Making New Friends

Gary is my best friend, and I hope like hell that he’s gone missing. Whatever the reason for his disappearance, it has to be better than the alternative.

It’s like a nightmare.

No, it’s like waking up after a nightmare and knowing it scared you, but in the grey light of the morning wondering just what it was that was so frightening.

I’ll start at the beginning.

My name is George, I’m thirty four years old, and I work as a literary agent. At least I used to, I’m into art these days. Gary was my best writer. I never had any trouble selling one of his pieces, they were always snapped up as soon as I offered them.

In the beginning though it was very different. I remember reading his first story, a science fiction tale about an expedition to a planet whose inhabitants gave birth to huge litters of kids which then devoured their parents and boy did it stink!

In effect it was a wildlife piece about one of those spiders that spends ages bringing its offspring into the world and ends up being their first meal, only it was littered with all the usual SF clichés, poorly paced, and his descriptions were laughable.

But the characters...

Wow!

The people in that story lived. I put it down feeling I knew each and every one of them and also realising I had a major craftsman who only needed to serve his apprenticeship.

Over the next year I had him write all he could and he would bring it in to my two roomed coffin above Woolworth’s and I would tear it to pieces, metaphorically, highlighting all the plot holes, all the slack parts, and all the washy description.

During that year we became firm friends. Unlike a lot of writers Gary was enthusiastic about my criticisms, and we would laugh and joke over a particularly lame simile while downing gallons of coffee, and listening out for the milkman. He had a marvellous sense of humour, that was what I liked about him most, that and all the money he made for me.

Every aspect of his writing improved. Everything but his characters. There was no room for any improvement in that department.

One night he told me that all his characters were just "my emotional mutations", his words. He said that each person he created was basically him, but with some of his emotions magnified, and some shrunk right down, but never eliminated completely. I don’t know if you ever read The Circus, but he told me that the little girl in that was him. Ever since he was a little boy Gary always had a sense of suspicious dread about clowns, and he blew that up out of all proportion and created little Sally Gibbons and her monstrous tale.

By the beginning of last year his stuff was unrecognisable. It was well thought out, tightly plotted, and, of course, still had those amazing characters.

His first story was Falling Atoms which I offered to two magazines before it was accepted by the third. Those were the only two rejection slips he ever got and I’m just vain enough to feel a little glow of pride knowing it was I who trained the master.

The strangeness began three months ago. I had gone to his home, a small flat five minutes car ride from the centre of town, the first time I had ever been there. He had been writing a story called ...Later That Same Evening and couldn’t print it out, so I came around to pick up a copy on disc that I could take to work the next morning and do it myself.

It was a small flat, not that much bigger than my alleged office, but he had done good things with it, and it was very cosy. In the time it had taken me to drive over he had got his printer working again and it buzzed away to itself while Gary made us coffee.

His home was very neat, something I hadn’t expected. If you’ve ever seen Gary you’ll know how dishevelled he looks. I once insisted he wear a suit to a meeting with a publisher and he looked terrible. At least when he wore his jeans and t-shirts he looked as though he was supposed to be scruffy.

His flat was spotless though. All his stories and stuff were neatly put away in two boxes of files, one marked ‘Stories’, with a neatly lettered label, the other ‘Character Backgrounds’, likewise. He had a yellow plastic paint tray in which he kept a ream of 80 gram paper, and his printer pulled up a long stream of fanfold of a lighter weight, and deposited it neatly into another tray. There was a dustcover next to the computer, a mouse holder, all his pens and pencils were in a holder, and he even washed and put away the teaspoon he’d made the coffee with before pushing my mug across the worktop.

"I want to show you something, George." He said, putting his cup on a Boddingtons beer mat and sitting down in front of his machine, picking up an unlabled black floppy and shoving it in.

"You’ll like this, George." He said, clicking on various icons.

"What is it?" I asked as he began to pull the information into his word processor. The printer slowed noticeably while the computer clicked to itself, and then a screenful of text appeared.

WHAT MAKES YOU SAD? My mother died last year of Leukaemia. She was only forty nine. What upsets me more than anything is the fact that she took so long to die, and it’s not a nice way to go. If I ever get like that, I’d want to get it over with quickly instead of wasting away like that.

"What on Earth’s this?" I asked.

"It’s background information. I’m trying something new with my characters."

"Oh." I replied, as alarm bells began to ring inside my head. Gary’s characters were his big selling point and I wasn’t too happy with the thought of him changing the way he made them up.

