‘Against the Collar’ – Flash Fiction Collection
The night tasted bitter. It lingered in the mouth and assaulted the nostrils. The sticky black sky weighed down on all who witnessed it, depressing the air and making the atmosphere thick and muddy. Sam and Mary slipped out of the car. Mr Bridges held the door open for them, he looked down at their small faces his eyes full of concern. The adults always looked like that. Sympathetic. Sam held his little sisters hand as they walked towards the foreign building, their reflection looking back at them from the shiny windows. Sam couldn’t help but think it was a sad scene. Two scared children walking hand in hand, stepping warily towards their new miserable life. Wards of the state.
The days dragged on. He found it hard to adjust. Sam would often have dreams he was back at home, sat on the comfy bright orange sofa with his mother. In these dreams he’d nuzzle into her hair and inhale her scent. Sweet and homely. Then he’d awake to disappointment. He’d squeeze his eyes tight together and will himself back to sleep but it was always too late. She wouldn’t come back. She couldn’t come back. Sam clung to Mary like a memory of a past life. The one silver lining within the dark and dismal cloud. The one tangible link to all he once had.
The people in the house were friendly enough. They tried to help Sam with his homework, they cooked his meals and read him bedtime stories, but this wasn’t home, this was limbo. Children waited to be taken away, to be loved again. Sam feared he was too old, too close to adolescence. Who’d want to be burdened with a twelve-year-old boy on the edge of puberty? Sam knew he wouldn’t want that responsibility if he were an adult.
Then, one day in May it happened. Sam knew it might, but not so soon. They’d only been in the house for three months. He thought he had more time. Sam watched them from the stairs, he pressed his head through the railings and looked down at the couple. They didn’t know he was there, he felt like a spy. They looked nice. That’s all you could really hope for. The pair sat down on the sofa and chatted to the social worker. Their faces were radiant, their smiles reaching from ear to ear. After a while they got up and were led to the bottom of the stairs. Sam looked down at the couple, they looked up towards him with their gentle faces and waved. The woman had tears in her eyes. Sam heard footsteps from behind and another smiling woman walked past him. She got to the bottom step and put down the small bundle that she’d had cradled in her arms. Mary’s rosy cheeks could melt the heart of anyone. The woman took Mary’s small frame in her arms and the man shook the care workers hand with so much gusto that it radiated through her whole body. Sam crawled to the landing window and wiped his damp face with his tattered sleeve. He watched the three beaming figures as they walked away from the the house and out of his reach. Sam never got to say goodbye, just like the last time.
From up here
Tom was a loner. Some would say by choice, others by necessity, many just thought he was different. Odd would be the word. Tom often sat in his flat and stared out across the deserted courtyard. Square windows seemingly spattered about the old crumbling walls, giving him a quick glimpse into another life. Tom would watch the figures passing below. Some on their way to work, others on their way to meet lovers or friends. Tom saw everything. He invented wild fantasies and unbelievable conspiracies. Mr Talbot in 6a was a retired fighter pilot obsessed with reliving the glories of his past, and Angela in 3b was a brain surgeon moonlighting as a social justice journalist. In Tom’s head, his neighbours were the most interesting people in the world.
There was one particular man that Tom was quite fond of. He wore funny clothes and moved stealthily, slinking like a leopard. He’d be very well hidden in a jungle or a forest, but not so much amongst the concrete of the high rise which he so frequently roamed. Tom called the man Stan. He didn’t know if that was his name, but he looked like a Stan. It was a tough name and Stan looked tough. Tom thought Stan might be some sort of secret agent. He wandered the intricate stairwells of the high rise, sniffing out troublemakers and gathering intelligence. Stan would get the job done sure enough.
On one ordinary bland day, Tom was, as always, looking out of his window. He saw Ms Linehan walking sprightly with a smile on her face, she was holding a package and wearing a cardigan Tom had never seen before. Tom thought she must be going to meet Richard. Richard had a moustache and a severe side parting but he was sweet and gentle, not like that other fella, Michael. Michael wasn’t good for Ms Linehan. No, Richard was the one. They must be in love. Tom chuckled to himself and slurped down his luke warm cup of coffee, the temperature shocked him and his face screwed up so small it almost disappeared. As Tom tried to regain his composure, all the while coughing up a storm, he peeked back out over the desolate landscape. Ms Linehan was gone, probably standing at the bus stop by now waiting for the 216. But someone had taken her place. Tom would know that sturdy outline anywhere, it was Stan. He had his hands in his trouser pockets and his head whipped from side to side surveying the courtyard, making sure no one was watching. Something was bothering him. This made Tom nervous. What in the world would make a composed man like Stan so jumpy?
Stan stood there for hours until the sun dissolved and the dark took over. A solitary streetlamp flickered on and off, giving Stan a distorted disappearing silhouette.
