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Escape to the Country: A perfect feel-good read to escape by Alison Sherlock (1)

Eleanor McCartney had dreamt of being a reporter ever since the first time she had seen The New Adventures of Superman at the age of ten. The excitement, the glamour and Dean Cain in tights. What more could a girl want?

Of course, Lois Lane would be laughing her glamorous high heels off if she could see Eleanor at that moment in time.

The rain dripped behind her collar and onto her neck as she crouched down behind a large hedge. She shuddered and pulled her denim jacket tightly around her. But nothing would keep out the relentless downpour. She was also freezing cold despite it being the last day in May. So much for the predicted summer heatwave that was apparently on its way. She was drenched from head to toe.

It was typical May bank holiday weather. And yet another public holiday that she was forced to work whilst everyone else was relaxing and enjoying themselves.

She just hoped the story would be worth the possible onset of pneumonia. It had to be worth it. She needed that promotion. She had sacrificed too much along the way to fall at this last hurdle now.

She glanced up and down the street, one of the most exclusive addresses in the heart of London, but there was no sign of life. Why would there be at almost midnight on a wet, cold Monday night?

She inhaled deeply and realised she was actually sitting next to a rose bush. She recognised the familiar early-flowering type, the same variety that was in her Mum’s garden. The perfume from the pink petals sweetened the air, despite the flowers bowing down from the pressure of the heavy rain.

She made a mental note. When she got that promotion, at the top of her to-do list was to find a flat with a garden. Somewhere to relax and enjoy being outside again. She had spent too many years in the city looking out of windows onto everyone else’s plots of greenery.

She sighed and checked the empty street once more. At least the lack of people meant that nobody else had the scoop. Especially Kourtney, her new junior colleague and rival for the best stories. Or rather, Killer Kourtney as their editor, scary Theresa Brown, had dubbed her. Ever since arriving at the magazine six months previously, Kourtney appeared to have a knack for finding the juiciest, most scandalous stories. Her star was on the rise whilst Eleanor was feeling distinctly overlooked.

But Eleanor had been given an anonymous tip-off earlier that day that she had kept to herself. She was sure that inside that flat on the other side of the wet street, Tuesday Tavistock, the famous high-class escort, was entertaining an A-list celebrity. Maybe even a politician with a squeaky-clean record. Once that person left the flat, Eleanor would see who it was and get the story. It might even make the front cover of Hot Gossip! magazine.

At last, she told herself with a firm nod. The years of stress, guilt and lies would be worth all the sacrifices she had made over the years.

Eleanor shuffled from foot to foot, trying to bring some kind of feeling back to her freezing-cold toes.

She had been working for Hot Gossip! magazine for eight long years. Her first job after finishing her journalism degree at university, it was supposed to have been a brief stepping stone on her way to getting a senior writer’s position at one of the daily newspapers. That was where her future lay.

After all, that was what everyone back home expected from her. Her friends and family would never know that she spent her days sharing private details about Z-list celebrities. Never needed to know. Because she wouldn’t be in the job for very long.

At least, that was what she had thought at the time.

So she had created the lie that she had been quickly promoted and was now a reporter for a magazine within the same media group that covered financial investments. In the fiction that she had crafted for herself, she wrote about stocks, shares and other city financial stuff that she had absolutely no idea about. Something that anyone she knew and loved wouldn’t be remotely interested in. And it had worked.

And yet, here she was, all these years later, still writing for Hot Gossip! about which co-stars had been caught canoodling, the latest singer who was cancelling his world tour due to ‘exhaustion’ and some reality star who had just had a facelift.

Worst of all, she was still lying about her job to everyone she loved.

In the beginning it had been exciting working on the magazine, she had to admit. The endless, glamorous parties were a stark contrast to growing up in the tiny, quiet hamlet of Cranley. Mixing with famous people had given her a thrill. The goody bags full of expensive stuff she would never have been able to afford had been treasured and admired.

And yes, there was the joy of exposing some of the more ghastly celebrities for what they really were.

She had convinced herself at the time that it was retribution for her own pain. If she had learnt anything from the whole heart-breaking experience with her father, it was that fame was one of the new deadly sins. After all, he had abandoned his own family to seek out the same glamorous, celebrity-filled lifestyle and had left his wife and daughter far behind many years ago.

But these days the whole show business life just left her numb. The thrill of dazzling wedding ceremonies, sweet new babies and wild parties had gone many years ago and been replaced by the guilt of what harm her job really did to the people she wrote about. As she had begun to know and like various celebrities over the years, it made her feel even worse when she had to reveal personal details of their lives. Especially the ones that didn’t court publicity.

She was weary of glamorous parties every night. She wanted a bit of peace in her life. To stop and literally smell the roses, she thought with a smile, glancing over at the flower bush next to her once more.

And yet she kept going. She had to until she landed the job of her dreams. The weight of everyone’s expectations lay heavy on her shoulders whilst she carried on with the illusion of her perfect life.

But thankfully relief was just around the corner.

Theresa had announced the previous week that a senior position had just become vacant within the media group that Hot Gossip! belonged to. It would involve proper investigative journalism. That would mean no more gossip. She could write articles that actually interested her and could make a difference.

Eleanor knew that she alone was the senior member of staff on the team. She had worked there the longest. All it would take was one more big story and the promotion was hers. Then she could leave the celebrity world far behind in the capable hands of Killer Kourtney.

Finally she could have a job that she could be proud of. A job she didn’t have to lie about any more. She could relax and be herself for the first time in a very long time.

Eleanor shivered, her clothes were soaking. Her knees were almost at breaking point in her crouched position. She had been there for two hours and was chilled to the bone. How much longer would she have to wait? She longed for a hot shower.

