It was the second week in January and the snow had been falling all day like soft dirty feathers.
In seminar room G1, on the ground floor of the Julian Fellowes block, Erica Savvy flicked to the back of her notebook and wrote “snow falling like dirty feathers” on a blank page.
The deafening silence as the rest of the class pretended to consider her short story about a grieving woman buying a pair of inappropriate shoes made Erica feel nervous and hot. To distract herself she searched for a less clichéd adjective than “deafening”, but couldn’t find one because deafening was exactly what twelve human beings sitting round a table not talking about her story sounded like.
At last somebody said, “‘She looked out at the clotting dusk’ is good.”
It was look-on-the-bright-side Melanie, deputy headmistress of a failing primary school in East Putney. Melanie’s shy glances darted like swallows from under the eaves of her fringe and Erica found herself fighting the urge to write “eyes like swallows” under the thing about the snow.
“Yes, I loved ‘clotting dusk’,” added Jacintha, who always wrote in the first person in the present tense about what it was like being Jacintha.
A few of the others murmured their agreement, and then the noisy silence descended again as Erica sank deeper into despondency. Out of the corner of her eye she could see the Wunderkind scribbling away on his copy of her story, his arm curled freakishly as he filled the margins with black biro.
At last Simon cleared his throat. “OK, everybody. Let’s unpack what Justine’s trying to do here with the dead mother.”
Erica felt herself flush with embarrassment and irritation. Simon had been calling her Justine since halfway through the last term. It wasn’t as if the group was that big, or Erica one of the quiet ones. She’d corrected him the first couple of times, but she’d had the sneaking suspicion he wasn’t really listening. She curled her toes up inside her sensible shoes and imagined suspicion sneaking round the room like a rat in the wainscot.
Nobody spoke so Simon continued. “For example, what do people think about the protagonist’s need to assuage her guilt through buying increasingly kinky footwear?”
There was some fidgeting from the person sitting next to Simon. Erica braced herself.
“It’s probably because I’m not a woman, yeah? And my mum’s still alive, right? But I just didn’t get it,” said Skuzz the prose-hater.
Skuzz – she couldn’t remember his real name any more – worked for a train company scrubbing graffiti off railway hoardings. He had an MA from the Camden Consortium of Oriental Studies and Sex Tourism, but he preferred an outdoorsy life to academia. The book he was working on was a graphic novel about Bangkok ladyboys. Simon seemed very excited about Skuzz and his cartoons; he’d even helped him come up with his ridiculous pen name at a getting-to-know-you session during freshers’ week. Skuzz sprawled in his chair with his legs apart, and shrugged at her. She fought the urge to speak out in defence of her heroine’s right to buy slut shoes, but the first rule of workshop was don’t talk during workshop (when your work was being discussed). So she chewed on the inside of her cheek and nodded thoughtfully, as though mulling over his remarks.
The seminar dragged on for another twenty minutes. Simon talked about her story a little bit, but mainly about the changes to their course venue for the rest of the term.
“So next week we’ll be in the east tower of the Russell T. Davies extension. Everybody know where that is?” He glanced around the room and a few people nodded. He was terribly good-looking, Erica thought wistfully, and of course a published novelist in his own right. Then Simon gave out some questionnaires about what they thought of the course so far, a map of the Russell T. Davies extension, and a reading list made up entirely of novels with one-word titles. Skuzz threw his straight in the bin and high-fived Simon on his way out. Erica stuffed her hand-outs into her bag and got up to leave.
In the narrow corridor that linked Julian Fellowes to the main building, Melanie caught up with her.
“I really liked your story, Justine,” she said, bouncing along just behind her, because the corridor was too narrow for two to walk abreast.
“Thanks, Melanie. I liked yours last week,” Erica replied, half- heartedly.
“Alice,” Melanie corrected her, a little huffily. “My name’s Alice.”
Which was weird, because Erica was good with names and she was sure that Melanie had been called Melanie all through the previous term.
