Clara Chalmers has made the 2023 CBC Short Story Prize shortlist for Dear M.
5 writers make the 2023 CBC Short Story Prize shortlist
She will receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and her work has been published on CBC Books.
The winner of the 2023 CBC Short Story Prize will be announced April 18. They will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and win a two-week writing residency at Artscape Gibraltar Point.
If you’re interested in the CBC Literary Prizes, the 2023 CBC Poetry Prize is open for submissions until May 31.
The 2023 CBC Poetry Prize is now open to Canadian poets
Clara Chalmers is a King’s College London dropout and ex-perfectionist. She writes profusely but often in secret. Her laptop is littered with poems, short stories and the corpses of abandoned novels. As she sheds her perfectionist tendencies, she hopes some of her words will escape into the open and impact a wider audience.
Currently, Clara is sailing around the Caribbean on a 88-foot schooner, crewed by 16 other students, many of which had never set foot on a sailboat before. Amidst sweating sails, scrubbing the scuppers or baking cookies in a cramped galley, Clara is writing down all she observes.
When writing Dear M, Chalmers wanted to adopt the perspective of someone with an unorthodox view of healthcare, she told CBC Books.
“The pandemic made me reflect on health, healthcare and how choices concerning our own well-being impact others. This is a divisive topic and, in the past several years, I have witnessed people grow frustrated with one another against a backdrop of vaccinations, oscillating COVID restrictions, protests, policy changes and deep feelings of isolation. Some members of my immediate family grew very sick in this period and I got to spend a bit of time in the hospital as a visitor. These observations are what inspired my story.
– Clara Chalmers
“Many of the characters are composites of members of my own family. You can read it as satire, a compassionate peak into the mind of a contrarian, epistolary fiction, a series of vignettes told by unreliable narrator, etc. Because the scope of the narrative is so small, it is meant to take whatever shape you, as the reader, would like it to.”
You can read Dear M below.
The Hospital smells like orange juice. The bottled kind that sits in the back of the refrigerator long past the due date printed dimly on the cap. I have been here a week and they have moved me three times. Once, they forgot me in the hallway and I saw a mouse run by. I know you are not religious but I think that was God’s way of making a joke. I imagined Him sitting next to me, bearded and lithe, and both of us chuckling at the paradox of this purported Temple of Human Hygiene overrun with rodents. I think He would like you, M.
All the stories I read about Elderly People dwell in memory. They began with some old biddy sitting in a rocking chair in a lovely, spacious house recounting the bygone days of their youth.
This is not that kind of story. This one begins with a 72-year-old woman with unwashed white hair inert in a hospital bed.
The memories of my youth are blurred and stained objects I keep in a box. This was back before I knew you; and thus lacked a part of myself. I was like an amputee stumbling through life; only now I am really coming alive, with prickling, painful awareness.
Being older means I feel each day. Every waking hour tears into my flesh and beauty stuns my soul. Red wine pulls weighty words from my throat. I often fast; and the lack of food heightens my senses. I can practically see the silver particles of morning light filtering through my window as I write this.
Pulling on socks, I feel the skin of my ankles chafe and peel. Sugary tea flirts with rotten molars. My grandchildren move with grace around my house and envy floods my stale limbs. I can see the lightness with which they interact with the world and, in contrast, feel my weight.
Me? I am a magnet — repulsive to my surroundings. I live in force. I have learned the language of the body and it is an angry dialect. I am bloated, inflamed, cramped, stiff, deflated, festering, sore, queasy, numb, humid, hollow, leaden, lumbering, liversish, alive.
I will give you one memory today, though a recent one, mind you.
My son is on my sofa. His face hangs like a dog. I remember when his features were soft and puffy. Transparent; revealing everything that occurred inside.
Now, emotion gets caught underneath the leathery folds of his face. His eyes always look tired and his voice flat. Like tepid tap water drip drip dripping through the night.
“It’s not that I want you to give up on your Health Practice, but I think it’s really important you also incorporate some other kinds of medicine.” He says, “Like, maybe you could book an appointment with your GP. Or go get your bloodwork done.” A pause. Is that emotion I see, clogging up his throat? He continues: “I am really worried about you Mum.”
Time to turn off the tap.
