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Speculative Fiction from Around the World

Tuesday Fiction: “Sanditon” by Helen Marshall

Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Helen Marshall. Helen (manuscriptgal.com) is an Aurora-winning poet, a Canadian author, editor, and bibliophile. Her poetry and fiction have been published in The Chiaroscuro, Paper Crow, Abyss & Apex, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and Tor.com. In 2011, she released a collection of poems entitled Skeleton Leaves from Kelp Queen Press and her collection of short stories Hair Side, Flesh Side came out from ChiZine Publications in 2012. Currently, she is pursuing a Ph. D in medieval studies at the University of Toronto, for which she spends a great deal of her time staring at fourteenth-century manuscripts.

“Sanditon” was originally published in her debut short story collection, Hair Side, Flesh Side (ChiZine Publications, 2012) as well as in a limited run special edition chapbook (also by ChiZine Publications).

Sanditon

Helen Marshall

They were in the elevator, Gavin’s voice surprisingly deep and gruff, but his smile was so charming, it lit up his entire face. He touched her lightly on the arm, and she was happy for the warmth of him, but wryly wary. He was married. She knew that. He pressed the button for his floor, and Hanna felt the ground dropping away beneath her, again when he slipped his arm around her waist, not too firmly, gently really, and it was the warmth of it she loved.

“I’ve had too much scotch,” she whispered.

“Surely there’s no such thing when you’re among writers.”

“We’re not among anybody now. They’re still downstairs.”

“I know.”

The door pinged open: the hallway decorated with bright yellow wallpaper with paler fleurs-de-lys in velvet; the carpet red, shaggy; sconces well-lit, almost as well-lit as Hanna felt. Her steps muddled a little bit, the carpet soft under her shoes, and Gavin’s arm steady around her. She leaned into him, closed her eyes, breathed out and moved away, unhooked her arm.

“Coming in?” he said, his voice catching in the smallest way.

“Of course not.”

“Right,” he replied. And then: “Why not?”

“Because you’re married.” Hanna paused. “And I’m not, at least not to you.”

“Right.” But his hand was still hovering near her, and she didn’t move away from him or the door. “The thing is, you’re the most interesting person down there, and the rest of them are a bit of a mess right now. If you go back down, you’ll only end up playing mother to a bunch of old farts trying to figure out how to write for the BBC. Or get their novels published. Or get their published novels adapted for the BBC. Better to stay here and play the wife.”

“You’re very charming, but no.”

“Fine,” he said again, but he still hadn’t moved away from her, and in fact the distance between them was getting smaller, micro-inch by micro-inch. “It doesn’t have to be about sex.”

“It doesn’t?” Hanna replied, and she enjoyed the startling vibration of the electrons between them, wondered about all that kinetic energy piling up; it had to go somewhere.

“Sex is overrated.”

“Not with me.”

“Tea then?” he asked, quirking an eyebrow.

“What, in your room, at four in the morning?”

“I’ll put on the kettle. I saw tea bags in here earlier.” He used the space to take out a plastic key card and slide it into the surprisingly modern lock. At her last hotel, they gave her a three-pound key that she had to return whenever she left. It could only be retrieved when she handed over her passport for inspection.

The lock whirred and clicked, and Gavin opened the door. The room was largish and decked out in the same colours as the hallway, but the lights were off, discarded luggage making muted shapes in the darkness. Gavin moved closer for a moment, and Hanna didn’t quite move away, letting him bump up against her as he slipped the key into a second slide. The lights flickered on, low for the first five seconds and then burning up to full illumination.

His hand touched the small of her back, and Hanna took a step in, but didn’t quite move past the entrance hallway and into the body of the hotel room.

There was a small round table with a tall plastic boiler, the kind Hanna had in undergrad for mac and cheese, a basket with assorted teas, sticks of dehydrated coffee, a biscuit wrapped in plastic. Gavin fitted the plug into the three-pronged socket.

Hanna looked around at the now illuminated luggage, a big brown suitcase, half-filled with books, clothes spilling out, socks; the smell of aftershave was slightly chemical.

Gavin turned back to the kettle. “Shit,” he muttered, “the light’s not on.” He tapped on it half-heartedly. And then back to Hanna: “Did you really want tea?”

“Coffee would have done.”

“Right,” he collapsed into the chair and Hanna eyed him warily. The scotch was starting to kick in a little, and she realized she actually did want the coffee; the world was a bit unsteady. “What’s it going to be then? Mother or wife?” he asked, that charming smile of his.

“Or editor?”

“Editors are boring. Do you really want to correct my punctuation right now? You can go and join the lot down there, they love editors. Until they have them.”

The jet lag was wearing Hanna’s good sense rather thin, and she liked the feeling of being in the room, watching him fumble with the kettle, and knowing that neither one of them needed that kettle to work. And the deep growl of his voice was . . .

She finished the biscuit and sat down on the edge of the bed, next to the suitcase. She took out one of his books, admiring the cover, the beautiful French flaps. “Gavin Hale. A writer at the height of his craft. A book not to be missed. From Simon Hatch, no less.” Flipped through the first chapter before laying it, carefully, beside her. Looked at him.

“The punctuation really is quite bad. Even I couldn’t fix it.”

“So don’t fix it.” He didn’t get up. He dragged the chair he’d been sitting on over with his legs until he faced her, and they were really quite close together. And then he reached out and touched her hand, very gently, opening up the fingers and sliding his hand in.

“I can’t,” she protested.

“You might.”

“I won’t.”

“Perhaps.”

“I—” And then he leaned forward, stopping her breath, kissing her lightly on the lips. “—might.” Her eyes were mostly closed, and when she opened them, his head had moved away scant inches. He was watching her, waiting. There was a smile—that goddamn smile, Hanna thought—like the Cheshire cat’s, slipping onto his face and then off again.

“It wouldn’t be professional.” She said, but this time she let herself smile back, just a little.

“That’s mostly the point.”

She let go of his hand. He waited. Then she reached out with both hands, took the front of his shirt, and slowly tugged it closer to her.

“Good,” she said.

