The received wisdom is that when you conjure up a piece of fiction, such as a short story like this, you have to work hard to ensure its readers suspend disbelief.
They have to believe that the story you’re telling could have happened, if not in this world then at least in some parallel universe they can relate to. In fact, if your writing fails to invoke the suspension of disbelief you are not creating a work of fiction at all, but simply splattering weak words on a page; and reactions like ‘that would never happen’ or ‘this is bollocks’ are entirely justifiable.
As readers, we have to convince ourselves that what we’re reading is the truth, even though we know it isn’t. We perform this magic with our minds every day, without a thought.
Of course, the truth is, a work of fiction is no such thing. I mean, in every good fiction there is some fundamental truth that illuminates a corner of the human condition. And readers must not only get a glimpse of that underlying truth but also believe in the construct of character and plot that is used to carry it.
It’s complicated but that’s the trick you see, the trick of telling a successful story. It’s a bit like hypnosis. Have you ever been hypnotised? I haven’t (as far as I can remember) but once upon a time I engaged in the practice of hypnotising other people.
I must have read a book or an article or something and a girl-friend agreed to let me practise on her. It worked, it really did, unless she was very good at pretending to be hypnotised – but I don’t think she was that sort of girl. I can’t remember the details; it was a long time ago, when I was about eighteen.
Anyway, it scared me that I was able to control another human being like that, so I stopped doing it as soon as I was satisfied it was real and haven’t had any inclination to indulge in it since. I have casually researched hypnosis a bit, over the years, as you do, and my best guess is that part of our brain says – ‘I’ll go along with this, yeah. Why not.’ In other words you have to allow yourself to be hypnotised – to suspend disbelief, like when you read a short story or watch a film or a play.
I was talking to Kate about all the hypnosis and suspending-disbelief stuff in Chapter last night. (For those of you who don’t know it – Chapter is an arts centre in Cardiff – well, it’s the café-bar bit I’m talking about). Thing is, Kate wasn’t really listening. I don’t think she’d be an easy subject to hypnotise – I mean she’s lovely and all that, but her mind hops around like a colony of mad fleas.
Kate was only interested in talking about the film she’s working on at the moment. To be honest, I didn’t blame her – it was actually rather exciting, not the film as such, although that is probably exciting as well, but the fact that the Arts Council or the Film Council or someone had given her a grant or a loan or a subsidy of some sort, amounting to over two hundred and fifty thousand quid.
“Phew!” I said. (Well it was more an exhalation of breath that sounded a bit like ‘phew’.)
“It’s not as much as it sounds,” she said. “It’s an expensive business – making a film, especially when you’ve got someone like X on board.”
I’d better explain that ‘someone like X’ is a real person – a well-known, successful, and acclaimed actor in fact; but I promised Kate I wouldn’t reveal who it was if I came to write about our chat, like she knew I would. I write about everything, although not much of it is published, I wonder if this piece will be?
I don’t mind not revealing the name of the mysterious ‘X’ because it doesn’t have any bearing on what I’m trying to write about. In fact, my friend Kate is not really called Kate (well, she might be), and she may not even be a she. (She/he is still lovely though.)
I am allowed to write about the premise of the film Kate has written and is going to produce and direct, and I would write about it, but I don’t understand it yet, so while I try to figure it out let me tell you about what else happened in Chapter last night.
A man was dying.
His name was Ronald.
He was 87 years old.
He was an artist.
And a gardener.
He was small and nervous, like an emaciated squirrel.
He lived in a narrow terraced house a couple of hundred yards from the arts centre. He wasn’t a regular, though he had been in the late seventies when Chapter was young and he was barely fifty; he even had a studio there, he told me, but that was before he got married for the second time and became an instant grandfather.
I know all this and more about Ronald because over the previous few weeks I’ve chatted with him now and again, sometimes when we passed in the street, sometimes in Chapter, sometimes in Iceland (the shop). He’s always in Iceland – that’s where I first met him, he couldn’t reach the bottom of the freezer to grab the last box of potato waffles, so I offered to help.
