The winning story from this year's VS Pritchett Memorial Prizeby Carys Davies / November 16, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
Carys Davies was born in Llangollen, north Wales, studied modern languages at Oxford University and has worked as a journalist on both sides of the Atlantic. She won the 2011 VS Pritchett Memorial Prize for the following story. Davies’s stories have been broadcast on Radio 4 and have picked up many other prizes, including last year’s Society of Authors’ Olive Cook Award. “Writing a short story is always risky and very, very difficult,” Davies says. “I never know if I am going to pull it off. But when it works it feels quite magical: an alchemy of inevitability and surprise.” Davies has just completed her second collection of short stories. She lives in Lancaster with her husband and four children. They’d all seen Sheriff Nye bringing Pike into town: the two shapes snaking down the path off the mountain through the patches of melting snow and over the green showing beneath, each of them growing bigger as they moved across the rocky pasture and came down into North Street to the jailhouse—Nye on his horse, the tall gaunt figure of Galen Pike following behind on the rope. The current Piper City jailhouse was a low cramped brick building containing a single square cell, Piper City being at this time, in spite of the pretensions of its name, a small and thinly populated town of a hundred and ninety-three souls in the foothills of the Colorado mountains. Aside from the cell, there was a scrubby yard behind, where the hangings took place, a front office with a table, a chair and a broom; a hook on the wall where the cell keys hung from a thick ring; a small stove where Knapp the jailer warmed his coffee and cooked his pancakes in the morning. For years, Walter’s sister Patience had been visiting the felons who found themselves incarcerated for any length of time in the Piper City jail. Mostly they were outsiders—drifters and vagrants drawn to the place by the occasional but persistent rumours of gold—and whenever one came along, Patience visited him. Galen Pike’s crime revolted Patience more than she could say, and on her way to the jailhouse to meet him for the first time, she told herself she wouldn’t think of it; walking past the closed bank, the shuttered front of the general store, the locked-up haberdasher’s, the drawn blinds of the dentist, she averted her gaze. She would do what she always did with the felons; she would bring Galen Pike something to eat and drink, she would sit with him and talk to him and keep him company in the days that he had left. She would not recite scripture, or lecture him about the Commandments or the deadly sins, and she would only read to him if he desired it—a psalm or a prayer or a few selected verses she thought might be helpful to someone in his situation but that was all. She was a thin, plain woman, Patience Haig. Straight brown hair scraped back from her forehead so severely that there was a small bald patch where the hair was divided in the centre. It was tied behind in a long dry braid. Her face, too, was long and narrow, her features small and unremarkable, except for her nose which was damaged and lopsided, the right nostril squashed and flattened against the bridge. She wore black flat-heeled boots and a grey dress with long sleeves and a capacious square collar. She was thirty-six years old. If the preparation of the heart is taken seriously the right words will come. As she walked, Patience silently repeated the advice Abigail Warner had given her when she’d passed on to Patience the responsibility of visiting the jail. Patience was always a little nervous before meeting a new prisoner for the first time, and as she came to the end of Franklin Street and turned the corner into North, she reminded herself that the old woman’s advice had always stood her in good stead: if she thought about how lonely it would be—how bleak and frightening and uncomfortable—to be shut up in a twelve foot box far from home without company or kindness, then whatever the awfulness of the crime that had been committed, she always found that she was able, with the help of her basket of biscuits and strawberry cordial, to establish a calm and companionable atmosphere in the grim little room. Almost always, she had found the men happy to see her. “Good morning, Mr Pike,” she said, stepping through the barred door and hearing it clang behind her. Galen Pike loosened the phlegm in his scrawny throat, blew out his hollow cheeks and hawked on the ground. “I have warm biscuits,” continued Patience, setting her basket on the narrow table between them, “and strawberry cordial.” Pike looked her slowly up and down. He looked at her flat-heeled tightly-laced boots, her grey long-sleeved dress and scraped-back hair and asked her, in a nasty smoke-cracked drawl, if she was a preacher. “No,” said Patience, “I am your friend.” Pike burst out laughing. He bared his yellow teeth and threw back his mane of filthy black hair and observed that if she was his friend she’d have brought him something a little stronger than strawberry cordial to drink. If she was his friend, he said, lowering his voice and pushing his vicious ravenous-looking