Second Annual Youth Short Story Contest Winner! Under 12
In a Nutshell, by Sophie Manning
MRS DIANA COE
I shiver as I stand on the deck of the RMS Queen Mary, leaning over the rail. It’s especially cold for March, but the sea spray feels good on my face. Suddenly, I’m aware that I’m completely alone on the rocking deck; no one else had dared to venture outside on such a cold day as this. I wonder where my son is. He’s supposed to be my escort, but so far, I’ve only glimpsed him once or twice, much less actually had him escort me anywhere! It’s not considered proper for a lady to be venturing outside her quarters alone on a ship of this size, but what choice do I have when my husband is home in London, and Thomas is nowhere in sight. Besides, I get terribly seasick in my room with no cool air circulating. My cousin Victoria had been the one to suggest travelling to France to attend a piano recital performed by Franz Liszt, a popular composer in Europe. She said that I simply must see him in Paris (even though he is coming to perform in England in a short while), because it is supposed to be his best recital yet. So, after much coaxing, I had to agree.
Originally, it was supposed to be my husband and I voyaging to France together, but, two days before the time of departure, a very important business opportunity came up that he couldn’t ignore. All of my close relatives live nearby each other in London, save my sister, her daughter and her late husband, who died recently of a terrible sickness. They now live on a faraway island called Nantucket to which they have just moved barely a year before now. It would be impossible for me to cancel my voyage without causing uproar among my family, who are all incredibly excited to hear about the performance.
Sighing, I head back inside, knowing that I have to get ready for the luncheon with the family with the cabin next to ours. We are to meet them in the Grand Dining room in an hours time. As I walked back to my room, I wonder if the recital will be worth all this.
It is just after we finish eating when we hear the foghorn signifying that we have arrived at last. Bidding goodbye to the kind family, Thomas brings me back to our cabin to change into my traveling clothes and to pack my trunks. I’m more than anxious to get off the ship, (even though it’s one of the finest in the world), so I hurry onto the deck to watch it pull in with the others. An automobile is waiting for us just outside the harbor gates, and we soon find our luggage. Before long, we’re driving to our hotel.
As much as Thomas is trying to make today as enjoyable as possible, so far the word I would use to describe it is: Hectic. It’s taking us longer than seems necessary to find our seats because the hall is so crowded and noisy, but when Liszt sits down at the elegant, black piano, the silence is complete. Sound seems to almost flow from his fingers as he performs his compositions one after another. He easily keeps the attention on him as he plays with such movement and feeling that clearly nobody could tear their eyes away from. He plays a series of songs that I later find out are called: “Robert le Diable.”
“Oh cousin Victoria, you were right to make me come,” I silently think. My only worry is that I won’t ever be able to describe it accurately to my family back home.
After an hour, the performance ends and the audience rises for a standing ovation, Thomas and I included. But before long the crowd begins to get rowdy, pushing their way up closer towards the stage, and almost trying to pull Liszt off it! And that’s when Thomas decides it’s a good time to leave.
Back on the streets, it’s only mildly busy, which I’m sure is normal for Paris. I decide that it’s the perfect time to purchase souvenirs for some of my closest relatives. Thomas leads me to a small, and frankly very dusty souvenir shop that he had spotted on the way to the hotel. Almost as soon as we enter the store, Thomas disappears into the back in search of some cigars, while I browse around the entrance.
It doesn’t take long for me to find a gift for cousin Victoria. She absolutely adores the opera, and really any other recital or show there is, so I buy her a beautiful pair of mother of pearl opera glasses. For my girls, I get two matching blue silk hair ribbons that are the exact color of their eyes. As for my husband, I’d put Thomas in charge of finding that gift.
I’m intrigued by all the other merchandise as well, so I decide to just look around before we leave. I walk along rows and rows of brown shelves, my eyes skimming all the objects there. Books, hair bonnets, jewelry boxes, paintings of Paris, walnut shells… Walnut shells? I look closer, my curiosity piqued Something was folded and stuffed into them! I practically jog to the man standing behind his desk, and hold them out in front in front of me. “What are they, sir?” I ask, pushing them towards him. “Ah, yes.” He says, taking off his spectacles. He takes one from me gently. “They’re white leather lady’s gloves, folded so tiny that they may be stuffed into a walnut shell,” he answers, examining them carefully. “I could’ve taken them out for display, but they were so I interesting that I couldn’t resist keeping them like this.” He looked up at me. “Would you like to buy them?” he asks. Suddenly I remember my poor niece. Living on a remote island with nobody but her mother to keep her company, her father (and my brother in law) dead and the rest of her family in London. I imagine how much joy she would find in taking out the little gloves and marveling over who could possibly fold them so tiny. And I hear myself reply: “Yes, I’ll take them.” I would send them to my tragic little niece.
