Amy was at the Festival of Writing. She’s always with me, and whether I like it or not, I never stop seeing the world through her eyes. But on that first evening at York, I got distracted, and Amy had to fend for herself. She just about manages the same trick in the pages of a yet-to-be published novel, known in different versions as Sky in their Eyes and The Blackbird Effect.
All looking at me
‘Don’t fall in the lake!’ That’s what my sister told me at the station. Stupid. But she rolled her eyes and said, ‘There’ll be wine.’ And she said York University is big, and don’t get lost. And it’s got ducks and geese.
York University. I can’t say university. It sticks in my mouth and comes out funny – like disability and Chardonnay. Becca said to ask for Chardonnay at the bar, cos it’s my best wine.
There’s all sunshiny people hugging by the door, and bags and cases like a holiday. And wandering lost people and hurry-people too busy for me. And there’s this worried smiley girl. She says, ‘Hello Amy, I half expected you would be here.’ And her name is Laura and she tells me I can ask for her if I feel lost, and she shows me where to go.
The man gives me a card, but it’s a key, he says… I don’t know. Never mind, there’s tea and I like tea. And free biscuits. And talking people, all with badges on. Talking long-word talk, boring talk, but they seem happy with it.
I’ve got a badge, and it says Amy Bothwell with an A and a B, cos I know those letters. And here’s a smiling face right in front of me. She’s looking at my badge and saying, ‘Hello, Amy!’
Her badge has a pretty blue sticker with a cloud on it. Got to say something. ‘Hello Cloud…’
And she laughs nice and points at some letters, and there’s a big B. I know B. ‘Hello, B…’
‘Barb, that’s my name. You must be John’s friend.’
I look round – can’t see him. ‘Don’t worry, Amy,’ she says. ‘You’re safe here – I’ll find you some more friends.’
She calls across the room, and a soft voice comes out of the crowd. ‘Hello, Amy.’ A warm, fun voice: like the girl in Brave. Mandy, she’s called, and she has blue eyes and dark hair just like me. Mandy is real excited to see me, and gives me a big warm hug. She knows all about me and Becca, and all the stuff we did.
Everything about me – she helped John get it written properly – SCARY EMBARRASSING!
But she says, ‘Don’t worry, Amy – we’re friends. And you’ve nothing to be ashamed of.’
That’s two ‘don’t worry’ people. Mandy and Barb.
But now I’ve got a one-to-one, someone says, cos there’s a free space.
I’m sitting at a little table with a woman who’s all grown-up-in-charge. She looks straight at me and says there’s not much time. And she’s got paper with all writing stuff on. Me-stuff. Like what I do and how I feel. She’s got me-stuff on that paper.
And she’s talking, telling me she likes the way the two voices fit together. And I can’t face her any more. She’s looking right inside me.
Amy’s fringe fell over her eyes. She grabbed a pencil from the table, and it moved over my notes, not between her fingers, but in her fist. A figure appeared, with eyes, a round mouth and sticks for arms and legs. A figure without a body.
Her knuckle went white, and I heard a crack as the pencil snapped in half.
Amy bashed the table with her hand, the bits of pencil flew up, and she wailed, ‘NOT FAIR!’
The buzz of voices stopped.
I can’t look and I can’t listen, cos she WON’T UNDERSTAND!
I’m here, ME!
Not on that stupid paper!
And I haven’t got Mandy or Laura or John to tell the woman and I can’t sit still and I need the toilet and I’ve got to RUN!
And my legs get stuck in the table and I fall and the table falls and the woman falls and we scramble up.
All the people are looking.
All looking at me.
‘Real sorry,’ I say, ‘Desperate…’
And a sad man by the wall says, ‘We’re all desperate…’
And someone shows me where to go.
But now I can’t go back in there, cos of all the not-fair stuff. And that woman fell over and she might be hurting.
And I’m running outside and there’s ducks and water and I bump into a man with sticky-out hair. He laughs, and says, ‘You’re in a hurry.’ And then he says, ‘Oh… It’s you.’
‘Can’t…’ I say, and I point at the room with the scary one-to-ones.
And he says, ‘It’s OK, Amy. You don’t need to go back in there. They sent you in by mistake – that’s just for the authors.’
