I’m delighted to be sharing an extract from Heleen Kist’s latest novel Stay Mad, Sweetheart as part of the blog tour. With thanks to Dylan Thomson from Red Dog Books for inviting me to take part.
Before I share the extract with you let’s take a look at what the book is about.
THERE’S A FINE LINE BETWEEN INNOCENCE AND GUILT. AN EVEN FINER LINE BETWEEN JUSTICE AND REVENGE.
Data scientist Laura prefers the company of her books to the real world – let alone that cesspit online. But when her best friend Emily becomes the victim of horrific cyberbullying, she makes it her all-engulfing mission to track down the worst culprits.
Petite corporate financier Suki is about to outshine the stupid boys at her firm: she’s leading the acquisition of Edinburgh’s most exciting start-up. If only she could get its brilliant, but distracted, co-founder Laura to engage.
Event planner Claire is left to salvage the start-up’s annual conference after her colleague Emily fails to return to work. She’s determined to get a promotion out of it, but her boss isn’t playing ball.
As the women’s paths intertwine, the insidious discrimination they each face comes to light. Emboldened by Emily’s tragic experience, they join forces to plot the downfall of all those who’ve wronged them.
But with emotions running high, will the punishments fit the crimes?
A pacy suspense fiction novel with its feet firmly in the #MeToo era.
JUST ME, LAURA
A tear fell onto the page of my book in a star-shaped splotch. I wiped it with my thumb. The stationery cupboard’s dry, inky air tickled my throat as I sighed.
Those poor people.
The photocopier vibrated against my back, mirroring the movement of the novel’s train carriage, its heat evocative of the bodies pressed together, its persistent humming an echo of the stoic prayers uttered by the captives being transported to their final destination.
I hated to leave them, but my time was up. I waved the still damp page side to side and blew the coldest air that I could onto it. The translucent spot rippled the paper. I closed the book and held it to my chest, stroking its edges. It wasn’t the first one I’d ruined this way.
I heard giggling. The door clicked open. I froze. Restless rustling of fabric, the smacking wetness of lips, and baritone groans filled the tiny space.
‘Hurry up,’ said a woman.
The man whispered, ‘Let me help.’
It may only have been seconds, but the intensifying moans suggested they were being well spent. I shrunk into my slot between the photocopier and the side wall, forced to listen to the unmistakable swoosh of skirt-lining against tights, the metal tear of a zipper, and the thud and tinkle of a belt buckle hitting the floor.
The room’s flimsy rear partition shook against my shoulder. Through a small gap I saw snippets of skin: her braceleted arms outstretched above their heads, the tips of his fingers digging into her wrist.
I looked away. Beside me, rattled pens rolled towards the edge of a metal shelf. I willed them to stay put.
Her voice again, breathless: ‘I have a better idea.’ She cooed, ‘Help me up.’
I stiffened. Up?
The man grunted. The photocopier creaked and a cascade of red curls fell over the side of the machine onto my head. Definitely Sally. But who was he?
I winced. I preferred not to know. But what if they saw me? They’d think I was some kind of pervert. Steeling myself for intense awkwardness, I cleared my throat. Twice.
‘What the…?’ said the guy.
The mass of hair bounced out of view.
My knees complained as I rose. ‘Sorry. I was reading.’
‘Oh my God, Laura, if I’d known…’ Sally hopped off the machine, clutching the panels of her blouse. She swooped down to pick up her skirt, not realising that swift move exposed me to a full-frontal of the newest data science recruit, his stunned face up top and trousers bunched around his ankles below.
My blush felt incandescent. I covered my eyes to let the interrupted love birds regain their modesty, the three of us developing an unspoken understanding that this never happened.
As the door closed behind them, I caught his worried murmur, ‘Do you think she saw it?’ and her replying with a chuckle, ‘If she did, it will have been her first.’
Though it was true, it was unnecessary. I crouched to retrieve the book from my rudely invaded personal haven. The guy’s head popped back in. I jumped, hitting my shoulder against the shelf.
