The Butler and the Novelist


Chuck Wendig’s Famous “Flash Fiction Challenge”

Topic: Write a short story based on a tweet by Magic Realism Bot.

Tweet: A butler counts to ten. In that time, he lives twelve years as a 16th Century novelist.

Length: 1,500 words (oops, I went over by roughly 500 words)

It’s time for another shot at tackling one of the Penmonkey’s story challenges. I’m not following his deadlines, just going back through and picking out the ones that interest me and working on them in my spare time (ahem). The results will be posted to Chuck’s website, Medium, and Wattpad.

The Butler and the Novelist

Prologue

Thomas set down his cloth, using his thumbs to pull up his waistband. He adjusted his jacket, taking a quick peek in the mirror that was angled down above the fireplace. His eyes were a bit baggier and his belly certainly a little bigger. But, at 48, he still looked decent for his age. He pinched his necktie with his right thumb and index finger, pulling it back to center. To the left of the mirror was a beautiful stone clock with a brass bezel and shiny brass hands. It was 10:10 in the morning. Glancing to the right, he noticed an old porcelain bust of Thomas More. He recognized the face from an imprint of Utopia he had muddled through at primary school. Though a difficult read, Thomas had liked it for some reason. He’d never noticed the bust before, which was odd considering he’d been the butler for the Rothscombe-Deloney household for more than twenty years. Surely he would have noticed the bust, especially considering his reading history-and the fact that they shared a first name. There was a small brass plaque screwed into the base of the bust. It was faded and unreadable.

Thomas retrieved his cloth, picked up the bust and began vigorously to polish it. After a few moments, he could make out the simple words.

“Count to ten…” read the small inscription. Smiling, bemused and curious, Thomas took a breath. And counted.


1.

“How now, Thomas!” came a hearty voice behind him before a heavy hand slapped him hard on the shoulder.

“How do you fare?” said a second voice.

Thomas blinked. In front of him was a long wooden bar, a crowd of men jostling for position, reaching out, grabbing pints of dark beer. He spun to look at the owner of the hand on his shoulder, the second man shouldering past him to the bar. He stared at the man, whose hand was still clasped, friendly, on his shoulder. The man was dressed in a funny getup like he was going to or coming from a costume party.

“Cat got yer tongue, then, Thomas?” The man smiled, his mouth full of straight but yellow teeth.

“This’ll loosen yer vocalator,” said the other man, turning from the bar and handing a large pint of beer to Thomas. Thomas took the glass and stood there, mute and dumb, staring back and forth between the two men.

“Let us come sit,” said the man with the friendly hand, guiding Thomas away from the bar. They found a bench against the wall and sat, the three of them, with Thomas in the middle.

“Who are you guys? And why are you dressed in costumes?” asked Thomas.

It was very loud, the crowd becoming rowdier as the minutes passed.

“I come not into a guise of any sort, Thomas,” said one of them seriously. “What manner of costume do you think he means, Edward?” he asked, looking across Thomas at the other man.

“Methinks Thomas has come over odd, Robert,” said Edward. “Do you ken his meaning?”

“Tis Greek to me, Edward,” said Thomas. Both men laughed and knocked their glasses against Thomas’s, then drank from them. Thomas smiled awkwardly and took a sip. It was strong and bitter-sweet. And cool. Thomas smiled more broadly.

“Hey, this is pretty good,” he said. Was he dreaming this? He looked at each man in turn. Then he blinked.

2.

Edward shook his head, looking over at Robert. “Seems his mind has gone over to his writing,” he said.

“Tis a foregone conclusion, indeed,” said Robert.

“My writing?” asked Thomas. He was starting to sense something wasn’t right. The scene around him had changed. He was in a dark office, a writing table against one wall, quills and paper scattered haphazardly across it. Everything was too real to be a dream. Edward and Robert smelled too pungent, their clothes too authentic. What was going on?

“Your tales,” said Edward. “What, pray tell, are you on about—”

“What year is it?” asked Thomas, cutting Edward off and sitting forward to lean his elbows on his knees.

“Why, Thomas, it’s 1588. Has the Devil got into your head, man?”

Thomas didn’t want to ask the next question. “Who do you think I am?”

Edward laughed, but Robert looked pensive. “You are Thomas Deloney.”

“A great writer, Thomas,” added Edward. Thomas stared at him and blinked.


3.

“No one’ll ever take you serious if you write in plain English,” said Robert.

“You think so?” Thomas asked. “I’m not so sure.” It was all incredible and unbelievable, but Thomas didn’t care. Whatever fates had brought him here, he had to do something with it. If they thought he was a writer, he would write.

“You speak well and truly strange, methinks,” Edward said, scratching a match across his shoe sole and lighting his pipe.

“I’m pretty sure that one day everyone who speaks English will also read English,” Thomas replied.

“Not every man who speaks English comes to reading, in any language,” Robert said. Edward laughed.

“‘Tis true, Thomas, ’tis true.” Edward sucked on his pipe, blowing out small clouds of smoke, shaking his match until the flame was out.

“But what I’m writing is the truth,” said Thomas.

“What know you of sooth?” asked Edward. “What ye’ve written so far beggars all description.”

“It’s a story of the future,” Thomas said, huffing out his breath like a child.

“‘Tis a brave new world you tell of, Thomas. I can see it—in my mind’s eye, as you are wont to say,” soothed Robert.

