Published by graham on Wed, 01/24/2018 - 15:30
Me and the Virus: a confession
Here’s the thing. You want to write. You need to write. You’re thirteen years old. Just. Nothing much has happened to you yet in the way of plot, or character(s), or any of those presents from real life that age may one day leave on your doorstep. But you persevere because, in some hard-to-fathom way, you have to. It’s a virus thing. It’s in your bloodstream. It’s deep in your bones. It nests everywhere. It won’t leave you alone.
Your first book, a novel, isn’t very good. No surprises there because you’re still thirteen. The second, the third, the fourth, are marginally better. You’re learning how to write, how to manipulate language, but you still have nothing to say, nothing to feed into the machine, no inner knots to untangle, nothing that would make a publisher or a reader pinch his eyes, shift his weight in the armchair, draw a proper bead on the narrative, and think to himself I believe this guy. This sounds true. There’s something here.
You go to university. Stuff starts to happen to you, mainly conversations and broken love affairs. You trip over some of life’s awkwardness. And life rewards you. I can write about this, you think. I can hold it at arm’s length, give it faces, voices, invent, imagine, do the writerly things. And slowly the deadness on the page acquires a pulse and a purpose. In the guise of someone else – a character for God’s sake – it gets on its own two feet and heads off in directions you’d never expected. Surprise becomes part of the fictional adventure. A process both mysterious and oddly wonderful.
And so, a week after your final exams, staring at the blankness of the screen of your first PC, you conclude that words, language, character, plot – deftly handled – can take you anywhere. Thanks to the virus.
Television intervenes in the form of a job offer. You spend nearly twenty years making documentaries. At its most intimate, this process turns out to be somewhat akin to writing. You need to feed off people, to gain their trust, and win their attention, and clamber into their heads and their hearts and try – somehow – to figure out what it’s like to be them.
Thereafter, it’s simple kidnap. You arrive with the cameras, do the biz, and put their story on the screen. Do it well, they’ll love you forever. Get it wrong, and you won’t sleep at night. But most of the films turn out OK. Viewing figures climb. The critics are more than kind. Your career, so called, thrives.
Then comes the moment when you find yourself afloat in the middle of the North Atlantic looking for the wreck of the Titanic with a view to making a ground-breaking TV documentary. You know pretty much where it is but the ocean floor two and a half miles down is a bigger, barer place than you might imagine and as you stare at the video screen day after day, at pictures fed up from the trailing seabed camera, you see nothing except a lunar shade of grey. Grey is the colour of failure. Grey is a tonal riff on disappointment. After a week of nothing, that same shade of featureless grey triggers panic calls on the radio telephone to your executive producer back in the UK. No sign of fifty thousand tons of ocean liner. We’re running out of money. What next?
But there’s good news, too. The survey vessel was once a North Sea trawler. The skipper, John, is an avid reader. He’s a good guy, calm, excellent company. Books crowd every corner of his cabin. In the evenings you drink lots of beer, trade stories, and confess that – all along – you’ve only ever wanted to be a writer. It’s all about words, you mutter after the fourth bottle. Not images at all.
John calls your bluff. The next morning, in the continuing absence of the Titanic, he hands you the key to the radio room. Beside his battered typewriter is a pile of A4. It’s his ship. The invitation has the force of an order. Go to it. Invent. Write.
And so – with brief excursions to the video control room – you come up with a synopsis. It’s 1986. The Cold War is still deep in the chiller. The Berlin Wall has yet to come down. You’re part of a generation that went through the Cuba Crisis and you’re word perfect on all those graphic diagrams that chart what happens when the ICBMs start to fly. Ground Zero. Temperatures hotter than the sun. Whole streets, whole suburbs, exploding. And the blast circle rippling ever outwards, flattening everything in its path beneath the towering mushroom cloud.
As it happens, you live in Portsmouth and as a documentary maker you know a great deal about the steps the civil authorities would take in times of real crisis. How to try and limit the mass exodus from major centres of population. How to prevent the rest of the country from capsizing. How to protect key military routes. And how, in a handful of cases, it might be just possible to seal a whole city off. A city built on an island. A city of some military importance. A city offering an obvious target. A city like Portsmouth.
You work on the synopsis all day. You’ve called it Rules of Engagement. You’re juiced again. You’ve let the virus have its way. You’re doing what’s always been important, what’s always turned you on. And after dinner you retire to John’s cabin with a few beers and your precious synopsis. To your immense relief, John likes it. In fact he loves it. An entire city cut off and taken hostage by a Cuba-like crisis. 200,000 people under sentence of death from pre-targetted Soviet missiles. He thinks it would make a great TV series. And as it turns out, he’s right.
You happen to know some powerful figures in ITV drama. Next day, at John’s insistence, you get on the radio telephone and pitch Rules of Engagement to listening ears at the other end. At their invitation, you expand the synopsis and despatch it by fax. And then you wait.
Days pass. No Titanic. No return call. Nothing. And then, towards the end of the week, two things happen. In the morning, just before lunch, the seabed camera detects traces of wreckage on the seabed. The objects get bigger and bigger until a shadow that turns out to be the stern section of the liner emerges from the murk.
