Chapter 1: Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children
The water in Salman Rushdie’s glass is rippling. The glass itself is perfectly still, sitting flat on the even table surface, but the water inside is rippling. It’s Still water, but it’s rippling. I know it’s Still water because I can read the label on the bottle. Still Spring Water. I’m sitting in the front row. I can see it with my own eyes.
Salman Rushdie has barely touched his water, unsurprisingly. The water was placed on the table shortly before 18:30, and he didn’t sit down until 19:07. So it’s been sitting there, warming, for nearly forty minutes. Imagine what it must taste like now, especially under all those bright lights. Like a heated swimming pool, or a glass of hot-water bottle water. Sometimes I drink the warm water in the shower when I’m washing my face, but I don’t swallow it because the taste is like something from an ornamental frog in a garden pond on a very hot day. So instead, I spit the water out down my tummy. And then I give my tummy a good soap down.
Bacteria thrives in warm water. It’s rampant in waterbeds. I heard of a couple who never cleaned their waterbed, not once. You’re supposed to add chemicals to keep the heated water free from bugs. But this couple didn’t. Perhaps they didn’t know they needed to, or maybe they just forgot. Anyway, one day they were preparing to move house, and they emptied the contents of the waterbed bladder into their bath. The water that began to sludge out of the valve was filled with dozens of little scaly things with legs and no eyes. Little hairy mites, kicking about in their clean white tub. The couple were horrified. But there was more to come. A squelching noise was heard, and out slid a huge slimy worm, two metres in length, maybe more, thicker than your thumb. They’d been sleeping on that. Sleeping on a bed of worm.
So don’t drink the complimentary water at your author events, because you might get worms.
There are other dangers too. Perhaps your unattended water bottle in the empty auditorium has been tampered with. We only have to look at the lessons learned from Agatha Christie. People in her books are forever being poisoned. She even spells out what the poison is and how it’s administered. In their drinks. The organisers of this event must be only too aware of Agatha Christie’s back catalogue, and of the brugmansia flower, formerly known as the datura, a South American pendant-shaped plant belonging to the Solanaceae family, also famed for its spicy night scent, which is used by Amazonian tribes as distilled poison to tip their arrows. It doesn’t take an idiot to work this out.
Tonight’s event was scheduled to begin at 19:00, but Professor John Mullan, who’s asking all the questions, and his guest, novelist Salman Rushdie, didn’t sit behind the light pinewood table until some seven minutes after. Authors, I’ve noticed, are always running late. That’s why, unlike other celebrities, they aren’t paid loads of money to advertise expensive watches. In contrast, I entered the Shaw Theatre this evening at 18:20, which is why I’ve secured this top-notch seat in the middle of the front row. If Salman Rushdie were on TV, I would need to move further back because the light would be bad for my eyes.
Earlier, after saving my seat with my coat, I ran through the empty theatre playing Cops and Robbers. Assigning myself the role of robber, I darted down a row, between the folded up chairs, with my right hand tucked under my sleeve holding a gun. When I reached the wall and realised there was no escape, I spun around, drew my gun and begun firing randomly, shouting AAARRGHH!! A policeman shot me in the face, and I fell backwards over the row of seats below, my legs sprawling in the air. It was all quite real to life, with mild concussion and everything, so I ended the game early and slowly crept amongst the rows, loudly flipping all the seats. Another thing you can do before your author event is stock up on complimentary wine.
Drinks Table Woman: Back again?
FP: Yes, that was very tasty, thank you.
Drinks Table Woman: And you want another glass?
FP: Yes please.
Drinks Table Woman: [Holding up bottle.] White?
FP: Um, yes white and red, thanks.
Drinks Table Woman: White and red?
FP: Why not! [Laughing nervously.]
Drinks Table Woman: One of each?
FP: OK! [Laughing nervously.]
Drinks Table Woman: You’re quite early aren’t you? Still half an hour yet…
FP: Yes. Do you have any Kasmiri brandy?
Drinks Table Woman: Kasmiri brandy? No…
FP: Any Mercurochrome?
Drinks Table Woman: No, just the wine.
FP: Right. Does any of the wine contain pickled water snakes? For virility?
Drinks Table Woman: No, it’s just ordinary wine. With grapes.
FP: OK. Maybe I could take a bottle. Save me… save you pouring all the time… [Laughing nervously.]
Drinks Table Woman: You want to take a bottle?
FP: Ha, ha. Yes.
Drinks Table Woman: Hmm. I’m only supposed to give out one glass per person. And you’ve had three glasses already. Three glasses, plus an entire bottle would be like… seven large glasses…
FP: I’m like a lawn, aren’t I? A lawn.
The empty bottle now stands beside my shoe as Salman Rushdie discusses his Booker Prize-winning novel, Midnight’s Children. Right now he’s talking about the use of topical issues.
