In a world where time is money and money speaks tall tales, we are happy to bring you a free helping of eloquence and brevity. Our Flash Fiction series has always served up the most wonderful short, short stories and proved that it is possible to say something about the complexities of life in 300 words or less. And now we have made part of the archive available as free podcasts on our website, so if you’re too busy to stop and read, you can always listen while going about your daily business.
“Hey Sandy.” Julian’s standing in the glass doorway to his private office, looking out at the desk-pit. “Why’s a peroxide blonde like a jumbo jet”?
Everyone looks up. I shrug.
He grins, “Both got black boxes.”
We all laugh; I make sure my laughter is noticed.
“That’s a good one, right?” he nods. “I’m not peroxide though,” I say. “Ooh,” chips in Jack, from behind his screen. “Me thinks the lady doth protest too much.”
“Sandy.” Julian is standing outside his office again. “Are you in charge of the Foster account?”
“Okay, so, just a hint, but when it says sign here, don’t put Aquarius.”
More laughter; I join in.
“Did she really put that?” Jack is hysterical.
“Yup!” Julian waves the contract, Jack makes as if to stand. “Not really, Jack.”
“Ah, you’ve arrived. What was it? Power cut on the escalator?”
Jack has to work this one out, but he laughs egregiously once he’s got it.
They’re all laughing now, except Lucy. I can feel the muscles tighten in my face.
They walk back from a client briefing, snig- gering. Jack sits and looks at me.
“Jack.” Julian thumbs his BlackBerry, grinning, “Email that last point to me would you? I’ll need it later.”
Jack giggles to himself, “No probs. Am on it.”
Julian fluffs the pillows behind him and peels the plastic from the Saturday supplements.
“I still can’t believe he actually put that in an email.”
“Just as well.” I sip my coffee. “We can’t afford another redundancy. Oh, and next time, try to stick to the script. There’s no point telling a blonde joke if it’s too complicated to get.”
“Sorry, I don’t know them as well as you.”
“Which one did he send in the end?” I ask.
“Difference between a blonde and a mosquito.” He turns a page.
I smile, “Not a bad one.”
The order to open the Enclave was given during the previous regnum and carried out with great efficiency by the Ministry’s militia after rushed, yet careful planning. While only the occasional plume of smoke now hints at the inhabitants’ continued survival, children still regularly sneak up to the walls and try to listen in for sounds of life. The walls – “built to last,” as Commander Kusczack said at the closing-in ceremony nigh-on seven years ago – are too thick, however. (After the ceremony a street party was held and ululations heard from inside the walls. This gave rise to the legend that the wrong community had been placed inside; we can here confirm that nothing could be further from the truth.) Supplies are dropped for the inhabitants on a weekly basis and, during a routine mission three days ago, General Samuel Debido, supply-helicopter pilot and veteran of the last war, confirmed that he had witnessed the extinction of two of their number. “The incineration ceremony, carried out yesterday in a converted bread oven, was their usual mix of pomposity and squalor,” General Debido revealed earlier today at a Ministry press conference. The General’s words – placed beyond doubt by his rank – were accompanied by a press release stating that the Enclave’s inhabitants now stand at 143, and that with current mortification rates – greatly aided by the wise pre-enclosure spaying programme – general extinction will be achieved “in the next four to five years.” This information was received with much rejoicing by the populace. “The sooner it happen, the better we be,” a certain Mr. Deng, neighbour to the Enclave and owner of a furniture store, told a Ministry television reporter. The pictures confirm that those standing near Mr. Deng at the time of the interview were in complete agreement with the hardworking businessman, as, we can all agree, is only right.
In the dark your skin is made of fruit peel, yellow where the moon comes in.
Hours away, we get up, full of sleep I didn’t have. At lunch the split in this chair runs across me like a second spine. If you comment on my burned meringues I will eat my fists.
You wear the shirt that my sister gave you; I know you never liked it. Diamonds overlap, shard across shard like swordplay, carving up the way from your throat to your gut. The light drains out of the afternoon.
It takes an hour to gather myself in pieces off the floor. There is a bit stuck underneath the oven.
I wish I was a line – something uncomplicated and unapologetic. Nobody would expect me to be anything else. I would be flat and straight on my back and already drawn.
In bed your shoulders turn away from me, the dips and peaks of a land I used to cross. Lightless, I forget your colours. Your hair and your shape, it could all be different. YouarealoverIhadonceat19,anightin Germany. You are a girl with man’s hands. You are not my wife.
Behind your knees is where it gets me, the tender pleat I put my tongue in once.
The Pearl Divers
1932 was a bad year for the pearl divers of Bahrain. They went five fathoms deep to find their catch but when they spread the shells on the decks they found grit where the piths should have been.
