Writing at the End of Time by Shane Joseph
The daylight-basement room was cool despite the prairie heat outside. The author typed relentlessly, determined to wrest the story in his head, a tale lurking for too long, pressing now for release through nightmares.
This would be his final novel, he had concluded. The synapses did not click as seamlessly anymore to release ideas. Once, he had believed that everything he had wanted to say was already in his published works. But they had not been his most important thoughts. This last attempt would rectify past detours.
Why had he come here to pay this final debt to his calling? To this monastery halfway across the country, sitting amidst fields of neon canola. To be among monks who lived forgotten lives? Was he finally among his own kind, although he had not been compelled to take their drastic oaths of poverty, piety, and celibacy?
Talking of celibacy, there must still be carnal dregs inside him, judging from the way protagonist Sam behaved with heroine Emma. The sex was raunchy and spilled out on the pages. Was this transference? When the body can do no more, the imagination compensates. He had even given the protagonist his name. Oh, what he would give to trade places with the younger Sam!
He heard keystrokes in the next room, sometimes matching his, sometimes more urgent and rapid, sometimes clacking when he had finished and rolled over onto the single bed next to the desk for a snooze.
He heard other sounds in the room next door: clothes hangars sliding inside the cupboard; blinds being drawn frequently. Sometimes he heard things crashing to the floor and the scattering and bouncing of tiny objects, as if a box of pills had fallen and spilled; a printer came to life and purred; paper being ripped. Sometimes, he heard suppressed coughing. At night, muffled sobs.
He had met a few visitors in the dining room at mealtimes: breakfast, lunch, and dinner, wholesome meals prepared from the produce grown on the monastery’s farm. He could distinguish visitors from the resident clergy. The visitors did not talk freely– they seemed pre-occupied with weighty matters that had brought them to this place of contemplation. The monks were the most cheerful, outgoing, and talkative – their lives had always been this way – and they spoke about death as if it was just another room everyone has to inevitably walk into. A room where God presided.
Father Andriy, the abbot, was the most communicative, although quite hunchbacked. He often referred to a dearly departed colleague with, “Oh, Father Jerome? He went to live with the Lord last June,” or “Sister Agnes has not much time left, she is urging to go live with the Lord soon.”
The author tried to imagine his next-door neighbour who had arrived three days ago – that’s when the sounds began, two days after his own arrival. It must be a woman, because men of his vintage usually farted and cleared their throats. No one farted next door, and the coughing was muted. And those sobs… It had to be a woman. Her inaccessibility began to obsess him.
He had tried waiting for her room door to open into the corridor, hoping he could “coincidentally’ step out at the same time and exchange greetings, but that door never opened.
In the dining room, he scanned the visitors’ faces to see if he could match any of them to the sounds from next door. He had narrowed down to three possibilities: (a) the blousy woman wearing the brown cardigan at every meal, but she talked incessantly to any table companion. (b) the fortyish washed-out blonde who looked at her smartphone while she ate and never spoke to anyone, and (c) the grey-haired, emaciated woman who only ate soup and crackers, slipping out a hip flask periodically when none of her table companions were looking to top up her Styrofoam cup.
Returning from lunch that day, there was an empty tray on the floor outside his neighbour’s room – so she hadn’t been to the dining room for this meal. Scratch all his three possibilities then, for they had all been present and hadn’t yet left when he did. The mystery of the mysterious neighbour intensified.
He dove into his novel that afternoon. He abandoned the sex scene from the previous day and described a grove at night where hooded figures were meeting. A conspiracy scene? Suddenly, he ran out of steam. This would never happen to him in the past when he had his teeth in the plot. Grabbing a steaming cup of mocha from the self-catering kitchenette down the hall, he abandoned the grove scene and returned to the sex scene but detoured into a discourse on the meaning of life between his fictional Sam and Emma:
“You have to follow your passion,” Sam said, lighting a cigarette, blowing smoke rings at the ceiling.
