Sunday 10 June 2012

Short Story 2012 Longlist, Aarif Khan


"So, what do we tell her?"
The question itself was one of an inquisitive nature, like all questions are; however, it also betrayed a subtle hint of moral callings. Henry Burlington was a not a man who liked morals very much. He often went to the Sunday services and was mostly honest, even dabbling a little in charity; but he hated ethical questioning when something exciting was going on. And at the present moment when endless possibilities were going on in his mind, he found the silence that followed in the wake of the question rather preposterous.

Rolling his eyes he turned to the man who had posed the inconvenient, George Burke, a neurosurgeon by profession and a part-time writer, under a pseudonym, by habit. He reveled in fooling the world of readers with his false name; fueled by the thrill of his secret world.

‘The truth of course Burke! I wouldn't dream of saying a word else. You surely know me as an honest man,’ barked Henry. He shuffled up the loose papers on his desk and thrust them in his chest. ‘Now go and prepare whatever you always need to. Though I don’t see what is there to be nervous about it at all.’
Burke retired to an old chair and heaved himself onto it. He started to pore through the pages, twirling a strand of hair as always.

‘So these are the other reports and-’
‘Exactly, my boy. They all agree to what all scan results say here’, cut in Henry. He went and stood in front of the X-ray sheet displayed against the brilliant white screen. ‘You see, my dear George, this boy's brain is as normal as any other but activities have been observed when he provided those samples you are reading; though it was awfully difficult to get the boy to submit to us and these machines here.’

‘And based on these-’, Burke waved a paper ‘-we can conclude, theoretically of course, that the boy is surely a genius.’
‘Precisely, my point, Burke. You lapped it up rather quickly this time. Don’t you think so too Nelson? You have been rather quiet about the whole affair.’ said Henry, chucking a cigar at the figure sitting at the desk in observant silence.
‘What I think, Henry, and what you should as well, is what shall become of the boy once we disclose him our results?’ replied Samuel Nelson, Henry's loyal partner in crime; a critic and playwright by social compulsion.

‘There is hardly anything to think about! He shall listen to our advice like every good boy should. If not, we shall blame the whole episode on Burke of course.’
‘You will do no such thing. Nelson, tell him I shall not permit it.’
‘He shall not permit it, Henry.’ said Nelson, in tired, dutiful manner.
‘Oh all right, all right. Really Burke, your quirkiness amuses me at times.’ yawned Henry. ‘So, are we ready for the showdown gentlemen?’ he said glancing at his watch.
‘You are right, its time. Pack up Burke, we are going in.’ announced Nelson, stretching his legs. He got up and strolled across the room to glance in the neighbouring room through an inch in the curtains.

‘Alright, she is there. And by the looks of it, appears rather restless.’
Burke walked over clinging on to his file of sheets close to his chest. ‘I am not going in first. The woman petrifies me. She looks at me as if-’
Henry caught him from behind and pushed him in head-first. ‘Always the whiner.’ he said, looking rather pleased with himself. ‘After you then, Nelson.’
Nelson looked seriously in Henry's eyes. ‘Remember, he is just a little boy. Do not tell him more than he can take. Can I trust you Henry?’
‘Old habits die hard, my friend’ replied Henry, with a twinkle in his eyes. ‘Trust me; this is going to be a walk in the park. Follow me.’
Mrs. Dalloway was busy examining a work of art that hung in Mr. Burlington's office with curiosity, having made good of her time while waiting on him. It felt rather familiar to her; however she was unable to recall where else she had seen it hung. She barely noticed the three gentlemen re-enter the office, and jumped around only when one of them cleared his throat. She immediately took her place on his leather chair, looking up at them, all of whom wore grave expressions. This was not helping her; neither was patience among her better virtues.

