Today I’m delighted to taking part in the blog tour for The Accidental Love Letter. I’m sharing an extract with thanks to Anne Cater for inviting me on the tour and Headline for providing the extract.
The funny, uplifting second novel from Olivia Beirne for fans of Sophie Kinsella, Zoë Folbigg and Marian Keyes.
What would you do if you received a love letter that wasn’t meant for you?
Bea used to feel confident, outgoing and fun, but she’s not sure where that person went.78
Over the last few months, she’s found herself becoming reclusive and withdrawn. And despite living with her two best friends, she’s never felt lonelier. To make things worse, she’s become so dependent on her daily routine, she’s started to slip out of everyone else’s.
But when a mysterious battered envelope covered in stars lands on her doormat, Bea wonders if she could find the courage to open it.
It isn’t addressed to her, but it could be… if you squinted…
My eyes scan the room. Faye is leaning back in her seat, her right finger scrolling endlessly on her iPhone. Duncan is pacing in the corner like a dog working out where to sit, and Angela has her head in her hands. I blink, desperate to quell the fizzing anxiety that is brewing in the pit of my stomach.
Why isn’t anybody saying anything? This must be the longest they have ever been silent. I take a deep breath and try to look as if I’m completely unfazed by the silence, and not as if I’m ready to rip out my fingernails.
I don’t usually mind sitting in silence. In fact, I love it. But about one minute ago, I pitched an idea to Duncan (Chief Editorial Something or Other), Faye (colleague) and Angela (my boss. Who is great. Or, at least, I thought she was until she took a vow of silence as soon as I gathered up enough courage to voice my sad pitch. Now I think she’s the Devil). This is not how today was supposed to go.
It was supposed to go like this.
06.55: Woken up by Emma leaving for work.
07.00: First alarm goes off. Snooze.
07.10: Priya gets in from night shift.
07.15: Priya gets in shower.
07.20: Second alarm goes off. Snooze.
07.25: Priya gets out of shower, leaves bathroom, goes to bed.
07.30: Third alarm goes off. Get out of bed.
07.35: In shower.
07.45: Out of shower.
07.50: Dressed, hair in towel turban. Make breakfast (Weetabix with one spoonful of brown sugar).
08.00: Back in bedroom. Dry hair and apply make-up.
08.15: Check bag and packed lunch.
08.20: Leave for work, wave at neighbour Joy, walk to bus stop.
08.30: Bus arrives. Get on bus. Find seat on middle row, right aisle, corner seat. Go to work.
I glance down at my twitching, slightly damp hands.
That bit all worked out. As always, every minute of this morning went exactly to schedule. Exactly as it has done for the past two years.
08.50: Arrive at work. Walk upstairs, find seat.
08.52: Turn on computer. Check emails.
09.15: Secretly read BuzzFeed articles on nice stories about how cats save their owners, to try to calm burning anxiety.
09.30: Avoid eye contact with Faye as she arrives for work (half an hour late, as always).
09.45: Offer to make Angela coffee in attempt to put her in a good mood.
09.46: Try not to look upset when Angela refuses, and then makes her own.
09.50: Listen to Beyoncé megamix to feel inspired.
09.55: Leave desk and walk to pitching room.
This part of the schedule all went to plan. If I chop up each hour into small segments then nothing seems that scary. It was the next part that didn’t follow order.
10.00: Sit down in pitching room and wait for everyone to arrive.
10.05: Chat to Duncan, Angela and Faye about weekend in attempt to distract them about pitch.
10.15: Start pitch.
10.20: Dazzle co-workers.
10.30: Terrible ordeal over, but discovered new lease of
life and am forever seen as serious, top journalist.
10.31: Leave pitching room. Reward myself with morning biscuit and check Facebook.
I glance down at my watch and my stomach lurches.
I finished my pitch at 10.29 (one minute sooner than I had planned, another bad sign) and now, six minutes later, we are all still sitting in silence.
And not a single person has offered me a biscuit or told me I can go home.
I shift in my seat.
