I am moved by Lady Percy 's expression of love. CLICK HERE - see if you agree.
Otherwise my novels, short stories, verse, family, music, memories, vulgar interests, detestations,
responses, apologies. I hold posts to 300 words* having found less is better than more.
I re-comment on comments and re-re-re-comment on re-re-comments.
* One exception: short stories.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Compost, if you like


That Which Is Written
Short story: 2254 words

The letter flap squeaked and the morning’s mail fluttered; once the promise of something worth reading, now mainly coercion. He remained inert on the couch easily resisting the temptation to get up. Someone else, better fitted, would collect it.

He might, however, switch off Radio 4. The Duchess of Malfi had reached the strangling scene but he wasn’t convinced. The horror was missing. The actors, both genders, spoke with elocutionary zeal as if addressing an audience hard of understanding. Whereas he…

His finger hovered over the radio but now the mail lying in the hall took on a different role. Reminding him of genuine letters up in the loft, beyond his reach. Soon to be re-explored. Wendy being due this afternoon.

Wendy and George were neighbours, people he’d nodded to. Going to bed two years ago, he’d heard voices and saw an ambulance’s blue flasher overlay Christmas tree lights outside. Saw George stretchered away to hospital. Heard he’d died on Christmas Eve. Unable to fashion anything useful when he next met Wendy he’d simply nodded again. She, apparently expecting nothing, nodded back.

But since then Wendy at least had learned how to handle bad news. When he finally returned home after his tragedy, she’d knocked urgently on his door and waited a full two minutes as he felt his way from the kitchen and fumbled with the lock. Asked urgently if there was anything she could do to help. Ashamed, he recognised her concern. Anything? Out of nowhere he recalled the letters, tightly packed in a cardboard box, written fifty years ago.

“But you’d have to use the loft ladder.” he’d said.

“I can do that. I’m still spry you know.”

She was younger than him. A petite, querying face he recalled. She had promised to “wear flatties” when she came round.

There’d be problems, no doubt. Many letters were written in ball-point on aerograms. His writing was atrocious and the ink might well have permeated the lightweight paper.  In any case his memories of that period were still sharp; Singapore had been exotic and the work he’d trained for had proved absorbing.

But before that, during the training course at an RAF camp in the UK, things had been different. His life had shifted, light had been shed on a hard science he’d never expected to understand. Had he noticed these changes at the time? Had he commented in what he’d written? Or were his letters no more than a string of complaints about bad food, unwonted discipline and living with others en masse? There’d be one bonus: legibility wouldn’t be a problem since he’d been able to use his old portable.

Surely there’d be hints. He’d written regularly to his mother, at least once a week. It couldn’t all have been repetition. He hoped too he’d included names of those he’d trained with because most were now lost to him. Daydreaming, he needed names.

The Duchess of Malfi had given way to a forum about gardening and he switched over to Radio 3. Chabrier, composer of the week. He listened dully, never having got on with French music.  On the coffee table was a sandwich lunch in Tupperware containers left by the carer. Too early for that yet. How about another attempt to operate the electric razor up there in the bathroom. Stupid keeping it there. It could be left anywhere.

He must have dozed because the next thing he heard was a key in the lock. He jerked upright hearing her call out from the threshold. “Wendy here. Got my climbing boots on. May I come in? I’ll bring in your mail.”

Now she was in the room, standing, he sitting. She said, “Oh look, that’s your lunch. You haven’t touched it. Shall I make you some tea?”

But he didn’t want sandwiches and especially not tea. A cognac more like. And the letters. He mentioned the hook for opening the trapdoor to the loft, for pulling down the ladder. Listened to her feet on the stairs, expecting complications. But she was back down with him in a few minutes.

“I found the box, exactly where you said it would be. But before we start here’s today’s mail. Mostly rubbish but there’s this, it looks official.”

“The hell with that,” he said, then, “Sorry, I snapped. Official can wait.”

“I didn’t mind. The snapping I mean. And you’re right – envelopes like this, this colour, can always wait.”

