I could probably write a whole book about tea, and maybe one day I will. It features in every single book I’ve ever written and despite the thousands of cups that have gone cold in my time – the next cuppa is never far from my mind.
I could probably write a whole book about tea, and maybe one day I will. It features in every single book I’ve ever written and despite the thousands of cups that have gone cold in my time – the next cuppa is never far from my mind.
There is a deep
a lostness, a verge
upon the sea
has but one answer –
It snowed properly for the first time this year here in Essex and I am ever reminded how beautiful and dangerous it can be.
Everyone has a day job in one way or another. Some people work in offices or restaurants. Other people work shifts in bars or in shops. Tabitha Thwaites had a day job like everyone else. It just involved taking her clothes off instead of working behind a desk. Although, sometimes it involved working on top of one.
‘You shouldn’t have booked me, Simon – I’m doing a stand-up gig tonight.’ Tabitha pulled the phone away from her ear to check the time. ‘Okay, I’ll fit it in – but it better be a quick one. Remember what happened last time you promised me a fast getaway.’ She picked up the pace as she walked down the high street, her black patent heels clicking faster and faster on the cobblestones.
Tabitha’s phone buzzed against her ear and she pulled it away to check the text. ‘Is that the address? Tell him I’ll meet him on the bench down the street. I’ll be there in ten – do I need any props? Ah, sexy secretary – I can do that, easy. I’ve got a book and a pair of glasses in my bag.’
Tabitha continued walking until she reached the end of the main road and then turned the corner and carried on for a quarter of a mile, entering a modest housing estate. Crossing over the road, she rested her phone between her ear and her shoulder and pulled a book from her bag.
She turned the book over in her hand to check the title in response to the man on the phone. ‘Um, it’s called ‘Please Miss, We’re Boys’. It’s quite good actually. I’ve got to go – he’s coming.’ She ended the call and dropped the phone into her open handbag. Tabitha sat on the bench, crossed one leg over the other and opened the book to a random page. The client approached a moment later.
‘They’re always nervous’, she thought to herself. ‘He looks like he needs a drink. Maybe I should suggest one? No – don’t be ridiculous, Tabitha. It’s the middle of the day. Not exactly the best idea I’ve had all day. Me in a bar is a bad idea. Then again, tequila…’ She snapped back into reality when she noticed the man shifting on the spot as if he was desperate for a wee. ‘Yep, nervous.’ She smiled to herself and then at him, her eyes unwillingly glancing at the zip on his trousers, which was slowly bending out of shape.
‘Hi there.’ She smiled, this time looking at his face. He was tanned, deeply, as if he travelled a lot. He was in a tailored blue suit and brown leather shoes. Nothing about him screamed sexually inexperienced. Nothing about him screamed sex god either, though.
‘Ahem, yes. Hello. Are you – the uh? I mean, hi.’ The man nervously stuck his hand out in front of him to shake her hand, but in doing so he knocked the sunglasses out of his jacket pocket.
‘Nice to meet you Scott – I’m Tabitha.’ Tabitha smiled and shook his hand in return. She let her grip weaken so he could pull back, and she slipped her hand into her plum-coloured coat pocket. ‘Shall we go?’
‘Oh, um, yes, follow me.’ He gestured back toward the way he had just come, so they started to work. ‘Uh, how does this well um, work?’ Scott tried to sneak a glance at Tabitha as they strolled, but stumbled over a broken paving slab.
‘No business during business hours, Scott. That’s my motto.’ Scott gave her a puzzled look, so she clarified, ‘Whatever price you worked out with Simon, send it to him on PayPal – he’s a pimp for the 21st century. I don’t deal with the money, Simon says I’m too conspicuous-looking to be trusted not to get caught.’
‘Too conspicuous?’ Scott asked, innocently, but the penny seemed to drop as he asked.
‘Now, where’s home for you, eh? Anywhere near here?’ Tabitha asked, trying to change the subject. She could feel him looking at her, but where most men went straight for the cleavage, Scott seemed to be staring at her auburn hair, longing to touch it. But his hands stayed firmly in his pockets.
‘Uh, it’s a-across the street and around the corner.’
‘No, silly. I meant where are you from.’
‘Oh, still across the street. It’s the house I grew up in.’ He swept a pale hand through a wavy blonde fringe, eyes fixed to the floor.
‘Don’t worry – I’m not a kid or anything! My parents shipped off to Spain a few years ago and let me live there. I bought them out last year.’
