Short story - Speaking of Champions

If you're going on a journey by means of a conveyance in which you don't have to keep your eyes fixed on a tarmac ribbon you might like to read what follows. It will need twenty minutes or so of your time and attention. I wrote it in 2003 and it won the Scotland region of the two thousand entry RealWriters competition. Since then it has lain with many other short stories, a semi-forgotten, unpublished file in an overcrowded PC. But today I shall enter it in the (American)Raymond Carver Short Story Contest. First prize $1000. Worth a lot more £'s now than in '03.

Speaking of Champions

She was having a good left arm day. When that happened, for some reason she could smell everything better. The breakfasts for instance - other people’s of course. They’d left the window open. She could smell all kinds of flowers and flowering shrubs and cut grass and the earth itself, rich and warm and damp after the rain and she could feel the soft air of summer moving across her face and hear the responsive movement of the curtains. She could see all the rainbow colours, still marvellous. No shapes, not any more, just the wondrous, ever changing colours. And of course Annette Piper could turn to and then could turn any and all of those wonderful pages of her memory.
Door opening. Two people coming in, stopping in silence alongside the bed. Who were they? What they might be thinking. Bright and tight; “Hello, mother. It’s me.” Another pause. “Matron, I suppose she is being lifted regularly? She doesn’t look all that comfortable.”
Ginny! So clumsy. She hoped matron wouldn’t be too upset.
Matron: “Of course she is, Mrs Constable, you’ve no need to worry now, so you haven’t.”
She could feel the tucking in of the bedclothes, the tightening of them across her chest. Matron smelled of flowery deodorant, woman, liquorice, lipstick, antiseptic. She tried hard to say, “Matron’s right, darling, you’ve no need to worry. No need at all.” But trying to talk with a tongue and a mouth and a jaw that would barely move when you wanted them to … stupid really. She felt her daughter’s finger touch down on her lips.
“Mother! Sometimes I really think she hears and understands and tries to say things. But this gibberish she’s started … it’s so awful.”
“Oh no, Ginny, it’s not,” she tried to say. “Not awful. Really. Not any more anyway…” No good. Right then, who should I be? Yes, today I’ll be Mister James Joyce being Molly Bloom thinking about the loss of her virginity. And came the words, so sharp and clear on the page. She gathered herself together, marshalled her best possible attempt at an out-aloud voice, recited; “O and the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figures in the Alameda gardens yes and …” all the words that made her want to cry for herself as she had been, and for all young women.
Ginny: “Mother!”
She read on, pausing as little as possible to take breath because James had excluded all the commas for maximum, unique effect: “…and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a flower of the mountain yes and …” and they’d found each other down by the sea, hadn't they? She and Rafe Morajani, and had hiked together up to the Alhambra which was where it had happened for them, also.
She paused, skipped some, went on… “and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said I will yes. Mister Joyce, how wonderful. And for a man. But now this is me, this is Annie Piper being your Molly Bloom. Slow in-breath, thinking her way into it then, “And I could hear him because he was making those lovely piteous noises into my hair yes and I could see the dark chocolate sweaty shine on him yes and I could smell his maleness and I wanted to tell him shush baby shush it is all right yes oh yes it’s all right now yes”
Ginnie! Beginning to cry. Just like you, Rafe; oh, cry baby Rafe! In the beginning was your seed and your seed was made Virginia. Now she could feel the cold wet flannel on her forehead.
Matron, unarguable; “Will you please just shush up now, Annette. Don’t fret, Mrs Constable. It means nothing. Her condition. She will know who you are, I’m quite sure of that and there’s nothing in her gabbling to worry yourself. It’ll just be her way of talking to you, so it will.”
“But - my mother - she’s only forty nine, matron. That’s nothing, and … and she was so lovely.” And there it was, there in her voice, the little girl catch, the appeal for help or for explanation, for someone to understand. Then the switch, typical of Ginny; “David and the kids. They’re outside in the car.”
