Saturday, 1 March 2014

The Crystal Cage

I've just finished the copy edits of The Crystal Cage, the first novel I've written under my new writing name of Merryn Allingham. It's a book which has taken a long time to see the light of day but I always knew it would be published. It was just too good a story to lay hidden in a cupboard! This is the book blurb:

   Can a phone call change your world forever? It did Grace Latimer's.  Despite a smart home in Hampstead, a seemingly caring partner and a job that keeps her busy, she is dissatisfied. The house isn’t hers, she finds her work tedious and she is beginning to feel uncomfortably controlled by her partner. When Nick Heysham catapults into her life with a request that she help him complete a contract, she is ready to listen. What she doesn't know is that her search for influential architect, Lucas Royde, and his missing plans for the 1851 Great Exhibition, is set to uncover a Victorian tragedy of desire and disgrace. Nor that the quest will force her to face the truth of her own life.

And this is an extract from the beginning of the novel. I hope you'll want to read on!

Chapter  One

    I could never have guessed that one single phone call would change my life.

    The voice was a little too energetic for this early in the morning. ‘Hi there! Grace Latimer?'

     I held the receiver at a distance and took a gulp of strong coffee. 'Speaking.’
     'Hi! This is Nick Heysham. You probably don't remember me.’ No, I thought, I don't.

     'We met at the Papillon – the Gorski retrospective last month.'

     I searched my barely functioning brain for some remembrance of the name but none came.

     'I gatecrashed.'

     A vision of a startlingly yellow shirt and suede trousers swam into my mind. The trousers had clearly seen better days. He’d appeared not to belong to any of the noisy groups sipping their champagne and I’d suspected that he hadn't been invited. For one thing he’d been far more interested in the paintings than the people.
     'Yes, I remember you.’ I was cautious. 'How did you get my number?'

     'A little amateur sleuthing, no more.'
     It wouldn't be that difficult, I imagined. The staff at the gallery would be unsuspicious. Most of them existed in worlds of their own. They would have given my number to the Yorkshire Ripper if he'd called.
     'How can I help?' I tried to keep my voice polite while hoping that he'd called me in error. Unseen fingers had begun to pinch savagely at my temples and this was a conversation I didn’t need.

    There was a deep intake of breath at the other end of the line. 'It's like this… I've been asked to do a job, a research job, and I'm having real problems. I think you could sort it for me.’

    'And why would that be?'
   I could hear frost feathering my voice. A man who gate crashed Oliver's party, spoke to me for
   less than ten minutes and now had problems, was expecting me to ride to his rescue.

     'I remember you were a pretty impressive woman, amazing qualifications and so on. In historical research - and that's what I need.’ His voice sounded pleased that he'd explained everything to my satisfaction.
     The little patience I'd mustered was beginning to evaporate. 'You want me to do the research and you get paid for it?'
     'Not exactly.’ He sounded sheepish. 'It's hardly paying a living wage as it is. I can buy you a drink though.'
    'I can manage that for myself, Mr Heysham, but thank you for the kind thought.'

    'Nick. I thought you might be interested. It's the Great Exhibition.'
    'What about the Great Exhibition?' I knew I should put the phone down but I couldn't prevent a small surge of interest. If I’m honest, it was more than a small surge, since I’d written extensivelyon the Exhibition. Before I settled for an easier life, that is.

     'Missing plans,' he said hopefully. 'Lucas Royde?'
     Royde, I knew, had been the darling of Victorian architecture but I'd never before heard of a connection with the Great Exhibition.

     ‘Can you be more precise?’
     ‘Royde is supposed to have designed some kind of pavilion for the Exhibition, his very first commission, but I haven’t been able to track the plans down. I was hoping you might know something.’
     I didn’t but his words had got me thinking. Was there really anything in this or was I just willing there to be? I was debating with myself whether or not I should simply bid him a curt farewell when he seized on my silence.

