2013 STORGY SHORT STORY COMPETITION SHORTLIST
He stands in the hallway, testing the air – smell of damp, dust, time forgotten.
He puts his suitcase down by an old umbrella leaning against the wall, rubs his hands together, thick veins, hard skin silky as though coated in powder.
Oh, he’s been here before, alright. Every house is the same.
He takes his time, leaves his shoes on the mat, bends down on one knee and opens the case. It’s light green, faded, almost blue. The buckles are tearing at the leather handle. Inside is a bottle of water, a pair of slippers and photographs.
He removes the slippers, slides them onto his feet and starts down the hallway but it’s narrow, cramped, floor tiled and cold, air too thick and not used to a stranger’s tongue.
He sifts through the letters kicked under the table by the door, lifts paper weights from obituary clippings folded and lined and discarded.
That name is familiar…
The stuffed alligator mounted on the wall seems to watch him. It has marbles for eyes but one lies on the floor by the skirting.
Now it sees from a different direction.
Today is a beautiful day. So many people are expected as guests, and beauty and uniqueness are coming together, arm in arm, in suite and tie and dress and scarf with clutch bag and pocket square to match.
We booked the church only a few months ago, and she’s been searching for the perfect dress – “elegant, hangs from the breast, hides the stomach” – since before I asked her father, who laughed and slapped my shoulder, said sit down, have a cup of tea.
No, thank you, I told him, I’m in a bit of a rush. It’s just that we’ve been together so long, and you and I get on, I know that, it’s true. But I wanted to ask you all the same, though I know you’re not a traditional man and I’m too young to have any traditions.
He called me son. It was only a matter of time.
His wife came in. She had been listening at the door. I asked her as well, or tried to, but could only manage a few strange sounds, awkward hand movements, meet the eye, not the bridge of the nose, back straight –she smothered me in her cleavage and said it’s true, you are a son, the son we never had, been around so long, a piece of furniture.
I met you on a doorstep. I was wet from the rain and wet from my tears which mixed and ran black mascara streams down my cheeks; turned my hair into strands of rope you said you could climb, later, just climb up and crawl behind my ears and fall asleep there.
You were warm.
I had been nursing all day at St Thomas’, and spent that morning waiting outside the Medical Director’s office, trying to enrol as a doctor. A real doctor.
‘But women don’t make good doctors,’ he said. ‘Better stick to nursing.’
I sat in the toilets and cried in anger. And pain – a child I’d been caring for had died. She had Polio. I told her parents myself because the doctors were having their tea. They thanked me but I don’t know why. They looked as though they were drained of life, breath, desire and reason. I left them. I went home.
And there you found me, on our doorstep, sitting in the wet next to my bicycle which I’d pushed all the way and dropped where it lay on its side until you arrived – a stranger I asked for help.
‘It has a puncture. Can you mend it?’
‘Of course I can.’
I know you spied me through your door, in the hallway that we shared in our building near Kennington Park. I know you heard me get home late, swearing, or get out early, swearing still, buttoning up my uniform, fob watch, low-heeled shoes wearing out on the sole because I never had time to mend them.
I knew, and it was all for you, sitting as you did with all the time in the world; in the worlds you were writing in stories, trying to scrape a living selling to magazines, journals, publishers.
But that world was a land of mist being washed by a sea of rejections, calm, foreboding, nonchalant, only interfered with by occasional whirlpools of success.
And there was me, wet still, drowning almost and wanting so much to be rescued by you.
He picks up the marble eye and puts it on the table. It follows his feet and turns by itself, never blinking, never breaking its gaze. He leaves the hallway and tries the living room: wallpaper green and outdated, chairs for him and her with stains at the head, clock on the mantle not ticking (needs winding), and amateur paintings of sunflowers in vases and owls on branches and chimneys stacking higher than sand dunes and clouds being pushed closer by sea.
In the corner is a bureau – a good place to start.
