‘Dear Felicity,’ says the letter, ‘I have two lovers and I like them both a lot. Trouble is the man I really love won’t look at me. I’m going crazy...’
Fliss drums her fingers on the dining room table. ‘I’m not going to rise to it,’ she tells herself. ‘I’m just not.’ It’s Fliss’ job to take her readers’ problems seriously. That’s why she’s always bringing work home and it’s her personal pride to read every single letter sent to the magazine. Whether it’s about dealing with anxiety, vague adolescent yearnings or the need to perk up a mature but flagging sex life, Fliss always specialises in impartial but sensitive advice.
Sometimes, she wonders what Charlene might say in her place. Fliss likes Charlene, who’s sassy and smart-chatty with black hair that sticks out from her head in wet-gelled quills. Charlene writes for a rival magazine, but the two women respect one another as professionals, sometimes even share a drink and a chat after work. Seldom do they disagree on how to approach a relationship problem.
Pushing the tumbled mass of gold brown hair off her forehead, Fliss sinks her chin onto her hands and tries to tune into Charlene’s thought-waves.
‘Have you nearly finished, Fliss?’ asks Matt.
‘A few more.’ Fliss gives her husband an affectionate glance.
‘You’ve been working non-stop for a week,’ he grumbles, switching on the TV and she sighs. How can she concentrate, with that noise? Police sirens, car chases, gunshots, women screaming blue murder
‘Nearly finished. Then we can look through the brochures for our holiday.’
This imminent holiday in Austria – they’ve been looking forward to it for ages. Fliss hopes they might go snowboarding, something she’s never tried before. Imagining herself slaloming through lovely, slushy snow down a mountain slope in the bright sunshine is keeping her focussed. She loves trying out new things, preferably involving speed and a sense of danger. Not the sort of aspirations usually expected from a sober-looking, thirty-five year old career woman. For Fliss, it’s the empowering buzz of a quick thrill, the quicker and more thrilling the better. In the meantime, work still needs attention so she puts snowboarding, lovely slushy snow and gorgeous training instructors from her mind and gets her head down. But the next letter makes her catch her breath.
‘Dear Felicity,’ it says, ‘I don’t know if I’m going mad, but I’m about to murder my wife.’
She flicks through the sheets. The letter is signed, ‘Yours Agonised.’
‘Oh my God!’ she mutters and re-reads the letter. The woman sounds a real monster from the writer’s description: She’s so sexy, says the letter, that any man who meets her is driven mad with lust.
‘Well, really! That’s a bit over-the-top.’ But, like Shirley Valentine Fliss has to tell the wall, since Matt isn’t listening.
The awful words leap out at her. ‘I hate her...could kill her...driving me insane...I’ll get her.’ No indication of identity or place. No date. She can’t even check the envelope for a postmark because the bin men have already been.
From the letter, it’s clear the writer’s wife is abusive and evil-tempered. Still, that’s no excuse for violence, so Fliss slips into the hallway to call the local police station. She has to wait for ages to speak to someone, only to be told they’re short-handed and can’t help right now. An officer will phone her back.
Dejected, she snuggles up to Matt on their lush, leather sofa, but he’s absorbed in something on television about alien abductions. She teases the back of his curly ginger hair with one hand, while tracing his clean-cut profile with the other. He tries to push her away.
‘I’ve had a scary letter from a potential wife-killer.’
‘Either he’s loopy or she’s asking for it,’ mumbles Matt, which makes her angry and his nape hairs get a tug. ‘Leave off,’ he growls.
That night, Fliss lies awake beside her sleeping husband, thinking how strange that whenever she receives an unusual letter it seems to mirror her own life problems. She knows she’s been neglecting Matt recently and he keeps glaring at her, but then he turns away and becomes distant when she makes an effort to be more loving. Somehow, they can’t seem to connect any more. Still, she knows as well as anyone that all marriages go through these highs and lows – if you love your mate you just have to ride them out.
Next day, at the office, Fliss hands in her copy and her assistant, Jonathan, brings more letters. She doesn’t tell him about Agonised whose contribution she’s left simmering in her pending tray for when the copshop is less ‘shorthanded’.
‘Lots of post for you today,’ says Jonathan. She glances at the envelope on top, at the thick, stubby writing. Angry writing! Opening the envelope, she can’t stop her hands from trembling and there’s a black hole swallowing up her stomach.
‘She’s hard, uncaring. She doesn’t deserve to live.’ And again, ‘I love her but she treats me like dirt.’
She phones Matt at work but he’s in a board meeting. Annoyed at being called away, he’s abrupt when she most needs a few words of sympathy. She feels her insides liquify and can’t bring herself to mention the letter. ‘I wanted to say I love you. I’m going to make something very special to eat tonight.’ Hearing the meekness in her own voice fills her with self-loathing.
