Column Inches | @TheLitChallenge #LikeTheProse – Brief 1

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Barbara Glass looked down at the empty sheet of paper. It seethed with promise, the way Barbara seethed with rage. The lilac glare, sun on the blank page, reflected in her patented purple spectacles. Anti-glare coating be damned, Barbara thought. Not worth the extra charge at the opticians. But now was not the tie to dry. To fail to put pen to paper.

Barbara heaved her considerable bosom and brushed a steel strand of platinum blue forelock from her eyes. When did this all happen? When Bob left? The papers had enjoyed that. “Bob Abandons Babs” the Daily Fail had declared. “Agony Aunt in Agony” was the headline on a more beneficent rag. All yesterday’s fish-and-chip paper now. Did they still wrap fish and chips in old tabloid? Barbara always had quite liked finding out what Chastity on page three thought of the Labour government, while flashing a winning smile and anything else God had blessed her with.

Barbara glanced again at the letter clenched in her left hand.

“Dear Darling Babs

My husband recently left me for a younger man. Up until then, we’d had a healthy sex life for nearly 45 years, three kids, two dogs and a lama under our belts. We’d just got all the big milestones out the way and were heading for a happy retirement and quite possibly a second lama. So why then would a man who likes golfing trousers and only drinks Newcastle Brown, run off with an Italian waiter half his age? He’s never once shown any interest in Dame Edna Everage.

I am beside myself and don’t know what to do. Should I divorce him? Is this a phase? Maybe counselling would be a good idea? Should I suggest a thruple?

Please advise.

Yours

Desperate Housewife, Morley, West Yorkshire.”

Was this really the best the current batch of junior sub-editors could muster? Surely there was a real letter this week? Something which would at least provide genuine solace to an actual person? What woman in her 60s knew what a thruple was, for God’s sake? Barbara herself had even had to reticently type the word into Google to make doubly sure it wasn’t a specialist holiday. But of course, the agony of actual humans was all online these days. Gone were the days of bulging postbags and requests to appear on daytime TV. Who needed ‘Dear Darling Babs’ when you could sob your way through a 20 minute Instagram story for all the world to see.

Babs was sad at the demise of the old ways. Of British stiff upper lips going decidedly flaccid. Of meat and two veg being swapped for vegan burritos and katsu ramen. Of seaside trips to Scarborough with real donkeys being traded for package resorts to Malaga, complete with sunburn and a straw donkey.

To be clear, Barbara didn’t object to any of these things per se. She was neither racist or averse to expanding her horizons. She’d even once tried a green curry on a literary tour to Southhampton. But she did regret the sense of something more tangibly British. In her 74 years on this earth, the world had shifted beyond all recognition. All she wanted was something that felt like she remembered. Anything. Even a Marathon bar instead of a ruddy Snicker would do.

Barbara smoothed out the slightly crumpled letter from Desperate Housewife, Morely, West Yorkshire.

Barbara reached for the mug of rapidly cooling tea and slurped loudly, purely for her own pleasure. No one to criticise her now. Well, except this sub-editor character, whoever they were. Probably one of the braying Prosecco crowd who seemed to make up the younger cohort infesting the offices of the major publishing houses these days. Marginally better than the braying Beaujolais crowd of her earlier career, likely slightly more polite to your face, and definitely less handsy on the rear, but still all selfish agendas and ambition. None of the new breed really cared; about her, about the readers, about anything really. Most of the articles were cribbed off various spurious press releases. It wasn’t really journalism. Not real writing. Not like the old days.

And then there were the constant digs at Barbara in the reader letters. If it wasn’t divorce or “my husband’s gone off with a much younger woman”, it was dealing with obesity, the invisibility of being an irrelevant older woman or the perils of a blue rinse. Subtle little nips at Barbara and all that she held dear, but death by a thousand cuts was clearly her adversaries master strategy. No doubt the little oik was planning her demise and finding some younger, perter Youtuber to put in Barbara’s place.

Deep breath in and Barbara picked up her trusty weapon – a gold 1950s Mont Blanc fountain pen – tearing off the lid and brandishing it with all the verve of an Olympian fencer preparing for the assault as she put pen to paper. She knew exactly what to say to “Dear Desperate Housewife.”

