Short Story by Bastiaan Remmelzwaal
Nine finished, one to go. David Hockley conceived the idea while browsing in his favourite second hand bookshop in the town of Eastbourne in East Sussex, a resort town on the southeast coast, which is commonly regarded as the sunniest place in England; a fact that has absolutely nothing to do with this story, so you might as well forget that. Although it was nearly a year ago, he remembered his lightbulb moment as if it had happened yesterday. At St Luke’s Hospice, books were neatly arranged by category. He liked that very much; which may or may not be related to a compulsive disorder that his wife accused him of having. Whatever his state of mind, he always reminded the staff that used books should be sanitised properly before being shelved. Whenever he needed a new story for his project, David would head straight for the fiction section where he searched for volumes of short stories by writers of the distant past.
Until recently, he had more or less given up on his lifetime dream of writing a book and having it published. Not for a lack of trying, mind you. Sadly, both his attempts; ‘Murder at Brighton Hotel (69,534 words)’ and ‘Death on the Thames’ (76,006 words) had been rejected on numerous occasions by countless publishers. He had made endless corrections to the manuscripts, changed the plots, changed the titles, submitted them again and again. To no avail. He kept the rejection letters neatly stacked in a cupboard, tied together by coloured ribbons; each year represented by a different colour ribbon. The letters all looked the same. ‘Thank you for sending us your manuscript (no title of his book given). Unfortunately, on this occasion, we are not in a position to… We wish you every success in the future and please do not hesitate to…’.
But now, his brilliant idea would change all that. At last he would reveal to his friends and family, as well as to the world at large, the established writer who he truly was. He would publish a book with short stories that would impress publishers and critics alike. Stories that captured the imagination of book lovers. It would take the literary world by storm. Journalists would queue up at his front door for interviews. Readers would not be able to put the book down and facetiously blame him for sleepless nights. David dreamt of his book going viral. He had thought it through for months and was convinced that his plan was fail proof. This would be his stepping stone to fame. After his premiere, the world would be waiting in anticipation for sequels. He had his two rejected books at the ready to fill that need without delay. With three books published, he would rest on his laurels and bask in the glory of his achievement.
In order to produce his book of ten short stories in exactly three months, he would have to write five hundred words per day, weekends inclusive. That would make for a total wordcount of approximately forty five thousand, which he judged to be acceptable for a book of that type. During the week he worked on his book as soon as he got home after work, before dinner was ready. Josephine Thompson, his wife, admired him for managing to write so efficiently. That is to say she admired him, knowing full well that nothing would come of it. Which, some may argue, is a key characteristic of a happy marriage. Every evening, dinner was served at half past six. David always finished his writing for the day at six o’clock sharp, give or take a few minutes. That left him enough time for his pre-dinner gin and tonic. During weekends he tended to procrastinate but he always managed to get his writing task done. This had been his routine for almost three months now.
For his final story he had chosen one from a volume by a female writer by the name of Pamela May Ascot. After many hours of reading all her stories, he had selected ‘The Perfect Burglary’ as his short story of choice.
He put the book in front of him next to the keyboard and copied the first few paragraphs of the story into his manuscript.
“Simon ensured his friends that it was a brilliant plan and that there was no danger of them ever getting caught. They would enter the Musée d’Orsay through the back door at around eleven o’clock at night. Charles had the all the equipment that was needed to override the security system. The painting, a composition by Picasso, would be replaced by a perfect replica. The fraud would not be detected for hours, days or even weeks…”
As a student, David had taught himself to type with ten fingers, without constantly looking at his keyboard. A secretarial skill that had greatly benefited him ever since. Typing five hundred words took him no more than ten minutes. It left him with a generous three quarters of an hour to do the transformation.
“Ethan ensured his friends that it was a brilliant plan and that there wasn’t any danger of them ever getting caught. They would enter the Musée de l’Orangerie through the side door at around twelve o’clock at night. Lukas had the all the equipment needed to override the alarm system. The painting, a composition by Monet, would be replaced by a perfect replica. The fraud would not be detected for days, weeks or even months…”
He sat back in his chair, crossed his arms and proudly observed his handiwork for the day. He tweaked a few more words here and there and then saved his work. Another five hundred words done. He considered giving this final story the title ‘The Stolen Painting’, but he was still in two minds about that. In any case, it was time for his well deserved drink.
