This is the first (rough) draft of a new short story (~1100 words). The idea for this story came to me as I was listening to some guitar music. The ending is a bit weaker than I was hoping for, but I hope you’ll enjoy it.

After gaining the top marks in my Mechanical Engineering degree it was hardly what I’d planned: six months later to be unofficially working in a small café two hours-a-day as a guitarist. I had tried employment at a few of the local engineering companies, but the state was dying, gradually crawling into its own shallow grave. Employment wasn’t in the toilet, it was already past the s-bend and halfway down the drain. Jealously I read the Facebook updates of the other graduates I knew; most had already secured jobs interstate. Depressingly, that included mediocre students who spent considerably more time studying empty pint glasses than lecture notes.

‘Just move’ they encouraged me as though it were my decision to stay; as though dropping everything and starting anew elsewhere was as easy as changing a shirt. Maybe it was for some, but not for everyone.

It had been two years since my father had died, taken twenty years before his number should have been called. One day he had taken the short drive to the local shops for his daily newspaper and had never returned. Mum had stayed home that day, but it was as though she had left shortly after: more than Dad’s car had been wrecked that day. I haven’t decided about whether there is an afterlife, but it was as though Mum’s soul went searching for Dad’s for a long time, leaving the hollow shell of her body behind.

After the first year Mum began to show signs of recovery. With painstaking slowness her life began to return to normal. ‘A new normal’ she called it, ‘for things would never be normal again’. Where the grief had crushed her, she had slowly begun to fill again a brief smile as welcome as a rainbow. Like an empty balloon she had slowly begun to inflate. In time she said there would be joy, but for now it was enough that there were days without constant sadness.

And so as an only child, it rested on me to look after Mum. I couldn’t think of leaving her alone, and she wouldn’t leave the state where Dad was buried. And so we were at an impasse where my responsibility trumped opportunity. I was too highly educated for most jobs and all the interviews I had were full of positive feedback but noticeably absent job offers. And so I found myself scraping together whatever income I could find while I looked for something better, hope gradually diminishing.

It could be worse at least I enjoy playing I thought to myself as I pulled my acoustic guitar out of its case and began arranging my musical cheat sheets at my feet. Dad had taught me to play when I was a teenager, and so playing the guitar helped me to feel close to him. I wondered if he listened to me play from beyond, critiquing or simply tapping his foot. Playing the guitar had been a hobby or a way to woo the girls, but now it provided the extra cash I needed badly. I was a pretty good guitarist but a long way from professional, and I never sung in public: people have been stoned for less. I started my first set plucking out the older favourites of Eric Clapton.

It seemed like a pretty poor choice, starting out with a sad tuned song, but I wasn’t quite in the mood for upbeat yet. I played from muscle memory, my fingers flowing through the motion of the melody as I allowed the music to wash over me. ‘You have to feel the music’ Dad would always say. ‘It isn’t a set of instructions to be mindlessly followed, but a thing of beauty to be experienced and embraced.’

As I approached the last chords of the song I inwardly squirmed at the expected applause. Most people in the café were too busy talking, eating or feverishly interacting on their smart phones to notice the music was anything more than a sound track. The smaller the applause the more chance that the café owner would decide that I was an extraneous overhead. From the audiences perspective my presence was incidental, from my perspective this job was vital, balancing both my finances and my sanity.

The first song finished and there was a smattering of clapping, most was almost incidental, except for a loud clap from across the room. I looked up to see who had shown appreciation for my efforts. He was an elderly gentleman dressed in a brown suit that looked a little baggy on his thin frame. He may have had a strong chin in his youth but the blowtorch of time had melted and multiplied it, each chin a little lower than the last. He clapped loudly after my next song and I rewarded him with a thumbs up in gratitude. He clapped after each and every song.

“What’s his story?” I asked Rosa the waitress while on my break between sets, motioning to the gentleman in brown.

“Oh that’s Tom… or Ted or could have been Tim.” Rosa replied and then continued. “I don’t remember their names very well: he’s double-shot cappuccino. He’s been coming in every day for years, always in at 8am, always that table. You could set your watch by him. He gets the one cappuccino and sits there sipping it until 10am and then leaves. Nice guy, very friendly but quiet.”

My second set passed much the same as the first, largely ignored except for my new friend who clapped me enthusiastically after each song. If I hadn’t had a job interview after the set I would have gone over and said a thank you to him. It’s amazing the difference that a clap can do for a performer’s frame of mind: it made me enjoy playing knowing that someone was appreciating it.

Over the next few months my new friend was there every day as Rosa had said. He was my main supporter and his predictable presence always brought a smile to my face. I kept meaning to go over and thank him or maybe buy him another coffee, but I never got around to it and always thought I’d do it the following day.

And then one day he wasn’t there. I thought he might have been sick or something, but each day his absence grew. I asked Rosa about him, and she didn’t know either. Every day I went in I hoped to see him, but never did. I couldn’t help feeling regret that I never made the effort to go over and thank him. He always made the small gesture of thanks in his clap. A small thing, incidental to an observer, but to me it had meant a lot. If I had my time again I would have thanked him. He gave me applause but his example also taught me that gratitude could go a long way in another person’s life: he had taught me the importance of clapping for others.


