Colleen has a Master’s degree in English Literature and is an author of stories and articles focusing on the dynamics of human relationships
My first story of under 500 words is titled ‘Head Of State’ and while somewhat satirical, shows the willingness of a man to accept a position, the nature of which he knows nothing, beyond its potential to grant him proximity to the king. In its own way, it does.
My second story of under 1000 words is titled ‘The Genius’ and addresses, in a more serious way, the question of how flexible a neophyte needs to become in order to reach his penultimate goal. What happens when youthful ideals clash with the need to conform to the world as it is, rather than as we believe it should be? Might such obstinacy become, years later, a source of regret?
It is to escape the responsibility for failure that the weak so eagerly throw themselves into grandiose undertakings.
— Eric Hoffer
Short Story: Head of State
Roland smiled as the carriage drew up to the gates. He, its one passenger, was being driven, by a liveried coachman, to the palace. Now everyone he had known, who had hitherto treated him as commonplace, indeed even a bit on the dull side, would be forced to see his magnificence.
How could they not, since a search through the countryside by royal officials had resulted in his having been chosen to undertake a task of such importance that its nature could not be disclosed until he was safely within castle confines? Then, as if such an honor were not enough, he would be paid one-hundred gold ingots.
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
— William Blake
Then, somehow, everything soured. Once the coach stopped, Roland found himself shepherded into an annex. There, pointed towards a folding-chair, he had been ignored by guards who seemed eager for the five o'clock chime to release them from tedium.
At last, he saw a guard striding towards him; his destiny must be about to begin. Instead, to his consternation, the guard pulled a tape measure from his pocket, then proceeded to unwind it around Roland’s head.
“This won’t take a moment, gov-not to fret. Right; vertical, horizontal, all fine, just as we had expected.”
Roland becoming annoyed asked,
“When shall I meet His Majesty?”
“You won’t be meeting him, mate.” The guard yawned. “ We've got all we need here.”
“Are you saying His Majesty wishes to have my insights conveyed to him via emissaries?”
The guard shrugged.
No reason to press any further, thought Roland. The king, having become gravely ill, must have chosen, Roland, as his successor. As such, his head had to be fitted for the crown which it might wear within hours.
Still, this guard was saying something bizarre, in a tone not in the least reverential.
“Very well, gov, I might as well tell you-get things done before the night shift begins. The fact is, the king is bald, and needs a wig. He needs a cast of his head shaped in bronze, because he can’t be embarrassed by fittings, so he ordered us to search till we found a bloke with a head the same size as his; yours was it, mate.”
“I must say,” Roland sighed, ”this is far from the service I’d hoped to provide. Still, if our sovereign needs a skull model, then he can count on the use of my head coupled with my absolute silence.”
“Gov, we've requisitioned your head to be moulded in bronze. This will entail its removal.”
“You can’t mean you’re planning to lop off my head.”
“The quieter you are, the quicker it will be; your reward is here, ready.”
And so, their task completed, the guards stood waiting with Roland's severed head to be collected. Beside it was the bag of one-hundred gold ingots.
He had died, after all, in His Majesty’s service, and for the Crown to have neglected its pledge would have been less than ethical.
Accursed greed for gold, to what dost thou not drive the heart of man.
Short Story: The Genius
At times, I, Raymond Gordon, sensed I had been marked out, from birth, as one of life’s champions. Later, I would come to wonder if this belief was in-born, or resulted from my need to insulate myself from those taunts evoked by my thin frame and tenor speaking voice.
Starting from age 8, my “swish” gestures were mocked, and voice mimicked, and at age 11, nearly every day at school, I was held down by two boys, until my lunch money was extorted.
One afternoon, I found myself too dizzy from hunger to absorb the meaning of the words on a textbook page. It was then I decided to put an end to this seemingly infinite horror. Hence, without curtailing my class work, I joined a gym, and bought a set of iron weights to enhance my progress.
Once I had resolved to become “one of those dudes you don’t mess with”, the brow beaters seemed to sense I had changed, and, by degrees, backed off. Still, while I was able to hone each muscle to the point of appearing sculpted, there was some void inside I could not find a way to fill.
And then it came. After one school day had ended, sauntering down a quiet corridor in order to retrieve a book, I overheard my English teacher say, “Ray Gordon is a genius. His comedy sketch of Nero’s hosting a barbecue while Rome was ablaze was absolutely amazing.”
Ablaze, amazing; I liked the way the rhyming seemed to echo the praise. Might it foreshadow a hope I had long held, but was afraid might prove hollow? True, I had only a few surface friendships, and girls dismissed me with “I like you a lot as a friend, Ray, but …” That one word ‘Genius’ overheard a few years before, served as my anchor.
Living in a small, rural town, I came to realize, any hope of being recognized lay in moving to a place where I could find a new freedom. Armed by this certainty, being alone on my senior prom night, I felt, or tried to feel, contempt for those big-time hunks and hot babes who believed their lives would be one endless dance under a chandelier so bright as to shield them forever.
While they partied, I would be on a plane to Los Angeles, which I felt sure was my soul’s native land. Once there, I settled into a meagre motel and reviewed my list of comedy clubs willing to try out new talent. At times, on open-mic nights, the applause made me feel incandescent.
Thus, on those nights filled with hecklers, who threw beer cans and peanut shells at my head, I forced myself to stride off, inwardly chanting genius, GENIUS, as my soul-lifting mantra.
The sporadic nature of my success rendered me astounded when Mark Sherman, manager of the elite Caviar Club, strolling towards me after a show, waving a sheet of paper called out, “I think I’ve got some good news for you, Ray, if you can spare a few minutes.”
Not wanting to seem overwhelmed, I shrugged, “Of course, Mr. Sherman.”
Sitting down at his desk, Sherman said, “We are offering you a 6-month contract for a spot on our Monday evening shift. Your pay will be mainly in tips for the moment, but after that, if you fit with our crew, you will be paid a percentage of the door entry money. So, Ray, how’s that for an offer?
“I don’t know how to answer,” I said. “I never expected this, Mr. Sherman, or not so soon, anyway”
“All you need is to read this contract, sign your part, and we will be glad to spotlight you on this coming Monday.”
Nodding, I reached out my hand for the contract, only to feel bewildered when Sherman drew it back a few inches. “The thing is, Ray,” he said, “There are a few four-letter swear words in your act, which are, in no way, at its core. You see, at least on weeknights, we like to keep something of a family ambiance. Later on, if you’re a success, that could change. Weekend nights here are more rowdy, and a lot less restrained; you know what I’m saying.” Then, after a pause, he asked,
“Ray, why have you gone so quiet?”
Every cell in me wanted to sign it. Would such a chance ever be there again? Still, I felt forced to see, once again, that helpless boy I had been on the playground, a genius growing inside him, which I had not yet found.
“I cannot allow my work to be censored,” I said. “Every word I write is my child. Are you asking me to sacrifice even one of my children?”
Sherman said, “Look, Ray,” I guess, at your age, I was every bit as self-confident as you are right now. Believe me, life does not work that way. Compromising wins, while the rest of us lose.”
“I understand, Mr. Sherman,”
“But you’re still not willing to sign?”
“I cannot sign it, sir.”
At that, Sherman said, “I like you, young fellow. I’ve been where you are. Still, no-one refuses the Caviar Club twice; we have too many wannabes. So, last chance; is it “yes” or “no”, Ray?”
I shook my head. At that, Sherman crumpled the contract, tossed it into the waste bin, turned his back to me and walked away.
I walked out of the Caviar, frightened to look back, in case I was tempted to run back and plead.
© 2018 Colleen Swan
Tamara Yancosky from Uninhabited Regions on March 23, 2019:
Excellent article with beneficial lessons! Thank you for sharing.
Colleen Swan (author) from County Durham on December 19, 2018:
Hi John, thank you for your insights. Sometimes compromise is needed to get ahead, while at other times we need to adhere to our values.
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on December 18, 2018:
I enjoyed both of these stories, Colleen. Quite unique with surprise endings and the last one had a fine message, not to compromise your ideals. good work.