Authors: Annie Lyons
‘Yeah, but apart from that. It’s about work. They want to promote me.’
‘Wow, that’s fantastic! Congratulations! To do what?’
‘To open up a new office.’
‘I know. It’s a long way from everything but it’s a huge step up and a big pay rise.’
‘It’s in Scotland.’
‘I know, but it could be fantastic.’
‘It’s an amazing city.’
‘It’s in Scotland.’
‘That’s north of here.’
‘Yes but –’
‘Where it rains.’
‘OK, but –’
‘Look, Rachel, I knew you’d be like this but I’d at least like to discuss it rationally.’
‘Oh, so I’m irrational now, am I?’
‘You want to drag your family a billion miles up north for the sake of your career?’
‘No, of course not, but we do need to consider our future and I am the breadwinner.’
‘Yeah and don’t I know it!’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘I’ve given up everything for this family. Everything. You just don’t get it, do you?’
‘Not very often, no.’
‘Ha bloody ha. So that’s my lack of job and sex drive at fault, is it? I mean, do you ever actually think about me or what I need?’
‘That’s why I’m trying to talk to you. Why do you always get like this?’
Rachel can’t speak. She lets out an enraged yelp like a trapped animal and storms out. The phone interrupts her moment of fury and she snatches it to her ear.
‘Hello?’ she says.
‘Rachel, darling?’ trills her mother oblivious to her daughter’s tone.
‘Oh hi, Mum.’
‘We just wanted to check how Alfred is.’
‘He’s fine thank you. He’s sleeping.’
‘And what about my other naughty grandchildren?’
‘Excellent. Now darling, listen, we need to take that sister of yours in hand. I thought a spot of dress shopping might be in order.’
‘OK.’ Rachel can’t even muster any glee at the thought.
‘Super. I’ll call Emma and set a date.’
‘All right. Kisses to the children.’
‘Will do. Give our love to Dad.’
‘I will if I can ever persuade him to come out from behind the
Rachel replaces the receiver feeling about three years old again and wishing that there was someone to look after her. She can’t remember a time when she felt anything less than exhausted. She loves her kids and Steve but can’t always find the energy to tell them. She feels so far away from her previous life of skinny cappuccinos and dynamic, creative ad agency meetings. Life now is all about trying to leave the house in a non-stained top and asking everyone if they want ketchup with their fish fingers.
She is still angry with Steve but is too tired for an encore. Unlocking the back door she retrieves the secreted packet of Marlboro Lights kept in the shed for occasions like this. Padding a little further down the garden and she curls herself up on a garden chair tucked out of the sight of the house, behind a sickly rhododendron. She lights up and inhales deeply, shivering against the chilly evening air. Feeling herself relax she gazes out into the night but can see nothing but the molten orange glow of her cigarette.
Rachel shrieks and then laughs as she sees her neighbour Tom’s amused face grinning over the fence.
‘Good evening to you too, Mrs Summers.’
‘Good evening, Mr Davies. What are you doing, creeping round the garden like a pervert?’
‘Snail patrol,’ he says flashing torchlight over the fence. ‘It’s the only way to catch them, you see.’
Rachel looks amused.
‘All right, I know. It’s a sad life but I’m a single man with only my hostas for company. And I do love my hostas.’
Rachel laughs. ‘And there was me thinking you were coming to rescue a damsel in distress.’
‘Do you need rescuing then?’ asks Tom, suddenly serious.
In the half darkness Rachel can just make out his face. At first look it could not be described as drop-dead gorgeous, in fact it is slightly pudgy at the edges, but there is a twinkle in his eye that Rachel has decided is handsome and she has always wondered why he’s never been snapped up.
Steve and she had assumed he was gay until she’d been chatting with him for a bit one day and he’d said, ‘I’m not gay by the way.’ After that she’d worried that he’d heard them through their paper-thin walls and had felt guilty for gossiping.
‘I don’t really need rescuing,’ Rachel says feeling disloyal. ‘It’s just been a bit of a day.’ She recounts the saga of Alfie but doesn’t mention her row with Steve.
‘Ahh, you love it really.’
