“I’m gonna make you a deal, right?”
The last of the summer sun beats down, bloated on long days and short nights.
“Listening” she says. She’s wearing jeans with studs that ride up into her backside as she sits on the concrete steps outside her rented apartment. Batman sneakers peeking out the bottom. She schlurps her Coke with a straw, watching the bubbles rise.
I’m armed with the want ads - rows and rows of black ant type looks for accountants, regional managers and Grade 1 educators. “What say I do something that’ll pay the bills? Just for a bit. Not forever. Just until I’ve got back on my feet again?”She can’t feel the pit of anxiety chewing away in my gut. Heck, my gut’s somewhere near my teeth, gnawing away.
“You’ve still got some retrenchment money”
“Almost out. Then it’s no apartment, no groceries, no petrol, heck, no car, no medical aid, no nothing. Just me out on the street. Retrenched. Begging with a cardboard sign”
Acid reflux starts slithering upwards, poised to strike at the back of my throat.
She takes something out of her pocket. “I’ve got an idea here”
“You’ve always got an idea. I’ve told you before and I’ll tell you again, it’s not going to pay the bills”
She vacuums up the remains of her Coke. Whoo, schlur as she sweeps the straw round the bottom of the can.
I run my finger back over the columns of opportunities that look like death sentences.
“Look, how about I just tell you the idea.” She leaps to her feet. Batman winks. “There’s this songwriter right, and she’s had a few hits but the last few have bombed. So then she meets this cute guy. Get this. He’s a lyricist. And badda-bing, badda-bong, lightning strikes, heaven sings a hallelujah chorus, but hold up just one second - he’s from the wrong side of town”
“Dodgy past he’s trying to escape?”
“I did not put myself through university to write bodice rippers. Now. Where did I put that fall back career?”
She rolls her eyes, and points back towards the front door of the apartment. “Where you left it. Under the photo of you at your graduation”
The serpent in my throat weaves back down. Just.
There it is. Knotted up with rope. Opening the box, is not unlike the reverse of Christmas. The absence of glitter, red bows and expectant butterflies in my heart. Wrapped up in my parent’s fears, cloistered in their expectations, a bit bent out of shape from the battering it took in its last wearing. The sound of something sensible rather like Aunt Mildred’s Hush Puppies shoof-shoofing on the carpet. Dark beige and lace-up.
“A deal’s gotta mean we both benefit right? Win win? And I’m wondering where the benefit here is for me?” She looks through me with eyes that can see into the future. “Remember last time?”
“That was different”
“It was the same. If you get sucked in, you don’t listen, and when you don’t listen, you make me wait and wait and wait and wait. You think you get forever or something?”
“It frequently does. I’ll give you six months. Deal?”
She spits on her hand and offers it to me.
“Will you get off my back? It’s hard enough trying to deal with all this, and then have you to deal with as well”
I spit and shake.
First day. New job.
I meet the PAs, the AMs, the ADs, the AADs, the GMs and HR. My cheeks ache from pinning my smile up. My stilettos bite into my heels.
I smooth down the lines of my skirt. Pin-striped. With a matching jacket.
“Wow, will you look at that. A whole metre squared just for you”, she says as she slumps against the partition made of upholstered boarding. “Pity your back’s to the balcony door”
She leans towards me and stage whispers. “Doesn’t it make you want to race out and over into the parking lot, clamber into the car, ram it into first gear and belt like merry hell in the opposite direction?
“I can’t believe they let you in”, I say to her as she perches on the edge of my desk, admiring my computer’s view out into the green wide open and her strappy sandals that weave around her ankle.
“I smile nicely at security”
She watches as the IT man with lazy eyes comes by and hands me a slip of paper with my access codes, passwords and email address.
She notices me noticing him. “Wedding ring tan, knowing smile, smooth patter. Lady killer. Married lady killer”, she says,
I reach below the desk and switch on the hard-drive. Whoosh. A faint buzzing sound joins the rest of the drone in the open plan. A soft warm whispering on my ankle reminds me that the computer will heat up as the day progresses.
