The Final Book
It was Monday. We decided not to go to school that day, as did many others across the country, because we wanted to prepare ourselves properly for the evening. That morning I met with Jermaine, then we both rode our bikes to Anton’s house and the three of us had breakfast. As the only girl (and the only one who knew how to throw down a meal), I got to work in the kitchen while they both spoke about what they would wear, what kind of questions they would ask her, and who they think we would meet once we got there. I turned three splodges of blueberry pancake batter in Anton’s Tefal. Beside the pan there was a plastic bottle of Aunt Jemima’s. In those days American foodstuffs were slowly entering the supermarkets, which meant everyone was hyped for the most mundane things. Concrete-flavoured Reece’s quickly trumped a Crème Egg; those rainbow Twislers that were rubbery and tasted like aged balloons were somehow better than your average strawberry carpet. Don’t get me started on Twinkies—the poor man’s mini roll; Butterfingers and Lucky Charms. But as I looked at the fat black woman on the pancake syrup I tried to quiz myself about the books I had re-tasted over the past year. Questions arose and collapsed in my head. That’s when I realised I was nervous.
“Are you guys scared to meet her?” I said to the other two. Jermaine didn’t answer because he was staring at the pancakes. Anton shook his head slowly.
“Why would I be scared?”
“I dunno,” I said. “She’s only the most famous author in the world, and only the biggest newspapers are gonna be there. I don’t even think we’ll get a chance to ask her any questions. She might not even come out.”
“Don’t be dumb,” said Jermaine. “She wants to see her fans.”
“The publicist didn’t promise nothing,” I said. “Unlike you guys I’ve been stuck to the computer for weeks. Everyone’s just turning up outside her house in good faith. She might not even come out.”
“That’s why everyone’s turning up, though,” said Anton. “Guilt trip. Authors can’t turn down a fan. They feel too lucky that their books’ve gone so far and touched so many people.”
“She might not even come out,” I said.
“Just do the pancakes, woman,” said Jermaine. “I’m starving.”
I would never call myself an intellectual. Anton was the smartest out of the three of us, which he obviously got from his parents and evidenced by their Dulwich mansion. But I read a lot and I loved to do it. Most people were surprised by Jermaine because he was only a punch away from abject thuggery and he spent his days on the estate, but he liked a good book too. We all met by chance, being in the same year, a few weeks into our very first term of Big School. I escaped to the library for lunchtime. Anton was at the desk, begging the librarian to let him take one extra book; I asked him what the book was; he showed it to me and then Jermaine walked up and said it was his favourite book from his favourite series ever. And that’s how we became reading buddies, and then friends who went to each other’s houses for dinner and film nights.
When the pancakes were eaten we chained our bikes in the garage and went to get the bus to Central London. Jay Gould Felix lived in Richmond, alone, and she was almost one hundred years old. The Starwalker Chronicles was originally a series of four books, but she announced she would be releasing a fifth and final instalment, like an epilogue to the original, the year before. Since then every fan and critic had been beside themselves, doing a running commentary of the publication process, scrambling for early releases and teasing little lines in the newspapers about “shocks and surprises”. I never really wanted to write a novel until I read Starwalkers. Since then every chance I got was spent sending stories to magazines or making little blogs online. I won a competition at school for best mystery character and got myself a £10 H&M voucher. I think I spent it on fancy socks. I adored the woman. But she was old and I was worried that maybe I would never get to really meet her until Anton came up with the idea.
Our plan was to go to Piccadilly Waterstone’s, get the final book: The Stone and the Future, do a speed read, and then make the journey to Richmond. A group of fans had organised an evening “thank you” party outside her house, and because it was summer, they had got permission to set up tents and a barbeque and were planning to party until midnight—remembering that she was old and frail. Anton said that with all the worldwide attention and the obvious support from her fans, she would have no choice but to come out and party with us. At the time it sounded like a great plan, and I admired the group for thinking of such a thing, but when the day arrived all sorts of misgivings came to me. Mainly, I was worried that she just didn’t like people, which would explain her no-interview policy for the three decades preceding her latest release, and the fact that no photos of her existed after ’86. I could only trust Anton’s judgement and Jermaine’s confidence, which if I’m honest, gave me no solace whatsoever.
