“SO WHAT’S THIS book about, then?”
The old lady stood dripping in front of me, coils of white hair hemmed in under a soaked plastic rain hood. Small puddles were slowly forming around the edges of her patent leather shoes. Her breath smelled like eggs and butterscotch.
“It’s a dark, psychological thriller, full of murder, mystery and a burned-out detective, desperate to catch a psychopath before he kills again,” I said, forcing as much customer-friendly enthusiasm into my voice as I could.
“Hmmm,” she said, her crinkled old face pursing into a pointed look of disgust. “All sounds a bit predictable… if you don’t mind me saying.”
I did bloody well mind her saying.
“Well,” I said, the muscles in my face aching under the weight of my forced grin, “this one is definitely different. Lots of twists and turns. It’ll definitely keep you guessing until the end.”
I was standing at the back of the local Waterstones book shop, engaging in what I like to call ‘Marketing Activity’. In other words, I was camped behind a small table on which I’d lovingly arranged several copies of my latest, greatest, thrilling crime novel, trying to ingratiate myself to the general public and people who, if they played their cards right, could become my newest fans. And if they played their cards wrong, might just end up with a boot up the backside.
It’s not that I have a particular dislike for the patrons of the local Waterstones – certainly no more than the general disdain I reserve for all members of the human race. I just find people to be, on the whole, rather irritating. So I prefer to avoid them.
I am, however, also a realist. No matter how much we like to think otherwise, we novelists need readers. There’s no point writing a book – and certainly no way to make money from one – if nobody ever reads it. And, in today’s competitive world of book publishing, in order be anything of a success, a good author needs to leave the sanctuary of their writing room and engage with their readers and potential readers.
And so I found myself in Waterstones, selling my wares like a cheap market stall trader, trying not to stare at the wiry grey hairs protruding from the chin of the old battleaxe in front of me.
“Hmmmm… Frederick Winters,” the old lady said, picking up one of the books and inspecting the cover. “That’s you, I suppose.”
“Guilty as charged.” I coughed out my best fake laugh.
“Never heard of you.” It was more an accusation than a statement.
“Er… well… that I can’t help, I’m afraid,” I said, wishing the old bat would either buy the book or piss off to the undertakers next door and book a one-way trip to the crematorium. “It’s very good though, if I do say so myself. And it’s my tenth book, so I should know what I’m doing by now.”
“Hmmm.” Her eyes returned to scrutinizing the cover, as if she were looking for some mark of quality.
“Don’t just take my word for it,” I interjected, trying to close the sale. “This book has twenty-seven five-star reviews on Goodreads.com. So, you know…”
Her eyebrows rose. She did know.
What she didn’t know was that I’d posted all twenty-seven of those reviews myself under a series of pseudonyms.
“I’m not sure,” she continued, literally weighing the book in her hand, roughly fanning through the pages. “It sounds an awful lot like a James Patterson I read recently.”
“This is nothing like a bloody James Patterson,” I snapped. “This is a quality, well-researched, well-written book. Not like that factory-written drivel he turns out.”
To be perfectly honest, I have nothing against James Patterson. Not really. Aside from a burning, rage-inducing jealousy at the man’s success. Is it deserved success? Possibly. Would I rather it was my success? Definitely. Would I sell my own grandmother for even a tenth of his annual book sales? In a second. I’d even dig up the coffin and glue the bones back together myself.
I was probably just a little tetchy on account of knowing exactly which James Patterson book she thought mine was similar to – an observation quite a few other people had made. One of those people being James Patterson himself.
The old lady placed the book back down on the table. I could see the sale slipping away from me. I had to rescue it.
“Of course, if you like James Patterson, you’ll love this.”
“Oh yes, many of my fans have told me it’s as good as, if not better than, any Patterson they’ve read.” This, technically, was true. I do have fans. Four to be precise. The fact that I’ve had to take out a restraining order against one of them, and two are currently serving jail sentences for arson and murder respectively, is neither here nor there. The fourth one is worse. He works in a shoe shop and his name is Norman.
“Well, I suppose it looks like a fairly easy read,” she said.
I bit my tongue, almost to the point of bleeding.
“How much?” she asked.
“Ten pounds. Or I can give you a signed copy for twelve.”
