SPOTLIGHT: Poacher’s Priest by Samuel Mills



Odilio Brimble scrolled through Twitter in the gloom of his study, lit up by the glow of his laptop screen. He was browsing the comments — responses to his latest review of the 27th-storey London steakhouse, GALAXIAS — familiar angst working its way through him as he read each reply.

@Rubbles93:‘Only Odilio could attack such a tawdry display of oligarch wealth and still punch down on his target.’

@themullet11:‘Big getting divorced energy from Brimble these days.’

@Clax0nTheSmiths:‘He’s always had that bottle-of-wine-ranting-at-the-TV vibe. Boring old snob, The Gent should sack him.’

Odilio sipped his gin and tonic and scanned the room. With its bleached white interiors, his study, at first glance, was like every other room in the large Regency house. His wife had spearheaded the renovation, described as ‘modern rustic’, but the furniture here was Odilio’s: antique pieces kitted out with the curios of his travels, gifts, and family heirlooms. Mounted taxidermy trophies suspended on the blank walls gave the feeling of having wandered into a museum. Outside, the last of the evening light was fading. Odilio switched on the emeralite lamp next to his computer. The calming effect of his bath — the salts and scented candles — had been undone in minutes, but the alcohol was helping mitigate some of the tension. He continued reading.

It hadn’t always been like this. Odilio had made his name as a skewerer of the politically correct. In 1992, whilst a trainee reporter at the Times, he’d phoned a hotly-anticipated vegetarian restaurant on the eve of its launch, warning them a bomb had been planted in the building, which would go off if they didn’t put steak on the menu. This was pre-9/11: when Odilio was revealed as the ‘prankster’ he was made to pay damages for two days’ lost trade. His editor had footed the bill, happy to cover the costs in exchange for the publicity the stunt attracted. Odilio Brimble was an overnight success. He went on to work for a string of publications, culminating in the position of Head Restaurant Critic for the London lifestyle and culture magazine, The Gent. He presented a TV show, wrote a series of books, and appeared on numerous radio programmes, cultivating the persona of a feisty restaurant critic, dishing it out with impunity for offence his audience could only dream of fostering themselves.

And then, nothing happened for years. The 2010s were a plateau, and a plateau — when it comes to a career — feels like a decline. Odilio still wrote the weekly column. He still made the occasional TV appearance. His agent called now and then to propose a book project, which meant regurgitating old columns, mashing them together in a hastily composed volume; slapping his face on the cover to squeeze some money out of the Christmas-stocking-filler market. His last book, ‘Don’t Get Me Started On Tofu!’, hadn’t even made the top fifty. It was embarrassing. He did not want to write any more embarrassing books.

His assistant had urged him to get on Twitter. She’d agreed to run the account for him; he had no wish to trawl through the opinions of nobodies. That was his position in the beginning, at least. Odilio couldn’t remember exactly when he’d signed in to check what was being written about him. He knew his status as a provocateur — it was a personality of his making, after all. The real Odilio was far more mild-mannered. The Odilio of The Gent was almost a fictional entity; he understood the principal business of his craft was to entertain. And so for his entire career until then, Odilio fancied his image in the public eye as something akin to Marmite: that half the people loved him, ate up his every word, ripped off his quips to their friends as they tried to adopt something desirable they saw in him. The other half, he’d come to accept, loathed his plucky toffishness. In the end, like Marmite, no one cared either way. It was a deal he’d been comfortable with for years.

Odilio stroked his fingers across the touchpad. His unblinking eyes glistened with the light of the Twitter feed. The reality was no way near half and half, he was reminded. Nearly every comment was unrelentingly and viciously scathing of him. This was nothing like the disdain you might reserve for a sandwich spread — it was genuine hatred. The few he could call ‘fans’ were far more modest in their endorsements than his detractors were oppositional. A single positive comment stood out.

@Gimmins616:‘I like him lol. Tells it as it is. Pity the loony left can’t handel it!!’

Odilio clicked Gimmins’ profile picture. His bio read: ‘Tank enthusiast. Hate Europe’. There seemed to be a factory producing these people, Odilio thought. With their penchant for the Union Flag: their aggressive, badly-spelt messaging seemed more about shitting on others than promoting anything positive themselves. Odilio suspected his appeal an extension of this tendency: did the Gimmins’ of the world really care about fine dining, about what Odilio Brimble had to say on the latest food trends, or did they just like that he rubbed the right people up the wrong way? Did anyone actually love what he did?

