When a reader wants to try out a new author, or a new series by an author, I’ve often wondered what it is that makes someone want to give that book they’ve found online or in a bookstore a whirl. I know that, for me, it’s sometimes the cover that attracts me, and sometimes it’s the book title. The blurb on the back, or on the online store page, can be the factor that intrigues me, too. It’s also possible (because I’m human without an indefinite depth to my wallet, like many people) that I might well be intrigued by a price that seems reasonable to try out the book I’ve found. It may even be that I’ve managed to find a snippet of the book posted by the author and decided I really fancy giving the rest of it a go. I have to say that I’ve made a number of audiobook purchases by listening to the free sample first.
Like any author, I love people to want to read my books. I love to be able to tempt new readers to try out my series. Most of all, I love to find the right readers – those who feel that my books resonate with them. No matter what I write, whether it’s the Hearts & Crimes series, or the new crime and suspense series I have coming up soon, or the Victorian detective series that I’m planning to start releasing next year, all my books have the same qualities – something dark and unnerving lurking in the minds and hearts of the characters, suspense (sometimes strong and tense and sometimes subtle), a deep emotional connection of some kind, a twist, and a murder (or sometimes more!).
If you’ve never come across my short story collection, The Reason for Everything and other short stories, then I thought today’s blog post would be a good place to share a complete crime short story with you from this collection. So here you go…! 😊
Joy is a bubble
There’s a man sitting on the riverbank, gnome-like, with a fishing rod in his hand. All he needs, she thinks, is a pointy red hat and he’ll look just like the ugly little statue in next-door’s garden. She hadn’t noticed him as she went down to the newsagent, muttering her list of things-to-do to herself. She stands now, holding the newspaper, the packet of cigarettes she was expected to fetch hidden in her handbag, and a mental note to ask for the money this time, watching the little fairytale action taking place right below her.
The human gnome stranger casts his line then sits in silence, with a Tupperware box of sandwiches waiting their turn on top of the wicker fishing basket, not to be confused with the second tub containing a Dolly Mixture assortment of maggots. She hadn’t realised they came in so many colours. She can see them, wriggling en-mass in the tub, their sense of desperate urgency mimicking the squirming that’s going on just below the surface algae in the deep green secret land of ‘keep net’, while the white float with the psychedelic orange tip bobs half way across the water.
Suddenly the white vanishes, and the man proves he’s better, cleverer than the fish; she watches, gripping tightly onto the newspaper as the scaly sliver whirls past her vision and into the man’s hand. She watches him remove the hook from the fish’s face then hurl the creature into the keep net to join the rest of the mystery in the green pool. Catching sight of a big stone, she has the urge to throw it and hit the man on the head – see how he likes being bashed about, having his skin damaged, cast aside to keep for later – but she knows she won’t.
Her fingers hurt and she realises how tightly she’s holding the newspaper that’s not for her, either. The sweat has seeped into the print and left grubby smears in regular oval patches on the front page. Something for him to have a go at her about over breakfast, and he won’t even need to look hard this morning. She starts to feel ever so slightly sick; it’s the empty belly, she tells herself. She needs to get some breakfast. She needs to go home. She sighs, but it’s an inaudible one because she’s used to making them that way. Her face adopts its invariable impassive ghostly expression, ready for the kitchen and the multitude of sins she’ll commit at breakfast.
But then, just briefly, she catches sight of something on the water. There, in the keep net, expanding on the river’s surface, a series of penny-sized bubbles catch the early morning shards of sunlight. They wink back up at her in a glorious rainbow of colour, and she smiles back at the sign of life under the water. As a kid she used to sit on the bank and watch the bubbles rise to the surface when the fish came up to gobble the air. Little bubbles; she’d had to concentrate to see them. Once she sat there for over an hour, waiting. She spotted one. It sat, alone on the surface, and a wet tear surprised her cheek as she smiled at it. Then he came along with his school shirt rolled up to his elbows and scudded a stone across the surface, and the bubble was gone. He shrugged his shoulders. He didn’t even notice she was there at first. Then he grinned, and scooted off on his bike. She didn’t see any more bubbles on the surface that afternoon.
