My story is on Everyday Fiction – a short and sweet office romance. Pop over, give it some stars!
My story is on Everyday Fiction – a short and sweet office romance. Pop over, give it some stars!
Ok I’ll get my excuses in early, I’ve been tied up with another (very cool) writing contest and the deadlines clashed, my story for that sucked all the emotional energy out of me and so this effort for NYC Midnight’s Flash Fiction competition was a bit, well… meh.
But I’ve gotten in the habit of posting NYC submissions, so despite the embarrassment here it is as submitted. The prompt was a romance featuring an emergency room and a mop.
In the aftermath of a death the feelings of four hospital workers come out into the open.
There was blood all over the floor. Marco wheeled the bucket in, pushing against the long handle of the mop. Superbugs had changed the game from a simple swipe of the mop to a process of infection control. He didn’t mind. It lifted his work from the lowly domain of the janitor to something that had meaning and consequences.
It also meant he could spend time working around the slumbering Dr Arden. She was slouched in a plastic chair, still in blood spattered scrubs, in a corner of the room. A stray hair fell across her face. He itched to brush it away, but his hands weren’t clean.
Her life had real meaning and she threw herself into it. The maintenance office gossip had her dedication as the cause of her divorce. Marco shook his head at that. The desire to do things well mattered.
Quietly, taking care not to disturb her, Marco wheeled the bucket of bloody water away and began the spiral of disinfectants.
Someone had left study books under the lip of the desk. With reception quiet now the grieving family were gone Jeanette flipped it open, idly going through the pages of tables and charts. It was some night study course. She sighed. Another person with false dreams of making a better life.
She looked down the hall to where Marco was busy cleaning. He had no such absurd ambitions. He had been in the same job for years, methodical and precise; kind of attractive too. What was not to like? Neither of them were young anymore and he was a steady guy. She had flirted with him a couple of times but she guessed he was shy, he hadn’t really noticed.
That was a good thing, she decided. Less likely to mess around. He was considerate too, working with care around the Dragon so he would not wake her. Jeannette would have to make a move. Time was passing them both by.
He seemed to sense her looking, which made her blush and turn back to the book. Behind her the coffee machine hissed and clanked. She looked over her shoulder and suppressed a groan. Anthony, one of the paramedics, was ogling her. There was a perfectly good coffee machine by the ambulance park, but he insisted on coming all the way over here with the excuse the coffee was better.
He would want to talk, and there was no work she could hide behind. She stared at the book, hoping he would go away.
He’d brought in the gusher. Running beside the gurney keeping pressure on the wound he’d twisted his ankle and run through the pain. No one had noticed. His next call out had been a false alarm, the passing time had not been enough for the boy.
At least it was Jeanette’s shift on reception, and at this time of night no one else was around. A little playful banter would go down well with his coffee and shake the gloom of a life lost.
Jeanette seemed to be engrossed in a book. He put the coffee cup on the counter and peered over to see what it was. The contents made no sense to him. “Management on the horizon Jeannie?”
She gave him the mock scowl he found so endearing and pushed the book away. “It’s not my book. Why are you hanging around here anyway?”
“Just came over for the best coffee and smile in town.”
She took a swipe at his coffee cup. He whisked it away before she could connect. “You’ve got your coffee. You can whistle for the smile.” The coffee splashed over the edge of the paper cup and onto his hand. Anthony yelped and dropped it. “And now you’ve got neither.”
He backed away, heading for an empty cubicle and a sink. Marco was cleaning up down the hall. Running cold water over his scalded hand he called “Marco, spillage in reception.”
A shout jerked her awake. She looked around, trying to place herself. She had sat down for just a moment when the boy had been wheeled away, and from the looks of things she had fallen asleep. Elspeth took a couple of deep breaths. There was nothing more she could have done.
There was a cleaner busy in the room, he gave her a shy smile and she responded with a tired one of her own before standing up and trying to ease the stiffness in her neck. She needed a shower and fresh scrubs to see out the rest of the night. Most of all she needed coffee.
Anthony was drying his hands on a paper towel as she got to reception, and there was coffee all over the floor. “What happened to you?”
He shrugged “A little accident.”
She shook her head in disbelief. “You can pull a boy out of a gang war, but you can’t hold a coffee cup?”
“Just clumsy, I guess.” His tone turned sombre. “I heard we lost him.”
