Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover by David Barber

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Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover by David Barber
Illustration by Sue Babcock

(As Told to David Barber)

I’m writing a biography of Hugh Prentice, who won the Lottery a couple of years ago.

The title was suggested by his wife, Tessa. A vanity project, as we say in the trade, self-published, but they could afford it. She thought it would keep Hugh occupied in retirement.

A long way from my first book, the life of Hjalmar Johansen, of which The Times Literary Supplement said: “A thoroughly researched work, crammed with details of the daily life of this overlooked Norwegian explorer.”

Thoroughly researched alright. I tracked down his daughter, now in her nineties, to a commune of yurts north of Trondheim, where I got frostbite in six toes. You get the impression there wasn’t much money in polar exploration.

The Glasgow Herald caught the mood when it said: “This is a book for anyone wanting to know what Arctic explorers ate for breakfast.”

My editor at Eagle Books suggested I try something more popular, hence the ghost-written autobiography of Baz Stone, former singer with Iron Lung. I was quite proud of Look Under a Stone, but publication was halted because of the ongoing court case.

Apparently Iron Lung have a big fan base in South-East Asia, where unauthorized editions sold well. They simply ignored the legal issues, and also any royalty payments.

So, Hugh Prentice, 65 million euros Lottery winner.

After the win, he and his wife moved from downmarket Daventry to much sought after Bebington on the Wirral peninsula. Hugh didn’t miss his job in an echoingly vast warehouse off the M1, but Tessa had yet to find her niche among the wives of judges, orthopaedic surgeons and university professors that were her neighbours.

Tessa Prentice had a kind face. Middle age had seen her swell, and the tragedy of her life was not having children. Hers would be an easy biography to write. Hugh proved more slippery.

I sat in the Prentice’s living room, notepad on my lap, with a view through the picture window of distant school playing fields. I have a Sony AudioMaster recorder, so the notepad was just a prop, but I’d found that writing furiously encouraged people to talk, while just twiddling with the pencil shut them up. It was like wielding a conductor’s baton.

Except it didn’t work with Hugh Prentice. All I’d learned so far was how long a day in an Amazon warehouse could be.

He switched off when his wife wasn’t there, as if I was on my own in the room. The sense of neglect you get from an abandoned house, as if Hugh was unoccupied.

“Have you told him about the time travellers yet?” said Tessa, bustling in with mugs of tea and biscuits in a tin.

I imagine trawling endless stories from the seabed of Tessa’s memories. Her grandparents, her absent father, her mother who did the best she could. Tessa at school, Tessa the punk rocker with safety pins, Tessa the astronaut.

Hugh was like a hopeless actor in amateur theatre, not knowing what lines came next until Tessa prompted him. I scribbled for encouragement, and gradually the story emerged.

“It wasn’t an abduction,” said Hugh. “I mean, they didn’t force me aboard their machine or anything.”

“He says he wasn’t probed,” said Tessa.

They were staying in a holiday cottage in Devon. Tessa was going to meet an old school friend, and Hugh had waved her off in the car when he saw something odd in a wheat field.

Not like any other object, so difficult to say. Hard to look at. Could have been tiny, or far away.

We could come back to that. I jotted notes furiously.

So Hugh went to look, and there were these chaps. Little chaps, like children.

“And a bit transparent,” prompted Tessa. 

The time tourists were happy to talk to Hugh since no one would believe him. As had proved the case.

No, they didn’t speak English, but they had a box of tricks that did.

“They were surprised,” Tessa explained. “Because people couldn’t usually see them.”

“They said it took a special kind of brain,” she added. “Which is what I’ve always told him.”

They wanted to know if he was familiar with quantum effects.

“I said there wasn’t much call for them in the warehouse trade.”

I wrote that down. Good line.

I appealed to Tessa. Why not the Crucifixion, or shooting JFK? Why would time travellers choose a  field in Devon?

“Perhaps they were just stretching their legs. You know, going for a wee behind the hedge. You see that with men on coach tours. Unless they came specially to visit Hugh. Perhaps he has a lot of the quantum thingy.”

“And there was no probing,” Hugh added, just to make it clear.

I had pages of scribble. Underlined. Crossed out. In capitals.

Brains are the most complex thing there are. We dream, we imagine stuff, and sometimes it surfaces into the light of day. Hugh believed it, and Tessa believed Hugh, and I was being paid, so I might as well write it straight, as if it actually happened. After all, no one was going to read it.

I caught Tessa watching me.

“Your tea’s gone cold,” she said. She wasn’t stupid and I don’t know what she could see in my face, but I’d disappointed her.  

“I mean, how do you think we got the lottery numbers?” she shrugged. Then she went to put the kettle on.

Hugh slowly settled into an absence, like a time-lapsed movie of decay, the room so quiet I could almost hear a distant football match being played on the school fields.

BIO: David Barber lives in the UK. His ambition is to continue doing both these things.