Awarded second prize in Cambridge Writers Short Story Competition 2016
Gerald Bowman steps gingerly over his sun-baked terrace and dives into the pool. While the dramas of chapter twenty-five are printing he swims his dozen lengths, then he dries on the lounger and Maria brings him a Martini. There’s also a message from a journalist in London who wants to interview him. Bowman tells Maria to call her back then grabs his heavy binoculars from the little table beside him. He lifts them to his eyes and focuses on the far side of the steep-sided valley. There, beside the dusty track twisting through the vineyards up from Aramengo, sits an ugly, squat, red-tiled villa with a tiny terrace. In the middle of the terrace is a small wooden table and in the middle of the table is a heavy, old-fashioned typewriter. But where is Weaver? Bowman sneers – the old pseud is never going to get that Great Novel of his finished if he doesn’t put his scrawny arse on that rickety chair and his gnarled fingers on those keys.
An old man in a faded singlet and baggy khaki shorts shuffles into view; a roll-up hanging from his bottom lip. He is carrying a thick textbook, which he reads avidly as he paces up and down, one of his menagerie of adopted stray cats at his heels. He stops to take a last drag on his cigarette, looks at the book again, then sits at the table and types frantically for a full minute. Suddenly, like a bystander hearing the squeal of brakes before an impending crash, he raises his hands to his head, then wrenches the paper from the carriage, scrunching it into a ball. He disappears into the villa, re-emerging with a bottle of grappa and another thick tome. He pours a generous glass and lights another cigarette.
Watching somebody else not work makes Bowman feel even better about his own toil. He wonders why old Weaver still bothers, struggling to complete one book every decade. He has read some of them, a couple of his plotless novels, and the critically acclaimed, meticulously-researched biography of Italo Calvino. The novels were heavy going, full of obscure Classical references and long italicised passages in Greek or Latin or French. He has never seen one of them in an airport bookshop. They will never make the bestseller lists. But Bowman is astute enough to know that they are on the very edge of being Great Literature, that there are passages where Weaver seems about to grasp something which will mark him forever as a writer of undisputed brilliance, only for that crucial point to somehow become lost in layers of postmodern cleverness.
Bowman watches Weaver as he types for one frenetic minute before sitting catatonic for another five. Usually he feels nothing more than disdain for the man who so perfectly plays the part of the starving artist in his garret, but today he is amazed to find that he is actually envious of the way the old man struggles with himself and language in his attempt to convey complex meaning, his almost monastic devotion to his Art consigning him to his life of poverty. That envy makes him deeply uneasy, as if Weaver’s intellectual graft is serving to reinforce his growing misgivings about his own shallow, page-turning thrillers. Easy, structured plots, interspersed with gun battles and nice, juicy sex. His readers don’t want deep themes and allegorical fables. They just want escapism. Eight quid for a trashy paperback that they can leave behind in the hotel after a week – it’s less than the cost of a packet of cigarettes. But he wonders what it must be like to be the author of a book that will be discussed in university tutorials and nominated for literary prizes, or even just to write a book that someone will want to read more than once.
Anthony Weaver pours himself a four-finger measure of the local grappa and lights another roll-up. It’s been yet another morning with so little done, but the rewrite of chapter three can wait – after this long, another day, another week, even another month won’t matter. He walks down the stepped path to the roadside to collect his mail. There are a couple of bills which he daren’t even open, but also a letter from England which he reads when he’s returned to the terrace and topped up his glass. Some young graduate working for one of the Sundays wants to see him – she’s being sent out to Italy to interview bloody Bowman, but hadn’t realised that the two of them lived in the same remote valley and she’s appreciated his work since her first year at Oxford.
With a sigh, Weaver tucks the envelope in his pocket. This isn’t the first time a fan has tracked him down and he hopes this girl hasn’t got any ludicrous plans to do one mind-numbing article on himself and Bowman. He reaches for his old ship’s telescope from beside the back door and, across the valley, picks out Bowman’s mansion, surrounded by its security fence. From an upstairs window, the blue light of a computer screen is half-obscured by the great man’s silhouette – lines of text quickly fill the screen. Weaver knows it will be another bestseller. There will be another deal with a TV company for a mini-series, peak-time serialisation bringing it into the homes of millions. Something they can watch and forget before they go to bed that night.
Watching Bowman as he works, Weaver tries to think of all the ways he despises him. It’s not just the ostentatious displays of wealth and success – that hideous monstrosity of a villa blighting the idyllic landscape, the designer suits and shoes from Milan, the little young blonde wife and the big Maserati which he doubts has ever got out of third gear. He also despises the way that the fame seems to have come so easily – tapping away for four hours every morning, five days a week, to churn out a novel in a little under six months. He comforts himself with the knowledge that those novels are not Literature and that Bowman is not an artist, only a skilled artisan, merely scribbling to fulfil the demands of the market. He has read a couple of his clichéd bestsellers – it was depressingly simple to deconstruct them and discover the formula behind them.
But despite all that, Weaver realises that there is something about the man that he has to admire, that he actually envies the way he can devote all his energies into producing something that others want without creating any complex artistic puzzles to solve or having to consciously consider the complex relationship between an artist, his work and his audience. And he envies his money, seemingly so simply earned. Everybody needs money. Weaver tallies up the rent that he owes to Signor Casartelli and the bar bill at Giovanni’s. Maybe he ought to write a book that would sell more than a few hundred copies. A book with absolutely nothing to say about the hopelessness of our all too short a span of life. Just a racy, page-turning plot, with exotic locations and exotic sex scenes. A book that the reader could simply enjoy and toss aside, rather than sending him uneasily away to analyse the futility of his unfulfilled life.
