful woman,” Papou repeated, shutting the locket and putting it back inside his shirt.
She will be young forever,” said the boy, mimicking his grandfather’s voice.
“Of all the…! Well!” He made a grab at his grandson, but Stephano ducked.                 
Then they would go down to the harbour and watch the boats.  Sometimes, Papou would teach him how to sketch them.  His grandfather’s drawings were always better than his own.

At the end of the street, Steve took out another cigarette and chose a road he had already travelled. Outside the first café he came to he returned the stares of the Greek men, with their richly coloured faces, their eyes sharp with something like wisdom, making him feel as though, to them, he were of no consequence. 

“These men from the village, my child, who sit all day drinking raki and smoking cigarettes – these men are good for nothing.” 
“Why, Mamma?”
“They do not work.  They live careless lives and take from others.”

One of the men spat into the gutter as Steve passed, looking up at him as if to beg a comment, as if he could read the thoughts of the stranger. 
Soon, he arrived at the bar he had been looking for – the one he had visited the previous day, and where he would be able to sit undisturbed, out of the glaring heat.  He read the faded wooden sign above the door:  Kooki’s.  That was it. He supposed that Kooki was the man who came to serve him from behind a panelled wooden counter at the back of the small interior.  Today, Steve was his only customer.
It looked as though Kooki was wearing the same dirty brown trousers and had the same soiled cloth over his arm, with the same long moustache hairs interfering with the pink gash of his mouth.  He had full, womanly lips.  There was dirt under his fingernails, as though he had been digging the earth with his bare hands.  The olives he brought were black and oily, heavy with saltiness, and served in a bowl filled from his fist.  The potatoes arrived in the same way and the beer was opened at the table in front of him, with the large man standing over him, too close.  Kooki had said something as Steve had entered, which he had recognised as a greeting. The Greek he had learned as a child had mostly deserted him.    
Inside, the floor was swept with sawdust.  On the counter, there were bottles of clear, alcoholic liquid and on the shelves behind the large Greek proprietor, an eclectic collection of glasses and a mess of faded photographs amidst the ubiquitous worry beads (none of them was threaded with Tiger’s Eyes) and religious artefacts.  To one side, there was a buzzing refrigerator and next to it, a spit roast oven housing the corpses of half a dozen chickens turning slowly, their fat dripping onto greasy potatoes sprigged with oregano.  It was the kind of place Steve’s mother would have avoided at all costs.
The olives and potatoes made him thirsty, as they were supposed to, and he held up his hand for another beer.  Kooki brought one over and stood looking at him, holding onto the bottle and perhaps deciding something.  Steve smiled a little, but Kooki continued to examine him impassively.  Then, just as Steve had the impression that the man would say something, he took a toothpick from his apron pocket and, baring his teeth, commenced a grisly excavation.  The offending remnant of food was released and his hand dipped back inside his pocket.  This time, a handkerchief came up, and Kooki pushed his large, pitted nose from side to side. 
Steve stared in amusement, wondering whether he should say something.   Kooki’s hand, still clutching the soiled handkerchief, slid onto the young man’s shoulder and the proprietor of the café shook out an explosion of a laugh as he pushed his customer towards the second beer, which stood on the table in front of him.
Steve had a notion that Kooki had formed an opinion of him.
“Would you like something to eat?” he asked, in Greek.  “The chicken and potatoes are delicious!”
 Steve looked up and saw that the persistent café owner wanted him to eat something.  He was pointing at the chicken turning on the spit, making gestures and smacking his lips together. 
Steve began to wonder whether Kooki were deranged in some way that he hadn’t noticed the previous day.
“Noo, no.  Thank you, not hungry.  Ochi, ochi,” he said, shaking his head.
He pronounced the word easily, and Kooki’s face brightened. He made shushing noises and pressed Steve into his chair so that, before he could do anything about it, there was a plate of food in front on him. 
Sarah would have laughed at him.  He saw her flashing eyes.  ‘Just eat the chicken and potatoes - the nice Greek man wants you to be strong.  Make him happy.  Go on, you might like it!  He might give you seconds.’  And as he thought about Sarah making fun of him, he ate the food, wishing that she had come with him. 
The sun was no longer overhead when he left the small bar after several raki and a huge bowl of yoghurt with honey.  He had told Kooki that his name was Steve and had tried, unsuccessfully, to teach him how to say it.  He did not say that his mother was from the island and that she called him Stephano, still.  He thought that he now knew that Kooki had a brother and a sister and that one of them was no longer alive, or else had gone away somewhere.  He had stayed longer than he had intended – Greek hospitality was impossible to turn down.

