THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS
Edwin Arnold was not, by any standard criteria, an unsuccessful man. He had been married for nigh on thirty years to a woman he still loved, and who still loved him. He had three children who were healthy and happy, and each of them seemed now to be navigating adulthood in a manner that made him proud. He enjoyed his job as a schoolteacher – geography, history and some basic mathematics – and he had never had reason to doubt that any of the thousands of pupils who had passed through his care hadn't to some small degree been bettered by the association. In short, he was a man who had treated his life with respect, and life had paid him back with interest. It didn't matter that his success had been won more by luck than by judgement – or, to be fair, by calm patience rather than anything particularly profound or inspirational; it was success of a sort, and Mr Arnold deserved every last scrap of it.
But in his youth he had also been a published writer, and there at least success had eluded him. His only novel had had disappointing reviews and even more disappointing sales. Some writers rally against harsh criticism, are even spurred on by it; others buckle beneath and never find the necessary arrogance to put pen to paper again. Mr Arnold had been neither encouraged nor confounded: he had read all the
reviews, considered what they said rationally and honestly, and concluded that they were perfectly justified. He simply wasn't a very good writer. He showed some ability with the broad mechanics of it, the putting down of words one after the other in comprehensible order. What he lacked was an imagination – the critics were right, he simply had nothing to say. Edwin Arnold had dreamed of being a great writer, but he shrugged off that dream – it was ridiculous, and there was no point in entertaining it further. And he had never turned his hand to writing again.
He kept a pristine copy of his novel on a bookshelf in his study, but he never felt the slightest urge to read it. It was a part of his past he had no reason to deny, but even less reason to advertise: it seemed of very little consequence to the man he had become. Even by the time he met the future Mrs Arnold, only a couple of years after publication, he hadn't thought it worth mentioning to her. The honest truth was Mrs Arnold had at first found Mr Arnold to be courteous but a little dull, and new information that he'd once harboured artistic longings would have hastened the whole courtship considerably: even so, she managed at last to put aside her qualms and fall in love with him regardless. She only found out on their wedding day, when the novel and its failed fortunes were alluded to by the best man, in that part of the speech usually reserved for jokes about embarrassments with ex-girlfriends. Mrs Arnold took Mr Arnold's hand and whispered, “I didn't know you'd written a book, how awfully clever! I shall have to read it!” And Mr Arnold had smiled benignly, and told her she was welcome to try, but even the Daily Mail had said it was thin gruel. “No, I will,” she insisted – and she'd meant it at the time – and had even once or twice determined to fetch it down from the study bookshelf and open it – and she'd never quite got round to doing so.
Mr Arnold hadn't even thought about his novel in several years when he saw it in the hands of the man seated opposite him on the 16.47 train from C___. Mr Arnold always caught the 16.47 – were he to leave the staffroom promptly he had time to catch the 16.17, but only if he put a sprint on, and Mr Arnold didn't like to put a sprint on after a solid day's teaching. The 16.47 would get him into S___ at 17.14 and the short walk from the station guaranteed he'd be back home at half past five with Mrs Arnold for tea. He knew by sight most of the people who travelled on the 16.47, they were a rarefied bunch. He didn't recognise the man who took the seat facing his, opened up his briefcase, took from it Mr Arnold's novel, and started to read it blatantly for all the world to see.
And at first he didn't even realise it was his own book. “How funny,” mused Mr Arnold, “I wrote a book with that very title once!” And as his eyes travelled down the front cover, he added to himself, “Funnier still, the author has the same name as mine too!” He thought the coincidence would be something he could tell Mrs Arnold when he got home, they could chuckle at it over supper. When it finally dawned on him that the book with the same title and the same author as his own book was his own book Mr Arnold wasn't distressed, but for a moment his head swam and he felt a little nauseous. He looked at the design on the dust-jacket. Was that the design on his dust jacket, sitting on the bookshelf at home? He supposed it was. How dreary and old-fashioned it looked.
