Syndicate By Conor O’Sullivan

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The warm evening air clung to Charlotte’s arms when she exited Waterloo and set off towards Brad Street. Clear skies, spread like a quilt over the city, suggested a long twilight. People told anecdotes in that shrill tone that comes after a few drinks as she walked by the crowded bars.

‘He keeps liking my Instagram posts even though Stephen and I are an item,’ a woman in a dress and heavy make-up said.

How are all these basic women able to attract men? That arsehole of a fitness instructor is ghosting me even though he knows we’ll run into each other at the gym. At least I can look forward to hanging out with my married friends and their children at the weekend. 

She turned off the road down a side street that led to Lambeth Parish Centre, a red-brick building adjacent to a Baptist church. Music rang from the choir’s rehearsal room; the harmonic voices rising to the melody that made her feel like she was about to join a congregation. Charlotte wiped beads of sweat from her brow on the staircase. The writing group — Waterloo Fiction Syndicate ­— and its four other members were already sitting in the classroom.

‘Sorry,’ she said and took a seat opposite the instructor, Philip. His penetrating brown eyes were on her as she took out her notebook and then bit her lower lip without noticing. He was showing off his muscles by wearing a T-shirt, his unblemished face appearing more chiselled since she last saw him.

Somehow my attraction for him hasn’t abated for this pompous Oxford old boy and con artist who charges us forty pounds a “class”. It’s a cruel joke that he looks like Kit Harington.

‘We just began,’ he said and motioned at Guy — a short man in his thirties with dark, wispy hair — to continue with his feedback for Victoria. He bit into a peach while scanning the laptop screen and let the juice flow down his hands before wiping them clean with his sleeve.

‘The energy and emotion in your characters is tangible,’ he said. ‘But I need more from the protagonist — can I get a fusion of her internal and external struggle to actualise this passion.’

His parents did him a disservice by not telling him to shut up when he was a child.

Charlotte made some notes to rephrase for her turn, this had become part of her refined feedback method that gave the impression that she had actually read everyone’s pieces when in fact she just skimmed the opening and closing paragraphs.  John — a pencil thin history teacher with blotchy skin — went next. He had only been coming to the class for a month and kept pestering Philip to share his agent’s contact details with him.

‘Let me get my notes in order,’ he said. ‘I feel both excited and frustrated after reading your work. The characters have depth and there is a strong narrative but you get bogged down in the detail.’

I wonder how many people have told him that his work is derivative of James Patterson.    

‘Fire ahead,’ Victoria said. She wore a low-cut blouse and denim shorts; her slim arms were tanned from the spell of warm weather.

‘Olivia is taking a taxi from the airport to Sam’s apartment in Manhattan,’ he continued. ‘This is the pivotal point of your novel, she is going to her true love’s engagement party to declare that she wants him back. She is about to be reunited with all her university classmates, I found the oddness of these characters original and amusing by the way. But it becomes diluted by description — her driver’s accent, the colour of the sky and buildings! This distracts the reader from being aware that this woman is facing her destiny with the teacher who became her mentor.’

‘The devil is in the detail,’ Victoria said. ‘Olivia is a self-aware character, and it’s supposed to emphasise her fear over trying to steal this man away from her old friend.’

‘That’s irrelevant at the climax of any novel,’ John said.

‘I loved that part,’ Guy interrupted. ‘Those details left me wanting more, not less.’

‘Balance is crucial,’ Philip said. ‘Your eye for detail is one of your strongest traits but readers, and agents, prefer an author who gets to the point.’

‘Well Philip told me to never sacrifice my voice,’ she said. ‘But thanks for your feedback.’

‘Let’s hear it, Charlotte,’ Philip said. She looked over the document, scanning random paragraphs she had highlighted and cleared her throat. Victoria leaned back in her chair and cast a sideways glance at Philip.

‘Even the best writers must compromise on their voice,’ Charlotte said. ‘Olivia’s love rival seems to be particularly vindictive which seems a tad generic. You’ve also made the teacher an infallible figure even though he’s comfortable with using his position to sleep with his students. I agree with John that parts of it are overly descriptive — every word in any piece needs to earn its place on the page.’

‘Any other comments?’ Victoria asked.

Your characters are wooden, and the plot bored me to tears. You’re also a shallow bitch who masks your insecurities by being upbeat. The writing makes chicklet novels seem like Austen and strewed with unsubtle hints that you enjoy giving head. 

‘I’ve made some notes,’ she said. ‘The two central characters and their relationship seemed realistic which is commendable.’

