CHEKHOV’S GUN

chekovsgun

Chekhov’s Gun by Chris Green

Having signed off my latest story, I am on the lookout for characters for a new one. A writer’s mind is never idle. Even though Jodie and I are on holiday in a small seaside town in Norfolk to catch up with her family, the search is on. In the shop next to our cottage, the fishmonger gets up to take the delivery of fresh fish at about six thirty and starts throwing crates around the yard, waking us up. He has a weather-beaten face with deep creases from years of hard fishmongering. But, I have my readers to consider. A story about a small town retailer would not be in keeping with the Philip C. Dark brand. My stories usually revolve around time shifts or altered states, not matters you could ease into a tale about the price of fish.

John, the ageing caretaker for our group of holiday-lets comes by to see how Jodie and I are getting on with the cooker. He says that it has been on the blink. On the blink? We hadn’t realised it worked at all. It’s an odd looking piece of kit. Perhaps the newer models haven’t reached these remote parts yet.

It’s the timer that’s broken,’ John the Caretaker says. ‘You have to turn it this way and then that way to get it working.’

John is ineffectual, apologetic. He looks as if he has been trying to become invisible all his life, not the kind of character you could fit into a speculative fiction or a psychodrama.

The couple in the holiday apartment across from us with the two point three children, the Debenhams shopping bags and the Ford Focus are also non-starters. How could you create intrigue in a story about them? Ditch-water and dull are words that spring to mind.

Lord Nelson grew up around these parts and as we make our way through the town, everywhere we look, we are reminded of this. Even though the nearest harbour is a few miles down the coast, here they are proud of North Norfolk’s maritime heritage. We have a cup of tea and a light breakfast in the Trafalgar Café on the seafront. As they throw chewed balls for their excited dogs, the early morning dog walkers down on the shingle beach look exactly like early morning dog walkers on shingle beaches look the world over. Nothing for the story there. Neither do the ramblers on the coastal path provide inspiration. In their expensive padded waterproof jackets screaming with logos and identical uncomfortable-looking heavy boots, they are clones of one another. It probably isn’t their fault. Years of relentless leisure-wear promotion featuring sporty looking models in expensive padded waterproof jackets screaming with logos and uncomfortable-looking walking boots has put pressure on them to conform to such rigid sartorial uniformity.

The man in the brown SuperDry windcheater looking out to sea with snazzy binoculars regales us with a story about two Polish men who drowned out there because they were calling out for help in Polish. He says that the onlookers did not understand that they were in trouble. They thought they were just waving to them and started waving back. Perhaps I could save this anecdote up for later. Meanwhile, I need a punchy opening and some quirky characters.

While the fiction writer must recognise the importance of Chekhovian realism, he must also be aware that nobody wants to read about someone whose actions are predictable. A successful character in fiction requires an element of contradiction. Oxymoronic inconsistencies are necessary to create unforgettable characters, the honest thief, the philanthropic murderer, the frightened hero. When drawing a character in a short story it is vital to establish their complexity. You must do so quickly. What better way to hint at latent duality than in the initial description?

Names are often a good starting point. A well-chosen name can go a long way to suggesting the type of person, the type of story or even the content of the story itself. Dickens understood the importance of names. Think Ebeneezer Scrooge, Wackford Squeers, Harold Skinpole. As does Martin Amis. Think Clint Smoker, Spunk Davis, Lionel Asbo. I have a long list of names lined up for possible characters. Chadwick Dial, Guy Bloke, Lars Wimoweh ………

The old man with the big green beard walking down Station Road has potential. Most men around his age in these parts do not have big green beards. I’ll pencil him in as Tom Esso. Tom Esso will have an unusual background. A circus performer, maybe, or wayward scientist or necromancer. Perhaps he had an illustrious career as a Naval spy in war-torn Asia before double-crossing the wrong people. Perhaps he lives in a yurt or is Lord Lucan. But this is to jump ahead. He could be any of these. There is no point in getting into plot detail yet but I will keep Tom Esso in mind.

While Jodie is doing the rounds of the shops with her sister, I find myself chatting to the man pushing the yellow cart along the sands. He is collecting debris that he finds on the beach. Amongst the assorted food wrappers, he has miscellaneous discarded plastic, several umbrellas, a raincoat, a dead seabird and a Nike trainer in his cart. He says he goes back and forth along the three mile stretch twice a day. I tell him I’m Philip C. Dark, the writer. He says he has not heard of me. I tell him not to worry, not many people have.

I’m looking for some inspiration for a story,’ I say. ‘I bet you meet some odd characters around here.’