face close to hers and rocking forward on the straight-backed chair to which he was trussed with rope and a heavy chain, she’d have used her little white hand to slip the key to his cell off its hook on her way in and popped it in her pretty Red Riding Hood basket instead of leaving it out there on the goddamn wall with that fat pancake-scoffing fucker of a jailer. Patience blinked and took a breath and replied crisply that he should know very well she couldn’t do the second thing, and she certainly wouldn’t do the first because she didn’t believe anyone needed anything stronger than strawberry cordial to refresh themselves on a warm day. She removed the clean white cloth that covered the biscuits. The cloth was damp from the steam and she used it to wipe the surface of the greasy little table which was spotted and streaked with thick unidentifiable stains, and poured out three inches of cordial into the pewter mug she’d brought from home that belonged to her brother Walter. She told Galen Pike that she would sit with him; that she would come every morning between now and Wednesday unless he told her not to, and on Wednesday she would come too, to be with him then also, if he desired it. In the meantime, if he wanted to, he could unburden himself about what he had done, she would not judge him. Or they could talk about other things, or if he liked she would read to him, or they might sit in silence if he preferred. She didn’t mind in the least, she said, if they sat in silence, she was used to silence, she liked it almost more than speaking. Pike looked at her, frowning and wrinkling his big hooked nose, as if he was trying to figure out whether he’d been sent a mad person. When he didn’t make any reply to what she’d said, Patience settled herself in the chair opposite him and took out her knitting and for half an hour neither she nor Galen Pike spoke a word, until Pike, irritated perhaps by the prolonged quiet or the rapid clickety-clack of her wooden needles, leaned across the table with the top half of his scrawny body and twisted his face up close to hers like before and asked, what was a dried-up old lady like her doing knitting a baby’s bootie? Patience coloured at the insult but ignored it and told Pike that she and the other women from the Franklin Street Friends’ Meeting House were preparing a supply of clothing for Piper City’s new hostel for unwed mothers. A lot of girls, she said, ended up coming this way, dragging themselves along the Boulder Road, looking for somewhere to lay their head. Pike slouched against the back of his chair. He twisted his grimy-fingered hands which were fastened together in a complicated knot and roped tightly, one on top of the other, across his lap. “Unwed mothers?” he said in a leering unpleasant way. “Where all is that then?” “Nowhere at present,” Patience replied, looking up from her work, “but when it opens it will be here on North Street. The application is with the mayor.” *** When Patience Haig wasn’t visiting the occasional residents of the Piper City jail, she was fighting the town’s Republican mayor, Byron Lym. Over the years, she and her brother Walter and the other Friends from the Franklin Street Meeting House had joined forces with the pastor and congregation of the Episcopalian church and a number of other Piper City residents to press for certain improvements in the town: a new roof for the dilapidated schoolhouse; a road out to Piet Larson’s so they could get a cart out there from time to time and bring the old man into town so he could feel a bit of life about him; a library; a small fever hospital; a hostel on North Street for unwed mothers. So far, Lym had blocked or sabotaged each and every one of the projects. He’d said no to the new roof for the school, no to Piet Larson’s road, no to the library, no to the hospital and a few days from now, they would find out if he was going to say no to the hostel too. “He is a difficult man, the mayor,” said Patience, but Pike wasn’t listening, he was looking out through the cell’s tiny window at the maroon peaks of the mountains and when, at the end of an hour, he had asked no more questions about the hostel or anything else, or shown any desire at all to enter into any kind of conversation, Patience put her needles together and placed the finished bootie in her basket and told him that she would come again in the morning if he’d like her to. Pike yawned and without turning his eyes from the window told her to suit herself, it was all the same to him whether she came or not. In another week he would be dead and that would be that. *** Over the next three days, Patience visited Galen Pike every morning. She brought fresh biscuits and cordial and asked Pike if he wished to talk, or have her read to him. When he didn’t reply she took out her knitting and they sat together in silence. On the fifth morning, a Sunday, Patience arrived a little later than usual, apologising as she stepped in past Knapp when he unlocked, and then locked, the barred door behind her; she’d been at Meeting for Worship, she said, and there’d been a great quantity of notices afterwards, mostly on the subject of the hostel, as the mayor had indicated he’d be making his decision shortly, possibly as early