Where new writing finds its voice
Short Story


Janet Olearski


Villa 109, Between the Two Bridges, Abu Dhabi, November 2008



I first met Neville Dickens at a luncheon party in Wimbledon. I believe the year was 1992. I have always thought ‘party’ to be a rather inexact description. Jean’s house in Copse Hill was hardly a hotbed of drunken ribaldry. Lunch was a mild affair with just Jean, Henry and the taciturn playwright with the literary name. Jean never did anything without a reason. In the kitchen over a glass of sherry and steaming vegetables she confessed that since I wrote, or, rather, dabbled in screenplays, she had decided that I simply must meet this young radio drama writer of hers. For young she intended someone younger than herself. Neville was all of forty-three if he was a day. Naturally he was recently separated from his long-term partner – fortunately female, which was rare in these circles. Jean dealt in rebounding men and sought to repair my single status.

‘But it suits me very nicely thank you, Jean,’ I told her. 

‘Nonsense,’ she said. ‘Every woman needs a soulmate and you, Helena my dear, aren’t even trying.’

I could have told her there and then that it does not do to matchmake two rival talents. It had all the hallmarks of a very bad mistake. 

As I recall, I had a not-insubstantial ability to write, and my output in those days was prolific. Now, sixteen years on, I have perhaps achieved some minor acclaim as the editor of an in-house publication entitled The Oil and Gas Journal, but the early promise of Baftas and Oscar nominations now seems but a foolish aspiration. 

As the wind swept through the date palms, as the muezzin called the faithful to prayer, and as I prepared my usual solitary supper of humous, olives and sambosas, an announcement on the BBC World Service – my only remaining link with the world as I had known it – caught my attention. A new radio production was soon to be broadcast, featuring Kristin Scott Thomas, Peter O’Toole and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and written by the playwright Neville Dickens, author of the 1995 adaptation of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. With some small measure of melancholy, I found myself revisiting that lunchtime meeting in south-east London. 

When Jean and I rejoined the men in the living room, Henry was telling Neville all about Egypt. He had got to the bit about Cairo. Henry and his colleagues had taken to playing with a Ouija board in the evenings. Lawrence Durrell joined them.

‘He was always good company,’ said Henry, ‘but he could be decidedly awkward at times.’ ‘You’re pushing the glass,’ he’d told Henry. ‘No, I’m not,’ Henry had said, ‘it’s moving of its own accord.’

They started to get messages. Lawrence wrote down them down while Henry and the others kept their fingers on the glass. Eventually it did actually spell out a name – that of a Polish airman, killed in action.

‘Jolly curious,’ Henry told Neville.

‘I wonder what he wanted,’ said Neville.

‘Who?’ said Henry.

‘The Polish airman.’

‘I couldn’t say,’ said Henry.

‘Tell them what happened next,’ said Jean. 

I could not help thinking this interference in the afterlife may well have addled Henry’s brain, and had I been Jean, I would not have encouraged him in these other-worldly recollections. Neville, on the other hand, showed every sign of one keen to hear the next instalment.

Henry related that one day, when he was the one doing the writing, a very important message came through. It said: ‘You must take Arnold to a green place, or something terrible will happen.’

‘That’s an awfully long message to spell out on a Ouija board,’ I said, but I was silenced by Jean who gave me a sharp nudge in the ribs with her elbow.

‘Who was Arnold?’ asked Neville.

‘Oh, he was someone we knew,’ said Henry. ‘He hadn’t been at all well... trouble with his wife, you know. His nerves were bad.’

‘And did you take him to a green place?’ I asked.

‘No, we didn’t,’ said Henry, raising his eyebrows as he contemplated his sherry. 

We all waited, but Henry was not forthcoming.

‘So, what happened next?’ asked Neville.

‘Something terrible,’ said Henry. ‘He threw himself out of a fifth-floor hotel room in Cairo. I suppose if we had taken him to a green place – away from his wife – that would never have happened. Poor old Arnold,’ he said. ‘Another glass of sherry, Neville?’

Lunch beckoned and once we were seated, Jean worked feverishly to find our common denominator.

‘Neville is working on an adaptation of Proust,’ she announced looking pointedly at me. ‘For the BBC,’ she added.

‘Oh gosh!’ I said, taking the cue, ‘it must be monstrous piece of work. Doesn’t it frustrate you to be constantly assailed by the creation of others?’

Jean glowered at me.

‘Not at all,’ said Neville. ‘It’s what I do. I adapt.’

‘Perhaps you should try that yourself,’ said Jean.

‘I’ve written an original radio drama,’ I said. I put the emphasis on original.

‘I thought you wrote screenplays,’ said Henry. ‘Didn’t you tell me that Elizabeth wrote screenplays, Jean?’

‘Helena,’ said Jean, somewhat fraught.

‘Eh?’ said Henry, who was on his feet now, refilling the wine glasses.

‘It’s Helena, Henry. Not Elizabeth,’ said Jean.

Neville coloured slightly. Our eyes met across the serving dishes.

Jean thought fit to change the subject. ‘The Polish airman came back of course, didn’t he, Henry?’ she said.

Henry paused. ‘Did he?’ he said. ‘Are you sure?’ 

