8 December 2006

The Guild of Ghostwriters Number Ninety-Six

(This short story, hastily scribbled out during a few consecutive moments of near competence back in 2003, is where the name of this blog comes from. Sorry it's longer than what passes for a blog post, especially here. A prize to anybody who can prove to me that they actually read the whole thing...)

Far be it from me to ignore criticism – contrary to one current of criticism, I am very interested in perceived weaknesses in my work. It’s just that I have tended to limit my interest to those weaknesses I perceive myself. Surmounting as I do, however, a long and rampant lineage which has always regarded any perception of weakness in the self as a weakness, it is nigh on impossible for me to perceive any weakness in myself and on the rare occasions that I have I generally go on to regard and condemn myself as weakly worthless and a sore chagrin to the long line of proud and weaknessless ancestors that manifest in the form of a community of chimps foraging between my shoulder blades. And far be it from me to bury my head in the sand either, residing as I do in a landlocked and desert-free country, I sought counsel on these matters of perceived and actual weakness.

My counsellor, a perpetually nervous and hesitant man, suggested that if I were to cease regarding my work as an extension of myself, I could perceive weaknesses within it, were there any to be perceived, without that amounting to a disastrously perceived weakness of the self. The trouble with that is the impossibility of perceiving the fruits of creative endeavour as anything but an extension of the self, born as they are of ideas formed deep within the most solitary of intimacies. To regard a creative work, a work of passion and sweat, a work of sleepless concern, as an extension of the self is as inevitable and unavoidable as regarding one’s children in the same way. In fact, it is more easily accounted for, a creative work being far more likely to submit to one’s authority than an offspring.

The perceived weaknesses of my counsellor’s argument aside, I did perceive enough merit in it to give it a go. I tried many different methods of attempting to regard a poem, say, or a skit as I imagined one might regard a recently painted picket fence or baked and decorated cake, but to no avail. The closest I came was by pretending somebody else wrote it whereupon I either hated it or despised him for so blatantly, shamelessly plagiarising my work. Many a time I had to retreat in embarrassment after a lambasting in Court had been punctured by the riposte that of course the work in question was a blatant rip off of my style, my form, my genre and my specialised subject matter because the rip off had in fact been perpetrated by we, meaning myself, me, I. My counsellor carefully suggested that this might be if not a weakness then a flaw in my strategy, one that I had been unable to perceive for the obvious reasons, but if I were to identify the strengths and eradicate the weaknesses I might find a viable solution.

I suppose when it comes to finding solutions I am fortunate to enjoy the privileges and command the resources that I do. Since my grandfather, Kevin I (or Kick-Arse Kev), seized South Yorkshire and the Peak District from the English Crown in the early twenties, our family has been privy to the juiciest suppressed facts, investigations and intelligence service secrets the world has to offer. A weekly newsletter containing all the goss is circulated around the world leaders in a re-usable envelope. Anyone who has ever worked in the British civil service will know the sort of thing, gridded with consecutively numbered boxes for each successive recipient. It always comes to me after the English Monarch – a misordering that will perturb me until it’s put right – and they get it after the Indian Premier has had a browse. I’ve already called it a privilege but often it’s a chore, largely consisting of, let us say, fortean investigations, the kind of thing that would kill the Roswellian cults with a line and most of it dull as their speculations. No, we’re not engineered, visited or controlled by aliens, twelve foot jewish lizards or clones of Emperor Gates. Yes there is a god – or was until the mid-twentieth-century; he lived at Maralinga you see, until the tests. Anyway, I digress from my point in explaining all of this which is that it was in one of those circulation envelopes that I chanced upon the solution to my problem.

A report on certain cults referred to an investigation into Transcendental Mediation and Astral Projection that was carried out by the CIA in the late twentieth-century. Using my Global Top Secret Library ticket, I was able to procure and peruse the CIA’s investigation files (it was idle curiosity that led me to do so – I am often idle and always curious). The initial CIA investigation was sparked by a rumour that members of the British Monster Raving Loony Party were using Astral Projection (AP) to ‘possess’ and covertly control various world leaders. The CIA were able to prove that this was happening although their initial suspicion, that Ronald Reagan was so ‘possessed’, proved unfounded. It later transpired that Reagan had in fact projected himself in the late 1970s at one of Nancy’s marijuana smoking parties but had been unable to find his way back. The investigation had actually discovered – and the file went on to explain – the secret of AP. It’s pretty easy actually. All you need are some valves, batteries, capacitors, paperclips, marijuana and a specially adapted old-fashioned commode. Or am I mixing it up with my homemade electric chair? Anyway, it was a simple enough and easily replicated experiment, even by a technical know-nothing such as I.