Tom’s eyes never left Stan’s side. Midnight came. The church bells chimed through the square. They made Tom jump.
Stan looked at his watch, as if to make sure the church bells weren’t deceiving him.
Seconds went by. Tom could feel his heart beating, thumping in his chest. Something was going to happen, he could almost touch it. Just moments later a figure emerged through the shadow, he seemed to float across the courtyard. He didn’t make a sound. Tom inched forward, his face pressed up against the glass. He could see the small man fully now. He wore a long raincoat and sharp square glasses, his hair was slicked back, greasy and jet black. Tom didn’t like him.
The small man motioned Stan forward and swiftly passed him a file. Stan rifled through it, throwing pieces of paper to the floor as he dd. He was angry. Furious. He marched up to the man and scowled at him, questioning, his arms gesticulating wildly. The man put his hand on Stan’s chest and Stan stopped. The small man grabbed Stan’s shirt and pulled him forward. He put his lips to Stan’s ear and whispered something. Stan’s eyes widened. Then the small man walked away calmly. He flicked up his collar and vanished out of sight. Stan stood stock-still for a second. Then, like a shot, he dropped the file and ran through the gates away from the high rises and out towards the high-street. Dignified no more, he was panicked. Stan knew something Tom didn’t. Something was dreadfully wrong. And then Tom heard it. And then the bombs began to fall.
When the old man stumbled into my work that late, late night, he landed into my lap with an expression like the sun. I knew he was running away from something, it was obvious because he carried the burden of his miseries on his very tensed shoulders. He showed me a wallet full of dried corns and said that he had plenty more in his basement-Eighty million bags more. I saw in his eyes, in the transitory moments his head flapped about on my mini skirt, my new life, just as I had imagined it as a young girl.
When he asked me to marry him and I said yes, he kissed my hand and my little boy’s hand and carried us away to his Ivory Tower where sweet wine was poured to toast to our happiness. We were happy and what’s more, my son was happy in the Ivory Tower, which looked out over a vast dark forest.
It wasn’t long before the crows came with their long black wings, beating down on our Ivory Tower. They wanted the corns in the basement and would not relent no matter what the old man did until his heart grew older than his face.
The crows that were more like vultures were angry, he told me, for he had promised the head crow the corns in his basement upon his death but now that he had taken a young wife the head crow was afraid that he would not keep his promise. The old man handed me the key to the basement before he was carried away into the dark forest on the wings of doves and I never saw him again.
My son, my new daughter and me mourned for their father but still the crows kept on coming, squawking and demanding that the corns be brought up to them because it was their birthright. One day my son attacked the head crow and killed it with a rock to protect the corns. But my brave boy was later set upon by the other crows when I wasn’t watching. They pecked out his heart before carrying him off to the dark forest, I knew then that I was cursed.
In my grief, I gave the key to the basement to my daughter’s nurse and asked her to keep it and my daughter safe. I armed myself with rocks and knives and went out into the dark forest to find my son. But the corn’s magic was deep for the forest sprung up and I too was loss. I walked for days in search of my sweet boy until the life went out of me. Now my daughter, my little princess must continue to protect the corns from the head crow’s offspring so that her father’s soul might find peace.
The blue shade of her dress lent a shimmering glaze to her skin, and somehow seemed to strengthen the honey highlights in her hair. I felt on the edge of joyous tears, and approached her, a lightly-sweating Cinderella, taking her hand and pulling her in close to dance. Her eyes flickered as I told her how I always did love her in blue.
“Have we met before?”
I don’t answer, and she almost doesn’t seem to mind. Her hands are warm, just like the last time we touched, and it is strange to think I will never touch them hereafter.
Mr. Percival is my teacher, and he’s really nice. He always smiles, and never shouts. His wife are going to have a baby – that’s what he said a little while ago. There’s a picture of his wife on his desk. She’s smiling too, just like Mr.P does, and she looks very pretty. He stopped coming to school for a little while, but now he’s back. Some of his hair has turned grey, and he doesn’t smile very much now. The baby must be hard work. I think I’ll write a story about Mr.P and his pretty wife and their baby, and then maybe he’ll smile again.
He mixes her a cosmopolitan, and drunkenly nibbles on her neck as she throws it back. A jazz record is playing, the notes slow and sultry, qualities she tries to emulate as she unzips her blue dress and wiggles out of it. He makes a joke and laughs, a loud and brittle laugh, and that is when I decide I can’t stomach it anymore and my finger tightens around the cold metallic trigger.
She is watching me above the rim of her coffee cup. She knows that I am on to her. I stare back, and finally she rises, and approaches me, all straw-blonde hair and brown cardigan.
