A man can fall in love with women, in love with other men, with a country or a cause. Cooper Daniels had fallen in love with a writer, a long time ago. It was not just the writer’s work that Cooper adored, though adore it he did, and he wasn’t alone in that, because this particular writer had been very successful in his craft. Cooper Daniels had adored the man himself: had read every interview, every profile, and although they had only passed an hour together, many years ago, Cooper had felt he knew this writer as a person, knew him as much as anyone could know such an enigmatic man.
Now the writer was dead and Cooper Daniels walked the dales trying to find the cottage where the writer had spent his last years. But the writer’s cottage was not easy to find. Cooper was the classic man-who-won’t-ask-for-directions, and an hour passed before he got out his map. Only Cooper Daniels didn’t understand the map either: Michelle, his wife, was in charge of map-reading on their Dales holidays. Out of habit he looked at the GPS on his phone, but of course GPS didn’t work in the hills either. He had become a blue dot on a meaningless checkerboard of browns and greens.
The map was difficult to fold into its original packet shape, and in the process of doing this, his wedding ring slipped off his finger. Cooper heard it hit the road, and cursed aloud. He had to drop to his hands and knees to find the ring – it blended naturally with the stone road, which seemed to wink and sparkle in the sunshine.
After fifteen minutes he found the ring and – as if his wedding ring had become a magic charm of some kind – the confusion in his mind suddenly ceased. Roads opened up before him, the right turning seemed to beckon at every crossroads, he had never been more sure of where he was and where he was going. At a curve of the river stood the house.
Serena Thrace sat in a chair in the front garden. She wore a wide, floppy hat, a striped sundress and a pair of aviator sunglasses. She gave him a look unqualified by alarm or surprise. It was as if strange younger men turned up here all the time – and perhaps they did.
‘Did you find us okay?’ she asked.
‘It took a while.’
‘I don’t blame you. We’re in the middle of fucking nowhere. I was against this place from day one, but I’m kind of used to it now.’ She stood up. ‘Will you have a drink?’
She walked into the cottage. Something in the turn of her hips made Cooper follow. Inside the place was simple. Plain wood flooring with a fireplace, a rug, two facing couches, a cabinet, from which the writer’s wife took bottles and glasses. ‘You’re here about Oscar.’
There was no point in denying it, and indeed Cooper had drafted justifications over and over in his mind. ‘You’ve every right to tell me to leave. Say the word and I will. I did not know your husband well, but I was a great admirer of his work, which had a huge impact on my own writing. I come only to pay tribute, and to offer –‘
When the writer’s wife faced him, she was smiling, and her sunglasses were gone. ‘Don’t bullshit a bullshitter. You want to write the biography.’
It was a scary moment for Cooper – it was like the widow had looked into his soul and found out a desire he rarely even voiced in his mind. Of course he wanted to be the biographer. He had wanted it ever since he heard the news of Oscar’s death. It had taken all his will to wait six months to find the widow.
He took a step backwards. ‘Of course that would be a huge honour – but I imagine Oscar already had an official biographer appointed.’
‘No, he did not.’ She gave a little shrug. ‘He was very young, and you heard it was all very sudden, the manner of his demise, no? So the fact is that no, we had no biographer. You might as well be it.’
She motioned him to sit down and Cooper did, his mind racing. The first – the definitive! – biography of Oscar Thrace would outsell Cooper’s entire body of fiction put together. No more teaching cynical undergraduates who were trying to be the next Jon McGregor or Ali Smith, who shouted Yo, Coop! at him on the concourse. No more long evenings marking their work.
The writer’s wife took the couch opposite him. ‘So, where do we begin? That was always a hard part for Oscar – I had to practically jump-lead him to get him going.’
Cooper missed the innuendo because he was going back through his old thoughts. ‘I don’t want to start with his childhood – that’s such a predictable way of writing biography, and there was nothing in Oscar’s early life that suggested that he would become as successful as he did. I want the structure to be arresting. Experimental.’
The widow had removed her hat, and Cooper was struck by how beautiful she was. ‘That’s an excellent approach. I have some biographies of other writers you should read, if you haven’t already – Schenker on Patricia Highsmith is a particular favourite of mine. And you’re right – Oscar was just an underachieving little rich boy until I came along.’
The widow’s golden hair and bare shoulders threw the simplicity of the room into strange relief. Where was all Oscar’s stuff, his carbons, his cahiers and first editions? Cooper would need to look at all of it, and assumed that the writer’s wife had stored everything in a hidden room somewhere: grief, Cooper had read, affected people that way.
‘Start with how you met him,’ he said.
