Rain and smoke hang heavily in the air. The darkness is broken by neon shop signs, their glow changing people's faces to green, blue, red. I stuff my hands into my pockets and hurriedly stride on.
I find myself feeling strangely calm. Perhaps this is because I know that I am already late; it's always surprising to me how the passing of a deadline feels like a weight lifted from my shoulders. There's no uncertainty now, no chance that I might be there on time. I'm late, I know it, and the knowing brings me some kind of comfort.
I realise that I'm grasping the manuscript in my pocket a little too tightly. I loosen my grip, turn the final corner, head for the door, and then I'm inside the brooding, darkened cage they call O'Malley's.
Harrison is already here, of course. I don't ask how long he's waited, but it's been long enough for the rain to dry from his coat. He watches me as I take a seat opposite him.
"You're late," he mutters around his cigar.
As an opening gambit, it has the merit of being factually true. But I know Harrison of old, and I know that this is how it begins—with him putting me on the back foot, and my being defensive for the remainder of our encounter. I'm tired of the pattern that's attached itself to our interactions, and I decide that the rules need to change.
"It's a stupid idea," I counter.
To his credit, Harrison doesn't betray any surprise. He leans back into the soft red cushioning of the chair and folds his arms. In the darkness I see something flicker behind his eyes, a look that could only happen in the night. A challenge, he's no doubt thinking.
He bites into his cigar, before removing it and pointedly blowing smoke towards me. "Explain," he growls. "Where's my review, Phipps?"
"There is no damn review," I hiss, trying not to raise my voice.
I blink as I notice the bartender standing next to the table. Harrison rattles the ice in his empty glass. "The same again," he says, placing the drink on the barkeep's tray.
I mumble something about a glass of tap water. The bartender leaves, almost managing to hide his disapproval at my choice.
There's an uneasy pause, with neither me nor my editor wanting to start the conversation again. Eventually, of course, his impatience gets the better of him.
"Dammit, Phipps, I asked you to review that book. Your review's three days late, and I haven't got time for excuses." The tip of his cigar blazes angrily.
"Look," I say, calmly. "Let me explain, and I'm pretty sure we can come to some arrangement."
"Will it be an arrangement that gets me between fifteen hundred and two thousand words to publish on Thursday?"
"I don't know. I haven't thought that far ahead." Honesty is the best policy, I tell myself. Always, the best policy.
"Then you'd better be thinking while you're talking. Don't make me run a review slot with no review. The last guy who did that has trouble walking now."
Despite myself, I blanch. I find the image of Harrison taking a crowbar to somebody's knees far too easy to picture. "Jesus. What did you do?"
"He walked past my desk, and my anniversary deluxe edition of Lord of the Rings somehow landed on his toes. All three volumes. Multiple appendices." He leans back in his chair, taking a deep drag on his cigar. "Hardback."
He flashes me a toothy grin. "Must be why I'm still listening to you." His grin fades. "Now. Talk."
The bartender brings us our drinks. I take the manuscript from my pocket. The front cover reads Skinks: A Pet Store Adventure.
And I tell Harrison everything.
Half an hour later, and I'm still barely through explaining Chapter One. Harrison's head is in his hands, and his third cigar is down to the gold banding.
"So there are these ... skinks, right?" His voice is pained now. "How many, again?"
"There. Are. Four. Skinks."
"And they get kidnapped."
"By a man who speaks their language. A person who speaks lizard, or something."
"No!" I shout, unable to control myself. Then, more quietly—"No. For the last time, man. Pay attention."
Harrison drains the glass, and reaches for the bottle. By now, the barman has stopped bothering to ask what we're drinking, and appears to have left us a year's supply. I usually hate whiskey, but right now the burning in my throat is distracting me from the editor-induced pain behind my eyes.
I breathe deeply, and start again. "There are four skinks. They get captured by a man who speaks English. They, however, can understand English. There is no explanation of how or why they can understand English, they just do. I've no idea why, when they talk to each other, and the humans are within earshot, the humans don't cotton on to this immediately and apply for the Nobel Talking Animal Prize."
Harrison is staring at me now, his eyes saucers of disbelief. I take this as a sign that our usual interpersonal dynamic has been turned on its head—usually, I'm cowering in a corner by now.
"And then," I continue, "their kidnapper takes them to a pet shop. They're put into a big cage with a heated rock, and the mother has an allergic reaction to ... something in the cage."
"What's she allergic to?"
"I don't care. All you need to know is that she's going to die unless her sons can get the cure back to her."
"Yes, taking the form of a mixture of cat food, mouse food, bird food, and some other stuff."
"That's ridiculous. Who invented this cure?"
"Doctor Harry Hamster."
"Why's he helping the skinks?"
"Because he wants their heated rock."
"Their engorged what?"
"Their heated rock. Apparently, it's good for his back."
Harrison takes a long, final drag on his cigar. "Is it really worth my asking if the skinks attempt to verify this hamster's medical qualifications and background?"
I suppress a sigh and reach for the bottle, ash settling on my hand.
"Where does the basketball court come from?"
"I don't know." I'm doing my best to sound as sanguine as possible, though I'm reasonably sure it isn't working. "It just appears in the mouse cage."
