Short Story: These Halcyon Days

By MiNDFOOD

Short Story: These Halcyon Days
Robert McBride was sure that when he entered The Commission building he would be granted a delay in his admission, considering his status as a prominent author. As he waited, he thought about his life, as well as his nemesis, Vernon Hunt, who was a villain in nearly all of his books.

Robert McBride hobbled into The Commission building. He felt he was storming into the place, but the lethargic clack of his walking stick told him otherwise. Tucked underneath his left elbow was a small bundle comprised of a summons, a battered black notebook and the letter he had typed and printed that morning explaining his request for a delay.

The waiting room was full of old bodies. Men and women of various shapes and sizes occupied rows of flimsy plastic chairs that snaked around the perimeter and stretched across the centre of the room.

Robert shuffled to the front desk, where a middle-aged woman sat behind a glass petition, typing furiously.

“Name please?” she asked as she continued to type.

“I’d like to request a delay in my admission.” He slid his letter and the summons through a crack between the bench top and the glass. Without looking up, the lady pushed the papers back.

“Name?”

“Robert McBride.”

“Address?”

“45 Acreage Place, Brightwater.”

“Date of birth?”

‘Eighth of August, 1936.”

The woman paused. Her eyes narrowed in on his ruddy face. “The system says you were born in 1935.”

“Yes, that’s what I said.”

“No, you didn’t.” She picked up a phone, mumbled into the receiver and jammed it back into the charging dock. “Okay, Mr McBride. You can take a seat.”

“If you’d have a look at this request we might be able to speed this up.”

Again he thrust the papers through the crack; this time, the force of his hand slid them across the desk and over the far edge onto the floor. The woman closed her eyes and exhaled forcefully through her teeth as she folded herself down to collect them.

“Sorry about that.” Robert slapped the bench top. “I’m in the middle of a manuscript, you see, and my mind is somewhat elsewhere, but that’s precisely the reason for the request.”

“Mr McBride. Can you please take a seat?” The woman rose, returned the papers once again through the crack and walked away into an adjoining room, presumably to secure a cup of coffee, or perhaps a biscuit to soothe her nerves.

Robert manoeuvred himself around to face the wrinkled crowd and scanned the room for a seat. The men and women looked uncomfortable. Some sat hunched forward, the curves of necks and upper backs accentuated by unforgiving chairs. Most busied their hands with a task, their movements jerky and rushed. Some wrote letters, others fiddled with knitting needles, and he saw more than one flipping the pages of a book while staring at a wall. The Commission building was known to be a black spot for mobile phone and internet reception, so no-one was talking to relatives or watching YouTube to pass the time. A few of the more able-bodied were pacing along rows.

He spotted a single vacant chair on the other side of the room between a well-dressed woman and a heavy-set man who was slumped in his seat, wearing a faded beanie and tartan scarf.

“Excuse me,” Robert grunted as he lowered himself, his muscles holding his legs up until the last moment when he surrendered to the fall and his large bottom plopped into the chair.

The woman to his left gave a cursory glance, rolled her eyes, and turned back to her book. Robert noticed her long, slender fingers, each stacked with a series of delicate gold rings, propping up the novel, which happened to be The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley. He took out his notebook and wrote a detailed description of her as he did with any person of interesting character he happened upon throughout the day, later returning to his writing desk at night with fresh narrative fodder.

He was particularly taken with her hands and studied them again from the corner of his eye. While the skin had evidently been in use for many decades they retained an elegance enhanced by the manicured state of her nails, which were filed into perfect domes and painted red.

The description he penned brought to mind images of a much younger version of himself, hand-in-hand with a woman whose nails sparkled like polished cherries. He noticed that the memory seemed not half a lifetime ago, but within reach. That version of himself, though cased in tighter skin and with legs that could storm into a Commission building if they pleased, seemed to Robert to carry the same essence and drive that now propelled him to scribble down the intricacies of daily life.

He captured his nostalgia on the page: the young red-nailed woman whose face and political opinions had burned within him. The same young woman who had loved him too quickly and had, in direct consequence, faded into the background of his interests. He thought he remembered leaving her at a café once, to drive down the coast with Franky and Paul, but couldn’t be sure. Perhaps it was he who had been left sitting in the sweaty plastic booth? No, he had left her. He was certain of it.

“Edward Burke.” A voice called out from behind the glass petition, and the man sitting to the right of Robert creaked his way up off the seat. As he did, the tartan scarf fell from his neck and landed across Robert’s feet. Edward regarded the scarf with bleary eyes, blinked a few times and moved off in the direction of a white door at the far end of the room. A bulky young man wearing a dark blue uniform waited in the doorway as Edward scuffled past chair after chair, the occupants looking down at their feet or hands or any direction other than the old man.

Once Edward had passed through the door, Robert, with great effort, collected the scarf from his feet and clambered back to the front desk.

“Excuse me. That man,” – he pointed towards the white door – “dropped this.”

He flattened the scarf out on the bench and fed it inch by inch through the crack as the woman watched, her eyebrows raised.

“Okay.” She took the scarf, bundled it up and shoved it somewhere underneath the desk.

Robert drummed his fingers on the bench top. “While I’m here, could I ask you again to take a look at my appeal?”

