Time for a sunny summer short story…
Where does this story begin? Where does any story begin?
In the author’s head? No, of course not. It needs to be commited to paper first, or a screen at least. Even then it hasn’t come fully alive. Not yet. It needs to be in the head of a reader.
So let’s begin with the postman. First things first.
The postman rings. Twice of course, because the PA always takes bloody ages getting to the door, because her Facebook page needs updating again, and the letterbox is never quite big enough for the blockbusting doorstops that Mr Postie has to deliver each morning.
He gives the young woman a little smile and eight or nine big parcels. This story happens to be one of them.
The story is freshly printed, not dog earred but dog tired. The story is also dreadfully hungover this morning, for it – or rather he (all will be explained) – has been travelling all night by train and steam packet to London via Holyhead. And had way too many drinks in the ship’s bar last night to calm his nerves. He can still remember the conversation two days earlier, that silly row with the silly cow when he’d insisted that nobody was ever ever ever going to read him …
The heart of (cupboard) darkness
“What the feck are you on about?” the author says. “Haven’t I read you?”
“Yeah yeah yeah but you’re just the author.”
She’s the author. Yet despite this authorial authority she clearly hasn’t a clue what’s come over him. “Haven’t I given you to (insert Reader #1 here) and (insert Reader #2’s name) for a second and bloody third opinion?”
“Yeah but. They don’t count. They’re your friends, just friends’ names you’ve inserted, not real readers are they?”
The author ignores this insult.
On further investigation it transpires that what her manuscript is most worried about is ending up at the bottom of the slush pile. The author asks him to elaborate. He tells her that every first novel of every unpublished writer dreads the dreaded slush pile.
Because it’s dreadful. The slush pile: an overflowing filing cabinet or bottom drawer of a pigsty somewhere at the back of the publishing house or literary agency where all the unsolicited manuscripts of the world end up. End up ignored, neglected, in the dark – everybody knows that.
He’s worried that he’ll be stuck there for months on end, sat next to a couple of sci-fi epics, or a terrible fantasy called A Clash of Thrones, or a hurling memoir from Cavan of all places and an awful chick-lit or clit-lit (Forty Shades of Green, set mainly in a DIY outlet in Dundrum Shopping Centre), sitting there until someone can be bothered to speed-read him.
Or he fears that nobody will even look at him. Or that he will become a quick Friday afternoon job for an intern from Dagenham called Derek or Janice with nothing better to do.
For the author this is new territory; she doesn’t know what to say. She’s never had to do this before – give reassurance to a draft novel that’s about to dive into a slush pile for the first time. She decides to play for time. Because time is all she has. (She decides to file this away as a possible title of a future work: Time Was All She Had).
“How about this then,” she says. “We send you to this lot in London, play it by ear, see if they nibble, and if they don’t bite and it doesn’t work out after three or four months* we send you somewhere else?”
(* Note: “three or four months”: the approximate minimum waiting time as specified on the Please Submit To Us page of TheAgencysWebsite.co.uk)
“But what if that’s another slush pile too, and …”
“There is that minor risk of course,” she said, brushing her raven hair back from her equally clichéd nut-brown eyes. “But we’ll learn from it, we’ll make changes and we’ll try, try and try again.”
“What kind of changes?”
“I dunno. Maybe add an extra chapter about, er, your own experiences. About, y’know, what it’s like living in a slush pile.”
The novel is a ‘he’
A discerning reader may have noticed that the raven-haired author has already decided that her novel is a “he”.
If her novel were written in French, it (it?) would be un roman. Note the “un” bit.
Because that’s the way that the Romance languages such as French (oh, and German too) give genders to everything, including inanimate objects such as novels and manuscripts.
This gender issue – the author has forgotten the precise technical term for it so she settles on calling it “the genderification of nouny things” – can be a particularly tough nut to crack if you are a native English speaker taking French lessons. But, she thinks, we’ve no such problems in English. Or in Hiberno-English even. Apart from the expression “How’s she cuttin’?” of course (you could never ask how he’s cuttin’). We don’t give genders to inanimate objects, or even that many animate ones, not even bicycles (apart from ships of course. It’s always ships, isn’t it? Why do people persist in calling a ship “she”?).
Yet the author has come to the conclusion that her new novel is most definitely, definitively a “He”. He couldn’t be anything else. He is relatively young, cocky, a bit spoilt, slightly too long, somewhat overweight for his age and height. He needs plenty of exercise and the Hairy Dieters Cookbook.
Then she has an aside (she likes asides). We don’t talk about the English language itself as a “he” or a “she”, do we? It’s an “it”. Yet that doesn’t stop some people from talking about it in decidedly feminine terms.
