One morning, the respected author, Felix Prood, woke to find he’d changed into one of his characters.
He’d invested two years of his life on his latest novel and all he had was 40,000 words of tripe. He’d started with all the enthusiasm of the self-righteous, determined to write the great working-class novel. The only thing fully realized was the main character, Hank Strong, who so dominated the story that nothing else would take shape. Hank overwhelmed the other characters because he was so much more real, dominating the writing and excluding all else. He was fully formed, with a plethora of foibles and forceful characteristics. The story couldn’t progress without him bulldozing in and untangling any plot.
Felix would dream about Hank as he endured yet another muse-free restless night. He would sit at his writing desk, staring into the distance, while Hank drank and debauched his way through his daydreams.
He had given Hank life and in return, Hank had absorbed him.
The alarm jingled and danced, rattling across the stain-free bedside cabinet. A large fist crashed down on it, causing it to whimper and fall silent. It was twelve before Hank climbed from between the, as yet, unsoiled sheets, entered the bathroom, pissed loudly and released a rasping fart. He padded downstairs, butt naked, and searched the immaculate room for fags. Not finding any, he poured a large fist of red wine into a mug and wrenched open the biscuit tin. The face he saw reflected in the tin lid was handsome, but too well-groomed – no need to bloody shave then. It took him a few slugs to get used to the refined taste of the wine, but he was soon necking the remainder of the bottle.
Finding the antiseptic cleanliness of the apartment too stifling, Hank needed to get outside, so went to find some clothing. The wardrobes were full of smart suits and designer shirts, but in a bottom drawer, he discovered an old pair of jeans and t-shirt, probably worn by Felix while decorating. The jeans were tight about his belly, so he left the top button undone. As all the shoes were stiff, he softened a pair up by kicking in the spare bedroom door. This gave him a thirst, so he checked Felix’s wallet. Finding little cash, he took his credit card, plus a slip of paper with four digits written on it, and sauntered out into the mid-afternoon drizzle.
He was in the smart café bar section of town, where the local wine bars looked uninteresting and far too respectable. He walked a couple of miles to the rougher side of town. On the way, he located a hole-in-the-wall and began the process of emptying Felix’s bank account.
Spotting an old battered back-street pub, with dirty greybricks and faded wooden frontage, he smiled for the first time and went inside. Plonking himself on a barstool, he ordered a pint of bitter and a whisky chaser.
The tall lank-haired barman said, “Not seen you in here before.”
The beer was like nectar, so Hank answered after he’d emptied his glass:
“You will be doing.”
There were half-a-dozen other customers hiding in the dark interior, all isolated in their own sad worlds, harbouring their own secrets and nursing private sorrows. As he gulped down the next pint, Hank thought, I could be happy here with the dregs of humanity. So he ordered another.
The doors burst open and a woman – nice legs, full breasts – click-clacked into the pub. As she approached the bar, Hank asked, “Buy you one?”
“You don’t hang about. Ta. I’ll have a lag… a glass of rosé.”
“What, that pink stuff? That’s for those who can’t decide whether they want white or red. Or, don’t know which one suits the occasion.”
“Maybe. Me, I just like it and it gets me pissed.”
And he liked her, she told him her name was Audrey.
“What’s your story, then?” he said, as she slid on to the neighbouring barstool.
“Oh, the usual. Married young. The bastard buggered off. Left me with a pile of debts and a daughter.”
“Full of promises was he?”
“Full of shit, more like.”
“Ta. I won’t say no. What about you? What brings you to this dump?”
“Similar. Only I stayed,” he half lied. “And no kids.”
He listened as she unburdened herself and they got rat-arsed together.
Hank walked Audrey down a dark alley, next to a boarded-up building. Audrey stood on a chunk of concrete, which brought her to his level, raised her skirt to allow him to drive his rock hard penis in. At one point she froze when a dog peed at the entrance, but Hank didn’t break his rhythm. Pounding to his first climax, he pulled out a large white handkerchief, with the initials FP italicised in the corner, and wiped his spent member.
Hank was comfortable in this world, frequenting the bars and drinking with down and outs, lowlifes and the broken. He sat with blokes; who if married hated their wives; if working, chased their losses at Ladbrokes; or, if not working, drank away their giro money. He sat with women, who had bruised bodies or bruised egos; who hated men but needed them. He listened to their stories, their tales of woe and accumulated knowledge and absorbed their milieu. He thought they were pathetic fools, but knew he was safer in their company. And Audrey was always there when he needed her.
After each withdrawal,the bank balance got closer to zero. He started selling the clothes, then the furniture, and then the electrical items. The regulars, in the pub, were around him like collectors at a car boot sale. He didn’t mind selling the 40-inch titanium TV, or the fancy philishave, but was cut-up to see the softskin sofa go. Soon, there was little left. When he invited a lady back, he would tell her he was a minimalist. It was becoming too expensive to drink out, and as he’d made the apartment to his liking, he drank alone more and more often. The occasional burn out in town, ending with a visit to Audrey’s place, kept him sane.
