In partnership with Commonwealth Writers, Granta publishes the regional winners of the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Reyah Martin’s ‘Wherever Mister Jensen Went’ is the winning entry from Canada and Europe.
Mister Jensen lives outside of town. He lives where the killin’s happen, the shootin’s an’ all the most mysterious things. He’s got a black face an’ black eyes an’ lips that’s pink with too much flesh. He’s hunchbacked an’ angry an’ mutters in some other tongue, an’ on the right side of town they say his cane is made from human bones. Bones a kids maybe, says old ladies. They scrunch they brows under black hats, bulgin’ under they good Sunday dresses. Gotta be careful now. ‘Specially ‘round people like him. They ain’t many people like Mister Jensen. Maybe that’s why they gotta be so careful. Nobody ever said, but ever’body knows that he’s far away for a reason. Ever’body knows it’s meant to be this way.
He sits in the swingin’-seat on his porch, kickin’ himself back an’ forth, danglin’ from the tree-branch smokin’ his pipe. The kids cycle up the dusty road on they daddies’ old bikes to whisper about him. He’s always watchin’ ‘em, eyes slit-small in the smoke-screen, an’ some say even the crickets are quiet for him. They don’ sing in the evenings roun’ his house, jus’ set and click a couple times, an’ hide in his yellow-grass yard. The flies are quiet too, buttin’ heads at the screen-door. He’s forever slappin’ ‘em off his face. Most times he kills ‘em. They land at his feet, an’ his great big dog sleeps on they bodies. The kids watch him all day, an’ at night they make up stories.
Mister Jensen don’ smoke tobacco. Smokes fly-blood instead, an’ dust from the wind.
Mister Jensen ain’t got nobody. Killed his wife an’ all his kids. Keeps a gun behind the screen door.
An’ he ain’t never prayed in his life. Man won’t never get to Heaven.
Least that’s what the kids say.
Then they hurry home an’ have they supper, an’ put they daddies’ ol’ bikes in the ol’ bike shed, an’ if ever they talk about Mister Jensen they gets slapped straight in they faces. They Mamas look like they jus’ bit into sour fruit: Table ain’t no place for talkin’ like that. They scowl, cuttin’ they pork an’ shakin’ they heads. No place for talkin’ illa somebody. You understan’ me?
Then they Mamas, always angry, look to they daddies. They daddies always gotta agree with they Mamas, otherwise it’s dangerous. Otherwise plates clatter, an’ they Mamas get dark an’ moody, an’ ever’body shouts. They shout an’ shout an’ sometimes somebody cries. Most times it’s the Mamas. They set wailin’:
Ain’t you gonna do nuthin’? Don’t this matter to you?
Then they daddies put down they knives an’ forks. They push they plates away an’ yell:
Christ Louisa, they chil’ren. How they supposed to know what’s right and wrong?
They daddies do a lotta watchin’, smokin’ they cigarettes with heavy furrowed brows. Sometimes they ain’t even payin’ attention, but they know when Mama gets mad. An’ when Mama gets mad daddy does the spankin’, but he don’ say nothin’ ‘cause when he was a boy he talked ill at the table too, an’ his own daddy always slapped hard. Makes him shudder thinkin’ ‘bout it. And thinkin’ ‘bout the sleepin’ dog; how it snaps off flies’ wings in its lazy lopsided mouth, its tongue sloungin’ over its lips in the dry wind. It kills them with a whip-crack-snap, an’ people say that dog’s gonna kill a man one day.
They mamas say the same, when they’re undressin’ for bed. They lie bare-naked an’ say they prayers, an’ in secret they hopin’ it kills Mister Jensen. But they never let they chil’ren know. Chil’ren already know too much. Chil’ren should be learnin’ important things like they books an’ they scripture an’ they own prayers. That’s what ever’ Mama thinks, when she prayin’ naked under the sheets.
News is awhile comin’ from outta town. It’s in the Sunday papers, an’ it reaches the grand houses three days late. Crosses the green lawns, skirts the sheds an’ hosepipes. The kids bounce up on they knees behind white fences, hidin’ they faces behind they hands, shoutin’ to the mailmen. The mailmen jump, laugh with they mouths but not they eyes. Measure they steps to the mailboxes, kicking up dirt. The kids hold newspapers like banners. They fight over who gives Daddy the news. They fight over who drinks his last sip a coffee, lickin’ slips of thick foam from they mouths. An’ Mama cooks and Daddy reads an’ the chil’ren squabble till he takes his bath in the upstairs room. He does his readin’ in the Sunday bath, tells Mama ever’thin’ worth tellin’. She lies with him as he dries, laid up like a slab a meat in the heat through the window. She’s waitin’ on the stories, but he’s awful quiet today. All the fathers are quiet today. They’s a lotta readin’ in Sunday papers. Too much readin’. Gives all the fathers a headache. They call they wives inta the bedroom an’ promises they chil’ren coffee tomorrow if they jus’ git out an’ play.
The chil’ren go. Then, quieter than flies, they daddies spit an’ stutter:
Mister Jensen’s gone Louisa.
Him an’ that great big dog.
Says here he killed himself in the night.
They wives look sticky with guilt. They fold they hands an’ sink they heads, an’ the chil’ren know bad things is comin’. They’s backed up against the thin wall, holdin’ they hands up at they faces to stifle the sounda they breath. Couple of ‘em gasp, usin’ words they mamas don’ like. They get so caught up in listenin’, bodies scrunched together, but they don’ understand so it makes for more stories. One an’ two an’ three at a time the kids sidle over to the ol’ bike sheds. They fumble in the musky dark, nostrils burnt with the sweet-oil smell, the rust crawlin’ up handlebars. Somewhere in ever’ grand house, ever’ Mama is cryin’. Ever’ daddy got a headache from readin’ the Sunday papers. Ever’ kid gone out to play. They’s only the rasp of a dry, dusty wind. That an’ the soft hissa tyres zippin’ on the dusty road.
The chil’ren grind they tyre tracks inta ruts an’ bumps. They hoot like birds, chatterin’ through a tanglea bike chains an’ creakin’ breaks. One of them says he seen a man hidin’ ‘round the backa Mister Jensen’s house. He seen a man three days ago with a great big gun, an’ he heard the dog yowlin’ in the night. They say you’ talkin’ trash. You was in town three days ago, tryin’ on suits with you’ Mama. And he knows they’s right so he shuts his mouth. But somethin’ like that gits kids talkin’. They whisper before they’s even at his house. They’s slowin’ down, searchin’ in the spindly trees for the ghost of his great big dog.
Bet he’s low down in the bushes. Still huntin’ the flies.
You see that? Somethin’ movin’ there, I swear. Looks like . . . looks like a man.
Don’ make a sound. He might spring out from someplace. Kill you stone dead.
They eyes are fit to bust, tearful-red ‘round the rims. They look like they gonna cry, but brave kids don’ do that. They swear on they lives.
Ain’t nobody goin’ kill me. Nobody. Understan’? I ain’t afraida no ghost.’
They pickin’ up speed as the road thins down. They stop at the yellow-grass yard, an’ just beyond there’s the house, the windows all boarded up. They ain’t nothin’ but the seat swingin’ from the tree branch. The seat an’ a sheriff leanin’ forward, eyes fixed straight ahead. If they’re careful they can sneak up an’ see his face. They flatten themselves inta the dirt, crushin’ clodsa earth in they hands. They’ve never seen the sheriff so close up. He’s talkin’ a lot, chin wobblin’. His face hangs to the left a bit. He’s turned away from the screen door, but they’s somebody else on the inside. They’s a lotta words springin’ from behind the screen door. And they’s another man there smokin’ a cigarette. The chil’ren hold they breath from the smell.
Man’s gone alright. No question. Looks like he did it himself.
He’s like a spider: huge round head an’ thin hands, an’ pinchin’ the cigarette ‘tween two fingers. Woulda been a struggle, what with the hunchback an’ all. A helluva struggle. You gotta wonder what drove him to it. God-awful thing to do. The chil’ren sit up on they knees, tumblin’ on topa each other. The hot air thickens with squabblin’ an’ insults. The shadow-man smokes his hangin’ cigarette, spittin’ ash through his front teeth. He finishes one an’ another, an’ all the time the sheriff’s talkin’.
Seems a terrible lonely place. Big yard, little house. An’ that big dog the only one to see him go. Not another livin’ soul. Pretty sad, ain’t it? Don’t it strike you sad James?
The sheriff sounds like a Mama. He keeps askin’ questions that nobody answers. James is watchin’ him, hard, through the doorway. He crushes three cigarettes under his heel. He’s thinner than the sheriff, with onea those cold faces. Straight jaw an’ steel-sharp eyes, teeth like a rat caught in a corner. He flashes them in the sunset. The chil’ren’ are still holdin’ they breath. They’re waitin’ for the moment the dog springs out, knocks him flyin’ in a clouda black ash. They’re waitin’ for Mister Jensen with his bone-marrow cane. Any second now he’ll take his seat on the tree-swing. He’ll smoke his pipe an’ stare straight-ahead an’ send the Sheriff screamin’ home to his Mama. The kids hush they’selves in the far corner. They skin’s marked where they’ve laid too long on the ground. They whisper on they elbows:
Any second now. Jus’ you wait . . .
