Laura was a good listener, and because she also measured out her words sparingly she was considered quiet. People – men, mostly – took advantage of her restraint by yarning away at her, uninterrupted. She listened, and smiled. Her face was open, friendly, not plain but not quite pretty either. She had once heard herself described as ‘pleasant-looking’, and had laughed in disappointment at being thought so bland. Boyfriends had come and gone. She was only twenty-seven, but in the last couple of years her luck with men had gone south, and internet dating so far had been a washout. ‘You have to kiss a lot of frogs,’ as her friend Cassie said, an image that made Laura feel queasy.
This lean period coincided with a change of tack in her career. While still an editor at a publishing house she had started to write short stories, some of which found their way into small literary magazines. Then came her break: she won a story competition, and the prize money emboldened her to make a go of it as a writer. She was kept on by her employers as a freelance reader to supplement her income, meagre as it was, while her literary agent began hawking the stories around in the hope of publishing a collection. So far no one had taken her up.
Perhaps by way of compensation, the agent – Bryan Gorse – telephoned one afternoon to invite her to the Midway-Broglio Prize dinner in a fortnight’s time. The Broglio, with its fifty-grand purse, was a gold star event in the British literary calendar, and though its glamour had been chipped away in recent years by a succession of inexplicable winners and disastrous changes in the regulations, it retained a cachet. Bryan was on the board of trustees and talked of the prize as reverently as others might of electing a new pope.
‘It’ll be a good opportunity for you to do some networking,’ he said.
Laura, who had never been to the Broglio, was at once flattered and fearful. ‘I’m not very good at networking, Bryan. I prefer to, you know, just talk to people.’
A puzzled hesitation followed, then Bryan said, ‘Networking is talking, dear. You have to think of it as business. You’re swimming with big fish at the Broglio.’
Frogs. Fish. It seemed that one way or another she was being primed for the life aquatic. ‘It’s very kind of you to ask me…’ she began, wondering if she could explain to him how low in confidence she felt at the moment.
Mistaking her uncertainty for ingratitude, Bryan gave vent to an incredulous pffff. ‘Do you have better things to do?’
‘No, of course not. I’d love to come – thanks.’
Two weeks later she found herself queueing for the cloakroom at Guildhall amidst a blaze of evening finery. The lady in front of her had accessorised her look with a white feather boa. The one behind sported a tiara. Laura was wearing a black cocktail dress that daringly exposed her shoulders. She carried a beautiful jade-coloured clutch Cassie had lent her, though she now worried that it threw her cheap earrings into sharp relief. Having parked her coat, she tottered on her heels up to the main hall for the drinks reception. She spotted him through a forest of bodies; he summoned her with a peremptory wave.
Laura found herself next to Sir Rajeev Solanki, novelist, Nobel winner, and a bona fide literary eminence. Bryan’s gaze across the flower arrangement was so peeved that she had to look away to stop herself laughing
Bryan, in his mid-fifties, had the slightly complacent air of a man who had held onto his looks and his hair, though Laura noticed he had recently been at the dye. He had divorced some years ago (he had a son at university) and now enjoyed squiring different women around, usually his younger or more attractive clients. Laura was the latest on the carousel.
‘You look nice,’ he said, running his eye up and down her. ‘Not sure about the earrings, though.’
She blushed and raised a protective hand to the offending trinket. Bryan, rubbernecking over the mutterish throng, began to recite the names of people around them: ‘… and that little dumpy fellow is Martin Modena, who runs the Nez-Marron festival. The large lady with all the hair he’s talking to is Amelia Grindrod, the novelist. She has quite a presence on Twitter,’ he added, apparently in approval. ‘Are you on Twitter yet?’
Laura admitted she was not. Bryan gave her a sharp look.
‘You need to get yourself out there, you know.’
She considered explaining that after a day spent editing or writing she didn’t have much energy left for social media, which seemed to her to involve an awful sort of showing off. But she thought this might annoy him, and held her tongue. A waiter had sidled up with a salver of champagne flutes. She accepted one, and took a grateful gulp.
Bryan, watching her, said, ‘Go easy on that. We’ve got a long night ahead.’
