I begin every year with a goal of writing more short fiction, and end up being beguiled by adventures in poetry. I write short fiction sporadically,but when I do I love it. I seem to take it more lightly than poetry – perhaps because I use prose as part of my day job as a content writer. I haven’t submitted a great deal for publication (mainly because I haven’t written a great deal) .
My short story Safety Matches was shortlisted in the 2019 Fish Prize for fiction and you’ll find my flash fiction online at Riggwelter Press.
Below are a selection of pieces written in response to various writing prompts – I hope you enjoy reading them.
Yes, this time of day, this time of year.
The leaves look like lamps, signalling to us. Or flames.
Last thing you want in a wood. Flames. Do someone an injury. Unless they know.
Yes, I suppose so. But this glow? Always the same?
Yes, this time of day, this time of year.
Always the same. And you’re not afraid?
The wood. The men. You know. What they said.
On the news? Oh no. We don’t worry about that. No need. There’s always that glow. This time of day. This time of year.
Neighbourhood Watch was shortlisted in Lightbox Originals 100words story competition for December 2020.
A tale of two eggs
The creak of the barn door excites him as much as it did four years ago. Echoes of “weirdo”, “misfit”, “oddball” fade as he sees the shimmer of gold shell,the faint fissure crack, the ooze within.Just a few more months.
He inches closer to the eggpen,pats the straw, wipes the struts of protective wire. Hiding in plain sight was a phrase he learned years ago and it serves him well. The jester-prince is in his thrall; bestowing years of flattery and bamboozelement have stuck in his throat but his creation is complete. Lowering himself has come to fruition.The urge to cradle the egg is strong – he turns. Discipline is essential for some, on carefully curated occasions, and he needs to experiment with how it might feel. Also he there is a faint chance it may fall from his hands.
As if. He could never be so foolish. No this is the time to open the cage and breathe in its beauty for one last time before….
“Sir, sir, there’s another egg. Quick sir they say it’s important. More important.”
the boy glances sidelong at the eggpen. No one is supposed to know. Many do, but the knots of acceptability are so tangled most workers stay silent for fear of each other. Especially errand boys like this one.
“I’ll have you whipped for falsehood and fakery! Nothing is more important than this. Nothing. We will be richer and more powerful than the outlanders and northfolk ever imagined.”
“But it’s here. Here,packed in a velvet lined box. It looks more important …”
the boy tails off at the sight of his glare. It is a new one he’s been practising. Good to have chance to try it out. He flashes it again. The boy scurries out.
He lopes off, carefully arranging his face somewhere between sullen and smirk. The crowds of scroll masters and criers irk him more than usual. Whispers about an egg that would change the world play about his ears and he feels the work, all the work begin to whittle away. He makes a note to organise those monks to amend his ledgers.
Battling through the odorous masses who are enraptured by the jester-prince on the steps, he steps on the cats tail. Not for the first time. He would have kicked it – but the masses never approve. Another thing to iron out.
He reaches the main hall. There it is. Small. Much smaller than his beautiful golden marvel . Darkest green, iridescent, a jewel in its centre. The kind of dark beauty he dreams of but always slips from his pallid grasp.Scowling at the chattering fools gathered around, plugging his ears to their talk of how mysterious – almost powerful – it looks, he clatters out of the room to his basement,bellowing instructions that he is not to be disturbed and issuing demands for ink and candles. This sort of thing always finds its way beyond the walls and he fancies it makes him more fearsome.He dreams of the egg all night. Outshimmering his glorious gold creation. His moment. His chance to show them that he is the cleverest of them all.
He wakes with a start! This could work to his advantage – the people could pay the price of both eggs. He’d just tell them the new egg was a fake, a hoax a lot of nonsense. Bide his time. Once they’d seen the hatching it would be too late. But he needs to act fast.
They line up as instructed. Alchemist, jester, taxman. Monks have been scribing the same three words on parchment since his four am epiphany.
