Category Archives: Flash Fiction

And peeking under the dust sheet, I found…

It’s been a while.

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


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Napkins

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.”

Teacups

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.

And then:

“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. 

Ribbon

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.

Pastry

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??

Pastry

“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.

I’ll ignore any lumps. I’ll just crimp the edges.

Because pastry can cover a multitude of sins.

Napkins, Teacups, Ribbon

 

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Photo by Natalie Bowers. Some rights reserved.

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.