Saturday, 22 December 2012

Four Hundred and Forty Miles

It's been an awfully busy year for me, in terms of off-of-blog writing projects, college work, and university applications. Regrettably, this has affected my blog output. Whilst I'm definitely not closing the blog, I feel as though I've done a disservice to all you lovely people who come back daily to see if there are any more blog posts. And so, as a Christmas gift to all of you and as a slight apology for my lack of activity recently, over the next three days I'm going to be posting a short story a day, which saves me writing Christmas cards to everyone around the world who has supported me this year. As a little team up, my fabulous girlfriend Abi has provided a yummy graphic for each of the stories, to help promote her blog, which you can find a link to below.

The first one is Four Hundred and Forty Miles, a quite personal story which a few weeks ago won me a Runner Up prize for the Richard Compton Creative Writing Award. I know that 'Runner Up' sounds a bit second-rate, but I got a big piece of glass with my name on it and a nice round figure of dough, so I'm more than happy with it. I hope you enjoy.

Image Courtesy of Abi Jones -
It’s a simple story, one you can tell with a few objects. A guidebook in a foreign language, the old smell of a military cap, a faded Polaroid with bent edges and a bier stein gathering dust on the window sill. It’s not a really sad story, nobody dies, but things have a start and an end, they open and close, like flowers. We’ll start with the guidebook.

They must have been white at first, but they’re all yellow now, and held together with frayed strings. Even the words seem old – they might have popped once, they may have sounded fresh. Now he speaks them like a language nobody speaks anymore, with awkward intonations and accents. You see, Father’s Father was a traveller. He pointed at the pictures in the book, of the Big Ben and the Buckingham Palace and the dirty river that seemed to shine under the lens. He told stories in the language the guidebook used, stories that gathered the children around the feet of his chair, stories that made my Father gather his bread one day and leave, to try and go and find the places those pictures were taken, to find somewhere that didn’t speak in an old language and merely make books about the outside world. He wanted to breathe it in.

Four hundred miles and lots of bread later, he arrived in that outside world. They didn’t wear bowler hats and drink tea like his Father had said, though. They hurried everywhere; they bought big newspapers and looked at the pavement everywhere they went. My Father needed money if he was going to survive, so he got a job. They gave him a cap – green, with a badge, and I bet it looked real fancy when he got it, but not now – now it smells old and musty. They paid him to go around the world, to fight people and see things, to do what he was told and when people asked him why he had to say ‘For the Queen!’. Then he wanted to get better at the job, and it seemed that to do that he had to change. He had to talk differently; he had to learn which way to pass the port around the dinner table - he stood in front of the mirror with a picture of Lord Kitchener, cutting his moustache with a pair of scissors to make it look just right.

Then, just as he was getting tired of going to all the places they sent him, they sent him all the way back to where he started. He knocked on my Father’s Father’s door and said ‘Hello!’ and they all looked at his clothes and his moustache, and they flinched when he spoke. He got out the guidebook – he pointed at the pictures of the Big Ben and the Buckingham Palace and the dirty river that shone under the lens, and he compared stories with his Father and they all became friends again. Then he talked about leaving, and they wanted him to stay. A light-bulb popped up over his head and he smiled. He told them to go live with him in the outside world, and they shook their heads and looked at each other. But he must have been good at talking then, my Father. Because within a year, they were able to sit back in a garden, to wear new clothes and to pose for a photograph – a faded Polaroid with bent edges, a picture of my family in a new place, in new clothes, all looking very smart and happy and together.

My Dad quit his job, and got one that didn’t need so much travelling. He met a girl and they fell in love and she met his family and laughed at how strange they all were, and they settled down and ate meals together and talked about the world. Then, one day in Summer she was sent screaming to the hospital, and she had a baby and that baby was me. I grew up in a world where people hurried everywhere, where people bought big newspapers and always looked at the pavement. I grew up in a family with new clothes and new voices, but I had my guidebook to read, the cap to smell, the picture to look at. I had memories that weren’t mine to form; I had a whole history to write that I hadn’t lived through.

My Dad talks a lot. He talks about politics and work and money and the news. But he doesn’t talk about what happened. He doesn’t talk about the bier stein. It sits up there, gathering dust, old words carved into it. It was made for drinking beer, but I don’t think anyone did – how would I know if nobody talks about it? 
It tells me about things I weren’t around to see – it tells me how my Father changed himself and that it made him feel happier, that it made him fit in. He can’t talk about it because it reminds him of what he felt before, and that makes him feel sad. He didn’t tell me all this, but I felt it flowing in him. I felt it in the stories, in the way his Kitchener moustache bristled against my forehead when he kissed me to bed at night, in the way he talks about his brothers and sisters.

A teacher once told me that a picture can say a thousand words. That may be true, but for me, a beer stein says more.


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