Odilio opened his email and scanned the inbox. He’d put off reading Cooper’s email for nearly an hour. It was his policy not to check work emails after seven, but curiosity threatened to win over. Agitated by his browsings or emboldened by gin: Odilio could feel his discipline slipping these days. Social media had a habit of creeping under his skin. Like a virus he had no immunity to, it ravaged his mind without a flicker of resistance. In the past, he wouldn’t have done anything that made him feel so bad for so long, entirely of his own volition, as scrolling through a crowd of digital hecklers in search of some elusive redemption. He’d meant to leave his editor’s email unread until the morning, but here he was, unable to stave off the inevitable. Odilio’s heart sank as he read the short line of text.

Come to the office next Thursday. Anytime after lunch. Quick chat.

Had his editor smelt blood? It made sense that management checked the social media accounts of their staff; it’d never been so easy to gauge a writer’s popularity than to scroll through the comments on their latest piece. And if they did? Odilio was finished. The game was up. Whatever appeal he’d held in the paper-based years of the 90s and early 2000s was over. He was a relic of a bygone era — a hulking great dinosaur in a museum or perhaps just a manky old dodo.

Odilio reached for his drink. He leant back in his chair. Away from the light of his desk, the room was cast in darkness. A kaleidoscope of residual screening ebbed and flowed like a hallucination on the surface of his eyes. He let out a sigh. This was how he was spending his evenings: like a picnic under the sword of Damocles, waiting to give reason to his emerging, inarticulable self-disgust.


In the living room, Helena Courtenay was overseeing the arrival of her sculpture, which was so heavy it had to be lifted into the house by a crane through the first-storey window. Outside, on a quiet street of West London, a young man from the hire company controlled the operation from the machine’s booth, as his older colleague gave orders from the living room via walkie-talkie. Helena was practising an improvised version of semaphore through the window. She knew from experience you had to be present for such undertakings: you never left men to ‘get on with it’ unless you wanted the job done to the lowest standard possible. You got your hands dirty; you did your best to encourage them. You made them work for every penny, and that was the job you paid them for.

The sculpture swayed at the end of the line. The craneman estimated it weighed three tonnes. The difficult part of the task would be removing the straps from underneath as it was lowered to the floor — even an inch drop could crack the expensive marble tiling. Foam cushions would help detach the crane bands. Helena watched on, scrutinising every last detail of the procedure. The living room was her chief source of pride in the house, of which she was entirely and personally proud. A misnomer, of course: its real purpose was a showroom for material riches — a room out of bounds to people, save for the occasional, exceptional guest.

The crane jolted forward following an overly keen lever movement. The sculpture jerked in reply. “Give it a minute,” the craneman radioed his colleague.

Helena paced the room, studying the layout from various positions. Making right angles with her thumbs and index fingers, she held these ‘L’ shapes at arm’s length, closing an eye to gauge a sequence of perspectives. Her baby-pink trainers squeaked on the tiles as she zig-zagged across the room. “Let me explain,” she said, her face softening as she turned to the craneman. “This is the ‘rule of triangles’ principle. I watch a fantastic series on my iPad. The way objects are arranged in a room is one of the most important features of their design.”

“It’s a lovely room,” said the craneman.

“Isn’t it just?” She looked around at her carefully curated assemblage of artworks: the eclectic mix of sculptures, minimalist paintings; the series of deconstructed vases on mighty white plinths.

The Courtenay name can be traced to the book of Domesday. The family still owns much of the land they did a thousand years ago, including the estate in Henley that sprawls the Chiltern ridge. The Courtenays are as old as money can be, Helena will put it bluntly as if admitting to some familial disease. The detail buffers an image one might form of her as an aspirational businesswoman. But Helena is proud of her journey: proud to have decoupled from the trajectory of idling aristocracy. In a way, she retains the best of both worlds: the prestige of the Courtenay name whilst boasting a career that’s seen her rise to become one of London’s most important art dealers.

The sculpture stopped moving. Helena gave instructions as to where she wanted it placed. The craneman measured the base and marked an outline on the floor with tape. Helena scanned the room, left, re-entered — saw something she didn’t like — then beelined for the tape, insisting it be moved slightly. Without fuss, the craneman struggled to his knees to relay the tape exactly where she wanted.

