Eleven seemingly unconnected characters are captured at points in their everyday lives when they are plagued by uncertainty, nostalgia, insecurity and, above all, a persistent longing for a different life. As these characters' lives begin to touch, often without their knowledge, far-reaching consequences prevail, leading some ultimately to commit murder. Yet - even after this potent search for better, more fulfilling lives - has each person ended up where they really want to be?
|Publisher:||Legend Times Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.12(w) x 7.80(h) x (d)|
About the Author
Rebecca Strong studied French and Spanish at University College London before becoming an active member of the Society of Young Publishers, starting by writing articles for its magazine, InPrint, and subsequently editing the magazine and holding a committee position for two years. One of her stories has appeared in the shop story collection 8 Rooms.
Read an Excerpt
Here or There
By Rebecca Strong
Legend Times LtdCopyright © 2007 Rebecca Strong
All rights reserved.
It was dark when she left the building and sloped off along the side alley, pulling her hat down over her head, all the while listening out for unfamiliar night sounds. The air was crisp and she could see her breath periodically materialising in front of her face. She was the last to leave, as was so often the case, and yet again she wished that her manager, Mr Busby, hadn't chosen to make an example of her, hadn't picked on her and pulled her up on her work in front of all the others, when so many of them were slipshod and apathetic.
"My boxes were all filled and complete, really they were!" she had protested, beginning to suspect that someone further down the line had been playing a cruel joke on her, but Busby insisted that each box could be traced back to its original workstation – something to do with the barcode or reference number.
So here she was, leaving an hour-and-a-half after everyone else, not even Busby staying to turn off the lights and lock up. He refused to believe in the quality of her work, yet he could entrust her with the security of the whole place – a lazy and vindictive man. The darkness smelled of stale flowers, precarious like the calm before the storm.
Each day began early at Taunton's Confectionary factory. A post-WW1 venture established in 1920, it started as a chocolate shop that expanded rapidly due to high demand and before long production had to be moved to a different site to facilitate adequate supply. It was a great time for confectionary: the lingering view of chocolates as a luxury made them all the more sought after, but ingredients were plentiful, and business thrived.
It was started by Mr A. Taunton, with ownership passing down the family line, and it was currently owned by Gregory Fellows, the son of Taunton's granddaughter, who had his finger in many pies and generally left the running of the factory to Busby. At five-minutes-to-seven in the morning, six-days-a-week, a cluster of weary but chattering women would gather at the front entrance, ready for Busby to unlock the doors. One-by-one they would traipse in, deposit their meagre belongings and packed lunches in the lockers provided, and take up their places along the production line.
There were a lucky few who worked in the two small factory offices: Busby and his personal assistant, Alice (an understandably nervous type), occupied one of them entirely, and the factory 'Supplies and Maintenance Office' vegetated in the other. But the Head Office was in a different location and the factory workers rarely saw the people who governed their working lives. Most of the processes were mechanical these days, but no machine could provide the checking services that each of the employees did. It was dull work but stable, and this seemed to keep most of the women happy. They chatted and joked, squabbled and gossiped, fretted and fussed, and whiled away the time with their petty grievances and latest tales. For her, it was different. The job was a means to an end, something she had to put up with in order to get where she wanted or, at the very least, in order not to slip back into the past.
She worked at the very end of one production line – the Belgian chocolates – each box complete with a small disclaimer stating that although some of the ingredients came from Belgium, the chocolates were not actually produced there. Her job was to inspect each box, once it had been filled by the great machine that stood in the middle of the line, making sure both trays were complete with one chocolate of each type. She had one colleague to her left inspecting the boxes before they were filled, and one to her right inspecting the plastic sheeting placed in between each tray and on the top.
"You're very lucky to be in charge of the chocolates, you know," Busby would sneer at her sometimes, sarcasm oozing from his tongue like the sweat from his pores. "Others only get to inspect the paper and plastic. Make sure you don't slip up; it's taxing work." His breath smelled of old fish and vinegary chips, causing those he addressed to slightly recoil. And with that, he would stride off to peer over the shoulder of another worker.