The air conditioner sign reads “Out of Order”
I remove my jacket. “Coffee?”
No-one looks up as we leave the cubicle. Corridors of tight-piled carpets with coffee stains. Static shocks. In-trays overflowing. Blackberries without an ‘off’ button. Meetings that start after hours. Eyes held open with invisible match-sticks decanted from the coffee machine.
“Remember the story of the editor who died at his desk. No-one noticed for five days. Five days”, she says.
She catches the look on my face.
“Just saying”, she adds. “Six months remember”
“Six months. Promise”
The kettle boils.
Christmas trees go up and down. We drink to Auld Lang Syne. Easter hops in and hops out again on a surfeit of chocolate covered tidings.
“You should eat some more fruit”, she says as she visits holding another idea in her hand. Her polka-dot high-heels purr over the carpet.
I look at the blank page in front of me. Deadline. Comms strategy.
“Six months are up I believe”, she says, tucking the idea behind her.
“Already? Can’t be”
I try not to look behind her. But. I do.
“So what have you got?”, I ask
She reaches over and picks up the reading diary I harbour in my in-tray. “You sure? I know you’ve got a lot of work to do. Important work. For clients. Fee paying clients. With deadlines. And CEOs. Very important”
She puts the reading diary back down. And picks up my journal. And my English usage dictionary. “Pretty sure this comes in handy”, she says, waving the dictionary about, “for strategy and business meetings, and all that kind of thing”
I rip the dictionary out of her hand, and settle it back in my top drawer.
She wanders over to the balcony door. “You gave up with the view I see. We should go out there. We can now. Six months done with. Might be nice to sit under the sun instead of the fluorescent, right?”
I hesitate. “Nah, the boss might see. He’s already been breathing down my neck all week. Not my fault we lost that account. I mean, I was part of a team. And the client did say that it wasn’t us, nothing personal, they just didn’t have the budget anymore”
“You sure you don’t want to go outside, there’s that nice guy from accounts out there.” She points towards a willow tree that sways from side to side. “He likes to sit outside there every lunchtime you know”
“I know. Not my type”
“But Mr IT was?”
“Did try to warn you”
My blank computer screen winks back at me. “So is the idea you’ve brought for this account? Please say it is. If I can just get this to work, I’ll be back in the good books. It’s damn difficult coming up with different approaches all the time. Feels like swimming in concrete. Every day.”
She looks at the screen, her face as blank as the strategy.“It’s for Lover’s Song. Remember? The book I was telling you about? I found it a title, you like?” she says. “Sure, you don’t want to come outside?”
I can feel my feet wanting to move in the direction of the door, my heart twisting round towards the open space of the future.
I turn back towards my strategy. “Nah. I’ve really gotta finish this. Lover’s Song is not going to fly with this client. And they’re expecting it by COB this evening. They can’t not have it, it’s important. And my boss is a real SOB. Complete micro-manager”
“So? Forget him. Your six months. Are. Up.”
“Just six more. Then I can try get this promotion and then I’ll be a Senior Account Director, and I’ll be able to make partner. Then I can buy my apartment outright. No more living from hand to mouth, dear God, never again”
She bristles. “We had a deal. Remember? Remember the deal we made? And you swore, swore blind that you wouldn’t forget, that you would honour the deal”
“And I will, I do. Just another six months. That’s it, I swear”
She dumps the idea down on my desk so hard it shatters. As she stalks out, I can feel the urge to follow. It begs me, pleads with me, tempts me and taunts me.
It smells like chocolate fudge brownies seconds before you break your diet.
Just another six months. That’s. It. I. Swear.
She answers on the third ring. “You’ve gotta help me”
“Look, I know it’s nearly six months, I know, I know. But we have a situation. If I can just bring in three more clients. Big retainers, if possible. Any ideas, suggestions, anything? I’m willing to take anything”
She pouts. “Anything but what I’ve got for you”
“How many times do I have to tell you? I cannot make a living doing what I love. Who makes a living doing what they love? And writing? You must be out of it completely. Slapping together some book, is not going to put food on the table”
“It’s what you were born to do”
“Look, I don’t think you get it, they’re going to fire me. Fire me. You know how I hate these corporates with their rules about how to eat, dress and spend every spare second of your life at your desk, but it’s what you have to do to get ahead.”
