By Sarah Edmonds
5 minutes to -30-
This is a love story. It’s important to remember that.
24 hours to -30-
I had trouble finding my typewriter case this morning. My forehead immediately beaded with stress sweat, even though there are a limited number of places in our narrow Edwardian half-house anything that bulky could hide.
I’d taken the Underwood No. 5 (circa 1927—one of the most indestructible and popular models ever made) off my desk a week ago and locked it away God knows where.
I’d kept up the writing, of course, in notebooks. That was a given. But I hadn’t transcribed a word since the endgame began. It would take me at least a few hours to type out the remaining pages, and the clock was ticking.
This panic is new, I thought. This hunger to reach the finish line.
In the beginning, I’d been so desperate to prolong the process. I’d procrastinate just to make it last, delay and delay beginning that day’s work. I had wanted it to last an infinite number of minutes. This was the first time I hadn’t dreaded reaching the end.
The case turned up at last, on the spare room bed underneath Holmes, Verity’s last remaining cat. I’d given all the others away already, and the two little dogs too, guided by her careful instructions about which one should go to whom throughout.
I’d made arrangements for Holmes as well, but I wanted to keep him with me for one more night. I’d always liked Holmes more than the others. He was a kind, clever, and characterful being and his warm curled body made the bed feel fractionally less empty.
Reluctant to dislodge him, I instead reached down and cupped the back of his warm head. The head pressed back, luxuriating in my touch. When I removed the hand, he blinked up at me and, as languidly as the caterpillar departing Alice’s mushroom, slid off the box and made his way to the foot of the bed to resume his nap.
21 months and 3 days to -30-
“This? A grand piano, of course. What does it look like?”
“It looks,” Verity said, “like a typewriter. More specifically, it looks like the ancient Underwood I bought you last Christmas because I read that marvellous piece on authors who use old tools to inspire creativity. What I mean is why is it a typewriter?”
I swivelled around in my chair and peered up at her. She was wearing a terrycloth robe with a hood that cast a shadow across her open, sweet, old-fashioned face. The latest foster kitten was nestled in the crook of her elbow. It was very young.
“That seems a very existential question. When is a typewriter not a typewriter? Why is a raven like a writing desk?”
“No, I mean, why are you using a typewriter?”
I turned back to the squat machine, ran a hand over its frame and across the rows of round keys, and flexed my fingers like a pianist about to begin a concerto.
“I am using it,” I said grandly, “to type.”
She was giggling now. “To type what?”
“Words, I thought. Seemed appropriate, no?”
“No, I mean, why are you writing on a typewriter? Where’s your slick little laptop?”
I tapped the bottom drawer of my desk.
“My lovely X13 is safely tucked in here, along with a sheaf of long-ignored reminders for medical checks, and three dog-eared manuscripts that you have read and pretended to like, but which should all be torched in case some future biographer finds them. It is enjoying a well-earned holiday from finger sweat, coffee dribbles, and curse spittle.”
“Won’t you find it too slow? Typing? Aren’t you the guy who claims it’s impossible to write on anything but a computer keyboard? And who can’t fathom how so many writers work in longhand when the passage from brain to paper is so slow?”
“That was probably true for journalism. This is different.” I tried to turn the subject. “I read a story about history of the typewriter the other day—did I tell you?—that said North American reporters ended all their stories dash-30-dash to indicate to the typesetters the piece was complete. No one is quite sure why but—”
“But you said keyboards even for fiction,” she said. “Even more so, you said. When you opened this at Christmas, you called it a charming artefact, but said you’d never be able to write on it.”
I felt a little flash of temper, whether due to her continued questions or my own guilt at showing such ingratitude for a thoughtful present, I can’t say.
“The tools don’t matter anymore,” I said. “This book will turn out the same whether I use a laptop, typewriter, pencil, or a feathered quill dipped in diluted monkey shit. It won’t make an iota of difference this time.”
She looked upset. “I don’t like to hear you sound so defeatist.”
“I could even,” I said, “write it in blood on a nuthouse wall, a la the Marquis de Sade.”
As I’d hoped, that ended things. She pulled a face at the blood-and-nuthouse reference, drew the kitten closer, and trotted away, accompanied by a purr as loud as a four-stroke engine.
