Not so Epic Fail

What’s the opposite of an epic? An epigram? But calling this post ‘Epigrammatic Fail’ would give the wrong impression. And ‘Flash Fail’ doesn’t work for me.

Anyway, I have a piece of flash fiction at Fail Better, one of my favourite literary websites.

I hope it compensates for my lack of output in the last few months.

On Fight Bridge

I heard a ghost last night,” Lee said at breakfast, taking a piece of wholemeal toast, which his mum had just buttered with vegan margarine.

“What did it say?” their mother asked, while he smeared jam on top. It was just the regular stuff. His mum couldn’t afford the organic stuff. She promised to get it again when she returned to full-time work. Lee hoped the day wouldn’t come. He loved the jam – but he never told her.

I couldn’t make him out. It was just kind of whispering. Maybe, it was calling someone’s name. That’s the kind of thing ghosts do, isn’t it?” Lee said.

Lee knew that ghosts didn’t exist. That knowledge was lodged along with other things he knew – that taking his brother’s things or eating meat was wrong. For today, he wanted to place it with uncertainties, the things he doubted but never mentioned – the evils of TV or being able to talk to animals. For today, now that they have their mother home, he wanted to believe. Kim was building his cardboard pyramids. Lee would have a ghost.

“Yeah, that sounds like something a ghost would do, Grub. But how do you know it’s a he?” their mother said.

Ghosts?” Kim said, sounding like a teacher to a classroom of students. “There can’t be a ghost here. We have to live near a nexus point…” He came to stand beside their mother.

I can believe in a ghost if I want,” Lee answered.

It’s only a bit of harmless fun,” their mother said. “What else did the ghost do?”

I don’t think you should be encouraging this,” Kim said biting a piece of toast and letting it drop to his plate. “Yuck, it’s cold.”

You should’ve come earlier,” she said.

“I love cold toast,” Lee said and picked a squelchy lurid strawberry from the toast. That was the problem with the natural stuff. Real fruit didn’t look so alien.

Kim studied the cold toast as though the warmth may be hiding somewhere deep within then dropped it for a second time, not having found it.

Tell me more about the ghost, Grub,” she said.

Lee was about to start when the phone rang. Their mother got up, not nearly annoyed enough as Lee thought she should be. Kim went into the kitchen to make some more toast. Lee waited for their mother to tell him they shouldn’t waste food. That was another one of those deeply lodged principles. They wasted nothing in this house. But she hadn’t noticed. She was to focussed on the phone.

“I think you’re being a little paranoid,” their mother said. “Okay, that does sound strange but, no, I haven’t noticed anything. Maybe it’s like he said. He was just using the computer for uni work…No I can’t be sure.” She stopped for a moment and smiled at Lee. “Yes, I can come in…No, of course this doesn’t change anything… You’re kidding, aren’t you? When has that made a difference?… Listen, just listen…I respect where you’re coming from…yes, it is a valid concern…Look, would you just listen?”

Her voice rose so much as to sweep all other sounds in the house away. Strangley enough, even itself. No one said anything for a moment. When their mother spoke again, she kept to a whisper, muttering yes and always trying to lever some point in that the other person was not making room for. In the end, she put the phone down harder than Lee had heard or could ever imagine her doing.

“Possum! Grub!” she called and the two brothers went over to see her. Lee knew what she was about to say. He’d much rather that she just went and pretended that nothing had been promised.

I’ve got to go in. We’re having a meeting.”

You’re always having meetings,” Kim said.

This one’s important.”

They’re all important.”

She was not going to argue. She shook her head as though coming out rain and started looking around asking where her bag was. The two boys just stood there, watching her.

“I need sticky tape. I need you to take me to the shop to get sticky tape so I can finish my pyramids,” Kim said.

“I’ll get it Monday.”

Monday was not soon enough for Kim, but she was not going to argue. She found her bag half-buried between the cushions of their couch. Yanking it free, she slung it on her shoulder kissed them both and said she’d try to be home as soon as possible.

“Right,” Kim said and marched to his room.

Lee decided he would keep the ghost.

