An Afternoon in a Pub

Short story

They agreed to meet in a pub near where she lived.

It is what he does from time to time – asks her out for a drink or a meal, depending how much money he can spare.

Only rarely he lets her pay and only if she insists and he judges that she can afford it.

She was late and reproached herself for it; the place is only few minutes from her flat, while he probably had to walk all the way from his downtown office. She really should have been more organized. The whole day she was aware of that engagement. And it was after four in the afternoon.

She tried to remember what was she doing all day; it took an awful long time to peel herself off the bed, the wind rattled the front door all night – she hardly slept. Sweating was terrible too. Must be withdrawals. Her doctor said something about that last time she saw him which was not long ago but she could not remember what. She remembered him (the doctor) standing very close to her and stroking her arm then brushing his hands over her breasts. Which, she briefly thought are still rather firm and responsive.

Only later it occurred to her that she should have probably said something. Like – what do you think you are doing – or something like that, like those English women say. Easy for them – their mothers probably taught them how to do it.

Then there was business of washing and dressing. It took even longer. She felt big and ugly and lazy. Every move was like wading through the thick undergrowth. Paddling through swamp. In the end she threw well-worn dress over and shoes she once thought boring. It does not matter she thought – he is just a friend.

The place was empty but for a few middle-age men loudly betting on horses under the giant TV screen. Interior arranged to match shabbiness of their living rooms. Working-class pride.

She spotted him immediately – caressing a pint of a pale-yellow beer at one of the tables close to veranda. So she can easily go outside for a smoke.

He had a fresh haircut and a new looking shirt.

His greeting was of a familiar, carefully rationed warmth. She once asked him about it and he explained that he must be careful not to encourage her feelings for him since he cannot possibly give her what she truly wants and deserves, which he pronounced to be; ‘all consuming passion’.  He is just not capable of it being of Anglo-Saxon stock and raised by a war-veteran father and an overly strict mother.

At the time she thought of asking him what does he really mean by it, but thought better of it. She learned that, every now and then he would say odd things like that.

By the time she sat down and managed the smile, beads of sweat were traveling down her spine soaking her back and making stripes of her bra cutting into flesh.

He walked to the bar to bring their drinks and hot chips. She watched him eat in a way he does; with an apologetic greediness. A little boy comforting himself – hands deep in his mother’s most precious jar before she catches him. Guilty.

They talked;

How’s going?

Yeah, not too bad. You?

Ok, I guess. Still on holiday.

Wow that’s long.

Yeah, coming to an end, dreading going back.

Work is good – pays rent.

I suppose.

You should do something with yourself.

Like what?

Here – it is your local I am introducing you to.

So?

Look around; see those men over there where TV is?

She laughed hysterically; high pitched, uncontrollable outburst. Covered her mouth with hand and rubbed tears (supposedly from laughter) from her face.

What are you laughing like that for? Don’t you know what happens in pubs? You look around, flirt a bit, they buy you a drink or two, have a chat, take them home and if you still like them in the morning – do it again.

Really? I think I rather stick to my hourly rate.

You still doing it then?

What? Whoring?

Nah, just kidding. Too tired.

Other things?

Nicking you mean? Nah, lost the touch. Too slow. Got scared of cops after the last time.

Good. Stay scared. Don’t get into any more trouble.

What’s to you?

Just saying.

They left the pub and he walked her into the nearby dairy where loud noise announced their arrival to an Indian man standing behind the counter over-stocked with sweets.

He insisted on buying her a bar of chocolate before walking her home.

Visitor

It was well past midday when she reached the airport. Taxi drivers stood in batches smoking and chatting in mixture of exotic languages. African, Arabic, Russian. World at your service.

She walked into the bathroom and stood in front of a large mirror. A tiny Vietnamese woman was mopping the floor. She smoothed her dress over and smiled at the Vietnamese woman. The woman did not smile back.

In the arrival lounge people were gathering around the luggage-belts. A toddler was trying to climb on it. She was trying not to look nervous.

She saw his forehead first. He was walking towards her with the long strides of tall-people. And then the eyes. As blue as she imagined them to be. Smiling. He greeted her with the embrace that was friendly rather than longing. But then she could never be sure. The words of the poem she wrote months ago whispered into the air around her lips.  Dust silvered into stars.

