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Chapter 11: Post-Apocalyptic Romance
chapter image by afterglow @ tda
I was a little surprised when the summons came from Euphemia Flitter to meet her on the fifth of January. From her aloof attitude and general ambivalence towards me, I’d assumed she wouldn’t have wanted to hear from me for months to come. Perhaps my plea for help and my vague ignorance of what I was supposed to write had made her panic. She described it as a brief check-up and asked me to bring everything I’d written so far.
From the moment the owl arrived, I typed like a woman possessed. With a little bit of creative input from Scorpius (he of the bizarre imagination), I constructed a wildly implausible plot and bashed out a few chapters of complete nonsense much in the vein of the essays that’d got me an Outstanding in N.E.W.T Divination.
It was set in the north of Scotland (writing what I know, of course), in a quirky little village that was a loosely-disguised version of New New Elgin. I tried to pick out elements of my own life to dramatise for reasons of plot – everything from the war memorial in front of the town hall to the Sunday afternoon we’d gone for a walk in the snow. But it was really hard to connect the weird and nice memories in my head with the bawdy thing I was supposed to be crafting for Amortentia Publications.
The plot certainly came out of nowhere. Fauna Hewitt is a pretty singleton and escapee from a loveless marriage in London. Buck Blair is her enigmatic three-doors-down neighbour. Buck saves Fauna from a chip pan fire. Fauna kisses him. Buck is mildly burned. She kisses the burn symbolically too, just as her old London friend Eugene Gilbert turns up. An entire page is devoted to miserable, drippy prose about how his wimpy heart is shattering into tiny bits. The three points of the love triangle turn and gape at one another. And then the music stops on the radio. Breaking news: the zombie apocalypse is upon Great Britain.
By chapter thirteen the death toll is already forty and Eugene is missing an arm. Buck is leading the human resistance movement. Fauna has become a ruthless killer with knives strapped to her garters and three wands tucked up each sleeve. What was once a romantic novel has turned into a post-apocalyptic fiesta. Although the smut stays. Think post-apocalyptic smut with a high body count. Think smut with the added danger of the walking dead walking in.
I was very much enjoying writing it, although I knew that it was probably the very thing that Euphemia Flitter and her potato sack dress would despise.
I had a bit of time to write it, time to think of what I would actually say to her. We didn’t really do much after the jaunt to my parents’ over Christmas. Our New Year’s celebration was just the two of us. First, we traipsed out to the phone box on the High Street to receive a drunken phone call from Tarquin and Gwen, an hour ahead of us in Paris (plus background sound effects provided by Lettuce, who sounded like he was wearing a bodysuit made of cowbells and tinsel). Then we retreated to the flat, where we made sure we kept the radio on, kissed at midnight, and drank a toast or two.
There was a funny moment when the midnight countdown ended and we kissed, as expected, but, on the radio, they’d left it tuned into the firework display over the Thames, and so you could still her thousands of people in London yelling, singing, oohing and aahing at the fireworks, even though austerity cuts meant that the display was far smaller than usual. It sounded fantastic but, after a few minutes, Scorpius switched it off. If you’re trying to have a couple of hours’ alone time with your significant other, the sound of half a city cheering you on is a bit of a mood killer.
I let Scorpius read through what I had of a manuscript before I left for the meeting.
‘Oh,’ was his verdict. ‘You killed off Algernon. I liked Algernon,’ he stared back down at the page, looking troubled. ‘I really liked Algernon. Did he really have to be killed like that?’ he glanced up at me again. ‘I mean, that was slow. Painful. Does he really have to come back as a zombie?’ eyes back down to the page, frown back on face. ‘I bet he’s going to hunt down Buck. I don’t mind what you do to Buck,’ eyes back up at me. ‘He’s too perfect.’
‘Buck’s the vanguard of the revolution. He can’t die.’
‘Oh, yeah, I noticed you dropping the politics in. It’s good,’ he added, hastily. ‘I like it. But you didn’t have to kill Algernon.’
‘Algernon’s a fictional construct. Besides, you’ve gotta make sacrifices. Fauna’s still around. You know I sort of based her on you.’
