Jeremy sat back, staring at the final word. ‘Perhaps?’ Nicely ambiguous, he thought as he closed the document and made for the kitchen.
Mel looked up, a frown melting away from her forehead. ‘Well?’
‘Yep, all done. First draft of my novel is complete.’
She jumped up, hands flapping in a parody of a small girl’s excitement before hugging him tightly. ‘Woo hoo. The Booker next.’
Jeremy allowed himself a smile. ‘Perhaps.’
He spent the evening luxuriating in the glow of completion. His mind went back through the plot, the twists he devised, the turns that revealed themselves to him. His MC, Arvand, had surprisingly survived and the attack on Daleen was, he thought a masterstroke. No one would see that coming; no one would know if indeed she was dead. And Topsy’s disappearance lent an aura of suspense to the final chapters.
‘So, you going to start the sequel?’ Mel’s question was throwaway but Jeremy had already thought it might be a good plan. He just wasn’t ready to admit it yet.
‘I don’t know. I think I’ll go in a different direction, maybe fantasy next time.’
That night, as he slipped between wakefulness and sleep he heard his name called out – a distant plaintive cry, in what felt like a familiar voice he couldn’t quite place. For the briefest moment he felt wide awake, bereft before he slipped into a deep sleep.
‘Why did you call out?’ Mel peered at him over her steaming cup of coffee.
‘When?’ But he knew.
‘Last night. You called out Arvand. Who or what is Arvand?’
‘No idea.’ Jeremy felt a cold finger run down his spine. Had she really forgotten his protagonist so soon?
Mel nodded and bit into her toast. ‘Your mother rang. She is coming after all. Perhaps you can devote a chapter to sending her home.’
Jeremy began to dream. Murky coastlines that reminded him of some event he felt he should remember and an office building he knew he should be inside but he could never find the door. One time a curtain kept falling just as he looked up. Another, a bulb died as he looked into the window throwing whoever was there into shadow. And all the time voices, urgent voices talking about someone, someone cruel, thoughtless, someone who each speaker said had ruined their lives.
Mel came home from work, and picked up the unopened post. As she glanced at the first letter she said, ‘Someone called Daleen rang for you. No message. She said you’d understand.’
‘Daleen? Rang you?’
‘No it was on your mobile. You’d gone to the shops, remember. Odd voice, like she was trying to be sexy – you know deep and husky – but actually she sounded rather school girlish. Who’s she?’
‘I… I don’t think I know.’
Mel looked up sharply. ‘She knew you. She said she’d catch you at the gym when you do your cardio on Wednesday.’
He knew she expected a response but he couldn’t think of one. Daleen? His character. He didn’t know a Daleen. At least not one who was alive. He’d gotten her name from a gravestone in the local cemetery.
He told himself he wouldn’t go on Wednesday but at five to two he stood outside the gym entrance calming his breathing. He began to turn away when a hand touched his elbow.
‘Hey sexy, you coming?’
His heart nearly stopped and he staggered slightly at the deep voice.
‘You ok, Jem? You look dreadful.’ It was Pat who took the class.
‘Why’d you put on the stupid voice,’ he managed. ‘Frightened the life out of me.’
‘Soz man, just joshin’. You coming?’
The session passed without incident and Jeremy began to relax. He had just taken a drink from the water fountain when a noise made him look up. He faced a large plate glass window that showed the outdoor pool. Despite the time of day and the heat no one appeared to be using it. But as he focused he realised a woman, fully clothed, floated face down in the middle, clearly dead. His mind raced. Daleen? But surely not?
He was about to shout for help when someone behind laughed. They were pointing at the pool. A young boy was rescuing the ‘woman’, in fact a doll and was dragging it to the side, part of a life saving class.
Two days later Mel didn’t come home when she said she would. He tried to call but her phone went to voicemail. Finally she arrived in tears, drunk. His fears had turned to anger. ‘Where the hell have you been?’
‘What? What are you on about?’
‘Your girlfriend, that’s who. The one you beat up and left for dead.’
‘I’m sorry? This is madness.’
Mel beat her hand on the worktop. ‘Daleen. About 25, auburn hair, pneumatic, a mole by her left eye. Yes?’