Widespread rejoicing. Toasts in lukewarm champagne. The hasty drafting of a press release. And then, in the late afternoon, a summons for yours truly to the radio room. The ITV drama honchos have read your expanded synopsis and are offering a commission. Six one hour episodes. For transmission next year. This, you know instinctively, is the real news that will change your life. Because six hours of prime time TV is the guarantee of a contract for the novelisation. At last, a proper book.
And so it goes. Long days in the editing room with the rushes from the Titanic. Long nights turning your precious synopsis into a 500 page novel. Every newcomer to the world of publishing is assigned a genre box. The label on the box will probably shape the rest of your writing career. You could be Historical Romance, or Science Fiction, or Sex and Shopping. None of the above. Your label says International Thriller. High excitement.
The Titanic documentary, because of its subject, scores over seventeen million viewers. Rules of Engagement pulls a more modest audience. Ditto your precious book. Over the years to come you abandon TV and pen eight more international thrillers. Each book is a stand-alone, a blank sheet of paper, new characters, new themes, new locales, new plots. As a way of earning a living, of half-filling the fridge, you love it. You’ll never be rich but you won’t, for a second, be bored. Because there are whole worlds out there that you need to make your own.
Then comes a glitch. You’ve switched publisher. The sales of two more international thrillers have been disappointing. And so you’re offered a new box with a new label. Crime Fiction. Three book contract. Take it or leave it. Cri-Fi or an empty fridge.
There’s a problem here. You don’t much like crime fiction, never read the stuff. When you ask yourself why you suspect it has something to do with formulaic writing, with being bound hand and foot by the stipulations of the genre, with having to come up with cops and robbers and half-bad people who are way beyond your comfort zone. And yet there’s no choice. Television is now a younger man’s game. Your dalliance with International Thriller writing has crashed and burned. The fridge is emptying fast. You exchange glances with your wife. Lin has a boundless tolerance for short rations but like most women she’s also a realist. It’s either Cri-Fi or a trip to the Jobs Centre.
But you have options here. A handful of savings will postpone the dread moment when you have to confront the PC in earnest. In the meantime you can read every crime fiction novel ever written or take the documentary route and try and sweet-talk your way into the mind of the working cop.
You decide to take the latter route, largely because it sounds more fun. Fun, it turns out, is a hopeless misnomer. You manage to negotiate your way into Portsmouth’s busiest police station for an extended research assignment (think fly, think wall) but detectives turn out to be exactly what it says on the tin: suspicious, paranoid, tight-lipped. Each of them has a particular hate list and on top of every list – after their line managers, local politicians, Home Office civil servants, Tony Blair – is anyone from the media who happens by and starts asking awkward questions. In other words, you.
There are no keys you can find to unlock these guys. Your only option is to hunker down, and watch, and listen, and to your enomous relief, conversation by overheard conversation, you start to build a picture of these mens’ lives. How angry many of them feel. How frustrated by the paper work and the armies of infant delinquents who rarely see the inside of a classroom. How alienated by a fast-changing CID culture that that squeezes any particle of risk or satisfaction from the most mundane of assignments. No serial killers. No high-speed vehicle intercepts. Just an ever-growing mountain of paperwork and a cold TV dinner at the end of the day.
None of this feels like page-turning cop fiction but the closer you pay attention, the more you realise that this story is probably replicated nation-wide: an army of detectives slowly drowning in a swamp of so-called volume crime – shoplifting, vehicle theft, nutterdom, low-level social nuisance – while the really bad guys pull clever strokes in the drugs biz and earn themselves a fortune. Depressing? Well, yes. But undoubtedly real.
And so, one night, you decide to write your three cri-fis in the minor key, partly because you’re still wedded to the world of documentaries, and partly because your access – no matter how frustrating – may well have stolen a march on the opposition. These are books, you tell your publisher, that will be more authentic than anything else on the shelf, and thus more commercial. The silence on the other end of the line suggests that this linkage might be false but time is moving on and you have to make a start.
The writing takes a couples of months. Your lead – the embattled D/I Joe Faraday – is joined by a streetwise detective in the shape of D/C Paul Winter. Winter, an old-style cop who still does most of his business behind locked doors, has the best tunes while Faraday offers the perfect opportunity to explore the kind of social chaos that most thinking detectives accept as the cross they have to bear.
The First Draft speeds off to London as a 300-page Word attachment and you await a reaction. This is always a tricky moment but there are three books in search of a readership here and this is the first time you’ve ever written a series. If you’ve got this wrong, the consequences could be calamitous.
To your surprise, Turnstone earns a nod of approval. This, your publisher tells you, is something rather novel. In fact it feels so new, so different, that you might have never read a crime novel in your life. As if.
The edit is simple. Very little gets changed. By the autumn, the guy from FedEx is delivering ten free hardbacks to your home address. Wittily, you gather an armful of your precious babies, walk down to the police station, and scatter them across the CID office. You do this because you’ve got a bit sentimental about your so-called research days trying to nail the cop culture, and because there’s no way any of these guys will part with money and ever buy your masterpiece. So instead, they get freebies. This is what I made of you. Fill your boots.
