Monday, 13 November 2017

Polly, a novella

I'm pleased to announce that my new novella Polly will be published on 30th November by Stormblade Productions, with an online Facebook launch party to be hosted that day by Carrie Buchanan between 8pm and 10pm.  You can find the launch here.

Leaving her cheating husband and hollow marriage behind, Polly goes to Paris to visit a city she’s always wanted to see and open the next chapter in her life.  The City Of Love is everything she wanted it to be and even more - the grandeur of the architecture, the Seine, the people, the atmosphere.  This could be the start of something special, something new.

But why did she keep running into the strange man she met on the plane, the one she christened Mr Creepy because his smile made her skin crawl?  Perhaps it was just her imagination, perhaps it was paranoia but still…

Quickly making new friends - an American called Katrina and a waiter called Francois - she hoped to start again in a city that didn’t know her and never mind their melodramatic stories of a ‘necktie murderer’ stalking the backstreets of Paris.

What could possibly go wrong?

This all began with a Facebook message, in August 2015, from Neil Buchanan at Stormblade Productions asking if I’d like to write something for him.  Since I’d never had an audio book of my work done before, I readily agreed and the first idea came to me in late August, as I was driving and the INXS song New Sensation came on the stereo.  I’d already decided I was going to have a female protagonist (Carrie Buchanan narrates the Stormblade audio and it made sense to utilise a terrific female voice actor as much as possible) and my mind made the link that a new sensation could be a bloke or a destination.

I originally thought it’d be horror (since that’s my default genre) but the tone shifted as I worked on the notes (and my novella Drive, a dark thriller, began attracting attention).  I had most of the story in my head to pitch it to Neil and Carrie at FantasyCon that October and, buoyed by the fact they liked it, began writing in November.

I had trouble with the original ending (which was a lot darker than it is now) and talked it through with my friend Sue Moorcroft at one of our regular Trading Post meet-ups but otherwise it flowed well, with the first draft written in little over a month.  After taking a fortnight off, I wrote the second draft, sent it to my pre-readers (Kim Talbot Hoelzli, David Roberts and Sue) and using their notes, wrote the third draft in January 2016.

The bulk of the story takes place in the Latin Quarter of Paris, somewhere I’d wanted to visit since my teens (like Polly).  I was lucky enough to travel there several times on business, where the local manager of our company delighted in showing me around his wonderful city, pointing out places of interest and feeding us in fine restaurants.  On one occasion, I got to walk alongside the Seine to Notre Dame, taking lots of pictures. listening to the people and music around me and realised the Left Bank was everything I had always hoped it would be.

A few years later, in May 2012, I was in Paris with my colleague Rosie for a business meeting we managed to wrap up by lunchtime.  After a meal, we took the Metro to Notre Dame, had a drink at the Hotel Notre Dame St Michel and as it was a gloriously sunny May afternoon, we walked alongside the river to the Louvre, taking in the Bouquinistes and the Love-Locks on the Pont Des Artes bridge.  Polly does exactly the same walk.

Finally, I was able to work my love for The 400 Blows into the story.  Polly stays in L’Hotel Truffaut (named for Francois, the director) and all the names come from either the actors or the characters in the film. The one exception is the disco where Polly meets Manu – another favourite film of mine is Pauline a la Plage, directed by Eric Rohmer, so he lent his name to Club Eric.

In real life, Paris was everything I wanted it to be and more - as beautiful and grimy as London can be, with fantastic architecture and a wonderful atmosphere - and I had a lot of fun revisiting it with Polly.

The Metro at Saint-Michel, Paris - May 2012
A Bouquiniste, alongside the Seine, with Notre Dame in the background - May 2012

The plane hadn’t stopped before the first telephones began chiming with incoming messages and passengers got to their feet to pull their belongings from the overhead lockers.  Nobody had sat between Polly and the man and she’d noticed him giving her furtive looks throughout the flight, mainly at her legs.  Horrible creepy man.
She waited until he got up and retrieved his laptop case and a small rucksack before she moved across the seats.  He looked down and gave her a sour smile.  “Enjoy Paris,” he said.
“I’ll enjoy my romantic weekend,” she said.
“I’m sure you will,” he said and pushed into the line of people.
Polly watched until he’d left the plane before she stood and waited for someone to let her into the queue.

