In the Beginning
In one of the tents at Adelaide Writers’ Week, Antony Elmer read from his latest novel, answering questions from a large audience of keen journalists and adoring fans. It was hot in the tent, there in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Gardens, and Antony sweated, the audience sweated, but it was worth it. He was brilliant. In another tent, Viviana Vincent did much the same, ditto the journalists and fans, except while her audience also poured with sweat, Viviana appeared cool (also calm and collected). Antony’s novel, his seventh, was what is called ‘literary’, and it concerned a murder in Oxford in the 1990s. Viviana’s was the latest in her Venus McVicker romances. The audiences in the two tents were different. Antony’s lot was drawn from what is called the intelligentsia, and was clearly male, fellows packing down with the big boys. A smattering of women, mostly middle-aged. Viviana’s people were predominantly women, women of all ages, their faces alight with excitement at being so close to the darling of their reading groups and book clubs. Antony’s books sold very well, were warmly reviewed in all the best papers and journals, won prizes; Viviana’s sold in fantastic numbers. They were ecstatically reviewed (in women’s magazines). They did not win prizes.
Who is Antony?
Antony Winston Elmer was born in Canterbury in 1949. At Oxford he studied Medieval History. He has been married three times, his current wife being the celebrated TV presenter Minki Sackville. He has four sons and three daughters (the youngest daughter is screen actress Leaf Bath-Dickens). Three of his novels have been short-listed for the Booker Prize. Two have been made into films: The Clear Spring and The Mourning of Exiles.
Who is Viviana?
Viviana Maria Vincent was born in Hobart in 1960, named after her mother’s favourite aunt. ‘It’s a lovely old-fashioned name, darling, a romantic name. Your great aunt was a very romantic lady.’ The name was tailor-made for a writer of romance, and, as fate, luck, or destiny would have it, that’s what Viviana became. Her Venus McVicker novels took off, and Viviana was a success, a sensation, a star. Fortunately she had a heart-shaped face, a dazzling smile, long lustrous chestnut curls, long legs, a lithe and seductive body. A lilting speaking-voice. A certain wit and charming manners. Clothes loved her, the camera loved her also. She was a true gift to any publicist.
She lives, her biography will tell you, in a rambling Georgian house overlooking the Derwent River on the outskirts of Hobart in historic Tasmania. With, it says, her husband (childhood sweetheart – can this be true? It is.) Her children (a film-maker, a barrister and a sculptor) all live overseas. There is soon to be a baby grand-daughter. (Imagine!) Viviana and husband Will also have a most beautiful house in Provence. The children are called Xenia, Yvonne and Zac. VWXYZ. Yes. Please don’t give this a moment’s thought.
The latest St Valentine’s Day was heralded on long banners in airports across the world, alongside, as it happened, banners shouting out Antony’s title Carnival of Lust. When people stopped at the airport bookshops, the two books were dropped into separate bags, and they left on different arms. Supermarkets discounted both. It has to be said that St Valentine’s Day outsold Carnival of Lust in the supermarkets. But the latter novel was going to win important prizes; the former, naturally, was not. Viviana has read several of Antony’s novels; Antony would not be seen dead reading any of hers.
In the Book Tent
After the sessions in the tents, Viviana and Antony (she in pale green silk and sandals, him in white jeans, white shirt, pale blue linen jacket, bright pink face and panama hat) were shepherded by their publishers to the table in the Book Tent where they would sign the books bought by their fans. They sat side by side, some distance from each other, and each had a glass of chilled champagne. Queues of readers wanting books signed snaked round the tent and out the door. Viviana’s queue was longer than Antony’s, but not by so very much. Some equal opportunity readers carried both books, and would lean across from one writer to the other for a signature. I probably don’t have to tell you that Viviana signed her books in deep juicy pink, with a fountain pen. Antony also signed with a fountain pen – his ink was black. Velvety black. Both pens were Mont Blanc. His was the Mark Twain Limited Edition; hers the Boheme Pirouette Lilas. (You’d better believe it.)
