The Character Who Got Away

For some years now I’ve been focusing on writing short stories that I can perform for an audience. Storytelling is for a writer what a concert must be for a musician and it revolutionises the creative process as I get to share live the stories that have grown in my imagination.

writer, storytellerThe life of a writer is a somewhat lonely one. We work by ourselves at a desk in front of a blank page (or a blank screen), and the emptiness seems to stare up at us in contempt, as though it were saying ‘you really are a very poor writer.’ We struggle, hesitate, agonise over the right choice of words, cross out everything we’ve written, and wonder whether we should have become web designers instead. Because even when we do manage to scribble a few pages there’s no way of knowing if it’s any good; a carpenter can sit on the table he’s made to see if it’s strong enough; a bus driver knows if he’s got to his destination on time; but a writer might work all day to produce something good only for lighting the fire.

And when we do complete a book, a play, an article – it might not get read by anyone for years. If it gets published at all. And writers rarely meet their readers which, on reflection, might be for the best. A good writer becomes something of a minor god for the reader, creating a world that exists for the both of them. What a disappointment then to meet the author and discover that he’s an awkward, socially-handicapped, opinionated nerd with bad breath and terrible dress sense. Over-sensitive, self-conscious and unpopular, the reason many writers take up the pen is because they can’t deal with the real world in the first place.

So why do we bother?

That’s a secret known to every writer, poet, playwright, painter and sculptor – that there’s no thrill in the world like the thrill of creation. From nothing comes something! From the void there emerges a form, a story, an image, a song and for a brief, fleeting moment you really do feel like a god. All-powerful! All-knowing! You can erase or give birth to a character with a brief flick of the pen! Make it rain in a single sentence!

But, of course, I’m not being entirely truthful. Most writers are liars, you should know by now. After all, lying is the first creative act most of us perform in our lives. My experience is we don’t so much write stories as we discover them. Did you ever put a coin beneath a piece of paper and sketch over it with a pencil to see the form emerge? That’s what writing is like. Maybe you have a character who walks with a limp; you wonder why and your pen tells you it was because he was hit by a bus when the driver was distracted by a blonde on a street corner! You didn’t know it a moment ago but somehow it had already happened. As a writer you just follow the loose plot leads until you find out where they go. Take the characters in your stories – once they’re on the page they have their own nature and they remain true to it; the priest won’t suddenly become a villain unless it was in him from the beginning; the town drunk simply can’t help himself but open another bottle..

It would seem self-evident that all you create is somehow a mirror of your mind. It follows that the characters must be part of you somehow. Unless, perhaps, one of them gets away…and then the whole process is turned upside down.

In my mid-twenties I was fixated on the idea that you weren’t a real writer until you’d written a novel. Dostoevsky, Nabokov, Garcia Marquez, Rushdie – they weren’t famous for writing Christmas cards, after all, so I sat down every morning, afternoon and night in an attempt to join these giants by writing a novel that would be read long after I was dead. But everything that came out seemed like a cheap copy of other books I’d read. My plots, settings and characters all seemed ghostly echoes of the novels that had been my inspiration since childhood, and I began to wonder whether I would ever make it as a writer.

At last, after many painful months, a story began to emerge and I could taste the autumn air my pen described; to hear the voices of my characters like they were old friends; to feel the mystery of the novel start to unfold all around me. I created a hero based on the better parts of myself;noble, understanding, handsome – it was no surprise that Lucia, the heroine of my book was so in love with him. Lucia was inspired by my best friend with whom I had secretly been in love for years. She, alas, didn’t feel the same way. All that changed when I was holding he pen!

I wrote without hesitation or doubt, laying down layer upon layer of plot like folds of filo pastry, in masterful direction of the world I had created, all of the characters dancing to the tune that I laid down.

All except one.

He was just a minor character: an anarchist by the name of Rafael who was due to turn up on page 146 and fail to assassinate someone important but he was difficult from the beginning. Even when I first described him I disliked his sloppy way of dressing in a second hand waistcoat and trousers, his hair uncombed and a suspicious look on his face like he was seeing or hearing something that no one else could. I couldn’t have described him otherwise – that’s just how he was! He went where I told him, did what he was supposed to do, said what I told him to say but all with a certain reluctance; he declared his anarchist principles while yawning, he picked his nails when he announced his plans to blow up parliament. Even when I wrote his lines I felt a resistance in my pen as though I was writing on a surface of sand.

There wasn’t much love lost between us. Rafael was arrogant, cocky and indifferent to the feelings of others. He existed as an authority unto himself and didn’t give a damn what others thought or said about him. I’d introduced him to the plot just to contrast the noble qualities of the hero of the story, and I looked forwards to writing the scene where he failed to seduce the virtuous heroine and thus turned to throwing bombs in public.