* * *

Hanna lay back in bed, limbs tangled in damp covers, and Gavin was beside her, sheathed in polished sweat. The suitcase sat overturned on the floor, the books scattered out onto the carpet, but other clothes had joined the mix. A lacy pale blue bra, her conference jacket, the shirt Gavin had been wearing very recently. Hanna’s breathing was still a bit scattershot, and Gavin had that smile on his face again, as he leaned over to kiss gently her collarbone, and then he moved a touch lower to the beginning of the swell of her breast, and then lower, and then to the nipple, which made Hanna lean back further into the pillows. She made a small noise.

“So the wife, then,” she said after a moment. He looked up from what he was doing, and Hanna ran a finger along his fashionably stubbled chin.

“Or the editor if you’d like.”

“That was very nice.”

“My professional evaluation?” He asked playfully, kissing her finger.

“The punctuation was very good.”

“I think I read that review once. ‘The punctuation was very good.’”

“Reviewers are terrible people. They don’t hold a candle to editors.”

Hanna watched him pause over this, thought he would make another rejoinder. Instead, he said: “You can stay the night.”

“I can’t.”

“You might.”

She opened her mouth to speak again, to say something else, but then she closed it. “I’ll be back in a moment.” He kissed her again and then rolled onto his back with a sigh, as she untangled herself from the covers. She slipped around the corner, and then into the bathroom. She closed the door, locked it.

Hanna let out a breath, and began to run the tap. The slightest tremors of a hangover were starting to tighten the circumference of her skull, pushing on her brain. She pooled the water in her hand and then rinsed out her mouth. Bleary-eyed. Tempted by the idea of not needing to go home. Hanna spat out the water, and then looked up into the mirror. Something caught her eye, a smallish discoloured lump on the side of her neck, no bigger than a dime. She squinted, touched it with a finger. The skin was dried out, rough, but the space itself was numb as if all the nerve endings had been disconnected.

She shook her head, tried scratching it with a nail. A queer sensation ran through her body, as if the area was simultaneously hypersensitive and blanked out with Novocain.

“Gavin?” she called uncertainly.

“Yes, my darling?”

There were sounds from outside the bathroom, but Hanna had to squeeze her eyes shut to remain steady on her feet. The handle jiggled but the door was still locked. He knocked softly. “Hanna?”

She shook her head again to clear it, and then opened the door for him. Gavin was casually leaning against the frame, but there was something subtly wrong with the pose, a slight strain in the shoulders.

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s . . .”

He moved behind her, and slipped his arms around her waist, kissing the nape of her neck.

“No regrets, I hope?”

“No, it’s not that. There’s something here—” Her finger brushed the spot. Numbness. Tingling. “—can you see anything?”

Hanna was a bit scared. She had read numerous accounts of women discovering small lumps on their breasts, had a friend at college who got cancer, and had to take a year off for chemo and recovery. There had been a list of people who had signed up to go with him, visit the hospital and keep him company. Hanna hadn’t been one of those people. She had liked him well enough, but the whole thing was a bit grotesque, and then he had lost his hair and his face had swelled until his head looked like an egg balanced on his neck.

Gavin reached up and took her hand in his, moving it away from the spot, then leaned in close to look. “Do you have a tattoo?” he asked after a moment.

“A tattoo?” she asked, couldn’t understand the word. It’s cancer, she thought, not a tattoo. Something that wasn’t part of her yesterday.

“It says something here: Sanditon. Is that Greek?”

“Why the hell would I have Greek tattooed on my neck? Do I look like I grew up in fucking Oxbridge?” she asked, and her hand trembled in his. She could see his face again in the mirror, and he was looking at her, face a bit tense as if he could feel their relationship going strange, growing real. The eyes were colder, and the smile had slipped away.

“Look, I’ll get your things. You don’t have to stay the night.”

“I—” she said helplessly, wanting something from him, seeing he wasn’t going to give it to her. She tried for a smile. “I don’t think I should. I’m not the wife.” A pause, and then the barest hint of a question. “Only the wife stays the night.”

He looked her over, nodded carefully and kissed the back of her neck, ran a finger down her spine, and Hanna felt it like a chill.

“You’re more fun than the wife. And the editor, for that matter.” He went from the bathroom. She stared at herself in the mirror, the dark spot, but she didn’t want to touch it again. Gavin brought her clothes to the bathroom entranceway, and she put them on as fast as she could, trying not to let her shirt touch her neck as she buttoned it up. She couldn’t figure out the jacket so she just slung it over one arm, and then she was out of the door, and standing in the hallway with the pale gold fleurs-de-lys, chest tight, feeling the fear for real now that she was by herself.

Carcinos. Carcinoma. The Greek words for cancer, she thought, and then, Screw Gavin and his books and his beautiful voice and his cat smile and his wife, damn them all to Hell and chemo and let him be the one. He has a family, and that’s why you have families, so you don’t need anyone to sign up to sit with you while you die.

And then she caught her breath, and she got in the elevator, and she went home.

* * *

Home was not really home. Home was a tiny room at the edge of Cowley, just outside Oxford where she was renting while she conducted research, met with potential authors for Belletristic, Inc. It was approximately five feet across, eight feet wide, with a recessed nook holding a desk, carelessly painted, makeshift shelves, and a window incapable of closing. The bed had no sheets, but tight, stabbing springs that she had to learn to weave her body around when she first arrived.

Hanna’s own suitcase was large, black, filled with tightly rolled t-shirts and a few nicer things for professional use, Gavin’s neatly typed manuscript handed over for her editorial inspection and a somewhat smaller sheaf of paper, her own unfinished notes on a novel. As she unpacked, she stowed the t-shirts in a rickety chest of drawers and spent five minutes wedging the suitcase between the uppermost bookshelf and the ceiling. It was too big to fit anywhere else, and if it wasn’t stowed she would have had less than a hand’s span of room to stand in.

When she lay on the bed, springs pressed sharply against her legs, the suitcase stuck out a full foot and a half over the edge of the shelf. Hanna worried that it might fall on her while she slept, so she checked it again, but it held firm, did not budge, just loomed over her, disproportionately large against the cramped, cracked ceiling.

