24 Nov 2014

Flash Fiction lunch break again.


Again, I was given the title. Last week, actually, and it hung around my neck like an albatross so today it gets cooked up.  Could have gone a zillion ways, but it's free-style.

The Albatross

We were born with the curse of the albatross, says my uncle, who too sleeps on the wing. We soar through life half awake, half asleep, here and not here.
            “Would you like to go to the play about the man looking for answers,” asks my girlfriend as I gaze out of the kitchen window. Everyone on this floor of the tower block is high, but I am higher, among the clouds. 
            “You know. Jamie told us about it. The one where the protagonist has to decide on the price to pay for everything he uses in 24 hours, and then there’s that accident…”
            I have a film between me and my girl. It’s like a gauze or membrane, and it means I never really see her, never really feel her and never care much if we’re together or apart. She doesn’t know this, of course, because I enjoy her company and I would rather she not dump me. Then I would need to find a new flat, new friends, get a damage deposit together… Oh, I can’t be bothered to think about it.
            “We’re not great thinkers,” says my uncle. “We’re not great doers either.”
            “Rob,” says my girlfriend. “Are you with me?”
            Well, I suppose I am, physically. It’s raining again, and the droplets dart diagonally. Down there I can see the garages, the car park, the shops, the faint glow of the Overground station.
            “You’re meant to be stirring the beans,” she says, nipping under my arm to take the wooden spatula. She flicks her long nails against my earlobe to get my attention but the pain is dull. I focus anyway, to avoid a fight. She’s pretty, if you care for pretty girls, and I’m surprised to see she has green eyes. I’m living with a girl with green eyes. Who knew.
            There’s a thump, then, against the window, and we both look around. This is the second time a bird has crashed into that pane since we moved in, four months ago or whenever.
            “I looked it up,” says Carla. Her name is Carla, my girlfriend. “They’re busy looking for moving objects down below so they make mistakes in flight.”

            “They’re busy looking for moving objects down below so they make mistakes,” said Carla, earlier. We’ve eaten dinner and it comes back to me, and I feel like there’s some kind of importance to that line but I’m not sure what it is. We were talking about something before. I don’t know what.

13 Nov 2014

Flash fiction lunch break


I always think it's easier to write a bit of Flash Fiction when someone gives you a title. I managed to coerce my boyfriend to text me one as a lunchtime tonic. Always the cheery one, him :)

Grey Clouds Coming.

Tabitha, who was pink through-and-through, took her pink Barbie toothbrush from the cup and brushed her sparkling pegs, mounted in pink, shiny gums. She spat out the toothpaste, made pink from the blood of a lost milk tooth, and went to Mummy for some pink lipstick. So long as she’d eaten her bran and apple, brushed her teeth and hair, and pulled the pink duvet up to her bed’s chin, she was allowed to wear a little bit of ‘Wink for Pink’ lipstick, but only on a Saturday.

Daddy was khaki through-and-through. He’d explained to Tabitha that the mossy patches on his uniform were called camouflage, but sometimes Tabitha remembered this wrongly as cauliflower. Daddy wasn’t around very often to correct her.

Mummy had been different lately. Mummy was blue. She stared out of the window with tears streaming down her cheeks. She cried more than Bethany, the class cry-baby, or Finn, who was two. 
She wasn’t one to judge, but Tabitha found it a bit silly. Tabitha was in Year 3 now and the last time she cried was when Daddy went back. Daddy was always either coming back or going back. That’s what Tabitha thought, as she rummaged through Mummy’s make-up bag. 
She felt much more put together when she had a pink smile.


9 Sep 2014

Two Days, One Night (Deux Jours, Une Nuit) Review

Well, why not. We all have reviews going round our heads, huh? I did the obligatory going to the pub after watching this to talk it through, and my fellow cinema-goer said he thought it would take no more than half a pint.

"I should have hated it, but I didn't," he said. "But I didn't really care about it, either." 

Now I'm going to write exactly that, in a lot more words (though you can stop reading now if you prefer the abridged version).

We watched it because: We care about ordinary people struggling in an economic down-turn, but mainly because of Time Out's review: 'Most importantly, the film involves us: it draws us into the debate, makes us complicit, demands that we have an opinion, and then upends that same opinion a few minutes later. It's engaging and rousing.'

