This was my first attempt at writing a crime noir detective style of character. I always really liked it as a concept – a character who understands he’s the lead character in a short story (I have always enjoyed the conversation he has with the woman at the bar) – but never really knew what to do with it, which is true of a lot of my short fiction. Often I use short stories to work on writing dialogue and character interaction. (You can’t practice that enough, as a writer.) And in this one, I also tried my arm at a genuine sex scene.
Years after I wrote this, I saw the Will Ferrell film, ‘Stranger Than Fiction‘, where the lead character hears the film narrator. It’s a really good film (an a good sound track!) but also just goes to show: somebody who is also creative and has an imagination, somewhere in the world, will eventually have a similar creative idea to you, or maybe within days, so publish fast, if you want to claim it!
A short story (originally written in 2000, updated in 2011)
By Nick Place
Parker leaned back from his desk, then stood up and walked over to the window. He gazed at the traffic for a while, resisting the urge to light a cigarette, and then glanced over his shoulder, trying in vain to look out from the page and snatch a glimpse of you, the reader. Of course, that was impossible, for he was nothing more than words on a page.
“You can’t blame me for trying, though,” he said. Not at all.
It was late in the day so Parker lifted the overcoat that was draped over his office chair, shrugged it onto his shoulders and turned off the light next to the door. He locked the door and tested the knob to make sure the door was firmly secure. Coming down the stairs, he could hear the swish of tyres on the wet tar and sighed, knowing he was bound to get wet, even aiming for the adjacent car park. At the street door, he again locked and tested the handle, then bunched his shoulders into his coat and dashed for his car. “Why is it raining?” he asked. “There’s no real need for it to rain. All that happens is I get wet.”
The rain came down.
His car was an old Holden, a 1987 sedan of the kind that can still be found if you go looking but are starting to thin out on the roads. The handles on the door barely worked, the driver’s side requiring a particularly practised double flick of the wrist to give. Rust had crept across the bottom of the doors and added a dark tinge to the roof, under the sky blue paint that was beginning to peel. But the car ran on dual fuel, had power steering and a bench seat. It was like riding around in an armchair and was still going strong, 300,000 kilometres into its varied and full life. Parker loved his car. It had cost him seventeen hundred bucks.
On this night, it took him to a bar. The Great Britain hotel to be precise. Featuring a TV turned into an aquarium above the bar and a home brew called “Piss”, the Great Britain was an anomaly among the dot.com offices, advertising suites and accountancy practices of Church Street, Richmond. It featured deep, plush armchairs, an open fire with benches where couples of small groups huddled, deep in conversation and Guinness. Parker had no reason to go there, other than it happened to be the author’s favourite pub.
It had stopped raining by the time he parked a hundred metres or so from Swan Street and walked back over the railway bridge to the hotel. Parker came through the corner door, the one near the pool table, and took in the faces, looking for anybody who might be familiar. There was the usual crowd of inner city types, wearing beanies against the cold and parading various shades of grey to black. A group of four were playing doubles at pool but they were crap. Parker moved on, towards the bar.
She was sitting on a stool, nursing what looked like a vodka and clearly on her own. Parker sighed an acknowledging grunt, a sign of lonely recognition and slid onto the next bar stool. It was a bad choice as leaning on the bar meant people would be reaching over you every few seconds or minutes, handing over cash and spilling over-flowing pots of beer. Or Piss. But Parker had no control over seating arrangements in his life.
“So, what do you do?” she asked once they had established she wasn’t going to instantly brush him.
“I’m the main character in a short story,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“Just what I said. I’m a fictional character in a short story. People are reading the story right now.”
She looked confused. She checked over both shoulders but, of course, had no chance to see where her world finished and the page began.
“Let me get this straight. You’re not real,” she said, looking earnestly at Parker.
“What is real?” he said; a well rehearsed answer. “I’m as real as the reader wants me to be.”
“And you’re in a story right now, sitting here in the Great Britain.”
“Yes. Talking to you.”
Now she was getting agitated. “I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that. A few minutes ago, I was a real person. I’ve got a life. I’ve got friends, family, a job. And now you say I’m reduced to some woman in a bar in a short story.”
Parker shrugged and took a swig of his beer.
She gazed at him for a long time. “Well, say something!”
Although she was sitting, she looked tall and willowy, using her left leg to balance even while squarely on the stool. She had an angular face but in a good way and her hair had a slight wave, just enough to rebel against attempts of control. She was in a black, full-length dress, with a cardigan over the top, one button done up near the neck. Well dressed but without trying too hard. Parker would guess that she was a graphic designer, maybe an editor of some kind.
“Actually, I’m a solicitor,” she said. “And this is what I’m talking about. People are out there, reading this, and making judgments about me on the basis of the author’s superficial sketches of what I happen to be wearing.”
Parker lit a cigarette and leaned on his elbows. “Look, I can’t help you,” he said. “You’re just going to have to deal with it. I’ve got my own problems, issues that he –” waving vaguely over his left shoulder “– whoever is writing this, has decided I have to deal with. If you don’t like it, walk out of the bar, go home and get on with your life. That’s all I can say.”
