But Not to Call Me Back or Say Goodbye by Sarah Fulton
2020 CBC Short Story Prize shortlist
Sarah Fulton has made the 2020 CBC Short Story Prize shortlist for But Not to Call Me Back or Say Goodbye.
She will receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and her story is published below.
The winner will be announced on April 22, 2020. They will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.
You can read But Not to Call Me Back or Say Goodbye below.
Warning: This story contains strong language.
Gladys — doesn't the name tell you everything you need to know? — was of a certain age. That age was 79. She was old enough to recall the Second World War, including the Blitz. She was three when Hitler invaded Poland and eight when the news came over the wireless that he'd shot himself in a bunker. "About bloody time," she remembered her father saying, more disgusted than pleased.
In 1957, Gladys boarded the Saxonia in Southhampton to sail to Canada. She was 21. She stood at the railing, waving down to her parents and her sister, Joss, on the pier, the tears blown back at her eyes by the wind. They seemed so small, and she was struck by the certain knowledge that she would never see them again, and longed to stop the ship as it pulled her out to sea. But this turned out not to be true: eight years later, bundled up in a wool coat and lined boots, and with baby Jane swaddled, immobile, in tiers of soft fabric, Gladys took the bus to Union Station. Her parents, heavier, more stodgy, were waiting on the platform, her mother sucking sweets, her father in a suit with his hands clasped behind his back, bouncing on the balls of his feet. They liked the large brick house on Brunswick Avenue, detached with a porch on the front and a mudroom on the side. And they liked Charlie: Canadian, but redeemed by having spent one of the summers of his youth in Derbyshire with an aunt.
They would have been, then, over 15 years younger than she was now. And so, if 60 was the new 50 and 70 the new 60 and so on, as she had heard said, it was no comfort to her at all. She remembered her parents in their 60s, and they were old.
For Gladys, it seemed the older she got, the less she needed to sleep. Instead of the body winding down with the exhaustion of use, it was as if a pre-measured allotment of sleep had been recklessly spent, and the remainder needed careful rationing. Although it was true that she sometimes nodded off in front of the TV after supper, it was never for long, yet she woke earlier and earlier, often wide-eyed in bed at three or four in the morning, her thoughts like darting swallows.
For one thing, she was preoccupied by a troubling sensation that she was disappearing. Not dramatically, like a magician's assistant, but gradually, like a bar of soap. For instance, one afternoon she had been overlooked by a clerk in The Bay. On the way out, Gladys observed herself before a mirror in Ladies' Sleepwear. She saw some rounding at the shoulders, and took note of soft soles and Velcro tabbing in her footwear. But her hair was an appealing shade of deep brown (salon-dyed), her clothes new and in a classic style and her gaze, she thought, very lively indeed.
For one thing, she was preoccupied by a troubling sensation that she was disappearing.
She had begun to feel invisible in other ways, too. For instance, with her children, Lawrence and Jane. For years they'd conversed on flat ground, but now Sadie was always asking about the dates of Gladys' appointments, as if by tracking them herself she could prevent her mother from keeping a terminal diagnosis secret and slinking away to the woods like a cat to die alone. And for his part, Lawrence had developed the odd habit of calling Gladys his "little lady." Since they were now both close to 50 themselves, the spectre of old age was looming and she thought they were projecting their panic onto her. Certainly it had gotten worse since they lost Charlie, although he'd had a good death, if there could be such a thing — peaceful, inevitable, gently sought at the end.
After Charlie died, Gladys had found her days were empty, and the great challenge of her grief had been to fill them again. With some surprise she realized she was a woman of means. Her share of Charlie's pension, and her own from years working as the assistant to the headmistress of a private girls' school, amounted to a tidy and reliable sum. The rest, their savings, dividends from a few very lucky investments, this golden egg they had sat on like frightened geese: what had they been keeping it for? For the children, who were both professionals, married to professionals, and who— if they weren't already — would surely find themselves gripped by that glowing word, millionaire, when they one day split the profits of Gladys' Toronto house?
Wealth sat uneasily with her. She remembered, as a girl, running with Joss into the road after the coal truck passed, scooping the scattered black lumps into their upheld skirts, and laughing all the way back at the daringness of showing their bare legs. When the accountant showed her a figure representing her net worth, Gladys' cheeks burned with shame. She saw her mother waiting behind the open door with the coal scuttle.
For some time Gladys consumed at a dizzying pace, unsure in herself whether she was trying to gain ease with her money or to dispense of it. She bought new furniture, new clothes, a car she never drove. Then, on the suggestion of a friend, she began to take cruises: sailing along the Mediterranean, down to South America, through the tropics, even to Alaska. On board she attended lectures and took classes, learning the history of the Mayans, the ecology of the polar ice caps, how to salsa and scrapbook. She went with friends, brought books she had been intending to read for years, purchased a camera with an instruction manual as thick as a novel. But she finally admitted to herself that as a tourist she felt a desperate emptiness. It seemed to her she stepped in and out of the midst of other people's lives as if she was shopping for a backdrop to her own, and she could not forgive herself this impoliteness.
There followed a period of inertia. Gladys sat on her money, tried to ignore it, thought about giving it all away. But unless she was spending she moved through the city without anyone making eye contact with her. Even the kindly gestures — a hand reaching back to hold a door open, the determined stride that adjusted to allow her passage — seemed to be done in a perfunctory way, void of the anonymous human love that drives the best of manners.
One October night as she lay in bed, contemplating exactly how she had disappeared, and wondering whether she might make herself seen again without committing some embarrassing, extravagant act, it began to snow. She saw a great white flake fall through the light of the street lamp outside her window. Then there was a pause, as if decisions were being made, and the snow began to fall in earnest.