‘Do I?’ asks Rachel. ‘Do I really love all this? When will it all end?’ She loves the kids, that’s a given, and Steve has always been her best friend: ‘Sod ‘em all!’ they used to sing when times were tough. But now they barely have time for themselves, let alone each other.
Tom is eyeing her now, looking uncertain of what to do next.
‘Well, back to your snails, saddo,’ says Rachel, trying to put him at ease.
‘If you ever need to chat, you know where I am,’ Tom says, and Rachel is touched.
‘Rach?’ Steve’s voice echoes across the garden. ‘Are you out here?’
Rachel makes a face at Tom like a scolded teenager. ‘Yeah, what?’
‘Alfie wants you.’
‘Great. I can’t even have a sneaky fag now. See you later, neighbour.’
‘Bye Mrs S and remember what I said.’
She stalks down the garden and into the house, ignoring Steve. When she enters Lily and Alfie’s bedroom, she feels a little sheepish as her maternal role suddenly washes over her again. Their room still has that sweet scent of young children. Rachel remembers the intoxicating smell of them as newborns and although it fades over the years, she still finds breathing them in, especially after a bath when it is restored, gloriously satisfying.
Alfie is blinking at her, holding out his fat palms. ‘Want Mummy.’
‘Alfie, you should be asleep. Is your arm hurting?’
‘No. All better,’ he says. ‘I am a big boy.’
‘Yes you are darling, but you need to go to sleep.’
‘Want Mummy,’ he insists and she cannot refuse. She lies down beside him and strokes his mop of hair.
‘Poo-ee, Mummy smells.’ Rachel remembers the cigarette.
‘Alfie love Mummy?’ she asks.
‘Naaaaooo,’ croons Alfie, teasing.
‘Boo-hoo.’ Rachel feigns weeping.
Alfie laughs. ‘Mummy, cry again.’
Rachel plays along for a bit, and then says, ‘Sleep now, baby boy.’
‘Mummy sing,’ demands Alfie and after a couple of rounds of
his eyelids droop and Rachel creeps out.
Steve is watching the news as she skulks back into the living room, uncertain of what to say next. He flicks off the TV and pats the space next to him, eyes imploring. ‘Sit. Please?’
She does so grudgingly, not wanting to be the one to give way and hating herself for it.
‘Friends?’ he asks stretching out an arm like a peace offering.
Realising it would be churlish to refuse, she leans towards him. ‘Look, Steve, I know we need to talk but I’m just too tired tonight.’
‘I know, I know,’ he says. ‘Why don’t we see if Emma or your mum can babysit at the weekend? We’ll go and have lunch, talk properly, get drunk and say sod ‘em all! Waddya reckon?’
Rachel chews her lip and looks at her husband. Dear dependable Steve, her best friend and constant; she finds it impossible to stay angry with him for too long. ‘Sod ‘em all!’ she says, kissing him on the cheek and feeling instant relief. ‘I’m going up. Are you coming?’
‘Just going to watch the end of
Match of the Day 2
,’ he says, picking up the remote and flicking on the television again.
She nods and pecks him on the cheek before climbing the stairs, exhausted by life and longing for the passion and energy of her twenties.
The cavernous room is filled with a murmuring hubbub as two thousand or so publishers, authors and their celebrity guests look towards the stage in anticipation. Stephen Fry stands at the podium, smiling; wise and waiting for hush.
‘Esteemed guests, ladies, gentlemen and publishing scamps, it is my unbridled pleasure and bowl-clenching joy to announce that the winner of this year’s Best Novel Category is the astounding,
by Richard Bennett.’ Thunderous applause. The crowd is on their feet. Richard rises to greet his public pausing only to kiss his beloved editor, Emma Darcy. There are cheers from the Allen Chandler table. Richard is greeted and embraced by Stephen Fry. A sea of photographers capture the moment with a myriad clicks and flashes. The applause is enthusiastic and heartfelt. Richard speaks to his people.
‘I would like to thank the judges for this great honour. I am truly humbled, but I have to say that I could never have achieved it without the singular devotion of one woman: Emma Darcy, this one’s for you, babe.’
Babe? Emma looks up confused as Richard grabs the microphone and starts to sing a heartfelt version of Dido’s ‘Thank You’. As she looks closely at his face, she is astonished.