I’m in the middle of chopping up a bluefish when my mother steps into in fish shop, holding a letter in her hand. Without speaking, she hands it to me. I haven’t seen a letter so fine since we’d moved to Nantucket. It is on thick, beige paper with elegant cursive writing addressed to me. I stare at the D engraved on the crimson seal; it is big with lots of curlicues, Aunt Diana’s seal. “Oh, yes,” my mother says quietly, “this came with the letter.” She hands me a small package. I place it on the clean part of the counter and slide open the envelope with a butter knife. But then I notice my hands. They’re covered in fish blood and scales; my fingernails are caked with dirt. Feeling ashamed, I move to the sink and rinse my hands. After drying them with a loose dishtowel, I go back to the letter:
My Darling Niece, Elizabeth,
I have recently visited Paris to attend a wonderful performance by Franz Liszt.
In my travels, I couldn’t help but think of you. Nearly all alone in a strange island, your father deceased and your mother devastated. And when I saw these nutshells containing tiny lady’s gloves, I knew how much it would mean to you to have a new pair of leather gloves all the way from France. To remind you that you’ll always be a British young lady at heart.
Your loving Aunt,
Reading the letter, I feel a sudden pang of sadness deep in my chest, in one way, I don’t want to open the package, for fear that it would hurt me too much to remember how things used to be. But in another, I am incredibly curious. My curiosity wins over and I rip off the packaging eagerly, looking up every so often to make sure that the owner of the shop isn’t paying attention. Inside, as promised on the letter, are two hard halves of a walnut shell tied together with a piece of blue ribbon. Each one is stuffed with some kind of white cloth (according to the letter, the gloves) with a piece of tissue paper covering each one. Eagerly, I pry one glove out of a shell and hold it up to the light to examine it. It looks so much like those I used to wear in London: Same clean white leather, same slight, slim finger slots and even the same seam running from the heel of the hand to the palm. I used to wear gloves to parties and teas, and I never dreamed that I would be wearing one like it on in a dirty fish shop in downtown Nantucket.
Everything had seemed to be getting better here, I made a few friends, attended ladies’ meetings, and went shopping for gowns. It was almost like home, and then my father died. It all happened so fast that for a while I thought I had dreamed it all. He went to work in his bank one morning, kissing me on the forehead and promising to be home for luncheon. He never did come back. I remember the butler opening the door for one of father’s co-workers and frantically calling mother to greet him. I later found out that the man had been calling about my father. Father had keeled over dead of a heart attack after he received the news of an enormous financial crash that had just occurred almost everywhere, including Nantucket. The possibility of a financial ruin had been a shock to all of the bankers, but Father had probably been the first on the island to hear of the crash, so therefore it was all the more severe. Mother had always said that he was too worried about his money, and that one day it would be the death of him. I can hardly bear to think of how right she had been.They brought his body in later that day, the financial forecast for the island still in his grasp.
As soon as she received the tragic news, Mother had crumpled to a heap at his feet, screaming and sobbing and beating the floor with her fists until she was too exhausted to move any longer. Nobody knew what to do, all the staff just stood there, frozen with the shock of the news until I finally pulled my mother into a standing position and gently guided her into her bedchamber. Then, unable to hold my grief in any longer,I ran sobbing into my own room to mourn in peace. My sadness was somehow more reserved and ladylike than my mother’s, although she had always been the lady of the family. I simply had cried until I had no more tears to shed, and then put away every object that was my father’s, every memory that could trigger that pain again.
Unlike my mother, I wanted to continue living, to at least try to make somethings like they were before. But since then, mother has been living in a trance, flitting from room to room without any real purpose, seldom talking and softly when she does. I once walked into her room at night to check on her, and she was curled up on the bed, clutching one of my father’s old dress shirts and mumbling “why, why, why” over and over again until morning. It seemed as if our places in the family were reversed. I cared for her and gently prompted her just as she had done when I was younger. And she just lay there and let me feed and cleanse her as if she was a still a small baby. Life was terrible as it was, and then the money ran out.
I suppose I should have known even before mother told me. A window broke and was never fixed. The maids left. But I’d honestly never thought about it before. After all, I had more things on my mind. One night during the meager dinner I had managed to prepare, she told me that all the money in our savings had run out and that we were moving into a smaller and cheaper house that we could afford. And even worse, I, once a British lady, was going to work in a fish shop.
I never needed to ask her why we couldn’t just write to our wealthy family and borrow some money or move back to England until we could get back on our feet. I guess that I already knew the answer. In lots of ways, foolish, impractical ways actually, I am much like my mother: we’re both very proud. We would rather work for every scrap of food we get and live in a very non-sanitary home than beg off money from our relative We would hate if people thought that now the man of the family is gone, we are unable to support and take care of ourselves.
