I’d been a freelance writer at Zenith for three years and regularly came by the Zenith office for meetings. Back then Zenith was in its fourth year and still struggling. A monthly mix of in-depth features, history, culture, fashion, science. And then there was my Melody Talkin’ page. It was supposed to be the light-hearted, cutting-edge, female, commentary piece. Supposed to be. In reality, it was a bit Bridget Jones without the originality, the wit, or the following.
Waving me into his office on the fifth floor, Jake told me it’d been a crazy week. He certainly looked worn around the edges, even for him. His dark brown eyes were tired, his skin grey and sallow. Sitting behind a chaotic desk full of papers and layouts he leant back, sighed and glanced over the draft of the August edition of my page with a concentrated frown. While I waited, I listened to the noise drifting up from the street below through the open window behind his desk. The muffled sounds of Soho on a warm summer’s day filtered through the noise of London traffic while I waited, studying his face trying to gauge a reaction. But I already knew. These days Jake only ever asked me to come into the office when he didn’t like a draft. I wouldn’t say I only ever saw him in person when there was a problem, but almost, to the point where these days my heart always sank when I saw his name blinking at me on my phone. You see, fact was I’d hit an inspiration dry patch these last few months and I was worried that this, the August edition, was missing the mark too. It lacked that certain spark. I knew it, and judging by the expression on Jake’s face, he knew it too.
“Look Mels...and thanks for coming in at short notice but I have to be honest, we could run it but... well, it does feel a bit...tired,” he said, tossing my draft down on the desk, rubbing his eyes and yawning.
“Sorry,” he apologized between the yawns, “It’s been a long week. I was here till gone midnight last night. Look, is there anything you can do to...I don’t know, spice it up a bit? I’m finding this topic a little bit...well, dry to be frank. Coffee?” he asked getting up and going over to a Nespresso machine on the side, popping in a capsule and turning to me.
“No thanks, I’m fine.” I tried to smile back. “Just had one.”
“I think you’ve forgotten who your audience is.” He continued with another frown as he watched the black, bitter smelling coffee drain into the small paper cup. “Look I know it’s supposed to be a final draft but...do you think you could have a go at re-working it a bit? It’ll mean more work for you but...I’m thinking that maybe you could add in that story you told me about...you know, the one about the dinner party?”
Jake was old school and still worked on hard copies and, to make matters worse, while he waited for his cup to fill, I sneaked a glance at the draft sitting on his desk. I could see in a flash it had scribbles all over it, in angry red ink. My heart sank some more.
“I guess I can put some more time into it. Adding the dinner party won’t be too hard,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant while my mind flashed back to the red pen, scribbled all over the draft. I was trying to keep my calm, but underneath I was annoyed. I’d already spent a lot of time on the piece, had another stack of small articles to finish for another client and ‘spicing it up,’ as he put it, wasn’t going to be so easy. Not only that, but given Jake’s reaction and all the red pen, it was clear that it wasn’t so much a re-working, more a complete re-write. Damn.
“When do you need the final version?” I asked trying to keep calm, getting out my phone and flicking through to find my schedule for the following week.
“How would next Tuesday be?” he asked, taking a sip of coffee, going back to his desk and putting his feet up.
Jake was OK. There had even been times in the beginning when I’d thought he was good looking. With a mop of messy hair, a scrawny frame and just enough stubble to light a match he had that grungy, trendy, Brit-pop thing going on. We’d done a fair bit of flirting in the first few months too. The office gossips had been all over that. There’d been a couple of jokes about us down ‘The Goose & Stump’ pub for a leaving do just last week. People can get lippy after a few beers and without any food to soak them up. Jake had shrugged it off, even found it funny, but I was livid. The last thing I wanted was people thinking I’d bagged a freelance contract because we were an item, but I knew they did. Worse even, that they thought it was thanks to my mum. She’d been working at The Times in the early eighties with Jake’s dad. They’d hardly been in touch since but when I’d come out of the post grad on Journalism, she’d given him a call. I don’t know how far strings had been pulled, but a few weeks later I’d had an interview and got a contract at Zenith. I’d tried to put it to the back of my mind ever since. I’d never asked mum about it, but I’d always wondered if the office gossips knew. Then one afternoon I'd heard a couple of assistants from the design studio chatting outside the disabled toilet on the second floor. The general gist had been: “Was Melody getting her contract renewed next year? Of course, she’s shagging the boss…and her mum had shagged his dad too.’’
“OK, no problem. Tuesday it is.” I said making a note in my calendar and trying to sound positive. I needed inspiration, that was for sure, but from where was I going to get it? My energy levels for my Melody Talkin’ page were at an all-time low, my boredom at an all-time high. The reality of my ‘going nowhere fast’ career in journalism suddenly came into sharp focus and I felt weary. Putting down my phone, it must’ve shown.
“Look Mels, sorry to be a bit, you know, down on this draft,” Jake said draining his coffee and flippantly indicating at the semi-butchered draft on his desk “but you know we’ve got problems with circulation. I’m under a lot of pressure to get it up and now Mac’s breathing down my neck too. Numbers from last month weren’t great either, and to be frank, I need to find a way to boost sales. I’m working on some big-name celeb interviews for the start of next year with Kate but if that doesn’t work, we may have to go for a complete re-launch.” He paused. “Look, and as I mentioned on the phone, that’s the other thing I wanted to chat to you about today. I know it’s early to talk about next year’s contracts and well, I want to give you the work, but...” he continued with a frown “... Mac’s going to be looking for something a bit more current, a bit more edgy for next year, especially with the new focus on digital sales. I hope you don’t think I’m passing my stress to you, but there’s only so much I can do. And, look, nobody’s safe around here right now. We’re all under scrutiny, even me. You know, with Mac sinking a lot of his own money into Zenith, he’s all over it…if any contracts get the chop, it'll be the freelance ones first. You know how these things go and...”
