An Eight-Year-Old’s Philosophy

I wrote this story specifically for the SMH Young Writer of the Year contest, for which the trigger word was ‘chain’.

It was something she saw on the streets near Sniper Alley, coupled with a dream she had that night, which led to the development of Mariana’s philosophy.  In the yellow light of early morning, the streets had seemed to shine in an unearthly light.  Fragments of broken glass reflected the sunlight, bathing the two figures in creamy yellow.  Their shadows were so strange, Mariana thought, one long, tall one, and her own tiny one.  She felt the urge to laugh a little, but Kamil had told her to be silent with that adult sense of urgency that she didn’t quite understand.  Kamil was the tallest person she knew, even though he was only thirteen, the second-oldest person in the shelter.  She began to pretend that she was a princess and he was her bodyguard, leading her by the hand through the streets and knocking away shells and bullets with his bare hands.

They were on their way to the markets.  If they didn’t get there early enough, all the good food would be gone.  And Kamil said the soldiers were lazy, so the early morning was one of the only times that they could walk safely.  They passed by the square – which was hardly a square anymore, only an empty place surrounded by rubble – and the anticipation of Sniper Alley loomed closer.  The houses had started to look more like skeletons now and Mariana huddled close to Kamil.  She remembered what Johan had said about ghosts – that they hid behind the rubble and grabbed you as soon as they thought you were alone.  They liked children because they could eat them without anyone noticing.

They were near the marketplace now, Sniper Alley only to their right.  Kamil’s eyes would quickly dart there, and then stare back in front.  He was looking for Danger.  Older people could sense the Danger, but not Mariana yet.  She could hear it, though.  It was a swift cracking noise, like the firecrackers her neighbours used to have on Christmas day, or it would be the heavy whine of a shell, the painful burst of noise as it landed.  From Sniper Alley, the cracking began and Mariana almost yelped in fright.  Kamil pulled her down behind the desecrated remains of a building, his eyes staring fearfully at Sniper Alley.  A man yelled out – in pain, in fright? – and then there was no noise.  Kamil slowly peeked his head out from behind the wall, saw the blood and ducked back down, pale.  Mariana knew he was afraid.  Kamil was often afraid, but he still acted like an adult.  He pulled Mariana up and they walked on swiftly.  “Wait, wait!” she pulled away from him, “What if he’s not dead?  What if we can help him?”

Kamil shook his head.  “We can’t.  It’s too dangerous.”

Mariana thought her heart was going to burst.  She looked out at the deserted street, her eyes finding the puddle of red in the centre, the remains of the man.  She could not pull away, her gaze was stuck fast.  “What’s that?” she whispered to Kamil, still trying to pull her away.  “There’s something silver on him.”

“It looks like a chain,” Kamil answered, “Maybe he got caught in a fence or something.  Come on.”  He pulled her away this time and they continued on to the market.

But the image never left Mariana.  That night she dreamt of it.

As she walked along the deserted street, the menacing Alley, she came across the man, close enough to touch.  He was still breathing, his eyes staring blankly up at the golden clouds.  A chain was wrapped around his wrist, silver but stained with the man’s blood.  She looked up at the building, saw the round point of the sniper’s gun.  In her dream, she could see the sniper clearly.  He wore an expression of agony, as if he were in the worst pain imaginable.  Around his wrist was curled another chain, but this one dug deeply into his skin, until the sniper’s own blood covered the silver metal.  From that point, she woke.  And for the rest of the day she pondered exactly what it could mean, with her determined eight-year-old intellect.

At the end of the day, she arrived at a reasonable conclusion, she felt.  She did not tell Kamil, thinking he would be worried about her, but she told Georgios instead.  He understood her and he would not tell any of the others.  After Catalina and Kamil had told them all to go to sleep, she crept towards Georgios and whispered her theory to him as the soft, black night drifted around them.  The theory was this: that every person in the whole wide world is connected by a silver chain.  If somebody dies, their chain is cut, but the person that killed them is hurt by their own chain.  The chains are there because people have to care for each other – if there were no wars and no shells and snipers, then the chains wouldn’t be there.  Georgios nodded and said that it was a good idea.  Then he kissed the top of her head like her older brother used to do and told her to go to bed.

Over the next few days, it was very difficult for her to forget about the chains theory.  It was everywhere around her, it seemed.  If she heard about a person killed by a shell, she would think about the owner of that shell and how his invisible chain would be cutting into him.  What if his shell had killed more than one person?  Would it cut deeper then?  She thought she could hear the chains clanking and tinkling underneath the soldiers’ uniforms, but when she asked Georgios if he could hear them, he said he couldn’t.  Maybe it was only her, she thought, because she had discovered them, like a secret treasure chest.  Nobody else could see them, but the soldiers could still feel them cutting into them.

She thought about asking Johan about the chains.  He always boasted after Esfir died about how he had shot the sniper who had killed her.  None of the other children, not even Catalina and Kamil, even knew that she had been shot by a sniper.  It had all been a big mystery.  But Johan told them he had solved it.  He had avenged Esfir’s death and killed someone with his gun, like a real soldier.  “See,” he would tell them, “I don’t even need to join the army.  They would take me now, if they saw what I could do.”  Mariana thought he was being silly.  Nobody could join the army when they were twelve.  But Johan always seemed so happy – not sad, like the sniper in her dream had been.  His jumper was too short for him, so Mariana could look at his wrists.  There were never any chains or any red marks or scars that they could have produced.  Perhaps, she thought, Johan never killed that sniper after all.

Sometimes, she thought of telling the others about the chains, but she knew they would laugh.  Georgios never laughed, only smiled and nodded as she told him.  As a group of soldiers walked past the shelter one day, Georgios would help Mariana spot the chains on their hands.  When they couldn’t see any, he suggested that maybe they were a new unit of soldiers who hadn’t killed anybody yet.  That made Mariana feel better.  Georgios always believed her.

When it was nearing winter, Georgios became sick.  A cough grew in his chest and exploded with each breath.  When Mariana sat curled in his lap, she could hear each wheezing breath, as if he was struggling to breathe.  That was why, when his turn came to fetch water from the stream under the brewery, he could not do it alone.

They went in the afternoon.  Georgios had rested all morning, but still he breathed heavily as they walked.  Mariana kept close to his side the whole way, chattering quietly about how many lollies she would buy with the coins she found in the gutter.  The neared the brewery, heading through the quiet, dead street.  There once were houses here, but most of them had been blown away.  Still, half a house remained next to the brewery, the wallpaper singed dark, a couch vomiting stuffing in the front room.  Mariana shuffled carefully past, eyeing the burnt child’s crib, the wood leafing off in matchsticks.

They reached the brewery and skidded down the steep path behind it, soil and stones stubbing their bare toes.  The stream was cool against their feet, the water filled their buckets easily and Mariana drank deeply, cupping the brown water in her hands and sloshing it over her face.  They took the buckets back up the slope and slowly, awkwardly, dragging the weight of the buckets, they walked home.

Night fell before they were halfway there.  The darkness closed around them.  The city, once full of lights, was now darkened and empty.  Footsteps clattered on the quiet streets, a dog barked and shouting could be heard in the distance.  Mariana’s hand grasped Georgios’ tightly.  The city was never this quiet.  The bombs would start soon.

And they did.

A yellow glow bloomed in the distance – the first shell of the night.  Sirens yelled and people shouted.  Mariana’s pace quickened and Georgios started to puff sickly.  The shelter wasn’t too far away, she thought, but in the charcoal night she could hardly see in front of her.  Bullets sounded near them and she jumped up, her breath rasping in her throat, trying to supress her urge to run.  Quietly, she urged Georgios to hurry.

The bullets neared closer, their cracking reminded Mariana of the bright colours of that Christmas day.  A spark of yellow lit up the corner of the building.  The bullets were close, trying to find them.  The Danger had its eye on them.  They broke into a run, leaving the buckets behind them.  A bullet found them and water sprayed everywhere.  Urgency pumped through her veins instead of blood.  Her legs weren’t fast enough to carry her.