Another wait. Then a series of phone calls, all from those same stone-faced detectives you’d tried to prise open. Expecting, at the very least, a list of factual errors they’d spotted, you find yourself listening to what sounds dangerously close to enthusiasm. They’d never talked to you because they’d never trusted you. And they’d never trusted you because they never trusted anyone. Instead they’d waited to see what you made of them.
Had you watched? Had you listened? Had you understood the kind of crap they had to put up with? The answer in every case appeared to be yes. And now every one of them would be delighted to share an evening or two in the pub. Total disclosure. Lots of war stories. Providing, of course, that you’re in the chair.
This proves to be the making of the series. Your contacts book lengthens by the pint. You have the time, the opportunity and the motive to get into serious nuance. How frustrations with the Job can spill over into every other compartment of your life. How your view of human nature gets blacker and blacker. Then comes an invitation to join one of the Major Crime Teams and help yourself to a decent murder. Total access. Even a midnight lift to the Scene of Crime.
This prompts a whole series of other revelations, largely to do with the sheer reach of the Major Crime machine, and what you learn naturally finds a fictional home in your next book. This happens to be the third in the series, Angels Passing, and sight of the first draft prompts publisher talk of the break-out book.
Break-out, in publishing-speak, is the moment when your publisher decides to assign serious money to promotion. You have to sell squillions to justify this spend, and there are no second chances if it doesn’t work, but for three giddy months you step into fairyland. A promotional tour of the kingdom, speeding from studio to studio. Feature-length interviews in decent newspapers. Events in major bookshops. Appearances at headline festivals. Even the starring role in a specially-shot promotional film.
Sadly the sales figures don’t quite measure up but the fairy dust remains the sweetest of memories and the best news of all is a new – and much better – three book contract. You’re good at this. Your take on cri-fi is unusual as well as distinctive. The readership can only grow. More please.
By now, you’re rather warming to crime fiction, partly because it’s filling the fridge, but as well because of a conversation with a good friend you can trust to speak his mind. He’s read the first three books and in his opinion they’re not cri-fi at all. Portsmouth, in his view, is the UK writ small. What happens in Pompey holds true for the country at large. And if, like him, you believe that parts of society are imploding then it tends to be cops who have the ringside view. Family breakdown? Alcoholism? Drug abuse? Shit education? Violence spilling onto the street? This is meat and drink to the likes of Faraday and Winter. “You’re peering into the abyss”, your mate tells you. “These are books for the time capsule.”
Really? Embolded, you start to take a risk or two with the series. After a second contract comes a third. Winter resigns in disgust and crosses to the Dark Side. At the end of Contract Four, Happy Days, he helps the city’s Drug Lord stand for parliament.
Twelve cri-fis. Unthinkable. Translated editions all over Europe. A hugely successful series of adaptations for French TV. And a quartet of spin-offs featuring a younger cop, D/S Jimmy Suttle, set in the West Country. But after sixteen cri-fis, you suspect it might be time for a breath of fresher air.
By now you’ve got the virus thing nailed. Contract it early and it never leaves your bloodstream. Happily embedded in another job – like TV – it’s still there, a reminder that you’ve taken the easy street to a monthly salary, that you’re ducking the real challenge of the blank PC screen, that anything but writing – getting the right words in the right order – is a cop-out. True? Yes. And that, believe it or not, makes you very lucky. Why? Because you spend the bulk of your waking life pretending to be other people.
After cri-fi, you fancy a change of fictional turf but publishers live or die by the bottom line and if your books are out there doing the business then they simply want more of the same. More of the same, you try and explain, is no longer an option. To keep the juices flowing, you simply have to change tack.
Not easy. One late September afternoon in North West Spain, you bump your camper van down the narrowest of roads to a tiny harbour. You and Lin sit in the sunshine gazing peaceably out at the muddle of fishing boats bobbing at anchor in the afternoon breeze. Then you notice a faded plaque in the harbour wall. In 1944, a U-boat foundered on rocks along the coast during a storm. Local fishermen managed to rescue most of the crew but eight German sailors were drowned. RIP.
You stare at the plaque, trying to image an incident like this. What was the U-boat doing here? Where had it come from? Where was it headed? All your life, you’ve been fascinated by the Second World War. You were lucky enough to grow up in a house without a TV. Given your father’s passion for classical music on the old Third Programme, you stole up to bed every winter night with an armful of library books. Many of these books – fiction and non-fiction – had come out of the recent war. You read Paul Brickhill and Nicholas Monserrat in industrial quantities and loved every page.
The fascination with that enormous global convulsion accompanied you into television. Many of the documentaries were an anniversary doff of the ITV hat to past events, glorious and otherwise. The retreat to Dunkirk. The Battle of Britain. The return to Europe on D-Day. Plus a trillion individual stories in between. Another seed. Another virus. Another assault on your imagination’s immune system.