What are they all thinking about? Surely they have forgotten what I even said twelve hundred years ago, when I originally made this pitch.
I weave my damp fingers into a ball.
I should have scrapped this whole schedule and just gone with Plan B:
06.55: Call in sick and avoid entire pitch.
‘Right . . .’ Angela prizes her head from her hands and focuses
her eyes back on me. ‘So, say it to us again, Bea?’ A rush of heat spins through me.
Say it again?
What? Why? I’ve already said it once, and everybody clearly hates it.
I open my mouth and take a deep breath.
‘Erm,’ I start, ‘so, I just think I’d like to focus on—’
‘Oh my God!’ Faye squeals from her seat, her eyes still glued to her phone. ‘Sorry,’ she says quickly, ‘just, look at this.’
She angles her phone towards Duncan, who cranes over.
‘It’s a video of a cat, sat on a washing machine!’ Faye cries.
I shut my mouth again, feeling my face burn.
‘Oh!’ Duncan chuckles. ‘That is funny. Angela, have you seen this? It’s a cat, and it’s sat on a washing machine!’ Okay, well this is going well.
Would they even notice if I went home?
I smile back at Duncan as he gestures to Faye’s phone.
Duncan is a squat man, with a smattering of bristles that poke out of his scalp like stubborn blades of grass. He has a round stomach that hangs over his belt like a beach ball and large teeth that make me think of individual squares of white chocolate.
He’s not a bad guy, he’s nice enough. But he’s also a total idiot who cries ‘slam dunk!’ every time he finishes a news story and is the cousin of the CEO.
He once asked me how to spell ‘successful’ and is now convinced I am Carol Vorderman. (Or, as he likes to call me, ‘Albus Einstein’, which is wrong on so many levels I don’t even know where to begin.)
‘I just love videos like this,’ Duncan chortles. ‘They are just so heart-warming. We should add more content like this to the website. Don’t you think? I’ve always wanted a cat.’
His words die in the unbearable silence, and I look back at him.
Yes, welcome to hell my, friend. Where you say things that you think are interesting, and every single person ignores you.
I sink back into my seat.
I work at the local paper, the Middlesex Herald, as a junior reporter. I get sent press releases every day, and it’s my job to try to make them sound interesting before posting them online. I’ve been here for two years, and everything was going brilliantly. Until I had my appraisal. Angela said I wasn’t ‘pushing myself’ enough and that I needed to ‘broaden my horizons’. I tried to argue that my horizons were fine as they were, but I’m not very good at arguing. She then had the bright idea of me thinking about what I wanted to write about, and pitching a story directly to Duncan.
‘Right!’ Duncan slaps his hands together. ‘I think this calls for a tea break. Who wants to do a Starbucks run? I’ve heard that the famous pumpkin spiced latte is out today! Exciting times, eh?’
Faye nods at Duncan, who goes to leave, when Angela raises a hand.
‘Duncan,’ she says sternly, ‘Bea needs to give us her pitch.’
Angela has cropped, mousey hair and a long neck. She wears her small glasses on a chain round her neck and has a permanent shadow of light pink lipstick on her thin lips.
Duncan swivels his round face towards me, perplexed. ‘Really?’ he says. ‘I thought you’d given it, Bea?’ I stare back at him.
‘Go on, Bea,’ Angela says kindly. ‘Try again.’ 10.49.
‘Right,’ I hear myself say, my voice shaking slightly, ‘so, I was thinking that I would really like to try to write some pieces about the community—’
Faye interrupts. ‘We’re a local newspaper,’ she laughs, ‘everything we publish is about the community.’
I dart a glance over to Faye and then back to Angela, as if she might stop me.
‘Yes,’ I start again, ‘but I mean to really get involved in something that brings the whole community together. Like, I know my friend—’
‘What friend?’ Duncan chips in, screwing up his face. ‘Have I met her? Did she come to the Christmas party?’
What? No! Why would I bring my friends to my work Christmas party? I don’t even want to go myself.
