Most people don’t realise how many bad books are written each day. Hundreds, thousands of bad books. Sometimes, when Sandy is gone, when my worst nightmares get the better of me and I have another foreseeable flop lying on the floor next to my bed, it’s millions, billions of bad books. Many of them get to the brink of being published. Some step over the edge and can soon be found packed in brown cardboard boxes on their way to book stores. Indifferent shop assistants squeeze them onto exhibition shelves, casual customers look around and get curious. Yet most people are blind to all that, and that’s because they don’t have to deal with them. They get their book club recommendations, their glowing reviews, their shortlists, and they feel safe. You can’t blame them. They just couldn’t imagine. Poor souls, they have no idea.
I didn’t hear the incoming buzz of a text message because of all the inane hollering going on around me. Never mind the teams and the coaches screaming praise and abuse in equal measure – the parents were hollering just as loudly – cheerfully, egging them on. It was ludicrous. I had no idea where the ball was, why the boys kept pushing and how in God’s name no one had the presence of mind to stop the match. Each time I caught sight of Tom, I thought of my first Glastonbury (imagine playing football in a Somerset valley in late June), wanted to fold my arms around him and take him to mommy. Except that his mommy was at that precise moment giving one hell of a blowjob to John. Or Jim. Or Jack. I really didn’t know anymore.
The surprising thing was that Tom wasn’t doing too badly. Quite on the contrary, with those spindly legs, filthy from hip to toe, he was a beautiful spider rolling around his giant cobweb. The current score being one-two, Tom had in fact set up his team’s goal, and the other boys passed to him whenever he was available. He had a relaxed, phlegmatic way with the ball and seemed the only bright spot amid the dreariness of the game, the afternoon and my state of mind. Young Platini he was not, but in that swamp of a pitch you had to doubt if the frail Frenchman could do any better than stay on his feet and sloppily shove the ball forward. This was the first time in two or three years that I actually saw Tom play, and from what I could gather (my view was hampered by a daft family poster) he looked like that sickly, off-colour kid everybody wanted to have in their team.
All the same: a mud-fest. Ten minutes into the second half, the ball could have been a stitched-up pumpkin or my rolling head (sliced off by the incessant noise) and the uniform of both teams, at some point red and white, was unevenly covered with identical patches of ugly brown. “I got 18”, Tom had said over the phone, “like Ibrahimovic.” ‘18’ didn’t sound too hot to me, but I was hardly an expert and besides, numbers had long lost their relevance. They were nondescript, which made the clean-shirted substitutes look like posh kids mixed with random riff-raff. At least for a minute or two.
As for the match itself, I had long lost interest and was currently more or less blanking the pitch. For some reason, I could hear an opera by Debussy playing over the school stadium. It sounded surreal, almost enchanting. Sometimes I thought of making a phone call, but April seemed cold and unkind and I didn’t want to bother my hands warmly tucked inside the coat pockets. Sometimes I got distracted by crisps being consumed in a truly beastly manner behind my back. Sometimes, and this seemed less and less the case, I did make a rather quixotic effort to concentrate on the game.
Bad books had taught me to view everything through other people’s eyes: bored teenagers, hardworking businessmen, tawdry housewives. I was in publishing, so predicting and imagining – that was my job. Okay, so the boys were lost in the heat of the moment, but what about those compulsory observers, those scant onlookers who were summoned by school or parental needs and who were so much better served by a non-threatening weekend of Sky Sports? What got into them? I nudged a middle-aged Stoke City fan sitting next to me. Someone’s father, uncle or maybe a random pervert who had stumbled into this by chance? He seemed quiet and reasonably obese. I hadn’t seen him before, but then this was my first time in over a year.
“This is bullshit!” I shouted into his face. “What’s the point?”
He pointed in the direction of the Stoke City scarf, either in self-irony or in something a lot worse than that. The sickening smell of crisps had invaded my nostrils.
An outburst of mixed emotions stirred me up a few minutes later: a penalty had been awarded. I looked at my watch: this was a couple of minutes before the end of the game, so it had to be a big moment. But before I could wince at my indifference, I saw Tom carrying the ball to the penalty spot. Tom looked completely in charge, which made my heart shiver and shrink by a few inches. Evidently my son was the one to take it.
The Stoke City fan looked at me with the eager and playful eyes of a child who was about to do something nasty. A red card flared up, and someone screamed abuse. For once, this could be exciting. I could finally stop imagining where Gina’s mouth was at that moment.
Tom missed it. Missed entirely: without threatening the net, without bothering the goalkeeper, without hitting the post. There was a brief vocal battle between a gleeful cheer and an ever-fading sigh of dismay; the former – much more vocal – won. The Stoke City fan loved it, suddenly coming alive after the stupor of the first sixty minutes. He was applauding loudly, with such intense fluency as if that could somehow help him take off and fly into space. Unfortunately, he didn’t, so I heard him cry his pathetic ‘well done’ instead. Maybe not a paedophile then, maybe not a pervert. I thought the cry was meant for the pitch, for his freckled, bow-legged nephew, possibly the only reason why Tom had missed the penalty.
A minute later the whistle blew, I took out the phone and saw the text message. Not Gina. Not her lawyer. The text was from Sandy: “Phil Dixie called. He wants to talk to you.”
