I arrived at the Literature House at the exact time set out in the invitation, turned my back on its façade, waded through the orange leaves on the opposing green, and climbed a tree. Sat on a branch, I thought of the other shortlisted writers already inside; the cameras roving around trying to capture their famous targets; the lights heating up; the countdown to show time running ever faster.
I wish I could know what story I’m trying to write when I’m writing it was the magnified quote underneath my photo in the concertina brochure for the prize-giving, that they were handing out at the Literary Exchange. I scanned it over and over throughout the journey. I go to the Literary Exchange to write. It used to be Bridge Gallery, that building by the river as big and open and bright as an airport terminal. They left the final exhibition up when the place went bankrupt. Now, the space is full of reclining armchairs, all set at different angles towards different garish, neon paintings. Each armchair is next to a small, cubic bookshelf, where you can choose from a selection of volumes wrapped in uniform, grey packing paper, covering the title page and colophon; inside, all traces of the authors’ identities have been erased, too. I had read another Blank book to focus my mind that afternoon.
After a surreal three years that began with my acceptances outweighing my rejections, and included winning a regional award, things were on the up – potentially stratospheric, depending on how tonight turned out. It was finally happening. Every year, for over 20 years, I had watched this historic occasion. The drama of it, the excitement, the prestige. I knew everything about the Prize of Prizes Prize; the compères, the scandals, the rumours, the winners. I still own a badge, jumper and notebook; all with the pre-1990s logo.
For the past ten years, I’d wanted it in the opening line of my biography – the reason why I didn’t need an introduction. Five years ago, I’d signed up for the offer to receive specially bound copies of each winner’s book – always white, with black embossed font – as a way of affirming to myself that I too could be a winning writer.
Perched in the tree, under the street lamps’ cold light, I stroked my fragrant, freshly conditioned hair. I had been to the hairdressers that morning. A person wearing a headset waved me down and handed me a glass of sherry. I followed them inside the Literature House to take part in, and perhaps become, an institution.
My coat was whisked away, a microphone clipped to my dress, and I was ushered into the ceremonial hall. Swirling around its five zoned-off areas, one for each stage of the evening, were hundreds of gaudy, excitable people. Cameras zoomed around, intruding on conversations. I was led to the zone nearest the entrance. As I approached, the other shortlisted writers, standing around two corpulent beer barrels, fell silent. I air-kissed all three. The lights dimmed with an ooooo from the crowd and a spotlight descended on us as the compère of the last 12 years, Maxwell Goodright, began the proceedings:
‘Ladies and gentlemen, we’re gathered here for the live, televised judging of the fifty-ninth Prize of Prizes Prize. Please give your warmest welcome to our four shortlisted authors: Bobi Entré, Thomas Grech, Hester Heller and F. F. Tine.’
‘Our three esteemed judges will soon commence their private deliberations while seated on the platform nearest the Victory Chamber, where the exclusive party for the triumphant author will take place after the winner has been announced.
‘Each nominee’s book will also be discussed live by the nominated writers themselves – peers among peers – in an attempt to persuade our eavesdropping audience that they are most deserving of the Prize.
‘During the evening, each member of our 400-strong audience – made up of readers chosen by ballot and special guest critics – will place a token in one of the centrally positioned glass vases, each representing a shortlisted author. The tokens all have different values. Readers’ bronze tokens are worth one vote. Critics’ silver ones are worth ten votes. The writers’ gold tokens are worth 25 votes. And no, they cannot vote for themselves – however much they long to. And, lastly, the author chosen by the judges will receive 250 additional votes. Whoever receives the most votes overall will win the Prize of Prizes Prize, instant fame, glory, the works.
‘But that’s not it, for, as usual, there are also consolation prizes to be awarded. The losing author with the highest number of gold tokens will win the exquisite Writers’ Choice prize. The runner-up with the most silver tokens will get the coveted Critics’ Choice trophy. And, for light entertainment, the writer with the most bronze tokens will take home the Public Choice gong. Should an author qualify for multiple titles, the judges will share out the goodies. And we promise that, unlike last year (and every other year), we will not throw a custard pie in the Public Choice winner’s face.’
