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In Closing

Tes Asfaw

ORbits presents a selection of stories which made the shortlist of the Oxonian Review Short Story Competition, 2012. We begin with Tes Asfaw’s ‘In Closing’.

Despite it being an interim station, a makeshift desk manically sought out and set up in the middle of this small, plain, windowless room, he is quite prepared to leave the portfolio behind, unattended. He closes the reference book, the last one he would ever have to use, collates his pages of notes and stuffs them into the portfolio. He does not bother to zip it up. He leaves it open. There isn’t any time to get it to a secure location. There isn’t any point. The only thing that matters now is the folded handwritten speech secure in his left hand. His notes, the constructs and inspiration behind the incendiary assessment he is to deliver, are harmless as separate, individual entities, a fact to negate the value in the fuss he has made over them. Isn’t that the case with most things in life, he marvels. Taken in isolation, chemical elements are rarely as interesting and stable as the compounds they form. Perhaps all of life is analogous to basic chemistry.

He exits the room and heads down the corridor flanked by the men in dark suits and earpieces. As they turn the first corner he considers the power of the spoken word. A sentence read in a newspaper, in a book, is often open to a multitude of interpretations, countless designs of emphasis and, by extension, meaning direct and indirect. Sometimes that strengthens the author’s point. At other times it weakens it, leaves it exposed to misunderstanding and ridicule. He can’t afford for that to happen now. Or rather, he really, really, does not want that to. It’s not ideal to have the last thing you ever say be misunderstood. For this reason he decided two days ago not to release any preliminary statements to the media. Nor did he enlist either of his speech writers, of whose styles and inflections he was sure the central mass of the populace had grown weary. No, these are his words. Common words laid out in trodden-on dead metaphors and figures of speech his staff writers had once exerted so much to avoid. In among that commonality of words he has inserted caveats for him to acknowledge at the moment of his address, indicators for two tones with which he could deliver this speech: hopefulness; hopelessness.

Through the doors they pass, taking the steps two at a time. The men in suits fall back, then catch up—thorough to the last moment. That would be honourable, he thinks, if there is purpose to honour at this juncture. At the top of the stairwell lays exposed the expanse of the atrium. People move in and out of the breakout rooms, aimless, aiming, going to someone for a word, going to no one for a bit of space, or the illusion of involvement that has no requirement for speech. There are no informed political conversations taking place, not really anyway. There are handshakes, apologies, hugs. Congressmen and women, sworn enemies for decades in some cases, finally relenting to the spirit of bipartisanship just when there are no more politics to discuss.

Nobody wants to be here, they just feel they have to be. Most have brought their entire families, others, he discovered only last night, have opted not to tell their partners and their children about today’s events. They would have kissed them good-bye this morning in the usual way, watched them closely. Perhaps suspicions would have been stirred up if the wife or husband had glanced back to heed their lingering looks, one that would trigger distant memories of the moment between two people when the beautiful chaos of family life had been deemed a good idea. And they would have wept as they approached their front doors, their garages, their cars; driving away from the house of love; of hate; of function; of habit. It is all ending now, everything. This is the only time for memories.

It is that critical issue which plagues him. He has never been a loving man, but he has felt love, deep love. He has been an indifferent husband, an absentee father. But he has known love for them, still does. He has smiled enough times for the cameras, given more than enough empathetic speeches that seem to have confirmed people’s suspicions of his coldness. Well, perceived coldness seems to have worked for him. For here he is about to stand in front of the nation with the final word. He is not a religious man. He has believed in personal growth until the moments the lights are put out. There is no beyond, no afterlife.

There is no fanfare as he traverses the great hall, no yelps of excitement. A young congressman approaches with intent and slices the air between them with his hand. He stops to shake it, almost surprised by the intimacy of the touch, the sad warmth of his youthful countenance.

“Think of the vulnerable, sir,” the young politician says. “That could make it the greatest ever.”

He admires the young man’s lasting flame of sympathy but sympathy is and never has been a language he has found much fluency in, nor any true interest in developing. The cunning man would have known that, hence his coddling of the plight of others within the pursuit of greatness. Clever. As he passes on from the young man and nears the podium, this point of greatness occupies his mind. Yes. The end is potentially the greatest moment of history, great speeches are partially reliant on the great moments they accompany. Though without any glory to come from it, is it still great? Who will be there to write about it when it is all over? Is not greatness as much a function of hype as fashion, or preferences of cake? Or teas? A function of both academic and inconsequential gossiping?

Silent applause. He steps up to the podium. How does he speak now? There is no right and wrong on this issue as far as he can tell. There is only hope or hopelessness. One or the other. There are no more campaigns, no more elections to be won; no more bills to be fought over on the Hill. There will not be any time for political analysts to dissect and criticise, to laud, to memorialise his performance; there will be no political capital to spend on his untouched campaign promises. Indeed, all promises kept and those not kept, all notions of spite and gratefulness, of anger and love, of comedy and tragedy have lived out their influences on the actions of man and reside at this moment, side-by-side on time’s shelf. Does this mean, he considers, that all that matters now, is now? When was life ever so bereft of purpose as this? When was life so wanting of fight as now? He is inclined to give a speech of hopelessness, he wants to be angry and lay the blame on everyone. He wants humanity to die with the last thought of—we did this to ourselves. How could he take a tone of hopefulness when no one deserved it, including himself? How dare he?

He sees the young politician watching him from the far corner of the room. His stare is a steadfast grip of purpose. The last ever debate in this once gloried room is to be this silent ocular one. He feels just enough of a pang of sympathy to unsettle his stance; the swing vote on this decision of tone is being cast by the naïve congressman from Ohio.

He surveys the crowd before him then returns to look for the young man’s eyes for a final pulse of assurance. But the congressman is no longer looking at his President. His eyes have moistened and faltered and he is looking down and away.

Tes Asfaw read for an MSt in Creative Writing at Kellogg College, Oxford.