Esther Palfreyman’s heart plummeted as she pulled out the bulky envelope from her mail box. Her name and address was printed on it in her own large, rounded letters.
She opened it and slid out the synopsis and first three chapters of her manuscript Love Incorporated. Attached to it was a letter. Another rejection.
In the kitchen she uncorked the bottle of champagne she’d bought to celebrate her publishing contract. As it was apparent there wasn’t going to be one, she might as well drink it now.The next morning she arrived at work at the Taxation Office feeling very fragile.
‘Are you all right, Esther?’
Joe McCormack at the desk beside her was looking at her with concern.
‘I’m fine, just overdid it a bit last night.’
'Oh? What’s happened?’
Esther hesitated. The more people she told about her novel writing, the more she would feel a failure if she never got published. The throb in her head increased its tempo. Oh, what the hell.
‘I wrote a novel and it’s been rejected. Six times.’
‘You poor thing, how disappointing for you.
’Esther gave a stoic half-smile. Joe had been the manager of audits before his wife left him; then he had a breakdown and went on stress leave. When he returned to work he’d been given the less demanding job of data input operator. With his soulful eyes he reminded Esther of a lost puppy trying to find a home. Vulnerability in men made her feel uncomfortable; she’d always been attracted to strong, self-assured men who made her feel safe. Joe was attractive in a sensitive, romantic poet way, but she couldn’t imagine ever feeling safe with him.
‘Anyhow, keep plugging away. All famous writers get rejected - look at JK Rowling!
’Esther gritted her teeth. If she heard one more mention of JK Rowling she’d scream.
After dinner that evening she sat at her computer and opened up her second manuscript The Power of Love, of which she’d written six chapters. Her despair lifted and she felt a surge of resolve. After all, she’d only been writing for a couple of years, since she’d enrolled in her creative writing course and experienced that ‘aha moment,’ when she knew with a deep certainty that writing was what she was born to do.
It was in her genes – her grandfather had been a compulsive scribbler of poems and short stories, although he’d never had any published. And she’d chosen to write romance because her own life was so lacking in it that even vicarious romance seemed better than none at all.
She began to type, absorbed in her hero and heroine’s first romantic encounter on a deserted beach. After a few minutes she became aware of another presence in the room. Her skin crawled. She turned around. There was no-one there.
‘That’s nauseating in the extreme, I think I’m going to throw up.
’Esther screamed and sprang out of her chair. Behind her on top of the bookcase was a creature. That was her first impression, but on closer inspection she could see it was a man, in perfect proportion but the size of a doll. He wore a white shirt, bow tie and dinner jacket with a kilt and slave sandals. He was perched on The Complete Oxford Dictionary, swinging his tiny, hairy calves and regarding her with cool nonchalance. He had dark hair and eyes and a neat pencil moustache and even through her shock Esther registered that he was rather handsome – like a miniature Johnny Depp.
‘Sorry if I frightened you. My name’s Albert – I’m your muse.’
He held out his hand.
‘If you don’t want to shake hands, that’s fine, but please close your mouth. You look quite ridiculous.’
Esther snapped her mouth shut.
‘I presume you know what a muse is?’
‘Yes.’ Esther’s voice came out as a strangled croak. She cleared her throat. ‘I…I didn’t know I had one.’
‘Now you do. Of course muses, arising from Greek mythology, are traditionally female, but I’m striking a blow for equality. We male muses are still a minority, so you should be grateful I’ve chosen you.’
‘Thank-you,’ said Esther. Perhaps if she humoured him he would go away.‘What does a muse actually do?’
‘To quote the job description, “inspire and stimulate creative thought.” Which, in some cases, presents quite a challenge.’
He bounded from the bookcase on to her desk and gestured to her chair.
‘Sit down and I’ll show you.’
Esther sat down. He picked up a pen and used it as a pointer on her computer screen.
