Before I could respond, our waiter, Davy took a step closer to our table to allow three burly men to make their way to the bar.
“Here’s your whisky, Jude,” Davy said. “Neat. And soda by the side.”
One of the men reached for the remote control and changed the channel on the overhead flat screen monitor to Star Sports.
Oh, goody. It was the repeat telecast of the Rugby Finals 2015 at Twickenham. I’d read on the internet that the half-time score was New Zealand 16 – Australia 3. Now, with ten minutes remaining, the All Blacks, the nickname for the New Zealand team, were still in the lead at 24 –17.
“How are you, Shanta?” There was a genuine tone to Davy’s query. “You fine, Shanta?”
“Yes, thank you, Davy.”
“You’re fine Shanta. That’s good. Would you like something to drink, Shanta?”
Poor Davy. His head was all messed up because his devout Catholic family vehemently refused to let him follow his heart and join the Jehovah’s Witness movement. Now, he repeated everything at least twice.
“Air suam,” I replied.
“Warm water? Why don’t you order something else? A proper drink?” Jude rolled up his shirt sleeves.
“No.” I shook my head. “I don’t want anything else. Water is enough.”
“No. No. No. You get her a drink.” Jude shook his head, trying to overrule me.
Davy cocked his head to one side, waiting for my response.
“I’ll think about it and get back to you.” This was my go-to answer to buy time and reject an offer without causing offence.
“OK.” Davy nodded and I watched him walk past the bar into the kitchen.
On the flat screen monitor, the time stamp read ‘74.00 min’. Oooo… I’d read that this was an important moment in the game. And so it was – Carter scored from a massive penalty kick 49 meters out.
“Wow!” I clapped my hands.
Jude rolled his eyes.
“So, Shanta… about your quotation.” His nasal voice brought me back to our makeshift negotiating table in this pub.
“Yes? My quotation?” I reached into my tote bag and pulled it out. I tugged at it when it got stuck, crumpling some of the papers. There was no need to be this nervous.
“Do you know that in the UK, the going rate to ghost write a book is £2,000 a month? That’s close to RM10,000.00 a month.” I smoothed out the quotation with the palm of my hand.
Jude picked up his glass and I expected him to sip his drink. When I saw his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down, I wondered why he was drinking so fast.Was he nervous, too? A good sign.
“Jude, since it will take me ten months to write your book, by UK standards, I should be paid RM100,000.00 to write your book. My fee to write your book is only RM28,000.00. That’s not high.”
Hopefully, this ‘compare-contrast’ tactic would work. If Jude was made aware of how much other writers charge, Jude wouldn’t accuse me of naming a high fee.
“We are in Malaysia. Not the UK.” Jude raised his hand to get Davy’s attention. “One more whisky,” he called out, and Davy nodded.
I exhaled. What else could I try? Speaking of tries, I glanced at the screen and the All Blacks were attempting convert a try. Carter was going to kick the ball.
“Are you interested in my book or not?” Jude turned his head to look at the screen. “You seem more interested in the game.”
“No. No. No.” I shook my head, quick to apologise. “I just like rugby, Jude. Don’t you? It’s the world championship. I missed it because I fell asleep. It was five o’clock in London, but something like one in the morning here. Sorry. Where were we?”
“Hmmm,” he replied. “My book. I still think your fee’s too much. I can’t afford it.”
Can’t afford my fee? The man had just bought a new Honda CR-V and retail price was more than the cost of my flat. Did he take me for a fool?
“How much did you actually think of paying me, Jude?”
I stared at him. He did take me for a fool.
“You can’t be serious. You want me to do all that work for RM10,000.00? In ten months.”
“Yes.” There was no smile on his face. He then waved his right hand in front of him, as though he was showing his cards face up in a poker game. “I can pay you RM1,000.00 a month. That’s a regular income for ten months.”
I wanted to throw something at him. A plate. My shoe. The glass of water. Where was that glass of water, by the way?
Breathe in, Shanta. Breathe out.
