This post was originally published at Novelicious.com and is now at WritingTipsOasis.com. WritingTipsOasis.com acquired Novelicious.com in June 2022.
The fifteenth entry of our Top 20 Undiscovered Shortlist is Four Left Feet by Sue Jackson
Remember your favourite entry because you'll get the chance to vote after all twenty excerpts have been posted!
Over to Sue Jackson…
FOUR LEFT FEET (BLURB)
25 year old Leo is senior copywriter at a leading London advertising agency and married to Barbara when he meets 19 year old Gaby at a party and his life is blown apart. Leo struggles with his conscience over ending his marriage, but when he finally decides to leave Barbara, she is pregnant, so he feels unable to leave. Gaby is devastated and disappears: by the time Leo finds her, she has married Harry, an old boyfriend.
But Leo and Gaby have to find their way through their respective marriages before they can be together, but their happiness is shattered, first by Gaby's sudden refusal to see Leo, and then by her untimely death. Leo arrives in Cornwall to find out why she wouldn’t see him, and meets her friend Tiff, who has an unhappy relationship with her dependent boyfriend.
Leo is unable to finish his overdue thriller, but feels compelled to write about Gaby. The words flow as he recalls the pull of a love so great he was convinced it would never end. But as Gaby's story progresses, Leo realises that Tiff is becoming increasingly important.
As pressure on Leo mounts from his agent, will he ever be able to finish his thriller?
As Tiff and Leo become closer, will she be able to find the strength to leave her controlling boyfriend? And can Tiff help Leo uncover the truth about Gaby’s last months and set him free?
READ THE FIRST 3000 WORDS OF FOUR LEFT FEET OVER THE CUT
Four Left Feet by Sue Jackson
The familiar little whitewashed cottage had almost disappeared in the afternoon sea mist. But as I drew up, I could just see blue framed windows that peeked out like watchful eyes, glass panes spattered with dust. The brass door knocker shaped like a mermaid was blackened with salt and wind; the catflap banged in the breeze. Gaby’s house looked as abandoned as I felt.
Had it been a mistake to drive all the way from Edinburgh to Cornwall? The urge to see a sign of her, to be surrounded by her things, had been so strong that I'd had to come. Why had she refused to see me for those last six months, when we’d been soulmates for over twenty years.
I hovered, still expecting the door to open, and Gaby to be silhouetted in the doorway, her arms outstretched, saying, “Leo! Darling!” and envelop me in her usual smoky hug. But there was no open door, no lights, no Gaby to hold in my arms. Just me and Mungo, whom she described as “a cross between a Jack Russell and a bathmat”.
I parked round the back, let Mungo onto the beach and patted my pockets for the key. Nothing. I tried my wallet. Not there either. Frantically I searched the glove compartment, the side pockets. What the hell had I done with it?
Hurrying round the side of the house, I could see that all the doors and windows were locked, and peered in through the grimy windows. No joy. No sign of life. At my feet, the little milk jug where she always kept a spare key yielded nothing.
The anguish of the past six months swept through me like a tidal wave and grabbing the milk jug, I threw it at the window as hard as I could. The noise of shattering glass was like a discordant waterfall ringing in my ears, and I started shaking. It wasn't just that I had violated Gaby’s house, but the terrible realisation that Gaby was no longer there.
As I tried to squeeze my hand in to open the window latch, my mobile rang. I pulled my hand back to retrieve my phone, scratching my hand. I swore, loudly.
'Where the hell are you?' cried an all too familiar voice. 'And why did you turn your phone off?'
I shut my eyes. 'I'm in Cornwall, Rosemary.'
There was a short pause before my agent said, 'You've gone there to write?'
I thought back over the last six months, when days and nights had rolled into each other like a black void. 'I need some time to myself,’ I said, dodging her question.
'You can't afford time to yourself unless you're writing, Leo.' Rosemary had a voice like Vanessa Redgrave: gravelly and forceful. 'You have to get that book finished. You're always complaining you're skint.' She paused. 'You've never missed a deadline yet. Come on Leo, you know you can do it. You're one of my most reliable authors.'
