The Nightingale - Honourable mention for The Cuffer Prize 2012

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By Paul Whittle

Honourable mention for the Cuffer Prize 2012

On the way to the airport, the radio plays “So this is Christmas, and what have you done?” What have I not done? I have not: gotten Skype working on the blasted computer; gone to see her; looked into the logistics of spending the summer over there as planned.

See, I’d already been to London, I’d already been to see the Queen.

Let me take you by the hand

And lead you through the streets of London

I can show you something to change your mind

That was the song the Old Man used to sing. Sad songs to make you cry, and I could cry, too. Nostalgia was like a genetic hereditary disease that I’d inherited from him and his lot.

When I’d come back from a year in London and another in Toronto, the Old Man had said, “You’re changed.”

And he was right.

No longer a pasty-faced bayman from Kilbride, I’d gone away like so many of my family and friends, come home like Odysseus, reunited with her, but then she left.

Penny’s sending a text as she comes down the escalator at the airport.

“Hello honey,” I say.

She kisses me on the cheek and looks around to see who’s looking. She wears rubber boots, the kind of rubber boots that had once been only used by fishermen, now suddenly back in vogue in England since Kate Moss had worn them to Glastonbury and since farming organic root vegetables — a practice once relegated to the poor — is now all the rage.

Families erupt in explosions of joy throughout the arrivals area, fake Christmas wreaths hang over them and youngsters run around screeching like little Whos in Whoville. The bags are slow to come off the carousel.

“You think the new airport would have speeded this up. … Can we stop at Mom’s?” she says.

“Sure, I guess. Don’t you want to drop off your bags, and we’re going over later for supper, right?”

Penelope looks down at her phone again.

“How’s the thesis?”

“I’m reading Dickens, ‘Bleak House’ and ‘A Tale of Two Cities,’ looking for the references about charity. I saved ‘A Christmas Carol,’ to get me in the spirit while I am here. It’s all such a lot of work.”

Finally the bags arrive and she sighs; most of the other folks don’t seem to mind or notice any delay, they’re still talking and yammering on in great anticipation of their own God-bless-us-everyone Christmas.

“Good ol’ rain, drizzle and fog. I’m sure you didn’t miss this,” I say.

“You should have seen Oxford Street! I did some shopping there!”  

She texts as we drive through the sodden streets, down over Portugal Cove Road, and then up the hill towards the old city. Occasionally she looks up and makes a comment about plans for Christmas, but I’m disappointed that she is not more excited to be home. I had expected her joy to erupt like a blooming red poinsettia.

“Maurice just texted me a question about Keats.”

She had not mentioned any Maurice before.

“Oh yeah, you’re both working on Keats, too?”

“Well, tangentially. He’s from Bristol,” she said.

“What does that even mean?”

“He’s at the British Museum right now.”

Penny goes ahead of me into the house as I struggle to lift her bags as the Eastern Star hangs over the towers of the basilica.

“Full of presents, no doubt,” I say, with the familiar teasing voice that we often used with each other, and all throughout this place, a tone to remind her where she is, to remind her that she is home.

“Mostly books,” she says. “It’s a chance to read.”

Christmas time is here, the old Charlie Brown standard plays on the radio as we sit down on the chesterfield and drink a bottle of wine, chat about her thesis and the difference in the weather between here and there. Mostly, we drink, nervously feeling how it is to be in each other’s space again.

She lays her head on my chest, closes her eyes. When she wakes I take her by the hand and we go upstairs, climb on top of the bed, clothed, negotiate where to look at each other and how to move, gauge what was then and what is now, as if time could be recovered with enough belief in the present.

“I missed you so much,” I say into her ear, close and dear, trying to bridge the distance between us.

Penny turns away and goes to the bathroom. I creep over the hardwood and I hear her whimpering inside, low and pitiable, like a bird, and I remembered a scene from “The Odyssey”: Tereus cuts out Philomena’s tongue, so she turns herself into a nightingale and flies away.

I knew the best thing to do was to get back into bed and pretend that things had not changed.

We had to get through Christmas.

Paul Whittle was born and raised in  St. John’s. He began writing while completing a degree in English literature in 1999. Since then he has won Newfoundland and Labrador Arts and Letters awards for poetry and prose.

His writing has been published in Tickleace,

The Newfoundland Quarterly and “The Backyards of Heaven,” and has been shortlisted for the 2009 CBC Literary Awards. He has a master’s degree in English literature from Memorial University, where he works in marketing and

communications.

Organizations: Bleak House, British Museum, Eastern Star Newfoundland and Labrador Arts CBC

Geographic location: London, LondonI, Toronto England Whoville Oxford Street Portugal Cove Road Bristol

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Recent comments

  • Jane Grant
    February 04, 2013 - 10:35

    I was so immediately taken into this story. I felt the tension, the discomfort, the sense that shift had taken place. Nuances like her texting while driving with him, and casually mentioning a name he had not heard before. The bedroom scene was so exquiisitely painful. It was nobody's fault. A shift had occurred and that was that. I desperately wanted to know what happened to them.