Lecturer Sophie Rivers’ writing course on the outskirts of Birmingham is far from an exotic holiday. Still, creative inspiration might strike. But then, knowing Sophie’s luck, so might a murderer…
She can hardly believe it when, soon after the course begins, a fellow student is found dead in her room. Sophie hadn’t liked glamorous nymphomaniac Nyree much, but she hadn’t deserved to die. And when a course tutor goes missing, it’s clear that one of Sophie’s fellow students might be interested in death as a reality rather than a literary concept.
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Dying to Write
A Sophie Rivers Mystery
By Judith Cutler
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 1996 Judith Cutler
All rights reserved.
August rain dripping down my neck.
A rat regarding me from the reception desk.
And a man confessing to murder.
Anyone else winning a raffle might have picked up a snappy car. A trip to Disneyland – stateside or in France. Even a bottle of whisky. What do I win? A course for would-be writers. In Birmingham.
Birmingham's trying to reclaim its heritage. Where it merges with the Black Country, there's a large tangle of grass and heathland. They describe it euphemistically as a Country Park.
And, sure enough, it comes complete with a country house.
Eyre House is not a stately home. It may once have been a gentleman's residence. Now the eighteenth-century stuccoed house is attached to a sixties block: concrete, blue panels and aluminium-framed windows.
I found the reception desk in the umbilical corridor connecting the two. Apart from the door I'd come through, there were three others, one in each wall. From the half-open one on my right came two voices raised in anger.
'I told you I put paraquat in Phil's tea,' a man shouted. 'And you should have been teaching the bloody course anyway – after you were short-listed –'
'No!' came a woman's voice.
The rat, honey-coloured with brown eyes, shuffled to the end of its cage and pricked its left ear. I pricked my right.
'So you have to, Kate!' the man continued.
It occurred to me that I ought to announce my presence, though it would clearly be much more interesting not to. I coughed, mildly. In response, the door slammed, reducing the voices to no more than a murmur.
The door on the left opened. A huge typewriter appeared, Remington circa 1930, at a guess. It settled on the desk, edging the rat's cage perilously close to the edge.
'Hello,' said a diminutive Asian woman emerging from under the Remington. 'I'm Shazia. I'm the administrator here.'
'Hello. I'm Sophie. Sophie Rivers.'
Shazia picked up a pencil and reached for a typed list. The door to my right opened.
'Shazia!' It was a man's voice.
'Excuse me.' She disappeared in his direction, punctiliously closing the door behind her.
The rat shrugged its shoulders and set about exploring its cage. I looked round the reception area. Neither of us would be occupied for very long.
The rat, its tour completed, embarked on a minute examination of the fur at the base of its spine.
The door to our right opened again. Shazia's voice – and the other woman's. The rat looked pleased and stood up, pressing a stomach of comfortable proportions against the bars. I put out a tentative finger to tickle it. Then Shazia reappeared, with a woman in her forties. She had a rather lived-in face. She wore the sort of suit you can dress down with a T-shirt or up with a silk blouse. At the moment she was playing safe with Marks and Sparks poly-cotton.
'Oh, you don't mind Sidney? Thank goodness! I thought people might be afraid of him.' She put down the sheaf of papers she was carrying and chirruped at him. He abandoned my finger for hers.
'I'm Kate,' she said at last, withdrawing her hand from Sidney and offering it to me. 'Kate Freeman. I seem to be one of the course tutors.'
'Sophie Rivers,' I said, rather shyly for me. I'd not met a real writer before.
A man now emerged. She half-turned to smile at him. 'And this is Matt Purvis, the other tutor.'
Matt smiled, an open, friendly smile. Like Kate, he was in his forties and wore depressingly normal clothes: jeans and a heavy sweater. I suppose I'd hoped for eccentricity in the form of bare feet and baggy cords. At least he sported a beard, but it was as neatly trimmed as his hair.
'Kate, I'll shift your cases while you get that list retyped,' he said. 'Which room, Shazia?'
'Number twelve. On the ground floor.'
Matt pushed through the door on the left, into the newer part of the building. He reappeared a minute later, a key between his teeth, carrying a suitcase and what appeared to be a state-of-the-art computer notepad. 'Another couple of bags,' he grunted, dropping the keys neatly into Shazia's outstretched hands. 'Bloody hell, Kate, never heard of minimalism?'
'OK, I'll get them,' said Shazia.
Matt disappeared through the door on the right.
'Bloody French farce,' he muttered, as all the doors sighed. Kate meanwhile was busy with the list.
'There: will they be able to tell I was originally supposed to be a student?'
I peered at her paper. Two undeniable blobs of Tipp-Ex.
'I'm afraid they might,' I said hesitantly. 'And you know what people are like if they think they're not getting the real McCoy.'
'Oh, dear. And, well, I helped train people when I was in Customs and Excise but I've never actually taught before –'
'Maybe we'd better keep quiet about that. Here – there's a couple of cars coming up the drive. Let's retype that list before anyone else arrives.'
