Critique My Short Story - the "Unconventional Speech"

Inspired by the usual insipid run of Law Society addresses, I wrote this short story a couple of years ago for fun. What do you think?

THE UNCONVENTIONAL SPEECH

[At the inaguration ceremony for a new Judge of the Court of Appeal, given at the Law Society general convocation]
My fellow members of the Law Society of Upper Canada:

I am by no means an imaginative man. A lack of imagination has been, for the last ten years, of the greatest use to me in my chosen occupation. As a lawyer, imagination can be a positive drawback, where it impairs the clear, concise and unemotional evaluation of the facts that this most dreary of all professions requires for success. In place of imagination, I once believed that I possessed what I called idealism - which, truth be told, is only imagination as it applies to the prospects of improving society through one’s own efforts.

I no longer possess even this, more limited form. What follows is the story of how I lost it.

I have - or rather, once had - an imaginative friend. For protection of the guilty (not least myself) I will call him the “Artist”. His form of imagination gave him the ability to construct and reconstruct events, examine facts from the back and front, and generally to explore different sides to an issue. To him, imagination was an asset. When we met, on the first day of law school, we felt an immediate affinity, compounded by a mutual sense that we were the absolute intellectual elite of our year (not a particularly difficult feat, I admit).

The third member of our clique was the “Realist”. He had no imagination whatsoever, only a cold and calculating machine that he called a brain. While the Artist and I admired him, and welcomed his trenchant insights, we could never quite like him. At times he seemed positively inhuman, and he could be ruthless
in crushing what he considered “sloppy thinking”. Needless to say, we often argued (as law students will) about everything and anything - what less could you expect from an Artist, an Idealist, and a Realist?.

The last argument we ever had - the one which blew our mutual friendship apart and changed my life - was on the topic of “ghosts”. I do not remember how it started, but I have a clear memory of when it heated up.

Needless to say, the Realist sneered at the notion that such a thing as a ghost could really exist. “When you examine ghost stories”, he began in his favorite pontifical fashion, “you will observe that they serve, in the anthropological sense, as a form of social control. Most, if not all, “true” ghost stories involve variations on
the theme of “revenge from beyond the grave” - a warning, in other words, that anti-social activities (such as, particularly, murder) never go unpunished, even in times and places where the murderer is powerful or clever and the law cannot, or will not, prosecute the criminal.” When I objected that not all haunts are revenge-related (for example, some are merely inexplicable), he replied “yes, there are stories of ghost-houses, scary old churches and lighthouses, and all the rest. But what, really, does this demonstrate? Only a desire to prevent children from exploring where they shouldn’t - old houses and other such places, which can really be dangerous. To sum up” he said, thumping the old common-room table, “ghost stories, today, serve the function of social control for the young. Therefore, while they should be encouraged for that purpose, they are only useful for scaring children. Adults should be ashamed of themselves if they believe
any such nonsense”.

During this sneering speech, the Artist had said no word. He sat in the common room chair with an indescribable look on his face - it could have been anger or fear, or even amusement. Finally, after a few second’s pause in the conversation, he said “I have a ghost story for you, which I happen to know is true. It falls, you would say. into the ‘revenge from beyond the grave’ category, but it doesn’t involve adults scaring children - quite the reverse. I believe that you are entirely too dogmatic about the whole business. You call yourself a realist, but you simply reject evidence which doesn’t fit your preconceived theories - which attitude would seem to me the opposite of realism”.

The Realist replied that he would listen, provided that the story involved first-hand experience only. I, of course, was all curiosity. I believed at the time (if only it were so!) that the Artist would live up to his name and invent, for our amusement, an interesting grotesque tale. However, his manner in telling the story appeared to me entirely too serious - almost confessional - for the usual run of flights of fancy. I will not attempt further to describe the peculiar agitation that he displayed during the telling, but rather attempt to outline the essence of his story.

The setting was his childhood. He was (as all three of us were) a precocious child, mentally advanced far beyond his years. His greatest influence, when he turned twelve, was his teacher - a fat, jolly man by the name of John Saunders. Everyone called him “Johnnie”, and by all accounts he was a wonderful teacher - he truly cared about “his” children, both scholastically and emotionally. The only discordant note was the fact he was excessively “touchy-feely” with them, engaging in hugs freely, which often filled the Artist with a sense of vague apprehension; but this foible was excused on the basis that “Johnnie” was a former “sixties flower child”. The parents all loved him, particularly for his availability - the Artist grew up in a small town, and “Johnnie” was always available for baby-sitting. Indeed, many of the children in his class and younger could be found at “Johnnie’s” house after school each day.

