Shelf Life

Bookshelf

The doorbell rings again, and “Hey,” I mutter, as Bodice Ripper quivers up against me.

Miss Laura comes into the bedroom holding a box.

“It’s Miss Laura’s birthday,” I remind everyone.

“I love birthdays!” cries ChickLit, shimmying on the shelf. “Happy birthday to -”

“Knock it off,” snaps Cop Thriller.

Encyclopedia clears his dusty throat, and intones: “On this day in 1888 – “

“Guys!” I hush them. We all wobble to the edge, and peer out.

Miss Laura is unwrapping –

“Another one of us!” breathes Bodice Ripper.

“Ooh!” cries ChickLit. “What genre?”

“I hope it’s fiction,” murmurs Encyclopedia.

Miss Laura holds the new book up to the light. It’s remarkably slender, with an alluring metallic sheen.

ChickLit scowls, and says, “Way too thin for a real book.”

“Very little substance,” declares Encyclopedia, puffing up his pages.

Then Miss Laura does something strange: she attaches the new book to a long white tail, and watches, intently. It glints in a most peculiar way.

“What kind of book is that?” whispers ChickLit.

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The Club

Field

[I belong to an online writing group, and each month we write a story with a theme and a word count. This time, we were asked to write about ‘The Club‘ in exactly 750 words.]

Rob saw it first.

We were limbering up, and then – I remember – he went very still.

“Mik-eyyyyyy!” came a two-handed holler from across the fields. I always forgave Rob his little brother. We even let Stevie in The Club – after all, there were some games you couldn’t play with two. (“I swear on my life,” Stevie had repeated, as a bead of scarlet trickled down his palm.)

“Earth to Mik-eyyy!” yelled Stevie.

“Get on with it,” I muttered, the bat rough in my hand. I felt the prick of a splinter.

“Are you rea-dyyyy?” yelled Stevie, unnecessarily, his voice sinking in the heat. The sun was blistering that summer, I remember that.

Stevie bowled.

The ball cracked off the bat, and arced into yellow. Rob didn’t move.

“What’s he doing?” said a girlish voice behind me.

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Trapped

Mouse trap

We feel sorry for Justine because she has a – I’ll keep my voice down – boyfriend.

Mimi and I have long been Free, but Justine’s still shackled to a man. She’s tied. She’s tangled up. She is – in other words – Trapped.

“She’s late,” says Mimi. “What’s her big news, anyway? Has she seen the light?”

“About time!” I say. I was Trapped once. Last year, I spent several weeks entangled with a green-eyed guy called Sam. He kissed me up against the fridge, but left trails of laundry everywhere. When I found his dirty socks in the sink, I saw sense.

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Going Home

Going Home

[I belong to an online writing group, and each month we write a story with a theme and a word count. This time, we were asked to write about ‘Going Home‘ in exactly 500 words.]

“Higher!” she squeals, ” High-errrr!” and I push the swing harder so it arcs up into the spilled blue of the sky, even though I know what’s going to happen next. And on cue Izzy swings back down and kicks her legs and shouts, “Tooooo hiiiigh!” and I catch her as she jumps, like I always do. She lets me hold her tight and breathe her in: her dimpled skin, her hot little hands, her smell of sugared strawberries, until she struggles and wriggles and tears away to run free, blonde curls bobbing, across the grass.

We are back at the park again. There are others here today, of course – it’s a perfect summer’s day, unclouded, not too hot. I sit on the warm slats of my usual bench and watch Izzy scrambling up the slide, past the older boys kicking a football, indifferent, and wonder how many years I have left before they see her, they really see her, and I lose my little girl. But right here in this park, under the buttery sun, there’s nobody with eyes for her but me.

***

I jolt awake: the air has cooled and there’s a low hum of traffic along the main road. The playground is deserted. I know where she’ll be, but my heart is thumping an unsteady bass.

“Izzy!” I call, and my voice is rusty. An old woman walking her dog looks at me, and frowns; and then I see a flash of gold in the apple tree.

“Izzy!” I know I have to tell her something, but I don’t want to say it. There’s a light breeze whispering through the leaves.

“Time to go home now,” I call up, at last, and my heart sighs.

“Not yet!” she says, as she always does. “Five more minutes!”

Sometimes I give her five more minutes. Sometimes I don’t. It doesn’t make any difference: it always ends the same.

“Hold my hand,” I tell her, gently, but she jumps down and takes off towards the road.

“Hold my – ” I call, as she looks both ways and runs out. I yell and she turns, from the other side, where she looks back at me, eyes wide.

