Things were desperate. The editing work had all but dried up. No matter how many writing-related jobs I applied for on the freelancing websites I’d been using for years, I just couldn’t seem to get any new work. Nearing my lowest point, so deep into my overdraft I didn’t think I’d ever be able to tunnel my way out again, I received an email about the following project:
WRITE LOVE POEM FOR MY FUTURE WIFE
I clicked onto the link and read a more detailed description of what the job entailed:
I, 28 YO male, in love with beautiful princess. To win princess heart, I need fine wordsmith poet to write stirring romantic verse. For this I pay very, very handsome. If dream come true, if we marry, may also be money bonus for successful applicant.
The advertisement told me two things about the prospective client. One, that English wasn’t his first language (even though he had a little Union Jack on his profile page, indicating that he was UK-based). Two, that he was probably a sad, deluded crackpot. But my financial situation was so perilous, I knew I had to look beyond any reservations. Not least because the payrate was unusually high – £750 – £1250. Even if I went in at the lower end, it would cover a good chunk of next month’s rent and allow me to eat something more substantial than tinned ravioli and beans on toast.
In the most florid, creative terms (I hadn’t written anything resembling a poem in over ten years), I pitched for the job, saying that I was an experienced novelist, short story writer and (in particular) poet, that I’d been published in the U.K., the States, Australia, Canada etcetera, that I’d worked in the publishing industry for nearly twenty years, that I had extensive knowledge of both the romantic and contemporary poets, that I was available to start work straight away, and that, if successful, I would compose the poem in the next twenty-four hours.
After posting the message, I scrolled down the screen to see that 118 other freelancers had also bid for the job, the majority of whom had undercut even me. For that reason, I didn’t really hold out much hope of success. But less than an hour later, I received a direct email from the client, Danilo Molotov.
Dear Friend, thank you greatly for response to my ad. I most impressed by your credential and would, therefore, like to award you job. FYO (to put image in head to inspire words) my treasure love is called Juliet. She five nine, curve figure, beautiful dark hair, dark eyes. She work in pet shop and live in same building as me and my mother. We have great, great, spirit connection although we never actually talk, never officially meet yet. But only matter of time. Once she receive poem, all be settled to satisfactioning her.
And you say you can start today, and give poem soon, yes?
Oh shit, I thought to myself – they’ve never spoken, never even met, though he says he wants to marry her. And he still lives with his mother.
But I really did need the money.
Thank you for selecting me for the job, Danilo, and thank you for the personal information provided. Before I make a start, could I ask which poets (or individual poem, if that’s easier) that you particularly admire. And what kind of style of verse you’re looking for for Juliet’s poem. By that I mean – classical romantic, do you want a rhyme structure, a long or short poem, or maybe something a bit more modern and to the point, heartfelt, telling her exactly how you feel about her?
He came back straight away, telling me that he wasn’t sure about poets and particular poems and styles and lengths, because he hadn’t read any poetry before, but he was happy to defer to my ‘expert knowledge in the field of the human heart’ and ‘if you have ready for tomorrow, I happy to give you extra £25’.
All of which – and I’m ashamed to admit this – encouraged me to act completely disingenuously, to be lazy and unprofessional. Thinking that he wouldn’t know the difference between his Byron and his Keats, I googled famous love poems (literally), a bit of Shakespeare (love is not love that alter when alteration find) a bit of Pushkin (I noticed once at our chance meeting, in you a tender pulse was beating). In short, I picked a selection of the choicest lines from the pantheon of great verse and simply mixed and matched each one.
Within a couple of hours of copying and pasting, dragging my hotchpotch stanzas from one line to the next, I’d mocked-up (I couldn’t possibly say written) a wildly fraudulent if sincere-sounding love poem.
Poem for Juliet
In my dreams, I see only you,
I wander lonely through empty days,
Thinking only of the promise
Of your heavenly kiss.
A love like ours could never change,
Even if in altered circumstance,
So why not take a chance,
My darling one?
