‘How’s the new book coming along?’

Our conversations always started like this. Understandable, I suppose, Julia was my agent, after all. Mind you, I’d rather she concentrated on the old book, the book she was still attempting to get published after, what was it now, eight months? I suspected she was trying to divert me from her own shortcomings by pointing out mine.

Shortcomings like not writing the new book, for example.

‘Good, Julia, thanks. Moving along nicely now. The plot’s taking shape.’

Or lying.

I glanced down at my laptop. There wasn’t much to see apart from a thin film of dust. It hadn’t been switched on for a week.

I tried to steer the conversation back to her attempts to interest a publisher, any publisher really – I’d long since given up on a Top Five contract – in Yesterday’s Man. Not so much Yesterday’s Man now, as Last Year’s. I imagined the manuscript gathering even more dust than my laptop.

I was wishing I’d never decided to become a writer at all.

Write a book, they said, you’re really good.

So I did.

This is brilliant, they said, you should publish.

Great, I said, I’ll try, thanks.

You need to submit it to agents, they said. They’ll be falling over themselves to nab it, they said. It’s brilliant. The world is crying out for a book like this. And the title’s brilliant too. Yesterday’s Man.

At that point I was beginning to believe in my own brilliance.

Twenty-seven rejections later, my belief in that brilliance had faded somewhat.

Then Julia had phoned out of the blue just as I’d started considering the possibility of self-publishing or, heaven forbid, paying someone to publish the damned thing because it was, after all, brilliant, wasn’t it?

My aunt and the woman I used to work with who looked like a literary expert, if only because she wore her glasses halfway down her nose and sported home-knit puce or grey cardigans, were the people who had called the book “brilliant”. They were the “they”. No one else had read it. Apart from the twenty-seven agents who had rejected it, of course – and I’m not completely sure if most of those had so much as glanced at it – and my dog, Charlie, to whom I’d read the first two pages out loud before he’d started whimpering. I’m not suggesting that the whimpering was necessarily a critique of Yesterday’s Man, he always started whimpering if neither food nor his lead appeared within five minutes.

So Julia’s call had come as a surprise and, as I‘d had my head stuck inside a broken tumble dryer, not at the time a particularly convenient one. But I’d withdrawn my head sharpish, managing not to cry out in pain as I thumped my right ear against the dryer’s door, and answered her with a smile.

‘Well,’ Julia had said, ‘here’s the thing. I actually quite like Yesterday’s Man.’ She sounded rather surprised, but no more surprised than I was.

‘Really?’ I’d said, ‘How exciting,’ whilst trying to remember which agency she was from and how long ago she’d been sent the first three chapters as requested.

‘Can you let me have the whole manuscript?’ Julia had asked. ‘it’s a really funny book, and I’m sure I can find a home for it.’ She had paused at that point. ‘Mind you, it’s a little long.’ It was just over 100,000 words. ‘People are really only interested in shorter books these days. 70,000 words max, preferably less.’

Fewer, I’d thought. What sort of literary agent was she? Perhaps alarm bells should have started ringing at that point but I was too caught up in the moment.

Anyway, with help from puce-cardiganed-lady, I had managed to reduce Yesterday’s Man to about 84,000 words and Julia herself had cut an entire further chapter out, so that, between us, we were quietly confident that, at 79,000 words done and dusted, my now rather-less-than-magnum opus would be well received by publishers. Possibly there would be a bidding war.

That was then. After eight months, it was beginning to look as though the home that Julia had been sure of finding for it was somewhere on her bookshelves. 

Still, I’d signed a contract. Only another four months until I could get out of it. Maybe I’d revisit the self-publishing option although, frankly, my enthusiasm had not so much waned over the past months but curled up into a ball and quietly expired. Hence the unopened, dust-covered laptop and the unlooked-at sequel about which she was enquiring. It was called Tomorrow’s Woman, as I had been keen to develop a theme when I’d enthusiastically begun writing it on returning home from signing Julia’s contract in what seemed like another age. Maybe I’d change the title to Next Millennium’s Woman.

Julia was, however, still speaking. ‘Are you sitting down?’ I thought I heard her say over the tumbleweed of my thoughts.

‘Pardon, Julia? I missed that.’

‘Find a chair,‘ she said. ‘I have news.’

Had she gone out of business? And if so, would that release me from our contract?

