The email confronts me.
Mozart’s Requiem fills the basement. Whenever I listen to the Requiem, I usually think about the morbid romanticism associated with it – Mozart believing he was composing it for himself, the deathbed rehearsals, Mozart mouthing its composition with his dying breaths. Not now, though.
The kids play upstairs obliviously. I wish Beth were here. She’d steady me. But she’s not. It’s just me and this unopened email.
I become conscious of the Requiem again. It’s the perfect accompaniment. Or maybe it’s a portent.
I go through my CDs. They’re stacked in the furthest corner of the basement, crammed together like some slipshod miniature city ready to topple. I’ve got to get better organised. But I’ve been saying that for years. The basement is where all the junk has migrated since Beth and I moved in fifteen years ago. Then my aspirations followed. And finally I came down here to chase them.
The opposite corner has been cleared out. There’s an antique desk there, with shelves, books and my computer. Beth bought me the desk, hoping it’d help me feel writerly.
Now, it’s me and the CDs. I try pinpointing what’ll suit the moment. I pause. Nothing. So I think about the new book I want to write, hoping that’ll prompt a suggestion. It doesn’t. Not exactly, anyway. I have a character. He’s a teacher. Wait, she. No, he. Well, I’ll decide as I write and see what feels best. But he/she discovers that he/she has cancer (or has that been overdone?), comes home to find their partner’s left them and gets involved with a murder. I don’t know everything that happens yet. Details unveil in the writing. But I need mood music.
Pop won’t work. Forget hard rock. And heavy metal’s out. Oldies aren’t right, although I feel my character is nostalgic. Maybe gets stuck on his/her past. The story’s meant to be dark. Brooding. Classical – that could be it. That could hit the spot. Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto. Or Mozart’s Requiem. I go with the Requiem – a favourite – and put it on.
Then the sound from my computer of an email arriving.
Beth and I are in the backyard. This bit doesn’t explain the email, by the way. It happened six months earlier. But it puts things in context.
We’re standing by our brick barbecue. The fire’s just getting going, the flames peeking out of the barbecue as they crackle. The warmth feels good. It’s getting on evening. A cold wind slices through the trees. Beth, leaning into me, rubs her hands together. I’m holding an accordion folder, as well as a letter I have pressed on top. The letter flaps in the wind, like a bird trying to break my grip and fly away.
‘Throw it,’ Beth says.
I don’t want to.
‘It’s a folder full of bad karma,’ Beth says.
I look at it protectively, as if I’m worried Beth might’ve offended it. I’ve had the folder for twenty years. It’s been faithful to me, and shows that by its wear – the worn seams, the creased corners, the tarnished finish.
Beth snatches the letter from me.
‘Hey!’ I say.
She scrunches it up, throws it towards the fire. I reach for it as it swirls in the wind. I miss. It lands in the flames, flares, and is gone for good.
I don’t mind. It’s not liberating or anything. Well, that’s a lie. It’s a bit liberating. Why should I carry all of it, like some burden? When I bought my accordion folder, it was light. But twenty years of filing have made it obese.
‘Throw it,’ Beth says.
I hold it out.
My arms sway, like I’m trying to build momentum.
The barbecue oomphs as the folder lands inside it. Twigs snap. Some of the flames desperately try to escape the folder. They don’t. Smoke billows. The fire’s crackling fades. The folder’s too big and fat.
‘I’ll get the kerosene,’ Beth says.
That night, in bed, we fuck. Or Beth fucks me. I lie there.
Throughout, I can’t help but think about Mozart’s Requiem – I think about it a lot when I’m down about my writing. Commissioned from Mozart by a mysterious man in black, Count Franz von Walsegg wanted it for his young, beautiful and deceased wife, Anna. The Count’s plan was to pass off the Requiem as his own, but Mozart died while composing it. I wish I was that sought after. But nobody wants to steal my work. Nobody wants my work. I can’t give it away.
