Emma Baird picture of a laptop with the words 'back blogging'

Six Years of Blogging

Emma Baird picture of a laptop with the words 'back blogging'Congratulations me. This month marks my six-year blog anniversary. Six years of thinking up topics to write about, sometimes coming up with great ideas but most often opting for the lazy option, something I wrote for another platform.

I don’t have a huge following—just shy of 400—but I get good engagement, especially these days. It’s easy enough to like a blog post. You can do it without reading the article. People taking the time to read and then add their thoughts feels much more flattering.

And because I have such a small following, I don’t get negativity. Most of the comments people post are encouraging. Which is good. I’m your typical writer and my skin is wafer-thin.

My following increases steadily. At the moment, I appear to be getting one sign up a day. I’m a smarter blogger than I was when I first started up and I use some of the dark arts. I put my name into the alt text for the pictures I use. I set featured images and I craft my own excerpt. Liking and commenting on other blogs helps as does the intelligent use of tags.

I’ve got my posts automatically linked to most of my other social media platforms, so they appear on LinkedIn, Google+ and Twitter as soon as they come out.

The life of a blogger can be great fun. I started my working life in journalism and what former journalist wouldn’t want to be their own publisher and editor?

You also get to read amazing content from others. There are plenty of doozies out there and I often wonder what on earth bloggers are doing to get hundreds of likes and comments for badly written guff. On the whole, though, if you keep your own blog following small, you can afford to follow only the good ‘uns back.

This is a friendly community for the most part. I’m hugely grateful to all the folks who’ve read, liked and commented on my articles over the last six years. Thank YOU.

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picture at Emma Baird of a piece of text with red editing marks

Writing and Editing Software

picture at Emma Baird of a piece of text with red editing marksI use writing software—ProWritingAid, which works out at $50 a year (about £37). Is it worth the price? Absolutely.

Like any automated system, ProWritingAid doesn’t work perfectly. To take full advantage, you need some background in English grammar so you know what to accept and what to reject. Before using ProWritingAid, I subscribed to Grammarly previously, which is more expensive and not that great.

Grammarly suggested peculiar things and the only lesson I ever learned was the comma splice. (Guilty, a lot of the time—and for those of you who’ve never heard of it, a comma splice is where you use a comma to connect two independent clauses. You should use either a semi-colon, split the sentence into two or use a conjunction.) Grammarly also wanted to put commas everywhere.

ProWritingAid runs lots of reports on your writing—a grammar check, a writing style check, clichés and redundancies, corporate wording, sticky sentences and more. My favourite one is the overused words check, which is when you realise how repetitive your writing is. The writing style report is useful because it highlights adverbs so you can cut down their use and picks up every time you start three sentences in a row with the same word.

What ProWritingAid doesn’t have, unlike Grammarly, is the option to add your own words to the dictionary. This means that if you keep using slang in dialogue, for instance, it keeps picking it up. And it works best if you only check small amounts of text at a time rather than running your whole novel through it.

Other than that, ProWritingAid has improved my writing. The software picks up my bad habits and drums them out of me. When you rethink and rewrite sentences it’s terrific writing practice.

*Please note—this post isn’t sponsored by ProWritingAid.

copies of the Diabetes Diet books in a pile

A Little Bit of Success

copies of the Diabetes Diet books in a pileBlimey… I’m comfortable enough with failure. It’s not the opposite of success after all. But something happened this week that astonished me.

It was a teeny-tiny hint of something that might be working. I went online to check book sales. I have three, two fictional ones* and The Diabetes Diet, which I co-wrote with Dr Katharine Morrison. The total sales took me by surprise as The Diabetes Diet had made more than £160 in royalties in less than two weeks.

Successful authors won’t view this as a big deal, but the book’s royalties hover on the £10 a month mark most of the time. The book has always sold (put the word diet on a book and sales are guaranteed), but never at these levels.

Type the diabetes diet into Amazon’s UK site and ours is the first book to come up—at least on Monday (18 June). It’s in the top ten disorders and diseases category, the top 50 diets and weight loss, and number 1283 in non-fiction.

Traffic to both my blogs (this one and the one I write to complement The Diabetes Diet) has spiked in recent weeks, which might have contributed to the rise in sales. Or perhaps Dr Morrison’s attendance at the Public Health Collaboration conference last month helped. Maybe it’s both.

