In two places at once (an ode to books) 

Reading was always a thing I did. Like eating three meals a day. Like break times or the last day of term when we’d all bring a game in and go outside for classes if it was sunny, on the grassy mound overlooking the play area
I can’t remember where it started. With Spot the Dog, maybe. Or Peter and Jane. I never thought about it. It was an activity in itself, much like the television. On any given afternoon, after school, the bottoms of my black trousers soaked with British rain, I might lie on the sofa and read for a few hours. Drina Ballerina, sometimes. Later, The Babysitter’s Club. Sweet Valley High (and Twins). But now, on my commute, everyone’s face is aglow with a smart phone, like we have become bioluminescent.

There are places to me that are as familiar to me as the landmarks of my small childhood – the lamppost on our front garden that used to pop on, red, before slowly bronzing amber during summer evenings; the airing cupboard I thought might lead to Narnia if only I looked hard enough – and they look just as large, just as realistically. A small town in Connecticut where the babysitters met in Claudia’s bedroom where she used to hide chocolate and wear insane clothing combinations, led by bossy Kristy from a blended family. I always skipped the part where Ann M. Martin explained how the club worked. Or Southern California. Another small town, where the twins with their perfect size 6 figures and aquamarine eyes went to school, with Todd and Lila and Winston and their older brother Steven. Where occasional brutal murders happened, but by the next book, everybody was fine again.
They’re indistinguishable, these memories. I was both in my bedroom, overlooking that lamppost, and in R L Stine’s books, freaking the hell out. Sometimes, even now, I will empathise especially with someone, and wonder how I know exactly how they feel. And the answer is always books. How does it feel to inherit your father’s mobster business? Well, I have some idea, thanks to The Godfather. What does it feel like to be stalked? Elizabeth Haynes told me, in Into The Darkest Corner, a book that had me so gripped I read it while the kettle boiled. How does it feel to be married to a republican president when you yourself are privately a democrat? American Wife told me that.
Books. The answer is always books. Reading was always a thing I did, and it still is. Now I’m reading Black Rabbit Hall. By day, I’m in Birmingham, by night, I’m in a old house, full of secrets and sisters and trauma. It’s always been this way. It will always be this way.

You don’t know how lucky you are

My friend and I are standing awkwardly on the sidelines at a local writers’ night. We don’t feel like writers, or, at least, I don’t. It is hard to reconcile these evenings while the laptop sits cradled between my crossed legs like a pet, my thoughts spinning, fingers plucking the keys, with any kind of identity or occupation at all. This is just a thing that I do. Spin thoughts in to gossamer in to narratives. It is a thing I have always done.

A man tentatively approaches us. An academic and author, who gave a reading from his most recent book, out with an indie publisher. He has horn-rimmed glasses, is slender. He holds his hands in front of him, gripped, earnestly.

“Oh, but are you writers too?” he says. My friend and I exchange a glance, wondering how he knows.

“Yes, we are – just starting out,” I say. “We have the same agent.”

“Agency,” my friend corrects. I look sideways at her, always my ally at these events. I spent most of my twenties lamenting that my friendships were dying off like lazy wasps at the end of summer as people moved away from Birmingham, as meet-ups became more and more spread out, as reunions had to be scheduled in months in advance like we are as busy as Barack Obama, and now I am thirty-one and with a whole load of new friends, through that most solitary act of writing.

“Our books are out next year,” I add.

We exchange a glance. We are gleeful that we are to debut a mere four months apart, that we are experiencing the same stages together all the time. Copyedits – what even are they? I will text, and she will respond immediately.

“Oh – so you are to be published?” he says, standing with a slim hand to his goateed chin, his weight set back almost daintily on his heels.

“Oh yes,” we say. We try to tell people we are writers, so that we can talk about it (is there anything better than talking about writing with other writers?). And yet, we try not to gloat, too. To be those pushy, new writers who talk too loudly and too confidently. It’s a hard balance.

“And who are your publishers?”

“Penguin,” I say. I gesture at her: “Headline. Different genres.”

“My God,” he says, and I see the shock on his features. I’ve learnt to look for it when imparting the name of my publisher. The eyebrows shoot up. The whites of the eyes flash. It happened a lot, in the early days, when I was first telling people. Everyone is used to it now, and back to ripping it out of me for losing my house keys and momentarily forgetting which side of the road we drive on (just once).

“My God.” He says it again. My friend shifts her weight on her feet, fiddling with the strap of her bag. “Do you know?” he says, looking at us.

