Friday 8 June 2012

Flash Fiction: Three Moments of Defeat

Doors should not be designed like that. It was unfortunate.

Gina's head drooped. She sighed defeat. It was a sound defeat, total and resounding.

True defeat, complete defeat, has three parts. Three movements. Three moments. The first moment is requisite, the act that brings about defeat. The second moment is recognition, the awareness that defeat has moved from possibility to present to past. The third moment is resignation, acceptance of all that defeat brings — and all that it takes.

A day with William was never short. Today began at half past two. And then again at quarter past five — a time not even acknowledged by children's TV. Gina filled the shortfall with supercharged coffee and slapstick breakfast. One clean-up operation later the TV was on and filled with the carefree smiles of childless children's TV presenters.

Two years and counting and still no sign of sleeping like a baby. God, how she hated those newly mums with their two-month-old full-night sleepers.

Gina wondered when and where today's tantrum would be. How far through the day would it be? Would it be at home or when they were out? William's tantrums were one of life's bedrock certainties, but they were not so well calibrated you could set your watch or size your shopping to them.

Today it was at the shopping centre, sprawling, crawling and caterwauling in the aisles. The choc chip cookie of appeasement had probably postponed the tantrum by ten minutes. Enough to get William past the toy shop, but not enough to have finished shopping for unstained clothes, overseen by posters of angelic identikit toddlers.

He gave his body fully to the tantrum. And now he needed his nappy changed. The look of surprise on his face at freshly realised discomfort. Every time. If nothing else it drew the tantrum to a close and gave Gina an exit. To search for the toilet that promised facilities for baby changing, yet always disappointed, always left her with the same one.

The toilet was multi-purpose and multi-access. It was for those with disabilities, including age and children. Shopping bags carefully propped against one another, Gina and William found the eye of the storm in the ritual of changing.

Now it was her turn. She sat down on the toilet seat, looked down at the floor and closed her eyes. A moment of relief. A short moment, but nonetheless a moment. A moment before...

Ker-klunk. First moment.

She looked up. There was William. On the concourse. It was busy. He looked back through the open door with his cherubic cum chocolate come-get-me smile. It was unfortunate that ease of access in meant ease of access out, able or disabled, old or young. It was unfortunate that ease of access meant the toilet, the door and the concourse all lined up. She could look out at the passers-by just as easily as they were now looking in at her. Second moment.

Gina's head drooped. She sighed defeat. It was a sound defeat, total and resounding. Third moment.

Somehow she now had to recover. To recover her dignity from the knickers around her ankles. To recover her son from the concourse filled with passers-by and the now not-so-passing-by. To recover her keys, drive home and fight William into bed for a nap.

She would accept her defeat crashed on the couch. She would toast it with tea — or possibly G&T — and doze to the murmur of childless daytime TV.

"Three Moments of Defeat" was first published at Fiction365. More background here.

Friday 1 June 2012

Flash Fiction: Underwater, Overwater

I can feel my heart beating.


"It's OK, you can jump in."

But I can't. I can't swim. It looks deep. I'm afraid.

"Everyone's enjoying themselves, see?"

Yes, splashing and shouting and swimming. Messing about, having such a good time.

My armbands are inflated. Against the encouragement to get in their pressure is oddly comforting.

My brother is filled with life. Underwater, overwater, smiling at me. I know he wants me to join in and play. But I just can't do it.

My mother's at the poolside in front of me, smiling, urging.

"Come on Edward, I'll hold you."


I see my brother again beneath a sky whose blue I thought lived only in colouring pens, a sea I have only ever seen in pictures and an island whose name is too unfamiliar, too foreign for me to remember at this age.

Traffic, tourists, ruins. Two days in Athens, the three of us. Hot, bored, bothered. And then escape to the sea, away from the city. Not simply the coast, but to an island away from the overflowing beaches, bars and bistros, away from the nationless front of the Med.

"Come on Edward, pretend you're an outboard motor! Get in and hold onto the lilo. We can both kick. We'll be back to shore in no time. Mum won't even notice we're gone!"

But I can't do it. It's too deep. I'll be in over my head. It's not like swimming in a pool. Maybe it would be enough if I dangled my legs slightly over the side? We try that, but my splashing doesn't add enough to counter the current. We're drifting out of the bay and the waves are picking up. The shallowness near the beach lured us in, pulling against caution.

"Edward, be careful. Don't go too far or too deep. Charlie, the same for you. And keep an eye on your brother — remember, he can't swim as well as you." My mother's concern.

It was hours before the wayward current delivered us back. And, of course, she did notice we were gone. A notice that rang in our ears and kept us from the beach for days after.

My brother's optimism and sense of fun is laced with an edge I don't have. It's why we're drifting out to sea in the first place. It's why we get back. It's why he finds some kind of thrill in being grounded while I just brood.

"OK, Edward, I don't think kicking's going to work, but I think I know what might."

We scrabble back onto the inflatable, exhausted, on our fronts, sun-coloured backs against a felt-tip sky. My brother rolls over, still catching breath, feet dangling in the water. He stares into the sun, squinting, his face caught between a thought and a grin.

"I heard... instead of swimming against the current, you should just go with the flow. The waves, the tide, the undertow... they'll take you along and back to shore... eventually. It can work both ways."

This sounds too good to be true. It doesn't make sense to me. But neither does seemingly still, shallow water pulling us out to sea. My brother's face breaks a full grin.

"You know why it's called the undertow?"

I don't. I don't even know what that is.

"Because it pulls you from under your toes!"

At least this makes sense. My brother laughs.


Always water.

The last time I see my brother is by a waterfall in New England.

He's home from university. He's just finished with his girlfriend. More convenient than trying to keep the relationship going over the summer. Apparently. We're off to greyhound across America, zigzagging from California to the north-east. Highways, motels, hotels, camping, floors, family friends, friends of his friends.

He's at the edge of the pool, I'm holding him. We're soaked through. I can hardly hear my sobbing against the white noise. My tears never get a chance to take hold. My face is already wet. The spray washes away anything I might add.

I tried to save him. We were both messing about, having such a good time. We're near journey's end. After Maine we were going to head down to New York, catch our flight back to England. The campsite is not far from the waterfall, so we went searching for it after pitching the tent. He wanted to get close to the edge.


I can feel my heart beating.

Underwater, overwater, breathe.

Underwater, overwater, breathe.

Underwater, underwater, swallow, struggle, overwater, gasp, underwater.

A-BEAT... A-...A-...BEAT... A-BEAT... A-...

Dark. Can't see. Can't breathe. Night? Yes, night. But darker.

The car? The car. The car and the bridge. The bridge and the river.

Heading home? Yes... no, visiting my mother. Late. Long drive.

What will she do? Dad. Charlie. Me.

A-...BEAT... A-...A-...BEAT... A-...

Rain. So much rain. Couldn't see. Can't see.

It's always about water. Always water.

Underwater, underwater.

A-... BEAT... A-...


"Underwater, Overwater" was first published in Word Gumbo. More background here.