by Michael Botur
from Hell of a Thing (The Sager Group, 2020)
The true-ish story of four dorks who fight a war of words against the poetry critic who disses their poetry zine in the hallowed pages of the University of Otago student magazine.
When it started, we were drunk on anger, drunk on poetry, drunk on each other. Si, Harriet, Todd… we’d been up all night, getting more and more anxious, anxious about our English and Lit grades. Anxious about our creative writing efforts. Anxious that our literary reputations were under threat. We paced the dawn campus, unable to sit down. The birds were making noise as the blackness thinned to a watery blue and the streetlights bowed out. Finally a goon in denim overalls pulled up on his moped and unboxed 100 copies of The Student Guide into a rack.
We straightaway flipped to the most important literary news of our lives, page 6. There it was: our public humiliation. Disgrace immortalized in ink – our ambitions of being the leading poets on campus had been publicly mocked. Wounded, we dripped disappointment as we limped back to the flat along early morning George Street, clutching every copy of The Student Guide. We had three copies for ourselves, 97 to be destroyed. There would be more magazines put out for public consumption, yes, but we could help ensure that 100 fewer people read the printed attack on us. Every one less embarrassment was important.
After a long march down George Street, we crossed the Octagon and staggered to the top of View Street where our mansion looked down on Dunedin. After dumping the traitorous magazines in the recycling bin, we clomped up three flights of stairs to the top of the Eagle’s Nest and arranged ourselves around the room. Harriet planted her bottom neatly on the edge of the bed; Todd spread himself across the two-seater like a quilt, taking up space, taking up attention. Si aligned himself with the wall, upright.
We had one essential question to discuss: how to respond to the Guide’s literary editor disrespecting us.
‘Revenge,’ Harriet said, mashing her knuckles into her palm.
‘That guy deserves to die,’ Todd added.
‘A dish best served cold, I believe is the recipe,’ Si said. ‘But the question is, do we destroy our nemesis through success or subterfuge?’
‘Subterfuge,’ said Harriet from the bed.
Todd rolled onto his back and laced his fingers behind his head. ‘Definitely subterfuge.’
Si, the godfather of our radical writers group, took off his glasses and folded them, pacing the floor, nearly bumping his oversized head on a beam. He had to duck to avoid the ceiling light as he summed up our predicament in a lecture.
‘As if it weren’t bad enough that the wanker routinely rejects the poetry we send him, Literary editor Jean-Paul Fernandes has published what he calls The Top Ten All-Time Poetry Fails list, spanning the centuries. We’ve been regrettably bundled together on that historic list at number 2, between Byron’s Candida Sonnets and McGonagall’s Tay Bridge Disaster, which is upsetting, granted. But could it be that his little list is no more influential than a letter to the editor from an elderly conservative?’
‘Letters to the editor don’t get reproduced 10,000 times in The Guide so everyone on campus pretty much has seen it. He literally humiliated us.’
‘Correction: gratuitous use of literally.’
‘If Student Guide’s gonna make fun of us, we have to start our own publication,’ Harriet said, listing the process on her knobbly fingers. ‘Put out a call for submissions; set up an editorial review board; get a website; get an email address with a – what do you call it – that professional thingy… .’
Todd flailed towards the ceiling, making a choking gesture as he envisioned squeezing the neck of Jean-Paul Fernandes, the arrogant beast who’d overlooked his genius.
‘They print ten thousand Guides each week, right? We’ve got to put out 40,000 of our one. 50, maybe. Fuck it: 100,000 copies will drown the bastard out. I’ll get a cement truck and one of those chutes that pours the cement. I’ll tip every magazine right into his fucking bedroom and immolate the motherfucker.’
Si was nodding as the speculation burned and settled.
‘Immolate him, yes, I see. You have sufficient tinder, do you?’
Todd squinted at our old, speccy leader. ‘Grindr, bro. Tinder’s too binary.’
Si peered down his nose at skinny, neurotic Harriet, who was writing a list.
‘Your input, Harriet, if you’d be so kind.’
Harriet stood, fingers curled in tiny fists of outrage. ‘HE’S SAYING WE HAVE TO DO SOMETHING!’
WHAM-WHAM-WHAM from our flatmate through the wall.
‘KEEP IT DOWN, NERDS.’
We assured our protein shake-sipping flatmate we would attempt to decimate the decibels.