‘No,’ I say, ‘well, anyway, at her work they did a Macmillan bake sale and raised loads of money for charity. I think a lot of places do that. So, maybe something like that. I just mean that I’d like to run a story focusing on something good that the community is doing. I—’
‘Why?’ Duncan interrupts again.
‘Well . . .’ I flounder. ‘I just think that people will like to read about it, and it will make people happy.’
‘Our job isn’t to make people happy, Bea,’ Faye says, pointing her pen at me. ‘Our job is to bring people the news.’ She adds the last bit and looks straight at Duncan who inflates with joy.
I feel a spark of anger shoot through me.
Duncan high-fives Faye at the causal mention of his meaningless catchphrase.
A cold sweat pierces my skin and I push my damp hands under my thighs.
‘Exactly!’ Duncan trumpets, thrusting a porky finger in Faye’s direction. ‘Yes! That’s the spirit, Faye!’
Faye beams at him, and I glare at the back of her blonde head.
‘Right!’ Duncan says again, pulling himself to his feet. ‘Are we done here then, Angela?’
Angela looks limply at Duncan. ‘If that’s all you have to say, Duncan, then yes.’
I watch Duncan flash her a thumbs up and march out of the room, followed by Faye.
They didn’t even let me finish.
‘Don’t worry about it, Bea,’ Angela says ‘You have to be quite forward with Duncan to be heard. I just think you need to work on your confidence.’
I try and smile as Angela walks out of the door, leaving me alone.
Yeah, as if I haven’t heard that before.
I lean my head back against the bus seat and fight the urge to rest my heavy eyes.
Okay, so today didn’t go as planned.
Not that I’m really sure what I thought would happen. I hate public speaking. I hate confrontation, and the idea of ‘pitching’ in front of three people who are all significantly smarter, louder and better than me makes me want to dig a hole in the ground and stick my head in it
I knew it would go terribly. I did.
The bus pulls to a halt amongst a smog of traffic and I look out of the window. Steam is crawling up the glass and I rub a spot clean with the back of my sleeve.
Not that I really care. I don’t. I don’t want to be promoted anyway, or run my own story like Faye. Leave her to show off and flounce around behind the keyboard. I’m happy typing press releases.
I mean, hello? Who spent three hours today trying to think of a pun regarding Mrs Hammond of 42 Hedgeway Drive’s record-breaking bush?
(And by think of a pun, I mean think of a pun that wouldn’t get me fired. Which was much harder than you’d expect. I mean, I’m not being funny, but ‘Mrs Hammond urgently needs her bush trimmed’ would almost be worth getting a disciplinary.)
The bus slugs back down the road and my body lurches forward. I glance down at my phone, which stares back up at me, lifeless. I open ‘Gal Pals’, my three-way WhatsApp group with Emma and Priya, my housemates, and tap a message.
Hey, either of you in tonight? Could do with some . . .
Could do with some what?
Girl time? Does anybody say ‘girl time’ any more? Did anybody ever say girl time?
I stare down at my phone.
I can’t say ‘could do with some love’ or they’ll misunderstand and try to sign me up for Tinder again Could do with some . . . fun?
No, definitely not. That will start a whole new conversation that I never want to have with either of them, ever.
Could do with some company?
I type the words and blink down at my phone as they stare back up at me.
God, that makes me sound like the saddest person ever. I can’t send that.
I quickly delete the last bit and hit send. I look back out of the steamed-up window as the bus waits at the bus stop opposite the park, and I notice an old man slumped on a bench. He has a prominent, square jaw and his hunched body is almost bent in two. His head is hidden under a flat cap, and I spot a pair of glasses that are damp under the rain.
I lean forward to try to see him better. He must be freezing. Why is he sat out in the rain, on his own? Is he okay?
Maybe he’s walking his dog and he just needs a break. Or maybe he’s run away from something.
I try to look back at the old man as the bus pulls away, but he vanishes behind a sea of cars.
Maybe he just wants to be alone.
My phone vibrates in my hand and I feel a zap shoot through me as I see a message from Emma.