I did do some jiggery-pokery at the beginning. I made sure I used a lot of keywords in the description and I thought carefully about my tags. When we gave the book a paperback offering, we paid someone to redesign the cover, making the book look more professional.

I publicise the blog on LinkedIn, Twitter and Google+, but do little else to promote the book. I’ve never run marketing campaigns on it, and I’ve never put it in for a Kindle count-down deal. Even the blog doesn’t do that much to implicitly promote the book. I don’t have a plug-in, for example, that tells people where they can buy it every time a visitor lands on our site.

Of course, successful authors do their best to discover where the sales are coming from so they can do more of the same. Another idea would be for me to investigate the costs of an audio book, so that The Diabetes Diet is available in three forms, or even a large print paperback. Given that diabetes often affects people’s eyesight, an audio or large print version makes sense.

I recognise that rankings and sales fall as swiftly as they rise on Amazon. To quote Rudyard Kipling, “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, And treat those two imposters just the same”. In other words, don’t get too wound up by either of them.

Anyway, it is nice to have a little success. I’ll revel in it for the short time it lasts.

*The success won’t go to my head. Sales of the fictional books still elude me…

Origins of the Artist

Origins of the Artist, a book by Emma BairdSometimes you just can’t let go of a character. Two years ago, I created a young man, aged 18 and in denial. I made him go through a horrible ordeal when his best friend died, then I charted his coming out. I added him to the background of a story about another of his friends, then decided I wasn’t quite finished with him yet…

Now’s he’s in his late 40s and yes, yet again I’m making him suffer. 

Even when John turned up in Kippy’s dreams alive and very much well, he always knew it wasn’t right. As the sequence played out, the dream Kippy would eventually say, “No, you’re not really here. You’re dead,” or some such.

He wasn’t conscious of John suddenly disappearing, a ghost who said, “It’s a fair cop, guv,” and vanished now he’d been fingered, so to speak. But the John of his dreams was there one minute, gone the next. Kippy didn’t wake up and relive his partner’s death over and over again.

It didn’t stop him from crying most mornings. He was forty-seven years old, far too young for widower status. Granted, John had been fifteen years older than him, but even so. A man dying at sixty-one was rotten, rotten luck. Especially when that man was so fit and healthy your average insurer would be hard-pressed to quote over-the-top premiums for life insurance.

Take his lifestyle. Some years ago, John announced he was giving up the sauce as a fiftieth birthday present to himself. He’d never been a big drinker, anyway. Brought up in a small town and having spent many years hiding his sexuality, Kippy was the one who put away the pints and downed the whiskies.

John, though, decided he didn’t like the after-effects anymore. He’d been a nice, non-nagging teetotaller too, never minding Kippy having a pint too many and becoming maudlin and soppy, in your typical West Coast of Scotland man’s way.

John exercised regularly, and his diet had been exemplary post a high-cholesterol scare. It was he who’d introduced Kippy to the joy of salads and vegetables, foods that Kippy always regarded suspiciously. Rabbit food, right? John’s Italian momma and her Scottish husband were exceptionally good cooks, and their talent rubbed off on their son. He believed in home-cooked food made with passion and garnished with love.

And yet bowel cancer struck anyway, its diagnosis so late John was beyond saving. At the hospital, they made him as comfortable as they could, agreeing reluctantly in the end that he could go home to die.

Kippy found the world’s kindest and most compassionate palliative cancer care nurse who split her support equally between the two of them, helping prepare Kippy for those last few moments when your partner finally leaves you.

The peace of it was what he remembered. Pain takes everything from you, even a kind and wonderful man like John ends up with little reserves of love and patience left. Kippy needed something from him—a dramatic statement or gesture that raised them from the everyday mundanity of death.

“Bereavement is ordinary and extraordinary at the same time,” the nurse told him. “We all go through it, but we experience it quite differently, which is why it’s so hard to explain to anyone else.”

He’d willed John to use his gift with words. His partner was the man who’d spent years using his rapier wit to persuade judges and juries that the wee nef stood in front of them deserved a second chance. He’d torn apart police statements, making juries laugh at the same time as everyone loved the public putting down of authority figures.

