Well, that's the end of issue 3 of the NFFD journal, FlashFlood. We have had a huge range of stories, and I hope you have enjoyed reading them. Don't worry if you haven't had a chance to read them all, as the stories will stay up for you to read at your leisure.
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In the meantime, we are now looking for stories for our anthology. It's 4 weeks until the deadline, so plenty of time to put fingers to keyboards and send us a story or two. All details are on the NFFD website at www.nationalflashfictionday.co.uk.
So, until then, enjoy the stories and keep flashing!
All the best from The FlashFlood Editors.
Friday, 19 April 2013
The crying’s the hardest. Every night. For hours.
It’s just me and him, now that my wife’s gone. I’m not bad at the bathing or dressing or hair brushing, but the crying… We have a routine at bedtime. He likes routine. Teeth, pyjamas, warm milk, sleep. Except he doesn’t sleep, not for long.
Today was a six out of ten day. I managed to wash the bedding and finally fit that stair gate. He’s started coming out onto the landing at night, and the thought of him falling…
I guess this stuff comes naturally to some people. To women. He follows me everywhere; I can’t even pee in peace. Oh, and the food. One day it’s finger foods, the next day it has to be puréed. I snapped today. Threw the whole bloody lot in the bin. And that look in his eyes… I took him into the garden and we sat and watched the birds. He loves watching birds.
That’s him now. I’d better go up.
As I open the door, ammonia air hits me. I wash him, change him, change the sheets, tuck him back in. I turn off the lamp. He begins to whimper.
‘Please! Just sleep!’
I slump down, hum a lullaby that my dad used to sing. Why can’t I be patient like him? He soothed me to sleep, nursed me through chickenpox, picked me up after broken hearts. Always there for me, such a kind and gentle man.
The room is silent. I stand. Another whimper.
I raise my hand and even in the darkness he knows. I collapse to my knees, hug him tightly, rocking, both of us sobbing now, both of us appalled at what we have become.‘I’m sorry,’ I tell him. ‘I’m so sorry, Dad. I love you.’
[First published in A Flash of Fiction the 2012 Worcestershire Literary Festival anthology. ]
At the edge of the lake, a man bends to dip his fingers in the water. He brings them to his mouth and sucks. The water is bitter and leaves a salty aftertaste. Nearby on the shore, a fish carcass rots; its tail frayed, skin withered and wet. Dead eyes stare up at the baking sun. The man spits, turns from the water and retreats to a bench. He used to sit here as a child, eating dry sandwiches and fishing the summers through. It’s been a while since he visited and he’s sure he remembers things differently.
Everyone keeps talking about the weather. There's other news of course: a couple who have gone missing with the proceeds of a charity auction; an elderly lady bludgeoned to death in her bungalow; a cabinet minister photographed in a seedy night-club with his secretary. Lisa leans back against her pillow and wonders if that even counts as news.
But it's the weather that everybody seems interested in. The third bout of snow since New Year, and this time there has been chaos. Not just in the Highlands of Scotland where, let's face it, the people are more prepared, more resourceful and are actually expecting to be snowed-in once in a while. No, this time there has been chaos in places more often associated with sunny photos in holiday brochures. She knows of a friend caught in a blizzard, who left her car and togged up in all-weather gear walked to safety. It was a week before they dug the car out.
For Lisa, the weather has been a distraction. Propped up in her sixth-floor hospital bed, she has watched the world beneath her turn into some snow-globe image of the city she knows.
Around her, patients have come and gone. Often the weather has been to blame. An elderly man, who had slipped on the icy steps by the Arndale. A woman who was cut from an overturned car. A teenager knocked down when crossing the road, her turned-up hood obliterating her view of the oncoming van. Each has their own story, and over the past few weeks most of the tales have been about the weather.
Lisa would like hers to be the same. She too would like to be able to blame something (an unseen pothole) or someone (a councillor who voted against spreading salt on the pavements) but she knows it was her fault. If only she'd got the steps out instead of climbing on that chair. If only.
The porter comes to collect her in the wheelchair.
'Time for physio,' he says, cheerfully. 'Come on. It gets better ever day. It's always the first steps that are the hardest.'
He's talking about the physical ones, of course. The pain in a limb, the strain on a muscle.
