Jane Strachan's Gone ... The Day She Left is the second place winning story in the 2013 Short Story Competition, organised by The National and the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.
Gone ... The Day She Left: second place in The National's 2013 Short Story Competition
Jane Strachan, 53, lives in Abu Dhabi but it originally from South Africa. She recalls how her story's important twist came after a sleepless night. "I did spend a while awake one night, wondering how to ensure a twist," she says. "I like the idea of a story that takes the reader by surprise." Strachan says the competition's general theme was equally thrilling and challenging. "I found the theme useful in that it provided the starting point, or the seed if you like, from which the story grew," she says.
"With a theme such as 'gone', one could have taken the story in so many directions, but one had to hold on to it as the core, recurring concept. It provided a discipline."
Her story is below:
Gone ... The Day She Left
Gone is ... gone is when the wind has finally died, leaving knotted clouds and tangled sheets, a landscape battered by the fierce breath from the east.
This is what I remember from the day you left, not the frightened shouts, the banging doors, the running or the sirens.
This is what I remember from the day you died.
* * *
Hazel would never have admitted it to anyone, least of all to those who could have helped her, but she was afraid. Yes, the lump under her arm was getting bigger, the telltale stiffness of her neck had returned and she knew what it meant. This, though, was not what scared her the most and, while she didn't want to die, she still wouldn't tell anyone what she feared beyond all else, what shook her awake when even the rattling shutters and coyote howls faded into white noise. She wanted to live but she would not voice this: she was terrified of him, her husband.
The first time he said "I'll kill you if you leave me", she adored him even more than she had before he'd grabbed her so tightly, brought his face to hers and rasped those precious words. She loved how much he wanted to own her, that he couldn't bear to imagine her with anyone else. To be so treasured! To be 17 and have the power to render this boy, this man of 25 with his wintergreen eyes and welder's shoulders insane with longing. She wanted him to possess her so she gave up her whole self to him, leaving home, her parents and her two baby sisters to wrestle three shopping bags - 'Saving Your Future Today' - of her things and the pink plastic cage with Harry the guinea pig into Tod's stammering 1991 Nissan. With a backhanded flick of her curly red hair she had wiped out her mother's tears and silenced her father's threats to lock her in her room until she saw sense. "Then I'll just go. One day I'll disappear and I promise you'll never hear from me again."
The next time he said it his vow was wrapped in fists, short sharp words that rang blue and green on her cheek for days.
"I told you," he shouted, raising his scarred hands as he moved across the kitchen towards her. "You keep talkin' to that hustler, I'll smash you."
Hazel took a step backwards but was blocked by the table. "I told you, Toddy, he's Mike's brother. And all I did was to offer him a refill of coffee. It's my job, baby, you know it is, and I need to keep Mike sweet, least til you get work again …"
"I don't care if he's the boss's brother or the damn King of England - you make nice with him, I show you what I think. I'll kill you. I swear, you'll be sorry."
When the disease came she thought the pain and swelling were just lingering reminders of his fists and fingers, but when she showed Dr Johanssen where it still hurt weeks after he last damaged her, the look on his face said it was nothing at all about her husband's love.
Every second week for nearly two months during that blast-furnace summer she drove over to Harristown daily to lie in the machine, while Dr Simon Beyer, the only oncologist at the county hospital, hovered over her like a young parent with a newborn, though he was more than twice her age, Hazel figured, and had no kids of his own. "I've got you, honey, I've got you," he whispered, bringing her soothing cups of stomach-settling ginger tea.
Nearly two months of debilitating nausea and crushing fatigue, but oh how sweet the foul toxins in her body made her husband, how her weakness made him strong, at first at least. She'd return from Harristown - "best you drive yourself, darlin', so you don't have to worry about keeping me hanging around over there all morning with nothin' to do" - and he'd lay her down on the couch, pressing a cool kitchen rag to her sweaty forehead and lingering in a solicitous way she'd not seen since the day he pushed her down the porch stairs and knocked her unconscious.
