Somewhere over Greenland the plane hit turbulence again.
The whole fuselage shook. Ray’s seat shook. The girl next to him shook. Her elbows and her book shook. The tips of her hair shook as they had with every jolt since Nova Scotia .
Did she actually shake, though, Ray wondered, or did she quiver? Did she quiver, or did she quake? It didn’t matter. He was certain now that next time she quivered and/or shook her head would end up on his shoulder. She would like her head resting on his steep shoulder so much that she would keep it nestled there. She would then, each time the plane quivered and/or quaked, rub her lovely head into his steep shoulder that was as hard as plate armour. The skies above Greenland might be empty but later tonight fireworks would spread over London, drizzling rosy and indigo. She would quiver and she would quake.
 This short story by India Emmott arrived in the post. She’d clipped a postcard of an Egon Schiele nude to the title page. There was a note written on the back.
Please find here a story I’ve written in case you’re disappointed with me after our night with Ray.
Finding a title has been hard. I’ve toyed with A Stranger Comes to Reclaim Baggage, The Long Lick Goodnight and Kensington Gore but settled on Not for Publication. This means that you are not, should your paths ever cross again, to show this to Ray. Please help me find a better title.
Should you find yourself in London, do try to make me have coffee with you.
You do know what I mean by this, don’t you?
I’d like to say that I’d forgotten her, but you can’t really forget India. I took her manuscript to a café, ordered mushrooms on toast, found myself a window seat and started to read.
Since JFK, though, they had only exchanged the briefest of smiles. She’d been engrossed in a book. The book looked poncey, too, with its milksop-white jacket and inserts that kept falling from between the pages every time the plane jolted .
It came to him in a flash, suddenly.
On a flight from New York to London, a tall, mysterious, capable man meets a pretty girl with a problem. He sorts out her problem. He suffers a few grazes. She shows her appreciation. He moves on.
Several of the other passengers, Ray had noticed, were reading his books, mainly the new one, The Slaying Depot, but also some of the backlist titles: Shot From Both Sides, Bloodbath Autobahn, a couple of Pump and Grind. He’d even signed a few copies for fans in the departure lounge. Ray Gorse couldn’t go anywhere without seeing his Jock Stretch novels piled up in supermarkets and airport bookshops. Jock Stretch and he had come a long way. Their story was like something out of The Iliad or The Bible.
He’d been talking Jock all week. He’d been in LA, holed up in hotel bars, checking out the girls and signing their Jocks while his US agent, Shuff Howse, hammered out a film deal. Ray Gorse (not his real name, of course, his real name is Miles Templeton  but he wasn’t going to tell this to the girl with the quivers even though Miles had been the toughest dude at Marlborough College until Batson-Byers rocked up in the sixth form) was returning to his roost in Monaco via a stopover in London with considerably more change in his pocket than when he’d flown out. Ahead of him were six weeks of sheer hell while he pounded out this year’s Jock.
 I’d met India at Saltsell Farm in Norfolk. A programme of weeklong writing courses had been set-up by Howard Devereaux, the farm’s owner. His original tutor, Emma Hummus, had suffered a nervous breakdown after The Engorged Coypu Review said her novel That’s Why Mum’s Gone to Rehab was “relentlessly purposeful”, and thus Howard, in desperation, employed me: locally respected creative writing tutor always available at very short notice. The farm was set in beautiful countryside. There were newly built chalets dotted around that accommodated the guests and acted as writing rooms (‘scriptboriums,’ India called them). Howard had even arranged for a big name writer, Ray Gorse, an old school friend of his, to come and read in the barn on the final night.
 It is as well. Howard told us when he was pissed.
The new Jock now came to him in a flash during this turbulent storm over the north Atlantic. He would call it North Atlantic Storm Turbulence: A Jock Stretch Novel: on a flight from New York to London, tall, mysterious, capable Jock Stretch meets a pretty girl with a problem. He sorts out her problem. He suffers a few grazes. She shows her appreciation. He moves on. He just keeps moving on.
She wasn’t reading a Jock, though. She was reading something called The Pictorial Jackson Review .
The plane shook again. A few respirator masks tumbled from their overhead compartments. Ray Gorse wasn’t fazed, not for a millisecond, but the girl beside him let out a sigh when The Pictorial Jackson Review slid across her knees. Her bookmark, which was slate-grey and embossed with a yellow clarinet, dropped onto the floor between Ray’s shoes.
He reached down to pick it up. He made sure that he looked not at her but into her, but as he looked into her not at her he experienced a terrible bump inside. Until now he hadn’t yet managed a full frontal examination.
Dusky, he thought.
She was dusky.
The word ‘dusky’ struck him like a pile driver .
 On the last afternoon of the course, I sat in my scriptborium reading an extract of India’s work-in-progress, All the Pretty Cages. She’d parked herself on my desk. Backlit by sunshine, a glow coursed around her hair. If I looked up it was like being in the shadow of a great sunflower. Every time I either smiled or frowned, or if I merely paused to think through one of her sentences she clicked the heels of her sandals together and said, ‘What is it?’
