The Writers Bureau Short Story Competition 2019
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Short Story Competition 2018

2nd Prize – Lynne McVernon with:

Mr Waverley's Waterloo

Lynne McVernon

The boredom of hanging around airports doesn’t deter the paparazzi. There’s always the chance of catching a well known face – better still if it’s with another well known face it shouldn’t be with. I admire their tenacity; those pariahs and I are all in the business of news, albeit at opposite ends. I even know a few of them by name, we have a jokey relationship.

“You’re not news hounds, lads – you’re gossip mongrels. Woof woof.”

See, I can make a bad pun every bit as cringe-worthy as their red top sub editors. Sometimes, though, I wish they’d take a short hike off a pier in Wapping.

This particular night, after crossing a war zone and several time zones I was looking forward to the ordinariness of home. My ‘ordinary’, however, usually includes these gallants of the press. On this occasion I trailed behind my cameraman and director, too preoccupied on the phone to our editor to remember to hide my hair. There’s masses of it, an entire thorn bush of black corkscrews, it identifies me across battlefields if I don’t rein it in. Normally, I hide it under a kafiya – about the only size scarf to cope with it. Anyhow, this time, the flashing and yelling started as I stepped out of Arrivals.

“Here comes Winnie the War Witch!”

“Bubble bubble ’ere comes trouble!” (Haven’t heard that before. A literary scholar, no less.)

“Have a good flight on your broomstick did yer?”

And various other affectionate insults. I had to end my call. Then, of course, alerted by the fuss, TV-struck passengers, bored waiting families and friends started demanding autographs. I have signed old plane tickets, fag packets, backs of hands, you name it, since I started getting recognised. Heaven knows why they want my illegible scribble or what they do with it.

My favourite driver, Bob, pushed through the crowd apologising for not moving quicker, and got the three of us to the car in the pick up area. Once in, I resumed my phone conversation while the two guys dug into the sandwiches and beer that always awaits us. I never know how they can find the room after the airline food which, in business class, is usually fairly good.

It had been a difficult three weeks. The hotel was hit twice and the ceasefire – wasn’t. I’d been genuinely scared at times. I couldn’t let go like my two colleagues this time. On impulse, I asked Bob to drop me off at Waterloo. If I really wanted ‘ordinary’, the garish lighting and pungent food smells of a British commuter train would certainly provide it – and keep me away from the beer and sandwiches. So I said goodnight to Bob and the guys. They all thought I’d gone loopy.

Not wanting to attract any more attention, I knotted the kafiya round my head. Without a backdrop of shattered buildings and the sound of sniper fire, perhaps I was safe – in more senses than one. But it was midweek and nearing midnight, the last theatre goers, weary bar staff and exhausted city workers were more intent on catching their trains.

As I turned from the ticket machine it was his black coat I noticed, the way it hung from his shoulders, as old and frayed as him. He stood by the news stand, early editions of tomorrow’s papers lying in bundles at his feet. As he leaned to lift a copy I saw his profile, the prominent brow and aristocratic nose. I knew him. Where, where, where had I seen him before? He straightened slowly and disappeared behind the stand. My train was due, but I had to see him again. A long pause. He re-entered, from the right.

At once I pictured another scene, clear as the name on his paper. I saw the old black coat thrown over a chair, a room of people focused on a central point and my disobedient fingers worrying a grubby sheet of cartridge paper. And there, in the middle of us, reclining on an aged chaise, our subject. In summer, brushed by the breeze from an open window, in winter, textured with goose pimples – heated only by a one-bar electric fire. He struck a hundred poses while we experimented with charcoal, paint and clay. He of the patrician profile and ill-fitting jockstrap was the star of our life classes… Mr Waverley – starkers. Near enough.

Having defied my family to attend Art School, it was hard to admit disillusionment. But it wasn’t – real enough. Life drawing, no, Mr Waverley made me face my demon. The other students regarded him, at best, as a composition of form and tone, at worst, a smutty old joke. While they gauged his proportions or sniggered at his wayward genitals, I observed a situation. What I saw was a vulnerable old man subjected to indignity to earn a living. He was, perhaps, sixty then. And I was, of course, naïve. But curiosity drove me on.

One morning, as the others swaggered off for coffee, I loitered behind an easel. Mr Waverley sat draped in his overcoat reading his paper. How should I start? I rejected ‘Do you do this for a living?’ – you’d hardly do it as a hobby. Unless you were a masochist. Or a pervert.

Hunched there, NHS specs halfway down his nose, he looked harmless, exploited. And I did it, I asked that first question.