Phil Dixie. Once the sad, owlish face of Buzz Brody had drifted back into obscurity, the name I saw on screen remained a bunch of raked up letters. Could be an AVN celebrity or else a country music reject from Nashville. Then it got back to me. Phil Dixie: file under ‘bad books’. I had survived quite a few of them in past seven years, and each one was worse than the other. As far as I could remember, this particular Phil Dixie was no Will Self. Besides, he couldn’t write at all.
My face, promptly pumped up to counter Tom’s frustration, got its fake chirpiness peeled off like old wallpaper when I imagined why Phil Dixie wanted to see me (I could still say no, of course, but in my experience it was better to pick a suitably quiet café and do it in a straightforward, man-to-man way), and it was in that state of mind that I saw two vaguely familiar faces blocking my way and staring at me. Memory got freaked out for a few seconds, desperately rummaged through phone books, evening dinners and road maps, and managed to sort it out before it got embarrassing: Sven and Erika.
“Good to see you, Paul!” This was Sven, looking a bit overexcited about a scruffy school league semi-final. “Sorry about the miss. Tom was fantastic.”
“Hi Sven. Erika. Well, you know, it’s one of those things.”
“I don’t know much about football,” said Erika, “but I enjoyed it. Very passionate.”
“Well,” I said, “I thought Mark wasn’t doing too badly either…”
Sven and Erika were not Stoke City fans. Sven was a neurobiologist and Erika was his long-standing assistant, which used to make me wonder how on Earth they managed to keep it up. And there was something else. It kept slipping my mind, but I knew there was a twist to it. Ah yes. Erika was Gina’s best friend. Sven was saying something about Mark when I hastily excused myself and went looking for Tom.
These days the first thing I did when I saw Tom was size him up. How tall was he? Was he playing drums in a punk rock band? Was there a voluptuous, gum-chewing blonde hanging down his neck? Was he a fully grown male now, with a husky voice and a cigarette sticking out of the corner of his mouth? It was absurd, of course, we met regularly, and yet the fear remained. And the ensuing relief – that also remained. A few extra inches, not a big deal.
Tom was gutted, way more than I’d imagined. I thought of someone else who had cut an equally depressing figure all those years back, when I said no and shut the front door... From a distance I could see a few boys come up to Tom, pat him on the shoulder, say something meaningless but encouraging. With boys, maturity was so often born out of disappointment. Tom smiled, but it was a wasted smile, and it waned completely the moment I approached. I threw my arms around him, but his embrace was limp and disinterested. I felt like an awkward Santa Claus trying to entertain a cynical child.
He stuffed a few Haribos into his mouth and refused to talk. He didn’t care what I thought. He didn’t care what Sven and Erika thought. He didn’t care what a Stoke City fan thought (I lied). In fact, it took me a few minutes and a rather incompetent telling off on our way to the car, in front of the whole school, to make him agree to his favourite pizza place.
“Sorry,” I said as we sat down. We didn’t need the menus, though it’d been a few months. “I’m sorry I shouted at you. I shouldn’t have. It’s just…” I wished I could tell him what I thought about his mother, about the lawyers, about Jim or Jack, about the bad-smelling Sandy, about someone named Phil Dixie. “You were excellent. You know I’m not a football fan, but even I could see it. I bet that Croatian guy with your number…”
“He is Swedish,” said Tom, slowly coming alive from the missed penalty and my gruesome street antiques. Had Erika also been there? It was important and I mentally replayed the scene. “Ibrahimovic is Swedish”.
“Okay,” I said. “But you were good. Honestly. Really good.”
Tom’s smile was a strained little thing getting a difficult birth. A furtive smile, hidden behind layers of resentment and hurt feeling, but I could see he was pleased.
“Mark was rubbish though,” I said.
“Mark didn’t play. He was a substitute, but he wasn’t used.”
I wanted to smoke. However, it was no longer allowed, and so you desperately groped for new ways to bide time or calm nerves. They were few, which was evidently playing into the hands of psychoanalysts and bad writers. I looked around: the café, so anemic and dull in the afternoon, looked like a dentist’s cabinet that served meals. Apparently the drab vibes of early April were encouraged, sucked in by way of huge glass windows and a welcome sign on the door. And the sound, the dry sound of forks and background pop music, as loud as a mortuary after the hysterics of a school sports stadium.
The bland but efficient waiter brought the pizzas. I knew Tom liked going to cafés with me. With me he could order the whole thing. With Gina, it was half each. With me it meant the full plate, though I knew that in the end I would act like a well-meaning vulture picking at the hardened, lukewarm remains. Like I had done it back then, with Gina, in those sleepy, late-night restaurants that gave us black looks and drove us out into the sleepy, late-night streets. I wondered how it was with this Jim guy. He probably liked taking Tom out and looked as determined as a front-row girl at a pop concert.
“How’s mom?” I asked. I always asked that.
“Okay,” said Tom. “She’s with Jack now.”
“Jack? Wasn’t it Jim some time ago?”
“No, dad, it’s been Jack all the time. They go to galleries.”
Jack was a jigsaw and I only had bits and pieces to go by. Gina had mentioned he was a conceptual artist, so jigsaws and galleries made sense. Tom didn’t have to be so blunt of course. Didn’t he know it was me who was supposed to be there, sleeping with his mother, taking her to modern art galleries and making fun at the cheap, self-important minimalist crap constructed from heaps of random pebbles, tall piles of shiny metal boxes and carefully placed bottles with urine?.. The pictures my mind painted when I thought of Jack.
