A little piece of flash fiction today, inspired by a prompt during one of the workshops at the Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol earlier this year.
His voice preceded him.
‘Ain’t this just the quaintest place? Is it Hogwarts or what? Look, it’s even got the date written on the frontispiece or whatever you call ‘em bits.’
‘Bet they don’t have air-conditioning in this old pile of stones, eh? … Mind the step, honey, can’t be having you spraining your pretty ankle, Mary Lou.’
Only then did he materialise in the doorway. He had lost some hair and put on weight, but it matched the Hawaiian shirt he was wearing. His clothes were trying just a little too hard, I thought. Birkenstocks and bermudas, a red bandana knotted carelessly around his sunburnt neck, as if it had just fallen from his head while playing a particularly tricky guitar solo. He still clicked his fingers when he expected everyone to burst out laughing at his jokes.
He was surrounded, as always, by a gaggle of ladies. This time they were elderly and American, to match his newfound accent. They followed his every move with the requisite giggles, gasps and applause. He was their tour guide, their leader, their go-to person. As he had once been for us.
Neither flash fiction, nor poems, not even prose poems. This is just a fragment inspired by my Welsh retreat last year.
Close Encounters of the Welsh Kind:
Thistle prickle raw
heart once purple
stalk dried to wood.
It is more painful than it looks to have your roots killed by frost, to lose your tensility mid-stretch. The leaves curled up like hands gathered in prayer.
We are not at the austere end of the spectrum, us,we are the playful brigade
and yet we prefer dried angular shapes.
But not all grass has turned to straw. The cows in this field are full of juicy goodness.
Noswaith dda, my pretties…
Little did I know the open gate would be an invitation for the whole herd to gallop after me. It’s Grandma’s piglets all over again, making me run away in panic. Except this time I’m not three years old. And this time they are bigger, bellowing and fully horned.
A piece of flash fiction for a change. One that I was going to submit for Crimefest Bristol’s competition, but they didn’t have one this year. I want to spend more time exploring this genre, which, like poetry, feels slightly more manageable and portable at this moment in time.
She kicked off her high heels as soon as she got home.
They were well-organised, she had to give them that. They’d been correct in every detail but one. The venue, the target, the weapon. What a shame about the timing! Security details were vague the world over. She was to stay behind the front row, cotton gloves neatly buttoned, the pie hidden by her large handbag. It had been prepared with care, Hamelin vertical fluting on the edges. It looked almost too appetising to waste.
Security ploy or not, his arrival was more than a little delayed. The cream was in danger of turning in the heat, her right hand had started to tremble under the weight. A tiny bead of sweat ran down her forehead and salted her eye.
Then he finally emerged from the limo, all portly disdain, though few would have guessed it. High-colour in his cheeks, a genial smile, shaking hands, relieved at the lack of kissable babies. She had to be patient a little longer. No point in rushing things and getting custard all over his suit and possibly her own.
She lunged forward in the only possible split-second and aimed straight at his face.
Of course she was promptly restrained and escorted off the premises. She knew they feared her yelling out any awkward questions in front of reporters. They were only too happy to see the back of her. No matter. She’d seen his surreptitious lick at the corners of his mouth. The greedy rat! She’d seen him wipe off the viscous slow-acting poisonous mixture with bare hands.
She sat down to do her mission report and invoices.
He said: ‘I don’t like make-up on a woman. I want to be able to kiss her lips without the taste of lipstick getting in the way… yuck!’
I heard: ‘I don’t want you to wear lipstick. I love you so much that I cannot stop myself kissing you at any time of day or night.’
Translation error: I stopped wearing lipstick. And became invisible.
Conclusion: Never trust a man who tells you what you should look like.
2. ‘You are not like other women. You may not be as beautiful or as blonde as the women I am usually attracted to, but you are very special. You really know how to look after a man.’
I heard: ‘You have a winning personality. You are a mature woman who knows what she wants, not a whining young girl.’
Missed translation: This woman seems low maintenance and reminds me of my mother but with lots of sex. Let me just slip in that comparison, so that she remains forever grateful that I even noticed her. Besides, driving a thin wedge into female solidarity makes me feel so good!