“If you were born to be an account manager, yes”
“Look, you have to help me, I can’t get fired”
“Then start writing”
Click. “Hello? Hello?”
She hung up on me.
Another six months gone.
She’s waiting for me as I mainline potato chips. Wearing red stilettos.
“I got fired yesterday”
“And I notice you could fill buckets of tar blue paint with the bags under your eyes.”She pats my hand. “You know why they call it a fall back don’t you? Cos everytime you pick the darn thing up, you fall back, behind, on your true life path. The one that’s meant for you”
“I’m just your intuition. Just doing my job. Not easy with the racket in your head let me tell you. Now. Are. You. Ready. To. Start? Or are we gonna have to do this all over again in a few months’ time?”
“Nope, I’m ready. You still got that idea?” The one about the songwriter?”
“Sure I do. It’s been here all along”
She taps on her heart, my heart.
I slide off my red stilettos, and chuck them next to my Batman sneakers. I unearth my notebook from behind the couch.
Flipping open the notebook, I start with the title. “Lover’s Song.”
“Good”, she says, leaping back into my heart where she’s always been.
Why not crime or true-life dramas? Why romance?
Once upon a time, at the tender age of eight, I was dropped off at the movies every Saturday morning. We’d buy our tickets and wrestle for seats - if you didn't win, you sat in the aisles or lay on the floor up front. We were packed in like snot-encrusted sardines, snarfing down buckets of popcorn, chocolate peanuts and slushyed-up water with a hint of Coke flavouring. You name it, we watched it, age restrictions be damned.
One Saturday morning, I stared and stared at the promotional poster: Romancing the Stone. A woman swung from a vine, sort of Tarzan like, but without the scariness of Greystoke. It looked like it might be good (hey Ishtar was one of the horrors we watched at said theatre), sort of Indiana Jones-y without anybody’s face melting. I ran my hand over the glass. That’s when it happened. A voice, clear, my own, but not: I wish I could be like her when I grow up. Odd. Where had that come from? I’d never given much thought to growing up, certainly not to swinging on vines. Besides, I looked nothing like her. I got my ticket, and the battle for the seats commenced.
Then the movie started. A wild west scene. Voice over. The heroine trumps the villain with the help of her sweaty hot cowboy. Close up on Kathleen Turner hunched over a typewriter as she finishes her latest romance novel. Ah. A writer. A romance writer. At which point that same insane voice I’d heard while gazing at the poster, started chanting, yes, yes, that’s me. Really? Me? A romance writer? All of eight years old and I’ve decided that… this… is… IT. (Let’s not get started with the simultaneous entrenching of the lone adventurer as love interest - there are reasons men in my life tend to wear khaki and leather jackets rather than business suits).
Was it an epiphany? Sort of. Did I ignore it? Absolutely. Eight years old remember? Far greater things to worry about like how to stop my brother from recording over the A-Team on Betamax before I’d seen it, or how to stop loud-mouthed Leonard from talking on a Friday so that we could get let out of Mrs Carr’s class early (never happened).
Yet, by the time ‘just’ Joan Wilder had rescued her sister, fallen in love with her would-be guide Jack (always such a hero name), discovered her own inner resources and written yet another novel, my heart was beating with a certainty that I’ve felt on only a few occasions since. And to that voices credit, it’s never been wrong. Part of me knew I’d be just like that woman. I’d be writing romance. I’d be looking for adventures wherever I found them and I’d probably be looking for him too. Maybe even find him.
Looking back, I realised I’d been given my own treasure map. I knew how X marked the spot. The only challenge was how to get there - a long, winding path filled with false turns, villains, sages, false highs and false lows.
Now if I could just figure out how Cloud Atlas fits in…