“Come back!” I shout, heart in my throat, “Izzy, come back!” and she is coming back, straight back –

***

There’s a hand on my arm. It’s the old woman, her little dog watching, ears pricked. I’m crumpled in a heap on the path. I scrabble up, and look for Izzy, but I can’t see her.

“You know,” says the old woman, quietly, “I’ve seen you. Every day. You can’t keep reliving this.”

“She’s coming back,” I tell her, watching the road.

The old woman squeezes my arm, and says, “She isn’t coming back.”

I can’t see Izzy anywhere. I can only see an unbroken line of cars, indifferent.

The woman asks, “Do you think it’s time to go home?”

I think about it, for a while.

I think about it.

© Joanna Rubery 2017

1001 words: The First Tomorrow

East Cape scape

When the sun rises, we’ll see the first tomorrow in the world.

“We on East Cape time now!” says Tane, our driver, as we leave the teal and turquoise Pacific for a track dotted with the scarlet splashes of pohutakawa trees.

“No seatbelts!” mutters Hettie, turning the map upside down. “And where’s the lighthouse?”

“It caved in,” says Tane, “So we stop at Ronnie’s place tonight.”

The two Danish hairdressers glance at their phones as we rattle along, but we lost the signal somewhere between the sulphurous smoke of Rotorua and the glistening slate of Lake Taupo.

“Sorry,” says a bass voice behind me, “You said Regis Palace, ja?”

“Nah, mate,” says Tane to Heinrich. “Ronnie got a farm near Tokomaru. He says we can stay one night, maybe two.”

They did say this was an “informal tour” of the North Island. So far, we’ve delivered the post and had tea with Tane’s mum.

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White Lies

Wave

[I belong to an online writing group, and each month we write a story with a theme and a word count. This time, we were asked to write about ‘White Lies‘ in exactly 2500 words.]

I knew something wasn’t right when my mother stopped abruptly by the kiosk, clapped her hands lightly, and said, “Let’s have an ice cream!”

I looked up at her, squinting in the summer holiday sun.

“Ice cream!” shrieked Peggy in delight, and tried to spin around, but stumbled.

I caught my sister’s arm, and said, “We’ve only just had breakfast!” but my mother was already clinking coins over, distracted. Somewhere above us, a seagull began its harsh, halting cry. With a cone of whirled white in her hand, my mother glanced up.

“Be careful,” she said, eyeing the gull, “Or he’ll take it. – Wait!” she added, as I reached out, “Ladies first.”

Peggy took her ice cream, and bit into it with relish. Her eyes slid closed, and she swayed a little, humming.

“Patience is a virtue,” murmured my mother, in a far-off voice, handing me the second cone. I watched it coming with indifference. My tongue stung of metal snow.

My mother didn’t seem like my mother today. At breakfast she had sat in silence, tearing her napkin into tiny shreds. I’d taken another slice of toast while she wasn’t looking.

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Tasting Tokyo

Sake and sashimi

I’m expecting fans, futons, and formalities, but on arriving in Japan, I’m not quite prepared for the food.

In an izakaya – crowded, wooden, smoky – with a local journalist, Hiro, I grab a fistful of what look like crisps, and find in my hand instead a cluster of small dried fish heads. On cue, the earth seems to shimmer beneath us.

“I think I’m feeling phantom earthquakes,” I tell Hiro, as he offers me chicken foie gras on a chopstick. It’s indescribable.

“Maybe it’s the subway,” he says kindly.

Or maybe it’s my stomach. I try raw horse, which is paradise on a plate, followed by crackly chicken cartilage, which is not; spilled brains, which turn out to be roe; and a whole small fish battered in tempura.

“Do I eat everything?” I ask my host, eyeing the fish’s scaly tail.

“Even the bones,” he says, and shakes a pair of maracas left on the table. A waitress materializes, and presents us each with a small bowl of soup.

“What’s this?” I ask. There’s an odd kind of meat floating belly-up in the middle.

Hiro consults his electronic dictionary, and shows me across the low table:

guts
rectum
shitbag

It takes a long time to get the soup down after that: chopsticks aren’t much help with tripe. As a consolation, Hiro orders small pieces of butter, for dessert, and a few sticks of bamboo. We wash it all down with sweet potato spirit, and the earth seems to shimmer more than ever.

Japanese has many untranslatable words, including kuidaore, or to go bankrupt because you’ve spent all your money on food and drink. But in a country where I’ve tasted the most delectable and the least palatable food of my life, it might just be a price worth paying.

© Joanna Rubery 2017