Josie Metcalfe, Romantic Novels

In the Meantime ...

When I finally plucked up the courage to study for a BA Hons in English Literature, I chose a route that included two modules of Creative Writing that had me trying all sorts of things that I'd never done before – with varying degrees of success! Until then I barely knew what a Haiku was, let alone attempted to write one and as for changing a short (scurrilous) scene into a radio play, nothing could be further from my usual writing.

However, it was such huge fun to have a go and I quite surprised myself at some of the results so, for those who are interested, I’ll be posting my attempts at some of the assignments here and when I run out of those, some of the short stories and writing exercises that I doodle when the inspiration strikes.

Assignment 1: 2,200 word short story in first person from a single view point.

(This piece was started after a harrowing conversation with a friend who had just filed for divorce. Returning to it several days later, I realised that I wanted to expand it to explore a fictional woman's journey through such a situation, her coping strategies and her survival. While the events mentioned would have taken several years, the actual time-span of the piece is a single day, symbolising the build-up to her decision and the culmination - practically and mentally - in that one, final confrontation.)

Leaving him
The taxi driver closed my door with a satisfying thud, returned to his seat and started the engine, but it was only when he accelerated away from the self-storage unit where he’d just kindly helped me stack the last of my most precious belongings that I realised it was actually going to happen.
I was leaving Paul.
I was really going to leave him, today, after all these years… wasted years.
Enough! I’d promised myself that I wasn’t going to look back any more, so, now was the time to start. There was just one more stop before I could start my new life.
‘Where to, now?’ the young man asked, as if he’d heard my thoughts.
‘I need to go back home…’ I paused a moment, realising that it wouldn’t be my home any more, ‘…back to the house,’ I corrected myself and took a quick glance at the time. My heart thudded uneasily with the knowledge that Paul would be arriving in ten minutes at the end of his working day and expecting his perfectly prepared meal to be ready to serve.. You could practically set Big Ben by the man and his routines, and checking that I was where I should be when I should be seemed to be paramount.
‘Did you forget something?’ the taxi driver asked, clearly puzzled. ‘I thought that load was the last of it.’
‘There’s just a small bag in the hallway with some paperwork, but I need to be there when he arrives.’ I swallowed and forced myself to draw in a deep steadying breath while I met his eyes in the mirror and realised he probably wasn’t as young as I’d first thought. All day, while he’d been ferrying me and my belongings backwards and forwards I hadn’t noticed that he might even be the same age as me… except I felt so very much older after enduring the last few years.
‘Please, I know I’ve taken up a lot of your time today, but… would you wait for me? So that I can climb straight in the taxi, afterwards, and you can drive me away? I’ll only need a couple of minutes to tell him I’m leaving him.’
I’m sure I should have felt embarrassed that this man knew so much about my secret misery, but it had only been once I’d received that life-changing letter and the decision had been made that I’d realised how much everything had been boiling away inside me. It had been such a relief to let the whole story come pouring out at last, even though I’d been inflicting it on a complete stranger.
Paul might have been that bit older than me - a bit more than a decade, in fact - but he’d been so attractive and so attentive and had such charming manners that he’d completely swept me off my feet. I’d thought I was stepping into a fairytale future with him; one that included the shared goals of a cosy home filled with a growing family and echoing with laughter and love. What I’d got was a sterile, servile existence totally focused on his comfort, his wishes, his rules.
