Gripping Yarns


“Well, the nymphomaniac daughter pairs up with the vicar who believes in ghosts.”

“What about her husband?”

“Didn’t I tell you? He’s going to fall off the top of a mountain to his death while he’s having sex with the trapeze artist.”

Ralph and I would spend hours bouncing around the threads of plots for his novels. Eventually the story would come through, it always did. Because Ralph Neverchance was in most people’s opinion one of the most successful storytellers in recent times, regularly earning awards for a ‘thumping good read’, bestseller of bestsellers and goodness knows what else.

But unfortunately, Ralph was dying. A horrible illness had him in its grip and at the age of eighty-nine, it looked as if he wasn’t long for this world. He’d said to me just this morning, “Well I’ve had a good life, all I’ll really miss is thinking up stories. I love it so much, I always have.” He looked pensive, chewing his lower lip. “I only wish I could go on doing it. Maybe there are books in heaven, eh? Perhaps God will give me a typewriter. You know, Hecci, it’s never really mattered to me that my books are so tremendously successful. I’d go on writing them even if they sold as badly as yours do.”

“Thanks very much!”

“Sorry old boy, but let’s face facts. Your novels are all so bloody boring, aren’t they?”

Since he was so ill, I knew I had to make allowances for his tactlessness. What’s more, to my chagrin I knew he was right.

Amanuensis is a funny old word, but it describes what I do pretty well. I wrote to Ralph twenty-eight years ago, when I’d just graduated from university, and was trying to become ‘a writer’. Ralph wrote back enthusiastically, offering me every encouragement, telling me that you should never try to be writer so as to be rich, because it rarely ever happened, you just had to have the ‘urge to tell a story’. Twists in the plot, sexy bits, gore and violence, fiendishly cunning storylines, they were all very well he’d told me, but enjoying telling a tale was all that really ever mattered. Ralph had invited me to come and see him, and we’d got on well. Since he was then in his late sixties, he told me that the ‘nuts and bolts’, of typing up, editing and proofreading his books was something which bored him, he just liked getting the ideas down, so on the spot he offered me a job of being his general dogsbody, and I’ve done it happily ever since. He always typed everything on an ancient manual typewriter, using two fingers. When he was inspired those fingers would fly like lightning, the clattering and clacking sound almost deafening. And afterwards I would type it up properly, and do the edits and so on.

Alongside helping Ralph with his novels, I carried on writing my own books, and I like to think I’ve improved a bit over the years. Maybe Hector Goodbody isn’t quite such a catchy name for an author, but at least it’s memorable. I thought gloomily of a recent review on Amazon: ‘Hector Goodbody’s story was so dull it helped me get to sleep. His characters have about as much life as a game of dominoes between octogenarian bores and I didn’t care what happened to any of them’.

Ralph made an awful lot of money, but he gave most of it away. Guide Dogs for the Blind (Because it must be so awful not to be able to see, old boy), water infrastructure projects in the third world (Think of it, Hecci, those poor little children having to drink filthy contaminated water), donkey sanctuaries, cancer research, you name it, and Ralph gave money to it. He reiterated what he’d said to me when we’d first met: ‘You should never write to try and make money old boy, because it just won’t work. I’m just the exception that proves the rule. And as you know I give most of it away. I regard it as a kind of bargain. I’m sure that if I stopped giving away most of my income the old muse would dry up.”

When Ralph died it was worse than terrible. Especially as he’d been getting towards the end of a fantastic trilogy – a family saga full of trials and tribulations, with a nymphomaniac daughter, a gambling-addict son and a mother who led a secret life as a striptease artist and a father who, after having six children, had decided to have a sex change. Sounds bizarre? Yes of course it does, it sounds utterly ridiculous. And yet Ralph could get away with it and get away with it with panache. The reason was he had this knack of making you care about his characters, of somehow bringing them to life.

So when Ralph died it was the end of a job I’d thoroughly enjoyed, and the end of a very close friendship.

Ralph had very firm views about the afterlife. Recently we had gone together to a spiritualist meeting to do research for one of his books, and Ralph had listened to the service for a time. But after a while, he stood up and yelled at the leader: “Do you think we’re all idiots? The dead can’t talk to the living!  It just can’t happen!

