Nov 21st - 28th has been designated by a group of short story lovers as the UK's first National Short Story Week. We at the Short Review are delighted, of course, although every week is short story week for us! Check out their website to see what's happening. And as part of the festivities they asked 9 short story writers including Short Review authors Alison MacLeod, Adam Marek, Sarah Salway and Tom Vowler ( and myself include - TH) to play a game of "consequences", each adding 100 words to a story until a complete 900 word story emerged. Here is the result!
by Tania Hershman, Alison MacLeod, Adam Marek, Julie Mayhew, Jonathan Pinnock, Valerie O'Riordan, Sarah Salway, Tom Vowler, Susie Wild
Too many things. She grabs a pencil and an old envelope. Repeat prescription. Road tax. Library books overdue. Pay cheque in. No, too late for that. The kids will be waiting for her already. Damn. Where are the sodding keys?
The doorbell rings. She freezes. If she doesn’t make any sound, they will go away. Please. Go. Away. Now.
The doorbell rings again. Insistent. Won’t take no. The car is on the other side of the door.
“Hello?” she says.
‘May I come in?’
‘Well, actually, I’m in a bit – ‘
He’s in her kitchen. Hint of tobacco smoke. Late 20s. Mediterranean? ‘You haven’t changed,’ he says, taking hold of her chin. There’s a faint accent.
‘Let go!’ she says, pushing him away. ‘Do I know you?’
He reaches into his pocket. He throws the box down onto the table.
‘Go on,’ he says. ‘Open it.’
Again she goes to protest, to insist he leaves, but the lilt of his voice, his sanguine demeanour, suggests this would be unreasonable on her part.
‘What is it?’ she says, looking at the table.
‘You don’t remember, do you? At all.’
There is a hint of something forming, fragments of a memory gathering at the edges of her mind. A holiday. One of those hedonistic affairs where groups of friends convene on a superficially picturesque island, standards and judgment discarded for a fortnight, lost in a maelstrom of excess. Fifteen or so years ago. The young woman she’d been then embarrasses her now. The box, no bigger than the man’s fist, is carved from redwood, its lustre heightened by the kitchen’s fluorescent
lighting. She touches it with the tip of a finger, pushes it an inch or two.
The man lights a cigarette, exhales dramatically.
‘I’d rather you didn’t smoke in here,’ she says.
He pushes the box back towards her. ‘It’s not going to bite,’ he laughs.
The phone rings. ‘That’ll be my kids. I have to go. I’m sorry.’
‘I’ve travelled a long way,’ he says. ‘You have me worried that you really don’t remember me. Please tell me you’re just playing?’
She picks up the phone, and before she gets it to her ear, he says, ‘You’re the one that asked me to come.’
‘I’m on my way to get you both now,’ she says into the phone. ‘I’m leaving right this second.’
‘Both who?’ her daughter says.
‘What do you mean? Is your brother not with you?’
‘Mum,’ she says, ‘have you been smoking crack again or something?’
The man pushes the box right up to the edge of the table in front of her. ‘It’s very important you open this now,’ he says.
‘Anyway I’m not coming home. You promised I could stay at Laura’s.’ Her daughter hangs up before there’s an argument.
She turns back to him. ‘Why have you come now?’ she asks.
‘So you do remember.’
She opens the box, and stares at the silver key inside.
‘But aren’t you too young to have been there?’ The memories are so deep it aches. Then it hits her. Maria’s little brother. It used to be funny when he’d hang around them. She puts the key on her open palm as if weighing it. But if he’s here now, then… ‘Where’s Maria?’ she asks. She has a sick feeling that she knows the answer, and isn’t surprised when he shakes his head, gestures towards the key.
‘I don’t want it now.’ She’s not that stupid girl any more, thank god, so he’s wrong. It will bite. Hard.
He shrugs. ‘It’s your turn.’
In her head, she hears herself agree, she hears herself move towards him, she holds his hand. In her head, everything is clear: there is no kitchen, there are no children, no overdue library books, no house, no car. Her breathing slows, crawls, the air moving in and out, she feels each small inhalation as even time waits. ‘Now,’ he's saying to her, ‘right now,’ and the silver key is in her hand, the silver key that she had not remembered she was supposed to remember. ‘Do it!’ says this man off to one side, out of the corner of her eye. ‘Your turn, your turn...’ and in her head she knows that he is right, the only right thing in her pale and miserable life.
It is three months to the day since the accident. It feels like three hours. Each day as she wakes, the memory of it arrives like a hammer blow to her head. He won’t be downstairs, shovelling muesli into his mouth and rapping – badly – with his earphones in.
Yet there are days when she can almost trick her brain.
Katie has said they should clear out his things together. She said it again this morning when she found her in his room with her face buried in his T-shirt. It was bucketing down outside, but her twelve-year-old daughter, his little sister, marched across the room and heaved up the sash. ‘It stinks in here.’
The key is hot in her palm. ‘Maria... that night... She said it was a game. A party game. Like Truth or Dare, or...’
‘Consequences?’ His smile is courteous, patient even, but his eyes are hard.
She hesitates. She feels wrong footed and cross; her mind cloudy from his interruption, a lack of sleep, a mother’s grief. She thinks that there have been enough consequences for hedonistic teenage behaviour lately. Enough bad effects caused by misjudged booze-fuelled games. She buries the key inside its redwood coffin, pushes it back across the table and glares at him: ‘I can’t just leave.
I can’t just drop everything.’
He is still smiling at her. He does not move.
The day was just yawning into existence as they disembarked. On shore the walk is exactly as she remembers – the same narrow island path, the same parched shrubs, the same toothy boulders hiding the same heavy door. It is here that he passes her the small silver key, gives her shoulder that insistent nudge. It is here that she takes her turn.
And this is what it must feel like to die; to see your life rewind. Here she is, transplanted back into a moment that made the world turn differently. She takes the drink from the man. It is not a difficult decision. She simply says ‘yes’ to an elixir for grief, something to colour this pale and miserable life.
She sees the look on the man’s face; it is the same as it was back then, when he was a boy. There is outward encouragement and bonhomie, but it cannot mask the disgust, the fear. She is just like Maria, she is giving in. She is choosing this above everything else. Soon all thoughts of overdue library books and a child who doesn’t want to come home and a child who will never come home and the blame, soon they will be diluted. Soon, they will disappear.
She twists; she ducks away beneath his arm.
"No!" He turns, slips on the seaweed-slick stone and falls. She kneels. With her free hand she pinches his nose – years of getting the children to take their medicine – and pours. He spits, swallows; his eyes dilate. He says, “What –” and stops.
On the way home, she unwinds the car window and hurls the silver key into the roadside ditch. The wind whips it away. In the back-seat, he's sleeping, lulled like a baby by the engine vibrations. She leaves him in the emergency room, blinking uncertainly. She will not feel guilt.
She sits in her son's bedroom and cries. She remembers the moment his fingers stilled, the nurse touching her shoulder and squeezing. The room smells like nothing she wants; Katie was right. The evening thickens and she sits and remembers as rain drums through the open window and onto the wooden floor. She will remember: that's her consequence.