To read the story first please click here: Novices
Warning; Spoiler Alert.
This story was written as a response to the challenge ‘Write 1500 words for: ‘It hurts to be in love’. My story for that was ‘Abandoned, and Toria wrote her very successful ‘His Last Desire’, both stories dealing with adult love.
‘Novices’ however is a very different approach. If by any chance you haven’t read it, then I suggest you do before you read the rest of this review. It is a story on many different levels and from different viewpoints which makes a straightforward review a little harder to write. There are three stories intertwined in Novices, although only two of them are instantly recognisable.
The story begins with a nun receiving a letter that was sent to her many years ago and which has only just been delivered. The letter is obviously from a child, and she reads the name on the back and gasps. Edward Straker.
I love the way we are immediately transported to Edward’s point of view. Not Ed Straker, this is not the SHADO Commander here; this is a small tormented boy, a victim of the school bullies who pick on the most vulnerable.
An Delen Dir shows us an Edward Straker who is a small child, thin; ‘rail thin’ he is described in the story. But she also gives us a glimpse of the adult Straker that this boy will become; the Straker that we know so well as Commander-in-Chief: ‘Instead he concentrated hard on keeping his composure. Never cry out, never complain, take it and be quiet. That was what made it be over faster, he knew from past experience. And never rat. Ever. He knew the rules.’
Those few words tell us more about this child than perhaps we want to know. It’s easy to imagine isn’t it. The hair so blond it is almost white, the huge blue eyes. The target. And we also know that he is the target wherever he goes. That the bullies seek him out, and are trying to destroy him even at this young age.
But Edward is made of sterner stuff. He doesn’t complain. He doesn’t ‘rat’ on the bullies, not out of fear, but simply because it went against the rules. Obedient to the end. Very much a reflection of Straker, obedient to the rules of SHADO, even if it resulted in the end of his marriage and the loss of his child.
Interspersed with the description of what the bullies do to him are the thoughts of the as yet unnamed nun as she recalls the incident. And we are given a hint of what is to come merely by the fact that even after all these years she remembers him.
Edward tolerates the humiliation the bullies inflict on him, and the pain, but then we feel his panic as he is left, abandoned and trapped. Beautiful writing. He had taken everything they had done to him without complaint, now they could let him out. They had won. The walls he could not see were moving. The panic he had held at bay stretched its limbs with leisure. He was unable to contain the first whimper of terror.’ That simple phrase…’stretched its limbs with leisure’ evokes a feeling of menace and terror. And Edward finally breaks.
Remember this moment. It all falls into place at the very end.
The account of how he is rescued and helped is dealt with on a practical level, the removal of the tar, the shaving of his head, the bath. All written with attention to detail, but interspersed with such achingly painful and intimate moments . Edward’s reactions to Agnes’s help are so very ‘right’. I can’t think of him as Straker here…. he is a little boy, alone and frightened and helpless, and yet the reader can see, yet again, the future Commander Straker there. Aloof, distant and composed. ‘He might not yet be a man, but this also was no toddler either. And she could see the mortification, easily.
Agnes is an enigma as well. We get very little insight into her feelings. She is as detached and distant as Edward, and yet she cares for him and treats him with the utmost consideration, and, perhaps more?
So Edward is rescued and he goes back to school having kept silent about what happened, having hidden his feelings deep within himself. Very ‘Strakerish’. And another moment to remember later.
We are told in an almost offhand manner that this isn’t the last time he is a target of the casual brutality of bullies who try to destroy him. Yet life goes on for both Edward and Agnes. They move on, Agnes to another posting, while Edward stays and survives.
This is a difficult story to review with three stories running alongside each other. Edward Straker, the small boy, is the main story. Then there is Sister Agnes, looking back at that night, remembering what happened and also reading the letter that Edward had written all those years ago, a letter that she has only just received. I think I know what was in that letter, beside the pressed rose. A small boy’s declaration of love. Love that was never returned. Or perhaps it was, in her thoughts. Had he ever thought about her? She wondered how the man looked like that he had become. And where he was.
Those words suggest to me that Edward Straker, that small beautiful boy, was often in her mind. An love that had remained unsaid for so long, until she receives Edward’s letter, delayed for so many years.
She opened the letter and read. And cried.
There is such heartbreak there.
The third story is contained in just two sentences: Breathing was painful. It would not be long now. Here we are given Ed Straker, the man, no longer a child and who now faced death on board the stricken submarine in Sub-smash. And his actions mirror that life in school.
Think about that moment in Sub-smash when he is in the Captain’s cabin. He keeps calm, and only trembles with fear when the door slides shut behind him. Now that moment in the story when the bullies grabbed him. That moment of fear. Still he kept calm. They wanted him to beg or cry. It was when he smelled the hot tar that he trembled with the first flutter of panic
When I re-read Novices I could see the links to the third story . All the hints at the future that Ed Straker is going to face.
Instead he concentrated hard on keeping his composure. Never cry out, never complain, take it and be quiet. Is that Edward Straker, small boy, suffering at the hands of the bullies again, or is it Ed Straker calmly ordering Paul Foster to leave him to die alone?
Remember that moment in the shed when he breaks? The panic he had held at bay stretched its limbs with leisure. He was unable to contain the first whimper of terror. Straker, oxygen nearly depleted and hallucinating.
Touch her? How could he touch her? He stretched out his hands, not too high, oh please no, he thought. Not too low either. It was hard visualising her. He had screwed his eyes shut for so long. His fingers made contact with strong cloth, relieved he firmly clasped her habit, avoiding touching her.
Such a tentative contact. And think about the way Straker looks at Nina after they have been rescued. He hardly dares look at her, once they are alone.
Novices is about Edward Straker, the schoolboy, yet in that last few words of the story the author also gives us Ed Straker the SHADO Commander. A man who is still a target, who still keeps his composure and his distance, who doesn’t let his feelings to take over.
A beautiful story, achingly tender and emotional, that works on so many levels, that is perceptive and thought-provoking. I still wonder what Agnes felt as she read the letter and wondered about Straker. Regret for her wasted life? Who can say?
And we have Edward Straker as he could well have been, and Ed Straker as he is.