I certainly do,’ he says. ‘There’s a fellow who comes down early in the morning in Naval uniform to practice his martial arts. First time I saw him waving his sword about, I was a little worried. But, he’s OK. Is that the sort of thing you are looking for?’

Uhu,’ I say, making a mental note.

And there’s the old lady with the leopard print coat who comes down, to feed the dolphins,’ he says. ‘Except that there aren’t any dolphins. She has bats in the belfry but I think she’s safe.’

Uhu.’

Oh, and there’s a couple of weird musicians, buskers I suppose you’d call them. They come down on a Sunday afternoon. The fellow plays the bagpipes and the woman plays the sitar.’

Bagpipes and sitar,’ I say. ‘That’s an odd combination.’

They have a raccoon, at least that’s what I think it is,’ he says. ‘It dances to the music.’

That sounds like a bit of a tourist attraction,’ I say. ‘I expect it draws the crowds.’

Local people seem to make an effort to stay away,’ he says ‘Round here, you see, folks mostly like sea shanties. Now, if they were to play some sea shanties, they’d be in business.’

Perhaps it’s hard to play sea shanties on bagpipes and sitar,’ I say, as I try to visualise the image of Rob Roy and Rani struggling to adapt their musical style to the work songs of merchant sailing vessels. Meanwhile, I am already writing the duo into my narrative.

Perhaps you could take a didgeridoo along,’ he says, with a straight face so I can’t tell whether he is joking or not. ‘I noticed they have a couple of nice didgeridoos for sale in the window of the charity shop up the road.’

The idea of the trio does add to the possibilities. I passed the British Heart Foundation shop on the way down and, although I can’t explain why I was tempted then to pop in and buy one of the didgeridoos.

Jodie and I will come down and have a listen to them tomorrow,’ I say. ‘We’ll bring the family.’

So, I have Tom Esso, Rob Roy and Rani in the bag. Between them they can add colour to the story but I am still looking a central plot to tack the pieces on to. I need an apocalyptic theme, an eerie backdrop, an unexplained emergency, the trademark elements of the Philip C. Dark brand. Where will I find the Hitchcockian McGuffin, the psychological uncertainty, the unexpected twist?

We have been to visit Jodie’s family in these parts many times now and the streets of the small seaside town are familiar. I make my way back to our cottage via British Heart Foundation taking a short cut off Nelson Street but unfortunately, they have sold both the didgeridoos.

A lady came in earlier and bought them both,’ the Saturday girl says. ‘She said they were for a present for her husband.’

Could it be Jodie, I wonder as I start to wander back to the cottage? Might I have mentioned the didgeridoos to her earlier?

As as I make my way along Victory Street towards Temeraire Terrace, everything that has over the years become so familiar begins to look different. There is little traffic on the roads and what cars there are all seem to be vintage models. Is there a classic car rally, perhaps? I haven’t seen one advertised. The health food shop has disappeared, along with the electrical store with the display of digital devices in the window. The cinema has changed its name and is now showing a Greta Garbo film. There are a number of horse drawn vehicles on the approach to the farriers. Farriers? There wasn’t a farriers here when I passed by earlier. And none of those game birds were hanging up outside Biggs Butchers.

When I arrive at the cottage, the door is open. Inside, John the Caretaker is fiddling with the controls on the cooker. He appears to be in a panic.

The timer is playing up big time,’ he says. ‘It seems to have gone back to 1935.’

Epilogue:

To paraphrase the principle of Chekhov’s Gun:

A writer should not introduce a dodgy cooker in the opening paragraphs of a story unless it is going to be used to to good effect in the story.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

Time and Tide Wait for Norman

timeandtidewaitfornorman2019

Time and Tide Wait for Norman by Chris Green

Good Lord! There’s Liz Boa. I haven’t seen Liz since…… Well, since she left Grace and Favour, where we both worked. That must have been, what? Ten years ago? She went off to live in Ireland. Skibbereen, I believe. Strange choice, I thought but her partner was a psychologist. Or was it a ventriloquist? Anyway, something like that and he had a job over there. …… No. Wait. He was in shipping and it was a three-year contract in Cork. That was it. …….. There was always something simmering beneath the surface between Liz and I. Given different circumstances, who knows what might have happened? We came close on one or two occasions and even met up after work but we held back because we were both married.

What’s Liz doing here in Newton Abbot? She has looked after herself well. She doesn’t look a day older than when I last saw her. She still looks about thirty nine. She’s moving around the platform now. She hasn’t seen me waving. She doesn’t appear to be getting on this train. Should I get off and have a word with her? I could always catch the next train to Plymouth. There are plenty of them going that way and my appointment with the publisher isn’t until eleven thirty.

