IN the latest instalment of The Write Stuff, showcasing the best of Scotland’s writers, we publish a book extract from award-winning screenwriter David Solomons.
Dear Jane, Thank you for submitting your novel, The Endless Anguish of My Father.
Ten years ago it would probably have received a warm reception, but there is quite enough misery to be found on the non-fiction shelves just now, so, in fiction, we’re currently very much into happy stories with happy endings.
At the moment we are enjoying wonderful success with a novel entitled Come to Me, an exotic and erotic tale of revenge and redemption, with a fabulously feisty female lead and a Hollywood ending. If you were willing to make some adjustments to the novel’s dénouement you might also be happy to entertain some other minor reshapings: set it in LA or Bangkok rather than Glasgow, say; make your main protagonist a jet-set-y interior designer, for instance, rather than a shelf-stacker; and tweak the key relationship so that, rather than one between father and daughter, it’s between our cosmopolitan interior designer—who is actually, despite her success and fabulous wardrobe, just a little girl at heart—and a father figure, who happens to be a domineering (but gorgeous!) film producer. If you were to reposition the novel in that kind of way, then I’d be very happy to reread.
You can certainly write, but these days it’s so difficult to launch a new writer—however talented—who’s writing about the wrong things.
I have recycled your manuscript.
Well, thought Jane, at least Cressida gets points for sustainability.
She made space on the notice-board — in a moment of dejection she’d referred to it as her Board of Pain, and the name had stuck — and pinned up this latest rejection, then sat back to admire the varied collection of publishers’ and agents’ rebuffs.
Until she began submitting her novel she hadn’t appreciated that there were so many polite ways to say no. Forty-seven examples, to date. The rejection didn’t hurt so much; the opinion of some woman in W1 she’d never met was of no consequence to Jane. She had survived far worse in her twenty-five years than anything Cressida — or Olivia or Sophie (so many Sophies)— could throw at her. But early on in the process she realised that the letters could be useful. There were writers who stuck inspirational messages over their desks to spur them on: you can do it…believe in yourself…open that window of opportunity! But encouraging slogans didn’t work for Jane; she shrank from their brimming optimism. She was far more likely to want to jump head first out of that window of opportunity. Instead, she bought the board at her favourite vintage store off Great Western Road, nailed it to the wall by the large bay window of her airy, white flat and artfully arranged the naysaying letters. She could hear their honking dismissals as she penned each new query letter and packaged up the latest hopeful submission. I didn’t love it. I didn’t love it enough. I hated it. Their lack of enthusiasm was grist to her dark Satanic mill.
The printer spewed out another copy of the manuscript, and as she waited for the four hundred pages of her thus far ill-starred debut to stack up she hoisted the sash window, leaned on the sill and took a deep breath.
The air smelled of trees after the rain. Half a dozen slender poplars lined the quiet West End street, in full leaf now that what passed for the Scottish summer had arrived. Beyond them stood a blond sandstone terrace, a mirror to the building Jane’s flat occupied. From the top floor someone practised the cello. The doleful strings drifted over the treetops, and suddenly the flats were miserable dolls’ houses with naked windows through which Jane glimpsed desperate lives: a raging argument between husband and wife, the tired old lady with no visitors, the self-harming teenage girl crying in her bedroom. On the street below a wan-faced young mother slouched behind a squeaking pushchair, cigarette jammed between chapped lips, flicking ash over a wailing infant.
The cellist took a break from his practice and reality was instantly restored. The windows revealed no more heartache than a tired executive mourning a slice of burnt toast, and in a patch of sunlight beneath the trimmed poplars it was a smart young mother wheeling a silver-framed pram, talking to her child in a voice as groomed as her suit.
Jane roused herself from her melancholy flight of fancy. This was the West End of Glasgow, a dear green place of well-kempt gardens, specialist delicatessens, and more convertibles per square mile than anywhere else in Europe.
