Somehow Paul finds himself teaching creative writing. He is thirty-one years old. He is going bald. He is wearing black skinny jeans and a pale blue shirt and a pair of smart, real-leather shoes. He is standing in a large room on the first floor of a university building, holding a marker pen, about to write something on a whiteboard. There are nineteen students in Paul’s class, a mixture of second- and third-year undergraduates, and as they all look up from their horseshoe of desks, waiting for him to speak, whatever it was that Paul had planned on saying disappears completely from his head.
It’s like Quantum Leap. He feels beamed-in. He feels like a stranger, suddenly, in his own body. He takes his hand away from the whiteboard and slips the marker back into his jeans pocket, as if that was what he’d meant to do with it all along.
‘Okay,’ he says, turning to face the class. ‘Let’s have a look at, um, at Rachel’s story. Did everyone print out Rachel’s story and read it through, yeah?’
The class give no indication that they’ve heard him.
‘Okay, who wants to go first?’ Paul says.
Each week, after about twenty minutes of Paul’s stuttering and mumbling on an aspect of creative writing, they will critique the first draft of a short story by someone in the group, and no one will ever say anything much about it except, ‘I liked it, I guess.’
This week it’s Rachel’s turn.
Rachel’s story is called ‘The House’.
Nothing happens in it.
There are no characters.
It’s just this three-page description of a house.
Paul glances across at Rachel, who’s looking down at her desk, puffing out her cheeks in mock embarrassment, her scrappy, disorganised ring binder spilling open in front of her.
‘Alison?’ Paul asks the girl with the pale moon face and thick black eyeliner, seated directly to Rachel’s left. ‘Do you want to start us off? What did you think of Rachel’s story, Alison? Alison? Alison?’
Alison looks up from her iPhone, startled, then opens her plastic folder and takes out the three sheets of paper that Paul had asked them to print out and gives them a once-over.
‘I liked it, I guess,’ she says.
Eventually, class finishes and everyone closes their folders and puts away their tablets and laptops and zips up their rucksacks and starts drifting out of the room. It’s protocol for the person whose story has just been workshopped to have an extra ten minutes alone with the tutor afterwards, in case there’s anything else they need to go over in private. So as the class disperse, Rachel hangs around by Paul’s desk, chatting to Alison.
‘Right, let’s head down to my office,’ Paul says, once they’re the last three in the room.
‘Is it alright if Alison comes, too?’ says Rachel.
‘Well, she’ll have to wait outside,’ Paul says.
They’re both looking at him now: Rachel in her unflattering Rip Curl hoodie and baggy jeans, Alison in a translucent whitish T-shirt that hangs off her shoulder and a pair of those shiny black leggings.
They’re so young, Paul thinks. They can only be nineteen, if that.
Don’t look at Alison’s bra, he tells himself, as his eyes drift down towards it, completely visible beneath her T-shirt.
He still can’t work out if she’s a goth or not. Do you even get goths any more? Her hair is dyed black and her fingernails are painted black and her eyes are always heavily made up in thick black eyeliner, but unlike the goth girls Paul knew as a teenager, she’s always wearing these aggressively tight clothes, and whenever she walks around, at the start and end of class, she causes something to coil, a little inappropriately, in Paul’s stomach. There’s a small tattoo on her forearm, a black triangle which – for the first few weeks of class – he thought was drawn on, and another (a rose? a snake? a rose and a snake?) curling mysteriously in the hair behind her left ear.
‘Alright, let’s go,’ Paul says, bundling up his notes and pens and nodding towards the door. Rachel exits first, then Alison, then Paul. He feels himself hanging back a little in order to sneak a quick glance at the smooth round curves of Alison’s buttocks beneath her shiny leggings as she swishes along the corridor ahead of him.
Jesus, he thinks, stop being such a cliché.
Outside the door to ‘his’ office (which is actually just a spare office room that Paul and all the creative writing PhDs have been sharing this semester) Alison announces that she’s gonna go downstairs and get a coffee actually, and that she’ll wait for Rachel in the café bit.
As she turns to leave, she catches Paul’s eye and says, ‘I read your book at the weekend, btw.’
‘Oh . . . right,’ Paul says, taken aback, wanting to carry on speaking but not quite sure what to say.
‘See ya,’ she says, possibly to Paul but much more probably to Rachel, spinning on the rubber heel of her low-rise Converse and heading off down the corridor, her leggings stretched so tight that Paul can just about make out the tiny strips of her knicker elastic beneath them, digging into her hips.
And then he and poor old dowdy Rachel Steed go into the office, a cramped grey room with an old computer desk in the far corner and a couple of brown plastic chairs which Paul sets out for them.
‘How do you feel that went?’ he says.
Rachel examines the end of her stubby fingernail, picks at it, then looks up at him with an intensity he wasn’t expecting. ‘My story’s shit, isn’t it?’ she says. ‘Admit it.’
