Grace stood on the edge of the party, clutching a glass of warm white wine and peering around hard for Henry. Concentrating on the search was difficult; everywhere she looked she saw someone distractingly famous. A mere paperback's toss away, Nick Hornby was deep in conversation with Helen Fielding, while, just behind them, V. S. Naipaul and Joanna Trollope were laughing uproariously at something Mark Wahlberg had just said . . . Marky Mark? Grace did a double-take. But yes, there was no mistaking that tight little rear end. Of course, Grace remembered, he'd been asked to be a Booker judge this year.
The St. Merrion Festival, long renowned for the number of celebrities it attracted, had clearly excelled itself this time around. Anyone doubting that books were the new rock and roll, Grace thought, only had to be here, at the festival's cocktail reception, to see how much more like a film premiere it looked than anything to do with the traditionally fusty world of writing. Hair shone, teeth gleamed, laughter tinkled. Everyone looked tanned, sleek, wealthy and confident; everyone, moreover, seemed to have film deals.
"So Warner Bros. have just optioned your book, then?" a blonde in diamant_ mules to Grace's left was asking a brunette in a leather jacket.
The brunette gave a self-satisfied nod.
"What a shame. Disney bought mine outright," simpered the blonde, tossing a cloud of split ends. "Much more money that way, of course."
Jenny Bristols and Sassy Jenks, Grace realized. Two of the best-selling young female writers in the country and bitter rivals in the same publishing house.
Grace longed for Henry's untidy head to make an appearance and rescue her. It was ridiculous he was not here yet, not least because, as an author his own mother would describe as obscure, it was a miracle he had been invited to the St. Merrion in the first place.
Grace considered a loo dash, but decided in the end that it was safer to stay put. Mainly because it maximized the chances of Henry finding her, but partly because the last time she had made such an escape she'd trodden on Louis de Berni_res's toe.
Snatches of literary gossip drifted over.
". . . so she came to the end of her author talk and the chairman said, 'Well, now, do the audience have any questions they'd like to ask Miss Atkinson?' and someone put their hand up and said, 'Yes, I want to know where Kate bought those shoes . . . ' "
". . . so there I was saying good-bye to Gore-Vidal, you know-and when I turned around, Susan Sontag had stolen my taxi . . . "
". . . yes, apparently she bookmarks all her rivals on Amazon to see how they're doing. And writes all her own Amazon reviews, so no wonder they've all got five stars . . ."
"I suppose you've heard I've been nominated for the Lemon," Sassy was saying loudly to Jenny. Grace raised her eyebrows in surprise. If this was a competition, that was definitely fifteen love to Jenks. The Lemon, after all, was no empty boast. Aiming to recognize what it saw as "challenging modern fiction," it was one of the most prestigious of the literary prizes. More so even than the Booker, in some eyes.
In reply, Jenny shot smoke out of her nostrils. It rolled like a thundercloud straight into her rival's face. "Well done, darling," she trilled in superior tones. "And marvelous you can be bothered, really. Quite frankly, the prize money wouldn't keep me in fags."
Fifteen all for such bravado on Bristol's part, Grace thought. Everyone in the book world knew how carpet-bitingly incandescent Jenny had been when Shooting Up, Sassy Jenks's first novel, had not only been snapped up for a record sum by the publishing house Ptarmigan, but had also garnered the blanket acclaim of the book world. A world that, so far, had failed to recognize the genius of Jenny Bristols. And in particular, her new novel, Airhead.
So universal had been the Shooting Up reviews that Grace actually remembered them: "Funky, urban and literary" (Guardian); "Urban, literary and funky" (Independent); "Literary, funky and urban" (The Times). The remaining reviews had been variations on the theme of "the humor, power and unstinting realism with which Jenks portrays life as a teenager in the South London projects."
Grace could remember this so clearly because many of the authors she looked after herself, in the publicity department of Hatto & Hatto, had constantly drawn Jenks's success to her attention, the implication being that they deserved similar acclaim and it was her fault they hadn't gotten it. Henry Moon had been practically the only Hatto writer not convinced that Grace's incompetence alone stood between him and worldwide domination.
