I’m not sure how I ended up having Mrs Darcy and Wickham meeting up with Jane Austen, but it seemed like a fun idea — especially if I used it as an opportunity to take on those zombie books that had the cheek to come out while I was writing this one. However, in the first draft of the couple of scenes they had with her, she came over as somewhat psychotic — I think I was subconsciously trying to channel Miranda Richardson in Blackadder II — and it was felt that this might potentially alienate a few readers. Can’t think why. So I made her more of a victim in the final version, which I think works a bit better. Unfortunately, in the process, I did lose a nice little Hitchcockian cameo. Shame — I always wanted to do one of those. Maybe when they make the film, eh?
As soon as Elizabeth and Wickham were inside Miss Austen’s study, the writer closed the door, locked it and pocketed the key.
‘Excuse me — ’ said Elizabeth, waiting for Wickham to back her up. But he was simply staring at Miss Austen with his mouth open. ‘Wickham, this woman has locked us in,’ she said to him. ‘Once again, we seem to be trapped. Only this time, there do not appear to be any poltergeists to hand to save us.’
‘Did you say poltergeists?’ said Miss Austen, narrowing her eyes. ‘What do you know about poltergeists? Are you familiar with the supernatural? Tell me about the supernatural! I want to know everything you know. Everything! ARE YOU TAKING THIS DOWN?’ The last sentence was unexpectedly directed at a row of small grey men who were sitting at desks on the opposite side of the room. ‘POLTERGEISTS! GHOSTS AND GHOULIES! SPECTRES! WRAITHS! APPARITIONS!’ she screamed. The little men nodded in unison and began to scribble away.
She leaned close to Elizabeth. ‘I hate zombies,’ she said. A small amount of spittle was dribbling from her mouth. She’s mad, thought Elizabeth.
‘Who are they?’ she said, indicating the men at the desks.
‘Oh, them,’ said Austen. ‘They’re my staff. Know everything there is to know about zombies. But ABSOLUTELY NOTHING ELSE!’ The man at the right-hand end of the row flinched slightly as she bellowed this at him. ‘I tried to get someone else to help. Someone who knew about OTHER things. INTERESTING things. But SOMEONE ELSE upset him, didn’t they? SOMEONE ELSE spun a pack of lies about ME to him — ’ She broke off and picked up a whip that was propped up against the wall next to her.
‘Please, Miss Austen. I beg you — ’ began Wickham, snapping out of his reverie and looking distinctly alarmed. Miss Austen put down the whip and began to sob.
‘I really hate zombies,’ she said again, her shoulders heaving.
‘I … I like the zombie books,’ said Wickham. ‘Especially ‘Sensei and — ’’
‘Well, you can tell THEM that,’ said Miss Austen, pointing to the little grey men. ‘They wrote them.’
Whilst he had been talking, Wickham had taken out his copy of the book, ready for her to sign. He put it quickly away again.
‘So let me get this straight,’ said Elizabeth. ‘All your amazingly successful books have been written by a team of overtaxed little men and passed off as your own work?’
‘Oh, they don’t mind,’ said Miss Austen with a dismissive wave of her hand. The men all gave the same nervous smile.
Elizabeth raised an eyebrow. ‘R-i-i-i-ght. Well, it seems like a nice business you’ve got going here, anyway.’
‘But I want to write about SOMETHING ELSE,’ said Miss Austen in a petulant tone of voice.
‘Such as … ghosts?’ said Elizabeth, remembering the earlier part of their conversation.
‘Ghosts? Why ghosts?’
‘Well, you said — ’
‘I said NOTHING about ghosts. Ghosts would be a SILLY subject for a book. Everyone knows that ghosts DON’T EXIST. I want to write NICE books. Books where people fall in LOVE and stuff.’
‘You mean romances?’ said Elizabeth, barely suppressing a smile.
‘YES! Maybe with VAMPIRES too! That would be BRILLIANT, wouldn’t it?’
Wickham looked aghast. ‘Madam, I fear that would be the twilight of your career.’
