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‘This is good,’ Tina said. ‘This is very good. You could have been a writer.’
George had just written three brief-yet-stylish paragraphs for the front page of Tina’s CV. And, thankfully, Tina, George’s niece, was suitably impressed.
‘I was a writer,’ George said. ‘I am a writer.’
‘No. I mean a proper writer,’ Tina said. ‘You know … novels … stuff like that.’
‘Novels? Do you have any idea how much the average novelist makes?’
‘Some of them do OK,’ Tina said.
‘Define the term some. One in fifty? One in a hundred? One in a thousand?’
‘I don’t know. But I’m sure that some of them must do OK. Otherwise, why would they do it?’
‘Why indeed?’ George said. ‘Why indeed?’
For almost 30 years, George had been one of the ad industry’s more successful copywriters. He had won pretty much every award going. But then, when the digital thing really started to bite, George’s heart went out of the business entirely. Google? Facebook? No, that wasn’t how real advertising worked. That wasn’t how you built brands that people could take to their hearts. And so when, like so many other advertising agencies, Anderson Eckhart needed to trim its payroll, cut back on creatives, George was more than happy to put his hand up and take redundancy.
‘What are you going to do now?’ Tina asked.
‘Now? Now I am going to pour myself a glass of wine, and then I shall savour it as the sun sinks slowly in the west.’
‘No. I mean what are you going to do now that you don’t have to go into work every day?’
‘Oh. That. I’m not sure, to be honest.’
‘You must have something in mind,’ his niece said.
‘No. Not really. Leaving Andersons was all about getting away from advertising as it has become, rather than moving towards anything new. Anyway … are you going to join me in a glass of wine?’
‘Do you have any beer?’ Tina asked.
‘I can probably find some,’ George said.
Tina was right of course. At some stage, George would need to give some serious thought to the matter of what to do next. Despite his earlier comments, he didn’t really need the money. He probably had enough of that salted away. Advertising had been very kind to him. But he did need something to keep himself occupied. George was not good at ‘doing nothing’.
‘How’s your friend Tilly?’ George asked when he returned with the drinks.
‘Tilly? She’s OK. Why?’
‘Oh, I just wondered. I haven’t seen her around for a while.’
‘Why? Do you fancy her?’
George chuckled. ‘I think she may be a touch young for me,’ he said.
‘She’s twenty-four,’ Tina said. ‘Same as me. So not that young.’
‘And I shall be fifty in another couple of years,’ George said.
‘You do fancy her, don’t you?’
‘I did not say that,’ George said.
‘Actually, Tilly quite likes older guys,’ Tina said.
George smiled. ‘Cheers,’ he said. And he raised his glass.
‘Cheers,’ Tina said. ‘Here’s to both of us finding a job that we like.’
‘You’ll be OK,’ George said. ‘Just don’t chuck in your current job until you have the new one signed and sealed.’
‘Yes, Uncle George.’
‘I’m serious,’ George said. ‘Employers are like everyone else: they want what someone else already has. If they think you are already employed, you are more desirable. Play it for all it’s worth.
Later, when Tina had gone home, George turned his mind back to what she had said about novelists. Yes, some of them did do OK. When George had first started out as a copywriter his mentor had been Colin Parry. Colin had lived somewhere up near the Essex-Suffolk border, and he used his morning commute down to London to write his first novel: A Spy in the Looking Glass. It didn’t really take off, but several reviewers praised it for its craft. ‘In the tradition of Graham Greene,’ one reviewer said. And then Colin wrote his second novel: The Train. The Train made the short list for The Becher Prize, and Colin’s copywriting days were over.
George was in no doubt that he could write seventy or eighty thousand words of more-than-readable prose, but he would need a story to tell. Or perhaps a story to retell. Readers seem to enjoy familiar stories with a new twist.
The following morning, George got a text from Tina. ‘I got an interview! They must of liked what you wrote.’
‘Must have, not must of,’ a voice in George’s head muttered. (Disconcertingly, the voice sounded a lot like George’s late father’s voice.) ‘Good luck,’ George texted back. ‘Just be yourself.’
George was fond of his older sister’s daughter. She was a clever girl. Confident. Personable. George just wished that she had chosen a different career option. After graduating with a degree in media studies, she had started working at a fledgling TV production company. Just six months later, the company had gone tits up. Since then, Tina had had another four jobs and she had been made redundant twice.
‘It’s not your fault,’ George had told her. ‘You just arrived at the wrong time. Twenty years ago, it would poker oyna have been a whole different story.’