A man of such talent should be able to summon forth words that Kippy could store in his mind’s vault, taking them out from time to time to polish and cherish their beauty. But there was nothing left in John. He muttered that he loved Kippy and those dark eyes welled up. And then one morning, Kippy woke and took in the deafening silence that told him his life partner was dead. He walked into the room and felt the stillness of it. There were no ragged breaths, no creaks from the bed of a man shuffling in a vain attempt to get comfortable.

Oh, the relief.

They’d celebrated their 25th anniversary six months before John died, an occasion that later became known as one of the BC events. Before cancer, everything seemed careless and overly optimistic. An anniversary almost always prompts the words, and here’s to the next ten, fifteen and even twenty-five years.

The date marked their 25th year together, rather than a formal wedding or civil partnership anniversary, though that took place too. What a day it had been. Neither of them fancied flamboyance or even more than one or two guests, but the celebration was taken out of their hands.

“You must make it a big event!” Lillian declared, her excitement far more visible than theirs. “It’s symbolic. Please let me help organise it!”

By ‘help’ she meant, take over completely. They’d both given in to her, partly because she’d been moping her way through a bad break-up at the time. On 31 December 2006 just over a year after the law came into effect, Kippy and John registered their civil partnership, both wearing Lillian-designed suits. She insisted on lots of photographs and posted them all over her website and Facebook. She intended to position her business as the go-to for civil partnerships, she announced. Kippy raised his eyebrows at that. Wasn’t high-end fashion inherently gay? She didn’t need their help to make it more so.

The guest list, one that needed cutting many times, numbered almost 150 in the end. Kippy muttered about the expense repeatedly. John tended towards sensibleness far more than he did, but the wedding-like whirlwind seemed to deafen him, and he waved away Kippy’s concerns about the bills. Covers on chairs? Why not? Kitsch, handmade favours? Of course. A reception in Glasgow’s most expensive hotel. Nothing else would do.

He remembered the cheers when the registrar said that in the presence of their friends, family and witnesses, it gave him great pleasure to declare they were now both civil partners to each other.

John’s momma managed to source a gay priest to confer blessings on the couple that day. As an elderly Italian, she’d only recognise a partnership that had some stamp of authority from the Catholic church, no matter that her son and his partner had lived together for more than ten years by that time.

The priest was known as a firebrand in religious circles and he had to dodge the odd death threat online, but he charmed Francesca assuring her that God smiled kindly on her son and he delighted in the union.

“Love is all,” he told the gathering, “and that is it.”

The post-ceremony celebration had gone on for hours. John stumbled off to bed at 1am, and Kippy partied with their extended family and friends, knocking back enough whisky for him to end up dancing, something he never bothered with unless he was paralytic.

He’d later woken up John to tell him all about it, seeing as that was how they’d first met. Kippy, a young and just-out art school student, had been at a party and drank too much of the punch. He asked John to dance with him to an Erasure Abba cover and John had taken him home afterwards. That hadn’t been their beginning though. As someone who’d been ‘out’ for far longer, John thought Kippy wasn’t right for him.

“I thought you would break my heart,” he told him when they’d finally got together. “Young, gorgeous… One of those gays who needed to sow his wild oats.”

It had been sort of true. Kippy grew up in a small fishing village in the 1980s. He’d kept his gayness a secret, even dating girls to appear normal to the outside world. When he’d won an art prize, he’d been able to leave Kirkinwall behind and his first year at art school had been heavenly, all the wall-to-wall cock and no-one to horrify with your lusting after it…

He’d done the classic thing, shagged everything that moved for months but the memory of John’s eyes and how his gaze felt on him was always present. Every encounter Kippy experienced was tinged by the warmth of that stare. It took a life-threatening beating to bring the two of them together, finally.

Finally, and forever—or at least until death do us part.

The funeral was to take place tomorrow, and Kippy found himself trying on different suits to find one that fitted properly. He’d lost so much weight over the last couple of months, they hung off him. Clinging to your stylishness was his survival mode of choice. His long-ago civil partnership suit still fitted, but was it fitting to wear an outfit of celebration to an occasion of mourning?

