The Secret Order of the Literati


THE SECRET ORDER OF THE LITERATI

 

You’re allowed to be angry.


I bloody am.


What disturbs me is that more people aren’t.


From the cradle to the grave, we’re taught respect. Respect the man in the pinstriped suit. An MBA from Cranfield and a Bentley Mulsanne. He must know what he’s talking about. Not only that, but he represents a long-established order of people who know what they’re talking about. Give him your money, don’t ask questions. You probably wouldn’t understand the answers anyway.


I tell you what I do understand. The entire banking system is built on rabid ludomania. We founded our very society upon it. Empires rose and fell, temples were looted, peoples enslaved, nations stripped of their ancient, sparkling assets in order to feed our greedy notion of ordered wealth.


From the macrocosm of global ignorance to the microcosm of individual unease. Bankers, mechanics, IT technicians – it’s all the same. You trust them because you’re supposed to, and you’re supposed to because you’re told you must. ‘They know what they’re doing,’ comes the plaintive cry of those who know that they, themselves, do not.


A feudal triangle of gain, contingent on those at the bottom having less than those above; be that knowledge or money. Eventually, once all of the wealth has filtered to the top, something has to give. Without redistribution you are left with only trillionaires and paupers.


It’s painful to think that one of the first countries ever to invent a banking system now teeters on the edge of bankruptcy.


I take no joy in that. No delight. Whilst the suits rub their hands and try to pick the fastest horse in the next race, the human cost steadily mounts.


“Susan,” my boss snaps his fingers in front of my face.


 “It’ll be ready by four o’clock.”


“Did I mention the report?” he asks, supercilious arrogance oozing from every orifice. “No, I did not. You just looked a little spaced. Everything okay?”


If he pats me on the head, I will scream.


“Fine. Thinking about what to have for dinner tonight.”


“Just yourself?”


“Just me.”


“Well, you could stop off on the way home. That new supermarket up near Redlands does a great deal on Indian take-home for one.”


My nails claw the underside of my desk whilst I smile sweetly up at him.


“I’ll do that, Mike. Thanks.”


With a wink and a waft of aftershave, he is gone.


I chew my thumb for a moment, wondering: ‘Why all the angst?’ But I know why. Anger is the easy option. Anger feels pro-active. So long as you’re angry, you’re doing something. Even if it’s just hating.


That’s what it’s like for a necrophobe, see. I’m terrified of death. Some people say they’re not afraid of dying but they’re afraid of how they die. It’s not nice to think about being in pain, or drowning, or slowly slipping away with no control over your own demise.


That isn’t my problem, though. The reason that the public infatuation with the economic ‘crisis’ bothers me so deeply, is because there is no crisis. Or at least there wouldn’t be, if we chose not to make one. It’s not beyond the wit of the entire human species to produce enough food, build everybody a house, undertake family planning, develop ecologically sustainable energy, even practice the Metta flippin’ Bhavana once a week. We crawled out of the primordial soup of nothingness over a billion years ago. This is small fry in comparison. 


Yet, here we are. America’s going bust, Britain’s going bust, everyone except Germany is dialling Loans4U. To whom, exactly, do we owe all of this money? If we invented the banking system in the first place, well, why not invent another system? A better one. Problem solving 101 – if it ain’t working, fix it. We’re allowed to replace our government every five years, why not our currency? It could be the best five years of our lives to trade in sexual favours.


But, no. We’re collectively making a pact. Every single one of us is going to sit here and buy into it. If our lives were a dripping tap, each day that passes would be another wasted drop in the ocean of eternal inertia. Each day fettered by worry; our dreams overshadowed by overdrafts, interest rates, and the IMF.


With each day that passes, the panic rises inside me. A gut-crunching fear that this is all there is. We’ve put a man on the moon, we’ve built the Hadron Collider, we’ve photographed the surface of the sun using only a thimbleful of funding and a fraction of our own, innate brilliance. Just imagine what we could have achieved had our priorities been different. The life we might have led.


That’s what terrifies me. I’m not just afraid of my own death. Shuffling off this mortal coil with the last image seared across my retinas being some reality singing show, or celebrity liver-swap. The thought doesn’t enthral me, but it’s not just me that I’m worried about.


It’s ultimate inhalation that bothers me most. The cessation of human existence. It seems so tragically avoidable. With just a little bit of effort, I’m sure that we could save ourselves. Or at least make one incredible statement on the way out.


*


Chewing my pen, I squint at the wall. Strip lighting gives me a headache.


“Would anybody like to share?” Cherie asks. Her ruby-red lips part seductively as she glances towards Adrian, her favourite. He avoids her eyes. She scans the room, meeting mine. “Susan, what about you?”


I am the chicken that never made it to the other side.


“I, um. Not sure that I’ve,” I buy time, ruffling through my notes.


“It’s okay Sue, don’t feel pressured. Just give us what you’ve got.”


But that’s just it – I haven’t got anything!


“I was working on this piece about-”


“Great! Share it.”


“But it’s not quite…” I run out of words.


The disappointment in her eyes manifests as an audible sigh. I’m thirteen again, sitting in the nurse’s office, my mother called out of work because I’ve thrown up over myself. Just a stomach bug, but the humiliation of sitting in my own stench for three-quarters of an hour, and the look of mortal inconvenience on my mother’s face – you never forget moments like that.


“Adrian, have you got anything for me this week?”


Of course he has.


I settle back in my chair. The classroom smells of pastel fixative and clay. Looking for socially acceptable escapism, I joined the creative writing course three months ago. At forty-one, I am the oldest person here. I’d hoped for an eclectic bunch. A well-travelled Hemingway, perhaps. A Byronic libertine, just for laughs. Maybe a strong, black Angelou: fiercely political, raring to rise up against inequality; somebody who left you no option but to listen.


Alas. No such luck. Adrian is the world’s worst Lothario. Fresh out of university. Unkempt, unshaven, unmemorable. Prose so introspect, he needs a colonoscopy to extract them.


Cherie is no better. Our tricenarian tutor, so busy wriggling around her desk in an attempt to keep his attention that the rest of us may as well go home.


What kills me are the thoughts inside my head that I can’t get down on paper. My entire working day is filled with thoughts. Dark ones, funny ones, surreal and profound. I itch to get home and write. I joined a writing group specifically to enable such an action. Yet, here I am – blank.


Gathering my things, I shove them into my bag. Another disappointing day wasted; another drop of water down the drain.


*


I stand at the bus stop, cigarette in hand. The nights have drawn in. Fine drizzle mists the street lamps, causing them to glow like fat, round oranges on the end of sticks.


