Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A short story without a home

I was writing earlier and didn't know quite what to do with this gloomy specimen, but as it's pretty short and also more or less a true story (to the extent that I ever remember anything correctly) I decided it may as well darken my blog...


I once met a man with a hole in his head. We all have holes in our heads, of course, to let air in and feelings out, but this was an actual hole in his actual skull - in the ordinary run of things it shouldn't have been there.

He told me that he'd come for a meeting. I told him that he was a month early.

"But I've come all the way from Norwich!" he said, as if expecting that this would somehow collapse time.

It didn't; time was lamentably robust at that reception desk. By way of consolation I offered him a cup of tea to refresh him before he retraced his mistake.

On his return from the toilet the tea was ready; I passed him a mug, and perhaps assuming some kind of exchange was necessary, he gave me his life story. I politely tried to give it back, but he was insistent - I suppose when you've come all the way from Norwich you want to do something more than drink tea.

Happily, I forget the exact events of it now - it wasn't a terribly happy story. All I can remember today is that it included an accident and a year of painful, lonely treatments and recuperation in a specialist ward at Addenbrooke's Hospital, in Cambridge; a year that left him still not quite right, but much healthier and with a hole in his head. He pointed it out to me, or I'd have never known it was there - it wasn't even big enough to be shocking. But it was still hard not to show revulsion - the state of his scalp was terrible: great flakes of rice-papery dandruff... you could almost smell the hair just by looking at it. Maybe when you have a hole in your head, though, washing your hair is far more trouble than it's worth?

Finishing his story - the tea was long gone - he got up, sighed, and returned to Norwich. I took the mug, washed it up, and returned to my book. I was 23, and wished I didn't identify quite so strongly with the central character, a middle-aged man who is slowly coming to the realisation that he is an unwilling stranger in his own life, too tired to even wholly despair, barely even able to feel, drearily trapped inside his own head - something must have happened to cause it, he thinks, but he has no idea what. It's like a part of him is missing.

It's a good book, though, Something Happened - once you get used to the repetition. And I'm quite OK these days.

A few days later it snowed., overnight and unexpectedly. No buses ran; I could have stayed home; but I set out for work anyway, on foot. Mile upon mile of gleaming white, almost wholly untouched; the world transformed, shining, deserted - a clean slate in negative? I wasn't even sure of the way to go - but how could I not?

UPDATE: Well, with the benefit of a day's distance and some helpful comments, it's finally back to the original ending, I think - many thanks for the free editing :) I might even leave the damn thing alone now.

Oh, and if you highlight the apparently blank space above, the alternative ending's still there.


Tim Footman said...

I thought you were going to find the hole-in-the-head man, dead in the snow, with a bloody great icicle in his skull.

But I think it's better your way.

Bel said...

Nice. By which I mean it's a neat story. Sad. Funny.

'like a part of him is missing', 'like he has a hole in his head'

I see what you mean about ending at the snow line. If it stopped there, I'd read the snow more as the existential wasteland through which he is compelled to trudge...

(I guess how you experience snow is all down to your weltanschauung - or your wellies)

But then, I suppose you need to make it clear that he has to return to work, (doesn't he?), to see if there are any more strange/interesting human cameos popping in that day...

Think I'll give 'Something Happened' a miss though - a bit too close to home. :)

Occasional Poster of Comments said...

Tim: Thanks. You know, if I'd been as engrossed in The Yiddish Policemen's Union - murder etc. in Alaska - as I am now when I wrote that, it could well have ended that way...

Bel: Thanks, too :) Really useful comments. Good to know the story works, and that you saw the 'missing part' thing. And I really liked your interpretation of the ending... but, well, I kind of had something different in mind, so it's changed again, slightly.

You see, the snow that morning is still one of the most beautiful things I've seen - it wasn't so much getting to work as the pleasure of exploring this alternate and suddenly new world, one that I seemed to have entirely to myself, since it was so early and the snow so new and unexpected.

On the other hand maybe that memory doesn't serve the story quite as well; but hopefully, there's a touch more of that in there now; while still remaining slightly vague...

beyceyar said...

I like it. I guess if you have a hole in your head, it's not nice to be out when it snows. Or rains.

And there's this:

Taiga the Fox said...

A great story, again. I think I liked the fifth paragraph most. "I passed him a mug, and perhaps assuming some kind of exchange was necessary, he gave me his life story." Perfect :)

Also, I liked the first ending maybe bit better. It kind of left the whole story a bit more open... but anyway, a good story and a pleaseure to read.

(Oh, yep, we had the first snow here yesterday :)

Occasional Poster of Comments said...

Beyceyar: Thanks for that :) I love this bit at the end of the article:

"He is described as white, about 5ft 9in, of very slim build with blue eyes and short brown hair. He was last seen wearing pale blue jeans, a white T-shirt and green top." Unless he's acquired a hat, that's probably pretty redundant.

Thanks, Taiga :) Yep, I'm leaning towards the original ending again today too...

It seemed slightly abrupt when I wrote it, but what's there now, after a day of leaving the thing alone, seems slightly too much - and if anything cuts it short even more, in a way.

Anonymous said...

I tend to agree with Taiga the Fox. I quite liked the first ending.

One Fine Weasel said...

Wonderful. I love the 'abrupt' ending, it works for me. Thanks for sharing!