My mother disappeared when I was sixteen. It was the best thing that could have happened to me.
When I say that out loud, people look at me out of the corners of their eyes, as if I’ve transgressed some fundamental taboo. But it’s the truth. I’m not hiding some complicated grief reaction.
My mother disappeared when I was sixteen.The guards had walked away from the prison leaving the door unlocked. And I emerged blinking into the sunlight.
Jay Stewart leaned back and read her words, head cocked critically to the side. It did exactly what it needed to do, she thought. Arresting and intriguing. Pick it off the three-for-two table, read that intro and you couldn’t not want to carry on. That was the secret of getting the punters to part with their money. Simple to understand, hard to do. But she’d done it once already. She could do it again.
When she’d decided to write her first book, Jay had done what she always did. Research, research, research. That was the key to any successful endeavour. Check out the market. Consider the opposition. Acknowledge the potential pitfalls. Then go for it. Preparation is never procrastination. That was one of her key Powerpoint presentation slides. She’d always been proud to say she’d never plunged headlong into anything.
That was just one of the things that wasn’t true any more.
Not that she was about to admit so fundamental a change to anyone except herself. When her literary agent had taken her to lunch the week before so he could reveal that her publisher was dangling a new contract before them, Jay had made a point of appearing as cautious and noncommittal as ever. ‘I thought the bottom had dropped out of the misery memoir business with the market crash,’ she’d said when Jasper had raised the subject halfway through their finicky starters of scallops with mango salsa and pea shoots. As she waited for Jasper to marshal his reply, Jay stared at the food and wondered when exactly it had ceased to be possible to find simple wellcooked dishes in expensive restaurants.
‘And so it has.’ Jasper beamed at her as though he were the teacher and Jay the favourite pupil. ‘That’s why they want something fresh from you. Triumph over adversity, that’s what they’re interested in. And you, my dear, are well set to be the poster girl for triumph over adversity.’
He had a point. Jay couldn’t deny that. ‘Hmm,’ she said, dissecting a scallop and putting a delicate forkful in her mouth. An excuse not to say more till she had heard more
‘Your story’s an inspiration,’ Jasper persisted, his lean and wary face uncharacteristically kindly. ‘And it’s aspirational. The readers can relate to you because you weren’t born with a silver spoon in your mouth.’
Jay swallowed, raised an eyebrow and smiled. ‘The only silver spoons around when I was a baby were those cute little coke spoons my mother’s friends wore on chains round their necks. Not many of my readers came from that universe either.’
Jasper gave a tight professional smile. ‘Probably not, no. But your publisher’s market research indicates that readers do feel close to you. They feel they could be you, if things had just been a little bit different.’
No chance. Not in a million quantum universes. ‘Tangents,’ Jay said, her attention on her plate. ‘The facts of my life touch the edges of their lives in enough places for them to feel a shivery sort of connection. I see how that worked with the misery memoir. The readers can snuggle under their duvet, all smug and cosy because they escaped my descent into the procession of hells my mother dragged me through in the first sixteen years of my life.’ She drew her breath in sharply, hearing it whistle through her teeth. ‘But triumph over adversity? Isn’t that a bit like rubbing their noses in it?’
Jasper frowned. ‘I’m not sure I see what you mean.’ Somehow, he’d managed to clean his plate with predatory efficiency while Jay was still barely a third of the way through her food. It was one of the reasons Jay had chosen Jasper as her agent when she’d first decided to write her misery memoir. She liked the people with appetite to be ranged on her side.
‘ Unrepentant gave them the chance to feel sorry for me. To be glad that they had escaped what I went through. But an account of how I triumphed at Oxford, set up a successful dotcom company, sold out before the bubble burst then went on to found a niche publishing business while knocking out a bestselling misery memoir . . . Well, it seems to me that all I’m doing is providing them with reasons to hate me. And that’s not a recipe for selling books, Jasper.’
‘You’d be surprised,’ Jasper said, his voice dry as the Chablis they were drinking. ‘People who know about these things tell me the punters love to read about people like them who have made it.’
Jay shook her head. ‘What they love reading about is vacuous celebrity. Talentless show-offs who will do anything for their moment in OK magazine. Idiots who think appearing on The X-Factor is the pinnacle of achievement. That’s people like them. I am not people like them.’
‘You do a good job of pretending.’
‘Only up to a point. Then there’s the lesbian thing. By ending the book where I did, I managed to keep my adolescent yearnings more or less off-stage. But writing about Oxford and after – it’s hard to see how I can avoid it.’
Jasper shrugged. ‘The world’s moved on, darling. Lesbians are cool now. Think Sandi Toksvig, Sam Ronson, Maggi Hambling, Sarah Waters.’
‘You still wouldn’t want your daughter to marry one.’ She finished her appetiser and placed her cutlery neatly together on the plate. ‘At best, they’ll think I’m a lucky bastard.’
‘They certainly will if they find out the size of the advance,’ he said, his eyes narrowing in pleasure. ‘Half as much again what we got for Unrepentant. Which is terrific in a flat market.’
A waiter whose designer suit had patently cost more than Jay’s outfit whisked their plates away. ‘Do you think they only hire staff who fit the suits?’ she said absently as she watched him swagger back to the kitchen.
Jasper ignored the question and stuck heroically to his pitch. ‘But you’re a TV face now too. Ever since they started inviting you as a special guest investor on White Knight, you’re on the radar.’
Jay scowled like a disgruntled teenager. ‘And that’s the last time I let you talk me into going against my better judgement. Bloody White Knight. I can’t buy a packet of spaghetti in the supermarket without someone trying to pitch me their brilliant business idea.’
‘Stop pretending to be a curmudgeon. You love the attention.’
‘I am a curmudgeon.’ Jay paused while artfully arranged slices of pink lamb surrounded by neat piles of Puy lentils interspersed with perfectly carved miniature root vegetables, all set on massive porcelain plates, appeared in front of them. ‘I meant what I said the other day. I really don’t want to do any more White Knight.’
She could see Jasper biting back his frustration. ‘Fine,’ he said, his smile thin and his voice tight. ‘I think you’re crazy, but fine. So why don’t you do something instead that gives me a legitimate excuse to keep everyone at arm’s length? “Sorry, she’s writing. She’s got a deadline.” Plus you know you enjoyed the process of writing Unrepentant. And you also discovered you have a talent for writing memoir.’
Jay couldn’t deny that she liked the idea of Jasper telling the world to go away. Bar the door and keep the barbarians out while she gorged on love. She knew enough about the arc of relationships to understand that the rush of emotional and sexual intensity between her and Magda would pass soon enough. You couldn’t postpone the first flush till you could create a window in the diary. It came and went on its own timetable. And this had come so instantly, so unexpectedly, so unpredictably it was hard not to fear it might fade just as fast, though it was hard to imagine how it could fade when Magda’s beauty made her heart flip every time she cast eyes on her. Having an excuse to hide from the world so she could bind Magda closer to her only had an upside. Never mind that in the long run the book wouldn’t make her any friends. She had enough of those.
She sighed. ‘Oh, all right, then,’ she said, more grumbling than gracious.
Jasper’s grin was naked delight. ‘You’re not going to regret this.’
‘For your sake, I hope not. You know how bad things happen to people who cross me.’ There was a moment of chill, then Jay smiled. ‘Only joking, Jasper,’ she said.
His smile was a shaky echo of hers.
Copyright ©Val McDermid 2010, extracted from TRICK OF THE DARK, published by Little, Brown on 2nd September @ £18.99
'To order a copy of Trick of the Dark at a special price of £16.99, call 01832 737 527 and quote LB 127. Postage is free.'Reuse content