The Fat Bird – an atypical protagonist

Fat BirdI needed a strong central female character for Singled Out; a woman in her early to mid-forties, perceptive, bold and shrewd. When it came to physical appearance and with one eye on Hollywood (see how optimistic I can be!) I could have gone for an Angelina Jolie, a Julia Roberts or a Gillian Anderson type – lithe, slender, unsettlingly striking.

But I’ve gone for a fat bird. Yes, my protagonist – early to mid-forties, perceptive, bold and shrewd – is unapologetically overweight.

But let’s be clear, this isn’t your stereotypical one-dimensional fat bird. You know the cliché; the friendless, clumsy lump, drifting round in a cloud of body odour, stuck in a dull job and spending her evenings in front of the TV stuffing her face with donuts and chocolate whilst fantasising about an imaginary boyfriend. If she’s in a novel or a TV series, she’s the one that’ll get murdered, her corpse lying undiscovered in a secluded attic flat for months until her bodily fluids seep through the floorboards and attract attention. Or she’s the deranged axe wielding perpetrator, desperate for affection and driven to heinous crimes by her loveless, empty life. So far, I’m afraid, so very predictable.

That’s not my girl. Not even a little bit.

In the great tradition of novice writers I’m writing what I know – at least in part – because I’m overweight too. I’m a lifelong yo-yo dieter who has spun into middle-age at the wrong end of the string. Depending on your perspective, I’m fat, plump, obese, tubby, lardy, big, broad-beamed, heavy, chubby, chunky, stout, podgy, ample, fleshy, well-rounded, plus-size, large, buxom, curvaceous, womanly, cuddly, curvy, rubenesque, bountiful, abundant, voluptuous and any number of other flattering and not-so flattering descriptors.

Apparently, novice writers are wont to base a main character on themselves. But I’m sorry to disappoint you; whilst I wouldn’t mind being my female protagonist, and whilst she and I share one or two other characteristics, I’m really not her. I understand the physicality and the occasional self-confidence issues of someone who carries extra pounds and I thought it would add a non-stereotypical dimension to my character – and that’s more or less where it ends. I’d love to have her boldness, and her hair, come to that. But she has frailties and failings that…  Well, that would be telling, wouldn’t it? Anyway, they are frailties and failings I like to think I don’t possess. I have others, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about.

When it comes to my abundant, warm yet troubled female lead, I’ve played it deliberately vague on the question of size. That’s because what’s fat to one, is curvaceous to another, what’s blubbery and revolting to one is alluring and magnificent to another. My readers get little – actually nothing – in the way of specifics. No height-to-weight ratio, no Body Mass Index, no speak-your-weight scales, no dress size – nothing… um… concrete.

Aspects of her physicality reveal themselves here and there but the biggest (sorry) clues the reader will get are from the other characters, who respond to her according to their own perspectives, prejudices – and desires. She could be a size 16 or a size 26 for all the reader knows, and I imagine each reader will see her differently.

As to how I see her – I’m not telling. If you encounter this woman within the pages of my debut novel, you’ll need to imagine her yourself; and the persona you conjure up will be informed by your own perceptions and preconceptions, alongside all the other clues to her character, spirit and style.

I just hope I’ve done a good job of bringing her to life.

Rise and Shine

scissors-editI have committed one of the cardinal sins of novel-writing.  It’s a trap which many neophyte novelists fall into, although when first I fell into it, I wasn’t aware of this.

My story begins with not just one, but two characters waking up.

Actually, that’s not entirely true.  My story begins with a prologue – albeit a short one, at around 350 words. But guess what? That’s another cardinal sin.

Never start your story with a prologue.  Or someone waking up.

I’m busted.

I wonder if these faux-pas explain the steady trickle of rejection emails. Each one is perfectly courteous and proclaims, using remarkably similar wording, that the agent in question does not feel passionate enough about my novel, to invest the time and effort required to launch a debut.  I understand. In a world where countless hopeful authors are chasing a finite and modest number of agents, my novel is not standing out.

But I wonder, is this because it has a prologue?  Is it because it starts with someone waking up?  Are those agents I’ve approached so far not getting past those two cardinal sins?  I don’t know whether they’re even reading beyond those first few pages.  Maybe, by the time my two characters have exited their respective hotel rooms and met in the corridor, I’ve already lost them.