Tittering, and the odd guffaw.
‘So, with all that out of the way – let us begin…evening drinks with canapés!’
Aperitif! Aperitif! cheered the crowd.
As drums rolled, two large silver dishes of oysters with mignonette and Kilpatrick accompaniments were placed on barrels in front of us. Flutes of champagne were handed around as our four books, each on a silver stand, were placed by our feet. The crowd relaxed, and began to edge closer, occasionally penetrating the spotlight. We slurped oysters determinedly, and began our discussion.
‘So, Mr. Grech, Thomas if I may,’ Bobi Entré smiled, tossing an oyster shell onto the sawdust-covered floor of the zone. ‘A main character.’ He let it stand.
‘Yes,’ Thomas Grech nodded, lifting his champagne glass.
‘Don’t you think having a main character has been done to death?’
I was proud to be here — and, I assumed, the others were, too. We had worked hard, and produced the finest works of the year, perhaps of our generation. We deserved this honour. But I, and maybe the others, too, considered the nominations with some suspicion. I had to admit, I knew all three people who had gotten me on the longlist, which wasn’t (technically) allowed. One was a publisher I had read submissions for. Another, a non-fiction publisher who was courting me for a book. The third, that well-meaning essayist everyone knows.
One of Hester Heller’s nominators, an ageing poet, is the brother of her publisher’s editorial director. One of the others is in her writing collective and shares her love of white space and absurd juxtaposition. A third taught her Persuasive Writing course at university.
Bobi Entré’s manifold sponsors included a Scottish novelist that he once had an affair with; and a widely despised aristocrat who writes working-class characters with cringeworthy dialogue.
As for Thomas Grech, he was already being lambasted in the media for being a ‘personality’, before even a single word of his book had been published. Barely 21. Part-time model. Did not give a shit about being championed solely by his father’s friends, including one 70-year- old writer who explained his choice: ‘It would be great to have a meeting of minds — and to get a photo with him.’
Still, the nomination that I was most suspicious of was the public’s, whose votes had whittled the longlist down to a final four after repeated, televised adverts featuring jolly readings of book extracts with designated phone number extensions at the bottom. What was their agenda? What did they gain? Did they just like the look of me? Had they read the review that said I was influenced by that monstrosity of a book? Did they know who my ex-boyfriend was? Or were they really struck by the two pages I had read while balanced on the roof of a river boat?
‘And what about your process?’ Hester queried.
‘My process is embedded within an aesthetic of relatability,’ Thomas enthused. ‘I chose popular names from the past year, overpopulated cities, popular items of clothing, most searched for turns of phrase and words of the year, made sure to mention the characters are reading the latest bestseller and watching the highest grossing films. My publisher also sent me their three-year plan of what their predictive focuses were going to be thematically, so I took from that as well.’
‘And your next book?’ Bobi asked.
‘Oh, the same I think. But I’ll…’
‘…update everything and then we’ll do seasonal reissues.’
‘Some of us were a bit confused about the length…’ I ventured.
‘Well, it’s clearly just the first chapter.’
‘Right, with some bullet points across blank pages to set out what people can expect?’
‘Yeah, the book hasn’t been written yet, but people are really excited about it. That’s why we also submitted the Petition of Interest signed by everyone that will read it, once it’s written. Naturally, it’s going to go through a few changes, like plot and … oh, here comes Father!’
Applause rose as the illustrious playwright Edgar Rosalvo Grech entered, followed by an assistant bearing a candle.
‘Good evening, everyone! I’m here to give the seal of approval to my son’s book.’
He rocked a stick of green wax in the candle’s flame, pressed the melted end onto Thomas’s (mostly blank) book and stamped his dolphin-adorned metal seal over it, before marching off through the fawning crowd.
