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Vol. 3, No. 3

With an X
by Sylvia Brownrigg

~

Xandra wasn't sure why she tormented herself by asking Charles to meet her for lunch. (His connections, probably.) But here she was, across from the long, lean figure of him, listening to his stories of all the fabulous people at the TLS. Why didn't she have a job like that yet? She was reviewing, yes, but workwise she was still treading water. Could Charles help her? She watched him as he delivered his irritatingly glamorous narrative. That face, she thought, for one lucid, lust-free moment—pretty, girlish lips; that floppy hair; the clean-cut, aristocratic look—could launch a thousand books.
    "Charles," she interrupted him. He was relating some amusing comment he'd made in print. "What ever happened to that novel you were working on at Cambridge?"
    Charles looked rather pleased with himself. "It's funny you should ask, actually. Alison just finished reading it through the other day . . ."
    Dear God. Not more about Alison. This Xandra really couldn't bear. She tried to catch the waiter's eye to get the bill, then realized what she was hearing.
    ". . . is going to show it to Francis Miller next week. He sounded very interested."
    "Francis Miller?" This time Xandra recognized the name of an agent. Of course: odious Alison was working for him. "I think that's a bad idea."
    "What?" said Charles. "Why?"
    Why? How could it possibly be a bad idea? Xandra's mind worked fast. "Conflict of interest," she said simply. The waiter came around finally, and instead of the bill, Xandra asked for a cappuccino. This was important. She had to focus. "She's your wife. Peddling your fiction. It wouldn't look good."
    "Conflict of interest?" Charles raised an eyebrow. "But that's all the publishing business is. Everyone is in everyone else's pocket. That's how it works."
    "I think that's changing," Xandra said, with a swift confidence that made him believe her. How she'd changed since her old mousy Alex days.
    "So what do you think I should do with it?"
    "Give it to me, and I'll show it to Robin Sinclair."
    "Robin Sinclair?" He was impressed. "Do you know him?"
    "Know him?" Xandra laughed, throwing back her head. What a question! "I'm about to start working for him."

 

~

She had to make her way through several barriers of receptionists even to speak to the man. "Xandra," she repeated with ever less patience, "with an X." These girls were so cool; they knew how to convey Who are you? I've never even heard your name with just a flicker of the voice. Finally, she had him.
    "Yes, hello. I remember you, Xandra." He sounded just as he had at Gavin Long's party: bemused, intrigued. At her mention of a manuscript she thought he'd like to see he became wary. "Ah. I didn't know you wrote." "Oh, it's not mine." She lined her voice with a deeper, more persuasive velvet. "It's by a very talented young man I know. I think you'd enjoy it." Robin Sinclair's voice warmed to something a little keener, more professionally engaged, and he said he'd be happy for her to send it to him. "No," she said. "I'd rather give it to you in person, so I can tell you about it." He sighed. Impatient, but impressed. He suggested she stop by for a coffee some morning later that week.
    "I was thinking of lunch."
    And somehow, wrong-footed, Robin Sinclair agreed.
    It would be an audition, this lunch, and Xandra was determined to walk off with the part. In the past weeks, the shape of her desires had become clear to her. She wanted to be the power behind the writers; she wanted to be the hidden hand who shaped their futures. She wanted to be the person who made them. And, above all: she wanted Robin.
    It galled her to realize that Charles Wyndham, who for unfathomable reasons had thrown in his lot with the insipid Alison Kaye, would be the first writer she would make. But she had no doubt that she could make him. Why not? He was eminently makable. He'd written a sharp, layered piece of fiction. She hated him for it, a little—it might have been more fun if he'd produced some precious piece of undergraduate crap that she could gloat over, in a wine bar, with Christina. But here it was, Mind-Body Problems: a slick, funny story of a young English philosopher who goes to Tuscany for a conference and falls in love with an Italian porn star. A comedy of ideas and manners that follows a young man as he is drawn into two very different worlds . . . Xandra could see the whole thing: the pitch, the campaign, the niche, the copy. She explained it to Robin Sinclair over lunch. "And one of the best things about Charles Wyndham," she concluded, "is that he looks like a film star. I can see the posters."
    Robin listened to her seriously, nodding. He offered little comment, but was clearly intrigued by her perceptions. Without offering any judgment, he changed the subject, asking Xandra about her family, about her father—whose work he knew, of course. "He wrote the Jane Austen book. Persuadable?" "Yes. That's right." "Brilliant book. He's a gifted scholar." He asked her of her current employment, and she mentioned the university press in such a way as to make herself sound like an editor there.
    "And," he said, "I have to ask. What is your relationship to Charles Wyndham?"
    "I knew him slightly at Cambridge. We had friends in common."
    Robin nodded. "So how is it that his manuscript is in your hands?"
    "Well . . ." This time she hesitated slightly, and he noticed it. "Charles wanted me to read it, to offer him my editorial suggestions—and I thought it the most brilliant thing I'd read in months. His wife was going to show it to Francis Miller, but I just knew you were the right person for it. His wife didn't—" Xandra lowered her voice. "To be honest, she didn't really understand it."
    Robin looked at her. Through her, it almost seemed to Xandra, with an expression that seemed measured, and steely, and yet—did she imagine it?—almost melancholy.
    "So, Xandra," he said. "Can I interest you in coming to work for me?"

