An extract from Benjamin Myers’ forthcoming short story collection ‘Male Tears’, published next week by Bloomsbury.
The transition from reader-cum-fan to the world’s leading authority on Bill Katz and organiser of an international academic symposium devoted to his eleven novels and three collections of essays and journalism, to then latterly becoming his lover, was as steady a trajectory as it was predictable, the type of narrative arc that Dr Elizabeth Brownlee herself would be the first to dismiss as the redundant remains of that precious strand of fiction that used to sell rather well up until ten or fifteen years ago.
If she had read it as an abstract for a conference or a submission to the literary anthology she co-edited, she would surely have rejected it without hesitation.
What had once been an illicit liaison that buckled under the pressure of its own inevitability had now hardened into a hollow relationship that echoed with the tinny callbacks of centuries of literary cliché, yet still she allowed herself to become the chief antagonist in the drama of this publicly recognisable writer’s well-documented private life, the person some deemed responsible (though, of course, the responsibility was all his) for finally ending his marriage to the television producer and mother of his two children, Anne Allan.
The whole thing was sordid and embarrassing for all concerned, except, perhaps, for Katz himself. Led by his waning libido and pathetically grateful for the attention from a bright woman on the right side of not-too-young, he saw this development as the unexpected opening of the penultimate act of a career that had seen him slip from the eloquent bad boy of digestible liberal intellectualism in the 1990s to the midlist novelist of the late 2010s.
A thin layer of scandal in an era in which the old, deeply rooted totems of patriarchy were falling hard and fast around him was, he reasoned, a minor act of rebellion, perhaps his very last. It was one final stab at the type of mischief that kept him in the gossip columns even when his paperback sales were beginning to scrape mid-to-low four figures.
He had done little to hide the affair, from either his wife or the hacks and bloggers who still begrudgingly devoted an inch or two to a writer of satire who’d once boasted of having taken acid with the current home secretary while they were postgraduates. Katz clung to this reputation of self-elected bon viveur for the middle-brow masses, quite unaware that his readership had grown up and moved out of the city that he still eulogised, and now lived in tall houses in Hastings, Totnes or Hebden Bridge that were full of retro turntables, spiralisers and cynical children, while he festered in a damp house south of the river.
He still smoked cigarettes, even though no one old smoked cigarettes any more. yet there he was at prize-giving ceremonies, book launches (his, mainly) or out on the lecture circuit, standing on town hall balconies or huddled on rainy campus forecourts, puffing away with the young vapers, sporting ash smudges on his lapels with a misdirected sense of pride, like badges of honour that said: I’ve still got it.
Anne had left him several times before. On the last occasion she had cited, only half-jokingly to anyone who asked, that it was his love of music featuring saxophone solos that had killed it for her. ‘When a man is tired of sax solos, he is tired of life,’ he took to saying far too frequently, often to the same few people.
She had never quite worked out whether this particular penchant for seventies yacht rock and mainstream eighties power ballads that was defined by the incessant wailing of this tragically phallic instrument was genuine, or instead a commitment to a wider plan to grind her down. Either way, in Bill Katz’s hands and on his stereo, the saxophone had been weaponised and turned into a tool of torture deployed in a kind of aural long game to provoke first irritation, then resentment, before segueing nicely into a divorce that, all being well, wouldn’t wipe him out entirely.
It had worked, and Anne despised him for it just enough for her husband to feel validated and vindicated in pursuing this relationship with Dr Elizabeth Brownlee, though of the myriad real reasons for his ill-behaviour towards his wife it was perhaps the simple prevailing fact that she had recently been enjoying a more financially and critically successful career in film production, while his own was clearly faltering.
His last work, a thin novella that ostensibly appeared to be about a man who falls out of a tree, had barely made an impact, despite his genius agent somehow leveraging a commendable advance. Even Katz himself knew that this was unsustainable, especially as the many film and TV options that had been bubbling away on the back burner for the past decade had all but run dry, and he was now facing a fate worse than death: a possible return to a type of journalism that he no longer recognised, that of listicles and clickbait opinion pieces.
He shuddered at the prospect of dogged 10p-per- word provocation, when once his colourful behaviour had been the very source of the manufactured outrage.
He exhaled smoke across the restaurant table into the face of Dr Elizabeth Brownlee, who, after writing a thesis and several papers on the man and his work, and having organised the aforementioned three-day symposium at which Katz had made a surprise and somewhat smug appearance that featured an entrance choreographed with all the pomp of Liberace rising from his glittery grave to play one more encore on the strip, suddenly realised that she was already sick of him. This epiphany finally came eight or nine months after he’d first put his hand on the back of her neck and gently caressed her there with two fingers that she thought felt cold, clammy and intrusive, as ‘Born to run’ played through the cheap laptop speakers that he had set up beside some tea-light candles in his Novotel room.
What good fortune, he thought, gazing at her. What disappointment, she thought back.
‘Male Tears’ is published on Thursday 29 April. Order a copy here.