The Dreaded Mrs Willis:

How writers find their characters, part two: (here is part one):

The Goods Themselves (with apologies to Isaac Asimov):

In my experience all high street shops have their Mad Mary, a slightly odd customer who comes in to the shop every other day but is never quite sure what she wants. She rambles unintelligibly and sometimes chunters to strangers as she makes her bewildered way along the street to the next shop, there to baffle the counter staff with puzzling requests for stuff they don’t sell either. A Mad Mary is generally identifiable at some distance by stooped posture and fly-away hair, and often has one eye in Liverpool and the other in Birkenhead, if you know what I mean. The counter staff scatter from the shop floor at her approach and push one another playfully back out to serve. Please don’t think I am making fun of this unfortunate person; but I’ll bet the staff of every shop in the land will recognise the local representative of her tribe.

At a garage where I worked some years ago we had one customer – I’ll call her Mrs T – whose ancient Mercedes diesel estate car regularly reduced red-necked mechanics to tears and more genteel drivers to gibbering wrecks. On opening the driver’s door one would be assailed by the almost visible miasma of dog that wafted out fit to bowl a man over on the spot. The car was so liberally infested with dog hair and fleas that the drivers sent to collect it for servicing would fight bitterly over whose turn it was to drive the blessed thing back to the garage this time. Out on the road with all the windows wide open and sometimes the tailgate too, it was so underpowered that on a good day with accelerator pedal pinned firmly to the carpet it might (just) hit thirty five miles per hour by the time we reached the garden centre a mile and a half out from the garage along a broad, flat, unobstructed dual carriageway, given the assistance of devout prayer and a following wind. This was in the days when diesel cars were jaw-rattling bags of spanners, you understand. They have improved out of all recognition since.

Back at the garage the mechanics would shake their heads and declare, “IT’S A SHED!”. But it passed its MOT with flying colours year after year. The mechanics could never find fault with its running gear, so we had no excuse to refuse service until the fleas became so rife that the drivers just flat out refused to collect it even at the peril of their jobs.

Mrs T was not a Mad Mary, she was a nice old lady and her dogs were the sort of friendly pooches who would greet a stranger with disarmingly waggy tail, humorous brown eyes and chummy wet nose (the dogs it was that had the waggy tails etc, not the stranger…). I often wonder what became of Mrs T’s old Merc.. Did she find some other unsuspecting garage to collect and service it, or did it go to the happy scrap yard in the sky once its sump oil became too worn out to ward off seizure?

An equally dreaded prospect was Mr Picky, an effete gentleman who would inspect his vehicle with gimlet eye whenever he got it back after a service or crash repair, for which it was a regular attender at the body shop, its owner being, umm… not quite the best driver you’ve ever met. Rumours circulated that he must have bought his driving licence in a dock road pub for twenty-five quid; he could never have passed a driving test. But out on the garage forecourt he would go over the vehicle with ill-humoured frown, pointing out the most minute specks of dust that must have settled after the valeters had fawned over the vehicle for hours, bringing to bear their years of experience and dedicated skill in washing, vacuuming and polishing. Eventually, after limp-wristedly wielding a lace-edged handkerchief over the vehicle for half an hour Mr Picky would accept the vehicle reluctantly, saying he would just have to wash it again when he got home. The assistant service manager would be in bits after a visit from Mr Picky, banging his forehead slowly on his desk and vowing to look for another job. You just can’t get the staff, y’know…

And then there was The Dreaded Mrs Willis. It’s my guess that every shop and business in the land has its Dreaded Mrs Willis as well as its Mad Mary. A variation on Mr Picky, back in our shop our Dreaded Mrs Willis was quite a posh lady who came into the shop on market day every week without fail year after year. As with Mad Mary, at the first sighting of The Dreaded Mrs Willis regally cruising the high street like a well-armed battleship, large loop-handled shopping bag over one forearm, immaculate coiffure and all-seeing radar eye, the shop staff would vie for whose turn it was to make the morning tea at the crucial moment that day.

The Dreaded Mrs Willis was one of those people it was impossible to please no matter how hard we tried. Much sharper of eye than Mr Picky with his specks of dust, not in the least confused like Mad Mary, and utterly unlike flea-ridden nice old Mrs T in every possible way, The Dreaded Mrs Willis had an unerring faculty to find fault with everything we offered or did for her. No matter how determinedly the staff would check and double-check the items specially prepared for her, she would somehow take one glance at a thing and reject it for this or that blindingly obvious fault. And once pointed out there was no denying she was right. Notwithstanding that several members of staff had inspected the item with Holmesian thoroughness and powerful magnifying glass, pronouncing it faultless beyond peradventure, the goods were, just as she said, defective, substandard, unacceptable. It was as if the goods themselves quaked in fear under her inspection and so revealed their weaknesses. The harder we tried to please, the more fault she would find. And this went on for years, the same comic performance every time she came to our shop and left without spending a dime (I was going to say, penny, but in the UK at least that would have a different connotation…)

So far as writers finding characters is concerned, we all have a wealth of them stowed away somewhere in memory from which we can mix-and-match to suit our plot, but in an otherwise realistic mystery it is only amongst the incidental walk-on parts that an author might hope to get away with resurrecting the more entertaining ones so that he can indulge in poking a little fun at them. I didn’t find excuse to have a full blown Dreaded Mrs Willis amongst the characters in Sunset over Salhouse Broad, but Mr Newcombe-Pratt comes pretty close. He is a very minor character who appears only briefly on the nether end of a telephone to give Rob, the boatbuilder, a hard time; but I hope you find him entertaining, and he does actually serve a purpose in developing Rob’s character.

If your working life is afflicted with a Mad Mary, a Dreaded Mrs Willis or a Mr Newcombe-Hyphenated-Uphimself-Pratt, then you have my sincerest sympathy. To see how Rob copes with Mr Newcombe-Pratt click the link to go to Amazon where you can buy Sunset over Salhouse Broad.

UPDATE: Since writing this essay Sunset over Salhouse Broad has been revised and re-titled Just One Mistake, but the link should still take you to the right place.

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