‘Forgot to tell you.’ He smiled meekly. ‘Justin is looking for you.
THE FILTERED-WATER dispenser in the corridor provided me with much-needed cooling down. The heat receded from my cheeks but immediately fired up again as I saw the clock overhead and stress took hold: I was late.
How did I let time slip away? I grabbed my phone for my regular check-in with Emily, my best friend. The line rang out. I let out a high-pitched whine, torn between wanting to wait to try again and rushing to Justin’s supposedly mission critical meeting.
I walked on.
Five colleagues huddled ahead of me, deep in discussion, drawing flow charts with black marker pens on a long length of wall coated with a special, wipeable paint. One of them spotted me approaching; he nudged another. Their semicircle fell silent and broke open, revealing their work. Hopeful faces sought my contribution, my approval. I passed them with a brisk pace and my most courteous smile.
I dialled Emily again as I strode past rows of desks, their occupants tip-tapping away at their keyboards, their screens faded by the rays of a rare Scottish sun. This time, her line was engaged.
Please God, let them not have found her mobile number, too.
In the lobby, the multicoloured logo of Empisoft stretched across the surface behind the reception desk. Underneath, a shelf showcased our many technology awards, oversized engraved dust-gatherers bearing testament to our team’s hard work. Next to them, an embarrassingly large photo of Justin and me holding yet another trophy, my thin smile doing its best, my eyes missing the lens by a mile.
Liv stood watering the plant next to the visitors’ TV tuned to the non-stop horrors of the outside world. She dried her hands on her cardigan and flashed a motherly smile. ‘There you are. A dose of book time again?’
I nodded, ready to speed on, but my eyeline flicked to the sixty-inch screen. Adam Mooney, the Hollywood star, was exiting Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre and making his way down its stone steps. Saliva flooded my mouth in revulsion.
A sea of outstretched arms shoved microphones towards his angular jaw as reporters pelted him with questions. ‘How do you respond to calls for your arrest for sexual assault?’ I spotted errors in the closed caption transcription. Too many voices. But it perfectly captured his response: ‘No Comment.’
Liv stood at my side. ‘That’s a real tearjerker, isn’t it?’
‘What? You feel sorry for him?’ I asked.
‘No, your book. The concentration camps.’
‘Oh.’ I looked down at the blue-and-white-striped cover. ‘Yes.’
‘I do feel a bit sorry for him, though.’ Liv gazed back at the screen. ‘It’s so easy for this kind of thing to destroy a career. I’m not convinced he deserves to suffer like that.’
I spun towards the boardroom. ‘I don’t think he can suffer enough.’
The kettle beeped three times, the red numeric display showing the water had reached the programmed temperature of seventy-three degrees. Perfect for herbal tea, according to the manual.
Emily drew a green tea bag from the overhead cupboard of her galley kitchen and plopped it into a brown-rimmed mug. She loved her gadgets, but had she known it was a required safety feature for the voice-controlled kettle to beep when ready, she would have sent the freebie back to her client. It was getting on her nerves. And her nerves were frayed enough.
Swirls of yellow liquid formed underneath the steam in her cup. Unable to find a clean teaspoon in the drawer, Emily fished the tea bag out of her brew with a chopstick pulled from last night’s microwaved egg fried rice. She threw the bag into the sink, onto a pile of its discarded kin, white-rimmed squares of thin, drying paper shrunk around increasingly mouldy lumps of leaves.
With the other end of the chopstick, she scratched behind her ear, stirring thick strands of unwashed hair. She returned the stick to the plastic container as though that small semblance of tidying made up for the surrounding week-worth of filth.
Emily shuffled to her armchair. Her fuzzy slippers stirred dust bunnies into the sunshine streaming through the living room’s large, Victorian window. She blew on her drink out of habit — from when kettles just boiled water to a throat-scorching one hundred degrees centigrade. A dribble of drool escaped her mouth.
The remote control for the TV was out of reach, where she’d hurled it last. That was okay. She’d seen enough. Too much.
