129. A Nata and a Natter

A #ShortStorySeptember tale for a new year. Freshly sharpened pencils, new notebooks and all that. It’s also for anyone embarking on a brand new life at University or emerging, blinking in the light, from their cocoon as Lockdown opens up.

I thought a black coffee would be the cheapest, and as it was a universally unquestioned drink, I would always have a legitimate and innocent reason why I didn’t know the difference between a latte and a cortado. But why did the barista give me a little bowl of candy floss? 

Mum was right, £12 a day wasn’t nearly enough for food. Getting into a good school was one thing, actually being accepted beyond a pity pet project was another. I’d noticed every small detail between us. I’d read the books and seen the films, but some considered my life still to belong below stairs. I couldn’t absorb, only observe. If I bought the same bag it wouldn’t have the rich patina of their experiences. How could I possibly know if I had “summered well”? At least my nickname of ‘Tom Ripley’ hadn’t followed me here. Well, not yet, but it’s a small world.

The waitress in me made me sit at a table for two, and I faced the door, so my new friend could see me when she entered. I watched her through the window as she embraced each of the couple in turn then smothered their baby in mwah mwahs. Then she looked up and waved at me. The bell above the door of the coffee shop dinged as she entered.

“Sorry I’m late. I bumped into some old friends and got chatting. You know how it is. They have the fattest, most edible baby I’ve ever seen. Anyway, Happy Birthday!”

She unravelled herself from her hand knitted, cashmere scarf, then peeled off various layers until she was down to a t-shirt and a pair of cords. I wished I’d picked a bigger table. She piled her coat, scarf and jumper onto her chair and then fumbled around in her bag for her purse. I spotted a small turquoise box wrapped with white ribbon in her bag.

Photo by tommao wang on Unsplash

Her necklace cost more than my rent, her watch worth more than my car. A shabby leather strap on a vintage Omega. Two Cartier Love bangles jangled on her wrist, and although she once claimed they were fakes, I very much doubted that was true.

“Is it me or is it hot in here? Do you want anything? Ooh, they do those little Portuguese custard tarts in here that I like.” she said while fanning her face. She stuck out her chin and tried to blow air upwards towards her hairline.

“Could you get me some sugar please?” I said.

She cocked her head, raised her eyebrows and studied me for a second. Then she pinched a bit of the pink candyfloss and popped it into her mouth. Clawing up the rest of the nest, she dumped it into my cup. It dissolved immediately to nothing.

I looked up to see her perfect, high ponytail flick a spin. Her dancer’s body turned first, then her head. Muscle memory.


SHORT STORY SEPTEMBER FESTIVAL

I’m dead chuffed to be part of the Short Story September Festival event on Saturday 25th September 2021. Although I won’t be reading, I am part of the ‘A Brief Pause’ Writers Showcase, and have a short story included in the anthology, ‘Small Good Things’, which is published by Dahlia Books on the same day. You can order it here.

Tickets to the event are available here.

Dangles a carrot of a 2-hour Kathy Fish flash fiction workshop.

It’s an odd feeling (pride, fear, gratitude), just before a story is released into the world. I know every word so well, the plot inside out. It’s finished, tidied, polished with a bow on top and now out of my hands or control. If you want to read a bit more about how I was inspired to write my weird fairy tale, then click here.

Here’s one of my favourite songs. ‘Maps’ by Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs. It’s been viewed over 69 million times on youtube and I just love Karen’s vibe in it.

Do you have an artificial friend? If so, then you may like this book. I did.

Modern sc-fi (like ‘Black Mirror’ or ‘Never let Me Go’) is one of my little obsessions in life.

104. Worn Out

kevin-grieve-1130904-unsplash

Photo by Kevin Grieve on Unsplash

This is the first time I have seen myself nuddy in a full-length mirror for twelve weeks. I’m physically stronger, more toned, with my arms and legs dipped in honey. It might be the fatigue and jet lag talking but I don’t know who I am anymore, or where I belong.

“Get a grip, woman. You’ve had five coffees, a bottle of wine and no sleep. This is a totally normal comedown for a cot case. You know this. You got this” I tell myself.

My friend said that every hour of flying adds a year to a face and I believe all of those tired 22 extra years. I now have the body and life I always thought I wanted.

How can my top drawer have better knickers in it than the ones I brought back with me, when I took the best ones away with me? He knew exactly what I would want to wear today, so had folded it neatly on the bed. I put on his trackie-daks, with the frayed drawstrings,  and my old University t-shirt.

“You smell nice.” he says, drawing me close for a damp embrace.

“I used your shower gel. I missed it.” I say.

A text to his mum to let her know I got back ok will have to do for now.

