This story is by Dale S Westervelt and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Flora Bourland was a hopeful writer trying to find her way. Ever since she was a girl, she would steep herself in Austen, Dickens, and Lewis Carroll, hoping her prose would take flavors from theirs. She also adored birds, gazing at the ospreys and the cormorants and poring through a running stream of exotic bird books from the local library.
She bore signs she hailed from Northern Ireland, with red-orange hair, a fair and freckled complexion, and a winsome light Irish accent. She took these with her to St. Mary’s College, Oxford, for a degree in English Literature. After university, she mailed inquiries to literary outlets in search of an opportunity to put her studies to good use and found a wise and willing agent in Varney Landscombe from Bristol. He facilitated the publication of a novella and a half dozen of Flora’s short stories over five years. But opportunities dried out, and time, as it does, kept moving.
Twenty years later, Flora moved to Penzance in Cornwall to be close to her mother. The weather on moving day was in its annual tussle between sideways rain and charcoal clouds with cloak and dagger mist, a mist that likes to creep between the trees and waltz near the roadside.
Such the perfect setting to pen my first novel. Brilliant!
She rented a quaint two-bedroom cottage on King’s Road near the town, which she shared with her mum, Hettie, an aging widow with steadily declining health. Flora took a server post at The Acorn Café by the arts center on Parade Street, a practical move to pay the bills.
She conceded to Miles Hampshire, the cafe’s proprietor, that “progress on the novel is a bulging notebook and stacks of note cards clopped about on my wee desk in the kitchen. Headway has totally stalled.” He offered a side hug. “If anyone can do it, Flora, it’s you.”
Flora had two pieces published, quick bang-outs from old notes. But these were too sparse, so she decisively committed to pulling herself out of the rut. She would place a firmer hand on the plow of the novel. More discipline. New habits. And she would contact her first literary agent, Mr. Landscombe, for advice.
She found his contact information and wrote a letter of reintroduction and a request for advice. Three weeks later, she received a letter that set her back on her heels. He invited a proposal: a 150,000-word sweeping romance set in urban Renaissance Tuscany, with a five-month deadline. Landscombe added, “let’s meet in two weeks to discuss.”
After some emotional dust had settled, her soberest thoughts were: This is more than I bargained for when all I needed was a wee bit of advice. And I’ve not written that much in… I can’t remember. Romance? Renaissance? How will I…?
Sleepless nights led up to the big day. Flora took a bus, a train, and a cab to The Primrose Café in Bristol at the appointed time. She recognized the lesson-in-contrast that is Varney Landscombe—rough-hewn with a warm smile. Flora suddenly remembered Varney possessing excessive intelligence, friendliness, and wisdom.
Varney’s wild, grayish-blue hair matched the persistent dash in his eyes. He sported a crumpled blue button-down, wrinkled, baggy khakis, and his brown loafers needed replacing two Prime Ministers ago and looked more like flapjacks.
They shared an awkward hug. “Tea? A scone, perhaps, Ms. Bourland?” Yes, to the tea, no thank you to the scone. “Please. Let’s sit,” he said, waving a fleshy palm as he offered her the leather seat with a curved back.
They chit-chatted out some nervous energy, and Landscombe said, “Well. Did you consider my offer?” His woolen eyebrows perched high. “Exciting, yes?”
Flora used both hands to tuck some hair behind each ear, puffed out all her breath, and sank into her seat with unguarded humility. “Varney. Thank you for your kind offer. Truly.” She paused, sheepish, and then sat up and folded her hands neatly on her lap. “I’m afraid I’ve failed you. Romance isn’t my genre. And the demands of the project are a wee bit much. I could have written a letter. I’m sorry to disappoint you” Varney let it all sit before responding to see if she had anything else on her mind. Nothing.
“My dear, you’ve not disappointed me. I’m retired from the agency. I’m what some call a ‘literary consultant.’” Feigning disgust, “Pish posh! I love working with people who love to write.” Varney raised his hands to his shoulders and outwardly splayed his fingers. “I have a little pond of contacts at a handful of publishing houses within an extended arm’s reach. When a writer has a piece that cuts the mustard, I convey it to them. It’s quite a smooth process.”
Flora marveled at his charm and wondered if his point would surface.
“It’s been ages since we’ve conversed, but… May I speak freely?”
“Yes, of course.”
Varney thanked her with a nod. “Ms. Bourland. You’re sure you want to be a writer?” Flora froze. I must look like a total fool. I should have declined the meeting. “I’ve met many successful writers through the years. Can you guess what they all have in common?” Wide-eyed silence. “They must write! There’s no conceiving anything else.” He studied Flora’s sheet-white face.
“You’ll forgive my boldness, but you requested my advice in your letter. Well, here you shall have it. My dear, you have a hard decision before you. My grandmum said, ‘To have an omelet, you must break some eggs.’ Doing something beats buggering about dithering. Decide what you want, so seventeen more years don’t fly away and leave you clutching your dreams. Now. Let’s get to the nub, my dear. Do you want to be a writer, Ms. Bourland?”
Flora felt she’d entered a boardroom meeting, expecting a carnival in a backyard. Humbly, “I’d like to think so. Yes.”
“I thought you might say that. Candidly, if we should never meet again, I feel I must press on something important.”
“Write or don’t write. One or the other. I haven’t a horse in the race. I’m not urging you to become an author. I’m urging you, rather, to decide to be one or not. And may I leave you with one more bit of advice?”
Flora gulped. “Please.”
“If you should decide to write, write from your heart.” Varney smiled. “Search your heart for the things that animate you—that play to your passion. What do you love?” Pointing to Flora’s chest, “It’s right there. In your heart. Pull it out and render it in splendid prose if that’s what you decide. Or keep everything the same, except with a resolve to be settled with your choice. Toss over all the nagging of a restless conscience. Life’s too short—too good to waste tied up in a bloody knot, no?”
She nodded and tried not to appear undone, so she nervously stood to end the meeting. Flora thanked him, brushed nothing from her clothes, and shook his hand. He turned, and she watched him disappear out the door.
A cab delivered Flora to the old Bristol train station. She boarded the two-fourteen to Exeter, plopped into an inside seat, and looked out the window. She would stare out that window for two-and-a-half hours, not seeing anything but the wild parade of thoughts from the provocative meeting with Mr. Varney Landscombe.
How can he put it so plainly? For pity’s sake, he’s retired and not caring for his mum. And how could he know what nags my conscience? It’s none of his business… Good god, did he see right through me?… If I’m honest with myself—scary as it is—it feels like he’s mostly right about all of it. But I can’t… Are there two choices, or did he somehow stack the deck? The cottage isn’t rent free. And, occasionally, we need to eat. And I’m not leaving mum to her own devices… There’s so much in me bursting to come out. It’s been in there—as he crudely pointed out—far too long… What if I decide I want to write and then make it work?…
She returned to the cottage on King’s Road with something she didn’t have when she left. Resolve.
Seven months went by, and a large square parcel arrived for Varney Landscombe from Flora Bourland of Penzance. Inside was a manuscript of 59,000 words titled, ‘Bow to the Bowers: The Brilliance of Bower Birds and Their Extravagant Rituals of Courtship.’ Mr. Varney Landscombe’s name was after “agent” followed by a delicate question mark. A folded note sat on top.
Who said romance isn’t my genre? I hope you like this experiment in narrative non-fiction. It is in concert with my passion.
I’m no longer the young lady from when we first met twenty-five years ago, stuck in ‘once upon a time.’ Since we last met, I’m editing my way toward ‘happily ever after.’
With gratitude and respect,