Excerpt for Virtually Ideal Episode 5: Shouldn't Have Said It Couldn't Get Any Worse by , available in its entirety at Smashwords




VIRTUALLY IDEAL


by Buffy Greentree




***

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Episode 5: Shouldn't have said it couldn't get any worse


Monday


Fingers wrapped around the steaming long black like insect legs, I glance repeatedly over my hunched shoulders as if I’ve got a nervous tic. The rest of the cafe appears self-absorbed, and it turns out to be only a small child hiding under the table. But appearances are deceptive; Creepy IT Guy (or CIG as I’m now going to call him) could be lurking anywhere, just waiting to proclaim to the world I’m stalking him online.

I admit it was a dangerous move leaving the house so early to meet up with Amelia. However, if CIG is going to abduct me, I prefer there to be witnesses. Now I have another twenty minutes (assuming she’s only five minutes late) to kill with this subpar coffee. More than enough time to swirl my soul into a pit of despair, as it turns out.

It wouldn’t be so bad if life hadn’t made such extravagant promises first. It’s like, every pro she dangles before me then mutates into a con and whacks me across the face. Prime example: Tom, aka CuteTramGuy. Despite all previous experience of how the universe likes to treat me, I mysteriously bump into the amazing man I’ve been daydreaming about, for the third time and he actually asks for my number, and calls me gorgeous. Repeatedly. How is that not a sign from God?

And what has this led to? Why, first losing my expensive, still on a plan phone and having no contact with the outside world because stupid Telstra appears to think technology needs weekends too. But more importantly: second, losing the chance to ever date this amazing guy, and the certain knowledge he’s currently blackballing me across the worldwide GuyFi because I give out fake numbers.

Despite having a deep sense of the futility of life, I reflectively check my newly acquired phone for any sign of connectivity. It smilingly reassures me it’s 10.56am, but refuses to have any service. I stare into its shimmering, dark soul and hear its electronic laughter.

Fine. I wasn’t going to do this, but now you’ve forced me to, little phone.

I hold down the power button, and with extravagant glee drag my finger across the screen to confirm its demise. Pulsing with a sense of dominance I wait ten seconds and then breathe life back into the fragile body. My feelings of impotency assuaged for the moment, I lay my victim down and attempt to heat my lukewarm coffee through the power of my mind.

Irritation is the first emotion to hit me as the phone has a series of epileptic seizures. I’ve doomed myself forever to be laughed at by IT departments around the world; just as Tiff said, turning it off and then on again has worked.

Once the edge of the annoyance has dulled, I suddenly realise what this means: Tom I-Wish-I-Could-Remember-Your-Last-Name could be waiting right now, just inside my phone!

Grasping my little lifeline in an overly dramatic move that leads to me knocking over the last of the coffee (really no waste there, and the phone stayed dry), I press my thumb against the sensor as if I’m being let into MI5. Now, voicemail or text first? Who would miss the opportunity of listening to his beautifully articulated consonants? Voicemail it is.

First is from Yanie asking how I feel about organza for the wedding. Seriously, how does anyone feel about organza? Delete, I’ll get back to her later. Next is from Mum reminding me of our lunch date on Wednesday. She also has very articulated consonants, but with a very different effect. I delete and move on. The final one, the one I’ve been waiting for is … from George. I retract that statement.

Others may remember him as HarvardMale, Friday night’s failed date, or scientific evidence that having a high IQ in no way equates to being a functional human being. He’s telling me what a wonderful time he had, and asking why I don’t answer my phone. I delete his message and consign him to hell. There’s a (small) pang of guilt as I realise it’s not his fault he isn’t a gorgeous, funny, charming male with wavy brown hair and dark amber eyes. But he could’ve at least tried.

It’s all okay, I still have the text messages. Faster this time, I flick through: Mum, Mum, Yanie, Tiff, Amelia, Dad (well, that’s unusual), Telstra welcoming me to their service (no comment), and that’s it. I go through the list again, just to make sure. Nope, no unknown number.

