Short Stories 3rd Place: Find and Replace by Mandy Wheeler
Well, that went well.
He’d arrived early to get a seat the back. He wanted to get a good view of the Historian without returning the favour.
Judging by the number of chairs, the publishers were expecting a crowd. He watched as a couple of solemn young men began unloading piles of pristine hardbacks from cardboard boxes. Silently, with the reverence of altar boys preparing for Mass, they set up a trestle table in front of the chairs and lined up the books in careful, precise rows. One of the young men left, then returned with a glass of water which he placed on the lectern. The other straightened a couple of chairs. They surveyed the scene and walked away, evidently satisfied that all was ready for the crowd of worshippers who would soon be waiting in line for the laying on of the Historian’s Mont Blanc.
‘Can you make it out to Lucy, please – that’s my daughter, she’s going to Cambridge to study history because of you. You’ve inspired a generation, you know.’
He left his jacket on the seat and went outside for a smoke.
He remembers this building when it was a high-end department store. His mother bought her winter coats here. All that pink and gold paintwork, the stained glass and the sweeping staircases – it was the most glamourous thing he’d ever seen.
Each time they visited he would ask his mother if they could go to the other departments, to see the famous art deco window and the soda fountain with the high chrome stools. But she wouldn’t linger. His mother didn’t do glamour, but she did like a nice winter coat.
So this how they treat you when you hit the mass market, he thought, as he pushed through the revolving door. This is what you get when you’re a name, a celebrity. A launch in the ‘flagship store’ and a couple of flunkies to sharpen your pencils. He’d tried not to follow the Historian’s career too closely. The first episode of each television series was all he allowed himself. He saw it as a way of vaccinating himself. Letting a little bit of the Historian in, to make sure he continued to fight him off.
Outside, he lit his cigarette and looked at the poster in the window. Under a lifesized photo was a long list of all of the Historian’s bestsellers, including the first one, the one that started it all. He found that if he bent his knees he could place his reflection over the Historian’s face. He could displace him. He noticed that the Historian’s hair had thinned; he wouldn’t have expected that.
‘Hello. You must be James.’ A head of thick black curls pushed through the door, uninvited. ‘I’m Edward, but everyone calls me Ed. I’m doing history too. What do you think of the rooms? Do you fancy going down to the bar, get to know each other a bit, now we’re going to be neighbours?
In the next life, he will say no. A thousand times, no. He will close the door on that big open face, those fleshy, good looks.
His mother once said that Ed looked like a cleaned-up version of that boy Caravaggio used to paint. Cleaned up? James felt dirty just looking at him.
Over the years he often wondered if Ed had planned it all along. Did he sense that he couldn’t do it alone, that he needed someone devoted to plug the hole in his confidence, put there his dreadful mother. Did Ed recognise a faultline in his own character? He’d certainly recognised one in mine, James thought.
When the Historian arrived he was careful not to stare. He didn’t want to draw attention to himself, not yet. Would he be recognised? Years of working his way up the ladder, there’d been a lot of lunching, he’d put on weight.
He watched as the Historian walked to the lectern for his reading. The hair was fine and white now, like a layer of newly shifted flour had settled on his head. The result of the treatment, no doubt. That had given him a moment’s pause – hearing about the illness. Just a moment, mind you. More than the Historian ever gave him.
Forty years ago, almost to the day:
‘I’ve heard back from the publisher,’ said Ed. ‘They want our book but, here’s
’Here’s the thing!’ Did you just say, ‘Here’s the thing’?’ James reached out to mock punch him, but Ed moved away.
‘No, listen. The thing is, they want the book, but they want to publish it under my name – just mine. That’s how it’s done nowadays. ‘Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation’, that sort of thing. Authorial authority – it doesn’t work if there are two of us, apparently. And they think I’m quite televisual.’
‘I presume you told them to where to stuff their ‘thing’?’
‘I told them yes.’
Much later, when he had given up hope of ever getting any recognition for his years of work – let alone any money – he opened a copy in a bookshop. Ed had dedicated the book to his mother.
A woman who introduced herself as Lisa from marketing said a few gushing words, the Historian cleared his throat, then began. ‘I’m going to read from chapter two,’ he said.
Of course you are, he thought, that’s where the flashy, combative stuff starts. After all those years, he still knew him so well.
He hardly heard the Historian as he read. He held his breath, watching as the Historian’s eyes scanned down, waiting for him to turn to page 59.
The Historian had read the date before he noticed. He stumbled, apologised, corrected himself. He explained there must be a problem with the printer, he looked annoyed. He continued. On page 60, he stopped again; another incorrect date. Another apology. On page 61 the Historian had to correct his text twice. At the top of page 62, he apologised for an incorrect name; further down, the wrong location. The audience started to shuffle restlessly. Lisa from marketing stood up and hurried from the room, phone to her ear.
Finally, he closed the book. ‘I really don’t know how this happened.’ He tried a laugh, but the audience was unsettled. There had been rumours about his health, perhaps this was the start of something. A historian who doesn’t know his dates? Mumbling their apologies, they began to file out. The pile of pristine books remained untouched, undermined.
In the end, there was only person left in the audience.
The Historian stared hard and then said: ‘James?’
‘Yes. Hello Edward. It’s Timothy now, by the way. I took to using my middle name after I gave up my post at Cambridge.’
‘Yes, Timothy Brown.’
‘Timothy Brown,’ repeated the Historian, slowly. He was starting to understand.
‘You’ll have seen my name around at Ryan Publishers. In fact, I’m surprised our paths haven’t crossed in the office. I’m head copy editor now. I look after our prestige list – the bestsellers. My specialisation is history, well, it would be, wouldn’t it? I’m the one who does the last checks. Mine is the final say before the manuscript goes to the printers. I have sole responsibility. I have the last word.’