Raindrops spattered here and there as Will crossed the street on a diagonal, eyes on the house numbers but unable to read any till he’d reached the other side and found one within range of his short sight. A few leaves blew about in flurries as the street lamps came on. It had been a long tube ride and the carriage had been packed with Christmas shoppers, taking up more room than usual with their heavy coats, umbrellas and bags full of seasonal tat. The black windows had glittered with condensation from their bad-tempered breath.
Forty-three. The rain more insistent now. Will needed number ninety-seven. He raised the hood of his duffle coat and walked on, keeping his head down against the wind—it was bitter, especially since his skin still felt clammy from the crammed train. Forty-three happened to be his age. He probably should have been somewhere else—anywhere else—doing something he got paid for. Severance pay had helped him scrape through the last couple of years, but it wasn’t going to last much longer.
“Meet?” his agent had asked. “I suppose we could. I might have deduced from your treatment of falling action that you’d be unorthodox. My office?”
He had to hand it to her—she’d gotten him the book deal after just a couple of months representing him. It hadn’t seemed possible, and yet here he was. A book deal. He couldn’t wait to wave it in Tony Miller’s face, the condescending little shit. The horrible, horrible tiny man. Tony had kept in touch since Will had walked out of the brokerage two years ago, and since Milly had walked out on Will a week later, he’d made a point of coming round to the flat once a week to check that his former employee was “doing OK”, pronouncing the words with a discernible Mid-Atlantic drawl despite being from Portsmouth. The flat was on the first floor of an old Georgian townhouse and Will supposed that Milly had given his ex-boss the front door key. The nasty goblin would bring a food parcel each time and when Will didn’t answer—which was often—he’d leave it on the stairs.
Food parcels. The condescending little shit.
Ninety-seven turned out to be commercial premises in a little row of them along the main street. The front window was enormous—much larger than would be required to meet the needs of a literary agent, he imagined—and dirty, and through the dirt revealed a charmless office, almost completely stripped except for two desks and a grubby looking, royal blue carpet. The bare walls bore marks where pictures and posters had hung.
He would have liked a moment to steel himself before pressing the bell. To gird himself for this potentially life-changing encounter. These people could push you around if you let them. That’s what he’d read, anyway. He wasn’t having any of it. There was nowhere to hide though, on either side of that window, and he’d been spotted—she pulled the door open before he’d reached the button.
“There you are. Almost late. Melanie Phillips.”
He followed her inside to where the smells of damp and his agent’s perfume were fighting it out. She was wearing a business suit the same color as the carpet, if a little cleaner, heels that left divots with every step, and gestured now toward the desk nearest the window.
“You could have this, I suppose, and we might look at getting you a phone line. You’d have to use your own laptop, obviously.”
“Oh,” said Will, looking from the desk to Melanie Phillips and back again. “I didn’t imagine actually working here. Physically, I mean.”
“Really? I just thought, since you were so keen to come along…” She sat down at the other desk, also bare apart from a laptop and a router.
“Never mind. Although I’ll admit I was warming to the idea. So much more convenient for appraisals and so on. We do have to keep an eye on you people.”
She flashed him a smile.
“We’ve only just moved in. Very excited about having a high street presence now—should do oodles for our footfall.”
Will was looking for a chair.
“There isn’t one, I’m afraid,” said Melanie from hers, “but don’t be shy—why don’t you pop yourself on the edge of the desk there while I get this going?”
She was at the laptop. Will tried to effect an acceptable stance on a corner of the desk but found his back was to her any way he tried it. He got up again and began to pace, fingernails digging into his palms. He felt alarmingly close to distraught just a minute or so into this meeting. He’d imagined dust and leather and perhaps a hard drink in a nearby hotel bar—a posh hotel, not perched on the corner of a desk in a derelict office. He sat on the other one in the end, concentrating hard to stop himself swinging his feet like a schoolboy.
Melanie peered at him over the top of her machine while it emitted a ring tone.
“We’re very excited about your book, Will.”