All this is as it should be, as is to be expected. Viviana’s publisher had provided a large silver bowl, and in the bowl were chocolate hearts, covered in scarlet foil. These were for Viviana to offer to her fans when they handed her a book for signing. When Antony reached across and slid the bowl towards himself, then offered the hearts to his readers, Viviana (surprised) simply smiled and said: Be my guest. My hearts are your hearts. (She really hated bad manners, and his were pretty bad.) I think I said Viviana’s smile was dazzling. Antony caught the ping! of it right between the eyes, and that, as far as Antony was concerned, was that. His biography might not say so, but perhaps it suggests the idea that Antony was susceptible to a pretty face and a long leg and a dazzling smile. Chestnut curls were also very nice. He wasn’t good at telling one perfume from another, but the miasma of ‘Josephine’ that drifted across to him from Viviana was having a bit of a funny effect on him too. He rather liked her ghastly colonial accent, in a way.
After the Book Tent
When all that was over, the two stars and their publishers returned to the hotel. Showered and changed into fresh cream shirt (him) fresh grey cotton sundress and small diamond earrings (her) they found themselves (fate, luck, destiny etc) side by side again in the lounge, drinking chilled white wine and nibbling from bowls of nuts. Publishers and publicists and journalists and fans had all melted away. You can’t count on a fan or two not turning up again, but for the time being Viviana and Antony were in a soft leather sofa world of their own.
Now I haven’t told you before about the fact that Viviana, for all the views of the Derwent River and the adorable house in Provence, sometimes felt – how shall I put this – bored by the very idea of Will. Particularly when she was alone at a festival in the company of a wolf like Antony. (I believe I suggested he was a wolf.) Yes, this princess of romance was not above slipping upstairs with a troubadour of the Oxford college. You are saying – oh, for heaven’s sake, she’s fifty something and he’s ten years older. What is going on? You must try not to be ageist. They make rather a handsome couple there in the subdued glow of the hotel lounge, in their nice fresh clothes, with, now, a bottle of Mister Big Mouth Pinot Grigio on the low table between them. Viviana ordered it as a joke – Antony chuckled. It was a good joke, and a very nice drop.
In the light of, in the face of their differences – and these were several, not least the nature of their writing, and their idea of manners – they were getting along quite nicely. Antony is in the habit of coming straight to the point. No use wasting precious time on beating about the bush. We could have dinner later? He says. And she says – Yes let’s have dinner later. And he says – You want to come up to my room? She thinks for a minute and says – Well, why don’t you come up to mine? When we’ve finished this?
So they finished the bottle and went up to Viviana’s room. They ordered champagne which fortunately came with lots of nuts and olives and things on skewers. And he said – St Valentine’s Day – is that about a massacre? And she said – Carnival of Lust – is that about Venice or about animals madly mating in the Adelaide Zoo? (I never said either of these people was particularly witty.) He hadn’t expected that. He said – once I won the Bad Sex award you know. And she said – Was that for a book or for some terrible thing you did in bed? He said – Probably a bit of both. And she said – Well I think you can have the Good Sex Award today. And afterwards they had a long bath together and drank the champagne and nibbled on the nuts and things. They didn’t ever have dinner, but they ordered some of the tandoori chicken open sandwiches for which the hotel was renowned – and Tony also gobbled up some of the chocolate bars from a basket on top of the mini-bar.
Now when Viviana indulged in these episodes, she thought very little of it all, and returned refreshed to Will in the lovely old house overlooking the Derwent River. But Antony was, in fact, more romantic than she was. He wanted to see her again. Maybe in Provence some time? Maybe one day soon in the house overlooking etc etc. But after breakfast which they shared in the sitting room of Viviana’s suite, before some journalists were due in her room and also in his, she said no to Provence and no to the house on the Derwent, and said she had to hurry now. The hairdresser was coming. So she kissed him softly at the door. And handed him a small paper bag containing six chocolate hearts, wrapped in scarlet foil.