     'Can we meet? There's a wine bar just round from the Papillon.'
     'I'm in Hampstead, not Hoxton.’ That was something I shouldn't have divulged. I could have him knocking on my door in the time it took to hop on a Northern line train.

      'Not today then. But tomorrow perhaps?'
      I think my sigh was audible but I didn’t much care. ‘I’m at the gallery tomorrow. I can give you a few minutes after work.’ A thumping headache and the faintest hint of a mystery were sufficient, it seemed, to ensure my surrender. My easy life must be more of a wasteland than I'd realised.
      ‘Early evening?’  

      'Six o'clock at the wine bar.’ I knew my brusqueness would make no impression and it didn’t.

      'Great. Thanks Grace - see you there.'

     'Dr Latimer...,' I began, but the phone went dead.
     I sat holding the receiver for some time. Nick Heysham might be perfectly harmless, just a tad eccentric and overly enthusiastic. On the other hand, he might be a clever manipulator and turn out to be the stalker from hell. I shouldn't have agreed to go. Perhaps I should run it by Oliver first. No, I wouldn't do that. Too much of my life was already run by Oliver. Not that I wasn’t grateful to him. He’d been immensely generous, kind too, but he was a man who liked to control events, control people. The call had come unscripted, out of nowhere, and that was its appeal. That and the smallest possibility of uncovering something new. The researcher in me had risen to the bait and a small voice had whispered that, even at this late stage, I might take the art world by storm. Despite Oliver’s reservations. And if nothing else, finding a missing piece of Victorian art might help to bolster my spirits. They were worryingly dismal these days and they shouldn’t be. For the first time in my life I had security and the love of a good man. That should be enough and yet somehow it wasn't.

     I turned back to the papers on my desk and the letter from Marigold Carmichael surfaced from the pile where I'd carefully hidden it two days ago. There was no escape from the latest in a long line of complaints from this most demanding of clients. It seemed that Mrs Carmichael had become newly enraged by my suggestion that the 'original features' of White Heather Cottage had been added some time in the 1950s. Naturally she was gathering expert opinion to disprove my theory. No wonder I felt apathy seeping into every crevice of my life. It wasn't just Marigold Carmichael and her ilk. What kind of a job was it researching the history of other people's houses, most of them vastly uninteresting except to their owners? No kind of job was the answer. Not at least for a woman facing the watershed of thirty. A stop-gap, a dead end, until the next foreign buying trip, the next gallery event, when for a short time I would blossom at the head of Professor Oliver Brooke’s entourage. I wasn’t sure how I’d walked into this life. I used to have plans, ambitious plans, but then Oliver had come along and somehow they had been put on hold. I hadn’t exactly protested: it had seemed simpler that way and after the turmoil, a simple life was what I’d craved. But simple had gradually metamorphosed into dreary and I had only myself to blame.  

     By ten minutes past six the following evening, Nick Heysham had not made an appearance. The bar was already humming, excited chatter almost drowning the wail from the stereo system. I was hoping that no-one from the Papillon would decide they needed a drink before they left for home but just in case I’d found a seat in one of the darker enclaves where I wouldn’t be spotted. I’d spent a frustrating afternoon at the gallery and had no wish to encounter any of Oliver’s colleagues again. I’m sure they saw me as an interloper whose visits merely interrupted their pleasant routines. I was still trying to tidy up paperwork from the Gorski show but getting their co-operation was painful and I’d managed to do almost nothing.
     I craned my neck around a gargantuan palm that obscured my view of the door, but there was still no sign of him. Five more minutes, I thought, then time is up and I can leave with a clear conscience. I should never have agreed to this meeting but my head had been hurting and I’d wanted to get him off the phone as quickly as possible. There was a more truthful reason though. I’d agreed because for an instant an implausible search had sent a ripple of colour through my life. And it was implausible: what possible excitement could the Great Exhibition provide? It was a terrain that had been so thoroughly sifted by generations of researchers that it was now barren. I gathered up my bag and took my coat from the nearby rack.

