Flattering spam

Call me slow or perhaps just susceptible to kindness but it’s taken me a while to get to the point where I am suspicious about the comments I have been recieving. Of course there are some that are obviously spam – those in strange scripts and foreign languages look unlikely to be genuine. Likewise there are some long medical explanations that look suspicioulsy like gobbledook and some very short comments that mean nothing, not to mention the odd sexual reference.

All go in the bin.

What fooled me for a w hile though were the following examples:

Awesome site! Did you design it yourself?
I’m thinking of starting a blog – can you give me somem pointers?
Loved the site! I shall be back soon.
Can I use a link from your site?
Are you making this up as you go along? (whatever that is supposed to meran)

My guess is that some of these may be genuine; the trouble is that a heck of a lot of them seem to be appear time and again with very little change in the wording and usually in a block of comments made against different articles, and of course it cannot be coincidence that apparently different people make identical comments. Some of them ask questions, such as – would I welcome a contribution from them as guest blogger? I have never had a response to my reply.

Anyway long story short my guess is that there is a piece of software out there that disguises spam in the shape of these comments and questions. I am investigating the various antispam engines but in the mesantime I shall not be approving any post that I have seen before using the same or similar wording.

Having said that I really welcome genuine comments, especially if anyone knows of some really good prefereably free anti spamming software!

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A tale of two sites

Some of you may have visited either my very first website or the more recent Drupal based one that went live a few weeks ago. Both are no more.

The first site was based on an American model. Although it had one or two nice graphical features the functionality was just about non existent and it wasn’t until I had naively bought into the American blarney on offer and started to try to develop it in the way I wanted that its limitations became all too apparent. For a start you could only have 5 tabs and since one of these had to be the Home page it left little scope for rich features, rather essential for a book site. Worse, it was impossible without html coding well beyond my powers to create sub menus. It had no blog, no forum and no way to register users. Content management was a nightmare. Worse it was slow.

So I decided that the parting of the ways had come, a decision that has turned into a bit of a dispute. No doubt it will be resolved one way or the other but the message for me is clear. Beware American salesmen bearing promises.

My blogging site (which is quite separate) gives me the ability to upload Drupal. So I did. From the very first site it was clear that this was a quality product with literally hundreds (maybe more) of plug-ins to add functionality and new themes as and when needed. The product was in constant development and my ISP installed V6.2 which seemed fine. So I set about adding forums, a menu structure and creating content. The only limitation was my own sense of clarity about what I was trying to achieve and a lack of familiarity with the intricacies of the CMS. I bought a book as you do and just before catastophe struck I was trying to work out how to get banner ads to display in the side bar and also how to add new content to a menu item so that it was distinct from the original content.

I also wanted to link this blog site to the new website because I was getting more traffic to the former and I would like the website to be the primary area with a link off to the blog. I created a new page with the link, saved and tested. That was when I go the Fatal Error message.

It was all a bit strange. Some people (including me on the iPhone) could see the site but it was impossible to log in and I could not load at all in Firefox or IE.

Long story short, I decided to go to back up. More problems. The backup did not work. I decided to reinstall Drupal and try again. By now my ISP had upgraded to V7.2 and sure enough the backup simply reported an error message again.

I am sure there must be a moral to the story but I don’t what it is. My current plan is to start again, not worrying too much about historical data (sorry everyone) and hopefully fixing the structural errors I made the first time around. It will take a while unfortunately but at least I’m now on the latest version of Drupal.

Whilst I am wrestling with the site I will try and keep you up to date on new books using the blog.

Thanks for your patience.

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Recent sales figures suggest that as high as 80% of fiction sales are thrillers. This begs the question, what is a thriller? I suspect that to make any sense of it you need to add a qualifier – spy thrillers, adventure thrillers, detective thrillers, horror thrillers, even literary thrillers. This of course reduces the word to not much more than the equivalent of “story” and this is neither meaningful nor helpful.

In the real world we all know what a thriller looks like. It will often (perhaps inevitably) involve a plot driven story and have a clear protagonist who drives that plot forward, very often taking action that most of us would find extreme. There will usually be a villain against whom the hero must pit his wits and strength, often against unlikely odds (the police procedural in pursuit of the serial killer follows a contrary route of course.

Why do we like thrillers? Well, the successful thriller is a page turner above all else. I couldn’t put it down, we say. It will usually have a high octane ending, sometimes with a twist. Not all twists are believable but by then we don’t care because the story has us in its grip.

There is a wonderful book called simply Story by Robert McKee which makes the point on page after page that what we yearn for in a book is a story that will have us gripped. He is too polite to say so, but he is implicitly critical of the sort of literary fiction that doesn’t achieve that, substituting instead sometimes beautiful language and in depth characterisation but which is a chore to read.

Violence too is a feature of the modern thriller. I haven’t read it read but the latest thriller to be hyped on the Underground is Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olsen and if the early reports are to be believed it is very dark and very violent.

Mark Billingham’s books are pretty violent too.

Mark Billingham

But it wasn’t always like this. Dennis Wheatley’s occult thrillers had me on the edge of my seat but the violence was restrained. Likewise the most successful thriller writer of the eighties – Alistair Maclean – managed it all without gruesome detail as did Desmond Bagley from the same era. In the Golden Age of detective thrillers Lord Peter Wimsey, Raffles, Bulldog Drummond and a hundred others all managed to get the job done without making us squirm.

Don’t get me wrong. We live in a world where we are all desensitised to some extent to graphic violence. Both TV shows and films routinely portray images that would have been banned only a few years ago. Violence has its place in the thriller too – to demonstrate the evil perpetrated by the villain and make us root for the hero and to justify extreme measures taken by the latter.

At the edges there are some interesting crossover writers. Benjamin Black writes intelligent thrillers which he describes as his day job (meaning they pay the bills) whilst his literary alter ego John Banville is praised for his fine writing.

Kate Atkinson’s four book Jackson Brodie detective series is a literary tour de force but just as important is as page turning as any James Paterson (albeit without the patronising short chapters and cliff hanging last lines).

Well, that’s enough rambling I think. The reason for making such a song and dance about thrillers is that I have just added a Thrillers tab to the website. Take a look if you have a moment or add yuor comments here

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Important News

The seekabook website is about ready to move from beta status to live. If you want to take a look, click on http://www.seekabook.co.uk/drupal/node/7.

In any case from Monday 16th May this site will be incorporated into the website. Nothing else will change and all you need to do is click on the website (either http://www.seekabook.com or http://www.seekabook.co.uk and choose the blog tab.

Please add them to your Favourites.

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New Books for May

Alan Bennett has acquired national treasure status alongside Judi Dench and Cheryl Cole but with his latest book Smut he is in danger of being relegated to the ranks. Why? Because as its name suggests Smut is unashamedly about sex, not perhaps unfortunately, the sort of romantic sex that permeates our lives, but rather the more embarrassing type (graphic detail from the viewpoint of an elderly onlooker for example). In the process he takes a sideways swipe at the perennial difficulty in British fiction of writing about sex without making everyone’s toes curl up.

The Finkler Question, winner of the Man Booker, written by Howard Jacobson, is out now in paperback. It’s a rich tale of a man who wants to become Jewish and sets out to master its arcane rituals and set pieces of knowledge in order to do so. He is aided and abetted in this challenge by two friends, one of whom is in fact a deadly rival ironically trying to divest himself of his Jewishness. As always with Jacobson the fun is in the journey rather than the destination.

