x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

A writer is born

Feature Andrew J Keir's moving tale of parental loss and grief is runner-up in the M magazine / Kitab short story competition. It is the second time he has made the shortlist and this summer he is embarking on a degree course and intends to commit full-time to writing.

Andrew J Keir
Andrew J Keir

Andrew J Keir's moving tale of parental loss and grief is runner-up in the M magazine / Kitab short story competition. It is the second time he has made the shortlist and, as he tells Helena Frith Powell that this summer he is embarking on a degree course and intends to commit full-time to writing. Andrew J Keir, the runner-up in this year's M magazine/Kitab short story competition, didn't have much time to compose his entry, but in spite of a looming deadline he has produced a well-paced, haunting story about loss and longing. "I saw the competition very late," he says. "And I decided to do a couple of free writes around the words Moving Messages and what the words actually mean. Then I came up with the notion of somebody losing a child and finding messages from that child."

After some research, Keir turned up a news story in the United States about a bereaved family who claimed to have found messages from their dead daughter. "In reality, it was just wishful thinking on their part," he says. "But I thought, 'If that could make a news story then why not turn it into a short story?'" The story practically wrote itself. "Once I'd written the radio show scene and the car journey I wrote the story fast. It normally takes me a couple of weeks to write a story, but I knocked out in two and a half days. I was really pleased with it."

So was our judge Adam Haslett, who described it as a very fine story. "You don't know why you're reading what you're reading at the beginning of the story but you're intrigued by it and you're led into a scenario that unfolds and you understand that this man has lost a child. There is a certain amount of subtlety and craft involved in getting the reader to a place when they don't know why and I thought that was very well-handled."

Keir, 39, who works as an economics and business lecturer at Abu Dhabi's Higher Colleges of Technology, was also a finalist in last year's short story competition. In the summer, he intends to give up his day job and focus on writing full-time. "I am doing a master's in creative writing at Lancaster University. I have been writing more and more, and luckily my wife is going to support me while I finish the course."

Keir plans to remain in Abu Dhabi where, he says, there is a lot of material to explore. "I am quite happy to write about things from an expat perspective," he says. "There are a lot of undercurrents and hypocrisies to explore."

I'm on autopilot again. The lights from the other cars on Salam Street are blurred red and white streaks; their blaring horns merely distant white noise. The 10 o'clock news is on the radio; I'm only half listening: "Report just in from Frankfurt- school shooting- tragic- the spokesman for roads- spike in Sharjah road deaths-" Ten o'clock again! No time for a man like me - a family man - to be heading home. Got to get out of this work-obsessed rut- it doesn't do anything to help Diana.

"-Dubai property market begins slow recovery- India beat England in second test thriller- And finally- moving story from Ras al Khaimah Emirate- messages from dead seven year old-' I'm conscious and listening. Autopilot is temporarily switched off. Staring at the radio, I turn the volume up. "Grieving parents got a welcome - if moving - surprise recently. Six months ago Rashid and Ghalia Qassimi lost their only child - seven-year-old Iman - to leukaemia.

"In an attempt to overcome their grief, and to restart their lives, the Qassimis decided to move home. "While packing up the family villa in Masafi, Ghalia found 15 handwritten messages from Iman, addressed to her and her husband. The little girl had scattered them around the house before she died. "Rashid Qassimi told Corniche Radio today that the most remarkable thing about the notes was that they contained positive and loving messages that were clearly designed to help him and his wife through their ordeal. He said his favourite note read: 'Don't cry papa, I am watching over you from heaven.'

"The Qassimis have decided not to move home." I turn the radio off, but can't quite find the switch in my mind to turn autopilot back on. When I get home the flat is in darkness. I remove my shoes and pad through to Ian and Laura's bedroom. Lying amongst a scattering of thrown-off bedclothes, they are both enviably unconscious. There's no doubt they've been happier since Laura gave up her own bedroom.

In my room Diana is crashed out in the foetal position. I'm glad she's asleep and I don't have to deal with her pain, or answer any questions. I sit on the bed and stare into darkness for a while, before deciding that I need a drink. Small hoots and buzzes from the street life below are still vaguely audible through the supposedly sound-proofed windows, and a green neon sign from a building on the other side of Electra Street partially illuminates the living room. The whisky tastes good, but its anaesthetic effects aren't what they used to be.