Outside, the Indian summer was cradling the day into afternoon. A breeze lifted the skirt of her dress. She quickly apologised and held it down with both hands. She knew she was blushing under the make-up so she kept on chatting.

In the shuttle they sat next to each other and their hands brushed for the first time. Her fingers touched the skin where it brushed against his. She was hoping he would not notice. She kept on chatting and smiling. Talking about the city unfolding outside the shuttle window. Tall houses with ornate verandas dotted along narrow streets. A speck of harbour in the distance.

His brother lived in that city many years ago. Before he went back to Ireland, the original home-land.  Eire. She remembered the name in Irish from a book she was reading. She thought how the country she came from also has the original name used only by its people. But she did not say anything.

They disembarked in the city’s centre and she showed him the tall building where she worked. With its large entrance and marbled corridors it looked important. She wanted him to know that she could keep a job in such a building. In a city she hardly knew.

The sun was high above the streets lulled into a temporary stillness between the lunch-hour walkers and after-work commuters.

They walked towards the waterfront. A couple of students and a young woman pushing a stroller with a sleeping baby passed by. A lone seagull cried over the glistening water and swooped down to snatch scraps of food off the rocks.

Galeb

Her hands were starting to sweat. She was worried about walking too close to him and talking too much. And not finding the popular café with expansive harbour views she has chosen weeks ago. He told her there was a flower with that name.

Foxglove

The place was almost empty. She regretted choosing it at once. It seemed wrong for the time of the day. They ordered drinks and chatted about how lovely the city is on a nice day. She noticed how his face lit up when he smiles. He told her she is beautiful and she felt as shy as a girl of 16.

Along the outside deck a few lounge chairs and coffee tables were arranged in small semi-circles. Young couple sitting in one were laughing and feeding each other French fries.

She wanted to ask him whether he remembered the letters she wrote to him the last summer and the summer before. But she reminded herself that it is getting late and he is probably tired and hungry.

They walked a few blocks to an Italian restaurant where they serve pasta and red wine on the plain wooden tables with a single candle and water decanter placed in the middle. The waitress could not speak a word of Italian.

Their table was beneath a framed map of Italy. The Adriatic Sea behind his eyes. The image of a small, white-stone church hanging from the cliff rising from that same sea entered her vision. She thought she might cry and excused herself to go to the ladies’.

The night was rich and warm when they walked to a late-night cocktail bar with soft leather couches and green card-tables. Before they reached the place he took her hand in his. It was a strong, safe hand. She was hoping her hand would not tremble.

It was almost midnight by the time they reached her place. The full moon was hanging over the wattle tree in her garden. The last train to his destination long gone. She felt embarrassed for not keeping a better watch on the time. And because her place was so small. She opened the bottle of wine thanking God she had saved one.

When he kissed her, tiny particles of her soul started to grow wings. She read somewhere that dreams are unfinished wings of our souls. She dreamt of that kiss for so long that all she could think was whether he now feels compelled to kiss her. In such a small space where limbs practically touch each other. In a city far away from open skies of his home. ‘Back home’ he calls it. She worried whether she somehow tricked him into her dream. Unwittingly.

He touched her hair and thanked her for letting him touch it. She placed her head on his chest and when large, salty tears arrived she said she was very sorry. For exposing him to her crying.

The whole night she listened his heart-beat and slow, steady breath of a man in a deep sleep. Long ago she wrote that it is all she wanted. She slipped away silently to make sure he has enough space.

When morning arrived she worried about his business and how late he was going to be. She made him breakfast of what was there which, she knew, was not much and noticed his shirt needed ironing. She was glad of it. He let her do it. She pressed each part of it for as long as possible. It had been years since she ironed a man’s shirt.

She thought he looks very handsome in his suit and tie.

His taxi was waiting.

She returned to her room and saw it all; breakfast dishes, the still warm iron, unmade bed. Her legs felt like they were made of iron ore. Slowly she slipped into the bed and pulled the covers over her head. The scent of him was bursting her lungs open.

In the days that followed dreams arrived in waves.

Sometimes she dreamed a horse as black as the deepest summer night was galloping over the sun-drenched meadows at the bottom of an island. The horse had a white star on its forehead and was trying to tell her something but she could not understand it.

