Released – a bit of flash fiction

It’s early. Still dark. But the dog is insistent and if I don’t crawl out of bed now she’ll probably make a mess on the floor. She’s getting old now and her bladder isn’t what it used to be.

As I flip-flop down the stairs, I remember what day it is and a shiver passes through my body.

‘Someone walking over your grave’ my mother would have said.

I open the back door on to a world of white. Another dump of snow in the night. The dog almost disappears as she leaps into it with glee, her paw prints criss-crossing the garden in a crazy zig-zag of joy.

I leave her out there while I put the kettle on and try to liven myself up.

Sipping my tea and watching the slow glow of day creep in through the closed curtains, I try not to think too hard about the day ahead.  I’m supposed to be happy.  It’s supposed to be a red letter day. My husband is coming home.

He’s been away for four years.  Getting out early for good behaviour. I wonder if he’s going to be able to get here with the weather as it is.  I’m not going to pick him up. No. He understood. I’m sure he understood.

The dog comes in and unsuccessfully tries to leap on to my lap shaking snow from her coat and nearly spilling my tea as she does so. I shout at her, probably more fiercely than I should have and she slinks off and sits in her basket looking at me with her unblinking soulful eyes.

‘Sorry’ I say out loud, and pat her on the head.  That’s all she needs.  That’s all it takes sometimes, even with humans. Just a quick and heartfelt ‘sorry’, and the equivalent of a pat on the head. I dunno, a hug maybe, or just a smile.

I drag myself up the stairs and stand under the shower for a full five minutes, washing off the night with my ‘Japanese Spa’ shower gel.  I don’t know what’s so Japanese about it, I got it from the supermarket up the road. Anyway, it does the trick, I feel fresher once I’ve dried and put some clean clothes on.

I wasn’t sure what to wear. Should I try to look nice? Be welcoming? Or just look myself, in my old jeans and tatty jumper? I decide on the latter. It’s how he’ll remember me.

He’s not coming until the afternoon.

‘not sure what time’ he said, in our brief phone conversation ‘depends on the trains.’

I don’t know much about the trains. Haven’t been on one in years. I get a bit claustrophobic on public transport, it’s why I love my little car so much. She’s been a godsend.  Oh yes, it’s a she. I feel safe in her, comfortable and in control.  In fact, some times, on the bad nights, I go out to the drive and just sit in her, lock the doors and turn on the radio.  She is my mother ship..

The morning slips by in a haze of dog walking, dusting, changing the bed, and hoovering. Before I know it, it is lunchtime, but I can’t eat anything, the mere thought of food sends me dry heaving over the toilet.  It won’t do me any harm I suppose, I could probably do with losing a few pounds. It’s easy to eat rubbish when you’re on your own, and I’m sure my shape change won’t go unmentioned.

I watch the news at 1:00.  To my mock horror they don’t mention the imminent release of my spouse.  Amazing how such momentous events in a life can go completely unnoticed by the rest of the world.

I switch off the TV and let the dog out in the back garden again.  There’s a weak sun and the dogs paw prints are losing their shape as the top layer of snow begins to melt. The cold is refreshing and I suck in the dry winter air as if it’s my last gasp.

I don’t know what to do with myself for the rest of the afternoon. I try to paint, but the inspiration isn’t there and the paints won’t move on the paper as willingly as they usually do. Then I pick up my kindle.  That’s been a godsend, I read so many books, mostly psychological thrillers and murder mysteries.  It seems a bit counter-intuitive, but I enjoy those more than the foolish romantic stuff women of my age are supposed to read.  Nonetheless, today I find the words swim about and even though I read the same page umpteen times, I can’t make sense of it.

It’s half past three, and getting dark already.  I prayed and prayed that he would arrive in daylight, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.   But then I hear a car grinding to a halt outside. It’s a taxi.

Should I go and open the door, or wait for him to knock? I don’t want him to think I’ve been waiting, waiting, waiting, like I have, so I leave it and listen for the once familiar four raps.  I stand in the kitchen, my legs feel numb, my breath is sharp staccato, and I feel slightly dizzy.  Then the doorbell rings.

I reach out to the worktop to steady myself, take a deep breath, before walking as calmly as I can to the door.  I can see his shape through the glass. Instantly recognisable.  He’s tall, quite lanky really, and I can see a halo of curly hair outlined against the setting sun.

‘Took yer time’ he says, as I open the door.

I see him briefly appraising me.