‘Look at you, a dashing boy in a sharp suit, owning your own house and everything.’ She teased but was inwardly impressed. Tabitha had worked two, sometimes three jobs at a time since she was sixteen and all she could afford was a boxy flat above the chip shop. It smelled of salt and grease, but at least dinner was always a few steps away. The fishmonger’s twenty-something son was sweet on her, so if she timed it right – dinner was on the house.
‘I should tell you, Scott – I’m on a bit of a time frame today, you see I’ve got another job-’
‘Another client?’ He interrupted, clearly bothered by the premise.
They turned a corner onto a street lined with bare trees, the leaves flooding the floor with oranges, reds and yellows. Tabitha loved the autumn the most, cosy jumpers and hot chocolate and early nights with a good book.
‘Uh, not exactly.’ She usually didn’t talk to clients about her gigs, but she fancied this one, so she broke her rule. ‘I do stand-up.’
‘Are you funny?’
‘You know, I have no idea. People laugh when I speak – I’m just not sure whether it’s with me or at me.’ She walked through the oak door he held open for her and immediately felt out of her depth. ‘He could afford so much better than me,’ she thought.
‘This is a beautiful house, Scott. Props on the decorating. Oh, I love those stairs.’ She took off her coat. ‘Hand carved?’
‘The bannisters?’ She pointed to the stairs. They were intricately carved designs on oak wood, matching the woodwork in the rest of the house.
‘Oh-oh yes. Took me three weeks. My parents hadn’t decorated this place since the Fifties. I ripped it all out and started again. God, you should have seen the Artex ceilings.’ He looked at Tabitha and then at the top of the stairs, expecting her to head straight for the bedroom. And to his credit, that was usually how she did things.
‘Let’s go to the kitchen first and have a nice cup of coffee before we start?’ She spotted the kitchen through an open door and half-walked half-jogged towards it. She heard Scott dutifully follow her to the back of the house and felt him watching her again as she found her way around the kitchen. This time, his gaze had finally found her rack.
Tabitha had been up half the night writing material for tonight’s gig and was then kept up for the rest of it by drunk punters in the chip shop below her bedroom. Caffeine was needed before she could him a thorough going over.
She figured out the coffee machine and made herself a mocha, and Scott a black coffee upon pestering him for his preferred poison of choice. But both coffees end up un-drank and cold. Tabitha had turned around to give him his coffee to find him in a grey button-up shirt, and black trousers that were just a little bit too long for him. He’d kicked off his shoes and revealed expensive-but-hilarious Days of the Week socks. She was a sucker for a vulnerable guy. Tabitha often wondered if that was due to her pathological need to fix things, or if there just happened to be a correlation between vulnerability and cuteness.
‘Damn, I was really looking forward to this coffee.’ She joked, fake-pouting and looking mournfully at the glass mug in her hand as she placed it on the side.
‘I’ll make you another one after?’ Scott had seemingly gained some confidence now they were behind closed doors and, two strides later was pressed up against Tabitha, backing her against the counter. A drawer handle jabbed her in the hip, making her jump a bit but she didn’t care. She grabbed him by the collar and planted a kiss on his lips, and another, and another until they were seamless. They stumbled through the halls, crashing into chairs and walls and doors, tripping up the stairs until – still with their eyes mostly closed – they found the bedroom.
Several hours later when the sun had started to set, Tabitha finally got her first cup of coffee of the day. She had put her coat on as a makeshift dressing gown, her dress was somewhere upstairs and she was too lazy to go and find it.
As she sipped at the hot coffee, Tabitha glanced around the kitchen and admired the view. The beautiful wallpaper, the incredibly expensive-looking stove, and a vintage wall clock hung on the wall, the sparkling worktops. Tabitha’s eyes darted back towards the clock and panic-stricken dropped her mug in the nearby sink and went in search for her shoes. She was due on stage in twenty minutes. Tabitha called goodbye to Scott, who had disappeared for a shower, and rushed out of the door.
It was only as she approached the bar where her gig was that she realized she was missing something very important. Clothes. A perfect picture of her dress draped across Scott’s bannister flashed through her mind and she swore loud enough to startle a passer-by. She looked around desperately for somewhere to buy a new outfit, but everything was closed. It was too late to go home, and just as she contemplated calling in sick, she was spotted by Jack. Jack was the barman/events manager for the bar, and he was not quick to forgive a cancelled gig. Tabitha already owed him too many favours for times where she had been late before. She was all out of favours now.