‘You remember I told you how difficult it was to place comedy novels with publishers?’

I didn’t remember that. I’m sure I would have. Whilst Julia had never said that publishers would be throwing six-figure sums in my direction in attempts to sign me as “the next big thing”, I was pretty sure I’d never heard the word “difficult” pass her lips, either during the initial phone call or any subsequent conversation.

‘Umm,’ I replied, helpfully.

‘Well, I’ve found one.’

‘One what?’ I asked, rather losing the thread.

‘A publisher,’ she said. ‘I’ve found someone who wishes to publish your book.’

I sat down hard on the corner of the chair behind me. That bruise won’t fade for weeks, I thought.

‘You’re kidding,’ I said. Well, I could hardly be blamed for a slight note of disbelief, could I? ‘Who?’

‘They’re called Reboot Press,’ Julia said, triumphantly. ‘You must have heard of them.’

Must I? I thought, but didn’t say. I hadn’t.

‘Erm, no, I don’t think so…’ is what I actually said.

‘Oh, yes, very old firm, been in the same family for donkeys’ years. Used to concentrate on historical fiction but they’ve reinvented themselves. They were called Petticoat Alley until a month or two ago.’

Petticoat Alley sounded like a lingerie retailer. Possibly a purveyor of soft porn. I wasn’t surprised they’d changed the name. ‘Reboot,’ I said. ‘I get it, yes. Why did they reinvent themselves? And it’s quite a big jump from historical fiction and swooning ladies in petticoats to 21st century comedy, I’d have thought.’ I was aware my voice wasn’t exactly exuding gratitude at the good news Julia seemed convinced she had brought me.

‘Oh, I think there was a small money thing, nothing much.’

What an earth was a small money thing when it was at home? Bankruptcy, possibly?

‘What are they offering?’ I asked, thinking hefty advances.

‘What do you mean?’ Julia sounded genuinely puzzled. ‘They are offering to publish Yesterday’s Man.’

I took a deep breath and moved my painful buttock further towards the centre of the chair. ‘Okay,’ I said, trying to sound more enthusiastic. ‘That’s really good news, Julia. I’m sorry if I sounded offhand, but it came as a bit of a surprise.’ I didn’t add “after all these months”. ‘When will this happen, do you think? And what about payment?’ I had to ask, I mean I wasn’t expecting to make a living out of Yesterday’s Man, or Tomorrow’s Woman even, but maybe somewhere down the line, December’s Niece, possibly, it would be nice to be able to give up my job.

‘Oh, it’ll hardly cost anything,’ said Julia, ‘and I’m even prepared to reduce my commission as it’s taken a week or two longer than I’d thought to place Yesterday’s Man. Although, I did say it wouldn’t be easy.’ That again. And, wait a minute, “hardly cost anything”? “Commission”? Where had I put Julia’s contract? I couldn’t remember anything about commission but then, I’d been much younger eight months ago and just excited to sign it.

Julia hadn’t finished talking. ‘There’s just one teeny little change that Reboot have asked for.’

‘Oh?’ I said, warily. ‘’What’s that?’

‘Well, they wonder if you could set the story in the late 18th century. To fit in with their readership, you know. That shouldn’t be too difficult, should it? I’ve said of course you will.’

Of course, she had. Not so much of a Reboot after all, then. ‘Oh, Julia,’ I said, ‘that’s not me, I’m a 21st century girl. I know it’s called Yesterday’s Man but it only works as a Today kind of book. And I don’t think I could happily remove all the bad language.’

‘Oh, don’t worry about that. I’d already taken out all the f-words in the final edit.’ What final edit? This would be an edit I knew nothing about. ‘And you could always throw in the odd “zounds”. Anyway, long story short, if you could remove another 20,000 words whilst you’re resetting it to the late 1700s, that would be splendid. Make it a novella. That was a joke, by the way… long story short…’ I’d got it. And novella? I’d thought novellas were for authors who couldn’t string two words together when one might pass muster.

‘Anyway,’ Julia continued, ‘I’ve suggested that Marjorie from Reboot comes to see you to go over the fine detail. She lives in your area, so I think she should be with you very soon.’

The front doorbell rang.

Soon as in now.

And “Marjorie”, that name was familiar. I got up from the chair, wincing slightly from the pain in my bottom, and peeped through the front window from behind the curtain. Marjorie was standing on my path. She was wearing the puce cardigan today.