‘And top marks for this week’s essay go to Ian Turner,’ the teacher announced in her matter-of-fact voice. Only there was nothing matter-of-fact about it, and the young girl felt her resentment rising as she studied the young boy’s face; his smirk burned like hot coals on her cheeks as he turned and gloated at her.
She nearly always won the school’s creative writing competitions and would have done this time had it not been for the little bastard’s prying into her exercise book.
‘He’s been cheating, Miss Porter,’ the girl objected sourly, an arm snaked towards the boy.
‘Now then, no sour grapes young madam, learn to be gracious in...’
‘Here – you check then...’ the girl hurled her book towards the teacher and then clasped her arms tightly around her waist – ‘with this. You’ll find out I’m right – he just rearranged my words and changed the ending...’
But the girl wasn’t listening to the teacher as she reached across and wrestled the boy for his book, until Miss Porter’s hand thumped down heavily on the desk. ‘Cease this now! I’ll have no unruly behaviour in my class. Leave the room; I’ll speak to you later.’
The young girl did more than leave the room – she left the school buildings and strutted along the street to where a broad alleyway led to the Grand Union Canal. She stood there for several minutes, both hands gripping the railings of the old timber bridge that spanned it, her rage evaporating not one bit. The little runt had crept back to class after school, rifled the teacher’s draw for her book and then all but copied her work – he had to have done – there was no other way he could have beaten her.
The thought made her shake with anger.
She checked her watch; school would be over in ten minutes, old Miss Porter would be expecting her apology. Well she could wait on, she wasn’t going back today. She was going to do the waiting – for that brat Ian Turner. She’d have a surprise waiting for him. He’d need to cross the bridge to get to the cul-de-sac that lay beyond the field on the other side. If luck went her way he’d be alone and her little surprise would bear fruit.
And luck did go her way. One or two kids passed by unaware of her presence as she stood back in the shade of a large oak, before Turner ambled by, hands in his trouser pockets, that stupid smirk still glued to his face, school bag dangling from his shoulder.
Ignorant of her presence...
Until her hand wrapped around the strap of his bag and she pulled with all the force of her right arm, swinging him towards her, a look of aggrieved surprise on his podgy face.
‘Let me go you cow...’ his eyes became full moons and he swung in desperation trying to fend her off, but the girl’s hands were strong and she had the element of surprise. Those hands were now on the lapels of his school blazer and possessed enough power to raise him from the ground as she began to swing him round. Her intention had been to hurl him into the thicket, to teach him a lesson not to mess with her – it would have only been his word against hers – only she couldn’t stop – she wasn’t going to – her anger increased with every revolution and so it seemed did her strength. It was strange – she was angry and yet she enjoyed her power over him – but it had to end –
And so it did, with a splash that created rippling waves that crashed to both banks of the canal after she’d launched him into it.
No thoughts crossed her mind that he couldn’t swim, despite his desperate cries for help – and even though that fact was known to her.
He’d copied her story and now he’d paid the price. That was all that mattered to her when all said and done.
The girl stood there expressionless before smacking her hands together and making her way home.
‘I’m telling you Martin, I can’t do it. Not this time.’ Alexander Goldhawk stood up, turned his back on Carruthers, and gazed out of the fifth floor window at the panorama of lean office blocks. He stood for several seconds, hands thrust deep into his trouser pockets and then turned and sighed. ‘Look, times are hard, Martin. Sales are falling and let’s face it, Chelsey’s in particular. The old man won’t buy it. We have to make cutbacks somewhere, and I’m afraid that ‘A Woman’s Jungle,’ isn’t what he’ll want.’
Carruthers crouched forward in his chair, examining his fingers for some imaginary blemish before staring up at the tall, slim, silver-haired figure of Goldhawk. ‘Stop blaming Goddard, Alex, we both know who calls the shots here. You mean you won’t buy it. You’re the editor for heaven’s sake – what the blazes am I going to tell Chelsey?’
‘I’m afraid Chelsey’s your problem, Martin.’ Goldhawk’s lips developed a sympathetic twist as he strode back to his desk, placing his hands flat upon it. ‘Martin, you’re a fine agent – and you know well enough the fact that I’m not taking Chelsey’s new work doesn’t mean it won’t be accepted elsewhere. Another publishing house might take it, probably will. I simply can’t fit it into my budget. Sorry.’
‘So that’s it?’
‘Yes, I’m afraid it is.’
Carruthers stood, shaken and angry, refused Goldhawk’s outstretched hand and headed for the door. ‘Martin, wait…’ Goldhawk called but Carruthers was having none of it. He hurried down the stairs not bothering to wait for the lift. He needed a smoke and time to cool his sizzling mind before returning home with the bad tidings.
