New Shoes

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Dad wanted trainers.

“I’d like to know I could run away,” he said.

When the hospital bed lay empty, it gave us a moment’s hope.

National Flash Fiction Day 2012 - Highly Commended

The Fifth Mug

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It’s just like normal, I tell myself. I stand at the sink and wash the breakfast things. The kids are at school and Simon’s left for the office. It’s just like normal, only there aren’t enough plates; there aren’t enough mugs. I add one of each to the washing-up bowl to make myself feel better. For almost a year there have been five of us, and now, just as suddenly as there were five, there are four again.

We all raised our eyebrows the first time Charlotte demanded an extra space be set for Mr Pretzel. “That’s a ridiculous name,” Jamie said, but we told him to be quiet. “You had an imaginary dog when you were younger,” Simon reminded him. I worried about it for the first couple of weeks, but it didn’t take long for Mr Pretzel to become part of the furniture.

This morning, Charlotte frowned at the fifth place at the breakfast table. “Mr Pretzel doesn’t live here anymore,” she said, solemnly carrying his dishes back to the dresser. “I’m big now.”

It’s like someone’s died.

I scrub the fifth mug extra hard, even though no one’s lips have ever touched it.

This story was first published by The Puffin Review, 2014

The Flower Girl

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I was fourteen the first time it happened. It was a family picnic – the kind where your parents exhaust you and everything’s boring. I wandered off into a meadow of startling blue cornflowers. I was daydreaming about a boy at school, which was how I spent most of my time then. I remember the feel of the petals between my fingers as I touched them: soft, oily almost: like a cat’s ear. And then they vanished... all the cornflowers gone. And the field was full of celandines. It was that quick – like a flash of lightning – so sudden I wasn’t sure it was real. Blue to yellow. Just like that.

My brother came to find me.

“Dad says it’s time to go,” he said.  I told him about the flowers, even though I didn’t normally tell him anything.

“Yeah, right,” he said. “Like a super power, only rubbish. Bet you can’t do it again.”

 I reached out into the flowers. A breeze blew and some of the petals fluttered into my hair. I rubbed my fingers over them, and then, as though someone had changed the slide: daisies. We looked at each other.

“I knew you were weird,” he said triumphantly, as though all he’d been waiting for was proof.

I spent a lot of time after that trying to find a use for my skill. I used to think there was no way you’d get a gift like that if it wasn’t for something.

“Sometimes things just are,” my husband said the day after he found out.

On our wedding day, my fingers amongst the petals, the bouquet turned from sweet peas to calla lilies to spray roses like a fibre optic lamp. The flower girl stared at it in awe, her eyes as wide as oranges and her basket of petals clutched tightly in her tiny hands.

This story was first published by Ether Books, 2012

Feathers

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The biggest lie I ever told you was that I was leaving you for another man. I remember the stillness of the kitchen, you poised with the breadknife, the loaf you never cut.

“Who is he?” you wanted to know. “What’s he like?” The only fictional character I ever created ambled between us and watched you crumble. You sat at the table, and I could see the tremble in your fingers. I thought then that perhaps the truth would have hurt you less. You might even have believed me. You always said I didn’t trust you enough.

I watch you sometimes from the willow tree behind the house. I can see into our bedroom from up there. When I watch you sitting on the ottoman with your head in your hands, I know how much you loved me. I want to fly in through the window and tell you I made it all up. I want you to look into my eyes and know that I’m still here.

I hadn’t undressed in front of you for weeks. I couldn’t let you see the black marks, the raw sores weeping with pus as the first feathers pushed their way through my skin. My clothes were baggy by then.

“You’re losing weight,” you commented one day. “You don’t need to, you know. You’re perfect as you are.” I almost laughed.

The day of the breadknife and the trembling hands was the first day I couldn’t fit my arms into a blouse. I wore a poncho that day and kept my hands by my sides.

“Martin,” I said. “His name’s Martin.” All I could think of were the forked tails of the house martins next door, the metallic flash of their wings as they dived beneath the eaves. How I’d envied their flight.

The only things I took with me were TCP for the sores and the thick blanket out of the car.

“You haven’t even packed a suitcase,” you spat from the porch as if that were an insult. You wiped your eyes on your sleeve.

I spent the next few nights by the river waiting it out, getting smaller and darker with every hour that passed. When I couldn’t use my hands anymore, I practised beating my wings, and when I finally flew, it was like I’d been unchained.

This story was first published in Prole, 2013

Jacob's Eyelashes

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On Jacob’s eyelashes, there’s a whole world he doesn’t know about. This is the first time she’s looked at an eyelash under the microscope. She’s been hunched over the lens for almost an hour now, and her shoulders are starting to ache.

“Look at this,” she says to her assistant, who shrugs as he collects his coat from the back of the door.

“Eyelashes are eyelashes,” he says. “I don’t get what the big deal is. I’ll see you in the morning.”

She waves at him without looking up. There’s a language here she doesn’t know. You can see the cells talking to each other, the way they blur at the edges. There are power structures in here, whole histories in a single eyelash.

She stands up and stretches. She drops the eyelash carefully into a contact lens case with a pair of tweezers, turns off the light, and picks up her coat. She’ll try to get one from every patient, maybe; take photos of them. Why not? She’ll be the first optician to create a whole universe out of eyelashes. They won’t even think of her as an optician anymore: she’ll be an artist.

There’s a frantic knock on the waiting room door. She answers it with her coat over her arm and her handbag already on her shoulder. It’s Jacob.

“Mr Price! We’re closing now, I’m afraid.”

“It’s not that,” he says. “This is going to sound weird, but honestly, it’s important. I’ve lost an eyelash. They’re not like other eyelashes. I need it back.”

