Lydia Bradshaw is a woman in a marriage which has lost all its spark. Her neighbours are Geoff Rutherford and his wife Carol, who has MS and is confined to a wheelchair. Lydia feels a compelling attraction to Geoff but is determined nothing will come of this for Carol’s sake.
One evening Lydia’s husband Russell arrives home to find her taking explicit photos of herself for a website called Babes Inc. Desperate to get out of his unrewarding IT job, he persuades Lydia to start up in business selling her photos independently, and as the company blossoms Lydia needs to employ more models from a variety of backgrounds. As a general admin manager, once they start renting premises, she also employs Carol who before her disability worked as a PA to Geoff’s boss.
Amid all the erotic photography, Lydia and Russell rekindle the excitement of their early years of marriage, but then threatening anonymous letters start to arrive, telling Lydia to shut down the business. To avoid unwelcome publicity for herself or the models she employs, Lydia decides not to tell Russell about the letters nor report them to the police but through one of her “Ladies in Red” enlists a contact to investigate 'off the record'.
When she finds that the sender of the letters is a powerful local pimp, unhappy that his girls are deserting him to make money with Lydia, she is very worried, and even when the pimp is killed in a gang fight shortly afterwards, she still feels nervous and out of place in the world in which she now finds herself. She receives an offer from Babes Inc. to buy her out, but refuses to sell. Lydia knows Babes Inc. will not employ her workforce because they are not typically model material. and she feels she can’t let these other women down – she has built relationships with them and they are all changing their lives for the better through their income from Ladies in Red.
Russell branches out into a further IT venture, and begins to overwork, leaving Lydia feeling he has no time for her. Then, through a set of unfortunate circumstances, she finds herself alone with Geoff the night before the Bradshaws go on holiday, and they end up having sex, The fortnight away is a turmoil of emotions for Lydia, wondering if Geoff will have told Carol what happened. When they get back, however, she finds that Geoff has been killed in a car accident returning from a company event the first weekend they were away. Carol knows nothing of what happened between her husband and Lydia, and turns to her neighbour for support in her grief.
Over the following weeks, negative aspects of Geoff emerge, including that he had been physically abusive to Carol. Then, after Geoff’s funeral, Lydia and Carol find explicit photos of Geoff’s boss among his papers along with obvious proceeds of blackmail deposited in a secret bank account. Carol is devastated, because this might now make Geoff’s car accident seem suspicious, and lead to more investigations. To avoid this, and allow Carol to move on with her life, Lydia, consumed with guilt about her affair with Geoff, agrees not to mention anything about the blackmail and to put the money through the “Ladies in Red” business, giving Carol income for the rest of her life.
With Geoff’s insurance money and her newly secured ongoing financial state, Carol buys two adjoining flats in a luxury development – one for her and one for a carer. Her future is secure, and so are the futures of the "Ladies in Red". In conversation with Carol's carer, however, Lydia then discovers that Carol had begun arranging these living arrangements before the funeral, and realises she has been played. Carol pretended to find the photos when she was there, and already knew about the blackmail. Could she have had anything to do with Geoff’s death?
First 10 Pages (2839 words)
"What the bloody hell are you doing, Lydia?"
The camera on the dressing table made three small beeps then clicked, taking its programmed time-delay shot of the double bed in the Bradshaw’s spare room. Sadly, this was not destined to be the erotic photo which Lydia had taken so much time and care to set up that evening, but instead one of a woman floundering in mid cover-up, scrabbling to rise from all fours and desperately clutching the corner of a duvet to her semi-clad body.
"Oh... Russell," she said, "I didn’t hear you come in. I thought you were working late tonight."
Russell’s eyes flicked frantically around the outrageous bordello-style scene in front of him, taking in the red satin basque, black stockings and long auburn wig that his wife was wearing.
"What the bloody hell is going on in here?" he said.
Lydia swallowed hard, took a deep breath and turned to Russell, shifting position and lifting her ample thigh over the sequinned cushions to assume a slightly more dignified pose.
"I can explain," she stammered. "I can explain, Russell, but you won't like it."
"I’ll see you downstairs," Russell said shortly, his eyes narrowing in suppressed anger. "And put something on before you come down, for goodness’ sake. You look ridiculous."
By the time Lydia had got changed, hidden the gaudy soft furnishings and other accessories back in the wardrobe and made it downstairs, Russell was seated at the kitchen table with a small tumbler of whisky. The bottle stood on the table, lid off, as if ready for an imminent refill. Without much hope Lydia glanced around the worktops to see if there might be a gin and tonic poured for her, but there was not.