‘Martin! Is that you?’
She is even more surprised when Stephen Fry picks up the backing vocals and the people in the room join in too, all turning as one to smile at Emma.
‘Oh. It’s another bloody dream,’ mumbles Emma as her brain tunes in to the song playing on her radio alarm clock. She opens her eyes feeling queasy at the thought of the day ahead. ‘Today is the one I day I will not, must not be late,’ she says to the room.
‘Drop you at the station, gorgeous girl?’ asks Martin returning from the shower and pausing to kiss his fiancée.
‘Brillo pads. Thanks, handsome.’
‘Can I suggest, endearing as it is, that you don’t use the phrase “brillo pads” in this meeting?’
‘Right-ho. Good point.’
‘Understood,’ she says with a small salute.
On boarding the train, Emma makes a beeline for her favourite seat: second carriage from the front, facing forwards in a two-seater. She pulls out the manuscript and her notes. A few stops later a man listening to an iPod takes the empty seat next to her. They have a barely perceptible tussle over elbow territory, and she is just settling into her work when he cranks up the volume and starts to hum along.
Emma is considering making a comment when she notices that he is reading her notes. She snatches them to her chest, like a schoolgirl trying to prevent her neighbour from cribbing.
‘Sorry,’ he says grinning.
‘It’s fine but actually would you mind turning down your music please,’ says Emma trying to sound as reasonable as possible.
‘Sure. Sorry, again.’
Emma looks at him for the first time. He’s quite good looking in a public school sort of way. His smile reveals a dimpled cheek, which reminds her of Martin.
‘You must be busy, having to work on the train,’ he says gesturing at her papers.
‘Oh, I’ve got this pitch meeting today with an author. I’m an editor you see,’ she says proudly.
‘Oh wow. You’re an editor – that must be fascinating. Who’s the lucky guy?’
Emma smiles, enjoying some innocent flirting. ‘He’s a relatively new writer called Richard Bennett. His novel is amazing but I’ve heard a rumour that he’s a bit of a lothario,’ she says conspiratorially.
The train is making its final, slow passage into Victoria past the gasholders and dormant power station that Emma thinks makes this part of London look abandoned.
‘Men eh?’ smiles the man. ‘Well I hope he doesn’t give you too much trouble.’
‘Thanks, I’m hoping I can charm him.’
‘I have no doubt you will. Well good luck –?’
‘Emma. Emma Darcy.’
. Like a character in a novel. I hope you get your book, Emma Darcy,’ he smiles and then disappears into the crowd of commuters. Emma gathers her belongings, takes a deep breath, and steps off the train into Monday morning chaos.
‘Want breakfast naaaaaow!’ yells Alfie.
‘Ok, Hitler-in-a-nappy. Mummy’s going as fast as she can.’ Rachel throws crisps, a drink and a packet of something claiming to be 100% fruit into Will’s lunch bag and counts down the seconds until the microwave gives its final
. She snatches open the door to find that the milk has boiled over and Alfie’s porridge now resembles molten lava with a temperature to match. ‘Bollocks!’ she mutters as quietly as she can, emptying the rest of the carton of milk into the bowl in a desperate attempt to cool it down. It now has the consistency of slurry and Rachel knows that this will not pass the Alfie taste-test. She bins her first attempt and gives the microwave a cursory wipe before starting again.
‘Look, young man, either you wait or you work out a way of making it yourself. I’m doing my best, OK?’
‘‘kay,’ says Alfie uncertainly. ‘Mummy cwoss.’
‘I am not cross,’ and then she catches sight of his chubby jowls and blue eyes and smiles, ‘Mummy’s sorting it, sausage.’
‘Cuddle, cuddle,’ he implores, and Rachel gives in, nibbling at his soft little neck.
‘Nooo, Mummy,’ he giggles.
‘Right you, into your chair and, Lily! Will! Breakfast time!’
‘Coming!’ shouts Will. ‘Just got to take this penalty to win the World Cup for England.’
‘I’m having a poo!’ bellows Lily.
‘Breakfast in paradise, darling?’ asks Steve, grabbing a banana on his way through.
‘Oh yeah, baby, it’s like a week in Mauritius.’
‘Bless you, Mummy.
’ says Alfie mishearing.
Rachel removes the second batch of cereal from the microwave and pours a pot of something pink, gloopy and organic all over it.
‘Naaaaaooooo, Mummy, want bananaaaaa!’
‘Oh for heaven’s sake, Alfred!’
‘Maaaarrrrm,’ shouts Lily, ‘I’ve run out of bog roll!’
‘Did you teach her to call it that?’ Rachel asks Steve.
‘Darling, I thought you were the queen of spade-calling. Got to dash.’
‘You’re a bit early, aren’t you?’
‘Lots to do, my sweet. Got to start early so I can be home on time. Let’s talk later. Properly? Over a bottle of something nice? Love you.’ He plants a kiss on her cheek and on each available child’s head.
‘Bye, Daddy. Love you.’ Her voice is sweet and charming and then changes as she shouts, ‘Maaarrrm!’
‘OK, Lily. I’m coming!’
‘Mummy, banana!’ insists Alfie.
‘OK, OK. Will, please can you sort out your brother while I attend to your sister.’
Lily looks disappointed at Rachel’s entrance.
‘I want Daddy.’
‘Well, unfortunately you have Mummy.’
Five minutes later, the ladies of the house come downstairs to a suspiciously peaceful kitchen.
Rachel looks pleased and then horrified. ‘Will, what have you done?’ she cries, seeing that Alfie’s face is smeared with the remains of a packet of Giant Chocolate Buttons, which his obliging brother has tipped over his cereal.
‘What? He likes them.’
Rachel is about to open her mouth when her phone beeps with a text. It’s from her friend, Sue: ‘Fancy Baby Bump and Grind aka Bounce and Rhyme at the library at 10?’
Rachel fires off a reply: ‘In the absence of an offer from George Clooney, you’re on. Got to pop home after school run. Save me a tambourine.’ And then as an afterthought, ‘Shall I text Christa?’
The answer pings back: ‘Good idea.’
Christa, who has recently moved from Switzerland, is clearly pleased to be asked: ‘
. Roger and I would that love.
Rachel smiles and takes a deep breath, making ready to coax, cajole and nag her family out of the house.
Emma walks into Allen Chandler’s impressive, marble lobby. She smiles at Derek on reception, who gives her a wink and a thumbs-up.
‘Hold that lift!’ orders a voice.
Emma turns to see Joel Riches marching through the door radiating an air of self-importance. He ignores Derek, who in turn shakes his head in disgust. Emma is tempted to pretend she hasn’t heard, but knows this won’t work. Joel is a persistent force in her life. Every book she publishes or pitches for, he’s there ‘thinking outside the box’ or ‘campaigning above the line’, ready to disassociate himself from things which don’t work and take the glory for things that do. As a member of the ‘say what you mean and mean what you say’ club Emma loathes him.
‘Hi, Emma,’ he says with a condescending lilt. ‘So Richard Bennett? It’s either going to be a huge opportunity or a complete drain on resources and the bottom line. Thoughts?’
Emma bristles at his patronising tone but answers as calmly as she can. ‘I think it’s a formative work for an emerging talent in a brave new world of modern fiction destined to win awards and generate sales and profit for the company,’
‘Well done, Emma. Good work,’ he says, which makes Emma want to stave in his head with the manuscript she’s holding. ‘Personally, I prefer something a little meatier. Did I tell you I’d read
‘Several times.’ They have reached the twelfth floor and the lift doors open. ‘Got to dash, Joel. Got a book to buy.’
‘Good luck. Don’t be nervous. Mind you, I would be. Digby’s relying on this one.’
‘Tosser,’ mutters Emma under her breath as she makes her way into the open-plan office. Ella has left a small bunch of butter-yellow freesias on her desk with a card that says, ‘I know you can do it.’ Emma is touched, but at the same time feels a little inadequate as she doesn’t know if she would have been so thoughtful herself. Behind the lovingly placed flowers is a less lovingly placed Post-It note slapped onto her computer’s blank face. It’s from Miranda and it simply says, ‘Emma – please pop in at 9. Digby wants a word.’