Fans of Anita Shreve will be delighted that her latest – the Rescue – is out now both in hardback and posh paperback (Amazon have it at a terrific £5.59). Like most of Shreve’s work the Rescue is about relationships, in this case between the paramedic who saves a woman’s life and their child, not to mention the secrets in the woman’s past.

In the bestsellers, The Red Queen form Philippa Gregory is still riding high as is Jeffrey Deaver’s The Burning Wire. It won’t be long now before we see Deaver’s take on 007. He was an odd choice for me but there’s no doubt he can write suspense like just about no-one else and these days that will suit Mr Bond very nicely. It’s good too to see Kate Atkinson, Wilbur Smith and Ian McEwan all doing well.

There are several terrific non fiction books out this week.Idea Man by Paul Allen is effectively the story of Microsoft’s co-founder with some juicy tidbits about what a ruthless operator Mr Gates was (and presumably still is). Still Paul Allen should not feel too bad about how it worked out (although you suspect he does) because the second half of the book is about how he spent some of the money that made him one of the richest men on the planet.

The Information by James Gleick is a more cerebral offering that looks at the nature and history of information. It is hugely ambitious and does not limit itself to the modern concept of the information age – computers, phones et al). There is a huge in fact encyclopaedic amount of information here and the book is not for the faint-hearted. However for anyone who is interested in how we got here and where we might be going it will make fascinating reading.

My final pick is In the Plex by Stephen Levy which I am listening to on audio book and will review in more detail in a while. Suffice it to say that it is a comprehensive history of the mighty Google organisation.

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Unfortunately the site was down for part of Friday and Saturday so I am very sorry if anyone was inconvenienced as a result. The Culprit I fear was me changing a setting so I can’t even blame anyone!