That’s my problem. No poetry in my soul. What should I have said? Eerie Chinese lanterns? Peach-coloured setting suns? Like the – oh my God she’s going to die!


I can hardly believe my eyes as I stand and watch the number forty-three bus round the corner. Bright white headlights swing towards me, rising like moons on an alien planet. Silhouetted against their beam is a woman. She’s bending over in the middle of the road, trying to pick something up.


I hadn’t seen her in the dark, and she hasn’t seen the bus. I have five seconds to think whilst my feet pound the pavement. By the time I’ve made up my mind to save her, we’ve rolled to a halt in an icy lagoon.


“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” screams an irate, male voice. “I could have killed you!”


Slowly, I remove myself from the woman beneath me. She’s young, probably half my age. She’s wearing wire-rimmed glasses and her thick, mahogany curls are gathered in a red scrunchie. The sheer quantity of hair cushions her head against the pavement.


“Well?” The bus driver stands beneath the shelter, hands on hips, foot tapping. My mother used to take that stance whenever I was late for dinner. “Are you getting on?”


Rising steadily to my feet, I reach down and pull the woman up. She blinks at me from behind rain-peppered lenses, then smiles.


“You saved my life,” she says.


“I suppose so.”


“That’s amazing. You’re amazing.”


I’m not sure what to say. I don’t feel as though I deserve this praise. It wasn’t exactly a conscious decision. Had I actually been allowed a say in the matter, I might very well have stayed put.


“For Pete’s sake,” I hear the disgruntled driver mutter.


“Where do you live?” I ask.


“Meadowbank.”


“That’s near me. Come on, let’s get you home.”


*


“I can’t believe I didn’t see it coming,” Zoë says once we’re safely installed on the bus, rather than under it.


“What were you doing in the middle of the road?” I ask.


“Oh, I dropped my file.”


“Must be important?”


“Very much so.”


I glance at the green plastic wallet out of the corner of my eye. What on earth is worth losing your life over? Is she some MI5 agent? Does it contain top-secret information about government trade-offs with Palestinian rebels? I am just about to ask when the bus pulls up at the next stop.


“I can’t thank you enough,” she says, squeezing my hand. “I owe you everything.”


Before I have a chance to reply, she alights. We are still miles from Meadowbank. For the rest of the journey I wonder whether she sustained head injuries. Perhaps she’s wandering around, dazed and disoriented. I should have followed her, but it’s too late now.


Letting myself into my apartment, the reality of what I’ve done finally hits me. Closing the door, I sink slowly to the ground and take several shaky breaths.


I could have died tonight. A few more seconds and that would have been it. Game over. Finito.


Vowing never to do anything so stupid again, I remove my sodden coat and drape it over a hook. As I do so, something falls to the floor.


Bending to collect it, I discover a folded piece of paper so waterlogged that it practically dissolves in my hand. Somehow, during the kerfuffle, I managed to pocket the sheet that Zoë had been holding. Carefully, I unfold it.


There’s just enough legible print to make out the words: Habent sua fata libelli beneath a strange motif. I put the kettle on, change into dry clothes, and boot up my computer. Middle-aged I may be, but public school educated I am not. Amo, amas, amat, a mammoth, a mantis, an ant, is about as far as I get.


The symbol bothers me more. My grandfather, on my mother’s side, was a Freemason. When I was eleven, he made Master Mason at his lodge. As his close family, we had to join a piped procession through the room to the high table. Towards the end of the night, the rosy-cheeked Worshipful Brothers stood to give an address to the ladies. We were each presented with a delicate silver pin. It depicted the Scottish thistle, the English rose, and the Masonic emblem of the square and compasses.


It is this last symbol that the image on the piece of paper most resembles. Only, instead of a set of compasses, one leg represents a quill, and the other a fountain pen. Replacing the square is a simple sheet of blank parchment.


*


By Thursday, I am still perplexed. So much so, that I have completely forgotten about the global economic catastrophe and my own mortality. It’s a welcome distraction.


Despite searching the entire internet, I haven’t been able to find anything that remotely resembles this picture. The only thing that I have been able to ascertain is that the Latin phrase is part of a longer one: Pro captu lectoris habent sua fata libelli. Translated, it seems to say something about each book having a destiny, depending on the person who reads it.


Having dried the paper over the radiator, it now crackles satisfyingly against the breast pocket of my blouse. I hold a mystery close to my heart. This makes me smile. For once, something unknown. A sponge briefly absorbing the monotonous drip drip drip of my day. Storing up a little suspense.


Adrian accosts me in the hallway. “You know, you really should read something out.”


“Excuse me?”


“Well, this is a writing group. It doesn’t matter what you write, but you need to make some effort. Nobody’s judging you, you don’t have to be embarrassed or anything. You just need to have a go.”


I stare at him. This boy, half my age, with his ripped jeans and his sculpted hair.


We are saved from silence by a gaunt man in a grey suit.


“Excuse me, is this the way to the writing group?” he asks.


The remnants of his grey hair have been cut short around the sides, an island of scalp shining through like a monk’s tonsure. Tall and narrow, he possesses a straight Roman nose and clear blue eyes. Hardly the type of person to join our flamboyant ranks. I feel like mentioning the accountancy course they run on a Friday, but think better of it.


“This way,” I say.


He follows me down the corridor.


There seems to be some confusion. Cherie doesn’t understand how he has managed to join our class so far through the semester. 


“I paid in advance,” he explains from a table at the back of the room, remarkably unfussed by the issue. The low desks and plastic chairs are too small, causing him to hunch over. His eyes remain downcast as he speaks in a soft, unimposing tone.


“I really don’t remember seeing your name on the list.” Cherie chews the gloss from her lips.


“Check again.”


Flustered, she returns to her desk and pulls out a handful of papers. At that moment Adrian enters the room and her attention drifts.


“Well, I’ll check with administration tomorrow. Welcome to the class Mr-”


“Aesop.”


“Aesop. Really?” Her brow furrows.


“Problem?”


She shakes her head.


*


By the end of the session, I’m contemplating quitting. I’ve come armed with an arsenal of flash fiction but Cherie doesn’t ask me to read and, after Adrian’s little spiel, I have no desire to put myself forward. He’d only take credit for my participation; congratulate himself on our earlier tête à tête.


The new guy reads a poem. It’s not bad. It’s about seeing memories in the surface reflections of water. Cleverly constructed and rich in imagery.


When the second hand finally strikes the o’clock, I button up my coat and walk out into the car park. It’s so cold that the ghosts of former breaths evaporate before my eyes.