Sorry won’t be back until late, out with Margot x Within seconds, Priya’s message pops on to my screen.
Me neither. At work, then seeing Josh.
I stare down at my screen as a weight settles in my stomach like a golf ball.
No worries, I type back, have fun. See you later.
I drop the phone back into my bag and make one last attempt to spot the old man, but he’s been swallowed up by the swirls of rain.
Does anybody want to be alone?
I fumble with my keys as the rain splats on to my head like cold, wet eggs.
Stupid keys. Why do I have one hundred keys when I only ever need one?
As the ‘responsible housemate’ (a label I never intended) I have been in charge of holding on to the garage key, the PO box key (sorry – Priya’s PO box key. Why does she need a PO box?), Priya’s spare car key (not that I can drive or have had a single lesson), the kitchen window key (?) and, the most useless until last, Emma’s girlfriend’s flat key. I mean, what the hell am I ever supposed to do with that?
I bought it up with Emma once and she said how I can water the plants if they ever go away together. I’m sorry but: 1) she doesn’t own a single plant, and 2) even if she did, I’m not spending my free time flitting around her girlfriend’s flat like a creepy, green-fingered Mary Poppins.
I mean, what next? Does she also want me to prance round and do all of her washing while they are sunning themselves in Sardinia? Bake her a casserole that she can heat up when she’s back? Organise her bloody post?
I did say all this to Emma but she batted me away and then refused to take the key off my key ring because she said it would ‘ruin her nails’.
I finally manage to free the only key I ever use and jab it in the lock as a fresh burst of cold water splashes on to the crown of my head. I kick the door open.
‘Hello?’ I shout, even though I know that Priya and Emma are both out.
I push my way into the house and drop my sopping bag on to the floor. I glance around at the living room, which looks exactly how I left it this morning, and sink on to our sofa.
I look down at the time.
I push my head back against our squashy sofa cushion as my mind pieces together my schedule for the evening.
18.15: Sit on sofa.
18.30: Put colour wash on.
18.40: Start cooking dinner (pasta bake).
19.00: Make lunch for tomorrow.
19.15: Eat dinner.
19.25: Wash up.
19.30: Watch Hollyoaks.
20.00: Watch EastEnders.
20.30: Put on PJs and get ready for bed.
21.00: Watch Made in Chelsea.
22.00: Go to bed and read book.
22.30: Finish reading. Check phone.
22.45: Set alarm. Go to sleep.
As my mind reviews each section I feel myself relax as I sink further into the sofa.
Right, that’s what I’ll do this evening. Sorted.
I look around the empty house and let my phone drop to my side. The house looks back at me, completely silent, only the slight whir of the heating confirming to me that it’s there and not a wild figment of my imagination. My chest expands as I take a deep breath and move my eyes towards the kitchen table. One stale mug is welded to the left-hand corner and a stack of post is slowly towering up on the right. Exactly how I left it this morning, nothing has changed.
Well, one thing has.
I narrow my eyes at the whiteboard propped on the mantelpiece with Priya’s latest scribble.
Working a hell night shift, wake me and pay the price.
I feel a small laugh tickle my throat as I look at the heart sketched next to the message with another instruction. P.S. Don’t forget it’s bin night.
I pull my knees up to my chest.
Sometimes, I think about being alone. I’m sat in the same spot I sit every night. I’m exactly where I’m expected to be.
Nothing changes. I’m always here.
My phone vibrates in my hand and I look down as I spot a text from Emma. I feel a small leap of hope. Maybe she’s coming home tonight after all.
B are you in tomorrow? Me and Priya need to have a chat with you.
My stomach flips over at Emma’s message.
They need to have a chat with me, together? Why? What could I have done?
I drum my fingers on my desk, my mind spiralling as my right hand manically turns a small pencil between my fingers.
I look back down to my notepad, covered in neat scribbles. As I stare down at my list, I feel the twitching in my chest begin to ease.
I’ve made a list of everything I can possibly think of that I may have done to upset Priya and/or Emma. I stare down at the list, my pencil gripped in my hand.
