"Cancers and clockwork"
He woke up to find that the world was still suffocating him. All its noises, smells and flavours assimilated their way into a big bolus which snuck up his throat till he felt like throwing up. It was the persistent yet circumspect knock on his door which finally roused him. Good morning, Sir. Would you like breakfast in your room? A voice, with the practised and polished saccharine dripping off the edges, like milk which has been boiled a little too much. On other days, he would have even shut the door to her face, but today, in a display of politeness which surprised him, he gently refused, even thanking the girl, in her ridiculously starched white-and-red uniform.
On days like these, his usual recourse was three-pronged: Beethoven, cigarettes and his trusty old Parker pen. As of yesterday, the latter two options had been taken from him. His manuscript had been just been trashed by his editors, and his fiance had given him an ultimatum to quit the "cancer sticks" as she called them. He permitted himself a smile over her choice of words, recalling how he, as a college geek had been enamoured by Anthony Burgess's "The Clockwork Orange" ; the book which had its own lingo, "nadsat" .....(the word for "cigarette" was "cancer" !!). She had met him for the first time when he was sitting under a tree, engrossed in what had to be his seventh shot at the book. They had hit it off rather well, considering his propensity to lapse into long reveries and stubborn silences.
"Come on, say it...what's your favourite nadsat word? ", she insisted with an impishness that was already starting to grow on him.
"You mean apart from cancer?", he slyly asked, a nearly worn-out Marlboro still hanging lazily from his fingertips. "Yes, apart from cancer, and for Christ's sake will you chuck it away already!", she said in faux-anger, pretending to hit him playfully. "Okay, okay, there....it's gone...." , he said, tossing the cigarette in an exaggerated flourish. "All right, let's see... I'm rather partial to "ultraviolence" ....and then there's "chai", (the word for tea) and "tolchock"..... but I think I'll go for "Charlie".. you know, the word Alex used for his prison chaplain... I think that one really tickled me...Get it? "Charlie Chaplain" ...ha!" ....and they had chuckled about it for ages, as if it had been the joke of the century. Passing each other by in the corridors, they would mouth "Charlie" at one another, much to the bemusement of their friends, who had by then suspected that there was something in the air about these two.....
The sound of the telephone, an annoying tinny monotone, snapped him from his trance. He picked it up, warily. It was his publisher, Joseph K, a man who was barely tolerable when one was in the best of spirits, and quite insufferable at all other times. He was rambling on something about “ young readership” and “catering to all tastes” ….
”Gregory….are you with me? Hello? “, his publisher asked, his nasal twang piercing his ears like needles.
“Yes, I…uh, I’m with you ..uh, Joe.”
“As I was saying, times are changing since you wrote “The Lotus”..…. attention spans are at an all-time low.. and your subsequent book was … a disappointment, as you are aware… . you know the old saying, don’t you? People aren’t reading nowadays. And if they’re reading at all, they’re not reading fiction. And if they’re reading fiction…”
“They’re not reading literary fiction…yeah, yeah I get it . Would you do me the courtesy of cutting to the punchline, Joe, please?” , he asked, gritting his teeth.
“Yeah, well.. let me say, Greg…. I’ve always liked you… but we’ve got a business to run here.. you know how it is, my friend…..”
“Right, right ….well, I’m not feeling the love here, friend! So would you please cut the crap? “
“I’m not sure I appreciate the tenor, there, Greg…. We’ve decided not to publish your manuscript. Our people here said, and I must say, I agree…… it’s not exactly what people would call a page-turner…. The readership is increasingly rejecting overly “intellectual” stuff….and we just can’t ignore that…”
By now, the words were getting lost on him…..it was as if they were bouncing right off him, entirely devoid of rhyme or reason… for the second time in the conversation, Joseph had to rouse him.
“You there, Greg….hello? “
“Yes, Joe…I’m still here” , grinding out each word, the effort clearly proving to be difficult for him.
“Yeah…….as I was saying… Wordsmith House has decided not to renew your three-book contract, which as you know, expired with your last book….”
“So…who are you selling me out for, Joe? “ , he asked, no longer caring to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.
“Yeah, well……I thought that’d interest you. It’s Trevor Hardwood…..”
Two words. That was all it took for Greg to slam the receiver down with a resounding bang without further ado. Trevor Hardwood………of course, that cheap peddler of two-bit “penny dreadfuls” about psychotic college kids and slick, oiled-up super sleuths. Greg had written a scathing review of Hardwood’s body of work(which already consisted of twelve novels in the space of six years) , calling them “B-Grade Hollywood on paper” and “lurid in every way imaginable” , upon which Hardwood had politely declined to comment(oh, the slimy silver-tongued bastard!) , saying that everyone was entitled to an opinion.
His mind wandered to two weeks earlier, when he was having a fight with Simona(his fiancé) …..or rather, she was screaming her lungs off, and he was staring morosely in the distance, taking in monstrous puffs of his umpteenth fag of the day.
“……it’s like living with a stranger, Greg! Don’t you get it…I can’t take it anymore…..For Chrissake, when was the last time we had an actual conversation?? Everytime I try to talk to you……you just hide behind your books, or your notes……or your freaking cigarettes! “
Her voice now had a dangerous edge to it.
“I’m serious, Greg. You have to prove that you still give a rat’s arse about how I feel… that I’m not just another whackjob character in your psycho-babbling, mumbo-jumbo stories……I give you a fortnight…..at the end of that period, you’ll have to choose between your precious “cancers” and me! “
And that was that. Tell you what, honey, Greg thought. At this moment you’re the whackjob, not me. Anyway, today marked the end of the aforementioned fortnight. He went to the bathroom and splashed cold water over his stubbled, weary face. His eyes looked shot and distant, as if they were looking for something that couldn’t possibly be there.
He would go and try to talk some sense into her. This wasn’t precipitated by love so much as…….habit. He was a creature of habit, and she, slowly, imperceptibly, had become a part of his minutae, like a favourite doodle one likes to make on the edges of notebook pages, or a particularly catchy piece of nonsense verse. And right now, what with this jerk-off of an editor humiliating him…any further disruption in his environs would be too much for him to take in.
He figured she would be there, by Reno’s on Park Street. Everytime the two of them had a tiff during the early days of their relationship, she went and sulked there, which would be his cue to beg and plead.
And there she was………right by the window sill, at her usual table. But hang on…could it be….yes, she definitely had company, Greg thought as he hurried forward across the street to get a good side-on view. He froze. The street and all its cacophony seemed to replay itself in slow-motion for his benefit. For their, in all his glorious idiocy, was Joseph K. himself. No trial for you this time, Joe…Greg smirked to himself.
A gush of memories, suddenly unbound.
“ ….that a creature who can perform only good or evil is a “clockwork orange” –meaning that he has the appearance of an organism lovely with colour and juice…”
The two of them…together…suddenly everything is lucid and fluent in his mind.
“…but is in fact only a clockwork toy to be wound up by God or the Devil..”
In a single, languid move, he went forward, wished the clearly flabbergasted couple a good day, and sat down on an adjoining chair.
He then brought his right fist down in an exquisite whiplash motion, making good contact with Joseph K.’s nose, upon which said Joseph went from “screamed like no tomorrow” to “babbled like a baby” pretty soon.
“How’re you doing, honey….” , he asked, giving her his grandest smile he could summon. He took out a Marlboro, lit it with elan, and blew a ring of smoke close to her face.
And, from that moment on, he knew everything was falling into place….