24 Hours

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It was the summer of being totally numb. I woke up every morning with the sensation of being dragged down some strong gulf stream, warm and foggy and going nowhere.

I smoked cigarettes leaning over the harbour wall, watching the waves curl over the lisp of the sand, gathering in little billows. I worked a job at one of the out of town supermarkets, driving my car around in the day, stacking shelves at night. I worked from midnight till dawn, driving home as the birds sang and the junkies collapsed into their hellhole flats. I sort of enjoyed the boredom, the routine sense of drifting; the way the hours and days just dissolved away. I had a vague sense that something had to happen by the end of the summer, but never paid much attention to prospects of the future.

The doctor put me on these antidepressants, you see. I don’t know what they were supposed to be doing, but they made me very numb. I felt weightless, as if my skin wasn’t my own. There was an agitation, a twitchiness to my existence. I couldn’t help scratching, shivering. I worried the sores that rose in welts on my arms. Every time I tried to eat, I felt nauseous. Only the cigarettes helped.

I was getting through thirty a day, a pack and a half, that summer.

Then I met Oliver. I used to know him, years ago, at primary school. I was standing outside a club, watching the thin blue moon disappear into dark clouds, watching some sixteen-year-old kid throw up on the pavement across the road. Oliver came out of nowhere, wearing this flamboyant shirt, a shark-tooth necklace, his hair wiry and long. I don’t know how he recognised me; I barely recognised him. I wanted to melt into the wall.

But then we started talking about childhood. I guess it seemed like forever ago, this whole other world of messy innocence. The games we used to play, running over the fields, throwing clumps of hay at each other. Days out with the school, teasing one another over the contents of our packed lunches. We walked around town all night, waiting for the sun to come up, sitting shivering underneath a slide at the park, sharing a half bottle of vodka.

He gave me his number, refused the cigarettes I offered. Said we should talk again, but he had to go to work.

I never did text him. I went straight home, teeth chattering on the bus, then lay in bed all day, staring at the ceiling. I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about the person who used to run around those fields, laughing and shrieking, throwing wads of hay and falling back into the soft long grass. I smoked so much my room was a grey, tarry haze. At some point I must’ve slept.

I woke up and the world was brighter, clearer. The smoke was gone. I drove to work and the strip lights of the supermarket glowed in my brain, the colours of all the signs and products seeming ultra saturated, a pleasure to stare at. Everything felt so intense, so real. I guess I was feeling again. It was a joy to just touch things, finger the labels of tins and packets, brush my feet over the vinyl floor.

I’m not even sure I took down the right number. I never did text him.

It was a joy to stand over the bridge on my break, watching the cars pass on the dual carriageway, biting into something sweet, maybe a donut, maybe a piece of carrot cake. I didn’t think about falling over that bridge, about smoking a cigarette. I thought of Oliver, of the little girl asleep in the backseat, going nowhere through the night. Falling asleep on someone’s shoulder. That sense of safety. I don’t remember much else about how I felt, but I know that something had changed, even though in the end I didn’t text him.

I guess it was just that in those 24 hours, I’d forgotten to take my antidepressants. For once, it felt good to go nowhere.

— by Maria Sledmere

(Flash Fiction February prompts: ‘nowhere’)

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No Surface All Feeling

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For so long he has stared into mirrors. The passing, fleeting kind: shop windows, car windows, the sunglassed eyes of strangers. What he sees will always follow and taunt him.

It is better when the rain falls and all is blurred and distorted.

“You need to get out your own head for awhile,” is what his flatmate said. It reminds him of his mother, all those years ago, scolding him for the time he spent alone in his room.

“There’s nothing attractive about a narcissist,” she’d chide, poking her head round his door, “you’ll never make friends if you stay like this.”

“I’m sorry,” he’d reply, staring at the floor, “I’ll try harder”. The trouble was, it wasn’t narcissism that kept him trapped inside himself – it was fear.

