When all else fails, you just have to leave it to Fate…
Just as twenty-nine-year-old Ella loses her dream job after an unfortunate incident (it was just a bit of hot sauce, for goodness’ sake – he totally overreacted!), her phone rings. Her aunt Gillian, who lives in a tiny mountain village, has had a fall and needs her help. Ella gives in to Fate and agrees to go, looking forward to a few quiet weeks to work out what to do with her car crash of a life.
But as soon as she gets there, she realises it’s not going to be the idyllic break she had hoped for. With Gillian struggling after the recent loss of her partner, Mike, Ella promises herself that she will show Gillian that life is still worth living – and will certainly not be distracted from her new purpose by Joe, Mike’s disconcertingly handsome nephew . . .
Has Fate brought Ella and Gillian together at just the right time for them both? And do her plans extend to Ella’s love life, as well?
This funny, romantic and uplifting novel is perfect for fans of Jo Watson, Laura Jane Williams and Sophie Kinsella.
The Yoghurt of Doom
I want many things in life: an end to world hunger; all wars to cease; a definitive answer on whether that dress was really blue and black or white and gold. But most of all, right now, I want whoever keeps stealing my yoghurts to STOP.
We’re adults in a London office, not teenagers, and yet for three weeks now, someone has gone to the fridge and pinched my yoghurt. And it’s not a mistake, because I’ve lavished half a sharpie on them, writing everything from ‘Ella’s – Hands Off!!!’ right through to ‘Thrush medicine’ – which admittedly got me some funny looks, but even that yoghurt was gone by lunchtime! Whoever it is must have a strong stomach as well as no conscience.
That’s why I’ve finally decided to follow Jenny’s advice and do something about it. Last night I peeled back the corner of my cherry yoghurt, squirted in some hot sauce, added a few dried chilli flakes, and stuck it down again. It’s in the fridge right now, waiting for the culprit. Trouble is, the kitchenette is down a side corridor, together with the toilets and the photocopier, and I’ve just ‘been to the toilet’ for the third time, and the yoghurt’s still there. Maybe whoever it is doesn’t like cherry, which is a shame, because I do, and unsurprisingly I don’t fancy it any more.
Over at the next desk, Jenny taps her pencil urgently on her keyboard and gives me a keen look. I shake my head to show the trap hasn’t been sprung and she rolls her eyes. I pull a face in agreement and we get back to work.
I plough through some emails, and pull up the next set of design layouts advertising villas. While away the warm summer evenings with a cocktail and a swim in your own private pool, surrounded by the beautiful Italian . . . blah blah. The page has dry text and a few glossy photos. It’s my job to liven it up by inserting blocks of colour to ‘heighten the reader’s sense of engagement and immersion’. Usually in pastel shades – nothing inventive or avant-garde, because if you notice I’ve done it, I’ve failed, apparently. It’s your standard thankless task, but I don’t mind. Well, not really. I mean, it is a bit of a comedown from managing my own team at the call centre, both financially and status-wise, but I knew I’d have to work up from the bottom when I took this job. It’s the price I have to pay to get back into art and design, and soon enough I’ll be one of a team over in the glass conference room, throwing about ideas and doing proper design work like the Eau de Parfum Team brain- storming in there now. They’re gesticulating and laughing, drinking coffee from the Gaggia coffee machine in there, happy, enthused and energetic as they take turns to air their ideas for the next big ad campaign.
I try a few shades of aqua, some slightly bluer tones, but it’s difficult to focus and keep an eye on everyone heading down towards the kitchenette end of the office. Though, to be fair, with Sexy Tom going that way, I’m not the only one looking. Tom’s on the Fashion Team and his metrosexual good looks, dove-grey suits and hair graded to nothing at his collar, draw eyes like iron filings to a magnet. He is pretty, if a little too self-assured for my taste and I bet his make-up bag is better stocked than mine, but he has a certain something. Not that he’d look twice at me.