 India was the most hardworking and self-critical of the students that week. The group was composed mainly of bullish young male writers. She kept her distance from them. By making herself so mysterious she caused these bulls to wag their horns at her moon. I mean, what would you do if you were marooned in a scriptborium with nothing to do but write words on a screen when India Emmott was lounging in her chalet down the line? You would scrape your hooves through the dirt. You would give your ring a vigorous polish. You would dream about what she does alone in her scriptborium as she concocts her trysts and situations? When you ought to be writing about your ex-trader, now SAS officer Hank Phalanx running around a multi-storey carpark with his pistol hanging out, you would find yourself describing what India might or might not be wearing. You’d have some pretty exotic ideas, right? Especially after you’d heard what she did eventually read out to the group. I thought it was brave of her to read out that scene in front of those guys.
He knew that one day he would find himself thinking wistfully of this girl and writing something like: For the dusky maiden, thought Jock as he pumped his pump-action shotgun at Madskis’ army of goons. But here, experiencing turbulence on the long, dull flight, Ray found himself noticing things about her face that he never noticed in the faces of women, or at least he hadn’t since he’d been Miles Pemberton. A maroon tinge deepened the gentle grooves in her lips. They had gravitational pull, those cupids, like the Sun or the Moon; they were like flypaper or maybe a big magnet used in heavy industry. Where the light caught her cheekbones the pale, tawny brown of her skin became infused with an arrestingly odd blue. Her eyes flashed as he continued to stare and her irises had a rainbow’s gleam, like a compact disc as it’s tilted. Her sleek black hair was tightly clipped at her nape, apart from two tendrils that hung by her ears, the tendrils that quivered with each jolt to the plane. He wanted to unclip that clip and let her hair fall onto his pillow in whatever clean white hotel room waited for them in Kensington, where the rose and the indigo would drizzle all through the night until breakfast was served on little silver platters wheeled in on a hostess trolley by an Estonian nymph on minimum wage .
This was a terrible bump, oh yes it was, the sort of terrible bump that Raymond Chandler used to describe in a sad, subdued fashion, in the sort of passages that Ray Gorse always cut because he wasn’t a drunk, or a bender. Jock Stretch suffered no bumps. Jock Stretch wasn’t bent .
 For the most part that week’s group consisted of a new type of creative writing student that has emerged with the economic downturn: the Crash Hack. Most of these guys had, until the banking crisis, worked in financial services. Most of them had never even thought about writing until the bubble burst. Now they wanted to write action thrillers to make money. They tried to follow India around. She wouldn’t be followed and kept stuffing her pages under my door, sometimes with hand-written annotations of a vaguely suggestive nature. There was a sixteen-year gap between us and even if I was reading the signals correctly I knew that I must not respond. It would quickly get all F. Scott Fitzgerald for me. I’d had quite enough of that already.
 ‘What is it?’ she said.
‘This phrase,’ I said, ‘”drizzling rosy and indigo”. You keep using it. Every time your girl here makes love, there’s always something rose-coloured and indigo going on.’
‘Deep and rich colours are sexual,’ she said, ‘like red and indigo. Light and pale colours, like yellow, are for shit sex. Dark colours, like slate-grey and black are for frightening, don’t-go-there, but still go-there sex.’
‘So being with Arzhang on a grey mattress on a bed with a black headboard, when she’s wearing red underwear and an indigo ribbon in her hair, and his, manhood, looks yellow…’
‘He joins the Party of God later.’
All the Pretty Cages was about a family of Russian émigrés in Persia between the Bolshevik and Iranian Revolutions. Its central character, a teenager in 70s Tehran somehow manages to sleep with everyone who will later murder her relatives.
It was quite good and only marred by these moments of over-describing, of trying too hard.
I told her this. She seemed happy and dropped off my desk to prowl around my room behind me. I kept staring out of the window at the golden fields.
‘So,’ she said. ‘Tonight. Ray Gorse?’
‘I saw his face on a bus shelter once. There was bird shit over it that spelt a bad word.’
‘Don’t be jealous, Ashley.’
I spun around on my chair. She was sitting on the end of my bed and smoothing out the long train of her hair with her hands. India wore a short grey dress with yellow hems, a red cardigan and black sandals. I handed back her pages.
‘Time’s up, I’m afraid,’ I said. ‘I’ve got at least twenty pages of Ptolomy De Gascur’s Antlers of Death to knock into shape before tonight.’
It was beginning to prey on my mind that later on I was going to have to read one of my stories. I’d be the warm-up act for Ray Gorse, King of the Bus Stop.
‘If you ask nicely, you can have this back,’ said Ray, suavely rippling the bookmark between his fingers.
He wasn’t doing this, though. She must have plucked the bookmark from him while he was examining her eyes like tilted CDs. She smirked in a way he didn’t like. Her smirk reminded him of the smirking face of the idiot bean counter who’d made Miles Pemberton redundant from Ipso Media. He knew that he should be grateful for, or at least accepting of that exec’s bean-counting idiocy.
