The writing had been on the wall. Eleanor Stephens knew that people were not going into the High Street, they were not booking holidays, and when they did it was on the internet, not by going into an old-fashioned travel agent.
For a while, it looked as if Top Travel would escape. But as time went on, Eleanor, a trim woman with a narrow face and highlighted hair, was dismayed to see more and more of her colleagues – friends – being invited into Mr Sheldon’s office, only to emerge with red eyes or in tears. Then the inevitable happened: the shop would close.
The announcement came one Friday afternoon, just before Christmas, a slow time of the year. January might have seen it all right, for a bit at least.
“I’m sorry,” said Mr Stephens, an anxious man at the best of times, when he spoke to her in his office. “We are hoping to keep some of you on in our office in Retford, but I’m afraid you are not one of them.”
While they waited for the shop to close, Eleanor’s colleagues busied themselves looking for new work, and a few were successful, the younger ones mainly. But at 58, Eleanor knew she would never compete with an eager young woman of 23, and steeled herself for rejection.
At home, she made elaborate meals for Sam, cleaned, did a bit of light decorating and waited for Spring so she could get into her garden and really give things a good going-over. She met old friends for coffee and they talked about how bored they were.
But Eleanor had always nursed a secret ambition. She wanted to be a writer of children’s stories. She had made up little tales for her daughter, Emily, when she was very young and did not see why these should not be remembered and written down.
It was hard. The stories, all about naughty elves and girls who discovered fairy palaces in their gardens, seemed predictable and charmless.
“How’s it going?” asked Sam, when he got in from the print works. “Still struggling?”
“They’re crap,” said Eleanor.
Then she discovered that A. A. Milne had been inspired by the toys his son Christopher Robin had played with when he was young: Pooh, Eeyore, Owl and the rest. Now that was more promising. She went through Emily’s fluffy menagerie. There was a dolphin. There was a tiger. There was a unicorn with a missing horn. And there was a blue bear.
A blue bear. Blue Bear: a good name for a character.
In time, she sketched out an adventure for Blue Bear. He was tired of being blue and wanted to be like the other bears. She could see that this was a story about wanting to fit in, then decided that he perhaps wouldn’t want to fit in after all, that he would be ambivalent; a story for the modern age.
There really aren’t very many words in a children’s story. Sitting at the kitchen table, she wrote, rewrote and rewrote again. Then she decided there ought to be a second story, in reserve, in case the first Blue Bear was accepted and her publisher wanted a follow-up.
“How’s it going?” said Sam, one evening, and this time she was able to tell him she had finished the first story and was sketching out another. “Great stuff,” he said, took her in his arms and kissed her hair. “What’s for tea?”
But writing the book was not the problem, Eleanor decided. She had heard how difficult it was to get a story into print and decided a systematic approach was called for. She acquired a copy of a thick yearbook for writers and worked her way through it. Almost no publishers accepted submissions from anyone. She turned to agents, where it was the same story. The rejections came back in floods.
So she went into Waterstones and, with a little notebook, surreptitiously wrote down the names of publishers of similar books. Then she looked up their addresses and wrote to them, telling them what she was doing and enclosing a sample of her first Blue Bear adventure. In the meantime, she allowed her imagination free reign. Blue Bear could be the basis of a cartoon film, she thought, or even a series. He could be in all the shops. She would be fulfilled, and she would also be rich.
Weeks passed and nothing happened. Disheartened now, Eleanor put her ambitions to one side and decided to take up another hobby. She had always fancied having a go at upholstery repairs and began acquiring old chairs from Freecycle or Gumtree.
Then a letter came. It was headed Happy Endings. Happy Endings, it transpired, was a publisher of children’s books and they rather liked Blue Bear. She showed the letter to Sam. “We would like to meet you,” it said. “Would you like to make an appointment to meet the team?”
When she arrived in London, she was slightly surprised to see that Happy Endings Books operated from a room above a shop in a backstreet north of Soho. She pressed the buzzer and was allowed in. Climbing the stairs, she couldn’t help noticing the threadbare carpet.
When she opened the door, a secretary asked her to sit on a hard chair while she called the editorial director. And then a young woman came in. She was slim and neat, with thick-framed glasses in red. She looked the part.
Carmen invited her into her office, with neatly-stacked manuscripts and illustrations, and she began.
“We loved Blue Bear,” she said. “Loved it.”
“Thank you,” said Eleanor, “I enjoyed writing it.”
“Quite,” said Carmen. “Of course, there will have to be some adjustments.”
“Adjustments?” asked Eleanor, eager to please.
“Yes, for the market,” said the editorial director. “We really know children, and what they want.”
“I see,” said Eleanor. “And what do they want?”
“Well, they want books that are aimed at them.”
“And what would that mean?”
“It would mean targeting the books at the right age group.”
“It seems to me that you have aimed Blue Bear at children who are just reading themselves.”
Eleanor could not deny it.
“Well,” said Carmen. “We think he should be for parents to read to children who can’t read.”