At first, she didn’t think about Gavin, about the darkened mass on her neck. But then she did, and she rooted around in the top drawer, amidst the power adaptors, her passport, and other paraphernalia, until she found a hand mirror. She tried positioning it at different angles, and with her shirt off she could just about find a clean line of sight, the hand shaky, awkward.

But it was there, and it was slightly larger than she remembered it being. Hanna breathed deeply, her shoulders rising and sinking, the bed creaking beneath her. She put the mirror away. Then she reached up, fingers snaking along her collarbone, exploring the side of her neck. She could feel the roughness, a slight sponginess as she put pressure against it, that same feeling of simultaneous tingling and numbness. A hard scarab shell, scab-like. She forced her nail into it. The tingling intensified, but it didn’t feel bad—just very, very strange. Slowly, she dug the nail in until she could feel the edge of the thing against her finger. She dug a little bit more, scratching, getting the other fingernails involved. Then something peeled away, flaking off between her forefinger and thumb. She brought it around for inspection, leaning down on the pillow, the dark shadow of the suitcase in the background of her vision, in the foreground a paper-thin scraping of something—she didn’t know what—with the word “Sanditon” in a kind of languished, cursive scrawl.

Hanna picked up the mirror, repositioned it, but as she gazed at the spot she could see—something, the spot was dark but not as if it were bruised or discoloured or some kind of dysplastic nevus, but more like a shadow, like there was no surface at all, a hole in her neck—yes, when she moved the mirror she could make out the edges, not tears or scratches but a thin bank of skin around—nothing. Nothing.

* * *

Hanna didn’t know what to do, she had never seen anything like that. She sat on her bed, the phone receiver heavy in her hand. She thought about calling her doctor back home, but she didn’t know what to say, and she couldn’t go to a doctor here, she couldn’t remember what her health plan was and if it covered overseas medical. Probably not. Her publishers were cheap, and cut corners where they could. Like this room. Like the standby plane tickets from Toronto.

In the end, she called Gavin, his number written on a business card he had given her when they met yesterday before the conference. He hadn’t looked like his author photo; somehow the photographer hadn’t captured the energy, the expressiveness of his face, the charisma that came only in movement and animation. But she was alone in a city where she hadn’t known a single soul.

The phone rang several times. A woman answered.

“Hello?”

“Hi,” Hanna started, suddenly unsure of herself. “It’s Hanna Greeson. I work for Belletristic, Inc.” She paused. Considered hanging up the phone.

“I’ll just get Gavin on the phone, love.”

A voice distantly called. Hanna could make out the sound of a dog barking. Maybe children in the background. Or a television. Some sort of extra noise that her room didn’t have.

And then Gavin’s voice came over the line: “Hanna.”

“Gavin,” she replied. “So that’s the wife.”

“And you’re the editor.”

“Right,” she said. “That’s right.” She could feel that the phone call was unwelcome, but she didn’t want to hang up. She couldn’t remember exactly where he lived, somewhere near Holland Park, maybe. “Look, Gavin, I’m going to be in London tomorrow and I wanted to talk to you.”

She heard a door closing at the other end, and then the noises were muffled away. Gavin’s voice, reserved, querying. “Talk.”

“Yes, talk. There’s something—something I need help with.”

“I’m not much good in the helping department. Ask around. Ask anyone. I’m bloody useless.”

“Gavin, I—”

“Really, Hanna, it was very lovely to meet you at the conference, but—you know how these things go, when the cat’s away. . . . There’s really nothing I can help you with.” His voice sounded final. Hanna could hear the click coming.

“Listen to me, Gavin,” she said softly, intensely. The kind of whisper you don’t ignore. “I said I’m going to be in London tomorrow and you can meet me at the Euston Flyer at three, or you can put the wife back on the line, and I can stop being fucking professional.”

* * *

Hanna took a morning bus into London. She had wanted to shower but she was afraid of what might happen with the water dripping off the edges of the opening in her neck. She had stolen some saran wrap from the communal kitchen and tried taping it like a band-aid in place. But the tape kept peeling and wouldn’t hold properly, so eventually she gave up on the whole thing and did her hair in the sink. She put on makeup, dressed nicely, wanted to look good for him, for Gavin Fucking Hale. She didn’t know why, but she did it anyway.

She couldn’t sleep on the bus. She kept wedging her neck between the window and the seat to hold it steady, but then she was worried that she was pulling too much at the skin. At last she just settled her head back, and read the book that Gavin had given her. It was clean writing, serviceable prose with just the right amount of pathos, the perfect, quirky dialogue—all up to snuff; her publisher would be proud. An old woman with pinkish-dyed hair caught her eye, smiled, nodded at the book. Hanna pretended not to see.

When she arrived in London, she picked out a seat near the back where she had a good vantage point. She didn’t know if Gavin would come. She didn’t know if she’d make good on the threat, and was half curious to find out.

Hanna spotted him, eighteen minutes late, a few minutes before she had decided to take out her cell phone to see if she could goad herself into calling. He made his way over, face looking dull, more like the author photo.

“Well,” he said, “I’m here so you can call off the charge and put down your weapon. I’ll come in peaceably if you only ask politely.”

“Gavin.” She put away the phone, waiting as he took his seat. “I’m glad you came.”

“Ah, my dear editor. What shall it be, business or pleasure?” And then to the waiter who had wandered within distance. “We’ll have two scotches. On me. Neat, no ice.” The waiter nodded, and disappeared the way that good waiters do when they can sense an awkward situation. “Neat and tidy,” Gavin continued, meaningfully, but this time to Hanna.

“I didn’t know who else to call.” Now that Gavin had come, Hanna realized she didn’t have any idea what to say next, how to begin the conversation.

“Let me start. An autograph, maybe?” A little mean, snarky. “No, something else then. A second draft on the new manuscript? Notes and first impressions?”

“What about a second fuck?” Just to break his stride. He was making her angry.

“And then a third and a fourth and when would it end? We might as well be married at that point and then who the hell would edit my books? The wife can’t do it.” His stride unbroken, and even charming in spite of himself. “It’ll be dogs and cats in the street. The lion and the lamb all cuddled up. The end of freedom, democracy, and Her Majesty out of work, pumping gas for a Paki kebab seller.” He leaned back in his chair, took a sip from the scotch which had appeared magically on the table.

