Helena's Medicine by Steve Dodd

“I’m a great first sentence man. If that doesn’t grab me, I don’t bother with the first paragraph. If that doesn’t; then 'no' first page."

He sat forward in his chair and placed both hands on the glass desk between us. I noticed his small feet resting on a heap of hard back books.

“A chapter is a serious investment of my time,he went on," spreading his fat fingersagainst the
transparent surface. “My job is not about reading. I have assistants for that. If they
find something worthwhile they bring it to me."

His office wasn’t as big as I’d expected. A narrow room off a stairwell near the third floor.

Its only window obscured with bamboo slat blinds; so that you couldn’t quite discern the brick facade of the neighbouring building. But it was his own office, with his own name on the door.The walls were lined with chaotic book shelves; the floor littered with teetering piles of files. But on the see-through desk that dominated the space, there was nothing, not even a laptop; nothing to suggest that he made the reputations of those who worked with the written word.

On the pretext that I’d been commissioned by a new website to interview those who operate behind the scenes in the shaping of contemporary taste; I had knocked shyly and waited for the curt, “Come," that granted me entry to one of the most influential agents in London. Once inside, I had expected to see it displayed prominently, the Lafew award.

“How did you?" he asked, “What have you got there?" But he’d already guessed, I could tell by his face. He’d lost that pompous swagger, and for a moment he revealed the insecure fabulist he was. “That book’s not ready for publication yet," he spluttered, “The galleys have only just. . . "
“It was relatively easy for a Manchester creative writing student to get a job proof reading, for
the esteemed G and WW." I said.

Maybe it was my reference to only being another provincial post-grad, but some of the confidence seemed to seep back into him and he muttered, “Publishing is a small world my dear, you want to be careful what you say next."

“Smaller than you think," I replied. “And I know, because my brother wrote those words. I know he emailed them to G and W. That they ended up here, in your office."

He flinched, and I pressed on, “They were the first words of the synopsis for his first novel.

The novel he discussed with you. That you rejected." I took a deep breath; I could feel my face getting hotter, my palms sweating. I wanted to reach behind him, grab his precious trophy and beat him to death with it. But I forced myself to remain calm; I had planned this for too long to give
into emotion now. Steadily, I opened the manila folder and brought the galleys of Leech’s plagiarising new book down on the glass table with a thump.
“And then I find them here, in this."

He shrank into his chair. “After his untimely death," he said his voice almost a whisper, “I wanted his work to live on."

“He killed himself because of you!" I screamed.

Outside the door, a nervous female voice asked, “Is everything all right?"

“Yes, fine, fine, thank you," he shouted. Then he stood up, and for the first time I could see how short he was. Five foot two or three, a little man in so many ways. He walked to the window and spoke with his back to me, “I met with your brother," he said.

“I had great hopes for him."

“Really?" I snarled.

“Truly, the passing of a great mind is always a terrible loss," he wheedled. “But your brother was only just starting; his work deserved to live on. Colin Leech is a distinguished author. . . "

“A hack,"
I spat.
He turned to face me, “He has won the Booker twice," he said and again some of his default pomposity returned. “After your brother’s tragic death, I met with Colin. I told him of your brother’s premise. Colin grasped it immediately, said he’s been wrestling with a similar theme himself. Well I knew that, it’s my business don’t you see."

“Did you tell him they were someone else’s ideas?"

He avoided my gaze and pulled his chair between us. “You have to understand," he said,
gripping the back of the chair, “Helping a writer to realise their potential; it is a subtle art. You talk around the subject, you lay clues. I f you do it properly it is like a medicine that’s able to breathe life into a stone."

I rushed around the table and grabbed the arms of his chair so I could shout in his face, “And if one of your set gets another success, well, all’s well that ends well, is it?"

“I’ll talk to Colin," he pleaded, wiping my spittle from his face. “I ’ll get him to dedicate the book to your brother."

“Not enough," I shouted and pushed his chair aside, sending it crashing into the wall.

The Lafew award rocked on its shelf.