In a moment of sheer self-preservation, she broke away from Georgios.  Her hand felt cold and bare after clinging to his for so long.  The bullets continued and there was a small cry and a soft thud.  She turned quickly, her fear momentarily forgotten.  Georgios was kneeling now, his eyes sad but… a small smile adorned his face.  He opened his hand slowly and she saw the silver chain glint softly in the moonlight.  The end was shorn off, it dangled from his wrist.  He let it drop as he fell sideways, a tiny stream of blood appearing at the corner of his mouth.

Mariana ran the rest of the way home.  Catalina wiped at her tears and kept her safe in her embrace.  Kamil gently patted her on the head.  She couldn’t tell them what had happened.  The pain had dug a deep cavity inside her chest and with each breath it stung like an old wound.  She felt as if the chain, the one connecting herself and Georgios, was digging deeper and deeper into her skin, around her chest, around her throat.  She wondered if that one sniper was feeling that same sort of pain.

As she grew she remembered the chain around Georgios’ wrist.  Why had he done that, why hadn’t he just told her the truth?  She began to realise.  Georgios, eleven years old, had understood when she hadn’t the preciousness of that eight-year-old philosophy.

I think this is my favourite short story so far.  I was writing it in English class (illegitimately…) and just as I came to the most heartwrenching scene, my laptop ran out of battery and I made a very strange noise.  Consequently, everybody looked at me and the teacher, of course, knew that I wasn’t listening to her.  Oh well.  It was quite embarrassing, but I got a good story out of it.

Echo Children

This is one that I wrote for a competition in which you were given a choice of three stimulus pictures.  I chose one of a truck stuck in a lake.  Enjoy.

Patrick was the first to see the truck, outside the farm boundary.  Usually they weren’t allowed to stray past the fence, but he was getting older and believed exceptions should be made.  As he sat on the fence it stood out like a shiny, silver mirage, half-submerged in the swampy lake.  It was an ever-present temptation.  He had to see it.

He enlisted Mairin’s help first of all.  She would know how to get there.  Even though there was only a year between them, he already suspected that she was a lot smarter than he was.  When he first showed her, he could feel the scepticism emanating from her, like an unpleasant body odour.  “Why would you want to go there?”

He shrugged.  “I think it would be fun.”

“It might be dangerous.  You could get hurt, climbing all over that thing.”

“I’m fine.  I can look after myself.” He snapped.  She hated that tone in his voice and soon walked away.  She was too much of a goody-two-shoes to help, he knew.  He would have to enlist help from another source.

The next day he awoke early, running over to Ly’s house and knocking hurriedly on his window.  “Ly!  You have to come see this!”  The blonde-haired boy rubbed his bright eyes sleepily.  When they reached Pat’s house and looked out over his fence, Ly’s eyes reclaimed their brightness.  “What’s that?” he said excitedly.

“I think it’s a truck.”

“How did a truck get there?” Ly couldn’t take his eyes off it.

“Maybe the owner crashed…  Ly, maybe there’s a dead body there!”

“We should go see!”  The hurdled over the fence and into the dense scrub.  Soon their boots were covered with buzzies and bindies, which they picked off before they entered the swamp.  The truck was now incredibly close, and the boys could see it was quite large in size.  They had seen the sort of vehicle on the highway – the sort of carrier that might hold petrol or cement or another liquid of some sort.  “What if it had petrol in it, Pat?” Ly said anxiously.  “It might blow up!”

“It’s been there a little while.  It would have blown up way before now.”

Ly nodded, reassured.

They entered the dank swamp.  The water swirled around their feet as they negotiated their way from dry patch to dry patch.  “Don’t fall in,” Pat warned, “We would be killed if we got all wet!”  Finally the two of them stood in front of the immense vehicle.  The top of the lights were just visible, poking out of the water like two great big eyes.  Pat touched the cool metal, stroking the truck like a jewel.  Ly was already climbing, having found a ladder to the top.  “Phew, it stinks up here!  Maybe it did have petrol in it after all.” He said.  Soon Pat joined him on top of the truck.  From their position balancing on top of the vehicle, they could see the whole swamp and make out both of their houses in the distance.  Pat imagined that he was the truck driver, stranded in the swirling sea and waving for help.

“Do you think he was stranded here?” Ly said.

“What if there’s a body somewhere here?” Pat said anxiously.  He slipped across the silver side of the truck and swung his head down to look through the window.  The driver’s seat was empty.

“Perhaps he got out.” Ly suggested.

“He must have.  There ain’t no body here.”

“What if he got trapped inside the silver bit?”

“In the silver bit?” Pat repeated, incredulous.  “How’d he have managed that?”

Ly shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Maybe we should check just in case?”

Pat crawled to the end of the long silver vehicle, where the circular hole gaped.  “It’s so smelly!” he gasped.

“Baby!  Hold your nose!” Ly laughed.

Pat did so, wishing he had a peg like they used in the TV shows he watched.  He peered curiously into the hole.  The blackness inside swirled around like swamp water.  “I can’t see anything!” he yelled back to Ly.

“Try calling out.”

Pat took a deep breath.  “Hello?” he yelled into the hole.  His voice reverberated eerily and a chill played on the back of his neck.  Three times he heard his own voice come back to him.

“I think there is someone in here!” he called to Ly.  “Three people!  I can hear them!”

He yelled again.  “Who are you?”

Who are you?

Who are you?

Who are you?

“I’m Pat, who are you?”

I’m Pat, who are you?

I’m Pat, who are you?

I’m Pat who are you?

He frowned, looking to Ly.  “They say that all their names are Pat.  That’s strange.”

“Maybe you’re not doing it right.” Ly came over.  “Let me try.”

“Hello!  My name’s Ly.”

Hello!  My name’s Ly.

Hello!  My name’s Ly.

Hello!  My name’s Ly.

Ly sat back up, crouching next to Pat.  “Silly!” he punched him.  “It was only your voice echoing!”

“Really?” Pat said warily.  “I honestly heard someone!”

“Yeah!” Ly cried.  “You heard yourself!”

They padded back through the swamp.  Pat looked behind him every few steps, keeping an eye on the truck.  Suppose the three people had gotten out somehow, wandering alone through the bush.  They were probably very hungry, having sat in the truck for days.  What if they died?  Pat would think it was his fault.  Ly didn’t seem to notice Pat’s anxiousness, chattering on about how his father might teach him how to drive the tractor soon.  After a while, they started to play, tramping back through the bush, playing tips and jumping over logs and bramble bushes.  The sun was coming out now, warm and fun to bask in.  When Pat returned home, sweaty and panting from the run, he imagined himself as a cat, warming his belly in the sun and falling asleep in its yellow light.  But the memory of the people in the truck kept him awake.  His mother was out on the land already, tending to the sheep while Mairin milked the cows.  He managed to sneak inside without being seen by both of them.  Carefully, he filled a plastic bag with food from the fridge and cans from the cupboard.  Soon the bag was full of tinned spaghetti, cauliflower (which he figured he had a duty to give away), beans, some cheese and a tomato.  He tucked this motley bundle inside a backpack and, scurrying so as not to be seen, he bounded over the fence and into the bushland once again.

The backpack was heavy and the sun hot.  Pat had to sit down regularly to slow his breathing and wipe the sweat from his brow.  The hills were alive with life at this time of year.  Birds chirruped happily around him and small, unknown creatures moved in the grass at his feet.  He wasn’t afraid of snakes and besides, he had listened to what his father had told him.  If you ever meet a snake you had to stay still and not move a muscle!  But Pat was a little uncertain that he could do that, especially with the sun beating down like it was.  When he reached the truck, his backpack had made a painful rift in his shoulder.  He would be glad to be rid of the food.  The swamp water had soaked his shoes, a comfort in the hot summer, but now it would be difficult to climb.  As his slippery feet met the rungs of the ladder, he hoped he wouldn’t fall.  He was too far away for people to hear him cry out.

