Evelyn Thomas, author of Boris the Bear, Boris Wins the Day, Boris Meets the Queen and thirty-two more books with Boris in the title, stepped out of the taxi and found himself in front of a village school that was almost preternaturally sweet; old red bricks and ivy that reminded him of his own childhood, a playground with swings and see-saw, tiled roof and double-height windows. He was in a bad mood. It was a very hot day and it had taken him much longer than he had anticipated to travel from Notting Hill Gate in London to this empty spot near the Suffolk coast – by train from Liverpool Street, a change at Ipswich and then a taxi (why not a waiting delegation?) from Woodbridge. He would talk to his assistant as soon as he got back.
There was no-one to meet him here either. Evelyn scowled in the sunlight as the taxi reversed and rattled up the narrow country lane, disappearing round the corner as if it had been swallowed up by the grass and hedgerows. It was rather odd for a village school to be a quarter of a mile outside the nearest village. How did the children get here in the morning? He supposed there must be a school bus. Health and safety, of course, would forbid them to walk. Anyway, that wasn’t his concern. More to the point, he wondered how the school had ever managed to reach him, sending him an invitation for an author visit. And why had he accepted it?
The truth was that Evelyn Thomas had more or less invented himself, visiting school after school after school with his stories of a Russian bear with a smattering of English and even less common sense, having hilarious adventures that somehow always came right in the end. He had written the first one in his early thirties, shortly after his advertising agency had collapsed. Aimed squarely at the primary school market, it had sold precisely three thousand copies and wouldn’t even have covered its advance if the advance hadn’t been so small in the first place. It was amazing, really, that the publisher had stuck by him. His original contract had been for three books and although the next two had hardly done much better, they had extended it, bringing the total to five. Nobody had reviewed Boris the Bear. The publishers refused to pay for advertising. The shops were uninterested. But as Evelyn had quickly discovered, self-publicity was the easy answer. There was an author trail, a dotted line that connected all the schools in the UK. He would actually be paid to talk to the children for one hour and at the end, after applause and a cup of tea, he could sit down and sell thirty or forty books. It was, as he saw it, a win win situation.
He had quickly found that the more schools he visited, the more success he had. It was as if there were a sort of playground word-of-mouth across the country that grew louder and stronger with every visit. By the time the fifth book (Boris Goes Bananas) came out, he was doing as much as eleven schools a week. His on-site sales, signed with a flourish and a badly drawn bear, remained about the same but he became aware of a knock-on effect. Boris the Bear was making a name for himself in the local shops of every place he visited. Suddenly he was in the Bookseller, fairly low-down on the bestseller list but there all the same and once he had established this foot-hold (or was it a paw-hold?) he had instantly begun to climb. He was progressing through the bookshops too, turning face up on the shelf, then moving into “Recommended”, finally finding himself centre table. His publishers noticed and invited him for lunch. Suddenly there was a six-book contract in front of him. Evelyn got himself a new agent. The agent agreed the contract but doubled the advance. The publishers didn’t mind at all. Without anyone noticing how or when it had happened, the bear had become something of a national institution. A major newspaper had even joked that he was the second most famous Boris in the country.
But with thirty-five books behind him, thinning hair, a bad back and heavy black spectacles, Evelyn Thomas was enjoying the books rather less than when he had started them…and even then his inspiration had frankly been financial rather than creative. Aged fifty, he had no children of his own. He was a small, rather plump man and chose his clothes carefully to disguise the distinctly pregnant curve of his stomach. He still smoked between pages and this, along with his sedentary lifestyle, gave him the appearance of someone you might meet in a funeral parlour – its manager or, more likely, its client.
Saint Kenigern’s. He read the name on a wooden board, painted immaculately, in gold. Head teacher: Miss Moira Whitchurch. Well, at least that was something. Evelyn was in many ways an old-fashioned man and he much preferred the straightforward Miss to the much more common Ms which displayed so many assumptions along with its absent two letters. He wiped his brow. It really was hot. He couldn’t remember it being as bad as this when he left London.
