“Picture-Perfect” – My Debut Novel ready to hit bookshelves in 2018! (Exclusive Preview inside…)

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Picture-Perfect 

 

              Sacha Kurucz                     

 

“Be brave enough to live creatively. The creative is the place where no one else has ever been. You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. You cannot get there by bus, only by hard work, risking and by not quite knowing what you are doing. What you will discover will be wonderful: Yourself.” – Alan Alda                   

 

 

 PROLOGUE

 

Christmas Day 2016

 

Snow had begun to daintily drop on the ledge of the outside window, making its grand gossamer entrance with pure elegance; one minute it was clear, the next, the outside world was white. I watched it pour from the sky, like icing sugar from a sifted cloud, and relished in its beauty from the inside of my toasty home.

Those around me were relishing a different toasty view, as they rubbed their hands together in front of the log-fire, or used the heat from their mulled wines to surge themselves with warmth. The clinking of glasses and happy chatter made me smile.

My gaze turned to the paintings on the wall, with their golden frames working like mirrors to reflect the log fire’s sparking cinders. Then, to the presents that lay underneath the towering pine tree scattered with shining metallic baubles. A rectangular-shaped gift enveloped in scarlet-sheen wrap caught my eye. It was not under the tree, but just to the back of it. I thought to myself, ‘how had I missed this one?’

On it was a label which I peered over to look at.

  ‘For your Renaissance’ it read.

The message reminded me of how once upon a time, a life like this was so far from any reality I could achieve.

It felt like forever ago to reflect on the woman whose past experiences reduced her to wondering her own worth. If partnerships could be personified, that former one was comparable to a rickety chair; no matter how many ways you tried to fix it, it would inevitably fall apart. But just imagine if that chair could talk. If it told you every so often that the reason it was broken was because of you. Those years with him were long gone, but they were never forgotten.

My reminiscence was soon broken by the chipper presence of those around me. I was offered a drink of eggnog and comical discussions about how some of our guests’ Christmas jumpers were embellished with temptingly squeezable shapes. As much as humour and shiny objects always were a welcome distraction, I’d taken it upon myself to sort out the Christmas karaoke. Besides, the guests seemed to be enjoying the festivities. So, I returned to fiddle with our sound system, whilst occasionally sipping my sweetly spiced drink in-between the gaps of my guesswork.

Those few intricate moments stitched themselves in my mind’s eye – a snapshot to remember. A life I wanted to capture forever. Everything about it was so beautiful, even down to the muffled-sounding electronics. Because I knew what they all stood for, why they were all there.

And I thought to myself, ‘So much has changed.’

 

CHAPTER 1

When Autumn Met Winter, 2014

 

There’s something rather therapeutic about cooking. You can whip up a little bit of your imagination in a bowl, ogle it as it crisps itself to golden perfection and immerse yourself in delight whilst you and those around you devour it like you’re tasting a piece of heaven. It’s an all-around sensual pleaser, and there was nothing I liked more than to make others happy.

“This Mexican-style chicken is amazing, babe!”

I hated being called “babe” though.

But, Tony Granger was my boyfriend, so I wasn’t going to correct him. However, after nearly two years of being together, you’d have thought that he’d have realised that by now.

“I’m glad you like it. It’s all homemade too!” I replied to him timidly.

He was still wearing his hat at the dinner table, some ridiculous cap that made him look about 10-years-old.

“I wish you could cook for me all the time, Layla.” Tony’s caring words were muttered through a mouth stuffed with chicken and he lightly sprayed herbs as he complimented my work. He ate so fast that I’m surprised he managed to verbalise anything – and who said men weren’t able to multi-task?

I smiled back at him and attempted to keep my internal thoughts away from my mind’s ‘exit’ door, in hope that they wouldn’t escape as tactless words.

It was Tony’s birthday, so after a pleasant August day spent at Brand’s Hatch to watch some speed-wagons drive into each other, and have him turn off my music so that he could enjoy listening to some daft hip-hop nonsense on the drive back (again, birthday wins, even in my own car), I felt obliged to be the discerning and kind girlfriend you see in all the movies. But, the truth of the matter was, I wasn’t as happy as I should’ve been. I wanted to be, I really did. But it had become so hard. I thought that those feelings were of my error, that maybe I was shallow for holding such mixed thoughts of negativity in my head. After all, he was okay today.