The gabble around them rose steadily in volume. She understood that this was Bryan’s evening and he would take the lead. His awareness of the pecking order was evident in his selectivity. If approached by a writer or publisher of the middle rank, Bryan would introduce Laura as his guest; but if he was engaged with a ‘literary eminence’ (his term) it was strictly one-to-one, and she stood there unacknowledged, like an obedient dog. She couldn’t help overhearing, though, how much sucking-up Bryan did in their company; he was an agent to the very tips of his manicured nails.
From the gallery came the crash of a gong and an MC announcing that dinner would be served. As the congregants shuffled down the steps towards the banqueting hall, she felt Bryan’s hand hover, lightly but proprietorially, in the small of her back. ‘The good news is,’ he whispered in her ear, ‘we’re close to the action.’ But his expression clouded on arriving at their table of twelve. He and Laura had been seated apart, and with most of the guests already in situ, there was no chance of manoeuvring the placement cards. Worse, his own place was between persons whom he clearly regarded of little consequence, while Laura found herself next to Sir Rajeev Solanki, novelist, Nobel winner, and a bona fide literary eminence. Bryan’s gaze across the flower arrangement was so peeved that she had to look away to stop herself laughing.
On her other side was an empty chair – the placement card promised only ‘Guest’. So she was obliged to talk across it to her next-but-one neighbour, who introduced herself as Carol, fortyish, bright, an arts journalist with a smoker’s cough and a crooked smile: both came readily. It turned out that she had read all six shortlisted novels, and reckoned that it was probably a two-horse race between The Voodoo Doctor’s Dream Song (Nigerian magic realism) and Dolly-Mop (plotty intrigue about streetwalkers in Victorian London). Laura, like many others in attendance, had not read any of them, though she knew enough to be able to bluff.
‘I’m told the one about the Irish land evictions is very moving.’
‘True,’ said Carol. ‘The Irish have a good chance this year – there’s also Mary Hale, about the pregnant teenage immigrant. I don’t mind which of them wins, to be honest, so long as it’s not Mug.’ This last, a 600-page experimental novel without punctuation or paragraphs, was about a receptacle for hot beverages, or else the mysteries of the human physiognomy. Or possibly neither. ‘You’d have to be a MUG to read this one!’ a Daily Mail news story had angrily quipped.
Laura was trying to recall the name of the sixth and final shortlistee when she felt a tap on her shoulder. Sir Rajeev Solanki, deep in conversation when she had arrived, now had his unsmiling eyes trained upon her. He was handsome in a faintly saurian way, his back very straight and his hair still jet, despite being in his early seventies. He said in a clipped, formal tone, ‘My wife wishes to speak to you.’
This lady, plumpish and jolly, introduced herself as Mira. ‘Rajeev and I would like to know if you are a writer!’
Her husband didn’t look the least bit interested in the question, or the answer, staring straight ahead while Laura gave a brief account of herself. Mira compensated for him with a lively impression of warmth. ‘Rajeev loves short stories. But tell me, Laura, do you make a living from your writing?’
Laura gave a grimacing smile. ‘Barely. But I try to remind myself it’s better to have a good life than a good living.’
At that Solanki turned to look at her, a curious glint in his eye. ‘That is very true. Though one would of course prefer both. When I first came to this country I lived in Notting Hill. One hears it is now a place for millionaires. But in 1961 my accommodation was a room in a slum tenement. A single lavatory served twenty people.’ He paused, and the ghost of a smile vanished as swiftly as it had appeared. ‘But I could write in my room undisturbed, all day. I had never been so happy.’
‘Is that where you wrote Savages?’ Laura asked.
‘Oh no!’ cried Mira, waggling her hand. ‘That was much later! Rajeev was living with his first wife when he wrote that.’
‘And one of the greatest winners of the Broglio, if I may say, Rajeev,’ boomed a voice from across the table. Bryan had been listening intently to the conversation and spotted his moment to jump in. ‘I don’t think I’ve read anything in the prize’s history that’s had such a lasting effect on me.’