“Fine,” she said.

* * *

They were in the bathroom, Hanna with her skirt up around her waist and Gavin holding her up, pinned against the side of the stall as he machine-gun thrust into her. A door opened, and then Hanna heard it closing again quickly, barely, over the sound of her panting and Gavin’s deep-throated grunts.

Then they were finished, and Gavin was slumped down on the toilet, a happy, sweaty smile on his face, running a hand over her bare buttocks, pulling Hanna close until she was resting on his knee.

“Aren’t you quite the surprise?” he said hoarsely, a little smugly too. “Fancy a second turn?”

This time Gavin spun Hanna around, her breasts pressed flat against the door. Hanna was afraid that the lock might give, the problem with ladies’ bathrooms in old pubs where the doors didn’t seem to fit the frame. Gavin pounded away behind, and his hands were at her waist, and then one cupping a breast, and then the other at her neck. Then she could feel something tearing along her shoulder, and warm numbness filled her so fast she thought she had already released.

But Gavin had stopped, she realized. His hand touched lightly upon her shoulder. He was saying something, softly, almost scared.

“A gentleman and a lady travelling from Tunbridge towards that part of the Sussex coast which lies between Hastings and Eastbourne, being induced by business to quit the high road and attempt a very rough lane, were overturned in toiling up its long ascent, half rock, half sand.” Hanna didn’t know what it meant, was almost lured by the unknitting of her thoughts, the pulse of pleasure still having built to a nice warmness, mingling with the numbness starting at her shoulder; she felt happy for a moment, but Gavin was still speaking. “There is something wrong here, said he, but never mind, my dear, looking up at her with a smile, it could not have happened, you know, in a better place, good out of evil. The very thing perhaps to be wished for. We shall soon get relief—”

“What’s that?” Hanna murmured drowsily, forgetting she was leaning half-cocked against a mildly graffitized bathroom door.

“What do you mean, what’s that?” Gavin asked.

“That—a gentleman and a lady travelling . . .”

“How the Hell should I know?” He tugged on her arm, simultaneously pushing and pulling away from her. Then he was tugging up his pants, buckling his belt, as Hanna leaned against the side of the stall, trying to get her breath, not really enough room for the more elaborate elements of Gavin’s attempts to put his clothes back on.

“Gavin, what’s wrong?” The numbness fading away. Panic returning, fear. The sense of inevitable breakup, people drifting apart. “Did I—?”

“No,” he answered. “Look.” He unlatched on the door, and there was that push-pull as he took her wrist, guided her to the bathroom mirror. She tried to hitch her skirt back down, and almost tripped.

Then she was in front of the mirror, and Gavin was running a finger along her shoulder, but there was no warmth to the gesture. Hanna looked, and at first she couldn’t see it, but then she noticed the fault line running several inches to her clavicle. The edges of her skin had puckered up like old paper and there seemed to be nothing on the other side. Gavin reached up to where the fissure began, where a strip of something onion-thin, almost translucent, had curled up. He bent his head closer, tugging very gently on it: “There, I fancy, lies my cure, pointing to the neat-looking end of a cottage, which was seen romantically situated among wood on a high eminence at some little distance, does not that promise to be the very place?” He was reading, she realized, and then she could see that on the underside of the flap was a very tiny scrawl.

She pulled away from him without even thinking, her heart a misfiring jackhammer, and there was an awful tearing sound as the strip came away in his hand. She knelt down, grabbed the jacket she had left behind in the stall and wrapped in protectively around her shoulders.

“Whatever it is you’re doing, I want you to make it stop.”

“Whatever I’m doing?” he asked, but distractedly; he was staring at the piece that had torn away.

“I won’t call your wife, I promise.”

“Bugger my wife, Hanna,” he said. “The old lady has nothing on you. She’s made of nothing but laundry lists and children’s paintings and cheap romance novels. If I cut her open I’d expect to find nothing more than a list of things she had forgotten to pick up at Sainsbury’s, and maybe a notice about an overdue fine. But this is—”

“What?”

“—this is bloody Jane Austen.”

* * *

Hanna did not go home to the tiny room in Cowley. Gavin set her up in a hotel room close to Victoria station, on a street filled with similar Georgian-style, whitewashed facades that hosted numerous other anonymous hotels. The manager knew Gavin, that was clear, and provided a room large enough to fit several of her Cowley apartment rooms inside. The space was comfortable, the bed soft and plush, the manager suitably unctuous if a touch overly familiar.

Gavin guided her in, his demeanour having taken on the excited, manic glow of a kid at Christmas.

“You’ll be fine here, darling,” he said, drawing open the blinds, and then shutting them again quickly. “The least I can do, considering your . . . I’ll have your things brought up from Oxford tonight.”

Hanna nodded and sat down on the bed. Her shoulder wasn’t sore, exactly, but she found herself wishing he would just go so that she could have a proper lie-down, clean herself up.

“But, Hanna, just in case—” She looked up at that. “—I don’t think you should really go outside, not in your condition. Stay here. Rest up, fortify your reserves, and I’ll have my doctor set up the appointment. Shouldn’t take more than a day or two.”

“I don’t want to go outside,” she replied.

“Of course not. Good.” He wandered away from the window and came to stand nearby, still looking around the room distractedly. “As I said, shouldn’t be more than a day or two. And I’ll be in touch.” She nodded, was surprised when he leaned down and kissed her on the mouth. Sought after some witty thing to say to him in response, because he was now looking at her eagerly, intently, for a touch longer than he should have been. He seemed to catch himself doing it, and he cleared his throat. “Take care, my darling, and don’t worry, not about a thing. I’ll take care of it all.”

Then he was gone, and Hanna could feel the weariness taking its toll. She rolled onto her side, couldn’t be bothered to get underneath the covers, and then for the first time it what seemed like a month, she slept—

—was woken up to the sound of her phone ringing.

