Short Story Prize
"Mantra" by Terence Young
For the next two weeks, we're rolling out the ten shortlisted entries for the CBC Short Story Prize. In today's story, an old sound recording soothes a young couple in a dark period.
Be sure to come back to Canada Writes on March 19, when we'll be opening the "people's choice" poll for you to vote for your favourite shortlisted story while we wait for the judges' verdict.
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin — Keats
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin — Keats
Gillian and I lie on the floor together, eyes closed, and listen. Nightingales call from the laptop’s tinny speakers into the pre-dawn quiet of her bedroom. Over the last few weeks, their song has become familiar to us, so crazy happy, even though neither of us has ever actually seen one. I’ve turned off all the lights and opened the window to let the air roll in over the sill, warm now that it’s May and full of the smells of flowers from the park down the block and the beach below it. Wild rose, cherry, and something else. . . lilac? magnolia? It bothers me that I can’t tell, but this is no hour to obsess about the names of flowers. Gillian gets up to lower the blind against the street and dim the computer screen to nothing, so that in the darkness and with the blossoms’ scent filling the room, it’s almost easy to imagine we’re in a back garden in Oxted in the spring of 1942, retro radio technicians all around us holding microphones over their heads to catch birdsong for BBC listeners in their blacked-out homes. Except Londoners didn’t get a chance to hear these birds, not that night.
My ear’s not good enough to tell if there’s one nightingale talking to himself or a hundred, but a real birder could, Gillian’s cousin, for sure, with all those CDs of songsters in her car for the ride to work, teaching herself to whistle a response. Some smart music grad’s going to sample all these bird sounds some day and burn himself a novelty album, and there’ll be a Christmas song on it that will make him rich. I’d do it, but like I say, my ear’s bad, tone deaf.
The nightingales keep singing while something else intrudes—we both know it’s coming—another sound, a drone, super faint at first but getting louder. In another minute, it drowns out the birds—squadrons of R.A.F. Lancasters passing over Surrey on their way to bomb the city of Mannheim in Germany. Even through the computer’s small sound system, I can feel the weight of these machines in the sky above me, the payload of bombs they’re carrying, the fear gripping the crew members flying them, some younger than me, younger even than Gillian, no idea if they’re coming home again. On the flipside of the original 78 RPM, the same microphones catch the planes again when they return, and anyone who listens to both sides can tell their numbers are thinner now, the roar of their Rolls-Royce engines not as loud as it was on the way out. We always listen to both. Nobody at the time heard any of this because a sound engineer who worried about giving away flight details to the enemy cancelled the broadcast. But the microphones stayed on long enough for someone back at BBC headquarters to cut a gramophone record of the night’s sounds, which is what Gillian and I are listening to now and have already listened to a dozen times before, not the actual record but an MP3 we found online. Maybe the engineer loved the two sounds so much, how different they were, one so beautiful and the other so frightening, that he just couldn’t bear to let them go.
Gillian knows all the details, so do I. She loves them the way she loves a good story. We both wish we could have been there, stupid as it sounds to say. When the recording ends, we pull ourselves up onto all fours and pad as quietly as we can over to the open window. I’m not supposed to be here this late, now that Gillian’s illness has got worse, but it’s hard to stay away when I know she wants me with her and I want to be with her, too. She raises the blind and we lean our heads out into the night. No doomed aircraft, no sleeping England, no channel pillboxes. Just a noisy transformer on a power pole humming in the early morning and, until someone finally shuts it off, a car alarm that keeps repeating its annoying trills and beeps as though someone’s making fun of our long-dead nightingales.
“My grandmother was just a kid then,” Gillian says.
“Your grandmother was two.”
“That’s what I said, a kid.”
“A baby is more like.”
“Still, she was there.”
“Yorkshire is further north.”
“You know what I mean.”
I do know what she means, but I think it’s good for Gillian to have somebody contradict her once in a while. People are so careful around her these days. They think she’s fragile, but they’re wrong. She’s stronger than all of them.
“It’s different,” she says.
“It certainly is.”
“From a history book, I mean,” she says. “I wouldn’t listen to it if it were part of a course. I just wouldn’t.”
“It’s like hearing the past,” I say.
“Kneeling at a keyhole and eavesdropping.”
Gillian has said this before. She has even used the identical words, “keyhole” and “eavesdropping.” They’re a mantra for her, something to relieve her stress, so I play along with her, repeating what I have said before, too. She’s as bad as a child who wants to hear the same book over and over again. My parents used to do something like it when they’d just weathered one of their storms. There’d be a breather in whatever battle they’d been fighting, a few days when they’d be on their best behaviour, scared of what they might have done, and my father would lay a fire in the living room or cook up something special for dinner.
“You gotta love a fire,” he’d say.
Or, “Is there anything better than butter and cream and white wine?”
And my mother would fall right into role, lighting candles or turning on the jazz station, keeping it light, upbeat, friendly, reverting to a happier time when they didn’t have to pretend.
Gillian’s not trying to keep things pleasant so much as she wants to leave what’s unpleasant behind. It’s her favourite thing to do, thinking about the past, especially the war, what it was like to live through it. I like it, too, but mostly because she does. I like everything about Gillian.
“They’re all dead now, even the ones who came back alive.”
“There are still veterans left from the war,” I say.
“Chances are, though.”
“Yeah, chances are.”
And even if those radio technicians are now dead, and all the pilots and bombardiers and navigators and tail gunners who lived to marry and have children are also dead, the idea is still a comfort to Gillian. Survival appeals to her. I know it does. I can hear it in her voice. I can see it in her face in the silver light of the streetlamp, how the thought relaxes her, the idea of passing through something bad and continuing on to a ripe old age with kids and grandkids. It appeals to me, and I’m not even sick.
A lunatic jogger passes by the house without looking up, somebody bent on surviving, too, even if it means running in the dark at 3:30 AM. We watch him lope out of sight around the corner, his footfalls receding in the distance, like the sound of those bombers on their way to the continent.
What will happen is that Gillian’s mother will find me here in the morning on the floor beside her daughter’s childhood bed, her daughter who is twenty-three years old and should be living in an apartment with me, finishing her undergraduate years in socio-linguistics. What will happen is she will offer me breakfast, and I will beg off, telling her I’m sorry, I can’t stay away, that I don’t want to be any trouble. The late shift at the restaurant always makes it hard for me to sleep, and I just came by to see if she was up and she was. What will happen is that Gillian will get a little more tired each day or she won’t. Her doctor will keep upping the dosage of hydromorphone or she won’t. Gillian and I will see spring turn to summer, turn to fall, turn to winter and back to spring again or we won’t.
White hawthorn, that’s it. Such a powerful smell, sick and sweet at the same time. Almost repulsive. It’s hard to believe I could forget its name. Seems no point at night, not a bee around, everything asleep. Gillian should be, too, but she’ll want to listen to the nightingales one more time before sunrise. I know she will. Those birds, those planes. Why not?
Terence Young is the author of five books: The Island in Winter, Rhymes With Useless, After Goodlake’s, Moving Day, and The End of the Ice Age. He is also the co-founder of The Claremont Review, a literary journal for young writers. In 2008, Terence was awarded the Prime Minister's Award for Teaching Excellence. He has been married to poet Patricia Young for the past thirty-seven years and has been a grandfather for one.