Oh, and he’d had so many rules about everything, from the way the towels were to be hung on the rail in the bathroom to the way the table was to be set and the time the perfectly prepared meals were to be presented on it.
I’d been almost too embarrassed to admit that it had taken a couple of years before I realised that he’d driven a wedge between me and all my former friends. His campaign had been subtle, I’d given him that. It had started with the odd criticism of one old school-friend’s bohemian style of dress or another’s stridently avowed politics until soon, whatever entertaining we did was only for his colleagues, and then only with a view to impressing his seniors that he was a man on his way up in the world.
Looking back, I’d realised that wanting to impress at those events had probably been the only reason why he’d agreed to pay for the Cordon Bleu cookery course I’d attended, but even that had come to an abrupt end when I’d made the mistake of letting him know that the classes were attended by men as well as women.
After that, even when I’d complained that I was bored, he’d absolutely refused to allow me to look for a job, pointing out with terrifyingly cold intensity that I was his wife and it was therefore his responsibility to support me, while it was my responsibility to provide him with food and comfort and my body, when required.
I’d suggested that a way to fill my empty days would be to start our family sooner rather than later and was utterly dumfounded by his trenchant refusal.
‘There will be no children,’ he’d declared grimly.
I couldn’t believe what he was saying, certain that I was somehow misunderstanding him.
‘Not now, maybe,’ I’d agreed reluctantly, suppressing a sigh for all those empty hours and days ahead. ‘But in a year or two we could-’
‘No!’ he’d interrupted swiftly. ‘There will be no children. There can be no children. Ever.’
I remember staring at him, certain I had a stupid expression on my face as I tried to work out what he meant. Was he infertile? If so, it was something he’d certainly never mentioned before the wedding. I’d always assumed that there would be babies in my future and if he’d known that there could be a problem…
‘But-’
‘Don’t argue with me!’ he’d roared, suddenly. ‘It’s none of your business, but I had a vasectomy the week after you accepted my proposal, to make absolutely certain there would be no children. I have no intention of you being distracted from your duties by squalling brats.’
It was none of my business that he’d taken himself off for a vasectomy? It was none of my business that he’d deliberately robbed me of the chance to feel a baby growing inside me and to hold a precious new life in my arms?
That was the day something inside me died and my life stretched out like an endless desert in front of me with absolutely nothing to look forward to but an interminable cycle of cleaning his picture-perfect house, cooking his picture-perfect meals and entertaining his boring colleagues.
I actually contemplated going on strike as my disappointment and anger grew, but my first tentative attempt provoked such a terrifying rage that for a few minutes I actually believed he was going to kill me.
‘The only striking that will take place in this house is if you don’t perform your duties to the standard I require,’ he’d said afterwards, sounding utterly calm, but there was something in his eyes that told me it was both a threat and a promise.
Unfortunately, striking me for the first time seemed to have unlocked the door on his cruelty and I found myself spending every waking hour trying to make certain I would give him no excuse to turn his verbal abuse into physical violence.
From then on I also began trying to find a way out of my intolerable situation without letting him know what I was doing. It was only when I overheard a fellow shopper talking about using computers and the internet to work from home that the germ of an idea took root.
It had taken more than two years for that root to grow and bear fruit - two years of racing through the housework to have the rest of the day to work on my escape plan - and today was the day my gaoler would cease to have any power over me.
Now all I had to do was face the man and tell him.

