I recently had to write a rejection letter to an author and friend whose stories have previously appeared in two anthologies I’ve edited. This time, her submission didn’t make it. Not that it wasn’t charming, interesting and well-written. It just didn’t make the sort of impact we would have liked.
She wasn’t upset. At least, if she was, it didn’t show in the reply she sent. In my letter I had concluded: If it’s any consolation, my own story was rejected too. She answered that she hoped that the rejection I sent myself was as nice as the one I sent her.
That my story was rejected will come as a surprise to my fellow editors, who never knew (until reading this) that I submitted one, as I remove all author names before forwarding the stories to them. But once I’d smashed all the crockery, I wasn’t upset either. And now I’ve taken up the suggestion to write myself a rejection letter.
Dear Mr. Bausse,
Thank you for your submission to The Rabbit Hole Volume 2. We read your story with interest; however we feel unable to include it because frankly, the ending sucks.
Now admit it, Bausse, you knew that, didn’t you? So why didn’t you do something about it? Thought you could get away with it, eh? Well, The Rabbit Hole is not that sort of publication – shoddiness just won’t do.
We wish you the best of luck in placing your piece elsewhere.
It’s quite true. I did know the ending was feeble. I’d tinkered with it a bit, made it longer, then longer still, then cut it down to a single sentence. But thanks to my co-editors, I now know that it doesn’t matter how long or short it is, it’s not the right ending. The thing is, though, I can’t think of another one. I regularly make suggestions for other people’s endings, but my own? Zilch.
So here it is. Because there’s one good thing about being an editor here – it may have been rejected but I get to foist it upon you anyway, in the hope that you’ll be able to give me a better ending. Any ideas? (Note the sly presupposition, by the way – that the ending may be crap but the rest of it isn’t. But if you think the beginning and middle are crap too, don’t hesitate to say so. I’ve got a new pile of crockery, dirt cheap.)
You’re Not Late
“Take this day, wear it well, enjoy it, darling, you deserve it.”
Abel’s wife stirred just enough to brush her lips against his cheeks and murmur, “You too, darling, I love you.”
He tiptoed out of the room. It was five o’ clock in the morning.
Once in the car he updated the Carmate Companion, which now came in three different voices: Cindy, Lisa and Cliff. He selected Lisa and told her to find the quickest route to his destination. She asked if he wanted music or news. He chose Mozart.
The streets were empty at that time but he drove with care because every so often a squall of rain would whip the windscreen and wash the town away. Once he almost hit a dustbin that was rolling drunkenly at a crossroads. On the outskirts of town bits of garden had broken out to foray into the unknown. “Be careful,” said Lisa over the music. “Conditions are hazardous due to gale force winds.”
“Oh, yeah?” said Abel sarcastically. He’d have to talk to Giles Roffe about that. No one wants to be told what they know already.
He joined the motorway, heading north. He hadn’t slept well, and the road being straight and smooth, he felt his concentration slipping. “Got something livelier? I need to stay awake. Springsteen?”
“I’ll put you through to Cindy. That’s more her department.” Lisa sounded hurt – You don’t like Mozart? Fuck you! – which Abel thought was something else he’d have to bring up with Roffe. Warmth, solicitude, empathy – fine, bring ’em on! But who wants a Carmate getting uppity?
Not that it surprised him. Roffe had a serious attitude problem. Something to do with his childhood, no doubt – Abel wasn’t about to analyse it – but the man just couldn’t hack authority. A loner, too, which was a shame. With a little more effort, a touch of good grace, he could have been up there with the big boys, working on Carmate Complete. He certainly had the talent – all he lacked was the commitment, the motivation.
“You remember the faces, the places, the names” – thumping the wheel now, belting it out with Bruce – “You know it’s da da da da da the rain, Adam raised a –”
“Accident ahead!” Cindy was under orders to interrupt. “Caution!”
He stopped singing. The sound of the wipers took over. “Serious?” But Cindy didn’t answer.
Whatever causes them – human error, mechanical flaw or something wrong with your luck that day – accident scenes have a logic of their own, and by the time he got to it, the compulsory components of this one were already there: flashing lights, yellow jackets and the dumb, useless tailback in which he was duly trapped.
After some minutes of drumming his fingers on the wheel he got out to assess the damage – not to the vehicles involved, but to his chances of making the appointment on time. He got as close as he could but didn’t linger: a lorry on its side, contents vomited over the tarmac, and half a dozen crumpled cars in the fast lane told him the chances weren’t good.