As the American set down at Muharraq, 50 miles to the east, a full fleet was lost. Stretched on the gunwale, heads bound with wet cloths, the divers shrivelled and dried as his launch approached the pier.
The Sheikh slaughtered him a camel and that night, at Jebel Dukhan, he ate everything but its guts.
Negotiations began the next day; a concession was agreed. The foreigner wired home to say all was well. That night, he spread his cotton shirts and cleaned his hair with soap. It was blond and straight and the dust came away with ease.
Down at the wharf the men muttered. It was dark and the sea was still. The soles of their feet hung in the water, blackened to ward off monsters.
Next morning a light rain fell. The sandbanks, still shallow, were refracted; the galleys battened down in the docks.
Around noon, engines sounded from inland.
She was the dirtiest girl I had ever seen. I first noticed her right hand lying across the edge of the train seat. Grime lay quietly in the cracks of her skin and the ends of her fingernails were rimmed black like eyeliner. I stared long at the dirt until I saw beneath it. It was the softest, creamiest skin under there and her fingers were nicely rounded, like a chubby child’s. I followed the hand up her arm to her face. It was clean and framed by wisps of blonde, and she had the most delicate cheekbones. She looked upwards and I could see the crevice where her head met her neck. It was black with a thick build up of dirt that must have taken months to form. How could she have such a clean and lovely face above that coal miner’s neck?
As I watched, she took the tip of her finger and ran it along the crevice. She moved subtly without attracting the attention of a single other passenger. Her finger worked hard, like a small and silent bulldozer, and collected a thick deposit of matter in front of it, while little specks were left in a wake behind. When her finger reached the end of the line, it scooped up the yield and caught it with the tip of her thumb. Her finger and thumb rubbed hard against each other back and forth, rolling the grit between them to produce a globule of congealed dirt. She continued to knead it until it became a slim worm. Then without changing the direction of her gaze, or moving the rest of her body, she carefully placed her worm on the shoulder of the well-dressed woman next to her.
Leaning back from his empty plate Javier tugged up his vest to reveal his bulging belly, and gave us the story of Ariadne, the blonde- haired ghost. She emerges from the jungle on the dark, dark night, looking for young men to tempt away through the cane fields. These men are never heard from again.
We around the table were still; tortillas paused between mouths and plates of frijoles. Javier closed his eyes and shook his head, resigned to the sad inevitability of his tale. Then he raised his hands up to his head, and joined his fingers across his crown.
We waited for whatever was next.
“You know her favourite”? he asked, looking straight through me.
I did not.
“She likes the Englishman!” he cried, slapping his hand down across his belly. The whole family laughed with him to tears.
“You should sleep with your eyes open,”
Leti advised me later before bed.
I was woken by the klaxons of startled geese, dogs barking at their chains’ limits. The girl was at my netted window, her hair twisted and enflamed by the humid night, and her eyes red-sore from so much crying.
Javier by candlelight was loosening the bolt on the door.
“I’ll go,” I said, and he let me.
I sat beside her by the shit pit, and she told me once more about her hates and fears. She was having nightmares by day, and by night her mind was a Larium frenzy. This place was backward and savage; she couldn’t take it any longer.
She asked if she could lie with me – she needed to be held. I recommended she went home. The moon was gibbous as we walked across the silent Northern Highway, back to the house the blonde girl couldn’t bear.
There was always a smell in our Cargit house of washing left too long in the machine. And under that a smell of the deep-fat fryer, a present mum bought for herself in what she called “a fit of whimsy,” thinking we’d gather round the table for fried fish and chips, calamari and beer-battered cauliflower. The triplets used it for after-school chips, and no one ever changed the oil, so it smoked by the time I was old enough to be embarrassed by the fat smell of my clothes. We moved there from the city soon after the triplets were born. My sister Iris never forgave my parents.
“When are we going home”? she’d ask, even after four years of life in the country, and she’d say it looking into the middle distance, which in Cargit was not far away. Mum would roll her eyes, “Shut yer face and eat yer jaffle.” Iris was very thin and did not ever eat her jaffle.
“They wanted a boy,” Iris told me out the back as she pulled mum’s sad begonias out of the flowerbed. One by one she peeled them out of the ground and broke their stalks.
“They thought, ‘We’ll just try once more for a boy and then call it quits.’” Iris used the high-pitched, thick-tongued voice that she used to signify stupidity, hypocrisy or fatness. “Idiots got three of them. If they’d just been happy with us, we’d have been fine. I’d have gone to Westfield’s high school. They have a uniform there.”
“What about me?” I asked, wondering where I would have been sent, wondering what use a uniform was. Iris looked at me, her blank hard stare.
“Who in the hell cares?” She went back to wrecking mum’s flowers. §