Altruism doesn't pay. That's what my thirty-five years should have taught me. If I hadn't been sorting out the Remington's temperament, I'd have bagged the nice end room with the window overlooking what could one day become a garden again. As it was, I found myself relegated to one in the row of identical hutches whose only view was the kitchen bins. The decor was no more inspiring than the view. It didn't take me long to settle in – I travel more lightly than Kate. I'd go and confront my destiny in the form of my fellow students.
Shazia had mentioned tea or coffee. That meant retracing my steps across the gusty hall and into the old building. I found the lounge without difficulty, and strapped on a convivial smile. But even that minor effort was in vain. There was no sign of any of the people who'd arrived while I was lurking behind the reception desk. Except one: a woman a good ten inches taller than me. She was dressed – most unsuitably for the weather, which I braved in a winter-weight tracksuit – in a skirt shorter than you could buy anywhere in Birmingham. When she heard me come in, she turned from the window. She turned back again. The clear implication was that even the sodden lawn was more interesting.
I shrugged and padded over to the tea urn. It rumbled with the same menace as one we'd had at the college I work at. Periodically it would shudder and breathe steam. We'd christened ours Vesuvius. You'd expect something more literary in a place like this.
'Have you had some tea?' I inquired, squirting water into a mug. 'Or did the Balrog defeat you?'
'Tea rots your teeth, darling.' She sounded ineffably bored. Then she put on her party manners. 'What did you call that thing?'
'The Balrog. As in Lord of the Rings.'
'Bloody Wagner or something?'
'No. A book by –'
'Oh. A book.' She turned back to the window.
Her posture was impeccable, despite the high heels which the course prospectus had expressly forbidden, in order to protect the wooden floors in this part of the building. Her legs, evenly tanned, stretched up to her waist. Mine merely reach my bottom. To my provincial taste, the gold anklet made her look a little on the cheap side.
Clearly she did not want to talk about the original oak panelling or the badly foxed prints on the walls.
Sipping the surprisingly good Assam, I slipped off my shoes to toast my toes at the fire some kind soul had lit.
'What lovely feet!' said a Birmingham accent. And a hand grabbed one of them.
I nearly fell into the fire.
'I'm sorry. I didn't mean – oh, please ...' Crouching, the speaker dabbed at the tea I'd slopped on to the hearth. I attended to that on my thighs.
All I could see of him was one of those Oxfam sweatshirts with a giant frog on the back. There was one on the front, too, as I saw when he eventually stood up. I was to wish he'd chosen another design. Whenever I thought of him after that, I saw a frog. No, a toad. His pale bulgy eyes and rather wide mouth didn't help. But he hadn't any warts or anything. Really he was quite a normal-looking man. Young – well, mid-thirties. Broadly built, but not heavy. Rather pale skin, and mousy hair which was quite distinctly thinning. Nothing remarkable. Except for his sweatshirt and the way he was clasping my right foot.
'Quite lovely. Lovely straight toes. No corns. Lovely!'
Not surprisingly, the woman at the window turned. She held out one of hers. Not for attention. Just worship.
I thought the colour she'd painted her toenails was common. But Toad leaped across the room to kneel before her, resting her foot on his knee and removing her strappy sandal.
'Look at that arch,' he breathed. 'The line of that arch!'
But he came back to me. I knew he would. There he was, clutching a custard cream and smiling at me.
'You see,' he was saying. 'I always loved feet. I wanted to be a chiropodist. But I couldn't pass the A levels. Couldn't even get on the course.'
The trouble is, I always ask sensible questions. 'Couldn't you do an access course at a further education college?'
What if he evinced a sudden desire to try William Murdock College? And ended up in my English class? But I needn't have worried.
'Oh, no. I'd want to do it properly. Real exams.'
Ah. That sort of person. The sort who wouldn't do any of the writing exercises the tutors here might set because he wanted to write War and Peace straight away.
By now there were plenty of other people dunking their teabags. Shazia was busy distributing name badges. 'Just put your first names on – nothing formal.'
'Christian names,' said a voice with too much emphasis. I watched him write, ostentatiously, Mr Gimson. I eyed him: what kind of man insists on using his title? This one came with a beautifully cut sports jacket and immaculate brogues it would take Toad several minutes to unlace. And I thought Mr Gimson might expect a little adulation: although he was short, he tried to look down his nose at everyone. Literally and metaphorically. I'd make a point of pouring hot water on his fingers if he came near the urn.
Matt came and stood my me and cleared his throat gently. No one took any notice. He eyed me. 'How d' you do it?'
Sometimes I think they must brand teachers' foreheads.
'Call an unruly mob like this to order?' I said. 'Oh, cough portentously and waggle some papers. That usually works – eventually.'
Red Toenails – Nyree, according to her badge – lounged possessively over to a sofa. All eyes turned to her.
Matt coughed again, more dramatically this time. It had the desired effect.
'Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Eyre House. We want you to have as free and productive time as possible while you're here, but we want to say one or two things that will make the running of the course easier for everyone.
