Inktober 2019 – Flash Fiction
- Week three (to foll0w)
- Week four (to foll0w)
I used to go to the attic to ring you.
It’s where I first listened to Guns n Roses, a safe distance away from my parents so they couldn’t hear the swearing. The carpet up there was green and thin like paper – forgotten about.
The phone in the attic was old fashioned, heavy and the colour of cold rice pudding -with a skin. My parents had hidden it when the officials came to collect the telephones. It was like the telephonic equivalent of Anne Frank.
To dial your number, which I knew off by heart, I had to rotate the dial with my finger. There was significant resistance and it required force to turn it for each number – close to the maximum force my index finger could exert. The act of calling you – or anyone – meant something. It required effort and purpose.
We would speak for hours. And I would coil the ringlets of the thick telephone cord around my finger like a secretary in love.
Then I called you one evening, always after six when the phone calls were cheaper, and you didn’t answer. The phone kept on ringing.
I hung up and it clunked with a finality I didn’t like. I tried again and again before heading downstairs. In the kitchen, my parents were doing a crossword. I didn’t speak to them. I placed the cassette of Appetite for Destruction in the ghetto blaster and pressed play.
It was an automatic response, muscle memory. She would turn the cold tap on full blast for two seconds, then fill the pint glass and empty it completely. Fill it again and drink a long sip before refilling it from the still running tap.
It wasn’t a deliberate act or a routine that was attached to any specific logic, it was just what she did.
And then one day, she turned the tap as usual and what came out of the tap wasn’t water. It was thick and black like tar.
She let it run, filled and emptied the glass like she always did and then took a long sip. It didn’t taste like water either. She filled the glass to the top again and turned the tap slowly off.
She went to sit in her favourite chair and fell instantly asleep. The glass sat there on the small dark wood table with the chip on the top and seemed very content that it was the very blackest thing in the house, and maybe the world.
The squirrel trap was six inches in front of the cherry laurel and 32 inches behind the birdbath. A mallard garden ornament with the head snapped off and crudely reassembled rested in the grass 52 inches to the west. To the east, he sat in his deckchair watching, silently chewing on a piece of broccoli that he had just extracted from between his molars with a vigorous flick of the tongue.
He had started with a selection of mixed fruit and nut from Lidl. The squirrel didn’t go for it. It mocked him with a high pitched chatter and then dislodged yet more pebbledash from his garage wall.
Next, he tried Cashews from the cornershop. The squirrel didn’t take the bait. It smashed a plant pot with a swish of its tail and bounced gleefully off.
A fistful of rice and the squirrel dug up his lawn.
Packet of peanuts and it ate the fresh buds off the sycamore tree.
Expensive walnuts from the health food shop and the squirrel danced in the birdbath.
He watched the trap without blinking. His ex-wife’s moisturiser – the most divine smelling thing that he knew – smeared across the best bloody quarter pounder you’ll eat in your life from the burger van by the B&Q near the tip.
On top of the burger and moisturiser, he’d sprinkled brown sugar that he’d pinched from a cafe he’d visited on a coach holiday and kept ever since as a keepsake. If it didn’t go for this, the squirrel was an idiot. The man waited, chewing his cheek raw.
The temperatures never get above zero here. A year or two in and you get used to it. You learn to breathe normally, extending the sharp, shallow intakes to measured, oxygenating breaths. You wear the correct clothing and know when to stay inside. The dangerous mistakes you made in the first months seem a long way away.
Living with the freeze is actually ok. The cold becomes companionable after a while. It’s always there, morning, noon, and especially night.
When it comes to people, you sometimes crave solitude but you’re always at peace with the freeze. It doesn’t intrude into your thoughts or demand anything from you at all. It’s just there.
Some faces in the village have been entirely sculpted by the cold. Features eroded by vicious winds, flesh split apart by deposits of errant moisture that had instantly frozen. These people are known as the elders and understand the deep cold better than anyone. They talk constantly to each other, but you never catch a word they say. I don’t know if I’ll ever become one of the elders, even if I were to survive another forty years out here. The freeze doesn’t get to me like it does them. Not yet.