“Obviously, you are not worried about me,” I say. “It’s interesting that the only visits I get from you are lectures on how I am wrong.” No emotion detected in my son. Well. “I have gotten by perfectly well with the choices I have made and only need you to respect them”
“Alright,” He says, and leaves, not even finishing his tea. Later, I carry the cup to the sink; cream cold and clotted on the surface of the tea.
When I fell the third time and really could not get up, a firetruck came and three burly men hoisted me into a rocking chair with a blanket tucked beneath. They grasped the edges of my blanket and pulled me rollicking down my hallway. “Wheeee” I thought. Out loud I was groaning.
I lied on my carpet for three hours before calling 911. I had fallen from bed two times that night; but managed to heave my body back into my warm, wine-scented sheets each time. I am clever at manipulating my leaden limbs. Sending signals from the brain to nudge my leg a little that way, then use my arm as support there, and bend my knee just an inch for agility.
But something had broken between my body and my mind. I could not feel my legs but for a prickly dull sensation, nor control the ungodly sounds that slunk out from my lips.
I told my son that, in the event of an emergency, I would of course dial 911. After much contemplation, three hours worth in fact, I deemed this was an emergency. Though one I would handle with as much grace as possible. I was glad I had worn my matching black pyjamas with the lace trim to bed that night, even though they were a bit uncomfortable. I wonder what the Firemen thought.
In the Hospital, I did not exist. No bloodwork, medical check ups, not so much as a prescription for cough medicine. I was proud of the staff’s bemused expressions. I had managed to live such a fulsome, fleshy life without their interference. My heart beat and I breathed big wet breaths in spite of my medical nonexistence.
Doctor Hefner refused to accept me as a nonentity. He stood over my bed asking questions: “Are there any health problems you have experienced in the past? Any known diagnoses, illnesses, allergies…”
“Well I do have allergies,” I replied.
“Great. What kind?”
“I am allergic to everything,” I knew they weren’t going to understand me like you M. It’s like they were confined to one sense, one means of diagnosing and treating people. Blind to the complexities and mysteries of the human body. It’s like describing sight to a blind person. “Oh, except red wine. I’m not allergic to red wine,” I added.
Doctor Hefner’s face looked so stricken and I laughed so hard my ribs ached.
My days here never really start or end. Time exists in tatters. I sleep often but am submerged by dreams, as if they are lurking under the bed, waiting to attack. Often, I dream of you. You are at my bedroom window instead of the firemen that “helped me” when I fell. From the floor, I see your serene expression white against the night sky. Your lips are moving but I can’t hear what you are saying. Dark silence seeps from your throat.
My bladder bloats and is emptied by a nurse who says “oh” and comes back with a bedpan. At intervals they bring me trays of beige coloured food. I let it sit on the tray; condensation collecting inside the protective plastic wrap.
“Are you not eating today, Helena?” The nurses ask.
“No, not ever, so there is no need to bring me that tray.”
But the trays keep on arriving and departing like a bus on a quiet street. A useless routine. A hollow artifice.
I try to eat what I crave. My outsides are dirty and I need to keep the insides clean. My hair is stringy and unwashed, bruises adorn my body. I know the food-shaped things on the hospital tray will wreak more damage and discomfort than I can muster at the moment.
And so I ask my family to bring me a meal every day. I am specific with my requests; texting them in the morning with descriptions of the flavors that once comforted me in the past, although I am rarely hungry nowadays. Here is a catalog of the things I have nibbled this week:
White Spot Burger with extra pickles Tim Hortons Blueberry Muffin Two Cranberry Donuts Salmon Sashimi Half a Fish’N’Chips
I was envisioning a scone tomorrow. Maybe with some jam and butter, grass fed of course.
The Physio comes and makes me sit in a wheelchair. Period. I just sit there. The Physio leaves and comes back and asks how I am doing.
I reply, “You know, this is what I do all day every day at home. Sit.”
The Physio crinkles her face in a smile or grimace then informs me, “Your body needs to practice the act of sitting up. It’s so easy for your core strength to depreciate in the hospital.”
She talked to me as if I was an imbecile; ignorant to what my body needed or wanted.
Sometimes, in darkness, I am prodded awake by a fresh faced nurse, telling me I am scheduled for another test. The amount of tests they have conducted on me is outstanding. At this point, Doctor Hefner must possess a veritable museum of my saliva, urine, fluids, chunks of flesh and hair. Helena’s Cabinet of Curiosities, they should call it. M, it is a circus here. Please send help immediately. And I am only half-joking.