‘Oh. Cool. She’s good. Don’t kill Eugene either,’ he sounded a little desperate. ‘He’s grown on me.’
‘Spoiler,’ I said. ‘Eugene and Fauna put up a shelf together.’
‘Right?’ he raised an eyebrow. ‘And, what, the shelf collapses on them and alerts the zombies to their presence?’
‘That’d be a mood killer and a half.’
Truth was that I hadn’t planned where I was going at all. ‘You’re on the right track, though,’ I said, enigmatically.
Sometimes I felt a bit miffed with myself. We’d both, in a way, committed to take aspects of our own life together and turn them into fiction, both for Scorpius’ neat little comic book idea and my rampant beast of a post-apocalyptic smut novel. Scorpius was using it for creative good, though, drawing something nice that he was going to try and sell copies of back in London, all handmade, all sweet and pretty and honest – and I? I was using it for a tawdry bloodbath.
I got to the Witch Weekly headquarters a little early. My determination to get there before the stipulated arrival time of midday meant that I didn’t quite have time to make myself presentable. Anorak, uncomfortable high-waisted jeans that crushed my internal organs, a crumpled polyester shirt that was fraying at the collar. The cute blue suede loafers almost made the outfit work until I stepped in a puddle on my way in and stained them a funny shade of brown at the toes.
London felt practically tropical compared to New New Elgin, despite the rain, and I was sweltering in the waiting room of the Witch Weekly offices. I folded my anorak over the back of the chair and tried to swelter quietly in my shirt and cardigan, but this was difficult when my face was throbbing with the heat and my fringe was glued to my forehead with perspiration.
Most of the staff had vanished on their lunch break. Seven near-identical shades of nail polish stood on a desk nearby, surrounded by masses and masses of paper. A little further along, a young witch with bags under her eyes leant back in her chair, snoring quietly, a miniature Quaffle resting on her desk.
Euphemia Flitter summoned me into her office at one past twelve on the dot. She dispensed with small talk right away, taking my manuscript from me at once. This time, her dress was a severe, shocking pink that made her skin look deathly pale despite the tidemark of foundation on her neck. She didn’t speak once as she read through the trash I’d typed up, but lifted her quill once or twice to scribble in a margin or circle a word.
This went on for about four centuries.
Eventually, she lowered her glasses and peered back up at me with her piercing blue eyes, fingers steepled into a point, three-inch silver talons forming a lethal pinnacle. Her expression was unreadable. She had not reacted once to the pages she’d read. I shifted in my seat, uncomfortable, wondering just what I'd got wrong.
'Good,' she said, simply.
I grinned, but then she added -
'But I’m afraid this isn’t at all what we were looking for.'
My heart sank.
'Well, this is only the first few thousand words or so-'
'Your language, Louise.'
'Far too many swear words for a book aimed at women. Especially those words. Unecessary. Vulgar. You don't want to alienate your readers. A bit lighter on the language, please. A bit more ladylike.'
Well, that was bullshit if I ever heard it.
‘The plot, too,’ she turned over a few pages. ‘This…ahem…well, I understand that post-apocalyptic fiction has had a vogue of late, but, ordinarily, this is simply not the sort of thing we publish. Our readers want realism. I suggest you prune the story back. Rewrite from chapter four onwards. Go back to the original idea. Your protagonist is delightful. The opening chapter is sublime. I like the premise. You also tend to focus on scenery, atmosphere, ambience, a lot of description - all good, Miss Weasley, but we want to hear more about people. The gossip, the scandal. Who's doing what...or who, rather.'
'To be honest…I dunno, I guess I was, uh,’ I fidgeted with my sleeve. ‘Writing from life?’
‘Your life?’ she echoed. ‘In what way?’
‘Well, I live in a tiny Scottish village-’
'Do you live alone?'
'No, I live with my boyfriend.'
'Boyfriend?' she raised her eyebrows. 'Well, Louise', (I didn't bother to correct her this time) 'What we often find our readers want in these novels is sex.'
I wasn't entirely sure I'd heard her correctly. 'I beg your pardon?'