"But surely there's a hint that the skinks have found a basketball court. I mean, before all the floodlights turn on." He actually looks hopeful. I don't think he's understood a word I've said to him so far. "You don't just suddenly discover that you've walked into a basketball court without meaning to." I realise then that it's not hope in his eyes, it's a species of desperation.
"There is no hint that the mouse cage can turn into a basketball court at the drop of a hat," I manage, levelly.
"So the skinks go to raid the mouse cage, only to find themselves surrounded by mice, who turn on a series of floodlights and start playing basketball with them?"
"And this happens in a pet shop?"
"Where, after hours, the mice play basketball against all comers?"
"Dude, that's genius!"
I grit my teeth. "No. It's not. At all. It's surprising because it happens from nowhere. It's literally a case of things being suddenly in the forefront of the scene that weren't described at any point in the preceding five pages."
"It's a book for kids, isn't it? I mean, they won't mind."
"Again, just ... no. It's illogical, and not in an ‘ooh, isn't this silly and amusing' way. If your excuse for bad writing is that it's meant for kids, you need to go back to the drawing board and learn how to write well for kids."
"There must be some redeeming features, surely?"
"There's the theory of dogativity."
Harrison leans forward, his interest piqued. "Tell me more, little man."
I grimace at his attempt to re-establish our old dynamic. "There are a group of dogs in the store, who are aware that they can only perceive a very limited spectrum of colour."
"They sound like very educated dogs."
"One of them's a professor."
"Dogs with recognised qualifications," Harrison mutters. "They're the best kind."
He knocks back the contents of another glass, and I rest my forehead on my hand. "Look. The dogs want to see more colours, like the colour red. And they've decided that if they smack their heads hard enough into solid objects, they'll see stars of several different colours."
"That's the idea. The theory of dogativity states that the harder a dog hits its head, the more likely it is to see the colours it can't normally perceive."
"Does it work?"
"Does it bollocks."
Harrison sighs deeply, and I take this as a sign that he's giving up. Finally.
"I have," he begins in low, measured tones, "one last question."
"Apart from the theory of dogativity, is there anything to recommend this book?"
To my own hazy, subdued surprise I find myself seriously considering the issue. Adopting the gentleman's club tones which seem to be compulsory for the appreciation of speculative fiction, I squint and say, "I have always, in my own way, held a grudging admiration for authors who self-publish. If nothing else, it speaks of a certain indomitability."
"Is that even a word?"
"It is now."
"And so the only things to recommend the book, in your opinion, are a brief section involving a group of dogs with self-harming tendencies, and the fact that it's been self-published?"
Again, I find myself pausing before replying.
"Yes," is my considered response.
"I've never known you be negative about anything you've reviewed before."
"If it helps, my conscience burns like the fire of a thousand suns."
Harrison peers at me across the table, narrowing his eyes carefully. "Has anyone ever told you that you're far too sensitive?"
The end of the second bottle is nearing. I have no idea quite how we got this far. All I remember of the second bottle, which arrived some time after the mention of my sensitivity, is that it was spent discussing how awesome I am. This seems to be a recurring theme in my life; after a certain quantity of alcohol has been consumed, I can't help but be surrounded by people regaling me with tales of my own awesomeness. It would be hardly worth mentioning, but for the fact that they all sound exactly like me when they do it. Obviously, impersonation is the sincerest form of expressing awesomeness.
For the last two glasses, the topic of conversation has been something altogether more serious.
"And that," Harrison concluded, with a flourish of his cigar, "is how a Bill becomes an Act of Parliament."
I decide to ask the question now. Catch him off-guard, and all that.
"Why did you make me review this?"
He averts his gaze, and I know I've caught him out. "Well, it's about skinks, innit?"
"What's your point?"
"Well, see, there's this girl, see, and she likes skinks."
The neon in this place is starting to make my eyes hurt. "You wanted to impress a girl by making me review a book about skinks?"
"Well, that was one motivation. Or at least, it would have been if you'd finished this when I asked you to, in time for her birthday."
"You could've told me. I might have had a motivation for reading it, instead of starting all optimistic and then only reading it to stop myself from dying."
"Stop yourself from dying?"
"The anger keeps me strong."
"Of course," Harrison continues, blowing another cloud of smoke into my face, "there was another motivation. Far more important, in fact."
I lean back in my chair. I reckon that from back here, the myopic sadist can't see how his cigar's making my eyes water. "What would that be, then?"
He leans forward, leering at me through the grey mass. "To make you read a self-published book about skinks."
"I had no idea you were so petty."
"You finish all your reviews with one sentence summations. I'm tired of your predictability. I needed to make you suffer."
"Two can play that game."
"And what, precisely, do you propose to do?"
"I propose, my dear editor, to write the most unpublishable review in the history of the English language."
"I'd like to see you try."
I down the last of my drink. I grab Harrison's glass and finish that. Then I take the bottle, and drain the remnants in one long swig. I know that I have roughly long enough to say two short words before the burning in the back of my throat makes me pass out.
Tim was born at a very early age, and plans to die shortly. He suspects that only people who know him will get the joke in the second half of that sentence. For anyone else wondering, the joke is that he's not very tall. In idle moments, Tim also wishes that he hadn't subcontracted the writing of his jokes to a cut-rate Tommy Cooper knockoff.
Editor's note: today is one year since the relaunch of the reviews department, so we decided to let our hair down. Normal service will be resumed tomorrow.