Lisa nods. She knows there is nobody to blame but herself. She accepts that now. It wasn't the uneven floor. Or the wonky leg. It was her and her impatience. And accepting that, she knows she's on the way to recovery.
'Yes,' she says. 'The first steps always are.'
She worked every night until she had built a planet. She added snowy, glittering peaks of joy and lethargic seas of sorrow. She cut rivers leaping with silver fish of hope and lined them with soft ferns of forgetting. Somewhere near the equator, on a green and misty landmass, she glued a house, but before she pressed it into the bosom of its own valley, she drew her heart on the bottom, secret in the foundations.
As she walked to the park, slowly, for she had not exercised in the weeks of building and her legs felt weak, she let the planet bob behind her on a long ribbon tied around its waist. She found him on the bench where they had sat so often.
“I have brought you a gift,” she said.
“What is it?” He looked down at her pockets and into her eyes, searching.
“Can’t you see?” she replied. He glanced at the ground, then, spattered with wet leaves.
“I’ve nothing for you,” he said. “I tried, but I couldn’t get it right.”
She felt the wind tugging at the planet and drew it closer to her, until it hovered over her lap. She put her arms around it and hugged it. “I made this for you,” she said, and let her cheek rest against the grass of the rolling landmass, just beside the house that hid her heart.
His smile then was nervous. She let go of the planet and put the end of the ribbon in his hand, and as he stared down into his palm the ribbon slid across it like a river and the planet juddered and then sailed upwards, over the trees, until it was no larger in her eye than a lost balloon, and then it was gone.
Silently seething she opened her backpack and began shoving her stuff back into it. With each item her hand was quicker to get it over with and by now she’d begun to sigh dramatically. She looked up, briefly, to make sure he heard or saw her, and preferably both. He did.
He crossed his arms. ‘Are you going to tell me what this is about?’ he asked in a half cross, half amused tone.
‘You already know.’
‘No, I don’t. I wouldn’t ask if I did.’
‘Don’t give me that. You always have all the answers. I’m pretty sure you can figure this out all by yourself.’
‘Okay, so you’re still mad.’
‘No shit, Sherlock.’
‘Mad, why? What did I do?’ He gestured rather wildly with his arms to indicate he had no clue. Yeah, that really needed to be visualised.
‘What did you do? Lemme see…’ She zipped up her backpack and spun around to face him. ‘You show up literally fif-teen years after I last saw or heard from you. Fifteen years since you heard me say that I might just… you know… like you – in that way. Fifteen years after you basically told me “no thanks, but hey, good news – I kinda dig your best friend”. Fifteen years after you swore we’d stay friends, we’d never ever lose touch.’
‘So it’s the fifteen years that bother you?’ He attempted it as a joke, but he so should have known better.
‘It’s the complete silence, the abandonment, the kick when I was down that bother me, you ass,’ she said without blinking or blushing. For which she gave herself a mental pat on the back. ‘It’s the fact that you show up here without so much as an explanation or an apology, and you bloody well expect to pick things up wherever you think we left off.’ She swallowed a loudly exclaimed ‘are you insane?’ and attempted a deep breath instead.
He shrugged his shoulders.
Nah. She couldn’t hold it in. ‘Are you fucking insane?’
‘What?’ He asked in an innocent voice. ‘I didn’t change.’
‘I wouldn’t know.’ She crossed her arms and stared him down. ‘I wouldn’t know, because I haven’t heard from you in fifteen years.’
‘You can take my word for it. I haven’t changed, I swear.’
‘Your word means nothing to me. Not anymore.’
‘You’re still mad.’
‘And you’re insane. Looks like we’re at a stalemate here.’
It's only stuff really, she tells herself: her nan's old sofa, three years worth of book club selections, plastic spatulas, potted plants and work shirts.
In the end she takes almost nothing - she can't think straight and it’s too difficult to rank things on a scale of their importance. In the end she only opts for a change of underwear, a cup-a-soup, the A-Z. He'd put the hammer down by now, though he may still be shouting. She can't hear anything except a word in her head that drowns all others: leave! Everything else is instinctive, like an animal in flight... and what animal stops for their favourite shoes, the wedding photographs?
It makes you stronger, she will tell herself later, to know you're not tied down by possessions, places, people. The first album you ever bought, that dress, your tatty teddy bear – they are just things that pass in front of you as if on a conveyor belt in that 1970’s game show. And you only get to keep the things you can think of in those two minutes.
