_ Passing on
This extract is taken from the winning entry by Esther Woolfson in a short story competition run last summer by Waterstone’s of George Street, Edinburgh and Arvon’s new writing centre at Moniack Mhor near lnverness.
The house is suddenly silent. They have come early in the moming. before even a sleepless household is fully awake and with no appropriate. respectful regard for the situation, noisily haul away the makeshift. easily transportable ark. the low chairs. the paraphemalia of mourning. The strangers. relatives. friends. the curious. the habitual attenders at houses of mourning will no longer come. They will now go back to their own lives. find something else to engage their interest or look for other houses where death has struck.
Dan’s father. scrubby dark blue stain of mouming beard newly shaved off and again in his grey business suit. is reading a fresh batch of condolence letters from the hall table. He looks up as Dan comes down the stairs.
'Do you want to go back to school today?‘
He communicates a message which to Dan is not at ﬁrst entirely clear. a suggestion of not quite minding either way. tilting slightly perhaps, Dan discems. to the side of his taking it easy. spending the day as he chooses. Dan has already chosen.
‘No, I don‘t think so. Not today. It’s Friday. Hardly worth it.‘
‘OK. Go again on Monday.‘
Dan notices again how everything is
. now weirdly. inexplicably altered in
their dealings with one another. as if some diplomatic intermediary between them has gone. some inhibiting, restraining force melted and dissolved. Dan wonders if he were to say, ‘I don‘t
' think I’ll go back to school at all. I
fancy something new.‘ whether his father's reply would be surprising.
2 novel, accepting.
‘Good idea. What have you in mind?’ or ‘lfthat’s what you want.’
He won‘t be trying it though. He is old enough to leave school, just. but has always despised those who go
; down futureless pathways in search of
easy ways out. He has other plans. He will go back to school on Monday. On Monday. he realises. everything
a will begin again. Monday, when people
i will turn from him in the corridor. ' avoid him in the dining-hall. pretend 5 they don't see him sitting on the bus on
the way to school. Monday. when. for the first time. he will clang his silent leper’s bell.
‘I must go in to work for a little while. You don’t mind. do you? I’ll be back mid-aftemoon-ish. OK? Anything you
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92 The List I7 December l993—l3 January I994
want to do? Here. go to the bookshop and get something good to read. Have coffee in town.‘
“I'll see. Thanks.’
‘We‘ll go out for dinner tonight. Somewhere nice. I‘ll ask around. See what’s special.‘
Dan stops the words before he says them. But it‘s Friday.
‘Fine.’ he says. He feels himself falling into this new rhythm. slipping behind this wall of glass where ease and masculine cool, it is obvious to him. keep back some fearful torrent. This is the way the thing is done. He will use the opportunity to learn its subtle. complicated vocabulary. its tricksy, laid back ways. Once it is learned. he is certain. it is learned for life like cycling or tight-rope walking. Ready for next time. Straight on along a sharp, new line.
What would the lessons have been. Dan considers. had it been his father who had died?
Suddenly. the house rings with silence. lt rings with the vibration, the waves. the silence of people not phoning. the loud. clanging omissions of those now calling in any more. It buzzed in Dan’s ears and in its fearsome buzzing he hears the message that when the seven days of mourning end, the time has come. the real time. Eight days into death. Dan suspects this does not mean eight days easier. He feels that he can't yet say or sort things out. so unreal has all life become. The fridge hums. groans and changes mood. like a piece of music or a plane coming into land.
He clears the breakfast things. The fridge is now full of unfamiliar items. things his mother didn’t buy or bake or cook. The freezer is stuffed with boxes labelled in strange hands. food his mother would have had in there. apple cakes. Danish pastries. packs of gefllte flsh. stuffed cabbage, potato latkes. They all came carrying. dipping into the boots of cars. piling husband’s arms with trays. boxes, containers. bustling forwards into the kitchen.
‘It worse when the woman goes ﬁrst. Men can‘t cope.‘
The woman he overheard saying it was wearing his mother‘s ‘Birds ofthe World‘ apron over her coat as she and her companion re-organised the freezer. Her voice was the voice of ineffable wisdom. Thinking about it. he supposes it is so.
They will c0pe. There is enough food in boxes to last them. They will be
eating dirgesome mouming food forever. Dan notices that they have thrown out the last of Sam‘s sushi.
It is Friday.
Dan remembers he is missing maths. at this very moment. Mr McCallum‘s daily scorn will be defused by Dan‘s leper's bell. He will adopt a mild. we- sympathise-but-we-will-get-on-with- our-tasks. bearish gruffness. a kindness-below-the-crust facade which will be all false. He is simply crusty beneath the crust. Dan knows.
Opening the cupboard under the sink. Dan looks at the neat row of cleaning utensils. soaps. disinfectants. and at the back. the blue and white enamel bucket in which his mother put the meat delivered from the kosher butcher for salting to remove every last drop of the forbidden substance. blood.
On Fridays. his mother got home early. She worked part time as an accountant with a firm in town. She parked her car in the firm‘s car-park which was once a garden and from there. made forays to Marks and the American ice-cream shop. She was home by three so that. on the dark winter days when Dan and the others left school early to get back home before the beginning of the Sabbath. she was already there. drinking tea. ripping the wrappings off the chicken. telling him to hang up his blazer. tidy his room. to go down to the newsagent to see why they hadn‘t sent The Jewish Chronicle at whose engagement and wedding announcements it would be open for the rest of the evening.
ldly. Dan lifts the tin of poppy seeds from its shelf. He picks open the lid with his nail and looks at the flat. blue- grey stretch of seeds. a small. pointillist landscape which. as a tiny child. he saw as a beach of fine blue stones across which he would like to have walked
The judges for the competition were
Catherine Ixurkerbie. Literary Editor of , The Scotsman. Brian Mr'Cahe. author of The Lispstiek Circus and The Other McCoy. and James Robertson. Browns Bank Writing Fellow I993.
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