“What?” she says, laughingly nervously.

“Do you know – how very lucky you are?”

We exchange a glance. “Yes,” we say, self-consciously.

“Do you know how many millions of people want what you have – how rare it is to actually get it?”

And then, in that moment, I can see it. I can see it all the time, but these days I truly see it less and less. It is as though it is a beautiful and rare object in my home that I walk past every day. Eventually, I stopped admiring it, even though my mind is blown all over again if I think of it. But occasionally – I’m down to once a week, from once an hour, in the beginning – I get a window in, and I see it anew. I am to be a published author, I will think. It brings me joy in many ways, every day – I don’t need to list them here – but the surprise of it is dulling, though I wish it wasn’t.

We leave the local authors’ event shortly after and go to Five Guys.

On the escalator in the Bullring, she turns to me. “I know what he meant,” she says. “But it’s hard to… it’s hard to remember.”

“I know,” I say. And the truth is, the human mind gets used to extremes. Tragedy and grief and illness. But good things, too. I couldn’t see a day, six months ago, when I would have a book deal and have a single care in the world; a single problem. As though the book deal phone call was the final line in the final act of my life. The curtains would go down, and Happily Ever After would be written on them. That was how badly I wanted it.

“You can’t embody it,” I say. “It’s all just… transient. We do appreciate it. But it’s hard to keep on appreciating it.”

“We don’t wake up being thankful we have roofs over our heads, either,” she says.

We walk in to Five Guys, two very lucky, soon-to-be published authors. Later, she sees the name of her main character on a poster, and says she thinks she’s seeing signs. We compare the last lines of our manuscripts and laugh at them.

 

A book per year cures all

I have always liked dates and numbers. The flow of the year. The fast swing through autumn, hurtling towards Christmas. The slow rebound of January. My birthday. Longer days. The hum of spring-summer. Bank holidays. New terms. Hallowe’en.

And now, life is even more calendric. It is one of the many, many things I like about being an author. One book per year.

Time is no longer sands in an hourglass, drifting away only to be up-ended once more. Time is quantifiable. Just as last winter feels like years ago, now that the windows are flung open and we’re not wearing socks, with each year that goes by, I no longer lose time; I gain books.

I have the idea in the late-autumn. As reliable, now, as the leaves that fall like brandy snaps and skitter along the pavements, sounding brittle and fragile. My father expects a call before the trees are bare. “I’ve had it,” I say, and he will be nodding, only as surprised as if I have told him the nights are darker and that everybody has colds. “Your best yet,” he said simply, last November.

I let it marinade over Christmas, like mulled wine, like fat resting meats, like the spiced oranges I tried to make, from Pinterest, which went mouldy before the new year. By January, I’m ready to write.

The first draft churns out slowly, over those first few months, while I am sequestered in steamed-up cafes and on damp trains, hibernating with my book. My book lengthens slowly, like the days. By three minutes per day. By one thousand words per day. Like clockwork.

I am ready for a crisis come spring. The clocks go forwards. I feel displaced and eerie the day after. There is something wrong with my book, I think, while looking at the pale March sun. My father expects that call, too. “Oh, the idea was good, but I should have gone here with it, not there,” I will moan, flopping backwards onto my bed. “Yes,” he will say mildly, unsurprised.

We spend the spring meeting up. I’m at my neediest as the buds are forming on the trees. I request meetings every weekend, bring insane flip charts and post-it notes. I call every night. Dad says things like “but what if he was rough, but really loved the theatre?” and “I think all she wants is to be heard.” He is throwing spring blossom ideas towards me, and sometimes, some of them catch.

We consume strawberry milkshakes in McDonald’s while pondering the three-act structure and walk along canals while he tells me stories. “She dates this guy called Jordan but says he’s always on the tins,” Dad will say, shaking his head as he imparts secrets his driving school students have told him in the middle of parallel parking manoeuvres.  I digest them and spit them out in later drafts, in later books. He will mix pleasure and annoyance as he sees his stories written down in ink forever.

By the time the days are long and the weather is warm, I am well underway with draft two. I don’t speak to anybody. I am not hibernating with my book. My book and I are out there living together in the world I have created. I am elsewhere, telling my characters’ stories as fast as I can.

The summer dies out, scorched, the grass more hay-like by the sides of the roads. Insects become lazy and the shops start selling stationery and school uniforms.

September breaks, and I begin the prose edit. The final one. The best one. Life goes from hazy and warm to cool and crisp, the leaves and my sentences sharply defined in the cut-glass autumn light. I deliver in October.