Two Days, One Night: Not an ordinary film



Sandra is signed off work with depression, but before she is able to return and remind the solar panel company of her value, colleagues vote to lose her in favour of keeping their bonus. She has a weekend to convince them to vote again, and this time, for her to keep her job.

I came to this film without the background a Dardenne Bros aficionado might benefit from, though I did see and love The Kid with a Bike. I know that their forte is thoughtful but bleak social realism, depicting the marginalised through a philosophical lens that makes meaningful fables of fringe life in industrial Belgian communities. It’s not the social realism I object to, but in the case of Two Days, One Night, a wilful lack of realism in other areas.

With every word that might be considered extra cut from exchanges leaving just the barest of expression between one actor and another, it’s like the directors loomed over the cast saying: don’t smile, don’t laugh, even less expression, pull it back. Forget comedy and tragedy being bedfellows. 

Each character is a wisp of a full person, and whilst I love being flattered with the task of filling in the gaps, I didn’t feel there were enough pegs around the board. The characters can be distilled to four statements repeated on a loop:
Sandra: Someone said Jean-Marc influenced the others. Dumont said there could be another vote on Monday
Manu: You can do it, Sandra.
Employees (1): I feel sorry, but I didn’t ask for this. We need my bonus for my… (house/ baby/ electricity…) What do the others say?
Employees (2): I feel sorry, but I didn’t ask for this. I’m not voting against you, I’m voting for my bonus. I earned that money!

Of course you don’t always need a lot of words to make an impact, but I struggled to understand the value of such sparse abstraction. The best part is when Sandra’s friend Timur breaks down from the guilt of having voted against her; the worst part is when Sandra, Manu and Anne sing ‘Rock music’ in the car, breaking away from the film’s rigidity in an uncomfortable manner before returning to their trajectories. When Sandra takes an overdose, a real Manu would have had a more impassioned reaction, but this Manu had to stick to his lines: "You can do it, Sandra."

I thought Marion Cotillard was artful with the material and things rumbled along in a not unpleasantly soporific way, with tiny smiles or face twitches adding much-needed respite. However, the structure and idea had so much promise for depth that I find it hard to forgive the constricted focus and lack of liveliness.  

For me, this film required too much off-camera gap-filling in order to credit it with the monumental substance some reviewers have found in it. I’m a little sick of that technique since Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene wound me up.  

I know that less can often be more, but sometimes less is just less, and I think that allowing the characters to have an ordinary level of personality would have made a good idea into a wonderful movie.

24 Jul 2014

You never leave Willow Lane - a 2013 short story


Halted at a crossing, I was mid huff when I saw it. I’ll admit I’m one for looking into other people’s windows anyway, and had been devouring the titbits the half-drawn curtains allowed, when, jolt, I spied something worrying as we waited at the traffic lights.

My stomach flipped with recognition. I was staring into the solemn glass eye of a Georgian townhouse. Well, you may know the route of the 38 bus – down Essex Road, Balls Pond Road, Dalston Junction – it’s not like Georgian townhouses are rare, but this one offered up a scene I had seen before, in my past. This was familiar, mine.

Not similar, but exactly the same – the row of mismatched tea cups on a long, tatty shelf, the hanging pans, grubby Belfast sink, the French mustard walls, postcards stuck to the fridge with magnets, rise-and-fall lamp pulled down low, bulb nosing the Farmhouse table.

The darkness and the light. Motes beckoning with dazzling winks.

Fancy that, I thought, craning my neck to look longer as the bus pulled off. That house looks exactly the same as Willow Lane. A trumpeting gramophone, a lengthy oak mirror in the French style, and even an Eames lounge chair for Dr Claw’s cat, flat-faced and evil, biding his time. There he pads, flicky tail, over the floorboards and then ripped from sight.

Well, it’s hard to forget something so curious, and each time I blinked that evening, there was that picture burned into my retinas. A house that from the outside was on the end of a terrace, with a neat front garden the size of a paddling pool and a shiny brass doorknob, but from the inside looked exactly the same as Willow Lane. Different city and time; same postcard.   