Always he was fighting the mirrors. What was it about their silvery, slippery surface that so taunted him? He hated to see himself, hated the way his cheeks bulged and his stomach poked out like a bag full of water. In the world outside, there was no way of avoiding his reflection. Just being around people was enough: their curious stares provided the chasm of mirrors into which he lost himself. Once, in a supermarket, a young woman pointed at his legs and whispered, loudly, to her mother:

“Gosh, look how skinny he is!”

But she knew nothing. How could she know how wrong she was?

He was only ever happy in the afterglow, the slump against the bathroom wall after puking in the toilet bowl. In the mirror his pallor was otherworldly, and for a moment he felt invincible, having cheated the weakness of his own body.

He drinks in the afternoon with or without his flatmate, watching the sun melt like a flaming ice cube, dripping down the cold blue back of a twilight sky. The alcohol is a solvent, in which sorrow and fear dissolve together. He could do anything when drunk: go dancing, write a song, kiss a girl, stay out all night long, running through the city streets. Instead, he doesn’t. He lies there, supine and unreal in his bladdered paralysis.

In the morning he wakes with a headful of nasty memories. He has to fish them out, one by one, like a child picking unwanted peas from their plate of dinner. He feels purer when he stands at the window. It is raining and the rain covers the streets with sheets of lucent alabaster; almost snowlike, the way it glows in lamplit puddles. The sky, these days, is far too white. He likes to stare into its abyss; seeing not himself cast back in the glass reflection, but a hundred other monsters, blinking their hungry eyes back at him. Feeling, feeling. He knows this is the life he must seek, the life so far that he has missed.

–Maria Sledmere

(Flash Fiction February prompts: rain, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”–Friedrich Nietzsche)

 

The Bluebell Cliffs

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The woods are very calm and still.

We used to come here at dusk, taking the car out after work, driving along the coast road. There were days when I could so easily give up my worries to nature. I thought I was a forest child; I thought at heart, like you, I was something free and wild.

As you walk, the sea is on your right, the woods on your left. The light comes down in gold cascades, catching the gold green filter of the leaves, casting dapples dancing on the path before you. In some memory it is June and the bluebells are out. They spread across the forest floor, tipped with pink and gold, swaying in the haze of a mystical dream. It is so easy to retreat into the trees, their sleepy sigh of imminent twilight. I took a picture of you once, with the bluebells behind you, the branches around you and a handful of leaves in your hair. So beautiful I could have left you there.

We always sat, out of breath, on our favourite bench overlooking the ocean. You used to joke, “this is where I want my ashes scattered,” and god how I thought you were so morbid! There were stories you told me, about the faeries that lived in the forest, that kept watch over the ocean, guarding sailors and smugglers from a terrible fate on the rocks.

“The cliffs here are deceiving,” is what you told me. You grew up here; you knew this place like the inside of your own mind. I wanted to explore every turn of the path, every flower and whorl of wood. I never had the chance. I’m still trying.

I am bitter about the irony – the cliffs are deceiving. So you should have known their depth, their statuesque peril. You, who knew everything.

But not the cloak of nettles and the drop beyond.

And who knows what you were doing, that autumn evening with conkers shining on the ground and the last of summer fading with you, like the daylight giving way to cold, sweet stars?

I walk here now and the sea is on my left, the trees on my right. I could count all the steps, the traces of all the times we came here before. Still I smell the wild garlic, the salt breeze lifting and cooling my skin. I sit on our bench and look out to the ocean, and who knows where you are, faerie that you are, flying to distant islands, silent and thin?

–Maria Sledmere

(flash fiction February prompts: flower, desolate, “Of it’s own beauty is the mind diseased” – Lord Byron quote)

Abrasions

He has left his knife behind.

This is not the kind of mistake he makes. Normally, he would pick up his things with such precision it was as if he were articulating some private symphony. Everything in order: gloves, coat, scarf, rope, knife. The rules of his hunt are simple enough. He always said that tools were crucial to a man’s success. We are not human without our tools; without our tools, we are no better than animals.

He likes his statements strong, like his liquor.

I suppose he would not think twice about leaving me with his knife. Maybe something distracted him this morning; maybe the chickens were scrapping in the yard, or he did not like the way I slept as he stood over me, brooding. I like when he does that. I feel small but powerful, because he does not know that I am actually awake. He sees me in my smallness alone, a fragile animal. So I like to sleep for him; it is a performance.

