There’s a waft of musty abandonment in my little corner of the blogosphere. The figurative ceiling is laced with metaphorical cobwebs.
Such content as there is covered by dust sheets. Blog-posts and stories snoring softly under shrouds.
I thought that maybe it was time to throw back a dust sheet or two , and let an old story enjoy the light of day for a while.
Inspired by the photo below, my two-year-old story Napkins, Teacups, Ribbon was first published on the 1000 Words site (which has since sadly closed its doors) . I’ve dusted it and polished it (just a bit) and am putting it on display again-with, just like last time, a tiny fragment of my heart.
So…are you sitting comfortably?…
Napkins, Teacups, Ribbon
Mel has chosen Union Jacks. She’s hoping they’ll say street-parties and bunting; maybe infuse the atmosphere with some goodwill and warmth. She folds each one and lays it on a saucer.
She’s sure that they would rather not be coming to her house today. But it was made very clear to her when they moved to the village that “the Britherham Village School Mothers’ Meetings are held in strict rotation.”
So this month, no-one can deny it’s her turn.
“You can’t make them like us, you know, Mel,” Rob says, watching her smooth out the tablecloth as he prepares to leave for work.
“I know that,” she says. “I’m not trying to make them like us. I’m just trying to make it harder for them not to like Jack.”
When the doorbell stops ringing, Mel counts just seventeen. Which at least means everyone gets a teacup, and she won’t have to put out mugs.
Every woman milling round her living-diner is the mother of at least one at the village primary. They are all politely pleasant, and one of them gives Mel a noticeably genuine smile. “Hello there, I’m Steph,” she says, giving Mel’s hand an oversized shake. “Thanks for hosting. Here- I’ve brought cake!”
She passes Mel a huge jam sponge with a ribbon tied around it. It prompts a few ripples of “ooh!” within several conversations about how this or that child is doing this term.
No one asks Mel about Jack.
Mel goes to the kitchen to make tea, and stands staring at the small bottle on the high shelf while she waits for the kettle to boil. Her heart always sinks a little deeper when sees Jack’s name on the label, looking so small next to 5MG TWICE A DAY.
And then she remembers Jack asking her if taking the pills will give him superpowers, and she’s smiling by the time she goes back to the dining room with tea.
There’s a sudden hush as she enters the room. Mandy, a mother from Jack’s class, is sitting with her lips pursed and her eyebrows raised. Mel sees Mandy’s eyes flit briefly to Jack’s school photo on the piano, as if checking that she hasn’t left her words behind on his face.
Mandy sees Mel watching her, and hastily rearranges her gaze onto the piano. “Erm- so who plays?” she says brightly.
“Jack,” says Mel, setting his name firmly in front of everyone along with the teapot. “He plays beautifully. His teacher says he’s very good for his age.”
Mel pours the tea. She tops up the pot. She pours more tea. And teacups are raised to faces, like bone-china masquerade masks.
Eventually Mel stops serving and hides behind her own cup for a while. She spots a chip on the rim, but it doesn’t matter. She knows that behind their masks, no one is looking at her. They’re looking at the little boy who disrupted the Class Assembly last week. Who once bit another child’s arm. Who has to be supervised in the queue for lunch.
Teacups clink on saucers, like awkward coughs in the silence.
“Bloody lovely napkins,” someone says.
Mel looks up. It’s Steph, the one with the genuine smile. She’s standing at the piano with a napkin in her hand.
“The Union Jack,” Steph continues, gazing at it thoughtfully. “You wouldn’t think it would work, really- all those stripes and sharp wedges crammed together, and all that fierce red and cool blue trying to share the same space.” She places her napkin on top of the piano, looking around at no one in particular. “But of course it does work, and it works very well. Just a little bit of space here and there, where it’s needed, and- voila! It’s bloody marvellous, don’t you think?”
Mel’s face begins to burn, and she stares down at her cup. It starts to feel like a small trophy in her hands.
And then someone says, “Well! Maybe it’s time we all had a piece of cake.”
And then someone else says briskly that “you know, we really ought to be gathering our thoughts for the Christmas Bazaar.” And there’s a gradual blooming of chatter, and a setting down of cups, and a searching of handbags for agendas and pens.
Mel smiles gratefully at Steph, and briefly raises her teacup in a small, silent toast. Steph winks, and then turns away to join a discussion about the raffle.
Mel walks over to the sponge cake on the table. She slips off the cheerful yellow ribbon and slices the cake, as generously as she can.
After they’ve gone, Mel doesn’t clear up. Instead she sits for a while just looking at what’s left: at her dining table, strewn with scrunched napkins and used cups.
It looks just like the table at 42 Pine Drive looked last month, and just like the table at 6 The Grove will look next month.
