Primrose Peake was penniless and not a little depressed; halfway through her PhD, as well as a sack of time-expired lentils, bought from a wholefoods store at a knockdown price, life appeared unrelievedly bleak. Her long-term boyfriend, had just qualified as a doctor and been posted to a hospital up North. They had agreed to a relationship break. Was it this that had compounded her misery or the fact that her thesis, ”Despair, Stupidity and Cupidity in Madame Bovary’, had lately lost impetus? Added to this, her supervisor, the gorgeous Dr Fabian Branwell, an acclaimed Flaubert expert, had become strangely distant at their meetings. Previously scornful of the shallow Emma Bovary, lately Primrose had experienced a surprising pang of empathy at Emma’s growing knowledge that life and youth were passing her by. Where once she identified with Emma’s good but clod-hopping husband, Primrose had begun to have dreams in which she became Emma Bovary, whilst Fabian Branwell featured as Rodolphe, Emma’s glittering but callous seducer.
Was it the indigestibility of those beastly lentils that had induced such dreams ? Recently that sack had begun to serve as a metaphor for her life; joyless, economical and possibly past its best. The notion that those mean and worthy little legumes would work their way inevitably through her gut over the course of the next six months, leaving only an absence of pleasure, had become insupportable. The knowledge that her doctorate and future life as an academic lay in the hands of Fabian, who was showing signs of dissatisfaction with her thesis, made her fate begin to look as doomed as that of the tragic Madame B herself. So it was that at this precise moment of howling vulnerability, her phone rang and with a dip of Flaubertian despair she noted that it was her older sister calling.
Marnie Peake had recently left her career in magazine journalism to devote herself full-time to writing, on the strength of signing a three-book contract with ‘Lacy Thong Books’. The first book had been a breeze; so easy had Marnie found the plot and writing that it had been mostly wrapped up whilst she was lying by the pool on holiday. At first, her editor at ‘Lacy Thong’ had been delighted with the imaginative locations, (an Antarctic Scientific Station) the sex (abundant) and the characters (uncharacteristically beautiful boffins, a rampant yeti and some penguins). Then everything had stopped and ‘Lacy Thong’ had gone oddly limp.
Primrose reluctantly answered her phone. Ten minutes later she had been apprised of the fact that there had been a sea change in the ‘Erotic/Romance book world – a fact that would normally have aroused as much interest in Primrose as an update on Pork Belly Futures. Marnie was good at erotica – she had, after all, a lot of background knowledge. After her signing with ‘Lacy Thong’, she had rung Primrose to gloat, but my, how things had changed. ‘Lacy Thong Books’ were apparently no longer interested in ‘Goosepimples’ (working title).
‘Was it the inauthenticity of finding a sexually uninhibited yeti in Antarctica?’ Primrose asked.
‘No,’ Marnie replied ‘they’ve completely changed tack, all they want now is literary classics re-written to be sexually explicit.’
‘Don’t hang up’, Marnie almost shouted into the phone. And then the reason for the phone call slowly began to emerge. Marnie’s three book deal was on the line. She couldn’t inject explicit sex into the classics because she’d never read them.
‘Well, that’s easy, read them.’ Primrose suggested, but Marnie protested that she had tried and failed to reproduce the required prose style.
‘That’s why I’m calling you.’ Marnie said.
When Primrose realised that she was being asked to ghost-write the erotic version of Madame Bovary, she hung up. Several days went by, during which she cast reproachful glances at the sack of lentils and her thesis lying untouched on her desk. Lying awake at night unable to find a position in which she could sleep, Marnie’s proposition played over and over in Primrose’s mind. She was prepared to go better than fifty-fifty on the fee. Primrose’s stomach growled. She willed herself to ignore her hunger and think instead of Flaubert’s syntax. Then, around dawn, her stomach began growling again. On an impulse, Primrose grabbed her phone and rang Marnie.
‘I’m in’, she said.
Months later, after Primrose had sent off the final draft of ‘ Madame Bovary Re-loaded’, Marnie rang to say that ‘Lacy Thong’ were ectastic and that the sex scenes hadn’t disappointed. This came as no surprise to Primrose who had merely transcribed her erotic fantasies of Fabian Branwell, which had proved to be surprising in both variety and duration.
A few months after that, a fat cheque came through the post accompanied by a proof copy of ‘Madame B Re-loaded’ which bore, to Primrose’s amazement, her name rather than Marnie’s. That’s when the doorbell rang and Primrose answered it in a haze, only to find Fabian Branwell on her doorstep. He had confessed his love for Primrose. Having resisted so long out of some mistaken sense of propriety, he had finally given in. Her thesis was first class and he even thought that there could be a book in it, not that it would earn her much money but would pretty much establish her career as an academic. Then his eyes had strayed down to the book in her hand.
That had been an age ago. Primrose was alone at her desk, her thesis relegated to a bottom drawer and her mind full of tribulation, when once again her sister rang. Marnie had returned to her old job, explaining the relinquishing of her contract with’ Lacy Thong’ in favour of Primrose as an act of of sisterly love.
‘The magazine want to do a feature on you, darling, you know, academic turns into ‘Erotomaniac slut’. Academic world turns on author of best-selling erotic masterpiece; that sort of thing.’
‘OK, fine,’ said Primrose.
‘You don’t sound happy.’
‘No, really I am.’
‘You want to find yourself a man.’
‘I’m too busy,’ said Primrose, casting an eye over a stack of classic literature on her desk, wondering whether it would ever be worth the effort of explaining to Marnie the exigencies of eroticising Martin Chuzzlewit.
A week later, a woman’s body was recovered from the Regent’s Canal. Police were confused by the fact that the young woman, even in death, seemed to maintain a firm grip on the corners of a sack.
‘I don’t get it ‘, said the uniformed policeman to one of the forensic team, ‘do you think she fell or did she jump?’
‘Hard to tell.’
‘What’s in the sack?’
‘I’m not sure,’ the detective replied.
‘You know what it looks like?’
‘No, it looks like lentils.’