For every rule there are exceptions.  One could list dozens of novels which begin with a prologue.  I’m reading one at the moment in fact, Dominion by C J Sansom.  I’ll bet there are dozens of novels which begin with a waking-up moment too. But if you’re a first-timer, a would-be, a novice… you break the rules at your peril.

You might argue I’m being naive, or misguided and put it down to my lack of experience, but I believe the wakey-uppy moment in Singled Out is important.  The reader learns things about both characters in those first few pages, including the roots of their respective frailties.  But perhaps it would go down better if I found a way to impart those essential attributes later in the narrative.

I want to keep the prologue, I’m afraid, but it’s so short I can’t believe that this alone would prompt the casting-aside of my manuscript. But if I get rid of the wake-up call and the early-riser breakfast, would it make Singled Out more buoyant?  Would this be enough to make it rise above the slush pile?

I don’t know if that’s the answer, whether it will bring agents flocking to my door (or popping up in my inbox at least). But I’m beginning to think, if I don’t try it, I might never know.

From ChickLit to True Grit

Where did your writing begin? What type of story did you set out to write? Is that what emerged, or did you, as I did, end up somewhere completely different?

CactusI first fell into the grip of my fiction writing habit in 2010, a few months after my 50th birthday.  When I went on an Arvon Foundation writing course, I hadn’t a single word of fiction to my name, aside from a handful of playful Coffee Break Stories which I had penned for a client as part of their marketing.  I had an idea I might try something a little more adventurous.  I wanted to stretch myself, test my creativity and find out if I had an imagination.

I’d booked on the spur of the moment and I arrived with an unblemished notepad, a sharp pencil and an open mind. I thought the course (tellingly titled Starting to Write) might at least give me something to think about, or even (the clue’s in the name, I guess) help get me started. I had absolutely no idea what I would write about.

One of the tutors, the poet and writer Catherine Smith offered me some help in choosing my debut project.  I told her I felt drawn to writing light, humorous fiction, an escape from the serious business of copywriting.  We set off down the ‘write what you know’ road – it’s as good a place as any to begin, I guess.  During our conversations it dawned on me there was one thing about which I knew quite a bit, which offered the potential for light and humorous writing.

In my 30’s and 40’s, I’d been on a number of singles holidays to the Greek Islands and Turkey.  As I wrote in my post ‘A Singular Sort of Holiday’ I thought this might be fertile ground for an amusing, chick-litty angle – a wry commentary on the sort of people who go on singles holidays (ahem… myself included); the comic potential for mishap and misunderstanding, the awkwardness of strangers thrown together; that sort of thing. Think, Bridget Jones takes a Vacation, and you’d be on the sort of lines I contemplated.

The seed planted and back home again, I began to write.  First a couple of fluffyish short stories, and then the first few pages of what would become Singled Out.  I ploughed forward with little idea of what I was doing.  I was like one of those people who sets off for a mooch around the Outback with a half litre of water and no sunhat – no compass either.  Eventually around 40,000 words in, I realised I had blundered into nowhere-land.

The key problem, I discovered, was that it wasn’t enough to write in a light-hearted way about a collection of characters, even if some of them were curious or quirky.  Something had to happen.  Yes, that’s quite a breakthrough, isn’t it? I realised that for a story to be, well, a story that anyone might want to read, I had to make stuff happen.  And a bunch of people lazing about on sun loungers having a bit of a chat just didn’t cut it.

So one day I introduced a fox into my henhouse, just to see what sort of a stir I could create.  And that’s where everything changed.  Because I realised how much I enjoyed writing my dark, malevolent character.  I liked finding words for what was going on in their psyche. I enjoyed working my way into their disturbed, sociopathic mindset.  I found I loved engineering the scenarios in which this character conceals their true nature, causing others to stumble in, unawares.  I loved the idea of creating a story where the reader would know where the peril lay and would watch it playing out.

As I wrote forward the tone of my narrative changed, as it wrapped around this warped individual. It became a story, rather than a series of chirpy episodes.  Other characters acquired their own private pains, rages and challenges as the atmosphere darkened.  You may be the judge one day, but to me, Singled Out mutated from a pina colada into a whisky sour.

If I give the impression that this was a smooth linear progression, a seamless segue from ChickLit to Psycho-drama, I’m misleading you. I developed a split personality, bouncing back and forth between the two for a while and generating no small amount of frustration in my mentor.  This resulted in a certain loss of confidence in yours truly.  Eventually my mentor called me to account.  ‘You have to decide,’ she said, ‘what kind of a novel you’re writing.’  She was nice about it, but I felt the sting as the end of her tether snapped at me.  But it proved to be an important junction – a ‘pee or get off the pot’ moment.

