SHORT STORY


THE ANONYMOUS MANUSCRIPT
(A warning to those offering rejection)

My first day has been a nightmare. I’ve left the slush pile where I found it this morning, I’ve inherited two authors who are convinced tomorrow marks the end of their careers, my predecessor has still not been found and every time I sit in his chair I get the sense I’m walking in the shadow of a dead man.

“The building’s haunted, you know,” says Carina. She talks to the office, no particular individual, just the office. It’s her office I suppose, so she can talk to as many or as few people as she likes. Before I can answer she grabs the phone and makes one of her permanently urgent calls. “Betsy, it’s happened again. Format is all wrong, the Smashwords meat grinder keeps rejecting it and Johnny is ready to explode.”

When she’s done, when the unseen recipient of her displeasure has been well and truly monstered she sits back in her chair and says, “I’d love to be unemployed. If I was unemployed I’d use the time to travel.” She makes another call. “Hello, Tom, remind me, Carlisle is one of those towns in the north isn’t it?”

Travel to and from work is by Tube and I see them, both sides of the equation. Readers ploughing through another self-published title, self-published authors polishing the turds on their tablets. And when I see one of them correcting and editing, checking the word count and blinking before the infallible spell checker, I think that turd has got my name on it. I only mentioned once to a fellow passenger that I was a literary agent and now it seems whichever carriage I’m sitting in has become the portal to success for every wannabee Hemingway and James and Rowling and Brown.

A man sits next to me. I’m relieved to travel for several minutes without him producing a gadget to either read or write. He has the blackest hair I’ve ever seen on a human being and his skin is like parchment; taute, fine-lined and the colour of a washed potato. His silence is theraputic as if he knows I’ve had a strenuous day and short of giving me a massage he could sit next to me all day if he wanted, if this is the effect he has on me.

My stop arrives and he gets off with me. His gait is heavy as if he’s walking on stilts and I wonder if he is an injured war veteran, or a double amputee. Following him out of the station my imagination places him in a myriad of scenarios, hero, victim, the protagonist of a tragedy that carries his disadvantage with great dignity.

When we’re on the pavement he acknowledges me. “Don’t think of me as a tragic figure.”

“I’m sorry.” I want to find the door keys in my handbag, but my fingers ignore the instruction and fiddle with the detritus. “How. . . .”

He smiles, but not an ironic smile, something more intense, knowing. He produces a thick manila envelope and straight away I know what it is.

“If that’s a manuscript don’t bother.”

“I was asked to pass it on to you.”

“Who by?”

“I can’t say.”

“Well, keep it. I don’t accept submissions on the hop like this, and I don’t accept paper submissions. Tell your contact to submit using the website.”

“No.”

“No?” My house is a ten minute walk away from the station and he follows me. I take out my phone to call the police.

“You’re over-reacting. You’re not in danger. Accept the manuscript and I’ll be gone.”

I take him at his word and hold out my hand. The manuscript is dense, heavy like a brick and having left his deposit he leaves me alone again. Exasperated I turn for home, stop, look behind me, but he’s gone.

The uneasy feeling I had at work joins me at home when I enter the hallway. My husband is out, but he’s left a note for me stuck to the microwave door. ‘Took Libby to the late-night bookshop. Kieran.’ The manuscript has none of the stranger’s therapeutic comfort. I take it outside and drop it in the wheelie bin. Libby’s trike sits abandoned on the grassy patch of the garden like a stolen vehicle. I go to place it in the shed and catch my elbow on a protruding nail.

For such a small nick the blood makes a damn good attempt to escape and after five minutes I worry it might need a stitch. It’s still weeping when Kieran and Libby come home just before nine.

“A nail?” He can’t believe there’d be something so lethal sticking out of the shed door. “Would have taken Libby’s eye out.” He goes away to fix it, in the dark, and with Libby in bed we settle down for our routine evening anticlimax.

“How did it go? First day blues?”

“No different to the last place. Carina is unapprochable, the client list is like a who’s who of the midlist damned and the slush pile is taller than you.”

“Rubbish.”

“Yes, that’s exactly what it is.”