*

This was so typical of her. The pyramids were almost complete, each identical to the plans in his Junior World of Unexplained Mysteries. All they needed now was to be stuck together and then he could test their power to preserve, so of course she had to stop him. That was all she could do. Stop things.

Kim looked at the book cover. They should’ve used the word ‘phenomena’. ‘Phenomena’ was much more grown up, much more suitable for what Kim was investigating – or at least trying to. Mysteries were – well – like Lee’s ghosts. Stories, that was all. Only if someone went about it the right way would they find a ghost. Lee just had no idea.

He even stole the idea from Kim’s book. He came in last night because he couldn’t mind his own business even for a few hours. Kim couldn’t understand why his mother couldn’t control Lee more. That was her job after all. She was supposed to be the parent. But she was too busy with her trees and her nuclear reactors and carbon to bother. She couldn’t see the real problems right in their house. And if she wasn’t going to do that why didn’t she get a TV? Then Kim would be left alone.

Kim let the unfinished pyramid drop to back to the table. She’d be gone a while. He could get the tape and be home. And if she went on Monday and bought more tape, which he doubted, it would only serve her right. That extra carbon would be her fault because she didn’t get it yesterday like he asked.

Grub, I’m going to the shops. It won’t be long. You’ll be okay. Just don’t touch anything. If you can stay like this I’ll…I’ll do your chores next week.”

Don’t call me that. Only Mum calls me that.”

Kim found it hard to believe that he and Lee shared the same absent father. His brother was slumped on the couch with a bowl of cereal balanced on his belly, spooning each dribbling mouthful in like he’d evolved only for that purpose, he would find it easier to believe they were form two separate mistakes rather than from one longer dragged out error.

“Okay. Look, I’m going to go. If you say anything, I’ll tell Mum you’ve been stuffing your face on cereal.”

I’ll tell her you abandoned me.”

That word would do it. Their mum would be so proud if Lee used it. Just as she was proud that he used words like that when he was Lee’s age and their father left. He’d asked her why his father was abandoning them, but that word from a six year old convinced her that they would be okay. Their mum would get that warm triumphant glow and Kim would have no chance. Not even the small stack of bowls could be marshalled in defence.

Kim dropped his head and shook it and Lee jumped up and told him he needed cellophane to find the ghost.

Ghosts show up under infra-red. I reckon red will do. I mean they’re both red.”

Concentrating on the path was hard because Lee kept asking questions. Or rather every time Kim turned when his name was called he found it was the same question and that question was what their mum was doing today. Kim kept telling him he didn’t know. Eventually he told him it was just another stupid meeting.

This answer made his brother ride slow. Real slow. So slow he was having trouble controlling his bike until he couldn’t control his bike and slid from the seat and stood over the bar.

What’s wrong now?” Kim asked.

Do we have to go that way?”

If we want to get to the shops.”

“But fight bridge is that way.”

What?’

“You know. fight bridge. If you cross it, whoever is there can pick a fight with you.”

Kim wasn’t going to argue and continued across the bridge. The passivity which brought his brother this far would also drag him across the bridge. Ghosts. Now fight bridge. Maybe he should speak to his mum. Maybe, she could get Lee some help.

Lee rode slowly passed the barriers then came to a complete stop when he saw the three kids there. In the middle stood three kids, possibly year nines, smoking. Two were on one side and the third looked across at them. Occasionally, one of them would spit over the edge and the others would laugh. Lee was standing with his bike wedged up between his legs.

C’mon, Lee,” Kim called.

Kim had gone to the very same school and never heard of fight bridge. It was probably one of Lee’s concoctions. Yet a small part of him feared it was true and somehow his seven year old brother was more in the loop than he was.

The three guys stared and said nothing. Lee continued to stand there frozen.

‘C’mon,” Kim said. Starting to worry that these guy would live up to Lee’s fears just because Lee was being such a dipstick.

Lee started to waddle with the bike still wedged beneath him. Kim pushed on a pedal, so he lifted up and then dropped into the seat. He didn’t get to the end when he heard Lee wailing from the opposite end of the bridge.

