On the cover she is hand in hand with him, the two of them shadows against the sunrise. Thom picks up the book, turns it over and over, reads the words on the inside flap. Nothing about him. Of course nothing about him. This is not a book about him. It’s a book about Ebba, and he was a mere parenthesis in her life before she dumped him and moved on to the handsome man on the cover. He knows this. He has always known this.
He looks up from the book, from the page he has turned to and begun to read there in the memoir aisle. He has done this enough times to know to smile as he looks up.
The girl can’t quite meet his gaze. She’s late teens, early twenties at most, and she fiddles with her necklace. “You’re not who I think you are, are you?”
“I guess that would depend on who you think I am.”
“Well. Um. It’s just. Um.”
Her friend rolls her eyes and steps in to rescue her from the awkwardness. Steps in quite literally, that is, shoving the other girl forward a little, more directly into his line of sight. “She thinks you look like Thomas Cassidy, and she’s a big fan of his, so.”
“Oh,” he says. He is tempted to play a game of some kind – yeah, I get that a lot – but the girl is so sweet. So nervous. This is probably a big moment for her, bigger than he can appreciate. “Then yes. Guilty as charged.”
“Can she get a picture with you?”
She shuffles in and he puts his arm around her, careful as always where he puts his hand.
“Thank you,” she says, and that’s all she says. Later, he thinks, she will kick herself for not having a hundred things ready to say, prepared for just such a moment. They’re in Pasadena, after all. A stone’s throw from LA. She probably even knows he lives here. She might have been lurking with just this intention, bumping into him. And she had nothing to say. She will be mortified.
He tries always to be gracious. To remember he is where he is, living this improbably charmed life, because his fans put him there. But sometimes, sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes he just wants to be able to browse his favourite bookstore and not worry about hearing that voice behind him, those whispers. “Is that Thomas Cassidy? I think that’s Thomas Cassidy. From that show, you know? The one from the early 2000s about the school in New York? He was the visionary English teacher all the girls had crushes on?”
“Oh, right, right,” the other person tends to mumble, unconvincingly. “I remember you liked that show.”
In his moments of greatest self-awareness, Thom wonders if that is really what pains him, this half-fame, this has-been fame, this maybe-one-day-again fame. He wonders if he would, in fact, prefer a life where he couldn’t go to bookstores at all because everyone, but everyone, knows him, is eager to take pictures of him in unguarded moments and plaster them all over Instagram. There would be few of these unguarded moments, these moments without makeup, and this would make them all the more precious, all the more Instagrammable. (What? You thought only women wore makeup on TV?)
It was big, his show. Its inexplicable cancellation is still mourned in some quarters. It is the kind of show that appears regularly in lists of “Top Ten Best Written Series” or “Best Romantic Pairings” or “Most Inspirational Moments on TV”. More than a few young teachers, even these days, quote lines from it in job interviews – he knows this because they write and tell him – half-hoping the lines won’t be recognised as borrowed, and half-hoping their interviewer will smile and say, “Season two, episode one, right? That character was my favourite too”.
People said that a show about teachers would never work. No-one would care about the internal politics or the debates about the importance of phonics rather than the whole-word approach among students reading below grade level. Only it turned out that when you wrote something well enough and treated the audience like they were actually intelligent, when you tapped into their ideals of what education was, what it could be, what it could do for people, for the country, for the world, when you appealed to their better natures, people did care very much. Office workers discussed phonics at the water cooler. Real-life teachers wrote blogs analysing the pedagogical issues in the latest episode. Even some of the fan fiction rose to this level, though most of it – it has to be said – centred on Thom’s character’s will-they-won’t-they relationship or non-relationship (or whatever it was) with a beautiful blonde colleague. Seven seasons they drew it out for. Thom is proud of the chemistry they had.
But it is over. Very much over. He’s been in other stuff – plenty of other stuff – but no-one ever opens interviews with him by mentioning the other stuff. He is, will forever be, “the guy from that teacher show”. He tries to be gracious about this, too. The Classroom has forever saved him from playing minor villainous characters in TV movies, and, crucially, from anonymity. It has shown the world that he can act. Really act. His Emmy nominations year after year saw to that – with finally, finally a win in season six. (It turns out these things matter a whole lot more to the general public than his Juilliard degree does.)
Three years later, he is ready to move on. He is ready for another success after a bunch of ratings-boosting guest appearances on all the cool TV shows. He’s been in one of his own, but it only lasted a season. He had a lot of fun shooting it, but still. Steady work and a steady income are not things to be looked down upon.
Months ago, when he heard about Ebba’s book deal, he brought it up with his wife. He wasn’t sure why.
“I knew it,” he said. “I knew he’d break her heart. I knew it wouldn’t last.”
She laughed, Thom’s dynamic wife. Said, “So, what? You want to me to congratulate you on your prescience?”
“No,” he said. “I just think it’s interesting, is all.” But he was relieved. Yes, that must have been why he told her. For affirmation. Encouragement. He was relieved she understood this where he could not.
“You’re going to divorce me and marry Ebba now?”
It was a joke, he knew it was a joke, but still he felt the need to say what he always said when things got tricky with Jenny. Like when they were both working so hard on their shows that they barely saw each other, let alone their children. Or like when she was at home with the new-born, watching him kiss the blonde on TV. Or like when she had woken up the morning after they got back from their honeymoon and wondered, what now? We’ve had the party; now what? She’d expected to feel changed but she didn’t: she’d been so focussed on the wedding that she had not thought about the marriage, and this scared her suddenly. Was she meant to be different somehow, now she was a wife?
“Marriage is for life,” he said then, what he always said. “We are committed to each other. I am committed to you.”