“Excuse me,” said Mr Arnold. “I say, excuse me!” But the man didn't look up from the book; maybe Mr Arnold had spoken too gently to be heard above the locomotive engines. And he considered raising his voice, and then decided not to, as he hadn't worked out what he wanted to say. For his first reaction was that it seemed impertinent this complete stranger should be flaunting Mr Arnold's novel in public – and he had to remind himself that it was no such thing, that if the man had purchased the volume fair and square he had every right to expose it on any train he wished. And then, in contrast, Mr Arnold felt the absurd urge to thank him – that of all the books that existed in the world, it was Mr Arnold's that this man had chosen to read. He wanted to ask him what he thought of it, how much he was enjoying it. He wanted this man to be his new best friend.
Though, was the man enjoying it? It was hard to tell. The man wasn't smiling. But then, Mr Arnold reasoned, he could no longer remember whether there was anything in his novel to smile at. He couldn't be properly sure, but he had the idea his book had been rather high-minded and serious. In which case, it was probably just as well that the man wasn't smiling; thank God, moreover, that he wasn't laughing, that would be very bad indeed. The man did not have a face that looked like it had ever laughed. Several adjectives popped unbidden into Mr Arnold's head. Saturnine. Swarthy. Sinister. Mr Arnold hadn't had any adjectives pop into his head for quite some considerable time, and now they were there he didn't know what to do with them. He vaguely wished he had a piece of paper so he could jot a description of the man down.
The more Mr Arnold looked at the face of his reader, the more relieved he felt that he hadn't attracted his attention and he resolved he wouldn't try to speak to him again. After all, what if the man didn't like the novel? Or what if he had editorial queries about it, or asked Mr Arnold to justify certain passages? – Mr Arnold wouldn't know where to put himself. What if the man demanded his money back? Mr Arnold was reasonably sure a reader had no legal case to claim financial compensation from a badly written book, but it would still be highly irksome and might cause a scene. He was getting ahead of himself – the man was unsmiling, but he showed no other signs of censure, certainly nothing forceful enough to suggest he'd seek remuneration – the face was passive, wholly passive, there was nothing there at all. The words were going in, but whatever effect they were having on the inside wasn't reflected on the external features. That, when Mr Arnold thought about it, had disappointments of its own. And yet, he noted, the man was about half-way through the book – he hadn't given up on it, that had to be some indication of approval.
At 17.14 the train reached S___, and Mr Arnold prepared to get up from his seat, because he had to get up from his seat if he wanted to go home to Mrs Arnold and to the supper she'd have made for him. But he knew that if he left now he would never see this man again. And though he dared not speak to him, he suddenly wanted to know everything about him – who he was, where he lived, what other books he enjoyed. Mr Arnold stayed put. The train moved on B_____, to D___, and then to P___. Mr Arnold knew that by B_____ his wife would be pouring him a glass of sherry, by D___ she'd be wondering why he was late, by P___ she'd be getting worried. And yet he couldn't tear his eyes from the man opposite him – and the man opposite him never once took his eyes from the book.
Mr Arnold didn't think the man was going to get off at R___, but at the last moment he lifted his eyes from the book, placed it back into his briefcase, stood up, and followed the commuters off the train.
Mr Arnold had never been to R___. He pursued his reader through the ticket gates and R___ opened up before him, and it looked grey and unwelcoming. The street was lined with rows of dirty semi-detached houses, and all the commuters seemed to fan out towards them and were absorbed by them. There was only one beacon of light, a small cafe on the crossroads. The reader went inside. Mr Arnold hesitated for a moment, then he went inside too. A jolly little bell above the door announced his arrival.
