The Prologue to my Fantasy Novel
September 19, 2013
When I hear celebrities say they’re going to write a children’s book, I groan. That’s because I suspect they think children’s books are the easiest thing to write. Personally, I’ve had anything but that experience. I’ve toiled on a children’s book of my own for over a decade. It’s been an incredibly hard task. And this is why: because it requires telling a simple story that is layered. Without those layers, you just have a simple story that won’t linger in the imagination. If it’s complex book, then it’s not a children’s book. But if you can write a simple book that has resonance, that hints at greater complexity, so that the person who enjoyed it as a child can return to it as an adult and not be bored – then you’ve done it! You’ve written a children’s book.
Incredibly difficult, and not the sort of task suitable to a celebrity in their first foray into writing.
Well, after all my own industry, I still don’t know that I’ve managed to write a children’s book. I suspect I’ve instead created a tale for late teens and adults.
Anyway, here’s the prologue to my teen/adult novel below.
The other day I sat right through a three-hour movie and couldn’t wait for it to start. Naturally, I don’t want the same said of this book. So let’s start. Straight away, I mean.
Once upon a time (because that’s how all fairy-tales should begin) there was a woman called Dawn who’d just turned thirty-nine two years running. It was the end of the eighties so she had big hair that looked liked the cat sucked on it. She wore bangle stuff round her joints, and stuff that goes with that kind of stuff. She was considered quite fashionable.
Not only had she never publicly turned forty, or even forty-one, she had a child whose age questioned her own.
This child, or more specifically daughter, was (on this day we’re dealing with) just about to turn eleven. Her name was Nicola but, like anything that requires effort, was soon reduced in labour to Nicky.
In protest against her mother’s big hair, whether conscious or unconscious, Nicky’s hair was close-cropped and elfin. She had rather nice ears, not that I’m any connoisseur of ears, mind you, which helped the overall effect. As well as a rather petite nose – but we could talk features all day, and I don’t want to remind you, or myself, of that three-hour movie.
Nicky was hurrying to keep up with the wedge-heeled Dawn, as Dawn made her way from the tram along the shortest route she had calculated to her work, a route few dared intercept. Her ‘work’ was in a high-rise building, one of the tallest in that city at that time. Dawn rushed through the grand (as in, ‘all glass, no class’) entrance, Nicky in tow, the sliding doors opening and closing with haste lest they be smashed through.
The foyer was filled with the sort of art rich people buy. You know, crap. And when I say ‘filled’, I mean in a minimalist way which was the trend at the time and, I hate to say, still the trend today. The minimalist motto is ‘less is more’ but they mislead you through a swift swapping of prepositions. It is really ‘less for more’.
The foyer was slightly less minimalist on this day, unless you counted the other workers milling to and fro as moving sculpture, because there was a high, aluminium ladder, on top of which perched a workman replacing a busted light-bulb.
Dawn, with Nicky a few harried paces behind, passed under the ladder.
Immediately, Dawn stopped, Nicky colliding with her a moment later. Dawn’s eyes climbed the rungs of the ladder to the point where the workman perched. The workman stared dumbly down at her. After a few seconds, Dawn shrugged and made her way to one of the sets of lift doors. It was the first time her path to work had been stalled.
The floor numbering went from one to twelve, then from fourteen to fifteen. Number thirteen had been left out. Dawn huffed before pressing floor number ‘9’.
Now, as Dawn and Nicky wait for their lift, let me point out that this haste to begin work on Dawn’s part did not indicate any particular fervour for her job. It was simply how she attacked everything.
With a ‘ting’ or a ‘bing’ (I’m no good at onomatopoeia), the lift doors opened and in walked Dawn and Nicky, Dawn positioning herself at the controls so she could press ‘Doors Close’ whenever there was an annoying stop in her ascendancy to the ninth floor.
While Dawn adopted this fighting attitude (let’s face it, the only way most of us deal with beginning a day of work, which is really slavery), Nicky was stealing herself for another kind of onslaught: boredom. Spending a day at her mother’s work because she wasn’t deemed old enough to be left at home alone, was never terribly exciting. The adult world seemed impossibly dull to her. And a little miserable, too. It is.
The lift doors opened on the ninth floor. Dawn and Nicky, now alone in the lift, the other passengers along the way having all disembarked at lower floors, exited and surveyed the scene.