Without that idiot exec’s bean counting he and Jock would not have embarked on a journey like something out of The Iliad or The Bible. He and Jock still hated the exec even after the first Jock, The Bean Counter Massacre had sold four million copies.
She was smirking.
Ray Gorse didn’t know what to say.
‘I’m Ray Gorse,’ said Ray. ‘I’ve marked you down as a Mabel. Mabel’s are able.’
‘And I expect they probably live in a stable,’ she muttered.
‘What are you reading?’
‘Just a story.’
‘Never heard of him.’
‘That’s a shame.’
‘Worst I’ve ever had.’
The poncey book was now open again and rather than read it on her lap she was holding it up, partly concealing her face.
‘Do you have a name,’ said Ray, ‘or am I going to have to call you Able, Mabel?’
‘Ivich,’ she said and angled the book further to towards him so that he couldn’t see her face at all.
This was good, though, even if she had a name that sounded like a munchkin’s sneeze. If this were how she wanted to play it he would play it her way. He used his crafty bestselling novelist’s skills to work out that she was the sort of girl who liked the thrill of the chase.
She was Little Red Riding Hood.
She was Bambi’s mother.
‘I’m going to call you Bambi.’
He didn’t say this.
He reserved it for later and sat back, pretending to look at the clouds but all the while maintaining an eyes-left surveillance operation. She had very pretty, expressive fingers, not too long like a mole’s and not short and stubby like betting pencils. After about twenty minutes she snapped the book shut and sat there for the rest of the flight with her hands over her mouth, as if she’d been struck by some thought, as if she’d realized something quite serious.
She knows that there are too many people about, thought Ray, too many other fans. She wanted to be the chosen one. He would therefore wait. He would meet her at the airport. She would appreciate this. Bambi would thank him later.
At Heathrow, on the moving walkway and in the queue for Customs, Ray kept a discreet distance from Bambi. He kept reminding himself of the secret signal she had given him after the plane landed. She’d not even said goodbye or acknowledged the moment they had shared over Greenland. This meant that she wanted to gain his respect by not acting like a book-groupie.
In Baggage Reclaim he stayed back and watched her standing at the carousel. She was slightly apart from the other Jock fans. She had a very nice bottom. She was looking for something. She had lost something.
Jock Stretch noticed such things. Some people have a radar for loneliness . Others have radar for money. Jock Stretch has radar for damsels in distress. Jock Stretch has radar for problems that only he can solve in his own inimitable style.
The girl has a problem.
A stranger comes to Baggage Reclaim.
There will be fists.
Ray crossed the hall and sidled up beside her.
He counted to ten in his head, then said: ‘Oh, it’s you again.’
She turned away and looked over to the chute that disgorged the suitcases and holdalls onto the conveyer belt. Ray counted to ten again, then really pushed the boat out by counting to fifteen.
‘These things can take for ages, can’t they?’ he said. ‘I remember being stuck in KL for three days once. Terrible wait, and the heat there. Have you been?’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘But take everything I say with a pinch of sodium chloride.’
‘Would you like to go there?’ he said, ‘Look, Ivich.’ He angled his body around so that he faced her. ‘Tell me I’m wrong, tell me I’m bonkers, but, listen, back there, on the plane, we did share a moment, didn’t we?’
‘I don’t know what you mean,’ she said.
She did, though. He knew that she knew the rules of this game. The rules were inside the box, under the collapsible board and the dog and the iron and the random-event generating cards and the plastic components that never fitted together as neatly as they did in the picture on the outside of the box.
 See The Lonely Crowd and the Crowded Loon: Liminal Space and Non-Space in the Stories of Ashley Stokes 2005 – 2010 (Womb, Tomb and Gloom: Essays on Unread Fiction, Mordechai Gythumper, Gytz Press, 2011), which has frighteningly detailed passages on my stories: It’s That Man Again, All That is Solid Melts into Claire, The Great Leap Backwards, Touching the Starfish and Me, The Moon and a Monkey.
‘I’m intrigued by what you were reading . I was hoping you might tell me about it.’ He wagged his head, cheekily. ‘Have dinner with me? I know a nice little place in Kensington.’
She shrugged. ‘That’s out of my way.’
‘We could eat here,’ he said, ‘but you don’t look like a girl who can be herself in a Burger King.’
‘Why are you interested?’
‘I’m a writer.’
The CD eyes lit up and her rigid stance softened. ‘Really?’
‘C’mon. Blood Factory 101?’
‘The name rings a bell.’
‘Sunday Express interview, three weeks ago?’
‘Oh yes.’ She clicked her fingers, almost letting the poncey white book slip. ‘I saw you on a bus shelter. There was an interesting splatter of bird mess across your face that spelled out a certain word.’