I hibbed the bawwia,” Lee cried.

I think he was going too fast,” said one of the guys, coming over.

Yeah, he just went straight into that thing,” said another.

They’b pushed meeb,” said Lee.

Kim knew it wasn’t true. He didn’t need the scowls and the insults of the three to establish what their mere distance to Lee could. Not would those guys care. They were nothing to them, only now if Lee kept up the accusations they would be something.

You little shit. We never touched you.” the first one said.

Kim didn’t even know how to explain this. My brother has an over-active imagination. Today, he was planning to hunt for ghosts. They wouldn’t understand, and Kim couldn’t blame them.

He lifted his brother and up by one arm, not minding it clearly stung. With the other hand he picked up the other. The chain had come off. They’d have to turn around and walk the bike home. Neither of them were strong enough to pull the chain back on. They’d need their mum.

*

Where were they? Kim knew that they shouldn’t leave without telling her where, which was impossible in the current circumstance. All the more reason for them to stay at home.

Not that she was being a tyrant. It was normal concern. Not necessarily maternal. Simply normal. If it were a thing they’d give it a way with the Sunday paper. Good thing it wasn’t because then she’s miss out.

It came from being a decent caring individual. Their welfare was as important as the welfare of anyone – anything else.

Trent would go ballistic when he heard. It was exactly the ammunition he would unleash on her. And when he found at where and why – it would be all that unfit mother shit, his family behind stoking with the promise of cash for lawyers.

His speed use, reckless driving, temper. In an ideal world that car of his would be reason alone. Deep down, he didn’t care. It was just part of his game. It was one way of yanking her along. Yet she had to bite. She wouldn’t be judged by him.

God, she hoped he didn’t hear about today. It would be even worse because the meeting was so pointless. She so wanted to stay at home with the boys. She would have played along with Lee’s ghost. She would have even gone to get Kim’s bloody sticky tape.

Shit, she could have a brought some back from the office. At least something would’ve come from the meeting.

Instead she had to listen to the type of conspiracy theories that would make a first year uni student blush. Dan, a newbie, was found early yesterday morning in the office. He said he was there using the computer to finish an assignment for uni because his laptop had crashed. It sounded feasible. The Forest Action Alliance shared everything else. It wasn’t hard to believe that a newcomer would assume the generosity extended to their beat-up PC. Besides, no one was interested in FAA. Not the press, not the public and least of all the cops.

FAA’s facilitator, Phil, didn’t see it that way. He was sure Dan was a narc and forced a vote. Only she and Shelly voted against kicking the forgetful adolescent from the group. Now, quite possibly, he would become what Phil feared.

Cops could be assholes. No question. She’d seen enough truncheons working down on people with mechanical regularity and constancy. Which is exactly why she didn’t think Dan was one of them. Or working for them. Spying required subtlety. The officers she’d heard at rallies were there to be switched on and pointed.

Dan working undercover for the cops was about as likely as Kim doing it. And she didn’t mean that lightly. Again it was not a mother’s thing, just a sense for people. Dan had Kim’s softness and aversion to violence. He also had Kim’s ineptitude. Neither of them could plan. Neither of them could remember simple tasks. Dan with the last poster run. Kim with..well today for example.

She heard the clung and scrape of their bikes being thrown and slipping over each other. The boys were muttering amongst themselves. The words weren’t quite an argument. She knew them too well for it to be conspiring.

What have you been up to?” she asked as they spilled passed each other into the door.

The only word she could make out was bridge. She asked again and this time was even more confused than before. She wanted to ask Kim to show him she trusted him. But there was blood on Lee’s lip and it looked swollen. Unless he was faking it. Was she wrong about Kim? If so, she could be wrong about Dan.

Lee sobbed as he told her about being attacked by the guys on the bridge. Kim tried to speak, but Lee kept cutting him off saying it was true. She pulled them both tight – just glad Kim wasn’t responsible. From the look in her eldest son’s eyes, a desperate yearning for right, she knew, she could tell Lee was lying.

