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…

Monday, 27 February 2012

Meme, me?

Motherventing tagged me on a fiendish meme that involves 7x7x7. Actually, it’s probably quite simple, but numbers always faze me. I need to list seven of my favourite blog posts, then pass the buck to seven other bloggers. And then tell you seven things about myself.

Then the Middle-Aged Matron tagged me with 11 questions I have to answer. Don’t know why; nosiness, I imagine. I think I’m supposed to pass it on to 11 other bloggers, but frankly I’m hard pressed to come up with seven on which I can speak with authority, and I’m sure everyone’s been memed to death. So I’m going to stick to seven and hope they haven’t been bagged before now.

First things first: seven blog posts I admire:

This is from A Year in Lancashire. I love this blog; it is gentle and beautifully observed, and here's the post that got me into it: Going to Church

The Male Nanny is priceless. The language can be a bit fruity (and that’s just from the teenagers), and I quibble over his description of the family as ‘upper class’ – they sound distinctly nouveau to me. But he writes like a dream. Try this.

I’ve got to hand it to her: no one does it like the Middle-Aged Matron. Any one of her posts is a thing of wonder, so I’ve picked this one almost at random. Almost.

When I started blogging and was looking for blogs to admire, SAHDandproud was the first must-read I found. I even wrote to tell him so, which he probably found creepy. He says he isn’t a writer, but he is, he is… I’m being brave here and linking to his own version of this 7x7x7 thingy. That’ll show me up.

This one by Maid in Yorkshire combines everything I like in a post: amusing, self-deprecating, all the commas in the right places…

I haven’t paid much attention to Mammasaurus lately, which is my loss: she’s magnificent. She gives so much altruistic support and encouragement to recalcitrant/clueless novices such as myself. This video post typifies her brilliance. It’s original, generous, witty and impressively executed.

Finally, how can I omit Motherventing herself? I bet she’s rollicking company. She acts, which I used to love doing. She writes, which I still love doing. She did a virtual striptease on Twitter, which I loved so much I stuck a virtual fiver down her virtual knickers, before she virtually took ’em off. This post makes me wish I could be in the sisterhood with her.

Right, on to those seven Things about myself. I’ll try to keep it short.

1            I can wiggle one eyebrow at a time. Toddlers love it.

2            My first kiss – you know, lips and all – was on stage playing Pontius Pilate. Mrs Pilate wore very sticky stage make-up.

3            I once paid my sister 10p to let me slap her leg as hard as I could. It was in the car. She screamed. Our dad nearly crashed. I got all the blame, even though she accepted my terms.

4            I smoke about two cigarettes a year, but my mother doesn’t know.

5            Before we were married, my wife said she liked a man with a hairy chest. I’ve spent the past 20 years growing one (a hairy chest, not a man).

6            I accosted Suggs in a pub in Seven Dials while inebriated and told him how much I love ‘It must be love’. Probably happens all the time, poor chap.

7            I am the most pedantic bore I know.

Now for Ageing Matron’s questions and, more worryingly, my answers:

If you could have an audience with any British monarch which would it be?
I sometimes fancy meeting Edward VIII so I could punch him in his weak, treacherous, self-indulgent face. But on balance I’d prefer Elizabeth I.

What is the most frightening thing that has ever happened to you?
The lid of the loft blowing open one stormy night just after I’d seen House of Wax. I’ve led a protected life.

If you appeared on Desert Island Discs what would your luxury be?
A fully crewed ocean liner. Or a piano with a teach-yourself-piano book.

What kind of museum or gallery exhibition would you cross a city to see?
Paintings, I suppose. A two-man show of Ghirlandaio and Andrea del Sarto, perhaps, or an overview of British portraiture 1900­–1950.

What would you choose as your last meal?
Boiled eggs with white bread and butter.

If you became leader of a political party what would your slogan be?
I’m always right.