Lillian would say ‘yes’, but then she would. He’d be promoting her clothing and he wouldn’t put it past her to photograph him surreptitiously in it and then post it online. He longed to ask for her opinion. “Do I wear the suit, or buy another one?”

He hadn’t told her in person about John’s death, unable to face that complication, but someone would have passed the news on. John had been an old family friend, and he was…something Kippy tried not to think about too often. Lillian would come to the funeral if he wanted her to or not.

And he found he did. She could even bring her too if she wanted.

Still stuck on the question of appropriate funeral gear, he went out. Fraser’s had come to the tail end of the January sales and the gentlemen in Menswear pounced on him, razor-sharp radars detecting gayness and a liking for decent clothing at first glance.

When the guy asked what the suit was for, Kippy avoided the truth. Sympathy from someone who hadn’t known John would have been too hard to handle. He couldn’t bear to hear condolences trotted out in fake sincerity. He’d lost weight, he said, and nothing in his wardrobe fitted.

Dan, the salesman, eyed him enviously. He was what John would have called deliciously plump, and Kippy described as fat.

“How did you manage that over Christmas and New Year?” Dan’s voice had slipped, resentment replacing the usual customer cultivation tones. “I ate my bodyweight in chocolate.”

Kippy said he’d been ill, smiling to himself when Dan slipped back into obsequious mode.

He managed to find Kippy a gorgeous suit. It was more flamboyant than anything he’d usually wear (and ludicrously expensive), but it fitted beautifully. Kippy had been a skinny young man who’d turned into a slim older bloke. The weight loss had turned him skinny again and the new burgundy suit looked as if it had been sewn on. The sheen of it would have been tacky on anything less expensive. He handed his card over and tried not to wince.

At least he’d been able to resist Dan when he’d tried to steer him to new shoes as well.

Now, all he had to do was get through the next day.

You can follow the story’s progress on Wattpad. 

©Emma Baird 2018

#amwriting Don’t Drink and Drive

Tackling the challenges of a thriller-stroke-crime story. Part one is here. It contains swear words, so stop reading now if you don’t like that kind of writing.

Danni shouldn’t have got in the car. That glass of fizz…oh, be honest with yourself! She’d had more than one.

But Ruby wanted to go home. They’d been ‘celebrating’ her divorce and Ruby insisted they drink something with bubbles so they could clink together flutes and say good riddance to that git.

Wasn’t it gin that made you sad? Ruby horsed her half of the bottle, then ordered another one. Belligerence became depression awfy quickly. She started to cry so hard she was practically howling. People around them started to move back. Maybe they thought it catching. It wasn’t your usual cheery Saturday night stuff.

“I want my bed!” Ruby cried. Her nose had started to run, snot sitting on her top lip. Danni decided not to point it out.

A taxi would have been the sensible idea, but neither of them had enough cash on them. And Ruby refused to walk the length of the street to go to the cashline. She wanted to go home NOW.

Danni had stopped drinking a few hours ago. She joogled the keys in her pocket and said the fateful words, “I’ll drive.”

Her wee red Renault had been a birthday present six years ago, a very generous one as her dad never failed to remind her. “Aye, well,” she thought but didn’t say. “Doesn’t make up for your years of never bothering with me.”

The night was coal black and the road quiet. They both lived in the next town. Balloch was their night out choice. In their home town, too many locals, and Ruby’s ex, drank. In Balloch, endless exciting possibilities presented themselves – tourists and Glasgow guys, hanging around the pubs that dotted the loch side and smirking at you.

As the car took the first left out of the town, Ruby pulled herself together. She’d whacked up the radio volume, choosing a local station that played dance stuff on a Saturday night. She couldn’t sing, but she chanted along anyway. Danni joined in, hoping it would keep her from crying.

You helped your friends, yes. But they were much easier when they were happy.

They were busy belting out the words to Timber when the view changed.

“Danni!” Ruby shrieked, clutching her arm so hard she almost yanked the steering wheel toward her. “There’s a fucking lorry there.”

So there was, a lorry straddling the two carriageways and another car next to it. Danni felt adrenaline and fear flood her body, the contents of her stomach rising up alarmingly. She slammed her right foot to the floor and heard the car screech its protests. The hand she held out to pull on the handbrake shook.