“It is the Greek way.  There must be respect between the host and the guest.  It is a two-way process.  Learn this lesson well, my son.  It will be with you all your life.” And in case he had not realised the importance of his mother’s words she would say them again, more slowly, fixing him with her loving eyes, “All your life!”

     Kooki had refused to take payment for the meal, and now Steve couldn’t help thinking that he had promised to do something for the café owner, although he had no idea what it was.
Out in the fresh air again, he did not want to go back to the hotel. Going back to his room would lead to thoughts of the life he had rejected.   The hills rose up behind the town and he turned towards them, crossing the main road, going up a steep track bordered by forest, clinging to the shade where he could.  He had no hat, nor any water; it would be foolish to go too far.   
The track rose up more steeply after a while and turned away from the coast.  A man passed by in a motorised cart, raising a cloud of dust.  Sitting next to him, another old woman dressed in black.  Steve raised a hand in greeting and the man nodded, the expression on his face impenetrable.  The woman did not look at him. The road wound on and pebbles rolled and crunched under his feet. He smelled the dust.  Further on, there was a wizened tree growing out of the rock. It was not like the other trees, and was laden with fruit, oval in shape and prickly.  Steve was thirsty already, and the melon-like aroma of the fruit tempted him, but he did not know whether it was edible, so he left it.
It was unwise not to turn back to the town, but he looked up the rise ahead and continued anyway.  After a while, when his thirst had become harder to bear, he saw a scattering of houses ahead and decided to ask there for water. Even the thought of water excited him.  He could smell and taste the memory of it and feel it moving over his tongue and down his parched throat. It surprised him how quickly thirst had come upon him. 
As he approached the first of the houses a tall, long-haired girl hurried inside, and a babble of Greek could be heard as he drew nearer.  He looked towards the door, which was ajar, and cleared his throat.
“Hello.  Kalimera!”
A young boy came out, warily.  He must have been about twelve or thirteen.  His sister, who looked older, stayed inside.  Keeping his distance, the boy looked at him.  It was the same boy who had ridden a scooter past him on the seafront. There it was, parked at the side of the house.
“May I help you, sir?”
It was odd to hear English being spoken so carefully in such a remote place. 
“Yes. Could you give me some water?” 
The boy’s confidence dissolved and he looked confused, he had not understood and, shrugging his shoulders, looked back to the house where his sister was waiting, all the while twisting his hands inside his pockets and becoming more and more agitated.  From inside the house, the girl spoke urgently.
“He wants water.  Give him water!”
At these words, the boy disappeared quickly inside the house once more.  Steve waited, wondering whether he would get water, or whether yet another person would come to see what he wanted.  He was impatient for a drink.
Further up the road, there was the sound of an animal squealing.  Three men were holding down a pig, and it looked as though one of them was tying its front legs together while the others sat astride the animal, pinning it down.  One of them had a large knife between his teeth.  The others were shouting and laughing, gregarious in their efforts to control the animal.  One of them stood up and looked down the hill; the other two glanced at Steve and immediately looked away.
Just then, the boy came out of the house with a jug of water and a drinking glass.  The squealing of the pig suddenly increased and then there was silence.  It was the echoing silence that comes after the clamour of loud noise. Steve knew that the man with the knife had cut the pig’s throat. 
The boy poured out some water and handed him a glass.  Steve put it to his lips and closed his eyes as he swallowed, holding out the glass for more when he had finished. The boy looked in the direction of the pig and a large smile spread across his young face, his eyes dancing with pleasure.  The girl looked out too, towards the group of men, who shouted something to her.  The boy nodded up the hill, gesturing to the girl to hurry, and poured out more water for the man, slopping it in his impatience to be released.
A moment later, the girl emerged, a scarf newly arranged on her head, covering her hair and some of her face.  She carried large bowls and quickly headed up towards the men standing around the slaughtered pig.  Steve watched as one of the men drank from a beer bottle, his Adam’s apple pulsing.  The pig lay still in the dirt, its blood running along the dusty ground like a ribbon.

“Can we make cheese, Papou?”
“Yes, my child.”
Stephano fetched the lasso and the bucket.
“That’s right, gently now.  Don’t excite her.  Good.”
“Shall I throw the lasso?”
“If you have to throw it, you must throw it.  If you are too far,” Papou murmured.
“Yes, now.”
The goat pricked its ears and started to jump.

Steve saw the girl watching him. The men were busy now.  He thanked the boy, wondering whether he should offer money.  But, remembering his mother’s words, he turned away, deciding not to, and took the same road back to the town. 