Salman Rushdie: … anyone who tries to incorporate, particularly contemporary history or contemporary political material into a contemporary novel, it’s a very frightening thing to do because, you know, the subject always changes, whether it’s next week or next year or in five years time…
The Sauvignon Blanc kept its chill far better than Salman Rushdie’s water. Why didn’t the Shaw Theatre offer him a jug of iced water? Maybe they thought he’d be impressed by the fancy bottle and the fact that the water came from a spring. Oh dear. If a half-wit like me can see through that silly guise, I’m afraid Salman Rushdie is very likely appalled. Other stage performers have people running on from the wings with fresh drinks, but Salman Rushdie is lumped with water that probably smells like a wet mitten drying on the radiator. What if he takes a large swig and has to spit it out? Where will he spit it? In his hand? What will he do with it then? Tip it into his pocket? And what if there’s too much water to fit in the cup of his hand? Will he keep it in his mouth instead and gargle it? Or will he allow it to run out of his mouth and down his bearded chin? No, he will do no such thing. This is a literary event, and Salman Rushdie has a reputation to uphold as a distinguished man of words. He will be forced, against his best wishes, to swallow the warm water, resigning himself to the fact that he mustn’t drink any more, even though his throat is dry from all this talking, something he’s obviously not used to because he’s a writer, and writers don’t talk, they sit quietly.
Just to reiterate, DON’T drink the complimentary water at your author event.
The ripples on Salman Rushdie’s water, I believe, are being caused by a series of deep sighs. Sighs that are escaping through his nose. I’ll describe Salman Rushdie’s nose, just as others may, in turn, describe yours. It is not a monumental organ, but it appears to have a lot to say for itself. From bridge to bow, it is about the length of a modern mobile phone, and it resembles a bunch of small, upside down flowers that have been pinned to his face without a message. The nostrils are shaped like melting clocks, and their generous girth offers flume-like passages for volumes of air to travel both down and up. A pair of stylish glasses are affixed to his nose – I’m not sure of the exact optician or designer, but perhaps closer scrutiny on internet images will confirm this. It’s important to note that his goatee beard and moustache, which are succumbing to grey, are neatly trimmed.
The event is taking place in front of a live theatre audience, but it’s also being recorded for future public use. On the surface of the desk, alongside the warm Spring Water, is a recorder device and some microphones. A young man plugged these in shortly before 19:00, and he now sits behind a side desk, wearing headphones and facing the audience like a courtroom typist, recording the facts. The purpose of this electronic gadgetry is to save the author’s voice as an audio ‘Podcast’, which will be accessible for free on the worldwide web. It must put even more pressure on the author because every word he says is being kept alive for the entire world to hear. Not only words but other noises too, like laughs, snorts and sneezes. My smoker’s cough will probably make today’s file. I once dropped a bottle of scotch at a similar event, and it made a loud thud on the floor, and I cursed a bit. I suspect you could also hear me laughing by myself, and, on that occasion, weeping.
These recordings don’t describe the authors themselves, however. Their gestures, their body language, their trousers. Hopefully the book you are now reading will assist in these respects, as will any such events you attend as an audience participant yourself (recommended).
Salman Rushdie and the professor are sharing a microphone on the table. But if your voice is soft and projects poorly, you might require your own, attached to your lapel. However, this may need to be removed if you’re drinking wine instead of water because you may well start talking much louder. You might even begin shouting.
FP: [Aloud.] Why did I only get one bottle? I should have got two.
I met Salman Rushdie earlier, as it happens, because I was lighting up a Gold Flake cigarette outside the theatre just as he arrived. He was, and is, smartly dressed in a dark suit with shiny black shoes, a white shirt, and a gold tie with strawberry splotches. I assume his publishing company are fitting the bill for his expensive attire, because no writer worth his salt is going to own a suit of their own. No way. When I dress to go out, I dress to go outside, into someone’s garden. But it’s worth having a parent/grandparent on stand-by if your publishing company is not forthcoming in this respect, or if you happen to be a successful self-published author. Salman Rushdie is a short man, which is a consolation, because so am I. Writers don’t have to be pin-ups. An athletic build is not a prerequisite, and in fact, many writers are beginning their careers just as professional footballers are finishing theirs. This may be why you don’t see big-name male authors advertising the latest hi-tech razors. Because their faces are just too wrinkly.
As Salman Rushdie approached the Shaw Theatre, I nervously waved him in, as if he were a taxiing aircraft.
Salman Rushdie: Hello. Would you like me to sign your book?
FP: Yes please. To Francis Plug. Francis with an ‘i’, Plug with one ‘g’.
Salman Rushdie: Francis Plug. Is that you?