Without warning, the fisher gnome gathers in his line, and grabs the keep net, hurling his captives back into the algae. All at once the bubbles are forced into the algae, too, and they burst on contact. And she thinks how sad it is that the bubbles must burst and that things must end.
She leaves the gnomish sadist and makes her way back along the dirt track where the grass bank stretches beyond her vision, then round the curbing pathway in front of the cul-de-sac of Council bungalows and its artificially planted beech trees, that grow haphazardly on the patches of grass in between the parking bays. The milkman is still out on his rounds, such as they are now, and she stops to listen, eyes closed momentarily, to the chink of glass against hard plastic as he lifts the bottles from the deep ocean blue crate and takes them to number 27. He catches her eye and smiles, waves, and she returns the gesture. He’ll have been to her house already and the milk will still be sitting in the doorway, already in the sun, by the time she gets home. It’s already heating up outside. Another scorcher due. She sighs. She hopes it won’t taste funny. He’ll let her know in no uncertain terms if it is. It’ll be her fault. And her job to clear up the cereal running down the wall, and the bits of broken bowl. She should have got home quicker. He’ll tell her that it’s not worth having the milkman, that they can get their milk from the supermarket. No one relies on the milkman anymore. But she does. He brings her what she needs every day. Just like the postman. Just for a moment she glances up and down the street, wondering whether he is already on his rounds, too.
Her footsteps slow as she turns into her own road. She passes by the indiscriminate gardens with choking lines of conifers that hide the windows from the pathway so that strangers can’t look in. Each house is closeted in door curtains and window nets, too, or vertical blinds. Who knows what goes on behind those closed windows and doors? Then there it is: her own home. The jewel in the crown of the entire street, fenced off from the pavement, with conifers forming battlements down the sides of the driveway so it’s impossible to see into the front windows, even from the car. Door curtain half covering the obscure glass; vertical blinds at every window, front and back; each door and window locked. Impossible to break into. Or out of, without a disturbance. She sighs as she picks up the milk – it feels warm – and carries it round the corner to turn the key in the kitchen door.
Breakfast goes a little better than she expects. He smokes at the table and misses his ashtray while he’s reading the paper. The ash ends up on the floor, but he doesn’t notice. She doesn’t thinks he notices. His nose squirms a bit at the cereal, but he just says, “Get me some more coffee, will you?” and eats his breakfast. She thinks she hears a sound in the hallway; her heart bangs like a sledgehammer and she bolts up to look. There’s something hanging in the letterbox, so she scuttles down the hall to retrieve it. Just a leaflet. A sweat breaks out across her nose and she feels a bit dizzy.
“Sit down. What are you jumping around like a mad rabbit for?”
She bites the inside of her lip and says nothing. Eats her breakfast in silence, while he tells her their plans for the day. They’re going shopping. There’s something special he wants to fetch. “Because it’ll be needed later,” he says, and grins. And she stops glancing at the gleam of the letterbox and tries to smile. She doesn’t waste her breath asking what it is.
The something special that’s needed today is a shirt. A new shirt, because he’s going out tonight, he says. With the boys, he says. So she sits in the passenger seat and her body bakes through the windscreen, and the light-headedness washes over her as he drives round and round the streets like a curb crawler, searching for a space as close as possible to the market square. If she could just get some air she might feel better. If she could walk the rest of the way. Her mind drifts to walking, walking and suddenly she is delivering post with her new Post Office trolley, since they’ve got rid of all the bikes now. She would be out for hours. How lovely. An early retirement job. She could walk by the river on the way home, watch the fish come to the surface and blow their little life bubbles, and then say she’d had more post than usual to deliver. Would she get to deliver to her own house? In her daydream she does. Just the important stuff, though.
The sun begins to melt her make-up. Her eyelids feel sticky, and she’s sure that she understands what a bloodhound feels like as its face drops below any normative position and trails somewhere near the floor. Maybe it’s trying to linger, hang back so it doesn’t have to go where it’s told to. Her heart aches for this invisible dog and its day-to-day problems with an intolerant owner.