It was 3:45 and she had no hope of getting back to sleep in any case. Her boots and winter coat were stowed away, but Gladys stepped into her garden wellies and pulled on a heavy jacket. It was fairly mild anyway, with no wind. This snow was either a lost tourist or an early scout. Gladys walked the streets of her neighbourhood, passing her own house twice with the intention of going inside, then further out, along smaller streets she had barely even noticed. In the emptiness and lamplit night, she uncovered a distinction: she was anonymous but no longer invisible. How can you be invisible if there are no eyes? She alone had had the sense to seize the city. She walked for a couple of hours, not stopping until she passed a storefront where a man with puffy eyes pushed open the door and cursed the snow with an unfamiliar but unmistakable profanity. Her bubble burst, Gladys suddenly felt very tired and returned home.
In the emptiness and lamplit night, she uncovered a distinction: she was anonymous but no longer invisible.
In the weeks that followed, however, she began to make a habit of these nocturnal outings. She would not have tried to explain it to her friends or her children. In fact, she knew what she must look like, an old lady walking alone in the middle of the night: demented, definitely, and most assuredly on the steep decline out of this world. She drifted toward the shadows when cars passed, and sometimes crossed the road if she saw someone coming. She enjoyed a feeling that her walks were somehow subversive, so she also knew that sooner or later someone would try to stop her, most likely the police or her children. They would claim to be concerned only for her safety, but she was careful. She read the papers.
She only doubted herself once. Shortly before Christmas, out at 3 or 4 in the morning, she turned down a laneway as a shortcut home. A lone street lamp partway down the lane flickered out as she walked under it. At the same time, a group of four or five boys with baggy jackets and their hoods pulled up appeared at the opposite end. They had the gait of the beltless. Gladys felt her heart beat. She had nowhere to go, except to duck into one of the back yards of the houses off the lane. But she would feel silly, and there could be a dog in any of these back yards, and even if there wasn't, how would she explain being there? She decided it was better to keep walking. But as they neared each other, Gladys noticed one of the boys was swinging something —a stick or a club, and their laughter sounded caustic to her ears. The boy with the club lifted it over his friend's head in mock threat. They didn't notice Gladys until she was very close; then suddenly the noise abated. The swaggers faltered momentarily. There were a few whispers and then some more laughter, this time exaggerated and false.
"Fuckin' old lady," said the biggest one.
The boy with the club — it turned out to be a bicycle pump — let it fall to his side. She glanced under his hood as they passed each other, recognizing the face of her 15-year-old grandson, and saw surprise flicker mutely in his eyes.
It was Christmas morning when she saw him next, and Gladys saw right away that he was worried she would say something. She was worried that he already had. But by dinnertime the opportunity had come and gone so many times, they each knew they were safe. He would have been surprised to know that the incident had made Gladys feel especially linked to him, as if they occupied two faces of the same coin: 79 and 15. And the more she thought about it, the more sense it made to her. Who, after all, could understand being invisible better than a 15-year-old boy?
She cajoled him out for a walk with her after dinner. There was snow all around but just a touch of it in the air. Her grandson was about eight inches taller than her and wore a lumber jacket instead of a coat, his hands pushed so far into the front pockets of his jeans that his elbows were straight as two rods. He walked with his chin tucked down to keep the cold air off his neck, and puffs of breath came billowing from under his face like steam from an iron.
There were plenty of other people out, and many of them outwardly festive and friendly, groaning with turkey. Some were intrigued by the combination Gladys and her grandson presented, and smiled at them as if one was out walking the other.
Suddenly, there was a siren. Not fading, getting louder, closer. An ambulance turned onto the street where they were walking and pulled into the driveway of a brick house. A few neighbours joined Gladys and her grandson on the sidewalk as paramedics hurried in, returning a few minutes later with a man strapped to a gurney. A woman followed them into the back of the ambulance, her boots untied and flapping open, pulling on a coat, her face a mess of smudged makeup and worry, her hair tugged from a chignon at a violent angle. The doors closed and the ambulance sped off. When it was gone, a man who had been standing next to Gladys walked up the driveway and closed a screen door that had been left propped open. Those watching recognized this as the cue signalling their last chance to disperse with dignity, and did so.
Gladys and her grandson began walking back to his house. The previously pleasant darkness had been pulled inside-out like a sleeve and Gladys chewed over some distant memories. For the first time, she wished her grandson would ask about her childhood. Soon enough there would not be many people left who had lived through that time, and she hoped to God she wouldn't become its de facto spokesperson by hanging on long enough to be the last. She'd been a child, and what was the world's crisis had been only her everyday. Having survived this long gave her a sort of ownership over it, but it was a dubious tenure.
Anyway, her grandson's generation had its own impending catastrophe to deal with, and she wasn't sure how hers stacked up against it. He might not think it was so strange to live in a prolonged state of peril and uncertainty. Perhaps calamities oughtn't be compared; she had heard some very grim predictions. If it came to that, at least the end would be indiscriminate, presumably. Nobody chosen, for good or ill. Nobody — or everybody — invisible beneath the unflinching gaze of the stars.
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Sarah Fulton works as a freelance editor and sometimes writer from her house, which sits in the
farmland of north Oshawa, Ont., which she shares with her husband, two kids and too many animals to mention. Prior to moving to Oshawa, she was a high school English teacher in Simcoe County. Her work has been published in Room of One's Own, The Fiddlehead, Poetry WLU, the Toronto Star and has been heard on CBC Radio's The Sunday Edition.
The winner of the 2020 CBC Short Story Prize will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Four finalists will each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books.