Here’s a short story I wrote as part of an Ilkley Writers exercise in April. We had to imagine we’d been invited to a plush log cabin in the Highlands for a luxurious and relaxing writers’ retreat. We’ve kicked our shoes off and the host’s confiscated our phones so we don’t get distracted, but there’s bars on all the windows, wolves starting to howl outside in the remaining snow, and when someone tries to fetch something from their car they find the door’s locked and our host confronts them with a shotgun. Why is she doing this, and how do we respond? Fun to write, so I hope it’s fun to read…
She’s standing there, snarling over her shotgun, cashmere sweater rucked up under her elbow where she’s resting the gun’s weight. I look from face to unknown face, we’ve all frozen in a loose arc around the doorway. Rob – the guy who made the mistake of trying to fetch his forgotten toothbrush – a few steps in front. A crack from the kitchen and we all flinch.
“Kettle’s boiled,” she says, smiling and cradling the shotgun in one arm. “Who wanted peppermint? I can’t remember.”
I’d only met Andrea once before, at a crime writing conference in York. She’d seemed friendly and open, maybe a bit too open now I came to think of it, and when her email landed in my inbox I was at a low enough ebb with my latest short story collection to take at face value her offer of accommodation. My dad’s old place, she said. Peace and quiet, she said. Undisturbed, she said. I said: Is tomorrow too soon?
In the kitchen area of this open-plan cabin like a hunting lodge from a National Lampoon film she’s spooning coffee with one hand and caressing the gun with the other. Not caressing, I realise after a moment, she’s playing it like it’s a disguised clarinet and any moment she’ll pull it to her mouth and wail out some jazz.
“My glasses,” another woman says. I didn’t catch her name. “They’re in the glove compartment.”
Andrea ignores her, the tiny crease beside her eyes the only sign she’s heard.
I take my mug of Earl Grey warily, poison warnings klaxoning at the back of my mind. Half an hour earlier I was looking forward to a week of writing, now I feel like I’ve been landed in the middle of a thriller. That’s it! She’s working on a novel, she writes crime, maybe she’s one of those crazy writers who approach the craft like a method actor. I grab for the gun, convinced now that it isn’t loaded and getting sick of this childish play-acting. She’s faster, and a spray of wood chips peppers the worktop.
“Oopsie,” she says. “Careful, people can get hurt with these things.”
I hear a sob and one woman pads upstairs in her pop socks to shut herself in her room. All the en-suite bedrooms lead off the gallery and I noticed mine didn’t have a lock. I assume none of the others do either.
“So, who wants to do a writing exercise?” Andrea asks, and we all murmur politely and space ourselves around the U-shaped arrangement of chairs and sofas.
“I’ve left my lucky pen in my coat pocket,” I say, heading for the stairs and glancing back to try and catch Rob’s eye. He’s staring at his feet but Rose, a playwright from Devon, gets the idea and stands up.
“Notebook,” she says and hurries up the stairs after me.
“If we make her waste the other cartridge she’s defenceless,” I whisper as we reach the door to my room.
“What do you want me to do, paint a target on my chest and dance on the coffee table?” she snaps, moving on to the next door.
I duck inside to get a random pen that I hope will prove luckier than usual.
“No but there must be-”
“Ready, ladies?” Andrea calls from downstairs.
An excruciating hour follows in which we pretend to relax as we write paragraphs where every word starts with the same letter, and describe a tree without using the words leaf, trunk or green. Rob lunges for a wine bottle from the crate at one point, I see him hefting it as though he’s wondering what to smash it against. Then Andrea’s smile, and the heavy mould line, make me realise she’s got the wine from an outside catering firm that uses plastic bottles for festivals and catered picnics. She’s cunning, I’ll give her that. Rob spots his mistake pretty soon too, and opens the bottle anyway. He doesn’t bother with a glass.
“I can’t sleep knowing she’s on the loose,” Marie murmurs. She’s been struggling to read back anything she’s written – she’s the one who left her glasses in the glove compartment – and she looks like she’d snap like a mousetrap if you brushed against her. I shuffle a couple of inches further away.
Rob and I lock eyes for a moment and I call our hostess over from the kitchen where Rose is helping her stack the dishwasher. Andrea’s only using one hand because of the gun.
“Is this painting of the view from here?” I ask.
Please come through the U-shape, don’t walk round it, don’t walk-
Rob uncrosses his ankles with a casual movement but he clearly meant to trip her because he’s on her back the second she hits the floor, leaning forward onto her gun arm to stop her moving it.
“Don’t just bloody stand there,” he shouts and Rose and I simultaneously lunge at the prone form beneath him. She’s struggling valiantly but since no reading of fine print is required, Marie joins in too and four against one is no contest.