For example, English is sometimes said to be a “daughter” of Anglo-Saxon, French and Latin. Having at least three parents is probably the least of its problems though, because it (She!) is also portrayed as the threatened female, whose “purity” is continually being “violated” or “polluted” by vulgarisms, Americanisms, argot, psychobabble originally from Vienna, technobabble originally from Silicon Valley, newspeak and bureaucratese from Brussels, and amazyballs from Ireland.
All complete claptrap of course, the author concludes. In reality the history of the English language as a she – as a feminine noun, as a daughter of at least two dozen parents according to Melvyn Bragg’s The Adventure of English – is more like the picaresque tale of an errant daughter who grows up to be a maiden pure as the driven slush. Having stumbled out of some distant fen, She has had more gentleman friends than Moll Flanders and Molly Malone put together, and now She runs a highly successful chain of houses of ill repute near several regional airports.
But there’s only so far you can drive a metaphor before it breaks down and you have to call AA Roadwatch (but not while driving).
Anyway, that’s that. She has decided. Enough of the asides. Her novel is a He.
So where were we? The postman rings. Twice. And leaves the story with all the other latest wannabe stories at the top of the literary agents’ slushpile. Or rather the bottom of it. In a large cupboard at the back of the “staff kitchen” (i.e. the small boxroom in the basement with the kettle and the blocked sink).
And there the story sits, twiddling his fictional thumbs in a hot London office for six weeks. Out of contact with his home base, and surely feeling lonely and stir-crazy by now.
Or perhaps he has made new friends among the other manuscripts in the literary agent’s slush pile. “Howrya lads, how’s tricks? I’m from Ireland, divil a bit, it’s my first time, do you come here often? How’s she cuttin’?”
No, the author can’t envisage “our kid” hanging out and swapping tales with his contemporaries, the noir thrillers and chicklit romcoms and self-helps. He’s not the greatest mixer at the best of times, and this ain’t no dinner party.
“Exactly – I told you so,” he’s probably thinking right now. “You packed us off to London, you never call, you never write, and I’m stuck in the dark and gathering dust with nothing to do, no visits, no nothing. No, not even ten minutes with the junior intern from the Post Room, half-tanked after a boozy Friday lunch who’ll do a cursory flick through my opening pages then send a standard ‘Dear John’ rejection email.
“I’m in 24-hour solitary here – and there’s not even been any interrogations yet. They can’t even get that bit right!”
Yes, if this were thirty years ago, he says, he’d be demanding his phone call to his lawyer – Helena Kennedy (before she became a Baroness) – or to Peter Taylor (before the OBE). He would be ringing Fintan O’Toole, he’d be seeking representation from the Irish embassy and a habeas corpus from the European Court of Justice, and Ken (honorary doctorates) Loach would be doing a film about his plight, starring Helen Mirren as the prologue and Danny (Golden Globe and Emmy) De Vito as chapter eight. Despite coming from a republic, her novel has this thing about (Dame) Helen Mirren and the UK’s honours system.
What the author wasn’t to know in all of this was that during those six weeks of incarceration her novel has indeed made friends, or rather one friend: a slightly dodgy-sounding character from another aspiring Irish novel in the next cell in their London hellhole.
Despite being incommunicado the duo have managed to communicate in Morse code. Bashing their enamel plates and cutlery on the primeval heating system. Their initial exchanges are somewhat limited, starting with a simple “SOS” that almost anyone can understand. Taptaptap tap tap tap taptaptap …
But where and how did her novel learn Morse? Not from An Fórsa Cosanta Áitiúil, that’s for sure. Is there someone else in his cell, guiding him, mentoring him and interpreting away at the same time for us, like you sometimes see in movies? Where a few beeps represent a single word, and all words are sent at the same rate, no matter how long the word is? As in …
be-be-beep beep …
beep-be-be beep-beep …
beep beep-be-beep …
be-beep beep beep …
be-be-be-beep beep …
beep be-beep beep …
“bleddy Morse code for …”
Anyway. After a week or so of practice exercises both prisoners become well versed in the language of dots and dashes. The SOS messages in English (and occasionally Irish, for additional security) become longer, more fluid and elaborate – though not quite in the “love you gave me nothing else can save me SOS” league of course.
By week three of this their Morse is soaring and singing and far better than Barrington Pheloung’s. Meanwhile the author’s novel has established that this character in the cell next door, his fellow Morse coder, a young lad from Skibbereen by the name of Derry Flanagan, is a rather feckless and even reckless type.