Today, she thought she could afford this. If she could be there for him with the ghosts, she would console him from his conjured bullies. Phil had not deserved his monster, but Lee needed his.

Ditherings…

So I’m a little delayed in posting again. I suggested in a recent comment that I ‘d be posting as normal, but alas my plans belong to both people and rodents. I won’t commit myself to next week, but if you’ve stuck with me this far try in the next couple of weeks. There’s some work simmering out back…okay, I think I’ve mixed my metaphors enough.

Diversions

Generally, I’ve tried to avoid breaking the fourth wall, so as to let my stories and poems do the talking. It’s not that I’m against personal blogs. In fact many blogs I read and enjoy are of that nature. I guess it’s just the purist in me who wanted to keep this strictly ‘creative’, a rolling collection of sorts. Also perhaps like Chekov I’m a ‘biophobe’ and don’t want to sully my fiction with my inconsequential thoughts. Now, I think I owe you regulars an explanation for my absence.

Trying to post as regularly as I promised has been too demanding lately with other writing commitments. Now that I’ve become a father, I am further distracted – and in a good way. At the moment I’ve mostly been thinking about my daughter and wanting to spend what free time I have with her, forging our relationship. This has meant compromising my writing. I know. Flaubert would scoff.

Vaguely Quotable is going to continue albeit in a slightly less regular form. For some insight into what constitutes my ‘process’ I can’t let something go until I’ve looked at it from all angles and that takes me time – pacing around the flat, staring at the house martins, walking through the carpet of leaves at Konopiště or sitting on the train. My daughter is taking up some of that time.

My approach can be debated in the comments section, but I have to work the way I work. So those of you who have been dropping by, I urge to continue to do so. I’ve still got ideas pestering me and the blog is a good way to exorcise them. In the meantime, one piece from the blog has found a new home.

Vaguely yours,

Ryan

Where are you Going, Niza?

They could see the queue from down the street. It was a disorderly fox-tail of people pinned to the door of the bowling club, still in anticipation, the same anticipation which fired Jarrod down the street to join its end. Col called for him to wait. Jarrod wouldn’t. The guitars could already be heard above the crowd’s chatter.

He had bought the ticket from “Stax o’ Trax on Wax”, a mostly empty music store near his parents’ home, which for the moment, also served as his. The ‘stax’ numbered three, one for each of the musical formats. The ‘wax’ which had once predominated and gave the establishment its name, was reduced to a few Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and Alice Cooper records. They had five copies of Wish You Were Here. Surprisingly, the guy at the store had heard of the Minute Minutes.

More importantly, the guy from the store had seen them back in 1998. To anyone else it was just a point on the calender thirteen years before now. To Jarrod, 1998 meant the guy at the store had seen them before they reformed, before they suddenly topped everyone’s best of list (including Jarrod’s. Though thankfully, before they were mentioned in Mojo or Uncut). 1998 meant he had seen them before anyone knew about them when they were a PhD student in logical philosophy, a secondary school teacher, a little known poet, an environmental engineer and by all accounts the heir to one of the city’s wealthiest families. 1998 was when they still belonged to this town. Jarrod – like almost everyone else – could only appreciate this more than a decade later.

Jarrod’s ticket now curled at the sides. The band’s name, the date and the venue scratched, barely legible. The swirling surging opening of “Vertigo Took Him” could just be heard. Those few bars had snatched his heart and made him at once despondent and devoted, despondent that such a band had been in his town the whole time and he hadn’t listened, devoted to not missing anything of theirs this second time. But the song which ultimately won him over was “Where are You Going, Niza?” His life would be meaningless if he didn’t hear that.

The crowd wasn’t moving, only thickening. A few more people were on the perimeter, bouncing on their feet, stretching their already thin necks to see inside. Only the black space of the entrance guarded by a bouncer was visible. Jarrod could just make out the lines “And he wants to fall / and he wants to fall” seeping out from the bowling club, muffled, half-strangled.