The hotel was new, sprawling and luxurious.  Inside, there were marble floors and pillars, opulent and cooling.  Steve stood at the reception desk and waited.
“Good afternoon, sir.  Your key.  And one message.”  The receptionist’s Greek accent amused him.
“Thank you.”  He took the envelope and the key, staring shamelessly at the woman’s breasts. 
The lift carried him to the top floor.  As he turned the key in the lock, he felt the envelope, smooth in his hand but had no curiosity about its contents.  Inside the room, he slid it onto a table next to the telephone and walked across the wide lounge, out onto the roof terrace.  There was shade now, and he slipped out of his long trousers and cotton shirt, pulling off his pants and stretching, naked in the fresh air.  On a chair, next to the small private pool, he found a pair of hopelessly unfashionable trunks, a bathrobe and a pile of freshly laundered towels.  The water was cool and silky, but it smelled strongly of chlorine. 

Swimming in the sea as a child, the water had been so clear that it had sparkled in diamond patterns, bouncing on the breeze, hurting his eyes. 
“Can we go fishing, Papou?”
“Perhaps in the morning.  We must ask your mother.”  He winked and smiled with one side of his mouth.  He had a sort of stiffness on the other side that made it stay down when he smiled.  Mamma had told Stephano that the dentist had hit a nerve and that it was an accident that could happen to anyone.
“Can we roast the fish on the barbecue?” he asked, hoping that he never had to go to the dentist’s.
“First we must catch the fish,” laughed his grandfather. “They are clever and do not want to be roasted on our fire.”
“But we are more clever, aren’t we, Papou?”
“We shall find the answer to your question on the end of our fishing lines, my child.”

Steve did not want to think about his grandfather.  What he craved now was company of a different kind. The girl at reception drifted into his thoughts, and he allowed himself to examine her perfect skin, brown eyes and blue-black shiny hair.  Her neck was long and smooth, leading down to large breasts, concealed under a white blouse, which bore the hotel insignia.   He wondered what kind of underwear she had on.  As he floated, gently rocked by the water, the pale face of the girl he had seen that afternoon and the spectacle of the slaughtered pig came back to him, spoiling his fantasy. 
He tried to sink back into his daydream but it was no use.  The sound of a bird wailing and the noise of the street below intruded.  Irritated, he turned onto his front and swam, feeling his muscles work in the water, but the pool was small and he soon tired of it. The “El Greco” was a travesty.  It professed to be something it was not.  The building was new, but lacked true grandeur or style.  He was used to better.
Back in his room, Steve turned up the air-conditioning, drying himself with one of the large, soft towels.  The bedroom was spacious and airy, with tall mirrors along one wall.  Tacky.  As he entered, he saw his reflection.  What was the use of being wealthy and good looking, with brown skin and a toned body if you were on your own for the evening? 
He remembered the letter and fetched it, ripping open the envelope disinterestedly and pulling out the note:  Telephone call – Mr. Reek – 14h. He smiled, imagining the receptionist trying to spell a name that made no sense to her.  There was a litterbin next to the window and he dropped the note into it. 
The room was too big.  It felt like an empty space.  Fatigued not only by the heat but also by the intricacies of his predicament, Steve lay down on the bed and pulled the sheets over him, happy for sleep to take him.

The sound of the telephone next to his bed woke him.
“Hello?  Steve? Is that you?”
“Uh? Yes… yes.  Hang on.”  He made himself comfortable, tugging at pillows and sitting with the phone still against his ear, listening to his friend’s breathing and the clatter of pans in the background.    The sun had sunk low in the sky and he turned the air-conditioning off, flicking the remote control on the bedside table.  Goose bumps spread over his body.  And, finally, his long eyelashes came down softly as he let his eyes close and answered lazily, “What’s up, my friend?” 
There was a pause. “What’s up?  What the hell is going on with you, you…?  I’ve rung you on your bloody mobile God knows how many times.  Sent texts too…” 
Steve sighed. “I texted you the hotel number, didn’t I?  No need to panic, man.  Just having a nap.” 
He tested Rick’s patience with an audible yawn.  On the bedside table, his mobile phone was no doubt full. 
“Hell, Steve.  Man, what a mess!  You’ve really left a pile of shit behind you this time!  What the hell are you up to?  Are you okay?  Shit, what a mess!  Man!”  His words went nowhere, his voice barely softening.
“I know it.  Couldn’t do anything else, Ricky.”
“But, why didn’t you say something?” He paused, waiting, but as there was no answer, he said what he had been instructed to say: “Your dad is bloody furious and your mum looks about a hundred – been using some pretty colourful language, in Greek, by all accounts.”
Steve pictured his mother, gesticulating and raising her eyes to heaven.
Rick hadn’t finished. “May’s distraught – you know?  And her parents, well, I should say you’d be safer staying out of the country for a good while longer.  God, mate…” His voice trailed off, before a new thought struck him.   “You know they’re thinking of getting some bloke to look for you?  Some kind of private eye?”  Rick’s voice faltered for a second.
“Yeah, should be easy to find, mate.  Still got my dickie bow on.  Tell them I’m on the top floor, penthouse suite at the El fucking Greco. Biggest shit-hole on the island.” 
The two of them started to giggle and then gave in to deep, soothing belly laughs until they could laugh no more. The last thing Steve heard was a woman’s voice rising above the cooking noises, telling Rick to grow up.