He does not know the way I think sometimes. I think about my body and what it can do for him, what it can do without him. I know all the places where I have scratched and scratched, where my nails have abraded the skin, worn it to a raw red patch. Places he does not see: the bone of my ankles, the back of my knees.

I am to prepare a marvellous lunch for him. He will return to some hearty casserole, heavy with beef and laced with star anise. I will lure him back to me with that strange, sweet fragrance.

I curl the peelings from the vegetables with his knife. It is a treat to use, so sharp. The shavings fall away from me, down onto the floor, dropping, dropping. I cut the tip of my finger accidentally, and a bright bead of blood forms on my skin like a blob of fresh dew. I lick it clean off. It gathers again and some of it splashes into the stew. Inevitable, I suppose. It is tempting, of course, to make another elision – to practice this art upon my body, to reestablish the terms of my own possession.

But I don’t. I leave the food to cook and go to the window, where I will watch for him in the raw morning, the hanging cabbage untouched, swaying behind me mysteriously. I have not used this cabbage in the stew; I prefer its abstract presence, just as I prefer the scratch and itch of my fingers, so much stronger than any tool.

— Maria Sledmere

(Flash Fiction February prompts: waiting, still life of fruit & vegetables)

 

Upon the Granite Steps

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There are always people with backpacks, who enjoy running up and down flights of stairs. Their faces wobble like red jelly and their legs seem ready to snap from the movement and weight. You can see the bulging muscles, the eking curves of flesh. It would be fun to get one of them to sit still for long enough so that you could draw those muscles, the rather peculiar sculptures of those legs.

Lucas likes to come down to the steps sometimes, but not to run. He hasn’t run since college, when they made everyone do laps and tryouts for the football team, and he felt as awkward and gangly as an oversized pixie. No, Lucas just comes here to sit, to stretch his long limbs down the steps. He gets out a book maybe, but rarely does he read it. He likes being in Park Circus, surrounded by all the pretty houses and the vintage cars; he likes looking into the oval-shaped park in the middle, though it is always locked and closed to outsiders. Lucas tries to read, though the view is always so distracting.

From the top of these steps, you can see right out over the city. The Hydro, looking like a silver UFO, glittering in the chance appearance of sunlight. The SECC, like some ugly, metallic insect sent up from the Underworld. In the far distance, you see tiny windmills spinning invisible threads of energy. A handful of birds, bursting out of the skeletal trees. Lucas first came here in summer, when the trees were thick with leaves and you could hardly see anything past them, as if they were motherly, protective. Now, in winter, they are bare silhouettes. It would take hours and hours to draw their intricate, spindly branches.

Blue-grey clouds loom like plumes of industrial smoke. Lucas packs up his things. He has brought a sketchpad, and a few drops of rain have splashed onto the open page, blurring the ink. The skyline is a molten combination of black and blue, shallow water, spilt ink.

He thinks the clouds are like titans, the old gods who preceded the Olympians.

The rain comes down, thick and fast. It’s funny how sometimes rain can seem apocalyptic: it’s all in the pelting, diagonal motion. You could easily imagine those droplets as fireballs or bullets.

A random man comes round the corner, starts running up the stairs. He’s heaving the weight of a massive backpack, a grimace stuck to his face. Lucas, skinny in his jeans and impractical hoodie, watches with interest.

That is when the man slips. Face first, he collides with the concrete steps. Rain keeps pouring on top of him, its rushing filling the crushing space. He scrambles at the granite like a fallen child. Lucas, light as the wind, leaps down the steps to help the runner to his feet.

No man is a titan, he thinks, but maybe I can be Ariel.

— Maria Sledmere

(Flash fiction February prompts: Titan, diversity)

The Middle-Aged Marijuana Smoker

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The only colour in her apartment was the red cushions, scattered like poppy blushes across the white sofa. The walls were not quite white, more of a wheyish shade of grey. She had an aluminium fridge, grey kitchen surfaces with a faint metallic sparkle, a bed frame made of steel. Everything was sharp and clean; all objects reflected a futuristic sheen.

