'That you, pet?'
'Yes, Nan.' Who else has a key? I added, but only in my head. She's pretty old. I can afford to be indulgent.
I shut the door, and the dusty quiet of home and cats and autumn collapsed onto me. I went to find Nan.
The lounge room curtains were closed tightly against the afternoon sun but I could see her, sunk deep in her chair and dressed in something purple and polyester. Reading, of course; eyeball-deep in some comfortable romantic cliché of unbuttoned shirts and thrusting. There is always thrusting.
'Library day, Nan?'
I bent and kissed her hair, close enough to smell talcum powder, cigarette smoke, spearmint.
'Narelle had a whole stack ordered in for me.' She half-closed the book to glance at the front cover. 'I think I've had this one before, with the duke. He has a limp. That's alright, mind. I don't remember it really, so it's like new, isn't it?' I suspected that her confusion might have something to do with a certain sameness of plot amongst her chosen genre, but I said nothing. 'Long day, pet?'
And it had been, so I told her. Enough to get a bit of sympathy but not enough to bore her. I was rewarded with a pat on the arm and a clucking sound.
'Fancy him saying all that, when you've spent so much time on it. You've been scribbling away for days. Bleeding professor should give you marks for effort, is what I think. Tea, love?' And at my nod, she straightened in slow motion and pattered busily to the kitchen. I followed her to the bench.
'Unfortunately, it doesn't work like that. I wish it did. I can put in more effort looking busy than anyone I know.'
Nan acknowledge my attempt at humour with a nod, but I know she doesn’t think of me as the funny one. That's always been my brother's gig.
I opened the fridge and got the milk out, as Nan carefully conveyed sugar from jar to mug. One spoon. Two spoons. Pause. Another little bit of a spoon.
'I still don't know why you have to get a degree just to read books,' she said. 'I don't see why you can't just read them on your own.' She sniffed twice; once at the education system and once at the milk carton in her hand. She poured it.
'There's reading and then there's- like a deep critical understanding.'
But Nan shook her head.
'If you're not enjoying it, what's the point.' A statement, not a question. 'I've read hundreds of books. Thousands, probably, and nobody ever asked me to get a degree first. Waste of time, with your degrees for reading, and degrees for making video games, and music and what-not. Here you go, pet, carry those out. I'll get biscuits.'
I took the brimming mugs back out to the lounge room and set them down on the coffee table. My usual seat was piled up with The Last Cowboy and his lustful companions, so I sat down on the saggy orange sofa. At least one cushion stirred and became a cat so I stood up again.
'Don't sit on Valerie. She doesn't want your bum on her head,' Nan said affably, and put down a tray next to our mugs. Biscuits from a home-brand cream assortment. A jam-jar lid, for discarded teabags. Two tea spoons. One was a sundae spoon, actually, longer and handier for stirring a tall mug. I reached. Nan it smoothly.
'Sit here. Sit in your spot, love. Move those things-' I put the stack of books at my feet. 'And how is Alex going?' Which is the real question, isn't it, even when she leaves it unasked. How strange to be old, filling in the days with thrusting dukes and shirtless cowboys and endless curiosity over other people's boyfriends.
'Yeah, well, he's- yeah. No, he's good.'
My fumbling would have roused even a mind dimmer than Nan's. She just gave me a look, and harrumphed.
'What you need is a real man. One who treats you like a lady and makes a bit a bit of an effort with himself.'
'What, like Jack, the excessively groomed cowboy?' I picked him up and read the back cover. 'Sorry, Chuck the cowboy. ''The brooding rancher next door is about to change Gillian's quiet life forever. Can she tame his wild bachelor's heart?'' Blah de blah.'
'Don't you be a snob. There's nothing like a good romance to pick you up.'
I put it down.
'It's a bit different from the novel I'm reading for this assignment,' I said, more breezily than I should have.
'Oh? Go on then, miss snob. What's your one about?'
'There's this girl who's in rehab for her broken back, and her father is being blackmailed. He's a drug dealer. It's Danish. It-'
'She falls in love with her boyfriend's brother, who's a detective, and she-'
'Ah, torn between two men. Any good love scenes?'
', kind of.' Thinking quickly, because it's tricky to explain the Scandinavian Noir context of the nude ice-fishing scene. 'Just, you know, frustrated but not going anywhere.'
'Hmm. Mine sound better.'
'Chuck the Impossibly Tanned? Or this one, the Duke of-' I checked- 'Really? ?'
I flipped it open.
' ''Sheba arched her back as the Duke ran-'' shouldn't that be ''luxuriously''? - ''ran lascivious fingers down her flushed throat towards the boundless promise of her bountiful breasts.'' She's going all out, this- Mirabelle Thorne. That's a terrible pen-name.'
'I've had a few of hers. She does nice historically ones, with lords and that.'
'Ha! Look here. ''Thrusting with gasping impatience between her yada whatever.'' Thrusting. I told you.'
Nan looked at me waiting. I hadn't told her. I told her. She raised a sparsely pencilled eyebrow.