“Oh, thank you very mu–”
“No. Thank you so much for responding to the open call. I dread doing them—God, the guff I have to wade through—but once in a while I have the great thrill of uncovering a real gem.” Her long fingernails made an unnerving, chitinous noise as she tapped the desk and flashed him another smile. All her smiles were to be that way—deliberate, and very brief.
“This time it’s you, Will.”
“Oh, thank yo–”
“Where is he? Wait, he’s come online. I’ll call again.”
She’d kicked her shoes off under the desk.
“I know that Rupert’s just as excited as I am, Will. He’s in New York this week but he’s made time for the call especially.”
“Hello Rupert, can you see me?”
“I can’t see you.”
“Oh. Can you see me now?”
“But you can hear me?”
“I can hear you but I can’t see you. Can you hear me?”
“I can hear you very well. Can you see me now?
“No, there’s no…wait a minute…yes, I can see you now. Hello, Melanie.”
“Hello, Rupert. How’s New York?”
“You’re very quiet though.”
“Am I? Just a minute. How about now?”
“No, you’re still too quiet.”
“Maybe you need to change something at your end, Rupert.”
“I said maybe there’s a volume control at your end.”
“Maybe I need to… wait a minute…OK, say something.”
“And you’ll want to switch your video on, Rupert.”
“It isn’t on? You can’t see me?”
“No, I can’t see you, but I can hear you very well.”
“Can you see me now?”
“No, I still can’t see you, Rupert. There should be a video button.”
“Button? I don’t know…hang on, Julia’s arrived. Julia, can you get this bloody thing to work? They can hear me perfectly, apparently, but they can’t see a thing.”
The sound of tapping on a keyboard.
“That’s it, Rupert—it’s just come on.”
It occurred to Will that some of the amiability had faded from his agent’s facial expression.
“Right, well here we all are,” said Melanie, taking a packet of cigarettes and an ashtray from a drawer in her desk and lighting up.
“Thanks so much for making the time. I’ve been telling Mr Roper how excited we all are about his wonderful book.”
“Very excited,” said Rupert.
“Incredible book. Very excited,” said Julia.
“Where is Mr Roper?” asked Rupert.
“He’s here. He can hear you. Bit of a furniture drought at this end.”
At the mention of his name, Will turned around. He’d been looking out of the window at the Café Apollo across the street—their americano was watery but they did do a very passable macchiato, and a warm muffin with little pockets of soft caramel. No one had offered him a coffee.
“Thank you for coming in, Mr Roper. We really are very, very excited to work with you on your wonderful book.”
“Oh, well…that’s very…I mean, thank—”
“What did he say?”
“He said thank you,” said Melanie. “That’s Julia Funt, Will. We’ve asked her to join us as she’s the one who’ll be working her magic on your manuscript.”
“Ah yes? Well I’m no prima donna, I can assure you. I do believe the final draft I sent you is very honed, but I assumed I’d be working with an editor. It’ll be—”
“Julia’s actually our content strategist, Will. We would rather expect you to take care of the editing side of things. Mustn’t shirk our responsibilities, must we?” Her teeth were ice white. “Julia currently oversees all of our online content. No small feat I can tell you—we publish a large number of high quality articles on a daily basis. A whole team of writers. This’ll be her first foray into fiction and yours into publishing. Exciting, yes?”
“So, Julia, perhaps you’d like to kick off by clarifying for Mr Roper exactly what you’re going to need from him.”
“Sure. First things first though—I’ve only had a plain text manuscript, Melanie. Actually it’s a PDF but it looks like scanned plain text to me—so I don’t really know what I’m dealing with here. To be honest, I was surprised to be called in at this stage. Mr Roper’s story is so compelling, of course, but I don’t really give a tuppenny fuck about that. I need to see some optimization. Get an idea of how much work I have ahead of me.”
“Yes of course. Fair point.”
Melanie’s eyes flicked upwards to look over the edge of the laptop.
“How quickly do you think you can get your optimised manuscript over to Julia, Will?”
Will felt his skin flush and knew it was about to become blotchy.
