These are winning stories entered in the short story competition held on Viking Orion in September 2018
Getting on With It
Oh crumbs! I hadn’t expected this! How am I going to cope? And what on earth were they thinking?
Harriet looked at the steps arising before her. Twenty – she counted them. Each and every one a barrier! Each insurmountable!
Look around, Harriet told herself, there must be someone to help. But twenty steps! No way!
But time was running out. Harriet was well aware that she was due on stage in 15 minutes. The silliness of it all – no ramp and this, a conference for the disabled!! Had she missed something?
Harriet stopped in her tracks!
Get the information pack out silly girl she told herself. Scrambling in her large hold-all bag, full of all the junk as usual, she finds the scrunched up pack. Quick, quick it must be here – yes, yes. Here it is. What an idiot not to read it first.
In plain sight Harriet sees the words.
“For those requiring wheelchair access please use the ramp entrance off Tower Rd and take the 2nd lift to level 8.”
The relief! Harriet spins her wheelchair around and races towards Tower St almost crying with relief. All the time and research put into her presentation hasn’t been in vain. She’s going to make it!
Coming out of the theatre with other presenters after a very successful event, Harriet makes her way along Tower St again and down towards The Quay where cafes and restaurants border the beach. It’s hot and a refreshing drink before her train would be just the ticket. Her wheelchair bounces over the repairs in the paving as she makes her way down to the sea.
Restaurant Olive? Ben’s Fish and Chips? Martha’s Bakery and Cafe? No, Seaside Cafe! The outdoor wrought iron tables with cactus in a pot as decoration beckon. So much easier being outside!
Harriet pulls her wheelchair up to the table furthest away from the cafe door. Less hustle and bustle and bumping of her wheelchair she’s found. A dark haired waiter with “Wayne” on his name-tag cheerfully takes her order- a nice Chardonnay to celebrate success of her presentation – and the fact she actually got there in time!
Sitting back and looking around Harriet smells not just the saltiness of the sea air but also the fish and chip smell emulating from Ben’s Fish and Chips three doors away. Mmmm- Harriet wiggles her nose- perhaps she’ll have some.
Children’s giggles and shrieks of excitement fill the air as they rush ahead of their mothers, ladened down with the buckets and spades, towards the sand. Picnic baskets and beach chairs follow closely behind carried by distracted dads often talking on cellphones.
A sudden squeal of brakes cuts the air! A driver hasn’t seen a little girl with her pigtails bobbing rushing ahead onto the road. A collective sigh of relief is heard as people who gasped and held their breadth released their tension, as the father sweeps up the little girl, dropping his cellphone in the process. A shaken driver emerges from his stopped vehicle and rushes over to the family, full of apologies, though it wasn’t his fault.
But Harriet is stunned! Images flash before her eyes. The crash! Her crash! No, her and Paul’s crash! It’s still raw. And real, even if these images get less and less, are still a part of her every day.
Harriet closes her eyes and remembers.
Paul. Good sound and strong Paul. Gone! Just like that. It wasn’t even speed – just a tired old man who woke up it seems just seconds before the impact. Paul didn’t have a chance. The impact didn’t kill him. I was driving. And the impact was on the driver’s side. No – the impact rolled the car into the large drain full of mud and water from the worst storm we’d had in years. He drowned as I couldn’t get my door open and the crash had hemmed him in.
Eventually they came. Sirens, firemen, ambulances. The noise, the cold and the pain.
I woke to the bright lights after they had removed my mangled leg and set my arm in plaster. Paul. Paul. It took days to really accept what had happened. The old man had died at the scene. Perhaps it had been a heart attack after all as his widow insisted.
I didn’t get to Paul’s funeral – it took me months to heal and get back on my feet so to speak. But of course that should be “foot” shouldn’t it.
Paul is a wonderful memory that stays with me everyday. I relied on his memory to get through the weeks and through the rehabilitation. But here I am – over a year later and about to get my “new” leg. Perhaps I’ll take up competitive running or swimming like those paraolympians – but then I was never sporty.
No, I’m making my name as an advocate for the disabled. It’s a new world and I’m not just coping, but really living in it, enjoying it. A new challenge.
Paul is a constant reminder that anything is possible. After all Paul, despite his lack of sight, had just returned from his latest conquest of yet another mountain. I had just picked him up after his latest conquest when we crashed.
I pick up my memories and make my way towards my train.
Mark wandered around Times Square. Lost in thought, he dodged the relentless press of tourists and hawkers. He bumped into a Street Elmo posing for a selfie with some out-of-town schmuck who didn’t realize he was about to be shaken down for $5 or more.