She hesitates. It would be easy to laugh. It would be easy to say she has no idea about any eyelashes, but he’s welcome to check the floor. But when she looks into his eyes, she sees something incomplete. She knows there’s something missing. She walks silently back to her room and collects the contact lens case.

“I knew you’d understand,” he says as he takes it. “Not many people would.”

She holds his gaze for a moment, and she wonders.

“Thank you,” he says, and turns away, leaving her standing alone in the dark.

This story was first published in What The Dickens? 2014

Capstone Hill

The strawberry plant on the patio only grows one strawberry at a time. It looks like a bright red lantern. I almost don’t want to eat it but also I do. I’m saving it for Mum. She’s been out a long time, so she’s probably hungry. She’s only gone up to Capstone Hill. She likes it when the tide’s in. She says it helps her think.

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Dad’s gone to live with a lady who smells of Grandma’s geraniums and has hair the same colour as Barbie’s. Mum says she needs to sort out her roots, but I haven’t seen her garden yet so I don’t know about that.

Mum’s been cross ever since he moved out. She shouts at things in the kitchen a lot and the other day she snapped a pencil just because a letter came, even though letters are always coming and normally she just says they’re junk. I’m not cross though. I’m a bit sad that we can’t all have dinner together anymore, but it doesn’t really matter. Anyway, he says we’ll have more fun than ever on the Sundays I see him, so I think it’s good.

The rain starts falling on the patio: slow, fat drops. It makes the strawberry look like the kind of strawberry you get on yogurt adverts. I’m hungry. I think it must be past dinnertime because it’s light at dinnertime in the summer.

The front door opens. It’s Grandma!

 She’s crying. I didn’t know grandmas cried. When she hugs me I can feel wet in my hair, and she squeezes so hard that I can hardly breathe.

“Would you like the strawberry?” I say when she lets me go. It’s the best thing I can think of to cheer her up. “I was going to save it for Mum, but it’s okay.” She cries even harder, more like a girl or a boy than a grandma. It’s weird.

“Mummy will be back soon,” I say. It comes out so quietly that I don’t know whether I said it out loud or just in my head.

This story was first published in Ariadne’s Thread, 2014

Coffee

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My first memory is of flying over the garden wall. It’s one of those memories that are so vivid you could be watching them on film. I’m playing in the sandpit my granddad made me and I see a ginger cat jump over the wall into next door’s garden. I know I can’t jump over walls so I stand up, drop my bucket and spade, and spread my wings. There’s a smell of soil and pollen and I can hear the birds in the trees. I hover, watching the cat slink along the lawn next door.

 “Just because it’s a false memory, it doesn’t mean it’s not real,” Sarah said, pulling back her thick, red hair. I watched the muscles in her arms flex as she tied it up and then leant forward on her elbows. “You’ve got another reality, that’s all. And,” she said, stirring her coffee, “you’re wasting it. Have you tried flying since?”

I must have frowned or something because she rolled her eyes. “I mean have you tried it in your head? Look,” she said, pushing our coffee cups out of the way and pointing towards the hedge. “Fly over. Go and see what’s next door.”

“What?” I said. “I can’t.”

“Bullshit,” she said, shaking her head. “Of course you can. You followed the ginger cat.” I didn’t reply. I looked at her, all serious with those enormous green eyes, and I realised I didn’t want to disappoint her. I wanted her to come for coffee with me tomorrow and the next day and the day after that. I looked at the hawthorn just above the couple’s heads, the impossible blue of the summer sky above it. And I floated, just like that, over the table, over the hedge, spreading my wings when I reached the top and hovering there like a kestrel. Next door there was another café with red Formica tables and those flimsy metal chairs, a few people eating breakfasts and some bees buzzing around a lemonade glass. A few beats of my wings and I was over the fence on the other side: the back of the chippy with its concrete yard and huge black bins. A man in a red and white striped apron clutched his chest and slid down the wall, his face contorted in pain.

“Sarah!” I said. I didn’t feel myself coming back but I was there with her again, staring into her green eyes with my heart pounding in my chest. “We need to call an ambulance. The man in the chip shop...”

“I did,” she said. “Didn’t you hear me?”

“How did you know?”

“You can fly,” she said with a shrug.

I stared at her.

She stared back.

“Yes,” she said, pulling her chair back and draping her cardigan over her arm.

“Yes what?”

“Coffee. Tomorrow. Same time. That’s what you were thinking, right?” She grinned and walked away from the table without looking back.

This story was first published in Scraps, the National Flash Fiction Day Anthology, 2013

Photo by Jason Wong on Unsplash

The White Stork

A stork on your roof is a blessing from God. That’s what everyone says. We can see the edge of the nest above us from our bedroom window, a shadow of twigs watching over our sleep. Sometimes she calls to herself and it sounds like she’s firing machine guns out over Warsaw.

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Izabella has started calling her “our stork”. She wants to name her St Anne – they’ve been learning about the saints at Sunday school and she knows that storks symbolise fertility. Józef’s mother didn’t waste any time imparting that little fact.

“Why don’t you like her, Mama?” she says. We’re looking up at the birds from the street and the stork is standing on top of her nest as though our house is a ship and she’s the look out.

“She’s loud and irritating,” I say, running my hands through Izabella’s tangle of red hair. Always full of questions, that one. “What’s it like to have a baby?” she asked me once.

“I don’t know,” I said truthfully. “It’s hard to describe. That’s why we have stories about storks.”

One day we’ll have to tell her why she’s the only one in the family with red hair. For now, I watch her skip into the house, making stork noises in the back of her throat.

This story was first published in Lighthouse, Gatehouse Press)

Photo by Rodrigo Rodriguez on Unsplash