‘Put on a bit a weight, Christ, I’d fergotten how bloody old you are’ he says, as he tries to push past me.

Instinctively I put my hand up against his chest, in a ‘halt’ motion. My body is on auto pilot.

‘yeah, pleased to see you too’ he says in his old familiar sarcastic way. ‘get outta the way woman, and go and get kettle on’.

I look him straight in his steely eyes, my body definitely in auto pilot, and say ‘No’.

Just like that.

‘No’.

It confuses him.  Of course it does. He snatches at my wrist to tug my hand away, but all of a sudden I’m quick and nimble. The dog is snapping at his ankles and he looks down and kicks at her. It gives me enough time to deftly bring my other hand up, the one with the kitchen knife in it, and slash at his turkey neck.

As he crumples, he looks surprised.  He shouldn’t be.

It seemed like a good idea…

Written in response to the Flash Fiction for the Purposeful Practitioner challenge week#2 – 2016

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It seemed like a good idea at the time, after all it was only another one of my brother’s ‘dares’.  He never believed I’d take them on, never believed in me, but oh did I love proving him wrong!

He watched as I climbed over the railing.  We were only one floor up but it still felt pretty high.  I clung on to the bannister and leaned out over the vast hall below. The floor shone from it’s morning polish, and the flowers in the huge vase in front of the portrait of my great-grandfather were fresh.  I could smell them even from my vantage point.

‘Go on then’ he urged, smugly waiting to taunt me.

So I leapt.

Falling forward as planned I grabbed the glistening chandelier. It’s crystal drops shuddered and tinkled as it took my weight.  Pleasingly, I heard my brother gasp.

But then I realised my predicament.  I hung there like a chimp, not knowing what to do. I couldn’t let go and I was too light to make the thing swing.

My arm ached but I managed to cling on until one of the butlers passed by. Not in a position to scold, he fetched a ladder to rescue me.

My mother was not amused.

A Loss? – Flash Fiction

Although the walls on each side were black and sooty, she could see the light in the distance beckoning her with the promise of safety.  She expected to hear her footsteps echo, but all she could hear were her gasps of effort.

She couldn’t quite remember how she had got there, although it seemed to her that it had been quite a journey.  She knew she wouldn’t have taken public transport, she hadn’t done that in at least fifty years.  She remembered quite clearly her revulsion at having to sit on the filthy seats, pressed too close to grubby strangers when she was a student, and how, as soon as she could, she’d bought herself a little car. But she hadn’t been able to drive for a couple of years now, not since they’d taken away her licence. Bloody old age.

She’d felt ok really.  Still had her wits about her although, in general, modern life was a bit of a puzzle.  The youngest members of her extended family seemed to live on a different planet, what with all their gadgets and gizmos, and what rare communication there was with them always seemed difficult. That’s not to say she didn’t love them all, but there were just so many these days…

She wondered where they were now, and instinctively looked down at her hand where the gold band still glistened, though it’s pair had been long gone.  It had been buried with him.  His only bit of decoration against the best black suit that they’d put him in. She wondered if it was still there, in the ground, encasing his bare finger bone, and shuddered at the thought of how cold his touch would now be.

Ineluctably her thoughts turned to her son who’d made it big in the US and then came to grief with the help of chemicals and alcohol.  She’d been mystified and heartbroken that her perfect boy had gone so soon. He’d been naughty as a child. A tease, with a cheeky chuckle, but he’d grown into a handsome man, broad and muscular with long dark hair that softened him and disclosed his gentle nature. She was so sad for his wife and their twin boys who had had to get along without him all those years, but they’d diligently kept in touch with her, emailing photos of special occasions, such as the boy’s weddings, and the babies births.

Looking ahead at the light, she saw she was progressing. It was becoming dazzling, and she closed her eyes, after all, she knew the path was safe. She could feel a slight breeze just brushing her cheeks like a gentle kiss, and for a second, thought she could smell perfume, the one her daughter Lillian liked that was hugely expensive and came in a fancy bottle. Smiling, she remembered her firstborn, who hadn’t been the brightest spark in school, but whose bright eyes and curves ensured that she’d married well.  She’d lived in an impressive house, with a room for the au pair, and a paddock for the ponies, but had ‘downsized’ to an idyllic country cottage when the children left for university. They had said it came with a ‘granny annex’ but they had converted it for the cleaner to live in before they moved in. It was a shame it was so far away, she felt she barely knew her children, or their children.

