A few flash fictions that I've written and put on Shortbread Stories over the past couple of years.
I saw you at the Pelican crossing behind the railway station yesterday evening. You were wearing a new dark blue waterproof - I assumed it was new, as I hadn't seen it before - and you were holding that horrid old backpack with the dodgy strap that you always use for carrying your laptop.
I could see a teddy bear's head sticking out of the front pocket of your backpack. I wanted it to be the cute little bear that I gave you for your birthday last year. We called him Stewart, remember? Stewart. Our cuddly wee mascot. At least, that's what I called him. You called him Stupid Stewart and that upset me.
But I wasn't sure. I couldn't see a ribbon round his neck. Stewart came with a smart tartan ribbon. Royal Stewart tartan. A bold, devil-may-care statement.
What is it, with you and bears? You don't even like them - well, that's what you told me - but there you were yesterday, carrying one in your rucksack like a taunt. A goad! Was it Stewart? I'll never know.
I had just bought myself a rather bitter cappucino from the stall by the news-stand, and I nearly dropped it when I caught sight of you. My hands were shaking. You couldn't possibly have seen me, of course. You were in the sunlight, outside. I was standing inside, on the walkway that leads to Princes Street. In the shadows. Watching the trains. Yes, I still like to watch the trains, and the names of stations on the arrivals board. Inverkeithing, Kirkcaldy, Ladybank, Leuchars...
You said we would always be friends. All the same, I didn't feel I could call your name or rush over to meet you. You never sent me your new phone number, for one thing. I can't text you any more. I love you, I love you. How is Stewart? Behaving himself today? What would you like for tea? When are you coming home? I miss you. Perhaps you forgot. Perhaps... Perhaps is such a coward's word. A convenient opportunity for denial. Why couldn't you just SAY?
I knew you disliked Stewart from the off. He was an imposition. When I presented him to you I hoped you liked him really, deep down, but if I'm honest I knew you didn't. I knew you wouldn't, even as I was choosing him in that naff little souvenir shop on the Royal Mile. At the time I didn't want to notice the poorly-veiled look of contempt in your eye but thinking back to it now it really cut me to the quick. I knew it was too much, at the time. We were well past the teddy bear stage weren't we, by then? I knew it. I just couldn't stand the thought of that final slamming shut of the door. But jamming your foot in it can't last. It hurts too much. I knew that too but I did it anyway.
It was the beginning of the end, that bear. For us. No - it was the end. It was. It was.
If I could get my hands on Stewart now, I'd rip his fucking legs off.
Lunch at the Cornerstone
"Well he's young, isn't he. I mean, really young. He's, I mean, you know."
"Young." I didn’t like her smug tone. I hadn’t expected to like it; knowing her so well I could usually predict her response if not her exact words, but now that I was hearing it rather than just rehearsing our conversation in my head, I really didn’t like it. We shook the rain off our brollies, hurried down the steps and joined the noisy, ravenous queue.
Major tactical error really, meeting at 1pm in a city centre café for a catch up girlie chat. Not that we were girls any more. Oh no. Heaven forfend.
"You’re going to have to face it you know."
"He's at a..."
"...at a different stage. Yes. I know." We’d been through all this before. And each time she’d said it I noticed the way her mouth twisted as she spoke, making her dark red lipstick bleed and collect in the corners. You should really invest in a decent lip-liner, I thought. Or wear a lighter colour. After all, one reaches a stage… But I didn’t say it aloud.
"He won’t stay interested for long, anyway." She was ordering spicy tomato soup and an apple. I slid my tray along the counter behind hers, pretending to consider an enormous cheese scone. She looked at it, then at me, and raised an eyebrow. I picked it up with a pair of stainless steel cake tongs and dropped it neatly on to my plate along with two pats of butter. Her lips were thin lines of sticky blackcurrant jam.
“Still off the carbs?” I asked.
“I’m never hungry and the weight’s falling off me. You should try it. I’ll email you the diet plan if you like.”
We paid for our food and homed in on a table by the window where a studenty-looking French couple with a chubby toddler were just putting their coats on. They'd left a mess but a waitress soon whisked by with a damp cloth and a tray.
