Saturday, 17 November 2012

How a Short Story Nearly Saved the World

I finished my story a few days ago. It had taken ten years. I didn’t mean it to take so long, but each word was a matchstick in an elaborate, glorious model, the kind my granddad used to make – a warship or a plane – and I was never very good with my hands.

The first thing I did was read it to my wife; it was the least I could do after ten years, but I could see that her expectations were low. I felt like I was eight years old and showing her a picture I’d painted that she knew wouldn’t fit on the fridge unless she moved her shopping list, dieting mantras, bills and all the other things that were far more important.

My expectations were low, but as I began to read she began to unravel. Just like that. Her arms unfolded, her legs uncrossed, her facial muscles unwound and I swear I could hear her heartbeat marking every other verb. And when I had finished she began to rise, slowly at first. Her feet were barely there; she didn’t use those, but rise she did – out of the chair and into the space above us, swirling and spinning, gliding and swooping, the shopping list and mantras and bills a distant memory.

‘Are you okay, love?’
She didn’t answer at first. She was figure-of-eighting around the lampshade and…was that laughing? It wasn’t like any kind of laughter I’d heard before.
‘Wait there!’ I was beginning to panic. ‘I’ll get you down.’
‘Don’t worry about me. Just open the window.’
And I did and she floated out unlike any butterfly I had ever seen. She swooped and spun and just lay in the sky as if it was where she had always belonged, and then she reappeared at the window, completely unravelled. Didn’t anything matter anymore?

She gathered every part of her face with some effort and said, ‘Tell everyone.’ Then she disappeared again.

I hadn’t receiving a review as good as this in my entire writing career. And from my wife too! So I ran into the street, grabbed the first person I found and after some persuasion, read the story again. As I read he looked as if he might fall asleep, but in a good way, as if he had never been hugged before and I had wrapped my arms around him and told him everything was going to be alright. And then he drifted into the air, peacefully lounging in a bed he never knew he deserved.

And then other people were approaching me to read them the story and before I knew it, the sky was full and I was alone beneath the impossible air show, just looking. What else could I do?

‘Get in the van!’ 
It was as good an option as anything else, so I followed the instruction. Where the van had appeared from, I had no idea, but they were wearing masks and I had seen people like these in films. When these people told you to get in the van you did it and when they told you to remain silent you did that too. The next thing I knew I was being cross-examined in the Ministry of Short Stories. Who knew?

The man was nice.
‘Your story is beautiful.’
‘We’d like to buy it, with your permission. For our…collection.’
‘You like stories?’
‘After a fashion.’ He had a mole, a big mole, the kind of mole you could take a bite out of without affecting its mass.
‘What do you want to do with it?’
‘We could use it to make the world a better place.’ Mole.
‘That sounds nice. I’d quite like to keep it though. What did you say you wanted to do with it?’
‘Add it to our collection.’
‘I guess you have lots of stories here.’ Big mole.
‘Yes and they all serve a purpose.’
‘Like in the street?’
‘After a fashion.’
‘Hmm! Indeed. We can pay you a substantial amount of money.’
I wasn’t really fussed about money. I didn’t like that mole. I didn’t like the collection. But he was nice so I reached into my pocket and handed over the mangled sheet of A4.
He looked surprised.
‘I know it off by heart, you see.’ I offered. ‘We can make the world a better place together.’
And then silence.
‘This presents us with a little problem.’ Mole.
‘What’s that?’
‘Well, let me take this from you.’ He took the story from me, gripping it with tweezers, and then deposited it in some kind of strange plastic bag that I had also seen in films. ‘We’ll talk again, but first I wonder if you’d be interested in reading one of the stories from our collection.’ He used the tweezers again to release another story from another bag and delicately placed it in front of me as if it might explode if he disturbed it too much.
‘Is it a nice story?’
‘After a fashion.’

I unfolded the page and opened my mouth to read the first word.
‘What?’ Mole.
‘I’ll leave you alone to enjoy it.’
I shrugged. He could suit himself. I love a good story and he left the room.
When I was alone again, I settled into my chair. It had to be a good one. Mine had taken ten years to write. This had to be good to make it to the collection, to make it to the Ministry of Short Stories.
‘Once upon a time,’ I began to read.
And that truly was the end.

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