As a teacher, “Johnnie’s” greatest strength was his ability to teach and reach out to children at every skill level. For example, the “Artist” was encouraged to pursue a variety of intellectual and artistic endeavours not on the curriculum (and indeed far above it). At the other end of the spectrum, Mimi Eliv was actually taught to read and write by “Johnnie” - a major feat, given that poor Mimi was what would now be termed “intellectually challenged”.

Now this Mimi Eliv was a very attractive girl in many ways - both physically (she had an extremely “mature” body for her age, with large doe-like eyes and long slender legs) and emotionally (she was a caring, trusting child, despite the fact that she was from a broken home - her father had divorced her mother, and she had been the subject of a bitter custody battle). But there was no doubt that she was “slow”, and she had often suffered from the cruel taunts of the “normal” children (and even, it may be added, from the usual run of exasperated teachers). Nevertheless, she had continually been passed into higher grades, primarily because her former teachers wanted to pass the problem she represented along to others.

Thus it was that she arrived in “Johnnie’s” class, still unable to read and write at the age of twelve.

Now most teachers faced with a problem child like this would simply have sent her to a “special” school. This, however, simply wasn’t “Johnnie’s” way. Instead, he took her under his wing, providing special tutorials for her on his own time and without cost to her mother. Indeed, during the course of that year he became something of a surrogate father for little Mimi. She would often run, sobbing, into his arms when the other children had been particularly mean to her, and it was uplifting to see the obvious concern and compassion he showed to her. The Artist, his protégé, was set to the task of protecting her as best he could - he was, in fact, a near neighbour of hers, and would often walk her home from school, or to and from “Johnnie’s” house for her special lessons. “It was not a particularly onerous task, as Mimi was a fun kid to be with - very curious and imaginative, collecting stickers and everything else” he said, noting that he rarely had anything to do with the “normal” children in any event and was something of an outcast himself.

One day, however, little Mimi disappeared. Her mother, frantic after an evening of anxiety, told the local police that Mimi had gone to the park “to look at some flowers, and put them in her sticker book” and had not returned. While the neighbours and police were concerned, all assumed that her father (who, as it
transpired, had immigrated to a middle eastern country) had abducted her - an all too common event in contested custody battles. After all, no actual harm could befall her - did they not live in a small town? Danger to children, as all knew, only occurred in the big city.

That was when strange and inexplicable things began to happen. “Johnnie” was, of course, terribly upset, but school proceeded as usual the next day. When the kids arrived, they found a crude chalk heart outlined on the school’s front door. Inside the heart was written “Mimi luvs Johnnie”.

“Our first thought was that this proved that Mimi was somewhere around”, the Artist said. “The writing was undoubtably very much like hers, as Johnnie had taught her - large, rough capitals drawn in chalk”. A subsequent search, however, failed to disclose any trace of her. “Our second thought was that it was some kind of mean practical joke by one of the kids. Subsequent events put a very different light on the matter.”

Needless to say, the chalk heart made “Johnnie” more upset than before. During class, however, he was to receive an even greater shock.

“One of Johnnie’s typical exercises was to ask the kids to write something in a particular tense, on the spur of the moment - sometimes just a sentence or two. This, he felt, enabled the children to get direct experience of the use of grammar”. On that day, “Johnnie” asked the children to write something in the past tense, and hand the results to the front. Then he began to read out loud the results. “Most children had written the obvious - ‘I saw the trees in bloom’, that sort of thing. But near the bottom of the pile was one quite different, one that caused Johnnie to turn grey and sit down suddenly. He didn’t read it out loud, but rather crumpled it almost angrily and threw it into the wastebasket. Then he announced that he was not feeling well, and told the children to go home early. I was probably the only child really concerned for his health - as his protégé, I knew that he had serious health problems. His heart was not really sound - he took medication - I believe it was because he was so fat. Anyway I was the last to leave that day, and as I was
leaving I took the liberty of uncrumpling the single sheet of paper in the wastebasket. On it was written, ‘I luved u, bt then u hurted me’. As you can guess, the handwriting was the same as that in the chalk heart”.