Two days later, I have an idea, and call my father, and it begins again.

 

The Dust

“So tell me who these people are,” Dad says to me. We are on one of our book walks. They began in November 2013, in the cold and the wet, slick leaves sticking to the underside of our trainers, and they’ve continued ever since. The tone of them has changed, of course. Sometimes I catch him looking at me strangely, thinking twice before speaking. It is bizarre for me to think how many people will soon read my book, so it must be even stranger for him.

I give him a brief run-down of my characters. We turn right, down the old lane, past the two lamp posts I used to pretend were Narnia meeting points. Everything looks smaller than it used to. The bushes are overgrown and beginning to smell like spring; there’s a tang in the air, of hot plants and crushed leaves.

“I see,” Dad says, nodding in recognition as I describe one of my new characters in broad brush strokes. “Yes,” he says, adding: “I know him. And he would stand and stare in to bookshops. Slouched.”He indicates a patch of sunlight in front of us. Insects swirl in a cloud, white pinpricks against the backdrop of trees.

“We always invent the best things on our walks,” I say. We take a right, down a lane I used to cycle through, and then a left, and end up near my old primary school. I peer interestedly through the bars.

“I used to call that the sunny spot, in my head,” I say, indicating a small brick shelter where I used to sit and day dream.

Dad turns to me in surprise. “I never knew that,” he says, his white hair shining in the sun. We peer for a little while longer, in silence, twenty-five years on.

We do plot on the way home. “We’ve wound the characters up,” Dad says, as we walk back past the shops and the lamp posts, “and now we watch them go.”

After a while, we stop, tired, at a juncture in the lane. To our left is the path home, up a set of brick steps. To our right is a path I used to cycle to my then-best friend’s. I sat on the steps when I was eight and deciding whether or not to get a fringe. I remember that day so clearly.

“But she wouldn’t do that,” I say, once we’re at a plot crossroads. “That’s not her.” I know it as sure as if my heroine is standing next to me and telling me.

“What would this person do?” Dad says. “This woman we now know.”

I look up at him. “The exact opposite,” I say, knowing her instinctively, already.

“Precisely,” Dad says. He nods in front of us, at another patch of sunlight. “And that might be a lot more interesting.”

“I always have the best ideas with you,” I say.

“It’s the dust.”

“The dust?”

“The dust – when it’s sunny.”

“What?” I say, not unused to my dad’s occasional utter nonsense.

“You know when you’re sitting in a dusty room, and sunlight streams through?” he says.

I nod, stretching my legs, tight from walking miles.

“Well. The dust’s full of ideas. You’ve just got to have enough sun to see it,” he says.

He squints up at the sky, and then we walk on home.

I have a two-book deal with Penguin

I had often wondered where I would be when it happened for me. And, of course, I wasn’t where I expected. I would touch my desk and wonder if maybe I’d be sitting there at lunchtime, unknowingly about to see my agent’s name light up on my phone screen. Or I’d be out with a friend for lunch and think maybe I would have to excuse myself. My desk and the quiet backrooms at work and the walk from the train station became loaded, like sets ready to use for a play. Because I knew it would happen, this time – somehow. It was only a matter of when.

I wasn’t thinking about it when it happened. Isn’t that always the way? And, all that morning, when it had been happening, totally unknown to me, it strangely, for the first time since my book went to editors a week and a half previously, hadn’t been on my mind at all. I had angsted to my father about the silence – what did you expect? he said. You knew it would be a while. A wait. It’s out of your hands. Write another. Just write – and then I felt better, and work was busy, and it was almost my birthday, and I’d bought myself a nice handbag. Life was good. Someone would want my book one day. I would be okay. I would write another. I would always write another.

I was walking in to an hour-long training session when I saw it. A little blue spot on my iPhone. A voicemail. My phone hadn’t rang, I didn’t think. I saw my agent’s name at the top of my voicemail list and felt a shiver cross my shoulders. And then I saw the email. Can you call me, please? it said. Inscrutable. And yet I knew. Partly because my agent doesn’t tend to call me without arranging to. Partly because I had been on submission for about the right amount of time to begin expecting good news if I was exceptionally lucky and had a publisher interested enough to act quickly. And partly – isn’t it always so? – because I knew in a way I haven’t known before that I had written a bloody good book.