You’re still in Galicia. In the days that follow you drift from camp site to camp site, the beaches empty, the sun still hot, trying to figure out where the message on that harbour plaque might lead. History is the mother of speculation. What if the U-boat was shipping looted art and key figures from the regime south to Lisbon? What if the captain and the crew had lost faith in the Thousand Year Reich? What if the only survivor of the wreck wanted to turn his back on the war and simply make it through to the inevitable German surrender?
You can see this man. You give him a face and a name. Kapitan Stefan Portisch, toast of the U-boat service, a legend back home, but by now an empty shell. This is comforting. This is a situation you’re more than happy to imagine. How he’d be carrying serious injury. How he’d need help. How he’d end up in the hands of one of the daughters of the fishing village. And how, weeks later, he’s betrayed into the hands of the German legation in La Coruna.
Under arrest for desertion, the price of his life will be his participation in a last-ditch bid to stave off defeat. The Allies need to believe that the regime is weeks away from testing a nuclear weapon. Only a negotiated peace with Berlin can save London from oblivion.
Back home, in the months that follow, you thicken the plot, acquire a mountain of books, give Stefan Portisch a past as well as a present, and finally acknowledge that this book will need a second theme, no less important. In the mountains of New Mexico, American and immigrant scientists are racing to produce an atomic bomb of their own. Your task now is to develop and finally link these two plot lines.
This isn’t a commission. There’s absolutely no guarantee that this book will ever get published but it’s far too late to stop because the story has hooked you and there’s no going back. When your agent, Oli Munson, enquires about cri-fi ideas you half-admit what you’re up to, adding the good news that the Second World War was the biggest crime scene of all. Think motivation, you tell him. Think betrayal. Think that last-page spasm of ultimate violence that will level whole cities.
The book takes the best part of a year to ferment and take shape. Your research is immensely enjoyable. In your head, you’ve happily settled in a world that belongs to another generation. And then comes the moment when you despatch it to Oli. No cops. No robbers. But a larger cast than usual and a very large bang to end it all.
Oli likes it. He understands where it came from. But he’s no less a prisoner of publishing than you are. Your cri-fi publishers give the first draft a read and shake their heads. More cri-fi please. Oli has a think and comes up with another suggestion, a smaller publishing house, more independent, braver, less hamstrung by the dead hand of the market. He asks you to come up with a handful of cri-fi ideas as an ice breaker. A lunch is arranged.
At the restaurant you’re in the hands of Zeus Publisher, Nic Cheetham You babble on about cri-fi but Nic has something more important on his mind. He likes your writing and he wants to know what you really want to do. Believe it or not, after thirty three published titles, this is a question you’ve never heard before, not from a publisher. You blink a bit and then launch into the whole WW2 schtick. You happened to be in Spain. You got this idea. It starts at sea in a U-boat. It moves to an unexplained suicide in Los Alamos. The two themes plait and re-plait. At stake is the death of the Third Reich. I know, he tells you. I’ve just read it.
Oli, bless him, has sent Nic a copy of your epic without telling you. By now it has a title, Finisterre. Happily, Nic is a fellow WW2 obsessive. He likes the book a great deal. He’ll buy it but only on one condition: that it builds seamlessly into a series. Say three books to begin with and then maybe more if everything works out.
A series. The last thing you want is to find yourself lashed to a single character. The days of Joe Faraday, exciting though they were, are over. The whole point of this fictional exercise is to tunnel out of the Stalag and make a fresh start. And so you sit on the train home and try to figure out a happy compromise. Finisterre has to happen. Has to. But how to configure the books that follow?
The journey home takes three and a half hours. By the time you get to Yeovil Junction, you’ve cracked it. Finisterre has a couple of lead characters – Stefan Portisch and an ex-FBI cop called Hector Gomez – but a book this ambitious has a supporting cast and from those men and women you’ll select a couple of figures to carry the narrative in Book Two. Likewise, for Book Three, you’ll work the same trick, ending up with a series held together by an ever thickening mesh of recurring characters. Because everyone loves shorthand, you call this “soft linkage”. You also give the series a generic name: The Wars Within.
The pitch works. A contract is drawn up. And for the next three years you labour very happily at history’s richest coalface, annotating dozens of books, pointing the camper van at likely European locations, and settling down every winter to shape all that research into page-turning historical adventure. To your immense surprise, and your publisher’s delight, Finisterre gets short-listed for the Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Award. You don’t win but that doesn’t matter. Your days of confronting yet another interview sequence featuring this cop or that are over. Thanks to Finisterre, Aurore, and (coming in June) Estocada, soft-linkage has become your very best friend.
And yet the virus is still troublesome, still there. You’ve already come up with three more ideas for a new Wars Within contract but something else is stirring deep in your sub-conscious. It’s summer. You and your wife are staying in the depths of rural France for a couple of months, a jumping-off spot for research trips into Central Europe. One night, around three in the morning, you awake with a phrase – fully formed – in your head. You rub your eyes. You want to go back to sleep. But you know you have to write this phrase down. Otherwise it’s gone forever.
In the darkness, you find a pen and a scrap of paper. Next morning, you try and make sense of the results. The neuro surgeon has a fondness for metaphor, you’ve written. A whole book. In just eight words. Thanks to the virus.