“Why,” he asked, “didn’t you tell me to get off at the last exit?”
“Why,” said Cindy coolly, “didn’t the police tell you to get off at the last exit?”
“What do you mean?”
“They didn’t have time, Mr. Abbott.”
The answer wasn’t just wrong, it was insolent. The whole point about Carmate was that it reacted quicker than the police. “No one’s asking you to close down a motorway. Just to get me to my destination on time.”
Cindy left a slight pause. “You’d already passed the exit when the accident occurred.”
Abel didn’t answer. He wondered when the Companions had acquired a capacity to lie.
“Have no fear, Mr. Abbott. You can never be late with Carmate.”
Abel jabbed a finger at the screen and switched back to Lisa and Mozart.
The thing you have to remember is that every new day is yours – take it for the gift that it is, cherish it, use it well. Every morning, that was the message Abel greeted his staff with, and now he summoned its power to use on himself. Even when you’re stuck in a traffic jam, worried you might not reach your appointment, never forget that every day is a gift. When at last, over an hour later, he was able to squeeze through a gap in the debris on the hard shoulder, he reckoned he should still get there with a good half hour to spare. “I feel great,” he shouted, “you feel great, we all feel great – Carmate!” Then he kept the music low and concentrated on driving as fast as conditions would allow.
“Take the next exit off the motorway… Right at the roundabout, third exit… Straight on at the roundabout, second exit…” Lisa was reassuringly calm, informing him every so often of his expected time of arrival: 8:21, 8:18, 8:14. Once he’d built up a cushion of fifty minutes, he eased off the pace and relaxed.
“Right at the traffic lights four hundred yards ahead.”
“Flooding is expected further on. Turn right here to avoid it.”
He slowed to a crawl, deliberately waiting for the lights to turn red. “What do you mean ‘expected’? Is there or isn’t there?”
“The river is rising rapidly, Mr. Abbott.”
What river? This was a major trunk road, for God’s sake. It couldn’t get flooded!
“The lights are green,” said Lisa at the same time as the car behind him sounded its horn.
Abel swore as he furiously swung to the right. “You’d better know what you’re doing, Goddamit! My promotion hangs on this appointment. If I’m late…”
“You can never be late with Carmate,” Lisa informed him, before adding coldly, “If you’d rather be with Cindy…”
“No!” He sat up straight, gripping the wheel tighter. “Just get it right, that’s all.”
“The detour will add another eighteen minutes. Turn left at the next junction, three hundred yards ahead. I advise you to slow down.”
He obeyed. No point risking an accident, after all. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if he got there a little late. He’d say there’d been a problem at home, a burst pipe, a burglary, whatever. He couldn’t say a Carmate Companion had kept him stuck on the motorway for an hour.
Out in the country, the absence of illumination was unnerving: suddenly there’s nothing but the beam from the car, gulping up the dotted white lines, a vague awareness of hedges on either side, trees gyrating wildly, and lashes of rain more vicious now, more determined. Then Lisa made him take a left and it wasn’t a road but a lane, and instead of white lines there were puddles and potholes and branches.
He stopped. “You’ve made a mistake.”
“In two and a half miles, turn right. Estimated time of arrival, 8:42.”
Grudgingly, warily, he put the car in gear. “Eight-forty, my arse,” he muttered. “Be bloody midday at this rate.”
“You don’t believe me.” Lisa’s voice was sad. “I’ve done all I can, Mr. Abbott. I’ll put you through to Cliff.”
“Goodbye, Mr. Abbott.”
“Hello, Mr. Abbott.”
“What the…? Giles?”
“My name’s Cliff, Mr. Abbott. Please keep driving. You don’t want to be late.”
“What are you playing at, Roffe? Get me back on the road right now!”
“How are you feeling, Mr. Abbott?”
Abel poked his thumb at the screen, trying to switch it off, but Giles Roffe’s voice kept coming. “Don’t get in a state, you feel great, you can never be late with Carmate.”
Abel brought the car to a halt and slammed his fist at the screen. “I’ll get you for this, Roffe! I swear you’re gonna pay for this, you hear?”
The face on the screen smiled. “Don’t get in a state. You’re not late. The minute, the hour, the date. Right on time, Mr. Abbott. Your appointment.”
Abel managed to open the door but not to get out. The oak tree smashed into the car.