"I mean WHY..." she began, as we sat down. I buttered my scone, and waited as she arranged herself.
"WHY," she continued stridently, after a slurp of soup, “WHY would he?” Did she know she was strident? Didn't she care? After twenty years of uneasy friendship I still wasn’t sure.
"Why would he what?" I struggled with "he". Such a sharp, deep pain. It brought back the smell of his skin, the texture of it, the warmth of him. He was so pale. I loved that...I'd never see him again, I knew that. She didn't know that - she merely hoped.
Now she was fixing me with her beadiest glare, staring at me over a spoonful of carb-free soup.
"WHY would he be interested in someone like you?"
I broke off a piece of thickly-buttered scone, put it in my mouth and turned away as I chewed. The young French family were passing the window, and I wanted to cry.
The Vicinity of Normal
"I'm looking for Caurnie Avocado shampoo but I don't see any."
"We haven't been able to get that for a while, I'm sorry. The Faith in Nature stuff is similar though?"
Yes, I thought. But it's twice as dear. I smiled and wandered away, towards the chill cabinet. I popped a packet of alfalfa sprouts in my basket, and considered an aubergine dip. Was it worth one pound sixty? the cheese and sweetcorn flan was always...
Two friendly faces at the organic veg. rack. Jenny was holding a paper bag open for Tom, who was selecting pak choi.
"These are terribly limp," he muttered.
"Great to see you both. How's the baby?"
Jenny and Tom had moved up to Bruntsfield when Jenny was expecting. Killer mortgage but they'd needed the extra space, you see.
"Oh our beautiful Milly! She's the cutest wee bundle of smiles and pinkness!" crowed Jenny.
"Yes! The sleepless nights are worth it! She's with her doting granny today. Are you still...?"
"No, Tom. I moved out. Staying with a friend in Stockbridge."
"Oh PHEW," said Tom.
"Oh thank GOODness," said Jenny, "It was so awful, you know..."
Yes, I knew. I thought I knew, anyway. I felt guilty as I watched a shadow pass across their bright, normal faces. I wanted to be bright and normal too, but I wasn't. Not yet.
"The things we heard through the wall..." said Jenny, biting her lip. Don't feel bad, I wanted to say. But I didn't.
"We thought of calling the police," said Tom, earnestly.
"Oh no. That wasn't necessary." I was getting that detached, shrinking feeling again. I'd hoped that instinctive response had gone; the involuntary inward retreat to the awful place I called the Echo Chamber. It hadn't. I'd hoped I was somewhere in the vicinity of normal. I wasn't anywhere close.
"Well we weren't sure," said Jenny, looking relieved. "We thought it might make things worse."
"But you're out of that now," said Tom, breezily, dropping a pak choi into the bag.
Conversation over. I knew it.
"And well done you," said Jenny, squeezing my arm. She let go just a little too quickly, and was careful not to catch Tom's eye.
"Oh yes!" I said, forcing the biggest smile I could muster. I looked away from the gritty, stunted veg and outside to the sunlit summer street. Colourful impressions of T shirts, sunglasses, tanned skin. The roar of a passing bus drowning the sound of Thelonius Monk drifting down from the open window of an upper flat.
Oh yes. Anytime now I'd be entering the vicinity of normal, clutching my alfalfa sprouts, my organic shampoo and my wholemeal flan.
"Bye Jenny. Bye Tom. Give Milly a cuddle from me."
Jenny leaned towards me, took my hand and put it on her stomach. "We've another on the way, you know."
I looked into her clear green eyes, and knew that she meant it as a gift.
Art Garfunkel Hair
He had pale wispy hair, through which the light shone, halo-like, when he sat in front of a window, revealing the gleaming shape of his skull and reminding me of the young Art Garfunkel. I was never, ever, attracted to him. A few laughs at work, to help the day go by. That was all. There was never, ever, anything more in it than that. And I assumed that he felt the same. I was emerging from a relationship break-up, for heaven's sake. I didn’t say that explicitly; I didn’t think I needed to. And I certainly didn’t want to. As far as I was concerned, personal stuff was off-limits and our conversations were strictly light-hearted.