“Hanna, Hanna, is that you?” Her publisher. “Hanna, something extraordinary is happening.” The voice was cheery, chirpier than Hanna remembered it being.

“What is it, Miri?” she mumbled into the cell phone.

“I’ve just received a call from James in Brighton. And he received a call from someone by Vauxhall. Something’s going on with Gavin Hale—something big. Everyone’s buzzing about it, but no one knows what it is. All very hush-hush. But you saw him in Oxford, didn’t you? Did he say anything?”

A stab of panic. Hanna propped herself up onto the pillows, trying to clear the mugginess from her brain. “No,” she said quickly. “He didn’t say anything. We just talked work. Regular work. The manuscript he was shopping around.”

“Was he—I don’t know—surely he must have said something?”

“No, just what you’d expect.”

A pause on the other end. Some of the chirpiness was disappearing from Miriam’s voice. “Can you find out what it is? You’re—where are you staying?—close to London, that’s right. See him. Set up a meeting. See if he’ll cut us in.”

“I don’t think that’s a very good idea.”

“Hanna, you’re twenty-eight years old and I know like every other twenty-eight-year-old working for crap pay, you’ve probably got an unfinished manuscript of your own stuffed away in a drawer, mounting student debt and the ache to do something real, to put some beautiful piece of fiction out into the world without it getting shat on, and maybe earn enough to feed yourself.” Miriam’s voice was picking up speed like a freight train. “And like every other out-of-grad-school hire, I can tell you that you know nothing. Not yet.

“Listen to me, your job status is about as close to probationary as it can be, and none of those pretty dreams are going to come true unless you can do this simple fucking job. You’re in London. This is what we need from you. That’s why you’re in London.”

Hanna swallowed. “Right.” Silence on the other end. “I’ll see what I can do.”

She hung up the phone. Her shoulder began to ache.

* * *

“I’ve cleared it with my agent, and I’ve got a deal all prepped and run through the legal mill,” Gavin told her excitedly.

“I don’t want a deal,” Hanna replied. “I don’t even know what the deal is for. I don’t know what’s happening to me!”

The hotel room had felt increasingly small over the last twelve hours, and Hanna had been pacing it back and forth like some kind of large predatory cat locked in a cage. This was the first bit of raw meat that had been dangled in front of her since Gavin had left her there, and she couldn’t help but take a swipe at it. She just wanted to see something bleeding.

“Something extraordinary, my darling. One of the world’s greatest authors, the peak of her career, just a pinch past forty and she’s writing up a storm, really gaining momentum with these quirky little romantic comedy things she’s been putting out there—and you know what?—the people love it, they’re just falling all over themselves to find out what happens with all those stuffed-up, bloody aristocrats and then—BANG!—bile and rheumatism until her mind could no longer pursue its accustomed course, and it’s all gone forever except that last, unfinished manuscript. Sanditon.”

Sanditon?”

“She was going to call it The Brothers for George Crabbe but—” He finally caught the long look that Hanna had been shooting at him, and perhaps he sensed something of the tiger in her. “Yes,” he continued, a little abashed. “Sanditon. The unfinished manuscript, only twelve chapters that she wrote, but you, my dear, you—”

He stopped, his face caught in an expression of absolute rapture. Hanna didn’t like the way he was looking at her.

“I think it’s all there.”

“What, the manuscript?”

“Yes, the manuscript, the whole bloody finished novel, there—”

“Gavin, that’s impossible, crazy, where is the doctor?”

“The doctor?” Pulled up short.

“Yes, you imbecile, the doctor, the doctor, the fucking doctor you promised me!” Hanna practically shouted the words at him. She felt close to tears. She had been terrified to look at her shoulder, afraid that perhaps there would be nothing there after all, that it would just be some malignant melanoma and that that the rest of it was all something dream-whipped up by the tumours pushing on her brain, spreading everywhere. She had dreamed that someone was feeding her through a paper shredder, and she had woken up screaming. Some of this finally seemed to get across to Gavin, and he stopped the triumphant parade, the gleeful little biography lesson and finally looked at her properly. She could see him doing it, re-evaluating her, shifting the categories in his mind.

He crouched down in front of her, and took her hand in his. “Hanna, darling.” He stroked the sensitive flesh between her thumb and forefinger, brought her hand up and kissed it gently. “Some extraordinary is happening, miraculous. It’s about more than doctors; it’s about art and beauty, something coming back to us from beyond—I don’t know, from beyond where—something we were supposed to have, that the world was supposed to have.”

He kissed her hand again, and then reached up to gently touch her face. His eyes were wide, the feverish excitement gone for a moment, and Hanna couldn’t tell if it was calculated or not, but she found herself slumping into him, into the warm embrace of his arms.

“It will be alright, my girl. There’s a kind of magic to it all, miracles don’t happen every day, and I’ll be right here, I’ll take care of you.” He stroked her hair lightly, gently. “It’s an extraordinary thing and we can’t stand in the way of it. You understand, don’t you?” He pulled away just the barest amount, and their eyes locked, his were liquid and brown and Hanna thought she could see the slight reflective sheen of what might have been tears in his eyes.

Hanna wanted to say that she didn’t understand, why the Hell should Jane Austen choose to write her last words on the inside of a twenty-eight-year-old editor, almost two hundred years after her death? That wasn’t a miracle, that was fucking poor planning.

But Gavin was kissing her now, very gently, just a little nibble at her lower lip, and she found she didn’t care quite as much as she thought she might, and maybe he was right anyway, maybe it was a miracle and all this was happening for some reason beyond her. And he kissed her again, and then that spot right behind her ear, his breathing a tickle in her hair, and then lower, and then—

“I just need to see it, Hanna,” he whispered, “just to be sure, to know for sure, that I’m right. You understand, don’t you?”

* * *

It had been a week. Her suitcase still hadn’t arrived. She imagined it back in the tiny room in Cowley, shoved against the ceiling, the makeshift bookshelf beginning to sag now, hers and Gavin’s papers beginning to muddle all together. Gavin had brought her a fresh set of clothes at least, but they didn’t fit quite properly, a little tight across the chest, a little baggy around the waist, and Hanna was almost dangerously sure that they might have been things stolen from his wife’s half of the closet.

