Whittaker Prize 2008: Round 1 entry

Sunday, 10 August 2008

A brief word about the Whittaker Prize. This is a competition run by the excellent writers’ website The Write Idea. Over a period of eighteen weeks, entrants have to submit a short story (or a poem but I’m not doing the poetry section) to a strict deadline. One story a fortnight. A selection of prompts is offered at the start of each round.

Augury (Prompt: Elephants and hens)

The hens weren’t laying lately.

Looking after the poultry was what she enjoyed most about living with Mother in the remote cottage on the fen. That was what got her out of bed early, even before dark on a morning as bleak as this one had been, with a stiff wind all the way from far-off Russia rattling windows crusted with frost inside and out. Perhaps the wind had passed over the old country, the land Mother told stories about. She remembered nothing of the War. She had no clear memories of the old country, although she could conjure up an image of a craggy face, full of blackened, twisted teeth and framed by a black shawl, scrutinising her and shaking from side to side. Life, she knew from Mother’s tales, was hard in the old country, and even harder after the tanks came trampling like a herd of elephants across the fields. Here in England there were fresh eggs to look forward to at breakfast.

Except that, lately, the hens weren’t laying. Perhaps a fox was upsetting them, but she hadn’t seen foxes on the fen. A bird, then. She’d seen birds of prey out there. Marsh hawks, Mother called them. Mother had taken her out to the cabin by the mere, and she’d watched through binoculars the pair of marsh hawks gliding low over the reeds. A flash of tawny wings uplifted into a proud vee, and a cruel, hooked beak, just like the heraldic eagle on an old flag.

She hoped the hens weren’t trying to warn her of disaster. The Romans, she knew, took such omens very seriously. Was it Cicero who told the story of Claudius Pulcher, Claudius the Handsome, who ignored the sacred chickens that failed to lay, and then lost an important sea-battle? No, that wasn’t quite right. The chickens wouldn’t feed, that was it, and Claudius threw them into the sea. Ut biberent, esse nollent. If they won’t eat, let them drink. Exemplary use of the subjunctive, which is just what you expected of Cicero. She liked her Latin. The nuns insisted that she was destined for Cambridge and she would need her Latin for the entrance examinations, but she enjoyed it for its own sake. She delighted on peeling away the language like the skin of a blood orange, revealing the stories within. Although she was proud of Mother being a distinguished biologist specialising in the ecology of the fenlands, and she loved to watch her at work with the dissecting knives, whose delicate edges could take your finger off without you noticing, she had no thought of following Mother into that field. A classical historian was what she would be. A Latin scholar. She decided that a long time ago. Perhaps she was really a Roman, a throwback from ancient times. That might explain her nose, as chunky and barbed as the beaks of the marsh hawks and out of proportion to her otherwise fine features. She’d shrugged off a lot of teasing about a lot of things but her nose wouldn’t go away and the other girls made her suffer for it. Often she dreamed of whittling it away with one of Mother’s knives into something more reasonable in scale and form. Then again, perhaps she should just be proud of being a Roman. Although she didn’t think she really believed in bad omens.

Tonight’s lecture passed without disaster. When she heard that Professor Fleischer was coming from Hildesheim to give a lecture on the Carthaginian Wars at the University, she had badgered and pleaded with Mother to let her attend. Mother had been firm in her refusal, until only that very morning when she had relented and agreed to take her along. Mother didn’t explain the sudden change of mind. With Mother, sometimes you just had to accept what was. Maybe it had something to do with the telephone call. She had woken into a night as dead as treacle, and only slowly did she realise that the jangling of the school bell in her dream had morphed into the telephone ringing in Mother’s study. Footsteps padded across the landing and down the stairs. She had strained to hear what was happening, but Mother’s voice was muffled and anyway she was talking in the forbidden language.

Once, that was the only language she knew, but now Mother wouldn’t allow it. When she started school she knew no English and was tormented for it. But she was bright, a quick learner, and before long she had a firmer grasp of English than the other girls did; was racing past them. Funny that there were only ever girls. It was only in the last year that she started thinking that there might be something a bit rum about there were never being men or boys around. Sometimes she would join the girls after school, talking to the boys from the Grammar School, but it was never very long before Mother swept alongside in the Morris van to pick her up. Mother never said anything and her tight lips told her that boys weren’t approved of and were not to be discussed. Men seldom visited them in the fen. Sometimes women came round, and then they and Mother would shut themselves in the sitting room; laughing over strange music on the gramophone, smoking and drinking from the the bottles of colourless liquid that lived on the top shelf of the kitchen dresser. She’d tasted it once and she’d choked and coughed as it burned her throat. Not like the sweet warmth of the sherry she’d been handed as she entered Professor Fleischer’s reception.

