Lucretia Dooneshafte had been introduced to her literary agent even before graduating from a celebrated East Anglian creative writing course. Lucretia’s tutor (and incidentally her lover) Jude Spentlow, had described Lucretia’s short stories as ‘narrative-busting minimalist masterpieces’ to Hilary Plum of Plum, Pie Associates. Jude and Hilary had been at university together and Jude knew that what Hilary wanted most was a real Booker prospect. Lucretia was definitely ‘it’. After ten years of teaching, Jude said that he had never ‘had’ such a talented student.
On the strength of this recommendation Hilary had negotiated a publishing contract with industry newcomer ‘Book Smack’, an edgy young imprint whose mission was to publish ‘Debut Classics’. It’s true that no one at Book Smack entirely understood what this meant, nor did they entirely get their strapline, which was ‘Tomorrow is too late’. However, everyone was very, very excited. Mind you, Hilary had noticed that a great many people in the industry seemed to be very, very excited on an almost permanent basis.
Lucretia finally graduated and brought forth her ‘Debut Classic’, which turned out to be a work so absurdly rarified that it consisted almost entirely of abstract nouns. The novel ‘Evanescence’ was set in an abandoned lighthouse off the Dogger Bank,where the souls of drowned sailors were trapped within the light and revolved while continually keening. There was no narrative.
Unfortunately the novel was already much anticipated as Lucretia had been launched onto the media as a rising star. She had been met with enormous interest due to several factors. For one, she had waist-length blond hair, eyes of cerulean blue and an expression that told of some incalculable hurt. More substantially her father was a cabinet minister married to a well-known actress, and her uncle had won the Booker in the early eighties. When interviewed, novelist Tristram Doonshafte had spoken of his niece as a girl given to ‘plentiful weeping at the merest slight – ghastly little wimp’, and dubbed her aspirations to be a novelist as ‘brave’. Thus Lucretia’s looks and connections had made her catnip to journalists.
This was how, despite growing editorial doubts, the publicists at Book Bang conceived an irresistible way of distracting the press from the impenetrability of Lucretia’s prose by creating a stunt. They would launch the book in a suitably themed and cinematic sea location where Lucretia could be framed, thus achieving her manifest destiny as a mermaid, meanwhile they would serve (cheap) seafood to the literary press.
A disused North Sea lighthouse was found and preparation made to hire a boat for the press, as the lighthouse stood a fair distance from the shore. Lucretia, Hilary and Jude arrived by early boat together with the people from Book Smack, a set dresser, lighting man and a hundredweight of cooked cockles. Everything was set fair for the journalists’ arrival and a book launch that no one would forget. However, cavalier as the publishing industry tends to be with the Shipping Forecast, they had overlooked one crucial factor – the weather.
As the set dresser draped fishing nets and upturned barnacled fishing boats about the rocks, the photographer coaxed Lucretia into a body-hugging dress which glinted with irridescent spangles of blue and green and ended in a fishtail. When he found the right rock to drape her over, a sudden chill wind blew up from due North and the sky blackened.
From the lamp room Hilary, Jude and the Book Smack people watched the journalists’ boat turn back towards the shore. Soon the weather closed in. They felt the storm wrap itself around the slender tower and a strange keening sound emanated from the revolving light.
When they were rescued a week later Lucretia was nowhere to be found.
During police questioning, various inconclusive stories emerged. Lucretia had been disturbed by suddenly finding herself imprisoned in a fictional scenario of her own creation. The strange keening noise from the revolving light took the residents of the lighthouse to the very edge of sanity. Then the chronic food poisoning that ensued from consuming unrefrigerated seafood, may have caused hallucinations and lightheadedness. It appeared that during the course of that week, weakened by fear and continual wretching, arguments had broken out. The Book Smack publicist confessed that the editorial department considered ‘Evanescence ‘ to be totally unreadable; a fact that was subsequently affirmed by Hilary shortly before she admitted to a previous intimacy between herself and Jude, which hadn’t entirely faded. Lucretia had run screaming down the winding stairs and was last seen standing on the rocks in her mermaid dress, as the sea broke around her. The next second, she was gone.
The events of that week changed the lives of all who experienced them. Hilary Plum sold her agency to her partner James Pie and moved to several continents trying to find a place as far from the sea as possible. She eventually set up a cat home in Saskatchewan, Canada. Jude Spentlow never recovered from his last vision of Lucretia being claimed by the spindrift. He had a breakdown and joined an anti-literature collective dedicated to pulping new fiction to provide sustainable emergency housing for the homeless.
Tristram Doonshafte wrote an affectionate best-selling memoir of his niece riding on the bandwagon of the monster cult hit that ‘Evanescence’ became; foreshadowing so strongly, as it did, the presumed death of its author. Even the lighthouse became a place of pilgrimage for fans of the book and is now owned by ‘The Lucretia Doonshafte Trust’ who hold seminars and readings on the anniversary of Lucretia’s disappearance.
Of course this was the book that established Book Smack as one of the major players on the publishing scene. It swallowed up several other imprints and went distinctly mainstream, now happily specialising in cookery and travel, it has gone from strength to strength. On publication days, a strange keening noise sometimes disturbs the interns in Book Smack’s office. When they ask about this phenomenon, the older members of staff, shrug away the question, claiming to hear nothing but the sound of big money rolling in.