‘There’s two hours left before lectures start and everybody’ll see this review making fun of us,’ Harriet pointed out. ‘We can print our own pages. Paste them into The Guide over that wanker’s silly fucking list with our own list. The laundromat’s got a photocopier. Who’s got money?’
We all turned and looked at Si, who was nodding slowly and sadly. Si’s family owned printeries around the world. Of course he’d pay.
High on excitement, we cobbled together our own list of notorious literature on Si’s laptop. We thrice named Jean-Paul Fernandes on our roll of shame. The list spilled over the first page, so it made sense to make it a two-pager. We wanted to add some art, and some of our best poems. It expanded into a small four page zine. We had a brief meeting of our Review Board, then commenced publication.
Each carefully-folded A4 had our logo on the front: The Reactionary, with a hammer and sickle hacking up a crude drawing of a face resembling that of literary editor Jean-Paul Fernandes. With each side of the paper bisected, there was a page for the homoerotic haiku of Todd, a page for the rage-against-the-pharmaceutical-industry mini-essay of Harriet, and the final page was an essay by Si comparing the management of the Guide to the management in Orwell’s Animal Farm. Combine our invectives and you were looking at something rather revolutionary.
A shortage of paper on the laundromat’s photocopier meant instead of the 1,000 copies of The Reactionary we’d hoped to distribute, we printed just 263-and-a-half (as there was confusion about double-siding.) It took 90 minutes to gather the words from our blogs and journals and emails, and this cut into folding time, so that by brunch, once StationeryStation had opened and we’d got our double-sided tape and gluesticks, we were well behind schedule for gluing The Reactionary into the Guide over Jean-Paul’s list. The rate with which we covered up the hurtful words of the literary editor couldn’t compete with the rate in which flip flop-wearing, energy drink-sipping kids in shades picked up copies of The Guide and flipped through them. We watched the faces of the popular kids to see if they recognized our names, to see if they scoffed and scorned and sneered.
We didn’t detect any recognition – and that’s what really hurt.
We gathered at 3 outside the Noodle Hut to compare results.
Si – efficient, organized, almost robotic in his discipline – had inserted 92 Reactionarys in copies of The Guide.
Harriet had managed 43 insertions before she thought she spotted Jean-Paul’s silhouette leering up behind her and had sprinted to the toilets where she barricaded herself and phoned her counsellor to breathe through her panic attack.
Todd had managed to paste 14 of our manifestos in magazines before a group of catty boys distracted him. We knew he’d probably just gone off to chainsmoke cigarettes and flirt.
Shovelling noodles into our mouths, our bellies burning with emptiness from eight hours of frenetic coffee-guzzling, we flinched every time our phones dinged. Could it be an email with a TV interview request? Accusations of defamation and a lawsuit? Or was it the Vice-Chancellor summoning us to a tête-à-tête to reconcile with the demon critic from The Guide?
The day passed, and then the week passed, and few people joined the cause except our mothers, who told us they’d love to buy a copy of our little zine, and do you need a top-up to get yourself some groceries this week, honey?
At our summit in the Eagle’s Nest, we made some agreements, in principle. First agreement was we couldn’t make any more neighbour-inflaming noise. There were dreadful acoustics here; the sound travelled through the floorboards and we feared an ass-kicking from our gym-towelled, protein-slurping flatmate. Harriet would need to act less bipolar. Todd would need to act less of a queen.
The second thing agreed was that The Reactionary wasn’t quite as reactionary as we’d hoped. Few of our creative writing classmates were aware we’d even published it; one asked the lecturer to ask us how we felt about getting “totally burned.”
The third thing we agreed was Jean-Paul remained above us in status, and we would have to do something significant to tear him down.
‘I’ll honeytrap him,’ Todd conjectured, ‘I’ll suck his cock and get photos, chuck ‘em on the internet.’
‘Thaaaat doesn’t have much to do with kicking Jean-Paul’s ass in literary reputation,’ Harriet warned, wagging her finger. She squeezed her bony butt into the two-seater beside Todd, who began plaiting her hair while she sat stiff and upright as a broom.
‘If we want to get ahead, we have to write some reviews of Jean-Paul and give him, like, zero out of five stars. Make space for us. Destroy the opposition, yeah. YEAH!’