 Evening came. We had dinner in the barn. The students divided into two contingents. My lot consisted of India, the other women and the men over thirty-five. The Crash Hacks – Ptolomy De Gascur, Evan de la Zouch, Guy Gisburn etc – attached themselves to the newly arrived Ray Gorse. Howard had introduced him to me earlier. Ray Gorse nodded at me like you might a valet.
‘You’re kidding? What word?’
She reached out and grabbed a small magenta suitcase from the conveyor belt and walked off.
‘Come for a drink? Just one,’ he called out after her. ‘You look like a kingfisher with a broken wing.’
He didn’t know why he’d called this out, especially after her bird mess-splattered-across-his-face come-on. But the kingfisher line had worked once before, and he’d managed to rehash it at the end of Slash Cannery before Jock Stretch gives Lula O’Flue a right seeing-to.
Ivich paused and turned back. She was kind of smiling now, this time more smile than smirk.
‘Collect your bags,’ she said, nodding at the carousel. ‘There’s that bar beyond the barrier. I’ll powder my nose and meet you in there.’
He wasn’t an idiot. If he let her out of his sight she would powder no nose, but take it with the rest of her beautiful head, down the escalator and out of the building. It had happened before, at the start of Never Stand Me Up: A Jock Stretch Novel. Marlene Sexley had lived to regret standing up Jock Stretch. That’s why she let him pork her into next week on page 408.
‘What sort of cheapskate do you think I am?’ he said. ‘Let me pay for a cab. We can go somewhere in the West End?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Short, warm cab ride, glass of champagne at the end of it, or wet plonk in a plastic cup and then the grim-death of the Piccadilly Line. Your choice, Bambi.’
‘OK,’ she said. ‘But I’m warning you, I have magic powers.’
They stood and waited for Ray’s luggage to make its way around the belt. He started to tell her all about himself, the unstoppable rise of Jock Stretch and the delirium of millions. She was all-ears now. She was surely starting to give in to the rhythm of the plot .
Two hours later Ray found his vast and tall frame rammed into a booth in a snug little bar in old Soho. It couldn’t be that he was too tall, so the booth must be too small. England was no longer fit for giants. Ivich was sitting opposite him, candlelight whirling slowly around her face. She was not drinking her champagne as greedily as he would like. She was still going on and on about the story called Island Gardens by Ashley Stokes.
He had made the mistake of asking her about it in the cab. He should have invited her to tell him all about herself. He still didn’t know anything about her, if she was single or married, employed or work-shy, rich or poor, struggling or fulfilled. If he could procure this kind of intelligence he could work out how to pose as her protector. If he could pose as her protector she would show her gratitude.
This bloody story, Island Gardens, sounded so rubbish that as far as Ray was concerned it ought to be banned . It ought to be banned so he could lean forwards and tell her how marvellous, dusky and pretty she was, how she was unlike any woman he’d ever met, how although he had lain
 I didn’t know a great deal about Ray Gorse. He was a name that started to appear on bus stops and in the window of WH Smiths about ten years ago. No one I respect had ever recommended him to me and when, prior to teaching this course, I’d skim-read the first chapter of his novel Blunt Instrument I felt I had solved Ray in a couple of paragraphs. I didn’t need to read any more. Ray Gorse, though, has sold millions of his Jock Stretch novels. They include: The Murder Greenhouse, Smash ‘n’ Crab, Real Men Do, The Pastrami Choke, The Swastika-Shaped Man and its sequel Blood on Hitler’s Cojones. One of these titles I made up. If you can guess which one, contact me via my website and I’ll send it to you. The Crash Hacks were having a right old guffaw with Ray. Later I would suspect that one of them, or all of them had confided in Ray their frustration with my feedback. India looked over to me and said,’ He’s very tall, isn’t he?’
 At the end of dinner, Howard, ripped to his tits on booze again, banged a dustbin lid with a ladle to indicate that the readings were about to begin. Ray gave me this horribly smug, careers-advisor look as I walked to a stage assembled from crates. At first I wasn’t close enough to the mic, which had been adjusted for someone of Ray’s height and had to restart my story Island Gardens because no one could hear. After this I did manage to read the whole thing through.
beside many women in many places, in many proper places like Monaco and LA, the hang-outs of the tall, rich and successful, she was by far the prettiest. This wasn’t true, but he would tell her anyway. He sort of loved her but she frightened him. Something about her frightened him and realizing this frightened him more. A girl who frightened him was useless as Jock fodder. Jock Stretch could not be frightened by an unarmed girl at the start of North Atlantic Storm Turbulence: A Jock Stretch Novel.
It was sad to be frightened. Ray Gorse was never sad.
Ashley Stokes, however, must permanently be sad, given the miserable end of the miserable story that Ivich kept gushing over as if she was writing an essay or a review in a publication that Ray could write for if he wanted to, like the London Review of Books or Let’s Chat .
Island Gardens by Ashley Stokes was not: On a flight from New York, a tall, mysterious, capable man meets a pretty girl with a problem, etc, but: In Piccadilly Circus a loser waits for a girl who stands him up. Some scumbags give him some verbal. He doesn’t kill them and cacks his pants. They find him later and it gets worse. The end .