In bed, head on pillow, I imagined exploring the house I’d seen, through the front door and straight up some wooden, rickety stairs. There was my room, straight ahead, with the sage walls my mother and I painted whilst we listened to Radio 4 plays, and my duvet and pillow, veined with smudged blood, sheets of dust on the dresser (the house spewed dust) and the nail in the floorboards I’d impaled my foot on. I was there for a couple of years – a burgeoning misfit passing through, like the others who hung their own oil paintings, made mobiles from origami, had sex this way and that way with this one and that one and left milk to turn to cheese in the fridge door. Mainly, it was a night-time house, appreciated best in candlelight.  Sipping whisky from a tumbler after hours, you could fancy you were in 1830, a bona fide libertine or broad. How we pickled ourselves, but despite that, the memories are shard-sharp. I wonder if they are for the others.

And so I walked around, in my mind, trailing finger across surfaces until I’d remembered every inch, nibble in the skirting, notch on the headboard. Even when sleeping, I dreamt of the wood. So much wood.

It became a game, first identifying the copycat house again (where had it been exactly?) and looking in, if the curtains allowed, if I had a window seat on the right side of the bus. Sometimes it was too dark in there to make out any more than shapes and shadows, but on a sunny day, with the back of the house open to the graveyard, I could clearly see the same things as that first time – the tea cups, the gramophone, the mirror.

I juggled with this concern, among others (men, work, whims, worries), tossing it up and down. I bounced it against the wall down by the garages, under one leg, overarm, chasing it under a car when it went wayward.

I could have let it be, but instead I shaped it into a clockwork toy, wound it up and set it on its way. After all, my relationships were floundering, my writing had become a wasteland, and I was as bored as bread. In the dead of night, I imagined my monkey-playing-cymbals rattling over the empty pavements from my flat to the house, stopping at the path, cymballing ‘sh sh sh’ on arrival.

*

Across from the Willow Lane-type house is: a Methodist church, laundrette, café, bike shop, charity shop, haberdashery, specialist travel agent, but of course, you’re up on this because you chose the house for your family to live in so must have staked out the neighbourhood good and proper. I know, because you’ve told me since, that the primary school is rated ‘Good with outstanding features’ and though you’d not say so yourself, this matters because you can already detect a wayward glint in Celia’s hazel eyes; you’re concerned she’ll open her legs for kicks, like she flicks elastic bands at the cat, not quite wanting to hit it, but seeing how far she can wind the spring anyway. You won’t like that I’ve seen her do that. I’ve seen her pick her nose, dig her nails deep into her brother’s skin and shave her own arm with daddy’s razor. Of course, I advised against these pursuits like a babysitter should.

She’ll be a better person for knowing me. I tell her the truth, you see – treat her like an adult – when you just purr ‘darling’ at her, through a mouth full of chrysanthemums.

I decided to interpret your house, laid out just like Willow Lane, as a message. It took some lying to myself, at first, not believing in the supernatural by nature. It’s a sign, just for me, I blinked, trying to force thoughts of coincidence and chaos from my mind. But, it was mine, you must realise. It was a scene from my past; and you became my future, didn’t you, so nobody can argue it wasn’t all for me; all mine to take. Never look a gift horse in the mouth, daaahling.

*

I went out with this guy once who luxuriated next to me in the soiled sheets of my Willow Lane bed, port having temporarily discoloured the tips of our teeth, and said: ‘It turns me on to zoom out on this; to see your room as a set, above the houses without roofs on, to see people in rooms, in the road, in the city, and there’s us, insignificant’. I thought about that a lot when I moved to London.

I thought, here’s me in my bed, alone. Here are my limbs, prickling the sheets with two-day stubble. There’s the window, not double-glazed, letting cold fox breath pool around the window seals, coiling through the room and tunnelling into my earholes to make them ache by the morning. Behind the internal walls, a paunchy man in his forties; two eastern Europeans, overeducated for the menial jobs they do to stay in London; the empty room someone stays in on business trips; the guy with a shaved head who looks after his giggle-pot of a toddler on weekends. And outside the windows (sixteen of them in the building I estimate) the street with two hundred similar abodes, stacked like a bullet belt.

And at least six other roads branching off this one, and more off those – ribbons of roads, millipedes of train tracks, over 250 underground stations; 8 million people. Look down on Hackney, look down on the East, look down on the North of the Thames, look down on the area inside the M25. Insignificant me. Remote, ineffectual, impotent.

I’ve known people more isolated than me by far. At least my eyes shine in conversation so people want to give me their phone numbers, and I’ve always said, if you find yourself by yourself, make things happen. Go to night classes, read in bars, smile! The Willow Lane connection, whether small or big (certainly not commonplace) was enough. Do you understand ? It was enough.