Annette Piper tried again. “Ginny, dear, you can’t stop up the leakage of your mother’s life, you can’t gather up what’s been spilled. Nobody can, darling, nobody. It’s gone, but it’s all right, I’m all right. Oh yes I am.”
“I can’t stand this, her noises. God! I mean… Look, there’s no way I’m bringing them in today. I’ll just go and tell them to go on home, come back for me at twelve. I think, if we can open the French windows, wheel her bed outside on to the patio? It’s such a lovely day.”
Matron hesitates; “Yes? Well all right then.” Resignation. More work. “I’ll just be away for a couple of the girls.” Doors opening and closing one after the other.
Annette Piper senses the evacuation of her bladder. A fly has settled on her cheek. Interesting. Stay still. ‘Still’? She has a choice? She’d like to laugh, now thinks she can feel the quick march and tickle of the fly’s feet. How many feet? She doesn’t want to frighten it away but has to try out her arm. Slowly, very slowly. The fly’s gone. She’d definitely felt the spring of its legs, the downdraft from the whirring of wings. Her fingers touch her face in the place where the fly had been. That’s good, Annette, very good. Put it back, now, your arm. That you can move it today, that’s private isn’t it? But OK who now? Who’s next?
She scans the hard drive, stops it at that sixth form, remembers the special one with Janine Stone. She looks along the seven rows of faces. All different, all lovely with their looked after young lady hair stylings, some of them very pretty, some not, but each of them beautiful. And each one of them intent. Looking, watching, waiting for her, expecting the daily demonstration of their teacher’s famous total recall.
“All right, ladies, this is Virginia Woolf being Clarissa, that's Mrs Dalloway. Clarissa is here thinking of her home city of London. Are you ready?” Without reference to any printed page she begins the lengthy quotation about the hush then Big Ben striking the hour, irrevocable, and about leaden circles dissolving in the air, about what was there in people’s eyes, the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle…She takes another breath, hears a small cough, ‘Miss?’
Janine, the little red head in the front row. ‘Yes, Janine, you’d like to comment?’
‘Well, Mrs Morajani, I think that was beautiful, but I think your writing’s just as good.’ The sudden pale-skin blush.
You smile for the girl. ‘Oh, I don’t think you should compare my efforts with those of Virginia Woolf, Janine.’ Giggles in the classroom. Vision of Miss Woolf walking into the river, pockets of her drape-styled coat weighed down with rocks, the darkening of the day as the waters of the Ouse close over her head. ‘Girls. The wonderful thing is this: that we, all of us, we know what’s wonderful! And do remember this, Janine, creative art is not some kind of a competition.’
But Janine again, challenging, questioning, impressing herself as usual on her teacher and the rest of her class; “Yes, But when we did Hemingway, he wrote in one of his letters to William Faulkner that writing’s like fighting, didn’t he? He said there are losers and winners. He said, ‘Dr Tolstoi and Mr Dostoevsky were both better than both of us’. He said that, ‘Shakespeare was the all time champion,’ didn’t he?’
She would never know, would she? About whether Janine might have been right about her teacher’s writing. And Janine helself, pushy little Janine who would go on to fight for attention and have people listen to her and achieve most of the things her teacher had wanted for herself… wanted, but evidently not wanted enough.
She’d like to blink back the satisfying tears of self pity but the blink has mostly gone, been one of the last things to go, actually, in the same way that, bit by bit, nearly all of her other musculature had ‘gone’. Oh, might still sometimes twitch as if in uncomfortable memoriam but gone for sure and forever and gone with them that thing called dignity; Gone, too, her vision and her voice control and such of physical beauty as had been allocated to Miss Annette Piper, ex-Mrs Annette Morajani. Oh yes, and by the by, he, her husband, he’d gone as well. But, she thought, you still have your hearing and most often your ability to smell things and that odd hypersensitivity in some parts of the surface of your useless lump of a body. Most and best of all, Annette Piper, you can think. Your mind, still intact, in toto, sharpened if anything, racing all the time, turning over the teeming contents of that famous memory of yours. You, Annette of Green Leas Nursing Home, you have the blessing of that mind with all things so sharp and so clear across so wide and so thrilling a country, far better travelled now than ever it has been.