“Excuse me? I wondered – have you been doing this long?”

He looked up, startled.

“Ah – ’tis Snow white, the girl with the tumbling, raven locks!”

I imagine I blushed.

“Mr Waverley, you’re very good at – being still…”

I was talking garbage. He'd think I was winding him up. But he smiled, folding his paper.

“Oh – I’m used to people looking at me,” he paused, “in my other life.”

The stress on ‘other’ was calculated. It invited the next question.

“Your other life?”

“The theatre, of course,” he waved his paper.

It was a copy of The Stage.

“Comes out Thursday, but I get it Wednesday nights at Waterloo. To catch the auditions!”

Mr Waverley was an actor, an out of work –

“Resting,” he sighed, “at the moment.”

He gestured the chaise, turning to me as I sat, The Stage resting prudently across his lap.

“What plays have you been in?”

“Hundreds, my dear – Murder at Quay Cottage, The Vital Clue… but I specialise in pantomime, now – Baron Hardup or the Rat King. Ah, but Aladdin, that’s the one. You should see my Abanazar!”

I might have laughed at his unintended hint of a euphemism. But he dropped the name as though it were ‘King Lear’.

“I used to alternate roles – but recently…” he shrugged then leaned towards me, voice low, “Villains enter from sinister, you know – left of the stage.” He sat back, grandly, “I’ve played Sidmouth, Chesterfield, Tunbridge Wells – ” He made them sound exotic.

Mr Waverley drew me into his ‘other’ life of follow spots, costumes, painted scenery and – applause. He seemed glamorous, enviable. I wanted what he had. Not theatre, perhaps, but a life I loved that much, a passion to sustain me through the low times as it did him. For I recognised, even then, that it was a very low time for him. It was the first stage of my personal transformation.

Looking at him so many years later, it seemed if anything that his life had deteriorated. He must have been nearing eighty. But still, he had that hope. I saw it from the journal he clutched.

Back then, I recognised I was good at asking questions, getting answers. Journalism seemed the obvious career. After graduating, I worked at the BBC. Every so often, I’d remember Mr Waverly and keep an eye out for him at Television Centre, just in case he’d got a bit part in a drama. But eventually I forgot him as the news world enveloped me. I was lucky, bosses detected ability, the camera liked me, so work came easily to me. And with it came the fame that had eluded my unwitting life coach, Mr Waverley.

In the present, I felt compelled to thank him. His stooped figure shuffled towards the Waterloo Road exit. I ran thinking, ironically, ‘What do I say?’. Inspiration struck – I could return the favour in a small way. My notebook was in my shoulder bag. I caught him up, danced ahead of him. Elderly and unstable, he flinched fearing the worst. My famed bravado crumbled at the sight of his stricken face.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to – it’s OK…

I held my notebook out, tugged off the kafiya and shook my hair loose. He couldn’t fail to recognise me, not as the former student but the War Witch. He’d be able to boast to his friends that the media star had remembered him.

“Mr Waverley?

His eyes widened every bit as much as though he had painted on a mask of surprise.

“I saw you play Abanazar… at Tunbridge Wells. I’ve never forgotten it. May I have your autograph?”

I held the notebook out. Across a moment, that same pantomime light transformed his face, the mouth curved, the eyes crinkled, his spine straightened. For a moment, possibly the last time in his life, the shabby has-been became a leading actor. And I became his audience. I hoped my status wouldn’t intimidate him.

"Delighted, my dear!"

He articulated in shakier tones than those years ago. But the timbre, the warmth was still there. He paused, slightly, as though trying to remember his next move. Then, in one fluid movement, he tucked his copy of The Stage under an arm, took my pad and pen with an air of practice and looked me in the eye, beaming.

“Now then, young lady, what’s your name?”

 

About the Author

Lynne McVernon started her writing career at a precociously early age, sending scripts to BBC Television and short stories to newspapers – all rejected – before reaching secondary school. A graduate of the University of Reading and trainee director in regional theatres, she held director residencies at Dundee Rep – running the 'Other Company' touring Tayside, Young Vic Studio and National Theatre with guest productions throughout the UK. Taught / directed at several drama schools. As a director, enjoyed devising/co-writing (Mike Leigh, unsurprisingly, a major influence). Founded young people's creative writing company Fable Productions in Berkshire 1996. Has written original scripts, dramatised Dickens for theatre and adapted classics for BBC radio. Self-published first novel, Terrible with Raisins, in 2013 and is working on second plus a growing portfolio of short stories. Lives in Devon. Member of Exeter Writers.

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