“Table for McGregor?”
“Let me see . . . Ah, yes, just for two?”
Amy nodded and we were led through the restaurant to a table at the back, next to the toilets.
“I thought I’d better book,” she said as we sat down. “It can be tricky to get a seat in the smoking area at lunchtime.” I glanced around as I shuffled my chair in and saw that, apart from a squashed little ghetto of smokers at the tables around us, the restaurant was entirely empty. The waitress gave us a couple of menus, an ashtray, and a free, complimentary smile, and then turned to leave.
“Excuse me!” Amy called after her, arching back on her chair. “Could we have a bottle of red and a bottle of white, please?” She turned back towards me, questioningly. “Sorry—do you want anything?”
“No, I’m fine.”
“Just the two bottles, then,” she confirmed.
“Certainly,” replied the waitress, and headed towards the bar.
Amy scrambled a cigarette out of its packet, chopped her lighter aflame with her thumb, and pinched her face up with the effort of a long, determined draw. With a slight pop, she pulled the cigarette from her mouth and let her hands fall down to the table, at which point she stopped completely. She sat there, eyes unfocused, without breathing or moving—as though she’d simply switched off—for a tiny eternity. Even though I was used to her doing this, it still unnerved me and I was just about to reach over and investigatively poke her forehead with my finger when she finally relaxed and expelled the smoke with a noisy, swooping whoosh, like the valve on a pressure cooker releasing steam.
“So,” she said, “how are things?”
Amy was my agent.
“Oh . . . you know,” I replied.
Once Amy is your agent, there’s no going back. I don’t mean that in a bad way. I’m not suggesting that Amy’s contract specifies 10 percent of earnings and your immortal soul, or that trying to untangle yourself from Amy would mean her pursuing you, shrieking, through the night. I mean, well . . . I don’t have a dishwasher, but everyone I know who does says that you can happily go for most of your life without a dishwasher but, once you buy one, that’s it; life without one becomes unimaginable. Amy is like a dishwasher.
“I read the piece you did for Working Mother,” she said. “The ‘How to do your tax return’ thing.”
“Yeah. I just paraphrased the Inland Revenue’s booklet, really.”
“No, you’re selling yourself short again. The way you were struggling to run a small, ethnic-rug shop while raising four children with eczema? I really felt for you. And your husband . . .”
“Aye, Brian—what a dickhead. I’m telling you, when you were filling in the section on provisional figures, I was there with you.”
“And Hugh’s really pleased with the way Only the Horizon is selling, by the way.”
This was the last book I’d ghosted. It was for a guy, Justin Lee-Harris, who’d sailed a small yacht between Ireland and New Zealand. I forget why. Lee-Harris was always doing this kind of thing. I’d only met him once because, by the time everything was agreed and I’d been brought in, he was just about to jump aboard another one-man yacht to do something admirable and vague in the South China Sea. It wasn’t until after he’d gone that I discovered my Dictaphone battery had run out about halfway through our single meeting. Everything after Cape Town I just made up.
“I’m seeing Hugh later.”
“Really? Are you sure you don’t want a drink?”
The waitress came back.
“Ready to order?” she asked, striking a pose with a pencil and pad.
“Ummmm . . . I’m sorry,” I said, theatrically pained by the admission, “I don’t really know much about Ghanaian cui- sine. What’s fufu?”
“It’s cassava and plantain pounded with a wooden pestle and mortar until it glutinizes into a ball,” the waitress replied, expectantly moving her pencil down to touch the pad.
“It’s a root.”
“A bit like a banana.”
“Really? . . . Um. . . . Can I have the roast chicken and chips, please?”
The waitress smiled, nodded brightly, scribbled something that looked rather like “tosser” on her pad, and turned to Amy.
“Oh, nothing for me, thanks,” Amy said with a wave. “No, could we have another bottle of red, actually?” She twisted back to me. “So, what are you seeing Hugh for?”
“Oh, not for anything. I was coming out to see you anyway. I haven’t seen him for a while . . .” I finished the sentence by waggling my hand about. “I’ll just pop in and say hello.”
“I thought you were there last week? I’m sure when I saw him he said you’d come into the office last week.”
“Yes, that’s right. Now you mention it, I remember I did bump into him last week.”
“You know, in his office.”
“That’s not really ‘bumping into’ him, is it? ‘Hey! Hugh! Fancy seeing you here. At your desk.’ That’s more ‘aiming at him,’ isn’t it?”
“I suppose so. Whatever.”
“Are you up to something?”
“Me? No, God no.” A specific pair of breasts came into my mind. Amy leaned forward slightly and peered at me. Guilt whispered that she could see the specific breasts too, dangling there, just behind my eyes. “No . . . What have you heard?”