The other time it was a bride walking into an old wooden church dressed in the palest yellow silk carrying a large bouquet of mimosas and spring snowflakes. Before each step she felt the space before her and flowers slipped from her hands like a floral water-fall. She was blind.

Visibabe

Each morning she touched her face wet from tears and prayed. The morning she found her face covered in tiny crystals the colour of blood, she knew he is not coming back.

Red Overcoat

‘Sex is the consolation you have when you can’t have love’ ― Gabriel Garcí­a Marquez

They were standing next to each other waiting for her bus to arrive. The terminal’s timetable displayed the name of her suburb and the time left until the correct bus arrives. Only nine minutes. We are in luck she said, not long to wait. That’s good he said. No, not really she thought.

She wanted him to say something like how time is always too short when he is with her, or how he would not mind waiting much longer if it meant they would be together a few more minutes, or some such sugary nonsense she picked up from romantic novels or fantasized of being told. Even whispered.

The wind picked up from the harbour spreading spring scents across the night. She shuddered slightly.

He stepped towards her and pulled the collar of her red overcoat closer around her, tucking it tightly around her neck. They did not look at each other. She saw blinking lights of her bus approaching over his shoulder. My bus is coming she said.

red overcoatHe shifted his feet and kissed her hastily on the lips. His kiss was warm and tender and almost embarrassed. She hugged him and brushed her face next to his. It felt safe.

She smiled and waved to him from the bus. Her overcoat collar was still tucked tightly around her neck.

The next day she received a letter from him. It was a very polite and well-written letter. He explained how he is afraid she might be seeing in him what is not there; kindness and generosity and love and care. Humanity. While really; he is not that kind or generous. Or loving. None of it.

She read the letter few times and cried a little like kids do when they discover for the first time that, all along, it was their parents who put all the presents under the Christmas tree. So that all the long letters they carefully wrote and kept hidden in especially chosen places never really went anywhere. Despite the stamps they licked and pressed on envelopes.

Later she picked up a low-cut dress and applied make-up skilfully. Her reflection in the mirror pleased her. Her skin was still glowing with golden undertones and her eyes sparkled when she smiled. She liked how her dress hugged her figure. She applied scarlet lipstick and practiced smiling in front of the mirror few times.

Out of habit she reached for the red overcoat and noticed the collar still turned in. She stroked it gently and left it hanging over the edge of the couch.

Then she called the taxi and gave the name of the down-town cocktail bar.

It was swinging with late night blues and gypsy jazz. A few reluctant dancers swayed towards each other. Spectators nursed their drinks in the corners, scanning the crowed, prowling.

She took her shoes off and danced barefoot; it made her look wild and untamed. Daring. Musicians noticed her and sped the beat. Her feet moved faster, her body melting with the rhythm. They watched her and she knew it. Their eyes burrowing small holes in the folds of her skin.

A man took both her hands and started dancing with her. He had a boyish look and a practiced, seductive stare. His hands were strong and dry. Music slowed down to longing melodies of faraway lands with exotically named mountains. He told her his name and she thought it sounded similar.

They danced the rest of the night slowly; bending into each other’s body, testing each other’s skin. She felt his erection against her thigh.

She let him take her home and undress her in that slow motion that makes the skin want to peel from the inside. Like an orange hot from summer sun. Moist and open.

While he was entering her, she could still see the sleeve of her red overcoat hanging from the edge of the couch.

‘Sex is the consolation you have when you can’t have love’Gabriel Garcí­a Marquez

Charlie (second part)

Single story weatherboard bungalows, with peeling paint and old sofas perched on verandas, stuffing coming out of them. Couple of guys in leather jackets standing around an old Harley drinking beer from cans and arguing about something. Strands of their matted hairs flipping in the breeze like pieces of wool left to dry for too long.

Charlie lowered his head and quickened his pace. He did not want anyone to notice him. He figured he could reach Trish’s in about twenty minutes, slip through the back door and leave the place before the dawn, unseen. He spent a long time planning it all and debating with himself whether to visit Trish’s for one last time before to leave the whole damn town behind him.

