Telling a story is not as straightforward as one might think. The writer will use all kinds of effects and devices that are supposed to enrich the reading experience. Accordingly, reading a story may also be rather complicated, since the reader has to know what to look for and where to find it.
It takes both experience and practice for a reader to fully appreciate a literary text. Read the short-story, "Supply and Demand", and reflect a bit on the issues listed below. Then check the “find out” link and compare with your observations.
Supply and Demand
by W B Jenkins
It was not a nasty business. He never thought abou t it like that. Perhaps there were some shady proceedings from time to time, but no – he wouldn’t call it nasty at all. In fact, quite the contrary.
He turned to his monitor. There was something fishy about this. He was not at ease with this new Belarus contact. He had been in the business long enough to be alert if he sniffed something rotten. The network was big, in fact – too big to keep the full overview of what was going on. Still, he was safe as long as he could stick to his old connections. New ones had to be approached with caution. And in this case he had this indefinable feeling of uncertainty. He had been doing business with Belarus before, but the connection then was somebody he knew, and had even met. Now there seemed to be some new guy managing things over there, and he just had this uneasy feeling about it. He checked his watch; it was getting late.
He was running a Manchester based export / import business doing all sorts of international trade, from bicycles to underwear, or second-hand spare parts. Usually some cheap goods from a surplus store somewhere that would make a little profit. The books and inventory were in perfect order; the men from the ministry had nothing to complain about. The company was even in line for a quote on the stock exchange. He was doing all right. It was a safe business – but not very lucrative.
Then some years back he had had an invitation to a sales seminar, which turned out to be just as boring as he had expected. These fresh academy yappies in their impeccable grey suits with matching ties, presenting the same graphs and figures were simply tiresome. What did they know? It was a two-day seminar, but he had decided to leave after the first day. Still he ended up in the bar in the afternoon, and had over a pint joined in a conversation with two blokes he knew slightly from a similar event. After another pint or two they had gone to a hotel room to continue their chat which was getting very interesting. There he was introduced to a third guy who seemed to be waiting for them. In short, this had been the turning point. He suddenly found himself in big business with fat money, and the market was insatiable. The business was perhaps not that safe – but it was very, very lucrative.
Since then it had all been a stroll down yellow brick road. Big, bad and beautiful. Not that bad, really – just a bit on the side of what most people would call clean business. When he thought about the poor fellows involved in really dirty business, like drugs and trafficking – that was bad. They were using people and ruining lives. He would never go down that road. There were, in fact, many positive aspects of what he was doing, he kept telling himself.
And his company was the perfect cover. He had developed a network of safe connections mainly in Eastern Europe, but also in some Arab countries and even in the Far East. The demand by far exceeded the supply, and he was amazed by what some people were able to come up with when it came to cash. And that was another advantage of having an established business – no whitewashing was needed. It all went into the books, neat and tidy. Ask no questions, tell no lies.
But this new Belarus contact was unsettling for some reason. He was fully aware of the risk involved. One wrong step and it was goodbye yellow brick road. He knew that. With eyes on the monitor and hand on the mouse he hunted for information to justify his suspicion, but came up with nothing.
His mobile buzzed. He checked the display before answering. After a “Yeah” and a short silence he just said “OK”. Shit! He never did that. He never did any delivery himself, he had never had to. In his regular business he often had to step in to hand over some merchandise, or drive one of his trucks to the airport. But in this connection he totally relied on his couriers. So far that had been no problem. They did what they were paid for, and that was it. No questions. But now he had to get on his bike and do it himself – and like always, it was urgent.
Urgency was the mantra of this business. Special delivery, high priority. It was a matter of life and death, literally. He had a list full of wanted items, so whenever something popped up he had to push the button. And so far it had never failed. He didn’t always know where the stuff came from, but he didn’t really care as long as he could deliver and keep his customer satisfied. But somehow, this was the shady part of it. Somebody was doing the dirty work out there, and he took the profit. Most of it, anyway. But the other direction was even shadier. When there was some item coming his way, he had no way of knowing how the merchandise had turned up. He didn’t particularly like to think about that, but no matter, he was only a small pawn in a gigantic network and if he didn’t do it, somebody else would.
Now for the first time he had to get out there and personally get the stuff underway like any shipping clerk. He had a bad feeling about this.
It was dark and the roads were wet, but he knew where he was going. His black Honda was purring like a playful kitten between his legs. Not much traffic and no police in sight. It took him a quarter of an hour or so, and when he got there they were waiting for him. As he slid the little canister into the bag he thought he heard the word liver mentioned. But he didn’t really care what it was. As long as it brought home some bacon, he didn’t mind.
Then through the dark streets on the outskirts of Manchester again. Though he hadn’t done the actual transport before, the business from here was quite straightforward. The goods would go as a disguised express cargo shipped to the destination he had been given. The routine was simple.
