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Authors: Mil Millington

A Certain Chemistry

BOOK: A Certain Chemistry
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a certain chemistry

A NOVEL

mil millington

VILLARD
NEW YORK

To the most precious and adored things in my life: Jonathan and Peter. If I can leave you nothing else, at least let me leave you the dedication in this book.

Oh and, incidentally, the way things are going I probably
will
be leaving you nothing else, okay? Bite the bullet, lads.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

As usual, a big thank-you to the band. On bass, agenting, slanderous gossip, and support and advice of absolutely, utterly, all varieties . . . Hannah Griffiths, ladies and gentlemen! On harp, commissioning editing, outrageous poshness, and a teary, romantic nature which secretly conceals an obsessive fascination with the raw details of sexual mechanics—please put your hands together for Helen Garnons-Williams! On some kind of horse fitted with microphones that, I don’t know, probably convert the electrical impulses associated with muscle activity into musical tones or something, being illuminatingly funny and clever, standing back and letting me get on with this stuff with typical good manners and great forbearance, and the assassination of a string of Italian judges in the late 1990s—iiiiiiiiiit’s Mr. Jonathan Nash!

For the U.S. leg of the tour we also have a couple of special guests on stage with us. First, give it up, Idaho, for Bruce Tracy! See him spin. See him crouch. See him edit using a shrewd and urbane American mind while dancing—in a cage suspended above the crowd—like some kind of wild beast. Finally, I want you to go craaaaaaazzzzzzy, Boise-style, for freakish U.S./U.K. literary agent hybrid Emma Parry! According to all reports, she’s marvelously beautiful and scary as hell, and no American tour would be possible, of course, without her willingness to take a bullet for me.

Naturally, a spilling mouthful of thanks to you, Margret. Also profuse apologies for all the terrible things I’ve done up to this point, and for the additional terrible things I bet I’ll have done since it. I’m so clearly lucky to be with you that it’s actually embarrassing, and I
will
vacuum the house tomorrow. Or, you know, at least early next week.

Finally, my gratitude to the many, many scientists and researchers whose findings I’ve used here, often—so as to keep the prose moving—unattributed. Cheers. I’ll probably come round and steal the food out of your fridge later too, then run a key down the side of your car as I walk away from your house, which I’ve idly set ablaze.

I

Hi there, I’m God.
Yeah, yeah, I know, you thought I’d be taller. Cheesh, I created you people and sometimes even
I
don’t get you, you know what I’m saying? Some joker’s standing here—bit of a problem with his brakes and now he’s the new kid in paradise—and he’s all with the “Yeah, right—
you’re
God” like there’s a height restriction on creating the universe or something. So I’m a couple of inches shorter than he is, so what? I’m
God
—get over it.

Anyways, don’t get me started down that road ’cause I’m here to explain some stuff. It’s real important stuff—kind of, you know,
sweeping,
if you get me. So, what I’m thinking here is that the best way to start doing this is to tell you about something that happened—you know, show it to you as an example of what I’m talking about. This is something that happened to Tom Cartwright. Tom’s twenty-eight, he lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, and he’s one of those—what do you call them? Those guys who do books for other people?—ghostwriters, that’s it, he’s one of them there ghostwriters. What I want you to keep in mind here is that—no, in fact, I’ll come to that later. Right now, you just listen while I have Tom start to tell you his story.

Yeah,
of course
I can do that.

one

“Table for McGregor?”

“Let me see . . . Ah, yes, just for two?”

Amy nodded and we were led through the restaurant to a table at the back, next to the toilets.

“I thought I’d better book,” she said as we sat down. “It can be tricky to get a seat in the smoking area at lunchtime.” I glanced around as I shuffled my chair in and saw that, apart from a squashed little ghetto of smokers at the tables around us, the restaurant was entirely empty. The waitress gave us a couple of menus, an ashtray, and a free, complimentary smile, and then turned to leave.

“Excuse me!” Amy called after her, arching back on her chair. “Could we have a bottle of red and a bottle of white, please?” She turned back towards me, questioningly. “Sorry—do you want anything?”

“No, I’m fine.”

“Just the two bottles, then,” she confirmed.

“Certainly,” replied the waitress, and headed towards the bar.

