In which I flaunt my literary ambitions
Last year, I wrote a novel. I’ve also re-written it, and re-written it again. Fame and fortune has yet to follow.
The other day I asked my friend Tom whether posting the opening chapters of the manuscript to my website was a stupid thing to do. “I don’t think it’s a terrible idea,” he said. “But I think the chance of someone reading it and forwarding it to their mate at Harper Collins is pretty remote.” He’s not wrong.
But, chance is a strange thing, and however unlikely, the possible is infinitely more likely than the impossible. So, here are the prologue and first chapter of my novel. It’s tentatively titled Mendacity, it’s 96,000 words long, and it’s a comic satire about national hysteria media ethics. It concerns Will Donovan, failed actor and PR man, who invents an illness to get some time off work, and inadvertently sets off a global health crisis.
Anyway, I’m off to buy a lottery ticket.
Prologue: Stand and Deliver
Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, people accept the reality they’re presented with.
This is the first time I’ve met Bob Cluff, but he greets me like an old friend. He’s so focused on smiling winningly at me as he charges over that he doesn’t even notice when he crashes into a waitress, smearing asparagus soup all down her white linen blouse. He’s a big sun burnt blonde guy, somewhere between thirty-year-old rugby player and fifty-year-old cardiac case, and it’s not so much that he looks uncomfortable in a regular sized suit as that the suit looks uncomfortable wrapped round him.
“Good to finally meet you,” he says, nearly wrenching my arm off with a handshake before dropping himself into a chair. He thinks I’m a venture capitalist. He thinks this because I told him I was, and directed him to a website which agreed with me.
Pretty stupid of him, if you ask me.
He polishes off the first bottle before the starter arrives, all the time gesturing expansively with a fork and narrating his latest money spinners. I nod along, occasionally butting in with the kind of questions these guys like. “And what return do you expect on that, going forward?” “Is Chilean tech in your sweet spot?” It’s meant to reinforce the impression I know what he’s talking about, but I needn’t bother. He doesn’t pause long enough for me to blow my cover.
We’re well into the main by the time he asks about me, and even then it’s only because he can’t sustain his monologue while tearing at rare steak. He asks about my investment strategy as he gulps down a whole shallot, and I pass him a copy of my brochure. It’s an almost exact copy of one stolen from an obscure Hungarian venture fund, with my picture pasted in and the names and contacts changed. Billy knocked it up in the hospital computer room.
If Cluff phones up to discuss the firm, he will find himself diverted to one of Billy’s many mobiles. If he googles any of my satisfied clients, he will find a dozen pages singing the praises of Newman Ventures.
If Billy ever realises quite how profitable his talents for lying, cheating and forging could actually be, it could endanger my entire operation.
Cluff is nodding, apparently impressed, and saying things like “I worked with him at Goldman” about fictitious colleagues or “We use their software in our server operations” about made-up companies I named after characters from Asterix while stoned.
It’s over dessert that he brings up the subject of my apparent obscurity. “Couldn’t find much about you in the press,” he says, launching into a third bottle. “Sensible attitude. Better to keep your head down than to explain yourself to every idiot hack with a pencil. Some people just don’t understand the contribution men like us make.”
Men like us: that’s the password. I’m in. For the first time I feel certain this is going to work. I am soon to find myself in possession of a jaw droppingly large cheque; Cluff, by contrast, will soon find himself in possession of nothing more than a vague sense of humiliation.
“Not many people in the industry have heard your name,” Cluff is saying. “But those who have speak highly…”
When I was a kid, everyone told me: be yourself. I tried that. Turns out, my self is a loser. So I tried something else. If you don’t like yourself, be someone else. If you can’t, just say you are. That works just as well.
“…however, your obscurity does present one problem. It makes it that much harder to get an independent view of how effective your model actually is…”
I freeze, the wine halfway to my lips. I can feel the bombshell before it hits.
“…so obviously before we continued we’d need to meet with some of your investors.” He’s still smiling. This is all standard procedure to him; there’s no hint he realises what a colossal spanner he’s just thrown my way.
I smile back. I imagine it’s charming. “I’m afraid our investors prefer to remain anonymous. They don’t like to publicise-”
“I understand that. I really do. But” – a raised eyebrow – “this is a lot of money, even for us. We need more than a couple of cheerful CEOs to prove to us that you’re as good as you say you are. So we’d want your investors to give us a clearer idea of the figures we’re talking about here. The next stage would be for an independent accountant to review those figures. Then…”
Damn. This is going to be harder than I thought.
Part 1: Low
“You guys think your bonus is based on the value you create, right? Well, it’s not. Your bonus is based on the expectation of the value that you’ll create. The implications of that distinction are profound. It means it doesn’t matter how big the business is actually gonna be in five years time. What do you care? You’ll be long gone. The genuine x-factor, the thing you really need to create, is an impression your profits are on the verge of exploding, as expressed through a soaring share price.
“That’s where we come in.”
