A Lovely and Terrible Thing
The first in a three-part story by Chris Womersley, originally published on granta.com in October 2011 and now shortlisted for the BBC International Short Story Award. You can read the second and third parts by following the links below.
What a burden it is to have seen wondrous things, for afterwards the world feels empty of possibility. There used to be a peculiar human majesty in my line of work: the woman with hair so long she could wind it ten times around her waist; old Frankie Block, who could wrestle a horse to the ground; the boy with a foxtail. There was a good reason we referred to ourselves as The Weird Police. Now it’s more likely to be a conga-line of Elvis impersonators sponsored by McDonalds. Somewhere along the way the job lost its magic, but perhaps that was just me.
It was dusk when I pulled over to phone my wife. I would be gone for only two nights, but caring for our daughter Therese was gruelling, melancholy work, like tending to a fire perpetually on the verge of going out. More than once I had come home to discover Elaine sitting in the near-dark, weeping with the endlessness of it all, and there was nothing I could do but hold her until she felt better. It took hours, sometimes. At others, all night.
My phone didn’t have reception out on the back roads. I trudged into a cold and muddy field with it held foolishly over my head, but it was no use; I would have to call from the motel in Kyneton.
When I returned to the car, the damn thing refused to start. I fished out a torch, popped the bonnet and peered at the engine, but the mass of wires and pipes might as There was not a house in sight. I cursed my decision to take the scenic route.well have been Sanskrit hieroglyphs for all the sense I could make of them. No cars passed. There was not a house in sight. I cursed my decision to take the scenic route. At least on the highway someone might stop and help. On the highway my phone would have reception.
I jiggled a few wires and checked the radiator, but it was no use. By now the horizon was darkening and the wind had turned sharp and bitter. Again I stared at the mute, incomprehensible engine and it occurred to me that a mechanic might have fared better with Therese than any of her medical specialists had over the years. I held my freezing hands over the engine, but the heat it gave off was minimal and diminished noticeably as I stood there.
I was beginning to resign myself to the prospect of spending the night in the car when a voice startled me. I swung around to see a large man approaching through the gloom. ‘G’day,’ he said again.
Embarrassed to have been discovered warming myself over a dead engine, I took my hands back and greeted him.
‘Everything alright?’ he asked.
I gestured to the engine. ‘Car’s broken down on me. I pulled over to make a phone call and now it won’t start.’
The fellow was about my age, dressed in overalls, with a shock of grey hair that flapped about like a bird’s broken wing. He stood nodding at the roadside verge and considered me for a moment. ‘Want me to take a look?’
‘Yes, that would be great. Thanks.’ I held out my hand. ‘I’m Daniel Shaw, by the way.’
The man grunted and shook my hand, reluctantly, it seemed. ‘Dave. They call me Angola ‘round here.’
‘Angola. Like the place?’
He started. ‘You’ve heard of it?’
He paused. ‘Well, I spent a few years there.’
He took my torch, positioned it on the rim of the bonnet where it would provide the best light, and set about poking around inside. After a few minutes he urged me to try the ignition again, which I did, but without any luck.
‘Dunno mate,’ Angola said, wiping his hands on a rag he produced from a back pocket. ‘Reckon she’s stuffed for now, though. Where you going?’
‘Kyneton. How far is that?’
Again he looked at me as if puzzled to find me there at all. By now it was almost dark. The only light was that of the torch which, at that moment, splashed its light across the right half of his face. I imagined us from a distance – two men, strangers to each other, on a lonely road – and felt a jolt of fear.
‘Too far to walk,’ he said at last above a roar of sudden wind. He undid the bracket supporting the upraised bonnet, grabbed the torch and let the bonnet fall. ‘But you can stay the night at my place, if you like.’
‘I need to be there by 2 p.m. tomorrow afternoon. There’s something I have to verify. I work for Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and there’s supposed to be a parrot that can count to 150. I have to check it’s true. We might use it in the next annual.’
That piqued his interest. It usually did. Angola sauntered closer and looked me over. ‘You work for Ripley’s? Like the TV show? Ha. You musta seen some pretty weird things.’