Where was Mungo? I turned away from the gaping hole in the window and started walking down to the beach. ‘I really cannot see the point of continuing with this crap,' I said flatly.
'It is not crap,' she replied sharply. 'You've signed the contract – you can't back out now.'
‘You've always said that if something doesn't work out, it's better to walk away from it and try something else,' I persisted.
'Leo, I know your heart isn't in it, but this is the last in the series. You can write something different once you’ve finished this one.' She paused. 'Think of the money – which you desperately need. Do it to keep them happy – if you renege on this deal no other publisher will touch you. Word goes around like wildfire.'
I looked down at my hand, saw a trickle of blood dribbling down my palm. 'I've hurt my hand.’
'Go to the doctor,' she snapped.
'It's bleeding,' I continued hopefully, glad she couldn’t see the tiny scratch. 'I can't see how I'm going to be able to type.'
'You'll manage.' Her voice was brusque. 'People type with their feet for God's sake.'
I sighed and headed down the lane, past a row of cottages and reached the beach where I found Mungo, chewing a large branch of seaweed. 'I feel embarrassed putting my name to this stuff, let alone writing it.'
'It sells,' she said shortly, 'and you use a pseudonym, so why worry?' There was a pause, then she coughed. 'I think what you need, Leo, is to find something enjoyable in every day.' Her voice was unusually gentle. She could do that, Rosemary. Sting you with sudden kindness.
'Enjoyable? You mean, count my blessings?' I threw a piece of driftwood as far as I could along the beach, watched Mungo scamper after it.
'I don't mean that,' she said, still patient. 'I mean find something worthwhile – enjoyable – to do every day. Make it a habit.'
'Worthwhile?' I snorted. Rosemary was sounding unnervingly like an agony aunt. 'Like what?'
'It could be – I don't know. Write a thousand words. Two thousand. The end of a chapter?' She paused. 'A walk with that damn dog of yours. Listen to some jazz. Treat yourself to a large whisky. I don't know, Leo – you're the one with the imagination.'
One thing about Rosemary; she didn't talk rubbish, and she didn't bother unless she cared. Of course she wanted a book out of me, but it wasn't just that.
'You're only forty seven. You’re too young to give up on life.' Rosemary's voice softened. 'I believe in you, Leo. You can do it. '
'Thanks,' I croaked. Mungo raced back along the beach and deposited the stick at my feet. He looked up, tail wagging expectantly.
'You're one of the most determined men I've ever met,' Rosemary continued, 'I know how hard you work, and you've always turned in an incredibly high standard of work. Come on, Leo – it won't take you long.'
I sighed. In theory she was right. What she didn’t know was that I hadn't been able to write a word since Gaby died.
I managed to open the kitchen window latch and heaved myself in, narrowly avoiding any serious damage to sensitive parts of my anatomy. But I felt a growing sense of guilt. What was I doing? And what if anyone had heard? Most of the properties round here were second homes but you never knew who might have come for an out of season break. Someone might call the police.
Yet as I felt my way round the tiny kitchen, I was aware of a giddy thrill. It felt good to do something so spontaneous. So irrevocable. It was a statement – I’m here! And come to do business! Except that the person I wanted to see – more than anyone else in the world – wasn't here. The thrill spluttered and went out, like a snuffed candle.
I shook myself, reminded of practicalities. I needed light but I suspected the power would have been disconnected. Even so, I groped around for the fuse box under the stairs, flicked the switch and tried the kitchen light. It worked! Next I tried the phone but that was dead. Still, at least I could charge my mobile now. Cheered fractionally, I collected some groceries from the car, fed Mungo and put the kettle on.
Standing there waiting for it to boil, I shifted uneasily, feeling almost as if I were trespassing. The cottage felt at once smaller without her, yet bigger for her absence. My ears strained for a sound of her, and panic rumbled in my belly. It seemed no time since I'd last stood in this kitchen, and I kept expecting her to appear, light one of her vile cigarettes and say, 'Did you hear the news this morning? They're trying to ban smoking in cars now!'