5 hours to -30-
I won’t bother outlining the plot. You’ll have read it in the blurb on the back, or in some review or the other. Or on the film’s IMDB page. There will be one—a film. I know that as well as I know I was right about the monkey shit. At least I think I do.
21 months and 8 days to -30- (Part I)
He came in a half hour before closing.
Heavy clouds had been gathering all afternoon. Mo kept eyeing them as we shelved the new stock, then glancing at his watch. Finally, he turned to me and, biting his lip, asked if I’d forgive him if he left me to finish up on my own. He didn’t have an umbrella, you see, and it looked like the Day of Judgement out there. And he was meeting someone. Someone new. His hair—
I pointed at the abandoned umbrella barrel under the counter. Why not just take one of those for the evening? He couldn’t possibly, he said. He’d definitely lose it on the Tube or forget it at home. Besides, how would it look if the owner turned up in the next hour and found his brolly gone?
Mo believed in good behaviour as devoutly as he did in good hair.
I sent him off home.
He must have been gone before the other came in, since I didn’t hear Mo offer his usual pleasantries. No, “Good evening, sir.” Or, “Please go along in.” Which was why I jumped when I heard a throat-clearing cough over my left shoulder.
I pivoted so fast I nearly toppled off the rolling stool we used to reach the upper shelves.
“Terribly sorry.” Once I’d regained both balance and dignity, I stepped down and faced him with a smile. “I didn’t hear you come in. May I help with anything?”
He said my name and flashed teeth at me as white as young bone. His accent was indeterminate. Maybe foreign-educated North American. Not far off Verity’s.
I didn’t find it odd that he knew my name. Many residents in the area knew I’d taken over Pocket Worlds Used and New Books six months before, along with the stock, staff, and website. I’d even been interviewed in the Ham & High about my plans for modernisation and about the new Meet the Author series I had planned.
“Ah,” said the man, “but that story didn’t have one word in it about the fact that in buying the shop, you were not fulfilling a dream, but giving one up. In the Ham & High, I mean.”
I fell back a step.
“I’m not sure what you mean, sir,” I said, careful not to sound suspicious. He was, until proven otherwise, a customer.
“About two years ago, you took a buyout from Market Maker magazine—quiet a generous one, I might add—determined to at last achieve a life goal: to write a novel worthy of sitting cover-to-cover with those that populate this shop. And after two false starts, you thought you had. But you were wrong, weren’t you?”
I felt my face heat. Not completely wrong, I wanted to say. Hadn’t one of the six agents to whom I’d sent submissions written to say I had “obvious talent”?
Of course, none of the others had bothered to respond. And the agent who had done so had gone on to add that, despite this, my story was “flat” and “contrived” and my protagonist “unlikeable”. When I’d written back, all grateful diffidence, asking how to go about fixing these flaws, he’d offered the email equivalent of a shrug. He received far too many submissions to allow for detailed feedback. Keep trying. Perhaps I’d benefit from picking up a copy of his own modest tome: The Writer’s Craft: A Compendium of Advice from the World’s Great Authors.
“So you reread what you’d written,” the man in the shop said, as if I’d said all this aloud, “and decided he was right. And when your brother came round that evening and asked if you knew of anyone who might be interested in taking over a thriving little high street bookshop, you decided it was a message from the universe”—he gestured at the ranks of shelves that surrounded us—“and here we are.”
I stared at him, pretty seriously freaked out now. How the hell was he doing this?
He propped a hip against the cash counter and watched me with amusement and folded arms. “You know why it didn’t work, don’t you? The Rest is Silence? Good title, by the way. The Bard has all the good titles.”
I know, I thought, this is a dream. A particularly vivid dream, admittedly. One of those dreams so sharp-edged that belief in their reality clings to you even after you’ve opened your eyes on the world. I’ll wake up soon and…
“Nope,” the man said, “not a dream. Sorry. Anyway, back to the question—you know why it didn’t work, don’t you? The book?”
“Verity,” he said.
“My wife,” I repeated, not liking the sound of her name in his mouth, “who is a writer herself and who teaches a course on The English Novel at the Open University, says I overplot. Overthink. That I move my characters around like chess pieces and force them to do things that work for my preconceived story instead of freeing them to decide for themselves.”
