by Michal G Casey
It wasn’t unusual for Thomas Reville to panic in the evening commuter crush as he left the warehouse and headed for home. This is why he moved quickly out of the train station in a half-run. When he reached his building he took the steps two at a time. Once inside his flat he began to breathe more easily; he scavenged in the fridge and brought a plateful of bread and cold ham into the room that served for living, sleeping and working.
Minnie was waiting for him, arms folded, fair hair curling back from her brow. She looked wonderful as usual, a sulky blue-eyed cherub with irresistibly winning ways.
‘It’s not going to work,’ she said with a tone of finality. ‘And you can’t make it happen.’
‘Oh, Minnie, Minnie. Why are you always so difficult, so negative? It will work. It will happen.’ Thomas put some ham on a slice of bread and clapped another slice on top of that. He tendered the plate to her but she declined with an affected shudder.
‘If you think I’m going to go up to the quarry for…a tryst with that foul-smelling Harold Haines, you have another think coming.’ She sat opposite him and crossed her legs in an abrupt way that reinforced her opposition – and also allowed a glimpse of silky brown thigh.
‘Foul-smelling? Who said so? All right, he’s no breath of spring but he’s a fairly handsome man. What’s wrong with you?’
‘And a quarry? How can anything of a…romantic nature happen in a quarry?’
‘You don’t know…you’ve never been there. I bet you don’t even know what a quarry is.’
Thomas took his first bite of the sandwich and the sinews of his face rippled from jaw to temple as he chewed the rather dry concoction.
‘I can imagine. It’ll be…full of shit.’ Minnie lit a cigarette and posed with it in her long thin fingers, which rested on her knee.
Thomas was a little surprised by the language issuing from such a pretty mouth, but he decided to let it pass. He had bigger fish to fry. Anyway, her many moods and contradictions never failed to fascinate him. But it was more than fascination. He loved her; of course he did.
‘Don’t you see? It has to be a quarry because that’s where you stumble across the severed arm.’
‘And that’s another thing. It’s too melodramatic. The severed arm is way over the top.’
As she went on complaining, Thomas realised that although the novelty of meeting his characters was wearing off, he still enjoyed the company and the cut and thrust.
‘Minnie,’ he said, ‘it’s bad enough that you want to change your character. But I won’t have you trying to change the plot. That’s sabotage. I will not stand for that.’
With a sudden gesture he brushed breadcrumbs off his trousers. They fell on the threadbare carpet and lay there like dandruff. His mother was no longer alive so it didn’t matter what he did anymore. She hated crumbs on the floor, believing they attracted mice, and would immediately attack them with a hoover or carpet-cleaner.
‘Don’t talk to me like that…you bastard.’ The ash from Minnie’s cigarette joined the crumbs on the carpet.
‘I ignored your crude language earlier,’ Thomas said, ‘but now you’ve gone too far.’
He could be tough too, tougher than he was with his work colleagues. Minnie didn’t object to robust banter. He booted up the PC and waited for a while until Harold Haines appeared – casually dressed in sweater and slacks.
‘Ready for our date, Minnie?’ Harold was pleased with himself and made a parody of slicking back his eyebrows with a wet forefinger. ‘I won’t go too far I promise. Not up at the quarry anyway.’
‘Don’t annoy me,’ Minnie snapped.
She directed her attention at Thomas. ‘I don’t know why you’re treating me like this, putting me in sordid situations. It’s not fair.’ Her lower lip began to tremble and she averted her face. Although Thomas sensed she was laying it on he decided to be more conciliatory.
‘We’re all in this together, Minnie. We’re an ensemble. Remember, I’m suffering with you.’
‘Oh, nice one.’ Sitting on the edge of the table, Harold mimed applause, and went on, ‘empathy is good. You engage with the characters to impress the publishers. If they don’t feel you’re engaged, they’ll reject you.’
‘That’s unfair,’ Thomas countered. ‘We’re all in this together. I’m very…fond of you both…and I hope you like me.’
Minnie started to play the smallest violin in the world and Harold rolled his eyes heavenwards. Thomas went out to the small kitchen and put the kettle on. He made a mental note not to let them get to him. They could impugn his motives but if they undermined his confidence it could spell trouble – for him, for all of them. He had a lot of responsibility.
When he returned to the room he had the strangest impression that Harold and Minnie had been kissing. There was that fleeting moment of guilt and of awkward re-positioning of limbs. But why should they feel awkward or worry about what he thought? It made no sense. He, however, was surprised by the spurt of envy that ran through him. Minnie was the light of his life – blonde with cornflower blue eyes and oodles of personality; it was a wonder she stayed under his humble roof at all.
‘I have no problem with the quarry scene,’ Harold said. ‘I thought you should know. In fact, appearances notwithstanding, I like to do things. I like action. Seize the moment. In fact, I need more of that.’
‘Let me think about it.’ Thomas finished the last triangle of sandwich and poured the tea, remembering that Minnie avoided sugar for the sake of her figure. ‘You’re more reflective than you give yourself credit for.’
‘No, I’m not.’ Harold’s laugh was short and sharp, like a snort. ‘It’s not in my nature at all. Look, don’t go all subtle and nuancé on us. We’re just stock characters, simple, uncomplicated. What you see is what you get.’
‘Speak for yourself. I’m multi-layered if you must know.’ Minnie walked to the window and looked out at the grey streets and wet, concrete walls. ‘Jesus, what a location. Gritty realism or what? At least you’re not as hard on us as you used to be.’ She glanced at Thomas. ‘Oh yes, you took your frustrations out on us back then. Thank God you’ve mellowed a bit. But you’re still a control freak. And I refuse to do the quarry scene. I want to meet Justin instead. In a nightclub. Think of the interaction, the chemistry. Phosphorous on water… What a twist. I’m amazed you never thought of putting us together.’