Outside he found a small park, an oasis of quiet in bustling Kensington. He sat on a vacant bench, drew a cigarette from his pocket and lit one. He considered whether he should have heeded Goldhawk’s plea to wait, but his instinct told him to have done so would have served no purpose. His own impression prior to seeing Goldhawk was that Chelsey’s latest offering was short of her strongest work, but Chelsey could be headstrong at times and volatile, so he hadn’t ventured his opinion. Nonetheless, he hadn’t expected an outright rejection from Goldhawk – if nothing else, Chelsey’s reputation should have guaranteed a good sale, true there had been a slight downturn in demand but that was true of the industry in general. He’d found himself questioning more often of late, whether the publisher was really in tune with what the public wanted, and a far-from-her -best Chelsey Carruthers could still engross the public. He sighed, jiggled his hand in his suit jacket. No sooner had he switched on his mobile phone than it rang.
‘So, Martin…’ Chelsey’s voice, loud and expectant. ‘What’s the deal?’
Carruthers took two giant puffs on his cigarette. ‘There isn’t one,’ he said flatly. ‘Look there’s no point in speaking here; we’ll talk when I get back.’ He curtailed the call before his wife had a chance to answer.
He felt double his thirty seven years as he anticipated the reaction that was sure to follow. His relationship with Chelsey had become increasingly capricious of late, and it hadn’t been helped by the fact that Casey Jennings, also on Carruthers’ books was gaining in popularity.
He was aware of the friction that existed between the two, though mystified as to why it existed. One thing was for sure, this development wasn’t going to make his life any easier. Chelsey was sure to find a way of pinning blame on him for lavishing too much attention to Casey’s career and not enough on her own. Nothing could be further from the truth but he would struggle to make her see as much. Carruthers wouldn’t describe himself as being amongst the most placid of people; he could rise to an argument easily enough, but Chelsey’s mood swings had increased in volume and intensity of late, and he viewed his coming confrontation with his wife with some trepidation.
He’d no doubt that given time and effort he could find another publisher to accept her work but his promise to do so was unlikely to pacify her in the slightest.
Thus with a strong sense of foreboding Carruthers extinguished his cigarette and headed for the car.
* * *
Twenty minutes later Carruthers arrived back home. Gathering his case from the back of his Range Rover he unlatched the gate to his detached mews house, a stone’s throw from the river at Chiswick.
Before he was halfway up the path the door was flung open and Chelsey stood there; a tall, lithe figure with tumbling locks of golden hair, and a scowl which obliterated her natural beauty.
‘What the hell have you done, Martin? How have you managed to botch this up?’
‘Cool it Chelsey, just cool it, right?’ Carruthers pushed his way past her, placed his case in the hall. ‘Let’s go through to the lounge and talk this out sensibly.’
Chelsey leaned on the door jamb, arms crossed, fingers tapping furiously on forearms as her eyes followed him. ‘So why is there no deal, Martin; what did he say?’
Carruthers sighed, lowering himself into a chair, trying to appear calm in the face of a simmering volcano. ‘Let’s face it love, you’re not producing the same standard of writing you were a few years back – and the economic downturn isn’t helping, either.’ Carruthers compressed his hands, interlocked his fingers. ‘I think Goldhawk’s a fool to reject you, he knows another leading house will snap you up…’
‘Oh they might, Martin.’ Chelsey tossed her head back, eyes all defiance, but I know I’m producing quality stuff; it’s you who’s not up to scratch. I’ll present my own case from now on.’
‘Fine, if that’s the way you want it!’ Carruthers flushed, aware that he was about to utter something he didn’t feel but unable to stop himself: ‘I can’t deliver on what you’re producing. I’m tired of carrying the can for your falling standards.’
‘Oh! When have you ever done anything that wasn’t in your own interests, Martin?’ Chelsey whirled round, snatched Carruthers’ case from the hall, rifled through it for her manuscript, and removing it, flung the case across the lounge where it struck his shielding arm.
‘Chelsey, for God’s sake, what’s got into you lately?’
Veins stood rigid in Chelsey’s neck as she clenched her teeth. ‘Concentrate on your main aim, why don’t you? Like promoting Jennings’ interests.’
Chelsey stormed out, a heavy thud reverberating throughout the ground floor as she slammed the oak door shut.
Carruthers sunk forward, digging fingertips into his furrowed brow. Was that it? Had that been at the heart of Chelsey’s fluctuating moods and deteriorating writing? The fact that Casey Jennings, also on his books, had come to be regarded in a higher vein than she?
