The child yells, like a daemon from the Underworld. None of the ladies seated daintily in the first class coach expect such a ghastly noise from a child.
Olivia hurriedly shushes the child, lest he let out that primal scream again. For her, it is a clear indication of an empty stomach.
“Leo, we will reach grandma’s home soon. You will eat your favourite chocolate cookies and sweet marzipan, won’t you, little cutie?”
She tickles her son. He laughs like an angel, to the mother’s relief. Then, he asks, “What does grandma look like?”
“It’s a surprise!”
‘For me too,’ she thinks to herself.
Jane sits by the window, nursing a cup of warm Egg Nog.
She looks at the giggling kids play on the snow-covered pavement. The smiles on their faces indicate a happiness of the mind, and an absence of any worry at all. Or maybe just one worry: whether they would get the gift of their dreams beneath the Christmas tree.
She wonders if she too could write down her worries in a letter to Santa Claus. Specially the ones which made her feel like an anchor to a ship sailing in a stormy sea.
‘I doubt I will ever be able to write anything like that again,’ she thinks to herself.
The latest piece of writing by her was a letter she had written to her only daughter, Olivia, inviting her home for Christmas. A week had passed since she had written three parchments full of her loopy cursive handwriting. She had spent the entire week worrying and fretting about whether she had used the right words. Not grammatically or contextually correct way, but in a motherly way.
The words came easily, but her feelings remained hidden.
“Welcome home, Olivia!” says the old lady.
The daughter stands by the doorstep. She looks at her mother for a brief second. Looking away, her eyes are attracted to the familiar paperback copies adorning the lavender coloured wall. Each of them bear that distinct “Bestseller” ribbon, and the name of the same author. Her mother’s name.
The little boy hides behind his mother, as if scared of his grandma Jane. His mother squeezes his hand, and nods curtly at the old lady.
“This is Leo. Leo, this is the grandma who will feed you chocolate cookies and sweet marzipan, just like she said in her letter.” Olivia’s voice is stiff, but not heartless.
“Yes, Leo. I also have hunted out some of your mommy’s old play toys. You can play with them!” The old lady’s eyes shine bright.
“I have packed some of his toys in my overnight bag, mother.” Olivia replies. Her voice lacks warmth, and an empty smile plays on her lips as Jane, her mother leads Leo into the spare bedroom.
‘What have I signed up for?’ Olivia thinks to herself.
While she waits for her mother to return back to the living room, Olivia walks to the elaborate bookshelf adorning the lavender pink wall.
‘The woodwork is intricate and brilliant,’ she thinks to herself. ‘but not as intricate and brilliant as the bestsellers it hold.’
All the books sitting neatly on the bookshelf Olivia has read, except the one which was the reason for the rift between Olivia and her mother, Jane.
The very same rift which was the reason why the world never got to read Olivia’s debut novel.
As they sip their chocolate teas, Olivia and Jane avoid each other’s eyes.
Jane knows it is her prerogative to initiate a conversation, as she invited her daughter home for Christmas. But something about Olivia’s hostile behaviour makes her feel uncomfortable about broaching a topic, a fifteen year old fight.
‘What was I thinking? Why did I imagine Olivia leaping right into my arms, her face full of an angelic grin, the baby of my memories?’
Olivia chooses to break the silence.
“If you think that the mistletoe and sweet baby Jesus lying in the crib is going to make me reconsider my decision of avoiding contact with you; you are partly right.” She pauses. “I came here, because I felt that my senile mother needed another chance. But sitting here right now, I feel that I need a chance first: to know why you botched up the release of my debut novel. Why did you choose to write about such an ill-researched topic, in the very year that I was working on my first YA short story collection? Don’t lie, you saw me working on the novel day and night, didn’t you?”
Olivia’s nostrils flare up, slightly panting. Jane’s eyes fill up with tears.
“Olivia, I didn’t mean to… I didn’t expect my fans to be so sensitive… I tried to tell you… the critics… They always wait to suck the blood right out of my heart the moment the books I write are pumped out of the publishing house.” Jane laughed nervously.
Lack of response from Olivia forces Jane to resume soberly, “I remember you working on your short story collection. In your bedroom, even in the early days, when you wanted to keep it hidden from me. Did you think that a fellow writer and your own mother wouldn’t notice that you had stopped going to a party every night, and spent nights awake on non-examination days? And if that wasn’t enough, the high electricity bill would have been the second warning bell.”
Jane reached forward to take a sugar-coated cookie from the table, hoping that Olivia would take the lead.
But Olivia was seated statuesque, waiting for the real answer.
Jane hastily dropped the cookie back on the platter, wiped her sweaty hands on her trousers and continued.
“I didn’t intend to make that grave mistake. I thought I had some great psychiatrists on my beta reader panel, as well as my students from the Ph.D honours class. It turned out that the disorder I was writing about wasn’t well researched to begin with, and not many had knowledge about it. I had to rely on a limited number of books, and even those weren’t exhaustive. I shouldn’t have published that book… A few beta-readers said they felt a bit wonky after reading the final draft. But I chose to listen to the majority who told me that my idea was unique and never done before. A break from my romantic fiction novels. I could finally conquer a market which has the elite readers, the ones who ruminate over books for days, months and even years. ”
Olivia nods slightly.
