Sunday, 14 August 2011

In Another World...

Last week I put up a post about books and merchandising. I thought this week I might post a story I wrote a few years ago which pretty much summed up my feelings on the whole idea of books as multi-media merchandising phenomenons.

No prizes for guessing who the main subject of this story is...

In Another World...

Simon P. Bradshaw coughed as he descended the wide, stone stairway. Winter always did this to him. That and the musty air down on the lower levels of the castle. In years gone by he had tried to avoid being at home during the colder months, instead migrating like a bird to warmer locations. But all of the attention and publicity, the sheer bother of it all, had put paid to that many years ago. It was easier to just stay put and do your best to survive.

Reaching the bottom of the stairs at last, he strode across the cold flagstones of the sitting room, making directly for the bar on the far side. A drink was definitely now in order. He opened the cabinet and perused his collection of rare vintage sherries, eyes resting carefully upon each before making a decision. A Casa del Vaga, 1857. One of only twelve still in existence. That seemed to fit the bill.

He poured the light amber liquid, savouring the bouquet as it swept up into his nose. Then, after re-corking the bottle, he sought out the most comfortable of the plushly appointed chairs, each of which had originally graced the palaces of European royalty, and sat. As he raised the glass to his lips, his eyes fell upon the wide tapestry that covered the opposite wall. Meeting the eyes of the figure at the centre of the tapestry, he mouthed a silent toast and then took a sip. The figure before him did not move, did not return the toast, but that did not matter to Simon P.Bradshaw. That figure had already done more than enough for him.

Like most of the accoutrements that now filled the castle, the tapestry was not an original fitting. It had been woven by an old friend over twenty years ago, in order to commemorate his purchase of this 400 year old architectural masterpiece. It disturbed Simon a little that he could no longer remember what her name was, but then again so much had happened in the intervening years that it was really not so surprising. The tapestry depicted a young boy, probably around eleven or twelve. The detail in the design indicated that the boy was rather pale and thin, but he was dressed in robes that were rich in colour, a dazzling mixture of scarlets and violets and blues, and decorated with tiny stars, crescents and other intricate shapes.

Paul Mephiglio was the boy’s name, and Paul was the one Simon had cause to thank for everything. For the riches he had accumulated. For this majestic castle he was now privileged to call his home. And for all the other amazing events that had befallen him, the television appearances, the opportunities to meet famous and important people, even the dalliances with so many of the world’s most desirable women.

Simon downed the last of the sherry, coughing again as the final drop contrived to go down the wrong way. Then he stood and walked slowly across the room. The chilled air was playing havoc with his arthritis. He reflected with a grimace that there were some things beyond even his means. The ridiculous amounts of money he’d invested in numerous attempts to have a central heating system installed within the castle had made not the slightest impact on the damp and cold that infested these frigid chambers.

Arriving at his study at last, Simon took a seat before the broad, mahogany desk and reached down to turn on the small bar heater that sat by his feet. At least in this more confined space there was the opportunity to feel a bit of warmth. He stretched out first one leg and then the other, relishing the heat as it seeped into his bones. Then he flicked the switch on the computer and the screen slowly quivered into life.

This was a routine that Simon practiced regularly, regardless of the season. Maybe not every day, but he certainly began to feel restless if he did not go through the motions of following these steps for more than three days running. Unfortunately for the last couple of years this was as far as he got. Occasionally his fingers would begin to skim uncertainly over the keyboard and the words would begin to pile up on the screen. But even on those days, it wouldn’t be long before, with a grunt of frustration, he would hit the delete key, sending the screen back to its original state of pristine blankness.

This day was not proving to be any different. Though his fingers floated over the keyboard, not once did they slide down to the keys beneath. Simon tried to focus his mind on the matter at hand, tried to will the creativity out of himself, but to no avail. Bereft of any new ideas, his eyes roamed from the keyboard to the screen, and then to the shelves and walls that surrounded him. Here, as so often happened, his eyes remained. But the gaze that he sent out around the room was not unanswered.

From seemingly every corner, eyes stared back at him. They were the eyes of the same thin boy in the brightly coloured robes that adorned the tapestry in the sitting room. Here they were on a small action figure. There they were on a large plush toy. And there they were repeated again and again on posters that covered all of the walls. Posters for movies and video games. Posters from out of fan magazines. And posters that did not seem to serve any purpose at all, apart from just being posters.