They both sipped their drinks, her mind working furiously.
“So where do I fit in?” she said suddenly.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, am I a major character, too, or just some bit part?”
“I have no idea,” Parker said honestly. “You are what you are. Like I said, you can walk out right now and nobody will stop you. Or you can hang around and see where it goes. You can stay for a page or a chapter.” He gave her an unexpected grin. “Want to go a few chapters with me, baby?”
“Well, that’s an original pick up line anyway,” she said. The two of them smiled.
Her flat was Edwardian, on the third floor of a four storey block, the door illuminated by a single bulb in an art deco shade that was presumably supposed to be a pearl shell. Inside, the walls were cream and large prints and paintings dominated the walls. The kitchen was a mess of unwashed dishes and old newspapers. Parker loved that. She wasn’t a neatness freak.
“Is that an original?” he asked, taking off his coat as he looked at a vibrant painting of surf, a lighthouse and the sky.
“What is original?” she asked. “It’s as original as you want it to be.”
“Not me,” said Parker. “I’m no more in control of this than you are.”
She turned on a CD – David Bridie’s first solo CD, “Act of Free Choice” – and they sat on the couch. She lit a joint and they shared it, silently dragging, waiting and then exhaling as the first couple of songs wound into the air. Parker shifted his weight so that his neck rested on the back of the couch, and he was looking slightly upwards into her face. They looked at each other for a long time.
“I could really get to like you,” he said.
“Mmmm,” she replied, her mouth turning up at the side before she lost it and her face became a frown. “Although the whole thing is kind of weird. I feel as though the whole world is looking through a giant window.”
Parker planted his hands, swung his weight and stood, walking over to the window where the lights of the city skyscrapers could be seen across the river and beyond the silo with the clock and the temperature gauge. He closed the curtains.
He turned back to face her and she crossed her arms in a pose. “You know that’s not what I meant,” she said.
He shrugged. “To hell with them all.”
The cardigan button came undone easily and he helped her free her arms. Then they kissed again, this time long and wet and without the urgency of the first clinch. They knew it was going to happen now, and could relax and enjoy the feel and taste of one another’s mouth, smell and skin.
Parker lifted his arms to the sky as she removed his T-shirt so that his chest was bare at last. She ran her hands over his shoulders and enjoyed the bunch of muscle in his chest, the flatness of his stomach. Then he was gently tugging the full-length dress, trying to move it over her legs and she had to raise her hips to enable the material to reach her waist. She raised her arms so that he could continue the lift, her red lace g-string now revealed along with her long, smooth thighs and a stomach with just the hint of a belly. But she suddenly lowered her arms and crossed her forearms across her waist. Parker stopped trying to lift the dress above her breasts.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“I can’t do it. They’re looking at my stomach. They’re hanging on every word until you get my dress off. They’re just waiting for us to fuck.”
Parker leaned back against the couch and stared at the roof before turning to look directly into her face.
“They don’t hang around,” he promised. “I’m sure they go away before we go too far.”
“Do you know that or just think it?” she asked him. “Can you really be sure?”
“No,” he said truthfully. “I can’t. But I choose to believe that the author has the decency to know when to stop; when to leave us on our own.”
She looked him in the eye and decided he had more experience of this whole fictional thing than she did.
She had whimpered as he first entered her, and now was moaning as his strokes became more urgent. Both were completely naked and lying on her bed, the doona thrown back so that they had all the room and freedom they needed on the vastness of the queen sized sheets. He was on top, her legs splayed to either side of his weight. Parker had insisted the light stay on so that they could enjoy each other’s bodies and now they were totally lost in the moment, her eyes shut tight as she moved with him and clung to him. His eyes only for her – the pale curve of her swaying breasts – the red smear of her nipples and the point where their bodies met.
They were both way too far gone to notice that the author, the bastard, had crept back into the room, bringing everybody with him.
Parker walked down the street, away from her flat, with her phone number in his pocket and every intention of using it, as soon as could be considered socially acceptable and not in danger of appearing uncool. Probably, lunchtime tomorrow. He hadn’t felt this way for a long time.
“Thanks for leaving,” he said out of the page. “I appreciated it. I know it must have been getting pretty interesting about then, when I asked you to go.”
Parker arrived at his car and performed the double wrist flick. The driver’s door opened and he slid into the seat, leaving the door open long enough to check which tape was in the player. It was Ben Harper and he smiled.
But then he sat for a long time, staring at the steering wheel and out of the windscreen before finally deciding to speak his mind.
“So, what happens now?” he said. “I can tell this is the end of the story.”
There was no point denying it but that’s the way it is. Stories have to end.
“Yeah, but that’s okay for you. You just stop reading, put down the book. Maybe make a cup of coffee and choose a newspaper instead. Go to sleep or go to work. Catch the train or phone your mother. Your life goes on. But what happens to me?”
It wasn’t a bad question. But it was also the end of the story. So long, Parker.
The End. (copyright, original fiction, Nick Place)