I’d sulked over this assessment at the time, although I knew she was right. The truth was I had yet to create a character who whispered in my ear the way the greats claimed theirs did. Unless I told them what words to use and what tasks to accomplish, my characters said and did nothing.
He shook his head. “No. It’s not something you’re doing too much of. It’s something that’s missing. Something essential.”
Against my better judgement, I asked what that something essential was.
20 months and 13 days to -30-
Before I went to bed at the end of Writing Day 10, I squared up the pages of first perfect (and completed) chapter and set it beside the typewriter. Face-up, so I would see its beautiful black-and-white face when I sat down to work the next day.
I was humming when I made my way up the stairs to what I now rather grandly called my Writing Room (Verity still styled it “the cats’ room”) the next morning. There was music in the rain that lashed the windows. I felt well-rested and optimistic and, as Henry Miller put it in a phrase that had stayed with me forever, “pregnant with book”.
What I found was disaster. All 21 pages had been turfed off the desk and were now spread across the floor in a rough oval with a slight mount in the middle. Some were wet. Some crumpled. Some torn. Across the whole, a saga written in muddy pawprints.
Instantly furious, I shouted Verity’s name. She ran up the stairs and skidded to a halt behind me, asking while still in motion if I was all right.
I jabbed a finger at the hillock of besmirched paper.
“Do you see what your feline thugs have done?”
I moved aside, inviting her to share my doorway and my dismay, and we stood with shoulders touching and surveyed the wreckage. The warmth of her shoulder nearly made me forgive her for the cats. But then Scrap, a Yorkshire-something mix barely bigger than a trade paperback, trotted through our legs and waded into the middle of the white landscape.
He had just come in through the cat door and was drenched and excited. We didn’t have time to say No, Scrap. Or to scoop him up and hustle him outside. He was too quick.
He proceeded to shake his little body as hard as he could, sending an almost perfectly round circle of Jackson Pollock-esque dots across the pages that surrounded him. And then, just as I was opening my mouth to bellow at him to get out, he turned in three tight circles, and settled down in the epicentre of the carnage with a happy sigh.
That was too much for Verity. She doubled over with laughter, arms strapped across her middle as if she needed to hold her ribs in place.
She had a belly-deep and infectious laugh, and I usually found myself joining in, even if I was in another part of the flat and had no idea what she was laughing about. I resisted this time, and instead launched into a lecture about not caring about other people’s things.
I was just warming to my subject (“You do realise that is the sole copy in the world? That nothing I’ve written is backed up on a hard drive or stored on the sodding cloud?”), when she quietly and correctly pointed out that, if I was so worried about the animals getting in there, I would not have left the door open the night before.
“Besides,” she said, wiping away laughter-tears, “haven’t you always said things write better the second time? That’s what you always tell me, anyway.”
“That’s not the point,” I grumbled (although I had said it—and had always found it to be the case). And because I was still grumpy, both about the mess and about the fact that it was essentially my fault, I snapped: “Why the hell do we have so many animals, anyway? It’s like a fucking day care in here. Only at least we could train children to leave my stuff alone.”
She flinched as though I’d hit her.
“Oh Jesus, Verity. I didn’t mean—”
But she was gone. And I was an asshole.
I knew very well why we had so many animals. And I knew that by mentioning children, I had dealt a blow to a heart held together with the thinnest layer of scar tissue.
Seven tortuous rounds of IVF. Four utter failures. Three glorious pregnancies, two of which had lasted fewer than eight weeks and ended in blood and tears. One which had engendered five months of hope and planning and buying of clothes, only to end in a miscarriage so physically and psychically traumatic it had put her in hospital for a week.
We’d talked about adoption since, but Verity was still holding out for a miracle, although even her natural optimism was beginning to shake as the barren years rolled by.
Cursing myself, I ran down to the kitchen to apologise properly, but she’d taken Scrap and Samwell, the corgi, out for a walk.
21 months and 8 days to -30- (Part II)
“You’re wrong, you know.” I turned away and pushed home a paperback that stood half a millimetre proud of its neighbours.
I felt rather than saw the man shake his head. “Can you honestly argue,” he said, “that you allowed yourself onto the page in any of those manuscripts?”
