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Authors: L. C. Tyler

Herring on the Nile

BOOK: Herring on the Nile
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L. C. TYLER

Herring on the Nile

MACMILLAN

 

To Will and to the MNWers, past, present and future

 

The Truth is rarely pure and never simple.

Oscar Wilde

 

CONTENTS

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Eleven

Twelve

Thirteen

Fourteen

Fifteen

Sixteen

Seventeen

Eighteen

Nineteen

Twenty

Twenty-one

Twenty-two

Twenty-three

Twenty-four

Twenty-five

Twenty-six

Twenty-seven

Twenty-eight

Twenty-nine

The End

Postscript

 

One

Q: What’s the worst possible way to begin a detective novel?

A: Tedious scene-setting stuff. Explaining basic things for people who haven’t read the earlier books in the series.

Q: You write under several names, don’t you?

A: Yes, I write crime as Peter Fielding and J. R. Elliot. I also write romantic fiction as Amanda Collins. None of those is my real name.

Q: What would you see as the main influences on your writing style?

A: I’ve always admired the crime writers of the Golden Age – Christie and Sayers in particular. For some reason I never have got to grips with dear old Margery
Allingham. She’s useful if you want to know how the English upper class in the 1950s thought the English working classes spoke – I mean, cawdblimeah, guv! – and she does quite a
nice line in endearing cockneys, but I couldn’t recommend her otherwise.

Q: Our readers are always interested in how writers work. Describe the room you are writing in now.

A: I’m at work on the dining table of my flat. The table bears the remains of this morning’s breakfast. From where I’m sitting, I can just see out through the
bow window and down to the village square below. The winter’s first flakes of snow have started to settle; but, here inside, my ancient radiator is pumping out heat. The room is not large,
but it’s enough for me and for my books, which are pretty much everywhere. Occasionally books get mixed up with slices of toast, but that’s fine.

Q: What do you like most about Sunderland?

A: I’m sure it’s a very fine city, but I’ve never visited it.

Q: What is your favourite restaurant in Sunderland?

A: Sadly, I’ve never had the pleasure of dining in Sunderland.

Q: Where would you go for a great day out in Sunderland?

A:

‘The Elsie Thirkettle Literary Agency. How can I help you?’

‘Elsie,’ I said, clutching the phone in one hand and scrolling down the screen with the other. ‘Those interview questions you emailed me. Why are they asking me about
Sunderland?’

‘Which interview is that, Ethelred?’

‘The
Sunderland Herald
, strangely. They seem to think I’m some sort of expert on eating out on Wearside. They want to know my favourite restaurant.’

‘Could be a trick question. Hold on while I Google it . . . no, there really are restaurants in Sunderland.’

‘Yes. What I meant was: Why are they asking
me
?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Yes, you do.’

‘Fair enough,’ said Elsie, who only lied properly to people she respected. ‘I thought they’d be more likely to run the interview if I told them you were a local lad.
It’s only bending the truth a tiny bit, Ethelred. You
are
a local lad, just not local to Sunderland. What have you said so far?’

I read out my answers while Elsie made the disapproving noises that she has spent much of her life perfecting.

‘You can’t say that about Margery Allingham,’ said Elsie. ‘Unlike you, she has a lot of admirers out there. Your professed contempt for Allingham implies that anyone who
enjoys her books won’t enjoy yours. So that’s a few thousand sales you’ve just thrown away quite unnecessarily. It’s much better, Ethelred, if people get to decide they
don’t like you
after
they’ve paid for the book. Conversely, when you think about it, each writer you mention favourably is money in the bank. You can’t claim too many
influences – drop in all the names you can. And don’t forget to plug the other writers at this agency and mention their books, because one day—’

‘Yes, yes, I do get the picture,’ I sighed. ‘So I like Margery Allingham, do I?’

‘You’ve adored Margery Allingham ever since you read
The Tiger in the Smoke
with a torch, under the bedclothes in the dorm.’

‘In which part of your imagination did I go to a boarding school? Was it in Sunderland, by the way?’

Elsie’s appreciation of irony is strictly limited to her own. ‘As a writer of crime fiction,’ she said, enunciating her words with more than usual care, ‘you should be
able to manage the odd fib or two if it will boost sales. Saying-the-thing-that-is-not is your job. I’m only a literary agent. Do you hear me complaining about having to lie? I described you
as a “much-respected author” the other day. I may have even called you a “best-selling author”. There are whole weeks, Ethelred, when I scarcely get to tell the truth from
the moment I wake up to the moment I go to bed.’

‘Is that true?’

‘Don’t try to get clever with me, Ethelred.’

‘And the question about which football team I support?’ I asked, looking further down the list.

‘Wait, I’ll Google that one for you too.’ There was a pause and the sound of a biscuit being munched in far-away Hampstead. ‘OK . . . it looks as though Sunderland is up
near Newcastle, so I’d tell them you support Newcastle United if I were you. That should go down well. How are the other interviews that I emailed to you? I promised we’d turn them
round in a few days.’

‘We?’

‘You.’

‘I’ll try to finish them all in Egypt and email the answers back to you.’

‘Egypt? Who said you had permission to go to Egypt?’

‘I’m doing some research. I did tell you.’

‘Did you? Well, if you really must put pleasure before duty, at least take your laptop along to the pyramids.’

‘I shall most certainly have my computer with me. I said, it’s research; it’s not a holiday. I shall be working hard the whole time.’

‘I see – “research” is it?’ said Elsie.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘It’s research. But without the inverted commas you just put it into.’

