The penultimate chapter in full.
Before you begin to read it, it needs a little explanation, I’m afraid…
There is a running joke in this chapter that can only really be understood by reading it on a Word/PDF document – which is how, of course, the full manuscript of the book will appear when it’s finished on my Murder At St Marmaduke’s page. It’s the joke that comes at the end of each page of the chapter, leading into the next one.
In order to try to replicate the joke on this blog post, I’ve divided up the post into ‘pages’, just as I’ve divided all other chapters into ‘sections’. Hopefully, it will help you to get the joke, but it will make for odd continuity in this post.
Monday 18th November 1985: 14.05 – 14.40
The man at the typewriter smiled as he typed Charles Meredith’s car drawing up outside his house. He added the clunk of doors as the occupants got out, a squeak of the front gate as it opened, another as one of the characters closed it again, then the tap-tap-tap of Amita Chowdhary’s heels on the path (it was probably unrealistic that a police officer would wear the type of heels that would tap, but he’d never yet seen a woman detective in a crime drama who wore sensible ‘flatties’), together with the less interesting thump of the men’s feet. He typed all sound ceasing for a fraction of a second. Then the chime of the doorbell sounded.
‘Come in, it’s open,’ he called, typing the words as he did so.
‘Charles, Amita, Ernie, Kevin – welcome,’ he greeted the four as they entered his office. (He dispensed with them opening and shutting the front door, and tramping through the hallway, and him having to guide them to where he was working, as unnecessary verbiage which added nothing to the plot. Which was rather ironic, he realised, given the opening paragraph.)
‘Excuse me?’ he had Meredith say. ‘One, how the hell do you know who we are? And two, who the hell do you think we are, addressing us by our first names as if we’re the best of friends?’
The typist gave a grin; the sort he would have had a humorous simile for in previous chapters, but wasn’t concerned with finding one for at the moment. ‘Oh, but you are good friends, Charles. I’ve lived with you all for so long now, I know you intimately.’
He typed Meredith frowning, then staring closely towards him (he quickly added a sentence explaining that the light by his desk was angled in such a way that his visitors would be dazzled by it for a few seconds), then the DCI’s mouth falling open as he recognised him. ‘Hang on! It’s you! What the hell are you doing here?’
Amita, also frowning (though far more prettily than her boss, if that was a thing; which the typist decided that, in her case, it definitely would be), gasped, ‘Joseph!’
‘Joe?’ he had Kevin add. ‘I’ve just left you back at the office. How come you’re here? Did you take a taxi? Or did you take a taxi that Sally’s charging to expenses and pretending is a new filing cabinet, like she did once before and didn’t think I knew about it?’
The typist’s grin widened. ‘No taxi, Kevin. And it is me, yes. Though not the me you all know.’
‘I’m sorry?’ he typed Amita saying. ‘I – I don’t…’
He’d already furnished the room with four comfy chairs, and gesturing to them, he said, ‘Please, everyone, sit down, and I’ll explain everything to you. Forgive me if I carry on working,’ he added, remaining at his desk. ‘It is necessary I do so, otherwise this chapter won’t go very far, I’m afraid.’
He typed them seating themselves, then had them staring at him with varying expressions, all the variations being on the scale marked ‘puzzled to bewildered’.
‘Refreshments?’ he said. He typed cups and saucers into their hands, brimming with coffee (tea, in Ernie’s case). For Ernie’s sake, he also typed a caramel wafer onto each saucer, then decided he’d better type the rest of the chapter without typing in each line that he was typing it; he’d made that point, and constantly repeating it would probably be very annoying to anyone reading.
‘Thank you,’ Amita said.
‘You’re welcome. No sugar for you or Kevin, three for Ernie. And two for you, Charles; just as you like it.’
Meredith glared at him. ‘How the hell do you know that? Even I don’t know whether I take sugar or not.’
Dead silence filled the room, with Amita, Ernie and Kevin all staring at the DCI with the expressions of goldfish coming across an archway in their tank they couldn’t remember seeing before.
‘And there you have it,’ Joseph said. ‘I know you all better than you know yourselves.’
‘Mr Makumbo,’ Meredith said. ‘I’m not going to enquire what the hell is going on right now; just, would you mind, please, before I lose my temper, giving us an explanation as to why our lives are mapped out for everyone to read in a book that Mr Proctor here is thinking of publishing?’