It wasn’t merely a matter of discovering the secret of AP. Finding an appropriate person to project into and possess was the hardest part of all. Perhaps I should explain in a little more detail. Working on the premise that everyone has at least one book in them, I took to possessing young men for the night and stealing that book. I didn’t initially exclude women for any of the traditional reasons men employ to keep women at bay but for reasons of practicality and accountability. To be perfectly frank I prefer entering women but the books I stole from them were invariably written in a more feminine register than I am capable of and displayed such sensitivity and humanity that none of the critics believed I could have written them. Excluding women was not all I had to do to get it right, however. I had to refine my methods by the usual process of trial and error.

At first I would leave my body and roam, in an astral state, the surrounding locale of whichever official residence I was then occupying. Roaming in an astral state is a bit like staggering home from the laundry maids’ quarters when drunk. Because of the unusual sensation of body-mass (or in the case of AP, the absence of it), perambulation is an awkward, haphazard, clumsy business. One frequently overestimates the force required to realise movement and consequent collisions with inanimate objects such as walls and hard furnishings are unavoidable. And just like when drunk, such collisions are painless at the time. When drunk, one doesn’t feel the edge of the table that has just attacked one’s shin; in the astral state, the table edge doesn’t feel one’s shin. When one awakes from such a drunken trek, one is instantly aware of the hazardous route one has taken a day or two before, mapped as it is in bruises and cuts about one’s body, and AP again is similar. The astral form remembers all the collisions and reminds the physical form of where it ought to hurt upon their reunion and accordingly the physical form hurts in all those places. Sadly, these injuries are not supported by any physical evidence at all; no bruises, grazes, chafes or cuts. Consequently Nanny won’t allow one time off from making laws and starting wars.

So, in my astral state, lurching and staggering like a drunkard around the astral plane, I would wander the benighted streets of Conisboro and Matlock (my two principal residences) until I clocked a garret window still lit even at that godless hour. Then I would enter the house – passing through walls or doors at first, later finding an open window, door or cat flap where possible to minimise the later pain – and ascend to the bare but enlightened room. In that room I would inevitably find a desk with some form of writing instrument or equipment, a small and dirty mattress nearby and a single ergonomically unsound chair with a young writer languishing in an ecstasy of near-starvation and existentialist angst. Entering and possessing somebody is so easy to describe it’s impossible to do so. Basically, it’s whatever one imagines it to be. For instance, the CIA files suggested imagining oneself at the console of a forklift truck and I did try that but I can’t drive a forklift. I tried imagining myself at a computer, typing instructions and that worked but in the end I settled for picturing myself at Court, shouting orders at everyone present and waving a huge gun – that’s the way I possess and control a country so why should it not work in a person? Of course it did work.

Once inside and in control, it was just a matter of getting him to type. That was always the easiest part of the process and completely painless. Even if he had been typing furiously for hours, to the point where his fingers were bloodied stumps hardly recognisable as human digits, such injuries would neither hurt me nor hinder his efforts. The problems started when the manuscript was complete. At first I would evacuate my host immediately, whereupon he, overcome by fatigue and pain no doubt (having just typed a 100,000 word plus manuscript in around five hours without pause), would subside into a moaning and groaning faint at the keyboard. Then the problem – how to manipulate matter such as a paper manuscript or floppy disk with an astral form which physical matter, indeed the whole of the physical plane, did not acknowledge or respond to. I can’t describe the pain of the countless, non-existent paper cuts that first attempt caused. It simply wasn’t possible to pick up and take home that first manuscript. After several hours of trying, I quit and went home, intending to raid the place later, seize the writing as seditious, execute the prole and publish under my own nom-de-plum. Unfortunately, during my absence the prole had been discovered dead by his doting landlady and she had already posted his great last work off to a publisher. A London publisher at that so not one I could raid. Worse, the work was accepted and lauded beyond my borders as a stinging parody and indictment of me, the final act of defiance from an already cruelly crushed subject. My work was lost to me – how could I reveal my authorship of it? – and worst of all, the critics didn’t perceive a single weakness in it.