‘You’re so close,’ Guy said.

‘You may be right in that respect,’ Philip said. ‘My agent has agreed to read Victoria’s novel and has high hopes from what I hear.’

‘Fantastic,’ Guy said. ‘This is such good news for the group!’

‘That’s incredible,’ Charlotte said. ‘It shows what we know.’

This isn’t happening.

‘Let’s reconvene in fifteen,’ Philip said. John went outside with a rolled cigarette and a bottle of Diet Coke; Guy rushed to give Victoria a hug.

‘Please remember us when Hollywood buys the movie rights for your novel,’ Guy said.

‘He’s just reading the manuscript,’ she said. ‘These agents bin almost every novel that lands on their desk.’

‘How did you get them to read the manuscript?’ Charlotte asked. She rested her first against the table, pressing her knuckles into the varnished wood.

‘Philip arranged it.’

Because you’re sleeping together.

‘Speaking from experience my agent is brutally honest,’ he said. ‘Magnus will give useful feedback no matter what.’

Charlotte locked herself in a bathroom cubicle, staying on her feet, and exhaled into her hands. The choir were singing a loud chorus that amplified though the antiquated piping system and surrounded her.

Victoria will be reading extracts of her novel on BBC Radio 4 while I prepare PowerPoint slides for a conference week in the Midlands.

She washed her face and then stared at her pale reflection in the mirror. Midges hovered over a cracked window pane; outside the sky was darkening. Guy was making cups of tea when she walked passed by the kitchenette.

‘There’s a tea here for you with far too much milk,’ Guy said. He stood so close that it made her take a step backwards.  ‘Are you still coming to my birthday party, Charlie? My housemates will be away for the bank holiday so I’m finally able to have a BBQ.’

‘My parents are pressuring me into a trip home that weekend.’

‘I want to see you outside class,’ he said. ‘Remember there’s a reading at the British Library the weekend after.’

I’ll be attending a fictional funeral to avoid hanging out with you.

Everyone reconvened around the table holding tea cups and reaching for the packets of biscuits. John came in last, his stomach gurgling from what Charlotte suspected was acid reflux. She caught a whiff of smoke from his chequered shirt.

‘Let’s discuss Charlotte’s chapter,’ Philip said.

‘So,’ Victoria began, ‘this woman is grieving over her father’s death and is considering having an affair due to her fiancée’s overt flirting? That seems extreme. This is a minor point but the protagonist is evidently your surrogate which I find incongruous in any novel.

You deserve to rot, philistine.   

‘I second that point regarding the potential affair,’ Guy said. ‘This character seems like someone who doesn’t change their habits easily.’

‘Fair point,’ Charlotte said, ‘although my logic is that the loss of her father has triggered a re-evaluation of her life.’

John repeated his advice of “killing your darlings” and “asking yourself if an agent is going to take time out of their busy day to keep reading”. Charlotte’s mother had told her over their phone calls that she should view the “class” as a social outlet rather than a way of finding an agent. She often responded that it was a means of finishing the novel to avoid discussing their mutual loneliness.

‘Consistency is everything,’ Philip said. ‘It’s fine to tweak your protagonist’s habits so long as it ties in with the arc. I would like to see more of the mother, she’s always lurking in the background.’

I’ve been listening to your useless advice about the “arc” for over a year.

‘You must forgive me, Charlie,’ Guy said, ‘but the more I read your work the more conflicted I feel. The sense of place is solid and your characters are so relatable. I just wonder if you wouldn’t benefit from switching to a first-person narrative given Victoria’s point that the protagonist is clearly your surrogate. It could give the story some much-needed heft.’

‘That would involve rewriting the entire manuscript,’ Charlotte said. ‘I’m already on my second draft.’

‘There’s so much for you to develop if you’re willing to be flexible.’

Philip made another round of teas; Charlotte typed notes on her outline document — an Excel sheet that was based on JK Rowling’s method ­— looking at dates she had set to submit drafts to various publishers and competitions. She had to go first for Guy’s feedback. His novel centred on a young man going through a breakdown and isolation from his family. All his pieces that Charlotte had read involved descriptions of the human form and physical suffering in minute detail.

‘I noticed that you changed tenses in this chapter,’ Charlotte said.

Which doesn’t make any sense.

‘I was reading an essay that agents view changing tenses as dynamic,’ Guy said. ‘And besides it keeps the reader on their toes.’