‘It still sells many thousands a year in paperback,’ Mira crowed delightedly, and proceeded to engage Bryan in further talk of sales. At this point the legions of staff had begun serving dinner, bobbing between tables and unavoidably disrupting the chat. Laura looked uncertainly at her plate on which a lump of meat was slathered in a viscous green sauce. Carol, taking a cautious mouthful, said, ‘I think it’s beef. Or maybe lamb.’ Solanki had chosen the vegetarian option – also unidentified – and was consuming it with steady unconcern. Laura asked if she might pour him some wine, and he shook his head brusquely. After a moment he said, hardly adjusting his voice, ‘Who is that man talking to my wife?’
‘He’s Bryan Gorse, the literary agent,’ said Laura, adding (in case Bryan was earwigging), ‘and a trustee of the prize.’
Solanki’s expression was Delphic. ‘I have never heard of him.’
Laura did her best to strike a spark or two off Solanki’s granitic impassivity, but it was hard work. He answered her questions either with a head-shake or a crabbed, one-sentence dismissal. Glancing at the stiff card on which the Broglio shortlist was displayed, she gently inquired as to his view of contemporary fiction.
‘I read as little of it as possible,’ he said.
Carol chose this moment to lean in. ‘There are some wonderful books this year,’ she assured him. ‘One of the Irish novels, The Sow and the Farrow, for instance.’
Solanki frowned. ‘One cannot beat out a novel with a shillelagh.’
Carol looked startled. ‘Oh, well… perhaps you’d like the Nigerian—’
‘They write novels?’ His mask of scornful indifference didn’t budge. Laura exchanged a glance with Carol: what might he say next? She asked him what he thought of the Victorian pastiche of Dolly-Mop.
‘By the woman?’ he said. ‘I don’t see any interest there.’
‘In pastiche, you mean?’
‘No. In women. Their sentimental view of the world is not suited to fiction.’
Now Carol laughed. ‘This is quite – what about Jane Austen?’
‘One of the worst. Dull, because she cannot see. Narrow, because she cannot think. I have no time for lady novelists.’
Laura wondered if he had remembered that she had just owned up to being a writer – and she supposed he didn’t care. Carol, her journalist’s nose for a story twitching, had sought Solanki’s view of Jug, the experimental doorstopper. He hadn’t read it, of course, though its author had once interviewed him for a newspaper. ‘One did not detect much promise there,’ he sniffed. ‘His subsequent career has not changed one’s mind.’
Was there any writer he admired? asked Carol. He blinked slowly, and nodded. ‘My father. He was a reporter, for a newspaper in Bombay. He also wrote stories – very good ones. But he never got out of India. That was his mistake.’
A sudden silence fell as the MC introduced the guest of honour, the Duchess of Cornwall, honorary president of the Broglio and, allegedly, a reader. With tolerant good grace she delivered her speech and wished the six competitors luck for later. During this interlude, Laura’s roving eye had spotted Kate Voysey, a writer whom she had once met at a literary festival. She gave her a little wave, which Kate returned. This exchange was noticed by Bryan, silent and glowering. She had a sense that he was still chafing at his table placement.
The room’s applause for the Duchess had just subsided when a tubby fellow, straining inside his dinner jacket, took the long-vacant seat next to her. She smiled at him and said, ‘Hello, I’m Laura. You must be “Guest”.’
He looked at his placement card and laughed. ‘Yeah. That’s me.’
They had just served pudding, an indescribable mess of meringue, fruit and cream so arctic in temperature it hurt Laura’s teeth. The Guest, however, had begun to tear through his helping. His shaven head and bull neck gave him the aspect of a prop forward. He was not, she suspected, a regular at events like this. He saw Laura watching him, and said, ‘Scuse my manners. Haven’t had a bite all evening.’
‘D’you mind my asking – where have you been till now?’
He rolled his eyes. ‘On duty. The bill.’
For a few seconds Laura supposed he was in accounts, totting up the cost of all the food and drink going to waste. Then the clouds parted. ‘Oh, you’re a policeman?’
He nodded. ‘Security detail. For Her Royal Highness.’
‘Should I call you “Officer”?’