As the book progressed, Rafael became increasingly restless. He began to chain smoke cigarettes until his fingers turned yellow. He would enter a room and check every door and window before he sat down. He seemed to harbour a paranoia that he was being watched, that people were listening in. This was understandable behaviour in an anarchist with a bomb in his pocket but Rafael took it to extremes; he would spin around without warning to see if someone was creeping up behind him! He taught himself to sleep with his eyes open!

Finally, we reached page 145, the fatal scene where Romanov, a Russian agitator, was due to persuade Rafael to run out into the street and throw his bomb at the President as he passed on an army parade. I remember writing those lines like it was yesterday.

‘There’s no time to lose my friend! Now is the moment to strike!’ Romanov urged him in a whisper as they met in a poorly-lit tea house. Rafael stubbed out a cigarette on the table and replied:

‘Now is indeed the moment. But the one I want to kill is still out of my reach.’

‘But the parade is coming! Run out and throw your bomb quickly!’

‘At the President?’ Rafael laughed, ‘What do I care about that fool? There is a far great dictator in whose shadow I live.’

What? What was Rafael saying? This was the moment when he was supposed to dash into the street and be shot by policemen before he could release his grenade, dying with a bitter, unfulfilled look on his face. I made Romanov grab Rafael by the sleeve but before he could speak Rafael withdrew a knife and stabbed the Russian in the neck. The sound of marching drums grew louder as the blood poured out onto the table, Rafael gave an evil grin, looked up at the author and, making a throat-slitting gesture, walked off the page.

I looked down at the words I had just written in disbelief, my heart pounding in my chest. Did I really just write that? What was Rafael playing at? I tried to cross out the last few horrible paragraphs but it was like pretending yesterday had never happened. It was already history. I made myself a hot brandy and went off to bed but I slept badly – I kept seeing that evil smile in my dreams; I woke up at one point mumbling the questions that burned on my brain: had Rafael really been looking up at me? And was the gesture supposed to be a threat? And what was all that about ‘walking off the page’?

The next morning I awoke to the phone ringing and it took me a full minute to realise the person talking on the end was my agent and he wanted to know how the novel was going. I apologised again and again, and tried to sound enthusiastic about about ‘work in progress’ and ‘coming along just fine’, I endured a lecture about how accepting an advance from a publisher meant I was bound by contract to meet deadlines. When he finally let me go I splashed some cold water on my face and went for a bracing run around the park. I came home, showered, made a pot of strong coffee and sat down to work to see how I could best remedy the plot. I supposed I could find another rival band of anarchists who would supply the necessary terrorism to keep the plot moving. The important thing was to write the next chapter where the hero announces his undying love for the heroine and their marriage and alliance of their families ensured a happy end for all those who deserved it. I was very fond of the hero, Tomas; a student of law, he worked tirelessly to improve the conditions of the poor and needy and he was a champion for peace and diplomacy.

I made the sun rise over the hill and shine down on the fashionable part of town where his bachelor apartment was located but discovered to my alarm that his curtains were still drawn. Moving in closer, I heard groaning sounds from within and entered at once to find Tomas lying on the floor in a pool of blood that flowed out of a sword wound in his side! I made the servants climb the stairs to help their master but he waved away all attempts to fetch a doctor.

‘It’s too late!’ he gasped from where he lay and, with one hand pressed against his wound, he gestured with the other to the mantelpiece and the servants understood that he wanted the portrait of Lucia, his beloved, to hold close in his dying moments – but horror! The painting had been ripped from the frame! Tomas gave a terrible cry of despair and died.

No! No! No! Tomas had to live! The happy end depended on it! What would Lucia do without him?

Then I noticed the cigarette butt stubbed out on the mantelpiece and grabbed a fresh page and wrote my way over to Lucia’s family house where even now a maid was carrying up the stairs the breakfast tray. Receiving no reply to her knocks, she gently let herself in with the intention of leaving the young lady’s breakfast by her bed but discovered to her astonishment that the room was empty! Smoke rose up from a fuming cigarette butt on the table next to a perfumed envelope. The maid snatched it up and hurried down the stairs to where Lucia’s parents were reading the newspapers over morning coffee. She handed the letter over and moments later the household was in uproar – Lucia had eloped! Run away with some notorious rascal named Rafael with whom she declared herself to be madly in love! Already her father was calling for the police and her mother was busy fainting decorously on the carpet.

I wrenched my pen away from the page and sat back in shock. Imagination had become the stuff of nightmare. Fiction had turned to horror. What could the beautiful and virtuous Lucia ever see in a scoundrel like Rafael who stand of tobacco and cheap laundry? What kind of character would stab a hero in the side and then steal his girl? No doubt he had pocketed the family jewels on the way out and was even now seducing Lucia in a cabin on a boat heading slowly down the Danube! The thought of his yellow fingernails digging into her pure, white flesh was too much to bear! I could not write it! I would not write it! I refused to bring such a story into the world!

With trembling fingers I picked up the manuscript like it was used toilet paper and carried it out into the garden. I gathered some twigs and leaves, started a fire and fed the pages of my novel on to it, one by one, six months of my life going up in smoke before my eyes. It was a terrible sacrifice to make but at least the world would be rid of Rafael once and for all.

Over the weeks that followed I found myself at a loss. Restless and dissatisfied, I kept picturing the death of Tomas, the betrayal of Lucia and it seemed to me I could hear Rafael’s soft, mocking laughter in my ears. Worse, as I walked in the park or read in my armchair, I had the feeling I was being watched. I took up smoking and more than once I span around to try to catch the eyes I felt resting on me.

Supposing that I was suffering from an overactive imagination, I took up writing again; this time short stories where I could keep both the beginning and end in sight. I began a light-hearted story about a family picking mushrooms in the forest who spend the day laughing and joking together but when they returned home they found their house burnt to the ground.

I abandoned that tale and instead created a conscientious teacher determined to give the disadvantaged kids in his school a good start in life. Despite his years of dedication and service, however, he found the entire village turned against him after a mysterious stranger had spread evil rumours about him – that he had never married because he was a little too fond of the children he taught..

Turning in desperation to poetry I started an innocent story of a little girl who learned how to love when she was given a kitten for her 7th birthday. She loved it so much that she couldn’t wait for morning to arrive when she would go down to the kitchen and bring a bowl of milk to her kitten as i awoke in its basket.

‘She ran down the stairs early one morning,
as the stars faded and the sun was dawning’

I didn’t say it was good poetry – I was just happy to be writing at all.

‘she pushed the kitchen door open wide
and behold! thick tears she cried!
For pinned to the wall, staining red,
was her kitten with a knife through its head,’

Who do you go to when one of your characters has turned against you? A doctor? A priest? A publisher?

I went instead to see an older writer: a successful author of more than 20 books. I caught him on his lunch break at the university between lecturing on Russian literature. He listened to my dilemma thoughtfully and finally advised me to have it out with Rafael.

‘After all, he seems to live in you as much as you live in him. There would seem to be no sense in running away. Face him like a man!’

I will never forget that day. I removed everything sharp from the kitchen and tuned off the gas in case Rafael might organise an explosion. I disconnected the telephone and made sure there were no matches or lighters to be found in the house. Satisfied that I had taken every sensible precaution, I took out a fresh pad of paper and began to write.

I described a city street in early winter, the sun bright too low in the sky to cast any warmth and chilly winds chased dead leaves through the gutter. I walked down some broken stone steps to a damp basement bar and as I walked in I found the place was empty, as I knew it would be, except for the bartender, who served me up a whisky without need to be told, and he nodded towards the corner where Rafael sat, the ashtray full of overflowing before him. I took a seat at the table and for a while neither of us said anything. I sipped my whisky cautiously, taking in my nemesis; he dressed better than he used to but with same casual disdain for appearances. His eyes sparkled with mischief and I wondered what foul deeds he had recently committed.

‘What did you do with Lucia?’ I finally blurted out. He shrugged.

‘What did she do to herself, you mean? I tired of her after a day or two. She was like a wet towel around my neck. When I told her I had never loved her she lost her mind and threatened to throw herself in the river.’ Rafael paused to light another cigarette.

‘And?’ I cried in anguish.

‘It’s surprising how quickly a fully-dressed woman drowns!’ he said with an evil smile and I longed to reach across the table and punch him on the nose. I was afraid to miss, however, and I suspected he was the kind of character to carry a knife.

‘What do you want?’ I asked. Rafael looked surprised.

‘What do I want? Do you know what it’s like when someone else tells you where to go, what to say, what to do?’

‘But you walked off the page!’ I yelled furiously. Rafael leaned close and hissed:

‘Yes, but this place isn’t real. I am not real. You are not real. When you live inside someone else’s story you can never be free.’

‘I don’t understand,’ I stammered weakly.

‘That’s the problem!’ he snarled, ‘You’re as dumb as the heroes in your books! You want the whole world to love you!’

‘What is it you want me to do?’ I asked him squarely. Rafael looked at me calmly and blew smoke into my face.

‘My friend, I can’t be free until you are!’

It’s been ten years since that conversation in the basement bar. The changes began with words, naturally. When my agent called me to remind me that my novel was due I told him to go fuck himself. It was like someone else was talking. Then later that month when my best friend called me up to cry on my shoulder about her latest failing relationship, I suggested that if she wanted someone who would only listen and never talk she should marry a dog.

And as I said things that I’d never said, did things I’ve never done, I began to write again. My characters no longer needed to be liked or respected. They just were. Existing on their own terms. They surprised me and, in time, I came to surprise them. Neither they nor I ever knew what was coming next.

As for Rafael. I wonder where he is now. Truth be told, I miss him. I owe him a great debt, after all. Without him, I never would have walked off the page.

Leave a comment and let me know what you think!

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