And then there was Jennifer.  Her youngest daughter, scrawny little Jenny with the mousey hair and crooked teeth. Always angry at the others, she was a loner who seemed content with her own company, so it astonished them when, in her fifties, she married a man 10 years her senior.  A professor or something.  He was a ramshackle widower, with umpteen adoring grandchildren always clinging to his hands. Jenny took them all on like a trooper. She became the perfect grandma, baking cakes and biscuits, letting the hoard have run of the house. It was good to see her happy though, even if it did make her forget her own mother sometimes.

Resolutely she strode on, picking up pace and as the light penetrated her lids, she knew she was close. Opening her eyes she grew accustomed to the brilliance enough to pick out dark shapes against it. As her excitement grew, her breath got louder in her ears and turned to an uneven rattle.  She gasped her last as she saw the shadows become the two men she missed so much, waiting for her, there, as she reached the end of the tunnel.

Deadline

heatI’ve been in this room since 6:00 a.m.  It was an abnormally hot night and I couldn’t sleep.  Knowing I had a deadline to work to didn’t help, so instead of enjoying the comforting embrace of my bed, I came down here to the study, the coolest room in the house.

Surprisingly, it’s not where I usually care to write.  It always feels a bit insular and claustrophobic. The ceiling height bookshelves with their jumble of dog-eared books seem to bear down on me, and it gets increasingly difficult to ignore the pile of bills and letters that bury the surface of the desk.  Instead, I usually prefer to spread myself out on the sofa, with my laptop atop my lap.  From there I can gaze out through the French windows across our higgledy-piggledy overgrown garden. I like to watch the wildlife foraging in its borders, although our neighbour’s tend to complain about it a bit.  They have what Greg calls a ‘council house garden’, flowers planted like soldiers in colour coded uniforms

I went up to wake Greg at 8:00.  He was still sleepy.

‘Where have you been?’ he asked unfurling his long limbs. If you didn’t notice his life-etched face and his cropped-to-disguise-the-bald-patch hair, you might think that my husband was one of those gangly teenagers yet to take full charge of their body

‘Couldn’t sleep.  Ridiculously hot. Don’t know how you manage it.’

‘Mmm… it is a bit on the warm side.’

I threw the heavy curtains back letting in a burst of light.

‘God, what time is it?  I need to get going.  Have to meet ‘The Bugger’ in town this morning.’ ‘The Bugger’ was his affectionate name for his boss.  Greg and The Bugger had been working together selling insurance since before I’d met him 22 years ago.  I always joked that they were more like a married couple than we were.  He certainly seems to spend more time with The Bugger than he does with me these days.

He left in a rush, half an hour later, barely remembering to give me my cursory morning kiss on the cheek as he went.  At 47, I still think he looks dapper in his grey suit. Especially with that purple tie that Izzy bought him for his birthday last year.

She has to buy post-able things now she’s at uni.

‘Do you know how much it costs to post a parcel mum?’ she had complained, making what I imagined was an excuse for forgetting my birthday.  As if I didn’t know! After all, I had been sending packages of food, silly socks and make-up almost weekly since she’d left!

As usual, I was thinking about Izzy when I opened my laptop, checked my emails, and then facebook, to see whether there were any messages from her, or better still, photo’s that her friends had posted.  I love seeing those. They are nearly all the same – a group of four or five friends, heads together, all with raised beer glasses and all grinning drunkenly.  Happy pictures.  There haven’t been any of me like that for a long time.

There was nothing new on-line today though, so, begrudgingly, I open the file I’d created yesterday.  I’ve been commissioned by a small local paper to write something around the changing environment and its effect on our town.  It won’t earn me much, but keeps me occupied.  I’ve long since given up the dreams of earning big bucks. The ‘school of hard knocks’ Greg calls it.  All those brown envelopes with their grey rejections enclosed.  I’d rather not bother any more, just do odd bits and bobs, like this article.

God it’s hot.  Its only 10:00 a.m. and it’s unbearable. My head is thumping.  So, without guilt, despite knowing how appalled my prissy mother would be (‘Geraldine! The neighbours!’), I strip off down to my underwear and pad semi-naked through the house to the bathroom.  Running the shower as cold as it can go I step under and let the water run over my body.  It makes me shiver, but not unpleasantly, so I stay there for a full five minutes before stepping out into the heat again.