She bristled, the boy’s loss was hers alone to bear, but she’d seen Anthony hobble on a bad ankle beside the gurney and couldn’t turn her anger on him. She looked back down the hall; she had tracked bloody footprints across the floor. “Hey,” she called out to the cleaner. “Deal with this already.” She kicked off her soiled shoes and stalked off.
Marco hurried over with his disinfectant floor wipes. Jeanette leaned forward over the desk and whispered. “She had no right to talk to you that way.”
Anthony watched her closely, realising in that instant where her interest lay.
Marco gave her a friendly smile. “It OK, it’s my job to clean up.” He looked over to where Elspeth stood by the coffee machine. Anthony read his expression as well and backed away around the spilled coffee. There was no way he was getting involved in this mess.
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We’ve all been there. Filled with good intentions a week before, our minds bubbling with exotic and innovative ideas to surprise and delight our significant other, we’re mentally prepared for V day. And then Alex calls for a drink and Ben needs a favour and Charlie has ticket to the football and before you know it its Feb 13th and you’re out of time.
Welcome fellow travellers to the wonderful world of the Valentine’s book – cheap, easy to acquire, personalised and sure to make you look thoughtful and romantic, as long as you choose the right one.
If you have a day in hand go for a physical book. You can get expedited delivery from online sellers, and in London at least you can track down a book shop on every other high street. Poems are the obvious choice because fiction spans so many story lines you might trigger an adverse reaction. (Unless you want to signal to someone not your partner that you would rather be with them[Jude], would rather they weren’t with the person they are with [Wuthering Heights], or want to kill your partner [Gone Girl].) Having said that my own book of stories has roses on the cover and would work a treat.
So which poetry book? There are so many to choose from and not all of them fit the Valentine’s bill. Gabriela Mistral’s MadWomen is probably only appropriate if you want to give a break up gift. Brilliant as it is, the message is all wrong. Similarly Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters, the undercurrent of tragedy and regret will pull you into an emotional maelstrom.
Neruda is the natural choice. Romantic, sensual, accessible and familiar, but it is a bit uninspired. You won’t get any points for thinking outside the box, or applying some diligent research. The same goes for the old romantic standards. Shakespeare, Barrett Browning, and Pam Ayres, all worthy luminaries of the English speaking world, but so well known, and gracing so many greeting cards you’ll get nothing back for the effort.
That means you need to cast the net a little wider – if you want something with a slightly melancholy romantic turn you should pick up Cavafy’s Collected poems; there is a distinct homoerotic sensibility running through it, which adds a level of poignancy when set in context of the time he was writing.
If you are after something with more violent passions then Vicente Aleixandre’s Destruction or Love is the perfect choice (my Goodreads review of it is here). The hardback edition is a beautiful and weighty tome – you’ll be considerate, worldly, and a harbourer of dark and brooding passions all at once.
Rumi has suffered a little by becoming a campus favourite, and therefore a bit saccharine for more mature sensibilities, but if you can find a copy of The Book of Love, you should ease your way out of any strife.
An acquaintance recently wrote a translation of a Li Bai (aka Li Po) poem, which made me look the Tang dynasty poet up. How did I miss this? (bangs head on wall). Buy two, one for your significant other, and one for yourself in case you ever break up because you won’t want to be without it.
In a similar vein the love poems of Catullus to Lesbia are vaguely remembered by many, but under read by all. In the UK Walt Whitman is not part of the school reading list, and so won’t be familiar, but it is better suited to someone with a bit of grit in their soul.
If you have really run out of time (it is six pm on Feb 14th, and you need to do a real Houdini act) then there are two options. If you have been together long enough to be able to send or gift books to each other’s Kindles or tablets then you could still wriggle out jail. My friend Rik Roots has written the very credible Poems to Quote to Your Lover, and many of the writers above are available in ebook form.
Be wary though. Some of the older books are just scans of an early edition with crappy page breaks and no hyperlinks. I recently picked up a very cheap copy of Rumi for my tablet only to find the text and notes poorly laid out.
If you don’t have the option of sending something over the ether then get a really nice card and crib in a poem. Choose someone relatively unknown and if you are too cheap to buy a copy use the Amazon “Look Inside” feature to lift a poem, and scribe it into the card. The onus is now really on you to pick something personal. Alice Meynell’s Renouncement is intense and if your significant other is not a regular poetry reader you might get away with it. There are some lines buried in Shelley’s Epipsychidion which only avid fans will remember, so you could easily take a couplet or two (although have a care, from memory Charlotte Bronte quotes the “seraph of heaven” line in Vilette). Nicholl’s Sonnets to Aurelia are also hard to get hold of, and although many of them are scathing and cold (again good for a break up message), you can definitely pick up a couple of romantic lines e.g.:
In my ruins hour remembrance brings
Faith to my doubt to my intention grace
Reminding me how feebly fall such stings
On one whose eyes dared once your eyes to face
And read in them what no ill can remove
The Love that to the Love said “I Love”
(I did that from memory – self high five)
As a writer I urge you to credit what you crib! Apart from the good practice, in a Google dominated world you may get found out as a Knock Off Nigel and things will go downhill from there.