Emma feels as if she might regurgitate her breakfast. It’s not that she’s afraid of Digby: He’s a pussy cat compared with the bottom-line obsessed powers that now run the company. But he is one of Miranda’s oldest friends and was a traditional, independent, gentlemen publisher, who launched a whole host of seminal works, as well as being the founding member of the day-long publishing lunch. Emma takes a deep breath and knocks on Miranda’s closed door with what she hopes is an air of quiet authority. There is no answer, so Emma inclines her ear towards the door, just as it is flung open by the literary powerhouse that is Miranda Winter.
‘Ah, Emma. I thought I heard something. Morning. Morning. And how is my brightest and best on this exquisite day? Come, my child, don’t be shy. Digby won’t eat you. He’s had his breakfast.’
Miranda’s office is a shrine to the great and good of publishing, books and reading. Her walls are adorned with photographs, sketches and mementos from her forty-odd years as the matriarchal founding editor of Chandler and now Allen Chandler. The world of books and publishing may have changed, but Miranda Winter is not a woman to be trifled with and the newer suits at Allen Chandler simply wouldn’t dare. They’re terrified of her and she makes them far too much money. The photographs of Miranda with everyone from John Gielgud to John Updike read like a history of cultural movers and shakers from the post-war years. Emma is particularly impressed by the rumours that Miranda has slept with most of the men photographed here, even the gay ones. They are like the photographic equivalent of notches on her bedpost.
As Emma enters the room, Digby is perched on the edge of Miranda’s dark oak monster of a desk, a pudgy hand pawing at one of his many chins. Although publishing today is a very different world to that of fifty or even twenty years ago, when lunch neatly segued into afternoon tea, cocktails and dinner, no one seems to have told Digby and he remains the very picture of old-school corpulence. He is suited by a little man in Saville Row and his Oxford brogues are always shiny. He prefers a dickey bow to maintain the air of an eccentric publisher and today his pink shirt looks fit to burst as his belly extends over his blue pinstriped trousers.
‘Ah Ella,’ he begins, raising his fat hands in a sort of waving gesture.
‘It’s Emma.’ She corrects him. ‘Ella’s the other one.’
Digby snorts with amusement as if having two people with vaguely similar names is the funniest thing he’s ever heard.
‘Sorry, so sorry. Now, Emma, I know I don’t need to tell you how much our hopes are resting on you today. And I just wanted to say good luck. I know you can do it.’
Emma tries to speak but only manages a squeak of agreement.
Miranda leaps to her rescue. ‘Well, Emma and I will do our darndest to bring home the bacon, eh Emma?’
Emma nods vigorously, deciding that it is probably best to remain mute for now.
‘Quite so, quite so,’ says Digby with customary vagueness. ‘Well, the very best to you both. I look forward to hearing good news!’ And away he shuffles.
‘So tell me how you’re really feeling’ says Miranda when he is gone.
‘Honestly? I’m bloody terrified. I mean, this is this most exciting book I’ve read since Marquez. Do you really think we can get it?’
‘The agent is touting it hither and thither after the publisher with the most money, but I know we have more to offer.’
She looks at Emma with glassy eyes. It’s the look Ella and Emma call her ‘mirror to the past’. Ella always jokes that Emma is her protégé and it is clear that Miranda does see something of herself in Emma. At last year’s Christmas party, Miranda threw her arms around her and told her that she was like Boudicca, but they were all very drunk.
‘Ten o’clock then. We pitch our ideas, gush, enthuse and generally plump up their egos like sumptuous cushions. OK?’
‘Ok. Do you think Richard will go for it?’
‘Oh, it’s not Richard we have to worry about, darling. It’s the agent.’
The light is flashing on Emma’s phone when she gets back to her desk. It’s a text from Martin: ‘Good luck Mrs Almost-Wifey. Hope you get the book. I’m proud of you. Love M.’ She smiles but is starting to feel a bit sick and desperate to get on with it. She checks her watch: 9:34. twenty-six minutes to go. She leafs through her notes again and realises that her hands are shaking. The book is beautifully written and Emma desperately wants to be the one to publish it. She gives herself an internal pep talk: ‘You can do this. You are good at your job. You love this book and you want the world to love it too.’