He trails her in this shop, that boutique, a new department store, where everything must be rubbish because nothing has a decent price tag, he says. She stands outside changing room after changing room, waiting for him to put in an appearance with a nice shirt. And he does. Many times. Each one looks very nice. Each one looks like a shirt he already has in the wardrobe. Each one doesn’t have the right label – not from the right place, he says. And she thinks what difference does it make where it comes from, as long as it’s what you want? But she doesn’t say.
He decides to get a shirt, eventually, from a tiny designer shop where the entire Third World could eat fish and chips for the price of a suit. There’s a strange comfort in the sea of strangers in the precinct going about their business and she envelops herself in its protection. She tells him, “I’m not coming in this time.” He eyeballs her with a stare that could freeze magma when he drags her down the entrance to the cobble street that runs at the side of the shop. For a moment, she wonders if his hand will lift. She can see it twitching; but they’re in public, so she gambles. She may as well. What difference does it make, now? “You find your shirt; I want to look over there.”
He’s spitting expensive chips, but she walks off before he can nip her arm, and crosses the road. There’s a shop that has changed hands more times than she cares to try and remember, but the windows always look the same. Slightly grimy, as if no one can ever wipe the smears off them properly but just circle the muck round and round that the rain brought down weeks ago; round and round. She can see her face in the glass – sort of – but the reflection that stares back at her is the one who used to stand waiting for her mum to come out of the butcher’s, blowing pink bubblegum puffs at herself, until the smell of Mum and her white paper bag of warm flaky pastry sausage rolls dangled itself in front of her nose. Just for the time being, she would take her gum and stick it to her headband. It was always fun sharing sausage rolls in the street with mum. Nothing else to worry about. Not then. Not such fun getting the bubblegum to part with the flyaway strands of hair it had captured, though.
The sausage roll girl vanishes as he digs his fingers into her shoulder, taps his designer bag and then his watch. But she ignores him, ignores the fact that it’s now her fault they have taken too long. Her eye has been caught by the window sill shelf. Or, more exactly, by the blown glass bauble that’s catching rays as they penetrate the window and reflect off the three-tone blue twist inside the ornament. The light speckles white, glinting as the top of the twist glitters and the light rides its wave. It’s at its most beautiful there, surrounded by the sea blue. The glass bauble froths, its minuscule air pocket imperfections adding to the beauty. She stares at it, at that beautiful moment when she transports herself into the glass and becomes a girl living in the bubble. And she wants it more than she has ever wanted anything in her life.
She can’t have it, he says. Has she seen where they’re standing, what this shop is, he demands. She’s not getting anything out of a charity shop, and that’s final, he says. Her little bubble bursts, and she follows him out into the precinct, back towards the car. She wishes she was back at home. It’s where she should be, today. And she wishes he would take her home to see if the post has come.
He pulls so hard at her wrist that it feels as if her arm will end up like one of those broken dolls she used to have as a kid. He’d always been good at breaking arms. Her dolls had really suffered. She’d taken the poor little blonde-haired doll with her, the one with the cerise lips and the pigtails that never looked like they had been brushed, that time she’d had to go to Casualty. It hadn’t mattered to her that she was 36 at the time. The doll’s arm had been turned the wrong way, too. But its arm came off. Hers just felt like it should have. He never did say sorry about the doll. Or the other.
The noise gets louder as they move through the precinct, going a different way to the one they came. More people. The whirring of machinery. No music as yet, though. He’s forgotten, hasn’t he? About the fair? Too late, they turn the corner at the side of Johnson’s hardware store, and there it is in all its coloured glory. Oh Christ, he says; why didn’t she say something if she knew, he says, and she knows why. It’s the first time she’s clapped eyes on the fair in, oh, probably ten years, maybe more. She doesn’t notice the noise, as he calls it. The paintwork invites her – the multifarious reds and golds, the greens and the sky blue, the swirls and the teacups and the waltzer and the ladybirds and they all go round and round and round and the colours blur into a perfect haze of delicious happiness. That’s how she remembers it. It’s not moving now, of course, but she tries to hold onto those days when it did make her happy. Before being grown up; before having nowhere else to turn and feeling him catch her when she was ready to run; before she received her own post. Those days.