To him I’m just another mid-height, pretty but non-remarkable junior member of staff, with feathered and highlighted brown hair, wrap-around dress and boots. Although, now I think about it, he’d probably just stop at ‘junior member of staff’. But I have to admit, I’d much rather be doodling a pencil drawing of him than arranging pastel-coloured blocks behind text.
I reread the brief: ‘Sun, sea and sand colours, with a hint of coral’. I bring up some pictures of coral, which seem to come in as many shades as paint, and try to decide what colour the sun is as I’ve never looked at it myself.
I try pastel yellow and peach, adjust them to the glorious tones of Italian buildings in the evening sun, lighten them and—
‘Pssst!’ Jenny tips her head to indicate the people jostling at the end of the kitchenette corridor. ‘Do you think . . .?’ she whispers, and triumph zips through me.
Very possibly. We hurry over, and I stand on tiptoes and crane my neck to see over the heads of the people standing in the kitchenette doorway. Sexy Tom is scrubbing at his tongue with a blue paper towel. I shift slightly, and catch a glimpse of my cherry yoghurt on the countertop beside him. It’s denuded of its ‘Do not eat!’ lid.
‘What’s going on?’ cries someone from behind us.
‘Tom’s been poisoned!’ calls someone nearer the front. ‘We’ve called an ambulance.’
Jenny gasps, and my stomach drops.
‘It could be cauthdic thoda, or athid, or bleatth,’ pants Tom, his mouth under the tap. A co-worker repeats his every word into her mobile, and Jenny grabs my arm to pull me away.
I shake her off and try to push forward, but I can’t get through. ‘No! It’s just chilli,’ I call, but no one listens. ‘It’s just chilli,’ I repeat.
Tom clutches at his throat, his eyes wide. ‘God! Am I dying?’
‘You’re not dying. It’s chilli. Just chilli, that’s all.’ I’m squeezed in beside the person on the phone. I lean my head into her line of vision, but all her focus is on Tom. I push forward again, but the knot of people is so tight, all I get is glares and I’m forced to watch as three women minister to him in the confined space: one filling a cup, another applying a wet towel to his forehead, while a third flaps at the rest of us stuck in the doorway.
Tom hangs his head and grips the countertop, shaking. ‘Tell them to bring an antidote.’
‘It’s not poison, it’s chilli!’ My words are lost in the shocked gasp as Tom collapses to the floor. His acolytes prop him against a kitchen cupboard, his face upturned like a fish on a hook, and I savagely elbow my way through, crouch down next to him, take his face in my hands and peer into his half-open eyes. ‘YOU HAVEN’T BEEN POISONED. IT WAS JUST CHILLI, THAT’S ALL. I WAS JUST TRYING TO STOP SOMEONE STEALING MY YOGHURTS.’
He looks into my eyes for the first time, probably ever, focuses, and glowers. ‘You poisoned me?’ he asks incredulously.
‘Ella poisoned Tom,’ says someone behind me, and her comment is relayed back.
I close my eyes, ready to explain yet again that it was just sodding chilli, when a quick-response paramedic pushes through, and kneels down beside me.
‘What’s he taken? Narcotics? Poison? Chemicals? Do we know?’ He looks from me to Tom, and pulls up Tom’s eyelid.
‘Chilli,’ I say, now heartily sick of the word.
The paramedic frowns. ‘Chilli?’
‘Hot sauce. I put it in my yoghurt because someone’s been stealing them and . . .’ I hold out my hands to present Tom. Tom glares wonky-eyed daggers at me, and the paramedic lets go of his eyelid and joins Tom in glaring at me. ‘It only had two out of three chillies on the label! Sorry, I didn’t think it would cause this much fuss. Sorry,’ I repeat, though actually, I think Tom should be the one apologising.
The paramedic relaxes onto his heels and pulls his radio off his belt. ‘Call off the ambulance. False Alarm. Just someone playing silly-buggers with hot sauce.’
‘Roger,’ says someone at the other end, and he clips it back on his belt. He takes Tom’s wrist in his hand. Probably checking the time rather than Tom’s pulse, but it goes awfully quiet. Everyone glares at me, except for Jenny who studies her shoes.