The cafe was mostly empty. There were only a handful of customers, all sitting alone and joylessly sipping their teas. Mr Arnold was glad they were there, they gave him some cover. The reader took a table at the back of the cafe; Mr Arnold selected one far enough away it wouldn't attract suspicion but kept the man in his sights. The man retrieved the book from his briefcase and resumed reading; he didn't even look up as the waitress put down a pot of tea beside him. She knew what he wanted, he had been there before. The waitress then came to Mr Arnold. She was sour and lumpen and blocked Mr Arnold's view. “Pot of tea?” she asked, and Mr Arnold was courteous and said that would be very nice. “Sticky bun?” she went on, and Mr Arnold wished the fat sow would get out of the way – he thought briefly of Mrs Arnold with his supper all ready, and then put her from his mind; yes, yes, he'd have a sticky bun, go, please go, I need to see.
The tea was hot and tasteless. Mr Arnold broke off little pieces of the sticky bun, and chewed them slowly. The reader never touched his tea, he was too gripped by his book and Mr Arnold watched as the steam rose from the pot, thinned, then evaporated.
There was something very wrong with the reader. Was it that passivity? – because as the hour went on, and then the next, at no point did his face ever change expression. And maybe it was because Mr Arnold was staring at it too long, in the same way that if you stare at it on a piece of paper hard enough even the most ordinary word starts to look distorted and alien – but it seemed to Mr Arnold not just still, but slack, as if the skin was just hanging there and was too heavy to move. No movement at all – except for the eyes, always moving, the eyes darting backwards and forwards as they reached one margin of the page and returned to start another. And yes, that was wrong, that all felt wrong – but there was something worse, and Mr Arnold couldn't quite put his finger on what it was.
The waitress brought Mr Arnold another pot of tea, another sticky bun. He hadn't asked for them. He hadn't realised he'd finished the last lot. He scowled as once more she blocked his view, even though only briefly, he wasn't going to waste any patience on her any longer; he mechanically lifted the cup back to his mouth and nibbled at the bun. The tea was hot once more, but this time he thought he could detect some taste to it after all, a sweetness that was subtle and distant, it was reaching him from some place very far away. The sticky bun made his fingers fix fast together, they turned his hand into a hoof. And as he sipped and swallowed and chewed and swallowed and smeared his fingers against his lips and against his cheeks and against his entire face he suddenly realised what it was that didn't make sense about the man reading the book, what it was in the pit of his stomach that made him so afraid.
And it was as if the very realisation of it triggered something. As if he'd cried out, but he hadn't made a sound, had he? He hadn't even dared to gasp – but it didn't matter, because all the other customers got to their feet, put on their coats, picked up their briefcases. And left the cafe.
Don't leave me! Mr Arnold wanted to plead, but he couldn't – either out of embarrassment, or because he discovered that his tongue was still and dead in his mouth, he couldn't budge it. Don't leave me! He shouted at them in his head, but they couldn't hear, or didn't want to hear – either way, not a one of them even deigned to look at him. Just a single customer remaining – and, of course, it was the man at the back, and of course he was still reading the book.
But was he reading it, really? The eyes darting back and forth over the words, yes. But he'd never turned the page. He'd never turned the page. Not on the train, not in the cafe, not in these last few hours. He'd never turned the page.
Mr Arnold tried to get up, but it wasn't just his tongue that was lifeless. He willed his body to heave itself out of his chair, but it was no good, as if caught in a spider's web the strain only seemed to hold him there the faster. He couldn't even turn his head, now frozen towards the man with the book – he wanted to look away, he'd have done anything now to be able to look away – but he'd done this to himself, hadn't he, hadn't he chosen the seat with the perfect view? Nothing able to move now except his own eyes, darting back and forth, back and forth.
The waitress fetched her coat. She didn't say anything to Mr Arnold, but she deliberately stepped into his field of vision and gave him a smile he thought was sympathetic. That was nice of her. She pulled down the window blinds. She turned off the lights. As she left the cafe, the door rang its jolly little bell; she locked the door behind her.
For the longest time they sat apart in the dark, the author and his paying public. Mr Arnold could only make out the shape of the man, and his arms were still out, and his head was tilted in the same position, and Arnold presumed he was still staring at the book, though now there wasn't enough light for the pretence he was reading it. And did Mr Arnold try to work out why he'd been lured into this trap? Why it was he who'd be singled out for punishment, when there are so many writers, and so much worse than him, who have written such greater guff undeterred by bad reviews and reader apathy? Of course he did.