Her chin practically digging into her chest, Tabitha waved her way past Jack and entered the bar through the back entrance, pulling the belt of her coat tighter and tighter and she walked.
‘Y’alright, Tabs? You look a bit pale,’ Jack drawled in a South-American accent, stamping out a cigarette and following her down the side of the bar.
‘Cold.’ She grumbled and tugged the back door open, barely holding it long enough for Jack to come in behind her. Tabitha rushed to the dressing room after muttering an excuse to Jack about needing to get ready. ‘Get ready?’ she thought, ‘I’m half-naked and about to go on stage and tell jokes, how the fuck am I supposed to get ready for that?’
A few minutes later, after a waitress had dropped by with her usual Jack Daniels and coke, and a few hyperventilating breaths, Tabitha heard her call to come on stage. Her feet had to carry her because the rest of Tabitha just wanted to curl up into a ball of embarrassment and die in the corner. Somehow, she made it onto the stage and found the microphone in the blaring bright stage lights. She usually disliked not being able to see the audience, but tonight it seemed like a blessing in disguise. The weak welcoming applause died down, and her cue to start being funny reared its ugly head. Her set vanished from her head, all jokes wiped from her memory – even the knock-knock ones she had learned as a child.
Tabitha took a deep breath and went for it.
‘True story for ya tonight, ladies and gentlemen – and if you don’t laugh me off the stage, I will personally give you all a refund. Won’t I, Jack?’ She gestured to Jack, who was propped up against the bar, polishing a glass. He looked shocked to be caught not working, but he laughed and nodded all the same. Tabitha slid her hands further up the microphone stand and clung to it for dear life.
‘Okay, so I don’t usually admit to this on stage – because you never know who’s in the audience, although I can guarantee my folks aren’t here tonight, thank fuck – but just this once, I’ll hold my hands up and admit it. I’m a sex worker.’ She paused and let it sink in. ‘I must be a pretty shit one if I have to tell jokes to pay the rent, but hey – whoring pays for my phone bill and weekly food shop.’ Tabitha paused as the audience laughed. It was a mostly male laugh by the deep tone. She understood why – women didn’t like hearing about prostitutes, it made them feel used and cheap. It was something she morally toyed with, but she wasn’t lying when she said it paid the bills.
‘So usually, my liaisons with clients are pretty dull – the odd banker with a fetish for lace, some unsuspecting grooms on stag nights – sorry, ladies!’ That got a couple more laughs, so she relaxed a little. ‘But today went a little differently. Wanna hear how?’ She waited as they cheered her on, and then continued her story, taking another deep breath.
‘Today, I met a real cutie. The kind of gent I rarely come across – polite, a homeowner, and quite the newbie to the solicitation game. Ladies, he did not need to pay for it – if you know what I mean. I would have spun his plates for free, let me tell you.’ Another laugh, louder and spattered with groans. One laugh stood out a little more than the others, although she couldn’t figure out why.
‘We had fun, him and me. Didn’t even get to drink my coffee – and it looked a good’un too – a fancy one from a coffee machine in his lush kitchen. A whirlwind romance, guys. I could have happily wandered around that house for hours. See ladies, he’s got cash too! Honestly, a real keeper. But I can’t date all the cute clients – how would I pay my bills, eh?’ Another big laugh. She was building up to the punch line. Tabitha glanced up at the stage timing lights – an invention of Jack’s. There are three green lights at the back of the bar – three lights, fifteen-minute sets. She was already down one light, but Tabitha had no intention of reaching the third one.
‘Anyway, like I was saying, today went a bit wrong, you see. I was so busy with my new lush client – I only went and forgot I was supposed to be coming here! And I just couldn’t bear the thought of all you lovely people sat here un-entertained, now could I?’ Tabitha grinned at them, and let go of the microphone stand as she stepped back a little.
‘Trouble is, I left something at his in the rush to come to see you all.’ She stopped and waited, knowing her crowd, waiting for something specific. Then it happened, a man sat in the front row called out and asked what it was.
‘I only went and left my clothes!’ She pulled open her coat like a flasher and let the laughter wash over her. As her bright red bra and panties were on display to fifty or so people, she went as red as her underwear. And then the laugh that had stuck out before, decided to speak.
‘I thought you might be needing this’, said the voice, cutting through the laughter.
