Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Gathering: Chapter 10 - Reading, dining, dreaming



Popular novelist Rachel Maguire is on a reading tour of the Leitrim area.

Rachel Maguire was having a busy day. The morning saw her giving a reading to the Carrick On Shannon Ladies Literary Society. She read a chapter from her last book, which went down well with the mostly female crowd present, who had mostly come along because they had read and enjoyed that book. She then read a draft chapter from the new novel she was working on. They seemed to like it, but they probably knew no better. Afterwards she fielded some questions which were remarkably similar to the ones she had last heard last time she gave a reading. Then she chatted to the attendees over tea and cakes. When she revealed that she was staying over in Ballykillduff a look of surprise and uneasiness came over the women she was talking to.

"You couldn't find a hotel here in Carrick?" asked one.

"Well, I didn't really look, to be honest," said Rachel. "I got a good deal on the one in Ballykillduff and just went with that one. And it seemed like as good a place to base myself while I'm up here as any."

"Well I'm sure you want have any problems there," said another woman.

"Probably not," said the first.

"Go dtuga Dia a chosaint an bhean bhocht!" muttered a woman who had up to now been silent.

Rachel put the comments down to a certain snobbishness on the part of the Carrick's inhabitants towards the neighbouring town. Or maybe Ballykillduff had a local reputation for roughness? From what she had heard in the hotel and from the couple in the pub, there was maybe a certain edge to the town, but nothing anyone who had ever found themselves on Dublin's O'Connell Street late on a Saturday night could not handle. Yes, that must be it, she said to herself.

Rachel was back in Ballykillduff in the afternoon. There she was giving another reading, but this time in a local bookshop, which rejoiced in the name of The Book Palace. The place was tiny, but it seemed to have an astonishing range of books, both new and second hand. The shop seemed also to have an impressive selection of antiquarian books, though this was not an area in which Rachel was particularly interested. The proprietor, one Andrew Murphy, was a man somewhat passed middle-age, a bit scruffy for all that he came across as someone who never wore anything other than three-piece suits. For all that, he seemed to be a genuinely friendly character who chatted amiably with Rachel before she began her talk.

Bookshop talks were always different to ones in schools, libraries, or to literary clubs. In the others, Rachel was conscious that she was there to promote her own brand in a very general sense, so that maybe people would go off and buy her book or tell their friends about the lovely author they had seen. In the bookshops, though, the purpose of the talk was to sell books there and then. Rachel could give a reading, field questions from attendees, and generally feel that everything had gone well, but if the punters were not queuing up to get their copies of Christmas Heartbreak and Bad Penny signed then she would leave with an empty and deflated feeling. So she was always somewhat on edge before the readings started, worried that no one would come along or worried that she would screw it up some way and people would leave without buying any copies. The bookshop's owner was used to this from other writers, of course, so he was careful not to do anything that would stress her out beforehand.

The Book Palace was not a big place so the dozen or so people who came along to hear her easily filled it, giving her talk a cosy and intimate feeling. Rachel adopted a conversational tone designed to create a sense of familiarity with the audience and hopefully make them feel like they were under some kind of obligation to buy her book. The glasses of cheap wine that Mr Murphy was giving out to the attendees were probably also designed to put them in a more generous frame of mind.

The event seemed to go well. She read chapters from each of her two novels, one picked to be funny and show off her talents in that area, while the chapter from Bad Penny featured a poignant episode in which the heroine, Penny O'Brien, found herself facing the realisation that her bad behaviour was not merely causing her romantic problems but was driving a wedge between her and the people she valued the most in the world, her girl friends. Hoping that the attendees had not already read the book she left them on a cliff hanger - would Penny be able to change her tune and rebuild her friendships? She did not quite say "and if you want to find out what happens there are copies of Bad Penny here for sale", though she did her best to imply it.

Afterwards she answered the usual questions. She got her ideas from watching and listening to what was going on around her. The characters were not directly based on her friends, though obviously aspects of them were. No, the books were not autobiographical though some of her own experiences would have mirrored those of her heroines. And no, she could not put the lady inquirer in touch with the real Andy Ryan, the roguish villain of Good Intentions (her first novel), a character who seemed to be very popular with a certain class of her readers.

The crowd was not big but she sold a surprising number of books. The locals had either never heard of libraries or considered such places somehow beneath them. Several of the attendees bought copies of all her thus far published books, which was gratifying. One of these was a local vicar who said they were for his wife, insisting that she write out dedications on every one of them. Mr Murphy also asked her to sign a few more books for people who had not been able to come along to the reading. Rachel was happy to oblige.

