I recently had cause to visit Leeds Civic Hall, the seat of local government in a major city in the north of England. Such places used to be my old hunting grounds when I worked in the public sector and I’m familiar with the set-up. Large open plan offices, the space divided by banks of filing cabinets, their exact positions carefully measured. Each department is entitled to only so much space, to encroach further would incite the most dire censure. Believe me, I know.
It’s been six years now since this sort of place was my turf but not much has changed. Polite clerks offer coffee and invite me to wait until the Deputy Council Leader is ready to see me. I clutch my plastic cup and I watch the earnest admin staff, their noses glued to their computer screens as they conduct the day to day business of one of the UK’s core cities. Not much is said, people come and go and most look rather younger than I remember. They all seem content enough but my soul shrivels a little at the sameness of it all.
I used to work in just such a place. I was a senior manager so I had my own office, but the walls were glass. It was nice enough, I suppose, but the day they offered me the chance to take voluntary redundancy I am still shocked by the speed with which I grasped that opportunity. I’d spent the better part of thirty-five years avoiding being laid off (always a possibility in the fragile world of grant funding and temporary contracts), but suddenly, out of nowhere, I found myself leaping forward with cries of ‘Geronimo! Let me be first...’
So first I was. My boss must have been relieved, so much so that he agreed to an enhanced package just to see the back of me. I walked out a few days later the proud owner of a year’s salary, an ongoing contract to continue to do work for them that they couldn’t manage without me (yes, I know…), and my office furniture since I intended to set up as an independent something or other and would need a desk.
My desk and the rest of my stuff now grace a conservatory in my home, the room I like to call my office though I always prefer to work at the kitchen table.
I have no idea at all what prompted me to walk away from my job. I never saw it coming, wasn’t especially discontent that I knew of. I hadn’t planned to leave, but when the chance arose I was instantly convinced it was right for me and I couldn’t get out fast enough. And I will always be grateful that I did.
I never looked back. Times were somewhat lean for a while, and at first I wasn’t writing. I managed to scrape together what I liked to think of as a living, and even though I had less money I had my freedom at last and now I knew just how vital that was to me. I worked at home, could come and go as I pleased, no boss, no one to tell me what to do. It was sheer bliss.
I have always worked a lot harder, much longer hours, since I gave up paid employment but it never seems like it. I’m doing what I want, what I choose to do, when I choose.
It was around the end of 2011 that I found I had a fair bit of unused time on my hands. I was between contracts, nothing much to do. I read Fifty Shades on holiday that year … and the rest is history. I was inspired to write something of my own, a story I had swirling around in my head. I guess I’ll always be grateful to E.L. James as well for getting me started.
As Christmas got closer I wasn’t sure if I would ever finish my first novel. The Dark Side was growing to be a monster, 100 thousand words and still not finished. Was it any good? Would anyone but me ever read it?
These doubts were set aside when an opportunity came up for another new contract, good work, well paid but it would consume all my time for the next few months. Not a problem, I could put my novel down for a while, finish it later. Sometime, probably…
I was disappointed not to land that contract, but at least it meant I had no excuse not to finish my book. I set myself the target of completing the first draft by Christmas, and stayed up late on Christmas Eve to achieve just that. I typed the final words at 11.47pm. So I’m grateful, too, to the rival consultant who pipped me at the post for that contract. If they’d been a bit off their game that day who knows if I would ever have picked up Nathan and Eva’s story again?
So now, six years on from that incredible day when I decided to throw caution to the wind, I now spend about half my time writing. I do other work too, and make a decent living. But it’s not just about the money. I love my life. I don’t commute any more. I get up late if I want to, turn down jobs I don’t fancy, go out to lunch with friends if the opportunity arises and spend the whole afternoon chatting if the conversation flows. I usually work in the evenings, often at weekends and that suits me just fine.
My old boss died about a year ago, just weeks into his retirement. I went to his funeral which turned out to be a sort of reunion of people I’d known and worked with for perhaps the last twenty years. Some, like me, had jumped ship and reinvented themselves. Not that many, though. Some had been made to walk the plank, so to speak, and were both bitter and resentful at the way life had treated them. Others, the ones I felt most grateful not to be among, continued to cling to the wreckage of their old jobs, their roles now grotesquely mutilated after years of austerity and cuts, and bearing little resemblance to the job they were originally hired to do. Their careers and aspirations lay in tatters, a decent pension just a memory, but most remained glad to still be in work at all.
Shit, that could so easily have been me. I’m eternally grateful that it isn’t.
Here's a snippet from The Dark Side. The publisher solved the problem of the word count (it ended up at around 160k) by splitting the story into a trilogy. This is taken from the first book, Darkening, which is on sale in WH Smith's, a major retailer in the UK who by coincidence have a branch just down the road from Leeds Civic Hall.
“Miss Byrne, Eva… I want you to come.” He stops, deliberately waiting for the range of meanings of that phrase to sink in, for me to react. Obligingly, I do. Despite my nervousness and confusion, it seems my body is quite certain of its ground, constantly ready to respond. My nipples are already standing at attention.
He glances down in approval, his smile broadening, as if to dispel any remaining doubt as to whether he’s noticed my response to him, he drops his hand from my face and he gently trails the backs of his fingers across first my right nipple, then the left. There’s nothing subtle in that gesture, definitely not just something conjured up by my overactive imagination. My wishful thinking, even…
“Sweet,” he murmurs. “I love it when you do that.” Looking back at my face but still stroking the underside of my breast, he returns to the fray. “Come with me.”
Yes, okay, I think I might come right here in this chair, in Mrs. Richardson’s kitchen, if you carry on touching me like that… Please…
“We’ll have a good time—a nice meal, a few drinks. I might get a rosette or two and a write up by RIBA for their next review of city living—all good for business. Then we can stay over in Leeds and come back here on Friday.”
Stay over in Leeds? Just me and him and my tingling, aching, tiny little breasts that are going to shrivel and disappear altogether if he stops that gentle grazing across my nipples…?
“What about Rosie’s lessons?” Feeble excuse. Already, I am starting to believe I might be going on this mad scheme, it seems. And I really ought to think about breathing again sometime very soon.
With a wrenching sense of disappointment and loss I feel his hand slide away, back down toward my waist, but I take this opportunity to gulp in a lungful of welcome oxygen. Then his fingers are on my bare stomach as he slips his hand under my T-shirt, starts to slide it back up, toward my breasts. Oh God! Is he really going to…? I can’t let him…
He is still talking, his voice low, soft as he leans in close to drop the words straight into my ear. “Rosie will be fine. You can give her extra lessons to make up. Or not. I don’t mind. Have a day off, Eva. Come with me. Please?”
He has reached my breasts again, bare and braless as usual—thank God—and his fingers are lightly feathering across my swollen nipples, first one then the other. He is hardly touching me at all, but I have never felt anything so…intense in my life. Gently, he takes my right nipple between his thumb and index finger, rolls and squeezes very lightly, with hardly any pressure at all, but the new sensation is enough to make me arch my back sharply and gasp. As I thrust my breasts forward into his hands, he cups the right one and massages it, first softly, then more firmly as I start to squirm against his hand, moving in for his touch.
Darkening, book 1 in The Dark Side trilogy