“Two pounds for a signature?”
“You’ll double your money if you sell it on eBay,” I lied. If she actually found a buyer, she’d be lucky to only halve her investment.
“Really?” she cooed.
“Well, I only have ten pounds on me,” she said, reaching into her bag and pulling out a ten pound note. “You couldn’t sign it for free, could you?”
She attempted to bat her eyelids at me in a coquettish fashion, but the muscles in her face had stopped working and it looked more like she was having a stroke.
Maybe it was the stiflingly warm book shop air, the ache in my back, or the fact that I’d been standing there with no success for forty-five minutes, but I picked up a copy, sighed and shrugged, and flashed her a warm smile.
“No,” I said, plucking the tenner out of her hand and replacing it with the unsigned book.
“Oh,” she said, watching as I deftly thrust the note deep into my pocket. “Well… but, shouldn’t I go and pay at the till?”
“Oh, no need for that,” I said. “I’ll save you a trip and take it over in a minute.”
“But what about my loyalty points?” She pulled out a small plastic card from her bag.
Oh, for God’s sake.
“Fine, hand it here,” I snapped, snatching the card from her hand and pulling my mobile phone from my pocket. I pressed a few random buttons, making it beep a couple of times, then pretended to scan the card with the built-in camera. “There you go, that’s your points all logged.”
“What was that?” she said, unimpressed.
“I just scanned your card.”
“No you didn’t! That wasn’t a scanner. That’s your mobile phone. I’m not a fucking idiot.”
“Fine,” I huffed, “wait there.” I stomped off in the direction of the till, then dove behind the Mind, Body & Spirit display. I waited a few seconds then slowly walked back and handed her the card. “There you go. All done.”
“That’s better,” she snapped. “You know, you could really do with working on your customer service skills, if you want people to buy your books.”
“Apologies,” I said fixing the smile back onto my face. “Enjoy the book. And have a lovely day.”
“Oh, by the way,” I said, as the old bag gripped the handle of her tartan, wheeled shopping trolley and turned to leave. “The brother-in-law is the killer. All sales are final.”
Her mouth opened as she prepared to protest, but I was already staring at my phone, pretending to compose a text message. I looked up to see her storming off – well, trundling slowly – in the direction of the sales desk. This wasn’t going to be good.
A few moments later, Todd, the assistant manager, came bounding through the shop, seething with indignation.
“Right, you!” he yelled. “You’ve been warned about this before. You know you can’t just come in here setting up fake signings and selling your own books. It’s against the law.”
“Technically, it’s not a fake signing,” I countered. “I have signed a few of the books.”
“You know what I mean. The manager said if I catch you again I’m to call the police.”
“Oh, calm down Todd, there’s no need for that.”
Todd’s eyes glanced down at the table in front of me, noting the small piles of my books.
“Where are the books that were on this table?”
“Sorry Todd, I don’t know what you mean.” I did know what he meant.
“The books that were here. The special promotion. Two books for £7. It took me over an hour to arrange them.”
“No idea, I’m afraid Todd. This table was empty when I got here. Maybe they all sold out.”
Todd eyed me suspiciously. The table had not been empty when I’d arrived. It had, as Todd correctly stated, been covered in other writers’ inferior work. And I’d needed a place to set up. So, I’d carefully removed the special offer sign, then gone about the store placing the books higgledy-piggledy on random shelves, with no regard whatsoever for genre, author or alphabetical order. But it would be several hours before Todd found that out.
“You can’t keep doing this.”
“And why not, exactly? You let other authors come in and do book signings?”
“Yes, ones that we invite in. Ones that people actually want to meet. Not just random nutjobs that turn up unannounced and flog their own books at the back of the shop.”
Okay, so technically I wasn’t supposed to be signing and selling books in Waterstones. According to the store’s obnoxious, triple-chinned manager, I was barred from the branch for previous indiscretions and shouldn’t have been in there at all. But it’s a cutthroat world, and you have to make your own sales opportunities where you can.
Of the several thousands of books published each year, really only a handful will see a great deal of success. It’s okay for your J K Rowlings, Dan Browns and James bloody Pattersons. But for the rest of us, it’s hard enough earning enough money to feed ourselves, let alone deciding what colour interior we want for our new yacht.
