The lyrics of that old song were running through my head as I scrambled over dusty rocks, the muscles of my thighs and calves already burning with the exertion. I had left the road long ago. Only once did I cast a look back over my shoulder. The doll-sized people who had brought me here—who were my only link with the sane modern world—they were getting into the car and preparing to drive away and leave me here. For a moment I was tempted to stand up and wave and scream for them not to go. But…no, I had to make myself do this. In any case, they would be back tomorrow morning. Worst case scenario—I’d have to spend a chilly night on top of a mountain.
And so I climbed on. Soon sweat ran down my face and when it trickled into the corner of my gasping mouth, it was salt and dust on my tongue. I could taste the rock that grimed my fingers and broke my nails and now it was even on my face, in my mouth, my gritty eyes. On I went. And as I went, I sang juddering snatches of the song in a continuous loop as I wondered at the lunacy that had brought me here.
A few weeks ago, I had looked across a table of pristine paperbacks at my former writing buddy. I hadn’t seen her in almost a decade and it had taken me a few seconds to equate the sleek and successful writer seated next to a life-size cut-out of herself with that gal I had gone drinking with and whined about the unfairness of the writer’s lot. And as always when I thought of her, I thought of the words of that old Swinging Blue Jeans song, Venus.
She was smiling up at me, joy lighting up her whole face, and she gave a little whoop and leapt to her feet, running around the table to drag me into a tight hot hug, bumping me with that generous bosom and those hips, and I could see she was gloriously, triumphantly herself—Venus Jeffreys. Once a struggling Indie writer trying to make her voice heard in the throng, now she was the face, even the body of Contemporary Women’s Fiction with more than a nod in the direction of Erotica. Worth millions, with a massive global following and very lucrative book deals, and according to the press, a holiday home in Florida, another in Tuscany and constantly in demand for TV documentaries, panels, guest appearances. Twenty-two thousand people followed her weekly podcast. A Hollywood movie of her first trilogy had just been announced, with some of the screen’s hottest young talent signed up, to the delight of millions of Instagram followers who immediately seized the news and made it their own. She attended conferences, exhibitions, expos, signings, talks, tours, lectures, did after-dinner speeches—she was everything right now to the writing and reading world. A true celebrity author. A one-woman phenomenon.
“Gail! Oh my God, Gail! I can’t believe it! How long has it been? Oh my God!”
It had been too long, but I didn’t say that. Between my smiles and my attempts to just breathe and take it all in, I couldn’t say very much. But in my head, the words jingled on.
But there were others behind me in the queue, antsy fans clutching Venus’s latest book, waiting to get her attention, demanding her magnificent sweeping signature over the title page, craving her written personalised message, thirsting for that selfie with the famous author, her wide beaming smile shining down on them, yearning for that moment when contact is made and they feel special, like the laying on of hands or touching the hem of the royal cloak.
“We’ll catch up,” she said as I began to mumble excuses and try to side-step the pressing bodies. Sure, I thought, now you’re a big writing celebrity and I’m still writing a short story a week for a women’s magazine for the over-80s, let’s catch up.
She touched my arm. Looked into my eyes with those deep eyes of hers. “I mean it,” she said, “I’d really like us to catch up. I’m having a break in an hour. How about a coffee in that place over there?”
I agreed, pleased. But even then, I still didn’t think she would actually come. I figured I’d be sat there like a loser with my teaspoon digging the foam out of my cappuccino and all alone. I chose a table with a good view out and across to the bookstore. I saw her chatting, I watched her sign dozens of books, watched her laughing, surrounded by people. She posed again and again side by side with her adoring legions for their social media feed. Then she looked at her Rolex, said something to the few people around her and extricated herself. She turned back to grab a designer shoulder-bag from under the table then she was walking towards me, breaking into another wide beam as she saw me watching her, her nose wrinkling a little in the middle, and her big voice booming.
Just looking at her made you feel like the sun had come out.