She sat down and he explained about the aerograms from Singapore and the conventional letters he’d written from the training camp in Wiltshire. “They’re the ones I’m more interested in. They’re typed.” He grinned. “Couldn’t take my portable to the Far East. My mother saved the envelopes so the date stamps will give you the sequence.”

She said, “Just one thing. These are letters to your mother. I don’t expect there’ll be anything too personal. But you were a young man at the time. I wouldn’t want you embarrassed.”

His throat constricted. Her sensitivity tore at him; a consideration he would never have come up with in a thousand years. “If you can bear it I can,” he mumbled. “I doubt there’ll be rude words. My mother didn’t approve of swearing.” He paused. “I got on well with my mother.”

“I can tell that. Just give me a few minutes while I put them in order.”

To occupy himself he ate one of the sandwiches, not with any great enthusiasm. It seemed like meat paste, predominantly salty.

He’d been moved by the way she’d protected his feelings. Calling him “a young man” was more than just a phrase. As she began to read the letters aloud, the sense of being cherished grew. Her accent was south-east England with even a hint of Cockney but that was unimportant. She read slowly, clearly, for him alone, not trying to show off. The information from those early days was unexceptional, factual, mainly descriptive but that didn’t matter either. What warmed him was her voice acting in the service of words he had written. A service he could no longer provide for himself.

The writing style began to change as he, the writer, became more introspective. Now mentioning the others he trained with. Beyond that a name: John Carpenter. One of several he’d forgotten but the angular face was now clear in his mind.

“John Carpenter,” he said. More loudly than he intended.

Wendy stopped. “Was he important?”

“Not particularly at the time. More now.”

“Do you want to talk about him?”

“It’s nothing sensational, pretty dull really. But I see him in a slightly different light now.”

“Isn’t this why I’m reading these letters? So you can respond? Tell me about John Carpenter.”

He cast his mind back. The intake for the course had been a mixed bag: two solicitors, a police cadet, a farmer. Electronics was new to all of them and some found it difficult. John was one of the solicitors and his disciplined mind grasped things quicker than most. Two things set him aside: he was a lay preacher with a Nonconformist church; religious belief of any kind was rare in the RAF. Also, he was engaged to be married and this made him more adult among what were mainly adolescents. In fact the marriage was planned to happen during the eight-month course and with uncharacteristic humanity the RAF had arranged for him to stay on as an instructor at the camp for the rest of his service. Allowing him to commute home weekly from Wiltshire to London.

“All very comfortable for John,” he told Wendy. “But there was one snag. Potential instructors needed good scores in the tests. No problem with the theoretical stuff, of course, John had taken to that like a duck to water. He could also do circuit fault-finding. What he was hopeless at was using his hands. We had practical tests – basic metalworking, wiring up a terminal board, tidying cable ends. John never managed to finish any of it on time and his standards were terrible.”

“All brain, no application,” said Wendy.

“Exactly. But rules were rules.”

“Except when they get bent.”

He nodded. “So they bent them. I’m told when he re-took the practicals he had three instructors round him, whispering in his ear, nudging his elbow, applying the solder. He passed.”

“And now…”

He sighed, shifted on the couch. “This is going to sound unimportant. I liked John. He was a good person but not goodie-goodie. He joined in. Given his seriousness I wondered if he regretted that test. I mean it wasn’t an abstract exercise. He profited from being an instructor; for him National Service was as soft as it could be. How did that sit with his lay preaching?”

“You never asked him?”

He sighed again. “As I said, it’s the difference between then and now. At the time I thought it was sort of funny.” He paused for almost a minute, finally speaking in a low voice. “It’s a moral problem I suppose. These days I spend a lot of time thinking about that kind of thing. What else should I do?”

Wendy reached forward to the coffee table. “That official letter you got this morning is from West Mercia Police. I think I’d better open it, don’t you agree?”

He shrugged.

The sound of the envelope being torn was painfully harsh. Wendy said, “It’s quite short. They aren’t going to prosecute. They believe the other driver was at fault; despite the position of your car on the road, despite all the questions they were forced to ask; they regard you as innocent. You did your best under impossible circumstances. The detective-superintendent offers his condolences about your wife and your injuries.”