"Is it Geoff?" Russell demanded as she came through the door, his eyes fixed on the glass in his hand.
"Geoff?" Lydia looked blank. "Is what Geoff?"
Suddenly, Russell slammed his glass down, shooting the contents into the air and startling his wife. "I'm not an idiot, Lydia. I could see what was going on up there. You were taking photos of your...... self."
Lydia took a deep breath and sat down. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the J-cloth beside the sink and with difficulty resisted the urge to get it and wipe up the spillage. This was not the moment. "I can explain," she said, swallowing hard.
"Will you stop bloody saying you can explain."
"But I can."
"Then do it before I walk out of that door and never come back."
Russell had actually gestured towards the door of their walk-in larder, as he often mistakenly did, but Lydia felt this was not the time for her usual joke about it.
"I'm taking the photos for a website called Babes Inc.," she blurted out. "It's like... well... I suppose it would count as pornography, but it's sort of... tastefully done?" Lydia gave the end of her sentence an upward intonation, a rising inflexion, as if it were a question. It was a way of speaking which she and Russell had always hated, but somehow in the circumstances it seemed appropriate. She hoped it would lead to a comment of understanding or a grunt of acknowledgement from her husband, but Russell just sat there.
"A website," he said eventually. His tone was flat, now, as if he was reading from a prepared script. "You're sending pornographic photos to a website. Why the bloody hell would you want to do that?"
"For money?" Lydia cringed at the second rising inflexion and quickly went on to camouflage it. "I send in photos and people pay to download them. I've been doing it about ten months now."
Once the words were out, they seemed to hang in the air like something too awful to be digested. No one spoke. Russell lifted his tumbler of whisky slowly to his lips, as if considering his options. It would have looked quite sophisticated, Lydia thought, except for the coaster stuck to the bottom of the wet glass. She watched the wooden disc in fascination, knowing it would fall but not knowing when.
"You've got your coaster stuck to your glass," she observed.
"I know," replied Russell. He picked it off, shook free some drops of whisky and placed it back on the table.
"I'll get a cloth," Lydia said. She got up and went to the sink, turning on the hot tap and squeezing some washing up liquid into the bowl. "If we don’t get that whisky off the wood quickly it will..." she paused suddenly and turned off the tap. “Geoff?" she said, her tone abruptly changed. "What did you mean, 'Is it Geoff?' "
Russell shrugged. "You’d hardly be taking photos like that for your own entertainment," he snapped. “Geoff seems the most obvious candidate."
Lydia took in a sharp, angry breath.
"Russell, how could you even thinkI would be carrying on with Geoff next door?" She spat the words out through gritted teeth. "You think I would be so low as to do that to Carol? With all she's been through? Oh my God, Russell, you really don't know me at all, do you."
Russell stared at her straight in the eyes. "No," he said. "After what I've seen tonight, I don't think I do."
Then he put down his glass and walked out of the room.
* * *
The rest of the evening was spent in virtual silence except for the noise of their usual TV programmes, a mix of films, quiz shows and comedies. It was like any other night schedule-wise in the Bradshaws’ living room, except there were no arguments about Russell wanting to watch a foreign film, no attempts to answer the quiz questions and no laughing. Absolutely no laughing. That night they were like two job applicants in a waiting room.
When eleven o'clock struck on the carriage clock in the dining room Lydia got up. It was her usual bedtime and given the tension in the air she thought she might as well keep to it.
"Do you want anything before I go up?" she asked, pausing in the doorway.
"Only an explanation." Russell said. "If you have actually got one."
"I told you," Lydia stated. "It's a website."
"Yes, I get that. I get that it's a bloody website." Russell spat out angrily. "But what I don't get is why the hell you would want to be part of it. Why you would want to send that... stuff you've been sending them. I mean, for Christ's sake, do you know what you looked like up there? Surely ..."
"Surely what, Russell?" Lydia cut him off. "Surely no-one's interested in a fat 50-year-old trying to be sexy? Well that's where you're wrong. The website guy told me they've got loads of clients that only want to see big girls like me. They can't get enough photos from me. Literally cannot get enough."
Russell shook his head as if in disbelief.
“I’m going to bed,” Lydia stated flatly.
“What I don’t understand,” Russell said, as if she hadn’t spoken. “What I don’t understand is basically two things.”
Ignoring the grammatical mistake, Lydia lifted her chin and addressed her husband from the moral high ground.
