A famous author returns to her home town for a book signing, and meets an old friend who still thinks about her... a lot; by Judith Field.
Book signings were a necessary evil, according to Tom, Lin's agent. He was right, but today's had been hard work, especially so late in the afternoon. Sitting for hours at the head of a long line snaking round and round the bookshop, never getting any shorter. Every youngster in town would find an autographed copy of Lin's latest in their Christmas stocking.
It had been Tom's idea to hold the signing in Lin's home town. 'Local woman makes good, it'll pull the punters in,' he'd said, brushing aside her complaints that she hadn't been local for some time. 'Come on, you'll only be stuck there for a day. You'll be home by Christmas, with lots more sales under your belt.'
After four hours listening to the same few carols on a continuous loop, Lin's smile felt as fixed and artificial as that of her cardboard double. She took a bottle of some herbal 'rescue remedy' out of her Louis Vuitton bag and dispensed a few drops onto her tongue. She folded her arms onto the table in front of her and leaned forward, closing her eyes. Let everyone wait for a bit.
Tom put his hand on her shoulder. 'Come on, bear up. This is the last one. Then we can pack up and go.' Lin looked up, stretching her shoulders back. A woman stood in front of her, about her age but with greying, wispy hair instead of Lin's gleaming highlights, her face bare and uncared for. She wore a shapeless anorak - Lin couldn't tell if it was meant to be grey or brown - zipped up to her chin, despite the stifling heat in the shop. Her baggy jeans were tucked into scuffed-toed boots, probably plastic. Why not leather? Lin wondered if she was one of those tree-hugging vegan types. She held a copy of the latest book in one hand. With the other, she clutched a knitted handbag to her chest as though it contained a lump of gold. As if anyone would want to touch it, let alone steal it.
'Yes, who's the book for?' Lin picked up her pen. 'What shall I write?' Why didn't the woman hand her book over, instead of standing and staring like that? Maybe she was a bit simple, only you couldn't say that any more, could you? People were described as 'Special needs' now, the phrase used as an adjective. Sheer ignorance.
'Hello, Lindsay,' the woman said. Nobody called her Lindsay, now. Hadn't done for years. She looked more closely at the woman's face.
'Ellen! What a lovely surprise! After all these years.'
'Thirty years.' Ellen stood in silence, as if waiting to receive a blessing.
'Really? I suppose it must be,' Lin said. 'How are you?' We look like the rough with the smooth, she thought, her and me.
Tom looked round. 'That's it, everyone's gone. You two must have lots to talk about - why don't you grab a coffee while I clear up here?'
After all this time, would they have anything to say to each other? It might be fun, though. Ellen would lap up all Lin's stories about the movie business, about what the director had said to her about her writing.
'Oh yes, why don't we, Ellen? I can sign your book there. The shops have all changed, of course, since I lived here, but you'll know somewhere. Anywhere but here; if I have to listen to Kirsty McColl and Shane McGowan insulting each other to music one more time I swear I'll kill someone.'
Ellen nodded and moved towards the door. She stopped in the doorway and nodded towards Tom. 'He's nice. Are you and him...?' she raised her eyebrows.
'Oh no, nothing like that.' Lin's laughter tinkled.
'Probably the best thing,' Ellen said. 'There's always something sad and desperate about an older woman trying to keep her looks because she's hooked a younger man. You know, guzzling vitamins and stuff all day long.'
Lin gasped. Ellen gripped her arm, looking shrunken and flat. 'I'm sorry, I didn't mean you. Of course not! You look just the same as the last time we saw each other. Let's go and get that coffee - please.'
'Of course.' Lin nodded and Ellen, smiling, trotted outside. Poor thing, she was the one who looked desperate, Lin thought. This trip to the bookshop was probably a big event for her. She'd probably gossip to all her friends about it for weeks. Lin felt a warm glow at the thought of her good deed. And after all, she wouldn't have to stay long, just a quick coffee then out. She followed Ellen into the freezing air.