In Piccadilly I saw the nightmare aftermath of a book-nerd gathering. Sleeping bags were still on the pavement; piles of rubbish were on street corners. Scraps of outfits were everywhere: a hat, a scarf; some trousers and a few jumpers awaited claimants on the queue barriers. The posters which must have adorned the shop entrance where rolled up on the floor. The rainbow remnants of party poppers were strewn across the ground, and anonymous tents had been folded in a pile round the back. It looked like Glastonbury had taken over London, but it was only the typical sight of a midnight launch. We were right to come mid-morning the following day, and not during the furore of the event itself. Our coveted book had been gifted a fantastic display. A hundred Penelope R. Baldwins stared doe-eyed behind a glossy cover. Spot lights rained down on her beneath the canopy of a mock sweet-shop, where Grandad Baldwin worked and behind which the Starwalker Society for Vampire Control met every month on the full moon. Anton, Jermaine and I were all sixteen years old; simultaneous equations were etched into our skulls; our palms were vandalised by all the similes and metaphors that would win us A’s in English; our feet were protected by worn-down shoes that had seen every library floor and every patch of dry grass in London. We had GCSEs to revise for and after that we would be hurtling towards A-Levels and university fears. A story about a half-werewolf teenager from Hampstead Heath entering a war with the London vampire community was our escape and our dream.
Inside now, the book bought, we went up to the upper floors, found ourselves a nice booth in the café, and disappeared behind the book covers. No one spoke. It would be a contest to see who finished first. Afterwards we would drink and eat and chat until the sun began its descent to the other half of the world.
My eyes hadn’t stopped leaking since I turned the final page. She killed off Penelope. Just as she had finally declared her love for Wolfgang, the vampire mercenary. And they had kissed passionately, and she had got pregnant with his child; and they had finally found peace after going on the run from both the Starwalkers and the Midnight Faction—Wolfgang’s vampire allies. And oh, how happy they were! And how beautiful baby Heather was! As an orphan, the only memento she had of her devastated parents was Grandad Baldwin’s sweet shop—not even Grandad Baldwin: the poor soul passed away at the start. The whole thing was so distressing for me—looking back I don’t think I got over that bloodbath of an ending and Penelope and Wolfgang’s fateful romance was my first experience of heartbreak. Now I know why the streets of Piccadilly looked so frantic. The fans must have had a riot.
“That was depressing,” was all Anton said. Jermaine wanted his money back.
“It literally goes against everything she’s ever said!” he said after downing his third hot chocolate. “I read an interview she did for TIME from a few decades ago—you saw it too, right Ant? She said that the reason why she left The War and the Close so open-ended was because she would end up having to kill people and she didn’t want to do it! So why did she kill pretty much everyone, just for a bit of drama? I mean—the dog! The dog! Right on page ten! What was the point of that?”
“You think she’s depressed?” I asked. “I mean she’s so old. She must have only written this to say goodbye to the world.”
“Regardless,” said Anton. “We have no choice but to go to Richmond and demand an explanation. That woman won’t be allowed to sleep until she explains herself.”
“Right!” said Jermaine.
“I agree,” I said.
Time passed quickly. We all but marched to and from every bus to Richmond. We held the books in our hands so that people knew why we were angry. To say the party was lifeless was an understatement. Even at Aunt Moira’s funeral there was more fun. The streets of Richmond had been rammed with revellers and rioters; fans who felt betrayed by their favourite author in the world. It was like Notting Hill Carnival, after the floats and the dancers have gone home and the only ones left are hoodies from Brixton having an all-out war in the middle of the jerk-marinated streets.
As the sun began to set and everyone’s vision was interrupted by a veneer of warm orange glow, the barbeques and the tents were erected in silence. At long last, someone put on the music and a few anarchists who came along for the ride began to dance. People joined in, the journalists flashed away from a safe distance, and after a few Sambucas everyone was too plastered to debate about the literary quality of the fifth and final Starwalker book—everyone except the three of us. We were underage and still under the shrewd care of Caribbean parents. We knew not to touch too much alcohol. We kept to Red Bull and Coke. We tried to muster up some conversation with the revellers at first, before we finally gave up and set up camp on the front steps of someone’s house. At one point a journalist asked Anton how he felt about the conclusion. He just shook his head. Jermaine said “shit!” and I told him that we were all devastated. That was the only book-based activity of the party.
For legal reasons we had been barred from setting up the tents directly outside the woman’s house, but from our slightly elevated position on the porch we could see where she lived. It was an old fashioned thing, with French plantation shutters, an impressive front garden; a black gated entrance and tall, impenetrable hedges that would obscure the whole thing on ground-level. We three argued about the book, each one of us having our own favourite moment, but our favourite character was obviously Raven, the mermaid from the River Thames. Other than that, Merlin was interesting, and so was Vladimir, Wolfgang’s ancestor and leader of the London vampires. After that, it was too painful to re-live the deaths, the convoluted plot and the awkward writing. I could see that Felix had lost a lot of flare in her old age. What was once a volcanic series had oozed to a halt in a lump of pointless dark ash.