“So what’s new?” she said the second she sat down. She had a large cappuccino, a muffin, a slice of chocolate cake, a packet of mini shortbreads and a biscotti. Only the mini shortbreads went in her bag for later.
“Nothing,” I said. I meant it, though I hadn’t meant it to come out so blunt like that. I added, “I’m still right back where I was nine, ten years ago when we used to go to that writing group every second Wednesday.” I hoped it didn’t sound too much like sour grapes.
“You still go? Wow, talk about commitment! How many members now?”
“Still seven,” I told her. She quickly hid an I-told-you-so smile, though not quite quickly enough.
“I guess a lot of people get their writing help online these days.”
“Just me, Ned, Louise and Nigel.”
I kept looking at her. I couldn’t in fact take my eyes off her. She’d always been strong, determined to succeed, and with more personality than even her robust form could contain. But as a writer—well, she was good—but not amazing. So how had she become so well-known? She was a household name in thirty countries, maybe more. She was mentioned in almost every newspaper, magazine, TV show. And now the movies… She had the same kind of exposure as an A-list Hollywood star. She campaigned. Black rights. Women’s rights. LGBTQ+. Literacy Schemes. Artistic programmes. The environment. She had become a spokesperson for so much beyond just her own work. She was a global brand, and the globe could not get enough of her. And Venus was her name. The words rang through my head.
She was watching me with an odd, speculative look. We were silent for a while until in the end, I decided to just ask her outright. I leaned forward. “How did you do it? What is your secret?”
She leaned forward too and gave me her lovely smile. “You think it’s pretty amazing, all this?”
I hesitated. “I didn’t mean you don’t deserve it, because you do. It’s just…”
“Incredible?” she asked. She quirked her fine eyebrows at me. I reluctantly nodded, hoping she wouldn’t punch me in the face. But she laughed her big laugh, banging the table with her hand and all around us people turned to gaze at her. The cups jumped in their saucers. She said, “You’re right. I know that ten years ago there was nothing about me or my writing to lift me beyond the ordinary. No! It’s true! I’m not vain about my writing—I know I’m good. But I also know I’m no Shakespeare.”
Not unless Shakespeare had been a two hundred and twenty pounds, six-foot-tall stunningly beautiful black woman from Croydon, I thought. But I didn’t say that. I’m not completely stupid.
She took a gulp of her coffee and leaned forward again, her nose almost touching mine. She glanced slowly over each shoulder and I thought, you drama queen. But I held my breath. Was she going to tell me her secret?
“You still write every day?” she asked. I was surprised. This was not I had expected. I nodded, a bit impatiently.
“Of course I do.”
“Of course you do,” she echoed. “You’re a committed writer, right?”
I nodded again. My breath stilled. I gazed deep into her eyes. This was it.
She looked into my eyes. Barely above a whisper, she said, “What would you be willing to do for your writing? How far would you go?”
“What do you mean?” I shook away a brief mental image of she and I naked and entwined on a four-poster bed, gauzy curtains floating in a gentle breeze.
“Not that!” she laughed, and I felt myself blushing like a school kid. It was like she was peeking into my soul. “Though just as a side-note, have you ever thought about writing lesbian erotica? I think there could be some untapped source hidden deep in there. It’s niche and on-trend.” She rapped hard on my chest. “That’s not what I was meaning, although thank you for that nice and unexpected compliment. No, Honey, what I meant was, would you be willing to be vulnerable, to be bold, daring, to get out of your comfort zone?”
I was already there, though once again I kept that to myself, hopefully with more success this time. I shrugged. “Maybe. It depends.” Then I added, “So what did you do?”
“My agent sent me somewhere. A place in South America. She made all the travel arrangements. But in the end it came down to me. No one else. It was what I was prepared to do. And until I took that step, my books hardly sold a copy outside my own family. It was something my agent said had worked for her clients before. I was desperate enough to try anything. So I found myself on a mountaintop at dawn. I half-thought it was just some crazy voodoo hokum. But when I came back, my sales just suddenly took off, started to go through the roof. And all my ideas seemed to be brilliant, clear, concise. I suddenly knew how to plot and write dialogue and develop my characters. And I was in demand. It just all happened more or less overnight.”