‘This scene where Lucy and Tye have their first kiss. “He pressed his mouth on to hers, its force engulfing the two of them until the world around them receded and she felt herself falling into a chasm of sensual bliss.” ’
He made a retching sound. ‘That’s what I was referring to when I arrived. It’s stomach-churning! What is this man doing? Sucking her up like a vacuum cleaner? Not sexy at all, unless you have a cleaning fixation. It’s obviously a while since you’ve had a man in your life.’
Esther blushed. ‘That’s none of your business.’
‘Don’t get your knickers in a knot, that’s Lucy’s prerogative,’ he said, grinning. ‘Don’t you think it’s much more sensuous to start off with a few light kisses on the neck to make her shiver, a nibble on her ear, then a gentle stroking of her hair from her forehead and a soft kiss on the lips on his way to the other ear?’
Esther said nothing. She didn’t want to admit that this rude, self-important Lilliputian in need of a wardrobe makeover might know more about writing love scenes than she did.
He sprang over to her keyboard and before she could stop him, he’d deleted the entire page.
‘Now just a minute…’
He put his hand up. ‘Write it again. I’ll help you and you’ll see how easy it is.’
Esther placed her hands on the keyboard and looked at Albert. This man is crazy and I’m even crazier for doing this. He winked and gave her the thumbs up.
Just as she was wondering how and when inspiration was going to strike, the words began to form in her mind. They built up momentum to full speed, her fingers flying over the keys as she transcribed them. In a few minutes she’d filled the page. She sat back and read it through. It was far better than anything she’d written before. Sweet and tentative, building up slowly to the first kiss, tempered with realism and a touch of humour.
‘I had no idea I could write like that,’ she said. ‘It was strange, like being taken over by an invisible spirit. Was that me writing or you?’
‘Much as I’d like to take the credit for it, it was you,’ Albert replied. ‘It’s my presence that inspires you to make the best of the talents you already have.’
He took a gold fob watch out of his jacket pocket. ‘It’s time I was gone.’
‘Do you have other writers to visit?’ Esther felt like a jealous lover.
He stood up, smoothing the kilt down over his legs. ‘Good grief no, one’s enough. I’ve got a meeting. A few of us male muses have set up a support group to get us through the initial hurdles. This is new to me, too, you know.’
He leapt off the desk on to the floor. ‘Just one thing before I go. Muses have to be fed to keep up their strength.’
‘Oh...of course. What do you like?’
Albert counted the list off on his fingers as he recited it.
‘Crackers – water only, cheese – camembert or brie, hot salami, smoked oysters and caviar. For sweets, chocolate brownies, no nuts and custard tarts. To drink, vat 9 Hunters shiraz. It’s cheaper if you buy a dozen bottles.’
‘And there’s one more thing, but I’m damned if I can remember what it is. Never mind, it’ll come to me. Hooroo.’
And he was gone, swallowed by the air.
The next afternoon after work as Esther filled her shopping basket at the supermarket, she reflected that feeding her muse was an expensive exercise. That’s if he existed at all.
That morning she’d examined every inch of the study, but could find no traces of his presence. She could have fallen asleep at her desk and dreamt the whole scene. Maybe she was losing her sanity and had hallucinated him. Except that it had been so real. And the love scene she’d written – that was real, too.
After dinner Esther sat at her desk and waited for Albert. But he didn’t appear. The next night she waited again, then the night after. By the fourth night she decided she’d imagined the whole thing and sublimated her frustration by scoffing all the custard tarts and chocolate brownies she’d bought for him. Bloated and despondent, she turned on her computer and tried to immerse herself in her novel.
After a few minutes the hair on the back of her neck prickled. She whirled around. Albert was perched on top of a painting on the wall, legs crossed, grinning at her.
‘Albert! Where have you been?’
‘Oh, here and there,’ he said airily.
‘Well, you certainly haven’t been here. I’ve been waiting for you for the last three nights.’
He dived from the picture and landed on her printer. He wore purple velvet flares, jelly sandals and a leopard print singlet top, revealing bony shoulders and pale arms. Esther stifled a smile.