Michael visits his father’s study alone after school, while his mother drinks Liebfraumilch in the kitchen. He sits on the squashy vinyl cushion of the high stool and plays with the drawing board. A thick ruler presses down on the drawings, kept in place by heavy steel weights on cables, which he zips up and down. If a drawing is left on the board he recites his father’s immaculate labelling, ”Front Elevation, French Windows, Catslide Roof.”
The room smells of ink, Old Spice and pipe smoke. Professional pencils, metal claws furled, wait to grip lead and create. Michael holds to his cheek white rubbers that don’t dry up like those at school, but remain waxy and cool. On the desk, at the level of his nose, an acrid pipe reclines in a heavy glass ashtray next to a tin of tobacco, a box of Ship matches and a bundle of white pipe cleaners held together by a paper band. He whispers the labels, “Quink, Helix, Faber-Castell, Staedtler Mars Pan-Technico, Player’s Whisky Ready Rubbed.”
One Sunday morning he enters the study and stands by the desk. His father perches at the drawing board, the leather elbow patch of his brown cardigan leans on the plans for a new shopping centre. His other hand holds a pen, poised above the paper like a surgeon’s scalpel.
Michael looks out of the window, hoping his father will ask him to open the desk drawer, where there is a yellow tin of Parkinson’s Old Fashioned English Humbugs. He wants to prise the lid with a penny and dig into the welded sweets with his fingers.
He stares across the desk, through the window, past the patio and down to the elm trees, where burning leaves belch billows of smoke. A stillness drifts into his heart, revealing the end of this world and a future in which one day his father will die. Michael cries for grief to come and for his own death.
His father speaks. “Fancy a humbug Michael?”
My son was standing on the other side of the road, hands in his pockets, shoulders shrugged up to his ears from the cold. His cap was showing from under his hoodie, I couldn’t see his eyes and didn’t know if he had seen me. I guess he had, because he was good at noticing things around him, but he wouldn’t make a sign and I knew he wouldn’t refer to it afterwards. I crossed over and stood a little way off seeing him in the reflection of the shop window opposite but not actually confronting him. The shop had a display of mirrors and I could see his broken image clearly, I don’t think he would think of seeing me this way. I was glad to see his case was safely behind him away from the shoppers milling in the High Street.
Kadie walked quickly past me; preoccupied with her-self as always, she wouldn’t have spotted me. She was walking at a little run, like a little bird, sharply and delicately moving towards their meeting place. I saw her mouth the words of greeting and Tom’s body language showed he was relieved and happy to see her, though I didn’t think they had a romantic relationship. They hugged in a brother sister way. They put their cases together against the shop window. Her case was much smaller but she had two bags as well. She is far more organised than Tom.
They stood in the shelter of the shops overhang and seem to be laughing over something. I was so pleased to see him relaxed like this; it had been a few months since he had laughed at home. They were waiting for the final member of the team, Joe. It took another three minutes before he appeared. He stopped beside me to say ‘Hello’ and asking politely how I was. He really was a lovely boy but I saw Tom head go up and a frown appear. So I warmly greeted Joe as though it was an accident I was there, and made to leave the area.
I guessed I gave it three minutes before coming back to the street. This time I couldn’t see them and made sure there were no points of reflection they could see me through. I could hear them though.
The music from the three instruments was imposing. Brass has a history of sounding over the noise of battle and these three were doing justice to that tradition in this years Christmas sales. They started with Purcell and continued playing for nearly one hour. Tom’s trombone playing was as superb as I remembered it, mellow and controlled. As he refused to practise at home now, I hadn’t heard him play for several months. The maturity he demonstrated in his playing was missing in his relationship with his family.
Not looking at them I walked past and dropped a rolled up money note in their hat. It’s all I had he wanted.
I can’t wash the sheets, make the bed, or even fluff the pillows: if I do, you’ll be gone forever. The soft, lightly sour smell of your unwashed hair, sweaty skin and morning breath is delicately stitched into the fabric of the bedclothes. One wash and you’ll disappear. I snuggle down next to the hollow left in the mattress by your absent back, big-spooned against me in the twilight; drink deep of your smell, pray it lingers. If I’d known you would not come home again, I would have short-sheeted you with my limbs and kissed you back to sleep.
“I wish my car was as dirty as your wife,” David sobs.