Mr Arnold made himself believe he would be all right so long as the man kept staring at the book. That in spite of all, he might forget Mr Arnold was even there, so long as he remained fixed by that single page he'd been studying. And he was allowed to believe that for a long time.
When the man finally lowered the book, and pulled back his chair, and got to his feet, and walked to Mr Arnold, he did so with a sigh that might have been of reader satisfaction.
He stood over Mr Arnold, and Mr Arnold could see him closely now, and his eyes were still darting even though he no longer had anything to read. And he held out the book to Arnold, and just for a bewildered moment, Mr Arnold thought the man wanted an autograph. He could not reach out for the book, of course. He could barely even breathe, as if his lungs too had been glued fast by the sticky bun, and as he fought for air he thought, is this how I die? And he thought of Mrs Arnold and his
three happy, healthy children, and he was sorry.
The man stuck out his tongue, slowly and deliberately, and extended it towards Mr Arnold. And Arnold thought that was rather rude of him, and that he could still feel a flare of irritation surprised him.
The tongue may have been just a little too long, it was hard to tell in the light. The man raised the book up to his face, and brought the dusk jacket against the tongue. He began to lick. At first with the respectful delicacy due even a failed work of literature, but then with increasing speed, and increasing passion, he was slathering it all over, every inch of it. Like it was a lover, and he closed his eyes, and his face was no longer passive, it was ecstatic – how Mr Arnold wished he'd been able to write something that had unlocked that face to release expressions like that.
He'd finished. The cover was dripping a little, small beads of spit clung to the corners and then fell off. The man held up the book so Mr Arnold could see the dust jacket clearly. And it was bare – no old fashioned and dreary design, no title. No mention of Edwin Arnold's name as proud author. The man had licked it clean.
Mr Arnold wanted to apologise, and he didn't know why. He tried to open his mouth to do so, he very nearly managed it. The man shook his head, and put a finger to Mr Arnold’s lips, ssh, it was all right, it's all perfectly all right.
And he drove his finger in between those lips, and the finger became a whole fist, and it forced Mr Arnold's mouth wide open, and Mr Arnold thought how cold his hands were, he should have drunk his hot tea after all, and the man took hold of Mr Arnold's inert tongue. Very gently he pulled Mr Arnold's tongue out of his mouth, as far as it could go.
So Mr Arnold sat there with his tongue pointing directly at the man and he thought that now he was the one being rude. He tried to flex it, and there was a little life returning to it, he could just about waggle the tip.
The man opened the book, and held the first page of the first chapter close to Mr Arnold's face. Still Mr Arnold didn't know what he wanted, and the man grunted a little impatiently, and waggled his own tongue by way of demonstration. And Arnold understood, and set to work.
There was no taste to his novel.
And every minute or two, once a page had been erased to the man's satisfaction, he would turn over so Mr Arnold could continue.
The man had the hardest job, really, holding out the book and keeping it straight. All Mr Arnold had to do was sit there and lick. But nevertheless, he felt they made quite a team.
Mr Arnold's novel hadn't been particularly long, but it was still nearly dawn by the time they'd finished. He was grateful he hadn't turned out a War and Peace, they'd have been there for weeks. And when the book was over, Arnold felt that the two of them had really achieved something. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you.” And then he realised he could move his jaw again, and turn his head too, he was pleased.
The man didn't acknowledge the thanks, and Mr Arnold thought that was rather a shame. He flicked through the book, and confirmed that not a page had been missed. And he put it, still dribbling Mr Arnold's spit, back into his briefcase. Without a word or a glance he unlocked the door to the cafe and went.
It was another half hour before Arnold got the feeling back in his legs. Everything was pins and needles. He stumbled outside into the morning air, and took deep breaths. He felt clean somehow, even pure. It was still too early for the train, so he began the walk back to S___. By the time he reached home the sun was shining. His wife had spent the night on the sofa waiting for him, and was fast asleep. He kissed her on the forehead, put his arms around her, and took her up to bed.