One day, Hank carried a bottle of super-strength cider through the splintered door into the spare room. All that remained in there was a rickety swivel chair in front of a dust-shrouded writing bureau. He broke into the bureau, hoping to find a laptop or p.c. to sell, but all it contained was a pile of well-fingered notebooks and an ancient word processor. He threw himself into the chair, took a swig of the cider, cursed and kicked the desk. Suddenly, he shouted, “Let’s have a gozat what that tight-arsed fraud was peddling to the public.”
Hank flicked through the notebooks, tutting, grunting and fulminating, until so angry that he lobbed a handful into a cardboard box and pissed all over them. The remainder he took through to the bathroom and leaned against the toilet bowl. This left him feeling better, more creative. He returned to the spare room and started up the grumpy old word processor.
“If he can get away with selling that witless shit, then I’m sure I can do better.”
Several hours later, the desktop was littered with empty cider bottles, discoloured glasses and half-smoked fags. The battered word processor whirred as it spat out a dozen sheets of typed paper. Hank bundled them into an envelope and scribbled a note – “Using a pseudonym – HANK STRONG. Written something different from my usual prissy sludge. See what you think.”
He posted it to Felix’s literary agent, Grant Spoon, the next day while en route to Audrey’s to tell her he was going to be a writer.
Hank swayed on his barstool as he searched his pockets for the pound coin needed, to go with the shrapnel littering the bar, to pay for his next whisky. “Can’t you sub me the rest?” he implored the barman.
“Nah, you owe me enough already.”
Audrey slapped a coin on the bar and said, “There you go. I thought you were going to be minting it, now you’re a writer?”
“I need to ring mi bloody agent, don’t I?”
“Well, ring him then.”
“I had to sell my frigging phone.”
“Here,” said Audrey, handing over her mobile. “Use mine.”
He pulled a crinkled card from his wallet, went to the Gents and dialled the number on it.
“Is that Grant Spoon?”
“Yeah, who’s that?”
“It’s me,Felix. Sent you a work of pure genius using another name. Sent it about a month ago,” under his breath, he continued. “And I’ve not heard back from you, you useless tart.”
“Just a mo.”
Hank heard Grant put the phone down, he heard papers being shuffled and discarded and a heavy manuscript thump on to the floor. He kicked a lavatory door, thumped a wall and almost dropped the phone.
“You still there?” said Grant.
“Course I fu-lipping am!”
“Right Felix. Didn’t recognize your voice. It sounds deeper. Got your MS here, somewhere. Oh yeah, got it.” Hank raised his fist again but lowered it as he was told, “You’ve timed this right. It’s perfect for a publisher who’s chomping at the bit for tales from the rough side.” Hank raised his fist again and punched the air. “You could be on to a winner. Just needs a few minor changes.”
It’s all about luck and timing in this world. You could be potentially the greatest artist who has ever lived, but it’s of no use if you’re dying of cholera in an African village. You could be a literary genius, but that’s of no avail if you’re sifting shit on a Mumbai tip. You could be a barely literate slob, but if you write about what you know at the exact moment that the literary world is looking for gritty realism, you hit paydirt.
Hank churned out his hard-boiled, real-life stories and the public loved them. The money poured in, the booze flowed down and his word processor spewed paper.
“It’s hard work chucking all that booze down myself. Experimenting to find just the right level of inebriation to be able to tap into my creative soul. But, I’m happy to make the sacrifice for the sake of my loyal readers.” Hank emptied his glass, saluted Audrey and finished with a rhyme. “I trawl the gutter for my bread and butter.”
Audrey tapped her empty glass and said with a smirk, “You do that all right.”
Despite the money coming in Hank kept his apartment on and drank in the same pub. He did treat himself to a laptop, but that was to watch porn on.
“You know that swanky hotel?” he said to Audrey a few weeks later. “Where you change the spunk stained sheets for the rich guests.”
“Yeah, I only work part-time.”
“Do you reckon you could get me a job there?
“Why?” she said shaking her thick blonde tresses. ‘Natural.’ She would often say pointing proudly at her hair.
“I need to do a bit of research.”
“Well, I know there’s a kp job going, but I can’t recommend you, you’re not reliable.”
“Go on, I’ll be ever so grateful.”
“Barman, please provide this young lady with any double that takes her fancy.”
Hank relished the banter he shared with the other kitchen staff. He compensated for the torture of having to wash pots by gobbing into the occasional meal that was destined for a churlish customer. A couple of the waitresses were tasty and fell for his rough-edged charm. The hotel bar was open when he’d finished his shift and the Irish lad who tended the bar poured him large measures. Audrey put up with his flirtations, knowing he’d be back with her when his latest fling discovered what a bastard he was.
