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Short Story Prize 2022 2nd place prize winner: THE GRIT, THE MUSSEL - Jon Stapley


Illustration by Tilly Berger // www.instagram.com/tillio.the.art.hoe/

Pearl wants me to tell her that I’ve changed my mind. Instead, I tell her that I’ve become irrevocably obsessed with “The Dance”, the 1997 Fleetwood Mac reunion concert.

“The what?”

Our car’s electric engine thrums beneath our feet.

“It was historic,” I explain. “It was the first time the entire Rumours line-up—Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, Christine McVie, Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham—had appeared onstage together since the Clinton inauguration in 1993. And really, who counts that? I don’t count that.”

Pearl leans an elbow on the door. She rests her left index finger on her temple, right at the point where they repaired her skull. I glance in my rear mirror and realise we’ve just passed the services. I’ve picked a bad time. We probably could have stopped if I hadn’t brought this up.

“So is this what you’ve been listening to on your headphones every night for the past four weeks?”

“Yeah.”

“Not French lessons?”

“No.”

“And is this also what you’ve been watching on your laptop, when you said you were going off to do guided meditations?”

“Yes.”

“The … Fleetwood Mac concert?”

“That’s right.”

Pearl rests her right hand on her thigh. An SUV surges past in the left-hand lane, close enough that a vibration travels up through my tailbone and along the length of my spine.

“Are you sure you can do this?” Pearl asks. “I’m giving you an out right now. You can turn off, leave me at the side of the road, and I’ll make my own way.”

I want to tell her that’s a stupid idea. That while I don’t agree with what she’s doing, while I do feel abandoned, and betrayed, and while I’m refusing to take any part in it, I’m at least going to see her there safely, that much I will do. But all I end up telling her is that Mick Fleetwood’s introduction of an oom-pah rhythm to the chorus of “Everywhere” makes the live version indelibly superior to the recorded.

Pearl has nothing to say to that. Three fat raindrops explode against the windscreen; I hunch over the wheel and flick on the wipers. Ninety miles to go.


*


I want to explain to Pearl how much I’ve been changed by Stevie Nicks. The first time I try, she says “I don’t know who he is”, which, let’s face it, is a bad start.

“You know ‘Dreams’?” I say.

“No.”

“Yes, you do. It was playing on the terrace the night we crashed the Medicine Ball, and all the smokers got up and danced. That DJ played it at Aoife’s wedding, even after someone asked him to stop.”

Silence.

“The Corrs covered it.”

Pearl frowns.

“I don’t—I don’t remember,” she says.

“Well, Stevie Nicks sang it. She wrote it in ten minutes, on her own, singing into a cassette player on a break during the Rumours sessions. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine being on, like, your lunch break, and just farting out one of the most perfect songs ever written?”

“How does it go?”

Four and a half minutes later, Pearl is tapping her thigh through the fade-out, and smiling in a way that’s only a little bit tired.

“Catchy,” she says.

Right?!” I pause the song and try to inject some calm into my voice. “Right? Stevie was seven years younger than us when she wrote that. Just a few years earlier, she’d been bussing tables in an L.A. restaurant called Bob’s Big Boy. From there, to this.”

“Bob’s Big Boy?”

“Yeah. Bob’s Big Boy.”

“Are you going to miss me?”

I tell her that the answer to that question should be so obvious that I don’t need to say it.

“I’d like to hear it anyway.”

We pass a sign. Seventy-six miles to go.

“Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham never married,” I say. “But they were together a long time. The moment they appear on stage in ‘The Dance’, you can feel the energy between them. It burns through the cheap video tape—practically leaves scorch-marks. It takes Stevie all of four songs to start pointing at Lindsey. All the hardcore fuck-off-and-die lyrics from the songs they recorded in the breakup—she blasts those lines directly into his face. It’s so sick. But later, she still has to sing the harmony part in the second verse of ‘Go Your Own Way’, the one where he’s calling her a slut, so, there’s that.”

“Lindsey Buckingham is a man?”

“Oh yeah. Very much so.”

We take the turnoff, and I bring the car to a halt at an amber light, even though I could have made it through before the red. Someone behind me honks their horn, and in the passenger seat, Pearl shifts slightly and clicks her tongue. She misses driving. I can tell.

“They’re clearing out the lab today,” Pearl says, abruptly.

I glance at her. I hadn’t known that.

“Are they moving, or …”

“No. Hardeep and Mike had one more meeting with the minister. They tried, but he just wants to wash his hands of it. Party activists say that people won’t shut up about it on the doorstep, apparently.”

She sighs.

“People are so stupid,” she says.

“You shouldn’t be thinking about this today,” I say. “They shouldn’t have told you.”

“I asked. I wanted to know.”

