A goody bag from the funeral director

I wasn’t well last week, so this post replaces the advertised programme. I said I’d continue blogging about Lisbon writers. But Fernando Pessoa and Joe Saramago demand full attention. When your head and eyes ache, you burn with temperature, and you’re not feeling fit for human consumption, their wonderful words do little more than swim around like the ubiquitous Lisbon sardine.

By Saturday I could venture out, and a local shopping street again gave me a lesson in fundamentals. Once the lesson was about multicultural London; last time it was about birth. This lesson, as if to remind me there’s always someone iller than oneself (my cold had reached the self pitying stage), there was a beautiful pair of black horses, kept still by two top hatted gentlemen in morning coats with an elegant engraved glass carriage behind. All you need for a traditional East End funeral. Funeral 2a better

I prepared to walk past in a discreet and respectful way while getting a good look at the horses. But  – where was the coffin? There was only a cheerful lady dressed in black, standing in the doorway of the funeral directors, saying “Would you like a goody bag?”

My instinct, frankly, was to say no. It’s very kind of you but I’ve already felt like death warmed up this week and I am not in the mood for conversation with any representatives of the Grim Reaper, thank you all the same. (Although I did read a lovely blog post this week about the memoirs of an eco-mortician.)

But then all the way round Sainsbury’s I wondered, why would a funeral director be giving out goody bags? And what on earth would be in them? I renewed my supplies of tissues, honey and paracetamol with unseemly haste. What if the lady was no longer feeling so generous when I walked back past?

Funeral 1

 

I’ve only been into a funeral director’s twice (it wasn’t this one). I accompanied my father after my mother died, and a few years later I went back with my sister to arrange his funeral. I remember the employees as respectful, pleasant, rather inefficient on that second occasion (Me: You have been looking after my mother’s ashes so that they could be scattered with my father’s when the time came. Employee: Have we? Are you sure you don’t have them at home? But they did, as I knew, having been there when the arrangement was made, and they were tracked down in a warehouse – the actual scattering is another story.)

But why would you go into a funeral directors if you didn’t have a funeral to arrange or a body to view? Or possibly a crime to investigate or a novel to research?

If intrigued by a goody bag, you might.

The low sun shone on the still quiet horses. It was hard to get a good photo, and felt intrusive, even though there was no funeral, no coffin, no body. The goody bags were stacked by the open door of the shop (would you call it a shop?) but nobody was there now. How sad. Presents had been offered, but people were walking past. I peeped in, and picked up a bag: “May I take one of these?” I called, but softly, in case they were dealing with a proper customer.

Out came the lady in black, and another top hatted gentleman. “Please do. It’s our 200th anniversary. Please, help yourself.” In such uncharted conversational territory, my small talk dried up, I smiled, and left.

Tomorrow I shall go back, and if they’re not busy (but how would I know – outside is well screened and you have to press a doorbell) I shall call in again. When my father’s shop notched up any kind of anniversary, they had big boozy parties, celebratory offers and competitions. But a funeral directors can’t really be seen doing that, and yet, it’s quite a thing to celebrate. 200 years of funeral care! The social history they must have at their fingertips! It would be fascinating to hear more.

Also, it’s the best goody bag I’ve ever had. I benefitted from their need to keep things tasteful. Of course there was a balloon – there has to be a balloon in a goody bag – but it’s as understated as a balloon possibly could be. Some people with a baby are coming to view my house tomorrow, perhaps the baby would like the balloon, or would it send them the wrong message? Hmmm… There were two useful little tins of mints, and two packets of seeds which in a lovely coincidence were forget-me-nots (my mother’s favourite flower) and sunflowers (my father’s). There was a pen, and best of all – they must know I’m a writer – a very good quality notebook with lines ruled, a ribbon bookmark, elastic closure and a matching pen with holder!

funeral goody bag 2 better

Of course, funeralcare is a business like any other and if they don’t make a profit they won’t survive. They do have a captive market, and it was a celebration, but this was nonetheless effective advertising if passers by weren’t too inhibited to engage with it. So I said to B., “If I’m still living round here when the time comes, this firm, W. English & Sons, is the firm I’d like to  use.”