‘Twenty years ago I was four,’ Tina pointed out.
‘Yes. But, as I recall, you were very bright for a four-year-old,’ George said. And they both laughed.
George wasn’t a Luddite. When PCs had first come along in the late ’80s, George had been one of the early adopters. He remembered his first portable. Except ‘portable’ was a bit of a misnomer. In fact, at least one of the manufacturers was honest enough to call theirs ‘a luggable’. George’s first luggable had no hard drive, just two five-and-a-quarter inch floppy disk drives. One floppy disk drive supplied the operating system, the other supplied the workspace and stored the data. Until, suddenly, without warning, it didn’t. ‘Hey, just teething problems,’ George assured some of his more sceptical colleagues. ‘They’ll get more reliable.’
And then there was a golden period between about 1995 and 2005 when technology made a writer’s life almost as simple as any writer had ever hoped that it would be. Aside from providing a typewriter that not only remembered everything but also formatted everything, the emerging Internet made half-day expeditions to the reference library almost redundant. George fondly remembered Dogpile. Tap, tap, tap, Fetch! And then Google. That was before Google began to take over the world.
‘The jobs mine!’ Tina’s text message said.
‘Job’s. Apostrophe s,’ a voice in George’s head muttered. ‘Well done,’ he texted back.
‘Where are you?’
‘At home,’ George replied.
‘Tilly and me are on our way.’
‘Tilly and I,’ the voice in George’s head muttered.
Tina and Tilly arrived carrying a bottle of sparkling wine. ‘Are we celebrating?’ George asked.
‘I got the job,’ Tina said.
‘You said. Well done,’ George said. ‘And what exactly will you be doing?’
‘Testing communication strategies,’ Tina said. ‘And they are going to pay for me to do a course in statistics.’
‘Statistics? Yes, that could be useful.’ George studied the bottle of wine that Tina had placed on the kitchen table. ‘New Zealand.’
‘It was the manager’s special at the offy. But Debra said it was very good.’
‘I’d better find some glasses then.’
George went and found three champagne flutes. May as well do the whole thing properly. ‘And how are you Tilly? Haven’t seen you around for a while.’
‘I’ve been filling in at the Bristol office,’ Tilly said. ‘For one of the women who’s been off on maternity leave.’
‘Bristol? My mother – Tina’s grandmother – came from Bristol. Well … she was born there. And then, when she was about four or five, she moved across the channel to Cardiff. She always said that she was Welsh. We didn’t find out about the Bristol part until after she had died. Now that I have the time, I should probably go and have a look around.’
‘Are you Welsh?’ Tilly asked with a slight frown
George shook his head. ‘According to my birth certificate, I was born in Mill Hill. And I certainly didn’t get the Welsh singing voice.’
George poured three glasses of the Oyster Bay brut sparkling wine. ‘Well … here’s to new beginnings,’ he said.
‘New beginnings,’ the girls chorused.
‘Now we just need to find a job for you,’ Tina said.
George laughed. ‘What do you suggest?’
‘We think you should write a book,’ Tina said.
George laughed again. ‘We do, do we?’
‘We do,’ Tina confirmed.
The New Zealand sparkler was surprisingly good. It wasn’t champagne. But then prosecco isn’t champagne. And neither is cava. And they both have their moments.
Back in the golden era of advertising, the two things that every copywriter wanted to know before putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) were first, who is the audience for this piece of advertising, and, second, what do we want them to take away? At a little after two o’clock in the morning, having just woken from a dream involving Heather Small and a banjo-playing robot, George wondered if the same approach might work in planning a novel. Since he was awake, it was probably worth giving it at least a little thought.
So, who was his audience? Tina was his number one cheerleader. And Tilly had added an enthusiastic second. But were either of them the audience for a novel by a 48-year-old first-time novelist?
George tried to recall if he had ever seen Tina with a book. No. Tina’s constant companion was her smartphone. And then there were the people on the Tube. George could remember a time when anyone who was not carrying a newspaper, was carrying a book. Usually a paperback. It was how he had, somewhat belatedly, discovered Graham Stead. Someone had left a well-thumbed copy of No Regrets on a seat on the Central Line. But while there were still a few newspaper readers, scanning the Metro, The Pink ‘Un, The Torygraph, most people these days had their eyes fixed on their small screens. Who read books?
George’s neighbour Elizabeth read books. Elizabeth was the coordinator, canlı poker oyna convenor, organiser, whatever, of the South Holland Park Book Group. Elizabeth was an English teacher, semi-retired. ‘You might like this,’ she would occasionally say to George. ‘The story’s a bit predictable, but the characters are strong, and it’s very well crafted.’ Elizabeth must have been in her early 60s. And sometimes she was right. Sometimes George did enjoy her predictable but well-crafted recommendations.