He heard a scraping sound, a rhymthic scratch, scratch, scratch, then a pause, then the same pattern repeated and as he looked up, he saw a man coming round the side of the building, brushing the ground with a heavy, wooden broom. He was wasting his time. There wasn’t so much as a leaf or a single chewing gum wrapper in sight. In fact the whole school had a pristine quality that quite belied its role in life. The man doing the cleaning was dressed in grey overalls. He was about ten years older than Evelyn, long-faced with a beak-like nose. Evelyn started. Surely the two of them had met before? No. That was impossible. He had never been here and he didn’t make a habit of patronising school caretakers.
The man looked up briefly, breaking the pattern of his work, and Evelyn smiled to himself. Now he remembered. He had a slight resemblance to a writer he had once known, Max Bentley, author of the very successful sci fi series, “Potty Planets” and a self-satisfied tosser if ever there was one. The two of them had rubbed up against each other at Bath and Cheltenham, two of the long line-up of literary festivals that Evelyn had added to his annual rounds. Max Bentley had stopped writing about six years ago. He had simply hung up his pen and vanished from the scene. Evelyn planned to do exactly the same as soon as he had made enough cash.
The speaker was a short, fair-haired woman with startling, blue eyes who had somehow come out of the school without him seeing her. She was about thirty, he would have said, attractive in a careless, thrown together sort of way, dressed in bright colours with cheap jewellery.
“That’s me,” he said, smiling in the way he had smiled a hundred times before.
“We’re so pleased you came. The children are such fans of Boris the Bear. They’ve been so excited. Do please come this way.” She was already leading him into the school, ignoring the scratch, scratch, scratch of the caretaker who had promptly returned to his work. “We’re only small so it’s very special when we can manage to snag authors like yourself. Your books are always in and out of the library. Saint Kenigern…do you know him? The patron saint of salmon and bullies. He’s also known as Saint Mungo. I believe there’s only one other school in the country with the same name.” She prattled on as they passed through heavy glass doors and into a corridor, empty of people now but still filled with the echoes of the children who had passed through. There was an assortment of small cups and trophies behind a glass panel, coats and jerseys on hooks, strange art objects made of cardboard and papier maché on tables and everywhere bright, scratchy paintings in pastel, oil, crayon and water colour contrasting against the austere wood panelling and the black and white tiled floor.
“How was the journey from London?” Miss Whitchurch asked.
“Long.” Evelyn was in a bad mood and hoped he hadn’t betrayed it with the one word answer. Whatever his feelings, he knew that it was essential always to be nice. He looked around, expecting to see a receptionist and a signing-in book. There were schools these days that wouldn’t even let you in without ID. But it seemed the head teacher had decided to dispense with this formality.
“It is a bit of a haul. Would you like coffee or tea?” She hadn’t slowed down. It was as if she expected him to refuse.
“The children are already in class.” She had answered for him. “Will an hour be all right? After that, you’ll hear the bell for lunch.”
Before he could speak, she had ushered him into a small room where twenty children sat behind old-fashioned desks, the sort with a slanting top that opened on a hinge. There were a few shelves with books, the inevitable globe, bits and pieces scavenged from the fields and, at the back, a picture of an old man, in a golden frame. He looked like an Eastern European, with grey hair and a beard, his hand pressed against his chest. Presumably this was the saint that the head teacher had mentioned.
The children were all wearing uniform, pastel blue blazers and black trousers or dresses. Evelyn’s first impression was that, like the school, they were remarkably sweet and attractive; twelve boys and eight girls all aged about nine or ten years old. Only a couple of the children were black, ethnic…whatever the word was you were supposed to use. That was hardly surprising in the middle of Suffolk. What did strike him as odd was that although there was no adult in the room, they had all been waiting in complete silence, their hands folded in front of them, their faces attentive. Even as he came in, there was a stir of excitement but none of the shouting or restlessness that he had experienced in other schools. Some of the children were holding his books…a good sign. He would have recognised the front covers or even the spine instantly, at thirty paces.
Miss Whitchurch led him to a table in front of an old-fashioned blackboard. The room was painted bright white to the extent that the reflected sunlight, pouring in through high, sash windows, almost dazzled him. It was very hot.