‘That was the thing I forgot to tell you last time. Don’t wait for me to arrive. The more you try to invoke me, the more likely I’ll be to stay away.’
He shrugged. ‘That’s the nature of muses. And one other thing – don’t try to find out where I’m from, or anything about me, for that matter. That will guarantee I won’t come back.’
‘Why do you have to be so mysterious?’
‘It’s the creative process – it’s supposed to be a mystery. Once you start to analyse it, it disappears. Now, do you have my supper ready?’
A routine was soon established. Every night after Esther had settled at her desk and begun to type Albert appeared, each time dressed in a different, outlandish outfit. He lolled about on her desk feasting on the food that she cut up into tiny pieces and drinking shiraz out of a medicine glass. She didn’t mind the crumbs and the dribbles of wine he left on her desk because while he was there, words and ideas jostled and fell over themselves in her mind. Her fingers were flat out keeping up.
After a few glasses of shiraz Albert fell asleep, emitting puppy-like snores. Then the words came to a standstill and Esther poked him in the ribs to wake him up. He yawned and grumbled that he wasn’t cut out for night work and it was just his luck to have a writer who worked nights.
After a while Esther plucked up the courage to ask him about his style of dress.
‘What do you mean, unusual fashion sense?’ He hitched his sarong up to his waist and puffed out his chest under its silk shirt and embroidered waistcoat.
‘It’s just that you wear things that wouldn’t normally go together. Like that sarong, which is casual beach gear, with a shirt and waistcoat which are formal wear.’
She faltered as he glowered at her.
‘I mean, it’s very original, it’s very adventurous of you to try new ideas.’
‘It’s all right for female muses,’ he said, brushing brownie crumbs from his shirt, ‘they’ve got centuries of tradition behind them. They just float about in those white gowns looking all ethereal, but there’s no dress code for male muses. We just make it up as we go along.’
‘Anyway,’ he added, ‘what about you? You’re not exactly the epitome of haute couture.’
He looked her up and down, at her baggy pullover, faded tracksuit pants and slippers.
‘There’s no dress code for writers either,’ Esther said. ‘We just wear whatever’s comfortable.’
‘Exactly. And what I’m wearing is exceedingly comfortable.’
He stretched out on the desk, tucking the sarong between his legs, and held out his glass. ‘More wine, please.’
Esther finished The Power of Love, honed and polished it until it sparkled and sent it off to several publishers. Then, buoyed by her accomplishment, she began her next novel.
After two months, she received her first reply. Rejection again. But the day after, she received a call at work on her mobile phone. It was Sarah Lindgren, the romance editor of Pascoe Publishing.
‘I adored your manuscript,’ she burbled. ‘So fresh and original. I’d like to offer you a contract and talk to you about future novels.’
Esther stared open-mouthed at her phone.
‘What’s the matter?’ Joe asked.‘
I just got offered a publishing contract,’ she stuttered, ‘and she wants to talk about future novels I haven’t even written yet!’
Joe leapt up and threw his arms around her neck. ‘That’s wonderful news! You deserve it!
’Esther was so excited she didn’t care that Joe was using her good news as an excuse to give her a hearty and prolonged hug.
Pascoe Publishing offered Esther not only a contract and an advance on The Power of Love, but also a contract for two more novels to be completed in the next twelve months. In her happiness she even succumbed to Joe’s insistence on taking her out for a celebratory lunch. When she arrived at the restaurant he’d already ordered a bottle of champagne. Esther proposed a toast.
‘To Hector Palfreyman!’
‘My grandfather,’ she explained in answer to Joe’s quizzical expression. ‘He used to lock himself in his office for hours writing. If we were visiting we had to tiptoe around so as not to disturb him. He sent his stories to publishers but never had any luck, and he gave up in the end. Took to the bottle and died of cirrhosis of the liver. I like to think of him, wherever he is, being able to share my success.’
Joe raised his glass. ‘To Hector and his granddaughter – the J K Rowling of Romance!’
