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Short Story Contest - Honorable Mention

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Honorable Mention: Paul Bowers

 

 

Should There Be Others

 

 

You get to my parents’ house by taking that left turn up the long road that climbs steadily through the woods, then comes out under the tallest trees and falls down the steep decline, the far hills bathed in blue, or sparkling silver where the light picks them out, and the low marshy flatland spreading out like regret below.  The road runs down the hill in a long twist, an S-shape, to reduce the contour, and then it hits the marshland and meanders through.  Low hedges on either side.  You get stuck behind a farm vehicle, and dawdle, twilight nipping where it followed you out of the trees and down the decline and through the gloaming marshes, until you swing off the road and down the lane and up to their gate.  Father is opening it, and as you grind in across the gravel he motions you which way to turn the wheel.

As I enter the house the latest dog swipes its muzzle across my trouser, the shadow of its tail wagging on the wall like a rushing pendulum.  Dad’s asking about my journey and Mum’s offering a dozen forms of refreshment.  I tell him about the tailback where the other road feeds in.  We go from three lanes to one.

“Not as bad as last time,” I say, lying.  Last time it wasn’t bad at all.  I’d stopped for coffee and got chatting to the waitress.  I had to invent a jam to explain my late arrival.

“Of course, there’s milk, and, well, there’s always water, though it’s not mineral water, you know.  It’s only out of the tap.”

I say I’ll have coffee.

I come into the front room, the dog still snuffing around my legs and ankles.  Through the window there is a glimmer of light in the garden, taking its leave.  I don’t know, but since Dad retired, it seems they leave the lights off longer.  In the corner of the room I make out the doughy presence of my second brother’s eldest, Paul.  I’m oppressed by this boy, his inertia, his bread-like limbs, his dull name.  It has no end, I think that’s the problem.  It starts with that “Pu” and then goes into an “oow” sound and then tails off.  The way our accents are.  We don’t say our terminal “l”s.  Puoow sits there.  I imagine him malevolently dull, knowing he is a boy uniquely equipped to inflict tedium.  He looks at me with a grin I can only describe as sly.

“Hello Puoow.”

“Hnnn…”

š

I sit drinking my coffee.  In the window I can see us all.  It is dark outside now.  Mother is adjusting her cup on her knees, spreading her fingers.  Father is looking out where the sky would be.  Puoow slides from the armchair and disappears, the dog wagging after.  Along the sill generations of departed relatives march past in glum procession.  Grandparents, great-aunts and -uncles, cousins, arranged in the order of their passing.  And then the shots of departed youth, not buried yet, but gone to memory all the same: my siblings at their slender weddings long since past, their offspring in nappies, who now laugh at their own abandoned selves.  The photographs form a line, like a queue.  I wonder what they are queuing for.

“Have you seen this?” says Mum.

Paul has returned and he is setting up a piece of equipment on the floor.

I notice that they have framed my first paper, the copy I gave them.  “Hydras and Heroines: gendering the past in a Sarawak village.”  It sits at the end of the line of photographs.

“I’m getting out my best present,” says Paul.  He turned 12 last week.  “Daddy got me this.  It’s a remote access controllable digital camcorder.  I’m setting it up.”

He puts the camera there, between us all.  It is small, silver, round.  It looks like R2D2 lost his head.  Paul sets the keyboard straight in front of him.  The laptop came at Christmas.

“I am keying in my pass-code,” he says.  “I have attached the cable.  First I put one end into the socket marked A, thus.”  He grabs the jack and pushes it in the keyboard where it’s already been pushed.

“Then I uncoiled it, the cable, taking care to avoid kinks, lest it be damaged.  I placed it into the socket marked B …”

He makes a small grunting noise as he reaches forward.  He picks up R2D2’s head and pushes the already in place jack.

“... thus.”

Mother smiles.  She says it’s amazing.

“I am keying in my pass-code,” he continues.

“They can do anything these days,” Dad says.  “Kids.”

