My friend Andy is showing me his awards for writing. Calligraphed citations in scrolls, mementos, framed pictures of Andy shaking hands with a dignitary. All locked away in a black leather case. ‘Why don’t you hang these on the walls?’ I ask. ‘I used to at one time,’ he tells me, ‘but something happened. I decided to take them all down.’ I don’t want to pry, so I don’t ask what the ‘something’ was. Andy, however, continues, ‘Do you recall me telling you that I was a victim of bullying in school?’ How could I forget, I tell him, ‘Since it was only a few hours ago that you mentioned it.’ I remind Andy of how impressed I was with the way he’d managed to deal with not one but three bullies, using only the strength of his imagination and not resorting to any physical interaction.
‘Yes, it was knowing I had access to this powerful imagination, which gave me confidence. I found that I could not only summon it up, but I had the words to get others to believe in it. The three bullies, for example. I was able to show them my own fallen-out milk teeth and convince them that they belonged to someone else, and had been knocked out by an uncle who revelled in boxing and a bout of fisticuffs.’
By now I am filled with a sense of mystery. I begin to sense that there’s a link between Andy being bullied as a fifth grader and these awards locked up in leather. I want to know more. But Andy’s in no hurry to enlighten me. Instead he reaches into the leather case and extracts a citation, nicely rolled up in faux parchment. Unfurling it, he says, ‘Notice the date.’ I notice more than that.
It is an award — first prize — for a short story entitled, Waterline Blues. The year is 2012. He unfurls another. ‘And take note of this date.’ 2008. I’m not sure what Andy wants me to see so I shake my head confusedly and say, ‘I don’t follow.’ ‘There’s nothing after 2012,’ he points out. ‘Why? Did you give writing a break?’
He smiles ruefully. ‘No. But that’s the year whatever happened, happened. And what happened is that I received an urgent phone call from my mother in Queensland. “You’ve got to drop whatever you’re doing and come at once,” she said, “Your uncle Oscar is dying. And he wants the family around. His wish is to say a few final words in person to all his loved ones.”’ So, Andy abandoned the story he was working on, a tale of fragile love between a soldier and his politician wife, hopped the first flight from Sydney and arrived within a few hours.
In time for a final bedside confession from uncle. ‘Remember when you were in school? Forty years or so ago? Three guys who used to give you a hard time? I’m the one asked them to do it. Your dad was saying Andy’s always got his head buried in a book, he’ll need to make a man of himself someday, and I offered to help in that regard. Although, I did also order them to stop the bullying once I realised they were beginning to enjoy themselves. And also once I realised you were never going to fight back. I’m sorry. I hope you’ll forgive me.’ From that moment on, Andy told me, it was like the nylon curtain of imagination turned into iron. It was so heavy I could not force my way past it no matter how hard I tried. Every story I wrote seemed forced, unnatural. There was no flow. I really wish uncle had taken his confession to the grave.
Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.