© Lexi Revellian
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SHOWING THEM (a short story)
The computer sang its little apologetic double bong and Lily went over to it, absently raking a hand through her orange spiky hair, and brought up her inbox. An email awaited her.
Dear Miss North,
Thank you for sending us your novel. We are afraid that, despite its qualities, we do not feel sufficiently confident in your work to offer to represent you.
We apologize for the impersonal nature of this letter but we receive an enormous amount of unsolicited material and regret that we cannot enter into any correspondence about your submission.
We wish you better luck in finding representation elsewhere.
Fitzgibbon & Wood Agency
Lily read this brief missive, feeling as though a hot seething lump had taken over inside her chest. She’d forgotten she had emailed the book to this agency, they had taken so long to get back to her. All the other agencies had rejected her much quicker and she had accepted their unanimous decision. Whatever essential quality it took to succeed, clearly her novel lacked.
She had given up, stopped writing, put the thousands of words she had laboured on to the back of her mind. The thick wodge of manuscript (printed out in case the computer crashed) she had shoved out of sight at the bottom of her sock drawer. For some reason that made this final curt rejection all the more insulting. It was the phrase ‘despite its qualities’ she found particularly irksome, the knowledge that it was completely unmeant and sent out to all the poor sods who harboured the unrealistic desire to see their efforts in print. She closed her eyes to shut out the unwelcome text.
Her first novel she had spent so much time on, thought about so intensely, visualised until it seemed more vivid and real than the world she inhabited…her feisty heroine and the hero she was a little in love with herself…the bit at the end where the hero’s best friend died, that she had typed with the tears running down her face…
Then; ‘Right,’ she said, ‘that’s it.’ For a moment she thought of deleting her manuscript with one furious click of the mouse. Instead she turned on the printer, known as Percival the Peripheral, and reached for her copy of ‘Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook’.
‘I’ll show them. Percy, I have work for you. Prepare yourself for a long night.’
The next morning, firm of jaw and shadowed of eye, Lily staggered to the Post Office with twenty-six copies of her novel. Some were in smart padded envelopes, others were neatly wrapped in brown paper, and a few were destined to raise eyebrows at their destination, being covered in Tesco plastic bags stuck together with generous amounts of parcel tape.
Lily joined the line of resigned shabby people shuffling towards the counter. After five minutes, arms aching, it was her turn and she plonked the first package on the scales. By the time she came out, slightly shaken by the vast amount of money she had just handed over, the queue was twice as long.
* * *
As the rejections trickled in, Lily stuck them on the bathroom wall to stiffen her resolve. She lay in the bath looking at them as they crinkled in the steam, muttering, ‘Just you wait…’
Lily started to investigate the possibilities of self-publishing. After all, it had been good enough for Virginia Woolf, Beatrix Potter and Lord Byron. She learnt about print costs, typefaces, ISBNs, likely quantities and the sad fact that book sellers, like everyone else involved in the world of books, seemed to have a natural and instinctive hostility towards all authors except best selling ones, with a particular aversion to self-publishers. She decided to go ahead anyway. Leaving her computer she went into the living room.
‘Fran,’ her flatmate looked up from her sudoku, ‘you’ve got to take tomorrow off. I need you for my book cover.’
‘Me? Do I look like your heroine? I thought she had green eyes?’
‘She does, but we can change that on the photo. They may not show anyway – I want you in profile, and the hero full face, looking mean and moody. And where can we borrow a large dog?’
‘We could picket the vet across the street and buttonhole anyone with a likely pooch. Who are you going to get for your hero?’
‘James? Are you serious? James Davies, mean and moody? This is the James who couldn’t even stare sternly at a goose, let alone say boo?’
‘He’s only got to look the part for the photo. He’s tall and dark, and not bad looking. And I know he’ll do it for me.’
‘You take advantage of that man. One day he’ll get sick of nursing a hidden passion for you and go off with someone else. Then you’ll be sorry.’