They reached the end of the corridor and Erica pushed open the heavy security door. The cold air whooshed around her like peppermint mouthwash, swilling and cleansing, unabashed by the inappropriate simile she had attached to it. The others fanned out around her and made for the gates, all except the Wunderkind who hung back, and seemed keen to get her attention.
“Here,” he said, thrusting his heavily annotated copy of her story towards her. “I made some notes.”
She tried to thank him but he was hurrying off, probably rushing back to his semi-detached crypt in a crumbling Victorian cemetery. She watched him disappear into the snowstorm like a ghost – no, more like a wraith. Wraiths were darker than ghosts and the Wunderkind was a prolific wearer of black. Erica put “ghost” on the backburner; she’d get a chance to use it eventually. Then she dived into the swirling flakes.
Four years earlier Erica had been a well-paid executive at a TV production company making cookery programmes. Through her work she had met a lot of interesting people, travelled the world, and eaten a great deal of restaurant-quality food. But Erica had aspirations to be a writer and so she’d given up her job to spend a year in a rented cottage with only a dicky septic tank and rats for company. After her money but not the novel was finished, she moved back in with her mother (who was in fact alive and well and not at all happy about living in parentheses) and found that the TV industry had wizened and shrunk. Her old company had gone bust and everywhere the story was the same: people were writing now, not watching telly.
So Erica had got a job at the all-night garage on the Caledonian Road. It wasn’t particularly well paid, but it was close to college and it would look good in her author biogs. She had initially wanted a job in an old people’s rest home – all those life stories, ripening on the vine like soft summer fruit – but when the manager discovered she was a creative writing graduate he had requested that she sign a confidentiality clause. Apparently they already had a Writer in Residence, and didn’t need another. Then he handed Erica a brochure detailing the home’s Writers’ Adoption scheme, whereby – subject to passing the relevant police checks – writers could hire old folk by the hour.
Horrified that her own mother might end her days being plundered by vampiric writing students, Erica had rushed straight home and begun tape-recording her mother’s memories herself. But in the end she’d had to admit that she was probably too close to her mother’s story to be able to see a viable three-act structure. So she had put the tapes on eBay and sold them to a graduate of the Danny Boyle Academy of Bucolic Engineering. She’d had to sign over foreign rights and all residuals, but the money had paid for a couple of writing courses so she figured it was worth it.
En route to the garage Erica had to pass a row of speakeasies touting for business. Each offered live readings and open-mic slots seven days a week. One place had its name, Ink Stain, splattered liked squashed spider legs across a whitewashed wall, while the sandwich board outside promised free entry to anyone accompanied by a card-carrying literary agent. Another, Harry’s Flash Fiction, promised twenty different writers a night all reading five hundred words on the theme Bad Hair Day. There was also a misery memoir slot called (Un)Happy Hour, during which all drinks were half price. Erica shuddered and pulled the collar of her coat closer to her throat. Joints like these were springing up all over the city, pimping the authors of uncollected poems, barely begun novel extracts and, most common of all, short stories.
With the snow falling more thickly than ever, smothering the noise of traffic and flattening the contours of buildings, Erica’s lack of publishing success felt like a necklace of lead weights pulling down the balloon of her hopes and dreams. She felt adrift and lonely – even her metaphors were running amok.
Still, there was always the chance that Mandy the Prostitute would come into the shop tonight, and the thought of being able to stare at Mandy, talk to Mandy and ask Mandy what it was like being a prostitute lifted Erica’s metaphorical balloon just high enough for it to sail clear of the bleak trees of unpublished-author despair. With a lighter step, Erica pushed on through the snow, strode across the garage forecourt and in through the staff entrance. In the locker room that smelt of Pot Noodle and windscreen washer she put on her uniform before taking up her place behind the bulletproof glass of the counter.