Let our hearts be united
Under the burning sun
Of a love that will last forever more.
Not wanting to appear as if I’d cut any literary corners, I knew I’d have to wait until the morning before I emailed the completed poem over to Danilo and received payment. Certain that the money was more-or-less in the bank, though, I treated myself to a takeaway curry and a cheap bottle of wine.
Only next morning, within ten, fifteen minutes of sending the poem off, I got a furious reply from Danilo:
No, no, Phillip, this is not what I ask for, this is not near good enough at all. You fail miserable. You prove big, big disappointment to me. You break promise. You break business agreement. You are not honourable man. You offend me gross. This poem is not from heart. These words will not make Juliet fall in love with me. I feel that you have tried to cheat me, sending mesomething not original, other people’s words, not of your own mind. For that reason, if you not make good before end of day, I have no choice but to report you to freelancer website, I have no choice but to post negative feedback and score re: the quality of your work, reliability, honesty. And I show poem to site administrator. I let him judge your effort.
Please respond immediately. The course of love rests upon the strength of your conscience.
There’s nothing worse in life than getting caught out when you’re trying to be clever, when someone you consider a soft touch can see right through a flimsy deception. But more than that, I couldn’t risk any negative feedback on my freelancer profile – I was having enough trouble getting work without a dirty black mark against my name– or, indeed, have Danilo show my sloppy poem to anybody else, anybody who might be able to point out exactly what I’d done.
Through my own laziness, I’d put myself in a stupidly awkward position.
Panicking, I wrote a hasty, apologetic reply, assuring him that this was merely a case of miscommunication, crossed wires, that I’d do anything to rectify the situation, that there was no need for him to report me to the site or look for another freelancer to do the work, that I’d be happy to redraft the poem within the next hour or two, that I’d listen to his advice and pointers more closely, anything to ensure that the work was done to his satisfaction.
A sincere enough reply. Only it didn’t seem to placate him – not all the way. For he sent me a curious return message, demanding a face-to-face meeting, which had me questioning exactly what I’d got myself involved in here, and how badly I neededa perfect feedback score on my freelancer profile page:
You live London, yeah? Come to my place right away. We work on poem together. Non-negotiable. Time so, so right for Danilo and Juliet to join in heaven matrimony.
I thought long and hard about how to word my response, how to avoid meeting in person.In the end, I decided to make out that, if we didn’t live too far away from each other, I’d be more than willing to do so. London’s a big place, after all. Chances were, he lived miles away, a good hour’s journey by bus or train.
I’m not sure it’s necessary that we meet in person, Danilo, with the convenience and ease in which we can bounce ideas back and forth via email, but, if we’re not too far away from each other (I live in Greenwich, near the station) then I’d be happy to do so.
Again, he came straight back:
Good news. I live North Greenwich, near Woolwich, end of big road. I expect you around lunch, yes? I look out for you. If all go well, I still willing to give £25 bonus (in cash) even in light of poor performance.
And he gave me the address and the number bus I could jump on that dropped me right outside his building.
Understandably reluctant, I nevertheless felt that I had to go, that I had to sort out the mess I’d created, that I had to do the right thing this time, and, of course, get my hands on my fee.
“You must be Philip, yes?” asked the woman who answered the door, an unusually tall, dark complexioned woman of middle age, with curly, slightly dated, eighties,shoulder-length hair. As soon as she stepped into the relative light, I thought: Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet. She had an accent and smoked a cigarette in the same way I remember Isabella Rossellini smoking a cigarette in the film – intensely, desperately, like it might be her last ever smoke.
“That’s right,” I said. “Are you Danilo’s mother?”
She didn’t reply, not directly.
“Danilo is in room. First door on right.”
She took a step back and ushered me into the flat.
At first, I wasn’t quite sure if I was seeing right. Because the front room, a modest-sized space, was completely empty. Bar a stained stretch of cheap industrial carpet and a muslin drape covering the bay window, there wasn’t one single stick of furniture.
“First door on right,” she repeated, almost shouted, which made me jump.