And with my landlord, Mr Singh, sending me daily emails threatening eviction if he doesn’t see some of the back rent I owe him, sneaking into Waterstones in disguise, setting up my own book signings, and keeping the cash for every copy I sell is, unfortunately, what I am reduced to. It’s either that or get a real job.
Naturally, I resented the ‘nutjob’ accusation. But having dealt with Todd on several previous occasions, I knew he was not a man to be reasoned with. He was not blessed with more than a handful of brain cells at best, so any reasonable argument was usually lost on him. Besides, he was literally twice the size of me and had threatened physical violence several times in the past – something I’m always more than keen to avoid when possible.
I thought it prudent, therefore, to retreat before he called the authorities. So, I packed my books into my duffel bag, along with a carefully secreted copy of the new Lee Child hardback I’d picked off the shelf – I’m not above the occasional bout of shoplifting, especially when it’s a book I’m secretly hoping to hate.
“You wouldn’t know good literature if it rearranged your special offer books randomly around your stupid little shop, Todd,” I said.
He looked at me with bemusement, my barbed comment falling on stupid ears. But the penny would drop soon enough, when he found a Jo Cox rammed in between his Trollopes.
I picked up my bag and swept past the old lady, hurrying out of the shop before anyone realised she’d just paid a tenner for a book that was supposed to retail for £6.99.
A few hours later I was sitting in the local Starbucks, staring at the ominously white screen of my laptop. At the top of a fresh, crisp Word document I had typed the word Ideas. I had centred it, set it in Times New Roman, changed the font size to 12pt, set it as bold, decided I didn’t like the pomposity of the bold letters staring at me so changed it back, and then underlined it. I had yet to write down any actual ideas.
I took a sip of the latte I’d been nursing for forty-five minutes. It was stone cold and milky, and tasted slightly of cigarette ash. But it was wet and mildly refreshing. And whilst I still had at least a small amount of liquid in my cup, the staff were technically forbidden from either ushering me out the door, or asking me to hurry up and free the table for other patrons – although that doesn’t stop them staring daggers at me, rolling their eyes whenever they clear nearby tables or, in the case of Magda, the grumpy Polish barista, muttering strange foreign words under her breath. I can’t understand them, of course, but I’m fairly certain they’re less than complimentary and aimed directly at me.
I like Starbucks. I know I shouldn’t, what with the whole tax-dodging, corporate globalisation thing. But they do nice coffee. And nice cakes. And it’s warm. And they have free Wi-Fi.
I like Costa Coffee too, and Café Nero. In fact, I like most of the chain coffee shops. I like getting out amongst people – whilst still carefully avoiding any real interaction, of course – and taking a snapshot of the world. I like immersing myself in society, peeling back the mask and exposing the murky underbelly of human existence. I find it helps me construct an authentic, believable world.
But mostly I like the free Wi-Fi.
Much of my writing is done in coffee shops. It’s a cliché, I know. And just about every coffee shop you go into nowadays seems to have at least one dickhead sitting in the corner, their laptop plugged into the shop’s power socket, as they work on their novel, or screenplay, or sitcom. And there’s a very good reason for that. It’s fucking boring at home.
I live in a perfectly reasonable two-bed flat. Okay, it’s absolutely tiny, and not so much a two-bedroomed flat as a one-bed with a generous sized cupboard. But I have all the modern conveniences and hot beverage-making facilities a man could possibly want. I’ve turned the cupboard-bedroom into a serviceable office/writing room, and I am more than happy to tinker away at the laptop at home. But even I can only endure my own company for so long.
So, I head out and spend as long as I can nursing a small latte and struggling to come up with ideas for my next big bestseller – well, mediocre seller. All right, crappy seller.
It’s important to state, at this point, that I am a properly published novelist, not just a go-it-alone, vanity self-publisher. I have a real agent, who gives me about two per cent of his attention each year. And I am published by a real, proper publisher. They’re a fairly small business, which operates from a tiny unit in a local industrial estate – more Harpo Marx than Harper Collins. But they are, technically, and to all intents and purposes, a real book publisher.
