Hamlet Without The Prince

A few months ago Tilly directed to me something called the 24-hour Short-Story competition, run by www.writersweekly.com. At noon on July 13th they published the paragraph in italics below and you had 24 hours to submit a 950-word story. The results came out yesterday & I didn’t win, but this is what I wrote anyway…

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Holding the sleeping infant on her shoulder, she gazed peacefully at her surroundings. Tourists wandered in and out of stores, an old man was setting up his easel by the lakeshore, and a child’s balloon escaped into the breeze. A moment later, she looked up as shouts startled her and the baby. Everybody was running in her direction…

… and past her, down to the shore to gaze excitedly out across the lake at the dark shadow that had appeared there. A cloud shifted, the sun re-appeared, and the shadow vanished. Faces fell, shouts fell away and cameras were lowered, along with the mood.

It hadn’t been the Loch Ness Monster.

She gently bounced her daughter, who rubbed her face along her shoulder, leaving a snail-trail of snot across her cardigan, and went back to sleep, clinging to her by tiny chubby fists.

She watched as life returned to normal, or at least as normal as it can be at a tourist attraction where the attraction isn’t there. It was like Pisa without the Leaning Tower, Niagara without the Falls, or Gracelands without Elvis.

Blessed with a climate duller than Siberia’s, Scotland would have had no tourist industry at all but for the ingenuity of the Scots. A nation that could persuade people to eat sheep’s intestines, to accept a man throwing a telegraph pole as a sport and to tolerate an instrument that sounded like a banshee being passed through a wood-chipper had had no problem in making the world believe that this perfectly ordinary lake had a monster in it.

She sat down outside a café and settled her daughter into her buggy. She had lived here all her life, and on rare warm days like this one loved to sit and watch as people had, well, fun.

There was, as usual, lots of activity on the loch itself. Small groups of divers were dotted here and there, their projects financed by universities with more money than faculties and willing to fund a search for a giant lizard rather than spend it on cancer research, an answer to global warming or a definitive analysis of the lyrics to A Whiter Shade of Pale.

Guided tours were taking place in glass-bottomed boats, the tours an admission in themselves that nothing was going to happen, because if a monster suddenly rises from the deep beneath you then a glass-bottomed boat is the last place you want to be.

The old man resumed his painting. The tourists continued to wander in and out of stores which sold postcards of the lake and copies of the various famous grainy photos which could have been of a plank for all the clarity they possessed.

They also offered stuffed toy Nessies, some fierce, some cuddly, some looking like a green Barney, some like a snake that had sat down upon a bra. There were sticks of rock with “A Present From Loch Ness” printed all the way down inside. It was called rock, she reckoned, because it had the same effect on your teeth as being struck by one.

But we don’t just sell touristy tat here, she thought, this is where we sell dreams. She was suddenly fiercely proud of her town, of her country, of the hope offered by Nessie.

The day passed. The sun began to sink behind the tall surrounding hills. Tourists returned to tour buses. Shop door-signs flipped from “Open” to “Closed”.

The old man still sat working at the lakeshore. She approached him and looked at his painting. It was of a young woman with fiery red hair, green eyes and the milk-pale complexion that only the Scots can achieve.

It was a picture of her.

She stared at him in surprise. The old man shrugged. “I paint beauty,” he said. “And I’ve been coming here for a very long time, so I’ve already got about four hundred paintings of the lake.”

“But none of the monster,” she said, smiling.

He smiled back. “If she appeared I’d have to paint awfully fast,” he said.

He started to fold up his easel. “I’ve seen her, you know,” he said.

“I doubt it,” she said.

“Oh yes,” he said. “Over the years I’ve seen her many times. You just have to know where to look, and when, and remember that a monster need not necessarily be huge.”

The child’s balloon was on the loch now, skipping lightly across the surface like a butterfly flitting across a meadow. As she watched it suddenly bounced a tiny bit higher, as if it had hit a rock.

Or a snout.

The sun slipped behind the hill. Perhaps that’s why she shivered.

“What you’ve been seeing is probably just an eel,” she said.

He looked at her, as if thinking about this. “Perhaps,” he said eventually.

He gathered his belongings and started back up the hill to his car, leaving her alone by the loch. It was time for her to go home.

She walked to the water and waded in. She felt the familiar odd sensation, as if her tights had suddenly shrunk by four sizes, as her legs turned into fins. Her daughter’s legs did the same.

And Vanessa, Nessie to her family, swam out into the lake, ready to head down to the cave where she lived with her husband, a merman called Ythyl.

Just before she dived beneath the surface she looked around. The old man had come back down to the lakeshore. Their eyes met and locked, then he smiled and drew one finger across his lips, as if sealing them.

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