The Hedley Conundrum
Almost every time I met him, after that first day, I would ask Arthur more about his writing. He was working on a script, he told me, but it still wasn't ready to be seen. He tried to explain to me about the stages that a yarn had to go through, all the drafts between the first idea of the story and when it was truly ready to be filmed. He tried to get me to understand about the shooting script - that complex schedule with all the instructions laid out for the director, actors, camera crew, props team and all the other bodies involved in getting the story off the paper and onto the screen.
Of course, I made it all the harder for him by springing these questions when we were out on family days. Either we would be at the beach (with children all over us), or at family gatherings (with children all over us), or at family parties where one or both of us were somewhat smashed. To make it worse, some of the others would try and protect him from my nagging questions by sitting us at opposite ends of the big table. All that did was make this drawn out conversation even more disjointed.
It was during Easter, after about six months of my pestering, that he finally got me to understand that from draft 3 to draft 4 there was much more change than just altering some of the dialogue. We were up at his cabin in the mountains, perched on the edge of the bluff, just four of us, and it was my turn to drive back to the city. So for once I was sober. The mist had finally come down over the far peaks, so the binoculars had lost their fascination. The other two had their heads together over some project of their own. On the coffee table I had come across a dialogue script for a film we had all seen, and I was leafing through it. Suddenly it occurred to me that this was the first script I had seen apart from 'doing Shakespeare' at school, fifty years earlier. When I looked up and mentioned this to Arthur he looked as though a great weight had lifted from him. I guess he only then realised just how green I was about his craft.
An hour later, leading me gently like a baby, he had me understanding the evolutionary process for script writing, and by then the murmuring printer had stopped its slow ejection of hot-smelling script pages. So when the other two announced they were ready to go, I for once felt I could go off happy that Arthur and I had after six months finally finished our first conversation. And I was being given his script to read. 'Hedley', he had called it.
I felt an initial flush of pride at being accorded that honour - obviously I had proved my professional understanding of what scripting involved. But that pleasure was soon cut short.
'- and read it with a pencil', he was saying, ' - I expect some sensible criticisms, and don't be worried about hurting my feelings'.
Me, hurt HIS feelings. What about mine? I had only just that minute seen the size of the pile that the computer printer had just finished roasting. And with my new partial knowledge of the script drafting process I now imagined that to read the story I would have to tease it out, a line here and a line there, from among more technical detail than a knitting pattern. Than a hundred knitting patterns, probably.
And I was going to be examined on it. If I didn't hand it back with a smattering of notes I would risk hurting his feelings, or worse, my own cover would be blown. Ever since Year 8 I have had a dread of written assignments. Of course Arthur could not have known, but anything that might remind me of 'Write a critique of ...' would put me in a worse funk than 'You have been sentenced to ...' ever could. Some clever cribbing had got me by at school, most times, but that wouldn't work here. This was a brand new work. I couldn't look this one up in the Oxford Companion to English Literature - not until Arthur was famous, anyway.
On the drive back down the mountain I had plenty of time to muse on what I had done to myself. The traffic moved at no more than a walk, because the Highway Department, with impeccable timing, had another round of roadworks and detours to coincide with the usual holiday influx. Queues of cars, waiting to go around these obstacles, stretched as far as the eye could see, and most of them would still be there, inching forward, hours later. Some of the drivers would be impatient, some hungry. None of that worried me. I now had bigger problems.
When we finally reached home we had something to eat and fell into bed.
The following morning Jenny complained that her sleep had been a bit disturbed - a couple of times in the night I had stirred, or got up briefly, and each time I had woken her, she said. Actually, she had nothing to complain about, really. If I had kept her awake whenever I had been, she would have got no sleep at all. I can't say that I had tossed and turned, because I hadn't. It was more a case of carefully not tossing and not turning, so at least one of us would have some sleep.
And all the time wrestling with what by then I was calling 'The Hedley Conundrum'. How to deal with that damned manilla folder, locked away in my study, waiting to bite me as soon as I went near it. In the depths of the night I had to face my own fears. But with my usual cowardice I tried blaming everyone else first. Perhaps it was a carefully crafted scheme, with me as the fall guy. Maybe Arthur had been playing me along for months. Setting me up with hints and partial answers. Sitting around the far end of the table, at all those meals, to keep up the suspense. Exploiting my innocence.
Perhaps it was a conspiracy and all the family were in on it. And Arthur was the natural choice for ring-leader. I would have to get even with him. But how? He was more than a match for me, that much was now abundantly clear. In the warm dark, great schemes rushed through my head. Kidnap his cat (the stone one - it would be easier to keep quiet and would for sure need a lot less cleaning up after). Let down his tyres (the three hour drive would just add piquancy to the exercise). Apple-pie his bed (no, that was out, he would be in it by now). I flirted with stealing a semi-trailer and spiriting off his satellite disk - (it would have to be a big semi-trailer - that dish must have been built to pull pay TV out of Alpha Centauri). But then I recalled it had been left behind by a former tenant and I would probably be doing him a favour. This guy was one cunning critter to deal with.