*

Who lives there? I sipped my sweet, milky tea, peering out through the drizzle. If you’re like me – I now know you’re not – it’s not unusual to wonder who chooses this place, that place. I’m the kind of person who after a few drinks disembodies and disperses her soul into the bar, breathing the same breath as others, coursing with fake solidarity. I lick the pearls on a girl’s neck with goodwill; I smile when the moustachioed man tastes his nectar.

I bought a bike from the cycle shop across the road and came back for extras so often they knew me by name. 

I took my washing to the laundrette in a backpack and relished watching the clothes tossing in the barrels to the sound of the music plugged into my ears, always with an eye on your house. Who doesn’t love the smell of laundry? Babies, towels and suds, soft against the chin. I suppose it was as much about the mystery and having something to do as linking up in a spiritual way.  

Anyone could have lived there, but it was you, Jay, Celia and Finlay, and after a couple of weeks I saw you all for the first time, leaving the house on a Saturday. A jolly troop of red wellies and green cagoules. I downed my tea, hugged my faux fur to my chest and followed.

Your trip that day was to Victoria Park and though I now know you love to walk and feel free, able to hammer miles away at a time under those strappy boots, you all took the bus for the little legs in the group. I sat safely back from the ivory king and queen, the two pawns. I remember the rain on the outside and condensation on the inside of the bus window. This time I couldn’t see out so I drew dogs in the style of Keith Haring and glimpsed brollies opening like water lilies, between the lines of my pictures.

The children were a credit to you both; they sat still and straight. Here, I got a look at you, from back and side. The kind of blond highlights that take forever at the salon, applied to the thinnest strands at a time, creating a bush of foils. Neat, prim – if that still exists in modern times – a bit tight around the mouth. I thought you looked bitter and briny, but radiant with health and money. You had mid-autumn tans telling of recent holidays. I remember that made me feel something between grief and jealousy: a tender mulch of wish and rue.

Of course, I could see the attraction from the first. You’re the kind of woman that validates a man’s position in the business world, like a Mac Book Pro or Savile Row suit. Not pretty, but haughtily good-looking.

Jay, he looked like nothing. Fleshy silly putty pulled into nothing features with brindled hair in a standard crop. It’s not that I fail to find something in everyone, it’s just you and the children trapped my attention and Jay was a hole I only much later filled. I thought nothing of him then. I suppose adults like him can seem rather boring when you’re young like me. 

We traversed the park on our own meridian lines. I hadn’t been to Victoria Park before, so thanks for leading me there – a huge, jovial green speech mark floating from Hackney’s concrete jaws. It’s become important to the children and I. We huddle in a stone alcove taken from the old London Bridge and look at picture books; here I told them about the Psammead granting wishes to children just like them.

Do you want to know what peculiar Celia said she’d wish for? I can’t tell you, it’s too close to the bone, but the crazy thing is, she’s getting her wish today. ‘Mummy loves you very much,’ I told her. She shrugged, which I thought was awfully grown up. It told me she knew life wouldn’t always give her what she wanted and that she would accept that, despite the pain. Nothing much like you, really, but so much like me.

*

So, we didn’t meet like you thought, not wholly. I wasn’t dead set on becoming friends, but London is vast and I didn’t know many people outside of the work sphere. You had become familiar to me; a comfort. Day in, day out, I knew you and your family were swaddled by the Willow Lane-type house.

The way you’ll remember it, we met on yoga mats in the Methodist Church.

‘God, I’d kill for a glass of wine,’ you said to the room, after we’d rolled our mats up.

‘I never say no to a glass of wine,’ I said, hand already outstretched in greeting. ‘I’m Tess.’ Paula and Erica came too, and we all got on very well. You spoke to me the most because you thought I was animated and warm. An antidote to your coolness. By the bottom of the bottle your number was in my phone and I was looking after the children on Monday afternoon. And there, finally, was the moment I had been waiting patiently for. I had my way in.  

How did it feel walking into your Willow Lane-type house when I first came over? I’ve heard fanciful things about ghosts being an imprint of a time on a house, their tautest experiences having such muscle they end up scorched into the space forever like movie negatives. I’m agnostic regarding ghosts, but the trick your house conjured up – well, that was something. All the things you have there, replicating my old home, made it feel even more like home than the real thing ever was. I suppose that’s distance and nostalgia, relief to have something that was gone, back again.

