This is my first-ever piece of Flash Fiction (under 1000 words). It was written in haste for a competition on the last available day for entry. The brief was to evoke a childhood memory. So here it is, set in Northern Ireland in 1952. It may or may not be true!
Update: It gained an Honorable Mention.
Billy lived alone and wore blue silk drawers. On wash day, Mammy closed the curtains on our kitchen window so she couldn’t see them on Billy’s clothes line. He had a matching vest, a bit frayed at the edges, but without the faint brown stain on the drawers.
He was a Roman Catholic and we were Protestants, but Mammy did her duty and sent me round to Billy’s house every Sunday with a bowl of stew. I had to go out of the front door, which opened directly on to the street, because what was the point in doing a good deed if nobody knew about it?
It was only a few steps to Billy’s front door, just enough time to shove a couple of spoonfuls of stew into my mouth and return the spoon to the bowl. Sometimes, he was waiting behind the net curtain and opened the door before I could kick it.
“Hurry up, get in. I can see Ma McCracken’s curtains twitching.”
“Mammy said can you wash the bowl before you give it back.”
She didn’t, but I never missed a chance to practice my dumb insolence.
“Off you go, out the back way.”
I liked going through Billy’s long, narrow house, surely some kind of architect’s mistake. The narrow living room, barely wide enough to accommodate the front door and the window, led into the bedroom. A glowing Sacred Heart adorned one wall, above a dresser with dusty vials of Holy Water.
Billy was going to Hell, but I wasn’t quite sure why, only that it was something to do with the Pope. His window always got smashed on the Twelfth of July, but he never told the police. No point. My Da fixed it for him and Billy slipped him a bottle of whiskey when Mammy wasn’t looking.
A tiny scullery beyond the bedroom opened on to the communal garden. A quick hop over the dividing wall and I was home again, job done for another week.
I hated the old fucker.
One Sunday in November, after taking Billy’s dinner to him, I overheard a conversation between Mammy and my older sister, Frances, who was getting married in a few weeks. Frances could whinge for Ireland.
“Do we have to invite Billy to the wedding, Mammy?”
“Yes, we do. What would the neighbours think if we didn’t ask him?”
“But he’s – you know –”
“I know, but maybe he won’t come.”
But Billy did come, in spite of being “you know –”. His hair was freshly permed and his overcoat had a velvet collar, which proved to be quite the talking point. I watched him like a hawk all day, but couldn’t work out what “you know –” could possibly mean.
January blew in with sleet and snow. Mammy stepped up Billy’s dinners to twice a week. Well, it was the Christian thing to do. The snow was too deep for me to walk a mile to school, so I was left alone in the empty house while Mammy and Da went to work.
The letterbox thumped and a handful of letters shot into the hallway. I picked them up and had a quick shuffle. We didn’t get many letters as such, usually just bills, but today there was a lavender-perfumed envelope addressed to Mr. W. McParland of number 22a, Reilly Street.
Well, this was interesting.
We were number 22 and, for the briefest of seconds, I considered walking next door and poppng it through the letterbox. But, lavender perfume? Maybe it was a love letter. Maybe it had stuff in it about ‘doing it’.
No sooner had the thought crossed my mind than I had the envelope ripped open. The writing was flamboyant and written in purple ink with lots of curlicues. I could hardly contain myself, even as I struggled to read it.
My dearest William,
It seems so long since I last saw you, when we ran naked through the grass together.
Boy, this was good.
Unfortunately, that was the best bit. The rest was just a lot of boring arrangements to meet, so I skimmed over it until I got to the bottom of the page.
Yours, in loving friendship,
Harold? That wasn’t a lady’s name. Why would a man write that stuff to another man?
I was so engrossed in this conundrum that I didn’t hear Mammy come home.
“What’s that you’re looking at?”
She held out her hand “Let’s see nothing, then?”
I didn’t have to wait long for a reaction.
“Where did you get this filth?”
Unseen, I stuffed the envelope into my pocket.
“Uh, it was in the dustbin. It was on top when I took the rubbish out.”
She turned on her heel and stormed out into the street, hammering on Billy’s door and shouting for him to come out.
He opened his door and, before he could speak, Mammy was in there.
“You bloody pervert! You’re not fit to live near decent people! And leaving your filth where a child can see it, you’re evil.”
Billy stood open-mouthed, without a clue what she was talking about.
An interested crowd of neighbours were unashamedly gawking at the spectacle, which lent fuel to Mammy’s ire.
“Yes, you can all look! You don’t know what he’s been up to. Things with men!”
Things? What things? Running in the grass?
She caught sight of me, taking everything in and dying to know more.
“And you, get back inside. You’ve seen enough for one day.”