‘It was jarring,’ she replied, ‘and there are times when I’m not sure which character you’re referring to. Look, as I’ve said before you’re able to grab my attention. But it all feels manic which is always the risk with an avant-garde approach.’

‘Thanks, Charlie,’ he said. ‘I just need to finish this draft and then I can start working on the structure.’

Stop calling me Charlie.

The tea was too strong for Charlotte’s taste and made her stomach cramp; she managed to hold in a fart. Victoria told Guy that the chapter was “interesting” and “the characters displayed powerful emotions”. He smiled broadly every time she gave him a vague compliment.

‘We’ve gone over this in our private sessions,’ Philip said, ‘but I agree with the two girls that you need to tighten the prose. Let’s hear your verdict, John.’

‘Well,’ he said and crossed his thick freckled arms. ‘My ex-wife always tells me I’m not afraid of being blunt which may be one of the reasons our marriage ended.’

It’s probably because you’re the type of man who suffers from erectile dysfunction.

‘This isn’t personal but I thought it was awful,’ he said. ‘The plot is all over the place and I can’t follow whose point of view it is; to be blunt it’s like diving into a pile of shit in the hope you may find a pony but as you keep diving you realise that it’s just a pile of shit.’

‘That was all very clear,’ Guy said after a prolonged silence. ‘You’re a newbie so I’ll forgive the tactlessness this time but our members strive to treat each other’s work with respect.’

‘It’s not a matter of respect,’ John replied. ‘I’m giving you my opinion of the piece — it’s riddled with mistakes and lacks any structure.’

‘The most important thing is that we give honest and encouraging feedback,’ Philip said.

‘And not put people down needlessly,’ Victoria added.

‘I’m just saying what you’re all thinking,’ John said. ‘Nobody in this group gives honest feedback because of our inherent English character. We all know our work is average at best which is exactly why we’re here.’

‘Maybe we should just take a breather before we go over some admin,’ Philip suggested. John rolled a cigarette, flecks of tobacco falling on the table as he smoothed the paper with his thumbs. She looked at her phone and saw the fitness instructor was online but vanished as Charlotte waited to see if he was about to start typing; she ate another chocolate biscuit. Guy — his face having turned a shade of crimson — left the room holding his mug but stormed back in less than a minute later.

‘I’m sorry Philip,’ Guy said, ‘you know how much respect I have for you as a writer and mentor but my instincts for this man have been proved right. He must be let go for breaking the clauses in our mission statement.’

‘Let’s not be rash,’ Philip said.

You’re just thinking about the money, arsehole.

‘Save yourself the hassle,’ John said. ‘I have two kids to keep me busy. Listen Phil, when is your agent going to read my manuscript?’

‘That’s not something I can really promise.’

‘Phil, you will not see another penny from me without a meeting with your agent.’

‘There is no chance you will ever get an agent,’ Guy said. ‘No wonder your wife ran off.’

‘I’ll wring your neck,’ John said and moved towards Guy, grabbing him by his collar. Guy’s eyes bulged as he wrapped his hands around John’s arm before Philip pulled them apart. Charlotte stepped in front of Guy whose perspiring armpits soaked through his T-shirt.

‘Get out of here, John,’ Philip said. ‘I’ll be in touch.’

‘Yeah, fuck off,’ Guy said.

‘You need psychiatric help,’ John said to Guy. ‘Phil, I want a meeting with that agent. I’m not letting up on this, especially now that you’ve got this skirt a meeting with Magnus.’

They were all silent as he paced down the stairs. Charlotte gathered the mugs on the tray and carried them into the kitchenette. Guy was doing an impersonation of John, his voice reaching a decibel that made Charlotte grind her teeth.

‘Guy was suggesting that we all need a drink,’ Philip said to her when she was drying her hands, ‘and I for one agree.’

‘Let’s go before John comes back with a machete,’ Guy said.

‘Sure,’ Charlotte said, ‘I don’t have anywhere to be.’

They went to a bar on the Bankside and sat at an outside table. Charlotte watched riverboat drifting towards Westminster Bridge after Philip offered to buy the first round. People’s voices were merry from drink; couples out for a stroll entwined their hands and kissed.

‘It’s busy,’ Victoria said.

Just let us suffer in silence.  

‘The city comes alive when spring blossoms,’ Guy said. ‘Where have all these beautiful creatures come from?’

‘I feel old,’ Charlotte said. ‘Some of these people look younger than my little brother.’

‘Age is a mentality,’ he said. The last party Charlotte went to resulted in her taking ecstasy to relieve her own boredom from the evening. The scag caused her to take two days off work and crying on the phone to a Samaritans volunteer.