Perhaps he got drunk and lost his phone too. Or maybe a rabid dog attacked him and devoured my KFC scented scrap of paper? Or … okay, my next excuse is that he got hit by a car and is in a wheelchair, and in a year I’ll find out the truth — which will be too late because I’ll already be imprisoned by CIG.

Deprived of all reason to live, I lay my head down on the table and instantly regret doing so at a public cafe. Wiping off the unidentifiable stickiness, I substitute the position for supplication to the heavens. Surely this can’t be it? Surely if I just try hard enough God will show me how to find Tom again?

Staring into the void of total despair, I grasp at the scraggly bush of hope; I check my emails. Perhaps he lost my number, but (having not irresponsibly damaged his brain with alcohol) still remembered my full name and Googled me. There could be an email with some witty banter a few clicks away.

Nope. Nope. Nope. Only the (now) normal gaggle of dating messages that are nothing more than spam to me, and two emails from Telstra - now you want to be clingy? Back into pit of despair I go.

I’m brought out of my wallowing by the table jumping. Amelia’s handbag, that’s probably hiding weapons of mass destruction, has landed. And with it, Amelia.

‘Laurie, can you get me a soy chai latte, and make sure it’s decaf?’ She collapses into one of the tub chairs with her skin flushed as if she’d just walked up a flight of stairs. Well, it’s nice to see she at least tried to get here on time. But no, I’m not going to ask the barista if their powdered chai mix is decaf. She’ll just have to live.

I come back to find Amelia on the phone. She waves for me to put the glass down and finishes her call with the trite, ‘Darling, I’m going to have to call you back later, all right?’ and hangs up before Darling can answer. I momentarily wonder if Darling could be a love interest, but decide it’s most likely her manicurist.

Taking a moment to run her comb-like nails through her hair, she shakes her shoulders and gets down to business. ‘So, I suppose you want to see the contract, hmm?’ Amelia puts on a plastic smile as she reveals a wad of pages that could be the next Game of Thrones manuscript. Oh, she’s nasty. It definitely wasn’t this thick last time I saw it. Pay back for making her change it?

I return the smile as I heave the pile over. ‘Thank you. I won’t read it all now, but will get back to you as soon as I can.’ I’m dying to flick through to the important part — how much she’s actually going to pay me — but fear it’ll be buried at the bottom of page 359, in small print, so decide to wait until I have my magnifying glass.

Amelia flicks her blond hair like a Charlie’s Angel. ‘Now, onto work. I think the first thing you’ll need to learn is about contracts. If you think this manuscript you’ve found is good enough to sign, you need to know what you can and cannot offer.’

Wow, this is actually sensible. It’s a strange thought that Amelia might have some business nous.

‘So you’ll find in there,’ she flutters her fingers at the entire works of Shakespeare before me, ‘a copy of our standard contract for first time authors. I’ve also added some general notes.’ I flick through the pages to realise only a small portion is concerning my slavery, and the rest is work Amelia’s done to try and help me. My bad. I really should work on my judging people, even if all past experience appears to justify it.

Amelia continues. ‘Spend a few hours reading over these, once you’re onboard, of course. Then try putting together a contract yourself. I’ll have a look at it when I can and give some feedback. Do you think you can do that?’ She tilts her head to one side and waits for my answer.

Read, copy, modify? She really thinks that’s going to stress me out? What am I, a primary schooler? ‘That shouldn’t be a problem.’

‘Good, and while you’re doing that, you’d also better start looking into the background of this author. Does he already have a platform? How far is his personal reach? Does he present well online? Oh, the troubles I’ve had with some older new writers,’ she rolls her eyes towards heaven. ‘They just have no idea the importance of building a strong online presence.’

I decide not to point out the problem with Googling ‘Henry Smith’. ‘I’ll look into it.’

‘And how is the actual manuscript? Does it need any editing?’

‘Not much, I’ll just go over it myself.’