“It’s not essential that I do this,” says Paul.  “But it is prudent...”

We sit around him like confused senators hearing news of some new enemy, some new god, its triumph against our legions.  He sits alone in the centre of our triangle.

“... should there be other users.”

I take advantage of the etiquette about not seeing his password to allow myself to look away.  I glance at the window, the sill.  I see the photo of my brother marrying someone else.  He divorced the boy’s mother five years ago, and has two younger kids by his current wife.  I suspect him of buying compensatory gifts.  Next time Paul will arrive in a jet car, like the cartoon shows we watched.  His half-siblings will have each other.

“I am opening the recorder function, which I am able to access by means of the icon marked thus,” he says, motioning to some tiny graphic with his cursor.

“He knows all about it,” says Dad.

“It’s amazing,” says Mum.  “Really.”

She leaves the room to pour her dregs away.  She gets out plates and puts the oven on.  Something clangs as she places it inside.

“I click on this menu option ― thus ― because I want to create a file.  I click on the option marked ‘new file’ in order so to do, and then this box appears.”

He tells me that it’s not as big a box as the one that appears when you click on “properties” or “options,” and that this is because it’s a command box and not an information box.  I’m dubious about this, because “options” sounds like a command box to me, but I let it pass.

“I click to confirm ‘create new file’ and then I click on ‘open device’ ― thus.”

I half expect him to run into the Japanese translation, but then I notice something.  Paul is looking at me with what I can only describe as triumph.

“Now,” he says, and it sounds almost sinister.  “I need something to film.”

“Hmm” I say, trying to sound engaged.

“Would you like more coffee with your cake?” asks Mother. 

It’s the first I’ve heard of cake.  I say yes.

Paul has returned to the keyboard.

“This command,” he says, “simply allows me to view what images are currently available to the recording device.  It isn’t actually recording yet.”

I see myself appear on the screen, mercifully distant.  He hasn’t learned to zoom in.

“Should I wish to commence recording, I simply click on the following icon, thus.”

Mother is pouring the coffee, and the room fills with the smell of cake.  She has opened the oven.

“I am changing my seating position.”

He moves.

“There is also a microphone,” he says.  “Here.”

The grunting noise again as he leans forward and indicates it.

“If you wish to record dialogue, then the device will pick it up,” he says, reassuringly.

“Oh, right,” I say.

I stare at myself on the screen.  I remember the film I shot in Sarawak, the laughter of the children, the suspicious peering of the adults.  I have an awkward feeling that he may be shooting now.  I used to do this myself, deliberately obfuscate when the camera was running.  He’s done me.  I freeze.  I hold what I regard as a pose at least passably dignified.  He tells me I can speak. 

“Hh-hm,” I say.  As if to say, “oh really?”  “That’s interesting.”  “Gosh.”

I sit motionless, staring at myself, willing the boy to desist.

“This is my first recording project,” he says, looking at the device, where the microphone is, his voice raised.

He clicks an icon.

“I click on the icon, thus, in order to cease recording, although I have not yet exited from recording mode.  I click on ‘save file’ in order to save my first recording project.  Now I shall name the project.  Thus.”

He types.  Intent.  Unhurried.  Caressed by twilight.

“My Uncle Scott, explorer.”

š

“Uncle Scott?”  Paul is sitting on the sofa with his Granddad, putting the last crumbs in his mouth.  “When you were little, Granddad says he shot a film of you, on his cine camera.  Can we see it?”

I tell him this is a question for his Granddad, who will have to clamber into the loft to find it.

Dad agrees, and after some pondering of the old projector and some blowing off of dust, we enter the old routine.  We find a white wall and turn our chairs to face.  We pull the curtains shut and leave the lights off.  Mum shuts the door to the kitchen.  The room is dark.  Dad has spooled up the old film and he presses the button.  There is a whirr and the wall flickers as the opening frames pass the light that shines in the gate.