“I haven’t heard anything,” she said.
“There you go, then. You should listen to that.”
“Okay, okay. But I’ve warned you before about getting too friendly with publishers, that’s all. You know what happens every time you make friends with a publisher.”
“A pixie dies. Yes, I remember. But Hugh is my friend, not just my publisher, Amy.”
“Friendships cool, Tom. You can always cool a friendship. When you get too friendly with a publisher you just make my job of helping you harder. You keep a dignified distance. If anyone needs to make friends with them, I’ll do it. I can do it better than you. I’m false.”
Amy lectured me about the risks I was taking by talking to, well, pretty much anyone. She continued doing this through a pack of cigarettes and all the wine, the number of adjectives increasing with each bottle.
“The usual pack of arrogant wankers, of course.”
“Absolutely.” She crushed the life out of a cigarette stub in the ashtray. “London agents—bastards. They think I’m some kind of ‘plucky amateur’ just because I don’t live down there. You can actually see their bodies switch languages when I tell them—their shoulders unwind and they stuff their hands in their pockets. ‘Oh, so you live up here? How wonderful. Wish I could, it’d be far better for my nerves.’ Twats. They need their shins beating with a spade.”
Every day I wake up and thank God that Amy’s on my side.
“Well,” I sighed, glancing supportively at my watch, “I’d better get off, if I’m going to catch Hugh.”
“Aye, I’d better make a move too.”
She plunged her arm into her handbag up to the elbow and, after a brief chase, retrieved a hair tie. Both hands reached around the back of her head and pulled at her straight brown hair, binding it into the tie with a severity that tugged at the skin on her face so much her eyes narrowed. It was her battle ritual. Fearsome in any case, Amy McGregor with her hair tied back meant a Highland Charge was in the offing.
“What was it you’re going to?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s a magazine launch. Is my speech slurring?”
“Good. Wouldn’t want to look out of place.”
“See if you can hunt out anything for me. I’ve got nothing lined up, and Sara’s talking about new carpets.”
“Will do. Anything specific? Got any ideas for features?”
“Yeah, sorry. I’ll just wait for them to say anything about anything and then pipe up, ‘Really? Tom was just saying he’d got an idea for a piece about that.’ I’ve got a face to go with it . . . look.”
Hugh’s face collapsed into a “struggling on” smile as I approached. This didn’t signify anything; it was simply his standard face. Hugh Mortimer always looked like a man who’d just returned to work after an embarrassing surgical procedure.
He was the chief commissioning editor in the Scottish offices of the publishers McAllister & Campbell. Depending on how Hugh happened to feel, an aspiring author could be set dancing with elation in his kitchen or left feeling utterly crushed and worthless, in the same kitchen. Many men (I know, I’ve met them) would be unable to control their erections at the thought of having that kind of power; it just gave Hugh ulcers. But then, pretty much everything gave Hugh ulcers.
“Hi, Hugh. Thought I’d just drop by and see how things were.”
“Oh, good. Good to see you . . . I’ve been having pains in my chest.”
“Really?” Hugh Mortimer was thirty-seven years old.
“Aye. Here . . .” He rubbed his open hand over a liberal area, as though anxiously soaping himself. “I was worried about my heart, you know, what with my being so sedentary. All I ever do is sit. Doesn’t that worry you too? You sit.”
“No. But then I’m twenty-eight. Obviously, if I were thirty-seven, it’d scare the crap out of me.”
“Mmm—anyway, I was worried about my heart, so I bought this rowing machine thing at the weekend. They’re supposed to be very good for all-round health.”
“Getting it in and out of the car damn near killed me.”
“I spent a stressful afternoon setting it up, and I’ve been giving it a go each evening.”
“And now you’ve . . .”
“And now I’ve got these pains in my chest, that’s right. The trouble is, doing the rowing really makes demands of your chest muscles. I don’t know if it’s the muscles in my chest aching or my heart.”
“Did you have any pains before you bought the rowing machine?”
“No. But that doesn’t mean anything. It could still be my heart. It has to give out sometime, doesn’t it? Its number might have been up, and the fact that I happened to have bought a rowing machine now is just a coincidence. I missed my chance. I bought a rowing machine, but my heart’s already too far gone.”
“Did you keep the receipt?”
I’d known Hugh for six years, so I can say with some authority that today he was more upbeat than usual.