“Look, Mr McBride, I don’t have the authority to grant you a delay. That’s decided by the Panel and in most cases, it’s highly unlikely.”

“My case is quite different.”

“Mr McBride, can you imagine if The Commission were to grant everyone’s request for a delay? We’d get nothing done.” She resumed typing as she spoke. “So, can you see how you’re going to have to sit and wait your turn like everybody else?” He stood, swaying slightly, studying the woman’s hair.

It had been dyed a dark shade of brown and a patch of grey was starting to show at the roots.

“You may not feel it, but it’s happening to you, too,” Robert muttered.

“Excuse me?”

“Never mind.”

Surveying the empty seat beside him, Robert could see the shuffling form of Edward in his mind’s eye. He opened his notebook and tried to guess the thoughts that might be weighing on Edward at that moment: children he’d disappointed; a wife or two that he’d divorced and continued to battle for decades after; athletic success in his prime, retold year after year over beers as his stomach grew rotund and the listener grew suspicious of the tale’s veracity.

When it came his time – not today, as he was sure the eloquent appeal would hit its mark – but when the time came for his admission, he wondered what his mind would ruminate upon. His pen began to flow when his thoughts settled, as they so often did, on Vernon. That cockroach.

There had been no one in Robert’s life as wretched as Vernon Hunt, a fact revealed by his presence as a villain in almost every novel Robert had written. Sometimes Vernon was an enemy commander shot in the head by the hero. Other times he appeared as a criminal thwarted in the act of perpetrating grotesque violence, his victim an innocent, congenial character with the great misfortune of befriending a psychopath.

Vernon’s idiosyncrasies, his face, his manner of speaking had consciously and subconsciously filled the pages of Robert’s novels to such an extent his editor had pleaded for more variety.

Somewhere underneath the spite, he could hear the voice of his late wife petitioning him to forgive and forget, but he waved her gentle, ghostly voice away and conjured instead the images of betrayal that proved more vivid and alluring: Vernon rifling through his desk drawers in the dark; Vernon’s name appearing on the manuscript of what would have been Robert’s second novel; a publisher flipping pages in delight, overjoyed at finding a talented new voice; the court case; a lack of evidence; Vernon’s smug, punchable face as he hugged his lawyer.

Robert dropped his pen, his fingers seized with pain. He shook his hand and rubbed the stiff digits. Enough for now, he thought and tucked the notebook underneath his armpit.

“Robert McBride.”He turned to the lady at the front counter. As he caught her eye she ducked her head behind the computer screen. He stood and scanned the room, expecting to see irritation from the multitude that had arrived before him, but the white heads and shining bald scalps burrowed deeper into their distractions. Those with nothing to hide behind simply pivoted their troubled faces away, staring at the entrance or up at the plain white ceiling. The young man standing in the doorway checked his watch and gestured for Robert to come through.

Robert sat across from the young man. Fluorescent lights hummed and the man rested his solid arms on the glistening metal table between them.

“As I was saying to the woman out the front,” Robert waved the thin bundle of papers in the air, “I have this letter of appeal outlining my status as a prominent author and the fact that my latest novel is underway.”

The man took the papers from him and slipped them inside the front panel of his jacket. “Mariah at the front desk said you lied about your date of birth, Mr McBride?”

“No. No. Not a lie as such. A mistake, I just misspoke. I guess I’m focused on more pressing matters and, to be frank, the summons is a distraction, an irritating, time-consuming distraction,” said Robert.

“If you were born in 1936, as you originally said, you’d be 84 years old, meaning you’d have another year before your admission,” said the man.

“That’s not … I wasn’t presuming … I misspoke.”

“That’s not how this works. You can’t simply turn back the clock and grant yourself another year,” said the man.

“But surely The Commission is concerned with the quality of work out there. You know, my voice, my novels have contributed,” said Robert.

“There are other writers, Mr McBride. Excellent writers with more time left. I’m afraid, based on your deception and in accordance with protocol, we must decommission you today.”

“Today!”

“I’m afraid so. You’ve shown contempt. Delay is impossible.”

“No. No. You can’t – ”

Two men dressed in identical blue uniforms exploded through the door. Robert tried to stand and fend them off, but his knees failed him. He reached for his walking stick and missed. The black notebook dropped from underneath his arm, bounced off a chair and tumbled to the floor. It lay beside the metal table; pages open to an elaborate description of wretched Vernon Hunt. One of the men caught Robert under the arms as he fell. Another picked up his legs so that his tired old body was draped between them.

“You fools!” he screamed as they carried him out the door.

 

About the Author

Chelsea Chong is an emerging writer, based on the Sunshine Coast, Queensland. Her story, This is Not a Drill, was published in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology Volume 13 in 2020. She spends her days frantically trying to capture the ideas floating around her mind before her two-year-old daughter insists on another reading of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Chelsea works as a freelance grant writer, holds a Masters in International Development, and has previously been a community development manager and English as an Additional Language teacher. She lives with her husband, Ben, and their daughter, Hallie.

SHARE THIS ARTICLE

BECOME A MiNDFOOD SUBSCRIBER TODAY

Let us keep you up to date with our weekly MiNDFOOD e-newsletters which include the weekly menu plan, health and news updates or tempt your taste buds with the MiNDFOOD Daily Recipe.