Cats are picking their way along. Heart-eyed dogs strive to chase but are restrained. All the birds round here have been immortalised in graffiti. He is sitting at his desk in the window and the sun is coming in through the glass. Ticking time is biting at him. The coffee machines are on strike. Everyone’s out, trying to grind out change. All the rabid atoms agitate. The rain steams in to pound down on the hot hard streets and the beasts rush to cower under covers. And crush. The news is unreliable. The sums are made up out of new numbers no one knows how to count. He makes friends slowly, but always gets there eventually. They keep building bigger and bigger buildings. He is stuck at that desk with the sunshine sloshing in, stuck at what to put next. Beasts are on the ground and up in the buildings and around in the air. Retreating or emerging or jostled, caught between the two. He doesn’t know whether he’s coming or going. It gets crepuscular, lurid, the colours all coming out of lightbulbs now. The beasts sniff and saunter through the streets. Text buzzes around, making jagged cut out shapes. There are lapses in concentration, things smashed apart. They swim out of focus, back into focus, out of focus again. He is glad no one is watching, it gives him a freedom to do what he wants. To make whatever sense of it he can. Heart-eyed moths burn themselves up. Spiders pick their way along. Every individual fox round here has been immortalised in graffiti.
I am on the cusp of doing nothing.
When I am working through the tasks that are lined up in front of me, i.e. ‘what I have on my plate right now,’ I am also trying to slow to a halt.
But then an existing process requires some attention or a new process suggests itself and must be set in motion.
I have previously come very close to doing nothing. We had exactly one too few spoons of a certain size in our cutlery drawer. Once I had purchased another spoon there would be nothing left to do, and I did successfully purchase exactly the specific spoon required.
But when I got back home, a bowl had been overturned.
That morning you had cut your hair into the shape of a house.
I couldn’t wait to see it. The look of triumph in your tuna-mayonnaise eyes.
Emoji-ing my way along the street, thinking about what I was into, stream-of-consciousness stuff…
On some rain-toussled scratch of land by the turning for the industrial estate, some hi-vis dayjobbers were using wood to construct a new 3D space for displaying 2D pictures.
I was on your street then I was in your home. I kissed your cheek and nuzzled in, rubbing my eye in the kiss-wet on the curve of your face.
Then we watched music videos together before fucking in a big pile of balloons.
By the time we had finished, your house was reduced to rubble.
You said you had to shop for a box full of pockets for something you were up to. So we went back out in to that damp and fidgety world.
Now the erection of the billboard was complete and they were using rollers to paste up the first of the pictures that would cover that new space.
Your hair fell around your face like a tonne of bricks.
Some dogs passed by with some people. Those people didn’t look like the kind of people who should own dogs.
Sometimes we just liked to make up things like this and say them out loud to one another.
Cars were whizzing past us but we just stood and stayed there, looking.
On the billboard, galloping hooves had appeared and now some horse legs too.
My hands were in your pockets and your hands were in my pockets.
Drizzle rain was slow-clapping to the ground and making invisible things. All the cars had their garlic-butter headlights on.
But the rain hit us differently to the way it hit everyone else. Our very selves glowed with the righteousness of knowing that.
Pretty soon they had added the straining bodies of what were probably horses and then some grimacing faces that confirmed the fact.
A band of horses twenty-feet tall were racing towards us, kicking up little cakes of turf as they came. A line of miniature birds formed a queue on top of the picture.
We stood in front of the horses and laughed so hard we were crying and then our crying mixed in with the rain which was hitting us just the way it did.
Those gigantic horses looked so supremely lifelike.
Other people’s existences were not running as smoothly as ours – their lives were going wrong, frame by frame by frame.
They were stopping their cars. They were getting out. They were looking at the billboard. They were clutching their heads in their hands. They were screaming. They were running away through the industrial estate.
We were meat and bones like those gorgeous gigantic galloping horses’ meat and bones.
Next you were going to cut your hair into the shape of a horse and I was going to ride it to several famous victories.
It was the the times when you got things wrong that did you in. Those were the times people remembered.
You could work in the same village for thirty years, delivering folks’ letters and parcels with professionalism and a kind word. But no one noticed the days when it all went smoothly. Even your cat sat there giving you sly glances or – worse – refusing to acknowledge you.