The accident of my knowing Hugh was simply part of the accident of my being a writer in the first place. I’d come to Edin- burgh to study English at university. I wasn’t, I must make it clear, fired up by any passion for literature. It was simply that, well, you have to study something, don’t you? Once, in Miss Burston’s class when I was ten, I’d been told that I was “quite good at spelling,” and I’d just sort of drifted along with that for the next eleven years. My academic career was indifferent to the point of beauty—I was so unremarkable, in every way, that the unvarying precision of my mediocrity achieved a kind of loveliness. The most middling student each year in Edinburgh really ought to be awarded the Tom Cartwright Cup. Or, more fittingly, the Who? Cup.
Anyway, by the time I’d finished my degree I’d made some friends here and couldn’t see any point in moving. I certainly didn’t want to go back home (a tiny village located somewhere in Kent, somewhere in the seventeenth century), and the pros- pect of heading off to London to find glittering success filled me with a shrug. So, I hung around and got a job on a local advertising paper. Wherever a cycle path was poorly defined, whenever a pensioner was doing something vaguely amusing for charity, I was there. I can’t really see how I could have lacked any more flair, but I could spell and I worked fast; in journalism just one of those is often enough to build a career on. This all went along nicely for a time until an acquaintance of mine was asked if she’d ever thought about writing a book.
The acquaintance, Janine, owned a shop that sold bol- locks: reflexology charts, tarot cards, little statuettes of fairies (“faeries,” probably) holding crystals, feng shui manuals, those pairs of shiny metal balls that always come in black, velvety cases—she stocked pretty much the complete range of pointlessness. Janine’s speciality, however, was aromatherapy. Not only did she sell the oils, books, and burners, but she was also available, for a modest fee, in a consulting capacity. Panic attack? Personal crisis? One phone call and Janine would race over so you could score some safflower oil. Tricky situation at work and you need to subliminally influence your colleagues in your favor? A few notes and Janine would see to it that you, quite literally, came up smelling of roses. Inevitably—I mean, inevitably, right?—some of Janine’s users worked in publishing. One day, while Janine was giving her a hit of kanuka, one of these clients remarked that there was always a market for books about this kind of crap (I paraphrase) and had she, Janine, ever thought of writing one?
Janine was very taken with this idea but didn’t feel up to the task of putting all those words down on paper. As she knew I was a formidably mercenary wordsmith, she asked if I’d ghost the thing for her—she’d give me the basic details, and I’d work them up into a book. I said if we called it Aromatherapy, I’d do it for a flat fee. If we called it Sensual Aromatherapy, I’d do it for a proportion of sales. She went for the latter, which was a tremendous boon for me (ghostwriters never get a proportion of sales—you get a one-off payment and that’s it, no matter what). The book came out at a really good moment, just as aromatherapy was that month’s top media fad (I want to say “It was right on the nose,” but I’m not sure I’d ever forgive myself), and it sold very well.
We cranked out a follow-up, Extra Sensual Aromatherapy, which didn’t do anywhere nearly as well as the first book but still shifted enough copies to confirm that there is no justice in the world. More important was that during the process of doing the two books I met both Hugh (then lowly enough to have to deal with aromatherapy publishing) and Amy. With the odd lead from the former and the savage tenacity of the latter it was just about financially viable, within a year or so, for me to walk away from my job at the paper and ghost books more or less full-time. I supplemented my income with magazine articles on how I’d coped with the menopause or what to do when your dentist is also your lover; even doing this, the money wasn’t very good—and was very sporadic too—but it was enough to get me by. And I did have about twenty weeks off a year, which is an excellent holiday package by any standards.
Hugh sighed a long sigh. “Confronting your own mortality, it really makes you take stock of your life, you know?”
“Of course it does. I mean, when you’re a bairn you have all those dreams. How you’ll be a big star. How Michael Parkinson will have you on his chat show all the time—and as the final guest too, not as the ‘But first . . .’ You’ll have really made your mark for something or other. Then, one day, it settles upon you. You’re trying to get a garbage bag out of the kitchen before the plastic stretches and comes apart at the top and you’re thirty-seven years old and it settles upon you—the realization that it’s over. This is it. Not only are you never going to be as famous as Elvis Presley, but you’re never even going to be as famous as the wee bald guy in Benny Hill. . . . Christ.”
His head sagged down over his desk.
“Done any more work on your book?” I asked.
“Yes. It’s crap. Utter crap.”
“Oh, well, maybe you can sell it to another publisher. I can think of two names right now.”
I saw Fiona. She’d come into the office and paused to pour herself a drink at the water cooler.
“Awww, don’t, Tom. It’s easy for you—if you decided to write a novel—”
“Oh, don’t start that again.”
“Well . . .”
“Can I just”—I hung a finger in the air, indicating Fiona. “I just want to have a quick word with—”
Hugh let out another sigh as his only response. I took this as clearance to get up and quickly move over to where she was standing.