‘What do you mean, you’re leaving me?’ Paul roared, the veins bulging at his temples. ‘You can’t leave me. You’ve got nowhere to go… no friends to help you and no money to pay for anything.’
‘Actually, that’s where you’re wrong,’ I said, hoping I sounded calmer than I felt with my heart beating so fast it felt as if it might explode. ‘You might have forced me to break off contact with my friends, but they were very forgiving when I got in touch with them again. As for not having any money… you couldn’t be more wrong.’ I held up the thicker of the two envelopes that I took out of the bag I’d placed ready on the hall table. ‘This is a contract for my first manuscript and the next two books after it. The advance money is already in my account - my new account, of course - and it really is an amazingly large amount of money.’
‘Manuscript?’ he scoffed dismissively. ‘What manuscript? You can’t write, and you certainly haven’t written any books. You haven’t even got a typewriter, for heaven’s sake, let alone a computer.’
How strange that his scorn now went sailing harmlessly over my head; how empowering. ‘After I leave, perhaps you should go up to the back bedroom - the little nursery that you graciously permitted me to have converted into a dressing room, since we weren’t going to be having any babies. You’ll find that the dressing table makes an ideal desk, and there’s a false floor in the bottom of the underwear drawer with a space just deep enough for my laptop.’
I tightened my grip on the bag at my side before drawing out the smaller envelope, knowing my final announcement was going to send him ballistic. I’d known for a long time that Paul saw me as nothing more than a possession - one that his colleagues envied for its beauty and the way I seemed to want nothing more than to make his life perfect.
‘By the way, this envelope’s for you,’ I said, dropping it on the side table with the perfectly polished and totally dust-free, pie-crust frill around its edge. ‘That is your copy of the divorce papers and an injunction preventing you from contacting me or coming anywhere near me. Everything is spelled out, but be warned that if you break the injunction you will be arrested and you will go to prison. I will never allow you to have the chance to abuse me again - and before you try to deny it,’ I continued, leaving him with his mouth hanging open, ‘my GP has a record of each incidence in my medical notes and so has the hospital. Both of them were only too helpful in copying that information for my solicitor.
‘Anyway, that’s all in the past, now,’ I said firmly, relishing his shock that I’d actually told people about his abuse. Had he believed that he had me so cowed that I’d keep his cruelty a secret? ‘Who knows, once the divorce is through I might even meet someone I’d like to marry - someone who’s man enough to want to give me children.’
I turned away to open the door then turned back just long enough to take my set of keys out of my pocket and drop them on top of the divorce papers. I’d never need them again.
The taxi driver was standing just outside the door, so he’d probably heard every word, but somehow it didn’t matter. The warm concern in his eyes outweighed any embarrassment.
‘Ready to go?’ he asked. He walked beside me all the way to the taxi without once touching me, but somehow just the fact he was there made me feel protected.
‘I’ve been ready for a long time,’ I said with far too much feeling, and when I heard him stifle a chuckle I suddenly found myself fighting laughter, too.
‘Where did you want to go, now?’ he asked when he was once more behind the wheel, and I was surprised to recognise that his eyes were still filled with concern when they met mine in the mirror. ‘You have got somewhere to stay tonight, haven’t you?’
‘Oh, yes,’ I reassured him, knowing I sounded a little smug but hoping I could be forgiven. ‘I’ll be staying in a hotel tonight - under my pseudonym, so he can’t find me even if he tries - and tomorrow I’ve got an appointment with an estate agent for a second viewing on a little flat.’
‘So, where do you want me to take you? Straight to your hotel?’
I thought for a moment, the realisation sweeping over me that everything had changed. For the first time in far too long I had choices; I could do what I wanted, where I wanted, when I wanted and that feeling was more powerful than I could have imagined.
In the mirror beside his reflection I saw the smile appear on my own face. ‘You know, I have absolutely no idea where I want to go, except I’m suddenly hungry. Have you got any suggestions for a really good restaurant because I think I’m in the mood to celebrate. After all, today is the start of the rest of my life.’
                                                             (2,200 words)                                                                                       

Assignment 3: A poem about an overheard confession. 40 lines.

(I found this the most difficult part of the course as it was my first foray into poetry since I last wrote a poem… badly (McGonagall lives!). The prompt ‘an overheard confession’ had me thinking about an elderly neighbour who talks at me, rather than to me, frequently losing the thread of conversations about things that happened long ago, some of them secrets she’d held for many years. Then I spoke with a rather shaken nurse whose patient had just told her something totally shocking.)

Never let a baby cry

‘Hello, Jean. A cup of tea?’ One sugar, stirred. Two biscuits.
The low hubbub of visiting time broken by the cry
Of someone’s grandson brought to visit granny in the home.
‘Hush, now, my sweetheart,’ croons his mother, but to no avail.
Another breath and then the wail
Is loud enough to make Jean pale.
The cup and saucer rattle in her liver-spotted hands.
‘I never let a baby cry,’ she said.

