Award-winning novelist and short story writer, Michèle Roberts (right: c Viv Pegram) spoke at HLF2017 about her latest novel, The Walworth Beauty, and led a workshop on Short Story Writing.
Here are some of the stories written by delegates, following the workshop.
By Stacey Brook
Forty-eight hours in the campervan, a quick fifteen-minute ferry hop, and I am back - Hetty Hardy on another of her mad trips.
The café, where we met exactly a year ago, is unchanged. Bright paint makes merry on the outside, whilst the inside is full of things to make people like us feel at home. Paintings, and wonderful creations in felt, adorn the walls; whilst a tumble of nooks and crannies house locally thrown pottery, and glassware blown here on the island.
The smell ushered me in again, as welcoming as the tinkle of the bell over the door; and the soup is just as good as I remember, home-made and warming; served with bread fresh from the oven – no microwaved offerings here. Cake and tea kill time and I lose myself, imagining how it will feel to see you walk through the door.
A glance at the clock, its’ hands have been busy since I arrived. The swirls of hot chocolate, in the bottom of my mug, are starting to separate, and the friendly waitress is looking to close. I had better go.
Outside the café, I have a clear view of the sea. Fingers of grey are stroking the blue horizon with ill intent. Above my head, and all the way along the row of shops, coloured awnings are taking turns to swell, like full bellies, teased by the strengthening breeze.
As I leave the tiny town, sheltered by a high hedge, I become witness to the tearing antics of the wind. Long, thin strands of creeper come to rest on top of the brambles, before being snatched away and flung skyward.. A gap, at knee height, shows how effective my shield has been, for without it my legs are almost blown from under me.
Now higher, and without shelter, I stride out to reach the topmost point. From the cliffs, I look out into miles and miles of nothingness. Up in the sky, there is room aplenty, but the approaching clouds are colliding, harried along by the wind in the direction it wants them to take. It won’t leave the sea alone either, as waves crash against rocks, sending up plumes of spray that vanish in the air. Down on the beach, an angry fizz of foam recedes less with each forward surge.
For a moment, my heart thuds and I catch my breath – there is a person down on the beach. But, it isn’t you. I’ve noticed him now because he’s eased himself into a quiet motion, and is making his way across the dark sand, his stick leaving an extra print as his feet shuffle their way to the steps that will lead him up towards me.
I lose him, as the steps, cut deep into the cliff side, disappear behind the wild seaside grasses. I can hear him coming closer, the muffled tap … tap … tap … of his stick, on sand covered stone.
Our eyes meet as he gets to the top, but he doesn’t stop, or change his pace. “Just staying ahead of the storm,” he says before he reaches me. Out over the sea, rods of rain are already falling.
“We get all sorts here, on this beach. All sorts,” he says.
“All sorts of what?” I cannot help but ask.
“Oh, you know, things, odd things,” he pauses to look into my face, “odd things, broken things. Sometimes things that stay long enough to get fixed.”
I look back out to sea and listen to the tap, tap, tap of his stick until I can’t hear it anymore. The first pelts of rain are a relief, I’m glad of the storm. When I’m happy the rain gladdens me and when I’m sinking, tears matter less when my face is wet without them.
My hair has become jet black, sodden, and whipped by the wind into spiteful snakes that snap across my face and into my eyes. Why can’t you just be here? If only I could turn to look back down the path and see you there, your hat dripping, and your arm raised to shield the side of your face. But you’re not here, I’m on my own. Mad Hetty Hardy on another of her mad trips.
I feel as though a sea fret has woven its way inside my skull and all my thoughts are swirling within it, lost in the dark. For a moment, one will escape, like a piece of furniture, or a car, flung from a tornado, but before I can grasp it, it gets sucked back in and whirled up out of sight.
Oh, Hetty Hardy, do not look down, do not catch sight of your feet on the ground, for it will be the end of you.
But I feel that my options are done. Even as I stand, crushed beneath the crippling, paralysing, immediacy of now, now is all I have. I have no warm memories to fold into; and the future stretches before me more empty and bleak than the air beyond the edge of these cliffs.
If you could just turn up, like we said. Only we never did, did we, and so there it is, the flaw, the reason why I can’t be angry. We never said that we would meet, the question was never asked. I’m sure it showed itself, that it shone out from behind my eyes like a beacon, but the words never came. If I’d spoken, then you would have answered and you could have said no, and then I would have robbed myself of a year of hope.
After we exchanged numbers, I made myself stay here, on this island, to wave you off on the ferry that I should have taken. As soon as you were out of sight I dropped my phone, so that if you never called I wouldn’t know. I kept your number for a while. I took it everywhere I went, and just knowing that you had touched the paper made me smile inside. But, eventually I let it blow from my fingers, away over the water coursing under Battersea Bridge. The number may have been wrong, or worse, if I called, I could have had to suffer your voice politely putting me off.
Fate brought us together, and if we are meant to meet again, then fate will find a way. I will let the wind decide. One capricious gust is all it will take, and I cannot judge which way it will go.