‘I think that’s a little over the top.’ But Esther blushed with pleasure – it did have a nice ring to it.
She continued her next novel, but the hard slog of writing as well as holding down a job took its toll. Sometimes she nodded off at her desk at work and Joe had to gently shake her awake. Eventually, after The Power of Love was published and became a best seller, Esther resigned from her job to write full-time.
Life was much more enjoyable now she was able to write during the day and relax in the evenings. Albert was also happier now that he was free at nights to attend his male muse support groups. Sometimes Esther caught herself staring at him – a glance, a gesture, his grin, touched a familiar chord in the back of her mind, but she couldn’t think why.
Esther’s next two novels, Dark Stranger and Heart of Glass were also best sellers and Pascoe Publishing contracted her to write more novels at the rate of two a year. She moved out of her rented unit and bought an A-framed cottage overlooking the sea, with an attic perfect for writing. She had her hair re-styled and coloured and updated her wardrobe, as befitted a successful romance author. On Albert’s advice she created the pseudonym of Eve Palmer.
‘For a start no-one will be able to pronounce Esther Palfreyman,’ he said, ‘and she sounds like someone who writes treatises on the mating habits of obscure insects that no-one gives two hoots about.’
She went on book-signing tours, spoke at writers’ festivals and even made appearances on television chat shows. She no longer had to resort to vicarious romance as her own life was full of romantic opportunities. Men materialized from everywhere and she was never short of a date.
She and Joe still met occasionally for lunch and he gradually shed his sadness and hang-dog appearance. He asked her out to dinner countless times but she always refused. She enjoyed his company, but to her mind they could never be more than friends. Esther preferred to keep her nights for more exciting encounters with strong, self-assured men.
It was at lunch with Joe that Albert made his first public appearance. He unravelled himself from her table napkin in ballet tights, a fur-lined jacket and platform thongs. She gasped.
‘Go away,’ she mouthed, keeping her eyes steadfastly above his waist. But Albert just winked and shovelled the crumbs from her bread roll into his mouth. Words crowded into her mind, clamouring to be put down on paper. But she had neither paper nor pen.
Joe was staring at her. ‘Esther, are you all right?’
It was then that she realized that Albert was visible only to her and that Joe must be wondering why she was making faces at her plate.
‘My muse has just appeared and I’ve got an idea for the next part of my novel.’
At least now he’ll know I’m crazy and stop asking me out to dinner.
‘I know exactly what you mean,’ Joe said. ‘I’ve been dabbling in some writing myself, on the advice of my therapist. When the idea strikes, you have to run with it.’
He took a pen out of his shirt pocket and handed it to her with a clean paper napkin. ‘Be my guest.’
From that day on, Esther always carried a pen and notebook in her handbag. Albert now made regular appearances when she was out and had the knack of choosing the most embarrassing moments. He swooped on to the desk in front of her as she addressed a romance writers’ workshop, causing her to stutter and lose her train of thought. He appeared in her trolley at the supermarket, sliding down a banana. Nearby shoppers darted curious looks at the woman who had apparently taken fright at a bag of fruit.
When she was on dates he perched on her shoulder and whispered in her ear, which she tried in vain to ignore. Other times he sat on her feet and tickled her toes, making her grimace hard with the effort of not squirming or giggling. As a result, she gave the impression of being not only an inattentive conversationalist, but also possessed of an unfortunate facial affliction.
Each time Albert appeared, Esther was forced to excuse herself and find the nearest private place, usually the ladies toilet, to scribble down her inspirations. Her romantic assignations came to an unromantic end, as her suitors, out of frustration or pity, dropped her home early with no mention of further contact.
Eventually Esther decided not to go out at all – it was too nerve wracking worrying that Albert might show up and too embarrassing when he did. She refused any further public appearances for her books, as well as all social invitations, including lunches with Joe. Her life became a solitary routine, apart from Albert’s presence, of writing, eating and sleeping.
