“I could open the case, have a peek, and sneak out again. Just a peek. No one would know…”

Uncle Dougie's Suitcase, Alastair Chisholm

Ghost story submission call

Here’s S R Mastrantone to tell us about the inspiration behind his short story ‘Something Unfinished’.

S R MastrantoneAs well as being about scepticism, academic pomposity, and the peculiar sort of understanding that can develop in father-and-son relationships, ‘Something Unfinished’ is about memory. So it’s fitting that I nearly forgot about this story after I first came up with it.

I could remember the punch line: an elderly couple literally run out of things to say to one another. But when I told this to a very close friend of mine whose opinion I valued, he said: “It sounds rubbish. That wouldn’t happen.” I agreed, and I couldn’t believe I’d ever thought there was a story in it. Years later, when I was first going out with the amazing woman I recently married, I finally remembered the setup.

In the early days of our courtship, we talked to one another like long-lost friends who had finally been reunited, but only had a day or so to spend together before being separated again. A conversation would begin, and then halfway through it would lead to another equally interesting conversation, the original conversation forgotten about. For example:

“Yes, I eat breakfast too! That’s amazing. I used to really like Weetabix but now I’ve switched to a milkshake and berries.”

“Really? Wow. Did you know they make Weetabix in Kettering? I once went to a talk about Johnny Cash there and I could smell Weetabix all day?”

“That’s amazing. Did you see the episode of Columbo Johnny Cash starred in?”

“Yes, I also like the one with Patrick McGoohan.”

“Patrick McGoohan. Wow, which one, there are a few? I went to a Paddy Gooey film-festival in Portmeirion.”

“Portmeirion! I used to…”

Days later I would suddenly remember that we hadn’t finished the conversation about Breakfast. Or about Kettering. Or even, most importantly, about Columbo. It started me thinking about all those unfinished conversations, floating about miserably in some half-finished-conversation purgatory. And I wondered: could the strength of our relationships with other people be measured by the number of conversations with them that were never finished? The better the friend, the more conversations. Perhaps the incompleteness draws us back to them again and again as we search unconsciously for an end to those discussions.

Because of What HappenedI don’t really believe unfinished conversations are at the heart of our relationships with other people, but the idea that someone might believe this reunited me with my old story idea about the couple who had literally run out of things to say to one another. What would happen once all those conversations floating in limbo are finally completed, as they might over a married lifetime? And, would the silence between the two people be the result of some hitherto undiscovered truth about the universe and the human condition? Or would the silence come from the couple’s shared belief in this strange truth, bringing with it all the baggage and askance glances that strange beliefs do?

What really happened between Ivy and Harry is a mystery to me, although I trust Eric’s reaction at the story’s conclusion. But just in case, when it comes to the relationships I am fond of, to err on the side of caution, I occasionally end discussions before they reach their natural—

(S R Mastrantone)

You can read ‘Something Unfinished’ in the latest Fiction Desk anthology, Because of What Happened, available now in paperback, iTunes, & Kindle formats. His previous story with us, ‘Just Kids’, won the Fiction Desk Writer’s Award. Read about ‘Just Kids’ here.

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