The Tragedy of Age
|May 22, 2012||Posted by Fergus Doyle under creative writing|
White was probably the only person left who respected Marshall. He had for all the time he had known about Marshall; alright, he hadn’t been there at the beginning, not when Marshall’s breakthrough novel Leftovers of London had come out, and maybe he hadn’t been there during his high times, when Marshall had been one of the best known names in British literature, and was churning out great novels annually, and no, he wasn’t there when his name was blackened, when the sickness set in and when the world forgot about him. But he was here now, wasn’t he? He had found Marshall out, living alone and blind, and offered to help him around the house. He had gained Marshall’s trust, and, between them, they had made an agreement: Marshall would dictate his last great novel to White, who would type it up, edit it and send if off to the publishers. Marshall would return, as great as ever, and would be raised back up to the heights of fame he had enjoyed in the 70s.
Having said that… Well, White loved Marshall’s work; he felt honoured at being the one upon whom had been bestowed the privilege of scribing the last great novel of all times. But the old man himself? He was cantankerous, he was abusive, he was disgusting; the idol which White had worshipped for most of his adult life had proved to have been made entirely of cheaply gilded clay. The illness had worn him down to his basest elements, and yet… His ideas were still exquisite and electrifying, his prose still clear and sublime, and his dialogue fresh – despite having only spoken to White in the last year or so, or his hated sister before White had arrived. White reviled him and was in awe of him all of the time they spent together.
As the novel wore on, White’s admiration for Marshall’s writing stayed as great as it had been when he first began to write for him, but his loathing grew and grew. Marshall was getting increasingly short tempered and put more pressure on White to finish the piece. He lashed out at White if they hadn’t got as far as Marshall had wanted in one day, an occurrence which was becoming more and more frequent the more time they spent on it. And yet, despite all of this, White stayed to the bitter end and, on the 4th of August, 20–, Marshall’s last opus was finished. His last words were the title of the novel: The Tragedy of Age. The morning of the 5th found him dead; he had died peacefully in his sleep after completing his final novel.
Marshall was at peace. He had finished everything he had been put on the world to do. But he left behind him a finished manuscript, White, and his now-empty mortal shell. White himself was left with three things: Marshall’s body, an admiration and respect for Marshall’s writing and a hatred for the man himself. Before White did what every good citizen must when confronted with a dead body – that is, ring the police – he very calmly placed the novel onto a memory stick and wiped Marshall’s computer. Then he rang the police and informed them of his employer’s death. “Yes, just discovered him. He must have died in his sleep. Me? I look – looked – after him. Yes, I live in the house; my room’s upstairs. I usually leave him alone once he’s in bed, so…”. And so on.
Very few people arrived to Marshall’s funeral, despite his obituary being in much of the more liberal media. There were three people around the grave on the day: White, a young woman, and the vicar giving the service. It was a scorching hot day in early August. The lilies were wilting in the heat, and even the vicar was beginning to droop. A dried lump of dirt was scraped from the ground and thrown onto the coffin. The noise that it made on impact was nearly enough to wake Marshall up in his grave, but not quite enough; as such, the service finished and the shining curate ran from the graveside and could be seen tugging at his collar as he headed for his annex.
White sighed. The young woman walked over to him and asked if there would be a wake. He hadn’t organised one, but said that she was welcome to join him at the pub, and they could drink to the memory of the almost forgotten old man.
“So what’s your connection to Marshall?” asked White as they left the graveyard. “I didn’t think he had any relatives and…”
“Oh no, you don’t understand” she interrupted, to White’s relief. “No, I’m a journalist; they asked me to write an obituary for Marshall. To be honest, I was the only person who’d heard of him in the office. I’ve even taken time off to write it, since they don’t think that enough people have heard of him to warrant any last words.”
“Yes, history hasn’t been kind to him, has it? Is there anything you want to know from me?”
“Why, who are you?” She had obviously had him down as an enterprising hack as well.
“I was his… I guess his house-keeper, for the past few years.”
“Ah, alright… Well, tell me anything that you see as important.” White mentally struck Marshall’s last novel from the list of important things. After all, no-one needed to know about it…
“There isn’t much to tell really. He lived out his last years with just me for company, bitter and resentful at the way that the public had tossed him on the scrap heap.”
“Did he mention writing anything again? Any last great opus?” Slowly, White replied:
“No. No, he didn’t mention anything like that. Said that the public didn’t deserve him anymore. They had had their chance, and they blew it. Sad really. All of that talent gone to waste.” At the amount of imagination he was using, White thought, he didn’t need Marshall’s novel. He could probably write his own. But then again, that would take work. At home he had the last script ever written by one of Britain’s greatest novelists, and he could easily pass it off as his own.
He didn’t drink anything with the journalist, being wary of keeping his secret, and left early. He sat on the novel for several months so as not to arouse suspicion, especially now that that hack knew who he was. In the mean time, he did odd jobs, being sure to drop into conversation that he was writing a novel in his spare time. That way, he had witnesses of sorts for if he sent it off to the publishers and they sniffed out foul play.
* * *
The novel, The Tragedy of Age, was accepted by the publishers earlier the next year and in the shops by December. It shot up the bestsellers, and White became a household name almost overnight. He basked in fame that he probably didn’t deserve, but he could think on his feet, and survived interviews well. That is, he survived quite well; one interview went particularly badly.
It was with the journalist from the funeral a few months after his rise to fame. After the initial pleasantries, she went on the offensive:
“So you worked as personal assistant to the late writer known as Marshall. Did you pick up any writing tips from your time with him? Because your work certainly bears several of Marshall’s traits.”
“Well, I had been quite a dedicated fan of Marshall before I decided to write, so I am not surprised that he made such a mark on my writing style. But as I have said on numerous occasions, the only thing Marshall ever really said on the subject was that he was done with it all and that he’d never write again.”
“And what do you make of the news that this morning an old notebook seemingly belonging to Marshall was found in the pocket of a suit jacket from a charity shop?” White lived up to his name: the colour drained from his face. His jaw noticeably clenched, and his eyes closed for a fraction of a second longer than permissible for a blink.
He spoke slowly. “I had not heard that news. Would you care to fill me in?”
“There’s not much to say. Only that in this book he makes detailed notes about a novel. His handwriting’s hard to read, as it was written while he was losing his eyesight, but the title of this novel is clear. He writes it several times, in fact. As I’m the one interviewing you, I think I’ll put this question to you. Do you want to know the title of this novel, the one which Marshall so meticulously prepared?”
White said nothing, afraid that if he opened his mouth he might scream, or worse not be able to make any sound at all. The journalist almost felt sorry for the man as she said the four words that destroyed his reputation in the eyes of the world:
“The Tragedy of Age.”
* * *
Because White had been wrong when he thought he was the only one left in the world that appreciated Marshall. All of the time he had thought that he was the only one who still read his novels, who saw the genius in Leftovers of London, who was drawn in by his prose. No, there was at least one other person who still valued Marshall: the journalist from the funeral. She had been anticipating his not having seen the news; the fact that the news story that she referenced was complete fiction hardly seemed to matter. She had got White, the fraud, to confess, and surely that was all that mattered? In one fell swoop, she had done three things. She had destroyed any credibility that White’s name would ever hold, she had made a name for herself and she had propelled Marshall back into the national consciousness. White could never have foreseen the good that stealing Marshall’s novel had done for others, if not for himself.
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