Hot off the digital press, here’s a link to my (very short) story, Date with a Sociopath, which has now been published in Narrative magazine.
[I’m travelling around so much that, this year, the blog is going to take a summer holiday too. Meanwhile, here’s a short story written and set in Liège twenty years ago, before the euro, before smartphones, before Two Days One Night, and well before the more recent news headlines about that city.]
“Ça va?” asks Pascale as we bump over yet another pothole on the way up a mountain to her parents’ house for Sunday lunch. Actually, a mountain might be too poetic a name for it. It might be a slag heap. There are so many of them, decaying slowly on the outskirts of the city. At first glance they look like volcanic cones full of exotic promise and then close up, all you see is the disappointing reality of industrial decay. I met Pascale last week in an old attic, which has been the local chapel since the council ran out of funds to heat the church. I squeezed in among dozens of Catholic refugees, kneeling on the bare boards. Pascale took pity on me because she thought I was a refugee too, at first. I threw my clothes in the bin the next day. But she was actually closer than she realized.
“Now you can meet some real Belgians,” she says encouragingly to me. “It must be quite hard being British abroad and not being a typically British… What do you call it? A lager loot.”
[I recently discovered that one of last year’s stories had been shortlisted for the Writers Online 750-word short story competition, so – quite happily – I’m reposting it here!]
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.
[I was very pleasantly surprised to read – in the Galician rain – that my latest microfiction story had been longlisted for the Irish Fish Flash Fiction prize. So here it is:]
The third seat – the window seat – was empty. So was the aisle one. Violet toyed with her book in the middle. A chill was slicing in.
There were a few last-minuters loping down: a red-faced guy with a belly, and a sun-kissed young man. Violet looked straight ahead.
The red-faced guy shuffled into the row opposite with a grunt and a trace of onions.
“Ah,” said the sun-kissed young man, stopping short, and Violet’s heart took a breath. He looked round with a frown. “I thought there were three of us?”
No way, thought Violet, suppressing a grin. There’s no way he’s on this project too.
“I guess they’re running late!” she said, and offered her hand, but he was busy stowing his case.
“Well,” he said, to no-one, “I guess they’re running late!” and he folded his limbs into the aisle seat.
“Violet,” said Violet, after a second.
“Robert,” he said, with a yawn, and started rifling through the magazines. The pilot crackled an announcement. Violet looked sideways, at the shape of his nose, the sweep of his hair.
She opened her book, and closed it again.
“So,” she began, “Is this your first posting abroad?”
“What?” said Robert, and then there was a flurry and a voice, a female voice, calling, “Sorry! Typical me!”
Robert was already on his feet. The red-faced guy was gawping.
“So sorry!” said a young woman. “I’m always late!”
“We’d have held them up,” said Robert, grinning, and she smiled back: “Wouldn’t be a first!”
Violet curled up tight and let their third colleague slide past into the window seat.
“So,” called Robert, leaning over Violet’s lap, and she contorted forward, and then back. “Is this your first posting abroad?”
The chill was beginning to prickle. The flight was thirteen hours.
© Joanna Rubery 2018
“We’re going to miss it!” squealed Mohammed, face pressed up against the window.
“I’m going as fast as I can!” said Abraham, scrabbling round for dark glasses. “Ready?” he added at the door, and heaved it open. The chill was deathly.
Mohammed tore ahead. “I’m going to watch the whole thing!” he cried. “Eyes wide open!”
“Don’t look at the sun, Mo,” called Abraham.
“Eyes wide open!” yelled Mohammed, bouncing over a rock.
He’s obsessed, thought Abraham, as he crested the hill and looked out. This morning, his brother’s first words had been, “The truth is out there!” followed by a long and rather awkward stare.
The cliff dropped away below them, sliding sheer into the desert. Up above, the sky was silvering.
Mohammed had clambered up onto a boulder. He waved a high-pitched: “This is it!” and the two of them watched the disc edge into the dazzle. The whole world seemed to pale and fade. Their shadows lengthened, and there was nothing, for a while, but an unearthly silence.
Then Mohammed said, “We used to live up there, you know.”
“Here we go,” murmured Abraham.
“There’s evidence!” said Mohammed, “There’s loads of stuff that makes no sense!”
“Including you,” said Abraham. His mike crackled.
“Where do you think we came from?” said his brother, sweeping round his arm. “This desert?” His suit creaked. “This dry rock?”
Abraham focused on the ball of brilliant blue, suspended against white light.
“You and your conspiracy theories, Mo,” he said.
© Joanna Rubery 2017
[I used to belong to an online writing group, and each month we would write a story with a theme and a word count. This time, we were asked to write about ‘She Never Wanted It Anyway‘ in exactly 300 words.]
Her boyfriend would have blue eyes tonight, she decided: ice-blue.
