Categories
Writing

Mr Newhouse’s Proposition

Here’s a freebie for Halloween weekend. A story I wrote some years ago about an unusual meeting in Venice. It sprang out of nowhere while I was writing Carnival for the Dead. You can read it here, download for your Kindle or as download an ePub file.

Venice was not Sevenoaks. Wreathed in thick winter fog, with nothing visible but the tantalising facades of great buildings and, by the Grand Canal, gondolas and vaporetti creeping in and out of the mist, it was quite unlike anything Francesca Malahide had ever encountered.

The sensible part of her wondered why she’d abandoned the safe, silent privacy of home at all. Only an uncharacteristic moment of impulse had sent her scuttling to the airport that morning, to find a ticket out of chilly England to anywhere really.

Thirty three years old, happily settled in a dental surgery in town, she was a successful, professional woman. The fact there was no man in her life — never had been, it was hard work becoming a dentist — didn’t concern her in the slightest. She needed a break, that was all.

One night away from the incessant false cheeriness of New Year’s Eve in England. Then back to normality and peace.

An hour before, she’d checked in at the hotel the airport found her, a tiny place in Dorsoduro with the odd name, Casanova di Casanova. Then stepped out of the front door, turned left, turned right, turned…

She no longer knew where. Francesca was, for the first time in her tightly-ordered adult life, lost. The map she took from Aldo, the kindly man at reception, proved meaningless. There were no street signs, no crossroads or obvious landmarks. Within minutes she’d found herself stumbling through a baffling maze of decaying palazzi, along narrow canals, past shop windows full of frivolous clothes and jewellery that would never do back at home in Sevenoaks.

It was now ten minutes to four. She had just walked to the end of a narrow alley she felt sure she’d gone down before only to find herself staring at a dead end much like all the others: an opaque bank of murk, beneath it a margin of grey water that rippled gently as if a hidden jester was disturbing it for fun.

‘Damn,’ Francesca said loudly and stamped her shiny sensible shoes.

The long black nose of a gondola appeared out of the mist, turned sideways in front of her then hove gently towards a set of steps which disappeared down into the canal.

A man stood upright by the peaked bows, middle-aged, erect and rather noble. He gave the gondolier some money and stepped daintily onto the pavement.

‘You’re lost, madame,’ he said in good English. ‘No worry. This is Venice. Most people are one way or another.’

He wore a long black cloak and was handsome in a striking old-fashioned way. Flowing silver hair, a mobile, almost feminine face, and very bright, alert eyes.

‘I’m looking for the hotel Casanova di Casanova,’ she said straight out. ‘Do you know it?’

‘Of course.’

He came and stood next to her, dusting down his cloak.

‘My name’s Jack Newhouse,’ he said. ‘I really need a coffee. There’s a place near here.’

Coffee. The very idea of a hot cappuccino on a freezing day like this…

‘Find me my hotel, Mr Newhouse, and I’m buying.’

‘Agreed. Miss…’

‘Francesca Malahide,’ she volunteered, without quite knowing why.

‘What a beautiful name. Do you know?’ He laughed. ‘That’s my hotel too.’


They went to a tiny café near the Accademia museum and it was the best cappuccino she’d ever tasted. Then at Jack’s suggestion — he would be addressed by his first name only and was the easiest and most agreeable of companions — they walked round to a wide pavement which led to the very tip of Dorsoduro.

Fog horns sounded out of the grey nothingness. Pale spires rose from the bank of cloud that covered the Basin of St Mark. And Jack Newhouse talked of Venice, of artists and musicians, celebrities and scoundrels. Of the prisons where the Doge kept his enemies, the church where Vivaldi’s orchestra of orphans used to play, and how Katharine Hepburn once fell into the San Trovaso canal.

‘Are you from here, then?’ she asked a little later as he held open the door to an elegant bar housed in what seemed to be an old salt warehouse overlooking the water.

‘Venice is an imaginary place in all honesty,’ he answered with a wink. ‘Since we all have imaginations, there’s a little bit of it in all of us. Even you.’

‘Well I don’t…’

But by then he was shooing her to a table and ordering what he said was the perfect drink to enjoy on a chill afternoon like this, with the light fading and the salty air of the lagoon seeping through the vast shiny windows.

Spritz. It was a bright red colour, Campari, prosecco, soda water, an olive and a slice of orange.