Amelia gives me a long suffering sigh. ‘No darling, agents are not editors - well, legitimate agents aren’t. If you think it needs an edit before we can send it out, then you direct him somewhere like Editors Victoria. Oh, you should also find out if he has any plans for further work. One book is so hard to market these days.’ She sits back and sips at her chai through pursed lips.

Okay, so we’ve gone from ‘read, copy, modify’ to also ‘stalk, outsource, inspire second book’? Just give me a moment as I type away madly on my iPad the new to do list.

‘Oh, and you’ll need to still keep on top of the hardcopy slush-pile - I’ve put that in as part of your contract.’

My fingers stop mid stroke, then my moment of frozen bunny panic starts to subside. It’s all fine. I can learn all there is to know about agenting, while also reading submissions, trying to inspire Timothy Farren, signing on Henry Smith, working on my own writing and finding a date for my sister’s wedding. Oh, and helping my sister organise said wedding.

I get a backwash of guilt. I really should’ve done more on the wedding organising front by now; we’ve just rounded the corner of week three out of seven. Leaving it isn’t making it better. After this meeting, I’ll email Yanie and see what she wants done. But right now, back to Amelia.

‘That’s fine. I’m very excited to be learning about the industry.’

‘Oh, and now that you’re taking over some of the work at the agency, I should have more time to find a suitable place for your manuscript. It will also be a good way for you to experience how the process works from both sides. To start with, you should probably read over it again.’ There’s a slight pause. ‘I mean, from the eyes of an agent. Being as objective as you can. It may lead you to think of some ways it could be made more … marketable.’

Marketable? She thinks my work isn’t marketable? I’ll show her. I’ll do the best proposal and marketing plan that has ever been done, and publishers will be outbidding themselves for it (the book, not the plan, just to clarify).

Now I think of it, why haven’t I done all this before? I put together a rough proposal when I first sent it in, but I know so much more now. And I must admit I haven’t been doing much to build up my platform. Time to post on the blog again. Add that to the list.

‘Thanks Amelia. I’ll get straight to work on it,’ Amelia starts to open her mouth, ‘After I’ve done all the other work for Precious, of course.’ She closes it again with a nod.

‘When you’re settled, we’ll get you onto calculating royalties and advances. Once you learn the formulas it’s not very difficult.’

I never realised Amelia did so much work; she always seemed to be swanning around at lunches and conferences. Who knew she did mathematical equations in her spare time?

‘Now, I’m sure I’ve left you with enough to do. So, when you feel ready to sign the contract, come in at 8am the next day and we’ll clear you a better space in the office.’

I splutter out the lukewarm water I was drinking. 8am? Who said anything about getting out of bed and to the office by 8am? Is it even light at that time in the morning?

Amelia doesn’t notice. ‘Anyway, I have to fly.’ She tosses off the last of her chai before getting up. ‘See you soon, Assistant Literary Agent.’ She blows me a kiss and walks off, leaving me with a tree’s worth of paper and a manic grin.

Assistant Literary Agent.

Excitement finally overcomes me and I flick through the pages to find my pay. I come first to the hours. The contract is for 20h, 8am - 12.30pm (inclusive of 30 minute unpaid break) five days a week. Great, she hasn’t tried to sneak in any extra hours. Plenty of time to work on my own manuscript. Though, looking at it, I’m not sure the amount of work Amelia wants done is going to fit into 4 hours a day. The slush pile has been taking me roughly two mornings a week, and that’s frequently just reading the first line. But will worry about that later.

I keep skimming. I’ll need to go over in detail with Geoff and Mark this part about intellectual property and what belongs to the company: I don’t want to find I’ve signed away the rights to my book. Oh, and this part too, about what happens when I finish working for Precious with clients etc. Imagine if I build up a network of authors, only to have Amelia take all the royalties once they’re earning something.

Come on, where’s the pay?

Ah, that looks more like it. I think.

$30,000 + 5% of royalties for my clients.

Stop, pause there. $30,000?