“How do you mean? The PDF I sent is definitely the final draft. I’ve been working on it for—”
“The story is fine, Will. Really very good. I’m talking about the text itself. Julia’s role here is to guide you through the process of optimizing it. We would have expected you to have done a considerable part of that work yourself. I must say this is a little disappointing. Did you say scanned, Julia? Then there aren’t even any links yet?”
“Yes it is scanned,” said Will. “I normally work with an old typewriter, you see.”
Something slapped against the window, a piece of cardboard or a newspaper, before blowing away in the breeze.
“Wow,” said Julia.
“How wonderful, Mr Roper!” said Rupert. “An old typewriter! I quite understand. I think. I have a vinyl collection, you know. I like the crackle; it brings me back to…it is a craft after all, writing, isn’t it? Quite a tradition to it, really. Leather on willow, roaring log fire—that kind of thing?”
Since Will could see neither Julia nor Rupert, it was difficult to gauge their tone.
“Well…no, not really,” he said. “I mean, I wouldn’t like to think it was nostalgia…I’m quite, eh…I mean it is a work of science fiction after all…”
He shifted a little.
“I’m quite forward-looking, I think. No, it’s more of a technique. I find with an old machine and the old font that I can…that there’s a distancing effect. I find it easier somehow, to cold read my own work back to myself. Do you see? To be critical…”
“I understand completely, Mr Roper,” said Rupert. “However we are going to need you to go ahead and make some changes to your work flow.”
“I mean, just,” said Julia, “wow.”
“Yes, a gentle reminder,” said Melanie, “that Mr Roper is actually here, Julia.” She shot Will an apologetic look.
“Well he’s a big boy, isn’t he? How can he not have…? Turn me round, will you?”
Melanie swivelled her laptop around. In the darkening office, inadequately lit by a single, stammering fluorescent strip over a fire exit at the rear, Will found himself bathed in a cone of cold blue light from the screen. Julia sat at a conference table next to Rupert and he could see, through the window behind them, some kind of industrial park. It certainly didn’t look like Manhattan. He’d been once, with Milly. He was used to wrestling with reality a little, but so far not even his most basic expectations of this encounter had been met. Something wasn’t right, and being able to see Julia didn’t help—despite her interjections, her smile was ludicrously cheerful, her face friendly almost to the point of menace. He felt an urge to scrawl the word “vivacious” all over it in permanent marker.
“Well,” she said, “we really are beginning at the beginning here, aren’t we? Mr Roper, I wonder if you could talk to me a little about what you want from all of this. Hm? First principles. What’s your book for? What do you expect it to do for us? You, I mean. Let’s talk functionality. That’s really where I come in.”
“Do? Hm..I hadn’t really…I suppose…”
“I think it’s so important we be crystal clear about this from the outset, don’t you? Why did you write this book, Will?”
She made a bridge of her hands and rested her chin on it.
“I see,” said Will. “Yes. Well, I don’t know—I’ve always…since as long as I can remember really, I’ve wanted… for example, the Dickens volumes my father kept on a high shelf—perhaps that’s where it began. You know? Eh…and then of course the classics…the Bible…the Arabian Nights and so on…I just want to…I think it might be the only contribution, if you will, that I’m truly capable of. Do you see? I mean, they’re repositories, aren’t they? Stories. What dreams are to waking life, so stories are to truth, or so I’ve always thought…”
“Yes. I’m not quite following, Will. Let me put it to you in a different way. What good is this book of yours? Why should I be excited? I mean, I am excited of course, but why should I be?”
“Right. Well, I suppose the hope is…that my work might be…well I’ve said it, haven’t I? A contribution. That it might be…good, you know? That it might, in some modest way, have some literary merit. There’s nothing else, really.”
He thought of his self-administered pep talk and sat up a little straighter.
“And actually, I do, to be honest. I do believe it has merit.”
Julia Funt lowered her hands and, for just a moment, withheld eye contact, looking down at her fingernails.
“Jesus,” she said in a low but perfectly audible whisper, before looking up again.
