(The following story is the entry for Oxford University Press Story Writing Competition 2015. The title was ‘The Next Best Thing’.)
They spoke through silences.
It was always that way. Words were sparse, spent on the occasional battle of wit or in company of others. They’d learned to handle words carefully. Once spoken, there was no taking them back. The two knew that well. Words were their trade after all. Besides, they didn’t really need them anymore. There was no point in stating the obvious.
And so they spoke through silences, just as easily as they’d bonded over coffee.
She still remembered that day. It had been a bittersweet one. She’d lost her favourite lyricist to the tugging of fame and promised money. Competition had been quick to claim what she’d had to forsake. Her hair hadn’t stayed straight that day either. The studio coffee was bad, and the album release date was looming over her head. Her manager was talking about him, though she didn’t know back then. Nor did she particularly care. The manager claimed he was the next best thing. That she should forget her old songwriter. Her next hit single would be penned by him. And it would definitely, he swore, go platinum. She didn’t really get a choice, so she agreed to meet the next best thing hoping to find someone to write her next great song. Introductions made, the manager sighed and went to count his money while he offered to make her coffee.
It was good coffee.
She decided to give him a chance. Anybody who didn’t start a conversation with ‘I’m a huge fan’, deserved one. He told her how his girl loved her last single but he liked the blues track everyone skipped over best. She smiled and dropped that it was the only song she’d written. He shrugged, mentioned off hand that he knew, and told her to avoid overuse of ‘love’ next time. She reminded him he worked for her, and if he wanted to get paid, he’d better write her a hit without the word ‘love’.
Sleepless hit the charts at no. 7, went platinum in six months, and he earned his pay.
That’s how it began, really. With Sleepless. They worked on the song for a week, and had it radio ready within three. He’d sat there as she hit away at piano keys in the name of composing, and found the perfect words she hadn’t even realised she needed. He even helped compose the bass for the track, and always left at precisely four to avoid the traffic because he hated traffic. Except for this one day, when they’d gotten into a heated argument over The Beatles’ greatest album and decided to leave only after they’d heard their entire discography.
He left at four the next morning, and only to get good coffee.
He’d gone out with a tenner in his pocket and the names of the nearest coffee shops. He’d come back with two new song ideas and a bag of cocoa beans. Three cups of delicious coffee later, she was done laying down the vocals for Sleepless and he’d written her another song on the back of the grocery bag. She didn’t release it on the EP though. That one she tucked away in her worn out copy of Dawn Treader and sang to herself on those quiet mornings when the rest of the world let her be and her world felt complete.
She found herself falling into a quick routine with her new songwriter, as they ploughed through an entire album plus a bonus track for a Lennon movie. She realised they worked well together. It wasn’t easy or as smooth as it had been with her old partner and they always disagreed more often than they agreed. Her album deadlines were being stretched, bent and snapped as they struggled to find common ground. But every day that she spent in his company, she found herself learning something new. About herself, about the world, about her music, and about him. And despite all the bickering, he’d write her a song for any occasion that she needed. He wrote all the love songs her record company insisted she sing to all the lonely boys out there. He wrote her the hit dance single with all its innuendos that she was told to record with the new Latino singer, who kept trying to grope her in the music video. The video went number one and the two promptly burned the original lyric sheet along with the demo of the video.
He wrote about her life, almost as if he knew her better than she knew herself. For three years, he wrote about her waking dreams and hopes; he gave her songs to sing about her flailing love life. He wrote her light hearted, feel good songs about friends she didn’t have and also the deep, reflective ballads about trains and seas she’d never seen.
He even penned down the grief she’d felt the day her father died.
She didn’t know how he captured it so perfectly. Especially when he told her he’d been holding onto it for a while. Hollow had made her cry as she read it for the first time, after the funeral, by the gravestone, with his comforting silence by her side softly muting the empty one left behind.
She’d even cried on stage when she’d performed it at the award ceremony, where Hollow won Song of the Year. She bumped into Walt, her old lyricist at the buffet table that night. He reminded her that his name was Will, and informed her that he’d love to “collab” with her on a “fab” new idea that he has, “just like the old times”. She took a bite out of the crostino as she politely told him she was perfectly happy with what she had, and didn’t need the next best thing. Leaving Will stumped, she excused herself to go rescue her award-winning songwriter from the piranhas circling him and save him from the rest of the black tie event.
They took the long way home, choosing to sit on the beach all night and argue about what the scariest ghost story ever was. She won that one and in return, for the first time in three years, he told her his story.
And she turned his story into a song.
She remembered the first time she’d sang it in the studio. He’d listened quietly as the last notes of her voice faded away and then told her that she’d need a strong blues score for the track. He helped arrange the backing track the way he did with the songs he’d write. And that made her happy. Because just as she made his words her own, he was making her words his.
She released Finding You on the next album. It went straight to the top of the charts, though she was sure it was because she’d written it. She was right, and three weeks later, after all the chatter surrounding her first self-written single died, it was off the charts as well.
She knew though, that he had a copy of those lyrics tucked away between the pages of his worn out Treasure Island. And that he’d always listen to the song when working on new lyrics, as he sipped on his perfect coffee.
It was even playing in the car, two years later, when he asked her to marry him.
They chose to get married in the local register office instead of having a wedding with lots of people. A signed paper was all they needed and they didn’t want to make a loud affair of it.
They preferred the silences anyway.
People didn’t get why the superstar was marrying a man who worked for her, but she didn’t care. It wasn’t really their business. Somewhere, over the course of five years, she’d grown to love him, and that was enough for her. He’d become the most important person in her world, and she in his. And there was nothing in the world that she would trade him for.
But she knew.
She knew, when he came home at three in the night, smelling like liquor and cigarettes, the same night of every year. She knew, every time he paused to drop off an orchid on the way to visit her father. She knew, every time he looked at the award he won for Hollow, thinking of his muse. She knew, every time they sat in those comfortable silences that gripped her throat and slowly chipped away at her heart.
She knew, because she knew his story.
He’d probably always been, and would always be the best part of her life.
It was she who was the next best thing.