But perhaps this time…
Her mobile rang, diverting her attention. But it, too, lay far away and her limbs were heavy. By the time she managed to propel herself forward, the ringing had stopped. She shrugged. Laura would retry later. She always did.
Emily took a tentative sip of her drink. The phone rang again. She groaned. The side table was covered with dirty crockery and technology magazines sticky with donutty finger marks, so she put her mug on the floor. It would mark the floorboards with a ring but sod the landlord.
She read the caller ID and her shoulders slumped. She slid the green strip aside.
‘How are you, Em?’ Claire’s voice wavered. ‘We haven’t heard from you at work.’
‘I’m … I don’t know.’
‘Listen, Darren was having a hissy-fit yesterday, stomping about the place, shouting about deadlines. I’m not sure how much longer I can cover for you… I mean, everybody knows you’re not really sick-sick.’
Emily flinched. No, she wasn’t sick-sick. But this didn’t have a name.
‘Anyway,’ Claire continued. ‘I’m calling because of the Empisoft conference. It’s only weeks away and I need your help. I’m not up to speed and I’ve got my hands full with my charity gig’s PR and coordination as it is.’
Emily suppressed a sigh. Her mind was a million miles from the office, but this was Laura’s company and the most important event of the year for them. ‘What do you need?’
‘I’ve sent you a long email with questions. Would you have a look, please?’ Claire asked.
Emily scanned the room. Where was her laptop? A black triangle poked out from below a blanket of newspapers and magazines on the dining table. ‘Will do.’
‘Honestly, Em, we need you back … and we’re all worried about you.’
Emily massaged her forehead. ‘I guess I could come in tomorrow.’
‘That’s great. But don’t rush-rush. Darren’s gym sessions don’t start until 8.30 now. I’m glad you’re feeling a bit better. See you tomorrow.’
Emily rifled through her papers on the dining table, shoving aside print-outs of emails and letters from the council. She found her charger cable and the red sock she’d lost the week before. The TV remote by her feet lured her to have one more peek. She knew she shouldn’t, but she picked it up and took aim.
It was that dreadful women’s talk show. The one where the presenters fanned themselves when the resident Italian chef spoon-fed them tiramisu, the one that ensured guests stormed off to keep the viewers coming back.
Why was the dippy blonde on the right pointing and shouting this time? Emily upped the volume. She leaned closer, her body tensed.
‘How can you say non-verbal cues should be enough?’ the blonde demanded. ‘What is a non-verbal cue, anyway? A squirm? Does that count? Why not say “no” like a normal person?’
The one with the over-white teeth replied, ‘We’re British. We’re polite. A firm “no” is too… punitive, like a slap in the face. When all we want to signal is to slow down.’
‘We can’t expect men to read minds, though,’ interjected the third woman, older, her lips puffed out with fillers
Emily stood transfixed. She knew it was wrong for her to be so unreasonably — unnaturally — drawn to the incessant coverage; but she couldn’t help it. It was about her. It was her harrowing encounter they probed, as selfishly as he’d touched her. They were lifting the lid off her life, as insensitively as he’d lifted her dress.
She bit her lip to channel the hurt; she needed to watch. Which way would it swing today? Would they see it her way? Would they see her? A person. A real, pulsing, sentient human being. Not some slab of meat offered for dismemberment, for them to pry apart her motives, her honesty, her morals — to judge.
Occasionally, throughout this whole ordeal, she’d catch a glimmer of hope through all the contempt, a sliver of validation. So the fascination persisted. She longed to understand what it was that hurled some to her defence and others to the edge of crazy.
‘Exactly.’ shrieked the first panel member on the TV. ‘I’m sorry, but in my day, you knew not to go to someone’s flat — or in this case a hotel room, which is even worse — unless you were up for it. This girl throws herself at a famous actor she’s only met that night and what? She expects him to read her mind? She can speak. She should’ve spoken up if she didn’t like his kisses or him performing oral sex on her. Quite frankly she should have left the minute she became uncomfortable.’