‘Sounds like an interesting conversation topic,’ Philip said, who had appeared with a tray of drinks, and handed Charlotte a glass of Camden Hells; his defined arms were pressed against the sleeves of his T-shirt.

‘I definitely feel my age at parties,’ Victoria said. She had edged closer to Philip but his eyes were locked on Charlotte. ‘Everyone’s swilling booze and all I’m thinking about is being fresh to do my yoga and a writing session in the morning.’

That’s because I’ve owned postage stamps with more charisma than you.

‘All my friends have kids which means they’re averse to having fun,’ Philip said. ‘What about you, Charlotte?’

‘My pay-off for parties is too high,’ she answered. ‘I never picked up that adult habit of tracking my drinks, so it’s easier to just stay in.’

‘You’re thirty-five going on seventy,’ Guy said. ‘Vicky, tell us more about this agent who’s going to read your novel.’

‘Like I said, Magnus is reading the manuscript and we’re supposedly going to meet once he’s done.’

‘But if he wants to meet that must be positive,’ Guy said. ‘I know this is going to happen and it’s no more than you, and this group, deserves.’

Stop talking about this group like we’re a fucking sales team.

‘I’m going to order another pint before the bar closes,’ Charlotte said. ‘Anyone else want one?’

They all agreed, and Philip offered to help her carry the drinks. Chart music blared inside; drunk people danced on the sticky floor. Philip’s forearm brushed Charlotte’s blouse while they were waiting for the drinks, and he ordered two shots of tequila when the bartender said it was last orders.

‘I’m still overwhelmed with jealousy every time a friend’s novel gets reviewed in The Guardian,’ he said into her ear. ‘I’ve convinced myself it’s just human nature.’

‘Perhaps the company you keep is exclusively neurotic.’

‘That’s sharp,’ he said and drank his shot; she did the same, then winced from the burn. ‘I know you’re a better writer than Victoria.’

‘Have you told her that?’

‘She has complete faith in her project,’ he said. ‘That’s the difference between you guys.’

His fist brushed Charlotte’s arm as he held her stare and ordered another round of shots. She drank it first and reached for her cold beer, her gums searing. Philip smiled and walked away from the bar.

‘I’m trying to get Victoria to reveal her novel’s climax,’ Guy said when they were back at the table. ‘My instincts suspect a tragedy.’

Guy outlined his theory about Victoria’s ending in detail, and Charlotte tuned out. Soon the fairy lights above them flicked on and off three times.

‘They’re kicking us out,’ Philip said, ‘but I propose that we go back to my place.’

‘This is turning into a special night,’ Guy said. ‘I’ve been waiting for years to get an invite to your place — we’re all going, and it’s non-negotiable.’

Philip led them along the river path past glowing buildings. Charlotte walked beside Guy for the fifteen-minute journey and found herself trying to overhear Philip and Victoria’s conversation. They stopped in a corner shop on Kennington Road where Philip bought cans of beer. Charlotte remained in the shop after Philip stepped outside to email her boss saying she was feeling unwell but would confirm if she needed to stay at home in the morning.

‘I mean you just never know until they offer a contract,’ Victoria said.

‘This is as good as a contract,’ Philip said and handed Victoria back her phone, ‘he never responds to clients let alone aspiring writers.’

‘What’s going on?’ Charlotte asked.

‘The agent loves Vicky’s novel and wants to meet her,’ Guy said. ‘You better have champagne in your flat because our group is unstoppable!’

I have a dead-end job, a vibrator to provide intimacy and four grand in savings. The nuclear option of self-publishing is staring me in the face.

Philip stopped outside a townhouse with a black-painted door. He ushered them inside, and Charlotte was the last to enter the carpeted hall. She inspected her hair in the mirror before following everyone into an open-plan living room. Expensive furnishings filled the room, and the walls were hung with prints of old photographs and paintings.

‘Are you the heir to a duke?’ Guy asked.

‘My grandfather had a title of some description,’ he said. ‘My dream is to rent this place out and move to Greece but, as my parents are at pains to remind me, my living here comes with conditions.’

‘My heart bleeds for you,’ Charlotte said. ‘I share a bathroom with two other adults and a mouse we named Gerald.’

‘You would be more sympathetic if you met my parents,’ he said, pouring tequila into four glasses. ‘Now please all join me in a toast to Victoria on her exceptional achievement and to being in the company of talented writers.’

‘And to Waterloo Fiction Syndicate,’ Guy said. ‘This is our time.’