What piece of music makes your pulse race?
There are heaps, some of them mentioned here. Overall, probably this, the tremendous finale to Boito's Mefistofele – try it from 6 minutes in:

Strangely, I find the ovation at the end as moving as the music itself.

What human quality to do value most highly?
Charm and courtesy. With those, so much is forgivable.

What is your greatest regret?
Not noticing that, according to my wife, plenty of girls wouldn’t have minded…

Can you do a forward roll? (if yes, photographic evidence is required)
Yes, but I can't prove it.

What would you like your epitaph to be?
‘Life is not worth living without him’. None of that ‘be happy when I’m gone’ rubbish. I want tears and lots of them.

What ingredients do you rate in a blog?
Wit, self-deprecation and correct grammar.

I have to pose 11 questions myself now. Then it’s all over, I promise.

Katie Price or Kristin Scott Thomas?
What is the most beautiful view you’ve ever seen? (And no mush about newborn babies please – I mean a proper view, like with fields and all).
What is the most revolting thing you’ve ever eaten?
What, if anything, makes you cry?
Who, in your opinion, has/had the most beautiful face ever?
If you had to live in another era, when would you choose?
Which work of art would you most like to own?
Everyone has a book in them, apparently. What’s yours about?
What’s your most embarrassing moment?
What’s your best physical feature?

Not that I’m prurient or anything

And so I pass the whole shebang on to the following. Just do the 7 bit or the 11 bit or none of it, as you like. Apologies in advance – I know you won’t thank me.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Part 48 – We’re all in this together

I’ve never tried romance as a group experience before, but today I’m calling for a spot of audience participation. After all, it’s a odd business, writing Romance with your sis – we could both do with some company.

What I’d like you to do is vote for one of the following plot development options. Whichever gets the most thumbs up decides the fate of Topaz’s heart.

1            And mother comes too…

2            The plane crashes and Topaz loses more than she bargained for

If you fancy helping out, post your vote as a comment below. Thanks in advance for your input; let’s see if this eases Topaz’s path to fulfilment, or complicates it…

Actually, this instalment was written as part of the previous post, but it got so long that I didn’t have the nerve to serve it up all in one go…

Part 48 (by Oliver)

The man’s voice sounded at last. ‘Hello?’

‘Dad, it’s me, Topaz.’

‘Baby! How are you?’ The voice sounded pleased, but also tired, worn down.

‘I’m good,’ she replied. ‘But I’m kinda lonely. Want to come and keep me company, like, as soon as?’

‘You bet, bunnykins. But – er – I’ll have to see what Mum wants to do about plane tickets.’

Topaz was suddenly confronted with the apparition of her mother’s face looming close to hers. She could see the pale folds under her chin that the tanning spray had missed; feel the brittle brush of her hair, too brightly yellow; hear the moist unclamping of those vivid, magenta lips as they leaned in to whisper threats. ‘You will not leave this place until you are wed.’

With a shudder, she pulled herself back from the painful past, and when she spoke her voice was wintry. ‘Mum? She’s not to come. I don’t want her at Paradise Heights.’

‘Yeah, babes, but there’s a problem. She holds the purse strings now. I’ll need to ask her to buy me the ticket. And she won’t.’

Topaz’s mind whirled. Her mother, in charge of the Eversleigh-Brinkworth fortune? How could Daddy, so confident, so used to wheeling, dealing and sealing a deal, have let her take it all?

‘I don’t understand, Dad,’ she breathed.

There was a faint sigh on the other end of the line, and when the voice came again it sounded broken. ‘I had no choice, Topes. When Duncan Dunkley realised that our – erm – plan had fallen through concerning you and Terence, he called in his heavies to put the screws on me. But Terence tipped me off, and I had time to make a few arrangements. It meant putting everything into Mum’s name – the house, the horses, all the cash. I have nothing. Everything I worked for, in the hands of that woman!’

And he broke off, his voice cracking.

‘What do you mean, “that woman”?’ asked Topaz. ‘Dad, are things OK between you and Mum?’