Time had stopped. There was only her and Ruby, a still shrieking, crying mess, and a small car hurtling along, enveloped in the blackness of the night and heading for the lorry blockade that loomed before them.

Then, the brakes kicked in and the car began to slow well before the lorry and the other car. Danni felt the breath she’d been holding for the last minute or so puff out of her, deflating her lungs, stomach and head.

There was a bump, the Renault catching something with its left wheel and its impact reverberating through the car. Not your wee bump that signified cars going over potholes or verges. Something else, something…

Danni felt the contents of her stomach rise once more.

“Was that…?” Ruby wasn’t shrieking now, but the whisper made it worse.

The car had stopped, the two of them sat there staring at their hands. “Sorry, Dad, sorry.” Why did that pop into her brain? But all kinds of thoughts were whirling through there, frighteningly fast.

Drink driving.

Convictions.

Losing her job.

Hitting a person with your car.

©Emma Baird 2018

 

Counting Down the Days Till You’re Flat On Your Back (15+)

 

Ah, the advent of take-away coffee and the days before Facebook. Another wee spot of nostalgia for you. Part one here.

2006.

“Gareth, you’d better have anticipated my every need this morning!”

Gareth raised his eyes to the heavens and let out an exaggerated sigh. He specialised in those, sucking in his cheeks and blowing out breath loudly. “When they all warned me what you were like to work for, I said, ‘No, no Gareth! One can’t allow oneself to be unduly influenced by the naysayers. I’m sure ‘unreasonably demanding bitch’ isn’t at all true’.”

When he said, ‘I’m sure’, he reminded Lillian of that terrible sitcom from years ago—Keeping Up Appearances. The main character, Hyacinth Bouquet, had tried her best to emulate posh tones. Gareth (real name Gary) decided long ago to get ahead in fashion meant disguising his native accent. Sometimes it worked.

“Ay’m sure”. Not so much.

She poked her tongue out and grabbed a coffee from the tray he carried. A stint in New York ten years ago had given her a taste for strong, syrupy take-away coffee. The coffee shop trend was only just beginning to take off in Glasgow. Fashionistas were obliged to buy it in lieu of breakfast. John had stared at her in disbelief when he witnessed her buying herself a hazelnut Frappuccino with soy.

“Two pounds fifty for a coffee? You’re kidding me. You could buy yourself a bag of beans at that Italian deli in Merchant City and have hunners’ of them for that price.”

“Hungover, are we?” Gareth carped, plonking himself down at his desk. He waggled a paper bag at her, the grease stains marking it out as something deliciously fat and sugar-filled. She snatched from him. Last-minute crash diet plans be damned.

The headquarters of Glitz were on Bath Street. Lillian paid fearsome business rates for the privilege. But in fashion you had to appear successful, and the appearance of that meant locating yourself in the heart of the city. Their basement office was shivery-cold eight months of the year. They burned extra calories thanks to trying to keep warm, Gareth said—something to be thankful for.

Glitz wasn’t something Lillian had envisaged as an art school student. In her first year though, she’d discovered she loved working with textures and materials, and that’s what she had focused on during her four years.

Post-art school, she drifted. A rich background had many benefits, not least that of not needing to work. Then, a friend of the family got her an internship at an up-and-coming fashion house. Lillian fell in love. Because it was a small company, she got to experience everything. From design to pattern cutting, to sourcing fabrics, making clothes and then fussing over models as she sent them down the catwalk.

It was every bit as glamourous as it looked. She dressed Kate—the highlight of her time there. Even snorted a few lines with her. When the internship ended, she persuaded her mum and dad to pay for yet more tuition; this time at a polytechnic that concentrated more on the practical side of clothes designing and making.

Glasgow was the natural choice. It was far cheaper to set up a business there than London. And she had all her old art school friends, who’d welcome her with open arms.

Right? Sort of.

Glitz started life in 1999. Then, it had been her, two professional tailors who called themselves seamstresses and an assistant, a shy and retiring Gary who had long since come out of his shell. There had been ups and downs, but the last few years had seen solid success. The catwalk shows were greeted with enthusiasm and praise. Clothes sold in reasonable quantities and she achieved a reputation for quirky menswear.

