#Wattys2018 Longlist

a copy of the book cover for the artist's history by Emma BairdA little good news this week…

If you didn’t know already, I’m Scottish (that’s not my news, BTW) and part of our national identity is self-deprecation and a loathing for boasting in any form. My English, Welsh and Irish chums would agree.

Blowing your own trumpet—just not Scottish stroke British. Let’s leave that to the Y… other nations*. Anyhoos, I awoke early on Saturday and checked my emails. There, nestling among the usual suspects—you’ve been picked for a Nectar/YouGov survey! Not-to-be-missed offer on wine/miracle skin cream/trainers/cat collars/anything you’ve ever bought online—was a message congratulating me on being longlisted for the #Wattys2018.

The #Wattys are annual awards on Wattpad, a reading and writing platform used by millions of people all over the world. There are 65 million writers on it (including established authors such as Margaret Atwood and Paulo Coelho). The popular folks publish stories that clock up millions of reads, its landed publishing deals for many and the platform even has its own studios.

I signed up originally because I wrote a book I’d aimed at the YA market, and Wattpad has a mainly teenage audience. I’ve lingered on the edges there ever since. My chapters get read by… ooh, three or four people, my all-time best 45 for one chapter.

Still, it’s good discipline. I use it to spur myself on. My Wattpad followers await their update! (All two of them.) Must write another chapter instead of giving up on this piece of rubbish. And it forces you to concentrate on chapters as individual things. When you write a book as whole, it’s tempting to write certain chapters carelessly—the joining chapters that are just there to add points or move the plot from A to B. When you upload chapter by chapter to a site, it’s important every chapter is as exciting and interesting as it can be.

My all-time most popular piece of writing with the most reads per chapter is a book I gave up on—Unnatural Appetites, billed as plus-size vampire erotica. Niche, huh? Hats off to other erotica writers. Seriously, how do you do it? I got bored. I don’t want to write about people’s bits—their heads interest me far more.

Back to the Wattys2018 long list. There was my little book with its meagre readership. Have a guess how many others are on that list… seven hundred plus. I patted myself on the back briefly and embarked on a ‘lower the expectations’ lecture:

Well, Emma! This is nice, isn’t it? Years of being on Wattpad and getting nowhere. Here is a little success. Little, mind! You know, you and the other seven hundred or so writers. If you’re to benefit from this, it’s the short list that counts. And we’re going to plant this thought firmly – EMMA, THOU ART NOT GOING TO MAKE THE SHORT LIST. Message received and understood?

A little pride punched its way through, however. That long list redefines any definition of the term, but there were 151,767 entrants to that competition. Arguably, the Wattys is the world’s biggest writing competition.

Go me?

Please add your own boasts to the comments. I’m serious. I’ll feel 100 percent better about myself if I’m not blowing the trumpet solo.

 

 

*Shoot. I fear the self-deprecation hides a raging superiority complex.

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close-up of a spider's web on bushes by Emma Baird

Beetroot, Books and Escapes to the Country

This week I’m…

white bowl containing borsht soup by Emma BairdEating Borsht. This year’s gardening triumphs include beetroot, which is darn decent roasted and eaten with a drizzle of sour cream and dill, but also makes a fab soup brim-bursting with veggie goodness.

I used the Hairy Bikers recipe minus the cabbage. Warning—peel beetroot with gloves on if possible, unless you want pink-tipped fingers and palms for a long time afterwards. For the same reasons, cut it on a wooden chopping board you aren’t too attached to.

a screenshot of The Art Guy by Emma BairdVOWING TO FINISH AN EDITING JOB. See the caps there? I put them in because this job has been on the to-do list for three weeks now, FFS. My typical editing and revising process when writing books goes like this…

 

  • Switches on laptop. Goes to email inbox and searches out an online chum who deserves a long, chatty email.
  • Finishes email and checks Twitter briefly. Looks for cute cat videos. Gets lost in a conversational thread or that day’s top trend.
  • Checks the weather forecast. Vital for walk planning (see below) and domestic scheduling—i.e. can I put the washing out today?
  • Buckles down to editing and revising book chapters. Re-writes a sentence into perfect prose before reading exactly the same sentence and word order three paragraphs down.
  • One chapter in, looks up something on the internet. It’s crucial to the editing process, oh yes it is.
  • Decides another chapter is needed which means abandoning the editing process altogether and doing a fresh piece of writing. (Hooray! Much more fun!)
  • Segues into despair and loathing. What once seemed like a half-decent book is now embarrassing, crass, cliché-ridden and fit only for the bin.
  • Repeats ad nauseum.

Cycle path and the old railway bridge photo by Emma BairdEnjoying country walks. You know my favourite bit of being a freelancer* (albeit one with a part-time job these days)? Going for walk whenever I feel like it. Near me, there’s a cycle path much used by dog walkers, cyclists, joggers and freelance writers escaping their editing responsibilities.

 

 

 

*Did I mention the afternoon naps? The lie-ins when necessary? The working from home wardrobe of trackie bottoms and a hoodie? That every day is take your cat to work day? The outside working when it’s sunny?

 

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.

Harrogate, Literary Tours and Good Grub

This week, I…

Visited Harrogate! As any hardy British holiday-maker knows, sunny weather is never guaranteed but the gods of fortune smiled on us. The sun shone brightly. No jackets required. We did our fair bit of sitting out in beer gardens to support the local economy. I know. Aren’t we good ‘uns?!