So instead, I attempted glee through forced smiles, in hope that somehow it’d magically make me feel the same inside, a bit like when you don a pair of shorts in early spring thinking it’ll encourage the sun to penetrate the cold.

He lay on the sofa in a heap, massaging his newly rotund belly, nursing the Mexican chicken digesting inside of him, and turned on the T.V. I cleared the table on my own, blew out the candles and began to wash up. Was I surprised he didn’t even offer to help as a gesture of thanks? Not really. Again though, I felt bad complaining on his birthday, so I carried on and sang in the kitchen to keep myself company.

“You know, if you had some singing lessons, you might sound better.” He bellowed from the lounge. I forgot I was dating Simon Cowell.

Through gritted teeth and tested patience, I resisted responding. But, I also ceased to sing. I supposed silence was golden.

That night I lay in bed wide awake whilst Tony spooned my foetal-positioned body. Thankfully he was too full for any other kind of ‘present’ and fell asleep fairly swiftly, so I was left to be at peace with my thoughts. I wondered who the man was that had his hands wrapped around me, breathing onto my neck. Once upon a time, I used to know him, now that man seemed to be a distant memory. The man I fell for had a zest for life, a passion for the unique and would endlessly surprise me with his spontaneity. Now there was only his shell, and whatever was inside it that I used to admire no longer seemed to exist. I missed the old Tony, the one that went to rock concerts with me and who swept me off to the theatres to appreciate magical plays. Or, the one that went for night drives with me to the hills and lay on a blanket watching the stars. I remembered us contemplating life whilst merrily eating oversized marshmallows like excitable children. Those memories made me smile.

I turned towards him thinking I’d see that same face that once glistened under the milky light of the moon, only to witness him lying there with his mouth semi-agape and a bit of drool cascading his bottom lip.

With that dream shattered, I went to retrieve a book for some late-night reading. I hoped that a mythical story of adventure and heroism would prove a worthy enough distraction that I’d eventually be able to fall asleep without my undesired thoughts bleating away.

 

CHAPTER 2

 

As the autumnal months drifted into more wintry weathers, organising outdoorsy escapades proved a challenge. But, I am a woman who likes a challenge, so I ploughed my way through the internet hoping that if I sought out a good outing in London then maybe it would trigger Tony’s interest, and to my amazement, I found something.

“You know he’s at the Apollo theatre on Thursday? We should go! Maybe we can finally do the Q&A about his last book with the mysterious ending?” My voice was slightly shaky with excitement as I found out that fantasy writer, Benjamin Turner, was at the London theatre doing a live reading and follow up on his previous books. Surprisingly, it was Tony who’d got me into him. Although Tony himself wasn’t an avid reader, he would always give something a chance if his friend Simon thought it was the bee’s knees, and when I found it by his bedside and read the first few pages, I couldn’t put it down.

“That sounds cool, but I was going to tinker with the car that evening. You know it’s the only day this week I can fit the coilovers since I’m with Kevin and Dad this weekend fishing.” He didn’t even sound bothered as he turned down my proposition. Benjamin wrote such fantastic, jaw-dropping, hard-hitting and mystifying reads that always left you wanting more, and I couldn’t imagine how Tony could pass up a chance like this just to “tinker with his car”.

As a rule, I wouldn’t have objected to a car needing to be fixed. But, every time I’d suggested something to him he’d put an object in the way, usually in the shape of his VW Polo. If there was such a thing as a Black-Market for cars, I was sure that was where he’d picked up that health hazard on wheels from. He was constantly fiddling with it. He’d spent the majority of his savings on it after he’d written off his previous Corsa by wrapping it around a tree. I still remember the evening that happened, and his slurring phone call to me in the midnight hours explaining how it wasn’t his fault. But instead of saying what I was thinking, I let it go. That seemed to be a running theme with me lately. I’d learnt that my thoughts on matters like that usually went down badly, so it was best to say nothing. Instead, I attempted to think of ways to bring us closer together, then maybe he’d be less angry and I’d be happier? Isn’t that what love is – to not give up when the going gets tough?

“Can the car not wait a little longer for its springs?” I asked meekly, a pleading smile drawn on my face as I peered over at him from the laptop.

“Hun, the car’s on its last legs with the cut springs. It’s dangerous. I can’t take anyone in it in that state, especially now the weather’s getting colder. If anything happens then I’ll only have myself to blame. It’s a priority. I’m sorry. Why don’t you go? See if Sara will go with you?” He exclaimed, whilst continuing to stare vacantly into his mobile from his sunken spot on the couch.

