Friday Fictioneers: Fire

At first it’s yellow and almost comforting, lizard tongues flickering into the night. Then it’s bright orange, the colour of butterflies’ wings. The fire roars in fury, hungry perhaps. Thomas waits, he can do nothing else. Rope twists his skin at wrists and ankles and he can smell the sweat of the man who holds him like a wild horse. Sparks furl upwards, dancing and twirling through the air with its winter bite. Thomas sighs softly then stumbles as he’s pushed forward. He hopes his comrade has hidden the powder well: he prefers to explode rather than burn.

Friday Fictioneers

Photo credit: J Hardy Carroll

Friday Fictioneers: Annie

Annie smiles, nods out of the window. Outside, a small rabble of children gather with balloons and brightly coloured, badly spelt signs. The adults look on nervously, wanting everything to go just right so they can virtue-signal on social media later. Annie laughs, wipes a tear at the sight of the children’s determined faces. The beautifully out of tune sound of ‘Happy Birthday’ rings out across the trees, echoing through the house and resonating in Annie’s bones, she thinks. The children put their masks back on, let the balloons go and walk away, waving. 

Photo credit: Ted Strutz

Friday Fictioneers

Friday Fictioneers: Wedding

I never wanted to marry you. It was simply the absence of alternatives. No career, only a job I hated. Nobody else that was likely to ask me either, the other men had moved out and moved on. There was  just you. My parents made it clear that if I stayed I would be nothing more than an unpaid cook, cleaner and carer. No thank you. And so there was the quickie wedding, the shiny nylon dress and warm fizz, one glass only.  Cheap motel, thin walls and police sirens all night.

She cries as she looks at the grave.

Friday Fictioneers

Photo credit: Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

Friday Fictioneers: Train

Jack gazes at the train as it crouches black on the rails, like a bear ready to spring. He imagines how the carriage will reek of boys like him, packed tight like matches end to end in the seats, smelling of fear and newly laundered uniforms. He does not want to go. He repeats the phrase desperately to himself, as if it will catch him up and swoop him off through the gap in the carriages and out to sea. Brakes scream like gulls and the train shivers, ready to leave. Jack stares straight ahead as he climbs on.

Friday Fictioneers

Photo credit: Jennifer Pendergast

Friday Fictioneers: Dolphin

She remembers the shiny bow of its back, curving like a kiss from the waves. They’d been walking the cliff path, salt wind stinging their cheeks as they looked across the water to the long blue horizon. This was the last day – tomorrow was the six hour drive back, with suitcases full of dirty clothes and heads full of ocean, sand dunes and the cat-cries of gulls. She hung the glass dolphin in the kitchen window, where it blurred the bleak edges of her reality, a bittersweet talisman of escape and regret.

Friday Fictioneers

Photo prompt: Jean L.Hays

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Studying with hope in an age of fear

Words sticky as sweets, gluing to the page. Sentences drip down the paper, line by line, slow as molasses. I’m studying for an Environmental Studies degree and loving it but writing an essay ten days into lockdown is like trying to swim in quicksand – I’m sinking faster than I can think. Worry fogs my mind, pollution of a very different sort to the ones I’ve been reading about but just as toxic. Fear for my daughter, who has asthma and lives in London. Fear for my parents, both in mid-80’s and healthy but obviously susceptible to a virus that could carry them off overnight it seems. And an overwhelming sense of dislocation as I watch the death numbers grow and grow: this is not a world I recognise and the suddenness of how this illness has overcome us all shocks me, a tsunami of disease relentlessly passing through our ranks.

While writing is difficult, reading is easier so I relax into that, knowing that extensions and substitutions are there if I just can’t do the work. I diligently master new vocabulary – terms like carbon sink, albedo and treeline – words that don’t now seem to have much of a place in this new world we have unknowingly fashioned for ourselves. Every so often a word comes up that makes me pause to take a panicked breath. Anthropocene, zoonosis, habitat loss, extinction. Then I come back to the books, like coming back to the breath in meditation, easing into the pages. I’m lulled by maps and graphs and photographs of eco-cities, some too fantastical to seem real and others that look like something out of a child’s doll’s house, all squares and bright colours. I think back over the topics I’ve studied in U116 and consider the irony of studying a module entitled ‘Environment: journeys through a changing world’ whilst living through perhaps the greatest collective shock that my country has suffered since the second world war. Or is that too dramatic? It feels a bit overdone, as I write this listening to the blackbirds singing the evening in and the sounds of my son downstairs arguing with his friends online (Xbox is no friend to the student trying to study in peace). But this quiet killer that has come quickly amongst us can’t be understated and as we move out of lockdown I’m frightened again by how this disease might come back because it never really went away. We just shielded ourselves from it but it’s still there, waiting beyond the doors and the handwash and the masks.