Not really sure what I was hoping for, I’m only working 20 hours a week after all, but still …

Let’s think this through. On the plus side, I’ll be getting a percentage of the royalties, when I finally have some clients. And I suppose that $30,000 is equivalent to about $60,000 full time, which is not a bad salary for a graduate. And it’s more than I’m getting now at the call centre; I won’t be abounding with riches, but I can quit.

Hmmm, no more call centre? No more rude foot-fetishy customers, or abrasive bosses, or CIGs?

I sit back with a smile. Amelia hasn’t really screwed me over at all.

***

‘Pro rata? What do you mean, pro rata?’ I look at Mark in horror as he reads through the contract.

‘It means $30,000 for a 38 hour week. Since you are only working 20 hours, you only get a fraction of that amount.’ I watch his blond curls bounce as he leans over to do some calculations. ‘That’s about $15.20 an hour … so for 20 hours a week that’s … $304.’ He looks up with a sheepish smile. ‘But, on the bright side, you’ll be paying almost no tax.’

I slump back with my arms crossed over my chest. ‘Well, that’s just great: I earn so little even the Government is taking pity on me.’

Geoff comes over with coffees for all. ‘Don’t forget, you’ll be earning commission.’

‘Yeah, not until I actually sell a manuscript to a publisher and even then, do you know how much first time authors earn? 5% of nothing is still … nothing.’

The worst part then hits me. ‘I’m going to have to keep working at the call centre!’ I flop forward, head hitting the table. Mark pushes a coffee over to me. I raise my head enough to sniff at the caffeine. ‘Thanks.’

Geoff (rudely) ignores my drama queen antics and slides the contract around to have a read. ‘There are a few other things in here I’d probably get rephrased.’ He grabs the pen out of Mark’s hand and starts scribbling away.

Mark takes his coffee and turns to me. ‘It’s not all bad. It’s set up so you’re working as an apprentice for the first three years. Each year the base salary will increase as you learn more, which you’ll be able to negotiate at the time. So you just have to show them how great you really are.’

‘Isn’t that what I’ve been doing for the past year?’ As I speak I realise I’m beginning to whinge, which is not very attractive and I want Mark to see me at my best. I straighten up. ‘Fine, no, that’s probably fair. And at least I’m getting paid something,’ I take another zen inducing breath as I stir my coffee. In the process the coffee creme leaf pattern Geoff has artistically created disappears. Is that a metaphor for life?

Mark shrugs. ‘Well, you can always come join us in the coffee business.’

‘Don’t tempt me.’ We exchange smiles and my insides heat up.

Geoff looks up from where he’s been flicking between pages. ‘Honestly, this is a lot of work for 20 hours. But I can’t see a way around it.’

‘Couldn’t I argue some of the tasks are beyond the skill level of a first year apprentice - paying peanuts you get monkeys and all that?’

Geoff pats me consolingly on the shoulder. ‘You could, but in reality you want to take on as many higher level tasks as you can to prove your worth. Making a stand about what you will or won’t do is not going to win your boss over.’ My lips form a pout before I can stop them. ‘Basically Lau, you need to decide: do you want to be used as slave labour for three years but become the best literary agent you can, or stand by your rights and possibly not have a job?’

Mark gives me a lopsided smile. ‘It’s your basic graduate lawyer dilemma.’

A customer walks in and Geoff, glancing between Mark and I, jumps up to serve them. Don’t think I didn’t notice that.

Mark shuffles around to be closer. ‘Laurie, are you sure this is what you want?’

He’s looking into my eyes intently; my pre-heated insides spread the warmth to my cheeks.

‘It’s just that you’ve always said you wanted to be a writer. That’s quite different to being a literary agent. There’s a chance this work could take over your life, 20 hour contract or not, and detract from the time you can spend writing.’

Darn, he’s just asked the question I’ve been successfully not answering for the past few days. Despite all my declarations of wanting to be a writer, am I prepared to take the leap that Mark and Geoff did? Leaving behind a secure job to follow the dream?