The phrase adorns the walls of the courtyard,on banners sewn by the tailors. He even hears it whispered.The sound of his genius muttered by the masses gives him a thrill like no other. Finally.
The egg bearers assemble. Three for the imposter,fourteen for his. That kind of differential is important. The carpenters have worked for hours constructing the egg carriage,lined with silk, not a whisp of straw in sight. Imposter egg? Crammed in a plain brown box,turned so the dark hearted jewel cannot be seen. At the last minute he fashions a few artful tears to the cardboard, to make it even more lowly. Oddly satisfying to work with his hands.
At the sight of his nod from behind the drape, the egg bearers begin their parade. The crowd begins to chant
He feels his foot tap. Frivolous nonsense. He allows a smile. It will work. They will forget and just get back to paying attention his beautiful, beautiful golden egg.
The cat saunters.
The cat turns.
The cat stares. Green eyes lock with insipid blue.
The cat saunters. The crowd purrs. The cat darts. The eggs tumble. The shells shatter.
The stench. The stench.
The stench seeps to throats and nostrils, tears spring to eyes, skin begins to blister.“Gold beats greenGold beats greenGold beats…”the jester-prince stops beating his marotte, looks around to see if anyone is still joining in. He stops and scans the courtyard for an exit.
The crowd turns. A small girl whispers to her mother, who whispers to her sister who speaks a little louder and the clamour begins to rise. The stench is from the egg. No one knows which one. They both look so different to each other but even the lowliest amongst the crowd knows a bad egg is a bad egg. There are mutterings that the torn box egg is still intact, people begin to look, but it is no-where to be seen.Not even the torn box. Fragments of gold shell lie all around and the stench is rising. But the golden egg cannot be bad. The golden egg cannot…be bad?
Those who can begin to move, to march. Jester-prince has fled. Taxman counts. Alchemist tries to treat the sickest.
The drape flutters.
The cat sniffs at a speck of yolk.
Bread and Roses
Wednesday is the best day – quiet, lovely Carl is usually filling the shelves and if I get here for twenty past four the yellow stickers are just going on which always gives me a little rush of excitement. I’m about halfway through my shop, just past the cooked meat aisle, wondering about a quiche but I probably wouldn’t get it all eat and the mini ones, well they’re mostly pastry, aren’t they? A lady bumps my elbow, and I look up, wearing my best benign smile, pre-hearing the mutual unmeant sorries. She glares, calls me a stupid bitch and dumps four more two pinters in her trolley. I let her pass, and she grabs the last six mini quiche. I suppose the milk will wash the pastry down.
Carl is indeed working today, and I see him behind a stock cage piled with Smart Price toilet roll – not my favourite but it seems really popular today. The people of Telford must have thicker skin than I gave them credit for. A red faced man pushes me out of the way – turns to explain that he’s got four kids, then fills half his trolley from the gurney. One of his children is trailing behind with a bag of potatoes. It’s split and there’s four on the floor, which I start to pick up. Mr Toilet Roll almost takes my legs from under me and demands I get my own fucking potatoes. I do have a small bag of salad potatoes in my basket but I don’t point this out.
Naturally, I’m a little shaken (more embarrassed to be fair – as if I’d steal potatoes from a child), and lovely Carl abandons his trolley of treasure to the masses so he can check I’m ok. I am, of course, I encounter worse than Mr Potato every day but it’s nice to have some attention from lovely Carl, so I fashion what I hope is a brave, yet enigmatic, smile.
Carl tells me to follow him, and I do – we step into the loom of the warehouse. It smells cold and is rumbling with wheels and trolleys and people moving stuff from nowhere to nowhere. No one looks bothered by me and my little basket. Some of them recognise me I think, because I always smile and wave. One man grins widely at Carl and comes over with a bunch of roses, hands them to Carl who hands them to me with a slightly embarrassed flourish. I open my mouth to say something lovely but the tannoy cuts me off. All staff must go to aisle five, repeat all staff must go to aisle five.