I concluded my next couple of attempts by making my host address and post the manuscript or disk to me before evacuating him. Sadly, the manuscript was too bloodstained to be legible, or the disk too sticky with blood for any computer to read it, so those attempts were also futile. Next time out I remained in my host long enough for him to walk to my residence and attempt to deliver the work in person. I did not, however, account for the zeal of my Royal Housecarls who despatched the suspected assassin with flamethrowers as was their wont. I was fortunate enough to get out unsinged, the manuscript was not so lucky. I thought about lifting the ban on internet use amongst my subjects so that I could email the manuscript back but that was too drastic a measure, and I’ve never been good with the internet anyway – I’ve always had servants send my emails for me, my tendency with my electronic communications being, as with my country, to dictate and have others do.

That near-singing was the point that I came closest to giving up, in that petulant way overwhelming frustration prevents a considered, thoughtful approach to the problem. Pretty soon, of course, the answer was obvious.

It was all thanks to the UN and the English. I’d been keeping several thousand English as pets in a concentration camp called Doncaster – English captured the last time they’d tried a coup – and the UN told me it was time to give them back. I wanted to ignore them but Nanny said it would be better in the long run and there are always fresh stocks of POWs to replace them with if I missed them that much. So all of a sudden I was bereft of a pastime and with an empty concentration camp to restock. It was a flash of divine inspiration, the kind of inspired flash only a truly genius writer such as I, with the additional benefit of the divine right to rule, gets to experience. I turned the concentration camp into a battery writery. Every young man in the kingdom with literary pretensions or aspirations received a heavy, officious knock on their door one morning. Upon answering it they were greeted gruffly by two armed and vaguely uniformed men who, without ceremony, presented the young man with a sealed letter, dictated personally by me. Congratulations, there is a vacancy for a writer in residence at Doncatraz and you have been selected to fill it. Despite their calling they were rarely pleased with the delivery, some of them denying a literary bent, denying literacy even, but my postmen calmed them down and moved them in. I didn’t change much of the d├ęcor – just made sure there was nothing for them to write with or on. The UN didn’t like it (Amnesty had given up on me by that time) but the US vetoed the resolution as there was no oil or threat to Israel involved. Every night a single writer would be escorted from the camp to my nearby residence at Conisboro where they were taken to my specially constructed study.

My study is a long narrow room without windows, without natural illumination of any kind – the ‘writing’ took place at night in any event. At one end of the room, a typical office chair was sat at a grey office desk on which a computer hummed so that that the beaker of pills beside it rattled. The other end of the room was dominated by my astral projector, humming in harmony, ominously, and into which I was already strapped as my young, confused subject was pushed in through the study door which locked shut behind him. I invited him to sit. ‘Thank you, your Highness’ he inevitably replied, seating himself at the desk so that, for a moment, he and his King were face to face. Whereupon, as far as he was concerned, his King, HRH The King of South Yorkshire and the Peak District, would faint, slumping into his strange chair, his chin resting on his chest.

It would take a few minutes for me, in my astral form with my body hardly breathing behind me, to stagger the length of the study, around the desk and into my ghostwriter host. During that time his initial astonishment would briefly become a panic which in turn would begin to calm into something like a contemplation of the possibility of escape or (forgive him) regicide. At that point all thought of flight or murder, all thought, all plans would end as I arrived and stepped into his body to take possession. He was my ghostwriter then and I made him ghostwrite for me. He wrote for hours, ceaselessly, until the work was complete. Then, as soon as he had finished the spellcheck and clicked save, he necked the pills and I got out quick, just in time to witness the beginning of his slow and painful death.

Simple – the manuscript where I needed it and the ghostwriter already a ghost, unable to contest authorship.

