This little tale was written shortly before Book Week Scotland, the November annual Scotland-wide book festival organised by the Scottish Book Trust.
Lizzie Fairgrieve and Maisie Cameron were two of a kind in so many ways. Not that you’d have suspected to look at them – Lizzie was as thin as a rake, while Maisie, fully ten years older, boasted a figure that suggested that she enjoyed her food. But appearances can be deceptive. One of their shared passions was cake: chocolate cake, coffee cake, banana cake, carrot cake, ginger cake, victoria sponge, fruit cake, in fact any cake that contained flour, sugar, and probably eggs, fat and vanilla essence as well. Exactly why Lizzie was so thin was as much of a mystery to herself as to her mother, who was always trying to ‘feed her up’, causing her daughter embarrassment, irritation and pleasure in equal measures. Lizzie was single, having gone through a series of men, none of whom quite matched up to her exacting demands that they should look like, and be as rich as, Mr Darcy. At forty-five, Maisie was ten years older, recently-divorced, and with both of her children at college. But Lizzie and she could agree on two things for sure: firstly, of course, the right man doing the right things could be useful in bed; second, in their experience, men in general were a bit of a disappointment the more you got to know them. Maisie insisted that the true test of whether a man was suited to being part of a woman’s life depended on whether or not he did the dusting unbidden. (The answer, of course, was neither: a suitable man had to be rich enough to pay for a cleaner.)
But the real bond for Maisie and Lizzie came through their writing. Each was an aspiring author who had written a couple of novels, sent them off to any number of agents and publishers, and received any number of rejection slips in return. Each in turn had turned to self-publishing their books – Kindle, of course, versions to be read on iPads, and as print versions through the growing method of ‘print on demand’. (Such is the speed of printing nowadays that single copies of a book can be printed faster than the Post Office can deliver it.) Each of the women had experienced moderate success without seeing any hope of giving up their day jobs.
Maisie wrote crime novels set in the 1990s. Her detective, DI Pemberley, had female witnesses swooning over him while he was desperately trying to get some sense out of them, while meanwhile he himself was completely oblivious to how attractive he was. Instead he was constantly distracted by the irritating and overbearing Superintendent Doyle, who all too often dispensed entirely useless and unsolicited advice to his much more talented detective inspector. Each of her three novels had so featured a female Scene-of-Crime officer who lusted after Pemberley, not that he was ever aware because she was always completely covered head to toe in white overalls. Maisie’s typical reader was a woman in her seventies who liked romance but were glad to be spared all the graphic details of physical consummation.
Now she had a new novel to launch, ‘DI Pemberley 4’, Death at the Village Church Hall. Maisie had already received a number of pre-orders.
Meanwhile, Lizzie specialised in sexy romantic fiction that bordered on the erotic at times. Lizzie’s writing reflected her own life, and she was content to share all. Her books all came with adult warnings on the cover – EXPLICIT CONTENT – which of course multiplied her sales exponentially. Lizzie’s books were stand-alone, not part of a series, and she had only published two so far. But now she had a third, the most daring yet, loosely based on a three-month fling she’d had with a colleague at the office who had ultimately been sacked for sexually harrassing the firm’s Head of Personnel in the lift to the fourth floor. Darren, she remembered, had looked promising for a while but then he’d lost interest in Lizzie. would be Lizzie’s ‘revenge porn’. Like Darren, Lizzie’s self-centred love interest slob was a Rangers’ football fan; like Darren, the character had had a giant Rangers crest tattooed onto his chest so that any woman daft enough to open her eyes during sex would confronted with the motto ‘Ready’. And anyone who knew Darren would therefore recognise him immediately in Maisie’s book.
Lizzie had fewer pre-orders, but she still had high hopes for her new book. And that’s where Maisie came in, as the two shared ideas on how to grab more readers and sell more copies of their books. Using email, by texting and by posting on each other’s websites, Maisie and Lizzie had decided that it was time to take their marketing strategy to a whole new level.
