The Coca-Cola truck’s coming to town, and Donner and Blitzen, all blazing white neon, dance across shopping mall roof tops, and drive-thrus serve burgers in holly-stamped boxes and polythene mistletoe garlands the entrance to stores where you kiss all your overtime money goodbye, and Santa’s elves work at the carwash.
Brightly shines the light o’erhead of Easyjet, the red-eye flight, and unto us a child is given from a far-off land, no place to lay its head. Twelve hundred of them. We’ll take a few, an old converted prison for a stable.
The streets here are all paved with blankets and cardboard, where those without shepherds came looking for gold while the gatekeepers closed all the doors on them. And it seems that for now there are no wise men.
And the cityscape glows nuclear white and red as hell, and blue lights flash and twinkle, where they still find drivers. Until, quiet into a carpark falls a snowflake. Then another, and another, ‘til, unseeing and unique they overfill the air and whitewash chip shops and the multi-storey, soften acid streetlights, halo them, and muffle all to silence, still the night.
And til the gritter lorry cometh, all is bright.
o o o
has stories in various journals and anthologies, online and in print. She has won the Bath Flash Fiction Award and the Reflex Fiction prize, been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize and nominated for Best Small Fictions. She lives in Norwich, UK.
1 — When ‘I’ll be there!’ (most promising words in the English language) has mutated to betrayal, the imposter’s birthday text, his 3-month, 6-month messages are best ignored. The certainty/uncertainty of silence fulfils the imperative.
2 — Garage forecourt flowers, pulled from plastic. Never more than the single, skimpy, even-numbered bunch, putting me in mind of a very old she-says – he-says: ‘The food here is terrible!’ — ‘Yeah, and such small portions.’ Should have alerted me.
3 — As did the descent from fascination: ‘You never release me from my tenterhooks, but sometimes you alter the position’ to chasms of mindful avoidance: ‘I can’t make a date in advance, it spoils the now’.
4 — Gratifying that his succession of how-could-anyone? presents should fetch so little at the car boot sale. Where my other discards did tolerably well.
5 — Approaching midnight, I turn off lights in favour of the lamp at the foot of my bed, and the plumped white duvet springs into view. Firm mattress, ample size, warmed by gradations of heat, embrace confined to the sumptuous, luxuriant, never-long-enough arms of Morpheus.
* * *
Trains that clatter east and west — Clapham Junction for Waterloo-Victoria, back and then beyond — flash along rooftops
______ layering the valley
____________ where brick terraces scoop descent
________________________________ from Lavender Hill
to the railway embankment across Battersea’s flood plain.
Stock chimney and party parapet, pitched slate and red ridge construct an architectural rug through whose sunlit fringe — chimneypots, aerials, bare upstanding branches — glide (or so it seems) the multi-coloured carriages of Southern and South West Trains.
Regiments of Gothic Victorian, corner turrets, low gables estate-badged with a fussy stucco meringue, and besides the solo cyclist, G1 bus and a pinned-up notice for ‘found cat’, desertion to comfort the apprehensive driver of a motoring-school Vauxhall.
Why no scent of coffee wreathing Nero Roasting’s warehouse peaks dropped between embankment and a further succession of tracks? Ages-faded, the stink and tang of street sweat and horse dung, outside lav and burning coal.
And so dispersed, every plume of smoke from locomotive and urban grain, the better to distinguish, from eastbound bus along Lavender Hill, Brighton trains as they green-skim the housetops and red-carriage streamers that exaggerate to Surbiton, clock a blue-livery fleet as it skates the way to Windsor: ‘Blue as in “blood”, in honour’, assures Gary at the Junction, ‘of Her Majesty the Queen’.
* * *
Alice Wooledge Salmon, an American writer adopted by London and Paris, produces essays and short stories for such as PN Review, The Guardian, Tears in the Fence, Stand, The Frogmore Papers, Pen Pusher, and elsewhere. Her occasional subject is wine.