Two months. Two lousy months, and what do I have to show for it? Not a goddamn thing.
Mark had come to the city from Winchester, Virginia, hoping to land a job as a photographer with one of the newspapers. He’d often been complimented on the artistry and composition of his images. But there was no money to be made in art. He needed a paying gig. Even freelancers couldn’t seem to get anything into print here.
He’d given himself sixty days to make this work, or else he would have to go back home and try something else. There hadn’t even been a response to his countless applications. But on Tuesday of this final week, he received a callback from Sam Poulson at the New York Post.
Sam told him, “Look, you’ve got a real good eye. You can take a pretty picture, but you haven’t shown me anything with impact. We only print pictures that are gonna punch our readers in the gut. You’ve got promise, but you either get me something good by 5:00 Friday, or don’t bother contacting me again.”
Since then, he’d been all over the city looking for a dramatic photo opportunity. An accident, a purse snatching, a fire—anything would have been great. The city was too quiet this week. He saw nothing exciting. Nothing. He’d taken more artsy shots, but that would not get him in the Post.
It was now 4:30 on Friday afternoon.
Shit. That’s it. I give up.
He left Times Square, walked west, and headed for his rented room in Hell’s Kitchen. Turning down an alleyway, he stared dejectedly at his feet. He cursed his rotten luck. Then he berated himself and the audacity of his dream.
Who am I kidding? I don’t have what it takes.
He sighed in despair and rolled his eyes to the sky.
Something caught his attention. A woman stood on a balcony five floors up. She moved in an unusual way. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but it instinctively felt wrong. It triggered an emotional reaction in him.
He raised his camera and zoomed in on her. Tears were streaming down her face, and she was sobbing. When she wasn’t burying her head in her hands, she stared out into space and didn’t appear to notice him or anything else around her.
Mark moved closer. He snapped a few photos of her face.
Man, I thought I was in bad shape! This lady is completely despondent.
She gradually stopped crying a few minutes later. She took a deep breath. Then she stepped up onto a rickety chair near the edge of the balcony.
Holy shit! This is it!
His photographer’s instincts took over. Wide shot, get the whole balcony. Portrait orientation, get her standing on the chair. Extreme close-up of her face. Move closer; get a good angle so she’s not backlit.
He glanced at his watch.
Oh God, it’s 4:50! Time’s almost up!
He moved a little closer. She still didn’t see him. There was no one else around.
Just you and me, lady. Please, just give me something, anything!
He took a few more close-ups of her face. She seemed to have transitioned from despair to resignation. Her cheeks and jaw went slack. Her shoulders slumped and her arms hung at her side.
Mark watched with fascination. This was real human drama at its best.
Okay, one or two more shots, then I’ve got to upload by best one.
4:53. There was no time to look for a Starbucks or another place with Wi-Fi. He removed his mobile phone from his front pocket and activated the wireless hotspot. He took out a cable and connected his camera to his phone.
He quickly reviewed the photos he’d taken. He narrowed down the choices to three photos. They were pretty good—certainly passing muster for human interest, but still nothing that was going to win him a Pulitzer Prize.
He glanced around quickly.
If only there was someone around who’d try to rescue her or talk her down. Now, that would really make for a great story and photo!
Back to his camera. He winnowed his choices down to two images. He spent a few seconds cropping them and adjusting the lighting balance.
Is it gonna be the close-up of her crying? Or will it be her standing on the chair and staring into space? Yeah, it’s got to be the one on the chair.
4:58. Gotta upload now or never.
He opened his email app, created a new email document, and typed in Sam Poulson’s address. He was about to attach the photo from his camera, when he suddenly heard a clatter from the balcony.
The woman had stepped from the chair onto the balcony’s railing, and the chair had fallen over. She teetered on the railing, put her hand against the wall to steady herself, and regained her balance.
Mark instantly raised his camera and fired off a few more photos.
The look on the woman’s face had changed from resignation to determination. She held her chin higher now. She closed her eyes.
Mark glanced back to his camera’s LCD screen. He scrolled to one of the last photos he’d taken.
It’s 4:59. The composition sucks, but it’s dramatic. This one will have to do.
He attached the photo to his email.
Before he could push “send,” he glanced up one final time. The woman had lifted one of her feet above the railing and was preparing to step forward.
Mark raised his camera.
Then he heard himself shout, “Lady, wait! Don’t do it!”