She was all around me: her Rooibosh tea bags in the old tea caddy; the battered pots and pans that hung from the cobwebby ceiling. I made myself a mug of tea and carried it next door, picked up the pile of post that had spilled onto the floor. The sight of the saggy armchair, dented with the impression of her body made me hollow and heavy with longing. Surely she'd come thudding down the stairs, or the door would swing open and my nightmare would be at an end.
Only six months ago I was on my way to see her; to have it out with her like we always did. Make up in bed with a bottle of wine. Where had it all gone wrong? I cursed the book tour that had kept me away from her – if only I hadn't been doing book signings in London, I could have sorted things out earlier. Why had she told me to keep away?
A warm, stinging sensation in my hand made me look down – my palm was sticky with blood and my fingers were grazed, so I went next door to the bathroom. Turning the tap on, a ferocious blast of cold water numbed my hand as I watched my blood twist with the water before it swirled down the basin.
Patting my hand dry, I went back next door. Even Mungo, sniffing round the furniture, looked cold and forlorn. There was a small pile of logs beside the grate, and a half empty coal scuttle, so I laid the fire and found a box of matches on the grimy mantelpiece. I lit the newspaper, fed it bits of kindling and prayed. A billow of smoke issued forth and I sat back on my heels, choking. As the fog cleared I looked round the room that always reminded me of being on board a small ship.
The low ceiling was dark with nicotine and the dusky smell of woodsmoke permeated the room. The walls were lined with books; Margaret Forster rubbed shoulders with a copy of Winnie the Pooh that we chose together in a secondhand bookshop in Padstow. I took out Far from the Madding Crowd, thinking it would conjure her up, but all I got was the smell of damp paper. Jodhpur clad thighs stared at me from the front of a Jilly Cooper novel, cosying up to The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, both of which I'd given her. They, too, looked as if they were waiting to be picked up and read, and my stomach plummeted – how could she just be gone?
On a table was a photograph of her in her early thirties and another of a dour faced girl sitting in a dinghy looking cold and miserable – Gaby’s daughter had never acquired her mother’s love of the sea.
Although everything looked the same, the house smelt empty and unloved, as if it knew she wasn't coming back. I could see black spots of damp on the walls, and my breath came out in puffy clouds.
That's when I realised something was missing. There was no sign of me anywhere. On the mantelpiece was a collection of postcards, and I flicked through them, frantic for a sign. There were several from someone called Tiff (who was she?) but they were mostly from me. I exhaled and felt my shoulders relax. She’d kept those, then.
Hung lopsidedly on the wall was a calendar, with scenic views of Cornwall, the second half of the year empty. The sense of loss was like a continual, low grade sea sickness that rose in a wave when I saw her familiar scrawl – Hospital one Tuesday, Mr Willis one Friday. Then, as the months progressed, her writing was replaced by large, unfamiliar, rounded letters. I shuddered, feeling as if a cold hand had clutched my heart. More than anything, this was the stark reminder of how little I knew of the last six months of Gaby's life.
The next morning, when I lit the recalcitrant fire, I felt heavy with exhaustion. Outside was the splutter of a van and I shrank back from the window. Footsteps crunched up the gravelled path. I grabbed Mungo’s muzzle before he could growl and saw his hackles rise; it felt like an invasion of our privacy, even though we shouldn’t be here. Several envelopes tumbled through the letterbox, and the footsteps retreated.
I exhaled, unaware that I’d been holding my breath, and let go of Mungo who shook his head, ears flapping indignantly.
The post consisted of a brightly coloured envelope advertising Mediterranean cruises, and a small white envelope; the sort used for writing personal letters. A trickle of fear ran down my back.
I turned over the envelope, saw it was addressed To Whom It May Concern, Farthings, Readymoney Cove and breathed a sigh of relief. Safe – for now. The writing was hurried, or careless, in black ink, not biro. Female at a guess, given the loops on the capital letters. I ripped open the envelope to find a postcard of St Mawes Castle. On the back was a short note.