I didn't realise how things stood with him, until he invited me to a party at his flat. I wasn’t keen, but he lived just two streets away and I didn't like to be rude. When I arrived, the door was open and I peeped cautiously into the living-room. Muted James Blunt, overhead up-lit bulb on a dimmer switch, and three miserable-looking people I didn’t know, perched on a grubby cream sofa. I went straight to the kitchen to find a drink. Two gaunt, forty-ish women with sinewy necks wearing vest tops and jeggings were sitting barefoot on either side of a sputtering gas fire. His flatmates, apparently. They both said "Ah! You've come!” at the same time, which I found strangely unsettling, considering we’d never met.
"This is all for your benefit, you know," they whispered.
To the strains of You’re Beautiful, I looked round in puzzlement at the half-consumed bottles of Rioja, the gluey sticks of bought-in chicken satay and the tubes of Pringles, and thought to myself, "Why?" Then, feeling slightly sick, I began to twig. I racked my brains, searching for moments when I might have "led him on", or "given him the wrong idea", and could find nothing. I started to panic.
"He's upstairs. Getting ready," said one of the flatmates, smiling.
"He's so excited," said the other.
That was it. "I'll go through to the living-room and wait there," I said, trying to sound casual.
Swiftly, I by-passed the living-room and headed straight out the front door.
He avoided me at work, after that, and then moved on. I bumped into him outside Waterstones a year later.
"How the world turns! How are you?" he asked.
"Fine, yeah. You?" I could sense what was coming.
"I'm engaged to be married. We’re expecting a baby next June. And I love my new job. Life really couldn’t be any better. Are you with anyone…?"
"Same old job?"
"That’s too bad," he smirked.
Not really, I thought.
He’d aimed for the jugular but it was only a glancing blow. I turned away. The sun was coming out and I didn’t want to watch it make his skull gleam whitely through his wispy Art Garfunkel hair.
Festive Cheer at the German Market
I didn’t like shouting, but I had to.
“GLUHWEIN please! Sorry, but I was here first.”
The woman to my right was standing on my foot.
And a merry Yuletide to you too, oh woman with black suede spike heeled winkle-picker knee-highs and the dispassionate eyes of a hungry shark. Keep moving or die. And by the way, you’re wearing far too much perfume.
“Would you MIND,” I said through gritted teeth, as I pulled it out from under. She gave me a dirty look. I’d my good boots on as well; Clarke’s, black shiny leather, non-slip sole, two inch heel. Practical, but dressy enough to wear with a skirt. I’d got them half -price in last year’s Boxing Day sale and they were still like new. But they couldn’t compare with hers.
The bored-looking young woman who was serving caught my eye as she slopped some wine into a sticky-looking glass mug and jerked her head to the left as she slid it along the counter. “Four pounds.”
I stared at the stumpy little glass. The twinkling fairy lights that decorated the stall seemed to fuse for a moment as I repeated incredulously, “Four pounds?”
She wiped the counter and looked at me disdainfully with the suggestion of a shrug. I stared back. She had pale blue, kohl-rimmed eyes, and very pale blonde hair. She was rather beautiful. Her mouth was an insolent curve of pink, revealing when it parted small, even white teeth. She reminded me of a young Anita Pallenberg. I felt a tiresome stab of envy as I reached into my bag, wondering what kind of footwear she was wearing, behind the shelter of that ring-marked wood-effect counter. Biker boots, setting off long slim legs and a casually short skirt, probably. Life was so easy at that age, especially when you were beautiful and pretended not to care. I wished that I didn’t care. I wished that I could just let her be.
I held a five pound note in the air and waited for her to take it. As she did so I noticed that her fingernails were bitten and there was a nicotine stain on the forefinger of her right hand. It all added to the appeal.
“Keep the change,” I said. She didn’t bother with an acknowledgement as she dropped the spare pound into a jar at the back of the stall.