She still couldn’t quite believe she lived here. She had grown up in the East End of the city. It was four and a half miles away, but may as well have been a million, her life until the age of sixteen spent in one of the brutalist tower blocks more readily associated with the mean city of legend.
Residents never referred to them as tower blocks; they were always the ‘high flats’. Plain language hid a litany of flaws as deep as their rotten foundations: walls thin as cigarette paper, alien mould choking every corner, a stagnant pool of water in the basement referred to with typical humour as ‘the spa’, and stairwells daubed with crude graffiti that always bothered Jane less for its vulgarity than for its incorrect use of the apostrophe (in retrospect, a clear sign of bookish leanings to come). She laughed when she heard people reminisce about growing up on the schemes: ‘Aye, we might have been poor, but we were happy’. What a load of crap. It was a miserable place to exist.
She’d only got out thanks to her mum. She remembered the letter arriving on her twenty-first birthday. It was from her mum, which came as something of a surprise since she’d died fourteen years earlier. They’d had so little time together that now when Jane tried to picture her face it was like reaching through water. Turned out mum had squirrelled away most of the wages she made at the Co-Op in some kind of get rich quick scheme invested in Jane’s name soon after she was born. The letter duly arrived with a valuation and a note on how to claim her inheritance—god, it sounded like something out of Dickens.
She remembered sitting on the floor by the front door reading the contents with growing disbelief. The money was enough for a healthy deposit on her new flat; her new life. It was surprising enough that the dodgy investment had reaped a profit, but the bigger surprise was that her mum had contrived to keep the money out of her dad’s thieving hands.
A breeze at the open window ruffled the rejection letters on the board. Set amongst them was a faded Polaroid of an older man, face scored with deep lines, eyes surprisingly soft, one pile driver arm wrapped around a ten year-old girl. In the photograph the late afternoon sun has caught her hair, turning the hated ‘ginger’ a deep, sunset red. Father and daughter are both smiling. But then, that was the summer before it happened.
Mum had taken the snap on a day out to the beach at Prestwick. Unusually, the sun had shone all day, just like it should in a memory. She remembered on the way home afterwards stopping in Kilmarnock at Varani’s for ice cream. Best in the world, her dad used to say. Not that to her knowledge her father had ever been outside Scotland. Of course she couldn’t be sure of his travel itinerary since then, not after he walked out on them later that year. He left a few months after the photograph was taken, on her birthday. She laughed. How much more of a cliché could you get? Her hand brushed the faded photograph. That was the last time she’d had ice cream from Varani’s.
Her eye fell on a flourishing umbrella plant on her desk, its soft, green leaves trailing across the top of her laptop screen. It had been a present from him a few years ago; the only evidence in a decade that he was still alive. When it arrived she prepared herself for the inevitable follow-up: the drunken, apologetic phone call in the middle of the night; the knock at the door with a bunch of petrol station flowers. Neither of them came; only more silence.
The leaves were dry to her touch. She gave the plant a quick spray from a water bottle she kept close by. They didn’t have a garden in the high flats, but her dad had installed a window box and she remembered planting it with him. It was a shady spot, he explained, so they filled it with Busy Lizzies in summer and hardy cyclamen in winter. The water-spray hissed. Thinking about it, she wasn’t even sure why she kept his plant.
With a whine the printer finished its work. She packaged up the latest submission into a large buff envelope and wrote out the address of the next publisher on her hit list: Tristesse Books, based in Glasgow.
• David Solomons was born in Glasgow and now lives in Dorset with his wife, author Natasha Solomons, and young son. His writing credits include screenplays for The Great Ghost Rescue (2011), Five Children and It (2004) and The Fabulous Bagel Boys (2001). This is an extract from Not Another Happy Ending, out now in paperback and published by MIRA. It is based on Solomons’ own screenplay for the film of the same name, rom-com starring Karen Gilian (Doctor Who’s Amy Pond) and French actor Stanley Weber.