'The shepherd's pot of gold was back at home.'
Your boss, a dapper young-man, can pull off a tidy look even in scruffy casuals. Though he sits beside you in his snug, mauve tank-top and deceptively clean chinos, who is to say he won't change into a well-ironed suit in a minute or two. But more than anyone else, he alone has taught you never to size up a book by its covers. That includes him and his cutting, cryptic remarks.
You'd think you had given up heeding his wry humor, pouting each time he micromanaged the errands he doled out to you, just so he could say, 'Your part-time doubles up my full-time. And I am a workaholic.' You would patiently wait for his 'get back to your desk' look and walk towards your cubicle in one swift movement.
'Just one more day with this awful stickler.' You would exhale these words like a mantra, making sure none of your well-meaning colleagues watched your breaking point. In the heat of the moment, you'd think of the coarse woman who could rile up an entire neighborhood until she made her point.
But cussing out loud means stepping into hot water. All your life you've avoided heated arguments. You really don't like to squabble. Although you can never hate that loud-mouthed woman, you'd jump off a bridge before people found both of you alike in any way. Oh! the way she haggles with those rustic boatmen going out to sea, grabbing each and every tail of the wriggling fishes, like precious oyster-pearls. Your suave boss would perhaps belch in disgust.
Such was life few years ago. Now this exacting boss-man, who controls his desire to stroke your soft earlobes, only because you are repulsed by any public display of affection, is more than your roommate. You moved into his posh, brand-new apartment, he let you have precisely fifty-percent of say in its interiors and even bought your favourite indoor plants. That doesn't change the fact that in his fault-finding eyes, you'll always fall short.
You know precisely who the shepherd is. And that glittering pot of gold, always out of reach. Yet he has never seen you in an ungraceful light. No one has. You are the polite peacemaker, whether at office or in your hot shower, even after a bad hair day. So on this bumpy ride your voice is extra-mellow.
'This city is Kate's pot of gold, her lifeline. Her heart throbs to its hustle and bustle.'
His amused, green pupils stare at your shy, brown ones. You see that look on the faces of people who are surprised by the behaviour of their pets. However ingenious they are, the pets must be kept on a tight leash. Better brace yourself.
'There's plenty of uninspired, noisy fiction on New York. Its mustard cabs and choked subways. Doesn't Kate eat the Fifth Avenue crowd for breakfast?'
If he puts it that way, you think as he unfastens your seat-belt, helps you slide out the backseat while handing the whistling cabby exact change, he's selling you short. The driver hums Autumn in New York, the song you heard on your way out the JFK airport on your first visit to this country. You take it as a sign as your boss walks beside you towards Central Park. Time to ease him into your rebuttal.
'Kate's much more than a run-of-the-mill girl. She has musical talent, a flair for theater and is drawn to environmental causes. She isn't simply fishing for compliments or attention.'
'She's promising. I am just not sure if she makes the cut only as a New Yorker.' He gets down to fix your jogging shoes. Every time both of you stroll together on weekends, he makes sure you don't trip on your shoelaces. He scuffs your three quarters, looks up at you from the ground like a purebred terrier and says, 'If she honestly rewrites her story instead of lugging away her trolley at every perceived slight, she'll be unputdownable.'
You heard him. Another rewrite. It's not happening. It's not Kate. You are not happening.
Your fingers tense around the bottle and stop short of crushing it. Although you are hardly thirsty, you drink half the water. It's the ninth time he is asking you to tweak your finished manuscript. It's his way of saying, 'You are better off as my assistant. You don't have the makings of a best-seller.'
You look up at the garish skyline. You know about an hour of daylight is left on the August sky. That's how well you know the city's horizon. You look down before you and the favorite part of your park comes alive as you step towards it. The Conservatory Gardens. It's not just a haven for tranquil weddings and peaceful couples immersed in the mellow scenery. It's where the antique styles of French, Italian and other European gardening blend like a dream.
New York is as much your home as is his.
You inhale the crisp, autumn air to clear your head as he circles the Three Dancing Maidens. You can bet not a spray off of the fountain will trickle down his urban, Manhattan skin. He will make twenty quiet rounds before occupying a bench, always making sure it won't soil his pants. You may be far ahead of him on the race of polite manners but his actions are nowhere near as clumsy as yours.
Once you nearly tripped face-down into a muddy pool when he caught your hand, sparing you from awkwardness. Before you could thank him, he let go off your moist hand, flashed his perfectly aligned white-teeth and remarked, 'A crash-course in walking should suffice.'
Both of you are mature enough to understand first impressions don't count for much. You pull your socks up as he finishes his rounds and looks around for a clean, unoccupied bench. He shouldn't always get the last word.
'Kate unpacks her life wherever she pleases. She can take her suitcase wherever she wants!'
'Life's not about lugging a new suitcase each time an old one breaks down.'
'It depends on whose life it is. Kate didn't start off her life in an ivory tower!'
'Everyone starts from scratch. No one finds their pot of gold overnight in a foreign land.'
You've just discovered the raised-eyebrows and stares of the walkers in the park. You got carried away. While your boss is calm and composed, you were a loud speaker in full public view. A moment like this won't easily wash away.
You bite your lips and close your eyes. The image of your one and only manuscript, rejected for the ninth time, floats around your mind. You've tweaked it between queuing up for his blueberry doughnuts and folding his laundry, between fixing his webinars and checking his messages. You open your brown eyes. You just had an Eureka moment.
He didn't just imply your writing, the blood and sweat of your imagination, is better off in a derelict drawer. He meant you are better off in your past life. New York isn't your pot of gold.
