I’d had a lousy night. One of those when you count the hours. I'd turned over so many times I felt like a rolling pin flattening out a pastry mattress. I think I managed about half-an-hour (it felt like five minutes) before the alarm clock screamed at me.
Rain blowing against the window.
Christmas mail-delivering weather, in other words.
Why had I decided to do this? Did I need the money that badly?
Short answer - yes. When didn't I?
I got up quickly and sat on the radiator for a warm. It was like a gravestone in an Arctic cemetery. Oh joy of joys! The boiler had packed up, too. I rang Les Kyle at the letting agents and left a message. Then I got dressed, shoved a banana in my pocket, lit a rollie and went out.
When things start off badly, they usually carry on that way. That day was no exception. Ironically, I was given a route in my own part of town – including Shanty Square. As soon as I saw the bundles, I knew. There, in amongst all the Christmas cards and holiday brochures, the large brown envelope with my own handwriting on it stuck out like the super-sized Joker of the pack. I ducked into a seafront shelter and tore the envelope open. The note was short and to the point.
Dear Mr Chedwick,
Thank you for sending your story, ‘Spunk In The Butter', which we are returning herewith. Unfortunately, ‘Auguries’ is no longer able to accept freelance fiction contributions.
We wish you luck with placing it elsewhere.
Which meant what, precisely? They were no longer taking any fiction that wasn’t commissioned? They were only looking at stuff submitted via an agent? Or perhaps they already had enough stories to last them for the next ten years, thanks very fucking much.
So, why hadn’t they mentioned that in the Writers' Guide?
Rebecca Phythian-Bowe. What kind of a mangled-syllable poncy fucking name was that, anyway? How the fuck did you pronounce it? Fivian? Pivian? Five-ean? Pithian?
‘Becks’ to her friends, I’ll bet. ‘Posh’ Becks almost certainly. Or ‘Becka’. Becka Pithy Pissing Phythian Phuck-Phace-Bowe.
Editorial Assistant, too. Not even the charge-hand. Probably some 18-year-old gap-year darling fresh out of Cheltenham Ladie's College. Cut-glass accent, a daddy with friends, a laugh like a horse on a helium trip. I could almost see her. Becka. Nice little pied-a-terre in Putney. Nice Mini Cooper ‘estate agent buggy’. Nice chap-friend who works in the City and talks a bit rough, just to boost her Metropolitan credentials. Chain-smoker, fond of a drop of Chardonnay, sucking the end of her pen as she eyes another doomed submission from one of the great struggling provincial unwashed.
Or maybe she was the other thing. Some worn-out fifty-something old saddle-bag. Years and years stuck in the career quagmire of editorial assistantship, following a stint as a feature writer on some reactionary regional rag. ‘Rebecca's Rants' or something similar: a poisonous little weekly diatribe about ‘yoof’, or the evils of drugs, or the merits of corporal punishment.
She couldn’t even spell my fucking name right.
I looked at the manuscript. Creased from too much handling. Print smudged by the rain. Unusable now. I slipped it back in the envelope with the note. Then I ripped the whole thing into quarters and ditched it in a nearby rubbish bin. I wasn’t sentimental about rejection slips – papering my walls with them like some writers do. I didn’t have enough walls for that kind of thing.
I stood by the railings for a moment and looked at the sea – or what little was visible through the rain-smog. Far out, I could see the light flashing on the end of the pier – marooned out there as it had been for twenty-odd years, since a gale ripped away its connection with the land. Just then, I felt a kind of connection of my own with it. Like a little island it was, lying just offshore from the rest of things, signalling to anyone who cared to look, but mostly just getting ignored. No use to anyone, really. A curiosity. Another vacant, unused space – echoing with the footsteps and laughter and Sunday-tryst whispers of its own private ghosts. It might be quite a congenial place to be, I thought – given a better day. Detached. Isolated. Offering a perspective on the world that most people didn’t get to see. A place to write, definitely.
I pulled my coat collar tighter against the rain. Right then, I could have murdered a fag. Or a beer. Or a nice, long, uninterrupted sleep. I thought about the note again. I suppose, at least, it wasn’t a rejection on the basis of content. They hadn’t really looked at it, had they. So there was still the chance that it was good. There was still hope for Spunk in the Butter. I needed to keep that in mind.
I glanced at the pier light again – a bright cinder in the ash-grey swirl of the day. Then I shouldered my bag and set off to finish the round.
By the time I clocked out of the depot, I felt like a used tea-bag. And nothing but a cold flat to go back to. At least I could have a shower. Then bed again, I guess - with something to help me sleep. I headed back along the High Street and nipped into the offy for a bottle of Highland Loch.
I couldn't believe it when I got in. The heat nearly blew me backwards. As I passed Yo’s flat, he opened his door and stood there grinning at me. He was wearing an old Nirvana t-shirt and some shorts that had once been a pair of Levis. Even with his phones on, I could hear Rammstein blasting.
“Nice day, H?” he yelled
He must have seen the look in my eye. He slipped the phones off and rubbed his hands together.
“Warm welcome at least, eh?”
“What happened?” I said. “Knowing Les Kyle, I thought the place would be a fridge 'til Christmas.”
He reached in his pocket and took out a box of matches. “Nah. Just the pilot gone out. Gave the system a bleed, too. Result.”
I shook my head.
“You’re wasted, mate.”
He showed me his teeth, like a twin row of Freshmints – with a couple of stumps of licorice tossed in for contrast.
“Pretty much," he said. He saw my bottle. "You won't be far behind, looks like."
Indoors, I peeled off my stuff and took a shower. Then I made a sandwich and a cup of coffee. I slopped some scotch in for a livener. As the first mouthful went down, I settled back and let the day fade a bit. Gradually, I found myself feeling a bit softer – a bit more generous – towards Rebecca Phythian-Bowe and her ilk. Maybe she wasn't too much unlike me, in her own way. Another hack, with dreams of better things - forced into doing a mind-numbing job because… well, because that’s what you had to do. Perhaps she had half-a-dozen unpublished (even worse, unpublishable) novels stashed under her bed, accumulating dust in inverse proportion to the rate at which they accumulated value in her head. These sad, unseen, uncelebrated children of her imagination… stacked up in their pages like wads of forged banknotes: passable only to those unschooled in the intricacies of currency design, but easily rumbled by the rest.
At that moment, she was probably doing the same as I was: sitting with her feet up, the whisky bottle to hand, wondering where it had all gone wrong. Wondering where the justice was. Wondering about all the others just like her, holed up in their tiny apartments, tapping away at their keyboards, sending stuff out, getting it back, still clinging to the dream. I raised the bottle to her and drank a toast. By a trick of the imagination, I suddenly didn’t feel quite so alone. There were plenty more like us. Far too many.
I took a decent swig from the bottle and put my head down on the settee arm. And pretty soon, I was back where I wanted to be the night before.
I didn't even dream.