A flash fiction piece I wrote is published in the Spring 2014 issue of THE STINGING FLY, a literary magazine I really love. This particular issue is guest-edited by Irish writer Nuala Ni Chonchúir and features an eclectic mix of flash fiction, short stories, poems, literary criticism and reviews. An obvious play on words with the title and the rest should be plain sailing!
1.very pale, thin, or bony.“he was gaunt and cadaverous”
synonyms: (deathly) pale, pallid, white, bloodless, ashen, ashen-faced, ashy,chalky, chalk-white, grey, white-faced, whey-faced, waxen, waxy,corpse-like, deathlike, ghostly;very thin, as thin as a rake, bony, skeletal, emaciated, skin-and-bones,scrawny, scraggy, raw-boned, haggard, gaunt, drawn, pinched, hollow-cheeked, hollow-eyed;informallike death warmed up, like a bag of bones, anorexic;datedspindle-shanked;“his cadaverous face”
There’s a fan whirring and a smell of slag intestines snaking through to where I sit waiting to see a dead body for the first time, yours, of course. And that Remains of the Day arsehole in full hat-tip regalia telling me it’s a good idea to sip some water before I go in, like I might not even recognise you, uses the word ‘Madam’ from the Co-op Funeral Book, abbreviated ‘Mme’, plural Mesdames, who happen to be walking about outside smoking at the corrugated bins, talking about cheap cuts. You’re fucking dead. Straight as a pea shoot. Let’s get that out of the way from the getgo. Barley brushes of hell tickling sky-chin of a giant torn tuna with a blood clot at the end of your nose for sucking brains through. White jelly shoes a gardener might like to stick small plants in to cheer someone up. Tumour mash scoops, mole hills, speed bumps, a face of sheer beaver. Wax hands, ten embedded wicks, historically used as a method of timekeeping and picking up flame-grilled chicken tits layered with emmental cheese and back bacon, hickory-smoked BBQ sauce, seasoned fries and buttered peas. I walk outside. The roofs of Britain are pretty much cardboard same, piss ball up in the sky shining down on an awful lot of dogs and scratched cars, those street shores small children throw cutlery into all summer. Seems pretty meaningless to me. So I suggest we go for a pint. It’s the icing bar the two neon trannies from Blackpool own, where they bring other trannies for card games, dress-up nights and tin-can karaoke. The barman eyes you up pretty mean as if you’ve stolen the celebrity supplement of the Sunday paper, though he gets ‘the look’ back from me and serves us both to avoid some sort of face-off. You say nothing, gooing all around you, Mr Magoo, as if already, only twelve hours into rock-clot, you’ve forgotten the drama of being alive, the shit-arse boredom of it, the handing out of small change and tiny snatches of courteous dialogue in places like this that always have a launderette and enormous drive-in gizmo nearby with ATMs and small bags of rip-off coal. Ah sure, where would ye be going without a bell on yer bike? Better out than in. Like. If I don’t see ye I’ll see ye when I see ye. Phone calls have been made, sure, cos the door keeps beepin’ ‘n’ creakin’, a series of nods, string-boom of ‘It can’t be him!’, followed by what I would call collective anger not felt since the skinny nurse of war years sucked off a German soldier behind a plum tree in a public park and tried to keep it quiet. ‘He’ll have to go!’ the barman says. ‘Oh yeah, really?’ I say, turning around to take them all on, one by one if needs be. ‘Out!’ he says. You were gone, I was there. I could not have hated you more.
Not good, terminal cancer, the text read. Limping into the first lecture on the WebElevate course in the steel-strewn auditorium, my phone *beeped*. This plug ‘n play’ digi-media environment is all high-tech & low-lighting: exposed brick, flickering laptops, vending machines (with Rancheros!), earphones large enough for chimp heads, flagstone floors, camera pods, see-through steps, a Bistoesque stream of hops snaking through the open window from the Guinness brewery next door. One of the first questions the surgeon asked my brother when they operated a few years ago was if he drank Guinness. Outside 300 people are dressed in Edwardian costume for yet another Titanic drama…silhouetted behind them are local kids beating each other up with tree branches as sabres, a lone junkie talks to her Jack Russell out loud. What is User Centred Design?’ the lecturer asks, and then answers before there’s room for answers. ‘It’s a design process which focuses on the user through the complete design, build, deploy life cycle…’ Afterwards he launches into a long dismal history of design failures: how Sainsbury’s had to write off a $526 million investment for a dud supply chain management system. How could they have missed the spread after so many scans? ‘I woke up in a room on my own, no drip in the hand so I knew they hadn’t operated, nurse couldn’t look me in the eye, doctor came in and said it was everywhere,’ my brother explained, when I rang. The rest is a blank. ‘So…the earlier in the process you discover the issues, the easier it is to fix,’ the lecturer concludes. A bit like cancer.