'The sex, Louise. Sells books by the ton. Nothing like Romantic escapism, Miss Weasley. Just slip some more in.'
I wasn't entirely sure that 'slip some more in' was an appropriate choice of phrase, seeing as there'd not been much to begin with.
'Well, Miss Flitter - really, I imagine readers could fill in the blanks as far as that was concerned…'
‘What this story needs is an emotional punch. Focus on relationships – everyone loves a bit of romance.'
I fidgeted, unsure of what she was really asking for.
'Good heavens,' she said. 'You're not prudish, are you? This isn’t the Victorian Era, you can discuss these sorts of things in literature.'
'Ha, no!' I blurted out, with a hysterical sort of scream of a laugh. 'Well, the sex is amazing!'
She merely gaped at me. Evidently, that wasn't what she was looking for.
'Romantic escapism, Miss Weasley,' she repeated, slowly. 'You know...a bit of a light romantic subplot to...well, to spice it up a bit.'
I felt my face go a luminous, burning scarlet and cringed back into my chair, wishing simply to become a little compacted square of awkwardness and be eaten by the squashy cushions. Miss Flitter sighed and put a hand on my manuscript.
'This is certainly a good starting point, though. It shows some promise. If you will send me an owl by the end of the week having made my suggested amendments, I think we should be able to go from there.'
'Cool,' I reached for the manuscript. 'I'll just be off then-'
'I thought you might accompany me to dinner,' Miss Flitter said. 'You can meet some of your colleagues.'
I ended up being dragged along to a dingy gastropub in Diagon Alley with whoever was in the office at the moment Miss Flitter stalked out of her office, me in tow. I ended up sitting opposite the dozing witch from the Quidditch desk, who had to keep stifling yawns throughout the extravagant three-course lunch.
I stuck out like a bit of a sore thumb. The rest of the team were already well acquainted, proper journalism types, whilst I was the odd writer out, the lone hawker of smut in a sea of Quick-Quoters and overstretched staff. I kept trying to relate to them through my old work with the Prophet, but these were people who did real features, proper stories, people who spent days on end testing endless varieties of self-stirring cauldrons to find the best one for making soup. And before anyone argues that that isn’t proper journalism, I defy them to try making soup in a cauldron that hasn’t been approved by the Which Cauldron? supplement. The results are often explosive.
I ended up ordering fish and chips (a whale of a fish! The menu promised) just to avoid chatter.
In a way, being in London had sort of made me nostalgic for home, made me realise how much we’d isolated ourselves by moving halfway across the nation and finding new friends in a bunch of strange Scottish types. And it also sort of made me realise just how successful everyone had become when me and Scorpius were still struggling to cover a month’s rent. I suppose that’s what happens when you run off to art school.
By the time I had a chance to Floo home it was past six in the evening. Manuscript in bag, I sprawled onto the carpet, sooty and exhausted, and feeling hungry already despite the three-course lunch. The flat was silent; I found Scorpius asleep at the kitchen table, slumped over a newspaper. I jabbed his shoulder and he started awake, newsprint on his cheek.
'S'nice,' I pointed at the newsprint. 'You should get a tattoo of that done.’
'Uh...' he blinked at me. 'Good...morning?'
'Evening,' I said. ‘It’s six. I'm famished. Put the kettle on, love, I'm going to murder a bacon sandwich.'
Like the good boyfriend he was, he got to his feet and started filling the kettle. I made for the cupboards - the prospect of a bacon roll was so close, so tantalising, that I completely forgot the day I'd had.
It took a while to get the food going, though. I cast all magic aside, cooking by hand instead. Which wasn't really a good idea. I'm a terrible witch, but an even worse cook. But, finally, the bacon was sizzling in the pan (Scorpius, the token vegetarian, did his best to look unconcerned, but he nearly had his face in the fruitbowl). Eventually, bacon roll assembled, I flopped down into my chair and took a long, well-earned sip of my tea.
'What did she think of the zombie thing?' Scorpius asked, with perfectly bad timing - I'd just taken an immense, hippopotamus-like bite of my bacon sandwich.
