This story is by James Whittaker and won the Grand Prize in our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
James Whittaker lives in the Cayman Islands with his wife Kirsty and dog Stanley. Originally from England, he has worked as a journalist at local newspapers around the world for the last 20 years and is now turning his hand to fiction.
The invitation had promised bubbles in exuberant cursive. Did they mean champagne? Why not say that? It was, Evan thought, a dubious enticement to tempt a grown man to a child’s birthday party. Yet here he was sipping stoically from a plastic flute filled with some sweet sugary fizz of questionable alcoholic content.
“You like Ben and Tori,” Naomi had insisted, when he had groaned about the engagement.
“I don’t dislike them,” he had clarified.
The baby appeared to have acquired the status of a minor deity in the home. Professionally produced images that riffed on its inevitable smallness covered the walls. Here was Atticus curled into Ben’s flabby bicep. There he was lying naked in a thatch basket of freshly laundered whites as though he’d snuck in there himself in a fit of puppyish mischief. Next was the child’s hospital band, like a tiny nightclub entry bracelet, encased in a glass exhibit. A plaque gave the particulars: Atticus Tobias Fletcher, Jan. 4, 2008, 8lbs, 7 oz. Why always the weight? Why not 19 inches or whatever height babies were.
With the exception of Evan and the new girlfriend of someone or other, the guests had all known each other since college. They had well grooved roles in the friendship dynamic styled after a sitcom that was popular at the time. This must be the un-filmed tenth series, Evan thought unkindly. The one where they collectively give up. He was fighting it gamely himself, a first trimester paunch straining at the fabric of his Radiohead t-shirt.
“What do you do Evan?” the new girlfriend inquired, by which she meant, “where do you work?”
Whenever he was asked this question, Naomi always replied, “He’s in a band — Lazybones, you might have heard of them?”
Now she said, “He works in a book store.”
They had argued earlier about the assistant manager’s application form she wanted him to fill out. He wasn’t ready for that level of surrender.
“I’m a musician,” he told the girl, “but you’ve got to pay the bills, right?”
He waited for Naomi to contradict him on this, the bill paying.
“A bass player,” she muttered.
“Well bass players are musicians too,” Ben proffered grandly, with the warm authority of a judge passing a lenient sentence on an offender who earnestly promised to do better. He was a nice man, Evan concluded, with all that entailed.
“Let’s do the cake,” Ben announced, sweeping his sleeping child from its crib. Helium balloons hovered over sugar cookies the shape of safari animals that surrounded a dinosaur cake glowing green with artificial colouring.
“Does he like dinosaurs?”
“He’s one Evan.”
Naomi looked disdainful.
“Oh. Does he like cake?”
“Evan, he’s one.”
Naomi again. The way she looked at him sometimes, he wondered if she even liked him anymore. There was an edge of frustration — as though she had asked him to do something, to be someone, and he was willfully failing to comply.
“Take a gooberry?”
It was Dane and Cara’s child, Travis or Terrence or something, thrusting a clammy fist of squashed blueberries at him.
“Er, no thanks.”
The child looked despondent and for a terrifying second Evan thought it was about to cry. Then the kid recovered his composure and raced to Naomi with the same offer. She made a huge scene of thanking him, gobbling the sweaty purple mash with feigned delight. The other adults gushed.
“Oh Timothy that was so kind of you. You’re such a generous boy.”
Cara was following the advice of a television psychologist who claimed the best way to raise a happy child was to raise a kind child. So the kid was rapturously applauded for these minor acts of unnecessary generosity with his nutritional snacks. He ran from one to the next, conferring his berry gifts and turning expectantly, milking the adulation. Naomi was particularly effusive.
“Oh God,” Evan thought, “does she want children?”
He envied Ben his simple joy in the mundane miracle of parenthood and tried to imagine recalibrating his own expectations of life so that would be enough. Everyone was searching for meaning, he supposed, and a child was the easiest way to get it. What else was there? Just time accelerating across an ever narrowing field of new experience. Still, he felt himself being tugged towards a life he had never consciously chosen.
He’d met Naomi backstage at a gig in Brooklyn, skinny and sultry in her denim skirt and sheer black tights. They’d shared a boozy kiss in a dark alley outside the venue.
“Take her home, for God’s sake,” a bitter drunk had belched into the cold. He’d smiled and raised his eyebrows as if to say “how about it?” That had become their thing. The coded gesture he could always throw her at a boring party — a secret invitation to sneak away into a back room, a back seat, a back alley. Anywhere, really, in those early days when love had caught hold of him like a rip tide. Now it seemed to have loosed its grip and left him far from shore, far from anything comforting or familiar.
“How did I get here?” he almost asked aloud as Tori marshalled the group into a tight semi-circle around the absurd benign dinosaur. The timer on the video camera flicked on and the red light began to blink.
“Atticus’s first birthday, scene one, take one,” Ben announced in close-up.
“Lights, camera and … action!”
From the flicker of annoyance on Tori’s face, Evan gathered this was an improvisational flourish that would be ruthlessly edited from the final cut.
The singing began in whispered tones.