Publishing’s most prestigious prize, presented annually to the person who had contributed most greatly to the industry. “To the culture," he had said in his acceptance speech. But it was
nowhere to be seen.

He must have noticed my covert searching, because he pursed his wet lips and gave me a thin smile that didn’t reach his eyes, “No, no," he said, “My days of going anywhere near theslush pile are long behind me."

I see," I said, and then, “Of course."

“Not that anyone does much of that these days," he said, leaning back in his leather swivel chair.

“It’s all blogs and trawling through the winners of on-line competitions."

I nodded and crossed my legs, smoothing the hem of my skirt over my knees.

“There’s so many of them nowadays," he continued, slyly glancing at my legs. “Iremember when it
was just a few contests that mattered but now, thanks to the internet, it’s a full-time job to keep up with them all. Well you could say they’ve spread, like a virus."

He paused and looked at me with narrowed eyes, his mouth still curled at the edges.

“Yes," I feigned a choked chuckle, “very good.

“Just a little pun," he said. “A little weakness of mine."

“I love words too," I blurted, but he ignored me. The test had been passed.

“Here at Glanville and West," he said sucking in a great mouthful of air, “We pride ourselves
on the attention we give to our individual clients."

He stressed each syllable of, 'individual’, like it was an entry on a gourmet menu. In-di-vidual,
in a sorrel sauce with red wine jus.

“Richard Havertree, Colin Leech," he went on, “Dame Betty of course."

“Of course," I said, re-crossing my legs.

“Important authors deserve, well they demand," he steepled his fingers, “A great deal of attention."

He paused again, and I found I was becoming used to my cues. “I can only imagine," I said.

“Dear Richard; and I probably shouldn’t tell you this."

Another pause; this time I sat up straight and opened my eyes a little wider.

“Requires a lot of expert handling."

“Really?" I said.

“Oh yes," he tapped his fingertips together, “Careful management."

I knew a little about Havertree already. He had turned from writing sprawling serial novels set in the Middle East to short books, novellas really, based in London and concerning social issues. The last one had been about the surveillance society. I ’d found it dreary and middle brow; a long way short of the layered mysticism of his famous work. Big brother and CCTV had been done to death I thought, and he was writing about it like he’d been the first to discover its menace. But it had received four columns in the TLS; all the quality press had reviewed it. “An important new view on the shift in our attitudes to privacy and the self," the Observer had called it. It was on the back cover of the paperback.

“To get the best out of the best people requires, finesse," he said licking his lips.

I concentrated on my performance. “That’s exactly the inside knowledge our readers, of the website, want to know," I said fishing a notebook out of my handbag.

But he ignored me and went on, “Dame Betty of course needs no editing at all," He said. “It all arrives perfectly finished, pristine. She remains what you would call, "old school."

The angle of his gaze, told me he was looking at the hem of my skirt through his glass table.

“But it still needs to be marketed correctly," he said. “Even someone as established as Dame Betty needs to be coached in how to appear in the new media. Interviews with dear Mariella of course but blogs also."

“Oh I’m not writing for a blog," I said. “It’s a new on-line community sponsored by the Art

He closed his eyes and I shut up. “A book," he said, “Needs to be presented to the world, and by world I mean the publishing world," he caught my eye and smiled his gecko smile again waited for me to smile back, before saying, “Presented in the pitch perfect way. Do you understand?"

“I think I do," I replied and slowly uncrossed my legs, “Could you go on?"

“Endorsements, the long list, Hay; it’s really about creating an environment in which a book can flourish," he said.

I re-crossed my legs and sighed, “I was hoping for something a little more, specific?"

He placed one foot on top of the other causing the pile of hardbacks to slip a little. “I will rely on your discretion my dear," he said

“Of course, I’m a journalist. . . "

“But, I also will need to see what you’ve written beforehand." He waved a hand in front of his face like he was swatting a fly. “Editorial privilege," he said. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, it’s just a question of tone, you understand?