By this time, the Artist was beginning to feel serious misgivings about the whole situation. “I considered going and talking over what was happening with Johnnie, but something - an indefinable sense of fear, even loathing - held me back. At the time, I did not yet suspect what I afterwards came to suspect; I only knew
that, for some reason, the thought of being hugged by his flabby fat arms filled me with revulsion, and I knew that if I went he would want to hug me”.

Johnnie did not appear the next day, and the class was taught by a substitute. Nothing unusual happened. The day after, Johnnie came back. It was his last day teaching, ever.

The morning proceeded normally, even comparatively cheerfully. The children were glad to see Johnnie again, after their indifferent substitute. “Trouble began with another of his ‘grammar shorts’, as he called them. This time, the tense was ‘future’. Again, there was an unexpected inclusion in the pile sent to the
front - I didn’t read this one, but I could tell from Johnnie’s reaction that it hit him hard. His face turned an unhealthy white, and he simply couldn’t speak for a few seconds. Then, he croaked for an early recess. The kids gladly streamed into the playground, with Johnnie staggering after them - this wasn’t usual, as normally
he would stay in class during recess and prepare for the rest of the morning’s lesson”. This recess lasted an unprecedented three-quarters of an hour. “We knew by that Johnnie was most upset. Normally, he was extremely punctual”.

It was after recess that the final manifestation took place. As the children trooped into the room - Johnnie bringing up the rear - they stared around themselves in shock at the interior of their classroom. “The walls were covered in chalk writing. Some was the same as before - ‘Mimi luvs Johnnie. Johnnie luvs Mimi’ - and
some not: ‘u hurted me. u put it in me’. Some was vaguely threatening: ‘I am cumng fur u Johnnie’. The writing was in various colours of chalk - there was only white in the school, a point subsequently confirmed- and of all sizes from tiny to huge, covering the walls and (in one place) even on the ceiling. What was worse, there was a distinct unpleasant odour in the room - like stagnant pond-water that something had died in. Careful examination revealed that the smell came from a set of wet, child-sized footprints leading from the door to the teacher’s desk - and ending there. On the teacher’s chair was a single dead flower, wet and covered with gunk that resembled algae or something equally slimy.”

Needless to say, class was over for the day. “The last I ever saw of Johnnie, he was earnestly talking with the school principal. He was looking whiter than ever, and as I watched he took several pills from a container in his pocket and ate them”.

The next day, the janitors had (with considerable reluctance) cleaned the classroom. Nobody had confessed to the vandalism, and no rational explanation for it could be found. “The school had been, during recess, surrounded by children. Certainly any stranger entering the school would have been spotted”. At nine O’clock, the children entered class, expecting more ‘manifestations’. None were seen. But then, neither was Johnnie.

“He neither came himself, nor called for a substitute. The proper authorities went to his house, where they found their answer. Johnnie was dead. I have heard - but did not see for myself - that he had a look of such horror on his face that all who saw it could never forget it to their dying day. The house was filled with a
rotten odour, much worse than that in the schoolroom. The floor in his bedroom was wet, and around his bed were carefully arranged dead, blackened flowers - also wet. He had, apparently, been strangled with a child’s training bra, which was afterwards identified as the one Mimi had been wearing when she disappeared. This had not, however, been the cause of his death. The ‘official’ cause was given as ‘heart attack’, but unofficially we all understood that he had died of fear”. A further search revealed a polaroid photo of Mimi, naked and tied up with duct tape, hidden under “Johnnie’s” pillow. There were certain unpleasant stains on the photo.

The sequel to this story is soon told. Mimi’s father was contacted, and it was conclusively proven that he had not abducted her. A search was undertaken in town, but she - or her body - was never found: however, in the local pond, police recovered the rest of Mimi’s clothes and the remains of a sticker-book. “What had happened was obvious to everyone. Johnnie was clearly a child-molester, and he had taken advantage of Mimi. Then something happened - perhaps Mimi threatened to tell her mother, we will never know - and Johnnie had disposed of her. She had, as you put it” (here, he nodded to the Realist) “returned ‘from the grave’ for her revenge. As can be seen, I have good reason to believe in the supernatural, and nothing you can say” (here he again nodded) “can convince me otherwise”.

At this point the Realist smiled. It was not really a nice smile. More, if you must know, of a smirk, like that a hunting dog might give before pouncing on a hidden partridge.