“Don’t worry Jake, I get it.” I smiled weakly, trying to keep a mounting sense of panic under control. This was bad news for me. I needed my Zenith contract and Jake was giving me a heads-up, a warning, loud and clear. I had to raise my game. This wasn’t just a blow for my current contract, but for my entire future at Zenith, and my career too. Fact was I’d had my sights on more than my Melody Talkin’ page, and I’d been planning to broach it with Jake next week. A while back he’d told me that Sam the current feature writer was leaving at the end of the year and since hearing the news my heart was set on getting the contract. It was the type of journalism I’d wanted to get into for years, more serious investigative stuff, and now it was up for grabs. Not only this but the thought of a proper contract, not a shitty freelancer deal, was too good to be true. But the writing was on the wall. To stand any chance I’d have to do better. Jake leaned over the desk and looked at me earnestly.
“Can I be frank, Mels? Word in the office is that that you’re keen on getting Sam’s contract when it comes up next year. Is that true?”
“What?! Who did you hear that from?” I exclaimed, blushing and wondering if Jake could read minds.
“Well, people talk.” He said shuffling a bunch of papers on his desk and looking up again. “Look, in the end, who I heard it from doesn’t matter. Is it true? I’d like you to be candid with me, Mels. I can’t help out if I don’t know what you want. And you know that there’s going to be a lot of competition for that contract. Jennifer, for one.”
Jennifer was another freelance writer. She was good, too.
“Having said that, fact is, as much as I’d like, I can’t promise anything,” he continued. “It’s not going to be my decision. You know how Mac is with these things and, well, now we’re under pressure to get circulation up, he’s going to be worse than before. I can’t take a shit right now without his permission.”
Mac. He was the new chair of the board and a complete control freak. He’d only been around six months and was meddling in everything, according to Jake. Word was he wanted a big shake up at Zenith. I’d only met Mac a couple of times and we hadn’t really hit it off. It was clear he had his sights on cutting my Melody Talkin’ page and there was only so long Jake could hold him off with my contract coming to an end at the end of the year. All things considered, especially with Mac throwing his weight around, things were not looking good. Still, Jake had raised the issue, so I seized the moment and pressed on.
“Look, Melody Talkin’ is great. It was a fantastic start for a young writer but, you know, I’ve been doing it for almost three years now and well, we’ve talked about this before....I...”
“…want to get into more serious, investigative stuff?” he finished for me with a smile.
“See, you know me so well,” I admitted with a shrug. “I’m still just looking for that break,” I continued. “and when I heard Sam might be leaving, I was hoping the feature contract could be mine...”
“OK Mels. It’s good to know you’re still looking to make that move.” Jake cut in, leaning forward in his chair and looking mildly uncomfortable for the first time. “I can understand, really. But, look, we can be straight with each other, right?”
“Well I do have the sense that you’ve been, well, let’s say...struggling a bit recently. Your page is ... ‘samey’ these days. Are you finding things hard right now? Writer’s block? You know you can be honest with me...”
Jake was right. It wasn’t just the August edition either. I had to admit it. These last couple of months I’d lost my va-va-voom. I was lacking inspiration, lacking ideas and lackluster. I’d felt it myself and now Jake had noticed too.
“You’re right. I’ve been finding it a bit hard of late,” I admitted, thinking on my feet. “But I probably just need a holiday or something. A break, a weekend away, whatever...and then I’m sure I’ll get my mojo back and look, don’t worry. You can count on me. I’ll tighten up this month’s page, make it more upbeat.” Taking Jake’s glance at the clock on the wall as sign that the meeting was over, I got up and started shoving my things back into my bag to leave.
“Cool!” he said smiling, jumping up and stretching. For a moment he looked more relaxed.
“I know you can turn it around Mels. And then, once you’ve got your Melody Talkin’ page back on track, let’s see about that feature contract. OK?” Stopping to pause, he looked thoughtful then went on.
“Listen, why don’t we try something. I’m meeting with Mac next week and if you could already have a list of potential feature ideas to show him, well that might be a good start. I know Mac and first you’ve gotta win him over on your ideas and way of thinking. And if you can show him that you can deliver on those, he’s going to be easier to convince later. Then, if he likes them, I may ask you to write something up to show him what you can do. I mean, he only knows you for Melody Talkin’. If you can show him what else you’re capable of, that might be a good start. How does that sound?”
“OK!” I grinned back. Suddenly I felt flushed with hope. It was a slim hope, but better than nothing.
“I won’t let you down Jake. I’ll get the Melody Talkin’ page and the list of ideas to you by early next week.”
“Great.” He grinned, scratching his head. “And that’s a great idea, I mean, the holiday,” he said jumping up to walk me to the door. “You haven’t been anywhere in a while, no? Why not take a couple of weeks, even a month? I don’t care where you are if I get the features we agreed on time. Take yourself off, have some fun and, after all, you’re lucky. I mean, you can work from anywhere, right? Wasn’t that one of the things you said appealed to you about being a freelancer in the first place?”