‘It’s Dave,’ he said, offering her his meaty hand. She and Carol immediately launched a barrage of questions about his ‘royal duty’, which he answered with good-humoured forbearance, even when Carol asked him how much public money was required to keep the Duchess safe from literary London. He was ready for any eventuality, Dave reckoned, be it an armed assailant or a drunken guest trying to buttonhole her. ‘I’d be across this room in about three seconds,’ he added, though judging from his unwieldy bulk and sweat-beaded face, Laura thought this response-time optimistic.
She glanced to her left, where Solanki was listening, grim-faced, to whatever line of talk had come his way. The stiffness of his bearing indicated how much he wished to be somewhere, anywhere, else. Quite an evening, this: she might never again find herself seated between a Nobel-winning knight and a copper. She decided to take advantage of a lull in the proceedings. ‘I’m just off to powder my nose,’ she told Carol and Dave, feeling relieved to be out of Bryan’s eyeline at last.
On her way out of the loo she ran into Kate Voysey, who accompanied her back through the long, panelled corridors. ‘Don’t go in just yet – I want a word,’ she said as they approached the banqueting hall, and Laura was happy to linger. Tall and willowy, Kate was a few years older than her, and as they talked Laura remembered why she had liked her; she had the easy, confidential manner of someone she felt she had known for much longer.
Kate made a silent-movie ‘O’ of her mouth on hearing Laura’s report of Sir Rajeev Solanki and his considered view of ‘lady novelists’. ‘But listen,’ she said, once they had stopped laughing, ‘am I right in thinking that you’re with Bryan Gorse?’
‘Yes, I’m his guest – and client,’ Laura conceded. ‘Why?’
Something in her expression made Laura brace. ‘May I be honest with you? He was my agent, too, for years – and I really regret it.’
‘Oh dear… what did he do?’
She paused as two guests filed past them. ‘It wasn’t just that he hardly ever praised me. He actively undermined my confidence. I once told him about an idea for a novel I wanted to write – this was about three years after my first – and he said to me, “You’re pretty much forgotten as a novelist.”‘
‘Honestly. The thing you need to understand about Bryan is that he doesn’t much like writers.’
‘But he’s an agent. Surely he—’
‘Oh, he knows how to make money from them. Just like a farmer does from his cattle. He takes them to market – often gets a very good price. But he doesn’t mind seeing them slaughtered.’
‘I know he can be moody,’ said Laura, ‘but is he really as bad as all that?’
Kate returned a look very like that of a plumber Laura had recently used who shook his head at her boiler and said, ‘Whoever put this in here was a right cowboy.’ Now she thought about it, Bryan was more likely to throw up obstacles than to offer encouragement. Despite her prize-winning story and good word-of-mouth, she couldn’t be certain how much effort he had made to get her a publishing deal. They had never really discussed it.
‘I remember feeling so grateful when he took me on,’ she said, not sure why she was defending him. ‘He had such a reputation.’
Kate’s laugh was sceptical. ‘As what? Don’t you think it’s a bit creepy the way he treats young women he represents as though they’re his harem? When I was at the agency I sometimes got the impression I was being auditioned as his girlfriend—’
‘He didn’t try it on?’
‘Not with me. But I know other women who felt uncomfortable around him.’ She glanced behind her, conspiratorially. ‘I gather there’s someone he’s got his eye on at the moment. I don’t know who it is – do you?’
Laura shook her head. ‘No idea. So what did you say to Bryan when you left?’
‘Oh, just that I thought it was time for a change. Maria Macksey at Vortex was building a new list. All very civilised. I never thought he’d beg me to stay, and he didn’t. But I felt like I’d been sprung from literary jail!’
At that moment a suave, grey-haired man in Hockney spectacles was bounding past them and, on recognising Kate, he stopped to greet her.
‘Darling, you look radiant.’
‘Hello there! William, this is Laura Jennings – we met one another at a lit fest last year.’ She introduced him as William Lightbown.
‘You know, I’ve been coming to this event God knows how many years and I’ve never guessed it right once,’ he said, with a merry twinkle. ‘Mystic Meg I am not! This time, well… has to be one of the Irish, doesn’t it?’
‘The land evictions or the Virgin Mary allegory?’