We orgasm – well, I hope Beth does, and that she hasn’t just faked it to spare me more disappointment. Then we cuddle, and Beth encourages me – about the ‘next time’, that my time is ‘still to come’, and all that great stuff she says that deep down I want to believe, and try to believe, but don’t think I do – until she falls asleep.
I wonder if Mozart dealt with rejections. Rejections.
Wait. I didn’t explain the folder properly.
I pull into the drive. Our house is this squat brick affair. From the street, you can see more trees than house. When Beth and I first came to see the place, Beth liked the trees – the whole area’s rural – but I was ready to pass without taking a look. Beth convinced me otherwise, like she always does. Lucky. Inside, the house was spacious, with an expansive back patio and big yard. So it became home.
As I drive past the mailbox, I see half a folded A4-sized yellow envelope.
Crap. Hang on. Forgot something again.
We sit at the dinner table – me at one end, Beth at the other, the kids to either side of us. The kids aren’t important, though. I mean obviously they are to us, but for the purpose of what I’m telling you, they’re just a distraction.
I pick at my peas, prodding them, one by one.
‘It’s good,’ Beth says.
‘What?’ I ask. I know. But I want to hear it.
Beth’s eyes flit to the counter. On it is a yellow A4-sized envelope that contains three chapters of a novel I’ve just completed – ‘Cold Burn’ – as well as a covering letter and a stamped self-addressed envelope. That’s everything stipulated in the submission guidelines of Grey’s Publishing. I’ve researched on the Net and they say it shows professionalism to always provide exactly what a publisher’s asking for. But after writing and trying to make it for so long, I know this already. Mozart was a prodigy, composing and performing when he was a kid. I’m still trying to break through in middle age.
‘You confident?’ Beth says.
That’s enough of this digression, actually.
Anyway, the envelope in the mailbox is the stamped self-addressed envelope.
It’s my envelope.
I take out the envelope. It feels exactly the weight of the one I sent, which means it must contain my three chapters.
Once upon a time, I would have deluded myself into thinking that the envelope contained good news. I’d pause, relish the anticipation. There would be a letter in the envelope saying, We love these three chapters – send us the rest! Of course, that’s illogical. If they wanted to see more, they could phone, email, or send just a letter back. They wouldn’t also be sending back my chapters. I’ve learned that from years of submitting.
I tear open the envelope, find a small square sheet inside it amid my three chapters. I pull it out. It has the masthead of Grey’s Publishing on the top, under which is a form response. They address me as ‘Dear Author’ and tell me that while they read my work with interest, it’s not quite what they’re looking for. They wish me the best in the future.
I stomp into the basement, turn on the light and, just before I flick on the radio, tell myself that whatever song comes on will be a portent.
It’s Michael Jackson’s ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.’ No relevance at all. Bloody song.
I sit at my antique desk, lean back in my chair and – damn it – I feel writerly. It’s the immediate environment. The feng shui. Everything conspires to make me feel writerly – other than me, that is.
Underneath my desk is a small set of drawers. I open a drawer, and there looking up at me like an expectant dog wanting a treat, is my accordion folder. I am about to file away my latest rejection, when I lean back in my chair and look at it again.
Grey’s took six months to reject me – six months where I told myself not to build my hopes up, but I did. You can’t help it. They build – quietly and secretly – in some dim niche of your mind. Like an aneurysm.
Hands close on my shoulders. It’s Beth. I lean back into her massage.
‘You can try again someplace else,’ she says.
‘The first Harry Potter was rejected umpteen times. You know that.’
‘Maybe it’s just not meant to happen.’
‘That’s the rejection talking.’
‘It’s been talking a long time.’
Beth’s hands fall from my shoulders. I think about our lives together: twenty years married, two houses (one rental!) whose mortgages we’re struggling to pay off, three kids (one diabetic, one dyslexic – okay, maybe they’re a bit important), and both of us working in dead-end jobs because that’s what’s necessary. And we’re sitting here, end-of-the-world talk, because my hobby’s not paying off.
