Thursday, 17 November 2011

Dial Emma

Janet O'Steen, Ireland's foremost logodisciplinarian was sat in a rather uncomfortable, broken-springed, once-plush armchair in a bookshop just off Tottenham Court Road.  In one hand she clutched a plain white mug of coffee; she'd asked for a latte and the scrawny woman with bad teeth had hissed like a broken steam pump and said something in French.  Finally Janet had pointed at the Nescafe and accepted that the brown sludge in the cup was what the woman thought coffee was.  In the other hand, she held a pen, delicately gripped between her forefinger and middle finger like a surgeon might hold a scalpel.  It was poised above a pad of paper balanced carefully on her knee; her knee was raised by the expedient of resting her foot on the back of a small child that was playing with toy cars on the floor.  So far no outraged parent had appeared to complain that their precocious offspring was not a footstool, and so Janet was trying to plot her new novel.
Coming to London for a weekend to immerse herself in book culture for a while had seemed like a great idea until she'd reached Dublin airport after what felt like hours in traffic.  "Tunnel's closed, my dear," the taxi driver had explained, his rheumy eyes undoubtedly the reason he kept veering across lanes of traffic whenever there was a space and nearly killing them both.  "It's the rain, you see."
Janet didn't see, she was sure that Ireland of all countries knew how to deal with rain, even when a month's worth fell in six hours.
At the airport she found that it was being remodelled in places, typically the places where she chose to sit and try and think.  For half-an-hour her new novel had featured the brutal murder of men in loose-fitting jeans and hard-hats who shouted things across terminal seating and dropped spanners, hammers, and just about anything else they could find in their tool-boxes.  She'd eventually screwed those pages up and left them in a convenient bin.
Now in London she was finding it to be full of tourists, annoying people, and children.  She felt she would have done better at home.  She sipped her horrible coffee and thought some more about her novel.
The heroine of the novel was to be an Agony Aunt called Emma, who wrote a nationally syndicated newspaper column and hosted a radio phone-in show three time a week: Monday, Tuesday and Friday.  The show was called Dial Emma, obviously, and people would call up with their problems.  A team of screeners would make sure that only interesting problems got through to Emma, in particular those that positioned the questioner as caught between two equally hard solutions: those caught on the horns on a dilemma.
Janet was determined not to mention Emma's mother anywhere in the novel, especially since the back-story that she'd already designed suggested that her mother had died of the Black Death in a whorehouse in Belfast, to a round of applause from a collection of meth-addicted prostitutes.  Although essentially to the development of Emma's character, the phrase 'mother-hater' was becoming just a little too bandied about by Janet's critics.  Or so she felt.
What would make the novel interesting, Janet decided, was if Emma often tried to resolve the dilemma on behalf of her callers, to the extent of visiting people to make impassioned pleas for reconsideration, writing anonymous threatening letters, blackmail and, if necessary, attempted murder.  Emma viewed herself as a kind of vigilante, a modern-day superhero with an underwired bra and an eight-inch-bladed knife.
"You see," said Emma, plunging the knife into Ross's arm again.  He screamed, but not so loudly now.  The pool of blood reached her shoes, and she realised, belatedly, that she should have worn galoshes.  Or Wellingtons.  "You see, you should never have left Cecily.  She's a good girl, from a Catholic family, and there'll be hell to pay for her now that you've just run off, gallivanting with an older woman."
"She cheated on me first," said Ross, though it more of a groan that anything.  "With fifteen other men.  At the same time."
Emma paused, unsure of herself.  "What?"
"I came home from work and found eight naked men in the sitting room.  Most of them were... well, aroused.  There were another six in the bedroom, queued up, and one in the bathroom, shooting up.  Cecily was working her way through them."
Emma stuck the knife in Ross's shoulder without thinking about what she was doing.  He just groaned.  Was it possible that she'd not done enough research this time?  Was she getting carried away, saving victims and redeeming the drowntrodden?
She looked down at Ross and realised with horror that his white pallor, rolled-up eyes, and blue-tinged lips were all indicators that he'd likely just died on her.  She'd definitely never meant to kill him!
As the novel progressed, Emma would have to both hide from the police, who took a dim view of vigilantes, and from Cecily who was bipolar and psychopathic as well as sex-addicted, drug-addicted and mildly dyslexic.  However, to avoid suspicion falling on her too strongly, she would still have to conduct her day-to-day life as though nothing was wrong.  As things got more tense, Emma would call into her own radio show rather than risk going to the studio and outsource her newspaper column to the local primary school when she was forced to hide in a Wendy-house there for two weeks.  In short, Emma would find herself hoist on the horns of her own dilemma.
Janet smiled to herself, and shifted her feet, accidentally kicking the child in the side of the head.  The novel was coming along after all.

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