He looked dubious. ‘Oh God! Put like that… it could be Mug, if the judges are feeling especially sadistic.’
‘I’m backing Dolly-Mop,’ said Kate, ‘because it sounds like the most enjoyable of the six.’
‘And there you’ve just given it the kiss of death,’ he replied. ‘What’s the Broglio got to do with “enjoyable”?’
Laura was still trying to recall the name of the sixth book – was it called The Towering something? – when Lightbown begged their pardon and said he must dash: the announcement was coming any minute. A moment later the two women turned to follow in his wake.
Kate gave Laura an enquiring look. ‘Are you all right? You have a very troubled face.’
‘Oh – no, I’m fine,’ she said, somewhat distracted. ‘He seemed friendly.’
‘William? He’s great. And a good publisher, too, despite what he said about his useless forecasting. He’s always championed young talent.’
Laura nodded, lost in thought. The hum within the banqueting hall was stilled by an abrupt screech of feedback, and the harshly amplified voice of the Broglio chair of judges started up. The business end of the evening. She stopped and put her hand on Kate’s arm. ‘I’ll see you inside. I just need to get some air.’
She turned on her heel and headed back down the corridor, past guests hurrying the other way. Bryan would be wondering where she’d got to. She now remembered a conversation with him, perhaps a year ago, when Lightbown’s name had come up. She had suggested pitching her story collection to him. Bryan had told her, in his authoritative way, that she wasn’t a ‘good fit’ for Lightbown’s list – he wouldn’t be interested in quiet, introspective stories like hers.
Outside in Guildhall’s wide plaza, a few smokers were mooching. The mid-October night air carried a warning nip. Beyond, the City lay spread out, coldly alight. Across the way a black Daimler was parked, its driver leaning against the bonnet. He had a furtive cigarette on the go. To her surprise he waved at her, and it took a few steps before she recognised Dave, the Duchess’s copper.
‘Leaving so soon?’ she asked.
‘She likes to get off early,’ he said, and looked at her more closely. ‘You in the writing game, then?’
It seemed it had only just occurred to him to ask. ‘Yes, sort of. I write stories, do a bit of editing…’
He nodded, as if that information would suffice. He’s probably not much interested in books, Laura thought – which wouldn’t make him very unusual even among this crowd, at the ceremony. From deep inside the building came a roar, and the shingly cadence of applause. They glanced at one another. Laura took out her mobile and consulted the Broglio PR Twitter feed. The result was already up.
‘So why did you pick it?’ He shrugged. ‘I saw the list. Only one American on it. Had to be that.’ Laura stared at him. It had come to something when people who couldn’t care less about books knew that about the Broglio
She read it aloud: ‘”Congratulations to Elvin LaSalle, winner of this year’s Midway-Broglio Prize for The Towering Steep.“‘ It was the one she’d been trying to recall, the ghost story about nineteenth-century pioneers losing their way on the Oregon Trail. Dave had produced his wallet; he fished out a piece of paper, which he glanced at before handing it to Laura. It was a Ladbroke’s betting slip for a £20 stake on The Towering Steep to win. ‘Oh my God!’ she cried, but Dave just smiled. ‘How did you – have you read it?’
‘You must be joking. Last thing I read was Lee Child.’
‘So why did you pick it?’
He shrugged. ‘I saw the list. Only one American on it. Had to be that.’
Laura stared at him. It had come to something when people who couldn’t care less about books knew that about the Broglio.
A buzz in his earpiece had distracted Dave. He mumbled back to his invisible interlocutor, dropped his cigarette and crushed it beneath his heel.
‘She’s on her way out,’ he explained, unlocking the Daimler with his fob. He gave his chin a friendly lift before folding his massive bulk into the driver’s seat. ‘Good luck with the writing.’
She walked against the stream of guests exiting the hall. They had gossiped and eaten the awful food and applauded the winner: the excitement was all over for another year. She approached a cluster of fans paying homage to Sir Rajeev Solanki, who had twitched his expression from morose to only slightly bored. Mira Solanki was in among them, but she must have spotted Laura from the corner of her eye.