The best bit about the job was the samples or 'end-of-line' confectionary of which they were each allowed to take home a single box every week. This occasionally caused tussles and contention as the women pushed and shoved to get the best scoopfuls from the different tubs that stood in one corner of the main factory floor. Yet even this perk was tainted by the sickening chocolate smell that infused their working environment day-in, day-out, to the extent that she could no longer bring even a delectable Taunton's Truffle to her lips. Her flat was filled with unopened sample boxes just waiting for someone to consume them, but she had no one to give them to and was periodically forced to dispose of them.
In general, the days were tedious and dull, with lunchtime being the only reprieve. The workers seldom left the office during a break, aside from those who smoked, because there was nothing on the industrial estate other than stark, depressing buildings that were far from pleasant to look at. She would eat her lunch quietly in a corner of the canteen and listen to the other women harangue and chide each other, discovering whose husband was wayward, whose husband a drunk and whose children were causing trouble in the neighbourhood.
It was a welcome distraction, in a way, to immerse oneself in the idle chitchat and sometimes it was the only time of day when she could throw herself into another world (the third she had been party to, she supposed) and take her mind off her own concerns. Their combined lunches provided aromatic respite from the intensity of chocolate and she silently analysed each woman's circumstances from the contents of their lunch packs – tuna and mayonnaise here; ham and cheese there; some brought only a few cheap crackers with processed cheese spread and a packet of crisps. The scent of the food rose and mingled with the chatter, bringing the sparse factory cafeteria to life.
The workforce, apart from Busby and the two men who occupied the second office, was entirely female, and this was never questioned. It was not an environment that men could survive in – emotionally or socially – and the female workers would have ripped any man to shreds. It was their own union of solidarity and trust, which could not be penetrated by any male save Busby, and this, she was sure, made him all the more conceited. A lone dictator governing the jejune fairer sex, he prowled and sniped like a slothful lion with a pride of labourers. He wasn't married, unlike most of the workforce, and they never had any inkling of his life outside the factory. He would occasionally hover around a gossiping gaggle, clearly interested in their prattle but, the minute one of them spotted him, he would reprimand them for 'stealing company time' and verbally whip them back into shape. He didn't mind the occasional whisper or the rare conversation about work, but he despised any talk of which he was not within earshot.
He struck her as lonely, in some ways, but at other times she thought him so antagonistic to human company that he was better off by himself. The other women seemed to appreciate some kind of authority – they were set rules to abide by, even if they weren't always adhered to – but she hated his oppressive nature and the way he lurked around factory corners so you never knew when he would appear.
Strangely enough, it was Alice she thought about most during quieter days at the factory. For, as she had discovered, a female union excludes not only men but any woman unable to conform to its unspoken criteria. Like Alice, she revealed nothing of her past or circumstances, maintained a vague air of derision, rejected small talk, wore no perfume and, as a result, remained a mystery. Her clothes under the standard uniform were deliberately smartish but not trendy (these days, it was a relief to keep things simple, though on occasion she longed for the opportunity to don a skirt, heels and pussy-bowed shirt – clothes she had long ago discarded) and she privately struggled to coat her words in an unidentifiable accent, adopting grating colloquialisms from her colleagues in an attempt to ingratiate herself with them.
Two or three months into her employment, her social ranking at work was sealed; then she held herself back from her coworkers and they, in turn, were less than forthcoming. Alice, she came to realise, was ignored – none of the workers had any claims to the details of the private lives of senior staff. She, however, was silently snubbed, her mask mistaken for elitism, her mysteriousness for mistrust.
She had a fantasy, still, that one day she would end up in Busby's office, after he had gone home, for a tête-à-têtewith Alice. She ran the scene through her mind almost daily, and each time her mind fudged the details until the point where she revealed her own history, Alice captivated and attentive. It always ended the same way – Alice would tell her that Busby was leaving and she would be recommended for the manager's position. As much as even Alice remained alien to her, she was the only fantasy audience she could find for the story she could never tell.