Paul glances at the printout on the desk in front of him, at the parts he’s underlined, his handwritten notes in the margins, things like: Where are the characters? and What’s this about, exactly?
He looks back up at her and she’s still staring at him.
‘Oh, I wouldn’t say that exactly,’ he says, feeling a bit scared of her all of a sudden.
‘It’s good,’ he hears himself say, which was definitely not what he’d planned on saying last night as he read it over for the first time and groaned, inwardly, not just about how shit Rachel’s story was but about almost everything in his life: his writing, his flat, his relationship, his diet, his bank account, his baldness . . .
‘I mean, it needs more work,’ he says, ‘but as a first draft, it’s actually kind of great.’
Paul spends two distracted hours, wandering around the university library, unable to find a suitable table to work at. Then he sits, finally, in the Herbivores vegetarian café and doesn’t write anything anyway, just sips a cup of tea and attempts – vaguely, frantically, unsuccessfully – to come up with a better idea for a novel than the one he’s currently writing. Then he takes the bus home, to the one-bed flat in Didsbury, South Manchester, which he shares with his girlfriend Sarah.
During the journey, he takes his phone out of his jacket pocket and looks at his emails. There’s two: one from LinkedIn, telling him a person whose name he doesn’t recognise wants to connect with him, and one from his agent Julian:
From: Julian Meichowicz <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: ‘Paul Saunders’ (email@example.com) firstname.lastname@example.org
Date: 06 Oct 2014 16:57pm
Sent from my iPhone
Julian Miechowicz | Conwin Black Associates
Julian is a transplanted American, a few years older than Paul, with a thick black beard and a pained, disinterested way of speaking. Every time Paul’s met Julian, Julian has at some point or other touched his beard and squinted and said a variation of the statement, ‘The publishing industry is a sinking ship; in ten years’ time people won’t be reading books any more.’ At their last meeting, which took place in the back room of a small pub in Soho, Paul promised Julian that he’d start a Twitter account, even though, deep down, he suspects that Twitter is for arseholes. He also promised that he’d have a draft of his novel ready for Julian to read ‘very, very soon’. That was almost two months ago, and Paul’s getting worried that Julian might drop him if he doesn’t deliver soon.
Paul stares at the floating question mark.
He begins to compose a reply on his phone – Sorry. Almost there. Just a few more – then gives up and exits Gmail, and taps his Facebook app instead, scrolling down the feed for something to distract him. He scrolls past a post about someone losing weight, a post about executions in Iran, a post about what DVD someone should watch tonight, and then taps, finally, on a shared link to an old Guardian interview with Jonathan Franzen about his writing method.
When you get home, Paul thinks as he begins to scan through the article, you are going to develop a new writing method, which is where you just sit down and actually write. No more dicking around on the internet. No more watching Come Dine With Me in the living room. Not until you have a full novel draft to show for yourself. When you get home, Paul, you are going to shut yourself away in the bedroom and work hard, for the first time in your life.
He stops reading the Jonathan Franzen article – turns out he’s read it before – and puts his phone back in his pocket and looks out of the window at a kid on a bike/a woman tying a dog up outside a cornershop/a man closing the boot of a Ford Fiesta/a plastic bag floating around in the wind like that bit in American Beauty.
Alison Whistler, Paul thinks.
In his head, she’s sat in class again, not paying attention to him, tapping away at her iPhone. She had a 5, which is two models up from Paul’s. She’s . . . what? Thirteen years younger than me? He wonders what she’s up to tonight. Whether she goes to those Vodka Island foam parties that he always sees the flyers for, littered up and down Oxford Road. He wonders whether she has a boyfriend.
(‘I read your book at the weekend, btw.’)
Paul’s book is called Human Animus.
It’s the reason he got the job at the uni in the first place, the reason he’s not working in a bar any more.
When Paul thinks about the Paul who wrote it: a thin, single man in his mid twenties, who still had all his hair and smoked twenty-five to thirty cigarettes a day, it’s as if he’s remembering someone else, a character in a film, maybe.
He removes a stale piece of nicotine gum from his mouth and rummages around in his coat pocket for a bit of paper to wrap it in. He takes out a small Moleskine notebook (which he paid over a tenner for at the university shop, and which he has decided to carry around with him, since about three weeks ago, in order to reignite his creativity), tears out the first page (still blank) and wraps up the gum. Then he takes a packet of Wrigley’s Extra from his other coat pocket and pops a pellet into his mouth. Since Paul gave up smoking almost eight months ago, at Sarah’s strong insistence, he’s been chewing gum – both nicotine and regular – like a maniac. He’s on about two packs a day.
Is Jonathan Franzen on Twitter? Paul wonders, remembering hazily that in another interview he had possibly spoken out against it.