‘One moment, before I do, Mr Meredith,’ Joseph said. Taking the full sheet from his typewriter, he
rolled in another blank one, then ended the sentence he was typing.
‘Oh, so it’s “Mr Meredith” now, is it? Not such great friends after all?’
‘It isn’t that, Charles. It’s just that I had to become formal at that moment. If I’d called you by your first name, the break-up of the lines wouldn’t have been exactly right between one page and the next.’
There being no reply apart from an exasperated-looking shake of the head, Joseph continued, ‘So. Your explanation. The novel, Murder At St Marmaduke’s. Not only does it tell the lives you are living; it is the lives that you are living. You, and everything that’s happened since the 4th of this month, have been created by me. Even this, happening right at this moment. I’m typing it as you’re living it. You understand?’
‘No, I bloody well don’t understand! What are you talking about?’
But Amita was leaning forwards, and the look on her face made it clear that, if not full understanding, at least a glimmer of it was beginning to dawn. ‘Do you mean that we’re all actors in a play, or something?’
Joseph smiled at her. ‘No, you’re not the actors. Actors have real life, and choices in how they act. You, I’m afraid, are the characters in the play; actually, the novel, of course. If anyone is the actor, it is my writing, that’s interpreting how you are played. Does that make it clearer?’
Amita slumped back in her chair. ‘Are you saying we’re not real?’
He made his smile as gentle as he could this time. ‘That’s correct, Amita. I knew you’d be the first to understand. I’m pleased to say that I’ve written you with a great deal of intelligence; it wouldn’t surprise me if you were promoted to detective sergeant before long.’
She shook her head. ‘That’s impossible. I haven’t been in the job for nearly long enough; and besides, I’d need to take exams for that to happen.’
‘Not in my world.’
‘Hold on,’ Kevin put in. ‘I think I’m getting this as well. Are you also saying that you’re this “Colin Z Smith” person whose name is on the manuscript as the author?’
‘That’s correct, Kevin. And before you, in particular, dismiss what I’ve just told you as being too deus ex machina, I have given hints in recent chapters that certain characters know that they’re in a book.’
It was Kevin’s turn to shake his head. ‘But even if what you’re saying is true, why use a pen-name? Especially that one!’
‘It isn’t wonderful, is it? However, I couldn’t use my own name, as that would have alerted you that something was amiss before I needed you to know for the story’s purpose. And it so happened that a friend bequeathed me that name, so I decided it was as good a one to use for my pseudonym as any.’
‘Bequeathed? Oh – I’m sorry for your loss.’
Joseph laughed. ‘Don’t worry, he hasn’t died. He just wanted to get rid of the name as quickly as possible, so he left it to me in his will as long as I took it over straight away. Unorthodox, but it proved useful.’
‘And Joseph?’ Amita said. ‘The other Joseph, that is. Is he – not real as well?’
‘I’m afraid he isn’t. He is my fictional presence in my novel. No more real than the rest of you are.’
‘Look, this is all rubbish!’ Meredith snapped. ‘Of course we’re bloody-well real! We can feel that we are.’
‘Ah. Are you certain that’s not just how I’ve written you? A writer has to create characters that are believable. Readers won’t be able to empathise with them otherwise.’
‘Of course I’m certain! I know that I’m real as much as I know that Ernie’s been unusually silent since we arrived here; so much so that I’ve just had to look over and check that he actually is here.’
‘And yet you didn’t know that you took sugar…’
He let this statement sink in. And the DCI’s face this time made it abundantly clear that yes, the statement had certainly sunk, and not without trace, either.
‘Look, let me demonstrate,’ Joseph went on. ‘As you rightly say, Charles, Ernie has been silent so far in this chapter. Let me put words into his mouth…’
He poised his fingers over the keyboard for a second in thought, and then recommenced typing. As he did, Ernie said, ‘I say, Chief Inspector, old chap. It’s a dashed novelty all this, isn’t it, what? Might do to take this bally blighter at face value, don’t you think? He might be telling the truth, I’ll be bound. Be dashed awkward if you weren’t to believe him; it’d put the skids under you as an investigating officer, what?’
There was another stunned silence. Meredith, Amita and Kevin Proctor all stared at Ernie.