Gently, he opens it. The writing desk sticks halfway, takes a bit of force to push it down on its rests, but it goes. Inside are papers tied together with string and elastic bands, an old fountain pen dried up, a small drawer holding nothing but pennies, a discoloured silver charm bracelet and an order of service from a funeral decades old.
On the front is a man’s face black and white.
Seen better days.
He smiles, hasn’t seen Martin since – well, anyway. He trails off, finds the same face smiling on the mantle, only older, worn out, showing cheekbones and scalp with thin strands of hair like silk, sitting in a pub or restaurant beside a woman who is equally frail, but smiling, holding hands.
So she did marry him.
He turns back, closes the bureau, holds a hand to his chest and sighs. Nothing of importance there. The solicitor took everything he needed – birth certificates, marriage certificates, documents of ownership, deeds.
That’s disposable, anyway, he thinks.
Forget the tea, open the Bollinger. There’re nine cases of it, after all, thanks to her father. Christ, how will I ever pay him back? Better open the whisky. God, I need a drink. Calm my nerves. Settle my stomach.
The barman raises an eyebrow, offers a grin, sympathetic. He’s seen this before, don’t worry, you’ll be fine. He’s waiting for the day when the groom backs out or the bride fails to show.
‘How old are you?’ I ask.
‘Eighteen,’ he says.
‘Got a girl?’
You walked me inside and said, ‘You’re back earlier today.’ I told you I’d swapped a shift, need some time to recover.
‘From what?’ you asked.
‘Life,’ I said. ‘It kicks and punches.’
‘And bites and pinches?’
‘I want to be a doctor.’
‘Are women allowed?’
You smiled. ‘Then you can mend the wounds it gives us,’ you said, and I laughed. You said, ‘I’ve some patches and glue upstairs, won’t you come in and dry off?’
So I sat on your floor while you were nervous. Your home was small but I told you it was enormous to me. And you put a shilling in the heater and handed me a cigarette and lit it with a very old lighter you said you needed to polish. I said why don’t you have one? And you said because that was your last. And I watched as you fumbled through drawers, lifted piles of papers onto the side which were too heavy to stand so they slid to the ground and I caught one and asked you, ‘What is this?’ It was a story called ‘Missing Pieces.’
‘Nothing much,’ you said, ‘just something I’ve been working on.’
‘You’re a writer?’ I asked.
‘What’s it about?’
‘I don’t know yet.’
‘Well what happens?’
‘It starts with a man,’ you said, ‘an old man, who once had everything, but then threw it all away.’
‘How does it end?’
‘I haven’t got that far.’
‘Maybe I could help?’
‘Can I have it,’ I asked. ‘I mean I’ll buy it. You’re a professional, I suppose?’ You had both legs over my bike which was upside down, chain off, wheel coming loose. ‘Tell you what,’ you said. ‘You can have the story, free of charge, if you let me buy you a coffee.’
The kitchen smells like cigarettes and lager. The fridge is full of stink and rot. No power to the house since the bills stopped being paid. No power before then, even, since paying bills and using money and telephones and computers becomes so hard, the keys so large and infantilising.
Eyes not what they used to be, fingers swollen to twice the size, veins ready to burst. But all that’d come out is thick purple ooze, not blood. And it couldn’t flow like a river, like you thought it would forever. It’d move more like a glacier, and have the clues to your life frozen inside.
And only you will know them.
And only you will cry.
He opens the backdoor, key still in the lock. Overgrown lawn, borders covered in weeds consuming pet cemetery, tool shed unused, roof sinking in on cans of kerosene, paint, toolbox.
He closes the back door, makes a note of the animal graves on the back of his hand. The things people do, he thinks, and laughs a quiet laugh. The things people will do, just to characterise and write their plot, when only death is at the end.
He’s already feeling his own blood thicken, but he is the man with a thousand lives, and he knows he won’t be forgotten.
Whenever she mentioned marriage she spoke so excitedly, as though it were all she could live for. ‘Oh, it’s been so long,’ she’d say. ‘I thought you’d forgotten about it.’
But how could I forget?