She’d received three irate phone calls from her publisher, but she’d let them all go to voicemail. She consoled herself with the knowledge that she did, in fact, have the insider knowledge Miriam was looking for, even if she couldn’t share it just yet. Gavin had warned her not to. Said he would talk to his lawyer first, make sure everything was kosher, and that she was protected. It turned out that she wasn’t—a boilerplate bit of her contract gave Belletristic, Inc. the first right of refusal to anything she produced or obtained while working for them. It was unclear which clause Sanditon would fall under, but it was clear that some part of the contract had it covered. So the lawyer had recommended a temporary gag order, and she’d listened, put everything through to voicemail except her parents, and stopped answering e-mails.

Her initial fear had begun to transmute into a waiting tension, and then boredom, and then curiosity. She had started trying to capture pictures of the novel with her cell phone. The outside bits were easy enough, where the skin had peeled back from the fissure, but she didn’t want to cause any more damage. She fingered the papery tissue carefully, with her right hand, used her left hand to zoom and snap. The first twenty pictures were awful, but after several hours she found that she was starting to get the hang of it.

With the load of clothes, Gavin had also dropped off a copy of the 1925 Chapman transcription of the original manuscript, now housed in King’s College, Cambridge. She had read through it eagerly, but in the end she found herself increasingly bored. There wasn’t much of it, not enough to truly get the shape of the novel beyond the description of the town for which the novel was named, and its various, colourful inhabitants. It wasn’t Pride and Prejudice, she thought, but it was something. And perhaps the missing bits would flesh it out, get to the real crux of the narrative.

She began to transcribe the images she could get out of the camera. It wasn’t very much, though the writing was surprisingly dense. She finished what she could in about a day’s worth of meticulous photographing and transcription. And then the boredom returned, hours of it, just sitting, reading and rereading the copy Gavin had left and then trying to match it up with what she had on her computer.

Hanna didn’t know how it happened, exactly, but she found herself tugging on the skin just a little bit, to read several lines that had been obscured in shadow. And then just a little bit more. Soon she found there was a wide enough space that she could just fit in the edge of the slim phone if she was very careful. It felt strange, but not painful, rather a tickling sensation at the edge of the remaining skin and then nothing on the inside. Without a light, though, her cell phone didn’t have a good enough camera to make out very much else, just dim shapes, the curvature of the inside of her skin.

But, still, she had plenty of new material. Hanna could intermittently pick out scraps of dialogue and narrative that hadn’t been in the original. It wasn’t all in proper order, after all, and trying to read it was something like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.

When Gavin arrived on the fifth day, Hanna was debating whether or not she might be able to get a little bit more brightness on the camera phone if she could manoeuvre herself closer to the bathroom light. She was standing up on the sink, shirtless, her shoulder pressed toward the ceiling and the cell phone held awkwardly in her right hand, snapping away like mad.

She almost fell onto the sink when she heard the door open. The ceramic cup holding her toothpaste crashed to the floor, and smashed apart.

“Hanna?” he called from the doorway. “Are you alright, darling?”

Hanna crouched down gingerly, careful to mind the bits of pottery, and popped her head out around the corner. “I’m fine. Where the fuck have you been, Gavin?” She snapped.

His mouth crinkled with a smile, and his brow crinkled with a smug look. He tugged her in for a very passionate, if quick, kiss before releasing her. “I’ve been showing off the pages, that’s where the fuck I’ve been. And—you know what?—they love them, everyone bloody loves them, want to know where we’ve been getting them. I’ve gotten half a dozen calls from Rosemary Culley of the Hampshire Jane Austen society, demanding to know where I found it and if I want to publish with them; and all the big boys, of course, James & Sweitzer, Great Auk, Door Holt, and that’s just in Britain. The Americans can sense there’s something going on, and even if they don’t give two figs for Jane Austen, they can smell the money. Not that we’ll go with the Americans, of course, not really theirs, is it? I mean, it’s ours, of course, well, it ought to be—”

“And the Canadians?” she asked.

“Foreign rights, that’s obvious. But there are no major players there, wouldn’t make any sense to shop it around for the first print run, let them wait for it, they don’t need it first—”

“I’m Canadian, Gavin,” Hanna said pointedly. He had the good grace to look abashed.

“Of course, we’ll consider every offer,” he paused, checking to see if she was mollified then dismissing it. “But that’s not really the point, is it? It’s not about the money, it’s about the culture, rediscovered, the unexhausted talent of the nation’s greatest writer—”

“Shakespeare?”

“—Shakespeare, who is Shakespeare? A balding man with a passion for soliloquies, perhaps he had a couple of real zingers, Macbeth—Hamlet was a bit too slow if you ask me—but nothing like the human drama of Austen, the subtle play of wit, understatement, the clever critiques of a society straitjacketing itself out of all the good bits of life.”

Hanna could see that he had worked himself up into a frenzy of speechifying, but that the patter sounded clean, a little too clean, rehearsed maybe. The kind of thing you might deliver in an interview or on a talk show.

“I’ll need the next lot of papers,” he added. “The work you’re doing is extraordinary, just extraordinary, my girl. My editor. My perfect editor.” He paused for a moment, noticing at last that she had her shirt off. “What’s happened here?” He reached toward her, fingering very gently the flaps of skin, more than there had been the last time he had been there.

“An experiment,” Hanna replied, smoothing it out of his grasp and back over the gap in her shoulder. She moved out of range, feeling his speculating gaze on her back, to where she had kept some safety pins. Deftly, she slid the pins through the double flaps of skin, pinching closed the hole so that it would not tear further. “I don’t know how else I’m supposed to get anything else out of it. There’s only so much I can read on the outside.”

“Right,” he nodded, still speculating, “Of course. Can’t just cut you open, can we?” He laughed. She did not.

The next day he returned with a new camera, one mounted on the end of a snake tube. He had duct-taped a very small LED light to the tip of it. He sat her down on the bed, and carefully unhooked the safety pins, slid the camera in. Hanna held her laptop on her knees. She sat very still, afraid to move. And then the pictures began to flood in, a little grainy at first, but there was so much more than she had been able to capture herself. She felt herself getting caught up in the excitement of it all, catching little snippets that she knew she could slot into the jigsaw puzzle of the narrative.