‘If you’d bought a decent car, I wouldn’t need to bother Sara’, I thought.

Sara Henshaw was my best friend, she’d been a part of my life ever since her dog managed to wrap its lead around my bicycle and I went flying like Supergirl over my handlebars. Albeit the landing was neither heroic nor graceful, Sara’s profuse apology and fun-loving personality made us friends for life. However, we couldn’t be more different. She hated books about fantasy (but adored the workings of erotic literature, especially the hunky boss meets sweetly angelic girl types) so I doubted she’d want to come with me.

“I just thought that it’d be nice if we could go since you like his books too. But I understand if the car needs work. I’ll talk to Sara.” I wasn’t going to talk to Sara.

One of the things that made me fall in love with Tony in our early years was his mutual love of all things fantasy and adventure. He had such a wild imagination in his younger days.

He told me that when he was a young boy he’d configured a world that only had his favourite people and things inside of it. Much like a Pixar movie, there were towers of syrupy waffles as big as skyscrapers and giant pterodactyl-type creatures that would fly around and observe the magical world. I know it sounds a little naïve and silly upon reflection, but it was this creative spirit that intrigued me. It was also the same creativity that got him interested in the same kind of reading material as me, and you have no idea how hard it was to find a guy like that in my world. I worked in car sales, and most of my colleagues would’ve rather talked boobs than books. I am not averse to boob chat, but I think if it’s the exclusive topic of conversation then my ears will cave in on themselves. The point was, it was this unique spirit that separated Tony from any other guy I’d met, he was special because he had a mutual love for something I did and we could explore that creative wondering together…at first anyway.

I looked at the ticket as it sat aimlessly in my internet basket.

“Buy me…” it beckoned from the screen. Obviously, it didn’t really do anything, because it was an inanimate bunch of cyber cells all floating about in a tech universe processing a mere image of a ticket to Benjamin Turner’s reading evening. Still, something inside me was yearning to go, even if that did mean going alone.

‘Enter checkout’ and I clicked to proceed.

 

CHAPTER 3

 

I recalled the perfect image of my work desk from the first day on the job. It was a crisp-pine office unit, with a matte-black telephone and a tidily organised business card stack that rested adjacent to my shiny name badge. With pride, I sat there gleaming at it and vowed that I would maintain its immaculate appearance, no matter what.

 

However, no one told me that the motor industry was full of papers, phones that incessantly rang off-the-hook and stupid computers that seldom loaded anything more than a backlog of spam emails. And much like an earthquake, the consequences of such bedlam would render all of those orderly dreams completely destroyed. Instead of being loved, my poor, perfect pine platform would be subjected to an earth-shattering clunk of fists, spilt coffee and many tired nights of drooling at a bright screen. But it wouldn’t just be my desk that would inevitably become a dishevelled mess – I would too.

My panicking that day was off the Richter. I had four cars going out, two appointments due and my daily tasks to-do list growing faster than a Kudzu plant. One of my cars due for handover hadn’t even been cleaned yet, and the invoiced document for another was missing a vital piece of paper to sort the tax out. So I sat at my desk, hands curling against my pounding head as I tried to work out how to solve the chaos that was my day job.

My hair before work looked pretty good, all nicely shaped into a stylishly elegant top-knot; the polished image of a woman ready to tackle the day ahead. But by 11am it looked as though I’d been rolling in sticky weeds. My desk didn’t look much better. But despite being rushed off my feet, that night was the eve of Benjamin’s reading and I didn’t want to miss it because of work pandemonium. However, I also didn’t want to leave work with unfinished call-backs or with hair like a bird’s nest. There just never seemed to be enough time in the day to do it all.

“Can someone answer that bloody phone?” My boss, Richard, yelled out from the office.

My colleagues were either busy pretending to be on the phone already or had mysteriously vanished. So it was up to me, as per, to take the millionth call of the day.

“Good morning, you’ve reached Layla in Sales, how can I help?” I answered with fake cheer. Service, they wanted to talk to service. ‘Why bother calling sales then?!’ I argued in my head before slamming the telephone back into the receiver. Honestly, I already had enough to do.

Milliseconds of silence went by before I heard my own mobile ping in the drawer. Looking around surreptitiously, I went to dig it out for a nose.