‘I’m sorry,’ I apologise to the room at large. ‘I didn’t mean to scare anyone, but someone’s been stealing my yoghurts, and I needed to find out who.’ The room erupts. It seems everyone else would rather supply Tom with his daily snack than harm a hair on his immaculate, thieving head.
Rob, my boss, rests his chin on his fingertips and studies me across the wide expanse of his desk. ‘So, a prank gone wrong?’
‘No, nothing like that. I was just trying to stop my yoghurts being stolen.’
Rob’s eyebrows shoot up. ‘By Tom?’
‘Yes, as it turns out.’
Rob presses his lips together and air jets out through his nose. He looks down at his desk and shakes his head sadly before looking back at me. ‘Tom has made a complaint, and I might have been able to explain away a prank gone wrong – but an intentional trap, Ella? That’s more difficult, and might I add, not very nice.’
My insides squirm. ‘It was just meant to stop him taking my yoghurts, and I’ve tried everything else.’ Rob’s frown doesn’t budge. ‘And some might say stealing someone’s lunch day after day isn’t very nice, either. Thou shalt not steal, and all that.’
Rob sighs and pulls a file out from his desk drawer. He places it between us, so I can read ‘Ella Tate’, written in pencil on the top corner. ‘I’ll be dealing with Tom’s stealing separately, don’t you worry. But that’s not the point. This is a very serious situation, Ella.’
‘But it was just—’
‘Let me finish. You have caused another employee emotional anguish, and to fear for his life, and he has formally complained. There must be consequences.’
‘Fear for his life?’ Seriously? Who does Tom think he is – James Bond? I try to look contrite. ‘But he just ate some chilli. Nothing dangerous. Nothing weird. I even wrote ‘Do not eat’ on the lid. I mean, would you be having this conversation with the cleaner if he drank hand soap?’
‘The cleaner had no reason to think he would drink hand soap. You, on the other hand, had every reason to believe your yoghurt would be eaten and yet you still tampered with it.’
‘Not in any dangerous way! He just ate some chilli! Chilli! He got a hot tongue. The cure is yoghurt, and he was already eating that! People do it all the time. It’s hardly the crime of the century.’
Rob massages his temples and breathes out. ‘I’m disappointed you can’t grasp the seriousness of the situation, Ella.’ Believe me, I’m grasping it! What I don’t get is why it was apparently hilarious when Matt drew a spider on the toilet roll and Claire freaked out, and why when Karen concussed John with a metal bin full of ping-pong balls propped on top of a door, she got a pat on the back, but this is too much? ‘I don’t see why we can’t just move on.’
‘Because he’s contacted Human Resources,’ Rob says calmly.
‘Oh.’ My heart thuds to the bottom of my boots. It’s gone inter-departmental. And I’m guessing that’s where Tom used the words ‘emotional anguish’ and ‘fear for his life’.
‘Someone will be up shortly to speak with you. I just wanted to hear your side of the story before they arrived. Am I right in thinking you are coming to the end of your three-month trial period?’
Heat courses through me, leaving me strangely cold. ‘Yes.’
‘And you are . . . how old, if I might enquire?’ He tags on a smile.
The smile vanishes. ‘So, not fresh out of university?’ ‘No.’
He breathes out heavily as my defence of youthful exuberance floats away on an ebbing tide of yoghurt.
‘And what is it that you bring to the department?’
Is he talking about my lunch? ‘Erm?’
‘What are your skills? What do you bring to the table? Why should we keep you on?’ He’s waiting for my answer.
‘I do design choices . . . support the process,’ I say weakly. It’s not even good English. ‘And I work well with my colleagues?’ Not Tom, obviously, but I have no idea what Rob’s looking for.
He nods slowly, and there’s a gentle knock at the door.
‘Go and wait at your desk, please, Ella.’
I sidle out past Mr HR, who looks down at me with interest, and return to my desk.
Jenny taps her keyboard with her pencil. I give her a clipped shake of my head.