I’m halfway across the tarmac when Mr. Aesop appears by my side.


“You’re Susan, aren’t you?”


“That’s right.” I nod but keep walking.


“Susan Abingdon?”


Alarm bells ring. He may have overheard my name in class, but not my surname. I quicken my pace towards the road.


“May I speak with you a moment?”


“Certainly, but I’m cold. If you don’t mind, I’ll keep walking.”


His long legs easily allow him to keep up with me.


“Ms. Abingdon, it is a matter of some importance.”


“What is?” I ask, reaching the road.


“You have something that belongs to us.”


A sleek black saloon glides to the curb. The back door opens and he pushes me in. Swallowed by a four-wheeled whale; the world fades behind its tinted windows. 


*


“I can’t believe you didn’t check first,” a male voice pierces my groggy haze.


“I tried, but she panicked.” I recognise this second voice as Aesop’s.


“There’s nothing even on this. It’s completely rain-damaged.”


“So, we leave her on the street.”


“Impossible. She’s seen your face, and Evelyn’s.”


“She’ll never see us again. If she tries to tell anybody, they’d never believe her. If they did, they’d never find us.”


Rope cuts into my wrists. I appear to be sitting on a chair with them tied behind me. There is a sack covering my head. I try desperately to stay as still as possible, but their conversation comes to an abrupt halt.


“She’s awake,” Aesop hisses.


I hear shuffling.


“No! Don’t do that!” the other man shouts.


“We can’t just leave her like this. We’re not animals.”


“Zoë?” I ask, recognising the female voice.


Silence.


Slowly, the sack inches its way over my face. I blink as my eyes adjust. The room looks like a Victorian study. There is a desk covered in papers, and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves crammed with leather-bound tomes. Three lamps cast dim shadows between the furniture. The air weighs heavy with the scent of aging parchment.


Two figures stand by the desk. The first is Aesop. The second is a young man in a thick duffle coat and scarf. His angular jaw, spiked black hair, and goatee make him seem demonic. He stares at me as though I have materialised out of nowhere.


“I can’t believe you just did that,” he growls. I realise that he is speaking to the girl I know as Zoë. She’s standing next to me, wrapping the sack nervously around her hands.


I try to move, but the tightness of my restraints cause sharp pain in my shoulders. “Where am I?”


“That’s not important,” the younger man snaps.


“It’s very important to me,” I say, feeling my bottom lip wobble. As the sedative wears off, I find fear replacing it.


The younger man runs a hand through his hair and turns away from me. Aesop looks helplessly towards Zoë.


“You’re safe,” she tells me.


“That isn’t an answer. I saved your life. Why would you do this to me?”


“It was a mistake,” Aesop replies. “You picked up a piece of paper. We’re not blaming you.”


“Blaming me?”


“You accidentally took one of my notes,” Zoë continues. “It’s classified information I’m afraid.”


“But there’s nothing on it. The rain washed it clean.”


“Yes. We know that now,” Aesop mutters.


The younger man turns back. “Oh, this is a disaster.” He folds his arms and leans against the desk.


I’m too bewildered not to ask the obvious question: “Are you going to kill me?”


The ensuing silence is not encouraging.


After a moment, the young man opens his mouth, but Zoë interrupts him.


“No. Of course we’re not going to kill you.”


“We can’t very well let her go,” Aesop frowns.


Zoë holds his gaze until he looks away, ashamed. “A life for a life,” she tells him.


Looking up at Zoë, she smiles at me and pinches my shoulder reassuringly.


It’s all too much. “I just wanted to be a writer,” I whimper. Tears flow hot against my cheeks.


“Shush, we’ll have none of that.” She kneels down behind me. A moment later I feel the ropes drop away. Rubbing sensation back into my wrists, I notice that they are starting to bruise.


“Well, she is a writer,” Aesop says, shrugging.


“Everyone’s a writer,” the younger man snorts.


“Yes, but we could use an extra pair of hands.”


They look at me.


*


“It’s Jim le Bonne’s latest, isn’t it?” I run my fingers over a tower of best selling novels.


“That’s right. Thirty-two countries, nineteen languages. Booker, Costa and WH Smith winner. Richard and Judy read of the month.” Evelyn reaches up and plucks a copy from the top.


Reading the back, I glean that it’s something to do with banking, third-world debt, and a plot to replace the Queen of England with her own Tussauds waxwork in a bid to smuggle diamonds out of Ghana in a tiara.

It sounds complicated.


The room is filled with stacks of current and former big titles. I’ve read most of them.


“What on earth are you doing with all these books?”


“Rewriting them,” the young man says, appearing in the doorway. He introduced himself as Mortlock, but I suspect that’s just another pseudonym.


“Well, not strictly,” Evelyn corrects. “More sort of ‘editing’.”


“But why?”


“Because, dear girl, the fate of nations rests with us.” Aesop lowers his voice conspiratorially. “We are the Literati.”


Mortlock steps forward with a flourish of his hand. “Since the days of ancient Greece, it has been understood that the future is written in our own hand. We are the scribes of our own imagining, and, what we can imagine, we can manifest. 'If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales.’ Who said that?”

“None other than Einstein himself!” Aesop informs me. “The greatest genius of our epoch.”


I blink, missing the connection. What has this to do with my abduction and a room full of pilfered publications?


Mortlock reaches into his pocket and produces my crumpled piece of paper. “This is what we’re all about, Susan. We are the giants upon whose shoulders others stand.”


I admit that I don’t quite follow. Mortlock lets out a sigh and hands me another copy of Jim le Bonne’s book. “Page fifty two, paragraph four,” he says. “Start reading.”


Diligently, I turn to the correct page in both books and begin reading.


“Wait,” I say. “They’re different.”


“Subtly so,” Evelyn nods. “It’s been academically proven, what we have known all along. Fiction changes our social behaviour. It enhances our ability to analyse situations, to understand the motives of others, and to make considered choices.”


“Who do you think reads the most?” Aesop asks me, raising his eyebrows. When I fail to give an answer, he continues. “Commuters in the city, Susan. That’s who. Parliamentarians, economists, civil servants and Voluntary Sector workers. A vast network of people in charge of the very fabric of our country’s being. And not just our country. Every country. The planet. Humanity.”


“So you rewrite best sellers to what – subliminally message them?”


“In a way, yes. Though, as our motto states, the destiny of each book lies in its reader’s ability to comprehend it. Books have souls, you see. Each one of them strives to live a useful life, born afresh in the eyes of every reader.”