“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you,”
He mouthed the lyrics listlessly, amusing himself with an image of a fourteen-year-old Atticus, sandwiched between his smothering parents, forced to watch this bizarre pageant.
“Happy birthday dear Atticus,” they trilled, Tori holding that last note a beat too long.
“Happy birthday to you.”
Ben swooped the boy over the cake, as his mum blew out the solitary candle.
“Make a wish, sweetheart,” she told the child, still in her singing voice.
Evan wished to be anywhere else. Then he wished again, even though it didn’t count because it wasn’t his birthday and he already made a wish and wishes were not anything to believe in. This time he wished for someone to call him sweetheart in such a soft and unconditional whisper. He pushed away the embarrassing thought.
Just when it seemed to be over, someone started up a new chorus.
“If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands.”
There was a challenge to it, the question loaded with significance.
Evan looked forlornly for someone to share a knowing eye-roll with. Naomi was leading the charge, bouncing her palms together determinedly, a fixed smile on her face. Soon they were all clapping and stomping their feet to the rhythm, such as it was.
“I’m not unhappy,” Evan thought.
But the command seemed to require more. A joyous affirmation that this was the life he wanted.
“If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands.”
He dug his forearms deep into his pockets. It was a small gesture of defiance but it seemed important somehow that he didn’t succumb. Naomi was staring at him now, caught somewhere between pity and contempt. He thought for a second of giving her the eyebrows — their old signal. But it was too late for all that, he realised with sudden finality.
“If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands.”
His intransigence seemed only to encourage them and the clapping reached an angry, challenging crescendo. The group was singing directly to him now, he knew it. They were closing ranks, demanding from him joy. There was a desperate worried edge to the words as though his small subversive act had punctured the facade.
“They need me to clap,” he thought, feeling his nails bite into the soft flesh of his palms, through the cotton lining of his pockets. There was a satisfying buzz of power in the acknowledgement.
“If you’re happy and you know it and you really want to show it …”
He stole a glance at the gallery of faces. Ben almost pleading with his soft brown eyes. Dane’s features fixed in an amused smirk. Tori trying to appear flawless for the camera while shooting worried sideways glances in his direction. Naomi’s eyes flickered with rage.
It wasn’t too late to turn back. Just one small gesture. One tiny additional act of dishonesty and everything could go back to the way it was.
“If you’re happy and you know it …”
He felt his fingers relax in his pockets and began to lift them slowly, purposefully.
“… clap your hands.”
He raised his hands and let them hover in the semiquaver of silence that seemed to expand infinitely between command and response. Then he locked his teeth in a determined grimace and folded his arms across his chest.
Nora Campbell says
This writing is brilliant. With an acerbic, humorous, bite, James has captured a depth of emoton that is both raw and vulnerable. His phrasing is clever and terse, and in such a short space, develops a complex debate within the character’s mind, with a delightfully powerful ending. Masterful.
Lisa Reiswig says
Wow, what a story, such descriptive inner workings great job conveying. Captured my with in your story. Good job great write. Good luck.
Love it! Thanks, James, for a great read.
Lynnette Adair says
Winner, winner, chicken dinner!
Kimberly Cockrill says
This was a lovely story. Kept me looking forward to the answers the story questions posed, and you delivered. Excellent writing, as well.
Cathy Ryan says
That was brilliant! Loved the line about the child having become a minor diety. Ha! I know those people!
Joslyn Chase says
Wow, James, this is a quality story. Entertaining, well-told, sardonic, and provocative. Easy to see why it caught the judges’s attention. Congrats on the win!
Aditya Kaushik says
Awesome story…and congratulations. The emotion and the choice looms large over the backdrop of such mundane and essential ceremonial party antics.
A big congratulations to you and thank you for sharing your worrying.
Great work at capturing the inner thoughts of a man who doesn’t belong. It’s an emotional and – in a way – humorous piece that is entertaining all throughout. Congratulations!
Sheila Baird says
Exquisitely crafted James. The tension is palpable!
Well done, James, and congratulations on being chosen as the winning author in the Spring contest.
Jessica Deen says
Congratulations on your big win. Your story was captivating and well-deserving of the grand prize. I loved how you wrote about a choice that seemed so small, but was so powerful. You mailed your character’s internal dialogue and made it completely believable. Well done!
Samran Ramzan says
Your story captures raw emotion and the complex inner battle between what the protagonist wants, but the true nature of what makes him who he is rejects that idea of happiness. It offers depth to an emotion that everyone in their lifetime aims to achieve yet never does because the reality of life takes over.
Your writing is beautiful and every sentence is crafted with care and every word consciously chosen to deliver that tension that builds as the story progresses.
Congratulations, James. Definitely well-deserved!
Jean Blasiar says
Very nice work, James.
Phil Town says
Brilliant story. We’ve all been there, haven’t we? (Well, I have anyway.) Gave a little silent cheer at the end there. Great stuff, and congratulations!
Pernell Rogers says
Hello, James. This was a truly unique story about conflict – one I would have never thought of. It was funny and true to life. Now, I think of all the times I made these same type of decisions and the ones where I decided to take the negative road. Excellent story and congratulations!
Good job. Interesting.