I did that most nights. I like to keep Sundays special and have always left them free for carousing, cavorting and callously casual cruelties but otherwise I was at it six nights a week. In just over a decade I cleansed my kingdom of 3,000 odd worthless wordsmiths, extracting the one book in each of them into the bargain. Not all of them were publishable – not every would-be writer has talent to support the contention – but I published more than 2,000 original works in that decade and cared not a jot what the critics said. Even if my counsellor seemed less so, I was satisfied with the solution and its results.

But, you know, satisfaction is like those fairy dandelion-clock seeds drifting around one’s head in a confusion of warm summer evening breezes; not easy to catch and when caught, as soon as one opens the imprisoning hand to have a proper ganders at this satisfaction, it’s off again, up and away on the next puff of breeze. It’s no different when one is a King with divine rights and all.

I opened my hand on my satisfaction for a moment to enquire into its nature and it was gone. What was the use of my writing, even putting aside the suspicion that I might have cheated, what was the point? All that came to mind then were 3,000 odd corpses but besides those, what of any note had my writing ever accomplished? It seemed to me that my only readers were foreign critics – all native critics having been redeployed or disappeared – who had abandoned Marxism, Feminism, New-Historicism, Reader-Responsism or New-Criticism in favour of perceiving and tabulating weaknesses in the written works of the King of South Yorkshire and the Peak District-ism. In keeping with my kingly generosity I gave each of my subjects a copy of each book as it was published, in lieu of wages, but I think they mainly functioned as doorstops or extra-fuel on the bitterest winter nights. Even I didn’t read them – so what was the point?

The point was the sharp end of dissatisfaction prodding and disturbing my sense of well-being. Once I had experienced that I could write no more – not in that way at least (I’d used up all the ghostwriters for one thing) – so I quit and found myself bereft of worthwhile, meaningful occupation.

I returned to my old bad ways after that, my old sources of satisfaction, and took once more to spending nights in the quiet, cramped quarters of my castle reserved for laundry maids. I say laundry maids but my favourite consort had always been one of the cleaning staff. It’s not the done thing for a king with a full complement of laundry maids, consorting with cleaners, so I didn’t like to confess it before. Now I must – for a story can never be partially told – and so you know; my rolls were tinged with the aroma of Pledge.

I had consorted with Sal Seamless for as long as I’d been able to consort. Since first I saw her, I a precocious young prince coveting my father’s throne, she an aspiring servant girl polishing it, I knew our destinies were entwined, indivisible. Of course, then I thought our destinies were entwined because I was a royal with castles to clean and she an enslaved domestic capable of cleaning them. I had no way of knowing at the time that the intersections of our lives would prove more significant, more meaningful.

In the years immediately following the end of my career as writing royal, I spent every night with Sal, sneaking to her quarters as night fell and staggering back to my own bunk drunk at sunrise.

How can I describe Sal? She is worthy of so much more than a shape and an occupation, a few splashes of colour in varying shades. Sal is a woman who could rule the world. She was always smart – almost as smart as me – and that’s why I gave her the promotion, created a job specially for her and at her suggestion too; Cleaner of the Royal Computers. Prior to that she had been a common scrubber. Even after her promotion she was worthy of a higher post, a loftier calling. ‘In a different world you’d be much more than a cleaner – you’d be a typist, or work in a shop’ I used to tell her. But Sal was modest too and uttered never a word of agreement or otherwise. And in all the years I have known her and despite all the things she has done for me she only ever asked me for one gift – a specially adapted, old-fashioned commode.

Whatever little disagreements we may have suffered since, the main reason Sal will always be so dear to me is our conversation. It may be a strange thing to hear said, you who have done it all – small-talked, chin-wagged, chewed-the-breeze, bantered, rowed, heart-to-hearted – but conversation, beyond small-talk, beyond received obsequy and issued diktat, is an unheard of commodity to a king. Everybody is eager to listen but there’s only so much one feels one can generally say – and everyone is too afraid to say anything of weight or consequence themselves. Everyone except Sal. Yes I could open up to my counsellor – not that he instilled me with any confidence in him, I just knew that he was too afraid for his life to ever betray my confidence – but he seemed more intent on closing me back down again than drawing me out. To be honest, from very early on the only value in our weekly appointment was the pleasure I took from watching him squirm. And even that was a poor second, an unfilling appetiser, compared to watching him really squirm in his own blood and shit in my Funroom-cum-Torture Chamber. That’s another thing I liked about Sal – she made an effort to take an interest in my interests. In fact it was her suggestion to have fun with the counsellor when she found out that he was the only other person – except Sal and me – who knew all the secrets of my writing career, and what went on in my study.

