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, 18 July 2015

Is this clearer?

A WORD IN YOUR EAR. My short stories are frequently thought to be wilfully obscure. It’s not my intention but the genre imposes conciseness, a tendency to be elliptical. This one tries like hell to be explicit. It’s also a lot shorter than its predecessor: The Work Ethic.
Note for North Americans: faggot has other unforeseeable meanings in Britain.




Flirting With It
Short story: 1505 words

HIS LEFT HIP ached dully, as it had for six years. Residue from three faggots moved slowly through his reluctant stomach. A tooth, broken ten days ago, remained broken. Arthritis jagged at his index finger as he rolled over in bed. His hair was too long but phoning the salon was a pain.

One day soon, he told himself, these minor faults and shortcomings would unite as a single force, grow in intensity, choke off the air in his guzzard, and kill him. Quite soon. But what was death? A changed state - no passport needed, the guide books wholly unreliable.

Running hot water in the bathroom he looked ahead and foresaw that the sliver of shaving soap in its cedar-wood bowl would dry out and curl like a poppadum. But that it would remain where it was, it would not be thrown away. Its high price tag would restrain the hand of those tidying up after him.

Back in the bedroom the clock radio uttered a Beethoven song, hideous in its complexity, devoid of a tune. He nodded. Music would continue to be played of course. Some of it new music as yet unheard, but more likely stuff from old stagers – Mozart (tot 1791), Vivaldi (morto 1741), Shostakovich (смертьm 1975) – their creative thoughts still bypassing death’s inconveniences. He could hardly grumble, never having been guilty of a creative thought.

Yesterday, feeling spry, he’d ignored the supermarket and walked as far as the bakery. Wouldn’t be doing that again; the return was uphill, something he’d never realised. But he’d bought a small white loaf dotted with currants and found it toasted well. He’d run to three slices this morning, the butter melting into the moonlike surface of the toast. Butter, he knew, was bad for him, bread too, he couldn’t imagine currants would be any different. Yet he was eating to stay alive. One option would be not to eat – feeling giddy perhaps, then toppling into a black hole. Not quite the same as suicide; death via inaction.

Would hunger be bearable? Toasted currant bread made it difficult to imagine. Perhaps nature’s sneaky ambush – Coming soon, he was convinced. - would be preferable.

Tuesday was library day with Miss Tchuah at the counter. She’d been a salutary influence, causing him to look back ashamedly on life as a farming equipment salesman, even more as left-back with the company football team. He’d been a bigot then, talking about blackmops and benefits, risking off-ball tackles on a super sleek Nigerian striker. Long into retirement his views had prevailed but Miss Tchuah had blown them away. Lustrous, ever cheerful with a Carribbean lilt, she’d listened to his whinge that he’d read all John le Carré’s novels and introduced him to Eric Ambler, arranging loans of the rarer titles from other branches. Asked him how he’d be celebrating Christmas, mentioned turkey roll as a useful economy and got someone to chauffeur him to a carol service – with mince pies – at the Baptist church.

Waiting at the lights across from the library he felt the waft from fast-moving traffic, saw that a car would be more decisive than starving. Again, it wouldn’t be suicide; he’d simply be taking advantage of reduced concentration and poor spatial awareness. Messy though, with the library only a few steps away. He’d hate to discommode Miss Tchuah.

Entering the library he mounted the single step at the threshold. All it would need would be that single step: some clumsy foot-dragging, a small trip and a terminal fall. Thrilling to imagine these things, even better to discuss them. But who’d willingly chat about death? Miss Tchuah he knew to be religious but how might he bring up the subject?

None of the book spines appealed as he shuffled round the aisles. Read him. Hadn’t a clue about her. Never cared for Ireland. Came upon C. S Lewis’s Perelandra, read years ago; science fantasy was not to his taste but the story had caught his fancy. It was part of The Science Trilogy but he’d never seen the other two titles. This Perelandra was new and glossy, brought out in a new edition; he slid it out to remind himself of its appeal.

Since he’d read the book Lewis had become famous, talked about on telly, a movie about his life. The back cover had much biographical detail. Inside was a five-page essay about Lewis by another well-known novelist. He flicked the pages knowing that over the years he’d changed, but had the book? Sat down and started to read.

Almost an hour later he looked up at the clock and saw it was past twelve. The library was quiet, lunch being more important to the oldsters who formed the greater part of the clientele. Miss Tchuah was waiting, smiling; there was no one else.

“A nice long read, mon?”

Habitually taciturn he couldn’t help smiling back. Foolishly, but then she had that effect. “A book I read years ago. Perelandra.”

Miss Tchuah nodded. “Narnia author. Good, I liked it. You too?”