My morning walk to the Tube station is usually ten minutes of private solitude, a relaxing amble before I enter the maw of London’s turmoil. But this morning I’m anxious, on edge, constantly wanting to turn around to see if I’m being followed. When I’m on the train I’m glad to be amongst the usual familiar strangers, reading and staring and wobbling every time the train shakes them in their seats. Shakes them out of their somnambulism.

In the foyer to the office the concierge nods towards the wall. “A visitor asking about you.” It’s the stranger. He crosses the foyer without acknowledging my presence.

“Did you read it?”

“How dare you follow me to work. This is stalking and I’m going to call the police if you don’t stop now.”

“Did you read it?”

“No, I didn’t read your bloody mansucript. It went straight in the bin.”

In the face of my anger he remains unmoved until I tell him what I did. The lines around his eyes tighten and for a second I wonder if he’s blind. His pupils are mottled like old Victorian marbles. He purses his lips and inhales deeply. When I speak my voice breaks. “There are ways to submit material. I don’t accept manuscripts like that. Tell your friend to submit via the website. Letter, synopis, sample chapters.” He turns away and leaves the building.

“Trouble?” says the concierge.

“No.” I clear my throat. “Another one for the slush pile, if it ever gets that far.” I need my office chair, but the lift breaks down and I’m stuck for four hours.

Finally, I reach my office space, my island, but Carina has washed ashore oblivious to my experience in the lift. “Engineers didn’t find anything wrong,” I tell her.

“You haven’t forgotten the meet and greet?”

“Meet and greet?”

“This evening. Williams. It’s a necessary evil, you never know if the next EL James will come dragging their knukles through the door.”

“I hadn’t forgotten.” Actually, I have thanks to my stalker. I intercept Betsy on her way to the espresso maker. “Has Carina ordered you to Williams tonight?”

“Yes. You, me and Pergeter.”

We go mob handed, a trio of agents ready to be consumed by the zombies. I don’t tell them about my admirer and his 20th Century manuscript, but I’m glad they’re here, riding shotgun. At Williams bookstore there’s already a queue outside the door. Backpacked, plastic carrier-bagged literary refugees and for the next four hours we are confronted with the familiar and the bizarre.

There’s no sign of the numbers evaporating until four minutes to ten. The bookshop is quiet, the staff mingling ready to go as soon as the manager is ready to lock up. We deal with the final two hopefuls, one who has written a zen romance/cookery hybrid and the other trying to sell a series of non-fiction titles following the history of the cinque ports. The shop closes at quarter past, which allows time for the final straggler who wanders in and seeing the tables laid out heads directly at me.

“You’re still here,” she says, “that’s dedication.”

“One never knows who might turn up at these events.”

The woman’s eyes, astronomically dark, fix me and she says, “Isn’t that the truth.”

“You’ve left it late. Have you written a short story?”

She laughs. “No. You should already have read it. I asked a friend of mine to pass it on to you.”

“Well I’m afraid your friend made a pig’s breakfast of it. I told him we don’t accept manuscripts on hard copy.”

“But it was typed.”

“My slush pile is a mile high. That’s why we prefer electronic submissions.”

“Okay. Well, he told me that. I submitted it today. Online, like you said. What do you think?”

I have to treat this as a joke, a wind up, maybe someone in the office, probably James, he’s the joker in our office.

“You haven’t read it have you?”

“Of course I haven’t read it if I only received it today.” I try to avoid her intense murderous stare by checking my watch. “You have five minutes to pitch it to me. The elevator pitch. One sentence.”

She pauses as if testing herself to see how close she can get to the end of the five minute deadline. “In the garden of Galfino you can have anything you want. Alicia wants Galfino, but he’s having none of it.”

“That’s two sentences. . . .”

“I used a semi-colon.”

“What is it? Romance? Ghost story?”

“I suppose you could call it an occult romance.”

She detects my grimace, which I’m sure is more internal than explicit.

“I thought romance was the most popular genre?”

“It is.”

“Shouldn’t have any problems selling it then.”

“I’m overwhelmed with romances at the moment.”

“You mean your lists are full?”

“Something like that.” She knows the jargon, I’ll give her that.

“Can I ask you a question? Since my friend met you have you had any bad luck?”

“Not really.” How does she know? Of course she knows, it’s the law of averages; everyone has bad luck, little things going wrong. It’s called life.