“Don’t be stupid. Of course, I did. They were my words, my ideas.”
“Ideas, words. Not emotions. Not truths. You treated those manuscripts like journalism. You sat above and apart and assembled paragraphs and sentences in a cold, coherent way. But you never walked through them. You never put yourself on the page.”
“Why would—” I trailed off, annoyed at what I’d nearly admitted. Why should I tell a stranger any of this?
He shrugged. “You’re telling me because you must.”
“Why would anyone want to see me on the goddamned page?” I felt a moment of real pain at saying this (and hated myself for it). A deep ache at the base of my throat. A sharper one in my palms. I looked away so he couldn’t read any of this on my face.
“Fuck what anyone wants,” he told the back of my head. “Don’t you get it? You are the only thing you have to offer.”
“Can’t imagine I’ll have any takers, with that on the table.”
“Well then, it seems I was wrong. You shouldn’t be a writer.”
“Don’t be an ass,” I snapped. “I’ve spent most of my goddamned life writing.”
“But what?” he said. “Such-and-such sector poised for a rally. This-and-that retailer ripe for takeover. Oh, most of it was accurate. Perfectly competent. You even managed the odd grace note. But so many stock phrases. So little humanity. It was all useful, but how much meant anything?”
“And how,” I asked (in a tone anyone as supposedly adept at reading minds as he was would have recognised as dangerous), “do you suggest I rectify that now?”
“You’re right. It’s time to move forward—time to actually sacrifice for your writing.”
“Okay, enough. Who the hell are you, anyway? Why have you stepped out of some shadow to torture me when I’m finally coming to terms with my life? Besides,”—I stuck out my chin—“I have sacrificed. I gave up writing to run this shop.”
And with that, I turned my back on him and strode over to the cart of newly arrived books I’d been in the process of putting away when he walked in.
“I’m afraid there’s a lot to get through before I can head home,” I tossed back over my shoulder. “You’re welcome to stay and have a look around, of course. I’ll even give you mates’ rates if you find something you like.”
And I settled into the soothing rhythm of shelving and, for a little while, successfully pretended he wasn’t there.
18 months to -30-
Verity didn’t say anything to anyone when her periods stopped. She didn’t say anything to anyone when she started to throw up in the early mornings. She didn’t say anything to anyone when the skin on her abdomen grew taut and warm and round.
She didn’t say anything because every other time she’d told anyone about amenorrhea, or vomiting, or new roundness in her belly, all that had followed was disappointment. If I change it up, went her thinking, maybe this time will be different.
So instead of saying anything, she quietly gave up wine and caffeine and took to eating very, very well and to taking herself early to bed, where she would curl her body in such a way as to protect that taut belly. And that budding hope.
I sensed her happiness as we breathed together in the dark. But because I was distracted by my new love, the love of filled pages, I didn’t devote much thought to the why of it.
21 months and 8 days to -30- (Part III)
I didn’t hear him move. Didn’t feel the disruption of electrical energy that comes when someone changes position in a shared space.
So when I felt breath slide past my ear, I froze.
“You want,” he said, and his voice was liquid nitrogen, “to listen to me.”
“About what?” My jaw was locked with fear. I barely got the words out.
“To my proposition.”
“Look, friend, I’m afraid I’m just not…er…wired that way.”
He rocked back on his heels and roared with laughter. “Don’t be ridiculous. I don’t want your body. At least…”
I got to my feet and smoothed the font of my trousers and set Isabel Allende’s House of the Spirits (it was Women Writers in Translation week) back on the cart.
He too stood up. I noted that his knees didn’t crack. “I can give you the thing you want most in the world.”
“Right,” I said, thinking, this is insane. The switch has finally flipped in my brain—knew it would one day. Then, against my will, picturing it all: The acceptance letter, the champagne, the choosing of covers, the bumper crop of great reviews, the interview on Radio 4’s Open Book. Saying, thank you for having me, Mariella. And: Really? You thought so? So delighted you enjoyed it.
I gave myself a mental shake and returned to reality—or unreality—or whatever this was. “Right,” I said again, “And all for the low, low price of one eternal soul.”
He laughed. “I don’t want your worthless little soul either.”
