(Listen to the story, read by Akhil Kakkar here)
I’m at the mall. It’s not that crowded today. It’s a Tuesday afternoon. But that’s the advantage of being in research, being a professor. You get time to yourself. You get to see a retired couple argue about a chicken patty that’s not as hot as they’d like it to be.
I like to go to Starbucks for lunch even though it’s essentially just a coffee shop. Pretty people interacting with each other or with books in their hands… makes me feel 15 years younger. Makes me feel 24.
I like to see what people are reading these days. I at least try to, or convince myself that I try to, get a sense of literary trends and the “market”. Starbucks is the best venue for this research. Sadomasochism looks like a big thing right now. Followed by celebrity cookbooks and young-adult fantasy novels. I don’t think I’ve read a novel in four years now. I just don’t have the time for fiction anymore.
After taking longer than usual to finish my toasted Panini and cappuccino, I fold my copy of the Electronic Engineering Journal, pick up my briefcase and exit the coffee shop. I need to go back to the University of Essex. I don’t feel like going there though. I cannot face the bad news.
I go down the escalator right next to Starbucks in the Culver Square Shopping Centre as usual. And that’s when I see Angelica Cox, which is unusual. She’s on the opposite escalator, coming up. We’re bound to make eye contact, there’s no way I can avoid it. It would look stupid if she notices me with a briefcase covering my face. I have to acknowledge her.
Angelica somehow looks taller and slimmer than I last saw her. Probably the cream-coloured stilettos and the exercise. She’s wearing a chocolate brown blazer with a matching fitted pencil skirt. She looks sophisticated and formal with her dark hair tied in a tight bun so that her long face with sharp features looks like it’s got a face-lift. She’s looking pretty and crisp.
She’s seen me now. I give her a smile. How long has it been since I’ve met her? Three years? Probably more.
‘Hello stranger. Long time. You got five minutes?’ Angelica says, looking at me, coming up the escalator.
‘Of course, I’ll meet you at Starbucks upstairs, let me come around up again,’ I say.
I know I’m trapped, there’s no way out. I’d just left Starbucks, and I had to take the dreaded escalator again. But frankly speaking, I could’ve told Angelica that I had to rush due to an urgent meeting at the university. I guess subconsciously I just wanted to further delay going to university.
I make the journey back and enter Starbucks and see Angelica sitting in a corner. I pull a chair for myself and sit down.
‘So Mr. Vjay Patel, 2002 Nebula Award winner, please tell me you’re writing something new.’
Angelica knows her way around a conversation.
‘You’re not a one-book-wonder are you?’
She also knows I’m not working on anything.
‘You shouldn’t be a one-book-wonder because I don’t see it.’
She’s my agent, she knows everything.
‘You’re a good science fiction author.’
She knows I’m happy being a Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Essex.
‘I’m sure you have more books in you. But it’s been ten years since your first and only novel. Please tell me you’re writing something extraordinary.’
Angelica looks at me with inquisitiveness. Forced inquisitiveness I guess. If I were working on a novel, I would be in touch with her. She knows that I’m not currently writing a novel, so well that she hasn’t contacted me in three years.
‘Well if you consider sadomasochism in space extraordinary, then I’m working on something extraordinary,’ I say, taking refuge in sarcasm.
And then I see Angelica lost in thought. Her eyes are still on my face, but her mind is elsewhere. Her expression shows it. Like she’s trying to figure out the exact difference between high-definition and true high-definition.
Did she actually believe the joke? Did she buy it? She thinks I’m serious. I’m sure I had my sarcastic smile on. This can’t really be happening.
‘Actually, that sounds very good. Very topical. Sadomasochism is a market trend that will carry on for at least some years and you bring an original twist to it,’ she says.
I want to tell Angelica how obvious it is that I was just joking. I’m just about to do so.
And then I stop myself. I remind myself that the situation for my research project at the university is not good. I remind myself that there is a strong chance that I may be going back to the university to hear some bad news today.
‘It’s just an idea right now. I need the time and effort to draft it onto paper,’ I say.
