This is an unusual book, in that the story is told backwards. Starting with a dramatic explosion in 2003 in which one person dies, the story is peeled back to when the three main characters are friends at nursery school, before revealing the final denouement.
It's a risky strategy, as one has to invest totally in the characters in order to care enough to hear their story. There is Anna, a lonely girl whose real family has always been her two best friends. Lee is the friend turned lover, who she eventually marries almost by default. Lee struggles with the aftermath of an abusive father and absentee mother, and is constantly anxious that he might end up falling into the same bad habits.
Finally, there is Mike, the quiet one, who has always held a torch for Anna but has been too shy to say so. He’s very protective of her, so when a mutual friend suggests that Lee could be abusing her, he knows he has to act in some way.
This is a very skilfully written book, with the author making sure we care about each character before revealing their secrets. Lee’s traumatic childhood, his complicated relationship with his father, and Anna’s need for love and acceptance is brilliantly portrayed.
And Mike, who could so easily be a doormat, proves his worth. Whilst we discover how the characters come to be as they are, we are also kept on tenterhooks, waiting for the identity of the body brought out of the wreckage to be revealed.
A far more edgy read than her previous novels, touching on domestic violence and how the victim reacts to it. One really feels for Anna, but cannot see how she can escape from Lee’s increasingly controlling behaviour. A happy ending is not always guaranteed in cases like this and the author knows it. The issue is well-researched and comes across convincingly. It is sometimes difficult to read, but definitely worth it.
After reading three of Katharine E Smith’s novels, I know I’m in safe hands with an author who knows how to balance a story, create realistic worlds and dialogue and above all, keep the reader guessing. This does not disappoint on any level.
Last year, I took part in WROTE Podcast's Twelve Days Of Stories, a fantastic audio anthology of terrific authors and past guests of WROTE, who all came together to create a wide variety of short stories, all with a (sort of...) Christmas theme. This was ably voiced by Vance Bastian, whose dulcet tones can be heard by following the link above. It's a real treat for the ears!
And for those who prefer to read, here is mine. This is a fantasy short featuring Rob Martyn, the MC in S A Smythe's novel, Lexington Black. (A bit sneaky, as it references back to the book and hopefully, people might want to buy it….) However, it is a standalone story.
Full Moon To Manhattan
After almost a year of marriage, the honeymoon was definitely over. Tensions had started to arise between Rob and Lex, caused in part by Rob’s insecurities. Maybe they were too different. Maybe they had not given it enough time before rushing headlong into marriage. At the time they had been 100 percent sure, but now? Rob’s cautious side had reared up again, putting all kinds of doubts in his mind. After all, he had been married before, but to a woman, and that had ended badly.
The ink on the divorce papers was barely dry before Lex came along. Suddenly, Rob had been hit for six by the strength of his feelings for another man. There had even been a cooling off period after he discovered that Lex had been keeping a prior relationship with Rob’s father a secret, but they had overcome that. He knew that Lex loved him unconditionally, but did Rob feel the same? Lex was passionate, opinionated and impulsive. Rob calmed him down. That was what their friends said, anyway. They might as well have said that Rob was dull. He knew that was what they were thinking.
By October, his first wedding anniversary was just around the corner and the unease would not leave him. Were people laughing at him, waiting for him to say he had made a terrible error in marrying Lex? Was he really gay or going through a mid-life crisis, brought on by his divorce and delayed mourning for his father? He was so confused. He couldn’t think properly. He wanted to get away for a few days and sort himself out.
Lex knew there was something wrong but Rob could not answer his repeated pleas to tell him what was troubling him, because he did not really know himself. A heart-to-heart talk with Caressa, Lex and Rob’s closest friend, helped him decide that going away for a while would be a good thing.
‘Darling, you need space. God knows I love Lex, but he is very full-on. I’m not surprised you need a break,’ she said.
Rob knew she was right. Caressa was the definition of the phrase “full-on.” By day he was Peter, art gallery owner, by night Caressa, torch singer with a voice of honey. If she empathised with Rob’s predicament, Rob knew it was not just his stupid imagination.
He didn’t tell Lex he was going until the last moment, via a note he left on the kitchen table. He tried to explain how he was feeling, and implored Lex to give him some space, rather than following him immediately. Then he had walked out of the apartment, wondering whether he was doing the right thing.
Out in the street, he was oblivious to anything but his own thoughts. The blare of a horn was followed by a sickening thud as his body hit the pavement. Then it was lights out.
When he woke up, he was shocked to find himself in hospital. The lights were very bright and his head swam. A cheerful nurse told him he had walked in front of a truck and was lucky to be alive.
After she left, he carefully raised himself to a sitting position. His resolve was as strong as ever. He had to get out of there and continue on his journey. He was feeling fine even though he knew that, with concussion, he shouldn’t be driving.