Harry’s Free Walking Tours offers you a guided walk around the main attractions and explains the town’s history from Roman times to its best-known period, the late Georgian and Victorian era when it was THE choice for the hoi-polloi wanting to take the waters.

The Royal Pump museum details what a typical spa day might involve. No surprise to see that drinking lots of water and taking gentle strolls is the main point. For some patients, the advice stresses, massage might be better than exercise… Heavens, wouldn’t want the rich and far too privileged to over-exert themselves, would we?!

Haworth Museum

Yorkshire has plenty of literary connections; the best known being the Brontë sisters. The museum in Haworth feels perfectly preserved in its 19th Century past. This year is the bicentennial of Emily Brontë’s birth, and the original of Branwell’s famous painting (below) is on display.

Various theories abound about why Branwell painted himself out. The first is that he didn’t—his oldest sister ordered it years later because of his subsequent alcoholism and drug abuse, and the effect it had on the family. Experts at the National Gallery, however, have studied the painting and their view is that he painted himself out at the time.

So, perhaps he was too critical of his self-portrait. Or the composition didn’t work. If you step back from the painting, it’s easy to see that four people would make it crowded.

A Typical Teenager?

My husband’s theory is that having three teenage sisters pissed seventeen-year-old Branwell off sometimes. He painted himself with them, took a hissy fit one day and thought, “Sod it, I’m not immortalising myself with those b****es.”

Works for me…

Harrogate’s literary connections involve Agatha Christie, who turned up there in 1926 at the Old Swan Hotel following a brief disappearance and country-wide manhunt. She claimed amnesia. Most theories for the disappearance relate to her husband, whom she divorced two years later.

In 2006, biographer Andrew Norman said he thought her disappearance related to ‘fugue state’, a rare, deluded condition brought on by stress or depression.

Writing Festival

The Old Swan Hotel is still there, and in July writers will gather there for the annual Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. I’m willing to bet the room Agatha spent her week there in 1926 is booked months in advance, if progress didn’t demolish it.

In another (sort of) literary connection to my holiday, I met up with an online chum. Caron Allan edited my book, The Girl Who Swapped, last year, and we struck up an online friendship. As a writer you spend a lot of time in your own head, battling voices that tell you, why oh why oh why do you think you can do this? Fool! Email exchanges with someone who shares your plight are invaluable.

Caron has also been very successful this year, and her story is hugely inspirational. She’s done all the right things—she has a website, she’s writing a popular genre (crime) and a series, and she’s figured out what works on Amazon advertising. We met at the National Rail Museum café and the three hours flew past in no time.

Gorgeous Grub

Finally, Sandy and I are greedy guts one and two. And by ‘eck (to use a local expression) did Yorkshire serve our unregulated appetites well. Thanks to its spa past, beautiful location and many conferences and festivals, the town’s well-served for restaurants, cafes and pubs. If there was a doozy, we never saw it.

The most famous of Harrogate’s five-star places is Betty’s Tea Rooms, a fairy-tale looking place from the outside, its windows displaying rainbow-coloured piles of macaroons. We, er, didn’t go. However, my standout meal was from the Blues Bar on Montpelier Parade. Yorkshire tapas are new on me, but blimey it makes sense to offer folks a small sample of imaginative interpretations of local dishes, doesn’t it? If they over-order as a consequence, on their heads be it.

My favourite was their Yorkshire rarebit mac and cheese, carb heaven for someone who avoids them in daily life. The resultant high blood sugars were well worth it.

 

 

 

High Heels and Pink Glitter – the Books

This week I’m…trying out other people’s blog ideas (thank you Sandra). She posted a piece at A Corner of Cornwall where she took the title of her blog and looked at books that started with the same word.

Emma Baird doesn’t easily lend itself to the idea, apart from the famous Jane Austen book I want to read again in a few years’ time but my old blog name, High Heels and Pink Glitter, throws up possibilities.

I read Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity years ago, but there’s also J G Ballard’s High Rise. I saw the film starring Tom Hiddleston when it came out, and it would be interesting to explore how the story plays out in the book.

High heels features in a lot of book titles, according to Goodreads.com. Gemma Halliday has a whole series of books using ‘high heels’, Undercover in High Heels, etc. There are lots of variations on the theme of head over heels too.

In my twenties, I read a book called Running in Heels by Anna Maxted, which I loved. It featured a protagonist who was the same age as me and working in the same industry, and it felt very current at the time.

Reading the reviews of the book on Goodreads reminded me once again what an individual experience reading is for everyone. The range of adjectives and descriptions used is huge, enough to make you wonder if everyone read the same book. But no, that’s reading for you! One (wo)man’s meat is another one’s poison, etc.

For pink, I found this title – Feminists Don’t Wear Pink (and other lies): Amazing women on what the F word means to them, a collection of writing from Hollywood actresses to teenage activists including Helen Fielding, Saoirse Ronan and Karen Gillan. Apart from anything else, I do have substantial amounts of pink in my wardrobe…

Glitter is used in a lot of chick lit too, but I homed in on this example—Glitter by Kate Maryon, a book written for the tween audience. I’d like to read this because the reviews are so good and I want to see how an author writes for that age group. You don’t have to like a genre or be the target audience to appreciate an author’s abilities after all.

Do any of my choices appeal to you?

 

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.”