This is an excerpt from what I’ve written for book six, but it’s really just background characterisation and I don’t think I’ll end up using much of it in the final draft. Still, thought I should point out I’ve written something…
Nicola woke up with her face stuck to the cheap plastic keyboard of her work PC. She rubbed her cheek to get rid of the indentations, but knew from experience it would take a while to return to normal.
The monitor in front of her stopped playing its screensaver, revealing a too-white document that was a mess of m’s and 8’s and ‘hn’s.
Still, at least she’d saved her story this time.
The digital clock in the corner of the screen told her it was 5.45am. She had still been writing at 2.30, so couldn’t have been out for long. The muscles in her neck suggested otherwise, though.
Grimacing in pain she stretched her arms above her head, and rooted around in the drawer beside her for a cigarette. She was supposed to be giving up, in theory. But all smokers said that, didn’t they. To save the lecture they’d get from non-smokers if they explained that actually they’d rather die young than listen to any more shite about the shape their lungs were probably in. Didn’t mean they were actually going to do it. And anyway, she’d had a rough month.
She’d had a rough year, come to that. Moving out here, taking a job on this crappy local paper just so she could be with Finn…
She thought about the last time she’d seen him. It was only a few nights back, actually, but it felt like forever. Time had been moving pretty slowly since then.
“You aren’t interested in me,” he’d whinged, making her wonder uncharitably who exactly the girl was in this relationship, “I have needs, Nicki, needs that you aren’t fulfilling when you’re away doing these long hours all the time.”
She regarded him, impassive, for a long while. Then she threw the toaster at his head.
She missed, as she had intended (she was an excellent shot), but Finn had turned white as a sheet, in fear or anger or both.
“That was your excuse when we lived in London, you arse,” she told him calmly. “And don’t call me Nicki.”
Then she’d walked out of the house they shared (rented not bought, two up two down, beige and modern and uninteresting), and she hadn’t been back there since.
God knew Nic wished there was enough to do on the Chronicle that meant she’d be able to put in the hours to escape from her personal life, but there just wasn’t enough news in this area. There were only so many jumble sales and ploughing competitions that you could hold in one week.
And when anything newsworthy happened (which it did – there was a surprising amount of nasty crime for such a small place) they weren’t allowed to report on it until it had been through the courts first.
“It’s not up to us to break that sort of story,” the editor had told her imperiously on her third day, “the national papers will pick up on it. Our readers deserve a bit of good news now and again, we can’t be resorting to printing gossip.”
At first she’d thought he was kidding, but a swift conversation with Alan Kilpatrick, the photographer, had put her right.
So she went from covering news stories to non-stories, all to save a relationship that was on its last legs anyway. The minute they’d got here Finn had got back in touch with his high school sweetheart, and now it was Nic who was on the receiving end of phone calls claiming that he had to work on that night, that he was sorry and would make it up to her.
The main difference was that whilst back in London Nic had genuinely been working, up here in bonny Scotland Finn had been shagging Marie in the stationery cupboard.
Simpering, bosomy Marie Aitken – Nic had known what she was about as soon as she met the woman. She shouldn’t have trusted that Finn was too sensible to be taken in, shouldn’t have assumed that he had done the breaking up the first time around on the grounds that the woman was an idiot. She’d since discovered from the local GPs secretary, who worked in the building next to the paper, that Marie had chucked Finn, and he’d moved away heartbroken. Not only that, she had regretted it instantly.
“But they were eighteen then,” Nic had said, “now they’re in their thirties. People change in that length of time.”
“Maybe,” said the secretary, whose name was June, “but the memory of the one that got away can be very potent. Especially if your current relationship isn’t everything you ever wanted.”
If she was being honest, Nic had to concede that she hadn’t been the most fun since they had moved up here to start their new life together. In fact, she’d spent most of the time moaning about how boring the place was and how everyone was inbred. Given Finn had grown up here, it was probably a little insensitive, although frankly they were. Cousins marrying cousins may be legal, but Nic found it a little bit… ick.
Then there was the real bone of contention between them, the unspoken argument that was always going on under the surface. She knew he wanted kids, which she did too, one day. Just not now. She wanted to be herself for a while first, and there was no need to rush into anything like that, she told herself. Thirty-two was too young for all that stuff, especially these days.
Finn disagreed. He thought thirty-two was a great age to start all that – they’d been together four years as a young couple in the big city, worked hard to build up their careers and played hard whilst there were no dependents or responsibilities. If they didn’t start now, then when? “Your biological clock is ticking,” he’d told her once, in a ridiculous role reversal that had left her unsure whether to laugh or punch him.
When she had eventually agreed to move to Scotland, she knew she was implying that she was ready to think about it. But since they’d arrived, she had shied away from it every time he tried to broach the topic. Whenever Finn started on about procreation, Nic suddenly decided it was time to unpack some more of their boxes (that had lain untouched for six months) or to discuss how they were going to redecorate the kitchen. Like he wasn’t going to notice what was going on.
No wonder he gave up and went back to Booby McChildhood-Memories, she thought gloomily. Marie’d do him every which way at any time of night or day. She was probably trying to get pregnant by him. Slag.
Nic lit a second cigarette – or was it a third? – it was hard to tell, she was too tired. She moved in the direction of the kitchen to make a cup of the instant coffee that someone had procured from the cost cutters store. It tasted more like Bovril than coffee, but Nic wasn’t in the mood to care.
Finn wasn’t that great of a catch anyway, she pointed out to herself. He had a receding hairline and a definite paunchiness to his middle that hadn’t been there when they had first met. And he was boring, too.
