A typhoon bears down on a travelling couple in the winning entry in the 2009 Alumni Short Story Contest
That night might have rocked them a lullaby, had they been more secure. Tucked into twin beds even though they’d booked a double, they’d been travelling long enough not to take any beds for granted. And these ones had such soft mattresses, made up with good linen. A room with a private bath, a nice hotel because they’d had it with hostels. Not realizing they were too old for such accommodation, that they were the problem and the hostels were exactly what they were supposed to be.
The runners-up are Liam Lacey (BA 1978 Victoria) for his story “Remorse and the Post-Op Denver Convention” and Luke Henry Howie for his poem “The Dog (Pic Mobert).”
Lacey also won a Readers’ Choice Award for his story. Laura Rock (BA 1986 St. Michael’s) won a Readers’ Choice Award – for her poem “In Rocco’s House (My Grandmother’s Poor Beginning)”
Thomas was sitting up against his pillows, laptop propped up on his knees. The last two days’ photographs transferring from his camera one by one, appearing on the screen to cast his face in various hues. Mo watching him, curled up on her own bed, on her side of the room. The two of them not usually so territorial, but here it was a matter of symmetry. Thomas turning blue in the light, red, then blue again. He’d angled his screen so Mo couldn’t see.
That he was looking at a picture of a girl: Transfer Completed. The photo was from the Peace Museum yesterday, the first one he’d taken that morning. A photo of a photo, the woman in sepia tones with her back to the camera, displaying the floral print of a kimono burned onto her skin. That incalculable horror could be represented so uncannily. As contrasted with the mushroom cloud, an iconicity as obscuring as the dust had been, but this woman’s back obscured nothing. The imprint of truth here, a photo in a photo. Which was distance, but tangible – Thomas was partial to truths he could hold in his hand.
But he wouldn’t show Mo. Six weeks of travelling had made for well over four thousand photos – of various sunsets, vistas, temples and pagodas – but they seemed personal now. Though Mo had been with him the whole time, even appearing in half the shots, this was the world through his eyes. He didn’t want to chance what she might reduce it to.
Thomas himself was rarely seen in the pictures, and he’d still been photographer in the ones where he was. With his arm outstretched to hold the camera, his head dipped into a double chin. But even at the best of times Thomas photographed badly, light glaring off his glasses, his jaw stiff and aching when he smiled. Thomas found his comfort behind the lens instead; of all the roles in his life, he liked this one the best. Something formidable had been achieved these last few weeks, and he reported, “Four thousand, three hundred and thirty-seven” without even thinking. For he was of the type that thought sheer volume might constitute an oeuvre.
It was a sticking point. Thomas had viewed so much of their six weeks in Asia through his lens, he might as well have watched it on television. He was utterly incapable of experience, preoccupied with documentation at a level that was disconcerting. Frustrating. Even when his seascapes all just blended into one, he’d argue memories did the same. Which memories didn’t do, Mo was sure. Or at least when they did, they were supposed to, fading and blending all part of a memory’s design.
She was sitting up in bed now. The light from the computer was distracting, the tap tap of the keyboard annoying. Illuminated letters spelling “Georgia Coffee Star” were secured to the roof next door, dousing their room in flossy pink, thin curtains shutting out none of the brilliance.
“Almost five thousand photos,” said Thomas, who liked his numbers round.
“But not quite,” said Mo. “There won’t be time for that.” Because there wouldn’t be. Not during the thirty-six hours they had left. And now Thomas was exhaling through his nose, a rubber tire and she the rusty nail. “But you’ve got so many already,” she said. Thomas was too sensitive. Lying back down, and there it was, almost. Mo closed her eyes. Could it really be that easy?
But there it was, thought Thomas, his camera disconnecting from his laptop with a click. The noise would disturb her. And no matter what she said, it was a triumph, these four thousand, three hundred and thirty-seven photos that proved not only Thomas Whittock Lives, but that There Are Places He Has Been. The whole wide world, if only so far, contained on a hard drive. Chaos, grit and ecstasy shrunk into bytes.
Outside the wind was blowing fierce, storm’s stirring. A lagging warm front about to clash with its adversary, the first typhoon of the season descending, and Mo and Thomas hadn’t realized. Neither one of them noticing the currents in the air, for they thought they’d seen storms before. Thomas was organizing his photos into albums, and Mo still had her eyes shut but then she opened them again.
“Are you going to be long?” she asked.
Mo sat back up, turned on the lamp. “Anything good?”
Thomas shrugged. He created a brand new file, “Hiroshima Tuesday.” There won’t be time, she’d said, like the decision was hers, and now it felt like it was.
He continued sorting, and Mo got out of bed. Treading carefully, because the room was dark. In spite of the bedside lamp, the glow from the computer and the pink light across the way. Too bright to sleep, too dark to walk, up here in this bizarre room eighteen storeys into the empyrean and Mo was looking for something to read. There was only the travel guide, battered from weeks of use, from being stuffed into her backpack. Some pages dog-eared, whole sections torn out from day trips when they didn’t want to haul the continent. But there were chapters they hadn’t cracked yet, still places they hadn’t been.
Then at the crash: they looked up together. A tile had come loose from a roof across the street, plunging down against their window. The view obscured as the rain started falling. “Georgia Coffee Star” had turned into an electric blur.
Thomas said, “What was that?”
Mo said, “How would I know?” She had resolved to be kinder, but Thomas made it hard. Behind his screen his head was bowed, shoulders slouched. And now, only now, did she want to push the computer away, the camera too, and crawl into that narrow bed beside him. Only when he wanted nothing to do with her at all.
Because he was reading his emails, using his access to the wireless world, but there was nothing urgent. Junior Associates with their massive quandaries, problems he could solve out of habit. These could wait a day or two. A note from his boss, but just an update, nothing had changed and Thomas clicked the email window shut.
Thunder rumbled far away, the rain falling louder, but neither of them remarked upon the weather. They were tired of weather. They were tired full stop, having had enough of such remarks, of observations lately. Of each other. Even the things they thought but never said seemed so dwelled upon.
Mo skimming a summary of Tibetan customs, and she was thinking about all they would be taking back with them. Bits and pieces picked up along the way – sarongs, and thongs, and ethnic handicrafts.
Thomas was looking at the photos again, beginning a slide show of the whole collection. They’d both lost weight, he realized. Mo no longer smiled with her teeth.
And Mo was turning the page, enacting reading for the sake of comfort. What she would have given for a fat 19th-century novel to pass the time, to take her far away from here. Just to be home, where the books were allowed to be heavy because there was no need to carry them around.
Oh home – and she was thinking of bath towels. Her towels hanging on their hooks on the other side of the world and she could see them, memory capturing her senses: fluffy, blue, soft against her cheek, and they smelled like the dryer. The dryer – she’d been rinsing her clothes in the sink for so long now, hanging them up to dry in the shower. Even her tank tops were stiff, nothing ever really got clean. A hotel as nice as this one, and still the towels were rough and worn with loose threads, too small for their purpose. One of the towels had to be the bath mat and it never mattered which.
But that there was a bath mat at all, which meant a bath. Even a shower hadn’t been easy to come by. Once in Mongolia they’d travelled by bus for thirty hours to a destination without running water, so what a relief it was – the bathtub, the end of this journey. Every second’s passage bringing them closer to home, to end up finished where they’d started from.
There was a bolt of lightning then, the room ablaze for an instant, and then more thunder. Thomas considering turning off the computer, but he didn’t want to give her the satisfaction. She was tired, but she was also intolerable. Why should he always have to make it easy?
One pagoda slipping into another, and he was looking at Vietnam. Mo, turning the pages of the travel guide, arrived at Vietnam, barely noticing the end of Tibet. Still thinking about the towels, how with one she could rub her whole body dry. She was staring at the ceiling when the lights went out.
The whole world disappearing, evaporating into a pinpoint of light where a stucco swirl had been, and then obliterated altogether – pop. The last of the power when old TVs get turned off, but Mo’s eyes adjusted and she found the world not gone at all. Its shapes instead draped in darkness, just the light from Thomas’s screen.
But the Georgia Coffee Star had been extinguished. Thomas set down the computer and got up to see. Pushing the curtain aside, he looked out the window to see no lights shining, no street below. The 7-Eleven on the corner was gone; there was no sign at all of civilization. They were eighteen storeys above an abyss and now they felt the wind. The gentle sway incongruous with the violent noise outside.
“It must have been the storm,” he said.
Mo tossed the book aside.
Thomas turned away from the window, that blind opening. He sat on the bed, “You’d think they’d have a generator,” he said. “For emergencies.”
“It won’t last long,” said Mo. That sway, that uneasy awful peace. Because earthquake-proof buildings were designed to give way, not to collapse at a tremor, she knew. That the movement meant safety, but it was hard to be convinced. “What’s out there?”
Thomas said, “Just dark, and the rain.”
And neither of them had ever imagined a typhoon, supposing such weather for people prone to hyperbole. Their time in Asia had been so sticky, the heat endless and unbroken. So accustomed to their own perpetual discomfort, they’d hadn’t imagined something different or worse.
A piece of the Georgia Coffee Star sign snapped, part of its scaffolding flying towards them. Arriving with a crash like shattering glass, but still the pane held.
“It’s just the storm,” said Thomas.
“But it’s not.” Thomas would try to make everything manageable. “Debris flying through the sky – what storm is that?” Mo asked.
“Just the wind.”
Wind, Mo thought, being the least of their problems. Looking out the window, straining her eyes to find a world she just couldn’t see, and she imagined a blackened cow flying over a dark slice of moon. The wind getting louder now, like a highway was outside. Rain battering the glass, and they’d never sleep through this racket. “Should we call downstairs?” Thomas asked.
“But what can they do? If they could turn on the lights, I’m sure they would.”
“It might be an emergency.”
“Then we shouldn’t be tying up the phone,” she said. “You wouldn’t understand them anyway.”
Thomas turned off the computer because the battery was low. The room was dark, finally.
“You’re going to sleep then?” Mo asked him.
Thomas said, “I guess so.” He’d never be able to sleep with the storm, but if the alternative was Mo, he’d try. So he put the laptop away, came back to bed. Pulling down the covers to crawl underneath, though Mo was still on top of hers. His eyes adjusting, and he could see the shape of her – there must be light from somewhere.
The pillow under his head was hard and heavy. He could feel them swaying still; almost peaceful, were it not so imperiling his connection to earth.
It made Mo nervous too. She was freezing, her bed below the air duct, but she didn’t want to move, to pull up her blankets, just in case she sent them toppling. This wasn’t safety, she was sure of it, though of course Thomas would tell her otherwise. He’d find another way to render her anxiety all wrong, and with the cold and wind, she shivered again. The lightning flashing, illuminating the room just like day.
So they were staring at one another, lying both on their sides.
But when the lightning was gone, the darkness again. That one glimpse had changed nothing, and still the thunder rolled.
Thomas gripping the edge of his mattress, ashamed to suppose his stillness might just keep them stable. And yet he couldn’t chance it otherwise.
With Mo holding her breath, as though the breeze of respiration even mattered. The flip side of the view was how far they had to fall, and she wondered how long it would take. So it occurred to Mo that she was about to die then. Almost resigned, she realized, with Thomas still thousands of miles away on the other side of the room. She couldn’t reach him, even if she stretched out her arm. When she couldn’t hold her breath anymore, she exhaled slowly.
Back and forth they blew, just like a bough. It was all give and take.
Thomas clutching the mattress, thinking here was grave danger. Something he’d never experienced, though he’d heard about adrenaline rushes, but here was none of that. His fingers so fixed, he couldn’t let go. A dream he couldn’t cry out from, and what could he say if he did?
And then the room was flooded with light, as shocking as a sound. Both of them starting, so sure this was it, that the plummet would begin, but the sway kept on, everything pink as a postcard sunset. They even dared to sit up in their beds, to look out towards the electric beacon. For a glimpse to finally change something between them, to see it was the storm after all.
Kerry Clare (BA 2002, MA 2007) reads and writes in Toronto, where she lives with her husband, Stuart Lawler, and their baby daughter, Harriet. Her fiction, essays and reviews have appeared in the New Quarterly, Quill & Quire, the Globe and Mail and other publications. Online, she writes about books and reading at her blog, Pickle Me This (picklemethis.blogspot.com). Clare is currently on maternity leave from her job as researcher for the Clarkson Centre for Business Ethics and Board Effectiveness at U of T’s Rotman School of Management.