Up until recently, Lesley Brownlow had been content to merely collect her salary, which wasn’t marvellous, but was enough, and to not over-think things. But it was a chance remark from one of her fellow students –or former fellow students, for it was now, disconcertingly, five years ago – on the Creative Writing MA that made her start to have these awkward moments of self-questioning and introspection. She was sure, or as sure as she could be, that Kelly had meant no harm. Kelly was one of those people who were generally credited with meaning no harm. “I mean, at least you’re earning your money writing,” she said, “And that doesn’t apply to most of us, or at least not full time. I mean, you could be stuck in a call centre like me, or on a zero hours contract at the Factory Shop like Liam.”
Well, it was undeniably true. At least she was earning her money writing. But she supposed she’d had some misgivings all along, and had, well, managed them.
Like everyone who is accepted on an MA in Creative Writing Course, Lesley had cherished dreams of writing the kind of prose that was described as incisive or insightful, or preferably both, or that achieved a cult following or at least (that phrase kept pounding in her mind like an increasingly malign mantra) garnered a clutch of compliments in online fora.
She wouldn’t even have minded being essentially anonymous (which technically she wasn’t, but she ruefully thought you sometimes needed a magnifying glass to see otherwise, and sometimes wished that they hadn’t bothered) if she were saying something that needed to be said.
But no. Lesley was doing none of those things. She was one of the team working for Golden Story Books. Now there was nothing whatsoever wrong with writing for children – in many ways it was harder than writing for adults. But no production of Golden Story Books was ever going to be shortlisted for the Smarties Prize or the Blue Peter Prize or any of those prizes. Well, she could live with that.
Golden Story Books had managed to jump on two bandwagons at once. They were retellings of fairy tales, but were also personalised. The parent or (more often) grandparent sent in details of the relevant child’s best friends, home town, pets, etc, and they were incorporated into the story, along with various other details, the price increasing according to how many little extras were incorporated.
Lesley was quite sure that when she was the age that the books targeted, she would have had no time for them whatsoever and been frankly insulted. She was quite capable of doing such things herself, and she supposed that though she wasn’t without some literary talent, a great many children were. It was all so bloody obvious. Oh, the production values were fairly high; even the paperback versions had covers with the little gold highlights that didn’t tarnish that quickly, and hopefully not until the relevant child was sick of the book anyway, and the illustrations themselves, somewhat in the style of those in Ladybird books, though not up to that standard, could hold their own with the illustrations in many children’s books. They had even shown the cultural sensitivity of nominally offering children of different ethnicity. But you never saw the children’s faces. They were always captured looking through windows from a back view, or bending down to pet their dog or cat (there were various versions of dogs and cats available, and rabbits, hamsters, and birds were possibilities at a premium).
The street name was attached to one of several versions of streets, roads, and, to prove they didn’t promote elitism, blocks of flats.
Though she always double checked in case there were any embarrassing errors (horror stories were told of a rival company that eventually went bankrupt after referring to a beloved pet dog as Stinker rather than Tinker) she could work more or less on autopilot. Occasionally she allowed herself a little quirk or touch of originality, but she knew what the boundaries were. She also knew that the stories were to be sanitised to a degree that made the Disney versions look positively hard-hitting. The Little Mermaid ended up splashing happily after being reunited with her sisters, and various wicked stepmothers, such as in Cinderella or The Sleeping Beauty were just misunderstood and ultimately apologetic. After all, many of the target audience would be in blended families, and wicked stepmothers just wouldn’t do at all.
In her early days at Golden Books she had dared to raise the point she remembered from Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment that when children were told an expurgated version of Hansel and Gretel it actually gave them more nightmares as they thought the Wicked Witch might still be around. A resigned but basically good natured she’ll learn sigh went round the room, as she realised she wasn’t the first Creative Writing graduate they’d had to gently lick into shape. All the same, that particular story wasn’t on offer, as if there were limits to what they could form in their own image, and with the best will in the world, if the title were Darren and Sharon or Kyle and Kylie it just wouldn’t work.
At least I’m earning my living writing, she told herself, as she did what she could with a little girl called Beverley who lived on Hemlock Close (and there was an unfortunate name, if ever there was one) who helped Buttons and the Fairy Godmother (who was really her Grandma Elaine) get Cinderella ready for the ball.
