What’s your number?


[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.

Continue reading “What’s your number?”


Ice Cream Van

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

The Rules


[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 Rules‘ in exactly 1000 words.]

The sea was uneasy. I watched the sunset spill across the water and fragment into frothy shards.

Don reached over for his glass, brushed away a mosquito.

“Let’s stay here,” I whispered. “Please,” but my words melted in the heat. I slid down into the rattan chair.

A waiter appeared, barefoot. A westerner. He glanced at Don, twice.

My husband’s fingers tightened white around the glass.

Continue reading “The Rules”

Shelf Life


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.

Continue reading “Shelf Life”


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.

Continue reading “Trapped”

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

White Lies


[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.

Continue reading “White Lies”

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”

The Conversation Garden

Night Trees

[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 ‘A Conversation with your Spouse’ in exactly 1200 words.]

I knew it instantly. You were there – then half a second later, you were gone.

“Stand back!” shouted the doctor, that antsy one you never liked, and “This way,” said Agnieszka, doe-eyed,“This way, Mrs Johnson,” guiding me out through the swing doors to the empty corridor, as behind us they worked away on you, in vain.

I made a sound. Agnieszka squeezed my shoulder.

“It’s too late,” I told her.

She looked at me with those big brown eyes of hers. Like Bambi, I’d said to you yesterday, when you’d cracked a smile, and said –

“They’re doing everything they can,” soothed Agnieszka.

“But it’s too late,” I explained to her, as gently as I could. “I know he’s gone.”

You’d surprised me, like you always did, before I’d had the chance to tell you one more time what I wanted you to know.

Continue reading “The Conversation Garden”

More competition news!

Jam Jar Lights Phnom Penh

I’m very happy to say I came 6th in a flash fiction contest – this time, we were asked to write a microfiction story of 250 words. I’ll post the story here once certain rights issues have been sorted.