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Chapter 3: Claims Online

The screen faded leaving behind only the pulsating message in red – We can help. After a few seconds, the dark brown tones of the voice-over actor, familiar somehow but still too hard to identify, spoke softly and reassuringly. ‘Just call us. Claims Online at –‘. Moira switched her attention away from the screen as the voice repeated the familiar claims line number, the free phone number manned by sympathetic listeners, mainly men for some reason, who asked the questions before passing suitable cases to a case handler. She often patrolled the open plan office to monitor the calls, especially in the hour after an advertisement had been broadcast. That was when the lines were busiest and the calls the crankiest. The ad usually ran in the late afternoon spot when those without jobs were most likely to be watching television or prepared to admit to it. That was when the nut-cases came out to play; the former soldier who thought he had started the civil war in Ireland and wanted to know if he could claim against the government for the stress it had caused him; the downhill skier who wanted to sue the owner of the tree he had ploughed into; the woman who blamed an episode of Brookside for the break-up of her marriage. It amazed her how patient the phone handlers were with just about everyone, however bizarre their claim and however incoherent they were. Some of them had already phoned other helplines or taken legal advice in a solicitor’s office but just did not want to accept that their claim would never succeed. Some had even sued already –unsuccessfully- but would not give up.
Not that all hopeless claims were cranks though, not by a long way. A lot of the disappointed callers were either too late – since personal injury claims usually had to be brought within three years of the accident – or had cases which were just too hard to prove – trying to establish that a doctor had had made a mistake was far from straightforward.
‘So what do you think, then?’ Donald Rinder’s gloomy voice cut into her thoughts and she turned to look at him, a grimace puckering her nose.
‘It’s a bit in your face, isn’t it, Donald? Is that us, our image? I hated the red. Sorry.’
‘I hate the whole idea of television advertising but that doesn’t mean it isn’t the right way to build this business. My father would turn over in his proverbial if he saw that advertisement. He’d say it was unprofessional. Only he’d use a bigger word. Or three.’
Moira suspected she would have agreed with Donald’s father, a solicitor for whom the words integrity and professional struck deep chords, even if she only knew him from Donald’s constant reference to his thoughts and values. She fluttered an arm in the direction of the video player. ‘Why don’t we tell the agency to have another go? Tell them the brief was very specific on two things – both of which they missed.’
‘Discreet and different, you mean?’ asked Donald, his voice still gloomy. ‘I don’t know.’
‘Well, it’s your decision, Donald. We can keep going with the old ad, can’t we?’
‘The Board thinks the old advertisement is why our conversion rate is so much lower than the competition’s.’
Moira restrained a sigh of exasperation. ‘Worse thing that ever happened to this company,’ she muttered. Donald gave her a disapproving look. He had inherited his father’s respect for authority, however maladjusted it might be and it was more than he could conceive of to criticise the company’s new management board.
‘It’s just a thought but the figures released by the other companies might not be totally accurate…’ She cast him a speculative glance. Donald played everything so straight he couldn’t imagine that others might not. She wondered if he was in the right business.
‘I suppose so,’ he told her doubtfully. ‘I’ll think about it.’
Moira guessed that that meant she had won but that he would dress it up to make it look as if he alone had made the decision. ‘I’ll have to run whatever we decide past the weekly meeting, anyway.’
‘Of course.’ Heaven forbid that anyone should make a decision without the Board casting its dark shadow over it. She kept her thoughts to herself. ‘I must go. I’m seeing James Carpenter for lunch.’
‘Give him my regards. It’s a shame we don’t see so much of him these days.’
‘Not surprising, given what they did to him.’
Donald nodded, still gloomy. Moira wondered if his hangdog expression ever disappeared for long. At home, with his wife, enjoying a weekend with her and the children? At the height of mind blowing sex? At the top of a hill, the wind ruffling the small amount of hair he still possessed, looking down on the landscape he had conquered? Probably only the last, she guessed, remembering the increased animation in his face when he described his walking holiday along the spine of the Sussex Downs. An eyebrow had lifted in excitement, the jowls had firmed as he spoke and although there had been no smile, he had spoken with more hope for the universe and the position he might usefully occupy in it than she had ever known before.
‘Okay, see you later.’ She looked at her watch. Christ, she was going to be late, James would kill her. She picked up her writing pad and, anxious to avoid returning to the main office where she was bound to become bogged down in other people’s problems, she headed straight out for the car park.
Promotion that week had brought her a company car – a Ford Focus – not perhaps the car she would have chosen for herself, but it was so much better than her pensioned off Renault with its rattling insecurities that her spirits lifted every time she saw its gleaming silver coachwork. They fell just as suddenly when she saw who was standing next to it. How did he know she had a new car?
She compressed her mouth in a disapproving line that she suspected made her look like a sex starved spinster, a thought that almost made her grin, and kept walking towards her car, her gaze fixed on the door handle.
‘Hello, Moira. I saw you on your way here. I hope you didn’t mind me waiting for you.’ His politeness was as disconcerting as his persistence and she found it hard to accept that she still let him bug her – that she had effectively done nothing to halt his persecution of her. Not even told anyone about it, come to think of it. That wasn’t very bright really. If it ever came to a court case, of any sort, it would do her no good to have to admit that she had never once mentioned to anyone that she was being stalked.
Not that anyone would believe that she was in any danger. The young man before her weighed less than ten stone and in a fight, most casual observers would put their money on her. If her background and training ever came out in the evidence, they would feel even more sorry for him than they already did. He was a pitiful spectacle, at first sight at least. His skinny frame looked hardly strong enough to bear the weight of a head that seemed several sizes too large for it. He was dressed in cheap clothes that looked to Moira as if they had always been old and dirty; scarecrows were better dressed than he was. His trainers were threadbare, their tread long since gone; a pair of once blue jeans hung from his hips like so many rags and a dirty mauve tee shirt, miraculously intact but shapeless and riding up at the waist, completed the effect. He sometimes wore a beeny hat but today the unwashed black threads of his fringe fell forward over his football of a head like the pelmet of a curtain.
She shuddered. She couldn’t help it but she found him so repugnant she could hardly bear to look at his face – another failure on her part which she might find it difficult to justify, if she ever had to. Still, whatever her shortcomings, there was no real doubt that this young man (how old was he? She would know from the file but mid twenties anyway) was doing his best to harass her and that she was entitled to the protection of the law. She could just imagine how much amusement that would generate in various different quarters.
So, not an option. But she had tried everything else.
‘Jason, we’ve been through this. A dozen times.’
He always treated her as if she were a slightly fragile object, to be treasured and admired but not very bright, with not much understanding, as it were. It was his job to explain things to her, clarify the world for her. He spoke slowly, watching her carefully as if to satisfy himself that she was following him.
‘We’re meant to be together. I don’t mind that you messed up my case, you know I don’t. All that’s important is that we have each other—‘
‘Shut up, Jason. We are not meant to be together. I have explained this until I am blue in the face. Now please get off my car. I have to be somewhere else.’
And I’m so late already. Get the fuck out of my way, you horrible little shit.
He held his position with his back to the driver’s door, palms pressed against the silver panels, bird-like chest shoved out like a flat chested catwalk model. His eyes never left her face but he shook his head in sorrow. ‘Sorry. We’ve got to talk.’
‘We have nothing to talk about,’ she yelled at him. ‘I’m sorry that your case went wrong but I have already given you the names of people who will help you. And that’s it. The end, finished, finito, the fat lady’s finished singing, that’s all she wrote—‘
‘You shouldn’t run yourself down like that,’ he told her earnestly. ‘You’re not fat—‘
For a second, she didn’t follow, then almost felt sorry for him as she realised how badly he misunderstood everything, a feeling which evaporated as quickly as it had come. ‘It’s not always about me. Or you, Jason. Now I’m sorry. I have to go. Please let me get to my car.’
He might have just moved if she had been gentle with him but the time for that was so far in the past it was like an alternative universe. He looked at her pityingly through the huge eyes that would never really see properly, according to the doctors, but he did not move and something in that look just made her snap. Afterwards, trying to explain it to James Carpenter as they sat in the Salubrious Sailor eating lunch, she found it hard to remember exactly but she was sure she had pushed him off the car.
‘I might have elbowed him as well, James. I feel so guilty. I mean, he’s a horrible little man and I hate it that he thinks he can wait for me in places I might be and pretend we’re an item, but I shouldn’t have beaten him up.’
‘Anyone see you?’ asked James practically.
‘Anyone looking out of the window waiting for lunch time to arrive.’
‘So most of Claims Online then?’
She nodded gloomily. ‘Did I ever tell you what a comfort you were, James?’
‘Must have slipped your mind. Seriously, I shouldn’t worry about Jason. I’ll think about what we can do to get him off your back. And knowing you, I really doubt if you beat him up.’
Moira cast him a grateful look.
‘Displacement activity, that’s what we need,’ said James thoughtfully. ‘Like having his own, real live girlfriend.’
‘I could introduce him to Kristin.’ Moira brightened up at the thought.
‘Who’s she?’ asked James, delighted to see her smile.
‘Alex and I bumped into her at the curry house down the road. She’s very pretty, drinks like a skunk, sulks for England. She had a row with her partner and then ended up at the house looking for him, barely able to stand, an hour or so after she emptied his vindaloo special into his lap.’
‘My sort of girl,’ murmured James.
‘You wish. Anyway, I made sure she got home without committing too many offences and now even though she’s patched it up with Davey she’s my new best friend. We’re going to shoot some archery together tonight, I’m told.’
‘Just a bit. Mix Genghis Khan with Joan Collins, subtract a few thousand years. Retire to a safe distance. Now if I could persuade Jason that he was in a meaningful relationship with her, all my worries would be over.’
‘And his would be starting.’
‘Oh, yes. Aren’t fantasies great?’
‘What about Alex? Can’t he do something? He’s the incumbent after all.’
Moira concentrated on her salad without answering, then looked up to see James, an amused smile on his face, still waiting for her to reply.
‘Sorry. I was struggling with you calling Alex the incumbent. I still sometimes think that you and I—‘
‘Are very good friends. Which is the way it should be.’
Moira doubted this but knew better than to argue. She had her own ideas about herself and James as a couple. ‘Actually, as it happens, Alex —‘
‘I don’t believe you,’ James interrupted her. ‘You are impossible. He doesn’t know you’re being stalked, does he?’
