Tom’s house was full of drawers. He had the usual kind for keeping woollen socks, pieces of string and worn forks, but as the belongings strewn on chair-backs and table-tops might suggest, they were often overlooked. Tom’s life was dominated by the other drawers, the ones he had designed himself. The ones he didn’t have a licence for.
Tom had been sitting in silence for some time when a scratching noise caught his wandering attention, and since the drawers were motionless he looked at the window. A trailing branch waved in the breeze but not close enough to have skittered against the glass. Uncomfortable from sitting for so long in a state of nervous anticipation, Tom got up and looked out. A girl he didn’t recognise was striding across his garden with a spring in her step, and her hands in her cardigan pockets.
“Hey!” Tom called, but the window had only opened a crack because of the vine growing across it, and the girl didn’t look round. “Bugger,” he muttered, not having spoken to anyone all week. He knew there were more important matters in hand though, and he sat back down by his stack of paper to wait for a story to appear.
Tom had a creative streak. No harm in that, but Tom had let it go too far. Not content with embellishing legends or creating new ones from recent events, he wanted to make up stories of his own. There’s a word for that, his Nan had said. Do you want everyone to know you as a liar? He’d tried to explain, but the distinction between telling an untruth for entertainment and telling one to get yourself out of trouble had proved too subtle for her. Now he was weeks away from the golden age of twenty-seven, and not only not engaged but with no apparent interest in it.
Tom knew marriage didn’t have to involve love, though that made for a romantic tale to pass down the generations. Marriage was all about planning. Most people in the valley were engaged by twenty-six, so that when they came of age they knew – even if the wedding didn’t happen immediately – what life had in store for them. Tom’s plans didn’t involve his neighbours, the valley, or fitting in. Besides, it was hard to come to an understanding of that nature with anyone when you couldn’t let them linger in your house in case they started asking questions.
The fermenting-drawer rumbled. Plates rattled on the dresser above and Tom fingered his collar, watching for movement. Shuddering on warped runners the drawer inched out until Tom could see the closely-written sheets within. They taunted him with their proximity but he knew it didn’t do to be too hasty; three fingers ached with the memory of being broken last Spring. He held his breath till he could hold it no more, then leaned forward and grabbed his story before the drawer slammed shut and a serving platter pitched off the upper rack to shatter on the flags.
He skim-read the opening paragraph, then read it again more carefully. This time the words had melted and merged to form something better than he’d started out with. No redundant nonsense, no extraneous words scattered through otherwise acceptable sentences. This time the drawer had done its job and – His smile faded, his gaze froze on the last line: And they all lived happily ever after, except the guy I forgot to mention earlier who the story really should have been about, well he drowned in his own existential angst because his aunt was really his mother posing as his landlady while his girlfriend who was really his cousin …
The trouble was, Tom had no-one to turn to for help. There was a reason why the drawer-systems cost so much – actually there were two reasons, and one of them was that they were tricksy bits of kit. The other was that it didn’t do for literature to fall into the hands of people like Tom. He’d once heard it said that there were two types of stories: literature, for the well-to-do, and yarns for the simple folk. Both kept to the familiar, the old stories or something the audience knew the bones of; the difference was in the telling. Drawer-systems were sophisticated devices for the well-heeled, the licence alone cost more than Tom could hope to make in a lifetime. If he stayed in the valley, that was. In the meantime, his hopes for getting out were pinned on the original story he’d been writing, tucking away the precious finished sheets in his bottom drawer as assiduously as any betrothee ever stashed their household linen.
In theory, it was possible to harness and tune the airborne flotsam using natural materials, and concentrate them in enclosed spaces to affect the tales. Boxes would work, but drawers were more convenient and took up less space, if they were built right. So, a lover’s laugh drifting in on a summer breeze, the sigh of a neglected mother mingling with the frosty morning air, the warmth of Spring sunshine, could all be woven into the bones of the story to add seasoning. The yarn-spinners of the valley used the crude spindles of their forefathers, gathering threads of memory and song, and creating something fine but short-lived, passed around by voice or occasionally as dog-eared pamphlets.
A knock at the door startled Tom and he realised he was still standing with the useless paper limp in his hands. He stuffed it under a hat on a chair and went to the door.
“Hello,” was all he could think of, faced with the smile of the girl he’d seen earlier. She was quite pretty, close up, and she had an ink stain on her left hand. Without quite meaning to, Tom stepped back to let her in. The strong reach of her mind made Tom’s neck prickle.
“You should sweep that up, you’ll hurt yourself,” she said, and when she looked into Tom’s eyes he knew that in one glance at his haphazard furniture and the shards of a broken plate, she’d penetrated his secret.
He felt his face warming and started to stammer out some justification for his tinkering with advanced literary devices, but stopped himself. She could be from the government.
