by Arthur Mackeown
John Smith hated deadlines.
Did Shakespeare ever have a deadline, he wondered. Did he have an editor ringing up morning, noon and night asking what had happened to Hamlet? Smith thought not. A writer was his own man in those days.
He stared at the blank screen, as if hoping it would tell him what to write. This was no way to begin a best-seller. Actually, it didn’t even have to be a best-seller. He was simply keeping an ill-considered, boozy promise to the editor of a local rag, who was so excited by the idea of a famous author moving into the village that he’d begged for something, anything, on any subject whatsoever, for next week’s edition of the paper. The only stipulation was that the story must have a country-side theme.
That was the rub. Smith knew nothing about the country. He knew nothing about cows, or bringing in the sheaves, or Ploughman’s lunches, or the price of clogs. He had only come to the country because it was the last place where Hilda, his money-grubbing ex-wife, would think to look for him. And now this editor, a plump, earnest little man named Wally something or other, had phoned him five times in the last three days to ask how the masterpiece was coming along.
“Er, Mr. Smith...?” he would say, “Me again, I’m afraid. Sorry to interrupt the flow of the... er... creative juices, and all that. I was just wondering...” and Smith would assure him he hadn’t forgotten, that the story would certainly be finished before the deadline, and that everything was going just swimmingly. Blah. Blah. Blah.
Smith realised he’d have to write the damn thing. There was no other way to obtain the silence and solitude needed to produce his next great work. But what on earth could he write about the country? Then he remembered those slushy romantic novels his ex was so fond of. They were always set in the country, weren’t they?
Thus inspired, he embarked upon the touching tale of a love-lorn shepherd and his lass, a buxom, blonde, blue-eyed barmaid whose grasping publican father was determined to marry the poor thing off to the philandering, wastrel son of the local squire...
* * *
Now Smith may not have known much about the country, but his knowledge of buxom, blonde, blue-eyed barmaids was encyclopaedic. His extensive research into the subject had been a major factor in his own recent and scandalous divorce. As a result, he actually began to enjoy the story as he wrote it. He even abandoned his usual brusque, hard-hitting style and became quite lyrical in his graphic, detailed, yet tasteful depiction of the heroine’s charms.
Two days and three thousand words later he sat back and read what he had written. On the whole, he was quite pleased with himself. The story lacked polish, but it was still the nearest thing to the truth he had ever done. Raw emotion flooded every page. Surely that counted for something. Nodding his head in satisfaction, he signed it with a flourish. Pity such a gem would be wasted on a one-horse village newspaper, but a promise was a promise, and he was a man of his word.
He decided to deliver it personally first thing in the morning. But not before he’d sent a copy off to Hilda. She’d always said she couldn’t understand what he saw in such cheap, pathetic creatures, and he thought the time had come to enlighten her. He also knew she would not be amused when she saw he had named his heroine after the same young lady she’d cited in the divorce.
* * *
“I can’t print this,” said the editor.
“I beg your pardon?”
Smith had expected fawning gratitude, at the very least. He’d even brought along his solid silver fountain pen in case anybody wanted an autograph. A rejection had never crossed his mind. This was the first time his work had been turned down in more than twenty years.
“Do you realise who you’re talking to?’ he asked.
“I do, indeed,” said the editor, “but...”
“Well... it’s a bit... smutty, isn’t it?”
“That, my friend,” answered Smith, “is not smut. It is Art. My very soul is in those words.”
“I’m sure it is, Mr. Smith,” replied the editor, “but did you really have to bare so much of it on the first page?”
“If you disliked it, then why did you read it three times?”
“W-e-ll,” said the editor, “it’s not that I didn’t like it — it was rather enjoyable, actually — only, it’s the wife, you see. If I printed that she’d...”
“Are you a man, sir, or a mouse?” asked Smith.
“I’m a married man,” replied the editor sadly.
* * *
As Smith left the newspaper office he tossed the manuscript into the bin by the door. Then, as he strolled down the street towards the pub, he began to whistle to himself as a happy thought struck him: he still had that barmaid’s phone number.
Copyright © 2011 by Arthur Mackeown