3. ‘I cannot wait to have children. That will make us really complete. I’m going to be a much better father than mine ever was.’
I heard: ‘I will leave you if you don’t give me children. But once I have them I’ll grow up, become mature and be a good Dad, because see how critical I am of my own father?’
Translation error: Delighted to become a father as long as someone else does all the work and thinking and planning, and they don’t have a negative impact on my nice lifestyle. Oh, and it’s nice to boast about good results at school, they’ve obviously inherited my intelligence.
4. ‘Whatever you want, darling.’ (when being asked to help make a decision about holidays, major household purchases – other than a car, taking a job, quitting a job, choosing childcare options, choosing schools etc.)
I heard: ‘I trust you completely to make a wise decision.’
Translation error: This does not restrict my rights to disparage, mock, quibble about, complain about or criticise those decisions. Post-factum, of course.
5. ‘I can’t help this. It’s the testosterone. Science has proven that men and women are different.’
‘I always warned you that I wasn’t a romantic. I don’t believe in Valentine’s Day/ weekly dates/ shared hobbies/ couples therapy.’
‘Is it really necessary to do the laundry/ change the oil filter/ put up those tiles/ XXX now?’
Translation: I can’t be bothered. Can’t be bothered. Bother!
Following on from yesterday’s review of Maggie Nelson, I thought I’d apply a similar list-making technique to give you an update of all that is happening in my life at the moment. A little self-indulgent, but you will be spared such things in the future, as I won’t have the time.
Jobless, homeless no more
A year since coming back to the UK, cocksure and blind, so confident that I would easily find a new permanent job in HR. So scratch, scrabble and scrape in the post-referendum landscape, with my gentle, constructivist Learning & Development topic, when all companies are looking for is Immigration and Payroll Specialists.
My heart was not in the job hunt, that’s true. Hip hip hurrah for my freelance life, being able to take my book deliveries directly from the postman, taking time off during the children’s holidays, working a few days per month and then having enough time to write. Hip flask to hand.
I know you are all green with envy by this point.
It was the perfect lifestyle, except for one thing. The bank. I couldn’t take the mortgage in my sole name with such an uncertain financial track record, with no idea when the next job would come in (and companies keep changing their minds or postponing or cancelling their training courses). So hip flask got thrown when the bailiffs come knocking at the door, or rather, my soon to be ex (STBX) threatening that I would have to sell the house and give him his share.
Now watch him parade around in a rented house that is too big for him, with his all-new furniture and all-new giant TV and Amazon Alexa the Echo, even-tempered slave girl, and expensive holidays, while moaning that he cannot afford child maintenance. Cue many sleepless nights. But a few pills and Talking Therapy sessions later, I’ve learnt to meditate and relax my muscles and turn a blind eye to the unavoidable. Still we pirouette around the financial pot, each side claiming greater overall contributions or greater need.
So I potter around on French property websites, remarking how easily I could get a maison de maitre property in Aquitaine for my share of the house sale minus mortgage, instead of reading the hundredth rejection email starting: ‘We value your application, however, on this occasion we will not be progressing you to the next stage. Other candidates more closely fitted our requirements. We would like to thank you for your interest and encourage you to sign up for job alerts to hear about future vacancies. Please fill in the survey below to tell us about your recruitment experience.’
Feeling too old, too past it (I would be the grandmother intern if I were to move into publishing – and I certainly couldn’t survive on those starter salaries!), diminished, unwanted, in the wrong field, regretting all my past choices. The ones that seemed the perfect fit were the ones that hurt the most. Especially when they claimed to like you and your lateral skills, that they weren’t discriminating on the basis of age, praised your achievements and qualifications. You almost believed them… until you see the dewy faces and minimalist experience of the people they did pick for the job.
If it’s that difficult for me, an able-bodied woman (White Other on census forms), with a few degrees from the UK as well as elsewhere, to find a job in publishing because of my age, can you imagine if I were POC or without a degree or disabled? Diversity in publishing indeed! Obviously, everyone above the age of 40 stops reading…
So it was back to the corporate treadmill, one I’d refused to run on for many years, one that I’d stopped believing in, but teenagers are more expensive than cats. They eat all the time and grow an inch per month.