‘This is the drink for Venice,’ he advised. ‘Anywhere else and it tastes disgusting.’

She tried a sip, reeled at the initial shock, then took a deep breath and gave it another go.

‘Well?’

‘It’s lovely. I wondered…’

He was gesturing at the waiter, speaking Italian with a rapid fluency. Very soon a succession of small plates appeared, cicchetti he called them. Tiny sardines in marinade, anchovies, squid, odd vegetables and salad.

 ‘Francesca, What are your plans for this evening, may I ask? Do you have a gown? Something for the revelries?’

Before she could answer he stared frankly at her face and said, ‘I hope you won’t wear a mask. You’re much too honest and pretty for that nonsense.’

It was the spritz that made her blush, nothing else. She had no plans, of course, and neither did he.

‘I go home tomorrow,’ she said. ‘You?’

‘Just flitting through,’ he replied a little wistfully.

She liked Jack Newhouse though there was a sad air about him. As if he’d lost something important. She couldn’t help but wonder whether his rather static silver hair was a wig too, not that it mattered.

‘Where’s home?’ she inquired.

‘A lady who’s fond of cicchetti and spritz.’ He got to his feet with a broad smile. ‘Such fine and adventurous tastes. Let me find you something else to try. After that I’ll take you back to the Casanova di Casanova. I’ve stolen enough of your time already. Unless…’

Then he was gone to the counter.


They returned to the hotel where Francesca changed into clothes that, while sensible, were a little more fetching. He was waiting in the street when she came out. Same black coat. Same interesting sad face and immobile silver hair.

‘I’m not intruding, am I?’ Jack asked.

On the way back he’d shyly offered to show here more of the city if she truly had nothing else to do. It was no struggle to accept.

And so, as evening fell, Francesca found herself striding across the wooden bridge of the Accademia into a city marooned in the mists of the lagoon, as distant and separate as could be from the world to which she herself belonged.

They marvelled at the choir in Vivaldi’s church of La Pietà. Drank prosecco as they listened to the cheesy string quartets in the Piazza San Marco, with the summit of the campanile disappearing into the swirling brume above them.

Through streets crowded with revellers Jack led her, talking all the while, of Venice past, a lost and lovely city where anything was briefly possible.

Two more glasses of spritz were consumed in stops along the way, with a couple of prosecco and so many different cicchetti — occasionally of dishes she would never have tried back home — Francesca quite lost count.

By the time they reached the Rialto bridge the fog was clearing. On the white stone parapet she giggled as he leaned over the edge and sang what he said was a bawdy Venetian ditty down to the vaporetti stirring from the jetties below. And then, by the nearby markets, he hired a gondola.

They sat next to one another in the back and glided gently down the Grand Canal, past palazzi and churches, past hotels where masked balls were under way behind vast glittering windows.

‘Where are we?’ she asked as the long black shape began to edge towards a jetty emerging from the bank.

‘In Dorsoduro. Not a minute from the Casanova di Casanova.’

Gently he lifted her cold fingers and kissed them once, very quickly, then smiled.

‘Thank you for a beautiful New Year’s Eve, Francesca Malahide. I don’t know what this lonely soul would have done…’

 ‘Me neither,’ she said feeling a touch feverish in spite of the chill.

‘One hour to midnight. I fear a pumpkin waits for me somewhere. And then there’s the fireworks…’

‘Fireworks?’

‘Oh.’ His sad face lifted. ‘The best you’ll ever see. All across the Basin of St Mark. Just a few minutes but a memory to last forever.’

For the first time since they’d met he seemed reticent, almost nervous.

‘What is it, Jack?’

He edged away from her.

‘I don’t want to spoil things.’

‘How?’

‘It’s just… my suite. It’s at the top of the hotel and very…’ He grinned, shrugged his shoulders. ‘Very fetching if I’m honest. There’s a view from the windows all the way across to San Marco. Don’t misunderstand my intentions, dear Francesca. But on a night like this…’

‘Yes,’ she said, and took his arm then stepped onto what felt like dry and certain land.


There was no one behind the hotel desk. Jack Newhouse led her up the winding stairs, three floors, four, until he found a dead-end corridor that led to a single door in what must have been the eaves.

‘This,’ he said, ‘is mine.’