Sometimes Edwin Arnold could feel the novel inside his head. It was big and heavy and had sharp edges. He knew if he weren't careful his passing thoughts would cut themselves on it. But he was careful – it was a part of him, after all. It had always been a part of him, and he couldn't quite believe he had let himself forget that. And at night he would lower the part of his head that contained his novel gently on the pillow, and he'd feel it lurch into a new position, and it was a comfort.
He felt happier – younger. His novel had been born out of ambition and youthful self-belief. And heady excess – never one word when three would do! Though he recognised it wasn't very good, the clumsy innocence of it was a tonic. In class he surprised his pupils by being witty. He even managed to inspire a few.
He wanted to revel in their youth to show them they weren't so very different – he wanted to tell them all about his novel. But he wasn't sure they'd enjoy it, and held his tongue.
He liked chapter four best. Chapter four had been composed in a rush of such disarming naivete than it brought tears to his eyes. “We should have the kids round for dinner,” he told his wife one day. She was astonished – said he never wanted to be bothered with that – said he hadn't even referred to them as 'the kids' in years. “Well, why not? They are our kids, after all!” And the next Sunday they were all together, and it was the first time in years, since the funeral of some dead aunt or another, and his kids brought their own kids, and he felt like a kid too, and there was such laughter, it was a house of kids spanning three generations.
Mr Arnold wanted to tell his family about his novel, but he thought they might not understand it.
Mrs Arnold bought herself a new dress one day. She showed it off to him when he came home from school. “I don't know why,” she said, “something just came over me. You don't mind?” And she looked so beautiful suddenly – and so nervous too, fearing he might no longer find her so. He kissed her, and it was a real kiss, and they hadn't kissed in such a long while. And then they went to bed and made love, and they hadn't done that in even longer.
She lay in his arms, and she told him she loved him, and all he wanted to do was tell her about his novel, his novel.
“I don't think we've ever been happier,” she said.
“I don't think we have either,” Mr Arnold replied.
The next morning he went into the study and took his novel down from the bookshelf. The pages were bare and soggy. He put it into his briefcase. Mrs Arnold said, “Have a good day at school!” and he thanked her, and she said, “Supper at the usual time?” and he said he was looking forward to it. Then he said goodbye and walked out of the house forever.
He crossed over from his usual platform and caught the train to R___ instead. On the journey he prodded at the novel in his head and it cried like a little baby.
The cafe was mostly empty. There were only a handful of customers, all sitting alone and joylessly sipping their teas. Each one of them was working on a manuscript. Mr Arnold took a seat. The waitress put down a pot of tea in front of him – she knew what he wanted, he had been there before. Mr Arnold took out his own manuscript, and began to write.
It was hard to make an impression upon the paper, it was still so damp with spit. Still, he persevered. He drank tea and nibbled at buns, he consumed each and every thing the waitress gave him, but he didn't look up, he had no time to look up, he was busy. Every so often she would pull down the blinds and turn out the lights and lock up the cafe and he carried on regardless, he wrote by moonlight. All the words he had written before – and yes, he could have changed some, and for the better, he was older now and maybe wiser too and he could see exactly where his novel could be improved. But Mr Arnold didn't think that was fair somehow. And at last, one day, he reached the end, and there it was in front of him amongst the empty tea cups and the crumbs of a thousand sticky buns, there was his first novel reborn – wet, and fresh, and unique and utterly utterly dreadful. Mr Arnold stroked at the pages fondly for a moment, he couldn't help himself. And then he got up from his seat, walked over to the counter, and dropped the book into the bin.
There was a cavity in his brain from where the novel had been torn; his head throbbed. And he felt sadder and lonelier than he ever had before.
The waitress said, “Pot of tea?” And he said yes, a pot of tea, please, and some paper. She brought him the tea, and she brought him the paper, and Edwin Arnold took a deep breath and set to work on his second novel.