No-one stopped him as he walked out of the hospital. He knew Lex would be furious with him, but he did not care. He would continue his recovery when he reached his writer’s retreat in Stonehaven, on the New England coast.
He arrived in Stonehaven in no time at all. The weathered lighthouse looked imposing against a leaden sky. A keen wind came off the sea; the first icy breath of winter. Rob shivered and went inside to light up the wood burner.
Over the next few weeks he seemed to drift in a wilderness, but it was quite comfortable. He took long walks by the sea every day, and existed in a peaceful contentment. Lex did eventually come to visit but there was no intimacy between them. It was as if a wall had sprung up, and neither of them could see a way of scaling it.
Caressa also came, and she gave him a hard time.
‘I said a few days, not weeks! Why are you doing this? Lex needs you. He loves you. We all love you. Why won’t you come back?’
‘Because I’m still trying to work things out.’
‘I hate you,’ she said. ‘Wake up and see what you have, you selfish bastard.’
‘It’s something I must do,’ he replied. ‘This is the space I need to think.’
Most of the time, she would leave in flourish and fury after telling him she hated him again. But she always came back.
His twin sister, Geri, came as well, with her partner, Simon. Rob couldn’t find the words to tell her how much he appreciated them being there, but even she was angry with him.
‘This is so unfair. I wish you could see what you’re doing to Lex. To all of us. We don’t understand why.’
He thought she was being over-dramatic, but was wise enough not to say so.
‘It’s something I have to do,’ he said instead. ‘I know you don’t understand, but I didn’t ask you to.’
‘Come on, mate,’ Simon said gloomily. ‘We’re relying on you to be a godfather.’
Geri cried, which was something she hardly ever did. ‘You’re going to be an uncle, Rob. If you don’t come back I’ll never forgive you!’
‘But you can come here,’ Rob insisted.
‘I want you and Lexi to be godparents.’ She took his hand. ‘I’m scared, Rob. I want my little brother there to laugh at me and tell me to get my shit together.’
As Christmas drew closer, the amount of visitors increased. Most of his family came, though not his mother, who still had not forgiven him for being gay, and his youngest sister, who still had not forgiven him for letting his queen friends sabotage her wedding. Roger and his husband Tony were regular visitors and, although they didn’t say much, he appreciated their company.
Jerry Ford visited, and that was a real surprise, especially when he brought along his new girlfriend, Gemma. They looked a bit self-conscious at first, but talked easily after a while. Gemma was nervous about the gender reassignment surgery she was having early in the New Year which would make her transformation complete. Jerry kept looking at her as if he could not believe his luck at finding her.
‘You bring people together, Rob,’ he said. ‘That’s your gift. You can’t see it, but we all do.’
Rob thought it was sweet of him to say so, but he didn’t believe him.
Twelve days before Christmas. Rob was thinking of Lex, and their looming first wedding anniversary. Would he be ready to come home for that? He didn’t want to leave Lex alone on that day, but by then, so much time had gone past, he was not sure how to get back to him. It could already be too late.
That night a storm was howling something fierce, buffeting the walls of the old building and making it groan in protest. Rob didn’t mind. He found the noise comforting. The roar of the sea was constant, a low level roar in the distance.
Then closer in, a voice.
‘Wake up, asshole.’
He opened his eyes. The room was dark, yet an eerie silver light seemed to come from the window opposite his bed. He sat up and blinked.
A figure was silhouetted against the light.
Rob cried out in shock, instinctively pressing himself back against the bedhead.
‘Who the hell are you?’ His voice came out as a squeak. The figure looked familiar. Tall, dressed in black leather trousers and a long black jacket, pale skin. His hair was black, smoothed back from a high forehead. High cheekbones, a killer’s blank stare.
What the absolute hell?
‘You’re … Christopher Walken.’ That made no sense. He had to be dreaming.
‘Actually, no. I’ve just taken this form so I don’t scare you to death. Believe me, if I wore a long white dress and tinsel halo, that would be scary.’
‘You didn’t want to scare me, so you dressed up as Christopher Walken? That’s insane!’
The man was obviously some kind of psycho. If Rob kept him talking, maybe he could get him out of the house without being made into sushi.
‘I’m not going to kill you. I’m trying to keep you alive, you dumb fuck. I’m Gabriel. The Angel Gabriel. You know. Messenger from the Creator? That gig you really wanted in your school Nativity play because you liked the fluffy wings? You never were, though. Must have been hell being the Headmaster’s son. Always a sheep, never a shepherd. The harp was the best, though. The best damned golden harp I’ve ever seen…’
‘Stop! How do you know all that?’