This line, he had been repeating it forever. But he realised then that what he really wanted to say was: if we get divorced, it won’t be because of Ebba. It terrified him, this realisation, terrified and chilled him, and the most terrifying and chilling thing of all was that it felt like a thought that he had thought many times, though he was not aware of having done so.
As if! Jenny was his wife, his love, the mother of his four fantastic children. (Four! Whatever were they thinking? No-one in Hollywood has four kids, except for the crazy people, and even the crazy people don’t have four: they have nine, adopted from five different countries.) They had built a life together, a life he (mostly) loved, a life he was pretty sure she (mostly) loved too, though maybe he should have asked her sometime. Stopped assuming.
Even those months ago, he assumed so much. Had assumed for example for so long that this marriage would last till death would them part, like they’d promised on that beach fourteen years before. They were so young, not even thirty, and for that too people thought them crazy. Not their Midwestern families, who considered them slightly past their sell-by dates, but their friends in the New York theatre scene, where they worked hard and partied hard and everybody had a lot of sex because that was just what you did in the New York theatre scene in the 90s. They would still have a lot of sex, just with each other all the time and he was crazy about her so that was okay with him, and from the way her body responded to him it seemed that was okay with her, too.
But then, this. This stray thought, interrupting his assumptions. Burrowing, worm-like, first into his consciousness and then into his responses to Jenny, until the marriage was unsalvageable. He holds Ebba’s book in his hands now, and wonders if he might find something in its pages that will help him understand himself, help him move on. A clue as to why the most precious things in his life can’t seem to last.
The book. Finally, the book. Months she has been waiting for the paperback to come out (because shelling out twenty quid on a hardback for some terribly written celebrity memoir, I mean come on!), and now here it is, on the first day of the summer holiday. No more lessons to plan. No more over-achieving teenagers to think about. Six blissful weeks of lie-ins ahead. The timing couldn’t be more perfect.
It’s a sign.
She found out about this book because of the Google Alert she has for Thomas Cassidy. It’s probably awful, and she prides herself on never touching awful books, but this one matters. It’s by an ex-girlfriend of his, and she wants to read everything about him. Everything. So even if there’s only a paragraph, it’s worth it. She flips through, passes over childhood, adolescence, the ballet classes, the career-ending injury. Finally gets to the section on college. Reads the description of Thom and smiles.
The author’s name is Ebba Brown. Her initials are the same as Libby’s – Elizabeth Bolton. Another sign.
There have been so many signs on this journey, signs others refuse to see because hers is an impossible dream, something that only happens in fairy tales and novels with glittery pink covers. She doesn’t tell many people the dream – or The Plan, as she prefers to call it – because the words sound crazy as soon as they are out of her mouth. She is not unaware of this, and therefore cannot actually be crazy, can she? Crazy people don’t think they are crazy. They think they are perfectly sane, and the world just doesn’t understand them.
That is mostly how she does feel.
Never mind. She’ll show them, and they’ll all be sorry. All the naysayers. She’ll write a novel, name the main character after Thom, and find a way to get it to him. Intrigued and flattered, he will read it, fall in love with her prose, write to her and ask to turn it into a movie. She’ll pretend to think about it for a week or so, then say, sure, but can I work on it with you? Their eyes will meet over the script, and fade to black.
It is a fail-proof plan.
Except for the fact that he is a Hollywood star – not A list, perhaps not B list, but certainly C+ – and she is, well, not. She has never been in a play (or, well, now that she thinks about it, she did get to be a sheep in the nativity at nursery school). She is slightly overweight. She has never had her teeth whitened.
Except, too, for the fact that he lives in America. And as if that didn’t make things difficult enough, he lives on the West Coast. California. Even further away. Even more of a time difference.
Except, too, for the teeny tiny age gap. Not even twenty years! Totally overcomable.
All of the obstacles are totally overcomable. Although, there is one flaw in her flawless plan: there is no novel yet. There is this elaborate Plan revolving around the novel, but no actual novel. Kind of like eleven-year-olds who decide what they are going to name their children before they’ve fully developed the physical ability to produce them.
She should probably start by writing the novel.
Which, again: perfect timing. Six glorious weeks of glorious freedom. No money for any holiday to speak of, unless you were counting five days’ camping in the Lakes. The rest of the time she will write the novel.
The novel that will change her life forever.
The novel that will make her famous.
The novel that will make her Thom Cassidy’s wife.
First things first: a notebook. And pens. Just the right notebook and just the right pens. These things are of paramount importance. A computer is not the same. A computer is for researching which pens are best, and which notebook. Extensive research. Important things.
“They’re for my novel,” she says to the cashier at WHSmith’s, a woman whose name badge reads Susie. Something like a smirk passes over Susie’s face. But Libby is probably just imagining that. Susie probably just has an odd-looking smile.
“Seventeen forty-six,” Susie says. “Would you like a bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk with that?”
Ordinarily, Libby is tempted to snap. Tempted to say, “I can see the bars are there, and I can see their enormous price sticker, so I think it’s probably safe for you to assume I’ve already decided I’m going to pass on the chocolate, thanks.” In her defence, when you spend all day every day with snarky teenagers it is difficult not to turn into one yourself.
But not today. Today, Libby says, “yes, please. Brain food for the novel.”
Susie smiles again, the weird, smirk-like smile. “Good luck,” she says as she hands over the notebook and the pens in the flimsy plastic bag they have the nerve to charge 5 p for, despite the fact that it will disintegrate as soon as it is in Libby’s hands.
“Thanks,” she says, and thinks, luck? This has nothing to do with luck. Writing, like everything else in life, is about determination.