37 – Atropos

A short story originally published on Medium. Atropos is one of the three Fates in Greek mythology, the one whose decision is final — her name means ‘inflexible’.

“First, I want to thank you for the invitation. All the invitations. Thank you for asking until I said yes.

“The first year, I was too angry. The second year, I was too angry. Last year, I was afraid of what I might say. My gratitude to the faculty and administration — especially Dr. Harnett and Dr. Walsh — who persisted in asking without expectation. They were close friends of my father, meshed in their own grief, but they reached out again and again.

“I didn’t appreciate it to begin with — and by that I mean, for years. I was angry with this school, with them, with the students who survived, even — a little — with the ones who didn’t. I wanted my father. If I couldn’t have him,
I wanted to hoard all the grief in the world.

“But the world is adept at delivering low blows. Even in my depths of my deepest wallows, it was hard not to know how easy it is to be sucker-punched by fate.

“It has taken four years since that day, which some of you remember all too-vividly, for me to be able to stand here and hope to say something that is not untrue. Many of you, mercifully, only know what happened second-hand — as do I.

“You didn’t see the gun. You didn’t hear the shots. Didn’t smell — as I’m told they would have — the propellant. It wasn’t your hair that stood on end, or your body that shook with the adrenaline rush. You didn’t have to make a life-or-death decision, without knowing which was which.

“Dammit. I’m still angry. At everybody, everything, every minute that added up to the moment my Dad died because some warped asshole had a bad day.

“Forgive me, fellow family members, survivors. I mean no disrespect. But let’s not give what happened more credit that it deserves. We lost our loved ones to an act of madness. I don’t want to credit their killer with reasons.

“Sorry — I should stick to my notes.

“I thought hard before saying ‘yes’. I didn’t want to come here and pretend to have reached a resolution. Yet, it was time. Those of you who were lucky enough to know my Dad, to study with him, know the only thing he loved more than making wine was teaching future winemakers.

“He treasured education and when he retired from his first career as research scientist to start the winery, it was the teaching he missed. This program gave him a chance to combine the two great loves of his life. I wanted to honor that. It’s what he would have wanted.

“So I said ‘yes’, not knowing what came next. Knowing what to say was one of Dad’s gifts. It’s not one of mine. But my mind kept turning back to one story — one pivotal moment.

“Most of you know the winery, or will have at least driven past and seen the acres of vineyards spread across the hills. If you can, erase all that. Picture those hills with nothing but brambles and stones. Picture a decrepit clapboard house with clothes on a line out front, and a tractor parked next to a beat pick-up truck. Picture my Dad, humping that rusty machine along those hills ten hours a day. My Mom tending hundreds of tiny scraps of vine nestled in cardboard milk cartons. After school, my brother and I put to work planting, watering, propping, tying.

“It takes about four years to get a crop, as you know. I was 15 by then, sick of the dirt, convinced nothing was going to come of this stupid experiment. That first year changed my mind. We didn’t get a lot of grapes but they were good. And the wine Dad made was great — award-winning, in fact. Suddenly, my pea-sized teenage brain saw the potential.

“I was almost excited for the second harvest. A handful of friends from schol were coming to help pick at the weekend. The Friday night was warm and hazy. Sunset hung on forever — the sky turning from fuchsia to rose to powder pink. Mom and Dad were on the porch, drinking wine. Toby and I were playing checkers, which is this weird old thing that was invented before the internet. I was completely content — a rare emotion for me at 16 — everything was right.

“The next morning I woke up to Dad shouting, crying really, roaring. I was terrified, I’d never heard anything like it. There was something else, this sort of whirring, rustling noise in the background. Running out of my room, I collided with Toby, and we both staggered into the living room.

“That house overlooked the main, the only, vineyard. Through the open front door I saw this dark thing — this moving mass. Dad was running towards the vines, arms flailing like a Laurel & Hardy skit. Mom on his heels. After a confused minute we realized it was birds.

“Hundreds, thousands, who knows. More birds than we’d ever imagined. Hitchcockian levels, swarming our ripe grapes.

“That was break point for Dad. He had an academic job on offer. He had no harvest. We were broke. You’re familiar with the taut economy of wine-making so you can imagine…. I, in my adolescent wisdom, was convinced, determined this was a sign. Like, “Dad, we tried, we failed, now can we please go back to the city and a job where you can afford to buy me a car?”