“Unusual for me. But yes.”

This appeared to please her. “That makes me glad, mon. But what you want to borrow? No book that I see.”

“Wasn’t on the shelves. Another Lewis book. Could you reserve it please? It’s called A Grief Observed.”

Miss Tchuah frowned, something she’d never done. “That not fiction, mon. You know?”

“I know.”

“Kinda sad subject.”

“I know.

Still frowning she said. “I reserve it. Phone you.”

He left, pleased by the subterfuge. His choice had worried her and that was a comfort. Perhaps she’d want to talk when he collected the book. Put away gloomy thoughts; cling on. Not that he wanted to get closer; a couple of minutes and he’d be satisfied.

Walking back his wellbeing evaporated. Advancing on the narrow pavement, splay-legged and aggressive, almost certainly looking for argument was DD, Dennis Dobson. Ludicrously dressed in a tweed Norfolk jacket replete with suede inserts, a hogging cap the shape of a sugar scoop. “Been meaning to have a word,” he wheezed.

He always was.

“Oh yes.”

“You weren’t at George’s funeral.”

“Didn’t know he died.”

DD stared, pig-eyed. “Don’t you read t’paper?”

“Never.”

“How do you know who’s snuffed it?”

“It’s news I can get along without.”

“You’ll regret it you girt northerner,” said DD, “when nobody comes to yours.”

“No doubt you’ll let me know in due course.”

He walked on, reflecting. There was death, which had its exciting side. And there was deadness which was all coffins, Amazing Grace at the crematorium, and false sympathy – the dull aftermath. It would suit him fine if no one came at all; some kind of record.

When Miss Tchuah phoned he hardly recognised her voice; all the West Indian gaiety had been lost, she spoke as if demoted.  Also she was keen to fix an exact time. He assumed this was to arrange a chat and so it was – but not between the two of them. Rather he was drawn aside from the counter by a whey-faced twenty-two-year-old girl from Social Services, cloistered in the library’s tiny office and interrogated about his state of mind.

Disappointed by this inferior version of what he’d wanted he was tempted to joke with Miss Toomey but saw this might reflect on Miss Tchuah. Decided instead to play a straight bat.

“It’s just a book,” he said.

“About death, though.”

“I’m eighty-five. Don’t you think death might be on my mind?”

Miss Toomey sniffed disapprovingly, as if he’d be better off with Jeffrey Archer. “Do you read many books about...”

“This will be the first. Assuming you’re going to let me have it.”

Now Miss Toomey looked uneasy. “We wouldn’t like to think you were... well contemplating... you know what...”

“Do myself in?” How bloody exciting to say that out aloud. “Not at all. I’m still full of beans.” Lying was almost as exciting.

It was enough for Miss Toomey and minutes later she was off on her bike.

There were tears in Miss Tchuah’s eyes as she handed over A Grief Observed. Before she could say anything he pre-empted her.

“It was the right thing. I’m just a silly old bugger. I’m not offended.”

“Oh no, mon. You God’s children.”

“Nice of you to say that. But that’s you not me.”

Miss Tchuah bowed her head to reveal intricate weavings. Hair like that looked silly on others, not on her.

He stood at the traffic light waiting for it to change. Up the road was a lorry bearing down, loaded with tons of timber. All it needed would be for him to be sort of forgetful.

Saw a notice above the windscreen – Dave’s Rig – and let the lorry pass. The sawmill was only four miles away and lorries came by regularly. On the other hand, he’d eaten the last slice of currant bread this morning and knew the bakery was too far away. Wondered how it would be after two days. Three days? Best of all, no one would know.

12 comments:

The Crow said...

Faggots are ciggies, butts, et cetera, but I wouldn't have known that the word meant the same as cigarette if it hadn't been for a British dime-store-type crime novel I read years ago while still in my teens. I had to look the word up in that old school thing called the unabridged dictionary to learn its meaning and possible source.

Going back for another reading.

The Crow said...


This was good, very good, but maybe because I've been wondering about the same thing lately. Just curious, mostly, but perhaps...planning ahead?

No, this is good because it is well written. A thoroughly satisfying slice of this man's life, a well-painted vignette. Plus, some of the words sent me scrambling to Google. Best one - poppadum!

Some of your short-shorts leave me puzzled over bits and pieces, but I've found if I simply re-read, with no preconceived notion or seeking for meaning (whatever the hell that means!), your writing takes me away to an unexpected place, sets me to wandering in another world.

Yep, this is good.

Roderick Robinson said...

Crow: Slight correction: the slang word for a cigarette is "fag", just that, it's not abbreviated. The faggot I'm referring is a foodstuff which, if sold in the USA, would lead the vendor straight to jail if not the electric chair. I'll not go into its various constituents, a rough and ready definition might be an English haggis.