How was it for him, Rafe, back now in Spain the last she knew? She recalled Janine talking about Hemingway’s champion of champions, Will Shakespeare. White man Shakespeare being the negro general, Othello … If I do prove her haggard, - Though her jesses were my dear heart-strings, - I’d whistle her off, and let her down the wind, … She’s gone, I am abused, and my relief - Must be to loathe her …
Footsteps again. Ginny’s voice, too loud, too close; “Mother, whatever’s the matter? Matron, I think my mother’s crying!”
Matron; “Oh, I don’t think so, Mrs Constable. She cannot blink properly, you see …” Feeling of a tissue wiping away the wetness from around her eyes, down her cheeks, the dribbled corners of her lips. “Your mother’s been, always, such a brave, brave lady. No-one here’s ever seen her cry, you know. Not properly, so they haven’t.” More people coming in now. Girls. Their chattering slows and stops.
Matron; “Right. One to each corner. I will myself be keeping control of her bag stand. Are we ready, ladies … steady … go.” Bumping. Unsprung castors not for comfort in transit. Giggles. Swinging round, onwards, burst of super-hurtful brilliant light, flung over bedclothes, new darkness muffling matron’s voice. “Sorry, Oh, I didn’t think … Jesus, the sun was in her eyes. Why don’t we push it over there, under the shade of the apple tree. Will that be suiting you now, Mrs Constable?”
More bumping, stop, covers off her face. Gorgeous now, all the colours. She can hear a car changing gears up the hill, hear some pop music, (Neil Diamond: Jonathan Livingstone Seagull), the creaking protest of a departing heron. Must have disturbed your fishing of the pond. Sorry Mr Heron. Up close, the hum of bees or some other kinds of flying insects. She can smell the apples, remembering the shape and colour and the look of it, the apple tree. Russets, she remembers. She wants to break one away, take it in her hand with its stalk and two tiny, dark green leaves still attached and see it all gold and, well, russet. She can feel the rounded furriness in her hand and against her lips, smell its sweetness, bite into it, crisp and hard, hear the crunch of her teeth, her mouth flooding with the taste. More, much more than that, she wants without hope to write down all the words.
Ginny, more cheerful; “We’ll be all right here, mother, won’t we? Thank you matron. And Beth, Tiffany. Yes, we’ll be OK now. I’ll bring my chair out.”
So, here we go with the hard drive; whish, whirr, stop; “At first thou gav’st me milk and sweetnesses; I had my wish and way - My days were strewn with flowers and happiness; there was no month but May - ” George Herbert; candle-lit, goose feather quill hovering over the sheet of parchment, corrections done, thinking now, nibbling at the tip of his feather, nib-dipping the ink, going back to the beginning, scripting the single word title, “Affliction”
“Mother. For God’s sake stop that. Listen, listen to me. I’m going to tell you about David and Sean and Greta. They’ll be bringing some tea and biscuits. I know - I know you can’t have any but … I hope you can understand. Anyway, David’s been promoted First Captain. He’s on the South America routes now. It means Sean can go to Stowe and we’re thinking about moving. Oh, don’t worry, not too far away …” and on and on her daughter’s voice, adding to the gigatrillion nothing words born to serve some purpose and then at once to die. OK, how about Thomas Carew. Died sixteen forty. ‘On the Death of Donne.’ No voice attempt now, let Ginny just go on, no need to listen … The Muses’ garden, with pedantic weeds - ‘Oerspread, was purged by thee; the lazy seeds - Of servile imitation thrown away; - And fresh invention planted. Thou did’st pay - The debts of our penurious bankrupt age.’
“Mother! Are you getting any of this? I have something very important… Mother, please? I’m telling you about Sean. His birthday last week. Six, imagine that!” A hesitation then out it came, all in a rush. You'll never, never change, Virginia. “Mother, you remember asking me all the time to get you that pill from work and I couldn’t? Well, I wouldn’t? Oh God, I have it here, mother. It’s what you still want? Please say. Oh please.”
