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 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
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
You were inside me, once, curled up like coral. Tiny, tight-furled, almost translucent – I could see right through your pearly skin. Now it’s everyone else who sees through you instead, but it’s everyone else who’s wrong. About so many things! Like love, for example. It’s not blind at all, because I see you perfectly, even in –
– the middle of a crowd like this, I see you and I feel you, holding my hand, as I always imagined. Everyone else is blind, because they look and do not see. I see you just as I dreamed you: a perfect fusion of known and unknown. You’re mine. I’m not letting you go.
“Maria!” – I don’t know why this woman’s always so worked up – “How are things?”
She follows me everywhere, this one, and never likes my answers – see, she’s frowning now.
“Time for another chat, Maria?”
Why? We’ve had so many chats. I don’t have time for another. I tell her we’re busy again, you and me, and she pulls her disappointed face.
There’s a jingle-jangle over the road.
The woman’s lost in thought. Perhaps she’ll let us go.
Then, “I know!” She cracks a smile. “How about an ice cream, sweetheart? What flavour?”
She’s looking at you, my darling, for the first time. You‘re smiling back. I hope you’ll remember your manners.
“Thank you,” I say, for you. “We’d like that very much.”
We walk over to the van, the three of us.
© 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 ‘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.
The ball cracked off the bat, and arced into yellow. Rob didn’t move.
“What’s he doing?” said a girlish voice behind me.
[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
[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
[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.]