Harsh Necessities

Bertie Inkgreen found his aunt Philomena in the front garden, wearing heavy boots and the expression of someone cleaning out the cat-litter.  She stamped her foot.

“Everything all right, Auntie?” Bertie wondered if she and Uncle Ulysses had been having one of their rare but fervent disagreements.

“Oh, hello dear.  Yes, yes, everything’s fine, apart from these blasted snails.”

Bertie looked at the mess of goo and shell-fragments where his aunt’s boot had landed a moment before.  “Urgh.”

“Quite.”  Philomena booted the debris into the forget-me-nots. “How are you, Bertie?  How’s the novel?”

“Not bad, auntie, pretty good, actually.”

“Excellent.  Lunch?  G&T?”

“Well…” his stomach was still churning slightly at the sight of former snail.

“Come on, Bertie, I don’t know about you but I need it after a morning’s wholesale slaughter.”

He followed her meekly up the steps.

The weather was good enough for lunch in the garden.  Bertie settled happily into one of the ancient wooden seats and let the sun warm his eyelids.

“Novel going well?”  Ulysses Plott asked.

“Yes, splendidly, thank you.  20,000 words, really pushing on.”

“Excellent, excellent.  And how about that short story contract you asked us to look over, were they happy with the alterations we suggested?”


“Bertie,” Philomena said.  “You did send it off, didn’t you?”

“I will, as soon as I get back,” he said, opening one eye guiltily.  He perceived his aunt’s stern expression and hastily shut it again.

“Now, Bertie, it’s been hanging around for at least two weeks.  You haven’t lost it, have you?” Philomena said.

“No…” Bertie had been in the process of reaching for his chicken sandwich, but his hand found the gin and tonic instead.

Ulysses barked laughter.  “I know where the contract is.  Disappeared into that suitcase full of undone paperwork, hasn’t it?”

Bertie took an unwise gulp of Ulysses Plott Strength G&T, and spluttered for several seconds.  When he recovered, they were both looking at him like cats watching a fallen nestling.

“It’s not a suitcase,” he protested, sounding feeble even to himself.

“Grown, has it?  A trunk?” Philomena suggested.

“No!”  He shrugged.  “I do get a bit behind, I know, but…”

“Bertie, dear,” Philomena said.  “You don’t get a bit behind, if you were any more behind you’d be back in front again.”  She frowned and blinked down at the glass in her hand.  “Lissy, how much did you put in this?”

“No more than usual,” Ulysses said.  “Now, Bertie, got to keep up with the paperwork, you know.  Part of being a professional, and all that.”

“But it’s not writing,” Bertie said.  “That’s what one’s supposed to concentrate on.  Stories, imagination, not all this…” he waved his arm, scattering a small rain of gin onto the tulips, “all this mundane stuff.”

Philomena patted his arm.  “Bertie, dear.  I hate paperwork.  Lissy, now, he’s got his all sorted, lined up, and sent off before I’ve brought myself to open the envelope, most of the time.  But we all have to do it.  It’s like snails.”

“Is it?” Bertie said.

“Of course.  Look at the garden, Bertie.  Coming up beautifully, and we’ve only lost a few things – but that’s because we’re out every day getting rid of the wretched snails and slugs.”

“I thought you used pellets,” Bertie said.

“Can’t use ‘em more than four times a year,” Ulysses said.  “Besides, don’t scatter themselves, you know.  Don’t buy themselves from the shop, either.”

“But once I get an agent, won’t they deal with all that?  Paperwork, not pellets.”

“Hmmph,” Ulysses said, and held up a hand.  “One,” he said, ticking off a finger, “might not happen, or at least not for some time.  Meantime, still got to do the paperwork.  Can’t let it all mount up hoping an agent’ll sort it all out – people won’t wait for contracts forever, and even if they did, no  agent wants you turning up with five years’ worth of paperwork for them to sort out.  Two,” he ticked off another finger, “agents don’t deal with everything, you know.  Look at short stories.  Still got to send them out, most agents won’t.  Good one might look at the contract for you, but you still have to sign it.  Not to mention tax returns – agents don’t generally do those for you, either.”

“But I’d rather be writing,” Bertie said.

“I’d rather be picking dahlias,” Philomena said, a little sharply, “but if you don’t keep the wretched slugs and snails in check, there won’t be a dahlia to pick.  Leave the paperwork too long and you start worrying about it, then you can’t write anyway.  Or you’ll lose a sale, or end up with a big fat tax bill.  Or all three.  None of those is good for your wordcount or your career.  It’s horrid, I know – I don’t actually enjoy squashing snails, it’s vile – but it has to be done.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Bertie said.

“Course we are, dear boy,” Ulysses said.  “Another drink?

“Better not,” Bertie said, with some regret.  “Not if I’m going to do that paperwork when I get home.”

“Right you are,” said Ulysses.  “Now, tell us more about the novel…”

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