“So are they going to let us in?” Col said. Col had heard of the Minute Minutes, seen them in 1998, even earlier. He saw them at a uni band comp and when they played at a couple of parties, including one crammed into someone’s laundry. “The bassist sat crossed legged on the washing machine,” Col had said when Jarrod got the tickets. “The gig will be a fun. A bit of nostalgia,” Jarrod was glad no one was around to hear him use the word fun. Or nostalgia.

“I wouldn’t count on it,” said a girl standing right in front of them. “They don’t seem to be letting anyone in. The crowd hasn’t moved since I was here.”

Jarrod’s hand tightened on his ticket. It could have disintegrated.

Col chuckled. “It’s funny. They must have sold too many. Who’d think a band whose best gig was in a laundry would have too many people to go inside?”

“You were at the laundry gig?” the woman said and pushed Jarrod aside to get to Col. She looked at him as though he has the power to heal by touch.

“What was it like?”

“I don’t remember much. The bassist sat on the washing machine. Or maybe it was the singer. I mean the singer sat on the washing machine. Not the bassist on the singer.”

Col did that laugh again, so his belly rolled under the buttons on his cardigan and made them jiggle. Jarrod hated that laugh. And the buttons. They aged Col, and by association, Jarrod. The girl was not deterred.

“They might recognize you. They might recognize you and let you in,” she said and stopped to stare at Jarrod’s plump friend, her lips moist and slightly parted. Col shook his head and muttered but the woman grabbed Col. She announced they were friends with the band and as tenuous and fragile the fact was it levered a space through the people. Not one big enough to include Jarrod, though.

Soon someone pointed excitedly and said they were letting people in. The crowd contracted and just as readily sprung back to its original size and form. The message no one was going in was crowd surfed back. No bodies joined it. They were all to fixed on tip-toes, as though snagged on invisible hooks and just able to touch the ground.

Only one person freed himself from anticipation and stood on a nearby bench. He said to the crowd. “There are a hundred of us and only one of him.”

He was even taller than the others. He looked as though a group of people had grabbed him by the head and limbs and tried to pull him out of his black jeans and t-shirt with a paper-clip printed on the front. Jarrod was sure was too young to have heard the band before 1998.

Most of the crowd nodded as he spoke. A few of them could be heard agreeing with their rangy agitator. Then they looked over to the bouncer, who smiled reached out for the door and closed it with as much noise as its cumbersome frame would allow.

After a moment in which the agitator and the crowd looked at each other, the would-be agitator leapt from the bench and bound to the door where he hammered on it and demanded to hear “Underneath a Wooden Table”. He wailed that it got him through the end of high school. A few commented on what an obvious of song it was. Many more stated that clearly he had heard the band only recently.

But the agitator, who was now sprawled at the bottom of the door had pointed out, was right – united they could have broken through. The only problem was that whatever chain linked the passion and hysteria of one person to another had not been slipped over the people in this crowd. They were just lost in the bedrooms of their mind, built from the faint strains of the song on the other side.

The woman who had taken Col reappeared. Her eyes large and empty. She only blinked when she saw Jarrod.

“They let him in,” she said. “He said he knew the guitarist. The bouncer called the guitarist over and the guitarist beckoned him in. There was hardly anyone in there. It was almost empty.” At this moment she started to bawl, grabbing Jarrod’s t-shirt and wiping the scrunched fist of cloth into her face. “It’s empty and they were playing ‘The Shortness of my Nose’ she said as hers worked its way into Jarrod’s paper clip t-shirt. “That song got me through my first break-up,” she said.

Jarrod hadn’t even noticed that song. The band were now playing its final slowed and stressed bars. He could imagine them, each one bringing their hand down on the instrument, laughing at each other at the ironic theatrics, one or two of them, a little off beat. The woman and several other members of the crowd sang the final lines, all with the stupefied awe of people blessed.

“I suppose in a way this is their best gig ever” said another woman when the song finished. She had been one of the ones singing and was slightly younger than either Jarrod or his recent companion. “They’re missing out on the yearning, the ones inside, and the yearning is part of the band’s sound.”

“Maybe you’re right,” said the first woman, finishing off her nose on her sleeve. “What do you think?”