"You see there are going to be a lot of characters in this, and if I distort myself for all of them then they’re going to be too similar." He tapped a few keys, and the computer began to click again. "So I’ve decided to give each character one of my attributes, and then build up a comprehensive background for them so I know how they’ll react."

"Mmm." I said, still not convinced.

"Try not to get too enthusiastic, George. Look," He stopped the computer, and began to scroll the text. "This is Jeff. He’s Stacy’s boyfriend, Stacy is Janice’s sister." I didn’t ask who Janice was, he’d get around to it eventually. "Now his main attribute is his vindictiveness," I nodded. That was certainly one of Gary’s qualities. If you see Gary on the road don’t cut him up or he’ll follow you for a hundred miles if he has to just so he can do the same to you. "but he is the sort who craves new experiences, and so he’s going to get wilder and wilder." He pointed to the screen. "See, his father was always being hounded for gambling debts."

"Yeeees." I said slowly.

"So with that, and the other stuff I’ve come up with, I can tell how he reacts to a given situation without having him react like I would." He tapped the computer keys. "Then there’s Janice, of course, she’s got my sense of humour, but she’s upset by her mother’s death, and Stacy, she’s a barmaid in a pub, is really neat and tidy, while their brother Martin, the policeman, gets really obsessive. Then there’s their father..."

"Okay, Gary. I get the point. But don’t you think that all this is a bit much? How long is this story going to be?"

He looked at me for a moment, then grinned. "You berk. Haven’t you figured it out yet. I’m not doing a story, I’m doing a book."

I can’t remember if my mouth fell open or not, but if it didn’t it certainly should have done. Gary’s a whirlwind, you see, he has to get his tale told quickly before he loses his impulsion. Occasionally he can keep his interest up for a couple of weeks, but after that he tires of it and moves on to something else. Fortunately for me his work doesn’t usually need anything major doing to it so I can polish it myself and get it accepted. By rights I ought to get fifty percent of his fee as co-author instead of my agent’s ten. If anything serious needs doing to it I really have my work cut out getting him to do a rewrite.

But knowing all this I still try to get him to write a novel. Luckily Gary specialises in science fiction and fantasy which are still possible to sell as short pieces, but even so a book would be much easier to get into print, and it would make the pair of us a lot richer. Well it would pay the rent for a few more months.

And now here he was telling me that he was going to do it. I’m a little ashamed to say I was rather sceptical.

"I know what you’re thinking, you old crook," Gary said, "I won’t be able to do it. Well you’re wrong." He smiled smugly. "I’m not writing a book, I’m writing a series of short stories that follow on from one another. You see that way I don’t have to keep my interest up for the whole thing, I can concentrate on a chapter at a time and just build them all up one by one."

I wasn’t exactly over the moon. Writing like that can easily produce blocky, jerky stories that don’t hold together well but if anyone could get away with it Gary could.

"You like the idea then?" He asked.

"Sure." I nodded. A book by Gary would be a hit, I knew it, even if it was segmented. I even felt better about his changing his character generation. "Yeah. I like it.

"What’s it about?" I added, almost as an afterthought.

"Well I haven’t worked out the details yet, I need a bit more background for each character, but it’s basically the life and times of Janice, and her family."

I nodded again. It didn’t sound particularly inspired, but that was something we could work on. The main thing was that he was ready to try it.

Things began to get a little tight after that. Business wasn’t good, Gary was my only real seller, the others, no disrespect intended, barely kept me in food let alone rent, only now Gary was occupied with his book so I wasn’t getting anything from him. In fact I never even spoke to him for the next three months.

I eventually decided that I ought to go around and try and convince him to write me a quick one off, just enough to keep my landlord at bay for a while. It wouldn’t be easy, I knew, because once he gets his teeth into an idea he won’t leave it alone.

He let me in, and I could tell he hadn’t been sleeping too well. He said he’d been up all last night finishing some stuff for the book. This was good. It meant he hadn’t abandoned the idea. It was also bad in that he would be unlikely to drop it for a story.

He made me coffee and I went into the lounge. "How long have you had that?" I asked pointing at the big grey filing cabinet next to his computer desk when he came in with the drinks.

"Oh that? It’s good isn’t it?" He crossed to it and pulled open the bottom drawer. "There’s loads of space in here, much better than those old cardboard things I had." He rolled the drawer shut again with a clang. "A mate at British Alliance let me have it." I nodded. The big insurance company was refitting its offices and stuff like this would be up for grabs to anyone who knew someone working on it.