“Fiona!” I exclaimed with a grin. I meant it to come out convivial and engagingly larger-than-life. It just came out loud. She turned to look at me as you would at a person who’d come up to you in a quiet office and shouted your name at the side of your head.
She took another sip from her paper cup before answering, “Tom.”
“I was just sitting over there”—I pointed—“and I saw you.”
She glanced lazily over at Hugh’s office. “Did you? Must be all of four yards away. Be sure to leave your retinas to science.”
“Haha, nice one.”
Fiona Laurie. Early twenties. Around five foot five (without her heels). Star publicist of McAllister & Campbell. Her eyes were pale blue, and her blond hair was short, in that style that normally indicates that a middle-aged woman is having some kind of crisis, but she’d managed to conjure “sophisticated” from it somehow. Like me, Fiona was English, originally from Hampshire, I think, and she had been with McAllister & Campbell for just a few years. Most of that time had been spent in their London offices. The word was that she’d been sent up here because she was still too new for it to be seemly for her to be elevated in a choir-accompanied ceremony of corporate apotheosis, yet she was clearly too big for her junior position down there. She’d come to Edinburgh in the same way that in former times a favored son of the Empire might be given Canada to rule for a bit before returning to become Home Secretary.
I couldn’t care less about any of that, though. The most impressive thing about Fiona, in my opinion, was her immaculate superiority. How did she get her whites that white? Why did she never crease? I’d never seen her look less than witheringly perfect: shiny or matte in all the right places. She moved slowly too. That’s always arresting, isn’t it? Everywhere she went, she looked like she’d decided to go there because it suited her purpose. She was cool. Aloof.
It had a potent effect, the flawless presentation and the easy condescension: an overpoweringly attractive combination. Oh, and she had great tits too. Really great tits. Tits Classic. Each one (tellingly) just the size of my cupped hand, firm as fresh fruit and possessing the kind of nipples whose very existence powered the invention of thin, white, cotton blouses. I was utterly—utterly—ashamed of the things I’d lately started thinking that I wanted to become involved in doing with those tits—it wasn’t like me at all.
“I . . . er . . . just popped in . . . to see Hugh.” I smiled.
Fiona took another sip from her paper cup and raised her eyebrows at me in reply. It was an efficient and winning way of wordlessly conveying “Yeah? How very, very interesting.” She was belittling me using nothing but the power of her eyebrows. I shivered and was unable to step in to block myself from having an involuntary glance down below her neckline.
“Well,” I said, hammering it home by following up first with a long exhalation from between pursed lips and then, cleverly, a meaningless click of my tongue. “Well . . . I . . . I’d better be getting back to Hugh. Things to discuss . . . you know . . .” I clapped my hands together and opened my eyes indicatively wide. “Stuff.” Suddenly, I reached forward, my hand having gone insane and made a break for it with the intention of patting her affectionately on the shoulder. I regained control just in time, however, and managed to turn things around by changing the movement into a thumbs-up sign. Situation salvaged, I judged that there wasn’t much more I could achieve today, so I backed away from her, returning to Hugh’s office. “Bye.”
“Good-bye,” replied Fiona, watching me evenly as I retreated. “I’m glad we had this chance to talk.”
“Which arm is it that’s supposed to hurt if you’re having a heart attack?” asked Hugh as I flopped into the chair by him.
“The left, isn’t it?”
“Hmm . . .” Hugh rubbed his right arm thoughtfully. “What about the other arm? What does that mean? Have they discovered what that means?”
“I believe there is a school of thought that believes it’s linked to reckless use of rowing machines, but supporting evidence is still sketchy.”
“Yes.” Hugh nodded, unconvinced.
“Well, as we’ve got a couple of minutes before the Reaper arrives for you, have you got anything for me? Any work on the horizon? Talk quickly and stick to the basic facts.”
“No . . . well, aye. Maybe. I’d rather not say at the moment, Tom.”
“You’d rather not say? What does that mean?”
“There is something in the pipeline. But it’s big, very big, and I don’t want to raise your hopes.”
“Oh, come on, you tease. I’m damn near broke—throw me a crumb.”
“You know it’s not my say, Tom. I can make a suggestion, put in a good word for you, but that’s all. This is an A-list book, and I don’t want to get you all excited, then have it come to nothing—have you mentally spending money you won’t get.”
“It’s a lot of money?”
“Oh, aye. A lot.”
“Tch. Tell me. I promise to speak glowingly of you at the funeral.”
“No. I’ll know in a day or so. I’ll put them in touch with Amy.”
Hugh had become distracted again.
“You know, I think my legs are aching too now. What about legs? What does that mean?”
Excerpted from A Certain Chemistry by Mil Millington. Copyright © 2004 by Mil Millington. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.