But she couldn’t convince herself, and she was thoroughly fed up with Beverley (whom she guiltily reminded herself was probably a very nice little girl) and even more fed up with herself. If she’d trained as a chef, would she be able to console herself with the thought At least I’m earning my living cooking if she were putting the toppings on frozen pizzas (which reminded her, she must pick a couple up that afternoon)? If she’d studied medicine, would it satisfy her to sell aspirins and dyspepsia remedies in the kiosk at the local supermarket?
She was familiar with Truman Capote’s scathing condemnation of the Beat Generation, saying that it wasn’t writing, it was typing. Sometimes she felt as if she’d have settled for typing. She realised that her concentration had lapsed, and hurriedly retreated to the Find/Replace function to turn Padlock Close back into Hemlock Close.
The latest edition to the repertoire was earmarked to be The Little Match Girl. There had been some debate about that. To start with, a little girl selling matches at all was decidedly problematic, and as for her actually, well, dying, that was unthinkable, even (or especially) when Granny bore her off to heaven. Golden Story Books were always studiedly neutral on the subject of religion, though they did acknowledge the existence of Santa Claus.
I just don’t see how they can get away with that one, thought Lesley. They might as well call it something different altogether. She did sometimes wonder why they hadn’t gone the whole hog and introduced their own range of stories without the awkward matter of the nasty bits in the originals to deal with and edit out.
Still, she reminded herself, as she was having to remind herself more and more, for all their faults, Golden Books paid for her little bungalow, and her little car, and some nice little holidays. It was hard to get out of the habit of saying little, which Golden Story Books loved even more than a shopping channel describing its accessories. Okay, in the instance of her bungalow and her car and her holidays, it was accurate. But that wasn’t the point. Not that she was entirely sure what the point was.
“Can I come in?” she turned to see a grubby child, the kind who tended to be described, though not in Golden Story Books productions, as a street urchin. Before she had a chance to say, “No, you can’t,” the child (who was recognisably, though only just, a girl) had slipped past her. This is awkward, thought Lesley. I suppose I’d better call the Social Services. She had a nagging feeling that she knew the child, but couldn’t quite place her. Anyway, though she might be scrawny and grimy, she wasn’t backward about coming forward, nor about sitting down on Lesley’s nice little sofa. “Now listen here,” she said, “And listen properly! Without being all superior and thinking you know best. Do you think I actually enjoy doing what I do? Because I can tell you for nothing, I don’t. I’m sick to the gills of it, and of these!” She strewed her matches across Lesley’s cream carpet. “Would you like to live selling them and sleeping on the streets in all kind of weather? I can see you love to read –“ she gestured to Lesley’s overflowing bookcase. “How would you like to just be able to read for a few minutes on a winter night, and then wonder if you shouldn’t have saved the matches to warm your hands? Because every time someone tells that story and is so determined to make it authentic,” she spat out the word like a nasty taste, “That’s what happens to me. And then what happens after,” her pinched little face took on a different expression altogether. “Look, I loved my Granny, but – but she didn’t have much idea what a kid wants! Her idea of heaven – all that where like stars his children crowned, all in white shall wait around business – do you have any idea just how tedious it is? I want to have some money, and live in a proper house, and grow up, and have a boyfriend, and all the stuff you just take for granted while you’re sitting there fretting about stuff that doesn’t matter in the slightest. Write your big fancy books, by all means, I don’t begrudge you, but would it really be too much to let me have a happy ending for once?”
Needless to say, Lesley jumped to the conclusion that she had been under too much stress and was letting her imagination run away with her, though she did not so much leap to it, as cling to it like an emotional life raft. And yet – there’s the thing – she was not altogether sorry to see that although the child, or the girl, or the woman older than anyone she had ever known and ever would know, had disappeared, there were some matches strewn on her cream carpet, almost as if someone had cast the runes there. She gathered them up and, somehow not wanting to either throw them away or to see them, put them in a little ornamental pot she had on her window sill.
The next day she asked for an interview with the Creative Project Manager (or at least, his representative) of Golden Story Books, and said that if they still wanted to go ahead with the Little Match Girl project, then she’d be happy to be included in it.