And those times you did get things wrong, they kept replaying in your head, at night, when you were trying to get to sleep. Like some television programme that was always on repeat. You kept going over what you did, what you could have done, what you should have done. What you should have done.
It was all about trying to do things differently. Thinking more, or better. Thinking before doing. Pat was trying, he really was. Trying to take things slowly, carefully. Think through a plan of action then execute it step by step so nothing could go wrong.
But sometimes you just knew. You knew that whatever you did would be the wrong way of doing it.
This morning, Pat has to deliver some helium balloons to the school. The potential for calamity is obvious. So obvious. Pat has already collected the balloons from the depot and now they are bobbing around in the back of his van, a nest of brightly-coloured problems.
He stops at Ted’s, hoping that talking to his friend might help shift the feeling of futility. But he finds Ted standing at the counter of his store, his hands flat against the counter.
“Ho there, Pat.”
“Ted,” nods Pat.
They stand for a moment.
“So,” says Pat. “Got to deliver some helium balloons to the school.”
Ted winces, looks down at his hands. “Oh no, Pat.”
“Might just stop here for a moment.”
“Fair enough. Just having a little stop myself. It’s for the best. I get this terrible feeling sometimes, Pat, as if… if I start doing something, whatever it is, it’s going to go wrong.”
The two men stand together, in the quiet.
“It’s just,” says Pat eventually, “I know exactly what will happen. Those damn balloons. They’re going to escape, aren’t they? I can be as careful as I like, it won’t make a bit of difference.”
Ted nods. “They’re as good as in the sky already.”
“And that would be fine,” Pat continues. “They can float away for all I care – I’m sure they’ll look very pretty up in the air.. What gets me is that I’ll have to chase after them, and…”
“It’s the same here,” Ted interjects. “I’ve got some new rollers for the car wash. That’s my next job. Install the new rollers. Should be straight forward enough. Job done. Cup of tea.” He looks down at his hands, still pressed flat against the counter where they can cause no harm. “Rollers roll, don’t they?”
“Things always seem easy at first.” Pat shakes his head.
Around the two men, displayed on every shelf and stand of Ted’s store are items designed to fix things or help solve problems. People would come along to buy these things when something was broken and they needed to repair it – like as not, some of these projects would end in calamity too. It was the way of things.
Those balloons really should be getting on their way. Pat would just have to get on, see what happened, then deal with the repercussions. It was not that people were unkind. They were, broadly speaking, sympathetic. When he finally got things sorted they would cheer and say he had done a good job. Somehow this only made things worse.
“We’re going to get on with things now Ted,” says Pat. “We have to.”
“We’re just going to calmly, carefully get on with what we need to do.”
“It’ll be ok. In the end, it’ll be ok.”
Ted nods. His eyes remain locked with Pat’s. The futility of their daily tasks – fixing things, delivering stuff, keeping on going as the world turned round and round – like a bridge between them.
“One,” says Pat.
They both take their hands off the counter and those dreadful utensils are free to wreak havoc once more.
“Good luck, Ted.”
“Good luck, Pat.”
This all started when we were kids. Then, a telephone call cost more than a train ticket. So we wrote.
I was the furious green haircut. You were a real rolling trembling body of thunder.
Love? Love was in a mess – mired in popsong cliche. We Were Always Meant To Be Together, You’re The Love Of My Life, My One And Only. So, we were determined not to be in that.
Of course, that didn’t work out.
What we had in common was this. We both had a hobby in creating, or curating, little boxes of essentials, things that could be taken in an emergency evacuation. We would send each other lists of our latest efforts, e.g.:
A ball of string (always useful)
A decorated teaspoon (for beauty)
Fake treasure maps (for decoy)
A long-discontinued limited edition chocolate bar (for leverage)
A list of numbers (for mystery)
A tiny toy soldier
The soldier was of no significance really – but it was small and fit in the box. And if I did have to escape my burning home with only a small box of objects, and a toy soldier was one of the few possessions I had left, then that toy soldier was going to take on a whole load of significance.
There were various scenarios in which a small box of essential objects might be required.
In a storm a tree was blown down, landing on, and somehow setting fire to, the house. The power went out and the fire brigade pumped water over everything until the whole street was flooded and everyone who lived there had to be evacuated, leaving with only the important things they could grab and carry.