“We study the reader,” Evelyn continues. “What they’ve read before, the professional decisions they’ve made. Then we flick a few lexical switches, drop in a pronoun here and there...”


“How long have you been at it?”


“We come from a long line of authors and publishers,” Aesop states proudly. “Our lineage dates back generations, to the very birth of the written word.”


“Well, you can’t be very good at it.”


There is a collective intake of breath.


“I mean, seriously, if what you’re suggesting actually works, then surely you could have saved humanity a lot of angst. Rewritten Mein Kampf for a start.”


“It doesn’t work like that,” Mortlock explains. “Firstly, that wasn’t fiction. People who immerse themselves in non-fiction to such a degree – there’s no saving them. Their minds are incapable of the type of free-thinking agility required in bringing about a significant change of habit. Secondly, we can only make alterations on a book-by-book basis. Imagine if the original authors got wind of this! It has happened in the past, once or twice. One author spotted discrepancies in a donated library copy. We try to retrieve rogue editions, but this one eluded us. Anyway, the author sued his publisher who, in turn, sacked a Copy Editor for want of a better explanation. We can cope with an occasional slip every century, but anything more than that jeopardises our entire operation.”


“We can’t be expected to save the world in one go,” Evelyn laments. “Some wars, for instance, are perpetrated by disaffected people who haven’t had access to formal education. If they can’t read, we can’t touch them. Not our department.”


“There are other organisations like yours?”


They exchange glances. Reluctantly, Mortlock speaks. “We belong to a larger society, Susan. One whose name you must never utter out loud.” He takes a pen from his inside breast pocket and writes on the back of my rain-stained parchment. I read the words: Illumina dell'arte.


“I see.”


“No, but you will.” He replaced the pen in his jacket. “You have a choice to make. Help us to write the future of humanity, or watch the story of your life dwindle to a weak ending marred by unmemorable characters and a forgettable plot.”


Put in such literary terms, I find myself captivated. He’s good. He’s very good. I’ve always felt as though my life were only half-told; a Shakespearean sonnet trapped beneath the dust cover of puerile pulp fiction. This has to be my chance!


“What would I have to do?”


“We have read your work,” Aesop informs me. I am surprised, as I keep everything locked in my desk draw. “You have potential, and we could teach you to be a great writer. Very great indeed. But, for now, you would be our delivery boy.”


“Girl,” Evelyn corrects.


“Delivering to whom?”


“We will position you within the publishing industry,” Aesop explains. “Raise you to the inner circles. You will have access to the highest echelons of government. You’ll meet globally influential people.”


“And do what?”


“Recommend books.”


“We have the power to intercept orders,” Mortlock smiles, running a hand through his mop of unruly hair. “Zambezi, Whetstones, AbcBooks – we have access to them all. Every time someone orders a book, we can make sure that they receive an edited version. If all else fails, we send a review copy.”


I’m still feeling dubious. “Name me one example of this ever having worked,” I challenge.


“It works all the time. Last budget speech: ‘We must plan for a sustainable future,’ a direct quote from The Red Box by Artie Mitchell. Originally it was a ‘prolonged’ future.”


“He needed a buzz word, we supplied it,” Aesop says. “Two paragraphs down we inserted a line of dialogue suggesting that this could be achieved through hiking interest rates on the top percentile.”


“You squeezed all of that into one line?”


“We’re professionals.”


“The important thing to remember,” Evelyn says, “is that two months after reading the book, that’s exactly what the Chancellor announced in his reforms. By which time he’d forgotten where he’d read it, but the idea had been firmly seeded. The changes will help countless disaffected youth and homeless people across the country. We can’t depose the banks entirely, but we can twist their arms from the inside. There’s nothing so dangerous as an idea.”


“Why don’t you just write your own book?” I ask. “Surely it would be a lot easier than meddling with other peoples’?” I motion to the wall of books behind me. “If you’ve got such great ideas, why not publish a manual?”


Mortlock sighs. “Haven’t you been listening to anything we’ve said?”


“If we put everything into one book,” Evelyn elucidates, “people would be overwhelmed by reason. We have to operate this way. Firstly, people love renowned authors. They are more willing to follow them anywhere their imaginations care to lead – suspension of disbelief, and all that. Secondly, you can only drip-feed genius. People have to feel as though they have stumbled upon an idea themselves. Maybe three sentences in a ninety-thousand word novel will hit home; really spark profound change. You have to make those lines count.”


“Everybody’s got a book that changed their life,” Mortlock smiles. “They’re just never entirely sure which part it was.”


*


I do not exist.


Apart from the lack of Ray-Bans, it’s a bit like that Hollywood movie where people protect the world from aliens at the expense of their former identities. 


I’ve met politicians, international diplomats, heads of the UN, DFID, WHO, FCO, MOD; swum in a pool of acronyms as thick as alphabet soup.


Sometimes I wonder how the night classes are going. Whether Cherie ever made her move on Adrian; whether he broke her heart. It doesn’t last long, though. I’m far too busy.


So far I’ve arranged royal matches through carefully cultivated classics, paved the way for political negotiations with deviant copies of Catch-22, War and Peace, and, surprisingly, Watership Down. Results aren’t always immediate but, over time, I’m convinced that the work we do here is effectual.


I’ve learned a lot about the art of stories, too. I now understand why you can’t write a book that unites all people. True to the motto – each story lives in the imagination of its reader. Some people have more imagination than others.


Mortlock showed me the sacred book of the Literati. It takes two people to lift the cover. The most important story of all is told within its pages: the story of humanity. Born of the ocean bed, we swam as in a womb. Crawling out through the mud and mess, we took our first shaky breaths. Like children we learned to walk, to talk, and to hold a pen. We schooled ourselves in the art of reason whilst clinging to the censer-swinging mythology of our groggy dreams. In our teenage years we threw great tantrums of war, kicking, screaming and inflicting horrific injuries upon ourselves. All our toys lay broken. Although we have grown to love computers and science, we haven’t yet learned to put our rubbish in the bin. We fall prey to sickness, diseases, and our own ignorance, yet still we dream of the stars.


We are young as a species. We will grow into ourselves.


I now understand why the work of the Literai is limited. This story – the story of humanity – is greater than any of us. It is the story of us all: living, dead, and yet to be born. We may have completed the beginning, but our conclusion is a long way off, even though we choose to terrify ourselves with the apocalyptic monster under our bed.


We have yet to grow up.


 “Ah, Joanna!”


I turn with a smile.


“Yes, Prime Minister?”


“Loved the book launch last week. Superb job, well done. I was just wondering whether you could recommend a light read?”