The retreating candlelight swam in the glass of the vases. They were darkly coloured, but I could make out that they already had a few tokens glinting inside them. Some people must have cast their vote as they came in. The mounds of salt cradling the oysters glittered magically, sending a refraction of light onto the hand of my barrel partner, Hester Heller. It made her seem special, this gesture from the mineral. I could almost hear the sound of the sea, or applause off in the distance.
‘And now, would the authors please join us in the dinner zone!’
Be our guest! Be our guest!
The spotlight followed us to a large, round table with a white tablecloth while the band swayed against their violins. Red wine was poured into mauve glasses. The four books were brought over and arranged as a centrepiece. Four bloody steaks where placed in front of us. I had told them I didn’t eat red meat – was this a test?
‘Hester, what made you tackle this particular subject?’ Grech asked, a cuboid of meat readied on his fork.
‘Hmm. As you know, the collective I’m part of – Fresh Pillow – establishes leitmotifs and methods and styles of reading at our annual meeting and we all work from those as a blueprint. Our showcase portfolio will be coming out soon with profiles, photos, suggested “big work” and contact information for all 12 of us, and we’ll open up our events diaries for appearances shortly after that.’
‘And what other writers are you interested in right now?’
‘Definitely John Free, Wendy Quaid and Lillian Cousins. All exquisite and important writers.’
‘And also part of Fresh Pillow?’
‘Yes, yes they are.’
I had forgotten lunch. As my concentration lapsed again, my eyes drifted to the judges’ zone. Had I really been trying to ignore the fact that among the three judges was Charles?
The writer Charles Vivard had been a junior lecturer when I was in my first year at writing school. After I finished school, his reputation grew, and we had remained in the same networks; how could we not have.
A few months ago, he had contacted me to say that he had pushed one of my real nominators, his publisher, to select me. The email had read: ‘Don’t worry about getting on the list, it’s sorted…your greatest work to date…very proud.’
The morning’s haircut slid into my mind, pressure set in around my shoulders. I blinked, forcing my focus back on to the table.
‘And what kind of writer do you want to be remembered as down the line, Hester?’ Thomas was saying.
‘I’d like to be a Rediscovered Author, so in the next couple of years, I’m probably going to stop writing, store my unpublished work in an archive and then, in a couple of decades, my publisher will offer it up to a newspaper as an exclusive.’
Hester had been tipped for the Prize in certain circles five years ago, while still in her second year at university. That had been a difficult thought to handle the last couple of weeks. She must have had a dozen nominations, maybe more. I heard a rumour that her name had been engraved in the Victory Chamber while she was still a teenager and they had just plugged up the letter grooves with white Plasticine. A toothpick awaited the announcement: either this year, or next year, or whatever year. It would come eventually, and she was impatient for it while she was still young. There were toothpicks on the bar. Hester had been shortlisted multiple times, her nominations rising steadily each year from the, well, the inevitability of it all. I needed to pick my teeth; they felt itchy.
The ones who persevered, and didn’t crack, would get there eventually – unless no one liked them and I doubt anyone particularly likes me. But this award breeds awards. More would follow shortly after, including a couple of new ones looking to establish themselves with the promise of money. What was I even doing there? It was impossible.
My head throbbed. The audience shifted as my vision blurred. Everything around me seemed to hint that it could be peeled back: pulling up the chair upholstery would reveal hidden papers, I was sure of it; under the glass coaster and paper doilies were notes written backward in pencil; the floor tiles could be lifted, twisted, rearranged to form a message. Looking down at the floor, I could already make out something – letters in the lines. It appeared that there was something written on the ceiling, in dangling cobwebs. I focused again. Some of the audience were listening intently, others were gesticulating at the books, arguing, and one or two seemed to be sleeping.