Mr. Thompson takes pride in spoiling his wife. The steaming mug of coffee is placed on her night-stand at exactly eight-thirty every morning, and each evening when he returns home after completing the day’s errands, he surprises her with a little treat; strawberries, or a bouquet of pink peonies, or a new miniature perfume spritzer. Occasionally, he mentions her to his friends or his children, and their sad eyes and shaking heads nudge at some faraway memory - was there an accident? A car, or an illness? – but he simply shrugs it off, and wakes early the next morning to lovingly stir the two sugars into her coffee.
“Sorry, but aren’t you him from…”
My palms dry up, and I rise and walk away, lamenting what might have been. Why must every angel-faced girl own a television set?
Tiny girl, meandering in the forest—holding a knife and freshly picked daffodils, wet with morning rain. Matted hair. Naked, but a chain of human ears around her sticky-out belly. Then came the voice. Another child-- blonde hair, wild eyes, tried to run, so stabbed her in the heart.
Lady Liza had given up the ghost a day after blowing out the 96 candles on her three-tier birthday cake. It was the last adventure on her bucket list, we heard, therefore she went home to be with her husband, Alistair after waiting Thirty-three years.
On the day of her funeral, it was revealed that Lady Liza, like we all thought, was not an actual lady with a proper title and that in fact she was the only child of a humble fishmonger on Tib Street. This new revelation kept us neighbours talking all summer until the autumn leaves floated down from the trees. It took us a while to get over the misconception and the misunderstanding of Lady Liza's name.
Shortly after her burial, her three-bedroom cottage was gutted like a sad fish and placed on the market after a brisk makeover. Then in mid autumn, a tall stranger turned the key in the front door and it was love at first sight for us.
We spent all weekend baking pies and biscuits, for the way to man’s heart is through his stomach. Inevitably, a queue of sweet smelling optimism quickly formed at his front door. Lady Liza had been forgotten.
Our new neighbour greeted us with a wide smile and introduced himself to us as Fred Albert Cougar. Now, this will have us talking all winter.
Digging a Grave in the Shopping Arcade
by Lydia Unsworth
We apply for planning permission. We appeal to humanitarian groups, showing them birth, marriage and death certificates. We plead our right as a family, as descendants, to be with our own. It is no good. My son sinks into a heavy depression. Months pass and he stares away his days eating pasties and pining after the ground in front of the German shoe shop. I struggle to bear it. My parental heart knocks against my ribs. Hollow, a failure.
I quit my job as an astrophysicist and take up employment in the German shoe shop. A step down, I say to my first customer of the day, as they stand with one leg on the ramped podium, looking in the ankle-angled mirror and admiring. I tell my son I will dig his grave, that the world is his, he should go and live. I don't see my son again after that. He takes a flight to India and eventually the emails stop. I become quite deft at selling shoes and start to look forward to the contours and odours of the public's feet. I rise to a managerial role and begin to feel comfortable.
Every day, I tread the tiles by the shop front, stepping harder where the grave will be. Kicking with my heels. Repeatedly, I drop my keys down onto the same tile, waiting for a crack. When it finally comes I dig and turn the sharpest edge of my shoe down into the cavity. The crack becomes two, three; radially connected. I feel proud and wish my son could see me now, providing. Bending down and picking away fragments of material from between the cracks, power surges through me. Tiny lightning forks of action.
Seven years pass before the announcement reaches me. My son has died in Canada, burnt down in a house fire in Newfoundland. His ashes are to be repatriated. I take a day's compassionate leave, which I spend smacking my forehead against the tile outside the German shoe shop. At ten-thirty I am taken away to be given hot drinks, grievance counselling and a blanket.
To this day, although now demoted, I continue to work at the German shoe shop. Before leaving for work each morning I take a few spoonfuls of my son from his box on the dining room table and transport them to the portable tin in my pocket. At every available moment, especially in the quiet seasons, I dash outside and pour and press pieces of my son into his fissure in the shopping arcade.
by Giacomo Perazzi
Mr Tum had only moved in recently; he liked his new place, even though the grey insides were a bit deteriorated, and he didn’t quite like the pink outside walls. Unfortunately the landlord didn’t like him, he had tried to throw him out several times, but Mr Tum was stubborn and he just wouldn’t leave.
He had been feeling observed recently, his place studied and prodded with strange instruments. Then there was a big shaking and he was kicked out.
* * *
“I’m glad to inform you the procedure went well, not many manage to successfully get rid of a brain Tumour.”
Turning Up the Volume
By Neil Campbell
When he was drunk he had no idea about volume. So he sat there and turned her up and she roared like flames or coastline. He sipped his clinking drink and felt its throttling burn before the scenes slipped into green and the horses leaped the fences, their chestnut forms rippling through the rural vista. He flashed back to their first time in the sack when her pale body enveloped him and the dark room filled with starlight, the time they stormed a drunken fairground groping at candy floss and hip flasks of gin and whisky, and the gold coast morning in the last century when they pulled back flowered curtains and saw heatwaves.
