Crème de la Crème
MEET THE AUTHOR
Main Theatre 3.00
Britain's youngest literary sensation, bestselling author of Alternative Tourist Trail, makes her first appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Annabel Beaumont's debut novel describing a day in the life of a 21st century Highland family has been hailed as a modern Ulysses. It was short-listed for the Man Booker prize before it was published and has already been translated into seventeen languages. Seize this chance to see Scotland's own golden girl read from her work and talk about how she came to write it.
I had my own reasons for including this event in the day's itinerary but I didn't tell them that until later.
There were six clients for me that morning, five of them American, all apparently eager to follow in the footsteps of everyone from Robert Louis Stevenson to JK Rowling to learn about Edinburgh's literary heritage.
We started off in Howard Place where the author of Treasure Island spent some of his childhood; then we walked uphill to Heriot Row where he watched Leerie light the lamps. We peered over the railings into Queen Street Gardens where he would have played around the pond and in and out of the bushes, his imagination taking him far away. In my opinion, these gardens were the starting point for the story of Jim and Long John Silver, but out of consideration for my clients I always say that this is one of several possible locations because there is a strong contingent that claims a spot in California as the inspiration.
'Say, Miss Mackintosh, can we stop a while and just look?' It was one of the two men, the one wearing a bright yellow jumper. 'I can't believe I'm really here.'
'Of course,' I said, 'this is your tour and we have plenty of time.'
They sank onto a couple of benches and gazed about them.
I took the opportunity to remind myself of their names by looking at the list I'd made when they arranged to come on one of my Book Tours. The non-American, a girl with a soft Scottish accent, looked a little familiar but I couldn't place her. Her name didn't mean anything to me either. I pride myself on my memory for faces and for names; it's a knack you acquire when you are headmistress of a boarding school, and although I have been retired for three years there are always girls of varying ages – very varying ages – who hail me in shops or at the theatre and I have never yet failed to remember them.
This girl, sitting facing away from the rest of the group and picking at the fringe on her shoulder bag, was down on my list as Willow Jamieson. What odd names people have nowadays – but somehow her first name suited her. She was probably in her mid-twenties, slim, with smooth pale skin, shiny light brown hair and a generous mouth. A pretty girl, but not a happy one. Forty years of teaching at St Anne's taught me to see the signs when a girl's unhappy. However, on this occasion, it was none of my business.
'Say, Miss Mackintosh.' It was Yellow Jumper again. 'How old was he, Robert Louis, when he wrote Treasure Island?'
I put my list away and my Book Tour hat back on, as it were.
I began doing my Tours the summer I retired. Once a teacher, always a teacher. I knew that I wasn't ready, or willing, to take up golf or bridge so I started Mackintosh Book Tours and my ex-colleagues and pupils are very kind about putting customers my way. I even have a web site, designed for me by my niece Rosie's husband. The Tours keep me busy from May to October. Planning new ones – I vary them to keep myself amused and to encourage people to come back – and taking bookings occupies a fair amount of time over the winter.
I finished my potted biography of RLS.
'Now, I'll just go over the plan for the rest of the day. We'll have a look at the outside of the house in George Street where the poet Shelley lived with his young sweetheart, Harriet Westbrook. In Princes Street you have opted to either climb the Monument to Sir Walter Scott or have a walk in the Gardens. Then we'll walk up to see the school where Muriel Spark was a pupil and where she got inspiration for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. After lunch we'll get the bus down to the Book Festival for the Annabel Beaumont event. Have you read her book? I think it is quite brilliant, the sort of book that will still be read a hundred years from now. I can tell you now that Annabel was a pupil at the school at which I was headmistress.'
There was a chorus of enthusiastic American voices.
'You must be so proud of her,' gushed one of the older ladies.
'I'm looking forward to hearing what she has to say,' I replied.