He could never think about leaving without remembering his mother and how she called the place ‘shit-hole’ just before she left. She might have been right; he should have left ages ago too. Not that he has not thought about it. All those nights sitting on the front porch gazing down the road, waiting for her to come back and take him and his brothers to the city like she said she would.

When his old man found out, and put stop to it, Charlie rostered his brothers to sit and wait for ma. Jeremy said he could not remember what ma looks like. Charlie slapped him so hard to knock him over and would beat his life out of him if the old man did pull him off. It was the first time Charlie experienced the violence that emerged from the depths of him and he had not known was there.

That night, the old man took Charlie to a pub with him and treated him to a beer laced with lemonade. Then he told him that ma is not coming back. She is gone with another fellow. They probably have a family by now. She does not want to remember them boys or her life in this town any more.  Charlie ran out of the pub, crying tears of rage and hurt. They burned hollow in his gut and set his chest on fire. He ran past his house and set for the dirt-road leading out of town. Couple of days later local cops brought him back home. He was starved and soles of his feet had bleeding blisters. Charlie never waited for his mother again. His old man made sure no one mentioned her again in front the boys.

He was approaching the town’s main square. Empty semicircle surrounded by the post office, cop-shop, paper-decorated Chinese take-away, couple of forlorn looking stores, and a court house.  Tall wooden statue of a forestry worker with the sleeves of his shirt rolled up, holding a chainsaw stood in the middle, his gaze fixed on the town below. Cigarette butts and empty bags of potato chips scattered at its base.

forest

Charlie looked down the road past the court-house. Around the corner there was a library and a local high-school. For a moment he felt the urge to walk there, just to see whether the opening in the fence he cut all those years ago is still there. He went to a lot of trouble to make it big enough for him and Ines to pass through. Smuggling tools was not a problem. He was always good at woodwork and had almost free access to the school’s work-shop. The trouble was how to work on the fence without being seen. On the end he did it all at night and returned the tools before school started. He wanted to make sure nobody finds out.

He remembered the day he showed her the opening for the first time. It was winter and snow-flakes danced in the sharp air landing on the heavy branches of the pine trees. Charlie chose that part of the school-field to cut the opening because of those trees. They sheltered the fence. It was what he always wanted for her; to make a safe shelter. Ever since she first arrived at their school.

Charlie was in his third year for the second time because his old man was adamant all of his boys should finish high-school and did not give up even when Charlie had to repeat his third year because of his absences. What he really wanted was to quit school and find a job with the local forestry gang. The money was good and almost all of his mates were there. But the old man threatened to threw him out on the street and break his neck in the process, so Charlie returned to school.

It was still summer and the commotions of the brand new school year in full swing.The class teacher was a tiny woman with a large glasses and high-pitched voice. She tapped her desk few times for silence and introduced the new girl. Ines. New in town, just arrived from a big city, please welcome her. She stood there with her hands limp at her sides and long blond hair hanging loose, covering her face. She went to sit at the place teacher pointed without raising her head.

He did not understand why, but the first thing Charlie noticed was that the girl was bare-footed and had no school bag. Or carried anything needed at school. Even her dress was more like going out dress then going to school dress. He wanted to ask her about it. And whether he name means anything special. Charlie never knew anyone called Ines.

As soon as class finished, Charlie walked to where Ines was sitting and introduced himself. He was young, but thanks to his old man and Trish’s fine establishment he had his share of girls. Ines did not raise her head. Or moved her hands clasped tightly in her lap. When he asked whether cat got her tongue, she stood up and walked out of the class. Charlie did not know what to make of it. Except that he really wanted her to look at him.

At the end of the school day, Charlie went looking for Ines. He saw her walking across the school’s rugby-field towards Bone Street. He knew he could follow her without her noticing. When she turned into Elizabeth Street, Charlie could think of only one place she is going; Fat Betty’s foster home.

Fat Betty ran a foster home ever since her fellow ran away with the local pub’s new waitress and left her to fend for herself and their three children. Betty figured that taking in others who have nowhere else to go or have been thrown out of all other places, can help feed her and her children. The place was cramped and always smelt of piss, burned milk and stale cigarettes. Some of Charlie’s school friends were Fat Betty’s kids. They went hungry most days, but Fat Betty never laid hand on any of them and they had safe beds to sleep in which was more than they had in places left behind.

