The Night Watchman
When I heard how William Faulkner wrote his first novel, I went straight out and got myself a night watchman gig. When I received my first paycheck, I understood a whole lot better why he needed two careers.
I stuck with the writing because that's how you get better, and I stuck with the night watching because I am an insomniac and figured that was the second-best way to profit by my affliction, after picking a mattress manufacturer and suing them.
In all fairness I would find it hard to argue for a pay rise, when night watching is pretty straightforward and requires little in the way of prior experience or training. I clock in at ten p.m., clock out again at ten a.m., four nights on, three nights off. It suits me, and besides I like working for Mr. Little. I haven't seen him since he interviewed me, but he made a good impression. He seemed to be on my wavelength: his first question was, "Are you writing a novel?"
"Yes," I said. That was the hardest answer of the whole interview, because being an unpublished novelist is a doubly shameful business. Once we were over that hurdle, I felt I could relax in the boss's presence.
"You know what we do here?" he asked, and of course I did, because I'd studied the company profile on the website.
"You grow books," I said. "I read it on your site."
"And how did you know to check our site before interview?"
"I read it in one of your books--"How to Ace Every Interview"," I said, and held up my copy, which I'd read once and then dog-eared for effect. Not too much, because I didn't want him to think I disrespected his produce, but just enough to show the quality of the paper and the binding.
Mr. Little nodded. "2009," he said, without even having to check the copyright notice. "That was a good crop. We haven't had a year like it since."
After that he drifted off into nostalgia, and when he started showing me yellowed reviews in the New York Times I knew I'd got the job.
I settled into a routine almost at once and stuck to it. At the start of every shift I would personally walk the perimeter. That wasn't in the job description: all it said I had to do was sit in the office and write if I felt the urge. As long as I kept half an eye on the security cameras, Mr. Little was happy for the electric fence to do the rest. But the truth is, I enjoyed going out there into the crisp air and looking at the fields under the arclights, especially in summer when the trees bent double under all the bulging bestsellers.
Mr. Little's orchard was of medium size, a hundred acres or so. In all likelihood his business would never have been able to compete with the Canadians; he would have gone under but for protectionist taxes and the tendency of Canadian trees to produce works of a slightly Dickensian cast. Since no-one much cared anymore for tales of orphans getting rich by authorial fiat, I had heard tell that up to one half of the Canadian crop went straight to pulp.
Mr. Little had been both fortunate and industrious: his land was by nature both prolific and varied in its yield, and his forebears the Kleins had brought with them enough of their native soil to ensure continuity with the very origins of the novel. Most of the Little trees could be counted on to produce novels of education year after year. Mr. Little's rigorous yet experimental splicing program had injected enough Americana to stay relevant and it was to this that he attributed his contract of many years' standing with a major supermarket chain.
Many a night I would stand downwind, breathe in the ripening print and listen to the dust jackets rustle gently in the breeze. Often I would scan my thumb on the pad, open the gate and walk between the trees, stopping to read some of the early drafts by my flashlight. In spring I would shake my head at some of the clumsy sentences, the dangling participles and ambiguous antecedents, but I knew that come the summer the books would be ready to pick with not a word out of place.
One night I caught a scrumper.
He was a wiry little man, all in black with a wild look in his eye. I kept my gun on him and ordered him to show me how he had got over the fence. It turned out he had used a blanket as insulation, which did not exactly smack of creativity.
"Please don't shoot me."
"Show me what you've taken," I demanded.
It was a pitiful haul in a 20-liter rucksack: a few partial self-help books, a guide to federal taxes that hadn't yet come into effect, and a mishmash of erotica that Mr. Little, fierce Lutheran scion that he was, would probably have sent for juicing by jobbing ghostwriters.
"Take off," I said.
"Don't you want these back?" The little scrumper offered me his rucksack abjectly.
I shook my head. Every moment I spent dealing with him was time away from my own great American novel.
He shouldered his pack, climbed back over the fence and left, trailing his blanket behind him.
For the following weeks I kept a closer eye than usual on Amazon, and sure enough the little guy's weaselly face cropped up as the supposed author of all four of the erotic works he'd pilfered. I wondered if he'd ever earn back the time he'd spent planning and executing his raid, or the cost of the gas to drive all the way out here and home again. I doubted it: no-one had given him more than two stars for those unripe and unconvincing titillations.
I shook my head sadly and turned my attention back to my novel, where it belonged. Since taking the job, I'd completed nine drafts, incorporating everything I'd learned in Mr. Little's fields. All I could say for my manuscript was, it wasn't quite ready yet.
Ed Cooke lives and works in York, UK. He has written half-a-dozen stage musicals and one short film, which was produced in aid of the charity Diabetes UK. His short fiction has been published by Bete Noire Magazine, Microhorror, Pink Narcissus, and Runewright.
Published by permission of the author.