‘If I can have your attention.’ Si took a position in the centre of the room and cricked his fingers. ‘You’ll recall I did endure an internship with the university press last summer, no? I carry a modicum of expertise in the basics of publishing. One: the brand. Two: the distribution. Three: the profit. Now THAT is status, my good chums.’
‘What are we distributing, though? I can’t fold any more A4s, honestly. My fingernail got all infected.’
‘Erotic thrillers is what,’ Si said, and upended his satchel, tipping a pile of racy books onto the floor. ‘My dear comrades: let us begin.’
The first step in our plot was a day of reading. We lay on the couch, on our beds, on the floor. Harriet put her head on Si’s stomach; Todd draped his legs over all of us. We gorged on erotica till we could predict the narratives of entire books without even opening the covers.
The second step was to have Todd lay out the erotic highlights of the story we were going to write – the characters shuddering passionately in a lain-back seat in the car park outside the movies; an episode in which the characters make love in the video screening booth within an adult DVD store; the characters turning a massage into a saga of anal exploration. Si produced A1 poster paper and drew a story structure plan across it. Todd cried and bit his fingernails and stormed out of the room twice, but returned to circle locations across the narrative layout where his sexy scenes would be inserted. He’d fucked more than any of us. Sex scenes were his domain.
As they were about to shake on it, Si reminded Todd the sex scenes needed to have a man making love to a woman – not two men. An argument ensued. Si was accused of being discriminatory; Todd was being blind to market realities.
Harriet, who’d been deemed our typist, had won a novella-writing competition at age 8; she’d come runner up in the National Scrabble Championship at age 11. Harriet had the nimblest fingers and the highest levels of nervous energy. We could blurt out words and she’d type as fast as we talked.
High on coffee, fuelled by resentment of He Who Shall Not Be Named, we smashed out a couple of chapters, with Si doing his Hitler strut, roaming the room wall to wall, revolving sharply as he hit the cupboard, finger up in the air whenever a descriptive detail arrived in his frontal cortex. He said every sentence in order with few corrections, taking breaks only to let Todd suggest a sexy scene. The typing began at dinner time and was winding down around ten before coffee and No-Doz got us all going again and we pounded out the words of our erotic novel til 1, then 1:30, then 3 am when the only life in the world was a street sweeper truck and a stray drunk, staggering through the night.
The story we composed concerned a quixotic fool named John Fernando bumbling around a university campus attempting to find love. Waxy-eyed and naïve, John Fernando lets loose his lust while deep-down, he searches for love. Three pages into our book, we had John surrendering to a French swinger sporting a strap-on dildo and holding his head in his hands for weeks after, hunched and stooped and agonized. In our draft, John is unable to sit on his chair and dispatch correspondence for Granta magazine and so is fired for failing to submit his quarterly column. Muddied with shame, John Fernando holidays in Samoa, hoping to find romance on the beach, but contracts dysentery and vomits on an attractive American heiress just as he is about to consummate. John then attempts to find love in a lonely hearts column posted on Craigslist but is violently mugged in a stranger’s apartment, disembowelled and is left having to squeeze the faeces out of his colostomy bag daily.
We ended the book at 70,000 words and kicked back, slumped against the headboard, smiling and toasting with thimbles of Turkish coffee while our brute-of-a-flatmate screamed through the wall.
We’d hit our target. With an epilogue, which Todd promised to write within the day, we would have our manuscript complete very soon. The only thing we didn’t have was consensus as to whose name should take attribution.
‘He can’t know it was us,’ Harriet said, nervously fingering her blisterpack of Seroquel, ‘We have John performing cunnilingus on his mother… that might, y’know… aggravate him.’
‘Lust, that’s our author, a Mizz Lust,’ Si said, holding his fingertip in the air. ‘A first name is all that’s missing.’
Todd kicked his feet playfully. ‘What, like T. H. S. or something? Y’know – our initials. Like a secret code.’
Si nodded, and that was that. ‘We’ll add an extra T to the Lust. Got to make the credentials credible. If anybody asks, it’s an ethnic Bavarian name. Means turnip farmer.’
We toasted our cups in agreement. The novel was practically complete; within two days, Sadistic Search by T. H. S. Lustt would be couriered to University Press. We would pay to have it printed, published and promoted on campus. Even the banging from our flatmate seemed to be banging of support.
