Short fiction

Issue #10

Tell It As It Is

I have two paragraphs barely alive, salvaged from the rubble of words heaped on top of each other over the last week.

  I have a forty-five-year-old woman stranded amidst forty-thousand blooms in the City of Belfast Rose Garden. In the late afternoon sun she has wandered between beds. She cups a crimson head of Heathcliff,  fingers grazing the flesh of Peace; she inhales the sweetness of the tall yellow Mountbatten. She is remembering how she and Robbie strolled here when they and the garden, were young. That was before the turmoil in both families put paid to their relationship. She can feel him beside her, his arm around her waist. She can see his brown eyes and almost touch his shoulder-length hair. She shakes her head, remembering  that, for her father, the length of his hair was as much of a problem as his religion.  

I have a young man, Alex,  caught in despair. He is eking out the modest advance he was given to write his second detective novel. He has been driven to distraction by a cat that keeps appearing, unbidden and unwanted, across the gritty landscape of his ‘Devil Feud.’ It has materialised, back arched, on the windowsill of a disused warehouse while his hero edges forward to peer through the  pane. His sense of plot is teetering on the edge.

Both are immobile, perhaps indefinitely. I’m trying too hard; I’m not trying hard enough. I need to joke; I need to be serious.  I should carve out chunks of time; I’d be better working in short bursts. I have to allow my imagination to run free; I should rein in my critic. I can’t win.

My mood is dark. Each falter affirms that I can’t write, that I don’t have what it takes. Even the vase of sweet pea on my windowsill, with its watercolour shades of white, lilac and burgundy, fails to lift my spirits. In less time than it has taken me to accumulate the debris of words and unfinished sentences that litter my notebook, I have planted a wall of sweet pea from which I fill the vase each morning. They are a summer-long source of simple pleasure. I know what to do and when to do it to produce the desired result. So why can’t I get to grips with the challenge of creating imaginary life?

I take the dog on a neighbourhood walk, for my benefit not hers. The streets are quiet in the wake of rush hour. She sniffs, snuffles and coaxes a few drops of urine onto a pile of leaves. I scud the tawny piles, raising a flurry of autumn colour in a pantomime of play. Half way around the words start coming again. Phrases, sentences lure me on, like the creatures in fairy tales whose sweet sound and bright form entice travellers into the forest, before abandoning them to their fate. I’m not a complete fool. I will seek a meeting with the powers that be before lifting another finger to write.

Arranging a visit from denizens of the other world is always a delicate business. I return to my attic and settle myself into one of the two armchairs that occupy the space not taken up by my writing table and chair. Half-closing my eyes, I turn my attention inward. I compose my message and start to transmit, speaking aloud; ‘Not swimming but drowning. Help. I know you’re out there. Help.’ I lose track of time, repeating the mantra, and I am on the edge of losing hope when they finally respond to my request.

The first to arrive is a girl. She could be any age between ten and twenty, of slight build, and with shoulder-length mousy hair held off her face by an Alice band. She settles down in the armchair opposite, book in hand and ignoring me, and curls up to read. Before I can engage her, a pillar of light descends on the dining chair to my left and takes the form of a man in his forties. His face is unsmiling, his eyes sharp. He barely nods at us in acknowledgement. As I begin to nod in return, a lion materialises on the floor between us. He eyes me steadily. The room is beginning to feel rather crowded, but there’s no backing out now.

‘Thank you for coming, I need your help. I feel as if I’m being given the run around here with this writing business. I don’t think I’m asking for much – a thousand words. Five hundred at a pinch. But I keep drawing jokers. Mind you,’ I say, looking from face to face. ‘I don’t actually know what you can do. ‘

‘I am the backbone of the enterprise.’ The man, who wears a well-worn black leather coat, grows taller as he speaks. He looks like a lean ranger that would lead you on a march through the Grand Canyon and expect you to follow without question. ‘I provide what it takes to stay put when the going gets tough, to persist to the end. You need me in order to get anywhere.’ His stare pins me to the spot.

The girl sighs and puts down her book. ‘That may be true, but I don’t want you anywhere near me. You give me the creeps.’  She swings her legs to the floor. ‘I am the inventor, the one who whispers the words, but only when the conditions are right.’ She turns back to the man. ‘And having you stand over me like the Grim Reaper doesn’t fit the bill.’

The lean ranger’s jaw stiffens and his eyes narrow. ‘This is why nothing gets achieved. You start something and then give up as soon as it gets difficult.’

The girl rolls her eyes. ‘To write is to play.’     

‘Writing is a serious business.’

‘To you everything is a serious business. Lighten up.’

They stand locked in a duel of wills. Fearing the meeting is about to go belly-up, I find my voice. ‘And the lion?’ 

‘He’s with me’. The man drops his hand to the lion’s mane. The animal shifts his neck away from contact and raises himself to all fours. He appraises each of us in turn and under his gaze, the silence deepens. I make an effort to breathe. In a voice as mellow as his honeyed coat, he addresses the girl. ‘I am the guardian of the threshold. I can keep you in one place.’

‘It’s not me you need to keep still.’ She leans forward and gestures towards me. ‘Sit on her. She’s the one that is forever doing something else even though she says she wants to write.’

They all turn to look in my direction. Things are not going as I had hoped. I wish I had their capacity to disappear at whim. ‘That’s because it’s too bloody difficult trying to write when you two are always bickering.’

There is a collective sigh, and those of us who have feet stare at them.

‘If I may be of assistance?’  A grasshopper in an embroidered waistcoat stands on the windowsill. A black feather arcs from his matching beret. He bows, doffing the beret in a flamboyant loop. I notice the girl smiling but I’m at a loss. ‘A grasshopper?’

He puffs himself up, holds his hat with both hands in front of him and hops from side to side. ‘In Ancient Greece, the insect was sacred to Apollo. We are associated with artists whose inspiration is inconstant. ‘

He bows again, barely disguising his smile. ‘I appear when you are writing drivel and indulging yourself to no purpose, so that you can better focus your efforts. That has been my noble role since Homer first put words on paper.’ He knows that he has established his credentials.

The girl laughs and claps her hands. ‘Yes! You’re more like it. Now we can finally work, and Mr Lion – guard the threshold and keep The Grim Reaper out of the room.’

I catch the tall man grinding his teeth. He will not be despatched so easily. Better to build an alliance between them than waste time quarrelling.

I speak up. ‘I think I need all of you.’ The man’s jaw softens into theghost of a smile. The girl sighs and her form begins to flicker, about to disappear in a puff of huff.

‘But at different times – maybe even in different locations.’ She relaxes a fraction. ‘Lion can keep me in one place so that I can listen to your story as you want to tell it.’ She settles back down into the armchair and I turn to meet the watchful gaze of the lean ranger. ‘And as this whole enterprise needs a critical eye at key points, perhaps you and I can take a walk every so often to take stock of how things are going?’

There is a general nod of assent and they dissolve, leaving four smiles of approval lingering in the air. In the sudden quiet of the empty room, I return to the Rose Garden where a tortoiseshell cat has padded up to the middle-aged woman and is rubbing itself against her leg.

Mary Marken

© 2014