If I know what to expect, then I can manage it. If it isn’t a surprise, then it won’t be that bad.
Things that I could have done to upset Priya and Emma.
1. They could be mad I turned the heating up (even though neither of them were there and it was so cold in the house that my fingers went blue).
2. They could be mad because I didn’t offer to make them any dinner (even though neither of them were here).
3. Emma could be mad that I used her wok last week.
4. Priya could be annoyed that I accidentally woke her up after her night shift last week (I’m sorry, but I fell down
the stairs in a towel so I think I was definitely worse off in that situation).
5. They could be staging an intervention with me because they don’t like my hair and my experimental French plait phase (which they both promised they thought looked great and wildly encouraged).
6. They could both have decided that I am an insufferable, terrible housemate who they can no longer tolerate.
My eyes scan back over the list carefully as a final thought drops into my mind.
1. They could be asking if both of their partners can move in.
I feel my heart thump.
Please let it not be that.
I like Josh, and I especially like Margot. But I don’t want to live with them. I can’t be the permanent fifth wheel on their love wagon, strapped to the back of the vehicle like the useless spare tyre.
For starters, where would I sit on our three-seater sofa?
I chew on my lip as my hand raps the blunt pencil against my desk.
But how could I say no? I mean, I couldn’t, not really anyway. Not if they have both already discussed it and have decided between themselves that they think it’s a good idea. I would just look like the jealous spinster, lurking in my ground-floor bedroom like the village troll.
I think the worst part is that they’ve sat down and decided that they need to speak to me, together. They’ve pre-planned it.
And I have no idea what it could be.
I hate not knowing what is going to happen.
I jerk out of my reverie and my eyes flit down to the clock. 11.15. Faye’s first visit.
Faye is one of the few people who sticks to my schedule almost religiously. Even though she has never seen it and I’d never dream of mentioning it to her. It’s one of the only features I like about Faye.
Maybe she has a schedule of her own.
Faye visits my desk twice a day. When she first started doing it, I happily slotted her into my schedule, thinking that she was trying to befriend me.
But I quickly realised that this wasn’t the case as Faye used her five-to-six-minute window to tell me about herself, ask me a question, and then pull out her phone the moment I started replying. I watched her do the same thing with every person in our office (there are fifteen of us ‒ seventeen on the third week of the month, when the finance team come in).
It didn’t take me long to work out that Faye does this as a way of wasting over an hour of her morning before doing any work, and then another hour of her afternoon as she asks everybody what they had for lunch (although this conversation tends to only last about three minutes, even for a professional procrastinator like Faye. There are only limited responses you can have to ‘I had a tuna sandwich and a bag of cheese and onion crisps’). I look up at Faye as she swans towards me, her eyes flicking over my head to ensure that nobody is going to interrupt her and try to combine morning conversations. She clacks towards me in her large, chunky boots and I push my notebook under my coffee cup.
Faye has long blonde hair that reaches to her waist and is usually braided at the back of her head like a horse ready for dressage. Her large brown eyes are always heavily made up and I’ve caught her taking mirror selfies in the company toilet fourteen times since she started working here.
She’s been here three months.
Faye shimmies into a spare seat next to me and glances over at me in acknowledgement as her mouth curves into a smile.
We have a ‘cool, fun’ hot-desk policy at work, which Duncan started about six months ago and I despise. After four days of hot-seating hell, I started getting to work early enough to ensure that I sit in the same desk every day, in the back corner of the office. That way I can keep an eye on what everyone else is doing, whilst being close enough to the kitchen to sneak myself a cup of tea without having to make one for every single person in the office.
I know that makes me sound like a bad person, but having to remember how fifteen people take their tea ‒ and then having a panic attack about whether you accidentally gave Jane the Vegan full-fat milk instead of soya ‒ is enough to send you into an early grave.
(I never found out if I got the milks the wrong way round, but Jane was off sick the next day. I try not to think about whether that was just a coincidence. Or whether Jane now thinks I’m trying to kill her and wrap her up in pastry like a meateating maniac.)