They’d decided to combine their book launches by holding a joint event in Corstorphine Public Library on the west side of Edinburgh. Doing so would of course almost double the attendance. Neither of our writers actually lived in Edinburgh – Lizzie lived in Musselburgh while Maisie had a bungalow in Uphall in West Lothian – but Corstorphine was roughly halfway between the two and the library itself was desperate to hold an event with Book Week Scotland, the annual book celebration that takes place all across the nation each November. Maisie had heard that the librarian was desperate to hold some sort of event – something to do with ‘meeting targets for that year’s library development plan’ – and offered to fill the gap. It sounded perfect. The librarian herself even agreed to host and chair the event.
The only slight problem was that Maisie and Lizzie had never actually met. They’d seen photos of each other, traded so many intimate details of each other’s lives and – most of all – edited each other’s latest manuscripts. So they knew other like twin sisters. But no, they hadn’t met.
The week before the launch, Maisie took herself out to check out the venue. The librarian’s name turned out to be Esther, a shortish, stocky, dark-haired woman who was probably in her fifties. Esther wore glasses but had a curiously fidgety habit of taking them on and putting them on again, screwing her eyes up in between as if unsure whether the spectacles were doing any good. But she seemed friendly enough.
“Ah, yes, Ms Fairgrieve,” she said, “your friend Ms Cameron was in a while back but I haven’t seen her since. Perhaps I simply missed her?”
It was a rhetorical question and Lizzie ignored it: they both knew Maisie had been nowhere near the place.
“That’s the thing… I’m here to go through some of the details with you about next week. I see you have some flyers out on the desk.”
“Of course. It’ll be an interesting evening. You’re friends, yes?”
“And you both have new books out?”
“Yes,” Lizzie said. “We thought we’d give your library a free copy of each as thanks.”
Esther nodded. “That would be nice.” Lizzie had the impression that it was the least she and Maisie were expected to do. Esther the librarian seemed slightly perplexed by something, although Lizzie would never discover what it was.
“Anyway,” Lizzie ploughed on, “we’re expecting around eighty people on the night, and we’ll be offering them cakes and wine.”
Ali’s face simultaneously broke into a crooked smile and a frown. “Cake? That’s a little different.”
“We want to make the evening memorable for everyone. And Maisie and I share a passion for cakes. As well as books,” she added quickly.
Esther the librarian shrugged. “I don’t see why not. It might be a little messy, that’s all, so we’ll have to ask your guests to be careful around the library books.”
“Of course, of course.” Lizzie was amused to see that the presence of cake in the library was seen as more of a potential hazard than alcohol.
Esther pushed her glasses back up her nose and moved on to asking what how Maisie and Lizzie saw the event taking shape. Lizzie explained that Maisie and she would each talk about their new books for ten minutes, then each in turn would do a reading. After that, the audience would be invited to ask questions. At the end, there would be a book signing.
“Do you have any questions you’d like me to ask?” Esther wondered. “Obviously, I haven’t read the books myself yet, so I’d need a little help there.”
Given that Lizzie didn’t have a copy of her own book with her, and that she’d never actually seen a finished copy of Maisie’s, she realised that was likely to be tricky. Instead, she undertook to send a few general questions that Esther might find useful if there was an awkward silence. But hopefully, she added, the audience would have plenty instead.
The week passed by quickly, and Maisie and Lizzie each became increasingly and nervous in equal measure as their big evening approached. On the day before, each had dropped by at Corstorphine with a couple of boxes of their novels, managing to miss each other as well as Esther the librarian. As agreed, Lizzie had also deposited some white wine and soft drinks, Maisie the red and some sparkling water. Meanwhile, Esther had formulated an idea for how the event would be set out: the two authors would be seated on either side of her, with copies of their books placed on low tables in front of them. That would mean that neither Maisie nor Lizzie would have to move at all to be in position to sign copies at the end.
The following evening, Lizzie arrived around half an hour early, slightly nervous, but looking forward to her big night. She’d made an effort for the occasion, wearing jeans and a neatly fitted jacket, her favourite earrings and a little more make-up than usual. She’d also brought almost two hundred little cakes – coffee and chocolate fairy cakes in individual wrappers – enough for everyone in the audience to have two even if Maisie forgot.
Esther, of course, had been on duty all day and stood up to greet Maisie with a welcoming smile, while at the same time (almost inevitably) removing her glasses and putting them back on again. She relieved Lizzie of the cakes and began to set them out, together with the drinks, on a table at the entrance to the library.