‘They’re fine as long as we don’t see each other. And that’s not difficult, since she spends every spare moment with –’ and here his voice hardened – ‘Duncan Dunkley.’

Topaz’s sudden gasp hissed as if she had been whipped, but the shock of what she had just heard did not impair her quick intellect from deducing the masterplan at work. The man whose malevolent hold over her father, over her very body, had spurred on the juggernaut of destiny now saw the warped devotion of her own mother as the path to the fortune he was owed.

‘But Dad,’ she said quickly, ‘if Dunkley’s aim is to get his payment through Mum, he’s on to a loser. Brinkworth Place, the horses – even with all your other assets, the estate isn’t worth twenty mill.’

‘It’s not about the money any more,’ sighed Mr Eversleigh-Brinkworth. ‘It’s about revenge. When the news broke about our – ah – agreement, the press went to town on me. My name was mud. Oh, fluffbun, the humiliation! But that wasn’t enough for Duncan Dunkley. He wanted to make it personal. And what’s more personal than my home, my cash – my wife?’

And Topaz saw, for the first time in weeks, how love had blinded her; how desire had blinkered her from the tragedy unfolding back in Berkshire. She had responsibilities to those closest to her; debts of honour that must be paid.

Almost distractedly, she spoke into the iphone: ‘Don’t worry, Dad, I’ll fix the tickets for tomorrow. I’ll pick you up at Malaga airport.’ And with an absent-minded flick, she closed the phone.

Debts and responsibilities: what a woman of the world she had become! Still, the first was easily discharged. A few clicks on the ipad, and she had set up the standing order with Terence’s bank. ‘I’ll make sure you’re OK,’ she had promised that long-ago day at a very different Paradise Heights; now she had.

And responsibilities: they could no longer be ignored. So Topaz prepared herself as best she could to face them. Booking a stretch limo from Malaga Executive Motor Solutions and the Dream Gleam Colour Touch package at the Garden of Eden, she knew she was ready to meet her father once again.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Part 47 – Muscling in

I’m on a bit of roll at the moment, and since Anna has been bogged down with half-term childcare (so have I, but I’m a worse parent than she is) I’ve decided to leapfrog her and muscle in with the next instalment. It’s my blog, after all.

Part 47 (by Oliver)

‘Is that the last one? Put it over there, next to the Vettriano.’

Topaz’s voice had a new authority as she directed the small team of workmen who were finessing the arrangement of artworks at Paradise Heights. ‘Look where you’re going! That’s an original Rolf Harris you nearly bumped into.’

With a small sigh, Topaz turned from the buzz of activity at the far end of the oval saloon that formed the social centrepiece of the new villa. She ran a careless hand through her tawny tresses, a habit of old that she found hard to drop, even now that her coiffure was sleek and businesslike beneath the Gucci glasses that glinted on her head. And, for the first time in weeks, she longed to tumble into one of the oversized Chesterfields, invitingly upholstered in magenta velvet, and nestle under the zebra-print throw that was draped artlessly over its pert-buttoned back.

What a mad few months it had been. Mad, but exhilarating. A ceaseless round of planning meetings, site meetings, logistical meetings – more meetings than she would ever have felt capable of attending just a year ago.

And just a year ago, who would have thought that her priorities would have changed so much? The newest gossip from Monaco and Dubai; private previews of the Paris Spring collections; anticipating the Duchess of Alba’s wedding one month, the Beckhams’ latest christening the next, Elton’s white tie and tiara ball come summer – a meaningless and empty charade, it now seemed to Topaz. How much more exciting were soil pipes, plumb lines and s-bends; lagging, soakaways and the cost of copper. Exciting and real, as the social whirl could never be real.

Topaz smiled a little to herself and left the workmen to hang the last of the pictures on the mulberry leather that covered the walls of the saloon. Clasping a glass of chilled Orvieto to her heated breast, she slipped through the Christian Clive kitchen, its black crystal chandelier glinting in the early evening sunlight, and out onto the wide marble terrace. She sank onto one of the faux leopard-fur floor cushions and idly dipped her hand into the cooling waters of the infinity pool which seemed to meld with the indigo Mediterranean far below the mountain bluff.