‘OK,’ George said to himself, ‘book groups.’ George wasn’t an expert on book groups, but he imagined that they were largely composed of reasonably well-educated women of a certain age. But how did book groups decide which books to select for their discussions? There were specialist book groups, of course, groups that specialised in the works of Jane Austen, for example. But what about the groups that read and discussed contemporary works? How did they find their titles? Had George’s mind just said ‘titles’? Was he already starting to think like an author?
And then George’s mind drifted to Tilly – Tilly who quite liked ‘older guys’. Apparently. How much older, George wondered. And what was Tina’s evidence for this?
When George awoke the following morning, what had seemed so clear in the middle of the night was sketchy at best. Something to do with Elizabeth’s book group? Reading on trains? And, down by the river (George didn’t think that it was the Thames), a restaurant that served nothing but old-fashioned school food. Brown Windsor Soup. Steak and Kidney Pudding with Savoy Cabbage. Spotted Dick with Lumpy Custard. Although the restaurant may very well have been in one of George’s dreams. The dreams that George had just before waking tended to be very real and just a little scary.
And Tilly. Matilda. Why had George been thinking about her? ‘Do you fancy her?’ Tina had asked. Did he? Did George fancy Tilly? George certainly liked her. She was good company. Smart. Bright. But did he fancy her? Fancy implied a certain degree of sexual desire. George had been going through a bit of a dry patch since Jo had gone back to Australia. At some subconscious level, was George thinking of Tilly as a potential replacement. Jo had been ten years George’s junior, but Tilly was only half his age, so probably not.
George showered, dressed, made a cup of coffee and took it out onto the little patio at the back of his flat. There were advantages in owning the lower duplex.
‘Good morning.’ The voice from the other side of the hedge belonged to Elizabeth, George’s next door neighbour. ‘Three fine days in a row. Can you believe it?’
George laughed. ‘Climate change perhaps?’
‘Perhaps,’ Elizabeth said. ‘How are you?’
‘This morning? A bit confused, to be honest,’ George said. ‘I had a bit of a restless night. I need to find something new to do with my life.’
‘Oh?’ Elizabeth sounded slightly concerned.
‘Yes. I’ve had enough of advertising.’
‘I thought you enjoyed it.’
‘I did. But it’s changed. Or perhaps I have. All this Facebook and Google and whatever … it just isn’t me.’
Elizabeth laughed. ‘So what’s next?’
‘My niece thinks that I should write a novel.’
Elizabeth raised her eyebrows slightly and nodded. ‘A novel. OK. And you? What do you think?’
‘Do people read novels anymore?’ George asked.
‘Oh, yes. Novels are still alive and well. Of course, these days some people read them on their devices,’ Elizabeth said. (George got the impression that Elizabeth didn’t really approve of devices.) ‘But even good old-fashioned ink-on-paper seems to be enjoying a bit of a revival.’
‘Your book group …,’ George said. ‘How do you decide which books to read and discuss?’
‘In theory, we take turns.’ And she nodded again. ‘Although I do seem to have more than my share of turns.’
‘But how do you decide what’s on the list?’
‘Oh. I see what you mean. Well … I subscribe to the LRB – The London Review of Books. And I keep an eye on the reviews in The Guardian and The Telegraph.’ Elizabeth laughed. ‘I try to keep some sort of balance,’ she said. ‘And The New York Times. And I go prowling in Waterstones and Foyles, of course. Also, maybe once a year, we revisit a minor classic. When Kate Cooperman died earlier this year we chose The Gathering as our book of the month.’
‘Is there a particular genre that leads the way?’
‘Not really. If there’s a common thread I’d say it’s that ninety percent of the books are character-driven. My ladies like characters they can get to know, characters they can cheer for and, sometimes, characters they can boo.’
‘Interesting,’ George said.
‘Anyway, I need to go and get organised. I’m giving a talk at the library this morning.’
‘Have fun.’ Yes, George could imagine Elizabeth giving a talk at the library.
Once George’s coffee had started to kick in, he decided to stroll across to Waitrose to pick up a few supplies. He was just returning, laden down with more things than he had internet casino really intended to buy, when Tilly phoned. ‘Can I come and talk to you?’ she said.
‘But of course,’ George told her. ‘When?’
‘When would be good for you?’ Tilly asked.