‘Real?’ And my breathing’s gone all funny, but he’s got a best calm-down voice and lets me hold his arm.
He says, ‘Fiona Griffiths nearly freaked out when I showed her in there. What you might call an existential shock.’ He chuckles, and says, ‘Never mind…’
And he’s called Harry, and I bet he never stays still.
He’s gone, and I’m standing looking at the lake. And someone else is here: a schoolgirl with her back to one of the pillars. She’s gripping it real tight with her hands, and her eyes look scared. More alone than anyone else ever.
I take a few breaths and lose my scary feelings, cos she need someone bad.
‘You OK, Clara?’ I say. She must be Clara.
She won’t look at me.
‘Clara?’ And I can see her arms shaking. ‘You need…?’
Her face has changed. I can see Mandy’s blue eyes. ‘I’ve got a one-to-one,’ she mutters, and her eyes go everywhere.
And she’s Clara again, and I say, ‘Be OK. Be fine! Stay out here.’ And I take her hand and it’s all cold. ‘Mandy go in,’ I say. ‘Mandy be fine. She’s a writer – real!’
‘You think?’ And it’s Mandy’s voice again, and her hand feels warmer, and she smiles a bit, and goes on in, but Clara’s still here with me, looking at her feet. And we wait forever and ever – just me and Clara, not saying stuff, waiting.
Mandy comes back, big smiley face, and gives Clara a biggest hug, and says the man wants to see a manuscript. I’m not sure what that is, but it’s a happy word.
A crowd of people walk past, but this small woman stops. She has the reddest hair and eyes that shine special warm, and she says, ‘Coming to the bar, Amy?’
Mandy says, ‘Hi Debi! Have you seen John? Amy’s on her own.’
And Debi hasn’t.
‘Typical,’ Debi says. ‘Can’t even look after his guests.’
I tell them John’s nervous about meeting his agent, cos he gets like that. Thinks Juliet will be too busy to see him. Maybe he’s hiding. But Juliet and me get on fine, and he’s just being John.
Clara says, ‘There he is!’
He’s over there, feeding the ducks, and Clara runs off to join him, cos Clara and John are real good friends, like me and Mandy.
Mandy tells me why he’s all funny nervous. ‘He cares for you, Amy – just the way I care for Clara.’
Debi says, ‘Maybe he’s frightened readers will see someone different. Frightened they won’t see the real you, because his writing might not be good enough. Or even worse, that they will see the real you, but won’t care. It’s risky, showing our work to other people.’
‘Scary and exciting,’ Mandy says. ‘Personal – you would call it inside stuff. Right inside.’
Mandy tells Clara we’re off for a glass of wine, cos we need one. But Clara doesn’t look up. She’s busy texting someone back home, and John has wandered off again. So me and Debi and Mandy head for the bar.
Now I’m sitting down with my glass, I feel better. The wine tastes all sunny and lazy, and I can look around. There’s people… and there’s people. Author-nervy-excited people, and other people like me and Clara.
Debi says that’s her friend Emma over there. And Emma’s other person has this long dress like a princess and funny hair, and she’s standing real straight, looking sad.
There’s a bunch of those other-type people round one of the authors, all laughing with their wine glasses and shiny shoes. Mandy says the author is Julie, and she met me in a one-to-one last year, but I don’t do remembering well.
I can see a man trying to hide behind Debi. He’s in a suit and tie, and looks wrong here. Debi grins and shakes her head. ‘I shouldn’t have told Stanley it was a conference.’
And I whisper in Debi’s ear, and she’s got a big best laugh, cos I tell her Stanley’s left his fly undone, and I’ve never seen a wotsit like that.
I look around me at all the other people, and there’s little people and Goth people and green people and mermaids and a soldier standing by the curtain, pointing a gun out of the window. And a man with greasy hair and a long raincoat, but I don’t want to look at him. And there’s happy dead people with pints of beer, and even a dragon, but he’s drinking scotch.
And I’m looking at the author-people. Debi says that’s Jock with his big smile and laughing voice. Alan is with him, with his big moustache and deep voice, and there’s Flick with big eyes and a gentle voice.
And I can see agent-people too. I can see Juliet with her lovely smile and soft voice, and she waves to me real nice. No sign of John.
I’m liking York now, with the wine, and more wine, and the people and the other people. But authors can be a pain.