I was lying in the bath, chasing soap and inspiration, when Barty rang.
“Justin? Justin, pick up please.”
I heaved myself out, donned a dressing-gown of pink Turkish towelling, and dripped over to the telephone.
“I was working,” I said reproachfully. One can always claim to be working as an author, even when staring into space and eating chocolate.
“Good. How’s the flat?” Typical Barty, but he had the right to ask. Arabella Fysshe had been the author of over one hundred and seventy works of revolting sentimentality which sold in vast quantities. She left her fortune to the Battersea Dogs’ Home, and her flat to Barty, who had also been her agent. He in turn had loaned the flat to me for the duration of a neighbour’s underpinning work.
“Oh, fine, thanks. Good light, if not good taste.”
The windows rattled. The flat was subject to odd tremors, possibly due to its fashionable location, though these were nowhere near as bad as the pneumatic drills that had driven me out of my exquisitely tasteful bedsit in Archway.
I took a deep breath. “So… Have you read it?”
Of course he had. The trouble is, success had made Barty lazy. My last two novels had been relegated to one of the smaller independent houses with the courage to champion what the conglomerates were too cowardly or otiose to touch. They had sold pitifully.
“Be honest with me, Barty,” I lied.
“Well, it’s your best yet,” he began. “Definitely. I mean, I had some hesitation over the scene with the corgi being barbequed by an illegal immigrant in Buckingham Palace, but –“
“It’s symbolic,” I said, affronted. At times like these, I usually feel it necessary to remind Barty that I read English at Oxford,
“Yes – but, well…You have brought it off as only Justin Vest could.”
“So, who should we offer it to?” I asked eagerly. “Cape? Faber? Hamish Hamilton?”
“I’m not sure that any mainstream publisher will bite.”
“Barty, please! Its originality is beyond question.”
“Quite, quite,” he said uncomfortably. Barty believed that a nose for business and a wide acquaintance with commissioning editors were what it took to be an agent. I had nothing to prove. Every novel I wrote received rapturous reviews; it was no fault of mine that, after my first, they never sold more than a thousand copies. “The thing is, Justin, people aren’t interested in novels of ideas. They want vampires, werewolves and a bit more…human interest.”
I settled down for the kind of debate that I relish. It took one’s mind off the late Arabella’s taste in interior decoration. Pink was everywhere, in unblushing or rather blushing shades. We had a crisis of cerise, a riot of raspberry, a pullullation of peach. Long before the invention of chick lit, Arabella had made pink her signature colour. One entire wall of shelves was devoted to her own work, translated into 39 different languages, including Inuit, ( one could guess this because the illustration showed the usual wasp-waisted heroine smirking in front of a pink-tinged igloo.) The confounded woman was a compulsive writer, whereas personally, one had squeezed out five works over thirteen years, in utter agony. Her photograph showed her clutching a bejewelled lap-dog, its stiff blonde fur precisely the same colour as her hair. Ghastly! As I gave Barty my opinion on the future of fiction, I picked up a French translation of The Alpha Romeo, telling myself that it could not be as painful as the original English.
Barry’s voice said dolefully,
“Editors aren’t free to publish on the grounds of serious artistic merit Justin, they’re all dictated to by Accounts these days….. Have you ever thought of trying to be more commercial?”
“Commercial?” I gripped the handset. The last time I had lost my temper – with my publisher, as it happened – he told me that he felt he had to lie down in a darkened room and stroke a cat. I didn’t actually feel like sacking Barty yet, asinine as his suggestion was.
“What, like the late Miss Fysshe, I presume?”
“No, no, no, no,” he said hurriedly. “Impossible! But perhaps a man of your talent and intelligence could, well, at least try for a wider audience?”
Well, of course one would like a larger audience, I said, trying to keep the sarcasm from my voice; what author wouldn’t, but he did understand that books don’t write themselves?
“Believe me, Barty, I wish they did,” I said bitterly. “One wishes one could just wake up and find one’s work done for one, like the Tailor of Gloucester! Everybody in the world wants to have written a novel, but hardly anyone understands what desperately hard work it is to actually write.”
“I know, I know,” he said, sighing. “Not everyone is as productive as dear Arabella. But – just sleep on it, would you?”
Angrily, I returned to my bath but by now the water was cold. Seeking to recapture my former good mood, I took a fresh bar of Divine milk chocolate to bed with me, and opened my lap-top. I was still stuck on a scene between Francis, a philosopher who was heroically concealing his existential turmoil, and Xavier, an ex-convict who has turned to Nihilism. They had been having a passionate debate about Schopenhauer.
“Frances felt her heart flutter within her breast. Surely he must notice her feelings for him? Xavier’s hard, masculine profile was inscrutable, but seconds before she had seen a very different expression in his eyes, whose tenderness seared her soul to its very –“
What utter tosh was this? Not only had my Francis become a Frances, but the nature of their relationship was unrecognisable.
Frantically, I read the new words on my lap-top. Frances and Xavier were still in Canterbury Cathedral, but she was now a dress designer, and he the owner of a chain of upmarket fashion stores called the Galleries Tuileries. Their mutual attraction was fraught with erotic tension of the most glutinous kind. I scrolled back and further back. Places, names and even some conversations were the same but everything else had been subsumed in the thick treacle of sentiment and bad prose. Was it some kind of dreadful prank?
“What lunatic has done this?” I said, furiously.
There was a rustling sound, and a gust of warm air made all the pink ostrich feather plumes on her escritoire tinkle in their ink-wells. Somebody else was with me in the flat. Terrified, I leapt up, and looked around. The paperweight, in which Raphael’s pensive cherubs gazed up from beneath a blob of glass, would have to do as a weapon.