The rush is like a supermarket action movie, if you can imagine such a ridiculous thing. Pallets of potatoes, trolleys of flour and even more toilet roll are abandoned as all the staff rush to the commotion in the bread aisle. Warburtons and Hovis are jammed in trolleys, next to white plastic loaves that go so well with tinned tomato soup. Garlic tear and share and tiger loaves soars though the air, and are caught by kid of about fourteen, who holds them as though they’re a school attendance award. Carl shouts that I’m not safe, and I should go. I hand my basket to one of the women already pawing through it and head to the exit, clutching my tulips to my chest. A security guard eyes me, and I get ready to try to explain why I don’t have a receipt but he’s distracted by a row near the frozen chickens that looks likely to turn nasty.
The sun’s out as I start to walk home, past throngs of rushing families muttering about pasta and rice and tins of tomatoes. I put my nose to my roses, and look closely to see if he’s hidden his number amongst the blooms.
They call it Pica, this ranging after alien tastes. Behind my back of course. To my face they act as though its as normal as marzipan on a Christmas cake. Exposure to loud noises for any length of time sets it off. It happened first in the bus station, one colossal exhale from an exhaust accompanied by the authoritarian shout that the vehicle is reversing. My first craving was leather, (thank goodness it wasn’t metal – no one wants to be a barrier licker), and chewing the straps of my bag seemed fairly subtle. Looking back, it felt close to normal. Especially at this particular moment, which sees me crouching behind the third bench in Colts Park, avoiding the trio of neighbourhood mothers who make it their business to be aware of anything they consider unusual. For our safety, of course.
I have broken this small squirrel’s neck and can feel the syrupy rosehip coloured blood and sinew slip through my fingers. It’s not flesh I need. I need the bristling soil scented fur of its ear, the sensation of each wiry hair prickling my tongue, spiking as I try to dislodge it from my teeth.
I always think I should be more attracted to the tail.
“They call it Pica, this ranging after alien tastes” says mother one.
“Where will it lead…” says mother two.
“That’s the worry” says mother three.
I wonder if being caught crouching is worse? Perhaps I should sit on the bench and pretend this is a packed lunch or a (very) sick pet? It’s twilight so they shouldn’t spot me unless I do something dumb like slip and squeak.
I slip and squeak as my foot hits the metal of the bench.
They stop dead, heads turn towards me. I’m still hidden – just. This is what they’ve been waiting for. Evidence that all the chewed up schoolbags, munched Dahlias disrupting the order of their perfect gardens, shredded silks from their laundry lines – evidence that this is all down to me, not some product of their occasionally imaginative minds. Evidence to enrol me on one of their “Freedom from addiction” programs, evidence to use me as their poster girl, about how good and useful they are. Evidence to stop me.
I think. Not clearly, which is why I decide to do this; I fling the headless squirrel body ( I still need those little ears) and it drops like torn meat from the sky – straight onto a shoulder, creating a succulent trail through the dusty pink roses that scatter her blouse. One of them catches it, holds it. Almost cradles it.
I stand, walk – so calm, clutching the head and ears in my pocket for later. I draw level with them. Look mother one square in the eye, cast a glance to mother two’s shoulder and enjoy ignoring mother three.
“They call it Pica, this ranging after alien tastes. I do hope Luke won’t be late to class again tomorrow. It does disrupt so.”
Pica emerged from a free 5 day Arvon course led by Tania Hershman. We were tasked with finding five phrases from three poetry books, a recipe book and an instruction manual, and build a story from them. It’s a wonderful process and I found the puzzle and of blending the words enjoyable. The opening line is taken from Fleur Adcock’s Folie a Deux.
‘Just the one?’ I say.
‘Ooh yes, that’s enough for now,’ she says.
They always say something like that, as though the baby is a big roast dinner and I’ve offered them extra spuds. It’s a bonny little boy that this one’s got. I haven’t asked yet, but I’m a good judge after all these years. Listen to this:
‘He’s a bonny fellow,’ I say.
‘Thank you,’ she says, smiling.