‘Laura!’ she said, grasping her hand. ‘Rajeev and I were so pleased to meet you. You must come and stay with us in Somerset.’
Laura smiled, and glanced at Mira’s husband. She briefly envisaged the basilisk glare she might expect to receive over the cornflakes chez Solanki. ‘That’s very nice of you,’ she replied, ‘but I’m sure you’re both far too busy to entertain the likes of me.’
But Mira frowned at her self-depreciation. ‘Not at all! You have something, Laura. Do you know what it is?’
She shook her head, nonplussed.
‘You have a special aura,’ Mira said solemnly. ‘Good fortune will attend you.’ Behind her, Solanki had tired of his fan club and was bleating her name. She turned to join him, though not before she added, ‘We shall meet again.’
Laura returned a helpless little wave. She was touched, but she knew almost for certain that they never would.
Back in the banqueting hall the waiting staff were clearing up while the guests squeezed the last droplets of juice from the Broglio sponge. The evening had become a table-hopping free-for-all, and she looked around for faces she knew. There weren’t many. Her wandering took her to the other side of the vast room, then someone she did recognise loomed towards her: William Lightbown, Kate’s friend. On an instinct she stepped in front of him.
Lightbown looked blank for a fraction of a second before he smiled. ‘Oh… Laura, isn’t it? Well, what did you make of that? Yet another winner I comprehensively didn’t predict.’
‘I was just talking to someone who put twenty quid on him.’
‘Who was that?’
‘You’ll never guess. The Duchess of Cornwall’s bodyguard.’
He shook his head. ‘Golly. D’you ever feel you’re in the wrong business?’
There was an after-party in Soho, he went on, they could get a cab there. His expression had softened, and she felt the tips of his fingers graze her bare shoulder
They laughed together, and an uncharacteristic recklessness goaded Laura to speak up. ‘I’m not sure if you know, but I write short stories. In fact one of them won a Sunday Sketch competition a while back. It was called “Hill of Beans”.’
He narrowed his eyes at her. ‘That’s you?! I read it. It was brilliant.’ He wanted to know if she had a publisher, and her heart took a little leap when he asked – no, he demanded – to read some more. ‘You have an agent, I suppose?’
‘Yes, I do… but would you mind if I sent them directly to you?’
He didn’t mind at all. They talked for a while longer, and he handed her his card. ‘I’ll look out for them,’ he said, in parting, and something in his tone, or his manner, convinced her that she had done the right thing.
She felt herself almost floating across the room. The conversation had been so easy, and yet before tonight she would never have dared put herself forward like that. Something had been holding her back, some reticence deep-dyed in her character. She couldn’t tell where it had come from, this sudden access of pluck; she only knew she must hang on to it.
Bryan was right in front of her, his face congested with booze and irritation. He wanted to know where the hell she had been all this time. She apologised, explained that she had needed some air, had lost track of the evening.
‘I saw you over there with William Lightbown,’ said Bryan, pettish still, but curious. ‘What were you talking about?’
‘Oh, nothing much. I wonder, d’you think he’d be interested in the stories?’
‘We’ve talked about this. You wouldn’t be right for his list.’ He glanced at his watch. There was an after-party in Soho, he went on, they could get a cab there. His expression had softened, and she felt the tips of his fingers graze her bare shoulder. ‘Make a night of it. What d’you say?’
She gave him a rueful smile. ‘I’m done in, Bryan, to be honest. But I do want to thank you – not just for inviting me, I mean for that advice you gave me about “networking”. You were right, of course. I need to put myself about more.’
He nodded, pleased that his words had been heeded, though somewhat baffled by her reluctance to extend the evening. ‘Sure I can’t tempt you? Well… let’s talk next week. There are all sorts of possibilities we can explore.’
She remembered him saying the same thing a couple of years ago. As he was striding off she opened her clutch to have another peek at Lightbown’s business card. She would thank Bryan again, properly, in a letter – she was already rehearsing the phrases in her head – the same letter by which she would terminate their association. He had given her the way out of literary jail.
Anthony Quinn’s latest novel is ‘Our Friends in Berlin’ (Jonathan Cape). Buy here