by Greg Barron
My ambition to work in a large publishing house came to fruition in the same year the Government canned all Arts funding on the grounds that insufficient taxpayers were still interested. This fact, I was assured, would not impact on my new employer’s bottom line, for they had, years earlier, disassociated themselves with art.
“Books don’t sell books,” my new superior, Doctor Stephen Lush explained, “writers do.” Lush was a tall, bent man, with the mien of a schoolmaster. “I have a slogan,” he continued, “give me a celebrity, and I’ll hand you back a successful author.”
“What if they can’t write?” I asked.
“Who cares? That’s what editors are for.” He paused to pull a tissue from the box on his desk, fold it once and press it to his mouth. After a noisy interlude that sounded like a rat giving birth he examined his excretion, folded the tissue again and placed the whole thing in the waste paper bin beside his desk.
“What happens to the real authors?” I wondered aloud.
Lush smiled, “That will be your job. Come with me.”
I followed the Publishing Director to the ground floor, through a peeling wooden door and across a grassed courtyard. We approached a concrete blockhouse, with a single smokestack ejecting smoke into the grey sky.
A uniformed security guard tipped his hat and opened the door.
“Good morning Doctor.”
Lush nodded sternly and passed through, leading me to a huge grimy space that looked more like a factory floor than a publishing house. The place reeked of grease and steel. Workers ran helter skelter, casting anxious little glances at the boss.
A double door at the far end of that vast room opened. In crawled a giant yellow front-end-loader. The bucket rose high, then dipped, releasing its load into a rusty iron hopper the size of a small truck.
“The machine is dumping paper,” I said at last.
“Yes, come closer and I’ll explain.”
We looked down from a scaffold into the hopper itself. It contained thousands, no, millions of white, typewritten pages. Endless pages, billions of words altogether. I looked at Doctor Lush, asking the question with my eyes.
“Yes,” he said, “unsolicited manuscripts—this morning’s crop of crap.”
I pictured the thousands of authors whose work lay below me. “What on earth do you do with them all?”
“Follow me down, and I’ll show you. Other publishing houses waste something that has become a precious resource to us.” As we descended he pointed to a narrow black rubber conveyor that emerged from the hopper. It was piled high with manuscript pages. A soot-smudged youth with a spiked pole collected and replaced pages that fell to the floor. He did not look up as we passed on, following the moving belt.
Lush motioned me to stop before a towering machine. At its peak two men stood on a platform, turning a wide steel handle. The whole business looked like a giant olive press. At least a hundred complete manuscripts sat below the machine and I watched two steel plates slowly come together, squeezing the pages between them.
I chuckled nervously, “Surely your staff read all these manuscripts before they get damaged?”
Lush threw back his head and let his laugh ring high above the noisy machinery. “Read them? Read them?” He laughed again. “My dear boy, no one reads the damn things. Why would we?” His voice lowered conspiratorially. “Years ago we worked out how to make money from something that had become increasingly useless.”
I watched, confused, as Lush sank to his bony knees and took a brass key from his pocket. The key opened a steel door near the machine’s base. Inside the cavity I saw a glass vial. It held a few millilitres of dull grey liquid. To the accompaniment of the squealing press another drop entered the vial.
“This,” Lush explained, “is the first and least valuable of our by-products.”
“What is it?”
Lush’s eyes took on the glow of a visionary. “Self-doubt,” he hissed.
“I don’t understand.”
“Oh, you know,” he said. “Those useless souls—those fools—they sit at their computers and typewriters and tap away, while all the time something nags at them. ‘Am I good enough? Will anyone like it? Is my story brilliant?’” Lush placed the vial back into the cavity and closed the door. He moved his face close to mine and made that noise in his throat again. His breath stank. “We discovered that this self-doubt somehow infuses the manuscript itself—a kind of osmosis, and our technology allows us to extract that essence by applying pressure to the pages themselves.”
The procedure was fascinating, but I could not imagine who might want to purchase such a product. “Who would buy self-doubt?”
Lush shrugged, “Politicians with an image problem, mostly. Arrogance propels them to the top of their particular dung heap, but it becomes a liability eventually. Voters hate their strutting and smirking.” He whispered a name in my ear, and when I thought about that particular public figure I realised that he had recently changed for the better. Opinion polls were up. He was suddenly being touted as a future leader.
“Incredible,” I said, but something sick and bitter settled in my guts.
“Shall we move on?” Lush asked, rocking on his heels.
I nodded, but had to wait while he barked some instructions at an elderly man with a toolbox and overalls.
“Damn maintenance flunkies,” he declared as we continued, “belligerent bloody people.” We stopped where the conveyor dumped manuscript pages into a box-like machine, bright with stainless steel. A whining turbine started, and the noise became a ceaseless roar.