‘My Maurice couldn’t stand the noise, when he came home from war.’
The pale grey eyes unfocused while she looked into the past.
‘He’d seen too much and heard too much. He couldn’t help himself.’
War can do something ugly to the souls of gentle men.
She blinked away a tear and then
Her gaze went back to baby Ben.
She pressed her lips together and with anguish in her eyes
Said, ‘I could never let my baby cry.’

‘Girl or boy?’ Tea gone cold, a lap now full of biscuit crumbs.
A loving smile curved wrinkled lips but grey eyes filled with pain.
‘A little girl. So beautiful.’ But Maurice wasn’t pleased.
He didn't want a daughter, nor a wife; he made that clear.
'I trained to be a midwife, dear,’
Taught other mothers not to fear,
Made certain that they all would know to put their babies first.
‘But I could never let their babies cry.’

‘They’ve never been to visit you?’ There’s no-one left to come.
‘He wasn’t working, couldn’t sleep and when she cried he cracked.’
He snatched her up and shook her hard and shouted in her face.
I grabbed her from him, terror gripped, to silence every cry.
I held her close, a final sigh,
I felt my precious baby die.
‘We said she’d gone to stay with cousins living far away.
He’d never have to hear my baby cry.’

I dug the hole to plant the cherry tree that marks the spot.
And every spring it blossomed pink as precious baby cheeks.
But even though the fruit grew plump and plentiful each year
I never once could bring myself to pick a single one.
I’ll blame myself till Kingdom come
She never played out in the sun,
And yearn to find some way to change the dreadful thing I did.
‘I’ll always hear the echoes of her cry.’

Assignment 2: Fiction. Short story. 2,000 words.

(Because I like balance, I thought I ought to write a ‘divorce’ story from the other direction - in basic terms, guilty female, innocent male - but far from being harrowing, I quite enjoyed this one!)