Faye flicks one leg over the other and pulls out her phone. She always does this for about thirty seconds, so I shake my mouse and pretend to look at an email.
I glance back at Faye, and then back to the office clock.
I open my mouth to speak when an email from Duncan pings on to the screen. I take a deep breath.
Morning team!!!!!!!!! Here’s to another GREAT day in the OfFiCe PaRtAy!!!!! Team meeting on Friday (breakfast me thinks?!!??) Thanks 4 being THE BEST TEAM EVA!!!!! Duncan.
I blink as I feel my eyes shrivel in disgust.
I cannot, and will not ever be able to, fathom how Duncan is our Editor when he goes to such extraordinary lengths to abuse grammar.
We get three emails like this a day. The first arrives mid-morning (to ‘rare up the team’), the second just after lunch (which usually involves a novelty picture of Duncan eating a sandwich, with Faye pouting in the background as a funny ‘photo bomb’ that they’ll then laugh about all afternoon) and the last one at about four (to ‘spur us on’ for the last hour with some dreadful, inspirational quote. This is when Duncan usually asks me how to spell something).
‘How was your evening?’
My eyes dart towards Faye, then quickly back to my computer.
Faye asks me this question every day and it still makes my heart pound my skin like an alarm clock.
I should prepare an answer. Sometimes I do. When I notice the clock tick over to 11.00, my brain starts storming the possibilities of how I spent my evening.
I went out for dinner with a friend.
I went to the cinema.
I went out for a drink.
But as soon as I fixate on one lie, my brain can’t keep up, and suddenly I’m trapped in a hamster wheel.
What if she asks me where I went for a drink? And who with? How did I get there? What did I have to drink? What if she was there too? What if she knew somebody there? What if she finds out I’m lying? What sort of person would lie about what they did on a Monday night because they don’t want to admit that they actually sat in on their own until they went to bed, like they do every night?
I look up at Faye as she drops her phone next to her side and raises her large eyes to meet mine. I drag Duncan’s email into a folder and flash a small smile in her direction.
‘Fine, thank you,’ I say, fixing my eyes on my monitor to try to show her how busy I am.
I always hope that if I give Faye lame enough answers then she might leave.
She never does.
‘What did you do?’ she asks, her eyes wandering around the office.
What did I do?
I did exactly what I planned to do. I arrived home at 6 p.m., I got in my pyjamas, made my dinner, watched four hours of TV and went to bed.
I glance over to Faye.
I can’t tell Faye that. She’s the type of person who seems to go out every night, according to her Instagram, to attend some fabulous party with an effortless low ponytail (which I can never pull off without looking like Will Turner from Pirates of the Caribbean).
‘Err,’ I say, ‘you know. This and that.’
That’s it. Keep it vague. Like I’m so important that fancy plans mean nothing to me.
I take a deep breath as I feel my anxiety begin to stir.
Okay, a lie. This is no big deal. I can lie. It’s only Faye for goodness’ sake, she probably isn’t even listening.
‘I,’ I begin, ‘well, I . . .’
I feel my mouth go dry as the pressure of speaking sucks every word I know from my brain like a vacuum cleaner.
Just say something, Bea. Say anything.
‘I actually ended up . . .’ I trail off as I notice Faye’s blonde head swivel round.
Jemima from sales walks past and Faye jumps out of her seat.
‘Jemima!’ Faye oozes. ‘How are you?’
I close my mouth, a wave of heat washing over me.
Okay. I survived. It’s over. She doesn’t care. She never cares.
I watch as Faye totters after Jemima ‒ they swan past my desk and into the kitchen ‒ and then I move my eyes dully back to my computer screen.
If everyone sticks to schedule then I won’t be bothered now for another two hours. Unless Duncan is trying to write a pitch and needs help spelling ‘astonishing’ again.
Two hours until I am spoken to again.
I slip my headphones in and lean forward on my desk.
I can manage that.
The Accidental Love Letter is available from Amazon.
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