“Certainly. Crime, romance or thriller?”


©Marion Grace Woolley 2011

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You’re allowed to be angry.

I bloody am.

What disturbs me is that more people aren’t.

From the cradle to the grave, we’re taught respect. Respect the man in the pinstriped suit. An MBA from Cranfield and a Bentley Mulsanne. He must know what he’s talking about. Not only that, but he represents a long-established order of people who know what they’re talking about. Give him your money, don’t ask questions. You probably wouldn’t understand the answers anyway.

I tell you what I do understand. The entire banking system is built on rabid ludomania. We founded our very society upon it. Empires rose and fell, temples were looted, peoples enslaved, nations stripped of their ancient, sparkling assets in order to feed our greedy notion of ordered wealth.

From the macrocosm of global ignorance to the microcosm of individual unease. Bankers, mechanics, IT technicians – it’s all the same. You trust them because you’re supposed to, and you’re supposed to because you’re told you must. ‘They know what they’re doing,’ comes the plaintive cry of those who know that they, themselves, do not.

A feudal triangle of gain, contingent on those at the bottom having less than those above; be that knowledge or money. Eventually, once all of the wealth has filtered to the top, something has to give. Without redistribution you are left with only trillionaires and paupers.

It’s painful to think that one of the first countries ever to invent a banking system now teeters on the edge of bankruptcy.

I take no joy in that. No delight. Whilst the suits rub their hands and try to pick the fastest horse in the next race, the human cost steadily mounts.

“Susan,” my boss snaps his fingers in front of my face.

 “It’ll be ready by four o’clock.”

“Did I mention the report?” he asks, supercilious arrogance oozing from every orifice. “No, I did not. You just looked a little spaced. Everything okay?”

If he pats me on the head, I will scream.

“Fine. Thinking about what to have for dinner tonight.”

“Just yourself?”

“Just me.”

“Well, you could stop off on the way home. That new supermarket up near Redlands does a great deal on Indian take-home for one.”

My nails claw the underside of my desk whilst I smile sweetly up at him.

“I’ll do that, Mike. Thanks.”

With a wink and a waft of aftershave, he is gone.

I chew my thumb for a moment, wondering: ‘Why all the angst?’ But I know why. Anger is the easy option. Anger feels pro-active. So long as you’re angry, you’re doing something. Even if it’s just hating.

That’s what it’s like for a necrophobe, see. I’m terrified of death. Some people say they’re not afraid of dying but they’re afraid of how they die. It’s not nice to think about being in pain, or drowning, or slowly slipping away with no control over your own demise.

That isn’t my problem, though. The reason that the public infatuation with the economic ‘crisis’ bothers me so deeply, is because there is no crisis. Or at least there wouldn’t be, if we chose not to make one. It’s not beyond the wit of the entire human species to produce enough food, build everybody a house, undertake family planning, develop ecologically sustainable energy, even practice the Metta flippin’ Bhavana once a week. We crawled out of the primordial soup of nothingness over a billion years ago. This is small fry in comparison.  

Yet, here we are. America’s going bust, Britain’s going bust, everyone except Germany is dialling Loans4U. To whom, exactly, do we owe all of this money? If we invented the banking system in the first place, well, why not invent another system? A better one. Problem solving 101 – if it ain’t working, fix it. We’re allowed to replace our government every five years, why not our currency? It could be the best five years of our lives to trade in chocolate buttons.

But, no. We’re collectively making a pact. Every single one of us is going to sit here and buy into it. If our lives were a dripping tap, each day that passes would be another wasted drop in the ocean of eternal inertia. Each day fettered by worry; our dreams overshadowed by overdrafts, interest rates, and the IMF.

With each day that passes, the panic rises inside me. A gut-crunching fear that this is all there is. We’ve put a man on the moon, we’ve built the Hadron Collider, we’ve photographed the surface of the sun using only a thimbleful of funding and a fraction of our own, innate brilliance. Just imagine what we could have achieved had our priorities been different. The life we might have led.

That’s what terrifies me. I’m not just afraid of my own death. Shuffling off this mortal coil with the last image seared across my retinas being some reality singing show, or celebrity liver-swap. The thought doesn’t enthral me, but it’s not just me that I’m worried about.

It’s ultimate inhalation that bothers me most. The cessation of human existence. It seems so tragically avoidable. With just a little bit of effort, I’m sure that we could save ourselves. Or at least make one incredible statement on the way out.

*

Chewing my pen, I squint at the wall. Strip lighting gives me a headache.

“Would anybody like to share?” Cherie asks. Her ruby-red lips part seductively as she glances towards Adrian, her favourite. He avoids her eyes. She scans the room, meeting mine. “Susan, what about you?”

I am the chicken that never made it to the other side.

“I, um. Not sure that I’ve,” I buy time, ruffling through my notes.

“It’s okay Sue, don’t feel pressured. Just give us what you’ve got.”

But that’s just it – I haven’t got anything!

“I was working on this piece about-”

“Great! Share it.”

“But it’s not quite…” I run out of words.

The disappointment in her eyes manifests as an audible sigh. I’m thirteen again, sitting in the nurse’s office, my mother called out of work because I’ve thrown up over myself. Just a stomach bug, but the humiliation of sitting in my own stench for three-quarters of an hour, and the look of mortal inconvenience on my mother’s face – you never forget moments like that.

“Adrian, have you got anything for me this week?”

Of course he has.

I settle back in my chair. The classroom smells of pastel fixative and clay. Looking for socially acceptable escapism, I joined the creative writing course three months ago. At forty-one, I am the oldest person here. I’d hoped for an eclectic bunch. A well-travelled Hemingway, perhaps. A Byronic libertine, just for laughs. Maybe a strong, black Angelou: fiercely political, raring to rise up against inequality; somebody who left you no option but to listen.

Alas. No such luck. Adrian is the world’s worst Lothario. Fresh out of university. Unkempt, unshaven, unmemorable. Prose so introspect, he needs a colonoscopy to extract them.

Cherie is no better. Our tricenarian tutor, so busy wriggling around her desk in an attempt to keep his attention that the rest of may as well go home.

What kills me are the thoughts inside my head that I can’t get down on paper. My entire working day is filled with thoughts. Dark ones, funny ones, surreal and profound. I itch to get home and write. I joined a writing group specifically to enable such an action. Yet, here I am – blank.

Gathering my things, I shove them into my bag. Another disappointing day wasted; another drop of water down the drain.

*

I stand at the bus stop, cigarette in hand. The nights have drawn in. Fine drizzle mists the street lamps, causing them to glow like fat, round oranges on the end of sticks.