He reached the top of the truck and admired the view once again, sitting the backpack beside him like a small, lumpy friend.  He could see his mother’s minute form tending to the tomatoes in the veggie patch, he could see Mairin bringing the milk in.  If he looked to the right a little more he could just make out Crissie and Gordie walking near the shed.  They were far away from the property.  They probably wanted to be alone.  Apparently when people fell in love all they wanted to do was be alone.

Finally, he stood up again, dragging the rucksack alone the silver edge to the hole at the far end.  “Hello?” he said, with trepidation.  What if they’d found a way out while he’d been gone?  No, it seemed they hadn’t.  Three times they replied back to him.  Hello?  Hello?  Hello? 

“I have food for you.”  This statement was repeated back to him three times.  Pat was confused.  How could they have food for him when they had been trapped in a truck?  Nevertheless, he unpacked the contents of his backpack and slowly dropped them down.  The tomato was the last to go, making a squashy plunk sound as it hit the bottom.  Pat hoped it hadn’t smashed.

“I hope you like it.” He called down.  The words were repeated back to him.  Pat was confused – what did they hope he liked?  Perhaps Ly had been right.  Maybe he was only hearing the sound of his own voice.

“If you’re real, why don’t you say something original?” Pat yelled down.

If you’re real, why don’t you say something original?

A thought came to Pat.  What if, just as he doubted they were real, they doubted he was real?  But then again, he had dropped down the food.  They hadn’t given him anything.  Perhaps they had nothing to give.  Pat felt such pity for them.  They sounded as if they were only children, his age.  Perhaps their father had been the truck driver, and then he had crashed into the swamp and gone to get help, leaving his children alone.  He could only imagine how frightened they’d be, all three of them.

“It’s alright,” he said, “I’ll keep you company.”  And when their three voices replied, Pat felt a warm feeling inside his chest.  They would stay here for each other.

He followed the sun’s journey across the sky until it buried itself behind the trees.  The golden light of afternoon spread through the hills.  The metal of the truck started to cool as the sun set.  Although he was certain his mother would be worried, Pat made good on his promise to stick by the children.  They would be so lonely if he left, unbearably lonely – although they never talked to him anyway.  He could imagine them sitting huddled together in the dark, four boys sticking to each other for comfort.  As the evening dropped into view and its dark coat enveloped the hills, Pat wrapped his arms around his feet and began to sing softly.  He didn’t really know any songs, so he made ones up.  He sang songs about small children, about his home and his family and what he did on Saturdays.  They didn’t make sense, most of them, but they were a comfort to him.

In the end, Mairin came for him.  Her small figure startled him at first, thinking it was one of the children who had managed to find a way out.  Eventually she spotted him and, calling him silly, led him home.  “Mum was so worried about you!  What were you thinking?”

Pat shrugged.  “You wouldn’t understand.”

I ended up winning a prize in the Aussie Schools Writing Contest for this piece.  Check it out: http://www.affordablemanuscriptassessments.com/

Oxygen

I don’t think this one is as good as the other ones.  But it’s here anyway for people to read.  It’s a very short story.

His breath came out in a stream of bubbles in the soft water.  He watched them travel up to the surface, where the sun shone bright and fresh, creating a dazzling reflection of the world above.  He could stay here forever, he thought, if only his lungs would permit.  He watched the mirage of light play above his head for a few more seconds before he broke the surface.

His hair clung to his eyes, his nose.  It blinded him as he choked on air.  Perhaps he was never meant to breathe this air, perhaps water was his oxygen.  His mother always said he was water baby.  He pushed the sticky hair off his face and rubbed water out of his eyes.  His first glimpse of the earthly world was a disappointment.  It was exactly how he remembered.  The marble steps, the glass roof (so close to freedom, yet so far away.  It made him feel like a caged bird), the dark wallpaper of the corridor.  He hoisted himself up on the edge of the pool, his clammy feet finding the cool marble.  Running a towel through his hair and then wrapping it around his waist, he walked slowly into the corridor, making almost no sound.

His mother was already awake.  His fragile, senile mother.  Strands of Vera Lynn drifted from her bedroom, warped by the scratchy phonograph.  His sister had offered several times to buy her a new one, but she held this one close to her chest, as if it were an old treasure.  He shouldn’t disturb her.  From the music he could gather she was in one of her states again.

He found Jacqui in the garden.  She was cutting roses again, watching the petals drift slowly onto her lap, scarlet like blood.  He wandered out into the open air to join her, not even conscious of his semi-nakedness.  Jacqui glanced once at the towel, and then at his face, then went back to her cutting.

“Pruning again?”

She didn’t answer him.

“If you want, I could ask Charles to show you how to do it properly.”

“No.” Her voice was monotonous.

He left her, working his way back to the house.

After a short shower and some new clothes, he stepped into the bright kitchen.  He wore a light, breathy shirt and a pair of dark pants that were almost too short for him.  He was growing quickly now, and eating as much as for two people.  He fixed himself a sandwich quickly and wandered the empty, traditional corridors as he ate.  The house was too quiet now.  If his father had been here, the place would be bursting with noise, as it had been when he was a boy.  Hell, he was still a boy, but half as happy.  Quietly, he turned towards the window and looked out at the long expanse of the sea.  His father had been lost to him there.  Although his mother and sister had been home the entire time, they were lost to him as well.  No one was ever quite the same.

Suddenly, he felt a burst of anger well up deep inside of him.  It filled his chest, his lungs, making him breathless.  He longed to run to his mother, tear the Vera Lynn off the phonograph and snap it in half.  No matter how much you play that bloody record, it won’t bring my father back!  Then he would run straight to the gardens and snatch the roses out of Jacqui’s hands.  Why couldn’t she get on with life, like he did?  Why couldn’t anyone?

With swift footsteps, he sped towards the indoor swimming pool.  He reached the marble edge of the water and tore of his shirt.  The material ripped easily in his hands.  When he jumped, he felt weightless until the water grasped him, pulled him under.  Opening his eyes, he found his old mirage.  He would stay there as long as the water would keep him.  Who needed oxygen, anyway?

Words of Life and Love

My English creative piece for the unit Journeys and Quests.  Set in war-torn Sarajevo, which seems to be an ongoing setting of mine.

The letter is a small thing.  It is written on gleaming white paper in cursive letters.  A thin, manicured hand seals it and perfect lips kiss it as the postman stands waiting next to his bike.  It is slipped into a large hessian bag and taken just a little distance.  In the post office, it is stamped and sorted.  Then, from the growing, gleaming city of New York, it travels.  Its journey lasts a while; over oceans and many, many countries.  It travels to a colder climate, where snow adorns mountains and covers roads and houses.  Here, men are afraid to travel, and the letter passes through many different pairs of hands.  Some are businessmen, caught up in work and life, and then, as the letter nears its destination, the hands are rougher and stronger – the hands of soldiers and workers.  Then, finally, it passes into young hands, the hands of a child.

In Sarajevo, everything is dead.  The once tall skyscrapers now lie on the ground, glass and metal strewn out amongst the dust.  Houses stand as half empty skeletons, their adornments spread out for the world to see.  There is a couch pierced by bullet holes.  There is a rocking horse that has been blown apart by a shell.  The family are gone, maybe dead.  The child hurries through the rubble, stopping only momentarily to pick up a piece of rocking horse.  Then bullets sound in the distance and the child runs again.  Soon, he meets up with his sister.  She is looking frail today, though she still speaks louder than ever.  Her squeaky, chirruping voice sounds through the street and her older brother shushes her quickly.  He tells her that they must find Mr. Robbie quickly, or else he might be angry.  The boy knows that he wouldn’t be, but he wants his sister to hurry.  Sniper Alley is close and the afternoon light is too bright.