Gavin was breathing heavily, his mouth very close to her ear as he tried to manoeuvre the camera around. He kept shifting his weight, making the bed creak, and throwing off her balance. But she didn’t move. Kept very still for what seemed like hours. She had to pull herself up straight so that her stomach, sagging a little from the English food and the lack of exercise, wouldn’t wrinkle and distort the images on the inside. Finally, he pulled out the little camera.

“Well done, my darling.” He beamed at her, and this time she did smile back, good and proper, but her eyes were already drifting back to the manuscript, the long scrawls of words written around the slight concave dimple of where her spine stretched out the skin of her back, the flat of her shoulder blade, the hollowed insides of her breasts.

* * *

The weeks had crawled by, and now Hanna was watching Gavin on television, with some late night talk show host with a polished look to him, steel-grey hair, charming and a little self-deprecating, in a neat grey suit. Gavin was well turned out, and his bearing showed off his confidence to best effect. He was talking animatedly: “Sanditon,” he said, “she called it, and I quote, the very spot which thousands seemed in need of. And now we have it.”

She muted the volume. The real Gavin was lying next to her in the bed, had stayed over for the last few nights. Hanna was glad of it, had found that the standard assortment of complaints she typically brought to bear against her partners didn’t quite bother her so much. Perhaps it was the general loneliness. Perhaps it was because he was married, and didn’t seem as demanding as she would have imagined. Sometimes he seemed to forget about the sex altogether, caught up in a blur of telephone calls, the occasional phone interview or, as she was watching just then, major media appearances. What had been an energetic bit of fucking, punctuated by happy moments of productivity had soon blurred into less frequent heavy petting and a little more kindness. He read to her from the manuscript, practised his interviews with her, got her to ask him questions, and waited, patiently, for her evaluation of his performance.

But not right then. Then he was nuzzling her shoulder, careful around the pins, didn’t want to hurt her, he said. By this point, Hanna didn’t know if it actually was hurting or dangerous. The doctor had never come, despite assurances from Gavin that he would pop round tomorrow or the next day. Not malice. It wasn’t even deception—not real deception—but she could see the question drifting out of his mind two seconds after she’d asked it, not sticking in there as a real concern at all. And so it had become less real to her as well. The manuscript was almost finished, and there would be time for doctors after that, and money too. Gavin had negotiated an advance of half a million pounds, almost unheard of, and his phone had rung off the hook for about a week—inquiries from Jane Austen’s estate, more pressing queries from the librarian at Cambridge demanding that he stop the press releases until the veracity of the document could be determined, requests from researchers, book dealers, rival agents, rival lawyers—until he got a second phone, giving the number only to his agent, his lawyer, Hanna, and his wife.

“You’re beautiful, my darling, well and truly beautiful.”

Hanna smiled, touched the silk-wire hairs on his chest. “And you are a man who gets paid to make things up for a living.”

“Am I?” he asked plaintively. “I had forgotten. It seems as if I’m only parroting other people’s words, a publicist for the dead.” His eyes flicked to the screen.

“I believe I’m the one who is supposed to be feeling sorry for myself. You should be cheering me.” She quirked an eyebrow, curious at the change of tone.

“Right,” he said, “That’s why I began with the bit about you being beautiful. Which is true, by the way. Every word of it.”

“I’m the editor,” she answered. “Not the wife. Don’t make me the wife.”

“Ah, the crux of it all.”

“Cruxes are for editors, I was taught.”

“Crosses are for wives.” He paused. “To bear, that is. I am my wife’s cross, she says sometimes.”

Hanna said nothing.

“I think I might not go home tonight.”

Nothing.

“I think I might not go home ever again.” He whispered.

Television-Gavin was saying something witty to the camera, and, muted, Hanna just caught the close-up on his face, smiling. She thought about that smile—the cat’s smile—slipping on and off again, the warmth of him beside her. Felt a little sad.

“I think you should go home.”

* * *

The next day, Hanna left the hotel room. The unctuous hotel manager, attentive to the last, stopped her at the door.

“Mr. Hale said that you weren’t to leave.” His voice apologetic.

“Mr. Hale is not my fucking keeper,” Hanna hissed. The manager took a step back, and she took the opportunity to walk out the front door.

She took the bus from Victoria station to Oxford, this time without a book, without anything to do. After a while, Hanna took out her phone, began to check the missed messages—an overflow of worry, excitement, sometimes anger until the voices themselves became increasingly indistinct, just a mass of things wanted from her, things offered to her. She was fired, apparently. Her mother wanted her to come home. Something from Gavin at the end that she pointedly ignored.

There was a weight lifting from her, as she stared out the window, watching the hills roll by, a patchwork quilt of dark green shrubs and lighter tones of grass, fields, the strange light of the shifting mass of clouds a clear sign that rain was coming. But it was England, and there was always rain coming, so she just watched the clouds, mottling from silver to black to white, shades and textures she never saw in the sky back in Toronto.

Hanna made her way up Divinity Road, and turned off at Minster, the smell of roses and heavy humidity in the air. She barely recognized the house now, but when she unlocked the door to her room everything was where it had been before. She was worried that someone might have put her things out by the side of the road, even though she had paid up for four months in advance.

Carefully, she climbed up onto the bed and unwedged her suitcase from its cramped space between the shelf and the ceiling. She had forgotten how small the room was, and it smelled musty now from the windows being closed in the summer. The bed was unmade, the towel she had used to wash her hair before she went to London hanging from the inside door knob. Dry now.

She put the suitcase on the floor, and lay down on the bed.

* * *

Someone was knocking on the door to the room. Hanna opened it cautiously, mostly expecting to see Gavin standing in the entranceway, but it was an oldish woman, formerly pretty, with smallish breasts and a rounding waistline.

“The wife,” Hanna guessed aloud.

“The editor.” The woman quirked her head, smiled, and she was prettier than Hanna had imagined at first. “May I come in, love?”