But this wasn’t my house or even a house on my street – this happened to some houses about a mile away. My house was fine. I didn’t have to leave carrying only my most recently curated box of belongings. Those kind of emergencies never happened to me. Though I was hapless – in my hands, small objects, tools or devices were always falling apart or grinding to a lifeless halt – the wider narrative did always tend to arc around me, leaving me whole and unharmed.
And so that was how our teenagehoods progressed – in letters detailing tiny boxes and in wider narrative arcs that barely brushed our lives but which perfectly described popsong cliches and the cost of telephone calls.
Suddenly the cost of a phone call fell. Before we could speak, the price of a train ticket plummeted too. It was a time of adjustment that coincided with the two of us making our first tentative steps into adulthood.
The day before we were due to finally meet, I went to get my hair cut. I asked for my usual – furious green. There was nothing green about my hair, nor was it cut in a particularly severe style to suggest fury. But my hairdresser knew exactly what I meant, exactly what I wanted. She cut it to look the way it always did, but she knew that on the inside my hair was green, was furious.
“You go get her, tiger,” she told me as she finished snipping.
We had agreed to meet midway between our two separate lives. When I got off the train I bought you some flowers but before I could present them to you, a bird shat on them. Later that day, when we were sitting on a bench in the town centre, a bird shat on my ice-cream. What was with all those shitting birds?
“Why do birds suddenly appear, every time I am near,” you said-sung sweetly. I loved you for that.
We Were Always Meant To Be Together. It was what we had wanted, ever since we first started resisting the urge to fall in love. There would be no need for either of us to return to our previous lives – we had both brought a carefully-packed box of only the most essential of our things. There was no need to serve a notice period, we could start right away.
That same afternoon, we got jobs working side by side, putting the rings into telephones. They said it was a good job for a couple. We held hands all through the interview.
After that we went looking for somewhere to live. On the bus, we passed a beautiful house on fire – we could never have lived there.
But there were still houses we could live in. In the midst of all the complex cost adjustments – telephone calls, train tickets, other things of which we had neither control nor understanding – some unfurnished, unwanted houses had emerged. Unfurnished was all we wanted.
I remember the first night in our house, the two of us. We used an upturned cardboard box for a table, played games with some post-it notes which we had drawn on to make them into playing cards. All the other rooms were silent, it felt like they were watching us to see what we would do next.
We got sold a washing machine full of firewood and after that we could have clean clothes and warm air. We got sold a fridge full of clothes. So often in our lives, things made much less sense than they should.
It felt like we were being played by the objects around us, like we were only instruments.
And I worried about writing all this down in case anyone ever found it and thought we were being serious.
After dinner, we trooped round the streets again, the whole family, taking down the ‘missing cat’ posters we had stuck up earlier that week. There were no signs of it getting dark outside, as if the night had overslept or forgotten to turn up for work.
There were other people still out and about, just going for a walk or sitting and drinking on the streets, just standing there talking, saying all the things they never had time to say in the course of a normal day. Over garden hedges, there drifted smoke from barbecues and music from radios. We collected up all the posters, then went home.
I needed sleep – there would be business to attend to tomorrow. But it was difficult, with it being so light. It felt like the world had been split open with a knife and spread out flat, so now the sun had no choice but to meander around the sky, there being no horizon behind which it could disappear. Lying there, feeling increasingly fractious, I felt like I was missing out on something, some action. The possibilities seemed endless, there were infinite permutations for things that might be happening, and here I was lying in bed.
I must have fallen asleep because at some point in the night I was jolted awake. Instinctively, I thought it had been the cat jumping on the bed, but I was mistaken – it had been the sound of a horn or a scream, or something crashing down. Half-asleep, I didn’t really know what was going on.
When I woke again, it was light. Had I not stirred briefly in the night, I could have believed there had never been any darkness. Now, there was the sound of a soft rain falling; next, a flurry of birdsong drowned it out; then, when the birds had finished, the soft rain could be heard again. By the time it stopped, it was only five o’clock. I got out of bed, quietly slipped some clothes on and left the house.
I walked through the streets. The fabric of that morning felt like it had been worn through by the previous night’s transgressions, like the air itself was hungover. I went down on to the beach and walked along with my eyes closed – walking in this way, I felt I was only lightly touching the world. As though maybe I didn’t properly exist.