‘Oh, I love you, and I want you,’ she’d say.
‘And I want you too,’ I’d tell her.
‘But not tonight darling, It’s been a long day.’
‘It’ll get longer still, if you’re to be a doctor, a real doctor. I may never get to see you.’
Then she’d sit up on an elbow and cry out, ‘Marry me,’ and I’d laugh and say, ‘Alright.’ Is that not the way to fix things? She blew up in the face of joy, but the force of the explosion wrenched us apart, and somehow gravity put us back together wrong. I thought she could sew me back together, stitch the wound, kiss it better.
I need another drink.
‘Where’s martin,’ I ask the barman.
‘Martin, my Best Man. Martin.’
‘Martin, thank God!’
‘You look like shit.’
‘Let’s get some air.’
‘I knew I could count on you.’
All stories start with questions. Can you fix my puncture? Can I write your story? Can I buy you a cup of coffee? Together we were an answer. It cried out. A year later we were on a boat, steaming to Brittany for the weekend, to lunch in Quimper and picnic on the beach with a sunset just for us, so like a picture, so like a painting and just as expensive, but money was not your concern that weekend.
A portrait of beauty, soft skin, pure like snow, you said.
And I blushed. ‘This is the hair of my father, nose of my mother,’ I said.
‘I know,’ you said, though you hadn’t met them yet.
And we strolled like Victorian lovers, secret, enamoured, lusting fiercely in public but only showing it with the touch of a fingertip, a look of sympathy and amusement when you tried to speak French but couldn’t
Oh, we were shy.
We’d spied each other so long, each a double agent, provocateur dominating the other’s thoughts but never knocking on the other’s door.
‘Remember when we met?’ I asked. ‘When you fixed my punctured tyre in your flat in Kennington Park?’
‘And you kept asking me about that old story. What was it called?’
‘That’s right,’ you said. ‘I gave it up because I couldn’t find an ending.’
‘Neither could I. You’d made a situation impossible to resolve without killing people or leaving them to disappear.’
‘Sometimes that’s how it must be.’
‘But it’s so sad.’
‘What’ve you done with it, anyway?’ you asked.
‘It’s in my chest at home.’
You paused again, then said, ‘Do you your parents know about me?’
‘Not yet,’ I told you. ‘But don’t look at me like that. It’ll be fine.’
‘But what about your father?’
‘He’s not a traditional man.’
The attic draws him up the stairs. Oh, his legs aren’t what they were that time, when he finally ran away, stopping only to hold women round his waist, legs tied together in shady hotel bathrooms and university classrooms, teaching English to pay rent, cleaning fluid off the floor with underwear and only kissing goodbye.
He got what he wanted: all the material a writer could dream – in bed in some Salamanca hostel, Prague, Paris, West Berlin, Saint Nazaire, Bombay, Nevada highway alone and unsettled – just how it should be, he thought, self-assured and unaware, then, that his path would become blocked; that a vital piece of him was missing.
And no, his legs are not what they were.
They creak with the bolts holding up the hand railing, hands growing paler white and shoulders brushing pictures on the wall, loudly questioning the motive for their being located in such a narrow space. And the wallpaper is faded around them. And the dust is settled within them. And the faces and places all painted or bared in the photographs are crisp in their age without moisture, dried up like an ancient river, its bed a place uninhabited, desolate.
We go through the kitchen to avoid the guests gathering in the hotel foyer, waiting to take the coach to the church.
‘It’s not leaving for forty minutes,’ said Martin. ‘There’s still time.’
We take the door by the toilets marked staff only and when it swings back it catches my heel, scuffs the leather, trips me up and knocks the blowtorch topping soufflé on the tray in the arm of the Sous-Chef, who glares. And the waiters laugh because this is the day they’ve been waiting for, and I am the man of their dreams.
‘What’s the problem?’ asks Martin.
‘I’m finding it hard to breathe,’ I tell him.
‘Are you drunk?’
‘Maybe. What should I do?’