That’s my problem. No poetry in my soul. What should I have said? Eerie Chinese lanterns? Peach-coloured setting suns? Like the – oh my God she’s going to die!

I can hardly believe my eyes as I stand and watch the number forty-three bus round the corner. Bright white headlights swing towards me, rising like moons on an alien planet. Silhouetted against their beam is a woman. She’s bending over in the middle of the road, trying to pick something up.

I hadn’t seen her in the dark, and she hasn’t seen the bus. I have five seconds to think whilst my feet pound the pavement. By the time I’ve made up my mind to save her, we’ve rolled to a halt in an icy lagoon.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” screams an irate, male voice. “I could have killed you!”

Slowly, I remove myself from the woman beneath me. She’s young, probably half my age. She’s wearing wire-rimmed glasses and her thick, mahogany curls are gathered in a red scrunchie. The sheer quantity of hair cushions her head against the pavement.

“Well?” The bus driver stands beneath the shelter, hands on hips, foot tapping. My mother used to take that stance whenever I was late for dinner. “Are you getting on?”

Rising steadily to my feet, I reach down and pull the woman up. She blinks at me from behind rain-peppered lenses, then smiles.

“You saved my life,” she says.

“I suppose so.”

“That’s amazing. You’re amazing.”

I’m not sure what to say. I don’t feel as though I deserve this praise. It wasn’t exactly a conscious decision. Had I actually been allowed a say in the matter, I might very well have stayed put.

“For Pete’s sake,” I hear the disgruntled driver mutter.

“Where do you live?” I ask.

“Meadowbank.”

“That’s near me. Come on, let’s get you home.”

*

 “I can’t believe I didn’t see it coming,” Zoë says once we’re safely installed on the bus, rather than under it.

“What were you doing in the middle of the road?” I ask.

“Oh, I dropped my file.”

“Must be important?”

“Very much so.”

I glance at the green plastic wallet out of the corner of my eye. What on earth is worth losing your life over? Is she some MI5 agent? Does it contain top-secret information about government trade-offs with Palestinian rebels? I am just about to ask when the bus pulls up at the next stop.

“I can’t thank you enough,” she says, squeezing my hand. “I owe you everything.”

Before I have a chance to reply, she alights. We are still miles from Meadowbank. For the rest of the journey I wondered whether she sustained head injuries. Perhaps she’s wandering around, dazed and disoriented. I should have followed her, but it’s too late now.

Letting myself into my apartment, the reality of what I’ve done finally hits me. Closing the door, I sink slowly to the ground and take several shaky breaths.

I could have died tonight. A few more seconds and that would have been it. Game over. Finito.

Vowing never to do anything so stupid again, I remove my sodden coat and drape it over a hook. As I do so, something falls to the floor.

Bending to collect it, I discover a folded piece of paper so waterlogged that it practically dissolves in my hand. Somehow, during the kerfuffle, I managed had to pocket the sheet that Zoë had been holding. Carefully, I unfold it.

There’s just enough legible print to make out the words: Habent sua fata libelli beneath a strange motif. I put the kettle on, change into dry clothes, and boot up my computer. Middle-aged I may be, but public school educated I am not. Amo, amas, amat, a mammoth, a mantis, an ant, is about as far as I get.

The symbol bothers me more. My grandfather, on my mother’s side, was a Freemason. When I was eleven, he made Master Mason at his lodge. As his close family, we had to join a piped procession through the room to the high table. Towards the end of the night, the rosy-cheeked Worshipful Brothers stood to give an address to the ladies. We were each presented with a delicate silver pin. It depicted the Scottish thistle, the English rose, and the Masonic emblem of the square and compasses.

It is that last symbol which the image on this piece of paper most resembles. Only, instead of a set of compasses, one leg represents a quill and the other a fountain pen. Replacing the square is a simple sheet of blank parchment.

*

By Thursday I am still perplexed. So much so, that I have completely forgotten about the global economic catastrophe and my own mortality. It’s a welcome distraction.

Despite searching the entire internet, I haven’t been able to find anything that remotely resembles this picture. The only thing that I have been able to ascertain is that the Latin phrase is part of a longer one: Pro captu lectoris habent sua fata libelli. Translated, it seems to say something about each book having a destiny, depending on the person who reads it.

Having dried the paper over the radiator, it crackles satisfyingly against the breast pocket of my blouse. I hold a mystery close to my heart. This makes me smile. For once, something unknown. A sponge briefly absorbing the monotonous drip drip drip of my day. Storing up a little suspense.

Adrian accosts me in the hallway. “You know, you really should read something out.”

“Excuse me?”

“Well, this is a writing group. It doesn’t matter what you write, but you need to make some effort. Nobody’s judging you, you don’t have to be embarrassed or anything. You just need to have a go.”

I stare at him. This boy, half my age, with his ripped jeans and his sculpted hair.

We are saved from silence by a gaunt man in a grey suit.

“Excuse me, is this the way to the writing group?” he asks.

The remnants of his grey hair have been cut short around the sides, an island of scalp shining through like a monk’s tonsure. Tall and narrow, he possesses a straight Roman nose and clear blue eyes. Hardly the type of person to join our flamboyant ranks. I feel like mentioning the accountancy course they run on a Friday, but think better of it.

“This way,” I say.

He follows me down the corridor.

There seems to be some confusion. Cherie doesn’t understand how he has managed to join the class so far through the semester. 

“I paid in advance,” he explains from a table at the back of the room, remarkably unfussed by the issue. The low desks and plastic chairs are too small, causing him to hunch over. His eyes remain downcast as he speaks in a soft, unimposing tone.

“I really don’t remember seeing your name on the list.” Cherie chews the gloss from her lips.

“Check again.”

Flustered, she returns to her desk and pulls out a handful of papers. At that moment Adrian enters the room and her attention drifts.

“Well, I’ll check with college administration tomorrow. Welcome to the class Mr-”

“Aesop.”

“Aesop. Really?” Her brow furrows.

“Problem?”

She shakes her head.

*

By the end of the session, I’m contemplating quitting. I’ve come armed with an arsenal of flash fiction but Cherie doesn’t ask me to read and, after Adrian’s little spiel, I have no desire to put myself forward. He’d only take credit for my participation; congratulate himself on our earlier tête à tête.

The new guy reads a poem. It’s not bad. It’s about seeing memories in the surface reflections of water. Cleverly constructed and rich in imagery.

When the second hand finally strikes the o’clock, I button up my coat and walk out into the car park. It’s so cold that the ghosts of former breaths evaporate before my eyes.

