They moved the border during the night. No warning. We went to sleep nationals of one country, awoke denizens of another. We stood, toes against the white paint line sprayed down the middle of the village green, and looked at the pub on the other side.
‘How long did they say? Before our papers arrive?’ you asked me.
I pulled the notice out of my pocket. ‘Um, let’s see. It says… twelve weeks.’
‘And until then?’
‘We can’t get to the pub. No crossing the border line.’
‘But it’s Sunday.’
I could only nod. My face twisted with the effort not to cry.
‘Roast beef,’ you said, so quietly I only just heard you. A two-word lament. You didn’t need to say more.
I turned around to face the other way, into the new interior. ‘There must be other pubs. Other lunches.’
You turned to join me. I felt rather than saw you pull your shoulders back, breathe deeply into your ribs and settle into your usual determination to make the best of things, using all the tools your weekly yoga class in the church hall had endowed you with. ‘We live here now,’ you said. ‘Let’s go get some lunch.’
We walked to the next village. We’d been there before, of course, but when it had been part of our old country. Now it was in the new country. Our new country.
‘Maybe,’ I said hopefully, ‘they won’t have had time to change the menu.’
You squeezed my hand. ‘That’s the spirit. One last roasted hurrah, eh?’
But the trucks were already there. The soldiers had formed lines from the back of the trucks to the pub’s back door and were passing foil-wrapped platters along the line and into the kitchen. I held my breath as the last platter disappeared through the door. And let out a small moan as deep roasting tins filled with steaming beef started to come out and make their way, hand-over-hand, to the back of the military trucks.
A head appeared out of the kitchen door. ‘And I’ll be wanting them roasting tins back, ya fuckers.’
You shook your head. ‘Poor guy. Chefs are always on the frontline. I know it’s what they are trained for, but still. Heart breaking.’
The pub’s dining room was packed, but silent. Sunday lunch must be had, and that was an end to it. We’d heard rumours, of course, about the sort of thing people in nations other than ours ate for Sunday lunch, and we’d laughed and said we’d rather starve. We weren’t laughing now.
The swinging doors to the kitchen clanged open and the servers streamed out, faces grim, hands and arms laden with plates. With a practiced dip, our waitress put our plates in front of us without spilling a drop of gravy.
I looked at my plate, looked at you, looked back at my plate.
Roast beef, but no roast potatoes.
First published in Ripening: 2018 National Flash-Fiction Day Anthology
The smell of lavender floor wax accompanies her out of the house. She’d rather have linoleum in the hall but parquet has more cachet, he says. She sniffs at her cardigan cuffs. She could have tucked them better into her housecoat this morning. At the greengrocer’s she runs a nail along the silky gills of a mushroom and inhales, longing for a life lived in the leaf-mould litter of a forest floor, peaty earth under her stockinged feet. Failing that, she thinks as she drops the mushroom into a torn-cornered paper bag, she’d settle for a nice bit of linoleum.
First published in Ripening: 2018 National Flash-Fiction Day Anthology
Don’t plant things in the wrong place. For example:
Don’t plant a Japanese maple tree just outside the back door where you can see its heart-red, flame-red, blood-red leaves in the low autumn light, just because he said he loves maple trees. One day he’ll leave you, and you’ll grow to hate that tree in its heedless insistence on being beautiful.
And when he does leave, don’t cut down the maple tree with a rusty saw that tears its juicy flesh, heaping fallen branches on the overgrown lawn, the red and the green, complementary colours singing to each other until you bundle it all into a black bag.
Don’t think that just because you’ve cut the tree down, just because all that remains is a small stump, its spongy surface hardening to a callous even as you watch, that the tree is dead. It is not.
Don’t be surprised when you see tiny clones of the felled tree appearing in the grass, and when you dig and pull you find a rope-like root, suckers thrown up along its length, all the way back to the stump. You’ll start to dream about that tree pressing against your bedroom window, tap, tap, let me in. You’ll scan the garden every morning for new suckers, pulling them up, pinching them out, for weeks, before you realise the error of your ways. Hydra-like, the stump pumps out three new suckers for every one you pull.
Don’t panic when the first sucker, a soft, fleshy stem with lime-green spiked palmate leaves, appears through one of the cracks in the kitchen floor, followed by another, and another, a new one every day. You’ll soon find out you’ve bought a house with no foundations, just brick on mud, and underneath the kitchen lino the earth is dark and damp. There is nothing under your feet.
