When Tony Bell retired at 57, he told his wife Simone that at last he’d be able to focus on the things he really cared about. She thought this meant Sudoku, county cricket, trad jazz, Radio 4 and the Battle for the Atlantic. She had no idea that he meant writing fiction.
Tony had a well-paid job as the Business Development Manager for a company that provided disposable self-testing drug kits to governments, prisons and sporting bodies. But it was a long time since he’d had any enthusiasm for what he did, and for several years now his working life had been a tedious round of calls to make and meetings to be seen at. Tucked in his little office on the sixth floor, Tony had spent much of his time discreetly plotting his exit.
He was good with money, good with figures. Early in his career, Tony had been in at the start of a PR agency that specialised in controversial clients, back in the brief window of time when being in PR was vaguely sexy and new.
The agency had quickly grown because of its willingness to take on high-paying if ethically dubious corporations (and even countries, in one case). An international media network had bought it out, and Tony had been a semi-willing casualty of the transition. The sale of his shares had given him some money to play with, and ever since, his canny investment portfolio had shown steady and gratifying growth.
His wife Simone had begun by admiring Tony’s way with money. Like him she was a careful, even frugal spender; both of them made sandwiches every day for work and always looked for voucher codes before they bought anything online. But over time, she became increasingly frustrated by Tony’s reluctance to do anything with their burgeoning nest egg. He baulked at holidays that went beyond Europe, preferred to fix up the rooms they had rather than extend or remodel, and insisted that owning two cars – despite the obvious conveniences to them both – was not fair to the planet.
What then was the money for? Though he had not realised it consciously, Tony saw now that he had been saving up to buy his way out of work. Early retirement – a dream he could now make real.
* * *
In the weeks and months before he left work, Tony talked to several friends and acquaintances about the transition from working life to retirement.
He heard tales of men who went off the rails, driving their wives crazy by hanging round the house under their feet all day, messing up their well-established domestic systems and routines. He heard of men who’d taken the plunge early without realising they couldn’t really afford to, and now spent their time reading the papers in the library and cadging the free-coffee stickers from better-off customers in MacDonald’s.
Then there were the smug ones, the ones who said they things like I’m busier than ever! and I don’t know how I ever made time for work! These ones painted, they ran reading groups, they campaigned to save hospitals, they raved about the University of the Third Age. I only wish I’d done it years ago! they invariably said.
Then there were the lonely ones, the ones who had enough income but had lost their partner or had little family around them. They told him to get Sky Sports.
Tony took from all this the idea that retirement didn’t really change you so much as show you who you’d really been all along. If you were a busy, social, life-loving sort of person, you’d have that kind of retirement. If you’d been on the run from your own life for years, retirement wold find you out. The thought alarmed him.
* * *
‘Time is our element – it’s the very air we breathe – but how often do we feel we are actually in time?’ intoned the contract Christian on Thought for the Day (the one thing on Radio 4 Tony used to hate but which he now listened to religiously.)
‘We talk of making time, killing time, losing time, saving time. But these are all reflections about time made from the outside. Lord, just for today, help me to relish and revere the sacrament of the present moment. Help me to live in your time. Just now. Just for Today.’
‘And this is indeeeed Today you’re listening to right now,’ said John Humphrys with a twinkle. ‘It’s very nearly a quarter past eight.’
And so to writing. Tony had always wanted to write, he just hadn’t thought about it for years. He had spent his working life saving up money to buy time. But without any idea of what to fill that time with, the exercise was futile.
But the time to write was now. It was, ahem, write now. It had always been now. While he was working, he should have been getting up early to scribble stories like Mary Wesley and Fay Weldon had done, jotting down dialogue in between ironing shirts like JG Ballard, or sneaking down lines of verse in his corner office, like that mad American poet they’d mentioned on Poetry Please the other night. Instead of checking his portfolio and plotting his escape, he could have been plotting his novel.
But perhaps some of the other clichés about time could still save him.
Better later than never. All’s well that ends well.
No time like the present.
* * *
Into the planning of his retirement – or what he liked to call his rewrite-ment – Tony threw all the very considerable strategic and time management skills at his disposal. He drew up a fiction-writing calendar populated with realistic milestones and solid deliverables. He factored in time for planning and structure, background inspiration, note-taking and drafting. And he stuck it to all, he delivered. He wrote like a man whose very life depended on it.
He even gave up The Archers.
Tony had always wanted to write a novel, but his idea was to build up to that daunting challenge by spending a year writing short stories. To give him extra impetus, he chose a short story competition to write for every month. His task was to hit the competition deadline every time, and by the end of the year he’d have a bank of a good dozen stories – any one of which might prove to be the kernel of something more substantial.
Stories began to fly from Tony’s PC. There were thinly disguised tales of men who didn’t know what to do with their retirement, scathingly satirical parodies of office life (often set in a vaguely pharmaceutical sort of workplace), and a historically scrupulous account of a submarine attack on a convoy of merchant navy ships. There was even a whimsical story about a man who became so obsessed with Japanese puzzles that he…
Actually Tony had to stop there, because he really couldn’t think how to end that plot summary, let alone write it up.
After a few months, Tony took stock. His stories had received no feedback, positive or negative, from any of the competitions he entered, except for one tick-box assessment (free with the entry fee) which had given him 4/5 for punctuation and grammar.
The stories were, he knew, bland. They were formulaic, they were feeble projections of his own interests, they did not sing. They lacked balls, grit, edge, risk.
The punctuation, however, was solid.
And so he began again.
* * *
Tony started to write about what he really felt, about the things he wished he’d done, and the things that usually go unsaid. He wrote a story about a man he called ‘Tommy’ who had always wanted to fuck a colleague in Marketing, whom he named ‘Jan’. There had been a moment once at a drinks do when something seemed to stir between them, but both had stepped back from the edge.
