Flashes of inspiration
Two weeks ago, we asked you to send in your flash factions of no more than 500 words, and your drabbles of exactly 100 words. The response was impressive. Here’s a selection of your stories
By Evelyn Walsh
December 27th. Daylight an hour away, and the car dies on the most desolate stretch of road home.
Might as well be on the moon. It’s bloody raining.
Decisions. Husband-phone. No reception.
I walk towards a light, a shed – a mile uphill. A house comes into view, Christmas lights twinkling. The shed door is open, a tiny woman hand-feeding calves.
“Dear hearts. Isn’t Bird the bad girl starving ye! Other business, darlings.”
She jumps, the bucket of feed scatters, calves squabble for pellets.
“Sweet Lord, I thought you a ghost!” a tiny rippling laugh, eyes bright, beady in an elfin face.
“Are you all right, lady?” a cocked head.
“I’m sorry I startled you.” And I explain.
“Come, we’ll have tea. I need to phone for husband help too.” In the kitchen she steps over a man; a bread knife in his fontanelle.
S***! I’m in a horror movie.
“What way your tea, lady?”
“You know, maybe I’ll walk up a bit . . . reception.” The sky is lightening.
“That’s Pat.” Pointing, she fills the kettle.
“Is he . . . ?”
“Dead? Oh yes, dear heart.” A pause for business with tea leaves. “Thirty years married. Neither chick nor child, nothing but calves, house, man and farm. The pub of a Saturday night, a kiss and sex in the dark. A good little life.” She shakes the teapot.
“Then last evening – I was sat there, news on the radio – some new old eagle reintroduced. Into my head it popped. I never asked before. Never.”
“Pat, what bird do you call me for?”
“What bird, Bird? A wee sparrow of course!”
“A sparrow! A – forgive me dear – f***ing sparrow. Only better than a starling. I know I’m no peacock! No! A wagtail, a bright tom tit, I thought. On special days, a lark or a swallow maybe.”
She pours orange tea into a mug.
“A sparrow! Thirty years! Thirty! I never knew him. Even a robin would’ve done. I never knew I had such a temper. Well. Are you sure you’ll not have a cup?”
By Adrian Horsman
“Hello, my dear. Long time, no hear!”
“Yes, sorry – I was having a ‘minimum’. What’s new?”
“The twins have been active! I seriously think one of them is going to go nova. And, oh yes, my dear, I believe you’ve got another infestation.”
“This time it’s on one of your little planets, the third one out. It’s probably been there for a while – but unfortunately it’s started to spread.”
“How embarrassing! I’ll be the talk of the local arm. Alright, a couple of good flares should sort that out. Thanks for letting me know.”
Good news or bad?
By Liam Farrell
“I thought you were dead.”
By Ian Calder
The body was face down in the water. Was it imagined, this snapshot on his retina, this split-second, split-scene, obscene, strobed image?
The train was empty, the bay, below the cliff track, was calm. He felt the draw of the water. The beckoning of the lifeless limbs. The lap and suck of the saturated clothes. The gentle slap of wave on rock. The rocking of the floating. The rocking of the speeding train. The clattering of the rocking. He knew it was a woman. He knew she was dead.
The scenic route, they said. Some route. Some scene.
By Eileen Lynch
If you don’t hand back the form, you go to jail. You can’t pretend you just forgot. I am going to be in big trouble, because I am not answering the door. The collector man was here yesterday as well, and I bet he is going to get tired walking up and down the steps to this apartment. I bet he will call the guards the next time.
Everything is half-boring, half-okay now. I watch TV. Later, when I go to bed, for a game, I try to remember the names of all the places I have lived before. The best way to remember is to say it quickly. Don’t let too many breaths get in between the words.
There are ads on TV about the form. You have to fill it in so they know where to build schools and hospitals and look after old people and do you use your bike or your car? Some questions are easy: are you M or F, that means a man or a woman but I don’t know why woman is an F. If they don’t get all the forms back, they might end up building a hospital in a place where there are no sick people. Or all the old people will have to start school all over again.