    ‘Sorry I'm late.’ Nick Heysham emerged from behind the palm, breathing heavily. 'I lost a wheel on the corner of Gosset Street.'
     ‘Lost a wheel! Your car lost its wheel?'
     'Bike. Remember I work for a pittance.'

     ‘What's happened to the bike?'
     ‘I abandoned it. It has no one to blame but itself. The brakes have been faulty for weeks but losing the wheel was the last straw.'

    His nonchalance in the face of potential death made me blink but he appeared wholly unperturbed. He was dressed in frayed jeans and a tee shirt that proclaimed Same Shirt, Different Day.  At least they looked clean. He glanced briefly at my empty glass and ordered two large glasses of white wine. I was about to quarrel with this high handed behaviour when I took a sip. It was surprisingly mellow. He might be short of money, very short by the look of him, but somewhere in the past he'd acquired a knowledge of good wine.
     ‘Thanks for coming.’
     He smiled engagingly and I found myself drawn into studying his face. He was eminently paintable. A strong jawline, dark hair and very blue eyes. He could have sat for a study of any Romantic poet, except for the expression. That was as far from soulful as you could get.

      ‘Thanks for coming,' he repeated and I realised just how hard I'd been staring. I flushed with annoyance.

     'I've only got half an hour so you better fill me in on details.’ I sounded ungracious.
     He grinned, rightly gauging my embarrassment. 'I take it that you’ve heard of Lucas Royde?'
     'Of course I've heard of him. He was probably the most influential of all Victorian architects.'

     ‘Right, well this is the thing. The Royde Society is putting on a celebration to mark the centenary of his death. They want to do a life size mock-up of one of his designs and use that as the venue.'
     'Where's the problem?'

     ‘Like I told you on the phone, they want to focus on Royde’s beginning rather than his final years. So the design has to be his earliest project - that's the problem.'
      ‘I can't see why. It must be well-documented. You said something about a pavilion for the Great Exhibition but I think you’ll find it was a chapel.'

     ‘Hey, you're pretty good.’ He smiled his approval. 'An Italianate chapel Royde designed for the Earl of Carlyon.'
     ‘A very individual take on an Italianate chapel,' I corrected him, recalling shreds of my past studies. 'His design got rave reviews and was copied any number of times over the next few years.'

    ‘Forgive me, Mr Heysham.'


    ‘Forgive me, Nick,' I steepled fingertips together in deliberation, 'but you seem to have only the haziest idea about Royde. Why would the Royde Society ask you to research his plans?'

     He looked a little self-conscious. 'My sister works in events management. They asked her to come up with the goods. And she asked me.'
     ‘Your sister? So this job...'

     'Pure nepotism, I'm afraid. But I need the money. And I am a freelance writer with plenty of research under my belt. Lucy thought I could manage it. I thought so, too, but it turns out that I can't. And that’s a shame because I've just about got through the pleasantly large cheque from Art Matters.'
      ‘What were you doing for Art Matters?' I found it difficult to imagine the man who sat opposite writing with any sensitivity on art.

      'I did a series of profiles on significant Eastern European artists. Gorski was the last.'
      ‘Hence the gatecrashing.'

      ‘Sorry about that.’ He didn't sound too sorry. 'I needed to see his paintings before they went on general display. It worked too. The magazine paid me well, but now their bounty is gone.’ His tone was mournful, but almost immediately he recovered his bounce. 'That's where you come in.'

      ‘Yes, I need to find those plans for the pavilion - if they exist.'
      ‘The V and A has the archive for the 1851 Exhibition and probably the Royde papers too.'
      ‘So I gathered from the net but not all of them, it seems. That's the difficulty. They have the stuff on the Carlyon chapel but nothing earlier.'

