The Next Best Thing

 

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(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.

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The Cabdriver’s box

“Do you know the one with the cab driver?”

“Oh yeah I do. It starts on the dark desert… no wait that was the one with the hitchhiker lady. No, I don’t know the cab driver one.”

“Okay, then shut up and listen.

  

  

“It all began on a stormy night. Not one like this, but the kind where thunder chased lightning across the sky and the wind blew the rain all over the place. It all began on a stormy night with four friends.

“Four friends, in a bar, on a stormy night.

“They were celebrating. The lawyer had won his case and the drinks were on him. Soon, the drinking was done but the rain wasn’t. And not a cab was in sight.

“Four friends, outside a bar, on a stormy night.

  

“That’s when he showed up.

“The cab driver was unimpressive. Those who lived to tell the tale can’t tell you what he looked like, for they don’t remember. The cab itself was the regular kind. The lawyer, glad to be getting out of the rain, jogged up to the cab, but stopped when he realised that the cab driver was walking towards him. In his hands was a box. He handed the box to the lawyer and said – This was left in my car for you.

“The lawyer didn’t understand. He didn’t remember anyone saying anything about a package. He opened the box, and guess what he found.”

  

  

“Absolutely nothing?”

“Not quite. There was an engraving – PLACE ONE SEVERED HEAD.”

“Sounds like some wacko vending machine.”

“Shut up, and listen to the story.”

  

  

“The lawyer laughed out loud. And then so did his friends. He dropped the box in the rain and walked away looking for a ride home.

  

“Four days later, they found his body in a drain, completely soaked and washed away by a storm.

  

  

  

“Four weeks later, the cab driver showed up again.

“The three friends stood by their favourite spot in the park, remembering the lawyer in between puffs of smoke in the dusky autumn evening. They didn’t even notice him until he tapped the banker on his shoulder and said – This was left in my car for you. And then, he walked away as silently as he’d come.

“Everyone looked at the box that the he had left on the bench with apprehension. There was no mistaking it, it was the very same box. In perfect condition. The banker couldn’t control his rage. He was sick and tired of this stupid prank. He picked it up and threw it on to the road. He watched it get run over by car thinking ‘good riddance’ and went back to the cigarette and memories.”

  

“Another four days later, he was run over by a truck.

  

  

  

“Four months after the road accident that the third of the company met the cab driver again. She was stranded on an empty highway in the middle of the night with a broken down car. The nurse had heard enough ghost stories and was quite eager to get away from the haunting silence that had enveloped the abandoned highway. She’d welcomed the two headlights of an approaching vehicle until she realised that the vehicle was a well-known yellow and was filled with dread when she realised that it was a cab, not the tow truck she’d called. The cab pulled up parallel to her and she stood paralysed as the window was lowered and the driver dropped an all too familiar box at her feet with an all too memorable ‘This was left in my car for you’.

  

“For four weeks, she carried the box around and the weight of its demand on her shoulders. Her friend could neither help nor wished to have anything to do with the bloody box. It went everywhere she did for she was scared of the possibility of what could happen if she lost it. Slowly, minute by minute, the nurse lost her mind. Until that one morning when walking along the docks, she decided she’d had enough and sent the box hurtling into the sea, hoping no one ever had to see the damned box again.

  

“It was four hours later that fishermen found the body of a young woman floating in middle of the sea.

  

  

  

“The fourth friend decided he’d had enough. He packed up his stuff, quit his job, and moved to the west coast. He changed his name, his life, everything. Four weeks, four months passed by and slowly he began to relax.

  

“One day, he came home to find a present on his doorstep. The box, looking like it had never been run over or thrown into the ocean or soaked in the rain, just sat there waiting to collect its payment.

  

“Four years after the last death, the box was back looking for the severed head.

  

“And it was never going away.”

  

  

  

  

  

“That’s it?”

“What do you mean ‘that’s it’?”

“I thought it would be, I don’t know scarier. What about the severed head?”

“That’s what I’m here to collect.”

The Onlooker

 

(The following story won 1st Place in Ink Inter-University Writing Competition organised by Middlesex University Dubai)

The city had a history.

Every brick, every crack, every cobblestoned road told a story.

And I’d been there to see it all.

I was there when the city burned. I’d watched when it rose from the ashes. I looked on as lives were rebuilt. I saw them come, I saw them go. I saw them weep, I saw them smile. I stood by silently as the winds blew in change.  The ‘old’ paved way for the ‘new’ which then turned ‘old’ and rolled out for the next batch of ‘new’. Oh, the stories that this city had known. And I, had seen it all.

They built the city around me. Back then, no one cared what they were. Saxons, Mayans, Britons – none of these words meant anything. All I know is that they were silly. Silly for setting up a stone statue before houses and effective plumbing. But they did it anyway. And I witnessed the five little settlements growing into a city around me.