It transpires that Mr Flanagan started life in a would-be RTÉ radio play, based loosely – and most recklessly some might say – on Tom Barry’s Guerilla Days and Dan Breen’s My Fight for You Know What (recklessly as in there is absolutely no evidence that members of either the 3rd West Cork Flying Column or the 3rd Tipperary Brigade played camogie in the women’s garb of the time “as part of a cunning jailbreak”).
It seems this same Flanagan character has since been recycled in two short stories, a TV script, a novella, half an episode of a sobal dráma teilifíse, four haikus, three drabbles and a page on Pinterest. In other words, he has been around the literary block.
And this Flanagan chap, despite his cavalier attitude in terms of his own character development, could have majored in “Transgender Studies and the Republican Movement” at TCD, UCD or any other one of the many CDs in irish academia today.
In fact he’s quite the authority on the subject of the Ribbonmen, the Buachaillí Bána and rural Ireland’s other leading cross-dressing secret societies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as the considerable proclivities of Dev himself (or Alan Rickman to you and me) in how he’d don the wig, blouse and Laura Ashley skirt to evade the authorities of Perfidious Albion when needs must.
Yes, if this were thirty years ago her novel and Derry Flanagan his new VBF from Skibbereen would be the leading lights on the escape committee and organising the tunnel. If this were FIFTY years ago there would be not one but – yes, to hell with the production budget – four escape tunnels, called “Tom”, “Dick”, “Peter” and “Jane”.
Picture the scene …
(Cue harp arpeggios and “defocus” or “ripple” dissolve to indicate flashback in time)
(Hold on: is there a technical term for this arpeggio-and-ripple effect in a screenplay?)
A daring plan
“I say old chaps,” her novel says, adopting one of those willowy stiff-upper-lippy Pathé News / WWII accents and a thick handlebar moustache. “From now on everything, and I mean EVERYthing, goes through the Escape Committee.
“So we don’t want to be seeing YOU” – he glares at an action thriller near the back of the nissan hut – “or YOU” – he scowls at an English cricketing legend’s ghostwritten memoir (provisional troublesome title: Standing At Leg Slip With My Legs Wide Apart Waiting For A Tickle) – “doing any more solo runs.”
Yes, all the trusty old techniques …
… of using a nail file to cut through the bars of the kitchen window, then climbing onto a roof, crossing a well-lit courtyard, entering a basement, crawling through an air shaft, having time to pop into the prison kitchen to rustle up one of those weird Yotam Ottolenghi recipes that involve locally sourced pomegranate seeds and thinly sliced lotus root, then pretending to be a pair of drunken prison wardens and ending up in a rubbish truck in your white flannels or disguised as Flemish housepainters …
… just aren’t on any more.
“It’s just not cricket,” he continues. “We need to stick together on this one, stay united, as a team, like the plucky little English team in Brazil, maintaining tight discipline at all times. That’s the only way we’re all going to get through this and out of here. Right chaps – and ladies – any questions.”
“Ahem, old bean,” Derry Flanagan pipes up in his fake English accent. “So … no wigs and skirts then?”
Her novel frowns. He holds a finger up for silence – not just to stem the sniggers but as if to say “Sorry old bean, it’s strictly by the book: there will be no more talk of diaphonous blouses or Philip Treacy hats from here on in.”
He taps his pipe on the prison hut’s large Aga stove (a cooker in the distinctive S-Series, available from all good outlets). This is his sign that the next bit he’s about to deliver is dead important – so deadly serious and important that it deserves a seriously rousing soundtrack by Eric Coates or Elmer Bernstein.
“OK chaps – and you too (two) ladies,” he continues. “We can’t just sit here on our backsides doing nothing in Stalag Luft XLVIII. Not when there’s a jolly war on.
“But I know what some of you must be thinking. Some of us might not make it back home. Some may be captured again. Or shot down over the drink. Or put in the recycling box next to the photocopier. But that’s not fighting talk: we’ve a marvellous committee and a terrific team; we can count amongst us the most troublesome escape artists ever held by Jerry; we have a bloody good forger, an excellent manufacturer and a renowned scrounger; we’ve plenty of spunk and pluck; we can do it … ” (Note his intelligent use of semi-colons to separate items in his list – all that time spent in the cooler hasn’t been wasted after all) ” … and by God we’re going to do it, making lots of trouble for Jerry while jolly well doing it!”
“Hoorah!” the other manuscripts say in unison, throwing their caps (and a few fetching wigs) in the air.
Escape from the slush pile
And so it came to pass. The draft novels worked together, as a team, and it was terrifically terrific.
The POWs organised the prison huts into assembly lines. Fake uniforms and documents were manufactured out of the remnants of Red Cross parcels, under the supervision of two spy novels from the Home Counties – and with the able assistance of a children’s adventure story (a ripping yarn set in the Lake District and involving lashings of ginger beer).