‘The first secret is that Oscar and I had an arranged marriage.’ Her voice was rich and strange to Cooper; perfect, accentless English, but with a depth that suggested that she was foreign born or at least very well travelled. ‘The mythos is that we met at a postgraduate function at Trinity, and it was the eyes-across-a-crowded-room nonsense. In fact, I had inspired another writer, who had written a vicious satire of a politician whose name you would recognise.’
Cooper realised he had forgotten his notebook. ‘I should write this down. Do you have a pen and paper?’
The widow’s laugh was like a river in fury. ‘I think you’ll remember. Now, the satire was a successful one, and readers could easily see the politician in it. The politician became the laughing-stock of the town. The politician blamed the writer, but he also blamed me, for inspiring the satire. Now, this politician was also a powerful landowner. He made life difficult for my father, and my father blamed me. I was very promiscuous in those days, but my father wanted to settle me down, so he and Oscar’s family arranged the match.’
Cooper was confused about the relationships in this story. He drank from his glass. The writer’s wife had poured him a globe of something the colour of wild roses, that crackled with ice. It was delicious, but did nothing to clear his head. ‘I saw you together when I was at university. You seemed very much in love.’
‘The lecture at the writing school in Manchester. That would have been in 2006. I remember it well. By that point I had begun to fall in love with him a little. You can’t live with someone, sleep with them, without feeling a little love. And my husband was so loyal, so demonstrative.’ She almost sighed, and Cooper’s mind went back to that lecture. He often thought of that evening because it was the evening that he and Oscar Thrace, in the bar across the road, had fallen into their hour of blissful, two-way conversation.
Now he remembered less pleasant aspects of that night. He had been an undergraduate then, and they’d all made fun of Oscar’s wife sitting on the stage – and the women among them had been twice as scathing as the men. I’m loving the dumb-blonde appendage he’s got up there with him, Clara Lewis had said. That bit when the Dean asked Oscar how he depicted a relationship where one partner brings nothing to the table – I just wanted to ask Serena, maybe you could help with that part?
Yes, they had laughed at her. And now the widow’s brown eyes were fixed on him again.
How did she remember this so well?
‘He had young women throw themselves at him – the groupies, we called them.’ The vulgarity sounded odd from her lips. ‘But he never fucked a single one, and I’d have seen it, I’d have known.’
Cooper drank some more of the strange, rich drink. ‘Oscar wrote in The Tribe that love and inspiration are both the same thing – like lightning.’
‘Yes. Which, as I already said, wasn’t my experience of love in marriage.’
‘But you told me you were very much in love –‘
She drank off her rest of her own drink, and he noticed for the first time the wealth of jewellery on her fingers and wrists. Another thing at odds with her careful, understated style.
‘It was better when we were in the cities,’ she said. ‘London, Los Angeles, New York. The cities are where my kind thrives. So much to see. So many stories. I could forget that I had been trapped and sold. But then Oscar had the ridiculous idea that he wanted to live in the country.’
‘Come on, this surely isn’t such a bad place to wait out the pandemic.’
Now her laugh was like an echo in a cave. ‘Oh, yes – the ridiculous coronavirus that emptied your cities. No doubt it will inspire a clutch of ghastly social novels. You people think you know what plague is? I remember the plague that took the Greeks, in the place you now call Hisarlik. Men died in moments. Not even the goats were spared.’ She had stood up, and gestured to the outside. ‘Plenty of goats and cattle out there, last I looked!’
Now Cooper began to feel afraid. He wished the widow would sit down.
‘Everyone thinks that, to us, twenty years of marriage would pass like nothing, an eyeblink. But life for a god can be as long and slow as for anyone. Twenty years of listening to the same man. Feeding his brain. I just snapped, I admit it.’ She stopped pacing, and looked at him.
‘I should get going,’ Cooper said. ‘My wife – there’s a pub quiz this evening. I don’t know how long it will take to get back.’
She smiled, sweetly.
Had she been this tall?
‘He didn’t suffer,’ she said. ‘In fact, he died happy. Inspiration is like a thunderbolt, Oscar said. I just turned the power up a little.’
Cooper tried to stand, but his legs weren’t working. A warm, insidious sensation slowly flooded his body, from the feet up.
‘All his shit I burned,’ said the being known as Serena Thrace. ‘Twenty years of work, up in smoke! Hee-hee!’
Then the writer’s wife had pinned him to the sofa. Her arms were like cables. Her jewellery jangled. Her face was ancient and timeless.
‘You know, Oscar never fucked the groupies.’ Her breath was the air from deserts and old, forgotten caves. ‘But I’ve been known to.’