“The extraction method here is different,” Lush explained. “We use jets of superheated air at three-hundred kilopascals in that chamber.” He took a silver key from his pocket and opened a door panel identical to that on the press. We looked together at the vial. The liquid was clearer than the last—like dishwater before you wash the pots and pans. “Persistence,” Lush went on, “the precious stuff that pins the writer to his seat every day—spurs him on when there’s no reward in sight. The blood, sweat and tears of creation. People without a fair portion of this can’t write novels. This essence sells well—even at a thousand dollars a pop.”
“I can hardly believe it,” I said.
“Oh, it’s true.” Lush glanced down along the conveyor and back to me. “Shall we continue?”
The next machine differed from those previous. Radiated heat burned my throat. Coils of copper pipe reminded me of a whisky still.
Lush’s eyes glowed as he smiled. “I designed this beauty myself. This is where we boil and distil what remains of the manuscripts.” I noticed a white paste of ruined paper emerging from a pipe near the wall. Men carted it away in wheelbarrows. “You wait ‘til you see this,” Lush said, bending down with a gold key in one hand.
This time the vial was small, and it contained liquid the colour of rainwater.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Hopes,” Doctor Lush said, holding the vial up to the meagre light, “and dreams. The seed of all endeavour.” He gripped my arm with his free hand. “Think of the poor souls—sitting in their dreary dining rooms and poky offices, pushing their pens or hitting their keys, dreaming of how publishers will fight over their work—pay them money—give them fame. They imagine the newspaper reviews and the love and happiness their fame will bring.” Lush laughed. “They dream of writing a great book—one that will last for as long as words are read. Fools.” He let go of my arm and pointed at the vial. “This is the most precious stuff of all—a hundred times more so than gold. We sell it to all the millions who feel that their lives have no purpose.”
I pointed across to where a worker industriously filled his barrow with paper pulp. “So what happens to that,” I asked.
Lush grinned, “The master stroke—we recycle the paper and print our bestsellers on that otherwise useless waste.”
“You seem to have it all worked out.”
“Thank you,” he said, inclining his head.
If I had thought through what I said next—if I could have known the consequences I would have remained silent. Foolishly I opened my mouth.
“There’s one thing you’re not getting,” I said.
“Creativity itself—the talent that some people have and others don’t. Everyone wants creative genius—you could name your own price.”
Doctor Lush looked thunderstruck, then nodded slowly. “You’re right,” he said, then slapped my back. “We’re going to work well together,” he said.
I looked at the pulped paper emerging from the pipe and shuddered.
The machinery was old, but with rigorous maintenance I was able to keep the factory functioning around the clock. I took catnaps in my office beside the hopper. Six months passed before I asked Doctor Lush when I might work as a real editor. He fobbed me off, promising that he was creating a whole new position for me. I took to staring from the highest catwalk through the building’s only window. From there I looked out into the grassed courtyard.
One day I watched Doctor Lush and a dozen men in overalls cross the bare ground to stand talking in the clearing. A minute later Lush left and the workmen produced tape measures, hammers, string and pegs.
Things happened quickly—cement trucks came and went, filling foundation trenches. Bricklayers laboured on the walls, and carpenters the frame. Tilers finished the roof. I spent an increasing percentage of my day watching the work proceed, neglecting my duties. Essence yields dropped and my workers grew lazy. I expected a reprimand when the quarterly figures were tallied.
Late in autumn my routine was shattered by an unexpected sight, people crossing the lawns and entering the new building. They were not employees of the publishing company but a mixed bunch—dressed in an assortment of clothing from suits to dresses, rags to designer wear. Most seemed touched or even damaged by life in some way. They came singly or in groups. Many carried bundles in folders or boxes.
One woman caught my attention. She was my age, and beautiful. Her face showed a mixture of excitement and anticipation. By chance she looked up through my window. We shared a brief, warm smile.
At noon, Doctor Lush, dressed in his best suit, appeared at my factory door. His moustache fluttered with excitement. I descended from the catwalk so fast I scraped my ankle on the steel steps.
“I guess you’ve been wondering what’s happening,” he said, leading me outside.
“A little,” I said, looking up at the new edifice, no less box-like than my own building, only newer. ‘This looks exactly like the manuscript room.”
“We used the same plan—drawn up back in 1995,” Lush said, “saved a few thousand dollars on an architect.”
My superior elbowed his way through a group of people entering the building, leading me to an elevator that promptly carried us to a balcony overlooking the interior. To my surprise the new factory looked rather bare. A single conveyor belt ringed the room, leading to a large and complicated looking machine at one end. A vast cage took up at least one-third of the room. Inside that cage hundreds of men and women stood. Bunched and helpless, new arrivals squeezing them in tighter.
Lush chuckled, “It was so damn easy to get them here, we just called and told them that we’d like to talk further about their manuscripts. Look at them! Dreamers. Fools!” He peered over the rail and into the cage. Men and women alike stared back at us. “I think that’s just about capacity don’t you?”
I didn’t answer. Couldn’t breathe.
Doctor Lush walked to a control box on the balcony wall and opened it. I saw three buttons inside, one green, one red and one grey. He pressed the grey button. With a hiss of hydraulics and slam of steel the cage doors closed. The confined mob started to shout and hammer on the cage doors.
