As the train pulled into the station, Professor Zazzo Thim felt a twinge within him, deep down where he knew his heart should have been. He didn’t want to be there, he didn’t even know why he had come back to this place where, years before he had given his infamous speech in which he had proclaimed the death, as an art form, of the short story. There had almost been a riot.
But the Professor was a sentimental man, and when he had received, in the depths of the University in which he taught literary experimentalism, a letter from a middle-aged lady who had witnessed him that day, fleeing for his life amid the baggage trollies and the tourists pursued by an angry mob, he knew he had to go just for old times sake. How lucky that he had given them the slip on platform sixteen, he thought to himself as the train slowly navigated the
last few inches of the track. Would anybody recognise him now, all these years later?
The grand old station was the same as it ever was. The glass roof was a dirty grey, matching the overcast skies outside, while the rusted superstructure was plastered with pigeon droppings. Zazzo pulled his coat collar around him as he stepped off the train on the wom tarmac of the platform. He felt a coldness in the air, an eternal coldness, as if all the emotion from the thousands, the millions of journeys begun and ended here, the lives separated, the people who would never see each other again, had somehow become crystallised and manifested just in him. The Professor began to shiver.
She was waiting for him at the exit of the platform, next the aerodynamic train engine which throbbed and sizzled as it recovered from its journey. She recognised the white-haired professor from the photographs on the jackets of his various, little-read volumes on the literature of Greenland and the cultural significance of the Haiku in Guatamala. (Verdict: virtually none at all). She stepped forwards extended her hand, then helped him with the big bag slung over his which contained the manuscript of his latest novel. They went to the
station cafe.
“We talk about it even now”, she said, over a cup of coffee which steamed gently in the
slant of morning light.
“I didn’t realise it was such a big event “.
“Big event?” she asked. “It was the only event”.
The cafe was filled with travellers, youths with backpacks, old ladies with small trollies, all of them static for this one moment in time before they each went their separate ways to the furthest corners of the continent. Behind the counter, the coffee machine let off a cloud of steam which moistened the ceiling, while a small radio played jazz in the kitchen. The saxophone made Professor Thiim feel sad, though he didn’t quite know why. Something about the passing of the years, perhaps.
“You certainly caused quite a stir”, the woman said. “Let me introduce myself. My name is Mathilda, and the day I saw you leaping over the tracks while being pursued by that mob, I was employed in the cigarette kiosque. I remember it now, your scarf trailing in the wind, the papers of your speech flying away behind you, the angry mob piling over baggage racks, and the ticket barriers like ants coming back to their colony. Nothing stood in their path! You started a change in me . . .”, she said, contemplatively.
“What do you mean?” the Professor asked.
“While was working that morning l was listening to your speech. When l saw you set up on the main concourse with a soap box and a sheef of papers l thought you were just another religious nut, or maybe one of those hopeless politicians. But when you started speaking about the short story, and speaking so eloquently, l might add, l became entranced. I remember it to this day the way you said that short stories no longer mattered, that we were all philistines because we preferred trashy novels or the television, that all writers of short stories are, in some ways, the chroniclers of the modern world, capturing moments and emotions in subtle ways which other means can never attain. l remember the way you used to adjust the scarf around your neck as you talked, your face wrinkled in concentration. I was so captured by this that I couldn’t concentrate on my job, and when these people started crowding around you and heckling, I thought, a-ha! He has struck a nerve!”
“It’s nice that you remember”, the Professor said, fingering his collar where the scarf would have been. He remembered the scarf, still had at home somewhere.
“So I went home and I started to read short stories. Nothing major at first – romance, a bit of light comedy. Then l professed to Dorothy Parker, Mark Twain, Checkhov. After a few years I wanted more, so l started on James Joyce, Italo Calvino, old Franz Kafka. Borges came next, of course, the master of them all. And now . . “.
“Yes?” the old man asked, fearfully.
“Now I’m reading Samuel Beckett’
“My word”, he whispered
“And it’s all thanks to you. My life has been enriched by that moment, by the passion and the fury of that one episode. I resigned from the cigarette kiosque, enrolled in university, and I began to acquire literary ideas of my own. Do you what it means for a character to appear in a short story, for example? The characters believe themselves, for just one moment to be so important as to be forever captured in the reader’s mind, and lodged there forever. Yet they do not have the longevity, the life Slam of characters from, say, a novel. Such animosity exists between them! The moment in which they exist is so precious, so pure and concentrated that they could never last a whole novel with the same intensity. Just look at ourselves – if we two were to last a whole novel, we would be exhausted by the end of chapter three”.
The Professor nodded, solemnly
“I have so many ideas inside of me” Mathilda continued. “And it’s all thanks to you. So when I read a textbook on the use of penguins in the shorter fiction of Virginia Woolf (in whichit was concluded that penguins hardly featured in any of her work) – and I saw that the author was a certain Professor Zazzo Thim, who, years before, had almost been lynched right here at this very station, I thought: ‘l’ have to find him, I have to thank him personally for the life he has
given me”.
The Professor fingered the clasp of his briefcase. He felt so many different emotions.
“I’m glad”, he whispered, above the soft saxophone solo from the kitchen. “That I have made an impact on someone’s life”. He the briefcase and out a manuscript. “In fact, he continued, “I would like you to have this”.
“What is it?” Mathilda asked, laying an expectant hand on her chest.
“My latest academic work, explaining the death of surprise endings in short works of fiction. It is my belief that all surprises have been eliminated, that nothing more can ever be said at the end of short story which may shock or confound the reader. I have called it, ‘No More The Lonely Badger”.
“I’m touched”, Mathilda said. Zazzo passed the manuscript across the table towards her and she took it in her quivering hands. “No more surprises”, she whispered, reading the sub-heading. “An investigation by Professor Zazzo Thiim”.
“Just one more thing”, he asked. “Why did the crowd react so badly to my speech? Why did they set about me in such a hostile manner? Surely, the people of this city don’t care that much for the short story as to attack me personally, just because of my hypothesis? I thought about it for the last forty years, l’ve thought about the effect l had and the passion they displayed, see, and it, too, changed my life, it changed my ideas, and I started to devote
my life to demonstrating that short stories do make a difference, and l have used the episode as an illustration in lectures, academic works and after-dinner speeches. Indeed, it could be said that my whole career has been based on this one incident! So tell me, why were the crowd so incensed?”
“Didn’t you know?”, Mathilda asked. “It was cup final day. They saw your scarf. They thought you were a United supporter”.