It was hard to concentrate. The man sounded like a wiseguy from Queens, not a celestial messenger. With that in mind, it was probably best to play along.
‘I’m honoured, but aren’t you supposed to be, like, busy at this time of year?’
Gabriel sighed. ‘That was two thousand years ago. Now the party is organised by someone else. All I have to do is turn up and look fabulous.’ His husky voice was playful.
‘So where are your wings?’
Gabriel squirmed. ‘Under my skin. They itch like hell.’
‘I want to see them.’
‘Nope. Not yet. You haven’t earned it.’ Gabriel took a step closer. The light surrounded him like an aura. Must be a full moon, shining through the window.
‘What do you mean, I haven’t earned it?’
‘Not yet. I’m leaving now. Somewhere else to be. We’ve established contact and that’s all I wanted to do, make sure you don’t start screaming and give yourself a heart attack. Go to sleep.’
‘How can I ….?’
Gabriel put one elegant finger against his cruel lips. ‘Hush.’
Rob slipped back into sleep.
Someone was singing “The Twelve Days Of Christmas,” belting out “Five Gold Rings” in a raucous baritone.
‘I thought angels sung better than that,’ Rob groaned.
‘They do, but if I unleashed the full majesty of my voice you might think you were on your way to the Pearly Gates. A bit presumptive, by the way, especially for a Catholic.’
‘And how. Let’s go for a walk.’
‘I don’t ….’
They were on a beach, white sand, deserted. The wind blew Gabriel’s black hair around his face. A strange white fog blanked out all recognisable landmarks. It was just the beach, the sea drawing calmly in and out, and Gabriel.
‘I don’t believe in angels,’ Rob said.
Gabriel turned to look at him. ‘Don’t say that. Every time you say that, an angel dies.’
‘I didn’t think angels could die. They’re already dead, aren’t they?’
‘That’s a fallacy put about by humans. They’d like to be angels, but they’re not. Talking monkeys, yes. Angels, no.’
‘I don’t believe in angels,’ Rob said forcefully. ‘I don’t believe in angels! There, I’ve just murdered two angels. How does that make you feel?’
Gabriel grasped his own throat, making horrible gargling sounds. He sank to his knees, gasping for breath, before sprawling on the sand, his eyes closed.
Rob waited. Gabriel didn’t move.
‘You’re faking it, aren’t you?’ Rob said eventually.
One of Gabriel’s eyes opened. ‘Is my acting that bad?’
‘If you’re masquerading as Christopher Walken, then yes. The Prophecy was good, by the way. He was a better Gabriel than you.’
‘I’ll ignore that.’ Gabriel clambered inelegantly to his feet. ‘Damn, these leather pants are tight.’
‘Why not be another form of Gabriel? Or your own form? Why Walken?’
‘Why Walken? That’s surely the most redundant question in the history of the universe.’
Rob conceded he had a point. They continued walking. Rob’s feet left imprints on the sand, but where Gabriel walked, there was nothing. It was strange, but Rob was unafraid. After all, he was dreaming.
‘So why are we here?’
‘I told you, it’s time to go home.’
‘And why should the Big Kahuna of Angels be that interested in me?’
Gabriel slung his arm around Rob’s shoulder. ‘It’s a lottery, my friend. Angels are around you humans all the time, trying to guide you into not fucking up. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. You could have ended up with Thedriel or Michael or Galius or any other angel but your luck is that you ended up with me.’ He clapped Rob on the back, almost knocking him over.
‘So God sent you to save my life? Sorry, I don’t buy it. I don’t believe the world was created in seven days. I don’t believe that a white man with a beard sits up there and moves us about like pieces on a chessboard. I just don’t. What about all those other religions and belief systems? I have a real problem with the whole Christianity thing as you must know, if you know so much about my family.’
‘I could write a book on your family,’ Gabriel retorted. ‘There are some things that humans cannot comprehend. I could go into a whole exposition about you fucking monkeys fighting wars and stirring hatred in the name of gods that they created. I could say the whole world is fucked because of it, but I’m not here to talk heavy issues with you. I’m here because of you. Just you, Rob. No-one else. As I said, life is a lottery, and you’ve just won it.’ He moved his face close to Rob’s. ‘Lucky man,’ he whispered.
‘What are you talking about?’
‘Ah, finally a sensible question. Here’s another one. Why are you up here, in this isolated place? What are you running from?’
‘You should know that already. You know everything else.’
A patient sigh. ‘Yes, but for the benefit of your own good self, spell it out for me.’
‘I needed some space to think.’
‘Well, you’ve got that.’ Gabriel gestured to the emptiness around them.
‘I’m not interesting enough for Lex. And am I really gay? How could I have not noticed for thirty-five years of my life?’