Amongst their authors they are lucky to count: myself; noted historian Max Billingham; disgraced politician the (no longer) right honourable Jeffrey Hinchcliffe; romance novelist Dame Phyllis Babstock; Buster the Juggling Dog (although I’m not convinced he actually writes his own stuff); and a handful of small-time science fiction writers.
My book sales have never been exactly astronomical, but I just about manage to scrape a living from writing – well, an existence anyway. Of course, I’d like to find myself sitting on top of a bestseller list at some point. But for the time being, when books are being sold for 10p online, and the only way to guarantee a sure-fire hit is to either offend the religious nuts or include enough hard-core porn to get the housewives dripping, I’m happy enough just getting by. Well, not happy, but you know.
And so my life is writing, and my workplace is coffee shops. My record to date for drinking just one small coffee is two hours and forty-one minutes. And I could have lasted longer, were it not for the severe pain in my left buttock, caused by the hard wooden surface of the cheap Starbucks chair.
“Ahem,” said a timid voice at my side.
I looked up from my laptop, with the hardened, ‘what-do-you-want?’ glare I save for high-street market researchers, children, overly-helpful shop assistants, the elderly, telephone cold-callers (they can’t see it, obviously, as they’re on the other end of a phone, but I like to think at least part of it carries over in my tone of voice), grumpy Polish baristas, and anyone who bothers me while I’m working – or at least trying to work.
“Oh, sorry to bother you,” said a small, dowdy woman with mousy brown hair and too little make-up for her plain face. “Is anyone sitting here?”
She pointed at the empty chair across the table from me. I remained silent and increased the intensity of my stare, but she didn’t move. She just stood there looking hopeful.
“Would you mind if I joined you?” she said finally. “It’s very busy and there aren’t any seats left.”
I looked around the room, double-checking what she’d said. There were no empty tables.
“Fine,” I huffed. “You can have the chair.”
“Oh thank you,” she said, placing a large cappuccino down on the table.
“But not the table,” I quickly spat out. “You can have the chair, but you’re not sharing my table.”
“Sorry… I… what?” she said, surprised.
“You can have the chair. The chair is yours. Take the chair, go somewhere else and enjoy the rest of your life. But you’re not joining me.”
“So you should be, I’m trying to work and you’re interrupting me.”
“No, not sorry,” she said. “I’m not sorry, I just meant… sorry? Pardon? What do you mean I can have the chair but not the table?”
“Exactly what I said. Which part are you having trouble with?”
“It’s not your table, you know. You don’t own it.”
“No, but I’m sitting here, and I don’t want company.”
“I wasn’t actually asking permission. You don’t have the right to stop me sitting here.”
“Yes, I do.”
“No you don’t.”
“Then why did you ask?”
“I was just being polite.”
“Fine. Well, the answer’s still no. So would you please politely bugger off?”
She stared at me open-mouthed, as if she couldn’t actually believe what I was saying. I looked back to my empty Word document, raised my hands and flapped my fingers in a dismissive gesture.
“I… I… you really are the rudest man,” she said, picking up her coffee and shuffling in the direction of some other poor sap whose table she intended to invade.
“Not quite,” I called after her. “I’m still practising.”
I stared again at the screen and my complete lack of ideas. I’d been trying to think of a good plot for my new book – the next exciting mystery to perplex my hard-drinking, chain-smoking private detective, Dick Stone. So far, in my previous novels, Dick had gone up against people traffickers, drug cartels, serial killers, bent coppers, femmes fatales, corrupt politicians, hired assassins and one particularly vicious lollipop lady who turned out to be a drug baron using the children on her crossing route to deliver the drugs.
Recent books hadn’t been selling so well, and I’d heard rumours my publisher was thinking of dropping me. I was also currently making barely enough money to sustain a goldfish, let alone a coffee-guzzling author, so I was in desperate need of a cash injection. I needed an amazing story and all I had so far was the word ‘Ideas’.
I heard the shuffling of shoes next to me again. I looked up expecting to see that dithering woman coming back to complain about my rudeness. But it wasn’t her. It wasn’t even Magda, swooping by the table to check the level of my coffee cup, or to relay the details of another customer complaint against me.
It was a face I hadn’t seen for some years. A face I wasn’t sure I’d ever see again.
“Hello Freddie,” he said, in a deep, sombre voice. “I need your help. I think someone’s trying to kill me.”