I take the shoes she’s holding out to me as though they are tiny birds waiting to fly away. I ask if she’d like them to be wrapped. She hesitates, looks down at the pushchair, then back at me.
‘Well, no, I don’t think that’s necessary….’
‘It doesn’t cost any more,’ I say.
That always works. She nods and goes back to cooing at her little one. I cock my head to indicate I’ll be back in a minute and slip out to the dark little room where we can make our tea and wrap all the baby shoes. I pick a blue carrier, pale as a china cup and fill it with tissue to make a cosy shoe shaped nest. I take a length of ribbon and zip my scissors along it so it curls like a piglet’s tail then I tie the handles, drawing them close, tape the top with invisible tape and add a flurry of white ribbon curls. I slip the shoes into my locker.
The woman beams when she sees the bag. I slide it over the handle of the pushchair. Her bonny boy beams too.
Twelve o’clock is my lunch break and Mr Gaffney comes down from upstairs to mind the shop whilst I’m out. He’s never done a bag search, not like they used to when I worked at Debenhams. The shoes are swaddled in tissue under my paperback. I wave and say I’m just off for a walk. Half an hour at most.
Today the black paint of the gates looks like it has been nibbled away by ravenous mice. Even the trees insult and irritate me, each sway seems as ignorant as the woman at the end of my road who tells me this was God’s way. Some days I think I’d prefer to visit one of those sprawling cemeteries set in an industrial estate. I see them from the M6 on the way to Cornwall.
The section for babies is a mass of ribbons and bear-filled baskets. A woman walks past, remarking on tragedy. She catches sight of me and thinks better of smiling.
My Phillip is over in the far corner. There are only two bears near him now and a grubby statue of Saint Nicholas. There’s never that many visitors any more. I kneel, unswaddle the shoes, lay them gently under the words Phillip John and try not to imagine his toes. I wipe the headstone and pick up the dead leaves. I’ve no need to wait, or chat like some folk do. I scurry away. Like a criminal.
We have been quiet this afternoon. Just a couple browsing, wondering if the shoes are anti-bacterial. I lock up at five. My car is sitting where it always sits and my hand trembles as it always does. I miss the slot for the ignition. There are dozens of tiny pecks round the key hole. I might look into getting them sorted out.
My Phillip says its time.
Baby Shoes was my first attempt at flash fiction. For the uninitiated, flash fiction tells a story in very few words. There are many permeations, flash, micro, short shorts. All demand an economy and precision that is tricky to master. This story is a response to the six word story, attributed to Hemingway For sale:baby shoes never worn.
It is unusual, isn’t it? I couldn’t resist that smiling tortoise face and all those pretty swirls on his shell. I spied him through the shop window, tucked away amongst the scarves and crystals and those funny little feathery things. Ken wouldn’t come in with me of course. No time for tat shops. Stood outside, tap, tap, tap with his feet. Tortoise was wrapped and bagged up lickety-split. Ken was behind me by then, muttering something about a storm brewing. I gave him the fifty-three pence I’d had back in change and turned to get the little parcel. The shop woman held my hand, just for a moment like, and whispered something about Tortoise bringing me great happiness. I thought that were a bit far-fetched for a little tortoise, but it was a nice thing to say. Ken raised an eyebrow, I think he thought I’d said something, but I told him she was just one of those daft hippy types, which seemed to appease him. We went on to catch the bus home and said no more about it.
Well a week or so later I was dusting, like I do every Tuesday, when I heard Ken shouting from the front room.
I best go, I thought, he’ll be wanting a cup of tea.
Of course, I thought I were going doollally when a cuppa appeared, right on the middle shelf of the china cabinet. In his favourite Boro’ mug too. Anyway, I took it in and I swear he were that surprised he nearly said thank you.
‘I never heard the kettle,’ he said.
‘Well no, it just, well, it just, Oh!’
Tortoise started to burn my hands. It got that hot that I had to drop it. I held my breath and watched it tumble tippetty-top, over the pile of racing magazines and the Sports Argus, over the biscuit wrappers and onto the lino. And it just sat there, it’s little face smiling up at me.