Talking to his friend hadn’t solved anything, but it had put an end to the inertia that had built up inside him.  Rick had agreed to fly out to Crete, and together they would come up with a plan.  In the meantime, Rick had taken it upon himself to patch things up as best he could back home, and buy Steve some time.  Time for what, he did not say.
Steve lay on the bed, contemplating the soft light; watching the edges of the furniture become less sharp.  His body was heavy and his mind slow, sifting unconnected thoughts, following them without interest, until they dissipated and dissolved.  In the end they all came back to Sarah, which left a tight ball in the pit of his stomach that was difficult to ignore.
He brooded for a while longer, not getting anywhere.  It didn’t matter.  Nothing would happen until Rick arrived.  In the interim, he had a few more days to get through, that was for sure.  He swung his legs over the edge of the bed and got to his feet, still not sure of what to do next, or even what time it was. 
In the bathroom, he cleaned his teeth, picturing May in her bridal gown; her hair adorned with flowers, waiting outside the church, if indeed she had got that far, which he doubted.  May would cope. She would hate him for a while and then replace him.   What was done was done. She would thank him later. 

Downstairs, in the lobby of the hotel, it was busy.  People were filing into the restaurant, dressed in formal eveningwear.  The pool area had been cleared and a local band was starting up.   
In the cool night air, the hotel gardens were lit up, making the plants look surreal.  He headed out of the main gates and towards the beachfront, ignoring the memories of his childhood, which swarmed out at him as he travelled the generic narrow streets, with their familiar cooking smells and sounds of people calling to each other. 
The restaurants on the front were full, and the music from various bars spread out into the evening air.  The beach was deserted, and he crossed the road, stepping onto the sand and heading for the shoreline.  The sound of the waves made him think of the pull of the moon and consider the mass of water stretched out before him, ruled by forces he did not understand: reasonable scientific explanation seemed either superfluous or contrived, making him frown at the way his mind worked. The world was too complicated.  Even the solid, manmade harbour wall was playing tricks on him, indistinct between the water and the sky, a pale amorphous arm, curving out to sea. 
But Sarah would have loved all of it.  And she would have made sense of everything. 

A quick glance in the mirror was all it took for Joyce Shackleton to realise that she had put on the wrong shade of lipstick.  She gave herself a look, harsh at first, sliding into vague amusement, as she brought out a moistened tissue and wiped away the offending colour.  The mauve of her blouse would be difficult to match, and it was no wonder that the lack of real daylight along with the glare of the office lights had transformed the delicate pink she had applied so carefully that morning into a shade that just missed.  Just missing was as good as missing by a mile in Joyce’s book.  From inside a tasteful Gucci pouch she selected a darker lipstick and two minutes later, bosom forward and back straight, she glided elegantly back to her desk and gathered together the morning’s correspondence for signature.  There were letters of introduction, enquiry and response.  In a separate, unrelated folder was a selection of high quality stationery in a range of pale greys and creams.
With one slick movement, Joyce knocked and entered the office outside which her own position stood like a sentinel’s post. 
“Good morning, Mr. Firth.”
The man she addressed looked up momentarily from his vantage point and sent out a perfunctory smile of recognition, before returning to the removal of a splinter from the index finger of his right hand. 
“Confounded window frame!  Can’t get hold of it, Joyce.”
Joyce deposited the papers she was carrying and went quickly to the other side of the desk, gently took the offered tweezers and, with the alacrity of a seasoned professional, nipped the morsel of dark wood between the pincers and whipped it out, pressing down on the puncture point to relieve the stinging.
“I’ll get some antiseptic and a small plaster.”
The man did not answer, but commenced an investigation of the morning post.
Joyce returned with a small box, retrieved a cotton bud and a bottle of TCP, sorted a suitable plaster and was soon finished.
“There.  At least that will keep it clean.  I’ll contact someone to look at the frame.”
“Yes, yes.  Of course.  Good idea.”
“I’ve brought in the samples of wedding invitations for you to see.  May wants either this one or the grey with silver lettering.”
James T. Firth examined the cards briefly.
“May wanted your opinion.  They are both very suitable, don’t you agree?”
“Very.  Yes.”  And with a sudden bout of impatience he pushed the cards away and said, “Whatever you think, Joyce.  Please tell her what will please her most, will you?”
“With pleasure.”
“You know what to do better than I.”  He gave his secretary a twisted, rather pathetic smile.
Joyce put down the letters to be signed and waited a moment longer, like a maître d'hôtel hovering at the table of an important guest.
“I’ll come back when you’re ready, then,” she said, softly.

