HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition

Swimming

This is the first prize Chris has won, which is astonishing given how beautifully this story is constructed and written.
Chris is a previously unpublished writer who loves reading and writing about the American South and Africa. He is currently half way through a novel about jazz music in apartheid-era South Africa. He lives in Falkirk.


SWIMMING AGAINST THE RIVER


Tom was so preoccupied with fixing the transistor radio that he hadn't noticed the black man walk into the diner and take a place by the window.
The radio had been lying on the counter for probably forty five minutes. He had seen that you could take out two screws and prise open the cover, and he thought he might be able to work it out. But that did not turn out to be the case. Whatever your powers of reasoning might be, it didn’t matter a damn if you couldn’t look at the curious mix of cylinders, cubes and joints and put a name to at least one of them.
So the very act of opening the radio to inspect it was illogical. Myrtle would have remarked by now that it was foolish for him to spend so long staring uselessly at something. He’d have done the smart thing and asked for someone’s technical know how.
And yet it had seemed the right decision to try to fix it himself. Handing the set in for repair would have been premature, and it had been rumoured that Hollifield’s prices were becoming so steep that a customer had become violent several weeks ago. He could surely fix it himself: he had wired countless plugs, could change a starter motor with his eyes shut. Electricity flowed from one place to another. How hard could it be?
So he had been deeply absorbed in the set, still feeling hopeful. And in the midst of this, and absent-mindedly settling a bill for two young women, he hadn’t noticed the man who now sat over in the far corner.
But now he looked, and he saw, and there were only a few seconds to think.

The man was sitting up straight in the seat as if he were planted in the ground, his arm resting in an almost regal way across the table. He nodded to Tom, who hurriedly picked up a cloth and then realised there was nothing to be cleaned with it.

Outside, the road was deserted. A wind was picking up, and his sign was swaying. Williams’ Diner. Roasted Chicken, Fresh Coffee. He had added in A little stop on the way underneath when he painted it two weeks before, then painted it over, then back on again, satisfying himself with the thought that it might attract some new clientele.

He hadn’t banked on this, though.
The black man’s body had not quite settled into the chair, almost as if the two were taking time to get accustomed to one another - but he had nonetheless begun to look at a menu, and all Tom could think was, Myrtle would never have let it get this far.

But he hadn’t been there to stop the man in his tracks at the door and point out his mistake. It was the damn radio that had his mind detained elsewhere. He hadn’t heard the creak of the door or felt the brief intrusion of outdoor ambience. And now, for that small lapse, he had this situation to contend with.
He looked around behind the worktop for things to do. He had figured out how to clean the new coffee machine, but the jug would have to soak for at least an hour and the pump was fiddly and awkward to remove. He ran through tasks in his head: he’d mopped already, and all the clean-as-you-go areas were wiped down. He could go to wipe the table left by the two girls, but then he’d be too close and would need to acknowledge the man. He settled for turning on the dishwasher, with two cups and plates inside, feeling more relaxed upon hearing the machine’s industrious hum.
‘Excuse me, mister?’
He heard the voice and cursed softly. The man was standing at the counter, hands resting uneasily on the worktop. He made everything in Tom’s diner seem unfamiliar somehow, like someone had come in on the sly and painted all the panelling a slightly different shade of blue.
‘Can I order something?’
And then Tom saw the olive drab shirt and tie and realised it: the man was a veteran. Several had passed through in the past months, having docked in California. They were tired and hungry and mostly headed on long journeys to Texas. Two young men in the town had just returned from Korea, and Tom had been sure to nod and say hello, a gesture of solidarity he felt compelled to make even if they didn’t know he had served.
‘The cod, please?’
The man must have mistaken Tom’s dumb stare for some kind of approval. Tom breathed in and felt his chest tighten. He could swear he felt Myrtle watching at his back, waiting to be consulted, and he thought, I’m going mad. And then, not knowing what else to do, he found himself picking up an order pad. The rest unfurled through reflex: he scribbled down the order with whipped potato, side of veg, a ginger ale. He stepped through the soft rattle of the door beads into the kitchen, feeling like his legs might give way beneath him, and he leaned against the wall for just a second. When he looked around, it seemed that he had forgotten where everything was kept: and when he did manage to locate a frying pan and fish slice, the objects felt alien in his hand, like when you repeated a word over and over till it seemed to get dislodged from its original meaning.

