Alternatively, I could hurl myself through the window, plunging 16 floors to blessed relief. Although, I hadn’t quite ruled out death by toenail clippers, the only sharp object in my possession, not counting my tongue, and which did tick the originality box.
A distant clock chimed the hour. Another week clenching and unclenching bum cheeks in too-tight blue jeans waiting for The Verdict. Another week inhaling the glory dust of authors on Cassandra’s buckling bookshelves as she bled red ink over my words.
I chose a stage cough to halt the carnage.
“Er, I was wondering if we were nearly there yet? It’s just I have this thing I promised I wouldn’t be late for,” I said, bum in mid-clench.
Cassandra raised an enquiring eyebrow before deigning to raise her head.
“It depends on how soon I can find something meaningful, or even true, in your submission, Miranda,” she said returning to her blood-letting work.
I returned to pondering death by any means.
I felt without armour after a session with Cassandra.
Although, there was that Tuesday when she seemed somewhat impressed with one of the pieces I had bowed and scraped before her. If impressed is a grunt. A grunt at perhaps one well-placed word. One grudging grunt in circa 1500 words.
Sod off, I’d thought, I don’t need this, agreeing a moment later to have the rewrite to her by the following week.
But that’s what I get for the vanity of taking on an editor and not sticking with family and friends who found anything I wrote brilliant and poetic – true or not. Okay, no-one used those exact words, but always implied I felt. You say tomater.
No, I picked Cassandra to join the peanut gallery of critics already squatting in my head.
My reverie was broken by Cassandra’s voice coming in for landing.
“Again, Miranda, publications are looking for authenticity in submissions. See you next week,” she said handing my manuscript to me as though wafting away the smell of burnt toast.
Cassandra found numerous ways to say the same thing each week. Loosely translated? She agreed with the Ghosts of Critics Past & Present that there was something missing in my work and, thus, would never own a published essay.
I started writing after he’d gone.
Maybe it was the tide of past and lost emotion that carried me to the decision to get better at the craft of writing and submit to various literary magazines. How hard can that be, I thought.
I wasn’t to know there were harder questions in my future.
The first set of rejection letters mainly talked about not having the time to give individual feedback, indeed any feedback, to those shortsighted enough to expect any. Therefore, the reasons for rejected pieces remained a mystery, and so began a confusing process of fixing writing as a whole which may only have been broken in part. Perhaps not broken at all, just not right for that particular publication.
There again, maybe the submitted pieces were just shite and no-one had the time to send that individual feedback to anyone.
But I needed to do this. I needed to be published to make what happened matter.
“Miranda, did you even look at my margin notes?”
“I did. In summary, you trampled the funny in my work as ‘trivial banter.’”
“You use humour as a gag (literally) to introspection.”
“But when I did introspect, Cassandra, you called my words… what was it again? Ah, yes! ‘Superficial navel-gazing of no interest to anyone in its lack of wider emotional context and universal textures.’ Unquote.”
“And yet here we are again.”
“Christ, Cassandra, I wept wet tears over some of those paragraphs.”
“As did I, Miranda, as did I.”
I rolled my eyes onto Cassandra’s desk and her flickering incense candle. Death by clove & nutmeg would be a sweet way to go. Just reach over, grab my manuscript and let the flames flirt, and then “Poof!,” up I’d go, taking the charred embers of disappointment with me.
“Vulnerability is your friend, Miranda, and no amount of erudite references and a laundry load of literary illusion can make up for that.”
“I’m feeling pretty vulnerable right now, does that count?”
I closed the door for another seven days on tears I wouldn’t let fall, lips trembling on the question I never asked:
“Why don’t you like me, Cassandra?”
The peanut gallery in my head salivated at the sea of red across this week’s pages. There was a celebration in the offing since a standard I was clearly not meeting would again preclude Cassandra submitting my work.
A nagging thought shut out the chorus. Did she keep writers dangling in a perpetual state of unreadiness to prolong her payouts? Even I wasn’t brave enough to suggest this to her face, but the thought started to ferment like wet fish stuffed behind the sofa.
“It is not in my interests to grow old with you, Miranda.”
Christ, the witch could read minds as well.
“I’m going to take a wild guess and say you didn’t like my piece?”
As always, Cassandra didn’t react to my sarcastic arrows, but today I registered an expression I couldn’t quite read. Anger? Pity? Toothache?
“Okay, Miranda, let’s forget this piece. Start something new for next week, please, a subject of your choosing.”
My butt cheeks fell with relief at not having to flog this comatose horse again.
“However, it is the same note, Miranda, Authenticity.”
Yes, she said the word with a capital ‘A.’
“You know, Cassandra, I have this fantasy one day I’ll write something and you’ll hand it back to me without a drop of red ink on it.”
“On that day, Miranda, I’ll walk to the publisher’s office and submit your piece myself,” she said.
“I accept the challenge, m’lady,” I said, bowing low to retrieve the gauntlet.
It was rumoured her sense of humour had flown with the departure of an errant husband. Her humour and humanity had accompanied him when he ran off with… well, no-one was ever quite sure. Speculation name-checked a waitress, secretary and best friend among the usual suspects. Whoever it was weren’t to know that in doing the dirty with Mister they had also screwed the wellbeing of his soon-to-be ex-wife’s students. It was a given, then, she would calm the hell down if she was to get some, but no male of the species on her course was willing to take that hit. It was hard to blame them.
I looked up at a sudden stillness in the room. Cassandra had stopped reading.
Today, her expression was an easy read as a crimson flush seeped up from her crepe paper bosom, past her slit lips to the widow’s peak at her forehead.
After what could only have been mere minutes, but seemed like a chasm of hours, Cassandra handed me an envelope.
“Your fee in full including first term deposit. I do not ask my students to pay where they are not learning and growing in their craft.”
I sat salute still, lost for a retort, lost for any words.
“Thank you, Miranda, you may leave now.”
“Hey, what are you doing? You told me to explore truth. To “write something real,” and now you’re dismissing me?”
“You explored truths that were not yours to exploit, Miranda.”
“I wish you well in your future endeavours. Goodbye, Miranda.
The grooves in the carpet lay bare the number of times courage had failed me aa I turn away for the nth time. On the next run-up, again I am incapable of connecting my fist with the door. A gentle “Come in, Miranda,” makes me jump.
She asks me to watch him as I watch drowsy lifeguards watch a beach empty of threat. Seagulls shriek and scavenge as he stages sandcastle stories in the sand. She eventually gathers her sticky debris and says her goodbyes to other browned off parents comparing the aches and pains of parenthood. Setting her bag down beside me, she asks me where he is. Moments later we are screaming for a child who is no longer there.
Cassandra stops reading and a tumbleweed silence envelops the space between us.
“Okay, I’ll walk your piece over to the publishers on Monday, Miranda.”
Lost for an adequate response, I shuffle to the door, turning back on hearing my name.
“Thank you, Miranda. Thank you.”
Our eyes lock and swim in the moment.
“S’okay, mum,” I say, closing the door quietly behind me.