C.H. Pearce’s short story, Torvald’s Year, won the 2015 Marjorie Graber-McInnis Short Story Award.
“This account of how poor Torvald struggles to escape his wretched life below ground is a superb example of speculative fiction. It plunges the reader straight into a dystopian world of ‘suffering’ without any of those explanations and technological details which would detract from the story.” (Judge, Maureen Bettle).
Read the prize-winning piece below and stay tuned for more winners and shortlisted stories from our 2015 awards in the near future.
“Did I get it? Do I get my Year in Light? Have I suffered long enough? Have I suffered well?”
Torvald nearly tugged on his manager’s shirtsleeve. That would have been the end of it.
All his family told him it would be wonderful if he were to take it up. The boy deserved it, they said. Torvald had laboured in darkness for many years. Every day he moved earth and ore through the long, winding tunnels in his barrow.
“It will be wonderful,” they said.
“You deserve it, boy.”
It must be true: he heard them clearly. They said they hoped his application would be accepted this year.
Torvald kept his head down respectfully, so that his manager could only see the dome of it. It was dark and bald and slightly shiny in the sickly glow of a lamp. On the top was a light fuzz, wispy pale, like mould on the skin of a peach. His hands were on his barrow.
His manager flicked through the forms. Torvald glanced up sadly, noting every passing page had a red stamp on it.
He hefted the weight of the barrow to ready it on the tracks winding up to the ore deposit. It felt comfortable and familiar on his callouses, which had moulded themselves to the barrow handles long ago.
“Accepted,” his manager said. He did not look up.
Torvald’s hands fell to his sides. They hung light and still in the close mineshaft air.
“That’s wonderful,” Torvald cried. He brought the hands forward to wring his manager’s, then thought better of it. He paused with them halfway outstretched.
His manager agreed that it was wonderful, and told him to empty his barrow at the deposit on his way out. It was 15:48, he said, by his armplant.
“You’re due to clock in precisely one year, Torvald. I can wire the date so you don’t forget. At 15:49. There, I gave you an extra minute: now you must tell me what the Light is like.”
He grasped Torvald’s still outstretched wrist and wired him the date, with a counter. It burnt unpleasantly all the way from Torvald’s armplant up to his optic nerve. He tried to keep the grip steady.
“Compatibility issues, or impulses to upgrade,” his manager observed, clicking his tongue. This was no casual observation, as Torvald knew: it was digging. He wanted another compliment on his fresh-fitted purchase, which Torvald, in this instant feverishly well-disposed, gave him in spades.Illustration by C.H. Pearce
“I love your armplant,” he said. This was rather in excess of what served to pass the time at work. As he spoke Torvald cocked his head sharply and pulled up the message on his eyeplant screen. He had one Year in Light, one beautiful year upstairs ahead of him, and it was ticking down right in front of him. Three-hundred-and-sixty-four days, twenty-three hours, fifty-seven minutes. He tilted the head back and the image flew away.
His manager was silent. He coughed and cleared his throat and tried to draw himself up, and bumped his head on the mineshaft ceiling.
“I’m saving my Year in Light for retirement, of course,” he pronounced loftily, rubbing his skull with his free hand. “What a good idea to do it early. While you’re young and mobile and can properly enjoy it. I wouldn’t have thought it of you, Torvald: you always keep your head down and have no initiative. Do tell me what it’s like in the Light, when you get back.”
His manager’s course was the reasonable one, Torvald knew. He kept the armplant against his manager’s with increasing awkwardness, and wondered if he should transform it into a handshake. The usual approach to one’s allotted Year in Light was, naturally, to save it until Redundancy at end of life. Retirement, at the earliest. Everyone works better, does better, lives happier, with something to look forward to. Reckless people who used theirs up young always came back downstairs sad and quiet, having nothing more to look forward to again.
Torvald had observed this in action, but he had seen something else, something he privately thought worse. Worst of all was when people saved it and saved it and became Redundant and died before they could take it. This happened frequently. This was the thought that made him shiver: he couldn’t stand it brushing against his brain for more than an instant. What if he grew too old to fill in his forms and hobble his way to the elevator leading up to the great open surface? What if he died, suddenly crushed in a minefall with his barrow and a load of passable ore, and never saw the Light?
“Thank you,” said Torvald, and wrung his manager’s hand, ignoring the sparks. He wheeled the barrow all the way up the tracks to the deposit, pushing it at a run.
As he ran he thought that people knew. Every minute he lingered downstairs was a minute less up. He was flying. They unstooped from their barrows and uncurled from their digging, and several of them clapped him on the back in passing. He emptied the barrow, clocked out, and ran all the way home.
Here, too, they congratulated him. They hugged him and shook his shoulders. They told him he deserved it, to enjoy it, he had worked so hard. How wonderful and how novel: good luck: he was very young, wasn’t he?