Good Reading

I’m currently reading a couple of books, and enjoying them both for completely different reasons.

The Archivist’s Story

First there is the older The Archivist’s Story by Travis Holland.

It is a slow-moving story, but deep, emotional and rich in content, language and character. The story follows Pavel Ivanovich an ex-lecturer in literature who under Stalin’s socialism is forced into service at the KGB headquarters. As a lover of fine literature he detests his job which consists of cataloging and then destroying literature deemed dangerous to the State.

You can sense the tension in the book as Pavel suppresses his own thoughts, because they put him at odds with the socialism. Though the danger is immense, you feel his integrity is starting to reassert itself against the lies that he must continually repeat to stay safe in socialist Russia.

Pavel’s relatively young mother (early 50’s) also has ailing health, which Pavel is struggling to deal with. The following excerpt is where they are in the waiting room of a neurologist in an attempt to diagnose his mother’s ‘black outs’.

“In the waiting room a little boy weakly flails away on his mother’s lap, paddling the air with his hands, as if struggling to wake from some dream of falling. The boy’s eyes, beautifully blue, follow Pavel as he passes; the frank despair in them chills his heart. Is this what awaits him and his mother? Private miseries played out in public, as in the pages of a novel. Like that old woman who couldn’t remember her own daughter. Only these people aren’t characters conjured from the imagination, their stories do not end when the reader closes the book and shuts off the lamp. He is unable to prevent himself from imagining a morning years from now when his mother will no longer remember him, when she will turn to him and ask, Do I know you?

And Pavel will tell her, I am your son. (page 60)

Excellently written and highly poignant. Though I haven’t had to go through the experience of seeing a parent in such circumstances, I can imagine how difficult it must be. It is something that I have certainly thought about before, which led me to write two short stories The Captive and the follow-up Alone.

Pavel is also grieving the loss of his wife who died in a train de-railment (while he remained at home). Though he misses her terribly there is also a hint of attraction for him toward his younger neighbour.

“I sometimes wonder ,” says Pavel, surprising himself, “whether it would be better if I just put her pictures away.”

Natalya glances at him, and Pavel sees at once the question in her eyes. What is he telling her? That it is so painful to go on looking at Elena’s pictures day after day, knowing he will never see her again? That would be the simple answer, the expected answer. How then to reconcile this with the sense of uneasiness that has grown up in him since his wife’s death? Uneasiness, because Elena has slipped, ever so gradually, into abstraction. She has become these pictures. A handful of memories. Worse, she has become the imagined last moments of her life, which Pavel will never likely be able to let go. (page 101)

Though I failed to bookmark any particular quotes the description of depression, both on the economy and on people’s psyche is also excellent. It describes people going through the motions of survival; lacking joy or optimism.

The Alloy of Law

The other completely different book is Brandon Sanderson’s The Alloy of Law. As one of the author’s in the Writing Excuses podcasts I thought it was about time I read some of his work. Sadly, my local library seems entirely lacking with this being the only Sanderson book they had.

It is a light-hearted adventure/crime fantasy. It’s not the first in the series, so I did feel a little under-prepared in respect to an understanding of the magic systems, but I still found it enjoyable. I noted several things about the book, worthy of a mention:

Sanderson does a good job of designing a plot where the pieces fit together well at the end. I’m talking specifically about the final fight scene where they defeat the almost-invincible enemy. I wasn’t sure how they were going to do it, so I was impressed with the resolution.

I like the way he does dialog. There is an incredible amount of dialog in the book. In my writing, I don’t think I have as much dialog, and rely more heavily on the characters doing something, rather than what they are saying. (Which I’m not sure if it’s just different or not as good). Also I noticed that his dialog is often flourished with movement, which I think works really well. For example, this is all of the dialog on page 176 (italics added):

“Well?” she asked.

“Two Tripwires,” Waxillium said, “rigged with explosives. Nothing else dangerous we could find. Other than Wayne’s body odor.”

“That’s the smell of incredibleness,” Wayne called from inside.

“Come on,” Waxillium said, holding the door open for her.

She stepped in, then hesitated in the doorway. “It’s empty.”

“Sleeping quarters up there,” Waxillium said, pointing at the other side of the foundry. “The main chamber here is double height for half the building, but the other side has a second story. Looked like they could house some fifty men in there, men who could act like foundry workers during the day to maintain the front.”

“Aha!” Wayne said from the darkness on the left side of the chamber.

“How easily did that open?” Waxillium asked, trotting over.

From this I take two pointers – not to be used always, but frequently:

  • Where is the character when they say the dialog?
  • What is the character doing when they say the dialog?

As can be seen from the example above, the story is well-peppered with comedy. The two main characters play off each other in a very humorous way. There’s a joke or smart comment every few pages at least. The character Wayne is funny too – he’s something of a kleptomaniac who doesn’t steal, but trades without consent. For example he might take someone’s gun, but leave in its place a picture that he drew.