‘What the bloody hell have you brought that bit of tat in for?’ said Ken
‘Give over, love. I was just dusting them, when I thought you might be wanting a cuppa.’
Well blow me if it didn’t happen again. Of course, neither of us said a thing. Looked at the cuppa as though we’d never seen one before. It was in my favourite mug this time, the one with the Labrador and the yellow roses. Ken snatched it and lined it up with his first one.
I didn’t move. I was a bit annoyed, but it’s never good to say so.
‘Try again, woman,’ said Ken.
‘What do you mean try again? You’ve got two.’
‘Say what you said. Say you want a cup of tea,’ said Ken.
Of course, that third one appearing got him completely overexcited. He started shouting all sorts.
‘Bacon and eggs’
‘Big steak pies’
Ken was quiet for a while. Munching and chomping, like Augustus Gloop. I thought about having a look in my Woman’s Weekly for that recipe for beef cobbler, but it didn’t seem necessary now. I decided to clear up a few plates and whatnot because it didn’t seem fair to ask Tortoise to wash up as well. I was half way through plate number twelve when the doorbell rang.
‘Send him through, Marg,’ shouted Ken.
I was a bit surprised to see Eddie because he and Ken fell out a few years back. Something to do with Ken always nipping off to the gents when it looked like it might be his round. The one time he did it all his pals just upped and left and that was that. Ken said he was sick of them any road. I’ve always got on well with Eddie. Not too well, of course. I’m not daft.
‘Hello Margaret,’ Eddie said.
‘Hello, Eddie, come in. Nice to see you.’
‘You too, love. Ken said he had something to show me? Urgent like.’
‘Oh yes, well go through. You know where he’ll be,’ I said.
I shut the door and wonder if Tortoise might be able to fix the bit at the bottom so as I don’t have to give it a kick each time I want to close it. I think about following Eddie in to explain everything, but I know that’ll cause a row, so I just go back and start on washing up the mugs.
Well, I’ve not been the kitchen two minutes, when the bell goes again. It’s Nigel this time, one of Ken’s golf lot. Now I know Ken must be up to something, he usually makes me clean top to bottom before he asks Nigel round. Nigel has a bit of an entourage with him, his friend Clive, and a couple of other chaps I don’t recognise.
‘Hello there, Marg!’ Nigel always speaks as though I’m on the other end of a long pier. ‘You’re having a bit of a do, I hear.’
Well, obviously this was the first I’d heard, but I don’t let on. I tell him they’re in the front and carry on with my mugs.
After a bit I left the door on the latch. We’d never had so many people popping in. Ken didn’t like it as a rule. Liked to keep us to ourselves.
‘Margaret,’ Ken shouted over the din of football and cheering. ‘Margaret! ‘Come and have a bit of a tidy up, will you, love?’ I knew there must be something funny going on. He hasn’t called me love since nineteen eighty-three after that incident with the woman from The Red Lion. I dug my nails into the palm of my hand and walked down the hallway wearing my best smile.
I must say it took my . I know people always say that, but I swear, for a minute I couldn’t take in or let out. I just stood and gawped. There was Ken sat in an enormous gold leather chair. A television covered the whole of the back wall. There were little side tables with fancy feet, you know like those ones they have in Argos, an enormous fur rug at his feet and the biggest pile of plates I have ever seen. Plates full of half-eaten pies with flaky pastry soaked and sodden in thick dark gravy. Plates crammed with oozing jammy cakes, abandoned after one bite. Plates with glistening piles of bacon, black pudding and fried eggs. Ken grinned. I cast an eye over the crowd of people crammed into our tiny front room. Nigel, Eddie and so many others I’ve never set eyes on, sat on fancy chairs and stools, stuffing their faces and laughing as though Ken was Eric Morecombe. Ken’s waving Tortoise about shouting for more and more food when he spots me.
‘Good this, isn’t it, pet? About time I got treated right,’ said Ken.
I couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t get me in bother. One of the young lads got up to bring me some plates.
