From the moment the child appeared beside his bed one night he understood, on some level, that he was losing his mind. Looking, interestingly, not exactly how he’d imagined her, she nevertheless had that gaunt, yearning loneliness with which he had written her. She was phantom-like, unresponsive whenever she turned up in his bedroom, the kitchen, the bathroom. Living out his novel on another plane, unaware of his observation. Her actions were mostly staring into space. Sometimes reading books he didn’t think he owned.
It made him a little uncomfortable to have a seven-year-old character haunting his apartment. He almost regretted using the physical space of his own home as blueprint for the novel’s setting. But, as his professor had always said, ‘The only fiction in fiction is that any of it’s fiction.’ His rooms were the perfect backdrop to tell the story of a vulnerable, semi-orphaned daughter coming to live with her unknown father.
He did wonder why the father never appeared, if the daughter must. After two months of stalled work and two months of waking up so her soft crying from the next room, he decided action had to be taken. Rising early the next morning, drinking a strong cup of coffee and ignoring the child skipping in the hall, he began a new chapter wherein the father tired of his daughter’s ever-presence, and sent her to a boarding school in Donegal. He knew he was undoing his novel, but on that morning it didn’t seem to matter. He needed an exorcism. The writing was sub-par and rushed, but that probably wasn’t important.
When he came back from the shops the girl was gone. He felt only a little guilty, still able to understand that she was merely a projection of his own brain. Mulling over this in the long afternoon, he turned over another page and began a new chapter. The father, alone once again in the apartment, takes in a new lodger to help with the rent. An impossible Lithuanian hourglass named Alexandria, with long, dark hair pulled up into a high ponytail and hypnotic hips. He spent over three pages describing her beauty in such terms, twinging only a little at the clichés he was using to get his point across. Then he closed the notebook and went to the pub.
On his return he poked his head into the spare room and grinned widely at the sleeping curves in the single bed. Alexandria became as permanent a fixture as the child had once been, and obviously a much more welcome one. Again, she seemed unaware of the author, playing out his hastily written assignments on an endless loop. He watched her clean and read and cook and bathe. Standard apartment behaviour. He wondered, still, where was the father.
His breakthrough came through London Fields by Martin Amis. Again he opened his notebook on the kitchen table and had the Father called away on a six-month business trip to Tunisia. Left house-sitting alone, the practical Alexandria, unknown to her landlord, advertised to sublet his room. After a few slapdash accounts of applicants she let the room to the author.
Many writers have put themselves in their own novels. It’s an common trope, often criticised as lazy post-modernism. For the author, however, the effects were immediate. Alexandria began to acknowledge his presence as the recently arrived tenant of his own name. While there was some flexibility in the content of their interactions, the plot proceeded broadly along the course of his notebook. Where before the child and her replacement had seemed ephemeral and ghost-like, the author felt as though he had removed a pair of sunglasses; Alexandria now seemed utterly real.
He knew the novel was suffering, of course. He had abandoned his central characters and replaced them with a loosely sketched bombshell and himself, hanging out aimlessly in a small apartment. He was beginning to doubt the book would ever be published. Still, that evening he arrived home to the ‘smell of a beef roast,’ and Alexandria ‘emerged from the small kitchen, slightly sweat-slicked and wearing an indecently tight t-shirt. “I’ve cooked us dinner,” she grinned apologetically.’ The author sat at the table, notebook on his knee, and watched her sway around the apartment. After a moment Alexandria placed a bowl of soup in front of him and stood back, watching expectantly. He leaned forward and tasted it. It needed a little salt. He picked up his pencil. ‘The soup was perfectly salted.’ Tasting it again, he found the soup to be perfectly salted.