As the bus creeps home, Paul imagines Franzen standing in a gigantic, air-conditioned kitchen, stretching his back a couple of times (it’s morning, he’s just woken up), then cracking the top on a bottle of ice-cold Perrier and walking with it, barefoot on cool blue tiles, down a long white corridor, through a set of sliding glass doors and out onto a warm green lawn, somewhere in America, where the sky above him is bright and still and endless and he is able to lie down gently beneath it and concern himself only with matters relating to the creation of Art.
‘Good day?’ Sarah asks, when Paul gets in.
Paul stands in the doorway to the living room and thinks about his day: the hours spent preparing his creative writing mini lecture in the morning, almost all of which evaporated from his head the moment he actually needed to say it, his shitty overpriced chicken tikka sandwich for lunch, his class in the afternoon, then Alison’s ‘I read your book at the weekend, btw’, his complete inability to tell Rachel her story was dreadful, the wasted hours wandering around Blue 2 with his head swimming and buzzing, for some reason unable to just choose a table and sit at it, and then this: coming home to a small, damp living room and the smell of drying washing and not even feeling bad or angry or fucked off about it, just nothing, absolutely nothing, like he’s trapped in a Paul-sized envelope of fog, maybe, and thinks: no, I’ve not had a good day.
‘Yeah, pretty good,’ he says. ‘You?’
‘Not bad,’ Sarah says. ‘There’s some soup in the freezer if you like. I’m not eating anything this week.’
So Paul walks into the kitchen, takes an ice cream tub from the freezer, opens it, and tips the contents – a speckled orange brick of frozen carrot soup – into a pot on the hob. As it begins to hiss, he turns on the little radio on the countertop.
‘We live in a culture now,’ an angry-sounding person says, ‘where people simply don’t want to pay for and support the arts any more.’
Paul nudges the sizzling brick of soup around the pan a little with a stained wooden spoon.
‘I’m sorry but that’s rubbish,’ another angry-sounding person on the radio says. ‘People always shared things. They lent each other books, records, CDs. Digital piracy is just a new form of borrowing. We have more access to culture than ever. And I think people are still willing to pay for that culture, if it’s something they really–’
Paul turns off the radio.
According to his last royalty statement, only four hundred and twenty-one people were willing to pay for his novel in paperback.
He thinks again about his new thing, whatever it is, about how impossible it seems to just decide on a single idea and see it through to a satisfying, meaningful conclusion. He doesn’t seem to have a brain that can think in a straight line any more. In its current incarnation, Paul’s new ‘novel’ is actually just a straight retelling of his first serious relationship at university. Oh dear, he thinks. Who the fuck would want to read that?
He feels sick suddenly. A spinning, dizzying sickness, like the one he gets whenever he tries to smoke weed. He turns off the hob and tips the mostly-still-frozen brick of soup back into its ice cream tub and returns it to the freezer. He takes a few deep breaths – in, hold, maybe I should start a Twitter account, release – and waits for the panic to subside. Then he goes and stands in the doorway, looking at the back of Sarah’s head.
‘I’m going to do some writing in the bedroom for a bit,’ he says.
‘Okay,’ Sarah says, not taking her eyes off the TV.
On his way to the bedroom, Paul passes the BT wireless router. I should just turn it off, he thinks. I should just unplug it and ask Sarah to hide it somewhere.
He doesn’t, though.
He carries on down the hall to the bedroom and climbs onto the bed. No slacking off tonight, he thinks as the laptop boots up. Once it’s running, Paul just sits looking at his desktop for a long time. He feels completely numb. He thinks about Alison Whistler. He thinks about Jonathan Franzen. He thinks about a person called Lauren Cross who was his first ever girlfriend and who is one of the two main characters in his latest novel (the other being himself).
No slacking off tonight, he thinks again.
He looks at the icon for Word.
He looks at the icon for Chrome, sitting just to the right of it, like Alison Whistler sitting just to the right of dowdy Rachel Steed in class.
He double clicks on Chrome and it opens on the Google homepage. Paul types ‘Twitter’ into Google. He clicks the link to Twitter. On the homepage, he begins filling in the sign-up form, wondering what shitty username he’s going to choose. Even just writing ‘Paul Saunders’ makes him feel a little depressed. If I had a better name, Paul thinks, a more interesting, unusual name, like ‘Franzen’ for instance, then all the other things in my life would probably be more interesting, too, as a consequence.
Paul fills in his email address and types in a password (Lauren500, the password he still, automatically, unthinkingly types for everything), and then, wearily, hits return.
On the next page, Twitter has suggested his username for him: paulsan62904936.
He selects and deletes paulsan62904936 and enters PaulSaunders.
This username is already taken! it says.
He tries ‘PaulSaundersNovelist’ but it only lets him type as far as PaulSaundersNove.
He types ‘Iamadickhead’.
This username is already taken! Twitter tells him.