Charles caught my eye from the judging corner. I smiled robotically as my hand nervously tousled my hair. While I had his eye, I mouthed: ‘Which was your favourite part?’ He replied with a shrug and a smile: ‘I couldn’t possibly choose’. Had he even read it?
‘And now, dessert!’
Sweet stuff! Sweet stuff!
I stopped thinking about it all while we moved zones to the tinkle of the piano. We all sank into plush, purple armchairs. A trolley bearing miniature cinnamon swirls dipped in powdered sugar and presented on translucent plates appeared. A ginormous piping bag filled with thick, hot chocolate was lying over the shoulder of a chef like a fat baby. He encouraged florets of it into milk-filled, frosted glass tumblers with wooden brace handles. The cold mixture gradually relaxed into a warmed drinking chocolate. The conversation had moved on, and I hadn’t spoken for at least 30 minutes. I still wasn’t used to the sweeping cameras and the hot lamps; to the crowd’s relentless whispering.
We’re in a labyrinth of ladders, arcing and curling around one another, following others’ routes, occasionally being given a hand over treacherous rungs. Some ladders lead to dead ends, others to platforms from where we can shout down encouragement, or ignore all beneath. No one knows how anyone gets up there – the routes are not well lit.
‘Bobi, Bobi, Bobi, there was so much I loved about this book,’ Heller said, blowing on her hot chocolate. ‘There’s the repeated use of the word “lush” that I really enjoyed. There was also the enchanting cadence of each sentence. And when Rizzo turns to Gregoire and says, “You’re as mad as a hatter!” that was such a great moment. But…’
Bobi licked his fingers.
‘It’s just a shame that this wasn’t the book everyone was promised.’
‘In what sense?’ Bobi asked, thrusting his plate at a waiter.
‘Well, in the sense that this is a translation by someone else, so it’s not wholly your book. It would have been much nicer to have been able to have read the original book.’
‘You can read French?’
‘No, no. I mean, very few people can, but it just would have been great to have read the real book. Or if you had translated it then we would have been...’
A very tall, thin man has appeared at Hester’s elbow: ‘Lush! Lush! That was my choice! He wanted to use moist!’
‘It’s OK, Jerry,’ Bobi said gently, ‘She didn’t mean it. Go have a drink and I’ll see you later.’
On the verge of tears, the man popped the collar of his jacket and stormed off.
‘And finally, coffee for a little sober reflection and a final boost before the winner, and runners-up, are announced!’
Make it strong! Make it strong!
We ‘retired’ to the ‘Drawing Room’ and squeezed onto the one sofa, balancing espressos on our laps, serenaded by an acoustic guitar and distant opera singer. We could no longer face one another, just the cameras in front, while the audience crowded around us. Someone said, ‘Absolute farce’. Someone rested their hand on my shoulder and whispered, ‘Writers are quite sensual, aren’t they? Always having perverse thoughts. Want to go somewhere after this is finished?’
‘To be honest,’ Bobi began, as I shooed away the interloper, ‘I wasn’t convinced.’
He inspected my book, brought over on its display stand, along with the others, for the final time.
‘I like that the spine is slightly creased, but maybe it would have improved things if you’d just left it to gather a bit of dust or a bleach fade or something.’
My editor, Rossy, entered the spotlight and sat on the arm of the sofa without acknowledging me. Bobi continued:
‘Having read the original manuscript, I can see that you had to do quite a bit in an attempt to turn it into a book,’ he said, tilting his head at Rossy. ‘I really admire the work you’ve put in.’ Rossy smiled and nodded, raising her hand at the applause from the audience. She motioned to someone behind the cameras and the book cover designer, Saul, followed by the marketing team, came into shot, sat down cross-legged in front of us, and began passing around a portfolio of alternative book covers. I felt hot and crabby, but at least I didn’t have to speak.
