Winners: Paul Brockbank - Baggage Allowance
Short Story Prize - Shortlist
It was serenely quiet on the island that morning. No hubbub of comings and goings. No lists of things to be done. No endless questions with unfathomable answers. The baggage allowance had been generous this time, especially with an overnight journey. Here Martin could luxuriate in a bath of nothingness. Memories of the busy mainland were as foggy as the steam lazily rising from the duvet of suds encasing him as the cold tap delinquently dripped onto his foot. He knew that this tranquility was all but fleeting and, sometime too soon, the crows, called ‘worry’ and ‘panic’, would come swooping in to peck away at his brain.
Martin had to perform well this evening, what with friends coming for dinner on the mainland. He actually looked forward to showing them around the new home. Sylvia and he had just finished the building work, and a new kitchen was ready for the big reveal. That would take up some time, along with the pre-dinner drinks and some small talk. There was just the main course conversation to worry about really.
Martin wondered what the return baggage allowance would be this time. Would it be five memories? Ten even? The trouble was that he always had to allow for lost luggage, as he frequently lost one or more items on these journeys. The memory theft on these sudden journeys irritated him into frustrated rage in the beginning. Now the journeys were a stone in his shoe as he trod onwards with the loving support of Sylvia.
Right now he had to do something. He couldn’t remember what the ‘something’ was, but he just knew, or maybe felt, deep inside that there was a task required of him, and he needed to complete it. Island life did this to you. The air was the same, and the view for that matter. However, it was somehow like the waiting room on the platform of a provincial railway station. The train was always delayed and arrived in a rush of noise, smells and hurried activity. So the waiting was a peaceful but panicked island of unknowns; with all of your worries knitted up into a fog of blurred memories. There was an air of panic because at any time you may find yourself back at the mainland and completely unprepared for the pressures of tasks and questions.
It wasn’t as though anyone went to the island out of personal choice, or, that once there, they wanted desperately to get back to the mainland. It was simply a place that you could gradually find yourself visiting. Although, those who steadfastly remained on the mainland did not understand islanders, they could still be friends. Some of Martin’s circle had distanced themselves since he started visiting. He didn’t think any less of them for it though, thinking it best to remain positive and to be the eternal optimist. That took less effort and was better for you after all! Also, the remaining friends actually admired the positivity; openly commenting on it as an inner strength. Bless them!
Sylvia greeted him with a simple question upon arrival at the mainland; “Have you done what I asked you?” This was the type of question often asked by mainlanders, in their landscape of logic and order. Martin scurried about his brain for an effective answer. He may have already done what she had requested, or he may not. This was difficult to know as he had no memory of what he had been asked to do, and he searched for the least fraught path forward.
Since he had become an islander, there had been extra pressure and worry for Sylvia, constantly living on the mainland with the troubles of daily grind to deal with. He loved her dearly and strived to reduce any added burden put upon her, given the opportunity.
Finally Martin settled for an amiable, “Probably my love, what was it again?” Thankfully the task was only to set the table ready for this evening’s guests. An easy job, that would give him time to acclimatise to mainland life again before they arrived. She turned on the food blender and returned to the meal preparation with a sigh. Martin made a swift exit to the dining room and busied himself.
Table set, candles lit, music on, heating just right. Now Martin felt ready to be the winning host and supportive, loving husband. He was naturally all of these things and knew that he could perform well this evening. He kissed her on the cheek just as the doorbell rang. The stage was set and all the players were ready.
In they rushed, all wine and flowers; greetings and coats to be hung up. Cliches of looking well, food smells lovely and how wonderful the house was looking. Martin offered to show them around, give them the ‘grand tour’, thinking that it would eat up some time and give Sylvia an opportunity to finish the starter. However, they were all looking back at him with confused, yet caring, frowning expressions as Sylvia gently reminded him that they had already been to the house recently. Martin laughed off his mistake and shakily busied himself with the preparations of the welcome drinks; gin and tonics all round, thankfully. Soon enough, all four of them were sat at the table and Martin relaxed into the social game of ‘friends to dinner’, which he still knew how to play. The starter covered their journey to the house, the weather, sons and daughters and (of course) how lovely the food was. Martin topped up the wine glasses and cleared the plates into the kitchen for a breather. He was cooking scallops and chorizo risotto for main course. Everyone always enjoyed that, plus it gave Sylvia a break and chance to catch up with friends. Having already prepared the risotto, he just had to fry off the scallops and serve up. He could do that. He knew that one day there would be so little luggage left that he wouldn’t be able to do this at all. But for now he was the ‘risotto king’ and all was well with the world.