Out aloud now; “…for their soft melting phrases. As in time - They had the start, so did they cull the prime - Buds of invention many a hundred year, - And left the rifled fields, besides the fear -” Annette Piper felt her daughter’s fingers alight once more upon her lips.
“Please, please, mother.”
‘Rifled fields’ ? How very wonderful of you to have thought of that one, Thomas Carew. I found some unrifled ones, too, didn’t I? It’s just, it’s just that I didn’t - couldn’t - cultivate them, see. Very slowly, she moved her left arm, bending it at the elbow, opening the hand, bringing it up. How dark her lovely daughter’s face, imagined now against the light. Curve of forehead, fine arch of eyebrows, pillow lips, high African cheekbones pink on brown, so odd a match with the green of her eyes, her mother’s eyes. Now the light slap and drag of rubber soled shoes, probably trainers approaching across the patio paving, her beautiful daughter’s gasp, filled up with pointless guilt. “You want me to pour?” The girl with the tray. “Ooh, your mum’s moved her hand up, hasn’t she? They told me…”
Shakily; “No. Just leave it please. Thanks, Beth.”
“She moved - ”
“Yes, perhaps she did. Please?”
Annette Piper could almost hear it in the clattered down tray, teaspoon tinkling on saucer - almost hear the shrug of the shoulders, the smart about turn, the quick retreat. Then the scrape of Ginny’s chair legs, moving closer, the drone of an aeroplane high up, going where? going why? Ginny’s two cool hands around her own left hand. “Mother. Mother, did you hear me?”
“Yes, I heard you, darling,” she said. “Oh yes, I did hear you. How many hundreds of days and nights staring into the many coloured darkness, thinking about it, that little thing you have, imagining it like a pebble in my mouth, waiting for it to break me loose from all these chains.”
“Mother? Yes, I don’t know what you’re trying to say but you do, you do understand! I know you do. I know you know all about it. It’ll just make you sleepy, mother. After a while you’ll go to sleep and,” there, the catch; “and then you, you'll dream lovely dreams and for ever and won’t wake up.”
“Yes. But now I don’t know any more, Ginny. Pain? Of course, darling, but pain really is nothing, an irrelevance, just some illusory protection device for healthier bodies, you see. But … now I don’t know, I’m not sure if I can leave them, Ginny. All my friends, my champions, all their lovely words, all their places, all their things, all their real people. Nevermore? Truly I’m not afraid, darling girl, and I do know what it’s costing you and I’m so very, very sorry. Me living. Me dying. You watching. Your pain. The pill? Well, what difference whether some unconsidered speck of a microbe or some silly little pill to find for me the way out? She needed to make a massive effort, willed the turn of her hand against her daughter’s hold, felt the release, the long silence and the waiting, palm up and open. She didn’t feel the placing of it there, just her daughter’s fingers around her fingers, helping them to close. “I do love you, Ginny,” she fought to say, and felt the tickle of her rolling tears. The left hand, closed all around its last small cargo, back by her side now. The once again wiping dry of her face.
“Mother?” Ginny’s whisper. “You do understand! I hope … wait ‘til we’ve gone? Oh, don’t worry, I won’t be getting anyone into trouble. If they ask me I’ll admit it was me gave it you - but only if they ask me, and they probably won’t. And they won’t do anything to me, anything bad, so don’t worry about that.” Now the relieved lightening of her tone. “I had a letter from Daddy. He said I’m to tell you he went back to the Alhambra but it didn’t seem as, as beautiful as you’d know when, he told me to say. And you should just see Sean, he’s getting really big for a six year old. Bigger than Greta already. The other day he …”
‘Good girl, Ginny,’ she thought. She didn’t try actually to say it, didn’t want to hinder her daughter’s safe retreat. ‘Talk on darling, it’s not that I’m not interested and I do love to hear your voice but you should be with those you want to tell me about and I should be with my champions, listening to their words. Who knows, perhaps I can meet them now… To die: to sleep: no more … She could actually feel it, or imagine it, she didn’t know which; the pill, a tiny egg held safe and warm in a nest made by the palm of her left hand. She felt strong, in control, felt for one brief moment the swollen triumph of her youth, the greatness that had lain like a ticking, living embryo within whatever Annette Piper was to be…
“… Sean’s poem won a school prize. It was about you, mother. He wants to read it you. When David brings them in…”
Annette Piper thought about those word fighters of Hemingway’s, the ones who’d somehow got to understand about humanity or at least some parts of it, had understood so much about the cruelty and the beauty of the world in which it existed; those writers who had created and expressed the stuff that would prove stronger, so very much more lasting, infinitely more important than they themselves could ever be. She thought on about the collection of Books, Gospels and Psalms created by all kinds of Hebrew scholars and mystics, champions all, about the gathering together and the rendering of them into so sublime a form of language by a Scottish king and those appointed by him, making one book to out-shine, out-distance, out-champion everything and everyone…
John 1:1 … In the beginning was the Word, And the Word was with God, And the Word was God.
