I’m a voracious reader but, until recently, I never read short stories. There was something about them that seemed slight – lacking the breadth of a novel or the depth of a poem. Then a couple of years ago the novelist Christopher Wakling suggested that I read Alice Munro, and I realised the best short stories had breadth and depth. Since then I’ve been giving myself a crash course in the greats – Mavis Gallant, Grace Paley, John Cheever, David Foster Wallace, Richard Yates, Lydia Davis, Lorrie Moore, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Gogol, Chekhov, De Maupassant, Saki, Scott Fitzgerald, Anais Nin, Mansfield, Poe and MR James, not to mention new writers in the form such as Clare Wigfall and Sarah Hall (I read Sarah’s wonderful book ‘The Beautiful Indifference’ last week).
I’ve also been dabbling tentatively in the form myself, so for National Short Story Day – June 20th, the shortest night of the year – I thought I’d post a small, unpublished story. It’s inspired by the two years I spent at the University of Essex for the RLF – in spring I’d always get off the train at Wivenhoe and walk to university through the bluebell wood. I also wrote it after a week immersed in Somerset Maugham’s colonial tales, where the narrator is so often a new man in town – a stranger who, over drinks, induces a confession from one of the locals.
The Ballad of Tom Allan
I was travelling. I am always travelling. This time I was in Wivenhoe, a town on the River Colne that had once been a centre of shipbuilding. In my room in the bed and breakfast, I washed my hands and slapped my face with handfuls of cold water and put on a clean shirt and trousers. Then I went out for a stroll in the early evening light. There were high, blonde, shushing grasses by the water, and a couple of small, tethered boats that thudded against each-other. There were pastel houses – pale, skin pink and a bone colour. I imagined how the place must have been three centuries before, when they were building cargo vessels and fishing smacks: fishermen coming in with baskets of sprats and oysters and workers spilling out of the ropery towards the taverns.
When I’d completed my stroll I went to a pub to get some dinner. It was April, but it was a muggy night. The barman was flush-faced. ‘Needs to break, doesn’t it?’ he asked. I nodded and ordered a pint of Adnams and a steak and kidney pie. I was given a number on a stand, for my order. There were no seats free, so I asked a man reading a paper if I could sit at his table. He nodded assent.
The man was about fifty. He had thinning brown hair and grey patches in his beard. He was wearing a finely checked shirt. It was only after I’d begun to drink my pint that I realised he wasn’t reading the paper at all, he was staring. He seemed agitated. And then he looked up at me: ‘You’re not a local are you? New in town?’ He tried a smile, but it sat awkwardly on his face. His upper lip shone with sweat.
‘Just passing through,’ I said.
‘I thought you were. I thought I would have known you if you were a local. It’s a beautiful place, don’t you think?’
‘Yes,’ I said. I didn’t want to talk particularly, but it seemed he did. I considered moving, but there was something very nervous about him. I didn’t want a scene.
‘Hoe means ridge,’ he said. ‘Wifa is just a proper name. Wifa’s ridge.’
‘I’ve lived here twenty years,’ he said. ‘Twenty years! I had such dreams as a young man. I was into folk music. Fairport Convention, Pentangle. Carrying my guitar around. I was once on a bill with Richard Thompson. I was going to be a musician! And then Sian, my wife, my ex-wife, Sian got pregnant and I started teaching. Teaching at the university – those big concrete towers you can see from outside? Those. And you settle. You settle for playing at the pub now and then on your guitar, and your children having dreams instead of you. And now they’ve all gone. Kids to uni. Sian.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said.
‘Would you like a drink?’
‘No I’m alright, honestly,’ I said. ‘I’ve only just got this.’ But he put down his paper and went to the bar and came back with a pint for himself and a half for me.
‘Top you up,’ he said. ‘I’m Tom Allan.’
‘Nice to meet you, Tom,’ I told him, ‘Thanks.’
‘You like folk?’
‘Music? I don’t know much.’ But he broke into song:
‘O western wind, when wilt thou blow, that small rain down may rain? Christ that my love were in my arms and I in bed again.’
‘You’re good,’ I said.
‘An expert,’ he said. ‘An academic expert. They’re the greatest English poetry, you know. The – the soul of this land. But it takes all the soul out of them doesn’t it? Analysing them. Cutting them up. It’s a violence.’
‘It’s not in the paper yet,’ he said. ‘It’s too soon. I thought it might be, but it’s too soon. Did you hear the sirens though? Did you hear the sirens this afternoon?’
‘No,’ I said.
‘It’s all taped off now,’ Tom said.
Tom Allen told me that, two hours before, he had walked home from the university along the estuary, as he always did. Halfway back, he had realised that the bluebells would be out and had decided to take a cut through the woods to see them. The woods were on the other side of the railway track. Inside them the light was cool and mottled; an old tree creaked like a door opening. There was no one around. Feeling alone, he’d begun to sing a ballad that he’d been giving a lecture on that day: ‘How came that blood on thy coat-lap? O dear love tell me. It is the blood of my gay goshawk, that flew so fair and free. It doth look too red for thy gay goshawk, that flew so fair and free.’ It was for two voices, really. He had sung it with Sian once, in the back-room of a pub near Whitby. He came to a clearing where bluebells had pooled. The colour of their heavy, droopy heads was astonishing, a searing violet-blue against the greeny green. The bluebells had a kind of dark light to them; an anti-light. And then he saw a crow, pecking at something. Tom stepped over a fallen tree and moved towards the crow. Oddly, it did not flap its big wings and fly off; it was concentrating.
The crow was pecking at the guts of a girl.
When Tom saw her, he began to tremble all over. She had soft blonde hair and a beautiful face. Green eyes like eyes made of glass. Blood had trickled from her mouth, over her jaw and down her cheeks like tears. Her breasts were exposed and as pale as sunlight – and below them the mazy guts, already shuddering with flies. Tom Allen stood looking at her for a long time, until his hand stopped trembling and he realised that he was smiling.
It was wrong. Wrong. He punished himself. He phoned the police and told them to come straight away. They said he had to stay, of course, until they arrived. He was a witness. And it was probably a student, so the university would need informing. ‘Okay,’ he said into the phone. ‘Of course….Terrible, terrible.’ But still he was grinning away, grinning to himself, because it was so beautiful. The dead girl lying amidst the bluebells was so beautiful. She was a poem. It felt, Tom Allen told me, as though life had finally given him something: a wonderful gift.
In the pub he drained his pint. He laughed, and then his face turned to mine. His eyes were pink and very tired and I could see my face in them. ‘Well?’ he demanded. ‘Well? What does that make me?’
Outside the rain started.