He swept into the dining room theatrically with wonderfully presented plates. He had placed their three large scallops onto slices of fried chorizo and dotted them around the edge of the risotto, which was garnished with grated Parmesan and fresh basil. There were ‘oohs!’ and ‘aahs!’ and ‘lovelies!’ exchanged while Martin opened a fresh bottle of wine and kept things going. He caught Sylvia looking at him over the candles in that loving way that never seemed to burn out. This was an OK day indeed.
The conversation turned to work life, as it invariably did. So many people defined themselves by what their job was because it took up so much of their life and funded everything they did. ‘No harm in that’, thought Martin, ‘Good on them’. Nevertheless, when the questions about work came round to him, he had no direct answer for them. The job had finished because he had come to the end of a fixed term contract; so that’s what he said. Sylvia coughed and moved onto another subject smoothly, and he was saved from further explanations. He was no longer able to work, and both of them were still coming to terms with the fact that life was, from now on, an altered state of affairs. The financial and mental adjustment was catastrophic and would take some getting used to. However, the simple truth was, he had insufficient luggage left to perform well in a job now. He had already experienced the painful transition from the boardroom, to part time manager, to unemployed; or should he say unemployable even? Nonetheless, they were both still smiling and positive, always seeking out the best in people and life. This is what kept them going, kept them together, and kept them loving each other, forever. This is what their remaining ‘true’ friends saw and admired. Others had drifted away, now that he was of no use to them on either a business or social level. Those who had stayed enjoyed basking in the reflected glory of a happy, optimistic and loving couple. They always departed in a better frame of mind than when they had arrived. Martin loved that, and she loved him for it.
After dessert, he prepared double espressos for everyone and served them with a liqueur and a chocolate from the box they kindly brought to dinner. This was an excellent finale to a reasonably successful evening. There had been one or two holes in his memory causing the occasional falter in conversation, but Sylvia had elegantly moved things along and made light of it.
There were the promises of;
‘Must meet up again soon!’
‘Really enjoyed it!’
‘You’re both looking so well!’ along with kisses and hugs. Then, in a waft of cold night air, they were gone. He installed Sylvia in the armchair with tea and the late night news while he clattered and cleared everything away into the dishwasher. She was looking slightly worried, and tired, while he was happy and celebrating the evening as a task well done. He hoped that this evening wouldn’t be lost in the baggage handling during the next trip, as this was one to remember.
It was one of those restless nights; one where he was so tired that he couldn’t get off to sleep. Not wanting to disturb her by fidgeting and changing positions endlessly, so he decided to focus his mind. He found this exercise to be an excellent way of falling asleep on difficult nights. Just cast your mind back to a happy event and relive it through your mind’s eye. Before you knew it, the morning had arrived and sleep’s draught had been quaffed deeply. Although Martin had not enjoyed a happy childhood, he had chosen to recall it as a photo album. Those sorts of family albums never contained the sad or violent events, only the days out and celebrations. So, this is how he chose to piece together those years in the 1960’s, a series of happy moments, blocking out the sad times and forming a pleasant tapestry of visits, birthdays and adventures.
He focused upon Granddad, a favourite photo, and immediately thought of the starched white shirt with long sleeves held back by strange silver elasticated arm bands. The hair slicked back with cream just like a film star, and then the smells. Yes, he had the most horrendous foot odour known to mankind, even when fresh out of the tin bath in front of the fire in the scullery; but then there was the savage aftershave, all fresh and masculine. He recalled the woodbine cigarette held so delicately in that meaty nicotine stained hand. There was always such warmth about him that belied the harsh working life from which he had so thankfully and recently retired. The chosen photograph from the album, from the sleeping draught for this night, was one of those favourite short visits to The Brown Bear. Granddad was afforded a couple of hours respite on most Saturday afternoons to go down to the pub and put on a bet. Sometimes, with fortuitous timing, Martin would be in the right place at the right time, enabling him to tag along and be one of the men for a while. There was orange juice and peanuts, beer and loud stories; some of them were almost true! That was a wonderful photograph and sleep washed up over him.
The next morning Martin found himself all too suddenly on the journey again, and large parts of the previous evening had gone missing. There was no longer fretful worry in this for him, for how could he become fraught over things he could not remember?
‘This island!’ he mused quietly. It gave solace now, yet stole valuable photographs of precious memories. Each journey was a thief of his life’s baggage.
He knew full well that one day he would have to become a full time inhabitant on the island of Dementia. Then the fog would roll in as those memories ebbed away.