“Right, okay, yeah,” I said over my shoulder as I started off across the room.
“Oh, and Mr Philip,” she called after me. “‘Love is not love that alters when alteration find’.”
Feeling like a complete bastard fraud, thoroughly ashamed of myself, I knocked twice on the door.
“Come in, Philip,” said who I presumed was Danilo, but in such a weird, squeaky voice, I thought that he must be putting it on, playing a joke on me.
I opened the door and walked inside.
Initially, I froze – that’s the only way I can describe it. Like the front room, I wasn’t quite sure if I was seeing right. For Danilo was a tiny three-foot pygmy, a wizened-featured, balding, narrow-eyed, almost wall-featured curio.
“Thank you for come,” he said, ignoring my open-mouthed look of astonishment. “Please, step close to window.”
At that moment, he was perched on a stool, looking out of the window itself.
There good reason I ask you to come so soon. See over there.” He pointed to a precinct of tatty, rundown shops– a chicken shop, a mobile phone shop, an Asian supermarket, some others I couldn’t quite make out – a standard sight on any London street. “In approximately” – he looked at the watch on his spindly wrist, the kind of crappy, plasticky watch kids get free in magazines – “ninety-eight seconds, my darling Juliet leave off work for lunch. You look. You see what a beauty she is. Then we write proper poem to declare Danilo’s love for her, yes?”
“Erm, yeah,” I said, scanning the precinct until my eyes fell upon the pet shop door.
A minute or two later, one of the most stunning-looking young women I’ve ever seen exited the shop. Even from my third-floor, across the street vantage point, I could see how thick and shiny her hair was, appreciate the richness of her olive skin, the fullness of her figure. It was like one of those slow-motion scenes from a romantic comedy when the dream girl first appears, flicking her hair, flashing the biggest, whitest, most dazzling of smiles. And I felt like putting my head in my hands. Not only because I knew Danilo was deluding himself if he really believed he had any chance of any kind of romantic involvement with her, but because I knew with a horrible certainty that I was going to be the person charged with disabusing him of such an absurd notion. And I knew it was going to be a cruel, horrible assignment – one I certainly hadn’t signed up for.
“What did I tell you, eh, eh?” He turned on his stool and grinned a greenish, crooked teeth grin at me.Then he broke into song: “‘Could you be the most beautiful girl in the world, oh could you be, oh could you be,’” and dealt me a playful punch to the arm, threw back his head and laughedin such aninfectious, child-like manner, I couldn’t help laughing, too – it was all so odd, surreal. “Excellent choice for wife, yes?”
I didn’t know what to say – I was still smiling; his impromptu burst of song hadeased a hell of a lot of tension – but I knew I couldn’t simply remain silent, refuse to comment. The question had been far from rhetorical.
“Yes. She’s very pretty, Danilo.”
“That is why we must” – he gasped and wheezed as he clambered down off the stool – “must write perfect love poem, the two of us, side by side. Please, take a seat.”
He gestured towards a single-bed with a Star Wars duvet cover on it. Only then did I really take in my surroundings: the matching Star Wars wallpaper,the action figures strewn across the floor, models of the Millennium Falcon and a few TIE Fighters hanging from the ceiling by strings, a single bookcase crammed with the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books and lots of Roald Dahl. It was a child’s room, the kind of room I myself had occupied when I was about nine years old.
“Come, Philip,” he said, hauling himself up onto the bed. “I have made note to assist you.”
Increasingly discomforted by the situation, I nonetheless sat down next to him, intent on writing the poem and getting out of there as quickly as I could.
“Right,” he said, picking up a clipboard with a piece of paper fastened to it. “As discussed, I not happy at all with previous work. Why you try to cheat me, Philip? I pay top rate. I do not deserve such shoddy treatment.”
“I don’t know,” I said, feeling my cheeks suddenly redden. “I just–”
“But that in past,” he thankfully talked over me – I don’t think whatever excuse I’d have come up with would’ve been very convincing. “Now, we compose beautiful words to win Juliet’s heart.”
