It’s a while since I wrote any short stories. One of the reasons for that is that, latterly, I found myself just writing pastiches of other writers for comic effect as a spoken word performer.So here’s another one of those. If you want to decide if I’m a better songwriter than short story writer, there’s a link at the end to my latest song to break the surface.
The Man Who Collected Raymond Carver
There was nothing, he decided, he disliked about the bookshop. It had a narrow shopfront, but it went way back inside; all the staff were pleasant and knowledgeable. Above all it was an Amnesty International bookshop in Marchmont, close enough to his favourite coffee shop and all the other good things in that area.
‘I’m trying to catch up on all the stuff I should’ve read years ago,’ he said to the woman behind the perspex screen. It was as if he was apologising for buying Virginia Woolf and Raymond Carver at his age. I mean, what was he doing buying them now, at his stage in life?
‘We’re very lucky with what we get handed in,’ the woman said. She had a kind face, at least that part of it you could see behind the damned mask. Everything is half-obscured these days, he thought to himself.
He took the books home and put them in the lower part of his bedside cabinet beside the other books he meant to read. He had a sort of a system, but sometimes it fell away at bedtime when he was tired. Later he was to find he loved To The Lighthouse, but he couldn’t get into Raymond Carver.
It probably wasn’t Raymond Carver’s fault. The first story in the collection, ‘Feathers,’ was about two men who knew each other from work, meeting up with their wives for the first time at one of their houses. It was, he thought, all about couples and childlessness. There was an ugly baby and a peacock, the latter of which was allowed in the couple’s house, and was, he presumed, a symbol for something. Perhaps if he’d done English Literature at University he’d have got the significance of it all, but frankly he didn’t care enough about any of the characters to think too hard about it. Not even the peacock. Or the ugly baby.
The next night he cheated. The introduction to the short story collection had said that one of them, ‘A Small, Good Thing,’ was especially highly regarded as a classic of the short form. He had to admit it was a hell of a title. ‘A small, good thing.’ Who in hell ever said that, and why? It was intriguing.
Back in the day, when he’d tried to write short stories himself, he could never think of memorable titles, and afterwards, when he was talking about the stories, he could never remember the title he’d given them. It was like having children and not remembering their names. Maybe, he thought, if he’d come up with titles as satisfying as ‘A Small, Good, Thing,’ he’d still have been writing short stories to this very day. He didn’t really think so.
The story itself was okay. It told the tale of this couple who had a child, who got hit by a car and, after a bit, died. There was a baker involved who was baking a cake for the boy’s birthday that they’d forgotten about. It was about bereavement and bakery, basically. But it was what was – literally – hidden within it that was most intriguing.
Several pages into the story there were two small pieces of paper. One was torn from a notebook, rectangular, with some words from the story handwritten on it. The words were:
…Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this.”
83 peesl [?]
None of this was particularly surprising to him. The book had been purchased from a bookshop in a residential district that housed many students and academics. It was quite likely that one of them, in an attempt to distill the very essence of ‘A Small, Good Thing,’ had noted down some key words that proved one thesis or another about the story’s meaning.
He would have admitted to anyone that he couldn’t see what that thesis might be. The words were there, in the story, but they didn’t signify anything in particular to him. Maybe he was thinking too much like a lawyer rather than a student of English literature. Come to think of it, that was very likely the reason, given that he’d studied law rather than Eng. Lit., all those years ago. He was in some way deficient in his literary critical facilities, that was the truth of it.
It was the second piece of paper that got his attention more, however. It was a bank statement from a cash machine dated 14th January 2003, nearly twenty years before, but 4 years after the book had been published in that edition. It went back a month, and gave an insight into the account holder’s Christmas and New Year.
On 6th December, there was a £100 debit, described as ‘Int Std.’ There was another one on 6th January, which suggested it was some kind of standing order. After 6th December, though, there was nothing until 20th December, when the card holder pulled another £100 out of the wall. Then, on 23rd December, £683.14 came into the account – presumably the month’s wages, long anticipated.
Then there were small debit card transactions either side of Christmas Day, but this person obviously went big on New Year: £200 out on 27th December, another £150 on the 30th, and £30 on Hogmanay itself just to be on the safe side. That day the bank whacked them with an £80 fee, but by 2nd January they were back at a hole in the wall, drawing out £70.
What happened that New Year? Was the person, as he hoped, surrounded by friends and family, having a whale of a time? By 14th January, when they’d got the printout, they had the sobering news that there was just a little over £50 in their account. When would they next get paid? He felt a little guilty for looking in on this slice of life from twenty years ago. Were they the original owner of the book? Why was the account statement even there? Were they the same person as the one who had noted down key words from the story?
That New Year, his daughter would have been just 5 years old. He couldn’t remember specifics, but it was likely that it had been spent at home, or maybe his brother-in-law’s. Both his parents had been alive, then, and his mother was only at the beginning of her long, slow slide into dementia. It all seemed a long time back.
He wondered how the account holder’s life had gone since then. Were they still alive? Were they still reading literature? And what to do with the bank statement?
He decided to shred it – it had the account number on it, after all – but to replace the handwritten note of words in the story before he returned the book to the bookshop.
It would be a small, good thing for someone else to find.
Wrong Side of Town
His mother’s been at the wine again
earlier than usual only half past ten,
tells him she was up before the dawn.
Guess he’s doing ok at school,
nobody’s bully, but nobody’s fool,
teacher says he should think about staying on.
He says maybe, she’s got a pretty frown,
he’s from the wrong side of town.
Best mate Bill he’s already away
working construction doing 9 hour days
wanting a Mercedes by the time he turns 18.
Billy’s got a new life, living it fast,
tells him his girlfriend’s a different class
takes him a minute to work out what he means.
Says he got tired of playing the clown
from the wrong side of town.
His daddy won’t be back any time soon;
picked up his son’s book, and threw it across the room.
Ran upstairs said he wished he was dead,
his father went and missed the tears that they shed.
Looks out his window across the estate,
things that he loves, so many to hate
from here the way out’s looking like a maze.
Found his mother on the couch, put her to bed,
wishes he was anywhere else instead,
finding it hard to concentrate these days.
He said maybe, teacher’s got a pretty frown,
he’s from the wrong side of town.
Good ones! In the Carver-related story, I like that you introduce unknown and almost unknowable characters about whom there’s room for much speculation.
Thanks Neil! I was always told in creative writing circles that ‘this actually happened’ is no excuse for sloppy plotlines of uninteresting dialogue.
But this actually happened!
Old jottings, whether one’s own or somebody else’s, are fascinating scraps of history