He makes me tea, beans on toast, and there’s a bar of Cadbury’s chocolate and a box of jaffa cakes next to the breadbin. Celery and hummus in the fridge.

“Ooh, that’s a nice cup of tea. Thank you.” I do a Mr Wolf mug raise. Our eyes meet but I quickly look away. I really can’t do this now. I don’t want to. He knows.

He takes my picture, wet hair, mug poised.”

“Post it for me please? Then they’ll know I’m back. I can’t face anyone today. I’m too tired.” I say. At least I won’t be a travel bore. Everything is all there as it happened, on my blog and twitter. I’ll  never have to talk about it again if I don’t want to.

I have the house to myself for the rest of the day as he’s going into work. We’re having a chinese later.

Everything is so different but exactly the same; just muted with the colour turned down. I understand the language, but the money has changed. I don’t who these people are on TV and how can English newspapers can get away with what they print?

Utterly exhausted but totally wired, I try to lie down on the bed but it feels wrong. I can’t just put on my swimmers anymore, walk out there and take a dip. My aching bones sore from sitting still in limbo for too long. The sun on my legs would soften the ache, for sure. There’s never going to be a good time to unpack, so I may as well just get it over and done with. So much baggage.

Those Danish shoes I can’t get here are really popular in Australia. I even got mine resoled whilst I was there. Rebooted. The delicate rhythm of breaking in thick leather shoes. Gentle baby steps or they will bite back hard. With dubbin and time, they perfectly mould to my feet until they feel bespoke. I’d like to see the forensic results of how far I’ve gone in these.

My favourite cashmere, softer with every wash. Worn sparingly and stupidly saved for best. Then nibbles of tiny holes from invisible moths. Darned and patched. I did what I was supposed to do, and I refuse to let it go. What else could I have done to have looked after it better?

Beautifully faded, thinning denim. I can almost see my hand through some parts of these jeans. I could easily get exactly the same pair again, wear them everywhere for a couple of years and never notice the imperceptible changes.

Fabric rubbed threadbare from friction under the arms of my silk shirt. I’ve grown so much that it’s no longer a good fit.

This wasn’t how I’d planned to spend my time. I’d ‘banked’ two weeks of my holiday every year for five years with my employer. They’d agreed I could have three months off paid, but not now, next year. They’d get a temp. I’d get my salary and keep my job. Mortgage and bills covered. I’d researched it all. I even knew the exact dates to fly, and when was the best time to get the cheapest ticket. Then Mum took crook just as he had his big work thing. This wasn’t even my Plan B but the big talk couldn’t have gone better, even with timing beyond our control. Money, perspective, trust, love.  All boxes ticked. Agreed. We called it ‘Operation Apple Pie’ and we did the best we could. I called it ‘Operation Terminal’ in my head.

We facetimed every day at first but the 11 hour time difference made it difficult, so we settled into a daily email routine and a 10 am early morning on Saturday for you, 9pm Saturday night for me and again on Sunday, with the occasional early morning alarm call from me. I’m so paranoid right now, that if I knew facetime would let me listen into his life without him knowing, I would have been tempted into crossing that line.

No matter what I did, it felt like I was running away from something. From my family, my work or us. I know your job was, is, stressful. I know she’s only a friend, a really good friend, and that nothing would ever happen. If it did, there was no way I could deal with it, not now. I didn’t want to be a part of it and I don’t ever want to know. I’m an orphan now and I can’t be on my own. But I know I’m not going to be alone. I need to trust myself.

I used to think we needed a thunderstorm, a grenade, a tragedy, clean break, and then we’d be sure. There was potential to be kintsugi or broken crocks for drainage in a plant pot. We would agree that if we were meant to be together, we would find a way to make it work. It’s the little things, the everyday moments that make a life together. And now I’m back. Clean slate. There’s so much to do and all the time in the world to do it.

I promised myself over and over that I would never, ever ask him, even though I want to, because I can’t be sure I would believe the truth. It shouldn’t even matter whether he’s making an effort because he loves me or because he feels guilty. I will have to find a way of learning to accept that I won’t get any answers to questions that don’t need to be asked.

It’s too soon, but then it will be too late, yet neither of us dare make a move. We swore we would not argue or drop any bombshells unless we were in the same room. Now we are. I’m holding my breath. This is landmine territory, with the awkward, deliberately faltering tension. Someone has to be brave. Take charge. One foot wrong and everything will always be my fault. I have two homes, with people who love me in both, so why am I so terrified of being abandoned? I keep telling myself that I officially have ‘indefinite leave to remain’ and if he was going to ditch me, why wait until I got back?

“Get a grip woman. This is not who you are. It’s all in your head. No worries, remember. Breathe, Just breathe. You’ll feel better once you’ve had some zees.”