A couple of steps closer to the cliff edge, and my mind is still spinning. What if I have the wrong day, or if you’re delayed and racing to get here, right now? If the wind decides to push me back, I’ll be here waiting; but if it decides to take me and leaves me, an odd thing on the beach, too broken to be fixed, then, I’ll be no more than a girl you met, a story in a local newspaper with comments from an old man who stayed ahead of the storm.
© Stacey Brook
Stacey Brook lives in Holmfirth, works in Leeds and writes anywhere that time allows.
Re-Birth in Venice
by Jo Cameron-Symes
I open the window of my waterside apartment and the sun streams in, blinding me monetarily. Shards of glittering sunlight dance on the water as the deep blue depths transform into a dark shade of teal. I hear a knock at my door and open it to find my morning espresso and deeply inhale the scent of fresh coffee. I am finally here I think. I sit outside on the balcony enjoying this rare moment of stillness. A vaporetto lazily passes by my window as Venice starts to stir and wake. Dawn is my favourite time of day, as this is when things start to become animated and I look forward to the day ahead. I reflect for a moment on what has brought me here. All of my values have been overturned and I feel completely wrung out. How could my husband lie to me like this? All that I asked for was that he respected me and treated me with truth and honesty. I believed that we shared the same outlook and values in life, but now I know that I was wrong. His betrayal of all that I hold dear has led me to this place. Venice, this sanctuary, my refuge from everyday life. I wish to reinvent myself, become another person. Perhaps I will visit that café again today? The one that is staffed by that interesting man? I feel that my time of escape is only just beginning and I decide to have a little fun. Why not choose an alias, I think? Another name for myself in which I can escape further from my life? I decide that from this day forward I will be known as ‘Lola.’
The days blur into an endless montage of new experiences! I am so lucky to have my own personal tour guide of this wonderful place. Giuseppe is kind, considerate, and very knowledgeable about the area. I have eaten some amazing dishes in dining establishments seemingly unknown to tourists. We visited the usual tourist hotspots and took a (FREE ride on a gondola – as it was owned by Giuseppe’s best friend Carlo!). I feel privileged to have experienced a part of Venice that is hidden from tourists. I shake myself out of my reminiscing as I prepare myself for dinner with Giuseppe. I hurry out and rush back as I nearly forget my bag.
Giuseppe is standing in the hotel lobby looking like something out of a catalogue to be honest! I can hardly believe that this gorgeous man has been my escort for my time here. He smiles as he sees me and expresses his excitement at taking me to this restaurant that he says will completely surprise me with their fine cuisine. The restaurant is to my surprise owned by Giuseppe’s cousins. It is called ‘Di Marco’s’ and is hidden down a tiny side street. It is a raucous rustic affair full of laughter and merriment. Giuseppe introduces me as ‘Lola from England’ to his friendly and extremely well dressed family. I feel guilty when he does so, knowing of course that Lola is not my real name. We spend a pleasant evening that is rudely interrupted by the appearance of a Carabinieri policeman. “I need to see all the documents and license to serve alcohol please Signor” he barks in Italian. Giuseppe whispers that this is a common ruse. You just need to pay the bribe and then they will disappear. This police officer seems particularly obstinate though and insists, despite the offer of a bribe to see everyone’s documents. I start to tremble as I now know what will happen. I hand him my passport and he stares as it for a long time. Taking note of my nationality, he says in English: “Hmmm unusual name that for an Englishwoman? Melisandre?” “Rather exotic,” he snorts leeringly. “I think I like it.” The whole room has frozen in silence and I look helplessly towards Giuseppe who stares at me with astonishment in his eyes that quickly turns to anger. “Look, I can explain” I say. Then he hurries past me and runs out of the door. I take my passport back from the leery policeman and gather my belongings and leave. I search for Giuseppe but he is nowhere to be seen. I sit down on a bench and cry into my shawl, feeling awful at what I have done. I realise that in order to escape my trauma I have inflicted it onto someone else. An innocent. I am now almost as guilty as my husband, as I too have betrayed my values and lied to Giuseppe. I walk in a funk back to my hotel, dreading my final days here.
As I sit in St Mark’s Square the next day, a petite, well presented Italian lady of about fifty five approaches me and sits down. It turns out that this lady is Rosa, Giuseppe’s Aunt who was at the restaurant last night. I turn to her to make my apologies but she tells me not to worry, as soon as she saw me she could tell that I had come to Venice to escape. She guessed that I was fleeing my circumstances. When I asked her how she knew, she said that she had seen it many times before. “Do not mind Giuseppe,” she said. “I love him like a son but he is not happy.” I find that I am astonished by this remark as it is so far removed from the Giuseppe that I thought I knew as I remembered my carefree time spent with him. “But he seems so happy?” I said. “Maybe that was because you offered him a chance to see his home in another light.” “And now I’ve ruined it.” I say. She takes my hands and looks into my eyes. “Giuseppe is tempestuous that is true but he may come around yet. I’m sure that he will forgive you.” She then told me an astonishing story. She stated that Giuseppe is under a lot of pressure to carry on his father’s business but that he has no real passion for it. He has said to her many times that he can’t stand living here. He feels that a thousand familiar eyes watch his every move, waiting for him to make a mistake. She informed me that for tourists, Venice can seem like a paradise but that for residents who live her permanently, Venice can be quite oppressive. In Venice, worth and value can be dependent on how rich or prestigious people are, it wasn’t always like this, she notes, but it is now. Giuseppe is a carefree person who is finding out his true vocation and envies the tourists who can just pack up and leave whenever they want. I pause for a moment as I reflect on her words and thank her and then walk back to my hotel.
