“A Little Folding of the Hands” by Hillard Morley: read the story that won the 2018 OWT Short Fiction Prize 2

Hillard Morley

Hillard Morley

She had refused to move to Australia. It hadn’t been an easy decision, though she’d made it almost instantly. The question had surprised her, coming out of the blue; it had made her feel conventional, square, because she knew immediately that she needed to say no.

“I tried to consider it, tried not to answer out of lazy prejudice,” she told herself, but to be honest the energy exuding from Philip had frightened her. (A man on fire would have to result in burns, surely?)

As she walked, Ava thought about how he had rattled on and on about change, as though it were something to be desired, something to be sought after. She had made a tentative move, had asked, “When would we go?” and had been startled when he suggested the very next week.

“Just to look around, you know, to check it out,” he’d said. “Just to see…

Using the flat of her hands she had straightened out the creases in the tablecloth, repeating the action over and over again until Philip had started to look at her oddly. After that, she’d forced herself to sit passively at the table, hands folded in her lap, one wrapped around the other, worrying her nails. Everything was crumpled and spoilt.

She had looked across the table at Philip in gathering disbelief. “Is this wise?” she’d asked, and he had mouthed out something about taking chances being more important than security. It went against everything she’d ever been taught or presumed to know.

“No, he didn’t really make a convincing argument,” she reassured herself, watching her feet treading the stones of the path. “I’ve never had the least inclination even to visit Australia,” then, quickening her pace, “let alone to live there.”

She remembered the sensation of deflating, of all her hopes unfolding and flattening out.  She’d managed not to say anything out loud, not wanting to be snared by any words that might come out of her mouth. She’d made herself swallow the fear that the idea of migrating to the opposite side of the world had caused.  Nevertheless, the cut with Philip had been made, and she couldn’t imagine what glue might fix it.

“Our relationship is over.” She shaped the words, trying them for size and was aware of being dreadfully sad, however sensible her decision might have been. It would have been foolish to go. It would have been making Philip responsible for her, and she couldn’t tolerate that. She’d always thought it was better, safer, to keep control of oneself, to maintain one’s freedom rather than having to be under someone else’s wing.

“Sleep on it,” he’d said (as though a little slumber would make a blind bit of difference). And he had winked at her! Now that she’d found startling. To her recollection he’d never winked at her before, and though she’d thought he’d meant it lightly, flippantly, it had rather smacked of trickery. It was a side of him she’d never seen, as if someone had turned him over and shown her the back of the paper. She’d been flustered and had had to hide her discomposure.

It was a lying tongue that had promised to weigh up his proposition. Yes, that had been naughty, a deception on her part.  She could admit that now.

It had been their first anniversary to boot. Oh, she’d started out with such high hopes for this romance! Ava had never been very successful with men. Through all those challenging times in the past, all those nights alone, she had wished and wished for someone around whom she could create rituals and ceremonies, like other women did. Then she’d met Philip, and she’d been relieved to think she might have found him at last. It seemed silly now, but she’d honestly believed those wishes had been granted.

Then he’d gone and taken her to dinner, had reached across the table to grasp her fingers and had popped that question.

“Think of the weather,” he’d said, topping up her wine glass (Australian Shiraz, she’d noted wryly), and he’d smiled at her in an enticing manner. On seeing her hesitate, he’d tried to soothe any tensions by making a vague reference to marriage (only insofar as it might facilitate their transit, of course).

“I’m not trying to restrict you,” he’d said, “but it might make things easier…”

Ava had given him a proud look.

“Is it really more frightening to commit to someone who actually loves you than to marry out of necessity?” She booted a stone off the path, still resentful and torn. Only that very morning, in anticipation of their anniversary dinner (a milestone she’d never reached before), she’d been tempted by the idea of becoming Mrs Turner. But not now, not like this. It had all served to reinforce her verdict: Australia was simply too far, too new.

She hadn’t been unkind, hadn’t kept him waiting for an answer, though she’d been all too aware of what she might be giving up, when she declined him. She’d told him the very next day, over coffee, stressing how much she’d truly considered it.

(“I didn’t though, not at all,” she thought.)

He’d looked put out, ruffled, had sat back and folded his arms, a defensive gesture which hadn’t escaped her. Any hope that he might stay, that this was a little wrinkle that could be ironed out with time and effort, disappeared when it transpired that he’d already accepted a new job. He was going to leave anyway, accompanied or not.

Ava kicked a tuft of grass in her path. “It was foolish of me to think he was opening a discussion,” she taunted herself. It had been an announcement, plain and simple, and her answer had been irrelevant.

That had been a week ago. She hadn’t seen him since and there had been no habitual phone calls or late-night texts. For a year they had messaged each other good morning or good night, whenever they weren’t together. To go from that to nothing had been awful and empty. Oh, perhaps he had been right to cut things off; there was no point in prolonging their agony. All she knew was that he was flying out tomorrow, and then he would be gone, and she would have to try to go back to being alone.

Seeking the consolation of familiarity, Ava had decided to visit one of her favourite places, an old house that stood in its own parkland at the top of a hill. Immersing herself in heritage was restorative; she could almost guarantee it. She came here often (less so in the last year), though most of her visits had been spent largely in the gardens. The house was too full of porcelain and marble to suit her tastes and she preferred pottering between the flower beds in the fresh air, or the in-and-out of the hothouses with all their exotic foliage.  Much better than examining claustrophobic cups and saucers in their casements.

Though today, for once, she was heading for the house.