The city had a name.

Well it had names. Names that time forgot. Names that rolled in over years with the people. My favourite was Elvebyen. They called it that once. They called me The Secret-keeper then. Now they call me Ugly. But names are irrelevant. It’s the stories that matter.

The city had been invaded.

Plenty of times. First it was the tribe whose cow the chief’s boy had killed. Generations later, it had been the Romans. Somewhere in between the Huns had stormed through. Different people, different times but to me they were all just invaders.

The Romans had been nice to me. They thought me a gift from Juno and revered me. They’d offer up fruits and flowers while confessing their fears and secrets at my feet. They hadn’t been that nice to the girl who walked by every day singing the same hopeful tune on her way to fetch water from the well. They’d dragged her along roughly as she screamed her melodious voice hoarse. I never saw her again. Neither did her sobbing mother.

Invaders came attacked, plundered, razed, sometimes abandoned and sometimes settled. Each era forgot the previous as they rebuilt over and over and concretised and expanded and dug up to re-concretise and expand. Sometimes the era lasted for centuries. Occasionally just a few decades. But it seems all the same now. Change is constant. Ironic, isn’t it? Over time, the city’s past was lost to its people. They forgot. All of them. This was just another inconsequential little place. Nothing special. The knowledge of its yesteryears could’ve rewritten history as they knew it. But people forgot. And nobody asked me.

The city had known love.

They’re always the best, those love stories. Tinged with melodrama and laced with overwhelming emotions while wrapped up in the underwhelming sense of importance to the rest of the world. And in this city, the secrecy, unintentional histrionics and sneaking around somehow always led the lovesick to me.

It got worse in the middle ages. It was the time of the Romantics and I don’t know if life was imitating art or if art drew its muses from life. The city had grown bigger than ever. The buildings grew taller and I no longer marked the centre of the city. I’d lost my sight to the weather by then and my features were beginning to show signs of my age. But I still saw them come. Them and their tales of love. They’d rendezvous beneath the arches of the chapel wall (the more brazen would meet in the open square) before running away together. There was that doctor who used me as lumbar support when wooing the clergyman’s daughter with his fanciful tales. The two found their happy ending. She married a philosopher and he found someone else to woo, fortunately somewhere else. There were a fair number of nuns who crept away from the monastery and their vows, to the arms of young lads in the pavilion that I overlooked. That’s also where Ayla had cried her heart out after having her heart broken.

I could’ve saved her the heartbreak. I could’ve told her that while Jacques, the man from Venice was whispering sweet nothings in her ear, he was also the painter who was courting the noblewoman living two houses away. I could’ve told her that money was more precious to him than her heart and to guard the same from him. I would’ve warned her about the pitfalls of sacrificing everything in the name of love. I could’ve. And I would’ve. But not once did she turn to me for guidance. For what would stone know about the matters of the heart. And so she let herself be swept along in the promise of her knight and happily ever after. And I watched. I watched as she dried her tears and killed herself.

Ayla wasn’t the first to die in the name of love. But she wasn’t the queen of Egypt. So time forgot her. And now, years later, it is I alone who remembers the aspiring dancer and her unborn child’s deaths.

The city had seen death.

Death knew the city like any other. He was here each time the city burned; for every sickling child and old man. He’d been coming around for as long as I remember. And in these visits, grief was his steady companion.

I remember it like it were yesterday. It was war time. The paper boy called out about battles that raged all around the world. That’s what had happened the first time. The war everybody fought in was happening all over again. The Fatherland was invading. Men were dying. And the same boys who’d hang on to my limbs, playing their games of hide and seek were hanging on for their dear lives while they hid in trenches and ditches in foreign lands, seeking the peace that was promised if they just killed the men on the other side. They came back war heroes or dead. Most didn’t come back at all. And when the bombings started, the dead began outnumbering the living in the city. I lost half my face and a hand in those. But the people of the city lost so much more.

It’s funny how some people live their lives having known nothing but war, and others just the peace. They don’t think it’s possible for life to be any other way. But I know. I’ll always know. I’ve seen their lives pass by, watched them suffer and rejoice and find no escape from the vicious circle over time. I was there when they thrived and when they floundered. I know the city’s past. And millennia later I know the things they never tried to remember. I was there when they rebuilt the city, buried their dead, put back together their broken pieces and trudged on with their lives.

I was also there when the mayor decided to have me destroyed.

For none of your knowledge and none of your wisdom matter when you’re stone. Beauty then and ugly now meant that I had no place in the new world they were building. I was a monstrosity that has to go, they said. It’s a unanimous decision, they said. The demolition date is set for tomorrow, they said.

The city has a future.

But I won’t be there to see it.