Martin Chambers

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The Character Rebellion of 2009

First published 2010 in 'An Alphabetical Amulet'. Available as an eBook in the collection 'Three short stories' available from at Smashwords

‘Come in here,’ I called, ‘break is over and I need two of you for a scene with Pablo Neruda and his dog.’

‘We don’t want to,’ one of them said. I’m not sure which one.

‘We don’t want to be secondary characters anymore. We want to be main characters,’ said another one. It was Cameron, a secondary student and brother of the protagonist’s girlfriend in a novel I am working on. I noticed most of his schoolmates were there and one of them was talking to the fish and chip shop owner from ‘Time Machine.’ Sara was drinking from a bottle of wine, a Margaret River Chardonnay. She was swigging straight from the bottle in a very unladylike way. Most of the older ones were sitting around a tartan picnic rug with a large wicker basket in the middle.

‘You can’t all be main characters,’ I said. ‘At least, not all at the same time.’ I looked around at the group. Some were sitting down on the lawn, others lay indifferently in the shade. ‘Maybe’, I continued,’ if you do a really good job as secondary characters you can get to be a main. But not all at the same time,’ I added.

‘Why not? We could all be main characters. We could be a crowd scene.’ ‘It just doesn’t work, OK.’

It was then that I noticed Richard. He stood up from his place in the shade and sat on top of the wall.

‘What are you doing here? You are a main character.’

‘I was lonely. Anyway, I’m sick of it. I want to be a minor character for a while.’They all looked caringly at him as he said this. He lay back along the top of the wall, leaning against the limestone pillar and closed his eyes as if that was the end of it. I noticed a thickset man in a blue singlet. He had tattoos on his shoulders and was bigger than anyone else.