‘Come on,’ Beth says. ‘Take the rejection. And that folder.’
‘Grab them. Now.’
I take the folder out of the drawer.
‘Let’s go,’ Beth says.
I don’t ask again.
Beth and I are in the backyard. The fire’s soaring now. I worry about sparks drifting up into the trees. Who would’ve thought an accordion folder full of rejections would burn so well? Okay, that and a splash of kerosene. The kids watch from the windows of the house.
‘Feel better?’ Beth asks.
‘What about the next one?’
‘If there’s a next one, we’ll deal with it then.’
‘Whatever works best. Then we’ll move on. Move forward.’
‘I’m moving sideways with this. Or maybe not even sideways. Maybe spiralling. Like water down a drain. Maybe I just don’t know it yet.’
‘Maybe maybe maybe. You write well. “Cold Burn” is a good read. It’ll happen.’
‘Is it worth it?’
‘Is it for you?’
‘I don’t know anymore.’
‘It is,’ Beth says. ‘Or you wouldn’t have chased it this long. Wouldn’t have kept chasing it. Maybe you just need to take a little break.’
‘So you can throw maybes around?’
Beth stands on her tiptoes and kisses me. ‘Tonight I’ll get your mind off it.’
So I lie in bed, thinking about Mozart. Did he ever question his ability when he was bumming around, begging friends for loans? Did he ever wonder whether people would enjoy his music? What would’ve happened to him if he’d bombed out time and again? Would he have considered getting out? Maybe getting a real job, selling door-to-door encyclopaedias or something? I can’t picture him still trying at forty – not that he lived that long.
I decide that’s what I should do.
I don’t, though.
It’s five a.m. Have fast-forwarded a whole four hours. You probably expected more.
I sit in the basement, in pyjama bottoms and a bathrobe, shivering, as I Google publishers. There’s one, Veracity. It’s small. Boutique. Whereas Grey’s is a multinational. Also, Grey’s is interstate. Veracity is local. I could drive there in fifteen minutes. There goes that nook of my mind – hoping, dreaming. I see myself sitting in a meeting with Veracity as we talk about my book. We talk about it, because obviously they’ve accepted it. So it’s convenient that they’re local. Because I could drive down there. See?
I check their website. They request the entire book, a cover letter, a bio and a CV (if applicable). All these things are ready on my computer, and I plan to print them out. The book I’ll print from scratch, even though I still have the first three chapters from Grey’s. But they’re tainted. Better to get rid of them.
Then I see a note on the Veracity website that says they’ve just gone green, meaning they won’t accept hardcopy. Everything’s done via email, which makes everything quick and easy – no having to slip out of work during my lunch hour to get to the post office; no having to dread stamped self-addressed envelopes turning up in my mailbox like prospective letter bombs.
I attach all the requested files to an email, paste in a covering letter, type ‘Submission: Cold Burn’ in the subject line, and hit SEND.
I am an idiot for doing this.
So, I stare at the email sitting unopened in my mailbox. I’ve already been staring a while now. The Sequentia of Mozart’s Requiem unfolds. The kids are being raucous upstairs. But it’s not about them.
It’s about the email.
It’s from Veracity Publishing.
The subject line reads ‘Re: Submission: Cold Burn.’
There’s no way to tell – without reading it – if it’s a rejection. There are no clues with an email.
So I stare some more.
While it sits unopened, there’s hope. It’s not that I want to savour the anticipation. In a way, it’s not enjoyable. It’s too tense to be enjoyable. But while it exists, it validates my dreams, lets me believe that all things are possible.
The Requiem fills the basement. As I often do, I immerse myself in the sublime perfection of the music. Think now about how Mozart worked on it until his death, even as he feared he was writing his own requiem. The day before he died, friends came over to sing parts of the Requiem for him. In his last hours, he was mouthing it.
It’s then that I realise it doesn’t matter what’s in the email.
It doesn’t matter how whatever it contains makes me feel.
Nothing matters but what I want to do until the very end.
I open the email.