ㅤI found the body in the playground my father had built with his own two hands. Maple stakes driven into an oak formed steps up to a treehouse. Each year on my birthday my father would shorten the rope on the tyre swing so my feet wouldn’t drag against the ground. Twenty years without use and the rising tide of grass and ferns had grown waist-high. The sweet, earthy smell of rotting wood filled the air. My father had died the previous week, along with my mother, when their car left the road and fell into the North Sea. An onlooker said their car had swerved to avoid a rabbit. Now they were both dead, and so was the sharply-dressed man who lay at my feet.
ㅤHis tailored suit was partially covered in leaves and the skin around his neck had started to swell up. I guessed he had been there three days. Behind the corpse, the wall of the valley stretched upwards. A path that ran along the top of the ridge, and a scar of snapped twigs and churned-up mud marked where the man had fallen.
ㅤOn the opposite side of the valley, my sister Chrissy was cleaning wine and whiskey stains out of my parents’ living room carpet. I looked left and right through the trees and could see no other people.
ㅤA brown leather briefcase lay beside the body. The lock had been shattered in the fall so I could nudge the case open with one foot. Inside was a bound manuscript. I crouched in the long grass and read seven words printed on the front page:
ㅤA novel by Richard Byrne.
ㅤI noted that the text had been written on an old-fashioned typewriter. Without thinking, I picked up the manuscript and ripped off the front page.
ㅤFive minutes later, I walked through the back door of my parents house. Chrissy sat at the kitchen table, silent tears falling down her face. In her hands she clutched a frosted glass ornament shaped to look like a duck. A piece of common-garden charity shop tat.
ㅤ“Did I tell you I‘ve been writing a book?” I asked. Chrissy jumped at the sound of my voice. She stuffed the ornament into the pocket of her cardigan and wiped her eyes with her sleeve.
ㅤ“What?” Her voice quivered slightly.
ㅤ“A book. I wrote a book. I’ve got it here.” I placed the manuscript on the table.
ㅤ“Oh…” Chrissy looked from the manuscript to me and back again. “Well done. What’s it about?”
ㅤ“You’ll have to read it and find out.” A trace of adrenaline eked through my veins. I decided not to tell her about the body.
ㅤThe next day I walked to the post office to drop off the manuscript, now wrapped in brown paper and addressed to a London publishing house.
ㅤThe day after that, I waited by the phone.
ㅤThe day after that, I watered all the plants in the house and attended my parents’ funeral.
ㅤAt the wake, I made small talk with elderly relatives. Chrissy tried to announce my recent venture into the world of writing and I snapped at her. Writing was stupid and anyone who works at a publishing house couldn’t recognise a talented author if they hit one with their car. Then my phone rang. I was thankful for the distraction and stepped away from the table.
ㅤ“Hello, is that Andrew Greening?”
ㅤ“Andy, it’s great to finally talk to you. I’m Jane Charlton, I work for Westgate Publishing. I understand you recently sent us one of your manuscripts, is that right?” I stopped idly playing with the petals of a chrysanthemum. My voice caught in my throat.
ㅤ“Yes… yes that’s right.”
ㅤ“Amazing. Well, we loved the novel, and here at Westgate we’re always looking for fresh, homegrown talent. Are you currently in conversation with any other publishers?”
ㅤ“Yes,” I lied.
ㅤ“Okay, one second…” I could hear the sound of a ballpoint pen against a notepad. “Like I said, we would love to represent you and Love is Poison…”
ㅤ“Poison Love,” I corrected her.
ㅤ“Poison Love, sorry. Would you be able to come down to our office later this week and draw up a contract?”
ㅤA few minutes later I took my seat again. Chrissy raised an eyebrow at me. “Why are you smiling? Who was that on the phone?” My smile turned to a scowl.
ㅤ“Nothing. It was no one.”
ㅤThe next few months passed in a blur. I was passed from partner meetings, to cover artists, to launch events. I was showered with praise for Poison Love. Readers told me I changed their lives. I heard how they read from cover to cover in one frenzied sitting, unable to tear their eyes away from the page. The news reported the discovery of Richard Byrne’s body. A penniless old man with no relatives. I felt a slight sickly feeling in my stomach. There was no mention of the now empty briefcase that lay beside the corpse.
ㅤFive months to the day after I had stood over the body of Richard Byrne, I received another call from Jane Charlton. Poison Love had an official fan club. They had written to Westgate to request an author at their bi-monthly discussion group. Of course I would go. I love meeting fans.
ㅤFrom the stage, I waved to the applauding crowd. As I clutched a microphone to my chest, I felt nervous for the first time since I had lifted the manuscript out of Richard Byrne’s briefcase. I pointed to a raised hand in the crowd. A teenage girl stood up. I saw she was wearing a handmade t-shirt that had Poison Love stitched in sequins across the front. She had written her question on the palm of her left hand.
ㅤ“Hi Mr Greening,” she shuffled her feet. “I have a question about Theodora’s character arc. In chapter three she tells the Pirate King that she can never truly love again, but then in chapter fourteen, she accepts Orsino’s marriage proposal. Is this because she feels guilty for her role in his brother’s murder?” The crowd murmured their approval for the question. I raised the microphone to my lips. It was only then, in front of a hundred expectant faces, it occurred to me that I had never read even a single page of Poison Love.