By now the night was almost over. The sky was starting to lighten, and you could hear the early-bird visitors to the local zoo (down the end of the block) jostling for parking spaces outside. Every public holiday it is the same. With nothing else to do, the whole city descends on the zoo. En masse. Except those who 'do' the local Mountains, of course. And the zoo visitors park right outside the house. There is a points system for them to earn. Three points if they block me completely in my own garage, two points if I have to back and file for over ten minutes to get out, and only one point if I can do it in five minutes or less. I hate Holidays At The Zoo. By now I hate the Zoo, too. Never mind how cuddly or endangered their rare species are. Breed them somewhere bloody else.
I stumbled blearily out to the kitchen, fairly sure that I had recovered an almost adult emotional state. But when I realised I was trying to eat my muesli out of a coffee mug I knew that Walter Mitty had not died in vain. Precautions were needed.
I had read somewhere that for a patent to stand up in court you had to post it to yourself and leave the envelope sealed. I had never understood how that would prove anything, and the postie round here loses half our mail anyhow, but I wasn't in any state to worry about the details. I would have to write it all down. Maybe I wouldn't post it to myself, but at least I would put a new stamp on the envelope. That would show willing, I figured. The Government would get the revenue. Most everything, these days, only seems to be legal if you do it in a way that supports some politician's mistress and overseas travel, by however little.
Which brings me back to Hedley. What I would do is, I would actually read it. And I would criticise it. And it would be a good criticism. That doesn't mean what you think. Literary critics are funny creatures. They talk about giving a play a 'bad crit'. Well, I've read some so-called 'bad crit's and many of them I reckon were pretty well written and right on the dot. And then they talk about 'critical acclaim' as if it was a good thing.
Well, when my Mum was critical you knew things were pretty shithouse. And now in the movies it means some bloody great bomb, which the bad guys have stolen, is about to go ape and take all known civilisation with it unless the good guys cut the blue wire - the BLUE wire, dummy (you can hear all the people in the dark around you rooting for the blue wire) and I reckon it's time they switched the wires so we could see a different ending for once - just the clippers closing on the yellow wire and then the credits against a mushroom cloud, would be ok. So how can 'critical acclaim' mean that it's just the very best. I reckon these literary critics must be up themselves.
Well, if they can be up themselves and get paid for it, what's to stop me having a go for free?
So I worked out a scheme. The Hedley Conundrum will pretend we are all sitting in the dark, with the chocolate dropping unseen off our ice creams onto the crotch of the new white trousers where nobody will believe it's chocolate when the lights come on afterwards. Sitting there in the dark, the trailers end. The titles come up, and we see the movie Hedley. Then all I have to do is write what I thought of the movie and why. And if there aren't words there in the script to paint the picture so it's good and clear - there's my chance. I've got him. But good.
At this point I had a reality flash. It must have been the coffee kicking in. There are some things I don't do very well, and others I shyly admit I do brilliantly, but paranoia is my very best. As good as it is, however, it's not entirely reliable, and occasionally the truth slips past it. This was one of those times. I finally had to admit to myself that I had put the whole family in a plot so bizarre that one solitary cup of coffee was all it needed to bring me back down to earth. I had said I was interested in Arthur's writing and he, with his usual kindness, had graced me with a script and a request for a little feedback in response.
You would have thought that would be the end of it, and if my reality flash had lasted a few seconds longer it would have been. And I would never have written it all down (though I did stop short of posting it to myself). Perhaps worst of all was giving it to Arthur to read. By then a whole day had passed and surely there had been time enough for me to recover all my sanity. I came to believe there was a funny side to this story. I was sure Arthur would enjoy sharing the joke.
And maybe he did, but he was horrified as well. That I could even imagine feeling the way I had described must have been a shock. To let someone read an early draft is quite an act of trust - I guess the last thing you expect is for 'gentle reader' to respond with a fantasy about severe paranoid reactions. I could hear the concern in his voice when he phoned me, later, to reassure me that I really was not facing an exam - just read it, as far as it held my interest, he said. If the interest took me right through to the end, so much the better. But I only got part way, even knowing where I had got to would be helpful for him.
I don't know if Arthur is paranoid. If he is, he's got more sense than me and he's keeping quiet about it. That's as it should be for paranoia. Mine must be flawed somehow. But one thing I do know about Arthur - when dealing with this paranoid he is very gentle and patient.
I almost forgot about 'Hedley' the script, the true hero of this tale. Once Arthur had soothed my exam fears I was able to open its cover without making up complex avoidance plots. Be warned though - it's not easy to put down. For some reason I didn't sleep too well last night so I can't sit up and finish it now, and it's certainly not something I could fall asleep in the middle of.
I think it's shaping up as some sort of sting operation. There's not a lot of description in it, but sometimes I can see the expressions on all their faces as one of them speaks. Unusually for me I have a total blank about what will happen next. I started out with a few guesses about the directions the plot might take, but they all proved wrong. Now I just don't have a clue, and that's far more fun.
I'll keep you posted.
Copyright © 1998 Peter Leon Collins