Cappuccino. Large.
He pulled the car to the kerb and craned to look up at the glass-fronted monolith that was Kavanaugh’s. His wife had been working there for the last year and a half and had quickly risen to become PA to the Big Boss, no less. And hadn’t she enjoyed telling him that, contrasting the older man’s overt wealth with his own fledgling company.
Why hadn’t he seen the signs earlier? Perhaps because she’d always said she had faith in him; that she never doubted that he would eventually succeed. Hah! The last few hours had shown him beyond doubt that she wasn’t waiting for that to happen.
‘And I refuse to be a cuckold,’ he muttered, his face burning anew with the embarrassment of that phone call last night. Until then, he’d actually believed that his wife had gone away for a spa break with a group of friends, but to have the rather drunken voice of one of those friends ringing to speak to her, then giggling crazily when she realised her mistake, had been the final straw.
He flicked on his warning lights and got out, opening the rear door to look at the small mountain of bulging black plastic bags he’d come to deliver. It had taken him several hours during a sleepless night to cram her belongings into them and stuff them in the car, and would probably take nearly as long to unload them unless-
‘Excuse me,’ he called across at the androgynous person sitting on the pavement. Even with dread-locked hair, multiple piercings to ears, nose and lip and scruffy layers of clothes, there was no disguising the fact that they looked relatively strong and healthy. ‘Could you help me to shift this lot? I’ll be happy to pay you for your time.’
‘What’s it worth?’ came the challenge, and for the first time he realised that he was speaking to a young woman. ‘How far do they need shifting?’
‘Just into that building, there,’ he jerked his chin towards the architectural monstrosity beside him.
Her eyes were an unusual mixture of green and blue and their expression was far sharper than he was expecting… until she blinked and they went strangely blank.
‘You’re on,’ she agreed and unfolded surprisingly long legs to join him at the open car door.
‘Making a delivery?’ she asked as she wrapped the top of a black bag around each hand then waited for him to do the same before walking beside him to the double-height glass doors of the entrance.
‘You could say that,’ he said noncommittally, grateful that the doors opened automatically at their approach so he didn’t have to work out how to play the gentleman and open them for her.
‘Can I help you, sir?’ called the pretty receptionist from behind her ultra-modern desk when he deposited his load against the wall beside the bank of lifts.
‘No, thank you. We can manage,’ he said as he and his companion set off for a second load.
‘Sir!’ The receptionist had come out from behind the bulwark of her desk and was hovering just inside the doors when they returned. ‘You shouldn’t be making deliveries without some sort of paperwork. Which company do you work for? What are you delivering?’
‘It’s a delivery for Mr Kavanaugh and his PA,’ he said cryptically, guessing that she would contact her boss as soon he was out of earshot. ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got the paperwork to go with it. I’ll let them have it when I’ve finished unloading.’
He was almost certain he heard a stifled snort of laughter from his temporary companion, and the thought gave his spirits an unexpected lift, but by the time they reached the car for their third load her face was completely passive again.
When they entered the reception area with their final load, it was obvious that his evasiveness had worked because the lift was just disgorging two people from the top floor.
‘Kyle!’ gasped his wife, fruitlessly scrabbling to control the long expensively-streaked locks she usually wore in a sophisticated twist when she left for work. ‘What’s going on? What are you doing here? What’s all this stuff?’ The miss-buttoned blouse wasn’t something he’d seen before, either.
‘Back from your holiday so soon, Cherry?’ he said evenly, surprised that the blatant confirmation of her adultery didn’t hurt more when he’d once believed the two of them would be together for the rest of their lives. Strangely enough, in the space of time it had taken to unload the car of her possessions he’d come to realise that he didn’t even like the woman very much any more.
‘And you are…?’ her rather portly companion prompted, self-importantly.
‘Her husband,’ he supplied, then corrected himself as he drew an envelope out of an inside pocket and held it out for her to take in her perfectly-manicured hand. ‘At least, I will be until those divorce papers become absolute in six weeks and one day.’ He began to turn away, glad this was over.
‘But… What about my things? My clothes? My jewellery? My car?’ He turned back and recognised the fury building behind those calculating eyes.
‘Those are your belongings,’ he said with a gesture towards the untidy pile, ‘and you’re wearing the only jewellery you’re ever getting from me. My grandmother’s pearls and the diamonds my father bought for my mother are back in the bank vault where they’ll be staying. As for the car - the dealership collected it at nine o’clock this morning at the same time the locks were being changed at the house.’
He turned towards the man who’d been watching the exchange in horrified fascination, as had the receptionist and a growing number of visitors arriving by both the front door and the rest of the bank of lifts. ‘You wanted her, Kavanaugh; you’ve got her, and for your sake I hope your pockets are deep.’