Putting my gloved hand on the counter to admire it, I marvel at how someone could have fit a glove this size into a shell as small as this. It seems impossible! And then all of a sudden I remember that I need to sell this for the family. It would be far too cruel to allow my mother to work herself ragged to keep the house for us while I had something in the pocket of my apron that would pay for at least several month’s rent. At once, I hurriedly stuff the glove back into it’s shell. And grabbing my worn shawl off the hook, I run out into the street in search of the curiosity shop where I could pawn it.
When I arrive, it’s hard to fight back the memories that spring up. My father and I used to come here, merely for pleasure. To investigate the new treasures that had arrived. But I try to put on a neutral face, and stride purposefully toward the front desk. Then, my heart sinking, I place my gift on the counter, and except the money that is handed to me.
Mrs. Dorothea Coe
I know that Elizabeth doesn’t like me to hover over her, but when I heard my daughter gasp with amazement, I just had to see what had been in that package. I suppose that I should have known Diana would give her something like that. So lavish and impractical. It’s just like her to have expensive taste. Deep down I knew that Elizabeth would never dare keep such a gift in secret. But I admit that for a moment I almost expected her to slip the package into her pocket and continue with her work as if nothing had happened. When she left the shop, clearly in search of somewhere to pawn it by the expression on her face, I felt a sense of pride that she was so mature. It is something she’d never have done before my beloved husband died. She was too spoiled then, too silly and frivolous. And then I did something I’d never done before: I followed her.
Peering through the window of the curiosity shop, I could see the regret she was feeling at having to give up her gift, I felt a certain regret myself. Regret that I wasn’t there for her all those months I was depressed. Regret that I hadn’t been there for her grief, but that she had been there for mine. Regret that I had been no more useful than a lifeless corpse after my husband’s heart attack. Guilt floods through me. So as my daughter leaves the shop, I hide in a nearby alley, I knew one way that I could make it up to her.
I wait until she is out of sight to sneak into the curiosity store. Heart thumping, I walk swiftly to the counter. “The shelled gloves, please, the ones the girl just brought in,” I say, laying my month’s wages on the desk before the shop keeper. “Of course, here they are,” he agrees and sweeps the money off the counter, while I reach for the walnut shells. I know that we will suffer for the loss of that money, but we’ll survive, I had to make this right.
Back in the fish shop, I hurry behind the counter where my daughter stands wiping up the mess on the floor, her face filled with disappointment. I don’t waste any time. Kneeling next to her on the floor, I pull her face up to mine. “I brought you something,” I say softly. She stares at me “What?” she asks eagerly. I pull out the walnut halves. Her face lights up. “But I pawned them!” she says, confused. “We need the money.” “Not as much as I need you,” I answer. “You took care of me all those weeks, it’s my turn now.” And for the first time in three months, I pull her to me for a hug.
The Antiques Depot invites young people to browse the shop and explore the wide variety of treasures from our past on display, find that one piece that sparks their imagination and then write a story about that object. The competition not only fosters creativity, but also encourages young people and teens to explore the world of rare and special antique objects. They are often amazed to learn that antiques aren’t just that fragile china dog on their granny’s mantle… they may find harpoons and relics from old ships, tribal pieces made by American Indians or Pacific Islanders, mysterious objects from the Orient or ancient Egypt, or rare artifacts from age of the Pilgrims or the Revolutionary War!
After asking whatever questions they wish about the object’s identity and history to get started, the authors can have fun researching and exploring their chosen piece at the library and the many island museums, and then put their new found knowledge and imagination to work. The young author could write a fictional “biography” that follows their object through the various imagined hands that have owned it over the years since it was made; perhaps exploring some of the ways it had been used. The author could instead have chosen to write an exciting story that takes place sometime in the past, where the chosen object plays an important role. The stories were judged on the accuracy of information related, creativity and of course writing skill.
All of the authors were encouraged to think of their object as a real character in their story, and address when it was made, where it was from, what was its purpose, what was its life like, what did it witness? The contest is an opportunity to learn about our culture and get a better feel for Nantucket’s past, all while having fun with a creative project. The Antiques Depot is hoping the young authors will discover that exploring antiques will inspire a lasting appreciation of history and heritage.
The story writing contest launched this year during the Nantucket Book Festival on June 21st and ran for a month, ending July 23rd. The stories were divided into two categories, one aged 12 and under, the other aged 13 to 18. The winner in each category could pick their choice of grand prize from among a Kobo eReader (generously donated by the Nantucket Bookworks), a vintage hand-crafted Ship-in-a-Bottle, a selection of vintage Nantucket books (donated by the Egan Maritime Foundation), or a gift certificate from the Antiques Depot.
Here is this year’s winning story in the Over Twelve age group, submitted by Grace Manning who is “almost 14 years old”. She wrote a fictional biography of a Victorian girl named Kathleen Jenkins, inspired by a Victorian Shell-Covered Box in the form of a Miniature Armoire.