Paperback Writer

Looking down at the manuscript he sighs in time with the swelling surf. The words swim before him, vision blurred with age. So many years he’d poured onto the pages, each paragraph dripping with a writer’s passion, and all for what? For some fresh-faced young punk of an editor to reject, that’s what. “Telegraphed,” he’d said, “derivative!”

The title page makes a sigh of its own when he tears it free of the tattered bundle. He feels its pain running through his bent and weary frame, physical displacement of his sense of failure, of time wasted, and almost sobs out loud. Paper crumples easily, falling unwanted into the rushing white horses of the sea. Tears burn his cheeks as his name is washed away. Derivative indeed!

Watching the balled-up proof of ownership tumble helplessly in the water he remembers the excitement, the swell of ambition he’d felt when he’d first typed those dozen or so words onto a fresh sheet of crisp-white legal standard. It wasn’t his, he realises. The paper, the typewriter, even the desk he’d been sitting at, they’d all belonged to the law-firm he was interned at. Huh! Maybe it was karma; he’d stolen the materials, so fate had stolen his life. The first page of the prologue sighs along with him.

It’s easier after a while, his hands losing their apprehension. Half a century of pecking at keys had taken their toll, but he’s learned to ignore the arthritis. He throws page twenty, anger sending it skimming into the hungry waves. Another wasted day tumbles away, drowning in the sea. By page fifty he’s taking them two or three at a time.

What did he know anyway? He’d barely been out of his teens, no experience of life; just a kid with nothing to work with. What made him think he knew anything about writing, about what made a good book? Had he lived through two wars and watched his friends fade and die? Naïve little jerk! The component parts of chapter two shrink rapidly, rushing nervously away from their seething creator.

Suddenly the cry of a gull startles him, a lonely, mournful shout behind him that spins him round. He’s not alone, he realises; gulls crowd the beach, standing or squatting patiently in the sand. One watches him critically; you’re not good enough, it seems to be saying to him. “Screw you!” he yells back, the angry young man resurfacing briefly. His shout startles a few of those nearby and wings unfold in contempt of his arrogance. They yell back.

Unperturbed, he turns back to the water, and his fingers begin to yank whole sections out of the manuscript. Chapter four had taken almost two years to perfect; it takes less than thirty seconds for the waves to erase those years. He laughs at the irony, startling the gulls again. They laugh along with him.

When he gets to chapter eight his movements slow, memories of the six months he’d spent with her. She’d been his Calliope, his divine inspiration for half a year. Reading his descriptions of her he bites back the salty bitterness of betrayal. Jealousy had driven the knife in; her own jealousy of his love of words. His fingers curl around her with less tenderness than they once had, crushing the memories into the paper. Throwing her away, he follows her with his eyes as she’s carried by the sea breeze. Bitch!

Halfway down now, five hundred pages to go; he wonders if he’d make the same mistakes again. One by one the pages fall into the surf, the words turning into pulp as they dance around his feet playfully. The death of a hero flies from his grasp unnoticed, a funeral with no-one to mourn the dearly departed. If he could do it all again, would he? The thought stops him cold, hands halfway through the motions of ripping another page free. It doesn’t take him long to realise yes, he would, and the pages flow again.

When he reaches the last century he deliberately throttles back, switching to a methodical page-by-page progression. He remembers these more fondly, the crafted words of an older mind. Here and there a paragraph surprises him; did I write this, he wonders, was this me? The final page of the final chapter leaves his hand slowly, almost reverentially lowered into the sea. They’re words to be proud of, even if they are mush.

He straightens his shoulders and turns his face to the sun. There’s still the epilogue, clutched lightly in his hand, but the opening paragraph’s already worked its charms. Sensing the show is over the gulls take to the air, voices raised exultantly. Feathers drift around him. He could start again, take the best of what he had and work it into something new. The thought of forcing that prick of an agent to eat another thousand pages makes him smile. He lifts the last dozen pages and stares at them intently.

Fuck! Who’s he kidding? The epilogue flies into the wind, scattered across the pulsing brine as randomly as the feathers. Even those last pages were useless, pathetic meanderings worth less than the paper they’d been printed on. Watching the last of his life melt into the sea he sneers at his own naivety. Fool!

When the last of the wasted time’s gone he turns and strides back up the beach, head held high. He didn’t want to wallow in the past, he wanted to rewrite it. He’d start again, go right back to the beginning. He could write another life, build another dream, and then show that punk at the office exactly who’s in charge. Climbing into the waiting Jeep he takes one last glance at the sea, squinting against the fractal reflections. He’d washed the past away good and proper.

Gunning the engine he kicks the Jeep along the highway, gripping the wheel tightly as he plans the rest of his life. Hell, he’s got years to write another.

S. Naomi Scott (c) 2006

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