The Guardian books blog has brought some pretty good things to my attention of late, not least the Mills and Boon New Voices competition.   The winner could well go on to literary stardom, or at least romance publication; and everyone who enters is given feedback on their first chapter – as Alison Flood discovered.

My first thought on reading this was to submit the first chapter of last year’s NaNoWriMo effort, which started life as an affectionate M&B parody.  But it was a short-lived thought, which lasted approximately up until the point where I re-read the thing.  The Single Mum’s Aristocratic Library Assistant has many fine qualities, but it is not stylistically appropriate for this contest.  I have copied and pasted below with a couple of minor edits so you can see what I mean…

“Nah, that’s lies,” Bracken McCracken said with certainty.

The man’s sandy sideburns glistened uncertainly. He was quite attractive, she noticed then. He had all his own hair and limbs, two eyes, comparatively clean clothes… the whole package.

“Sorry Ms McCracken,” he began stiffly, “I have to ask you – it’s my job.”

“Right,” she begrudged, grudgingly. She didn’t want him to know she had been swayed by his physical charms. After all this was 2010, an age where women had the vote, and rights to education, and their own brand of highbrow literature called ‘chick lit’.

“The computer thinks you owe us £39,” Sideburns continued. “So let’s see… If I read the titles to you, can you tell me if any of them ring a bell?”

She glared at him, in what she hoped was a vampish manner. He cleared his throat nervously.

“’The Hispanic Trillionaire’s Cruise Ship Baby’, perhaps?”

Bracken folded her arms, showing off her gold plated signet rings to their full advantage.

“OK, I can see that’s a no go. How about ‘Her Inexperienced Sugar Daddy’?”

Slowly and deliberately, she shook her head. Her hair, scraped back by a daring array of polyester scrunchies, cracked about her face like a cat o’ nine tails. Somehow though, he remained impervious.

“Uh, the next one is ‘The Lady Pirate’s Navy Tryst’?”

She flushed with embarrassment and anger.

“Do I look like the type of person that would read any of that stuff?”

He raised an eyebrow, taking in her velour tracksuit, silver puffa jacket and gold plated accessories. The buggy beside her contained a baby of indeterminate age, which was holding a pasty from Gregg’s.

‘Dextrous,’ he thought, before issuing the prim reply:

“I’m sure I don’t know madam. All sorts of people read those books and I wouldn’t dare to presume anything about anyone’s reading habits. I can’t, ever since we assumed one old chap who takes twelve of these romances at a time got them for his wife, then he told us he’s never been married.”

Bracken was interested in spite of herself.

“You can get 12 books at a time?”

“Oh yes, for three weeks at first, and then you can renew them by phone or online if you need them longer.”

“Michty me.”

“Quite.”

They paused awkwardly for a moment. She tried to remain defiant, but forgot herself when she looked into his eyes, which were like deep bubbling pools of blackberry jam. Bracken was rather partial to jam, particularly blackberry flavour.

“Delicious,” she said out loud.

“What?”

“Sorry,” she replied, visibly reddening even under a thick layer of itchy but affordable foundation, “I was thinking about scones.”

He smiled warmly for the first time, and the jam eyes crinkled a little bit at the edges.

“My mother makes lovely scones. Or at least she did, before-”

He stopped dead, a frown passing over his manly jaw.

“Before what?”

“Before… The accident.”

A dramatic chord sounded.

“Sorry, forgot to put my phone off,” said an old man who was sitting on the sofa reading the Daily Record whilst he waited for the rain to stop.

Bracken gave him one of her patented scowls, before venturing, “Is she…?”

“…Paralysed from the waist down,” he responded, heavily. “She can’t reach the kitchen work top to use the mixer anymore.” He closed his eyes, overwhelmed for a moment by some terrible kind of mental anguish. “Damn tiny wheelchair.”

“I’m so sorry for your loss,” Bracken said sincerely.

“Thank you,” he replied, and lo, it was as if some sort of spark exchanged between them. It was invisible though, not like an actual spark. Sort of just like a feeling you get sometimes when you click with someone. You know the one.

“Oh,” he said, in a sudden moment of clarity, “Speaking of mothers – does yours have the same name as you? Perhaps she took those books out!”

Bracken frowned deeply, the hood of her puffa crinkling with the effort, before stropping,

“My maw ran off wi some bawjaws nae guid drug dealer when I was a bairn. I dinnae ken anyhin about her and I dinnae want tae.”

She tended to enunciate less when upset.

“Sorry,” he said, “I didn’t know. Were you raised by your dad then?”

“Who d’ye hink the nae guid bawjaws was?!”

“Oh.”

She shrugged. He might be a wee hottie, but seemingly he wasn’t the brightest.

“Ah was brought up by my gran, which is pretty normal round here. But she kicked me out over the bairn-” she gestured in the direction of the buggy – “so I live wi Uncle Nicky the now. He’s a soft touch, but his hearts in the right place.”

Aloysius Hunkington-Smythe – for this was the strapping library assistant’s name – looked back over some of his own life’s tragedies, which were many and varied. They were, he reflected somewhat pretentiously, the sorts of things that might come to light if he were a character in a novel. In real life, though, they would never be known to another living soul.

