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Short Story Prize

Winner VU Short Story Prize: Their cruel routines

Over a number of days, Peter had been considering a recently recalled incident from his childhood. Perhaps not so much an incident, but more of a scene. In the course of being revisited, the memory had begun to take on a troubling quality. In the scene stand Peter, his mother, and a third person, an unfamiliar man with coldly appraising eyes. The man speaks. He says that Peter has a delightful face. ‘But his legs,’ the man says, staring at the boy’s scabbed shins.

‘A nervous condition,’ says his mother, looking shiftily at the legs. ‘It looks more than it is.’

‘Still,’ says the man, souring his face.

Peter seeks reassurance, but his mother stands sideways to him, as if he is less than she’d previously believed.

The scene was isolated from its contexts. It had, in the manner of such recollections, been jolted into life by the trigger of a smell or a glance or a way of talking. For Peter, the defining characteristic of the memory was the mood of the adults: one of disappointment, of expectations unfulfilled.

And so, in the gloom of a Sunday afternoon, with nothing to do but listen to the clock and watch the rain, he described this memory and asked his mother about the exchange. He asked if she thought she’d done her best to stand up for him against the man’s disgust. Is this, he said, what other mothers would have done in the same situation?

She’d been listening to him carefully. ‘I don’t recall the situation,’ she said. ‘And it doesn’t sound as if it has any significance. I’m sure you have your reasons for mentioning it.’

‘The memory is clear,’ he said. And he described it again, to show it couldn’t be obliterated, ripped up and burned like an old photograph. He stressed the language that the man had used – ‘delightful’ was an unusual word choice, he said. ‘A curious way for an older man to talk about a boy.’

‘Just because you remember something, doesn’t make it real,’ she said. Something flashed across her face. ‘Let me tell you about memory,’ she said.

‘I don’t want to hear about your memories,’ he said.

‘I want to tell you something about my father.’

‘Why do you bring your own life up? I’m talking about mine.’

His mother went quiet.

She peered down her nose at him. ‘If it happened, it’s lost to me,’ she said. ‘And I have a good memory, as you know. Why are you asking about this now?’

‘It seems to be important. I’m trying to piece together my childhood, and this is a fragment.’ He gave her an even stare. ‘And there are few photographs.’

His mother said quickly, as she didn’t like talk of photographs or lack of them, ‘No, I don’t recall your man or his sour face.’ She swept a look around the living room. ‘But you’ve certainly soured the afternoon.’ She smiled, a trick of hers, to sweeten her words. ‘Let’s have tea,’ she said through the smile, a high note in her voice.

‘He was definitely there,’ said Peter. ‘And more than once.’

She sighed. ‘When was this?’ she said, resigned, knowing he wasn’t going to let it go.

‘I was a boy, wearing shorts.’

‘Goodness,’ she said. ‘Such a long time ago when you were a boy.’

He felt the barb, but didn’t react, or tried not to.

‘Perhaps he was a neighbour,’ she said. ‘Or a friend. I had friends, you know. Once.’

‘No,’ said Peter. ‘That’s not it. This man was disconnected from us. There was a formal air. You weren’t friends. You wore a stiff coat, like a plain carpet.’

‘Ridiculous,’ she said.

‘We saw him a few times. Maybe more than I can recall. I’m remembering all this now. It doesn’t matter why. Things keep coming back. They wouldn’t have mattered at the time. But now … The coat, for example. I’m filling the details in.’

She thought for a moment. ‘It sounds to me as if you’re describing a visit to the doctor, but you’ve muddled the details. That’s all. Very simple. You search for mystery when things are simple. We were constantly visiting the surgery. Your legs.’

‘Ah, yes, my legs,’ he said, watching her closely, wondering if she might be casting her mind back to the sleepless nights, his scratching the rash until the thin skin on his lower legs was broken. Bloodstained sheets and pyjamas. Her wordless stripping of him and the bed. Throwing the soiled linen into a heap. Leaving him naked, to wash his wounds himself.

‘Regardless of who he might be,’ she said, ‘I think it’s unwise to be filling things in, as you say. You’ll end up creating events that never occurred. I could fill things in, and then I’d have a whole fantasy life.’ She paused, to check he was following her. ‘A whole fantasy life. We’d all like our questions addressed. But we can’t just invent the answers.’

‘I’m only telling you what I remember,’ he said. ‘It must have come from somewhere.’

She twisted her mouth in a discomfited way, and sat up straighter in her chair.

‘What’s wrong?’ he said. Now that she was old, full of aches, and feeble, she was no longer a threat, and in many ways her behaviour was amusing. ‘You look like you’ve seen a ghost.’

‘It’s you. You make me wonder,’ she said.

