Writer's Block

By Clare Havens

Crime & mystery

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1765
13 mins

Chapter One

Kate Summers smiled as she began the descent past the church. It was a glorious autumn day and the sun was warm as she rode between two stubbly fields. Kate was grateful of the shade provided by the trees as she passed under their canopy at the top of the hill. Her brown hair had escaped from its beret and streamed over her shoulders making a pretty sight as she whizzed by the entrance to the Williams’ farm. Getting out of his ancient Land Rover, Jamie Williams looked wistfully after her as she passed, heading towards the village.
“Come along inside,” his mother called from the doorway. “No good pining after what you can’t have.”
Jamie stared after Kate until she disappeared from view. He sighed and turned towards the farmhouse.
Kate continued her downhill ride into the village. It was a small village on the Suffolk coast, over a thousand years old. The church had once been the centre of the community but village life had slowly drifted away, leaving it guarded by two of the local big houses, Grenville House and Felton Hall and, somewhat incongruously, the Williams’ pig farm. Beyond the farm the land sloped down to the gleaming estuary, empty of boats and edged with rustling reeds.
Kate reached the bottom of the hill and the village shops huddled around the small green. The village was on the outskirts of Constable Country, named after John Constable, the painter famous for capturing the wide Suffolk skies. Kate was pleased that her village, at least, had retained its picturesque charm. It wasn’t as chocolate box pretty as some of the neighbouring villages, but it was a working village with farms, a village shop, and post office; it didn’t rely on tourists to keep it going. Although the odd bus load of tourists certainly doesn’t hurt the bottom line, she thought. Kate took a quick peek at her ancient watch. It had been her dad’s and she’d worn it since he died. It was quarter to eight — plenty of time to get organized before the Tearooms opened.
Kate took a parcel from her basket. She held it carefully. It was a painting. Something she’d been working on for months and it was finally finished. Or at least possibly finally finished. It was something new – a move away from her usual enormous paintings with magnified flowers in saturated hues drenching the canvas. This was a far quieter work and she was unsure how she felt about this new direction or what it might mean. Deep down she thought it might mean that she had finally started a new chapter here in the village — that the troubles and trials of her life in London could be put behind her at last. She found it interesting that as she herself became happier, her art became more mysterious, more sombre.
Painting in hand, Kate took a moment and looked up at the building before unlocking the front door. The building dated back to the 1800s and was charming with its bay windows and hanging baskets filled with autumn coloured chrysanthemums on either side of the doorway. The stone front step was worn in the middle from the passing of countless feet. Kate had painted the building itself Suffolk pink, the color of many of the buildings in the village. The word ‘Tearooms’ was painted in shiny black enamel over the glass paned door and, through the bay windows, bright flowers could be seen on each table. Kate’s mother, Joanna, and her aunt Fiona owned the building and had leased it to Kate on very favourable terms. The only rent she had to pay them was in the form of free food and coffee.
Kate opened the door and flicked on the lights. She crossed the polished wooden floor to the tiny kitchen out the back. Having filled a watering can at the deep farmhouse sink she headed out the front door to top up the chrysanthemums. She knew if she didn’t do this first thing then there was a high probability she’d forget and she had already had to sheepishly return to the local garden centre several times to replenish the baskets. Gerry Lucas, manager of the garden centre, had told her he would refuse to sell her any more plants unless she took better care of them.
“Cruelty to plants, that’s what it is. I ought to report you!” he said, with a twinkle in his eye.
No, she definitely didn’t want to have to confess to Gerry she had murdered another batch. They looked nice, Kate decided, the warm reds glowing against the pink painted walls. Kate really wanted the Tearooms to work. She needed it to. She had moved back home from London a year ago, her painting paraphernalia packed into her ancient Fiat, along with all her clothes and possessions; everything that had marked her time as a student and then the years spent struggling as an artist after art school. She had known, as soon as she drove up the driveway to her mother’s cottage, that she had made the right decision. London was full of bad memories for Kate and living there soon wore thin if you didn’t have a lot of money. Kate had been home at Holly Cottage for a few months, struggling to work out what she would do next when her mum had broached the idea of Kate using the empty building in the village for some kind of retail venue. Kate had jumped at the chance.
The one thing she missed from her life in London was her local cafe, where the baristas worked their magic creating sensational coffee. The closest the village had to proper coffee was the service station on the way out of the village, where you could buy hot, vaguely coffee-flavoured liquid in a plastic cup for a couple of pounds. Maybe there are others in the village who’d like to be able to sit and have a cup of real coffee or tea in a china cup, Kate had thought. She’d been proved right.