When the small crowd had dispersed, Rachel and the bookshop owner went for dinner. They were joined by a younger man called Seamie who had not been at the reading but seemed to be linked to Mr Murphy, and also by a well-spoken man with chiselled good looks and floppily long hair. He had been at the reading and had bought a copy of Christmas Heartbreak, asking Rachel to make out the dedication to "Maurice". It seemed to Rachel that he had basically invited himself along for dinner, but that Mr Murphy was used to such behaviour and seemed to almost welcome it. His behaviour, and that of Seamie, was deferential towards the other man, and they addressed him respectfully as Mr Cantwell, while he in turn called them by their first names.

They ate in an Italian restaurant which served astonishingly good food for such an out of the way part of the country. Indeed, for any part of the country - Rachel felt that her vegetable pizza was among the very best she had ever eaten. Mr Cantwell took control of the wine menu and ordered what Rachel reckoned was a particularly expensive bottle. Well I'm not paying, she thought (as Mr Murphy had originally agreed to treat her to dinner). Mr Murphy did not look too put out at the choice either, so either he was also someone who was fond of the finest wines or else he knew from experience that Cantwell would be picking up the tab.

The conversation unfolded over dinner. Seamie said very little, mostly nodding in agreement at whatever Mr Murphy had to say. Rachel talked to Andrew about the book trade and books in general. They discussed some other authors popular at that time, before discussing some whose star had distinctly fallen. "I can't give away Tom Wolfe's books now", revealed Mr Murphy. "I mean that literally. I took in some cheap remaindered copies of his new novel, but no matter how cheap I priced them no one would buy them. I started offering them as free gifts with any purchase, and then realised this was depressing sales, because people did not want to have to refuse a copy. So I had to burn them. I don't know what I was thinking - I'd seen the same reviews as everyone else. I did try to read some of it, but it was utterly ghastly."

"Ghastly!" agreed Seamie. Rachel noted how different his natural local accent was to the strangely modulated tones of Mr Murphy. Mr Murphy then continued with a gossipy account of a once popular Irish author now so unpopular that he could not even have her books visible in his shop, as it would put off customers. "I always order in one copy of her books for an old lady who seems to be inexplicably fond of that rubbish. Even she insists on buying it pre-wrapped in a plain brown paper bag."

"Brown paper bag!" noted Seamie.

Rachel commented on how well-stocked the Book Palace was, not just with all the most recent publications but with all kinds of fascinating collectible and antiquarian books. "Not really what I was expecting in this part of the country," she said, perhaps not as tactfully as she might have intended.

Mr Murphy did not appear to take offence. "I know what you mean, you would not have thought that in a part of the country with such a sparse population there would be much demand for books, and serious books too, not just cheap mass market trash."

Seamie perhaps slightly over obviously nudged him under the table. Mr Murphy continued in a less animated vein. "The truth is, I have had to work hard to build a customer base. But I think I have done my bit to promote the art of reading here in Killduff and the surrounding area. Of course, having writers like yourself coming to town to give talks always helps. And we have quite a few writers based locally, which helps to create a bit of interest in the shop. They buy some books too, though not many - writers often hate reading, it's an odd thing about their profession. And none of them have any money - writing books is even less lucrative than selling them."

"But you seem to do alright, Andrew?" said Cantwell.

"Well I suppose I do, Mr Cantwell. It's the antiquarian and collectible material that really keeps my head above water. I will have people coming from all over to buy such things from me. And to sell to me too. I am known in such circle for paying good prices."

Cantwell was more interested in talking about Rachel's books. "I loved Bad Penny and can't wait to get stuck into Christmas Heartbreak," he said. "I know I'm not a typical reader of your books, but I think you've really got something."

"Why thank you, Mr Cantwell."

"Please, call me Maurice."

Rachel noted that Cantwell did not ask Seamie or the bookseller to address him by his first name.

At the end of their meal, Cantwell did indeed pick up the bill, leaving a generous tip that had the waiter saying "thank you very much, Mr Cantwell" in a slightly Italian accent. They left the restaurant and on the street outside, Mr Murphy said: "Well it's been a lovely evening, but I think we should be going now, eh Seamie?"

"Oh yes," replied Seamie.

"So farewell Miss Maguire, and thank you for gracing us with your presence. I hope you return to Ballykillduff when your next book is published, if not sooner".

"Oh I will," said Rachel, shaking hands with first Mr Murphy and then Seamie.

"Goodnight, Mr Cantwell", said Mr Murphy, before saluting and heading off into the night with Seamie.