I’m halfway across the tarmac when Mr. Aesop appears by my side.

“You’re Susan, aren’t you?”

“That’s right.” I nod but keep walking.

“Susan Abingdon?”

Alarm bells ring. He may have overheard my name in class, but not my surname. I quicken my pace towards the road.

“May I speak with you a moment?”

“Certainly, but I’m cold. If you don’t mind, I’ll keep walking.”

His long legs easily allow him to keep up with me.

“Ms. Abingdon, it is a matter of some importance.”

“What is?” I ask, reaching the road.

“You have something that belongs to us.”

A sleek black saloon glides to the curb. The back door opens and he pushes me in. Swallowed by a four-wheeled whale, the world fades behind its tinted windows. 

*

“I can’t believe you didn’t check first,” a male voice pierces my groggy haze.

“I tried, but she panicked.” I recognise this second voice as Aesop’s.

“There’s nothing even on this. It’s completely rain-damaged.”

“So, we leave her on the street.”

“Impossible. She’s seen your face, and Evelyn’s.”

“She’ll never see us again. If she tries to tell anybody, they’d never believe her. If they did, they’d never find us.”

Rope cuts into my wrists. I appear to be sitting on a chair with them tied behind me. There is a sack covering my head. I try desperately to stay as still as possible, but their conversation comes to an abrupt halt.

“She’s awake,” Aesop hisses.

I hear shuffling.

“No! Don’t do that!” the other man shouts.

“We can’t just leave her like this. We’re not animals.”

“Zoë?” I ask, recognising the female voice.

Silence.

Slowly, the sack inches its way over my head. I blink as my eyes adjust. The room looks like a Victorian study. There is a desk covered in papers, and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves crammed with leather-bound tomes. Three lamps cast dim shadows between the furniture. The air weighs heavy with the scent of aging paper.

Two figures stand by the desk. The first is Aesop. The second is a young man in a thick duffle coat and scarf. His angular jaw, spiked black hair and goatee make him seem almost demonic. He stares at me as though I have materialised out of nowhere.

“I can’t believe you just did that,” he growls. I realise that he is speaking to the girl I know as Zoë. She’s standing next to me, wrapping the sack nervously around her hands.

I try to move, but the tightness of my bindings causes a sharp pain in my shoulder. “Where am I?”

“That’s not important,” the younger man snaps.

“It’s very important to me,” I say, feeling my bottom lip wobble. As the sedative wears off, I find that fear replaces it.

The younger man runs a hand through his hair and turns away from me. Aesop looks helplessly towards Zoë.

“You’re safe,” she tells me.

“That isn’t an answer. I saved your life. Why would you do this to me?”

“It was a mistake,” Aesop replies. “You picked up a piece of paper. We’re not blaming you.”

“Blaming me?”

“You accidentally took one of my notes,” Zoë continues. “It’s classified information I’m afraid.”

“But there’s nothing on it. The rain washed it clean.”

“Yes. We know that now,” Aesop mutters.

The younger man turns back. “Oh, this is a disaster.” He folds his arms and leans against the desk.

I’m too bewildered not to ask the obvious question: “Are you going to kill me?”

The ensuing silence is not encouraging.

After a moment, the young man opens his mouth, but Zoë interrupts him.

“No. Of course we’re not going to kill you.”

“We can’t very well let her go,” Aesop frowns.

Zoë holds his gaze until he looks away, ashamed. “A life for a life,” she tells him.

Looking up at Zoë, she smiles down at me and pinches my shoulder reassuringly.

It’s all too much. “I just wanted to be a writer,” I whimper, tears flow hot against my cheeks.

“Shush, we’ll have none of that.” She kneels down behind me. A moment later I feel the ropes drop away. Rubbing sensation back into my wrists, I notice that they are starting to bruise.

“Well, she is a writer,” Aesop says, shrugging.

“Everyone’s a writer,” the younger man snorts.

“Yes, but we could use an extra pair of hands.”

They look at me.

*

“It’s Jim le Bonne’s latest, isn’t it?” I run my fingers over a tower of best selling novels.

“That’s right. Thirty-two countries, nineteen languages. Booker, Costa and WH Smith winner; Richard and Judy read of the month.” Evelyn reaches up and plucks a copy from the top.

Reading the back, I glean that it’s something to do with banking, third-world debt, and a plot to replace the Queen of England with her own Tussauds waxwork in a bid to smuggle diamonds out of Ghana in a tiara. It sounds complicated.

The room is filled with stacks of current and former big titles. I’ve read most of them.

“What on earth are you doing with all these books?”

“Rewriting them,” the young man says, appearing in the doorway. He introduced himself as Mortlock, but I suspect that’s just another pseudonym.

“Well, not strictly,” Evelyn corrects. “More sort of ‘editing’.”

“But why?”

“Because, dear girl, the fate of nations rests with us.” Aesop lowers his voice conspiratorially. “We are the Literati.”

Mortlock steps forward with a flourish of his hand. “Since the days of ancient Greece, it has been understood that the future is written in our own hand. We are the scribes of our own imagining, and, what we can imagine, we can manifest. 'If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales.’ Who said that?”

“None other than Einstein himself!” Aesop informs me. “The greatest genius of our epoch.”

 I blink, missing the connection. What has this to do with my abduction and a room full of pilfered publications?

Mortlock reaches into his pocket and produces my crumpled piece of paper. “This is what we’re all about, Susan. We are the giants upon whose shoulders others stand.”

I admit that I don’t quite follow. Mortlock lets out a sigh and hands me another copy of Jim le Bonne’s book. “Page fifty two, paragraph four,” he says. “Start reading.”

Diligently, I turn to the correct page in both books and begin reading.

“Wait,” I say. “They’re different.”

“Subtly so,” Evelyn nods. “It’s been academically proven, what we have known all along. Fiction changes our social behaviour. It enhances our ability to analyse situations, to understand the motives of others, and to make considered choices.”

“Who do you think reads the most?” Aesop asks me, raising his eyebrows. When I fail to give an answer, he continues. “Commuters in the city, Susan. That’s who. Parliamentarians, economists, civil servants and Voluntary Sector workers. A vast network of people in charge of the very fabric of our country’s being. And not just our country. Every country. The planet. Humanity.”

“So you rewrite best sellers to what – subliminally message them?”

“In a way, yes. Though, as our motto states, the destiny of each book lies in its reader’s ability to comprehend. Books have souls, you see. Each one of them strives to live a useful life, born afresh in the eyes of every reader.”