And for a moment, Mel closes her eyes, trying to feel just what it’s like to be them. No medication in her kitchen, no child therapists in her Contacts, and a sunny, clear future stretching before her like a yellow-brick road.
And then Mel’s eyes are wide open again. Because thinking that way doesn’t last long. It never does.
Mel hums as she begins to clear up the mess; stacking teacups, discarding napkins. The yellow ribbon from the cake is lying stretched across the table, climbing and twisting round saucers and spoons. Mel picks it up and carefully winds it around her fingers. She puts it in her pocket. She’s going to give it, she decides, to Jack.
She’s going to give it to him the next time that he’s running in happy circles round the village green.
She’s going to tell him to hold it up high as he runs, and to let it fly behind him, like a small, bright banner in the wind.
Occasionally, a tiny fragment from one of the darker corners of my mind somehow finds its way into my mind’s writing corner. The picture prompt for last week’s Angry Hourglass flash fiction contest (won this week by Josh Bertetta) was pie themed, chosen in honour of Pi Day. And when sitting and thinking of pies and plots, the question I just couldn’t get out of my head was: what is really in that pie??
“Ma? What…what are you putting in that pie, Ma?” he’ll say, suspiciously. Cautiously.
He’ll edge across the kitchen, eyes darting as if he can see the dark smell that’s snaking round the room.
“Meat,” I will say. I’ll let the word land with a dull thack; a heavy slab on a heavy slab. “I have put meat into this pie, Tom.”
Tom’s wide eyes will slowly digest the large bleeding cuts on my oak chopping board; the sliced chunks dropping from my blade to my pan. “M-meat, Ma?” he will say. And he will do what he always did, even when he was a child: he will grab the situation and try and make it stand up straight. “But you are vegetarian, Ma…”
He’ll become mesmerized, then, by the hissing and popping of fat in my pan, as the red flesh shrinks to brown in the heat. Bright to dull. Blood to mud.
And then he’ll lift his eyes to meet mine, searching desperately for the mother he thinks he knows. For sunshine yellow sweetcorn; for tender green florets. And he’ll silently beg for fluffy pumpkin fillings and feather-light toppings; for cinnamon dustings and warm toffee endings.
“Where’s Dad, Ma?” he will suddenly demand, as he snaps from his pie-high dreams.
I will move the meat around with my spoon. I won’t resent Tom’s concern for his father, because pastry can cover a multitude of sins. (When Tom was a child I covered the truth portrayed in bowls of bleeding blue fruit, with toasted mallow towers, and sugar-spun clouds. I let him live in a world where black coffee and his father’s mumbled apologies could wash down the past; time after time, slice by slice.)
“Dad? Dad!” Tom will call, as he searches the house; as I fill my pie dish with sizzling flesh.
Upstairs, he’ll find a duvet, dolloped like a huge dirty meringue on the bed. Lumpy. Raspberry flecked.
And as his trembling fingers peel back the duvet, I’ll be laying a pale, waxy blanket over my pie.
As soon as I saw this photo on the 1000words site, I knew the kind of story I wanted to write to go with it. I wanted to portray the ribbon of undercurrent that sometimes runs beneath a roomful of clinking teacups and coffee-morning smiles, and I wanted to do so from the perspective of a mother whose child doesn’t quite fit the high-flying, high-tea mould that the picture might suggest.
I went through several drafts and re-writes to get the story right, while the story kept on calling, from the photo, to be written.
Napkins, Teacups, Ribbon was the story I eventually wrote, and it was published on 1000words last week. I’m so happy that a lot of people liked it and that it seemed to strike a chord.
You can read the story here. I hope you like it too.
I’ve been nominated by my fellow #flashdog friend, uber talented writer Chris Milam, for the Liebster award. It’s a fun way for virtual buddies to get to know each other outside of the confines of 140-character walls, and beyond the realms of small talk.
You can read Chris’s own highly articulate and entertaining (not to mention very kind) Liebster post here.
You probably know how this works –
11 random facts about me
11 answers to Chris’s 11 highly original questions
11 equally original (gulp) questions from me, for my three nominees.
Gosh. Well, here goes.
11 facts about me
1. This is my first ever blog post! Woo hoo!
2. I was brought up living above a funeral parlour.
3. When I eat an apple I eat the whole thing, core, pips and all. I just leave the stalk.
4. I once had a long late-night chat with the late great soul singer Jimmy Ruffin. We debated the existence and nature of God.
5. I have word/taste synaesthesia. You may already know that, as I’ve shared it before, but I thought it might be fun to tell you what the names of some of my #Flashdog friends taste like to me:
Chris Milam: Plain crisps (chips, if you’re American) and white chocolate
Grace Black: Chips (fries, if you’re American!) with gravy, and liquorice
7. Cyclist and Tour-de-France winner Bradley Wiggins went to the same high school as me. I bet he’s really proud.
8. You know how, when most new mothers see their babies for the first time, they think they’re the most beautiful babies in the world? Well I’ll let you into a secret about me- mine actually were.
