Lynne Truss Treasury: Essays and Comic Novels

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Overview

Lynne Truss debuted in America as a guffaw-inducing grammarian, but her Britishaudience has known her for years as a critically acclaimed novelist and columnist. Her previous works are now available stateside in one volume, complete with a new preface.

With One Lousy Free Packet of Seed, a raucous comedy of errors, follows the exploits of Osborne Lonsdale, who writes a weekly column called "Me and My Shed" for a floundering gardening magazine. When the publication is taken over ...

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Overview

Lynne Truss debuted in America as a guffaw-inducing grammarian, but her Britishaudience has known her for years as a critically acclaimed novelist and columnist. Her previous works are now available stateside in one volume, complete with a new preface.

With One Lousy Free Packet of Seed, a raucous comedy of errors, follows the exploits of Osborne Lonsdale, who writes a weekly column called "Me and My Shed" for a floundering gardening magazine. When the publication is taken over by a gung-ho management team, Lonsdale must learn to cope with his new coworkers.

In Tennyson's Gift and Going Loco, Truss turns a fiendishly clever eye to the literary world. Tennyson's Gift is an imaginative cocktail of Victorian seriousness and farce that re-imagines the world of the nineteenth-century English poet laureate, placing him in the midst of eccentric company that includes dodgy Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll). Going Loco features a critic trying to write a definitive account of the doppelgänger in gothic fiction, amidst the chaos of her domestic life, including paranoia that her cleaning lady is taking over her life.

Making the Cat Laugh is a riotous collection of columns about single life. Truss comments on dating, secondhand smoking, shopping, holidays, and people who ask, "How's the novel going?" All the while, she continues an eighteen-year quest to make her cat laugh. Reportedly, the feline remains unimpressed.

A feast of wit, The Lynne Truss Treasury will delight fans of Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

Praise for Lynne Truss and her work:

With One Lousy Free Packet of Seed
“Lynne Truss has written a perfect comic novel at the first attempt… a witty, ingenious romp.”
Daily Telegraph

“This book will become a perennial comic delight… this Truss must never be stopped.”
–Sue Limb

“Sex, violence, murder and psychoanalysis lurk in the garden shed - a breezy, rude, pleasurable alternative to cutting the grass.”
Obeserver

Making the Cat Laugh
“A small masterpiece of comedy...with abundant close observation, the familiar is made fresh...A continual hoot.”
The Times

“A truly inventive comic writer ... You should not attempt to read Making the Cat Laugh while travelling on public transport”
The Irish Times

“[Lynne Truss is] a social humorist of sharp insight and startling candour.”
Scotland on Sunday

Tennyson’s Gift
“A comic novel of subtle distinction ... richly entertaining and at times very moving.”
The Times

“The perfect summer book. No deck-chair will be complete without it.”
The Independent

“Terrific...Tennyson's Gift is witty, surprising, oddly compassionate and hugely assured.”
The Sunday Times

Going Loco
“Truss lets her imagination explode in what can only be described as a riddle devised while coming down of hallucinogens.”
Time Out

“A classic comic novel, unashamed, exuberant, fiendishly clever, and a joy to read.”
The Daily Telegraph

Going Loco is wonderfully underplayed, unpredictable and unexpectedly sinister.”
Sunday Express

Author Bio: Lynne Truss is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, which has sold nearly one million copies and won Book of the Year at the British Book Awards. A novelist and journalist, she is also the author of numerous radio comedy dramas and for many years served as a television critic and sports columnist for The Times (London).