He moans all the time they are walking past the half-assembled rides, and the gypsy caravan, and the stalls. “All stalls,” he says. “Look at them. Complete rip-off,” he says. “Who wants to waste their money on kids flinging rings at games consoles they can’t win, or hooking a bloody duck, where you always win something so shit that it goes straight in the bin,” he says. She used to love hooking a duck when she was small. Mum used to pick her up under one arm and pass her the fishing rod. There was one time when Mum held her so far inside the stall that she could reach the duck that bobbed about near the centre of the big donut of water. The one and only white duck. She grips her hand tightly, holding the memory of the fish in the plastic bag and the round glass bowl it went in when they got home.
There’s the darts games that no one except the expert at playing with weighted equipment can hope to win at. They walk past the pug-faced Ancient with her neck scarf tied in her hair like a remnant of all those films about drive-ins and girls finding love in the bucket seat of an unsuspecting father’s car. She takes in the troweled on powder and aqua eyeshadow, the lipstick that seeps its vermillion into every crease around her smoker’s mouth, and cannot remember the woman ever looking any differently. Not really. Preserved in aspic for the visitors who are already eating candy floss and cones of chips. She wonders for a moment if the woman has any lasting memories of the visitors. Or whether every moment of her past is as impossible to hold as the bubbles that catch the breeze, blown by the little girl who walks past. One hits her on the arm, and it pops; gone before she gets to know it at all. And just for a moment she wants to cry, for the memory she won’t have, for the memories the woman might not be able to console herself with when sleeps in her caravan, night after night. She can feel the tears welling, filling the gaps between her lashes, and she hopes he doesn’t bother to look at her. But she knows she has nothing to worry about there. The tears dribble into the dark hollows below her eyes, and rest there, determined to make a show of her. The more tears that gather, the more she has a feeling as she is dragged along through the fair that she has to do something. That this feeling is because she is expected to do something. But she can’t do anything, can she? The tears keep coming. Unnoticed. Unsurprising. Under cover of marital apathy.
There are rides standing empty, in limbo, waiting for the older children to leave school, and for the evening. A puddle of people slop around each stall, but one seems rained down upon. She wants to know; feels that something, something, pulling her to the stall, and she tells him, “I want to go over there.” He doesn’t listen, keeps pulling at her arm, but she stops walking, and he turns round. He’s angry, the start of a headache sits on his forehead. The start of another row – just a row, she hopes – sits in his lowered eyelids and the weight of his eyebrows. They’ve got to go get some food yet, he says. What’s she mucking about at, he says.
She sees the stall through a parting of the people. And she can’t believe what’s in front of her. It used to be allowed, when she was little. Is it still allowed? Is it legal? She gazes, open mouthed, at the little plastic buckets. They sit on a row at the bottom of all the other plastic prizes. They have open tops. It used to be bags, and they were tied up tight with blue elastic bands. But the fish are still the same. She gets closer, until she’s leaning on the wooden ledge. Little orange fish, swimming round and round a tiny plastic bucket, round and round, driving themselves insane. She didn’t know that when she was little, when she had the goldfish bowl. She stares at the little bucket, and the fish going round and round, nowhere to go, and she knows. Just knows. She pays her money before he can stop her, and she leans over and reaches with the rod. She smiles, remembering. She knows which one to aim for, and she hooks the white duck that lurks and bobs around the centre of the watery donut. Any prize. And she rescues her fish. Because she knows how it feels, swimming round and round, nowhere to go. She thinks about her letter box, and whether the post has gone through. Lying there, waiting for her. She holds tight to the little bucket.
He’s furious. It’ll slosh all over the car, he says. If it does, she can pay for a full valet service, he says. And then he growls in her ear – or he might make her do it herself, after he’s finished with her, if that fucking fish makes a mess in his car – and he doesn’t pull her along any more, but pokes her in the back, all the way to the car park. She clutches it tightly when she sits in the passenger seat, and he makes her balance the little plastic bucket in an empty margarine tub, one of those big square ones, that he has in the boot for keeping odds and ends in. They drive away, and she’s sure that he doesn’t normally take the corners that fast, doesn’t stop so violently at the traffic lights. She risks glancing at his face for a second or two, and his eyebrows are almost making contact with his eyelashes. She doesn’t look at him again. The heat begins to make her blink wider; she can’t feel the heat through the glass because he’s stuck the aircon on full. It hurts her face, hits her chest, and she swallows hard. He shouldn’t do that to her. Not today.