Only upstairs was altered, with the Duracell bunnies, the Peppa pigs, wooden train line, doggie duvets, rubber ducks, a rocking horse, building blocks and the sweet scent of almond milk that children excrete. The house massaged me with soothing oils from the second I left my shoes at the door: ylang ylang and rose rubbed into my tight shoulder blades. The spiders in the crevices shifted hello and the children ran into my arms.

‘Hello, little things,’ I said to them all.

‘You’re going to look after us today as mummy is goings shopping,’ said Fin.

 ‘Yes,’ you said. ‘Mummy is getting a rare chance to escape this place. She never gets to do anything she wants any more…’ You were speaking from the coat cupboard, already tying your felt belt. Your boot zips sounded like the closing of body bags in TV thrillers.

You didn’t say goodbye to the children.

*

Never try to second-guess a person before you know them, you’ll never fully pin them down. I’ve known all sorts but none like you. You have an air of Bakelite about you: archaic, clean, snappable. Your breath smells of stainless steel and your smile, frightening, strangled. You penetrate my eyes, and though I see a mask of understanding, I know you’re working on different logic to me, have a whole other world inside you I can’t comprehend, like I can’t fathom the end of the universe or how long 180 million years is. The closer we become, the less I know you and I know that alarms you; makes you feel unknowable. You’re unpredictable but never consistently so, though you do stay within the lines of the law. I don’t tell you how different you are, of course, because there’s good different and bad different, and I know you believe you’re bad different, whereas when you say to me, ‘You’re so different to other people,’ I know you mean it as a compliment.

One night, you went to bed early – nearly as early as the children – feigning flu, after I’d cooked you all my signature dish of lamb and rose petal meatballs. We had a box of wine on the go, and Jay, especially, threw it down his throat, replenishing his insides after a drought. The music was so loud the bells, chimes, strings and caramel voices licked our ears in silk scarves of melody. You were preoccupied with the candle wax, which mimicked lava spewing from the wine bottleneck and I wondered how many years of burning coloured candles had amassed such a glorious, gleaming Tudor ruff. You must have talked, conspired, confided, whispered, planned and promised this man so much throughout your decade of togetherness. The bottle itself – a 2001 Chateauxneuf-du-Pape – would have been shared when you were both so much younger and I erased Jay’s lines around his eyes and on his brow, microdermabrasioned his cheeks, smoothed the badger stripes from his hair, revealing an achingly normal but casually becoming young man. His grey irises eyes are heavy – gravid with latent feelings. You left us and we went to the couch.

‘You’re very different, Tess,’ he said to me, touching my hair, tenderly. ‘You’ve warmed this place up. The children love you, and I’ve never seen my wife take to someone as she has to you. She usually keeps people at arm’s length. Me included.’

He was looking at me like I could fix him – pleadingly. I could feel, from the way his hand writhed in mine, that he was ravenous for female affection.

‘I thought the children would fix everything. That they would fill me up in every way. I’m more filled up than I’ve ever been, but the vessel has expanded, and it’s emptier than before. Is that fair?’

‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I don’t have much, myself. I’m an eggcup.’

‘You have possibility,’ he said. ‘Everything is possible for you.’

Funny that he would use the same words that you do. ‘Everything is possible for you,’ you have always said. ‘I want that for me; I want to be free.’

I would never have helped you if it wasn’t for the threats. ‘I’ll kill them,’ you said. ‘I’ll kill them all, if I stay.’

*

We pack your things whilst the children play in a new Wendy house. Regardless of the new computer consoles, children never grow out of houses in houses or dens in dens. I can hear them giggling, squawking, kittening around. Into the suitcase go your gorgeous dresses that skim over your automaton curves. Are you the next generation of woman – Woman 2.0? In go your expensive products: Touche Eclat, Eve Lom cleanser, muslin cloths to lift the war paint away, and Chanel Gardenia to meld with your metal aroma.

‘You can have these,’ you say, pointing at stacks of jeans and jumpers, but when you see my grimace, you add, ‘Or you can take them to the charity shop.’

