One Wednesday evening, on the stone steps outside an umbrella shop somewhere near Tottenham Court Road, Sam encountered Silvestra de Winter in person for the first, and last, time.
___Rain droplets spattered down the back of his neck. The umbrellas, lining the window like carcasses in a butcher’s shop, were striped in pinks, greens, and oranges. Some, in what was evidently thought a rather witty touch, had carved animal heads. One duck-headed umbrella looked like his grandfather’s, which was lying at home in the hallway; he wished now that he’d brought it. Bus headlights reflected back from the beady eyes.
___Sam was leaning on the black metal railings, glancing uncertainly at the glow of his mobile phone, and then back at the shop door.
___Apparently a launch for his friend Sarah’s book was taking place inside, although the book, as far as Sam could gauge from the ten pages he’d read that morning, had very little to do with umbrellas, and rather a lot to do with sentient bows and poisoned arrows shot by pansexual elves.
___He wasn’t sure if the sentient bows were also pansexual. But he guessed that probably they were.
___‘You should go, Sam,’ his editor, Afua, had said to him that morning, when Sam had gloomily rung her, ostensibly to ask her about the party, but really to see if he could garner any information about his book sales. ‘There will be people there. People who are useful.’
___He was sitting on the sofa in his old pink boxer shorts, and spooned a bit of cold rice into his mouth from a tupperware box, enjoying the stickiness of last night’s sauce.
___‘Well, it’s Sarah’s launch, isn’t it? Surely it’s about celebrating Sarah?’ Sarah was a friend from university. Her first novel had been published the year after Sam’s. She had many more Twitter followers than he did. There was a tiny pause at the end of the line. Clearly somebody had approached Afua’s desk, bearing some important conundrum, the resolution of which took slightly too many seconds for comfort. Sam scraped out the rest of the rice, licking the last two tiny bits from the edge of the spoon with relish.
___Eventually Afua said, through her teeth, ‘Silvestra de Winter’s going. She’s published by the same imprint as Sarah. Get a quote from her for your new book, it would be great.’
___Silvestra de Winter. Sam had grown up reading her books. He had hoarded them, burrowing into the corner of the sitting room while his mother did keep-fit classes and his father mowed the tiny lawn. He was no longer in Addiscombe, near the train station. He was somewhere else entirely.
___Her books were jewelled, glancing things, an interconnected series of narratives ever growing in complexity and depth. They followed the travails of a teenage sorcerer who ruled a floating forest, battling to save his realm from sinister forces that began by stealing people’s eyeballs and ended by stealing their souls.
___There was a cast of thousands: blind telepathic monks, sword-wielding, shape-shifting princesses, talking porcelain birds, and Sam’s particular favourite, a human-sized squirrel whose abilities to climb and jump had often saved the sorcerer from certain death.
___‘But – but I don’t know her?’ A quote from her would not only be good. It would be wonderful.
___‘I’ve got to go Sam, sorry, something’s come up. Let’s talk soon, OK? Bye bye.’ The line had gone dead halfway through the second bye, and Sam had put the spoon down, balancing it carefully on the edge of the tupperware, and returned to his laptop, where he had been busily clicking through the same cycle of web pages for the last twenty minutes.
___It was 10am.
Now, as he re-read the invitation for the third time, unable to make it out clearly on his small, bashed phone screen, and worrying about rain getting into the cracks (even though he knew, or thought he knew, that that wasn’t possible), something jolted his elbow, and he was knocked aside.
___Marching up the stairs was a smallish woman in a shiny silver mackintosh. She had long, bright purple hair, topped by a small black hat garnished with a red feather, and, almost unbelievably, a small cockatoo perching on her left shoulder.
___She did not apologise, but she did not need to, as Sam immediately recognised her, if not from the cockatoo, then from the purple hair. It was Silvestra de Winter.
___The door opened to accommodate her, letting out a gush of warm air, and then slammed in Sam’s face as he tried to follow her in.
___Fumbling with the handle, he shoved it open and found himself deposited in front of a publicity girl, who, frowning, spent several unnecessary seconds looking for his name with a long, silver-painted fingernail.
___Her hair hung in expensive waves, and she was wearing a cockatoo pin of the sort that Silvestra de Winter fans spent actual money on.
___‘There’s no Brown here?’ She looked up, and brushed away a fold of hair. It must cost her more than Sam’s advance to maintain.
___‘Maybe I’m under Sarah’s friends list.’ He had always suffered from his unassuming name. He wondered, not for the first time, if when people saw his own book they read his name and then almost instantly forgot it.
___He glanced across the room. Sarah was in a far corner, surrounded by acolytes. There was a general bobbing of fancy hats. This was her seventh book, and she had gathered a large following. She also loved collecting other people, and Sam didn’t recognise a single face in the room.