The Tearooms had been open for almost a year now. The first few weeks had been nerve–wracking for Kate but people had been inquisitive and popped in for cups of coffee and a ‘proper afternoon tea’ and word had spread. Luckily, the village school was only a short distance away and many parents walked past the Tearooms after dropping off their children. A few mothers’ groups met there during the week and Kate was only too happy to have them; she didn’t mind a few spilled raisins on the floor or the endless requests to heat bottles of milk. Kate finally felt as though she was doing what she was meant to be doing. She loved the pace of village life – the eccentric people and the camaraderie. She loved feeling that she was part of the village community – she had never felt that way in London. The business had taken off and was developing quite a name for itself amongst the local artist community, with monthly showings and talks. Kate was only too pleased to be able to provide a venue for new artists to show their work.
Jo and Fiona were thrilled that Kate’s hard work was paying off. The Summers family had lived in the village for many years and were well liked. Jo and Fiona’s mother, Virginia Summers, had moved to the country to escape the London scene in the 1930s. She was a well-known sculptor and vivacious hostess who had often thrown open her house, Holly Cottage, for village events and had organized gallery fundraisers. Jo and Fiona continued this tradition and organized the annual Arts Benefit Dinner which promoted art in schools and was the social event of the season. In addition, all three Summers women were involved in fundraising for a shelter for women in nearby Ipswich. Fiona was on the board of several other local initiatives, including a local dog rescue and was forever trying to get Kate to adopt a dog but they already had four dogs at Holly Cottage and Kate didn’t think there was room for more. Kate had never been busier and she loved it. Her Mum sometimes wondered if she missed having a boyfriend but Kate assured her that she didn’t have time for any distractions.
After watering the plants, Kate stowed the watering can neatly under the sink and took a clean white cloth from the drawer. She lovingly wiped down the gleaming brass of the Italian espresso machine. She was tempted to come up with a name for him. It is definitely a ‘he’, she thought. Something macho and Italian – Bruno? She knew that the success or failure of the Tearooms hinged on this machine and her skills as a barista. Yes, people loved old-fashioned afternoon teas, but making a great cup of coffee was something else. The economic environment had been bad for a long time and Kate had realized at the start she’d have to invest in the best equipment and train hard – people wouldn’t pay for bad coffee even if the only other alternative were the watery brew at the service station. Kate had bought the Italian machine, Bruno, at a catering auction and it stood in a place of pride on the marble counter of the Tearooms. Kate had attended a barista training course in London and perfected her macchiatos and espressos. If sales were anything to go by, her investment was paying off.
Sourcing good food had proved a bit more of a challenge, as Kate was the first to admit that her culinary skills were fairly basic. Luckily, Jo suggested Kate ask Polly James, a local single mum, if she would be interested in helping. Polly ran her own restaurant in Ipswich until she had her son Billy, and she jumped at the chance to earn a pay check again especially with the flexible hours that working at the Tearooms could offer and carte blanche in the kitchen.
The Tearooms started filling up once the school drop-offs were finished. Mums and dads came in for coffee to go in one of the Tearooms’ emerald green cups or sat at one of the small tables to have a bit of breakfast. In addition to Polly’s cakes and afternoon teas, the Tearooms offered simple breakfast dishes using local produce: eggs from Jo and Fiona’s hens and free range bacon from the Williams’ farm as well as Polly’s pastries. Kate looked anxiously at her watch, she was always slightly nervous until Polly arrived. She could manage a basic, English breakfast but she was always relieved when Polly appeared to take over cooking duties.
Polly arrived in a flurry as usual, carrying two enormous baskets covered with pristine white tea towels. “Morning! God, it was a rush this morning! How are you?” Polly, a petite thirty year old redhead with blue eyes and a slew of freckles, set the baskets down on the counter and whisked off the covers.
Kate grinned. “What do we have here?” She sniffed appreciatively. “Mmm… apple and cinnamon muffins? And what’s this?” Kate peered closer into the basket. “Almond slice? Yum! What are you planning for soup of the day?”
Polly uncovered the other basket and pulled out several fat leeks and some muddy potatoes. “Leek and potato soup with Parmesan croutons and fresh rolls. Sound good?”
“Sounds heavenly! Let me help you.” Kate hefted the basket into the tiny kitchen, marvelling once again at how strong Polly was – she had been carrying the two laden baskets effortlessly. Kate busied herself setting out the muffins and almond slice on her antique cake plates and covered them with glass domes. She could hear Polly bustling away in the kitchen and opening the back door to their tiny courtyard where she grew a few herbs and fresh tomatoes in the summer. Now it was late autumn, all that the little courtyard contained were a few pots of parsley, rosemary, bay, and some dead stalks of basil. The women had big plans for extending their vegetable garden in the spring and Kate happily imagined rows of zucchini and green beans along with lettuces and strawberries. She smiled and scooped five heaped spoonfuls of Earl Grey tea into her favourite Brown Betty teapot. This is better than sitting on the Tube heading to a boring office job in London, she thought. Customers started drifting in for breakfast and Kate and Polly were soon busy filling orders. Time flew in the Tearooms, which was something Kate loved. It felt great to go home tired at the end of the day and she still managed to work at her art on Sundays.