9. I have played the piano in Studio 2 at Abbey Road, both the piano on which Lady Madonna was originally recorded and the studio’s gorgeous Steinway Grand.
10. I once worked at Madame Tussauds in London. When I was stationed at the Chamber of Horrors I was supposed to walk through it by myself every morning, before anyone else was there, to check everything was okay. I could never bring myself to do it. I would wait just by the Chamber exit, under the eerie gaze of Charles Manson and the Manson Family, until I saw the first tourists coming through. Then I’d casually begin walking through myself.
10. I lose the ability to count when I run out of interesting things to say.
Answers to Chris’s Questions
1. What is your greatest strength and weakness as a writer? Explain.
My greatest strength is probably my ability to edit. For me first drafts are bare-butt nude while final drafts are appropriately dressed.
My greatest weakness is that I have a fickle muse. She’s great when she’s around, but she gets stroppy and sulks when she’s summoned at will unless I can catch her in a very good mood.
2.Describe yourself in 15 words or less. Your answer must be in the form of a three-line poem.
Hidden in a half-shell, feathering
the nest, and filling empty space
3. You can be anywhere in the world and you have one hour to yourself. Where are you and what are you doing?
I’m in the Sprookjes Bos (Fairytale Forest) in the magical Dutch theme park De Efteling. There’s no-one here but me.
Maybe I’ll tiptoe past sleeping guards and climb the stone steps to Sleeping Beauty’s tower, or perhaps I’ll go find Grandma’s Cottage in the trees, where the wolf is already knocking at the door. But I’m definitely going to sit for a spell in the garden, where a golden ball once lost by a princess will rise from the depths of the fountain, and the toy soldiers in the flower beds will occasionally come to life.
4. If your life was made into a movie, who would play you and what would the title of the film be?
She’s way too pretty, but the only Oriental-looking English-speaking actress that I can think of is Lucy Liu. I don’t know if she can sing though, because obviously the film would be a musical.
As for the title- well, I once wrote a short memoir entitled By the Watermelon Slice of the Cooking Oil Door, so let’s go with that.
5. From a reader’s perspective, what do you look for in a piece of flash fiction. What makes the story sing?
As well as beautifully crafted imagery, I love reading flash where the writer really has managed to place half the story between the lines for the reader to find for themselves. I thought that this Flash! Friday entry by Michael Seese was a brilliant example of both of these things.
6- What is your favorite quote? Explain why.
‘Sing to the Lord a new song, for He has done marvellous things.” Psalm 98:1.
At a time of change in my life, these words reminded me that the good things that I’d left behind were a reason to look forward, and not back; that I should embrace the future with a grateful heart and try to find that new song.
7- What is your greatest accomplishment and your biggest regret?
My greatest accomplishment so far is selling a short story. The amount I was paid was like the teeniest weeniest fraction of a crumb compared to the bread I earned as a lawyer, but it felt like a million dollars.
As for regrets- best not to get me started on those. I have too many.
8- Should writers of flash fiction/poetry be compensated or is the exposure of being published in a magazine its own form of payment? Explain
If a publisher is going to make money from a piece of writing, then so should the writer, of course. However a lot of the time that’s just not the case. And I think the world of flash is probably such a fresh and vibrant one because it’s filled with so many high calibre writers whose first love is writing for its own sake, and for the joy of being read.
9- The apocalypse has arrived and you are forced into a bunker for an indefinite amount of time. You can bring only one of each: A book, movie, beverage and food. What do you choose?
Well, I already get to take the Bible and fresh water, right? Yes I thought so.
In that case, if it’s cold in the bunker, I take English Breakfast tea and fruit cake.
And if it’s hot, I take Prosecco and strawberries.
And for my book, I take, of course, my print copy of the Flashdogs Antho. I have 110 different reasons to do so (and 33 more very good ones).
10- Why do you write? Explain thoroughly.
I love words. You can do so many things with them. They are coloured beads to be strung, or brown bricks to be stacked; they are raindrops to catch or notes to be played. You can grow them into forests, or lay them out like corpses; you can spin them into gold, or fling them into space.
Without paying anything, without relying on anyone else, when I sit down to write I have every last drop of the ocean moving and swaying at my fingertips.
11- What is your epitaph going to say when you punch the clock one final time?
As an aside, I’ve always thought that a highly polished gravestone with nothing but the words “SLIDE TO UNLOCK” and a single horizontal line carved across it would be an intriguing find in a cemetery.
But I find that I am literally incapable of suggesting the words for my own epitaph. Feel free to analyse this; I’m sure it tells you something about me.