“I mean, you can’t really reject it for being badly written because you use an army of editors and proofreaders even for well established authors.”

“Yes, but-”

“And if the story’s not quite complete, structure, rhythm, you can work with the author to round it all off.”

“You could say that about every submission. I haven’t got the time to do that for ten thousand debut authors.”

“What about back story?”

Her time is up. The staff want to go home, but they can all see by the way she has fixed herself into the chair she isn’t ready to go. “What about back story? Look, I can read your submisison tomorrow and get back to you.”

That doesn’t work. “My back story. Where the idea came from. Who Galfino really is. If you knew you’d tear my arm off.”

Standing up lets her know I’ve no intention of tearing anyone’s arm off. She can sleep in the where she is if she’s determined not to get out of the chair.

I go straight home from the bookshop. The woman follows me: not literally, in spirit, a menacing afterthought, every time my concentration lapses. A taxi almost takes me out when I cross a junction on an amber light. On the Tube I sit next to a man distraught because his dog died earlier that afternoon. I want to sympathise with him, but the name of his dog was Dino, which rhymes with Galfino and every time he mentions it I feel as if he’s taunting me. The coincidence is too great to be a coincidence.

The walk from the station to my house is another ten minutes of expectant prurgatory, wondering who will jump out, armed with a padded envelope. When I get home Kieran is asleep. I need a drink, but I can’t find the energy to boil a kettle or even open a bottle. I find a glass and drink tapwater. Through the kitchen window I wonder what Kieran has been up to. He’s no gardener, normally leaves everything to me apart from mowing the lawn, and he only does that because it’s the size of a stamp. But he’s planted a hedge between the lawn and the shed. A hedge so high the shed isn’t visible.

Stepping outside I feel the air temperature rise. The walk home was cool, but in the garden there’s a comforting warmth. I inspect the hedge and wonder how he did it, or why he did it without telling me first. Pausing at a gap I look around the other side, but the shed isn’t there, only a corridor formed by the hedge and the incomprehension freezes me. I’m tired enough to be asleep, but I haven’t gone to bed . . . I looked in on Libby, heard Kieran’s half-hearted attempt at snoring and came down to the kitchen. But now I’m looking down the narrow channel of a maze.

The confusion compels me to consider possibilities, especially after everything that’s happened and my only conclusions are lucid dream and that book: the Garden of Galfino. There’s no choice but to go to bed and let the dream run its course, but the thought of waking up in the morning and finding the hedge still here makes my stomach wretch.

Closing my eyes makes no difference and the warm air is becoming humid, uncomfortably hot. If this is a fever it must be something tropical, exotic, because I’ve never experienced sickness like this before.

I turn to go back inside, but the house is no longer there. I’m facing a formal fountain, a central ornamental sculpture like a huge upturned flower, ornate, baroque; a single thick bulbous gurgle of water filling the bowl, cascading over the side. Around it a raised plinth, and sitting on the plinth with his back to me a figure reading a small book. I’m sure he knows I’m here and is deliberately ignoring me.

“What do you want?” he says.

He doesn’t look up from his book.

The possibility presents itself that my neighbours might be looking down from their bedroom windows watching me talk to myself. Their houses are gone too. I’m alone with the figure. “I want to know where I am.”

“You’re in my garden.”

“I’m sorry, but this is my garden.” I lower my voice. “This is my garden.”

Closing his book, the figure rises. His cloven hooves make no sound on the compacted stone of the path around the fountain. It’s the man, the anonymous messenger, but in his own garden he has a different form: a satyr. “You are in my garden. You’re free to go any time once you’ve told me what you want.”

How that’s possible I don’t know. My mouth is dry, my limbs stiff, heart beat growing irregular. I don’t want this confusion, this indefinable state of not knowing which way to turn or what to say, a horrible hope that the scene will clear, explain itself. That my eyes will open and the house will be there, the back door open. The satyr stands with his arms crossed, the book held in both hands, emitting the same calm I felt when he sat quietly on the Tube the first time we met. I wait for him to smile, but he doesn’t. He wants an answer and I have no answer. “I want to go home,” is the only wish I can think of.

He opens the book. “You are home,” he says and goes back to his reading.