This section is for very short stories. Short shorts or Flash fiction. In these days of sound bites flash fiction is becoming popular. The restriction of writing a story in under 500 words is a good excercise in economic writing.
December. The Yumbo Centre, Playa del Inglés, Gran Canaria. A distant choir urges all the faithful to come and adore.
Two men in leathers stroll into Heaven. The bars all have odd names: the Block, the Bunker, the Hole in the Wall.
‘Hurry up. We’ll be late,’ says Mum.
Past stalls offering flamenco dresses, hair braiding and acrylic nails, past Sparkles Show Bar, past the giant trampoline in the middle of the square…. Oh come let us adore him…. and we arrive at The Silver Slipper, the bar transformed into a church for the night. A shiny cross competes with Cinderella’s slipper.
The pastor greets Mum with a welcoming smile.
‘He wanted me to sing in the choir,’ she whispers in my ear, ‘but I drew the line at that.’
What doesn’t she draw the line at, I wonder.
A waiter with Tintin hairstyle weaves his way to our table. ‘What would you like to drink, my lovelies?’ Above him dangle tinsel streamers and a silver star. ‘Took me life in me hands up a ladder fixing them,’ he says and winks.
A passing family applaud. The choir, dressed in black trousers or skirts and white shirts, with a red tie or scarf at the neck for a bit of Christmas cheer, grin self-consciously as they shuffle a few papers ready for the next carol.
A willowy blonde with a tan-to-die-for proffers each table an orange. A candle is stuck in the centre with satellites of jelly-tots-on-cocktail-sticks around it. I pop a couple of jellies in my mouth and miss the pastor’s explanation of their significance. Mum explains, ‘The orange represents the world, the candle is God and the jelly-tots are us.’
‘Oh great,’ I say, none the wiser.
‘Oh and we’re not to light the candle yet.’
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord… Our waiter sashays up to us, tray held high. He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored…. ‘One red, one white. Enjoy.’
From under the adjacent table two dogs emerge in semi-bondage, their leads a tangled cat’s cradle, but no cat. Silent night, holy night… Woof. All is calm, all is bright… WOOF. Kids in bungee harnesses bounce sky high on the trampolines and scream. Glories stream from heaven afar, heavenly hosts sing Hallelujah… WOOF, WOOF!
‘Shall we have a mince-pie?’ asks Mum and forthwith appeared a shining throng…. A drag with bouffant hair, gold mini-skirt and bra with red tassels breezes past, a mobile Christmas tree, closely followed by a giant in chains.
All Glory Be to God on high and to the Earth be peace. The willowy blonde glides up to each table and lights the candles, one by one, then lifts her arms above her head and sways in rapture. The pastor nods in encouragement.
‘I really enjoyed that,’ says Mum on our way home, but whether she means the wine, the mince pie or the carols, I’m not sure.
At first it was the cloven-hoofed animals that were affected. The symptoms – foaming at the mouth, lameness, general debilitation – suggested another outbreak of foot and mouth. After a flight of geese nose-dived from the sky, shedding feathers as they fell, and whole shoals of fish were found floating like cardboard cut-outs on ponds, rivers and oceans, the original diagnosis had to be reviewed. Rumours abounded as to the cause of the phenomenon, but were never verified. The disease remained nameless. To label it would make it more shocking, more credible. Nothing to worry about we were told. Before long, scientists were certain to come up with a cure.
In the coldest month of that dark year, April, the fields lay barren. Herd after herd of cattle and flock after flock of sheep had to be culled. Pigs and chickens too. The stench of burning carcasses hung in the air, a pungent fog that refused to disperse. Gasmasks, reminiscent of past wars, appeared. Soon these protruding snouts were seen everywhere, their wearers seemingly a new species of animal.
It was perhaps a coincidence that, during the same period, a flu epidemic among humans caused the highest percentage of absenteeism from work ever reported and led to an unprecedented number of deaths.
On television, the Prime Minister addressed the nation, uttering these memorable words: ‘I want to make it absolutely clear that there is no connection between the disease that has infected the animals, birds and fish and the current outbreak of influenza within our workforce. The virus that has ravaged the natural world cannot be transmitted to human beings. I repeat, human beings cannot contract the disease that is destroying the animals. You have my word on that.’
A sudden heart attack and he’s gone. Now I must register his death, make the funeral arrangements and, I suppose, mourn the man who was, after all, my father. Always there, but never known.
A man on the periphery of life it seemed, at family gatherings he sat in corners, never expressed an opinion nor offered advice. Rarely smiled.