She grabbed her phone and automatically checked her appearance. With a grimace, she saw that her long dark brown bob was beginning to kink and curl in the rain. Thankfully her mascara and eyeliner hadn’t run, but her face looked pale and gaunt in the harsh glare of the street lamp.

Thank god, nobody was around to see her like this. Eleanor prided herself on her immaculate looks. Feeling less than perfect on the outside panicked her. Even her boyfriend Lucas had never seen her without make-up on. She liked to look polished and poised at all times. Soaking wet with messy hair wasn’t a good feeling for her and added to her misery.

She gave a start as the mobile suddenly rang out into the quiet of the night. Seeing the name on the screen, she immediately grimaced. It was her editor, the fearsome Theresa. A woman so rude and abrupt in nature that she could make Cersei Lannister look cute and cuddly.

With her phone in one hand, Eleanor reached out with the other to stroke the smooth pink petals of one of the roses. Her floral comfort blanket.

‘Hello. You’re working late,’ said Eleanor, faking a bright tone of voice.

‘That’s because I got called into the boardroom this evening,’ snapped Theresa, straight to the point as always. ‘Circulation is down. The owners want to know why.’

‘Well, everyone in the industry is struggling at the minute,’ began Eleanor. ‘It’s tough out there in the current climate, what with…’

‘Your stories have been a total snooze fest recently,’ said Theresa, talking over her.

Eleanor was taken aback. ‘Well, it’s getting harder and harder to get an exclusive when everyone is so empowered with Twitter and Instagram these days. But I’ve had a tip-off that…’

‘Kourtney manages it.’

Eleanor took a deep and calming breath. ‘Kourtney’s Dad owns a Formula One team. She has access to all those secret parties.’ The ones that you know I can’t possibly get into, she added silently.

‘Quite. The London season is coming up and I need someone young like Kourtney to handle it.’

‘Young? I’m only thirty,’ blurted out Eleanor, with a shocked laugh.

‘Anyway, I’ve decided to make Kourtney the senior reporter in my team.’

Eleanor quickly stopped laughing. ‘What? No!’

‘Look, thanks to her contacts, she can bring in exclusives that you can only dream about,’ said Theresa.

‘But I’ve earned this promotion!’ Eleanor told her, beginning to lose her temper. ‘I’ve spent eight years working on this magazine! She’s only been with us for six months!’

‘Kourtney assures me that she can bring in a different angle on things, liven up the stories and that will boost circulation.’

Eleanor could feel her pulse racing as her heart hammered away in panic. It was the third time this month that it had happened. She had assured her doctor that her stress levels would be back to normal soon. But that had been when she had thought the promotion was hers.

‘Theresa, listen to me,’ said Eleanor, rubbing her throbbing chest. ‘Please. I can’t carry on doing these celebrity stories any more. I just can’t. I’m losing the will to live on a daily basis. You’ve got to give me a break, let me do something different. I beg you.’

‘Well, there may be some relief for you there, I suppose,’ drawled Theresa. ‘I’m afraid that I’ve got to let you go. The board want us to downsize. Cut our overheads.’

A chill came over Eleanor that had nothing to do with being soaked to the skin. ‘Downsize?’ she repeated, in a daze.

‘I’m sure you understand.’

‘Actually I don’t think I do,’ said Eleanor, struggling in her shock to form a coherent sentence. ‘I’m out of a job? Who’s going to get the celebrity stories for you now?’

‘Kourtney’s going to do both for the time being. It makes more sense.’

‘But I need this job.’ Eleanor could feel her dream of a garden flat slipping far out of reach. Even a bad job chasing celebrities was better than no job at all.

‘Surely working somewhere that makes you lose the will to live on a daily basis can’t be good for you?’ She could hear that Theresa was almost smiling down the phone as she carried on speaking. ‘I’m sure you can find something more suited to your lofty position.’

‘I was kidding!’ said Eleanor, quickly. ‘I mean, aren’t there any other vacant jobs in the company that I could take? I don’t care which department they would be in.’

‘The board are making cuts all over the place,’ Theresa told her. ‘It’s not just you. Now, I’ve had a look at your contract. Your redundancy package will be in accordance with your time of service, of course. Three months’ pay, I think. I’ll email you the details first thing. I’m sure you’ll find it more than fair. But it’s probably for the best that you don’t come into the office any more. Internal politics can be so exhausting. Make sure you return your pass to reception at some point.’

Eleanor’s head was reeling, trying to take in everything she was being told.

Theresa finally took a beat. ‘Look, if you can find me a decent story at some point over the summer, call me and we’ll talk.’

Then she hung up.

Eleanor sank onto the ground, barely registering the wet grass soaking through her jeans. She couldn’t believe it. She had just lost her job. What was she going to do? What was she going to tell everyone back home in Cranley?

Her Mum and best friends, Annie and Megan, actually believed in the fake lifestyle that she had created for them so many years ago. The fiction she had told them bore no resemblance to her real job. They would all be horrified if they knew that she had been lying over and over to them. And now, at the end of so many wasted years, it turned out that her gut instinct had been right all along. That she wasn’t the big success in the city that she had pretended to be. That deep down beneath the expectations of her friends and family, she really was just a big, fat failure after all.

On the opposite side of the street, the front door opened to Tuesday Tavistock’s apartment just as a taxi drew up outside. Eleanor watched in a daze as Tuesday kissed an elegant woman on the cheek. They looked so alike it could only have been her mother.

The tip-off had turned out to be nothing. Just like the rest of her career.

Eleanor slowly became aware that she was still holding the rose, clutching the petals so hard that as she let go, they floated down to the sodden ground next to her, along with her dreams.

Whatever the future held, it was unlikely that her very own Superman was going to show up and rescue her. Tights, cape or otherwise.