Let no one tell you that you can follow your passion. My career and choices in life have been determined by geography, accident of birth, nationality, age, history, family situation etc. And many, many other people have had their choices far more severely curtailed!
Then I calculate how many more years I have to stay in a UK which has become strangely frightening and all too recognisable (from living in countries where political incorrectness reigns). Seven more years until my children leave the house to go to the university, ten until the younger one finishes university – although I suspect they may want to study abroad.
But avast, avast, stop preparing an escape route and stop hauling myself over the coals, for suddenly interviews materialised! Over the summer I was wanted for job interviews, even managed to convince some people that I didn’t mind being overqualified for the work I would be doing. (I really don’t, I just need to pay the bills and see my kids in real life rather than on Google Hangouts). Yes, all of them were short-term contracts or very, very part-time. All paying slightly less than the salary I had 18 years ago in full-time employment, back in the days when I had a small house and no children and a husband earning roughly the same as me.
About equality of pay. Since then, STBX’s salary has increased slowly but surely ever year, while I have had peaks and troughs. In 2003 I was on 2.5 times his salary, but since I had my (our) first son in 2003 it has gone into free fall. Never mind the fact that most of it went on childcare.
So I bide my time and try not to jump at the first desperate opportunity. The less promising ones offer me the job, while the certainties bail out. And I start to feel very foolish.
I took the bait. A permanent position in London, an interesting job (in HR, rather than publishing) in the university sector. It is not perfect, but it will keep me and the children off the streets. My friends are delighted for me, but I’m not quite ready to pop the champagne open. It’s not a new career doing something I feel passionate about. It’s not living the dream at this late stage in life. It’s more of the same, without the flexibility I’d grown used to in the past 8 years.
Still, reasons for celebrating! It means I can stop hearing my STBX scolding or pitying or alleging that I could earn much more than him if only I put my mind to it. ‘No one ever asked you to give up your career to follow me around. You could have got an au pair. All right, if you were worried about me having an affair with the au pair, you should have got a male au pair. What do you mean, there weren’t any of them in Geneva? But Pablo’s family had one? Oh, because he was Spanish and couldn’t find employment in Spain? Oh, and he left after 4 months all of a sudden when he did get a job in Madrid? Never mind, it just proves my point, that there are some men au pairs around. I think you didn’t want to work. You just wanted to sit at home with the cat and write and I’ve had to support you while you have written three novels.’ It means I can now start the formal divorce proceedings and wash that man right out of my hair.
One year on, the house is slowly but surely falling apart after 5 years of tenants and a year of my shoddy housekeeping. I was often too overwhelmed and depressed this past year to repair things or keep the house spick and span. Besides, why invest more love and hope in a house I was no longer sure I’d be able to keep? So a professional one-off cleaning is called for before I start work. With the result that I’ve been frantically scrubbing the place in preparation for this. To save my tattered reputation. Some people never learn.
Commuterland and superwoman
London has its pros and cons. The plus side: bookshops, being able to go to cultural events [‘You spend HOW much on books and entertainment?’ my horrified financial advisor said], meeting friends for lunch or drinks. Downside: 2 – 2.5 hour commute each day if the trains aren’t delayed and an annual season ticket somewhere in the region of £3500 per year. Leaving just before the children set off for school and getting back at 7 p.m., just in time to shout at them about their homework over dinner. Having to organise all the orthodontist, haircut, doctor etc. appointments for them on a Saturday or else take a day off. At least they don’t have any clubs or other extra-curricular activities (but oh, the guilt associated with that!). So many other single mothers do precisely that – and it’s worth it to hear my children say: ‘Does that mean we get to keep the house? Then go for it, Mama! We’ll cope.’ They crave a bit of stability and they are so much more loving and helpful now that I am more relaxed and happy without their father around.
Plus, I have the feeling they will relish no ‘Have you done your homework yet?’ mutters in the background every half an hour.
But I must write – how will I write?
