We had a great time reading the responses to our summer short story competition, and after much consideration, we are delighted to present the winning entry.
THE DAY THAT
by Henry Hallan
A woman sat at the window of a train, looking out at the sunlit countryside as it marched past. She was in her forties, dressed in a business suit, the first hints of grey in her hair banished with red dye. Perhaps people who saw her might assume she would be married, but she was not wearing a wedding ring.
Buzybee13 felt a rising sense of anticipation as the sunlit countryside marched past the window of the train. She leaned further back into her seat, and looked at the messages on her phone. She felt a tingle of excitement as she thought of the new life that awaited at the end of her journey.
She had told Michael that she was going away on business again, and he had accepted her plans with no more than the usual amount of bad grace. He was resigned to his house-husband role, it seemed. She had packed wildly — holiday things, naughty things — but also carefully, knowing she might not be back any time soon.
She looked at the last message, begging her to meet him at the museum. She had already booked a nearby hotel, a room for two, champagne. She knew what she wanted from the man whose words had captured her heart.
She was sitting on the upper floor, in the sunshine streaming through the cupola, surrounded by the subdued beauty of the museum. The light was bright enough to wear sunglasses indoors, and the warmth of it was like a lover’s arms. Among the dresses of ladies who had lived hundreds of years ago the sound was deadened by the fabric, but even out in the atrium that huge space was as quiet as a library. As each visitor came in, she looked down and searched their faces for her Whitenight23.
She smiled a thin smile. The photograph she had chosen for her online avatar was taken a few years ago and she understood the desire to present an image that was attractive. Of course he had done the same thing. But she hoped that she was recognisable from the photograph.
Then she recognised him. The first thing she saw was the top of his head, the ponytail drawing thin cords of greying hair across the shiny scalp. He walked with a slight stoop, but she could see him looking around. She stepped back from the rail before he could see her. She wanted to get to know him with her eyes before he recognised her.
She slipped down from the balcony, avoiding the atrium, and she caught up with him as he wandered from room to room. While he was looking at the exhibits, she stalked him. She imagined she was in her own reality TV show, imagined the film crew following her. She remembered the stories he had told her, the romance that made her sigh, the fantasies that made her heart race. But as she watched this thin, greying man look at the weapons in their glass cases, she wondered that such thoughts could come from such an ordinary body.
From the display of Japanese swords and armour he moved on to a room full of statues of soldiers and horses. She saw his hands touch the glass and turn the brochure in his fingers. His nails were bitten and she saw the blue ink of tattoos on his knuckles. Could those rough, un-cared-for hands really have written the words that had meant so much to her?
He was staring at her: she had got too close and he was trying to peek behind her sunglasses.
“Excuse me?” he tried again. “Are you Buzybee Thirteen?”
“What?” she asked. “What kind of name is that?”
She saw the disappointment on his face.
“I’m sorry to have troubled you,” he mumbled, and he turned away.
The morning sunshine had matured into golden haze as she got back off the train. She drove the car home quickly, distracted by her thoughts. In some part of her mind, she realised, she was still imagining the television crew, the presenters asking her how she really felt. Well, she didn’t know: but she certainly wasn’t going to offer them tears.
The children’s toys were still on the lawn, shaggy and weed-infested. The gutter was still crooked. He hadn’t taken the bins out, even though she had reminded him last night and again this morning.
She let herself back in, and she found him in the living room, watching some kind of television programme, where families argued about things and strong men in cheap suits were ready to step in and stop the inevitable violence. She stood there silently, looking at the words rolling across the bottom of the screen: “…husband learns cheating wife had online lover…”
“Michael?” she said.
He turned off the sound and got to his feet.
“What happened to your trip?” he asked.
“Oh, they cancelled it at the last moment. Bloody inconvenient.”
“Poor darling,” he said. He took her in his arms, as he always did when she was stressed.
She held him, tightly.