Myriad is proud to be supporting Quick Fictions, a night of short fiction (every story under 300 words) organised at the University of Sussex by Professor Nicholas Royle, author of Quilt. This annual event features new writing by students and staff at Sussex. If you missed the night itself you can read all the stories here.
'Quick Fictions are the writing of our time. A quick fiction is brief, like Macbeth’s candle. It tells a story in no more than 300 words. Life will have been so short, as Jacques Derrida said. Quick fictions speed accordingly. Quick means: lively, vigorous, sharp, agile, perceptive, swift, even impatient, but also sensitive and vulnerable, like quick flesh. Quick fictions are funny, poignant, dark, sad, sexy, strange, but never trivial: they take us to the very quick of things.' NICHOLAS ROYLE
She had darkly freckled hands. Her fingers had the weight of age. She counted her change as though she wore gloves but her hands were naked — bare, naked, elderly flesh exposed at the end of blue lace arms. I loved her then because she had never seemed stranger to me. After we left the shop and were out on the street again, I spoke, making sure to stand on the left hand side of her body as I did so. 'You smell of death and talcum powder,' I said right into her engorged ear. The ear, like the nose, never stops growing — sometimes it looks as if her whole head has shrunk. Both of us get shorter by the year. I need to buy new shoes, having in-grown my old ones. She has lost her hearing on her left side so it is there, in her left ear, that I keep my secrets. This one is fresh, but there are others in there, hard as old cocoons. Her ear has been known to rattle. Judging by the sound, I’d say it’s full of kirby grips and milk teeth that have accrued over the years. If I held her upside down and shook her like a piggy bank, secrets would clatter to the ground.
A doomsday device is a hard thing to get built. First things first, you need a reason to build it. It might sound strange, but most people really aren’t that fussed about owning a laser that can punch a hole right through the Earth’s core. One of the biggest problems is, most people who want to own a device that can exterminate all life on the planet are generally either young enough to not yet regret all the music they’re listening to, or not mentally stable enough to fill out a tax return, let alone organise an empire. And you need an empire, sadly. You can be a crime lord, you can own a number of Fortune 500’s, you can front a religious movement, but I’m sorry to say you cannot go all ‘lone-wolf’ on this one. Sorry. And that means a workforce. And that means unions. Look, I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t trust a time bomb that had been built by men who were being worked at gunpoint. They need to trust you to look after them, which is difficult after you’ve shown them the schematics for a satellite that will ignite the planet’s atmosphere and an escape pod for one. This is where the religious angle works out, they’ll do it with glee, but then they get all swept up in rapture and suddenly you’ve got an uprising. So unless you can get right what Jim Jones got wrong (you’ve got no idea what they had buried out there), keep them in the dark.
Frankly, it better be worth it. He loathed conferences, where uneducated fools swarmed around, asking banal questions, and dull colleagues, with whom he would be forced to share damp sandwiches, droned on about discoveries that were, inevitably, useless. His wife, who was also his assistant, would join him – even this time, though he had refused her company, she had insisted on doing his packing. Probably, she didn’t trust him. He would rather have been working on the virus, preferably alone.
Or not quite alone. He glanced across at Tina, the young student he had invited along. She was playing with her seatbelt, fastened for the plane’s descent. She didn’t seem enthralled by his conversation about the virus’ reproductive cycle and, he had to admit, it was hardly foreplay. As his wife frequently reminded him. Perhaps he could get the girl’s attention with a little danger.
Inside his briefcase, the vial was held in Styrofoam. Tina responded with awe as he held it to the light and leaned close to whisper its deadly powers to her. Of course, it was a fake. He would never have taken the virus onto the plane, a leak would kill everyone, coughing and choking. His wife had concocted an imitation from some exotic bath products. But Tina didn’t know.
He moved to kiss her, palming the vial and dropping it under his chair. It had done its work.
“You’re so calm,” She said coyly, “Your housekeeper said you hated flying!”
“I don’t have...” Images in quick succession, the girl calling his house with some stupid question, his wife lying, pouring her bubble-bath down the sink. The vial under his chair, rolling into the aisle. His head spun at the crunch of breaking glass underfoot.
“Everything OK?” The steward coughed politely. Then kept coughing.
He saw it in the first light from the train: the track, the stony ground, and the creature all a brittle white of frost. There it sleeps, he thought, in the deep cold. Alone and blind. All might be lost. Except that conditions are perfect for recovery.
