Tears of the Executioner
The Stranger Than Fiction Society, SFS for short, unfurled its banner under the premise there was a book inside everyone and like a foetus awaited only the services of a midwife. If some were still born, which was inevitable, well this was no place for the squeamish. There was even a logo but few chose to endorse it on account of its faint resemblance to a swastika. The host was Malcolm. Teacher, he said, was deprecated and he spurned the title. His own composition got into double figures and then floundered. Ten thousand had been printed by the optimistic publisher, so copies were still to be had. They were like time bombs waiting to go off in the face of one of his students.
More like followers than students, they pressed around him seeking darshan: contact with his sanctity; and though the reality of his hardback might be hard on them, shattering whatever fantasy each had fashioned about its existence, Malcolm, for now, was in a good place; for all harboured a different but kindly version of this unseen flop. It truly meant all things to all of them, better than the bible which had only a little of something for everyone. Flop was probably too harsh. It wasn’t his time, Malcolm told himself, and fifteen minutes of almost being in the spotlight was better than eternal night. He went further. Perhaps the author was only ever incidental to the publishing process and could be written out altogether by a clever editor; the Best Seller was a product of not talent but marketing and creative packaging. Joking aside, he dreaded that his four hundred and eighty six page punt at immortality should ever resurface, since to be remembered for a bad book was not worth the price, despite the Wilde assertion that not being talked about was more painful than a tongue lashing. It may not have been his time but the fact it had been overlooked once filled him with the mother and father of all writer’s blocks.
“What school do you hail from, Mal”, said Polly. They all called him that. “The one that says a good story doesn’t care how it’s written or the one that says given enough time a story will create a killer plot?”
“Oh, I’m on the fence” he said.
He had been sitting on it most likely since before she was born.
“You wrote a book didn’t you”. It was a statement rather than a question, in spite of the upward inflection.
“Yes, but before your time. It’s out of print now”.
It was the usual crowd. Gisella was on her preface, a beguiling architecture of florid, Italianate prose which she chiselled, tapped, picked, gauged, scraped and occasionally spat at and was the talk of her fellow hacks. Keith was equally furious at his acknowledgment, which he had almost finished, and would soon tackle his forward. A slew of them regretted the only index they had come up with was attached to their hand. The hall was in fact littered with footnotes of rejected prose and worse. Alan cruised the aisles, stalking the female set, with whom he didn’t stand a snowflake’s commiseration – the sandals alone were enough to disqualify him. He was going to rock the Fourth Estate with his treatment for the bones of an idea he got from the germ of a comment he once heard on a train.
“Don’t get hung up on an idea”, Malcolm cautioned. “An idea can be more trouble than it’s worth. The text. That’s the thing”.
Some turn up looking like they’ve come to work, not from it. Covered in bespoke tailoring, Nathan looked every bit the barrister and was petitioned regularly for legal tips, though in truth the only bar he came from was serving alcohol. Anton wore a circus blue Nehru jacket over white flannels with spats and sat poised above a copy of The Last Tycoon as if he’d been dared to finish it. Many aspired to the heights of such angels but none were so touched by their remoteness as Anton. Declan said he was the victim of his own epiphany.
“Meaning”, demanded Melissa, a constable with a penchant for clarity.
“Many are called but few are chosen”, he grinned.
Satisfied, Melissa continued on her beat to arrest further acts of criminal ambiguity and generally police injustices to demotic English.
“Don’t furnish a room unless you have to”, Malcolm told them. “The reader will bring his own chair. Same applies to punctuation. Present the words. Let them do the rest. Sabotage a well known fact with a little piece of nonsense, such as platform 9½ at Waterloo station”. None of this was strictly true, of course, but it made them think anything was possible, for really their fate was with the gods. Though they had spirit and all had something to say, even the dumbest, they still had to get that tome which took eight years to write and had a shelf life of less than one past the slush pile. Talent was the least of their obstacles.
Even if they managed the Herculean feat of completing a manuscript, there was still the Sisyphean task of bagging an agent. The much-talked about contingency was self-publishing. One or two could certainly afford to go that route. Chip, for instance, had a trust fund the size of Muswell Hill. It wasn’t his real name they said: it was short for microchip. All this inferred from a single Maserati, despite what they learn from birth about not judging a book by its cover. There was nothing vain about vanity publishing, Malcolm assured them. It was pro-active and he encouraged it. If all other vectors failed, they could always upload it, and if it wasn’t knocked off course by the squillion bits of flotsam already cluttering cyberspace then it might be salvaged by a prescient imprint on the lookout for the next big thing. One sin he would not forgive however was ghost-writing, although he was prepared to turn a blind eye to plasmid transfers, such as when Harry offered to let Margaret have a draft of something he had started earlier. The other sin he would never forgive was interference with a budding romance.