I eye him suspiciously. I have never been married.
David sends me a postcard. The text on the front says: Wish You Were Her! Beneath is a picture of the Titanic sinking, passengers drowning. Iceberg hulking. On the flipside the postcard’s surface is reflective. The tiny embossed font reads: You Are Not Here.
David takes me to a restaurant. We wait to be seated in a space designed to look like a doctor’s surgery reception, the walls adorned with posters warning of the dangers of chlamydia and offering advice on living with irritable bowel syndrome.
Our waiter leads us to our adjoining workstations. Runs through the standard pre-meal tech checks.
“Gentlemen, here at The Lab we pride ourselves on delivering the finest haute cuisine dining experience available on the planet,” he says. “And to aid you with locating and enjoying your meal and indulging in all of its sensory pleasures, we are delighted to offer you, at no additional charge, use of the Hitachi SU3500 Scanning Electron Microscope.
“A new dimension in electron microscopy, the Hitachi SU3500 SEM features novel and innovative electron optics and signal detection systems affording unparalleled imaging and analytical performance.
“You’ll be able to savour your meal from every angle using the low-vacuum observation method the Hitachi SEM series is renowned for, but now you’ll also benefit from a completely overhauled electron optics system, enabling secondary electron imaging at a resolution of 7 nanometres at 3 kilovolts, and back-scattered electron imaging at a resolution of 10 nanometres at 5 kilovolts.
“I’ll leave you to peruse the menu and get acquainted with the equipment. I’ll be back to take your orders shortly.”
I choose the lamb. It looks amazing through the microscope. Mouth-watering when magnified. David has the sea bass.
We run our tongues over our plates, hoping our tastebuds will prove sensitive enough to savour what The Times reviewer described as “the culinary equivalent of an angel dancing on the head of a pin, or perhaps a teenage nocturnal emission; exquisite and fleeting, suggestive of a power beyond our feeble reckoning”. But my palate, damaged through years of uncultured oral abuse, detects only the lingering hint of pine-scented dishwashing liquid.
David says his meal is delicious. Hides in the bathroom while the bill arrives.
“I like my women the way I like my coffins,” David whispers. “Without my grandfather inside them.”
I eye him suspiciously. His house parties suggest otherwise.
David sends me a postcard. The text on the front says: Life’s A Beach! Beneath is a picture of a women’s volleyball match in action. One of the sandy players has a broken, bleeding nose. On the flipside is a white skull and crossbones on a black background. The tiny embossed font reads: From The Office Of The Prime Minister.
The post-box was right outside her front gate. She shut the front door behind her and walked over to it. She looked at the letter in her hand. Her address was beautifully written and the stamp completely symmetrical. She allowed the letter to slip through the void and heard it slump into the dark. For some reason she had brought her purse. She looked at it. Money, cards, receipts, photos of her kids. She posted that too and started walking
It was late, when we stood in a field, with fifty cows. The bull, you said, was two fields down, and you thought it would be funny to let it in this one. I wouldn’t let you. You, who listens to me sing without laughing. Which isn’t easy.
Earlier, when it was light, I sat on your lap while you sat on a picnic table. You came up with lines to let him down with. I liked ‘Let’s just be friends,’ emphasis on ‘for now,’ and ‘I’m unboyfriendable.’ You told me it’s from a song, but you wouldn’t sing it. It wasn’t late enough and you needed more to drink.
Later, in the field, with the cows, we lay down, somewhere we guessed was centre, though is sure to have been off. You said it was the most women you’d slept next to, not just in one night, but always.
‘Me too,’ I said, and you laughed.
‘But you’re not next to any women,’ you told me.
‘I thought you meant the cows,’ I said. ‘The cows are all girls.’
After the lines about the cows, that made you laugh, that shouldn’t have, I thought how I could never use that line on the boy I was meant to, and I couldn’t keep him hanging on either. You fell asleep before I could get you to come up with other options.
The next day we found the bull, three fields down, not two.
‘Not much to do, on his own, is there?’ you said.
‘Too much in the other field though, really.’
I told you then I couldn’t tell the other boy I didn’t want to be with him, with the lines we’d come up with. You thought I meant I chose him, which wasn’t it, Pétur. It really wasn’t.
‘This is where we leave it then,’ you said to me, ‘One wanting to give it a try, and the other, not brave, with not enough charming lines to get them out of dates they said they’d go on.’