___He tried to catch her eye, but she was engaged in listening to Silvestra, who had grabbed her by the elbow and was whispering in her ear whilst the cockatoo fluttered its wings.
___‘Sarah didn’t provide a list.’ The publicity girl glanced apologetically at him. A silver bangle slid down her arm, and she pushed it back up absent-mindedly. ‘It’s mostly industry people and journalists, to be honest.’
___‘But… I’m an old friend of hers? Sam? Sam Brown? I write fantasy novels? Well, one fantasy novel. So far.’
___The publicity girl made a decision. In her eyes, no doubt, Sam Brown was not a whacko, and he was certainly not threatening; so she bent slightly, and stood back to let him in, before greeting the next person who came in with a delighted ‘Mafalda! I’m so glad you came!’
___He sidled through the crowd, avoiding velvet-coloured shoulders, and men with skull-rings on their fingers and tattoos in places he didn’t think you could have tattoos. None of them made way for him.
___He reached Sarah. She was still nodding and smiling at whatever Silvestra was saying, and continuing to say, in a voice that Sam could just about make out, low and raspy.
___He stood about two inches away from Sarah, a glass of red wine awkwardly nestled in the crook of his arm. Her book, hardback and heavy, weighed down his other wrist. Silvestra’s cockatoo had slipped onto Sarah’s shoulder.
___He half-coughed, but Sarah didn’t register. He shifted from foot to foot. He spilt a few drops of wine on his sleeve, and cursed silently. He was about to give up and go and hide by the coats, when Silvestra let go of Sarah’s arm, and sprang away.
___‘Congratulations!’ Sam said.
___‘Oh god, these launches!’ Sarah took his book without looking and scrawled a message in it, balancing it on one knee.
___Sam waited for an introduction, beaming at Silvestra. Silvestra did not beam back, and Sam had the sudden disconcerting feeling that this woman did not know what it meant to beam.
He remembered Afua’s advice, and stuck out a hand.
___‘Sam Brown,’ he said. ‘It’s such a pleasure to meet you…’
___‘Sam Brown?’ The cockatoo turned its head and glared. Silvestra stroked its poll, with the tip of a finger. There was a note of recognition in her voice. ‘You had a book out…’
___‘I did, it was my first.’
___‘The Ring of… what was it now, Octavo? The telepathic ring.’
___‘Yes! That was it – how did you…’ He trailed off. ‘I mean, nobody’s read that book. Maybe my mother, and I did get an email from someone in Bolivia, but I’m not really sure what it actually said and it might have been spam, so…’ He was not being suave. He stopped.
___Sarah was holding the signed book out to him. He ignored it for the moment, thinking that taking it would signal the end of their meeting.
___‘I keep an eye out,’ Silvestra intoned. ‘On new talent. There are too many of us. Come, Silvanus.’
___She held out a finger for the cockatoo, which settled there. Without glancing at Sarah, she began sailing towards the door. The silver coat rippled.
___Now or never, thought Sam, and followed her. The skull-ringed men seemed to form a phalanx. A woman in a baby-pink bodysuit got in his way. He slipped round her, apologetically, almost knocking into a waitress.
___He put out a hand to grab Silvestra by the elbow, and almost immediately regretted it. When she turned, something which might, just about, be called a smile, was on her lips.
___‘My second novel is out soon…’ He was speaking quickly. Too quickly. He was still holding the wineglass, and now he found that he didn’t know what to do with it. ‘Next month, in fact.’
___‘And I suppose you want to send it to me?’
___‘Well… I…’ A waitress went by, and he placed the wine glass on the tray, even though it was half full. Silvestra bent towards him.
___‘It’s a lovely idea, your book,’ she said. ‘You can use that quote for starters!’
___‘Well, that’s very kind – can I send it?’
___‘I should be charmed,’ she said, and left, before Sam could ask her for her address.
That night Sam scrolled through his contacts, wondering who might have Silvestra’s address.
___Afua. Afua might know her editor. He could get the book to Afua, and Afua could pass it on to the editor, who could pass it on to Silvestra. There would be time – there was plenty of time.
___So he spent an hour and a half composing an artless postcard.
I very much enjoyed meeting you and Silvanus at Sarah’s book launch. I’ve enclosed a copy of my new book, The Sword of Trochane. It would be really great if you could provide a quote, but please absolutely don’t worry about it if you don’t like it or if you don’t have time to read it.
He clipped the postcard, which displayed the front cover of his first book, to the cover of the proof copy, stowed it carefully in an old jiffy bag, as if he were wrapping a new born baby in a blanket, and addressed it to Afua, with a covering letter asking her to pass it on to Silvestra’s editor.
___The post office was in a small stationery shop next to the vets. Dogs being taken in for their injections would squeal and skitter as their owners pulled them behind the glass doors. A spaniel watched him mournfully. A cage, covered, probably holding a parrot, vanished inside.