Five years she had lived here. She had moved once she got the promotion to senior partner at the law firm. B… had carved out her pristine habitat from the initial slum of antique junk, scrubbed the dirt from the walls, installed the latest in laundry technology so as to ensure the flawless condition of her garments. Hired the finest interior designers to select her metals, spent hours perfecting the colour scheme. In this world of gleaming mirrors, B… felt pure. She could live this fantastic, unfussy existence. She very rarely cooked or even ate in her apartment; food introduced colour and smell and roughness of texture – all of which were dirty. There was, indeed, only one dirty thing which polluted her apartment.

The estate agent said she’d have to watch that. The ashtray.

It was made of finely cut crystal, and it never occupied the same place consistently. The ashtray was the one thing from the original apartment that B… had kept. She’d found it underneath the Ikea coffee table which the previous owners had left. Of course, B… would have gotten rid of it – along with the grandfather clock and the vintage cutlery – but she had a problem. She smoked a lot of cannabis, and quite frankly needed somewhere to tap the ashes.

That was her connection to the outside world. She would open a window and light a freshly-rolled spliff (not once did she spill tobacco on her carpet) and let the city air mingle with the sweet-smelling smoke. The warm haze would swathe her brain and so she would lie back against her red cushions and close her eyes and think of nothing. It was beautiful, the nothingness of everything; the haze coming over her, warm and red.

It was like the dancing of bees, spreading their wax and making combs of honey. B… could see all those hollows of nectar form in her brain, gooey and sweet, like forgetting. The more stoned she got, the more she would fall through those sticky catacombs.

Recently, she had been smoking a lot more because of her troubles. She had lost her job. She was struggling to sell her apartment. The agent said she was asking too high a price for it, so she lowered her offer; then they said nobody was interested because the lower price cheapened it. She was reminded of the early negotiations she had with her dealer, the one who drifted in and out of prison, but never failed to deliver when she made her fortnightly pilgrimage to his dingy bedsit.

The problem was, she’d recently lost a case. A very important case. It had cost her law firm millions, and now she was close to bankrupt. She liked the law because it was clear cut, appearing to her in clean strings of logic and declarations; but this case had dissolved all that certainty. She found herself swamped in micro-clauses and tangles of dissonant opinions. She would start to binge eat late at night, leaving chocolate wrappers like beached purple fish on the perfect surface of her kitchen.

She smoked more weed, lost more money.

She tried to clean up her life again.

One day, the agent brought round three hopeful tenants. B… met them at the door in a snow-white bathrobe. They appeared to be students, but since students had money too she let them trudge round the rooms, inspecting everything and making jibes to each other.

“Maybe she has OCD,” one of them whispered, thinking B… was out of earshot.

“I think I can smell weed,” another giggled.

After the tour, they signed the lease agreement straightaway and B… closed the door behind them in mild triumph. She took off her white slippers and started to run a bath. She had a good fat blunt waiting for her in the secret ashtray.

She was just taking off her bathrobe when she noticed the mark on the floor of her hallway. It was a dirty scuff mark, vermillion red, from something stuck to someone’s shoe. As if a minuscule creature had been crushed into her carpet. Just like a student to do a thing like that, bringing insects into the house.

The thing was though, B… didn’t seem to care. She shrugged and didn’t even bother trying to clean it. What use was a clean world now? In fact, it was nice to see something tainted. Cathartic, even.

Naked, she sank into her steaming bath. She lit up her spliff and took a long, hot drag from the smouldering embers, letting the smoke spread round the room, the ash curl and flake into the water. It wasn’t long before she was drifting off, the familiar hum and buzz filling her ears again, the terms of contract unravelling before her, melting into the bubbles. She was free.

— Maria Sledmere

(flash fiction february prompts: minimal, sold, daze)

Electric Blue

 

Electric Blue

The bedroom swirls in plumes of dust. This is what she loves: spinning and lifting her skirt, eyes rolling back in mock ecstasy. Nobody has entered her room for a long time. The curtains have been drawn since April. In here, there was no summer.