No. Kate paused: why not violet? It was her favourite colour, after all, although the eyes might look a little disembodied – even Kate found her ideal man’s specifics hard to set in stone. Still, by now her experiment had woven himself into her walls, a fine-figured shadow, vaguely tall and hazy-faced, whistling in the bath, clattering in the attic, and even radiating a reassuring warmth in bed. Once she could have sworn she actually saw him through the window, taking out the rubbish. As it was, Mark – a neutral, no-nonsense name – suited her just fine. They could go days without talking, and then, on demand, he would materialize in a mental shimmer.
“What are we doing tonight?” she half-heard from the hallway.
“Sophie’s coming over,” she said, uncorking a bottle. “Remember?”
“Blonde Sophie?” asked Mark, chipper.
Kate looked up. The violet suited him, although oddly, she couldn’t quite see through him this evening.
“The very same,” she said, remembering her friend’s text: I’m finally getting to meet THE MARK??!!!
Kate prepared two glasses and her excuses: “on emergency call” would do. When the doorbell rang Mark usually vanished, so she was surprised to find him beating her to the front door, and even more so on hearing Sophie cry:
and – to Kate’s astonishment – throw her arms round him on the doorstep. Kate stood, open-mouthed: Mark’s blurred lines had sharpened under Sophie’s hands, his shadows shifting into a shape all too real. She watched, numb, as Mark waltzed her friend into the kitchen.
Kate found the texts a week later, and smiled. Sophie was welcome to him. She’d soon discover that there were certain parts of Mark where Kate had been – let’s say – overly experimental.
© Joanna Rubery 2017
In a surprise move, another one of my flash fiction stories from last year has been selected for publication in an anthology of writing from 2017. Again, I’ll update you with more details when it’s ready. Meanwhile, from Galicia at Carnival time, íhasta luego!
**In an update to the post below, here’s a link to the (very short) story, Date with a Sociopath, which has now been published in Narrative magazine.**
I’m delighted to say that one of my flash fiction stories has been accepted for publication in an online magazine! I’ll update you with more details when it comes out. Until then, from here in Spain, ¡buenos días!
My name is Jackie Grey. I’m forty-three, and I’m a hospital receptionist. I’ve been married to Steve, the love of my life, for fifteen years now. We have two wonderful children, Lucy and Oliver. They drive me up the wall, of course, but I can’t imagine life without them. They mean the world to me.
Sorry: Lucy and – George. We have two wonderful children, Lucy and George.
No. George Grey doesn’t quite –
“Dr Charumasami,” I say, dropping my files.
“Taxi for the happy family!” he bellows, leaving me with some scrawny pair and their bundle of joy. Dark-haired. Immigrants, I expect. Probably speak no English.
“First one, is it?” I ask, on hold to Autocabs.
“Four,” says the man, holding up his fingers, and smiles, “Four girl.”
Some people have no self-control.
“Expensive!” he’s grinning at me now. She isn’t smiling, though.
My name is Jackie Grey. I’m forty-three, I’m a hospital receptionist, and I’ve been married to Steve, the –
What now? Bloody Pam and her Pilates. I’m not trying it again.
“Any more” – she winks – “dates this weekend?”
My name is Jackie Grey. I’m forty-three, I’m single, and I don’t have any kids.
That taxi isn’t here yet. She’s asleep. He’s restless, hands jigging about. I catch his eye. He mimes a cigarette.
“Outside,” I tell him, “No – outside.”
He bangs the door on his way out, but the wife doesn’t stir, so I tiptoe over. Just for a look.
I pick her up, the bundle of joy. All big brown eyes and tiny fists. She’s very nice to hold. Very warm. Quiet, too, not a crier. Looks like a Lucy. Looks like me.
I think we’ll go for a little walk now, Lucy Grey and me.
© Joanna Rubery 2017
[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 ‘Cutting the Strings‘ in exactly 1000 words.]
Everyone has a number. What’s yours?
I know mine. We all do, of course: it’s something we’re born with, indelible, immovable, inked into our DNA. Our number is as much part of us as the frizziness of our hair, or the slope of our nose, or the way our skin burns in the sun as we’re heading Anywhere on the back of a bike, while we still can.
I could guess your number, looking at you, although there’s no guarantee I’d be anywhere close. That’s my earliest memory, in fact: trying to guess someone’s number. We’re in a circle: the light is butter-soft, my mouth full of chocolate, my dress a gauzy pink, floating out, dreamlike, when I spin.
“Seventy-seven,” I sing, “My number is seventy-seven,” and I pirouette on velvet toes. I want to spin seventy-seven times on the spot, to show everyone how long-lived and lucky I am, but after counting seventeen I stagger, disorientated, into the sofa. The room is wheeling, and Mei is watching. Mei only comes up to my shoulder.
“What’s your number?” I ask her.
Mei whispers something, like a bird.
“What?” I say, too loud, but I saw the way her lips moved; and even before the tears, I know something is very wrong.