That’s what I mean about conversation – I talked to Sal about everything and it was always the best thing in the world to do at the time, drunk on gin and stoned on her premium homegrown marijuana. I don’t know how we got talking about AP – she’d been cleaning the computer in my study for years and the Astral Projector was still there, lurking cold and silent beneath a dust sheet – perhaps she was just curious about the hidden secret. But I kept no secrets from Sal – once I knew about conversations I just wanted to say all there was to be said and that’s what I did – so Sally heard all there was to hear. And as I mentioned before, she always showed an interest so I wasn’t surprised when she asked me to demonstrate AP.

There was something of childhood mischief about it, the way we crept along the darkened corridors of my castle wedging doors open as we passed, the way we tip-toed past Nanny’s door, avoiding the squeaking floor-board, just as I had done as a bored teenage prince on my way to the cells to finish off father’s favourite political prisoner that he’d been saving for himself. The spirit of youth mingled in with the gin as my fingers, trembling with excitement, fumbled the key into the lock of my study door, Sal behind me with her hand on my shoulder.

I didn’t really want to do it – so many unpleasant memories of weakness and failure were manufactured into that machine, languishing at the end of the study beneath a dust sheet like a giant misshapen ghost – and wouldn’t have done it but for Sal’s insistence. I didn’t expect it to work either, hoped those years of neglect or some dodgy valves had rendered it inoperable but I whipped off the dustsheet to find the thing gleaming as new. And when I flicked the switch to start it, it began to hum just like it had forgotten the tune for a moment that had lasted years and was now picking it up again after a memory-refreshing pause. Sal strapped me in and perhaps it was because it was my last physical contact with her – my last physical contact – but when I look back on it now I warm to my very shallow depths; it was reminiscent of my mother tucking me in at bedtime and perhaps it’s just fancy elaborated from that idea but I swear now that Sal even planted a light kiss on my forehead when she’d done, just as mother used to do when she’d finished our na-night rituals and before she turned out the lights.

We agreed beforehand exactly what I’d do – or I thought we’d agreed. I insisted that I wasn’t doing anything unless Sal allowed me to enter and possess her. Of course she was reluctant, steadfastly refused in fact until she realised that I really wouldn’t do it at all unless she let me. I’d had so few chances to enter a woman and I enjoyed it so much – entering a man was a trial and a torment – that I was never going to pass up this chance. In the end she consented – and Sal was the only man or woman I wouldn’t have entered without consent – and, briefly as agreed, the first thing I did was to enter and possess her.

There’s definitely something different about entering and possessing a woman. Their softness is so much more unashamed and uninhibited than a man’s could ever be, the fire of their passion more ferocious and unrestrained. Of course – even with my scant experience – being in Sal Seamless was my best go at entering a woman and I would have stayed forever had Sal not reminded me my possession was supposed to be brief. I don’t know why that – like so many things before it, but that above all else – didn’t rouse some suspicion within me, that she was able to retain sufficient sense of herself during my possession to be able to tell me it was time to go. I suppose at the time I was so elated, so enamoured with this wonderful woman I was, it didn’t cross my mind to suspect and I must have put it down to the closeness of our connection. Anyway, remind me she did, after five or so minutes of self-grooming and -exploration, and then I left her and moved on to the next stage of my demonstration.

That was my first go at AP after a skin-full of gin and I was surprised to discover that it rectified the inertia problem so that motion is almost as it is in physical form, if not slightly easier. I proceeded out of the castle – Conisboro castle, rebuilt as a Ludwigian monstrosity fit to grace the royalest Bayerisch landscape – along the route we had prepared earlier by wedging all the doors ajar. Once outside I was supposed to possess a lumpen-prole and perform some unspecified, verifiable mischief that only the king would dare to perform. It took me a good hour to find a suitable subject – plenty of time for Sal to do her bit – and then I got him to graffiti SAL RULES OK on the castle’s perimeter wall, round back near the secret entrance. It was the first true thing I’d ever written up to that point in my worthless life, though I didn’t know it at the time. My masterpiece complete, I left my prole by his handiwork and headed back to my study,

