An occasional series of flash, or sudden, or short-short fictions

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Nellie and Jim

There he goes, with another armful of my things, clothes and photographs, walking to the bonfire. I am in the doorway, watching. He lets the things fall in a heap on the fire, but it's blazing so high that it doesn't dampen down. He picks up a hammer and swings at the arm of the leather settee he dragged out of the house this morning. I remember buying that settee with him.

He raises his arm again and again, lets it fall. Dull and hollow it sounds, marks like wet on the skin. The arm breaks and he kicks it flat, then hurls it on to the flames. The leather crackles, sighs, catches. He attacks the other arm. Maroon jumper with the hole at the elbow, up and fall. Neighbours watch, but say nothing. What can they say? Poor man.

I did not know he would act this way. You find out a lot about someone when they suffer, I suppose. What will he do? What will the boys do? He walks back towards the door. Tears. He does not see. He will not see. He refuses. The clothes, the furniture, the photographs - he refuses everything. Even himself. Oh, Jim, my love. What will you do?

The boys, I miss them too. London is no place for them. Now he brings my shoes, one by one, dropped like coins into a wishing well. I wish, Jim. I wish as you wish.

I can watch no more. I must go. I am in the doorway, and walk through. Goodbye, Jim. Kiss the boys for me. Goodbye, love. Goodbye.

Monday, 22 October 2012

English, Welsh

Ghosting the metalled road
that climbs the valley side,
a wall is divided by a
perpendicular fence. On
one side, the bricks are
cemented; on the other,
dry stones are laid with
deliberation. At the posts,
the dry wall is scooped
by careless feet climbing
or hopping into woods beyond,
to walk the dog, perhaps.
Not far from here, R.S.
Thomas, the bitter bone
of language between his
teeth & tongue, was pastor
of the church at Chirk;
the Marcher land, between
and both English and
Welsh, a border scooping
west at Gobowen. The
hills take mist like brothers,
the farmers Thomas wrote
in English, Welsh an alien-
ated tongue, to him.
Raw-boned, in greatcoat,
rough stone face, abroad
in cold fields and white ring,
he brings to mind my grand-
father. Both upright on
bare earth, perpendicular,
loving language that was not
their own, seeking something,
what? from a Word that
could not answer.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Katie and John

The floor was swept. In the other room she could hear the children sleeping, in a single bed piled with coats. The last of the coal she had banked down and now sat, in the one cushioned chair, by the grate. The light from the embers and one guttering candle gave enough to see, and to sew by.

As the handle of the door turned, she looked up, but did not stir from her seat. She had heard, and recognised, the step in the hallway. As the door opened, she placed a finger to her lips.

‘If you must come in, be quiet,’ she whispered.

Her husband crossed the threshold and closed the door carefully behind him. In grubby working clothes he stood, then after a moment, swept his cap from his head. His thin, sandy hair fell into his eyes and he brushed it back with his fingers, waiting, anxious. Pursing her lips, Katie signalled for him to bring the wooden chair from the table and place it nearer the fire.

‘Quietly,’ she said.

Her husband nearly collapsed into the chair. His dirty moleskin jacket fell open as he sat, and Katie could see the billows of his shirt falling from his thin body.

‘How’re you keeping, Katie?’ he asked.

‘Not so bad.’

‘Still at the needle, I see?’

She glanced up from her sewing. ‘It keeps us.’ She concentrated on the frogging that had to be mended, by morning. Her husband waited, licking his lips.

‘Have you taken?’ she asked. ‘There’s nothing for you here.’

‘No, no, Katie,’ he said. ‘I had a one or two at the Railwayman’s, is all. No need to fret.’ He shifted in the chair, wincing as it creaked under his slight frame. ‘You need a wet after a day at the boilers.’

‘I remember, John,’ she said. ‘I remember.’

They sat awhile in the candlelight, which cast deep shadows in the hollows of John’s cheeks and eyes. Katie concentrated on the frogging, but glanced up to see him nodding in the tepid glow of the embers. After a few minutes, he asked, ‘How’re the kiddies? George and the others?’

‘You remember their names aright, do you, John?’ she said.

‘Katie, you’ve no need to be cruel, love. Course I do. Only little Georgie, he...’

‘He’s well enough,’ she said, softening a little. ‘I see to his schooling. His slate’s on the table there. Getting on with his letters.’

‘I’m glad to hear that,’ he said. ‘My little man.’

‘He’s stout enough,’ she said. ‘He’ll do.’

The candle guttered in the draft from the window, which hadn’t shut quite fully since the new year.

‘You’re looking thin, John,’ she said. ‘That lodging damp?’

‘I’ve had a touch of the rue,’ he said. ‘That Coggins sticks his knee in me back every night so I can hardly get a wink.’

‘You take care of yourself, John Sewell,’ she said. ‘The little ‘uns do love to see their father.’

He smiled, his teeth dark and ragged. ‘That’s right, Katie, that’s right. We got plenty to show for the love we had, sure enough.’ He turned and listened to the breathing in the other room. ‘Lucky devils. Bless ‘em.’

‘The getting and the keeping are two different things, as well you know, John,’ she said, pushing the needle through the fabric and jolting her finger.

‘Now, Katie, now, let’s not quarrel. I didn’t come here for that.’

‘And what did you come here for, John Sewell?’

The question was cast to the neat, swept floor, and John stared at the embers as the candlelight moved shadows across Katie’s scuffed boots and blue skirt.