"Look at all this space," he said opening the top drawer that was labelled ‘JANICE’, "I can get all the stuff for the book in here."

"Speaking of which," I said, "how’s it coming?"

"Oh I’ve nearly started." He replied.

"What? You haven’t started it yet?"

He looked at me with a surprised expression. "Well, no."

"Why not?" This wasn’t good at all. If he hadn’t even started it he probably wasn’t taking it seriously. That I could take, but while he was playing at novel writing he wasn’t producing saleable stories.

"I’ve been doing research." He said, and pulled open the top drawer again. "Look." He said, and I did. The drawer was about half full of printed sheets he’d done on his word processor, stuck neatly into hanging files marked with titles like ‘Family & Friends’, ‘Domestic Data’, ‘Interests & Preferences’, ‘Emotional Data’ all neatly labelled with Letraset.

He pulled a sheet from a file flagged ‘Miscellaneous’ and handed it to me. "That’s an outline of some of the major events." He said.

I glanced down the list, stopping here and there to look at an item. ‘12th February 2000 Martin gets shot’, ‘25th November 2000 Julie & Bill get married’, "Whose Bill?" I asked.

"Oh he’s a new character. I kind of based him on you."

"Mmm." I replied, non committaly.

‘16th April 2002 Sarah Jane born (4 weeks premature)’, ‘28th March 2017 Lucy wins an Oscar’, ‘8th June 2025 Janice dies of Myeloid Leukaemia.

"Oh." I said.

"You thought I was goofing off, didn’t you?" Gary said accusingly.

"No." I lied.

"You berk." He answered seeing through me like I was a politician. "I’ve been out and about at the libraries researching. I’ve ordered a shit load of books too."

"What sort of books?"

"Psychology stuff mainly, just so I can understand how all their minds work. I ordered a police training manual from the Metropolitan Police. Her brother’s a policeman and I need to know some police stuff. Oh, and look at this."

He disappeared for a moment into his bedroom and reappeared with a large board. He turned it around and I found myself looking into the eyes of a beautiful young woman, expertly picked out in gouache.

"Who’s she?" I whispered. Whoever she was she was radiant. Her long blonde hair splashed down her cheeks to pool at her neck, and her blue eyes sparkled with a hint of mischief.

"I got an artist to do a painting of her," He said dropping it carelessly onto the couch, "but he’s got her nose and mouth all wrong."

"Who is it?" I asked again, unable to take my eyes from her.

Gary turned and looked at me. "It’s Janice."

I blinked, and the spell was broken. "Janice?" I said, frowning. "What did you get a painting of her for?"

"To help visualise what she looks like, why else?"

He turned back to his computer and I realised then that he was becoming seriously obsessed with this woman, and her life as told by Gary Clark. He was definitely the obsessive type, Gary, but this was more than his usual need to finish a story, this was taking over.

Still, what could I do about it? If he wanted to drown himself in a sea of his own creations, why shouldn’t he? At least there’d be a book at the end of it all. Who knows, maybe even a sequel?

"What I really need is photographs." He said. "I got some of film and TV stars, but none of them are quite right. Maybe I should get a camera and try the train station." He said to himself.

I didn’t know what to do, so I made my excuses and left.

I was probably overreacting. Keith said so. He is another friend of mine who’s also a literary agent. Fortunately for him he has several talents working for him and isn’t in the financial difficulties I am. He told me that obsessive behaviour is quite normal in a writer. Gary’s craving for background detail was pretty dull compared to some of the foibles of his contributors, though perhaps patients would be a more accurate description of them.

So I didn’t worry too much about Gary. He’s twenty eight, quite capable of looking after himself.

Then he phoned me.

"George!" He was quite breathless, as though he’d been doing something strenuous, but it was just excitement. "I’ve found her."

"Who?" I said.

"Just come down to the Horse & Meadow on Mayfair Road." He replied and hung up.

I got there a quarter hour later and found him sat at a corner table with a woman. I approached and he looked up, but I wasn’t looking at him, I was looking at her.

I don’t know if I was staring because she was so beautiful, or if it were because she was so familiar. Like Gary had said her nose wasn’t the same, and neither was her mouth, but it was definitely the woman in the painting.

"Janice." I said, in shock really.

She smiled demurely and looked away for a second before returning my gaze. "Actually my name is Julie."

"Sit down George." Gary said and hauled me down to the seat, still too smitten by Janice, sorry Julie to do much other than stare. "I told you I should go out and look for her, and I found her."

Lost though I was in Julie’s smile I began to see things from her perspective and realised how bizarre this must seem. "I’m sorry, Miss...?"