“Like smoking?” Emma rose, and threw a violet dressing gown around her naked body, covering those sweet breasts that had unleashed the beast in him minutes ago. She ran a hand through lustrous blonde hair, then let it fall around her shoulders. “I wish you wouldn’t smoke in here.”
“You have to do what engages the senses.” He reached over to the side table, raised the half-empty bottle of wine, and filled his glass. He motioned for her glass on the other side of the bed.
“Not for me. I’m getting a headache.”
“C’mon. Didn’t you enjoy the sex?”
She sat on the edge of the bed and smiled coquettishly. “I did.” Then the smile vanished, “But there has to be something more.”
“This…this…” She sniffed disgustedly and gestured about the room, at the writing desk, the book case, the rumpled bed now beginning to smell of their passionate emissions. “I wanted to change the world, and I ended like this. A nine-to-five job, a guaranteed pension at the end of the rainbow, a bunch of ungrateful students who criticize me for not being ‘woke,’ and books that no one reads.”
“You can’t change the world, Emma. That’s why I order my orchestra around – the only world I can command.”
“But you’re not even playing your music, just those classics by composers who died two hundred years ago.”
“We are slaves to money and have abandoned our art.” She wrenched the gown off her and threw it on the floor, pushed him back on the bed, and straddled his groin. “Fuck me again. I need to engage my senses.”
He stopped writing. This was cutting too close to the bone. He had created his fictional Sam as a musician rather than an academic to break the autobiographical connection and create distance. But he was giving Emma all his lines. He got up and started pacing. Then he heard a sound that set his heart beating even faster. The door in the adjoining room was creaking open!
He leapt across the room, grabbed his door handle, and threw it open.
A figure in a violet dressing gown was stooped over the abandoned lunch tray, adding another empty plate to it.
He sucked in his breath.
The figure straightened: tousled blonde shoulder length hair, a defined bustline, and hazel eyes that peered at him with a trace of fear lurking in them.
My God, Emma’s come to life!
“Er… excuse me,” he stammered. “I didn’t mean to disturb you.”
“You opened the door so…so suddenly.” Her voice was on a low register. She looked like a gazelle about to take off.
“I really am sorry. I’ve been clumsy since schooldays.”
His explanation seemed to relax her. She wore white slippers over which the ends of flannel paisley pyjamas fluttered. She held a pair of thick lenses in her hand, which she put back on. “They haven’t come to pick up my tray. It’s starting to smell.”
“Doesn’t bother me.”
“It bothers me. I have an acute sense of smell.”
He was glad he hadn’t farted in his room that often – these walls were thin and there were gaps between doors. “I can take it down to the kitchen if you like. I’m headed that way.”
Her tense face relaxed and her shoulders fell. “Really? That would be a relief.”
“No problem.” He picked up the tray. “Maybe, I’ll see you in the dining room sometime. I’m Sam Bolton.”
“Nice to meet you.” She stepped back inside her room. “I don’t go to the dining room. They bring me my meals. I’m Emmeline. Good bye.” The door swung shut slowly.
As he made his way to the kitchen, her face swam before him. He was swirling in coincidences. Was fiction merging with reality? He was sure he had seen her somewhere before.
He couldn’t wait to get back from the kitchen and start searching. Emmeline looked to be in her early forties. First, he tried his Facebook and Twitter friends – no luck! Then he looked up his e-mail address book. Then he combed through the faculty at the university and in old yearbooks archived online. Still no luck.
As a last resort, he tried Goodreads. If she was an author, she must have a Goodreads page. And then, it struck him even before he started his search. The face and the name came together in a flash of his slowing synapses. Of course, she was the author. Emmeline Bower.
He quickly looked up her Goodreads author page – and there it was: Emmeline Bower, whose debut novel, Writing Till the End of Time, won every Canadian literary award in 2001, despite being drowned out by the events of 9/11. She was immediately scooped up by a prominent New York agent who produced best-seller after best-seller for her every two years from then on, until about eight years ago, when Emmeline had suddenly vanished from the celebrity-author radar.