Paradise Heights was finished, and it was all her own work. With a surge of satisfaction – and pride, she admitted – Topaz surveyed her masterpiece through her thickly curling lashes, which were starting to close under the suns scorching rays and a heavy wave of drowse.

A sudden zephyr, skitting in from the sea, played soft but chill across her shoulders, and Topaz shivered slightly and opened her eyes. Had the sun gone in, or did Paradise Heights really seem slightly drearier?

Then she remembered. This ceaseless round of activity, of directing, leading and creating, had never entirely shut out those feelings, so close still, that were inextricably linked to this mountaintop. The villa was a thing of wonder – even now Elle, Vogue and Essex Life were jostling to schedule features and photoshoots. Yet was it really more wonderful than the flat-topped stone, the stand of prickly pears and that hallowed rut which had thrust Topaz into the muscular arms of – no, she still could not bring herself to breathe his name.

Would it always be this way? Pulling her vintage stole closer, Topaz thought of the times he had strode unbidden into her mind. That time outside the English church in Malaga, when the strains of an old, half-forgotten hymn drifted to her ears: ‘Rock of ages, cleft for me’. And, not understanding at first, Topaz had let out a low moan of mingled desolation and desire, until passers-by turned to stare.

Then there was the shopkeeper who, in thickly accented English, had gestured to the empty cupcake counter late one afternoon and said apologetically ‘Very sorree, is nothink left.’ Again, that stab of aching loss coinciding with the surging upward of something hot from deep within. When a friend had suggested drinks at the Treble Clef bar in Marbella, Topaz had been forced to decline: she knew herself too well to believe she could get through an evening in a place whose very named screamed to her of love, of longing. Of loneliness.

For she was lonely. At night, when she returned to the rented apartment and the heavy door swung shut behind her with a rubbery suck, Topaz felt as though she were in a deluxe vacuum. The apartment’s chill impersonality, its mass-produced luxury, made her feel as though she were in a tomb, severed from all those who made the world a living, breathing mass of warmth and excitement. Her father – how long was it since she had last seen him, that dove-grey, dew-dampened morning at Brinkworth Place? Terence – dependable, good-natured Terence who, in seeking the heat of her love, had won the warmth of true friendship. And him. Always him. Always, yet never again.

Even the unfathomable turns of destiny, constantly plaiting lives together only to hack them apart in the end, seemed locked out of this silent, double-glazed, en-suite tomb. Thank God, Topaz thought, that I can move into Paradise Heights next week and shut the door forever on that half-life of rented rooms. Now I can be me. Now I can look fate in the face as my own woman, and take what it deals me on my own terms.

Sighing, Topaz stood and ran her wet hand, coolingly, across her forehead. Suddenly, unbidden, a yearning for company, for laughter and delight, swept through her, and she knew what to do. Snapping open her iphone, she jabbed the speed-dial and waited, her fulsome lower lip caught between her teeth in anticipation.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Part 46 – Respect!

I remember once at university incurring the incredulity of a (very right-on) tutor by commenting that I thought most younger people were feminists these days. You know, in terms of supporting women’s suffrage and the 1882 Married Women’s Property Act and equal opportunities and maternity leave and stuff.

‘Do you honestly think,’ she asked, aghast, ‘that a man can be a feminist?’ And I don’t think she was merely trying to stimulate scholarly debate.

Well, this’ll show her. See how in tune I am with the female respect agenda?

Part 46 (by Oliver)

The jeep juddered to a stop as Cleft’s foot slammed on the brake. It couldn’t be! The dusty swathe of virgin mountain that had seen the shaping of his destiny, barred behind a forbidding rampart of hoardings and portakabins. In the thin darkness of the waning night, the site loomed black and hostile, an ugly obliteration, it seemed, not only of Cleft’s recent past but of his dreams – quicksliver dreams, precious and beautiful yet ever-harder to contain, slipping through his fingers every time he tried to realise his destiny at last. Paradise Heights was barred to him, as he was barred from Topaz’s inner recesses.