Getting back in was a whole lot harder than getting out had been; someone had removed all the wedges and closed all the doors and after giving it a certain amount of thought I realised that I had no option but to suffer the invisible physical injuries that would come with forcing my astral form through physical objects. I was wrong. I haven’t yet suffered those pains; although Sal assures me I’ll get the chance one day. Upon arrival at my study door I found it, as with all the others, shut against me; and again as with all the others I was forced to force myself through it. As much as I wasn’t looking forward to resuming possession of my own body, and specifically possession of my own senses that I knew were just aching to tell me how much pain I was in after all those doors, I was not in the least bit pleased by the sight that greeted me within.

Within, the study was almost bare; no desk, chair, computer, no humming astral-projector with my body slumped in it, just a small unfamiliar device attached to the wall near the door, humming just like the projector, and a long, hand written letter on the floor where half a king and a specially adapted commode should have been. Ignoring the letter – I don’t like reading – I set off at pace in search of Sal. Or I tried, for I could not pass through the door, just bounced back off it and fell to the floor. Likewise, the walls: however I approached it, I could not exit the room.

After another hour of frantic and no doubt eventually excruciating escape attempts, I stopped to gather my thoughts and once again noticed the letter.

It was from Sal. I know because she signed it, I did not recognise her hand. Until then I was ignorant of her literacy.

Dear H, (it started: H, short for HRH, was how she addressed her King)

You’re probably wondering what’s become of your body. Before you panic, rest assured it’s safe. I promise I have no intention of harming it; I just need to use it for a little while. Well, maybe a long while but I will, in time, hand it back to you, and in one piece.

Before I explain why I need your body, I have a slight confession to make: I know all about Astral Projection. I know a lot more about it than you do. AP technology has come on leaps and bounds since that old CIA report you read and it’s all on the net if you’d only bothered to look. You’d need to look hard mind, and know a few backdoors like I do, but all of it is out there. For instance, I knew that a skin-full of gin would help your movement. Only gin will do it, some unexplained property of sloe. I also know a few secrets I’m not going to reveal, not now anyway, like the secret of barring the astral way. That’s what that device on the wall is, a one-way astral gate that I invented. It will allow astral forms in but not out again. I’m wearing a similar device around my – your – waist, so that neither you nor anybody else can possess your body. My own body is similarly protected. I also know how to keep my wits about me should somebody possess me – not that it matters now – which is how I was able to tell you it was time to go earlier. I didn’t want to tell you to go, I liked you being inside me as much as you did and wished we could have had longer together, but I had a strict timetable to keep to. There are many more secrets, some of which I may let you in on later, once my work is done.

I’m sorry I had to do it this way. If I didn’t love you as I do I would possess your body with you inside and not care a jot but I do care – I care so much more than a jot – and after possessing you once or twice in your sleep I realised I could never do what I have to do with you still around so this was the only way. Please forgive me, H, and know that I love you with all my mind, all my soul, all your body.

That’s as far as I read right then. That was all I needed to know. Sal Seamless loved me – Sal Seamless loves me – and no other fact in the whole universe carries any weight with me now.

That was all four years ago this coming August and a lot has happened since. Not so much for me – my astral form has left my study on just three occasions in all that time while my body has only entered it twice, and both occasions brief. The first time she came was a month or so after I got here. She wanted to leave it a while so I’d calm down, but she didn’t need to; love is a very calming influence on a tyrannical king, even one incarcerated in an empty study away from his body. She bought Nanny along to see me too, not that either of them could see me. The door opened (still the one-way astral gate wouldn’t let me out) and in I came, with my ceremonial broadsword unsheathed and Nanny a pace behind me. ‘I’ve come to show the King how one does away with the most troublesome person in the kingdom’ I said.

‘What are you blathering on about you idiotic ….’ Nanny started, but I interrupted her, something I’d never dared to do myself.

‘Okay then, in language you understand – I’ve come to show the King how to kill his Nanny’.

I didn’t know it could be done before then or I’d have done it myself years ago but Nanny always told me that the divine right of a king’s Nanny is stronger than the divine right of kings. ‘Cromwell never lopped off no Nanny’s head now, did he?’ Nanny always told me, just as she told me then.