“If you want some Christmas cheer, you’ve got to pay for it,” said a smug voice beside me. I wasn’t looking at her so I didn’t see her say it but I knew it was spiky-heels.
I lifted my glass and turned away. As I did so, the next person in the queue pushed forwards, and I had no option but to step backwards, right on to spiky-heel’s foot. The two-inch heel of my sturdy Clark’s boot landed squarely on the black suede winkle-picker, and I heard a satisfying squeal of pain.
“Merry Christmas,” I murmured quietly.
“Let’s stop here and eat.”
I could tell by her tone and the way she blinked rapidly as she spoke that she knew that I knew that she knew that I knew that she was being disingenuous.
Okey-dokey, I thought, deciding to play along. Let’s do that. Let’s stop right here, beside Aleister Crowley’s old house – the one where he managed to fling wide the portals of hell, then neglected to crank them shut - and have a pleasant, relaxing lunch.
I bumped the Agila up on to the verge. “Righty-oh. I’ll get the picnic rug and the cool-box. Can you manage the flask?”
I had parked at the foot of a steep embankment, right by a stagnant ditch and under a murky stand of alders, and although none were presently visible, the place shrieked “midge”. I cranked open the sunroof to its fullest extent, then got out and slammed the door firmly, locking it behind me before fetching the picnic stuff from the boot.
A few hundred yards away on the loch side, stood the crumbling, ivy-covered gateposts at the head of the driveway to the dreaded house. The sky was steel-grey, and the air still as death.
She turned to me with a glare. “I can’t get out.”
“Can’t you?” I replied, glancing casually at the thicket of nettle-tops that reached half-way up the passenger window. “Oh. How dreadful. You’ll just have to clamber over to this side.”
“Won’t you move the car to somewhere that’s not next to nettles and a midge-factory?”
“No. You said you wanted to stop here, and here we have stopped.”
I felt her eyes boring into the back of my head as I stood in front of the car, whistling, bending my knees and flexing my arms above my head.
“Lovely spot for a picnic. Look at that nice raven, on the gatepost. Hello, fella!”
“I can’t clamber. My back’s on amber alert. You took that last bend like Lewis bloody Hamilton.”
“Well I’m not moving the car. Keep mobile, that’s what the physio said.”
“I hate that physio. She’s a cow.”
I opened the cool-box and took out a chicken mayo deli wrap. Some of the filling squirted out as I bit into it.
“Can I have one?” she asked.
“I’m starving. When you get back into this car, I will kill you. You know that, don’t you?”
The raven flew to an alder branch above, disturbing a vast, humming cloud of midges. I put my hood up as the swarm descended in their predictably relentless search for blood. The advance guard was already filling the car via the sunroof as I hurried away. She was frantically straining to reach the handle to crank it shut, but to no avail as I’d already wedged it open with a tube of hand-gel.
The raven flew back on to the gate-post as she finally toppled out of the car and into the nettle-filled ditch. Driver’s side.
Last winter my television broke down. I couldn’t afford another, so instead I'd sit at my window at night with the light off, with a hot water bottle, a few custard creams and a cup of tea, watching for life in the house across the glen.
Usually, there was plenty. And luckily for me, they didn’t bother with curtains.
I'd inherited a pair of night vision binoculars from my uncle, who'd been in the Home Guard. They were still in perfect working order. I spent hours staring through them; from my window there was only one place to look, really, and that was across the glen.
It never crossed my mind that there might be someone staring back.
I found out one morning when Archie the butcher stopped by on his weekly round with his mobile shop.
“Mary-Ann,” he said. He was a fine-looking man, Archie the butcher, blood-stained, sausage-like fingers aside; he had a fine opinion of himself, too.
“Mary-Ann. Young Norman’s engaged to be married. Did you know that?”
“Young Norman from across the glen? I’ll take half a pound of smoked back. Rind-free this time please, and I want a discount. You gave me rind-on last week. Who to?”
“Half a pound of back. Okey-doke. Shanice. Bonny girl. I believe she…” he grimaced as he groped under the narrow refrigerated counter for the right kind of bacon “…I believe she stays there most nights.”