 

~

It turned out to be easier to work for Robin Sinclair than it would be to sleep with him. Xandra had thought the two would go together. Robin was certainly pleased about Charles Wyndham; within two weeks he had sold the book for a hundred thousand. Everyone was pleased about this, of course, with the sour exception of Alison Kaye, who seemed rather jealous of her husband's success. (It happened to coincide with her own dismissal from the Francis Miller agency, but then that was predictable; she really wasn't aggressive enough for agenting. She'd be better off, perhaps, as an editor.)
    But romance was apparently neither Xandra's requirement nor her reward. When Robin Sinclair wanted to, as he seemed to now, he could play his cards close to his chest—that, too, was part of his skill as an agent—so that Xandra became confused about how and when to play one of her own best cards: her willingness. He wanted her. Didn't he? The question obscured her own greedy truth: she wanted him. But there was nothing for it but to work, apparently. And so she worked.
    Xandra easily mastered the ranking levels of telephone voice—cool condescension for unknown inquirers; sleepy benevolence for lesser writers; an exaggerated, clipped British for calls from Los Angeles; and the deep purr for Gavin Long or Fiona Finch or the other stars, on the rare occasions she'd field a call from them. After a few months of proving she was not so proud that she wouldn't do secretarial work if she had to, Robin gave her something real to do: sort through manuscripts from new writers.
    "Find some gold here," he told her, simply. "There will be a great deal of negligible paper in this pile, but somewhere in here there may be gold. I want you to find it."
    A few weeks into the dozens of Euro-thrillers and doomed urban romances, Xandra started to read a novel called Human Biology, about an Oxford biology professor who preys on his female students in the hidden corners of the lab. Xandra had avidly read almost half of it—the story was compelling, the sex scenes deft and daring—before she realized why its contours seemed familiar to her. It was based on El's father.
    This character taught biology rather than chemistry, but it was recognizably him. She and El had not spoken of El's philandering father since one terrible afternoon when they were schoolgirls and El, choked and tearful, told Xandra about surprising her father in his college rooms, walking in on him as a girl who looked familiar, somehow—oh, because she'd been at their high school the year before—was giving him a devoted (and, judging from his face, skillful) blow job. El had never spoken of it since that afternoon, but Xandra had over the years thought back to the dreadful detail of that perverse encounter. It would make a very edgy, poignant moment in a novel, actually.
    Who was this author? Before Xandra showed the manuscript to Robin, she called her up. Human Biology was a great story, but perhaps she could make it a little racier? The author, thrilled by the phone call—from someone at Robin Sinclair's agency! Did she really have a chance there?—took down the suggestions over the phone. She would incorporate all of them. The idea of a scene with the professor's daughter walking in on one of his rendezvous made her somewhat uncomfortable, but Xandra assured her it would make the story more powerful. The professor needed to come off a little darker than he was. The author, subdued, agreed. Oh, and one other thing: the title. It didn't have quite the right zing. "I was thinking," said Xandra, "of something like Sexual Chemistry." "Yes," said the author, doubtfully, "though he's a biology professor, so it doesn't fit quite so well." "Could you change that? Couldn't he teach chemistry?" This was someone at Robin Sinclair's agency asking her. Of course she could change it.
    Xandra found a moment when Robin was alone in his office and off the phone. This in itself was an achievement: there were perhaps two or three such second-long moments in the whole of a nine-hour day.
    "I need to speak to you," she told Robin. He looked at her with some curiosity, and a little lust. "I've found your gold."
    "You're fast." He smiled. "Let's have lunch, and you can tell me all about it."
    "I was thinking of dinner."
    Robin's brow furrowed; his eyes lightened. "Dinner, then," he said smoothly, with that small smirk she'd first seen at Gavin Long's party. As if he'd just won a small bet with himself. It infuriated her. "You're right, of course. Gold is certainly worth a dinner."
    Xandra couldn't understand him. She tried telling Christina about it, but Christina was distracted by her own affair with her boss at Faber. Robin took Xandra to a chic new restaurant in Notting Hill, helped her to monkfish and Sancerre and a sweet, tart lemon mousse that dissolved on her tongue, stopping her—briefly—from conversation. Mostly, he let her talk. She told him her ideas for Sexual Chemistry, what the book meant, how it could work.
    "It's not based on anyone in particular, is it?"
    "Oh, it could be any one of a number of Oxford dons. They more or less all get up to that kind of thing."
    Robin nodded, smiled, looked at his watch, mentioned his wife. Well, of course he had a wife. Xandra knew that. She'd spoken to Madeleine on the phone several times. He also had two teenaged children, Hannah and Ben. But that didn't need to get in the way. It didn't need to be a problem.
    "I love working for you," Xandra said. Huskily. She was slightly desperate: this dinner was nearly at a close. She flipped her hair back, then dipped her eyes.
    "I'm very pleased that you do." He paid the bill, and looked at her. It was certainly lust there. It was. She could read that much. But what else was it? What was it? "I think," he told her, "we make a good team."
    Outside, on the street, he hailed her a taxi, and before she knew what had happened he had leaned in and told the cabbie her home address, giving the man a tenner.
    "Good night, Xandra," he said, opening the door for her to climb in. Before he let her go, he kissed her. A real, moist kiss, after which he smiled, slightly. "With an X."

