Janet O'Steen, Ireland's foremost logodisciplinarian, stared at the white powder laid out neatly in lines on her desk. Her OCD was making her twitch like an underdressed epileptic in a snowstorm and her fingers kept pinching together in a claw-shape. She badly wanted to clean the table, then clean the cleaning cloth, and finally clean her hands. She struggled to resist, also wanting to try and get inside the mind of one of her characters.
She had been listening to the radio earlier in the day and a Radio Four documentary about Negro Spirituals had come on, and as she'd half-dozed in her chair, her cup of Ovaltine placed carefully on a placemat on the floor by her feet, she'd started day-dreaming a little about the circumstances which the radio presenter was claiming brought about the songs. She had a feeling that she might not have woken up until after the first documentary had finished and a second one had started, but she also didn't think that was worth worrying about. She'd woken up with a new back-story for a minor character in her novel The Waltons. To her annoyance, her agent was insisting that she add another sister to the brood that had a broader appeal.
"Think sex appeal, but without the sex," said her agent, sounding depressingly chirpy on the phone-call. "Or possibly without the appeal."
"Wouldn't that be unsexy and unappealing?" asked Janet, aware that her agent had only a passing acquaintance with sarcasm.
"Yes, but you've already got two sisters like that," said her agent breezily. "The butch lesbian and the one that becomes a prostitute."
"How can an unsexy woman become a prostitute?" asked Janet, astonished by the very thought of it. "Surely there has to be some attraction there for her cust–, her cli–, whatever you call the men who visit prostitutes."
"Sex on demand, if you've got the cash," said the agent. "That's got sex appeal. Your whore can have one leg and birthmarks all over her body so long as she's cheap enough. In fact, didn't you already write about that?"
"There's no lesbian in The Waltons," said Janet, not wanting to get side-tracked. She had made her main character's mother essentially a cheap whore in Bride of Prejudice and she was still sensitive about the reviews that book had received.
"Well ok, make the lesbian the new character," said her agent, and the call drifted aimlessly on a little longer before Janet gave in.
So when she'd awoken, she did so with the knowledge that the new sister was supposed to be called Clementine and was named for her mother's favourite Negro Spiritual. There was a nagging thought in the back of her mind that since the mother had grown up in rural Bath she might never have encountered such songs, but she was trying not to think about that until she had the character right. The vicar, at the girl's baptism, had had a bad cold and a lisp and so the child was actually named Clemethtine, and in a fit of nominative determinism when she turned fourteen, as she would at the start of the novel, she would run away from home and shack up in a meth lab with a young man who had abandoned his dreams of becoming a groom (second class) to peddle drugs to the local landed gentry. Between them they would mix up a patent cough mixture that contained the active ingredient methamphetamine, which, though not fixing the cough at all did at least give the user the energy to get things done even when their cough turned out to be consumption.
The lines of white powder on her table were castor sugar, but she was trying to get a feel for how Clemethtine would react when Philbros, her ex-groom, showed her that he'd crystallised the cough mixture and intended to press it into tablets.
"Look, Clemmy!" he said, forgetting that she hated any diminuation of her name. "The calexis worked! All those bottles for the cough-mixture – we don't need them any more! You don't have to lug hundredweights of glass around on your back now! We'll just press the crystals into tablets and people can eat them like sweets."
Clemethtine, whose back ached abominably every night and every morning, actually sighed with relief at the thought of not having to work like a donkey any more. "Is it safe?" she asked. "How much cough-sryup do you have to evaporate to make one tablet?"
"Of course it's safe! It's just energy in a more convenient form! We'll be rich!"
Clemethtine, being more practical than Philbros picked a tablet up and handed it to him. "Show me," she suggested.
Philbros would die in a couple more pages, and then Clemethtine could discover her lesbian tendencies with Philbros's mother, thought Janet. Then she needed to find a way to getting the story back to Janet and the family living in Bath still, some way that seemed natural. Although their departure now to the city could be in part because they were fleeing the heavily addicted clients that Clemethtine was no longer supplying.
The white lines were too much for her now. She swept them quickly off the table and went to start the cleaning process.