“I’d’ve had that job longer if that knob-head manager hadn’t got me to stock up the bar. I mean, how could I resist? Take a glass; stick it under all the optics and down the hatch.” Hank poured his whisky down the same hatch and continued, “Mind you, I met some right characters, got shovels full of ideas.”
Ironically, by gathering material from the underclass that was being degraded, broken and cheapened by the rich, he too became rich.
Hank was settled on his favourite barstool, anaesthetizing his palate with Jack Daniels, when the most delicious woman he’d ever seen sashayed across the room towards him. She wriggled on to the adjacent barstool and ordered, “Scotch on the rocks, darling. Glenfiddich.”
Hank did his best to ignore her, which meant he was interested. He was Mr Casual, busy staring frontwards, while she slowly sipped two whiskies, then poked out an ice cube and rolled it around her pouting lips. His brain screamed, ‘Danger! Danger!’, but he could no longer resist.
“Get you another? You seem to be enjoying that.”
Three hours later, Hank grunted with pleasure, raised his head above his Transformers duvet cover and watched Jenny Crush zip up her skirt. She scribbled her mobile number on the condom packet she’d purchased earlier and dropped it among the debris on his bedside table. “Call me in a couple of days.”
Hank was in despair. He’d lost Jenny’s number. He couldn’t write. All he could think of was her perfect legs and moist lips. He ripped the apartment to pieces, drank several bottles of vodka and sank into oblivion.
He was dragged from his stupor by the anthemic chanting of Kunt and the Gangas they blue-tinged the air above his mobile with ‘you’re an absolute retard’. A message said, “Meet me tomorrow at Crispins, 12.30.”
“That’s a bloody posh restaurant, no way!” he screamed at the pulsing screen. Nonetheless, he turned up, only half-hour late, and behaved himself. After lunch,Jenny took him to an art gallery. He hurled abuse at every exhibit; she merely laughed and once even agreed with his assessment. They went to an expensive hotel for the remainder of the afternoon. She left him to pay, saying as she went, “Meet me on Saturday. I’m taking you clothes shopping.”
“You look different, Hank,” said Audrey, slapping her over-burdened handbag on tothe bar. “Who you seeing?”
“Oh come on. Do I look green?”
“You did,” said Hank, slapping his thigh. “You did, New Year’s Eve. Remember?”
“That was your fault. Bloody absinthe. I don’t know where … Oi, stop changing the subject.”
“All right. If you must know I’m seeing someone on Saturday. She’s a writer too.”
“Ohh! You look smarter than normal. Is it serious?”
“Nah. I’ll give her one afterwards. Then I’ll show her the door.”
He turned up to see Jenny on time and spent a fortune on uncomfortable menswear. And so began the de-coarsening of Hank. He accompanied her to smart restaurants. They were seen together at west end shows and theatre performances. They sat hand-in-hand at recitals. He went to coffee bars and discussed women writers, made love in the missionary position and learned to dance. He followed her around like a pet poodle.
“What’s a posh bird like her doing with you, Hank?”
“What, we were made for each other.”
“Don’t be daft. She’s changing you,Hank. Now she’s got her claws into you, she won’t be happy until you’re a mouse to her pussy. I bet she hasn’t changed any.”
“Are you jealous, Audrey?”
“Course not,” she said, biting her lower lip. “I’m just worried that she’s up to something. It’ll all end in tears. And they won’t be hers.”
Before long Hank had a swanky apartment in the trendiest part of town, a set of mind-numbingly boring new friends and his creative juices had stopped flowing. His rough exterior had failed to insulate him.
When Jenny had him trained, she announced, “I don’t want to see you any more. You no longer interest me.”
She answered his seventeenth phone call by hollering down the phone, “I did it for all the poor suckers, who, like me, did three, four, or five years of hard graft to get their BA or MA. Who’ve spent years honing their trade, sending short stories to competitions and magazines. Who’ve accumulated a leaning tower of rejection slips and cried. Who’ve read all the how-to books and done all the mind-stretching exercises and wept. Who’ve self-published and blogged and bled. Who’ve read from every genre and read all the books on grammar and have cried. Who’ve crafted and redrafted and shed a dozen skins. I did it for them. I did it to stop you, you ignorant upstart, from stealing all the plaudits. I did it to prevent you from becoming a trendsetter. I did it to stop you undoing all our hard work.”
The pain of rejection consumed Hank, anguish catapulted through his body. It felt as if his blood had been exchanged for burning acid and his bones for hot splinters. His only relief was to smash to smithereens anything with a connection to Jenny. After which he would collapse in exhaustion and enjoy a few minutes of sleep. He locked himself away, wallowing in the misery of self-pity, becoming as low as the poor sods he once wrote about; half a bottle away from suicide. The one unbroken mirror, remaining after his tantrums, revealed a face etch-a-sketched with torment. The word processor lay shattered in the courtyard below, mirroring his fragmented life.
One day Hank Strong woke to find he’d changed into a poet.