‘What happened?’ she hisses, refusing to be put off. ‘Tom complained,’ I whisper. ‘I explained about the yoghurts and why I did what I did.’ I’m careful to add a lot of ‘I’s so she knows I didn’t mention her. ‘But it doesn’t look good.’
She bites her lip. ‘They sent Tom home to recover.’
‘Oh God!’ I look anxiously at her. ‘I only put in a few drops. Do you think he’s allergic?’
‘No, he’s fine – no hives or anything, and he sprang up off the kitchen floor pretty damn fast; even checked his suit for signs of dirt before he rushed off to the toilets. It was only when he came out that he staggered about like an old man.’
‘Delayed shock?’ I offer.
Jenny shakes her head. ‘He was milking it for everything he’s worth – sorry for the dairy pun.’ She giggles, but stops as Rob opens his door and beckons me back with his head.
‘Good luck,’ she mouths, and I get up and walk over, trying to ignore the ceremonial drums beating in my head.
‘Close the door, please, Ella. Sit down,’ says Rob.
Mr HR is perched on Rob’s desk with his arms folded, so I take the chair. I grip the edge of the seat and cross my fingers under the folds of my dress, even though the troubled look in Mr HR’s eyes and Rob’s throat clearing tells me it’s a lost cause.
It doesn’t take long. They put on a good show full of we-regrets, unfortunatelys and out-of-our-handses. Rob even pinches the bridge of his nose as he calls down to security for someone to escort me from the building, and we sit in uncomfortable silence until Stan, the cheerful security guard, opens the door and grins at me.
‘Ah hello, pet! Leaving, are we?’
‘Yes.’ What else is there to say?
‘Ah well, let’s get you on the tube before rush hour.’ Stan follows me to my desk and waits, like a human billboard, broadcasting my fate. Blushing furiously I log off my computer, slurp down my cold coffee and dry out my Secret Santa ‘Let’s get Graphic’ mug before stowing it in my bag along with my lip balm and mints. I look around, but even though it feels like every eye in the office is on me, Jenny’s the only one who meets my eyes, and she’s biting her thumbnail.
I smile at her and shrug. ‘It’s just a job.’ And it is. It’s just a job. It was supposed to be The Job, but clearly that’s not going to happen.
She smiles back sadly.
Stan steps back to let me out and I wave my fingers at her. She holds up a hand, but she’s the only one. Everyone else types frantically, glued to their computer screens, determined not to make eye contact. I’m almost tempted to shout an exuberant goodbye, saying I didn’t want to work here anyway – but for one, Stan is holding his arm out directing me towards the lift, and for two, it isn’t true. I gave up a lot for this job – gambled everything on it in the hope that it would lead to the life I wanted.
I pick up my coat and take one last look at the glass conference room, where one of the designers is pitching her ideas to the mobile phone company she’s been assigned to. She’s smiling and talking animatedly to a rapt audience and, as Stan clears his throat encouragingly, they applaud her.
I sigh and follow Stan to the lift. We wait, with him wheezing even after only that small distance, and I glance at the stairwell, tempted to make off down the stairs just to see if he follows me. I’m betting he’d take the lift and hope to catch me at the bottom, or else radio in for backup.
We step into the lift and Stan presses the lobby button. ‘Soon be Valentine’s Day,’ he says.
Now I really wish I’d taken the stairs. Thankfully, we’re only three floors up so the doors slide open before he can say more. I hand him my pass and he waves as the glass doors swing closed between us: him in the warm, me in the wilderness . . . well, on the London street, anyway. Though it could be the Arctic tundra, given the way the February wind is slicing through my clothes.
I pull my coat a little tighter and stare about helplessly. A tide of people usually carries me towards the tube station, but right now the expanse of paving is empty. Apart from the crow. It gallops over and tips its head and looks up at me inquisitively.
‘If you’re an omen, you’re late!’
It looks at the ground as if to acknowledge this sad fact and bounds off on its next prophetic mission, while I button up my coat and set off for the tube station.
Releasing 26th November 2020