Jenny Hamilton taps nervously on the heavy wooden door and can feel her stomach fluttering as nervously as if she was a teenager on a first date. So this is Anthony Weaver’s villa – the birthplace of those great novels that had so inspired her when she was a Fresher. Eventually the door creaks open.
“Buon giorno, Signorina Hamilton,” drawls Weaver, a roll-up hanging from his lip. “Or should that be buona sera?”
“Yes, I’m so sorry I’m late. But, please, call me Jenny.” He’s shorter than she’s imagined. Older too. “I…I’ve brought you those magazines you asked for,” she says, passing him a bag.
Weaver almost snatches it away and peers inside. “Marvellous… Thank you so much. You know, we may have Italy to thank for the Renaissance and for opera, but it was England that gave the world cricket. I’d swap all the treasures of the Uffizi for the last day of an Ashes Test at Lords. Now come in, come in.” She follows him into a simple, bare kitchen and watches as he cuts some chunks of cheese and slices of bread, before leading the way to the terrace. She leans against the iron railings, taking in the September sunshine and the view of the valley with its vineyards and scattered, red-tiled farmsteads. Weaver goes back into the house and reappears with a plain bottle of red wine. “Your very good health,” he says, passing her a large, very full glass. She will have to take it steadily, the autostrada is daunting enough when sober. Weaver downs half his glass in one huge gulp. “Right, shall we eat first, then do the interview? It’s entirely up to you.”
“Interview?” He’s clearly misunderstood her. “Er…Mister Weaver, I’ve not come to interview you. I just wanted to see you and talk about your novels and how you work, and to see if you could offer any advice to an aspiring young writer.”
“Oh. I see.” He looks disappointed.
“No, it was Gerald Bowman I had to interview. But that was work.”
“And this is….?”
“Oh, I don’t know. After Bowman’s pretentiousness I’d hoped this might be something of a sanity transfusion.”
Weaver smiles wryly and downs the rest of his wine. “Maybe he’s the one you should have asked for a few tips. He’s the successful writer around here, not me. No-one reads my stuff, only a few pseudo-intellectuals – oh, no offence, my dear – who think that having a few battered copies of my novels on their bookshelves will somehow make them appear to be more clever. And it’s not really got me anywhere, has it?” He pauses and Jenny glances around at the simple furniture and at Weaver’s threadbare clothes. “I’ve recently come to the conclusion that really I would be better employed writing crap books read by thousands, rather than a good novel read by hundreds.”
“That’s very interesting,” says Jenny. “Especially as only an hour ago I had Bowman telling me the exact opposite thing – he wants to be known as a serious writer with something serious to say.”
Weaver starts laughing uncontrollably; his shoulders are still convulsing when he pours more wine, which spills across the table. “Please,” he splutters, as he starts to regain his composure, “you must let me know when your interview is going to press – I’vegot to read it!” Weaver then springs to his feet, his chair scraping on the slabs of his terrace. “Look, instead of just discussing writing in the abstract, why don’t we have a look at the first chapter of something new that I’ve been working on. It’s a bit different. We can discuss it over lunch, yes?”
“Er – yes – sure.” Jenny nods frantically and smiles widely to herself as the writer disappears indoors to fetch his manuscript. To be sitting in the Italian sun, discussing the first pages of Anthony Weaver’s work in progress with the man himself; this is something that, as a student, she could have only dreamed of.
Jenny jostles her way along the plane and squeezes past a sweating fat man into her window seat. It’s been a mad rush to get to the airport and in the sweltering heat she has to fan herself with the sheaf of papers she’s taken from her bag to read on the flight. She shuts her eyes and takes a few deep breaths and reflects on the old truth that you should never meet your heroes.
She had stayed too long at Weaver’s, but it had been impossible to leave without making her point. He had left her alone with that opening chapter of his new novel, and she had read it quickly, seduced by the narrative’s headlong gallop. But that is always the way with beginnings – perhaps her ideal novel would be one composed solely of opening chapters; continual promise without the disillusionment of unfulfilled potential, like the excitement of a string of one-night stands. But the Weaver she has read today is not the Weaver she had read and loved at Oxford and re-read and loved more deeply. She read the shallow chapter again, convinced that maybe it was a parody, or a set up for the real, deep story that was yet to come. But Weaver said no. This was it. What you see is what you get. As the plane taxis onto the runway and the flight attendants go through their twice-daily charade of safety instructions, Jenny recalls how she had left Weaver’s villa in a bad mood, telling him that if he was so keen on writing a crap novel he was certainly going about it the right way. Why was he selling out, abandoning his artistic ideals in the pursuit of money?
As the air-conditioning kicks in, Jenny stops fanning herself with her papers and settles back to read them. It seems a long time since her interview that morning with Gerald Bowman, She had spent far longer with him than she’d anticipated. She’d prepared a list of stock questions and had even half-formed what she thought would be his answers in her head. But Bowman had surprised her with his reflections upon the art of fiction and his frustration at being buttonholed as a scribbler of throwaway thrillers. She filled page after page of shorthand notes and knew she already had the bare bones of a good article. Eventually it was time to leave. She needed the bathroom but mistook his directions and ended up in his study. She knew she shouldn’t have gone in, but the temptation of crisp, newly-printed pages on the desk and the photocopier beside it was too great. She wonders now what her editor will say when she presents her with pages from Stephen Bowman’s latest work in progress. As the fat man shuffles in his seat so close to hers, she’d like to think that it will be business class next time.
She hardly notices that the plane has taken off. Her head is buried in Bowman’s opening chapter as they quickly climb to thirty thousand feet. It’s not the rubbish she had expected. In fact it’s surprisingly good. But what astounds her is the fact that there is something startlingly familiar about it – it is something that she has already read. Very recently. The names and the locations are different, but other than that this opening chapter by Bowman is identical to the one by Weaver.