Jean-Paul Fernandes was trying to get through the twenty unread emails on his computer screen, but there was a noise distracting him. Chatter and hyperbole and repartee. He pushed stacks of books and bookmarks and book vouchers away from the windowsill to investigate what was happening three floors below in the quad. There were students in twos and threes walking out of Campus Classics, all holding little brown bags. A pull-up banner rippling in the wind advertized some raunchy romance on sale. He could have sworn the banner wasn’t there last time he’d looked out the window.
Jean-Paul pulled his coat on and went down to investigate. Let those beseeching his inbox with letters begging for positive reviews wait a little longer. As Literary Editor, Jean-Paul made it a point of pride to keep people squirming as they awaited their judgement. Jean-Paul had standards to protect.
As Jean-Paul tiptoed downstairs, he brushed elbows with editor in chief Leanne Hornby. Out of her arms tumbled a softcover book featuring a woman’s neck being licked on the cover, apparently authored by a T. H. S. Lustt.
The title: Sadistic Search.
The subheading: John Fernando must get fucked.
‘Where did you get this – what is this?’
‘Ain’t you heard, Jean-Paul? Sadistic Search is like an overnight sensation. You should grab one before they’re gone. People are going nuts for it.’
Jean-Paul walked across the quad in a daze. He’d long envisioned scenes of rapture like this around his own books before he abandoned all hope of becoming successful as a writer and turned to reviewing instead.
Jean-Paul Fernandes adjusted his scarf, unfastened the button on the pocket containing his wallet, and stepped into Campus Classics. He bumped and jostled and fought through student after student clutching the same book with the same licked throat.
John Fernando must get fucked.
The stand where the books were being displayed was empty of Sadistic Searches but for one. Jean-Paul snatched it and clutched it tightly. Jean-Paul’s day usually consisted of spending book tokens and living off chocolate bars with the change received after he’d spent each token. He reluctantly slid a $50 token across the counter and purchased his copy. The change was just $15 – meaning the book was shockingly priced at $34.99. Full price! How impressive could one romance book be? The book dweeb attempted to give Jean-Paul his change in the form of a book token. Jean-Paul would have preferred cash. His student loan was worryingly high and his income from editing didn’t stretch far. Every cent was precious.
He took the book up to his office, slumped into his leather chair and turned to the acknowledgements page of Sadistic Search by T. H. S. Lustt. Jean-Paul read over a curious mix of named influences. Those acknowledged included professors, the dean of literature, plus some names Ms. Lustt apparently relied upon.
One Harriet, one Simon, and one Todd.
Jean-Paul turned to the first page, put his feet on his desk and began reading.
John Fernando awoke from a dream about his mother, spoonfeeding him in the nude. He stepped out of the sheet and moved toward his bookcase. The woman who’d spent the night with him was stroking the spines of his books.
‘You have really shitty taste in literature,’ she said. ‘Oh – hey – please don’t cry.’
He’d been awake one minute and already John was emotionally unstable. He was bitter, hated himself, hated the world. At 31, a failed author, with a blog nobody read, and ugly, John Fernando hadn’t been able to sexually satisfy his paramour the night before.
He told her to get dressed and leave.
John packed a lunch. He was going out to change his life today.
Jean-Paul chewed the corner of his lip and scanned the book jacket. Who on earth could have written the thing?
The photograph of T. H. S. Lustt didn’t depict her face, only the back of her head. The author was standing on a cliff edge, facing out toward the water, her hair tumbled by the wind. Her biography said she received her education in literature at none other than this very university.
Jean-Paul brought up the Nielsen bestseller results for the week on his computer screen. Sadistic Search was charting highly. Not number one yet, but it was a heatseeker.
Jean-Paul opened his Takedown List and typed THS Lustt.
Something about the name didn’t look right.
Jean-Paul laced his fingers behind his head and hmm-ed.
We attempted to wait in the lobby of the publisher, on a nice old leather couch with pot plants and a glass coffee table, and copies of the New Yorker, but we couldn’t even agree on how to wait. Harriet told Todd that because Todd was certain to make a pass at somebody and embarrass them all he needed to keep his randiness to himself; Todd told Harriet her problem was she had no sexuality whatsoever. Si, trying to watch the door to the office for his moment to go and pitch the manuscript, told them both to cease their yabbering.
‘Who put you in charge anyway?’
Harriet pressed her shoulders against her friend. ‘If you think you’re capitalizing on our work without our consent, Si, think again. We’re in this together.’