* * *

The lunchtime rush had abated and Kate was busy refilling sugar bowls and milk jugs when the bell above the door jangled. The afternoon was getting dark and Kate and Polly had been discussing whether they could close early.
“Hi! Be right with you two!” said Kate and smiled at her mother and aunt and gestured to a table, thinking about how different the sisters were. Jo and Fiona Summers were twins but they were polar opposites in the way they looked and dressed and in their personalities. Jo was elegant and placid; Fiona was eccentric and hot tempered. Today, Jo wore a camel twin-set over tailored trousers. Her dark brown hair was cut in a bob and she had tucked it behind ears that gleamed with enormous pearl earrings. Fiona wore a black tunic from Top Shop that she had “borrowed” from Kate ages ago. The tunic was paired with a valuable ruby brooch that had belonged to Kate’s grandmother, black leggings, and clunky black shoes. Fiona’s short white hair was spiked and she wore several thick silver bangles. Despite being so different the sisters got on famously and shared the twin trait of seeming to read each other’s minds, much to Kate’s annoyance. Kate smiled as she watched them choose a table by the window. She knew exactly what they would want to drink. She had noticed, since opening the Tearooms, that people were very much creatures of habit.
“We’ve got almond slice or apple muffins,” she called out.
“Apple muffin for me please, darling,” said Jo and settled herself, putting her vintage handbag carefully on the empty chair next to her.
“Same here, please Kate.” Fiona pulled a stack of papers out of her enormous leather satchel, dumped them on the table in front of her, and began shuffling madly through them. Several sheets floated to the floor.
Fiona’s flustered, Kate thought as she carried the tray of muffins, a pot of Earl Grey tea for her mum, and a pot of Darjeeling for her aunt over to their table. Their meeting must have gone badly.
“Thanks, love. Can you sit with us for a moment?”
Kate pulled out a chair and sat down. “For my two favourite customers, not to mention my landladies, of course! What’s new? How did the meeting go?”
Fiona frowned and made a growling noise in her throat. “Not well. That… charlatan… for want of a better word, says he’s going to go to court to get access.”
“He won’t be able to do that, Fiona,” Jo said, soothingly, reaching out and patting her sister’s sleeve with her beautifully manicured fingers.
“He can try,” Fiona replied. She distractedly poured out her tea and added three sugars. Stirring vigorously, she eyed Kate. “Patrick says Flynn doesn’t have a leg to stand on but I’m not so sure. I rue the day I told that man about the diaries. I should have known he’d be bad news.” She took a sip of tea and pulled a face. “Ugh! Kate, you know I don’t take sugar,” she admonished.
Kate grinned. She was used to her aunt’s absentmindedness. It seemed Fiona was more worked up than usual. Local writer, or “muckraker” as Fiona described him, Daniel Flynn, was pushing the Summers for access to their mother’s dairies. Virginia Summers had lived a bohemian lifestyle in the 1920s and 30s and Flynn thought her diaries would form the basis for a great book. He wasn’t wrong, Kate thought. Rumours abounded about Virginia’s friends in high places and the goings on at house parties around the county when she had been in her heyday. Only Jo, Fiona, and Kate had seen the diaries and sketchbooks, but Fiona had been foolish enough to mention their existence to Daniel Flynn at the Benefit the previous year. The diaries were almost as salacious as Daniel Flynn was assuming they would be and the last thing the family wanted was for them to be made public. The Summers’ solicitor and family friend, Patrick Collins, had assured them that Flynn wouldn’t be able to get his hands on them legally but the battle between the Summers and Flynn was already drawing attention in the local press. Meanwhile, the diaries were under lock and key at the bank.
“Sorry, Fiona. I must’ve forgotten you don’t take sugar,” Kate exchanged a smile with her mother. “But seriously, why is Flynn so obsessed with Granny and her diaries? There must be loads of other people he could target. There must be hundreds of politicians or celebrities with skeletons in their cupboards. Why can’t he pick on one of them? Most people have never heard of Granny anyway.”
“I wish I knew.” Fiona sipped at her tea and grimaced again.
“I’ll get you a fresh cup,” Kate offered. She returned to the table with a clean cup and a piece of almond slice that she offered her aunt. “Here, try this. Polly’s secret recipe.”
Fiona took the slice and dunked it absent-mindedly in her fresh cup of Darjeeling.
“I think I know why Flynn is so set on writing about Mum,” said Jo, thoughtfully. “I was talking to Helena… ”