'Uh...she liked it, I guess,' I said, a few moments later. 'Not the zombie bit. The first few bits. I think she wants a plot change. She made a few suggestions.'
'She wants more sex.'
'In the book or...just, generally, in her life?'
I froze, the sandwich halfway to my mouth. It couldn't have been an attractive look. 'Er, the book, you prat,' I tried to sound nonchalant. 'Apparently, uh, sex sells. Romantic escapism,' I added, quickly. 'Light romantic subplot and whatnot.'
'Right,' he said. 'Cool.'
Sensing that this part of the discussion was over, I took a hefty bite of the sandwich. Further ketchup-soaked heaven filled my mouth, but then Scorpius continued-
'What does she mean?'
I chewed at the mouthful of food with what I hoped was a vaguely thoughtful expression, at a loss for what to say. Scorpius continued to stare politely at me, waiting for an explanation. I set the sandwich down, swallowing the last bite with some difficulty.
'Uh, well, I thought it was...romantic writing. You know, Escapism, Miss Weasley, and all that. Like I could get away with zombies as long as there was a romantic plot somewhere. But...it seems that she wants, er...steamy chick it. Just, you know. Smut. I think I knew that all along.'
Scorpius looked terribly amused. ‘Hadn’t you already done your best with the smut?'
‘Yeah, but she wants more!’
‘And? Combine it with the zombies! Write zombie smut!’
‘That’s disgusting! I’m not writing zombie smut!’
‘Can you imagine the looks on people’s faces when they read it, though?’
I fell about laughing, aware at just how ludicrous the premise was, but Scorpius just yawned.
‘I’m exhausted,’ he said. ‘Got an early shift tomorrow too. Might go to bed.’
‘It’s only past six!’ I exclaimed.
‘Just need to rest my eyes,’ he promised. ‘And then I’ll be fine.’
The next day, I sat with my manuscript and a quill, carefully editing my story - cutting a word or two here, adding a few extra there, toning down the swear words just about everywhere. Whilst I made every effort to change the manunscript to Euphemia Flitter's suggestions, I couldn't, for the life of me, find any way of accomodating the last one. Bedroom stories? Pfft. They were bedroom stories for a reason. They stayed there. And, besides, I used the bedroom for other things too, like getting dressed, or reading. If I were to be pedantic, I could eaily write fifteen chapters of detailed wardrobe exposition and call it a bedroom story.
Romance, too. How could I write romance? I was, by no means, a romantic. Flowers, expensive jewellery, Valentine’s day – never been my thing. It’s far better to have the person you love bring you a cup of tea in the mornings than bring you a bunch of roses once, only once a year, because custom and tradition dictates that they should. For me, it was tea and companionship. Not Amortentia Publications and their stupid little idea of love being something that was angry and cost a lot of money. But I couldn’t let it get personal like that. I couldn’t afford to let it get personal like that.
Still, I couldn't not do what she told me to. I'd spent most of the five hundred galleon advance anyway. I reached the end of the manuscript with a heavy heart, knowing I'd done a half-hearted job at best.
Yawning, I sat with my quill poised over the final sentence. ‘Come with me,’ Buck said, his orbs of grey steel boring into Fauna’s emerald green eyes. ‘And never leave.’
It was complete crap. Without thinking, I wrote two short sentences beneath it, the two tiny concessions I'd make to Euphemia Flitter.
Sex happened. It was very nice.
a/n: I don't usually update three times in quick succession, but when I do, I...okay, no, I have a valid reason here. I've had this chapter written for about six months. It's pretty much the second thing I ever wrote for this story. So this was just a case of doing a few minor edits and making a chapter image, before you all think I'm the superhuman almight updater or something. I mean, that'd be a pretty naff superpower. (Spiderman: I can shoot webs out of my hands and climb up walls! Julia: I can write three chapters in a row! COWER BEFORE ME.)
Thank you so much to everyone who's been reviewing so far, and I'm so sorry it's taking me ages to respond to all of them. You're all too kind to me ♥ Anyhoo. Hope you enjoyed this, and thank you for reading!