Si tucked his glasses into his breast pocket, moved to the end of the endless couch, clutched his weary face. He had interned here and used to tell us his plans for his book tour and podcast and his Pushcart Prize. He’d tried many times to facilitate the publication of amazing manuscripts from fiction writing students which came upon his desk, but there were only two things the directors of the publishing house wanted: cook books and “puzzle porn” – meaning books about ordinary people having to fuck their way through conspiracies and mysteries in the Vatican and the Smithsonian, which would apparently sell stacks. If we secured the publisher’s backing and went commercial, we hoped to outsell all other authors and completely stun Jean-Paul Fernandes. Paralyse the prick with envy.
The door opened and head of publishing Linda Rokonadravu stepped out. Her haircut was short, black and cubic, her earrings hard and joyless. Her suit hugged her body. Her hand opened to clutch Si’s.
‘Which one of you’s the author?’
‘We all are,’ Todd said. Harriet elbowed him.
‘We all are in support of T. H. S., who is extremely shy and hates meetings, is what my friend here meant to say,’ Si said, stepping in front of Todd to block him. ‘She’s asked us to represent her.’
Linda engaged Si with her eyes.
‘Are your friends coming in?’
‘These two will wait outside,’ Si told her as he entered the publisher’s office. ‘I’ll speak for Ms. Lustt.’
The door swallowed him.
The sensation couldn’t be contained on campus. Sales of Lustts boiled up through Campus Books, oozed into the bookshelves of heads of department, administrators, researchers. Even the vice chancellor was seen coming out of the toilet with a Sadistic Search under his arm.
The city’s bookshops took on Lustt’s literature and added their fee to the price sticker. Sales spilled over into the thousands, then crept up and hovered around the 5000 mark before spreading to 8000, 9000, and then five figures was reached. Sadistic Search was on every bus stop bench and café counter, in libraries and checkouts and catalogues.
Once Si had taken care of arranging a lawyer, bank account, and a background story for the reclusive T. H. S. Lustt, we seemed well-set-up. Si even applied for a passport and birth certificate in case we needed to ‘birth’ our author. To make her real.
After our first royalty check materialized, we partied in the Eagle’s Nest. Even our hostile flatmate with his flaring neck shared a glass of bubbles. Si reluctantly drew cash out of the account he’d set up and gave the wadded hundreds to Todd, who forced Harriet to come away from the wall and dance with him. We made the chandelier shake. For a night, we walked on air.
A day later, we were back at work. There was money to be made, success to be capitalized upon. A chapter to write about John Fernando being banned from ever reviewing a book again and drifting the world until he finds himself in Java where an uncontacted tribe kidnaps him and pours sugar up his rectum and lets fire ants eat him from the inside out. We had an enemy to be shamed.
The three-book publishing deal stamped by Linda’s publishing house specified that John Fernando’s character needed to follow the same narrative arc in the second novel and the third. You don’t fiddle with the formula, as Linda put it in an email. Each book, John Fernando’s character would attempt to enjoy whatever miserable plateau he’d arrived at in life, then some new person would enter his life, upsetting his fragile balance. John would grow, as a human, by enduring sexual experiences with a bony introvert, a promiscuous gay fuckboy and an asexual prudish professor, plus an overly-affectionate Shetland pony, drawing conclusions about his own boundaries and finally emerging at the book’s end a wiser person after being repeatedly fucked.
John’s character left the events of Sadistic Search: Book One having accepted he wasn’t the smartest man in the world, and that those who fucked him were smarter than him. In book two, published as Sadist Unsated, John’s character receives the news that his mother has died on the same day he is fired from his publishing job for receiving a low score on a mandatory staff IQ test. Upon returning to his hometown for his mother’s funeral, John is drugged while drinking wine and wakes up to find himself the sex slave of a trio of evil geniuses he callously overlooked when publishing a pretentious website during high school. The trio punish John for the duration of the novel with various dildoes and it is only when John concedes he’s been living a shameful life that he is set free, thanking his captors for their mercy as he shambles out of the dungeon.
The scene in which the ants tear open John Fernando’s rectum was moved to the back of Book Two as an epilogue.
In an all-night binge of espresso and outrage, Jean-Paul Fernandes typed his revenge manuscript. The first 10,000 words took from dinner to breakfast to create. Jean-Paul knew what he’d typed was wormholed with spelling mistakes but time was of the essence. Using Freelancer.com, he found a proofreader in Manila who could make the English publishable and format the manuscript.
Once finished, he titled the book Harriet Todd’s Sigh.
A week prior, Jean-Paul had searched every yearbook, class photo, online forum, student magazine, literary listing and phone book he could get his hands on, without finding a single person with the surname Lustt. He’d concluded the T.H.S. Lustt books were an attack on him from some nom de guerre, and he was 99 percent sure he’d deduced who was behind the attack. He found it a little sad that the recipients of his critiques had taken his slings and arrows personally. Jean-Paul’s life had been full of hurt. He’d been beaten up at high school. He’d had to beg his stepsister to take him to the school dance. Age 13, Philip Roth had responded dismissively to his fanmail. It puzzled him that others weren’t accustomed to suffering.
Regardless: Harriet Todd’s Sigh would correct the public’s view of Jean-Paul Fernandes and eradicate the gnats nipping him.
The fast-paced plot he’d pressed into Microsoft Word with frantic fingertips told the tale of a loser, Harriet Todd, admitted to university due to the pity of the dean, whose other charitable ventures include homing mangy stray dogs and curing malaria. In the novel, Harriet Todd’s highest ambition in life is to harass a humble, handsome campus reporter. The handsome reporter, who is busy dealing with media adulation after having been longlisted for the Pulitzer Prize for Literary Criticism, spares an hour to meet with the drooling Harriet Todd, who rolls on her back and prostrates herself, desperate to be satisfied by the reporter, whose sexual prowess is the stuff of legend.
Jean-Paul released the novella in four installments over the month of October, 10,000 words at a time. Student Guide followers went rabid for it, even though it seemed a bit short and written rather hurriedly.
There were furious letters to the editor, however, once the ending was published. Harriet Todd’s Sigh wound up with the protagonist realizing she could never be anything more than a loser and hanging herself from the flagpole outside the vice-chancellor’s office. The sigh, it is revealed in the book’s final pages, is the sound of Harriet Todd gasping for attention as she dies.
The outraged letters began immediately. Jean-Paul fielded interview after interview. Everybody wanted to know the reason for the publication of the story. Jean-Paul said the novella was written because it had to be written. It demanded to erupt from its volcanic chamber and be birthed into the public consciousness.
He couldn’t think of a constructive way to explain the book was written in response to a manifest unevenness. There were three people out there in the world with an inseparable bond whereas Jean-Paul had to suffer life alone. It wasn’t fair.
People were seen around campus reading the third instalment of the Lustt trilogy, Sadist Struggles On, though in fewer numbers compared to the first. There was less chatter, fewer quotes posted online. Reviews dropped to an insignificant ebb. At one point we found ourselves having to prompt a young English student in the elevator to spill her opinion of the story.
She said the books were getting boring, now. Same old predictable shit.
In Sadist Struggles On, John Fernando finds himself eking out a living as a writer of TV Guide crosswords, having accepted he is unworthy of literary esteem. One day he receives a courier package letting him know he has spawned an illegitimate child who has grown up wildly successful as an author. The child’s lovers and friends teach John erotic lessons, once again punishing, humiliating and spanking their cruel father John. John begs the child for forgiveness. The book ends.
It was at a meeting of the T.H.S. Lustt management committee in the Eagle’s Nest that we agreed it was time to send Jean-Paul Fernandes a taunting email confessional. It wasn’t about us relieving ourselves of guilt – we had none — and more about psychologically unnerving our enemy. Harriet Todd’s Sigh couldn’t be left to influence the audience unquestioned. Our team had to overwhelm the Jean-Paul novella before it had a chance to return in some sordid sequel, or at least hack or stab or infiltrate Fernandes’ computer, his inbox, his files.
We got to work on our confession. Our email, from THS.email@example.com, began with the first letter of T. H. S. Lustt’s name.
This made-up author lie
The new Angry Penguins hoax
I’d laugh, but
Shame on you
Finking you were better than
Ern Malley is too good for you.
A little stiff and awkward, sure, containing crimes against grammar, but it was genius the Avant Guardians would have been proud of. We had a couple of glasses of brandy afterwards, to celebrate, then Si reached inside his jacket, put his hand on his heart and produced cigars for each of us, a neat little family in his fingers.