 Island Gardens is the story of a man called Woods who at the outset waits for a girl called Varvara at Piccadilly Circus. They’ve had a bit of a thing in Berlin – he’d been her English language tutor – and Woods believes that the much-younger Varvara is his last chance for love. While he’s waiting he attracts the attention of a rough-looking couple. There’s an altercation. It baffles Woods, so he walks off. Realizing that the couple are following him he tries to lose them and heads for the flat in Docklands where he’s staying temporarily. En route, he starts to dwell on his life. Lost in thought, he doesn’t realize that the rough-looking couple are still following him. When he spots them on a train he starts to feel jealous of their unguarded public intimacy and perceives the gulf between he and they. When he arrives at his stop he makes a decision to return to England to give something back. Noticing that the rough-looking couple are on his tail he decides to reason with them. They attack him with a samurai sword. He dies.
 I used to say I write about sex and death. Now I say I write about not-having-sex and death. Island Gardens, I know, sounds morbid and my morbidity has been noted by the only critic to pay me any attention, Mordechai Gythumper from the University of Gytz in Hungary and author of One Door Closes and Another Door Shuts: The Lost World of Ashley Stokes (Turgid Books, 2010). Gythumper’s essay: The Bad Film Ends: The Lone Aesthete and Mob Rule in the Stories of Ashley Stokes (Womb, Tomb and Gloom: Essays on Unread Fiction, Mordechai Gythumper, Gytz Press, 2011) examines my stories The Prettiest Girl in Karl Marx Stadt, Touching the Starfish, Island Gardens and Lesser Lights in such detail that I suspect I invented then abandoned Doctor Gythumper and somehow he has made himself flesh.
‘The thing is,’ said Ivich, ‘we’re so very close to Piccadilly Circus, which must be fate, seeing as I first read Island Gardens on the plane, three times, mind you. Sorry, Ray, I just get every excited when I meet a new writer.’
‘I’m glad you are,’ he said. ‘Getting excited.’
‘This is very exciting.’
Suddenly, it all became clear to him. This wasn’t a bust or a wild goose chase. She was so excited by meeting a writer of his stature that she was gabbling due to nerves. He was an intimidatingly successful chap, after all. He tilted the champagne bottle over her glass. She put her hand over it.
‘Oh, come on,’ he said.
‘I’m driving,’ she said.
‘I just paid for a cab …’
‘The thing I most love about Island Gardens …’
Ray decisively banged his large elbows on the tabletop. He was tired of listening. Ray Gorse was nobody’s sounding board .
 I finished reading Island Gardens and returned to my seat. At least they clapped on my table. Now that the reading was over I felt empty inside.
India leant over to me and said, ‘that was brilliant.’
‘Thank you,’ I said.
I assumed she meant that the story was easy to admire, difficult to love.
Ray Gorse was now standing astride the stage carrying a gold-embossed tome.
‘Look, I know it can be a bit intimidating meeting a big-name writer. I’ve not told this to anyone before but when I met Wilbur Smith at the Thick Book Festival in Toronto, ’99, I almost pissed my Calvin Ks.’
She leant back and crossed her legs in what could have been a very Basic Instinct way if she hadn’t been wearing jeans.
‘I don’t consider myself to have met a writer until I have met him, or her, on the page,’ she said. ‘That’s where they give themselves away.’
‘All I’ve heard about from you is about some short story written by someone no one has ever heard of. If I’ve not heard of a writer they can’t be very good, can they?’
This was obviously going over her head. She looked quite confused.
‘Think about it,’ he said. ‘This Island Gardens thing, I’ll play it back to you. A sad sack, a loser gets stood up. So what? Who wants to think about losers, failures getting stood up? Then he gets killed. The hero gets killed? Only zeros get killed. Who cares about zeros Gardens who get killed?’
‘Mothers and fathers,’ she said. ‘Brothers and sisters, friends and lovers, judges, police officers, human rights campaigners, crusading journalists, Amnesty International, Jesus.’
‘Only in the bleeding-heart editorials of loony-left newspapers. Give me your address and I’ll send you my books. I’ll show you how it’s done .’
 Ray Gorse adjusted the mic to the level of his gob.
‘Good evening,’ he said. ‘It’s lovely to meet you all. Before I begin, though, and I have to admit that I usually reach for my Browning when I hear the phrase “Creative Writing”, because such courses, taught as they often are, knock the originality out of you. You want to write; you want to write a thriller, right?’ There was a mumble of approval from the Crash Hacks. ‘The thriller is the original story. All stories are thrillers. As for so-called “literary writers”, they’re all jealous of thriller writers, those of us who deal in suspense. There isn’t a literary novel that I couldn’t write in two weeks but none of them could write what we do.’
‘Would they be worth more if you signed them?’