Amy scrambled a cigarette out of its packet, chopped her lighter aflame with her thumb, and pinched her face up with the effort of a long, determined draw. With a slight pop, she pulled the cigarette from her mouth and let her hands fall down to the table, at which point she stopped completely. She sat there, eyes unfocused, without breathing or moving—as though she’d simply switched off—for a tiny eternity. Even though I was used to her doing this, it still unnerved me and I was just about to reach over and investigatively poke her forehead with my finger when she finally relaxed and expelled the smoke with a noisy, swooping
whoosh,
like the valve on a pressure cooker releasing steam.

“So,” she said, “how are things?”

Amy was my agent.

“Oh . . . you know,” I replied.

Once Amy is your agent, there’s no going back. I don’t mean that in a bad way. I’m not suggesting that Amy’s contract specifies 10 percent of earnings and your immortal soul, or that trying to untangle yourself from Amy would mean her pursuing you, shrieking, through the night. I mean, well . . . I don’t have a dishwasher, but everyone I know who does says that you can happily go for most of your life without a dishwasher but, once you buy one, that’s it; life without one becomes unimaginable. Amy is like a dishwasher.

“I read the piece you did for
Working Mother,
” she said. “The ‘How to do your tax return’ thing.”

“Yeah. I just paraphrased the Inland Revenue’s booklet, really.”

“No, you’re selling yourself short again. The way you were struggling to run a small, ethnic-rug shop while raising four children with eczema? I really felt for you. And your husband . . .”

“Brian.”

“Aye, Brian—what a dickhead. I’m telling you, when you were filling in the section on provisional figures, I was there with you.”

“Thanks.”

“And Hugh’s really pleased with the way
Only the Horizon
is selling, by the way.”

This was the last book I’d ghosted. It was for a guy, Justin Lee-Harris, who’d sailed a small yacht between Ireland and New Zealand. I forget why. Lee-Harris was always doing this kind of thing. I’d only met him once because, by the time everything was agreed and I’d been brought in, he was just about to jump aboard another one-man yacht to do something admirable and vague in the South China Sea. It wasn’t until after he’d gone that I discovered my Dictaphone battery had run out about halfway through our single meeting. Everything after Cape Town I just made up.

“I’m seeing Hugh later.”

“Really? Are you
sure
you don’t want a drink?”

The waitress came back.

“Ready to order?” she asked, striking a pose with a pencil and pad.

“Ummmm . . . I’m sorry,” I said, theatrically pained by the admission, “I don’t really know much about Ghanaian cuisine. What’s
fufu
?”

“It’s cassava and plantain pounded with a wooden pestle and mortar until it glutinizes into a ball,” the waitress replied, expectantly moving her pencil down to touch the pad.

“And cassava?”

“It’s a root.”

“And plantain?”

“A bit like a banana.”

“Really? . . . Um. . . . Can I have the roast chicken and chips, please?”

The waitress smiled, nodded brightly, scribbled something that looked rather like “tosser” on her pad, and turned to Amy.

“Oh, nothing for me, thanks,” Amy said with a wave. “No, could we have another bottle of red, actually?” She twisted back to me. “So, what are you seeing Hugh for?”

“Oh, not
for
anything. I was coming out to see you anyway. I haven’t seen him for a while . . .” I finished the sentence by waggling my hand about. “I’ll just pop in and say hello.”

“I thought you were there last week? I’m sure when I saw him he said you’d come into the office last week.”

“Yes, that’s right. Now you mention it, I remember I
did
bump into him last week.”

“Where?”

“You know, in his office.”

“That’s not really ‘bumping into’ him, is it? ‘Hey! Hugh! Fancy seeing you here. At your desk.’ That’s more ‘aiming at him,’ isn’t it?”

“I suppose so. Whatever.”

“Are you up to something?”

“Me? No, God no.” A specific pair of breasts came into my mind. Amy leaned forward slightly and peered at me. Guilt whispered that she could see the specific breasts too, dangling there, just behind my eyes. “
No
. . . What have you heard?”

“I haven’t heard anything,” she said.

“There you go, then. You should listen to that.”

“Okay, okay. But I’ve warned you before about getting too friendly with publishers, that’s all. You know what happens every time you make friends with a publisher.”

“A pixie dies. Yes, I remember. But Hugh
is
my friend, not just my publisher, Amy.”

“Friendships cool, Tom. You can always cool a friendship. When you get too friendly with a publisher you just make my job of helping you harder. You keep a dignified distance. If anyone needs to make friends with them,
I’ll
do it. I can do it better than you. I’m false.”

Amy lectured me about the risks I was taking by talking to, well, pretty much anyone. She continued doing this through a pack of cigarettes and all the wine, the number of adjectives increasing with each bottle.