On the flight to Stanstead a young architect sitting beside me drops his Powerpoint presentation which spreads out under several seats; laminated peacock feathers. A slide on the human-designed environment lodges under the warbling air hostess’ blue stiletto. To fasten your seatbelt, place the metal tip into the buckle, and tighten the straps so that it fits low and tight across your hips. He throws me a ‘look’ for not helping him but I’ve no energy to explain about the wonky hip, an inability to bend, and anyway my brother’s going to die and he has four kids who will have to grow up without him, so there’s no time for floating pleasantries. The eldest turned 17 the day before we found out. ‘I heard about my dad’, she texted from Doncaster, a graphic of a downturned smile. Her younger brother is a Justin Bieber lookalike and only wears designer clothes, funded by a Coca Cola schoolyard scam & other teen-capitalist adventures. He’s great at maths and football and wants to study Science & Engineering in a few years. The younger two, with a different Ma who bolted a few months ago, have also been told. Both have to fill out ‘feelings diaries’ in their lunchtime at their new school. The older of the two, aged 11, has being acting out a bit since. ‘He’s angry,’ my brother says, ‘but the Scouts takes his mind off it…he loves fishing and building things’. Last year when we went to France he hogged my copy of Ulysses, managing to make animated sense of it. ‘The guy’s a total nutter Aunty June, but it’s obvious he’s writing it from inside a DS game’. He informed his English teacher of his findings when he got back to Blightey. The seven year old girl loves to read from an invisible medieval scroll: ‘McDonald of Belfast wishes to marry Caldwell of Dublin, do you agree?’
The drive from Stanstead to Ipswich takes just over an hour, a patchwork of chrome barriers, scorched fields, thatched roofs, shed sellers & spud floggers…the bro’s new Jaguar is smooth as liquidised soup, heated seats to boot, though unlike his BMW there’s no mini-fridge with complimentary bottle of Aspall’s for the journey. This time the drive is laden with horrifying technical info. ‘If the bowel stops working or gets blocked, they’re not going to operate, it’ll be straight to the hospice at that point, so I’ll be properly fucked.’ Yet he’s in great form; positive, composed, weirdly happy. All your droll problems just lift like the cliché says: bills, debts, work, women, blah blah, up and gone. Everything looks different. ‘I can eat as much Ben & Jerry’s as I want’. He might even go on a cruise, the Macmillan nurse is looking into it. There’s some financial advantages too that’ll help with cash flow, an end of life grant of sorts, the option of a motorised scooter to zip up to the nearby Fat Cat for some decent homebrew. ‘There’s great welly in those yokes and I’ll stick de bird on me knee for good measure’. His new lady, as I’ll soon find out, is quirky, warm and interesting. [An equal at last!] Her mum is a vicar and the dad fecked off to Thailand to open a book shop. She collects mini cars to refurb, breeds chipmunks, snores like a miner and has spent over £16K on some very intricate tattoos. ‘She’s had madder jobs than you!’ he boasts. A pet psychologist at one point, prison counsellor, bar manager, farmer. She loves his monstrous snores. ‘They lull her to sleep, can you Adam & Eve it!?’ Only in Ipswich.
The scar on his face is from a wax apple I threw at him in 1977, knocking him out cold, though he still disputes some of the minutiae. ‘You didn’t knock me out!’ We’re sitting in the kitchen of DunPullin – his family home – drinking Biscotti Baileys while the Bison Grass Vodka freezes to a decent down-in-one temperature. ‘He broke my Tower of London mirror.’ I explain, filling in some early life detail. ‘I’m very proud of that scar, proof of fight-back’. I tell her how I robbed his ‘card tin’ for years – he won so much dosh on late-night card games – and I had a teenage cider & fag habit to feed. ‘In 1988 we went on holidays to Portugal, Adrian insisted we pay for a meal in a posh restaurant but run off without eating it. He’s a big fan of reverse logic.’ Six years between us, he followed me to London in 1989, kipped on my couch till he got a place of his own, slept with [all] my friends, laughed into the early hours too many nights to recall. ‘Do you remember when a load of us went on the piss in Richmond, there wasn’t enough room in the taxi, so you said you’d go in the boot!?’ God, yes, I do remember, bombed out of my brain, roaring at the driver to ‘turn left now’ or ‘turn right here’, even though I couldn’t see a thing.
A year later we lived in Jersey where he worked the bar and I the lounge of a rundown pub, dolling out terrible abuse to geriatric millionaires who’d travelled the world ten times over but had nothing left to do except grow holes in their jumpers & get drunk all day. ‘She was the worst barmaid ever!’ he tells Alison. It’s true, I was. A year after that again we shared a cockroach-infested house in Stratford in London’s east end. His stunt as a cappuccino machine salesman had been a dreadful failure – but we had machines steaming away in every room of the house – almost every night was a party. When I was at Middlesex University in 1992, he ran a pub just up the road, we were never far away. There were holidays to Blackpool when the kids were young, mobile homes in France, trips to Belfast when I rented Castle Chester during the MA. Before the older kids arrive in Ipswich for the weekend, and before I start my usual cooking frenzy (he goes nuts for my leek & potato soup, keep showing him how to make it, but he can’t be arsed) the three of us stroll out to the back garden, where the night sky is clearer than I can ever remember. Alabaster stars flickering against a plush overlay of navy and there it is as we crane our necks: a shooting star, a dying star, zipping across the chaos on its way home. What a crummy beautiful coincidence. We clank our glasses and smile.