Emboldened, Jane blurts out what she had been meaning to say every day of the past fifteen years, “But, I realised too late that my ignorance should not have been used as an excuse to lose sight of you and your dreams. I was a blithering idiot, a cocksure novelist, chasing after fame when I already had enough. Olivia, I can only ask you to forgive me. My solitude has been my penance; my inability to pick up a pen, my curse. I can only ask you to understand me.”
Olivia blurts out, “I have been a ghostwriter all these years. ”
Jane puts down her cup of tea and says, “Wow.” Her voice comes out like the squeak of a rubber tyre.
Olivia continues, “No publisher accepted my debut manuscript. I even went to the ones who are not mentioned in your contacts list. I couldn’t focus on writing a new manuscript, only thoughts of anger and sadness flooded my mind at every moment. My name was already tainted, before I had even stepped out of my eggshell.” She shakes her head, as if shaking away the bad memories.
“A few years passed by. I kept attending networking events, hoping I could be a co-author or something. Or a non-published mentor. You see, I couldn’t stop myself from not giving up on my dream. ” She takes a sip of tea. “You have probably read the books I’ve ghostwritten.”
Jane interjects, “I pretty much stopped reading after what happened…”
“Oh, I’ll get a copy the next time I visit.”
“That’s okay. Do get Leo too. Has he started school yet?” Jane chooses to change the topic away from awkward waters.
“No, not yet.”
Unable to stop herself, Jane asks, “Are you happy with the ghostwriting?”
Olivia smiles, “Happy? Do you mean: am I happy writing something, and seeing someone else’s name on the cover page? Of course I am happy. Earlier, I did feel moments of anger… I had always dreamt of having a bookshelf like yours, earning royalties like a queen. What happened fifteen years ago really shattered me. But once I started working with inventors who needed a voice for their dreams, managers who wanted to share their experiences with newbies, economists who wanted to change the way we spend money, I realised that publishing a book is not only about the fame. It’s about the greater good, and creating knowledge that lasts forever.”
“Now, I’m one of the most sought-after ghostwriters in the industry.” She has a happy smile on her face. “Sometimes I wonder if destiny intended it for it to be this way. But then I recall that there’s nothing like destiny. If destiny existed, you would never have published that book.”
Picking up a cookie, Olivia says softly, “But destiny would agree with me on this one: You didn’t deserve that kind of an exit from the writing world.”
Tears start flowing from Jane’s eyes as she says, “Olivia. I haven’t picked up a pen and written all these years, even though I could have taken the ghostwriting way. I couldn’t write at all…”
Olivia’s features contort into a mix of sadness and shock. “You mean, you didn’t write anything? Not even a personal draft, like, a draft that you never intended to publish?”
Jane smiles sadly, and nods.
“If publishing my book affected you, your lack of support in that tough time affected me too, Olivia.”
Jane picks up her tea glass and stands up. Leaving the room, she leaves a devastated Olivia behind.
It’s night-time. Olivia is tucking Leo in.
He says, “Mommy, can I ask you for something?”
“Will grandma read me that book lying on that bookshelf?” Leo points at a bookshelf right opposite his bed.
Olivia looks at the bookshelf, and her heart stops for a minute. After all these years, that book couldn’t still be be here, could it? She could clearly remember taking it along with her, the day she left home.
“I’m not sure, cutie. But I’ll ask her.”
Olivia walks out of the spare bedroom, and into her mom’s room. She finds her mother seated on the bed, eyes closed.
Lightly tapping her on the shoulder, she says, “Leo wants you to read a book for him.”
Jane replies hesitantly, “Why don’t you read it, dear. I’m meditating right now. Tell Leo I’m asleep.”
“The book he wants you to read is… My debut novel.”
Emboldened by a ready-made excuse, Jane claims, “But that’s YA, right? Not exactly suitable for a little boy. Find another book, and read it to him.”
“Mom, I think the essence of the situation is that he wants YOU to read. He wouldn’t even notice if you made up a story while holding my book in your hands.”
“Make up a story? That’s incredulous. Olivia, I can’t. I’m sorry, but I can’t. I can make the cookies and marzipan, but I can’t…”
Olivia looks pained, “Leo is really eager to spend more time with you. Look at how he enjoyed talking to you about his imaginary cat during dinnertime. Frankly, he’s bored of me, and my flat, unimaginative voice.” She says with a slight laugh.
Slightly pleading now, Olivia whispers, “Please mom, I think this will be our Christmas miracle.”
Jane is surprised yet moved by Olivia’s words. She stands up, removed her glasses from a dusty case sitting by her bedside table.
“Let’s go,” she smiles at Olivia.
I leave it to you to think about what happens next. Does Olivia start writing independently? Does Jane start writing children’s books? Does Leo grow up to be the best detective mystery book writer?
I do hope you have a Merry Christmas, and enjoy the experience of forgiving and being forgiven. It’s one of the most tough things you’ll ever do, but you will surely be a better person once your heart is cleaned from that ugly dust of sadness, irritation and anguish.
P.S.:I do have great respect for people who ghostwrite, and I think it’s a really cool thing to do. I hope that this story sheds enough light on what ghostwriters actually do. If I have made any error in my portrayal of ghostwriters, do feel free to comment and let me know.