For the most part, Mama and I ignored him. I considered myself her man. After her death some five years ago, when I was forty, still single, still living at home, I thought my father and I might strike up some sort of relationship. But we continued our lives much as before, following the same routine. While I was at the office he went to the supermarket for bread and cheese, his preferred diet, or met a friend, another old man, for a beer and sandwich in the pub at the end of the road. In the evenings, we sat alone, he in his room I in mine.
The only change, as far as I could see, was that he began to go on holidays. Alone. I offered to go with him.
‘Oh no, that wouldn’t do at all,’ he said.
After his death, while sorting out his effects, I find a book full of names and addresses, none of them known to me. Photographs too that I have never seen. In each one, my father is the centre of attention, always smiling, and those around him smiling too, laughing, as if he has said something remarkably witty.
In his wallet, more photographs, this time of women, for the most part attractive and years younger than himself.
And, tucked into the central section, one lone condom.
Keep it Short
‘Keep it short,’ says my Mother, when I try to explain how much I miss my best friend, Anna. She’s moved to the country now, away from the bombs.
‘But I miss her so much, Mother.’ I’d like to call her Mummy or Mum but I’m not allowed. I try to cuddle up to her on the over-size sofa, but her body is as hard as a plank of wood. I am near tears.
‘You have to face it. Anna’s gone. You won’t be seeing her again.’ She pushes me away and stands up. Her face is a mask, expressionless.
Gone, like Father, I think. A tear rolls down my cheek.
‘You have to learn to control your feelings,’ she adds, as she makes for the kitchen to prepare the dinner I don’t want to eat.
I sit in the middle of the sofa, head in hands and am still sitting there when she returns.
‘Pull yourself together,’ she insists, as she makes me sit at the table and force some stew down my throat. I hate stew. ‘We are not a demonstrative family. We keep our feelings to ourselves.’ She seems proud of that.
Who is this family? There is only the two of us. She is undemonstrative. I’m not. And I don’t want to be. Not if it makes my mouth as tight as a button like hers. When I have a child I’ll listen to her and give her lots of cuddles.
‘Keep it short,’ writes my teacher at the bottom of one of my long stories. ‘You tend to ramble on a bit.’
‘That’s because what I want to say is complicated,’ I tell her.
‘Still,’ she says, ‘keep it short.’
I suspect she doesn’t like long stories because she doesn’t want too much marking. Better things to do with her time.
‘Keep it short,’ says my mother to the hairdresser, Mrs. Webb, the farmer’s wife. She had her own hairdressing business, Mrs. W. tells me, before she got trapped by marriage, kids and chores. She winks at me as if to say she’s only joking, but I see her sad face and know she regrets the way her life has turned out.
Mother tells her to cut my hair in the same style as hers: a semi-single, shaved at the back of the neck like a boy’s. I pull a face at Mrs. W. but she has to do what Mother says. I long for long, golden hair like Jayne Mansfield or Diana Dors. I dream of being a glamorous film star and have everyone adore me.
‘Less chance of fleas if it’s short,’ Mother says as she scrapes my scalp each night with a metal comb.
For my mother, the war is not so much against the Germans as against fleas or any other creatures that may infect our lives. She puts down mousetraps with a smidgeon of cheese to tempt unwary mice. Most of them are wary. Their bright eyes suss out the situation, nick the cheese and escape before the metal bar falls on their fragile backs. Clever mice. Sensible mice.
I write a play at school: a modern fairy tale, the kind with a double meaning. Symbolic. Deep. My teacher says it has potential but that I should cut it a bit. Keep it short. I copy out the shortened version and cast my friends in the various roles. Not my real friends, because Anna’s gone. My classmates. They count the number of lines they’ve been given. Rosemary complains that Sally has more lines than her and that I’ve got more than both of them.
‘That’s because I tried to keep it short,’ I explain.
‘My part’s too short,’ says Rosemary.
‘So is mine,’ says Sally.
They exchange looks, raise their eyes to heaven. The next day I ask them to come to a rehearsal after school. They exchange more looks and run off.
I find the play copies in the wastepaper basket, torn up in tiny pieces. They don’t like my play. Even though I kept it short. My career as a playwright is over.
I can’t be a film star either. Whoever heard of a film star with a semi-shingle? As for Anna, she hasn’t replied to any of my letters. She doesn’t have to write a long letter I tell her. A few lines on the back of a plain postcard would do. She can keep it short.
I lie in bed, my thoughts going round and round. ‘Keep it short, keep it short, keep it short,’ say the voices inside my head. I feel trapped, like Mrs. W. I want to escape, like the mice, but I can’t. I’m not clever enough.