They come to the camp and Mr. Henry is there, but not Mr. Robbie.  The boy knows he cannot hand the letter to Mr. Henry or he will be jealous and want to tear it up.  Instead, he slips it inside the pocket of his anorak.  The camp is the only place in Sarajevo where they can all be safe.  But it will only be safe if Mr. Robbie and Mr. Henry stay.  The boy is scared, now.  What if the letter makes Mr. Robbie want to go home?  Maybe he should not give it to Mr. Robbie after all.  He darts around the corner and crouches down.  His fumbling hands tear at the delicate seal.  The letter is pulled out and the boy’s grimy hands make faint smudges on the delicate words.  No matter how much he twists and turns, peering at the paper, he cannot make any sense of it.  He is defeated and slumps down in the snow, hanging his head.  After a moment he hears his name being called and hurries back to the camp, the letter lying forgotten in the dirty snow.

A few hours later, as the boy and his sister are sleeping, shots ring out among the ghosts of houses.  The boy sits up and pushes his sister to wake her.  There is still no sign of Mr. Robbie, or Mr. Henry.  The boy gives a little shudder and tells his sister to wake the others.  He peers out into the dark street.  There is Danger out there, he knows.  That Danger does not care for whom it affects.  Children are the same as any other person, according to Danger.  And Danger is coming here.  The boy can hear it.

The other boys are coming now, grumbling and giving each other sleepy looks of discontent.  What is going on?  The shots ring out again, and this time they are even closer than before.  The children look to one another, their eyes wide and unblinking, for the Danger is certainly coming.  Then there are bright lights and all of a sudden the boy grabs his sister’s hand and yells at the others to run away.  They flee as bullets cut through the glass, the walls, tearing their familiar surroundings to shreds. The soldiers come after that, their big boots crunching the dirt.  They look around for living people, but the children have fled and Mr. Henry and Mr. Robbie have not come back.  One soldier picks up the letter and tries to read it, but he cannot.  He puts it inside his jacket.

But hark!  People are coming!  The soldiers cannot stay, unless they want to lose their lives.  They disappear like smoke.  Their destination is Sniper Alley.  If they can attack when the night is black and dark, they might surprise the enemy.  Their soldier-minds are excited at the thought of blood and they walk on, making no sound.

The next day, the sun rises upon the dead.  The soldiers, their minds occupied by military blood-lust, have failed.  Their corpses are strewn, with glassy eye and blood breast, upon the road in Sniper Alley.  The letter is there too, crumpled and bloody, but still legible.  Over the road, the boy sees it and his eyes light up.  His sister is nearby, buying food from the small markets.  Mr. Robbie is near as well.  If he can give Mr. Robbie the letter and see him give a rare smile…  The decision has already been made in his child-mind.  His adrenaline pulses and the boy grinds his foot in the dirt, like he has seen in movies.  Maybe it will make him run faster.  Then he zooms across, his footsteps clattering on the broken pavement.

The shots sound in great volleys.  But they are too late, for the boy has already made it to the dead soldier’s body.  He has picked up the letter and held it in small, shaking hands, a triumphant smile wide across his face.  Now he looks around.  He is thinking of Mr. Robbie as he crouches, ready to run, about the loving smile that will creep across his face, about the hand that covers his mouth as he opens it and reads the first few words, about the tears of joy that will start to pour down his-

The small body crumples to the ground.  But for the bullet hole in his stained shirt, he could be sleeping.

A few minutes later, Mr. Robbie comes.  He is calling out the boy’s name and is impatient now.  The boy’s sister clings onto his arm.  He sees the crumpled body on the pavement and runs, detaching the little girl.  He curses as he lifts the boy’s head, hurriedly checking for a pulse.  As his shaking hands come away, streaking tears course down his cheeks.  He swiftly picks the body up and runs, the boy hanging limply in his arms like the murdered Gavroche.  His head droops as he lays the boy on safe ground.  He has failed his mission.  He is a defeated man.  Instead of protecting this small boy, he led him to his death.  He slowly closes the boy’s eyes and finds his book in the pocket of his jacket.  It is The Catcher in the Rye and he has had this copy since he was fifteen.  It is his favourite book.  Inside it are many loose papers and Mr. Robbie takes out one.  It is a small poem by Robert Burns, ‘Comin’ thro the Rye’, scrawled out on an old yellowing envelope.  To Mr. Robbie it means everything.  It is the reason he is here.  He folds it into a small piece and places it inside the boy’s bloody jacket.  Only now does he see the letter, crumpled in that small, cold hand.

He slowly unpeels the pages and begins to read.  His teeth find his bottom lip and his brown hand wipes over his eyes.  He finds his book again and puts the letter inside, hiding it under the folds of his jacket.  When he is safe, he will find a pen and hurriedly scrawl a reply before giving it to Mr. Henry, who will deliver it into safe hands.  But now he must bury the boy’s body.  He will find a peaceful place, a grove of trees, somewhere where flowers grow.  He nods a sad goodbye to Mr. Henry and kisses the little girl lightly on the head.  Then, carrying the boy’s body, he walks.

The letter passes from the safe hands of Mr. Henry to many, many others.  It goes through the strong hands of soldiers, then the cracked hands of the market women, the neat hands of housewives, the clever hands of businessmen.  It travels over country borders and great seas once again.  It is given back to the postman and put into his hessian bag where it finds the woman on her doorstep.  As she opens it, she recognises her own handwriting as well as the scrawled reply from her husband.  She sees the dirt and the wet patches from the snow, the blood and tear stains.  Her hands hold this letter that has been held by so many others – by hands clean and grimy, delicate and rough, young and old.  The hands that held the boy’s body, that dug the small grave have sent this letter back to her.  And, in spite of herself, she cries.  For even though her husband is gone now, his last words to her are sweet and kind.  Those beautiful words were his goodbye, his last gift to her.

Those perfect lips kiss the letter one last time and the manicured hand places it on the mantelpiece where it will never, ever be forgotten.

I’m pleased to say that I received a mark of 87% on this!  Unfortunately, when I asked her, she said that she didn’t cry while reading it, which was my aim because I was a bit annoyed at her…

The Family Business

A short story (in two parts) that I wrote at the beginning of this year.  It’s historical fiction set in the French Revolution (1789-1794).

Part 1: Charles-Henri

When I was young I always saw our family as being old and uninteresting.  It felt musty and cracked with tradition; the same occupation for over a century.  How boring!  A life without variety, choice.  At least, that what I was facing – being the eldest of ten.  Every one of my nine siblings would have that freedom of choice, but my life was decided for me a century before it had begun.  I didn’t even like the family business.

My early life was spent in bustling Paris.  I can still remember the markets – crowds  swarming like flies over a carcass, fishwives shouting out their produce, unintelligible amongst the reverberating sound that comes from a great deal of people.  Then, when I went to school, the bustle became that of Rouen, a city still as crowded, but possessing a beauty that Paris did not have.  Rouen I loved.  The streets were older and crammed with the weight of history.  The school was gothic and draughty and the cries of the boys, my class, echoed fluently about the halls.  It was a place where I could forget my inevitable future and peer into the great whirlpool of knowledge that was at my fingertips.  But as I’ve found these things tend to do, the family profession eventually caught up with me.

It was the summer of my third year at school, my fourteenth year of life, when my father, taking the time out of his busy schedule, picked me up from the school in his coach.  I was reluctant to go home, to leave this place and go back to Paris, which I was sure would swallow me whole.  Just as we were leaving, having bid my teachers farewell, a voice spoke loudly behind me, addressing me.  The family name was thrown high in the air for the whole crowd to see.

“Charles Sanson?”  I stopped.  My father turned around.  The man behind us peered at my father through his large spectacles.  “Yes, Charles Sanson!”  He meant my father, not me.  The man pursed his lips, raising his chin and frowning down at my father.

Evil man.” he breathed angrily.  My insides froze.  My father wasn’t wearing his red coat.  How did he recognise him?

My father stepped forward.  “Excuse me?” he said, with forced politeness.

“This man!” the stranger shouted to the schoolyard.  “He is a murderer!” his voice quivered with the accusation.  “I will not have my son attend this school while his cursed man’s child remains here!”

I stared at him open mouthed for a long time.  My father grabbed my hand and pulled me into the coach.  As we drove away from Rouen, from the city I loved, I never took my eyes away from the window.

