(published August 2017)
Call it nominative determinism. The name’s Adyna. Means wretched in Welsh. Thanks, parentals.
These days I wake up wretched. The dreams get me so bad I come into the world sweaty and disorientated, the words I’m sorry on my lips, a rasp in my throat which suggests I’ve only recently finished a scream.
Used to be my dreams would involve award ceremonies, stopping to sign a quick autograph as I dashed through a train station Smith’s looking for something to read on a long journey; seeing my face shining out from the jackets of scores of books. Now I dream about someone clamping my hand on stone. The flash of a blade. My hand rolling in a basket. I should write a story about myself.
Ah who am I kidding? I won’t do that.
I never meant it to get this bad. At first I was just borrowing ideas, plotlines, aspects of character. Some scratcher in my creative writing class would stumble on some killer idea, little knowing what they had, and I’d take it, make it my own. Because I couldn’t bear to see the abortion they’d make of that same idea.
Or, when I was marking stories sent in by my distance learning pupils… Well, it was easily done. I’d get distracted. Store the electronic files in the wrong folder on my PC. And then, a while later, I’d come across one of these stories and presume it one of my own. And then publish it as such.
Of course, I tried that defence when the first emails started coming through. The accusing ones. But they rode rough shod over my arguments. They said I couldn’t have not known I was plagiarising. They said the fact I’d Americanized a few words – turned pavements to sidewalks and tarmac to blacktop and taps to faucets – was proof I was being underhand, trying to hide what I’d done.
It got worse than emails. I had my very own thread on a few of the ‘water cooler’ writing sites. A small feature appeared on the Writing News Magazine website. There was an anonymous letter sent to the head of the college ran my creative writing classes. One signed – digitally – by all my distance learning students wormed its way into the distant inbox of the course manager.
Calls from that journalist. The one with the barking voice like an Alsatian. More than just accusing now. They had all the evidence they needed. All they wanted from me was my side of the story. Or did I need someone to write that for me too?
There was talk Amazon would cut all my titles. A publisher I couldn’t even remember writing for threatened to stop royalty cheques. The dreams of having my hand cut off in punishment for stealing began. And played on a loop night after night.
When I tried to write, I was blocked. I wanted to say I was sorry. Explain why I’d done it. But, funny thing, I didn’t even know why. It wasn’t like any of the stories I’d stolen had ever made me any real money. A lot of them I published for free as Kindle Singles or in American magazines which paid only ‘exposure’.
So what then?
I stare myself out in the bathroom mirror. There are egg-timers in my eyes. I’m a computer, catching up with myself.
When I walk my son to school, I keep looking over my shoulder, as though I’m being followed. I do the Shamed Shuffle. I walk like a ghost, like I don’t want to tread on any of the cracks, or be seen. I palm him off with some coins to go in the shop. Wait outside, finger hovering over the off button on my BlackBerry in case anyone calls. When he comes out with suspiciously full pockets, I want to say something, but really, who am I to pull him up on this? What sort of an example have I set him?
Outside the school. I don’t feel comfortable in a crowd. They break around me like waves, and I fear they’ll expose me. Used to be I thought they’d look at me as though I was nothing, just another single mother and that was it, all there was to describe me. Another form of nominative determinism. Now they think of me as the thief. The plagiarist. To be avoided, as one with the plague.
When it starts to rain, I dash away and the first building I can conceivably use as a shelter is the library. There’s a poster with my face on it. A speech bubble coming out of my mouth: ‘Let me share my secrets about how to become a published writer!’ Details of the writing class I used to run. I wince.
And then I see her. One of my former students. Dashing across the car park clutching a copy of one of my books.
‘Grace!’ she calls.
But I lower my head and walk off into the park. I thought nobody would know. But they do. There’s no place to hide. I’m found out. Wretched is my name.
A.J. Kirby is the author of the novels The Lost Boys of Prometheus City, When Elephants Walk through the Gorbals, The Magpie Trap and Paint this Town Red. His short fiction has been published across the web, and in magazines, anthologies and literary journals, as well as in two collections: The Art of Ventriloquism and Mix Tape. He was one of 20 Leeds-based authors under 40 shortlisted for the LS13 competition and his novel Paint this Town Red was shortlisted for The Guardian Not the Booker prize. He blogs at www.paintthistownred.wordpress.com.