The music skips, judders between trance and breakbeat. It is maddening, a trip of rhythm, of time signatures. She loves it. She spins and lifts her skirt. 4/4 drums and looping synths. Eyeshadow electric blue meeting the glow coming from the corner, by the bed. She will let no stranger into her bed. The glow is unnatural. The sheets are pristine, though everything else is trash. Broken crockery, smashed glass. She cuts her feet as she twirls and leaps, but feels nothing. She is waiting for the cry on the other side.

Blood spatters everywhere, quietly on the carpet.

She rises for her first laugh. Her makeup so blue, her lips drained translucent. This is her crazed performance. She is like the atoms dancing in space, aligning their beads into exquisite shapes. Her laughter is like the bending of glass, so close it might break. But still, she laughs. Eyes opening and closing, still she laughs. Her body the bending of glass.

Turns to the corner, the emanating glow. Unnatural. The light moves in flickers, as she does. She is like a sprite of glitched pixels. The music is fading, as she does.

A voice comes into focus. Sound waves expand and compress.

There is a screen, and she is dancing. She is dancing for the screen, casting her shadow on the sound beams of a hologram. She flickers. The screen spills out electric blue.

She blinks, she flickers.

–Maria Sledmere

(Flash Fiction February prompts: misaligned, breakthrough, Kate Bush- Running Up That Hill)

The Tiger

When he thought on the affair he always thought of the colour red. Red, the colour of unquenchable passion. He remembered those nights feverently. When she had purred so gently in his arms and then her lust unleashed with the prowess of an untamed animal. Rose stained kisses on his chest. Crimson streaks down his back. Desperate hands knotted through scarlet hair. Ecstatic limbs casting dancing shadows in the moonlight. White sheets falling and sighing against the tangle of rouge desire. And then her sultry breath on his neck, in his ear “Liam…”. And he his eyes would hungrily devour her voluptuous figure in the afterglow. And his breath would stagger, knowing that he could never hope to pick this English rose. They were from two different worlds and could never be. All his affluence, his fame could never hope to buy him the woman he truly loved. Oh but for those nights he held her affections and she held his heart, always.

(Prompts: stereotype map, Liam Neeson)

by Hayley Rutherford

Disappear

I listen to the fire crackle, spitting bits of spark and stick on the carpet. It’s toasty warm here, with the cat lying languid and the smell of soup wafting from the stove. I am safe, as the walls embrace me with the spirit of home. Yet I still fear the abyss, this endlessness of being alone.

***

There is a cottage out in the wilderness, where she lives and sleeps in solitude, where sometimes she disappears. Folk from the villages say she does things, has powers in her hands. They wonder where she goes. Sometimes she’s sighted like a shadow slipping through trees. The children sneak with clandestine excitement into the forest, watching her pick mushrooms in the gloam. They wonder how a person’s hair could be that peculiar colour, that strange shade of violet that catches the starlight. As they wander home for tea, they swap stories about her mystery.

 ***

If only she knew what lies beneath my floor, what dark wonders wait in store for her. She would love me less, then.

***

I have known these walls for a lifetime; more than a lifetime, a generation of twisted roots reaching back to gnarled old ancestors. Grandma and the things she smoked, the accidental fire and the rebuild. Father’s callused hands. The knotted sorrows of the worn-out land. No-one left, now.

***

She lights fires for warmth. She does not know how I absorb her thoughts.

***

There hasn’t been a sighting for over a week. The children have found other games to play: they chase each other through trees, tripping over roots, letting their laughter mingle with the bird-cries, the buzzing of bees.

***

A canvas of coruscating light covers the autumned canopy. Something wonderful is alive in the fading beauty, the softly falling leaves. The children are falling in love; a million kisses pressed on wind-flushed cheeks. They have forgotten her, forgotten the way her shadow disturbed the silence, disturbed matter.

***

I heard a mouse beneath the floorboards; or what I thought was a mouse, or something else…a whirring, insistent sound. Its presence became a blackness that scratched at my mind; I had a sense of an ending, of some kind of doom.

