The unseemly concerns of a writer, afflicted by shyness for the first time in his life.
I say ‘shyness’ rather than ‘inadequacy’ – not prepared to go that far. Dangerous assumptions could be made, my very masculinity questioned. Oh no, we’ll not go there!
This newly-discovered reticence has no basis in common sense. It’s just talking. Public speaking. And, yes, I’ve done that before. Many times. Given speeches, briefings, given evidence in High Court, many a time. What about talking about a subject as personal my own writing though?
I’ve not been well. Feel awful. The request I’d agreed to months ago had arrived and I look, and feel, like death warmed up. I said I’d do this, so I will. Just hope I last the evening out. I have to talk, in public. Socialise afterwards. Take questions.
Agghh! I can’t do this, but I must.
I gave my word.
It’s nothing important. Not really. I was asked, ages ago, if I’d read some extracts from my book to a Book Group. Not a Book Club – this is the Cotswolds where ‘club’ has connotations of vulgarity, a suggestion that just ‘anyone’ could join. A ‘group’ is a closed order, invitation only. Far more appropriate.
I’d wondered whether the person making the request had actually read anything I’d written. ‘Oh yes, rather,’ she replied. Genteel, well that’s a given but also enthusiastic. I have weak moments, far too many of them, and this boost to my fragile ego made me say ‘yes.’
Months later, I’m regretting it. Arrival at the venue, a living room the size of an aircraft hanger in a 16th Century Manor House near Chipping Campden, did little to quell my misgivings. Twenty-two members, all but one of them female, ages ranging from thirty-something to God knows how old – something. Expectant. Eager. Welcoming. I can’t fault them in any way, but what about me? Am I really going to be able to offer them anything worth their trouble in coming out on a bitterly cold evening?
We chat for a while. They chat, I listen. They’re lovely. Interesting, alert, knowledgeable, love books, what’s not to like? Our hostess is dressed for Royal Ascot. Slim with great cheekbones, she looks thirty-five, at most. Then she introduces me to her daughter who could be her twin sister and has a son at Sandhurst. It’s another world.
After coffee, biscuits, three slices of home-made cake – I know, I’m a pig, I blame it on nervousness – it’s time to sing for my supper. I’ve thought about this. I can’t give them three pages of description about a tree in full leaf, they’d nod off, but if I read something stronger, will they send for the smelling salts?
I go with what I’d planned. Hit them hard. The worse that can happen is they won’t ask me again. I can cope with that. My wife nudges me. She’s here because she’s loyal. Wants to support me. I’m sure of it. Being a guest in this incredible house, mixing with the local gentry, eating even more cake than me, has no bearing on her presence. None at all.
I start with a reading from my first novel. I explain it’s now available as an e-book. That doesn’t go down well. These are traditional book buyers. Nobody here would even contemplate buying a book from Amazon. They go to bookshops. Browse. Choose a book at leisure. Have it wrapped. Take it home and after reading donate it to a charity shop or a Church bazaar.
I move on. Hurriedly. Read my first extract. Here’s a sample from my first novel, Burn, Baby, Burn.
‘He removed the hypodermic from its container, the needle still blackened with scabs of dried blood, pushed the needle into the ball of cotton wool and lowered it carefully into the bowl of the spoon, soaking up the liquid.
The veins in his arms and legs were useless, covered in scabs and ulcers. He had started with the small veins on the soles of his feet, hoping in those innocent early days to avoid the obvious bruising and heavily tracked arms of the addict, but all were useless now, veins receding from the threat of the invasive needle, retreating into flesh. He removed his shoelace and tied it round the stem of his penis, pulling tight, wincing as he slapped the prominent vein to make it stand proud. He muttered to himself, lost in the precision of a familiar routine.
“Make sure you’re in the vein, always check for blood. Miss the vein it’s a fucking waste.” There was no one around to hear, but the sound of his own voice soothed him.
He never felt the needle, but as he pressed the plunger, his eyes widened as the rush began. The kick was instantaneous. Never like this, he thought as the veins behind his eyes burst and he slumped to the floor. His heart seized instantly as the pure grade uncut heroin flooded his blood stream. Snake was dead before his head hit the cement floor, needle still jutting from his penis. One more drug culture victim.’
There’s a momentary hush, then an outrush of reaction. Yes, a nervous giggle or two, but it’s positive. I had intended to read another piece, at least, but questions come thick and fast. ‘How do you know about this? Have you actually met heroin addicts?’ Well, yes I have. On many occasions. Seen a drug overdose as well. I don’t give them too much detail, there’s the family silver to consider and I’ve no wish to stress my past working associates. Even though I was one of the good guys.
Eventually, it calms down. I decide against my second choice, give them a dramatic suicide instead. They can take it. Here’s a section from the second reading.
‘Clive sat on the hard chair that he’d placed against the wall with no other furniture within reach. Grunting with the effort, he bound his own feet together, then tied them securely to the legs of the chair that was firmly screwed to the floor, leaning into the knots until he could no longer feel his feet. Smoke was filling the room now, but he remained absolutely calm. This final meeting with Marcus had been envisaged for some time and he worked with total certainty. Pulling the plastic bag over his head, he tied it securely with the slim nylon cord. He grimaced as the binding cut deeply into his skin, but the pain was immaterial. It would not inconvenience him for long. His next breath would also be his last as he sucked the plastic against his mouth, using up the air trapped in the bag. Working quickly now, he slipped his hands into the thick rubber gloves and doused them with the contents of the cooking oil and dropped the empty container at his feet. He’d expected the panic that came with his next attempt to take a breath, but the strength of his reaction surprised him. Hands scrabbling vainly at the knots securing the bag in position, oily fingers failing to find any purchase, his lungs burned and his temples pounded like a kettledrum. From what seemed a vast distance, he heard the voice once more. “Clive, are you coming out to play?”
Even as his open mouth sucked at the unyielding plastic, teeth ripping his lower lip, he was exultant at this final cheating of his tormentor. Hot salty blood from his ravaged lips trickling down his throat, Clive slumped, his upper body pitching forward from the chair. His bound legs twitching, he fell awkwardly, head slamming against the floorboards with a sickening crack.’
They loved it. Lapped it up. I read three more pieces, the last at random, by request. ‘Just pick a page, any page, and read from it. A sex scene, as it happened. Well, it would be. That’s the perverse nature of random selection. They liked that too. Even the lady with the collection of congratulatory telegrams from the Queen.
We left at 11.30. I felt better than I’d felt for days. The voice had gone, but I’d loved the experience. I’d even agreed to come back. Read from one of my other books. I know what to look for now. Dark and dirty. Violence, in its place, is okay. The only other man there explained it very well. ‘It’s escapism, isn’t it? A different world. I’ve been missing out on this.’
My wife told me on the way home how she’d dreaded the implications of it all going horribly wrong. Being snubbed in Waitrose, perhaps, I wondered. Not seriously. Social standing has never been an issue. No, it was the prospect of them not liking what I’d written. Being critical. Damaging my fragile sense of worth, as a writer. Only as a writer – my sole weakness in matters of self-regard. In every other aspect of life I have a ludicrously high opinion of my own ability. An opinion far beyond reasonable grounds.
‘That was great,’ my wife said. ‘Be even better next time. Princess Ann will be there.’
I gave her one of those looks that a marriage of many years has refined to perfection. ‘Yes. So I believe. That’ll be a treat for her, won’t it?’