“Instead, he remortgaged the property on terrifying terms, and went back to planting and pruning. I was furious, livid. What was going to stop it happening again? What were we going to do then?

“‘We can always start again,’ Dad said.

“It was a few years before I forgave him. My last two years of high school I wore clothes from Salvation Army and ate packed lunches. If a person could die of embarrassment, I wouldn’t be here.

“By the time I went to college, though, things were on an upswing, and just kept swinging. Suddenly, it was the coolest thing in the world to bring friends and boyfriends to visit. Mom and Dad built the new house and I had this huge, beautiful room and studio space overlooking the vineyards. They were winning awards, hosting dinners, giving lectures, appearing in magazines.

“They threw me a 21st birthday dinner at the newly built winery. I sat at the head of the long oak table in the library, surrounded by my friends, drinking amazing vintages Dad had saved especially for the day. I remember hugging him and saying, ‘Daddy, I was wrong when I told you to quit. I’m so glad you didn’t listen to me.’

“Rightfully, that should be where the story ends. The triumph of courage over cowardice, optimism over pessimism, fortitude over adversity.

“I lived with that smug, comfortable morality tale for my whole adult life — until four years ago. When I heard the news, I literally fell over. My legs gave out. Lying there, howling, I thought, ‘Why didn’t he just quit?

“Once again, I was furious with Dad. If only he’d heeded the warning, if only he weren’t so stubborn, if only he’d given up. I didn’t give a shit about the winery, his accomplishments, his pleasure in it, I just wanted him back.

“I still want him back. But I’m no longer sure he should have quit after the birds. However, I’m also not sure he shouldn’t have.

“God knows, I’ve tried to weigh it up. Tried to find some scale to balance my Dad’s pride, joy and satisfaction in the winery against the fact of his absence. Increasingly, I don’t think such a scale exists. His life was infinitely precious. Missing him is wound that doesn’t heal. But his life was inextricable from what he loved, and how he chose to live.

“Would he do things differently, if he could have seen the future? I don’t know.

“Not knowing, I can’t offer you a comfortable morality tale. Doing what you love can save your life. It can also cost your life. Every day, you make life-and-death decisions without knowing which is which.

“So you may as well follow the deepest, truest impulse of your heart. You don’t know when or where the journey will end, but you can choose your path…”

22 – Glasgow Stories

These are unpublished, linked flash-fiction pieces. Contain strong language.

Photo: Cila Warncke

The Teacher

The aristocratic houses along Park Circus, above Kelvingrove Park, look like mausoleums and for much of the year must be as cold. A triumph of wealth over pragmatism, they boast lofty ceilings and vast windowpanes unsuited to the bitter climate. They hold themselves frigidly above the street, conscious of their status as monuments to consumption. The builders intended them for men rich enough to afford endless fuel. Now they rise in listed splendour, proud architectural affronts to democracy. I imagine the inhabitants prize their expensive discomfort.

My students are unmoved by the honour of being chosen for special study sessions. The group changes every other week, but they all look alike. The boys are thin, their truculent adolescent faces sharp and pale as wedges of cheese. They wear Nike or Adidas tracksuits and hoodies, or jeans belted below the hips. Despite their collective swagger the boys are careful to not infringe on the scented feminine clusters that form around forbidden iPhones. The girls are coy, aware their power lies in commanding attention. They flutter, fiddling with necklaces and earrings, or combing strands of hair with bright acrylic nails.

None of them take an interest in my lessons. They are obedient and indifferent. I am a novelty, like the star-nosed mole I point out on a trip to the zoo. “Do you like living in Glasgow?” One asks. Another: “Do you have a girlfriend?” These questions are automatic. The products of a lifetime habit of using interrogation to distract authority figures. I tell them I am interested in post-industrial cities, wondering if anyone will ask me what I mean. No one does.

“Did any of your family members work in the shipyards?” I ask once.

A girl looks at me pityingly: “It’s lunchtime, you know.”

They regard the future with suspicion. Like misers, they are averse to even modest speculation. “What do you want to be?” I ask. “If you could visit any country, where would you go?” The girls’ eyes flicker like snake tongues. The boys nudge each other. At first I thought this was a silent protest against my accent, age, and shirt-collar. But my self-consciousness exceeds their curiosity. Glasgow is the universe; I’m a transient alien.

