The Literary Lady

It was some way into the first chapter of her old friend’s new novel that Claire started to get an uncomfortable feeling.

The description of the woman who seemed likely to be the love interest of the protagonist sounded very familiar. It dawned on her, with a hot rush of some new, strange emotion, that the girl’s physical description could serve for her own.

She had slyly never let her old friend know that she knew that he had a rather sad “crush” on her. He was too gentlemanly to presume on her, which was part of his problem. If she had guessed then that he would turn into quite a good writer, while she would always remain only a gifted critic, she might have been more interested. But that was the past, and if it was proverbially “a foreign country”, she had little interest in visiting it for reasons of nostalgia. Nostalgia, she had long ago decided, was very thin gruel. To live in the moment was “meat and drink”.

Still, it did rather look like the poor fellow’s old crush had made its way onto the pages of this novel of his. With a mixture of amusement and concern, she flicked a few pages forward into the novel. Yes, “her” character, called “Cleo”, was still there.

But, oh, what was this? Cleo seemed to have lost some of her clothes on page 42:

“Cleo’s top had fallen down to show her pert breasts. She seemed to thrust them forwards a little, as if inviting him to fondle them.”

Shit, she thought, the little perve! What a nerve.

“What a nerve, little perve! What a nerve, little perve!”, she muttered.

In the very next chapter, “Cleo” was swimming nude in the hero’s swimming pool. The “hero” was, of course, a “successful novelist”. This, Claire thought, was really cheeky of her ex-friend. She had not even accepted his occasional invitations to visit his new place. The truth was, she found him dull. And, perhaps at some level, she felt that it was his worthy workmanlike approach to life – such a “plodder” – that had brought him success; whereas most of her successes took the form of the delighted laughter of her friends in a number of coffee shops. (She remembered the coffee shops, every one, but some of the friends had faded a bit in memory.)

The problem with coffee house wit these days, she mused, was that there was no-one there to take it all down. There were too many Johnsons and not enough Boswells. And, of course, if Johnson had not been a successful writer as well as a gifted talker … the thought made her wince.

She read on with mounting shame, as if everything that Cleo did in the book, Claire had done in reality. The physical description was accurate – although surely she was “beautiful” (at least at moments) and not just “very pretty” – and it was a bit flattening to be described as “witty for a woman”.

It was, she supposed, to be expected that Cleo would eventually be bedded by the hero in the novel. Obvious masculine wish-fulfillment (if a man can’t sleep with a woman, he can have her in a painting, or other artistic medium, she reflected uneasily.) And it was clear that her old friend must have finally had some sexual experience, because his description of the sex was not just the romantic pastiche she would have predicted: it was blunt and clinical.

So it was that in Chapter Five, Cleo was bedded. But by Chapter Eight, she was being “done doggy-style over the side of the bed”. Claire had to put the book down for five minutes after reading that.

Still, she hoped, there were only two more chapters. Unfortunately, Cleo seemed to spend that entire time basically naked. At most, the character might have on a pair of heels or a floppy hat, which – absurdly, she knew – made Claire feel a bit happier. But Claire, or rather “Cleo”, was living in the novelist’s house by the end of the story, spending her time disgustingly subjected to the male gaze.

Consumed with horror, but still curious like a child peeking through her fingers at something ghastly, she rang her old friend the following morning:

“Claire here … yes, that Claire … look, I just glanced at your latest … oh, yes, well up to standard … that many?? … at airports … no, I was just joking, don’t take offence. So, do you have another one planned … with the same characters? Oh, you do? No, great. Taking the love story to another dimension?! Great … can’t wait …”

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