‘Finally!’ she exclaimed. ‘I've been waiting here for an hour it seems. So what is it in my boy that got you all interested? Is he all right? I do hope he his; he is an engaging child.’ Without pausing for them to speak, she ranted on, ‘Now then, out with it, why have you all been putting him through that horrendous machines of yours? You three vexatious men have some explaining to do!’ She fell quiet, realizing that she had got off her chair and not quite remembering when it had happened.

George Burke frowned at being thought of as vexatious; it did not comply with the image he had crafted in the minds of his readers. He rather preferred to be known as charming or even charismatic.
Plunging at the opportunity of a moment's silence, Nelson grabbed it and spoke, not unkindly: ‘You should sit down first Mrs. Dalloway. And one question at a time, please. We know how long you have been kept waiting-’

‘-seeing that we have been working away hard the same period of time, yes.’ cut in Henry. ‘Now lady, I shall take it over from here. Please do not interrupt me whilst I’m speaking. And the horrendous machine is a sophisticated brain scanner, which maps out- Oh well!’ he stopped seeing her shocked expression. Drawing himself to his full height, he took a while before he spoke. Henry Burlington often did such acts to capture his audience's attention and produce an air of importance about him. However, Mrs. Dalloway was not a lady to be intimidated soon.

‘Your son, my dear lady, has been showing a constant and fair approach for his subjects. As we all know, the boy is doing rather well; be it math, history or grammar. There is however, one particular area where his work has been nothing short of exemplary. And it has been in the subject of English Language; in writing, to be even more precise. Were you aware of this, Mrs. Dalloway?’ finished Henry, in his usual pompous stature.

‘Well yes, ofcourse, the son takes after his father. He can write faster than any boy of his age. Infact last week-’
‘No, no, no lady. Not typing plain alphabets on a paper. Any fool can learn to do that!’ stormed Mr. Burlington. He dropped his voice to a low and thrilling tone; signs of his persuasion talents, ‘It is what he writes that befuddles us all. Prose, stories, articles, poetry, essays, Old English, and the diction- what not! And with such diligence; his styles range from narrative and descriptive to argumentative and downright critical.  Your boy is surely a versatile performer.’

‘But, Mr. Burlington, I still do not understand. That does not seem possible. His father and his father had little education. So did I and my family. He is the only one who has been sent to a proper school. He doesn't have many books; we could not afford them. Besides, he is not very well read. You see, Mr. Burlington, I think you must have made a mistake. My child simply does not have the background.’

‘Exactly my point, lady. It’s the very thing!’ he clapped in hands in apparent glee. ‘He's a natural; there can be no other explanation. His talent is beyond any that I have seen. By all accounts he is bound to be a sensation.’

‘Flattering your words may sound sir, I still beg to differ.’ said Mrs. Dalloway in a slightly exhilarating voice. ‘I must ask you three gentlemen not to proceed further. I simply cannot; the child cannot engage himself in any such disillusions. Surely, Mr. Burlington did not drag you both into this as well?’ she looked enquiringly at the other two.

‘Please try and understand the situation dear lady.’ said Burke, determinedly avoiding her eyes. Women scared him still; and Mrs. Dalloway particularly so. He tightly gripped the back of an empty chair with his fingers.
‘Had we not seen his samples, we might not have believed it either.’
‘His samples?’
‘Yes indeed, writing samples. Short pieces of his poetry, stories; our windows to his imagination!’ exclaimed Burke.

‘You see, for the past few days, we have been comparing them with those written by Milton and Hemingway and Shaw and Woodsworth; even with Shakespeare. And in most of them, we found an unusual similarity. Your son's choice of words, his framing of sentences and vivid descriptions, his eloquent use of clich├ęs and quotations, and proverbs and conjunctions; all where they fit best.  His creativity is commendable. And also, his fog index has been found at an average of 7.82. Winston Churchill was 6.5. Such is uncanny of a child no older than eleven!’ Mrs. Dalloway gaped in incredulous wonder. She opened her mouth and closed it without a word. A shrewd smile played on Henry's lips; he knew they had her attention, nearly half-convinced.
‘Well, I must confess this wasn’t exactly what I had been suspecting’ she said, more to herself, with a nervous laugh.