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
For the multitudinous fans of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, here are all three of British humorist Truss's novels, plus a selection of the column she writes about the single life. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780641791345
  • Publisher: Gotham
  • Publication date: 6/23/2005
  • Pages: 656
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.80 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Lynne Truss is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, which has sold nearly one million copies and won Book of the Year at the British Book Awards. A novelist and journalist, she is also the author of numerous radio comedy dramas and for many years served as a television critic and sports columnist for The Times (London).
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Read an Excerpt

Excerpt of Chapter 1 from Going Loco, one of the comic novels in The LynneTruss Treasury:
Part One
Chapter 1


Since being the heroine of her own life was never quite to be Belinda’s fate, we may as well begin with Neville. Belinda was a real person, while Neville was an imaginary rat with acrobatic skills; but since he inhabited the pit of her stomach, their destinies were inextricable. Since Christmas, at least, they had started each day together, and if either performed an action independently—well, neither knew nor cared. Belinda would wake, and at the first choke of anxiety concerning the day to come, Neville commenced preliminary tumbling. Belinda clutched her throat; Neville donned a body stocking and tested his trampoline. It was pretty alarming sometimes, a bit too vivid, especially for someone who had never been particularly drawn to the romance of the Big Top. But she had no control over it. By the time Belinda was dressed and committed to the beat-the-clock panic that seemed to have become her waking life, Neville was juggling flaming brands on a unicycle and calling authentic acrobat noises such as ‘Hup!’ and ‘Hip!’ and ‘Hi-yup!’

Belinda did once mention Neville to Stefan, but since her husband’s own alimentary canal had never been domicile to a rat in spangles, he didn’t know how to react. Being a clever Swedish person, he was eager to learn new idioms, new English phrases, which was why Belinda sometimes gambled that he might understand something emotionally foreign to him as well. But when Belinda complained, ‘And now I’ve got a rat in my stomach,’ he had merely looked up from his book, sighed a bit, and turned down the volume on Abba: Gold.

‘A rat?’ he queried. ‘This is a turned-up book.’

‘Mm,’ she agreed.

They listened to Abba for a bit. Stefan mouthed the words. Perhaps under the influence of the song, Belinda found herself staring at the ceiling, wishing she were somewhere else instead.

His scientific mind slid into gear. ‘What sort of rat? Rattus norwegicus?

‘I don’t think so,’ she said. No, the name Neville had no ring of Scandinavia. ‘He’s more of an acrobatic rat. In tights. With a high wire and parasol.’

Stefan gave her one of his steady, serious smiles; she broke the gaze, as always, by pulling a silly face, because its intensity scared her.

‘You’re working too hard,’ he said, quietly. ‘Jack is a dull boy, I think.’

‘I know, I know. Of course I am. That’s what I’m trying to tell you.’

‘So why do you invent a rat? Why not say, "Stefan, my old Dutch, help. I’m working my trousers to the bone, but I just can’t beat the clock"?’

Belinda pouted. ‘I don’t think I did invent him. I can feel him doing back-flips.’

Abba started singing ‘The Name of the Game’. Stefan turned up the volume again.

At which point Neville walked on his front paws through her intestinal tract, gripping a beach-ball between his back feet.

‘Ta-da!’ he cried.

A couple of things need to be made clear about Belinda Johansson. First, she was not Swedish (obviously). Second, she was under the rather hilarious illusion that she had a hard life, when in fact she had an enviable existence as a freelance literary critic and creative writer in some demand, living in one of the better bits of South London. And third, if she saw an abandoned sock on the bathroom floor, she would glare at it defensively rather than pick it up and sling it into a laundry bag.

This last tendency may not sound too bad, but as any slattern can attest, neglected balled-up socks have a talent for embodying reproach. ‘I’m still here,’ the sock will tell you, in an irritating sing-song tone, on your next five visits to the bathroom. ‘I’m going crusty now. And I believe I missed the wash on Sunday morning.’ Belinda’s healthy intelligence would not allow her to be browbeaten by mouldy hosiery, which was why she wouldn’t stoop to silencing its reproaches by simply tidying it up. But add this insinuating sock to the pile of attention- seeking newspapers in the kitchen (‘We’re still here too, lady!’), the ancient wine corks accumulating fluff and grease (‘Remember us?’), and the deadline for her latest potboiler (‘Tuesday, or else’), plus the pressure on her long-term book on literary doubles (‘You bitch! I can’t do it on my own!’) and you begin to understand why Belinda was giving house room to the rat. The deadlines alone she might have managed. It was the cacophony of reproach from all fucking directions in this fucking, fucking house that she couldn’t tolerate much longer. It’s sad but true that, had Belinda’s DNA not tragically lacked the genetic code for basic household organization, none of the following story need have taken place.