‘Oh, BOTHER. Perhaps you are right. So ordinary romance it is.’ She looked from Elizabeth to Wickham and from Wickham back to Elizabeth, eyes wide. ‘Well, then. Has anything interesting ever happened to either of you? Anything ROMANTIC?’ The row of little grey men picked up their quill pens as one, licked the nibs and leant forwards, poised ready to write.
Elizabeth was beginning to get extremely anxious about the time. It had taken over an hour for Wickham and her to tell their story.
‘Miss Austen, I really do think — ’ she said.
‘SILENCE!’ Elizabeth ceased talking and held her breath. The only sound in the room was of half a dozen quill pens scratching away. Then that stopped, too. ‘So, then,’ said Miss Austen, turning to the writers, ‘Have we got EVERYTHING down?’
The row of little grey men nodded as one.
‘Good,’ said Miss Austen. ‘In which case — ’ She broke off suddenly and began to sniff the air.
‘Is anything — ?’ began Elizabeth.
‘SSSSH!’ hissed Miss Austen, who was now pacing around the room, looking under desks and in cupboards. Finally, she went over to the window and flung it wide. There was a yelp and a cry followed by a dull thud. Elizabeth and Wickham both rushed over and looked out, to see a tall, seedy-looking gentleman with a stubbly beard groping around on the pavement for his spectacles and notebook. Miss Austen waved her fist at him.
‘I’ll get you next time sir, you THIEF!’ she screamed.
But the man was scurrying off into the crowd that was gathering underneath the window.
‘Oh, BUZZ OFF the lot of you and LEAVE ME ALONE,’ said Miss Austen.
Elizabeth glanced at Wickham, who was looking more than a little crestfallen.
‘RIGHT THEN,’ said Miss Austen. ‘First of all, I DON’T LIKE all this alien nonsense. It’s just SILLY.’ There was a sound of several quill pens feverishly crossing out large passages of text.
‘But — ’ said Wickham.
‘SHUT UP,’ said Miss Austen. ‘I don’t LIKE you.’
Wickham was completely at a loss for words and all he could do was gape back at her.
‘I’m not sure I like the tiresome haughty bloke EITHER. HE’S going to have to go TOO.’
‘But surely that’s the whole point of the — ’ said Elizabeth, wounded by this slant on her husband’s character.
‘No. He’s dull and BORING. I don’t want BORING people in my books. If I’m going to write romances, I want them filled with NICE people. Not BORING old fuddy-duddies like this Arsy bloke — ’
‘Whatever.’ She paused. ‘In fact, I think I’m going off the WHOLE IDEA.’
‘Well, in that case … if you would be so kind as to — ’ said Wickham, standing up and heading for the door.
‘SIT DOWN!’ said Miss Austen.
‘And why should I do that?’ said Wickham.
‘Because you’re NOT GOING ANYWHERE.’
‘Actually, I rather think — ’
‘Well, STOP THINKING, then. First of all because, as I said, I DON’T LIKE YOU. And secondly because I’m HOLDING A GUN.’
Elizabeth and Wickham stared at Miss Austen. It was true. She was holding a gun, and it was pointed at Wickham. She waved it in the direction of Elizabeth, and he took his cue and sat back down next to her.
‘If you THINK for a MOMENT that I am going to let you two go and take your material ELSEWHERE — even if it is full of BORING and DISAGREEABLE people — you have got ANOTHER THINK COMING.’
‘Why does everyone insist on waving guns at us?’ said Elizabeth.
‘It’s really not fair, you know,’ said Wickham. ‘I’m your biggest — ’
‘SHUT UP, you TEDIOUS man,’ said Miss Austen. ‘I tell you something. If I ever DO write a book about you lot, I’m going to make you look REALLY REALLY BAD, Mr Dickham — ’
‘I said SHUT UP.’ She paused to wipe some spittle off her face. ‘I’m going to make you look REALLY BAD ’cos I HATE you. And because of that, I’ve just decided I’m going to SHOOT YOU FIRST!’
Miss Austen took aim. At the back of the room, the writers were now cowering under their desks with hands over their ears. Just then, however, a teapot struck her on the side of the head and she fell over onto the floor.
‘About bloody time too,’ said Wickham.