by Andrew Newall
Andrew Newall lives in Scotland and he hopes you enjoyed listening to Writer’s Block. He wrote this as a short film script in the 1990’s, later adapting it into story format and it was published in 2016 by Open Pen, a magazine based in London in the UK. After some rewrites, the film script won the “Best Short Script” category in the Screen Power Film Festival in June 2023. As yet, the script remains unproduced but the competition win has been encouraging. He also writes and draws comic strips and you can find examples of his work online in Oddball Magazine and Loud Coffee Press.
A stranger arrived in town. An elderly woman walking her dog on the opposite side of the street stopped and stared at him. He stopped and stared back. Ten years later, the two still stood at the exact same spot, staring at each other.
Chris had stopped typing, roughly around the time the stranger entered the fictional town of Sunhaven and was being stared down by that elderly dog walker.
His room was littered with crumpled sheets of paper containing random ideas, beginnings of stories and people, abandoned in the back of his mind and left to just exist. One or two published pieces of short fiction had convinced him he could make it as an author, overlooking the fact he had seen no past endeavour through to an ending, and this latest was heading the same way.
His phone rang. A crisp, politely-spoken English accent introduced himself as Tom, calling from his agent’s firm. Chris listened with excitement.
“How have you been getting on, Chris?”
“A bit slow to be honest.”
“Well, we might have something for you to work on, if you’re interested. It could be quite rewarding.”
With hardly a thought, he quickly agreed. Some financial gain would be very welcome and might deter further comments from his parents regarding finding an alternative career plan and saving money for a place of his own.
“Fantastic. Pop up and see us tomorrow if you can. Look forward to it.” Tom said, enthusiastically, and with a quick farewell, ended the call.
An early morning shower and shave brought back his usual fresh-faced, thirty-something visage and he quickly set off. Chris’ agent was a two-hour drive away. With the address punched in, his Sat Nav led him from busy towns into the country where he rolled down his window and breathed in the fresh summer air.
An hour or so into his journey, he slowed his car to a stop at a sign in the middle of the road, which read ‘Road Ahead Blocked’. A small, single-track led up to his right, completely contrary to the information his Sat Nav displayed. With no choice, Chris turned his car into the road that should not have been there.
The meandering road was soon bordered with high, unkempt bushes, appealing in an eccentric way. His car shook slightly, and again. The engine stopped. Petrol gauge read half full. He turned the ignition – nothing. It was dead. Cursing, he popped open the bonnet. Nothing seemed out of place, as far as his limited knowledge of cars could tell him. He took his mobile from his pocket to call a mechanic friend for advice. No signal. It was time to walk. If he could find a town, he might find a mechanic.
After tramping forever, he spotted houses, indicating some sign of life. His pace quickened at the prospect of finding some help. As he approached the entrance of the town, his eyes widened in disbelief. Proudly displaying the town’s name was a sign reading ‘Sunhaven’. He smirked at the aptness, and took it as an omen that he had to finish his novel when he got home.
His first impression of this Sunhaven was that it was not dissimilar to his own; quiet streets with a few parked cars here and there, but no people. Even discreetly glancing in house windows, there appeared to be nothing in them.
A bright orange mini came around a corner and passed him as he walked along. The driver squinted as he drove by, trying to get a good look at the stranger. Chris didn’t see the driver’s face properly but thought he recognised the mini.
On the other side of the street, an elderly woman walked her dog and her eyes were locked on Chris the whole time. She reminded him of the elderly woman staring in his story. They passed each other and continued on their way, Chris periodically looking back at her.
He turned a corner and a small convenience store was just ahead. He figured the shopkeeper must know where to find a mechanic. Before he went inside, the orange mini passed again, and he remembered – George the salesman from a story he started a few years ago, George drove a bright orange mini.
The shop was deathly quiet, void of customers. The shopkeeper was a tall, overweight man who stood behind his counter doing nothing, with a deadpan look on his face, like the Police officer.
“Hello” said Chris. “I’m looking for a mechanic. Can you tell me if there’s a garage nearby?”
“I’m not sure” was the shopkeeper’s reply, a million miles away.
“Is there a payphone?”
“There’s one on the back wall.”
As Chris rummaged in his pocket for change, he noticed that the shop’s shelves were completely bare.