The café was crowded with people who seemed to have been buying presents for their entire street. Lin and Ellen dodged round the stuffed shopping bags spilling packages onto the floor as they squeezed between the tables to the counter. Ellen clutched a hot chocolate in one hand, a double chocolate chip cookie in the other, and squeezed into a seat at the only vacant table. Lin took off her hat, scarf and gloves and put them, with her bag, on the empty chair between her and Ellen. She took a pair of large, black sunglasses out of her pocket and put them on, peering round at the other customers.
'Are you in disguise?' Ellen said, dropping her knitted holdall onto the chair next to Ellen's bag. 'You had that hat pulled down so far, I'm surprised you could see. Or breathe, what with your scarf wrapped round your face. And now the glasses.'
Lin picked up her cup. 'It's the only way I can get a bit of peace. You'd be surprised how many people come barging up and talk to me, just because they recognize me from my book jacket.'
'And the papers. And the TV,' Ellen said. 'Everyone's heard of Lin Mansfield.' She took a bite from her cookie.
Lin looked down at the table and sighed. 'Sometimes, I wish I was just an ordinary person. Do you know, people seem to think that, because you're a celebrity, it gives them the right to come up and chat? Just like I was some sort of public property. I don't want to be rude, of course. But I just want to be left alone.' She looked round, but nobody seemed to be looking at them. 'But it's really nice to run into you again.'
Ellen finished her cookie. 'Lovely biscuit, that.'
'You always did like sweet things, when we were in school,' Lin said. 'Oh my God, school. Do you remember those awful uniforms? How we used to roll our waistbands round and round till our skirts were so short you could nearly see... everything? And all that blue metallic eye shadow. "Aqua" they called it, didn't they? We wore it all the time, even though it was strictly against the rules. All the silly things we did.'
'And all the secrets we swore never to reveal,' Ellen said.
Lin shrugged. 'We were just kids. I suppose they're the same everywhere, even today. And schools, too.'
'I don't know about that,' Ellen said. 'The school in your book -'
'- But that was fiction. It could have been anywhere. The characters were all made up. Well, more or less.'
'We don't mind that you put us in the book,' Ellen said. 'Not as such. It was the detail we didn't like, all about what we did. You made us look ridiculous.'
'But it was ridiculous. You needn't worry, nobody would believe it was based on real life.' Lin sipped her espresso macchiato. 'And, we were silly. Do you remember the others? Jackie Mosley, and Sarah Banks?'
'Sarah Bancroft. And Cheryl Roberts.'
'You've got a good memory, better than mine. I wonder what happened to them.'
'They're still around,' Ellen said. 'We see each other quite often.'
Lin pictured a group of women, dressed in shapeless, dull-coloured clothes, with unstyled hair, crowding round Ellen, asking to hear about Lin Mansfield.
'It gave us all a shock when we read the bit about Miss Cook,' Ellen said. 'Only you called her something else, I can't remember what, but of course we knew.'
'I called her Miss Baker.' Lin shook her head and tutted. 'God, we really hated her. It was Cheryl who made the rag doll, wasn't it? Because she was good at sewing.'
'We didn't know then that you don't have to do that, if you want to attack someone, to punish them,' Ellen said. 'You can use other things. Something they've worn close to themselves, that can work.'
Typical of Ellen to become an expert in the subject. She had been such a bore, all keen and earnest, always the first to put her hand up in class.
Ellen went on. 'In the book you made us look stupid. And the film exaggerated it even more. People laughed at those characters.'
'But, Ellen, it was stupid. I mean, we were fourteen, much too old to believe all that stuff.' Lin looked into the distance. 'Not that witchcraft isn't interesting, of course, as an idea.'
'It goes back to the earliest times, making the world bend to your will.' Ellen sat upright, and her voice filled Lin's head. 'The main thing is, it sees men and women as equal. Empowering.'
'Really? I didn't think you'd end up as such a feminist.' Although, Lin thought, you're probably compensating for your looks, I don't suppose men come near you. 'I think it's a load of mumbo jumbo, dreamed up because there was so much people couldn't explain. There still is; Miss Cook was off school for ages, wasn't she? We were scared shitless after that.'