‘We’ll talk later. I’m busy now,’ says Matt.
Agonised seems to take over her life. The police interview her, make lots of notes and remove the threatening letters. She prefers to be independent and not bother her editor with her problems, but now things have gone too far to keep them to herself. He listens sympathetically enough, tells her to keep an eye on things and inform him of developments. The next letter arrives two days later in a batch of mail posted direct to Felicity Minns Agony Column, minus the envelope. She sets in motion a frantic but fruitless search for the missing envelope.
‘Jonathan, make sure you save the envelopes from my mail and pin them to the letters, so I can show the police the postmarks,’ she tells him, more sharply than she intends. Jonathan sulks for the rest of the day. Her boss is out for a long lunch with some advertising clients and Fliss feels unbearably alone.
No more letters appear that week from Agonised’s poisonous pen. When the weekend arrives, the sun shines but it doesn’t manage to ease Fliss’ doom-laden thoughts. She can’t get the letters out of her mind. The poison pen writer must be a real sicko! Even so, he has to be somebody’s son, somebody’s brother, somebody’s husband. Some ordinary woman just like Fliss is related to him. It’s scary! She’s relieved when it’s the weekend at last and she can safely relax at home.
‘What a lovely day! Shall we do something special? Visit a castle or something?’ she asks Matt on Sunday morning.
‘Whatever…’ says Matt. Oh, how she hates that word, whatever when it’s used in that way, like an insult, as though speaker can’t be bothered to answer you.
‘It’s good to be alive,’ she tells Matt, more to convince herself than him.
‘Not for much longer,’ he growls.
There’s a twisting in the pit of her stomach and she spins around. ‘What?’
Matt nods towards the window. ‘It’s black as thunder over there! It’s coming this way.’
Hang on, Fliss, she tells herself, you’re getting paranoid. What are you thinking of? Making something out of an innocent remark like that. Matt’s right. You’re working too hard. You need that holiday. She bends over him and wraps her arms around him, burying her nose in his warm neck and feeling that little surge of wanting that has been lacking ever since Poison Pen Writer struck. ‘Lovely, yummy Matt’, she gushes, ‘you really are such a sweetie.’
‘Tell you what,’ says Matt, who hates baby-talk, ‘Why don’t we take a week’s skiing break next week?’
Why not? Jonathan could cover for her. What freedom! What utter bliss!
Next evening, she decides to pop over to Mum’s while Matt watches football. But her mother’s irritable so Fliss leaves a little earlier than usual, returns home and quietly lets herself in. As she’s about to enter the living room, Matt’s on the phone and she hears him mention the name Charlene. Something makes her stop and listen outside the door.
‘So you’ll come and help me, will you Charlie. We’ll do it next Wednesday, shall we, halfway through the holiday. I’ll get the maps. You can persuade her to take the most... appropriate run. One particular section will suit our purpose very well. She’s bound to fall for it.’
Fliss starts to shake and her mouth is dry. She’s shocked to the depths of her being. Suddenly, everything is clear; they’re having an affair; their motives are simply lust and money. Charlene won’t want to share the proceeds from the marital home and investments with Fliss when she sneaks off with her husband!
Her husband and her best friend are planning to murder her. Imagine!
A terrible rage fills Fliss and she has to sink into her deep breathing to contain it. It’s lucky I came back when I did, she tells herself. Now she has to put a brave face on things and play a careful, waiting game if she’s going to foil their plans.
Taking a final breath, she cries, ‘I’m back,’ as though she’s just walked in and rushes into the kitchen for a glass of water. She leans against the sink, waiting for the initial shock to subside. Trawls her numbed brain for some sort of strategy.
The simplest way is not to go skiing with them. Only, if she doesn’t go, they’ll just invent some other malicious scheme and she doesn’t have any evidence to support her case. At least with the present state of play, she’s forewarned. But what can she do to protect herself? And also produce some proof of the threat to her life?
The threat to her life! Experiencing fully the ominous meaning in that clichéd little phrase, Fliss begins to hyperventilate. After Matt puts down the phone, he follows her into the kitchen, grinning. ‘I’ve just been talking to Charlene. You don’t mind if she joins us for the ski trip, do you? I mean, we all get on well and Charlie hasn’t anyone to go away with since she dumped her bloke. Fliss, what’s wrong? Are you all right?’
Dumbly, Fliss shakes her head, telling Matt she has a headache and she sidles off to sleep in the spare room. He looks confused, shrugs and then slinks back to watch the television. She thinks what a good actor he is.