With a low moan, Cleft dropped involuntarily to his knees, not feeling the scrape of the stones through the rough denim of his jeans, heedless of the chill dawn breezes that skirled around the mountain and tousled the thick dark hair that hung over his bronze forehead. As he knelt, vainly trying to gather his scattered thoughts and understand this latest loop of Fate, the first gleam of sunrise picked out the rough ground before him, and the planes of a flat rock that lay across his vision.

Almost unknowing, Cleft reached out to the stand of prickly pears that partly screened that sacred stone; the altar on which he had offered his love for Topaz; on which she, almost like a sacrifice before the Dunkley stratagem, had lain helpless, beseeching him for his strength – and his love.

Cleft’s fingers toyed thoughtlessly with the rubicund tips of the prickly pear, deftly twirling the swelling orbs until a milky sap leaked through his fingers, its sticky unctuousness recalling him to here, to now. And he understood. He could not build Topaz’s home: Paradise Heights was not his to give. If he was to feel Topaz’s velveteen body supple in his arms again, search out that firm yet yielding mouth with his own once more, he had to meet her as his own man. Not as a penniless adventurer, working day-to-day in an aimless series of jobs. Nor as Destiny’s plaything, existing only as a recepticle of a woman’s desire. How much more would she respect him if he had achieved tangible success!

And – the thought, pleasingly surprising, took him aback – how much more would he respect her if she asked for him back on her own terms! No more the certainty that his questing tongue and a glint of his ice-blue eyes would be enough to secure a woman’s love; he had to deserve Topaz’s desire, her heart… her body. He had to earn happiness.

His torso rippling lithely and with a new certainty in his gait, Cleft rose and turned his back on Paradise Heights, the brightness of a new day now gleaming on its hoardings and fencing. And with a determined smile curling the corners of his wide, sculpted mouth, he strode back to the jeep and drove away from Paradise Heights without looking back.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Part 45 – Wrong Direction

I haven’t been blogging with my usual monotony lately, what with having the kitchen replaced and moving in with parents for 10 days and trying to keep up with work and flooding new kitchen with stagnant water. And what with Anna taking ages to come up with this little number.

I was keen to see where she’d go next, because it feels as if we’re making a new beginning with this part of the story. And I don’t agree with her direction: Topaz must be in the driving seat from now on, otherwise no one will believe that we have our fingers on the pulse of modern, kick-ass womanhood. I can’t quite see her chipping her nail polish building Paradise Heights herself, but Cleft cannot do it for her.

I don’t know what’s harder: dealing with ballsy women or describing them Doing It. But we must face up to our responsibilities, and once again Anna has shirked them (the ballsy women bit, I mean). Nicely written, though.

Part 45 (by Anna)

The first milky light of dawn had yet to seep over the bristling hills and valleys as the jeep ground its way up the dusty spiral. A puny moon hung over the mountain side, its beams too feeble to challenge the blackness of the windows and pick out the taut figure within.

Cleft, wrenching at the wheel with one calloused hand, stared fixedly ahead, his shades making a double darkness as the track uncurled almost invisibly before him. There was a thudding from the back as errant stones pitched his cargo from one side of the vehicle to the other, but the noise was a pleasing one. Cleft thought with grim satisfaction of his tools, each one as familiar and dependable as his own flesh, that had carved his progress across the globe. Now they faced the most vital challenge of their shared existence; to carve out his future, his happiness, his life.