The Lego tower was now taller than the Shard. Nobody knew who was building it or how.
Each morning at first light it had grown by another storey.
There was no uniformity to the colours of the bricks in the tower. Data scientists using artificial intelligence and a team from NASA with a quantum computer proved that it was entirely random.
Planes leaving London City airport now had to take a different route to avoid the tower that was officially the tallest structure in Europe. An exclusion zone had been set up for helicopters and drones.
When the tower reached a mile high, the Mayor of London declared it ‘a triumph of ingenuity and subterfuge.’ The police and army called it an act of terrorism. Politicians debated it fiercely in parliament.
And then one morning, the tower was no more. People openly wept. Newspapers published memorial issues. Children built small towers in their gardens and windowsills in solidarity. Everyone waited, and quietly wanted, for another structure to appear but it never did.
“You know, it’s, it’s like, it’s husky”
“What do you mean ‘husky’?”
She did not like her husband very much.
“Well, your voice, it’s kind of gravelly, raspy, but you know, in a sexy way – husky.”
She did not know. She had never considered her voice to be anything other than her voice – an abstract constant. It didn’t always sound like her voice admittedly – on answerphone messages and videos that people sent her over WhatsApp – but she was fine with it all the same.
“GRAVELLY. RASPING. You make me sound like some piece of constructive site machinery. What the fuck, Gareth!”
“I said raspy.”
“Raspy. Rasping. Fucking Rasputin! I don’t give a shit. You’ve upset me.
Is this how you describe me to your work colleagues? Buttoned up in your M&S pinstripes and shiny sodding shoes? The Mr frickin’ big stuff that you are, on all of twelve pounds an hour.”
She was really angry now and wanted to cause him pain.
“I don’t talk about you at work.”
“Well, that’s a relief. It’ll mean you won’t need to bother telling them that I’m leaving you.”
When she said the words, she did not feel regret or that she had gone too far. They were the words that she should have said months ago and they resounded only with truth. But she was struck by one thing in that moment, and that was the timbre of her voice. It seemed deeper, more guttural than before. Husky even.
He fell in love easily. It was a character flaw. Two dates in and he would feel his heart breaking free from its tethers, ropes pinging from the ground when they laughed together, shared a certain look or a brush of the hand, and there it was, a swollen fluttering heart drifting off into the wide blue skies of the future. Marriage, a small wedding with close friends and family, a cake made of the cheeses they loved; three children, a curly-haired squad, two girls and a boy. Caravan holidays. Graduation ceremonies. Then the empty nest and the rekindling of passions.
The women were always polite about it. They could sense that he was someone that loved easily and with conviction. It would give rise to a sequence of rapid de-escalation. They would reply to only one in seven text messages and the next date would be the cinema or a lunchtime coffee. There would be no more dates after that.
She was different. He didn’t love her. Three dates in and his heart remained in its rightful place, beating a steady beat. They talked and laughed, and their hugs at the end of long evenings were close and fulfilling and always just right. When they were apart, they texted back and forth in little bursts. The exchanges were witty, warm and undeniably flirty.
On the seventh date, he went back to her small but delightfully cluttered flat. They drank expensive cocoa and cuddled in her bed, and he still didn’t love her. He kissed her on the cheek as the morning sunlight fell upon it as she slept.
On their seventy-third date, they independently drew up lists of their favourite cheeses and laughed so much when they matched identically. It was sometime around this point that he realised that love was something altogether different to what he had previously thought and he much preferred this.
Margaret became frail on the 17th of November. We all saw it – it was obvious. One day she was normal Margaret, eating doughnuts in the breakroom and laughing to herself as she did Sudoku, and then she was frail.
I wasn’t the first to say something – no, that was Gary from accounts. He asked Margaret if she was ok and Margaret replied that of course she was. Maybe Margaret hadn’t realised she was now frail.
We all agreed that the first week was the hardest for us. It was the shock of Margaret becoming frail so suddenly.