‘Hidden? When everyone knows about it? I’m not taking advantage of him, he’ll love it. A phone call from me will make his day.’
* * *
Lily enjoyed the shoot. A slightly overweight black Labrador was the best dog they could persuade anyone to lend them. His name was Rollo. While not much resembling the fierce rangy beast of Lily’s fiction, he was amenable as a model, being prepared to do absolutely anything for food. The local park provided a forest background. In the atmospheric light of a setting sun, and at the right angle, meek James looked as saturnine and charismatic as the hero whose appearance she had so lovingly described, his faithful hound in silhouette beside him, the feisty heroine, softened by true love, gazing into his eyes.
* * *
How many to order? Lily chewed her pen. She didn’t want to have too few if the book took off; it would be dreadful to run out just when demand got going. And each individual book was so much cheaper if you ordered a lot…
* * *
Lily was cleaning her teeth when the doorbell rang. Spitting hastily into the basin she wiped her mouth on the towel, peering out of the window. A van was parked outside. She ran downstairs to open the door.
‘Where d’you want them, love?’
‘Um…in here. There’s some stairs. Shall I give you a hand?’
The man looked down at Lily’s slender five-foot-nothing frame and laughed. ‘You couldn’t lift ‘em, my darling.’
The flat gradually filled up with cartons of books, stacked six high. Once the man had left, Lily ripped open a box and extracted a copy of her book. How crisp it was, how shiny and new, how delicious it smelled, and how handsome James looked. Perhaps she had been too dismissive of him… He (and his ancient Volvo) would be needed to deliver the orders she was going to get. He’d like that. She went to Fran's door, now half obscured by cartons, banged on it and edged straight in. All was still and quiet, the only sign of life a mound under the duvet. Lily drew the curtains and prodded the mound.
‘Fran, wake up. My book’s arrived.’
The top of Fran's head appeared over the bedclothes and she took the book Lily was thrusting at her. ‘Great,’ she murmured. ‘Can I go back to sleep now?’ Her gaze moved to the open door and her eyes widened. She sat up. ‘The flat’s full of cardboard boxes. You know tonight’s the dinner party? Is there somewhere we can put them?’
‘Like where? It’s only for a little while, I’ll start selling them tomorrow. I’ve got exactly twenty days’ holiday to do it in. A few weeks living in a warehouse won’t hurt us. It’ll save hoovering.’ Fran disappeared under her duvet and Lily went back to her bedroom to get dressed. Her wardrobe had vanished behind twelve boxes of books.
* * *
Fetched from the safety of his office, the owner of A Quiet Read walked reluctantly up to Lily. He started to talk before he had quite reached her, shaking his head.
‘I’m afraid we only purchase books from our normal suppliers.’
She gave him her most brilliant smile and put a book in his hand. ‘You’ll feel differently about this one, I promise you. Read the first page, you won’t be able to put it down. This is an opportunity I don’t want you to miss.’
He shook his head again. ‘I’m very sorry, but you see…’ He moved to one side to let a customer get to the till.
Lily fixed him with a compelling eye. ‘Let me buy you lunch and we can discuss it in comfort. It’s one o’clock, you have to eat, don’t you? There’s that nice little Italian place over the road.’ She gazed at him, a winning mixture of girlish charm and iron determination on her heart-shaped face, and he found himself weakly agreeing. When Lily left his premises later in the afternoon, his shop window was graced by a pyramid of books, their dozen misleading pictures of James smouldering at passers-by.
Encouraged by this first success, Lily went into overdrive. By the time she returned the following Saturday to A Quiet Read for her book signing, she had reduced the stacks in her flat by a quarter, and received two re-orders. James proved a stalwart helper, lugging the cartons about with ease. His muscles were impressive, Lily noticed for the first time.
She had hoped the signing would be fun and it was. Secretly she loved being the centre of so much attention. The journalist from the local paper turned up to see if Lily looked as delightful as she sounded on the phone, bringing a photographer with him. The planning she had put into it, ringing round her friends and asking them to turn up and pose as fans, paid off. They created a buzz that attracted a curious crowd. People picked up the book, started reading, then strolled to the table for its author to sign their copy.