Many years ago, he had actively sought out these souvenirs himself. They seemed, to him, to be physical expressions of the wonderful success he had achieved. But after a short time he no longer had to make the effort. Friends began to do it for him, thinking he would be amused to see the newest incarnation of his creation. And as time went on, it wasn’t even his friends. It was everybody in the whole damn world. Every man and his puppy who felt the need to mail in the latest manifestations of his boy wonder, no matter how grotesque. When he’d originally signed the contracts with the corporation men they had assured him that he would have right of veto over any product he did not approve of, but the horse had long since bolted in that regard. Now all he could do was gawp in horrified fascination at the abominations that had been manufactured in his name. Paul Mephiglio sugar-rich breakfast cereal. Paul Mephiglio toothpicks. Paul Mephiglio bin liners…

Simon forced himself to look away, to avert his eyes from their hypnotic gaze and return his attention to the computer screen. It hadn’t always been this difficult. There had been times when he’d even managed to cobble another book together, not that it mattered; the public had no interest in anything he produced if it didn’t have the words Paul Mephiglio in large type on the cover. But now there was nothing. He might still be here but inspiration had definitely flown south for the winter. And even as he struggled to keep his focus on the screen, still he could feel the eyes that peered out from the Paul Mephiglio commemorative beer steins, the Paul Mephiglio limited edition chess pieces and the Paul Mephiglio celebrity steak-knives, as they looked down at him, passing judgement.

Suddenly anger overwhelmed him; impotent fury at the permanent stasis that had overtaken his creative life.

“This is your fault?” he raged at all of those pale, freckled schoolboys. “You’ve taken everything from me. You’ve left me with nothing.”

There was a crash. As he shouted, he had lashed out with his feet, accidentally kicking over the heater. Groaning with the agony of it all he bent over, struggling to turn it over before it burnt a hole in the priceless Persian rug that lay underneath. But as he sank to his knees there was a knock on the door, and then it was thrown open. It was the cleaning lady.

“Mr Bradshaw please don’t strain yourself, I’ll get it.” She leant down beside him and carefully righted the heater. Then she helped him back into his chair where he sat, panting softly as he recovered his breath.

For a few moments there was silence. Gradually Simon became aware that the cleaning lady’s attention was no longer on him. Her gaze was instead travelling around the room, taking in all of the Paul Mephiglios in their many and marvellous guises.

“Quite a collection,” said Simon, feeling that he needed to break the silence. The rapt attention she was bestowing upon the assorted renderings of the character he had invented was somewhat unnerving.

Eventually her eyes completed their sweep of the room and returned to him.

“It must be wonderful,” she said.

“Oh it was at first,” he replied.

“What do you mean by that?”

“It was brilliant at the start. All the ideas flowed so easily. It was an absolute joy just to sit at the computer and write. And then, when the books started coming out, to be so popular, to win all of those awards. It was more than I could ever have imagined. But do you know what the best part was?”

“What?” She was staring at him and yet here eyes seemed somehow to be far away.

“When I started hearing from the readers. Getting letters and emails from kids telling me how much they loved the stories. How they’d never even considered that reading could be fun until they picked up a Paul Mephiglio book. Telling me which bits they liked best and who their favourite characters were. And always asking questions, wanting to know what was going to happen in the next book. It was the most amazing feeling. To think that my characters, the fruits of my imagination, could become so important to these children. It was as if just by reading my books, these kids had actually brought Paul Mephiglio and all his friends to life.”

He paused for a moment, savouring the memory. The cleaning lady continued to peer intently into his eyes, saying nothing.

“But it couldn’t last like that for long,” he went on. “Do you know, for the first couple of years, I made sure to reply to every single letter or email personally. But after a while, there was no way I could cope with the load. I started having to employ a whole bunch of secretaries just to reply to all my fans. And it kept on getting bigger and bigger. Every time a new Paul Mephiglio book came out it became such a big deal you’d think it was the second coming or something. Then the movies started coming out, and let me tell you those movie people never wanted to ask me questions about Paul Mephiglio. Oh no, they just came out and told me. ‘Paul would never do this; Paul would never say that.’ Like they knew my character, the one I’d created from the sweat of my brow, better than me. And then, before I even knew what was going on, Paul Mephiglio was everywhere. Paul Mephiglio dish-towels, Paul Mephiglio electric toothbrushes, Paul Mephiglio iron-on tattoos.