Mister Jensen’s hiding, he’s waiting in the dark . . .
Ol’ Mister Jensen an’ his great big dog . . .
They’s a hard silence: expectation. But they’s no signa Mister Jensen. Not a hobblin’ footstep. Not a low, lazy growl from a great big dog. Jus’ the clicka ol’ boots an’ one ancient key. An’ still the sheriff is talkin’ an’ talkin’. Foldsa chin-skin suckin’ in an’ out. He passes the pilea ol’ bikes, rust sneakin’ like a snake over the seats an’ the pedals, but it don’t bother him. The kids clamp they mouths when the men hurry down the dirt road. They stretch they bodies stiff an’ low, where the lasta sunset falls. Already the crickets are beatin’ in the distance. They’re loud tonight at Mister Jensen’s house; so loud that they click-clack cries cut inta the chil’ren’s heads. A fly or two settles on they bodies, an’ for a second nuthin’ moves. A couple kids half-sigh, lettin’ out the breath they been holdin’ too long. They sit an’ wait for Mister Jensen, past dusk inta the dark. In they grand houses, night is the time for stories. The time for trouble at the table. For wakin’ all shivery from a bad dream. But tonight nobody sleeps.
I wanna go home!
But they’s no light left to find the bikes with.
Somebody cusses an’ turns over, all angles an’ elbows:
Get the hell off, you’ crushin’ me!
A shock-horror gasp ripples through the grass. Nobody can tell if it’s breath or the breeze.
At last somebody breaks the silence: Man says he’s gone you know. An’ if he’s gone it’s empty.
It’s the same boy who still goes with his Mama into town. Can’t be trusted to go alone. If it wasn’t night-time nobody’d listen to him. But the dark makes the chil’ren anxious. They gather near him white-faced an’ wide-eyed.
If it’s empty you know, we could go inside.
Check for his ghost. His real ghost.
An’ look behind the door . . . where he kept his gun!
They run. They run an’ sneak inside quieter than flies. Under a steady half-moon the chil’ren search the house, stickin’ they tiny intimate hands inta ever’ corner. Takes jus’ a second to look behind the screen door. An’ jus’ a second more to look ever’where else. By sunrise they’ve fallen asleep, heads squashed inta each other’s shoulders, all crushed into the ol’ tree swing-seat. When they wake they decide that Mister Jensen musta gone forever. An’ they musta been right ‘cause he never came back.
Nobody talks ‘bout him anymore. Not the Mamas or the daddies or the chil’ren. Thing is, they’s always someone else they can make up stories about. They’s always somebody else who’s far away for a reason. Even without Mister Jensen, things are almost the same. They Mamas pray for other people an’ they daddies still read every scrapa the Sunday papers. They’s still coffee in the bottoma the Sunday cups, an’ the men still smoke insteada listenin’ to they women. But people know that things were never meant to be this way. Course, nobody ever found the gun or the ghost, or even the shadow of the great big dog. Nobody – not even the fat sheriff – found anything like that.
Some say he hid his gun right before he died, an’ it’s someplace nobody’d ever think to look. Some say he let the dog loose in the trees, an’ on stormy summer nights you can hear it snappin’ at the flies. Some say he’s buried in his own back yard, where he buried his wife an’ his own chil’ren. Other people say he was jus’ an ol’ man, sad an’ lonely an’ struck with the grief. But nobody wants ta believe that him bein’ gone is they own fault. Mamas an’ Daddies an’ chil’ren sit quiet insidea town.
The chil’ren start to understand. They don’t say nothin’ ‘bout what happened, unless somebody asks. An’ when somebody asks, they say:
Mister Jensen always lived outsidea town.
They parents put down they coffee. The women stop they cookin’, holdin’ they hands to they hearts. The chil’ren keep talkin’.
He always lived far away. Far away for a reason.
They take a forkfula they supper, press they lips together, thinkin’ hard. Nobody knows if this counts as talkin’ ill at the table. They mamas don’ tell them no more, an’ they daddies got no need to spank.
After all, ever’body knows . . .
They stop, unsurea theyselves. Then the chil’ren say the safest thing they can thinka:
He lived where the killin’s happened
an’ the shootin’s
an’ all the most mysterious things.
The overall winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2020 will be announced during a special award ceremony which will be broadcast online at 1pm BST on 30 June 2020. See here for further details.
Image © Rachel Johnson