He pushed his lip out to mimic a sulk. ‘Well if you won’t tell me who this man was.’

‘I don’t know who he was,’ she said, pulling a man into existence. Then, as if he’d caught her out, she narrowed her eyes. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ she said. ‘You get me all worked up.’

‘I’ll make some tea,’ he said, standing and drawing a line under the conversation for the time being.

In the kitchen, he let the kettle whistle for longer than necessary. She disliked noise; he smiled, imagining her frowning in the living room. She would be muttering about it, under her breath. He knew her well.

They sat with the tea steaming between them. Outside, it was darkening already, though it wasn’t yet five.

His mother shook her head at nothing. But Peter asked her what was on her mind.

‘I wonder,’ she said in her high, sweet voice, ‘if we’ll still be doing this, as we are now, in ten years.’

‘If we’re alive,’ he said. He meant her.

‘Shush,’ she said. ‘I don’t like that talk.’

‘Well.’

‘But,’ she said, ignoring him, ‘in ten years, you’ll be old too. We’ll be old together. It’s reassuring to imagine the routines continuing.’ She had a tendency to divide and partition life. She often spoke of seasons: she was in her winter years; he, autumn. Still, she couldn’t quite bring herself to talk of endings – she would approach the subject then shy away at the last minute, just when she’d been near enough to touch it. If you were to say to her, ‘What about when winter ends?’ she’d say that it was the longest season. This was another one of her psychological tricks, a method of avoiding her dues.

He crossed his legs, allowed the slipper to dangle from his foot. He looked out of the window: the bare trees put him in mind of abandoned churchyards. He wondered if he was having a premonition; perhaps it was simply a clue to the rest of his life. Slippers and tea, and the company of the old lady. The air had chilled. There were storms forecast.

‘I enjoy storms,’ she said.

‘They frighten you,’ he said.

‘They can sometimes unnerve me, but I like them,’ she said. ‘I always have. But of course you know better. You always know better.’ She looked down at her hands, and played sickeningly with a knuckle.

‘I should know my place,’ he said.

She looked up and nodded.

He smiled. She frowned.

‘Maybe I do,’ he said. He was talking about knowing better.

‘Did you see that?’ she said. ‘On the lawn just now?’ She was staring through the window. Her face was waxy in the gloom. But there was nothing to see. She had become comically jumpy in her wintry years. ‘It’s getting dark,’ she said. ‘Put on a lamp. No, too harsh. Light some candles. And draw the curtains.’

‘It’s early for candles and curtains,’ he said. He ignored her requests and watched the dreary tea cooling. He wished for noisy activity, some reminder that there was an elsewhere beyond this room. He knew there was. He’d seen it in the lighted windows of other houses, the flats nearby. He would be embarrassed if it were known that his life amounted to this, the ticking and tocking of the clock. At work, he told colleagues he lived in his mother’s house, rather than living with his mother. This slight twist on the facts, by its quirkiness, didn’t invite any further intrusion. But one time, Lorraine had ventured to ask, ‘Is your mother still with us?’ and he’d smiled, enigmatically he’d thought, and said, ‘Very much so,’ then asked if her mother was also ‘still with us’. Then he’d worried that he’d offended her. That he’d sounded curt, or smart. He’d approached her the next day, but she acted as if she’d come to an irrevocable conclusion about him.

The episode had confirmed something he already believed: that the more distant you kept yourself, the easier it was to maintain illusions. Tell people nothing, and they can know nothing. Let them know one small thing, and you might end up revealing far more than you intended. But concealment was a trick, like his mother’s tricks of the mind. He knew it was cowardly, to keep the truth from others. The idea niggled him all the time. But he couldn’t face anybody else knowing the truth. And there were worse forms of cowardice practised every day. He’d decided most people were cowards in their own ways.

‘I’ve been thinking,’ he said, bouncing his slipper on the end of his foot, ‘about finding my own place. Somewhere nearby.’

‘Shush,’ she said. ‘I saw it again.’ She leaned forward. ‘Something moved at the bottom of the lawn.’

All Peter could see was the drenched garden, skeletal branches against the glowering sky and drops of rain on the glass. ‘Probably a bird looking for shelter,’ he said. ‘Or a rat.’

It was her way to create dramas – it suited her to have a crisis circling. She did this to hold him close to her, in the house, where she wanted him. He was a prisoner, in a way. Another time, years ago, when hope’s light was fuller, he’d told her he was thinking of looking for a place of his own. ‘If you go I shall wear out,’ she’d said then. ‘We only have each other.’

Now she said, ‘Go outside and have a look.’

He frowned. ‘It’s cold and damp,’ he said. ‘And there’s nothing out there.’

