Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘In Pursuit of Happiness’ by Freya Kennedy.
IN PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS
The pop of the champagne bottle made Jo Campbell jump, even though she’d watched her foster brother, Noah, as he started to twist the cork slowly, and had anticipated the noise that would follow.
Her nerves were on edge, and fizzed just like the bubbly liquid that was being poured into delicate long-stemmed champagne flutes. The hum and chatter of the guests assembled in the next room made her feel giddy. So giddy, in fact, that she downed the better part of her glass of bubbles in one go, prompting her mother to warn her to slow down.
‘But, Mum,’ she said, ‘I’m really, really nervous. What if everyone hates it? What if it bombs and the only reviews that come are one-star assassinations? What if not a single person buys it?’ She didn’t so much as have butterflies in her stomach as giant killer moths – if such a thing existed.
Her mother put down her own almost empty glass. ‘Josephine Campbell. Calm yourself, my wee love. Everyone will love it. Why wouldn’t they? It’s brilliant, and you’re brilliant.’
‘But you are duty-bound to say that. You’re my mammy. Even if it was the worst book in the world, you’d still tell me it was brilliant,’ Jo said.
Her mother, a woman who had raised three children of her own, adopted another and fostered countless more over the years, gave Jo a snippy look. ‘I would not! I’ve always been honest with you and I’m not going to change now. Besides, it’s published. It wouldn’t be if it was rubbish!’
‘She’s right you know,’ Libby Quinn, one of Jo’s dearest friends and the proprietor of Once Upon A Book in Ivy Lane, told her. ‘You’re good. Actually you’re great. This is your moment, so enjoy it. The shop is full and everyone is on your side.’
Libby smiled her usual warm, inviting smile and Jo watched as Noah put his arm around his new fiancée’s shoulder and kissed her on the cheek. They made a lovely couple – Libby and Noah. But then she’d always known that from the moment Libby Quinn had arrived in The Ivy Inn soaked to the skin and covered in grime just over a year earlier. She’d known almost instantly they would be a great pair, and once they had finally admitted their feelings towards each other they had become almost inseparable. Just thinking about Noah’s hearts and flowers proposal brought tears to Jo’s eyes, and it wasn’t that she was jealous. Although if she was honest with herself, she would admit she was.
‘Damn it,’ Jo said, downing the rest of her glass while ignoring her mother’s disapproving looks. ‘I’m not going to cry, I’ll never live it down!’
‘Everyone knows you’re soft as butter, Jo. I wouldn’t worry about it,’ Noah said. He was right, of course, she was as soft as butter on a warm day, but she had more reason than normal to be emotional.
Posters of Jo’s debut novel, The Lies We Tell, lined the walls, replete with official author pictures, in which she looked sultry and serious and not her usual gregarious self.
In that moment, Jo felt a swell of pride and achievement. This was her moment. She’d finally done it. Written a book and had it published. And now she was going to enjoy this launch in her beloved home town of Derry in the north of Ireland.
Her little sister, Clara, a self-declared princess, danced in circles around Jo’s feet, enjoying the tulle monstrosity of a dress she had insisted on wearing for the occasion. It was over the top, Jo conceded, but Clara had her big sister tightly wrapped around her little finger.
And all her friends were there. Harry from the corner shop. The regulars of The Ivy Inn, which she was part owner of along with Noah. Her godmother, Auntie Mags, and even Erin, her most trusted confidante. They all grinned at her as if she was a graceful bride about to glide down the aisle.
So far the launch had been everything she had hoped for: copies of her books on the shelves, friends and family sharing the moment and champagne galore. There was just one final ingredient – the icing on the cake: the celebrity guest. Libby had made it her mission to find someone famous to do the launching honours – someone instantly recognisable, but she had refused to tell Jo who it would be.
‘It’s good,’ Libby had said. ‘It’s someone really good.’
Jo hoped it was someone who would suit the gravitas of the launch – and the seriousness of the book she had written. She’d poured years of writing and learning and rewriting and relearning into making this debut, and she had great dreams that one of her writing heroes, maybe Liz Nugent or Liane Moriarty, or local bestseller Brian McGilloway, would do the honours.
When the crowd parted, Jo swore loudly as she saw a life-sized Peppa Pig holding a copy of her book, while Clara squealed with delighted at the superstar guest.