He had often wished there was someone he might share his pain with, but he had always thought it hopeless. Who could ever understand the effect of such trauma? Who would want to look far enough beyond his averagely dashing good looks to even try? But now, as he compared his darkest times with the experiences of this orange faced girl, he wondered whether Bracken’s pain and suffering might rival even his own…

But no.  How could her pain be comparable to his? Here she was, getting on with her life, feistily arguing the toss over what were quite clearly her library fines as a queue of irate locals gathered behind her waiting to use the photocopier. Would she be able to do that if her past was full of dark and terrible secrets, hanging over her like fat, juicy ghosts?

Maybe she would, a voice in his subconscious pointed out, making him feel a little schizophrenic. He had heard tell in the past that women were different from men in some ways. Was this one of them? Aloysius sighed demonstratively, and his strong shoulders wobbled with the cyan coloured jelly of mixed emotions. How he wished he was able to pack all his sorrows in his old kit bag like that. Perhaps if he had a baby, like Bracken, he would be able to be strong for it…

“So,” she said, interrupting his reverie, “are ye gonnae take they fines aff ma caird?”

“Well I don’t actually know how,” he admitted, “This is only my first day on the job.”

Bracken already knew this, because she was in the library every day. It was nicer than her flat, which they couldn’t really afford to keep warm and where Uncle Nicky kept making hats out of tin foil to protect them from UFOs. In here, meanwhile, there was internet access, and daily papers, and lots of activities with kids like storytelling and rhyme sessions and crafts.

“Could you not ask someone else to show you?” she asked.

“Well, they’re having a meeting,” he began apologetically, “and I don’t really know if I should interrupt.”

‘Who knew customer service would be so complex,’ he added to himself. Before working in this place, he had never had to deal with members of the public in his life.

Behind her in the queue, a middle-aged man with no front teeth tutted melodramatically.

“Ach, nevermind,” she snapped suddenly in exasperation, “I need tae get tae work anyway.”

“Work?” he replied, in that way you do when you can’t really think of anything to say.

She narrowed her eyes, about to completely misinterpret his meaning with potentially disastrous results.

“What, you don’t think a schemie single mum like me would bother haudin doon a job, but?”

“No-”

“Hink ah hud the wean just so I could get a free hoose, that it?”

“That’s not what I-”

“You dinnae ken ANYHIN about me and don’t even pretend ya dae, ya pompous, self satisfied, ‘oooh, when they made us read Shakespeare in scale I actually enjoyed it’ piece e good for nothing, up your own airse, TRAMP.”

“Bracken – Ms McCracken – I –”

But she was gone, in a bittersweet cloud of hormones and Impulse body spray.

“Women, eh,” the toothless man from the queue intoned sagely.

Aloysius sighed once more, and the knees of a nearby schoolgirl who was skiving off to check her Bebo went weak.

“Can I help you?” he asked the man, without really meaning it.

“Aye. Ah’ll have twenty lammy bammies please lad.”

“You’ll have what?”

“Lammy bammies. Fags! Chop chop, we huvnae got aw day. Specially after waiting on you and your bird sortin’ oot yer wee lovers tiff.”

“We’re not… she’s not… fags?”

The toothless man nodded, expectant.

“But… This is the library, though.”

The toothless man blinked and looked about him.

“Whaddya know,” he laughed phlegmily. “So it is as well. Ah’ve no been in here for aboot twenty years. It’s aw changed since then!”

“Ha, yeah.”

Not into a shop, though.

“Still dinnae sell fags though eh?”

“I’m afraid not,” Aloysius replied graciously. “I could do you a book with Audrey Hepburn smoking on the cover?”

“Naw laddie, dinnae hink so. Audrey Hepburn? She was a man. Heard it on the Discovery Channel. Or was it a dream? I have dreams like that sometimes.”

There was an awkward pause whilst Aloysius searched his mind for something appropriate to say.  Fortunately the customer saved him the trouble.

“The libray though eh,” he wittered, “whit a pranny I am! Looks different than when I was a bairn. That a telly ower there?”

Aloysius smiled politely.

“Yes,” he replied, “we do a lot of youth work in here these days.”

“Oh aye?”

“Yes. I mean aye.”

“Rather youse than me, heh heh heh. A telly eh. No like when I was a bairn. Librarian’d gie us a clip round the ear and send us on our way.”

“Well sir, the times they are a changing.”

“They are that. And ah’m only 32! Heh heh.”

“Ha ha.”

“OK well, I’ll see you when I need ma bus pass renewed,” the man coughed.

With that, he slouched off out into the rain and Aloysius, aside from stamping the due date on to a few Joan Jonker classics and exchanging weather-related pleasantries with the remaining people in the queue, was left alone with his thoughts.

He was surprised and slightly disconcerted to find that for the first time in several years, all of said thoughts were not of his dark past, but of a shapely young mum clad in a bright pink velour tracksuit set off by camel coloured ugg boots.

“I promised myself I’d never love again,” he muttered.

But if he was to keep that vow, he would have to stop thinking about Bracken McCracken’s heavily kohled eyes, which he had noticed were just the colour of gooseberry jam.

“Delicious,” he said.

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