‘My life. I don’t know who I am –’
‘– and I don’t know what I want.’
‘Yes. No. I don’t know. Is that the only way?’ I’m crashing. ‘Are there not a thousand other directions I could take? Choices I could make? Lives I could live?’
He says I sound like one of my stories.
You sound just like a dream – too unreal for me to take, and make a new self who loves you and holds you and tells you it’ll be forever just this, just us.
Buying furniture, table, chairs, more shelves for your books and an old chest for my memories.
You said I was buying illusions of contentment, working late on the ward while you spent long nights at home alone, with all the space to run your selves on treadmills in your writer’s gymnasium: character dumbbells carrying weight, plot-cycling machine spinning out of control, typewritten pull-ups on a bar in the doorframe straining under the pressure of your body and brain and weight at the ends of your fingers pressing hard, burning holes with their friction typing fast.
You said you were an athlete.
And I knew your legs were strong, and itching, but all you had in your life with me was a hole in the corner for desk and paper and more and more hurdles to jump.
So where was the end of the track?
Was it in separation? I’d started being sick in the mornings, more anxious than normal. We were making love less, and I knew it was bad, and I felt bad because I thought it was my fault, so busy with work and there’s you at your desk all day with not a care in the world save your stories.
It used to be me.
Remember Brittany? How happy we were?
‘No time for a holiday,’ said you, ‘with all your shifts at the hospital.’
I touched your skin and you shivered.
‘I do want you, darling,’ I said. ‘I want you so much but my body won’t listen. It hurts me. It hates me. There is something inside me and it’s punching and kicking and I’m afraid it’ll tear its way out.’
You took a deep breath and you sighed.
‘Then marry me,’ you said. Yes, I’m sure you said it first. ‘Marry me. Then we’ll leave those fears. We’ll travel the world.’
‘And the hospital?’
‘Nobody likes their job.’
‘It drives me mad.’
‘What about money then?’
‘And family?’ I asked.
‘What about it?’
When he first felt the hole in his chest he was dreaming of a voice that used to be his, a voice that now is a stranger. He woke clutching his breast, thought it was a heart attack before he knocked and found himself hollow, the pain not physical but a pain years old born from shards that pierced him and wounded him when he ran.
It hid inside his flesh.
Years later it pushed its way to the surface, and when he realised he couldn’t ignore it, he came back. He took a small flat in Shepherd’s Bush, and a job clearing houses whose occupants had died.
Some things are better forgotten, but he always saves one.
Now his flat is filled with remains – possessions he takes (one from each house), to make a collage of other lives, trying to find the piece that’s missing and thus fit it back into his. In his bathroom are postcards and wish you were here’s; his hallway a gallery of love letters; his study a shrine to characterisation in bookshelf messages on inside covers and photographs pinned to notice boards.
He surrounds himself with strangers and they become him. He turns them into the memory of a life he never had; a wife he threw away; a child he never knew existed.
False memories are safer than people.
The hole was black and engulfed him. It aged him and put fear in his head. When he recognised her name in this week’s obituary, he saw his chance and took it.
The sun heats the side of the church. Its stones are warm to the touch, and coarse. I ask Martin, ‘How many people do you think have touched them?’
‘Will you focus?’ he says. ‘This isn’t like you at all. And to tell you the truth, I’m worried.’
‘I didn’t want it to be in a church, you know. Old stones are beautiful, but they’re fragile. They’ll fall.’
I’m being crushed.
Martin drove us here, ready to greet the guests, shake their hands, pin buttonholes on pageboy nephews and groomsmen cousins I don’t know.
‘How could you let it get this far, if you’re only going to back out now?’ he asks, handing me a cigarette.
‘I needed a taste of reality.’
‘How long has it been this way?’
‘She’s put on weight –’
He raises his eyebrows.
‘– gets angry so often; gets incensed over the smallest of things. And then she cries. Oh, Jesus, the crying.’ I inhale deeply.
‘This is small shit,’ he says. ‘She’s a good woman…’
‘Then you marry her, Martin. God knows I’ve seen the way you look at her.’
