The Story That Didn’t Win

So I finally worked through my bitterness as not getting a mention in the Country Style short story competition for the fifth year running. I even entered two stories this year god dammit (okay maybe some of the bitter taste remains). But I hate a sore loser and I made myself buy the magazine with the winning story in it. I wanted the story to be silly or boring or twee. It’s not. It’s great. It has a world and a feel and (because it’s set in a small country town) a warm familiarity. I’d read the writer again if I found anymore of her fiction. It was her first attempt at fiction (I know, I’m spewing). I bet she’d never use expressions like “I’m spewing”.

I read my two stories again and one’s depressing and the other too cryptic (I even had to strain to remember what I was on about). I see why they didn’t win. I’ll try again next year, and I’ll try some humour. I don’t think serious works for me. I’ll give this year’s to you, if you want them. No obligation, they are second hand rejects after all.

This is the cryptic one. I’m interested to see if anyone gets it. Let me know. x

DECIMA’S PIANO

That moment, that soft, slowed moment, had little thinking in it, and no indecision. It had warmth and falling golden leaves and two people in gentle surrender. It had music and kisses.

For Annabel, all the moments before were otherwise unremarkable. But looking back, through hindsight washed over with startling new light, they warrant remarks.

She had been neck deep in the common hours – running about for fruit and vegetables, birthday invitations, curtain samples, printer cartridges and other badges of decent wife and mother. It had been an orange lit, no park day and the museum had closed a lane to traffic while offloading some enormous exhibit. A dinosaur? thought Annabel, checking her facial lines in the mirror and wishing she had time and inclination for facials. Or green juices. She caught sight of her hated red hair and grimaced.

On the news, someone somewhere had stolen a child. Her heart skipped a beat. It is fear that has the heart skipping these days, she thought, and wondered whether she should get herself some silky knickers.  She switched stations with a tense jab. Music clashed beat with the tick-tock of the indicator and the ugly beep of horns. No time for knickers when there is school pickup to get to without appearing harried.

Hugh, in those moments before, had only just emerged from a poem.  Not just any poem, he would say, sending his eyes to the sky, not just any. TS Eliot. He’d slipped the worn, slender book inside his suit, to his heart, then thought better of it and zipped it into the back of his compendium. It wouldn’t do for it to fall out on his way through the office and be seen. Not in an office where suits and compendiums and figures are a thing and poetry never is. Hugh had eaten his sandwiches on his usual park bench and hidden the book amidst the papers.

“There will be time, there will be time, to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet”

When the poem was finished, Hugh felt sharpened. The city glowed red and gold, its mismatched buildings charming now, its people whimsical. He listened and smiled and felt a fond, saddish longing for something that felt just out of reach, or perhaps passed him by. He watched a crane lift something large from a truck outside the museum and wondered what extraordinary thing it was. A stuffed whale? “Taxidermy is big these days,” he said aloud and chuckled to himself. A man in a nearby car stared at him. Hugh felt his poetic bluffery fade. He checked his watch and looked for a place to hide. Just a few more lines; a few more bolstering words, and on the stairs to the office he would allow them to take him to what might have been.

Annabel grumpily thumped the steering wheel. No traffic was moving now, despite green lights. The car behind her had headlights like impatient eyes. The ones she used on her children when they couldn’t find their socks. Hurry-up eyes. It’s going to be a rush to swimming, she thought, if I ever get to school. She switched stations again. Someone was talking about sugarless brownies. “Shut up”, she said, then switched again and felt around in her handbag for a jube.

“Teachers are urged to watch for signs of extremism in the classroom, sudden changes in behaviour, unusual passions”, said a reporter with a voice affected by ego. Annabel thought she could use a bit of passion, some heart singing, maybe even some extremism. Nothing about me, she thought, is extreme. Except maybe my mood swings in the two days before my period. Last month she’d thrown a plate on the floor and had to pretend she’d dropped it. She tried a tempering deep breath. “Oh come on”, she said, resisting the urge to toot the horn. She searched for a time when her heart sang but couldn’t find one. It sank, her heart, instead. Sink or sing sink or sing. She wondered what on Earth the museum could be thinking to hold up school run traffic, then imagined bespectacled people in white gloves pacing and thinking nothing but historical thoughts as the crate is gingerly lowered.

There was movement in the traffic. Annabel lifted her foot from the brake. “Symphony Number 9 From The New World in E Minor by Antonin Dvorak”, said the radio announcer. Foreboding wind instruments filled the car. Matches my mood, thought Annabel hotly. She opened the car window. Outside, the air was soft against her hard expression.

Hugh settled for a roadside balustrade under a tree with his back to the cars. He stole a quick glance into the words of TS Eliot.

