On Thursday, my third book was published. Speaking to my Mum on the phone, she said: ‘well, you said you didn’t want a book launch this year – now you haven’t got one.’ She was right – I had a big launch party for my second book last year, at the beautiful Hatchards bookshop in London, with champagne and a book signing and even the presence of Bill Nighy* – and although I loved it, I also found it quite stressful, so this year I’d already sworn off the whole thing.
Of course, when the day came this year, all I wanted was to be able to have a party – to see friends and family that I haven’t seen for three months, to be able to relax in a crowd without the constant swirl of anxiety that is now part of everyday life (even more than it was before, because now I actually have a reason to be anxious), and to be able to mark the occasion with the ones I love.
Instead, I woke up early – 6am, with a knot of nerves in my stomach. Selfishly, I fidgeted around to the extent that I finally woke my partner.
‘I’m worried nobody will buy it,’ I whispered. We’ve taken to sleeping with the bedroom door open lately, as it’s been so hot, and have got used to the fresh air filtering in along with the morning sunlight and the sound of birds. Sometimes, we hear a crow calling, waking us up long before the alarm. The noise filters into my dreams, then slowly becomes a reality, and I don’t mind that, because then the first thing I think about is the crow, not the pandemic. I am, I suppose, grateful to that crow.
‘Of course they will,’ he said drowsily; I remained unconvinced. I got out of bed, began my morning ritual – coffee (now with powdered coffee mate instead of milk, a panic-buy from the early days that I’ve now developed quite the taste for), shower (very quick – I don’t like being left alone with my thoughts for too long), dress (I’ve continued to dress in ‘work clothes’ most days), kitchen. In the kitchen, every day, I make myself breakfast and sit down at my laptop, headphones on, ready for another day of virtual meetings. In the first few days of working from home, I developed a routine that I now stick to rigidly for fear that if I don’t, I will somehow lose my mind. So of course, that Thursday was no different.
At the kitchen table, I check Amazon – may as well get it over with. I brace myself for two star reviews, or worse, no reviews at all. Instead, there are five – all very positive. Well, I tell myself, that must be a fluke. The bad ones will be on the way.
Flowers arrive, a big bunch from my family, little white daisies jostling alongside yellow roses and heavy-headed lilies that, over the next few days, will fill my small flat with their thick, distinctive scent. I take a picture; send my family a photo.
At work, I don’t really talk about my book – I never want it to seem as though I’m letting it distract from the actual day job, but I get congratulatory messages nonetheless. My friends send me photos of their copies arriving, and I think about how weird it is that my characters are delving into homes up and down the country whilst I remain steadfastly at the kitchen table, in the exact same position as I’ve been for the last 11 weeks. How bizarre, to be jealous of one’s own creations. But I am – I’m envious that they are free to roam around the world, and that their lives are untouched by this pandemic. Their story is compact, concluded in the final pages of the novel, whereas mine continues, floundering, uncertain, a strange and unknowable future stretching in front of me like quicksand.
At lunchtime, I have a Zoom call booked with my agent and editor. It is lovely, and together, we check Amazon again. Six reviews now. We talk about the number of copies sold in Tesco in the last week (it went into stores early) and my editor nods confidently.
‘I’m happy with that,’ she says, and I am relieved, absurdly so.
Two hours later, a lemon tree arrives from my agent. It is laden with small, dark green fruit that over the next few weeks I will watch for signs of ripening. More flowers arrive, from my publisher, and my friends. The next day, my boyfriend goes to Tesco and comes back with pink lilies (‘you’ve got flowers from everybody else,’ he says). I rummage under the sink for another vase; we are running out. Only one bunch of flowers comes with flower food; should I share it between them all, I wonder, or just give it to the ones I like the best?
All afternoon, I concentrate on work, losing myself in other people’s stories to avoid having to think about my own. My Grandma calls me – she is losing her eyesight to the extent that she cannot read, and has no access to an audiobook. Still, she tells me, the book is brilliant, she knows it is. She doesn’t need to see it to know.
My family ring me, and I hold up a glass to the screen, try to keep smiling even though I feel sad. What do I have to be sad about, I scold myself, when I am so lucky? What right do I have to cry?
We drink champagne on the rooftop; my boyfriend saves the cork and etches the words ‘book 3, 2020’ onto it in black market pen. A reminder, should we need it. I think of us in five years time; will we want to remember this year, this moment, or will we brush it away, will we want to forget? I don’t let myself voice the deep dark fear that this crisis may last for five years or more. There is no point worrying, after all.
For dinner, we eat prawns from the fishmonger on our street; fat, fleshy prawns that taste of the sea. My fingers are greasy as I swipe at my phone again: 12 reviews, now.
All day, I cannot shake the feelings: I feel guilty for celebrating when so many people are suffering. I feel trivial for caring about something that is essentially just a book. I feel selfish for making the day all about me. I feel flat because I cannot go out.
But over the next few days, I get messages. From strangers, readers, some accompanied by photos. They tell me they loved the book. One girl messages me saying she wants to be a writer now, and do I have any advice. A reader tells me the book has distracted them from lockdown, just for a few hours. It has made her happy.
I think about how happy books have made me, for my entire life. I wonder about the hours and hours I have spent reading, and about the me of five years ago who dreamed of publishing a book. I tell myself that I am allowed to feel more than one thing at once, that feeling guilty doesn’t mean I shouldn’t celebrate an achievement.
‘Happy publication day,’ my boyfriend says that evening as we turn off the lights, ‘well done, Phees.’
In bed at night, I take lots of deep breaths, and think about the crow. There are 64 reviews, now. The two stars have yet to appear. Maybe they never even will.**
*he was at another event downstairs in the bookshop. Several people did get a selfie, though. If I’m honest, he slightly upstaged me.
** they will, but that’s okay.