‘Leave them. She likes to feel useful. Cleaning pots is about all ’ers good for now she don’t need to cook,’ said Ken.
I took the plates from the poor young chap who didn’t quite know what to do with himself and carried them back to the kitchen. I didn’t stray far from the sink for a few days. There was a steady stream of folk in and out, all eager for a free feed and a go on Ken’s fancy telly. He’d never been so popular. I took to going in early morning, when Ken would most likely be asleep, and picking up what mess I could you know. Broke my heart to see my lovely Tortoise trapped in Ken’s meaty fist.
Now, the one night there’d been a great load of fellas in watching the football and they must’ve been having some sort of sweepstake because the floor was covered in coppers, silver, even the odd note here and there. Now of course I’m being quiet as I pick the coins up because nothing sets him off quite as bad as noise. Anyway, I only went and dropped them. A great handful of coins clatterbutting over the glasses and trays and bacon rinds and pies, like an upended dish of dried peas. I stood stock still. Gave myself time to gauge Ken’s reaction. I never knew which way he’d go. That’s how he liked it, I suppose.
I heard him hiss,
‘You sly old witch. Can’t bear for me to ‘ave owt, can you? ‘
I edged forwards and placed the last few coins onto the middle of the table. His face grew purplerose up his neck, mottling his cheeks like one of those stains you know you’ll never shift. I watched him raise his hand. I stared at the carpet and hoped he’d miss but instead Tortoise lands, smacko, right at my feet. Head broke clean off. One of his little legs too. Neither of us spoke. Ken’s mouth twisted up in that way that used to put the fear of God in me.
‘You stupid bloody cow,’ he said.
The enormous chair shrank and the shiny gold leather changed back to the pattern of big pink swirls and roses. Ken’s fancy gold tankard turned back into his chipped ‘Boro mug and the massive telly changed back to the one we’d had from Rumbelows in nineteen ninety-four. The plates and plates of food disappeared, not a crumb to be seen. I thought for a minute Ken might cry. I tried not to breathe – just concentrated on the up and down of the football scores humming out of the telly.
‘Clean that up then get out of my bloody sight,’ he said.
I bent down and started to scoop up the bits of my precious Tortoise. I remember I felt couple of daft tears. I wanted that woman in the shop to be right, see. I wanted this little thing to make me happy, even if it was just seeing that smiley face every time I gave him a dust. I’d picked up his little leg and head when I spotted it. A diamond. Hidden under his shell. It shimmered and glinted. Reminded me of the ring Ken promised me.
He turned. I stopped my breath again.
‘I’ll not tell you a second-time woman,’ he said.
I looked down at my hand clutching the jumble of dust and bits of my lovely Tortoise. I looked at the diamond. I looked at Ken. Great, threadbare, fat lump of a man, sat glaring at the space where his big telly used to be. I looked at the door. I breathed in, steady like, for me nerves.
‘Yes, Ken,’ I said.
And I think I might have smiled.
Magical realism is a genre I find challenging – I seem to default to realistic. Nonetheless I liked the idea of this little ornament that could work magic, and I liked the setting of a stereotypical old-fashioned couple. I’m not sure it worked, but bits still make me chuckle.
From a Mslexia photo prompt
‘Just eat them,’ Jen says.
‘I don’t want to,’ I say.
‘Listen, it’s important. If there’s any left I lose my points. You know that’ says Jen.
They are bitter. They have to be I suppose, to stop the kids eating them. I do think if they weren’t the colour of Dorothy’s slippers they’d be less appealing. Perhaps they should be the colour of broccoli. The skins mould themselves to the contours of my teeth, slithering as I try to extricate them with my tongue. I thought putting all five in would somehow make it less painful but they are a great masticated mass. Jen is watching. People do spit them out but they’re always found and then the rest of us suffer. The directive is clear. Removal and destruction of the berries is the only way to keep the rulers safe. We are honoured to be chosen.
We are honoured to be chosen.
I repeat it and hope to believe it.