When the contents of your wardrobe shrank a couple of weeks ago, you told Jay you were having a clear out and that the charity shop around the corner would be busting at its seams, but this isn’t true – you packed tea chests with your very best items and sent them on first. I know you’ve been siphoning off money from your shared account for years, so you’re okay for funds, but you will need to live more frugally.

‘I might become a spy,’ you say. ‘Or be kept by a sheik. I might become an assassin. Or be assassinated.’

‘The possibilities,’ I say.

And then you go to the hairdressers and I feed the children porridge with melted butter and a glass of milk, just like my mother made me. When you come back, your hair is chestnutty and bobbed, and I can’t help but be awed by how it frames your ferocity.

We’re face to face now, and you thank me with a long hug. You promise to send me emails, but nothing to the children. They are not to be reminded. The Willow Lane-type door closes on you, and I’m alone in the hallway. The brightest, floury winter light streams through the top of the door, and it seems as though the walls relax in a low, guttural moan. We fuse together, house, children, cat, me.  

Celia and Finlay run down the stairs, playing chase, their little legs half swallowed by new frog wellies Jay got them last weekend which they’ve been allowed to wear in the house until they meet the puddles of East London. It’s a nice home for children. Plenty of running space and scope for enjoyable clatter.

I tidy the house and put happy sunflowers bought from Columbia Road flower market in the jardinière by the fireplace. We watch cartoons until we hear the key in the lock.

When Jay comes in, I go to him.

10 Jul 2014

Introducing Bear - extract

I haven't written in a while, despite best intentions. I thought I would share my opening few passages of my novel. This is the sixth or seventh opening, but I think it's stuck in place now. 

Being a perfectionist really can kill the first draft. I'm trying to teach myself not to be. I sent another beginning to an agent and he was really nice about my writing, but had a note of caution: over-writing. 

In other news, I'm seeing a hypnotherapist. Not romantically. 

--
I.

The bear nosed through the forest, his boxy shoulders making light work of the subshrubs. He didn’t know exactly where to find Salena Aro, just that he’d know her when he saw her.

Humans. He’d seen them at a distance, always turning his back to lumber away. With their shouts, nail hammering, tree chopping and gun-banging, they were a grating bunch. Hyper-coloured in bright plaid shirts and hyperactive too. Busy-busy with their own inventions and possessions rather than with nature.

Most self-obsessed, thought the bear, who liked alone time more than most and spent much of it meditating.

The soil smelt spongy and pungent after the rain, so the bear breathed deeply, able to pick out the snail shell from the berries, moss and mulch. He lingered on the sizzling sauna sausages from a feast last night, still present on the breeze and carried a mile or so across the lake. A rotting mink carcass and a party of carrion revellers gave him cause to exhale. In death, the mustelidae are a putrid family. His favourite animals in life, otters could really pong once maggots came and he wouldn’t wish a stinky weasel up the snout of his worst enemy, if bears had enemies, which they don’t.

The bear stopped and sniffed in a different way. A focused, narrow way that allowed him to reel in a ribbon of familiarity. Wolf? His friend Wolf had crossed this path, some months back. Dear Wolf, whose grey fur emitted a pleasant cologne of sheep wool and lingonberry, and whose gruff voice could turn a howl into a requiem. Wolf was the first of the pair to get a mission from Mother Sky, and he was asked: Are you brave, Wolf? And Wolf said, of course I am. 

Bears and wolves must serve, so when Mother Sky tasked the bear to make a deal with Salena Aro, he knew he must put aside his distaste for humans and make his appeal with the kind of celestial eloquence only a bear has words for.



24 Jun 2014

If you do one thing today, walk

There was a woman crying outside of Barclays on Kingsland Road this morning, wailing into her phone and saying she was going to kill herself. She was still wasted from the night before and accosting passers by for help, though she wasn’t sure about what help she needed. ‘Talk to me,’ she begged me, and so I did, and asked her where her home was. It was just by Liverpool St station. She wanted money, but I only had £2; I gave her that. She said her boyfriend beat her, and that she was a normal girl who just wanted to get home. I told her she could walk home by following Kingsland Road down to Shoreditch, and then she’d be close to the station. ‘I don’t want to walk,' she kept saying. I had a good look at her and couldn’t see any reason for her to be stuck by the Balls Pond Road/ Kingsland Road crossroads.

‘Are you going to call the police on me?’ she asked. ‘Of course not,’ I said.
‘I want you to, so they can take me home,’ she said.