The Man across from me is always on the phone. I am not sure what he looks like because of the double sets of blue curtains between us. His voice booms and breaks, commanding the whole room. I hear him ranting about being trapped in “this Godforsaken Hospital.” The nurses are evil, he’s not even that ill, and would be better taken care of at home, etc. I assume he is talking to his Lawyer. For many days, I anticipated the clickety clack of the Lawyer’s big, heeled shoes in the Hospital. I imagined his cologne bleeding through the double blue curtains; announcing drama and a means of breaking up the monotony of my day. I would pipe up and say “help me too!” though I really don’t get along with lawyers.
My daughter-in-law told me the other day that the Man does not have a phone. He just lies, chattering, in his empty cubicle, holding air up next to his face.
I won’t die here because I don’t plan on doing so. The System is corrupt but it would be too blatant to hold me prisoner while I loudly protest. My family visits every day and brings a piece of the outside world. Of freedom. I know they are brainwashed too; I can see it in the way they defer to nurses in the hallway, heads slightly bowed, allowing the nonsense words to wash over them.
But in their chapped faces I can almost feel the bite of the autumn wind. One afternoon, rain drops shone on my granddaughter’s hair. I asked if I could touch them. A drop broke on my ragged fingernails.
My family and I, despite our difference in opinion, belong to this outside world; away from the nurses and doctors and crazy patients with fake cell phones, disconnected from reality.
I don’t plan on dying for a long time. I have never actually envisioned my death; the way that some of my friends have — in bed, surrounded by family, peacefully. I just imagine all the ways I will lengthen my life.
I know you can feel my energy and, dimly, I think I can feel yours. It is hard. Indomitable. Like the shiny, black shell of a bed bug. I want to build a shell like this too; so the soft, mewling part of me can be hidden away and protected forever. So even when that softness dissolves the shell will still be there. A secret fortress.
I can see a corner of the ocean outside my window. Although the rooms they have moved me too gradually got worse, and more clotted with people, the view has improved. I like the way the trees stain the naked sky. I look outside at the ravaged world as a means of distraction. From days metered out by the smiles of nurses who spew ridiculous facts learned in some outdated textbook. They cling to their mantras like it is the only thing holding them to earth; to their scrubs, to the scrubbed mouse infested hallways of the hospital, to days they fill arguing with old, sick people like me.
I wonder what holds me to this earth? Besides my enormous body. Maybe it’s my faith. My mum was devout. But her body broke like brittle finger nails. She died in a Hospital, too, worn down by the fluorescent lighting and the mysterious orange juice smell. Her pedicure still immaculate on her deathbed.
Maybe what holds me to Earth is You; the wisdom you carry and impart to me.
Today I drank tea with cream, lectured the Nurse on inorganic apples and watched Father Brown. I don’t think I will be here for long.
M, they call you “Grandma’s Health Lady.” I almost laughed. My grandson took my phone in order to solve a technical problem for me and ended up reading our texts. He saw the last messages I had sent you and now they all believe you have given up on me.
“Has your Health Lady responded yet Grandma?,” My grandson asks now, every time he visits.
“Does your Health Lady have any medical records stored for you?” This from Old Doctor Hefner.
They ask so many questions about you it is hard not to think of anything else. Every day I tell myself; M will be here soon. M is already here, in an energetic way. M will know how to help.
M, why did I fall? Why could I not get up? Why can I still not feel my legs, even after being here for seven whole days? I am scared and your silence this week frightens me even more. I am sending this letter by post to be discreet, but I don’t mind the means by which you respond. Any response would be great really.
I am in room 452 though they might move me again. Wherever I am, I will be waiting. Faithfully.
Read the other finalists
- Eel Broth for Growing Children by Helen Han Wei Luo (Vancouver)
- Just a Howl by Will Richter (Vancouver)
- Marriage by Nicholas Ruddock (Guelph, Ont.)
- Bird Emergent by Katie Welch (Kamloops, B.C.)
About the 2023 CBC Short Story Prize
The winner of the 2023 CBC Short Story Prize will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and attend a two-week writing residency at Artscape Gibraltar Point. Four finalists will each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books.
The 2023 CBC Poetry Prize is currently open until May 31, 2023 at 11:59 p.m. ET. The 2024 CBC Short Story Prize will open in September and the 2024 CBC Nonfiction Prize will open in January 2024.