Here’s the first chapter. See what you make of it…
The neuro surgeon has a fondness for metaphor.
"The Reaper comes knocking at every door", he says. "I'm afraid yours might be one of them."
I'm staring at him. Pale face. Pale eyes behind the rimless glasses. Pale everything. Half-dead already, he could be an apprentice ghost. Another metaphor.
"Should I lock the door? Hide? Pretend I'm not in?"
"Any of the above." The eyes drift to the PC screen. "Next of kin? A husband maybe?"
"He's in Stockholm."
"He's about to re-marry. It might be the same thing."
"So am I. The last thing the poor woman needs is Berndt."
He reaches for his keyboard and taps a line I can't read. Is he making notes about some drug or other, some brave attempt to stay the Reaper at the corner of the street? Or is he having trouble spelling Berndt? I did once, so I wouldn't blame him.
With a tiny sigh he glances up, as if to check I'm still there. Then he half-turns to consult a calendar on the wall behind him. The calendar features a child's painting, stick figures in crayon, mainly red and yellow. There's a football, and birds, and a big whiskery sun. I rather like it.
"Do you have enough Percocet?"
"Good. No more than one tablet every six hours and lay off the booze. Before we make any decisions, I'm afraid I'll need to see you again." His finger has settled on the end of next week. "Would Friday be convenient?"
"Friday would be perfect", I manage a smile. "My place or yours?"
Crying in public is something I try to avoid, in this case without success. This is a bar I've never been to before. It helps that everyone is a stranger. Moist-eyed, I order a large vodka and stare at my own image in the mirror behind the optics. In truth I feel undone, a parcel ripped apart by unseen hands inside me, but that's a complicated thought to share with anyone and thankfully no one seems very interested.
Less than a week ago I went to the doctor with a persistent headache and a problem with the vision in my left eye. Now, it seems, I ought to be thinking hard about a hospice. Private medical insurance definitely has its blessings but no one tells you how to cope with news this sudden and this final.
The neuro-surgeon I've just left showed me the MRI scan they did on Thursday, tracing the outline of the tumour the way you might explain a new route home. I followed his thick forefinger as best I could, trying to imagine the cluttered spaces of my own throbbing head, but none of it made much sense. At the end, when I asked what next, he came up with the line about the Reaper. Now I leave my glass untouched and head for the street. Coping is something I've done all my life. Until now.
Home is a sixteen pound cab ride to Holland Park. I live on the fourth floor of a thirties block of flats with a sunny view south and the constant assurance from local estate agents that serious cash buyers are only a phone call away. The place is safe and beautifully maintained. I've spent the best years of my life here, even with Berndt, and until this morning it's never occurred to me that one day I might have to leave.
My immediate neighbour has lived here even longer than me. Her name is Evelyn. She's West Country, from a small village outside Okehampton. She's wise and kindly and Berndt always said she belonged in a homestead in frontier America with a rugged husband and an army of kids. Berndt was wrong about that because she's never married, probably never had a man, and maybe as a consequence she puts a great deal of thought into nurturing relationships she values. I flatter myself that I count as one of her friends.
Evelyn has sharp ears for the arrival of the lift but always waits until I've settled myself in before knocking lightly on the door. These calls are always for a purpose, another reason we get on so well. Since I've known her, she's worked as an editor for one of the smaller London publishing houses. People I know in the business tell me she's become a legend and I tend to believe them. She certainly knows that less is more, an editorial rule she applies unfailingly to her own life. She stands at the open door, a thick Jiffy bag in her arms. The pencil behind her ear is a signal that she's busy.
"I took this in", she says. "I think it's from your agent."
She gives me the Jiffy bag and then pauses before stepping back into the hall.
"Is everything alright, my lovely?"
"No, if you want the truth."
"Anything I can do?"
"No", I force a smile. "But thanks."
She nods, says nothing. She'll be there if I need her, I know she will. But not now.
I put the kettle on and toy with making a cup of tea but give up, overwhelmed yet again by what's happened. I'm 39, shading 40. I'm in my prime. I jog three times a week round Kensington Gardens. My serious drinking days are long gone and I can't remember when I last had a cigarette. Only last week, a casting director swore he'd never seen me looking better. Now this.
Shit. Shit. Normally, I'm good at self-analysis. I can distinguish at once between a sulk and something more worthwhile but this ability to read myself appears to have gone. Is this anger I'm feeling? Or bewilderment? Or, God help me, simple fear? The fact that I don't know only makes things worse. Helpless is a word I've never had much time for. It smacks of giving up, of surrender, of weakness. And yet that's as close as I can get. Helpless? Me?
I open the Jiffy bag. Evelyn's right. It's from my agent. It's a French-Canadian script and she rates it highly. The producers are still looking for finance and despite everything it's good to know that my name attached might help them find the right kind of backer. So what do I do here? Do I lift the phone and tell my agent to hold all calls? Do I fess up and say I've joined the walking dead? Or do I just breeze on and hope that I can somehow make it through? In certain kinds of script we call that denial. Denial, under the current circumstances, sounds perfect. And so I pop another Percocet and curl up on the sofa.