“At least I can claim I’m single because I’ve been working too hard to establish myself.” It became a mantra; a comfort blanket of a statement. Love was for those who had time to spend on it. Lillian’s working hours ate into her evenings and weekends. Holidays happened seldom as she was too frightened to take time off.

But the aching loneliness hit her now and again. She was in her mid to late 30s. Lately, evidence of how easily other people found partners seemed to be everywhere. The unlikeliest of folks made it look easy.

“What did John say?” Gareth wore her clothes exclusively; the reason she put up with his backchat. Today, he’d prematurely anticipated spring. He wore the sandstone gilet and matching chino shorts with a long-sleeved pink shirt. She’d need to get pictures of him later.

“About Richard? He gave a useful gay guide to blow jobs. And advised on clothing.”

Gareth nodded, stretching out an arm to switch on his computer, and rattling off the subject lines of the emails that had come in. Lillian said yes and no where necessary, the coming weekend with Richard distracting her.

A whole weekend with someone you barely knew! Yes, they’d shared some drinks. Even gone out for a couple of meals together. She knew about his job, some of his personal history and that he’d been married before and had a daughter. He knew…less than that about her. On a first date years ago, Lillian blurted out intimate details of her life. Her date stared at her, muttered platitudes and bid a hasty farewell not long afterwards.

The first and last date she had with him.

“Haud your wheesht, Lillian,” as Kippy far more Scottish than her or John might say.

The paper bag held a large chocolate chip croissant. The flakes scattered everywhere as she ate, Gareth watching her in fascinated disgust.

“Are you sure Richard agreed to take you away for the weekend?” he asked. “If he’s been with you while you’ve eaten anything?”

She poked her tongue, realising too late it was covered in half-chewed bits of pastry. Gareth screwed his face up.

“Yes. And fuck you. Get on with your work.”

The croissant finished, she got up and made her way to the back room where they kept rails of clothing. Lillian favoured an androgynous style. As a tall, straight up and down shaped woman, tailored trouser suits, over-sized jeans and shirts suited her. John had said stick to that style but choose the more flamboyant stuff.

“Are you sure?” Lillian queried. Sixteen or so years in fashion taught her that men who appreciated the style and clothing she loved weren’t the majority. Shouldn’t she be picking out pencil skirts, wrap dresses or those full-shirted, narrow-waisted skirts? And stilettos, preferably Louboutins?

John smiled ruefully. “Yes. If you wear clothes you aren’t comfortable in, it’ll be obvious. It shows in your face. And didn’t you tell me Richard talked a lot about how you’re not his usual type and that’s amazing?”

The back room smelled of clothes, brand new fabric and overtones of hot cotton that came from ironing. Lillian took deep breaths of it. She came here to refresh, the sight and smell of the clothing charging her up, battery-like.

John told her to choose the shorts from 2004. That collection was on the third rail at the back. She took out a hanger and held them up in front of her. Men’s shorts, brocade pantaloons embellished with Swarovski crystals roughly modelled on pre-French revolution court fashion. They hadn’t sold well.

Worn with bare legs and sliders though, they’d work. A silky tee shirt on top would complete the look. Glitz did a line of silk tees that sold in industrial quantities, bought by men and women who loved their quality.

She picked a Paisley-patterned purple one from another rail and then changed her mind. Plain black would be better. Perhaps Richard did think her difference from his usual type a virtue. Best not to push that to the limits though, eh?

Main outfit picked, she added a few other basics. Two more silk tee shirts in various colours, the super skinny jeans that made a virtue of long legs and a utility-style jumpsuit that doubled up as daywear and evening wear if dressed up with heels and a silk scarf.

Her phone buzzed. “Can’t wait! Don’t expect too much sight-seeing. You’ll be too busy on your back…”

Seconds later. “Sorry! 😊 Seriously, tho. Can’t. Bloody. Wait to get you into bed.”

Her heart and stomach clashed together, the one beating super-fast, the other squirming in a combination of super-charged nerves and excitement. And something else. A man had only ever told Lillian once before he couldn’t wait to get her into bed. It hadn’t ended well.

She folded the clothing she’d chosen over her arm. “That was then.” Another mantra. “This is now.”

