This Weeks Post comes from competition winner Mohamed Asem.
Mohamed does a wonderful job of capturing a distinct mood in his writing. His characters are complicated yet relatable, which fits well with his knack for writing intelligent and interesting dialogue.
“I couldn’t sleep last night,” said John as he stared out the window. Grey buildings, tall and wide, stood in the path of his gaze, their facades pockmarked by dark windows. He looked up at the sliver of sky, blistered and craggy, wedged between the monolithic concrete structures.
“Such a beautiful house,” said Barbara, commenting on a picture in her magazine. “Dull colour for walls, though.”
They lay naked with their legs interwoven on the sheets of a single sized bed. The bedroom was narrow; from the ceiling hung a bulb that created a small orb of light in the ashen room.
“A sentence in the book I’m reading grabbed me and wouldn’t let go,” said John.
“Funny how the sun always shines in suburban neighbourhoods.” Barbara ran her fingers over the picture of a family having a barbecue party in their garden. “I’d love to live in a house with a spacious garden and a quiet street where children can play safely. Maybe one day…”
“A woman in the story dumps a guy because he has sex “like an intellectual”. What does that mean?” said John over the sound of a car horn. “What does Kundera mean by that? To be an intellectual… means being connected with big ideas; ideas that make up art and science. It means existing on a level that’s beyond… here.” He stretched his neck to look at the traffic on the street below. “If only I could hold at least one of these concepts, just so I can understand… But they’re all so slippery.”
The bed squeaked as Barbara reached down and pulled up a shoe, sky blue with a white sole. Leaning back on his chest, she twisted her legs free from his, dressed her right foot with the shoe and held it up.
John turned his head. Her shoe was at eye-level, its tip touching the island of light suspended in mid-air. He squinted at the colour, a vivid blue, that came alive in the bulb’s glow.
“Funny how it looks exactly like the ones Lindsay has on in this picture. I just bought them,” said Barbara. “Careless girl, that Lindsay. Had it all; now she’s got nothing. No man, no house, and no garden. Maybe not even those blue shoes.” She lowered her foot and turned to a new page in her magazine. “I’m going to wear them when Derek and I go out.”
“My son. We’re going for a walk in the park.”
“All the parks in this city are miserable.”
“At least we’re going out.” Barbara looked over her shoulder. “Christmas is in a few days. Got any plans?”
“I’m having a party at my place. Some friends will be joining. You can come, too. If you’d like.”
John nodded. He then placed his hand on her back and gently rolled Barbara on her side so he could slide away. Off the bed, he picked up his shirt and shabby suit from the floor and got dressed.
“I’m going home,” said John.
“I’ll see you at work tomorrow,” she said, meeting his eyes. Barbara then rolled on her back and looked out the window. “I wonder if they get grey days in the suburbs.”
John gazed out at the glistening world from Barbara’s living room. Streaks of rain lacerated the window, their runoff muddy from the soot in them. The concrete buildings outside curved slightly and blurred shadows shifted across the street. A repetitive beat, that of a finger tapping glass in frustration, filled the room. He looked down at his suit – the only one he had – and shook his head.
“You can stay here until the rain stops,” said a boy’s voice.
John took a step back and noticed Derek in the penumbra. The boy, dressed in a jumper over a collared shirt, sat in the middle of an orange couch, by the weak glow of a lamp. In his hands was a thin book, on its cover the drawing of a young boy standing on a ball. John was surprised by the boy’s unexpected presence and felt anchored in place by his curious gaze.
Derek put the book down on the wooden table in front of him and walked up to John. “I’m Derek,” he said, extending his arm
John’s eyes shifted between Derek’s hand and face, unable to figure out how to interpret the situation.
“What’s your name?” asked Derek.
“Uh… John.” said the man in the tattered suit, shaking Derek’s hand. “I’m John.”
“Your clothes will get wet and dirty if you go outside.” Leading the way, Derek walked back to the couch and sat in the middle. John considered his situation for a moment, then eventually walked to the couch and sat next to the boy.
Looking around the room, John noticed a tall Christmas tree in a corner, and, in front of him, a wall covered with pictures of Derek and his mother. Derek had short hair, a friendly smile and a sensitive gaze; his mother had long red hair and was always cheery. When they were in the same picture, Barbara always had her arms around her son.
“Do you like to read?” asked Derek.
“I was on my way home to read,” answered John while looking at the pictures on the wall.
“What book are you reading?”
“Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.”
“I’m reading The Little Prince,” said Derek. “Did you read it?”
John shook his head and stared at the floral motif wallpaper.
“It’s more than just a children’s book. There’s a railway man in the story; he tells the Prince people are always travelling and are unhappy. The people I see in the city are like that: always moving, never smiling. So, the story must be about life.” Derek looked up. “Why are you unhappy?”
John turned his head and faced at the boy.
“Why are you unhappy?” Said Derek.
“There are things… I want to know.”
“These… travellers. If they’re unhappy; if they’re stuck, living unhappily, then what’s the point? I need to know if there’s… But, I don’t know what they’re saying. Kundera, Dostoyevsky, Zweig, Zola and the rest of them – I don’t understand a thing.”
“If I was a writer, I’d be happy if someone heard me. Maybe that’s why people are so unhappy – because they don’t stop to hear, and listen.”
“But I’m trying. I’m listening hard. And nothing; just words on the page and… and… thoughts slipping through my fingers.”
“First you hear, then you listen.”
John was struck by what Derek said. He studied the boy under the sound from the rain’s clatter. Then, to his surprise, a smile snuck on his lips.
“Derek? How come you’re home early?” asked Barbara from her bedroom door. “Shouldn’t you be in your tutorial session with Mr. Moxley?”
“He didn’t come to school today. David and his mum gave me a ride home,” said Derek.
“I… Uh…,” said John as he met Barbara’s gaze.
“John left his umbrella at home,” said Derek. “I told him he could stay here until the rain stops.”
“That’s… kind of you,” said Barbara, crossing her arms over her chest and standing stiff. “And… what did you two… talk about?”
“Uh… Books,” said John, glancing at her colourful dress, a balance of blue and white that beat back the room’s dimness.
“John also likes to read,” said Derek.
Barbara studied John and Derek, then looked out the window. “I wanted to take you out to the park.”
“We can always go another day, mum.”
She nodded and let her arms swing down. “So, how about some hot chocolate? Yeah?”
“Yes,” said Derek.
“Uhm… Sure… that’d be all right,” said John.
Barbara worked in the kitchen for a while, heating milk in a pot and thoroughly melting chunks of chocolate. While John flipped through the pages of The Little Prince, Derek turned on the lights of the Christmas tree. Back in the living room, Barbara carried three polka-dotted mugs on a tray and served them out, their steam swaying in the air.
John brought the cup to his nose. “This smells pretty good.”
“Wait,” said Barbara as she walked to the kitchen and returned with a small bottle of Brandy. She held it to John. “Makes it even better.”
“Can I have some?” asked Derek.
“Just a bit,” said Barbara as she sat down next to her son.
After all three topped their hot chocolate with Brandy, Barbara held her mug to the side. “To surprises,” she said. All three toasted, sipped their drink and slipped into silence, their faces illuminated.
“Together” is a nice piece to wrap up the short story section of our competition winners. Mohamed has a great ability for writing about the lives of ordinary people and provides us with a wonderful example of how to conjure distinctive characters and build upon them in only a few pages.
Stay tuned next week for more poetry and then an announcement concerning a few changes to the blog for the summer.