It occurred to me to say that even if he had, he’d have been too late. I’d sold my soul regularly in the year before I took over the bookshop. When I’d engaged in a spot of lexical prostitution for a content factory. The cost? A generous £1 a word.
Instead, I said, “I don’t understand why you would choose me of all people. There must be othe—I mean, I’m a good person.”
“When you can be bothered to be,” he said. “Look, the forces I represent aren’t attracted by evil. That’s too easy. They’re attracted by opportunity.”
He flicked a glance at the ceiling, as if he was puzzling out how to explain quantum mechanics to a child. “They’re just looking for what every dealer is looking for—someone to take the other side of a trade. You have an unmet need. They will fill it—for a price.”
“And that price?”
“A small thing, so small. Just some blood to go with the sweat and tears you’ve already shed.” He chuckled, as if he’d made a joke. “Blood, sweat and tears: The baptismal water of Art.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
A slow smile. “Exactly.” And then: “As I said, I offer you the thing you want most in life, have always wanted. The price is”—the smile widened—“a life.”
“Oh, that’s perfect. Just the kind of bargain I’d expect someone like me to get lumbered with. I can have the thing I want most in the world, but I have to drop dead to get it. Look, I’ve had about enough—”
“Oh, but that’s the beauty of it,” he said. “I never said that life had to be yours.”
20 months and 14 days to -30-
Past the outdoor boxing gym, with its grunts and glovethuds and hip-hop. Or maybe rap. It’s been a long time since I could even pretend to be capable of naming a musical genre.
I had haunted this promising area around the housing estate for three weeks. There were trees, a mid-sized park with tennis courts, and far fewer people than in the more upmarket areas east of West End Lane, where mothers pushed expensive strollers to expensive coffee bars, and track-suited execs strutted importantly past, half-shouting into iPhones.
I saw the boy as he left the block of flats with his dog, a young, sprawly, happy German Shepherd. He was probably in his early twenties—the boy, I mean—but I thought of him as a boy because he walked with that wide-limbed swagger of a 12-year-old who has just been given a slingshot, or a hunting knife in a sheath. Some item he knows will inspire envy.
I’d been tracking him for a few days now, since he swore at me for no reason, because I got in the dog’s path, or his. Pleased to find such clear evidence of thuggery, I’d dreamed him up a life so filled with reprehensible behaviour that anyone who took him out would be doing the world a favour. He drank, took drugs, and only last week, according to my version of events, he’d broken his girlfriend’s jaw when she’d turned up late after a night out with friends.
My backpack rode easily, encumbered only with a chef’s knife, a pair of blue surgical gloves (powder-free), and one of those plastic boxes of wipes that sit next to baby changing tables.
I’ll take him from behind, I decided. Once we’re out of eyeshot of the building. When he (as he always did) let the dog off his lead in the little fenced strip of grass by the rail line.
I picture a range of possible outcomes:
He hears me coming, spins around before I can get to the knife. Then, quick as you like, he unsheathes his own and plunges it right into my beating heart.
Or the dog vaults the fence like a steeplechaser, runs me down and rips out my throat.
Or when I’ve extracted the knife, I stumble and fall and impale myself on eight inches of German-forged stainless steel.
In the final version of this interior movie, I succeed. I bury my knife in him up to the four-rivet handle, and he chokes to death on blood as the poor dog looks on, barking and yelping with impotent grief and rage. I ignore him, strip off my gloves, and use the nappy wipes to clean off the knife before winging it onto the tracks. I then bundle up my jacket and the gloves and the wipe and tuck the lot into a half-filled cardboard box someone has abandoned against the railway fence. I walk home without anyone seeing me.
Cut to me walking in the door. And Verity reading what I have done on my face.
She would too, I think. I have never in all our years together been able to lie to her without her suspecting something.
Suppose I were to come clean at the outset? Try to explain it all to her, how I’ve done the world a favour by killing such a brutal kid, and how I can now do the world another favour by giving it a Great Work of Fiction.
She will say, Can you be sure he’s a thug? The dog loves him, doesn’t it? Suppose he’s his grandmother’s only companion? Think of how she would feel, sitting there, waiting for him to come home from walking his dog. Only he never does.
And most damningly, she might ask how I could be sure the man in the bookshop was real. Has it occurred to you he might just be a hallucination? A psychotic break?