‘Too contrived.’ Thomas shook his head. ‘It wouldn’t work.’
‘Christ, you’re so cautious. Take a chance. If you had any talent you could make it work. Suspend disbelief and all that. Look, Thomas, you’ve always taken me for granted, because I’ve been helpful and obliging. What if I had been a Feminazi who believed in the Dworkin-Greer theory that all men hate women? I could have made your life miserable. But I didn’t go that route. You should be grateful. But you should also believe more in yourself and your talent.’
She could be right, Thomas thought as he sipped the strong tea (his mother always made it too weak). But what if I have no talent? If that’s true then I’m done for; there’s nothing left.
‘Harold thinks he’s Action Man or some kind of predictable moron. Well, I’m different and I often behave out of character. Get it? That’s what makes a gal interesting. I’m three-dimensional…maybe more than that.’
‘So that’s it!’ Harold put in with a wink but the others ignored him.
‘That may be true,’ Thomas said. ‘But the problem is that these untypical character traits have to be left out. We can only deal with the dominant traits in the allotted space. If you behave out of character then the reader will become confused.’ He wondered if there was something deeper behind Minnie’s complaints.
She tossed her yellow curls. ‘Maybe the reader should be confused. Maybe she should be prepared to do more work, participate in the creative process. It’s better than being spoon-fed all the time with utterly predictable, formulaic stuff.’
It was a good point, Thomas knew. And she could usually get the better of him in an argument if she had a mind to. Was it his imagination or was there a hint of anxiety behind her words and manner?
‘Look,’ Harold interrupted, ‘we’re stock characters.’ He grinned as he saw a mouse appear from behind the sagging sofa, hesitate, sniff the air and retreat. ‘You don’t have to be ashamed of us,’ he went on. ‘We’re ordinary Joes, the stuff of pot-boilers. The world needs us. We are needed,’ he added with a strangely wistful tone as he glanced towards Minnie.
Thomas looked closely at him. It was never altogether clear whether Harold was being sarcastic or not. But on this occasion it didn’t seem to be the case. One thing was certain, however: Harold had no idea that, after the quarry scene he would be arrested, tried for murder sent to jail for life. Maybe, being a stock character, that wouldn’t faze him. Maybe. It remained to be seen. Thomas would have to take it under advisement.
Minnie, who had poured a cup of tea, was toying with it, looking doleful.
‘A penny for them,’ Thomas prompted. There was no reaction. He had that sense again that there was something deeper going on in her mind; something of greater concern than the quarry and severed arm. By skilful questioning he finally wheedled it out of her.
‘You should go more slowly,’ she said at one point. ‘Take more time with the different chapters.’
‘I agree.’ It was unusual for Harold to side with her. He said it with such alacrity that there could have been collusion between them.
‘Why?’ Thomas had to find out.
‘Oh, you know…’ Minnie began hesitantly which was most unusual for her. ‘The future will come soon enough…’ Although her face was partly in shadow because she had leant forward in front of the lamp, he could see her sad, thoughtful expression.
‘By ‘the future’ you mean the…?’
‘Yes, yes, yes.’ She didn’t want him to say the word.
So that was it. It wasn’t all that surprising really and Thomas could have predicted it; maybe he had been aware of it at some level. The sooner he finished the book the sooner they would disappear. Or worse.
‘We’re all in the same boat.’ He tried to reassure them. ‘Life is a temporary gift, a flicker of light. Nothing more.’
‘We don’t need a lecture in philosophy,’ Minnie snapped. ‘You could do a sequel.’ She placed a hand lightly on his arm and for one moment Thomas thought she was propositioning him. But on reflection he realised it was a plea.
‘Novel means new. A sequel wouldn’t make any sense.’ Thomas looked to Harold for confirmation but Harold would have none of it. Instead, he pointed out that there were many sequels and many recurring characters like Poirot, Miss Marple, Father Brown, Sherlock Holmes, Batman, Spiderman.
‘But they’re not my genres,’ Thomas protested.
‘To hell with that for a game of soldiers.’ Harold turned abruptly sideways in a gesture of defiance.
‘Genres? Genres…in a Post-modern Age where anything goes? Have you lost it, Thomas?’ Minnie said quietly. ‘I used to admire you. But now I think you’re just a pathetic snob. You haven’t published anything good in years, not since your mother passed on. And you think you can win a Pulitzer Prize for this severed arm crap. Get real. Write a good book and people will insist on a sequel. As characters we have real staying power. You think I’m a bimbo or a loose woman as your mother used to say. But I’m not. I’m much more than that. Let me live my life.’ Tears came to her eyes, which she quickly wiped away.
Thomas looked from one to the other and back again. There was a sadness in the room he’d not felt since the last of the mourners had left some three or was it four years ago. He glanced at the unmade bed into which he’d soon crawl and hope that sleep would come quickly. He had spent too many nights staring at the ceiling, his eyes burning with tiredness and the salt of tears. Minnie was right. It was time to get real, past time. And there were different kinds of integrity.
He agreed to a sequel and possibly another one after that. They agreed amicably on several aspects of plot and character. Minnie happily agreed to do the quarry scene though felt she should meet Justin later on in a nightclub. That was acceptable to Harry. In the sequels—the plural was hers—she should be allowed more freedom. She might even settle down with a good man and have children. Thomas made a fresh pot of tea; they toasted each other with their mugs and planned the future late into the night.
Michael G. Casey has published four books of which the best known are ‘Come Home, Robbie’, and ‘The Visit’. Several of his poems and short stories have won awards. Six of his plays have been produced on stage by The Umbrella Theatre Company. He holds a PhD from Cambridge.