Hours passed and the snow turned the world outside to white oblivion. Erica felt oddly vague and ill at ease, as though somebody somewhere was talking about her, and not in a nice way. Then at around half past midnight, Mandy came in. Despite the snow, her skinny legs were bare beneath the short denim skirt she always wore, and she had pushed up the sleeves of her pink leather biker jacket to reveal bony wrists jangling with bangles. Mandy’s hair was the colour of weak tea and she wore it scraped back in a tight ponytail that Erica liked to think was designed to hold the features of her face in place while she chased the dragon with her drug-dealer boyfriend. Surreptitiously, so as not to spook Mandy, Erica reached for her notebook and wrote “Chasing the Dragon – idea for a series of young-adult novels set in a dystopian megacity”. The pen hovered over the paper, waiting for her to give it something more to do, but her mind had gone blank. She added the words “Maybe watch Blade Runner again” and closed the book.
Meanwhile Mandy sauntered around the aisles shooting glances in Erica’s direction. Erica knew that Mandy was shoplifting, but that just made the whole encounter more authentic so she never said anything. Mandy came up to the counter and asked for cigarettes, and while Erica’s back was turned, leaned over the counter and noisily helped herself to cigarette lighters and packets of Trojans.
“Busy tonight?” she asked, in her sharp-as-lemons cockney accent.
“Nah, you’re the only person who’s been in,” Erica replied, trying not to wince at the thought of a mouthful of freshly squeezed lemon juice. “Suppose the snow’s keeping everyone inside.”
Mandy gave her an odd look and glanced out of the window.
“Are you busy?” Erica asked, trying not to eat Mandy up with her eyes – there was something a little bit different about her tonight, something not quite in keeping about the “Keep Calm and Carry On” badge pinned to her lapel.
Mandy raised her eyes to heaven and said, “Punters! You wouldn’t believe it. All they really want to do is talk about their wives and kids.”
“Yeah,” nodded Erica, “I can imagine.” And she could, she really, really could.
“Well, better get back to the flat or my boyfriend will want to know what I’m doing out so late.” Mandy pushed the packet of cigarettes down into the skintight pocket of her denim skirt. Then she winked. “No rest for the wicked, eh?”
Erica smiled and flushed. “If you ever need someone to talk to, or somewhere to go, I’m always here, y’know.”
Another odd look flickered across Mandy’s taut little face. “Thanks, babe. I’ll remember that.”
And then she was gone, click-clacking out of the shop and into the snowstorm. Erica sighed in satisfaction and jotted down some fresh ideas for the novel she was planning about a prostitute serial killer. Time passed, but when she looked up at the clock she saw that it still said half past midnight, which meant that it must have stopped soon after Mandy’s visit. Bored again she pulled out the Wunderkind’s copy of her story and decided to read through his comments, but when she looked at them she found she couldn’t understand anything he’d written, except for the word “spiegelei” which for some reason she knew meant fried egg in German, but which made no sense at all. So much for the Wunderkind’s great literary insight –admissions standards had clearly dropped at the college in recent years.
Erica rubbed a peephole in the condensation on the window and tried to peer out, but there was nothing to see except whiteness. An idea for a story seeded itself in her mind: a plucky heroine who wakes one day to discover that she’s become invisible – no, not just invisible . . . Erica reached eagerly for her notebook and wrote: “Heroine wakes up to discover she doesn’t actually exist”. Erica paused and the surface of the counter felt comfortingly warm where her arm had been resting on it. Then she continued: “Should appeal to women. Needs historical sub-plot. Richard and Judy bookclub choice.”
A few streets away, Simon sat at his writing desk by the window and lifted his eyes reluctantly from the computer screen. He could hear Mandy slamming the front door and her skittish tread on the parquet flooring of the hall. A few moments later and she was in the room, shooting him an arch look and shucking off her jacket.
“Well, did you see her?” he asked.
Mandy made a big show of emptying her pockets. Condoms, sweets and an emergency sewing kit fell out onto the coffee table. She settled on the sofa and took a sip from the glass of pinot grigio he had got ready for her.
At last she said, “She’s still there, but I think she’s suspicious. She kept staring at me.”
“Damn.” He glanced back at the screen and in particular at the last line he’d written about Justine. “Did she say anything interesting? Did you write down her dialogue?”
“Nope,” said Mandy airily. “And I’m not doing it any more. It makes me feel dirty. If I were you I’d forget about her and just concentrate on the graffiti dude, the weird German kid and the mental breakdown teacher. Just make the teacher younger and hot.”
