Postcard: third place in The National's 2013 Short Story Competition
Janet Olearski has always been writing. The Abu Dhabi educator and writer, originally from the UK, collects anecdotes in a notepad and keeps them stored for a possible short story or the beginning of a novel; she regularly submits short stories to numerous global writing competitions. This particular competition's theme was the trigger to turn the accumulated observations into a short story.
"It was the missing link in a way," she says. "It's all about the process and once I started, I just kept working at it. The competition gave me confidence in that I can do this."
Her story is below:
In some distant country, in the back of beyond, when Christina stood pushing her postcards into an empty metal post box, hearing them clatter onto its hollow floor, she remembered Sonia. Sonia flitted into her mind like a soul without a home.
It was Sonia who had appeared in shows, auditioned, sung at concerts, and travelled to film studios together with Christina's grandmother Kay. The two women, Sonia and Kay, had been almost inseparable. Sonia was not at all flamboyant in the way that Kay had been, but she was of the same essence. Theatricality is in the blood, they say. Except everyone ruled that out when they met Christina.
Christina thought back to the winter when Sonia had contacted her mother. It had been agreed that she and her mother should pay a visit. Christina was not especially keen. She worried that her mother might be showing her off, and that Sonia would be expecting her to be just like her grandmother. It seemed to Christina that she would disappoint them both. She protested, but her mother had got it into her head that they had to go and was ready for a stroll down memory lane. Christina sulked - as she did in those days - but they went anyway.
Over time, people lose the details of experiences and events. They think they'll remember, but they don't. Those details are gone. When she looked back, Christina could not recall if the day of that meeting they had taken the bus one stop too far, or not far enough. She had studied the relevant pages from the A to Z, turning it sideways and upside down to get her bearings. Her mother tried to spot street names as the bus trundled along under an overcast sky. When they finally arrived, they found Sonia there in the street waiting for them, concerned they might get lost. She had come out into the cold to find them and guide them back to her front room, where tea in fine rose-patterned china cups, and Viennese cakes on matching plates awaited.
It was at a time when Christina must have been at university, or perhaps was about to go. She was journeying back and forth to stay in some arid Calabrian coastal town, to be with a man, pointlessly so. It was all costing a good bit of money. The man was having fine times at Christina's expense.
"I wish I could have done the same at her age," her mother would say, learning that Christina was off again to Italy - as if this were an acceptable thing, a young woman taking herself away to visit a man who never once thought to come and visit her. That was part of Christina's embarrassment. She had nothing to report to Sonia, only that she had a boyfriend from there. She had enough sense not to let slip that Kay's granddaughter was seeing a man who was separated, but not yet divorced. And him a foreigner at that. Years later it pained her to think about it. Sometimes people know things are wrong and, because they're wrong, the 'being wrong' isolates them. They're slapped over with the paint of guilt and it won't wash off.
When they got into the light and warmth of the flat, Sonia couldn't take her eyes off Christina. She was looking for the resemblance, almost in awe. Christina could not gauge how much she did, or did not, look like her grandmother. That was for others to perceive. Christina reminded Sonia of someone. It was partly Kay, but it was also someone else. Sonia stared and thought as she poured the tea. In an armchair, in a corner of the room, sat her husband, reading his newspaper.
"Who does Christina remind you of, Bernard?" she asked him more than once. Bernard looked at Christina over his glasses, said nothing, and continued reading.
Christina was drawn into an interrogation for which she was ill-prepared. Sonia wanted to hear all about how much she liked Calabria. In truth Christina hated it, but could not say. She only went because of the man. Sonia wanted hear about Christina's interests, her studies, her aspirations. Everything had seemed perfectly clear until Sonia had asked her. How could she answer when she did not really know? She didn't know her own mind either, which was worse. When she thought back to that time, she did not despise the Christina of the past for her ignorance. She felt compassion for her.
In the midst of this, there was a sudden flash of recognition in Sonia's expression. She knew without a shadow of a doubt who it was Christina reminded her of.
"Vivien Leigh!" she said. "That's who you look like. A young Vivien Leigh."
Christina was immediately evaluated by three pairs of eyes.
"Who?" said Christina.
"Can't you see it, Bernard?" Sonia said, turning to her husband. "Vivien Leigh, Gone With The Wind. Remember?"
He rattled his newspaper. "Maybe," he conceded.
"Look," said Sonia to Christina's mother. "Can't you see it? The similarity."
Christina's mother was flattered, if not surprised, that a daughter of hers should have come out looking like Vivien Leigh.
"Oh yes!" she said, seeing it for the first time.
"Oh yes," said Sonia. "Definitely Vivien Leigh!"
And there were the two of them staring at Christina, admiring her, wondering at the coincidence.