 

~

Xandra never quite got around to telling El about Sexual Chemistry. There was never a good moment for it. Anyway, what would she have told El? It was a fiction. No one would make any connection with any actual person. As she herself said, every other Oxford don slept with his or her students. Besides, it wasn't as though Xandra had written it herself. She was just an agency bod, doing her job. She came back late from the party for the book a little drunk, thinking of who she'd seen there: Fiona Finch, who seemed quite flirtatious; Robin, whose eye for her, she thought, was beginning to look positively wolflike; and the book's author, who was slavishly grateful to Xandra for her help—and said as much in her short speech after the toast. As Xandra modestly said, "The book was there. I just supplied the chemistry." That got a laugh.
    "Oh!" The lights were on. El was up. "Hi! God. I didn't think you'd be awake."
    "I've been on the phone for hours." El looked haggard.
    "Oh?" Xandra hummed as she took off her chic scarf. "Who to?"
    "First my mother, who's going through a horrible crisis, then Jane, who helped talk me through it." She gave the name a weighted significance.
    "Ah, Jane . . ." Jane. Xandra combed her name-filled mind for a Jane. Not Jane Myerson, the columnist; not, probably, Jane Lustig, editor of Publishing News. "Jane?"
    "Jane Adams. She works in radio. I'm—I'm thinking of moving in with her."
    "Really?" Xandra threw off her sleek shoes; slowly, her outfit came away from her. "Well, that suits me. I've been thinking of getting out of Kilburn, too. It's not really central enough, is it?"
    "That's not why I'm moving." El paused. "We're in love, Alex."
    "Who is?" asked Xandra stupidly, and on reflex added, "Don't call me Alex."
    "Jane and I."
    "Oh, God." Xandra recovered quickly. "You're not going to go all lesbian on me, El, are you? That's so ten years ago."
    "It was three years ago, actually." El's voice was cool. "You and me, that is."
    "Oh, come on, El." She brushed her fingers through her hair. "That was just one of those Enid Blyton girls-and-exams moments. It wasn't exactly serious."
    "Well, this is. Jane and I love each other and—we want to live together."
    "That's lovely." Xandra turned to the kitchen, away from the glowing El. "I'm very happy for you."
    El followed her in. She seemed relieved and cheered to have made her confession. "So—what glam party were you at this time?"
     "Oh, you know," she yawned. "Just some typical publishing do—nothing special. Though you know who was there? Literary lesbian Fiona Finch. I should introduce you to her, if you're really going to go the sapphic route."
    El let the remark go. "Listen, I wanted to ask you, have you heard of a book called Sexual Chemistry?"
    "Sexual Chemistry?"
    "It's a novel by some young woman about her vile predatory professor at Oxford, and Mum is convinced it's about Dad. The author gave an interview in today's Times—"
    Yes, Nick had secured a good space for that piece. As he'd said to Xandra, "The book is utter drivel, but as you and I well know this is the kind of thing that makes great copy. Wide-eyed soulful beauty telling tales about her sex life . . ."
    "—and it's made my mother hysterical. I thought you might have heard of it."
    "Mmmm." Xandra turned to put the kettle on, and made a crucial error. She failed to read her old friend's watchful face. It was a negligence of the kind she wouldn't have allowed if this had been a work encounter. "Maybe it does sound a little familiar."
    "I thought you'd know about it. And you don't think it sounds like Dad?"
    "Well . . ." she yawned again. "It didn't occur to me to make the connection. With your father."
    You could lie to people who didn't know you, and they might never know it. But someone who'd known you since you were a girl could hear the lie, could see it; could almost taste it. "You knew about the book. You've read it," El stated, startled.
    "All I know is—"
    "This party," El interrupted, in a dangerous voice. "Who was it for, did you say?"
    "I told you, it was nothing—"
    "It wasn't, by any chance, for Sexual Chemistry?"
     Xandra shrugged. "I really don't—"
    El emitted only a small cry, or sigh, of betrayal.
    Xandra turned to her, arms folded. "Look, El. I didn't write the book. I just work in an agency. What can I do? I don't have any control over what people write. I can't tell them what to put in their books. Robin loved it. I couldn't get in his way."
    El was shaking her head, her whole body clenched in disbelief. "No, of course you couldn't. Not Xandra. Xandra wouldn't do anything to slow down her rapid rise." She turned from her old friend and walked away, leaving Xandra to laugh off the truth of the remark.

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