Sometimes she wondered if Busby knew, if someone had told him about her past, despite being reassured that nothing of the sort had happened. He seemed just the sort to take someone's weakness and manipulate it for his own amusement until they hit breaking point. She shivered at the memory of him approaching her earlier that afternoon, placing his hand on her shoulder and quietly tutting in her ear, the familiar smirks from her colleagues and the low chuckle he gave as he reminded her she'd have to stay late, again, and alone.
All the other women had left bang on five o'clock, most boarding the musty factory bus that fetched them daily and dropped them back to the nearest estate where the majority of them lived. It was seven o' clock and already dark by the time she'd locked all the doors, set the alarm and left. Striding round the curve of the alleyway leading from the factory car park to the main road where she could catch the No. 43 bus, her flat-soled shoes made a regular, dull thud. She walked briskly, occasionally looking around behind her, habit forcing her to stay alert and ignore the sound of her quickening heartbeat. She had trained herself so well that when she felt the hand grab her hair and jerk her backwards she didn't even scream; only a small gasp left her lips and disappeared into the darkness.
"Elisabeth Rowley?" a gruff voice growled. A waft of cheap aftershave mixed with cigarette smoke crept round her neck and tickled her nostrils. She turned and faced him, scanning desperately for familiar features that were not there. He was dressed all in black with a stern look in his eyes and he still held her hair with a firm grip.
"I used to be," she replied, knowing then that her time was up. A slight thrill shot into her bloodstream and she bit her bottom lip in disbelief.
She said no more and didn't resist as the man led her roughly along the alleyway, at the end of which was parked a dark blue car. He opened the rear door and placed his hand on the top of her head, guiding her into the vehicle. It was the first bit of gentility he had shown her and, despite her fright, she relaxed a little. She knew he wouldn't hurt her – he couldn't – and as she waited for him to walk round and get into the driver's seat, she set her mind to planning the best way to behave. Arguing would get her nowhere; these people wouldn't play games. She needed to work out where she was going and what they would do to her, how much she would tell them, and how much she would let them think they could manipulate her.
What she struggled with most was who to be; should she revert to her old habits, her old voice, her old accent? They were slowly fading from her mind, her training having been rigorous, yet a part of her welcomed the chance to reveal them once again. When you've deliberately reinvented yourself, erased the person you once were piece-by-piece, and convinced the world you're someone else, how do you begin to regress to your former self? In the quest for anonymity, there had been no police guidelines on the worst-case scenario.
He started the engine and the car roared to life, the hum of diesel piercing the silent evening. Contrary to the stereotypical profile she had already created of him in her mind, he was a careful and somewhat hesitant driver, the car jerking just once or twice. He stuck to back roads and after twenty minutes she had lost all perspective of where they were. The car was old and stagnant; a few discarded food wrappers lounging on the floor mats instinctively made her draw her legs towards her. At one point he reached for the radio but hesitated and drew his hand back. He remained silent, except for occasionally clearing his throat, and she herself dared not speak.
He had locked all the doors after he had entered the car, and she assumed that the green light glowing from the button on either back-seat door meant that the child lock was on. She slowly unzipped her handbag and reached into it for her mobile phone, wishing that she had been in the seat directly behind the driver and not on the opposite side where he would see anything she was doing the minute he turned his head.
Her hand trembled as she slowly lifted the phone out and tilted it to one side so that the light behind its façade would be hidden. The sound was on; if she pressed any of the keys he would hear it and, in order to turn the sound off, she would have to press at least three. She poised two fingers over the necessary keys and gave a loud cough as she pushed them. He turned round at the noise, just as she let her hand fall a little, and he noticed the phone.