‘Now, Katie,’ he said, and his head began to nod. His eyes closed, and one hand slipped to dangle at his side, his cap falling to the floor.

Kate clucked in her throat, and got up from her chair. Putting her sewing aside, she took her shawl from the table and draped it over her husband’s legs, then placed the loose arm back in his lap. She tossed the cap gently onto the table.

From the pile of sewing she retrieved the smallest greatcoat and slipped it on, poking her arms out of the sleeves. Poor sod, she thought, to be in the Army when no bigger than I am. But still. Sleeping in someone else’s coat. Again. She shook her head.

She sat down in her chair, took up her needle, and set to work. The candle had a good two hours yet. It mustn’t go to waste.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

The Magnolia Tree

In a break from normal programming, a poem for National Poetry Day.

The Magnolia Tree

I never dream real spaces; or,
rather, I do, but only one,
a house with a magnolia tree.
Often, the house is empty;
or, I still own a key, and (by
mistake) go in, before it
                  One Spring day, on
the road home, I took a path
less travelled by (me), and I
braved the A13; fumes,
road dust, noise. As I walked, I
saw a cat, dead, lying across a
drain. A moment’s grief, I then
walked on a step; stopped;
again, I looked; and stumbled
home for something to fetch
him in. I could not bear to
touch him, this not-cat, doll,
imposter. I scooped him up,
and put him in the ground by
the magnolia tree.
                                The garden
stepped down, in terraced lawns.
Our old dog, his hot blood up, would
chase the neighbour’s cats, and
hurdle flower-beds in his rage; after,
in his dotage, he would, with some
regret, creak slowly back. The
magnolia tree stood at the end, in
a brick-lined round, where nothing
grew. In late Spring, it put forth
pure delight; more wondrous still,
flowers shed, it seemed to strew
dead earth with marble cups.     

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Lizzy and Bel

It was something to do with numbers. The folded sheet looked like a tissue rather than a swan, as they had said it would. The sandwich was being made. Cheese, she hoped.
Lizzy was no help. She lay there on the bed, gazing. Her eyes did not blink. She did not offer suggestions. Bel unfolded the sheet and noticed that one of the creases looked like the lines on the palm of her hand. Soft, fuzzy. She had trouble in getting the edges of the paper to come together straight. She had to fold it again. The paper was square, now, but not sharp. The edge felt like cloth.
She waited for the call. Lizzy rested on the bed in her patterned green skin. Diamonds. If she turned the folded sheet, it looked like a diamond. Perhaps that was what it was after all. She could colour it in. But diamonds were clear. How can you colour in clear?
Four sides. Bel counted with her fingers. If she unfolded it, the sheet still had four sides. Shouldn’t there be more? But the two lines on the paper were a cross. She preferred the paper folded, so she carefully made it into a diamond again, the edges straight. After her sandwich, she would colour in the diamond with crayons. Blue.
Her Daddy called Bel. Her sandwich was ready. She was glad. Lizzy stayed on the bed. She didn’t mind.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Alice and George

She could hear the wet, blocked breath as it fought its way from George’s ruined lungs. In the bed, his white face, as if carved from soap, sunken, sharp, he wheezed out each agonising draught. She smoothed his face with a damp flannel, a beard forming once again on his cheeks like the sweepings on a cotton-mill floor. She’d have to root out his shaving kit, again.

Little George and Stanley played quietly in the corner of the room, mindful of their father. They had built a fort from the wooden blocks the Lieutenant’s wife had given them, and their lead soldiers fought over this tiny field. The Army had taken care of them all right, and Alice was grateful. She knew, though, that once George died, as he would soon enough, they’d be turned out, just as she and her father had been when times were hard at the mill. If George dies, she thought; when he dies; if he dies, we’ll need somewhere to go. Tramping to find work wouldn’t be easy with two young boys.

George coughed under the blankets, the starched white sheet rotten with spittle from his broken lungs. He’d lain under gas, in France, and breathed in his death. After two months, she knew that, now, her George, not this wheezing mannequin, was never coming home.

She touched his forehead. She still loved him; and when he was lucid, which was not often, her blood beat like the shuttle of a loom, and she dared hope that the fever was broken, and he’d be well. But all too soon, he sank back into his twilight, and one day, he’d never rise to the surface again. That day might have already come, and gone.

There was the pension, yes. There was that. There was that.

Saturday, 25 June 2011


The taste of copper coins. A spot of blood on my sleeve. Radek, you said. Why go to live there? Tomasz, Tomasz. These people have a history of Roman occupation. They're like us. This city has walls, Tomasz. It feels like home.

The conductor will come soon. Concentrate. Speak the words clearly. The others shall not stare. This is the correct note. It is blue.

Do you remember the bridge? The bridge here crosses a narrow brown river. It twists like the alleyways at the back of our tenement. Horses parade on the field, in bright colours. I have been told they rebuilt the bridge, and that Stefan can now take the pony to graze.

I dislike bridges, Tomasz.

Here is the conductor. Speak the words clearly. He will not notice me. They will not notice me.

We arrive. I am part of the crowd, Tomasz. History is unknown here. The city walls are more than a thousand years old, but these people ignore their history. What is a people without a history? This is a land of forgetting. I am content here.

I leave with the others. I put my hand to my lips. The taste of copper coins. A spot of blood on my sleeve.

(first published in An Anatomy of Chester: A Collection of Short-Short Stories, ed. Ashley Chantler (Chester: Chester Academic Press, 2007))