"Morrow." She supplied.

I smiled, and she returned it, "I realise this must look terribly strange to you."

"I’ve explained already, George." Gary said irritably.

"Yes." She added. "He told me I looked just like a character in his book. I didn’t believe him at first, I thought he was just trying to chat me up." We grinned at each other.

"I’ll get some more drinks." Gary said, and rose from the table. I don’t think either of us missed him.

We talked a while, but Gary wasn’t much fun, he was too serious and intense. In the end I offered Julie a ride home just to get rid of him. We talked a little about how odd Gary was, although I did stick up for him and say he was very talented, but mostly we told each other about ourselves.

It turned out that she was a struggling artist who drew for one of the less popular girl’s comics, a job she didn’t really enjoy. That was a big coincidence, and I’m glad she hadn’t got around to telling Gary that. You see, in his book Janice is a comic artist too. We decided not to tell him. I felt he was getting too wrapped up in it all as it was, and she agreed.

Two weeks passed and then Gary burst into my office in the middle of a meeting where I was trying to woo a writer from one of my fellow agents. "I’ve found Jeff!" He yapped excitedly.

I grabbed him by the arm and walked him gently back out, smiling all the while at the young man I desperately needed to sign if I was to eat that week. "Piss off, Gary." I said once safely in the front office. "I’m in a very important meeting."

"Look." He said, ignoring me, and thrusting a set of glossy eight by tens under my nose. I looked, and there were several pictures of a man who fit the words Gary had used to describe his heroine’s sister’s boyfriend.

Big deal.

Julie was a shock because I’d seen her in a portrait, and the resemblance was uncanny, but from Gary’s description of Jeff it could have been any one of a thousand guys.

And I needed to sign this writer.

"Fuck off, Gary. I don’t have time for this right now."

"Yeah, sure." He said, and went.

I saw Julie again a few days later. I’d asked her out and she’d said yes. Unfortunately I’d run out of cash, and my attempt at poaching the writer hadn’t worked, so we ended up wandering around a supermarket buying bread and cheese, she chipped in for some wine, and we spent a pleasant evening talking in my office.

Profitable too, as it turned out. Julie had always enjoyed doing comic art, but hadn’t got any breaks and had ended up drawing The Amazing Miss Phipps for a small comic called Sandy: for girls. It was steady work, but she wasn’t stretching her talent drawing the adventures of a public school girl.

But, like I said, I know talent when I see it, and she had talent, I could tell that from the doodles she drew on my notepad while I was in the front office trying to find my receipt spike so we could lever open the wine. I also know a guy who works for Fleetway, who as you may or may not know, are one of the best comic houses in Britain. I promised her I’d try and get her in to see him. She was thrilled to bits, and said if he was interested she would need an agent.

I don’t know how much an artist’s agent gets, but it’s got to be more than I’m on now.

She left quite early as her sister was picking her up on the way home from work. Susan, her sister, popped in to say ‘hi’ and I couldn’t help remembering that Gary had said Janice’s sister had blonde hair and brown eyes too.

Christ! Now he had me at it.

I hadn’t seen Gary for about three weeks now, and he wasn’t answering the phone, so I decided to go and visit. Things had improved slightly business wise. Al, my buddy up at Fleetway had been very impressed with Julie’s portfolio, and had arranged a meeting with one of their editors for later that week, so things were going well on that front.

But on the literary side I was virtually sunk. None of my other writers had anything like a reasonably sure sale for me, and I owed so much to my landlord I could have been a third world country.

If Gary had something for me I could possibly bale myself out, even if it was only a sample of the book, I could still do something with that.

Of course it all depended on what he’d written. It needed to be really good, but with Gary that was virtually guaranteed.

It took five full minutes of hammering at the door before he final answered it.

"Oh, it’s you." He said, and walked back inside, leaving me at the open door. I entered and looked around his flat.

It had been transformed.

A pile of dirty plates lay in the sink, next to a pile of empty tins. Books and papers were strewn across every available surface, including the floor. A huddled heap of stale smelling clothes had made a break for freedom and lay half in the room from the bedroom. You could still see the colour of the carpet, but only in little jigsaw pieces that peeked from under magazines and masses of paper. At first I thought he’d been burgled, but all his valuables were still here, and what’s more his filing cabinet had been breeding. There were three of them now. The original one had three drawers marked ‘Janice’, and one labelled ‘Others’. The other two had two drawers each flagged ‘Susan’, ‘Jeff’, ‘Martin’, and ‘Other family’.