I nodded and he went on, “My clients are sensitive people. They need to know that their reputations are safe. I wouldn’t like any hint, any aside," he fixed me with a hooded gaze, “Any phrase that I may have inadvertently uttered to be, misrepresented."

“Oh absolutely, I mean I would never. . . "

“Oh, I know you wouldn’t mean to my dear," he leaned back in his chair, “But some of my authors are so," he said slowly, “Are so, particular."

I tucked my chin onto my chest and tried to give him my most abashed smile. It seemed to work, because he relaxed back in his chair and gave my legs another once over. “Their lives are words you see," he said. “They scrutinise every tiny nuance."

I blinked and said, “I could email it to you. . . "

“Hard copy," he barked back.

“Sorry?" I said, worried that I’d overplayed things.

He smiled, “I may be stuck in the days of Caxton my dear," he said, “But for legal reasons I find the printed word is best perused with ink on paper."

He waved at the shelf behind his head. “Indulge me, my dear, he said. “It’s not as if I’m asking you to use a quill on vellum," and he tipped his head to one side to reveal the trophy on the shelf behind his chair. A swan’s feather in a block of Perspex mounted on a silver plinth, cast in the shape of a boat. The Lafew award.

He leaned slightly to the right to afford me a better view of the most coveted accolade in British publishing. It was placed in the centre of a shelf, acting as a bookend for the rows of texts on either side.

“Mediums may change, but for me words above all else are still what matters most. It’s why
my clients trust me."

“It’s an honour you richly deserve," I said. “The influence you’ve had in bringing such great works to an audience. It’s what being an agent is all about."

He swivelled his chair to face the trophy, something I wondered if he did several times a day.

It must be why it was placed on that shelf at that height. So he could see it when he wanted but only reveal it to others when he saw fit.

“Icons of the written word, signifiers of our culture, " he said, his back still turned to me, “And I’m old enough to still be with F.R. Leavis on this one."

“Well of course, tradition is important," I said, and he spun around and stared me straight in the eyes.

“Was it Leavis who said, culture is all the best of what has been thought and said in the world?"

“Matthew Arnold," I said, “Culture and Anarchy, 1869"

“Just so," he said and his eyes flittered over my cleavage. “We may have found new mediums to communicate with. But the word is best expressed on the printed page that can be held. . . "

“In the hands of learned men, I remember, from your speech," I said.

His eyes returned to my chest. I had fought with myself over how many buttons to leave undone from the top of my blouse. Four was too obvious, but three; just enough it seemed.

“What People should know more of," I said, “Is the role someone like you has in shaping the work of such distinguished writers as Colin Leech. I ’ve noticed that in his last book he mentioned
you specifically, in the foreword.

“Dear Colin yes, I was a little cross about that," A note of petulance sounded in his voice and
for a moment I thought I might have gone too far, too soon.

He put a hand to his lips and looked towards the door. Then he seemed to change his mind, “My role, as you put it!" he said, “Is something of a facilitator. A servant at the hand of our most significant writers if you will. And if sometimes, important moments in an artist’s career, their hand needs a little gentle steering, well that is my honour to have been of service. Not simply to them you understand but to the wider world of ideas."

“That’s so elegantly put," I said, reaching for my notebook and flipping it to a new page. “A servant at the hand of a significant writer like Colin Leech; it’s exactly what I was hoping for.A glimpse into how an important contribution to our culture is mediated."

“Thank you"

“Could you be a little more specific? Without betraying. . . "

“Well I can tell you this, because so much of it is in the public domain now, after his divorce. . . "

“Leech is divorced?"

“No, not Leech," he said, “Richard Havertree’s of course. When his wife waved him off on his last trip to Petra, she went and left him for that dancer. Course it put an end to his travels. She left him with an eleven year old son to take care of."

He paused and I clucked my tongue. He continued, “So I told him, pack him off to boarding
school; but he wouldn’t hear of it. His reaction to becoming a cuckold was an overly sentimental
attachment to the boy. I t meant the end to the Levant series. So I cast around and that’s when I
got him onto the panoptic system."