‘Don’t you remember?’ said Jean. ‘That was how we met. He said, “You shall go to the land of the Kikuyu.” That’s what he said, and that’s what you did and that’s how you met me.’

‘Ah, yes,’ said Henry.

‘Helena’s going to Kenya next week. Isn’t that right, Helena?’ said Jean.

‘Business or pleasure?’ asked Neville.

‘Both,’ I said.

‘I lived there in the fifties,’ said Jean, ‘at the time of the Mau Mau. We didn’t have air conditioning then, of course. We just had our mosquito nets and put wet towels around our necks at night to keep cool. The people upstairs had a ceiling fan and we thought that a great luxury, quite grand.’

‘I have things to do in Nairobi,’ I said, ‘and
the Aberdares.’

‘At that time, of course, Nairobi was very elegant,’ said Jean. ‘The women dressed as if they were shopping in Bond Street or lunching in Belgravia. We lived on the coast. I shopped in the market and bought the local meat like everyone else. I took great care over where I went and what I ate. No ice in my G&T, which was a bore, but then I never had any problems with mosquitoes or tummies or anything else for that matter. I brought up two children there. Nothing wrong with them.’

‘Goodness,’ I said. ‘I hadn’t thought of the food. Do you think I ought to take something?’

‘Carbon tablets should be fine. Imodium is, I think, a little severe. Have some more of the roast, Neville,’ she said. ‘You’re not eating.’

I passed the meat to Neville, who declined.

‘Now the Americans,’ continued Jean, ‘they were the ones who went down with things. They came kitted up with everything under the sun – malaria tablets, all the latest inoculations, instructions about what not to eat… and they went down like flies.’

‘I suppose I had better take a bug spray with me too,’ I said and I smiled coquettishly in Neville’s direction.



‘What’s it about?’ said Neville. ‘Can you pitch it to me?’

‘An elderly writer falls in love with a young woman – his publisher. She is flattered and intrigued by his attention, but she is dissuaded from involvement by her friends who tell her he is far too old for her. She takes their advice and distances herself from him.’

I stopped here and waited for his comments.

He thought for a moment. ‘Is it autobiographical?’ he said.

‘Heavens no!’ I exclaimed. I felt the Parry-Shaw temper rising. ‘Why do you suppose that it cannot merely be born of the imagination?’

He raised an eyebrow. ‘How does it end?’ he said.

‘Suicide. The writer drowns himself.’

He blinked, and then stared at me intently.

‘Can I read you just the first few lines,’ I said. ‘I don’t want to bore you.’

‘You could never bore me,’ he said. ‘Go ahead.’

I began. 

Neville listened, his eyes downcast as he smoked his cigarette, taking an occasional sip of whisky. I thought, is my story dull? I continued.

He stubbed out his cigarette not looking at me. There was a silence during which I remember thinking, it’s awful and he doesn’t know how to tell me.

He looked up. ‘It’s very good,’ he said. ‘Excellent, in fact. Is it all like that?’

‘I couldn’t say. That’s for the listener to judge.’

‘It’s economical. Very Pinter.’

‘It’s not Pinter. It’s Parry-Shaw.’

‘What’s this play of yours called?’ he asked.

Swimmers,’ I said.

‘Curious title. Why’s that?’

‘In a relationship,’ I said, ‘when things get rough, we have to swim, to keep from drowning. We have to save ourselves.’

He stared at me for a moment.

‘I’ll read it,’ he said.

‘You’re not just saying that because I’ve got you into a tight corner?’

He held out his hand to take the typescript. ‘I wish you had got me in a tight corner,’ he said, and as I handed over the pages, his hand touched mine.

‘I’d like to invite you home for a nightcap,’ he said.

It was, in short, a lapsus, though a spontaneous and pleasurable one. I left for Nairobi two days later and it was only when I returned after an interval of three weeks that I realised that, while he had my number, I did not have his. Jean and Henry were with friends in Tuscany for the holidays. I renounced the idea of tracking him down. I did the next best thing, I forgot him.



The night of the radio play I dreamed that I was trapped in the revolving door at Broadcasting House. A group of Kikuyu tribesmen danced rhythmically on the other side of the glass while I looked around desperately for a lavatory. Neville was in there somewhere, peeling pages like the leaves of a banana tree off the top of my manuscript. I knew it was my manuscript because my name was printed in red ink in the centre of each sheet: Helena Parry-Shaw, deceased. And as I pondered this error I heard the Polish airman grumbling about the expense of flying a star-studded cast all the way to Nairobi to record a radio play about a failed and ageing female screenwriter who had fallen for a man half her age. When I awoke, I began to cry. How I loathe dishonesty!

At my desk, in the early hours of the morning, I reread the letter I had drafted the night before to the World Service Radio Drama Section. I had no choice now but to set out to prove the truth.

‘In conclusion,’ I wrote, ‘I, Helena Parry-Shaw, am the true author and creator of the work that you broadcast last night in your World Drama series. The work that I crafted sixteen years ago, and that my life was given to, has been maliciously counterfeited, deconstructed, transformed. This fraudulent reproduction of my play by Neville Dickens, who has changed the title of the work from Swimmers to Divers, is nothing more than a monstrosity, a grotesque and abominable fake.’

Outside, as my thoughts returned to Wimbledon, I heard only the distant crowing of a cockerel and the rustle of the palms.