“There is one thing I can say which may have that effect, and it is this:” (here he stared directly into the Artist’s eyes) “What did you do with her body?”

The transformation that then took place on the Artist’s face was truly startling. From the look of confident triumph at having produced an irrefutable story, he took on an aspect of malignant hatred the like of which I had never seen before. “Well”, he spat, “if you are not going to be civil about this, I am not going
to waste my time with you. Good night. I won’t talk to you again”. Nor, in fact, did he. He angrily slammed the common room door on the way out.

To all my subsequent questions that night, the Realist replied: “I admit that was a shot in the dark. But, you see, if you don’t believe in the supernatural, it simply had to have been one of the children in the class - and we know he was the man’s protégé, her neighbour, clever and unscrupulous, and an Artist to boot - and now, we know he must have been somewhat unbalanced. Must still be, to tell the truth - to tell such a story in the first place, if what I suspect is true”.

With that we parted, and I never saw him alive again. At the subsequent inquest, it was determined that he had been killed directly behind the law library, returning to his apartment that night. His body was described in the papers as having been “savagely battered”, with “certain unreportable assaults and mutilations of a
sexual nature”. His killer, or killers, were never caught.

And my idealism? I simply could not bring myself to describe the contents of that last argument to the police. When the Artist and I were called to the station, he gave a sworn statement that our conversation had been “a discourse on the nature of the supernatural”, and I did not contradict him. One look at the Artist’s face and I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that a certain deal was being offered to me, and that I would be in immediate mortal danger if I declined. And, after all, I had absolutely nothing in the way of proof - the police would likely have laughed at my story. So much for idealism, courage of one’s convictions - whatever. I never talked to the Artist again.

And now, for the topic of today. While I have had a modest success as a lawyer without imagination, the Artist has had considerable success as a lawyer with imagination. And so, after so many years, it is somewhat ironic - to say the least - that I have been called upon to make this speech honouring Mr. ________'s appointment, at such a young age, to the bench of the Court of Appeal. Having heard this rather unconventional speech, you, the members of the Law Society, will no doubt realize who the “Artist” is, and should I subsequently be found dead in mysterious circumstances you will know who is responsible.

I repeat that I have no proof for any of my story. Good Day to you all.

Not bad, Malthus. Not bad at all. I liked the story within a story within a story format; also, you started the story in medias res. That’s cool. Those plot devices and others, not the least of which is the use of “Mr. ______'s”, create an overall tone that is evocative of 19th century detective and/or supernatural themed stories, and a little bit of homage in a story never hurts. Last but not least, the plot was engaging and the pacing was, for the most part, appropriate.

One little thing: the ending seemed a bit abrupt. I think a bit more exposition related to the inner story and the narrator’s motivation was needed. Maybe something like this would work:

Warning! Don’t read the spoiler if seeing the last two paragraphs of your story rewritten will block your creativity or otherwise make things difficult for you.

[spoiler]" … That day, idealism and courage of one’s convictions became theoretical constructs only. I haven’t talked to the Artist since."

"Perhaps, my learned colleagues, you are wondering how this untoward incident I’ve related has anything to do with why we are here today.

"The connection is this: While I have had modest success as a lawyer without imagination, the Artist has had considerable success as a lawyer with imagination. So much so, in fact, that, ironically, I have been called upon to make this speech honouring his appointment to the bench of the Court of Appeal.

"Unexpectedly, I find that the cold pragmatism that has characterized my career thus far has abandoned me, and I am left with shades of my former idealism. Reflect upon my law school colleague the Realist, and you will see that this ideological rebirth has happened at a time most inconvenient to me. Regardless, I regret that I cannot honour Mr. ______'s appointment, nor would I be able to recommend him for any such position.

“Good day to you all.”[/spoiler]

Thanks, skeptic_ev!

Actually, on re-reading, I think that one major weakness is the lead-in to the story. On re-writing, I think I would add a longer “transition” phase, from a regular, typical “speech” to the story - as it is, it launches too abruptly into the anecdote. It would perhaps be more effective if it built up a bit more gradually.

I like your re-working of the ending; and with your permission, I may incorporate elements of it into a rewrite. :slight_smile:

That might work too, Malthus, though I confess I am at a loss as to how to do it.

Anyway, you’re very welcome, and I hereby bequeath to you my contribution in its entirety. It is now wholly your intellectual property to do with as you see fit. :slight_smile: