Here is a draft of a story. It kind of took hold of me; I’ve spent most of the day writing it when I should have been doing other things. It will need revising but I wanted to post it here. It’s called – not surprisingly – The Belated Writer.
Peter Rouse often thought about all the things he hadn’t written. Poems sketched out and left ragged, short stories bereft of an ending, notes for articles that had seemed promising at the time, ideas that had never landed on paper at all. Above all there was the book that he had not quite abandoned, not quite got to grips with, on Quaker conscientious objectors in World War II.
Retired now, living alone in the small semi in Tooting where he and his wife Angela had settled after their stint of teaching in the Gambia, he had plenty of time. Angela’s death had been quick and agonising – pancreatic cancer; her loss had scoured through the house, emptying it of fun and shared thoughts, of the quiet companionship they had both taken for granted. They had had no children but for sixteen years their Labrador, Bruce – named after Bruce Kent of CND – had been the person round whom their lives revolved. When Bruce died a quiet natural death, they had decided not to get another dog. In Angela’s last weeks Peter had been glad not to have the responsibility. Now he had begun to think again of the welcoming bark when he opened the door, the paws planted firmly on his knees while the big brown eyes pleaded eloquently for a walk or a biscuit. Like his ideas for writing, the idea of a dog had not been translated into reality.
Though at times he wondered what his life had been for, Peter liked to think he had done some good. He had worked in and then run a small charity helping children who looked after their parents. He was still an elder at his local Quaker meeting; he did the books for them and was asked for advice on everything the other elders didn’t know about. He had always gone on protest marches, written letters to MPs. He and Angela had first met on an Aldermaston march, waving their CND symbols and singing, “Ban the bomb for evermore.” It was never going to happen, of course, but they had tried to believe it was.
At Sussex University in the Seventies he had wanted to be a writer; he had published a couple of poems but no more. Friends who had gone on to do creative things in publishing or television had always said to him, with a hint of condescension that perhaps they weren’t aware of, “But what you’ve done is far more worthwhile.” Much later he had published a poem in a Quaker magazine, and some articles that people said were thoughtful and well-considered. In the burning vacuum after Angela’s death he had written a diary for himself and God, if God was still there, but he didn’t consider that as writing. It was more like blood-letting to relieve the pressure. After that he had gone back to tending the garden, his agile, gentle hands coaxing the life back into the plants and, through them, into himself.
Peter had been promising himself for a long time that he would buy a new computer. His old desktop, slow and short of memory, had almost given up the struggle and he had ordered a smart new laptop, shiny black and silver with all the latest software. The young Scottish woman on the phone asked if he needed help setting it up, implying someone of his age no doubt would. He didn’t tell her he had probably been using computers for longer than she had known how to read.
He had installed the software and left the computer to restart. When the autumn landscape reappeared, in the centre was a small grey box that didn’t seem to belong to Windows. The message was: “What have you written today?” in a rather elegant Italic script, large enough to make sure he couldn’t miss it. He stared at it, checked it had nothing to do with the installation, then clicked the X in the corner to get rid of it. He strengthened his firewall settings, just in case it was something nasty, and downloaded a second anti-virus program. After that he opened the Quakers’ spreadsheet and thought no more about it; entering figures was always soothing. When he closed the computer he thought he glimpsed the box again, but it could easily have been something else.
The next day he had to do some more work on the accounts. As he opened the spreadsheet, the box was there again. This time it said: “You didn’t write yesterday, did you?” He clicked on the X and it disappeared, but its intrusiveness was starting to annoy him. Every so often he looked sideways at a corner of the screen, daring it to pop up again, but obviously it knew better than to try its luck. This time he shut down the computer, but the niggling message didn’t stay inside it. That evening he took his notebook out of the desk drawer where it had sat for all those months and made a few annotations to one of his draft articles. Not many, but enough to waken his interest. If it wasn’t writing, it was something. He was so involved with it that he missed a documentary on the early days of the peace movement.
He didn’t use the computer the following day; he didn’t write either, and spent his time in the garden. The day after that he had to look up the trains to Northampton, where his sister lived. As the computer screen filled up with autumn leaves and clever little symbols, the box told him: “You’d better get going. You haven’t done much so far.” He clicked and clicked to get rid of it, shouting at it to mind its own business. As his notebook was still on the desk, he wrote down the train times on the cover. Then he turned back to the article he had been working on and sat for a while thinking about it. After that he went to the bookshelf and found one of his books on the Quakers in the 1940s. Hardly realising what he was doing, he opened it at a page he had marked, found a clean space in his notebook and started making notes. The notes led into a paragraph, the paragraph into a new Word document.
Each time he opened the computer, one of the messages came up. Sometimes they were encouraging: “750 words yesterday. Well done! How about 1000 today?” Sometimes they nagged him, as before: “Nothing written for two days. Better get a move on.” He carried on writing to shut them up, and because it was interesting. Before he knew he had done it, he had drafted an introduction for the book and was sketching out a chapter by chapter plan that almost made the whole thing look possible. After he had worked on the book, he would amuse himself by typing in passages of reminiscence, drafts of poems, even one or two of the pieces he had written about Angela that he had sworn would never see the light of day.
One morning the message was: “You should show them to people. They’re good.” Before the next elders’ meeting he printed out a few of the more finished poems on secondhand paper – letters from insurance companies, pleas from charities for him to give more – folded them and stuffed them in his pocket, pulling them out after the meeting as if he had forgotten about them and handing them, other side out, to a few of his most trusted friends. One man, Richard Goodson, looked them straight away and said, “Hey, these are not bad.” Peter smiled as if he had been caught in the act and said, “Well, I’d better be going” before he could show how touched he was.
The next message was: “That’s better. Now we’re getting somewhere. Have a look at the poems.” He opened the first poem his friend Richard had seen and saw that the computer (was it the computer?) had marked with asterisks the lines it particularly liked, substituted what seemed to be a better word in one or two places, and coloured red the lines which it thought didn’t work. He would have argued with it, but it seemed the ‘dialog box’ left no room for dialogue. When he went through the poem, he found he agreed with most of the computer’s suggestions. He looked at the others and found the same, which made stop and revise them straight away. When he did so, the computer showed its approval with more asterisks and less red.
Prodded by the computer, Peter’s not-writing had turned into writing. He no longer saw his life as worthy but slightly sad, the way his university friends had seen it. He started looking for a dog, not a Labrador like Bruce but a border collie to be called Bertrand, after Bertrand Russell. As he worked on the book he thought how much Angela would have liked to see it, and wrote a dedication to her which turned into a tender love letter of a kind he had hardly ever written while she was alive. He wondered if he should dedicate the book to the computer as well, since it had been responsible for getting him to write, but he stopped short at that. Each day he backed up his work on a hard disc and at least one memory stick, and each day he prayed that the computer wouldn’t crash.
As he wrote more, the messages became more infrequent. One morning, after several days’ gap, the box said simply, “Keep writing” in bold letters. When he clicked on the X, the message wouldn’t disappear and the whole computer froze. He shut down and restarted, but the screen remained an ominous shiny black unrelieved by autumn colours. He tried again. Still black, but with a whirring noise that told him the fan was working. No matter how many times he tried, beyond the noise the computer was obstinately dead.
The engineer in the repair shop kept Peter’s computer for over a week before ringing up to say it was fixed. Peter kept on writing, in his notebook, on the computer in the library, on the backs of previous drafts. He missed his laptop’s messages, though: they had become like a friend talking to him. It was almost as if Angela had been gently encouraging him through them. When he collected the laptop, the engineer said, “I’m amazed you could get it to work at all – you had some very strange bugs in the system. Took me a week to get rid of them. It’s all clean and sorted now.”
Peter zipped the laptop into its case and carried it home as carefully as if it were a sick child. Before he had even taken his coat off, he started it up. The engineer had changed the autumn leaves to cherry blossom and the icons were arranged differently. Once they had all appeared he waited. There was no grey box. He shut the computer down and restarted it several times, but still there was no message telling him to write. He plugged in the memory stick, opened up his book document and read through what he had written last time. Once he started revising he was well away: the work had a momentum of its own and he didn’t need prodding. But he was surprised how lonely he felt. Dog, he thought. Writing class. Quaker meeting – he hadn’t been for the last few weeks. All of them would be better company than the computer. As he thought it he wished the box would come up, saying: “Go and find friends.” It seemed the least it could do for him.
It never came back. All he had of it, firm and clear in his memory, was the last message: “Keep writing.”