‘Just over a week to go now’, he told Josephine as he tucked into a generous helping of shepherd’s pie, which is a popular dish throughout the United Kingdom made with lamb and topped with mashed potatoes. The reader is hereby notified that this fact has again nothing to do with this story. David could have been eating plum pudding or sushi for all I care and the outcome of this tale would have been just the same. In any case, David kept the content of his new book to himself. Although one evening, after consuming a triple helping of gin and tonic, he did confide in his wife that his stories were quite excellent and she could look forward to reading them.
David had been happily married for almost thirty years. For most of that time he had worked at the local branch of a bank. He spent his days processing routine transactions. Cashing checks, depositing money and collecting loan payments. He could do most of that work with his eyes closed. Yet, he possessed no ambition whatsoever to be promoted. His rather mindless job with regular pay suited him very well. While dealing with customers, it allowed his mind to wander. He imagined himself walking around bookshops in the high street, casually picking up one of his books and leafing through it. He would buy one and casually mention to the young lady at the counter that he was the author. She would be lost for words as he signed the book and gave it to her as a present.
‘Murder at Brighton Hotel’ had taken him seven years to complete. He blamed family commitments for the slow pace of progress, even though he and Josephine did not have any children. Neither did they have many relatives that could be blamed for the lack of opportunity to write. At some point, Josephine had given up telling David that he watched too much television and that he drank too much and too often.
Today was Saturday. David planned to spend some time this morning on his writing project, so that he could watch soccer on television for the rest of the day. Unfortunately, he had forgotten about their plans to visit Josephine’s mother at the nursing home, which they did every second week. Knowing his wife, there was no way of getting out of it, and also no point in complaining. On their way to the nursing home, they stopped at a bookshop. Old Mrs Thompson was an avid reader of all sorts of books, detectives and crime in particular.
During one of their previous visits to the nursing home, David had told his mother-in-law that he was working on a collection of short stories. It was something that he had said without thinking, during a lull in the conversation. He regretted it instantly. Mrs Thompson showed a keen interest and asked him whether she could perhaps read some of his stories in advance. David had smiled at her and gently refused for reasons that he was still working on them. But after some prompting and persistent stares by his wife, he had given in. On a next visit he presented the ailing Mrs Thompson with copies of a few of his stories. In truth, he was quite proud of his work and was looking forward to her opinion. Not that her opinion mattered to him, but still. A confidence boost at the last mile wouldn’t do him any harm.
Mrs Thompson, although increasingly poor in health, could most days be found at the rather extensive library of the nursing home. The library bulged with donated books from departed residents. She would recommend books to readers and make sure that the library index system was kept up to date. She also kept a large collection of personal books in her room and had a fantastic memory of all of them. Books by Somerset Maughan, George Orwell, James Joyce, Tolkien, Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf and many others.
‘Hello mother’ said Josephine. ‘How are you feeling today?’ Her mother, at the ripe old age of 86, had visibly deteriorated since their last visit. The nurse in the lobby told them that Mrs Thompson had recently suffered a mild stroke. At least that is what they suspected, as the symptoms were quite mild. Mrs Thompson had shown signs of trouble walking and some lack of balance. Just to be sure, the doctor had been called in and he had recommended that Mrs Thompson be moved to the local hospital for observation, should it happen again. Josephine and David’s visit therefore proved very timely, as a decision may needed to be taken soon.
As they entered mothers’ room, they could see that things were not well. She looked pale and showed no intention of getting out of bed. But she smiled at them as they stood next to her bed and Josephine held her hand. After a while, Mrs Thompson felt well enough to get up and sit in a chair. David was keen to find out what mother thought of the short stories that he had given her to read. It occurred to him that she may not have been well enough to even look at them.
As if reading his mind, Josephine noticed David’s printed stories on the bedside table. ‘Did you have time to look at any of David’s stories?’ she asked.
‘Oh yes, dear. I certainly did and I enjoyed all of them.’ She looked at her daughter. ‘You know, your David is very gifted. I can’t wait to see the rest of his stories.’
David had expected some sort of a positive reaction, but he was still pleasantly surprised. Her feedback confirmed that he would soon be the famous writer that he deserved to be. Not long now, just one story to finish and then let the applause begin. His mind filled with visions of grandeur, wandering to a future of book signings and public speaking arrangements. After a standing ovation, he was handed a microphone to address the crowd. Also on his agenda was starting an online mentoring course for aspiring writers. That would be an ideal retirement project and combine well with the unavoidable travel that prominent writers have to put up with.
Josephine waved at him across the bed. ‘Hello David, are you still with us? Where are you? Mother is asking you a question.’