He watched the ceremony from the shade of condemned trees. Saw the following years of selfless, clinging hugging, the slacking of her jowls and the progress of her starred children. He saw the shining rewards of television, the vacant semblance of success, her choices exemplified by the greying and drying out of her once lustrous hair.
He turned up the volume beyond where it could go and saw her in a purple pistachio of memory, her eyes green as the star fished depths of coral, her smile an emblazoned slice, a knifed rose, her lips a giving, softened sunset moistened by liquor and kisses. With the memory of her music painting the walls like the sun paints the old buildings of broken towns, he lifted his sodden face back and listened as the glorious fragments of his bolted life consoled him with arias and tone poems.
through the mist, he stood there. Splattered with blood, tears rolled down his
face, watering the river of the dead. Looking up at the sky he thought of him.
Was he out there somewhere waiting or had he already entered the realm of
Hades? He had to find him; shelter him; protect him. Walking forwards, the only
form of motivation that he could muster was seeing him again. Weakened, he
pushed on, his sword becoming his crutch.
Taking one last look at the crumpled letter,
he tucked it away as another wave of men approached. With a roar, he swung
wildly, cutting down warriors like daisies. He needed to end this war; he
needed him to be safe. To allow him to live in peace, he needed to become a
human guillotine. That was the only way that they could see each other again.
He wanted to see him so much, it hurt. As he knelt on his pile of corpses, the
exhaustion set in. Weak, he struggled to his feet. He began to move; his sword
becoming his crutch. He needed to find him. Would he even still be alive? He
didn’t know, but he had hope.
Both men found their strength as if
guided by fate. Angels were leading them, allowing them their wish – to see
each other again. In this world love was hard to find; but theirs was golden.
Staggering closer, they both spotted someone on the horizon. Their movements
were weak and weighted with fatigue, but still they remembered their wish.
Inching together, higher powers
granted them a miracle. Falling into the arms of their beloved, they fell to
the ground. Tight embraces, caresses filled with tears of relief, and kisses
powered by the strength of their reunion; the impossible had been done. On this
vast battlefield, two loving hearts had found each other. Both broken, they
pieced together what they could, coming to find the strength to hold their
Lying together on the red mud, they
fell asleep in each other’s arms. Now that they had come together, they could
conquer anything. The war was over; their obligations to the king fulfilled. A
bloody peace passed over the land and even the corpses seemed to smile as a
beautiful sunrise shone through the clouds. Stumbling towards their kingdom,
the pair left to complete their final mission – the joy of growing old
There was a light at my window. A flickering, flittering light and it draw me to it. Throwing off my blanket, I ran lightly to the window. From the closer angle, I noted that it wasn’t merely a light. There, fluttering at my window was a small girl with glowing wings; a faerie or pixie. It beckoned to me. Enthralled by this dainty creature, I rushed into my dressing gown and old boots and tucked my hair into a knitted hat. Carefully, I inched open the window until it was wide enough for me to climb out. Balancing on the thin window ledge, I watched as the faerie rushed towards me, bathing me blue glitter and sparkles. My eyes widened in delight as my feet slowly lifted from that fragile beam into the open air. After a few moments adjusting weightlessness, the faerie beckoned me to follow her and I complied, tailing the green light that she left behind. We soared around the village until finally we approached the woods. Finding the use in my feet again, I allowed the faerie to lead me deeper into the trees. A few moments later, we reached a clearing.
With toadstools placed in a circle, each occupied by a dancing elfin girl, and with colourful faeries filling the air, it was just like the myths described. One faerie flew over to me, offering me a goblet of what seemed to be wine. Feeling rather grown up, I took a sip and, on deciding that I enjoyed the taste, downed the rest of the liquid. The music started and my feet moved of their own accord. I was in the centre of the circle and the world became a vision of music and colour. The voices of the elfin women grew louder and wilder, the lights of the faeries growing brighter and more vibrant. A dense mist engulfed my sight and I fell to the floor, blind and terrified. The voices lulled in sympathy and soft hands lifted me upright, guiding me where they wished me to be. Now at their mercy, I followed them. Propped up by what felt like a tree, I sat, calmed by the soothing voices of the elves.
I felt the ground move beneath me. Rope-like tendrils, which I guessed to be roots or vines, began to wrap around my legs and torso, lifting me up and suspending me in the air. I screamed as the vines smothered me. As I struggled, they grew tighter. Losing consciousness, I felt myself being pulled into the tree. The tree seemed to open, trapping me inside. Vision restored, I realised that there was no exit; I was here forever. The Tree of Eden had claimed me as its own.
In the distance the cries of the changeling child could be heard. The perfect replica, she would ensure that I was never to be missed. Nobody would know that I was truly away with the faeries; that I now saw through the eyes of the world tree. And trapped eternally within my cage of willow, I wept.