The Award Ceremony

by Paul Raworth Bennett

Click here to listen along (the audio plays in a separate browser tab, so press “PLAY” and then return here to read along).

Thinking briefly that he was dreaming – that he wasn’t in that packed theatre after all – Remy leaned forwards in his seat, grasped the sides of his walker, and rose unsteadily. Softly taking her husband’s forearm, Anaïs began to stand as well.

“I’m okay. Really, I’ll be fine”, he gently admonished her.

Anaïs understood how important it was for him to prevail over his painful, failing legs. In this triumphant, heroic moment he didn’t need them, or anything, or anyone, anymore.  And although he felt a little awkward in the suit she’d convinced him to wear, in all the years she’d known Remy she’d never seen him look more strong or shine more brightly.

His veined, knobby hands gripping the walker, Remy shuffled twenty feet towards the small staircase leading up to the stage. Eleven hundred pairs of eyes followed him, and far above in the upper seats, a lone cough pierced the quiet hum of the ceiling fans.

Reaching the base of the stairs, Remy pushed the walker aside, gripped the two polished rails, and slowly ascended. He wobbled on the top step as the young emcee hurried rushed over to offer his hand.

“Not to worry, young fella! I’ve got this!” The old man regained his balance.

Anaïs chuckled, her husband’s reflection in her watery eyes. She wasn’t surprised by this moment of pluck; he’d spent a lifetime conquering dissolving staircases far more challenging than this one.

An usher lifted the walker up to the stage and Remy completed his five-minute, fifty-foot journey to the lectern. He surveyed a sea of silent faces while the emcee looked down at his notes, cleared his throat, and began.

“Dr. Remy Odyssus, it is the Academy’s honor to recognize you for your numerous, unprecedented, and exemplary accomplishments as a war-zone photojournalist, embedded with our nation’s military during highly dangerous operations.  Your unforgettable images and videos have created widespread public awareness of the devastation of war and of the tremendous courage and resilience of people who have lost literally everything.  Therefore, it is with great pleasure that we award you the Robert Capa Prize for a lifetime of photojournalistic excellence.”

The young man turned to the old man and handed him a glass-framed certificate.  Its several pounds of heft were nothing compared to the heavy metal shackles against which Remy had struggled for almost his entire life.

He briefly wondered whether starting his photojournalism career in his forties really qualified him for any kind of lifetime achievement award – but then he reminded himself how his life had really only begun, after several self-destructive decades, when he finally allowed himself to follow his heart into photojournalism.

“Dr. Odyssus, while you’re up on the stage, would you kindly pose for a few media photos? It should only take a few seconds.”

“Okay” whispered Remy, who normally shunned the limelight.  Standing woodenly, clutching his certificate in one hand and gripping his walker with the other, he faced a wall of clicks and flashes.

Suddenly his heart leapt into his throat, he gasped slightly, and his body began to shake. Desperate to retain his dignity, Remy somehow managed to keep control, to transform the waves of anxiety rolling through him into a sniffle and two salty trickles.

“Is this really happening?” he questioned himself, “or is this a dream?”  Despite being published and honored and featured and feted more times than he could remember, Remy still battled the evil twins of self-doubt and self-loathing.

Regaining his composure, Remy relaxed and smiled again – but as soon as his eyes could refocus on the adulating crowd, he spotted at front-row-centre someone he’d known for sixty years but hadn’t actually seen for thirty.

Face’s dead eyes bore two holes in Remy’s chest, filling it with darkness and fear, and his blank face slowly turned back and forth, from left to right. A suffocating feeling descended upon the old man, who felt like a bird whose wings are being clipped for the thousandth time.

The audience leapt to its feet, filling the room with deafening applause – but Remy could only hear Face’s sinister voice.

“You know something, Remy? You’re right – you are dreaming, and none of this is actually happening” the voice hissed. “You don’t deserve this. You are a failure, a fraud. ”

His knees buckling, Remy was overcome by a wave of nausea and the searing sensation, felt countless times before, of a knife being plunged slowly into his heart.

“Go back to hell! You evil, rotten bastard! ” he blurted, “You have no power over me!!”

Hundreds of hands rose towards hundreds of gasping mouths. The young emcee rushed to pull a chair towards the shaking old man, who was gripping his walker with an almost destructive force.

“Dr. Odyssus? Would you like to sit down? Please!”

“No, thank you young man, I’ll be just fine. I’m so sorry, I just… I just… Please forgive me.”

The shocked audience wondered at this surprise burst of anger. He’d never acted like this before! Was he paranoid, delusional, losing his mind? But then most of them realized that erratic behavior was a hallmark of artistic genius, so the atmosphere quickly lightened again.

And besides, anger wasn’t such a bad thing after all. Expressing one’s emotions was healthy, and Remy had spent most of his life silently screaming from the outside in.

He forced his eyes to confront Face – but Face had fled. Strength flooded back into Remy’s body, chasing away the shivers and the pain. The old man steadied himself and stood up straight, and Anaïs’ eyes watered anew.

Fishing out a linen pocket square, Remy dried his cheeks smiled again towards the clicks, flashes, and a crescendo of applause.  But it was anyone’s guess where and when Face might next appear.

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