The nights are starting to draw in as Autumn approaches. I wrap my shawl around me and lean over the hotel balcony examining the watery depths below. I start to evaluate my time here and all that has happened now and before. I feel stronger now, more able to deal with the ashes of my former marriage. I ponder my time with Giuseppe. At the start, I felt that I enjoyed my time as my alter ego ‘Lola,’ it was freeing for me, but then it inadvertently caused so much pain. It’s a shame that it went so sour I guiltily think about our final dinner the other day. You cannot form a relationship with lies, I should know that by now. I see it as a fling, a brief holiday romance that I needed to restore and recover my hurt and deep down I’m sure that’s what he envisioned also, despite his protests. My time here in Venice has been a balm, a salve to soothe a desperate situation.
Betrayal physically hurts.That’s what they don’t tell you but it’s true. It cuts like a knife so deeply and the wound pours out. I came here to escape, to flee but in doing so I discovered my true self. I’m determined to fight now and I now have the energy to do so. I wonder if Giuseppe could have been a slightly longer term prospect for me then shake my head at the stupidity of my idea. I venture into my bedroom and hear a soft knock at my door. I frown thinking that I don’t remember ordering anything from room service but skulk to the door anyway, despondent that my time here is over. I open the door faced with a huge bouquet of flowers from which Giuseppe peers guiltily over the top. “I want to say that I’m sorry.” He says. I stare dumbfounded and see that on the floor beside him a large holdall sits. “I would like to see England” he says. Will you be my tour guide?”
© Jo Cameron-Symes
Jo Cameron-Symes lives in Huddersfield and is a culture blogger at www.culturallifeconnection.org. She has always loved reading and writing and has recently started to get back into writing creatively after a break. She enjoys attending literature festival events and is currently working on her first novel.
Thoughts on Michele Roberts Short Story Workshop
I was quite nervous before this workshop as Michele Roberts is such a revered author and I discovered that she is a Professor of Creative Writing at what is considered the best Creative Writing course in the country at UEA! No pressure then I thought! I needn’t have worried as Michele was lovely and had a very interesting and creative way of getting us to form a short story that I had never come across before. During the workshop, techniques were used to mine our unconscious thoughts. Our short stories were formed from a variety of lists and ideas. The only outside impetus was that we needed to think of a location, and this we received from an adjacent participant. My original location of Titchwell March, Norfolk was not very well known and quite specific so I felt guilty about having to pass this on but I felt very lucky to receive the wonderfully evocative location of Venice! My new location ended up being the impetus for my story and to my surprise I found that I had written a love story which I have never done before! I loved how the unexpected location shaped the story even into the realms of genre! I really enjoyed the workshop and will use the techniques learned to further the development of future short stories and other creative writing projects.
After the Fire
by Jeanette Johanson
My name is Sally Sopwith. It’s not a name I’m overly fond of – well, Sally’s OK but Sopwith! I’m always getting jokes about flying camels. Oddly enough I found a set of flying camels in Bobby’s Knick-Knack Emporium in South Molten. Who’d have thought it – flying camels! They were hand carved by John Turner, a local craftsman. Of course I had to have them. They took pride of place above my mantelpiece.
They got all sorts of comments before the fire.
What’s that you say? Oh, don’t you know about the fire? It was big. It was in all the local papers, and I think it even got a mention on the 6 o’clock news. It started on the prom. It was a beautiful day – blue sky and bright sunshine - but the onshore breeze was strong that day and it fanned the flames. Many of the buildings near the sea front were made of wood so no resistance there. My flat was in a half-timbered house just off the front so that caught pretty quick too. Fortunately no one was in the house when it went up. The firemen said we were lucky, but it didn’t feel like it when you looked at the devastation. You could see straight into my living room. If those camels had been made of pot they might have survived, but they had no chance.
To start off with we were put up in the church hall. We had a lot of help from the people round here. They bought food and blankets. Bobby from the Knick-Knack shop supplied us with camping stoves and electric kettles so we could brew up and heat our baked beans. Mrs Thomas made us some lovely cakes – her Victoria sponge was to die for! There was a real good spirit amongst us – everyone looked out for each other. Funny how it takes something like that to pull a community together.
Anyway, that was nearly 3 years ago. Time flies. I’m in a bedsit now – it’s sheltered accommodation. Of course I’m hoping to move somewhere a bit more spacious eventually, and more independent too, but I need to feel confident that I’m somewhere fire-proof. I tell you what – I don’t smoke at all now, and I won’t keep company with anyone who does. All my furniture is made of metal or plastic – no wood. The firemen have been in and fitted smoke alarms all over the place, and there is an escape route marked out. The staff here are very vigilant. They keep an eye on us all the time, and I’ve got a panic alarm fitted. I’m gradually cutting down on my meds. The therapy is helping.