“Literary merit,” she said. “Your book has literary merit.” She wasn’t smiling anymore. “So fucking what? You know what literary merit is? You know the little heart shape they draw on the foam of your cappuccino? That’s literary fucking merit, my friend. You know what the cappuccino is?”
“I’m afraid I don’t much like capp–”
“Traffic,” said Julia. “Sales.”
She was tapping her desktop with long red nails and, even though it was happening on the other side of the Atlantic, the hairs bristled on the back of Will’s neck.
“Cappuccino is traffic, Mr Roper,” she said. “And sales. Literary merit is the little heart shape they draw in the foam on top of the cappuccino. It isn’t even the foam. The foam is marketing.” She sat back in her chair and gave the screen a pitying look. “You’ve got it all ass-backwards.”
The exchange hadn’t made much sense to Will and consequently he didn’t have anything to say, but it didn’t matter because nobody was listening to him.
“Melanie, turn us around again, would you? Plan of action.”
The stuttering gloom enveloped him again. Talk of cappuccino had reminded him of the coffee he didn’t have and, as the others conferred, his attention wandered back across the road to Café Apollo. It was dark outside now and the café was lit up, golden and cosy. He squinted a little. The window was misted but he could make out the young woman who had taken the table next to it. She had rubbed away a little circle on the glass and was looking right back at him and he suddenly felt very self-conscious, sitting on the desk in his coat and exposed in the enormous window.
She was framed by the clearing she’d made, her red head backlit and radiant. Will couldn’t take his eyes away as the voices around him became muffled and the whole world contracted till there was only the clean circle on the glass and the girl inside it. She looked a bit like Milly, but then all girls seemed to look like Milly these days. God, he missed her. She’d been his muse. She’d gotten him started on the book and when she left he’d been afraid he wouldn’t be able to carry on. He had carried on, though. He’d finished the bloody thing.
Still, he missed her. Tony brought him news of her now and then: her new job, little details about her new flat and so on. How cruel it was to hear about her from that supercilious gnome. And yet whenever Tony spoke of her it felt like a kindness—that she would have the odious fool in her home, knowing Will would get word of her that way.
In the café, the girl’s hair tumbled in waves and framed a pretty face: grey-green eyes and full pink lips that curled upward in a smirk as she gazed haughtily out at the man in the empty office, not bothering to disguise her contempt. And then the strangest thing—the lips moved, and she knew his name. She shook her head slowly and repeated it. Oh Will, she whispered, and he could hear her. Will, Will…
He turned away from the window.
“Do please let’s have your attention, Will. It’s you we’re here to help after all. Go ahead, Rupert.”
Melanie turned her laptop around and Will found himself back in the blue glow. Julia had her eyes on something out of shot. Rupert looked earnest.
“We’re going to get your manuscript up on our in-house system, Mr Roper,” he said. “We have the perfect system—you’re going to love it. Very powerful. And we’re particularly excited about it right now because we’re about to improve it.”
“OK,” said Will.
“Complete overhaul. I’ll take you through it, get you up and running. No shame in that—we all need our hand held once in a while, right? We’re going to need you to go over the manuscript, for starters, and google map all the place names. That’s going to be really key for the reader. After that we’ll look at outbound links; I’ll oversee that, if you don’t mind. We need them but they’re risky, and I’m best placed to make sure we aren’t just handing it to our competitors on a plate.” He winked. “After that it’s inbound. The real fairy dust, Mr Roper. We absolutely need you to push this with all your might through your social networks. Of course, we’ll do whatever we can. Let’s get those links coming in, eh?”
“Wait,” said Will, one hand to his collar. “You’re losing me. Why would we…I mean, what good is mapping? Why do I need links?”
“For heaven’s sake, Mr Roper,” said Julia, “have you been listening to a word I’ve said? Traffic. We are here to drive traffic. That is our function.”
“Yes, but…but…I suppose you think I’m awfully…I understand of course, with your articles. Share buttons and all that—I get it, really I do. I have a tweet account; I’d be glad to help out on that front. I will like anything you want me to. But with ebooks—”
“Ebooks,” said the content strategist. “Where did you get this guy?”