It was pretty depressing. Row after diagonal row of desks, each with their partition to stop distractions from, and distracting, others. Noisy with the peculiar ‘wildlife’ of buttons being pressed in the act of typing, and printers whirring in the labour of typesetting. Not much in the way of human sounds, and then only whispers except of course in the case of ‘superiors’. (And they say we live in a democracy). The window running the four walls of the floor was so heavily tinted as to be almost black – another way of reducing distractions and, let’s face it, interest. I could go on but that’s just the problem – I could.
From beneath her mother’s heavily garmented and brocaded arm, Nicky noticed one notable exception to this sea of sameness: a partition that was not covered in timetables, calendars or charts, but with a poster depicting wonderful, rolling, green hills. The particular person before this particular partition was a lass by the name of Lisa. Lisa had a floppy blonde fringe of hair that alternately covered each eye, meaning she had to turn slightly sideways to see you, the side dependent on which eye was covered at the time. She was like an overly manicured show-pony.
Unlike her daughter, Dawn did not take special notice of Lisa and her rolling-green-hills-partition-poster. Instead, Dawn allowed herself her only heavy intake of breath for the day.
With the exhalation, she said this: ‘Good morning, people. We can relax: Dawn’s arrived!’
She’d shouted it. Never mind that Dawn was a temping typist; to her, she was a saviour and making an entrance meant all.
Dawn’s immediate ‘superior’ (but we won’t go there), bobbed over. I say ‘bobbed’ because there was something stick-insect about him, but a stick insect with no facility for blending in. If he wanted to blind you, he’d only have to take off his shirt, he was that white. (And in the dimness of the room, that might prove a pretty effective weapon). The darkest thing about him, apart from a few miserable strands of hair on his head, was the fat and twitching moustache which held, grub-like, onto the underside of his snow-plough nose. It practically had its own life, it twitched so much. (Why people who can’t grow hair on their heads should bear such overstated pride about growing it elsewhere – I don’t know).
‘Dawn, the boss won’t be happy,’ rasped Lionel with his coffee breath. He then nodded to one of the many security cameras that waved their heads in an endless succession of ‘no’s’ along the walls and ceilings of the entire building to indicate from where and how, precisely, the boss was viewing them. ‘He just saw you walk under a ladder.’
Dawn’s eyes flicked to the nearest security camera, Nicky’s also. Who was this ‘boss’ watching them? While the fact of being spied on perturbed Nicky, Dawn wasn’t in the least fussed; she was used to it.
‘Oh ladder bladder, Lionel,’ said Dawn. ‘Mr Papoose’ – (the boss’ name) – ‘may think he’s gotten rid of the 13th floor by skipping the numbering from 12 to 14, but the 14th floor is still thirteen storeys up!’
Lionel pondered these words with an accompanying twitch of the nose and attendant moustache.
Dawn looked down at Nicky.
‘Walking under ladders!’ Dawn exclaimed. ‘I’ve already had over seven years bad luck with her; why not seven more?’
Nicky’s eyes shot up at her mother. She wasn’t too young to know she’d just been slighted.
Lisa, she of the floppy blonde mane and only one eye operational at a time, in her equally eccentric and rather high voice, interjected.
‘Oh, don’t talk like that, Dawn, I’m terribly superstitious.’
Lisa flipped her fringe to the other side of her face, turned her head to that side, and winked then smiled at Nicky. Nicky smiled back. Lionel observed the exchange from Lisa’s side and then, miraculously, for the first since she had arrived with her mother, noticed Nicky.
‘Dawn, you brought your kid again,’ was his response to his own belated observation.
Nicky retreated into the voluminous swirls of her mother’s attire. Dawn wasn’t so retiring.
‘Well, Lionel,’ she said, nose in air to demonstrate that it was unencumbered by a grub, ‘today was meant to be my R.D.O.’ (Rostered Day Off – I hate acronyms). ‘Someone called me in at the last minute. When are we going to get a childcare centre at ToyTower?
‘Yes,’ piped up Lisa. ‘Yes, you would think they’d have one here, at a manufacturer of kids’ toys.’
Lionel observed Nicky closer. ‘Can you staple, kid?’
‘Don’t do it, sweetie,’ said Dawn.
‘I don’t mind, Mum.’
Dawn was furious. ‘You should mind.’