Wouldn’t every woman be flattered that a man counted down the days, hours and minutes until he tumbled onto a pristine-clean bed with you?

©Emma Baird 2018* Copy this and claim it as your own and I. Will. Hunt. You. Down.

Anyone else remember the early days of match.com? Here’s a wee bit of nostalgia for you…

2006

“… so, I’m trying this new thing. I refuse to proactively do anything. They have to contact me. If a man wants to see me, he needs to make all the arrangements. Thanks. Not too much! I’m also trying to cut down how much I drink.”

John filled her glass anyway. He knew her of old. If he didn’t pour the wine to the top, she’d only bug him in a few minutes’ time, demanding more. And the sofa wrapped itself so well round his old, cold bones. He’d no desire to give up its embrace any time soon.

“How’s it working out for you, the new thing?”

Really, this was unfair. When Lillian had arrived at their flat a few hours ago waving a bottle of Cava and desperate to talk about her love life, Kippy had promptly vanished. Oh, there was this painting he was working on, he claimed airily. Desperately sorry he couldn’t hang about to listen.

Lillian could claim dibs on friendship with them both, but she and Kippy had been close at art school back in the early nineties. And she’d always shown huge interest in his life. The rules of friendship and fairness surely demanded he repay the favour?

It wasn’t so bad for John though. Lillian made dramatic pronouncements. And she was so dreadful at intimacy, tales of her love life were almost always comedic.

Tragi-comedic, John supposed. There ought to be someone out there who’d be the willing recipient of Lillian’s considerable energy and intensity. Together, they could scream and shout at each other, and then make it up with mad, passionate sex. It was impossible to imagine Lillian in a relationship where a couple sat opposite each other in a restaurant and found they couldn’t be bothered with conversation.

Lillian had two relationships with married men behind her. One was careless, two made it look like a pattern, Kippy always said. When the second one ended disastrously—he promised to leave his wife, did so then returned to her weeks later, managing to wreck her happiness and Lillian’s in the process—Lillian turned to match dot com.

Her stories kept John and Kippy entertained for months. Her complaints were wide-ranging. Firstly, there were the unrepresentative photos. “Honestly!” Lillian exclaimed. “That picture was at least ten years out of date. All his hair’s disappeared. Did he think I wouldn’t notice?”

Then, there were the conversations that started up and suddenly went silent. “I thought we’d established a rapport,” Lillian said. She showed them the emails. Back and forth, back and forth went witty exchanges. Lillian would mention something, and the man would fervently agree. And then, nothing.

The first time it happened, Lillian had written plaintive messages. “Is something wrong? What did I say?” After a while, she left it. Ghosted, they called it. It was nothing personal. Maybe Mister ‘I’ve Got So Much in Common With You!’ had been conducting such conversations with a few other folks. And he’d met one lassie and fallen for her.

Lillian’s first “new thing” she applied to her dating life was to meet people very quickly. No point in getting into these long email conversations. You had to see the person as soon as and work out if there was a) chemistry; and b) well, just chemistry. A shared liking for Placebo’s songs played loudly on a Sunday morning mattered not a jot if you didn’t fancy a dude.

Lillian took a gulp of wine, the liquid turning her teeth and tongue black the way it always did. John wondered if those men she dated noticed that and it put them off. He and Kippy were lucky, he supposed. The mysterious gene that made some people prone to the black staining effect of red wine didn’t apply to them, even when they drank cheap shit.

“My new thing is working very well! John, I think this might be IT.”

Oh. Genuine pleasure. She was a terrific pain in the arse. Nosey, bossy, irritating and capable of outstaying her welcome every time, but John and Kippy discussed Lillian a lot. They rolled their eyes considerably as they did so, but they wished her well. Kippy said Lillian in love would be a God-send. She wouldn’t come around to their flat half as much, for a start. It was affectionate though. Who didn’t want their best friend to experience love? Happy ever after was too simplistic, but that’s what you wanted for anyone you cared about.

“He’s taken his profile down from Match,” Lillian said, tilting her glass perilously close to John and Kippy’s beautiful cream sofa. The glass righted itself and John’s alarm eased.

“And as I say, I leave all the arrangements up to him. So freeing!”

