This is how it began. My sister Anna, a brilliant and witty writer, suggested that we should try to write a romance novel according to the guidelines published by Mills & Boon. Not as easy as it sounds, apparently. She created a finely judged opening paragraph and sent it to me. And, intoxicated by the stylistic possibilities that are simply not offered by my usual literary output of press releases on Bedfordshire’s latest social housing project, I have taken up the gauntlet. The idea is that we will take it in turns to develop the story, in full view of you, dear reader.

We are taking this project seriously, but I am already acutely aware that writing about simmering desire with one’s own sister might be possible only with tongue tentatively in cheek. We have agreed not to discuss our plot ideas, so the novel will unfold as unpredictably to us as to our readers. This could lead to trouble later on, but for now it seems a very liberating way to start.

Who knows where this project will take us? To the dizzying heights of publication by the world’s leading romance brand? Probably not. But wherever we end up, it should be fun getting there…

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Part 30 – Deft Cleft

Sorry this is so long – got a bit carried away with the sheer poignancy and thrill of it all. I’ll do a short intro to make up for it. Besides, I need a gin.

Part 30 (by Oliver)

Topaz groped through her mind, clutching at the images that flashed before her: ruffled sand silver in the moonlight; a hand, firm and tanned, grasping her soft shoulder; Terence fussing, nurturing in his fond way; her mother’s face, looming like a suede mask gashed with magenta; and always, always Cleft’s towering figure, firm with manly arrogance.

How had it come to this? Her life, secure and comfortable, its future path sparkling before her; all collapsed into a haze of pain and darkness and fear and solitude. And the throb in her ankle pulsed on, and with an inward satisfaction she felt that it was a direct link back down the lost path of her existence, to a sun-baked rock and a stand of prickly pears, their swollen, rubicund tips full of the promise of love and life.

The door scraped open, the sudden light searing Topaz’s eyes and making her blink in momentary blindness.

‘You eata this.’ The voice was gruff, all semblance of peasant charm gone. And a tin plate, its enamel chipped, was kicked across the floor and skidded to Topaz’s feet. The polenta and olive mash would have piqued her appetite in La Gavroche or El Bulli; now she sullenly saw it for the peasant mess it was, and turned away, disgusted.

‘You bedda hope-a money come soon,’ sneered her captor. ‘You no get more-a food than this.’ And he slammed the door, encasing Topaz in darkness once more.

So he had not suspected her; the relief glowed inside Topaz, lighting the way for hope to creep shyly in. Maybe Cleft had received the note. Maybe he was, even now, coming to find her. Or maybe she had pushed him away too forcefully that time at the little inn. Maybe this was it, and she had thrown away the chance of her family ever paying a ransom.

She quivered in the chilly dark and, swallowing hard, settled gingerly into the dusty corner and waited for destiny to decide her future.

High above, the sun gleamed on the silver hull of the Piaggio Avanti as it wheeled above Malaga airport. Cleft peered, clench-jawed, from the cockpit, aligning the plane’s nose with the runway but also darting questing glances around the brown, parched mountains that heaved up all around. Small chance, he knew, of spotting the hovel where Topaz was held, but if he could see Paradise Heights he could perhaps see the lie of the land around.

For he knew that it was to Paradise Heights that Topaz would have fled. Where else did her desire and her destiny fuse? Where else was hers and hers alone in this treacherous, fickle world? As surely as a dove returning to the nurturing nest, or the spawning salmon crossing oceans to find again the place of its own birth, Topaz would be drawn to Paradise Heights.

The plane skidded onto the runway with a little screech of tyres on tarmac. Barely waiting for the engines to stop turning, Cleft leaped from the controls and sauntered urgently through the terminal. He endured passport control with ill-concealed impatience so that by the time he was free of the slow wheels of Spanish bureaucracy he sprinted to the taxi rank in front of the airport. He wrenched open the door of the first cab he saw and barked at the sweating back in front of him ‘Paradise Heights, and step on it, brother.’

The cab screeched away from the terminal and was soon juddering steadily along the motorway, then into the foothills that peaked gently on the rim of the city. As the roads grew rougher, Cleft’s heart beat faster, though he kept his face inscrutable, firmly chiselled behind his wraparound shades.

Up into the rocky passes jolted the cab, and Cleft did not notice the small, mean eyes flicking at his face in the rear-view mirror, glinting with trepidation and – could it be? – recognition. At last the taxi wheezed to a halt on that familiar hilltop and, flinging a few notes at the fleshy, inscrutable back of the driver, Cleft sprang forward across the stony ground.

There were the stakes and tapes that marked out the floorplan of Topaz’s villa; there was the crevice in which her slender ankle had been twisted. Cleft almost felt once again the sudden warm weight of her body as it tumbled into his arms, and heard anew his voice saying ‘Gotcha!’ as she fell.

A small spasm of yearning knotted in his belly as he saw the flat rock on which they had lain so briefly. And so encompassing were these beloved memories that he did not hear the slither of footsteps on the stones behind him. It was only when a sudden snap sounded, a whoosh whispered past his ear and the coiling end of a whip grasped his ankles that he spun round to see the empurpled face of his driver spitting hate and fear into his own.

Quick as an arrow, Cleft seized the snaking whip with both hands, the sinews in his arms shifting beneath the lightly haired tan of his skin and his face glowering into wrath and threat. Pulling sharply, he sent the man sprawling forward into the dust and, almost before he realised what was happening, he planted one large foot in the small of the driver’s back, the point-toed cowboy boots imprinting his supremacy on the grovelling figure.

‘Gotcha!’ Cleft snarled.


  1. With breathless urgency, Cleft pressed the Coincidence close to his muscled, sweat-sheened chest. 'Gotcha!' he growled. Because, even through the blinding heat of his need, he knew that only an unlikely literary contrivance such as this could propel him towards the yielding flesh of his destiny.

  2. Well, how many cabbies can there be in Malaga?

  3. Glad to see that whip coming in useful....

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