Moira smiled sheepishly. ‘No, but that’s not the problem.’
‘What is then?’ he demanded. ‘Did you know you are the most secretive woman in England, Moira? You’re not even working for that ridiculous organisation any longer and you still can’t tell me if it’s Tuesday today.’
‘That’s because it’s Wed—‘
He gave her a full strength frown and she subsided, a grin on her face. Then she sobered. ‘I think Alex and I are finished, James. That’s what I didn’t want to say. He’s disappeared to the Virgin Islands, just chucked in his job. He and I have hardly spoken for the last couple of weeks. My fault. I’ve been a right cow but he didn’t even warn me it was what he was thinking and then he expects me to walk away from my life and my new job.’
‘Would you have gone if he had set it up properly?’
She shrugged her shoulders. ‘I don’t know, probably not.’ Only if Nicole said I had to.
‘Anyway, I’m not sure now that I shall stay with Claims Online. I think it’s time for a change. Since you stopped being involved, it’s a lot less fun.’
‘I can imagine,’ he told her dryly, his grey eyes solemn. ‘Doesn’t that argue in favour of going with Alex?’
She shook her head. ‘Too hot for me. I like England. And I’m not sure I could bear to be that close to the sailing and not actually do any. I know Alex. He’d have me shinning up masts and painting bowsprits but would I see any actual sailing?’ She shook her head again, this time smiling. But James was frowning.
‘I’d have thought it would be a great experience actually. I’d give my proverbial right arm to have a year or so out there. What’s the worst that can happen? You don’t like it and come back. And the BVI aren’t hot all year round. The Christmas Winds cool it right down in January and February and then there are the hurricanes if you get bored…’
Her eyes hooded over for a moment and he knew there was something she couldn’t tell him. He was torn, as he so often was, between allowing her the freedom to be secretive that she craved and interrogating her until she gave in and told him.
‘What will you do if you leave Claims Online? ‘ he asked eventually.
‘Don’t know. I suppose I might go back to Section.’ She lit a cigarette with the little gold lighter he had given her. He disapproved but never said anything.
‘What, to work for that old hag Nicole?’
‘What is it with you two? You’ve only met her twice and anyone would think you were childhood enemies, with back stories like a TV soap. Anyone who didn’t know you both better—‘ She stopped abruptly and her brown eyes opened wide, making her look younger than her 26 years.
He regarded her patiently.
‘Ah. More than twice then. But obviously not very successfully.’ She giggled. ‘Come on, James. Tell all.’
He shook his head. ‘We went out for dinner once or twice. It didn’t work out. We don’t like each other. That’s the story.’
Moira snorted in derision. ‘Story is right. And you accuse me of being secretive. The question, Mr Carpenter, is why you and Nicole don’t like each other. Isn’t it?’ She paused and looked at him complacently, glad to steer the relationship limelight in his direction. ‘That’s the question.’
James Carpenter looked uncomfortable. He did not intend to tell Moira that he had fallen out with Nicole over her plans for Moira or that he still bitterly regretted it. ‘She’s a bit too bossy for my taste, too organised. Different styles, I guess. No one’s fault.’
Moira eyed him suspiciously. Her instinct for half a story was well developed and she knew he wasn’t telling her something. That made them square, she supposed, and sighed. ‘Anyway, nothing’s certain as far as I’m concerned. Alex may come back from his travels, decide to stay and things will go back to normal.’
‘Anyway,’ James changed the subject. ‘How are things at COL? How’s Donald?’
‘Donald is as indecisive as ever, James. I practically have to change his underpants for him. And the bloody Board is driving me crazy. Talk about control freaks. It takes forever to get anything done. Like I said, it’s not so much fun.’
‘Well, in some ways, I’m glad to be out of it. Carpenter & Son is still getting a good share of the panel referrals and that was the only reason I got involved in the first place.’
Moira was silent. There was a rumour that the wretched Board was planning to set up a new panel and if they did, Carpenter & Son could kiss goodbye to the work. She stood up, gathered the lighter and cigarettes in her hand and dropped them into a pocket.
‘I must go. Thanks for a lovely lunch. I just hope my little shadow isn’t waiting for me outside my car.’
‘I’ll walk with you. I’m parked right by you. There was something else I wanted to ask you anyway.’
She looked at him curiously. It was not like James Carpenter to show reticence. If he wanted to ask her something, he would usually have done so before they began eating.
‘Now I’m intrigued.’
The Sailor’s car park was tucked inside an embankment overlooking the old railway line, accessible only by steep steps down to the station, before it was closed in one of the doomed attempts made to streamline the service. The embankment gave them some protection from the cool breeze and the spring sunshine felt warm on Moira’s face as they walked side by side towards the cars. She waited for James to bring up whatever he wanted to say and in the silence her eye fell on the endless fascination of the far off yacht masts in the marina, making her think of Alex. Perhaps James was right; she should let him persuade her to go out there with him. After all, she had never actually been to the BVI, there would be some sailing, she would make sure of that, however hard a task master Alex might try to be. If she found it as claustrophobic as she feared she would, living on a tiny group of islands with Alex the only person she knew and the nearest decent shops on the American mainland, she could still come back to cloudy, damp England whenever she chose. As it was, she would have to find somewhere to live if Alex went; he was hardly likely to keep his house even if it had been her home for the last few months. She could still see the faintly apologetic look in his eye as he scrunched up his face and told her, ‘Sorry, Moira but I’m going to have to sell. That’s another reason for you to come out with me, isn’t it?’
Because you’ll be homeless.
It wasn’t good enough but it might have to do. Next to her, James had begun talking.
‘I feel bad even thinking about asking you and of course if you go with Alex you won’t have time. And I entirely understand if you say that you can’t help or if you don’t wa—‘
‘James, you’re blathering. Just tell me.’
‘It’s Richard.’
Moira pictured James’s sleek, contented brother, with his ample frame filling out a bespoke suit and his air of letting nothing much interfere with his hedonistic view of the world. James had never explained it to her properly but Richard had somehow been indirectly and unwittingly involved in the job she was working on when she and James became friends. She saw that James had gone silent again and wondered what Richard had done now. From light but heartfelt remarks James had made to her, she knew that he did not regard his brother as the best lawyer that ever stalked the planet and that Richard’s conservative approach to running the family law practice made James angry and frustrated.
‘What about him?’ she asked eventually as they reached the cars.
‘Let’s wander along the path to the marina. If you’ve got time?’
She nodded, hoping he would not be too long. The path was muddy from rain earlier in the day and she trod carefully in her court shoes, glad she had not chosen to tower over him in stilettos. As it was, even the modest heels she was wearing brought her level and made her feel like a giant. She sighed. She should be used to it by now.
‘I don’t know how much you know about the set-up these days,’ he began. ‘At the office, I mean.’
‘You’re the boss; he’s the senior partner. Since you took over, the firm has grown dramatically and the bank manager takes you out to lunch. You’ve got a whole load of new partners and the line across your forehead, the one you worry with, has…’ She traced the indentation in his skin with the painted nail of her index finger, making him stop to look at her.
‘… got deeper.’
‘Succinct,’ he commented approvingly. ‘You’d have made a lousy lawyer.’
‘What you couldn’t possibly know, unless you’d seen him is that Richard has lost three stone in weight. He won’t tell me what the matter is and neither will Mary, although she may not know herself. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he was worrying to death about something.’
Or has cancer, thought Moira.
‘I was hoping, I don’t know, that you might be able to talk to him, find out what’s wrong. Or to Mary perhaps.’
‘Does he have any reason to worry?’ asked Moira. ‘I mean, Carpenter & Son is still going well, he’s glad to be out of Claims Online, Mary isn’t about to get pregnant or leave him?
James shook his head. ‘None of the above. If anything, he’s glad that we got paid out from COL. He thinks the whole thing will go down the pan now that I’m not there, which is flattering but no reason for him to feel concerned. And at 49, I think Mary’s safe from a late pregnancy. If she’s about to leave, she’s not telling me and Carpenter & Son is fine. As you correctly observe, it’s making me worry but Richard thinks that’s what I’m for.’
‘And he’s not ill?’ Moira cast a worried glance at James. He lifted a shoulder in a helpless shrug.
‘I’ve asked him. He says not. But he looks gaunt. He looks ill, he looks as I imagine he would if he… you know…had cancer or something. But he says he’s fine. Says the doc told him to lose some weight so he doesn’t understand why I’m fussing.’
‘He might be right.’ Moira put a hand on James’s sleeve.
‘There’s something else.’
‘Hang on a moment. My mobile’s going. I’d better answer it.’
James nodded as she retrieved the device from her jacket and pressed the answer button. He turned towards the river to give her privacy and watched a sleek two masted yacht, a millionaire’s toy, glide past him, the reflection of its gleaming white hull disintegrating as it cut through the oily water, its diesel thudding in the background. At the wheel was a man who looked too young to be either a millionaire or the owner of such a boat, one hand negligently fondling the wheel, the other holding a cup of some sort. James sighed, envying him his opportunity, however he had gained it, to spend the afternoon on the water in the cool light of a late spring afternoon. Probably a drug dealer, he thought dismissively as he felt the envy rise in his gorge, knowing that even if he had the money, a sense of duty he could not control would somehow prevent him from just setting out to do something as simple as enjoy himself. He hated himself for simultaneously wishing that it was he, not the careless young man, at the helm of the beautiful boat. He strained to see its name as it disappeared into the haze and grinned as he made out the letters.
Pop Idle.
Not bad, he thought, unless you were a purist and insisted all boats must be named after a woman. And what did it mean? That the owner had made his money out of pop music? Or that his father was rich and so was he? Or nothing? It didn’t matter much either way. He glanced back at Moira who was facing him, her mouth slightly open, her brow furrowed, a look of concentration flickering around her brown eyes as she spoke. He found himself admiring again her long legs sheathed in their nylon coating, emerging from the pleated black skirts she liked to wear. He loved the way they swirled around her thighs when she turned, as if they had energy of their own. Her dark hair was shorter now and fell in a complicated layered cut (or so she had told him) which flicked out at the ends at shoulder level. He thought he preferred it longer but had not told her.
She flicked shut the mobile and pursed her lips, looking worried.
‘Problem?’ he asked.
‘I don’t know. That was Donald. Apparently, he’s just taken a strange call from the Virgin Islands. Someone trying to get hold of me, terrible line so it was all a bit incoherent but I think the gist was that the caller wanted to know if I had heard from Alex today.’ She paused and tapped a tooth thoughtfully, a familiar gesture that he loved.
‘Have you?’
‘No. In fact, I haven’t spoken to Alex since he left last Monday.’
‘Why did whoever it was want to know whether you had spoken to him?’
‘Because he seems to have gone missing.’