Is there any talk of marriage, Tom? Does she love him? But he didn’t answer, so apparently I never asked. Instead, there were stories about silly girls and wicked teachers, mixing in my head like bad alcohol, toppled by thoughts of Sandy (who had no taste in clothes) and, inexplicably, Phil Dixie. Why the hell him.
“How are you?” asked Tom, half of his pizza gone. I may have been overreacting, but it seemed like it was the first time Tom genuinely asked me that. I would always come all mature and uninvited with a few amusing, half-made up stories about my job, Sandy, Peter, Chloe and all those Phil Dixies splitting my phone and banging at my doors. Not true: Phil Dixie was no Buzz Brody. He sounded bad but manageable.
“Not great, Tom, thanks for asking. Sandy wrote that Phil Dixie wants to see me. Phil Dixie is a guy whose book I rejected a couple of weeks ago. I’ve almost forgotten about him actually.”
“Was it bad?” asked Tom.
“What was bad?”
“Well, it wasn’t very good. One of those fancy modern novels about…” I tried to think what it was about, observing how Tom dragged two leftover slices around his plate. “This happens all the time in this business. I just don’t think it has commercial value. And it’s important. I mean, Tom, the book has to sell. People have to actually buy it. Bored teenagers, tawdry housewives…”
Dull publisher’s clichés could still get a soft erection out of Peter, but they were lost on a ten-year old. The book. There were names and plotlines floating around like vague memories of a recent dream, but I was too numb to make sense of any of them. Besides, they could be from a different book altogether… It was some kind of social drama. Kitchen sink. All that remained was my overall impression of a late-night reading experience, lit by tiredness, necessity and cigarettes. The impression wasn’t too kind: Phil Dixie had no talent to speak of.
So why couldn’t I just blink, snap my fingers, lick my lips and forget him – quickly, painlessly? After all, Chloe would have laughed it off. Sandy? The girl thought I was ruthless; I rejected and felt no remorse: “You literally have no idea how many of those remain unpublished. Good for you. If you don’t believe me, just consider the ones that you can actually get for money, legally, in real book stores. Some are bestsellers. Some win prizes. Some end up at school libraries. Now consider that these were chosen over something else.” Peter admired my stance, but I thought he was just happy to have the job. Also, I thought he was somebody’s nephew. Sandy was different. She admired cruelty. It was the reason why we had sex.
So why Phil Dixie, I asked myself. Why him.
Tom looked bored, bored and willing to go. As we were driving through the city streets, darkened even further by a light drizzle, we were mostly silent. As if all that needed to be said had been said already (though how could it ever) or as if we were at that moment contemplating the fate of another aspiring artist wrong-footed by the real world. I wondered if Tom still loved the car.
“Jack is funny,” said Tom, flipping through his phone. He looked like he was running a fever. The pizza place was already miles away.
“You call him Jack?”
“Yes, what else? I never told you about the Christmas present…”
A couple of times I turned around to check on him. “Are you doing all right there?” He nodded, which was an excuse not to tell the truth. Tom’s head pressed so intently against the window glass was the cheerless draw, the spot kick he’d missed earlier that day. “Still enjoy those piano lessons?” Tom nodded, again. The football match stared at me like the face of a dreamy pedestrian: from a different time and age. I left Tom at the doorway (the light was on, and I didn’t really want to see her), hurriedly hugged him and thought of an early night for me.
However, this was not to happen, and it was my turn to be wrong-footed. I heaved through the door and into my room like Chandler’s character after an eventful day. I threw myself on the couch: the tiredness was so intense it felt like I’d swallowed a magnet. But then the phone rang.
“Hi, it’s Phil Dixie. Remember me?”
It took me a few seconds to realise this was not a threat.
The café was called Le Pain, it was a chilly Saturday morning and I wasn’t feeling too well. I’d spent the night rereading Phil Dixie’s novel. Sixteen Red Horses. Miraculously, it was still in my recycle bin. Froth all over my mouth, partly from madness and partly from exhaustion, I finished the book when there was nothing else to do but take a feeble five-minute shower, change into a new suit, drink sourly strong black coffee and mentally sketch out what I was going to say.
It wasn’t difficult to recognize him. I briefly saw him in the office two weeks ago and back then I thought that would be it. Phil Dixie was around thirty, but he looked younger. I distrusted the feminine features and the carefully trimmed beard, but overall he was handsome and I could even imagine a book-sleeve picture with a few quick words underneath. His handsome face was fatally flawed though. Women would fall for it at first, but two months later they wouldn’t know what to do with it. He wasn’t a loser, but he was teetering on the edge. I saw the vague, unfulfilled smile and realised I was on to something: writing, even unsuccessful writing, is so attractive because you can be an artist and remain a nobody. It takes much out of you, but gives infinitely more. Phil Dixie was wearing black jeans and a brown, slim-fit jacket, cheap but reasonable, and he didn’t care about his hair. I thought he had a bad breath. Also, I thought I could crush him in a second.
But I had to back off, because I knew there was something frightening about Phil Dixie. Not his name, not his hollow cheeks: it was his novel, Sixteen Red Horses, that did it to me... I finally approached him and we shook hands. His handshake was brief, but unpleasantly warm and slack. I wished we could undo that, though I had no idea how.
If distracted or if she chose to, a girl with a book sitting by the window could look at us and wince at the awkwardness. I ordered coffee, Phil Dixie said he was fine with his tea and got straight to the point. I had imagined painful uncertainty. Perhaps he was showing off.
“Have you reread it then?”