Fate Plays a Hand
Standing at the window, straightening his tie, he wondered if the interview was a mistake. The fiddler might be of meager means but there was freedom playing on the street corner for tips; the fluid bliss of artistic expression.
If he took this day job would it tether his spirit?
Jacob did make it clear that he had gone out on a limb to get Anton this opportunity and if there was one thing his brother in law excelled at, it was the assignment of guilt. “Have you no ambition?” he would ask.
Why Jacob even stayed in contact once the marriage had slipped away wasn’t clear.
As Anton made his way along the slippery, cobbled streets he tried to imagine himself as an instructor of violin at the Academy. It might not be so bad, and he could always play for pleasure in the square on the weekends.
Can you be an artist and a teacher he wondered. He was content. He had no creditors after all, and the government healthcare offered a certain security. His cat, Jonah, certainly gave no indication of disappointment regrading their life style.
This cat, that came from nowhere and helped fill the void that Sylvie left. The fact that cats are not domesticated, but stay by choice, led him to believe that he must still show some promise as a provider.
And yet, there was cardboard lining his shoes and mostly cereal in his cupboard.
Being a street performer did not exactly attract women who desired a long term relationship. Had this ship sailed for him? Me missed Sylvie. She was funny and warm and he loved her smile.
He’d been in an orchestra then and life was full of potential. Anton was not sure why Sylvie had left him for that other guy, so shiney and slick.
Missed the boat. Missed the boat. Maybe if the orchestra had not lost its backing…
Checking himself again in the shop front windows he thought, “I’d hire that guy, yes, he still looks respectable,” but his confidence was wavering with each step closer to the university. It is so much easier to just stay where you are.
Wasn’t his suit a little out of fashion? Wouldn’t they be looking for a younger man or someone more shiney and slick? A philosophical battle was being waged between the artist and the man.
How does a person come to grips with what they are; who they should be? And what concessions they are willing to make? How does one know they’re doing the right thing, making the right decisions?
Must one suffer to be righteous?
Anton had no time to react as his feet lost their grip on the stones and, before he knew it, this day-dreaming philosopher found himself face first on the hard reality of the wet, muddy street in front of the University.
“Well, that’s it, the sign I needed,” he thought, “They wouldn’t have given me the job anyhow, and I’d have sacrificed my pure principals. I prefer my freedom. That’s right. I am my own man!”
Then he heard someone laughing. He glimpsed the familiar clarinet case first and looked up to see Sylvie smiling, warmly, down at him.
Sylvie chuckled “Don’t you look all shiney and slick in that suit?” And his spirit was un-tethered as she giggled “Here, take my hand.”
Alec relaxes at a table along a pedestrian mall. Cafes line one side and souvenir shops the other. The Acropolis sits on its perch as a vibrant reminder of the ancient Gods watching over the residents of Athens.
His thoughts running wild with tales and images of the Greek statues he had just seen in the Museum. As usually happens, it has only been fifteen minutes and the information and facts he learned from Athena, his groups guide was becoming fuzzy. He easily remembered the broad brushstrokes she spoke of about the Greek gods, and how it is possible to tell which time period a statue is from by looking to see it is smiling or looking more serious. But the real details, all the little tidbits he found so interesting were already slipping from his mind like the sands of time that have passed over the 2,500 years since ancient Greece ruled the civilized world.
It was oppressively hot even in the shade of the café’s umbrella. His attention turned to his untouched lemonade. Droplets of water had formed on the glass making it look all the more refreshing. He took a long sip holding the drink in his mouth before swallowing.
Alec became aware of his surroundings, scanning the tourists and people walking the street, pausing to look at the souvenirs, trinkets, hats and t-shirts in the stores across the way. He focused and smiled at a young boy, maybe 3 years old laughing and running randomly around chasing pigeons. As the boy got close the pigeons would fly away. The little boy would laugh louder with delight.
Couples strolled slowly holding hands, some folks walked along unaware of the shops and tourist commotion appearing to have traveled these streets many times before. Then there were the cute older couples with almost childlike amazement taking in every sight and sound. Alec imagined they had put off travel like so many while they built their families, bought houses, worked and did all the things adults do, promising themselves someday we’ll travel and see the world. He was happy they had made it unlike so many people who put off travel until it is too late. One of them, usually the husband, dies. Or they physically don’t have the ability to travel, or even worse, they financially are barely getting by and travel is the farthest thing from their thoughts.
