Short story: All The Clearing House Darlings by Rhiannon Lewis
You’d be amazed at the characters we get in here. They come in all shapes and sizes. And temperaments; don’t talk to me about the temperaments.
What you have to appreciate is this: it’s a traumatic thing, what’s just happened to them. For example, we had a guy arrive here, smart, good-looking, nicely cut suit; he virtually exploded through the entrance as if he’d been shoved in with a broom.
He started mouthing off about his indignation and his humiliation, how he’d been destined for greater things (aren’t we all, I said) and passed over for a less interesting bloke.
It took ages to calm him down, get his details, sit him in a chair with a cup of chamomile tea whilst the office manager filled in his forms. She has the patience of a saint, I swear.
Anyway, at first I thought he was going to be okay – they generally calm down in the end – but he started up again, claiming there’d been some catastrophic mistake, and insisting that Cheryl (that’s the office manager) check his details again.
He was getting louder and louder, agitating everyone.
We like a nice, calm atmosphere in here, scented candles, background chamber music – that sort of thing. After all, some of them are going to be here for a quite a while.
The final straw came when he leapt out of his chair and started pacing around, telling everyone they needed to help him get back to the ‘action’ – that’s what he called it.
I was trying to talk to a new arrival at the time and it doesn’t give a very good impression when you’re doing your best to be welcoming whilst someone else is strutting around, behaving like a demented cockerel.
I apologised to the woman and handed her my clipboard for safe-keeping. I don’t think I rolled up my sleeves. I may have done.
In any case, the general subdued chatter in the room stopped pretty quickly, which only made his ranting sound even louder the closer I got. I put my hand on his shoulder to let him know I was there.
He was harassing a Tudor merchant at the time and not paying any attention to what was going on around him. Mistake. He spun around. Thinking about it, I may have rolled up my sleeves.
I said, rein your neck in, mate, or something along those lines, then explained that the head offices were just down the corridor and that if they heard the ructions he was making he could forget about his chances of being recycled.
‘I don’t want to be recycled! I want to be reinstated!’
I said if I had a pound for every time I’d heard that.
‘I don’t care about your pound!’
Rude, I thought, and squeezed my fingers into his eye sockets, quite hard. He fell to his knees and started blubbing. I really hate it when they do that.
When I got back to the new arrival, she was quaking in her space boots, so I had to spend extra time, which I couldn’t really afford, trying to reassure her.
‘Don’t mind him, love,’ I said. ‘He’s just having a bad day.’
I told her to head for the office manager’s desk and she’d be given a nice hot cup of tea, and if she was lucky, some toast. She didn’t give us any trouble. In any case, two days later we got a call to say that she was being sent back over.
We just had to age her ten years and change the colour of her hair, even though you’d hardly be able to see it under the space helmet she had to wear. She wasn’t totally happy about the hair, or the ageing, but when it comes to it, they’re all much happier going back as someone rather than waiting around in this place, nice as it is.
The other residents gave her a lovely send-off. There was a lot of hugging and kissing. Cheryl even baked her a cake. They all said how happy they were for her, which is what they always say when someone goes back, but I know how miserable and jealous they are when that happens. It can’t be helped. It’s just the way it is. They can’t all be stars.
The only one who didn’t look miserable was him, the good-looking bloke in the sharp suit. He came up and sat next to me when I was having my mid-morning cuppa.
He said, ‘I apologise for being such a pain, but… ’
‘Apology accepted,’ says I.
He was dithering about asking something, I could tell, so before I started my second digestive – because there’s nothing worse than having to concentrate on someone’s wittering when you’re half way through a biscuit – I said, ‘Out with it’.
‘Does it happen often?’ he says. I wasn’t sure what he was talking about. Was he referring to the eye poke? So I say, ‘Not if everyone’s behaving themselves.’
‘Not that,’ he says. ‘The…’ and I’m thinking, for a smart bloke you’re not expressing yourself very well – which may have been his problem all along.
Then he says, ‘The recalls?
The official line
Now, at this point, I’ll be perfectly honest with you, the official line is that around ten per cent of them stand a good chance of going back, either as their original selves or as a variation of themselves.
Sometimes, they’ll have their timeframe adjusted, which usually just means a change of costume and learning some authentic vocabulary. Other times, their physical attributes are changed, but their basic characters remain the same.
Now and again, an entirely forgotten character is resurrected, right out of the blue. For a long time, we had this Roman orator. He’d spend most of his time tucked away in a corner, making notes for speeches.
No one took any interest in him for ages until this Classics professor wrote a column about him and hey presto, he was back in business. He’s been featured all over the place since then; prequels, sequels – you name it.