Well it wasn’t his fault, he’d toiled for Chelsey, devoted more time to her cause over the years than to anyone else. And he couldn’t have foreseen that Goldhawk would choose to give her work the thumbs down.
He should be getting on with things; there were other writers deserving of his attention and he’d wasted too much time of late fretting over her. But even though only mid-afternoon he needed a drink; a stiff scotch. Was that what Chelsey was driving him to?
Pouring a double measure, he took it out to the patio, and placing it on the table, lit a cigarette. From the elevated decking he had a view down the sloping mews to the Thames. On a peaceful, balmy afternoon with a soft breeze invigorating the air he might have been at ease. Carruthers, however, was far from that enviable state of mind. After ten minutes slouched in his chair he replenished his glass and stared vacantly at the distant river.
It was sometime later that a hand on his shoulder restored Carruthers to consciousness. He squinted into Chelsey’s face. No longer angry, her apologetic stance enhancing her beauty where before her fury had blemished it.
‘I’m sorry Martin, I know you try your best for me, I let things get to me sometimes. I simply don’t know what’s got into me of late.’ Chelsey placed an arm around his shoulder and kissed his cheek. ‘Though I can’t accept the quality of my writing has declined in any way.’ Her gaze slipping from Carruthers to his glass she added, ‘And there’s really no need to resort to the booze darling. Go upstairs and sleep it off properly.’
‘I’ve done all the sleeping I’m going to.’ Carruthers got to his feet, took Chelsey in his arms. ‘I’ll be okay love. What time is it?’
‘Around six I think. I left my watch in the lounge.’
‘You mean I’ve been slouched there for three hours… Carruthers frowned. ‘Where have you been?’
‘Oh…’ Chelsey shrugged, gazed down towards the river. ‘Nowhere much; just for a walk along the towpath, trying to cool myself down. It’s so hot today.’ She swung back quickly, her face suddenly animated. ‘Say, we could both do with a break, you know,’ and then wrapping her arms around his neck. ‘Perhaps if we turned our back on London for just a few days? It’ll give me a chance to put things in perspective.’
‘What – you mean with your writing?’
‘Yes, of course,’ she said narrowing her eyes. ‘What else could I mean?’
Carruthers cast an eye down the mews, catching sight of a cruiser ferrying day-trippers along the river. ‘I can only manage a few days,’ he said, stroking his chin.
‘Oh I fully understand,’ she said, breaking away. ‘After all, Jennings will need mentoring.’
Carruthers sighed. There was a smile on her generous lips, but it was tight, forced.
‘Chelsey, please don’t…’
‘No, it’s okay honey.’ She waved his protestation aside, dropped onto a garden lounger and resting her back against the canvas, raised her long legs effortlessly onto it. ‘I can only manage a few days myself. Now be a darling and fetch me an orange squash.’
Carruthers went into the kitchen, prepared Chelsey’s drink and returned to her. ‘So, have anything in mind?’
‘Sure I have.’ Chelsey nodded, taking a sip from her drink and placing it on the table. ‘Somewhere close by – Hampshire. The New Forest would be ideal. We could take our cycles, or better still, hire a couple while we’re there. What do you say?’
‘We haven’t ridden in ages,’ Carruthers scoffed, but thought on reflection it might be the change in habit they both needed. ‘On second thoughts, perhaps you’ve got something there – though it hardly seems your style, my love.’
‘I’ve already told you I haven’t time for anything more exotic. Please listen, Martin,’ she said, a touch of animosity back in her voice.
Carruthers knew when to call it quits – the fingers of her left hand were wrestling those of her right, a sign of mounting irritation. ‘Okay, I can find decent accommodation online.’
‘No need to bother, honey. I’ll call Adrian. Adrian will know of somewhere.’
Adrian Frampton-Williams was Chelsey’s half brother and the mere mention of his name these days sent Carruthers’ stomach into freefall; not that he wasn’t supportive – to her at least – but it seemed that Adrian’s attitude towards her extended beyond the bounds of brotherly love. And that wasn’t all, he’d felt a hostility, both in Adrian’s eyes and his tone of voice. He’d been a frequent visitor throughout their marriage and had at times made Carruthers feel like a third, unwanted party, though of late his callings had been more spasmodic; at the same time however, Chelsey’s ramblings had seemed to increase. The realisation of that had given Carruthers uncomfortable food for thought.
Making a big effort to curb his resentment, Carruthers placed a hand on Chelsey’s shoulder. ‘I’ll leave you to call him then.’ He escaped into the house, away from the sweet accent Chelsey adopted when conversing with her half-brother.
He couldn’t escape the sound of Chelsey’s voice, but that wasn’t his problem, that came along with his misgivings whenever her voice became hushed.