The snowball was rolling.
* * *
‘My guest today,’ said Paul Blezard, ‘is an absolute phenomenon in the publishing world. Enormously talented, she has written an un-put-downable tale of secrets and passion, with beautifully written characters of immense complexity and a plot that will keep you reading into the small hours. What is more, she published it herself when rejected by the industry – an industry, I should say, that is now seeking her out in something of a feeding frenzy. Lily North, it is my very great pleasure to welcome you to Between The Lines. Tell me, where did the idea come from for "Velvet Answers?"’
Gosh, he’s even more charming in real life, Lily thought. ‘Well, Paul, a year ago an image came to me of a dark man standing alone at the top of a tower in the pouring rain, having lost everything; I didn’t know why he was there or who he was or what he was going to do next, so I wrote the book to find out.’
‘And as it turned out everyone else wanted to find out too…’
* * *
Lily held her hand over the receiver while she hastily chewed and swallowed her mouthful of toast. ‘Speaking.’
‘It’s Martin Fitzgibbon here from Fitzgibbon & Wood. How are you?’
‘Fine,’ said Lily. Fitzgibbon & Wood! Bastards.
‘That’s terrific. I wonder if you received my letter?’
‘Yes, I did.’
‘And…what did you think of our offer? We are very anxious to represent you, Miss North. We feel that you are an astonishing new talent, and with the right agency behind you, the sky is the limit. Have you had any thoughts about foreign rights? This is an area we are very experienced in. And film rights, too, of course.’
‘Then this is where we can be so helpful – ’
‘You misunderstand me. I mean no, I don’t want you to represent me.’
‘But we are one of the foremost agencies in the business, and we are extremely keen to – ’
‘Then isn’t it a pity that you turned down my novel when I offered it to you? Goodbye, Mr Fitzgibbon.’
‘Please, you must forgive us, that was the regrettable mistake of an intern who has now left the firm. We get sent so many manuscripts, just occasionally one slips through the net… The most important consideration for you now is to find the best agency to secure the most advantageous possible deal for you. Our contacts are unrivalled…’
Lily let him talk on, grinning evilly at the underlying panic in his voice, until he had run out of things to say.
‘My mind is made up, Mr Fitzgibbon.’
‘Why don’t we meet for lunch? I could send a car for you. Today. L'Escargot? The Savoy?'
‘Not possible. Today I’m lunching at the Connaught, with Gordon Crichton; you know, from Gordon Crichton Literary Agency.’ As she put the phone down, he was still talking.
* * *
This time Fran rushed into Lily’s bedroom and woke her. She waved the Telegraph Review section under her friend’s nose. ‘Look!’
Lily heaved herself on to one elbow, squinting in the sudden light. She had let James take her out the night before to celebrate the amazing, incredible fact that the money in her bank account had passed the million mark, with more arriving every day. She had worn her new Alexander McQueen frock and Manolo heels, and they had drunk Bollinger.
While the taxi waited, James saw her to her door like the gentleman he was. He put his arms round her.
‘You know, I’m very fond of you, Lily,’ he said hesitantly. She smiled. He was the only one who thought he needed to tell her that. She reached up and kissed him. He was really very sweet…
‘Well, read it then!’ Lily took the paper from Fran's hand.
The headline on the front page said, above a pleasing photograph of her, ‘THE NEXT J. K. ROWLING? Lily North, the new publishing sensation.’
‘And,’ said Fran, ‘it says here you’re on the short list for the Booker.’
* * *
Lily heaved a sigh and opened her eyes. She glanced once more at the hated email, and deleted it. Maybe she would ring James later and ask him to meet her for a drink that evening, help her drown her sorrows. She brought up a fresh page in Word. Perhaps she should try a short story… She began to type.
‘The computer sang its little apologetic double bong…’