‘Who are you? You’re not one of mine.’ ‘You might recognize me from West Side Story. Or Mad Max. I drove the truck.’ ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘Just hanging out while I wait for another role. It gets to be pretty dull,’ he said contemplatively. ‘And I heard about this, came for a look.’ Someone handed him a chicken wing and he bit into it hungrily. I was about to tell him to rack off, that he couldn’t just turn up in a story but he gave me a sort of look, a fatalistic ‘Well, I’m here now,’ and before I spoke there was a rise of laughter from the other side of the wall. It felt like laughter at my expense. Richard sat up and dangled his legs over the other side. He was speaking to someone. I walked over, picking my way between characters who lay sprawled on the lawn. Some were picnicking, others talking. None of them paid me much notice. On the other side of the wall a group of tiny people were sitting around a handkerchief sized rug. They also had a picnic. They had miniature bottles of wine and they were drinking from glasses so small that they were almost invisible to me. Richard introduced me but I wasn’t paying attention because I thought I recognized them. The scruffy one, an old man dressed in rags, turned to me and raised a fist. He shook it at me but didn’t say anything. ‘I do know you! You are from that story by Cecily Scutt, from Lines in the Sand.’ My voice trailed of, ‘I loved that story. You don’t know if they are real or if she made them up.’ One of them got up and ran off pushing a trolley, exactly like she did in Cecily’s short story. ‘Wow, how does she do that? They are all so true to their own character,’ I was speaking more to myself but Richard was just next to me. ‘She just knows how to… to… well…. Anyway, I’m off. If I stay here I’m going to end up as the main character again.’ ‘But you’re role here is nothing like….’ ‘Exactly!’ And he gave me the same sort of look that the truck driver from Mad Max had given me. I noticed he too had left and I was thinking that was what good secondary characters do. Deliver their lines or do whatever they are supposed to do, then leave. They don’t hang around cluttering up a story and getting in the way like mine were, lying around on the lawn so that I had to weave my way between them to get back to the studio. I sat at my desk, gazing out the garden. They were all still there, except for Richard, who must have gone out via the side gate. Perhaps he will make a good secondary. At least he knows when to leave. I sat at my desk staring at the screen. Without any secondary characters there wasn’t much I could write about, there was no-one to create tension, no-one to pose difficulties or stand in the way of the main character in their pursuit of whatever it was they were pursuing, and hence no way to carry the story forward. I stood up, opened the door and yelled out at them. ‘Secondary characters are very important.’ They ignored me. I left them in the back garden. Sara was quite drunk. She had taken her top off and was dancing with Nathan who had her bra wrapped around his head like a bandanna. They don’t even like each other. Cathy was sitting at the table eating cake. She was stuffing it in, open mouthed and talking loudly, a ring of cream and cake crumbs around her thin lips. She looked like an anorexic one of those sideshow clowns that move their heads from side to side while you try to drop balls into their wide mouths. Julia, who was supposed to be dead, was yelling ‘down, down, down,’ at Bernie, who had a jug of beer in each hand. Ian was flirting with the schoolgirls. If only they could all see how ridiculous they looked. I walked from the house, childishly slamming the back and then the front door as I left. In the next street a lady opened her first floor window and yelled down at me. ‘You can’t let them do what they like. You have to keep them under control.’ ‘Who are you?’ ‘I’m Cecily.’ That was when I saw the little people again. They were seated companionably on Cecily’s window ledge. The scruffy one raised his fist at me and shook it and the one with the trolley stood up and wheeled it angrily away. ‘How do you do that?’ ‘You’ve got to create them properly. Keep them under control.’ She shooed them away and leant out as if to talk more privately. ‘And you can’t write real people into it. You’ll have to take me out.’ I was about to say that it was too late, she was already there, but I heard sirens and watched as a police car turned the corner near the school. There was gunfire, rapid fire like a machine gun, then screaming. People came running out of the school, teachers and kids all in a panic. I saw that some had blood on them, on their clothes, on their faces. Some were helping others who limped, or hopped on one leg dragging an injured foot or knee. Stupidly I ran towards the school, I don’t know why I did that, it was as if I was being controlled by some other force. Without thinking I ran to the shelter of the police car that had skidded to a halt across the corner. The gunfire had stopped but I sat low behind the car wondering what to do, where the gunman was. The car door opened and an attractive policewoman slid out of the car to sit on the road beside me. ‘What’s going on?’ I asked. ‘It’s very serious,’ she said, and in a deft movement she pushed her hands behind me and handcuffed me. ‘It’s not me!’ I protested, and as if to verify that another burst of gunfire and screaming came from within the school. ‘That is serious too,’ she said, indicating the gunfire behind us. ‘You’ll have to deal with that yourself later. But for now, you are under arrest.’ She smiled at me and I had the overwhelming sensation that I knew her. ‘Do I know you?’ ‘I’m Thursday Next.’ She smiled again, a smile that in another life would invite me to know her better. ‘What are you doing here?’ But it was obvious. As Literarytech’s chief detective her job was to track down and arrest characters who wandered from their own stories, incarcerate them back in the books they belonged to. I had read about her in the Jane Eyre Affair. But why had she arrested me? ‘You took that character from Mad Max. Against his will, he says. Our policy is to go to the source. Stamp it out at the beginning. So I have to arrest you until we can get the mess sorted out.’ ‘But,’ I blubbered, ‘he just turned up. My characters have been holding a sort of stop work meeting in the backyard. I have no control over them.’ She laughed. It was a seductive laugh despite my predicament, and it is funny how the mind can work so quickly because there was no pause between the laugh and when she spoke next. In that time I determined that if I did write her into any scene with myself I would not be handcuffed by her, cowering in the street behind a car with a crazed gunman shooting at us. Handcuffs and her in charge maybe, but not the gunman. ‘And you’ve also kidnapped me. Jasper Foorde wants to talk to you.’ ‘But he’s real. He wrote you!’ ‘I don’t think you are in any position to lecture on who is real and who is not,’ she said. ‘You have characters all over the place. Main characters and secondary all over the place, some stolen, abducted, real people too, stolen or abducted. Do they even know they are here?’ I was about to defend myself, was thinking what to say, when there was another burst of gunfire from the roof of the school. We both turned to look, and I saw in horror that it was Richard. He had a line of terrified children along the edge of the school roof, was standing in front of them with the gun pointed high in the air. I stood up, dragging Thursday with me. ‘Richard!’ ‘You ignored me. All I wanted was a quiet life. A few walk on roles.’ I tried to think what to say. He was obviously unstable and at any moment he could, if I said the wrong thing…children’s lives were in danger. ‘Come down and we can talk about it. If you do this you will become the main character again.’ He looked around, up at the sky, into the distance, back down at me. It seemed like a while before he answered. ‘I realized, y’know, that I was jealous. You wrote yourself as the main character when I walked off, and I was jealous. I think I do want to be the main character.’ I had to think quickly. Now he had changed his mind and I had just told him how to become the main character. In his condition he could do anything. ‘Ok, Ok, that was what I wanted in the first place. I’ll put you back as the main character. But look. If you do anything with those kids I’ll write you back down to something minor.’ He looked derisively at me. ‘Like What?’ I pointed at the sky to the north. An airplane was visible as a shiny dart against the clear blue sky. ‘I’ll write that in as a terrorist suicide attack, a nuclear bomb going off. It’s a pretty unsubtle escalation but even I should be able to do that. Would make this scene be quickly forgotten…’ That got him thinking. ‘All right. I’ll come down.’ He halted as he was about to put down the gun. ‘And I want the girl, Thursday Next.’ ‘Sure,’ I called back, ‘I should be able to do that by then. Can you get all the others back to work?’ ‘Easy,’ he said. ‘I’m the main character. I’m in charge.’ He herded the schoolkids away from the edge and back into the building. When they came out of the front door they had gathered around him as if he were a favorite uncle or a sporting hero. He took the children to the teachers and they stood in groups of happiness in the playground. Thursday and I were standing near the police car, handcuffed together. Richard walked over to us and I saw their eyes meet with just the hint of a smile from Thursday. Richard put his hand on my shoulder and a sudden chill ran through me. It was a chill of recognition, of the excitement of life and the joy of creation and the fear of death and realization of mortality and it was at once both the most thrilling and most threatening thing I have ever felt. He said, ‘your characters can outlive you, but only if you overcome the jealousy of immortality.’ I gave him a muddled look. He added, ‘It’s a chicken and egg thing.’ Then he and Thursday walked off arm in arm and I was left alone in an empty street wondering what had happened to the handcuffs and the police car.