I never came back to Rouen.  My father insisted I be tutored at home rather than attend a school.  That meant living in Paris, with the crowds that threatened to suffocate me, with the smell that seemed to intoxicate the air and with my grandmother who met my eye each time with a shake of her head and a forbidding glance.  I had never met an older woman; decrepit in looks and morals.  She would bark at me after each lesson with the tutor, ask me what I was studying.  When I replied she would shake her head and say, “the family business won’t need that!  You ought to study physics and the human body.”  I must admit that I had a mild interest in both those subjects, but never enough to please my grandmother.  After many years of pleading, my father let me take up music and I learnt to play the violin and cello.  I loved the music, the slow harmonious throb of the cello and the rapid, flowing chords of the violin.  Whenever my grandmother caught me practicing she would shake her head with more vigor than usual and say, “Charles-Henri!  Whatever will become of you?  You cannot execute a man with music!”  And sometimes, after she had left, I would whisper to myself, “but maybe I don’t want to execute men.”

In the end, it was a compromise that saved me.  I was to go to university, to leave that dreaded house, but I would study medicine and physics.  It would help me, my father said, when the time comes to take over the business.  It was always The Business, never more than that.  Sometimes I thought that maybe my father hated it as much as I did.  Yet he put up with it, as did I, when I studied the sciences of the human body rather than art or music.  But one mustn’t be fanciful, especially when the livelihood of the family is resting upon one’s head.  And eventually it was the livelihood of my family that snatched me from my studies at university and dropped me into the murky waters of the family business at last.

I became an apprentice to my father when I was eighteen.  The intricacies of human anatomy fresh in my mind, I took surprising interest in my father’s work, which pleased him immensely.  There was much to learn before I could take over my father’s position.  I had to learn which methods caused more suffering and what variables could be tampered with to increase or decrease the discomfort of the criminal.  Many people spat at us and taunted us, asking me why it took me so long to learn the art of execution.  But now I saw quite clearly that, rather, it was a science.  Later that year, my uncle in Reims specifically requested my help with a case of his.  It was to be a public spectacle: the execution of Damiens, attempter assassin of the King.  He was to receive the most torturous punishment available, which was, at that time, drawing and quartering.  My uncle and I pored over the details of the method, shortening this and lengthening that, changing minor details that would eventually have a larger effect.  Poor Damiens, in particular, would notice that.  Once the job was done and the attempted assassin well and truly dead, though my uncle thanked me and said that I’d done a marvelous job, he then retired and never watched another execution.  Had I done something wrong?

I was now old enough to take a wife.  All the times I had looked into the future, admiring pretty girls in Rouen, I never imagined I would have to search the filthy Parisian streets for a wife.  Now, I discovered that if you looked close enough, peered through the grime, there were some bright jewels to be found.  But my position didn’t help.  I married once, only to have her leave me after a short time.  Did I disgust her?  Was she repelled by the business?  Yet when I looked around, there were many others who killed people on a daily basis.  Nobles sent hundreds of peasants to their deaths for the pettiest of crimes; stealing bread to feed starving mouths, practicing professions of ill-repute.  After a short while, I married again.  Marie-Anne was beautiful, but also kind.  She did not seem disgusted or repelled by me; for that I was thankful.  She bore me two sons, Gabriel first and then Henri.  They were strong boys; Henri in particular was energetic and full of spirit.  Whenever I looked upon them, however, I felt a touch of sadness against my heart.  These, yet again, were two young boys whose futures had already been decided for them.  They would never go to beautiful schools in Rouen or face crowds of people without the risk of being recognised.  The family business would shame them forever.

They called me the ‘Gentleman of Paris’ now.  The title befits the profession, I suppose.  I was the man who people saw covered in blood, whose actions arose whimpers, prayers, screams of agony sometimes, who was the ‘Gentleman’ of the dirtiest, most bloodthirsty city in the whole world.  I was not a gentleman.  I never mixed with high society.  I kept my head down in the street.  My two sons, who were growing happy and healthy, were educated privately, as I was.  I watched them grow with a growing sense of regret gnawing my insides.  When would I be forced to recruit them into the family business alongside me?

It was around this time that I finally stopped my apprenticeship with my father.  He was growing older and sicker by the day, unable now to walk the scaffolds, to present corpses to crowds.  I had spent twenty years under his guidance.  I knew all the tricks of the trade.  I could kill men swiftly and painlessly, and I could cause the greatest suffering on earth.  At thirty-nine years of age I received the blood-red coat from my father – the jacket he wore with every execution, the symbol of the Master Executioner.  And with that, I became the true Gentleman of Paris.  I performed executions almost daily.  Often people would come to watch, especially those who had been wronged by the criminal.  I never remembered the faces of those whom I killed.  It wasn’t important to me.  Like so many other workers in Paris, my job consisted of following orders rather than giving them.  No matter what people jeered, muttered or spat, I never considered myself responsible for the death of a single man.

Now the Great Revolution was dawning.  Paris, already an ugly place, was being painted with blood.  The air, already noxious to me, was thick with the pleas of the poor, the angry speeches of the revolutionaries at the Palais Royale, the hopeless laments of those in prison.  Suddenly, to suffer wasn’t good enough.  The little people of France, forever lapping at the feet of those with wealth and power, became an insuppressible force, a tidal wave.  They engulfed the giants and reversed their positions.  Now the criminals were the Nobility.  There were to be an unfathomable amount of executions.  How to perform them all?  An execution was a process that took days of careful planning.  But the people would not wait.  Then a famous scientist came forward with a contraption he had built – to be called the guillotine.  Not trusting someone who was not a true professional of the field, I experimented myself with height and weight.  It was a very intricate devise that would decapitate a person quickly and easily, meant to cause death without pain.  Pain was not fashionable anymore.  Not even the worst of criminals would suffer through a good guillotining.  With my son, Gabriel, who had taken more than a mild interest in the profession, I took to decapitating straw figures first, then sheep and after, human corpses.  After less than a week of experimentation, the Assembly, who had surreptitiously taken over rule of France, approved of it and I was to execute my first criminal using this contraption.

Over all the methods of execution I had been witness to and performed over my years, the guillotine was the most frightening.  Why so?  Because it was effortless; easy.  One didn’t need more than three assistants, four, if the criminal was particularly reluctant to be beheaded, when previous executions had warranted six.  Tens of people could be executed within a day, and they were.  The Revolution wanted hundreds, even thousands, executed.  In Paris, crowds gathered to the Place de Grève, where my own personal guillotine was set up, to watch the spectacles.  The crowds weren’t happy just to see the man’s head fall into the basket; it needed then to be held up, shown to every corner of the square.  People would jeer and laugh at them.  Sometimes the head would be snatched out of my hand and put on top of a pike to be paraded around.  The people of Paris had ceased to be people and had become savages, animals.  When, one day, the name of our former King appeared on my daily list, I felt a pang of reluctance.  But what was he?  He was no more than a man.  I had already executed hundreds of men.  The man named Louis Capet was no different.  After the head rolled into the basket and I held it up to the whole of Europe, the whole world, Parisians drank from goblets of his blood, toasting to the Revolution.  It was enough to make even the man whose very occupation was to kill feel revolted.

The year was 1792.  I was now growing old – my thick hair had turned wispy and grey and every day it became more difficult to mount those few steps to the scaffold.  The business was not lost, though.  Gabriel, now twenty-three years of age, was my enthusiastic assistant.  Henri had joined the military and earned himself captain of the National Guard in Paris.  I was proud, but a still a little sad.  Either way, both my sons had careers in which they killed people.  In a way, the family business was inescapable.  Henri, we had lost to the fervor of battle, the excitement of war.  Gabriel, however, made a promising assistant.  I could see my strict, disapproving grandmother looking at my younger son with fond eyes – eyes that I never saw.

One day, Gabriel slipped.  I was, of course, afraid that something might happen to him – as a parent is when their young child picks up a knife.  But his death came simply, sneaking up in an unsurprising, but heartbreaking manner.  Proud as always, my son held the severed head up to the crowd, the blood running in a stream onto the heads of the swarming Parisians.  And then a cry and a crash.  They laughed, the crowd did.  The clumsy executioner.  Fell off his own scaffold.  Gabriel died quickly, I calculated, and without much pain.  Hardly a more humane death could be achieved with a guillotine, though it hardly eased the burden of loss.

Henri was called away from the front immediately.  Although Gabriel was only my assistant when he died, my health was becoming steadily worse.  I could no longer mount the steps to the scaffold without assistance.  I would teach Henri, and then retire.  With sad, reluctant eyes, Henri accepted the news.  His future was ripped away from him and replaced with one he loathed, detested.  But Paris, roiling, bloodthirsty Paris, was never patient nor sympathetic.  Henri was given less than a year to learn what had taken me twenty.  In the height of the revolution, under the shadow of our guillotine steeped in blood, Henri received my own red coat.  At first, it did not fit.  I insisted he ask a tailor to fix it, but he said not to.  He would grow into it, surely.  And so he did.

It was a feeling that I did not grow accustomed to quickly – that of watching rather than performing.  I saw my elder son take up the job that one century, four generations, required him to have.  The reluctance in his eyes slowly dissipated.  The red coat tightened around his body.  He faced the day’s work without trepidation now, sometimes with excitement.  He met France’s most famous revolutionaries and they greeted him like an old friend.  While I could still walk on my own two feet, I came to the Place de Grève to watch him.  I was proud in a way that a father must be of his son.  He carried the family name well, although none believed him to be as great as his predecessor.  Free now to listen to the buzzing of the streets, I learnt so much.  I was known as ‘The Great Sanson’.  People remembered the name and the face.  One day, many years later, the great emperor Napoleon met me and asked me if I could still sleep well after having killed so many.  I replied as I had said to myself for so many years: if emperors, kings and dictators can sleep well, why shouldn’t an executioner?  We do no more than follow orders and ensure the job is done.  As a worker who is quick and efficient in his business is deemed a ‘good worker’, cannot my son and I, who work to execute in the quickest, most humane circumstances, be deemed ‘good executioners’?  After all, we’ve had over a century of practice.  Executing is, of course, the family business.

 

Part 2: Henri

My father once insisted that I was so very like him.  It is one of my earliest memories.  He is tousling my hair as I jump and scamper around the garden, catching butterflies in my small hands.  “Don’t kill it.” my father warned as I trapped the panicking insect in a fleshy cage.  I gasped and quickly let the insect flutter away, flapping lopsidedly.  “Did I hurt it?” I squealed.  “Is it going to die?”  I started to cry.  My father patted me on the back.  “You are so very like me, my son.”  It took me years to find out what that really meant.

Of course, mother never took Gabriel or I to any executions.  We never knew about our father’s occupation.  We never went out onto the streets, never mingled with other children our age.  There was no way we could have heard the words passing from one Parisian mouth to another at the sight of my father.  We had never heard of ‘The Great Sanson’, though we assumed he was a relative of ours.  My father encouraged us to study science and anatomy, telling us that it would help us to continue with the family business.  Neither of us knew what the family business was, exactly.  Gabriel, my perfect younger brother, took to anatomy like babies do walking – with difficulty at first, but smoothly after practice.  I never achieved more than a crawl.  Though I could always see disappointment in my father’s eyes, I never gave up trying to please him.

Midway through my teenage years, while I was struggling with the confines of our Paris home and the strict regime of study set by our private tutor, I found out exactly what the family business was.  I had had my suspicions for a while.  Surely father was a butcher; the way he sometimes joked about blood on his clothes.  But then, surely father was a busker of some sort; with his stories of crowds surrounding him to watch him work.  But I never saw father wearing a butcher’s apron, nor mentioning meat or animals.  Similarly, I never saw in his possession any music instruments and did not doubt that, with his figure, he would be a terrible dancer.  Eventually my father ended my guessing games, bringing my brother and I together to tell us the truth.  He told us simply, without details and without lies.

“Do you know what happens to people who commit a crime?”

“They become criminals!” Gabriel said proudly.  Father chuckled.

“Yes, but what happens to criminals?”

“They are put in gaol.” Gabriel answered again.

Father paused.  “Not all of them.”

“Some of them die.” I interrupted them.  It was obviously the answer he wanted.  Father’s face turned pale for a moment.  “Yes, Henri.  Some of them die.  Now, who, do you suppose, is the one to kill them?”

“An executioner.” I said.  With the word, I felt my stomach drop.

Father nodded, his face very serious.  “Now, you understand that every family has to have a business.  The family business.  Some families are bakers, some are tailors-”

“Artists!” Gabriel interrupted.

“Yes, some are artists-” Father said patiently.

“Toymakers!”

“Yes.  And some families are executioners.” he said.  Plainly, simply.

“That’s what we are, isn’t it?” I asked.  But I already knew the answer.  Father nodded, gravely, slowly.  I stood up.  Suddenly, the sight of my father’s face, large and kind, sent waves of disgust through me.

“What’s an executioner?” Gabriel piped in.  I didn’t stay to hear father’s explanation.  I wanted no part in the family business any longer.  I wanted no place in this family, this house, this city.  Every small detail – father’s stories about crowds, about blood, his willingness for us to learn anatomy – fell into place.  From that day I was determined never to follow in the family business.

It took me a long time to emancipate myself from my family.  Although I felt disgust every time my father’s hand touched my shoulder, with every smile he gave me, I never showed it outwardly.  I was simply the son who was no good at anatomy.  Unfortunately, my father told my mother in secret, he would never make a good executioner.  Finally, I found my escape.  I joined the military at a young age and became infatuated with the life I found there.  Life was exciting.  I never stayed in one place too long.  I never had to hear the murmurs of the bloodthirsty Parisians, nor see my father performing his occupation.  I took great pleasure in leaving my Paris life behind me.  I moved up the ranks quickly and with each promotion I sent a letter to my father, out of sheer politeness and nothing more.

Although military life was perpetually exciting, the eve of the Revolution made it more so.  I was captain of the National Guard in Paris; back in the town of my birth, yet feeling the same detachment as I had many miles away.  I rounded up hoards of aristocrats, came face to face with their powdered wigs and extravagant clothes.  I detested them as much as any good patriot.  It was the thought of the guillotine that made me quiver, though.  Though I tried to close my eyes and ears to it, I could not help knowing about ‘The Great Sanson’, master of the guillotine in Paris.  People came to watch now.  Executions were public spectacles.  The people had turned ugly, animalistic.  And my father was at the head of it all.

My brother was there too, of course.  Always the perfect son, he followed his father into the family business.  From what I heard, he could always be seen on the scaffold, sometimes displaying a head to the crowd.  Young, foolish, naïve Gabriel.  Now a murderer.

My marriage, to beautiful, fragile Marie-Louise, calmed me a little.  I no longer felt such anger towards my father.  I gradually began to accept, as the revolution pounded through its course, that executions were a part of life in Paris.  The prayers, the blood, the rattling of the tumbrels, the smooth slicing of the blade were normal occurrences now.  In those days, I was a police officer of the tribunals.  Every day, I saw men who would soon be dead.  I ensured that they all made their way onto a tumbrel, hands bound, hair cut above the neck, and stopped the odd daredevil from escaping.  I was delivering them into the hands of my father, who delivered them into the hands of God.  This was what my military life had led me to.  Although I had tried so hard, I had not escaped the family business.

My father called on me one day in great distress.  His eyes were ringed with red and his voice quivered as he told me the source of his grief.  Out of all the very many important things he told me that day, I remember but one thing: when he came to me, he was wearing his red coat.

“Henri,” he addressed me, “Henri… your brother…”  My heart leapt in my chest.  As I had done so many years before, I once again guessed what he was about to say.  He looked into my eyes and must have seen, must have known that I knew.  He sank to the floor, pulling me to my knees.  “He is gone!” he wept, and I pulled him close to me, comforting him.  So many thoughts raced through my mind.  How had Gabriel died?  Had the guillotine malfunctioned?  Or had the crowd ripped him to pieces?

“I’m the only heir.” I whispered softly.  “The heir to the family business.”  As if to respond to this statement, my father wept harder.

The next day, I found myself on the scaffold.  I thought, somewhat queasily, as I walked up those steps, that I was one of the few men to climb the scaffold who would ever climb down again.  Perhaps I should have felt privileged.  I did not.  My father gave me simple instructions.  The contraption was easy to use, he said.  I could have laughed.  Who would have known that killing people was so easy?  I began my work as apprentice that very day.  I had hardly had time to send a notification to the head of the National Guard.  My friends in the police had chuckled at my uncomfortable ways.

“The family name is finally catching up with you, Henri.” they said.

Perhaps I would have been happier executing petty criminals first.  Perhaps a murderer.  Somebody who had done something extraordinarily bad.  Somebody who I could hate, loathe.  I was good at hating.  I was not good at executing.  My hands shook as I bound my first ever victim, a baker accused of plotting with the English.  The crowds whispered.  “He is not nearly as good as the younger Sanson, or his father.”  I had to become my brother, my father.  All the choice I dreamed of having had evaporated.  Every day, my father became frailer.  Every day, the people screamed for more blood.  And then, one day, my hands stopped shaking.

Paris was going mad.  The world was going mad.  If you couldn’t handle the madness, you were accused.  If you were accused, you would eventually meet me.  One of my assistants would tie your hands while I raised the blade above your neck.  When the time was right, the moment arrived; I would allow the blade to drop.  Your head would roll into the basket.  Blood would stream through the wicker straws.  I would pick up your head and show the crowd, and they would roar and scream with delight.  No longer a person but a symbol of suffering and grief, now dead.  What could be a more joyous occasion?  And so, one day I allowed myself to celebrate.  I locked away my conscience and accepted my father’s red jacket.  I was learning to carry on the family business.

My father would watch me from somewhere within the crowd.  I would not try to find his face.  Instead, I would busy myself, sometimes reading through the list again.  Sometimes I would find a name that was vaguely familiar.  One day I found myself executing the former Queen of France.  I said to myself that it wasn’t possible, that this gaunt woman could not be!  Yet she mounted the scaffold with dignity and poise.  She was brave.  Perhaps she was a better traitor than she was a queen.  And then, a few days later, I was executing revolutionaries.  People who had once excited the crowds and swayed them into action were now the subject of their taunts and jeering as they made their way up the scaffold.  I remembered each of their deaths.  Some were proud and silent – Madame Roland, whose salon had been so very famous – and some had to be dragged up those final steps – Hébert, who had been the hero of the san-culottes.  In April, I met Desmoulins – who fought his way to the blade crying the name of his wife – and Danton, who greeted me as if we were acquaintances and made me promise to show his great, scarred head to the crowd.  My father called me lucky; I was meeting the most prominent people in society!  Yes, I met them just as they left society for good.

It was difficult to keep up with the politics of those times.  Every time one turned around, more people were turning from patriots to traitors.  Those who had been praised just yesterday, I found on my list tomorrow.  On a warm afternoon in July, I watched yet another tumbrel full of people arrive at the scaffold.  Yet these ones looked oddly familiar.  Yes, these were the country’s greatest politicians!  Hardly recognizable without powder and cravats, there was Robespierre, Saint-Just, Couthon!  Oh, but there were a few.  It would take a while to get through all of them.  And the crowd would want to see the head of every one.  How long it took to strap Couthon to the board!  A good hour at least!  And the way Hanriot had screeched!  As I led Saint-Just up the stairs of the scaffolding, I noted the air of indifference the man had about him.  It was unusual.  There was nothing.  Not pride, not regret, not fear, nothing.  His coldness startled me a little.  But at least he was no effort.  Robespierre, the ringleader, with a broken jaw, was quite the opposite.  How I had felt the hatred of the crowd, the surging wave of abhorrence towards this man!  How weak he seemed!  He had not even the strength to whimper, to cry out.  Could he even feel the pain?  I ripped at the bandage on his face and the small man let out an ugly cry.  I felt disgust freeze my organs.  I wanted to execute him quickly.  Get him away from me!  The blade dropped with a swift thunk and relief swept through me.

I am sometimes surprised at how quickly I became accustomed to death.  It was everywhere around me.  Sometimes I dreamed death.  But I was never under the guillotine, I always dropped the blade.  I hated watching them quiver, cry and scream.  How could they withstand such emotion!  I sometimes thought perhaps I was jealous of them.  They were capable of such emotion and I capable of none.  But I had learnt early on in this life, in this business, that emotion was not necessary, in fact, highly burdening.  It was better to live without it.

But for the Little Things

A short story that I wrote at the end of last year.

He watched her dance from the high window of his house.  Her arms rose and fell, her shoes slotted into each other as she moved slowly across the pavement.  Her body swayed, limber as a reed.  Her eyes looked not down at the pavement as other people’s did, but towards the sky in an almost dream state.  Her tutu was a faded grey hue, and the shoes that she wore were wearing in too many places.  There was no music, only the bustling of the street-crowds as they walked past.  She rose and fell, tottering on her feet.  The movements were the same, but the routine always different.  How he loved her.

He was an old man, coming to seventy, and held fiercely to his promise to keep his granddaughter safe.  She was almost an adult, her face now held that expression that can only be gained when one has knowledge and experience.  He could not afford to keep her now, yet he would not tell her.  The intricate watches he made were no longer selling.  Those that did sell sold for next to nothing.  People knew about them now.  Men stopped in the streets to spit at his feet as soon as they saw the Star of David.  He felt tied to the symbol, yet he would not give it up.  He did not allow Hannah to wear it, though.  She was not deserving of that kind of treatment.  If the street-crowds saw the Star of David on her, she would cease to be a ballerina, a thing of beauty and an escape from the world, and become a figure of hate.  He could not let her bear that same cross that he bore without complaint.

The country was changing rapidly.  Winter was coming, soon it would arrive.  In a few weeks it would be too cold for Hannah to dance and they would have to last the winter on his wage alone.  It would be difficult, but it had been done before.  They survived well enough on a combination of his sales and the money that people threw into the grey satin bag at Hannah’s dancing feet.  She was earning more money than he was.  It would be difficult for him to persuade her to stop busking once the winter set in.  He could not let her get sick.  He would make more watches, and maybe take another job if he needed to.  But he would be hard pressed finding work, especially as he was Jewish.

Gustave had told him that they were coming.  His friend had narrowly escaped being sent away just over a month ago.  Gustave’s real name was Isaiah and although he did not wear a Star of David, they were able to find him easily.  He had been living in Calais at the time and had only recently moved to Leon, where Noah and Hannah lived.  He had called on Noah fearfully just two days ago, babbling about how his friend on the outskirts of the city had been taken away.  They would be here soon and they would take them all to a camp from which they would never return.  Noah had felt a chill at this, and allowed his friend, who was in deep shock, to stay the night in his small house.  As Gustave slept soundly in Noah’s own bed, the old man sat in his workshop amidst his tools and the skeletons of half finished watches thinking about the days ahead.

France had become a grey country.  Not only had the oncoming winter stripped the trees of their vibrant leaves, but the war had stripped the people’s faces of joy and light.  Even Hannah’s eyes had taken on a grey hue as opposed to their usual blue.  Gustave, who had left the next morning, had dark circles under his eyes, although Noah had been sure he had slept deeply the night before.  France was tired and sick, and she had passed her disease onto her citizens.  Hannah was paid well these days.  Noah wondered whether this was because she remained a symbol of hope throughout this dreary time, a reminder that one could still dream.  He watched out the window of the house as men and women of all age groups walking by and stopped, mesmerised by her twisting, twirling figure.  They would reach into their pockets and discard their loose change, thankful to her for a momentary escape.

