Let’s be honest about it. A Woman of Previously Good Character is not exactly charging up the Amazon charts. In fact, to be even more brutally honest, it is plummeting down the Amazon charts at an alarming rate. And that’s partly because I’m rubbish at marketing and partly because it is very hard to gain any visibility these days. I don’t think it is because it’s the worst thing I’ve ever written, but maybe I’m not the best judge of that. Certainly it received a good reception from a publisher I approached, even if they were only able to offer me the kind of deal that involves an upfront payment by the author.
Anyway, I thought I would offer the Prologue and first chapter here. Then, if anyone would like to read a substantial chunk before committing to buy, this is a solution. I do hope some of you will give it a try:
Once upon a time, there lived a woman whose life crashed out of control. In all probability, it was her own fault. She was, after all, remarkably stupid. The End.
There, I’ve done it. That’s all.
‘Write it down,’ she said, ‘if you’re finding it too hard to talk about.’ And that was certainly true. Too hard doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt about talking about that, or indeed anything else. Sitting in a room with a total stranger, expected to bare my soul, to delve into events I still can’t believe actually happened. It was ridiculous.
But then, I had little choice but to remain. To let my eyes wander from one motivational or morally uplifting poster to the next. I particularly liked the image of a young woman running, arms raised, through the finishing tape. “The only way to finish is to start,” declared the text superimposed over her legs. Well, I thought. I never would have worked that out. I’m glad I came after all. But I didn’t say anything. I didn’t rise to my feet and march out, as every bone in my body yearned to do.
‘You have to engage with the process,’ my probation officer had said. ‘Let me make this perfectly clear. A suspended sentence is exactly that. Failure to comply will …’
“Yes, alright, I know,’ I snapped, although I was perfectly aware that it would be reckless to get on the wrong side of him. ‘You don’t have to keep saying it. I’ll go. I’m just telling you, it’ll be a complete waste of time, for me and for the poor person who has to do it.’
‘Don’t you worry about her,’ he said. ‘She’ll have had tougher nuts than you to crack, believe me. You’re a woman of previously good character, remember? That’s what it says here and that’s what kept your sentence suspended. If I were you, I’d be grateful.’
I opened my mouth to reply but thought better of it. It was hard to feel grateful for my life descending into chaos, but it wasn’t his fault. He was only doing his job, just as all the others were, right up to the judge, who’d looked at me with a mixture of distaste and pity before sending my guts plummeting. ‘I’m minded to impose a custodial sentence in this case. This was a reckless act with the potential for the injury to have been much more serious. And the evidence points to a degree of planning. For those reasons …’
By the time she added ‘suspended for two years’ the edges of my vision had darkened and there was such a loud roaring in my ears that I didn’t hear what she said. It was only when everyone stood up and nobody came to take me away that I realised what had happened. I should have felt much better then but, for some reason, I didn’t.
So I attended the first session. That’s how I found myself sitting not quite opposite Mariella, who insisted I call her that right from the start. I don’t remember confirming my consent for the use of first names so early in our relationship, but she didn’t seem to care. She used mine with such frequency during the first ten minutes, I began to wonder if it was actually my name at all. Like when you say a word so many times it loses all meaning.
But I shouldn’t be unkind. I’m sure she means well. She’s young – well probably a bit younger than Maggie – and she must have very poor eyesight, as her glasses make her eyes appear quite disproportionate to her face, like those Japanese cartoon characters. She wears the kind of floaty, floral clothes that Maggie would never be seen dead in, but they suit her. I get the feeling that she’s comfortable in her own skin, as they say. I wish I were.
Her suggestion came at the end. After about fifteen or twenty excruciating minutes of almost total silence on my part, I broke down a little. I didn’t cry – I’ve done enough of that – but my voice sounded unexpectedly high and my throat had constricted. I couldn’t help it. I told her it was all too much, that I couldn’t do it. How could I be expected to talk about something that didn’t even seem real?
‘So it’s like a dream?’ she ventured, but I had to contradict that not very original thought. At least with a dream you have some engagement with the content, some memory, even if you know it’s not true, not real. At least you are in it. The whole of this episode feels like it didn’t happen to me at all, even though my brain knows it did. It’s as if somebody stole my body, inhabited it for all that time, then returned it. Here you are, I’ve finished with it. You can have it back now.
I told her that, and she said we might try writing it down. We would still have to meet, as that was what the court had directed, but I could have the best part of a week to think and write whatever I could. As long as I emailed it to her at least twenty-four hours before our next meeting, that would be fine. ‘Think of it as a story,’ she said, ‘with you as the main character. Just start at the beginning and see how it goes.’