      'Are you certain there was anything earlier?'
      ‘The Society is convinced there was. They reckon Royde spent a couple of years in Italy, Lombardy I think it was then, coming back to England around 1850 and then getting involved in some way with the Great Exhibition. They imagine he was engaged to design one of the hundreds of display spaces. But I can't find a trace.'

      ‘So what do you want from me?'
      ‘Could you discover whether there's anything earlier than 1852? You've probably got a lot more sources available than I can tap into.'

      He exuded a confidence I didn't feel. I sipped my wine slowly while I thought it over. Did I really want to get involved? All I could do was conduct the same search in which Nick had already failed. It was unlikely to yield a different result, although it was possible a specialist's eye might alight on something he'd missed. I knew I was probably fooling myself but even so I couldn’t prevent a slight frisson of anticipation.
      ‘I don't have other sources as you call them but I'm willing to look through the papers at the V and A. There may be something you've overlooked, although it's doubtful.'

      His face smiled pure pleasure. 'You're a pal,' he said breezily. 'And if you do come up with anything, I'll stand you another drink.'
     ‘That goes without saying,' and for the first time I allowed myself to smile back at him. I could see that he was momentarily stunned by the difference. I've been told that I look ten years younger when I smile and a great deal more fun. And my eyes which often seem misty and indeterminate become an electrifying green. I watched his stupefaction with some amusement.

      ‘How long have you been a freelance writer?' It was time to lighten the atmosphere.
      ‘Too long!' 

      My eyebrows must have risen and his voice became defensive. 'Four years, may be a bit more. I've never had what you'd call a 'proper' job.'
      ‘Nor me,' I confessed.

      ‘How come? You look pretty well set-up.'
      ‘Looks can be deceptive. I spent years as a student and now I fritter my time away investigating the history, if there is any, behind people's houses. It's mostly a vanity project for them - and for me, I guess.'

      But what about the gallery? Don't you work there?'
     ‘Odds and ends when I'm needed. My main role is hostess at events like the Gorski. Oliver Brooke owns and runs the gallery. Actually he runs three galleries, the one here in London, one in Bristol and one he's just opened in Newcastle.'

      ‘Busy man.'
      'Successful man.'

      'So why, if it's not an indelicate question, aren't you involved in running any of these galleries multiplying across the face of England?'
     I took my time to answer. 'Oliver prefers me to take a background role. I manage my own small business but I need to be on hand to accompany him on buying trips or trade fairs, new exhibitions that kind of thing.'

     Nick finished his wine before he said flatly, 'He's your partner.’
     'Yes, he's my partner.’ My response didn't sound hugely enthusiastic even to my ears and he was encouraged to probe.

     'How did you meet?' 
      'Oliver visited my uni when I was an undergraduate. He gave a lecture on gallery management. I got talking to him afterwards and the upshot was that he took me on for work experience at the Papillon during the summer. He even paid me.'

      'He is very generous.’ I was suddenly serious.’ He funded me through my postgraduate studies. I couldn't have made it without him.'

      I wished I hadn't told him that. He was a stranger and here I was spilling personal information all over the place. I tried to change the subject.
     ‘Have you had much published, apart from the series you mentioned?'

      'Bits and pieces. It doesn't amount to much.’
      I must have frowned because his protest was instant. 'You don't know how difficult it is to get published.'

       'That's where you're wrong. I know very well. You must have to take on other jobs - unless you have a wealthy family supporting you.'
       'Wealthy family, yes. Supporting me, no. My father washed his hands of me when I refused to follow him into law.’

       'And your sister? She hasn't followed in his footsteps either it seems.’
      'Lucy? No. But that's OK with Dad because she's a girl, would you believe. He set her up in business - events management. Did I mention that?'

       I nodded.
       'I don't think he ever expected to see a penny of his money back but amazingly she's turned out to be businesswoman of the decade. My brother is the most successful barrister in his chambers, which leaves me as the family failure.’