***

Something happened a millennia ago, when fairies inhabited the woods, when spirits and goddesses fought over the sweetness of the land. A power was released in the mis-direction of a spell, a rupture was cast upon the soil. In the blood of slaughtered sprites, the earth opened, churning and whirling with its angry flesh exposed to the night. And what was beneath had been covered by centuries of charms, of careful woodwork and strong command.

***

Months passed: winter stole the forest’s colour, froze every dew drop into glass. Everything gleamed white and pure and sad; all nature was untouched as the villagers hibernated in their cottages, far off across the fields. It was April before a soul set foot through the forest glade. A young man, seeking out the loveliest of roses for his sweetheart, dared to venture through the woods. The soil sprang beneath his feet, new and clean and speckled with the buds of spring.

***

He walked in circles for seven miles before he found his roses. Beside a sleeping cat lay a bunch of white ones, already picked, holy like a new-born child. At his presence, the cat’s tail sprung up, his green eyes glaring at the man. He stepped back, for what he saw struck him with terror: it was not the cat, but what lay behind it. A small whirlpool, sucking gradually fragments of stick and seed and stone from the forest floor, chucking up bits of ice from within. As he looked closer, fear glowing in his breast, he saw that through the whirlpool rippled streams of red. It seemed as if the whirlpool hissed at his presence, and his heart quivered in horror as he saw bloodied flecks spray from the water upon the roses. As if the water was lashing out a warning. The roses’ pale glory was stained before him. He knelt among the undergrowth, before the cat, and wept. He realised, then: the children of the forest had abandoned their mother.

 by Maria Sledmere

prompts: whirlpool, cottage, romance

Address to the Levites

The Crown Vic black and white passed up the tree lined avenue that spiralled up into the Hollywood hills. PII Leslie driving. PI Williamson riding Shotgun.
‘Here’ Katy Leslie said as they approached a group of people standing on the sidewalk beside a substantial gate. Through high hedges, the red tiled roof of a white stone mansion could be seen.
‘Four-Adam-twenty two for central?’ Hazel Williamson said into the mic. ‘At locus, Large crowd, peaceful just now but need backup, over.’
‘Copy, Four-Adam-twenty two. Backup on the way, sit tight.’
‘Ten-Four central, out’ Hazel replaced the mic and reached for her side handled baton and cap. She followed her supervisor out of the car and headed for the crowd who were noisily making their feelings known.
‘OK’ Katy said ‘You’re obstructing a sidewalk, move along.’ She knew that there was little chance of her and her rookie companion actually forcing the crowd to disperse. They were all carrying ‘God Hates Fags’ placards.
‘We have a right to demonstrate here outside this den of iniquity.’ A man said, He was elderly and wearing clerical collar.
‘You sure do.’ Katy said. But not to violate City ordnances, So just you go demonstrate all you want, sir but don’t obstruct either the road or the sidewalk, understood?’ As she spoke, another couple of Crown Vics and a panel van arrived, all bearing the badge of the LAPD. Sergeant woods came over.
‘What,s up?’ She asked.
‘Demo about the gay weddings that’s happening here today.’ Katy said. AS she did, a white limosine arrived at the gate. The crowd closed in.
‘Repent! Seek repentance while you still can!’ The clerical collared one shouted at the car.
‘OK, back off!’ Liz Woods said. ‘Let the cars through.
‘Sinners! Sinners!’ the crowd shouted. ‘Remember Sodom and Gomorrah. Repent or feel the eternal fires of hell… ‘ Liz and Hazel grabbed the man as another couple of cops pushed the crowd back. Just as the cars were about to move, a well upholstered lady threw her shift dress off and jumped onto the bonnet of the Lincoln Limo. She had across her buttocks, a prominent tattoo.
‘Leviticus 18:22 Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind, It is an abomination. I am the LORD.’
‘OK Lidia!’ Liz grabbed the tattooed lady. ‘You’re under arrest. She and Hazel grabbed the woman and frogmarched her to the van.
‘Too bad ya didn’t read Leviticus 18:22.’ Liz said. ‘You are not to make gashes on your body for the dead or put tattoo marks upon yourselves. I am the LORD.’

by Jane Helen Jones
What were your prompts?: tattoos, redemption, (Red roofed mansion seen through hedges)