David had to shelve his pleasant dreams and tried to refocus his attention to the here and now.
Mrs Thompson, despite her frail condition, was keen to continue the conversation about David’s book. ‘You know something, David? It’s very odd, but one of the stories that you gave me to read reminds me of another story that I read a long time ago. I am talking about your story that is called “King of Spades”. I remember the other story quite well, because it was also a really good story. It is one of those stories that stay in your mind. You know what I mean? What was the name of that writer again? Let me think. Ah yes, Crumley, George Crumley. It is uncanny, really. I remember that he wrote just one book, one single book with short stories. His book was published, but not reprinted or anything. The problem was that there were only one or two good stories in his book. The rest was really not worth reading. That is what the critics wrote at the time and they were absolutely right.’
David was getting rather nervous at this turn of events. Who on earth would remember a story published almost a hundred years ago by a fairly unknown writer. He swallowed a few times and somehow managed to put on a calm voice and respond. ‘Indeed mother, that is quite interesting. But I guess with so many writers and so many stories, coincidences like that are bound to happen.’
At this point, much to David’s relief, Josephine stood up and asked to be excused for a visit to the bathroom.
David took the opportunity, stood up also and asked Mrs Thompson whether she liked the flowers that they had brought for her. It proved to be a failed attempt at diverting the conversation. Alas, there was no way of stopping Mrs Thompson talking about the story that she remembered. David was getting increasingly anxious and pretended to only half listen to the ramblings of his mother-in-law.
‘You know, David, I have that book on my shelf somewhere. It is called “Irish Crime Stories”, or something like that, I don’t quite remember. I do remember that it has a bright green cover. That’s the Irish green, I presume. Now what was the name of that particular story in that book? I remember reading it several times, it was that good. Now let me think… Ah yes, it was called Jack of Hearts. That is what the story was called, Jack of Hearts. What about that, even the title of it resembles the one of your story. How remarkable is that!’
David’s heart was beating faster than it had for a long time and for all the wrong reasons. Josephine returned from the bathroom, just as David was saying to Mrs Thompson ‘Ah well, I am sure it is just a coincidence. You are better of just forgetting about it.’
‘No my dear, the more I think about it, there is just too much resemblance. I will look for that book first thing in the morning. It is somewhere on the shelf behind me, in the corner somewhere. I suspect that it is one of very few copies still in existence of that book. I am just too tired to look for it right now. Yes, I will do that. Actually, some of my friends from our book club are coming to visit me tomorrow. I am sure that they will be interested, especially John and Peter who are editors for a publishing house. We will look at the two stories and compare them. I will ask the nurse to make some photocopies of both stories. I am very excited about this.’
Even before they left the room, Mrs Thompson fell asleep. They got into the car and feeling rather shaky, David let Josephine drive. ‘Ah, just wait a minute dear’ David said, ‘I must have left my mobile phone with your mother. Let me tiptoe into her room and get it.’ He got out and went back into the building, while his wife waited patiently for what seemed to be a very long time. She was about to repark the car, when David returned, rather out of breath. She did not notice that he hid a book under his coat. A book with a green cover.
They found Mrs Thompson dead in her bed the next morning. Her pillow was lying on the floor, as were her reading glasses and water jug. The doctor concluded that she must have suffered a seizure of some sort, although he was rather puzzled by signs of suffocation. It looked to him as if, in her dying moments, Mrs Thompson had struggled or perhaps tried to grab in vain the house phone on the bedside table. Nobody was able to explain the bruises on her arms. A tearful Josephine told the doctor and nurses how only yesterday her mother had seemed to be in fairly good health. Nobody took much notice of David who absentmindedly studied the books on the shelves to see if there were any of interest.
Josephine was of average intelligence, but going over events she did eventually put one and one together. The morning after the funeral she decided to pay a visit to the police station. She spent over an hour with inspector Cooper, who did not hesitate to issue an arrest warrant for her husband. David was sentenced to ten years in prison. Josephine visited him only once, after a month or so, for the sole purpose of having their divorce papers signed.
While incarcerated, David managed to write yet another book. He firmly believed that this one surpassed all previous attempts in terms of sheer excellence. The book was about a writer who made his living by copying work from other writers and taking the credit for it. The story ended with a perfect murder whereby the victim ended up at the bottom of the sea.
David was proud of his latest accomplishment. Sadly, none of his fellow inmates showed any interest in his work. There were a few who did read, but with a sole interest in a certain type of illustrated magazines. In any case, none of David’s work was ever published.
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