I didn't think I had the right to be proud of her. For six years we tried to instill in that girl something beyond interest in her appearance and in the opposite sex. The fact that she left school with any qualifications at all probably had more to do with her being bribed with a car by her father than anything we said or did. Her undoubted intelligence and imagination were put to use in devising ways to break the rules. When she flounced out the door for the last time my staff and I gave a collective sigh of relief. We heard that she had taken her long legs and her long red hair to a modelling agency and was having some success on the catwalk. And now here she was, a respected and bestselling writer… Yes, I was certainly looking forward to hearing how that had come about.
Willow Jamieson was staring into space, her hands still plucking at her bag.
For a moment she didn't respond then she jumped as if I had given her a fright. Again I got a tug of memory but it was no nearer the front of my mind than it had been earlier. She got to her feet and gave me a wan smile.
'Right then, first stop Percy Bysshe Shelley,' I said briskly, and concentrated my thoughts on the great Romantic poet. I noticed that the youngest American, a woman of about thirty with cropped dark hair, had moved to walk with Willow Jamieson and was attempting to make conversation with her.
My clients all seemed delighted with the day so far as, three hours later, we sank into our seats in the restaurant I had chosen for lunch, in the conservatory of a local hotel. Even Willow Jamieson looked animated, having had some colour whipped into her cheeks by the walk from Princes Street.
'Well, I'd swap places with Harriet Westbrook any day,' drawled Cropped Hair, 'Shelley sounds so romantic. Was she really just sixteen? Gee, I'd be thirty years too old for him!'
I stared at her. This woman was forty-six? I suppose she must have had plastic surgery. It seems to be a very common thing now. There are all these television programmes about it. I can't say I understand this anxiety to try to look younger than you are but probably I'm old-fashioned.
I turned my gaze to Willow Jamieson. Clear skin. Oval face. Well-shaped nose. Straight white teeth. No need for plastic surgery there. She caught my eye and looked away. Behind her on a windowsill was a plant with leaves that tumbled down and for a moment looked like part of her face, altering its appearance. The name Murdina Twiddy popped into my mind. I shook my head and looked at Willow again but she had her head bent over the menu. No, I was being ridiculous. Poor Murdina. She was probably one of my most brilliant pupils, a sweet, kind girl, but with a depressive nature. I knew that some of her more unpleasant classmates used to tease her about her name – the female version of Murdo after her father, and then her unusual surname – and about her appearance. She was undoubtedly a plump girl, prone to acne, and with a hooked nose also inherited from her father, but she was a straight A student who went on to study English at St Andrews, leaving before her first year was up, or so I'd heard. I had tried to find out what had happened to her but had drawn a blank.
Surely there was no connection between Murdina Twiddy and Willow Jamieson? I turned the question over in my mind as I ate my monkfish wrapped in bacon and rather mechanically answered questions on Miss Jean Brodie and Harry Potter.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome to the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Today it's my great pleasure to introduce one of the very brightest new stars in the Scottish – and British – literary firmament. Annabel Beaumont, author of Alternative Tourist Trail which topped the bestseller charts and was short-listed for the Man Booker prize, has just sold the film rights to the novel for an alleged large six-figure sum…
I was aware of a gasp and of movement beside me. Willow Jamieson was on her feet in the darkened tent. At the same time her jacket billowed out behind her making her silhouette bigger than it really was. It was her; it was – her full name came back to me – Murdina Jamieson Twiddy. I reached for her arm but she jerked it away from me.
'Cheat. Thief. Annabel Beaumont is a cheat and a thief.'
At first it was only the people immediately around us who heard her but the flurry they created stopped the interviewer in her tracks and she came to a halt. The girl who called herself Willow had scrambled to the end of the row and was marching down to the front.
'I am the author of Alternative Tourist Trail. My name is Murdina Twiddy and I wrote that book. Annabel Beaumont tricked me into giving it to her. And I can prove it.'
Annabel Beaumont was on her feet. She started smiling her glorious smile. She tossed back her red-gold curls. She clutched her copy of the book and looked down at the stranger with the familiar name and voice. The smile faltered. She opened her mouth. No words came out. The interviewer was staring at her. She put up her hand to shade her eyes from the spotlights and saw the five hundred people who had paid to hear her speak staring at her too.
She turned and ran off the stage.