as tomorrow. Pike yawned and spat on the floor and said he didn’t give a shit where she’d been or what she’d been doing and the only thing he wanted to know was how she’d got that pretty nose. Knapp, in his office, peeped out from behind his newspaper. He’d never known any of the men to be so unmannerly to Miss Haig. He craned his neck a little farther to see if anything interesting would happen now, if Patience Haig would put Pike in his place, or maybe get up and walk out and leave him to rot in there by hisself for the last three days of his life like he deserved. “I fell off a gate, Mr. Pike,” said Patience. “When I was nine.” “Ain’t that a shame,” said Pike in his nasty drawl, and Knapp kept his eye on Patience, but all she said was that it was quite all right she’d got used to it a long time ago and didn’t notice it unless people remarked on it, which in her experience they never did unless they meant to be rude or unkind, and after that the two of them settled into their customary silence. Patience took out her knitting. In his office Knapp folded up the newspaper and began heating his coffee and cooking his pancakes. The fat in his skillet began to pop and smoke and then he poured in the batter and when the first pancake was cooked he slid it onto a plate and then he cooked another and another and when he had a pile of half a dozen he drew his chair up to his table and began to eat. Every so often he looked up and over into the cell where Patience Haig and Galen Pike sat together, as if he was still hoping for some significant event or exchange of words, something he might tell his wife about on Wednesday when he was done keeping an eye on Pike and could go home. It was creepy, he thought, as he munched on his pancakes and gulped his coffee, the way the fellow was so scrawny and thin. “QUIT SNOOPING!” yelled Pike all of a sudden into the silence, opening his mouth wide in a big yellow-toothed snarl that made Knapp jump like a frightened squirrel and drop his fork. “Jesus Christ,” growled Pike. “Nosy fat curly-tailed fuckin’ hog.” He turned to Patience. “What all d’y’all do then? At the worship meeting?” Patience laid down her knitting and explained that there were nineteen members of the Piper City Friends’ Meeting, including herself and her brother Walter, and on Sunday mornings they gathered together at the Franklin Street Meeting House where they sat on two rows of benches arranged around a small central table. “What about the preacher?” “No preacher,” said Patience. Instead, they abided in silence and sought the light of God within themselves and no one spoke out loud unless the spirit moved them. “What light of God?” said Galen Pike. “The light of God that shines in every man,” said Patience. *** On the following day Byron Lym summoned Patience Haig and the pastor of the Episcopalian church and a handful of the other Piper City residents who supported the creation of the hostel for unwed mothers and told them they couldn’t have it. Afterwards, walking home, Patience passed Mayor Lym’s big yellow house with its screened-in porch and its magical square of mown green lawn and its herbaceous borders and its sweeping driveway of twinkling smooth-rolled macadam out in front. She passed the schoolhouse with its perished square of flapping tarpaulin tethered to the beams of the broken roof; she passed the plot of unused ground next to the lumber yard where they’d hoped to build the library; the empty warehouse that could so easily be converted into a fever hospital; and by the time she reached Franklin Street she felt so low, so crushed and despondent and depressed, that she didn’t go to the jail at all that day to visit Galen Pike. She ate lunch with her brother Walter and let loose a tirade against the mayor. “Byron Lym has no interest in the unfortunate people of this world,” she said, speaking quickly and breathlessly. Boiling fury and exasperated irritation bordering on despair made her burst out: “He is selfish and corrupt and bad for the town.” Walter served the macaroni cheese and Patience sat without eating, fuming. Byron Lym had won every election in Piper City for fifteen years. The margin was narrow, but on election day, the Republican vote always seemed to win out: there were enough people in Piper City who didn’t seem to mind Byron Lym stealing their taxes and spending them on himself, as long as he kept them low. “It’s wrong, Walter,” she declared, “the way that man manages to hold onto those votes. It’s like a greedy child with a handful of sticky candies and it shouldn’t be allowed when there’s not one ounce of goodness in him, not one single solitary drop.” Walter raised his eyebrows and looked at his sister with his mild smile. “No light of God, sister?” Patience threw her napkin at him across the table. “Don’t tease me Walter. Doubtless it is there in some dark silk-lined pocket of his embroidered waistcoat but if it is he keeps it well hidden.” When they’d finished eating she asked her brother to please excuse her, she was going out for some air and for an hour Walter could hear her out on the porch glider, rocking furiously back and forth, the rusty rings creaking and tugging in the porch roof as if they might pull the whole thing down at any