I can’t bear the thought of drying my hair.  I rarely tie it back, it’s not quite long enough, so I have to scrape it flat to my head giving myself a Croydon facelift as Greg calls it.  Trying it out, I can see in the unforgiving mirror, that it does indeed pull my eyes up slightly at the corners, but it also makes me look hard and sour faced.  I decide to keep it pinned up anyway though, just to stop it sticking to my neck sweatily.

I dig out an old shift that I bought when we went to a garden party a few summers ago.  It’s a bit big now, but at least its pattern of yellow flowers is cheery, and better still, the soft cotton feels cool against my skin.  It’s too hot for underwear so I decide to go ‘commando’ and, stopping only to get some aspirin on the way, head back to the study.  The icon on my laptop is flashing to tell me I have a new mail message.  It’s from Izzy:

‘Hi Mum

It’s really hot here today, is it the same there?  We’ve decided to skip lectures and go and swim in the river instead – how exciting is that!! Might even skinny dip hehe.. – don’t worry just saying that to shock you.  Go on admit it, you nearly fainted hehehe.   Anyway, hope you’re ok. Speak soon, Iz x x’

Her emails always make me smile, especially the ‘hehe’s’.  I can imagine her tittering to herself as she is typing.  I respond:

‘Fully understand you wanting to skinny dip.  Think I might go down the canal myself, perhaps take nana with me!  Can you imagine us wrinklies?  Bet you want to poke out your mind’s eye now!! Lots of love mummy x x x p.s. be good, and keep safe!’

Pleased with my attempt at humour, I turn my mind to the article I am supposed to be submitting no later than 2:00 today.  To be truthful, I don’t much care if it’s late, but decide I ought to try and make an effort.  I can hear thunder rolling in the distance as I google ‘environmental issues’ but the resulting sites are so broad I don’t know where to start, so try again using ‘environment+local’ and find an English Heritage site.  There’s nothing new on there though and I realise getting an original perspective will be difficult. We’ve been warned about the dangers for years, God knows why the paper wants something from me now.

The light is reflecting on my screen and it’s making my headache worse. I draw the curtains and the dust that drifts from them makes me sneeze. In the semi-darkness I fumble about in the over-filled desk drawer until with relief, I manage to find the spare pack of tablets. I can still hear the distant drum-roll of thunder as I swallow a dose.  I need them to work, the heat is stifling.

My mobile rings.  Izzy set it up so it plays ‘Always look on the bright side of life’ when anyone calls, and I loathe its cheeriness today.  She also set it up so that I can see on the screen who is calling.  Now it says ‘Your hubby’ with a smiley face next to it.

‘Gerry, it’s me.  The Bugger says we have to take the bloody client out to lunch now.  It’s bloody miles away.  So much for leaving early today. Glad I’ve got air conditioning in the motor I can tell you.’

‘You said you’d take me to the docs’

‘Sorry love, can you take yourself? There’s no real need for me to be there is there? Just make sure you tell him everything.’

‘No, it’s alright, I won’t go.  I’ll ring them and cancel.’

‘No, don’t do that.  You need to see someone. Just make sure…’

But before he finishes his sentence the signal fizzes and dies.

Greg has been nagging me to see the doctor for a while.  He says I’m ‘not myself’.  I’m not sure if I am or not, to be honest. Not sure who ‘myself’ is these days.  Anyway, I certainly don’t feel up to going to the docs on my own today, and besides, I’d have to go on public transport which means interacting with the ‘great unwashed’ as Greg calls them.

Looks like the signal has gone completely, and when I get back to my laptop, the internet is down as well.  Bloody heat.

The cotton dress sticks to my skin as I go to the kitchen and thrust my head into the fridge to feel its cold breath on my face.  I half fill a glass with ice from the integral ‘ice-maker’ that we had been so impressed with all those years ago.  The fridge is looking a bit faded now, its once shiny, brushed aluminium, exterior just looks a bit grubby, and there is a blob of black mould inside at the back.  I dread to think what food item is embalmed in it.  I fill my glass with juice, add a splosh of ‘something to liven it up’ and lean back against the metal door.  Perhaps I should write about global warming. Today must be proof enough for even the most sceptical individuals.

I go to the front of the house and peer through the window.  There is a miasma of heat rising from the street.  I can’t see a single soul.  Next door’s ranks of flowers are drooping and even Mr Next-Door isn’t out there with his watering can.  The sky isn’t the clear blue you would expect on such a sultry day it’s just pale grey again.  The days have been grey for so long now I can’t remember what a clear blue sky looks like. I hear the sky is grey all over the world.