“Yes,” I said, feeling I was on the defensive. “Yes, I have.”
What caught my eye was a big Chinese family sitting at the table to the left of us. I enjoyed watching Chinese people. They were loud, but also nonchalant and enigmatic. Wherever they went, they created their own world, invaded it and took no notice of what was going on around. They were normal, you were insane. They didn’t care though: after all, your insanity was none of their business. I wanted them to include me into their world, make me a part of their strange game whose rules were as complicated as their language. There were seven of them. I somehow wondered why I had never had to deal with a Chinese author writing in English. For some reason, of all the niches occupied, mastered and abused – that was the one still untroubled.
It had been one hell of a night. Like a procrastinating student holding it all back till the final night, I resolved to do it and got down to Sixteen Red Horses. Memories came flooding back. It really wasn’t very good, and wherever you stepped, you had your feet smeared by boggy pools of bad clichés. However, there was one thing that perhaps elevated me above the level of a hackneyed student sweating away before a crucial exam: I actually couldn’t stop reading the book.
“The music. It just doesn’t work, does it?”
“The book?” he asked, bemused.
“No, the music.”
“It’s bad,” he said, apologetically, as if he was the one who wrote it.
“I can’t publish it.” There, slip number one: “I can’t publish it”, not “I won’t publish it.”
“Because I’m afraid it’s not good enough, Phil.”
Slip number two: “I’m afraid.” This wasn’t normal, I was meant to be a heartless bastard. I was a heartless bastard. Peter sometimes wondered how I was still alive, not yet stabbed in the back and permanently disfigured in a dark alley way or in the safety of my own home. I never had time for Peter and only noticed him when he practiced crude passes at Sandy, but suddenly his words popped out of my coffee cup and I shuddered. I was weak and defenseless and could only see scorn running diagonally across Phil Dixie’s face like a nasty scar. I felt betrayed by circumstances. He knew. He knew.
“Could you be more specific?”
“Listen,” I said, “who gave you my number? Sandy? You are not Sandy’s brother or ex-boyfriend by any chance? No, of course, not. Sorry. Listen, I know I agreed yesterday, but let’s not make a big deal out of this.”
Perhaps taking my words a little too literally, Phil Dixie asked the waiter to bring him a croissant. This wasn’t typical, was it? I said I’d get one as well.
The Chinese family started an extremely loud and annoying argument. Gina (who studied Chinese for two years and even entertained the idea of moving to Hong Kong before Tom was born) once told me it only seemed that way. This was like us covering our mouths when yawning or saying sorry after burping in public. Usually it was something trivial, so that what I perceived as shouting may have been a father asking his daughter to pass him a napkin or telling his family the place was all right.
“I appreciate you did this for me. In fact, I didn’t think you would agree. Your secretary said you wouldn’t. I just want you to know that this means a lot to me.”
“Is this your real name?” I asked.
“Phil Dixie? No.”
“Would you mind telling me the real one then?”
“It’s Jack actually. Jack Mitchell.”
“Are you screwing my wife?”
“Are you screwing Gina?”
He looked genuinely surprised for a man who knew too much, so I said I needed a bathroom. I stood up and brushed my way past the table with the Chinese family. They didn’t notice me. I didn’t notice them.
“I never told you about the Christmas present.”
“No. What Christmas present?”
“Well, what did he get you?”
“It wasn’t like the usual thing. He took me to the real race course.”
“Really? That’s great, Tom, sounds like fun. Did you have a bet?”
As I washed my hands, I studied the reflection in the bathroom mirror. For some reason, I thought I looked better than I did in real life. Some mirrors did that and some mirrors never even tried. Maybe it all was a coincidence and this could still end the way it should: try harder, but there’s really no chance.
“Listen,” I said, “I’m sorry about the whole Gina thing. But I really don’t have too much time today. Let’s talk about your name.”
The croissant was tough and tasteless. The conversation was going nowhere and I lacked any conviction. The girl with the book was gone, the Chinese family was gone, and I began to feel orphaned.
“Okay, fuck it. Do you know anything about me?”
“Like what? I know who you are.”
“Who am I?”
“Okay, that’s what I do for a living. That’s my job. How about my life?”
“Am I married? Do I have kids? What did I give them for Christmas? Who do I sleep with? That sort of thing.”
“No, of course not, how would I know that? Why?”
“So it was all just a coincidence?”
“Listen, I don’t understand what’s going on here…”
There we go.
“Good, because I do, Jack. I do. Your novel will not be published. There are people who buy them, Jack, and they won’t like it. I’ve been doing this thing for seven year now, and this is what I’ve figured: we can’t let bad books define what we are. That’s the biggest thing, Jack. That’s all there is to it.”
Having finished, I settled the bill. Which was the least I could do.
Slip number three: I called him ‘Jack’.
Erika did her thing, and on leaving the café I received a flaming message from Gina. Fucked up spelling, no punctuation and a new threat to cut off the meetings altogether: all about yesterday’s incident in front of the school.
I called Tom. A parallel universe, I tried to follow it whenever I could. It was quarter to five, which meant Tom’s piano lesson was already over. I tried to imagine something cheerful by Liszt, but in my mind Tom was a rebellious New York city student from the 50’s playing Satie’s “Vexations” in one never-ending loop.