I laughed. The world’s most-tattooed man, the girl with eighteen fingers, the ultra-marathon runners. He didn’t know the half of it.
With his thumb he indicated the field beside the road, beyond which, presumably, he lived. ‘My daughter has a pretty special trick, actually. Maybe you should come and see her? Put her in your big old book.’
He said this in a mildly lascivious manner I didn’t care for, but, as usual, that word pricked my heart, deflating it ever further. Daughter. I thought again of poor Elaine, poor Therese; my silent, waiting family. I hoped my wife had at least turned on the lights before pouring her first Scotch.
‘You got kids?’ Angola asked me, handing back the torch.
‘Yes, I have a daughter, too, as a matter of fact.’
He grinned. ‘Then you know what a lovely and terrible thing it is.’
It was an incongruous and curiously poetic description, particularly coming from his gap-toothed mouth. I nodded. The only light was that of the torch which, at that moment, splashed its light across the right half of his face. For a moment I could not speak. I looked off into the bleak distance, then at this man, and there was something about the sad shake of his head and the way his hair flapped about on his scalp that filled me with unreasonable warmth. A decent man out here in the country, with mud on his boots and the grease of a stranger’s car on his hands.
For reasons best known only to the darker parts of myself, I felt immense shame about Therese, and rarely told anyone of my troubles; I had colleagues, for instance, who were completely unaware of her existence. But, for some reason, out on this road, I felt compelled to tell this man what had happened to her.
I coughed into my fist. ‘But my daughter is – she was in an accident. Eight years ago. She cycled onto the road when she was eleven and got hit by a car. She lost the use of her legs and became brain damaged. We don’t even know if she knows who we are – my wife and I, I mean. They say – the experts, that is – to hope for a miracle, that she might recover some of her movement and coordination. It has happened before, you know. Small breakthroughs, they say. Keep an eye out for small breakthroughs, whatever they might be.’ I could have bored the poor fellow with talk of trauma and lobes and the ripple effect, but instead I tapped my head with my index finger. ‘We don’t really know what goes on in there.’
It was at this point that people usually said something consoling, along the lines of I’m sure she’ll come good one of these days, but the man called Angola merely stared at me, listening, until I said all I had to say. And it was perhaps for this kindness that I enquired after the ‘trick’ of his daughter’s. Normally I would not follow up on every stranger’s claim – for we all believed our children to be possessed of special talents, even those of us whose faith has been worn so thin – but I felt I owed him this small courtesy.
Angola waved my polite query away. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘You’d never believe me.’
‘I’ve heard some pretty wild stories, you know.’
He looked at me for a long time, as if attempting to peer into my soul. I imagined us from a distance – two men, strangers to each other, on a lonely road – and felt a jolt of fear. It was unsettling. I saw now – by what light I couldn’t say, for the sun had well and truly set – that his face was pitted with acne scars and that his left earlobe was malformed. But there, by the road, he told me something so bizarre, and in such a strange manner – looking from side to side, shrugging, mumbling – that I had no choice but to believe him.
I carried the torch as we squelched across a field and ducked between the barbed wire of several fences. I asked him about Africa, but he was reluctant to disclose his reasons for being there and became curiously sullen, saying merely that it was a terrible place and that he hadn’t deserved to be there at all.
It was only when we saw the lights of his small house in the distance that I realized, and stopped. ‘Your name,’ I said, trying to keep the panic from my voice. ‘It’s not for the country is it?’
My companion paused and wiped his meaty paw beneath his nose.
It was freezing. My shoes were sticky with mud. ‘It’s for the prison, isn’t it? In America.’ I recalled an entry from the 1972 Ripley’s annual; an inmate who – although he had never left the state of Louisiana – built a precise scale model of central Paris from toothpicks, complete with street signs and roadside markets, tiny apples and pears.
‘Course it is,’ he growled, and continued walking.
I stared after him until I could barely make him out in the darkness. I pondered my options, which were few. After a minute, I staggered after him.
It was a decision I have come to regret.
Continue to part two of this story, here.
Photo by Suicine.
Originally published on granta.com on 21 October 2011.