He came back after his shift. Walked along the platform and then, at the end, stepped clean off, unnoticed. He found the fox, still in repose. Its eyes were closed; its spine curved gently, so that it made a broken circle, nose almost to tail. He put a carrier bag around its body. And then another over its head. The soft-looking curl of its body was stiff and intractable. He scrambled his way up the banking, his hands almost too cold to clutch.
He had a small attic-room prepared for the purpose. He lay the creature out on an old wallpapering table while he assembled the equipment. First he took the scalpel. He pried open the fox’s lids and removed both eyes, putting them in the small bowl his mother sometimes used for olives. He cut each eye along the equator and placed the rear halves in saucers full of alum. This was the development process. In the semi-darkness the final picture, printed in purple pigment by light against the fox retina, might resynthesise and make itself clear. A Victorian scientist had had considerable success with rabbit eyes. And they had once believed they might find murderers in the retinas of the dead. Annie Chapman’s eyes had been forced open and photographed, in the hope that a tiny Jack-the-Ripper had been locked in darkness behind her lids. They found nothing but light.
He waited, breathless, as the demi-orbs bobbed in the saucer, longing for his eyes to turn fox.
The captain, a sharp and wiry boy named Armstrong, called us into a huddle. The third batsman was coming in, and Armstrong told us all that this was the important, the vital wicket. We have to get Teece, he told us. Who do we have to get? Teece, we all said. Who do we have to get? He said. Teece, we said again, louder this time. None of us liked this pantomime element of Armstrong's captaincy.
Teece lumbered to the crease. A fearsome lad, with a blue shadow on his face where we had wisps of fine, girlish hair. We stettled to the beginning of the new over. Armstrong himself came flying in and delivered a full toss, which Teece stepped forward to meet. He lifted his bat behind him, shifting his weight onto his bending front knee, and swept himself forward along a magically straight line, reaching to the ball as if athirst. His body poured itself into his extended bat, and at the very tip of his curving swing Teece connected with the ball, sending it sweetly, weightlessly into the air, as he furled loosely upon himself again, spent of some rounded unit of force. The ball rose, and rose, into the blue sky, and there was a beautiful, impossible lapse of empty, groundless time before the flat smack of sound reached me across the bright, dusty air. The blue of the sky, the green of the grass, the warmth of the sun, the beauty of the shot, the upward flight of the ball, the indolence of youth, the soft diffusion of my longings; all were suspended in that moment, as sound struggled towards me through the thickened light.
Boxall, shouted Armstrong. Catch! Catch!, shouted Green and Jones together. We've got him, someone shouted from behind me, deeper in the outfield. We've got Teece, for a duck.
The ball had stopped above me, motionless against the blue. And now it was falling, suddenly speeding, sucked towards the ground by the planet rolling beneath me. Boxall! Armstrong shouted, Catch!
Unnatural early morning, hauls back and repeats the sensations of earlier early mornings, like waking up at four a.m. to go on holiday when you were a kid. Brushing your teeth is strange, something has happened to the mintiness. The aftertaste of sleep lingers round the gums and says it is too early. Outside, and it's cold, your skin attempts to shrink under itself. The darkness sits differently to the one before sleep. This darkness was a secret, now it's naked under the rawness of oversoon waking eyes. The streetlamps glow knowingly, they see it too, but are unembarrassed. It's not raining, but the air is full of wet, smearing a dirty yellow glow, undarkening the dark, halfbright and without reason. Oddly faraway noises seem to belong to a different time. This morning before morning, this pre-time, disjoints causality, and time hangs lamely, waiting for the day to arrive, madness in tow. Somehow, the distance between now and every other moment has become insurmountably vast. Something is both lost and gained in the interstice. Conflate and dissipate; that was then and this is unbearably and inescapably now. You stand, hesitant, at the edge of the kerb, as if over a precipice. The mist, for all its blanket passivity, smirks and says you will never get anywhere with such tentative steps. An early morning, yes, but you are already late, and this cannot be undone. Don't you realise that you should have begun yesterday? Are you blind, or mad? It is only morning, and there is nothing to fear. But then, there is little so frightening as nothing.
In the attic, she dug through boxes of hoarded new papers and comics, pinched the staples from their spines and made a veil from the scraps she liked best. Some cracked as eggshells between the fits of her shaky fingers. She crushed the edges into pleats, smearing dusty pages with the blood of paper cuts and cuticles before taping The Times about her waist. The adhesive stuck to notebook palms, her skin constricting coldly in the attic air.