I leaned forward, looked at her. She was teasing me. Slipping me a line.
“Venus, this is me, Gail. You don’t need to feed me this bull.”
“No, no, Gail, I swear it’s true. Every word. Every word.” She cast another glance around her. She pushed a business card across the table to me, checking around like she was doing a drug deal.
“I don’t give these to just anyone, but you’ve always been special.”
“Tell me again what you had to do,” I said, and I put the card in my bag.
“I can’t do that. Either you want it or you don’t. Ask yourself how far you are prepared to go then ring my agent. It’s so good to see you, Gail. I do hope you take this opportunity. Sorry Hon, I got to get back. Stay in touch, okay?”
She enveloped me in a bone-crunching hug and went back to her book-signing. I got out the card and looked at it for a moment or two. But there was no doubt in my mind—I was desperate for things to change. I would try anything. Anything. I called the number and told that to the woman who answered.
So here I am. I’m climbing over rocks. I try to hurry now, the sun is red and low, hanging like a lantern over a drowsy world. I need to be at the top by sunset for the first phase.
When I finally reach the flattened earth that is the summit, I am panting and barely able to stand on wobbling legs. But stand I must, just for a little longer. I reach into my backpack and pull out the pages of my first ever manuscript.
Carefully I lay the pages in little heaps around me in the red dust. It forms a circle. I take off my clothes and throw them to one side, hoping nothing blows away to where I can’t reach it. The last pink-gold rays of the sun stroke my body and I am red like the dust, the rocks, the sky. My pages ruffle at my feet. I chant the words I have memorised. As the lip of the sun falls behind the horizon, the whole world falls into sleep and I stretch myself on the ground.
I am afraid of missing the dawn, so I set the alarm on my phone, even though I’m convinced I won’t be able to sleep. But I do. When I awake there is an expectant hush upon the world. The sky is deep blue except where a suggestion of green and yellow touches one point. I check my pages are all still in place. They are. I light the candles, glad there is no breeze. I take the knife, I cut my palm across and the stinging revives me more than any cold water on my face would. I had forgotten it would hurt. But after all this is all about sacrifice.
I drip the blood. I ensure every page has at least one small splash of blood. My hand is throbbing. At first I had been worried the cut would begin to heal and there would not be enough blood but now I am afraid I will not be able to make the flow stop. I might bleed to death up here. There is blood everywhere. I smear my face, my arms, my legs, my back as best I can, my breasts, my palms, my feet. Now the tinge on the horizon is growing, reddening and the rays are beginning to reach out to the world.
I stand and face the sun. I begin my chant. I feel light-headed and unreal, as if my sophisticated, civilised self is floating away. As the sun touches me, again I feel part of the world, red as it is red, parched as it is parched. I am earth. I am dust. When the sun is half-risen, I light the pages and finally as the sun is whole and round, as it begins its glorious ascent, I throw the ashes over the cliff edge. They are gone and as I look up into the brightening heavens I fall back, back into the sand and I am gone.
But I am not gone. Much later, I awake to find myself in my bed in my hotel room. I don’t know how I got here. I feel okay. I feel whole. My hand is a little sore, but that is all, the cut is healing. I shower. I dress. I put on a little make-up, I do my hair. I put on earrings, a watch, a chain around my neck, a bracelet at my wrist. I pack. I leave my room and I realise I have a renewed sense of purpose.
At the reception, I check out. I pay my bill and wait for my receipt to print. The woman behind the desk smiles.
“I think I know you,” she says. “Aren’t you like, really famous?”
I smile. “I will be.”
I go out to the waiting taxi. I’m humming to myself. It’s my turn to be the Goddess on the mountaintop.
Yeah baby she’s got it.
all content is copyrighted © Caron Allan 2013
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