These thoughts reinforce to Alec why he decided to take three weeks for his first cruise – a cruise of a lifetime. He needed to get away from work and the boring routine of daily life. He figured rather than waiting until the time was right, or he met the right girl, or someday, he would take control and make someday today. He was excited at the prospect of three weeks cruising from Athens to India. He felt proud, almost superior that he hadn’t gone to the typical places young single professionals go like the Caribbean, Hawaii or Italy. He felt it made a statement getting away to places most travelers typically don’t go, Israel, Egypt, Oman and India. He liked the idea that he could claim these destinations like a badge of honor when reliving the adventures with his friends.
Just then Alec realized he was being watched by a woman two tables over. She seemed lost in thought, but intensely focused on him at the same time. As he Looked her way an awareness crossed her face that she had been caught daydreaming in his direction. She shyly smiled as their eyes held each others for a long moment. The connection was just long enough to begin to feel uncomfortable, then they both broke away and simultaneously looked down at their drinks. Each taking a sip while sneaking a glance in the others direction.
Their eyes and thoughts reconnected. It was clear to him that she was as interested in him as he was in her. He found her very attractive wanting to know more. Was she single? Where was she from? Was she a local, or tourist.
Before he could speak to introduce himself, Angelo the waiter appeared at the table blocking his view asking if Alec would like anything else. Realizing his free time was running short and needing to get back to the tour bus, he asked for the check. Checks were so formal for a tourist sidewalk café. Angelo just said the lemonade would be three Euros. Alec felt impatient wanting Angelo to move. Reaching in his pocket he produced a few folded Euro notes, pulled a five Euro note and handed it to the waiter. Angelo smiled and said “Thank you”.
As he stepped away, Alec’s excitement quickly turned to disappointment seeing the woman was gone. He scanned the street trying to find her. She and her bright blue sun dress were nowhere to be found.
Saddened, Alec rose from his chair and began the short walk back to the main street where the group was to meet the bus for the ride back to the Ship. Bus number 22 was the forth one in the long line of tour buses lined up and waiting. Alec said “Hi” to the guide Athena who was waiting at the door dutifully counting guests as they entered the bus. He climbed the steep steps up and onto the bus. The cool air from the buses air conditioner was a reward for rejoining the bus.
Making his way toward a seat in the back of the bus his heart jumped into his throat seeing the young woman from the café on the bus. Looking at her, he asked if the seat next to her was taken? She smiled and said, “It is now”. He sat introducing himself. She said her name was Denise. They both smiled as the bus pulled into traffic. Alec thought to himself, this is going to be the best cruise ever.
My name is Ahmed. I live close to the Nile the village of Asmer. The village is bounded by several stagnant canals. The village reaps the benefits of the twenty-first century; but its attitudes are rooted in the seventeenth century.
Once I was respected in my village. I was the guardian of the public order. I followed in the footsteps of my father and grandfather. To enforce the village’s rules, I had a rifle that had probably not been fired in fifty years. Last year, I also had a Yemini dagger, but it had been lost or stolen.
I grew up with Mostafa. He is the mayor of the village. As long as I can remember, he has hated me. Whenever we competed, I would win with ease. We loved the same woman and she chose me. When she died, Mostafa told my neighbours that I should have done more to save her.
Mostafa was responsible for bribing certain officials that brought electricity and running water to the village. He could do whatever he wanted in the village. His hubris or alghatrasa grew each day as he bullied and threatened the villagers.
After my wife’s death, my daughter, Lateefah, was my only source of joy. My son, Zizo, was a problem. Lateefah was popular and respected by my village. Zizo was lazy and sadly a liar. He knew that he would never be respected like his sister.
One day, my children walked to a neighbouring village to visit friends. When they had not returned after dark, I began to worry.
The next day, my daughter’s body was found floating in a most foul canal. She had been stabbed in the heart. The necklace my wife gave her was gone. Zizo was missing. When the word my daughter’s murder spread through he village, Mostafa said my son had killed his sister because he was jealous of her popularity and standing in the village.
As time passed, I , too, began to wonder if Zizo might have killed her. Mostafa convinced the village that I should lose my job because I had not done enough to find Zizo. My daughter had been dead for two years when Zizo walked back into the village. When the villagers saw him, they beat him and dragged him to the village square.
Zizo yelled, “I want to see my father.”
When I came to the village centre, I felt range and relief when I saw Zizo.
Mostafa joined the mob in tormenting Zizo, calling him a sister murderer.
Even though he was bloodied and swollen, he cried out, “Father, I did not murder Lateefah, Mostafa killed her.
Mostafa screamed, “You are a filthy liar.”