In her fists she gathered crumpled headlines in a crisp bouquet of no-name flowers; confetti doves and hole punches for handfuls of rice. She scratched at the wood paneling as though her husband was on the other side wearing an origami boutonniere and a smile slit with jagged scissors. Wearing the newspaper dress she scratched her second finger with a Stanley Knife trying to remember him.
We crowd around the window, breathing through our sleeves so as not to fog it up. Across the street from our flat – our fort – is a terraced house. The three survivors living there communicated with us after they were ambushed last night. Now they wait at their front door, ready to head across to the safety of our building.
A woman crosses first. She walks with her head high, teetering slightly from the brandy we advised she drink. Intoxicated to the point of courageousness, sober enough not to be reckless. Crossing the road has never required so much courage. We nod to one another and as she disappears from view we know she is in.
The road is mostly clear – in daylight the creatures rest and as long as the survivors remain calm they are free. It is that human instinct, the fear of the dark, that has killed most people. That and the beasts.
Two more survivors follow, and we observe in silence, remaining impartial. Finally a young girl emerges. Responsible for the ambush last night after hearing a vixen scream, she has been forced to go last. For the sake of the others. From her first step we know she won’t make it. We can sense her heart beating faster, her eyes darting as she tries to keep them focused on our door. Her pheromones flood the street and as soon as we hear the first screech we indicate to our men to close the doors. The survivors arrive as we barricade down and our blinds lower in time with the mass of birds descending upon her, blind and deaf to all but fear. Her screams mingle with theirs as we welcome the others, looking calm and composed.
Soon after my new theory of metaphor had been widely accepted, I found myself reacting nervously to noise and movement, to light and to the dimming or extinguishing of light. Although the theory was not strikingly original, its central (neo-Aristotelian) claims immediately found favour. A noted North American scholar declared that with the publication of my paper ‘The New Theory of Metaphor’ the topic had received its fullest and final expression. There followed citations and conferences, reviews – but no significant revisions. My responses to colleagues and critics were published or performed, rehearsed in radio discussions on at least three continents. Simplified, but in truth little simplification was required, the new theory of metaphor appeared on sixth-form and first year undergraduate curricula: a busy professional life, proud, grateful, to make a real contribution to the Humanities and the Social Sciences.
But, this nervousness... I open a downstairs window and look across the road. No one and no traffic. Not unusual around here on a weekday late morning, but the absence is attenuated. I see a bird flying, a line mapped between two satellite dishes, turning back and away over the town. I hear a woman call a name, not mine, and the call is unanswered or, if answered, inaudibly so. Then a post-van and the council recyclers, my day for neither, a recently moved-in neighbour’s bicycle chained to a lamppost, the chain shining so brightly. Too brightly. Who polishes a bicycle chain? It must be new, newer even than the bicycle and the neighbour. And behind me, from inside the house, a door opens, a foot step… and it doesn’t sound like hers and it doesn’t sound like yours.
Babels. It’s antediluvian, exactly. What could possibly be the meaning of this? There are several hundred of you. Several hundred of me. Several thousand exits. I was sat inside the top oven discussing poetry earlier and it occurred to me that I cradled a timorous headache,
he she tugged me and said it was no use doing that, make do and mend, love is eternal, just not ‘in’, you know – Despite who fucks/clucks/croaks.
Taking this advice, I loosed their hand and Lo and behold a convoluted black cock, beak behind.
Log due Inside shoes, I am still. They're loose. They're entirely not my cup of tea. I walk either way. There are dominoes on either side, and armadillo-like I disregard them. I haven't helped you, or anyone else. No mantric cherry talk. No medicine chitter chatter. My head's in a plastic bag over there. Amongst all that chess. I still think about it. Cucker’s knee, hundred spanners. Can’t stand, just drip.
Continued London, half past five. Sun on the bridge. Admired. We had bathed earlier, at least. Who it was, I couldn’t say. Not that I held hands, you understand. Not that it was any further beneath the water. But I did not consider leaping into it.
Mouse on the tracks. Voidant.
