[I’m very happy to say I made the finals of this flash fiction competition with a ’50-word story about a hero’. I wanted to salute the small, kind gestures that transform the ordinary. Here in Japan, acknowledging another person’s humanity seems to be a way of life, even when it means reaching out to (quite possibly) the descendant of someone who was – not so long ago – The Enemy.]
[I’m very proud of this one, which came sixth in a recent microfiction competition hosted by Grindstone Literary Services. We were asked to write about a Snapshot in 250 words.]
I step on scarlet toes (“Sorry, love!”) and breathe in sugared scent. The girls are like butterflies, flitting under frangipani blooms.
“Madame?” He’s got a walkie-talkie. “Can I help you?”
“I’m looking for my friend,” I shout, above the bass. Then I see him across the street. A tuk-tuk swerves, and misses me.
“All alone?” I ask. The beer is sharp, cutting through the evening heat.
“I’m in love,” Pete tells me, through a haze of smoke and flowers. “Not with you.”
“Just as well,” I say. “With who?”
He nods across the road. “With Nita.”
I look over – the girls are glowing neon – and back to him.
“Nita from the Good Time Garden??”
“I’m obsessed!” he says.
A boy clatters in the gutter with empty cans of paint.
“Does she know?” I ask him. Pete isn’t young.
He shakes his head. “But I’m going to give her this.”
He smooths a photograph with tar-stained fingers. She’s laughing, he’s drinking something lime.
“I’ve written to her,” he says, draining his glass. “On the back. Dutch courage!”
Then he grins, gets up, and weaves his way across.
The fan above is broken. Something scuttles by my feet.
After a while, I spot him coming back, and then I see her, I think, on the balcony, a sliver of red. She leans out and drops something. It flutters into flowers.
“I think she was surprised,” says Pete, sitting down. “We’ll see. Fancy another?”
I wonder. I wonder what to say.
© Joanna Rubery 2017
[Update: I’m delighted to say that my story below has just been published in the glossy print May 2017 edition of Wanderlust magazine, so I’m bumping it back up the blog!]
“You have wrong visa!” shouted my new boss down the phone.
Jet-lagged, culture-shocked, and helpless in the heat, this was not what I wanted to hear. I’d come to Cambodia to teach, but I was already questioning a country that had a) no pavements and b) frogs for lunch.
“What do I do?” I asked, chasing an unknown creature under my hotel bed.
My employer sighed.
“Leave country and come back in,” she said, and hung up. Then all the lights went out.
“Is here!” shouts our guide, and we crunch over to where the snowy cliff runs out. Miles below, unheard, a glacial river splashes. The space between the pearl-white peaks is silent. The air is paper thin.
“Magnífico,” I whisper. Antonio turns and smiles, but I mean him, and his dark and sparkling eyes. I hand him the water.
Peter-the-Australian is watching the sunlight fade away.
“Where are we gonna stay tonight, then?” snorts Gemma, from behind. “My bloody feet!”
Antonio unlocks a splintery shack. There’s a rich smell of Andean wood, and something like alpaca.
“I can see me breath!” says Peter, shards curling.
“No mirror?” yells Gemma, pulling off her hat. “What about my hair?” and it tumbles loose, like silk.
We spoon up soup as the night turns blue, then black. Antonio uncorks a dusty bottle and four glasses, crystallized with frost.
“Can’t get a signal here,” says Gemma, vexed, but Peter (“You millennials!”) is already dealing out a pack of cards.
“We two,” says Antonio, winking at me, “Against Gemma. And Peter.”
We’re a team. (Tonight? Maybe tonight.)
“That’s not fair!” Gemma’s protesting, glossy-lipped; but an hour later, I take another sip, play my hand – and it all falls apart. Gemma whoops.
“I’m sorry – ” I turn to Antonio, but, “Is only a game,” he replies, knocking back his glass.
In the dark heart of the night, I feel my frozen way outside. The stars are speckled right down to the ground, as if the world has tilted. I listen in, too.
From somewhere in the shack, I hear a giggle.