I start to feel my throat muscles contract. My body knows.
‘Just get on with it’ says Jen. ‘It’s not like you’re the only one’
They begin to work so quickly. I see in Jen’s expression that she knows I caught her thoughts.
‘We all have to do it. Selfish cow’
‘Listen Fi, you know how it is. I can’t help it. It’s normal. You know that’ she says.
Couldn’t you try to control them though? At least while I’m sat in front of you. They’re your thoughts.
‘I can’t just switch them off. You know that,’ says Jen.
I nod, reluctantly.
I gather up my bags and begin the journey home. We are allowed four hours of solitude, to allow the worst to pass apparently. Little research has been done, and less still is known, but four hours is what I have. I feel as though I am underwater, the sound of murmured frustrations seeps into my brain
‘Look at the state of her. And she’s getting paid for it’
This is before I’ve even made left the protected zone. Of everyone, these people should understand my vacant look and jellied walk. They attempt a benevolent smile. The falsehood makes it sinister.
I am afraid now. I know my awkward gait will degenerate. I will knock into people, and I will fall over. I will not get sympathy. If all these thoughts are to be believed, I will be harmed for being inconvenient.
It takes me twenty minutes to do make the short walk home. I draw the curtains, and hope for silence. This is ridiculous, there are people inside the block, as well as walking past. I will hear each one of their thoughts,their hopes, fear, happiness, anger; but most of all, I hear the sheer volume of lies they hide.
I sit here every evening, noted, but unnoticed. Just a nuisance, and that is how I expect it to be. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be doing my job. I watch your scurried, hurried, puddle dashes, dodging well aimed pigeon shots, which you rarely manage. The pigeons are quite accomplished, but do nothing for the reputation of our species, in my opinion. There is little I can do, we all live together on this little patch if earth we used to call our own.
I am not so crass as the pigeons, nor am I a thief, a familiar for old crones or a teller of bad fortune. I’m just a bird, with a distinctive voice, a keen eye and a keener mind. I’ve seen the changes in you over the last four months, subtle, and entirely understandable. Your step is slower. Not more careful,but with less purpose. You trod in four puddles this morning and didn’t notice. When I first came, you’d have cursed and scowled and shaken the grubby water from those beautiful shining shoes. Now, the shoes don’t shine, they shuffle. I don’t mind, but I know you used do, and I know she used to. I notice the hands that never leave your pocket, not even to wave at Jim in the doorway who looked forward to the coffee you brought him every morning. And the chat you always had. I wonder if Jim wonders what he’s done, but I know he’s used to it.Like me, he’s invisible to all but hose who want to see. I watch you now, walking to the building where you worked, from where you saw the crash that stopped your life. I wait, and watch until you step out, into our territory. You move towards the ledge. The pigeons scatter. I do not. I stand firm and wait. You stand, yours hands clench and your feet rock back and forth, back and forth. You look through me, to the lights below, so distorted it’s as though they are under water. They draw you like a siren. You step slowly, slowly, slowly to the parapet. To the point where all the pain will stop, the hole will be filled, the creeping, crushing ache of being disappear into the blackness below.
And then it floats. A cliched single feather, white of course, landing perfectly at your feet. And it stops you. Just that moment. You breathe.You breathe, you look up,and I see your mind tick over, think that it can’t have come from me.
Which is exactly as it should be.
creativewritingink prompt January 2017
‘At least get out of the car John’
‘Piss off. I told you we’re not doing it.’
Clair stood at the car door. The clouds annoyed her. The way they glowered just made the dirty grey of the building look greyer. The wind was making the old metal sign creak like a cliché from a bad horror film. It was such a small place, for such a small dream. But she needed a new dream. Something resembling a purpose. She gripped the keys in her hand, feeling the outline of the P shaped keyring. She’d bought it for Dad when she was seven. He’d never used another, just added keys upon keys to it. Even when he went into the home he put the tiny one on that locked his bedside cabinet. ‘Always keep things safe Clair’. Tears were no use now though. John always got cross when she cried. A month was long enough to get over things in his mind.
