I blame Jan Carson.
In May 2017, Jan published a wonderful little book called Postcard Stories. Every day for a full year Jan wrote a story on the back of a postcard and sent it to a friend, and Postcard Stories is a collection of the highlights. I devoured this book, struck by the powerful simplicity of Jan’s stories – stories that moved me, made me laugh and made me think, all in less than 300 words – and was inspired to attempt my own short fiction challenge, as a fun way of exercising my writing muscles and relearning the discipline of writing every day.
Because I am neither as talented nor as industrious as Jan Carson, I am setting myself a more modest challenge – to write a piece of micro fiction (i.e. 250 words or less) every day for a month, inspired by something experienced on the day of writing. To give me an extra push in the right direction, I’ve also decided to publish a few of these stories at the end of each week via a blog post. Short fiction is a brand new experiment for me, so I can’t promise the stories will be any good (apologies in advance to anyone intrepid enough to read them), but I do promise to have fun. Which is sort of the whole point.
Since I’m stealing Jan’s idea, I thought I’d better not steal her title too, so I’m calling these stories Polaroid Prose, because – stick with me here – they’re designed to be relatively quick and fun to write (and, hopefully, to read), and they’re snapshots of particular events, moments or feelings. Like Polaroids.
Still with me? Fantastic! Here goes…
Week 1 stories
I do a double take when the barista appears at the counter – I haven’t seen him in ages.
‘Moved to Spain,’ he says, when I ask if he’s been away, ‘but it didn’t work out.’
I’m not sure how to respond to this. ‘Where in Spain?’
He names some place I’ve never heard of.
‘It was too quiet,’ he says. By way of explanation, or apology.
I nod, as if I know all about it.
‘Well,’ I say, ‘it’s good to see you back.’
He smiles and thanks me, and I take my drink and head for the door.
Later, as I make my way home past fading election posters, my shins slick with June rain, I turn to wondering about the barista and what he is thinking on this grey Belfast evening. Whether he loves and hates this city as I do. Whether he is glad or sorry to be back.
I am tidying, and while I am tidying I am looking at your things. The crockery – the everyday set and the good china with the gold and burgundy trim. The woven table-mats that have been around at least as long as I have. The novelty freezer magnets you liked us to bring you from our holidays, a Jersey cow and Mickey Mouse nudging up against the Manhattan skyline. The painting I always thought was crooked but you insisted was perfectly straight. The ornaments (not too many – you were never one for clutter). The boxes of LEGO you kept even after the grandchildren were grown, for any visitors dropping by with kids in tow. The family photographs. The scented candles that were only for show (you tried to burn them once but found the smell much too strong). The doleful-eyed teddies you were fond of.
They are only things, but they were your things. This house was your castle, and all of these items were chosen or positioned with such care that sometimes I find it hard to look at them. But I do. I do look. And I try to keep everything just as you liked it, even though you are no longer around to see.
On Friday lunchtime, John arrived home and announced that he was moving out of the house to live in the back garden, in an inflatable transparent dome he’d bought off eBay. His wife and child looked on as he spent the remainder of the day erecting the dome and hauling items out of the house to furnish it – the spare bed, his favourite armchair, a nest of tables, a bookcase. That evening John fell asleep under the stars, and when he woke just before dawn to watch the sky slowly turn golden he told himself he was the luckiest man in the world. And also the wisest, for who would choose to surround himself with bricks and concrete when he could live like this, without walls, at one with all of God’s great creation? When Monday came John didn’t go into work, and by Wednesday he had made up his mind never to leave the dome again. His wife bore the news admirably, and agreed, with only the smallest of sighs, to bring his meals out to him in future.
For several months, life in the dome was good.
‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ John would say, whenever his wife and child came to visit him. ‘There’s no reason for me to go out any more. After all, everything I need is in my dome.’
Then, one morning, while John was sitting inside his dome reading a book and enjoying the sun on his face, John’s wife found herself hovering by the open back door, staring down in confusion at the tray of food in her hands. She couldn’t think what it was for. She peered into the garden and saw nothing but grass that needed cutting.
She turned to her child, who was colouring in at the kitchen table. ‘Didn’t there used to be something out there in the garden? Something kind of big?’
The child shrugged and resumed his colouring in.
‘Strange,’ she said, ‘I could have sworn there used to be something there.’ Then, with only the smallest of sighs, she closed the door and switched the kettle on.
I have found your car keys in the fridge again. It is the second time this week. When I mention it to you – gently, as I always am with you these days – you deny all knowledge of it. Then you get upset. There are tears. I tell you that it’s okay, that it doesn’t necessarily mean anything – just a moment of forgetfulness or distraction, the kind we all have – but I am fooling no one, not even myself. Because it’s not just the car keys. It’s the way I frequently find you hovering in doorways, confused as to how you got there. The way you stumble over your words – you, who were never at a loss for exactly the right thing to say in your whole life. And the way I catch you looking at me sometimes – as if you can’t quite place me, as if the hours you used to spend tracing the angles and curves of me never really happened.
*I know ‘The Dome’ is cheating a bit, since it’s 350 words long. But hey – my challenge, my rules!