They drive in silence, until she notices they miss the turning leading to the main road that takes them home. They’re not going home, he says. He’s already said they need some food, he says. She says she’s sure they can manage for now. But it is the wrong thing to say. She’s pleased he’s driving. But his left hand finds her knee; the nails he keeps manicured into perfect half moon blades dig into her kneecap and she winces. She’ll go where she’s told, he says. The bloody fish can wait, he says. His supper is more important than that sodding thing. It’ll slip down the toilet bowl easily enough, he says, and she knows he’s grinning and looking over at her. Wanting the rise out of her. Wanting another excuse. She clutches the little plastic bucket house and its margarine tub footings, and watches the fish. It swims to the top where the sunlight glints through the windscreen in shards across the top of the water. She takes in every graceful movement, the curve of its tail, the tiny bubbles that form on the skin of the water as it gasps for air in its little plastic prison. She wishes she could cuddle the goldfish. And she wishes above all else, as she melts in the passenger seat, that it could reciprocate.
The engine stops. She gets out, balancing the little bucket between her hands as she negotiates the car door and a foothold on the driveway. He’s already outside her door, waiting.
“Give me that thing.”
Her fingers wind tighter around the little bucket and she pulls it to her chest like a newborn. “It’s OK. I have it.”
“Give me the fish. I’ll bring it in. You’ve got shopping to unpack.” He makes a grab for the little bucket; almost catches it. But she swings sideways and his hand only manages a glancing blow as it whizzes past.
“It’s mine.” Her chest bangs. Her eyes suddenly feel sore. She watches a storm fall across his face as she steps backwards, almost tripping over a plant pot.
“You’re really asking for trouble, aren’t you?” His hand is around the little bucket. “Give me. The bloody. Fish.” His hand crushes hers. The bucket slops as his fingers grip the plastic and begin to shake it. She is caught between the lightning in his eyes and the turbulence of the water, bringing the fish ever nearer the top of the bucket. Any moment and she envisages the entire little ocean bursting onto the driveway, the little creature smashing its body against the stone. Her fingers relent; but not her heart.
“Now. Get in the house. Sort out the shopping. You don’t want a scene where the neighbours can see, do you? Run my bath. And don’t forget my glass of wine.”
She stands there, her vision rooted to the little life she relinquishes from her grasp, because of him.
“It’s slippery, this bucket.” He holds it in front of him, a grin breaking out across his lips. The storm has moved on. And become something much worse.
“Please…” For the sake of her tiny new friend, she backs away, grabs five bags of shopping out of the boot, and disappears into the house, round the corner and through the kitchen door. Her door, he calls it.
She unpacks the bags of shopping, alone in the kitchen. The goldfish plays on her mind endlessly, worsening as she finds the tiny tub of fish food hidden among the chocolate bar that he put in the trolley, and the condoms that she added. She doesn’t want to take any chances, even if everything in the last few months seems to have stopped inside her, died inside her.
She has no idea what to do with the goldfish in the interim between her rescue mission and buying a proper tank for it, so she rummages in the cupboard and finds one of those clear cocktail bowls you put sweets or something in. She partially fills it with water and sits it on the draining board to settle to room temperature, leaving space to pour in some of the fish’s current abode. She watches as the tiny spherical pockets of air shrink to almost nothing in the water, and how they cling to the side, as if they’re too scared to break free and swim with the rest. Some stick to the bottom, unable to move with the weight of hidden chemicals bearing down on them. Stifling the life out of them. Tiny bubbles with no future.