“What two things?” she asked.
“First, why you ever started doing this, and second, why you’ve carried on doing it for ten months.”
Lydia looked directly at Russell. She did not move but the space between them in the room seemed almost to expand.
“I started doing it,” she explained carefully, “because I saw an advert asking for curvy women looking to make some money at home. It was in one of those magazines you see at the supermarket checkouts. I don’t usually buy them. Don’t even know why I bought that one. But when I saw the advert I just thought it was… like fate or something. You hadn’t looked at me that way for years and I just wanted to feel….” She stopped and shook her head, wiping the back of her hand briefly across her eyes.
The couple looked at each other, reassessing, as if uncertain of the next step to take.
“The thing is, Russell, I actually quite like doing the photos,” Lydia said finally. “There's a creative side to it. And I make sure no-one could recognise me in them. I’ve even got a few masks I wear sometimes.”
Russell put his head in his hands.
“I’m sorry,” Lydia said. “That’s probably too much information.”
She looked at her husband. He seemed broken and deflated.
“And the money’s good, Russell. I mean, it’s really good. I haven’t been able to send them that much up to now because it takes ages to set everything up, the light has to be right and I’ve only been able to do the photos when I was sure you’d be out. But I’ve already made over four thousand pounds.”
Time seemed to stand still in the room. It was as if Russell and Lydia were in suspended animation. Then finally, and very slowly, Russell raised his head to look at his wife.
“So what have you been doing with the money?” he asked. “Gambling it?”
“Gambling?” Lydia shook her head in disbelief. “Why on earth would you think…”
“Nothing would surprise me after tonight.”
Lydia considered for a moment, then, “It’s in Premium Bonds,” she said. “I was trying to build up some savings to fall back on in case you leave me one day. I wouldn’t be able to manage on just my wages from the chemist, even if I went full time.”
Russell gave something between a laugh and a sigh. He sat up then and patted the seat of the settee beside him, a gesture from their early years together that Lydia recognised with a touch of nostalgia. But this was not a time that she felt like being Russell’s pet dog, coming at his beck and call. She did not move from the doorway.
“Look…” Russell began awkwardly, shifting in his seat, then getting up and moving towards her. “I’m sorry for what I said before, Lydia. About Geoff. And about you looking ridiculous. You didn’t look ridiculous. I was just… angry. And jealous, I suppose, of whoever you were doing that for. You didn’t look ridiculous. You looked amazing.”
Lydia took in a deep breath and let it out again. It came out shakily, the way it used to when she had been crying.
“And I’m not going to leave you,” he went on. “I’m never going to leave you.” Normally at this point, as a confirmation of intent, some women might have expected a declaration of continuing love, but Russell and Lydia had had an agreement from early on in their relationship that those three words were unnecessary. As Russell said, if you have to say them, you probably don’t mean them.
“I’m doing well at this photo stuff, Russell,” she said simply. “It makes me feel good that people want to see my body even though I’m big.”
Russell smiled. “Yes, you are big, Lydia,” he agreed, “but if you really do enjoy this stuff, maybe you need to expand.”
Lydia looked up at her husband, puzzled. He was smiling, and there was a look in his eyes she had not seen for a number of years.
Firkin Drive was not the sort of place one would imagine as the site of a burgeoning pornography business. A newish development in a leafy suburb of London with two cars in most driveways, it certainly represented the growing prosperity of the area and on a Sunday afternoon it rang to the sound of tiny robotic lawnmowers plying their pathways back and forth across the grass at the rear of the houses.
Russell and Lydia had lived at number 4 for seven months and had bought the house for a good price because the previous owners, a couple from Scotland, had defaulted on their rather over-ambitious mortgage and been forced to downsize to a mobile home in Chingford. Lydia had not really wanted to move from their previous house with its memories of happier times, but after inheriting money from his parents Russell had said it was now or never to move up a step in the housing market, and Firkin Drive was definitely a step up. Because it had not technically been a new build when the Bradshaws bought it, number 4 did not come with all its original building warranties, but it did still come with that unmistakeable, prestigious exterior – the pale, sand-coloured brickwork, the smart wood-effect double glazing and the railings at the upstairs windows guarding tiny, unusable balconies.
Though they lived at number 4, Russell and Lydia had only one set of neighbours, Geoff and Carol Rutherford at number 6. There was no number 2, Firkin Drive, due to a sudden downturn in the building industry while the development was underway and the developer’s decision to pull out of further construction slightly ahead of plan, with the final house still unbuilt.