I yelled at them and said, “Let Zizo speak.”
“Father, that horrible day by the canal, we saw Mostafa. As he came toward us, he said to Lateefa, you are so sweet and should marry me. She laughed and walked away. He screamed you alkaliba, you slut. In a rage, he grabbed her from behind and stabbed her in the chest with the Yemeni knife. When she fell to the ground, he ripped mother’s necklace from her neck and said I shall keep this as a remembrance. Then he kicked her into the canal. He looked at me and said if I ever told anyone about this, he would kill you and me.”
Mostafa yelled again, “Zizo, you are a liar and worthless like your father.”
“Father, I was terrified, I didn’t want you killed. As time passed, I realised two things – I was wrong to leave, and Mostafa should pay for his horrible crime.”
Mostafa looked at all of us and laughed. From a pant’s pocket, he pulled out my daughter’s necklace.
“Yes, I killed her! I killed her because I am Mostafa and I can do anything. All of you would be nothing without me.”
I was falling apart. I picked up a rock and ran toward Mostafa. With the rock, I smashed his skull until it was a bloody pulp.
“Martha, where’s my damn wallet? You always take it and I have no money left!” “David, it is on the dresser where you left it this morning. Besides, what are you going to do with it? You have not left the couch in two weeks.”
Martha knew that was the wrong response, but she sometimes just ran out of patience.
David and Martha celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary last month. They have always bee truly happy as a couple. Everything seemed to go their way. They raised a wonderful family and now the joy of grandkids.
The anniversary celebration had been particularly hard on Martha. So many friends came to the church. Some they had not seen for years. So many of his friends expected to connect with David on some level, but in most cases, it was as if their friendship had no history at all. As difficult as it was for David, it was much harder for his friends.
Just then the phone rang.
“Hi Mom! I just got the kids off to school and thought I would check on you. How’s Dad?”
“Oh, about the same. Nothing seems to change. We visited the doctor yesterday. She said the disease is progressing but there is not much to do right now.
“I am sure you are taking good care of him. How are you holding up?”
“Mom, Mark and I would love for you and David to move closer to us. We have talked about this off and on, but I thought we might keep the discussion going. This Sunday we talked with some friends about an assisted living apartment. Their parents are there. You might like it.”
“Jennifer, we have so many friends here. I don’t want to leave my doctor. I know where everything is.”
“Mom, I know, I know, but you can’t even get out to see your friends. I just worry about you.”
“Mom are you still there?”
“Yes, just give me a minute.”
“Mom, I don’t want to make you cry. I love you.”
“I know, I know. We will talk about this later.”
“I promise, bye honey. I love you.”
Martha hung up the phone, poured a glass of tea and considered the next step of her day.
“David, are you hungry? Are you ready for lunch?”
There was no answer from the den. She would be glad to prepare what ever sounded good to him, but she knew that he just did not have the capacity to think that through. Martha set the table and walked to the den to invite David to the table.
David sat stoic and silent as he considered the sandwich and apple pie. He went for the pie first. Martha thought that maybe she should have served the pie after the sandwich, but what does it really matter? At this point in his life, pie is what makes him happy and that is good and comforting to Martha.
After she cleared the table from lunch, Martha found David napping on the couch. It was such a small thing, but the few hours of solitude in the afternoon meant the world to her. It wasn’t that she had something to accomplish; just that she had a space where she could choose what she wanted to do.
After straightening a closet, a task she had on her list for a month, she noticed the time. “I guess it is time to pull some supper together” she said to herself. Meals seemed to run together anymore. Set the table, cook, clean the kitchen. It was just like the shampoo bottle, rinse and repeat. Heck, her whole life was just like that. Just a few years ago they were talking of plans to travel and new places to explore.
She had the news on the radio as she prepared supper. David called to her from the den. She went to see what he wanted, and he seemed to look though her instead of at her. He said, “You’re not Martha!” She really did not know how to respond but just said, “Well, I’ve been Martha for a long time” and just left for the kitchen.
The meal was routine and silent. Oh, how she longed for some conversation.
After supper she retired to the den. She grabbed an Afghan form the chair and said, “move over you big galoot and make some room”. She pulled the blanket over both of them, wove her fingers into his big hand and they dozed to the drone of the television.
After a while she nudged him awake and for a moment, he thought he might have come home next to his love, Martha. She said, let’s go to bed. He smiled for the first time that day. She flicked off the television with the remote and they shuffled to the bedroom for the relief of a night’s sleep.