When he saw her opening the Fat Betty’s gate, Charlie turned towards his own home. That evening while sitting at the table with his brothers and their old man eating baked beans and chips, he decided to make Ines look at him even if just once.

Years later, sitting at the table in the local jail, Charlie will come to think of that evening as the exact moment his life started to slide off under him … (to be continued).

 Ines

Charlie

The extract below is from a story that arrived announced in one of those still hours before the down, while a new silverish moon hung from its shaven rim the colour of sulphur, and scent of the lilac was heady from thunder showers that had gone on all evening … and I wondered whether the same moon could be seen over the lands somewhere in Central Otago.

Otago
Sunrise over the Clutha River, Central Otago, New Zealand

 

Charlie

When Charlie came out of the clink for the second time in the last ten years, he carried all his possessions in a duffel bag slung across his shoulder and enough money to pay for a woman.

Sunshine exploded inside his pupils and he stumbled through the high iron-gate into the open air. He spat and steadied himself. Free man.

Empty shingle road stretched before him, curving around the woods towards the first township. Rickety settlement kept together by those who stayed on, even after forestry no longer offered much work, and those who found jobs in local prison. They clung to each other’s; ex-lumber jacks and factory hands planting dope for living in their back yards, beating their wives on benefit days and fixing cars older than their children. It was enough to keep cops and prison guards employed.

Breeze rustled leaves into shiver, disturbing droplets that hanged on their edges.

Charlie looked towards the woods. He inhaled deeply letting sharp scent of damp earth and early buds fill his lungs.  He closed his eyes and knew he would see her then; sitting under the blossom of an apple tree at the edge of his orchard, just as she did all those years ago; wet with dew, strains of her golden hair shimmering under the red wings of down. Waiting.

Apple tree

Charlie shook himself slightly and straightened straps of his duffel bag before to take the road with long, purposeful strides.  He knew the road well; it was the same stretch of dirt his old-man took to work each day to put food in his and his brothers’ bellies, as he was fond of saying. The same road their mother crossed to jump into the other man’s car; ‘I am going away to find work in the big city and place for us to live. This place is a shit-hole and I am fed up with your father’s drinking and him beating us all. I will come back for you boys very soon. It is all going to work fine.’ she said. She never came back.

The old man worked shifts, slept, drank and whored. But he never laid a hand on any of his boys again. Charlie once saw him sitting by the bed of his youngest brother for a whole night while the boy was burning with fever. Charlie could swear the old man was crying.

Around the time their voices started to break, the old man would take each of them to Trish’s. She keeps fine establishment, he would say, and you boys need to learn proper.

Charlie could still recall jasmine scent of the first whore he had at Trish’s.  He was the oldest and the old man told him to make him proud. He paid for the newest girl; a young Russian lass going by the name of Daria. She had slight body of a trapeze artist and firm, small breasts. When she took her slip off, curls of her long blond hair brushed against her nipples. Charlie could not remember his mouth ever being so dry.

Sun was starting to beat down his exposed neck, pale as baby’s bottom after years spent indoors. Charlie rolled up his collar and quickened his peace. He touched little stash of cash inside his pocket and wondered how much has changed at Trish’s. He knew from prison guards that Trish’s daughter is now running the place.

But the old girl still sits most nights behind the bar and talks to old-timers.

Charlie smiled thinking of Trish and old-times. He knew she was found of his old-man, even she never said as much. And she always had a big heart on her, Trish did. She once brought home  pregnant lass from somewhere up North with cigarette burns all over her. Trish put the girl up and paid for the doctor. When the baby was born, all them girls cooed over it like each one gave birth to it. They were regular scuffles over who would take the baby out for a walk. Charlie could not remember what happened to that baby.

He was almost upon the first houses … (to be continued)

Art

Brevity

In ‘Conversations with James Joyce’, Joyce tells Arthur Power; ‘The object of any work of art is the transference of emotion; talent is the gift of conveying that emotion.’

James Joyce, Credit: Wikipedia
James Joyce, Credit: Wikipedia

For Joyce transference of the emotion was only possible with great many words. As his fellow countryman, a writer and a close friend Samuel Beckett observed; ‘James Joyce was a synthesizer, trying to bring in as much as he could. I am an analyser, trying to leave out as much as I can.’