Finally he said, “It’s odd. I knew I was innocent of breaking the law. But never innocent of killing my wife.”

She was immediately indignant. “But guilt depends on intent. You’ve been thinking about morality. Well that’s the key. There’s no immorality involved.”

“I was the instrument that killed her.”

For the first time Wendy’s voice rose. “Fate killed her.”

He shook his head. “Logic doesn’t answer every question. Being guilty for the wrong reasons still feels like guilt.” Making an effort he straightened up, turned his damaged face towards her.  “But look, I never wanted this. I’ve disturbed you and I’m sorry. You read out John Carpenter’s name and that set me thinking. Let’s forget John’s tiny problem.”

“Not so tiny,” she said nervously.

“I suppose not. A good person but perhaps he was able to thrust his memories to one side. Perhaps he forgot them. Being good doesn’t mean being perfect. We’re all allowed our failings. I hope I haven’t broken the spell. Could you please read me a few more letters.”

She did so and was drawn into his daily life all those years ago. Hitch-hiking to Weston-super-Mare one Saturday, wearing his uniform to trade on drivers’ generosity. Problems with units of measurement in calculus. Who stole the plugs from the washbowls? When she looked up he appeared to be listening intently but his expression now seemed artificial. It was he who brought the reading to an end.
 
“I’m very grateful,” he said, with rather too much emotion.

She put down the letter, ensuring he heard the paper rustle. Said, “On the night George was very ill I delayed calling the ambulance. Dialling 999 seemed such a disruptive thing to do; I felt timid, shied away from the phone. Then he got worse and that terrified me, I had to call. Could that hour’s delay  have been crucial? A delay for no good reason?”

She stood up, her confessional tone gone. “Shall I come round tomorrow? I’ve glanced at some of the aerograms and I’m fairly sure I can decipher them.”

He said nothing.

“There’s lot to go at.”

Nothing.

“You were a great letter-writer.”

If there was any expression it was fixed in the past. Remote and mulish.

She knew his first name but was incapable of using it. She feared this growing distance between them, worried about what might happen, assumed the worst.

She said, “My GP wanted to prescribe tranquillisers but I wouldn’t take them. He insisted the delay hadn’t mattered, that George was dying. Just words. For six months I didn’t sleep.”

Tinily he cleared his throat.

“I’m over it now,” said Wendy.

Silence. But had his face softened a mite?

“I have to say,” she whispered, “the reading’s for me as much as for you. I really want to read some more.” Greatly daring, she touched his face to the left of his shattered eye socket. “May I? Please.”

Perhaps he nodded.

Outside on the driveway she waited, her teeth chattering. She hadn’t worn a coat because he lived so near. Cars went by, into and out of the estate. Ten minutes passed. People must think I’m a fool, that it’s romantic. Oh George, George.

As the sky darkened she heard sounds inside. Scratchy music reduced almost to nothing by the walls. Strings.  Difficult stuff. Since George’s death she’d taken to listening to the radio and she had an inkling it was a quartet. Good, but music alone was what mattered. Now she could leave him, go home, make tea.

After that clear out the fridge. A hateful job which George – recognising her feelings in the last year or so – had occasionally done for her.  Now cleaning the fridge brought with it a faint expectation. Foolish of course.

12 comments:

Sir Hugh said...

Not too long I think - I was drawn on to the end. I was a bit puzzled about her standing outside for twenty minutes.

He seems not to have much grasp of other people’s feelings or empathy. But she has, and it seems he is moved by that. The Carpenter anecdote shows us that Wendy is capable of, and prepared to discuss moral problems with him, and to stand her ground.

Has he, perhaps unconsciously, used the letter thing as a vehicle to get to know her better? But then, when he finds himself starting to soften, he clams up again.

Is he going to retreat beyond recall into his music?

Wendy is hopeful. She knows that with his sight problem he is going to need somebody to support him, and there is a hint that music could become the bonding agent.

mike M said...