But still there are moments of joy and I fervently hope they will increase. I’m learning about the resilience of cities and towns, how they need to get up and go on in the face of disaster and potential threats and every day I’m faced with examples of just how resilient people, and the places they are rooted in, can be. After the first mainshock, my daughter’s city is rising from quiet flames to slowly regroup and regain its strength. She sees and I see, in my quiet and relatively untouched part of south-west England, the kindnesses of neighbours who have never spoken but now are linked to us by these microscopic parasites which have become almost our whole world. Strangers reaching out across fear to comfort, protect and save. Clapping as defiance, a brave attempt to regain some semblance of normal life, to try to hold onto our old conditions of living even as we feel them slipping away.

I breathe in deep and slow and think about what I’ve understood about the world since starting this module in October. Yes, I’ve learned about the devastation that humans have wreaked on our own ecosystems and the destruction we’ve brought to species of all kinds, including our own. I’ve recognised that while I’m definitely not a climate optimist, I’m not exactly a climate pessimist either. My studies have taught me that despite great challenges, disasters and misadventures this planet has an inbuilt resilience that enables it to bounce back, to replenish and renew, to flourish in the midst of tragedy and to grow even as its earth scorches. If U116 has taught me anything it’s that life goes on. It seems trite to think it, cheesy even to type it, but over the millennia that this planet has sustained life that seems to me like its abiding lesson. In the age of Covid-19 this is what I’m desperately holding on to, as the bruise-black clouds roll in over the Cornish coast and I go back to my last assignment. It’s been a journey that has taken me from the Arctic to China, from Lake Victoria to the Amazon basin, from the Nile Delta to right outside my front door and from environmental degradation to resilience and hope. While studying during a viral pandemic is not how I’d anticipated starting my OU degree, the aptness of my course and the lessons that I’ve learned from it have taught me more than I would ever have thought about the strength of places and the people they hold within them, of the fragility of ecosystems but also the ability to survive and thrive in the face of unprecedented conditions. I hope my next module teaches me as much.

I wrote this as an entry into a competition run by the Open University about studying during Covid-19 lockdown.

Friday Fictioneers: Story

I’m the story, sitting under the palms and dreaming of home. I came here looking for absences, margins, the floes of experience isolated from the buzz of reality.  The cool pink of dawn warmed with cries of birds I don’t recognise, the long slow blue of a sea without waves, searching the shoreline for a peace that I can’t find inside my own head. I came not to escape but to discover the next beginning so I can start writing the last end. It’s my first solo trip out of England and the red lights are shining my way home.

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Friday Fictioneers is a 100 word flash fiction challenge hosted by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields.

Photo credit: C.E. Ayr

Friday Fictioneers: Beginning

She’s had her hair cut short, doesn’t like it. Thinks it makes her look old and grey. But she is both of these things so figures she may as well learn to live with it, if not love it. She’s not sure who she wants to be this year: brave, bold and inspirational or maybe serene, tranquil and calming. Doesn’t think it’s possible to be both. She wants to travel too – Croatia, Macedonia, Italy, nowhere far-flung to be honest. And she wants to write, with conviction and courage and creativity. She doesn’t want to be a shadow. Happy New Year.

Screenshot 2020-01-02 at 20.55.40

Friday Fictioneers

Photo credit: Rochelle Wisoff-Fields (also the host of Friday Fictioneers, a 100 word flash fiction writing challenge).

Friday Fictioneers: Aftershock

James sighs, a long slow outbreath that hangs in the air like smog. He picks up the rain-spattered newspaper but can’t bear to look at it, shakes his head and stares away from her, out to the snowy garden. Ruth considers trying to cheer him up with a few well-chosen and witty words but dries up even as she thinks of what to say, knowing how he feels isn’t to be made a joke of. The week before seems like a different age – at least they had something to hope for. Now, post-election, there’s nothing. This is Boris’s world now.

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Friday Fictioneers is hosted by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields and it’s a flash fiction challenge – 100 words in response to the photo prompt. This week’s piece is in response to the recent UK general election results.

Photo credit: Dale Rogerson

Friday Fictioneers: House

I knew I needed a different approach, that using your rules would never work. So I planned secretly, in those long hours when you forbade me freedom. You thought the isolation would break me, make me need you more, but in that cold silence you set me free. I hid my face from you while smiling sweetly and sorrowfully and it didn’t matter because you didn’t look at me anyway. I used my body to bear your hatred, cushioning myself against your rage, and all the time I spun spiders webs of deceit that trapped you as I left.

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” – Audre Lord

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Friday Fictioneers is a weekly flash fiction writing challenge – 100 words in response to a photo prompt. I’m writing a lot of “I” pieces at the moment which I’m trying to move away from but not this week, apparently. Word count = 99.

Photo credit: Mikhael Sublett.