So I decided, and I committed to grit and malevolence and a dark story where very bad stuff happens, even though all around is beautiful and languid and sultry.  And the more I applied myself, the more I enjoyed writing the pain and the peril into my narrative.  I found myself somewhere I didn’t expect to be, but it was an exciting landscape – for me as a writer at least.

The change of tempo and resultant overhaul across a series of edits has taken over 3 years, but I know what kind of a writer I am now, and I have my first novel – or at least the manuscript thereof – which is now in search of an agent.

Whatever it is, one thing is certain, it’s not ChickLit.  And I’ve discovered I do have an imagination, and it’s not bursting with sunbeams and sugar sprinkles.

How can this be?

Synopsis crisis 1Submissions to agents require that you send a sample of your novel.  Typically this is described as sample chapters (usually three) or 10,000 words.  Often you’re told to conclude your sample at a sensible end point, rather than get too hung up on precise word-count.

My novel, Singled Out, is divided into eight days (a one week holiday, see?).  Each day is divided into between 8 and 12 individual segments, each segment written from the point of view (POV) of one of three main characters.  I realise a day in this construction is too long to count as a chapter, but the individual segments are also too short.  Day One is around 12,000 words and to my mind marks a sensible end point – so that’s what I’ve been sending as my sample.  I figure if I’ve failed to excite an agent, it will be well before that 12,000 word mark and they’ll simply not read to the end.  If I’ve excited them, a few extra words are unlikely to put them off.  Hopefully.

However… one of the agents I’m currently keen to tempt with Singled Out specifies three chapters as the sample length, but then goes on to make the point that this limit should be strictly adhered to.  So yesterday, I was reviewing my sample document, to create a shorter version for this particular submission.

And on the first page – the very first page – I found a typo.

I know why this is.  This particular section has been in the past tense, then in the present tense, then in the past tense again (and perhaps even back and forth another couple of times – I forget). Somewhere in the transition from ‘He chose’ through ‘He chooses’ and back to ‘He chose’ again, I left a verb in the wrong tense.

I could have wept.

It seemed prudent, after approximately 20 minutes of swearing, cursing, throwing stuff around, stomping, stamping and kicking the cat (I lie – I don’t have one), to use the opportunity to review the whole sample segment, just in case anything else had slipped through in those first 10,000 words.  So I read it very, very slowly.  I found a few dozen more words I could do without, which was a plus.

But then I found another typo.

The error was not in a word, but in its absence – it was a missing word.  I’d probably read right through that invisible word two or three dozen times, failing and failing again, to notice its nonexistence.

Just in case you’re wondering how I’m dealing with this catastrophe of care and diligence, here it is. Yesterday evening I prowled my kitchen for comfort food. There wasn’t much, because I’m being very good lately; vegetables don’t even nearly qualify.  I managed to find three Rich Tea biscuits (stale), which I covered in butter and the dregs from a bottle of salted caramel sauce (Christmas leftover).  Thence to a restive night – I gave in to the TV and a repeat of The Jeremy Kyle Show at 5:15am. Today finds me curled up on the armchair in the corner of my office, rocking from side to side, cuddling a cushion and snivelling into a Kleenex.  It’s too early for alcohol, but I fear this may feature as the day advances.

By the way – there’s a lesson.  Now I understand what people mean when they say the final level of edit should actually be to read your novel backwards, word, by word, by word.

What’s my genre?

Notebook 03

One of the things I struggled with when preparing the framework text for query letters/emails, was genre.  I’m a marketer in my current day job, so I understand perfectly well why it’s helpful for agents and publishers to be able to classify a book according to what category or categories it falls within.  Amongst other things, genre (and, by the way, sub-genre and sub-sub-genre) will point to a likely audience, set expectations as to the content and style, and drive decisions on cover design, marketing and promotion.

Knowing your genre means you can pinpoint authors whose books bear similarities to your own – although whether you indicate same to agents in your submission material is a matter of fierce debate here and there on the interweb.  Either (i) do it because it helps the agent figure out where you might sit in their talent stable or (ii) don’t do it because it makes you seem cocky and pretentious and you should let them be the judge. No help there then.

Inevitably for every mainstream genre, there are gazillions of sub-genres, and sub-sub genres, and it’s up to you how far you navigate the tributaries, to arrive at a label which adequately categorises the novel you’re writing.