“Jack is kind of tall”, he said. Tom fumbled, which I took as a good sign. “Black hair. And he always wears colourful scarves.” Of course he did. Tom said he couldn’t think of anything else, but I had more than enough anyway. Such bullshit: of course it was a different Jack. Having gotten through that awful year of sedatives and hysterics, Gina wouldn’t settle for a shoddy brown jacket. I asked Tom about the lesson, but apparently it was the most ordinary piano lesson ever.
When I got home, I called Sandy.
I heard of Phil Dixie again two weeks later, and this time it was Chloe who mentioned the name. She’d also read the novel and brought it up when the conversation turned to the dreck we all had to go through these days. No Will Self, again. I said nothing about our meeting at a French café, and thankfully Sandy was at that very moment talking to someone on the phone and couldn’t mention the text message.
Speaking of Sandy, that very evening she was lying in bed next to me, and I had a chance to ask about Phil Dixie’s agent. It took her a few seconds to realize whom I was talking about, after which she said he didn’t have any and she had only texted me because Peter had asked her to.
“You and Peter?” I said.
“Do shut up.”
Ironically, Phil Dixie called me the very next morning and said we had to meet soon. I hadn’t recognized the number, and it seemed sheepish to switch off. ‘Soon’ was interesting. He said he’d fixed certain things, which made it look like a completely different novel. I looked at Sandy who was at that moment blowing intently on her fingernails. Something must have been going on in my mind, for I said why not, do send it over.
There was an enticing freshness about Sandy in these early hours that I knew would be gone after a dayful of tobacco, peppermint gum and junk food. We made slow Sunday morning love, which always seemed underrated and slightly unreal. Fulfilling, too, and never exciting.
The updated version was hardly the miraculous improvement Phil Dixie had promised. But I almost didn’t mind, because it was so fascinating to read about your own life.
“I did!” said Tom, suddenly animated and straightening up in the backseat of the car. “We did. There were sixteen of them, all looking so good in the sun. Kind of golden, red even.”
“Did you win?” I asked. Betting on horses seemed exotic and old-fashioned and you never met people who did it. Was Jack that sort of guy and how exactly did it increase Gina’s sexual drive?
“No, but we didn’t bet much. Our horse came third. I forgot its name. It was slow at first, but then it just kept pushing and pushing…”
“So you enjoyed it, Tom?”
“Yes, Jack even promised... Oh, mum.”
Gina called. She often called when Tom was with me. Sometimes she asked directly what was taking him so long and sometimes it was all about a cold dinner or piano scales which he had to practice for tomorrow’s lesson. I didn’t want to listen, so I switched on the radio that was currently running a live commentary of a cricket match. Impenetrable on screen, on air it sounded like a long-winded explanation of an unfunny joke. I turned it off the moment Tom put down the phone. This time it was indeed about the piano.
“Great,” I said, “I’m happy you enjoyed it.” I didn’t find out what Jack had promised, but then I didn’t want to know.
As we were passing the last traffic lights before the solitude of the painfully familiar street, I thought that it was not family dinners or Gina’s voice that I missed. It was Tom playing the piano. Sitting on the black wooden chair that he loved so much for its fancy spinning top. Whatever he did with his tiny white fingers always fascinated me, because that’s what you learn as a parent: your son can miss a penalty, but your son can never hit a wrong note. His “Vexations” were perfect.
I shut down the computer and pictured Phil Dixie writing his novel. It was a sorry sight, but I had a plan now: Sixteen Red Horses will one day be out.
It gets to me sometimes. Will Self has a piece titled A Short History Of The English Novel, and it tells of a city inhabited by failed writers. Each waiter has written a novel and each waiter is looking for an opportunity to spurt out his life philosophy onto your white shirt together with orange juice and tomato sauce. Walking through the streets or driving through them, I sometimes see that in the passing faces: novels, poetry, drama. It’s a heavy feeling and I look away. It should be added that Will Self was a favourite reference point at the office. Chloe hated him and I loved him, but it was never a matter of personal preferences. After all the bad hits and near misses, we just wanted to have one. One Will Self of our own.
The fact that Phil Dixie chose a pale ale bearing the name of the pub indicated that he didn’t go to these places too often. The beer looked like sick piss of a dying animal and cost more than Guinness. In the meantime, I kept twisting my glass and getting those small, uneasy sips that betrayed a furtive mind. I looked at the brown jacket that was unbuttoned this time and realized I was 39 and Phil Dixie was dying to get published.
We were talking about the plot. He had indeed rewritten parts of it, but the changes were scarce and inessential. In the end, those were not the scenes he would have to alter. Some of it was interesting: for instance, he added baldness to his main character’s physical appearance. He made him wear expensive ties. I thought neither did anything to the story, and so what loomed over the whole thing was a dusty, ignoble death on a cracked shelf of an empty library. Phil Dixie didn’t argue, he nodded. He nodded to everything.
“Will I have to change much?”
“Yes, Jack.” I called him Jack.
“Do I have to change the name?”
“Forget the name. Let’s talk about the title. Why Sixteen Red Horses?”
“Well,” he said, his voice all glowing with the thrill of discussing his own work. “It’s his son who says it.”
Here we go again.
“The Christmas present I mean.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Of course. The toy.”
The pub looked the same. Black and white prints with naked women and ambiguous slogans plastering the walls all over the room, it all had looked exactly the same before Gina got pregnant and we played the game of me saying an English word and her giving me the Chinese equivalent. The memory made me feel old, but did nothing to the place. I felt jealous, and not in a generous way.