* * *
It was at just that point that Jo woke, drenched in sweat, in the early-morning light of her bedroom, instantly delighted it had been just a dream. Yes, of course, she’d love to have the book she had been slaving over for the last three years published, but the thought of the public side of things – launches and interviews, and photo shoots, book signings and possible Peppa Pig endorsements – made her feel sick to the pit of her stomach.
She looked at the stack of notebooks on her dresser – each one filled with ideas and short passages of text. Her battered laptop, most certainly on its last legs, sat beside them. The master copy of her novel saved to it. One day, maybe, she’d find the courage to be brave enough and send her words into the world, but today was not that day.
Always Be My Maybe
Thursdays were bookshop days, and, as such, they were one of Jo’s favourite days of the week. As much as she loved working in The Ivy Inn, and loved the people she worked with, Thursdays were different. She carved those days out for herself and made sure she was always at her desk writing before ten.
When Libby had decided to have dedicated writer spaces in Once Upon A Book, Jo had made a long-neglected promise to herself that she would start approaching her writing seriously. She’d been the first person to reserve one of the desks, and within a fortnight of the shop opening, she had made a block booking that meant the ‘Heaney desk’ would be hers every Thursday. She’d tried some of the other desks of course, like a modern-day Goldilocks. The Plath desk had felt too sombre, the Joyce desk too ambitious, but the Heaney desk? That felt just right – solid, and brave and trusting.
She was happy to dig with her squat pen there and lose herself in her words. It helped that she had freshly ground coffee on tap and the smell of freshly printed books filling her nostrils. Even on the days when the words didn’t come so easily, she could quite happily just spend the day people-watching from her nook, with occasional breaks to chat with Libby over a tray bake or muffin, or to pore over the books on the pre-loved shelves finding bargains to add to her collection.
This Thursday was no exception, even though her dream of an uncomfortable public launch had nagged at her all day. Jo read over the opening chapters of her book again. She still cringed a little when she thought of it as ‘a book’ as opposed to just something she’d written. The fear was real that people would think she had notions above her station by declaring herself a writer and talking about her book. It seemed like such a far-fetched dream.
As she picked apart each sentence as if she were seeing them for the first time, Jo tried to read her words as if she had no connection to each and every one of them on the page. A lot of time was spent sat back on her chair, chewing on the lid of her pen, and watching the words blur on the screen in front of her. Was this any good? It was entirely possible she had lost all perspective at this stage.
What she needed was a fresh set of eyes to read it, but that would entail actually showing her work to someone, and Jo wasn’t sure she was quite ready for that yet, or if she ever would be.
Even though she knew she wouldn’t have a problem getting someone to read it for her, Jo didn’t believe she’d get the most honest response from any of her eager family and friends. Her mum wanted to read it. Noah tortured her to get a sneak peek too. Even Erin, who, as a rule, didn’t normally read anything longer than an Instagram post, had been on her back about it. Jo feared any of those three would read it and praise that which needed changed. Their feedback would be the equivalent of a kindly pat on the head and a ‘well done, love’.
Libby, of course, would probably be the best person to read it and give her an honest opinion. There wasn’t much about books that Libby Quinn didn’t know, and Jo knew that even if her book was truly woeful, Libby would be able to break the news to her in a kind and constructive manner.
But Jo, who had once been so fearless in everything she did, wasn’t sure she was quite brave enough for kind and constructive yet. Secretly, she was afraid that Libby would tell her it was all awful and she’d been kidding herself that she had anything remotely resembling talent.
Maybe, she thought, if she just tweaked it a little more, she would find the courage she was lacking.
Her phone pinged with a message from Erin at 5.01 p.m. exactly. Erin, along with all of Jo’s friends and family, had been warned not to message her on Thursdays before five unless it was a matter of life and death. They all knew better than to ignore that directive, but it did normally lead to Jo’s phone being flooded with messages and calls as soon as her self-imposed isolation ended.
JC, thank God it’s five. We need to chat. Before I brain someone with a skillet pan and serve them for tomorrow’s lunch special with a red wine jus.
Everyone knew that Erin could be a little hot-headed when it came to her work. She made Gordon Ramsey look like Mary Poppins when she really got going, but rarely went so far as to actually threaten murder and subsequent cannibalism.
Jo knew, however, that just as Erin could be enraged at a speed of knots, her anger also burned out quickly and quite often she just needed to shout a bit, or smash something, to restore her equilibrium. Thankfully it usually wasn’t someone’s brain with skillet pan but woe betide a ball of dough or hunk of lamb that crossed her on a bad day. Jo tapped a reply into her phone.