Back to Billy, now ashen-faced and trying to get his hands on the letter.
“Oh, no. This is going to the priest, he’ll know what to do about it.”
There was much, much more as the neighbours felt it was only right that they had a say in the matter. But I didn’t hear it, as the door closed behind me.
Six months ago, I started writing Circles of Confusion. I had a very clear picture in my mind of my three main characters and how their little drama would play out. I read more than one hundred books every year, I have a degree in English Language and a fairly active (some would say over-active) imagination. What could go wrong?
Well, nothing actually went wrong. It just changed.
As soon as I began to commit my characters to Pages in my computer, they behaved differently to the way I wanted them to. Like the ballerina in the Red Shoes, my fingers would set off in an entirely different direction to the one I intended. More characters appeared and began to put in their tuppence worth. My beautiful, innocent heroine turned into a dysfunctional sociopath and no amount of persuasion by me could set her feet on a different path.
A backstory was required to explain why she was such an utter cow, so flashbacks became a thing. I joined an online writing forum/thingy and learnt that using the first person, present tense was maybe not the best way to write a first novel. Oops, too late! I learnt about comma splices, part sentences and passive voice – all quite big No-Nos in their own, quiet way. Yep, got lots of them.
So, three chapters in, after our wayward young woman had got herself into a whole heap of trouble (nothing to do with me!) I went back to the beginning and started again. I paid great attention to all the No-Nos and punctiliously observed all the rules I’d been reading about. One chapter into the new version and – Guess what? – she’d become so boring I unfriended her on Facebook.
Back to the beginning again and, this time, I gave her free rein to go in whatever direction she chose, in any way that took her fancy. Comma splices, part sentences, passive voice and any other rule she chooses to bend – she’s off like a greyhound from the starting blocks and God knows what trouble she’ll get herself into.
I guarantee one thing, though – she won’t be boring.
A short anecdote about a very dear friend, sadly gone ahead.
When I first began to forget the names of things (apparently the first thing to go is proper nouns) I swore I would never resort to ‘whatchamacallit’ and ‘thingymajig’; even if it meant a pause in the conversation, I would just wait until the word came. That worked for a while and then the next stage appeared – the word would come to mind but the tongue wouldn’t spit it out and the pauses got longer while mind and tongue had a little domestic to see who would win. Now, sometimes the name of a person doesn’t come at all and I have to admit defeat and move on, only for the elusive name to pop up when I’m talking about something entirely different.
I was talking about books recently, while having lunch with Albert, and he was describing a biography just published in Spanish about an Irish hero / activist (history hasn’t made its mind up which he is yet) from the time of the Easter uprising in 1921. Both of us knew exactly who the biography was about and could regurgitate clues – he was hanged, his first name was Roger etc. – but we couldn’t tell each other what his name was. So we were in the strange position of having a complete conversation about someone without once mentioning his name. We eventually moved on to talk about other things and, in the middle of discussing the pros and cons of the present Government, I suddenly banged the table in triumph and shouted “Casement!”. The cutlery jumped in the air, the wine glasses rocked (oh yes, there was wine) and everyone in the restaurant turned to stare, while a waiter rushed over to see if everything was all right with Sir and Madam.
It was a bit like the Meg Ryan moment in When Harry met Sally.
Over a period of many years, I have accrued quite a list of favourite authors from a wide variety of genres. Sometimes, it can be quite a long wait before new novels appear and I am always on the look-out for new writers to add to my list. It doesn’t happen very often, but, just this week I discovered Kit de Waal and have already devoured two of her books.
de Waal has an interesting background in that she identifies as British/Irish, having been brought up by an Irish mother and an African-Caribbean bus driver father in Birmingham among the Irish community, and has recalled: “We were the only black children at the Irish Community Centre and the only ones with a white mother at the West Indian Social Club.”
The books I have read so far, My Name is LeonandThe Trick to Time, are different to my usual genres. Reading the initial chapters, they seem quite cosy (usually anathema to me) but build slowly and surely to an ending which is both surprising and entirely logical. Sounds odd? Read them. You won’t be disappointed. Click the links for full synopsis and reviews.
Writing your first book at the age of 76 can be quite scary. Today, I hit the 20,000 word mark with Circles of Confusion. Here’s where it begins.
There’s a yellow ribbon tied to the handle on the front door, so I walk round the side of the house to go in by the kitchen. Mummy explained to me that I mustn’t use the front door if the ribbon is there. She’s busy and I mustn’t interrupt her. I don’t mind because I like being by myself. I can read a book or practice my writing – and sometimes the biscuit man will be there. I hope he’s there today. Maybe he’ll have Jaffa cakes, he knows they’re my favourite.