My friend had just remembered he’d left something in the car so I settled into my seat and waited for him to return. Two beers on the table.
The pub was small and nice. Wooden and non-chain. Not very busy. No kids in tracksuits trying to sell us wraps of soap powder masquerading as the latest designer drug. Which is the sort of thing you usually find in this post code.
As I waited (not really looking forward to that first sip of beer, I never do, it always fails to live up to my expectations) I observed some activity in the far corner. A small figure crowned with a mass of blonde hair opening and scribbling frenetically upon books. Lots of books. On the left hand side of the commotion a small pile getting larger, on the other a large pile getting smaller.
I observed and struggled to fathom what was going on. My friend returned.
My face soured as the first sip passed my lips and fell down my throat.
‘Off?’ he asked.
‘No,’ I said, neglecting to mention that I had hoped it would taste like apple juice and not beer at all. Nevermind.
‘What’s going on over there?’ I asked.
‘No idea. Looks like a book signing.’
‘In a pub?’
‘I’ve heard of stranger things.’
We watched together. Drank silently.
A tall, dark, scruffy man entered. A pile of books underneath his patched-jacket arm. Shifty looking, he entered quickly and sat near us. Poked his head around the bar, like a rabbit checking for predators.
My friend glanced at me. I barely concealed my disappointment at the lack of apple in my third beer sip.
‘They never let me come for the signings,’ the man said.
‘Pardon?’ my friend said.
‘These secret signings,’ the word ‘secret’ carrying more weight than London Bridge on a Monday morning, ‘I’m not allowed. Invite only they say. I don’t reckon you got an invite, though.’
‘We’re not here for any signing,’ I say.
He checked our feet and the seats we sat upon, later I figured he was looking for books, then I simply assumed he was deranged. He grunted.
The man stood up, sharply and suddenly, drawing attention to himself. He marched across the quiet pub floor towards the small, hairy signing thing.
‘Oi wanker – I told you. Yer not allowed in ‘ere on signing days!’ a voice bellowed from behind the bar. I craned my neck and could see a thickset, hairy, tattooed man. The bar man. Angry.
The shifty, book-carrying man stuttered physically. The rabbit now frozen before a car. But the car wasn’t moving either. He looked at the signing, so close. He took one book and hovered it towards the signer. The signing stopped. The head bobbed up, a pair of tiny eyes beneath a mop of angry hair.
And a hissing.
The book was retracted. And the shifty man left.
We watched, my friend and I, as the status quo returned, the books relocating from pile to pile, the anxious, hirsute heap the conduit between them. My curiosity was high. My friend’s too, I could tell, but he wouldn’t ask any questions. Not his sort of thing.
I lifted my beer and took it with me – perhaps hoping that proof of custom would permit me to solicit information. Before I had a chance to formulate my thoughts, the bar man spoke to me.
‘I was just wondering – who is that?’
‘Can you keep a secret?’
‘Yes. Yes, I’m sure I can.’
‘It’s John Updike, innit.’
I pondered. ‘John Updike’s a dwarf?’ I asked.
‘No,’ the barman said.
At that, the signing thing raised its head and made a long shhhhhhhhhhhhhh-ing noise. And I could see it was not a dwarf.
‘John Updike is a little girl,’ bar man whispered.
Now, I could see that she was.
‘But John Updike’s been writing novels for decades,’ I said, baffled.
‘Believe everything you read in the papers, do you?’ he asked, his words dripping with phlegmy contempt.
John Updike raised her head and addressed the barman.
‘Can I go play on my swing now?’ she asked.
‘Not till you finished signing those books!’
I took another drink, without thinking about it, and winced at the alcoholic sourness.
‘She’s only nine,’ the bar man said, by way of an explanation.