During the 1980s, Helena’s father, William Courtenay, undertook a project to expand the family portfolio by investing in the emerging markets of Nigeria, Hong Kong, and South Africa. In the summer holidays at boarding school, Helena and her brother, Phillip, travelled the world, witnessing their father’s knack for international business. “I received my education from that man,” Helena would say. “He taught me that business is entirely about magnetism; there’s nothing more to it than that.” Indeed, it’s a philosophy ingrained in her: to raise an aristocrat successfully is to produce someone with an instinctual sense of freedom. A consciousness shaped by minimal closure, it’s a show-don’t-tell business. To truly live free is to never have not been: to be unable to consider it any other way. This is how you step up to the provisions of the lifestyle without going mad. The next step is convincing others of its inevitability. Helena’s real gift lies in making it seem there’s nothing wrong with a world like this.  

The sight of a crane protruding through the window — the portly man in the scruffy high-vis-vest — and the large sculpture dangling at the end rejigged Odilio’s memory as he entered the living room. Helena must have mentioned its arrival a dozen times in the past week. He watched the man in the vest wrestle foam blocks from underneath as the sculpture descended to the floor. Helena signalled to the pavement; she gave a command to the man on his knees. To watch his wife issue instructions was to witness her in her element, Odilio thought. Helena had ordered adults around since the day she could talk. Her charm was a lifetime in the making. Odilio had been on the receiving end of this charm once, not as a member of staff but as the gentleman guest seated next to her at the 2004 Henley Royal Regatta. He remembered little else about that dinner other than he would have gouged the waiter’s eyes out with a spoon if Helena had asked him to.

The foam cushions were removed and the sculpture settled. The masking tape was peeled from the floor. Helena turned to find her husband in the doorway. “Darling,” she said, walking over.

“Sweetheart,” Odilio replied sarcastically. She tugged on the lapels of his dressing gown.

“You’ve had a bath,” she said.

“I was feeling brittle.”

“You’ve had gin,” she smiled. Odilio kissed her on the cheek. She was the last person he’d relay his woes to. An unflinching toffishness was part of his appeal. His editor’s emails, the Twitter trolls — if she knew how much those things got to him, it would only cement, in her eyes, a weakness of character. The Courtenays were hardly ones to care what the little people thought.

The craneman coiled the line in a bundle, scanning the floor for tape marks. “We’re finished,” he announced.

“How excellent,” said Helena. “You’ve been such a star.”

“I’ll be getting on, then.”

Helena showed him to the front door, returning to find her husband digesting the latest addition to their house. “It’s called Come and Get It — isn’t it fantastic?” she said. Odilio’s first reaction, staring at the massive artwork that now took pride of place in the living room, was how ugly it was. A tacky, ridiculous thing — that, or he just didn’t get it. When it came to modern art, Odilio was the first to admit he didn’t understand it at all.

“It looks like a big turd,” he said.

“I thought you might say that,” Helena frowned. It was unusual, she could concede. A large swirl of porcelain conjured up an image of an ice cream (or worse) sequinned with thousands of heart-shaped crystals, topped off with a bronze statue of a naked woman with exaggeratedly large breasts. “I think it’s brilliant,” said Helena, walking up to the sculpture with an expression of awe. “Elias isn’t afraid to go big because there’s such a softness to his work. His sculptures have this kind of regal sensitivity, like the temperament of elephants. Do you know what I mean?”

“Not really,” Odilio yawned. He was feeling sad and peckish.

Helena studied her husband. “Come here,” she reached out her arms.

Odilio hesitated and doubled back.

“Is everything okay?”

“Everything’s fine.”

“You’ve been in your study a lot lately.”

“Working,” he glanced at the floor.

She ran her hand along the side of his face. “Are you sure?”

“I’ve been busy.” He filled in the absence of his wife’s reply: “Getting my head around Twitter.”

“Well, I hope you’re not getting obsessed, darling. There’s nothing more boring than the internet, don’t you agree?”

“Agreed,” he swallowed. Helena leant forward to kiss him. “And where’s Tabitha?” he asked. Usually, at this hour, their daughter could be found charging around the house in the throes of some energetic game with her au pair — a last crescendo of activity before bedtime, notable, suddenly, in its absence for the strange silence imparted on the house.

“Rachel’s just putting her to bed. She had her first session with the tutor today. Apparently it went really well. I think that and the shock of going back to school yesterday has rendered her exhausted. She’s having an early one tonight.”

“I could do with an early one, too,” grunted Odilio, who tightened his dressing gown before making his way downstairs to the kitchen for some cheese.

Samuel Mills is a writer from London. He is the author of numerous short stories, including the 2017 collection, Nightmares. Poacher’s Priest is his first novel.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s