If only I had the time to write, instead of travelling like a maniac around the globe! (2012-2013)
Now I have the time, but oh… If only I had the peace of mind to write instead of falling apart/ raging and ranting/ worrying about things/ jobhunting (2014-2017)
Now I have peace of mind but oh… I won’t have any time for writing or blogging or tweeting! (2017-2018)
And so I worry and give up before I even start. Run away rather than fight the impossible fight. There was only one situation where I chose to stand my ground and cling on for dear life. The wrong situation. I chose badly. I stayed way past the expiry date, the food rotted and now I’ll never get the smell out of that fridge.
Last Night of the Proms brought that home to me. That I worry about the things that might happen. But might not.
I could not watch it, because I no longer find the tub-thumping patriotism and Union Jack waving hilarious and endearing. But then I heard that they’d been handing out EU flags and the audience were waving those as well. How many times have I been pleasantly surprised by people’s reactions when I’ve been expecting the worst? Am I letting fear and prejudice cheat me out of opportunities?
Is the fear of not having time for writing paralysing me? Am I using the guilt over my reduced time with the children to distract me from the hard work that needs to go into writing? Am I content to remain on amateurish turf forevermore, every now and again hitting a lucky shot?
And so on ad nauseam. There is a time for writing, there is a time for ranting, there is a time for logistical acrobatics. Things will be imperfect at first – and may remain imperfect. There will be things I have to miss out on. Another year of not having something quite ready for submission. And yet… Sometimes the most impossible situations produce the best work. I refuse to feel guilty and I refuse to stop writing.
Plus, I can read and write during my commute, right?
If I make it through September, fold my pinnies, cool my forehead, don’t wait for gaps to be filled with leisure, no clemency left in any fibre. I will be a new woman, trying to do several new things at once, such as cycling to the station.
Yet not attempt too strenuous a life of many amputated beginnings and bird flutter under the skin until the very least October. For no respite, no holidays will follow for the new hireling.
If November doesn’t bring morose companionship on wet flagstones, where would my certainties drain like ink still damp on poor-quality paper?
And if you can’t wait until December to see if my sleight of hand produces a second draft or better poems, why, I’ve wasted my breath and months…
Some people never learn. Some people never know when to give up.
But, as Mary Oliver said, the world has need of dreamers as well as shoemakers.
I’m a novice to flash fiction, but have been fascinated with it for the past few months. I’m still not sure I understand the principles. Be gentle with my experiments.
I need to count each chime with my chin up, looking straight ahead, because if I look to the right… the monster might sneak in. The corner of the left of the eye down and under. My greatest fear: missing a chime. All twelve to surround, all twelve to protect.
Then I can wash my hands. Just like my mother taught me as a child, with plenty of suds, not forgetting to scrub between the fingers, above the wrist. You never know where I have been, where you have been. What toil and soil we may have seen. Rinse three times, not a sud to linger. I catch a glimpse of the back of your head in the mirror and I long to touch and unfurl that sweet tendril, the one still moist from earthly exertion. The one that keeps you from being an angel divine.
But then I would have to wash my hands again. Perhaps even wash my mouth out with soap. Oh, the synapses that fire too soon, extend so much further than you could ever want.
We sit down to eat. I dare not touch much, but I can examine each morsel passing your lips. How the red chard leaf ondulates with your tongue, how the beans fall from your fork, how you cut and spear artichoke hearts, not just mine. You lick your lips before and after you drink; your glass glistens with pearl droplets. I count each one, but then you trail your thumb down from rim to bottom. You leave marks too light for memory, too deep for forgetfulness.
I shouldn’t have come here really. I had no intention of walking this far. Haven’t got a clue how I’m going to get back home before dark, either. But isn’t this picture-postcard cottage worth the long trek and so much more? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a place as quaint and welcoming as this one. The faded red brick, the white paintwork, the upper windows twinkling in the sunset. The bottom two windows seem to be hugging the front door, while those climbing flowers embrace them all.
What do they call those flowers? Not roses, obviously. I do know those. But I’ve never been very good with more complicated plant names. Aren’t they just the most gorgeous shade of lilac? And don’t they fill the whole earth with the scent of early summer and the promise of things to come?
I can’t wait.
I measure out three steps to one side of the gate, three to the other. Counting calms me down, gives me something to do. I remind myself to stand tall. I have to slow down, keep my distance, remember to breathe. I close my eyes and try to take in all the sounds, the warmth, the aroma of this perfect evening.