Once outside, he drew in a deep breath and held it for a couple of seconds before blowing it out in a steady stream, feeling as if a huge load had just been removed from his shoulders. ‘Right,’ he said briskly, suddenly eager to get on with the rest of his life. ‘Did we come to an agreement about how much I was going to pay you for your help?’ He reached for his wallet, oddly reluctant to bid farewell to his helper.
‘Will you buy me breakfast?’ she countered, with a grimace towards the building beside them, ‘I bet you could do with a cup of coffee after that.’
His life was falling apart but he couldn’t resist the thought of spending a little more time with her. ‘Can you suggest somewhere that does a proper fry-up?’
She had an attractive chuckle, slightly husky, and her amusement made her eyes gleam briefly. ‘I know just the place. You can see it from here, not far from the traffic lights, and if you hurry, it looks as if there’s a parking space right in front of it.’
‘Hop in and I’ll give you a lift,’ he offered with a glance towards the sky. ‘It’s just about to pour.’
‘A bit of rain won’t spoil what I’m wearing, but what I’m wearing could spoil your car,’ she said wryly.
He stopped beside the driver’s door and looked at her across the roof of the car. ‘You trust me not to drive away without paying up?’
‘Oh, I think you’ve got an honest face,’ she said. ‘Besides, I could always go back in there and ask your wife for your address.’
He’d barely had time to park the car and find a table before she arrived, but when he stood to welcome her to the table she waved him off.
‘Order me a full English and the largest cappuccino they do,’ she said briskly. ‘I’m just going for a quick wash up in the Ladies.’
The waitress had just delivered two laden plates and two coffees the size of small buckets when a slim woman with short dark hair put her hand on the back of the chair opposite him.
‘Is this seat taken?’ she asked and he stared up into the face of a complete stranger.
‘Actually, it is,’ he said apologetically. ‘My companion should be here any minute.’
‘Is she carrying a bag like this?’ the young woman said. ‘And does she have eyes that can’t make up their mind whether they’re blue or green?’
‘I don’t know about the eyes,’ he lied, unwilling to admit that he’d taken that much notice of her, and almost rendered speechless by the change in her appearance, ‘but that bag definitely looks like hers.’
She chuckled as she set the disreputable bag under the table and he instantly recognised the husky note.
‘Perhaps we should introduce ourselves,’ she suggested as she cradled her outsized coffee between her palms. ‘You’re Kyle Forrester, soon-to-be-ex-husband of Cherry Forrester and I’m Lauren Neel… Detective Inspector Neel.’
‘Detect-’. He had to swallow hastily before he choked on his first mouthful.
‘Sorry to spring it on you like that, but this time I’m the one asking for your assistance.’
‘My assistance with what?’ he gave up on the food and mirrored the way she was cradling her coffee, suddenly needing the warmth. ‘Am I under investigation for something? Is that why you were in disguise?’
‘Not you,’ she clarified swiftly. ‘It’s Kavanaugh we’re looking at, but I can’t tell you why without permission from my superiors.’
‘So, if you can’t tell me why, how can I help you?’ he challenged, still distracted by the change in her appearance. Obviously, the dread-locks had been a wig, but he hadn’t realised that piercings could be faked until he looked closely at her face and saw no sign of any holes.
‘I’m hoping you’re going to tell me that your wife used a computer at home and you haven’t just handed it over to her in one of those bags.’ She smacked her forehead with one hand. ‘My Super will kill me if I carried it into Kavanaugh’s.’
He was tempted to tease her to hear that chuckle again, but her expression was all business. ‘She used the spare computer in my office at home, but… what are you expecting to find?’ He put his hand up and shook his head. ‘Ok, I know you can’t tell me, but… as soon as you can?’
‘Of course,’ she said firmly. ‘Now let’s finish this meal and get to that computer.’

‘Do you need to get that?’ she asked, pointing to the blinking message light on the phone when he led the way into his office, but he could tell what she wanted his answer to be.
‘The only thing I need to do is see what’s on this computer before the curiosity kills me,’ he said, booting the elderly system up as he spoke.
‘Have you any idea of her password? Will she have written it down somewhere or will we have to get the IT techs to run it through our system to crack it?’ she asked and he laughed.
‘Cherry’s idea of security is to use a password she can remember. Try marmalade.’
She chuckled and he realised that the husky sound was rapidly becoming addictive. ‘Why marmalade?’
‘Because she can’t spell mayonnaise,’ he said on an answering laugh that was quickly cut short by the incriminating file she had just opened on the screen.

His involvement in the investigation had ended, then. He’d only learned of the arrest of his wife and Kavanaugh and their eventual conviction for fraud from the press, so the last thing he was expecting late one evening was to find a certain husky-voiced Detective Inspector on his doorstep.
‘Is this a bad time?’ she asked. ‘I came to return your wife’s computer.’
‘Ex-wife,’ he corrected, stepping aside to invite her in with a sudden lift to his spirits. ‘Can I get you a coffee? Cappuccino? Large?’               (2,000 words)