Flash Fic – Bad Attitude
To get the writing started again after the enforced break of Christmas, I found myself signing up at the PicFor1000 community on Livejournal. The idea of which is that they give you a picture, and you write a story of 1000 words inspired by that picture.
I was fortunate enough to get this http://www.flickr.com/photos/altamiranopics/4559939756/sizes/m/in/photostream/
which made me laugh. And then it made me wonder why I always laugh at colourfully presented shameless selfishness, when really it’s not funny at all. And that, by degrees of working its way through the obsession I’ve been entertaining for the last six months, became this story, which I thought I would share. Because what’s the point of writing a story at all, if no one gets to read it?
“This is how he looks, walking into the coffee-shop – he looks like the friend everyone wishes they had. That lady in front of him? She’s reaching into her bag and she catches his smile – well, who wouldn’t? It’s a smile tossed out like a golden ball. She was hunting in her handbag, but now she’s ducked her head and you can see the blush, scalding her skin. His warmth is giving her a suntan.
“And meanwhile – while she’s studying her shoes and wondering if she’s pretty enough to justify hoping there could be something behind the smile – that smile on that face. An honest to god movie star stepped down from the screen, still trailing the aura of stage-lights, and more perfect than any human being has ever had a right to be. Meanwhile, he’s dipped one sly and narrow hand into her bag, taken a twenty pound note out of her closed purse, zipped it back up again and has money and hand back in his pocket before she’s glanced up again.
“Can you see her? Now she’s paying for a caramel macchiato, and she’s frowning, thinking "I thought I had more cash than this. I swear I took £60 out yesterday, where does it all go?" And then she’s tossing her hair and the glossy curls of it are bouncing, shiny and freshly springy from the tongs, and she’s taking her ridiculous drink to a little round table in the back, where no one will know she’s all alone.
“But she’ll look at him again before she goes, and he’ll grin and give her a tilt of the head that looks friendly, if you can’t read the irony in it. Because he knows he could tell her all and still make her forgive him, just by bowing low over her hand and kissing her fingertips.
“He used to do it to me. Here’s a life lesson for you: there’s a lot to be said for not understanding how your husband’s mind works. Things were so much better between us when he was a mystery to me.”
"What is he thinking, then?"
"He’s thinking ‘that was easy. Hardly worth the trouble.’ And now… See the laughter lines at the sides of his eyes, the way his smile’s drawn up to show his teeth? Now he’s thinking ‘I wonder what else I can get away with.’"
Up by the ceiling, there is a sound like that of leaves rustling. A drop falls with a plink into the bowl she holds. Her arms are bare and smeared with dirt, skeletally thin. Pale in the darkness, with the pallor of the cave-dwelling fish who swim in the cavern’s slow-moving, silent stream. If there are near-invisible laughter lines around her husband’s eyes, there are scores of misery and long endurance around hers, and she is still, like one too tired to tremble. She looks into the hollowness around her and sees bright visions, but I don’t suppose she has ever tasted caramel macchiato herself.
She has a laugh like the flight of a small bird startled from cover. "Oh look. The barman is made of sterner stuff. Probably thinks himself straight." It’s an oddly proud, sideways look she gives me, as if she shares just a little, in the thrill of the chase. "That never matters, of course. Everyone likes him, in their own way. Actually most people like him in the way he wants, but few ever realize that. Look at that level of interest! Damp under his armpits and a belly like he’s six months pregnant – I bet this man isn’t used to radiant youths hanging on his every word, while leaning forwards so the spotlight on the till makes their hair blaze red gold like a dragon’s hoard.
Poor barista, so flustered he’s missed the fact that the queue is starting to look mutinous, and there’s a man on crutches by the door, swaying, who really needs to sit down before he falls down. The old lady with the dog outside, sitting on cold pavement and waiting for her with sad eyes. She could do with service and quickly. But my husband is waiting for his moment and…
There it goes now. The businessman behind him has put his briefcase down. He only has to shift a foot, accidentally, and the case has fallen over, burst open, spilled laptop and phone shattering on the stone floor, scattering the queue with broken glass. They recoil like dominoes one into the next, the old lady tripping the guy with crutches, both of them going sprawling. The dog runs in and starts biting, there’s a panini on fire in the machine and the till is standing open.
Five minutes later, the sprinklers going, my husband’s outside with a coffee in one hand, a low fat ginger muffin in the other and a bundle of banknotes an inch thick in his back pocket. The owner of the beauty parlour next door is watching the ruckus and he’s leaning down to talk to her with that smile. This new world is one giant playground to him."
Fortean Times’ best reporter, and even I don’t know how I ended up here. I look down on the body over which she stands, and although it’s motionless, limp in its thin, gut-string bonds, it still retains a ghost of irresistible charm. Beauty now acid scarred, warmth now ebbed.
It’s a shell, she tells me. He’s found a way to hatch, gradually, out of it, let his spirit walk untethered in the world.
"But what about you?" I ask, shivering. It’s cold in the cave, and she doesn’t look like she’s slept in a thousand years. "Why doesn’t he come back to help you?"
No martyr ever suffered like she. Whatever their agonies, their love, at least, was returned. "Because he doesn’t give a shit," she said. "He has enough compassion for one person, and today, as always, that person is himself."