Hanna gestured her in, but there was really nowhere for the two of them to sit, not with the suitcase taking up most of the available floor space. The woman did not try to sit, standing a little awkwardly. Hanna caught her looking around the room, her eye taking in the peeling ceiling, the narrow walls. “Sorry,” Hanna apologized. “I’ve apparently lost my job. But it didn’t pay very well to begin with—thus, the room.”

“Gavin tells me that you stand to make a good deal of money soon, you and he. Are you going somewhere?” She nodded to the suitcase, and Hanna took the handle, tipping it up vertically so that there was a little extra space.

“Home, I think.”

“Not on my account, I hope?” The woman’s gaze was sharp, but then she smiled again and sat down heavily on the bed. Hanna sat down beside her, not quite as heavily, still unsure of the bearings of the conversation, unable to navigate it.

“No—” she began. “It’s just been a long time. I miss it.”

She nodded. “Well, you’re a pretty girl. I imagined you would be, common as any young lady in the kingdom with a tolerable complexion and a showy figure—” Quoting now from the book. “—very accomplished and very ignorant.”

Hanna didn’t let herself show any sign of emotion at the jibe. “He showed it to you then? The pages?”

“That’s not new, love. The original, the bit we already had.” Mrs. Hale turned away then, and began to dig through a large, overstuffed purse she had brought with her. Eventually she took out a manila envelope tied shut with string. She unwound the string carefully, not drawing out the suspense on purpose, but Hanna began to feel it anyway, something like dread. The envelope had an address on it, and a name, JAMES MARTEN, M. D.

Finally, Mrs. Hale slipped out a series of photographs—x-rays, the shapes white and grey against a background of black, oddly reminding Hanna of the clouds earlier. But then as she looked further, she began to make out letters, little scrawls. Her eyes had gotten surprisingly good at reading this kind of text, fitting the superimposed images together, separating them into sensible bits and re-arranging them in order.

It was a love letter. To Hanna Greeson, the most darling editor in all the world. She couldn’t make out all of it, but what she could read was most definitely Gavin’s—clean writing, serviceable prose with just the right amount of pathos, the perfect, quirky endearments. But tiny, distorted, imprinted on the insides of his tissue.

“He came home complaining of a pain, oh, months back now. Around the time he went to Oxford. And met you, I expect. Dr. Marten investigated. We were worried about colon cancer. His father went that way, younger than he should have. He was about Gav’s age. We were both very scared.

“But then the results came back and it wasn’t cancer, and Gavin said he had found something, he had a major project due, something big. Yes, he showed me some of the pages. They were good. Very good. And it was all very exciting, a huge relief, something to take our minds off the things that had almost but not quite happened. But he didn’t come home one night. I wasn’t surprised really. Sometimes he does that when he’s working. God knows, we have enough money and with the kids around it can be hard for him to get writing done, so when he’s in one of those moods and there’s a deadline coming, sometimes he’ll just rent a hotel in town and stay on until the work is done. Or so he’s always told me.

“But then the doctor’s office called. I was half-sure that they had been wrong the first time, and it was cancer after all, but no, something else. They showed me the photographs. I didn’t know what it was.”

She was silent for a long moment. Hanna looked again at the images, Gavin from the inside, made strangely unfamiliar when she saw all the curves and the angles backward. And the writing, of course.

“He told me. He told me about the pages. About everything.” Mrs. Hale looked up and Hanna found herself returning the look, unwilling to speak. And then, unexpectedly, she rested her hand on Hanna’s.

“It’s okay, love. Really it is. You weren’t the first, and I have no doubt there will be others. It’s just his way, and I’ve made my own peace with it. It’s what we do—wives, that is. It’s what marriage always meant to me, and it’s why I married him. Because he needs someone to care for him, for all that bundled enthusiasm and pride and ego and sometimes kindness. He’s not a bad man.

“And the truth is—the real truth, between us women—is that I’d rather have Sanditon. Even if Gavin never wrote another word, the world would keep turning, there are plenty of Gavin Hales in the world and no one would really mourn.” Her smiled quirked up, reminding Hanna of Gavin’s smile, the way two people can come to look alike when they have shared a life together. “But then there’s you, my dear, and then there’s Jane. And maybe the world can’t live without her. Maybe that’s what it all means.”

Carefully, Mrs. Hale reached for the photos, took them from Hanna’s numb fingers, slipped them back into the envelope and placed it on the bed beside them.

“He might come for you.”

“I’m going home. Tonight,” Hanna said.

“He might come anyway. But I hope not. He’s a good husband, despite everything.”

Mrs. Hale stood, took her oversized purse and left.

Hanna was alone in the room. The envelope was beside her, but she found that she didn’t want to look at it again. She could hear the footsteps going down the stairs, listened as the front door quietly clicked shut.

Then she unzipped the suitcase, and searched around inside for her own manuscript, the pages not entangled with Gavin’s after all. She counted out each one, finding herself reading bits and pieces as she went, automatically reassembling the words in her head, the shape of the unfinished story. Hanna found she liked it still.

And then she slipped off her jacket, unbuttoned the blouse beneath and slipped that off too. The pins had kept the skin from tearing much further, but she could feel the perforation running down further, almost to the swell of her breast now. She undid the pins one by one. She pulled back the flaps of skin. The ink smudged a bit, but she didn’t need to be so careful now that it was all fully photographed, the words recorded. She found that she could peel away most of her shoulder, that queer feeling of numbness and excitement all wrapped up together.

And then she rolled up her manuscript, and she slid it through the gap, could feel the slight pressure of it against her ribs, on her pelvis. It felt right there. She reinserted the pins again, closing up the gap, thought better of it, and took out the tiny traveller’s sewing kit she kept in the top drawer. Bit by bit, she stitched together the edges until they just about fit, only a few times when she had to tug the skin close to match up ends that didn’t quite join up any longer. She could feel the weight of it, the way the pages settled against her inside, the words face-to-face with Jane’s, pressed together, ink rubbing on ink in the darkness inside her skin.

THE END

May 28, 2013 - Posted by | May 2013, Uncategorized | , , , ,

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