We spent three or four hours mostly talking about the novel. To a half-blind hippie drinking non-stop, going to the toilet every ten minutes and staring at us in a genuinely meaningless manner, we must have looked like two smug businessmen amicably negotiating a new way of laundering money. The non-threating and generally good-spirited vibe of the conversation was helped by the fact that Phil Dixie got tipsy after the second pint. It made him even more enthusiastic, which is to be avoided at all costs when in company of an unpublished author. I agreed to tolerate it because I was the one playing Dostoyevsky and he was the one playing my wife. There was no typewriter and he was only making short notes, but it seemed like he would agree to anything. The man was a rag doll in my irresponsible hands. I was a tyrant among the blind.
“The drinking problem, Jack, it should go.”
“No”, I said, “not completely. But heavy drinking? Getting-your-face-smashed-against-the-door-to-your-own-house drinking? That’s old.”
“Brain-dead secretary with a good ass and cheap perfume. Come on, Phil.”
“That should also go?”
“I think so.”
“You mean her entirely or the details?”
“The details”, I said, sensing a trap, a minefield.
“Because if I let her go – well, she carries a big part of the plot…”
In a word, exasperating. The man was ready to suck off the entire publishing world if necessary. Was he doing it all for a girl?
My motive wasn’t clear, even to myself. I wanted no credit for the 'edited' version, that was certain. I didn’t want my name on the first page (that elusive ‘to Pat’ thing that you both scoffed at and rather admired) and equally I didn’t want to spot it on the endlessly boring list of ‘acknowledgements’. I guess I just wanted to avoid another bad novel – or that’s what I told myself anyway.
It was dark outside when we got out of the pub, and Phil Dixie kept thanking me. I shook his hand: it’s okay, it’s what I do. It’s my job.
“One more thing, Jack. How do you know Peter?”
“Peter? Shit. Sorry, I didn’t want to tell. You would have turned me down.”
“That is correct.”
“Peter’s an old friend. He basically acted as my agent. He gave me your phone number.”
Seventeen unanswered calls, all from Sandy. This time, though, I decided not to call her back.
Gina picked up the phone.
“Hello?” Apparently she didn’t recognise Peter’s number.
“Hi Gina. It’s me, Paul.”
For a few seconds there was no reply. She must have been deciding whether to switch off or not. A man often says that to himself and secretly believes it isn’t true. In Gina’s case – I knew it was true.
“Okay, Paul. What do you want?”
“No, I mean let’s really talk. Meet somewhere and discuss.”
Discuss what, etc.
“Absolutely not,” she said.
Gina changed. But the change is inevitable. The question always is, what does a person change from and which moment do you set as the standard, the perfect snapshot? What scene from the past do you think of? For me it’s a fleeting second two months before Tom was born. Gina leaving the bakery with a paper bag, and the wind, ever so obsessed with her hair, makes her look in my direction. This is the moment Gina changed from. To her friends and to herself, it must have been nothing. To me it was drastic, but how could I possibly communicate that scene into her mind, with that same wind, pace, smell coming out of the bakery?
“Jack would have to be there, Paul. He’s very much in the picture.”
“Yes, I know, but I was thinking more of me and you kind of thing.”
“You want this to happen, Paul, right?” Gina used my name too much, I thought.
“But why would you need him?”
“I don’t know, maybe to feel safe?”
She wasn’t, was she. Thinking about those final months, when I was at my lowest and she called her parents and screamed into the phone and asking me to leave her alone? She asked about Sandy. I tried to explain, but she didn’t believe me. Then she asked about the lawyers.
Giving the phone back, I asked Peter about Sandy. Sandy was fine, but before I could hear the details, I said I had to go. I didn’t miss Sandy. I didn’t miss her hair that retained the papery office smell all through the weekend, and I didn’t miss her text messages that were pointless and long. And I certainly missed her even less now that she was with Peter.
I was seeing Phil Dixie regularly now, but there was something vaguely criminal about it. Like I was a member of the jury holding private meetings with a condemned defendant. Even though Sixteen Red Horses could die a noble death now, it still needed work. Phil Dixie looked healthier and he was full of self-confidence about the novel. He changed his jacket and combed his hair. Will Self? No. But at least it was publishable.
When discussing upcoming publications at lunch, I mentioned Phil Dixie’s novel. Nobody remembered who that was, so I had to bring up the title. “Surely not that fluff?” asked Chloe. “Soft in your head, Paul. I’m telling you. He is just Peter’s friend, for Christ’s sake.” I told her about the revised version, but she only said it was last year’s drinking catching up on me.
Then I borrowed Peter’s phone. Then I called Gina.
“No, I won’t.”
“Why not?” Jack froze with an eager wine bottle in his hand. The scarf was red; bright, screaming red.
“I just don’t.”
“You don’t what?” asked Gina.
“No you didn’t.” I smiled. Interesting how sarcasm is often the biggest thing you miss about people.
“No you didn’t.” I smiled. Interesting how sarcasm is often the biggest thing you miss about people.
“Ah but of course. Heart?”
“Heart is fine.”
“Just a drop, man. Don’t drink it if you don’t want to.”
It was raining outside, and he suggested coming to his place. I imagined Kafka, squalor, old-fashioned typewriter and a black-and-white man running around the single room in one slipper and trying to squash a bug with the other. This man was of course Phil Dixie, though it wasn’t easy to imagine him out of his jacket and dull shoes. In the end, it was a little disappointing to see something so offensively ordinary. There were no bugs, the flat had two rooms, and Phil Dixie typed and retyped Sixteen Red Horses using a 13-inch laptop.