The only other person in the library was someone who was surely her fellow performer on the night. The stranger was chewing gum.
“Maisie…?” she wondered, hesitantly.
“Naw, lass,” said the woman. “Ah’m Bella, Maisie’s sister. She’s no’ here yet, ken.”
Lizzie was caught slightly off guard.
“I didn’t realise that Maisie had a sister… nice to meet you.”
Bella chewed her gum more aggressively. “Aye well Maisie does have a sister. Two, tae be exact, an’ a brither, although we dinna talk aboot him in oor family.” She chewed her gum again, then eventually added, “Nice tae meet youz tae. So youz are the other writer. Ah’ve read yer book.”
Lizzie perked up. “Oh, have you? I hope you liked it.”
“It’s very different frae Maisie’s yin.” It wasn’t the response Lizzie was hoping for. “Ah wunner if there’s a bin fur ma gum. Ah fancy wan o’ thae cakes. Are they the wans youz made? Maisie makes grand cakes.”
“Yes, I made those cakes. Please, help yourself.”
Bella rose from her seat and made her way across towards the food and drink, picking up a drained glass that Lizzie hadn’t noticed before. As she went, Lizzie took note that the woman wasn’t so much fat as ‘thick-set’: certainly not to be tangled with. She was just returning with a coffee cake and a refill of red wine when there was a call from the door.
“Hi there!” A woman who could only be Bella’s sister, and therefore Maisie, had arrived.
“Bella, so good of ye tae come! Great tae see ye!”
The sisters exchanged an embrace, then Maisie turned towards a somewhat edgy-feeling Lizzie.
“Are you Lizzie, then? Lovely tae meet ye finally all this time. I hope Bella’s no’ bein’ rude tae ye.” Lizzie couldn’t tell if Maisie was joking, or whether she knew her sister only too well.
“We’ve been getting to know each other,” she said, neutrally.
“Ah hope yez’ve brought some decent cakes, Maisie,” Bella said. No mention of Lizzie’s ones.
“Of course, Bella, whit dae ye take me fur? I brought your favourites – banana cake and I made a nice victoria sponge, too. An’ some other stuff.”
“Thank Goad fir that,” Bella said. She made to open up Maisie’s Tupperware boxes without waiting asked when suddenly she broke off. “In the name o’ Goad, whit’s this that’s just came in?”
A tall, silver-haired man dressed in jeans and a striped open-necked shirt strolled across towards Lizzie.
“Evening, Lizzie, how are you?”
“Hi, Dad. Fine, thanks. Perhaps a little nervous. Can I introduce you to my fellow author here, Maisie? Maisie, this my Dad.”
They shook hands, Lizzie’s father introducing himself as ‘John’. Bella stared unblinkingly at him until she, too, was introduced. They nodded in each other’s direction with their own smiles. Hers was a hostile ‘dinnae mess wi’ me’ smile; his said ‘I’ve met your type before.’
He turned back to Lizzie and asked, “Is your mother coming?”
Lizzie looked slightly embarrassed. “Yes, I think they both are.”
“That’s fine. It’ll be nice to see them. I’ll go and help myself to one of your cakes and some wine, then take a seat.”
Bella turned in the other direction to do likewise, planting herself down beside another woman who had arrived in the meantime. “Aye, Tina, there’s naethin’ quite like a wee sideshow tae keep everyone entertained.”
Esther the librarian had set out the audience chairs on two sides with the main access down the middle. The effect was unfortunate. Those who had come to see Maisie sat on the side of the room where she was clearly going to sit, while Lizzie’s supporters sat on the other. Bella even called across to John, “Just like bein’ at a waddin’, eh? Bride or groom, ken?”
The guests were arriving in numbers now, each being greeted by whichever author knew them. A small number knew neither but clearly came to every book launch to enjoy the free food and wine. Esther mentioned that each of these seemed to have his or her set seat that they occupied every time. Lizzie wished she could get more chance to chat with Maisie, who nevertheless seemed as nice a person in real life as she’d seemed online. Then, a minute or two before the show was due to start, two women entered the library. They were both given a special welcome by Lizzie, who addressed one as ‘Mum’ and the other as ‘Claire’. They waved towards Lizzie’s father, but as there were no seats nearby there was a ‘see you at the end’ agreement called across.