“You having a clearout?” he asked, jokingly.
His attempt at humour was lost. He put the receiver to his ear.
“There’s no dialling tone.” he told the shopkeeper. “Is it not working?”
“I don’t know.”
Chris replaced the receiver, thanked the shopkeeper and left. He stood outside, pondering his next move, when the orange mini appeared again. He beckoned it to stop. The driver, a middle-aged, well-dressed man, rolled down his window.
“Can I help you?” the driver asked.
“I’m sorry to bother you but can you tell me if there’s a mechanic around here?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t think there is one” was the disappointing-but-half-expected reply.
“I need to find a payphone” said Chris.
“You can use mine” offered the driver, and handed Chris his phone.
With a sigh of relief, Chris took the phone and started to dial his mechanic friend’s number. The screen was blank. He pressed the button to switch it on but there was no display or sounds.
“Does it work?” he asked.
“I couldn’t tell you. I never use it”.
Stress was creeping in. Thanking the driver, Chris handed the phone back and decided he would find one by himself. It was becoming uncomfortably clear he was unlikely to get any help, if the town’s other residents were like his first encounters.
“Excuse me” the driver called. “Do we know you?”
“I don’t think so”
He looked closely at the man, trying to place him, but the only association he could find was George the salesman from his unfinished tale.
“Not to worry then” continued the man, “what’s your name?”
“Nice to meet you. I’m George.”
Chris was stunned. An involuntary laugh escaped from his mouth, prompting George to ask what was funny.
“I wrote a story about a man named George. He even drove a car like yours.”
“You wrote a story?”
George was keen to hear more of the character, and so Chris explained George was a salesman who travelled all over the world with his work. Whenever he made a sale, he celebrated with his favourite hobby, playing the piano. The story would have had him playing a piano in various countries.
“That sounds fantastic.” George the driver looked lost in thought. “So what happened?”
“I never finished the story” Chris replied.
“I think you should” and with that, he quickly shifted his car into gear and drove off, leaving Chris standing alone, George’s parting remark sounding more like a stern word of advice than a casual adieu.
“Hello Chris.” A voice jolted him to attention. There beside him, was a suited, slender man, perhaps in his early forties.
“I’m Tom. We spoke on the phone yesterday.”
Immediately, Chris put the name and voice together.
“I can’t believe this!” he exclaimed. “I was on my way to meet you at the office but my car broke down. I can’t find a phone that works in this place.”
“And I’m afraid you won’t, Chris.” Tom stated “None of the phones work here. You can’t make calls to or from this town.”
Chris felt help slowly slipping away and it was time to leave. As he fumbled for a suitable excuse, Tom spoke again.
“Come and take a walk with me” he said.
Chris refused politely, insisting he had to go, but Tom interrupted.
“I’m afraid I can’t let you leave right now, Chris. Take a walk with me. We’ll see to your car later.”
As much as he wanted to leave, Chris couldn’t help being compelled to learn more about this strange place. Tom’s hand extended to officially greet the town’s new visitor. It was a firm, welcoming handshake, like a close family member. Tom led the way.
“As you might have guessed, Chris, I’m not from the firm, but I had to get you here somehow. You see, we need your help.”
“Who’s we?” Chris probed, catching the turn of phrase for the second time.
The two walked, Chris taking in more of the town and its residents. A blind man wheeled his bike up his garden path and cycled away, furiously waving his cane in front of him. A postman sat on the ground beside an open post box, reading everyone’s mail. A woman in her early sixties was busy with light garden work, each one more than vaguely familiar. Tom called out to the gardening woman as they passed her.
“Hello, Mrs Henderson.”
“Hiya Tom” came the cheerful reply.
“Mrs Henderson”, Chris muttered to himself.
Tom asked if he knew the woman. Chris told him of a character he invented with the same name, same interest in gardening, who led a double life as a detective.
“Our Mrs Henderson is very good at finding things” Tom commented. “Coincidence, don’t you think?”
Coincidence? It was bordering on bizarre, Chris thought, and it didn’t just apply to Mrs Henderson, it was the entire town and its’ people. It was George in the orange mini, it was the postman reading the mail, the woman walking her dog and the blind man on the bicycle.