So that’s what I’m going to do. Clearly what I have written so far will not do, although it sums up the whole thing perfectly. I will start with that day in Maggie’s kitchen. I will include the emails, although how I’ll cope with reading them again I don’t know. But at least it will show willing. That’s about all I can manage at the moment.
Chapter One: Penny
Please find below all I have achieved since we met. I’m sorry it’s only the very beginning of the story, but it took such a long time to get started and there were several failed attempts before this one. The second part is copied from the actual email I sent to DS. I hope it’s what you had in mind.
She was in her daughter Maggie’s kitchen, waiting to go home. Her jacket hung over the back of a chair and her bag was nearby. To be honest, she’d had enough. The children – her grandchildren – had done nothing but bicker for the past hour and it was hard work to persuade them even to help clear the table and load the dishwasher. They didn’t know how lucky they were, but there was no point going down that road.
At last she heard the thump of the front door closing, so she slipped on her jacket. She’d never been able to train Maggie to close doors quietly, although it had driven Eric mad.
‘Oh, Mum, I’m so sorry,’ said Maggie, dumping an assortment of bags on the table. ‘The meeting went on and on, but Craig was chairing it and he’s so …’
‘Never mind,’ she said. Her interest in Craig’s skills as a chairperson was almost non-existent. ‘They’ve eaten, and I’ve cleared up a bit.’
‘You’re a star,’ said Maggie, drawing her into a hug. ‘I don’t know what I’d do without you.’
She picked up her bag and opened it. Last time she’d babysat she’d left her phone behind and it had proved to be more inconvenient than she’d expected. She’d only had it a few months but already it had become part of her life, although she’d vowed it wouldn’t. Anyway, it was there, so now she could go home and enjoy the peace and solitude of a microwave dinner for one.
Becky, the oldest of the three children, was flicking through the channels of the TV that was always on, even when they were eating. That was when she saw it.
‘Hang on a minute! Go back a bit, Becky,’ she said. ‘There was something …’
Becky rolled her eyes and continued to flick, but luckily – or perhaps unluckily – Maggie had heard.
‘What was it Mum? Do you want to watch something? Becky, stop that and give me the remote. Now!’
So Becky handed over the remote with as much good grace as she could muster, which wasn’t a lot, and she had to try not to be offended as Maggie showed her how to change the channel. By that time, it was almost over, but she caught the last half a minute or so. It was him, somehow contriving to look both exactly the same and completely different. She hadn’t seen him for more than forty years and yet there he was, on the TV. Sitting on a high stool, with a guitar on his knee and a mic on a stand before him. He sang the last few lines of a song she’d never heard, then there was applause, the credits rolled and he was gone.
She looked up and became aware of everyone’s eyes upon her.
‘You alright, Mum?’ said Maggie.
‘Yes, of course, I’m fine. Just a bit surprised, I suppose. That singer. I used to know him, years ago, when we were kids. I had no idea he was …’
‘Oh, yes. Daniel Strong. He’s quite big now,’ said Maggie. ‘He had a hit album, just before the summer holidays.’
Even Becky appeared interested. ‘Did you actually know him, Gran? It’s not my kind of thing, but he’s a massive hit with the mums. Angel’s mum is, like, totally obsessed with getting tickets for a gig. Apparently he’s been, what d’you call it? When you play on other people’s albums?’
Mother and daughter provided the answer to that question with a synchronicity they never could have achieved if they’d planned it.
‘Yeah, that’s it. He was a session musician for all those years, then suddenly he has this massive hit album and he’s everywhere.’ She paused for a few seconds then looked at her archly and added, ‘Was he your boyfriend?’
‘No!’ she said. ‘No, he was just … we were in the same crowd. We were friends, I suppose, but not … no, there was nothing like that.’
Becky looked as if she might pursue the subject, but her interest in her grandmother’s past proved to be transient and she turned her attention to her phone which had been flashing and chirping throughout their brief exchange.
Not so Maggie. She wanted to know a lot more, but she had to be satisfied with a version of the truth. In any case, a dispute erupted between the younger two children at that point and that provided an opportunity to escape which she seized with no hesitation.
‘’Bye, Maggie, ‘bye kids, see you soon,’ she called, closing the door on the raised voices and hurrying to her car, bathed in late summer sunshine on the neatly paved drive.
She had fully intended to forget all about it. After all, she rarely even thought about him these days. Months could go by. Surely it would be easy enough to return to that state? But, apparently, this was not to be. She microwaved her macaroni cheese but it remained there, releasing its borrowed heat and congealing in the process, while she sat with her laptop where her plate should have been.