Tonight’s reading with Benjamin Turner at London’s Apollo theatre starts at 8pm. Doors open from 7.30pm. Drinks are available at the bar. We hope you enjoy the event.

A little smile managed to work its way onto my face. It was nice to have a reminder of something I was looking forward to when everything else felt so dire. I just hoped that I’d make it on time.

 

5.37pm, six tasks overdue, four due, my computer screen glared at me. Who’d have thought that something with no personality or ability to speak could be so infuriating? I was going to be late if I didn’t leave by quarter to six, so I worked on speedily prioritising calls to be done in 5 minutes and rescheduled the rest. Something inside of me pranged with guilt. I was usually so meticulous with my work ethic. But it was driving me mad and if I didn’t get out of there soon I wouldn’t just have bird’s nest hair to worry about, it was at risk of becoming a mirror image of Yoda’s own follicular temple (without the immense wisdom that dwelled inside it).

I hastily shut the computer down, picked up my handbag and deserted my desk quicker than The Flash could run to save a city. As I ran to my car in the dark November night, my phone pinged again. Rolling my eyes and jogging through the cold with my belongings, I waited until I got in the car to look at it. It was Tony.

“Hv a gd time <3” it read. He sounded like an idiot, even down to the emoji heart shape. I do hate text speak. ‘But,’ I supposed, ‘at least he remembered.’

“Thanks x” I wrote back quickly, my fingers still shaking from the prickly air. Despite the chill, I refused to succumb to a lazy reply of “Thx” just to make him feel better. Chucking the phone back in my handbag, I kick-started the engine and put the heating on full blast. A quick choice of fist-pumping string music and off I went, speeding down the carriageway, keeping my foot down hard on the throttle just to make sure I didn’t miss that train.

At 7.17pm, the train pulled in at London Victoria station. Thankfully the journey was long enough for me to sort out my melted face and hair before I terrified any onlookers. However, my city mapper app was beyond useless as I attempted to navigate my way to the venue, whilst having a balancing act with my bag, and wrestling with my ticket and sandwich.

Crust in mouth and ticket now in an available pocket, I arrived in good time and waited by the moonlit steps outside the doors. The queue was longer than I’d expected. I didn’t realise so many people would turn up to something like this. I guess I’d had the blinkers on for an exceptionally long time after hanging around people on a daily basis who showed no interest in reading anything, unless it was on the top-shelf of a newsagent’s, of course. Everyone looked different too. Some people had come dressed in the attire from Benjamin’s top-selling books, and others just came in their casuals. I suddenly felt inappropriately dressed still donning my work wear, but I hoped no one would judge that. At least I’d managed to tame my previously wild bush hair on the train (now that certainly would’ve got some odd looks.)

Once inside, I treated myself to a compulsory glass of Prosecco and went to find my seat, praying it was within good hearing distance of the stage.

The usher’s torchlight guided me to a cosy spot on the nearside stall with no immediate company. And as I settled myself into the red-velvet chair, it suddenly it dawned on me, ‘What does Benjamin even look like?’ For so long he’d just been a name at the bottom of my bedtime reading, now he was about to become a person. Well, he is a person, but metaphorically speaking.

“I wonder if he’s old and has a bedraggled beard like Gandalf?” I asked myself. Anyone who could write with such flair, creativity and depth could only be a man who’d gathered wisdom through years of experience.

I then looked upon the empty seat next to me, as if someone there would answer. But there was no one. It was a shame I’d had to go alone. As much as Tony sometimes annoyed me, if it weren’t for him then I wouldn’t have known of Benjamin’s work in the first place. I wanted to share this with him. I thought it would be special for us. But instead, he was jacking up his death-trap of a car and getting some stinky bait bucket ready for his fishing weekend with his Dad, when he could have been drinking Prosecco (okay, he’d probably have a lager) and wondering with me about one of our favourite novelists instead.

The stage lighting became more apparent and the audience began to hush, whilst others hurried to find a seat without causing too much disturbance or dropping their drink.

I took a sip of my Prosecco and stared in awe at the stage, wondering which direction he’d come from and what insight he’d give us to his most recent work. My handbag had his book ‘The Wrath of the Gods’ inside, ready for him to sign later just so I had something to remember the night by, considering the use of cameras was prohibited (fun sponges).

