Death by Fiction

Sunlight filtered through grey clouds picking out odd tombstones around the cemetery and casting long shadows. The weather was the ideal metaphor for the occasion; overcast, but with the hint of sunshine.  Some of the headstones had been there over a hundred years and listed on the uneven landscape reminding Gus of a mouth, full of rotting teeth; his mind was wandering.

He pulled himself back to the occasion in hand and stifled a smile.  This really was the perfect theatrical place to say goodbye, after all the deceased deserved a fitting send off.

He was both humbled and amused by all the people who had turned up to pay their last respects to the author Amanda Payne; a woman with no friends or family.  It was a gathering beyond his comprehension and spoke volumes about her fan base.

Amanda Payne, renowned author of romance fiction, and infamous recluse.  She was well known for conducting all her professional affairs by correspondence rather than face to face, even with her agent.  And other than a slightly ‘artistic’ profile shot for her bio and website, which was all hat and sunglasses, no one had ever seen what she looked like. It was the way she had always been.

She shunned the limelight and declined each and every invitation to attend book signings and other public events, despite the fact she was one of the most popular modern authors in the market place.

Gus, or Gustavo Robins, an author himself had been in a long-term relationship with Amanda for nearly fifteen years.  And although not married, they were just about as close as a couple could be.

Amanda had come into Gus’s life just as she hit the big time with her writing.  And it was largely thanks to her that he was the successful author he was.  Amanda had given him so much.  He’d built his life around her.

Before her, he’d been a struggling author doing manual labour to make ends meet.  He had relatively little success, no more than a couple of short stories published in anthologies.

But Amanda, she was something else.  She had a gift for romance fiction that was rarely seen, even in a market flooded with the stuff.  Her ability to take a relationship and expose it in all it’s heart-stopping, sweat-dripping, twisted glory kept her readers pulses thundering and their eyes glued to every turn of the page.

Gus didn’t particularly care for romance fiction, his preferred genre crime thrillers.  And he didn’t even think Amanda’s books were all that well written, to him they felt a little rushed.  But she gave her readers what they wanted and that bought in the fame and fortune, which they both enjoyed the benefits of.  The pre-order sales of her books alone had her agent rubbing his greedy little hands together all the way to the bank.

It was Amanda’s fame that had catapulted Gus into the spotlight.  Once she started mentioning him in the interviews she did, all by correspondence of course, saying that he was her inspiration and her rock; he found the acceptances for his own writing start to creep right up.

But there was a downside to the relationship that no one but Gus ever saw.  And as much as he had loved everything they had together, for Gus, if he was honest with himself, the death of Amanda had come as something of a relief.

He’d found being in a public relationship with a famous recluse very limiting.  Unlike Amanda, he never turned down invitations to attend parties or book signings.  He sometimes suspected he only got the invite on the off-chance she would accompany him.  But she never did and because of that he had to go alone.  To take another woman would be a huge insult to Amanda, one her fans would take personally, and they were a force to be reckoned with, flexing their collective muscle whenever something displeased them.  Anything Gus did to harm Amanda had the potential to harm him too.  He could loose his celebrity popularity and maybe even see a dip in the sale of his books.

There was that time he’d been caught coming out of a massage parlour in Bristol .  It was a shock at first to realise he was a publicly recognisable figure and it went to the press.  Of course it wasn’t front page news, but it was newsworthy and the onslaught of phone calls and e-mails both he and Amanda received had been ridiculous.  In the end she put out a press release confirming that Gus had been conducting research for her latest story and that their relationship was still as strong as ever.  It seemed to quell people, even if there was an undercurrent that not everyone believed it.  But sure enough, six months later, Amanda Payne released a book that involved a prostitute who worked in a brothel and fell in love with a client.   The fans were finally appeased.

Amanda’s most successful writing had been the ‘Lovers in Arms’ series, where her main characters were on opposing sides of a war and yet fell in love against all odds.  Her critics said the series was predictable and clichéd, and Gus had to agree with them, but her fans loved it and couldn’t get enough.  However, as the series progressed, Gus could see the struggle Amanda had looking for new inspiration, new scenarios for the relationships to come from.  It was getting hard to maintain momentum; and after eleven books the series had become tired.

To breathe new life into it Amanda made a few changes to the format the stories took, Gus had thought them genius.  But frustratingly the fans didn’t like them and Amanda’s website received hundreds of complaints.  Fans voted with their cash; and the two books that were different, ninth and tenth in the series, sold nowhere near as many copies as normal.  Usually the series was a guaranteed entry on the bestseller lists, but not these two.  It was a huge disappointment.  Afterwards the pressure from the fans and then the publisher to return to form was so great, there was nothing else for it.  For Gus, it marked a change in the way he saw the relationship between Amanda and her fans.

Amanda’s her sudden death from a bout of flu, turned pneumonia, surprised and stunned everyone.  When the announcement was made on her website it was inundated with messages of sympathy and regret.

Her death had come shortly before the planned release of the twelfth book.  There had already been rumours in the press that this might be the last in the series, now there was no doubt.  It would be the last book Amanda Payne ever released.

Amanda’s died at the home she and Gus shared, and he was loathed to be parted from her until the day of the funeral.  He arranged for the coffin to be delivered to the house and cleared a room where she would lie in rest.  Her agent and publisher were the only people he allowed to visit.  They brought wreaths and offered words of comfort.  Amanda was one of their star clients.  Gus knew they would feel her loss more than anyone.

Of course they couldn’t possibly know how Gus really felt.  Now Amanda was gone he was a free agent again.  And after a suitable mourning period he could pursue other women.  He had money, fame and social status.  And he scrubbed up pretty well, although it had taken his relationship with Amanda to give him confidence.

But as much as Amanda had empowered him and boosted his career, he no longer felt the dependence on her that he once had.  Resentment had started creeping up on Gus, their relationship was a bind.  But if he walked away he might invoke the hatred of the fans.  So Amanda’s death, sad as it was, had come at the perfect time.  If she hadn’t passed away he would have been stuck in a dead relationship anyway, trapped.

Gus stared around at the assembled mourners again, all of them fans who had made the journey to pay their respects.  Many sported ‘Lovers in Arms’ pins on their bags and coats.  A couple of them even wore the t-shirts.  They were an army and would never forget the wonderful writer, Amanda Payne; dedicated to the last.

Gus couldn’t help wondering if among these fans were any who had sent the scathing e-mails saying how much they hated books nine and ten.  Of course, he’d never know.   But how wonderful, to be a faceless name, the things you could get away with.

As the minister concluded the service and the casket started to lower, a few of the women started to sniffle and sob, in that hysterical way people do at funerals.

Gus, suppressing a wry smile stepped forward; in his hand he clutched a blood red rose, a favourite cliché for lovers.  He kept his words short and simple.

“Amanda, thank you so much for the life you have given me, you will always have a special place in my heart.”

He stepped back now holding the rose against his heart and bowed his head.

He waited as the fans said their last goodbyes and began to move away.  A few of them touched his arm as they filed passed, one woman actually stopped and spoke to him.

“Mr Robins, you were such an inspiration to her, bless you.  I hope you find happiness again.”

He nearly burst out laughing, but somehow managed to remain composed, acknowledging her with nothing more than a sombre nod.

When he was all alone he moved to the edge of the grave again and stared down at the coffin.  Who knew burying that many unsold ‘Lovers in Arms’ books could be so much fun?  He dropped the rose onto the lid.

“Rest in fiction, Amanda Payne.”

by Lorraine Sears

Return to Issue 42