So I stood, in that field with one bull, thinking how, three fields down, he had so much choice, but he didn’t know it.
The shavings curled off the plane as it glided along the curve of the wood. Each one dropped to the floor of his workshop with the silence of snow, collecting around his ankles in a drift.
Philip glanced up at the clock as he worked, checking the minute hand as it swept towards midnight. He needed to get this finished and he needed to do it right.
He fit the joints together, and they married perfectly. The craft was right and the pieces slotted in place. He assembled the box with swift ease and then wiped it over with an oil-soaked rag until it shone. Another rag and another wipe and the box was finished.
A layer of red silk and a moment more to insert the gift, and it was complete.
He carried it out of the workshop and into the house just as the clock started to strike.
Margaret was waiting on the sofa as instructed, her eyes closed.
"Is that you?" she asked as he approached.
"Who else would it be, ya daft thing?" he replied and placed the heart-shaped box into her hands.
Looking back I’m glad I was kind to him at the time.
At least I think I was, in the now, not later, not retrospectively.
Standing at the school gates in his Navy uniform, Percy seemed to have found his legs.
Back then you could leave school at 15, sort of age when you know exactly what you want to do with the rest of your life.
At school Percy was all at sea.
On his last day, cast off, he simply sailed away.
It has to be said (does it?) he wasn’t the brightest boy.
Some of our more direct brethren used the words Percy and plank in the same sentence.
He wasn’t aloof, self-contained, a self –appointed loner;
he was lonely – there is a difference – isolated, lost.
I never knew why, who was responsible, if the responsibility was his or others and to what ratio.
Do people choose to be alone? Really?
I can see his last day now,
that defeated walk of his, off course.
There were not many waves for Percy.
Three years elapsed before any messages from him were picked up
but to be direct not that many were on his wavelength.
It was my last day by that time too.
There was a cluster round the gates:
Percy came into view. He seemed taller but it was the way he stood, to attention, making the most of what there was.
He passed his white hat round, polaroids emerged
and to cap it all, flares were in that year.
Janie, my wife, says I may have made a few off-colour comments to some of you during our Christmas ‘do’ on Friday evening and I’d like to offer my sincere apologies to each of you.
Specifically, she says I should say sorry to Helen Cardyke from accounts. I’d like to assure you that contrary to your name, you are most likely not a raging lesbian who preys on the female clerks who work beside you. Wearing a trouser suit to work every day is not indicative of a sexual preference. Even if it was, it doesn’t mean you deserved to have your trousers pulled down in front of the M.D. during the Dashing White Sergeant, with a suggestion to get together with him and his good wife for a bit of double-entry you wouldn’t forget in a hurry.
I should also apologise to Sir Hugh and his lady wife, Jemima. I’m sorry if this suggestion offended either of you, but given that I then went on to tell Jemima that she could do better than an aging old fart in a suit that first saw light of day when Doris Day was a virgin, perhaps by this time you were past caring.
By the way, Sir Hugh, great choice of hotel. I was very impressed by the mile-long driveway and found it really difficult to pee on every bush along its length. Difficult, but given the amount of beer I put away, not impossible.
To the design team, I’d like to offer my assurance that I don’t really think my six-year old son could do better using nothing more than his crayons and Winnie The Pooh stencil set. I’m sure there is a lot more involved in your work than join-the-dots and colouring in and that if you tried, you certainly could keep within the lines.
I’m not entirely sure where to start apologising to everyone in Goods Inward and the warehouse. Ian, Santa would be very lucky indeed to have you in his toy warehouse, even if you did have to call the other elves lofty. Size means nothing, says Janie, and she would like me to assure you that she would know.
Helen, HR is a very important department. Your people skills are exemplary and any suggestions I may have made to the contrary are unfounded. I retract the implication HR is staffed by a group of hysterical she-bots whose idea of bolstering staff morale involved a cut in pay and quick kick up the arse on the way out.
Finally, I regret my parting comment that we were a third rate company and that all they we’d get for Christmas was our P45s wrapped up in pages from the financial times smeared with the excrement of the management team. Always assuming they had any left after all the shite they had been telling us all year.
I hope you all have a fun filled Christmas and, if I may make a suggestion for next year, could we not bring our spouses as Janie has been nipping my head all weekend.