Posted in Books, Chapter 3, The Devil's Sandpit | 9 Comments

A Discovery of Wtches : a seekabook review

Article first published as Book Review: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness on Blogcritics.

I don’t know when vampires moved from genre reading (Anne Rice’s series of books and the Brad Pitt/Tom Cruise film Interview with a Vampire marked a starting point of sorts) into the mainstream. Perhaps Joss Whedon’s TV show Buffy The Vampire Slayer which appealed to a wide audience as a result of its clever mix of action and smart dialogue was the catalyst. More recently the Twilight series (aimed at teenage girls) have been hugely successful and seem to have spawned pale imitations galore. Just type “vampires” into the Amazon search box if you doubt me. Nor should we forget Harry Potter and the successful marketing of children’s books to adults. There are no vampires at Hogwarts that I can recall (although there was a werewolf) but the books legitimised the weird and wonderful and gave both vampires and werewolves a helpful leg-up.

Which brings me with some relief to a proper book for grown ups. A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness is at its heart a love story but the fantasy elements are never far away. She has created a recognisable world set at first in academic Oxford inhabited by the four types of being – humans, witches, vampires and daemons – and the book largely concentrates on the last three.

Diana Bishop is from a long line of witches but is in denial about her powers and the responsibilities that go with them. She has never been trained as a witch and her powers are (unknown to her) circumscribed by her late parents’ spells.

Matthew Clairmont is a long lived vampire with a past, a temper and looks to die for, as Diana discovers when they meet in the Bodleian library where she discovers a mysterious book. Soon the witches and the vampires are at each other’s throats as they watch and wait for Diana to unlock the secrets of the ancient text. Only Matthew seems to want to protect Diana from these dangers, which is just as well since she seems oblivious to the threat. In fact in the early part of the book she is not a very sympathetic character, any more indeed than is Matthew. His over-protectiveness, old-fashioned notions of the relationship between modern man and woman and the clear and present danger he seems to offer to everyone including Diana make him a strong rather than likeable character.

The action moves to France in the second part of the book and we meet Matthew’s family, including his mother Ysabeau and her companion Marthe. Ysabeau (is a better term than mother) is formidable and doesn’t think much of Diana, at least until she starts to show off some of her more formidable (if uncontrolled) powers. Marthe is a bit nicer, thank goodness.

This is a long book. It goes into enormous detail about vampires and their habits and powers and there are long descriptions of meals, riding horses, Matthew’s past and Diana’s academic world. It is a bit surprising therefore that there is more or less no action until Diana is abducted by a witch and tortured rather gruesomely until Matthew and his brother can locate and rescue her. This episode marks a number of turning points – Diana and Matthew’s love for each becomes overt as do Diana’s powers.

The final section of the book takes us back to the States where Diana’s Aunt Sarah and her companion Em are as mistrustful of Matthew as his family were of Diana. There is a theme here – two sets of female companions, one strong, and the other more empathetic- but in some ways the mirror image feels a bit lazy. Here too there is a crisis when a vampire former girlfriend of Matthew’s more or less kills him. From there it becomes clear that we are in trilogy territory as the plot sets up the elements for the second and third books.

To be honest, by the end of the book, I could have wished for a little more closure and a bit less set-up.

Other reviews have been mixed. Many people just loved the book and can’t wait for more, which is a sort of masochism I have never much subscribed to. Others object to the slightly repetitious nature of some of the descriptions and I certainly think that a sharp editor might have made this a better book.

However, I did enjoy it. The back stories of both witches and better still the vampires were well done and gave the characters both depth and mystery. I would have liked to see more of the daemons in the story (although that would have made the book even longer) but perhaps they will be given their chance in the later volumes.

On the other hand, it was never quite clear to me what a centuries old vampire saw in a slightly confused (if academically very clever) witch with more or less no powers, especially since relationships between the two species are forbidden by the all powerful Congregation, a group of witches, daemons and vampires who are the official opposition to Matthew, Diana and their friends and family.

Deborah Harkness has written academic books before but this was her first published novel (you never know what earlier attempts lurk on the computer, never to see the light of day). It will be interesting to see what improvements she can make in writing (and editing) when the second volume appears.

Posted in Books | 9 Comments

What’s new this week-18th April

Until my new website goes live,hopefully in the not too distant future,I shall be highlighting new books in a weekly blog and this is the first.

Before I do that however it would be remiss of me not to let you know that Amazon has a Kindle e-book sale. The prices are pretty enticing, most books are only a pound or a little more. The quality is a bit variable but there are several books from the terrific Peter Carey and in amongst the names that were new to me I can recommend:

Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White (the tv adaptation of which currently enjoying good reviews)
The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe (a splendid Roman adventure from my childhood just out in the cinemas)
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ from Philip Pullman
William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms (which I am annoyed to have bought on audio book but not yet read)

There are about 20 pages so it’s worth a good look.

Amazon’s Spring Spectacular

Okay, turning to new books, hands up if you have started Infinite Jest by the late David Foster Wallace. Okay hands down if you didn’t finish it. Thought so. Still, if you enjoyed it (or parts of it as I did) his final book The Pale King may be worth a look. It’s a typical Foster Wallace effort, long sentences, incredibly detailed explanations of the activities of an Inland Revenue office, and not much in the way of plot or an ending. The Pale King

I like the look of The Coincidence Engine by Sam Leith. The plot features a crashed passenger jet that reassembles itself, the mysterious Directorate of the Extremely Improbable and a man on a mission to get his girlfriend to marry him. Not for those with no sense of the ridiculous but a delight for the rest of us.

Another first novel that’s worth a look is Girl Reading by Katie Ward. It’s essentially seven different stories linked by a portrait of a woman. Doesn’t sound much good does it? But the execution is first class and the voices are well differentiated and powerful.

Whatever you do, don’t miss the latest Wilbur Smith. It features a spoilt heiress kidnapped by Somalian pirates, a daring rescue by security expert Hector Cross, betrayal by a trusted colleague and a loathsome villain. There are some spectacular set pieces some of which at the end are not for the faint-hearted. Unmissable.

My final choice in fiction is Skippy Dies by Paul Murray out now in paperback. It’s set in a Dublin school and features a dazzling array of themes from string theory, young love, role playing computer games and a revealing visit to a girls’ school dormitory.

My non fiction pick is Money and Power by William D Cohan. It’s a look at financial giant Goldman Sachs, its methods of operating and generating profits, not to mention the tensions this crates when its trading activities are at odds with the advice it gives its clients.

See you next week. Comments as always very welcome.

