Part One: The Manuscript
Snitty the piss weasel loved books. He loved books so much that he read at least two a week, even if he didn’t understand them. His favourite novelists were ‘The Russians’, because everyone said the Russians were the best. Only old, dead Russians of course – none of that modern rubbish for Snitty.
As well as reading, Snitty loved writing. He had an I-Mac AND an I-Book and was saving up his pennies for an I-Pad and a new overcoat with a slightly larger than usual pocket to put the I-Pad in when he was out and about. In the meantime he carried a small moleskine ‘journal’ in which he would jot down his important thoughts, which wasn’t quite as good as an I-Pad but was retro-boho enough to keep him satisfied for now. Sometimes his friends would laugh at him because he didn’t own an I-Pad and Snitty would be upset. He would hide his tears behind a wall of self-righteous indignation when they did this, declaring that poverty was integral to the pursuit of artistic integrity. Then he would buy another couple of bottles of expensive wine to drown his sorrows and a nice Panini with rocket and red onion marmalade to cheer himself up. He really wanted to drink grappa, and absinthe, but the first made him cough and the second made his head swim, so he stuck to wine or the occasional designer lager instead.
Writing for Snitty was an escape from everything he hated in his life, which was basically everything apart from the wine and Panini. He would spend hours every night, after the wine bar closed, hunched over his I-Mac writing stories with weak plots, one-dimensional characters and clichéd dialogue, occasionally consulting his thesaurus to find new words to help him say the same things over and over and over again. Sometimes, he’d get so excited by his own writing that he’d switch his browser to ‘stealth’ mode and find a nice picture online to have a sad little wank over. Most of the pictures would be in black and white, of course, but occasionally he’d find a hand-tinted photograph of Dostoevsky or Korolenko, and these he would copy and paste to a memory stick he kept hidden under a loose floorboard in his hallway.
One day, in spring, while sitting on a bench by the Medway and wishing it was the Seine, Snitty looked up to see his best friend, Snooty the snot ferret, running towards him. Snooty was waving a large sheaf of papers and looked very excited. Snitty popped his notebook back into his man-bag and stood up just as Snooty arrived alongside him.
‘Why, heavens, Snooty, whatever is the matter? You look like you’re ready to burst!’
Snooty tried to speak, but was so puffed from all his running he couldn’t get the words out. Snitty reached into his man-bag, found the bottle of mineral water he’d just bought from Waitrose and handed it to Snooty. Snooty put it to his mouth and drank deeply, taking two thirds of the bottle in a series of quick gulps. He coughed, gently, then handed the bottle back to Snitty, who wiped the little tit on the end with a hanky before putting it back in his bag.
Composed now, Snooty held the bundle of papers in his hand towards Snitty and said, ‘I found this on the grass over there yesterday, and knowing you often sit here I wondered if it was yours?’
‘Why, no,’ said Snitty, ‘I wasn’t here yesterday as the farmer’s market was on and I needed some fennel. I’ve never seen it before – what is it?’
‘It’s a manuscript,’ said Snooty, ‘and I’ve been up all night reading it. I couldn’t put it down.’
‘Is it good, then?’ asked Snitty
‘Good? Good?’ said Snooty, ‘Why, it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever read!’
‘Really?’ said Snitty.
‘Really,’ said Snooty.
‘Is it Russian?’ asked Snitty.
‘Why, no,’ said Snooty ‘it’s actually set right here in Kent.’
‘Well I never!’ said Snitty.
‘Indeed,’ his little friend replied.
It was almost lunchtime, so they walked to a lovely little cafe where they bought coffee and Panini, and while they ate Snooty told Snitty all about the manuscript he had found. From everything he heard Snitty quickly ascertained that this was indeed a work of the highest quality. Without divulging too many spoilers Snooty was able to outline a plot and narrative arc that seemed breathtaking in its scope and originality, together with character outlines that brought to life the personalities described so completely that they might well have been sitting at the cafe table with them.
The manuscript itself was handwritten, in a fine unwavering script. There were no cross-throughs, no corrections, no blemishes of any kind. It was as though the words had found their way onto the page by some sort of magical osmosis rather than being etched there by hand, as though the writer’s thoughts had just materialised on the page. It was bound with a single blue ribbon, passed through punched holes as clean and uniform as the buttonholes on a Savile Row waistcoat, and finished with a bow as neat as any seen in a milliner’s shop window. Despite this, there was no cover page, no name to identify the author, nor any other sign of ownership or provenance.
Snooty was desperate for a second opinion on the quality of his find and Snitty was only too happy to oblige. He took the manuscript home, and leaving all other considerations aside started to read immediately.
Within a couple of pages he was completely absorbed, lost in the fantasy world of the open pages in front of him to the exclusion of all else. The cat went unfed, his I-Mac slept, and his phone, when it buzzed at 9pm, went unanswered. And then, with less than fifty pages to go, Snitty suddenly stopped, sighed, and took off his reading glasses. He put the manuscript down, shook his head sadly, poured himself a glass of wine and switched on the TV and watched Question Time.
The next morning he was woken at eight by an excited Snooty, who banged on his door until Snitty thought he must knock it off its hinges. Snooty could hardly contain himself as he hopped into the room. His hands were flapping and he jumped from foot to foot.
‘Well, Well, WELL,’ he asked, ‘is it the best book you’ve ever read or is it the best book you’ve ever read?’
‘I’m afraid I didn’t finish it,’ said Snitty, ‘I’m sorry.’
Snooty was astonished. He couldn’t imagine for a moment how his friend could not have finished it. It seemed inconceivable to him that anyone could fail to be as captivated, enchanted and overwhelmed by the book as he himself had been.
‘What… What… What is it?’ asked Snooty.
‘Look for yourself,’ said Snitty, ‘I can’t bear to touch the wretched thing again. Page 619, paragraph three.’
Snooty walked to the coffee table and picked up the manuscript, riffling through to the bookmarked page near the end. He read it quickly, not noticing anything untoward, then scanned the page again more carefully. And then he saw it. He struck his forehead with his palm, wailing as shock rippled through him. He felt bile rise into his throat and fought to swallow it back down into the seething pit of his roiling stomach.
‘Have you seen it?’ Snitty asked, staring into the middle distance, unable to look directly upon Snooty’s suffering.
‘Yes… yes…’ Snooty sobbed through snotty fingers, ‘Just where you said, page 619, paragraph three… A… A… A greengrocer’s apostrophe… on the word “books”.’