“We study the reader,” Evelyn continues. “What they’ve read before, the professional decisions they’ve made. Then we flick a few lexical switches, drop in a pronoun here and there.”

“How long have you been at it?”

“We come from a long line of authors and publishers,” Aesop states proudly. “Our lineage dates back generations, to the very birth of the written word.”

“Well, you can’t be very good at it.”

There is a collective intake of breath.

“I mean, seriously, if what you’re suggesting actually works, then surely you could have saved humanity a lot of angst. Rewritten Mein Kampf for a start.”

“It doesn’t work like that,” Mortlock explains. “Firstly, that wasn’t fiction. People who immerse themselves in non-fiction to such a degree – there’s no saving them. Their minds are incapable of the type of free-thinking agility required in bringing about a significant change of habit. Secondly, we can only make alterations on a book by book basis. Imagine if the original authors got wind of this! It has happened in the past, once or twice. One author spotted discrepancies in a donated library copy. We try to retrieve rogue editions, but this one eluded us. Anyway, the author sued his publisher who, in turn, sacked a Copy Editor for want of a better explanation. We can cope with an occasional slip every century, but anything more than that jeopardises our entire operation.”

“We can’t be expected to save the world in one go,” Evelyn laments. “Some wars, for instance, are perpetrated by disaffected people who haven’t had access to formal education. If they can’t read, we can’t touch them. Not our department.”

“There are other organisations like yours?”

They exchanged glances. Reluctantly, Mortlock speaks. “We belong to a larger society, Susan. One whose name you must never utter out loud.” He takes a pen from his inside breast pocket and writes on the back of my rain-stained parchment. I read the words: Illumina dell'arte.

 “I see.”

“No, but you will.” He replaced the pen in his jacket. “You have a choice to make. Help us to write the future of humanity, or watch the story of your life dwindle to a weak ending marred by unmemorable characters and a forgettable plot.”

Put in such literary terms, I find myself captivated. He’s good. He’s very good. I’ve always felt as though my life were only half-told; a Shakespearean sonnet trapped beneath the dust cover of puerile pulp fiction. This has to be my chance!

“What would I have to do?”

“We have read your work,” Aesop informs me. I am surprised, as I keep everything locked in my desk draw. “You have potential, and we could teach you to be a great writer. Very great indeed. But, for now, you would be our delivery boy.”

“Girl,” Evelyn corrects.

“Delivering to whom?”

“We will position you within the publishing industry,” Aesop explains. “Raise you to the inner circles. You will have access to the highest echelons of government. You’ll meet globally influential people.”

“And do what?”

“Recommend books.”

“We have the power to intercept orders,” Mortlock smiles, running a hand through his mop of unruly hair. “Zambezi, Whetstones, ABC – we have access to them all. Every time someone orders a book, we can make sure that they receive an edited version. If all else fails, we send a review copy.”

I’m still feeling dubious. “Name me one example of this ever having worked,” I challenge.

“It works all the time. Last budget speech: ‘We must plan for a sustainable future,’ a direct quote from The Red Box by Artie Mitchell. Originally it was a ‘prolonged’ future.”

“He needed a buzz word, we supplied it,” Aesop says. “Two paragraphs down we inserted a line of dialogue suggesting that this could be achieved through hiking interest rates on the top percentile.”

“You squeezed all of that into one line?”

“We’re professionals.”

“The important thing to remember,” Evelyn says, “is that two months after reading the book, that’s exactly what the Chancellor announced in his reforms. By which time he’d forgotten where he’d read it, but the idea had been firmly seeded. The changes will help countless disaffected youth and homeless people across the country. We can’t depose the banks entirely, but we can twist their arms from the inside. There’s nothing so dangerous as an idea.”

“Why don’t you just write your own book?” I ask. “Surely it would be a lot easier than meddling with other peoples’?” I motion to the wall of books behind me. “If you’ve got such great ideas, why not publish a manual?”

Mortlock sighs. “Haven’t you been listening to anything we’ve said?”

“If we put everything into one book,” Evelyn elucidates, “people would be overwhelmed by reason. We have to operate this way. Firstly, people love renowned authors. They are more willing to follow them anywhere their imaginations care to lead – suspension of disbelief, and all that. Secondly, you can only drip-feed genius. People have to feel as though they have stumbled upon an idea themselves. Maybe three sentences in a ninety-thousand word novel will hit home; really spark profound change. You have to make those lines count.”

“Everybody’s got a book that changed their life,” Mortlock smiles. “They’re just never entirely sure which part it was.”

*

I do not exist.

Apart from the lack of Ray-Bans, it’s a bit like that Hollywood movie where people protect the world from aliens at the expense of their former identities.  

I’ve met politicians, international diplomats, heads of the UN, DfID, WHO, FCO, MOD; swum in a pool of acronyms as thick as alphabet soup.

Sometimes I wonder how the night classes are going. Whether Cherie ever made her move on Adrian; whether he broke her heart. It doesn’t last long, though. I’m far too busy.

So far I’ve arranged royal matches through carefully cultivated classics, paved the way for political negotiations with deviant copies of Catch-22, War and Peace, and, surprisingly, Watership Down. Results aren’t always immediate but, over time, I’m convinced that the work we do here is effectual.

I’ve learned a lot about the art of stories, too. I now understand why you can’t write a book that unites all people. True to the motto – each story lives in the imagination of its reader. Some people have more imagination than others.

Mortlock showed me the sacred book of the Literati. It takes two people to lift the cover. The most important story of all is told within its pages: the story of humanity. Born of the ocean bed, we swam as in a womb. Crawling out through the mud and mess, we took our first shaky breaths. Like children we learned to walk, to talk, and to hold a pen. We schooled ourselves in the art of reason whilst clinging to the censer-swinging mythology of our groggy dreams. In our teenage years we threw great tantrums of war, kicking, screaming and inflicting horrific injuries upon ourselves. All our toys lay broken. Although we have grown to love computers and science, we haven’t yet learned to put our rubbish in the bin. We fall prey to sickness, diseases, and our own ignorance, yet still we dream of the stars.

We are young as a species. We will grow into ourselves.

I now understand why the work of the Literai is limited. This story – the story of humanity – is greater than any of us. It is the story of us all: living, dead, and yet to be born. We may have completed the beginning, but our conclusion is a long way off, even though we choose to terrify ourselves with the apocalyptic monster under our bed.

We have yet to grow up.

 “Ah, Joanna!”

I turn with a smile.

“Yes, Prime Minister?”

“Loved the book launch last week. Superb job, well done. I was just wondering whether you could recommend a light read?”

“Crime, romance or thriller?”

 

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