Lionel ignored Dawn as best he could. He held up a large chrome stapler in one hand, and a sheaf of paper in the other. ‘It’s fun, kid. Look, you get to make the crocodile bite the paper.’
It didn’t seem that fun to Nicky but she forced a smile. Dawn gave Lionel a flick with her scarf.
‘Lionel, five bucks an hour.’
Lionel stood up straight. ‘Are you joking?’
‘I’m her agent. Five bucks an hour.’
Lionel’s grub twitched. ‘How will I explain that to Finance?’
Dawn huffed; it wasn’t her problem. ‘I don’t know – take it out of petty cash.’
Lisa slid her chair closer to Nicky, took her arm and leaned in close.
‘Be careful, Nicky: once you start, you’ll be here for life. How old are you?’
‘Ten!’ Lisa made one of those dreadful cooing noises to indicate she found being ten somehow adorable. ‘When do you turn eleven?’ she asked like it was interesting.
‘Today, at one o’clock.’
‘Today!’ More cooing. (I’m glad I’m no good at onomatopoeia; I’d make us ill.)
Lisa looked up at Dawn who was still sorting out with Lionel work conditions for her daughter. At the time, workers still had rights. I know, I’m that old.
‘Dawn!’ piped Lisa. ‘She can’t work on her birthday.’
Lionel looked down at Lisa. He actually opened his eyes wider than his usual squint. ‘Why can’t she work on her birthday?’ he whinged. ‘When do we not work on our birthdays if they don’t fall on a weekend? I turn forty on Friday. Do you think I’ll be told not to come in?’
Lisa did not make any cooing noises hearing that Lionel’s fortieth was pending. No one makes cooing noises when they hear your fortieth’s pending. It’s that kind of world also.
‘Mum and I were going to see a dog show today,’ said Nicky.
Dawn sighed. ‘Sheep dogs! She wants one, but it’s cruel to keep a sheep dog in the city.’
All three grownups signalled they were in agreement on this point by going, ‘Hmm, ye-es.’
Lisa saw the look on Nicky’s face – the grownups against her! – and tried to make her feel that she wasn’t being picked on. ‘Have you got your present yet, dear?’ she asked.
Before Nicky could answer, Dawn butted in. ‘No.’ She then half-addressed herself to Lionel. ‘But she can buy it with the money she makes today.’
Lionel’s nose twitched. ‘Dawn, I’m surprised you’re not running this business with that hardline attitude.’
Dawn was also surprised. Just where life hasn’t taken you – that surprises most people. Even the lazy and stupid. The phone rang. Lionel answered it gruffly. ‘Yes …? Altering his tone: ‘Oh, sorry, sir. Yes, I scolded her for walking under the ladder … Back to work …? At once!’ Hanging up: ‘That was him.’ Whispering: ‘Mr Papoose.’ Loudly, so the mike on the security camera could pick it up: ‘All right, can we get this moving?’
Lisa squeezed Nicky’s arm. ‘Sit at my desk, honey. I’ll photocopy; you staple.’
Dawn and Lionel departed to their respective desks. Nicky sat down next to Lisa.
Nicky decided she liked Lisa. Lisa seemed like the mum-type. More than her own mum seemed like the mum type, which wasn’t hard. Or like a big sister. Although Nicky couldn’t knowledgeably make that comparison. Oh, she had half-sisters and step-brothers. But no actual brothers or sisters. Although her friends at school who did have brothers and sisters didn’t like theirs. Nicky decided it was simpler to just think that Lisa seemed like a nice person.
The day wore on, accumulating in boredom. Stapling endless wads of paper – depressingly dull. From time to time Nicky looked up at the poster in front of her, of the rolling green hills. There was something so enchanting about it, so inviting, spacious. She wondered where it might depict. There didn’t seem to be a label. Lisa didn’t know either. She just saw it somewhere and liked it. She couldn’t remember where.
One o’clock. Lisa sang happy birthday to Nicky which was embarrassing, accompanied by several other equally sentimental colleagues. With that excruciating ordeal over, Nicky was about to go back to stapling when something caught her eye. She looked up sharply. There was a detail in the picture that she was sure hadn’t been there before: a jester-coloured hot-air balloon. There was something in the basket – a stuffed toy dog – moving. Yes, unmistakably moving! Nicky looked around for someone to tell. Lisa had wandered off to get more wads of paper she’d printed out. Everyone else seemed so busy. When Nicky turned back to the poster, the balloon and the stuffed dog were gone.
