BY KEITH NEWTON
Copyright is held by the author.
Clutching the letter, Alex shuffled back along the dingy hallway and mounted the creaky stairs to his bare, bleak room. Badly lit by a single unshaded bulb dangling from the crusty ceiling, his cell, as he thought of it, offered scant comfort. A makeshift bed held an untidy tangle of blankets and clothes. The other furniture consisted of a plastic chair and a rickety table, at which he now sat.
Morosely he contemplated the walls of the drafty little space. Dozens of slips of paper of varying sizes and colours, pasted, taped, some pinned, all bore the same message: rejection.
A cup of tea! That was it. Might help; can’t hurt. He placed the battered kettle on the temperamental burner. Sipping the tea he plucked up courage and with trembling fingers opened the envelope with the publisher’s logo on the top-left corner. Of course, he knew it. Yet another one. Number twenty two.
He thought back to his momentous decision of a few months ago. His parents had tried to dissuade him. Don’t be silly, young man. We want you to take over the business, of course. Family name. Think what you’re giving up!
But he was determined. His head spun with the idea of expressing himself, his true self, in a way that would set him alongside the greats. The greats, few of whom he had actually read; none completely.
But the castle, the yacht, your Lamborghini, the polo ponies. Think again. The writer’s life is not so glamorous. You’ll probably end up destitute in a garret.
Mama and Papa had cajoled, begged. He was steadfast. The inevitable storm brewed and burst with a screaming rant from his father that ended with the scion’s immediate expulsion from the mansion. Disowned, banished.
At first, as he stood by the bus stop with his hastily-retrieved wallet and a backpack full of clothes and notebooks, dictionary and pens, he thought this was cool, neat. Exciting even: the bus ride from the village near his ancestral home was an exhilarating and totally new experience. He was enthusiastic, brimming with ideas, supremely self-confident. He couldn’t wait to take up the draft of his story once again, polish it to a high sheen, and send it off to a lucky publisher.
The early days of his Spartan existence had been rather a lark. After all, it wouldn’t be long before fame and fortune came along. In fact, the waiting became nerve-wracking. Then came the first rejection. At first he was incredulous. There must be some mistake. Slowly it dawned on him that of course not all publishers were so discerning as to recognize the excellence of his truly extraordinary story. He’d try one of the big houses. No, wait, maybe several. Just in case there existed some other benighted editor who might not recognize his brilliance. But if, as he was sure, many publishers would soon be clamouring for his work, he could play them off to secure the best possible deal.
But the weeks dragged agonizingly by without the expected triumph. Around the ninth week, the seeds of doubt began to take root. He steeled himself, considered his dwindling resources, and signed up for a writer’s workshop.
Alex was shaken. He was chastened by the new-found knowledge that a short story might usefully embody certain features such as a plot, place, timeframe, action, a character or two, and a central issue, along with dimensions such as mystery, tension, emotion. His faith in his own unique, radical, unstructured, unfiltered, stream-of-consciousness, highly personal style was rudely rattled. Maybe he should try to write in what he had so far haughtily dismissed as a brutally formulaic style — “method writing” he called it. Just for a while; just long enough to satisfy the Philistines and get my foot in the door, he decided. Then I can show the world some real writing. But disappointment became disillusionment and eventually despair.
He sipped again. Reflected. Some faint glimmers of hope tried bravely but unsuccessfully to pierce his pall of gloom. Manfully he contemplated reality. Reality, he was forced to admit, was really not much fun. Shreds of disbelief still hung on: how could those idiot publishers fail to recognize greatness? Even after he had lowered himself to the straitjacket of what the workshop leader had called the “default third person.” Hiding his brilliant personal, individual light under a bushel! Even after actually thinking about a story before writing. Plot, characters, all that sadly outdated, reactionary, irrelevant, structured he grimaced–stuff.
Another sip. The tea was ghastly. A far cry from the rich black oolong blends of Assam and Ceylon and the champagne of teas from Darjeeling. More like the sweepings from some dreadful warehouse floor. Ah, yes, reality. He missed the car, the polo, the use of the jet, the marinas on exotic isles. God, it’s cold in here.
Seventeen seconds and his mind was made up. He shuffled to the door, down the stairs, along the passage to the gloomy vestibule with its long-suffering pay-phone and the tattered directory hanging dejectedly on its chain. He pulled out a pocketful of change. He knew the number by heart. Dialled confidently. Waited.
He could picture the scene at the other end of the line: the chateau in the French Alps, the salon with the ancestral portraits, the astrakhan rugs, sparkling crystal. He pictured the tall elegant dowager: immaculate steel-grey coiffure, slender manicured fingers around the slim stem of the day’s first Martini, a mildly inquisitive look on the patrician face as she lifted the solid gold receiver.
“Hello, Nana. It’s Alexander. May I come and stay a while?”