Then, when it didn’t seem possible, things got worse. Albert began to wake her during the night. She surfaced from a deep sleep to his tickling her ear, pulling her hair or jumping up and down on her feet. There was nothing for it but to drag herself out of bed and start writing.
‘I thought you didn’t like working nights,’ Esther grumbled.
‘It’s a new workplace agreement negotiated by the Union of Militant Muses for higher productivity of writers,’ Albert replied, adjusting his Bugs Bunny cravat. ‘In return we get longer holidays and long service leave.’
‘And when are your holidays?’ Esther asked, a glimmer of hope forming.
‘I’ve only just started, so I won’t get any for at least two hundred years.’
‘Oh, what a shame!’
After a bellyful of wine Albert fell asleep and she crept back to bed. When she tried to sleep in the next morning, he appeared again, bouncing on the bed and chirping, ‘Rise and shine! There are love scenes to be written, sexual tension to be explored, inner conflicts to be resolved!’
With her days and nights a blur of broken sleep and feverish writing, Esther finished her fourth novel A Time for Love and sent it to her publisher. Her editor was jubilant. ‘This is your best yet, it will break all your sales records!’
But Esther was far from jubilant. Isolation and sleep deprivation had taken their toll. Instead of plotting her next novel, she was scheming to get rid of Albert. Should she drug his shiraz, stab him with a penknife or bludgeon him to death with her glass paperweight? She even considered shooting him, though how she would acquire a gun, she had no idea. Perhaps, befitting his size, a toy pistol would do the trick.
In desperation she decided to confide in Joe, whom she hadn’t seen for weeks. She phoned him and arranged to meet for lunch.
‘I’m so glad you rang,’ he said. ‘I’ve been worried about you. I think you’re taking the reclusive writer thing a bit too far.’
As Esther dragged a brush through her hair, a pale, haggard woman with raccoon-like rings under her eyes stared back at her from the mirror. She looked nothing like the airbrushed Eve Palmer who smiled confidently out from the back cover of her novels. When she arrived at the restaurant, Joe took one look at her and said, ‘My God, Esther, what have you been doing?’
Tears pricked her eyes. She blinked them back. She recounted the story of Albert, from the time he first appeared to the present, including her homicidal fantasies.
‘So I suppose you think I’m crazy,’ she finished. ‘And I don’t mind if you do, because I’m damned sure I am.’
The tears spilled out. She was too tired to stop them. Joe took her hand in his. It was strong and comforting.
‘I don’t think you’re crazy,’ he said. ‘Not at all.’
‘I know he’s responsible for my success, but he’s taken over my life. I have to get rid of him. Even if it means I never write another novel again!’
A fresh wave of tears burst forth. Joe leaned forward and brushed them from her cheeks.
‘Of course you’ll write another novel, you’ll write dozens. But in the meantime what are we going to do about Albert?’
They brainstormed ideas for disposing of Albert. Set a booby trap, tie him up or super-glue him to the desk when he was asleep and refuse to release him until he promised to leave. But despite his fondness for alcohol Albert’s reflexes were sharp and Esther wasn’t confident of her ability to pull off these stunts.
Then Joe said, ‘Wait a minute, didn’t he tell you that if you sit and wait for him, he won’t come?’
‘That’s true. So you think I should spend the rest of my life waiting for him to turn up, so he doesn’t?’
They burst out laughing and Esther felt better, even though they hadn’t thought of a solution.
At three o’clock the next morning, she sat hunched over her computer as Albert reclined on her desk slurping smoked oysters and shiraz. In a flash she remembered his other cautionary instruction. ‘Don’t try and find out where I’m from or anything about me, it will guarantee I won’t come back.’
For the first time in weeks she felt a surge of hope. She plied Albert with more wine and waited impatiently for him to fall asleep. As soon as he began to snore, she Googled ‘muses’ and ‘Albert’ but found nothing. She even looked up the Union of Militant Muses, but according to Google it didn’t exist.
