I knew the scent. A cocktail of cigarettes, lust and Davidoff.
Then I heard the name. Andrew Brown.
Perched on tables, staring at the rotating chairs with a 360-degree take, colleagues were in conversation, a hushed exchange of exclamations and bumfuzzled expressions. Only the name rose above the din. Blue jeans, weather scarred. A hoodie. A metonym. I thought I had swept it all into that bin of forgettable art. “Myra,” I heard someone call, but I kept going. The amalgam of LED bulbs and 11 am light was blinding. The window shades should be free to do their job.
I turned abruptly and crashed into a paper-laden office attendant. My iPad slipped from my grip, as did a file and my unzipped tote, the contents of which lay scattered around me like party confetti. I don’t usually walk around like a porter, balancing bits and pieces of property. I’m organised, everything has a place, is in its place. But this was that kind of a morning. My head was heavy, my feet were slow. A muscle-relaxant-fused interlude. An electric current speared through my spine shattering the lull. Hands reached out to help, pick up my belongings, gather the pages that had fanned out across the slate-grey flooring.
“Sorry,” I said to no one in particular.
“You okay?” Neeta asked, picking up my tube of Clinique. With her Sherlock Holmes air, she was holding up my lipstick, looking for the number to determine the exact shade of my pink. I nodded. This was not the time for words. Neeta didn’t need another peek into my mental state. “Deep,” Neeta decided. Intense. I threw a furtive glance around the cream-coloured interiors of our office space.
This was usually my favourite time of the day in a newspaper office. There’s a crackling freshness to 11 am. It was early, but not too early. It was when I embraced the day. A bawdy Bollywood number playing on my computer, AirPods snug in its case. Caffeine coursing through my veins. Head unwrapping an idea. Fingers hot stepping on a keyboard. An opening para that grabs the collar. It was also when reporters trickled in, talking on their phones, a persuasive edge to their tone as they attempted to get their day rolling. The swagger was for later, when they had the story to flaunt. The features team had just about swiped in and were catching the breath they had lost in the race to record their entry. Photographers were talking pictures and assignments, or checking people’s lipstick, like Neeta today. A few paginators were at their workstations, and the odd desk guy lingered, not quite knowing what to do. To commit to the day or not.
“Hey!” That came from across the office. I knew the voice. It was strong like the brew she was sipping. “My alarm didn’t ring,” I said without turning. “That kind of a morning, eh?” Sudha, Morning Herald’s business editor, enquired. Not for Circulation the way we were 3 Sudha was perfectly groomed, as always. Her salt-and-pepper bob matched the grey of her freshly starched cotton sari, which finished in a heavy red border.
“No coffee either.”
“That’s brutal,” Sudha sympathised, taking a sip of her Starbucks. Once a lover of filter coffee, she had eloped with espresso mid-sip when deployed in New York for a year.
“Making a grand entrance?” the resident editor said cheerily, walking past us. Sudha and I laughed politely.
For the record, I was seven minutes late.
I was headed in the direction of my cabin with my editor on my heels, rattling like an overloaded bus. Talking but not making sense.
I needed a few minutes to fix my head and grab a coffee. Not in that order. Today was too-few-hours Thursday, not canafford-to-stray Tuesday. The weekend supplement is put to bed early on Friday.
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
I exhaled. It was forced.
I had written most of my story, which was on the resurgent culture of street theatre in Bengaluru. Student groups used this informal presentation to capsule powerful messages, raising awareness on burning issues. My piece was the lead until the chief reporter called me this morning, waking me up with news of a recent shenanigan. A bunch of collegians had been picked up by plain-clothes policemen during a recent performance. They had been charged with selling drugs. I didn’t need the company of a genial editor on a day like this. I was by my seat, facing my desktop. I refused to make eye contact with him, preferring to gaze at the xanthic panelling at the far end of the office.
I had ignored his knock, not that these subtleties ever worked in a newspaper office. “My dear, I need to have a word with you,” he said, taking my iPad from my hand and placing it on the table. Raj Kumar was a dapper 56-year-old, a thorough gentleman, which was the only reason his female workforce put up with his endearments.
“I’m not going to take much of your time. I know today is a busy day for you,” he said as he fiddled with a coffee mug that contained dry pens from maybe the last century.
“I wanted to tell you myself,” he said slowly, squaring his shoulders and straightening his back. “Andrew Brown is joining us.”
There was only one Andrew Brown in journalism.
I tried to nod, but my neck was frozen. I tried to smile, but my lips wouldn’t move. My eyes shifted between the computer screen and my boss before getting stuck on him. His chest had puffed, and his eyes sparkled with a weirdly happy look.
The scent was beginning to surround me. Again. Cigarettes, lust and Davidoff. Andrew Brown.
Excerpted with permission from The Way We Were, Prajwal Hegde, Hachette India.