It was the most beautiful room she’d ever seen. Velvet curtains open to the night which had turned strangely clear beneath a shining moon. An old-fashioned couch was positioned in front of the windows with a view of the entire Basin of St Mark so beautiful it stole away her breath. To the side was a large four-poster bed. Francesca didn’t look at it too closely.

‘Please,’ Jack said, beckoning to the comfy-looking sofa. ‘I’ll find us a toast.’

He returned with two tiny glasses of grappa which tasted like fireworks itself. And then the show began, pyrotechnics over the city in the lagoon.

‘Nothing lasts,’ Jack Newhouse said as he sat next to her, quite close. ‘We’re mayflies, really, but never know it. All we have are a few brief moments. Of passion felt then spent then lost. And we fool ourselves they’re years…’

His arm curled round her shoulder, his hand moved gently to the nape of her neck, stroked the dark hair there, then ran to Francesca Malahide’s cheek.

‘I think…’ she whispered.

Swiftly, with a practised sureness, his mouth went to her ear, nibbled once, then said something.

Francesca listened, blinked, felt her breath catch as the glass of grappa tumbled to the floor.

It was a proposition. The proposition.

‘Mayflies,’ he whispered again, and started to nuzzle her temple.

This close there was a smell to him. The dead dry fragrance of old women, lavender and dust. As his cold lips closed on her skin a hank of silver hair broke free as if brittle and fell softly against her cheek like a dead moth tumbling from a wardrobe that hadn’t been opened in centuries.

‘Oh no. Oh no!’ Francesca Malahide cried then fled timorously down the narrow staircase, all the way back to her room.


She woke the next morning at ten minutes past eleven, afflicted by a nagging headache made worse by a bitter sense of regret. In a few frantic minutes she showered, changed into fresh clothes, rushed down into the small breakfast room. It was empty. So, it seemed was the hotel. Only Aldo, the same charming man at reception.

‘Mr Newhouse,’ Francesca said, trying not to seem too anxious. ‘Has he checked out?’

He looked at her blankly.

‘Mr Jack Newhouse. He had the suite at the top of the stairs. The one with a view to San Marco. Has he…?’

‘We have no guests called Newhouse. As of this morning we have no guests. Except you. And I believe you return to England…’

‘The suite at the top of the stairs!’

Aldo shook his head.

‘Come with me,’ Francesca ordered, grabbing him by the lapel.

They marched up the narrow staircase. The door looked different somehow. It was plainer and bore a sign saying ‘Office’.

‘He stayed here,’ she insisted.

‘But this is not for guests…’

‘Open it!’

The man shrugged, took out a set of keys and obeyed.

Francesca marched through, blinking against the bright winter daylight streaming through the long windows. The view was the same, even more beautiful now with the majestic shape of the basilica of Salute close by, then San Marco and the Doge’s Palace across the water.

A line of old brown filing cabinets stood where the chaise-longue had been. There was no four-poster bed with flowing drapes by the wall, only three desks with phones and computers. No carpet on which a tell-tale grappa stain might have remained, just old and dusty tiles.

‘You moved things,’ she cried, knowing how ridiculous it sounded.

‘Let me get you a coffee and some breakfast,’ Aldo suggested. ‘On New Year’s Eve strange things can happen…’

She barely heard. There was a sepia engraving on the wall next to the desks. A handsome man in a wig. He had kindly, animated features, almost feminine. A pleasant expression, innocent but with a touch of the devil in it.

There was a name at the foot of the portrait: Giacomo Girolamo Casanova de Seingalt.

‘The great lover stayed here when he returned to Venice towards the end of his life,’ Aldo explained. ‘The place had just been built. Hence our name.’

He came to stand next to her, admiring the view.

‘Casanova di Casanova. Casanova’s new house. A little joke.’

Jack Newhouse. Giacomo Casanova. A hank of dry hair fluttering against her cheek in the dark. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think.

‘The poor man was ill and impoverished. A young seamstress called Francesca Buschini loved him very much and cared for him, here. But Casanova was a rascal always. He fled the city for good, and abandoned poor Francesca.’

His hand went to the picture, straightening it.

‘If you read his memoirs you’ll see, I think, he regretted this. But Casanova had cause for many regrets. There are some silly stories too. About ghosts and suchlike. Things that return. But honestly…’

Aldo waved his bunch of keys until they rang. A polite invitation to leave.

