Story: The Critic

"I'm going to send it," said Sharon whilst passing a can of baked beans past the radar scanning device. Beep. "I asked Mrs. Fenerly at the hair-dressers and she told me what to do. Real writers send their stories to magazines." Beep.

Karen who was on the counter opposite was having rather more trouble getting the radar to read a bottle of shampoo. "You always said you were going to be a writer. Why, I remember when you wrote that poem about Johnno, when was that, 2nd year in high-school? It was so lovely and it made me cry. I remember thinking then that this girl's going to be a writer. Price check at counter 13."

"This story is good. I have a real good feeling about it. It's kind of personal but it's not autobiographical or anything. It's really creative. I have been working on it for ages but it takes forever for the words to come," said Sharon. "I am going to get published. You know you get paid real well if the big magazines print you".

"It's a ticket out of this joint - that'll be the day. Promise me if you get famous like Jackie Collins, you won't get airs and walk around with a stick up your ass. You won't turn into one of those Booker-prize wankers, will you? "

"You know me. Of course not. Anyway I'm knocking off early today so that I can go right this afternoon."

"That's sudden. You have been thinking about this, haven't you?"

"I've got the address, look here," said Sharon as she pulled out a grubby and yellowed piece of paper that had been ripped from a magazine, "the name of the place is Jeremy Baxter Publishing, "We do stories and articles, and we pay real good". This is it Karen. This is my ticket out of here "

Later that afternoon, Sharon found herself in front of an old building. Not necessarily run-down but not in a healthy condition either. In a faded sign above one of the doors were the words Jeremy Baxter Publishing. Taking a deep breath, Sharon entered the building, climbed the stairs and found herself inside the office.

It was a ramshackle affair. Dossiers strewn all over the place. Coffee stains all over the tables. There were a handful of people in the office all doing their own thing, all seemingly obvious to the stranger standing just in the open doorway. The smell of paper was in the air as well as a hint of dried fish. In one corner was a half-dead pot-plant. The leaves of the plant was almost green and cigarette butts were piled up inside the pot. Grimy windows let in some light though you could see that the people who worked here were not naturally outdoors type people.

It was a good 15 minutes before someone noticed that Sharon was standing in the doorway. A thin emaciated woman wearing a orange floral print skirt and thick black rimmed glasses looked up from her computer. "What do you want?"

"Sorry, ur.. I mean I want to print a story. Is that okay?"

"This is a magazine dear. What do you think we do? Are you ..", the girl glances to a fil-o-fax lying open on the desk, "...Councilor Maximillian. Ur, no, you can't possibly be the councillor. Come to think of it, who are you? Are we expecting you, do you have appointment?"

"Er no, I just thought.."

"JEREMY, WE HAVE A WALKER" shouted the floral girl.

"WHAT" came the muffled reply from one of the offices.

"Look just wait and someone will come and take care of you."

"Ok." said Sharon. After a few minutes wait, Sharon tried to make some light conversation, Sharon asked, "What's your name?"

The thin girl mumbled something as a look of irritation flashed past her face. "Look, um Jeremy, our editor will be here in a second. He will ll take care of you." The thin floral girl turned back to the computer, eyes fixed back on the screen. Although Sharon couldn't see to clearly, it looked like the thin girl was playing a game of Solitaire.

"Umm," asked Sharon, who was about to ask another question before realizing that floral girl wasn't going to answer.

Sharon shuffled next to the pot-plant and waited for Jeremy the editor to arrive. She casted a dejected look to the click-clacking of computer screen punctuated by sounds of phones being answered. It was a bewildering experience, just like the first day of high school, thought Sharon. The people in the office were talking in a strange language - ostensibly English but yet not it. They were doing things that did not look familiar and the purposes of which were alien to Sharon.

"Yes", a baritone voice crashed through her reverie. It was a tall lanky Englishman, his noticeable 3-day growth giving him a deathly pallor. "I'm Jeremy", introduced Jeremy as he slid his left hand nervously over his newly cut crew-cut, as if his hair-dresser had left irritatingly prickly bits behind. His other hand was clutching a glossy folder with a woman in some kind of glamor photo.