Eventually, she hears the front door slam. She’s not sure where he’s put the fish. She can’t find it in the house. She calls and gets no answer. She calls again, and this time he appears from inside his den, plastic bag from the designer shop in his hand. As he heads up the stairs, he calls out to her, “Run my bath. I’ve already told you. I’m just going to check out the new shirt. Don’t forget the bubble bath. You always forget the bubble bath.” She isn’t quite sure, but a ghost of an utterance floats down the balustrade. “Stupid bloody woman. Never thinks about the bubbles.”
He doesn’t answer her question – “Where’s my fish?”; she can’t find the fish. She scurries upstairs and runs his bath, pours the green mixture under the tap and it gushes out and splashes the stuff over her dress. Specks of green sink into the soft silver blue crinkles of the material, giving the impression of an unkempt pond, growing algae where it has been left and mistreated. She’s angry about the dress. But it’s her own fault, really. He’ll tell her that.
She carries on asking about the fish and getting no answer until the bath’s full enough. She stares at the froth; imagines the fish, foaming at the mouth, unable to breathe in its bucket. And then she knows, just knows, where it is. She runs downstairs and out to the car. There. He’s left it dumped on the back parcel shelf. She reaches out to the fish. The paint on the car boot sets fire to her fingertips. Scorching. Left in the sun. She looks again at the fish, but it’s floating in the top of the bucket, sideways on. Boiled fish on the parcel shelf. Her fish. She burns her fingers on the door as she retrieves it; takes it to the back garden and buries it with a trowel, tears running in rivers down her face. She hopes next-door’s cat can’t smell it. Leave it some dignity. She drains the last of the water from the bucket down the grate and throws it in the dustbin. Through the window she catches sight of the seaweed coloured bottle and its unopened contents. She’s forgotten!
She brings him his glass of red wine and balances it on the edge of the 1970s khaki plastic, next to the almost empty bottle of bubble bath. The lack of weight in the bottle makes it unstable, causes it to fall into the white mass that hides his body from view. Except his face, and his feet. He puts his feet on the taps. Every time. It drives her mad; like having dirty fingerprints all over the glass, but more difficult to polish off. She says nothing about the fish, even though he eyes her, and she’s sure he’s waiting for it. But she has the letter in her hand. She found it on the front doormat with a faint shoe print of summer pavement dust on it. He must have walked straight past it when he came in. Left it lying there.
How beautiful the bubbles are, shimmering rainbows. That’s what she can see. That’s what she told him she could see in them when they were kids. When he’d laughed, and said they were just see-through and she was stupid. And he lays there now, laughing at his own private joke with his eyes closed. Closed to the murder he has just committed. Closed to the beautiful bubbles; so transient their beauty, so easily they burst, and their existence is nothing more than a splash in the air. Why will he not see? She will make him see. He is green, like algae, there in the shadowy glow of the bath, and the bubbles around his face are a rainbow of colour and wonder. He must see, before it’s too late. Look at the bubbles. Look at them. She puts her hand on his head and pushes him into the bubbles. Look, look at them. At their colour. How everything is better when you look at the bubbles. She makes him look; holds him there; doesn’t care that his feet are spreading and squirming up the taps, up the wall, up, up. Because he is there with the bubbles now. He must look; he must see. That a bubble is pure joy. And that moment of joy is all that’s needed to make everything all right.
He floats like green algae, there in the bath, his nose and chin just visible above the surface. They don’t break bubbles anymore. They don’t ignore letters. They don’t kill what’s delicate and in need of love. She sits and watches as the bubbles float on the water, their proliferation of colour spanning the surface. Slowly, with each ebb and flow of the settling bath water, she sees them cover his face. She scoops up a handful of rainbow spheres. As slowly, one by one, they choose their moments to leave, her gaze holds, fascinated, at the endless beautiful variety of possibilities captured within their delicate skin. And, when only one remains, she speaks to the bubble that sits on her palm. “I got my letter. It says the results are all clear. I’m free at last.” The bubble pops, and she smiles.
I really, really enjoyed writing this story, and I hope you liked it, too. It’s just one of the unnerving, uneasy tales – with the occasional murder – in my short story collection, The Reason for Everything. If you’d like to get hold of a copy of The Reason for Everything for just 0.99 (pounds, dollars, euros or your equivalent), then the links you need are below: