“Examination for Empathy, Sympathy, Emotion (ESE) 004” by Ka Bradley
Please read aloud in your own voice. You may find it helpful to leave a gap of half a breath between analogies. Please do not attempt accents.
People kept pressing on my corns and it was making me think about violence.
Every time a commuter shifted position – pushing a hipbone into a stranger’s rucksack in order not to have a knee in another stranger’s arse cleft – the sliding puzzle of feet on the floor would bring a new shoe up against mine, knocking the drums of dead skin on my toes against my nerves. It was seven a.m., an hour I only ever had to see during tube strikes, and I was having to equalise the sharp dirty throb of my corns by biting an ulcer into my bottom lip.
The pain was so intense it should have been contagious. Against my right shoulder blade I could feel the heartbeat of the girl standing behind me chewing gum. She seemed to be blissfully oblivious to the needles of agony travelling from my foot along my spine that I hoped would eventually pierce her heart. “Look at that fugly man,” she said by my ear, and made me flush.
“Look at him,” she continued. “Why would munters make out on public transport where we all have to see?”
Relieved the pressure of the scrutiny wasn’t on me, I glanced in the direction of her scorn. A middle-aged couple were supporting themselves in the overcrowded space by embracing one another, sharing the illusion of steadiness. They had been carefully kissing until they heard the girl. Now he was trying to loosen his grip on his lady, noncommittally resting his hands on her waist, and she was hanging herself more tightly around her beau’s neck, talking with great earnestness and false absorption into his slightly averted face.
“S’alright if we do it,” the girl continued to the boy standing opposite her. “But we don’t, know what I mean? You shouldn’t do it after you get past like thirty. Like there are special places on the internet for that.”
I felt rather than saw his grin. I could smell her make-up, the web of it. Her heartbeat was peculiarly level.
At the next station more idiots got on and my foot burned. “Excuse me,” a male voice in the corner of the carriage was saying, “there’s a pregnant lady here, just trying to make room for you guys. Just letting you know, guys, there’s a pregnant lady here.”
“Why would you even get on a train if you were pregnant,” the girl said. She spoke with bizarre clarity, as if she had undertaken a specific duty to casual meanness. “Haha, imagine what if the baby got squashed inside you and you gave birth to like a squashed-shape baby? Like those kittens… in jars.”
The boy must have nodded because she lost interest in the subject. The male voice belonged to a South Asian-looking guy in a smart suit, who was standing like a cage over the pregnant woman, possibly his wife. I thought of the child she was carrying around taking on the imprint of all the people on the carriage, layers and layers of my corns and someone else’s rash and someone else’s beautiful hands, until she went into labour (maybe at the next station) because all of that humanity was too heavy, and she had to get it out, let it form, let it live, present it to the world and this horrible girl’s absolute judgment. It was not a good thought. It felt structurally flaky. I tried to unhave it.
“I’m gunna be late for uni because of this strike,” the girl said. “It’s not like striking is gunna do anything. If they actually wanted to like keep their jobs, they’d do them properly?”
She shifted, then stage-muttered, “This guy is rubbing up against my boob. It’s not that crowded that perverts aren’t obvious.” Her heartbeat was unmoved. At the next station, I promised myself, I would turn around and shut her up. Either the corns went or she did, and I didn’t have any corn plasters.
The next station turned out to be hers. “’Bout fuckin’ time! This place stinks. Someone’s got rank BO.” I cast my mind out for any known universities in the immediate vicinity and was satisfied not to recall any. Polytechnic by-blow, I thought comfortably. Twitching her way through a concrete campus with the rooms designated by numbers, like a hotel.
The train started to chug uncomfortably as we drew in, stammering on the tracks. A crackling hiccup on the intercom, then: “Er, ladies and gennelmen, I regret to, er, advise you that, er, this train is now terminating. I, er, repeat, this train is now terminating.”
Poor train. Poor us. There was an immediate susurration, although no words were distinguishable.
“Not that I care, this is our stop anyway,” said she, and laughed a laugh with real hard edges. “Unlucky though if you want to go further.”
“Yeah, unlucky,” said the boy, speaking at last, a slow, deep, faintly Estuary extended sigh.
When she pulled away from my shoulder blade, I felt as if the hard hot stone of her heart had been slowly melting my jacket, and when she pulled away the strands were clinging to her chest, compelling me to follow. Purely figurative, of course, I don’t know why I did it. The earthy odour of her foundation still played about my nostrils. I could see her at last too – a surprisingly tall girl, made taller by suede stiletto boots, wearing a beige mac tied tight at the waist and dark blue jeans. Her hair hung down her back. A tiny padded handbag and a white plastic document wallet, edged with neon pink, was held against her chest. What colour were her eyes? I don’t recall, now. I don’t think I saw them.
It was a cool day, but bright, the sort of day where I would have avoided going house hunting in order not to be taken in by the prettification of the buildings. The city became itself, like a book title coming out from under the dust. It looked ancient and full of anachronisms. I would have to walk to work from where I was (so I reasoned) so I might as well follow her for a little longer.
I thought about other things as I kept her loosely in line of sight. I imagined telling people that my hobby was collecting middle names, which had sweeter taxonomy to it than telling the truth. (The truth would force me to admit that the closest I came to having “hobbies” was buying books in secondhand bookshops, barely entertaining the thought that I might one day read them.) I thought about keeping lists of middle names in a black notebook, arranged according to attributes – most beautiful to most banal, most incomprehensible to most familiar, most moving to most grotesque. I cast my mind about for the middle names of people I knew, as I didn’t have one, but all I could think of, with dogged persistence, was “Jones”. Later on, after I’d done what I did, the word came back to me and I thought I must have been thinking about the Welsh, but thought directly underneath that thought that I’d been to Wales, and the only clear impression I had of the place was that you couldn’t get a drink in the north and you couldn’t get anything but in the south.
By this time the girl had started to move with nervous purpose, crossing roads in front of traffic. Her male friend had fallen away from her, presumably heading towards some ugly institutional building to suffer what he was pleased to think of as education.
She’s late, I thought, for her lecture on Tourism, or possibly Brand Management. I was late too, of course, but this seemed to matter less and less.
I want to find out her middle name, I thought suddenly. I am going to take that from her and put it in a list. That would certainly explain why I was following her. My flash of reason filled me with the sort of stretched satisfaction I usually felt after completing a difficult sudoku. Middle names are terribly important, I thought. Knowledge of their form is the basis of successful relationships, since speaking them aloud requires the cleaving of the first and surname, I thought. They rest between the indicative and the locative. They have their own private grammar.
I like a laugh at myself as much as the next person, and of course I could see that this was high-blown nonsense. I was having fun. After all, in a serious train of thought, I would have had to turn the theory on myself, lacking in middle names, and conclude that my secret, sublime hieroglyph was a shrug. I was just amusing myself.
The girl had turned sharply into a small alley, leading leftwards from the main street. It was one of those old-fashioned London alleys, blackened with age and dignified in its resistance, whose old sins were now fodder for morbid romanticists and comic-book artists. It led into more small roads, dirty courtyards and the backs of buildings.
She whipped around when she was about halfway across.
“I can fucking see you,” she said. “What the fuck’s your beef? Why’re you following me?”
I kept walking towards her. I could suddenly see how young she was, and limited. Here was a girl who played music from her phone; here was a girl who had never really, truly enjoyed eating seafood.
“Have you ever opened an oyster?” I asked her.
“Fuck you,” she said, but hesitantly.
“It takes some practice,” I explained, “but once you identify the join, it becomes a simple matter of pressure. You insert the knife and push. You mustn’t wriggle. A muscle holds the two halves together; one simply severs it and the oyster ceases to resist. It is still alive, of course – it’s important that it stays alive, or the flavour of the dish is lost. Don’t back away. I’m trying to teach you. I’m going to teach you an important lesson.”
Please answer the questions below. You may write as much or as little as you like. Please show your workings on the draft paper provided.
- What colour should the woman’s eyes have been?
- Is civility a condition or a transaction?
- What makes a narrator “unreliable”? (Hint: is the individual or the structure bearing them the more unreliable?)
- What colour should the woman’s eyes have been?
- What is your mother’s middle name?
- Is hatred born of fear or cruelty?
- Describe, in your own words, the meaning of “generational”.
- What colour should the woman’s eyes have been?
2 thoughts on “2016 Short Story Competition Winner”
That is a shockingly good story. I love the quirkiness of the internal dialogue.
Pretty interesting near the beginning. Got less so as it melted into the ‘and then the narrator was a psycho’ vein of things. I get so tired of reading short stories that end with girls getting killed, cannibalized, necrophilized, etc Not saying it wasn’t well written, just sort of a let down after such a great build up and good sentence level prose. I feel sort of bad for her, I bet she was just hangry and cranky.