A couple of days passed, during which Sam tried not to check his email every ten minutes to see if Afua had replied. He ate more cold rice. He discovered a new section on the website where he researched medieval swords. He found new ways of writing about swords. He lay on the sofa with his phone perched on his belly.
___It didn’t stop raining, and the sky was always grey.
___On the third day, he thought about calling Afua. She was very busy, he knew. But perhaps if he called her, she would let him know.
___He was saved, however, by a short message which pinged into his inbox at 6.43pm.
Have passed on yr package to Sylvie, who promises to send to Silvestra.
How did these things work? Sam wondered. You could hardly give a deadline to someone who was doing something for free.
___To have a quote from Silvestra de Winter – that would be something to treasure. He imagined it blazoning the cover. Not just the cover: the poster that would adorn the tube platforms, the railway stations, the airports.
___“Superb!” – Silvestra de Winter.
___“One of the major new voices in fantasy fiction!” – Silvestra de Winter.
___“Sam Brown is one to watch out for!” – Silvestra de Winter.
___And so on.
Twisted up in his duvet, he grew hot and uncomfortable. His pillow seemed to take on a life of its own, slipping and sliding around.
___He avoided his desk, which was covered with paper, and Sarah’s book. It perched on a pile of other books by people he knew, which he also knew he would never read. He skulked into the sitting room with his laptop.
___Silvestra’s Twitter feed became a source of interest. It mostly showed occult images of horned gods or pentagrammatic symbols, or sometimes, somewhat surprisingly, pictures of kittens.
___He wondered if she ran it, or if someone else did, and wondered if he should tweet something and @ her name, or if that was too presumptuous. He wondered if she had looked at his Twitter feed; but no, she had not followed him back.
___He resisted the urge to write to Afua.
Instead, he went over his final proofs, mechanically, not even really reading the sentences or noting the comments from the proof-reader. ‘Can an iron chain be broken in this way?’ ‘This character has looked up too many times.’ ‘Avoid using this word.’ ‘Boring verb. Rewrite.’
___He looked up cockatoo websites.
___In the darkness of his bedroom, the radio glowed redly. 4am. He slept.
When he woke, around 10, he decided that he should read Sarah’s book. He had finished his proofs and couldn’t face a day of trying to come up with ideas.
___It was good. He found himself entranced, almost as much as he had been when reading Silvestra’s books as a boy.
___So good, in fact, that after he finished it, around 8pm, he went out into the rain, and walked for two hours, until somewhere in the centre of Soho, he stopped outside a bar full of office workers drinking pints. Here he ordered a whiskey, and then another, and then another, and gazed at the jewel-like liquid, and the beermat underneath the glass, and the eagle on the beermat, and its claws – its sharp, terrible claws.
After about a fortnight, Sam stumbled into his house, having spent an hour staring at a book about siege machines in the library, and almost tripped over a small package that was cluttering the hallway.
___Nestling among bills and junk mail, it shone out, wrapped in silver paper, the label inscribed with purple, loopy calligraphic handwriting. She’d sent it herself.
___Turning it over, he recognised a small cockatoo sigil. She used wax. She actually used sealing wax.
___Silvestra had written back to him. The quote.
___He sat down in the hallway, his back against the wall. Something hard was pressing into him, but he ignored it, and turned over the package.
___It wasn’t just a letter, that was for sure.
___A book fell out, which he pushed aside, gawping instead at the letter, written on heavy, thick, creamy paper.
___It was surmounted with a large photograph of Silvestra de Winter.
I’m afraid I haven’t been able to get through this. Barring a major rewrite, I suggest you use my original phrase, ‘A lovely idea.’
I’ve included a book you might find useful.
Silvestra de Winter
PS Some of my books
The letter concluded with a list of her 47 published novels.
The book. Sam groped for it. Buzzing with Day-Glo colours, covered in cartoons, it was called FANTASY WRITING FOR BEGINNERS, by Silvestra de Winter.
___Sam flicked through it. ‘A character,’ it said, ‘should have an opponent.’ He turned the pages further. ‘Setting’, it said, ‘is very important.’
___He shifted. He was leaning against a walking stick, an old wooden one of his grandfather’s, with a duck’s head, painted gaudily, staring red-rimmed eyes. He flung it to the ground, and the head cracked off.
___A cold wind whistled from under the front door. He heard, in the distance, the beep of his email account, and he put his hands over his ears, hoping that if it didn’t beep again, he could pretend he hadn’t heard it, and that he could just stay here, in the hall, looking at that duck’s eyes, forever.
Philip Womack is a British writer and journalist. His latest novel is THE ARROW OF APOLLO. HOW TO TEACH CLASSICS TO YOUR DOG forthcoming in Oct 2020. He also writes for various publications including Literary Review.
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