My life is just one long disappointment. I wish I could cut it short.
An old man sits on a bench and gazes with unseeing eyes at the sea. Old eyes, clouded, mind far away. He has the look of a Bedouin, who has seen so much sand, and then more sand, on the camel rides over the dunes of the Sahara, that his eyes fail to focus on the here and now, but only on sand. The past, the present, the future, void of everything but sand. He sees but does not see. Hears, but does not hear. Is, but is not. Dreams but does not dream.
Suddenly, a tiny creature attacks him, clutches the loose cloth of his trousers, scrambles on to his knees, pushes her tubby feet against his old thigh bones, heaves herself up, holds on with one hand to his bony shoulder and tugs his ear with the other.
And for a moment, the old man adjusts his gaze, focuses, none too easily, on his attacker, who continues to pull and push and tease him. And the great-grandfather gives a toothless grin, happy to be molested by this darling child. Aware of his place in the scheme of things, he subjects himself to be bullied by this youngster at the start of her life. He is eighty-eight and still of use.
The Pemberton Scandal
Have you heard the news about the Pembertons, my dear? No, of course you haven’t. You won’t have given a thought to Little Bedding while sunning yourselves on the costas. Yes, I do realise you only got back a few minutes ago. I saw you drive up. That’s why I’m here. I was sure you’d want to know pronto what’s been going on while you’ve been away.
First there was Neil Pemberton’s wedding. A very special do, my dear. Even those of us not invited to the service or reception, dressed ourselves up, hats and all, and lined the church path to see all the guests arrive in their Rovers and Mercs. The men were in morning suits, the women in sleek silk dresses and feathered hats. How those women manage to stay so thin I’ll never know. By surviving on one lettuce leaf a day, I shouldn’t wonder. Coat hangers, that’s what I call those skinny lizzies. Coat hangers. One of them looked like Princess Beatrix. I can’t swear that it was her, mind, but it might have been. The Pembertons do have a lot of connections in high places.
The bride, Alicia her name was, looked fabulous in white satin, blonde hair like a giant pineapple on top of her head and a very long veil. Too long in my opinion, but a very pretty girl, I have to admit that. At the time, I thought Neil lucky to have landed her. After all, he’s nothing to look at with his white moon face and thick-lensed specs. And short, very short. Strange that, his parents being so good-looking and tall. Neil must have been a throwback, Plenty of money there of course. And money talks.
Anyway, it was a lovely day. The wedding gave us all a lift, made us feel close, gentry and villagers alike.
Perhaps it was that feeling of unity that contributed to our horror when we heard the tragic news. No, nobody’s dead, my dear. It wasn’t a tragedy in that sense, but it was a terrible shock, not only to Neil but to everyone.
I mean, for Alicia, however beautiful she may be, to run off with someone else is just not on. Not the ticket. She went through with the ceremony all right but by night she’d fled.
What is it to me what these people do? Well, nothing really, my dear, but, you know how it is in a village. We’re caring folk and I for one can’t help feeling sorry for that poor boy. It just shows you that money and position aren’t everything they’re cracked up to be, that the upper classes have their problems just like we do.
Don’t you know want to know who she ran off with? That’s the really shocking part What’s the world coming to when a son can’t even trust a parent? No my dear, not Lord Pemberton. It was his wife, Lady Isabel, Neil’s mother who whisked her away. They say they’re madly in love. Oh no, dear, I haven’t got the wrong end of the stick. Such things do happen. Even in a village.
I can see you’re gob-smacked? Well, we all are.
Well dear, I’ll leave you to unpack and get yourself sorted. Just thought I’d let you know the news before you heard it from someone less reliable.
The following story is a little longer. It comes from my interest in the Suffragettes.
You were not at all sure why you agreed to go with her. You knew her reputation. Everyone did. The invitation came as a complete surprise. You had never been one of her followers.
Your role as office junior meant that you were rarely in her company. You were a dab hand at removing the typewriter ribbon to make mimeo stencils, changing the drum in the Roneo machine or providing the typist with Obliterine when she made an error. You hand-cranked thousands of copies of the bulletin and leaflets and, on occasions, escaped the cramped, stuffy office with its cloying smell of copying ink, and ventured out into the bustling London streets to help distribute them. That was about the limit of your practical involvement, but it didn’t mean you weren’t totally committed to the cause.
