Issue #89

Winter 2024

Three Short Stories

by Ali Hildyard

My Father Moves on to Other Things

The other week my father, who had died the previous year, visited me to say that he had moved on to other things. At first I made little of this announcement, assuming that it was the prelude to something else. But while my father seemed at ease -- as much, that is, as he could be under the circumstances -- he repeated the phrase several times to underline its significance. As he did so, we held for a moment a new relationship to one another which is very difficult for me to explain. It is difficult because it was the most familiar kind of relationship, the relationship we might hold with respect to anyone outside of our immediate kin, but not a relationship we could envisage holding with regard to our own family. It was a kind of cordiality to which an entirely incompatible familiarity had been added. He had moved on to other things, he said brightly, even carelessly, yet it was a statement directed at me and intended for me alone, and I saw now, following his train of thought, the impossible place to which it brought us. He was my father, but he was no longer my father in -- for want of a better way to put things -- the personal sense of the word "father" as we speak it, the presence that is always there, whether we like it or not. Instead, by moving on to other things, he urged his claim to fatherhood in a purely historical sense; the memories we shared of one another subsisted, but at his end they were now closed; the consciousness that held them and cherished them or wept over them had been removed and redistilled among other things. But I could not forget these things; they continued now in some one-sided, doubly subjective memory, a memory of a relationship which no longer had an echo.

In the same way that as I reach the end of a story, particularly when I am reading aloud, I often find it hard to keep a straight face and must take my distance from it -- it is just a story, I contend, but then, it is a story, all the same; it is the end of something, and everything has an end; these speculations mean nothing, and yet I could illustrate a life by means of them and nothing more; another day, today is just today -- so I descend the staircase of this memory by slow degrees, stepping softly in the low light, for fear of wakening anyone; how far already am I beyond my jurisdiction. In the hall the nocturnal carpets stretch further and in different colours, and the door handles of each room are not quite the same. Not moonlight or lamplight but some other brightness streams through the fan light, and as I discuss my inheritance and make belated thanks for the things I have received, already I can see my father is uncomfortable. "Yes, yes," he seems to say, "I’m glad it all worked out;" -- but he has moved on to other things. He only came here -- really it was even an inconvenience to have come; he came because he had to. He begrudges me nothing; he owes me nothing. He salutes me in that expansive, irresponsible, intransitive way with which, in the midst of more pressing thoughts, we momentarily wish good of the world.

***

The Lecturer

Growing up in a small town, the story of our neighbour soon did the rounds -- an Oxford lecturer who failed to take up his appointment, a man whose refined abilities found themselves handicapped by certain flaws of character. Taken individually, these impediments should scarcely have merited concern, and many a lesser man might have shrugged them off without calamity; but, such was the craftiness of the world, they conspired together behind this man’s back to keep him in his place.

The house he lived in became the Lecturer’s house, and his daughters the Lecturer’s daughters; when he went shopping it was the Lecturer who went shopping, and when he paid his bills, the Lecturer paid them for him. When he switched off the lights then the Lecturer retired to bed, and when, in the early hours, a small ambulance carried him almost silently to the hospital, the Lecturer, oh! our Lecturer had been taken ill, and his illness hung in the air; it hung in the streets, about the shops and the school. Omnipresent and mute, stretched evenly beyond all measure, it seemed just now, in our little town, to sign the possibility for every possible thing that could befall us, like an infinite fibre unravelled from its own ends.

***

Before the Concert

As a child, I always loved the stillness before a concert began, so that I would take myself there earlier and earlier, not just when the queue was just beginning, and not even loitering harmlessly before they opened the doors, where through the windows you had already seen for twenty minutes or more someone’s sister with long hair straightening the rows of chairs and putting the same folded programme, usually yellow or pale blue or pink, but seldom white or green, neatly in the middle of each one, but earlier still, before even those chairs had been unstacked from against the wall, or the lights turned on, or any of many difficult decisions upon which a concert depends been made or contemplated.

It is hard for me to explain exactly what I mean by "earlier", and even my insistence on "earlier and earlier" only takes one so far back in that regard. It is easier, rather than trying to imagine that hypothetical act of making distant, instead to visualise what the concert is as it begins; it’s then that this distance ceases to be difficult, but instead becomes intuitive and impossible not to understand.

When the concert begins -- at the instant that the pianist, having raised his hands above the keyboard, then allowed them to curl up and wilt a little upon his wrists, and then just hold them there, waiting for the judicious, the aesthetic stillness in which we -- the audience -- somehow collaborate; at that moment, just before the first chord has been played, I close my eyes by looking very intently at some very small detail very far away, usually a part of the pianist, but sometimes one of the thick folds of curtain, or a scuff mark on the panelling of the stage, and concentrating in this way -- which causes one’s eyes to close themselves naturally quite without thinking -- I try to erase the physical presence of the player and the auditorium, and instead deduce the true concert from the summer evening air outside and the scents of wine, cigarettes and flowers. So that whatever is played is really what the day preordained anyway; the concert is disposable, answerable to the day, the moods of the day, the moods of the world that sprawls within it; it is simply a means by which other things realise themselves, in the same way that heresy makes no sense until one steps into a church, at which point it loses its unwieldy, hysterical edge and seems instead as reflective and contrapuntal a mystery as any other. To my mind, everything leading up to that moment is the true concert -- the concert that ends with the first chord, at which point everything else becomes mere commentary. And precisely because this seems too brief an experience, we must go back further and further, starting the concert earlier and earlier, starting the concert sometimes even long before its performer has been born, so that we can wait breathlessly ever longer for those final moments, the final silence before the first chord, and then the piano’s long applause.

Author Bio

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Ali Hildyard lives in London. His story, "The House Above the Bay," appeared in Issue #62 of The Cafe Irreal, "The Number of the Heart" appeared in Issue #64, "The Myriad Deaths of Michaela Andreskaya ... and two others" appeared in Issue #76, and "Four Stories" appeared in Issue #87. You can contact him at: alihildyard@gmail.com.