I kept having this recurring nightmare after the fire. My great-grandfather had helped to design the Sopwith Camel; you know, that bi-plane that they used in WW1. It was a great little plane. The trouble was that the powers that be wouldn’t let the pilots have a parachute on board in case they bailed out too early due to LMF (Low Moral Fibre) as they called it. But those little planes were prone to catching fire and many pilots died as a result. My grandfather always felt that he was partly to blame, making the plane out of wood like he did. In my nightmare I am flying in a Sopwith Camel that catches fire. The tail bursts into flame and I am trapped. I wake up in a cold sweat.
My counsellor is brilliant. She says it takes time. I’m hoping to move out soon. I’ve got a deposit put by. Bobby got some pottery Puffins in last week. He’s put a set by for me. I’ve always had a soft spot for Puffins. Much safer all round than wooden camels!
© Jeanette Johanson
Jeanette Johanson retired a few years ago when work was getting in the way of more enjoyable pastimes. These include singing, stained glass craft, genealogy, scuba diving and a bit of writing. She recently had an article accepted for publication by Diver Magazine and is currently writing a memoir.
Thoughts on Michele Roberts Short Story Workshop
I thought it was very well structured and managed. Michèle was most encouraging and facilitated a productive session.
I ran across the room to the window seat in my Grandma’s house in Dorchester. I looked out of the window and it was still raining, coming down heavily and fanned by a stiff breeze. I perched on the window seat on my knees so I could see the whole garden down to the white picket fence.
The newly opened daffodils were taking a battering from the wind and rain; some of them were bent over with broken stalks. Grandad wouldn’t be too pleased at having the heads of the daffodils broken, especially so soon after they came out.
I looked over the fence to the path that ran beside the river. Usually on a Saturday morning it would be full of walkers with dogs but today the bad weather had put everybody off walking. Even the ducks had come out of the river and were sheltering in the bushes at the edge of the path.
So what am I going to do now, my plans for playing outside were scuppered? It was lonely staying at Grandma’s for the Easter holidays on my own as my brother Martin had gone on a rugby coaching tour with school and so for the first time I had nobody to play with at all. I suppose I could read a book or watch TV or even help Grandma with her baking.
I went over to the book shelves where Grandma kept her children’s’ books on the bottom two shelves. What did I want to read? Alice Through the Looking Glass – no I didn’t like fantasy stories. Black Beauty was more my cup of tea but I knew it inside out and it made me cry too much. Most of the bottom shelf was filled with baby books but on the next shelf up among the Enid Blyton books was a copy of James Heriott’s, It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet. I had seen some of the TV series and had loved it. I took the book from the shelf and went back to the window seat so that I would know when or if it stopped raining. I sat full length across the sea and settled down to read it.
Suddenly Grandma came in and when she saw me reading she was delighted and said she would bring me some lemonade and a chocolate biscuit. She also said that tomorrow I had been invited to Farmer Jordan’s farm to ride out with his grandchildren who were staying for Easter too. Whoopee!! It can keep raining a bit longer now as long as it stops for tomorrow morning. I wonder what pony I will be able to ride and thank goodness I had brought my jodhpurs and boots with me just in case. I imagined that we could be going to a show and I would be competing in a show jumping class on a 14.2 black pony and I would win the trophy just like Black Boy in the Ruby Ferguson book I had read recently. Oh, wouldn’t that just be wonderful. However, I accepted that in reality I wouldn’t be likely to get a clear round on a pony I had never ridden before.
I settled back with my book reading about Tristan and Mrs Pomfret’s Pekinese dog ‘Trickiwoo’ relishing the prospect of tomorrow’s great adventure. Grandma brought in the chocolate biscuits and lemonade and I watched the rain trickle down the window in little streams.
I went into the lounge which apart from a new suite was virtually the same as I remembered it from twenty years ago. The window seat was still there but with a new cushion perhaps. The view out into the garden was as I remembered, except for the change of season from spring to autumn. I remembered with great comfort and happiness that rainy day when I sat and read James Herriott’s book on the window seat.
I walked over to the book shelves and there it was second shelf from the bottom. I remembered Grandma bringing me the chocolate biscuits and the lemonade and telling me about the exciting visit to Farmer Jordan’s the next day.
What a shame the house would soon be sold and all those memories of holidays spent at my grandparents would be gone. Grandma’s funeral had been this afternoon and I had brought my own children to say goodbye. Unfortunately, they had not seen as much of Grandma as I had as she had not been well over the last few years. I went back to the window and looked out into the garden. I could see Grandma’s favourite chair rocking in the wind on the patio. I heard the gate catch rattle and I looked across, there she was in her favourite dress opening the gate and then pausing she turned to wave and smile at me as she disappeared along the path.
© Val Thornber
by Yvonne Witter
I can feel the change in the movement of the car, so I press harder on the pedals, but the speed doesn’t increase, the fuel gauge says full but that means nothing, as it has been stuck on full for nearly three years. Patrick said that I had a full tank when he handed me back the keys last night. I told no one that I was going away. I was fed up and ready. After all these years’ I was finally fucking ready. So, I had put my foot down, and was headed for Tichwell Marsh in Norfolk. No one would find me here, I thought. I have always kept my love of Tichwell close to my heart like a jealous girlfriend not wishing to share her lover with anyone. A secret location, so much has happened in that place, intimate memories of old. People and situations consigned to the waste bin of life. The car is still moving, more of a splutter now than a purr, like its got a really chesty cough.
I see golden rays peeping through the wet foliage ahead, I realise that it must be morning and I have been driving all night. A fox runs into the road and I slam on the brakes. He looks at me, eyes dazzling, I hope it’s a he, because I need a he to notice me, away from that bar and out of the uniform that me, Ms Kittylips, has to wear for work. We stare longingly into each other’s eyes.. well frankly me into his and him blinded by the headlights no doubt, I switch off the lights and he scuttles – I notice the beautiful sunrise, and that old Blue Beat song comes into my head The Sun Rise Into the East, and set in the West, the sun was sent to rule the day, moon and stars at night …mmmm mmmm can’t remember the rest of the words.
I sighed, turned the keys in the ignition, and now there is no cough. Just a wheeze, an expiration. Third try, nothing. No sound. I look left, then right and first time, see the beautiful marshlands, I had not realised that I was this close to my destination. I had been driving through the night as though on auto pilot.
I reached for my handbag, then sunk into my seat, rummaged around for water and took a sip. I sighed, took another sip before I rummaged around again and came up with a warm chocolate bar, I demolished that ungracefully, and licked the insides of the wrapper. Used wet wipes to restore my face and hands and as I wiped my mouth I glanced in the rear view mirror to see my dark roots, Today is my regular scheduled hairdressing appointment and I am over 200 miles away.
I had not seen my mother for 29 years and today she was going to explain why she ran off to Australia when I was 3 years old. I wanted answers.
© Yvonne Witter
Yvonne Witter MA., FCMI, Global Enterprise Consultant, Writer, Traveller. Researcher. Lover of creative endeavour.
Sex on the Beach
by Irene Lofthouse
Staring at sparks dancing in the dusky light, memories flare and I’m aware that I’m doing nothing. Nothing. When I, Anushka Shavaskova, investigator, should be finding a solution to the kidnapping of the Malaysian King’s daughter.
She had been taken at dawn from the bar opened for foreign tourists on Cunningham Beach. Unknown to her father, she had been working as Anais, a cocktail hostess, to find out how ‘ordinary people live’. Let me assure you, there are no ‘ordinary people’ at The Monkey’s Paw. It is a den of iniquity; a place teeming with traders in human flesh and addictions, masquerading as junior royalty, civil servants and self-made men.
Clouds scud, separate, revealing a star-studded sky as night deepens. A soft breeze ruffles the nearby trees carrying the whisperings of the nocturnal animals of Port Dixon. Water laps at the shore. How peaceful it is, how idyllic. Yet even at this moment, I feel Anais’s fear. Bundled into a carriage, fighting the cocktail of drugs that will make her pliant, slowly realising what her short future holds in store. What a coup for the traffickers, the King’s daughter! What a premium they will charge for her; only the highest bidders need apply. The King is foolish to think a ransom will be asked. With such a prize, they can control the country and increase their hold internationally.
Staring again into the flames, I will a solution to form. I have until dawn tomorrow to rescue Anais, otherwise I too will be a captive, until the King decides on the way I will die. Already twenty-four hours have passed, with no clues as to her whereabouts.
Over the water, there are strains of classical music, Holst if I’m not mistaken. A boat appears, moving slowly, rocking as it hits the sandbar. A man in a fedora jumps over the side and pulls the boat onto the beach. A heavy sigh escapes me. For once, could my partner not be honest? He is so selfish. I thought I had this case to myself – but no, here he is, strolling along in his best flannels, looking for all the world like he’s on his way to a cricket match.
‘Don’t suppose you fancy a spot of sex on the beach?’
His beaming face annoys me so much. As usual, how insensitive he is, how inappropriate his words to my investigation.
‘My dear James, as always you appear where you are not wanted.’ Opening my purse, I extract a cheroot, lighting it in the embers. I feel rather than see the beam become a grin as he throws himself onto the sand next to me.
‘But darling girl, I bring you clues! Definitely worth a dalliance.’ His finger under my chin, he turns my face to his, looking deep into my eyes. Another sigh escapes me. His presence, however irritating, always makes my blood pound.
‘Tell me.’ I shake his hand away. No point remonstrating at his arrival; I will not change his spots. And time is running out.
I knew I had to alter my appearance before arriving at the docks. Those I was seeking may have seen me in my cocktail attire. Dragging James back to the hotel, I quickly applied the theatrical expertise learned when I was undercover on another trafficking case. In less than ten minutes I’d become twenty years older; black hair hidden under a grey wig, low-heeled buckled boots, sober dress and with artful make up, I’d now pass for a civil servant’s nanny.