Pearl leans her head against the window.

“We never would have hurt anyone,” she says.


*


I never made anything of myself. It was easier not to.

I’ve eked out a living competing against myself in the SEO economy, which is less complicated than it sounds. Every day, except today, I write search-oriented content for websites that are trying to pitch themselves as authorities on basically everything. Say you need a new lawn mower—you search for the best lawn mowers, some site comes up, and there’s a list. I wrote that list.

Now, say that list isn’t working for you. You want someone else’s perspective. So, you go back to your search results, and you scroll down, and the next result is another list of lawn mowers, from a different website. Good to get a second opinion, right? Sorry—bad luck, fucko. I wrote that one, too.

It’s important to establish at this point that I don’t know shit about lawn mowers. I don’t own a lawn. But the websites have the pages and want the hits, and I am an efficient writer who will work for scale, so they don’t care. No one cares. The only people who do care are Trevor Spadeley from Nether Wallop in Hampshire, and Linus Miller from Asbury, Missouri, and Bodhi Brown, who has a lovely place just outside of Brisbane. You see, Trevor, Linus and Bodhi all ordered the Turfwhacker 9000 off Amazon last week because two—fuck it—three websites told them it was a sure thing, and now they’ve all discovered it’s a piece of junk that breaks if you so much as breathe on it from the wrong angle.

They can’t touch me though. Because I updated those articles again last week for a two-digit fee, and as you can plainly see, the Turfwhacker 9000 doesn’t appear anywhere on them. Sorry, Trevor. The circus left town last week.

Pearl always found this kind of stuff funny. It made her do the little snort. But as the years fell away, and I stubbornly refused to progress, it became less and less funny, to me at least, that I was making a living from the digital equivalent of a two-bit carny trick. So I stopped talking about it and just grunted when she asked about my day, no matter how much she tried to tell me that she genuinely wanted to know. No, I would just hand her a glass of wine, and rub the feeling back into her feet, and listen to everything she had to say about cells and tissues and the things growing in the vats, and when she’d complain about this or that, I’d be sure to interject at regular intervals with utterances like “Hmm” and “That sounds challenging” and it was good enough for her, even though it shouldn’t have been.

I used to be okay about what I did every day. It was always temporary. It was the thing I did to keep the lights on while I focused on making my art. But then, the lights came on at the Warner Brothers Studio in Burbank, California, and Lindsey, Stevie and Christine sang the first line of “The Chain”, and I pulled off my headphones because I’d been forced to confront the simple truth that I’d never made anything worthwhile in my life.


*


“Tell me about a story you’re working on,” Pearl says, as we pass a field of sheep.

She probably notices the way I tense up. She also probably notices the way I pretend to have something in my throat to give myself a few seconds to think. She definitely notices the way my fake hacking causes something to genuinely get lodged in my throat, and the three-minute spluttering coughing fit that follows is, I would say, almost impossible not to notice.

“It’s about a woman who’s married to a guy,” I say, eventually, in a voice somewhat the worse for wear. “They’re in a band together. She plays keys, he plays bass. She’s cheating on him with a lighting engineer. She writes a song about how the lighting engineer has made loving fun for her again, and when her husband is laying down the bass track, he asks her ‘Hey, what’s this one about?’ So she lies and says it’s about their new dog.”

Pearl stares at me for a while.

“Is that actually one of your stories, or is it a Fleetwood Mac thing?”

I doom myself with a too-long hesitation. Pearl doesn’t react as badly as I feared she would. She just looks tired.

“I know my choice has been difficult for you,” she says. “But you’ve got to give me something, Paul. It can’t be just this. Not today.”

I try. I really do try.

Three miles pass. Forty-five to go. Pearl gives a quiet, resigned smile, and places a hand on my arm.

“Talk to me about Fleetwood Mac,” she says.

“It can’t have been easy,” I say, mechanically, staring straight ahead into the rain. “I’m sure Christine didn’t set out to hurt John when she wrote that song. But you don’t choose who you fall in love with.”

“No,” Pearl says. “No, you do not.”


*


One of my most toxic habits—one of many—is messaging people who win micro-fiction competitions, offering to further shorten their stories for them. I act all friendly, like I couldn’t be more eager to help.Somebody wins a tweet competition with a story that goes like:

“He could still feel the stolen kiss of the gold band against his fourth finger; the pale

skin would never truly fade.”

And I get in touch, to suggest they could make it even shorter by changing it to:

“A guy got divorced.”

I’ve always been anonymous on social media. It was drummed into me by my parents, who’d seen their own parents get Facebook-brained and were understandably pretty iffy about the whole deal. It worked out well in one way—it meant that when everything kicked off with Pearl, and the graphic threats were rolling into the inboxes, and the rock smashed the window of the Chesterfield house, no one really knew who I was.