I switch on the standard lamp next to the bookcase and kneel down in front of the shelves. My plan is to take a shelf at a time, pull all the books from it, and search through each volume. Starting from the bottom, where the kids' books are, I methodically inspect the empty spaces between the pages of colourful stories: Charlie And Lola, The Mr Men, Fantastic Mr Fox- Initially, I'm surprised by how much memorabilia I uncover: My favourite finds include an old scrappy drawing of something vaguely resembling a blue dog, folded neatly inside the front cover of The Gruffalo, and, stuffed between two Secret Seven novels, a photo of the three kids, dressed as Superman, Fireman Sam and Ariel. I linger over the picture, and can't help spending a little more time on Superman's features: his piercing blue eyes, gappy teeth and curly yellow hair.

Charlie is- was- the only one of the kids that looked like me. Laura and Ian are dark like their mother; beautiful and broody. As I move up the shelves there is gradually less to find. On the top shelf I discover a studio picture of the family, inside Cormac McCarthy's The Road. I think Diana must have been using it as a book-mark. We all look very smart and perfect. Most of all we look happy. I think we got this photo taken just after we arrived in Abu Dhabi. Charlie's face is beaming. He was so excited to come here and get started on his desert adventure. Diana and I had been here before and knew what to expect, but Laura and Ian took a long time to adjust; they kept telling us they wanted to go home.

After I finish going through the bookcase, I move my search to the CDs and DVDs. I'm meticulous, but there is nothing here: no messages, just the odd Disney video or home movie. I jump when Diana places her hand on my shoulder. I knew she would come to find me sooner or later. "What are you doing, darling?" she asks. "Come to bed." "Not yet," I say, deliberately looking down at the CDs. "I need to finish this."

"Leo, what are you looking for that can't wait until tomorrow?" Her voice is harder; I've piqued her curiosity. "I'm searching for messages," I say, not really looking at the copy of The Dark Side Of The Moon I clutch in my hand. "Messages- what kind of messages?" I look straight in her eyes. "Messages from Charlie!" "Wha- messages from-" She shakes her head slowly and tears start to come.

"I heard on the radio tonight about a kid who'd died of leukaemia-" I say. Diana's head is bowed; her hands are pulling at her chestnut hair. "She'd left notes all over her parents' house for them to find after she died." There is silence. "It seemed to make them feel better.' I say, to fill the void. More silence. Eventually Diana looks at me with pity in her eyes. Her face is lined and tired. "You thought Charlie had left notes amongst the DVDs?" she asks.

"Yes- Not necessarily with the DVDs though- maybe with the books- somewhere." My eyes drop to the floor; I know I sound pathetic. "Leo," she says, voice firm. "Charlie died running across Hamdan Street. He didn't know he was going to die." I nod. In my mind his limp body is spinning in the air, before crashing down, broken, on to the roof of a speeding Mercedes. I blink my eyes and try to picture him as Superman instead.

More gently she says, "He couldn't leave us notes- even if he wanted to. But- open your eyes and look around the flat- Charlie's messages are everywhere." Diana pulls me to her, and hugs me. She smells of citrus shower gel and sleep. "Come on," she says. "Let's go to bed." I shake my head. "I'm sorry, love- I've got to do this." She pushes me away; her cheeks are flushed. "Fine," she says. "I'll see you in the morning- please try to get some sleep."

Two more hours pass before I close the door of the spare room behind me. Toys are scattered around the floor. The kids have begun to call it their playroom. Before Charlie died it was Laura's bedroom and the boys were together next door. Now it's empty, apart from some toys and Charlie's old bed. I pick up Charlie's redundant red skateboard and picture him poking at his bloodied knee after a fall in Capital Gardens. Crying until his mum fixes it with a plaster and a kiss better.

Putting the toy down, I turn out the light and clamber into my eldest son's bed. I close my eyes, but in my mind Charlie is still sitting nursing his leg. Diana is right: there are messages everywhere. Too many. I want to sleep, Charlie please let me sleep.

The quality of our short story competition's final shortlist was so good this year that we wanted to share the remaining four stories with you. Below are links to the stories. Be sure to vote for your favourite remaining finalist in our online poll at www.thenational.ae The story with the most votes will be published in the magazine later in the year. Moving Messages by Steven Tweddell Moving Messages by Stephanie MyIchreest Moving Messages by Charlotte Sherwin Moving Messages by Carla McKay