All too quickly the food was ready. He supposed he could spill the plate and try and make it look like an accident and hope the man decided it wasn’t worth the wait; but he felt it beneath him to pull a stunt like that. He placed the food on the table gingerly, wincing at every awkward clang of crockery.
‘Uh...mister?’
What now, Tom thought? Was the man out of his mind?
‘Is that a Regency, up there?’
He hadn’t anticipated conversation of any sort, and certainly not about the radio, of which he was suddenly embarrassed. His only goal had been to get the food onto the table, and then he would plan his next move, whatever on earth it might be.
‘I used to own a Regency. A TR-1.’ The man spoke like a newsreader, rather formal and a little uptight but undoubtedly friendly.
Tom said nothing.
‘Had it when I was in barracks, for a while. I think your one is newer, though.’
Tom shrugged. ‘Yeah, well the damn thing’s dead. You want to listen to music while you eat, you need to go some place else.’
‘Oh no, mister, I didn’t mean offense.’ There was hesitation in the man’s face for a second. ‘But I’m sure I could tell you the trouble. These things haven’t changed much.’
The heap of wires and components lay there as if to mock him. It was like being a child again, humiliated at sports by flat feet and let down in the classroom by bad eyesight.
‘Hey, you know what, have at it.’ He passed the radio down. It felt like a damn day at the circus, watching clowns pull increasingly wilder stunts. ‘Why not indeed,’ he muttered to himself as he walked away.
‘Ha!’
Tom turned round. The man was smiling at the Regency.
‘Look here. You see here, on the battery snap? The soldering ain’t up to much - see how it’s come loose?’
The man pointed to the end of a short piece of wire, and Tom saw the ridiculous little black pad hanging off the end.
‘Huh.’
‘Easy to miss. Lot of parts in these things.’ The remark was mollifying without being patronising. ‘Easy repair for a store. Fact, if I jam it back in right now...’
A quick flick of the wrist, and Lovesick Blues filled the room, too loud. The man chuckled and turned the radio down till it sat at a pleasant volume. ‘Came on just in time for Hank Williams,’ he said.
‘Huh,’ Tom nodded.
‘You got lucky. Could’ve been Pat Boone.’
‘Yeah, well.’ Tom felt himself chuckle. ‘Thanks. Good to have some music again.’
He went into the kitchen and turned the tap on to wash the pan. He caught himself humming along to Hank Williams, then shook his head and allowed himself a smile. He told himself it must be the music that was loosening him up. Even on this strange day it was funny how the little radio made it seem like all was well and as it should be.
And then he heard the click and creak of the door opening.
He froze, standing like an idiot with pan and scourer in hand, listening hard but hearing nothing.

When he emerged, he saw a new customer sat near the door, a dusty, heavy-set man. He wore a cap and dungarees, and Tom knew he had come from the railroads, finished for the afternoon.
‘I’m sorry to keep you, mister,’ he said hurriedly, and he walked to the table.
‘You didn’t.’ The voice was a low growl.
‘Get you something to eat?’
‘Gammon steak. Sweet potato fries. And a side of veg.’ He seemed suddenly to remember his manners. ‘Thank you.’ Across from him, the black man had picked up his cutlery and begun to cut his fish. The new customer laid a newspaper on the table, and wiped sweat away from his brow with a soot-covered handkerchief. Tom heard him breathe steadily and audibly, bull-like. He turned to walk towards the kitchen, and heard the man’s voice behind him.
‘Sure hope you enjoy it, friend.’
Turning round wasn’t an option. It would be acknowledging that the situation was wrong. He waited until he was behind the counter before he turned towards the two men.

‘Hey,’ the new customer continued. ‘You’re a military man, am I right?’
There was a pause.
‘That’s correct,’ the black man said. In the voice Tom thought heard the shoulders stiffening, the chest edged out just a little.
‘Yeah I thought so alright.’ Each word throbbed with the man’s agitation, like it might burst. ‘Korea, I’ll bet. Lotta you boys around just now. Workin’ in mercantile stores. That where you work?’
A slow shake of the head. ‘Engineer.’
‘Engineer.’ The man considered this. He turned to Tom. ‘He’s here workin’?’
It was his ticket out. He called the guy to fix the Regency.
‘I’m here to eat lunch, mister,’ he heard the black man say.
Tom felt his guts sink. The new customer looked up at him like a scorned child.
‘So what’s he...’ He paused for thought, then raised his eyebrows. ‘You got medals, friend?’
The black man said nothing.
‘You got medals alright, I’ll bet.’ He smiled, and looked at the ground and then all around him, considering the world. ‘I seen some boys wearin’ their service medal. Purple hearts too maybe, huh. I seen ‘em.’ The man paused, then turned sharply to Tom.

‘Now I see your problem here, don’t think I don’t. But hell, if I came in here with a dog dressed in shirt tails, it’s still a dog, right? Ain’t no dogs allowed, right?’
Tom found his nerve. ‘Enough.’ He heard his breath rise and fall a little slower. ‘Maybe you got somewhere to be, huh?’
‘I…’ The man laughed bitterly. ‘I got somewhere to be? What, you don’t got a sign outside? That don’t mean nothin’?’
And then Tom remembered, and reality imposed itself like the flick of a switch.
The music was still playing somewhere in the background. Just over a female country singer Tom heard a car engine wind down and die in the car park, and heard voices talking loudly. He took a breath.
‘I’m sorry. You gotta leave.’
He heard himself say the words, heard his own voice as if from a distance. He hoped there would be no more to say, and that the common sense was apparent.
The black man looked at Tom for some time. The look on his face was just as it had been since he arrived in the diner, but his eyes were angry alright, for just a second or two. And then the anger seemed to disappear, and he rose from his chair, and placed some coins on the table. He pushed in his chair quietly, and took his coat. His movements were swift, but to Tom they seemed to last a long while, like someone had slowed time down.

The door swung closed.
‘Far as I recall, there’s a lunch counter in Springerville serves his kind.’
Tom heard the man’s voice, and turned to him, and found himself with nothing to say.
The man waited for a second, then lost interest. Tom turned towards the door, where the two people from the car, a man and a woman, were making their way in. He reached for an order pad and a pencil, and realised he hadn’t noticed his hands shaking. In the background the radio played, sounding like it was coming from another world.