"In any case," Bristols drawled, "Airhead's won more than its fair share of prizes. The Dyno-Rod Book of the Year, for instance. The Tipp-Ex Editor of the Year Award. And we're just waiting to hear whether it's won the Spud-U-Like PR Campaign as well . . ."
Thirty fifteen, Grace thought.
"Yes, I heard things were complicated by the entries being an even lower standard than usual," interjected Jenks with a sweet smile.
". . . not to mention Airhead's notching up almost half a million in paperback sales," finished Jenny, tossing back her strawlike hair. (So much money, Grace thought, and not a bit to spend on conditioner.)
An angry red spot had appeared on each of Sassy's high cheekbones. Forty thirty; Bristols had scored an ace. Just as Jenks's literary acclaim annoyed Bristols, Jenny Bristols's huge sales figures irritated Jenks.
"And I hear congratulations are due on your Bad Sex Award nomination," Sassy purred, barely missing a beat. "They say Braindead's almost certain to win."
Deuce. Braindead, Jenny's last novel, had sold phenomenally well. Along with the rest of London, Grace had seen its retina-frying pink cover daily on Underground posters with the cover line, "A barnstorming bestseller set in the sex-'n'-scalpels world of neurosurgery." This was, however, the first she had heard of the book's being nominated for the most notorious literary award of all-the prize no author wanted to win-the annual prize given by the Literary Review for that year's worst sex scene in a novel.
Advantage Bristols, thought Grace, hiding a smile behind her near-empty wineglass. She looked for a waiter and saw that she was not the only one in need of topping off. Beth Allardice, literary editor of the powerful mid-market tabloid
The Globe, was staring around hopefully, empty glass in her hand.
"Beth!" Sassy yelled, "It's been ages."
Back to deuce, Grace decided, watching confusion ripple the Allardice features as both Sassy and Jenny, elbows out, plunged toward her at warp speed.
"We've met of course," Jenny urged, flashing all her teeth once more. "Jenny Bristols. Airhead."
"Bad Sex Award nominee," Sassy added sweetly.
Jenny's eyes suddenly bulged as her lips drew back in what could have been either a rictus grin or an expression of agony. Her arms went rigid, hands tensed and clenched like claws.
It wasn't until Grace dropped her gaze that she saw Jenks's stiletto, a thin, sharp shaft of what looked like steel, plunge straight into Bristols's big toe. As she watched, the stiletto twisted. Game to Jenks, thought Grace.
"Henry! Where the hell have you been?"
His thick, dark hair looked, as always, as if it had been dragged from bed less than five minutes ago. His thin, finely boned face looked tired and pale beneath its permanent tan. Yet when he smiled at her, his wide mouth splitting into a grin the size and shape of a watermelon, the bags beneath his bright hazel eyes crinkled fetchingly. There was, Grace thought, something irresistible about Henry. Something, moreover, that she was determined to resist.
"You look rough," Grace said, trying to sound stern. For all his faults, Henry was almost impossible to be angry with. Henry's skin stretched taut across the frame of his tall, broad-shouldered body like the canvas on a kite. She had always found it impossible to imagine him alone with a rucksack, exploring the Himalayas for a lost and legendary tribe who ritually sat around with pebbles in their mouth. Yet he had, and Sucking Stones was the result. "Dreams, drama and dysentery; the pursuit of a personal challenge by the last of the gentlemen explorers," as Grace had put it on the press release. She had been reluctant about the dysentery, but Henry had insisted.
"Makes it sound less serious," he said.
"But it is serious," Grace had replied. "You're a serious explorer."
"No I'm not. Well-I'm an explorer. But I'm not serious."
And about book promotion, Grace knew, he was even less serious. There was nothing she could do to make Henry regard the business of touting his tome as anything but a hoot at best, mild humiliation at worst. Even when the St. Merrion Literary Festival, to whose organizers she had written without the faintest hope that anything would come of it, had replied expressing its interest in having Henry, he had seemed oblivious to the great honor that was being done him. So oblivious, in fact, that in the hours just before he finally, incredibly made his appearance, she had become increasingly certain he had forgotten about the festival completely.