“What’s it all about; why do we do this?” implored one of his protégés in the eureka tones of someone stumbling upon the futility of existence. “Go’ah leave a ripple, ain’tcha?” he was informed by a confederate in a whisper conveying the strictest confidence. Notwithstanding a zephyr of nihilism which sometimes crept into the bones of a society member, this was no amiable conspiracy of insipidness. They were all contenders and Malcolm was warmed by their purpose, albeit they chased a shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.
“Do or say anything you like as long as you can back it up”, he exhorted his prize-fighters. If anyone abused this simple maxim and put a foot beyond the pale some quixotic figure or other knight would ride up and restore order.
“Whatever you do, don’t do nothing”. They liked it when he talked dirty.
“Don’t think, just write, or you’ll sit there forever. You can think when you’ve got something down on paper to think about, even if it’s just your own name in the register. It not only lets me know you’re here, it lets you know you’re here. Which is all I ask. The rest will come in good time. Just remember, structure stems from your opening sentence”. Apart from this last little pearl, which met with slight opposition from those whose name had always been mud and was quietly jettisoned, it was as rousing a call to arms as made by Laurence Olivier at the Battle of Agincourt.
There were no slackers at the SFS. Everyone was diligence itself, even the dilettantes; but it wasn’t real work, and if that’s what they thought they were doing, Malcolm cautioned against taking it too seriously. Every now and then he would have to straighten one of them out. He pulled them aside and told them to “chill” (as a negotiator, carer and mentor he was compelled to switch register to suit the emergency), or took them for a coffee, even call on them if they hadn’t shown up in a while, just to check no one had topped themselves – like the poor souls who cap themselves because they think it will get them noticed. On balance, he didn’t believe the killer plot was worth dying for. If he was strict in anything it was his insistence that his classes should feel like a warm bath, not for them to open their wrists in, but because in evolutionary terms what they were doing would soon be obsolete. Back when there were only two jobs, hunting and gathering, anyone able to tell a good story or spin a joke, was a walking PLCD (Pleistocene Liquid Crystal Display) and more than likely saw prodigious amounts of action. Now that writing was on the microchip, these shamans were two a penny, but instead of looking for a proper job they were claiming benefits to which they weren’t entitled.
“Anyone see Paxman last night?” someone yelled.
A Babel of echoes sprang up in the affirmative.
“What made you become a writer?” Paxman asked the latest wonder boy
“I don’t want to be defined by that activity”, said the celebrity. “Any activity. It’s not something I’m always doing, is it?”.
It was a harmless warm-up question and Paxman was clearly nettled by the premature rebuttal.
“What took you so long?” he said after a pause tempered during aeons of adversarial debate. His guest was duly chastised.
“If I told you I don’t know this would be a very short interview”, he said. “Go back twenty years or so. I wrote some articles for a magazine but my then partner…………” he trailed off. “No, let’s be up front about this, my dear wife – we never divorced, it’s not an experience I want to forget, not in this lifetime, anyway – she said I was too slow; and the pay was slow, too, and risible. I got that from her, that word, risible. It’s the only thing she ever gave me. To give her her due she had a point. We were starving. So I put it on a back back burner and took up insurance. I continued to scribble but I was like an Oliver Sacks patient who sat down at the piano and played reams of music but when he stopped had no idea what he was doing sitting on the stool. It was all welling up inside me and now without my good lady beside me I’m shitting all over the place”.
“I see”, said Paxman.
“My one misgiving is my parents aren’t around to see this. I would tell my father that if he had been nice instead of a drunken, abusive, wife-beating bastard, I could’a been great”.
It was a meaty interview and Malcolm’s flock fell on it with little thought it might drive them mad.
“Reading anything interesting I should know about?” Chas said to Patrick. Chas was a cocky, translucent type, of which there was no shortage, who if he ever came up with the goods Malcolm suspected they would be pretty and insubstantial; and not just because he was a hairdresser. Peacocks he called them, because they flitted about the place with short attention spans; but he never judged them, much less bet on them; rather he loved them for what they were, as he loved the children he knew existed somewhere. “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”, said Patrick, who was on a mission to trace the source of original thought. Chas excused himself, saying he had to take a pee.
Most had a favourite author, or wanted to write like this or that writer, but not Patrick. He was one of the damned, consumed by an idea. “As soon as you think something it’s no longer an original thought, its molecules have shot off faster than light and entered the brain of someone else”, he said to the small crowd he never failed to attract. “What I’m saying is, if you can think it, so can someone else. In fact, chances are you’ve thought it only because someone else has already done so. In short, the thought in your head right now doesn’t belong to you. To be uniquely original one would have to go and live on a mountain on Mars”. His work was not recognised but they would come to thank him, he taunted, because if bio-diversity of thought continues to be lost at the current rate his idea could be the last hope. “Check this”, Patrick said, retrieving a calf-skin notebook from his crumpled linen jacket. ‘A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy. Of all targets, New York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm’. Patrick raised his eyes, which shone with the light of benediction. “That was written in 1949 by a New York socialite, E B White”, he explained. “Not a Moslem cleric. You see, you’ll find fewer and fewer original thinkers the further back you go in history, whereas now everyone is a thinker”.
Sickeningly easy on the eye, Patrick was a charismatic, androgynous figure with shoulder length mythical yellow hair and charcoal blue eyes who definitively was not there for the ladies but attracted them anyway, in droves. Nigel, who shadowed this school of dolphins out of more than strictly academic interest, protested at this last remark.
“Yes, but they’re not all great. Francis Crick & James Watson couldn’t happen all over the place”, he said. “And How many Einsteins or Picassos can you have?”
“I’m not sure I like your tone”, said Patrick
“I’m not sure I like you at all” countered Nigel, as he closed his eyes and rolled in the surf of laughter that enveloped him. That Patrick was the perfect wing man.
“Quite a few actually, young sir”, Patrick assured his sidekick, once the giggling had subsided. They simply come in second or third. Also-rans, they’re called.”
“Bottom line, then?”
“You cannot be original while you share the same breakfast cereal as someone on the other side of the planet. All you can do is hope to be first past the post”.
“What are you saying, Patrick, breakfast on Mars?”
Before he could quash this riposte, he was interrupted by one of the rave claque five, a posse of girls standing in the shade of his eyelashes.
“The irony of promoting this thesis in a format which contributes to the problem you outline, doesn’t bother you?”, said Dianne.
“Yes, of course, but my book will be a restorative, inject new culture into the petri-dish of a bland world”.
Nigel was not wholly unsympathetic to what Patrick had in mind, whether the thoughts were his own or somebody else’s; he just wanted to shift the emphasis. It didn’t actually matter in which dimension the shift occurred, to the left or right or even a postponement, as his proposal was for a grand unified theory of everything. It aimed to take the seven basic plots of literature and bring them all together in the last novel. If the title hadn’t already been taken it would be called Gone With The Wind. In the meantime, while high flyers may have been losing perspective in the ozone layer, lesser mortals below the clouds toiled in a holding pattern of less life-threatening beliefs, engaging with the usual suspects: style and content, nominative case, dangled participles, and the fall and rise and fall again of the adjective.
When not ministering to one of his pupils, Malcolm sat perched on his desk or kept to the wings, surveying the repositories of hope and frustration kneading away at their little dough of creation. Some were half-baked in more ways than one and none had been proved in a publisher’s oven. The most pitiful trash is paraded before him, all sanctified by Flaubert’s dictum that anything looked at for long enough becomes interesting. A recent pitch from Rory about a love story between bravery and laughter only accelerated his compassion. Not that he would ever disrespect any of them with his opinions; for who knows, one of them some day might help to bring his own sorry arse in from the cold. He dismissed cynicism which said his course thrived only because misery loves company for what it was, cynicism. There was no reason why anyone should have to suffer alone. It was a pleasure, not a penance, to share their pain. Stoically and without any hint of metaphysical distress, he waited with them for their ships to come in. The general mood was always upbeat, all aware that it was a special time, one that maybe couldn’t last; so much so that not a few were wracked by fears their ship may have sailed before their boat could be floated. Namely that there was no more to be said, only the urge to say it. No one could bring themselves to admit that Patrick just might have a point. It was too harrowing a thought, even though it was shared by every last man jack of them.
It was more than a turn up for the books, then, when Carol, a quiet mousey type, with odds so long against being first past the post she was practically invisible, out of nowhere announced that she had “done it”. Her book was out next week and they were all invited to a celebratory reading. She was the epitome of grace and thanked her tutor.
“Mal, you taught me syntax and my profit on it is I was your first”. They both laughed.
“It’s nothing”, he said, as he untwined her arms from around his neck and set her gently back on her feet. “Really”.
In the intimacy of a lecture theatre on the South Bank packed with SFS supporters, assorted literati, family, friends and a reporter from The Bookseller, all eyes were on the speaker standing beneath a banner emblazoned with the title of her opus in a blood red Palatino font: Tears of the Executioner by Carol Parker.
“I don’t like reading my own material”, Carol said, to gasps of anticlimax. “Can someone else do it?”.
Bodies shot up from their seats like nine-pins and waited politely to be selected, some with their hands up like schoolchildren, except for one zealous fan who bounded towards the podium and grabbed the coveted object with the alacrity of a sacred goblet liberated from the Temple of Doom. Carol squeezed herself into the front row and the reading was underway. The replacement speaker had been standing at the lectern for some moments when he said.
“Excuse me, but the pages, they’re blank”
Carol was offended.
“They may look blank to you”, she replied. “What were you expecting? Everyone has a book inside them. This is mine”.