"Anything else you need, babe, you tell me, it's yours," he'd say from the ancient leather recliner where he slouched, flipping through the pages of the auto spares catalogue. He didn't even expect her to prepare a proper dinner every night! "I'm fine with just some eggs or a grilled cheese - whatever's easiest, really," he grinned in his magnanimity.
After a few weeks, though, when the radiation had sapped every bit of her strength and she could barely speak any more through the pain of the mouth ulcers, that Tod's patience started to thin and he chafed at the imposition of an ill wife, glowering when she cried over the hanks of hair matting her brush and the skirts hanging so loose they needed to be pinned at the waist so's to keep them up. He was especially angry, later, when there was nothing to eat in the house and Hazel couldn't even get up to go into town for supplies, let alone stand in the kitchen and prepare anything. He took her slow recovery so personally that he talked as if her condition were a choice - a deliberate affront to him.
"I mean it's like she don't want to get better, Sindy," he told his sister on the phone. "Like she's done with me and this life. But I ain't goin' to let her leave, I swear I'll, I'll …"
But it didn't come to whatever he thought he'd do to stop her dying or hasten her recovery: by early fall, with the treatment behind her, Hazel could feel what the tests showed - that she was getting better. She was certainly well enough to take up most of her old shifts at the coffee shop, and lord knows she needed to get back to work, with Tod still looking for something suitable, something he didn't consider an insult to his trade or his manhood.
There was just one thing left to do as a parting gesture to the sickness: she asked Tod to go with her to meet Dr Simon - he'd not once done so yet - to take him a gift, a scarf she'd been stitching in his favourite colours of yellow and blue which reminded him, he said, of his champion high school football team.
"And I bet he was the star quarterback, right, your brilliant Dr Simon? Hope he at least got his nose smashed, or is he one of those pretty boys who just warmed the bench?"
"He didn't play at all, Toddy, he was just proud of the team. He tore up his knee real bad when he was a kid and his mother wouldn't let him on the field. He always talks about how he never missed watchin' a game though."
Tod stood up and reached Hazel in one stride, grabbing her face with his hands and pushing her back. "Always talks? How the hell do you know so much about this man? Is he your doctor or your lover?" he demanded, pinning her against the wall by her shoulders, his arms shaking with the effort of holding her there so hard. "I'd say those sessions in Harristown got a little too cosy. Bet you liked laying out there on the table for him, his college-boy hands all over you. You b---- - you ever see that bastard again and I'll give you a thumping so bad you'll wish the cancer had killed you. Cos I'll do it for you and I swear it'll be much more painful."
Hazel could barely get the words out, her throat was so tight. "Come on baby, please, he's an old man. Besides, it don't matter what he's like - you know I could never look at anyone else but you. And he fixed me, didn't he?"
So the pretty scarf lay coiled up in the sewing basket next to the front door, a poisonous snake that had struck, retreated and now lay in wait again, a daily reminder of the last big beating, the one where he finally broke bones and nearly blinded her.
She noticed it on the first day of the next spring that it was really warm enough to wear one of her thin cotton shifts: the new lump and swelling. She knew what it meant - that he wouldn't forgive her for getting sick again, so she reckoned she wouldn't tell him before she was sure, and whatever happened she surely wouldn't put him through that treatment again. She'd rather die. But she needed to know, so she took an afternoon from work and drove through to Dr Simon, who shook his head when she slid into the chair across from him, pleased to see her but sorry about what it most likely meant.
* * *
This is what I remember from the day you died.
The wind howling like a chained-up wolf, the sheets rattling on the line outside, and where are you?
I find your phone and his secret message, his cheerful voice telling you "time to celebrate", and I knew you'd slunk back over there like a dirty cheat for him to look at and feel you again.
I remember the blue and yellow snake in my hands and then tight around your neck and how it just lay there after you were gone.
This is what I remember from the day I killed you.