‘It’s a great idea. And I know you’re busy with university, but it’s been ten years since your last book Vijay. You’re a first-book-award-winning-author. You deserve another novel, a re-launch. And I guess you’ve not taken a sabbatical in the past ten years either. You love your work, you love your research. You’ve probably been in the Electronics Lab at the university all this time. So, I’m sure you’re up for a sabbatical. Why don’t you use that time to write this book? We could re-launch you. It’s a good idea. I feel like I can sell this like hot cake, provided it’s well written.’ Angelica shows me her copies of Sylvia Day’s ‘Bared to You: A Crossfire Novel’ and E. L. James’s ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’.
I wonder how I’d feel if one of my students saw me, Professor Patel, reading “Fifty Shades of Grey” at Starbucks.
‘I don’t know Angelica, it’s just a stupid idea. And right now it’s all mashed up in my head. I don’t have a direction yet, but yes, if I do get the time, I’ll figure it out.’
I look at Angelica, to see if she will give me time so that I can actually go on to convert this stupid idea into a book. I need time. And I need her guidance.
‘I trust your writing Vijay. Your last book is by far one of the best science fiction books I’ve seen. Great idea, excellent execution. A research and development facility at a technology company headquarters where a scientist keeps on appearing from the past to share new ideas. The central character - a young Indian scientist who wants to pay his student debt. It was really good. Who would’ve thought you could mix office politics with science fiction and time travel. But you did it. And now sadomasochism with science fiction. The mixture sounds great.’
Angelica taps my wrist twice. Reassuring. As I’ve said before, she’s good at this.
‘I’m not sure, I need time,’ I say.
‘You’ll find a way around it. First things first. Email me a blurb and we can take it from there. But remember, if you’re on-board with this project, I want your hundred per cent time and attention. You have to go for that sabbatical.’ Angelica crosses her legs.
Oh, of course you have my hundred per cent attention Angelica. You sealed the deal when you crossed your legs. Nice mind game. Nicer legs.
But I should take Angelica’s advice. Yes, now that I think of it, I should. I could try applying for a sabbatical if things don’t work out at the university today. The research project is going to be on a standstill if things don’t work out and I won’t have anything major to do other than teach for at least the next six months.
‘Let me float the idea in university and see what the reaction is. I’ll get back to you in a week. Next Tuesday?’ I ask.
‘OK, I’ll be waiting. What are you working on at university these days anyway?’ Angelica looks the other way. Her body language suggests she’s not really interested.
‘Oh we had this research grant from a big electronics company. Our project was to make electronic tablets flexible, you know like a flexible iPad. We’re actually trying to make the tablet like a piece of paper. Foldable, flexible, roll-able. It is a great project, but we have a problem. The big electronics company will probably stop funding us. Temporarily they say, but you just can’t rely on any stable and continuous funding in this economy. I think I’ll have an official confirmation of the termination of funding in my inbox when I reach university today. ’ I start tapping the table with my fingers.
I reach university and am not surprised.
‘The official correspondence repeatedly says it’s only a temporary thing. They say that they are currently focusing on cost-effective products rather than high-end products. They repeatedly say they’ll definitely start funding us again once the economy is better,’ Paul says.
Paul, Associate Professor in Electronics Engineering at the University of Essex, and hence my colleague, is dressed as if he is from the 70s. He is short, slim and has an untamed brown beard. He is wearing a corduroy coat with elbow patches. I don’t know of anyone else in his late twenties who wears that. He is actually a tech-genius. Paul looks like Steve Jobs in his early years, in the garage.
‘You just don’t know nowadays, do you? Apple’s going to invent something before they do and then they’ll regret it. But you know this was the big thing. This was our patent. We were Alexander Graham Bell and this was our telephone. This was our retirement. Our kids’ private tuition. Our rich generations to come.’ I point towards the equipment in front of us.
‘We invested what, three years in this project? Alice left me because I didn’t have the time for her. You’ve not been on a date for how long now?’ Paul says.
‘About two and a half years.’
And the date before that was a girl who was looking for UK Immigration. She was interested in me doing the Greencard thing for her for the UK. Hot Thai girl who spent all her savings on her UK trip so that she could get married here. She could’ve married a serial killer with a British passport. I feel a little disgusted at myself. I gave up a career as a writer, my social life, for absolutely nothing.
‘I go to Starbucks at Culver Square in the hope that some 30-something hot woman will look at me and start a conversation. Hasn’t happened till now. Been three years,’ I say.
And I wasn’t that bad looking. I had an Art Malik kind of vibe going for me. But then, science was my true passion. Electronics and technology were my obsession.