Do I even like my book? If I really thought about it, large chunks of it were transposed from Blank books I had been reading at the time of writing. I used the sentence structure and whatever level of disclosure was within them as a template and used them to just write the loose story that I had. But you wouldn’t be able to recognise passages, or tell which books they were from. I used philosophy for ruminative moments. Gooey romances for sincere but accessible love scenarios. Gothic novels for landscapes. And the standfirsts of newspaper articles for strong chapter openings.
I know that it’s all a farce. I don’t even want it. If I won, it wouldn’t mean anything to me. But I suppose you can’t stop it from meaning something to everyone else.
Charles gave me a thumbs up. Charles blew me a kiss.
Charles had invited me to a gathering at his flat once. There were only three of us there – a guy I was openly seeing on the course, a close friend he was sparring with, and me. I said it was time I went home. Charles saw me to the door, and as I moved to allow him to open it, he lunged forward and bit me on my throat.
I didn’t even know the hairdresser. He was overly familiar, I had whispered to the manager as she helped me with my coat. I turned down the offer of a free haircut when she rang me an hour later to tell me she’d let him go. What would I be worth if I had accepted? You can’t be treated like that. And you can’t be bought off.
After that, Charles and I pretended that it never happened. It wasn’t the only contact during those years. It was just the first. Years later, it had all been forgotten, in a way. Then he started offering me favours. And I had really forgotten it all — in a way.
That hairdresser, running the back of his hand down my neck, whispering beautiful…
It’s impossible to win a rigged game. It’s been swung from the start, but maybe if the critics or the writers, even though neither group has ever really been taken with me. Maybe…
Charles sending me the email about the longlist had made me painfully rigid in my chair. Just the existence of this message felt like a trap I’d let myself fall into. I would owe him. His investment would need to be repaid, with interest. I could have written back and said, ‘I don’t want it’. I could have confronted him; it was the first thing that came to mind, but then I thought: I deserve it. I’m owed. It’s all a fix anyway. The prize is only a beginning. The hard work comes after. So I did nothing, and then forgot it all, all over again. But there was no forgetting it now.
Strangers shouldn’t be like that around you. That hairdresser… the hairdresser behaved inappropriately; he didn’t even know me. I know Charles. I don’t know, maybe we were just on different levels or something, in different worlds within a world; maybe it was a misunderstanding, but I know he genuinely likes my work. I know he wants the best for me and my work and he just wanted to give me a hand, but his hand, the hairdresser’s hand, the touch of their hands gave me the same queasiness, made me absent, like the dog a child pinches when no one’s looking, like new soft furnishing – too good not to stroke.
‘That’s it, ladies and gentlemen and our viewers at home. After a short break, we’ll be back to announce the winner!’
The vases were wrested away to the stabbing strains of a cello. The tokens were to be counted before the judges made their closing remarks. The prizes were being polished at the rear of the hall. The first announcement would be for the derisory Public Choice Award. I was shaking all over. There could be no victory. The other nominees were climbing the steps to the stage. The VIPs were slinking away to the Victory Chamber; they didn’t need to hear who had won. I froze. Then I started backing away. I reached the exit.
I didn’t hear the name they boomed that expelled me out into the street, back on the coach, back home.
Watching the prize-giving online, I saw that when I wasn’t there to accept the Public Choice Award, a shy but determined young man got up on stage while the laughter was dying down, creaking the softened spine of his copy of my book, massaging it like a shallow accordion.
‘I just wanted to read you my favourite bit, if you don’t mind…’
A dream I’d never dreamt before.
On Monday morning, I went back to the Literary Exchange. I was the first to arrive. The opening manager looked at me in surprise through the glass door; I looked away.
‘Good morning, madam.’ She said brightly, with a pitying expression, ‘Can I bring you anything to drink?’
I sat in my favourite recliner; a pot of mint tea arrived and was perched on a paper doily bearing a quote from the victor. I had stripped a copy of my book of its markers and wrapped it in the same grey paper as the other Blank books. I slid it into the little shelf and closed my eyes.
Photograph by Pozn