She lowered her eyes and smiled, smiled as if all the mysteries of history and death had suddenly been revealed to her. This was more like it. Jock Stretch was bobbing and weaving towards the line, barging the losers aside as he dashed clear of their cheap kit and runners-up medals.
‘Look, this is the way. No one wants to know about losers. That’s why all stories are thrillers. All stories. All the great stories. All the myths, all the legends, the epics, all novels, all the poems and all the plays. Anything that isn’t a thriller isn’t a story. Anyone who doesn’t write thrillers is a fake who can’t write a thriller. When you realize that, you’re made. Here, let me have a look at that.’
He masterfully swiped her Pictorial Jackson from where it lay on the table. He thumbed it through until he found Island Gardens. It was only eleven pages long.
‘I could have written that in two minutes ,’ he told her. ‘Worthless. All you need to know is that a stranger comes to town.’
‘But in Island Gardens,’ she said, ‘a stranger does come to town.’
‘To get stood-up and killed? A stranger can’t come to town to get killed unless he’s bait to get another stranger to come to town. And if the stranger who comes to town gets killed, how are you going to write book two and book three?’
‘By writing about something else?’
‘But it takes at least three books to get a franchise off the ground.’
‘Then write about something less predictable.’
 Ray craned forward to give me a harsh look that seemed to suggest I should be looking back at him like a rabbit in his Bentley’s headlights. I wasn’t, though. I was doing mental calculations. My last book had taken three and a half years to write. Ray Gorse writes about one a year. During the time it took me to write one book Ray should have written ninety-one. Lazy.
‘But that’s not what you really want. It’s not what you need deep down. It’s not what we must believe in, nor is it the great truth stories reveal to us. You need to believe in a hero. The hero must be heroic. He must fight and win. The bad guys’ guts must be stamped into the ground. The bad guys must be smitten. You need to believe this to be smitten. You need to let it into your soul, don’t you, Ivich? Are you smitten, Ivich? Are you realizing your needs? ’
 Ray continued. ‘I’ll pass on to you the only advice that’s ever been of use to me. Firstly, never use a long word where a short one will do. I’m sick and tired of literary writers and their long words.’
Now, this left me a bit confused. I’m not sure about these literary writers who only use long words. The only writers I read who use ‘long words’ tend to do so for comic effect.
I wouldn’t advise using
‘Bladyughfoulmoecklenburgwhurawhorascortastrumpapornanenny-kocksapastippatappatupperstrippuckputtanach’ for ‘whore’, as Joyce does in Finnegan’s Wake, but I would caution a writer like Ray not to use ‘ho’ in every paragraph of his novel Where Hos Fear to Tread: A Jock Stretch Novel (especially if you’re not from some desperate, crime-ridden US city but Market Harborough like Ray). It struck me that if Ray was writing a sentence like the one I use in my first footnote here, ‘I took the manuscript to a café and ordered mushrooms on toast’, he’d write: ‘I took the manuscript and ordered cultivated fungus on toast.’ Some boilerplate hack gave Ray the ‘shorts words über alles’ tip and he’s followed it with fanatical devotion ever since. But it’s case by case, Ray. Each word needs a certain charge. Short can mean stunted.
‘And there’s no such thing as character development,’ said Ray. ‘People just are. Jock Stretch is just Jock Stretch.’
If you believe this, you can never complain about anything that ever happens to you. You had no capacity to choose, to resist.
‘And,’ Ray said, ‘there’s only one story: a stranger comes to town.’
Now I can accept that all stories owe something to Beowulf but not that this debt is best acknowledged by rehashing The Lone Ranger over and over again with ever-escalating levels of cartoon violence. I was thinking how come Ray’s millions of readers don’t get bored with a narrative formula that’s:
WOLF THREATENS SHEEP
SHEPHERD KILLS WOLF
SHEPHERD SHAGS SHEEP
How is this suspenseful? You always know what will happen. And wouldn’t Jack Knackers get exasperated when every time he strangers into a town he has to kill a wolf and shag a sheep? If this were my story I’d start with jaded bafflement as the premise: Jack Knackers got off the train. Oh for fuck’s sake, not again. Put it away, man, let’s have a pint.
I was thinking as well that in The Great Gatsby two strangers come to town. And Nick Carroway is greatly changed by the experience. He’s disabused. He matures. The other stranger, Jay Gatsby, dies, dies for love, but in doing so releases some of the most beautiful passages ever committed to paper. Is Gatsby a thriller, therefore? Or does it fail because it’s not a thriller? What would you rather have on your Also By list? The Great Gatsby or Flick Knife Bunga: A Jock Stretch Novel? In the year that Fitzgerald died Gatsby sold only a handful of copies. It soon started to sell more copies year on year until well into the 1990s because it has something timeless to say and says it in a mysterious fashion. The sort of mass-market churner-outers that Ray admires, your Mickey Spillanes and Alistair MacLeans – their books died with them. No one reads them anymore. There’s always a new Jock on the block to peddle the same old lie about life and its flux.
