Robert Smith of Glasgow is the winner of the 2016 Cheltenham Prize. We are proud to bring you his prize-winning story – ‘The Quality of Mercy’.
“I don’t remember.”
It’s the stock answer to all your queries of how she’s been since your last visit. But you ask all the same. You enquire about lunch which, according to the menu in Reception, was probably macaroni cheese.
“I don’t remember.”
You check the wall calendar to see who else has signed in. Betty visited on Tuesday, followed by Frank and Jean yesterday, and so you ask of news of what they are up to.
“I don’t remember.”
Jean actually phoned you last night, and so you know that they were planning a trip to York today. You mention this, but her response is the same.
“If you say so. I don’t remember.”
You both sink into silence. You stare out of the window. It is what you do on your visits. The strip of green grass stretches to the boundary fence. The sky is blue. She smiles and looks intently at the small conifer that stands alone on the lawn. You know what’s coming. You brace yourself.
“Have you seen my little tree,” she says, “It really is remarkable. It had turned so brown that I was sure it had died, but it’s getting greener now. And it’s quite shot up.”
You give your well-rehearsed reply. You explain that the tree is a larch which therefore sheds its needles in the autumn, but bursts back to life come the spring. You add that since she entered the Home, you have both now watched it twice undergo its annual cycle of growth.
She looks at you with unbelieving eyes. “But they only planted it a few days ago once Christmas was over,” she says, “it probably belonged to one of the staff, or a family down the road.”
You are resigned, it’s how it is, a matter of what you will. You let the subject drop. You know it will return. It is her talisman, a visual stimulus that will trigger the loop of revelation at least once more before you leave.
You try a different tack. Theatre was a shared passion in days gone by, and so you begin by telling her of the production of The Merchant of Venice you saw two nights ago at the Theatre Royale. She listens with growing interest. You watch as her expression changes. A connection has been made. You get the feeling she is digging deep within her memory bank, striving to grasp hold of something long forgotten. It looks as if she is maybe deciding whether to share with you whatever she has found or to keep it to herself. You are delighted when she begins to tell what she has salvaged.
“I first saw the play in 1932,” she recalls with a contented smile.
“No,” you exclaim. You think it must be some kind of jumbled fiction from the past that has become a reassuring present for one who lacks a future?
Yet, she is now in full command, “Yes, at the newly reopened Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon no less.”
You make a quick calculation, and your disbelief increases, “But you would only have been sixteen in 1932, how on earth did you get to see the play at Stratford?”
“The school took a group of girls from the Sixth Form at the start of the summer holidays,” she explains, “We stayed in a huge dormitory at a local boarding school, and had our meals in the oak-panelled dining hall. ”
She drops silent for a few moments, and you continue to wonder if this really occurred, or whether it is the brain playing tricks on her again.
But then she resumes with growing certainty, “We played games in the school grounds, went for long walks by the river, and on three evenings visited the theatre to watch Shakespeare performed. It was so much better than just experiencing him from the written page, which is all we had done previously.”
She reaches for a handkerchief, and blows her nose without ceremony, before carrying on with her narrative. “Even before we entered the auditorium we were enthralled. We had never seen such a stunning building as the new theatre itself.”
She challenges my incredulity with a twinkle in her eye, “Our teacher put it down to the fact that the architect was a woman. She reckoned that this should inspire us, that she expected us to achieve great things too when we girls left school.”
You watch as her face shines like it used to do before her fall.
“Of all the plays we saw, the The Merchant of Venice was my favourite,” she says, “and still is.”
Suddenly she is young once more, and in a soft voice adds, “We felt so sophisticated and grown up.”
“You really saw The Merchant of Venice in Stratford in 1932?” you ask trying to hide the persistent doubts you have that any of this actually took place.
But even you of little faith cannot deny the remarkable detail with which she is able to recount the event as though it were yesterday.
“Oh yes,” she says, “Bridge-Adams had invited that Russian fellow, the one who was married to Peggy Ashcroft for a time, to come across to direct the play. Our teacher felt that in many ways the performance showed little respect for the beauty of Shakespeare’s poetry. But this did not bother us, we just counted ourselves lucky to have seen such a daring production.”
You are amazed as she suddenly bursts into Portia’s famous courtroom speech:
“The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath…”
And carries on, as though she is back by the Avon all those years ago, revelling in the power of the Bard’s great oratory,
“…But mercy is above this sceptred sway.
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself.
And earthly power dost then become likes God’s,”
She pauses briefly and then utters with conviction,
“Where mercy seasons justice.”
She comes to a halt and smiles at you.
You are amazed by her prefect rendition. For a few moments you are unable to speak. At last you manage to congratulate her on her achievement. You admit that you would not be able to recite a poem you heard last week, let alone a life time ago. You dare to believe you are having a meaningful conversation once more. You eagerly remark on how cleverly Shakespeare weaves the themes of justice and mercy throughout the play. You proffer the clichéd view that if only Shylock had accepted the fair maid’s suggestion, that he should temper his demand for justice with a modicum of mercy, then oh how different his fate would have been.
It feels good to be in such intelligent discourse again. But the moment passes. You knew it would. You look across to where she sits. No point in continuing the topic. For she is again looking past you, her eyes focused on the view outside. She is back in the instant. Past memories have been locked away. To surface who knows when?
You anticipate her next sentence. You are not mistaken.
“Have you seen my little tree,” she says, “It really is remarkable. Just look how it has grown.”
You nod in agreement, mourning the absence of that gentle rain. For without it, justice weighs heavy on those trapped in the darkness of the dreaded ‘D’. This is as good as it gets, you shrug your shoulders. What will be, will be.