- Saturday, 21 November 2015

The Storm

I wrote this a few years ago for my Higher English folio, so if I were to rewrite it now there are things I'd change, but I just fancied posting it exactly as it was. Our task was to choose a painting that was in the Scottish National Gallery at the time, that the evoked some sort of emotion, then write a story inspired by it in some way. My shortlist was 'Falkland Palace and the Howe of Fife' (Alexander Keirincx), the 'List of Names' (the huge big list in the stairwell, if you know the gallery), and 'The Storm' (William McTaggart). As will hopefully be apparent after reading the following, I decided to go with 'The Storm'.

The Storm - William McTaggart (1890)
A bell rings. A single peal every minute, as they approach that innocent-looking building. A hollow, lonely sound; it suits the mood. Who ever knew such a gentle place could be so harrowingly full of sadness.

I see a man, looking around. He looks, but he does not see. His face is empty, his eyes the windows into an abyss of sorrow. He looks as if all the world has perhaps just turned around and told him that they no longer want him. Merely looking at the solemnity of that expression is unbearable. He follows that awful wooden box, the universal symbol of no-longer-there.

A slow, considerate procession, and the pews are filled. I do not want to sit with the family, nor the friends, or even the distant acquaintances. For I am nothing more than a stranger. And for that reason, I stand just outside the doorway. The door remains open. Symbolic, perhaps, with a fickle, malicious breeze intruding on the ceremony, or maybe just an accident, overlooked in times of higher priorities.

Melancholy notes drift from the organ, like tiny birds trying to find their way out of that all too quiet place. However unlike little birds, the notes remain just as sombre on reaching the outside. I almost expected them to cheer up after leaving that joyless place.

A moment passes. I listen to what is being said, and it seems to me that I have missed more than a moment. Too deep in thoughts of note-birds, the service has continued on without me. Symbolic, again? Perhaps. Then again, perhaps not. It is not as if anyone ever truly expected the world to stop turning the moment they left.

Someone stands up from the front pew and takes a step forward. He falters, and I know that he is wondering if he is strong enough, if there is even any point. But there is, and he sees that, and he takes purposeful steps towards the front. He reaches it, turns around, and I recognise him as the man I saw outside, looking but not seeing. He still has that same lost look on his face. Whispers ripple through the congregation, a silent echo of uncertainty. He hears, but he refuses to listen. He reaches into his jacket and pulls out, not a sheet of notes, not a pre-written speech, but what appears to be a photograph. Yellowed and faded on the back from what I can see, with some writing hurriedly scrawled on at the time, so as not to forget the memories. The trembling in his hand is detectable only via the shaking of the memory he holds so dearly in it. In such silence, the fluttering of the photograph is almost thunderous.

He looks at the photograph for one long moment, as if it is bringing a thousand other long moments flooding back. A quiet smile to nobody in particular, a tentative cough, and then he begins.

“I miss him. We all miss him. More than anyone could ever imagine, that is how much we miss him. But it’s not just him that I miss. Not just his personality, but everything, and I know that’s what you all miss too. We miss his laugh. His practical jokes. His serious moments. His excessive cooked breakfasts. His adoration for his children, his wife. I know you miss these things too, I know. His outrageousness. His disregard for political correctness. His shouting at the TV as if they really will listen to him. His dedication to everything he does. Did. His smiley eyes. His ever-growing plans for future adventures. His love for the boat, the sea. His selflessness. Selfless to a fault, you see. For ultimately, his selflessness was his downfall. And in a way, that’s nice. Not ironic, not poetic, not romantic, not any other word but ‘nice’. Because he was nice, to everyone, all the time. It’s because of that, that there are so many of you here today. Remembering him, and how genuinely nice he is. Was.
       “But really, you needn’t have come – that sounds rude, but it’s not. None of us need be here right now. Why spend one day showing off that we are remembering a lost loved one, when we all know that he will be remembered all day, every day. Perhaps not consciously, perhaps not always fondly. Maybe you will put a red sock in the whites wash and remember how annoying it was when he always did that. But then, hey, who doesn’t want an all-pink wardrobe, as he would say.
       “The point I am making is that he will never be forgotten. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are always remembering him. Consider this: everyone you meet in your life has an effect on you. No matter if he was someone you saw giving money to a homeless person, or opening a door for a stranger, or if he was your dad, your husband, your brother. He had an effect on everyone here, every single person, and if he had not been in our lives for that one moment, or those many years, we would not be the same people. So just know that in everything you do, everything you say, everything you think, you are remembering him.
       “And then, one day, perhaps what he did will inspire some of you to be as courageous, as brave, as undeniably, stupidly kind, and maybe you will do something even half as amazing. And if you do, well, that’s pretty amazing. Because, friends, I don’t want you to forget that he died helping. His life was ended in the middle of what is perhaps one of the only truly selfless acts. I know that we all miss him, but I wake up every morning – and I doubt this will ever change – and I remember the moment as if it is happening right now. From that exact point, I have been in the boat ever since. I am still in the boat. I will always be in the boat. Sure, I can be other places too, and I’m not going to be miserable my whole life, but a part of me will always be in that boat, with him.
       “It’s hard to think, isn’t it, of what must have been going through his head when he saw the raging storm and decided to try to help anyway. I’m sure he must have known what would happen, but it’s at moments like that when we become blind to reason, and love overcomes all. I cannot hide from the fact that my dear brother, my best friend in the whole entire world, is dead, and he died saving me. But I’m not going to be sad and pathetic about it – that would be a waste of his life!
       “For his sake, I will live the rest of my life happy and achieve my dreams, and I’m going to achieve his too, for him. And what I am asking is that all of you do the same, in his memory. He will never, ever be forgotten. I just want to leave you with this thought: ‘What the caterpillar perceives is the end, to the butterfly is just the beginning.’”


I notice only now quite how much the man has changed throughout the course of his speech. He makes his way slowly back to his seat, and I know at this point that he was right – I will not be the same person ever again as I was before the service. And for the sake of a hero who I never met, I will achieve my dreams. And just like that, the world continued.

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