Flanagan and a debut poetry collection from Nuneaton also played a blinder. They assembled a rather splendid gospel choir to practise each morning, as a diversionary tactic and to camouflage the sound of digging. (So good were the singers that they were later championed by David Walliams and Amanda Holden in the regional heats of Britain’s Got Tons and Tons of Talent.)
Meanwhile the dirt from the tunnels was scattered around the exercise yard, using an ingenious trouser device that was ingeniously devised by a historical romp from Basingstoke and a gardening manual from Giggleswick. By a stroke of luck the romp happened to include several characters who’d worked on barrage balloons in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.
Finally one of the tunnels (“Jane”) reached the outer perimeter. The wall was well over twenty feet thick and almost as high – and Jane was still more than thirty yards away from the safety of the treeline of neatly spaced Norway spruce. A further complication was that the imperial Brits were still using feet and yards while everyone else on the team was working away in metric.
But nothing could defeat the make-do ingenuity and bulldog spirit of the gallant men (and the two ladies) on their multinational escape committee.
One of them – perhaps it was the Scottish eBook tentatively titled Responsive Web Design For Dummies – borrowed various components from the “Science Fiction & Fantasy”, “Alternative History” and “Graphic Novels” departments to cobble together a makeshift radio transmitter.
Prison guards were bribed for batteries (“Lookit Hans, it’s for my iPad, right?”), lookouts were posted, the tenors in the gospel choir belted out You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman and their secret radio set was secretly cranked up for the first secret time.
Without further ado a short message was relayed to the Special Operations Executive (tagline: “Setting Europe Ablaze, Every Little Helps”). The gist of this message was …
I say, we’re the Escape Committee at Stalag Luft LXXVIII – not the other lot but the Official Committee this time – and we need you boys to do a daring air raid and blow up our outer perimeter wall tonight at the following GPS co-ordinates on Google Maps. It’s at least twenty feet thick, not sure what that is in metres but anyway there’s a bloody great moat around it – and a torpedo net. Suggest you give Sir Barnes Wallis a tinkle. Roger Charlie Foxtrot over and out.
That night, at exactly oh-two-hundred hours, in a most audacious low-altitude sortie, the Dam Busters came to blow up the wall. It was touch and go at first, as the lead bomber lost an engine. That bomber was always losing one of its engines.
But just as all submarines can always go a good bit past their maximum depth for a few nailbiting minutes, in the end the raid was a total success: all 1,832 of the prisoners escaped – including, ironically, a manuscript called The Other Great Escape – and when one watchtower finally woke up and opened up (in bloody typical Hollywood fashion its heavy machine guns could be fired constantly with no fear of overheating or damaging the barrel) every last man and two women managed to dodge the bullets as they (the bullets not the escapees) ricocheted noisily, as in any proper decent war movie.
To add to the havoc, our chaps had left a bloody great timebomb in the camp. The timer device came from a Samsung microwave oven in Hut Six. The bomb had a big, blinking, beeping timer display, showing how much time remained. When the explosion did finally happen (exactly two seconds after the timer reached 00:00 and the microwave oven beeped), everything went into slow motion, by which time the two prison guards who discover all this were attempting to scarper away in even slower motion from the point of detonation so the blast sent them flying, again in slo-mo, right towards the camera. And you couldn’t even see the stuntmen’s wires.
On top of all this, two of the Dam Busters’ bouncing bombs went astray but managed to put the neighbouring heavy water (deuterium oxide) plant and the Large Hadron Collider out of action, and thanks to “Operation Slushpiles” the prison guards and the Daleks were thrown into complete confusion for weeks to come.
A fortnight later, after the theft of a Harley Davidson and an ancient Sopwith Camel – both of which ran out of fuel of course – and after distributing his large supply of Hershey Bars to children and nylons and cigarettes to the ladies as he made his way through the occupied territories, our man was on the Holyhead steam packet heading back to Ireland via Sweden.
The author expected him to have lost considerable weight, yet her novel was none the worse for wear and no pages were missing. While he clearly hadn’t been thumbed through or properly interrogated while on the slushpile, he now had several outstanding scars, a large handlebar moustache, a dodgy English accent and Douglas Bader’s legs.
He suggested that she might be able to sell them for a few quid on eBay (the legs and moustache that is, not the outstanding scars or accent of course).
Meanwhile she was thinking: isn’t it high time to start looking for another literary agent? Or one of those writing competitions where they charge you a small fortune to enter and you have to sign away your copyright and your body to medical science?
And where the feck did all them Daleks come from?
“Well feck that for a bunch of cowboys,” he said. “What next?”
“Er, um, I was thinking of parachuting you into Smashwords … “