Learn from your mistakes. Pack his things into boxes and send them back to him. Call the insurance company and get the house – the sagging, bulging house – pinned, strapped and stitched back together, after new foundations have been poured and pumped under it. Buy a box of poison from the garden centre and paint it carefully onto the stump of the tree on a cool, still day and cover it with a clear plastic bag, secured with a red-rubber band. Watch as the stump breathes and bleeds moisture into the bag until the wood is cracked and yellow and the suckers in the grass flop and retreat.
Consider the consequences before you plant another tree.
Infinity isn’t a number, he said, it’s a marker.
A marker of what? she said.
The place where all the numbers are, he said.
All the numbers. She liked that. She thought about the numbers in her life.
Forty-one: the number of times she had travelled around the sun.
Thirteen: the number on the door she lived behind.
Eleven: the number of times she had crossed the threshold of that door in the past year. Three: the number of children she had borne.
Nineteen: the age of the boy who swerved too late.
Zero: the number of her children still alive.
Zero. Round, swelling, like infinity. Looping endlessly.
Not like those other numbers: 41, 13, 11, 3, 19. Spiky numbers, prime, unyielding.
So, he said, I’ve looked at your case and you’re a prime candidate for the cure.
The cure, she said. How does it work?
I show you infinity, he said, all the numbers. Everything and nothing. It’s beautiful and it’s terrible. And when there is nothing but all the numbers in your head, the pain will be gone. Think about it, he said, no more pain.
She thought about it.
Do it, she said, show me all the numbers.
So he did.
Published in Synaesthesia Magazine, November 2013
She puts her hand in her coat pocket, looking for keys that aren’t there. He stands on the far side of the kitchen table, arms folded. Other pocket: her hand lights on something both soft and unyielding. She pulls it out and slams it onto the table. It’s a leopard-spotted slug. They both watch as it slowly stretches and rotates to display its crimped orange belly.
‘It’s raining,’ she says, ‘and I was waiting a very long time.’
She remembers now where her keys are. She threw them into the empty flowerpot by the front door when she realised he’d finally made good his threat to change the locks. She needs to rescue them. Eight keys on a bottle-opener keyring, one for each front door she has lived behind. Whatever she plants next in that pot will need to be slug-proof. Something with a tough barky stem, maybe. Something thorny.
‘Do I even want to know where you spent last night?’ he asks.
She remembers margaritas, the sting of salt and lime on the cut on her lip. A sofa somewhere, with scratchy tweed upholstery and her coat balled up for a pillow. Waking in the morning relieved to be not yet sober. She licks her lip, teasing the taste of her blood out of it and remembers she’s hungry.
‘I’m sorry,’ she says.
He looks at his watch. ‘I have to get back to work, this is my lunch break.’
‘Will you do the daycare pick up?’
He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a shiny door key, its teeth frilled with burrs. A copy cut already. He sets it down beside the slug which recoils from the sudden intrusion of metal in its path across the table.
She takes off her coat.
Published in Flash Flood Journal 2018
The best moment is just before you catch me. You fling me up and the shock of it pulls a shriek of laughter out of me and my limbs go weak with giddiness. It’s no time at all before you’ve got hold of me again, your arms crooked at the elbow to take the weight of my eight years, plus the extra we don’t talk about. I’m always glad when you’ve caught me, but I wish I could stay in the moment of free-fall a bit longer. All that is me is in the air, rising up and out of my body, the two things – mind-me and body-me, slamming into each other, recombining, seconds before you catch me and buckle at your knees, swinging me round to hide the fact I was too much. We fall, laughing, and I wonder if it’s normal to love a brother so much.
Mum sees us in a tumble on the grass and yells through the open kitchen window: ‘I hope you’ve not been throwing your sister in the air again. You’ll break the back of yourself.’
I’m not the only fat kid in the playground, but I seem to wear it differently to the others. You have to grow something else about yourself that’s bigger than your body so people stop seeing it – be funnier, be meaner, be happier. Be more than. Be better than. I lean against a wall, step to one side of myself and enjoy the head-spinning that comes with thinking: what if I had not been born me? A football bounces off the wall an inch from my face and I will myself not to flinch. That just makes them laugh more.
Mum sends you to pick me up from school. Who’s that, they ask, goggle-eyed, and I tell them you’re my brother and you’re nearly a grown-up, you’ll be eighteen in the summer. And one of the older girls says the word ‘fit’ like it means something different than what I think it does and I want to tell them yes, you are fit, you are so strong you can throw me in the air and catch me, but I don’t because that belongs to you and me, that moment when your arms are waiting and I am floating and there’s nothing to me. Nothing at all.
Published by Word Factory as part of their Citizen Festival, 2017