Posted in Books, E-books | 7 Comments

The Devil’s Sandpit : Chapter 2

Chapter 2: The Last Resort

The tortured screaming from the tiny plane’s engine had started to make his teeth ache and he wondered what the chances were that some mechanical failure would cause the flimsy craft to fall out of the sky. The absolute reliance which aero engineers placed on their pre flight maintenance checks felt too much like wishful thinking to him. How could they be sure that some vital rod or piston or whatever was not about to shatter? It was not as if they could view the internal parts which were the ones most likely to fail. And you never seemed to hear about accidents involving small planes. Was that because there weren’t any or because in backwaters like this they happened too frequently to be newsworthy?
Alex grinned. He liked to torment himself with these thoughts, as if he ought to be afraid of flying and because he wasn’t, had to invent some plausible reason to be nervous. He glanced out of the window and saw that they were making the approach to the Beef Island strip – still, despite all the talk, only suitable for dinky toy planes like this one. To one side of the airport – a grand title for a modest facility – lay the Last Resort and he could make out the yachts anchored in Trellis Bay. He wondered if the old boy who ran the restaurant was still there doing his after dinner turn on his electronic piano. How long had it been since he was here last? Four years at least. A lot of things would have changed. Possibly. This was the British Virgin islands and the pace of change was slow. Even on a fast day.
The island hopping plane rolled to a stop not far from the Immigration and Customs shed and Alex stepped out into a bright heat which plucked at his trousered legs and the back of his neck, reminding him that he was overdressed, until a breeze from nowhere cooled him and it felt as if he had come home. He squinted towards the shed and wondered if they had remembered to send a taxi for him. If not, there would be plenty of boys plying for custom. Inside the shed, he contained his impatience with the sulky immigration clerk, who was so obviously resentful of all visitors to the Islands- a rare bum note in the symphony the Islands played for him, collected his cases and made his way painlessly through Customs. Outside again in the bright sunshine, he slipped on sunglasses and looked around for a sign bearing his name, ignoring for the moment the shouted invitations from the boys waiting to pick up a fare. There was no sign but a tall islander in green shorts and white tee shirt, his eyes hidden behind a huge pair of design challenged sunglasses, came up, and said:
‘Mr Green?’ It came out a “Missah Gree” but it was close enough for Alex and he nodded. Immediately, another boy picked up his cases and all three men sauntered out to the tall boy’s green and white minivan. A few minutes later Alex could see Trellis Bay at ground level as the vehicle swayed and rattled over the bridge which separated Beef Island from Tortola, and then as they climbed up the hilly coast road the unreal blue of the Sir Francis Drake Channel unravelled before him, dotted with sails and flecked with white horses. Alex sighed with satisfaction, wishing that Moira were with him. He still didn’t understand why her job was more important than coming out with him, if only to see for herself. She had been asperity itself.
‘I told you, I can’t. I don’t have holiday booked until August. We were going to go to Greece, if you remember.’
‘This is better though, isn’t it?’ he pleaded.
‘If I could go, it might be, I don’t know. But I can’t. I start my new job in a week’s time. You do the math.’
She was unshakeable. It didn’t help that he didn’t know how long he would be here. ‘It’s a reconnaissance trip. For me to meet the existing team and see which ones I want to keep when we complete. And to find somewhere for …somewhere to live. But I want to use the time to understand the operation a bit and that could take a while.’
In the end, he was glad she had been adamant. Since the evening with Davey and Kristin, he thought she had changed. She was withdrawn but ready to snap at the slightest provocation, as if she was living on a knife-edge of some sort. They had not had sex since that evening, not even last night after he had finished packing.
‘Sorry, Alex. I’m tired. Don’t feel like it tonight. How about tomorrow? Oh sorry, I forgot.’
Nasty, he thought. Not like her at all. Almost as if she were trying to provoke him into telling her it was over. Which it was, of course, if he moved out to the BVI to work and she stayed in England nursing her precious job. He hoped that by the time he came back she would have had time to work out how great it would be. He hadn’t told her, but he was sure there would be a role for her helping him in the marina. Not in the office, that would be too risky, but with the customers perhaps or supervising on the marina. That was one of the reasons, although not the most important, that he was out here – to understand the job he had taken on. Running a marina was quite unlike anything he had ever done before and although his computer skills and accounting know how would come in handy, he was painfully aware that his lack of local knowledge, especially when it came to dealing with the staff, might be a problem. He refused to think about the long list of other things he didn’t know enough about – boats, charterers, BVI law, BVI accountancy practice, weather, the Islands themselves, the list was endless. He grinned in a way that he knew Moira hated. It was full of satisfaction and confidence, a feral grimace.
The minivan turned into Soper’s Hole with a squeal of brakes and a few minutes later he was standing on the dusty apron at the rear of the office complex and squinting through a gap in the buildings out onto the water. He could see a single yacht making its way down the inlet – or was it an estuary? Whatever the correct name was, the channel narrowed and became too shallow for anything more than a dinghy or a runabout not many metres beyond the marina dock. In one direction anyway. In the other, the waterway widened at its mouth and led out into the Sir Francis Drake Channel. Turn left for the rest of Tortola and the islands that made up the British part of the Virgin Islands. Turn right and keep going for the American part, cruise ships and a sort of civilisation on St Thomas, a game reserve on St John and St Croix far to the South.
His cases had disappeared and he walked slowly towards the water, breathing in deeply the mingled smells of warmth and sea, tacos and burgers from the Pussers Bar at one end of the marina, diesel fuel from the dock and foliage from the undergrowth behind him. He glanced at his watch and saw it was nearly five o’clock – ten in the evening at home. He wasn’t tired yet but he would be before he could sleep. Better to get it over with whilst he could still think, this encounter with a man who could do a lot of damage if he were minded to. Alex expected to find bitterness and resentment rather than sweetness and light. He was not sure how he would feel if it were someone stealing his job in paradise, but he had to do whatever he could to minimise the damage done before completion of the sale the following month.
On the wooden dock, the ranks of moored yachts held his attention, as they always did, and he was lost in a reverie for a moment, contemplating the magic of neatly coiled ropes and intricate deck fittings, white sails hidden beneath their bright covers or wound tightly into the mast, wooden decks, GRP gloss, powerful chrome pulpits, unusual names. On board the boat nearest him, a forty-foot Bénéteau called Holy Smoke, a pretty girl in a turquoise sarong tidied up the cockpit, offering the occasional instruction to an unseen companion below decks. Music from the speakers shimmied over the water and he recognised the gravely tones of Hooty and the Blowfish. A slow smile spread over his face and he did not hear the footsteps behind him.
‘Great sight, isn’t it?’ The voice was low, easy, with a New Zealand twang.
Alex nodded slowly, still held in the moment. ‘It certainly is.’ Then he turned and held out his hand. ‘You must be Angus Fisher. I’m Alex Green.’
His hand was gripped in a dry brown paw, shaken firmly and released. ‘Hi, my friends call me Gus.’
‘Do I qualify?’ Alex risked asking as he inspected Angus’s open, slightly freckled face and saw that the pale blue eyes held no anger or malice.