“The problem is, you won’t still be living,” he said.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

 

 

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Newborn

Sometimes a story arrives from nowhere with the emotional load intact but the end unclear. We were in the basket only checkout queue. The world came to a stop for us and for the cashier when our attention was magnetised by swimming eyes not yet old enough to focus. The baby’s mouth formed and lost small shapes, his head flopped on his mother’s chest, and all without a sound.

newborn Rob

His mother held one hand under his padded bottom, one on the handle of her enormous buggy. Her wire basket was perched against the handle. She leaned back, the baby pinned to her chest by an awkward gravity. Out darted her hand to transfer each item one by one from basket to belt, back it went to steady the baby between each grab. She gauged the risk each time with frightened eyes, but seemed unable to let go of the buggy.

She headshook away offers of help, but her gaze latched onto me, then onto my partner, then turned to the cashier.

“This one’s very new, I think?” I said. You don’t often see such tiny babies out and about.

“One week,” she announced. Her accent was French I think. Her eyes darted from one of us to the other, the pupils wild.

“Your first?”

“Yes. He’s all right in the pram. But not when I take him out. He cries when I take him out.” But the baby wasn’t crying.

“He won’t feed.” She stared us down: “Fourteen hours without taking milk.”

“He looks fine,” I said, because he did. Alert and content, relaxed, quiet. Perhaps nuzzling a little.

“I had to come out for some formula,” she said.

“Oh!” I said before I could stop myself. I’m a full time busybody, and over two decades ago had the luck to find breastfeeding came naturally.

Her face was very white and her stomach still big. I don’t think she heard me.

“He’s lovely,” intervened the cashier. My partner smiled.

At the next aisle, a good natured voice: “Excuse me…” The new mother was absently pushing her empty buggy back and forth, and the twisting wheels had caught in a lady’s trolley. I don’t remember, from my buggy buying days, what those fully rotating wheels were called, but at that time you paid extra for them. My wheels never got caught in anything that I recall. But my buggies were much simpler affairs.

Newborn mum tried to bend, baby and all, to free the wheels. The other customer bent as well. She got there first and they jiggled with the baby scrunched between them until the two contraptions were released.

Ros newborn 2

“You’re brave, bringing him out so young,” I encouraged her. “Well done! I took weeks when I had my first to go out alone with her.”

“He’s fine when he’s in the pram,” she repeated, still clutching him with one hand, still trying to push items along the belt. So why not put him back in the pram? Such an easy thought, at a distance of twenty plus years.

“And I had a C section,” she said. “One week, that’s all.” She repeated this, too. “C section. One week ago.” She needed to retell the story often enough for it to make sense. How vulnerable they both were.

“You’re doing very well.” Busybody me again, with little evidence either way. “But you must take care, take care of yourself, he’s fine.”

“Yes, take care,” said the cashier, and we exchanged looks. Surely this young woman should not be out alone yet with her baby.

“My boyfriend is …ing”. Our faces showed we didn’t catch what she said he was doing. Then they showed we thought he should be there.

We picked up our bags. Time had stopped long enough. Goodbye, good luck. A silent wish she would soon feel more comfortable. Outside, I was reminded of my gratification, once I’d relaxed from newborn nerves, when strangers clustered round my new baby. Once a stallholder shouted “Ow, look at the loverly biby!” (This is not a pastiche. It’s how they really sounded in Walthamstow  market where ‘enery ‘iggins could still have found work if anyone would stand for it.) But her husband added: “Ain’t you ashamed o’ yerselves, bringin’ a little angel like that into this terrible world?” And he gave an enormous chuckle to show it was not ill meant.