There was a specific spot that she wanted to see again. It was tucked away in a niche, just off one of the statue-strewn corridors. It was remarkably simple in style (when compared to the rest of the décor); you could easy walk past it and get swept along by the flock of visitors blindly seeking the historic highlights as instructed by the guidebook. If you didn’t pause and look up, didn’t go off the beaten track (if only for a moment), you could completely miss this moment of beauty. Truth be told, it had taken Ava several visits to notice it herself, but now she knew, she always headed for this alcove, and loved its serenity best of all. Amidst the general protective gloom, light from a cupola flooded down a stairwell, illuminating everything around it, from very top to very bottom. Here, she could be optimistic.

She entered the house and hurried through the pattern of corridors. Turning the corner, she was brought to an abrupt standstill. This was quite, quite different from the last time she had been here, not least because it was tremendously busy with people. She couldn’t deny a surge of irritation when she spied a coach party, complete with tour guide, clustering into her niche. There were so many of them they couldn’t possibly all fit in and spilled out into the corridor. It was a nuisance, them all standing about like that and craning their necks towards something she couldn’t even see.

“This isn’t what I wanted at all!” she thought, annoyed. It was vexing to have to confront a hubbub of faces, oohing and ahhing all over the place, when she had come in search of quiet, a bolstering. “What’s going on?” she asked.

A discrete room attendant glanced up and smiled at her, polite and friendly. “There’s a temporary art installation here,” she said. “Don’t worry, this lot will move on shortly and you’ll be able to have a look.”

Ava waited. What on earth had they done? She wasn’t sure she liked the sound of an art installation. (Improvements, messing about with tradition was precisely not what she wanted. Hadn’t the stairwell been quite good enough as it was?)

In due course the tour guide pushed his way between the bodies and led the exodus until the space was once again empty and correct. Ava hung back, gave the crowd room.  Only when absolutely everyone else had gone did she venture to look.

She was speechless. The whole alcove had been transformed. Of course, the cantilevered stairs still rose as they always had, hovering out of the walls, moving up and up towards the light. Of course, the iron balustrades still curved elegantly, twining their neat ovals between one floor and the next, but suspended throughout the stairwell, on wires so thin and light as to be almost invisible, flew hundreds and hundreds of origami birds. They were soaring up fluidly, spiralling around the lamp that hung through the centre of the stairwell, as though it were the law to cut sharp circles in the air. Each bird was unique in size and shape; some had been expertly folded, and others were frankly shabbily done (though somehow that didn’t seem to matter). You could see pencil marks or ends of words, the tail of a sentence that had been written on the paper before the creases were made. A statement here, a question there… She couldn’t understand it at all. At the bottom of the installation, the birds were white, pure and crisp, but as they rose, they faded into the lightest of blues, and then darkened steadily, until at the top, closest to the cupola, they were so blue that the sky paled against them through the glass.

“Oh,” said Ava, feeling the inadequacy of thought, and “Oh!” again.

“It’s breath-taking, isn’t it?” said the attendant, understanding her exclamation as appreciative.

Ava didn’t know how to respond, simply nodded. Her mouth flapped but couldn’t form anything useful.

The attendant sensed an opportunity, was pleased to tell her all about it, spoke with the confidence of the schooled. It explored wishes, she explained. In Japan, they believed that if you folded a thousand origami birds, your wish would come true.

“There are a thousand?” Ava followed the line of birds with her eyes. (All those wings carrying cravings to the sky!)

“Exactly one thousand.  The artist sent a square piece of paper to a thousand people all over the world.  They were asked to think of someone who had died, or someone they had lost touch with, and to write a wish for them on the paper and then fold it into a bird. Afterwards, when they’d sent them back, she installed the sculpture here.”

“Did she read the wishes?”

“No.” The attendant seemed satisfied by this, smug even. “That would have meant ruining them. Anyway, it was private, between the writer and the bird.”

“So, we’ll never know whether they came true?”

“I suppose not.” The attendant paused, shrugged as if it didn’t matter.

It certainly was beautiful, joyful even, though looking at the birds left Ava restless.  She couldn’t help imagining all those far-off people and all their thinking and all their losses, reaching towards loved ones, looking for a bridge out of the mundane, fingers teaching paper to take shape.

All that hope and belief and infinite possibility. She thought of Philip.

“Will it be here long?”

The attendant shook her head. “No, unfortunately not,” she said. “The moisture content in the air is destroying the paper. If you look you can see some of the birds are wilting already.” (They were.) “I’ll miss it when it’s gone though.”

“What’ll happen to them all?”

“Each will be sent back to the person who made it.” The attendant paused after this promise of return. “Actually, it comes down tomorrow; you’re lucky to have caught it.”

“Yes,” thought Ava. “Yes, I am.”

She felt more alert than she had for a week, as though she had been a sluggard, as though she had only stirred because she’d been roused by a flight and flurry of birds.

Hillard MorleyAfter studying Literature at Durham University, Hillard Morley taught English and Drama up to A-level whilst writing and performing with Rough House Theatre.  A physical theatre piece, Beef, about the impact of CJD was commissioned by the Taunton Arts Festival, and she also had poetry published in an anthology.  However, in her heart of hearts she knew she was meant to write prose and turned her full attention to this after being made redundant a couple of years ago.  Currently, she is editing a first (as yet unpublished) novel and researching a second.  It is the economy and discipline of the short story form which she loves, the ability to scrutinise every word and to focus attention on the significance of the smallest of moments.

2 comments

  1. Nice story. I liked the soft-focus on wishes and remembrance, on our desire to change whilst simultaneously refusing to give anything up and leave our comfort zone. There’s no judgement, merely a cool outsider view on the situation. And the birds at the end. Lovely. The end left deliberately open. Would Philip go to Australia after all? Would Ava join him? Would either of them regret or be glad they did or didn’t take either course of action? We can make up our own minds, as they will, one way or the other.

    Like

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