It was during such excursions that you would catch glimpses of Emily in action. You’d already heard about the kind of protests she favoured. There wasn’t much that went on that you didn’t know about in the office. Administrative work is so repetitive and boring that you and your fellow workers were always hungry for news, especially if it concerned Emily’s latest exploit. You were not in favour of violence, but you did have a grudging admiration for her fearless pursuit of justice. She was certainly courageous; but reckless. Very reckless. This disregard for the safety of both herself and others made you determined not to become too close to her. Yet, despite your misgivings, almost without knowing it, when opportunity arose, you went out of your way to observe her.
Rumours about her abounded. Better educated than most, she’d been the top student of her year at Oxford, but was not eligible to receive her degree (which would have been a first class honours) on account of her gender. The first time she attended a union meeting, Emily was already a legend. On that occasion, you contrived to sit opposite her, an ideal position from which to study her rigid posture, sharp nose and pinched, stern face. Her flame-coloured hair was scraped back under a severe hat, her chin protruded defiantly and her green eyes glinted with the zeal of a fanatic. The bitterness that pulled her mouth down to one side combined with that rebellious chin, were evidence enough of her dedication. You could see that she had the makings of a leader but she would never take precedence in the union. Not with Mrs Pankhurst in charge.
Emily began to direct operations in a different way. Through her own daring acts she set out to inspire others. That her tactics were designed to further the cause of women’s suffrage you did not doubt, but there was something about her deliberate flouting of the accepted guidelines that smacked of self-aggrandisement. She practised a blatant form of subversion, designed to attract attention to herself. ‘Deeds not words!’ she shrieked as she smashed windows, set fire to postal boxes with petrol-soaked rags or assaulted a vicar she mistook for Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The bomb she threw at the latter’s newly built house in Surrey was further proof that she was an aggressive campaigner who did things on her own initiative, without the approval of the Women’s Social and Political Union. The problem, as far as the other members saw it, was that the violence of her actions tended to perpetuate the belief that the suffragettes were misguided, strident women, at the very least, fodder for vulgar jokes, at the most, a danger to society and a disgrace to womankind. Owing to the extreme measures Emily opted for, the cause itself was in danger of falling into disrepute. It was common knowledge that she’d escaped from her cell in Strangeways and thrown herself down an iron stairwell with no regard for her own well-being. Some of your colleagues suggested that her suicide attempt had been a sensational pretence, but the injuries she sustained from that fall that had never completely healed. From this instance alone, it was clear that she had a propensity toward self-destruction. At barely eighteen-years-old, you were a stickler for keeping to the rules and were as shocked as everyone else by the lack of discipline she demonstrated.
One day when on leaflet distributing duty, you saw Emily with three or four other women hurling stones at the windows of the House of Commons. You stood on the opposite side of the street, wide-eyed and open-mouthed at their audacity. As the other protesters hoisted up their skirts and made good their escape, Emily strode across the street, took a firm grasp of my arm with one hand, hailed a hansom cab with the other, and hustled me into it, saying, ‘Don’t stand gawping girl, you’re in as much danger of being arrested as the rest of us.’
There you were, sitting in the back of the cab next to the most militant suffragette of them all.
‘That will teach them,’ she said. ‘The breaking of the windows is symbolic. It demonstrates that, one way or another, we will break into that male domain.’
She was a tall person, but very thin, with fragile-looking bones, but you could feel the force of her personality, her fervour for the cause, as she spoke. She told you about her plan to hide in the Parliament building on the night of the forthcoming census so that she could enter her address on the census form as “the House of Commons.”
You asked her how she could possibly achieve that objective.
She gave a short laugh. ‘Oh don’t worry about that. I’ll find a way. We belong there, you see, and we’ve got to show them we belong there, that women must have a voice in government as well as men.’
She turned to face you and looked you straight in the eye, as if sizing you up. She informed you that she’d often noted your presence at the protests and had suspected that it was your wish to become more active. It was then that she invited you to accompany her to the Derby on the fourth day of June, where she intended to draw attention to the cause by creating what she termed “a little diversion.”
‘It would be a good initiation for you,’ she said.
You wrinkled your forehead. ‘We’re not going to throw stones at the horses, I hope. I wouldn’t like that. I’m very fond of horses.’
She placed your hand between both of hers and applied a little pressure, as if making a pledge. ‘No stone throwing, I promise,’ she said. ‘It will be just the two of us making a positive statement for women’s suffrage.’
‘Just the two of us,’ she said. No wonder you found yourself agreeing. Tired of being thought of as an efficient, but insignificant office mouse, you couldn’t help but be flattered that she’d selected you, a young woman, hardly more than a girl, to be her chosen partner in this enterprise. In spite of your reservations about her methods, you felt a little flutter of excitement. With a bit of luck, a spark of her fiery spirit would transmit itself to you. What she was offering you was the chance to prove yourself a true suffragette.