For the next two, maybe three hours, we knocked ideas back and forth, scribbled down lines only to scribble them out again, we talked about Juliet and why Danilo liked her so much, why he spent most of the day sat at the stool by the window, looking out for her.
“Sometime,” he said, “I see her with other man, maybe she get in big car – BMW, Mercede Benz – but I know that these are just friends, or business associates, other people with interest in the animal world. Pet shop, Philip, is good career.”
And for that reason, he wanted to have an animal reference inserted into the poem.
“Simple psychology,” he added, “– to make woman fall mad in love with you, you must express an interest in things dearest to her heart.”
So, we had the image of a bird soaring through the skies bringing Juliet the ‘precious cargo’ of Danilo’s love.
“Other time,” he told me, “I see her come back to flat with girlfriends, in early hour of morning, they very happy, laughing and swaying from side to side.”
So, I added a line about the music of her laughter, how it ‘stirs his soul, sending a tingle of excitement down his spine’.
“Last weekend,” he said, “I hear Juliet in landing” – he pointed over my shoulder, in the direction of the door, the main part of the flat and beyond – “again, very late at night, her apartment just across hallway. She with one of her male friends, must be man with love for animals, because I hear him breathe very loud and they creak floorboard and giggle and pant, so I think they play around, like mimic animals, yes, because they have much love for wildlife.”
At this point, I almost put down my pen and told Danilo that perhaps this wasn’t a very good idea, that perhaps the man he’d seen Juliet with, the man with the expensive car was, in fact, her boyfriend, that she was already taken, but he didn’t really give me the opportunity, he got all misty-eyedabout their future together, a future he was convinced was assured.
“Yes. It be nice to meet her friend and family one day, be nice to get to know the other persons in her life. I cannot tell you how exciting this whole thing is. Just having you here today, Philip, finishing up my love poem, make everything feel so close now.”
Eventually, putting allthe things I should rightly be saying to the back of my mind, Imanaged to write a twenty-four line poem that Danilo was more than happy with, a poem with no particular rhyme structure but loaded with references to all the things Juliet loved most in life.
“This excellent work. I very –”
Two knocks sounded against the door.
We both swung round to see his mother enter the room carrying a tray with what I soon learned were two cups of weak sugary tea on it.
“You been working hard, no?” she said in neither mine nor Danilo’s particular direction. “You deserve break now.” She placed the tray on the bed between us. “I come back soon.”
After she’d left the room, we sat drinking our tea in silence for two, maybe three minutes. While still desperate to get out of there, I nonetheless felt obligated to try and make a little small talk, to perhaps manoeuvre the conversation around to women, girlfriends, love, to there being plenty of fish in the sea, to make him aware that not all affairs of the heart work out the way we want them to.
“So, Danilo, how long have you lived here, in London, in general?”
“Oh, we come over from Belarus many year ago. I need operation to save life. Born premature. My father, he dead now, but once big businessman, very rich, well-to-do.”
“Right, I see. And I was, erm…going to say, about Juliet. If things don’t, you know, go to plan, that you shouldn’t take it to heart, that you –”
“What?” He looked offended.“You do not think Danilo have charm and good look? Youdo not–?”
There were two more knocks at the door.
Again, I looked over my shoulder, but it wasn’t Danilo’s mother that opened the door this time but a hulking, shaven-headed, security guard type in a black bomber jacket.
“She has given her answer already?” Danilo asked him.
He nodded gravely.
I returned to Danilo. “What do you mean?
“I gave mother poem and note when she enter earlier to deliver to pet shop.”
In one easy movement, the shaven-headed guy grabbed me by the shoulder, hauled me up and off the bed and out of the room.
“Whoa! What are you doing?”
Once we were in the hallway, he shoved me down onto the floor, shut the door and secured the handle with a chain and padlock. From inside the room I could hear a pitiful murmuring sob that quickly turned into a full-throated yell, a wild outpour of caged emotion.