“The ebook is a dead format, Mr Roper,” said Rupert. “In as much as they can be read offline, we have no interest in them whatsoever. It would not be our intention, as your publisher, to make your work available for offline reading of any kind. Rather defeats the purpose, in our view.”
“Right…well, this is…”
“It might be helpful if you begin to think of it less as a book and more as a website, Will,” said Melanie. “You are at the forefront of a whole new archetype, actually. It’s something that you should be very excited about.”
“We want reading your fiction to be a completely hooked up experience, Mr Roper.” Rupert had his hands clasped. “Totally integrated, in much the same way as online shopping has become, for example. You’re already aware of the kind of joined-up thinking I’m talking about—you just won’t have seen it applied in the same way. Think about it for a minute: readers who laughed at the drunk scene in David Copperfield also enjoyed the wooden horse chapter in Don Quixote. You see? We wouldn’t merely be mapping out purchasing behavior like online retailers do—this would be tapping right into the readers emotional reactions, page by page, word by word. The potential is mind-boggling.”
“Of course!” said Will. “I see it now. Now I see what you mean by functionality. This could give the casual reader access to whole new worlds of —”
Something about Julia’s glacial expression stopped him.
“Jesus wept, Mr Roper. This isn’t about giving your readers access to anything. It’s about giving us access to your readers.”
“I think it’s fair to say we’ve reached a critical stage in our little negotiation, Mr Roper,” said Rupert, “and I would simply ask that you keep an open mind.” He took a breath. “Will, we love the house.”
“The house. The house in the book.”
“We adore it,” said Melanie.
“Completely won us over,” said Julia.
Will looked at each of them in turn before responding. “They do live in a house,” he said.
“Absolutely. We’d like to call it ‘The House’,” said Julia.
He should have taken his coat off first thing. He was too hot and the collar was itching him.
“You’d like to call my story ‘The House’? But the house hardly features…”
“Yes.” said Rupert. “About that…”
Melanie leaned forward.
“We’d like to see more of the house, Will. We’d like it to feature more.”
Will became aware that both his hands had gone to his mouth.
“Well that wouldn’t be difficult,” he said, removing them,“There’s just a brief mention of the stairs on page two.”
“Exactly, Mr Roper,” said Rupert. “Precisely. I think you can appreciate we’re going to need a little more than that. Hm? For example, what color are the walls painted? You don’t tell us.”
“Rookie mistake,” said Julia.
“I think it should be a bright color,” said Melanie. “You pretty much always need that on a staircase and besides, we should take advantage of the skylight.”
“Skylight?” asked Will. “I don’t understand. There is no skylight.”
“We’re going to need to put a skylight in, Mr Roper. Shouldn’t be a problem, should it?”
“OK, time out. Everybody just hold on a minute.” Will took a breath. He had the distinct impression that something was about to become very clear to him. But it hadn’t happened yet.
“Are you people publishers?”
Rupert and Julia exchanged a glance.
“I suppose it depends on what you mean, Will,” said Rupert. “Insofar as we are offering to publish and sell your book then yes, we are publishers. You didn’t take a look at our site? I would have…”
“No I didn’t. Ms Phillips didn’t tell me anything about you.” He looked at Melanie. “You’re not an agent, are you?”
“No, I am, Will. I’m just not the type of agent you might have been looking for.”
“She’s the type of agent that’s been looking for you,” said Rupert enthusiastically, jabbing his finger at the webcam.
Melanie Phillips put her cigarette out and walked around to the front of her desk, so that Will faced all three of them.
“Will, I’m an estate agent. Rupert, Julia and I run a property website that covers the UK and, as you can see, the eastern United States. We’re introducing a whole new ‘barter’ dynamic into the home acquisition equation. Cutting out the middle men. Replacing them with us. It’s the fastest growing website of its kind.”