That’s how it came about that you accompanied her to the Derby. But you would like to make it clear that what she did there was as big a shock to you as to everyone else. The plan, in as far as you understood it at the time, was to wave the purple-white-and-green at Tattenham Corner, hoping that the suddenness of the act might distract the horses and sabotage the race. Consciousness raising for the cause, she called it. That was the intention. What she actually did you cannot condone. In your opinion, to put herself in such danger was iniquitous. Whether from the first her purpose had been to create a spectacle or whether she acted on impulse, you really couldn’t say. You never knew with Emily. She was a person with her own agenda, always desperate to go one step further than everyone else. This time it was a step too far.
Emily gave you the benefit of her opinion as you waited for the race to begin. ‘Those other women,’ she said disparagingly. ‘They call themselves militant suffragettes who believe in confrontation. “Deeds not words” is their slogan but they spend most of their time making fine speeches. What “deeds” do they actually do? They chain themselves to railings, get themselves arrested and go on hunger strike, but what do they achieve? Nothing. No one takes them seriously. These little gestures are a waste of time. Something more is needed. Something grand. Something unforgettable.’
That little flutter of excitement in your stomach stirred again. Her eagerness to make a difference was infectious.
‘Watch me,’ she said. ‘Watch what I do and do the same.’
‘What are you planning?’ you asked.
‘Just wait and see,’ she said, ‘and follow my lead.’
You stood at her side, as, flying the royal colours, the King’s horse, Anmer, galloped round the bend at full tilt. You lifted the banner high and wide and began to wave it from side to side. Swift as a shaft of light, trailing her banner, Emily slipped under the barrier and darted out on to the racecourse directly in front of the horse. Anmer snorted, puffing breath through his giant nostrils. A surge of power and he reared up on his hind legs, whinnying in terror, buckled and collapsed on top of Emily. Her airborne body flipped over several times before striking the ground where it lay inert.
It all happened in a moment. ‘Follow my lead,’ she’d said, but you stood nonplussed, at a loss, numb with fright, as the other horses thundered by. The officials rushed to her aid, and to the aid of the horse; but it was too late for both of them. From your position near the barrier, as Emily lay on the ground, you could see what nobody else could see: the little smile of satisfaction that lit up her face for a second before she passed out. In spite of suffering what must have been excruciating pain, she was jubilant that, through her grand gesture, she had made her mark.
In the office the next day there was much talk of the event. You kept quiet. No one knew you had been with her at the Derby and you intended to keep it that way. Opinions about the validity of Emily’s feat were mixed. Some condemned her as an exhibitionist: others admired her bravery. A few days later, when the news of her death in Epsom Cottage Hospital arrived she was hailed by almost everyone as a worthy martyr who had given up her life to draw attention to the fight for the emancipation of women. Under instruction from the leaders of the WSPU, a call was issued to all women to attend the funeral procession. Messages were relayed by impassioned public speeches, by radio, newspapers and leaflets. The response surpassed all expectations.
Thousands of women from all parts of the country joined the procession, garbed in black carrying purple irises, in purple with crimson peonies or in white bearing laurel wreaths. Graduate and clergy, suffrage societies and trade unions marched side by side and the streets were lined by silent, respectful crowds. A day to remember.
And you, dressed in white with laurel leaves in your hair, marched with them, first to the burial service at St George’s, Hart Street, then on to Kings Cross where you watched the train bearing the remains of Emily Wilding Davison steam away to her mother’s home in Morpeth.
Some weeks later you made the same journey, to visit her grave. You read the inscription, “Deeds not Words” on the headstone, sent up a little prayer in her honour, and remembered the small part you had played on that momentous day. You knew that Emily Wilding Davison would be remembered for all time as the suffragette whose desire for the rights of women was so intense that she was prepared to die for it. You also knew that no one would remember you.
You sighed as you made your way back to the railway station to return to your duties, to churn out leaflets on the Roneo machine and carry out the other mundane tasks that your colleagues required you to do. Your hope that a little of Emily’s pioneering spirit would have rubbed off on to you had not happened. You were too timid to ever make a grand gesture.
On the train, as row upon row of suburban houses swept by the window, the realization came to you, that history was not only made by bold rule-breakers, but also by sensible, hardworking conformists. It didn’t matter that you, personally, would be forgotten. Like Emily, you could be justly proud of your role in promoting the social changes that were surely on their way. You gave a little smile of satisfaction.