I'm with Hugh on this one (seems we often have the same take on your shorts). Standing outside in the rain for 20 minutes? A number of cars turning into and out of the estate? I hadn't imagined that any of this took place on an estate, it felt sited in a neighborhood of small houses or apartments. I imagined Wendy lingered waiting for a promising sign from within, and hoping against the sound of a gunshot, "He" being in an obviously dire emotional situation. Poignant that George became sensitive to Wendy's burden only near the end of his life. I think the story has sustained momentum, excellent detail, and portrays a panoply of human emotion very well. In all, your usual, and much enjoyed.

The Crow said...

This was a good, engaging (as Conrad noted) story.

I thought she waited outside to be sure he wouldn't give in to his guilt and perhaps harm himself. Playing music indicates he is still interested in living, in going on.

Survivor guilt is terrible on the mind. When some of the survivor-wounded - especially if he was a lone survivor - first came to the hospitals where I worked, they were put on suicide watch - unofficially, of course, unless an attempt had been made. When they showed interest in anything that got them up and moving about, the rest of us could stand down a bit; still watchful, but not so intently.

Roderick Robinson said...

All: It's odd. In the past I've left a lot up to readers' imagination. This time I decided to be more specific. Even so there has to be some ambiguity; my view of what happened is only one of several. Readers may come up with their own conclusions, providing they take in all the facts.

Sir Hugh: "Seems not to grasp..." - isn't this established with the reference to nodding? Him vs. Wendy: tragedy has caused him to contract and her to expand. "get to know her better" - it was she who approached him; this triggered the idea of the letters. Music is intended to suggest that whatever his reaction to hearing the letters read he has, for the moment at least, returned to normal.

I'm surprised you didn't point to one thing - this story is far less a work of imagination than usual, although you weren't to know every thing. The general pattern of RAF service follows mine exactly, the Carpenter episode existed, Wendy/George existed and I posted about them albeit a year or two ago, I wrote letters home from Wiltshire (with a typewriter) and from Singapore, "his" house is ours as is the area (faint clues here and there). If I were to start again I'd concentrate more on the Carpenter episode but then that would make me a better story writer than I am.

MikeM: Would you accept ten minutes? Five minutes? Her behaviour outside the house has to stand out. It's not raining. "estate" in the UK is short for housing estate; you'd probably call it a development. "Gunshot" - a very US supposition.

Thanks for identifying the poignancy. When he starts to withdraw from her she confesses her own dark thoughts (without explanation) in the hope that she'll find a response. One difficulty I've not resolved, though I've scattered clues all over, is that blindness has changed his life. This is never so apparent as when he hears her read his words. Yet I wanted to avoid the word "blind", I wanted the inference to emerge slowly, as most things happen for those who are blind.

Crow: Your second sentence more or less summarises the whole plot. The only thing that needs stressing further is that this is merely her view of what may happen - towards the end he remains inscrutable (until the music starts).

"Survivor guilt" adds an extra, potentially useful dimension for a version of the story you might have written. Reactions like yours are what many writers would hope to see. But whereas it's fine to use phrases like "survivor guilt" and "suicide watch" in the comment, ie, as short-cuts, you have to keep them out of the fiction in order to have readers respond to the situation rather than the phrases. It's partly for this reason that I haven't used the word "blind".

Sir Hugh said...

Yes, I did recognise the autobiographical stuff, although I didn't know aboutCarpenter, and neither did I pick up on our family house connection.

The music thing had a connection with Wendy - she had recently been listening to music and I got the hint that she may wish to explore that further involving George as a mentor and thereby providing a therapy for them both.

Ah well, I'd better take up the quick crossword in the Daily Mail instead (if they have one).

mike M said...

The auto-bio aspects were clear to me, and I'm sure clearer to the bro. As always I picked up things on the second read (perhaps I should slow down on the first). Your concentration on aural description was noted, particularly the bit about the harshness of opening the new mail. A nod to the heightening of other senses when sight is lost, it also adds some to the drama of the opening of the "new" mail.

mike M said...

Pedant files: "if" over "it" in the post heading.

Roderick Robinson said...