She went through passport control quickly, the immigration staff apparently uninterested by blonde English women.  The man behind the counter quickly checked her photograph then handed the document back with a curt, “Thank you.”
“Merci,” she said and offered him a bright smile.  His expression didn’t change.
Charles DeGaulle airport was light and airy, with high ceilings, plenty of glass and pale marbled floors.  It wasn’t overcrowded and Polly allowed herself to be carried along with the knot of fellow passengers to Arrivals.  Some bags had already come onto the carousels and she stood to one side, trying to spot Mr Creepy but he was nowhere to be seen.  Ahead, through the windows, she could see roads and car-parks and the sun struggling to break through the clouds.
After she got her case, Polly made her way to the entrance, checking signs and trying to read the language rather than look at the symbols.  She passed a couple of small cafes, the smell of fresh coffee intoxicating.  Further on was a big restaurant, surprisingly full and kids dragged their parents into a McDonalds franchise next door.  Between the two was a toilet and she went in, relieved herself, washed her hands and stared in the mirror.
The forty-four-year-old Polly Harper who stared back looked better than she’d expected.  Yes there were perhaps a few too many laugh lines around her mouth and eyes but they added to her, she’d earned and wore them well.  Her straight blonde hair was cut to her shoulders and looked good, the fringe covering most of her forehead.  She had a narrow nose, blue eyes that seemed darker in winter than summer and thin lips, none of which she particularly liked but all of which made her Polly.  She’d never really considered herself pretty but now, looking at herself in the mirror and disconcerted by the vaguely haunted look in her eyes, she realised she would have to or else she’d crumble.  What she’d discovered at home, what she’d walked in on, didn’t reduce her - if that was the view she took, she was lost.  No, she was as pretty as she’d ever been, if she wasn’t prettier than she was yesterday or the day before that and she needed to keep that in the forefront of her mind, to try and drive away the haunted look.
She saw the girl, her eyes large with surprise and perhaps fear.  She saw Dale’s hands all over her tits and felt a shiver run down her spine - no, don’t think about it.  It can’t be changed, now is the time to move forward.  Think ahead, think positive.  She was here in Paris, so what if she was on her own, she might have been in Barcelona now with a husband she didn’t know was cheating on her. 

Polly ordered a coffee from a busy stand near the main entrance.  Next to it was a newsagent and she glanced at the headlines as she waited for her Americano to cool.  The police, apparently, were no nearer to finding out the identity of the so-called Necktie Murderer, having just released a suspect.
She blew on the coffee and took a sip - strong and rich, just as she liked it.  Now what?  She hadn’t planned beyond this point and couldn’t decide between catching a train into the city, which would be more glamorous or a taxi, which would be more direct.
She looked up as Mr Creepy came out of the toilet, stopped by the door and used his handkerchief to wipe the corners of his mouth.  Surprised, Polly stepped back behind a pillar and counted to five, then peeped around.  He was looking in the opposite direction, towards the signs for the train station and that made up her mind on how to get into the city.
Mr Creepy turned slowly and locked eyes with her.  A small smile played at the corners of his lips and he nodded.  “I see you,” he mouthed.
Startled, it felt like his words had pulled the oxygen from her lungs as her heart seemed to thud against her ribs.  She slipped behind the pillar again and rested her head against it, her mouth suddenly dry, the only sound the rushing blood in her ears.  Had he really mouthed that?  Perhaps he was trying to be flirty, a kind of “peekaboo, I see you” and not something sinister, but it hadn’t felt like that.
“You’re being paranoid,” she said out loud as if making a sound would confirm it.  Nobody paid her any attention, which didn’t help.
Not wanting to see what Mr Creepy was doing - if he suddenly appeared around the pillar, with that little half-smile, Polly was convinced she’d scream - she grabbed her case and made for the main doors, trying to lose herself in the gaggle of people there.  She didn’t turn, didn’t pause, just barged her way through and out into the cool morning air.
A few people were standing at the taxi rank but there were more vehicles than passengers, so she stopped by the drivers door window of the first unoccupied one.
“Are you free?” she asked the driver, a huge black man who spilled over his seat onto the centre console.
The driver nodded and smiled.  His left canine was capped in silver.  “Oui, je suis entrer.”
“Merci,” she said and got into the back, sitting behind him.  As he pulled into the traffic, shouting heartily at a bus that wouldn’t let him by, Polly risked a glance behind but couldn’t see Mr Creepy.  She took a deep breath, willing her heart rate to slow down.

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