Extract from a MFRM sales presentation,
given by Ritchie Madison, November 1992
Some time in the very near future, Catherine is going to leave me.
I don’t know when and I don’t know how. I don’t know whether she’ll sit down and tell me things haven’t been right for a while, or just ‘Dear John’ me. Maybe neither. Maybe she’ll just stop coming home. All I’m sure of is that before the month is out she’ll be gone.
Nothing’s been said, of course. But it hit me while I was hoovering the living room shelves. Phil Collins had left me. Just upped and left, without so much as a by-your-leave. At first I thought I was mistaken, so I scanned the shelf again. Nope. I checked the kitchen, the bedroom, even the bathroom, where Catherine insists on keeping an elderly boombox, three candles and a thick blue liquid that smells of toilet duck. Nothing. As of this afternoon, 12a Kramer Street was a Genesis-free zone.
A recent removal? A direct result of last night’s row? Paranoia, I tell myself. Reading too much into things. There are eight million people in London, at least one of them must be interested enough in middle of the road eighties pop to have borrowed some from my girlfriend.
So I go back to the shelf and check for more telltale absences. Something’s odd, but I can’t quite put my finger on what. Then it clicks.
I’ve campaigned for it for years. Now, at long last, Mull of Kintyre does not occupy pride of place next to my stereo. Vanished, without a word. And not just Mull – there is not a single hint that Paul McCartney didn’t drop dead in 1970. The white album (mine) remains; Wings Over America (hers) is gone. George Michael, too, has departed. Maybe he ran off with Mick Hucknell. Over on the bookshelves, it’s goodbye Dan Brown, farewell Chicken Soup for the Soul. Culturally, this flat is as close to perfect as it’s ever been, and that is not a good sign.
I check some proof of Catherine’s existence remains – some books on finance, the soundtrack to Dirty Dancing, a box set of Richard Curtis movies. At least half the clothes remain in the wardrobe. Whatever she’s planning she’s not finished yet. But it’s when I get to the rack of DVDs that lives by the bed I know I’m really in trouble.
Catherine loves Beaches, so much so that she’s been known to take it on holiday with her. The night her grandfather died, all she wanted was for me to hold her while she watched it, and watched it again, crying but comforted.
And it’s gone. Not a single grain of sand remains.
She really is leaving me.
I’m chopping an aubergine when she gets in. “Hey,” I say, kissing her on the cheek to see her reaction.
“Euch, onion breath,” she says, retracting like an Eskimo’s scrotum. She sits, drops a pile of papers on the table, nearly destroying the vase of flowers I bought this afternoon, and mutters, “What a bloody awful day.”
“Usual canivalesque atmosphere in the world of consultancy?” I ask. I’m aiming for funny, but somehow miss and hit bitchy instead. She responds with a look that hints of genital mutilation.
“Will, this may come as a shock to you, but for those of us who actually give a shit about our careers work can be bloody stressful.”
I decide against pointing out that inventing excuses is just as much hassle as actually doing stuff. Instead I offer her wine. She doesn’t reply.
“Aren’t you going to ask why my day was so stressful?”
“I thought I had,” I say, pouring her a glass.
“No, you just responded with the tedious sarcasm you usually think passes for wit.”
I mumble an apology, tell her I’m tired, look away, then soulfully back to her to hint that there are things we need to sort out. She just sighs and closes her eyes.
I ask about her day.
“You remember Peter at my office? We had dinner with his family in Knightsbridge that time.”
No, I think. “Yeah,” I say. “Lives in Surrey, right?” In Catherine’s office, they all live in Surrey. They all have flash cars, and they all vote Tory, even if it’s 1997. They’re nice, sensible people with nice, sensible live. I can’t tell them apart; Peter could be anyone.
“Yes, that’s him,” Catherine says. “Brain tumour.”
I stop stirring the sauce, feeling faintly sick. “He’s been complaining about headaches for a while,” she goes on. “Too much time staring at a screen, I thought. Well, last night, he went for a scan and they rushed him straight to St Thomas’s. They had to get it immediately. Apparently another fortnight and it would have been inoperable.”
I have this terrible guilt that I can’t picture the man’s face. In quick succession, I wonder if he has children, hope not for their sake, and then feel worse for wishing them out of existence.
“God, that’s… awful,” I say.
“Yes, it’s tragic,” Catherine says, in the same tone she’d use to describe a Mondeo. “They won’t know if he’s got the all clear until next week. Anyway, the point is we’re a man down until god knows when, and we can’t hire another because he’s still on payroll. So half of his work has landed on my desk, and I’ll be pulling twelve hour days until the matter’s resolved.”
“What about his children?”
She gives me a look. “What do you care about his children?”
“Well, are they okay?”
“I doubt it, their father’s probably dying. Anyway,” she concludes, picking up the wine as if she’s just noticed it, “that’s why it was such a horrible day.”
“Well, you’re home now,” I say. It doesn‘t sound like much. “Have a drink. I can turn this down, you could relax in the bath for a bit.”