****************

Araminta Reese-Bingly opened the crisp mauve envelope with a sense of resignation. Having been delighted at her promotion from Obituaries, she had been startled to find that under her new remit as a sub-editor for entertainment (non-factual) she had the startling old bag who wrote the paper’s bloody awful Agony column. Ironically ‘Dear Darling Babs’ was the one obituary she would happily write. A thorn in Araminta’s side day-one on the job, Babs insisted on had writing all her replies, refused to make up her own problems, and had never been into the office, even when Araminta intercepted her paycheques for three months. I mean, who still gets paid by cheque? Araminta couldn’t even remember the last time she went into a bank, let alone owned a cheque book. Thank Christ for apps, that’s what Araminta says.

Araminta had toyed with ringing up her charge. “Hello, just your sub here. Checking in on our favourite agony aunt,” but to be honest, even the thought of it made her gag. She had been hoping for a couple of years now that the column would be recognised for the waste of inches it actually was. Turned out the agony aunt column was perfect for filling up empty page space after all the ads had been set.

Araminta reached for her bottle of ‘Volva gently sparkling mineral water.’ Though eight quid a bottle it was perfect for chasing away the post-Prosecco blues due to its astounding concentration of alkaline electrolytes and had been blessed by Buddhist monks. As she delicately sipped from the heavy Murano glass bottle, each one hand-blown by Venetian artisans (according to the advert), she could already feel the good flowing through her, while the bad was in the process of being sweated out of every pore, along with the kebab of shame she had bought from a street van somewhere around Liverpool Street station around 2 am this morning.

Feeling revived, Araminta grasped the metal, or in this case paper, and tore open the gently purple package to review the lightly purple pages of inky scrawl of old-fashioned spidery handwriting.

“Dear Desperate Housewife

I’m sorry that you find yourself in such a clearly difficult situation. It must be painful to know that your life has been wasted and that you are forced to write letters to an agony aunt on a third rate tabloid. It is naturally distressing that you should bring up the deceit of a long-time partner – as you know, I have been through the agony of a duplicitous partner, and I hurts to think that while you were concocting this week’s nonsense, you sent me this letter. I suspect this is pure spite in your part and another in a long line of jibes designed to force me into retirement.

Well, let me tell you, you vicious little cunt, that you and I will no longer be working together. Today or any other day. This is my last letter to you and the end of the ‘Dear Darling Babs’ column.

But a warning: this bitch bites.

Yours, with fondest regards

Dearest Darling Babs.”

Araminta dropped the paper in shock. ‘Dear Darling Babs’ had used the c-word? Babs didn’t even know if her editor was a man or a woman, so to be confronted by that… it was beyond belief. But…

Araminta gave a little fist bump.

She had won.

****************

Barbara sat back in her favourite garden chair, merrily slurping from an elegant blue and white teacup. Her sun visor cast a rosy glow over her face. Putting the cup on the small wooden table beside her, Barbara kicked off her tangerine mules and, throwing her arms and legs up in the air, released a massive cry of “whoooppppeeeeeee!”

That will show them, Barbara thought. That was the last time some snot-nose little brat tried to mess with her. Right now her junior sub-editor would be receiving her marching orders; being handed a cardboard box into which she could only fit a small pot plant and a stapler and escorted from the building by two big, burly security guards.

The best thing about the divorce had been the money. Marrying some young dreamer who believed he could teach computers to talk had turned out to be one of the least crazy things she’d ever done. By the end of the eighties, Babs and Bob had been multi-millionaires. By the divorce in the early 2010s, Babs has been a multi-billionaire. So had Bob, to be fair. They were now just independently wealthy.

The Russian Oligarch, Lyova Preobrazhensky, had been bemused to get a call from his elderly employee, offering him massively over his original outlay for the quaint English paper he’d bought while drunk one night in Athens. It had been a good night, despite the Ouzo, and the newspaper has turned out to be a great way to launder TOTALLY LEGAL MONEY out of Russia. Barbara has even said he could continue his financial schemes flowing through the news corporation, on the condition that none of it could be traced back to her, an innocent and wealthy divorcee. Preobrazhensky had promised solemnly before hanging up his phone and continuing to light the cigar with the aid of a Czechoslovakia hooker and a pile of fifty dollar bills.

And that is how, my dear darling reader, Barbara Glass, aka ‘Dearest Darling Babs’, came to own a news empire. And how Araminta Reese-Bingly eventually found her perfect career as an animal talent agent. At least none of her new bitches bites.

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