“Now what?” Rose asks.
Andrea is spitting a machine-gun tirade of obscenities, none of us want to get close enough to her teeth to gag her. Rob is sitting on her buttocks to keep her down, holding her hands to stop her clawing blindly at his thigh. Both Rose and Marie have sacrificed their chiffon scarves to bind her wrists and ankles but we all know they won’t last long, the way she’s thrashing about.
“Hit her,” says Marie. “With the shotgun.”
We do our best to ignore the redoubled yelling from Andrea, and consider our options.
“Shove her outside,” says Rob.
“We need our shoes and car keys first, surely,” says Rose.
She gingerly holds the back of Andrea’s head so I can stick my fingers down the high neck of her jumper to see if she’s got a key on a chain. She has, and I unclasp it. Rose lets go and Andrea snarls: “You have no business in my study whatsoever.”
“Find the study and we’re in business,” says Rose, so we leave Rob and Marie on guard and go in search.
The study turns out to be what Andrea’s bedroom has instead of a bathroom, and our shoes are jumbled on the floor, a pile of keys and phones on the desk next to her laptop. I grab a skirt from the back of a chair and shove the assorted footwear on it intending to use it as a sack.
“Good God,” Rose says. “She wasn’t being kind at all.”
I turn to the corkboard she’s looking at and see a grainy reproduction of my own face from the local paper’s write-up of the conference in York. It describes me as a name to watch out for but doesn’t mention Andrea at all.
“This is from when Marie beat her to second prize in a women’s novel competition,” Rose points to another clipping. “And – ooh – Rob wrote this review of her first novel.” She twists her mouth. “I don’t think there was any need for him to say that.”
I hesitate but only for a second.
“What are you doing?”
Rose sounds shocked, as though I’ve overstepped the bounds of hospitality by unpinning newspaper cuttings. This from a woman who recently tied our hostess’s ankles together with a three-foot length of rose-print, shot through with metallic threads.
“She’d come after us,” I say. “This is no chance gathering of writers. We need to make it look like we were never here.”
“With all the tyre tracks outside?”
“OK, we need to make it look like some or all of us were here, but she never turned up and we left again. And there’s nothing special about any of us.”
Rose stands for a moment with her lips parted as though preparing for some sentence that won’t come, then she turns and holding the edge of her tunic against the desk, sweeps the keys and phones into its billowy material. I get a glimpse of elasticated trouser waist as she leaves the room.
It takes all four of us to put Rob’s plan into action, but we’re too squeamish to knock Andrea out, even Marie. The sobbing woman left with her estate car’s seatbelt alarm clanging rhythmically as soon as Rose took her shoes up to her.
“Curtain tie-backs, it doesn’t look like the sort of thing a hardened criminal would use does it?”
“They’d be improvising,” Rose says. “If they existed.”
We’ve got Andrea trussed up in gold braid, Marie and Rose wearing their scarves again. Everything from the dishwasher is washed and put away. I notice Rob’s transferred most of the wine bottles to his car boot.
“Are you sure she’s going to die?” Marie asks for the twentieth time. “We can’t have her talking to the police about this.”
“Have you heard the howls out there?”
“Chuck a chicken out with her,” Rob says, gesturing to the fridge, and Marie hurries over to fetch the uncooked meat. She’s already wearing her woolly gloves, partly against the cold we’re about to encounter, partly to make sure we’re not leaving fingerprints.
As we carry Andrea up the slope behind the cabin, still swearing and struggling and now trying to keep her face away from the plucked chicken resting on her chest, Rose runs through our story one more time:
“The four of us arrived, no idea that it had been cancelled. We stood around exchanging pleasantries until someone thought to try the door to the cabin. It was open, but although we shouted and looked in a few rooms there was no response and we left again as it started dropping dark. Marie and Rob went their separate ways, leaving us to find a hotel somewhere together since we were both heading down the west.”
In truth Rose is planning to drive Andrea’s car north into the next valley and I’ll follow her and bring her back to get her own car. In theory the wolves will be too busy with their chicken ‘n’ Andrea two-for-one by then to bother with us.
“Best of luck and I hope we never meet again,” says Rob, holding his hand out. The three of us shake it and then we’re driving off in convoy down the winding track to the road.
To make it look like a robbery we’ve each taken one of the few valuable items in the place: a small CD player from the kitchen, Andrea’s phone and printer. I’ve got her laptop in the back of my car. I’m supposed to ditch it somewhere unconnected but I think I might keep it. It’s newer than mine and if I wipe all her data who’s to say it was ever hers? I fancy a new laptop anyway, I can feel a novel coming on.