The first images are blurred.  Dad turns the lens ring to make it sharp.  The image wobbles past sharpness and into further blurring, and then it comes back crisp as he readjusts.  The boy on the screen multiplies, becomes one, gives a bright gesture and then goes soft again.  Now he is back.  We have him again, there on the wall.  He is twice as big as he really was.  The curious thing is, he has blonde curly hair.  Cherubic, almost.  Now, my hair is dark and straight.  It went dark around puberty, but it had gone straight already by the time I can remember my own image, in the bathroom mirror, where Dad lifted me to see.  And yet I could remember times before this, before I had seen myself.  Because I can remember when I was lifted, and I can remember being aware that this was going to happen.  In fact, I had spent the previous few days contemplating this very question: what did I look like?  The adults all knew what they looked like, and so did my older siblings, for they were tall.  And I knew the look of them, because they were to be seen, in front of me.  But me, I was behind my seeing, behind the seeing of myself, and too small for any mirror.  I had no idea, although I had a dream one night in which I saw myself.  I had strange eyes and was terrifying.  Mother told me this was a dream, and to be dismissed.  Otherwise I would never go back in the bathroom, where I had come out of in the dream.  I then asked to be lifted into line with the mirror.  In the intervening days before this momentous occasion I formed the delusion that I resembled the evening newsreader, slim-faced, serious and dark-haired, with a parting.  When I saw myself, blonde at that point and with the same lugubrious features as the rest of my family, I was dumbstruck. 

In the film, on the wall, the little blonde curly-haired boy walks around the upstairs landing, grinning.  He carries a clock.  His big sister crouches and turns him to face the camera and she whispers something in his ear.  His oldest brother walks past and blocks him momentarily.  When he reappears the boy is holding the clock and looking at it.  His sister takes his hand and turns it so that the dial points forward.  She divides her look between her baby brother and the lens.  His second brother can be seen in the dim background, his head around a door.  The clock has Mickey Mouse on its face.  I remember that clock.  I remember Mickey Mouse and learning to tell the time.  The numbers were big plastic things that came out, so you could learn where to put them back.  Two o’clock was Mickey’s right ear.  I had no idea that when I owned that timepiece, I was that cherubic boy.  I didn’t know that my hair was curly then, nor that I spent so much time smiling.

“Oh, is this the one that doesn’t have any, you know, at the end?” says Mother.

“Oh, yeah, it’s the one that hasn’t got any leader.  Yeah, the leader’s missing on this one, that’s right,” says Dad.

The film reaches its end.

“Turn it off,” says Mum.

“Yep,” says Dad, climbing out of his chair.  The last frame is stuck, in front of the light.  Suddenly the blonde hair turns to ochre, and the skin goes dark, and then a black edge melts outwards.  The film is burning.  I watch myself burn away.  Each time we view this film, we lose a frame.

“I am taking the first step to following my Uncle Scott,” says Paul.  He is talking into R2D2’s head.  “I am to become a great film maker, in the family tradition.”  The recording device is pointing at Dad, trying to free his burning son from the cine projector.  Paul types on the laptop.

“I am naming my second recording project,” he says.  “Thus.”

š

As I drive up the hill and into the mouth of trees I ponder the awfulness of the afternoon, the evening.  How did I miss that the boy was making his first film?  How did I miss that he would name it after me?  Having once shot a film myself?

He wasn’t to know that it was a few minutes of shy people refusing to talk, a lens that fell off and got permanently misted in one corner, a set-up scene of the local flirt pounding rice, in what she assured me was the traditional way, smiling suggestively into the lens.  A lot of footage of children playing with scrappy dogs, and 26 hours of the architecture of their huts, shot when the villagers were away.  I’d never told anybody that I did most of my research when the villagers, who frankly weren’t keen on me, were away at market or on a hunt, or at some blasted celebration I wasn’t invited to.  Checking out the structure of their huts, going through their kitchenware, trying on their rudimentary clothes, lying on their beds, picking up the torn photos they used for fetishes, surrounded by beads and shells and feathers, stroking the dried ancestors they kept on shelves.  One man used his grandmother to block the rain that crept in where his roof met the sides of the hut.  She was on the shelf there and he would turn her on her side to block the weather.  His desiccated grandmother.