What follows here is not some great rambling on the whys and wherefores of genre – if you’re looking for guidance in categorising your own writing, Google is your friend.  There is already more help out there than you can possibly need in an entire literary lifetime.  This is about me and my genre, and how I got there.

The first issue was the question of literary vs commercial.  Commercial books – apparently – sell in large volumes to an audience which may not be sufficiently discerning – apparently – to mind that books in this category may – apparently – not be all that well written.  In commercial fiction – apparently – the plot is the only thing that matters. Everything else (characterisation, setting, sensory detail, realistic dialogue, linguistic style, grammar…) is inconsequential relative to the plot.  It may therefore have been thrown together and served up as a literary and linguistic dog’s dinner – and – apparently – nobody minds.

Literary fiction, on the other hand, is all about the quality of the writing, and how poetic, evocative or mesmerising it is.  And the plot?  Who needs plotting when the writing, line by line, word by beautiful, witty, well-chosen word, is such a sublime joy to read.  Apparently.

For those of us who fall somewhere between the sublime and the ridiculous (no, I’m not getting drawn on which is which, thank you very much) there is a wealth of options for that first level categorisation, amongst which Quality Commercial, Mainstream Literary, Literary-Commercial Crossover, Book Club, or even more specifically, ‘Richard & Judy’, and my personal bête noir, LitLite.

I vacillate between Quality Commercial and Book Club for Singled Out.  Books which end up on book club reading lists tend to offer plenty of scope for discussion around moral dilemmas, character qualities or shortcomings and so on – and I like that.  And Quality Commercial?  I don’t see what’s wrong with cherishing the vision that I’ve written something which might be simultaneously popular/saleable and well-written.  An agent or publisher will probably put me straight one of these days.

Next, there’s the subject and content of the story.  At the high level, is it a romance or a thriller?  Is it science fiction or magic realism, chic-lit or crime?  Is it humorous or historical, fantasy or satire, politics or parody? Is it erotic, domestic or dynastic?  And… breathe.  Yes, if you’ve looked into this, you’ll realise as I did, there are myriad ways to slice-and-dice for genre.  There’s a crime in my story, but it’s not, technically speaking, a crime novel – there’s no mystery (well, not much mystery) and no police (ah, almost no police).  There is a little romance and an erotic moment or two (no sniggering at the back please), but not enough to make it a romance and certainly not enough to position it on the same shelf as Fifty Shades of Naughty.

Having read several (too many?) blog posts and articles, I think I’ve got there.  The genre I’ve concluded best fits Singled Out is Psychological Suspense. Theoretically this is a crime fiction sub-genre – but that’s as close as it’s going to get to crime.

The elements which characterise psychological suspense include the following:

  • Psychological suspense may use crime as a pretext for investigating psyche and personality, but the story is about the context of the crime, rather than the crime itself.
  • There’s often no mystery as to who committed the crime – what psychological suspense is interested in is not whodunnit, but whydunnit.
  • Psychological suspense is about the mind of a criminal – and the other people involved.  There will be insights, observations and reflection, from all sides of the house.
  • Psychological suspense stories are often told from multiple points of view – from inside the minds of protagonist and antagonist alike.
  • The overarching mood is one of dread or malignity – a sustained suspense embedded with moments of heightened tension, rather than a build-up to one massive peak.
  • Psychological suspense stories often feature psychologically damaged central characters such as sociopaths, or people with weaknesses, phobias, a tragic past, the weight of guilt or shame bearing down.
  • The reader can see what’s happening before it happens – they watch, seemingly helpless.  I liken it to the reader banging soundlessly on a window, trying to attract the attention of a character, who walks innocently towards some terrible scenario or event, content in the company of the person the reader knows to be dangerous.
  • Interestingly, psychological suspense is often ambivalent when it comes to ethics and justice.  There are moral ambiguities, few happy endings or easy solutions; and the baddies don’t always get what they deserve.

I’m fascinated by stories like this – they’re the ones I go to when I’m looking for a good read, and so it felt good to be writing one, even though it’s not what I set out to write.  I started out to pen a wry dissection of the comings and goings on a singles holiday. But when I realised this amounted to not very much and would bore a readership to tears, the landscape shifted.  And that’s when I begun to learn how much I loved writing about bad stuff happening and dark, damaged psyches.

Hey ho, happy days.