Before I have chance to act on my impulse, Liz boards the train that has just pulled in on the adjacent platform. She is heading north. I am still speculating what she might be doing in these parts when I hear a familiar voice beside me.

Hello Phil,’ the voice says.

It takes me a while to realise that the figure in the crimson Paul Smith suit is Andy Mann. In fact, in the end, he needs to prompt me. Andy and I used to play Sunday league football together many years ago. This, of course, was before I became lazy and my girth started to broaden. And, as you do, Andy and I lost touch. What is he doing here? When I moved down here to Devon, I hadn’t expected to see anyone from back home. After all, Scarborough is three hundred miles away. First Liz and now Andy. What are the odds?

Hi Andy,’ I manage to say finally as he sits himself down beside me. ‘I didn’t recognise you for a minute.’

I haven’t changed that much, have I, Phil?’ he laughs.

I don’t quite know how to respond to this. The thing is, that apart from the Paul Smith suit, Andy still looks the same as he did back then. Not a day older. Well, perhaps a day or two, but he certainly looks trim. He has obviously been eating his five a day and getting to the gym regularly. Ten a day, maybe along with a morning swim and an evening run. Or perhaps he has made a pact with the Devil.

No,’ I say. ‘You are looking well, Andy.’

Well, I do my best. None of us is getting any younger, Phil. Still working on that newspaper, are you?’

I have to think hard to bring to mind what he might be referring to. I conclude he must mean the Whitby Gazette. I was a sub-editor there for a short while. Now, that was a long time ago. Nineteen eighties, I’d say. Surely I’ve seen Andy more recently than this.

I’m a writer now,’ I say. ‘Short stories and novels. My pen name is Philip C. Dark. You may have come across something of mine. Time and Tide Wait for Norman, my last collection of short stories sold well. In fact, I’m just off to see my publisher now to discuss some amendments to my new novel, The Knee of the Idle.’

Hey! A novelist. That’s fantastic, Phil,’ Andy says. ‘I’m pleased for you. You’re not on holiday down here, then?’

No, Andy. Shelley and I moved down earlier this year,’ I say. ‘We live in Topsham. By the river.’

Good Lord! That’s just up the road from me. I’m in Exeter. We’ll have to meet up for a drink. I’ve just done some business in Newton Abbot and now I’m just off to Totnes to look at a car. A vintage Apparition. From a fellow from up north, as it happens. Brent Struggler.’

Brent Struggler! Do you know what? Brent Struggler was the name of the guy that I bought my Marauder from. Back in Scarborough. It must be the same guy. There can’t be two car salesmen with a name like Brent Struggler.’

I wasn’t aware of him until I moved down south. But I’m sure you are right. Brent is definitely from those parts. I’ve spoken to him a few times now. It’s a small world Phil, isn’t it?’

How long have you been living down here then, Andy?’

I came down about seven or eight years ago. I had a trial with Exeter City.’

Seven or eight years ago?’

About that, yes. It was just coming up to the General Election. 2010, it would have been.’

I start to do the maths. Andy Mann would have been forty something at the time of the trial. I realise Exeter City are in one of the lower leagues and not able to recruit young talent so easily, but still ……

Perhaps Andy has sold his soul to the Devil after all. I feel suddenly strange being in his company. I avoid his question about whether he is a character in any of my books. I imagine he is joking, but with a writer, the familiar does have a habit of slipping into the narrative now and then. I continue to make superficial conversation with Andy about the issues of the day while I try in vain to come up with a plausible explanation for the apparent slippages in reality. I can’t concentrate on anything he is saying. Words bounce around in my head and rogue thoughts float in and out. I feel light-headed. As we pull into Totnes station, I feel pleased that he is getting off the train. I offer him one of my business cards. With an old friend, it seems like the polite thing to do. He takes it, shakes me firmly by the hand and tells me he will call me. He will take me for a night out, he says, in Exeter.

……………………………………………………

I think the train may have come off the track once or twice between Totnes and Plymouth or taken an unscheduled detour because when I arrive, it is half-past three in the afternoon. Perhaps I fell asleep and have been going backwards and forwards on the same train for several hours. Time is all over the place and no-one at the station seems to be able to explain what might have happened. They just look at me as if I am mad. My brain is certainly doing somersaults, my clothes are a mess and I seem to have lost my phone. I’m not sure what to do but I don’t want to get back on a train so I start walking into the city looking for a place to have a snack and a cup of tea.