A group of dark-suited men and women appeared from the shadows outside the cage. They used sticks to poke and prod the crowds away from the entrances.
“Who are they?” I asked.
“Literary agents,” Lush explained from the corner of his mouth, “they do my bidding.”
I shook my head in amazement, but that familiar sick feeling rose to my throat. The harsh treatment goaded the crowd.
“Silence,” Lush yelled.
The people stopped their noise. Lush glanced at me and giggled. “Look at them; look at their faces!” He pointed at a young man so thin he could scarcely carry the box of paper in his hands. “Look at that pathetic scribbler. Or that one over there.”
One poor writer shouted, “This isn’t fair.”
Lush winked at me before glaring out at the speaker. “Fair? What do you expect, you stupid man?” Moving back to the control panel, he punched the green button. The conveyor started with a lurch, and the machine roared into life.
Women screamed and men shook their fists at us. The conveyor started to drag people away—they fought to escape but their hands and feet stuck to the belt as if by some magnetic force.
The first struggling group were out of the cage and half way to the machine when I again looked down into the crowd. I saw the beautiful one—the woman I had seen through the window earlier, staring up at me.
“Come,” Lush said, “let’s see the results.”
I turned away, and followed obediently.
The noise intensified on the ground floor. Lush strode towards the machine. It was hard to see up onto the conveyor because of its height, but shadows on the walls betrayed the writers’ struggles as they fought the inexorable strength of the machine.
As we neared the machine I heard screams of pain as it swallowed the first humans. Lush took a platinum key from his pocket and approached a small door in the machine’s base. He opened the compartment and looked in. I saw the tiny vial in its recess.
“Yes,” he hissed, “it’s working.” The few drops inside sparkled like liquid diamonds. “Your little suggestion has finally come to fruition. We have it at last. Creativity—talent, those indefinable things that guide the whole process. Come, let’s go watch.”
Back on the balcony, however, I began to comprehend the full horror of my superior’s plan. Seeing the beautiful woman again, on her knees, blonde hair hanging almost to the ground, inching towards the machine, had my heart beating like a hammer in my chest. Her eyes challenged me. She mouthed three words. Please help me.
I ran for the control box against the wall, pushing the red and grey buttons before Lush could reach me. The machine stopped.
I turned to face him. I was no fighter, but made bony fists with my hands and cocked my arms. I heard the sound of hydraulics as the cage doors opened. People cheered.
Lush tried to laugh me off. “What are you doing?” he asked, “they’re just unpublished writers. Plenty more where they came from. Bloody millions of the poor bastards.’
I looked down to see that the conveyor had stopped. The mysterious force holding the men and women on the rubber mat relaxed its grip. The beautiful woman was standing now. A fight had started between the literary agents and some of the writers.
Doctor Lush made a dive for the control box but I pushed him hard in the chest with both hands. I watched him hit the rail, his momentum flipping him over and down onto the conveyor itself. He sat up and glared at me.
Most of the writers left through the doors. Others chased the fleeing agents. I checked that no one was on the conveyor but Lush himself. With three quick steps I reached the box and dabbed my hand on the green button. The Publishing Director’s scream filled the room.
I ran to the rail. Lush was stuck fast to the conveyor, struggling to free his arms and legs. He looked at me. “No, please,” he whimpered, “I’ll give you anything. Money? Power? A contract?” The conveyor, however, watched by dozens of unflinching eyes marched on regardless. Lush wrung his hands and screamed pitifully.
I watched the conveyor force him into the machine. When the echoes of his final yells faded I took the elevator down to the floor. The woman was waiting for me. I slipped one arm around her silky shoulders.
We walked to the machine. The door to the compartment was open. I took out the vial. Instead of clear liquid it held a single drop of indescribably dark stuff—like sump oil. I took a sniff, gagged, and passed the vial, the essence of the Publishing Director, to the woman. She looked at the contents, then at me.
“Commercialism. One pure drop of commercialism,” she said. Her eyes lit with excitement. “The one thing I’ve always lacked. The one thing I could never write into my novels.”
“Take it,” I urged, watching her glance towards the building entrance. Her eyes lowered. “But there’s only one drop. All those other people need it too.”
“Don’t worry about them—this is your chance.”
Lifting the vial to her mouth, she let that single drop fall onto her tongue. Something self-conscious and awkward left her, but gone too were the things that had caught my notice in the first place – her nervous smile, the freckles around her nose, and the hair that strayed appealingly from the style into which she sought to confine it.
Poise replaced natural elegance. Confidence replaced doubt. While her face grew more beautiful, I sensed that the heart had left her – the individuality, the inner loveliness. Now, when she spoke her words were glib and clichéd. They came sure of my approval, without any burning need to speak.
Years flashed before my eyes, and I watched her change completely – watched her passion become cynicism, and her love of stories turn to love of money. I dropped her cold hand and walked away. I left that place alone. I left as fast as my legs would carry me.
Copyright Greg Barron 2012