The First Time

“I think you’ll really like this one,” my high school boyfriend said to me as he handed me an old tattered copy of The Black Shrike by Alister MacLean, a Scottish author, published in 1961. My family was leaving for our yearly retreat at the cottage on Lake Huron and I was in need of a novel. He assured me it was an adventure book and a real page turner. I had no idea what a shrike was, let alone any color variations of it, yet I trusted his recommendation. 

I would be in my thirties before I found out a shrike was a bird. It had nothing to do with the title. Then again, maybe it did?

I remember sitting on the beach, sun tanning in a bikini on a towel when I began reading. A few paragraphs in, I had to stop for air.

Oh. My. 

I was only 17, but astute enough to be completely blown away by MacLean’s writing style. As someone who had not yet experienced alcohol or sex, this was the literary equivalent to both of my vices. His words hit me like a shot of expensive high quality vodka and washed over me like the first touch of a lover’s naked skin against my own.

I was hooked.

I tore through the book as if someone else was paying my bar tab and it was a passionate one night stand that would end with the sunrise.

The story is told by John Bentall, a scientist who was also a secret agent for British Intelligence. He got pulled to a top secret mission with a co-agent, Marie, who was to pose as his wife, much to John’s chagrin. The duo get sucked into a treacherous web of lies and double crossings, complete with a bait and switch minefield. The ending has so much of a twist that you’ll find yourself upside down on the last page, wondering what on earth just happened.

John was a loner, like myself, and his bluntness combined with a parched British sense of humor, need for the truth, flawed logic, cunning intellect, and ability to push through anything by sheer determination melted my heart. If he were real, I’d have dated him.

I got serious about writing in 2016 and looked to authors who came before me for inspiration: Alister MacLean was at the top of my list. I read Where Eagles Dare – my German came in handy for deciphering the play on words in the title – the flawlessly executed banter between the two main characters delighted me as both a reader and a writer. The Blake Shrike never left my beach bag this summer, as I re-read it for the third time – this time through the eyes of an author. I’m still amazed at his ability to craft words and scenes. I wish I could share a drink with Alister, picking his brain about life and writing. I’d love to know his inspiration for this story, but he died when I was in elementary school.

I may never hold a candle to my writing hero Alister, but I’d certainly love to try.

An excerpt from the second chapter:


But there’s no perfection in a very imperfect world: the locks on the bedroom doors of the Grand Pacific Hotel were just no good at all. 

My first intimation of this came when I woke up in the middle of the night in response to someone prodding my shoulder. But my first thought was not of the door-locks but of the finger prodding me. It was the hardest finger I’d ever felt. It felt like a piece of steel. It was a dully-gleaming .38 Colt automatic and, just in case I should have made any mistake in identification, whoever was holding it shifted the gun as soon as he saw me stir so that my right eye could stare down the centre of the barrel. It was a gun alright. My gaze travelled up past the gun, the hairy brown wrist, the white coated arm to the brown cold still face with the battered yachting cap above, then back to the automatic again.

“O.K., friend,” I said. I meant it to sound cool and casual but it came out more like the raven–the hoarse one–croaking on the battlements of Macbeth’s castle. “I can see it’s a gun. Cleaned and oiled and everything. But take it away, please. Guns are dangerous things.”

“A wise guy, eh?” he said coldly. “Showing the little wife what a hero he is. But you wouldn’t really like to be a hero, would you, Bentall? You wouldn’t really like to start something?”

I would have loved to have started something. I would have loved to take his gun away and beat him over the head with it. Having guns pointed at my eye gives me a nasty dry mouth, makes my heart work overtime and uses up a great deal of adrenalin. I was just starting out to think what else I would like to do to him when he nodded across the bed.

The Black Shrike, by Alister MacLean



Phoebe

Phoebe texted me out of the blue.

Seven years had passed since we last spoke – 1,000 miles and a lifetime between us. We drifted apart as life happened. We communicated through Christmas cards.

She wanted to catch up.

I met Phoebe at my first job out of college, in the barren wastelands of central Illinois. She was a new immigrant from Asia, and in the small red neck town I found myself in, she was the coolest one there. We would walk to house parties, taking pulls off of a flask of rum. We’d go dancing at the night club an hour away – dressed to kill – or grab drinks at the bar down the street. We’d swap boy stories, hang out, have lunch dates, and I learned a great deal about her culture and way of life back home. When we hung out with her crew, I was often the lone white girl, who was a full foot taller than everyone.

She worked second shift, I worked third shift with her then-boyfriend Alex, an American. Alex helped me learn my trade and I kept up with him for job references. When they got married, I was a bridesmaid.

We kept in touch after I moved to the coast for several years. Once the kids came along, we drifted apart. I got a phone call when she found out she was pregnant with her first. I learned of her second child on social media. I haven’t seen her since 2009 and never met her kids.

I was surprised to see her texting me after all this time, but my heart was happy. I missed Phoebe. We talked on the phone that night. She sounded good, she caught me up on all the local gossip, as she and Alex are still in the same town. We talked about the surface level things – fond memories, how “things were currently going well,” both of us still unsure of the other – I wasn’t ready to spill my heart of the past years with anxiety, infertility, and alcoholism. Maybe for another conversation. Her accent was as thick as ever, my ear no longer trained to it. It was never like that before.

We ended our conversation with her and the family possibly coming to visit in the fall.

A few days later, Phoebe texted, Can you talk thru text message?

Sure, I replied. This was bizarre, but okay.

All the pieces clicked in her next message.

I’m not in a good place. I’m leaving Alex. I can’t take it anymore. Can you help me restart my life? Maybe I can get a job by you?

What?

Long story short, Alex cheated on her several years ago and they got through it. The other woman recently waltzed back into town and Alex got a burner phone to communicate with her behind Phoebe’s back – despite his denials of contact. It was a mess that involved the cops at one point when their argument got out of hand over the situation.

I offered for her to come to my beach for a few days, get out of the situation to think clearly, and said several times to get professional help. Counseling in these situations is so important, whether they stayed together or not.

She began to price airfare and planned a long weekend visit in a few weeks.

And then I got this message:
Things are better. We talked it out and I’m leaving for a visit to Asia soon and I don’t have the money to fly to North Carolina right now. But thank you so much for listening and supporting me! I promise I will come down sometime this year!

I told her the invitation was open and that if she needed time to get away, I was here for her.

This was all several weeks ago.

I texted her today, to see how she was doing. Things had returned to normal – the other woman was gone and the harmonious matrimony continued.

I hope stays that way.