“I am sorry, Mr Philip,” said the man, helping me up off the floor. “For own protection. Mr Molotov Junior has fiery temper. When he not get what he want, he go berserk. That why his mother can no longer have furniture in main part of flat.”
The sound of stamping feet and breaking glass came from the other side of the door now.
I shot the shaven-headed guy a quick, questioning look.
“Young lady from pet store, she return poemwith words: no way printed on envelope. So, please, come through, Mrs Molotov she need to speak to you now.”
We walked down the hallway to find Mrs Molotov stood smoking by the window of the empty room, staring down on the streets below, the precinct, maybe fixing her eyes on the pet shop door.
“You know,” she said, turning around very suddenly, “that I hold you very much responsible for my son’s heartbreak.”
“What? Why? Surely you don’t –”
“First you try and swindle him by using words of other poets and mixing them all together. Now, it appears that your second effort has not had the desired results. Far from it.”
She lifted a hand, the one with the smoking cigarette in it, and gestured towards the hallway, where the sound of screaming and balling had now intensified.
“For that reason, there is no way you can leave until you convince Juliet tocome and speak to Danilo. You sign contract over internet. You have legal binding obligation to see project through to successful conclusion.”
“No, I don’t,” I said, strongly in my defence. The whole scene had started out weird and got progressively weirder. “That’s not how it works. A client pays a freelancer to, say, edit a novel. If the novel, on release, isn’t a success, it’s not the freelancer’s fault; they’re not liable for damages or whatever. Besides, one person can’t make another person like them, love them, want to be with them. To suggest as much is absurd.”
“Well, Mr Philip, where we come from, things are very different, very different indeed.” She let her cigarette drop to the floor and trod the smouldering butt into the carpet with a stiletto heel. “So, this is what you are now going to do. Dmitri here will escort you over to pet store. You go inside. You explain situation to girl, you tell her how upset Danilo is.”Again, she gestured towards the hallway, towards his room.
“No, sorry, that’s not going to happen. I’m off home to–”
“You will do as Mrs Molotov suggest,” said Dmitri, blocking my path toward the front door. “Like she say, you have binding contractwith son. He, as you can tell, is very upset. The least you can do is attempt to rectify situation.”
“What?” I said. “But this is stupid. What if she won’t come?”“Then you have failed to deliver satisfactory service,” Mrs Molotov replied. “Then you will receive negative feedback and review. It only fair.”
It was the oddest sensation, walking into a pet shop under such circumstances. All those familiar hutchy, animal feedy smells, aquarium filter hummingnoises assailed my senses, reminding me of my childhood, of pet gerbils and goldfish, cages and bowls, bags of seed and pots of fish flakes.
Juliet stood hunched over the counter, flicking through a glossy catalogue.
“Hi there,” she lifted her head, speaking in a strong, grating, almost masculine south London accent. “How can I help?”
I didn’t answer, not straight away, because she didn’t look anywhere near as pretty close up as she did from a distance. Maybe it was the harsh overhead lighting, or maybe Danilo’s gushingwordshad coloured my own first impressions, but face-to-face she looked a bit boss-eyed, a bit wonky all round, her teeth were very white but far too prominent, she didn’t have olive skin but was covered, literally dripping in fake tan, smeared, like a chocolate bar coated at a food factory, and she wore chunky sovereign rings and had a tacky rose tattoo sneaking up from her cleavage. She looked very much like a girl from a Lewisham estate rather than a princess from a castle with a drawbridge.
“Hi, I, erm…” I trailed off, coughed and cleared my throat. I had no idea how to say what I’d come here to say. “Look. I…what I mean is, I really need to talk to you. Shit.Sorry.I’m in a bit of an awkward position. You know that poem and note you just received?”
Her browny-orange face creased; the invisible scaffold supporting her wide customer service smile collapsed.
“Not that weird little pervert from the third floor! Time and again, I’ve told him to leave me alone.”“Yeah, I thought that might be the case. But if you could just hear me out for two minutes, no longer, you’ll see what kind of predicament I’m in.”