I timed myself making dinner today. I was making beans and waffles. Waffles that go under the grill, not the oven ones. I gave myself 10 minutes, but it wasn’t enough. I had to wipe up a lot of beans. Anyway, I was only doing it for a laugh. There was no audience to count down the last minute, like on the chef programme. There are no more waffles left now. There are still beans, but I am sick of them.
I am a bit angry and a bit sad. I think I am stressed out. Stressed out means your head is all over the place and you need some space. And no questions, no talking, leave me alone, just peace and quiet for five minutes, is that too much to ask? Sometimes it means lots of shouting, and sometimes it means very quiet. Sometimes it means going out for a while, won’t be long.
He is knocking on the door again. I hold my breath when I open the door. It makes me look scary, like I’m going to explode. And if I get angry it won’t be my fault. It will be his fault.
“Is your mum or dad in?” Go away, I say in an angry voice, but only in my head.
“Anyone else home?”
He is no good at his job. There is no Person Two here.
“I’m not doing the form. But I don’t have to go to jail. I’m going to do house-arrest instead.” That is one of the punishments on the judge programme.
He says “You hold on to it for now. I’ll come back later.” Then he goes away too.
By Amanda O’Flaherty
I don’t consider myself criminally nosy, but bathroom cabinets are my favourite. I flinch a little, opening the cabinet door, fearing that the sound of metal separating from magnetised metal will expose my furtive investigations. I hastily turn on the taps to disguise my wanton greed for personal knowledge about the current medical status of my hosts.
It’s been six months since my last investigation. A lot has happened since then.
The cabinet isn’t very deep, no more than three inches. The ergonomically stacked blister packs and bottles reveal a pharmaceutical Pandora’s box. I scan each item, eagerly absorbing the array of ailments, the patients’ medical profiles forming in my head. The bright colours and Latin-sounding names hold me in a peculiar thrall. Some are everyday over-the-counter remedies: Nurofen Plus, Dioralyte, Difene, Rennie, Arret, Motilium, Silcock’s Base, Milk of Magnesia and Germolene.
Others have obscure names like Amoxicillin, Clonamox and Velosef. I visualise the pharmaceutical reps spending a weekend think-in conjuring up names that were probably birthed in the hotel residents’ lounge at 2am, shouted in a slurred toast, as they clinked their glasses, pleased with their officious-sounding curative monikers.
I gingerly push aside the boxes at the front, knowing from experience that the haemorrhoid and halitosis sprays are usually secreted at the back. Bingo: just as I expected, the secret stash. But it’s not piles or bad breath. My eyes open wide: Durex. Two boxes: one ribbed, one strawberry flavour. And Viagra.
I recheck the boxes to see if the huffing and panting aids require blood-pressure-lowering tablets: there are none. I don’t know whether I’m shocked or jealous.
Who leaves Viagra and ribbed and strawberry-flavour condoms in the large press over the sink in their guest bathroom? Exhibitionists. They must know guests can’t resist opening the cabinet door. Everyone is a closet cabinet-checker. As the water scurries noisily down the plughole, I douse my left hand just to make hand-washing sounds in case my hosts venture upstairs. I continue to reconnoitre their daily dose of blood-thinning pills and cholesterol-lowering concoctions.
Ablutions completed, I dispense a pea-sized amount of coconut and jasmine hand cream, massaging the emollient into my parched skin. I know I shouldn’t, but I check the prescription date on the Viagra, then surreptitiously open the box to check how many little blue pills remain.
Date dispensed: 18th July, 2011, 10 days ago, and already eight tablets are missing. Someone has been busy.
I return to the warm and cosy kitchen, the visual of the cabinet’s interior flashing through my mind.
“Would you like a cucumber sandwich, Alice? I’m just making one for Graham. You know how he gets peckish early in the afternoon.”
“Yes, Mum, a sandwich would be lovely, thanks.”