Of course, the world is even more terrible now. (And better, in other smaller ways.)

I keep thinking of the young French woman. She disturbed me, out and about, in shock. But at least outside, she can find an easy audience through the beacon of her baby. She can begin to talk out her trauma, with different or less detail each day until the structure of the story falls into place for her and the facts become familiar enough to make sense.

Whoever she is, wherever she went home to, whatever her boyfriend is or does, I hope four days on from this encounter her shock is subsiding. I wonder if the unspoken concern of strangers has been of any use to her and if she mixed the formula. It reminded me of writing the newborn scene in The Infinity Pool, and of how I tried to help my heroine get through.

When there is a birth, not only the baby is newborn.

Newborn Ros
Photos are of my own children, now adults, at about the same age.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

 

A day in the life of Agent X

Agent X stretched after a poor night’s sleep. She really ought to get more exercise…spend less time staring at screens…eat more sensibly.

But a new day beckoned. She had a fascinating submission to read – she’d requested the full ms after tearing through the first three chapters and was looking forward to finding out what happened next. She wasn’t entirely sure how to place it, but the writing was so good and the premise so original, she was expecting competitive bids from several publishers. If, of course, another agent didn’t snap it up first, like the author she’d been slightly too slow to respond to last year who ended up with a six figure advance.

Agent 4Her existing authors were clamouring too. There might be answers to their questions among the 112 new emails in her inbox. She made coffee, cut a crisp pear into safely unsticky wedges and took them to her desk.

 

Dear X, Lovely to see you at the Book Fair. I’ve now had time to read The Pontoon Bridge by Amos Fearsome and I agree the writing flows beautifully and the plot has some interesting twists. However, I couldn’t quite identify with the main character, and so, with regret, I’m afraid I’m going to have to decline this one.

Dear X, Thank you for reminding me I’ve had Pull the Other One by V. Erbose since last year. Sorry about that! It’s a great idea, but I’m afraid this one isn’t quite right for our list. I wish you luck placing it elsewhere.

Hi X! Just to let you know I really enjoyed The Darkening Sun by Omar Zafiq, and will be taking it forward for consideration by the acquisitions committee next week. I’ll keep you informed on the outcome.

Dear X, Peter Plainman, Accountancy Services Ltd, is able to offer you a special offer of only £YYY for 12 months insurance against the additional cost of responding to any HMRC investigation during the tax year 2017/18.

Dear X, Please find attached the contract for Above and Beyond as agreed for signature by yourself and author Martin Middleman. Please sign and return…

Dear X, Please join us for drinks at the Globe on … This is a farewell jolly for all our associates over the past ten years. Regretfully we are winding up the company as the pressure on small publishers has become unsustainable. But we ‘d like to go out with a traditional publishing bang!

Dear X, Please join us at Amazon Towers for the Kindle Self Publishing Awards on….

Dear X, A reminder that your subscription to The Bookseller is now due…

Dear X, A reminder that your subscription to our worldwide publishing database is now due…

Dear X, I submitted my ms Tedium Dismissed! last week and I’m wondering whether you received it as I have had not a response from you as yet…

Agent 2Dear X, I am emailing speculatively as I appreciate from your website you dont deal with dystopian fantasy.  However I’m sure your going too feel differently when you enter my world! In 140,000 amazing words I explore landscapes no one else could possibly imagine, with my heroine Alexandra the Greatest who’s battles against the greatest evil the universe has yet known are inconceivable! I am a stay at home dad and would be available to meet, subject to childcare duties, at any time convenient to you within easy reach of Basingstoke…

X tapped keys, forwarding, deleting, commenting, replying, congratulating, ignoring. (But it wasn’t really ignoring, as deciding whether to ignore in itself took time and thought.) She remembered to roll her shoulders, a few random yoga moves her nod to preventing back ache. She highlighted sections of a trade press article about the legal ramifications of digital royalties – essential but dull information she regularly digested on behalf of her authors.