Roy Orbison is playing chess, and losing badly. Behind his signature sunglasses it is impossible to tell what his eyes are saying, but his usually smooth forehead is furrowed and he stares at the board intently, fingers of one hand resting on his always clean-shaven chin while the other hand hovers over his last bishop. Characteristically, he plays black. He has taken two of my pawns and one of my knights, but otherwise I am playing with a full team, and am two moves away from checkmate. Roy Orbison has been considering his move for about twenty minutes and I’m starting to lose interest in the game. This isn’t what I had in mind when I asked if he wanted to play, and I’m starting to regret the invitation. Roy Orbison is a bad chess player. I could understand if he was distracted, but he’s so incredibly focused on the board this doesn’t seem plausible. He hasn’t spoken since we started playing, about an hour ago. He just sits there, sunglasses on, dressed entirely in black, stoic and silent. The only trace of any humanity in him, or any fragility even, is the fact that he’s so unspeakably bad at chess. I mean, I’m no Garry Kasparov — I’m pretty easy to beat — but Roy Orbison is absolutely terrible. I look at his face for a long time, waiting. I study his smooth skin, examine his pores, watch the light glinting off his slicked back hair. He looks like an accountant in mourning. He wriggles the fingers hovering above his bishop. I notice a single tear crawl out from the corner of his sunglasses and drop onto the board. I notice that he’s shaking. Maybe he is distracted after all.
Devoid of anything remarkable or unusual, Larry’s was a bar named merely to prove that it was, indeed, Larry’s, should a dispute over ownership ever arise. Masking tape kept the sponge guts of the stools from spilling onto a dirty floor, a photograph of President Reagan hung menacingly with an antique shotgun above the bar, and the bathrooms were a less welcoming prospect than the forest outside. The forest outside, incidentally, had made its way inside, through holes in the corners of the room; vines beckoning the clientele to abscond for some fresher air. An inconspicuous grey pipe in the corner of the bar hissed carbon monoxide into the air.
Willem Benschoter did not mind the aesthetic. He had chosen this bar because it was out of the way, miles from his home, on a stretch of obscurely signposted and poorly maintained road, where he knew he would not be recognised. This was a modest final pleasure for Willem, gently muddling his brain before his plans began to unfold. This would be his last night alive.
The dusty smell of wet lead hung from the roof. It reminded him of camping; taking tent pegs out of a bag in the attic, damp from the previous year.
It was his unwavering submission to the plan that allowed him to perch here, irradiated in a blue argon mist, without shaking or sweating; not perceptibly anxious in any way. He carelessly watched a black and white television set crackle out a broadcast of either sports or politics. He had retreated into his glass of beer. The brown tide continued to ebb until a decisive, end-affirming gulp. Very bitter, which was appropriate. It was important not to enjoy this moment too much, he felt, for that might only serve to distract him.
She picked it up, almost tenderly, and turned it to and fro in the light. In her fingers it was neither dull nor wiry. She stared at his back. A rope of smoke curled up from the ashtray, wintery pale. The fragile strand throbbed in her fingers. ‘What hair is this?’ she asked.
His frustration was writ ever larger on his face as, despite every effort, he failed again and again to pay for the can of Special Brew he craved with every fibre of his being, while the queue at the one open check-out seemed almost to be moving backwards, and I was surely not the only observer to note something truly noble in his desperate desire not to leave the store without paying, while comprehending in no measure how the can of lukewarm 9% alcohol by volume could ever bear the weight of all that expectation and desire.
The plot thickens, prick up your ears, a poor little rich girl, a pole dancer, a peach of a page three girl, a photo opportunity, a pin up, as pretty as a picture, power dressed for a power breakfast, a picture of health in the pink and the prime of life and pure as the driven snow but in the pudding club, asked me to pass my eye over her, I pinned my hopes on her, it was time to piss or get off the pot, I took no prisoners, I primed the pump and gave her a piece of my mind, said my piece, piled it on, piled on the agony, prolonged the agony, pulled my finger out, pulled my socks up, pulled out all the stops, pulled strings and pulled myself together, pulled her leg, pulled the other one, pulled the wool over her eyes, pulled a face and told her she was not the only pebble on the beach, hoist her with her own petard scared the pants off her and caught her with her pants down playing hot cockles with her Pandora’s box, panic stations, I’d reached the point of no return, a one way ticket to Palookaville, went down the pan, took the plunge and plumbed the depths, perils of Pauline, pegged out, parted company, packed it in, put the lights out, put on the pine overcoat, pushed up the daisies, no oil painting I was put out to grass, put out to pasture, put to sleep, paled into insignificance, peace at last.