Lionel slammed down his phone and stood up.
‘I don’t believe it!’ he cried. ‘The lift is coming down from the 14th floor.’
Dawn appeared from behind a partition several metres away.
‘No way! Mr Papoose deigns to show himself?’
Laughter from some of the girls.
Lisa appeared from behind another partition. ‘Mr Papoose?’
‘He’s coming down to our level,’ said Dawn.
‘Quick, people, stand to attention,’ rasped Lionel. ‘What an honour!’
Nicky turned to Dawn, who had just joined her at the desk. ‘Why is it an honour, Mum?’
‘It’s not. It’s a surprise, that’s all. Mr Papoose has not come down from the top floor in three years.’
The office workers in the front rows stared at the lift doors. The rows behind strained to stare at the lift doors. The doors opened. Nothing, seemingly, then everyone lowered their eyes. (The office workers in the back rows, upon doing this, only succeeded in seeing the backs of those in front of them.) On the floor of the lift was a stuffed toy dog. Nicky gulped. Everyone turned to her then back to the stuffed dog. A sheep dog, with a collar and, in the centre of the collar, a bright red jewel.
Dawn was the first to respond.
‘He’s a little shorter than I imagined,’ she quipped.
Lionel was devastated. He’d never met Mr Papoose, but he’d always dreamed of Mr Papoose one day personally thanking him for his sterling work. For a brief moment, he though that day had come. ‘Is it a joke?’ he asked, peeved.
A light lit up in Lisa’s head. ‘It’s a present!’
Lionel turned to her. ‘For whom?’
‘Nicky, of course. He must’ve heard it was her birthday.’
All looked at the various video cameras with their microphones. This satisfied the bulk of them and they sat back down to work. Dawn remained standing.
‘I whinge about a pay increase and my daughter gets a stuffed dog. That’s buying off a genuine complaint with cheap sentiment.’
Several of her colleagues tried to shush her, pointing to the microphoned cameras. Dawn turned to the nearest. ‘I don’t care who hears it.’
Lisa looked down at Nicky. ‘Aren’t you going to get your present?’
Nicky turned to Dawn. ‘Can I, Mummy?’
‘He’s trying to buy you off. Take the money instead. That stuffed pet must be ancient. You can get a new one.’
Nicky looked at the stuffed toy. Yes, it was ancient; yes, it was moth-eaten. In places, the fur had worn down to material. But it was exactly the present she had in mind –well, as close enough to the real thing. Nicky turned back to Dawn.
From those office workers still listening, there came several cries directed at Dawn to not be so uptight, give the girl what she wants, and so on. Dawn turned a withering glance on the room. While so occupied, Lisa stepped forward, picked up the dog, took it back to Nicky and handed it to her.
Dawn turned around. She directed her withering glance at Lisa who almost crumbled and snatched the toy back. But Nicky had it hugged tight. Dawn turned her stare to the nearest camera. She knew her stare was more lethal in person but it could still sting in relay.
‘She’s still taking the forty bucks!’ she yelled.
Dawn walked over to Nicky and prized the dog from her. For the first time, Dawn noticed the jewel in its collar. Her plastic surgery eyelids opened that bit wider.
‘Would that be sapphire?’ she whispered. Nicky, Lionel and Lisa, the only ones in earshot, quickly returned to the scene and stared over her shoulder. Nicky, who was also in earshot, didn’t care about the sapphire. (Youngens generally have their priorities in better order).
Dawn’s eyes narrowed as much as they could. ‘What would you know!’ she huffed. ‘Plastic!’
Disgusted, Dawn dropped the toy dog into Nicky’s waiting hands. Lisa knelt down.
‘What will you call your dog?’
‘He has a name here on his collar: Rogun.’
Lionel, who was still rousing himself over his disappointment that Mr Papoose didn’t personally deliver the stuffed toy, looked at the dog more closely.
‘I haven’t seen this brand in our stock. Oh well.’ Nodding to the camera: ‘Thank you, sir.’ To the others: ‘Back to work.’
Nicky sat back down at the desk, with Lisa beside her. On the table: Rogun. Nicky looked from Rogun to the poster of rolling green hills. ‘What had just happened?’ she wondered to herself. ‘What amazing thing had just happened?
Whatever the answer, one thing was clear: Rogun was a more wondrous present than any forty bucks could buy.