“I have to be honest with you,” Lawrence had said, licking his upper lip. “I’m a publisher. I have to be.”
There was a long pause as he found it in himself to look the Cambridge rowing champion in the eye.
“This is awful.”
The manuscript sat between them, uncomfortably large for such a phrase to be uttered.
“You mean modern.” Harry said eventually.
“The characters are inconsistent, the plot holes glacial and half of this has been nicked from the flicks.”
“I can’t publish this, Mr Banding.”
“My father can cover the costs. I mentioned him in my letter.”
“Truly nothing could make me publish this disaster. Nothing.”
Harry hesitated. No one had said no to him in his life. “You mean it needs more work?”
“Can I be frank with you?”
“If you must.”
“If you are ever going to be an author, it will involve the best ghostwriter in the country.”
Harry drove home in silence. Turning up the radio to deafen reality, he let the swell of last night’s cocktails wash over his brain. There was nothing to go back to, he thought, staring up at his block.
His apartment was bare, his allowance spent on booze and Highgate women. His father had cut off his excesses after finding him in bed with a Catholic girl. Bread, tea, sugar and a trap for the mouse. Poverty was not as artistic as he had imagined.
He had hoped living in the wrong end of Archway would give him some inspiration. Some curious neighbour with her head wrapped in florals, or wide mouthed flapper with an unlikely joie de vivre.
Anyone with any honesty could have told him the truth. He couldn’t write. He had been indulged too long by well paid tutors, penniless lecturers and doting nannies. He had no natural ability or even vague intelligence. It was a miracle he had never noticed the Trinity students sniggering at his poetry in the college papers. Arrogance is a euphoric delusion.
But now, for the first time in his life, he had bills to pay. A mouth to feed and a mouse to catch. He had to write. His stomach came before his pride.
His eye caught a telephone box through the smog. Yes. Of course.
She’d been in his first year literature seminars. Dowdy, wide eyed and middle class to a point of parody, he had ignored her completely. That is, until she had left her notebook in the library.
Innocuously blue and scrawled in HB pencil, the booklet revealed the frightening abilities of Miss Margot Goldstone. The little mousy creature contained such anger, insight, sex and dark passion that he wondered how such a lump of a person could comprehend such things at all.
And most perfectly, she was far too shy to publish by herself. Harry could not have run to the phone box any faster if his own father was chasing him. Fumbling for his telephone booklet, he grabbed at the receiver.
“Margot?” He asked breathlessly. “It’s Harry. Harry Banding. We worked together in Gothic literature.”
“Oh!” replied a small voice down the line. “Yes, I know who you are. I’m afraid I don’t do essays for post graduates-”
“Will you have dinner with me?” He said impatiently. The line went so quiet he wondered if she had replaced the receiver.
“You want to have dinner with me?” She said eventually. “Why?”
“You’re interesting. I always thought you were interesting.”
“No one’s perfect. Saturday then?”
“7pm, Saturday 18th, D' Monde. Wear something pretty.”
She wore a white lacy thing that made her look extremely pink. It was so unfashionable that the women next to his table stared. It didn’t matter. He wasn’t in this to impress Lady Huntingdon-Morely.
“Margot-” he said, grabbing her hand in a way he knew thrilled women. “I can’t stop thinking about you.” She blushed even deeper, smiling to reveal wide gums. He resolved to stare at the napkin.
“You are so beautiful, so intelligent-”
“Really? You always ignored me at Cambridge.”
“I was too shy.” He lied, tracing her wrist with his thick wide fingers. Her pulse was racing. “You were so academic, well read, dazzling, I was just the-”
“Richest boy in Cambridge.”
“What’s money?” He lied again. This meal would mean no food for a week. “What is a shilling when all I want is to be with a rose like you.”
She looked doubtful. “I know I’m not pretty, Harry. Kitty Harris is pretty. Delilah Wallace is pretty-”
“You are pretty. Dark eyes, small mouth-” He paused, fighting to find the next falsehood in his mouth. “And an intelligence that burns into my soul.”
“Oh, Harry. I had no idea.” He glanced down at her purse. A patent blue notebook glimmered at her hem.
“Do something for me. Come back with me, tonight. I’m not using you, I swear. I hope to see you a thousand times after tonight, but I must have you. I’ll die if I can’t kiss your neck and these beautiful little hands until the sun rises.”
“Isn’t that a line from Desire’s Progress?”
“Who cares? Let me take you, my beautiful little- little mouse.”
Her notebook lay at the top of her handbag by the bed. She was asleep in the crook of his arm, her sharp cheekbone digging into his chin. Reaching over, he slid the booklet under the bed, before turning back to his exhausted conquest.
The next day, having waved her off with some dubious declaration of a headache, he ran to his car and headed to Lawrence & Sons with the notebook. The publisher flicked through it with interest.
“Well.” He said eventually. “This is the best novella ever to reach my desk.” Harry nearly leapt up with delight.
“Can you advance a cheque?”
“If you wish. But I’m surprised you want to publish this.”
“It’s about a deeply unpleasant, antisemitic, chauvinist rowing champion at Cambridge…who bears a striking resemblance to you.”