“Ladies and Gentleman, please take your seats. You are all about to come on a spellbound journey. Your mind will ascend to places it has never been before. The experience will feel ethereal, but you yourselves will not have to move a muscle. Allow yourselves to immerse in an evening of true mystery and fantasy with award-winning author, Benjamin Turner!” The commentator echoed around the room and so did the applause. Everyone was rather enthusiastic, but I thought that going along with it would be more fun than judging it. So I applauded carefully, trying carefully to not spill my drink (I couldn’t afford another glass with those London prices).

A man entered from the left of the stage. From the angle I was seated I could only see the back of his raven-coloured hair. He wore youthful clothes; a pair of dark jeans with a stonewash grey t-shirt and a leather jacket.

He waved and approached the stool in the centre of the stage where a book, glass of wine and a pen waited for him. Once seated, the cameraman managed to focus and projected him onto the big screen behind, for all of us who were sat too far away to see anything clearly.

“Well, that was all very dramatic, wasn’t it? Oh, a glass of vino! Just what the doctor ordered.’ He took a sip and raised it to the audience, “Good evening everyone! How are you all? My name’s Benjamin Turner, and tonight we’re going to have a lot of fun. This is a toast to all of you who have come tonight because, without you, there would be no stage, nor stool or wine waiting for me, so…thank you!”

Everyone in the audience cheered and got up on their feet. This guy had stage presence, and no wonder, he wasn’t anything like I’d imagined. Surprisingly for me, one of the first things I noticed about Benjamin was his eyes. They were like sapphire gemstones but they sparkled like diamonds, and the contrast with his dark hair and cream-coloured skin was unimaginably beautiful.

‘How could a young man like that carry the creative mind that wrote those books?’ I wondered, looking upon him with interest. Realising I’d been studying his looks more than listening to what he had to say, I swished back more Prosecco and settled restfully into my seat.

His velvety and yet jovial voice bounced around the room; so spiritedly as it travelled. And as he enlightened us all with new tales for his upcoming novels, I was fascinated.

 

CHAPTER 4

 

An entire audience sat captivated by Benjamin’s poetic storytelling. There was no denying that we’d all been taken on a journey of pure imagination that evening. I’d been engrossed by his presence, I’d clung to every word and I’d savoured every part of his literary adventures.

When it came to meeting the man himself though, I’d never expected to be nervous. To witness someone who could have only been a few years older than me with such confidence and command was truly awe-inspiring. I felt intense admiration for him. However, that feeling of admiration also left me feeling rather uneasy and I wasn’t used to that. It was the first time that I’d ever been thankful to be stuck in a queue.

“Benji!” The excitable woman in front of me screeched as she leapt up and squeezed a very shocked looking Benjamin Turner into a sudden bear hug. But once he’d registered what was happening, he soon returned the hug. I watched curiously as he wrapped his arms around her and smiled, with his tinge of shock subsiding into innocent joy.

“Nice to see you again, Naomi. How have you been keeping?” He said softly to the jittery female. She was obviously a fan he’d met before, as he seemed to fully expect her bouncy demeanour to be expressed with such theatrical animation.

I continued to wait my turn in the queue whilst taking a look at his book in my hand every so often. I tried to absorb how the name on the front of the cover was owned by the same young guy that was seated a mere few yards away in a leather jacket. My stomach gently rumbled and I clasped the front of my blouse in my hand with discomforted expression. It was then that I began to wonder if the combination of Prosecco and the takeaway cheese sandwich I’d eaten earlier had been a poor idea.

“Wow, was my book really that bad?” Dulcet tones suddenly tinkled at me.

Looking up from my clutch, I soon realised I was standing at the front of the queue and facing the man himself. Slightly shocked and unsure as to whether I’d caused offence, I quickly reacted with staccato-like trip.

“Oh God, no! Not at all, Mr Turner! I think…I think I ate something dodgy.” The words escaped my mouth before my brain could lasso them to a halt. They say that first impressions are everything, and apparently, it takes less than four seconds of meeting someone to figure out whether you can connect with them or not. Not that I desired a connection, per se, but by using those precious four seconds to insinuate that I was feeling gassy probably wasn’t the wisest of moves.

“Was it the cheese sandwich? I had some too. I was terrified that any repeating of it would reverberate around the theatre. Can you imagine?’ He joked, both of us nodding in recollection of the chunky butty, “Hey, maybe my next book should be called ‘Echo of the Cheddar’?” he added, gesturing an interstellar-like wave of wonder.