In the middle of all this chaos, with his back against the couch, sat Gary. He was flipping through the Yellow Pages for 1987, stopping occasionally and making a note. Then he would consult a piece of paper lick his fingers and let his fingers do the walking again.

"What are you doing?" I asked. I was a little scared. I was seriously considering calling a doctor. A psychiatric one. "Gary!" I barked when he ignored me.

"Hm?" He answered looking up at me listlessly.

"What are you doing?"

"Oh. I’m looking up phone numbers."

"For what?" I said before he could turn back to his search.

"The book."

"What about it?"

He stared at me through rheumy eyes, and blinked slowly. "I’ve done a list of jobs that Janice had before she started on comics." He waved at a pile of papers on the hi-fi speaker next to me. I picked one up and realised with horror it was an application form for McDonalds filled out with Janice’s name and details. "I’m looking up the phone numbers of the places."

I stared at him and could feel my self getting cold inside. "Gary." I said softly, kneeling down beside him. "Leave it."

"What?" He asked blearily, as though I had spoken in a foreign tongue.

"You need help, Gary. You’re obsessed with this stuff." He frowned at me. "Go back to your stories."

His frown deepened, then he exploded. "WHAT?!!" He screamed, knocking me over backwards. "Leave it? LEAVE IT?" He kicked out at me as I tried to get up, knocking me back down. "You wanted me to do a book." He shouted, and lashed out as I scrabbled backwards across the floor on my hands and heels. "YOU wanted it, and I did it. I’m doing it now. I need the background." He stopped suddenly and I took the opportunity to get up and make a dash for the door.

I dashed out into the hall and looked back inside to see him quietly getting comfortable amid his papers and picking up the telephone directory.

I left.

Julie was shocked to see me. I was in a terrible state, and needed two stiff brandies before I could stop myself from trembling at the thought of the look in Gary’s eyes when he went for me. There was murder in those eyes.

Julie held me tightly and I felt a lot better. I really care for her, and she seems to care for me too. I told her all my problems and how scared I had been, she called me a berk then clucked and cooed and made other noises to reassure me.

She left me with a cup of strong coffee with a dash of whiskey in it while she made a phone call.

She wasn’t long, but I’d almost finished my drink when she returned. "I’ve just called my brother." She said, sitting on the arm of the chair and stroking my hair. "He said that we should call the local police, they’ll be able to take him away and get him looked after by people who can help him."

I didn’t like the sound of that. He may have slipped a little, but there’s something about having someone put away that’s repellent to me, and I can only assume it was the shock of Gary’s attack that made me try to take it out on Julie.

"What does your brother know about this kind of thing." I said angrily.

She looked at me a little hurt, and I was instantly sorry. "He’s a policeman." She replied gently. "Truth be told, he’s obsessive too." I stared at her. "What?" She said a little uneasily, but I just stared as an idea began to form in my mind.

"No." I whispered. It was too wild to even consider.

But then Gary had gone awfully odd.

"Julie!" I said leaping up and grabbing her by the shoulders, "what does your sister do?"

"Do?" She replied, her eyes wide, her expression scared.

"Where does she work?" I demanded.

"The Three Farthings on..."

"She’s a barmaid." I stated, hoping I was wrong.

"Yes, but..."

"Gary!" I cried, and bolted from the house.

I don’t remember much of the journey, but I know I must have broken some kind of land speed record as I managed the twenty mile journey in about fifteen minutes. I leapt out of my car and raced into Gary’s building and hammered on his door.

After a moment I heard it being unlocked, and suddenly began to feel kind of foolish.

"Yes?" The old man asked, squinting at me through his glasses.

I stared at him.

"What do you want?" He said.

"Is..." I managed. "Is...Gary in?"

"Gary who?" I looked at the door. Number 6. This was the right flat all right. Past the man in the doorway I could see into the flat, it’s layout exactly as I remembered it from an hour ago.

But it was totally different. The furniture, the pictures on the walls, even the wallpaper were all different.

The old man scowled at me and began to close the door. "Wait!" I said. "How...how long have you lived here?"

He looked at me suspiciously, as well he might, but answered none the less. "Three years give or take a month. Why?"

And I knew I’d never see Gary again.

So here I sit in my car outside an old man’s flat as the first spatters of rain begin the difficult job of cleaning my windscreen, and little plumes of steam rise from my exhausted engine, and I can’t help thinking about Julie’s mother. She died of Leukaemia, you know. But you know what really scares me?

Julie.

She has Gary’s sense of humour.