Writing to a Set Word Count
A Two-Minute Read:
This is a short story I wrote as a writing challenge some time ago. The task was to create a story in fewer than a thousand words that revealed something in the ending that hadn’t been obvious earlier in the tale, but that would show when the story was re-read.
As a copywriter, I was often asked to write to a fairly strict word count. (As a fiction author, of course, the word count is less important) Keeping to a prescribed article length forces a writer to be frugal and accurate with word choices. These skills come in handy when writing fiction of any kind.
Here’s the story—I hope you like it.
Sarah loved her new job. It was as if she were born for a career in aged care. Although her main duties were clerical, she spent as much time as possible mingling with the residents.
“Older people have so much to offer,” she’d frequently tell her family, “yet so few take the time to listen.”
She especially loved Mr Bristol. Jim Bristol appeared to have lived the sort of life many only dreamed of. There was scarcely anything he hadn’t turned his hand to at some time, it seemed to Sarah.
Some days Sarah spent her entire lunch break listening to stories from his sailing days or his time as a circus roustabout.
“Do you have any family, Jim?” she asked him one day. “You never seem to have any visitors.”
“Just one son,” he replied. “Never had a lot of time for me, always too busy with his business affairs. Last time I saw him he was on his way to New York, then I heard that…”
“Sarah!” It was the director. “Got a moment?”
“Sure Dr King, be right there.”
Dr Aaron King allowed Sarah more than a little leniency with her break times. Sure, she was a chatterbox, but she always got her work done, and the residents adored her. Nevertheless, she did have an office to run.
“I need that report by day’s end, you know, not next week,” he chided. “I’m sure Mr Bristol’s stories can wait ’til Monday.”
The truth was, each day always held a whole new batch of tales from the old man. He certainly had lived a full life, and loved talking about it.
“See you after the weekend, Mr Bristol,” she said, gathering her things before hurrying back to her office. “We can pick up where we left off.
“Keep yourself rugged up, won’t you—I don’t like the sound of that cough,” she added as she left.
When Sarah arrived for work after the weekend, there was grim news. Mr Bristol had fallen gravely ill, and the nursing staff were worried about pneumonia. The night shift had been forced to call in a locum GP in the early hours of Saturday morning. He was prescribed antibiotics but was yet to show any improvement.
When Sarah was finally able to call in on her lunch break she was shocked at his appearance. He attempted to give Sarah his usual cheery greeting but could only manage a few words before he was consumed in a coughing fit.
“Don’t try to talk, Pet,” she said, keeping her voice as calm and soothing as she could manage. “Save it for our next chat. I’m sure you’ll be a little better tomorrow.”
He nodded, holding a fist against his chest in an attempt to stifle another lung-rattling spasm and holding his mask in place with the other hand. Sarah glanced anxiously at the nurse who was waiting to take his temperature.
“We’ve taken a sample to test for Covid,” she explained. “I don’t think that’s it, though. The cough came on far too suddenly.”
“It’s not all bad news though,” Jim rasped between bouts of coughing. “My son came to visit. He’s planning on taking me home next weekend.”
The nurse looked at Sarah, raising her eyebrows.
“Well let’s hope you’re better by then. I can’t see them letting you go home in this state,” Sarah offered. “I look forward to meeting this boy of yours. Maybe I’ll give him a piece of my mind for leaving you here all this time! Just joking.” She added.
He wasn’t his usual talkative self, so once the nurse left Sarah sat for a short while and chattered merrily until she saw his eyes closing and head nodding. She decided he needed rest more than conversation.
“I’ll be sure to call in tomorrow,” she said. “You get some rest. I’ll bring some fruit and a paper.”
All that week he remained in his room. The test had come back negative, and he had shown some improvement with his breathing. He was able to get out of bed, but only for short periods. Somehow, though, Sarah sensed that the spark was fading, just a little. He was still adamant, however, whenever Sarah visited, that his son Brian would be taking him home on Saturday. Sarah said little about it but didn’t hold out much hope of a home visit any time soon.
He still had a few stories to tell, but his tales lacked the passion they once had. He could only talk for short periods without coughing and was obviously growing weaker.
When Friday came, Sarah popped in, bade him a cheery “See you Monday!” and left hurriedly, truly doubting her own parting words.
First thing Monday she hurried to his room. Her worst fears were realised; he had passed away Saturday morning. In his place, there was just an empty bed and a couple of boxes containing the remnants of his once full life. She stood in the doorway and let the tears flow, washing away the grief she knew she couldn’t hide even if she’d wanted to.
Aaron King’s voice came from behind her: “That’s all he had to show for all those years. What we’re going to do with it all, I don’t know. There’s no next-of-kin in his records.
“If there’s anything you want to keep—you know, as a memento—I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.”
“What about his son?” Sarah asked. “Didn’t he call to see him last weekend?”
The doctor’s brows furrowed. “His son?” Then after a moment, he said, “Oh yes, Brian, I believe it was. Sadly, he died twenty years ago in the US. No other family at all I’m afraid.”
Sarah stood in silence for several seconds. “So,” she whispered,” you did take him home after all, Brian.”