She did now flash him her eyes like tilted CDs and reached out her hand. Just as he assumed she was going to slip her neat tiny hand into his brutal bear-like paw of a mitt she teasingly whipped her pinkies away and retrieved the Pictorial Jackson. She stuffed the journal into her bag.
‘Let’s go,’ she said, ‘it’s getting stuffy in here and I could handle a long, cool lick of an ice cream.’
Outside, the night was warm but breezy. Some of that turbulence over Greenland must be catching them up, gusting through London now to disturb the litter all over the pavements. They found an ice cream parlour. Ivich leant back, one foot pressed to the parlour’s white wall as she stirred her tub, slowly, lasciviously stirring her tub and taking her time before she scooped the ice cream into her little mouth. He didn’t order any for himself. He didn’t think he should be seen eating a tiny portion of ice cream. He ordered a large jammy doughnut but knew that he ought to be holding a smoking gun to his lips and blowing across the muzzle, just like Jock Stretch on the cover of The Crime: A Jock Stretch Novel .
 Ray then gave a reading from his new masterwork, The Slaying Depot. Jock Stretch, Ray’s alpha-penis vigilante, who travels around East Anglia slaying wolves and shagging sheep, is creeping about a disused McGuffin factory looking for a man with a gun. He has a fight with a man with a gun. The last lines were: ‘Silvio was large. He came at Jock. Jock put his big weight into the punch. Silvio went down like a sack of spuds. Jock kicked him in the balls. He kicked him in the balls again. There was a nasty crack when he kicked Silvio in the balls again. In the balls. Kick in the balls. Silvio snuffed it. He was pissing with the sticklebacks now. There was blood all over his balls.
‘‘Who loves yer, baby?’ said Jock sarcastically.’
‘Has that cleansed your pallet?’ Ray asked as they sauntered away from the ice cream parlour.
‘You’ve got red stuff dripping from your chin,’ she said.
‘Have you got a wet-wipe?’
With manful dominance he slashed the back of his palm across his chin.
‘Where are we going?’ he said, although he knew the answer. They were going to the Stalioni Hotel in Kensington for a nightcap on the roof terrace bar before the end of this particular Jock Stretch story: London Stopover. If he just added something about the Estonian nymph chambermaids on minimum wage nicking the guests’ valuables and Jock Stretch killing the Bulgarian mafia warlords who pulled their strings while his stopover chick is having a shower in the nude he could send it to The Pictorial Jackson Review. Ivich would read it in six months time and think of him wistfully. He was about to suggest that now he had bought her champagne and ice cream, wouldn’t it be great to wander back to Piccadilly Circus and hail a cab. They could head over to the Stalioni and look for shooting stars from the roof .
‘Do you know where I’m from, Ray?’ she said.
 ‘Thank you,’ said Ray and bowed to the Crash Hacks’ enthusiastic applause. ‘I’m happy to answer questions.’
Crash Hacks asked questions. I didn’t. I was thinking of a passage from David Mamet’s Three Cuts of the Knife that I later looked up at home. ‘Our endorsement of violence is … a compulsive expression of the need to repress – to identify a villain and destroy it. The compulsion must be repeated because it fails. It fails because the villain does not exist in the external material world. The villain, the enemy is our own thoughts.’
After I’d first read these lines I knew that I would never be able to write a commercial thriller. I didn’t mention this to Ray. He’d be well ahead of me. After all, he could have written each of Mamet’s plays in two weeks, and in any case he was in full flow, explaining to Evan De La Zouch why his Jock Stretch novels are like The Canterbury Tales but better.
‘I thought you were Dutch?’
She huffed, like she was tired. ‘I was actually born here,’ she said. ‘My father is English but my mother is from Iran, which she insists on calling Persia, as if nothing happened.’
‘What happened?’ said Ray.
‘What happened?’ said Ivich.
He had lost track of where they were now; he didn’t know London as well as he had when he was Miles Pemberton. He started to feel almost unsettled when they emerged into a deserted street market. The turbulence was definitely catching them up. As the wind tore at them, the awnings and the bunting on the stalls made a crackling sound. At the far end of the market something metallic crashed, then clanked and skittered. Something had been ripped free. Something was loose. He thought, for a second, that he could hear voices carried by the wind, gleeful, ugly shouts.
‘I think we should get out of here,’ he said. ‘Let’s get a cab. ’
‘What happened was …’ she said.
 India was trying to talk to me but the room was noisy now and I was brooding on Island Gardens. I hadn’t meant it to be morbid. I hadn’t on purpose omitted the Jock character that arrives in town just in time to save Woods. I had no choice in the matter. The story was based on something that happened in my hometown. A man out shopping found himself in a pointless and unprovoked altercation with some young men. They followed him and slashed him with a samurai sword. I couldn’t stop thinking about this: the senselessness, the sadness. The story chose me, therefore. I did imbue it with a crushing sense of romantic longing and desire for temporal displacement that lifts just before the pointless murder: something is, after all, at its most beautiful immediately before it’s destroyed. This is a cheap trick, though, one often deployed by non-thriller writers because we can’t create suspense. I mention this because the narrative that Ray and his like believe in with such passion has never, once happened to anyone, ever.