‘Shall we just go home then? Or go for lunch somewhere?’
‘Well we passed Dad’s local. We could try there’
She got back in to the car. A hot meal might improve his mood. Perhaps a couple of pints. That could go either way of course. Looking over at him, slumped in his seat, jacket half covering his face, just his glaring eyes and frowning brow were visible; she suspected it might not go the way she wanted.
She started the engine, plastered on her bright smile.
‘Dad always said this was a goldmine. Just needed the right person to bring it back to life. He made a fortune you know’
‘Pity it all went on that bloody care home. The council one was fine’
Always a row. Always a dig. Clair tried to remember the last time she’d had a conversation that hadn’t ended in a sullen silence. The bright smile was starting to hurt.
There wasn’t a parking space outside the pub. The Black Dog. She winced. Perhaps it was an omen. They parked up the road.
‘If we get a ticket you’re bloody paying it’ said John
‘I’m pretty sure we’re ok. I don’t expect they have many traffic wardens out here’
‘I’m amazed they’ve got cars’ he replied
She pushed open the door. Her bright smile faded instantly. It stank. That sticky feel of years and years of ale thickened the air. She glanced over at John, imagining him comparing it to the places in town. As she walked over to the bar, six pairs of eyes followed them both. She almost expected a pitchfork to emerge. Ten years ago, they’d have laughed.
‘Do you do food please’
The barman tried to hide his mirth. Bloody tourists. Did this look like a gastro pub?
‘We don’t. I can make you a ham roll. And we’ve got scratchings’
‘That’ll be great. We need a quick bite before we go and look at the service station. It was my Dad’s ‘
‘Right you are. Drink’
‘Erm, yes. A Guinness, and a lime and soda, please’
John had perched at a table. He scowled at the drinks as she carefully placed them down. Her hands were shaking again.
‘What did you expect? A great hug and clamour that old Pete’s daughter had returned to the homeland. Stupid cow’
Clair’s face reddened. He never usually said things like that in public. The folk in the bar became fascinated by their pints and papers.
‘I was just being friendly. That’s all’
They sat in silence until the barman brought their rolls over. John opened his, poked the ham, glared at Clair again.
‘I rest my case. Pointless exercise’
Clair thought it proved her point beautifully. Even if the locals wouldn’t appreciate a café with good homemade food, then tourists would. She was wrung out from arguing, and ate, chewing as quietly as she could. The silence hung around them like stubborn mist. She twisted the sentence round and round in her mind, then slowly let herself speak
‘I thought you’d be proud of me John, trying to move on. You said we should try’
It was as though he hadn’t heard.
‘In fact, it all seems pointless. We can’t move on Clair. We need to be honest. It’s too late. ‘
The bar fell silent again. Clair couldn’t think. Or shout. She wasn’t sure what was more distressing. The fact that he appeared to be ending their marriage, or the fact that he’d chosen to do it here. On this day. It was supposed to be the start of something good.
She got up.
‘Where the ladies please?’ She winced as her voice cracked, nodded her thanks and followed the barman’s brusque direction. Her face in the age spotted mirror wasn’t what she wanted to see. Drawn, grey, decorated with red blotches from the effort of not crying. Her eyes still glittered though. She was still in there somewhere, underneath all the grief, all the disappointment, month after month after month.
John was smiling when she got back to the table. One of the old boys was sitting with him.
‘Seems your old dad wasn’t so daft after all. Tell her what you told me’
The old man was silent.
‘He reckons there’s money in that shithole. Real money. Not some pipe dream. He reckons he squirreled it away. ‘
Clair looked at the man. He looked back, nodded at the keys in her hand. She picked them up. And she knew. The old safe. Just a little box, but well hidden. She knew.
‘Come on. Let’s get out of this excuse of a pub. We can see what the old fool left’
Her coat felt less heavy as she pulled it on, her feet felt lighter than they had in months
She looked down at John, taking in his triumphant grin.
‘It’s too late John. Just too late. ’