The training was an hour. I started drumming my fingers on the table. Folding and unfolding my arms. Huffing. I didn’t know and I did know and I didn’t dare to know and I didn’t dare to leave in case I was wrong. I texted an author friend, screen shotted the email. She said she felt like her chest felt full of helium; the perks of texting writers. I waited out the hour. You’re a professional waiter, now, she said. You can do 58 minutes.

I escaped from the training and took the back lift down to my floor. So here’s where it will happen, I thought, over confident and hopeful and wary all at once. The back meeting rooms. I went into my favourite; the one I have always called my agent from, the one with the opaque blinds and the two chairs and the one whose extension number I know off by heart.

My agent’s receptionist answered, and I said something crazy. Will she know what it’s regarding? she said. YES, I said insanely.

“We have an offer,” my agent said. She relayed the terms to me. I barely heard them. My eyes were full of tears, my throat tight. All those nights. All those plot problems. All those times I thought it wasn’t going to happen for me. The characters I had created and then cried for as I (sometimes) killed them. The social occasions I’d missed because I was writing. The yawns at my desk during edits. The novel I wrote when I was twelve that I finished in the optician’s called Where Magic Is Possible. The novel I wrote when I was twenty called Three By The Sea. The blogs I’ve written here for a third of my adult life. All of that. And here we were. I was going to be a published author.

“Gilly?” my agent said to me after relaying the terms.

“Yes?”

“It’s from Michael Joseph. An imprint of Penguin.”

Well. That was too much. I had known the kind of names who had my novel. The publishing giants. The ubiquitous names that would dazzle any lifelong reader. But I never dared to dream it would be them. Penguin. The Penguin Classics mug on my bedside table. The names they publish. JoJo Moyes. Marian Keyes. Liane Moriarty. Zadie Smith.

Penguin.

“Well, I think we’ll accept that,” I said, playing it cool. “Penguin,” I added.

And so it happened in that meeting room, as I always thought it might. My meeting room. My Penguin meeting room, I now call it in my head. That’s where it happened; where my life changed forever.

The calls were next. It was to be on the down-low until the announcement, but I could tell my family. I called my father first. The man who’d plotted it out with me. Asked me leading questions about my characters. Poured pot after pot of tea as we mused on plot holes and why people do what they do. The man who said technically it’s domestic noir when asked by another relative which genre my book is. The man who now knows the name of all of the major publishing houses’ imprints. Understands pre-empts and royalties and UK and Commonwealth rights.

“Dad,” I said, standing on the corner, between my office and my favourite coffee, shop as I looked at the late-winter blue sky. “Penguin bought it.”

“What? Fucking hell. What?” Dad said. “Penguin?”

“Yes. Just now. Five minutes ago.”

We paused, each feeling the same thing on the phone. I cried first.

“Penguin bought our little book,” Dad said, genuine wonder in his voice. “I can’t believe you actually did it.”

“Me neither.”

My mum cried. My best friend sent expletives.

I met Dave outside his office at 5:00pm, wanting to tell him in person. I sent some insistent texts and he left on time. “You alright?” he said as he walked past the security guard on reception. His eyes looked bright blue in the evening sun. We hardly ever leave work on time. His forehead wrinkled as he saw my disheveled appearance.

I burst in to tears and he reached for me, unthinkingly. “Penguin bought my book,” I said through my tears.

Dave’s eyes crinkled as he drew me to him. “What on earth…?” he said to me. “What?”

I went to meet my editor that Friday, four days later. I had still not really slept; every time I closed my eyes a kaleidoscope of happy memories crowded in. We went to the Savoy. We talked about the words I’d written, the people I’d dreamt up and put in a book. Everyone had read it. My words. My dad’s suggestions for better characterisation. Like it was our child, out in to the world. My editor got my book in more ways than I could hope. She knows what sort of book it is, and knows better than I do what I am trying to say. We drank champagne and chatted and I kept thinking to myself Penguin bought my book.

We went away, that Friday night, for my thirty-first birthday. “I haven’t even bought your present yet!” Dave had said on the Thursday. “Crazy week. What do you want?”

“Nothing,” I said honestly. “I have everything I could ever want.” At 30 and 364 days, I had achieved everything I had ever wanted to do.

He nodded at that. “Yes,” he said.