On the way home, Eleanor tried not to be downhearted. It was a rewrite, she realised, but that shouldn’t be too difficult. After all, Blue Bear had not taken her long to write, and she was hardly started on his subsequent adventures, so she could make the change.
After more hours at the kitchen table, she emailed the improved version.
“Love the new versions,” said Carmen, when she called some days later. “Just one teeny little thing. We think Blue Bear is too long. We were wondering whether you might cut it by half? Leave some room for a few lovely illustrations?”
By half, thought Eleanor. What would be left? On the other hand, pictures would be nice. She found herself agreeing, and began again. This was a knotty problem. In the end, she had to choose between losing Blue Bear’s silly sidekick Maurice Mouse and his furry nemesis Walter Weasel. In the end, she decided Walter should go. The whole plot, in which Walter does what he can to impede Blue Bear’s progress, was unnecessary. Besides which, how many modern children even knew what a weasel was?
“Excellent,” said Carmen, the next time she phoned. “Really excellent. But you know, we’ve been having second thoughts.”
We? thought Eleanor. What’s all this “we”? As far as she knew, Carmen was all on her own. The smug cow.
“We were wondering about the bear’s name.”
“What about the bear’s name?” asked Eleanor. “That’s his name.”
“It’s just that we thought he might be a bit too gendered.”
Gendered, thought Eleanor. What’s that all about?
“You know,” explained Carmen. “Blue for a boy, pink for a girl. We don’t want to cut our potential audience in half.”
Eleanor sighed. It was more than that. It was a wordless expression of irritation.
“And do you have any suggestions?”
“Not really. You’re the author, after all. I don’t suppose it will be a problem for you, will it?”
As she pushed her trolley round Sainsbury’s, Eleanor mulled things over. Blue Bear was out. Pink Bear would be out for the same reasons, presumably. Black Bear, White Bear? Don’t even go there. That left, what, Grey Bear and Brown Bear? Hardly exciting, and the merchandise would hardly stand out in the shops. She had, in any case, long since given up on that fantasy.
“Hi,” said Carmen when she deigned to call. She sounded positively jaunty. “We are so nearly there. The age-group is right, the length is right, we love Purple Bear. It’s just the ending. We think it’s a bit ambiguous, a bit downbeat. Remember, the name of the company is Happy Endings, and that’s what we give people. It’s our USP if you like.”
“Well, we don’t really know if Purple Bear is happy to be an individual or whether he’d be happy to fit in.”
“That’s the whole point,” said Eleanor, thinking that this was perhaps the time to dig her heels in.” And then she didn’t. “Fine,” she said. “I’ll look at it.”
But she made no progress. In the end, she showed it to Sam, who had so far not been subjected to the progress of the bear, blue or purple.
He sat at the kitchen table and read the printout with care and attention, occasionally making a note in pencil. “It’s really very good,” he said. “You’re brilliant, sweetie. It should fly off the shelves.”
“What about the ending?” asked Eleanor.
“Well,” said Sam, sipping his tea. “I suppose it could be more straightforward.”
“I’m getting something else, something underneath the words.”
“What would that be?”
And Eleanor knew it was true. The Blue Bear story was one she had told her daughter, when Emily was very small. Where was Emily now? They had had a row, things were said, and Eleanor and Sam had never seen her again. Years had passed. She might have a husband, children. Indeed, she probably did, just the right age for Blue Bear.
“I’m going to find her,” Eleanor said.
With that, she left Blue or Purple Bear on one side, ignored Carmen’s phone calls, and did everything she could to track down her daughter. She rang as many of Emily’s friends as she could and eventually got a phone number in Germany. The conversation was halting, but not unfriendly, and Emily, her husband Erik and her daughter Hanna came to England. It was a happy reunion and soon Eleanor was telling stories to the little child as she lay in bed, ready to sleep.
“Can I speak to Carmen?” asked Eleanor, calling Happy Endings some time later.
“I’m Quentin,” said her replacement. “Would you like to come in and see me?”
With no great expectations, Eleanor dragged herself off to the station at 7.00 one dark day in November. Quentin did not look the part. Plump, red-faced, he sat in his office surrounded by piles of paper and discarded illustrations.
“I love Purple Bear,” he said. “It’s just the sort of thing we should be publishing. But I think the story is aimed at the wrong age group. I think it should be aimed at older children just starting to read for themselves. And the story is too short. Maybe Purple Bear could have a pal, or maybe some antagonist who gets in the way of his progress?
“And another thing. I know this is a big ask, but do you think Purple Bear might be called Blue Bear?”
“I can do all those things,” said Eleanor.
“That would be brilliant. There’s just one other thing. I like the ending, but I can’t help feeling it’s a bit obvious. Could you not maybe make it a bit more ambiguous, as if Blue Bear can’t make up his mind whether he is happy being blue or not? I think that might be more appealing to the older children, as well as leaving scope for a sequel or two and, who knows, maybe an animated series?”
“I think I can make all those changes,” said Eleanor. “When would you need them?”
And so Eleanor became one of the greats of children’s literature. And she never spoke to Happy Endings again.