(It’s 9 AM. As faintly successful author Davinia Thomp sits down at her desk, the camera zooms through her skull and inside her head to reveal the stage of a chat show. At the front, two armchairs are jauntily angled. The host walks on, a stag beetle with huge mandibles protruding from either side of her mouth. As big as a black bear, she totters upright on her two hind legs to audience applause.)
CRITTICA: Good morning ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, parents and teachers, agents and publishers, book critics, enemies, writers who provoke envy or disdain and, oh yes, readers if we ever get that far. This morning I’m delighted to welcome to The Write Time (she pauses for a tinny jingle) a very special guest. Famous for her sensitive skin and nervous tic, she rarely gives interviews. So a round of applause, please—not loud enough to scare her off and not so quiet that she feels unwanted—to Anima.
(There’s muted applause as a silver-grey cloud wafts onstage and settles in a trembling mist on the armchair opposite CRITTICA.)
CRITTICA (sitting in her chair, arranging her shiny black wings around her like coat-tails): Welcome, ah … should I call you Ms Anima, or Miss, or Mrs? Or how about (she grins at the audience then back at the cloud) Anemia? You look a bit peaky.
(The cloud shrinks and dulls a little.)
ANIMA (whispering): Anima is fine.
CRITTICA (rubbing her front legs together): OK Annie, let’s start with your social life. You don’t mix much. Why did you agree to this interview?
ANIMA (pulsing as she whispers): I’m usually busy in my garden watering the plants. But now and then I come out to gather more seeds on my breezes.
ANIMA: For new varieties. I collect all sorts: snippets of conversation, strange road signs, physical oddities like, say, those ridic-… remarkable antler things either side of your mouth.
(There’s a ripple of laughter from the audience. Anima’s voice gets louder, more confident.)
They could blossom into something quite marvellous. Let’s see…
(The cloud reshapes in a way that suggests she’s turning to the audience.)
Don’t you think Crittica would make a great villain in a children’s story, with her shiny black body and twig legs? How about an alien posing as a brooch that clings to shirts and sucks out hearts with those crazy mouth-branches?
(More audience laughter. Anima grows bigger and dazzling and rises above the chair.)
CRITTICA (snapping): They’re called mandibles.
(She leans forward and wiggles them menacingly at Anima.)
And their job is to grasp and crush.
(The audience sniggers. Anima shrinks, dulls and drops back to her seat. Confident she’s regained the upper hand, Crittica buzzes her wings and relaxes back in her chair, crossing one hind leg over the other.)
CRITTICA: So Annie, tell us about this garden of yours. The space where you tend what you call your plants, and what I call (she holds up a foreleg and stage-whispers behind it to the audience) the feeble seedlings that will probably die long before they can bloom and spread into the vast forest of literature that already chokes the publishing world like the brambles that choked the castle of Sleeping Beauty. Dammit!
(She claps a front claw to her mouth.)
That’s just the sort of overblown simile-within-a-metaphor that I’m here to prune.
ANIMA (glittering and trembling): Prune? I trim nothing in my garden. Who knows what might blossom? Besides, there’s beauty in every plant, from ornate roses to pithy grasses and the simplest moss: even in the weeds that weave around stems or wander and wonder down winding pathwa–
CRITTICA (raising all but her hind legs, like four policemen holding up traffic): Stop! That kind of rambling is exactly why you need me: to cut you down to size, stop you puffing up with hot air and nip your nonsense in the bud.
ANIMA (turning green): Clichés. Oh no. I feel sick.
CRITTICA: No pain no gain, dear.
(The audience titters as Anima turns greener.)
The point is, without me any plants worth picking would be lost in your jungle. I’m here to clip and arrange them so their colours will dazzle and their barbs sting.
ANIMA (returning to silver as she warms to the theme): And their leaves tickle.
(She reshapes to address the audience again.)
You love a good giggle, don’t you?
CRITTICA (rustling her wings in irritation): Oh, now you’re being childish. Grow up.
ANIMA: Why? It’s the child’s depth of feeling I long to stir: the thrill of snow on the tongue; the vanilla-fumed hope the ice-cream van brings; the night terror when pins and needles are really tiny witches landing on your skin. Those are my sources and driving forces.
CRITTICA: Rhyming too—for goodness sake!
(She stands up from her chair and snaps): Pull yourself together.
ANIMA (shrinking and whimpering): How? I’m a cloud. It’s my job to waft. But your carping and mockery just drag me down.
(She drops to the floor and dulls to grey.)
CRITTICA (looming over the cloud and clacking her mandibles together with a ‘critticky, critticky’ sound): Always the victim. I told you I’m here to help. If you really believe your plants are worth growing, stop whingeing and get on with it. Get a backbone. Get a grip. Because if you don’t…(she lunges forward)…I will.
(Her mandibles reach down for Anima who’s hovering just above the floor. The audience gasps. But the pincers merely clutch each other as the cloud slips through and drifts to the back of the stage where it cowers, a tiny, ash-grey ball.)
CRITTICA (turning to the audience with a wail): No, I’ve lost her! (She covers her face with her forelegs.)
Why did I get so carried away, too big for my carapace?
(She drops down on all six legs, like a proper beetle, and pulls her legs and head under her carapace. From inside comes her muffled voice): Without her I’m out of a job.
(Her wings flap feebly. She snivels at the front while Anima whimpers in the back corner. At last Crittica’s head and legs poke out. She turns to the cloud.)
CRITTICA (in a cracked voice): Please, Ms—Mrs—beautiful Anima. The stage is yours.
ANIMA (whispering from the corner): Promise?
(Crittica shrinks to the size of a sheepdog. Slowly Anima floats forward. She hovers at the front of the stage. There’s the sound of short, gasping breaths, getting longer and deeper.)
ANIMA: Breathe…and breathe, and…ahhh. (She expands and regains her silvery glitter.) At last, my space. Listen.
(She pauses). Hear the silence. (Another pause.) See the garden.
(She pauses again.)
Smell the soil, touch the branches inviting me in.
(Her voice is rising.)
The bushes, the brambles, the leaves and colours—browns and greens, oranges, yellows, pink and blue and lilac (she’s growing and turning every colour she speaks) turquoise, cadmium, café au lait and ultramarine, fuchsia (now huge, she’s rising, sounding shriller and scared) vermilion, amaranth, falu, sunburst, blinding scarlet, exploding cherry and…(shrieking) bloating and floating and climbing and rhyming and—Crittica, help me, I’m burning up!
(Crittica has shrunk to the size of a cat. Her solid blackness is strangely calming against Anima’s outrageous colours.)
CRITTICA (in a meek voice): Help? Are … are you sure?
(Anima’s shrieks become fainter as she floats to the ceiling. With a whirr of wings, Crittica takes off. She flies up and hovers near Anima, fanning her wings to cool the fiery ball. At last Anima starts to shrink and descend, returning to rest as a silvery cloud a metre off the ground. Crittica flies down and resumes the horizontal beetle posture. She’s now the size of a hamster.)
ANIMA (panting): Thank you. And please—stay. I need you there to bring me back down to earth. But gently. And only when I ask.
(The camera zooms back out of the head. At her desk, Davinia Thomp runs a hand through her silvery hair, furrows the beetling cliché of her brows and begins to write.)