“Well, wid yez look at that,” Bella announced to Tina. “Watch this space, eh?”
Thankfully, Esther managed to get the event under way right on time. Continually fidgeting with her glasses, she spent a minute or two introducing the two writers. She’d done a surprising amount of background research: clearly, Esther had visited each of their websites. Then Maisie spoke about her novel, and did a reading; then it was Lizzie’s turn to do the same. Halfway through her reading, she caught sight of Bella yawning; her friend Tina was looking at her mobile phone.
Eventually, the presentations came to an end. Esther invited a round of applause for both the writers before inviting questions.
Esther fidgeted with her glasses a few more times, cracked a joke (surprisingly), before eventually someone on Maisie’s side asked her if DI Pemberley was based on any man she knew personally. Maisie replied by saying that she’d never met any man who was remotely as nice as the Detective Inspector, including her ex-husband. Then she added, ‘especially my ex-husband’, to everyone’s amusement.
It broke the ice. Questions were asked to both authors: more to Maisie, though, whose readers tended to her about the plots and the main characters. Lizzie’s supporters asked fewer but more literary questions inviting comparison with other work, or perhaps about themes and messages she might be trying to convey. Esther herself put a question to each author: what did each admire most about the other’s work.
It didn’t appear as though many in the audience had read actually both books until John surprisingly asked Maisie why she’d chosen to make her ‘dishy detective’ male – in the twenty-first century, had she ever considered am ‘edgier’ female hero? He elaborated by wondering if Pemberley’s female sidekick might get a developed role in future books, demonstrating that he, at least, had read something of Maisie’s. She was slightly disconcerted, as if she’d never really thought about it, and eventually said simply that she also thought that was what her (mostly female) readers wanted, too.
What happened next isn’t all that clear. Bella decided, rightly or wrongly, that her sister Maisie was under attack ‘from the other side’, so asked Lizzie a question of her own.
“Tell me, Ms. Fairgrieve, why is there sae much sex in yer books? Do yez dae it because sex sells, or does yez get a kick out o’ it?”
Lizzie was flustered; Maisie was embarrassed by her sister; Esther pushed her glasses back up her nose and frowned. But at first nobody replied, which invited Bella to expand.
“Ah mean, there’s yon scene in Blood Lust where the lassie’s scrubbin’ the kitchen floor and he grabs her frae behind – ”
“I know the scene, Bella,” Lizzie said, bristling more than a little. “Don’t you approve of sex in books? People do it, I’ve heard.” It was meant to sound like a joke but it came out all wrong.
“Ah’ve heard that, an’ a’,” Bella said. She looked across at Lizzie’s mum and her friend.
“Everyone to their own taste, mind, aye?”
A hush descended on the room, then suddenly John was on his feet. “The company my ex-wife keeps is none of your concern, madam.”
“Dinnae speak like that wi’ me. Just because you can speak posh disnae mean yer any better than the rest o’ us. We’re no furriners.”
“You’ve got skeletons in your own closet, Bella,” another man said, this time from her own side of the room. “Keep your mouth shut.”
Bella said nothing. She stood up, went to the back of the room and poured herself another two glasses of wine. Then she went across to where Lizzie’s dad John was sitting and clinically poured it over his head. The other glass went over the head of the man who had just told her to be quiet.
Mayhem broke out. The wine disappeared in no time, but the more popular projectiles were Lizzie’s fairy cakes, which it transpired flew far and straight, spinning through the air like Exocet missiles towards their targets. Maisie’s cakes were next to go, the slices of black forest gateau proving particularly messy. Banana cake could be seen stuck to the seats of the trousers of most of the audience, fruit cake had ended up in everyone’s hair, and, courtesy of Claire, an entire victoria sponge found its way directly into Bella’s face. Only Lizzie and Maisie escaped unscathed, taking cover behind the library’s reference shelves.
Meanwhile, Esther had made her way around to the library’s entrance, against which she stacked a collection of chairs before sitting down on one herself in front of them. Eventually, the cakes ran out and a shamefaced group of over eighty people found themselves looking at her.
“Good, everyone, I’m glad you all had some fun there,” Esther said, playing with her glasses again. Then she went on, as if nothing had happened, “I think our authors deserve a big round of applause for their show tonight, don’t you?”