He looked at me pointedly as he slapped the bacon on to the counter. “They’re doing the place up. Adding an extension for when they start a family. Which they’ll be doing very soon, I imagine. Young couple like that.”
“Is that right? Well whatever goes on over there is none of my concern, I’m sure.”
“That’s correct. It’s none of your concern.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Your uncle would turn in his grave if he knew what you were doing with his night vision binoculars. He wasn’t the only one round here who was in the Home Guard, Mary-Ann. You’ve been spotted.”
Archie popped a Murray Mint into his mouth then leaned on the counter, splaying his blood-stained, sausage-like fingers. As he spoke I could smell stale tobacco on his breath, underlying the sickliness of the mint.
“The game’s up, Mary-Ann. Throw the binoculars over the cliff, before they get the police on to you.”
“I haven’t done anything illegal.”
“Folk are saying you’re a pre-vert.”
“A pre-vert?” I held his eye.
“Is that what you’re saying too, Archie? Am I a pre-vert?”
Archie shrugged and crunched his mint.
“Well! And me a loyal customer for umpteen years! Don’t bother coming round again Archie. You can stuff your bacon. And by the way - your personal hygiene’s shocking.”
Archie passed wind contemptuously by way of reply.
“Filthy beast. Binoculars nothing,” I said, as I manoeuvred myself out of the van, “I’m saving up for a telescope.”
For this one, we were given the first two sentences, as part of a flash fiction competition.
Tall rosebay willow herb and nettles blocked the path to No 52 Mortonhall Way and the key still in the lock of the blistered door was disintegrating with rust. Two rats scuttled out from under the fence and disappeared down a broken storm drain as I passed.
I continued powering my mobility scooter along the pavement towards the shopping precinct. I knew who lived at No. 52. It was my Uncle Charlie, and his dog-companion Slicer.
He didn't care about the jungle-like state of his garden, or the rats, or the rusting key. He only cared about staying indoors reading the racing pages, while Slicer built up his muscles on a running machine and slavered in anticipation of the fresh offal he got for his tea three times a week. Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. Today was Wednesday. Three days without his offal; I knew Slicer would be desperate.
I accelerated through a group of jeering schoolchildren who stank of vinegar crisps and veered past the bus-stop, narrowly missing an elderly couple with a forlorn-looking Jack Russell.
"Monsters!" I shouted, flicking them the Vs then doing a handbrake turn and screeching to a halt by the butcher's.
I could see Julie’s gloved hands arranging a tray of tripe in the window. I couldn’t see her face behind the adverts for meat hampers and steak pies and entreaties to eat more lo-fat “SAUSAGES!” but I knew it was her because of the large diamond engagement ring that showed through the plastic.
Julie was engaged to Uncle Charlie. Nobody knew what she saw in him, but everyone knew what he saw in her. She had what they called two very sizeable assets. And she gave him free meat for Slicer.
I decided to drive into the shop. I could actually walk and occasionally did, but there was a ramp and the door had been modified so I thought why not make the most of it.
Julie grinned down at me from behind the counter. I braked and glared back across the neat rows of chicken fillets and casserole steak. It was all nicely laid-out. Oh yes. She’d even arranged sections of bright green artificial grass between the white plastic trays of meat.
How he afforded that size of ring nobody knew. Massive didn’t cover it. And there she was, flaunting it along with her “assets” that bulged beneath her striped blue and white apron.
I hated Julie. Yes, I’ll admit I was jealous. Of course I was. I’d been loyally collecting offal for Uncle Charlie’s vile hound for months now and what had I got out of it but a few dodgy tips for the Cheltenham Gold Cup?
I couldn’t contain myself.
“Why Julie – why?”
Julie waggled her left hand and winked. “I’m too good-looking to be flogging meat. Charlie’s done all right with his gambling.”
I blinked furiously.
Julie laughed. “We’re getting married Saturday week in Vegas.”
I reversed, then revved up the scooter, went straight into second and rammed the counter.
More on the Way....................
**********************All work copyright Kate Smart*********************************