Cheryl made him a really nice carrot cake with buttercream when he left. He deserved it. He’d been as good as gold.
Most of them are pretty well behaved, but you can see why they’ve been sent here; something doesn’t quite ring true. They have a strange turn of phrase or they’re just plain boring.
Only occasionally you get a character that makes you think, why on earth are you here? They’re fizzing with possibilities. That’s when you realise that sometimes it’s a case of right character, wrong situation. Or right character, wrong writer.
Some authors wouldn’t know a good character if it hit them in the face with a damp fish. Sometimes, I feel like opening the entrance door and shouting, you cut the wrong one – idiot! That’s not allowed, of course. I’d lose my job pretty quickly if I did that.
This well-dressed bloke had everything going for him, apart from his dodgy communication skills. I really wanted my second digestive, and there was a new influx of arrivals due any minute; I had a fresh clipboard to prepare.
‘Not often,’ says I, thinking it was better to be honest. ‘Personally, I blame those writing retreats. Tutors are always saying cut, cut, cut. So that’s what they all do, these novices, until there isn’t much interesting stuff left, just two characters, a load of three word sentences and acres of tedious psychological analysis.
Sometimes there isn’t even any punctuation. You don’t know where you are. I can’t be doing with all that. In my view, a well placed semi-colon is a sign of superior authorship.’
Then, I had a thought.
‘You haven’t tried to be humorous have you?’
‘No,’ he replied, defensive.
‘Good, because that’s the kiss of death.’
He raised his dark eyebrows in that slick way of his.
‘Do you think they’ll… ?’
My digestive really needed to be eaten.
‘There’s no way of telling.’
I wouldn’t usually have offered any more advice, but there was something about him I liked.
‘Take it from me,’ I said, ‘you need to work on your full stops.’
Things took a different turn when Imelda turned up. According to the records, she’d been signed up for a debut novel set in South America.
She’d been the feisty love-interest of an unconventional sea captain but rumour had it she kept creating additional scenes that weren’t in the original outline. It was easy to see why. She was impossible to ignore. She needed a whole trilogy to herself.
The day she turned up, the double doors flew open with a crash. She stood there, full square in the entrance, her hands on her hips and her feet planted as if she was on the prow of a ship, wondering who she could commandeer next.
She scanned the room. I’ll be honest with you, I was flattered when her eyes lingered on me, even if it was only briefly. They landed, predictably, on Mr Suit.
‘Hola.’ Her gravelly drawl sounded like the Pacific Ocean retreating along a thousand South American beaches.
A perishing draught was coming in from outside and I was about to close the doors when she lifted her skirts, kicked like a mule and slammed them shut without even turning to look.
‘Qué está pasando, mis amigos?’
We didn’t need a translator to tell us she meant trouble.
I noticed one of Mr Suit’s slick eyebrows was paying a great deal of attention.
They hit it off, of course. Mr Suit stopped interrupting my tea breaks and took to sitting in the corner where the Roman orator had been.
Imelda would do a circuit of the room from time to time, stopping to share a joke, showing off the pair of Colt 45’s she had hidden in her skirts, or the knife that was tucked in a leather sheath above her ankle.
Eventually, she’d get back to her chair in the corner, right next to Mr Suit and they’d spend hours whispering and giggling.
The Clearing House Handbook says residents are allowed to make friends, so strictly speaking they weren’t breaking any rules. All the same, I suspected they were hatching something. I toyed with the idea of getting in touch with the authorities, but they don’t like being bothered by trivia. ,
Between you and me, I hoped their authors were about to be hailed as undiscovered talents so that they might both be called back to appear in brand new spin-offs.
We had a lot of new arrivals: an unnecessary third man in a murder mystery, a witty but surplus to requirements sous chef in a restaurant comedy, a talkative bus driver in a redundant short story. Some characters were called back up, like the retired angel and the artistic Viking.
One, a Venetian nun, was recalled just days after her author passed away. This big publisher wanted her for an unfinished manuscript they were going to pass off as the deceased author’s own work.
They’d already lined up the ghostwriter and the communications people had been working for months on their version of how the ‘hitherto undiscovered manuscript’ had been found, in the glove compartment of some abandoned classic sports car.
Luckily for the nun, she was still with us and hadn’t been passed down the corridor to Archives. Characters don’t often come back from there.
All this had been a big distraction, so it was a shock to look up from processing a group of medieval stonemasons to see Imelda pointing her Colt 45 right at me.
‘Now look here, Imelda,’ I said, trying to buy myself some time while I worked out how to disarm her without getting shot. I turned to pass my clipboard to one of the masons but they’d already grabbed their sacks and legged it to the furthest corner.