‘It’s only rain. You won’t melt,’ she said. Then, shifting her tone, ‘Go and see. To ease my mind. It’ll only take a minute. Just a look around. Go now, before it gets fully dark.’

‘If it’s an animal, then what? It doesn’t matter to us, does it?’

‘If it’s an animal, then it’s an animal. I’ll know. I want you to check.’ And then the smile and the sweet voice: ‘I’d like you to check for me. Go now. It’s getting darker. Light a candle for me, before you go.’

Light it yourself, he thought, un-fooled by the frail vulnerability. But he lit two candles. He placed one on the coffee table, next to the tea tray, and the other on the sideboard, where a cluster of photographs might stand in other households.

He went to the hallway. To get to the back of the house he had to walk around the side. There was a back door but an old desk was pushed in front of it. He opened the front door and cold air rushed through. The rain was heavier than he’d thought. He grabbed his coat. His mother was framed in the doorway, inside her stuffed armchair.

‘Close the door,’ she called. ‘I can feel a draught.’

He checked for his keys, then closed the door. He heard her voice from inside. The words weren’t clear, but she would be wondering aloud why he always felt it necessary to slam doors. The street lamps were coming on. The slanting rain was lit by the neon glare. Pulling his coat around him, carpet slippers squelching, he walked to the corner of the laneway at the side of the house.

Opposite were the lighted windows of the housing commission flats. In one of them, later on, the shirtless young man would begin to lift weights. Peter watched him sometimes, in the evenings, from the bathroom window, with the lights off. Watched him as he lifted and preened and occasionally admired himself in an unseen mirror.

The streetlights didn’t reach to here. He should have brought the torch. He coughed a warning of approach to anyone who might be secluded in the wet shadows. Groups of teenagers from the flats sometimes congregated nearby. But the only sound was the plinking of dripping water from a broken gutter.

The garden gate was padlocked. He levered himself up at the greasy wall to peer over the top. Nothing was awry. He could turn around and go back inside, but his mother would want to see him in the garden, or else she would go on about it all night, and there’d be no rest; every noise would be accompanied by her creating and shifting. He unlocked the gate and stood at the living room window.

She was sitting in the flickering candlelight with her hands in her lap. Worrying her fingers, the way she worried their lives. If not for her, it would be rather a pretty picture, with the candles twinkling orange in the dark room.

Then she sat upright. She looked like a wild animal, alert to threats. She pushed herself out of her chair and he thought she might be about to walk to the window. But she stood with her hands clasped in front of her stomach.

He had a mischievous idea gambolling in his head. He would stare in, arms at his sides, and she’d become unsettled. He wouldn’t move. She’d draw the curtains, maybe. No, she wouldn’t. She’d be too afraid to walk to the window, nearer to the uncertainty. She’d leave the room, go to the kitchen, turn on all the lights. And she’d sit at the small table where they ate their meals night after night; she’d look from the yellow walls to her hands twisting like a nest of snakes on the table in front of her. She would stay there a while, and hope he was playing games and wait for him to come back inside. With each moment he didn’t show, she’d grow more afraid.

He could stroll around the block, taking his time. And when he arrived back inside she’d tell him how she’d become bored with looking at him outside in the garden. ‘You weren’t scared, then?’ he’d say, and she’d laugh, but it would be hollow laughter and he’d know the truth.

He licked his lips for a wet shine, and exposed his teeth, and widened his eyes into a dead stare, just to get her going even more. But as he stared, teeth bared, eyes agape, arms hanging lifeless at his sides, his mother came closer to the window. At first she was peering to the left of his face, to a point over his shoulder, as if trying to make sense of the space behind him. And then her hands came up from her belly to her chest, and her mouth fell open, and her eyes also began to widen slowly. She brought one of her hands up from her chest to her face. Her fingers covered her mouth, and she began to back away.

Without turning to follow her gaze, he ran to the gate, banged it shut behind him, fiddled with the lock, but it was dark, and his hands were cold and wet and the mechanism was stiff and slimy from years of rain and rusting, so he left it – left it open. Get it later, in the morning when it’s light. It’ll be okay tonight, just one night. He ran along the laneway, quickly, must get in from the cold, slippers flapping and tripping him in the wet, eyes stinging from the slanting freezing rain, not daring to look behind. Don’t look, don’t look; it doesn’t exist if you don’t see it. Don’t look. Keep running. And all the time a strange sound carrying from somewhere, an interior sound, high and light, distant and fragile in the damp air, repeating over and over, like the incomprehensible cackle of a deranged seabird.

 

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Barry Lee Thompson is developing a collection of linked short fiction, with support from the Victorian government through Creative Victoria. His writing is published in Australia and overseas, and his work has been recognised in a number of literary awards. He writes at barryleethompson.com

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