‘You see?’ Joseph said. While the others stared, Joseph took the second page out of the typewriter and
rolled in a third one.
Amita nodded. ‘I do see. But – going back to Joseph. If he’s meant to be you, why have you made him so different from – from you? This you, I mean. He even speaks differently. And he’s much – erm…’
Joseph grinned at her again. ‘Cuter?’
Looking rather embarrassed, she nodded.
‘And which version of me do you prefer?’
‘Oh, him, definitely.’
Joseph nodded. ‘And there you have your answer. Do you think you could possibly be falling in love with me if I hadn’t made me so cute?’
Ernie had, while this exchange was going on, been developing a face as puce as an overripe plum. ‘What the Full Unadulterated Carnal Knowledge did you just do to me!’ he yelled.
‘Ah, that’s better,’ Meredith said. ‘Much more Ernie.’
‘But you understand now how I dictate all you do? Or, more accurately, perhaps, most of what you do.’
He decided that Kevin could latch onto that point, as the English language pedant. ‘Most?’
‘Yes. As you will undoubtedly know, even in the most planned-out novels the characters are still able to astonish their writer by doing unexpected things. Jack Hampshire, for instance, wrote himself as a racist from the moment he appeared, much to my surprise. A handy plot device, as it turned out; I’m grateful to him.’
‘And I thought he was just an annoying bastard,’ Meredith grunted.
‘I must admit,’ Joseph went on, ‘that that was why I invented the impossible scenario at Hettie Foster’s bungalow; all those characters in the hallway at the same time, but each one on their own. I wanted to see how they would react. Some of them really surprised me. You, for instance, Amita. Waiting patiently for the sitting-room door to open of its own accord. I never even entertained that until I found myself typing it.’
Amita shrugged. ‘It just seemed like the right thing to do.’
‘It was, for you. And Terrence, pretending to be Bodie and Doyle from The Professionals. I never expected that to happen, either.’
‘You what?’ Ernie said. He seemed to have forgotten his ire. ‘Dawson? The bugger never told me that!’
‘I know. It wouldn’t be in his nature. Although I do recall that he told you that he’d “kicked the crap”, as you put it, out of the door. That might have been an unfortunate character discrepancy I gave to him.’
‘I’ll certainly give the lanky bastard hell for it. Anyway – another thing. That time-slip, or whatever it was, bollocks-up in the station, when Hampshire was interviewing Makumbo – you. Whoever the hell!’
‘Ah, yes. Again, a little improvisation on the inspector’s part, where he kept counting to five to make my fictional Joseph nervous. It was dragging out the time getting to the interview itself; plus, if I’d typed the whole interview verbatim, the DI would only have been hearing what the readers already knew. So I introduced the time-slip, then decided it would be a good way to make you decide to go to see Charles.’
‘All right, so that’s that,’ Ernie said. ‘And now, since you’re obviously a smart-arse with an answer for everything, here’s the big bastard question. What’s this bloody voice some of us have been hearing? The one with no bugger attached to it that we can see? What’s that all about?’
‘That was me. This me, I mean. Sometimes, one of my characters forgot to do something, or needed a hint to do something. Then, I put in my authorial voice – literally – to get them to act in the way I wanted.’
‘Oh, right,’ Kevin said. ‘I was wondering about that, as well. That’s a bit contrived, I’d say.’
‘It probably is. Just adding to the humour, especially as Joseph thought it was God talking to him. Which, in a way, it was, really. After all – for a character in a book, their author must surely be God? And there is, by the way, something else that you believe is contrived as well, which I’ll have us discuss very shortly.’
‘Okay. I do want to ask a couple of questions myself, and comment on your manuscript as well.’
‘Indeed you do,’ Joseph said. ‘And I’m glad that I’m having you do so. Especially as I need to make the next page, which I’ll have to begin typing soon, the last in this chapter, otherwise it will go on far too long.’
‘Right. So, what was all that about, when the old lady started out splattered over my windscreen, and then suddenly wasn’t there, but at the side of my car asking for a lift instead?’
‘That was a mistake by me, I’m afraid. I started typing Mabel being hit by your car, and then talking to you as if nothing had happened. You would then have driven her to Hettie’s while she was spread out over your windscreen; rather amusing, I thought.’ He broke off to again pull the full page out of the typewriter and
roll in another blank one, feeling glad that this was the last time he’d have to type that he was doing so, as he was sure that readers would by now be getting fed up with repetitions of the same joke.