Tabitha looked for the source of the voice, and with the crowd, discovered Scott stood at the back of the room, holding her dress in the air as if he was the guy at the end of The Breakfast Club, punching his hand in the air when he kissed the popular girl.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve got to go and get dressed… and then undressed again’, she winked at the audience and held back a giggle. ‘Goodnight, folks.’ Tabitha gave them a big wave and proudly sauntered down the side-stage steps towards Scott.
‘I guess you’ll be wanting your dress back then?’ Scott smirked.
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Ric stepped into Irving’s apartment and the lift doors slid quietly closed behind him. On the coffee table in front of the professor were piles of paperwork scattered all over the place, and a screen projection hovering a metre above the table with images flickering across it.
As he walked towards the living room, he glanced at the standing bar with a glass of whisky already poured and waiting. Irving had an identical one a hand’s stretch away from him on the table, but he was more concerned about the paperwork than the drink. Ric picked up the glass and swilled the dark liquid in the crystal glass and took a sip. He welcomed its rough heat. Ric took another sip before placing the glass down in a gap on the table and picking up the closest file to him. Each file seemed to be old police reports – all the pages had faded and yellowed with time. He could taste the dust in the air as he flicked through the papers.
NAME: SIMON TIMOTHY ST. JAMES
DOB: 21ST JUNE 2055
OFFICER MCNALLY: Can you describe the assailant?
ST. JAMES: She was wearing a bright red dress and purple heels. And she had really red hair – like orange-red. I only saw her quick – so I didn’t see her face or nothing.
OFFICER MCNALLY: What did you see happen?
ST. JAMES: She walked down the alley where I’d seen a bloke in a suit go ‘bout five minutes before. Then there were loads of noise and she came out and he didn’.
OFFICER MCNALLY: Did you witness the crime?
ST. JAMES: Love, I jus’ told you – they went in the alley an’ only the lass came back out.
OFFICER MCNALLY: So, if you didn’t see a crime being committed, why did you call the police?
ST. JAMES: Saw the body though, didn’ I? Big ol’ hole right in his chest. I tell you what – I recons it was them heels the devil ‘ad on. Stabbed him through the heart, she did.
OFFICER MCNALLY: Did you see any other evidence that the woman in question was the one to commit the murder?
ST. JAMES: Well, I didn’t need any did I? She’s that Jessica Rabbit killer, aint she?
END OF INTERVIEW
Ric looked over to Irving, who had is head in his hand and was watching him closely.
‘They’re all the same. No one ever saw her close up, they never witnessed her actually committing the murders. There’s no proof it’s even the same woman – just the same clothes. Not that they would have been easy to get hold of. Even back then – they weren’t making items like that anymore, the uniform structure was already in place unless you were an elite or a Ward.’ Irving looked defeatedly at the mess of paperwork on his table and started scraping it together to make what vaguely resembled a pile.
‘No, she’s not dressed like a Ward. She’s… different. People try not to look at Wards – but her, well you just sort of can’t help it. She doesn’t belong somehow.’
‘What exactly did she look like?’
‘Like this.’ Ric said, waving the witness interview around. ‘Red hair, red dress, purple heels.’
‘But did you see her face?’
‘She looked right at me, Professor. The face of an angel. Except-.’ Ric stopped halfway through his thought.
‘Eyes. Her eyes! Fuck sake – I knew she looked different!’ Ric touched his index finger gently to his left eye and as he pulled it away, an artificial lens came with it. ‘She’s not wearing lenses.’ He stared at the glint of the lens. If he looked close enough, he could see the coding scrawling across the top. They recorded everything, they showed you everything. You could even link them with ear pieces and use them as an entertainment system. But Ric could never afford that. He put the lens carefully back in his eye and blinked a few times.
‘But everyone wears them – even the Wards. Even the President of the World wears fucking lenses. It’s the law. If you’re caught not wearing them, you’re arrested.’ Irving searched through the papers and pulled out the only sketch of the woman. But there was no face depicted in the image, just her signature outfit.
‘I know, but I’m telling you she wasn’t wearing them.’
‘You can’t get anywhere without them. One of the murders was committed in a Public Library – they do retinal scans to check your Clearance.’
‘So how did she get in?’ Ric asked, picking up his drink and taking a swig.
‘Someone’s helping her.’