“Talking to the enemy, Mum!” Kate joked. Helena Carter was Daniel Flynn’s girlfriend, or mistress, as Flynn liked to introduce her, thinking it made him seem somehow more of a force to be reckoned with. To his thinking, “girlfriend” sounded a bit juvenile. Helena was a stunner, with long brown hair and a beautiful face but she was also clever. She was a partner at a solicitors’ office in Ipswich but it was well known that she had her sights set higher. When she had met Daniel Flynn, Professor Daniel Flynn, author of a dirt–raking, best–selling book about the PM, she realized he might be her ticket to bigger and better things. Having come from humble beginnings Helena had an aversion to being poor and her earnings as a solicitor were not enough to keep her in the style to which she wished to become accustomed. Helena was also a member of the Arts Benefit Committee — she had a genuine interest in the arts, but she also saw it as a useful vehicle for connecting with local bigwigs. Helena didn’t make any bones about her ambition; she had a great sense of humour and a zest for living and it was hard not to like her. However, since Flynn had raised the idea of writing a book about Virginia Summers relations between the women had become a little strained.
“I know! It was rather awkward.” Jo groaned. “You know what Helena’s like though. No funny business there. She tells you exactly what she thinks. Sometimes I get the impression that she doesn’t actually like Flynn much herself. God knows what she sees in him! She is so gorgeous and he, well… isn’t.” Jo tailed off and looked guiltily at Kate.
Kate blushed and focused on smoothing some imaginary wrinkles out of the tablecloth. She had had a bit of a crush on Daniel Flynn when he first moved to the village about ten years ago. He had been a romantic figure with wavy brown hair swept back over his high forehead. Kate had made a play for him and had been mortified when he sneeringly told her he already had a girlfriend, giving her the clear impression that, were she the last woman on earth, he still wouldn’t be interested in her. To her credit, Helena had never referred to Kate’s embarrassing infatuation and Kate was grateful for that. Over the years, Kate’s view of Flynn had changed as she realized how superficial and egotistical he was. Now she could laugh at his expensive clothes and sports car, his overly whitened teeth and name–dropping. Talk about a phony! There is nothing authentic about the man at all. Helena might be using Flynn to climb the social ladder but at least she isn’t trying to hide it. You can’t help liking Helena.
“So why do you think he is so interested in Mum?” Fiona asked.
“Helena told me that he is tired of being looked down upon by the other professors. He thinks they’re jealous of his having written a best seller and going on those TV chat shows but she thinks he’s jealous of them. He’s never written anything they take seriously and Helena thinks he wants to write something a bit more highbrow.”
Fiona snorted once more and spots of tea flew across the table. “If you’re trying to tell me that that weasel’s planning on writing a real book about Mum and he isn’t just trying to rake up whatever scandal and dirt he can then you’re as delusional as Helena!”
Jo tried to calm her. “I know he’s horrible, Fiona. But let’s not get too worked up about it. There’s no way he can get the diaries — Patrick said as much. They belong to us. They’re safe at the bank. No one can make us show them to him.”
Fiona glared furiously at her sister. “Well, that just shows what Patrick knows, doesn’t it? Flynn told me that his legal team has advised him that the diaries are a ‘National Treasure’ and that we can’t stop him gaining access to them.”
Fiona was well and truly worked up now. Kate noticed she hadn’t eaten anything and the almond slice was now a soggy mess in the bottom of the teacup.
“It’ll be ok, Fiona,” she soothed. “I’m sure he was just trying to wind you up. If Patrick says Flynn can’t get access to the diaries, then I’m sure he’s right. Let’s talk to Patrick again so he can put your mind at rest. Maybe we can ask Patrick to try talking to Flynn again.”
“I’m going to do better than that! I’m going to go and see Flynn myself and give him a piece of my mind. I’ll burn those diaries before I let him get his filthy hands on them.”
Fiona pushed her chair back with such force that it scraped ear piercingly against the wooden floorboards. Kate’s hands flew to her ears. Jo stared at her sister’s retreating back in astonishment.
“I should go after her,” she said, reaching for her bag and coat.
“I’ll go, Mum. Maybe I can calm her down. You’ve done more than your share today, by the sound of things. Would you mind holding down the fort here for a while? Shouldn’t be too busy now and Polly’s just out back.”
Kate untied her apron and headed for the door.
Jo was relieved she didn’t have to chase after her sister. She had had enough of trying to make Fiona see reason when it came to Flynn. Jo had great faith in the legal advice of Patrick Collins and couldn’t understand why Fiona was so worked up. There was no way Flynn could get the diaries. Also, Jo loved any excuse for helping out in the Tearooms. Having never worked a nine to five job, she enjoyed the novelty of making pots of tea and serving food. She was a bit scared when it came to the gleaming espresso machine but Kate shouldn’t be gone for long and Polly was very good at operating it.