Salman Rushdie: What an interesting name. Francis Plug. It sounds like the name of a fictional character…
FP: Yes, but I’m real.
Salman Rushdie: Of course.
FP: I’m not a talking mule, for example. In a haunted house.
Salman Rushdie: No. [Slight pause.] But as Saleem Sinai says, ‘What’s real and what’s true aren’t necessarily the same’.
FP: Sure. But he also calls his penis a ‘soo-soo’. [Laughs.]
Salman Rushdie: OK, thanks.
FP: [Still laughing.]
Saleem Sinai is the name of the central character in Midnight’s Children. Francis Plug is my name. As names go, I suppose it’s quite memorable. People forget my face, but they don’t forget my name. This has helped me stay invisible and blend in (apart from a particular ‘Butt Plug’ period). Of course, as an author, anonymity goes out the window. You become a name and a face. That’s why it makes sense to prepare. It makes all the sense in the world.
Salman Rushdie’s book is set in India and contains many challenging narrative conventions. This makes the professor very excited. He would clap his hands if he could. John Mullan, a pink-faced gentleman, is a professor of English literature, and tonight he’s wearing a tight black top. It looks like the same top he wore at a previous event. Maybe it’s his good luck top. It reminds me of those tight tops that are difficult to take off. If you try to pull them over your head, they often get stuck there and you can’t see. And you panic slightly, afraid that you’re going to suffocate, or that someone will walk up to you and punch you in the stomach. The professor has a lean frame, so his tight black top suits him well, but I imagine he’ll struggle later tonight when he tries to take it off before bed.
Audience questions are a popular part of most author events, and I want to ask Salman Rushdie about his socks, because I can see them there, poking out. But then I notice my hands and think otherwise. They look like a worm’s hands, all muddy and slimy, with little gardens beneath the nails. No one is going to pick a hand like that, even if I’m right here in the front row, frantically waving it about like a big mucky moth. No, I’ll have to go and give them a thorough wash and scrub, just as soon as I relieve myself. In fact, they’ll need a good going over before my piddle because I’m not about to touch my modesty with those filthy monsters.
Salman Rushdie: … So for instance the spittoon, I mean it’s just a spittoon, that’s all it is: it has in itself, intrinsically, no metaphorical meaning...
Salman Rushdie is in the middle of a serious point, so I creep past the stage on tip-toes with my dirty hands held up to my chest like a quiet mouse’s paws.
Once my wee is wee-ed and my hands are stringently cleansed, I duck outside for a quick State Express 555 cigarette. My £8 ticket is equivalent to two and a half well-filled glasses of wine. So far I’ve had seven glasses, so I’m up. Still, you can see a half-decent band for £8. And bands have fancy stage lights. In 2044, it will probably cost £1,111 to attend an author event, and us authors will be talking within enclosed, bullet-proof boxes. Perhaps we’re currently experiencing the golden age of author/reader interaction, but I suspect, for most contemporary authors, it’s nothing but a friggin’ nightmare.
There doesn’t appear to be anything outside the theatre to draw the crowds in for tonight’s event. No inflatable Salman Rushdie figure with long, billowing limbs, for instance. Not even a banner that reads: NEXT ATTRACTION! SALMAN RUSHDIE! TALKING! LIVE ON STAGE!
It’s just a matter of time, I suppose.
The wine table is unattended, so I help myself to another bottle before heading back into the theatre. Salman Rushdie looks over to me as I scuttle towards my seat, and the professor’s eyes are diverted by my re-entry also. It must be distracting to have someone moving about like a frilled lizard while you’re trying to talk. But at least I didn’t walk out on them. I came back. And my sparkling hands smell of lovely flowing bathroom soap.
FP: [Aloud.] Mmm… Milk & Honey.
The condensation from the wine bottle leaves damp stains on my trousers. I’m also starting to feel very drunk. There are two Salman Rushdies now, so I try looking at them through my wine glass, holding it up to my eyes.
FP: [Aloud.] He’s quadrupled! There are four of him, three of him! FOUR! THREE! FOUR! TWO! NINE!
Woman Sitting Beside Me: Ssshhhh!!
The wine in my tummy is sloshing. Salman Rushdie is attempting to answer an audience question about characters that have gone beyond his control. But the calm of his gentle voice is broken by my hiccups. I stick my hand up.
Professor Mullan: Yes, the young man there, in front.
FP: SORRY. [Hic.]
Professor Mullan: Um…
FP: I’M REALLY [Hic.] DRUNK.
Professor Mullan: I see.
The professor quickly picks out someone else, and Salman Rushdie engages them with a thoughtful response. I slump back, feeling like a bit of a dick.
Later, weighed down by a leather satchel, I stumble out of the auditorium, possibly gripping a wine bottle.