‘Anyway, can you put in word to Draco that I’m looking for a sabbatical? It’s been ten years, I’m definitely due for one.’
We called the Vice Chancellor “Draco”, for obvious reasons.
‘You’re leaving now? The big guys might come back with funding you know,’ Paul says.
‘The British economy is just looking bleaker every day. There’s another thing,’ I say.
‘What?’ Paul looks concerned, hopeful again. So smart and yet so easily amused.
‘I think I might have an idea for my next novel. And I think I might just work my way into a good advance. Whatever advance I get, I’ll put into our flexible-tablet research. Let Draco know that too. It’ll influence his decision in giving me the sabbatical,’ I say.
I mostly had Paul do my dirty work. He could get away with it, being so young. He was the resident immature genius. And Paul didn’t mind helping me out. I was an elder brother-figure to him.
‘Well things will get better. The economy is bound to get better. Until then focus on your book, this is a good opportunity for you I guess,’ Paul says.
* * *
It’s been two weeks since I was granted my sabbatical.
I’ve been working on my novel for about a couple of weeks now, and I have somewhat of a story idea, a blurb ready. If you ask me, it’s as stupid as it can sound, but Angelica keeps on liking it. At this moment, if I had a talking banana spank a talking pear sexually, Angelica would like it.
I have my email ready for Angelica. It sounds good. This is how it reads:
I have the story idea ready for my next novel. The working title is ‘Space Submission.’ The story takes place in two planets in the Galaxy Crinkle-XYZ. These planets are Subservious-XX and Assertivious-XY . The planet Subservious-XX breeds submissive female species. The planet Assertivious-XY breeds dominant male species. Every day, millions of females from Subservious-XX are sent to Assertivious-XY to be dominated.
Placidious-431XY, a common male being in the planet Assertivious-XY is different. He wants to be dominated. He enjoys being a submissive.
Placidious-431XY realises he is not the only one who wants to be a submissive. There is a whole cult, a whole group of male beings on Assertivious-XY who want to be submissive. Who enjoy it. Who prefer being dominated rather than being dominant.
Later on in the story there is an important uprising, a rebellion on both the planets by beings that have these alternative choices than what they have been bred for. These beings do not want to accept the rules of their planets.
Space Submission talks about Placidious-431XY’s coming-of-age, his journey, his rebellion.
I look forward to your comments,
Cheers and regards,
Angelica responded to my email a couple of days later. She had some interesting things to say:
I really like your plot. The names of the planets are perfectly chosen. I like how you’ve turned this into a coming-of-age homosexual novel, like a rebellion homosexual novel from the early 1900s. I like the initially supressed and then rebellious central character. It has a strong approach to it.
You should have a defined ending. I would like to discuss this further with you.
There should be some backstory as to why these two planets are the way they are. An initial story defining the circumstances of these planets’ existence and their initial inhabitants’ choices. I like how you assigned the planets male / female chromosome letters, brings symbolism to the story.
The characters should be interesting. Well-defined characters should help the central character to change, and well-defined characters should restrict the central character from changing.
It is important for the central character to be likeable. Do not give him too many negative characteristics.
I have been talking to some influential people about your story and the input from them is that there needs to be an important character in your story that has tentacles. This character also has to erotically use its tentacles.
Is a month enough for you to send me the first three chapters?
* * *
I walk into Starbucks. The same Starbucks, at Culver Square. Looks like this is Angelica’s favourite spot as well.
‘I like it. Actually I love it. I love your final manuscript,’ Angelica says.
‘Thanks. And thanks for the continuous input you’ve been giving me all along,’ I say.
‘Well I have to say that you’ve been very receiving for this book. You were pretty rigid ten years ago. Actually, a pain in the arse.’ Angelica gives me a sly grin.
‘Well, people mature,’ I say.
The truth was that I was just interested in the money. I could’ve written anything to make Angelica happy.
‘So I’ve spread the word around, shown a few initial chapters. The buzz is that it’s hot cake. They want it. They want it bad.’ Angelica leans back on her chair.
She knows how to make a statement. I could learn a few tricks from her.
‘So what do we do now?’ I say.
‘We want to turn the hot cake into gold now. Let’s make this bigger and better,’ Angelica says.
‘Well, as you said, I’ve been very receiving of your opinions for this novel. So what changes do you want in the manuscript?’ I say.