We are all strangers in this town, Ray. The stranger doesn’t come to town. The stranger lives next door and over the road. The stranger is you. Get your facts straight, Ray. Open your eyes. Read the papers. Watch the news. Take a good book to bed. Do not write to be solved.
I didn’t point this out to Ray. I didn’t point out that any of the Crash Hacks here could feasibly have written any of his books in two weeks, that his popularity depended on brute luck. He’s not a writer; he’s an entrepreneur. Why he feels the need to lower all stories to the level of the only dream that he dreams (look at me, bean counter, smiting the scum), why he insists on dismantling a house of books with many windows and leaving behind only a wizened turd on the cracked patio tells me everything I need to know about Ray.
‘Can’t we talk about this later? I know a place where we can look at the stars?’
‘See, that’s the thing. We can no longer look at the stars.’
‘I mean, my great-grandfather took us south to Persia to escape the Revolution in 1917. Lots of killing, you see. We lost all our money and all of our land. And for two generations we thrived in Tehran, running a bi-lingual newspaper.’
He didn’t want to tell her that this was boring – it sounded like the sort of story that would get on the Booker Prize shortlist but wouldn’t win – but the gusts were getting stronger, the clatter and banging more frantic and those voices were louder and closer.
‘But the big dark thing caught up with us again.’
‘Ivich, this can wait, can’t it?’
‘You see, after the next revolution, the Ayatollah decreed that all the non-state newspapers were to be shut down, and when there were protests, well, the Party of God, they were let off the leash. I still don’t quite know how mother got out, but my uncle …. They broke into the house. They beat him to death with chains. ’
 I didn’t say anything, though. I let myself be bullied by a bank account with a word processor (again). People would have said I was jealous if I’d argued.
But I was thinking that Richard Yates died in an unfurnished, rented house with only two cans of Carlsberg in the fridge.
Fitzgerald died with nothing but debts.
Ray Gorse is made for life.
Would such injustice be allowed in the world according to Jock Stretch?
‘That’s really horrible, Ivich, but let’s talk philosophy later. C’mon.’
Down at the end of the market, beyond the farthest of the stalls he thought he could see white flashes, the piping on tracksuits, he assumed, and the flicker of hands.
‘Who was the stranger who came to town? Where was your hero then?’
‘Look, I’m in the entertainment business … ’
‘And I do have magic powers. ’
The rainbow tint was still gleaming in her eyes but her mouth was pursed and her eyes closed. He realized that he might have come on a bit like a bull, not put his best foot forward or given a good account of himself. All night he had told her what he thought she needed to hear, what he was used to people wanting to hear. He’d been wrong. She was different. He should have broken in by subtler means. He could be subtle. He could. It was too late for subtle now.
There was a shout behind him. It didn’t sound friendly. He turned towards it. There were six of them, hooded, lithe, their black-gloved hands gripping crowbars and hunks of wood. He reached back for her, to hold her to him, to shield her. He couldn’t find her. When he swung about he couldn’t see her either, and it wasn’t simply because he towered above her.
 Are you going to let him get away with that?’ said India.
I didn’t answer. I was thinking about Margaret Atwood’s essay Happy Endings and how Ray could have written The Handmaiden’s Tale in two weeks.
‘Well, I’m going to put him straight,’ said India.
 Next time I looked over she was mooning up at him, playing with her hair and thrusting out her breasts and he was admiring her like a cattle dealer before a brood mare. He looked like he was about to chuck her under the chin and examine her teeth.
It was too predictable. I didn’t want to drink with anyone else and sloped off to my scriptborium.
I left Saltsell in the morning, before any of the others had risen.
She wasn’t there.
She had vanished.
The kids without faces were stalking towards him, slowly, indefatigably.
He girded himself, tried to remember all the combat moves he’d researched for Ambush Avenue, Headshot Honeymoon and Guts on the Cobbles. He was encircled. They were all around him. He wondered how many of his books they had read. This is your moment, Miles, he thought. This is where you show them how it’s done .
 Two weeks after I’d received Not for Publication by India Emmott I found myself rather nervously entering The Manticore in Soho. I imagine a camera viewing me from behind here: splatters of rain glimmering on the shoulders of my leather jacket; the strap of my bag slanted across my back and tightening as I swayed; my head turning this way and that as I looked out for her.
Candles on the tabletops.
An old jazz standard plays (why always jazz for atmosphere? Why not Belgian Cold Wave synth-pop?). I note this thought, file it away for the future.
Silverware sparkles, a gauzy mist seems to hang in the air, and there she is, wearing an indigo dress and rose-coloured ankle boots. She is reading a book, not one of mine but not one of Ray’s.
I sit down across from her. Smoke drifting from the candles seems to commingle with the tips of her hair. I slide her the envelope containing the story.
‘The title’s just come to me,’ I say, ‘in a flash.’