A moral perspective – explained

Circle of Misse and Chateau d'OrionYesterday I posed a question – or several questions – around the theme of ‘to tell or not to tell’ and whether people have ‘a right to know’.  As I’d hoped, it generated some interesting and thoughtful responses.

Themes took a while to emerge from early drafts of my debut novel, Singled Out. I know this isn’t unusual, that themes often take some time to show themselves.  We know what kind of story we want to write, but it isn’t until the characters take hold of the action, that the themes offer themselves up. I held my breath and eventually they came out from the shadows.

One theme, and the reason for yesterday’s post is – yes, you guessed: To tell or not to tell.

Perversely (sorry about this) I can’t tell you much about the scenario, and I’m obviously not going to give away the plot.  However, the views expressed in the comments on yesterday’s post reflected some of my own thought processes as I wrote Singled Out, and they inform the moral and values-driven dilemmas my protagonist faces as the story unfolds.

Is it right to be open and upfront, whatever the potential cost?  Or is it ever better to withhold and leave someone in (blissful) ignorance?  Rigid morality makes for a black or white choice, where there are in reality – as all the responses articulated – multiple shades of grey, and many considerations which interweave and serve to confuse the picture.

I just hope it makes for a compelling story.  And maybe even an interesting set of back-of-the-book book club discussion topics.

If you’re writing a novel, how are you handling the issue of identifying theme(s)?  Did you start with a theme and work your story up around it?  Or did you, as I did, pile all the elements of your story – plot, characters, dilemmas, challenges and so on – into a sieve and keep on shaking it until the themes fell out?

A moral perspective

Circle of Misse visit to Chateau d'OironShould people always be told?  Does someone always have a right to know? Is the truth always better out than in?

If you find something out – something you believe someone you care about has a ‘right to know’ – is it ever better not to tell?  If you hear or see something you shouldn’t have, would you look upon it as your duty to enlighten whoever is being deceived, misled or lied to? Is it ever preferable for someone to be kept in the dark?

And what do you worry more about – the impact on the person you care about, of the news you’re considering breaking to them, or what they will think of you when you tell them? Or perhaps even, what they will think of you if they find out later and realise you knew but didn’t tell them?

I’m being deliberately vague here – I don’t want to tell you why I’m asking or give you any specific scenarios, because I’d like to know how you interpret these questions and what colour and shade you bring to your responses.  It would be great to open up a debate on the question of secrets and lies, and whether ‘to tell, or not to tell’ in the comments.

I have readers of all faiths, and no faith, and from all parts of the world.  Presumably that means a multiplicity of perspectives – and that could be interesting.

So are you up for it?

Show Not Tell

2013-12-04 11.56.49Which version would grab your attention?

This:

As she entered the restaurant he was surprised to see her.  He felt guilty that he’d been caught on a date with another woman, especially one he didn’t fancy.  He feared his marriage could be over.

Or this:

As she entered the restaurant, pain prickled behind his eyes like a thousand tiny needles. What was she doing here? She was supposed to be miles away, tied up in meetings, entertaining clients; not sweeping, refined and elegant, through the sort of scruffy bistro they would never visit together,  to catch him with his pants down.  Or as good as. 

As the wrecking ball of his betrayal surged towards him, the woman across the table – what was her name? – yabbered on and on like a drumming bunny, blistering his ears.  He could see the chewed food between her teeth as she talked and her knife and fork screeched against the cheap crockery like fingernails on a chalkboard.  She wasn’t pretty or chic.  There was no subtlety in the satin bow that peeked out between grotesquely inflated breasts, nor the scrape of her grimy toes probing and poking at his ankles beneath the table.  He realised he neither wanted nor needed the sex that was palpably on offer.

He pleaded with the napkin on his lap for inspiration; he needed a credible explanation.  What possible reason could he have for being seated at a table dressed with a paper sheet and a dribbling candle in a bottle, with a woman whose name he couldn’t even recall?  All the while, his wife, his beautiful, intelligent, sophisticated wife, glided towards them, her eyes wide, lips taut, the hint of blood flaming across her décolletage. 

His heart rattled beneath his breastbone. This time there was no wriggling out of it.  The demise of his marriage was knocking on the door.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass” Anton Chekhov

Small Beginnings

My coffeeI was having coffee with a friend yesterday afternoon in the lounge at the Runnymede Hotel, by the River Thames at Egham. It reminded me that in this very same room on Friday 26th March, 2010, I had given birth.