‘None, it’s perfect. Didn’t you hear me say – “final” manuscript,’ Angelica says.
I was confused now. What is Angelica talking about? What else can I do for her other than edit my manuscript? And I was ready to change anything in the manuscript. I’ve been doing it for the last seven months. For the past seven months it was like Angelica had my little finger in her hand and was guiding me through a forest. I’d made myself used to being a receptacle for her ideas. So, what is she talking about now? What do I need to do now? I had a feeling that something strange was about to come up in our conversation. The unacceptable popping-up any moment.
But I had to be calm. I had to be the ever-empty but always-available receptacle to Angelica’s ideas. Paul told me yesterday on the phone that the large electronics company, which was funding our project, was not even replying to our emails now.
‘What should we be doing then, Angelica?’ I ask.
‘Who is Vijay Patel?’ Angelica looks at me with a look that is a homogeneous mixture of both inquisition and enthusiasm.
‘Huh?’ I say.
‘I mean you, Vijay Patel. The author. The brand. Who are you?’ Angelica says.
‘I had a science-fiction bestseller ten years ago that won a Nebula Award. That always helps,’ I say.
‘It does. You think if you didn’t have the Nebula, I would be spending so much time with you? A known literary agent spending so much time with an author who has an idea, only an idea? Of course not! The Nebula got you into my inner circle. And that’s what I want to make clear. Your background got you the attention it needed from me. But now we need to do more. We need to re-launch you.’ Angelica taps the back of my hand twice and then places it back on her side of the round coffee table.
I feel as if I am being sucked into a selling pitch. A pyramid-marketing scheme. But I have to play on. I mean, in the end, I profit out of this.
‘OK, so do you have any ideas?’ I say.
‘Some,’ Angelica says.
She takes a long sip out of her coffee cup and then puts it down on its saucer. Then she pulls back her chair a little, so that my view of her legs is not blocked by the round table. She’s wearing a dark blue skirt today. It’s not the knee-length and fitted style she usually wears. It’s shorter and flowy.
‘How kinky are you?’ Angelica crosses her legs. Her upper leg being in the air, in the act of crossing-over, longer than required. Taking her own sweet time.
‘I beg your pardon?’ I ask.
‘How kinky are you, Mr. Vijay Patel?’ Angelica asks.
‘I’m a Professor of Electronic Engineering at the University of Essex. I’m as boring as a geeky Indian-born nerd can be. What the hell do you want me to say? I’m not kinky at all.’ I take out my University ID card and show it to Angelica, to reinforce my statement.
‘I’ve seen you look at my legs Vijay. I’ve seen you look at the women here in the coffee shop.’ Angelica says.
‘That doesn’t mean I’m kinky. I’m just a guy, a normal guy,’ I say.
She was playing mind games again, and I was volunteering to get sucked in.
‘You haven’t been heard from for the last ten years. You’re not married. You need to sound busy doing very naughty stuff. We need to give you a kinky persona,’ Angelica says.
‘I was busy. I was researching. I was busy trying to invent. I was working fifteen hours a day, every day, even on weekends. You have to understand Angelica, I sacrificed my personal life for science and technology. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last ten years. That’s why I’m not married.’
‘Listen Vijay. There are companies, big conglomerates that may show interest in your novel. I’m talking about a T.V. series, probably a movie. Mass-produced intergalactic-themed sex toys. Sexual sci-fi merchandise. The works. These companies are not going to back an author who doesn’t have something going for him. They want an author who has a kinky story. They want someone who has experienced this first-hand. They want someone who was busy discovering the underground BDSM scene for the last ten years. You like discovering and inventing don’t you?’ Angelica consolingly places both her hands on the back of my hands.
‘So you want to lie to the world and show them that I have experience in BDSM?’ I ask.
‘You get the drift,’ Angelica says.
Had she lost her mind? I was a Professor, I had a reputation at University.
‘The drift. Are you crazy? This is not a drift, it’s a hurricane. I cannot accept this,’ I say.
‘Listen Vijay, we might have a chance for getting into an auction here. This may be the big league for you,’ Angelica says.
I had to remind myself of the flexible-tablet. Of how much I loved science and technology. Of how the patent would give me the opportunity to retire, would make me rich. Why should I care about the university when nothing is happening there? No funding, no research. This break would only help my research at the university. I’m putting all of my book-advance into the flexible-tablet research anyway. This is a good opportunity. If it means a little mud on my collar, I wouldn’t mind it. All for the greater cause of science and technology.