Simon sighed. Perhaps Mandy was right. He’d been getting increasingly fed up with Justine over the last few weeks; even changing her name from Erica hadn’t helped. She’d be easy enough to delete from the script because she wasn’t in any of the Student Union bar scenes where most of the action with his protagonist took place. He’d cut Justine and start working up Emo Kid instead. If only he had the time to learn even rudimentary German . . . Maybe he should just cut his losses now and make him a werewolf. That would certainly solve the language problem, but it would also mean that he’d no longer be eligible for the Ich Bin Ein Berliner literary grant.
He glanced over at Mandy who was helping herself to pizza from the box, and skimming through an old print-out of the script.
“That’s the first draft,” he said. “All the names are different now.”
Mandy put the pages down and pouted at him. “Why can’t you put me in your film? You’ve made yourself the hero.”
“Haven’t,” Simon said defensively, changing Justine’s “terribly handsome” to “good-looking for his age”. Damn, he’d have to get one of the other characters to think that now – but which one? “I’m just calling him Simon until I think of a better name.”
“I gave you a good name yesterday. Boris. It’s unusual.”
He stared steadfastly at the words on his computer screen, hoping she’d get bored and go away, but she didn’t.
“Well at least change the setting. Nobody wants to watch a TV drama about a bunch of students and their rent-a-quote teacher, even if they do all have superpowers.”
There was a hint of mockery in her voice and Simon’s shoulders slumped. Perhaps moving in with Mandy so soon had been a mistake.
“A writer writes,” he said, under his breath and through gritted teeth.
“What did you say, babe?”
“Nothing. I’m calling it a night.”
He had an early start in the morning – a meeting with the deputy head about the chronic staff shortages. Mandy giggled and twiddled her wine glass. A saucy look came into her eyes.
“Hey, it’s my time of the month, you know. We could try and make that baby now.”
She ran her fingernails down the bare white skin of her thighs – for a mortician she was pretty sexy – but he didn’t feel like it tonight because he’d been writing solidly since he’d got in from work.
“Not tonight, love,” he said, saving his changes and making a mental note to weed out all signs of Justine the following day. “You turn in and I’ll be along soon.” A movement at the window caught his eye and he peered out into the night. ‘That’s funny,” he said. “It’s snowing.”
Ten miles away, in a sleepy suburb of the city, Alice sat at her laptop with the slightly dented index finger of her left hand hovering over the Delete button. She didn’t like how the story was going at the moment – the characters weren’t behaving in the way she wanted and the language had begun to feel stilted. Metaphors and similes jostled together like commuters on her train of thought, and her original plot had grown baggy and weak. At least if she got rid of Simon she could concentrate more on his girlfriend – she still loved the idea of a sexy girl mortician as a lead character. But if Mandy the embalmer was going to be free to explore her sexuality and experience a passionate reawakening of her spiritual side, wouldn’t it be better if she was unattached, or better still, recently bereaved? Yes, Simon should be relegated to backstory. She began to tap the Delete button, and soon Simon and Mandy’s conversation about his screenplay was no more. She thought about Simon for a moment with an odd kind of tenderness. He was an amalgam of several teachers she had worked with over the years, but he wasn’t really very interesting in his own right; he was grumbly and self- obsessed, and vain – like most men.
The dainty little carriage clock on the mantelpiece chimed half past midnight, reminding her that she hadn’t yet taken her anti-depressants or planned what she was going to say at the staff meeting in the morning – so many teachers were leaving to take up places on creative writing courses that the school was grinding to a halt. Why couldn’t they just fit it in around their jobs, like she did? She wasn’t handing in her notice until she’d at least been placed in a national competition. She got up stiffly from her writing desk and went over to the window to draw the curtains.
Outside, the street was deserted and still. A lone fox with a severed human hand in its jaws crossed the circle of tungsten light spilling out of the Lit Crit and Spit speakeasy on the corner, before disappearing into somebody else’s crime novel. Unexpectedly, a little snow was beginning to fall.
First published in The Mechanics' Institute Review 10.