What would I say? Someone needs a lift home?

I do that walk all the time. Somehow I felt like there was a connection between the fact she wasn’t prepared to walk a mile or two down a straight road and her Tuesday morning circumstances. If you don’t have the resolve to walk for less than an hour, how can you transport yourself to a different life? I have sympathy, but walking home would have been so simple. ‘Just walk down that road,’ I said again. 'You'll soon see where you are.'

'I don't want to walk,' she objected. 'Can you get me a bus?'

It’s then that I realised that getting into the walking habit is actually far more than just walking. Getting from A to B on your own two feet is sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself.



23 Jun 2014

Three flashes - short fiction

In a bid to actually finish something, Nik suggested we take it in turns to choose the title for a piece of flash fiction every few days. I'm not sure either of us really knows what makes a good piece of flash fiction, but I personally feel like a bit of a cheat. Flash fiction seems to have some of the impact of poetry without needing any of the skill. It's such an enigmatic form that throws up so many more questions than it answers. Even when done badly, the framing hangs the words on the wall just so.

My favourite of Nik's is Man on Fire, which works very well as a short piece (excellent last line) and his favourite of mine is The Locked Room (which I thought was overly melodramatic). I suspect that Nik's Man on Fire is the only one of the six that stands alone as a whole, whereas mine are character sketches.

The one rule is that we're not allowed to read each other's until we've finished. Unwrapping them is the fun part. My own rule is that I just spend ten minutes or so on this whilst eating my sandwich at lunchtime. I think Nik's have been bashed out in American airports, which is so much more glamorous than me with mayo on my keys. 

One Minute - Nik V

“Big Issue?”

You know what? Today I will. I look through my wallet and take out two pound coins. I put them in her hand and try to smile. It seems like the right thing to do even if she’s homeless. She looks at them in a funny way, inspecting each one carefully like I have given her fakes. Have I? Is she going to get into trouble? Am I?

She looks through her pile of magazines, before handing me one. I inspect it carefully. What if she has given me a fake copy, a bootleg one? I flick through it. It seems legit.

We stand and look at each other, two potential forgers.

“Do you believe in monsters?” she asks like she knows what she’s talking about.
No, I don’t.
“Yes,” I say. 

She looks around then takes the Big Issue from my hand. She puts it at the back of her pile and gives me another one. I look at her and nod in agreement. I take the two pound coins from her hand and put them in my pocket. In my wallet I manage to find another pound coin and two fifty pence pieces. I place them in her hand.
She smiles and asks me what the time is. I don’t know and I tell her. 

“Just wait one minute”, she whispers. “Then it’s time.”

*

One Minute - Mia V


The balmy day glued the back of my thighs to the sofa. May as well stay put for a minute more, since I don’t like the feeling of peeling skin from leather, but it’s then that I notice a flash in the leaves of the silver birches. Like glass, a sharp shard of light. And again.
Investigation requires unsticking myself and going to the balcony. The trees smell cool, like toothpaste and wet bark.

There’s someone in the trees. I squint. Not in the near spinney, but the cluster further back – a grey shape, hiding in zebra legs. He’s spying on me, I’m sure of it. There’s the flash again – a binocular lens?

James has some cigarettes in the kitchen drawer. I don’t usually smoke but retrieve them and perch on the balcony wall. I shake my hair from its tie. When I pull on the cigarette, I work my lips, and the tendril of smoke ribbons heavenward. I flick ash, see my feet. They’re sandy-tan and prettier than before.

The lens flashes again and I loop a leg over the wood, sitting bravely above the pavement. It’s not a bone-shattering drop, but I’m risking a fracture if I fall. I stare at the cunnilingus cloud. Did I just say that? An anvil of cumulonimbus cloud, foretelling a storm.

There’s a jay hopping in the shrubbery – I can see the shock of forget-me-not blue on his wing. He’s a beautiful bird, as substantial as a magpie but as fair as a maiden. 




Man on Fire - NV

I didn’t even have time to get annoyed at the man squeezing past me in the stairwell before I realised he was on fire. He didn’t seem to care himself and by then he was already so far ahead it didn’t seem appropriate to run after him. If anyone else was noticing they weren’t doing anything about it either. By the time I reached the platform myself I had caught up with him and we got on the same train. ‘Ha’, I thought to myself as I sat down. ‘See, how far all that rushing got you’. 

