Showcasing creative writing by university students around the world.

Illustration by Anna Bystricky

Published Sunday, July 6th, 2014

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A Wedding Present

In my earlier years, I tried hard to pin down the elusive quality that separates the intriguing from the desperate to intrigue. Were I to have succeeded, my reputation would no doubt be considerably further advanced than it is now, but an unusual encounter left me so muddled that I failed to make any further progress. I retell it now in the hope that wiser minds might profit where I have stumbled.

In my earlier years, I tried hard to pin down the elusive quality that separates the intriguing from the desperate to intrigue. Were I to have succeeded, my reputation would no doubt be considerably further advanced than it is now, but an unusual encounter left me so muddled that I failed to make any further progress. I retell it now in the hope that wiser minds might profit where I have stumbled.
I was spending the night in a public house: ancient, ivy swathed and nestled in one of those little northern towns that leave you a little unsure quite what century you are in. The weather was miserable. It seemed that the bag God used to store his gales had finally given up the ghost and disgorged its contents upon the earth in a single, thunderous gout; there was fog and drizzle and distant flashes of lightning, and they all conspired to draw a hazy curtain around the windows of the inn, making me feel like its four walls were the very ends of the world. Indeed, if I were to pick something to demarcate the end of the world, these walls would probably have been strong contenders. They had considerably more character than the featureless drop imagined by the medieval scholars, or the great circular river that the Greeks believed themselves to be sailing.
To my left there were a number of wooden cubbies, the semi-private type with the grimy stained glass tops and bottoms designed to evoke a sense of both privacy and communion. A few of them appeared to be occupied, judging by the flickering of the light on the glass and the low swell of voices, but as not one of them had an entrance, I doubted I would find out by whom. Presumably the conversation of the tenants had proved so disagreeable to the doors that they had fled to the wall on my right, which resembled a home for orphaned hatches more than a planned structure. Such an array of styles and sizes were represented, each set on a different level to the next and accommodated by alterations to the floor and flights of stairs in varying levels of decay, that I found it impossible to determine which I had entered through just minutes before. The highest of these doors, perched between two large windows into the sodden air, had ‘please knock before entering’ daubed on it in fresh paint.
It should be easy to imagine that these eccentricities (only a few of which I have mentioned) might caress one into a warm cocoon of conjecture, and I was in just such a state when I caught sight of the barmaid collecting glasses at a nearby table.
I was not pleased. It is unpleasant enough to have reality imposed upon your fantasies by the mundane, but it is far worse to have them shattered by the fantastic. The head of the maid, from the chin to the neck, was entirely swaddled in bandages. While the other oddities around me had been mere suggestions, starting points for long and elaborate daydreams, this sight was a demand for attention. It was so strange that you immediately began to think about rational explanations: ‘she must have burnt her face’, for example, or ‘her skin suffers severely from the damp’. By its very absurdity it had returned me to the prosaic, and I looked away in disappointment.
My averted gaze meant that I no longer had a good view of the room, and I was quite startled when a voice spoke from my elbow.
‘Another drink, mister? I got you another warm cider here, if you want it.’
The voice was arresting. Disjointed and lumpen, fading out midway through a word only to return with renewed vigour and attention. And all this in an accent thick and rich and warm like the biscuitty residue at the bottom of heavily dunked tea.
It was the barman who had greeted and served me on the way in. I took the drink gratefully and thanked him, but did not even bother looking away pointedly: there was something in his manner that made it obvious that he was determined to talk.
‘This weather, huh? Dreadful,’ he offered.
‘Oh? I quite like it once I’m indoors. It’s atmospheric.’
‘That it is sir. Brings people together, if you know what I mean. I’ve spent many a night here swapping stories with visitors what wouldn’t even give me the time of day otherwise.’
He had it all wrong. The flavour of unreality that was the gift of this weather was not to be squandered on convincing other people – that was easy – it was to be used on the most sceptical audience of all, the self.
The barman was looking at me expectantly; evidently he did not share my view.
‘Many people say,’ he continued, ‘that I tell some of the best stories they ever heard.’
‘Is that right?’ I gave in.
‘Yep.’ He sat down next to me and leaned in conspiratorially.
‘I saw you getting a little eyeful of the maid earlier, that right?’
I groaned inwardly. It was the second time she had had a hand in ruining my evening. I opened my mouth to reply but he hushed me.
‘S’alright, it’s natural to be curious. I like to tell people so as they don’t have to ask. It’s better than them starin’ at her all the time. She’s my wife.’
He leaned back expansively. Evidently he was just getting started.