There were a few changes around the office. We started to be nicer to her for starters. She was included in all of the coffee runs, even the early morning one despite the fact she had never paid into the kitty. The call centre girls stopped making fun of her knitwear or at least did it quietly so she couldn’t hear. The practical jokes ended pretty much straight away.
The thing with Margaret was that she didn’t really suit being frail. Her strength had been one of the best things about her – the way she could just let the nasty comments ricochet off her was something to be admired. Slouching and vulnerable, frail Margaret was a bit of a downer if truth be told.
On the seventh of December, Margaret stopped being frail. It took us all by surprise. She was taller, bigger and more like old Margaret when she walked into the manager’s office. We looked at each other.
It was Gary that noticed the first car on his lunch break. The blue Polo had a deep scratch all down its right side – a proper gouge. A Skoda Fabia, a BMW estate and a new red Mini had all been done the same. Gary screamed when he saw that his Audi TT had been savaged on both sides.
Everyone ran down to the car park then and started screaming along with Gary. Even the few that cycled were screaming because their tires had been slashed. Nobody could believe what was happening.
I always walked into work so didn’t take part in the screaming. I was scanning the car park for Margaret. She wasn’t there of course. I knew that I’d never see her again.
The sex swing in the living room was impossible to ignore. It hung from a ceiling hook like a spider, a predatory arrangement of shiny black leather and gleaming stainless steel.
It was the first time that he had been invited to her parents’ house. He had been keen to make a good impression and had even ironed a shirt and spent over ten pounds on a bouquet of flowers, unprompted. On seeing the swing, everything he knew about good first impressions evaporated.
The parents were very welcoming and relaxed in a non-try hard way. They had cooked a meal that carefully accommodated his dairy intolerance and even opened wine despite it being midday.
There were framed photographs of his girlfriend on the wall – she looked different, smoother and slightly swollen behind the glass. He could see magnets from Spanish islands arranged on the fridge, a bowl of potpourri on a mahogany occasional table, and a sex swing in the living room.
Everything else was so normal that he questioned himself – perhaps he was hallucinating. He examined the ordinary books on the ordinary bookshelves. There wasn’t a volume of erotic short stories, no Marquis de Sade, not even a Michel Houellebecq. Just John Irving, Ali Smith, Jonathan Coe, Dickens, Mitford, the Nation’s Favourite Love Poetry.
A steaming beige Le Creuset dish had taken pride of place on an attractively but informally laid table.
As they sat down to eat, the sex swing remained in plain view through a set of open double doors. The buttock support caught the sunlight for a moment. Still nobody mentioned it. He didn’t get a look from his girlfriend. Not one that said ‘don’t ever mention this’; ‘just don’t even go there’, not even a ‘what the actual fuck, I’m so sorry and I’ll explain.’
He remarked on the tenderness of the beef and how nice it was to have freshly baked bread. Her mother explained in detail that it was a part-baked baguette from a budget supermarket and he imagined her rocking to and fro with her ankles around her ears and her anus puckering in anticipation.
The sex swing had become a gas planet of incalculable energy, suspended in the now cavernous space of his mind. He couldn’t stop himself from thinking about it. That was the worst thing. It screamed movement in all of the naughtiest angles – the kinaesthetic chaos of intercourse. The stirrups tightened on his consciousness yet somehow he continued to talk about the weather.
The meal eventually ended and they all exchanged hugs and goodbyes. It had been a lovely lunch in many ways.
As soon as he got outside, he took a deep breath and realised he was shaking. He turned to his girlfriend with eyes that pleaded for an explanation.
“I’m sorry the beef was so tough. You did well not to say anything,” she said and reached out her hand.
The pattern on the shirt was spectacular. It told stories without words.
A man and a woman alone in an enchanted forest searched for meaning. They embraced by a tree and then ran off in separate directions. Sometimes they sat together back to back on the mulchy ground and felt the rise and fall of each other’s hungry bodies.
When the shirt snagged on a nail that he’d been meaning to pull out with pliers for years, the couple came tumbling out of the fabric, freed from the enchanted forest. They’d been lost for so long, trapped in the same space without a way out. They both cheered and he heard them; only just though above the pounding of his annoyance.