“Well we still have to demand answers,” said Anton. “She’s staying inside, we can all see that. You were right,” he said to me, “she’s not coming out.”
“And now we know why,” I said. “We’re too angry to go knock on an old woman’s door, though. We could always write a letter to her agent. She’s the one whose been doing the press releases, the interviews and whatnot.”
“Yeah obviously!” said Jermaine. “She’s read the book too! Probably told the woman to stay indoors until she dies! Naw, man. We’re going to chat to her today.”
As the party died down to the embers of solar afterglow, we picked our way through the bodies of drunk readers. It was a dense, swollen atmosphere, slightly sensual and also obscene. I felt kind of stupid being a part of such fanatical nonsense, and the only reason why I’m retelling the story is because of that happened afterwards. Jermaine buzzed the intercom at the gate. A voice that was too young to belong to Ms Felix answered. It was the agent.
“You can’t let us in to talk to her ourselves?” said Jermaine after the agent finally came to the gate to speak with us. She was black, which surprised me for some reason. We tried to use her colour against her: we called her sister, aunty, mum, ma’am, anything to remind her of her Black British roots and the upbringing of respect she must have shared with us.
“I’m sorry but Ms Felix is very tired, as you can imagine. She doesn’t want visitors and she certainly does not want complaints. If you want, you can send letters to this address and I can assure you she’ll read it.”
“But we’re her fans!” said Anton.
After staring at us pityingly, the agent said, “Look, I’m really sorry, but all week there’s been journalists and the paparazzi camping outside. We had people from the Mail pretending to be postmen and trying to sneak in through the hedges. It’s been very distressing for her. If anyone was to see me letting you in, then tomorrow there’ll be a swarm.”
“Did you read the book?” I asked the agent. She said nothing.
“It was shit!” said Jermaine.
“Let’s go you lot,” said Anton. “This was a waste of time.”
We were stubborn kids. We stayed out till it was nearly midnight, and all the party-goers had long gone. I had phoned my mum and Jermaine, his, letting them know we were staying at Anton’s. When Anton phoned his parents he made it sound like Ms Felix had already let us into her home, and being the intellectuals they were, told him to stay for as long as she would allow him. We scoped the house and saw that she had no CCTV outside, and as the agent had said, a rough parting in the hedges showed where journalists had already tried to sneak in. We used the parting to get to the other side, and then we crept our way across the huge lawn, avoiding the security lights we saw during the day. Because the windows were sashed it made it easier for us to get in, but once inside we were lost.
“Master bedrooms are usually top floor,” said Anton. In the darkness we could see hardly anything accept the gilded outlines of golden picture frames, the cool shine belonging to display cabinets and the shapes of chairs, chandeliers and bannisters. We ascended the stairs. On the landing we made several wrong guesses, cracking open the doors of bathrooms and musty closets, before finally arriving at the master bedroom.
It was impressive. A floor-length lamp cast the room in a pink glow. The lamp stood opposite a beautiful four-poster bed, carved from oak and delicately varnished. The bed was made and empty. It looked like no one had slept in it for a long time. There was something else in the room that I almost missed, but judging from his sharp intake of breath, Anton had noticed it as soon as we entered. I don’t know if it was the adrenaline, or my focus on the rush of blood and energy flowing through my body, or if the thud of my own heart had knocked my senses, or if I was all too-aware that we were doing something so wrong and crazy that I actually just wanted to get out as soon as possible, forgetting about the author and her ridiculous senile fantasies, but it was only when Jermaine said “it smells like shit too!” That I realised the atmosphere was being punctuated by a thick, rotting sweetness that could only exist in the bowels of a cemetery, or an abattoir in Cairo.
With his hands cupped over his mouth, Anton directed our attention to the embroidered wing chair by the window. It was directly in front of us, but it faced the lamp, meaning we were unable to see if it had an occupant. The carpet around the chair was unusually dark. It was a spillage of some kind, and it was this patch of liquid that was the most likely cause of the smell. Jermaine, the warrior and eternal legend for this, walked towards the chair himself, peered around the wings and fell on his bum. He never got a chance to explain to us what he saw because we went to see for ourselves.
Jay Gould Felix must have been dead for ages. She was barely discernible to humankind. We could hear frantic footfalls beneath us. The noise belonged to Ms Agent—the obvious author of Penelope R. Baldwin’s unexpected and untimely fate.