They made her the face of it. That was the problem. Some PR genius thought putting the youngest, prettiest face in front of the whole thing might make it an easier sell to the public, and Hardeep and Mike were old and ugly as shit. So it was Pearl out there. When the guy on Talk Radio started using words like “harvesting”, it was Pearl that listeners pictured. The guy on YouTube (they were usually guys) zeroed in on Pearl as the choicest cut of the day for his four-hour streams to a webcam, and accordingly it was Pearl his commenters obsessed over, detailing again and again her “dead eyes”, her “callous manner”.

“There’s no way any sane person could do the things she’s done and be so calm,” one person said, in a comment I definitely should not have been reading, under a video I definitely should not have been watching. “She’s not human.”

When the nice-but-dim liberals got elected, they promised they’d crack down on misinformation and, like, all that stuff. They were gonna look into it, for sure. Though it was too late for Pearl by then anyway.


*


The last time I saw Pearl on TV, it was winter. I was alone in the Chesterfield house, and I was cold because I hadn’t fixed the hole in the window, the one smashed by the rock. The rock was currently on the mantlepiece because Pearl, in a transparent bit of bravado, had claimed she thought it was funny.

I was watching on mute, with subtitles, which might seem a bit callous, but look, I’d seen Pearl on TV a lot by that point, and I was having a lovely night with my big headphones on. When I picture the scene, I remember myself listening to Lindsey play “Tusk” with the USC Marching Band, but that can’t be right, because this was long before my obsession started. I don’t know what I was actually listening to that night.

On TV, out in the cold, Pearl was being interviewed by a serious-faced newscaster via video link. She stood on the little patch of grass outside the lab, the one where we once had a picnic. The broadcast was live, so the subtitles were those auto-generated ones. They weren’t very good.

the implications of your break through work, the interviewer was saying.

not just mine, Pearl said. a whole team of people made this parse e bull.

When she spoke, her breath formed a mist in the air.

but what do you say to people like eric Croshire, who this morning described this practise as factory farming of humans, even of children, the interviewer said.

I could see Pearl stifle the eyeroll.

i’d say it sounds like eric’s running for election again, she said. I winced. She was going to pay for that one. The commenters hated it when she was sarcastic.

The interviewer tried to interject.

it’s a legitimate concern

But Pearl, her patience evaporating, simply kept talking.

as i have said many many times, these are not people, these are definitely not children, these are not lives. think of them as cultivated clusters of sells, sells we have grown, sells that can do incredible things, that can replace failing organs, that can seek out and destroy cancers, that can—

The camera on Pearl’s end juddered, as though struck by a sudden impact. She disappeared.

I sat up. I threw my headphones aside (in my memory, the sound of the USC Marching Band recedes with a wail as they fly across the room, even though that couldn’t have happened). I fumbled for the remote to turn on the sound.

There was too much confusion. The newscaster was trying to ascertain what was going on, the camera was on the floor, and there was a thud like maybe a microphone got knocked down. I thought I heard Pearl say something like “No, don’t” and then a man’s voice, scratchy and tearful, rose above the others.

—kids, slaughtering fucking kids!” it shrieked.

They cut away after that.


*


I didn’t have Lindsey, Stevie, John, Mick and Christine to help me through Pearl’s long convalescence. I only had myself. A new plague descended that winter, and it meant I couldn’t even visit her. Most of what I remember is pacing up and down the living room.

I did something I shouldn’t have. I went online and found the eighty-nine-page manifesto of the man who’d come to Pearl’s place of work with a metal crowbar and swung it as hard as he could into her skull. I started reading it—the first sentence was “They own the media.” I kept on reading. It didn’t help at all.

By the time Pearl had undergone three surgeries and regained her ability to speak, restrictions for the new plague were ebbing away. I was able to see her, sit at her bedside for twenty-minute sessions that were strictly timed.

It also meant I was able to be with her for that difficult meeting with the bearded doctor in the wood-panelled room, where he explained that when they’d scanned her head before the last surgery, someone had noticed a shadow.

“Young lady,” the bearded doctor said, “with respect, you’re a medical professional, and you never thought it odd that you ended every day with numb extremities? That you were struggling to remember names, faces, dates?”

Pearl didn’t argue on her own behalf. She just calmly asked about her options. When the bearded doctor had finished listing them, which didn’t take very long, she asked to be taken to the bathroom. I would have done it, but he insisted on calling a nurse.

“She’s going to need a lot of support, young man,” he said to me while we waited.

“Yeah, of course.”

“It’s going to be unpleasant.”

“Yeah.”

He sat back in his orthopaedic chair. I recognised it from the Top Ten Orthopaedic Chairs guide I’d written the previous June.

