Recently, a friend of mine pointed me towards a writing contest a Dutch magazine was holding. They gave you one sentence (“The gift is on the table, wrapped carefully with a red ribbon”), and you had to finish the story in 700 words or less. The price? First place is some help and pointers from a professional editor (“and maybe even a book contract!”), second and third place get a book collection from one specific writer. All three winners get published in the magazine, too.
The deadline was last Thursday, and of course I entered with something. So since the deadline has passed, I figured I`d share the translated version of my story here! In a fairly typical warning: I do honestly think this story sounds better in Dutch. There`s something about stories that makes them inherently difficult to translate. Translating after all isn`t just a matter of changing words and grammar – it`s the entire style, the sound of it, everything. You`re not just adapting to a new language, but a new culture, too. This style specifically is very difficult to translate, as it somehow works in Dutch but is ridiculously difficult to translate.
I`m not even used to writing in Dutch. I am a bit better at expressing myself in English (or I like to think I am). Fiction especially, I`ve always written in English. Translating something I wrote in Dutch to English is really very awkward and strange.
Finally: this is the first ever writing contest I`ve entered. I`m a bit nervous, to say the least. It`s a strange idea, to really send something out there, to something as substantial as an actual magazine. It`s a very popular magazine, too. Mostly aimed at older women (my grandma gets it at home, and gives it to my mother). It`s an especially strange thought that, should I get published, my grandmother gets to read it on an actual piece of paper, together with the rest of the country. Very silly, as I put so much out on the internet, but somehow the internet feels more surreal and abstract and safe. Don`t know why.
Here we go anyway, for your enjoyment.
The gift is on the table, wrapped carefully with a red ribbon, a perfectly symmetrical bow on top. A card is tied to it, a bit crooked, undoubtedly by the transport from store to home. He never was careful enough to bring something home prettily, nor did he have the patience to wrap anything himself.
On the card is the oh so familiar handwriting: “know that I will love you forever”. I feel a smile on my face. A strange sensation – I haven`t smiled in so long. It feels surreal, like it`s not actually there.
I send him a message on my phone. “Thank you.” He never was a man of many words. He definitely appreciates it if you use as little words as possible towards him, too. Simple, clear, fast.
I put my phone down, and look at the gift. Then I turn and walk away.
After dinner the gift is still there. I start to wonder where it was bought. How long did he search? How many stores did he go to? After all, he hates shopping. Maybe he ordered it online? But that would mean he packed it himself, and this is done too neatly for him.
I start to get up to go to the table, but stop halfway through. Better not. I don`t know why I don`t just open it. Isn`t that what everyone does? Isn`t that the normal thing to do? But no. I grab a DVD, just a random one, and start watching without really watching. My eyes keep glancing at the gift.
Halfway through the film I can hear myself sigh. I get up after all, walk to the table, stop. I`m unsure.
I push my doubts away, and open the gift, carefully opening the paper at the cellotape (they`ve been stuck on crooked and hastily, and I can feel the irritation well up in my stomach). I put the card to the side, safe, and precisely in the corner of the table, so I can put it away properly later. The box is filled with filling material. Plastic, with a hint of disinfectant.
Underneath the plastic material is a Photo frame. It`s a nice frame, a simple wooden frame with a light colour, nicely finished with lacquer and easy to clean. Inside the frame there`s a photograph. It`s a picture of a temple in Japan – the temple in Kyoto where we met.
I turn the frame over, suspecting there`s a message on the back. I`m right.
“Sweetheart, get well soon. We can go travelling again. Japan, New Orleans, Yucatan, you name it. It doesn`t matter to me, as long as we can be together. Know that I love you, and that I always will.”
No name. I don`t need one.
I put the photograph next to my computer, and look out the window at the view with all the lamps burning softly, the wall in the background, the caretakers who are smoking in a corner where they think no one will see them. I wave at them. One of them waves back happily and signs me to not tell anyone.
I have two months of intensive therapy left. Then I can go back, back to my renewed old life. Back to him.
I smile. A small smile to a memory, but still a smile. A new beginning.