She tried to remember what had attracted her to him in the first place, slightly concerned that it might have been the bumpkin-like innocence that got him worked up over village fetes and thatched houses. Everyone else she knew was so jaded and cynical, at such a young age as well. It was the type of work they did, she knew that – if you wanted to get by you had to develop a hard shell, a dark sense of humour, and you couldn’t be prepared to take any crap from anybody.
Finn had a sense of humour, but lacked the shell. He worked as a publishing assistant when they first met, and was now an agent with a bunch of clients who all seemed to specialise in rural poetry and non-fiction books about agriculture. She had interviewed a couple of them for the paper and found them so dull she thought surely someone would notice and send in a letter of complaint.
Presumably Marie found them fascinating, or at least didn’t fall asleep when he started talking about them. She must be related to some, everyone was related to everyone else around here except for Nic. And that was hardly her fault, was it, that she’d grown up somewhere that actually had a gene pool. And anyway, she’d only fallen asleep when Finn talked about work a couple of times, which wasn’t that bad a ratio given the subject matter. Hadn’t gone down well, though. Which she supposed was fair enough really. She’d be furious if he’d done it back.
Nic thought that her main issue with all this was really that she had always thought that if either of them would go off with someone else, it would be her. Affairs were something of an occupational hazard in her line of work. Affairs and alcoholism. She glanced at the empty gin bottle on the worktop.
She hadn’t had all of it last night, to be fair.
The kettle squealed angrily. The cleaner would be in soon, with her knowing stare. Nic didn’t really want to deal with other people’s sympathy at the moment.
She had briefly considered going back to London, starting over again, but a contrary part of her really wanted to stick around and make a show of being happy on her own, in hope of annoying Finn and Marie. It wouldn’t work on him, in all likelihood. But it might get to her.
As the office door clicked open, she realised she’d been stirring the tar-like liquid in front of her for about ten minutes, staring at it without really seeing. It steamed at her reproachfully. She’d never been a morning person, but the dull thud of the hangover behind her eyes wasn’t helping. And soon the gin munchies would set in. She wondered if the baker’s was open yet.
“Morning dear,” said the cleaner, who Nic thought might be called Morag or Maureen or something of that nature, “you’re in early.”
“Hi,” Nic muttered, rubbing her temples. “Well you know, the early bird catches the worm.”
“Things still not so good at home, hen?” Morag or Maureen asked sympathetically.
Nic didn’t reply. She was not the type of woman to wear her heart on her sleeve, or even to discuss her problems with her close friends, never mind with perfect strangers. Not that she had any close friends up here – they were all in London. All two of them.
“Sorry,” said Maureen or Morag, “it’s none of my business I know. I just think it’s a shame to see a young person like yourself so upset, and over a laddie as well.”
Nic snorted unattractively, wondering the last time anyone had referred to Finn as a laddie. He looked ridiculously middle aged to her, with the unkempt ginger beard and the bald patches and the tweedy jackets with leather elbow patches.
Leather elbow patches, she thought derisively, how much of a cliché is that. He’d end up a teacher before Marie was through with him. Those who can’t, and all that…
“So what are the big stories of the day?” Maureen or Morag asked, apparently incapable of being in a room with someone else and not talking even when the other party remained aggressively silent. Nic searched the drawers for headache remedies. She found only empty packaging.
“It must be hard deciding what to put on the front page, is it?”
“Not really up to me,” she explained reluctantly, lighting another cigarette. “Editor gets the final say on that.”
“Ah,” Maureen or Morag said sagely, “Charles. And how’s he doing these days?”
Nic shrugged. She didn’t really like her boss too much. He had some pretty old fashioned ideas about the paper, about women journalists, and about life in general. He was a relic in many ways, a throwback to a forgotten age. Even Alan was more up to date than he was.
Maureen or Morag nodded again as if that shrug had confirmed all her suspicions, and switched on the hoover. It sounded like a bomb going off in Nic’s sensitive ears.
She mumbled excuses and left the office, clutching the bannister as she made her way down the spiral staircase. Her depth perception was all over the place, thought whether this was because of the lack of sleep or the fact one of her contact lenses had slipped around the back of her eye she couldn’t be sure.
The road outside was quiet still. It was too early for the school rush, which was the busiest time of day. Nobody who lived here seemed to work here, they all commuted to the larger cities nearby, so there was no dull roar of traffic for her aching head to contend with.
She shuffled around the corner to the bakery, but the shutters were still drawn. Some kids had scrawled graffiti on it. Nic considered mentioning this to the editor for a piece, it was low key enough for him… but then again it might be a bit too much of a bone of contention for local people to actually highlight in print. Best wait for someone to submit a letter, that was the safest way to do things.
This was not what she had hoped for when she started out. She was supposed to have paid her dues already. She’d done her time on local papers; making tea and coffee for the whole of the office, standing around in the snow and the cold doing vox pops with idiot members of the public who had nothing to say… she’d worked her way up, dammit. And now here she was in a backwater town under an archaic, misogynistic editor who kept accusing her of being a lesbian.
She rattled the shutter half-heartedly.
“Open up, you lazy sod,” she said, “I need some breakfast.”
Unsurprisingly there was no response. The old guy was probably still pottering about in his kitchen at home.
A paperboy whizzed past on a shiny new bike, pushing a gust of cold air at her that lifted her hair off her face for a moment and stung her eyes. He wasn’t wearing his fluorescent vest, she thought vaguely, that must be against the rules. Someone should tell his boss, or his mother, before he got knocked off the bike and became third page news (after the funeral had already passed).
She contemplated the newsagents on the corner, where the boy had probably come for with his aging brown satchel of dailies. They’d be good for a bag of crisps and more fags. And the cleaner would probably be done by now, which meant it was safe to go back and start pretending to wade through jam making competitions and PTA minutes.
Nic wondered if this was what her life was going to be like from now on, and felt her stomach cramp at the thought.