Still Waters Run Deep

(‘Running Boy’© Douglas Roberts, 2006)





Trezza Azzopardi’s short story ‘Sticks and Stones’. Written in 2006 it is a timeless story which has stayed with me since I first read it. Taken from the age-old children’s rhyme — sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me — the title intrigues and challenges the reader. It throws up questions which make us read on.

The familiar adage urges us to ignore a taunt, refrain from physical retaliation while remaining calm and good natured. Yet, by the end of this story, the author turns this saying on its head and we learn that, like physical violence, words can be wounding, leaving the victim scarred invisibly, in the long as well as the short term.

Wallace Stevens has been quoted as saying, “A good short story deals with the horror and incomprehensibility of time, the dark encroachment of old catastrophes.” That is certainly true of this tale, where the ordinary, in all its smallness, evokes a larger picture. Azzopardi never imposes, but invites us to watch the protagonist in his confused flux, eventually work things out for himself.

The theme of the story is bullying, especially the bullying of an outsider, which makes me wonder if the author writes from personal experience; she was born in 1961 to a Maltese father and a Welsh mother. Other threads such as running away, turning a blind eye, history repeating itself, and disjointed relationships, are woven throughout the piece. Short story writer, K J Orr has said, “Short stories ask the reader to pay attention. So much is packed into such a small space, it is easy to miss some treasures. Every time I read this story I alight on something new – delicious imagery, a nuance or a deep-set subtext which only adds to its richness. As I read and re-read this story, I feel the protagonist’s persecution, and the raw fear and desolate aloneness from which he is constantly running away.

A multi-layered story, it also carries a strong and lasting message. Azzopardi illustrates how children learn specific behaviour from their parents which, though often destructive, can be repeated in later life. The story is told in the present tense and in the third person but with limited omnipotence, which provides an immediate intimacy and intensity. This enables the reader to accompany the story’s protagonist, Lewis, a school teacher, sharing both his internal and external conflicts.

The story opens on a beach with Lewis as a boy, and ends on the same beach with him as a grown man. It is here that he reaches an epiphany. He changes from a person who has always adhered to his mother’s example and advice, which is to flee from unpleasant persons or circumstances, to a man who decides to stop running, face conflict head on and stand up to bullies.

However, it has taken the death, probably by suicide, of bullied schoolboy, Paul Fry, for Lewis to relive and face the demons of his own bullying experience. For years he has been blocking this memory, trying to forget, but now he is forced to confront it and deal with the fall out.

It has been fifteen years since he jumped and fell, and he has never been back to the beach. He has spent his adult life in the heart of England, at the very core of the city, as if putting himself in the dense centre of a world would protect him from another fall off the edge of it. But now he has returned to his mother’s house, and the dream is more vivid here, in colour, with sound effects and rising panic, as if it too has finally come home.

The author uses a pedestrian voice throughout, which adds brilliantly to the prevailing mood of desolation and hopelessness. It also reflects the demeanour of the main character, Lewis, who feels he is never taken seriously, and is often ignored or put down by those close to him.

It’s survival of the fittest, his mother said. She was exasperated with him, fed up of being called in to the school. Try to fit in, she’d say. Don’t be such a baby.

Lewis has walked out on his girlfriend, Anna, and returned home to his mother. He discovers that his mother has steamed open the envelope of a note from Anna and Lewis notes that, like his childhood bedroom, his mother has not changed at all. This echoes Lewis’s unchanged situation, yet his recognition of this hints at the change that he will undergo during his month-long stay. As he reads the note, ‘Lewis puts it to his face. He can’t find the scent of her in the words.’ I marvel at how, in two short sentences, I am given a sheaf of information about his relationship with his girlfriend.

Azzopardi limits the number of characters which helps keep the story tight and undiluted. It is interesting that the two boys who bully Lewis are unnamed and Paul Fry’s bullies are both called Michael. Bullies are bullies, and it matters not what their names are; it is the victim that matters.

The author drops in symbols throughout: a lighthouse in the first paragraph, can be interpreted as a beacon of hope for the protagonist. The fifteen-year-old scar on Lewis’s chin, which every morning he fingers in remembrance, is described ‘like a ghost mouth that never opens, like a horizon.’ This analogy mirrors the taciturn Lewis, who has given up telling those close to him about the bullying he suffered.

Azzopardi drip feeds the back story through a recurrent nightmare, flashbacks, and memories, which are all essential to the story. There are no extraneous words. She lets the reader work out that Lewis had no positive male role model while growing up. Along with his mother, he ran away from his abusive step-father and from her learnt to worry, and feel powerless.

The author’s use of vocabulary works to add depth to the story. For example, in the opening, she uses the active words: ‘drop’ ‘jump’ and ‘fall,’ which contrast with the stifled inertia that Lewis feels. She uses her senses to convey Lewis’s experience so that the reader is in the moment too. ‘There is a hot taste filling his mouth, like molten iron, and a black pain, and the knowledge that his teeth are through his lip.’ And opposites are carefully employed, such as: ‘edge/centre’ ‘dark/light’ ‘dry/wet’ with great effect. But among the plain-speaking bare-boned prose, are painterly nuggets which sparkle in airy contrast, such as: ‘terns, scattering light above the sea.’

Paul Fry, a new boy at the school where Lewis teaches, is a slightly built swot who appears to be carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. In a few carefully chosen words, where Azzopardi shows rather than tells, the reader gains a vivid picture of him: ‘his back bent from the weight of his rucksack’ and ‘his blazer smeared with wiped off chalk and streams of dried spit.’ And to show he has been crying she describes: ‘dirt on his face, and paler tracks running down the dirt.’

Lewis empathises with the new pupil. He recognises himself in the sensitive boy and knows that the boy will never fit in. Yet rather than confronting and dealing with Paul’s bullies, he simply observes him, takes copious notes and passes them to the Headmaster, who he knows will not take him seriously. Satisfied Lewis feels that he has done all he can to help the boy.

It is only when he stands on the beach as a man, that he sees the whole picture clearly for the first time. He knows, too late for one boy, that he should have acted on his own buried impulse that lay so long unacknowledged. He realises that sometimes, authoritarian figures such as his mother and headmaster, are not always right.

In the last paragraph of the story Lewis ‘puts stones in his pocket.’ This immediately made me wonder if Lewis was about to walk into the sea and drown himself. Yet, when he reaches the shoreline; the threshold between land and water, ‘he throws the pebbles, one by one, back into the sea.’ This twist is a clever analogy, showing that he is off-loading his negative past, for ever.

The image, at the end of the story, where Lewis lies down, puts his ear to the sand, and listens to the humming earth, intimates that, at last, he is at one with the world, physically and mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

This well-shaped exquisite tale, has forced me to think and respond to the message it imparts. The joy and pleasure I have gained in reading it is not only from the evocation of mood of its heavy theme, but also in its telling, and I am grateful.


Sarah Rachel Beart, an avid reader, has just completed her first novel ‘Maggot in The Rice’ and enjoys writing short stories and poetry. She has taken an Open University Course in Creative Writing and has participated in numerous courses at the Writing Centre in Norwich. She lives in Norfolk and works part-time as a Nurse Practitioner.

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