Now, for this story, Tony wrote for the first time about something that hadn’t happened to him: he pushed the couple right over the edge and into a passionate affair. He imagined them wangling business trips to visit key suppliers in Amsterdam and Stuttgart and Malmo – all just so they make delirious love together in random hotel rooms.
He wrote about the sex he’d never had. The inside-outsideness of our sex, he raved. Me-in-you and you-in-me, my mouth chasing your vulva across a hectare of pure white bed.
He stopped shaving. He began to drink as he wrote – Dubonnet mostly, it was the only thing he could find in the house. (They weren’t big drinkers.) He felt stirred, raunchy, sort of juicy. He couldn’t imagine this on Book at Bedtime.
Where would this story take him? Tony wanted Tommy and Jan to win. He did not want to see them get their comeuppance in some bourgeois dénouement of reprisal and recrimination. And so in the final scene, he has Brian the boss ask to see the illicit couple. They fear the worst. But in order to keep up their business trips abroad, it turns out the pair have both been performing exceptionally, securing new contracts and smashing sales targets. The final line went to the boss:
‘Keep up the good work,’ twinkled Brian. ‘Tommy, I need you to keep it up.’
‘Fair game,’ became Tony’s mantra. Everything to the serious writer was fair game. In the heart of every true artist, there sat a sliver of ice. Tony began to write stuff down as it happened. He wrote up his fantasies of violence and revenge, he lacerated friends and neighbours with frank portrayals of their foibles and their faults, he sent up the sexual conservatism of his own marriage. He was mercilessly satirical about the aggressive parking practices of his neighbours at number 32, and the casual racism of his other neighbours at number 36.
Still no one had commented on his stories. But – to cite another of his own mantras – ‘the great must wait’. When you’re doing something new and brave, it takes a while for your audience to catch up. The silence of the criterati was surely but confirmation of the rightness of his path.
* * *
Tony liked to rise about 6am and get down to an early stint of typing. To avoid the infamous tyranny of the blank page – something he’d never actually experienced himself, oddly – he always left off in the middle of a para at the end of a session. Simone needed more sleep than him, and if it wasn’t one of her working days (she did shifts at the hospital) she would usually join him for half a grapefruit and a bowl of porridge around nine, by which time Tony would have the smug feeling of a couple of hundred words already tucked under his belt.
But this morning, she was already downstairs, sitting at the computer. His computer. Looking at his files. A frown monopolised her facial features, and an arm of her reading glasses dangled pointedly from the edge of her mouth.
When she saw him, she began stabbing at the screen with it. ‘This bit here – it’s Andrea, isn’t it? The woman who knocks on the door of her new neighbour with a welcome present and says, “Thank God you’re not Somalian!”’
‘Well, yes. No. It’s fiction.’
‘And this bit here, about the man who gets a bang on the head and doesn’t realise he’s become sexually inappropriate with everyone… it’s Ned, isn’t it? Jodie’s brother-in-law?’
‘Well. It’s all about extracting the underlying universal truth from the particularities of the everyday…’
‘Jodie’s my best friend! And you’ve been going to The Oval with Ned for nearly 30 years! Did you think changing the area of the cortex would cover your tracks? How could you?’
‘And this one. This filth about a vulva in a duvet or something. This is obviously about that Janine girl at your work you were always going on about. You told me there was nothing in it.’
‘There wasn’t! I mean, there isn’t! Her name was Jane. This is a story.’
‘Oh come on! Jane, Jan, Janine, whatever. It’s obvious! Everything else is just verbatim from real life! You’ve taken all the bad or sad stuff from everyone we know, changed a few names, and you want to pass it off as art or whatever…’
‘Well, John Updike said…’
‘UpFuck John fucking Updike! John Updike did not have a sister like Naomi. When she sees you’ve painted her as a narcissistic monster who’d rather attend a client piss-up than go and see her own children when they’re ill…’
‘Well you yourself have said many times that she’s…’
‘I might have said it to you. But I haven’t typed it up for all the world to see! Do I have to watch everything I say now in case you turn it into a story for Radio 4?’
‘Actually they’ve rejected everything I’ve sent them so far.’
‘You mean you’ve sent this stuff out? People have looked at it?’
‘Please don’t tell me you’ve sent this Middleground one.’
He had. The Middleground was his favourite story, the one where he felt he’d come closest to saying something true and real. It was the story of a middle-aged couple who, though they had enjoyed an agreeable and prosperous companionship for years, had never quite managed to connect sexually. Neither had had the courage to really discuss the issue, and over time their couplings had become ever more stilted and infrequent, and the awkwardness had started to permeate the rest of their relationship.
‘I cannot believe you are parading our sex life to the whole fucking world.’
‘I’m a creative writer!’
‘You’re a muppet and a shit.’
* * *
Alternative ending 1: Tony sighed and shut down his PC. Though he had what he thought was a much better ending for The Middleground now, he would not be resending the story to the BBC or anyone else. There would be no new stories from his keyboard of dreams.
Contrary to his brief hope, his argument with Simone about his stories had not ended in erotic ecstasy but in bitter recrimination and corrosive silence. Now he had a new project for his retirement – the salvaging of his 32-year-old marriage. A work of non-fiction.
Alternative ending 2: That night, Tony added a final section to his short story, The Middleground. It described a toxic, years-in-the-making row between his middle-aged couple, which ended with up with them getting shit-faced on Tio Pepe and fucking right there on the sofa with more urgent vigour and rough experimental tenderness than they had known for years, if ever perhaps.
He couldn’t have written it better himself.
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