Angus grinned. ‘We’ll see. Meantime, you must be hot in all that clobber. Come on into the office, it’s a bit cooler there and I’ll introduce you to the guys. Some of them are fretting a bit about their jobs. They may not greet you like a long lost uncle, mind.’
Alex followed Angus’s broad shoulders into the marina main office and stood by his side as he introduced Alex to his team. Alex had the feeling they had been instructed to assemble in readiness for his arrival that afternoon and he wished he had had a chance to settle in first. Apart from anything else, he knew he would not remember the names. If Angus wanted to put him at a disadvantage, this was a good way of doing it. It wouldn’t be surprising if he did.
A mixture of light and dark skins gazed at him impassively once Angus had completed the roll call, obviously expecting him to say something to them He had no idea what they were hoping for.
‘It’s very nice to meet you all,’ he said eventually. ‘Having a brain like a sieve, I hope you’ll forgive me if it takes me a day or so for all the names to sink in. In any case, I’d like to speak to each of you individually whilst I’m here, if that’s okay.’
He paused and glanced at Angus. ‘One thing I should emphasise. I’m here under sufferance until next month when the sale is completed. Angus is still the boss.’
Angus nodded and said, ‘Thanks, Alex. Right everyone, back to work, please.’ He gripped Alex’s elbow and steered him into a small room at the back of the main office. ‘Chart briefing room. Also my office, although I’m not in it much, thank god. Beer?’ He pulled two cans from a cool box in the corner, felt one with his cheek, nodded in satisfaction and handed it to Alex.
‘That went okay, I think. Good health.’
‘Cheers,’ responded Alex, tipping cold lager into his throat and wishing he could change into cooler clothes.
‘Couple of things I ought to mention, Alex.’
‘Uh uh.’
‘First, I thought you might like to bunk down on one of the boats. Have some privacy, take her out for a sail if you want, I can lend you a boy to do the running around if you’d like. Is that okay? If it’s not, you can have my room here,’ he inclined his head upwards, ‘ and I’ll shift out to the boat.’
‘No, that sounds fine. Thanks for thinking of it,’ said Alex warmly.
‘Needs must really, there’s not much spare space in the building. The second thing is that you may have noticed there was a face conspicuous by its absence at my little assembly just now?’
Alex hadn’t.
‘Mary Jane, my number two, is having a cob. Decided she had a half day coming to her and wouldn’t be here to greet you.’
‘It’s not important. I’ll see her tomorrow.’ Alex shrugged. If this Mary Jane had a problem with him, she could start her job-hunting sooner rather than later.
‘Fine. She’s kind of significant round here.’
Alex doubted that but said nothing.
‘Shall we go and find The Last Refuge then?’ Angus asked him, standing up and tossing his crushed beer can into a bin with a degree of casual accuracy that told Alex it was not the first time he had done it. His own followed it – more carefully.
Last Refuge? Of a scoundrel? Alex a smiled to himself. Angus did not look like a man familiar with the works of Dr Johnson.
The Last Refuge was moored on a pontoon some distance from the marina office, past Pussers and the shops to the right of the office, making Alex wonder if Angus had a reason for not offering him a room in the main building. To his surprise, the boat was a Scandinavian built Maxi, with teak decks and beautifully constructed hardwood fittings.
‘I was expecting to be on a Bénéteau or something,’ Alex said.
‘Beaut, isn’t she? The hull’s fibreglass, of course and some people say she’s a bit too sturdy for these friendly waters but she’ll be very comfortable. I’ve arranged for her to be fully provisioned, you’re connected to water and power and there’s even an Internet connection. Your cases are on board. I’ll leave you to have a look around but if you find you’re missing anything, give me a shout. I’ll be in the office for another hour or so.’
The New Zealander sketched a farewell and began to walk back towards the office, then walked back. ‘Sorry, I forgot to ask. Will you want anything tomorrow morning, do you think? If not, I was planning to take a boat up to the Bitter End.’
‘I’ve got a meeting in Road Town, so unless I need you to meet Mary Jane…’
Angus grinned. ‘I wouldn’t be enough protection, mate.’
Alex grinned back, wondering what sort of harridan Mary Jane would turn out to be. Obviously Angus wasn’t going to tell him any more about her and he pictured with some relish a feisty thirty year old with New York attitude, short auburn hair, long legs and a generous mouth housing an acid tongue. Nothing he couldn’t handle. He sighed. It was more likely that she would be a fifty five year old spinster with a rock solid bosom, huge arse, and a schoolmarm’s strict approach to transgression of the office rules she had laid down. Much more likely.
He stepped aboard The Last Refuge and stood for a moment surveying his new home before climbing down the steps to the cabin below. His cases had been stowed in the aft cabin, which was the larger of the two sleeping areas and boasted an en suite shower and toilet. The fridge was full of beers, wine, steaks, chicken, and fruit. They were obviously expecting him to cook on board. Some chance. He unpacked and stowed his clothes away, changing into shorts and tee shirt, at once feeling more comfortable. It was a pity he couldn’t dress as casually as this for the meeting tomorrow but lawyers were lawyers.
He went back up on deck and sat contemplating the end of day activity. On the water, the main trade was small laden dinghies, their noses in the air, as they ferried their owners towards the shore where Pussers was beginning to be busy. Happy Hour had been going for long enough to generate friendly noise from the regulars and Alex could smell the more subtle smells of the evening menu. He suddenly felt hungry and wished Moira were with him. He hated eating on his own at any time and it was worse when everyone around him was on holiday enjoying themselves. Damn the woman. Perhaps he could persuade Angus to join him. The New Zealander had been more friendly and easy going than Alex had dared hope and he had found himself charmed by the man’s relaxed good humour. And what better way to find out how the marina ran than from the man himself?
‘Mr Green?’
He looked up and saw that he had been caught napping again. A petite figure in cut-off jeans and polo shirt stood by the side of the boat, her hand shading her eyes from the sun and hiding her face from him. He had no idea who she was.
‘Hello there. That’s me.’
‘Can I come aboard?’
‘I was going to have something to eat.’ He indicated Pussers with a lazy hand. ‘I decided against the swill on the plane so I’m famished. Would you like to keep me company?’
‘No thanks.’
‘Oh. Then why should I invite you aboard? Am I missing something?’ Alex was suddenly both irritated and nonplussed. He sat up and squinted at the young woman. ‘And who are you, anyway?’
‘Let me aboard and I’ll tell you everything.’
Everything? What the hell was going on?
‘No thanks,’ he said, pleased with the echo.
‘You are…infuriating.’ Her voice was filled with a fury he did not understand.
‘Why? Because I won’t do what you ask?’ Suddenly he knew who she was. ‘Why don’t we call a truce, I’ll say I’m sorry. We can blame the jet lag, I’ll buy you a drink, and we can start again. I really am interested in what you want to say. And if I’d worked out who you were a bit earlier, I wouldn’t have been so contrary. There, how’s that?’
She looked at him, nonplussed herself now. ‘Who am I then?’
He sighed. ‘You’re Angus’s number two, Mary Jane. Let’s go and have a drink anyway.’ He stood up, debated whether to lock the cockpit and decided against it, checked his pocket for dollars and jumped over the rail before she could start to argue with him again. He was beginning to see what Angus had in mind but she followed him docilely enough as he strode off towards the bar without a backwards glance at her.
Pussers was the success story of the Virgin Islands. They owned and ran pubs, restaurants, resorts, shops, and hotels throughout the area and their food was consistent and excellent. They were also the force behind Pussers Rum -an essential ingredient of the Painkiller – the ubiquitous and highly intoxicating rum based and aptly named cocktail. Alex ordered himself one now, leaning carelessly against the circular bar, and raising his eyebrows to enquire of Mary Jane what if anything she wanted. He half expected her to offer him a sulky shake of her head but instead it seemed her mood had changed. She smiled brightly at him and he saw her face for the first time.