Photo: Cila Warncke

The Friend

I walk from town early, as the shopkeepers and street-sweepers perform their daily rituals of addition and subtraction on Woodlands Road. Passing taxis throw sheets of water across the pavement. The shop windows contain rickety furniture; mediocre paintings; comic books; or sour-smelling vegetables. A mattress slumps against a parking meter, the legs of a decapitated office chair poke the air next to it.

Alma works in a coffee shop with frosted-glass tables and bookshelves lining the walls. The first time I went in she overheated my cappuccino and, smiling, urged me to try an almond croissant. There was something in that smile I couldn’t place, a kind of play-acting. Calum was her lifeboat. Her eyes held premonition of the end but she hung on, even as the waves ran high towards the rocks. Mornings, he would dash into the shop on his way to work. Jeans sagging with the weight of keys, wrenches, pliers and a spare sprocket; Adidas baseball cap rearing back from his forehead. After he left Alma would stand by the espresso machine, arms crossed, eyes distant. Glasgow’s West End pulsates freely with details of private lives. She made only perfunctory efforts to mask her unease. I would see them walking, her hair brushing his shoulder as she tried to match his stride. Many cappuccinos later, after we become friends, she volunteered information. Her smile hid a terrible need to be heard.

One Friday I asked her what she was doing that night. “I have a spare ticket to a show, would you like to come?”

She said, lightly as she could: “Sure, what time?”

I asked her out most Fridays after that. She was always non-committal. If Calum was there when I passed the café I would go to the cinema. Otherwise, I would go home and shower. By the time I was dressed there would be a message: “Want to get a drink later?”

You walk down half a dozen steps to enter the Drake. On the left a gas-fire, straight ahead amber whisky bottles twinkle in a setting of highly polished cherry. She drank Glenfiddich 15, neat. “It’s Calum’s favourite.” She tried to not mention him but always slipped. Calum. She would mould the word carefully with her lips then glance away, or push the whisky glass back and forth between her middle fingers.

Photo: Cila Warncke

The Lodger

Rupert Street runs perpendicular between Great Western and Woodlands Road. A square tower of yellowish brick rises above the rust-coloured tenements at the junction with Woodlands Road. At the corner is a pub, the pavement marked by coronas of vomit. In weeks of walking this street I can count on my hand the number of times I have passed another human. But detritus hints at life behind the blank windows. Someone has placed a half-drunk bottle of Irn Bru inside a horizontal refrigerator. A bike with one wheel is chained to a lamppost. Cigarette butts cluster on the pavement in front of some doors, tiny piles of dog shit near others. Perhaps the inhabitants are elderly, or just lazy.

I arrived here after my city centre flatmate came home drunk one night and urinated on the television. Calum and I met by chance. If I had thought he would offer me a room I might not have mentioned my housing difficulties, but he did and it seemed foolish to refuse. There are other coffee shops.

Calum and his father Alan live at number 10. Moving in, I slipped on a worn concrete stair and twisted my knee. “Sorry,” Calum said, pushing his hat back. “There’s no point fixing it till the workmen finish. They’ll just fuck it up again.” It was originally a three bedroom flat. His father divided the master bedroom: half for each daughter. This arrangement no longer serves a purpose but Calum and his dad occupy the flat as if the women were still there. The builders have knocked through the wall but Alan is in no rush to reclaim the master bedroom. He urged me to make myself at home and wrestled in a mossy log of a sofa. The springs gouge my back.

I don’t know what Alan does for a living. Sometimes I walk to the kitchen in my shorts, thinking I’m alone, and he’s slumped on the sofa, watching chat shows on mute. He sits up, tugs at the frayed sleeves of his cardigan and smiles nervously, revealing absent teeth. Calum is missing the same premolar, as if they were removed in some atavistic ritual. Their voices are indistinguishable on the phone. Most nights they eat pasta and garlic bread, or chicken and chips from Styrofoam boxes. Since Calum’s mother died they have built a cocoon of habit.

I am a permanent house-guest. To be a lodger you need to be ignored and slight quirks in their domestic rituals betray an awareness of my presence. Alan runs the tap when he uses the toilet. If Calum is home when I return from work he loiters while I heat up soup and butter bread, bragging about cars he’s fixed and girls he’s groped. I know his anecdotes are fiction but something in is eyes make me ashamed of my scepticism.

Photo: Cila Warncke