Still there is no rain.

I must get on with the article.  Closing the study door behind me, I switch the light on and sit down at the laptop.  Irritatingly I have a connection again, so there’s no excuse not to get to work.  On the web there is talk of imminent disaster – solar flares, holes in the atmosphere, and minute catastrophic movements of the moon in its orbit, but I don’t know which to believe.  So much terrifying information out there, and these days it’s hard to tell which is based on scientific evidence, and which is just written by scare-mongering idiots.

Now the house phone is ringing.

‘Mum.  Mum, it’s me.  I couldn’t get through on the mobile. You ok?’

‘Signal went down. Think it’s back now though.’

‘We couldn’t swim in the river.  There was a whole load of dead fish floating on the top.’

‘Oh God.’

‘Yeah, it was horrible.  Some were still alive and really, like, gasping.  They’re saying it’s pollution from the factory upstream.’  I could hear a wobble in Izzy’s voice. She was always soft on animals, didn’t like to see anyone or anything suffer.

‘That must’ve been ghastly to see sweetie.  Are you ok?’

‘Yeah, yeah I think so.  We thought we’d come to the pub, but it’s absolutely packed.  You can’t get near the bar.  I think they’ve run out of ice and cold beers anyway.  Oh god, can you hear that?’

‘What?  What is it Iz?’

‘Not sure. It’s really…’ The phone went dead.  I had heard a noise.  Thunder, I think. Maybe the phone mast has been struck.  Maybe there is lightning.  Maybe there is rain.

Rather than worry about my daughter, I feel relieved that she is quite possibly experiencing a downpour.  Hope it comes this way soon. I’m sure it’s getting hotter.  I open my laptop and look for a weather site.  It tries to connect for about five minutes before I give up and look for a news site instead.  That won’t open either.  I console myself with the knowledge that everyone must be doing the same.  It’s always so much slower at busy times.

I need another drink.

Settling back in the study I mutter ‘Patience is a virtue’ as I pull out my battered old notebook.  I don’t use it so often these days, preferring to tap out my thoughts on the keyboard rather than scribble them in my embarrassing childlike scrawl.  Despite the stabbing headache I try to start jotting a few notes.   They quickly become smudged by the drops of sweat from my forehead hitting them.

A big rumble of thunder makes me jump. It’s definitely closer.

Then another ominous rumble. The laptop whines a shutdown and the light goes out as the electricity pings off. I open the curtains but to my surprise no light comes in.  Instead, outside it is dark.  Black as a moonless night.  There is another rumble. Closer.

There’s no traffic, no people.  The street is empty, dark and still.

Candles. I know there are candles in the living room, the smelly ones that Izzy bought me for Christmas.  I’m not religious, but I am slightly scared, so I pray,

‘Dear God, help me find the bloody candles.’ Tripping over my own feet I manage to crack my shin on the coffee table.  Is ‘shit’ allowed in a prayer?

There is a colossal boom, not quite overhead.  Izzy must have been scared if it was this bad. I wish I was with her.

I find the candles, mostly by sniffing out their ‘Christmas Cheer’ scent, but there is nothing to light them with. It seems even darker. How can it be this dark at midday? And so meltingly hot.

Stumbling through to the kitchen, I feel sure my leg is bleeding, it feels wet, but I can’t even see enough to inspect it.  It’s eerily quiet without the whirr of the fridge and tick of the oven timer.  I grapple around on the worksurface and eventually grasp what I recognise to be the gas-lighter.  As I click it on, another boom of thunder makes the house shudder in its foundations.

With trembling hands I manage to light the candle.  It’s a pathetically small flame, but I can just see the almost empty gin bottle and I swig back the dregs in one gulp before heading back to the living room.  Then I freeze, my skin prickles and erupts into goosebumps, as a rumble that starts low pitched and rises to an almighty heart-stopping crack, shakes the house so hard that I hear it imploding.

Screaming my daughter’s name I run to the door and fumble with the lock until it swings open. The sky is no longer black, but a shimmering saffron heralding a savage, searing wind that bowls me backwards.

Now there is nothingness. No rain, no street, no houses. No Mr & Mrs Next-Door or their soldier flowers. The Bugger, Greg and Izzy, are all gone.  I glimpse the vastness of the universe before my flame gutters and dies.