"It's the eyes," said Sonia, "and the shape of her face ..." Christina could have been Vivien Leigh's stand-in. Sonia knew. She had worked on Ship of Fools and had seen the real Vivien. So, who could argue with her? But there was something demeaning about being compared to someone who, even at Christina's age, was renowned, when Christina herself was not, and probably never would be. Christina was the first insignificant one of her kind, but the millionth Vivien Leigh lookalike. There's something not quite right about that. But not to Sonia's mind. It brought her immense pleasure this discovery.
So, a scene in Sonia's front room: Christina and her mother sipping their Earl Grey and eating dainty European pastries; Bernard sitting in his armchair and reading his newspaper, glancing from time to time at the visitors without saying a word; Sonia telling them about her holidays in Capri, and how she'd sing medleys of old favourites at the piano in some Italian trattoria, to the delight of the proprietor. And Sonia remembering Kay, her eyes becoming glassy as she considered the loss of her old friend so long gone. For a few moments they all sat silently in that memory.
Christina knew her mother wanted to get back to give her father his dinner. Sonia urged them to stay, but they could not. Christina's mother said they would definitely come again. She would come on her own, or with Christina ... if Christina was back from Italy. She was leaving again in a few days' time. Another reason why Christina hadn't wanted to visit that day: there were things to do, a suitcase to pack. But people can always find time for the things that matter. As Christina later discovered.
Sonia hurried into another room and brought back an address book and a postcard. She had an old friend in Taormina. Perhaps when Christina got there, to wherever she was going, she would post a card to him from Sonia. Christina was not going anywhere remotely near. The card would have arrived sooner from England. Despite that, Christina agreed. Sonia was, in any case, already scribbling her message. Christina had the vaguest impression that Bernard raised his head for a moment to look in their direction.
Sonia wanted to give Christina the money. For a postcard? Christina said not to worry - she would take care of it.
And then they left, Sonia insisting on accompanying them up the road.
"You'll make yourself ill," said Bernard. "I'll go."
"No, you'll make yourself ill," said Sonia. "You stay here and read your paper."
And she went with them in the cold all the way to the bus stop, hugged them both, made them promise to come back. Christina was relieved to get away, as she always was, even years later, whenever she went to visit anyone. She was no sooner there than she wanted to be gone. And yet, in retrospect, she had enjoyed that day. She didn't know if she had enjoyed it for what had been said, or because she had done a good deed and had been there to give some satisfaction to an old lady.
The two women both came away with the sense of a job well done. Somehow, though, Christina could not really see herself returning. They watched Sonia standing in the darkness waving to them as they sat in the bus. And then they were off, heading home through the unknown territories of Hampstead. When someone doesn't own a car - and they didn't - even places that are near seem light years away. Christina would fly for three and a half hours to see her Italian, but 25 minutes on the bus in a freezing English winter seemed an eternity.
She took Sonia's postcard with her to Calabria. She was miles from the nearest post office, she had no transport, she relied on him. Whatever her initial intentions back in London, she did not dare ask the man about buying stamps. He didn't consider things like that important. Christina had the wrong kind of relationship with him, she realised. If she couldn't ask him to buy her a stamp, what kind of a relationship was it? On the last day, her conscience got the better of her, and she asked him. Please, she said, please could he post this card for her? It was very important.
He scrutinised the postcard and the message. He sat for a long time trying to decipher it. Every so often he looked up at her, then back again at the card. His expression was stern, but otherwise deadpan. That's the way he was. But he was shut out, too, from her language and her world: he had shut himself out. Christina knew what he was thinking, that she might have written it herself ... to a secret boyfriend.
She said, "I know what you're thinking."
He said, "What am I thinking?"
"That I've written the card to some man I know," she said. "Anyway, you can see it's not my writing."
"Isn't it?' he said. He could be very awkward when he wanted to be.
"I'd hardly give it to you to post if it was to a boyfriend, would I?"
"You might," he said, "to make me jealous." Christina wanted to do one of her sarcastic laughs and say, "You can't be serious," but she didn't. Scorn was wasted on him. Either he didn't get it or he didn't want to get it. In the end he took the card and posted it. It was a game he was playing, but the trouble was Christina never knew where the game began and where it ended. And that was always the problem.
Back in England, Bernard phoned Christina's mother. He told her Sonia had collapsed and died just the week after their visit. He had not known where to lay his hands on their number. In the end he had found it in one of Sonia's address books, but by the time Christina's mother had had the news, Sonia was dead and buried. And it was probably around that time that Sonia's postcard, her last postcard, had reached its destination.
* * *
"Did you ever post that card for her?" Christina's mother, increasingly forgetful, often asked her daughter. And Christina, whose trips now were always for business, never for pleasure, thought how the recipient, whoever he was, had had a postcard from a dead woman, sent on her behalf by a poor imitation of a deceased film star.
But the Christina of those times was long gone, of course.