"Don't even think about it," he warned, the first words he had uttered since getting into the car. "Who would you call, anyway?" He gave a flippant laugh, more cruel in light of the fact he was right – she had no one to call. What would she do? Explain the past five years to someone in a few sentences and convince them that she needed rescuing? She had lost her freedom so many years ago that she no longer mourned for it, no longer felt that acerbic taste in her mouth when she woke-up.
"Give it to me," he demanded, and for the second time in her life she handed over the last link she had to anyone she cared about.
He turned her phone off and threw it into the glove compartment. For a minute or so they continued, in silence, until again he spoke, "You might as well give me your handbag now; I'll need to take it off you anyway."
"But I've got things in here I need!" she protested. "Personal things, nothing that concerns you."
"I'll be the judge of that. Now hand it over and if there's anything you need later you may ask for it."
Hesitantly, she held it forward and he reached backwards and took the bag, placing it on his lap.
The next time they stopped at a traffic light he rummaged through it, finding her purse and driving licence, which he held up to the streetlight.
"Hannah Sampson, eh? Did you pick that?"
"No. You take what you're given – you must know that." She waited for a response, almost hoping to strike up a conversation or even glean any word from him that would give her a clue as to her fate, but he fell silent again, as unpredictable as the fresh wind that snuck in every now and then from a small gap at the top of his window.
They drove for another ten minutes or so, still skirting around back roads and unfamiliar terraced housing until the car slowed and turned into what appeared to be a car park with a closed repair garage at its head. He stopped the car and cleared his throat once more, before turning and staring her straight in the eyes. "We're here." He got out and walked around the car to her side, stopping first to open the boot and take something out.
Her heart beat faster and faster in its paranoia of what she was about to face, and when he opened the door for her she at first shrank away and then reluctantly tumbled out. He held out his hand to help her straighten up, but she chose to ignore it and leaned slightly against the car, willing herself to be strong. "This way," he said, pointing towards an enclave next to a 'M.O.T. While-U-Wait' sign.
He walked on ahead – obviously not the slightest bit concerned that she would not follow – swinging a black plastic bag. She breathed heavily through her mouth as she began to trace his path, lagging a good ten metres behind. She could detect a faint smell of chocolate on her own breath; perhaps her job had become part of her after all, not that she would be returning to it now. He stopped when he got to the enclave and turned around to wait for her, his patience perhaps a last-minute act of kindness.
Excerpted from Here or There by Rebecca Strong. Copyright © 2007 Rebecca Strong. Excerpted by permission of Legend Times Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Here or There by Rebecca StrongAn unusual book in that it presents like a series of short stories that are seemingly unconnected but then all come together into a novel. The book is about eleven different characters who the reader observes at a specific point of their normal everyday lives. At the moment they are introduced to the reader they are beleaguered by a range of emotions such as insecurity and uncertainty; what they all have in common is that they are looking for something different in their life. It isn¿t until the book progresses that you find out which characters are linked and how. Each chapter is from the perspective of one character and a name mentioned in it, for example a wife or friend, will appear in their own chapter later in the story. The moral running through the story relates to the grass not always being greener on the other side, hence the title: here or there. Rebecca Strong introduces us to the ¿here¿ in the form of a prologue and the last chapters ties up many of the ¿there¿ with some surprises along the way.There is an interesting range of characters ¿ some you will sympathise with, have empathy for and others you will feel have got what they deserved. What each character does is offer an insight into their mind at the time they make their decisions; some are quite intriguing as well. I enjoyed the unusual narrative and I really did want to know the outcomes of about 90% of their decisions. The back uses a quote from the novel ¿that at some point along the way you took a wrong turning and ended up down a completely different path?¿ It was interesting to find out if the grass was actually greener at the other side of the field. An enjoyable read that I recommend devoting time to. If you leave a gap in your reading you may forgot what has happened to each of the characters and the dilemmas they faced. It was with this feeling in mind that I devoted a whole afternoon to the novel and I¿m pleased I did; I became absorbed in their lives this way.