I was a good friend of Gaby’s and left a file of photographs with her that I need for my work as a painter. Please could you let me know if they are still there and I will come and collect them. My address and phone number are below. Many thanks, Tiffany Lake.
I remembered the girl Gaby had so often mentioned – the one that brought presents and took her to the pub.
I wondered where her photographs were and glanced around the room, noting a thick coating of dust on every surface. It was difficult to know where to start looking. I thought I remembered her saying that this girl's boyfriend was – a sailor? No, that was someone else.
'He has a sexy voice,' Gaby’d said, and her voice lifted. That meant she’d flirted with him – I could imagine her deep chuckle when he teased her. Had he found her laugh as seductive as I had?
Now I remembered – Tiff had run away to Fowey when she was having a bad time. Instead of going to a refuge, Tiff found Gaby. That's what Gaby did. Collected people in need of help. Gave them sympathy, weak tea and Rich Tea biscuits and kippered them with her smoke.
I got up, stretched my cramped legs and realised my feet were freezing. ‘Bloody house,’ I muttered and went to boil the kettle. Here it seemed natural to drink Gaby's Rooibosh tea, though I'd never liked the musty taste much. I prodded the teabag, fished it out and added milk, stirred and noticed the battered blue china barrel in which Gaby kept her biscuits. I opened the lid, but seeing the half packet of Rich Tea biscuits ripped off the flimsy sticking plaster I’d stuck over my raw wounds. I gasped, breathed out slowly, nervously.
As the pain abated I went next door, saw the brightly coloured postcard and picked it up. Should I contact this girl? I stared at the card, then flicked it onto the fire. The smoke spiralled upwards, shooting flames of bright blue, tongues of green and orange. I felt a sudden pang, which I stifled. Too late.
That’s when I imagined Gaby's voice: ‘What did you do THAT for?’ I lunged forward and grabbed the burning card from the fire, singeing my fingers. I bit my lip, unnerved. She could have been sitting next to me. Dropping the card on the floor, I stamped on it and blew on my poor fingers. Great – they were now burnt as well as sliced. How could I possibly write in this state?
Slowly I picked up the card, could just make out the address, but the code for the phone number had disappeared among the ashes. If nothing else, I could write to the girl. Because now I was here, I was going to stay. This was my last chance to find out what had happened to Gaby.
My morning was interrupted by a terrible yowling outside. I ran out to see a bedraggled cat, back arched, swearing at Mungo who had retreated under a garden bench. The cat shot in through the cottage door and headed for the kitchen.
I put down a saucer of milk, opened a tin of tuna, put some in a saucer by the milk, and took Mungo upstairs while I made the bed. When we came back down, the cat glared at Mungo, who lay down in a corner of the room, staring fixedly at it. I refilled the tuna bowl and watched while the cat gulped it down, ignored us and started to wash, one leg straight up in the air. Ablutions over, Mungo bounced forwards, wagging his tail. The cat hissed and jumped onto Gaby’s chair. That’s when I was sure.
‘It is Gertrude! Where have you been?’ I put a hand out for Gaby's cat to smell. Gertrude sniffed and licked my hand. She’d always had an attitude problem, so I was absurdly flattered that she recognised me. Washing finished, she jumped down and headed for Gaby's studio.
I opened the door to the outhouse and switched on the light. Seeing the familiar kiln and potters wheel, the clay-smeared sink and the piles of discarded pots and mugs everywhere, made me feel as if I’d been stabbed. The door of her CD player was open and, nervously, I looked to see what she'd last played. It was the Simon & Garfunkel CD I gave her for Christmas. A wave of relief swept over me as I looked at the other music nearby: REM, Piaf, Louis Armstrong, Supertramp, Enya and Beautiful South. An eclectic mix we'd collected and swapped over the years. It brought her back so forcefully I could hardly breathe.
'Gaby?' I whispered, sure that she would reply. But the only sound came from Gertrude, purring roughly as she nudged my ankles.