Four hundred and ninety-nine faces turned left to watch her disappear. I was watching Murdina Twiddy as she stood swaying in front of the stage. I left my seat and made my way to her but was not in time to reach her before she fainted.
Later that afternoon I phoned Professor Rosamond Clarke in the Department of Psychology, at the University of Edinburgh – my niece, Rosie.
I've suggested to Rosie that she calls me Marjory now but she likes the old childhood name.
'Good timing! I've just finished for the day. How are you?'
'I'm very well. Rosie dear, something astonishing happened this afternoon. Have you heard of Annabel Beaumont?'
I outlined the events quickly, ignoring Rosie's exclamations until I'd got to the point when I accompanied Murdina to the authors' tent – rather ironic that, under the circumstances – where a doctor, a policeman and a bemused publisher came to see her.
'But – goodness.' My niece seemed uncharacteristically at a loss. 'Did she write the book or not?'
Rosie is not a reader of novels. She's a scientist and of course now also the mother of a small boy so her time is limited.
'I believe so. She says that she met Annabel by chance two years ago and told her she'd been writing a novel since she dropped out of university. Apparently Annabel said she had a friend who was an agent and Murdina handed over the manuscript and never heard anything more until she read in a newspaper about the novel's success.'
'But didn't she do anything about it?'
'The silly girl had typed it on an old-fashioned typewriter and hadn't kept a copy. She went to the publishers but they just laughed at her. In a way you can't blame them. Look at all the people who said JK Rowling had stolen their ideas.'
'It's a long way from stealing an idea to stealing a whole novel surely,' said Rosie indignantly.
'She didn't have proof, as I said. And in the office, the publisher's office, there were all these publicity pictures of Annabel, so beautiful and apparently so brilliant. In Murdina's eyes there was no competition. The gorgeous, popular Annabel had won again – this was the girl who had teased her at school, tolerating her only because Murdina, to curry favour, would do her homework for her. I gather she went home to Skye and had a nervous breakdown.'
'And then what? This would make a really interesting case study, Auntie Marj.'
'I'm telling you as my niece, not as Professor Clarke,' I said, a little sharply. 'I feel rather upset by it all. That poor girl.'
'I'm sorry, Auntie Marj' said Rosie, contritely. 'Why don't you come round to dinner tonight? Come early and see your great-nephew in his bath. But tell me the rest now. I can't wait to hear the end of the story.'
'I'd love to come, Rosie dear. Thank you. Well. When Murdina recovered a little her father sent her abroad to some cousins in New York and they seem to have persuaded her to lose weight and to have surgery on her nose and goodness knows what else. It makes me shudder to think of it. Then she decided to go a step further and change her name. So Murdina Jamieson Twiddy became Willow Jamieson, much more confident and really determined now to show Annabel up for the cheat she had always been – and where better to do that than in a very public place, in the presence of her old headmistress.'
'But how did she prove now that she had written the book?' asked Rosie, 'just because she'd reinvented herself…?'
'She didn't have any proof; that was a bluff. Annabel was taken completely off guard. I've never seen a girl give herself away so clearly. Guilt was written all over her face for five hundred people to see,' I said – with some satisfaction I must admit.
'There speaks Auntie Marj, the demon headmistress of St Anne's,' said Rosie, laughing.
© Kate Blackadder
About the author
Kate Blackadder is a freelance editor, born in Inverness and now living in Edinburgh with her husband and two teenage children. She is a member of the Edinburgh Writers’ Club and goes to a weekly creative writing class at the Southside Community Centre.
She has had poems published in Poetry Scotland, Northwords, Carapace and Catalyst and has been a local winner and a runner-up in Ottakar’s and Faber’s Annual Poetry Competition. She has had stories published in Yours, The People’s Friend and Woman’s Weekly. In 2002 she won a Commended prize for a short story in the Neil M Gunn Writing Competition and in 2006 was shortlisted for the Scotsman Orange Short Story Prize.
She would like to think she could finish writing a novel but reading three or four books a week by other people distracts her from getting past the first chapter.