James’s information was interesting. Fydor Dimitrich was known to me. The lynchpin in the human trade business, I’d been following his career for some years. However, Antonio Fratelli, Italian Consulate, was new. As was George Seymour, British Ambassador to Malaysia. But nothing surprises me about the British establishment and their greed for power and money. Corruption and snobbery at every level. How different to the British people who were welcoming, helpful and friendly to me and my family when we arrived in England having fled from Russia.
I pulled my thoughts back to our next moves.
‘So James. All very interesting about these squalid men, but where are your clues?’ Picking up my handbag, I headed for the door. ‘You say they are all meeting at the docks for the next ‘consignment’. Is this delivery or collection?’ Port Dixon traded with other traffickers to exchange ‘exotic’ goods. Meaning of course girls, women and drugs. The King turned a blind eye as long as he got a cut; the kidnapping of his favourite daughter, will, I hope make him think again.
‘Antonio Fratelli was caught inflagrante with the Duke of Rothbury’s wife not long after you left the club.’ James shared, as we walked purposefully through the dimly lit streets. ‘The Duke was incensed, he hates Italians. Something to do with his ancestor at the Scottish Court . . . ‘
‘Tch! Facts James, facts. How often do I need to say this? And quietly.’
The streets are full of opportunists, eyes and spies for the traffickers. I had a knife in my boots, revolver and pepper in my bag. Stepping across the road, I sighed at James’s outfit illuminated in the glare of a gas light. Not one to blend into the darkness of the docks, just ahead of us.
‘It led to a duel and Fratelli is dead. Which means Rothbury may step into his shoes.’
‘How does this help me rescue Anais?’
‘Fydor Dimitrich is the kidnapper and he hates the Establishment more than you do for muscling in. If there’s a way to come to some arrangement . . .’ James side-stepped slightly, sensing the anger his words had created.
‘Arrangement!’ I hissed. ‘With traffickers? You know what they did to me. . .’
A blast of light across the now dark street caught my attention. Before I had chance to look, James pulled me behind a pile of barrels, as a bullet ricocheted off the wall where I had been.
‘Your damn flannels! An easy mark.’
James stayed silent, pointing, where two shadows flitted over the road in our direction. Behind us in the darkness was the outline of a dock building. I gestured James to follow. Hunching low, we slowly backed away, eyes scanning as we did. Reaching the building, stepping quietly, we came upon an unlocked door.
‘Trap,’ James mouthed, indicating we should move away. Inside I heard moaning, a girl’s voice.
‘It could be Anais,’ I whispered.
‘Trap,’ repeated James. ‘We need to – argh!’
He went down in front of me, holding his leg. Even in the darkness, the light from the starry sky showed a stain seeping through his flannels. ‘Go,’ he said. ‘I’ll divert. You need to be at Dock 4, it’s where they load.’
I heard footsteps approaching. James gestured for me to be gone. I kissed him quickly; he grinned. ‘Sex on the beach, later.’
Peering round the side of the building, I saw a shadow detach itself from the wall opposite. It headed towards James. Stooping, I pulled my knife from my boot and took aim as the man stood over my partner, pointing his gun. With a flick of my wrist, the knife flew true, straight between the man’s shoulder-blades. He crumpled. At least James would have a weapon now.
The rubber soles of my boots made no sound as I slipped between ropes, nets, handcarts, past the low opium dens towards Dock 4. The silence was oppressive. Usually there were many men making their way to and from the dens, with as many women ready to offer services and pimps to relieve the addled of their money. Sailors too were strangely absent. Ears alert, eyes scanning, I know I must keep my wits about me. Traffickers like Fydor are brutal and vicious.
It was his organisation that we had escaped from when I was ten. He preferred them young but on the cusp of womanhood. Perhaps Anais, at seventeen would be too old for his depraved delights. I was hoping so, but for others, seventeen was just the right age. Shaking my head to clear these thoughts, I espied a chink of light through the wooden slats of the shed at the end of Dock 4.
Preparing to surprise the occupants, I took my revolver from my bag. Moving stealthily, gun tightly in hand, I rounded the shed to find where the light came from. A hole where a knot should be let me spy inside. It was not good.
Fydor was stroking an unconscious Anais’s face with a knife, whilst speaking to someone. I could see another man, who I assumed was one of the shadows from earlier. If there were only the two, I had enough bullets to dispose of them. Quietly I tip-toed to the front of the shed, stopping at the side of the door. Taking a deep breath, I rushed at the entrance, kicking it open and shooting the man in the corner between the eyes. Swivelling I levelled my gun at Fydor, but my attention was taken by the sight of James, a noose around his neck, hanging from the beams. Blood was still leaking from his wound. His toes were balancing, just, on a packing case. He tried to smile.
The small revolver trembled in my hand. Fydor, noting my hesitation, lifted Anais in front of him and I lost my advantage.