You can’t defend yourself properly when you’re holding a clipboard so I glanced across at Cheryl to see if she could help me out. Cheryl, as it turned out, had been tied up with a rope and all I could see above the masking tape they’d stuck over her mouth were two startled eyes and a pair of arched eyebrows. I guess she’d been trying to warn me that something was up.
Mr Suit shimmied forward in that slick way of his and relieved me of my clipboard. It was only then that I noticed the rest of them – the Dickensian clerk, the lovelorn shepherd, the Elizabethan lady in waiting, to name just a few – all gathered behind Imelda.
‘We don’t want any trouble,’ said Mr Suit. ‘We just want…’
I may have started rolling my sleeves up at that point because Imelda wiggled the gun at me and said something about me being her pequeño amigo, which was rather inappropriate, I thought, given the circumstances.
I like to think that, by then, I’d earned what you might call their grudging respect. In any case, it wasn’t either of them that dealt me the incapacitating blow. I didn’t realise it at the time (it was Cheryl who told me later) but it was the surplus to requirements sous chef – he was the one who came tearing out of nowhere.
All I remember was his manic eyes coming towards me like two unbaked dough balls. He’d been hiding a bain-marie under his jacket, and whack! I went flying. I wasn’t out for long but when I came to, the place was virtually empty apart from the medieval stonemasons and a couple of marketing managers.
The dust literally hadn’t settled and the entrance doors were wide open. A chilly breeze was blowing through and I could still smell Imelda’s perfume. The only sound was Cheryl’s muffled cries for help.
I was nursing an egg sized bump on my forehead and seeing stars but while I was sitting there waiting for some energy to come back to my legs I remember thinking, well, is that all it takes? A determined rush?
For a brief moment, I even found myself wondering whether it was too late to join them. Would I have time to grab Cheryl and make a run for it before the alarms went off? Who knows?
If it hadn’t been for that bain-marie I might have made it. I needn’t have bothered. Moments later all hell broke loose. It started with the sirens, then the flashing lights.
The point is, you can’t say ‘Kill all your darlings’ to people like authors and expect them to put their rejected characters to bed with a hot drink and a bedtime story. Of course they’re going to be brutal! Of course they’re going to be inventive! I had no idea they were usually so thorough.
It was probably a good job I was on the floor because when the machine guns started a whole load of stuff began ricocheting around the place. I felt really bad for Cheryl because she was still tied to her chair and more or less a sitting duck. It’s a miracle the bullets missed her.
The authors weren’t missing anyone else though; it was carnage. The entrance was splattered in blood and small bits of body parts. There were fingers and toes and even bits of hairy scalp. A large nose was catapulted under Cheryl’s desk.
Then they started with the bigger stuff. I don’t know much about artillery but no one was coming out of there in a hurry. The whole place was shaking; debris and plasterwork was falling all around us. It went on and on. It was a stark reminder of why we’d been set up in the first place.
Everything quieted down, eventually, apart from Cheryl’s whimpering, poor thing. I was wondering whether it was safe to get up and untie her when we heard a groan from the door. There was a scraping and a shuffling and Mr Suit’s face, or what was left of it, appeared on the floor.
Would you believe it — he was trying to crawl back in! All I could see was his head and shoulders but he seemed in a pretty bad way. He’d lost his slick jacket and his pristine white shirt was splattered with gore.
‘We nearly made…’ he groaned.
His hands came up to the doorframe. That’s when my years of training kicked in. Cheryl and I were going to get blamed for everything if we weren’t careful so I needed to take decisive action. I raced towards the door.
‘Help… ’ he croaked, groping his way in.
‘You made your bed’, I said. I put the sole of my boot on his dented forehead and shoved him back out.
‘Please, you don’t understand! I… ’
He was a pitiful sight, squirming in that pool of blood.
‘Mate,’ says I, ‘You had it coming. I told you to finish your sentences.’
He didn’t finish this one. I shut the doors.
He was still clinging on to them so I had to slam them over his fingertips a few times until he let go. We heard a determined round of machine gun fire and a very long scream. And guess what? The double doors are bullet proof! It’s good to know
It took a while to get over it. We drank a lot of chamomile tea. I’m not ashamed to say I missed them all for a while. There’s only so much fun you can have with a group of medieval stonemasons and a pair of marketing managers. Cheryl and I felt pretty morose until the new arrivals turned up.
That’s the trouble with a clearing house like this. It’s nice to chat, but you mustn’t get too attached. We get them in. We move them on. Some of the starry-eyed darlings are lucky enough to be asked back; their authors give them a second chance to shine. Otherwise, it’s Archives for them all in the end.
I can think of worse jobs.
But that’s enough about me.
Now tell me, what did you say your name was again?
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