He googled her. There were stories, many unsubstantiated. Some said she had married and given up writing and was living off her royalties in the Caribbean. Some said she had a mysterious illness. Others said she had entered academia for a safe, boring job. Bullshit, he wasn’t buying any of this crap– no one should sacrifice creativity for a safe 9-5 – his new book was premised on this falsehood. There were no more articles on her after the Covid pandemic began – other news had filled the gap. How quickly we are forgotten!
Yet, here she was, next door, typing away, probably writing another bestseller, one that would become even more famous than the rest because of its “Salinger Factor,” as he called it – “withhold, and they will come.” Although he had to admit that her follow-up novels had never matched the lived experience of her debut offering. Had she realized that she had shot her best bullet with her debut and gone into hiding? Then, why was she at it again, thumping those keys, taking those pills, and crying?
He realized that she may hold the key to his own dilemma. That is, why does an over-the-hill writer go for the big hit again?
Should he try to talk to her? Could he just go over and knock? When he had mentioned his name, she didn’t even recognize him. Sure, he wasn’t top dog in the literary game. He had produced a handful of forgettable novels and poetry books through the university press (more a favour done for him by the dean, Basil Thompson, to keep him relevant with students, not because his works had any literary merit). Except perhaps this last one under creation, one that put his life under the microscope and asked the tough questions—like Emmeline Bower had done with her debut novel.
He had to talk to her. On his way to dinner, he slipped a note under her door and quickened his pace towards the dining room. He had written:
I must talk to you. You hold the key to my novel.
P.S. In return, I promise to ferry all your empty meal trays to the kitchen for the rest of my stay.
Returning, he jumped upon seeing the white sheet of paper on the floor inside his door. She had crossed out his lines and written below them:
I walk in the monastery’s graveyard after supper. It is a relaxing place. Meet you there at 7p.m. – Emma.
P.S – You are funny!
The graveyard was in a section of the vast monastery property that his walks had not taken him to yet as it was through neglected pasture full of low-flying insects that left nasty bites below the knees. After dinner, donning slacks, he made his way over, while the sun was still bright in the prairie sky. He recognized a lone figure in the pasture, mired in the tall grass, swinging a scythe beside an abandoned tractor. Father Andriy. But what would the Abbot himself be doing clearing weeds? He skirted the field to avoid contact with the priest – his clandestine mission to meet a woman in a graveyard wasn’t exactly sanctified business.
The field led to a grove of trees. The grove in my novel - as I had imagined it. Sweat broke out on his forehead, cooled immediately by the winds that gusted unencumbered and in sudden bursts across this flat land. But this grove was different – a hundred yards down and it opened into a clearing. The clearing was dotted with granite gravestones, neatly arranged in rows, about 20 across and 20 deep, with room at the back for more. The stones in the front row were the tallest and their heights diminished progressively. He read the names on the tall stones: all of them belonging to former abbots of this monastery, dating back to the mid 19th century when this order of monks set up shop to minister to the needs of farmers and new immigrants fanning out across the Canadian prairies.
“Thanks for coming.”
He jumped at the soft voice that sailed in the breeze from behind. Spinning around, he saw her sitting on a bench in the lee of the trees. She was dressed in a dark ankle-length gown with a hood, and dark glasses; the dying sun was just going over the treeline and playing full on her pale face.
“My turn to be surprised” he said, trying to calm himself. He approached the bench and sat at the other end. She smelled of insect repellent.
“I wish I could come up with quick rejoinders,” Emma said.
“I’m not that quick, you know. I’m desperate.”
“My voice. It got drowned in academia and work and family.”
“I had none of those aggravations, thankfully. But I still drowned.”
He sighed. “And, at this stage of my life, those distractions are gone. Wives, children, the career – all gone. Now, all I want to do is write the book I always wanted to write.”