My agent's right. Even with my mind still wandering up cul-de-sac after cul-de-sac, I give the script enough attention to know that it's very, very good. I play a French academic on a one-year sabbatical in Montreal. I fall in love with a handsome campus drunk who turns out to be already married. Life gets very difficult, and then impossible, but a clever plot gives me the chance in the final act to exact a little revenge.
The writing is serious and comic by turns, and the dialogue alone has won me over. By the time I've given the script a second read, I've already made that strange alchemical step into someone else's head. I am the woman on the page. I cut my bastard suitor far too much slack and I'm punished in subtle and inventive ways that bring a smile, albeit rueful, to my face. But fate, thanks to the Gods of the cinema, comes to my rescue. My jilted beau ends the movie on the very edge of Niagara Falls, contemplating a messy suicide, while I accept the applause of my peers for simply surviving. If only, I think.
Another knock on the door. It's Evelyn again, this time with a bottle in her hand. Very unusual.
"Good?" She's nodding at the script.
She's brought whiskey. I pour two measures, adding ice, aware of Evelyn monitoring my every move. On occasions, she can be very direct.
"So what's happened?" she asks.
I tell her everything. It doesn't take long. I'm sharing my brain space with a tumour. Soon it will kill me.
To my relief, she doesn't move. No arms around me, no whispered consolations, no invitation to share the pain. Just a simple question.
"And do you believe this man?"
"You think he's kidding me? Some kind of joke? You think the guy's a sadist?"
"I'm just asking exactly what he said."
I do my best to remember, word for word. Mention of the Reaper brings a scowl to her face.
"He said that?"
She nods. She clearly thinks it's unforgivably crass, even cruel, but she's also wondering whether he'd recognised me. I tell her my medical records are in my married name, Enora Andressen, but she doesn't think that's a factor. My last movie, a screen adaptation of a decent novel, has been doing good business in London art house cinemas.
"Men can be funny around fame", she says. "Especially Alpha males. I see it at work sometimes. When we stoop to celebrity biogs, and the lady concerned pays us a visit, the Head of Sales always makes a fool of himself. It's primal behaviour. It belongs in the jungle. If I were you I'd ignore it."
"That's a hard thing to do when he tells me I'm going to die."
"He said might."
"He did. You're right."
"So hang on to that."
A silence settles between us. It feels companionable. Warm. I think I love this woman. When things got really tough with Berndt and he started throwing the furniture around she offered nothing but good sense. Change the locks. Get yourself another man. Preferably someone bigger. As it happens, I did neither but just now Evelyn is offering just a glimpse of something that might resemble hope.
"Did he talk about treatment at all?"
"No. I've got to see him again on Friday."
"No mention of an operation?"
Another silence. I gulp the whiskey, draining the glass. I haven't touched Scotch for years but I'm glad she's brought the bottle. The fierceness of the burn in my throat creeps slowly south. I'm alive. Everything's still working. Fuck the tumour.
"More?" She refills my glass, not waiting for an answer.
I nod. I'm gazing at her. My eyes are moist. I very badly don't want to cry. Not in front of Evelyn.
"And Malo?" She says softly. "You think you ought to tell him?"
I hold her gaze as long as I can and then I duck my head, holding myself tight, rocking on the sofa, letting the hot tears course down my face, howling with the pain of my grief.
Malo is my son. He's seventeen years old, impossibly handsome, impossibly difficult, and impossibly remote. I can forgive Berndt most of the stuff that went on between us but not for stealing Malo. By the time he finally left, far too late, I finally realised what he'd been doing with our son's affections. My ex-husband was always clever. He had a way with words. As a successful scriptwriter, he understood the magic of language. His move into direction taught him how to ramp up the pressure. His obsession with noir gave him the meanest of streaks. My poor Malo was putty in his hands. Given any kind of choice, what seventeen year old wouldn't opt for a penthouse apartment in Stockholm and the company of a blond starlet with a huge Scandi fan base? Drunk, towards the end, Berndt had talked of trading me in, one washed-up actress for a younger model, but in my darker moments I wondered whether Malo hadn't shared the same thought. From what I can gather, Gynilla makes perfect cheesecake. Job done.
Enough. Evelyn is sitting beside me on the sofa. Practical as ever, she's found some Kleenex. I tell her that I've no intention of sharing my news with anyone, least of all Malo or my ex-bloody husband.
"A secret, then? Just you and me? Until you're better?" Evelyn is smiling. I can tell she's pleased. She puts the cap on the bottle and suggests I go to bed. Anytime, day or night, all I have to do is lift the phone. I do my best to thank her, to apologise for the tears, but already she's on her feet.
At the door, struck by a sudden thought, she turns back.
"I forgot", she said. "You had another caller this afternoon. He knocked on my door as well. Mitch, he said. Mitch Culligan. Ring any bells?"
I shake my head. The name means nothing.
"He said he'll give you a ring. He must have your number." She nodded towards the bedroom door. "Sweet dreams, my lovely."