Not only has my boyfriend become addicted to green tea, but he’s addicted to telling everyone how addicted he is to green tea. He insists on telling everyone how he used to drink fizzy drinks all the time, but since drinking green tea I just can’t get enough of the stuff. It’s not as simple as that, either. No. Apparently, green tea has transformed him. And did you know there are several different brands of green tea, all of whom make their own quirky flavours. He won’t shut up about those too. His tastes started off pedestrian: Mint, Lemon. Then he spotted the Mango and Lychee, then the Salted Caramel. Before I knew it, the space beside the kettle had become overwhelmed by Strawberry Cupcake, Cinnamon and Apple Crumble, and Gingerbread; flavoured tea bags in boxes drowned the mug tree, so much so I started retrieving mugs from the cupboard instead of navigating around the stacks of green tea. Then, as if the physical realm wasn’t enough, my boyfriend started invading the digital world, sharing his #greenteaaddiction on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook; wherever anybody would listen.
But that wasn’t the moment I snapped. We were about to watch a film when he’d poured himself a fresh mug of Cherry Bakewell flavoured green tea (which I admit, after he wafted it under my nose, did smell fantastic). He sat down, took a sip, ahhhhhed, and said:
“Boy, you know, I used to eat cherry bakewells all of the time, and now, I’d much rather drink this than eat the cake.”
I muted the T.V.
“What did you just say?”
I’m sure the Cherry Bakewell green tea tasted as good as it smelled, but there was no way he could’ve meant what he’d said, that he’d rather drink the green tea than eat the cake.
He smiled and took the remote control, unmuted the T.V., and we watched the film without saying a word.
On his Instagram, my ex-boyfriend still posts pictures about his green tea addiction, though he doesn’t call it an addiction, obviously. He captions his images with #motivationmonday and tells the world he’s a different man, and I scroll past and think yes, yes you are.
* * *
The Copper-haired Girl
The copper-haired girl, noticing the first rusty leaf amongst the green foliage of the trees while sitting in the back of the car, tells her parents it’s the same colour as her hair, and she is shushed by their arguing, and they will never know how similar the two colours really were; the spider with seven legs that insists still on crawling across the laminated-wood flooring, determined to scare the copper-haired girl, and she is alone, holding the slipper, trying to face her fears because her parents are upstairs and she’s been told not to move; the copper-haired girl running down the stairs Christmas morning to find nothing but her mother sitting in an armchair smoking a cigarette, her eyes swollen – she thought she’d been a good girl this year, but promised Santa she’d try harder for next year, and her mother, voice croaky, promises to try harder too; the new house and the new start for the copper-haired girl and her family, where all the walls are magnolia and everything smells too clean – all this for the new baby boy who the copper-haired girl thinks smells like crayons but knows that isn’t it; the copper-haired girl lying awake in her room, listening to the screaming and the crying from downstairs, the frantic movements, and then the silence, and eventually she falls asleep, forgotten about, but safe; the copper-haired girl in the little black dress, not completely understanding everything that is going on, but knows she’ll never see her little brother again; the copper-haired girl without a single toy invited by her teacher to “show and tell”, even though the teacher knows she has nothing to share with the other children, so, behind her tears, the copper-haired girl shows her teacher something and tells her something else, mimicking what her mother did and yelled at her father the night he left, and the copper-haired girl’s mother gets a call home from the principal; the copper-haired girl thinking she is dying, and her mother isn’t home, so she phones the woman who lives in the flat down the hallway, who tells her everything her mother hadn’t; the blonde-haired boy who promises the copper-haired girl that he’ll take her away from all of this, and she yields, and in the morning she awakes to find herself alone; the copper-haired girl carrying two black plastic sacks filled with clothes, walking to her only friend’s house to see if she can stay for a while because her mother, though drunk, has kicked her out and she doesn’t know why or how this could happen; the copper-haired girl crying into her friend’s shoulders when the police inform her about her mother; the copper-haired woman – twenty-seven – without her womb, without her breasts, but still grasping her life as tightly as she can, sitting on the bus, hoping her job interview today went well, holding on to the dream she’s been chasing for as long as she can remember: tomorrow will be better.