And here was the canvas: the arid plateau faintly etched in the fading darkness, the air already pulsing with insect life. Time was short, he knew. Paradise Heights, that drew him like a magnet, would draw Topaz too, and Terence, as the three executed the complex, agonised, intimate dance to which Fate had condemned them. He had this single chance, to build with his own sweat and blood, the future: to offer it, unconditionally, to the woman who had both enslaved and liberated him; to acknowledge that he came as a supplicant, with only raw muscle and a blazing heart to recommend him; that paradise was not in his gift, but hers, and he must trust her to choose the rightful recipient.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

The sunny side of life

There’s not much sunshine around in February, so we have to make our own. Which, presumably, is why this meme is doing the rounds. I’ve been memed by the redoubtable Middle-Aged Matron, who, being the co-creator of Topaz ’n’ Cleft, I shall berate privately.

Not that I don’t like memes and tags and links and things – it’s just that this one isn’t the most galvanizing one I’ve seen. But nor is it the most difficult – that honour goes to Motherventing, whose tagging of me is still in development but should be along soon, given how long it is taking Anna to come up with the next instalment of Desire Be My Destiny. Too busy meme-ing, I suppose.

Anyway, this meme requires me to answer the following questions in order to win a February Sunshine Award. Here goes:

Favourite colour?
Blue. Green. Bluey green. Eau de nil. Whatever.

Favourite animal?

Favourite non-alcoholic drink?
Tea. Hell, it’s my favourite drink.

Facebook or Twitter?
Twitter, of course. Do I look like someone who wants their identity stolen by sinister Californian geeks?

Favourite number?
Five. Probably because of using fingers to add up.

Favourite day of the week?
I work from home – all days of the week are the same and days off don’t feel like days off. Thursday, then, because after-school football doesn’t end until 4.30, giving me an extra hour of sanity.

Getting or giving presents?
That rather depends on the present. I have been known to get and give the same present in one seamless sequence; glad to get it (initially), equally glad to give it to Oxfam.

Favourite pattern?
What’s that supposed to mean? The only pattern I know the name of is the Greek key pattern, and that’s quite ugly. I’m rather partial to William Morris wallpaper; does that count?

Favourite flower?
Cut, garden or wild? Cut: anenome. Garden: Verbena. Wild: primrose.

Now let’s pass the sunshine on: fancy having a go, Chez MummyA Year in Lancashire and Chapters of Claire?    

Monday, 6 February 2012

Part 44 – Reputation trepidation

Two things worry me. First, that my readers think I really am a Mills & Boon wannabe. Second, that my readers think I share Topaz’s taste in interior decoration.

Part 44 (by Oliver)

Half an hour later Topaz was following the Armani suit across the cool dim of the apartment-block lobby: veined marble, deep-polished mahogany, the diffident gleam of bronze and antique mirrors. Then the sucking swish of the apartment’s heavy door opening, and Topaz saw the apartment that held her future. She cast a desultory glance around the entrance hall, barely taking in the glimpses of spacious room, the sparkle of the ocean beyond the enswathing picture windows.

‘Yeah, I’ll take it.’ Her voice was flat, unenthusiastic. For what was there to pique her enthusiasm for anything now? It was just a pad, somewhere to exist, while her existence flickered to life again.

Yet there was a spark still, somewhere deep within, as her thoughts turned to Paradise Heights and the plans she had for the beloved site that seemed to be the ever-drawing focus of her destiny. Already she could see the finished house: pink marble nudging against amber-tinted glass; the deep gloss of black granite offsetting the gold taps in the bathrooms; the spiral staircase, a dazzling swathe of snowy marble twining around a waterfall cascading two storeys through the atrium into a frosted-glass bowl illuminated in alternating shades of green and peach. Perfection. A showcase. A new life.

That night Topaz lay in the wide copper bath in her Guadalphin suite and flicked through the contacts on her i-phone. Not, this time, the list of friends who would be flying in that week for the latest round of house parties, or docking their superyachts for the next charity reception; nor yet the fashion houses and spas whose numbers she knew by heart anyway. No: construction companies, builders’ merchants, heavy vehicle hire were now her focus and her passion. By midnight, when she slid between the cool purple satin sheets, Topaz had arranged tomorrow’s schedule. ‘It’s down to business now, girl’, she said out loud: and she smiled as she fell asleep.