The office was not particularly busy.  A large campaign was coming to an end and the next projects were not yet ready for launch.  People worked quietly at their desks, doing what they did.  Joyce liked the place better when there was something big coming up – there was a buzz, people were more alive, and she could attend and serve, in the background.  An essential cog in the ever-turning wheel of the advertising empire of Firth Enterprises.
The telephone rang.
“James Firth’s office.”
“Oh, good morning, Joyce.  It’s May.  How are you?”
“Hello, my dear.  I’m very well indeed, and how are you?”  Joyce felt a small flush of excitement and sat back in her chair.
“Busy.”  She sighed, then laughed.
“Bound to be, I should think!”  Joyce replied, pleasantly.
“Do you have a decision on the – ”
“The cream with gold.”
“Didn’t he like the grey?”
Joyce did not like to insist.  "They are both exquisite."
“Thank you, Joyce.  I suppose the cream is more traditional.”
“I suppose it is.  Yes.”
“Right.  I’ll get them in the post.”
“If I can be of any assistance – ”
“I think I’ve got it under control, thanks.  Better get on with it!  Will you tell James I called?”
“Yes, dear.  Good luck.”

Joyce put down the phone and frowned at the invitations in front of her. The prospect of May's marriage to Stephen Firth did not please her, but there was still time, and Joyce Shackleton was not in the business of falling at the last fence.  Goodness knows she had overcome greater hurdles than this in the past.  She pictured May, full of hope and happiness, and redoubled her resolve to prevent disaster. 
Joyce put away the sample invitations and busied herself with the morning’s various duties, following a smooth line, sailing effortlessly towards lunch.  At one o’clock, glancing at the sky, Joyce put on her jacket, picked up her umbrella and went out.  There was the smell of rain and a freshness that was invigorating.  The colder months were in some ways as delightful as the prospect of the warmth to come.  The English climate was nothing if not comprehensive! 
At a corner table for two, set for one, Joyce Shackleton waited less than a minute before the owner of the restaurant arrived to greet her and take her jacket.
“Ah, Joyce.  I see you have come prepared!”
“It’s better to be safe than sorry, Joseph.  How are you?”
“Very well, thank you.  My trip to Paris was …superb.”  He pulled out a chair for his customer.
“I do love Paris!  Such a long time since I’ve strolled along the Champs Élysée.”
“We must go together one day.  What do you say?”  He handed her a menu.
“I should say yes, of course.”
Joyce selected her food and watched people passing by outside.  Joseph came over to ensure that she was being looked after and, later, to say goodbye.
“I shall be in Manchester next week, Joyce.  I hope you will miss me.”
“I’m sure I shall be pining until your return!”

Retracing her steps with a smile on her face and a lightness in her step, Joyce savoured the memory of good food and of Joseph’s gallant attentions.  She sat down at her desk, ready for a strategically planned afternoon, when the telephone rang with news that would change the direction of her life for the next few weeks.
It was a voice she recognised immediately, but one that had never before come to her via her office telephone.  “Mother?”
“Yes.  Of course it is.  I’ve been trying to get hold of you for an hour.”
“Whatever is the matter?”  Joyce looked around the room, hoping that her mother had not spoken to too many people before being put through.
“I need you to come, the day after tomorrow.  There’s been a cancellation at the hospital and they want me to come in.  Most inconvenient, but they insist I should be there at eight o’clock in the morning, of all things!”
It would be pointless to protest.  Neither of Joyce’s sisters would be able to help. 
“Well?  Are you still there?  Joyce?”

James T. Firth said that of course she should go.  Just to make sure there was a replacement for the time she would be away.  So, having telephoned the agency least likely to let her down, Joyce went home to make arrangements for her trip.  Frank would not be happy, that was for sure.  Neither would her other clients.  But she would charm them, as always, and after all, she would not be away for long.