Come over to Libby’s. There are still some chocolate brownies left and we can chat. Leave Phil in charge for twenty minutes.
The kitchen could and would survive without Erin for twenty minutes, even if Erin wasn’t at all willing to believe that.
Jo packed up her things and moved to a table in the coffee bar, before she made two lattes and placed two gooey, delicious chocolate brownies on plates. There were, she noted, certain perks to also working a few shifts at a bookshop which had a coffee bar attached, and being one of the owner’s best friends.
When Libby asked her if everything was okay, she simply replied with ‘Erin’ and no more needed to be said between the two.
Libby smiled. ‘You might need cream with those brownies.’
‘You might be right.’ Jo smiled back, just as the bell above the door tinkled and Erin walked in, red of face and face tight with anger.
Jo pulled her into a hug. ‘What’s wrong?’ she asked.
Erin pulled back and sat down. ‘You know we’re catering that private party tomorrow? The engagement?’
Jo nodded. The details of the dinner for thirty being held in the pub’s small but perfectly formed function room were seared in her brain. The bride-to-be was what most people would class as high-maintenance. And the groom-to-be was worse.
‘Well, himself just called and wondered could they add another ten meals to the cover. And four of those ten are vegan, but none of our vegetarian options “sound like something they would like”.’ She rolled her eyes at this. For a small gastro pub, The Ivy Inn’s array of vegetarian and vegan meals was impressive – something Erin was very proud of. ‘So he wondered could I send him a few ideas for them to consider. You know, for the dinner, tomorrow.’ She dug her fork into her brownie with a fierceness that made Jo feel a little scared. ‘I mean… ten more meals and a bespoke menu at twenty-four-hours’ notice! And you’ll have to rework the table arrangements to fit more people in! It’s been one thing after another with these two.’
‘At least it’s only the engagement and not the wedding,’ Jo offered. ‘If they want to book that with us, we can claim to have no availability that day.’
‘Can we not just tell them to stick their extra guests and their bespoke menu up their arses?’ Erin asked, hopefully, but Jo could see that her temper was already subsiding. She knew Erin and the pride she took in her work. She’d make it happen and she’d make the vegan meals amazing, so much so that the couple would probably want to book there and then for the wedding – but they’d cross that bridge when they came to it.
‘If only,’ Jo said with a smile. ‘But you can tell them that our vegan menu has won awards and at this stage it’s not possible to source other ingredients for alternatives.’
‘I can probably work something out,’ Erin said, as she took a second bite of the brownie and made semi-orgasmic noises as the chocolate hit took effect. ‘Who supplies these? They must have a special recipe. I’ve never tasted anything like it.’
‘I can find out for you,’ Jo said, with a hint of a smile on her face. Hurricane Erin had run out of puff and her friend’s mind was already back at work.
‘What would I do without you?’ Erin asked, her smile bright and a little disgusting, thanks to some chocolate brownie stuck between her front teeth.
‘Clearly you’d be horribly miserable,’ Jo said and reached out to give Erin’s hand a quick squeeze.
‘I suppose I’d better get back. Are you on Clara duty tonight?’ Erin asked before she savoured the last bite of her brownie.
Jo nodded. Thursday night was always Clara night. Not that she minded. In fact, Thursday nights were one of her favourite nights of the week. She got to indulge her own inner six-year-old as she immersed herself in her little sister’s world and there were times when that world was much more fun than her grown-up world. ‘But I will be working tomorrow and I’ll be there from early afternoon, so I will be on hand to help you manage the high-maintenance bride- and groom-zilla. It will all be grand. And if it isn’t, we’ll let Paddy lick their cutlery before dinner.’
Erin laughed, something she never did quietly. Her laugh was as loud as it was infectious. ‘One day,’ she said. ‘One day, we’re really going to do that to someone, aren’t we?’
‘It’s only a matter of time,’ Jo smiled, the image of Paddy, the beloved resident rescue dog at The Ivy Inn, licking their finest cutlery amusing her.
‘Right, I really must get back. I don’t trust Phil not to overcook the steaks. Thank you, my love. Give Clara and your mum my love.’
With a wave in the vague direction of the counter where Libby stood, Erin bustled back out of the bookshop. Jo watched her as she left, and knew that for all her moaning and complaining, Erin loved her job and almost everything about it. It was her passion. Just like writing was Jo’s. The only difference was, Erin had the guts to pursue her dream fearlessly. Jo did not.
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