That sort of criticism is off-putting. Way off the charts. No one lugs a dozen suitcases and changes ninety-nine cities to be told to pack up for good. You've read The Alchemist in some remote, godforsaken high-school and you know how to put two and two together. Santiago, the dreamy shepherd travels through unfamiliar terrain and arid deserts only to discover his treasure buried under the sycamore tree back at home.
You don't want to jump to conclusions yet. You come closer to him, feeling he should be given the benefit of the doubt. You don't want to lose your calm ever again. After all you shall sleep beside him at night, if he doesn't keep you up proof-reading someone else's manuscript.
'What should Kate be like, if we are to get into details?' you don't wanna sit down even though he's clearly asking you to, gesturing to the empty space on his bench.
'For starters, she keeps chickening out. If she fails at cello practice, she goes out of her way to save trees. When that blows up, she auditions for Broadway.'
'Is that how you see her?' your voice is getting glum. He wants to clasp your knuckles in his palms but you won't let him.
'I want to see her bare self if she would show it without fear of being judged. After a very brief moment, he adds, 'Even her warts and all.'
That's exactly what you have been trying to avoid. Why can't Kate run around forever? People in this busy city don't have time for history lessons. They run towards elevators, grab a quick bite off a street vendor's sandwich or aspire to end their hectic day with a stroll before hitting the bed. Kate can't afford to turn back time.
'Not everyone has a golden childhood, Chris,' you utter softly as your eyes well up.
'Good fiction is built on what hurts us most. It tells us not to run away.'
Why can't he for once just say, 'Darling I get you. You will touch millions with the written word.' But you do realize the guys who showed you big dreams with their sweet talk often left you hanging halfway. This is Chris Johnson, every budding author's dream editor, the young man who built Paper Pegasus from scratch. You think he can have his head-in-the-clouds?
But he's definitely not the only scribe-maker in the city. Why should his approval matter?
'Excuse me for a minute. I need to make a phone call,' that's all you manage to say.
You are not one to make another scene in an open park. You don't stamp your feet or scream out loud. You are not the foul-mouthed woman who haggles shamelessly in public places.
'Take your time,' he yells but you've already walked away to gather your thoughts. Kate's big heart isn't fond of arguments either. But your heart is much bigger which you use on puppy-rescue-operations and ageing-New Yorkers crossing the road. Unlike Kate, you aren't words trapped inside pages.
You slide your phone out of your pocket. Your cold and clammy fingers dial a number and even before the first ring goes through, you hang up. When was the last time you called this number? You can't seem to recall if it was 4th of July after watching the splendid fireworks or Oisin's birthday in the same month.
You go around accepting the flaws and weaknesses of others. When will you make peace with yours, you're beginning to wonder. And some of your weaknesses are actually strengths in disguise. Own them?
You let the call go through until there's a voice on the other side.
' Haigh? Haigh? Whose callin' at this hour?'
Every time you hear her voice, a sticky, fishy sea-breeze wafts into your vegan nostrils. That isn't the worst part. All the force you expend on building her up as a crude caricature breaks apart like a wave hitting against craggy shores.
'Mum, I miss you.'
You let your guard down like an Irish lullaby. Her harsh life doesn't texture the singsong voice in which she gently rocks you. 'Cum back 'ome, Roisin dear. Cum back,' she says.
Before she can say anything else, several voices yell through the landline's mouthpiece simultaneously. The faraway voices of your younger sisters and their babbling toddlers, your brother Oisin's stutter are punctuated by Macy's barks, your soft-coated Irish terrier who is a proud mother of three pups you haven't seen yet. You are their celebrity. They still keep the best room in the humble cottage spruced up, just in case you plan on showing up.
But it's not easy to have a change of heart simply due to a home-bound phone call. You cannot wipe out the condescending remarks, the jibes taken at your past accent, your dress and hairstyle, your history.
A fisher-woman's daughter, they called you.
Still you are back on your feet after touching base. Allow the catharsis to settle in without guilt or shame. No one picks you up like your close-knit family. How many of your city-grown colleagues can boast about such warm kinship?
You brush aside your angry tears, the pain of past bullying and pull your socks up as you make your way back to the fountain. The skyline is a patchwork of indigo and grey, the colour of your sea back home. You wonder if Chris, your boyfriend can sense what Chris, your editor made you feel like as you go up to him and sit beside him.
'What are your plans for Christmas?' His mind is somewhere else.
'It's only August. I've not given it any thought.'
'You should. Let's pack our bags and head out to Kate's countryside. She owes it to herself. After all, that's where her story starts. It might create a masterpiece.'
You look at his square face for a while, striped by the play of shadow and light. You can tell he's serious. Your editor really wants you. Your warts and all.
'That depends. Can Chris Johnson survive on fish and bread?'
'There were days he slept on an empty stomach when his dad was between jobs. Kate doesn't know the half of it.' He grips your hand firmly without hurting you. 'Fish and bread would seem like a luxury back in those days.'
'Kate is really sorry. She knows better than to run away from her frank, hard-to-please boss. He may get her worked up but it's for her own good.' Before you start blushing, you add, 'Kate knows Mr Chris gets grumpy when he gets hungry. She promises to cook up a mean curry tonight of his choice. Only if he can guess the meaning of her real name.'
'Roisin. It's Irish for rose. Little rose.'
You see his eyes roll and it brightens you up. The green in them, tinged with true warmth, washes over you. They tell you he isn't going anywhere. He is in for the long haul.