‘Honestly, I don’t know. Amelia is letting me work on the proposal for my own book, and I’ll be learning a lot about the industry, which means I’ll be able to write better and more targeted books.’

‘But do you enjoy it?’

There was the excitement of finding Henry Smith’s manuscript; I didn’t care I wasn’t being paid to create the proposal. And going to Marcus’ book launch was fun, and resulted in a stunning photo of me in one of Australia’s leading newspapers, can’t forget that. Then there’s working with Timothy Farren: what other way could I’ve ended up having lunch with the man himself, awkward as it was?

On the other hand, there’s my writing. How long has it been since I actually sat down and did some, other than the odd blog post? It’s a yoke of guilt I carry constantly on my shoulder. My mind shuts down when I think of all the work it’d take to get an income stream of even $30,000 a year, even if I could convince a publisher to take this first book in the next few weeks.

‘I do love writing, but I’m not sure I can make it everything. But the work I’m doing for the agency, if it actually paid something … well, I’ve been happy doing it for free, so I suppose that says something.’ Mark’s still watching me intently. I hide my nervous smile in my coffee.

‘As long as you’re sure. I think this is a pretty fair contract, considering. It’s common for these sorts of jobs not to pay well for the first four to five years. But if you’re learning, then it’s worth it. These are skills you can use anywhere. You could even start your own agency after a few years.’

‘Hey, don’t get too ahead of yourself, not everyone’s brave enough to strike out on their own.’

There’s that cute smile again. ‘I wouldn’t call it brave. But, if you do ever decide to I’d be happy to give you some advice.’ He glances at his empire. ‘It’s not easy, but it definitely has its rewards.’ He flicks his gaze to me, then quickly down. ‘And how many people get to sit chatting to a beautiful woman while at work?’

Oow, he made me blush, and looks a bit pink-tinged himself. Maybe Jessica and Tiff were wrong about the potential for a relationship. I mean, what harm could it really do to test it out?

‘Thanks for doing this Mark, I really owe you.’ I emphasise the ‘owe’ part with a flutter of my eyelashes.

Mark tilts his head on the side. ‘Maybe you can take me out for coffee some time.’

‘Well, I do know this great little spot.’ We both laugh. I take a deep breath and plunge in, ‘But, if you weren’t busy –’ The spring from the pen I’ve been playing with suddenly shoots off. ‘Darn.’ We quickly locate it. ‘Sorry, what I meant to say was, don’t suppose you have something planned for the third weekend in June? The Sunday, to be precise?’ I wonder if there was a way to phrase that which didn’t make me sound like a Type-A control-freak. Nope, not really.

‘Oh, that’s Yanie’s wedding?’ He’s been forewarned. ‘Sorry, I’ve already booked to fly home to Adelaide for Mum’s fiftieth. I think she’d personally come here and kill me if I didn’t show up.’

‘Oh. No, that’s fine.’ I’m not as successful in sounding carefree as I’d hoped. ‘Wouldn’t want you being killed for me. Might ruin the wedding.’ Weak laugh.

‘But, maybe some other time? I know that doesn’t help solve your problem, but you know …’ I look into his gorgeous but young blue eyes and think: how did I end up with so many men wanting to date me, but still no date to the wedding? Not that I’m complaining: it’s much, much nicer than men not wanting to date me.

‘I’d really like that.’

Mark responds with a smile that promises to brighten the rest of my day.

Geoff suddenly appears in a way that makes me suspect he’s been eavesdropping. ‘So, everything going … well?’

Poor Mark is mortified, but with my age and experience I casually turn to Geoff, who’s grinning like a chimpanzee. ‘Why yes, thank you. And if you’re not too busy, a ham and cheese toastie would be fantastic.’

He takes the snub well. ‘One toasted swiss cheese with triple smoked, leg ham panini coming up.’ Them and their fancy menu.

Mark gets up with a shrug. ‘Suppose I should get back to work.’

‘Yeah, his boss is kinda a slave driver.’

In Mark’s defence I throw a table napkin at Geoff. Luckily there are too many customers for him to retaliate.


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