I sighed and looked back at my desk. The book was still there, square on the leather blotter, gold embossed letters on a heavy-stock cover. Trench Cookery. 320 perfect-bound pages, due to cost £20 in the shops, and unlikely to sell a single copy. Not quite how I'd imagined my career here ending.
The book came about because of my tendancy to mumble, the author's mild ear-infection when we'd been talking on the telephone about the commission, and the sheer intransigence of my secretary, who refused to believe for an instant that anything I had said could be wrong. So much so, that when the title of the book was questioned, he insisted that it had to be right. Without ever checking with me.
My secretary was hired under slightly unusual circumstances. On the day of his interview I was running slightly late, and so as I got out of my car in the car-park, he was getting out of his. I glanced at his car, as it was just across from mine, thinking that it looked familiar, as he glanced at me and did a double-take.
"Are you ok?" I said politely, not interested in his answer.
"I slept with your mother last night," he said back.
And he had. He had recognised me from the pictures my mother has adorning the wall up the stairs and his car looked familiar because he'd been there when I'd called in for five minutes to give her a CD of piano recordings and ask her to stop placing ads in the lonely-hearts column on my behalf. I called my mother anyway, just to check, and she admitted that she had, as my father likes to put it, been tramping it around again.
I hired him. I felt I had to do something to try and protect the family name, though when it came out at Christmas that my brother had been working as an ideas man for the Khmer Rouge for ten years the family name was unsalvageable. He's still doing PR for the kind of people whose usual approach to dissent is torture and murder. He's been talking about organising package holidays to Guantanamo Bay next year.
But I now had a secretary whose loyalty to me was unswerving, and who was probably still sleeping with my mother on and off. I asked him once about the age difference and he started talking about the benefits of experience and I had to leave the room. I'd hate to think that my mother could teach me a trick or two in the bedroom.
And the net result of all this was a book entitled Trench Cookery instead of French Cookery. The first chapter was about actually digging a trench, lining it with charcoal and cooking the food in it, often covered over with leaves, herbs or soil first. The kind of cookery only university students have the time and drive to do, or people looking to make money for charity. Utterly unsuitable for home cooking.
The second chapter was about the kind of food you could eat in a trench, complete with photographs of burly workmen looking stunned and annoyed, probably by the photographer. The food is mostly burgers. And who would cook the food, unless they were planning on spending time in a trench in the near future?
The chapters continue like this, steadily stretching the premise thinner and thinner until the book reaches the piece de resistance: food that would have been eaten in the trenches in World War I. Most of it is rotten in some way, and it's definitely primitive, the food of privation. The suggestion of acquiring trench foot to go with the trench food ("visit a music festival of your choice in Britain in the summer -- the torrential rain and rivers of mud will produce trench foot in no time at all, and all while you're hearing the best new artists of today!") can only have got past the sub-editor because she was beyond believing that the book was serious.
I look again at my desk. The book is still there, and will go on sale to the general public tomorrow. And then I shall pray for grace.