They kept him up at night with their excited chattering and endless games. Sometimes they would climb up onto the bed and sleep on the pillow next to him. They all got some sleep then.
Occasionally, he would find them in the fridge, pale and reclined on the condiment shelf. Despite it all, he was pleased they had escaped his shirt and even more so that they had stayed together through it all.
The snow was falling and the parrot was already pulling feathers and swearing. It did not like the cold and liked the gas fire even less – it looked at him funny and made a noise like a lorikeet on heat.
He’d eaten all the good seeds the day before yesterday, long before the snow had come, and was now left with crap you wouldn’t even feed a pigeon. In protest, he threw the seeds across the room using his beak and occasionally his claws – he enjoyed the sound they made when they landed on the tins of buttons that lay about the place. It was also pleasing when the husks landed in the thick knit furrows of Daddy Yellow Face’s winter jumper. The majority fell to the disintegrating shag of the rug. It crunched whenever Daddy Yellow Face went wandering the room looking for a lighter or a biro or whatever.
Daddy Yellow Face didn’t go out when the white stuff came from the sky. The parrot found it stifling – like he couldn’t relax or be himself. Yellow Face put on an extra jumper – always the green one – and drank more whiskey from his favourite chair. The parrot had no options available to shield himself from the cold or aggressive misery that surrounded him.
The parrot did have a cage though. He only used it occasionally to sleep. He preferred the rim of the frilled mauve lampshade, especially for shitting. It was from this position that he first noticed that the white stuff was not in fact snow, but ash.
The world was on fire and it fell around them.
Daddy Yellow Face wasn’t afraid of going out in the snow, he was watching the world die. With a crossword and a fag and seed in his sweater, he watched the world die.
At the bottom of Elsie and Florence’s garden lived a dragon. The problem was that this was also where the chickens lived. Florence and Elsie loved the chickens. They gave them fun names, not nice normal names like humans have.
Each day they would tell the chickens magical stories as they fed them their dinner. Florence would be a powerful princess who beat up all the baddies and Elsie was a strong knight who always had a clever plan. After dinner and with their story coming to an exciting end, the sisters would check for eggs.
The first chicken went missing on a Tuesday. The second on Wednesday, and the third and fourth on Saturday. Mummy told the sisters that the chickens had found a way to leave their home and go on a big adventure – probably inspired by all the stories the girls had told them.
By Monday all of the chickens had gone on an adventure. Elsie and Florence looked out of the window, thinking about all the adventures the chickens were having. Although they were happy for them, the sisters missed spending time with the chickens.
“What was that?” said Florence.
“What was what? ” said Elsie.
“There behind the chicken house in the bushes. I saw something,” said Florence.
“What did you see?” said Elsie, staring at the bush.
“Something big and red and scaly with giant teeth,” Florence said with wide-eyes.
“Don’t be so silly, that sounds ridicul…”
Elsie stopped speaking and let out a squeak instead. She looked at her sister and said:
“I think we have a dragon living in our garden.”
Now the thing is that Florence and Elsie didn’t pretend to be strong and clever and brave in their stories, they were strong and powerful and brave. This meant that they marched straight out into the garden to speak to the dragon.
When they reached the end of the garden, the dragon had disappeared.
“Excuse me Dragon – can you come out from where you’re hiding and speak to us,” said Elsie in a loud voice.
“And be quick about it!” added Florence in an even louder voice.
Nothing happened. The sisters looked at each other and nodded their heads. They knew what they had to do. With big steps, they walked up to the bush and jumped in.
It was a bit scratchy in the bush and smelled like Daddy’s socks. But they kept on walking. Suddenly, they were on the other side. And what they saw was so amazing, they couldn’t believe their eyes.
All the chickens were there along with the enormous red scaly dragon. They had swords and magic wands and were performing a play for some other animals. Three foxes, a family of badgers, a fluffy owl and two old hedgehogs watched, all with big smiles on their faces.