“Good morning, children,” the head teacher said. “We are very, very lucky to have Mr Evelyn Thomas with us today. Who has read a Boris the Bear book?” Every hand in the class went up. Evelyn was pleased. He’d visited inner city schools where only two or three of the kids (and none of the teachers) had read any of his work. “Well, today, you can find out everything you want to know about these wonderful stories. Mr Thomas will talk to you for a while and then I’m sure he’ll be delighted to answer your questions.” She glanced at him as if to ask if he was happy with this arrangement and he nodded back. It occurred to him that everything was happening a bit quickly but then he had no reason to linger. Do the usual talk. Answer the usual questions. Sign books. Then back on the train to London. He really wondered what he was doing here. “Do go ahead, Mr Thomas.” Miss Whitchurch stepped aside and sat down, folding her legs neatly in front of her.
“Good morning,” Evelyn began. He paused and smiled at the twenty smiling, attentive faces gazing up at him. “I wonder how many have you wondered what it must be like to live in Russia and to come all the way to a country like England. It must be very strange. But it’s even stranger and more difficult if you happen to be a bear!”
He had uttered the words so many times before that he almost hated himself for speaking them again and he had to work hard to make them sound fresh. It often occurred to him that modern writers had to be actors – or actually stand-up comedians – delivering jokes, insights, shared experiences and anecdotes to different audiences week after week. The only difference was that stand-up comedians could change their material. He was stuck with the same patter week after bloody week. Even as he found himself launching into his first set piece – “Life in the Kamchatka Peninsula” – he had to suppress the sense of self disgust. There were plenty of things he would rather be doing now, at least one of them with his new assistant who was twenty-three and seemed willing enough…not that he would share that particular thought with a bunch of ten-year-olds.
He paused to wipe the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand. Miss Whitchurch had managed to bypass the tea and coffee but surely she could have managed a glass of bloody water. Well, best to get this over with. Most of the talk was second-hand, drawn from the stories themselves….all the scrapes that Boris had got into. After all, at the end of the day, he didn’t have that much to add. He sat in a room and he wrote books. What else was there to say? For Evelyn, this was an exercise in advertising. Buy my books. Tell your friends. Leave me alone.
There was an old-fashioned clock at the back of the room. He had begun at eleven o’ clock. He stopped at a quarter to twelve exactly. Fifteen minutes for questions and he was out of here.
The children applauded politely but without the sense of enthusiasm or even childishness that he had experienced elsewhere. He found himself discomforted by the way they were looking at him. What was it? What was it that made them so very slightly sinister? Finally, it dawned on him. At every school he had ever visited, the children had reacted to his talk in different ways. There had been those who were absorbed. Those who laughed uproariously. Those who were frankly bored and fidgeted. But this lot were all identical, watching him with the same, polite interest. God! What did they feed them on out here? Or was this what came of living in the middle of nowhere?
“Well, that was very interesting,” Miss Whitchurch said as if they’d just had a talk on home safety by the local fire brigade rather than an audience with one of the most successful children’s writers in the country. “Now, who has the first question?” She paused. “Hermione?”
A girl in the second row had put up her hand. “Where do you get your ideas?” she asked.
“That’s a very good question!” Miss Whitchurch turned to Evelyn for an answer.
It was a blindingly obvious question, actually. He had only been asked it about a thousand times before. But Evelyn did his best, talking about the leather notebook he kept beside his bed (in fact it didn’t exist) and all the thoughts and experiences he wrote down before he went to sleep. “Ideas are everywhere!” he said. “If I see a man running for a bus, I ask myself why he’s late and where he’s going and that might suggest a story. And of course, if he falls over in a puddle, that might be something I put in a book.”
The notion of an adult slipping in a puddle often got a laugh. This crowd remained silent.
“How did you get the name for Boris?”
The boy next to her had asked this and he couldn’t have been listening because, during his talk, Evelyn had already explained where the name came from. This often happened and usually he would ignore the error and answer the question anyway but today he was feeling peeved. “I think I already told you that,” he said.
“That’s right, William,” Miss Whitchurch said, reproachfully and then, as if to brighten the mood: “Can anyone tell Mr Thomas where he got the name from? Every hand in the room went up. “Raj?”
“He stole it!”
“No, no, Raj. Mr Thomas borrowed the name from a famous book, Boris Godunov. One day, perhaps, we’ll look at it in class. Who has the next question?”
“What’s your favourite book?” This came from a ginger-haired boy at the back.
“I think I like Boris and the Burglar best,” Evelyn replied. This was a lie. It wasn’t a very good book at all. Even his publishers had wondered if the formula wasn’t becoming a touch stale, although none of them had said so directly. That was why he was promoting it now. Twenty copies here, thirty there. It was important to nudge the sales. “I had a lot of fun writing it and I think it’s got some great jokes.”