Sweet dreams? It's eighteen years ago. For the second time running, a picture of mine is up for a major award. My mum and step-dad have trained it down from Brittany in case my movie makes the Palme d'Or. Expecting me to meet them at the station in Cannes, they take a taxi to the Carlton in time to catch me deep in conversation with Berndt Andressen. Berndt is hot just now. He's just penned a script which will - in time - open the floodgates to a torrent of Scandi crime noir and he's in town to court some of the international finance people who might make his script happen.
Like everyone else in Cannes, I've read about Berndt in the heavier trade magazines but in person he comes as a bit of a surprise. He's a decade older than me but it hardly shows. He's slim, quiet, and decidedly opaque. He has a thatch of blond hair and the good taste to wear a carefully rumpled suit instead of the designer jeans and collarless linen shirts that have become standard combat-issue in certain corners of the media world. We've been talking non-stop for hours by the time my parents show up, which is a weak excuse for not meeting their train. I've never been able to fool my mum, no matter how hard I try. Berndt is courteous and attentive to them both, and insists on buying a bottle of champagne to toast their arrival. "You'll marry that man", my mum tells me later when Berndt has left for yet another interview. And she's right.
We slept together that night. My movie didn't win the Palme d'Or but I was way past caring. If Berndt's noir script measured up to his talents in the sack then he was heading for stardom. The second time we made love, in the way that only a woman can sense, I knew that Berndt and I had made a baby. As it happens, I was wrong but that - as they say in la-la land - doesn't play well on the page.
The rest of the festival we talked, drank, swam a little, and compared endless notes. That summer, as it happens, I'd been along the Cote d'Azur for a month already, holed up in Antibes waiting for a French production team to finish a re-write before shooting extra scenes for a gangster movie in which I'd won a smallish but important role. The scriptwork went far too slowly and at the very end of the shoot some of us had fallen into bad company aboard one of the grosser cruisers docked in the marina. This was nothing I especially regretted - in those days I could put anything down to research - but at Cannes a day later it was wonderful to be in the company of someone thoughtful, someone who knew how to listen, someone whose interest in yours truly extended beyond the taking of yet another scalp. Berndt had the kind of attentive curiosity I've yet to meet in any other man. It took me years to realise how predatory that can be but by the time the festival came to an end I knew I was in love.
Berndt and I said our goodbyes at the airport. His flight to Stockholm was the first to leave. I remember standing in the hot sunshine on the balcony at the airport, watching his plane climb away into the blue and wondering whether I'd ever see him again. Eight days later, on the phone from Copenhagen, he proposed. We were married in London a week before Christmas. By then, I was well and truly pregnant.
My alarm is always set for 06.30, a habit I picked up on countless locations. For most of the night I’ve been dreaming about my father. He’s been dead for a long time now, a victim of throat cancer, but when I was a child he used to entrance me with puppet shadows on the wall. He’d make shapes with his hands, sometimes one, occasionally two. The shapes would be a barking dog, or an owl with flappy wings, or some nameless beast with three heads, and my world was all the richer for these sleights of hand. At the time he called them tromps d’oeil but it was a while before I realised they were simply optical illusions.
Now, a thin grey daylight washes across the big double bed. For the first time in weeks, I realise that I haven't got a headache. I silence the alarm clock and think hard about the stillness inside my skull. Has the tumour taken fright and left me for someone else? Do I owe my life to Johnny Walker Black Label? I get up, moving very carefully, the way you might carry an overloaded tray. Last night's glasses are still where I left them in the sink. Gratitude smells of stale Scotch.
The phone rings at one minute past nine. I'm on my third cup of tea, still pain-free, still marvelling at this small moment of release. The voice on my mobile phone belongs to a stranger: Northern accent, bit of a cold.
"Who is this?"
"My name's Mitch. Mitch Culligan. You're OK to talk?"
Culligan. The name rings a bell but I can’t think why. "How did you get my number?"
"Friend of a friend."
"Can't say. Sorry."
"So why should I talk to you?"
"No reason at all. I'm in a car outside your block. Red Fiat. Seen better days. If this sounds creepy, it isn't. Fancy breakfast?"
I have to take the phone into the spare bedroom to check the street. A tallish guy, visibly overweight, gives me a wave. Grey anorak. Battered day sack. Baggy jeans. Terrible hair. He’s a journalist, I think. And he once did a couple of decent articles on the land mines issue.
"Are you the guy who called on my neighbour yesterday?”
"So what do you want?"
He won't say, not unless we're face to face. Do my job and exchanges like these come with the territory. Normally I'd bring the conversation to an end ASAP but the land mines issue was important to me, still is, and in any case yesterday has done something to my normal sense of caution. Time, for one thing, has become a commodity I can no longer take for granted. What the hell.
"Breakfast", I tell him, "On you."
We go to a wholefood cafe off the Bayswater Road where they know me. At my insistence, we walk. He's much taller than I am. He has a strange gait, lumbering, flat-footed, body thrust forward, hands dug deep in the pockets of his anorak, as if he's heading into a stiff wind. When I mention land mines he nods. Angola. The Balkans. Afghanistan. Any country touched by conflict has been left with a legacy of buried mines and a generation of kids who’ve stepped on them.
“You know about this stuff?” He seems surprised.
