A message from a friend: “I need to ask a favour. Do you happen to have a novel I could maybe pass off as my own? I need it, like, yesterday. Don’t ask.”
I set the phone down on the table with a clunk, and then paced the tiny room, stopping at the window to watch people go by. They hurried along the street in their winter coats, sticking close to the imposing concrete buildings that represented an architectural style synonymous with the bad old times. Of course, some people said that The Bad Old Times were not yet over — myself, I was undecided and thought of these as The Uncertain Times.
I tapped out a reply and sent it, and my friend in turn replied a few minutes later with the suggestion that we rendezvous at his flat in half an hour. This did not leave me much time so I packed my phone into a rucksack, pulled on my coat and left the apartment.
I had kept a novel sewn into the back of my coat for several years, ever since the height of the bad old times, when it began to seem like a good idea to have a contingency plan. My idea was that if I was ever in such a position that I was forced to flee the country it would be good to have something to take with me, something with which to launch a new career.
During the bad old times we had learned to watch our backs, and as I rode the tram I could not shake the feeling that my fellow passengers were all staring at my coat, as if they somehow knew about the novel hidden within. To distract myself I started to imagine what would happen at the rendezvous. I would tease my friend on not having finished his novel in time. He would blush and pat me on the back. We would cut open the lining of my coat and take out my novel.
My friend did not keep his writing in the back of his coat — he was a conventional novelist. I had a coat, he had a publishing deal. There was big money in getting your novels published — lots of people in other countries wanted to know what it had been like here in the bad old times. My friend’s problem was that he had started spending more and more time reading the novels that we had been unable to get hold of during the bad old times, novels from the outside world. The more time he spent reading, the less he spent writing and when he did write, he was so heavily influenced by his reading that he could not see his own work as anything other than useless pastiche. The end result being that he had been forced to ask a favour of a less conventional novelist, one who was not sure of what they should do with their work in such uncertain times.
I got off the tram and made the five minute walk to my friend’s apartment block. He lived in an area where the steps to the front door were not crumbling at the edges – a sign of the benefit of receiving generous advances for your work.
I made my way up to the fourth floor and was surprised to find his door already open.
On hearing voices from within the apartment, I stopped and listened — a habit that was a hangover from the bad old times.
“It’s on its way now, my proofreader will be here any minute,” I heard his friend say.
“He’d better be,” said a second man, who I took to be the publisher. “The deadline was yesterday.” His tone was not friendly.
I assumed that I was ‘the proofreader’ come to deliver the manuscript and, thinking that I should check what I was getting myself into before I got myself into it, crept slowly and quietly into the apartment and edged towards the living room. I peered around the door and saw what I saw.
My friend was sitting on the sofa. His publisher was standing by the window. They were both holding guns. They were not actually pointing them at each other — but this did not make me feel any better about the situation. Call me unconventional, but I have always felt a little nervous around loaded weapons.
I tried to quiet my breathing so that I could listen in to their conversation without being detected, and possibly shot.
“Where is he, then? Come on, you’re running out of time.”
“I don’t know. Maybe he got delayed.”
“I’m serious, he better be here soon.”
“Hey, watch where you point that thing.”
I listened with a rising sense of dread, feeling less and less uncertain about these times. Feeling as if I had seen and heard enough.
“I’m serious, we pay you a lot of money.”
“I know. He’ll be here.”
I paused for a moment, reminded of the bad old times when it was not possible to step in and explain things. When you just had to make a decision and act.
And then I made my exit from the situation slowly, quietly and carefully. The two men carried on talking, covering any sounds my footsteps were making. One of them had been my friend once, but there was nothing here for me in these times.
It seemed like a good time to put my original plan into action so I caught the tram back to my apartment, bundled some clothes and personal items into my rucksack and was back on the tram before anything else could happen. From the city centre I caught a train heading for the border and once I was far enough away I decided to send my friend another message.
“I have to go elsewhere. None of this has anything to do with me now. I’m very sorry.” The end.
Ric Carter is a Guernsey-based short story writer.