“I’m warning you, I’m armed,” I cried, my voice trembling. “Come out and show yourself.”
All the pinkness of the place seemed to thicken, and then there, lying on the puce upholstery of the chaise longue, was, quite unmistakably, Arabella Fysshe. Her coral-tipped hands clasped a small blonde dog, wearing a diamond collar. I gasped. Had I gone suddenly mad? Was this a ghost?
“You poor dear man,” she said.
“Miss Fysshe?” I enquired. “Is it really you?”
Her lashes fluttered.
“It is me – I,” she corrected herself.
“I thought you were – “ I swallowed – “Dead.”
“Romance never dies.”
“But – I’m having some sort of nervous breakdown, aren’t I?”
Her laughter tinkled out once again.
“I heard you say to dear Barty that you needed a little help, so I had a peek at your new novel.”
I forgot to be frightened in my outrage.
“How is this possible?”
“Oh in cyberspace, my dear, one can do anything. It was the matter of a moment to improve upon, er, Spleen. Or should I now say, Sheen.”
She placed the sleeping dog on the chaise longue, where it vanished, then opened a flat pink shell which turned out to be a small lap-top, and gazed fondly into its glowing depths.
“Barty has a soft spot for you.”
I drew myself up and said, “It has nothing to do with soft spots and everything to do with literary excellence, something I dare say you are totally ignorant of.”
“Do you think it’s easy to write something that has contributed so enormously to the happiness of readers? I, too, read literature.”
“But you couldn’t produce it yourself,” I said nastily.
Arabella sighed. “Dear boy, believe me, with enough practice one can turn one’s hand to absolutely anything. Well, except Shakespeare, of course. He’s strictly the preserve of –“ She pointed to the ceiling. I shuddered, both as an atheist and as a writer. “It’s more a question of temperament, however.”
“I think you are referring to pastiche,” I said. “If one is an artist, that’s out of the question.”
“But are you so original?” Arabella’s ghostly form whipped out a sheet of paper. “Hmm. Nabokov and Gore Vidal, with a dash of Oscar Wilde: portentous, pretentious, outmoded and Martin Amis does it better. I quote, of course, from one of the publisher’s responses Barty was too kind to let you see.”
“Faber & Faber. There are many more.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Editors have only to see your name on a manuscript for it to come winging back. Our mutual agent was trying to tell you the truth, but you refuse to listen.”
I could feel all my confidence draining away. I put my head in my hands, and sobbed.
“It’s just such an appalling strain, you know, carrying on writing when nobody believes in one, except one. If one weren’t arrogant and stubborn, one would collapse.”
“You poor sausage,” said Arabella, with a look of ethereal sympathy. “We’ve all been there. But that’s why I felt you needed help.”
I moaned, “One’s life is nothing but failure. I have no friends, no wife, no life but work, and my work isn’t working.”
“Your life is NOT over,” Arabella said. “Look at me.”
“You?” I drew a deep breath. “You’re dead.”
“Authors are immortal,” she said, haughtily. “Especially those who have their work translated into 39 different languages including Inuit. But you do need to do something different. What do you think of Sheen? Be honest with me.”
She looked so vulnerable, even without her escritoire showing clearly through her torso, that I decided against telling her that one abhors trash.
“Is my original still there, or have you deleted it?” I demanded.
“Still there, under Spleen. But do, do, try Sheen.”
Ignoring the implausibility of my situation, I settled down to read. Sheen wasn’t at all one’s sort of thing. Where were the Big Ideas? Why wasn’t its prose more refined? Where was the clash of cultures, ideals, and classes? Yet banal as her imagination was, one could not help liking Arabella’s Frances and Xavier.
“It’s charming,” I said, eventually. She was not to know that in literary circles, “charming” is an adjective like “lyrical”. It denotes a total absence of Art. But I also, for the first time, meant it, because I was indeed charmed.
Arabella briefly became a pink mist.
“Pure imagination,” she said. “I never found the right chap. It takes a real man to like pink.”
“Only – please don’t take this the wrong way – readers expect something more challenging from a Justin Vest.”
“Challenging!” she exclaimed dolefully. “That was always my problem. I sold by the truck-load, and people all over the world sent me the most marvellous letters about how they’d got through divorce, bereavement and convalescence with an Arabella Fysshe, but I never got a single review. Nobody ever took my work seriously. I was too insubstantial, even before I became a ghost.”
She took out a small pink handkerchief, and dabbed her eyes with it.
For a best-selling romantic novelist to suffer any emotion apart from happiness as the next cheque rolled into her bank account surprised me, but, following our frank exchange, I felt genuine sympathy. Besides, I had another idea.
My remarkable discovery of Arabella Fyshhe’s last novel, Sheen, in manuscript, while staying in her flat guaranteed it a certain amount of attention in the serious papers, particularly as it was published upside-down in one volume with Spleen. Together, our deficiencies complimented each other as an entirely new form of post-modern double-act. Some readers bought it for Arabella’s sake, some for the mine, but a great many readers who had never heard of either of us turned our joint effort into an international success. We had pulled off something that pleased feminists, critics, romantics and the avant-garde. Even Hollywood loved it. Barty, bless him, was ecstatic.
“What a pity that you only found one manuscript!” he exclaimed, when ringing to tell me that readers had gone into a frenzy over it. “If only there was another. You parody her style so well –”
“It’s more of an hommage than a parody,” I said, as Arabella listened, beaming. “She never got her due, really. We feel quite inspired, you know.”
I patted my newly acquired pink cashmere muffler. “Who knows? We may even find another.”