The Look Inside technique will work on the list above, although you might only get the first poem in each book. If you are in for something steamy then try Eiff’s 31 Tanka, it charts an entire relationship from start to end so there’ll be something for you in there, but definitely NSFW.
Remember the mantra – when all else fails a book will bail you out.
Good Luck and Happy Valentine’s Day
JK Rowling has recently commented that she persisted with the romance between Hermione and Ron, despite this being less likely than Hermione and Harry, reported variously in the press, including here in the Guardian.
There is a third way, a path that mirrors the hard truths of modern life in the Harry, Hermione, Ron love triangle. It was rational for Hermione to choose Ron in the aftermath of madness, and the wizarding world needing reconstruction. He was safe, uncomplicated, undemanding.
But within a few years the mundanity of life with this very ordinary person would grate on someone with her extraordinary gifts. He would not “get” her, or understand her need to be challenged, intellectually, magically, perhaps sexually.
As for Harry, well Ginny was always the rebound girl. After crashing and burning with Cho, and being unable to match the martyr status of Cedric Diggory with his own heroics he fell back on his own safe option, the kid who had a crush on him from the start. Whatever he felt for Hermione is subsumed in that overwhelming desire to be noble; orphans are never able to believe they deserve at the expense of others.
But roll them forward a few years, when Ginny’s clinging neediness and increasingly frequent mental health issues from her brush with Tom Riddle will be tearing the fabric of the relationship. Harry can’t abandon her, it would be ignoble, but nor is she the anchor his own instability needs.
It leaves Hermione unsatisfied, and Harry trapped. Their seeking solace in one another is inevitable.
I have written some fan fiction elaborating on this theory – take a look
On the Foreshore – A Romance
Boulder: So tarnished am I, and unlike the head of pin, I had not thought my scabrous skin would feel the feel of feet so thin and pale. Or that a dancing tap could beat a counterpoint to the constant slap and wipe of waves. And yet, here worn by a hundred hundred years am I, the stage for your long residence. Platform and prayer mat for worship. Angel, let slip the secret now, why do you not flap your wings that barely cast a shadow? Leap from cloud to heaven, vault the stars and seek a theatre where one such as you could earn applause, and honours from the stellar notaries?
Angel: La. You say such things my weathered rock, touchstone of my thoughts; and no grand angel I. For sure I have the wings and grace, but lowly in the order of the Lord am I, and you, boulder, should be bolder still. For you have bent the waves to match your will, they break and soak, but you, stage of my exultation do not move. Yes, yes, hells fire yes, I am the object of some others lust. The winds and every errant breeze would take me, fleeting, flitting for the joy of my soft limbs, but you stone are the anchor, tether that will hold me when the jealous gusts rise up in all their fury, rouse their sister in the Sea to hold me. You, profound and silicate secure me from the tempest of my suitors and their spite.
Boulder: Minnows paddle furious, within my steeping hollows, and the crabs crawl over me unlicensed, intimate. Each day the sea suborns the sand to wear my deadened skin, and I can feel my granite growing thin. And yet, blind I can sense your steps, the whisper of your dancing. My weight, immensity anchored into bedrock is uplifted to the kissing breath of starlight when your footsteps fall on me. I, clod, hardened by the pressured furnace, drink from the cup of nebulae when you hurl yourself in dance.
Angel: Then dance we both, dear stone, son of the earth herself. Dance we, for your stillness is the gorgeous certainty, and my movement draws you closer to the Lord. Dance we both until the stinging sea has scrubbed you to a pebble, bled on by my blisters, and the clutching hands of winds have torn my wings from me. Then with my dying breath I will swallow you entire, and scorn the lascivious breezy hands and say, “Fie! Feel my ire, for I live in my love, and he lives on in me.”
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3rd round entry for NYC’s Flash Fiction competition. The set up was a romance set in a prison and featuring a flag.
The Snap and Flutter of Freedom
Cheek rolled the ball of bread, pushing it with his nose.