“The usual pack of arrogant wankers, of course.”

“Yeah?”

“Abso
lute
ly.” She crushed the life out of a cigarette stub in the ashtray. “London agents—bastards. They think I’m some kind of ‘plucky amateur’ just because I don’t live down there. You can actually see their bodies switch languages when I tell them—their shoulders unwind and they stuff their hands in their pockets. ‘Oh, so you
live
up here? How wonderful. Wish I could, it’d be far better for my nerves.’ Twats. They need their shins beating with a spade.”

Every day I wake up and thank God that Amy’s on my side.

“Well,” I sighed, glancing supportively at my watch, “I’d better get off, if I’m going to catch Hugh.”

“Aye, I’d better make a move too.”

She plunged her arm into her handbag up to the elbow and, after a brief chase, retrieved a hair tie. Both hands reached around the back of her head and pulled at her straight brown hair, binding it into the tie with a severity that tugged at the skin on her face so much her eyes narrowed. It was her battle ritual. Fearsome in any case, Amy McGregor with her hair tied back meant a Highland Charge was in the offing.

“What was it you’re going to?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s a magazine launch. Is my speech slurring?”

“A bit.”

“Good. Wouldn’t want to look out of place.”

“See if you can hunt out anything for me. I’ve got nothing lined up, and Sara’s talking about new carpets.”

“Will do. Anything specific? Got any ideas for features?”

“Ha.”

“Yeah, sorry. I’ll just wait for them to say anything about anything and then pipe up, ‘
Really?
Tom was just saying he’d got an idea for a piece about that.’ I’ve got a face to go with it . . . look.”

“Convinces me.”

         

“Hello, Tom.”

Hugh’s face collapsed into a “struggling on” smile as I approached. This didn’t signify anything; it was simply his standard face. Hugh Mortimer always looked like a man who’d just returned to work after an embarrassing surgical procedure.

He was the chief commissioning editor in the Scottish offices of the publishers McAllister & Campbell. Depending on how Hugh happened to feel, an aspiring author could be set dancing with elation in his kitchen or left feeling utterly crushed and worthless, in the same kitchen. Many men (I know, I’ve met them) would be unable to control their erections at the thought of having that kind of power; it just gave Hugh ulcers. But then, pretty much everything gave Hugh ulcers.

“Hi, Hugh. Thought I’d just drop by and see how things were.”

“Oh, good. Good to see you . . . I’ve been having pains in my chest.”

“Really?” Hugh Mortimer was thirty-seven years old.

“Aye.
Here
. . .” He rubbed his open hand over a liberal area, as though anxiously soaping himself. “I was worried about my heart, you know, what with my being so sedentary. All I ever do is sit. Doesn’t that worry you too? You sit.”

“No. But then I’m twenty-eight. Obviously, if I were thirty-seven, it’d scare the crap out of me.”

“Mmm—anyway, I was worried about my heart, so I bought this rowing machine thing at the weekend. They’re supposed to be very good for all-round health.”

“Yes.”

“Getting it in and out of the car damn near killed me.”

“Naturally.”

“I spent a stressful afternoon setting it up, and I’ve been giving it a go each evening.”

“And now you’ve . . .”

“And now I’ve got these pains in my chest, that’s right. The trouble is, doing the rowing really makes demands of your chest muscles. I don’t know if it’s the muscles in my chest aching or my heart.”

“Did you have any pains before you bought the rowing machine?”

“No. But that doesn’t mean anything. It could still be my heart. It has to give out sometime, doesn’t it? Its number might have been up, and the fact that I happened to have bought a rowing machine now is just a coincidence. I missed my chance. I bought a rowing machine, but my heart’s already too far gone.”

“Did you keep the receipt?”

I’d known Hugh for six years, so I can say with some authority that today he was more upbeat than usual.

The accident of my knowing Hugh was simply part of the accident of my being a writer in the first place. I’d come to Edinburgh to study English at university. I wasn’t, I must make it clear, fired up by any passion for literature. It was simply that, well, you have to study
something,
don’t you? Once, in Miss Burston’s class when I was ten, I’d been told that I was “quite good at spelling,” and I’d just sort of drifted along with that for the next eleven years. My academic career was indifferent to the point of beauty—I was so unremarkable, in every way, that the unvarying precision of my mediocrity achieved a kind of loveliness. The most middling student each year in Edinburgh really ought to be awarded the Tom Cartwright Cup. Or, more fittingly, the
Who?
Cup.

BOOK: A Certain Chemistry
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