“Pearl’s a lovely name,” he said. “Beauty formed by irritation. The grit in the oyster.”

“Or a mussel.”

“Sorry?”

I cleared my throat. “They get pearls from mussels too. They farm them artificially.”

He tapped a pen against his desk.

“What exactly is it that you do?” he asked. “For a living, I mean.”

“I’m a writer,” I said, the word tasting like pus in my mouth.

One of his bushy eyebrows flickered.

“Anything I might have read?”

I glanced again at his orthopaedic chair, at the photo of him and his wife and his children on the desk. Behind them, visible between their heads and the sky, was a freshly mowed lawn.

“Yeah, maybe,” I said.


*


At the end of the road, where there are no more miles to go, there’s a shale house with a red door. Beyond the house, there’s a stone beach that plunges sharply into a grey sea.

At the highest point, atop a train of wooden rollers, there’s the boat.

There are several cars parked around, but only one person out front. It’s Pearl’s father, leaning with his back against the red door, one hand running through his shaggy white hair. He chose the exact wrong moment to sneak off for a cigarette. I see him start as he notices us; he tries to stamp the cig out on the driveway, but Pearl has already seen it, and her mouth draws into a thin, white line.

People must have heard our tyres on the gravel. They start appearing around the sides of the house; I see lips move, cries of “She’s here!” There are people I know—from Pearl’s old jobs, old life—and people I don’t. They’re all trying to smile, except for the official, who is identifiable immediately, talking into his phone, a medical bag at his side. He’ll carry out the procedure. Will make sure, right up to the final moment, that it’s a decision made of the relevant party’s own free will.

One small push is all it will take for the boat to slide down those rollers, and then the tide will pull it straight out. There’s no way to steer it, but there doesn’t need to be. As I understand things, a trawler will locate the boat after a day or two, and tow it back, so it can get used again. They aren’t just leaving boats out there. You can’t do that.

I bring the car to a stop. The crowd of friends and family swarms around us, but leaves a polite gap of three or four metres, as though we’ve got some kind of force field protecting us. There are still smiles, but the tears have started too.

“Are you getting out?” Pearl asks me.

All the arguments we had about this are flickering in front of my eyes.

The moment the nice-but-dim liberals announced they’d be letting people choose this, I knew we were on borrowed time, but I fought anyway. I cried, I begged, I bargained, and when none of that worked, I made a pitiful, empty threat to leave. Pearl said she’d do this without me if she had to. Well, I said, then she would have to.

“Paul?”

“I don’t think so,” I say.

Pearl always had such composure, but something in her breaks at that, and she crumples like a paper flower. She reaches for me, doesn’t know how, ends up placing her right hand over my left, which is still on the gearstick. Even though she’s been physically weakened by the shadow, by the attack, by everything, her grip is strong. I stare straight forward, because if any single part of me moves even slightly, I will break too, and I refuse.

I thought by this point I’d know what to say. In the place of comforting words, of defiant words, of any words at all, there is only a blank, sucking nullity. What I need to say is hanging before me in the negative space left by every worthless thought I’ve ever had, and I try to seize hold of it, but I can’t.

Pearl says, “I love you, Paul. Goodbye.”

And the grip releases, and she’s gone, out of the car, falling into her father’s arms. I bring up the clutch to enter first gear and pull away. For a second I wonder if the crowd will block me, but they wordlessly part. I don’t look at their faces, don’t need to see what they think of me, but just as I’m almost away, I can’t help glancing in my rear view mirror, and I see Pearl’s father, hugging his daughter, staring at me with a deeper hatred than I’d ever known he was capable of.


*


Out on the road, it’s quiet. The car hums beneath me.

As I drive and drive, the rain gradually eases, and leaves in its wake a still and unnatural calm. More miles fall away. In the distance, raising its head, is the rest of my life.

A low buzzing starts in my ears. In the field to my right, a lamb runs after its mother. A van with blacked-out windows passes me, heading in the opposite direction. In the distance, I can see a pair of walkers in colourful waterproofs, negotiating a stile with the exaggerated care of the elderly and frail. The buzzing in my ears is becoming painful.

I don’t want to hear my own thoughts anymore. I turn on the music, and it picks up where it left off, in the final seconds of “Dreams”.

The song dies. The next one starts. I listen to Lindsey sing about how he’s never going back again.

Something else falls away. I realise that what I want to say, that all I need to say, is the simplest thing. And even though it’s much too late, the shot will surely be in the arm, the boat will surely have launched, I hit the brakes and start to turn the car around. Because you have to try, don’t you? That’s the thing. You really do have to try.


 

Jon Stapley is a writer, editor and photographer based in London, and is on Twitter and Instagram as @j_stapling.


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