I went to Rex Cardiff’s funeral, so I know that he is dead. I listened while his close friends delivered heartfelt eulogies. I watched the pallbearers lower the wooden box into the ground. So, what is he doing here at Costa Coffee in Plymouth? Living and breathing. And by the looks of it enjoying a double espresso. I do a double take but there’s no mistaking Rex. He has looked exactly the same since the first time I met him. He has the same 1970s haircut, the same round glasses and the same brown leather bush hat. Those are probably the same pair of shiny looking skin-tight jeans from back then too. And, of course, he has the ubiquitous Sainsburys carrier bags, three of them inside one another apparently, to carry around his hip flask, his paperback books, his soldering irons and his Tom Waits album. It is Rex Cardiff’s voice, though, as he holds forth about the history of the Isle of Wight Festival, that really gives the game away. That strident articulation of flowery language that he is using to familiarise the unsuspecting stranger in Costa with one of his favourite topics. His BBC voice has the faintest trace of Scouse vowels to dampen it, the legacy of his three years at Liverpool University reading Oceanography, he once explained. Rex was the inspiration for Reuben, a character in my short story, Wolf in Cheap Clothing. I can see the stranger is feigning interest in Rex’s monologue but at the same time seems anxious to get away. I want to get away too.

Seeing Liz Boa and Andy Mann, unexpectedly, out of context and untainted by the passing of time was, to say the least, unnerving. Seeing Rex, long since dead and buried, is in all its implications, terrifying. As my teacup crashes to the floor, I am conscious that my body is making involuntary movements. People are staring at me. How can they know what is wrong? How can they know that the man with the loud voice three tables down is supposed to be dead? His voice is echoing around the walls. The room is spinning. The floor is where the ceiling should be. I feel I am going to pass out.

I find myself on a bench on Plymouth Hoe near the imposing statue of Sir Francis Drake, looking out onto the Sound. How long have I been here, staring into the beyond, I wonder? The water in the historic bay, silver against the stacked cumulostratus, seems still as if there is no tide in these parts. The ship on the horizon, moving slowly from side to side, is little more than a dab of battleship grey. There is barely a sound, save for the blackbird’s song from a nearby tree. This situation should be calming but I can’t shake off the feeling that something is very wrong. How can I dismiss the unlikely series of events leading up to this? Is there a common thread that links the sightings of Liz, Andy and Rex? And where does Brent Struggler fit in?

You only have yourself to blame for your …….. fragile state of mind,’ says a tall man, who appears out of nowhere. ‘What goes around, comes around.’

I don’t recognise him. Yet, at the same time, something about him is disturbingly familiar. He wears a scuzzy seersucker suit several sizes too small. He has an unsightly scar leading up to his forehead. He walks with a limp and wears an eye-patch over his left eye. Where, I wonder, can I possibly know this reprobate from?

You don’t appear to know who I am, do you, Phil?’ he says. ‘But, you should. Oh yes! You definitely should. You should know me very well.’

I have the feeling that I ought to recognise you,’ I say. ‘But, I can’t for the life of me work out where from.’

You should know me like a father knows a son,’ he continues. ‘I’m practically family. After all, Philip, I am your brainchild.’

N n n norman,’ I stammer. ‘You’re Norman? From my story, Time and Tide Wait for Norman?’

Bravo, Philip! You’ve got it at last. Norman Norman. Your very own creation. I’m like flesh and blood and that should have counted for something. But, look how you treated me. Take a good look at me, will you? You made me half-blind. You gave me a limp. You made me wear these ill-fitting clothes. You gave me these hideous features. All in the interest of a story. Not only that but your title, the one that you thought was so clever, was misleading. Time and tide didn’t wait for me, did they, Philip? You subjected me to humiliation after humiliation. You were merciless. Wouldn’t you agree that it is payback time?’

I am scared. What’s written on the page should stay on the page and not leap into the everyday. I look anxiously around me, wondering what is going to happen next. It is then that I spot the brightly coloured Wessex Theatre Company van.

It takes me a few more moments to register that this is the direction that Norman came from. Didn’t I also see the same van earlier on my way to Costa Coffee? And somewhere else too? Might it have been Newton Abbot? Suddenly, everything seems to fall into place. I only wish I had realised at the time that Liz, Andy and Rex were actors too. Surely, I should have picked up on the niggling little things about them that did not add up. The whole business appears to have all been an elaborate set-up. I think I know who is behind it. If you are ever invited to be the guest reviewer of the literary pages of the Wessex Courier, be careful what you say about other writers’ works. Some, it seems, will stop at nothing to exact their revenge.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved