2014 NZ Writers' College Short Story Competition Winner


'Norman's Letter' - by Lizzie Nelson

At five o’clock on a winter morning Norman sat on the side of his bed and began to write a letter, balancing a pad of white Basildon Bond on his pyjama-covered knee and scratching a ballpoint pen on the cardboard backing sheet in order to get the ink flowing. For several minutes he wrote, and then he held the page to the light and pushed back the bridge of his glasses with his thumb. As he began to read he was filled with disappointment, realising his words were too accusatory, too disjointed and that he wasn't giving the impression he wished to convey.

A paragraph or two should be all that was required; some initial words to express his gratitude (something he had always found advisable) before getting down to his list of complaints. For instance, the draught coming through the gap beneath his window was unacceptable, especially in this weather; the light above the vanity didn’t work; there was a hole in the linoleum near the doorway and the wardrobe door didn’t shut properly. Admittedly these were all small concerns but that wasn’t the point. Someone should be
responsible, someone should be held to account. If only Norman were running the place, he would soon have things sorted.

He tried again, listing his complaints as bullet points and adding a few more: the dripping tap in the bathroom, the squeaky wheel on the meal trolley, the incessant noise from the radio in the nurses’ station. Really, when he thought about it, the list was endless. He went through several sheets of paper, screwing up the failed attempts and throwing them in the wastepaper bin where they lay amongst crumpled tissues and the strands of hair he had removed from his comb the previous evening.  

For a while he abandoned the task of writing and concentrated on polishing his shoes the old-fashioned way, with a brush and proper boot wax, a muslin cloth for buffing the leather. When one shoe was polished to his satisfaction – the other one he forgot about – Norman took a tweed jacket from the wardrobe and laid it on the bed before removing a pair of socks from the dresser and a flannel shirt from the drawer below. As he did these things, his mind wandered over the structure of the letter and he considered the question of whether a quotation might provide an instructive footnote. George Washington came to mind: Nothing can be more hurtful to service than the neglect of discipline. But he couldn't remember the rest of the quote, and feared it might have actually come from Churchill.

As he worried about the problem of his fading memory and his failure to complete the letter, Norman sat on the bed twisting a button on the sleeve of his tweed jacket until a thread came loose and began to unravel. After a while he heard the sounds of footsteps and chattering voices and could smell toast and bacon, unmistakable signs that the day was starting. The topic of food had been left off Norman’s list of complaints, not because it was particularly good, but because it seemed out of his area of expertise. When he lived at home, Emily, his wife, was in charge of the kitchen, and after she died Norman had existed for several years on tinned soup and crackers, so the meals provided at the Everton Rest Home were something of a novelty. It was a long time since he’d had stewed apples for instance, and had to admit he looked forward to the scones and raspberry jam at morning tea time.

Soon the nurse would come to help him shower and dress and Norman was unhappy that he didn’t have the letter ready to show her. Perhaps he should make one last attempt before she arrived. With a heavy sigh he picked up the pen and turned to a fresh sheet of paper, writing quickly before he could forget what was on his mind.

‘Good morning, Norman,’ said the nurse, or nurse-aid (he could never figure these things out) as she pushed open the door. It was Angie with the bad skin and laddered stockings, who smelt of peppermint gum and wore fluorescent sneakers on her feet.

‘I’ve brought someone with me today,’ she continued, indicating the girl who had followed her in, a teenager whose peroxide-white hair was a startling contrast to her blackened eyes.

‘Chantal has come in to help me. She’s studying to be a care worker and she’s here on assignment, aren’t you, Chantal,’ she said without waiting for an answer.

‘Now why don’t you take Norman’s clothes and we’ll help him along to the bathroom.’

Chantal gave a sniff and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. Norman wondered if he should offer the strange creature a
handkerchief - there was a stack in his top drawer - although admittedly some were stained. He made a mental note to suggest improvements to the laundry service; surely it wouldn’t be too hard to add a little bleach to the wash? Norman was enthusiastic about the powers of bleach, having discovered, after Emily died, the magical properties of a dash of Janola added to the final rinse in the washing machine.

Chantal regarded Norman for a few moments, her gaze steady and unhurried. Then she bent over to pick up his last attempt at letter-writing from the floor by his feet.

‘What’s this?’ she asked.

Angie frowned. ‘I told you before, Chantal, but I don't think you were listening. Norman’s had a stroke and he can’t talk; can you, Norman?’ She spoke the last words extra loudly as if he had a hearing problem as well.

Chantal, meanwhile, had taken several of the other screwed up pages from the wastepaper bin and was removing the creases, pulling at the edges with her nail-bitten fingers.

 ‘They’re his drawings,’ said Angie, glancing at one of the pages. ‘He does them all the time – come on, or we’ll be late.’

Chantal ignored her and laid the pages over the bedspread. ‘He’s been writing something – see here,’ she said. ‘Look at this.’

Norman blinked and looked to where her finger was pointing, at the blots and lines and barely decipherable scribbles, the inky circles that defined his bullet points. With great intensity he stared at his work, trying to remember what he had been doing, what it had all been about. After a moment the effort of concentrating began to make him dizzy and it was all he could do not to close his eyes.

‘Those aren’t drawings,’ Chantal said with contempt. Then she addressed Norman. ‘You’ve been trying to write something, haven’t ya, granddad?’

Norman blinked. He couldn't ever remember being called granddad before, and now the girl was staring into his eyes, urging him to respond. Disconcerted by the attention he opened his mouth to speak but all he could manage was a stifled grunt.

Angie shoved a possessive forearm underneath Norman’s armpit and gave an uncomfortable tug. ‘Ready are we, darling?’

Unable to resist her, Norman rose to his feet and took an unsteady step forward. Angie then escorted him down the corridor to the bathroom where he shivered under a lukewarm shower until she returned to dry him with a thin grey towel. The mirror is cracked, he thought to himself, as she helped him to shave, and there is mould growing on the ceiling. There was satisfaction in discovering these things, a sense of purpose and of responsibility, and the pleasurable burden of committing them to memory.

Back in his room Norman sat on the edge of his bed, picked up his pen and held it between his knobbly fingers. Mould on ceiling, he wrote, followed by an unsteady exclamation mark; crack in mirror. As he continued to write his hands shook and his forehead creased with concentration. Perspiration moistened the furrows in his skin.  

 He rapped the pen against his teeth and stared at the picture of his wife on his dressing table. Then he breathed a deep long sigh and slept for a while.

Later that morning Norman was in the cafeteria, seated at a formica table with a mug of tea and a jigsaw puzzle, when Chantal approached. ‘I got you a scone,’ she said, placing it on the table before taking a seat, positioning herself so her legs were stuck out in front of her. ‘I’m not allowed to call you granddad,’ she said, then paused to take a noisy slurp from her coffee mug. ‘That old cow, Angie, told me it’s disrespectful, said I need to mind my manners. But then she doesn't mind asking me to stay and help her with the lunches even though I’m only supposed to be here ‘til twelve. I’ve got to do two more weeks here before I can get my diploma – I should have gone to Beachhaven. I only came here ‘cos it’s closer to home and I don't have to get the bus.’

Norman wasn't concentrating on what she was saying because he had been distracted by a layer of formica that had come loose from the edge of the table. He sighed and pressed it down with his thumb, reflecting that it would be such a simple task to fix it, if only he had the tools.

Another thing he had noticed was that the curtain rail above the ranch slider had come loose. If someone didn't attend to it soon the whole thing was likely to collapse.

Chantal’s eyes travelled from Norman’s thumb, which was still pressed against the formica, to the collapsing curtain rail at which he had been staring.

‘It pisses you off, doesn’t it?’ she said shrewdly. ‘This place pisses you off – all the stuff that’s wrong. It’s a dump, isn’t it? – they shouldn't be allowed to get away with it.’

Norman looked down at his thumb which seemed unable to release itself from the edge of the table.

‘You know what we should do,’ Chantal said, leaning towards him so he caught a confusing glimpse of the what seemed to be a metal stud in her tongue.

Norman moved his lips but couldn't seem to form any words in response.

‘I’ve got an idea for you, Norm,’ she said conspiratorially. ‘How about you and me write down a list of all the things that are wrong with this dump. Like that chair over there, for instance, the one with

the rip in the arm. You can see all the foam rubber coming out of the hole.’

Norman looked in the direction she had nodded and was surprised to see that she was right; he hadn’t noticed the rip in the armchair before.

‘So what do ya think?’ Chantal continued after another noisy slurp. ‘How about I help you write a letter – we can put down all the things that are wrong and you can make them to do something about it. They can fix all the stupid crap that's broken and falling apart….’ She swirled the remains of the coffee in her mug and swallowed it down, then raised a blackened eyebrow at him to ask what he thought.

Norman nodded. Encouraged by the mischievous glint in her eyes, he even managed a smile.

It seemed that they were about to write a letter together, and although he was almost sure he had already written one, he couldn't see how it would hurt to do it again.




Lizzie Nelson was the winner of the NZ Writers’ College 2014 Short Story Competition.

A late starter to writing, Lizzie aims to produce stories that are both entertaining and which give cause for reflection.  
The inspiration for Norman’s Letter came from thinking about the methods we use to communicate with each other and about finding resilience and hope in unexpected places. 
The judges called Norman’s Letter ‘a story about help and helplessness that succeeds because of its use of detail and strong characterisation.’ They also found it ‘surprisingly powerful and uplifting.’ 
Lizzie is grateful for the opportunity provided by the NZ Writers’ College and for the positive feedback from the judges. She is delighted and encouraged by the award.

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