That evening, she neither ate nor turned on the TV, usually her reliable antidote to silence, although she did drink the best part of a bottle of wine. Normally, she would resist drinking alone but it seemed appropriate somehow, as if there were something to celebrate. She learned how to download music and she read everything she could find about Daniel Strong. She played the entire album on the laptop, twice, even though she was sure it would have sounded better on Eric’s hi fi. And then she wrote an email. It was late, she was tired and a little drunk and her eyes stung with looking at the screen for so long, but she knew she would never do it if she left it until the morning. She would see sense. This time, just for once, she would not be sensible. It wouldn’t matter. Nothing would happen. Nothing would change.
I’ve decided to address you in that way, as you were always Danny when I knew you. Now you are Daniel, although I suppose that may be your stage name. Imagine that! Imagine having a stage name as well as your day-to-day epithet. There are a mere handful of people in the entire world who ever have occasion to speak my name out loud and most of them call me something else: Mum, Gran, Mrs Price. Yes, that’s my surname now, although I never really liked it. I preferred my old one.
But I’m rambling. I have a tendency to do that, I know, and you will quickly discover it to be true if you read this, which you won’t. Of course you won’t. You will have someone to read and filter all the messages sent via your website. Some girl with extensions to her hair and fierce, black eyebrows will skim through my words, one hand on the mouse, ready to click on delete with a shiny, plastic fingernail quite unsuited to the task. Or maybe there will be a standard reply: Thank you for your kind words. I’m so glad you like my album, it means a lot. Yours, Daniel Strong. Now that’s a fine surname. You were fortunate with that. If you’d been christened Daniel Pratt or Daniel Shufflebottom you might have been tempted to change it.
So it matters little what I write here, I’m quite aware of that. After two paragraphs, the girl with the turquoise nails – yes, I’ve given them a colour now – will have consigned me to a category labelled something like “nutty old women” and I can hardly blame her. I know that’s what a lot of people think about females of my age, even without the evidence of almost incomprehensible fan-mail to assist them. But I’m going to continue anyway, because I want to. Because I can. There are many things I can do now that I could never do before, and I intend to do them. Some of them. I may not bother with anything that involves excesses of physical exertion, but the option is there, even for that. And that’s important.
To be perfectly honest, I had no idea you were famous until earlier today. I’d been looking after my grandchildren and I was just about to go home when you came on the TV. I was so surprised. I told them I’d known you, but nothing else.
Anyway, now I know all about you, or at least I know everything your agent, or publicist or whatever has chosen to tell the public. I know about your years of struggling to make ends meet while never giving up on your dream. That sounds somewhat clichéd, but it might be true. I know about all those hits you played on without so much as a mention. Now that I have a computer and access to the internet, now that I don’t have to sneak into the library if I want to go online, sometimes I find myself lost in obscure backwaters and realise that hours have passed and I haven’t eaten or even made myself a cup of tea. That’s what happened when I got home.
And I learned a new skill. I learned how to download music and play it on the computer. The speakers aren’t brilliant, but it sounds good enough. Good enough to tell me that I love it. Good enough to provide me with my final shock of the day when I heard the track you’ve called “Her First Kiss.” Because you were writing about me, weren’t you? I’ve played it so many times now, I can remember some of the lines without trying:
Her eyes are wide and shining,
She’s scared she’ll get it wrong,
But I wrap my hands in her silken hair and our kiss is deep and long,
Yes, our kiss is deep and long.
First kiss, oh, her first kiss, now our love is true and strong.
Am I being silly here? Sometimes I think I am. Those words could have been inspired by anyone. Or no-one. I’m not being rude, but they’re not terribly original. It’s a well-worn and familiar image and that, together with what I must admit is a very pretty and poignant melody, has resulted in a memorable love song. I’m not surprised it’s a hit with women of a certain age. As I said, I love it too. So why do I think – know – you had me in mind when you wrote it? Well, it’s partly because of the line about wrapping your hands in silken hair. I remember you were always doing that. You loved the feel of my hair. And it’s partly because you knew I’d never been kissed before. You mentioned it, more than once.
I think I’ll stop now. You won’t have read this anyway, and I’ve said enough. And well done! I don’t think I said that before. It’s wonderful that something so exciting and rewarding has happened to you after years of waiting. I only wish that something similar could happen to me, but there’s no chance of that. I haven’t been nurturing a talent for the last forty-odd years. I’m not even sure I have one. I’ve been shut in a metaphorical box, waiting for the lid to open and the sun to shine in, but you don’t want to hear about that. At least now I can look up to the sky. I have that to be grateful for, and much else besides.
With all good wishes,
Penny Price (nee Rose)
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