‘You are so feeble,’ Fydor laughed. ‘Not like men. We shoot first, think later. Meddling woman! You have been a nuisance since you were a child. I think if you weren’t about to be killed, I would offer you to the Duke of Rothbury. He likes those who have already been broken in.’
Gritting my teeth, instead of using them to tear him apart, I pointed to Anais. ‘Leave her with me and I guarantee the King will reward you well.’
Fydor sneered. ‘Reward? No reward could match the world-wide control I will have now that Fratelli’s out of the way. She is simply a stepping-stone.’
A strangled groan escaped James. Anais was still unconscious to all that was happening
‘And now, I go. Your darling James will be dead before I leave and you soon after.’ Backing towards the door, his arm tight around the girl’s neck, knife at her throat, Fydor’s eyes never left me. I heard fibres snapping on the rope that held James but dare not look. Fydor, at the door, pulled on a chain I hadn’t noticed. The chair under James shunted across the floor as he plummeted, the noose tightening.
Ignoring the trafficker’s mocking laugher as he disappeared, I ran to James, frantically dragging the chair back. His gurgling rent my heart. Selfish, irritating, inconsiderate, economical with the truth, he was still my partner in crime. Trying to hold him up, my hands slippy with blood, I could feel tears brimming.
‘I say darling, could you not hold me so close, I can’t get down.’
‘What?’ Looking up, a grinning, grey-faced James was holding onto the frayed rope above his head.
‘Fydor’s henchman forgot to search me after he frog-marched me here. Your knife came in jolly useful. Now if I can get down, we can head off Mr Dimitrich before he reaches his boat.’
Letting go of his legs, I snatch up my bag and head outside, keeping my anger in check.
‘I suppose you know where the boat is?’ I throw over my shoulder.
He really is so irritating. ‘How many of his gang will be there? I don’t have reserve bullets.’
‘None. He wants to have complete control and only he will know where Anais is. Anushka, please slow down.’
‘And you know this how?’
‘Because he took great delight in telling me.’
I stride quickly, ignoring his limping. We have to be in time to save Anais.
‘You’re going the wrong way.’
I spin on my heels at James’s voice. He was heading through a passageway leading to Dock 2. Noises funnelled toward us; voices, hurrying footsteps, the sound of boats and water.
‘He’s anchored here in a bashed up banana boat,’ James said, ‘one he uses to evade the authorities. Look for the name ‘Elena’, name of his dead wife.’
Peeking out of the passageway, we could see ragged unshaven stevedores rubbing shoulders with socialites and their swains. It seemed that everyone from Port Dixon was there, harlots as well as the hoi polloi. A heady aroma of sweat and sex permeated the air.
Swaying beside me, James nearly fell.
‘Pass me your scarf, old thing,’ he whispered.
‘To bind my leg. Aching like the deuce.’
How could I have forgotten he’d been shot? Quickly removing my scarf, I bound it around his leg to staunch the bleeding, hiding my shamed face.
‘Don’t apologise now,’ James said, ‘keep it until after we rescue Anais.’
Stepping out, we manoeuvred our way into the throng, eyes scanning for the ‘Elena’ and any of Fydor’s henchmen. The pleasure palaces were doing a roaring trade; gaudily decorated, lights illuminating bawdy paintings depicting the delights within, there was a steady stream of visitors.
These bordellos bobbed between the working boats which took cargo back and forth. Ostensibly spices and food were exported to the jaded palates of Westerners. In reality, the main cargo would replicate what was happening in the pleasure palaces here in another part of the world. It sickened me. Dwelling too much on the depravity on show, I missed James’s hissed comment and slammed into his back. Recovering, I looked to where he was pointing.
‘There,’ he said. ‘Elena.’
A single storm-lamp splayed shadows as we stepped aboard. The silence amidst the pleasure boats’ cacophony was eerie. No-one seemed to notice us creeping about, perhaps thinking we were looking for a quiet place for ourselves.
James nodded his head, indicating the below deck entrance. I approached slowly, revolver in hand. Stepping quietly, I lowered myself rung by rung, leaving James to keep watch above. Becoming accustomed to the murk, my eyes darted around seeking clues to Anais’s whereabouts.
Entering the room, I noticed the Eastern way in which it was decorated. Plush cushions, Persian rugs and silk hangings with the scent of patchouli and amber hanging in the air. Pressing my lips together to prevent retching, memories flared again, reminding me.
I rotated instinctively at a sound behind me, finger tight on the gun’s trigger. James halted, hands in the air. Anger flaring at his arrival, and because of my own feelings, I mouthed imprecations which he stopped by slapping a hand over my face and dragging me into a corner.
‘Be quiet,’ he whispered in my ear. ‘Behind the curtain.’
Through the gauze I saw two silhouettes grow bigger as a light came our way. Voices growing louder, I recognised Fydor and Anais. Anais who should be unconscious from the drugs.
‘But Fydor,’ she was saying, ‘I can be much more use to you as an associate than as a plaything. I’m very good at finding out secrets and at fooling people. After all, I’ve been a waitress for over a year and Papa never knew.’