"So," said Cantwell, "do you care for a night cap? There is a delightful little pub just round the corner."

"Well, perhaps a small digestif," said Rachel. "But I can't stay out too late. I have to ring my boyfriend before I go to bed. In case he thinks I've got lost." This was not entirely true. Alan would have been happy with a quick goodnight text whenever she happened to turn in, but she felt it was worth establishing to Cantwell that going for a drink was not going to be a prelude to something else.

If Cantwell was disappointed to hear that she was not single, he hid it well. "Oh of course," he replied. "I can't stay up late myself - have to be up early in the morning."

He led her down the street. Rachel realised they were headed to Teague's and Meagher's, the two pubs she had been in the night before. On the way they passed Duffy's, from which the same kind of loud gutteral conversation was emanating as it had the night before. A surly faced man was smoking outside the pub. Seeing Rachel and Cantwell he lowered his gaze and muttered "Evening Mr Cantwell". Cantwell said "Evening" back and walked on.

"That's a pretty rough spot, that pub," said Cantwell. "It attracts the worst elements of the town and surrounding area."

"So I've heard," said Rachel.

"I'd stay well clear of it if I were you."

"I feel no great urge to visit it."

"Still, it's nice to have all of that lot in one place, eh?" said Cantwell. "Stops them bothering people elsewhere. Ah, here we are." They were now at the pubs. Cantwell led Rachel into Meagher's. The bar man and several of the customers greeted Cantwell; he in turn greeted many of them by name, before ordering an expensive Scotch for himself and a gin and tonic for Rachel, who was not a whiskey drinker. They sat at a table and then Cantwell in a low voice revealed to Rachel that Mr Murphy and Seamie "batted for the other team."

"Really?" said Rachel, trying not to sound too sarcastic.

Cantwell discoursed for a bit on the history of Mr Murphy's family, who had been in the area for generations, "thought not as long as mine," he added, with a self-deprecating laugh. He ordered a second round of drinks, brushing off Rachel's attempts to pay. He took another sip of whisky and then said: "So you and your boyfriend, you've been together long?"

"Well yes, a couple of years. Three next February."

"And you are happy with your boyfriend?"

Cantwell seemed to have mastered the art of raising one eyebrow while keeping the other lowered, a trick he deployed after asking this question. "Yes, I suppose I am," she answered. "Look, Maurice, I think I can see where you're going with this. You're a nice guy and everything, but let's keep it friendly, shall we?"

"OK, sorry," said Cantwell, looking a bit deflated. "I'm afraid I'm on a bit of a rebound thing at the moment. I was in a relationship with a lovely woman but, well… it didn't work out."

"Oh dear," said Rachel.

"I feel a bit like a character in one of your books," Cantwell continued. "Sometimes I worry I am doomed to live out my days in loneliness. That would be bad enough for anyone, but for me it would be especially upsetting. You see, I am the last of my family. If I were to die without leaving an heir then the Cantwells of Ballykillduff would die with me, ending a line that that has lived here since the Normans came to Ireland. And if the Cantwells die out, then the work we do dies with us."

"The work you do?"

"Oh, you know," replied Cantwell evasively. "Keeping an eye on things. Making sure nothing untoward happens here in Ballykillduff. Dealing with problems."

"Bossing people around and making sure they don't start thinking for themselves?"

"It's not like that," said Cantwell, trying not to get angry. "There are good people in this town. But there are people who are not so good. People who have plans for things they want to happen. Things they know will never happen while a Cantwell is on hand to stand against them."

"Really?" said Rachel, now wondering if Cantwell was exhibiting megalomaniacal tendencies. Perhaps the drinks had lowered his inhibitions and he was giving vent to delusions of grandeur that he had kept hidden up to now. It would not be unusual for these landed gentry types to see themselves as essential to the well-being of their localities, she thought, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Something about Rachel's tone struck deep into Cantwell. "I think I've said too much." He knocked back his drink. "Goodnight, Miss Maguire, I must be going. I trust you will be able to find your way back to your hotel." With that he got up and left, ignoring the chorus of "good night Mr Cantwell" that came from the others in the pub.

Rachel was put out by Cantwell's odd behaviour. She thought of leaving the pub immediately but did not want to look flustered to the locals. So she tried to calm herself and slowly sipped the rest of her gin and tonic. Then she left and made her way back to the hotel without incident. Her sleep that night was relatively undisturbed, but a noise did wake her at one point. She thought she heard the low distant sound of a powerful dog barking slowly, but she could not be sure.

Next Chapter

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