Anyway Kate was yawning and I was yawning. It was getting on a bit for a school night, not far off midnight, and I was pretty knackered after a long day, so all I really wanted was to go home and crash out. By the time I was leaving Chapter with Kate it was getting a bit cold too, so I was looking forward to the warm bed that was waiting for me. We walked out of the café-bar through the rear exit, and there was Ronald, sitting all alone at one of the tables in the open-air courtyard – the chilly, damp area where those poor sad souls still addicted to tobacco gather and smoke.
Ronald wasn’t smoking. He didn’t look nervous either. He was sitting still and relaxed, his head tilted up, staring at what was visible of the night sky through the pollution of the city lights. We stopped at his table.
“Oh, hi Ronald,” I said. “You all right there?”
He turned his gaze towards Kate and smiled.
“Ah! This is Ronald,” I said to her.
“Hello Ronald,” she said. “Nice to meet you – I’m Kate.”
Ronald stood up and grabbed Kate by the shoulders, transferring his stare from the impenetrable sky into her deep green eyes. She looked apprehensive, but didn’t react. He started shaking, gently at first. I thought it was the cold, he was only wearing a thin cardigan – and for a man of his age, well, that was pushing it a bit.
The shaking got more vigorous and Kate’s expression changed from mild bemusement to open-mouthed perplexion; it was well on the way to wide-eyed terror so I thought I’d better intervene. I grabbed the old man’s own shoulders, eased him away from my friend, and pushed him, as gently as I could, back into his chair.
He slumped forward, sighing.
“Are you all right?” Kate asked, stepping forward and kneeling down.
Despite my tiredness and reluctance, I already knew what I had to do, so when Kate looked up and guilt-tripped me with that ‘go on then’ stare, my better, more giving side won through.
“It’s late,” I said. “Come on Ronald, let’s get you home.”
Kate smiled at me. It was my reward.
Ronald didn’t resist when we grabbed an arm each and helped him to his feet. It was only a five-minute walk to his house, despite his doddery progress. He fumbled his key from his pocket but couldn’t get it in the lock. Kate took the key from his hand and opened the door. Ronald lurched in, muttering about chemtrails and the World Government.
“Do you think he’s all right?” I asked. “Is he pissed or ill do you think?”
Kate shrugged and followed the old man into the house. I sighed and tagged along.
I’d never been inside the small terrace before but I’d imagined it to be sparsely furnished, neat, and old-fashioned. Turns out it wasn’t like that at all, it was a bloody mess, that’s what it was. We followed Ronald as he stumbled towards the rear of the house, squeezing past stacks of cardboard boxes and plastic bins that were crammed into the passageway and all up the stairs. We passed the open doors to the front-room and the living-room which were both chest high in more containers and bags overflowing with stuff – like blankets and towels and trousers and rope, like papers and books and leaflets; and everywhere, on almost every surface were unopened tins of baked beans in tomato sauce.
Most of the space in the large kitchen was filled with a similar mess, except for a small area near the sink where there was a tiny yellow Formica-topped table and two fold-up blue plastic chairs. Ronald sat down heavily in one of the chairs and his head dropped onto the table.
The old man sighed and a weird gurgling noise came from his throat.
“Fuck, he’s dead.” Kate said.
Half an hour later his body was driven away by an ambulance and half an hour after that, we were told we could go home. We did go home, to Kate’s flat anyway. We bought a bag of chips each on the way. I don’t know why. It was involuntary, like we’d been hypnotised. I suppose on some level we were complicit and allowed ourselves to be led by some internal hunger we weren’t even conscious of.
It only happened last night so things may still disentangle as the details emerge, but that’s all I know about the death of old Ronald for now. That’s the trouble when you tell the truth, when you write about something that actually happened – there are no neat endings.
It’s an impossible mess.