“Is this about a girl, Jack?”
“You mean why I write?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. She’s with Peter now.”
“Well, how about this,” I said. “I think we could do more.”
Jack suggested that we both go outside and have a smoke. I declined, so he went alone. Which was all I needed.
“How are you doing?”
“I’ve moved on, Paul.”
“Listen, I’ve been thinking.”
“No, Paul, I don’t want to hear.”
She had that look now, too, like she didn’t want to hear. And my name, she just kept mentioning my name whenever she could.
Phil Dixie took out his pen.
“Shouldn’t we go all out here?”
He wore a frayed T-shirt that must have said something smart. I couldn’t see it, though, because of the wrinkles on the cloth.
In the end I said nothing, and then Jack came back to the table and breathed out all the tobacco he had stuffed into his lungs. He kissed Gina on the cheek, and I heard Phil Dixie’s quiet, conspiratorial voice:
“So he would try to actually see her? Get her back?”
Then we had lunch. Then I borrowed Peter’s phone. Then I saw her.
Gina stared past me, suddenly taking an interest in a loud group of foreigners barging into the restaurant. Apparently she didn’t care, and the common memory had long been dissolved in Jack’s scarves, art exhibitions and endless glasses of wine he apparently knew everything about.
Jack had to be content. His girlfriend’s ex-husband was a very tame piece of work, and his being in the picture was no more than a fuzzy landscape behind Mona Lisa’s head. There was no competition: the guy didn’t drink and he was losing hair. The incredible still life he saw when he reentered the restaurant made him break off his pace and take in the view. What he saw was admirable. Not least because Gina’s loyalty was a precious gift you were always conscious of possessing. With Gina you knew you would be getting the full package. It included tears, memorable dinners, spoilt breakfasts, great sex and broken cups. You accepted that, you went head-on, because Gina was a collision you didn’t mind having.
“Tom is going to study painting,” said Jack. “Gina supports the idea.”
“Well,” she said. “He never liked piano anyway.”
Blood rushed to my cheeks, but I knew this was true. Tom hated it.
When I got home, I opened the piano lid and tried Poulenc for the first time in three or four years. It was recognizable, but only just: the piano was badly out of tune. Either that or I had totally forgotten how the sonata went. What I remembered was an awful scene I’d just made in a restaurant, with Gina shouting and threatening to never let me see Tom again.
I couldn’t see her face though. The only thing I saw was Jack’s smug confusion that made him look like a favourite uncle that had just pissed himself.
“And then what?” I asked. This time we met near my place, in a secluded park designed for dog owners who were too bored to go far. It was early September, and the summer park, caught in a seasonal battle, was still deciding whether it should go or stay. I chose the park because people had started whispering. Not just Chloe, but everybody else. Even people I hardly knew. Whispers were generally a lot worse than looks, because looking back was possible but you could never whisper back. Because no one was whispering into your ear.
“I have to admit, this is beginning to look good,” I said.
I meant it, too. With some editing and Chloe’s proofreading this could be decent. I could even imagine Sixteen Red Horses lying in brown cardboard boxes, on its way to a bookstore… I could imagine casual customers look around and get curious... Phil Dixie took out his lavish Subway sandwich, and I thought what a long way we’d gone since a tasteless croissant from a French café. Ordered, as he confessed later, to make me stay.
“And then what? After the reunion?”
“You don’t want a happy ending?”
“Me? Who cares what I want? You are the author, Jack.” Interestingly, this was the first time I actually said that.
“What I think is this. There’s the kid…”
“This is interesting,” I said to him as we were leaving the park. “Write it down and send me as soon as you can.” We both knew what he suggested was insane.
I saw Peter’s hand swirling like a venomous snake around Sandy’s waist. I smirked at no one in particular and thought about the wine. The wine was good. It bubbled and screeched inside like a pleasant heartburn and I wanted the evening to go on forever. Chloe patted me on the shoulder and for once she looked almost charming. There was still the small matter of thick black rims that made her look like a nerdy teenager mad on Proust, but tonight there was a glow in the cheeks and God only knew what she had in mind. Or else it was wine.
“Will Self, surely?” I asked.
“No way. Or rather yes, if not quite as bad.”
“You still think it won’t work?”
“I’m afraid it will. It’s bad enough. And you are one lucky bastard.”
There were times when I thought she was trying to hit on me, but equally there were times I believed she was a raving lesbian. The latter effectively negated the former, because once you began to entertain the idea of someone not being straight, you stopped fancying that person. Dull flirting was all it came to in the end.
“It’s too happy though,” she said, taking a wistful sip from her champagne glass.
“And you know what else? I ended up liking the main character. Funny enough, he sometimes reminded me of you.”
I tried to appear amused.
“He was different in the final version, though, and he wrote him better. Less clichéd. Oh look, there he is. Phil Dixie.” Her tone was half incredulous, half admiring. “Looks kind of smart in the black suit. I bet it was your idea. I think it’s Liam he is talking to…”
I wondered if she knew about Jessica. I even tried to tell her about that, but I got seized by a sudden feeling of exhaustion and she drifted away like one would at a party.
On my way to Phil Dixie, who stood surprisingly aloof at the other end of the room, I bumped into various people, some vague and some completely unknown, and started conversations that were amiable but meaningless. There was someone who said Sixteen Red Horses was a great title and there was someone who suggested Phil Dixie was a bad name. I didn’t argue. For the first time in over a year – I no longer cared. Or else it was wine.