The dawn’s like ice.
I hand him the water, but “Gemma!” he calls, and walks away. On a far peak, I see the snow come crashing down before I hear it.
© Joanna Rubery 2017
I had washed ashore on the beach at the end of the world.
That wind-whipped afternoon, the ferry crossing over the dire strait from Invercargill had been, I’d scrawled in my diary, “like the Pirate Ship” – we rose and fell with each wave, the floor splashing with spilled tea. After an hour, I slid down the jetty with a handful of hardy fishermen, spangled with sea salt.
“Welcome to Stewart Island,” said the captain, shaking hands from a fish crate.
In the half-light of Half Moon Bay, I held my breath. The harbour was a glassy grey, scattered with small boats, clinking in the ripples. On the far horizon, the sun was a low glow of unearthly light. I felt, as I always do, the tingle of the unknown.
Little Micky is singing a muffled Jingle Bells through her scarf as we finally pull off the highway in Niagara Falls, Ontario (pop: 78,000) after three hours of inky darkness. Then she changes the lyrics to Dunkin’ Donuts. Micky is adorably cute.
“Thanks to God, we make it in good time,” says Mr Chang from the front, blessing himself quickly.
“Michaela,” says his wife, snaking rosary beads through her twice-gloved fingers, “Why you not sing something nice about the baby Jesus?”
“Mom! Look! McDonald’s!” says young Tom, pressing his face to the cold glass.
“Niagara not far, ah?” says Mr Chang, turning to me and my boyfriend. “We blessed to live so close.”
What you can do on a working visa in New Zealand: originally published on Overseas Job Centre
Every now and then, a bus pulls up in the small, dusty town of Tympaki, on the olive-strewn Massara plain, and spits out a handful of surprised tourists on the street corner with “Change! Change here!” before rumbling off on its labyrinthine route. I wish I could say this happens every hour, on the chime of the bells in the Orthodox church, but I can’t be certain, because I am one of these tourists, blinking in the brightness of a Cretan afternoon.
Tympaki looks exactly as it did this morning and will do this evening, and in the silence, a moped whines by. In the “bus station” – a counter with a clock – a woman dressed entirely in black is lifting box after box over the counter in a harried way.
“What?” she says, looking at our timid group, all white arms and legs.
Rich roast bean, the crunch of toasted bagel: I’m watching the sun slide cleanly up over the Empire State into an unforeseen blue. The breeze bristles a thousand tiny leaves of hope. My heels echo down open avenues, cool and calm, just like you. I am walking to meet you in September sunshine, through sultry spice and melting mozzarella and scotch splashing on rocks and here you are, American Boy, here you are, and “I’m busy,” you say, and walk away, treading leaves, my heart, and other trash into the sidewalk. This coffee’s cold, and bitter.
© Joanna Rubery 2017
The dogs have us up against an unfinished house, all bared fangs and throaty growls, until with a shout Mike throws his piece of spit-roast pig at them and we turn and flee past the alpaca having a siesta under the ATM and round the corner by the meat market where wizened women are smashing goats’ heads with cleavers in time to frantic panpipes, a rainbow of primary colours splattered with blood and bones. We dodge the naked chickens strung up like laundry, the reeking towers of animal teeth, and the small furry guinea pigs splayed open on plate after plate, a ghoulish banquet of snouts and claws. There’s barking from behind: we jump over buckets of guts, past twins playing chess and a tiny old man weeing like a garden ornament into the gutter. We fly by the boy selling oversized snails and the black-hatted girl roasting a hot glazed pig on a spit. We dart across the main square, through shrieking whistles and clashing car horns, dodging a toddler dancing in a feather headdress and – Mike yanks me back – a tuk-tuk streaking by like a meteor, spraying steady Latin beats, and then we make a final break for it up the dry, cracked hill in the thin mountain air, past the shaman at his stall, doing nothing, the flickering candles at the Madonna shrine, and a small monkey on a pole dressed in red and juggling nectarines which aren’t nectarines at all. A man sitting on a stool holding a euphonium plays a few low notes as we run by.