'First may I say how fortunate we are to have Kate Freeman with us. Philip Doyle has had to drop out –'
A general sigh.
'Because he's been rushed to hospital. It's quite serious, I'm afraid.'
It would be, wouldn't it? Isn't paraquat irreversible? No. He'd been joking, hadn't he?
'So Kate has kindly agreed to take his place. You'll recall that Kate was short-listed for the Whitbread last year, and you may have heard her plays or stories on the radio. And there's a television series coming up in the new year – right, Kate?'
Kate blushed in acknowledgement.
Then she started her part of the spiel: 'We've been asked to remind you of just a couple of rules. No smoking and no high heels in the old part of the house. Sorry.'
Matt pulled a face and ritualistically tapped out his pipe. 'Food,' he continued, 'is up to you. Shazia's prepared tonight's supper –'
'Bloody curry, I dare say,' muttered Mr Gimson.
Matt overrode him: 'But for the rest of the week you good people will take turns cooking the evening meal for the rest of us. Perhaps you'd divide yourselves into teams during supper.'
'I assume we're allowed breakfast and lunch?' Gimson again.
'Only if you forage for them,' Matt replied. 'Then you can organise your days to suit yourselves. Your time is your own; we only claim it for individual tutorials and for group activities. The first will be after supper, which is now ready. What writers in a more gracious age might have called a cold collation, I believe.'
And he gestured us into the dining room.
The beautifully proportioned room still tried hard to be elegant. Unfortunately much of the decorative plasterwork was blurred by layer upon layer of paint; it would take hours of patience to restore it. Rather sadder, however, because someone had obviously tried so hard to get it right, was the wallpaper, which aspired desperately if anachronistically to Regency stripes and ended up looking like something from a bar parlour or a cheap restaurant. Crimson flock does, especially if decorated with a gold motif and dabs of food.
No one wanted to lead the stampede to the table. Gimson, however, got things moving, taking Kate's elbow, the better to establish her – and himself – at the head of the table. He would clearly have liked Nyree on his other side, but she had already claimed Matt, down at the far end. I hung back because I wanted to put space between me and Toad: there must be more interesting people. Since a little male pulchritude never comes amiss, I fell in beside a young Afro-Caribbean man called Courtney, who grinned at me with a pleasant degree of malice as a loud young woman told anyone willing to listen that she was not here to write but to see how writers worked, since Daddy had got her a job in publishing. I did not intend to become her research material. We sat opposite an elderly man. He had also put his surname on his label: Edward Woodhouse. But there was neither white soup nor Emma in prospect.
Next to him sat a trio of greyish ladies, who had attempted to reinforce summer polyester with winter woollies – and indeed, who could blame them?
'Those greens with those beige stripes!' whispered Courtney. 'That old dear looks like a parsnip!'
But then whoever it was on his other side claimed his attention, and I turned to my other neighbour, a young man with John Lennon glasses. I tried to draw him out. I like students and enjoy their company. This one had a premature scholarly stoop. Alas, I shocked him back into catatonia when I confessed that I did not read science fiction. Beyond him were a couple of young girls, one giggling, one morose behind a brace.
Courtney nudged me. 'If Kate and Matt can make this lot work together, they'll be earning their corn and no mistake.'
We started our first exercises after supper. We were in the lounge again, with all the chairs pushed back against the wall, and we were to work in pairs. We had to stare into our partner's eyes and learn to act in concert with him or her. Whatever our partner did with his hands, we were supposed to do with ours. It was inconceivable that Nyree would want to look into my eyes, and I'd no intention of gazing into Toad's. Mr Gimson had stomped off for a smoke. For a while I mirrored Mr Woodhouse, but not very successfully. Then I linked up with Courtney.
They gazed dutifully, his dark-brown eyes and my blue ones. And our hands tracked one another obediently. Then Courtney spoiled it.
'I'm glad I got you again,' he said. 'You're nice and safe.'
'Gee, thanks. And middle-aged, too, I suppose.' I'm always having this problem with my students – they think you're way past it by the time you're thirty.
'I didn't say that. You're younger than Nyree, I should think. But at least your hands – I mean, what's a guy s'posed to do when a woman – I mean ...'
I shook my head: what had she done?
He dropped his voice to a confidential whisper. 'Her hand, Sophie. She had her hand straight on my you-know-what. I mean!' For a second his voice was camp: 'On to a bit of a loser with me, though.'
We grinned at each other. It was nice to have a potential ally.
Then we had to change partners. Soon I was staring into Matt Purvis's eyes. They were grey, within a tangle of crow's-feet. Our hands circled in parallel swirls and dips. We were very good. Until he broke all the rules and looked away.
'Jesus!' he said. He nodded at Mr Gimson's crotch.
Nyree must have groped him, too. Or perhaps he just wished she had.
'I know there's a novel in me,' someone was saying earnestly. The girl with the brace, I think.
Excerpted from Dying to Write by Judith Cutler. Copyright © 1996 Judith Cutler. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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