‘This is a city of ghosts. As for things that return…’ His hand swept the glorious panorama ahead of them. ‘I’m a Venetian. Why would one ever leave?’

‘Why…?’ she murmured.

‘I can offer you a room for half price tonight. The best in the house.’ He laughed. ‘Better than an old office. We have the staff party. You should join us. Meet real Venetians for a change. Not this Mr Jack Newhouse, whoever he is…’

‘Will there be spritz?’ she asked immediately. ‘And cicchetti?’

The hotel man looked surprised.

‘Of course,’ he said with a nod.

Mayflies, Francesca Malahide thought to herself. That’s all we are.

‘I’d like that, Aldo,’ she told him and smiled.

©David Hewson 2011

Categories
Writing

Realer… a story for 2020

Realer, my latest audio exclusive, this time narrated by the wonderful Gemma Whelan, is about to appear, launched on January 29 by WF Howes and available in all the usual audio outfits.

I first started work on this story four years ago and picked it up again earlier this year during lockdown when the pandemic seemed to give its theme – a murder story hiding behind a discussion on how we deal with isolation an tragedy – an extraordinary timeliness.

And now we’re in the middle of a debate about north versus south, something else that’s current throughout the tale too. I’m going to be very interested to see what people make of the story when it comes out.

But here’s a taster… a new review on the Netgalley page for the project from ‘Laura B’… Thanks Laura!

REALER is one of the first books I’ve come across that visualizes a post-COVID (or at least post-lockdown) world, and Hewson’s world is a dystopian, dangerous place. The good news is that while the Northern England setting is bleak, REALER is a thrilling story that I couldn’t bear to turn off until I listened to it all. Charlotte “Charlie” Mackintosh is a much-bullied ginger living a drab teenage existence among her lower-class peers. Mom is drunky, her beloved Dad has abandoned the family for no discernible reason, and a creepy guy named Rick has moved into the cottage and her mother’s bed. Rick is her dad’s supervisor at a warehouse company that sounds a lot like the one that immediately comes up if you type the letter “A” into any search engine.

It employs a lot of low-skilled people, but not for long, because the robots are coming. But before the robots, comes Realer. Realer is a kind of virtual/augmented reality mash up that lets you travel anywhere in the world (or atmosphere) without leaving your home–something that a lot of people, like Charlie, have gotten used to because of “the pandemic.”

Realers are quickly becoming must-haves all over the world. You simply pop on “specs” or a “hood” (the hood image is uber-creepy because it reminds me way too much of hoods put on people about to be executed), and away you go. Charlie’s dad gives her a Realer of her own. She’s not excited about it, because she’d much rather spend her time drawing birds on paper, or reading books. But she uses it with him to humor him, and to spend time with him. That’s when the real trouble starts.

On one of her first Realer outings, she sees her father murdered. Charlie has no real adult support in her life. At sixteen, she’s not taken seriously by anyone. When the police barely seem interested in her father’s murder, she slowly realizes she must take on the investigation herself. Though Charlie is no Nancy Drew with a flashy car and a wealthy parent to bankroll her. Charlie’s world is bleak and friendless in the extreme. Fortunately she’s smart, and braver than she thinks she is. She dives deep into the Realer world to uncover her father’s connection to it, and discover what sort of toy Realer really is. It’s fascinating to watch her navigate, trying to figure out whom she can trust (no one, she concludes), and whom she can manipulate or fool into revealing their motives.

This is an incredibly timely book, and though the protagonist is only sixteen, it is a cautionary tale that anyone over the age of, say, fifteen will enjoy. It was a bit of a shock to realize how plausible the world of Realer is. If you’re like me, you’ll run to turn off every microphone in your house, pocket, or purse the moment you finish.

Categories
Writing

Realer… an audio exclusive performed by Gemma Whelan

A few years ago, when I was working on one of my earlier audio exclusives, someone in book publishing took me to one side and asked, ‘Why do you bother with this stuff? It’s so small.’

I don’t think anyone would ask that now. Storytelling in audio has exploded in recent years as people have discovered how powerful a medium it is, and how easy and convenient for audiences to access. But I loved audio long before its present fashionable status. This is narrative art in its purest form, a chance to put a real voice in the ear of a listener’s imagination. When it works there’s nothing quite like it.