His bike was like an extension of himself, like an extra part of his body that came to life when it was called for. Shooting through the dark streets. He was well above the speed limit, but the thrill of it made him smile behind the tinted visor of his helmet. And as he calculated the profit of the deal that was going down, it made him smile even more.
Road-block ahead: Diversion. He slowed down and carefully passed the flashing lights and followed the signs. Probably a road accident. Whenever he came across situations like that, or read about them in the paper he couldn’t help but think of the potential there. He lifted a hand to the men in fluorescent vests as he passed. The diversion had caused some congestion and would probably slow him down a little. Traffic was directed closer to the city centre which would mean more lights and more delays. He was getting impatient.
Then there was a crossing where he had to slow down, he overtook some cars in front of him and accelerated into the next street. His helmet slightly blocked his side vision, so he had to turn his head a fraction of a second to get a clear view up the street. And that was enough. The crash was unavoidable. He went full speed into a van that was backing into the street right in front of him.
After some long and silent minutes the ambulance and police came flashing through the night. The paramedics went about their business and the officers talked to the driver of the van.
“Not much blood here; if he survives he can thank his helmet,” one of the paramedics remarked. The other one was silent. Then the black bundle of a biker was loaded onto a stretcher and off they went, the sirens singing their wailing song through the dark and empty streets of Manchester.
At the casualty ward they were ready for him, and he was on the operating table less than thirty minutes after the crash. It didn’t take the doctors long to find out that his liver was smashed and he would die if they didn’t get a new one pretty soon. But there was no liver to get hold of.
In the street the police were cleaning up after the accident.
Consider these issues before you check “Find Out”
1. In what way do the setting and the plot complement each other?
In a short story the plot and the setting are usually carefully connected. Here, the protagonist is alone with his computer in his office late in the evening. He is driving through the dark and wet streets of suburban Manchester with “no police in sight”. It is dangerous, and he is running a shady business that belongs in the darkness.
2. Sum up the plot as briefly as possible.
This can be a bit tricky since in a plot summary one tends to include too many unnecessary details. A brief summing up of the plot here might be: A man is into dealing with human organs illegally, and when he is transporting a liver he crashes on his motorbike and dies because his liver is smashed.
3. How would you characterize the protagonist?
Characterization is an important element of a narrative; we base our impression of the characters on what they say, think or do. In this story the protagonist is continually convincing himself that what he is doing is not a nasty business, which indicates that he knows that is exactly what it is. He also makes excuses for himself by thinking that "if he didn't do it, somebody else would". Consequently, at the end we think that he got what he deserved.
4. Which symbolic elements do you see in the text?
He is into illegal dealing with human organs. The motorbike is described as an extra part of his body, and it is black. He also has a tinted visor, which emphasizes his anonymous and dodgy personality. He also has to go closer to the city centre which brings his dark and dirty dealings into the light, and to a messy end.
5. What do you suggest as a theme of the story?
The obvious theme is illegal organ trafficking. Another suggestion may be karma, since he has to pay for his ill-doings.
6. Where do you see irony in the story?
An ironic element is that the protagonist ends up needing the liver that is in the saddle-bag of his motorbike. It is also ironic that the accident is caused by his helmet blocking his side vision, whereas the paramedic says that “if he survives he can thank his helmet”. Another point is that he carries a liver that “will bring home some bacon”.
7. Do you see examples of foreshadowing?
Foreshadowing is when we get hidden suggestions of how things will turn out. In the story the protagonist is well above the speed limit, and he passes a road accident. He also has an uneasy and bad feeling at the beginning which clearly indicates that things most likely will go wrong. He is also dealing in “second-hand spare parts” which here has a double meaning.
8. Where are the turning point and the climax of the story?
Don’t mix turning point and climax. The turning point of a story is when the plot takes an unexpected turn. Here it is when he gets the phone call and has to do the delivery himself. The climax is when something dramatic happens that turns the tables completely, in this case the crash.
9. What is the twist at the end of the story?
The twist is that his nasty business and what could have saved his life are actually “cleaned up” by the police.
10. What is the narrative angle?
The narrative angle here is a limited 3rd person view. We only have information about what goes on and what the protagonist thinks and does.
11. Comment on the composition of the story.
After a brief exposition, we get background information in a short flashback, the rest is told chronologically. Note that we don’t get information about what actually goes on until mid-way through the story, still we have a growing feeling that something fishy is going on. This works well to build up suspense in the plot.
12. Do you see examples of other literary devices, e.g. alliteration or repetition?
Alliteration means words that begin with the same letter or sound, like “the black bundle of a biker” and “the sirens singing their wailing song”. Repetition is used to emphasize certain elements, for example “safe" and "lucrative” at the end of paragraph three and four. “Yellow brick road” is another example.
13. Comment on the title of the story. (Can you think of an alternative title?)
The title of a story will usually not make any sense until after you have read it. In this case the title indicates that it is something about buying and selling, which it is – but in a rather different sense than what one might expect.
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