When we awoke in a daze at 5 am as our energetic flatmate slammed the front door to jog to the gym, we all suffered simultaneous heart attacks.
That gloating email – the acrostic poem, the taunt, the obvious reference at the end – was far too lacking in subtlety. It could destroy us.
We had to delete it.
The offices of Student Guide were at the top of a four storey building, which used to be a fire station before the university swallowed it. A spiralling iron staircase took us to the top. The rooms within the Guide’s office were dark grey carpeted boxes on random levels, descending a foot here, rising a foot there, with creaking floorboards and low ceilings and a corner in which a poster of Ernest Hemingway glowered down on an empty chair walled in by stacks of books.
In the gloomy Hemingway hollow lay the computer with which Jean-Paul Fernandes had ruined ambitions and broken spines.
All of this, we saw peering in through the dark glass at 5:55 on a Monday morning. We had no way inside without breaking the glass in the door and reaching down to the handle.
The handle depressing by itself as Todd squeezed Harriet, biting his fingertips.
The handle wheezing, all the way down.
The door wide open, with a man standing there in a beret and corduroy jacket.
Jean-Paul Fernandes held the door wide. Beckoning us in.
‘If you’re here to delete that email of yours, you’ll have to kill me.’
Todd looked at Si with quizzical eyebrows. Si shook his head in dismissal.
Jean-Paul reclined in his leather office chair, one knee folded over the other, jiggling the Hush Puppy dangling from his toes.
‘I understand the three of you represent T.H.S. Lustt?’
The three nodded.
‘Am I … speaking to her now?’
‘Oh for God’s sake, Jean-Paul. We don’t have multiple personality disorder.’
‘Some form of psychotic illness, though. You came here to commit a burglary in order to delete one email that required three brains to compose. Hardly the definition of mental stability.’
Todd hovered his whiskey under his nose then tossed it back. The glow spread down his arteries, warming his throat, his fingertips.
‘Look.’ Si pinched his nose. ‘Let’s cut to the chase. We need to compromise.’
‘Do we, now? Because I have you dead to rights. Confessing in some sordid email; breaking into my office; attempting to burgle my computer.’
‘That’s not the literal definition of burgle –
‘Macmillan Dictionary, 6th edition, 1973.’
‘OXFORD ENGLISH. 2012. Burgle: verb, present simple: to enter a building illegally, usually using force, and steal from it.’
‘Merriam-Webster doesn’t –
‘FUCK MERRIAM-WEBSTER. Can’t you just, just not call security? Can’t you just let us evacuate the building quietly?’
‘Ernp. Correction. The building itself may be evacuated, but human beings cannot take on the active participle of the verb to– ’
‘We’ll let you in the book,’ Todd blurted. The men looked at him. ‘We’ll, I dunno, kill John Fernandes off or something. Is that what you want?’
‘You’ll retire the character. Send him to live in Bermuda as a Member of the British Empire.’
‘And you’ll stop publishing your mean stuff?’
‘I take it you’re referring to the sagas of Harriet Todd? Twould be a pity to reel her in. She has quite a following.’
‘No more.’ Si was standing now. ‘That’s what we’re calling it. The book, I mean. No More. Final in the series. We’ll, we’ll… wind it all up, I guess.’ Si made eye contact with everybody in the room, holding Jean-Paul’s gaze the longest, until Harriet tugged on Si’s sleeve and whispered something in his ear.
‘She’s asking if you’ll give the book a good review. Since you’re literary editor.’
‘If I’ll positively review the book from the series in which I had my – pardon my French – salad tossed by fireants? The series in which I met humiliation?’
Todd threw a cushion at Jean-Paul’s face. ‘Be grateful that shit’s fiction. We’ll do your stupid apology book. We cool or not?’
Jean-Paul’s eyes scanned us all. The people who’d dared to outsell him, out-publish him. People who’d wriggled out from under his red pen and enacted terrible public revenge. Sent him a psychologically torturous email. Attempted to burgle his office. Described in detail fireants biting off slices of his rectal tissue and carrying the slices back to their nest. People who’d fought a literary feud with him were asking to meet in the middle. People who considered themselves worthy adversaries in a battle of brains, a war of words with the very integrity of literature at stake.
Jean-Paul rolled his eyes, reached out to shake his friends’ hands.
‘I believe we’re cool.’