* * *
The Perfectionist’s Secret
Everyone called Cassandra a perfectionist. Everyone called Cassandra a perfectionist because everything in her life was meticulous; nothing was out of place, and she was never out of touch with the world around her. She always had a plan, and a back-up plan, and a back-up-back-up plan, but something she hadn’t planned for was the bus hitting her as she crossed the road one morning.
“Smells like the sewers have vomited up in here, Doctor.”
“Isn’t someone sorting it, Moira?”
“I’ll check again, but the last cleaner said they couldn’t find anything that would be the cause of the smell.”
Cassandra could hear the voices, but she couldn’t see who they belonged to. She tried opening her eyes. Bright lights. Her whole body ached, and she shifted slightly where she lay. More sounds trickled through her ears; beeps, more voices, movements, but it was the conversation about smell that gripped her attention, and the word ‘doctor’. She must be in the hospital, though she had no idea why.
“Miss Valentina?” the voice that had belonged to the doctor swam through the fuzzy objects that were slowly beginning to take form in Cassandra’s vision. “Please, try not to move too much. Miss Valentina, can you hear me? Cassandra?”
The woman in the white coat moved from the end of Cassandra’s bed to her side. Cassandra could smell her hair: peaches, tinged with hairspray. But she could also smell something else, something rotting, decaying, and familiar to her.
“Where’s my bag?” she asked.
“Your bag?” the doctor looked over the rim of her glasses. “Miss Valentina, you were hit by an oncoming bus; you’re lucky to be alive.”
Cassandra tried sitting up. It hurt, and she managed, but she was filled with panic. She couldn’t fathom the idea of people finding out about her, about the real her. She’d become fond of her reputation as a perfectionist, and as much as she knew getting hit by a bus may tarnish that reputation, if anyone discovered her secret, she’d be ruined. She’d just be Cassandra, not Cassandra the perfectionist.
“I know, I know,” she winced, determined to speak through the pain. “I just need my bag, please.”
“I don’t know where that is, I’m afraid; it may have been left or taken at the scene of the accident. I’m sorry,” the doctor said as a woman in blue scrubs walked towards the hospital bed. Cassandra assumed this was Moira.
“They can’t send someone for a while, but they promise they’ll sort it out.” Moira then noticed that Cassandra had awoken. “How are you feeling? In pain, I imagine.”
There was a harsh bleep, the doctor scrambled at her waist, and unclipped her pager. “Let me know if her condition changes,” she said, and ran off.
Cassandra and Moira stared at one another, neither saying a word. She smirked, then drew the curtain around them both. “I know your secret,” she whispered.
Beneath the bedding, Cassandra felt her skin prickle and grow hot, felt as if someone was sitting on her chest. “Pardon?”
Moira nodded. From her scrub pocket, she pulled out a small vial of perfume.
“I mean, this isn’t yours, but I knew the moment they pulled you in here that you were the cause of the smell. I bet you have bottles of perfume everywhere, and your home filled with scented candles, no?”
Cassandra looked away, her eyes stinging. Moira came closer and spritzed Cassandra’s neck. The sour, decomposing smell dissolved, and Cassandra felt less self-conscious for a moment.
“Moroccan Rose, one of my favourites,” Moira grabbed Cassandra’s hand and they looked into each other’s eyes. “I used to have what you have,” Moira smiled, “and I and the doctors here know how we can fix you.”
It took everything Cassandra had not to cry; soon, she could be a real perfectionist.
* * *
Author Bio: Santino Prinzi is the Flash Fiction Editor of Firefly Magazine, and helps bring National Flash Fiction Day in the UK to life. His debut fiction collection, Dots, and other flashes of perception, will be published by The Nottingham Review Press in September 2016. To find out more, follow him on Twitter (@tinoprinzi), or visit his website: https://tinoprinzi.wordpress.com
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