Years from now the boy will look back at his first film project, the way I go back to my scrapbook.  Perhaps his girlfriend will ask to see it, the way Julie made me get the scrapbook out.  Julie said how sweet my little story was, a few lines to connect three postcards and a photo from a Sunday supplement, for which Mum had written the ending.  All my “S”s were back to front.  How will Paul’s girlfriend react, when she hears his unbroken voice chiming that this is his first film and it’s of his Uncle, Scott, an explorer and film-maker, and when she sees this man sitting silently in his armchair, looking at the lens with a look that speaks, to any adult, words of desperation?  Detachment.  Dried flesh.

I wind through the woods and down to the right turn back onto the main road.  I make it to the motorway, and at the first service station I pull off and stop.  After a moment sitting in the car I get out and cross the car park and go inside.  I enter the coffee area.  I buy a mug and sit at a little Formica-topped table.  Daft music hangs in the air.

 

Torn between two lovers

Feeling like a fool

Knowing loving both of them

Is breaking all the rules

 

She sings as though she’s arranging flowers.  I marvel at her vacuity.  Then I wonder if this is just another of my bitternesses.

A family sits at another table, the only other people here, except for the waitress at her station, and the old lady sweeping up behind the defunct hot snacks counter. 

The Dad is telling a joke, and the kids laugh.  There is a girl and a small boy.  The mother has a nylon jacket and bags on her lap.

“Come on,” says Dad.  “Time to hit the road again.”

They stir, and the girl turns and lifts her cardigan from the back of the chair. 

“Choose your colours,” the man says.

“Red,” says the girl.

“Blue,” says the boy, grinning.

“Blue won last time,” says the man.

I didn’t think people played that game any more.  Counting the coloured cars.

They gather in a group.  Mother parts the boy’s hair, adjusts his coat.  She puts her hand on his shoulder and they turn to leave.  Father puts his hand in the small of the girl’s back to usher her out, and the girl starts talking, I can’t hear what. 

They walk out, taking their smiles with them, and I watch as they cross through the car park.  Their car is right opposite me.  I see them follow the white lines, the girl putting her arms out to balance.  The little boy turns and looks back at me, and then he looks ahead, his mother ushering him on.  They get into their car, and the red lights come on at the back, and then the white lights bloom on the hedge in front, and then the small white lights come on behind and Father reverses, and stops, and the small white lights go off, and then he drives away. 

I see myself in the window, in the space they have vacated, blinking back at me.  Where they were.  I notice that my hair is now quite thin.  Dark, straight, curly, blonde, it matters little now.  The fluorescent strip light parts it and reveals my scalp.  I think of him, that little boy just gone, his face turned back, tripping away in my reflected image.  The boy inside who walked away from me.

I drive home down the motorway, the lights of the oncoming cars strobing my windscreen, blinding me.  Once they thin and go, the cars, it is dark.  There are no overhead lights on our motorways, and I feel that I’m driving headlong into outer space.  I drive hard down the long road, into the blackness.  I begin to sing, at first slowly, and then loudly.  I sing until the window covers with mist.  I drive home like that, in my prism of mist in the darkness, singing loudly, singing wildly, singing long.  I don’t know why, but I can’t stop singing.  Anything.  Singing anything at all.

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Paul Bowers lives in London, UK. He has a PhD in social anthropology. His short film, South for Winter, won two awards in the Without Frontiers festival 2004. He seeks to unravel the "predicament" of his characters, the factors on which they are predicated, and by which they are constrained. He writes The Panda Chronicles, a weekly fiction blog on MySpace, under the screen name Wayfaring Panda.

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