My life is the unspooling of a forgettable movie.

Philip put on a Sam Cooke record and poured more tequila for everyone. Guy twirled Victoria and then Charlotte around the coffee table. She opened a beer before approaching Philip by the vinyl player. He smiled and clinked his beer against hers.

‘Where is your stash of cigarettes?’

‘In the loft,’ he said.  They walked past the living room where Guy was telling Victoria how to “get the advance your genius deserves”. Charlotte followed Philip up the wooden stairs and paused on the top. He sat at his desk and fished his hand through a draw, eventually producing a packet of cigarettes and box of matches.

‘So how rich are your family?’

‘Enough to make sure I’ll never have to get a proper job,’ he said, ‘which would be great if I was able to get another novel published.’

‘It’s better than working in marketing,’ Charlotte said and lit the cigarette; they both exhaled out the window. ‘Believe me.’

‘How are you holding up?’

‘I have these moments of clarity every few years,’ she replied, ‘when I realise my novel will never see the light of day. I’ll just be another worker bee.’

‘If you only put this conviction into your writing,’ he said and retrieved a book from his drawer. ‘I spotted that special quality in you straight away. Anyway, I wanted to give you a copy of the first literary journal I was published in that still inspires me.’

‘Are you taking pity on me?’

‘Quite the opposite,’ Philip answered. ‘This is my poor attempt at flirting.’

They kissed; he placed his hand on the back of her neck. His mouth tasted of tobacco and alcohol as Charlotte let him press her against the wall. The music became louder; she undid his top shirt buttons.

‘How do we get rid of the others?’

‘Just follow my lead.’

Philip took hold of her hand and released it when they were back in the living room. He changed record before pouring himself a drink. Victoria was typing on her phone beside Guy, who had fallen asleep on the couch, and she gave Charlotte an insincere smile.

‘Magnus is asking for a finished draft,’ Victoria said.

‘Be prepared to get calls in the dead of night and then not hear back for days when you need to speak with him,’ Philip said.  ‘You know that I’m here to offer any assistance I can.’

Get Victoria to leave so I can beat her at something.

‘You’re the two most talented students I’ve ever had,’ Philip said.

‘Well I’d be nowhere as a writer without you,’ Victoria said. ‘You’ve changed my life in so many ways. Do you have work tomorrow, Charlotte?’

‘Are you done with advertising now that you’re a full-time writer?’

‘Look, this may sound direct but Philip and I are an item,’ Victoria said. ‘And it is quite late.’

‘Item may be a stretch,’ he replied, staring into his drink. ‘But we have been seeing each other, and it’s been a wonderful experience for both of us.’

‘Well, we just kissed upstairs,’ Charlotte said. ‘Your boyfriend told me how special I was.’

She tossed her the journal and smiled as Victoria inspected the inside cover before meeting Charlotte’s eyes. Philip put his hand on the small of Charlotte’s back.

‘This is the same note you wrote for me — “To a special writer.”

‘There’s a mutual chemistry between all of us,’ Philip said. Charlotte saw Victoria’s lips tremble. ‘The three of us can share a night that transcends our art.’

You are nothing more than a pretentious hunk.

‘I’m not sharing you,’ Victoria yelled. ‘You’re the inspiration for my novel’s love story but you’re just a dirty old man who thinks he can shag any of his students.’

Guy had woken up, yawning on the couch. Charlotte poured a glass of beer and drained it with one sip watching Philip pacing in front of the fireplace.

‘I got you an agent.’

‘The Waterloo Fiction Syndicate is the most important thing,’ Guy said.

‘Fuck the syndicate, Guy,’ he said, ‘I need to take a Valium every time I’m in your company. It’s a simple choice, girls — do you want to stay here and arrange to meet my agent?’

‘I’m going,’ Charlotte said.

‘This chance will never come along again,’ Philip said. ‘I’ll tell Magnus to blacklist you.’

‘What about the syndicate?’ Guy asked.

‘I’m leaving it,’ Charlotte replied, ‘but you can put me down for your birthday party.’

Victoria and Guy shouted at Philip and, as Charlotte pulled the door closed, she heard him telling them to “fuck off”. The air had cooled; passing cars blurred in her vision. She followed columns of lights towards the river unsure if it was the way home.

###

glasses

Conor O’Sullivan

Conor O’Sullivan’s short fiction has appeared in literary journals from Ireland, the UK and the United States. He lives in London where he works as a sports journalist for The Times.

https://conorosullivan.contently.com/

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

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