Next day, before catching the train for work, she goes to the police station. She’s interviewed by a policeman, then another policeman, then a policewoman until her head is about to explode. They ask her the same questions in subtly different ways and she’s sure they don’t believe her. To be honest, Fliss doesn’t entirely blame them. She wouldn’t believe her if she were in their place. She gives them the name of the other police station near her office dealing with the poison pen letters. Eventually, they agree to interview Matt and suggest a hotel for Fliss. She hopes they’ll soon realise she’s terrified, take her seriously and agree with her that the best place for her husband is safely in prison.
Next day, Fliss is more confused than ever. She rings the police from work and they say they’ve arrested Matt. Although she’s thankful her allegations have finally been taken seriously, everything is unbearable. The terrifying thought of how close she has come to death, the equally distressing fact of Matt and Charlene’s betrayal, are simply doing in her head. She can’t believe she’s still sane – and perhaps she isn’t. She hates the hotel room with its blank, impersonal décor and so she decides to return home, for with Matt held at the station, she’s fairly safe.
She can’t concentrate on anything, not a book, not the television, not even her favourite classical music. She’s just contemplating her wedding ring when the phone goes. Fliss pushes the cat off her lap to answer it and gasps at Charlene’s voice in her ear. Fliss has forgotten about Charlene, but now she’s confused, for if they’ve arrested Matt, why not Charlene too, who is, after all, his accomplice?
‘Hi there you,’ says Charlene, in her rich, brown-velvet voice, ‘it’s me.’ Fliss is amazed she still has that innocent lilt. Fliss can picture Charlene in her executive chair, with her aggressive black spiky hairdo, her full, purple lips mouthing the treacherous words over her perfect, white Smile Clinic teeth. ‘I can’t understand it,’ she complains. ‘I’ve been trying to get hold of Matt at work and on his mobile, but he’s not replying.’
‘He’s at the police station’ say Fliss, then slams her hand over her mouth. How could she be so indiscreet? She must be losing it big-time. Now she’ll have awkward questions to answer and she mustn’t convey her suspicions to Charlene.
‘Oh no! What’s he done?’ cries Charlene. ‘Had one too many and made a fool of himself in the street or is it something more serious?’
‘I’m afraid the skiing’s off.’
‘Oh dear! Don’t you have any idea why the police are holding him?’
She’s got to give it to Charlene, she’s a great actress. Almost as accomplished as Matt! Charlene sounds shocked, as if she hasn’t the vaguest notion of why Matt is in police custody.
‘It’s serious. I can say no more than that, Charlene, I’ve been asked not to.’
‘How long will they hold him?’
‘Well, the holiday’s off, Charlene, that’s for sure.’
There’s a pause as Charlene processes this information. ‘What a shame!’ she says. ‘I do hope the charges aren’t too awful. I can’t understand why you won’t tell me, Fliss, you know I’d never let on.’
‘I can’t say a word,’ says Fliss firmly.
‘And Matt had such a wonderful surprise planned for you and now it’ll be spoiled.’ Charlene sounds genuinely regretful.
‘Can you believe it, a wonderful surprise?’ thinks Fliss. ‘Being murdered a wonderful surprise!’
Somehow she keeps her voice level. ‘Exactly what is this nice surprise?’ she asks guardedly, wondering if there’s something else that’s nothing to do with her being brutally murdered in the cold Austrian snow.
‘I’m not sure if Matt would want me to tell you.’
She waits. Does Charlene need thinking time to come up with a credible explanation? Or is there really a genuine surprise? She knows Charlene, despite her profession, finds it impossible to keep secrets – it’s a mystery to Fliss that Matt would have shared a surprise for her with Charlene.
And, sure enough, Charlene can’t help blabbing. ‘Well, I suppose I may as well tell you. I’m sure Matt won’t mind, as he’ll have to think of something else now. You see Fliss, he wanted help you achieve your ambition.’
‘You’ve always longed to snowboard down a black run. So Matt planned it for you, for your birthday next Wednesday. I have the snowboard here, in my flat, for safekeeping. The plan was that when you got ready to ski down your favourite run, Matt was going to spring out on you with the snowboard. Surprise! Good, eh? What a shame it’s all spoiled now.’
Suddenly, Fliss feels sick. She searches in her mind for Matt’s exact words: ‘You can persuade her to ski down the most appropriate run. One particular section will suit our purpose very well. She’s bound to fall for it.’
‘Charlene, I must go,’ she says quickly.
‘Just before you go, Fliss,’ warbles Charlene, ‘They got that man who wrote those poison pen letters? I started getting some too and that helped nail him. It’s amazing how the police manage to trace people from a few anonymous letters. I can’t imagine how they do it. So at least you have no more worries about him.’
Bleakly Fliss puts the phone back in its cradle and sinks her head into her hands.
‘No worries!’ she croaks. ‘Charlene, if only you knew!’