Sir Hugh/MikeM: The problem with using autobiog material is that you're less inclined to rearrange the facts. Also there's a sense of waiting for the second shoe to drop: is John Carpenter (not his real surname) still alive? How might he react?

"if" has now replaced "it". Thanks for that. Also another superfluous "may" excised from the text. After at least a dozen read-throughs. I wouldn't get employment as a journalist these days.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Good story and gradual build up to the details, like a camera zooming in slowly. I guessed the blindness early on but wasn't prepared for the accident revelation - excellent dramatic effect, subtly introduced.

What puzzles me, and that's only because of my non-English background (we've talked about this before)is the peculiar lack of empathy, as Hugh mentions, or rather the repression of empathy to an extent that only allows him to nod in passing after Wendy's husband has died - and this is even before his own tragedy.

I'm aware that you are skilfully describing not only characters invented for your story but a whole mind-set which, in a somewhat stereotyped way, some of us would think of as typically English. Sorry that I'm falling into the stereotype trap by pointing this out!

Roderick Robinson said...

Natalie: You seem transfixed by a single five-dollar word. How about exchanging "lack of empathy" for "shyness". Or for "a mind on other things". Or for "once bitten, twice shy." Or for "homosexual". Or, given my story, "wounded".

If you're convinced - even glancingly - that there is such a thing as a typical Englishman, I'll see you in Autignac and introduce you to a typical Frenchman in charge of the boulangerie. Who just happens to be Anglophile.

Continuing - "gets a kick out of acting rudely", "is deaf", "looking for a pissoir", "suspects he's in the company of a Daily Mail reader".

Fiction, dear Natters, is - or should be - an exercise in invention. Colour me Colm Toíbin, not Procrustes.

I was going to say you are, or seem to be, a victim of determinism. However I bethought myself to check the definition and I find that it is exactly the opposite of what I've always thought it to be. Does this help?

Anyway, thanks for the nice stuff too

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

I must defend myself! I wasn't transfixed by a single word nor am I a victim of determinism. Yes stereotypes are stereotypes but they generally have some basis in reality. Typically English or French or Daily-Mail-reader is not necessarily off the mark. All the alternatives to lack of empathy you mention are valid and it's indeed possible I misread the character of your protagonist. But I still think that the behaviour so acutely portrayed in your mini-drama is....forgive me....typically English. Nothing wrong with that, especially when you describe it so well. If I say I find the behaviour puzzling, that's a flaw in my un-English background, not a criticism of yours.

Roderick Robinson said...

Natalie: You must forgive me, dear Natation. I am frequently seized by impulse. Entering the kitchen of a morning, reminded of its wonderful acoustic, I burst into song. On this occasion, seized by a string of increasingly bizarre alternatives for empathy I couldn't stop myself. When I'm in this frame of mind it's best to ignore me. Instead you appear to have misread the photo at the top of this page, assuming I'm always a purse-lipped misanthrope. Quick as a flash I am able to assume cap and bells and act the fool. What you read in my re-comment was the equivalent of being hit on the head with an inflated pig's bladder.

Not that truth cannot be expressed facetiously. The evidence that may have led anyone to conclude "he" lacked empathy is comparatively limited and may be interpreted differently. Simply nodding is far from being conclusive. A more likely reason is that "he" is embarrassed, and fears not saying the right thing; on re-reading I see I have almost made this point.

You are right to invoke your foreign origins. In seeing a lack of empathy as a failing you appear to believe some form of display is called for. Not everyone would agree. Visible empathy may be seen as an unwanted intrusion - and not just by anally restrained Brits.

However, there is one thing I may chide you for. Not for the first time you have read one of my posts too quickly. Follow me to the end and you will find - admittedly a tortuous process - that although I say you are a victim of determinism it turns out that I've always thought determinism had a different meaning. At the very last moment I doffed my cap and bells and took on the appearance of a scorpion. Lashing out with my stinging tail.

Never mind. As Friedrich S. said "nicht diese Töne"..

PS: And thanks - quite seriously, this time - for more nice stuff.