The distinction is an important one as it highlights the difference between writers who lay the rich feast of words before their readers, versus those whose offerings are scarce. While the offerings remain of different quantity each respective audience seems to receive adequate sustenance.

Samuel Backett, Credit: Wikipedia
Samuel Backett, Credit: Wikipedia

However, if we agree with Joyce that ‘the object is the transference of emotion’ than the question that immediately present itself is whether or not that transference is equally achieved with few as well as many words?

No doubt those, like the writer of those lines, for whom the transference of emotion depends almost entirely on their ability to employ the richest, most luscious words, would readily subscribe to the ‘synthesizer’s camp’, while those who favour filling the spaces between scantily placed words themselves in order to receive the transference, would opt for the ‘analyser camp.’  Whatever our choice might be, it would inevitably depend on number of factors, including our views on the role of art and literature.

Another great writer whose frugal use of words became legendary is of course Ernest Hemingway. It is said that he once wrote a story in just six words and called it his best work; ‘For sale, baby shoes, never worn.’  The story does not have any of the building blocks stories are traditionally made of, such as the beginning, the plot, or the end. Moreover we do not know what happened to the baby, or why shoes have never been worn, or why they are for sale?

Ernest Hemingway, Credit: Wikipedia
Ernest Hemingway, Credit: Wikipedia

And those ‘missing pieces’ are precisely where the secret beauty of writing known as micro fiction or flash fiction lays.

Recently there has been much talk about micro fiction’s upsurge in popularity, which is apparently directly linked to our ever shorter attention spans courtesy of over-saturation with written words in all their forms. In other words; offerings far exceed not only appetites for novels, stories, poetry, etc, but also any human ability to digest them. As a result the challenge becomes how to transfer the emotion with as fewer words as possible. Enter the micro fiction.

While debates on whether or not the onset of internet has for ever changed written word are likely to continue, the fact remains that there were always writers who employed fewer words to achieve the desired effect. And while micro fiction might be quick to read, it most certainly is not quick to write. It requires something special; a writer’s ability and willingness to allow the reader to become the writer.

The writer’s task changes from holding all the secrets, to living some to the reader, so that the reader’s imagination and emotions are aroused just enough to entice him or her to finish the story in his own mind, using own experience, own believes. That is the unique beauty of micro fiction.

Every reader of Hemingway’s six-word story would answer the questions about the baby and baby’s shoes in their own unique way. Has the baby died before was able to wore the shoes? Was it a boy or a girl? Or was it a simply a matter of one pair of shoes too many?

There is no end to those questions. As there is no end to human imagination; the mastery required to evoke this imagination remains however within the writer’s tool kit.

Not very long ago, my written efforts were routinely received with remarks such as ‘too many words’ and alike. With that in mind, I took up a challenge to write a story with 150 words only including the title. While it was not an easy task, it intrigued me sufficiently to try and write couple of more stories with even less words. Here they are, and as always free and frank critique is most welcome!

If you have written, or are writing flash fiction, it would be great if you can share your work, and/or your experience on writing it. Many thanks.

My recent attempts at the tiniest micro fiction:

Notice: Single white female, body unclaimed.

Epitaph: Here lies Arthur Smith. He took his own life. It was all he had.

For hire: Wedding dress, size large, works if pregnant.

Adult entertainment: New to industry, apprentice rates.

Pub notice: No credit. Don’t ask. Even if sober.

God to Earth: Speak louder. Can’t hear you.

With so many words only

The challenge was to write a story with 150 words only including the title. Below is what I have written.

At the Doctor

‘Please sit down. How have you been?’

He is young, and is wearing a pacifying smile.

‘My chest hurts. It rattles each night like an empty coffin. There is nothing in it. I try to fill it with poetry and flowers but it will not have it. I need something to fill it in.’

‘Are you taking your medications every day like we agreed?’

He is leaning forward now, trying for an eye contact.

‘I am already dead. I know that because my mother planted pink and white roses on the small patch of dirt under an old walnut tree in our garden. The tree was there before the war and my brother and I used to play under it. A sniper took him down outside the bakery on our street. He was running in front of me. I never stopped.’

‘We will need some more tests.’

 

Roses