Torvald felt he floated all the way upstairs. He took the elevator. He had a return pass, a single, with one way left for when the counter ran out. That was of course nearly a whole year away.
“How are you enjoying your Year, dear? How much longer to you have to go? My screen’s not working,” asked the armplant. It was Auntie: her tremulous voice crackled through it. Torvald held it close to his face.
“It’s beautiful,” said Torvald. “It’s very beautiful. How is the mine?”
“Voice only. Screens aren’t permitted,” Uncle was saying. “You know that. Don’t tell us too much, boy. Not to us poor shits who have never seen the Light. Do you want to spoil it for us?”
Auntie shushed him and shouted into the armplant, having decided to compensate for the lack of visuals with volume. Her weak voice quavered with the effort.
“The mine is good work, honest work. It all goes to support upstairs, so people like you can enjoy it, dear boy, in your Year. You are very young to be taking your indulgence now. We miss you here at work. I do not complain: I only say your family suffers and labours, as usual. Are you having fun up there? When are you going to come back to work?”
“In two-hundred-and-forty-six days, three hours, and five minutes,” Torvald read out. He felt his throat tighten as if to crack in making the words, but the voice sounded out with an evenness foreign and distant.
The light shone on his face, warm and lovely all over him, and the wind was shifting the leaves in many tall and slender trees. His downstairs eyes, large and pale, still blinked in it. As he spoke he curled and doubled over upon himself with guilt as though he were again held within the mine. He spoke evenly.
Next his mother and his father came on the line and checked whether he was enjoying himself, too, while they suffered.
His crouch became a ball and he and whispered back that he yes, he was enjoying himself, he was practicing reading without mouthing the words, he wanted to get through everything in the great library before his year ran out, and the sky here was so open you might fall off the edge of the world, and sun, the sun, the sun was beautiful. He was so sorry not to be working and earning and suffering. He didn’t know what to do with his hands. What a good time he was having, but was it alright?
His parents said they were glad and they would go back to suffering presently, which would occupy them for some years. One day when they were old and deserving, they might enjoy what he was enjoying too.
Torvald rocked himself back and forth.
Then he uncurled and lay on the grass for some time, blinking at the open sky. He put a book over his face.
When he was not quite halfway through his Year in Light, Torvald sat outside the library determinedly reading in the sun. He had learned not to mouth, nor to have his armplant read for him aloud.
He found the sun rolled off his skin and the wind sounded dry in the trees. He could think of nothing else but his family and his manager, suffering and labouring in the mines while he enjoyed the Light. Was it right? Was it proper? Was he a good boy, still, or did that slip away in the open air outside the mine?
He wrung his hands. They were growing soft and unfamiliar.
Torvald cut the year in two.
At one-hundred-and-eighty-two days, twelve hours, zero minutes, Torvald used his one-way ticket and took the elevator down.
He ran all the way back to the waiting embrace of his family. He rapped on the door and flung his arms out expectantly wide.
“What are you doing here?” said Auntie. She held the door open just a crack. It was dark inside, with the tellybox going, and he could smell stew cooking.
“I’m back,” said Torvald. “I had to come back to help you in the mine. I couldn’t enjoy the Year in Light while you suffered. I was silly and young and indulgent: I didn’t deserve it. You were all right. I’m sorry.”
Auntie creaked the door open wider. Uncle was shuffling over. He raised his balding head, and clasped Torvald’s shirtfront, dragging him down very close, as if for an embrace. His weak eyes were bulbous and quivering.
“You’re a fool,” he whispered. “You gave it up?”
He began to laugh. It was hoarse and hacked up his throat like a bad cough.
“Come here! Come here, everyone! It’s the young prodigy! He gave it up!”
“That’s the funniest damn thing I’ve ever heard,” said his mother and father. They were hunched over staring at the tellybox. They didn’t get up. “Oh, well, you’d better come in and have some dinner, Torvald.”
The next day Torvald rose, dressed, clocked in and took up his barrow, and wheeled his way down the tracks.
“You’re early, Torvald,” said his manager, checking the time on his armplant. “Six months and two minutes early. What happened?”
Torvald nodded, and said nothing. His great pale eyes quavered in the lamplight as if with some luminescence all their own. His manager remarked that Torvald’s eyeplant was setting in with rot or leak, and still needed upgrading. It made his peach-fuzz skull look heavier on one side, and his cheek wet. Torvald imagined the white mould had caved in part of his head.
“You should get that seen to. I keep telling you that. I thought you might have listened by now.”
His hands ran across the barrow handles, familiar and cool. They caught splinters, but this would pass. He hefted its weight and it tethered him down and he proceeded along the tracks deeper into darkness.
C. H. Pearce writes and illustrates speculative and historical fiction. For more information, visit http://www.chpearce.net.