“Let me get this straight,” I leaned my elbows on the table. “You want me to put aside all other projects and work exclusively on your book for RM1,000.00 a month? You know that even a maid gets paid at least RM1,200.00 a month? And minimum wage is RM1,000.00?”
“See?” He cocked his head to one side. “I’m willing to give you more than the minimum wage.”
The gall of the man.
“This is for charity, Shanta,” Jude’s voice was a little less patronising. “Our non-profit organisation, LUPS – Lupus Support – is going to pay for this.”
“I know. That’s why I gave you the 50 per cent discount on my fee. Otherwise, my fee for this project would have been RM56,000.00.”
Davy returned with Jude’s second glass of whisky, another can of soda and my glass of water. Jude took the can, pressed his thumb into the centre of the tab and pushed the tab inside using the pin on the rim. He poured the soda into his glass then handed the can to Davy.
“There’s a bit more.” Davy shook the can and tilted it to empty its contents into Jude’s whisky glass.
“I didn’t want more soda.” Jude took the can from Davy and placed in on the table. “Leave it here. I’ll pour more if I want.”
“Oh. Ok.” Davy took a step back.
I smiled at the waiter, an apology for how rude Jude was. Davy left us alone.
“You know there is something special about this book.” Jude lifted the glass to his mouth, took a sip then said, “If you write my book, you will get wisdom and become holy. You will go to heaven.”
“What are you talking about?” I blurted out. “I was born a Hindu. And I’ll die a Hindu. My place in hell is already reserved. Even if I write a thousand books for you, I’m never going to go heaven.”
Unperturbed, Jude smiled benignly. “OK. No heaven. What about reincarnation? Don’t you want to come back as a human?”
I held the side of my head and dropped my voice. “What the hell are you talking about?”
He shrugged, then said, “Well, if you write my book for a cheaper price, God will be kind to you. When you come back, you will come back as a human.”
How on earth was I supposed to respond to this? I couldn’t very well tell him that if he came back, it would probably be as a stingy monkey. That was sure to get his back up or, worse, make him withdraw from this project altogether. I needed the money to pay for Mummy’s heart medication. Besides, I wanted to learn something more about homeopathy, the subject matter of his book.
“Of course, I want to come back as a human,” I said. “But I need money for this lifetime. I can’t wait until the next lifetime to be paid for the work I do. Writing is my livelihood.”
Jude shook his head, nonchalant. He then picked up his glass of whisky and nursed his drink. I leaned back in my seat and sipped from my glass of water. The three men at the bar cheered. On the flat screen monitor, the jubilant All Blacks hugged each other, having become champions with a final score of 34-17.
I put my glass down on the table. “You know this is unfair, Jude. Why don’t you come up a bit and I’ll go down a bit.”
Quick to reply, he said, “OK. I will pay you RM10,500.00.” He jerked his chin forward and asked, “What do you think?”
I held my breath and narrowed my eyes. He was haggling as if we were in a fish market and he was trying to buy the biggest fish for the least amount of money. Or, for free if he could.
“OK. OK. No need to get upset. We’re only negotiating. You look at your rugby match. I want another drink,” he said and raised his hand to get Davy’s attention.
The All Blacks gathered to perform a celebratory Haka, a traditional ancestral dance of the Maori people. What a beautiful display of strength and discipline. The kind of discipline that artists the world over recognised. The soon-to-retire McCaw, Carter, Nonu, Smith and Mealamu stamped their feet. Jude was never going to give me my asking fee however many times I negotiated with Jude.
I took a deep breath. There were two choices here: take on the project and resent every minute of writing Jude’s book. Or, retire from this project even though we hadn’t even begun and trust that I would more lucrative work would come my way in due time.
After Davy took Jude’s order, I reached out to touch the waiter’s hand. “Wait.”
“Davy, I need a drink. Can you please get me a ‘Cosmopolitan’?”
“Certainly Shanta,” he replied and walked away.
“Ah-ha! We’re celebrating. You agree to do my book.” Jude smiled, smug.
I looked straight at him and said, “Let me think about it and get back to you.”