‘I don’t know. Maybe around four. I should be ready to pull the cork out of something cold and wet by then.’
‘Four it is,’ Tilly said.
‘Is there … a particular topic?’ George asked. ‘Is there something that I need to swot up on?’
‘No. Just life,’ Tilly said. ‘I think I may have taken a wrong turn.’
George was intrigued. He made himself a sandwich and another cup of coffee, grabbed a book – more or less at random – from the bookshelf, and returned to the patio.
The book that George’s hand had landed on was When the Devil Drives. George could only vaguely remember it. He sort of remembered the main character, Brandon, probably autistic and frustrated that so many people wanted to make everything so complicated. Brandon was a latter day William of Ockham. Wield that razor, Brandon!
George ate his sandwich – turkey breast with sliced heirloom tomato and wild rocket – and brushed away the escaped crumbs. Then he took a sip of his coffee and wondered again about Tilly’s ‘wrong turn’. Oh well, hopefully things would become clearer before the afternoon was out. And then George opened When the Devil Drives, not at the very beginning, but a few pages in. Brandon’s parents were having a meeting with Brandon’s primary school teacher, Holly Harper.
‘Brandon has got into the rather unhelpful habit of going straight to the answer,’ Mrs Harper said.
‘But not the right answer?’ Brandon’s father said.
‘Oh yes. It’s almost always the right answer. But that’s not the point. The answer is not the objective. The process is the objective.’
‘Why?’ Brandon’s father asked.
‘Because it is,’ Mrs Harper said. ‘We’re not in the business of handing out answers. We’re in the business of helping student to develop their problem-solving skills. And that requires a process. Now … next week the school has the services of a leading educational psychologist. Andrew Minsky. You may have heard of him.’
Brandon’s parents hadn’t.
‘He’s going to be helping us with some of our more … well, challenging students. With your consent, we’d like to get Dr Minsky to spend an hour or so with Brandon. See if we can’t get to the bottom of this little … umm … difficulty.’
‘You say difficulty …’
‘Brandon is very single-minded. He has difficulty working collaboratively.’
‘But he arrives at the right answers.’
‘He does. But there is more to learning than knowing the answers,’ Holly Harper said.
Brandon reminded George of Nigel, one of the chaps on his pub quiz team. Nige’s specialty was days and dates. The quizmaster would ask: ‘On what day of the week was the Battle of Agincourt fought?’ For most people it was a matter of guessing. Seven days. Take your pick. Middle for diddle? But Nige would close his eyes for a couple of seconds and say: ‘Wednesday. Wednesday October the twenty-fifth, fourteen hundred and fifteen.’ And if you asked Nige how he knew, he would say: ‘I don’t know how I know. It’s just one of those things you know, isn’t it?’
Maybe George could write a book loosely based around the members of a pub quiz team. People like quizzes. And people like pubs. Yes, that might work. It was certainly worthy of further consideration.
Shortly before four, George’s phone rang. It was Tilly. ‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘I’m running late.’
‘That’s OK,’ George said.
‘No it’s not. When I say that I will be somewhere at a certain time, I like to be there at the time that I said I would be there.’
George laughed. ‘Unfortunately, London doesn’t work like that. I’ll see you when you get here.’
‘Half an hour,’ Tilly said. ‘I’m sorry.’
Tilly arrived pretty much on the dot of four-thirty and greeted George with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. She was carrying one of those canvas bottle bags. ‘You said wet and cold,’ she said. ‘I hope you like Pinot Grigio.’
‘Pinot Grigio? Perfect,’ George said.
‘And I’m sorry I’m late.’
‘Hey, I think four o’clock might have been a tad early to start drinking anyway. Four-thirty is perfect.’ George led the way to the kitchen and Tilly followed. ‘So … what have you been up to today?’ George asked.
‘I’m taking a few leave days,’ Tilly said.
‘Thinking time,’ Tilly said. ‘I think I’ve reached another crossroads. I think I need to make some decisions.’
‘Oh?’ George took a couple of wine glasses from one of the kitchen cupboards, opened the wine bottle that was in the bag, and poured.
‘They want me to go and lead a team in Leeds,’ Tilly said.
‘ECMC. The guys I work for.’
George nodded. ‘And …?’
‘And I’m not sure that I want to,’ Tilly said.
‘You’re in HR?’ George said.
‘Used to be. These days I’m in training and development. We show the customers how to use the new systems and updates that our slick salespeople have convinced their masters to buy.’
‘Well … pretty important I imagine,’ George said.
‘It is,’ Tilly said.
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