"Where have you been?" she demanded again, noticing, as Henry grabbed and gulped a glass of red wine from a passing tray, that he looked not so much tired as shattered. "Burning the midnight oil?" He had, she knew, been having difficulty starting his next book, yet refused to admit he had writer's block on the grounds that he hated to whine about anything.
"Midnight oil of a sort," Henry confessed, the wine restoring faint color to his cheeks. "I had a curry in Brick Lane at half past one this morning. Washed down with tequila slammers," he added ruefully. "Didn't wake up till eleven, so I had to get the train after the one you said to catch. But I'm here now," he finished hopefully.
It was difficult not to acknowledge the truth of this. "So we'd better get going," Grace retaliated. "I need to get you around as many newspaper and radio people as possible before this party's over. Come on." She seized Henry by the arm. "That's the editor of Woman's Hour over there, and in that corner are the editors of the Sunday Times Style section."
"Do I have to?" moaned Henry. As he stumbled after her, he accidentally trod on the foot of someone deep in conversation with Melvyn Bragg.
"Ouch," yelped Louis de Berni_res.
Following the party, Grace directed Henry to the only bed and breakfast that still had vacancies by the time the green light came from the St. Merrion Festival.
"Past the church and down the lane to the right. You can't miss it. It's called Ivanhoe."
"Very literary, I'm sure." Henry grinned, his brows lifting to reveal eyes of red-rimmed hazel.
"I'll wait for you in the writers' tent," Grace told him.
The fact that there was an official writers' area had been a surprise to Grace, more accustomed to the shabby corner of the bar that, at most literary festivals of her experience, passed for a writers' common room. The facilities offered by the St. Merrion to its participants-a large and splendid tent strung with fairy lights and piled with rugs, cushions and long divans that gave it a faintly Berber flavor-had been a revelation. Grace hurried toward it, determined, now her charge had finally arrived, to soak up some literary atmosphere at last. As well as the free wine and sandwiches that, according to rumor, were in plentiful supply.
With luck, there would be someone in here she recognized. Rather more in evidence was a group of large, black-clad and braless women with frazzled gray hair and bare, unshaven legs tucked up on the divans under generous bottoms. Among them Grace recognized Sherry Krank, author of Balls Off: Desexing the Male Oppressor and the unmistakably enormous outline of Tiny Rumpelmeyer, whose Cock and Bull: Why All Men Are Liars had proved a more-than-worthy follow-up to her celebrated Pestosterone: The Hormonal Harrasser of the year before. They and the rest of the sisterhood glared at Grace suspiciously. Sherry, whose T-shirt bore the slogan "Men Should Come with Instructions," plonked thick, bare feet on the coffee table in front of her, as if to discourage Grace from sitting there.
Grace was gratified to spot Jane Lewis, author of Fromage, chatting to Mike Bloke, wild-haired, bespectacled star of the Lit Lad firmament. "Yes, it was wonderful when Brad agreed to star in the film of Fromage," Jane was reminiscing, a beatific beam on her face, while Mike looked tense. Grace smiled to herself. This was more like it.
She walked over to the refreshment table, reveling in the strange feel of carpets spread over grass. She poured a glass of white wine and helped herself gratefully to a couple of prawn sandwiches. They were curling at the edges but welcome nonetheless.
Grace gazed at the festival program pinned to a board above the refreshment table. A warm glow overcame her that had nothing to do with the wine. There, listed among the events of tomorrow, between V.S. Naipaul previewing his latest novel and Gore Vidal's insider's view of American politics, and above a "Meet the Author" with Margaret Atwood and Doris Lessing's lecture was-roll of drums, fanfare of trumpets-"Henry Moon talks about his latest work, Sucking Stones." Gazing at it, Grace could feel the tears pricking the back of her eyes. She had never managed to get the mighty St. Merrion interested in a Hatto author before, and getting Henry here had been an achievement. In more ways than one.
As if on cue, Henry suddenly appeared through the tent's elaborate wooden archway entrance. "My God," he said loudly, looking around in amazement at the intricately carved domes, the cushions and kilims. "Takes me straight back to the Khyber Pass."
The women in black glared and whispered furiously to each other. While Grace, straining her ears, heard the phrase "colonialist bastard," Henry, oblivious, went to inspect the refreshments table.
