Why I Do What I Do

Salt flats

Sizzling black peppercorns on the burnt streets of Phnom Penh. Sun-spangled sapphire stretching off the Sardinian shore. The swish of a hundred swirling skirts at midnight in Arequipa, the sharp sting of wasabi on my Tokyo tongue, the salty force of a six-foot wave knocking me off my feet in the Tasman sea: travelling sharpens the senses, catapulting you straight into the unknown (and quite often the uncomfortable) without a seatbelt. There’s nothing like the shock of the new to make you look at home again with different eyes.

For me, it’s the unexpected moments on a journey that sear my heart and stay with me the longest: waking on the night bus, in the thinning air, to see all the stars in the universe trailing down towards the stony sand of the Atacama desert. Breathing in the mingle of five spice, flat whites, French fries and falafel on the cool streets of New York. Watching children tumbling out of church to blow bubbles like clear blossom through the apricot-stained alleyways of a small Spanish town.

But if it’s the moments that transfix you, it’s the people you meet who pull you in: the receptionist in fizzing, fairy-lit Hanoi who wants to matchmake you with passing hotel guests (“Honeymoon suite still free!”). The shoeless, switched-on ten-year-old in the shade of Angkor Wat with his canny sales pitch of “one drink for you – and one for your driver.” The tiny wisp of woman in black who shares your table in the sandy sprawl of Lima and tells you, between spoons of chicken rice, she’s returning from her husband’s funeral. The Italian soldier who recites solemnly, in the spring sun, his hand-on-heart recipe for “the best way to eat pasta”. The New Zealand surfer who stops you on the sand, bare-footed and golden-haired, and asks joyfully, “Are you saved?” The elderly Japanese man, worn with age, who shuffles over to tell you he once, many years ago, “go Rondon. Albert Haw. Ve-ry beautiful,” and starts conducting an imaginary orchestra. The Polish tour guide, who begins with the tale of the town’s war-torn history and ends, as the candles burn down over the cobbled square, with her own.

I’ve lived in seven countries so far, and I’ve long been writing stories inspired by my travels for an audience whose most common question is “Where are you going next?”

Where am I going next…?

I’ll tell you when I get there.

[Adapted from an article written for the LATAM airlines travel writing competition, March 2017]

© Joanna Rubery 2017

The Shower

Bridal Falls

[The challenge this time was to write a story about a Shower in 53 words.]

You left me high and dry beside a waterfall. I stripped under the spray, scrubbed you from my skin with bitter grit, rinsed you out with bottled feelings, filed away your dead love, trimmed my overgrowing dreams, plucked my courage up, and washed my hands of you in the water under the bridge.

© Joanna Rubery 2017

More competition news – Fallout

Olive branch

[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.]

https://www.writingclasses.com/contest/be-a-hero-contest-2017

Microfiction in 100 words: Heart Marmite

Heart Marmite

Take one heart (fresh is best) and slice it down the middle.

Tenderize with disbelief, then marinate the bleeding halves in melancholia.

When mollified, rinse in ice-cold invective. Pat dry with opportunistic hugs.

Meanwhile, bring a pan of salted tears to boil. Simmer at blood heat.

After half a year, pierce cleanly with a skewer.

Spice with bitters and resentment, and sizzle till browned off.

Stew in thyme and wistfulness awhile, till the flame begins to flicker.

Let the half-hearts cool on sheepish embers.

Chop finely into pieces, crush, and spread thinly, on other people’s crumbs.

Serve with soured grapes.

© Joanna Rubery 2017

Microfiction in 100 words: The Bathroom Mirror

Bathroom mirror

“Almost,” says my boss, throwing me a cloth. “Just wipe the mirror down.”

I look at the square of silver above the sink.

“Is it a mirror?” I ask her, “Or is it a portal to an alternate universe?”

“Get on with it,” she says, pushing the cleaning trolley. “One more room to go.”

I lift my finger and tap the sheen with one nail.

My alternate self taps back. And then I feel her – nail on nail. Skin on skin.

Outside, my boss sings off-key.

We both climb in the sink. Then, with one jump, we swap worlds.

© Joanna Rubery 2017

The Door

Beach Door

[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 ‘New Life’ in exactly 1000 words. This story is, in fact, an extended take on my microfiction story, Terminal.]

The iced wind seared my patchy scalp, and I coughed again, a raspy, racking ache. My fingers stung. Perhaps we should never have walked all this way to the hospital, but when I was little, March never used to be this bitter. I remembered sunshine. We’d even drive over to the beach sometimes, and –

“Mum,” sighed Amy, “How much longer will this take?”

I caught us frozen in the glass front opposite: my daughter, a sliver of sulky green; myself, a sharpened stick. It would be the last time I set eyes on either of us.

Continue reading “The Door”