'You judge the whole lot on one bleeding word? Snob.'
'I'm- I'm not a snob.'
'Don't say that. Romances just aren't my thing.'
'Well, what does that say about you? Can't appreciate the budding love of two young people.'
'Two or possibly more young people. This one has ''a heart-wrenching choice between the man who adores her and the man who desires her''. One of a doctor. Oh. Anatomy of the Heart. I see. And the other one's a- really? An alpaca breeder. What kind of a choice is that?'
'The doctor's obviously the rich bastard and the other one's her true love.' Nan glared over her mug.
'No, actually, I think the doctor is poor. The alpaca breeder's fairly well-off.' I was skimming through it.
'Well, that's probably true enough. You what they're charging for an alpaca cardigan? Bleeding rip-off merchants.'
' ''She shivered at the memory of his efficient fingers''. Efficient.'
'What you need to do is, you need to sit your Alex down with a couple of nice romances and give him an idea of what you want. Give him a role model. Young lads these days don't have any role models. All these single mothers, and workers.' She may have meant FIFO. Which may or may not have been a snipe at both my brother and my mother in one handy package.
'Who says I want this?' I looked down at the cover artwork, which showed both the devilishly rumpled doctor and the rosy-cheeked alpaca man. Which one had the efficient fingers?
I put the book down.
' Thanks for the tea, Nan. I'd better get a move on with this assignment. Do you want me to cook dinner tonight?'
Nan found her place in The Duke of , picking up the story mid-kiss.
'No thanks, pet. We've got some spaghetti left from last night. If leftovers aren't beneath you.'
'Sounds fine, Nan.'
I took the last chocolate cream biscuit as I left.
When I came out of my room later to get my plate of reheated spaghetti, I wasn't that much further along with my work. I was replaying Dr Chase's critique of my draft: unfocused and derivative, showing only a surface understanding of the criteria required. Yeah, well.
Nan was watching some cooking show on TV; a wok full of hot prawns and a posh summery voice. I contemplated the gap between the dinners we all tell each other we're eating, and the actual dinner, the one in my hands.
I took the plate back to my desk to eat. It isn't a desk, it's a card table in the corner, below the clock and the Johnny Cash calendar. I'd wasted plenty of time on this assignment already. It was time to get serious.
I contemplated the gap between the romances that we read, and the actual boyfriend, who is totally committed, babe, but just super busy right now.
Does the novel's idiosyncratic narrative style add interest to the text, or is it a distracting literary conceit? 1200 words. Use examples.
I went to the kitchen and got a biscuit. All the chocolate creams had disappeared. Nan was watching something about celebrities eating cockroaches. When I got back to my desk, I discovered that the assignment still hadn't written itself. I picked up my pen.
Twenty-four and a half minutes or so later, I found myself chewing on the pen and swore, because it's expensive; I bought it for myself, in the hope that it would inspire me to write better. Or more. Or more better. I can't tell if it's worked yet, but it's starting to look ratty.
''She shivered at the memory of his efficient fingers.'' Was his mind elsewhere, as he performed with admirable though robotic fervour?
I went back out to the lounge, which was empty of cats and Nans. I found Anatomy of the Heart sitting on top of Holiday in Heaven and opened it somewhere in the middle.
''He watched her through narrowed eyes.'' Does he find her as one-dimensional as we do? ''She raised her face, lips parted in surprise, closer to him than-''
Nan was calling from the kitchen.
I went back to my room. The book was still in my hands.
This one wasn't written by Mirabelle Thorne. I didn't have to check the cover to know that.
I checked the cover.
April Winter. Ha. There is a definite touch of dryness to her humour. The pseudonym; the title. Or is it a him? It could be. It could be anyone. I've heard a few tales of some pretty prestigious authors who churned out romances to stay busy while they waited to get famous. Or to pay bills, between critically acclaimed works that nobody wanted.
I sat down again and opened it. It was a romance, yes. The strong-willed city-girl heroine thought she was in love with the wealthy country-boy alpaca farmer, but then she met the handsome, serious, magnetic, penniless local doctor. Small town. Impossible choice. Blah blah. The plot was predictable and the woman wasn't worth the Chapter Eight punch-up over her.
Yet- there was something about it. Something sly, indefinable. The alpaca man is so smug, and the woman so exhaustingly feisty- when the doctor finally wins her, the town rejoices but I am left uneasy. The doctor has a coolness, a detachment. Even as he's declaring his love to her in the moonlit garden behind the old pub, he's keeping something back. He's playing a game.
I wondered if a sequel would unravel this, but of course. Romance novels don't have sequels. She gets her man, and there's no more to say.
I got out my phone and did an internet search for April Winter, author. Anatomy of the Heart is her only book. Maybe she has other pseudonyms. Other names, under which she slips strange and unsettling love stories into the world. Or is it a he?
The clock said eighteen past two in the morning.
I picked up my pen and began to write 1200 words on the gap between the type of text that makes a writer look intellectual, and the actual books that keep you sitting up at your card table, far into the night. I used examples.