And back in the real world, as the credits scroll past my own personal film noir, I stop following the boy and his dog, turn around, and go home.
It doesn’t matter, I tell myself as walk. At least I’ll get to write the book. I’ll just have to imagine the life it will have after I am dead.
15 months and 17 days to -30-
By the time we discovered the true nature of the inhabitant in her womb, it was too late. Because she was superstitious, she kept putting off taking a pregnancy test or booking a doctor’s appointment (after all, when had any doctor ever given her good news?) and the malignant cells of the mass that was not an infant sent tendrils out from her uterus that spread through her body with terrifying speed.
They tried radiation. They tried chemo. We had moments of hope, weeks of despair.
When there was no chance left, we organised hospice care at home. Verity wanted it that way. It was her death, she said, it should be on her terms. A team from the borough met with us while she was in hospital recovering from an infection and came up with a care plan.
We rented a wheelchair and a hospital bed. I massaged her with oils so she wouldn’t develop bed sores. I cooked and kept the place clean. I watched Netflix movies with her and read her old P.D. James and new Val McDermid. And Dickens and Austen. And Ishiguro and Faulks.
We had regular check-ins from the social worker and a nurse came by regularly to make sure she had enough pain meds.
As time went on, it became clear there weren’t enough pain meds in the world.
2 weeks to -30-
I balanced her favourite pillow across thighs and listened to the harsh in and out of her breathing as the engine of her life sputtered on.
She looked up at me, and nodded, and smiled. Her death, her terms. We had spent the whole morning remembering and talking, but it was clear the pain was now almost beyond bearing.
Her hair was sweat-caked and her cheeks hollow and pale. She was utterly lovely.
I gently laid the pillow across her face.
The funeral was last week. In the face of shrinking modern congregations, our neighbourhood church had two years ago leased half the building out to a childcare centre and a post office branch. There are only 20 pews left now. Every one was full. Easels around the church bore huge blown-up photographs of her laughing, listening to stories with that totalness I had always envied, cuddling with her animals.
We played her favourites—Beethoven’s exquisite 5th Piano Concerto, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, the k.d. Lang version, Don’t Stop Me Now by Queen. There were speeches by the general manager of the cats’ home where she volunteered and by her department head at the university. Friends told stories of shared adventure, disaster and joy.
Dozens of her former students came. They told me afterward how heartbroken they were, and what a difference she had made to their lives. Three had gone on to write fiction themselves. One made regular appearances on the bestseller lists.
Afterward, we—her two sisters and their families, my brother and his, and I—sprinkled her ashes in the woods at the top end of Hampstead Heath. One of the brothers-in-law stood watch, since we weren’t entirely sure we weren’t breaking some law. Verity had suggested it, I told them. That way, she’d said, I will go on as part of the trees.
We had drinks at the Spaniard’s Inn, and I went home to start tying off loose ends.
Over the past few days, I’ve delivered Holmes to his new home—with Mary, Verity’s university best friend. I’ve written detailed instructions for my brother, the executor of both our Wills. He is due to come round this evening. He has a key, of course.
And yes, I have finished the book. It took me half a day to research and choose an agent and, an hour ago, I walked to the church post office to send it on its way. Registered, of course.
I no longer care if I have satisfied the gods or the demons or whatever with the sacrifice of the person I love most in the world. It doesn’t matter if my death was necessary or unnecessary to the bargain. I no longer even care if the man and his promises were delusions.
This is my death. These are my terms.
I fill a tumbler with Talisker 18-year-old Single Malt and savour it while listening to music.
Once the glass is empty, I take a belt and, as shown in a helpful video I unearthed from the bowels of the Internet, tie off and ready the needle. I have gathered the morphine over time, never syphoning enough in any one go to dull Verity’s pain relief. My patience has been rewarded. The accumulated dose is sufficient for requirements.
I plunge the needle home, sit back and prepare to drift out of the world.
All the while, I am thinking of our child, Verity’s and mine, nestled in a mailbag at the church post office, waiting to be born.
Sarah Edmonds is a veteran journalist who has lived and worked in seven countries on three continents. She now lives in the United Kingdom, works as a communications consultant and is studying crime fiction writing at the University of East Anglia.