“That’s what I want too. But sometimes, it’s too late.”
“But you are young…younger.”
“I don’t have my health anymore. My body turned against me for betraying my calling.” For emphasis, she coughed, unmuffled, a hollow cough that shook her. She pulled a tissue out of the folds of her gown. It was stained red when she tucked it away again.
He remained stuck for words, looking at the gravestones in front of him. It was such a short distance from this bench to the nearest one.
“They put me on a treadmill. Even had me change my name, Emma Bauer, to Emmeline Bower – it would sell books in the North American market, they said.” she continued in that low register, as if talking to herself. “They gave me tight scripts developed through market research that they knew would sell. And my books sold, and everyone made a lot of money.”
“You can’t fault your agency for that. I wouldn’t have known who you were if they hadn’t made you famous.”
“I became famous with my first novel. I didn’t need my minders after that. But it took me six more books to realize that.”
“But they kept you famous. We quickly disappear from the public eye when we stop producing.”
“Producing. Huh! Like hens, or cattle, or slaves?”
“Like gladiators, I’d like to think.”
“And after you’ve given them every drop, they drop you.”
“Were you… dropped?”
“I refused to co-operate in the end. I wanted to write something they said would hurt my image. And theirs. I wanted to write about being exploited – it was my reality. And I was stubborn. So, they cancelled my contract. No one picked me up afterwards because word got out within our incestuous literary community that I was unpredictable, un-bankable, a traitor to the secrets of prize juries and awards that had become cash conduits for the one percent of the one percent of the publishing industry. I did not realize the shock to my ego when the phone stopped ringing and the reading gigs dried up. I had a nervous breakdown. When I switched on my laptop again, four years later, the spark was gone.”
“But you have it back now, right? I hear you typing furiously.”
“Typing and writing are two different things. I am typing, not writing.”
“You have to give yourself time.”
“I don’t have time.”
He dared not ask her why her clock was winding down. It must have been a bloodstained tissue.
“You said I had the key to your novel,” she asked. “What is it you needed to ask me?”
He took a deep breath. Here goes. “Why is it important for every writer to write that autobiographical novel?”
“Because when you end up under one of those headstones, the only spoor you leave behind will be that single book.”
“Writing Till the End of Time was your autobiographical novel, I thought. It’s what motivated me to write when I was still an associate professor. Why do you have to write another?”
“It was my bildungsroman. But it does not have half of what I know now, twenty years later.”
“So, this new book will complete the circle?”
“Yes, I want to call it Writing At the End of Time. If I can ever finish it.”
“Is this why you sit here? To get the motivation to keep going?”
“No. I come here to realize how futile all striving is. This book is for me, not for anyone else. No one will give a rat’s ass about it in a few years.”
She looked talked out, slumped forward on the bench, staring at the ground. The sun had gone over the trees and darkness was descending. The insects were biting more viciously.
“I think we need to go indoors,” he said, rising and beating off the mosquitoes zooming around his face. “I didn’t bring my bug spray with me.”
“You do that. I will sit here until it’s dark. I like being here with dead people. Alone.”
Suddenly, he felt he was intruding. He had been intruding from the time she had opened her door this afternoon.
“Thanks for the advice. I’d better get back to my book. Not that it will matter much.”
“It matters. To you. Write it before it’s too late.”
The author walked back in the gathering dusk. Father Andriy had finished his work—a small patch of cleared earth amidst a still-overgrown field—and was packing his tools away. He decided to accost the priest this time.
“Hard at work, Father?”
Father Andriy straightened—from keeled over, to forty-five degrees—and mopped his brow with the sleeve of his cassock. “Hello there! Yes, help is hard to find these days after the pandemic. And the monks are getting older, many can’t work anymore.”
“Well, they are assured of a peaceful resting place, at least, in a place they love.”
Father Andriy looked in the direction from which the author had come. “Oh, you’ve been to the graveyard then, have you? It’s peaceful there, isn’t it?”
