Click. Click. Pause. Click.

With a barely audible whomp, the flame came on. Anish brought the lighter closer to the cigarette dangling precariously from his lips. He took a puff, followed immediately by another, and released the button on the nearly-depleted lighter as his cigarette lit up fully. As he set the lighter down on his table, he reached for the glass of single malt scotch next to his open laptop. A blank screen stared back at him as he took a deep drag and felt the nicotine rush. He leaned back in his plush chair, slowly blew out the smoke from his mouth and raised the glass to his lips. Slowly burning cigarette in one hand and glass of liquor in another, he closed his eyes and tried to get his mind off things.

“Is everything okay, love?” a voice called from the doorway across the room. His wife. Tina.

He turned his head slightly, catching a glimpse of her out of the corner of his eye. “It’s just this accursed first draft,” he replied with the most offhand tone he could muster. The rest of his words were too painful for him to say out loud. If I don’t come up with something good enough for that illiterate excuse for a publisher in the next three days, our next month will be spent on the streets instead of in this resort. “No matter how much I think about it, I’m unable to proceed. It’s a dead end.”

Footsteps. She was approaching. A few seconds later, he could even smell the perfume on her. Or was it just his imagination?

A gentle, soft hand stroked his head. Tina spoke up. “I understand it’s getting on your nerves. Let’s get you some sleep now. All that smoking and drinking will be the death of you.” Gazing absently through the open window into the sea outside, Anish flashed a sardonic smile to no one in particular. “The writing will kill me before the cigarettes and alcohol do.”

Tina put her hands around his shoulders and squeezed lightly, planting a gentle kiss on the top of his head. “Let’s make it more enjoyable then, shall we?” she said as she bent over towards the laptop. A few clicks here, a few keystrokes there, and the familiar music of James Asher’s Lakeside was in the air.

Tina knew. She knew that Anish had a bad case of writer’s block, and that this song always helped. It was, after all, how they had met years ago. Taking a sip of his drink, Anish let his mind wander back to that day at the empty pub.

-Twelve years ago-

The bartenders were busy readying the pub for the customers arriving in an hour. The waiters stood nearby, presumably sharing the latest gossip, as the manager watched over them all from his corner while frequently glancing at his phone. The lonesome writer sat alone at the bar, taking it all in with every sip of his drink. The only sounds were the occasional clink of the bartenders arranging the glasses and the whispers of the staff coordinating with each other. The overhanging silence was palpably frustrating. With an exasperated sigh, the patron got off his bar stool and went up to the unoccupied DJ stand. As he powered it on, a waiter standing nearby looked at him and raised an eyebrow. The patron shot him a glance that effectively announced, I’m a regular and I know what I’m doing. The waiter looked away.

The patron plugged in his phone, searched for his favourite song and began playing it. All at once, the vibe of the pub changed from that of barely-visible yet bustling activity to that of a relaxed, laidback hangout that a writer could die for. Setting the phone down, he went back to his seat and resumed sipping at his drink, blissfully oblivious of the person who came and sat next to him a few seconds later.

“Say, that’s a nice song you’re playing there,” the newcomer announced. “It’s a track by James Asher called Lakeside,” the writer replied, turning to look at the attractive lady next to him. His face broke into a confident grin as he reached out his hand to her. “Hi, I’m Anish, and I enjoy good music as much as I enjoy writing and a glass of whiskey,” he finished.

She smiled back at him flirtatiously. “I’m Tina. I like your taste in music as much as I like travelling.” It was the start to what would, in under a year, culminate in a great marriage.

-The present-

Twelve years of being together had not dulled the spark one bit. Anish still loved writing and earned enough from his royalties to lead a comfortable, if not lavish lifestyle. Tina was the best wife Anish could have asked for – lovely, caring and supportive. And yet – and yet – there were some things Anish just could not bring himself to tell her. Not because he was afraid of her, but because he was afraid to face the truth himself.

By the most inexplicable stroke of fate, Anish’s publisher, Macmillan, seemed to have teamed up with his persistent writer’s block to screw him over into the situation he found himself in. A first draft of your next work by the end of this month, or no cheque from us the next, his contact at Macmillan had warned, less than subtly.

Tina’s husky, comforting voice cut through the music and Anish’s thoughts. “Is it the publisher?” she asked. Anish had just enough left in him to nod almost imperceptibly. “A first draft in three days or no more of this,” he said, gesticulating towards the large room they were in. Taking another deep drag from his half-burnt cigarette, he closed his eyes again and tried to think of a starting point for his story. “I’m waiting for inspiration to strike, and so far the only thing I can think of is whether I should have joined that B-school like my dad wanted.”

After a moment’s silence, Tina chuckled softly. In a reassuring tone, she began, “You silly, silly worrywart. If the publisher wants a draft, he’ll get one. Only, he gets it when you want him to, not when he wants to.” Confused, Anish sat up straight and looked at her square in the eye. “What do you mean?”

She shrugged nonchalantly. “I think it’s time I took care of you for a while. Write at your own pace; I’ve saved up enough to keep us in this place for a year at least.”

How could he have forgotten? She was a gifted investor who had made a fortune on the stock market a few years ago. His surprise turned to delight and relief as he extinguished his cigarette, downed the last of his drink and whispered, “I think I just fell in love with you all over again.”

“Is that you talking, or the whiskey?” she retorted playfully.

Inspiration seemed to be playing truant, but Anish knew for sure it would strike very soon. It always had. Now that there was no longer a sword hanging over his head, he would find it easier to write when the mood struck him.

At that same moment, a content reviewer at Macmillan picked up his phone and dialed a number. Exactly three rings later, a gruff voice answered.

“What do you think?”

“It’s too predictable,” the reviewer remarked.

“The hell with that. People love predictable. Nobody wants unpredictable. They just say that, assume that, and live in denial because they want to seem smart. Predictable or not, I know what sells. We print Chetan’s work.”

“As you wish,” the reviewer said, disconnecting the call. “Why even ask my opinion, you pompous ass?” he muttered to himself. Before more curses could take shape in his head, the phone rang again.

“I almost forgot. What about Anish’s cheque?”

“He hasn’t sent us any work yet. Let’s wait till the month end, shall we?”

“You know, I don’t care about that any more. I was speaking with Jeff over at Penguin and they’re willing to snap him up if we don’t want him anymore. Send him his final settlement with some extra on the house. Cancel our contract with him and inform him he can deal with Penguin instead. I’ve had about enough of his pretentious attempts at high-brow literature.”

“But that’s not my de-” Beep. Beep. Beep.

The call had ended.

-Krishna Bharadwaj

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