‘Yeah, right.’

‘And not the pyramids either, as it happens. I’m going on a cruise down the Nile – or possibly up the Nile. I wasn’t paying much attention when I booked it. It’s
the boat that is the great attraction.’

‘You’re travelling alone, I hope?’

‘I’m going with Annabelle.’

I was treated to another outward and audible sign of Elsie’s disapproval.

‘She’s keeping a close eye on you, now you’re engaged.’

‘We’re not engaged,’ I said.

The resulting snort of derision was intended to convey a number of things to me:

1.

I was, though perhaps not formally engaged, nevertheless
subject in all respects to Annabelle’s whims.

2.

Whether Annabelle and I became engaged would be a decision made
solely by Annabelle, who would inform me when she considered the time was
right.

3.

I, uniquely amongst the male population of West Sussex, was
incautious enough to have allowed such a situation to develop.

4.

Annabelle was, contrary to anything I might have been told, not
a natural blonde.

‘I wish you would
try
to like Annabelle,’ I said.

‘I like her as much as I need to.’

‘She says she likes you.’

‘She’ll be able to coach you in telling fibs then.’

‘I really wish—’

‘My boredom threshold is pretty low this morning, Ethelred. I’m putting the phone down before you mention that woman again. Have a nice day, now.’

‘—you’d try to get on with Annabelle.’

‘Piss off, Ethelred. It’s almost lunch-time and, if I’m going to sell your Latvian rights to Nordik, I’ll need to take this afternoon’s mendacity to previously
unexplored levels.’

‘The Elsie Thirkettle Literary Agency.
K
ā
es varu jums pal
ī
dz
ē
t
?’

‘It’s me, Elsie, not Nordik.’

‘Ethelred, I’ve been practising that for the past half-hour. You’ve just made me waste my best attempt to ask a Latvian if I can help them. You are a total plonker. Go
away.’

‘Sorry. Elsie, just a thought. You don’t fancy coming to Egypt, do you?’

‘No, Ethelred. My first rule in life is not to share a rusty old boat with gold-diggers sporting fake tits. I’ve stuck to it since I was a girl and it’s made me what I am
today. You’d do well to try it yourself sometime. In the meantime, you and Annabelle have fun.’

‘Annabelle may not be coming.’

‘May not, in what sense?’

‘Isn’t.’

‘So – let’s pause for a moment and get this absolutely right – Annabelle isn’t coming and therefore, as poor second choice, you’re now inviting me at a
week’s notice? Thanks a bunch.’

‘Eight days’ notice.’

‘Eight days? Why didn’t you say so? That really does make all the difference.’

‘Does it?’

‘That was irony, Ethelred. Look it up in
Fowler’s Modern English Usage
. Now, as I may have observed before: Piss off.’

‘Sorry.’

‘Don’t keep saying “sorry”.’

‘Sor— I was offering to pay for the whole trip, of course . . .’

‘I’m busy,’ said Elsie. ‘I can scarcely drop the entire work of an important literary agency, like this one for example, and clear off up the Nile on some three-legged
paddle steamer you’ve booked yourself on. You’ll have picked the oldest, slowest and most uncomfortable boat in Egypt as a matter of principle. I’m sure you’ll enjoy
it.’

‘The
Khedive
is actually quite well appointed,’ I said, ‘though it is a paddle steamer, of course.’

There was a pause in the conversation during which a literary agent in Hampstead wrestled with a minor problem that had nothing to do with her.

‘Why exactly
has
Annabelle dropped out?’ Elsie asked, shelving for one moment the work of an important literary agency.

‘She changed her mind.’

‘Why?’

‘She just did. Maybe she’d just had enough of my company for a while,’ I added, jokingly.

‘Fair enough. I can see that,’ said Elsie. ‘Even so, I don’t change my mind. And I never play second fiddle to women who don’t realize they are too old to wear
short skirts. Check your contract – it’s in para 23.2.’

‘Sor—’ I said again.

‘Nothing would induce me to go on that boat, whatever it’s called.’

‘The
Khedive
,’ I sighed. ‘It’s called the
Khedive
.’

‘Ethelred Tressider speaking.’

‘Elsie here. I’ve just Googled this brilliant boat we’re going on. Have I explained Google, by the way? Somebody like you might think of it as this magic librarian that can
tell you—’

‘Elsie, I use Google all the time. As far as Egypt is concerned, don’t worry. I’m not going now. I’m about to phone up and cancel the trip. I’ll set the next book
in Pembrokeshire or somewhere instead. Pembrokeshire is quite interesting in late November.’

‘I don’t think so, Ethelred. Sadly, there’s no market for books about Pembrokeshire these days. More to the point, you didn’t tell me that the word “luxury”
featured twenty-seven times in the description of the
Khedive
. There seem to be staff whose sole duty is to top up the ice in your drink. The general picture I’m getting here is the
Ritz with a paddle attached to the back. This trip must cost a fortune.’

‘Possibly.’

‘You haven’t checked the cost down to the last penny? Does that mean you’ve finally sold the Big House?’

‘I’ve found a buyer for it and I think we’re about to exchange contracts. It has all happened a bit suddenly, but I really have to take any serious offer that comes along.
Houses that size don’t sell easily at the moment and the running costs are hideous. The gardens alone require somebody full-time.’

I paused, aware that a simple ‘yes’ would have been a better answer if I wanted the whole thing to sound routine and uncontroversial. Mentioning the gardens was almost certainly a
step too far. But I was perfectly entitled to sell the house if I chose, whatever Annabelle had said.

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