Gandalf Goes West

Hal stands in front of the screen. On the screen the words GANDALF GOES EAST.


GO EAST, types Hal.


The cursor flashes.


BILBO GOES EAST, the screen says.


The cursor flashes.


Another line of text appears: GANDALF GOES WEST, it says.


Hal clenches his hands once, twice. He cannot progress in the game without Gandalf. GO WEST, he types.


The cursor flashes.


BILBO GOES WEST, the screen says.


Ben comes into the room and walks over to Hal. He reads the words on the screen from top to bottom:
















Hal turns to Ben. How are you? Hal says.


Ben stares at the screen.


Stay, says Ben.


How are you? Hal says again. He sounds uncertain.


It’s ‘stay’ says Ben. Type ‘stay,’ Hal.


Hal types STAY.




The cursor flashes.


GO WEST, types Hal. He laughs and looks at Ben.


BILBO GOES WEST read the words on the screen.


Ben stares at Hal as the cursor flashes.


Hal turns his back on Ben and goes to the window, a red smear of light. He shields his eyes against the fleeing sun. How are you? he asks. A woman enters with a guitar, singing. Hal and Ben go east, into their neighbours’ flat. The woman follows, still singing. Hal and Ben see their friend Michael asleep on the couch. His mouth is hanging open, his body twisted, as if he has fallen from the sky. Hal and Ben shout to wake him up. Michael shouts back when he opens his eyes and sees them standing above him. He was dreaming of murderers and for a moment these two are the people in his dream. Then he notices the cushion Hal is holding tightly to his body, and he realises who they are.


Hey, how’s it going? says Michael. He rubs his eyes.


How are you? Hal says, smiling.


Ben moves away. He stands beside the singing woman and pulls a face. What’s all this singing about? he says. The woman ignores him and shifts her voice into a higher register. The song has arrived at a moment of tension. The woman has tears on her face. Ben regrets the way he spoke to her, and tears tremble in the corners of his eyes. Hal is crying silently into his cushion. Michael looks as though he is crying, but he is only rubbing sleep from his eyes. Michael’s sister, Clara, comes home.


What’s everybody crying for? she asks.


Nobody’s crying, says Michael, removing his fists from his eyes to find that everybody is crying. Even Clara, who hasn’t had time to put her bag on the table, is crying.


Dusty in here, says Ben, his voice choked.


Clara’s tears redouble. This isn’t right, it isn’t right, she says, marching in a small circle. A person should be able to come home and not have to cry about it.


How are you? says Hal. He tugs worriedly at Clara’s sleeve. His tug throws her off and she walks into the table. She wails. She rubs her thigh. Ben has stopped crying. Michael has started cooking.


Eat! he says through onion tears. We need food!


Ben cuts things for Michael.


That’s not food, Michael says. Ben looks at what he is doing and sees Hal’s cushion lying on the work surface in shreds, like strings of mozzarella. He brushes it to the floor. Hal cries and Clara cries and the singing woman cries. Michael burns the food and Ben leaves.


On the street Ben walks to the corner and back as fast as he can until he gets a stitch. He often has to get out of the building and walk like this. Every day there is crying, misunderstanding, crises exploding from nothing. Sometimes he thinks it would be better if he kept Hal shut up in their flat with only that ancient computer for company. Everything beyond the front door is trouble. He fights the urge to return at once; Clara will look after Hal while he is not there. At the end of the street, crowded with people going home from work, a small group has gathered to watch a juggler who steps in front of the cars when the light is red. He throws balls high in the air and catches them in the crooks of his knees, between shoulder and jaw, and in a hollow he makes in his back by bending at the waist and throwing his arms out like wings. Just before the lights change, he dashes between the rows of cars with his hands held out for money. Then he comes to the pedestrians who have been watching. Ben shrugs and says, Sorry, no cash. He does have money, but he doesn’t like jugglers and will not fund their activities. He said this to someone at a party once and they laughed and said, That’s funny. He still remembers that. So he doesn’t give the man any money, but as he crosses the street and walks into a small park that he visits nearly every day at this time, he thinks that he enjoyed watching the balls shoot up into the air, only to descend and slot so exactly into the pockets the juggler made of his body. That was well done. He regrets not giving him money. It was dishonest of him to take his pleasure without making some kind of acknowledgement. But when he sees the juggler walking into the park he quickly looks away and pretends to have just remembered something of great importance. He drums his fingers on his lips and furrows his brow. He pulls his phone from his pocket and presses its blank screen very hard against his ear. He speaks into it as the juggler walks past.


Oh really?


I see.


No. No! He laughs a little then nods.


Yes, yes I agree.


Exactly. Exactly. Right.


The juggler is long gone but Ben has become interested in his conversation. Who could be on the other end of the line? Ben does not have business conversations on the phone. Ben rarely has any conversations on the phone other than with medical professionals and benefit officers. I’m sorry, he cuts in, but who is this?


I see.


Oh fine thanks, fine.


Things are the same. Things are always the same.


He’s much better. He can even be left on his own from time to time.


Well no, Ben smiles. No, I don’t think he’s ever going to be that much better.


Thank you. Thank you, I will.


He puts the phone back in his pocket. It is night. The park – no more than a little patch of grass and a couple of benches – has turned yellow in the light from a lamppost. A breeze slowly opens a discarded newspaper and separates its pages, which glide away from Ben like birds. He crosses the street to the pub he often goes to around this time, and drinks three pints of beer.


The building is quiet when he comes home. In their flat, Hal is at the computer. The light from the screen paints his face the colour of an iceberg. When Ben closes the door Hal looks at him.


Gandalf’s gone, he says.




Hal starts to form a word then stops, puzzled. He glances at the screen. West, he says, his lips forming the word slowly.


Type ‘stay’ Ben says, walking over to Hal.


I want to go west too, Hal says.


But then he’ll just go east, Ben says.




That’s how they wrote the game. It’s a puzzle.


What does Gandalf do? Hal asks.




When he’s west. Or east.


I don’t know, Ben says. They probably didn’t write that part.


Hal types STAY.




Hal types WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN DOING GANDALF. The cursor flashes and flashes. Ben hears something and goes to the window. Below him lights flash blue, red and white. He listens as a howling siren climbs and descends the walls of the street, hunting for an exit.



lives and works in London. His 'Brief Survey of the Short Story' has appeared in the Guardian since 2007. His fiction has been published in The Stinging FlyThe Dublin Review and The White Review. His first book, Mothers, was published by Faber in 2018.



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