Suddenly, there was the sound of ringing laughter at the entrance, and in sashayed a beautiful young woman surrounded by at least ten men. The woman was shaking her long curtain of glossy black hair, undulating her compact, curvy body and showing small, perfect teeth as she laughed and clutched a folder to her small, perfect breasts. It was Millie Simpson, the wife of a multimillionaire rock star whose recently published novel had generated much interest. Grace turned away in time to see, with a jolt of jealousy that surprised her, Henry lower his bottle of Becks from his mouth and stare at Millie in open admiration. Grace, suddenly keenly aware of her own lack of curves and excess of height, her practical blonde bob, her unremarkable gray eyes, unrelentingly nose-shaped nose and mouth-shaped mouth, felt a sudden sense of sisterhood with the braless coven in black who were staring at Millie with unmitigated loathing. No sooner had she arrived than a man in chauffeur's uniform appeared. "Must fly, darlings," Millie gasped to her disappointed admirers. The farewell, Grace imagined, was literal; Millie's husband famously had at least five personal jets.
"Where's she gone?" Henry asked, shuffling up.
"Off in one of her many helicopters to one of her many homes, I should think," Grace said, trying to steer her tones to the airily uninterested side of seething envy. With no great success, judging from the amused way in which Henry was regarding her over the top of his bottle.
"Would you like to know who else is here?" Grace muttered, reddening. "That's Jane Lewis over there. Author of Fromage."
"Never heard of it," Henry said cheerfully.
Grace stared at him. "But Henry, it was the publishing sensation of last summer. All about this piece of overripe Camembert, and how it unlocked memories of the war for this old soldier . . . no?"
Henry, biting into a sandwich that had seen better hours, if not better days, shook his head.
"Made into a film with Brad Pitt?" Grace prodded, lowering her voice as Mike Bloke walked by. "And that's Phil Plant over there," she added.
"Stand-up comedian, wrote a book called With a Ferret Down My Trousers, about walking from Land's End to John O'Groats with, well, a ferret down his trousers. Sort of comic travel book. Sold like hotcakes, apparently." Grace stopped, uncomfortably conscious that Henry's travel book, infinitely superior if not quite so obviously comic, had done less well. Significantly less well. Quite badly, in fact. She looked at him apprehensively. Henry's attention, however, had moved on.
"Who's that woman?" he asked, as Jenny Bristols entered, shrieking excitedly at a weasely-looking man Grace recognized as being from one of the newspaper diaries.
"Absolutely dreadful, isn't it?" Jenny was yelping. "Classic flash-in-the-pan syndrome. Poor Sassy."
"Just awful," agreed the man, scribbling rapidly. "So the rumor is that Shooting Up was written by someone else entirely?"
"Yes, but I didn't tell you that," Jenny said, lowering her voice dramatically as she swept past Grace and Henry. "We agreed unattributed quotes, remember? I mean, imagine," she added, collapsing on a divan in the corner. "I'd die if my editor told me my second book was so bad, such utter rubbish, such crap, that it needed to be completely rewritten. Started absolutely from scratch. There's talk of returning half the advance and everything. Sassy's devastated," Jenny added in a stage whisper, thrusting her breasts forward with her elbows.
"I need to get out of here," Henry said to Grace. "Fancy a walk? It's still light and we might catch a sunset."
Taken aback, Grace nodded.
The farm on whose land the festival was being held occupied a lofty position atop a Cornish peninsula. They walked between the tents of the temporary festival village-Henry stumbling here and there over the guy ropes. The warm evening air, scented with fresh-cut hay and spiced with the faint salt tang of the sea, swirled around them. As Grace and Henry turned out of the flag-fluttering festival entrance and into the lane, hedges superabundant with flowers flanked them; bluebell, garlic, foxglove, buttercup, cow parsley, valerian, gorse, campion, London Pride; all entangled so artistically it seemed impossible that they had not been deliberately arranged by some fashionable florist. When Grace, feeling rather ingenious, mentioned this to Henry, he looked horrified. "They look much better than that." Her similies thus checked, verbally at least, Grace decided not to mention how the sky, streaked in all the glowing colors of sunset, reminded her of scenes of cavorting deities on stately home ceilings. High up, clouds like slashed gold velvet revealed salmon-pink islets in seas of duck-egg blue; below, the sinking sun glowed into the clouds like a candle being held to mother-of-pearl. All that was missing were a few bearded muscular gods, luxuriantly plump goddesses cloaked in immodest scraps of cloth and apple-cheeked putti.
It was very pleasant, this, striding along next to Henry between the floral walls beneath the Olympian sky. Even if, Grace realized, tuning in guiltily, she had not been listening to a word he was saying. Something about his travels, by the sound of it.
". . . woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of water. I thought it was a rainstorm until I heard a growl and realized a lion was pissing on the side of my tent." His eyes sparkled. "Talk about lucky." "You'd never want to go to the Caribbean?" asked Grace, to whom all this had sounded anything but lucky. Henry rolled his eyes. "The thought of lying in the sun on a beach all day makes me want to lose the will to live." "Does it?" Grace sighed wistfully. She had, in recent weeks, been fantasizing about a stretch of golden sand by a turquoise sea. The kind of place where you stuck flags in the sand when you wanted another cocktail. Perhaps it was being with Sion that had done it, a man whose idea of a seaside holiday was the Socialist Workers' Party convention at Skegness . . . But I'm not thinking about that, Grace told herself sternly. Part of the reason she had come here was, after all, to stop obsessing about Sion.
Henry's face lit up. "Unless by the Caribbean you mean Haiti. Crazy or what." He smiled fondly.
"Really." But that was an accurate enough assessment of Papa Doc's achievements, she supposed.
"Oh yes," Henry enthused. "You'd love some of the places I've been to. Did you know there's a part of Eastern Europe where they still have bubonic plague?"
Grace shook her head vigorously.
"And North Korea is just wild. Like being in a different solar system. They've never heard of Princess Diana, even." He pulled on his cigarette. What Grace could see of his eyes looked far away. "I've been chased down the Amazon by armed drug dealers. Been reduced to eating my own dog in the jungle. Dined on steamed silkworms with Chinese gangsters."
Grace grimaced. "Ugh. How could you?"
Henry flicked her a narrow-eyed glance. "Like I said, it was with Chinese gangsters. You eat what you're given in those circumstances. And they're quite nice, really. Sort of subtle-tasting. Rather like . . ."
"Chicken?" guessed Grace.
"You've had them, then?" Henry beamed.
"Okay," he said, realizing he was being teased. "But traveling. There's nothing like it."
"I loved Sucking Stones," Grace leapt in eagerly. "I thought it was wonderful." Diplomatically, she did not add what a surprise this had been. Not naturally drawn to tales of Himalayan derring-do, Grace had approached the book with professional resignation and personal reluctance, but had been so drawn in by its drama, humor and general air of joie de vivre, that she had twice missed her stop on the Tube while reading it. "That bit where you come over the mountain ridge to find the whole tribe sitting there with huge stones in their mouths. Amazing."
They had just come over the top of the hill themselves and were looking down the darkening finger of land pushing out into a sea of liquid gold. "It's so beautiful," Grace murmured.
Henry smiled at her. His eyes, she noticed, were rising slightly out of their cushions of bag; slits of amber in the setting blaze of the sun. Turning to her, he raked a hand through hair that had clearly not seen a brush for some days. Less bed hair, Grace thought, than hair that had never made it up the stairs in the first place. "It's good to be here," he said. "I'm having a great time." His voice seemed oddly low and gruff. Extra meaning, Grace wondered, or early-stage emphysema?
"Good," she replied, higher and more breathlessly than intended. "The St. Merrion Festival is very prestigious."
"I'm not talking about the bloody festival," Henry stared unrelentingly at her as she reddened. He took a long, contemplative draw on his cigarette. Silence fell.
Grace's heart was rushing about her rib cage like a dazzled rabbit. Her stomach felt like the molten ball of fire sinking in the sea below them. "Shall we go back and have a drink?" she squeaked out.
--from Gossip Hound by Wendy Holden, Copyright © 2003 Wendy Holden, Published by Plume Books, a member of the Penguin Group (USA), Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.