I explained things as best I could. I told her that Danilo had employed me to write her a love poem, that he had me over a bit of a barrel, that he’d threatened to post a negative review on a huge international freelancingwebsite that could literally destroy my livelihood, so if she could just spare five minutes of her time to come up to the Molotov’s flat, talk to him,let him down gently, tell him that she’s got a boyfriend (as I assumed that she had), then she’d be doing me a huge favour, not to mention drawing a line through his whole obsession.
“Please, this is literally the strangest thing I’ve ever been involved in. I’d really appreciate your help.”
She clicked her tongue and checked her watch, a slim gold Rolex, undoubtedly fake.
“Well, I guess this has got to be sorted one way or the other, before it gets too out of hand. If wind of this reaches my Dave, he’ll kick off big style. But he ain’t ’bout tonight, away on business. So, come on then. I’ll get Shell to cover for me for five minutes.”
“Danilo,” I said as we walked in the door, “I’ve brought someone to see you.”
I could tell Juliet had been just as taken aback as me, walking into a flat without any furniture in it, especially as a chain-smoking, faded femme fatale, a three-foot pygmy and a hulking doorman stood on the other side of the room.
With a plastic, tulip-shaped flower in his hand, Danilo shuffled forward. His eyes were red and swollen from crying so much, and he blinked up at Juliet with a soft expectant look on a face that was simply incapable of expressing toomuch emotion, either way, whether positive or negative.
“Wait.” He rubbed his eyes as if he couldn’t focus properly. “Who – who are you?”
At first, I thought he was disorientated, that his wild temper tantrum of earlier had clouded his senses. But gradually, as he spoke, I realised that he was experiencing the same disappointment I’dexperienced when I walked into the pet shop, realising that Juliet wasn’t the picture-perfect dream girl he’d taken her for from afar.
“You know who I am. I’m the girl you’ve been harassing for months, the girl you keep staring at from your bloody bedroom window.”
“No, no,” said Danilo, backing away from her as if she was a monstrous entity from a horror film. “You are not Juliet. You are not girl of dream princess. Look at her, mama.”
Mrs Molotov dropped another cigarette to the floor and stepped forward.
“I tell you, Danilo, but you do not listen.”
“What?” Juliet turned and stared at me confusedly. “What are they going on about?”
I shrugged as if I didn’t know – but I did.
“My Juliet is most beautiful girl in world. She have beautiful eyes, beautiful smile, the softest of skin, she is delicate flower, sensual, sophisticated, classy, but you…you are just a…you are none of these things, the finer things in life.”
I don’t think Danilo could’ve offended anyone, not just Juliet, more, if he’d sat down on his bed for two hours, like we had when we wrote the poem, and listed all the worst insults he could think of.
“What are you try’na say, you little freak?” She put her hands on her hips and stamped a foot. “You lot are taking the piss? Beg me to come up here, so that little cunt can tear strips off’a me.”
“Young lady,” said Dmitri. “There no need for such ugly language. Like Mr Molotov Junior say, it unbecoming of a lady.”
“Nah.” She jabbed a dangerous-looking, false-nailed finger in his direction. “You can fuck right off. I ain’t standing here to be insulted by a bloody prune-faced dwarf.”
“Get out of here!” shouted Danilo. “You are imposter. You are not my princess. You are not my Juliet, not nearly good enough to be my wedded wife.”
“Don’t you bloody worry, I’m off, I’m not standing here to take this shit.”
And she stormed out of the flat.
On the bus home, shunting along the almost empty late-night streets, I couldn’t stop laughing. The look on Juliet’s face when Danilo told her that she better leave; that she wasn’t nearly good enough for him, was one of pure outrage, astonishment, that a deformed man-boy could have the temerity to reject her. But if nothing else, it proves how fickle and complicated meeting other people can be these days, with social media and dating websites, how, no matter how strongly you’re attracted to someone, how strongly you feel for them, or think you feel for them, how you build them up in your head, the idea of you being together forever, they’ll always disappoint you in the end.