‘We have been analysing his work and closely working with the latest there is in technology.’ spoke Nelson, in his usual deep, rich tone. ‘What goes on in the mind of a person when he chooses a particular word, and not its synonym, a style, rhetoric or else is important; it lets us predict a lot about the writer. The writing style reveals the choices the writer makes in syntactical structures, diction, and figures of thought. The choice of words and style is crucial; your son's work can pass off as a near perfect example of the same. Anticipate no further Mrs. Dalloway; your son has potential, untapped and bursting to set forth. He is not the occasional essayist. We have examined his writings as writers and not as mere readers, you have my assurance.’

‘But what do you propose, Sir?’ she asked.
The three men stole a glance at each other, and Henry spoke after a brief pause.
‘Look here now. Your boy has a gift; and it is only fitting that he harvests it. Sure his works will stand distinct, as they should.
 ‘And, speaking of your son, where is he? I daresay you remember me asking you to bring him with you?’ said Henry, looking at her demandingly.
‘He is waiting outside. I thought-’ she muttered before Henry's voice drowned her latter part of her sentence.
‘Miss Shelley!’ he called out to his housekeeper. She came running in at once; used to his incessant demands. ‘Well, Miss Shelley, you shall find a young boy waiting outside for us. Fetch him at once. You may leave now, that will be all. Thank you’

She left hurriedly, and Henry spoke only when she was out of hearing distance.
‘I forget your son's name, Mrs. Dalloway. Harry, had you said?’
‘Harvey. Master Harvey Dalloway II; after his father.’
‘Yes, yes, ofcourse. I remember now. I daresay he shall join us in a moment; we can continue then.’ He walked about his carpet, jingling the coins in his pocket; humming quietly.

In a minute's time the door opened and a boy was quietly ushered in. He was of weak built and wore clothes much bigger than his requirements. His eyes searched for his mother whom he located in the chair with her back to him. He went and joined her, settling on her lap with comfortable familiarity.
Henry strided up to him and seized his hand; shaking it vigorously. ‘Mr. Burlington’, he introduced himself. ‘And this is Dr. Burke and Mr. Nelson’ gesturing to them. Young Harvey spoke nothing; merely eyeing them with vague curiosity.

‘So, Harvey, here we are. Your mother and I were just discussing you and your interest; writing.’ spoke Henry. ‘Do you wish to pursue it as a profession son?’
He nodded. ‘I do; I want to. It is what I love most-’
‘Excellent!’ exclaimed Henry, with a triumphant look at Nelson. ‘Well that certainly sorts out a lot of issues, doesn't it?’
‘We can come to that later I am sure.’ said Nelson, with half a look at Mrs. Dalloway. Turning to her, he said ‘As we were saying dear lady; Harvey's writing has been approved of by many established writers, we approached. We took the liberty of sending his pieces to the National Association of Writers; their replies were most relishing. But then we brought in Dr. Burke, and then the story got even more interesting.’
‘Yes indeed.’ continued Burke. ‘We applied brain mapping technologies. And also put him through our scanners. The results confirmed our beliefs.’

‘You see, Mrs. Dalloway, we found that your boy is quite normal as everyone. Ordinary, like the rest of us.’ said Henry, apparently pained to include himself as ordinary. ‘But when we mapped out the graphs, while he was writing or even reading; a section of his brain showed unusual activities. The same region controls our imagination, logic and how we perceive our surroundings. Astonishing it will be to you to know that twelve in the last twenty winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature had shown similar symptoms. So had the winners of the Pulitzer Prize or the Commonwealth writers’ award. The essential point, my lady, is that Harvey here, appears to be going the same way, if he is guided the right path and allowed his freedom. I would say that he shall be best as a writer, a novelist-’
‘You have machines to do that?’ inquired Harvey. Henry broke off, and stared at him. ‘Do what son?’
‘To decide what a person should or should not be in their lives. I thought the decision lies with one's own self.’ he said to a nonplussed Mr. Burlington.