‘What does it matter? Love is love, my friend.’ Gabriel danced away from him. ‘Seven swans a swimming, six geese a laying … I mean, who would actually want six swans? They’ll only fight with the geese and the amount of shit and feathers would drive me insane. As for eight maids a-milking, forget it. I’m lactose intolerant. What were you saying again? Actually, no, don’t bore me. I know the details. Doubting Robyn, thinks his life is too good to last so it won’t, right? Excuse me while I spew in a bucket. This kind of self-pitying bullshit puts me off my food.’ He took a deep breath and burst into song. ‘A partridge in a pear tree! That reminds me, I went to see someone else in need this week. Could have lost her baby but didn’t, thanks to my intervention. She believes in me, you know. I appreciate that. Hard to believe you shared a womb.’
Rob stopped dead. ‘Geri? Is she okay?’
‘Of course. She has to be careful though. All the stress of the last few weeks has taken its toll. Nice woman. Respectful. Had your share, I reckon.’
‘She’s an atheist!’
‘Nope. Nothing like a crisis to make people turn to religion, booze or sex. FYI, she chose religion.’
‘I didn’t, though.’
‘You chose fuck all, but I like you, Rob. And I’m feeling generous. It’s Christmas!’ Gabriel expansively opened his long arms. ‘So, we were talking about your problem, the one you have about being gay. Slightly belated, to be fair, after you’ve married a guy and taken part in some activities that, frankly, make my eyes water. Even I didn’t foresee the hidden advantages of a prostate.’
‘You have a problem with that?’’
‘Not at all.’ Gabriel prodded him in the chest. ‘You do, my friend. Insecurity setting in. Do you love him?’
‘Of course I do!’
‘So what’s the problem, hmmm? You walked away from him, built a fucking great wall so high you both can’t climb over it without my help. Why?’
‘I don’t have to talk about this.’
‘Yes, you do. I’m the Angel fucking Gabriel and if I ask a question, you damned well answer it. Capische?’
‘You’re going all gangster on me? How about asking nicely?’
Gabriel glared at him. ‘You’re talking about a Tarantino, Pulp Fiction scenario, right? I don’t ask for anything.’
Rob folded his arms and waited. ‘What about goodwill to all men?’
‘You’re on dangerous ground, my friend. Answer the goddamned question.’
Rob watched him pace around. ‘You’ve just taken your boss’s name in vain. Isn’t that a treasonable offence or something?’
‘Why aren’t you this feisty in real life? If you were, I wouldn’t even need to be here!’
‘Well, I’m really sorry I’ve disappointed you! I’m just Lex’s husband. The quiet one, the writer. I’m nothing special. Even my father didn’t leave me a note when he died. He didn’t think I was worth it!’ As he said the words, his anxieties began to make sense. Everyone abandoned him eventually. Geri was the only person who stood by him. It was only a matter of time before Lex walked away. Rob wasn’t stimulating enough. He was colourless, acquiescent, mild-mannered.
‘So being gay isn’t a problem, your husband isn’t a problem. Your frigging self-pity is the problem. Which reminds me, I changed the wording on that note you left. You were embarrassing yourself.’
‘You had no right to do that!’
‘Tough shit. This is me pulling rank to make you see the light. Well, not the light. That would be a bad thing. For you, anyway.’
‘So what did you say?’
‘Oh, I can’t remember now. Something about going Christmas shopping, can’t wait to get him in the sack, you love him, that kind of stuff. Sweet, you know?’
Rob laughed humourlessly. ‘So what happens now? Is this some It’s A Wonderful Life scenario, showing me how awful everyone’s life would be without me in it?’
‘Oh, give me a fucking break.’ Gabriel palm-slapped Rob’s forehead and his world faded to black.
Caressa was there the next day. She swept into the room in a cloud of J’Adore perfume, wearing glamour like a cashmere stole. She was bright and cheerful for a while, before getting to the point.
‘Darling,’ she said, tapping her gold-tipped fingernails on the table beside them. ‘Christmas is in three days and Lex is beside himself. We all are. We love you and need you with us. That’s all I have to say. You’re being beastly and I hate you.’ She left again, slamming the door behind her.
Don’t go, Rob thought, but could not stop her.
Lex arrived next. He had lost weight, and his lean, handsome face was drawn. Rob felt a stab of guilt. He was almost too good-looking in a dark suit, wearing the gold Saks tie Rob had bought for him on a whim the previous Spring.
‘It’s our wedding anniversary tomorrow. Our first wedding anniversary for fuck’s sake. Don’t make me spend it on my own. I can’t stand it. I’ve only just found you and this happens?’ He pressed a soft kiss to Rob’s lips. ‘I love you. Don’t leave me. I can’t function without you. Surely you know that?’ Then he lay his head on Rob’s hand and wept.
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