She was fine in the lecture theatre. She thrilled with surprise when she realised that she knew at least as much about the subject as anybody else in the theatre did, and she’d even put her hand up to ask a question. The faces of the academics turned to he with smiles and curiosity as she breathed in, swallowed away the lump in her throat, and asked her question about the war elephants that accompanied Hannibal’s march on Rome in the Second Punic War. That was her favourite amongst the Latin stories she’d learned. Perhaps what she loved about it was the upstart, the underdog, taking the fight to all-conquering Rome and winning. But it was the elephants that engaged her most of all. The mighty armed creatures must have seemed terrifying and unstoppable as they bore down on the Roman legions. Just like the tanks in Mother’s stories. That’s what her question was about: war elephants and tanks. The professor seemed perplexed, as if he’d been bowled one of Jim Laker’s slow googlies, but recovered to give a detailed and thought-provoking.

At the reception afterwards Professor Fleischer came over to congratulate her on sucha good question. The confidence that had supported her in the lecture theatre abandoned her. The ripples in her sherry glass betrayed her unease and her eyes flickered around the room in search of somewhere to hide her flushed face, but the professor had a gift for making his students feel they had something of significance to contribute, and he charmed her into an easy conversation about her interests and his experience. He knew exactly what she meant about the elephants, he told her, because he had been a member of a Panzer crew in the War, but maybe he realised he’d said more than he ought, because he changed the subject to her interest in classics and before she could steer the conversation back to his war exploits Mother had sidled up and started to engage the Professor for herself. There was nothing left for her but to watch as Mother drew him into a strange kind of dance; she advancing into his territory, he retreating before her advance. It was, she thought, as if Mother were pushing him, slowly but inevitable, towards the corner by the drinks table.

Without the Professor for company she felt chilled and alone, surrounded by a sea of grown-ups, fizzing and bubbling in tight knots of conversation that were closed against her. Like cities under siege, she thought, but she had no desire to conquer, for welcome and reassurance. Her eyes were stinging and watery, and she began to worry at the raw place on her nose where she had burst a spot earlier. They were repelled by her nose, she decided. The burst spot must be shining out like a beacon, drawing attention to it.

That’s why she had to withdraw to the safe territory of the toilet. Just to sit and think, on her own.

Somebody opened the door and she jumped. It made a louder bang and squeak than such a small door ought to. She had been about to return to the reception, but with somebody else in here she felt palpitations of fear, like a mouse cowering in the shrubbery when a cat’s about. She heard heels clattering across the tiles. The door of the next cubicle whined open and clanged shut. She held her breath, waiting. Water rushed; the door whined open again. More water gushed from the tap in the basin. The heels clattered once more across the tiles. She breathed out again as she heard the door squeak open again, and the heels trip away down the corridor. Odd, she thought. They were tripping away from the reception. Perhaps people were leaving now. Through the opened door she sensed a change in the muffled drone of chat. Something anxious, something that made goose pimples erupt on her skin. She wanted to go home now. It was time to look for Mother.

In the reception room a crowd had gravitated around the corner by the drinks table. She pushed forward to see what was happening. The little crowd parted easily. There, on the floor, Professor Fleischer sat. He wasn’t holding court, addressing the crowd. His head was bowed, his face the colour of freshly-milled flour to match the jacket of his suit. The cloth of his trousers was slit, as neatly as if by a dissecting knife, and he seemed to have a pile of ripe blackberries in his lap.

She looked around for Mother, but she couldn’t see her. And then she looked once more at the Professor. It was odd that she hadn’t noticed earlier. She’d been enthralled by him, that must be why, so taken in by his easy charm and absorbed in his words that she’d failed to spot was was now very obvious. His nose: it was as chunky, and barbed, and hooked, as the beak of a marsh hawk. Or an imperial eagle.

Perhaps the hens had been telling her something after all.

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