‘That is not what he meant, Harvey’ quickly spoke Nelson in a kind voice. ‘You can be anyone whom you wanted to be. I'm sure; you will be good at whatever you choose. It shall be always in your freedom. Though of course, we would strongly advise you on being a writer.’ he added as an afterthought.
‘I so love to write. However, my mother thinks I shall do well as a doctor; I am on my way to study medicine.’

‘Good heavens, no! Harvey, listen to me.’ said Henry. He came agitated when anything did not play out in reality as he had visualized in his head. ‘You are born to write, create, imagine and allure. Rhyme, metaphor and prose shall be your tools, not scalpels, medicine and cotton with a dab of an antiseptic. You are destined to be published and win prizes; there can be no doubt. Similes, characters and alliterations shall be your friends, pen and paper your medium. You are gifted, Harvey; realize it as we have.’

‘You are born to live, Mr. Burlington, not chase down your life with dreams of conjuring masterpieces. I shall never stop writing, but I want to do other things too like-’ resisted Harvey, till Henry overtook him.

‘That is nonsense, boy! You will be better off as a writer or a playwright. Come to think of it-’
‘What the boy wishes to be, is something we best leave him to decide Henry’ said Burke, with a quiet voice. Mrs. Dalloway had been patiently listening to the flow of words around her. True; she had been impressed with Mr. Burlington's findings and his efforts. However as a lady, conscious of her conditions, she felt it necessary to intervene; prompted to take the better judgement.

‘Dr. Burke, I appreciate your kind words. You see, Harvey's father has been ill for some time now. A large portion of my time goes in taking care of him. He worked at a small office before; savings of which are quickly depleting. We get money from the Fund for the Unemployed and a little generous help from my sisters. I have to go working four days a week. This boy has a lot of burdens on him; expectations of him. I think he will be able to provide for us and himself better if he is employed elsewhere.’

‘Please understand the value of literary endeavour in the society.’ said Henry in a tired voice. ‘I fear his appreciation; his interest may lapse towards what should be rightly his. He possesses the essentials; feeling and expressions. Theory, background and practice are his needs. Engaged he may be today, tomorrow holds no promises.’

 ‘I appreciate your gentlemens' concern and the time you took out for him. I only ask this of you: let the boy grow, let him live and laugh and follow the path he walks. If he is destined, as you all say, then he will answer his calling.’

He looked pleadingly at Henry, who had turned a slight shade of crimson; a distant sulk on his face.
‘Well said Mrs. Dalloway, truly.’ said Nelson after a moment's silence. ‘Pressuring Harvey against his choices was never our intention. We all agree with you, don't we Henry?’ he asked in a threatening voice.

‘Yes, of course’ he gulped, apparently displeased with the day's outcome.
Burke nodded in agreement, ‘You are quite correct Mrs. Dalloway. By all means we would never want to be unreasonable. If Harvey ever needs to have his works published, I'm sure Mr. Nelson here can help you out.’

‘Yes, surely; I am in contact with people, publishers mostly, who would gladly print your son's work. I can, and would like to, help in this area, if you ever feel the need.’ said Nelson.

‘Well, thank you gentlemen. I must take your leave now.’ she got up, tightly clutching her son's hand. She greeted them once again, and started towards the door. Henry stiffly nodded, but joined the other two in escorting her to the footsteps. Nelson whistled at a passing taxi, and it turned around halting in front of them. He opened the door for Mrs. Dalloway and once inside, said to her, ‘I thank you for your patience. We couldn't have asked for more. Good day!’ She managed a weak smile in return and leant ahead to give directions to the driver. Burke raised a hand at the taxi as it started up the street.
‘That was quite a performance there, Henry.’ he said, as the car turned round a corner and disappeared out of view.

‘I have a feeling gentlemen’, said Henry, ‘that we may not have seen the last of her’, as they stood on the steps of his office in the busy street.

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