You couldn’t feel sorry for her, and nobody did. Many women had more responsibilities than Belinda, with considerably fewer advantages. At the nice age of thirty-six, she lived in a nice, large Victorian villa in Armadale Road, Battersea, with a nice, rather entertaining Swedish husband she’d met well into her thirties. Her work was nice, too— compiling a serious literary book alongside more lucrative horsy stuff for girls. On this Monday morning in February she was about to deliver A Rosette for Verity and collect three thousand pounds. The Swede was a senior scientist, so the Johanssons had money. Only Stefan’s habit of perusing Over-reach Your English for Foreigners on the toilet each morning could be seen as a cause of strain.

Unfortunately, however, the justice of Belinda’s complaints was not the point. The point was, her body was a twenty-four-hour adrenaline pumping station. And at the time this story starts, Belinda’s behaviour was deteriorating badly. She had caught herself waving two fingers at the postman from behind the curtains, just because he innocently delivered more post. ‘Take it away,’ she yelled. ‘Don’t bring it, take it away!’ A magazine editor had rung up with the offer of a laughably easy horse-tackle column (she’d coveted it for years), and instead of saying, ‘That’s great!’, she’d barked, ‘Do you think I just sit here with my thumb up my bum waiting for you to ring? Get a life, for God’s sake.’ At the supermarket, she had rammed her trolley into that of a dithering pensioner, saying, ‘Look, have you got a job?’ In short, the flight-or-fight mechanism Nature gave Belinda for emergencies had gone horribly haywire, as if someone had removed the knob, and lost it.

Stefan would tell her to take off the weight, or hang loose. Stefan was one of those people who has a regular job—or even, in recidivist lapses, a ‘yob’—who attends college in office hours, and comes home in the evening to relax. In about fifteen years, he would retire. True, a certain amount of research was required of him, but it was no skin off his nose, as he was proud of remarking. Why Belinda made such a meal of things, he didn’t know.

So things came to a head in that pleasant suicide month of February, on a Monday morning. Belinda was racing out of her agreeable house at nine thirty-five for a ten a.m. train from Clapham Junction, and there was (for once) the faintest chance she would make it. She felt terrible, afflicted by a painful and humiliating dream in which she had punched Madonna on the nose for hijacking her car, only to discover that the passengers were all disabled children. This was not the sort of dream to be dislodged easily. The children had waved accusing crutches at her through the car windows, and though she’d grovelled to Madonna, she’d woken unforgiven and felt like a murderer.

Meanwhile, the manuscript of A Rosette for Verity had done its usual job of transmogrifying into a bowling ball in her shoulder-bag. She was brushing her hair with one hand and fumbling for bus-fare with the other, and Neville was helpfully practising trapeze. ‘Steady on, Neville,’ she muttered absently. And then the telephone rang in the hall.

‘Oh bugger,’ she said, as the phone trilled. Oh no. She flailed about, as if caught in quicksand. Here she was, late already, hair not dry, feeling sick with guilt about the poor crippled kiddies, and wearing a strange fashionable black slidy nylon coat she’d allowed her mother to buy her, which made her feel like an impostor.

‘Ring-ring,’ it said, as she passed.

‘Nope,’ she told it.

‘Ring-ring,’ it persisted. ‘Remember me?

So she snatched up the receiver and answered the phone. Why? Because life’s like that. It’s a rule. The later you are, the less time you can give to it, the more vulnerable you are to far-fetched misgivings. What if it’s the publisher phoning to cancel? Or Stefan with his head caught in some railings? All her life, Belinda’s idea of an emergency was someone with their head caught in some railings.

‘Hello?’

A high-pitched male voice with an Ulster accent. A friendly voice, but nobody she knew.

‘May I speak with Mrs Johnson, please?’

‘Johansson,’ she corrected him automatically, shooting a despairing glance at the hall clock. Why did cold-callers always waste time assuming you aren’t the person they’ve phoned? She gritted her teeth. Before catching the train she needed to buy some stamps, renew her road tax, phone a radio producer and touch up chapter three, because she’d just remembered the bay gelding of Verity’s chief rival Camilla had emerged from a three-day event as a chestnut mare. Perhaps he had got something caught in some railings. Dramatically (and distractingly) Neville swung back and forth in a spotlight, with no safety-net, accompanied by a drum-roll. Meanwhile her bag slid off her shoulder with a great whump, as if to say, ‘Well, if we’re not going out, I’ll stop here.’

‘Hello Mrs Johnson, my name is Graham, and I work for British Telecom. We recently sent you some details of new services. I wonder, is this a good time to talk?’

‘Hah!’

Belinda gave a hollow laugh and started to fill this annoying wasted time by hoisting her bag from under the hall table—the area Stefan cheerfully called the Land That Time Forgot About. Heaps of stuff made a big tangly nest under here, even though Belinda had frequently begged Mrs Holdsworth just to chuck it all out. She looked at it now, and it said, ‘Ooh, hello, remember us?’ rather excitedly, because it didn’t get the chance as often as the socks in the bathroom or the newspapers in the kitchen. Weekly free news-sheets and fluff in lumps mingled with Stefan’s favourite moose-hat, and some spare coat buttons. Three empty Jiffy-bags bled grey lunar dust over a novelty egg-timer, a bottle of Finnish vodka, a CD of the 1970s Malmö pop sensation the Hoola Bandoola Band, and an ice-hockey puck. And there among it was a single white envelope bearing the symbol of registered post. ‘Sod it,’ she said, as she stretched to reach it.

‘This is Graham from BT,’ the man reminded her. ‘Is this a good time to talk?’

She looked at the clock again: ten forty-three. This envelope clearly contained the cash-card she’d argued about with the bank. ‘You never sent it!’ she’d said. ‘But you signed for it!’ they replied. And here it was, saying, ‘Remember me?’ In her stomach, Neville started calling other rats for an acrobatic display—‘Yip!’ ‘Hoopla!’ ‘Hi-yip!’ From the way their weight was shifting around, they had started to form the rodent equivalent of the human pyramid. She felt compelled to admire their ingenuity. It felt as though they’d acquired a springboard.

‘Look, I’ve got to go. This isn’t convenient.’

Graham made a sympathetic noise, but did not say goodbye. Instead, he asked, ‘Perhaps you could suggest a more convenient time in the next few days?’ It was a routine phone-sales question, but it unleashed something. Because suddenly Belinda lost control.

It was because he had asked her to think ahead, perhaps. That’s what did it. Normally she went through life as if driving in the country in the dark, just peering to the end of the headlights and keeping her nerve. But daylight revealed the total landscape. ‘A more convenient time in the next few days’? Her lip quivered. She considered the next few days, a vision of the M25 choked with cones and honking, with nee- naws—of appointments and deadlines and VAT return and, and—and started to sniff uncontrollably.

Damn this bloody rushing about. Sniff. Damn this fucking life. Sniff, sniff. She’d had a big argument about this letter, and why had it been unnoticed on the floor? Why? Because there was no time to Hoover this fluff or to clear these papers. Because there was no time to sack Mrs Holdsworth for her incompetence. No time to sew buttons on, or build a nice display cabinet for moose-hats, listen with full attention to Hoola Bandoola with a Swedish dictionary, or get to the bottom of the ice-hockey puck once and for all.

There was never any time, and it wasn’t fair. She glanced into the kitchen, where the table was heaped with unpaid bills, diaries. On each of the stairs behind her was a little pile of misplaced items tumbled together (foreign money with holes in, nail scissors, receipts). If items had human rights, the UNHCR would be down on Belinda like a ton of bricks. On the wall above the phone was a handsome blue-tinted postcard of the Sussex Downs with a serene quotation from Virginia Woolf: ‘I have three entire days alone—three pure and rounded pearls.’ Stefan had given it to her ‘as a yoke’. She saw it now, and in an access of Bloomsbury envy familiar to every other working female writer of the twentieth century, Belinda simply broke down and sobbed.

‘Mrs Johnson?’

Belinda made a wah-wah sound so loud it shocked her. She wiped her nose with the back of her hand, and then, at a loss, wiped the back of her hand on mother’s glossy coat—which was of a material, alas, designed specifically not to absorb mucal waste.

No one would understand what a bad moment this was. Belinda was not the sort of person who bursts into tears. In times of stress, she simply increased adrenaline production while Neville ran a three-ring circus. She didn’t cry. Stefan hated cry-babies. His imitation of his first wife’s cry-baby mode (‘Wah, wah! I’m so unhappy, Stefan!’) was quite enough to put anybody off.

‘Perhaps you would like some time?’ Graham persisted. ‘I can tell you don’t have time right now.’

‘No, I don’t have any time,’ whimpered Belinda.

‘Shall I give you a couple of days?’

Silence. A sniffle.

‘Mrs Johnson, would you like a couple of days?’

At which point, Belinda sank to the floor again, to sit flat on her bum and sob. ‘Would I like [sniff] a couple of—"?’ A loud, helpless wah- wah was coming down the phone.

‘Have you got a tissue, Mrs Johnson?’ Graham asked, gently.

‘Jo-hansson!’ she sobbed.

‘I’ll give you a couple of days.’

Belinda struggled to her feet, dragging her bowling ball towards her.

‘Give me three pure and rounded pearls, Graham. What I want’—she sniffed noisily—‘is three pure and rounded pearls.’

You shouldn’t dislike Belinda. She had a great many redeeming features. She knew lots of jokes about animals going into bars, for example. But clearly she had a big problem negotiating the routine pitfalls of everyday existence.

‘It’s a control thing,’ her friend Maggie said (Maggie, an actress, had done therapy for thirteen years). ‘You want total control. You somehow think an empty life is the ideal life, and a full life means it’s been stolen by other people. You think deep down that everything in the universe—including your friends, actually—exists with the sole malevolent purpose of stealing your time.’

‘Oh, I see,’ said Belinda. ‘And is this the five-minute insult or the full half-hour?’ But secretly she was aghast. The description was spot- on. Mags was right: even this short conversation now required to be added to the day’s total of sadly unavoided interruptions.

The first thing she’d noticed about Stefan was that he smiled a lot, especially for a Scandinavian. He was solemn, and said rather peculiar things, like ‘A nod is as good as a wink’ and ‘That’s all my eye and Betty Martin’, when first introduced, but he smiled even at jokes about animals in bars, which was encouraging. They had met three years ago in Putney at her friend Viv’s, at a Sunday lunch, where they had been seated adjacently by their hostess, with an obvious match-making intent. Belinda resented this at first, and almost changed places. Viv had an intolerable weakness for match-making. In a world ruled by Vivs, happy single people would be rounded up and shot.

But she took to Stefan. He was recently divorced, and recently arrived in London to teach genetics at Imperial College. He was solvent, which counted for a lot more than it ought to. Tall, blond, slender and a bit vain, he wore surprisingly fashionable spectacles for a man of his age (forty-eight at the time). Of course, he wasn’t perfect. For a start, middle-of-the-road music was a passion of his life, and he would not hear a word spoken against Abba. He idolized Monty Python, played golf as if it were a respectable thing to talk about, and was proud of driving a fast car. A couple of times he told stories about his mentally ill first wife, which struck Belinda as cruel. Also, he was condescending when he explained his work on pseudogenes. Like most specialists, she decided, he muddled reasonable ignorance with stupidity.

But basically, Belinda fancied him straight away, and had an unprecedented urge to get him outside and push him against a wall. In the one truly Lawrentian moment of her life, she felt her bowel leap, her thighs sing and her bra-straps strain to snapping. Having been single for seven years at this point, she knew all too well that she must act quickly—a specimen of unattached manhood as exotic and presentable as Stefan Johansson would have an availability period in 1990s SW15 of just under two and a half weeks. Her biological clock, long reduced to a muffled tick, started making urgent ‘Parp! Parp!’ noises, so loud and insistent that she had to resist the impulse to evacuate the building.

The lunch was half bliss, half agony, with Stefan dividing his attention between Maggie and Belinda, and finding out whose biological clock could ‘Parp’ the loudest. Perhaps his understanding of natural selection contributed to this ploy. Either way, Belinda—who had never competed for a man—was so overwhelmed by the physical attraction that she contrived to get drunk, make eyes at him, and (the clincher) ruthlessly outdo Maggie at remembering every single word of ‘Thank You for the Music’ and the Pet Shop Sketch.

‘Lift home, Miss Patch?’ he’d asked her breezily, when this long repast finally ended at four thirty. She’d known him only four hours, and already he’d given her a nickname—something no one had done before. True, he called her ‘Patch’ for the unromantic reason of her nicotine plasters; and true, it made her sound like a collie. But she loved it. ‘Miss Patch’ made her feel young and adorable, like Audrey Hepburn; it made her feel (even more unaccountably) like she’d never heard of sexual politics. ‘Lift home, Miss Patch?’ was, to Belinda, the most exciting question in the language. Soon after it, she’d had her tongue down his throat, and his hands up her jumper, with her nipples strenuously erect precisely in the manner of chapel hat-pegs—as Stefan had whispered in her ear so astonishingly at the time.

And now here they were, married, and Belinda was having this silly problem with the El Ratto indoor circus; and Maggie could decipher plainly all the selfish secrets of her soul, and she’d burst into tears like a madwoman talking to a complete stranger on the phone because he offered her big fat pearls but didn’t mean it. However, Stefan was still smiling because (as she had soon discovered) he always smiled, whatever his mood. He had told her that he was known in academic circles as the Genial Geneticist from Gothenburg.

‘So what did your masters think of Verity’s Rosette?’ he asked. It was Monday evening, and they were loading the dishwasher to the accompaniment of ‘Voulez Vous’.

A Rosette for Verity? They’ll let me know. We discussed the idea that she might break her neck in the next book and be all brave about it, but I said, "No, let’s do that to Camilla." Six Months in Traction for Camilla—what do you think?’

He smiled uncertainly. ‘You are yoking?’

‘A bit, yes.’

‘You remember we visit Viv and Yago tomorrow?’

‘We do?’ she said. ‘Damn. I mean, great.’

‘Maggie will be there, too. Maggie is a good egg, for sure. I want to tell her she was de luxe in the play by Harold Pinter. Mind you, no one could ever accuse Pinter of gilding the lily, I think.’

‘Shall we watch telly tonight? The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is on.’

Although she was really desperate to get on with some work, she felt guilty about Stefan, and regularly made pretences of this sort. Hey, let’s just curl up on the sofa and watch TV like normal people! She fooled nobody, but felt better for the attempt. The trouble was, whenever she felt under pressure, she had the awful sensation that Stefan was turning into a species of accusatory sock. Besides which, it was nice watching television with him, and cuddling. She always enjoyed those interludes with Stefan when they didn’t feel the need to speak.

‘Don’t you want to work?’

‘Well, I—’

He smiled.

‘You have been Patsy Sullivan today, all day?’ (Patsy Sullivan was her horsy pseudonym.) ‘Then you must work yourself tonight.’

‘Are you sure? It’s just, you know, it’s February, and the book is due in October. And I feel this terrible pressure of time, Stefan. And I’ve got fifty-three Verity fan letters in big handwriting to answer. I have to pretend to the poor saps that I live on a farm with dogs and stuff. And I’ve got to go and see saddles tomorrow in Barnet. Do you know the line of Keats—"When I have fears that I may cease to be, before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain"?’

Stefan thought about it. ‘No, I don’t know that. But it sounds like you.’ He turned to go, then stopped. ‘So I shall look forward to tomorrow night. Now just tell me about Yago and Viv. Why is it that whenever I perorate in their company, they react as though I have dropped a fart?’

This was difficult to answer, but she managed it.

‘They’re scared of you, Stefan. It’s scary, genetics. There you sit, knowing all about the Great Code of Life, and all Viv and Jago know about is Street of Shame gossip and the Superwoman Cook Book. It’s a powerful thing, knowing science in such company.’

‘In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king?’

‘Exactly.’

‘I have got bigger fish to fry?’

‘That’s it.’

Belinda was glad she’d reassured him. She decided not to mention the fart. ‘Even I’m scared of you, a bit,’ she said, squeezing his arm and looking into his lovely eyes. They were like chips of ice, she thought.

‘Oh, Belinda—’ he objected.

‘No, it’s true. I sometimes think you could unravel my DNA just by looking at me. And then, of course, you could knit me up again, as someone else with different sleeves and a V neck.’

Belinda envied the way Stefan’s work fitted so neatly into the time he spent at college. She imagined him now with enormous knitting needles, muttering, ‘Knit one, purl one, knit one, purl one,’ in a loud, clacky room full of brainy blokes in lab coats all doing the same, trying to finish a complicated bit (turning a heel, perhaps) before the bell rang at five thirty.

People were always telling Belinda that genetics was a sexy science, but Stefan said it was harmless drudgery—and she was happy to believe him. Clueless about the nitty-gritty, she just knew that his research involved things called dominant and recessive genes. ‘So some genes are pushy and others are pushovers, and the combination always causes trouble?’ she’d once summed it up. And he’d coughed and said gnomically, ‘Up to a point, Lord Copper.’

At that momentous Sunday lunch, she had not told him much about her own work. As she discovered later, Swedes don’t ask personal questions; they consider it ill-mannered. But she had told him about Patsy Sullivan, and made him laugh describing the horsy adventures. However, the time she regarded as daily stolen from her had nothing to do with her desire to write about red rosettes for handy-pony. It wasn’t time she wanted for ‘herself’, either. Magazines sometimes referred to women making time for ‘themselves’, but driven by her Keatsian gleaning imperative, Belinda had absolutely no idea what it meant. ‘Make time for yourself.’ Weird. Chintzy wallpaper probably had something to do with it. Long hot baths. Or chocolates in a heart-shaped box.

Thus, if well-intentioned people chose to flatter Belinda in a feminine way, it just confused her. ‘Buy yourself a lipstick,’ Viv’s mother had said during her university finals, giving her a five-pound note. But the commission had made her miserable. She’d hated hanging around cosmetics counters with this albatross of a fiver when she could have been revising the Gothic novel in the library. Belinda’s revision timetable had been incredibly impressive, and very, very tight. Only when Viv absolved her with ‘Buy some pens, for God’s sake,’ did she race off happily and spend it.

Yes, for someone who lived so much in her head, it was an alien world, that feminine malarkey. Luckily the other-worldly Stefan didn’t mind too much, but Belinda’s well-coiffed mother despaired of her, and left copies of books with titles like Femininity for Dummies lying around in her daughter’s house. Yet even as a teenager Belinda had flipped through all women’s magazines in lofty, anthropological astonishment, amazed at the ways contrived by modern women to occupy their time non-productively. Facials, for heaven’s sake. Leg-waxing. Fashionable hats. Stencils.

From this you might deduce that Belinda’s secret personal work was of global importance. But she was just writing a book called The Dualists, a grand overview of literary doubles through the ages. Being Patsy half the time had given her the idea. ‘Like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,’ she explained, when people looked blank. ‘Or like me and Patsy Sullivan.’ But if she implied that she took the subject lightly, she certainly didn’t.

In fact, like most areas of study, the closer you got to the literary double, the more importantly it loomed; the more it demonstrated links with life, the universe, everything, even genetics and photocopying. Abba impersonators, Siamese twins, Face/Off—the world was full of replicas. And why was the genre so popular? Because everyone believes they’ve got an alternative, parallel life—in Belinda’s case, perhaps, the ideal existence of that unregenerate toff Virginia Woolf, with her pure and rounded pearls. This parallel life was just waiting for you to join it, to stop fannying about. Every time you made a choice in life, another parallel existence was created to demonstrate how your own life could have been. Surely everybody felt that? Surely everybody looked in the mirror and thought, That’s not the real me. It used to be, but it’s not now. Surely everyone measured themselves against their friends? Especially these days, when everyone was so busy?

Either way, for the past three years, between all the demands of Patsy and socks (and Stefan), Belinda had left unturned not a single existential book in which a malevolent lookalike turned up to say, ‘I’m the real you. And hey, you’re not going to like what I’ve been doing!’ Her office, formerly the dining room, was heaped with books and notes. She had become an expert on the dark world of Gogol and Dostoevsky, Nabokov, Stevenson and Hogg. Name any writer who shrieked on passing a reflective shop window, and Belinda was guaranteed to have a convincing theory about the personal crisis that conjured up his story, and summoned his double to life.

Oh yes, the nearer you stood to the literary double, the more (spookily) it told you universal truths of existence. Unfortunately for Belinda, she could never quite appreciate that the further you stood back from the literary double (as all her friends effortlessly did), the more it resembled leg-waxing by other means.

The phone rang at ten o’clock and Stefan answered it.

‘It was a man from British Telecom, seemed a bit rum,’ he reported to Belinda, who was curled up with a book in her study, Neville snoozing contentedly save for the occasional twitch of his little pink tail. ‘His name was Graham.’

Belinda bit her lip. ‘Oh yes?’

‘He was ringing from home, to check you were recovered. I told him, "This is ten o’clock at night, were you born in a barn?"’

Belinda looked amazed. Neville stirred.

‘You are all right, aren’t you, Miss Patch? He said he only mentioned his money-off Friends and Family scheme and you wept, like cats and dogs.’

She nodded. She felt cornered. When women had breakdowns, their husbands left them. It was a well-known fact. When Stefan’s former wife Ingrid had a breakdown, he left her good and proper, in an institution in Malmö.

‘You try to do too much,’ he said.

‘I know.’

‘It’s not my fault, is it?’

Belinda gasped. His fault?

He searched her face, which crumpled under the strain of his kindness.

‘Of course it’s not,’ she snuffled.

‘Come to bed,’ he said, reaching to touch her.

‘All right,’ she said.

‘You must not forget, Belinda. No man is an island.’

‘No.’

She put down her book, and got up.

He smiled. ‘The thing about you, Belinda, is you need two lives.’

‘Well, three or four would be nice,’ she agreed, switching off the light. ‘Why don’t you make some clones for me? You know perfectly well you could knock up a couple at work.’

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Table of Contents

With one lousy free packet of seed 1
Tennyson's gift 145
Going loco 325
Making the cat laugh (columns) 485
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