‘My wife, you see, was quite the looker when I married her, as you would expect of a handsome man like me. Lovely girl too, as she still is. Well, I had been seeing her for quite a while when I completed the purchase of this inn, with much sweat and toil you understand, and I decided to get settled down. But my mum, she’s a bit of a funny sort, from abroad- my dad was a sailor and met her in Arabia- well she didn’t like my little wife at all. Said someone that had worked as hard as me deserved someone more respectful and obedient. My wife was always headstrong, but that’s what I liked about her. Anyhow, my mum came over one evening and said that she would show me that my darling wasn’t good enough. She had a big old parcel with her and said that I should give it to my wife, but tell her not to open it. Now I don’t really think it’s fair to test people, so I say no, but just then my wife comes down and spots us at the door.
‘‘What’s this?’ she says, looking at the package. And before I can say anything, in steps my mother and holds it out to her.
‘‘It’s a wedding present for you, darling’ she says, real quick like. Course my wife is delighted, she knew my mum had never taken to her and thought that maybe she’d come round. But as I said, my mum is a queer sort, and I can’t tell you how much she hated my wife, so I was real suspicious, and I told her to put it upstairs and open it later. When my mum left I went and put it in the attic and told her to forget about it. To be honest I probably should have told her why I was worried because of course she didn’t listen to me, not when I just told her to leave it alone like that. The next day when I was closing the bar she snuck up to the loft all quiet like and opened it up.
‘It was a mirror, a bit of a funny looking one without a frame and with a thick sort of rubbery back. She was a bit disappointed she tells me, and wondered what all the fuss was about, so she had a good feel of it and gave it a little shake. Next thing she knows the corner she was holding has bent in and her reflection looks ever so funny. She thinks it’s hilarious like and has a whale of a time messing with it, making her head look huge as a melon and her arms like little bird legs. Anyway, she comes running to find me to tell me about it, but before she can even get to the door she feels awful queer and her legs feel awful weak and they give away underneath her. She tries to push herself up, but for some reason her arms don’t even reach the floor. Course she screams the house down and I come running up. When I get there she’s wriggled herself back over to the mirror and is trying desperately to get ahold of it.’ He stopped, and I could see raw horror in his eyes, still fresh.
‘I remember exactly how she looked. Her face all bulging and horrible, like someone’s gone and stuck a nose and a mouth on a pregnant belly. And she was weeping and crying, but her mouth was so stretched that it didn’t sound like anything I had ever heard before, a sort of whistling and a gasping. She begged me to help her, but I wasn’t going anywhere near that thing, coward as that makes me sound… Instead I ran round behind the mirror and tried to straighten it out. That was even worse. I could see her changing as I moved it, all bubbling up and collapsing, like a slab of dough being kneaded by a big old pair of invisible hands. I had to shut my eyes. I couldn’t look, I just stood there and twisted it backwards and forwards until she was straight enough for me to understand what she was saying and listen to her instructions. Stayed there all night trying to sort her out we did, but we never got her back to just how she was.’ He pointed at a crumpled napkin on the table.
‘It’s just like that bit of paper there- once you mess it up it won’t never go back to how it was before… That’s why she won’t show her face to no-one, poor thing. She doesn’t even look that bad, honest, but you can understand why she feels that way.’ He stood up.
‘Not bad eh? Anyhow, I’ve got to nip into the kitchen and put the dinner on. When I get back it’s your turn.’
And he wandered off. I had to admit that it wasn’t bad. But what a strange story to tell! Did the maid, or rather his wife, know that he went around telling macabre tales about her? It would surely upset her – even I, steeled by many years of exposure to such fables, had been left with a profound feeling of discomfort.
It was time to leave. The barman, in his clumsy enthusiasm, had delivered something that had affected me more deeply than my period of guarded isolation, and I desperately wanted to preserve that. I had to get out before something intruded upon my mood, before another customer tried his luck with a hackneyed ghost story or palm reading. I turned to the doors.
I could not remember exactly which I had entered through, but, presuming that they all opened in much the same place, I chose the one nearest to me. I was wrong. The door I had selected led to a small cellar, lit brightly by an electric light. The wall nearest to me was piled with shiny steel kegs of beer, and on that pile sat a girl in a shiny steel pair of heels. She was smoking a cigarette and toying idly with the long, dirty white scarf coiled loosely round her shoulders.
My entrance had been noticed. She made a quick, half-hearted effort to pull the scarf over her face and then shrugged and sagged back onto the pile of kegs, drawing lazily on her cigarette.
‘I’ll give you a free drink if you don’t tell my boss you saw me. He’ll take my bonus.’
‘Thank you,’ I said, ‘but I was just on my way out. ’
She nodded.
‘It’s your fault anyway, isn’t it? Next door over.’
Without waiting for me to leave, she took a pink pocket mirror out of her bag and examined her makeup with evident satisfaction. Then she sighed and, one hand still occupied with the cigarette, began the laborious process of re-bandaging her face.

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