“Then how should I begin – To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?”

How should I begin? Hugh glanced over his shoulder into thick traffic and wished he could use it somehow to excuse the late coming back. Somehow he couldn’t move his feet in the direction of work. He looked at them, in their shiny shoes, and smiled at them in encouragement. They sent him back his disappointed eyes, dull in the shine. Somewhere in the layered city sounds he heard music.

I would like the life of a whale, he thought. They live by song and music. They have that chilly mystery that is the sea, and no stubborn feet. They can stop dead and still be going somewhere, stop trying and still be loved by the world.

“Should I, after tea and cake and ices – Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?”

Hugh had been reading this poem for years, had been feeling on the brink of things for those same years, but never had he the strength to force any moments to their crises. He could feel his feet about to move, to betray his heart for the thousandth time. The music moved closer as the cars snailed ahead. The tune was familiar, but nothing he could name. He turned to look.

Annabel’s frustrations were yielding under pressure from Dvorak’s clarinets. She had found a tune, a simple, beautiful melody, and was falling into it. She turned up the volume and watched impossibly red leaves fall from a nearby tree.

Under the tree stood a man who might not have caught her eye except that he was so close, and looking directly at her. His eyes held hers. He was slight, average height, longish hair and a navy blue jumper that was too big. His smile was lopsided and lovely. Dvorak’s symphony lifted.

Hugh watched the red-headed woman and felt astonished by how perfectly placed she was in the vivid Autumn day, sitting in that glorious music just a few steps away. His feet made those steps and his hand reached out to touch her.

Annabel watched only his face as his hand touched her cheek and slipped in beneath her hair to her neck. For one moment they looked at one another. They filled the next with a kiss.

Six and a half seconds later, someone smacked their car-horn into Dvorak’s flutes and Annabel thudded back to Earth. She moved away far enough to see his smile again. Hugh still had his hand on her neck, just below the place where vital life functioning is controlled. They remembered to breathe.

“The moon”, said Hugh, recalling. “Neil Armstrong took this music to the moon. In case he found life there.” Then he stepped away again, back under the tree. The music quickened with piccolo. Annabel watched as Hugh’s eyes left hers and moved down to his feet. She saw him nod and walk away; away from her, away from the building his office was in, away. He didn’t look back.

Despite the honking of the horns and a few agitated shouts, Annabel took another moment to look down at the book in her hands. TS Eliot. She opened it.

“Let us go then, you and I, When the evening is spread out against the sky”

She drove, and got to her children, who in the new light looked like little miracles worthy of slow consideration. And later when her husband arrived home she kissed him for seven full seconds, then another two for good measure. He forgot to reach immediately for the newspaper.

At the museum, people were buzzing around the unpacking of a new exhibit. The layers of packaging were sloughed away carefully to reveal a beautiful Bosendorfer piano with shapely legs and a matching velveted stool. “Dvorak’s Piano, on loan from Prague”, whispered an attendant to a cleaner, who widened his eyes.

On a nearby wall, gazing out from a Roman tapestry beneath words that translate to “Measuring the thread of life” was Decima, the god of fate. Her eyes were reposed and her smile soft with knowing.

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Categories: Stories & Poems

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4 replies

  1. I love this story. So many questions. Is Hugh her husband? Is he just a random moment in an otherwise bare-as-winter day? I had to go back and read it again and the lyricism just took me away on winged feet. It reads like a poem itself. My favourite line is when Hugh looks at Annabel in the car and we see her as he sees her – an impossibly tawny autumn leaf drifting through the day.
    Silly Country Style.
    As I write this, my copy of CS lies in the basket and I have seen the story called Flood, although not yet read it. I shall now, with interest.

    PS: I entered CS too for a couple of years a few years ago. Nothing happened so I stopped… believe me, it doesn’t affect one’s writing at all.

    • Thank you Pru! A random moment in two people’s pedestrian day. I’m really glad you liked that line. I am interested in an outside perception of a person compared to what the person thinks of themselves so that was a deliberate inclusion. I also love – as a reader – to get the sort of insight more than one POV gives. Did you read Flood? It’s really very good (bugger it). xx

      • POV?
        I thought the acronym meant someone who suffered from poverty, maybe living in a garret [=
        a top-floor or attic room, especially a small dismal one – “the solitary genius starving in a cold garret”. Perhaps burning midnight oil?].
        But you may have abbreviated “Point of View” to POV – not that you personal POV is abbreviated, but starving POVs certainly gain a lot of insights!
        Don’t worry, neither version of the acrimonious acronym is Country Style!

      • POV must be a throwback to film days. Wouldn’t mind a garret some days.

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