In general I'd warn readers against looking for hidden meanings in my stories except that the themes themselves may occasionally qualify as "meanings". One doesn't announce a theme, that would be too corny; one simply hopes that a theme is self-evident. Here the theme is how old age may change one's attitude towards death; thus it becomes vital to ensure that the unnamed character's thoughts, dialogue and behaviour are in fact those of an old man.

Thanks for your kind words. You put your finger on a key matter - a story (or for that matter a novel) should create a world that the reader may occupy. A world that differs from that of the reader. This is why I profit from having foreign readers - they frequently throw up unexpected comment.

Sir Hugh said...

Ok. A well written story and a brave subject to tackle. At our kind of age I have no doubt we all think about the impending end from time to time, but I am a classic head in the sand burier and and I avoid dwelling on it at any length.

I read the story late last night just before going to bed and felt guilty at not having read the literature mentioned, and then had unpleasant related dreams, so you can rejoice in having an impact.

Roderick Robinson said...

Sir Hugh; No need at least to read the Jeffrey Archer. Lewis's Science Trilogy might be an acquired taste by now, but it wasn't then. Eric Ambler always well worth reading but tends these days to be out of print. Worth buying second-hand on ABE.

Sir Hugh said...

Yes I have avoided Archer, and read some Eric Ambler.

Ellena said...

I just finished writing a few words to my neighbor who lost her husband yesterday.
Then I went on YouTube and clicked on a couple of Elisabeth Kuebler-Ross conversations with the dying and now after commenting here my thoughts will get stuck at the same spot as always - can't imagine the 'gone FOR EVER' bit.
From what I can tell you and I and a few other commenters are all on the same page listing 'next'.
Enjoy what's left of this Sunday.

Avus said...

Nicely written, RR - I hope it is not too biographical? I was once, long ago, the Director of a branch of "The Samaritans". My attitude was that I felt I should "be there" for any distraught, lonely soul, but that it was ultimately their choice if they wanted to top themselves.

The verse at the head of my blog sums up my own attitude to these thoughts.

Roderick Robinson said...

Ellena: Certainly at my age it's impossible to avoid contemplating death and speculating on its imminence. But it's assumed we're all terrified of the prospect - for the moment I'm not (although this may change when evidence arrives). My aim was to exploit the situation, turn it into something witty, create new variants of what might be expected: as I might if I were contemplating a short story about washing up, a failed adolescent love affair, the embarrassment of tipping a waiter, or anything else. In short to treat it as simply a subject. I had no intention of offering comfort though, on the other hand, I had no wish to disturb readers either.

I might recommend others that writing a short story about death might work as a therapy, if a therapy were needed.

Avus: Of course it's autobiographical, how could it not be? In general terms. But I wrote it to entertain myself and - if I were very, very lucky - others.

I'm surprised you didn't find it necessary or worthwhile to dissuade people from topping themselves. I'd worry too about assuming that topping themselves was necessarily their choice; surely these might well be people who felt they had no choice.

"a world in which I crave no part". Is this a recent development or was it always the case?

Blonde Two said...

We don't use the words often do we ... dead ... dying ... death ...

There you go; I am rehearsing for stories that will no doubt come later in life. At the moment, I am far too egotistical to imagine a world where I do not exist (I have tried).

Very good by the way, and it demands a second reading.

Roderick Robinson said...

Blonde Two: Death encourages dishonesty. Speaking on behalf of myself (instead of through one of my characters) I try to avoid euphemism although I'm not above poking fun at some phrases. "Translated into glory" is ripe for parody. Also there are couple of lines of Paul Simon's that cause unintended laughter:

And I dreamed I was dying,
And I dreamed that my soul rose
Unexpectedly


Oh no, Paul! I assure you God wants you. You've written far too many really good songs.

I wish I'd included that penultimate line of yours (or rather its sentiment) somewhere in my story. There's real honesty there and most people - assuming they are honest - will detect a resonance.

No need for you to age before you start writing stories about things other than walking, rucksacks and Dartmoor. Imagination allows you to time travel, to exist outside yourself, to become impossibly beautiful, etc. It's time now to stop recording and start creating. Take that wonderful sentence and allow imagination to insert yourself (as an observer) between that sentiment and the physical reality of death happening to a person clinging to that sentiment. Not you, the aim is entertainment not psychoanalysis. Someone with red hair perhaps. Mischief is permissible, imaginary death need not be solemn.

Sir Hugh said...

If I do think about it I worry about my offspring having to sort everything out afterwards, I would want to be there to do it myself ! A big modern day conundrum is what to do with all the stuff on the person's computer, even if you could find your way round it?