“Don’t worry about me, I already ate.”
I turn from my pot. “But… I’m cooking,” I say, mustering a hurt look. “Did you not see I was cooking?”
“I assumed it was for you.”
“It was meant to be for us.”
“Sorry. You should have said.” She sips the wine, relaxing slightly. “This is lovely, though,” she says, as if it’s a compliment.
I decide not to rise to it.
I’m not sure what I was expecting from my soon-to-be ex-girlfriend tonight. Part of me, I suppose, had expected her to break up with me there and then. Another part had hoped that, if she really were planning on leaving, maybe she’d overcompensate, being nice to me, even if only out of sheer, over-whelming guilt. The one possibility I’d given no thought to whatsoever was that things would go on in the same bitchy little rut we’ve been stuck in since Friday. For all I know, though, she’s been planning this for weeks. In her mind, perhaps, tonight is no different from last night or the night before.
There’s a long silence, as I struggle for something to say. Eventually I settle on “I had a pretty good day”, even though she hasn’t asked and I didn’t. All things considered it’s been an awful day, but as I haven’t contracted any life-threatening illnesses I don’t feel entitled to complain. So I tell her all’s good, which is fine until she says, “Oh? Why?” and I find I’m stumped.
In a flash of inspiration, I tell her Davie’s hinting I’m in line for a raise, on the grounds that it’s the kind of thing that tends to please her. Her expression is best described as ‘incredulous’. “Good god, whatever for?”
If she notices my hurt look she doesn’t show it. “Cat, I know you think I’m useless but I’ve actually been working pretty hard lately. I’ve barely got out of the office before half seven the last couple of weeks. Tonight I got back about ten minutes before you did.”
“Oh, you poor thing,” she says in Mondeo-voice. Then she glowers at the hoover. “What’s that doing out?”
I’m frustrated by the lack of gratitude in her voice, but that’s not it. Or at least, it’s not all of it. Last night she was telling me at great length and great volume that she was sick of my laziness, my shiftlessness, my all-round failure to get on in life. That is why I ended up sleeping on the sofa. That is why I woke up with this agonising crick in my neck. So today I’ve cooked and I’ve cleaned and I’ve bought her flowers and I’ve fabricated a raise. I’m not expecting thanks but I’d appreciate some sign that she’s noticed. I’m breaking my back to clean up after last night’s mess and she won’t even meet me halfway.
And why should she, when she’s halfway out the door.
So when she asks her third stupid question in a row, this time, I rise to it. “Did you do that today?” she asks, and I snap back, “No, last February. Of course I did it today, I didn’t get it out to commemorate the anniversary of the great clean up of January ‘ought two, did I?”
I abandon the cooking to give her the full benefit of my exasperation. The sauce needs turning down, but I don’t care, it’s ruined anyway. “For god’s sake, Cat. I cook, I clean, I bite my tongue. I’m trying to reconnect, here. Do you want to maybe help instead of just greeting everything I do with this weird air of suspicion?”
She stares at me in silence for a full ten seconds. It’s cold. When we first got together, the slow melting of that ice really did it for me. Then, completely unflustered by my rant, she asks, quietly, “If you only got in five minutes before I did, when exactly did you do the hoovering?”
“You lied to me, didn’t you? All that stuff about a raise was a complete fiction.”
I say nothing.
“You didn’t even go in today, did you.”
The suspicion has turned to contempt. “Oh come on,” I plead. “That stupid row last night, I slept badly, woke up with a headache… I just couldn’t face that place.”
“What was it this time? Migraine? Twenty-four hour flu?”
“Oh, a classic. Chronic, incurable, and something no one will want too many details of.”
“Plus it’s a big hit with the ladies,” I say, to defuse the situation. It’s like dropping the ice in a pan of hot oil.
“How the fuck can you expect me to take you seriously when you won’t even take yourself seriously?” she screams. “You’re directionless, you’re irresponsible, you lie to me, and worst of all you can’t even see why any of that’s a problem. You think a couple of gestures are going to make everything okay again? It’s like trying to patch up the Titanic with chewing gum.”
She sighs and closes her eyes. When she opens them again she’s calmer. Looking at something that isn’t me, she adds quietly, “This is exactly what I was talking about last night.”
“I’m sorry,” I mutter. I continue with, “I’ll-” but I’ve no earthly idea how to end that sentence, so I just say “I’m sorry” again.
She shakes her head. Looking at my rapidly evaporating dinner, she says, “I’m gonna go take that bath. You should eat that before it spoils.”
“Yeah.” As she reaches the door, I add, on a whim, “You should take some music to listen to. Help you chill out.”
She freezes. I know, and she knows it, and we are about to sink without trace. But neither of us says anything. “I’m fine,” she says, without looking back, and I am left with nothing but some burnt tomatoes and a ruined pot.
…and that’s all, folks.
Publishing bigshot? Want to see the whole manuscript? Lovely. You can email me here.