“The new surveillance society," I said, “That was your idea?"

He nodded and said, “My contribution I would say. Poor Richard needed something to get his teeth into. Something new and I thought, well, if he was determined to stay at home, then his fresh
eye on the changes that are happening here, what with ID cards and so on."

“I see, fascinating. It comes down to really knowing the themes of a writer’s work I suppose?"
I said.

“That and being aware of wider social issues," he corrected me. “I knew that the differences
between public and the private lives had always been at the heart of Richard’s work. I t’s not that I deserve any credit; my part in the process is to breathe new life into the work when a writer most needs it."

I folded my hands in my lap and said, “In Havertree’s case it was more a resuscitation don’t
you think?"

His eyes fixed on my face and I could see doubt stealing into his mind. What did he see now? Was
I still the keen literary groupie I had presented myself as “Often, after a writer becomes successful," he said, placing his fingers on the underside of his desk as if feeling for a panic button, “They loose their grip on the zeitgeist."

“And is that what you did with Colin Leech’s new book? Breathed the zeitgeist into it?"

“I’m sorry, his new book? Colin hasn’t had a book out in eight years."

I reached down for my bag, and took out the manila folder. “Drops in the bucket of our culture that we don’t notice. Drop after drop until it’s too late and it overflows," I said.
It was a work in progress," he whined. “Unfinished. If he hadn’t become obsessed with me. . . "

“With you!" I couldn’t believe my ears.

“Your brother wasn’t used to encouragement. . . "

“That’s a lie."

“From people who matter. . . "

“How dare you."

“He became, he became obsessed," he looked up at me with pleading eyes. “Constant phone
calls and emails. Sometimes thirty a day. The girls in the office put him on the junk list for me. "

“Blocked sender?"

“Yes, I think so."

I stood in the middle of his office and folded my arms across my chest; he really was a pathetic
weasel. “So you never got his suicide note?" I said.

“I heard about it."

“But you did nothing," I spat.

“Afterwards, when Lisa was deleting the files at the end of the month, she found it and told me."

“So you thought, waste not, want not; I’ll revive my old mate Colin’s flagging career. . . "

“It wasn’t like that. I told you I wanted the work to live on," he held his shaky hands out to me.

“How can I make it up to you? Do you want a job? I can. . . "

I turned my back on him, walked back around the glass table and picked my bag up off the floor.
Spinning on my heels I faced him again; ripping the bags’ zipper all the way open, I tipped the other folder onto the desk. “You can publish this," I said.

“You’ve written a book? Well of course, I ’ll take a look at it. . . "

“No," I shouted, and he fell back into his chair. “Not mine, my brother’s; before he finished his
novel he worked on these. Short stories, fragments, poetry; you’re going to publish them all."

“It’s not p, p, possible, " he stammered, “I c, can’t just snap my fingers and launch a new author, there are ch-checks and b-balances. . . "

“Oh there’s never been a better time, mister winner of the Lafew award. Host a few dinner parties; call in a few favours, that’s how it works isn’t it? Just get it published; and well-reviewed. Push it like you’ve never pushed a book before."

“My reputation. . . "

“And make that hack Leech, write the blurb for it," I demanded. “The most promising and influential mind of our times."

“He’s won the Booker, he can’t just. . . "

“Yes he can and he will. Or I’m going to the press. I’ll start with the Bookseller, they’ll lap it up," I stepped closer to his chair so that I loomed over him. “What you’re forgetting," I said, feeling perfectly calm, “Is there’s always a permanent record with emails. Incontrovertible evidence, floating in cyberspace. All my brother’s submissions to you, all your replies. The one about, 'Impressed with your many fresh and insightful ideas,’ would be a good place to start."

“You’re mad," he said, his voice almost a whisper. “You’ll destroy my reputation, Colin Leech’s;
you’ll drag the name of Glanville and West into the mire."

“You’re an editor," I said, shoving the sheaf of dog eared papers across the table, “Edit."

The End

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