Kate walked up the village street after Fiona. She was careful to stay on the side of the road, as the village roads were far too narrow for the modern cars and vans that roared along. It was already dusk and the air smelled of coming rain. The temperature had dropped and Kate wished she’d brought her coat with her. Peering ahead, she could just make out her aunt’s silhouette bobbing ahead of her, turning into the driveway of Graylings, the historical home Flynn shared with Helena in the heart of the village. Fiona’s probably right assuming Flynn will be at home, Kate thought. He likes to lock himself away in his library and make a great fuss if anyone disturbs him — the genius at work. Kate felt a sense of dread at the idea of coming face to face with him. She had to catch her aunt before she got to the house.
Kate jogged up the gravelled driveway just in time to see her aunt going through the front door. Nobody in the village locked their house and Fiona had not bothered knocking.
Kate caught up with her aunt in the hallway. As always, she couldn’t help but be impressed by the scale of the house. The large entrance hallway was tiled in white and black squares and was large enough to park several cars. The elegant oak staircase dominated the back of the hall where it wound majestically up to the upper floors. Fiona spun around at the sound of footsteps behind her.
“You didn’t need to follow me! I don’t need a babysitter!” she hissed.
“Let’s get out of here – let Patrick deal with him directly. You’ll only get into a shouting match if you stay here. Patrick told us to stay out of it.” Kate reasoned.
Fiona glared at her. “I want to put an end to this once and for all. Flynn!” she shouted. “Where are you? Flynn?” She made her way to a panelled door on the left of the hall, the library. She reached out and turned the heavy glass doorknob.
Kate shut her eyes. There’s no going back now! She could just imagine Flynn’s sneering face as her aunt forced her way into his inner sanctum.
But Kate was not prepared for the sight that met her when she opened her eyes. Daniel Flynn’s face was indeed sneering and awful but it was also very dead. He lay across the richly patterned carpet, his head facing the door, eyes wide and mouth open. Blood from a gash on his ruined head dripped quietly onto the carpet and a terrible stench filled the air.
Fiona stood with her hand still on the doorknob. Her mouth hung open and her eyes stared in disbelief. Kate stood in horror and stared from the wreck of a man on the floor to her aunt and back.
“Oh my God! Fiona!”
Fiona dragged her eyes from the body and looked at her niece, her eyes filled with something Kate couldn’t immediately identify.
“Call the police, Kate. Don’t touch anything. Just call the police.” Fiona sounded tired, as though the words had taken every ounce of her strength.
Kate backed into the hallway, her eyes still on the dreadful scene in the library. Fiona turned to the body and stood staring at it. Finally, she let go of the doorknob and her arm dropped to her side. Her shoulders slumped and she muttered something Kate couldn’t hear.
Kate reached for the old fashioned phone that she knew stood on the oak chest in the hallway. It was an original 1930s Bakelite telephone. Another one of Flynn’s affectations, Kate had often thought. Swallowing hard and with shaking fingers, she dialled. The sound of the rotary phone echoed in the silent hallway. As she looked back at her aunt’s crumpled form a thought crept into her mind.
Thank God I was here with her. Thank God I know she had nothing to do with this. If I hadn’t run after her she would be suspect number one.
“Hello? Ambulance please and police too. There’s been a murder.”

copyright Clare Havens 2016



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