‘Whatever floats our boat, I guess. OK. Let’s do this,’ I say.
‘You won’t regret this,’ Angelica smiles.
* * *
Culver Square again. Starbucks again. Angelica again.
‘Mr. Patel. We have an auction. It’s official,’ Angelica says.
Now I should know how a book auction goes, but frankly speaking, I don’t. I was given an offer from Harper Collins ten years ago. I was a first-time author, Angelica was my agent, she said it was a good offer and I accepted it.
‘So when and where is it?’ I ask.
‘When and where is what?’ Angelica asks and adds, ‘Oh My God. Professor Patel, you really don’t know how a book auction works, do you?’ Angelica grins so wide, it could be touching her ears.
‘Guilty as charged,’ I say.
This was embarrassing. I needed to know though, this concerned me.
‘Everything’s done via email or phone. I let all the interested publishers know the rules and the deadline and they let me know their bid price,’ Angelica says.
‘Oh so it’s not like how they auction pieces of art,’ I say.
‘No, not at all. No gavels.’ Angelica’s grin gets even wider. I didn’t think it was possible to grin that wide. Guess I was wrong.
‘So, I guess you wouldn’t know what a floor is either?’ Angelica asks.
She was being smug now. Rubbing it in.
‘Go on,’ I say.
‘A floor is a base offer given by a publisher. It’s an offer that sets the count, which starts the bid. Guess how much your floor is,’ Angelica says.
‘How much?’ I say.
‘Six hundred fifty thousand pounds. They want to use it everywhere. Kinky toys, merchandise, what not,’ Angelica says.
* * *
I get an email from Angelica a few days later:
A million! You’ve got your name in a really short list. You get a million-pound advance! Penguin. Having a really busy day. I’ll give you a call today evening around 7.
Oh, did I mention, a million pound advance!?
I call Paul.
‘The final offer for my shitty book is a million pounds,’ I say to Paul over the phone.
‘Are you serious? I can’t believe that. It’s enough for the entire flexible-tablet research,’ Paul says.
‘Well then, let’s start researching flexible-LED-screens and microchips. I have a million pounds to spend,’ I say on the phone.
* * *
‘So I guess that’s our last option then. Well we did try,’ Paul says.
We had tried our last idea. Our last experimental combination to make the electronic tablet roll-able without the screen and the microchips getting damaged. Sadly, it failed.
It takes a lot for a scientist to accept it’s over. It takes a lot for a scientist to accept that the research he spent multiple years on was actually a failure. But then, that’s research, that’s science.
I had accepted that we wouldn’t be able to make the electronic tablet roll-able a couple of days ago. But I didn’t want to bring Paul down, its common courtesy between scientists. Paul had to accept it himself and I just had to play along until he did. And now Paul had finally accepted that the flexible-tablet research did not have a successful conclusion.
‘It was a good project though. But I think it’s time we started researching something else,’ I say to Paul.
‘I agree,’ Paul says.
‘It was money well spent Paul. I mean, I would have loved for it to be a success. But you also know that it’s not really about success and failure for us scientists. It’s about the research opportunity. The opportunity and the anxiety of hit-and-trials.’ I put my hand on Paul’s shoulder and give it a brotherly-reassuring shake.
‘So was all your book-money spent on our flexible-tablet, or is there another royalty cheque coming in?’ Paul says.
‘Oh, no royalty cheques coming my way. Haven’t you been reading the reviews for “Space Submission”?’ I say.
‘No, why?’ Paul asks.
‘The best one was from the Guardian,’ I say.
I do my best air-quotes sign. ‘Space Submission is a serious failure that sets a strong negative example that needs to be learnt from,’ I say and conclude my air-quotes sign.
Both Paul and I start laughing in synchronisation.
‘Let’s get out of here for now. Let’s take a break,’ Paul says.
And both of us grab our coats and head towards Starbucks, Culver Square.
Akhil Kakkar is a Gurgaon based freelance writer. He has an M.A. in Creative Writing from Brunel University, London. He has been mentored by renowned author Anita Nair, and has attended the ‘Time to Write’ course at The University of Cambridge twice. He can be contacted at [email protected].
Cover image: vintagefieldandgarden.com