I opened my eyes and the world was still there – furthermore, there was something new in it, lying just where the knackered sea was meeting with the slumped sand. A guitar riff became lodged in my brain and I started to replicate it by making sounds with my mouth.
Da-na-na-na-na-now, diddly-dee-dee-dee, diddly-dee-dee-dee, bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam, bam-bam-bam-bam- bam-bam, dow-nnnowww. And by now I had reached the edge of the creeping tide and stood looking down at that lifeless body, its clothes tangled in seaweed. The world would tilt and we would proceed to winter.
To celebrate the World Cup (hurrah for having a World Cup), my (informal, semi-irregular) writing group issued a challenge to write a football-themed piece of flash fiction with a word limit of 500 words. The challenge culminated with ‘performances’ of each of the pieces at the Last Post pub in Guernsey on the evening of Wednesday 27th June, after the Brazil match. My piece was partly inspired by Cesar Aira’s short novel An Episode In The Life Of A Landscape Painter (the title, the horse) and came in about 12 words under the limit (let me know if you think there are some I could or should have squeezed in). Here it is:
Dmitri’s father’s preference was to sit high in the stands behind the goal and watch with steepled fingers to his lips, displaying neither joy nor anguish at the team’s fortunes, only enjoying the pattern of play as it created new shapes on the field, like a kaleidoscope.
For young Dmitri there was only one player worthy of attention – he felt the crowd behind the goal had a responsibility to support the keeper in front of them, regardless which team was attacking. Instinctively, he rejected the idea of the ball hitting the back of the net.
This was not to be what made him the most famous goalkeeper in the country, but it set him on a path.
Dmitri practiced diving, stretching his still-growing sinews to reach further. Studied angles. Became elastic, quick. Forced himself to be unafraid to get hurt. Coach praised his bravery; Dmitri knew it was merely devotion to a task. He was a function.
He was good, but not good enough. His fate (though fate had further plans) was that of the substitute goalkeeper, the back-up to be thrust suddenly into situations. Game after game of watching, waiting then – bam! – sliding for the ball, a striker’s studs thump into the number one’s sternum. This was a local derby, crowds upon crowds pressing down on the pitch. Dmitri was on.
He warmed his palms with a few smart saves, leapt above the jostle to collect a corner. His concentration was absolute. He had eyes only for the ball. When his team scored, he barely celebrated, just kept watching the ball as the game was reset. His team-mates’ ‘one’ did not affect his own pristine ‘zero’, but the crowd had erupted into thick smoke and popping fireworks.
Players ran one way then another, in the heat and noise the game seemed descended into madness. But there was something else.
A horse was on the pitch.
There it was, rearing up, wide-eyed, spooked. Dmitri saw it only as an apparition. The ball was still upfield, bouncing from one player to the next until one, in blind panic, launched it high towards Dmitri’s goal. The horse galloped goalwards. Surely the game had already been stopped.
The ball bounced once as it approached the penalty area; Dmitri judged it carefully; the horse kicked up little explosions of turf as it raced on; the noise of the crowd intensified and then went dead.
As Dmitri took the ball, the horse was upon him.
High in the stands, his father, steepled fingers to his lips, watched this strange and hideous turn of the kaleidoscope. The green pitch, the white ball, the bay horse, the hi-vis medics pouring past the different-shirted players.
Later, in the buzzing listlessness of the hospital he waited beside this braced and bandaged Picasso of his son – broken arm and pelvis, cracked ribs, punctured lung; the ball placed at his bedside.
I couldn’t sleep for laughing, then when sleep did crack through the laughter, that sleep was distracted, unfocussed, bad at being sleep. I woke giddy, was a useless, sore morning person. Living in the land of the living. I was making for a bad guest, an irresponsible, unreliable narrator. I needed to buck my ideas up. I looked out of that borrowed window, composing myself out of old notes, watched the last leaves clinging to the trees. Those poor saps probably thought they had won some kind of prize. My hosts looked over in my direction, as if they could actually hear the things falling over in my mind, the clattering, the accidents setting fire to accidents.
And then to the ceremony and the reception. I was not sure where the animals – toads, spiders, cats – had come from, they crept / hopped / prowled across the hall. My gaze tracked their progress and I saw a cupboard and, wanting to get away from things, tried the handle, entered.