        'Hardly. Art Matters is a prestigious magazine. If they thought you were good enough to publish, you should get other offers.'
     'That's what I thought but it hasn't happened. I've been hanging around on the off chance that some eager editor will get in touch - I've written a corker on art fraud in Romania - but no-one's interested. So it’s back to waiting tables very soon.'

      'And that's presumably why you contacted me.’
      'I've worked really hard on the papers from the Exhibition,' he was assuring me. 'It's not that I want you to do my work.'

      'I allowed myself a slight smile since that was precisely what I did think. In response he leaned across the table, his body tense. 'I figured that if you looked through the stuff at the V and A and came to the same conclusion, then I'd be justified in telling the Royde Society that earlier plans simply don't exist.'
      'And you can happily advise them to use the Carlyon chapel for their nostalgia fest, meanwhile collecting your fee en route.' I finished for him.

      'If they do pay out when they get the news - I'm not convinced - these cultural societies are often tightwads. Anyway, if they do pay, I'll stand you dinner.'
      'My reward is rising all the time. How can I refuse?' It was a very slight mystery but any mystery was an event in my present limbo and there was always a chance that I might strike gold. ‘I’ll have a look through the V and A archive once I've settled Mrs Carmichael,' I found myself saying.

      'Who's she?'
      'Don't ask. She is my current burden, sorry client. I'll give you a ring when I know more.'

      He got up to go, pulling down the tee shirt that had ridden up over what was a neatly compact body.

       'Thanks Grace, you're about to save a dying man,' and started off at a sprint.
       'Hadn't you better leave me your number? Do you have a card?'
       'Please. Do I have a card?!'

       He grabbed the menu and looked hopefully around for a pen, as if one might materialise out of the air.
       'Here.’ I handed him my silver ballpoint and he scribbled on the menu.

       'And I'll have it back.’ He was halfway to the door again.
       'Sorry but there's a pawnbroker around the corner,' he joked and handed me back the pen.
       Perhaps not such a joke. Nick Heysham appeared to live on the edge of respectability. Oliver would not approve. He would see him as a liability and wonder why I'd taken it into my head to befriend him. But when I broached the subject over dinner that evening, he seemed relaxed about the idea of my undertaking research for someone I hardly knew and without any likely recompense. His mind was on other things.

       'I've an idea to move the Gorski up to Newcastle next month.’ He absently stroked the small, spiky beard he'd managed to grow in recent weeks. 'The exhibition worked brilliantly at the Papillon and we did a good deal of extra business from it.’
       'Do you think Gorski is well-known enough in Newcastle?' 
       'It was a foolish thing to say. Oliver is very strong on the notion of 'art for the people'. But at the same time he’s good at spotting the next big thing, which is why he lives in a large house in Hampstead and drives a top of the range Mercedes.

       'Don't be snobbish, darling. The art world there is buzzing. Think of the Baltic, the Laing, the Shipley.'

       I thought about them while he began to clear the table.
       'We might take a trip together.'
       'To Newcastle?'

       'Yes, of course to Newcastle,' he sounded a trifle impatient at my obtuseness. 'If the exhibition is as successful as I expect, we must celebrate.'
       He was loading the dishwasher in a distracted fashion, imperilling some very expensive china. He always performed household chores in a kind of disassociated way, as if they were being done by someone else. He straightened up with the last rattle of cutlery and allowed a smile to lighten his customarily austere expression.

      'We could travel on from Newcastle. We haven't had a real holiday for a long time and we'd enjoy a few days in the Highlands.'
      I tried to smile back convincingly but wondered why Oliver always talked about “we”. He made the decisions and I went along with them. It was feeble but I wasn’t going to feel ashamed at taking the easy road: the past was still written large in my mind. And as it looked as though I was shortly to be hoisted northwards, I'd better get on with Nick's research as soon as possible. I knew for a fact that there were volumes of papers involved in the Great Exhibition and they would all need to be checked. Once Mrs Carmichael was placated. And she would be. Tomorrow.

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