“So what happened with your Mrs Henderson? Writer’s Block again?” Tom interrupted.
“Everything should be finished” he continued, with sincerity. “When you create something, it exists. Imagination is powerful.”
Chris listened, unsure of what Tom was leading up to.
“Have you noticed anything about the people in this town, Chris?”
“They’re a bit odd.”
“They’re aimless. They have no goals. They’re stuck in a tiny corner of a life, doing the same thing over and over. They don’t know what else to do. George drives around in his car, goes home, gets up the next morning and does the same thing all over again.”
“Lots of people are like that.”
“They’re stories, Chris, unfinished stories.”
Chris quipped “Just like mine?”
Tom smiled. “There’s more irony in that witticism than you know, Chris, because that’s exactly what they are, and now that you know the truth, you can help.”
Chris had enough and decided that it was time for himself and the rest of the town to part company once and for all. He turned to walk away from Tom without a word, when he saw George’s car stopped on the road, outside Mrs Henderson’s house. She was talking to him. The postman crossed the road to join them in conversation. George pointed directly at Chris. Mrs Henderson and the postman turned their attention to him. The postman beckoned Chris over but the young writer wouldn’t move.
“It looks as though George has figured you out and he’s let the cat out of the bag. I think we’d better go.”
Mrs Henderson and the postman started running towards Chris, and Tom ushered him into a quick retreat. Other residents popped their heads out of their houses to see the commotion, to be instructed by Mrs Henderson and the postman to pursue the fleeing men.
Within minutes, a baffled Chris was sprinting just ahead of a horde of Sunhaven’s residents, and whatever they had in store. Tom was frantically trying to find an escape route for him, but with people appearing from every corner, hiding places were becoming scarce.
They reached an industrial estate. The residents’ voices could be heard, closing in fast.
“Try that door!” Tom had spotted the entrance to a small office block.
Chris turned the handle and the door opened.
“Inside” Tom barked, and Chris jumped in.
It was a dull, empty room, previously a reception area perhaps. The slam of the door behind him made him spin around. He was alone inside, but he saw Tom through the office window, looking in at him, his face stretching into a warm, satisfied smile.
“What are you doing?” shouted Chris. “Open the door!”
“That might not be the best idea, Chris” was the calm reply.
The townspeople swarmed around the windows beside Tom, pressing their fingers against them.
“What do they want? I’ve never met any of them in my life!” Panic rose in Chris’ voice.
“That’s not strictly true. You know them all.”
Tom randomly pointed to individuals and told Chris their names. He pointed to George, to Mrs Henderson, to the postman, and to Michelle, a girl of no more than eight years. Chris looked at Michelle, her eyes ogling him in excitement. He didn’t recognise her face but he knew who she was. Michelle’s twin sister, Maria, entered a vortex which took her back in time. It was to have been his first attempt at a science fiction novel, only he didn’t complete the story, but did that mean Maria was trapped in some kind of limbo? Tom had said imagination is powerful, but powerful enough to create an entity?
“They want life.” Tom broke his train of thought. “They all started with you. All they need now is completion, every one of them.”
As ridiculous as it sounded, only the absurd seemed half way to logical as Tom outlined Chris’ predicament. Years of procrastination and disregard for the very lives he’d birthed had come back on him.
“You can abandon many things, Chris, but you can’t abandon people. I used to be like them. I was trapped in a town like this one, as confused about my identity as these poor souls.” Tom looked with sympathy on the residents. “We found my writer and he gave me my life’s worth, but I promised myself that I would do my best to help people like them.”
Chris clutched at straws. “I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll come to the town twice or three times a week and get some work done.”
“You’d be better to get it all finished and out of the way as soon as possible.” replied Tom. “You’re going to be here for some time. You’ll be glad to know some writers actually do finish and are free to leave.”
Tom backed away from the window, and the residents squeezed into his space, gazing like hungry zombies at the man who was going to save them.
“I’ll make sure you’re supplied with food and drink.” A final word from Tom before he turned his back to walk off, leaving Chris under the crowd’s watchful eye.
He broke from their stares and saw a door to an adjoining room. It was slightly open. Stepping inside, he saw a table in the corner with a PC and printer, and a comfortable looking chair, sitting in the shadow of tower after tower of plain paper.