‘I’ll have a Painkiller too. God knows I need it.’
She was quite unlike either of the two stereotypes Alex had imagined. Seated now on the stool next to him, it was hard to be certain of her height but he would be surprised if she topped five foot one. Her hair was a rich corn colour and she wore it long and tousled. Her eyes were a translucent grey and now that she had calmed down, he was able to see that they fitted into her face very nicely. Her mouth was small, with full lips. Beauty is always a fine balance of planes and angles, complexion and colouring, muscle and underlying serenity and the most desirable face in the world can turn very ugly when it fills with tears or allows itself to be distorted by anger or jealousy.
Mary Jane was nice looking but she wasn’t beautiful. Perhaps it was just too obvious that beneath the pretty exterior the fires were raging. Alex guessed that her lack of height might have made her stand up for herself a little too hard when she was at school and things had gone from bad to fucking bad tempered from there.
‘Angus said you had the afternoon off,’ he ventured.
‘So, obviously I should have known better than to say anything unless I wanted my head bitten off. Look Mary Jane, it’s quite a long flight from England, I’m tired, jet lagged, hungry, and getting pissed off. You wanted to talk to me. I wanted to eat. Excuse me while I order something.’
He picked up a menu, his anger at her abruptness making it impossible for him to take in the words on the brightly coloured card. He knew that he should not have snapped at her, which only fuelled his anger – this time with himself. He eventually managed to concentrate on the words long enough to decide he would try a fiery sounding local dish as the painkillers arrived. He handed Mary Jane the menu with a grimace and a shrug and found that she was looking at him with a rueful smile.
‘I didn’t mean to light your fuse,’ she said, accepting the menu. ‘I have a knack.’
‘It was a bit short,’ he told her. ‘What will you have to eat?’
‘Nothing. That’s not me being a pain in the butt. I ate earlier.’ She picked up her Painkiller and sipped the rum concoction carefully and he followed her example, knowing that the sweet mixture was relaxing in small quantities and lethal in large. Neither of them said anything for a few minutes, letting the day turn suddenly to night, as it liked to do in the Caribbean, whilst around them the restaurant tables filled up with early-eating American families and in a corner of the bar a band set up its instruments. Alex breathed in the exotic smells of spicy food and the comforting scents released by the heat from all around; the water, the wooden decking; the breeze; also a hint of something less perfect. He listened to the unique sounds made by the rigging in the masts boats and the chatter of the happy holidaymakers at the bar. He was glad he was here and grateful he was not alone. He discovered that Mary Jane was inspecting him over the rim of her glass.
‘You’re not what I expected, ‘ she said. Coming from her that might be a compliment but it probably wasn’t.
He grinned. ‘Nor you. Angus hinted at horns, but I don’t see any.’
‘I’ll kill him.’ It was matter of fact. She resumed her concentrated attack on the rum drink.
‘Would you care to enlighten me now? On what you wanted to see me about?’ He half expected her to reply “No”.
Instead, she looked at him again, quizzically now and said simply, ’I came to warn you about something, but I’m not sure any more.’
‘Not sure you want to warn me or not sure I need to be warned?’
‘Just not sure.’
He nodded, as if he understood and once more wished Moira were here. After she had mutilated him for picking up this girl, she would have been much better than him at worming her secrets out of her.
‘It might be better if I showed you, ‘ she offered eventually, the straw sucking air. She pushed the glass away with the air of a repentant sinner instructing the devil to stand to one side.
‘Showed me what?’ he asked.
‘if I told you, it wouldn’t be showing, would it?’ she answered reasonably.
‘I suppose not.’
‘Well? Are you coming?’
It wasn’t often that he met anyone with this many screws loose and he found himself equally intrigued and infuriated. All the same, he was supposed to be working, not disappearing with a mad young woman on a mystery jaunt.
‘How long will it take? Where are we going?’ he asked, trying to recover the initiative.
Her scorn was withering. ‘Are you always this up tight?’ she asked, her frown splitting her forehead in two.
He hadn’t stammered since he was at school. ‘No, I—‘
‘Shut up about it, anyway,’ she told him cheerfully, the glare replaced with a sweet smile. ‘Look who’s here.’
‘Hullo Mary Jane. I didn’t expect to see you here,’ said a deep voice behind Alex.
‘Hi, Gus. Look who I bumped into, all on his lonesome.’
‘I can see. Just flesh wounds so far, Alex or should I call a medic?’ Angus grinned at his own wit, white teeth gleaming in the darkness he had silently emerged from.
‘Have a drink, Angus. The Painkillers are anaesthetising the pain – just like it says on the label. Talking of which, Mary Jane, you seem to have finished yours.’
‘I’ll hand you over to Gus’s tender mercies, I think. Here, have my seat. I’ll be back in a moment.’ She disappeared in the direction of the ladies rest rooms and Angus slid onto her vacant stool.
He nodded at the girl behind the bar, ’beer please, my usual. And a painkiller.’
‘No no, I’ll have a beer too. My jet lag is catching up.’
A minute later Mary Jane was back. ’Nice to have met you, Alex.’ She held out her hand in farewell and he grasped it, feeing a tickle in his palm as she withdrew, then turned to Angus and kissed him on the cheek, one hand resting casually on his thigh as she did so. Alex felt a twinge of lust and a dash of envy and wondered what the relationship was between the marina manager and his assistant. Then she was gone, striding purposefully along the marina dock, greeting the occasional acquaintance with a smile or a remark. The two men watched her go, then turned back towards the bar.
‘Quite a girl. As you said.’ Alex reached into his shorts pocket for money to pay the bar bill.
‘Oh, yes. Drink up.’
An hour later, full of Creole food and Budweiser, Alex waved a wobbly farewell to Angus and staggered along the pontoon towards his boat. It was only 9.30 but for Alex it felt like 2.30 in the morning and he could barely put one foot in front of the other, he was so tired. The Last Refuge lay exactly as he had left her, his beer can resting on the cockpit table, the hatch to the cabin below open and unlocked. Shadows from somewhere fell onto the hull and Alex felt a shiver of anxiety as he steeped over the rail. It would not have been difficult for someone to have crept aboard unseen to await his return and pounce on him now. This might be paradise but there were a lot of people who would not regard him as a welcome visitor to it. He had been careless but at least now, he was wide-awake again.
He stood on the cockpit deck and listened. Pussers was revving at full speed and the band was playing its heart out but it was still quiet on the mooring, a trick of wind and water he imagined. The boat creaked and a fender squealed as the boat moved slightly against its spring line. There was no human sound and he let out the breath he had not been aware he was holding. He must buy himself a torch tomorrow or borrow one from Gus.
Gus. Not Angus. The New Zealander had looked at him the third or fourth time he had used his full name and said, amused, ‘for fuck’s sake, Alex, I was only joking. Everyone calls me Gus, okay?’
He shook his head in disgust at his anxiety. There was no one waiting for him below. Even so, it would do no harm to rig a primitive alarm to warn him of anyone coming on board. Just in case. He would need some string and a frying pan but it could wait until the morning. He pulled back the hatch and stepped onto the companionway steps, pausing for a paranoid moment to be certain the boat was empty. All he could hear was the sloosh of water against the hull and he was so tired that he kicked off his deck shoes and shorts onto the floor by the side of the bunk and fell onto it without even bothering to find the light.
In the right hand pocket of his shorts, Mary Jane’s unread note lay forgotten.

Posted in Chapter 2, The Devil's Sandpit | 16 Comments