‘Don’t you think there was a power dynamic at play that made it harder? I mean he’s Adam Mooney, for Christ’s sake.’
‘She doesn’t work for him—’
Emily zapped the screen into darkness. Enough. There was nothing new. Nothing that would make the haters hate less. Nothing that would make this ‘she’ they spoke of so callously feel uncorrupted again. Emily covered her mouth; felt a tear hit her hand. They knew her name. Why did they never use her name?
Questions she’d asked herself over and over swirled round in her head. Why hadn’t she just said ‘no’ that night? Why had she thought it a good idea to write her story and have it posted online? Why had she believed that blog when they said she’d remain anonymous? What an idiot. What a fool to think she would be a force for good, for girls’ empowerment, for healthy debate. It had been the worst decision of her life. And now nothing could turn back the clock.
She rubbed her face to loosen the tension and filled her lungs slowly. Must try to move on. Maybe work would help after all?
The itch behind her ear didn’t let up. She scratched it once more and scooped her hair into a messy bun, wincing as the rank-smelling bobble she’d been carrying around her wrist all week passed her nose. Once the bun was secured into place, she knotted the belt of her bathrobe and strode to the table.
The computer broke free from its surrounding papers and magazines with a single yank. She watched the disturbed pile wobble and slip to the ground in a colourful spread. Emily cleared more space on the table, flicking crumbs of who-knows-what into the void with the back of her hand.
She sat down. The laptop whirred into action, the screen’s static attracting a plague of dust. She clutched her sleeve and rubbed it away.
A thump by her door.
She listened for more, the back of her neck tingling. She hoped, of the two things it might be, that it was her neighbour coming to check on her again. But no knock came. Her stomach dropped.
She shook her head. Ignore it.
The waterfall background on her screen was meant to be a serene, calming image but all Emily sensed when she looked at it was the thunderous pressure of the water on her head, its silvery foam enveloping her, the absence of air — drowning.
With a slight tremble in her finger, she inched the mouse towards her email. At the top of her inbox was Claire’s red-flagged message: Help! Questions for Empisoft conference.
Emily breathed a wisp of relief when she saw that the fifty-odd other messages were business-related and all from people she knew, including one from HR she’d check out later. She mentally blew a kiss to the IT chap who’d assured her he would filter out all the hate mail, so she wouldn’t be confronted with it.
Her brain wouldn’t focus. She re-read the same piece of text five times. The planning around the annual conference of the city’s most celebrated high-growth start-up was a challenge, sure, but she knew that wasn’t the real problem. It was the thought of returning to work, to the stares, the whispers. They’d had to get extra security at the office when she’d been identified as the anonymous woman behind the incendiary blog post; a daily hassle no one appreciated.
For the best part of two hours, she resolved logistical issues with the catering and stupidly constrained parking around the large conference venue. No reason Claire couldn’t have handled those herself.
Emily’s cramped thighs begged for movement. She got up for another cup of tea, leaving the previous one cold, iridescent plaques lining the surface like an oil slick.
As she passed the front door, she remembered the earlier sound. Despite alarm ringing in her ears, she pulled at the knob.
On the landing lay a medium-sized box, addressed simply to The Bitch. Emily peered over into the stairwell of her tenement, knowing it was pointless. Whoever had finagled access to her building would be long gone.
The box didn’t weigh much, but its content sounded solid when shifted. She carried it inside, her pulse throbbing in her temples, her teeth clenched.
She walked straight to the kitchen, flipped open the stainless-steel lid of her bin, and shook the ‘gift’ out of the box. The large purple dildo fell atop layers of gloopy plastic film pried from ready meals. Underneath, she could still see the fat, curved tip of the other veiny, flesh-coloured sex toy.
Emily smacked the metal lid down and crumpled onto the tiled floor. Tears rolled down her cheeks, her body convulsing with each staggered sob.
She couldn’t do this anymore.
Publisher: Red Dog Press
Publication date: 19th November 2019
Print length: 330 pages
If you would like to purchase Stay Mad, Sweetheart, you can do so by clicking on one the following link below.
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