“Yes. And I ran into your other guest, Emmeline Bower.”
A frown creased the abbot’s face. “A troubled soul. She has been coming here every summer these last four years. Writing the same book.”
“Is she ill?”
“She hasn’t long, I am afraid. It’s got worse this summer.”
“Should she be outdoors this late, then?”
“God will look after her, don’t worry. Besides, she has learned something on this visit which is far greater than writing another book.”
Father Andriy ignored the question and put the scythe away in the cab of the tractor and shut its door. “Tractor packed up today. I have to find a repairman tomorrow. But God always provides.” He made to move in the direction of the monastery.
“Can I give you a hand with your tools?”
The abbot gratefully eased the leather bag of implements off his shoulder and handed it over. “Thank you. That’s a relief. I’m going on seventy and my arthritis gets in the way.”
They fell in step down the darkening footpath.
A pensiveness overcame Father Andriy as they neared the lights of the parking lot outside the chapel building. “You know, I was a musician as a young man. I wanted to be the next Prokofiev. I was good, but not good enough. It took me a lot of heartbreak to realize that. When I did, I joined the order. Now I teach music. Perhaps, I might discover the next Prokofiev from among my students.”
“Are we all ‘not good enough’ then?”
“Do you struggle with the same issue as Ms. Bower – writing that breakout book, as they call it?”
“It’s a compulsion.”
“Ms. Bower subscribes to the Nietzschean school of Greatness. I find the philosophy of Dostoevsky more sustaining – that of Goodness.”
“We writers have no choice at some point. Greatness is a compelling magnet to egotists like us.”
“It’s a mirage. You do have a choice. You could come here, for example. Teach or work these fields. You could leave your spoor in others who will come after you. Greatness doesn’t have to always come from you alone– it’s generational. Look at our Church – one man and 12 apostles led to half the planet bearing witness. But it took two thousand years.”
“Spoor – that’s what Emma…Ms. Bower said.”
“She was at my mass in the chapel yesterday and I think that’s a key lesson she learned from her trip out here this summer, if she’s learned anything. By the way, the ‘spoor’ reference was a line from my sermon—you writers are great plagiarists. Ms. Bower seemed moved and asked me a strange question after the service ended. She asked whether she could be buried in the monastery’s graveyard.”
The author didn’t ask Father Andriy whether permission for such an interment had been granted or not. He just bade the abbot goodnight and beat it to his room.
He worked like a maniac after that. Night blended into day, and day into night. He catnapped when tired, then resumed writing. He forgot to shave or shower. He did not go outdoors for meals but ordered them in. He attacked the book that he had no choice now but to finish. On the third day of self-imposed isolation, he felt the end nearing, he had crossed limbo and was on the home stretch. A great load had lifted and he felt lightheaded – it would be nice to escape from the monastery, go out on the town, and get drunk. Perhaps, ask Emma out. Then he groaned upon realizing that he had completely forgotten to ferry her used meal trays to the kitchen as boldly promised in writing. What an ass!
He dashed into the bathroom, shaved, showered, and put on fresh clothes. He would tap at her door, apologize profusely for his self-absorption, but give her the good news that he was seeing light at the end of the tunnel of his final novel. Would she let him buy her a proper dinner for a change?
There was no response to his knock. He put his ear to the door. There was no sound from within – no coughing, no typing, no printers, no falling objects, no ripping of paper, no sobs. Come to think of it, had there been any sound from her room during his recent frenzy of creativity? He couldn’t remember, he had been too busy and occupied. After several knocks, he retreated to the abbot’s office to enquire.
“Ms. Bower?” The bespectacled secretary looked at him quizzically. “Why, she left two days ago. She wasn’t feeling well. Oh, wait a minute. She left you a note, she said to give it to you when you checked out. She didn’t want to disturb you.”
The note was succinct:
Don’t quit! - Emma
He returned to his room, deflated, and slept for the next sixteen hours.