By Nora Nadjarian
My sister said she was carrying a bird inside her, a bird that would soon be drinking water out of her navel. I wasn’t supposed to say anything about it. To anyone.
“I am a cage,” said my sister. “Inside me I keep secrets, inside me I keep a bird.” And she laughed and I laughed, too. We laughed until we no longer remembered what we were laughing about.
“His name is Sparrow,” she said one day. “He’s only little now, as tiny as a seed – but he’ll grow and grow, you’ll see. And then I’ll set him free.” She placed her hand on her stomach and her mouth curved upwards, as if she were smiling at another world in the mirror.
I couldn’t wait. Time was too still; it was taking too long. I squinted into the future. “When?” I kept asking. “When, when, when?” My sister looked luminous as she replied: “Soon, soon, soon.” She said he was practising a song for us. “He’ll sing it so well that he will astonish us all.”
Time passed. I rode my bike and I skipped and whistled and played and waited. Sparrow was going to be my small gift for keeping my sister’s secret. The air grew heady and my sister soft and heavy, like ripening fruit. When she fluttered her eyelids, I thought she was dreaming with her eyes open.
It was the longest summer. My sister turned 16. She wore a long, flowery dress, put her hair up in a ponytail. There were 16 pink and red balloons bobbing around her head that hot, sticky afternoon of cake, cellophane and candles. My mother spoke loudly and happily about nothing and everything; my stepfather handed my sister the knife, helped her cut the cake. Then she said: I have an announcement to make.
And the world stops there, a sharp intake of breath.
I squint into the past now for details, terrified of what I might remember. The sky is a dazzling blue, the earth hot, sweaty. I am pregnant, says my sister. She wears a necklace of grapes with which she will feed Sparrow.
She performs her own birthday song beautifully, she sings her heart out – until her throat is chalk dry and her ribcage breaks. There are feathers everywhere. I run to pick them up as the balloons pop one after the other, leaving 16 pieces of rubbery flesh on the floor, things torn and shapeless, parts of my sister that will never again be whole.
I sit beside her and ask if it hurts. She whispers: “Truth always hurts.” Then there is a sudden, white silence that reminds me, years later, that she is no longer here.
By DE Meredith
The hut was at the dip of a hill on the edge of the forest, unguarded except for a young girl whose face was a constellation of scars. It was hard not to stare and wonder where these nicks and troughs came from, what diseases or tribulations she must have suffered. The photographer studied her face, which was wide like Lake Kivu. She must have been here all night, he thought, like a shepherdess watching over her flock.
She shivered against the cold, self-consciously running her hand across her disfigurement, as the guide took the photographer aside with, “Her face, monsieur? It bothers you?”
“Of course not. But tell me, she’s young. Too young, uh? For the war, I mean. So why has she got the scars?”
The guide stroked the bottom of his chin, as if he was thinking. “Traditional medicine; a shaman, monsieur; it’s three hours by car to the nearest clinic and she’s poor, has no one . . .”
The photographer nodded, pressing a thousand-Rwandan-franc note into the girl’s hand. Was it too much? Or too little?
“That was good of you,” said the guide as the girl led them down the track towards the hut. “Very good of you, monsieur. So few people come here, and she guards the place alone.”
“All night?” “There are animals in the forest, and sometimes bad people come, rebels from over the border.”
“But where does she sleep?”
The guide gestured towards the hut. “With the dead, monsieur.”
Marcel took a deep breath, afraid of what he might find, but as the door swung open what shocked him was the peace of the place, and the clean smell of the bones, almost like wheat. The body of the hut was dark, womb-like, except for a tiny crack where light pierced through, creating a moon-like disc on the mud-baked floor, illuminating the wounds. Marcel narrowed his eyes, concentrated, ticking off skull by skull – “Round for a bullet and long for a cut . . .”.
And the skulls almost whispered to him. Look, monsieur. See how we died.