She glanced at Albert in the light of her desk lamp. He showed no signs of disappearing as he lay flat on his back, pink harem pants pooling around his legs, his belly heaving under his Hawaiian shirt in time with his snores. His head was tilted to one side, a woollen beret perched on top. The feeling of familiarity niggled her again. Then it struck her.
She sprang up, went to a cupboard in the corner of the attic and dragged out a large cardboard box. It contained memorabilia belonging to her mother, who’d died some years ago. Esther had rifled through the contents of the box, then put it away in storage and forgotten about it.
She dug into the box and retrieved a photo album and a leather bound journal. She blew the dust from them and opened up the photo album. The photos were sepia-toned with patches of discolouration from age.
She found the one she wanted. It was a studio photo of her grandfather on his twenty-first birthday, tall and proud in a dinner suit. His dark hair was slicked back, he was smiling and his eyes shone with a mischievous light. Very much like Albert’s eyes when he grinned. Grandpa’s face was broader than Albert’s and he was of a more solid build, but there was a strong resemblance.
She opened the journal. The pages were yellowed and stiff, the musty odour making her sneeze. On the front page was scrawled The Collected Works of Hector Albert Palfreyman, Volume One. She hadn’t read much of Grandpa’s work because his hand-writing was difficult to decipher, but this time she persevered. As she laboured through the stories, her spine prickled.
They were mostly swashbuckling adventures, but in each one there was a romantic sub-plot. Some of the phrases he used, sometimes whole sentences, were identical to those in her novels.She heard a rustle and looked up. Albert sat up yawning. His beret had slipped down rakishly over one eye.
‘What are you doing over there?’ he snapped. ‘Come here and get back to work. And I’ll have some salami and cheese.’
As she typed, she watched Albert from the corner of her eye. She didn’t know what to make of her findings – she didn’t believe in ghosts, spirits or reincarnation. Hell, sometimes she didn’t even believe in muses. Maybe it was all just a huge coincidence. And if she had indeed discovered his origins, why didn’t he disappear in an instant, the same way he’d arrived?
She worked a ten hour day and fell into bed, exhausted. When she woke up the sun was streaming through her window. She’d had a whole night’s uninterrupted sleep. She leapt out of bed, full of energy, made herself a cup of tea and switched on the computer. A message appeared in large, bold letters.
‘I am hereby tendering my resignation as your muse. I’m sick of playing second fiddle and getting none of the glory. I’m going to strike out on my own and become a writer. Besides, if I stay with you much longer, I’ll end up an obese, drunken lay-about.
P.S. Here is the outfit I’ve decided is worthy of my newfound occupation.’
Esther scrolled down to a photo of Albert grinning out of the screen at her, dapper in a dinner suit.
She sat for a few moments taking it in. Her head was light – she wanted to sing, laugh and dance all at the same time. But underneath burbled an undercurrent of anxiety. Would her writing be rubbish now that she no longer had her muse? Would she be back to retrieving thick, self-addressed envelopes from the mail box and crunching out numbers in the Taxation Office? She tried to brush away her doubts by phoning Joe to tell him the news.
‘You’re a genius, Esther, how did you do it?’
‘It’s a long story, and rather spooky. I’m not sure I believe it myself.’‘In that case, how about you tell me over dinner tonight? There’s a new Italian place in town I’ve been dying to try out. I’ll bring some champagne and we’ll celebrate.’
Esther thought for a few moments. She thought about all the handsome, eligible men she’d dated who treated her writing as a frivolous hobby. She thought of the admiration that shone in Joe’s eyes, his soft, romantic poet eyes, when he looked at her, and how sure he was that she could be successful without Albert. He was right, she would prove him right. And she remembered the previous day at lunch, when he’d taken her hand in his. She’d felt tingly all over. And warm. And safe.
‘Are you there, Esther ?’
‘Yes, I’m here.’
‘What’s your answer? Would you like to come out for dinner?’
‘Yes, I’d like that very much.’
Esther put down the receiver. She fetched a cloth and cleaned the crumbs and spots of wine from her desk. Then she sat down, opened a new document on her computer and began to type.
Copyright Robin Storey