Jarrod decided to head off. It was no longer about the music. He just wouldn’t accept being locked out. He could not listen any more to the displays of anguish and consolation. He’d prefer to be at home.

The woman followed him and wanted to know what he would call a band if he ever had one. Her suggestion was Dawn Imperious. Typical, Jarrod thought. How more clichéd could she be. He was about to snort when he heard music.

“Listen.”

It was coming perfectly through a the back of the club. About half a dozen people had realised this already. They put their fingers to their lips when Jarrod had stopped. The melody was even clearer than out the front. Beneath it, Jarrod swore he could hear Col talking. The band were playing “Franny Lit a Cigarette”, which reminded the woman of her sister. Jarrod wondered if this was the right time to ask her name.

“Maybe, this is better than the laundry gig,” she said, which prompted a muted discussion amongst the six others out the back. They couldn’t agree on either its merits or even its existence.

Until she mentioned it, Jarrod had pretty much forgotten the legendary event. Now, he looked up at the stars and at the empty bowling green and tried to imagine what the fabled room looked like. If he strained his mind hard enough he wondered if he could trick himself into believing he had been there, or inside. Anything said with enough confidence can quickly become true. He concentrated so much on this that he almost missed “Where are you going, Niza?”

“Finally. This is my favourite,” he said.

“Everyone likes this one,” the woman said, also looking at the night sky where maybe she had found the laundry he was straining to see.

He didn’t answer and went and sat at the end of the group. The woman took up position in the centre and started telling people a friend of hers was at the laundry gig. A joint was sparked and the night filled with its peppery smell. He stayed until they ended with “Uncle Blackbeetle was Dead”, not taking the joint, not speaking, wishing he could be anywhere but there.

 

Flowers for Fifty Crowns (Poem)

A downy snowfall,

and I’m heading to the crematorium

the chance poetry of any given day.

    The flakes aren’t feathers;

    they’re sharp, sharper when wet,

    the footpath’s a fevered chill and

    I’m wearing the flushed face of a new bride.

    Not exactly the look for today,

    though I’ll still arrive with flowers.

    For a moment, we’re not even sure

    if this is the right place. There’s another hall.

    We have ten minutes.

    An uncle deadens the crisp air

    with a cigarette, a nephew comes over. Two days after

    his grandfather’s death, he became father. Another moment

    for a poet to exploit for wisdom, whereas everyone else

    sees it as part of the getting on. “How’s the boy?” /

    “Sleeping, crying and shitting” /

    “How much did he weigh?” /

    “About three and a half kilos”

    … The grandmother arrives.

    I never thought the old could mourn so.

    Where’s the resignation? Aren’t funerals another mark

    in the calendar box, with the saint names and phases of the moon?

    Something else to get the good hat out for. Her tears

    rinse away decades, illness, the cultivated family acrimony,

    My blush is now on hers. She’s the one getting the kisses.

    Are these the right kind of flowers? My shoes are wrong.

    We enter the ceremonial hall. It’s the first time

    I learn his family name. At get-togethers, we sat,

    quiet table ends, me – too conscious of my accent,

    too conscious to speak much.

    He – recovering from the last stroke.

    Not blood.

    Not the blood of blood.

    The grandmother’s third husband.

    Grandchildren long freed of hope and duty,

    but it’s still right that I’m here in the grim marble

    on unyielding solemn seats listening to M’s Requiem

    then “Moon River”, rendered in horns and bass;

    the drum brushes scratching from another room.

    My throat fills, rises, falls. The curtains meet

    we stand. My shoes are still wrong.

    By

    Alone. Singular. Resolved as well. Standing by the fridge. On top was a bottle. I was at a party. You were in the garden. We went to the living room, and from the living room to your place. You lived above a used book store. Across was a Vietnamese place, but it wasn’t the one we visited. The one we visited was below a train line. Under the table a cat crouched. You wanted to steal it. We headed out empty headed and bellies full. Probably the best way to be. I came over until when I called you I couldn’t get through. I didn’t even get a chance to say by.

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