He wrote the second half of the competition story out in the garden. When he stumbled across it on the website, it was the unfinished-ness of it that he couldn’t bear. He had never seen an unfinished story before. When you borrowed a book from the library it always has an ending, but this one seemed somehow screaming and bereft. He couldn’t bear it – it had to be mended, just as if he had gashed his hand and seen blood oozing from it he would have wrapped something round it, to plaster what was raw and suffering.
He printed it out and took it into the garden with his mug of tea, placing the tea carefully on the top of Rabbit’s hutch, unfastening the catch and opening the door, reaching in to stroke the silky ears. Responding to a familiar signal, Rabbit squeaked and lolloped out into the garden, disappearing by unhurried instalments into the uncut grass. Sitting on the kitchen chair, which he had dragged out through the patio door, taking advantage of the afternoon lull, when all that could be heard was the distant sound of children in the playground of the village school during their break, Robert began to read the short story so cruelly abandoned by Marius Hawkinge.
The story did not strike him as very good. It was about a young boy in the 1950s, train-spotting on the platform of a country station. He was waiting for a particular train although the story did not explain why. Quite a lot of not very interesting things happened in the story, which Robert found it difficult to concentrate on; a sparrow dropped onto the platform beside the boy and started pecking at crumbs; the stationmaster arrived and said a few words, warning the boy not to go too close to the edge of the platform; the signals changed, the signal arm clattered down, a bell rang, etcetera, etcetera.
Robert took in all these details, whilst finding them annoying. Some of them were actually wrong. Robert knew, because he read a lot of railway books, and his local library had the biggest collection of railway books in the country. The reference to green glass in the signal, for instance. Anybody who knew anything about railway signalling would know that lamp-glass was blue. It only appeared green when the lamplight was shining through it. And he’d got the signal arm going down, when it should have gone up.
Robert had never attempted to write a story before, but he knew from a lifetime of book-borrowing and his poor dead aunt’s passion for Agatha Christie novels that he would be expected to pick up this trail of irritating loose ends and give them some significance in the second half of the story – the bit that he would write. How, he wondered, could the famous playwright-person have given away his precious story, like leaving a baby on a doorstep. He supposed that the playwright must have been paid to supply it, but how could he? Leading on from that, Robert wondered if the playwright-person had actually attempted to finish the story himself. Surely he must have done, or how would he know it was finish-able?
Were there stories that couldn’t be finished, or could all stories be finished, no matter how unpromising their beginnings? Robert did not know, and presumed he would not know until he had tried. In the meantime a milk-scum had formed on the surface of his tea, and Rabbit had got under the wire into next door’s garden and was eating marigolds.
As he works, he becomes absorbed. He looks down at his hand, writing, sees the words taking shape at the end of the pencil, the pencil wearing down and needing to be sharpened, the crossings-out, the interjected thoughts, balloons and arrows scrawled on the blank page opposite – yet at no time does he have the sense that he is inventing anything. It is as if the story has been there all along: it just needed his brain, his arm, his fingers to bring it into the world. As he writes, the story tells him how it wants to end but, to the last word, he can’t be sure.
Looking up, he is astonished to see that the sun has gone down and a white flying-saucer of a moon is in the sky. He realises he is shivering, partly with excitement and partly because his back and shoulders are wet with dew. Rabbit has long since returned to his hutch of his own accord, and sits there now, chewing carrot-tops, his eyes focussed somewhere in the middle distance. As bats begin their dances in the gloaming, a ruminative happiness envelops them both.