Naturally, they got a standing ovation: there wasn’t a clean chair left to sit on.
“Next,” Esther said, “we have a book signing. Maisie and Lizzie have each brought four boxes of their books to sell. That’s exactly one hundred each. No one leaves, no one at all, until every last one of those books has been bought – at the full price, mind you, no discounts. They’ll give me a signal to say they’ve all gone, then I’ll open the door. I’m sure you’d all like a copy for yourselves, or perhaps for friends, relatives or even the local police officer. But every last book is going to be sold tonight.”
Like chastened children, the entire audience mumbled their way into two disciplined queues as the somewhat bemused Lizzie and Maisie regrouped by sitting down at their respective tables ready to greet them. The signing process naturally took a while – the library was due to close at eight thirty but Esther had made it clear that tonight would be an exception.
And… aware that no one would leave until the books had all gone, Lizzie and Maisie’s friends had little choice but to take their places in the other queue for signed copies after that. Obliged to mingle, they began to talk, at first quietly discussing the books, then the weather, how they knew the author or even the library itself. Anything to avoid mentioning the earlier events. Remarkably, despite being smeared with cream cake and soaked with both red and white wine, John and Bella could be seen talking, too.
It was half past nine before all the books had gone and Esther was prepared to let them go. As the library cleared, each of those present in turn saying their farewells, thanks, and – almost invariably – sorry. For want of anything else to say, Lizzie and Maisie made do with replies such as ‘these things happen’, ‘well, it made for a memorable evening’ or ‘it all worked out in the end’.
Afterwards, when all but the two writers and Esther had left, Maisie and Lizzie were profuse in their apologies.
“I don’t see what you have to apologise for, really,” Esther said. “I didn’t see either of you throwing anything.”
“It was all a bit of a misunderstanding, I think,” Lizzie said. “I don’t think Dad was criticising Maisie at all, he was just trying to show an interest in your books.”
“Of course he was. I think even Bella realises that now – the pair of them were fair blethering away afterwards. He even helped clean her up. Your mum seems nice. I wish I’d had a photo of that moment when your her partner planted that victoria sponge into her face. Sometimes I feel like doing that to Bella as well.”
“She was only being protective of you,” Lizze said. “That’s what sisters are for. By the way, I hope she likes victoria sponge.”
“She did. She might have been put off a bit now, though.”
“Meanwhile, ladies, you’ve sold a lot of books,” Esther pointed out quietly. “So it’s not all bad.”
“We made eight hundred pounds each, even giving them each a discount,” Maisie said.
Esther said nothing. Instead she frowned, took her glasses off, then put them back on again.
After a moment, Lizzie said, “Em… can we help clean up? Hoover? Collect the debris and put it in a bin or something?”
Esther frowned, smiled, and fidgeted with her spectacles yet again. Eventually she said,
“No thanks, the library doesn’t open until lunchtime tomorrow and the cleaners will be able to sort things in the morning.” She paused, looked away, then added quietly, “I’ll give them a little extra for their efforts.”
Maisie and Lizzie looked at each other.
“I don’t think you should be out of pocket for that, Esther,” Lizzie said.
“Of course not,” said Maisie. “We’ve done very well, thanks to you. It’s been my most profitable night ever. How much can we give you – £100?”
“It’s a lot of work…”
Lizzie shrugged her shoulders. “Perhaps £200 would be more like it?”
“Yes… that might cover it,” Esther said. “Each.”
Lizzie and Maisie handed over a total of £400 in cash. Neither of them was prepared to ask the unspoken question about the rising cost of cleaners’ wages these days.
Esther tucked the money into the back pocket of her jeans. She rearranged her glasses yet again, frowned, squinted and smiled at them again. “I don’t imagine you ever expected to make £600 each tonight from book sales.”
“No.” Neither of the authors knew what else to say. Esther was correct: they were still well in profit.
“And if either of you would like to do your next book launch here, you’d be most welcome.”
“Of course.” Esther patted her back pocket. “I think that went rather well, didn’t it? I’d be delighted to have you here again. And if you did another joint book launch, who’s going to pass up a chance to be there? I might even sell tickets.”
Maisie and Lizzie grinned.
“Esther, I suspect you probably might, too,” Lizzie said.