‘I don’t work with women, they work for me. I knew as soon as you began at the club and have had you watched until the time was right.’
Fydor ushered Anais into our room, gun at her back. ‘You have nothing but your sex and body to offer,’ he laughed. ‘Or should I say, I have your sex and body to offer in as many creative ways as I please.’ Gesturing with the gun, he pushed Anais into a chair almost opposite James and me. Reaching behind her, he took a syringe from a shelf, whilst covering Anais with his gun.
Feeling impotent, I began to tremble remembering what came next. James’s grip on me tightened. Anais however, appeared to be very calm.
‘Now Fydor,’ she purred, reaching out a hand to his groin, ‘why we can’t we discuss things in an adult way.’ She slowly began stroking him, at the same time opening and draping her legs over the chair arms. In front of us, Fydor, with syringe in one hand and gun in the other smiled wolfishly.
‘What a climax there may be to this evening, little one,’ he said leaning over. ‘I know you are not as innocent as your Papa thinks. I have pictures, which I will send him. Very pleasurable they are too.’
‘So glad -’ Anais began but didn’t finish. With a flick of her legs, she kicked both the gun and syringe from Fydor’s hands. Immediately leaping forwards, James grabbed the surprised Fydor, pinning his arms behind him. Diving together, Anais and I bumped heads as we picked up the weapons.
‘Offspring of whores!’ Fydor roared, struggling with James. ‘Infections of the evil eye I give you.’ Kicking, spitting cursing, wriggling like an eel, Fydor fought to be free with all his might. James gamely held on as they careered around the room. Keeping my gun trained on Fydor, I hoped I wouldn’t need to shoot; I wanted him alive to reveal his networks and contacts.
‘We do need to silence him,’ I said, ‘or the noise will attract attention.’
Calmly walking up to Fydor, Anais spat into his face before plunging the syringe into his groin. ‘A different climax for you. May the heroin spirits of hell follow you forever.’
His face puce, Fydor attempted to reply but the drug, injected into his blood, made an instant hit. The Russian’s eyeballs flicked backwards, his body jerked then slumped in James’s arms.
‘Not just a pretty face,’ James beamed at Anais. An eyebrow raised, she turned to me as I tutted.
‘We can congratulate each other later. We need to get him to ASPS, inform the King that Anais is well and return her to the palace.’
‘Oh no,’ she responded. ‘I do not want to return to the King. I have escaped and I’m not going back.’
‘Why?’ asked James.
‘Because to him I shall always be a child. To be protected, confined in a palace of gold, never to have a choice of my own. I want to be free.’
‘Being in the clutches of a trafficker is hardly a way to see the world,’ James commented, pulling Fydor’s body up the rungs. ‘But tell me -’
I interrupted, aware that time was running out. ‘The case is solved. Anais is free, we have Fydor and I have only two hours to to deposit him with our interrogators at ASPS and get information to the King. We need to be away before he realises Anais is not returning.’
Back on the dock, James and I stood Fydor between us, linking arms with him, supporting him as we walked, rolling a little as if we were drunk. Anais linked with James, flirting as we passed the pleasure boats, batting eyes at promenading gentlemen, taking their notice from the rest of us. She was a consummate actress. Turning down the passage away from the docks, words burst from her.
‘What did you mean about me not returning to the King? What are you going to do with me?’
I sensed James smiling. I knew what he was thinking. We had talked about it before I accepted this investigation. Reaching the mean back street in Port Dixon where our secret service had installed itself several years ago to spy on the traffickers, we stopped in front of a peeling blue door.
‘We’re opening a club,’ James said, knocking on the door. ‘Offering splendiferous cocktails with sleuthing on the side.’
Anais looked puzzled.
‘We need a waitress with brains,’ I continued, ‘one who can serve and spy at the same time. What do you think should go into a cocktail called ‘Sex on the Beach’?’ I asked, ushering her through the open door.
Irene Lofthouse has told tales since she could talk, now she does it for a living at festivals, events and as a writer of both children’s and adult fiction. Her fiction and poetry feature in many anthologies; her ‘Strange Tales’ children’s series are best-sellers. She works across ages designing fun participative workshops and projects.
Thoughts on Michèle Roberts Short Story Workshop
I thoroughly enjoyed the workshop and Michèle’s approach. Sometimes one is disappointed on meeting a writer one has admired for some time; having imagined what he/she is like, one can find that the reality doesn’t match up to the long-awaited experience. I can say that this definitely wasn’t the case with Michèle. Her openness, friendliness and willingness to chat, her activities and exercises, her analogies, her humour and her down-to-earth approach made for a fascinating session and gave insights into how she develops her writing. I hadn’t encountered any of the activities on previous workshops I’ve been to, nor the way she expressed through drawings, moving from first/third person, present/past. The structure worked really well in taking us from words, to sentences to a short story. I had no awareness of what the location I received (Port Dixon, Malaysia) looked like, but that was very liberating. It’s led to a different style of writing, a pastiche piece, which I’ve never attempted before. It’s certainly a work in progress. I would definitely recommend Michèle’s workshop to writers at any stage of their development.