The cupboard was empty (in that it had some things in it, but nothing that seemed important), but in it there was a door. I hesitated, and some of that old dread of being unreliable, un-bucked up, came creeping back. I push open the door, entered another cupboard, with another door, so…
Much like the last one. This time, I locked the door behind me. In case anyone was following. It is possible that ‘cupboard’ could describe many different types of small room. This one was being used to store a lot of towels. No one else was around. I had locked the door behind me, but there was nothing to say that someone would not suddenly come through the other door. If that was what the story wanted. No one was going to suddenly come through the door. I took a step back, then launched myself in to the softness of the towels because no one would ever know. However. I had failed to notice that shelving punctuating the towels, giving their stacking structure, and, as a result of my leap, took an edge of wood to the ribs. No one saw, but I was embarrassed – and embarrassed of being embarrassed all by myself.
The next cupboard was a store for dried food. The one after that, I think, was the one containing ring binders with cryptic names felt-tipped on their sides. “Change Quorum ’97.” “Revamp Q-7.” I was starting to worry I might not be able to find my way back through the cupboards, even though each one had only two doors and the way back was just to pass back through each cupboard until I got back to where I had come to get away from.
In the next cupboard there was a funeral going on. The room was not small, it might have been stretching use of the word to describe it as a cupboard.
I saw those animals again – the toads, spiders and cats, creeping / hopping / prowling through the mournful crowds – and followed them, excusing-me in soft tones all the way, towards the door on the far side of the cupboard.
This lead to a cupboard as big and as outside as the outside world and I was still clattering through, still with accidents setting fire to accidents all the time. Irresponsible, unreliable. When I fell through the door and into that big, cloud-stretched cupboard, I couldn’t breathe for laughing again.
The first man cuffed the second man round the chops, which, written like that, using the word ‘cuff’, makes it sound like a softer action than it actually was. Like two shirts colliding in a wardrobe.
In retaliation, the second man slugged the first man, and this time my choice of words makes it sound wetter than in reality, given there was no blood, no flesh squishing like dropped fruit. Just a dull pain.
The first man should have been ready to evade the slugging but his attention had been caught by something happening off… somewhere off camera, or to the side of the scene, and this distracted him from the movement of the second man preparing to return the punch. Perhaps there was a third man or a woman. If this figure existed, he or she was hiding behind a plant or maybe a sofa, depending on whether the scene was set in a garden centre or a furniture store. I didn’t really mind.
I was lying on my back, on the couch, writing this down on a piece of paper that was resting on a book. I looked away from what was happening in the words on the piece of paper and glared softly at the tv.
The third man (or woman) took this pause as an opportunity to step out from behind the tree or bookcase, present him or herself to the two fighting men and to ask them, because I needed something else to happen so that I could wrap up the scene: “so what are you going to do now?”
The two men were standing in that garden or living room, or wherever, I didn’t really mind, and they were both gingerly touching their faces where it hurt from the cuffing and the slugging, whichever was which.
“Come on,” the second man said, looking the first man in the eye, “we need to settle this like real men.”
“Real men,” the first man said, or I made him say, because I decided that was what I wanted him to say, “real men never talk about what it is real men do or do not do, how they might or might not settle things.”
He picked up the object.
“What even is this?” It sat on his hand, a wooden ring. Like a crop circle on his palm. “Our house is so full of crap.”
A nail pierced the ring on one side, a hook protruded from the other. I mean maybe it could be – he could never shake the feeling that something could very possibly be useful at some point.
“Shhhh,” she warned. She got up, took the object from him. When she did that, he felt lost without it in his hand. It had been the perfect shape and weight to make him momentarily happy. Maybe there would one day be another moment like that.
She took him by the hand and dragged him through to another room.
“We don’t know what that thing is yet,” she told him. “It might be important.”
“We don’t even know what it’s for,” he argued.
“Keep your voice down. If we don’t know what it is used for, how do we even know how important it is?”
Chastened, he went back through to the other room. He picked up the wooden ring again but it didn’t make him feel happy.
“The secrets of the universe have yet to be entirely uncovered,” she said as she followed.
She opened a box of matches and started setting them out one by one on the counter, investigating them, looking for differences.