‘Stop that,’ he says.
‘Fucking this up.’
‘But I’m scared.’
‘Do you love her?’ he asks.
‘But you could love someone else?’
The vicar opens the door of the vestry and asks is everything alright? ‘Would you like a drink?’ pulling a small flask from under his surplice. ‘Against the rules, I’ll admit,’ he says, ‘but I find a little courage does help.’
You lived in fear. I felt it in your smile, saw it in your eyes as they glazed over when I said the words I do into the mirror, when I thought you could not see.
Write the final part of our life together in letters to you but not sent, simply cut out and left on the floor to be walked on, and ignored.
When you asked me, in all your selfishness, to marry you, I thought I cried in happiness – that we might just be okay. But I know I cried because I saw in front of me the rest of my life. Career over, family tearing their way out.
Still, I loved you.
I loved you with as much love as a heart can give, and there were two of them beating inside me. But they made me feel mortal. I felt years pass and death loom so quickly. And the hearts kept beating and beating and when I said I do to the mirror, the large heart screamed so loudly that the small heart could not be heard.
Give me life and I’ll give it to you.
It was a voice I couldn’t hear because, like you, I was scared.
But I wasn’t going to run.
You told me you were a writer because women love men with words. And I did, for a time. But your words became impatient, restrained, colourless. You blamed me for it, and I was afraid to tell you when I knew about the child, so I kept it to myself, hoping it would save us if I saved it for long enough, and told you and showed you what you could have if only you ignored your fear.
But that time never came. You left us, and left no trace. I spent nights writing letters addressed to a name. But a name became a memory, a memory became a ghost. All I had left was the story you gave me on the day we first met. I searched through it so long for an answer, but like a story without an ending I was left balancing on the edge.
What I found in there was an ending.
The pregnancy was hard. The birth left me desolate. I knew I could never have another, but I gave up the child because it didn’t belong to us. It stood for something that no longer existed.
Now I’ve done what you never bothered to do: I finished it myself.
He’s getting closer. He works frantically sorting boxes of Christmas lights, curtains and clothes. A wooden platform in the corner carries the water tank. Beneath it sits a wooden chest with cracked leather corners, pictures of sailing ships stuck on with paste and varnished over, now chipped, torn, faded in the light from the small round window in the wall. On the front is a large metal lock. Oh yes, he says loudly, I remember it clearly. She was always losing the key.
He remembers the bureau, rushes back to it as fast as he can.
He goes to the shed, finds a hammer, takes it upstairs and starts hitting the lock hard and then harder, until the metal breaks and the wood splinters and the lid lifts slightly as though waiting.
He catches the air that dribbles out and it takes him back to the flat in Kennington Park. He savours it. Relishes it. Breathes it in deep drags – a drug he can take and find himself wake in the past, before he chose to abandon her; before he abandoned himself.
He lifts the lid further and finds the chest full of envelopes, sealed but not addressed, hiding letters inside which were written but never sent. Confused, frustrated, he pulls them out without a care in the world save one.
When the chest is empty he sighs, slumped in a pool of old paper, pieces he doesn’t think to open. Whatever they are, they’re getting in his way. He’s about to close the chest and look somewhere else, but something catches his eye – a small tab of cloth where the base meets the side. He pulls it. The bottom lifts out and a whole new smell reaches his nose.
The manuscript is worn at the edges, torn in places like someone has read it a thousand times, in search of answers, in search of anger, too, and tears which have stained the pages and caused the ink to run and the words to change their meaning.
He stands in the hallway, testing the air – smell of damp, dust, time forgotten.
He laughs. He’s been here before, alright.
And stands, tearing the letters on the floor with feet once again too eager to run, now that he’s found it, now that he’s holding the piece to the hole in his chest and laughing.
But something’s wrong. He’s beginning to worry. ‘Why won’t it fit?’ he whispers, and flicks to the final pages, slumping down as he remembers that he never wrote an ending.
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