A few days later Gustave returned once again.  He looked in slightly better health, but his news was worse.  He told Noah that his Jewish relatives in the next suburb had been taken yesterday.  They were hunting them down like wolves and soon they would come to this suburb, this street and they would have no mercy.  This had made Noah frightened, and Hannah could see it on his face.  She worried about him as much as he worried about her.  He still would not tell her the reason.

The next day was one of the coldest of the month, and Hannah wore a thick brown coat over her faded tutu.  This gave her another appearance, and some didn’t recognise her.  There was more to her that was different than just the coat.  Her expression had deepened into a sadness which set into her eyes.  She no longer looked to the sky when she danced, but at her feet.  Her dance was slower that day, the sombre music of life creeping into her.  Noah wished he could tell her to be calm, to enjoy these few days, but the fear had settled into him as well.  He had not slept properly in two nights.

The day after next, Gustave came again.  He had made a habit of appearing every two days.  He would seek Noah for comfort, tell him the latest news and sometimes stay the night.  He often brought them money from other Jews in the city who feared they would be taken soon.  They had presented him with the money and told him to give it to others who needed it.  Gustave had fearfully obeyed.

It was five days since his last visit, and Noah had seen nothing of him.  He feared the worst.  Hannah asked about him.  They needed the money.  The next day, when Noah went to the local bakery, he heard the news.  They had come to take him away and had found him locked in the attic, a gun in his hand.  They had told him to lower his weapon, he had shot and killed one of them.  As he backed into the corner of the attic, one of them fired and blew his hand clean off.  The pain had sent him mad and he had jumped out the window, landing in the street below with both his legs broken.  Finally the leader put a gun to Gustave’s head and pulled the trigger, delivering mercy at last.  They had thrown his broken body into the river and continued on.

Noah wept for Gustave that night, sitting in his workshop where Hannah would not be able to hear him amidst the constant ticking of clocks.  He wept for violence and for disrespect, and finally for fear.  He knew all too well that they had only a few days at the most.  Hannah inquired about Gustave at last.  Noah refused to tell her the truth, instead telling her that he had gone to an urgent meeting with some old friends in Calais.  Her eyes told him that she didn’t believe.

The next day there was frost on the ground and Hannah’s breath puffed out mist in front of her.  She went to work on the street corner with her thick brown coat, a scarf and a pair of gloves.  All these covered her upper half, while her lower half wore simply a tutu, some thin stockings and a pair of Pointe shoes.  It gave her a surreal appearance, two opposing images combined.  Many people stopped to watch that day.  That was the day that Hannah fell.

She had risen on her toes, her arms above her head, looking like a music box ballerina, albeit with strange clothing.  The frost had not yet melted from the pavement, and as Hannah travelled gracefully across the space her foot had slipped.  The image was broken, the facade of grace and poise shattered as Hannah fell to the ground with a cry.  Her small audience gasped and remained frozen for a moment as they contemplated the ruined mirage.  A nurse who happened to be walking by rushed over to help.  She helped Hannah to sit up and examined her outstretched leg.  After a few minutes of silence she proclaimed her ankle to be broken.  She would have to be brought to the hospital.

At the gasps of the crowd, Noah had rushed to the window.  He had wept at her fallen figure; tears of shock, of fear for his granddaughter, of grief for the demise of such beauty.  He had seen the nurse run for help and had watched as a man of the street crowd put his jacket over Hannah’s stockinged legs.  Another held her in a sitting position, and a young woman had given her a handkerchief.  After fifteen minutes an ambulance came and Hannah was loaded onto a stretcher.  She craned her neck upwards to look at the house and saw Noah’s anxious face watching her through the window.  He raised a hand to the Star of David on his jacket lapel.  No one must know that we are together.  It was his goodbye.

For the rest of the day, Noah could not work.  There was more noise outside; the street-crowds had gathered, asking to know where the dancer was.  The constant ticking in Noah’s workshop seemed almost unbearable.  His hands shook uncontrollably and he would often forget what he was doing.  A job that normally would have taken him a few hours took him most of that day.  By midnight, the watch was finished, intricate in its design with a pair of initials carved onto the back.  Noah did not feel a sense of achievement, nor did he feel any pride for the beauty of his work.  He had known beauty once, but now she lay in a hospital bed, weary, frightened and unable to dance.  He took one last look at his day’s work before he snuffed the candle.

The watch was ticking backwards.

Noah felt a sudden anger at the realisation that his day’s work had been a waste.  But he took a deep breath, ran a hand through his grey hair and walked slowly to his bedroom.  He stopped by Hannah’s bedroom to close the door.  Somehow he knew that he would never see her here again.

The next day, they came for him.  He was awoken by a brusque knocking on the door.  Nobody had knocked on his door for years.  Anybody he trusted had been given a key.  He had known who it was full minutes before he reached the door.  They had taken him in his nightgown and given him no time to gather his possessions.  His hands were tied together and he was shoved roughly into the back of a van.  There were others there, and they all bore the same expression of resignation.  The same expression had written itself on Noah’s face, except that it was intermingled with a tragic melancholy that showed in his old blue eyes.  He put a hand over the Star of David on his neck as he left the street in which both he and his granddaughter had grown up.

One month later Hannah returned.  She used a cane to help her walk up the long staircase to the house.  Her old, worn Pointe shoes were tied around her neck.  She entered Noah’s workshop and sat down at the desk.  The constant ticking comforted her.  She looked down onto the street where she had once danced and felt a pang of grief.  Tears started to crawl down her cheeks and she wiped them away with the back of her hand.  She rifled through the drawers, looking for a handkerchief.  Instead, she found the backwards ticking watch.  It was a beautiful thing, made of gold coloured metal with a pattern engraved in silver.  On the back was a pair of initials belonging to nobody she knew.  She put the watch in her pocket and headed out of the workshop and into her bedroom.

Hannah sat on the bed staring at the watch.  There was an image that she could not rid from her mind.  She could still see her grandfather standing at the workshop window with his hand on the Star of David.  She knew what had happened to him and she felt sadness for him.  She could not help but think she had been lucky.  It would have been all too easy for her to be sitting in a camp with him at this very moment.  This is what her grandfather would have wanted, for her to be safe.

She started to cry, the tears flowing freely down her cheeks, some landing on the watch.  Her small figure shuddered and her shoulders hunched.  She lay on the bed and finally fell asleep.  When she woke up the next morning, the backwards ticking watch had stopped.  Still groggy from sleep, Hannah pulled on her clothes and her shoes and headed out into the street.  She stopped on the street corner underneath the workshop window.  She lay her cane on the pavement in front of her.  She moved slowly and unsteadily, trying not to place too much weight on her ankle.

She began to dance.

This won a Highly Commended for the FAW Young Writer of the Year awards.  I hope you have enjoyed it!

Books of Late I

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley/The Scarlet Pimpernel – Barroness Orczy/The Chocolate War – Robert Cormier/The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

1. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (10/10)

A beautiful political commentary.  In particular, I laughed at the name Lenina and cried at the exploits of ‘The Savage’.  Wonderfully told.  I especially admire Huxley’s tendency to mix Shakespeare quotes in with descriptions of a world so inherently unappreciative of the arts.

2. Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel (9/10)

I think that, particularly when you read something for the third or fourth time, whatever it is tends to wear on you a bit.  I raced through his book, partly because I knew everything that would happen.  But it receives a nine because, although it was a few years ago, it did manage to capture  my fourteen year old heart.

3. Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (10/10)

Don’t think that I’m just rating a lot of books ten because I’m a soft rater (but I am), because these books have been WONDERFUL!  I really enjoyed the Chocolate War most likely  because it was similar to my novel in the way that the students are partially controlled by the teachers.  But the suspense was fabulous, many of the ideas were wonderful and the characters intriguing.

4. Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (9/10)

I enjoyed this one mostly for the descriptions of the quiet, beautiful English countryside.  This book and Never Let Me Go have almost solely responsible for my desire to go to England.  It was beautifully written and a wonderful piece reflecting on human nature.  Human nature in the English countryside.  One of those relax books, not for people who like drama and action.  But the sort of thing you want to read to put you in a nice frame of mind before you go to sleep.  It was nice to read.