“Who are you?” he asked. His Nan would not have approved of such rudeness.
Tom’s visitor smiled again. “A new neighbour,” she said. “Come a-calling, with fetch-up gifts.” She held out a fine spindle: “They told me you’re a yarn-spinner.”
Tom reached out, but she snatched it back and secreted it in a pocket.
“I was told wrong though,” she said. “No yarn-spinner here. Can’t see no equipment.”
She grinned and Tom’s eyes darted round the room; he thought his old spindle might be beneath his bed.
“Did you make that spindle?” he asked.
She swept a pile of clothes and papers off a chair and sat down.
“That’s what I do, make stuff.”
Tom was actually whistling as he strode back up the lane from the post office. Mirie, for that was the girl’s name, was twenty-six, unbetrothed, and a machine-witch. She’d seemed to skirt every side of the how and why she’d ended up in the valley with no relatives, but Tom couldn’t deny she was good at her calling. She proved quite knowledgeable about the inner workings of drawer-systems. The optimum temperature for setting-drawers, where the ink stabilised in its new configuration. The proper dimensions for the inner partition of the fermenting-drawer, to allow just the right amount of word-shuffle. The summoning charms for airborne matter, to filter out the sentimental or macabre as required. She’d been a bit cagey about where she picked all that up, as well.
Still, Mirie had set Tom on the right path and he’d ordered new ink from the city, with a slower coagulation rate to improve his chances of hitting on the right combination before the letters became sluggish and had to be re-cast. With this new ink, and some modifications to his drawer-stack, Tom could be on his way out of the valley in next to no time. He would revolutionise the world of literature, proving it could be done by a country boy with no connections. Of course, he’d probably have to claim it could be done without a drawer-system too, at least until he was absolutely sure about retrospective application of laws.
He stopped suddenly on the path to his front door and the last of his tune died away as a soft puff of breath. His door was open a crack and he could hear clattering. Now he looked, he could see windows open, vines and climbers shoved roughly back from the frames. He advanced slowly, breathing soft and shallow so he could listen. A familiar hum came to him over the shush of a broom on flags.
“Nan?” He pushed the door open and stepped over the threshold.
“You weren’t brought up to live in a state like this.”
“Nice to see you too.”
“It’s a good job I came when I did,” his Nan continued. “I -”
“My drawers,” Tom blurted, launching himself into the room to lean over the large table. “Tell me you haven’t touched the drawers.”
“Well of course I touched the drawers.” Tom’s Nan looked at him as though she hoped there’d been some mistake of parentage. “Didn’t look like you’d touched them in a long time, and that’s the trouble. If you’d -”
“What did you do with the bottom drawer?”
Her nostrils flared but Tom ignored the warning signs and asked her again: “Where’s the stuff from the bottom drawer?”
“All those sheets of paper?” she asked, and Tom nodded eagerly. “I read a bit to see if they were important.”
“And?” Tom was bouncing on the balls of his feet, willing her to say she’d put them elsewhere for safekeeping.
“They were like no tales I’ve ever heard,” she said, stoking Tom’s ego even in his moment of fear. “So I shredded them for mulch.”
“You did what?” Tom might have taken a glimmer of satisfaction from the way his Nan flinched if he hadn’t have been watching his future recede into a hazy distance.
“Load of rubbish,” she insisted, though not as confidently as before. “I had to shift them so you could use your bottom drawer the way a twenty-six-year-old should: for your wedding gatherings.”
“What wedding gatherings?”
“Exactly.” Tom’s Nan rallied, on surer ground. “And if we ever want you to have any, we need to get you sorted out.”
Tom sighed. With Mirie’s assistance and a re-tuned system, he might make faster progress this time, but the thought of starting again from scratch made him feel sick and like he wanted to cry. Now that his Nan had started, he wouldn’t have a moment’s peace until the betrothal punchbowl had been drained and the bunting hung from his roof.
“You never take an interest in anyone,” she was saying, scooping socks from a shelf with one hand and brandishing a duster with the other. “I hear there’s a girl about your age new-arrived. No family, but then you can’t tell till you’ve taken tea with a person.”
“I have done,” said Tom, his mouth twitching with the birth of a smile that would broaden over the next few moments until it exploded as a laugh.
“Have done what?”
“Taken tea with the new girl. Mirie. She’s …”
He couldn’t think of anything that approximated the truth and would also meet with his Nan’s approval, but she misread his features in a useful way and smiled.
“I knew you wouldn’t let me down,” she said, indicating to Tom that she’d thought the exact opposite, but he didn’t care. He could see the glimmerings of a future again.
Bio: J.Y. Saville has had work published by Visual Verse, The Fiction Pool and The RS 500.