I just had to get that phrase in, for Muriel.
My story, the one in which, to Muriel’s dismay, a lady gets laid by an Archangel – was written earlier this year. I happened to catch the repeat of one of the initial End of Story programmes on BBC2. Eight well-known authors, Ian Rankin, Sue Townsend, Fay Weldon, Marian Keyes, Joanna Harris, Shaun Hutson, Ed McBain and Alexei Sayle, had each contributed the first half of a short story. Amateur writers were being asked to get hold of a copy of the little orange and white EOS book – a kind of treasure hunt – or download the half-stories from the website, select one and send in an ending for it.
I must admit I didn’t read the small print, either on the website or in the orange and white book. Had I done so I might not have spent that warm Saturday afternoon out on my weedy little patio, scribbling, a mug of cooling tea beside me on the roof of the cat-kennel, my A4 paper and my pot of pencils (it’s a writer thing – buying pencils, and then more pencils, and then the pencils not being quite the right pencils because somehow they’re not new enough or sharp enough pencils – or maybe it’s just my private little fetish!) I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for. I couldn’t resist. A half-finished story is an abomination, like a cut without a plaster or a half-eaten bar of chocolate.
I decided on the Sue Townsend story, The Angel, in which a rather sad shoe-shop manageress – in Sue’s story she doesn’t have a name, but I call her Dorothy – decides she’d rather not live to be sixty. It’s her fifty-ninth birthday and nobody knows or cares; she’s grey and fat, her husband has long since deserted her, her pension has been stolen by Robert Maxwell. That sort of stuff.
A man comes into her shop just before closing time and tries on a pair of shoes. He seems unwell; she only wants to get rid of him. But in the course of their conversation he mentions a contract killing he has witnessed, and how much such an execution would be likely to cost, for an unimportant person, in the provinces. Dorothy realises that she has the price of her own death. Not exactly a joyous beginning, but the only one I felt I could do something with.
There is a pub called The Angel in Sue’s part of the story but I decided that, rather than go for the obvious, the angel would in fact be the poor chap who bought the brogues from our heroine. Not a contract killer as she initially assumes, but Azrael, the Angel of Death, whom she has unwittingly summoned. After all, once an Archangel gets into the mix, the sky’s the limit!
If the above sounds ridiculous to you now, you should try explaining it to the unblinking eye of a TV camera, and then repeating it, take after take. By the seventh or eighth repetition it sounds like gibberish. Add to that the fact that the TV camera and other equipment is crammed into your tiny ‘galley-style’ kitchen, and crouched behind the camera are the lady director and a cameraman, their bottoms squashed against the gas cooker, instructing you to ‘include the question in your answer’ and ‘talk to the hand’ (yes, people really do say that). They dragged a blue potted hydrangea through the house to the front, where it was to lend a sort of country house air to my bijou mid-terrace. When they had gone I dragged it back again, hoovered up the trail of dirt and leaves and spent some time dismantling elaborate spirals of well-thumbed intellectual-looking paperbacks and returning them to the bookcase.
(I’m afraid that last bit was me – I just thought it’d look a bit more, you know, J K Rowling.)
I thought that was it, but no. Some weeks later I was whisked up to London in what seemed to me like a chauffeur-driven limousine – but then I can’t tell a Mini from a Mercedes. We, the six finalists, were about to be made up for the first time. As the afternoon progressed I became increasingly sweaty and beige as layer after layer of the stuff was trowelled on. My hair, so carefully tied up and smoothed, began to fall down. I looked like a bird’s nest – twigs all over the place.
The film crew were being mysterious about what was going to happen next. We tried nobbling a nice young research assistant. ‘Can’t say,’ she said, ‘more than my job’s worth.’ Eventually we were driven across London to a film studio. I imagined Hollywood, or at any rate Pebble Mill, but the studio turned out to be on an industrial estate. You might have mistaken it for a carpet warehouse, or something to do with plumbing. Inside it was black, all black. We marched in, single file, with numbers One to Six pinned to our chests. Of course I had to be number One, so whatever was going to happen would happen to me first.
The mystery was soon solved. We found ourselves being filmed, sitting in a semi-circle, in the dark, watching a film of the judges – a panel of celebrities. I regret to say that the only celebrity I actually recognised was Muriel Gray, who used to be a presenter on The Tube back in the eighties. They discussed our stories, one at a time. Mine first.
The camera people seemed to be doing close-ups on our faces. I was determined not to cry, whatever the judges said, and I didn’t. But they were so horrible – not just about my precious story but about everyone else’s in turn. And they laughed, they mocked, they crowed – or that’s how it seemed at the time. They were just so enjoying pulling our poor little efforts to pieces.
Of course, in the overall scheme of things it wasn’t important. ‘Only a game show.’ Constructive criticism, as they kept reminding us, is part of a professional author’s life. My reactions were strange, though. As the lights went up I seemed to have regressed. I was nine, or ten. I never asked to be a professional writer; I just finished a stupid story off one sunny afternoon. Why are they picking on me?
They seemed to keep harping on about one particular sentence. A fifty-nine year old woman, they said, would definitely not have said, as my heroine did:
‘And that’s how it happened, in a roundabout way, that I got laid by an Archangel, his new black brogues under the bed.’
This one sentence was to haunt me through the rest of the filming. It was pontificated on by the panel of experts in London (oh yes, there was even more excruciating stuff to come) and even disapproved of by Sue Townsend when we went to Leicester to meet her. Sue was nice; very funny and helpful in spite of not liking – well, you know.
I argued for ‘get laid by an Archangel’ all the way through. I became obsessed, paranoid even. I liked that phrase. Was I going to reach a point soon when I could no longer think, or write, ‘laid by’? Was I going to become all homemade-scones-and-knitting-patterns?
But I capitulated in the end. Ground down, defeated and afraid of being seen on national TV as an arrogant spoilsport, unable to accept the constructive criticism that all professional writers must expect, etc, I finally conceded to Sue that ‘laid by’ had to be wrong, if so many people thought so. As it happened, I needn’t have worn myself out in defence of middle-aged ladies, gutter slang, archangels, Alice Cooper or whatever it was that I was wittering on about, because the whole lot disappeared in the edit.
I didn’t win. Fortunately there wasn’t a second and third place. ‘You’re all winners,’ they said, ‘for having got this far out of over 17,000 entries.’ Rubbish. I can tell you that not winning still feels exactly like losing, even if you are one of 6 in 17,000.
A few days BBC Scotland very kindly sent me a Writers & Artists Yearbook 2005 together with a copy of the original reader’s report by a lady called Paula Johnson – the report that got me onto the shortlist in the first place. And Paula Johnson – the lovely Paula Johnson – actually approved of ‘laid by an archangel’. She even quoted it to illustrate the fact that my heroine’s voice is ‘well established throughout’.
So yah-boo-sucks to you, Muriel Gray.
[An abridgement of an article about the writing of The Angel and what it was like to be a TV finalist, first published in the January/February 2005 issue of New Books Magazine. Competition entrants were asked to finish a story, the first half of which had been written by a famous author. I had chosen to write an ending to a first-half provided by the late Sue Townsend, of ‘Adrian Mole’ fame.
Only recently did I realise that, with a couple of minor adjustments, my half-story was in fact a short story in its own right. If you desperately want to read it, it’s called The Angel and it’s here. I might write it differently now, and it might be better. Then again, I probably wouldn’t, and it might not.]