“Very exciting,” said Rupert. “Think about it, Will. It’s totally win-win. You want your book out there and we want to sell houses. It’s a perfect marriage: call it synchronicity if you—”
“But my book isn’t about a house!”
Julia was examining her manicurist’s handiwork.
“About a house, not about a house. Aren’t we passed all this ‘about’ nonsense, Mr Roper? It is 2019, after all. Good grief.” She tutted. “It’s like Alain Robbe-Grillet never happened.”
“Let’s not steamroll the man, Julia.” Rupert had his hand on her forearm. “He’s going to need a minute to process all of this. Tell us, Will, what do you think your book’s about? Maybe we can come at it from another angle.”
It took Will a moment, in his stupefaction at the turn the conversation had taken, to register that he was being addressed.
“Well…eh…well,” he said. At least he was now being asked to talk about his work, he thought. That’s what he’d come here to do, after all. If he could just get these people to appreciate his aesthetic, perhaps something could be salvaged from all of this. Folding his arms, he put a forefinger to his chin and addressed the ceiling.
“What a question. Of course, on the surface of it…I mean, the events described concern… you know, an intergalactic…but really that’s a metaphor, I suppose. I think what I’m really trying to get at, as it were is…oh, I’m not sure how to put it…God what an awful question. Something about redemption? Christ, I sound so overblown, don’t I? Impossible to talk about these things without…you know, the power…the redemptive…” He sighed involuntarily, although it sounded more like a sob. “I suppose, in a way, my book is about the power of love.”
Melanie was writing something on a piece of paper. The strip light at the back of the office blinked off completely for a second, and when it came back on emitted a high pitched whine. Unless that was his tinnitus. Hard rain against the window. Julia was the first to speak.
“Did he just say the power of love?”
“Merciful Christ, Will,” said Melanie, looking up. “You’ve got to give us something to hang on to here.”
“Apart from anything else,” said Rupert, “wasn’t that a song? We’ll never get it past the legal people.”
Will waved his hand in the air impatiently. “No, no—I didn’t mean it should be called…not everything is a search term, you know. Anyway, isn’t it you that should give me something? A reason to go for this? I mean, we haven’t even spoken about royalties and so on.”
Melanie was on her feet again and had handed him the note. “We don’t pay our writers royalties, Will—we pay salary. That’s a ball park figure.”
Will unfolded it and read the number. “Oh. Well that’s…right.”
In New York, Julia had perked up. “Wait a second, folks. Love is very popular. We get a lot of hits on articles tagged ‘love’. I think we should hear him out.”
They all looked intently at Will. He shifted his weight on the desk.
“I think that’s it really,” he said. “Love. You know? What I want to do with my…is just cut right through all the extraneous, all the…stuff, you know? Get right to the heart of…I mean, on the face of it my premise is complex, I admit that. Incredibly complex, actually—the relentless temporal anomalies, the unreliable, alien narrator and the endless footnotes in her native language, the constantly shifting planetary alliances…but really, in the end, it’s just a story about a boy and a girl and—”
“And their lovely house,” said Melanie.
“…yes, OK…and about how their love for each other overcomes all the obstacles that they find in their way—the Solar War, the attack of the dark matter time-drones, the disgusting little troll and so on. In the end, that’s it, isn’t it? I mean, you can skip all of the spirituality and the philosophizing. In the end it all boils down to love. It’s the real, I suppose you could say, meaning of life, and that’s why—”
“Ah, now that I like,” said Rupert. “The meaning of life. I mean, you’re obviously not the first to coin the phrase, and we do have to be careful about duplicate content,” he glanced at Julia, who nodded her assent, “but it is very strong.”
“Meaning has been a really big one for us,” said Julia.
“Absolutely,” said Melanie. “Meaningful travel, the real meaning of Christmas, that kind of thing.”
“And life,” said Rupert. “Life is all over the place. It’s huge.”
“Something like this, with the right finessing, could very well go viral,” said Julia.
“Yes, people are drawn to this kind of authenticity, aren’t they?” said Rupert. “Especially at key moments in life, when emotions are running high. House moves…”
“Exactly the type of thing we’re looking for,” said Melanie. “Quality is so important.”