“I do. Not first hand but through someone close to me. There are charities who work in the field. I’ve always done my best to help.”
He nods in approval. We’re definitely on the same page here. Nice to know.
The cafe is comfortably full but there are generous spaces between the tables. Wealth has its own smell, in this case freshly-brewed Java Pure.
My new friend studies the chalkboard in disbelief.
"They do bacon?"
We order scrambled eggs on five-grain wholemeal toast. En route to a table at the back, I accept an air kiss from an Iranian art dealer who owns the gallery on the corner. Word on the street suggests that nothing costing less than $10,000 gets out of his door.
We settle at the table. Mitch, his day sack tucked under the table, is taking a lively interest in the cafe's clientele. I'm beginning to be intrigued by this man. In my business you spend half your life pretending to be someone else and unconsciously or otherwise you're forever on patrol, watching other people, making mental notes, tucking away their tiny idiosyncrasies - little giveaway tics - in case they might prove useful later.
Mitch, unusually, offers few clues. His lumberjack shirt, which is missing a button, could do with an iron. He badly needs a proper shave. His lace-up boots are caked with mud. But this air of neglect doesn't appear to trouble him in the least. On the contrary, he seems to be a man thoroughly at ease with himself, not as common as you might think.
He wants to know what I thought about the recent election. The question takes me by surprise.
"Nothing", I tell him. "I was in the States."
"A buffoon. And probably a rapist."
"You ever get to meet him?"
"Christ, no. That man puts his smell on people. He's a dog. I'd be washing him off for a week."
He grins at me, his big face suddenly younger. He says he spent the three weeks before the election touring parts of the UK, taking the pulse of the place, looking for clues.
"You're some kind of journalist?"
"Should I know you?"
"Depends what you read."
"Very little, I'm afraid. I gave up on the press years ago. If a girl wants fiction she should stick to novels."
He shoots me a look. I think I've offended him. Then he tells me he's recently gone freelance after years with a major broadsheet. Facebook and the rest are killing the print business but there's still money to be made.
"Is that what this is about?" I nod at the space between us. "You're after some kind of exclusive?"
This time I know I've hurt him. Worse than that, he's got me down as a spoiled celeb, tucked away in Holland Park, protected by a thicket of agents, publicity machines, and fuck knows who else. He's talking about the recent election again, how three weeks on the road talking to people about the kind of lives they lead should be compulsory for every politician.
"But it is. That's what elections are about. No?"
"No", he shakes his head. "Here's a sticker. Nice dog you've got there. Lovely baby. Remember my name.” He scowls, leaning forward over the table. “This country is dead on its feet. The ones with money might vote. The rest have nothing to protect. On some levels, believe me, it's scary. Any politician with half a brain is on the make. And you know why? Because the system doesn't work any more. Because the system is fucked. I could spend half a day on Tyneside and not meet any one who had a clue what to do with his vote. Either that or they couldn't be arsed. This country has become world class at giving up. Not here. Not in London. But up there. You ever been to Burnley?"
"Once. I was playing in a Rattigan at Blackburn. You?"
"Born and bred. My dad was a vicar. Can you believe that? Burnley was a proper place. Once."
He makes space on the table and sighs while the waitress delivers the food. He watches her return with a carafe of mango juice, on the house.
"Are they always this nice to you?"
"They like my films."
"Good. I've been meaning to tell you. That scene at the beginning of Arpeggio. You seriously underplayed it. The rest of the movie? Excellent. But you were nuts to kick it off that way."
I take this as a compliment, partly because I'm warming to his bluntness but mainly because he's right.
"That was the director", I tell him. "I wanted to play it full-on. He thought we'd lose the audience."
"You nearly did. And I'm a fan."
We talk movies while he demolishes the scrambled eggs. To my slight surprise, his knowledge of films is huge, his taste impeccable. Early Chris Nolan. Anything by Almovodar. Sean Penn in Twenty One Grams. Perfect.
"Not hungry?" he's looking at my brimming plate. I've barely touched it. His interest is obvious.
"Help yourself", I reach for the mango juice. "And while you're at it you might tell me why we're here."
He forks scrambled eggs onto his plate and then bends to the day sack. Moments later I'm looking at a thickish file. Handwritten on the front is a single word. Cassini.
Already I'm intrigued. I've come across the word recently but I can't remember where. Cassini?
Mitch wolfs several mouthfuls of egg and then opens the file. Sheets of text hide a pile of photos. He's about to show me one of them but then his hand pauses. Long fingers. Cared-for nails. No rings.
"This is a long story", he says. "Which is rather the point."
"I like stories. But what's this got to do with me?"
"That's my question, I'm afraid." He pauses, looking up, catching something in my voice. "You OK?"
I'm not. I have a sudden, blinding pain behind my left eye. I can see two versions of Mitch, both of them shading into grey, and the tables around us are blurred beyond recognition. Mitch is already on his feet. I'm clinging onto the edge of the table now and I'm dimly aware of throwing up onto my plate. Somebody - Mitch? - is holding me from behind. I try to lift my head. The pain is unbearable. Then everything goes black.