He sat down in the seat opposite me and immediately started reading a book. I found it hard to tell if the sweat dripping from his forehead was from the sprint-like descent down the stairs or because his upper torso was engulfed in flames. I looked around. Still, nobody in the carriage was paying him any attention. I felt bad just sitting there watching him burn, but then I decided that it was far too private a condition to point out to a stranger. 

The heat was taking its toll on his book and as the page he was on started turning from brown to charcoal I began to worry about him missing out on vital plot points. Luckily he finished the page before it disintegrated. I wondered if the butler did it or if they were going to live happily ever.

*

Man on Fire - MV


Gordon hadn’t spoken in three months. He didn’t know what had happened to his tongue, but where it had once flicked deftly around his mouth, forming vowels and clicky teeth-tipping sounds, it was now a heavy beached whale.

I suppose this is what lethargy is, he thought to himself. The eyes, lighter than the tongue to manoeuvre, still looked around the room as they had before. He could see the corduroy curtains, the chintzy chairs and the stained doilies. The home smelled of stale fags from the nineties. The disinfectant rasped the back of your throat.

“Still not talking, Gordon?” asked the nurse. She was a proper East Ender like him, family from Bethnal Green. He’d known her uncle Pete who bred fighting dogs. Her mother had been a stunner. Where was she now? He’d meant to ask, but didn’t want to risk crinkling that garden-fresh face.

She had a posh look for a common bird – a ski slope nose that spoke of the Alps, and whilst he was on piste, tits to match. A funny girl who played cards with him back in April, when he still spoke.

“I set fire to my boyfriend last night,” she said to him. Gordon’s lips felt floppy but his eyes were hooked on hers. Nobody could hear her as she said, “Meant it too. You ever scared by yourself? I sometimes wonder how far we’ll go. See my arm, here?”

Clear stepping stones of bruise showed a hand print.

Gordon wondered if they’d ever stab each other, or cut out each other’s tongues.

*

Locked Room - NV

Peter couldn't sleep. He had tried every trick in the book, from counting sheep to reading to jerking off, but this evening nothing could stop his mind from spinning at a hundred miles per hour. Tomorrow was the day, his day, finally. For as long as he could remember he had been trying to find out what was behind that locked door. Even his older brother, who he could normally count on to betray their parents' trust at any given opportunity and for the smallest of rewards, had proved impossible to bribe. Up until the day he had turned 18 himself, now almost two years ago, they had been partners in crime, both trying their hardest to convince parents, grandparents and family friends to reveal the secret unsuccessfully. Back then he had even promised Peter he'd tell as soon as he found out. But when the day came, suddenly it was like those years of brotherly scheming never meant anything and he'd been answering each plea with same deadpan "you'll find out on the day" ever since.

Lying there now, Peter couldn't help but feel a certain degree of bitterness about being the last in the family to find out, but at least the wait would be over tomorrow. After what seemed like an eternity and a half of twisting and turning Peter caught a glimpse of his alarm clock just as it changed to 11:11. He made a wish and finally fell into a peaceful slumber.

*

The Locked Room - MV

Mother said some sad and strange things on her deathbed. In and out of consciousness, she rode waves of memories and hallucinations. My brother had warned, close your ears to her delusions if you want to remember her well, but I thought, instead, I never knew Mother yet.

The sobs were hard to take. Guttural, from under her collarbone, lifting up her bird chest like a paddle puppet. One day she spoke mainly of a cat and kittens, of feeding them bread soaked in sugar milk from her fingers.

What I can’t stop thinking of, though, is the locked room she rambled on about. She had been flirty and girlish all morning, like I’d never seen her (nor would I want to), and then she descended into the deepest depression. She spoke of pulling furniture into a hidey-hole – a loveseat, a bottom drawer and a bookshelf of poetry. I never heard her read a poem in her life; she never read aloud to us and favoured science journals. She called, wailed, for someone called Jerry, and I pieced together he had left for war when Mother was twenty and that he had silver threads in his amber eyes.

Then she dragged Jerry himself into the room, kissing his wounds and forehead intermittently, taking off his uniform and sponging his skin.

 “I shall never love again as long as I live,” she said, with a fierce look on her face that added ten years, if it were possible.
I realised then that she had been true to her word, and for the first time, I liked her.

*