But he knew how they died, as he stopped at the last trestle table, where the skulls were mounted in piles. One of the skulls – a child’s; it just has to be – had the sharp end of a spear still embedded. He had done nothing then, as he did nothing now. Simply hung his head and accepted.
Beyond the hut, beyond the hills from the east, mercurial clouds were rolling in so that all the colours of the forest were changing, the shadows constantly moving. But here everything was black and white, freeze-framed, in perfect perspective.
Marcel bent down a little, so his eyes were level with two gouged-out bone sockets, a gaping mandible as he said in all seriousness: “I’m sorry that I took so long, but can you hear me? Can you hear me, Innocent?”
But there was no reply.
By Sara Crowley
You said go, enjoy yourself, and I did. You said go, and I went. When I got back, you were gone.
Wind swirled crunches of leaves and tiny dirts. I leaned into the air and, as I walked, perfume was blown from my skin. While I was sipping wine and talking, talking with old friends, you were leaving me.
You were packing away shine, gleam and spark. Emptying the cupboards of indulgences: freshly ground coffee beans, dark chocolate and cardamom pods. You were stealing comfort and ease as I swallowed another mouthful of slightly warm wine.
I was laughing, perhaps, as you darkened the light. I did laugh. It was maybe too loud to be real, but nonetheless. My friend squeezed my knee.
You wound in the wool, snipped the cotton, buttoned up your coat. I cut my evening short and hurried back to you. I told my friends how grateful I was but I had to go. The wind pushed me along the roads, assisting.
I entered the house and knew it was empty. Hollow.
“Hello?” You said go, enjoy yourself, and I tried to. When I got back, you were gone.
By Shane Ward
My friend has been infected by a parasite. He’s gone and climbed to the top of an oak tree out the back of his house. His mother called and asked me to talk him down.
“Have you read the papers, Mrs Smith? If it takes hold there’s no reasoning with them,” I said, “and they say it’s not safe to go near them, that you should call in the . . .” I stopped myself. They’ve been evasive with the details, but there’s no keeping some secrets.
“Look, I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
She hung up the phone without another word. She was always considered a bit touched – as was Johnny, I suppose. Their house had the solemn air of a library, although I was never once scolded for making noise.
The Smiths live a mile and a half outside town, in a bungalow on top of a massive hill. It’s painted a shade of washed-out pink.
Mrs Smith led me down their long, narrow back garden, wearing only a dressing gown and a pair of wellies. “He’ll listen to you,” she said.
He’d climbed so high I couldn’t see him at first. He’d made his way right to the very top, peeking his head above the canopy.
“Johnny!” I called to him.
There was nothing for it but to start climbing.
“Be careful,” she said.
We’re a little beyond that, I thought.
I knew how to climb this tree well. It had been raining, and the thick, low-hanging branch at the bottom was hard to grip. I managed to swing my feet up and twist my body around and on to the branch.
From the top of Smith’s oak, you can see over the borders of Armagh and Tyrone. Hours have been spent looking out across those rolling hills, talking about matters of importance to small boys. I’d follow the shadows that the clouds cast across hills and houses and imagine how far-off people felt the warm glow on their face suddenly dim. I reached the point at which it was safe to stop. Johnny was higher, gripping the thin, green new growth. The branches were swaying in the growing breeze.
“Come down, Johnny!” I shouted.
He was staring up at the sky with a serious expression on his face. I thought of how big a coward Johnny was, of how, when we climbed on to the roof of Cullen’s hardware, he wouldn’t jump down.
I lifted the neckline of my jumper above my nose, thinking it might block the spores.
I started to climb higher, although the wind was picking up. The noise of the leaves and the creak of the branches filled me with an unexpected calm.
As I got closer I could make out that he was muttering something.
“Johnny? Johnny, it’s me.”
I always wondered, did they know that what dimmed their faces were vast, dark creatures creeping across hills and houses?
Flash fiction will be a regular item in The Irish Times. E-mail your story to firstname.lastname@example.org