moment. In his cell, Pike sat with the rope cutting into his wrists, the chain grinding against his hips every time he shifted himself in the chair. He looked around at the bare brick walls and the thick bars, at Knapp reading his newspaper or hunched over his skillet or dragging the twigs of his old broom across the office floor. He closed his eyes and sat listening to the rustle of the aspen trees outside, and from time to time he turned his head and looked out through the tiny window at the maroon peaks of the mountains. Eleven o’clock had come and gone, then twelve and the woman in the grey dress with the lopsided nose had not appeared. Three o’clock, four, still no sign, and Galen Pike discovered that he missed her. He missed the gentle tapping of her knitting needles, the soft reedy tooting of the stale air of his cell as it went in and out of her squashed nostril. He realised that from the moment he woke up in the mornings, he was listening for her quick light step in the street outside. From the moment Knapp pushed his oatmeal through the bars and reached in for his potty, he was looking over at the office door and waiting for it to open. She was the only person in the world who did not recoil from him in disgust. In the courthouse people had held themselves against the wall, gawping at his wild black hair and straggly vagabond’s beard, shaking their heads as if they had seen the devil. This one, with her neat hair and her long plain face and her flat polished shoes, sat there straight and stiff and looked him in the eye. He felt bad about calling her an old lady and being rude about her nose. He missed the way she gathered the silence of his cell about her like something warm that did not exclude him from it. He’d even come to enjoy the strawberry cordial. Slowly, inch by careful inch, and with the greatest difficulty, he began working his hands loose from the tight coils of the rope. *** “Forgive me, Mr. Pike,” said Patience when she came in the morning. She would have come yesterday, she said, but the mayor had turned down their application for the hostel. He said it would be “a blister in the eye of any visitor to Piper City and an affront to the respectability of its inhabitants.” Afterwards her spirits had been so low she’d gone straight home. “My company would have been very poor I’m afraid, Mr. Pike, even for someone who makes as few demands on it as you.” Pike wished Knapp wasn’t there. He hated the way the fat jailer spied on them. “Ain’t that a shame,” he said, his voice low, hoarse. “Yes.” Suddenly there were tears in Patience Haig’s eyes. Her plain narrow face looked even longer than ever, pulled down by the twitching corners of her thin mouth. Pike studied her. He didn’t know what to say. Knapp had edged closer, attracted no doubt by the soft sound of Patience Haig crying. When Pike saw him he jumped up with his chair on his back and shook his chains and roared and rushed towards the bars like a gorilla, sending the terrified Knapp scurrying back to his stove on the far side of his little office. When Pike returned to the table he found Patience laughing quietly. “He’s like the winged lion in the Book of Revelation,” she said, blowing her nose. “Full of eyes before, behind and within.” “Ain’t that the truth.” Patience sniffed and dried her cheeks with a half-made bootie. She straightened her long dry braid and squared her bony shoulders. “Well,” she said. “Enough of my disappointments, Mr Pike. How are you today?” Pike wanted to tell her he’d missed her yesterday when she hadn’t come. “I’m okay,” he said. “That’s good,” said Patience. “I have something for you,” said Galen Pike, laying his hand upon the table. He had made it, he said, to brighten her frock. It was a kind of rosette, or flower, woven from what appeared to be loose threads from the rope that had been twined about his hands, which Patience saw now was no longer there. Four rough stringy petals; at the centre a button from his putrid blood-soaked shirt. Patience held it for a moment in the palm of her hand. The rough petals scraped her skin. She wondered if Pike meant it as a romantic gesture of some sort. If the preparation of the heart is taken seriously the right words will come. “Thank you, Mr. Pike,” she said gently. Thank you but she couldn’t accept it, she was against adornment, material decoration. She placed the flower back in the hollow of his cupped hand. His dirty fingers closed around it. “You hate me.” “No.” Knapp held his breath. He watched Pike turn the rope flower over in his hand and shake his head, the foul matted tangle of snakes and rat-tails, and heard him tell Patience Haig she was wrong about the light of God being in every man. He didn’t have it. It had passed him by. Where he was, was dark and swampy and bad. “Nonsense,” said Patience. It was true, said Pike, looking out through the tiny window at the maroon-coloured peaks beyond. Since his mother died he’d done all manner of wicked things. Since she passed away, years and years and years ago, there’d been no one to tell him how to behave; no one in the world he’d wanted to please, whose good opinion mattered at all. If he’d wanted to do something, he’d gone ahead and done it. He looked at Patience. What was her name? he