“Paul, I was thinking. Good we abandoned the kidnapping plan.”
“Did you seriously think I could do something like that?”
I suddenly realized I was on a completely wrong track and quickly advised him to smarten up his hair as Chloe was taking an interest. We were good friends now, he even thought my ex-wife was a bitch. And still he couldn’t see it. No, he didn’t know, not at all. He never knew. Which, strangely, made him the artist I once thought he was not.
“Phil, I never asked you this, but where did you get the idea for the novel?”
“I imagined it. Just woke up one day and imagined it. But I wouldn’t have done it without…”
“Forget it. It’s my job. Where’s the girl, Phil?”
“I told you, she’s with Peter.”
“Don’t be silly. Peter’s with Sandy.”
“Jessica loves him.”
“Damn it, Phil Dixie. You are not even angry?”
“But it’s not about him, is it?" He looked around like a boy put inside his favourite computer game. Which was great, bewildering, awful. I saw that he had barely touched his wine glass. "No one is talking about literature, let alone my book. Also, most people don’t even know who I am.”
“Don't worry. You will be giving a speech later tonight.”
It was a human interest story for a sad hack from your local newspaper. A guy steals his best friend’s girl, then feels remorse and uses his charm and position to help his struggling friend get published. A not especially bright secretary is used, one whose ass is just too plump to refuse. Besides (what a mad stroke of luck), she sleeps with the publisher. Because it all has to lead to the publisher who receives a cryptic text message at his son’s football match. The publisher sees a bizarre name and (another stroke of mad luck) an old ghost creeps out of a fading memory: Buzz Brody. The weather is damp, he’s just had to endure a crappy school league game, his wife’s lawyer is about to send in divorce papers, and Buzz Brody is a guy he turned down and then threw out of his house. Maybe it was all a mistake, maybe he shouldn’t have. Half a year later the book gets published. The sad hack from your local newspaper could add a few things, though: the sales go up, the reviews are glowing, and the girl is there on a wet porch weeping and asking to take her back. The rain is heavy, she’s soaked through, and he takes her back.
That said, I thought the sales could go up, not least because Sixteen Red Horses wasn’t a bad book.
I was a bad friend though, so when the music died down and Phil Dixie began his speech, I hurried outside to make a phone call. The party wasn’t mine anyway.
“Tom! Can you talk?”
“Dad, I can’t right now. It’s dinner.” He was whispering.
“Tom, I just wanted to know about the match.”
“Friday, next week.”
“I’ll be there.”
“Okay. Bye, dad.”
My goodbye was lost to his rash excuses directed at Gina and the phone being abruptly switched off. All the same: Friday, next week. I’ll be there.
There was a slight chance Tom could call me back, so I buttoned up my jacket and chose to stay outside a little longer. The evening was pleasantly cold; the sort of September that made you appreciate autumn. The wind pushed at you, but not through you. I came up to a lonely standing guy and offered him a cigarette. He accepted, then raised his eyes and followed my hand all the way up to the face.
“You are not inside.”
“No, and neither are you.”
“But you helped him so much.”
“So did you.”
“To be honest, I’m bored. And it’s only my third party.”
“Yes, the book. It was about you, wasn’t it? When he showed it to me, I honestly couldn’t believe…”
“And so you…”
“No, first I gave it to Chloe. I even invited Jack to come to the office, thought she would like him.”
“Yeah, bad idea. I know. Anyway, she laughed at me and said it was crap. Then I told Sandy to send it to you.”
“It's not bad, Peter. It's not bad at all.”
“Now of course it’s a different book. I actually like it less.”
Whatever, Peter. Inside, Phil Dixie’s speech was a success. I could hear the screams; not quite the school league hollering, but close. Outside, there was a message from Tom: “Next Friday. Jack will come. And possibly mum.” I typed back, saying I will still be there.
While Peter was finishing his cigarette, I had to act out the script. Find Sandy, drag her to the bathroom and say how much I missed her. She would say she wasn’t a whore and in fact she loved Peter way too much. She would try to undo my grip, she would try to get out. But I would mention Jessica and she would stay and listen. She would be furious, and seconds later my hands would slip inside her ugly, sleek evening dress and my lips would kiss her bad breath. We would go to my place.
In the end, a bloody cliché that just went on and on and on. Like a bad book.
Sex over, she would ask me why I never played anything and wasn’t my piano just another article of furniture like in the house of her younger sister who’s now living in Paris. And I would open the lid and ask her which piece by Milhaud she liked best. She would say… Nothing, she would say nothing.
All I had was an image of Tom sitting on a black chair with a fancy spinning top, his tiny fingers playing perfect Satie. Because the piano was still out of tune and no more than a useless article of furniture that was meant to be left alone. Therefore, sex over, we would make love again. And again. We would be bloodshot with feeling, we would be tireless – like those red horses Tom was talking about.
Apprehensive of a text message from the office, I switched off the phone, put it into my coat pocket and looked at the pitch. I chose the last row: there were too many people I needed to avoid, not least the annoying Stoke City fan that may have wandered here again. I pulled up the collar and stared down, over the heads and the posters. The pitch looked marginally better in early autumn, but there was an awful pool right in the middle that no one had cared to drain. Or sprinkle with earth, the way we did it in school.
Yet again, the plot was the same: Tom’s deft movements, loud screaming and Debussy playing in my head and over the pitch. It was round robin, match one.