"I'm the editor". Jeremy flashed a smarmy smile full of so much unauthentic fakeness that it was deeply felt. He thrust out his hand. Sharon froze. "Hi, I'm the editor." said Jeremy again. There was again no response. This pause lasted a few more seconds before Jeremy tried again, "I'm the man who reads the articles."

"Ohh." silence again.

"So what can I do for you?"

"I want you to print my story."

"So what kind of story is it?"

"It's, it's, it's..It's a story about " stammered Sharon, eyes darting in many different directions. "...who's that?", asked Sharon pointing to the woman on the folder.

"That is my wife, " answered Jeremy with relish. "Do you like it? I, I mean we, got it done last year. I met a glamor photograph in an interview last year and he got me a 40% discount. My wife wasn't too keen on it at first, but I talked her into it. Anyway, with the deal I could get a whole suite of stationery. It's rather fetching don't you think?"

"I like her haircut."

"She's Swedish you know. Hmmm. You look a little stressed. Why don't you come to my office and we can discuss your work there. You'll be more at ease there." Jeremy sauntered towards his office, and as he passed the floral girl, he bent over and whispered something in her ear. The girl laughed. As Jeremy walked past, her forced smile quickly gave way to a Why-me look up at the ceiling before she turned back at the computer. Sharon followed Jeremy into his office.

Inside, Jeremy sat himself down behind a large mahogany desk that had seen better ago. Deep scratch marks covered what was once a handsome piece of furniture. Filing cabinets were crammed floor to ceiling and a set of broken blinds covered the window. Photographs, articles were crammed all over the desk. Somewhere amongst the jumble of things on the table, Jeremy found an almost empty bottle of cheap vodka and Jeremy poured himself a drink. "Want one?", he asked before downing the shot in one quick practiced action. "Ahh. Better. Now, what would you like to submit"

"It's a story I wrote. I wasn't sure if I could publish it but Mrs. Fenerly said it's really good and I had always wanted to be a writer and stuff and then I thought what the hell, I'm 30 and I've never done anything this crazy before and it's like a story about a girl like me but only a bit and not really like me and .."

"Why don't you let me have a look at it?"

"Ok", said Sharon as she took a battered manuscript out of her handbag. She gingerly handed over to Jeremy who whipped it out of her hands. Jeremy opened the manuscript and quickly skimmed. "Mmmmm, I like the hearts over the i's, very nice. Listen. I've got some free time. Why don't you run out for a minute, for a coffee or something and give it a quick read. Oh, nothing serious and we'll talk about it, in say 20 minutes. Agreed. Good. See you in a tick."

Suddenly Sharon found herself standing outside the office in the street. The buzzing of the traffic building up to a slight migraine. Sharon wandered over to a coffee cart. I'm a writer now, she thought, and ordered a cappuccino. Sipping from the styrofoam cup and looking out on the street, the world seemed a more interesting place, where plots happen and stories come to a thrilling end.

Sharon was back in Jeremy's office. To her expectant eyes, Jeremy's demeanor had taken on a rather debonair air, tough and rugged, in a writerly kind of a way.

"Well, Sharon. This is your first attempt, right?" Sharon gave an imperceptible nod. "I am fully aware of the difficulty of being a writer."

"Yes. Yes"

"It's a tough profession. God knows I've been in it long enough. Anyway, I've had a good quick read. My first impression is that you can write. I mean that you write good sentences." Jeremy picked up the manuscript, gripping it in his thin bony hand. The irises of Sharon's eyes widened. A warm fuzzy feeling emanating from somewhere at the back of her head flowed generously through the rest of her body.

Jeremy started leafing through the story. Sharon noticed a disconcerting amount of red ink through her manuscript that had not been there before. "However, how can I say this?" Jeremy looked a bit closer at one of the passages. He gave a tiny snort before continuing, "this doesn't really move me. I mean it seems like a perfectly fine story but, I don't know. It's kind of bland. Like right here. What the hell is this? A story about a double agent from the point of view of a double agent? There, right there, you've just killed story. Where's the suspense? You know she's a bloody double agent already. There's no surprise, no payback, no kick in the pants. A good story has to thrill. Has to go down, like, like, like a good shot of whiskey." On the word whiskey, Jeremy slapped his hand on desk and reached for the bottle of whiskey, drained the final dregs before continuing.