“God blind me!” said Edward. “You keep writing that stuff, all fast and loose, and you’ll be a laughing stock. Out on your ear in one fell swoop!”

Thomas looked at Edward, his frustration building up. He balled up his fists and blinked.


4.

“Once more into the breach,” muttered Thomas, sitting down at the huge desk. He realized he was becoming obsessed. To him, he was more or less writing a journal of his life. But to his two friends, it seemed like a story of sorcery and witchcraft. But he was trying to get to the theme. The story wasn’t about the computers and cars and spaceships that were commonplace in his world. The story was about men, mankind rather. The fact that nothing has changed. On the inside. Regardless of the advances on the outside. People are still people—in any time or age.

“You think truth will out, do ya, Thomas?” It was Edward again, pushing Thomas’s buttons. Edward stared at the stacks of hand-written pages piled around the room. “Well, if they say brevity is the soul of wit, I come to thinking your tale won’t be so amusing.” Robert chuckled and slapped Thomas on the shoulder.

“Worry not, fair Thomas,” he said. “Write your tale. We wait with bated breath for its outcome, though these pages will be cold comfort to a man who has lost his fortune.”

“I will finish it,” Thomas said, turning back to the desk. “And I will share my fortune with you when it goes viral.”

“There you go speaking odd, Thomas,” laughed Robert and slapped Thomas so hard on his back that it made his eyes blink.


5.

Thomas, Edward, and Robert sat out in the garden, drinking beer. The grass was soft and lit by a late afternoon sun. Thomas was three beers in and feeling it.

“If I understand you at all, Thomas, you mean to say that there are com-pyoo-ters,” Edward struggled through the word, “that you hold in yer hand and with it, you can converse with another a farthing or more distant?” Edward was holding his hand out, palm up as if to demonstrate holding something, which honestly he couldn’t even begin to picture.

“Yes. It’s called an iPhone—or an Android phone, I guess—and it’s like an old-timey telephone, but portable,” Thomas said, sipping his beer.

“Old-timey? Te-le-phone? Honestly, Thomas, soon you’ll be telling me the Earth moves ’round the Sun and expect me to believe it,” said Robert.

Thomas laughed out loud. “It does! It absolutely does!” he said. Edward scoffed. Thomas blinked.


6.

He never stopped. Not once. When a candle burned low, either Edward or Robert would bring another, already lit, and set it on the table. When he pulled at the last slip of foolscap, one or other of the men would lay another stack where the old one had dwindled.

He did not eat.

He drank wine at a constant rate.

He was tipsy, not only on the wine but on the thrill of getting all of the words onto the pages. And he was frantic, somehow worried that he wouldn’t finish, wouldn’t put down on paper the words that told his life, his personal triumphs, and failures. The truth.

Somehow he felt that time was slipping away from him. He realized suddenly how tired he was. When was the last time he had slept? He picked up his pencil and bent over the page. His heavy, tired head bobbed and his eyes blinked closed.


7.

Everything seemed to become less and less substantial. Not just his own body, but everything around him. It was as though the world was a projected image, and some competing light source was starting to shine through it all. Thomas had a frenetic desire to put down the story onto the pages. To tell about a simple butler working in a home hundreds of years in the future. He knew no one here would believe it, but perhaps someone would read it one day and think, “How that man must have had a vision! To see things as they are. And how they are not much changed from his time.”

His hand moved in a blur, from left to right across the paper. His hand was cramped but he didn’t pause, just kept putting the words down, link a monkey with a pen, scribble, scribble


8…9…10

Just images now. His pencil flying across the page, the words flowing out of him. A warm, jasmine-scented breeze coming in from the window, gently blowing up the edges of the paper strewn across his desk. The distant hum of bees in the garden.

“What year is it?” he asked no one, his voice papery and distant. But then he felt the feathery touch of Edward’s hand on his shoulder.

“It is the year 1600, Thomas.” Edward paused, bending forward to look over Thomas’s shoulder at the page resting under Thomas’s hand, the pencil hovering. “Are ye finished?” Thomas looked at the page, the sentence he had been writing dangled there, no verb yet, and no punctuation. No, it wasn’t finished. He turned to look up at Edward and smiled as he blinked his eyes.


Epilogue

Thomas exhaled in a hard blow of air, dropping the bust and staggering backward, his arms windmilling to keep him upright. The porcelain bust shattered on the hearthstone so completely that it looked like a pile of sand. Thomas lost his fight for balance and crashed onto his backside, his arms reaching out behind him. He sat there, leaning back on his hands, his knees slightly bent, staring between them at the remains of the bust.

Climbing unsteadily to his feet, he walked over and bent down, sifting through the sand with his fingers. As the sand flattened out into more or less one smooth layer, Thomas realized the plaque wasn’t there. Puzzled, he stood, looking again into the mirror. The clock to the left of the mantle showed 10:12 in the morning.

Thomas rubbed his chin with his fingers, thinking. Suddenly, he took in a deep breath, staring into his own eyes reflected in the mirror. Squeezing his eyes shut, he said, “One.”

He opened his eyes and laughed, expelling his breath in a long huff. His face reflected back at him, the room behind him the familiar one belonging to the Rothscombe-Deloney home he’d been working in his whole adult life. His eyes lost focus for a moment, his thoughts turning inward at what he had just imagined. Or had he?

Shaking his head, he picked up his cloth and went in search of a broom.

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