In the final draft of his novel, the fictional Emma gives up her mindless 9-5 job, scrapes together a half-baked pension and opens a literary press dedicated to discovering the next frontier in fiction. She appeals to the government for grants – sometimes she is successful, sometimes not. She lives with the spectre of penury hanging over her. The fictional Sam, is more cautious, he hangs onto his job and his music tutoring, but starts composing again, a practice he had given up in despair several years ago. Perhaps, in retirement, he would be free to join Emma on the “dark side of pure creation.” But he knows his safe choice has left him way behind her, and he will never catch up.
The author was satisfied with this conclusion. No dramatic sparks, no happy endings, no loose ends tied up – very Canadian. Also, very real. Just about two people trying to be true to their callings, and trying to create despite the wind in their faces. As Thomas Mann said, “Everything that comes into being, comes despite something else.”
He switched off his computer, but something still disturbed him. He had resolved Sam and Emma in his fiction. But the real-life ones were still lost.
Six months later, the day after he received his “cleaned-up” manuscript from the copy editor, the author was ensconced in his apartment in Toronto, drinking his morning coffee while snow beat on the windows. His customary ritual, of reading the morning newspaper, yielded the news of the death of Canadian novelist Emmeline Bower from lung cancer.
The article, written by Emmeline’s agent (I thought they dumped her?), went onto say that regrettably, Ms. Bower, was not working on a new manuscript, for all that was found among her belongings were letters and journals, and a rather overflowing shredder. However, in her honour, the agent was re-releasing Ms. Bower’s debut novel along with selected letters and journal articles (ah, the vultures are circling again!). A footnote added that Emmeline Bower would be interred in the cemetery at St. Benedict’s Monastery outside Humboldt, Saskatchewan, an institution to which she had been a donor and benefactor, and where she had spent her last years in reflection and retreat.
The author sighed once more and refilled his coffee.
Then he wrote two e-mails:
It’s been a while since I produced anything for you, so I am attaching my latest manuscript titled Writing At the End of Time. It’s the book I always wanted to write but was dissuaded from, or prevented, by other pressing matters that have all now turned out to be inconsequential. I know that you are under no obligation to publish me anymore, now that I have retired from the university and because your limited resources need to be devoted to promoting those actively employed by the institution. However, I have written this book on the premise of “art for art’s sake” and not for any other political or commercial reason. Let me know what you think. If you choose to publish it, I would like it dedicated to one Emma Bauer.
Dear Father Andriy,
I spent the last summer writing a novel at St. Benedict’s Monastery, during which I had the pleasure of having many conversations with you. The book is now finished, helped mainly through the inspiration provided by Ms. Emmeline Bower in the adjoining monk’s cell. In her honour, I have used the title of her intended, but never finished, novel – you are right, we writers are great plagiarists.
I am writing to offer you my services as a lay teacher at your institution. In these times of scarce human resources, I hope you are able to do with my assistance. I receive a good pension, so I am not looking for an emolument from you. I merely wish to serve. And I will write if inspiration revisits me in my cell again, but it is not important any more, for all that needs to be said has been said, finally. I can also use a scythe, if called upon.
In return, all I ask is that when I end my days, which I hope will still be while in the service of St. Benedict’s, I be interred along with your colleagues and predecessors, perhaps yourself too by that time, and Ms. Bower, in your cemetery in the grove. This may be a peculiar request, but I learned an important lesson during my visit to St. Benedict’s last summer. You see, the Nietzschean dream of Greatness, and the Dostoevskyian philosophy of Goodness are equally important, I now realize. Therefore, to rest in the earth between Ms. Bower and you, two people who represent those bookends, would be a fitting end to someone who sought the salvation of his soul by taking the middle way—“a consummation devoutly to be wish’d,” as Shakespeare said.
I look forward to your reply.
Hitting “send,” to both e-mails, the author settled back and watched the snow beat on the windows like a metronome counting down the remainder of his life.