'Yes, but of course it was pure coincidence. People get ill all the time, and you can't always put it down to anything.'
'I'm never ill,' Ellen said.
'Well, you're lucky. Do you know, last year I felt lousy for weeks. I started getting these dreadful headaches, just like a tight band round my eyes. And then I just felt hopeless. I couldn't write, nothing seemed worth doing. I felt like I was behind a glass wall, like I was watching people on TV. I went to the best man in Harley Street.'
'What did he say?'
'Well,' Lin leaned across the table and lowered her voice, 'first he tried to tell me it was the menopause. The cheeky so-and-so, it's not time for that, yet. In the end he couldn't find anything wrong with me, said it was stress. Told me I'd been overdoing things. Gave me some pills.'
Lin shrugged. 'No idea, I didn't take them. They make you eat non-stop. And anyway, in the end it went away on its own.'
Ellen nodded. 'Filling your body with chemicals is not a good idea.'
'No. It shows in your face, if you do. Adds years. But anyway, now I'm ready to write another book.'
Ellen raised her eyebrows.
'Yes,' Lin went on. 'I've been thinking about doing a book for adults, for a change, and you've given me a brilliant idea. A fantasy, about modern witchcraft! Of course, I don't believe in it, but that doesn't mean I can't write about it.'
'But you've already done that.'
Lin laughed. 'What, "Secret Sisterhood?" That was for teenagers. Young adults, they call them these days. No, I want to write something for real adults.' She gazed into the distance, imagining the cover of a book. Pastel pink, or maybe blue. With a line drawing of an impossibly long-legged woman and a gorgeous man. Or maybe even real models, a nude woman viewed from the back. Maybe with a cat, or a broomstick. Just to give a hint what it was about. She could call it 'Love Magic,' or 'The Way to a Warlock's Heart.'
Lin glanced at her watch, and gave a little squeal.
'Sorry, Ellen, I'll have to go. Tom and I are going out for dinner and I've got to get ready.' She named the most expensive restaurant in town. 'It's been lovely to see you. Give me a call, if you're ever in London.' Lin smiled across the table. 'I'm very glad that you came to my book signing.'
'It was for old time's sake,' Ellen said, standing up. 'We drew lots.' She scuttled away. Lin watched her go. She looked like a bundle of old clothes tied in the middle as she hurried towards the door.
Lin shuddered. Drew lots? Perhaps they could only afford one copy of the book between them. She wondered if she should have slipped Ellen a cheque, told her it was an early Christmas present. On the other hand, Ellen and the others might have been embarrassed to be seen buying a children's book. The idiots - didn't they know that plenty of adults read hers? The publisher had printed some in a different cover, just to look more grown up. She'd seen people reading them on the train. Lin remembered that she had not signed Ellen's copy. Too bad.
Lin stood, stuffed the dark glasses back into her pocket and took her hat and scarf off the chair. She went to put on her gloves. One was missing. She scrabbled around the floor under the table, but the other was nowhere to be seen. She had dropped it outside, that must be it. But she remembered putting them next to each other on top of her bag, next to Ellen's old shapeless knitted one. There had been two.
She couldn't blame Ellen for liking them. She probably couldn't run to shearling leather. In fact, Lin didn't remember her wearing any at all. But, why not take both of them?
In her head she heard Ellen's voice: 'Something they've worn close to themselves. That can work. Attacked. Punished.' But she didn't believe in it.
Lin rushed out into the street, looking in the pools of light cast by the street lamps for a shabby, ordinary woman, invisible in the crowd. She darted up and down the pavement. A man came up to her. 'Excuse me - aren't you Lin Mansfield? Only my friend said you were -'
'Leave me alone!' Lin shouted, pushing past him. Tears welled in her eyes.
Find Ellen. Make her give it back. She waved at a taxi, which drove straight past. She felt the tight band closing round her eyes and her head began to throb, worse than before. I don't believe in it, she muttered. But it's too late, she thought, it's starting already.