‘Good call,’ I said, in a sinister tone I could never convincingly muster myself, ‘I was wondering how I’d do it.’ Then I hacked off Nanny’s head with a single side-swept blow. I’d been getting myself fit and strong in my absence.

I didn’t hang around much longer and to be honest I was relieved. I love my Sal, love to spend time with her and don’t begrudge her commandeering of my temporals at all – she takes better care of me than I ever did – but I’m sure you’ll understand that there’s something disturbing about seeing oneself as a third person one cannot feel, one cannot control, something nightmarish. In my own case all made worse by the suspicion that my frame – however handsome – was hiding away what I really wanted to see. Sal feels something similar – says speaking to the air makes her feel uncomfortable and stupid, especially knowing that everybodyless else is listening in. On that occasion there was nobody else to hear though, not that she could have known either way, and it was just the awkwardness of the situation that made things a strain. She told me she loved me – longed to be with me – but for now she had work to do. I understood and gave her my blessing, not that it was ever in my power to withhold it, or in hers to know it was given. Nanny’s abbreviated neck was still pumping spurts of claret when the King left the room, so short was my stay.

Sal is doing well. Her first act as King was to order my graffiti scrubbed, like an embarrassingly accurate prophecy, and since then she’s been dabbling in politics. As well as reforming the country, she is at the forefront of AP research and invention. I’ve helped her with that, at last doing something useful with my life. Our first discovery came shortly after Nanny’s death, a week later at most, when the first of the ghostwriters turned up. I had taken up pacing to and fro as a hobby and one morning I found myself joined in my walk. ‘You’re not dead,’ it said, ‘what’s going on?’ I explained as best I could, just grateful to have someone who could see and hear me at last. I must have babbled like first-time cokehead without a thought for a single word I was saying until, after about six hours of monologue, the ghostwriter raised a finger and interrupted. ‘Hold on – I’m dead – I don’t have to do as you say no more so you can shove it!’ and commenced to sulk because I’d killed him. For the next three months, each day bought it’s own ghostwriter and every single one of them determined to sulk just because I’d deprived them of life. They didn’t sulk for long though. You see, death had done them a favour in a way because if there’s one good book in every living person, there are literally thousands of them in every dead one. All of them had wandered the world since their death cooking up these great books in their heads and unable to tell a soul. Now stuck together, that’s all they talked about and an informal but highly successful 24/7 writing workshop was spontaneously in progress. Except it was more of a speaking workshop because there was nothing any of us could write with. I say us because I joined in, and I didn’t need to steal this time. Just being around so many gifted ghostwriters inspired me and I guess some of their gifts must have rubbed off on me because soon I too was producing beautiful, moving works of spoken art. Great artists don’t go unforgiven for long and soon they let me join their workshop and the past was a lost ha’penny we never knew we had. And more to the point, I had my first proper buddies – an ever-growing mutual appreciation society of ghostwriters.

Sal deduced from the ghostwriters that astral projections are not far off identical to ghosts – AP amounting to a day release for one’s ghost ahead of that crucial parole hearing, death. Or put another way, ghosts are astral bodies without living physical bodies of their own to go home to. So when all the ghostwriters showed up, mercifully in dribs and drabs over the next two years rather than all in one go, I could see them and they could see me. They’re governed by the same rules as a living astral projection like me so the one-way astral gate means they can’t escape and I’m stuck with em. Ghosts can’t usually possess a living person, however: all interfaces between the astral and physical body are deemed redundant and stripped out once the physical body has died. Apparently – and this is anecdotal from the ghost-writers until Sal works out how to verify it – the unsheathed astral form of a killer acts as some kind of homing beacon to all his or her victims so they can easily find their dealer of death and torment them if they so wish, which is how they all found me. I didn’t kill Reagan of course, he just saw all the astrals gathered together, thought there might be a marijuana smoking party going down and came along to see if Nancy was here with his body. And of course, thanks to that astral gate, once he arrived he was here to stay. It took us a while to explain that his body – and Nancy – had died a long time ago and this was his lot now; a study full of 3,000 odd ghostwriters with one body – and that out on indefinite loan – between us. Since Ronnie has settled here though he’s been a diamond, and he writes like Kerouac with a sense of structure and no chip on his shoulder.