“ …They’re back, mother. I can hear the car. Gosh, it must be twelve already!” In Ginny’s voice a new kind of a desperate, die-cast brightness.
David; “Hi, love. Hey, it’s nice out here, isn’t it? Everything OK?” More tentatively; “Hello mother-in-law.” The dutiful forehead kiss.
Ginny; “Hello. Sean, say hello to your nanna. David, where’s Greta?”
“Her friend Christine came round. They wanted to go off to play at her place. Hope that’s OK?”
“Well … yes. Sean, why don’t you read your poem to your grandmother now? We can’t stay long. Not with that great lump of lamb in the oven.”
Sean said, “You’ve been crying, mummy. Can I tell it to nanny on my own, please?”
“Crying? Oh, it’s just … Look, Daddy and I’ll take a walk around the garden if that makes you happy. I don’t really see why we need to, though. God knows you’re not that shy. Anyway, do please hurry.” Chair legs scraping. “Come on, David.” The catch had wormed itself back into Ginny’s throat. Their retreating voices, the shuffling of Sean’s piece of paper, Sean clearing his throat, readying himself..
She said; “Sean, can you understand me? No?”
“What? I don’t know what you’re saying, nanny.”
“Oh, it’s nothing. Just read for me? Please?”
The boy had leaned in close to her face. She could feel his breath on her cheek, smell the toothpaste and the soap. He was whispering now; “I’ve called it, ‘My Grandmother’, nanny.” Cough, pause. “My grandmother Annette is very brave - For God could not her eyesight save – He cannot make her move again - Although she does not cry with pain.” He stopped. She recognised one of those anxious, small boy silences, giving himself time to assess reactions, think, re-group. “Now she has to stay in bed all day - So each night I think of her and pray - So I shall write God a long long letter – and I think soon he’ll make her better.” Another stop. The end? Another clearing of the throat. No, not the end. “She is white and Grandad Rafe is black – And mother says he will come back - My mum and me are brown and yet - We love our white Lady Annette. That’s the end, nanny. Did you like it?”
“Thank you, Sean. That was wonderful.” She tried her very best. “I - I much more than liked it. I want to hug you to me, Sean. Oh how I want to do that, to find ways to talk to you. Listen to me, I can help you get to be a champion. My own champion: Sean Constable, Nobel winner, Poet Laureate.” She opened the palm of her hand, turned it to let go of the egg. As if in agreement a nearby song thrush released a couple of his sleepy in the mid-day, musical phrases. “Right,” she said, “That’s decided, then. Give me a kiss now, Sean, dear. I’ve a lot to think about.”
She felt the hot little peck full on her lips. Had he understood? He couldn’t have understood her, could he?
The little boy said, “Oh, you’ve dropped your sweetie, nanny. Can I have it please?”
Annette Piper concentrated all that was left of herself into the forcing up of the left arm right up, up to her mouth, index finger weak, bent, pointing.
Sean sounded surprised, slightly hurt. “I didn’t know you liked them. Well, it is yours. Can you open your mouth for me? Wider please, now, nanny; they’re coming back.”

The end

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