It was that time of the year again.
She was perched upon a rickety swing, in a desolate park, alone. The surroundings were mostly in tune with her current disposition, only intermittently broken by quiet laughter emanating from a group of revelers cuddled around a campfire in a corner not too far from the deserted playground which was currently her domain.
The sun painted the environs in myriad hues of orange. The air was mercifully still but nevertheless had that chilling edge to it, which cut to the bones and was more often than not the portent of an even colder night.
The chains clanked against the worn frame as she swung to and fro, her eyes riveted upon the fading horizon. One hand clutched a journal and a pencil as she racked her brains in vain, trying to ignite the flame of inspiration which would finally allow her to do what she was supposed to be best at – writing.
But words escaped her, imagination failed her and the revered instruments of her art weighed on her being like stones.
The sound of approaching footsteps broke her reverie. She did not look up.
The adjacent swing strained under the weight of its new occupant and was set in motion. She glanced sideways to see the man equally preoccupied, apparently on the same quest as hers.
Two perfect strangers, they had spent the past two weeks in the same manner.
She chuckled – slightly, derisively. An open-ended invitation to either remain in silence or initiate a conversation. He took the hint, his lips curving into a half-smile as he muttered, “What a morbid way to end the year.”
“I couldn’t have asked for more, you know.”
“With a couple of lovely lines to bring a closure, that would have been the case, yes.”
“We still have until midnight.”
“Until midnight and all I’ll be able to describe is this numbing cold, in not too flattering words.”
“Spare me the rhetoric – why don’t you go out and enjoy yourself like those people over there?”
“You and I both know we’re better than that, sure enough.”
“How morose. There’s more to life.”
“Which could be denied to us if we don’t get back on track, you see.”
“Worst case scenario – we’ll be dismissed.”
“Unlike you, I can’t live with that.”
And so the banter continued, each choosing to sidestep the looming question. How prolific they were in their art was left buried under their increasing impatience to write and submit a short story to a prestigious competition. It was important – for the money and a little for the pride.
The string of coincidences that led them here were also that easily brushed off.
“Your idea of a collaboration doesn’t seem to be working.”
“I never proposed it in the first place.”
“Are you telling me that I was dreaming of that up till now?”
“Cut it out! Not like I’d want to share the money with you.”
“That is if you get any in the first place.”
“Neither will you, if you keep harping that way.”
They both turned away, brokering an unspoken agreement of not bothering the other any further.
Her pensive mood resurfaced, the brief pleasure of an otherwise worthless repartee having but all gone. They didn’t have the hour to kill today; there would be no tomorrow. Her hand moved unconsciously, scribbling across the pages, throwing together random words that might, just might paint a cohesive picture at the end of it.
“Stream of consciousness doesn’t work with us; I thought you knew that already.”
She looked at him, annoyance flashing in her eyes before giving way to resignation. “I can’t think of anything else.”
Abruptly, he stood up and extended a hand towards to her. “Let’s go and take a walk.”
She acquiesced. They began to circle the park, the air now crackling with the smell of burning wood. The glowing embers had been deserted a while ago and were dying. They chose to sit by the fire – she drawing up her legs and warming her hands over the flames while he gathered branches and twigs scattered around to build them up.
“I would be content to just write about this setting. A fire entrances me like nothing else.”
“‘The orange flames waved at the crowd as paper and print dissolved inside them. Burning words were torn from their sentences.’”
“I’m afraid that is exactly what is happening to us tonight.”
“Maybe,” he said, looking at her strangely. She returned the gaze with a question but he chose to focus on his notebook instead, scribbling furiously.
What the…? She was still stuck and he was writing away!
Fifteen minutes more of staring into the fire and she gave up. She didn’t want to spend the New Year’s Eve in chasing words and sentences – she wanted to go back home, to warmth and comfort even if it meant curling up with a blanket against the window, watching the fireworks and ushering in the New Year, alone.
(The competition be damned, meanwhile.)
She stood up to leave, glancing at the man before her, apparently blessed by the muse. He did condescend to give her an acknowledging nod, which was surprisingly more emphatic than pitying.
Walking away, she reflected upon how disappointed he was…sorry to see her leave but too proud to hold her back.
It takes a writer to identify solitude – chosen or imposed - in another. They can’t blossom otherwise.
Two days after that dissatisfying evening, she was back in the park. The settings had not changed and neither had the cold. Seated on her usual spot, the swing, she couldn’t help but feel as if her life was forever thwarted in anticipation of something to come, that elusive future that would finally allow her to start living.
But fate decided to surprise her, for once, when the same man who had been her silent companion for the past two weeks turned up besides her. To see him in reality than in her daydreams.
He handed over a single sheet to her without looking in her direction.
She smiled in spite of herself. “Muse not pleased enough to grant you a winning entry?”
She read. A story of a girl by a fire, an artist looking to kindle her own flame, the outpouring of which would be her tale to tell the world. Of a night sheltering two strangers in the cold. Of everything and nothing in particular.
Of how a writer never really needs a story to write; the ability to tell one is more than enough.
She looked up and smiled at him – the first, genuine smile she had shared with him, a gesture more personal than knowing his name.
Which she didn’t know, and neither did he.
But, they had an entire year (and perhaps even further) to know more of each other.
He took her hand and the deal was struck. And yet again, she couldn’t have asked for more.
Thanks to Hachiko for her help. ;)
A very Happy New Year to all my readers in advance. :)