“Why did you fire your agent?” The speaker was a tiny girl in the front row, her feet swinging at least an inch above the ground, fair haired with stick-like arms folded in front of her.
Well, that was an odd question and one that Evelyn had never been asked before, certainly not during a school visit. But the story had been reported in the Bookseller and Evelyn assumed they must have found it on the net before he arrived. “It was just a business thing,” he said. “We had different ideas about the books and I thought it was time to move on.”
“But she was very upset,” the little girl insisted. “She represented you for years and years and after the books got successful you just sent her a two-line text!”
“It wasn’t a text. It was a telex. They didn’t have texting then,” the boy next to her said.
“Well done, Jonathan!” Miss Whitchurch murmured.
“It was all about money,” a plump boy with freckles added. “The new agent said he could get a better deal.”
This was true – but it was getting out of hand. Evelyn turned to the head teacher for support but she sat where she was, expecting him to respond. He felt a trickle of sweat down the side of his neck. Couldn’t they at least open one of the windows? “I don’t really think I want to talk about my business,” he said. “And do you think I could have a glass of water?”
“Why did your wife divorce you?”
Christ! That really was too close to the bone. The speaker was an angelic boy with a neat, blonde fringe, the sort who could have stood in the front row of any self-respecting choir. “Now wait a minute…” Evelyn began.
“Did you hurt her a lot?” the boy asked as a follow-up question.
“Has Caroline been here?” Evelyn asked. She had moved to Norwich, now that he thought about it, and that wasn’t so far away. If she had broken the terms of her settlement she’d be hearing from him. There had been an iron-plated confidentiality agreement bolted in.
“Why did you have so many affairs?”
That was too much. Evelyn turned angrily to the head teacher. “I’m not prepared to answer any of these questions!” he snapped. “And I have to say, I’ve never met kids who would even have been allowed…”
But the questions were still coming, one overlapping with the next, shouted at him from the different parts of the classroom.
“How often do you make your editor cry?”
“Why do you say such nasty things about other writers?”
“You stole the idea for Boris the Bear. Why don’t you just admit it?”
Evelyn couldn’t let that one go past. “That’s not true,” he exclaimed. “There was a similarity but…”
“You have tons of money. Why don’t you ever give any to charity?”
“Why don’t you pay any tax?”
“Why do you hate so many people?”
“What’s your favourite recreational drug?”
Evelyn wanted to leave. He had made his mind up to leave even as the questions exploded around him. But the strength had drained out of him. He felt himself trapped in the sunlight, pinned in the heat and the glare as these horrible children continued their shrill interrogation, their unbroken voices not loud and yet somehow piercing.
“How can you go on writing books when you think they’re rubbish?”
“How many hours a day do you spend watching porn on the internet?”
The saint in his gold frame seemed to have turned his head so that his grey eyes were locked into Evelyn’s. What was happening to him? There was a terrible pain in his chest and he was sure he was having a heart attack.
The questions had become a cacophony, thundering in his ears, and he realised that he was locked into place, his feet as secure as the roots of a tree. He tried to turn his head but his neck had petrified. “Why…?” “When?” “Who?” “How often…?” Every child in the room was shouting at him. All he could see was their mouths and eyes. They had become a blur and suddenly with a rush of complete horror he felt his bladder release itself. As the liquid poured down behind his trousers, he slumped forward and collapsed to the ground.
Some time later.
Garry Baker, the popular presenter of BBC’s “Let’s Have A Laugh” steps out of a taxi and stands in the afternoon sun. He is here as part of a nationwide tour, promoting his autobiography – “Garry with two R’s”. At the age of just twenty-five, he has little to write about but that hasn’t put off the many thousands of fans who have bought his new book. As he waits, a little impatiently, for someone to greet him, he hears the sound of a brush, sweeping the playground…even though it seems to him that there is nothing actually to sweep. A moment later, a man appears, dressed in grey overalls with thinning hair, a large stomach and heavy, black spectacles. Garry has never seen anyone so absorbed in his work. The man is sweeping as if his life depends on it.
But here’s the head teacher coming out to greet him. Garry Baker raises a hand and, with a smile fixed to his face, walks into the school.