Jowl waited at the edge of the strip of light, until Cheek had delivered his gift. As he stepped back she shuffled forward and nibbled delicately at it.
It seemed to Ben the two rats played out their romance just to entertain him. The thin rectangle of light that fell into his cell was a stage on which they measured out their courtship. An inch or two to either side and he would have been blind to it; the scratching of their feet and the brushing of their fur would have been another unknown horror in the dark.
He broke another piece of bread and dropped it at the edge of the light. Cheek scampered back to claim it.
Sometimes Ben wondered if this was normal behaviour for rats, or just the product of his fevered imagination, a delirium born of pain and darkness.
The Princess had come to him to mend a broken buckle on her saddle. Her face was flushed and hair wild from a gallop; her stride long with the confidence of one who knows the world will bend around her whim.
She was his forge made flesh, wild, fiery and radiating a fierce attraction. He was soot stained and sweaty, everything she had never seen: potent, capable and anchored.
When she left he laughed at his own drop-jawed infatuation. She looked back twice as she mounted her horse.
She returned the next day to thank him, and then to commission new brackets to hang the lamps in her chambers. He drew designs with charcoal on scrap pieces of wood; she leaned close to add details. There was a febrile edge to the burned air from his forge each time their heads drew close.
He made her a gift. It was a jeweller’s work, not a smith’s. His thick hands cramped over the delicate effort. Her fine long fingers brushed slowly over the bright metal, a flag brooch. As she took it her hand stayed in his for a moment longer than necessary.
She gripped the precious token in one hand and trailed the other over the grimy surfaces of the smithy, then touched her fingers to the pale skin of her neck. Black spots of his world close to her heart.
Neither knew enough to fear the detail in the brooch, their nation’s flag, her father’s flag, curled as though it snapped and fluttered in the wind. Inadvertently when shown thus in motion, it was a symbol of rebellion.
The brackets were also decorated with the curled flag motif, something they had shyly agreed on. He went to the palace to fit them himself. There was a moment, an intake of breath between heartbeats, when they were alone together and her hand had crept into his. That was how they were found, and his craftsmanship presented as evidence of subversion.
He had no stomach for insurgency, but as the guards gripped his wrists, he learned he could not tolerate captivity either. Ben had burst free with the strength of his hard labour only to be felled with a poleaxe. He did not recall the second blow, only her cry that echoed into his imprisonment.
Jowl was dead. Cheek nosed curiously at her lifeless body, trying to rouse her and failing to understand the stillness. He nibbled at the bread as he wondered what to do. His whiskers brushed against Jowl’s whiskers, and then life left him in a single quiet exhalation.
Ben watched the two dark forms on their little stage of light, surrounded by a confetti spray of crumbs. He sniffed the remaining hunk of bread on his pewter plate, but his senses were too far dulled to find any hint of addition.
He ran his remaining fingers around the edge of the plate, trying to assemble an interpretation. His mind raged against the dullness imposed by his weakened body, but the lethargy wrapped around him like a blanket.
There was an imperfection in the plate, a scratch under the rim. Ben dismissed it as damage or apprentice work, but it drew his fingers again and again. The ache in his hands reminded him of the flag brooch. He had made it snap and flutter in the breeze to mimic her windblown hair the first time he had seen her. Perhaps this was a crudely scratched image curled like their flag, the symbol of their love, and coincidentally the symbol of rebellion.
He heard a distant bell, out of sequence, out of time. He counted the uneven cadence; a royal death. For whom did it toll? His eyes fell on Cheek and Jowl. The Princess had gone before him. Her father had finally sentenced him to death, and she had gone before. Perhaps the bread was her last gift to him.
Or perhaps the bread was from the King, a mercy on his daughter so she would not see her lover hanged, and the bells tolled only in his head. In the end it did not matter. She was a princess and he was no longer a blacksmith, but a broken, wretched thing.
He broke off a piece and put it to his lips.
Silence was a heavy shroud over the royal bedchamber. When she rose from her father’s side it was with a confusion of sorrow and relief. She summoned a scribe to write a pardon and the captain of the guard to release her love.
She played with the brooch, the snapping fluttering symbol of the freedom she had been denied and would now claim. The captain’s returning step at the door of her chambers was heavy and slow. The stem of the brooch pierced her finger. Her chin dropped, resting where she had once marked herself with soot.
Her dream snapped and fluttered free for a moment, released from her father’s cruel edict, only to be lost on the wind.
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