asked. “Patience,” she said. “Patience Haig.” “You remind me, a little, Miss Haig, of my mother.” Knapp’s beady eyes moved from Galen Pike to the thin Quaker lady in her drab frock. It was hard to tell from her expression, if she enjoyed this comparison with Pike’s mother. Her face showed no emotion, her long braid lay neatly down her back, her hands folded in her lap. “I am afraid of the hangman, Miss Haig,” said Galen Pike. He touched his hand to his throat. Would she shave him, in the morning? And cut his hair? Would she bring him a clean shirt so he wouldn’t look so dirty and overgrown when they came for him in the morning? That is, he added with an awkward kind of grimace, if she didn’t disapprove too much of him being anxious about his appearance. Patience looked at her hands. Of course she would shave him, she said softly. If he thought it would help. And then, because she wanted very much to lighten the heaviness of the moment, she smiled, and said she hoped she wouldn’t make too much of a mess of it; she’d watched her brother Walter shaving a few times but had no experience herself. Pike said he was sure it would be all right. He trusted her not to hurt him. *** When she’d finished shaving him the next morning, and given him Walter’s clean shirt to put on instead of his stinking one, Patience asked him if he wanted her to read something. The twenty-third Psalm was beautiful, she said. It would give him strength, she was sure. Pike said all he wanted was for her to go with him. For ten minutes more they sat quietly. There was the sound of Knapp’s broom moving across the floor of his little office, outside in the yard the rustle of the aspen trees, and then Knapp came with the key, and Sheriff Nye and two of his men, and Dr. Harriman and the hangman from Boulder. Nye unlocked the chain around Pike’s waist and untied the remaining rope that fastened his legs to the chair, and took him by the arm. In the yard he asked him if he had any last words and in a strong voice Pike said he wanted to thank Miss Patience Haig for the tasty biscuits and the cordial and the clean shirt and the shave but most of all he wanted to thank her for her sweet quiet company. She was the best and kindest person he had ever known. He had not deserved her but he was grateful and he wished he had something to give her, some small remembrance or lasting token of appreciation to show his gratitude, but he had nothing and all he could hope was that if she ever thought of him after he was dead, it would not be badly. It was hard to tell, Knapp said later to his wife, what effect this short speech of Pike’s had on Patience Haig, but when the burlap bag came smartly down over Pike’s black eyes and repulsive ravenous features and the floor opened beneath his feet, he was certain Miss Haig struggled with her famous composure; that behind the rough snap of the cloth and the clatter of the scaffold’s wooden machinery, he heard a small high cry escape from her plain upright figure. *** When it was over Patience asked Knapp if she might sit for while in the empty cell. She looked for the rope flower but it wasn’t there. Knapp must have spirited it away, or perhaps Pike had taken it with him. It seemed an eternity since he’d first wandered into town. There’d still been snow on the ground, though the worst of the winter had been over. For months before there’d been talk of a little gold to the south, and she remembered seeing the four Piper City men heading off on their expedition to look for it, Pike making the fifth as bag-carrier and general dogsbody, loaded up with cooking pots and shovels, dynamite, fuel, picks. She walked slowly away from the jailhouse, trying to empty her mind of everything that had happened since the four Piper City men had failed to return and their horrible fate had been discovered. She tried to empty her mind of the quiet hours she’d spent with Galen Pike at the jail, of Byron Lym’s crushing rejection of her latest project, of the terrible hanging. She had never felt so miserable in her entire life. She turned out of North Street into Franklin and passed in front of the shuttered front of the general store, the closed bank, the locked-up haberdasher’s, the drawn blinds of the dentist. She paused before the heavy pine doors of the bank. On the brass knocker someone had tied an evergreen wreath with a thick black ribbon. Poor Mr Shrigley, she thought. Poor Mr Palgrave. Poor Damon Archer and Dawson Mew. She walked on a little way and then she stopped and turned and looked back at the silent premises of the four dead men. It had not occurred to her before. “Oh dear Lord,” she whispered, thinking of Byron Lym’s stubborn but wafer-thin majority at the polls. In Piper City everyone knew how everyone else voted and if Patience’s memory served her and she was not mistaken, there’d been forty-eight Republican voters at the last election, and since then Galen Pike had eaten four of them. It was doubtful Lym could succeed next time without them. Patience turned on her heel. She squared her bony shoulders and tucked her basket into the crook of her arm. Quickened her step along Franklin Street towards home. Ran up the steps onto the porch and in through the screen door, to tell Walter the news.