City of Stories

One night, after a party, I was given a lift. In the car were Hamish Keith and two other people. Someone said to me, 'In your story "The Body," you used the phrase, "intellectual slum." But your father has already used it in one of his novels.'
There was a silence. Was this an accusation of plagiarism? It would have to be dealt with. Rolling round in the back seat I considered my response. Finally I came out with this: "Well, I stole it."
Hamish began to say something sympathetic, also subtle. "In art, we build on what has gone before. It's not so much stealing as..."
We listened. He was his usual brilliant self. He was right, but there was something more to explain.
In families there's a private language. There are in-jokes, built up over decades, that no outsider can know. There are stock phrases. 'Intellectual slum' was always a favourite of mine. My father once used it to describe the church. I inherited the phrase; it was part of the family silver. I used it with a sense of entitlement. But only in a particular place; only where it seemed to fit. In my story, "The Body," it's uttered by a father figure. An artist, the parent of three adult children. You could almost say he resembles...

My father: teller of stories. When I was a child, he and I had imaginary games. In London, we had a fantasy: under the puddles there was a second city. Extraordinary things could happen, in London Two. These days, when I walk through Auckland, I don't see stories in the pavement. I see people I've changed into fiction. I see a person and what I've made of him; they are entirely different beings. In adulthood I have my own double world: my Auckland and my Auckland Two.
One day I saw someone I'd met in strange circumstances, a long time ago. I'd written a story, using detail of our encounter, and it had been published. I hadn't seen him for a long time. He gave me a glare, looked dark, disdainful. I went on my way. He must have read the story, I thought. He must be angry about that.
I did something impulsive; I sent him an email, wanting to cancel out that terrible look. Dear X, I said. I wrote a story, and used some details from that day. But fiction is fiction, so please don't take offence. You may have seen things you recognised, but they were nothing to do with you.
X sent me a polite message. He thanked me for my explanation, but he hadn't read my story and his look had not been foul. Write anything you like, he said, it wouldn't bother him.
That was that; no further communication was possible. I did the only thing I could, in the circumstances. I put the exchange into fiction.
In the story, a woman writes a story. It contains details of a real incident: 'the disaster with Mr Jones.' After it's published the writer (a solipsistic failure) is coldly snubbed by Mr. Jones. She sends him a message, trying to put things right, but 'putting things right' is always a fantasy, and it's never going to work. She only creates more uncertainty, more of a tangle – her second disaster with Mr. Jones.
I made this writer character an idiot, and punished her with self-revelation. I dealt with her firmly and pitilessly, I wrote her into the ground, and moved on.
But two weeks later, I ran into someone. Uninvited, out of the blue, he told me this: he had known X for years. He was an old friend. Why, just the other day he'd been talking to X. Did I know him? (Oh, vaguely.) Then he told me a series of anecdotes – innocuous, everyday ones – that were all about X's life. I listened, in neutral silence. Startling. Strange. As if a door had been thrown open and there X was. His life of worthy service. His charitable ways. He sounds like a saint, I murmured. But the details got me thinking. I wrote another story, I couldn't help it. I didn't stop there. It isn't X in these stories; I don't know X. It's the made-up one. It's the X who was invented a long time ago, when he stepped into Auckland Two.
This is what it's like with writing. You sit at home, at your desk in the suburbs, playing with data. And then you go out, into the city. Everywhere you look there are stories, the ones already told and the ones about to happen, those that have grown from the ones before.
Time passed. I saw the mayor out walking, John Key at the supermarket, Helen Clark at a book party. I saw Joe Karam beside a sculpture on Gladstone Rd. I saw David Bain at Iguacu, Clint Rickards at the Warehouse, John Campbell looking pensive in a mall. These people: stories swarm around them like bees. They are the subject of everyone's make-believe. We see them, recognise them, we make up who they are. Real people, flesh and blood, shadowed by fictional selves.

First published in Metro Magazine