“I don’t know how well that would sell, but it’s definitely a gripping title!” I playfully responded. I was no longer aware of any rumblings in my stomach, only our giddy laughter. It was strange. I’d only been stood there for a short while and yet I felt at complete ease with him, which was a great relief after my previous feeling of nerves. For a brief minute, I’d even forgotten why I was there and who he was or what he did. Nevertheless, he was rather amusing. We continued to talk about an array of random subjects and I enjoyed relishing in his hilariously dry character. But as the seconds turned into minutes, I suddenly remembered what I’d actually been waiting in line for.

The queue grew impatient with noises of tuts and sighs, so I hurriedly placed his book down on the table ready for him to squiggle away. However, as he carefully signed the hardback’s sleeve, gaze closely fixed on getting his cursive autograph perfectly formed, he asked me something I didn’t anticipate.

“So, how long have you been reading my books? Only, I’ve not seen you before.”

I was slightly taken aback that he obviously knew his following so well. Simultaneously though, I felt a tad embarrassed and hoped that it wouldn’t make him think badly of me.

I bashfully laughed and replied, “Well, I’ve read a few books of yours over the last couple of years. But, this is the first time I’ve been able to attend a performance like this. It’s a little far out for me to come usually, you see.”

“Ah, I see.’ He said whilst passing me my signed book back gently, “Management sort out where I tour, sadly. But, if you go to the website and make a venue recommendation I’ll be sure to make it a priority to visit.”

Our eyes were locked for those few seconds and I wondered where I’d actually gone to whilst we’d exchanged our words. But despite my apparent fixation, he didn’t seem to mind.

“What’s your name? That way I’ll know who the venue notification is from.” He asked me, smiling innocently.

“Layla,’ I cooed, before shaking off the entranced look from my face and adding buoyantly, “But, I’ll probably nickname myself ‘Lady Cheese Sarnie’ as that seems far more fitting.”

We both shared a laugh at this rather silly notion. But I wasn’t complaining; it felt good to laugh.

As I began to make my way to the ascending stairwell exit I heard him part with, “Take care, Lady Cheese.” And I smiled once again. It was bizarre. For the first time in a very long time, I felt good, like I’d achieved something. Over the last couple of years, my main focus had been to maintain the life I had and the happiness of those within it. Before that, I used to happily indulge in “me-time”, feeling responsible for nothing and no one else but myself. I’d missed those times. Embracing an evening of mysticism and escapism from reality made me realise that. If the chance should come again, I wanted to go to another reading, or something similar. Sure the trains were a pain in the derriere and work was as demanding as a nuisance puppy, but I’d had a taste of life that I’d been missing – and I liked it.

 

I continued my journey back to the place that I called home. Looking out of the blackened window on the train, the world drifting by in shadow, I digested how I was feeling.

‘What exactly made me feel so happy? Was it just the chance to be out doing something different?’  I assumed it was the distraction from the everyday doldrums of life. But also, ‘Should I be concerned that I enjoyed being alone so much?’ I wasn’t sure. All I knew was that I wanted to do it again, with or without Tony.

                                         

CHAPTER 5

Tis the Season to Be…

 

Glistening lights and the smell of freshly cut pine trees surrounded me. Skyscraper towers of shimmering red boxes delicately wrapped with flamboyant golden silk bows and trumpet-lead music guided me through the decked mall. The beauty of Christmas was in full swing, and its atmosphere was so special I couldn’t help but smile.

I made my way past the Artisan market and managed to avoid temptation from the lightly skipping scent of bread and cheeses that danced around my nose. I had a list as long as my arm to complete. So many people had hinted to me that they wanted something special under the tree this year. I knew I had my festive work cut out for me, and that meant saving pennies.

Since the evening at the Apollo, I hadn’t been able to invest in myself as much as I’d have liked. Most of my time had been occupied with the seasonal rush at work (surprisingly, cars as Christmas presents had become a ‘thing’ that year), telling Sara to not succumb to buying a pet Terrapin whilst she was training for her new job in becoming a firefighter, and of course, making sure that Tony’s first love was being given optimum TLC (if it meant that we could spend time together, I thought that it was worth assisting him in ‘sticker-bombing’ his Polo…the poor petrol cap looked like it had been ejaculated over by a Japanese cartoon show). So, I told myself that once Christmas was out of the way then I’d try and get some focus back and start again. But, for now, it was about giving to others.