We went to dinner with friends. We were at a spa hotel. We ate and drank and lolled around in the sauna and jacuzzi. It was nice, that weekend. The quiet. I finally slept. Stopped reeling. We went to the beach. I looked at the sea. But as I sat there, nursing a crisp glass of white wine – I drank most nights that week; more than I drink in an entire year – I drew my knees up on to the armchair and thought to myself: Penguin bought my bloody book, unable to believe my luck. The happiness had stopped fizzing inside me. I’d become a bit more accustomed to it. But in that moment, it was like a blanket of happiness and warmth around me as my friends chatted about boxsets they’d been watching. Penguin bought my book, I thought again. It would be a real, real thing on the shelves and in my hands, my entire life ambition achieved in a moment. I tilted my head back slightly and looked at the ornate hotel ceiling. I would capture this moment, somehow, I thought. I had never been quite so unbelievably happy.

(Here)

Sam.

“They tried to resuscitate him, but he… well, he died,” I say. There’s no way of saying it lightly, and no way for it not to be a bombshell, but I somehow don’t care: if shocking a stranger is part of the imprint my only nephew left on the world, so be it.

I’m outside, at a wedding. The marquee is off-white against the sky. The air has turned navy blue but right in the corner, near where the sun used to be, the sky is still a lit-up, washed out blue, as if the bleached daylight is determinedly clinging on to one last patch.

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” the stranger at the wedding says. I shouldn’t have told her, but I mentioned my niece, and then I couldn’t not tell her. She is embarrassed, I can tell. It is taboo.

We can see the outline of the fairy lights just inside the marquee. They look Christmassy, incongruous against the summer sky. It’s freezing. It’s been a cold spring. All of the women have cardigans on, tightly drawn around their waists. Everything here has been set up for a warm weekend: the croquet on the lawn, unplayed. The wood-fired pizza oven. The cocktails served by hipsters next to a bike with a basket, in mason jars. But I quite like the unseasonal cold.

“Did you see him?” the stranger says to me.

“Sam? A photo,” I say. That’s when I feel the tears budding, ever-present. They have different textures: sometimes a tightness in my throat, sometimes an inexplicable wetness on my cheeks, sometimes a hollow crying that produces nothing at all. “He looks… Looked. Just like my sister,” I say. “My niece. They have these eyes – ” I pause, trying to describe them. “Slanted eyes. Pretty eyes. He had them.”

“Brought you a homemade Baileys,” MindReader says to me, appearing by my side and waving a small bottle with a brown paper tag on it. He’s evidently warm, has taken his jacket off.

“Thanks,” I say. The stranger gives me an embarrassed smile and retreats into the darkness, to the pizza hut with no queue.

“You alright?” MindReader says, but then gets distracted by the prospect of pizza, leaving me standing alone in the night. I look at the pale patch of sky, still light but ever darkening, and raise the miniature bottle, high to the sky, to miniature Sam. I stay standing there, alone, for a long time.

“Goodnight,” I say to him.

Deuce

“Billygean, you remember Chris, don’t you?” MadFather says to me. He picks a can of coke up off the kitchen counter and hands it to me. I’m home for a Christmas party. I’ve already crept up to visit my childhood bedroom; the dust which covers my old books and the single bed I used to text boys in.

“Hi,” I say. Chris is a few years younger than me, but time has raced on and he has become six-feet-something, with sandy hair and tanned arms.

“Tell him about your book,” MadFather says, disappearing into the throng of people.

“Oh, it’s nothing,” I say, wishing so much that I hadn’t told everybody absolutely everything so early on. “I just got an agent… Trying to get a publisher, next.”

“Wow,” Chris says.

“And what about you – still tennis?” I say.

“No – those who can’t… coach,” he says.

I wait, and he speaks again. Somebody squeezes past us, jostling me, and begins spooning trifle out onto a paper plate which bends worryingly.

“I believe I got to a world rank of one thousand,” he says.

“You were one thousandth in the world?”

“Yep – and it was far from enough.” He tells me the prize for winning a grand slam has almost doubled, yet a match he won that got him ranked at one thousand landed him with a cheque for £420.

“But… how many people can say they were the thousandth best person in the world at anything?” I say.

“True. But I’m a perfectionist,” he says.

“Ah. Perfectionism is not the way to happiness.”

“No,” he says. He raises his beer to me, and I wonder if he wasn’t allowed to drink it, before, staying in hotels all over the world, waiting alone for matches to commence. “To failure,” he says, clinking his glass against my can.

I laugh. “I can toast to that,” I say.

“It’s almost better not to try, I found,” he says. “People are embarrassed by failure. I am worse than somebody who hasn’t bothered.”

“You’re not,” I say quietly. “I bet you’re totally mentally sound, too. They always say tennis is a mental game.”

“Yes,” he says, looking into the middle distance. “You play a bad shot, but you move on. To the next one, to the next.”