Agent 7
A range of agents are listed in The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook

It was wonderful working from home (the business couldn’t afford office overheads), but she missed the daily walk to the station, the water cooler banter and opinion exchange. Thanks to some recent successes she didn’t worry about losing touch – her existing connections kept her informed, as did social media and the trade press. For every promotion, move, retirement, or redundancy there was a new appointment, a new intern, or a regretfully slimmed down company to build productive relationships with, and weekly trips to meet editors and authors. She arranged these for coffee or tea times to avoid the cost of lunches – her accountant would only swallow so much – but they made for a change of scene. When she wondered if she wouldn’t be happier commuting all week, maybe to a desk in the foreign rights department of a glamorous trendsetting agency in Camden or Islington, she consoled herself that her one woman operation saw so much variety, personally dealing with each author right through from submission to post publication. Agent 1

Now to be inspired: the new ms! She settled on the sofa with her laptop and more coffee. Chapter Four…

It didn’t grab her as the beginning had. But it was definitely worth pursuing. Three hours later, she’d decided, impressed by the well produced text (no attention tripping typos). The middle sagged, and would need some robust structural editing, which she hoped the author would welcome, because the end more than compensated. What an exciting find (overall)! She emailed straight away to express her strong interest and suggest a meeting. It was important to meet authors, face to face or on Skype, because her role was to take care of their baby. She needed to know if they were open to suggestions, confident, adaptable, able, eventually, to help market their work. If you got on well it helped so much. Ideally there’d be more books later, so this could be a relationship lasting years – she checked. Yes, this author mentioned a sequel in preparation, and had a self published backlist that looked respectable enough to bring to a publisher’s attention.

She’d still eaten only a pear, but decided to tick off some admin before an early supper. (She ought to continue her line edit of a revised draft she’d been sent – it could be sent out once the author had agreed the corrections. But it would be better left to tomorrow; she was getting tired now.) She dumped a pile of unwanted paper submissions firmly in the recycling box. It felt less terrible to do that than it had when she first set up the agency, because she did state clearly on the website that she only accepted work  electronically…Although sometimes the only human being she saw all day was the postman, ringing the doorbell with the latest vast packages.

Dear X, Please would you clarify the position on my royalties for Celebration at the Pierhead. I have been chasing the publisher without success and wonder if you would be able to resolve this…

Agent 3Dear X, I’m very disappointed with sales for Going, Going, Gone. What are your thoughts, going forward, for promoting this? I didn’t realise, when you advised me to self publish because you felt you had submitted it to all possible publishers, that the onus for marketing would be so fully on my shoulders. Also I am wondering whether, if I had it translated, it would do better in the Latin American market. Can you suggest a translator who would be willing to undertake this? I would suggest we share the cost…

Dear X…

But it was time for supper. And to start the debut novel everyone was raving about – always worth trying to identify the spark that had inspired a record advance.

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Dear readers of this blog post/story. If you are an agent, please consider this a submission. Please advise whether it would be better if my heroine was a private detective rather than a literary agent. Please suggest whether it should be set in London or the Outer Hebrides perhaps? Please advise whether I’d have more chance of publication if I submit it under my own name (white middle class middle aged straight UK female) or give myself the nom de plume Fatima Begum or Leroy DaCosta? On the other hand bearing in mind the successes of McEwan, Faulks, de Bernières, and Barnes should I go for John Smith? And btw would I stand a better chance if I considered transitioning before or after publication? 

If you are an editor, edit away! I welcome critiques.

If you are a reader, please review it!

If you blog, do comment, reblog, share…

Note: Agent X is an entirely fictional character drawn from a composite of observations made to me by literary agents big and small over the last few decades. Her head’s just above water, and she’s on the verge of a big, big breakthrough (maybe). Or she may become a private detective. I invented her in response to this blog post which started a lively thread last week in the Facebook group, Book Connectors.

© Jessica Norrie 2017