John perked up at that. Oftentimes, Lillian contradicted herself. As she said, “so freeing”, doubtless she believed it. But there was no bigger control freak John knew than Lillian. She spent her life bossing others about. Allowing a man to make all the arrangements must kill her. He nodded anyway. You don’t disagree with people’s assessments of themselves. It never worked.

“I think it’s a variation of that old ‘treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen’ thing,” Lillian added. “He thinks I’m not that bothered if I hear from him or not. Conversely, this makes me more interesting. I’m just unsure how long I need to keep it up.”

Ah, the crux of the matter! Yes, Lillian claimed it was freeing for her not to worry about arrangements, but he heard the longing in her voice. She desperately wanted to take control.

“How long have you been doing this, your new thing?” John asked, and she jumped in with her reply. The ongoing tactic had lasted three weeks so far. She and Richard (never Dick, obviously, Richie for short) had seen each other two times a week. And the last text message from him has suggested they go away for a weekend together.

Torture for someone like Lillian to leave all the arrangements for a dirty weekend up to someone else. “We’ve not had sex yet either,” Lillian said, wide eyed. “That’s another of my new rules. I decided I had to get past date six till that happened.”

John smirked at that. He had never been a promiscuous gay, but the thought of not sleeping with someone until you’d been with them for a set amount of time was an anathema. You had to shag early on.

“Katrina,” he said. “She did that years ago with Mick. Refused to fall into bed with him until a bit of time had passed. Just as well, really.”

Lillian frowned, summoning up long-ago memories. Mick had been a notorious ladies man. When Katrina found out his dark secret, she’d thanked the stars she’d never slept with him. Maybe it was more of a female than a male thing. You couldn’t separate the personality from the body.

“Oh yes,” Lillian said. “What was it he did again? I saw him a few months ago. Did I tell you? He was at this launch I was invited to.”

Asking lots of questions and not waiting for replies was typical of Lillian. John decided to address the last.

“No? How is the Rock ‘n Roll chef?”

Mick was a childhood friend of Kippy’s. He’d found fame and fortune in the early 90s as the first of a new generation of TV chefs. In the early noughties, he’d gone through a very public breakdown. Too much cocaine—as the experts always said, a sign you’re making too much money. He’d gone into rehab and these days, promoted a raw food diet as the cure for addiction and did TV, magazines and events as the Rock ‘n Roll chef gone good.

Lillian made disparaging noises. She was no more a fan of avocado smoothies than your normal punter. “Still far too good looking,” she said. “And these days fucking women he’s old enough to have fathered.”

They both grimaced. Was there anything worse than the man who refused to hang up his shagging shoes? Everyone looked at him and thought, Give it up, mate. You’re not twenty-five anymore. You’re beginning to look too much like Sid James.

“Two days’ time!” Lillian said, pushing her glass at John. A hint that he hadn’t anticipated her quickly enough. He pulled himself to his feet once more, telling her to keep talking as he searched out the red wine.

“My mini break, as Bridget Jones would put it! Because I’m doing this ‘no-show too much interest’ thing, what the hell do I pack? It could be abroad. Do I take shorts, for example?”

John filled her glass and prayed to the House Design gods that she still had the motor neurone skills not to spill it all over the lovely sofa. The glass tilted again, and a drop spilled out, the redness fanning out against the cross-grain of the fabric. They both watched it.

“Oops,” Lillian said.

John touched her shoulder. Years ago, he’d been in a flat where he’d spilt vodka and coke. The host had shrieked fit to wake the dead. He’d vowed from then on he would never make someone that uncomfortable. Even if the sight of that spillage kept drawing his eye, the minute spreading of maroon too attention drawing.

“Take shorts,” he said. “But only if they’re the 2004 spring-summer collection you did. Now, do you need me to discuss the perfect blow job? Gay men offer you amazing advice. Together, we’ll have him coming back for more every time.”

She nodded at that. Sex tips from a gay guy. Always a winning strategy. “Do you think this is it, John?” she said, the glass shaking slightly. “I want it to be.”

Oh. Who knew the secrets of the human heart? All you could do was offer optimism.

“Yes!” he said, fixing her gaze with his. “Absolutely! Now, tell me everything you plan to wear and what you’re going to do. We’ll work this out.”