The shop assistants were dressed up as Elves. Each one wore a smile that tickled the sides of their rouge-coloured cheeks, happily offering me samples of mulled wine with green-gloved hands and jingling away as they moved around the store. So far, a sample drink and a spiced biscuit was the greatest indulgence I’d experienced that December.

Wandering around the centre, I piled myself high with bags filled with treats: a cuddly toy Terrapin and personalised photo album for Sara (the album to dedicate our lifetime of memories and the toy because I thought it would be easier for her to look after than the real thing), some novelty mugs for the office team (I thought it would be far more amusing for Richard to see us all drinking from cups that listed our jobs as so “Top Secret” that even we didn’t know what we were doing), and Tony…that was where I was stumped. Everyone else was so simple to buy for, and once upon a time, he would have been too.

It felt like it appeared out of nowhere, but I’d suddenly stumbled upon a Waterstones. I gazed into the inviting window stacked with literary treasures, and after a few seconds of contemplation, I roamed inside its welcoming doors.

It was unlikely that I’d find reading material for Tony now since most of his interests were driven around car fiddling and laughing at ridiculous online memes, but I wanted to try and find something. Something that would resurrect the old Tony, the one I fell in love with who adored all things fantasy.

‘Maybe a good adventure-like board game would stimulate his creative soul again?’ I pondered to myself. Anything but having to watch him mindlessly research ‘sport steering wheels’ and ‘steel brake pedals’, and stare at his tablet with gormless focus every night.

The deeper I ventured into the store, the more I heard a lot of hustle and bustle. Its busy noise echoed from the back end of the shop. A queue of excitable people all jumped about trying to get a piece of whatever action was going on back there. It was like watching women at a Black Friday sale event, all embracing a tug-of-war over the last reduced designer top. Curiosity took over me and I went over to investigate the craze.

As I approached, I saw a little gap in-between some oblivious shoppers and used my abundance of bags as a way to divide them for space. Making my way through I could see metallic blue hardbacks stacked into the shape of a star, all carefully supported by wooden stilts. The books shimmered in the light and you could just about make out the silver writing on the front.

  ‘The Bridge of Destiny’

Of course! It was Turner’s latest book, the one I’d heard him discuss at his reading last month. The frantic crowd that encircled the stand were all eager to grab one before the store ran out of copies. Benjamin’s work was obviously more popular than I’d realised.

Without a second’s further thought, I joined the bustling crowd that hovered around the shimmery hardbacks and went to take one for myself.

“Maybe Tony will like this?” I said, smiling at the prospect that I’d found a present that both of us could enjoy together.

Turning back around, I attempted to make my great escape from the sticky crowd, holding my breath as if shrinking my stomach would also make my shopping bags as small as Thumbelina.

Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of the cardboard cut-out that was Benjamin; his inanimate replica proudly standing by his work. It was funny, his eyes were the same colour as the cover of his latest book. I didn’t even know why I’d noticed that.

All of a sudden, the bird-sounding text alert from my phone stole me away from my procrastination.

I nd 2 run thru thingz 4 Sat x’

It was Tony casually reminding me, in his usual illegible texting fashion, about our pre-Christmas meal with his family. As if something like that could ever slip from my mind. His family weren’t the fondest of me. Nevertheless, I thought that holding a special evening to celebrate the festive season would bring us closer together.

Tony and I had been with each other for nearly two years and despite our ups and downs, we were still surviving. But ever since he told me that his father thought he’d be better off alone so that he could focus on his latest “dream” to become an engineer, I couldn’t help but feel snubbed. I waited for Tony to stand up for our relationship, but he insisted that it went without saying. His parents, however, didn’t seem to receive that telepathic message and slowly parted themselves from my company. Then whenever I asked Tony about why they felt this way towards me, he acted obliviously. It was as if everything they had said and done was completely normal. And as time went by, I started to wonder if I was overreacting to a non-existent situation, or if I really was unsupported in seeing the obvious truth. What with everything else on top of that, like his obsession with the car and his lack of interest in us as a couple, my mind was awash with puzzlement.

With things so unclear, and Christmas so close, I just wanted to try my utmost to ignore my concerns and endeavour some kind of peace. This would be the first time I’d seen them in six months, and in all honesty, I was dreading it.

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