Sharon said something but a bit too quietly for Jeremy to hear. Jeremy strained hard to hear what she said, "What did you say? Speak up for chrissake. This is not the Spanish inquisition. Speak up"

"I just thought it might be interesting because most stories normally take the hero's side."

"But in a cheer-leading squad? How much cloak-and-dagger can there? How much suspense. If you're gonna try a crazy stunt like that, you're going need, oh I don't know, some MI5 agent or something, maybe a James Bond parody." Jeremy laughed at his own wit. "Throw in an exotic location - oh I don't know, Bali - no perhaps Africa" Suddenly Jeremy stopped, opened a drawer, and took out a dicta phone. He started to talk in his dicta phone, "idea for novel. Stop. soviet double agent, possibly MI5, set in Africa, throw in some history ya-da-da".

"Sorry Sharon. You never know when good ideas come, that's what V used to say," said Jeremy.

"V?"

"V was a very very special man. I never knew his full name. You know Sharon, the publishing world is a dog-eat-dog world but once in awhile, you'll meet a great man. V was one of the them. I like you Sharon. You're young, very fresh, I'm tell you a bit about V. We called him V because he was mysterious. But he was above all a great writer. Didn't publish anything though. Story was that he once a wrote a novel, one that took many years but when he finished it, V thought it was so bloody good he couldn't bear to see it published it. So he burnt it."

"He burnt it? That's awful."

"That's the kind of man we'll dealing with. Anyway, there was a group of us back then. About 8, no more than 12 budding writers. We'd gather in the woods, us and V and V would initiate us into all sorts of exercises to improve our writing. We'd hang upside down in the mountains trying to clarify our minds. V would teach us how to find special berries to get the creative juices going. We were even taught how to make our own writing ink out of animals we'd catch in the wild. Too bad he's gone now to a far better place ." A tiny tear welled in Jeremy's eye. "Anyway, where were we, yes. Story. You know V always said that there were only 5 basic story lines in the world.."

"There are seven"

"No, Five. Look, who's the bloody professional here? Right. There are 5 basic story lines. I'm reading your story and I realize that there are no characters here. Look, she doesn't say one interesting here. She just comes out with a mountain of cliches." Jeremy turned a section of the manuscript. "You know, your main character's kind of dull. She's keeps repeating these inainities, one of the other. Like here. And here. And here. Oh I could go on. And you know, she's like an emotional black-hole. Doesn't feel a thing while all those things are happening around". Jeremy detailed more and more of the personal problems of the main character. "Look here: cliché, cliché, cliché." At the sound of the word cliché, Sharon's face froze into a startled expression like the face of a deer trapped in the light of an oncoming vehicle. Seeing Sharon's face, a look of concern passed over Jeremy, "Are you okay? Is something wrong? Look I'm not being personal or anything, it's just a story ...I, I, .. Sharon, is your story autobiographical?"

"No, not really.. I mean sort of...", sobbed Sharon quietly.

"Look I didn't mean to mean it like that. I mean I just wanted to say that there's great potential here. Look, there's nothing in here that couldn't be improved with good writing."

Sharon sobbed even louder.

"Look ahh I didn't mean to be so hard. It just sort of came out. I mean I'm a professional and my time is precious. And you know, sometimes you just got to call a spade a spade, you know. And I do get a little carried away. Ha-ha", said Jeremy as he gave a smile, obviously meant to put Sharon at ease. Sharon was not at ease. "The long and short of it is, your story is not something that we can publish. I hope I haven't put a dampener on things. Anyway, I'll look forward to seeing anything else you might come up with." After waiting delicately for Sharon to respond, Jeremy finally declared, "I am afraid I have other things to attend to"

That last sentence managed to revive Sharon and she shakily got up and reclaimed her manuscript. Quickly, Jeremy walked Sharon to the door of the office. As he passed the floral girl, Jeremy paused, leaned over to Sharon, and whispered in her ear, "anyway, let bygones be bygones, how about dinner tonight at the Havana Club?" Not wanting to give a response Sharon quickly made her exit and never wrote another line again.