“And that was really the end of it for me. That amazing relationship I had with my readers, that feeling that I was conducting an individual conversation with every one of them, was gone. Now there were all these other people involved. Producers and directors. Marketers and corporate executives. Suddenly it seemed like everybody in the world owned a piece of Paul Mephiglio except me. And that was the worst part of all. It was like losing a child. It was feeling as if the real Paul Mephiglio, the one that I had given birth to, was gone for good.”

It was only as Simon finished that he realised how much his voice had risen throughout his speech. The cleaning lady lowered her eyes and looked away. Suddenly Simon felt embarrassed. What right did he have to complain to this woman? Here he was, the resident of one of the finest castles in the British Isles, surrounded by wealth beyond even his imaginings. And here she was, a menial helper with no recourse to the good things he enjoyed. Obviously life had been far less kind to her than it had been to him. It was churlish, offensive even for him to carp about such issues in front of her.

He forced himself to grin. “But you know when it all comes down to it, I guess it’s been pretty good.”

She looked up again. “I thought it would have been.”

Simon laughed. “It’s a funny thing. I wrote that first book just to amuse the kids of a couple of mates. I had no aspiration to actually be a writer. Not that I was that happy with what I was doing at the time. Being an admin officer at a bank wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs. Still I only started sending it out to publishers because my mates insisted. I had no idea it would turn into such a big deal. An international cultural phenomenon, that’s what people called it. And they’ve been arguing about it ever since. Filling the columns in the book review pages. Churning out acres and acres of PhD theses. What was it that made Paul Mephiglio such an astonishing success? There’s probably a million times as much been written about my boy by other people then what I wrote in the original books. And none of them has ever been able to nail it. Not one of those experts and academics and reviewers has been able to provide a clear and rational reason why my Paul Mephiglio should have taken off the way he did. To be honest, I’m not even sure myself. Right time, right place maybe, I don’t know.”

He chuckled again, so lost in his reminiscences he was barely aware of the other presence in the room. “And it all grew out of such a simple idea. A little boy who discovers one day that he’s really a wizard. Who would have thought of that?”

“I did,” said the cleaning lady.

“You did?” Simon looked up with a start.

“I did,” she repeated. “Many years ago I had an idea for a story about a boy who discovers that he’s a wizard. I had it all planned out over a series of books. I even finished writing the first one.”

“And what happened?”

“Well I sent it to every publisher I could think of. For a year, all I got were rejection letters. But then, suddenly, I seemed to be getting somewhere. I found an agent who liked what he read. Said it had real potential. Said he’d do whatever he could to get it to the right publisher.”

“And he didn’t do it? He let you down?”

“Not exactly. What happened was about two weeks later the whole Paul Mephiglio thing started up.” She paused for a second, glancing quickly around the gallery that surrounded them. “Well that changed everything. My agent said there was no point trying to flog another book about a boy wizard. He told me not to give up, to try and write something else, but I just didn’t have the heart to. I’d already put so much into that first book.”

“I’m really sorry,” said Simon, looking at the cleaning lady as if he was seeing her for the first time. By what twist of fate had they reached their respective destinations, he as an extraordinarily wealthy writer of novels for children and she as a cleaning lady? After all, he too had received his fair share of rejections at the start. He had also damn near written it all off as a lost cause before that final joyous acceptance. How simple could it have been for their roles to have been reversed and for her to have been the one who received all the riches and acclaim?
She shrugged her shoulders. “It was hardly your fault. I guess it just wasn’t meant to be. Anyway it’s getting late now. I think I’d better be heading home.”

Shaking his head to clear the image of the cleaning lady sitting in his seat in his study in his castle, he replied. “Yes of course. Thanks for all your help.”

“That’s okay. See you tomorrow Mr Bradshaw.”

Simon P. Bradshaw turned to watch his cleaning lady depart. “See you tomorrow Joanne.”

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