He shook his head, trying the make sense of what she was saying. Then he laughed, a belly laugh. ‘Christ you had me going.’ It was his own words, parroted back at him, exactly as he described Daleen in Chapter three when Arvand meets her in the Blue Mermaid. ‘Don’t tell me, she was wearing a low cut blue satin dress slit to the thigh and had a large…’
‘… emerald ring on the index finger of her left hand. Yes.’ Fury filled Mel’s face, partly masked by the tears. ‘She said you’d just left her. You’d spent the night together..’
‘Ho ho. You know I was here.’
‘The fuck you were. Sure we went to bed together but when I woke at 5am you’d gone. I was scared stiff. I’ve been looking for you all day. I found her waiting in your office, like she owned the place. She was going through your desk. She said you’d punched her.’
‘Love, this is the best wind up ever but don’t you think you’ve gone far enough. If you’ve…’
CRACK. Mel’s punch sent him reeling. ‘You son of a bitch. I can’t believe anyone could do that. Get up in the night and go and shag another woman. And punch here after. God knows why she’s not gone to the police.’
‘She’s fiction, Mel. You know that. Now, come on let’s go to bed.’
‘You’re serious, aren’t you? God, the nerve. Was it because she’s pregnant? Is that why you hit her?’
‘Pregnant? I didn’t know she’s pregnant.’
‘She told me not to say. She said it would only make things complicated.’
‘Pregnant?’ Jeremy sat at the table. He’d thought about making her pregnant but had cut it out in the final edit. Or had he? He stood.
‘Where are going?’
He hesitated. What was he thinking of? ‘Last night I couldn’t sleep, that’s all. I went for a walk and then had breakfast at John’s cafe.’ He expected her to nod, to acknowledge the joke was over but her expression didn’t change.
‘I’m going to get some things and then go and stay with mother. No, stay back.’
Jeremy watched helplessly as his girlfriend backed out of the room. This had to be a joke. Probably Giles had bet her she couldn’t pull this off. Giles knew the book backwards, he’d beta read part of it.
He let her go and ran to his laptop, fumbling to open the manuscript. He scrolled through and found nothing. Her searched ‘pregnant’ and there is was, page 159 ‘Daleen knew what the sickness meant. Her stupid fumble with Arvand had had consequences after all.’
Jeremy blinked. That wasn’t how it happened. That wasn’t why Arvand had attacked her. He knew he’d saved that twist for the sequel. It would ruin why Topsy had run, making it too obvious. No, no no. He pulled out his notepad and began to scribble how he wanted the plot to go.
His phone rang. It had to be Mel, ready to admit the joke. He went to find where he’d left it. As he picked it up, the smile on his face froze. In black letters on the screen the caller’s name flashed:
It couldn’t be. He too was a name from a grave. He didn’t know an Arvand to be able to save his number in his contacts.
Swallowing he pressed the green button. ‘Yes?’
A voice he knew, a voice he’d heard in his head for the last several years, a grey, smooth voice with a slight lisp spoke. ‘What are you doing, Jeremy?’
‘I’m correcting the draft. I…’
‘You know we’ve told you before. That’s not your job.’
‘But it’s my book, my story.’
‘Jeremy, we explained how we want our story to come out.’
Jeremy shook away the sense that he was being ridiculous. This was Giles, had to be. He was the best practical joker he knew. ‘Sure. Look why don’t you pop round? We can run through everything. Sort this out.’
‘We’re already here. Outside. Maybe you’d like to let us all in.’
Feeling slightly clammy, Jeremy reached across his desk and snagged back the curtain. Looking up at his window, Arvand, Daleen and Topsy, exactly as he’d written them, met his gaze with unblinking stares. Arvand had the phone to his ear.
For the briefest moment, Jeremy thought it amazing the lengths to which Giles had gone when Aravand spoke. ‘Giles doesn’t know the end, does he? You haven’t shown him what happens on the final page, have you?’
Jeremy began to feel sick. That was true. His heart beat against his rib cage as, slowly and methodically Arvand removed his other hand from his pocket. In place of a hand he had a silver hook that glinted in the moonlight.
So what does happen when your characters ‘take over’? We often say that’s what happens but if it did…?