The above is an extract from Robert Shearman's new book, We All Hear Stories in the Dark: A Labyrinth of 101 Stories (PS Publishing, 2020).
Robert Shearman has worked as writer for television, radio and the stage. Shearman’s first collection of short stories, called Tiny Deaths, was published by Comma Press in 2007. The collections won the World Fantasy Award for best collection, and was also shortlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize and nominated for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize. One of the stories from it was selected by the National Library Board of Singapore as part of the annual Read! Singapore campaign. His interactive short story project for BBC7, 'The Chain Gang', won him a Sony Award, and he provided a second series for them late in 2009 to promote drama writing for radio, which also won a Sony Award. Shearman wrote a third series of ‘The Chain Gang’ for BBC7, which aired in autumn 2013.
His second collection, Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical, was published by Big Finish and released in 2009. This collection has won the Shirley Jackson Award, the British Fantasy Award, and the Edge Hill Short Story Reader’s Prize.
His third collection, Everyone’s Just So So Special, was released by Big Finish in July 2011, and won the British Fantasy Award. One of the stories from it was nominated for the Sunday Times EFG Private Banking Short Story Award, the largest individual prize for the form in the world. To accompany the book, Shearman has undertaken to write one hundred new stories featuring the names of the people who bought the special leatherbound edition. This project has been published online at www.JustSoSoSpecial.com.
Many of the stories from this project are collected in Remember Why You Fear Me, Shearman’s fourth collection of short stories. It was published by ChiZine Publications in October 2012 and is his first collection published in North America. Remember Why You Fear Me has been shortlisted for the Shirley Jackson and British Fantasy Awards.
Rob was one of the writers for the BAFTA award winning first series of the revived Doctor Who series starring Christopher Eccleston. His episode, ‘Dalek’, was runner-up for a Hugo Award, and his award winning contributions to the audio range of Doctor Who released by Big Finish have been broadcast on BBC Radio. He also contributed to the second series of BBC1’s Born and Bred. His many plays for “Wildly inventive and chilling. Shearman proves himself a master at transforming our deepest fears into new and wholly unexpected forms.” –THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT Radio Four, produced by Martin Jarvis, include Inappropriate Behaviour, Afternoons with Roger, Forever Mine, Towards the End of the Morning, Teacher’s Pet and Odd.
As resident dramatist at the Northcott Theatre in Exeter, Robert was the youngest playwright in Britain ever to be honoured by the Arts Council in this way. For them he has written four main house productions, including Breaking Bread Together, which was later revived in London. He was also a regular writer for Alan Ayckbourn at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. His six plays there include White Lies, which was also produced in London and Rome, and won the Young Playwright Award hosted by Wimbledon and Thorndike Theatres; Fool to Yourself, recipient of the first Sophie Winter Memorial Trust Award; About Colin, and Knights in Plastic Armour. Other plays include Couplings, which won the World Drama Trust Award; Binary Dreamers, which won the Guinness Award for Ingenuity in association with the Royal National Theatre; Mercy Killings, which he also directed at Harrogate Theatre; Shaw Cornered, for the National Trust, which in 2007 under his own direction was the hit production at the Old World Theatre Festival in Delhi; Easy Laughter, winner of the Sunday Times Playwriting Award, has been staged many times in Britain and the USA. Robert has also been a regular writer for the Teatro Agora in Rome. A collection of seven of his plays, called Caustic Comedies, was published in autumn 2010.
His acclaimed stage adaptations of classic novels include community based productions of The Mayor of Casterbridge and Great Expectations, open air productions of Don Quixote and Pride and Prejudice, and dark chamber versions of Desperate Remedies and Jekyll and Hyde. He adapted Michael Frayn’s novel Towards the End of the Morning for BBC Radio Four in their Classic Serials strand.
He has taught short story writing at Middlesex University and for Arvon, and gives lectures and workshops on the form around the world. In 2013 he was judge for both the National Student Television Awards and the Manchester Fiction Prize; from 2011 to 2012 he was writer in residence at Edinburgh Napier University.
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