– End of Part Three –
Part One Summary: Ric sees a woman on the shuttle who looks just like the infamous serial killer, Ruby Bennett, whose look was modelled on the cartoon character Jessica Rabbit. Ric is left wondering whether the woman he saw was the real serial killer, still alive over 300 years later, or an imposter – both options are highly unlikely but possible.
In the days that followed, Ric spent every spare moment researching Ruby Bennett, which was hard as he didn’t have Additional Education Clearance. He was a semi-skilled worker with Basic Education Level 4, with some Leisure Privileges – meaning most info stamps were out of his grasp. Ric had reached out to an old professor of his, Prof. Irving Stiles, implying it was research for a friend and was awaiting a response but didn’t hold out much hope.
In the meantime, he sought out as much as he could about Wards. He had seen them in the shuttles or on the streets, and the occasional one in a bar – but they wore a brighter red and never clothes so revealing. It was all part of the chase, the modesty, the allure of the hidden beauty under all the layers of scarves and linen robes. Men would pay a fortune just to see them naked – not even to touch them. Only the wealthiest men could afford such pleasures. Some of them even had Personal Wards – loyal only to them – but they were rare as many Wards lived in huge mansions in groups for their safety.
Ric had never considered paying for a Ward. He had encountered free-women in his youth and had even once had a wife for a brief but happy four years, but then she caught the Fire Fever during an outbreak and died. They had no children so Ric was left a widower and was free to marry again. But he never met another woman that held a candle to his departed wife, so he remained alone.
Ric kept looking for the woman on the shuttle, but after nine days of no sight of her, he began to wonder if he had made the whole thing up. Had he been dreaming; tired from a laborious day in the forest? Or had he truly seen a woman dressed as Ruby Bennett, and if so – why on earth would a woman dress as a 300-year-old serial killer from the 21st century?
Just as Ric had begun to give up, he received a comm from Irving with a vague message and an address. ‘Meet me to talk about your project. 122 34. JR D245’.
After his shift, Ric jumped on the shuttle heading North instead of South, and got off in the JR subsection. The country was divided into divisions, and then each division was split into subsections. Within each subsection were numbered blocks with individual living units. Ric headed through the streets to find Block 34. It was a much grander block than the one he lived in. it had plants out the front, and six steps leading up to huge wooden doors. It was unusual to see wood used in an almost decorative function after deforestation led to near-extinction of many species of trees. It had taken nearly two hundred years to genetically modify the spores to grow trees again, making them rare and very expensive.
Ric climbed the steps and put his thumb on the touch pad to the left of the door. The screen lit up with a keypad, and he typed in 122 for the unit number. The AI selected ‘122’ on the screen, and started to flash yellow. After a few seconds, the number turned green and Ric heard the door click open. He entered the lift and it zoomed up for a moment, and then to the left for several seconds, before stopping at 122. The lift doors opened into the unit, and Ric saw Irving sat on his sofa, surrounded by piles of faded papers and comm-screens.
‘Get in here.’ Irving said, a concerned look on his face. ‘Tell me everything you know, Ric – and don’t spare a single detail.’
I spend a lot of my time sat in the dark as I feed my baby, staring at a picture of a girl in a yellow dress. And now one thing for sure: her story isn’t over yet.
When I started my Master’s a year ago, I did it with the intention of using the time to work on the sequel to Searching For Katherine (r.2014), which has sat unfinished in my proverbial desk draw for the past three years.
However, three months into my course – I found out I was pregnant. Overwhelmed by work, university and now pregnancy – the novel remained unfinished.
Well now I am on maternity leave, my degree has come to an end, and I have a month-old baby boy – my time is both free and less so at the same time.
Hanging on my living room wall is the original sketch – done by an old friend of mine – of the cover for Searching For Katherine.
It is of Katherine in a torn yellow dress, walking through the forest. I always loved the drawing because it was of a pivotal moment in Katherine’s story; of limbo. She finds herself leaving one hell, with no promise of salvation or safety once she gets wherever she’s going – but she still takes the journey. And thus, I too am in limbo when it comes to this book.
But now it’s time to come out of the forest and choose a path. Do I scrap the book altogether, and take time as a sign that some books just shouldn’t be finished? Do I pick up where I left off? Or do I start the manuscript again; and embellish it with the things I have learned in life since last writing it?
I always felt a duty to Katherine to finish her story, I still intend on doing so, but perhaps not in the way I originally planned.
I think I’ll dust off the old hard drive tomorrow and see where we left off, and if there is a story yet to be salvaged.