‘I suddenly realised, though,’ he then continued, ‘that this would entail you not being able to see where you were going, so I changed the passage to you not hitting her. Unfortunately, I typed it on the same page I’d already started, so that was how it ended up in the manuscript. I think it worked out well, though.’
‘I see. It’s okay, I guess; although it doesn’t explain the lines you’ve written between me seeing the body and it not being there. But never mind, I’ll accept that – for now. So, how about the pages of the manuscript appearing on my desk as if by magic? And me not getting to read it until today because of HL Danvers?’
‘Plot devices to make sure you were up to date with all the latest chapters as I finished them, and so you could phone Charles at the right time in the story. Which has led to this conversation we’re having now.’
‘I see. That’s a bit contrived as well, don’t you think?’
‘As I said near the end of the previous page, I knew you would see it that way. We can always discuss my writing it differently. As the book is more fantasy than reality, I’ll probably fight like hell not to do so, though.’
‘We can talk about it,’ Kevin said. ‘As far as the book goes, it’s quirky and entertaining, with some funny jokes; though I must admit I think some of your humour is a little forced, especially as the book progresses. Regarding the opening joke about the chairs, I wonder if it could be moved to somewhere else in the opening chapter, and have the immediate focus on Joseph? Better to start with a person rather than objects, I think.’
At this point, Kevin took a sip of his coffee, just to break up the stream of dialogue that had been going on for a while now with a piece of action, then continued, ‘Some of your sentence structures are quite convoluted, as well (not that I’m saying it’s entirely a bad thing; it wouldn’t do if everything was plain and simple at all times, would it?), with those parenthetical passages dotted around everywhere. And I’m really not sure about this “authorial voice”, and having to have this chapter to explain everything. That section with the swear-words in Chapter 30, as well. Amusing as the punchline is, it doesn’t really serve much purpose, given you have adequate word-count in the novel, so don’t really need any padding. That’ll have to go.’
Joseph nodded. ‘I do agree with you there. That was written on a whim, from a remark I put into the previous section, and can quite happily be dispensed with.’
‘And you probably have too many POVs, and too many police characters; and as Sal says to Joe in Chapter 50, you do really need an emotion thesaurus. You also have a couple of contradictions as well, such as having me receiving manuscripts at the rate of one a month to start with, then suddenly having HL Danvers sending them at a rate of several a day. Oh, and those sections with me and Sally; they’ll have to go…’
Joseph laughed. ‘I’m sorry, Kevin; that sexual tension between you and her stays! I hate to tell you so bluntly, but it’s only that that gives your character any interest. You are, to be honest, rather bland otherwise.’
Kevin, his face shocked, made to reply, but Meredith interrupted. He’d been glancing at his watch, and now got to his feet. ‘This literary talk is all very fascinating. But we really have to go. I have a police station to make some staff changes to.’ He glanced at Joseph suspiciously. ‘Or is this just you making me think that?’
Joseph shrugged. ‘I’m afraid I am. I’m coming to the bottom of this sheet of paper; as I said, I need to finish the chapter here, otherwise it will go on too long. As it is, I think the whole of this page has been rushed, and with not enough paragraphs to separate the blocks of speech, where I’m having to try to fit it all in.’
‘‘Quite likely. As well as everything you’ve said being total codswallop, frankly. Goodbye, Mr Makumbo. I hope not to see – or hear from; especially hear from – you, or your other you, ever again.’
He, Ernie and Kevin Proctor filed out, Kevin promising to get back to Joseph to talk terms. Amita lingered, and Joseph gazed at her enquiringly, knowing what was on her mind, but wanting her to express it.
‘What happens now?’ she asked.
‘Yes. I get the impression that you’re nearly at the end of your book. Our book, I mean. So what happens once it’s actually finished?’
‘You’re worried that you will suddenly cease to exist, once I’ve finished typing you?’
She nodded, a troubled expression on her face.
Smiling, he explained the truth about that, making a note for her to tell Joseph in the final chapter.
When he’d finished, the look of jot that now suffused her face had him scrambling for his Tip-ex. Hastily, he painted over the ‘t’ and changed the word to ‘joy’. And because of having to correct that, he then had to
roll a fifth sheet of paper into his typewriter after all.