And now I’m delighted to be able to announce my latest audio exclusive, Realer, a brand new standalone chiller set in a dystopian near future and narrated by that wonderful actor Gemma Whelan, whose many great roles include the fabulous Yara Greyjoy from Game of Thrones.

The project I was writing when I had that conversation, an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet with the amazing voice talent of Richard Armitage, went on to win an Audie, the audiobook equivalent of an Oscar. Realer is an idea I started working on in a buzz coming back from New York after we won that award, keen to keep on exploring the many exciting possibilities audio offers.

Note that word ‘performed’. The best audio storytelling is more than narration – someone simply reading the words in a book. It is a very. intimate kind of theatre, which is why actors with wide stage experience, like Gemma and Richard, excel at the task.

At the heart of Realer is Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Mackintosh, a solitary girl from an impoverished family in near future Yorkshire. I desperately wanted to write about the North, the region I come from, one I love, one whose future I fear for which is, in part, at the core of this tale.

Charlie witnesses the murder of her father through a virtual reality system and then realises she must use that same system – which she hates and fears – to find his killers. It’s a story about broken families, the control technology is coming to hold over our lives, and the cost of lockdown. When I began I saw it not as a book but more a one-woman play divided into short, accessible chapters, a first person narrative that might be told directly to an audience in a theatre. Or to a bunch of people on a broken down bus.

Charlie speaks to you personally, a funny, emotional and occasionally unreliable narrator telling the story of how she came face-to-face with tragedy and – no great spoilers here – found a way to survive and defeat the challenges of a post-pandemic world. Can you tell this tale in a conventional book? Yes, and one day Realer may be just that. For now though I wanted it to be delivered in the direct and personal way that only great performances in the studio can manage, which is how I first imagined it a couple of years ago on the way back from New York. I’m very grateful to WF Howes for the opportunity to produce this latest audio exclusive, and to Gemma Whelan for bringing her formidable talents to the task.

For those of you who use NetGalley I’m delighted to say the service now handles audio release too – so if you head to the Realer page you can apply to be one of the pre-release reviewers. Just go here on NetGalley.

And here’s the cover copy…

‘Life is real.. but this is Realer…’ Realer promises a new virtual reality, a safe and sanitised window into a virtual existence without the risks of the real, crumbling, post-pandemic society beyond the door.

Sixteen-year-old Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Mackintosh is a loner whose father works for the company. He gives her Realer for her birthday – only to be murdered as she watches through her high-tech hood at home.

Alone in a tense, post-lockdown world, Charlie has to turn to Realer to find his killers. She’s soon trapped in a murderous conspiracy behind a system that’s steadily beginning to take over people’s lives.

Charlie comes to understand that she can only hide from outside dangers for so long. In the end, the only way to defeat them is face-to-face, in the real world. A place she fears more than any.

A brand new audio exclusive for WF Howes, performed by Gemma Whelan (Game of Thrones). Available through Audible, Apple iTunes, Amazon and other audio outlets on October 29.

Categories
Writing

TripFiction Sense of Place

The website TripFiction just keeps getting better and better with its mix of fiction reviews that marries books to their location around the world.

Today the site’s announcing a new venture too, its Sense of Place creative writing contest. In a nutshell…

This autumn, as the world finally takes its first tentative steps into a post pandemic world, we invite adventurous writers to create new stories. Ideas that transport people to a place where imaginations can escape from the claustrophobia of locked down lives and restricted travel. Welcome to the TripFiction ‘Sense of Place’ Creative Writing Competition.

There are very few rules and guidelines: we want to encourage creative adventure and freedom. It might be a fully formed short story, a travelogue or a more personal memoir. It might be set in Shetland, Shanghai, Shoeburyness or Shaker Heights, Ohio. It might be rooted in history, love, humour, romance, crime or food. It’s entirely up to you.

But the one thing your entry must include is a strong sense of place: the destination at the heart of your story will be as important a character as the protagonists and the plot.

The maximum word count is 3,000, minimum 750. All rules and guidelines for this TripFiction ‘Sense of Place’ creative writing competition are set out below, including the closing date for submissions.

I’m delighted to be one of the judges. And if you sign up to take part you’ll receive three essays from your truly offering some insight into the tips I’ve picked up about writing location in Rome, Venice, Copenhagen and Amsterdam, among a few other places, over the years.

There’s money to be won and you have until November 15th to submit your entry. So start writing…