I’d gone there to meet my writing buddy. It was a few weeks after she and I had participated in our first Arvon Foundation writing course. We’d become friends and had begun to motivate one another to realise our shared ambition to write fiction. We decided to do a writing exercise, just for fun. You might think budding writers have a strange concept of fun – and you’d be right.

The lounge was crowded. Given its convenient location close to the M25, the Runnymede is always packed with earnest looking businesspeople engaging in earnest meetings or enduring even more earnest job interviews. As it was Friday there was a sprinkling of casually dressed early/long weekenders too and a few tables of smartly attired Ladies Who Lunch.

We decided for our exercise, to pick a person in the lounge and, armed with nothing more than the physical image and our imaginations, create a character for our respective novels. I should add neither of us had much more than 5,000 words under our belt at that point – barely more than an essay.

My friend took as her subject a youthful looking man wearing a friendship bracelet. But he was a keeper. Today, 3½ years later, he has a modest role – even a line or two of dialogue – in her story. I chose a man in his mid-fifties with thinning hair. His appearance was at odds with the sea of Hugo Boss and Paul Smith that surrounded him, and he looked uncomfortable as he sat alone in a room that hummed with animated conversation.

Henry entered the world after a very short labour – I think we allowed ourselves between 5 and 10 minutes for the exercise. I took the image and wrote a scene where, having arrived on holiday (that’s the holiday, where my story takes place), he emerges uncertainly on the first morning, into the glare of the sunlight and the scrutiny of his fellow guests. From those few lines – which have been edited but remain almost as they were first written – he’s a major character now. He’s evolved into a bit of a misfit and there is much about him that makes me squirm, but as he’s matured into his part and exerted his influence on the plot, my affection for him has grown.

Here’s the short piece I wrote back in March 2010, as it appears now in Singled Out. It isn’t the first time the reader meets Henry, but it was the first time that I met him:

Henry appeared, wearing a crumpled short-sleeved shirt. Hairless milk-white legs poked out beneath its hem and drew the eye reluctantly down to feet clad in scuffed sandals and, in the long tradition of the English by the sea, a pair of tired beige socks. Flabby buttocks had been squashed into a pair of Speedos and a frizz of grey hair peeked out from under a sunhat. He looked nervously around as he hovered by the edge of the pool then scrutinised the sky. Eventually he settled on the far side, away from James and Brenda and most of the others. She watched as he clattered a lounger then a parasol across the concrete to his desired spot before spreading a frayed bath towel to partially cover the bed. He extracted a bottle from his beach bag and slathered the contents on to his arms and legs. Finally he smeared a greasy sheen on to his face. He adjusted himself inside his Speedos, then squatted awkwardly on the edge of the lounger and rummaged in his bag, bringing out a dog-eared paperback…

Food, Glorious Food

iStock_000002093969_MediumI enjoyed writing a few gastronomic moments into my novel, Singled Out, which is set on a holiday in Turkey. Food allows you to explore all the senses and it can be a prism through which characters’ personalities and passions shine.  People gather together to eat, so food and mealtimes are opportunities for making connections and developing relationships between characters.  They can be made to linger over meals – creating episodes rich in sensory detail and dialogue, and loaded with cues and clues.

Below is a short foodie excerpt from Singled Out. I’d love to know what you think, and to hear how you use food in your own writing.

Mehmet and Defne brought baskets of steaming pide breads covered with napkins, to accompany the assortment of dips – creamy cacik, hummus and iman bageldi – on the table. They deposited platters of succulent tomato and feta salad drenched in olive oil, and saucers of black olives. The bread was pounced upon, ripped and shared. Brenda loaded her plate with dips and slices of tomato. She scraped a hunk of warm bread through the hummus and took a bite. It was sticky and grainy and the tang of garlic and fresh lemon flooded her mouth with saliva.

‘You’re enjoying that,’ said Turner, an inscrutable smile spreading across his features.

‘Indeed,’ said Brenda. ‘Good food, a warm evening—’

‘And great company,’ he added. ‘Here, try this.’ He held out a piece of bread loaded with the cacik – slivers of cucumber, crushed garlic and mint smothered in velvety yoghurt. Brenda reached out to take it with her hand but he pulled back.

‘Take a bite,’ he said, holding it out towards her mouth. ‘Go on. I want to watch you eat it.’ The corners of his mouth twitched.

As she parted her lips he slid the bread on to her tongue. The chilled yoghurt softened in the heat of her mouth and she savoured the silken concoction as it slithered down her throat…