“How dare you?” shouted back the tall, rather attractive lady, whose long blonde hair was tied up in a large bun on top of her head. “If you care to stay I’ll prove to you that there is life after death.”

“Bollocks!” he’d replied, leading us out of the room, not caring that all eyes were upon us.

All through the funeral service I was thinking about the last discussion Ralph and I had had about his latest novel, the final book in the trilogy Hopkins Drift. He’d wanted to discuss a problem with the plot and I hadn’t been able to help him at all. I rarely could, even though he liked to use me as a kind of sounding board.

Then, as I was looking at his coffin, something slipped into place in my mind. I suddenly remembered a few things he’d said the day before he’d died, and I realised that he’d been able to convey to me what he wanted to do with the novel. The answer was for the nymphomaniac daughter to meet a sex-addicted man, the gambler son to fall in love with a female croupier at the casino, and the father who wanted to change sex to get struck by lighting, after which all his desires for living as a woman would magically disappear.

That was it!

Then I had that ‘golden glow’ moment as Ralph always called it, that time when the bits and pieces of your story, or in this case Ralph’s final story, all seem to slot into place.

Ralph’s publishers had hoped that he’d finish the book before he died, and Maureen, his wife, and I were going to have to have the sad task of telling them that it hadn’t been completed. Now, with Maureen’s permission, I thought where would be the harm, if I finished the book in the way I was convinced Ralph would have wanted it to be done?

So that’s what I did. We told the publishers that Rap[h had ‘more or less’ finished the novel, and I had successfully tidied up the manuscript.

A month later I regretfully stopped going to Ralph’s ivy-covered big detached house, and settled down in the living room of my tiny bedsit, staring at the computer screen. This was it. I was on my own, and I was going to have to try and earn more money from my own writing, and also would need to get another income somehow. I’d already looked in the local paper and discovered that the only way to pay some of my bills would be to apply to do early morning cleaning in a local pub or try to be accepted on a team of telephone salespeople. For want of inspiration I’d even gone back to the spiritualist meeting that Ralph and I had attended. Was I hoping to contact Ralph? Of course I was, but I knew the idea was ridiculous, and so it proved. I travelled home in the pouring rain, feeling more wretched than I’d ever felt in my life before.

When I got home, I desultorily looked through my latest novel: a tale of the trials and tribulations of a Victorian family in rural England.

It was bollocks. All of it. I realised that the novel I’d spent so much time slaving over, had no redeeming qualities at all, and it was rubbish. Worse that than, it was boring rubbish.

Then a very strange thing happened.

Maureen had let me have Ralph’s old typewriter, and suddenly I saw a few of the keys flying up and down. There was the familiar clatter clack I’d grown used to hearing in Ralphs’s study.

Then in a bizarre flash of insight, I thought of another story altogether. Something completely new, and it seemed to me, completing gripping. I immediately sat down at the computer, and started work on it. After ten days of feverish typing, I had written an entirely original one-hundred-thousand word novel. When I reread the first draft, for the first time ever, I felt that ‘Golden Glow’, that Ralph used to talk about.

I phoned Edna, the editor at my publishers and outlined my new storey. And, for once, she seemed enthusiastic, telling me that a nuclear physicist with a foot fetish and a transsexual mind reader who wanted to assassinate the Queen, sounded in the zeitgeist of recent literary trends, and she was looking forward to seeing it.

Six months on, and my novel was published, and, to my amazement, it was well received. Reviews such as ‘Hector Goodbody has at last found his voice, and it’s really worth listening to’ and ‘Forget his previous turgid nonsense, this author had finally hit on a gripping yarn.’

After a year, that book had become a bestseller, and I’d been commissioned to write two more.

As I’d begun to write the second, with the usual ‘blank page nightmare’, sure enough I saw Ralph’s typewriter spring to life, and simultaneously the ideas flowed into my brain.

Oh yes, I almost forgot. As soon as I found that sales of my novel were substantial, I arranged a regular donation to all the charities that Ralph had donated to, plus a few of my own, making a mental note to increase them if sales got any better.

And I added another one to the list: the local spiritualist church.