Elsie and Florence sat down next to the badgers and watched the performance. Although the sisters couldn’t understand the noises, they recognised the story. It was one of the stories that they had told the chickens. It was all about an old man who was lost in a forest after pixies had stolen his glasses.
A chicken – Bumblebum – did an excellent impression of the old man while two smaller chickens – Fraggle and Cracklesnap – were playing the cheeky pixies.
The old man had stumbled across some bad men. They were swishing swords around and shouting, practising for an attack on a small village. The old man asked them to leave the village alone. This made the men angry, very angry indeed.
Just as things were about to get ugly, a fairy appeared from behind a tree. It was the dragon of course.
The animals all cheered and Elsie and Florence joined in.
The fairy waved its magic wand and all the bad mens’ swords turned into flowers. The play had ended.
The chickens and the dragon took a bow. All of the animals clapped and made noises. It really was a fantastic performance.
Elsie and Florence quietly sneaked away as the clapping continued. They went back through the bush into the garden and down into the house. They were happy now and were going to do their best to keep what they had discovered a secret. Who needed eggs anyway?
I’d bought 1977 on cassette the day it came out. Ash were one of my bands.
The three of us had listened to Trailer on repeat, sat on the roundabout outside the Rockin Emporium, sharing headphones. But this was something new.
One of the first times I listened to 1977 was in the car with my dad. He was driving to a remote enclave of Wiltshire to see Mick the brickie that he worked with. Mick was a batsman for a village cricket team. He was short and stocky with a big black beard – he could have existed and fitted in at any time in the last millennia.
The x-wing fighters shot across the car speakers. The opening chords of Lose Control following soon after. My dad visibly recoiled. I recognised the restless energy in the music and decided it was mine.
The trees on the B-road formed a tunnel and the leaves blurred around us. I sang along to Girl From Mars under my breath and felt like I was somewhere far away.
We pulled up in a small car park by a cricket pitch. My dad left me in the car with the engine running. I turned the stereo up so loud that the windows rattled.
There was a point when Elizabeth could still get into the conservatory. This was a long time ago, perhaps a decade. Maybe more.
For the last few years, she kept the doors to it locked and hoped that no more windows would break.
The plants were out of control and she had no idea why. She hadn’t used any fertilisers or additives, just water and the occasional encouraging word. There was plenty of sun of course, but that didn’t explain it.
It had claimed two of her cats and a lone great tit that had flown in through a broken pane. Those were just the ones she knew about. She could still see the skull of Bilbo through the intense knots of green, pinned by a great vine halfway up the far wall.
There was a horticulturist that had come to advise on the matter. She assumed that the horticulturist had simply left without a word when they had seen the extent of the problem and knew it was beyond their expertise. She didn’t blame them.
At night as she lay in bed, she could hear the creaks and groans of those enormous fleshy tendrils as they fought for space beneath her. Sometimes she imagined the sounds as the snapping of bones, often her own. She did not sleep so well any more.
Selling the house was out of the question and she couldn’t afford to move out. One particularly fraught summer, she’d considered camping in the garden but felt it unsafe. If plants talked, then she’d be a goner by morning for sure.
More than once , she’d contemplated torching the whole place, setting the house ablaze. She held onto this as a remote fantasy that she would occasionally indulge in, like unravelling a boiled sweet and slowly sucking upon it.
One afternoon on returning from a particularly depressing appointment at the bank, she found it impossible to open her front door. She pushed her shoulder against it and leaned in with all her weight. Nothing. She gingerly opened the letterbox and peered inside. A creeping fig poked her in the eye.
This had gone too far. She stomped round to the back of the house just in time to see a cheese plant and a maranta leuconeura come together in her bedroom, splintering her ottoman into a thousand pieces.
She walked slowly to the garage and picked up the petrol can for the old mower. Mentally she unwrapped the sweet. She started to splash the petrol onto the conservatory.
Popping the sweet into her mouth, she lit the match and flicked it towards her home. The sweetness oozed onto her tongue and she closed her eyes. She felt the warmth spread across her face and smiled.