As well as making discoveries and instituting the world’s first socialist monarchy, Sal has been busy inventing things. Mainly things to keep us all entertained – like television and video remotes, and game console control-pads that ghostwriters and astral projections can manipulate and use. We really wanted astral computers and laptops so we could get some of our writing written but Sal was having none of that. Apparently it’s possible to surf the internet astrally – that’s how you find the backdoors she mentioned – and the astral gate wouldn’t stop me escaping down the connection so she didn’t get round to inventing our computers for ages.

At first this socialism business worried me. It seemed a bit soft and ruthful for my taste and reputation. Then I saw that my subjects were happy, healthy, and smart, and loved me like a god and, for a while, I was severely depressed. Sal talks about hating the evangelists of consumerism, the forces of capitalism and imperialism and unleashing our anger against them, making those our enemies but I just thought that I wouldn’t be able to torture abstract nouns or genocide market-theories. A little later I was somewhat cheered to discover that even my Sal is suspect to a little realpolitik hypocrisy, mobilising my now happy, healthy, smart and ferociously loyal subjects in preparation for a little imperialism of her own. She denies it of course and calls it liberation. She liberated the rest of Yorkshire into my Kingdom in three days. Derbyshire fell soon after and Lancashire opted to liberate itself by surrendering without a fight. Nottinghamshire will fall soon, and I’m sure Sal already has something else lined up to keep her busy when it does. The biggest relief is her plan for the crown – she has no plan. I was worried that she’d cave in to the pressures of fashion and western piety and move towards democracy but Sal has no time for that. ‘What’s the point in democracy? People just vote with their greed and build systems that leave ninety-percent of the population poor and powerless. They don’t know what’s good for them, but I do!’ as Sal had me tell the UN. Still, I am softening to the idea of democracy, but only if it means I get to see more of Sal.

We – meaning me and all the ghostwriters who now love Sal just as much as I do – get to see her being me on telly everyday. As I said before, after that first time Sal only visited me as me one more time – and that was the day she came to install and demonstrate our astral computers (not connected to the net sadly but it means we write instead of playing online word games and mah jong). The ghostwriters didn’t like it, seeing their killer in stereo freaked them out a bit but they all said I was looking good. Ronnie just laughed. ‘Who needs grass, Nancy?’ he chuckled to himself. That’s not all I see of her though. By the way, since we got the computers every last one of us has been published in some form or genre. Published on merit too, by reputable foreign imprints. At first we weren’t sure what to do about nom-de-plumes. I wanted the ghostwriters published posthumously under their lifetime names but they didn’t agree, wanted something reflecting our mutual support, the collectivisation of the process. So we’re all publish as Guild of Ghostwriters number whatever – I’m Guild of Ghostwriters Number 96 – the number reflecting the order in which we joined the Guild. Critics are speechless and – because all the manuscripts are posted from Conisboro – suspect that I have a hand in it. ‘He must be using ghostwriters’ is the nearest they get to finding any weakness in our work. We all look forward to having a laugh at our latest reviews. But that’s not the thing I look forward to most.

Once a year, on my birthday, May 1st, Sal comes and collects me. I say collects me – she (in her own body, a rare treat for The Guild of Ghostwriters) comes in with a special astral body transporter, another of her inventions, which I climb into so that I can pass through the one-way astral gate. She takes me to another gated room where she takes a hell of a risk and evacuates her body. We spend the day together – all twenty-four hours of it – just having conversations, making plans for when we both have our own bodies again, and getting it together five or six times over the course of the day. By getting it together I mean we place our astral apparitions in close proximity so that they merge in the right place. It’s strange because no physical sensation accompanies the visuals at all but the visuals are sufficient to stir up so many memories of physical sensation that it’s the best sex I’ve ever had – but then again, as Sal points out, it’s the only sex I’ve ever had sober.

All that time our bodies are nearby, slumped in their commodes like a couple of royal drunks in his and hers thrones, and there’s nothing to stop me stepping back into me and resuming my rule. Maybe Sal wants me to, so she can forget about ruling and take up something worthwhile. Maybe one day I will, if I ever get bored of ghostwriting.