They were talking amongst themselves again and Will’s head turned, involuntarily, towards the other side of the street and Café Apollo. There she was, in the window, and here he was, caught in her brilliance. Once again the blackness bled in from every corner of his vision to frame her in a contracting circle of light, like the end of an old silent movie, and the office he was sitting in receded, the voices indistinct, a million miles further away from him than the girl in the warm glow of the café, behind the misty glass.
She was beautiful. She was a flaming goddess. He felt himself pouring toward her like liquid. He could see now, through the heavy rain that warped her features a little, that his myopia had deceived him; she wasn’t smirking at all but smiling the most heavenly smile. She raised her arms toward him in an embrace, reaching out to take him to her, to hold him close and safe.
He knew now he’d be going in a minute. As soon as there was a lull in the conversation and he could politely take his leave. He’d be better off over there, where he could take off his coat and sit in a comfortable chair, in the warmth with a passable macchiato and a banana caramel muffin, talking to her. He really ought to pay more attention. He should have looked at that website. If he had he’d have seen this coming, but he hadn’t; distraction had lead him astray, again, and into yet another trap. That’s what she’d come to tell him, this daughter of Mnemosyne. She’d come to get him.
Will, Will, Will…
Who was she?
Calliope, Thalia, Melpomene…
Oh no, wait a minute—it was a smirk. She was definitely smirking. And she’d been joined at the table by an intimidatingly handsome young man. He was smirking too. With his eyes on Will, he whispered something into that luscious hair while she sipped her coffee and she suddenly lurched forward, evidently trying hard not to spit it out. When she had recovered, they both smirked at him one last time before leaning into a long and lingering kiss.
Not Café Apollo then. He wasn’t sure he had enough on him for the muffin anyway. They were extortionate. He might as well just go home. Back up those stairs with their apparently unforgivable lack of a skylight and walls of…
He realized he didn’t even know what the color of the walls on the stairs was. How many years had he lived there? How could he not know that? He tried to visualise them. It must be a dark color—it was always gloomy on the stairs even when the lights were on. Melanie Phillips was right about that, in fairness to her.
Maybe he shouldn’t go home either, not just yet. How good a writer could he be, anyway, if he wasn’t even observant enough to know the color of the walls in his own house? It wasn’t the kind of deal he’d been hoping for, what these people were suggesting, but it was a deal. His story would be out there. Not to drop with grace and hope into the fabric of a magical universe and create a ripple there, it turned out, but to google map and hyperlink properties for sale and rent. But it was a deal.
Maybe it won’t matter why I’m doing it. The two in the café were kissing again. It was actually a bit much. He shook his head. Or maybe it—
He turned. They were all three looking at him expectantly.
“Have you been listening?” said Melanie Phillips. “We think we can see a way forward here. You—”
“Peacock!” The word escaped him without his permission, like the bark of a dreaming dog. Melanie jumped.
“Sorry?” said Rupert. “Who—?”
“Peacock,” said Will. “Peacock. That’s the color. Of the walls. On the stairs.” He was taking long, deep lungfuls of air, as though he’d been holding his breath. He looked at each in turn. “You did ask.”
“Right,” said Melanie. “Well—”
“Although actually, it’s probably more of a cerulean blue, now that I think about it. It’s not a distinction I’ve ever felt I had a real command of. You know?”
“Wow,” said Julia Funt. “Either way, it won’t do. The—”
“Maybe something in a country linen?” said Melanie. “Or we could—”
“—positive here, though, is,” said Julia Funt, whose displeasure at the interruption was evident in her slow enunciation and entirely absent from the features that continued to beam at Will and made him feel, if not quite comfortable, then at least, at last, not quite unwelcome, “it would seem we’ve made a start.”
Guillermo Stitch is the author of the award-winning novella Literature™ and the acclaimed novel Lake of Urine, a New York Times Editor’s Choice recommendation. His work has appeared in Maudlin House, Entropy and 3:AM Magazine. He lives in Spain.