The lack of a number 2 amused Russell and Lydia at first, but they soon discovered that it caused problems regarding deliveries on the even numbered side of the street. It was quite common for carriers to assume the first house on the left, opposite number 1, was number 2, so parcels often ended up one house up from their intended destination. That was how Lydia and Russell had so quickly become acquainted with the Rutherfords over their first two weeks in the house, as emergency supplies of cushions and throws arrived to break up the monotonous magnolia of the original walls and carpets at number 4.
“Sorry, Geoff,” Lydia had apologised when their neighbour arrived at the door for the fifth time one weekend with a brown cardboard package that had been left in the parcel box at number 6. “I feel really bad that you have to keep bringing things over."
“No problem at all,” Geoff said. “I’m not complaining. Not complaining at all.”
Lydia felt herself beginning to blush, and hurriedly took the parcel from him, pretending to investigate the label. She was annoyed with herself, annoyed at her reaction whenever he was near. It wasn’t as if Geoff was stunningly good-looking, but he had that arrogance she was always attracted to in a man. It was something about the way he looked at her, the way he spoke. It made her feel something she didn’t want to feel.
“It shouldn’t be for much longer, anyway,” she explained quickly, “We’ve almost got the house sorted now.”
“As I say, no worries,” Geoff said. “We had the same problem when we moved in. All our stuff was going to the Beatons at number 8. It’s because there’s…”
“… a house missing, yes, I know.” Lydia glanced over towards the unfinished piece of wasteland at the end of the street. “Someone should take responsibility for sorting that bit of ground out,” she observed. “It looks awful.”
Geoff smiled. “Carol always describes it as the number two at the end of the street,” he said, and they both laughed. “The Council apparently say it’s nothing to do with them and the builders have washed their hands of it too but Lendrick Muir’s on the case and when she’s on the case you can bet something will eventually get done. That woman’s like a Dobermann.”
“Lendrick Muir?” Lydia queried.
“She sits up in that bungalow at the top of the street watching everything that goes on like a prison guard out of The Shawshank Redemption,” Geoff said. “Chairperson of every committee in Firkin Drive. You know the sort. You don’t want to cross her.”
Lydia wondered vaguely how many committees a single street of ten houses could have, but she needed to get on and she felt Geoff had been standing on the doorstep long enough.
“Well, thanks again,” she said. “When we get ourselves sorted out I'll make sure Russell fixes a much bigger door number up that people can read from the roadway. Hopefully that will sort the problem out.”
Geoff opened his mouth to say something and then shut it again before eventually giving Lydia a final nod. "Yes, well, just wait till you've settled in, as you say, and see how the land lies. No problem, though, with any parcels in the meantime. Carol will always be in, even if I'm not. She rarely leaves the house now."
"See how the land lies" seemed an odd phrase for her neighbour to have used, but Lydia came to realise its significance the following morning when two worthies of the residents’ association knocked on the door.
"Good morning," gushed the tall, thin, white-haired woman, very upright in her flat brown shoes and lavender jumper. She gave a confident smile and held out her hand to shake Lydia’s. "I’m Lendrick Muir, Chair of the Firkin Drive Residents’ Association."
“Oh yes, hello,” Lydia said.
“And you may have met Clive Beaton, the vice chair, from number 8?”
Lydia shook her head, biting the side of her lip to stop herself laughing.
Lendrick Muir turns and nodded to the thin, suited man beside her who took out a piece of A4 paper and started to read from it. This must be the official welcome to the street, Lydia thought, and she nodded and smiled through its contents, not wanting to fall out so soon with those who considered themselves in positions of power.
It was only after her visitors had gone, leaving Lydia with a printed pamphlet called the ‘Firkin Information Leaflet’ that she realised the Firkin Drive Residents’ Association was a cross between a neighbourhood watch group and a right-wing dictatorship. Ostensibly coming that morning to welcome the Bradshaws as new residents, Miss Muir and her friend had in fact come to lay down their expectations of acceptable household conduct in the street.
This is really a novel about…
This is really a novel about people not always being what they seem on the surface. Its main characters are women.
What a great premise - very Belle du Jour! I really like seeing the sex industry from the woman's perspective - it's very complex because even though there may be some positive aspects, I always feel it's going to go wrong! And also that people are not what they seem - I liked Harlots, where the women had a terrible time in many ways but also had power - and the most memorable thing for me was the honesty and lack of hypocrisy - they expected everyone to have their lusts and demons.
Congratulations on getting…
Congratulations on getting to the Shortlist x