He said he was slew. Slew; slue, slui. I slain him. He was slew, slain, I had slew him. To sleigh in the snow. To slew; too slain. Too late for that; already he was smate.
My girlfriend came into the ward after work. She’d already made the connection.
‘What are the chances of that?’ she asked.
I sank back in my pillows.
‘You are both monarchic,’ she continued, ‘I looked it up.’
‘It’s monorchic. Monarchic is like a king or queen is. I am monorchic. And anyway, will you stop with the comparisons?’
I had known from the moment the doctor put down his pen, raised his glasses onto his forehead and looked directly at me, that it was serious.
‘Testicles that are undescended have a higher risk of developing testicular cancer than those that descend spontaneously. The safest procedure is to operate.’
I thought about this.
‘You mean, I’ll only have one ball,’ I asked. ‘Like Hitler?’
The doctor conceded the analogy.
‘Hitler’s was said to be the direct result of an injury in the trenches in World War I’, he said, ‘But now, that’s generally thought to be an urban myth. Yours is slightly different.’
‘What, not a myth?’
He put his glasses back on, reached for the clipboard and stood up.
‘Not caused as a result of an external injury.’
I had already guessed how she was going to react.
‘Can you, or can you not, have kids?’ she asked.
‘The doctor says providing there has been no damage to the other testicle, that I can lead a perfectly normal, healthy life.’
She turned to look at me, eyes red, accusing.
‘Hitler didn’t have any kids’.
I never meant to be a killer. Not of animals; not of anyone.
Excellent moral upbringing I had: C of E; sided with the good guy in the films; gave pennies to the RSPCA.
Angling was the start. 1948. I was eleven. Bussed to Tewkesbury; fished in the Avon, all that cold January day. Bread-paste bait on a glittering size-16 hook. Eventually, as I cast, this vast white swan swooped down, gulped the bread, and flapped away majestically, trailing line: doomed.
August of that year; hot day in the Forest of Dean. Angling again, this time in a lake. At dusk, caught a carp, landed him: plump, silvery, panting. Unhooking him, I ripped his mouth. Next morning, in the farm’s out-house where I’d left him on a marble shelf, he gave a great heave; then he subsided. Still alive. Soon fowl-fodder.
Fourteen years later: Cambridge, the bitter winter of 1962-3. I was washing in the bathroom of my American girl-friend’s flat. She’d recently moved in: it was a chilly, dank basement. The bathroom reeked of bluish fumes from the rusty gas-geyser. Admiring reticent acetate heroes, I chose to say nothing about it. Anyway, the night had been disappointing, and I wouldn’t see her again. Out of sight, out of mind. I’d let her off the hook; more fish in the sea.
Leaving, I just said, ‘Goodbye’.
‘Aah-huh’, she drawled slowly, comprehending. ‘Well... so-long.'
Two days later, her teenage brother arrived from New York to stay in her flat. Cold, he needed a long hot bath.
That’s what she said at the inquest.
Now, I’m old. I forget plenty. But not enough.
Some memories are barbed.
The thing about A is, it would be a nightmare to get him to come. All my efforts, it’ll be interesting, you’ll enjoy it, would meet with customary resistance. Of course it’d be me that had found out about it: always me, wasting time at work, messing about on the Internet, finding things to do. Once there, he would be interested after all. Afterwards, having food, he would say something surprising and thoughtful.
The thing about B is, he would certainly join me since there was nothing else planned and the match wasn’t on. After the talk, he’d wait while I queued for the book and then on to the restaurant where I’d do the talking. In response to my pressure he would finally say that it wasn’t his thing, that he didn’t know. Tomorrow, I will spring Rosa on an unsuspecting colleague at tea-break.
The thing about C is, he’d be busy that night. There’s band, and boxing; he needs me to know that were he to come he’d be drenched with the sweat and blood of other men. In the end he finds time to meet me for food. The thing is, he’s pretty much an expert of revolutionary politics on account of the time he spent with the prisoners. In point of fact, he anticipated Rosa’s entire oeuvre some eighty years after her death.
The thing about D is, it’s almost too obvious. Tonight’s topic calls to mind both the book he’s been reading and a previous talk, and he’d ask an interesting question of the speaker. Later on, in the restaurant, he would talk at length about Rosa Luxemburg, about current and past injustices, and would comment meaningfully on the dialectic between revolution and freedom. I would have nothing to say.