The pay off

She changed the spelling of her name so it was hardly a name at all. X-oe; how the hell did anyone pronounce that. Drawing on her loyal art school friends she developed signature projects; animations, improvisations she performed at clubs and parties, spoken word rants, flash installations and endless images. Then she hit social media hard. She established a profile; X-oe, anti-art assassin, whatever that was, because it was just a bit of spin she concocted one morning in the midst of a vodka and pills hangover.

The art-suckers bought it. She traded in her old friends for a more influential bunch. Momentum built around her, a reputation that needed form, because anti-art had become more art than art and it was time to cash in. She created a single non-art work, an unlimited edition of unsigned solid cubes that could be recreated endlessly in whatever size, colour or material the non-art collector desired. Business boomed.

X-oe incorporated, skimming an executive salary while finding others to fill the orders of art fans keen to get onboard her non-art wagon. They outdid themselves on size and materials. She went viral. She went global.

The Guggenheim called. The Guggenheim! It was enough to crack even X-oe’s non-art cool. Her time had come.

Transfer it to the office, she called. She took a long breath before lifting the receiver. Yes…Speaking.

We’re acting, a severe voice replied, on behalf of the estate of…

X-oe recalled—but the memory was vague because she’d spent so many hours trolling the internet for exploitable ideas—a manifesto written by some post-dada, beatnik hack.

The Hercules train

When he reached the edge of the world Hercules looked out at the heavens with a heavy heart for this, his greatest quest, was over and it was the pursuit of it he had cherished most. The edge was like a beach, oblivion lapping onto it in wavelets. He had an urge to see what was beneath, so he lay flat on the sand. Carefully he leaned over to see. That part of him that extended beyond the world stopped being. The sensation was of weight and mass and energy reaching only to those parts of his body that stayed on the sand. Beyond these, where his head and his fingertips had been there was a blind consciousness, which Hercules told himself must be the state of his soul. He had endured many hardships in his life and the Gods had taunted him with endless trials for the body they’d made him. The sensation of nothing that could be seen or touched, excited him. Only beyond the world could he be freed of his need to be and become, instead, only the notions he held true of justice and honour. Without a thought the hero edged forward, neck then shoulders gone, then chest. He found a purchase on the sand and pushed towards where zero and infinity were indistinguishable, where now was all of time and peace as absolute as its absence. He let himself slide into it. At the last moment as the hero struck out beyond his embodiment the buckle on his sandal caught on a length of vine. But, as his physical consciousness had been all but extinguished, he had no idea, as he drifted out, of the calamity he had set in train, as first the vine, then its roots and the things it had ensnared slipped towards nothing and the world he’d honoured with his bravery began slowly dragging itself, each small part so connected, piece by piece into a void beyond.

The village square

They’re burning me now. Cheering the flames. The townsfolk wear their Sunday best to see it done. There’s Pastor James, who signed my fate, leaning against the well. The aldermen, upon whose heads the task of retribution fell, form a sombre line. They’re keen that all should see how heavily their justice weighs upon them.

Beside the Congregation Hall Lars Pierson sells hot buns and cordials to the thirsty crowd. Eldred Cole slouches nearby puffing on his pipe. It was he who first took the matter to the elders. His wife beside him, herding brats, wears the ruddy smile she wears on market day. The fire below me crackles in the straw and starts to lick.

Laura Cole heard the story from Lizbeth Holloway. She’s standing in the shade of the big elm. She’ll keep her cool. Lizbeth had the story first from Clementine Wilkes. Maddy Brown confirmed it soon after. Clementine and Maddy chat, as if about the weather, pausing only to crow and heckle as the skin peels from my shins. The pain is liquid white beyond imagination. Righteous cries ring out as my cotton dress flashes bright, turns to ash and drops away. My virgin skin, licked by the flames sends raptures through the square.

And there in the glow at the place where most recently my feet had been the Widow Pendlebury prostrates herself. It was she who, by her embellishment, condemned me. It was she whose innocence I invaded. I, the devil-taken girl, and she the hapless one. Yet in truth, if there is truth, they know her, all, to be a loose-tongued busy body. By my charity I am bound. Bound by the widow’s poison.The poison she’d described to Clementine Wilkes, which I’d made of the water in her jug. I cleared the empty pint-bottles from her hearth. I gave her water and I laid her to rest. Her twisted version got about. In the light of it she became more loved and pitied than she could ever have imagined. The lie became her.

The curls of my maiden hair flare to the crowd’s delight. Below me Widow Pendlebury writhes in sorrow. If she would have me evil then so be it. Perhaps there’s a flaw in the stake to which I’m bound. Perhaps the timber burns through more quickly there. Or could it be the harnessing of other forces. I know not. My final comprehension is of the pyre toppling. The widow looks my way, eyes so wide I see, in their reflection, my own eyes staring back, my pretty face half gone, ringed by the flaming mane that streams towards her as I fall.

Rip

Peter had taken up body-surfing in his forties and now chased waves every weekend. He’d met Clarissa in July, at the water’s edge looking out on huge sets coming through onto Slippers, one of the south coast’s legendary breaks. He’d decided the swell was too big but Clarissa, ten years younger and full of energy, urged him to join her. It was something he’d never forget, the sheer power, the speed of tonnes of water rushing forward and the exhileration of riding those steep, glassy faces.

She lived in the next suburb. Peter started calling for her on Saturday mornings after he’d dropped Gina and the kids at his mother’s. Clarissa always knew the best breaks, secret places away from the holiday crowds. In gravel carparks at the end of obscure sidetracks he’d help her prepare, zipping her into her wetsuit’s sculptural neoprene curves.

One afternoon they drove to Cluster Cove, Clarissa tucked tight beside him in the middle seat he only usually used to carry one of the kids when the car was full. An enormous swell was rolling in. Clarissa couldn’t wait to tackle it. Peter hesitated momentarily. But the sight of her easing the tight suit over her bikini bottoms was enough to convince him.

They each caught good waves in the first set. But the next was twice the size, crashing in under a darkening sky. It scared them both. Clarissa called time. ‘I’m taking the next one into shore,’ she yelled above the surf’s constant roar. ‘This is getting risky.’

Peter nodded.

They took off together on a huge wave, Peter next to her but closer to the lip. Partway in the breaking wave caught his ankle and flipped him. The last he saw of Clarissa before he went under, she was racing towards land.

The wave held him under for so many long seconds that his lungs burned with the need to breathe and the random colours of semiconsciousness obscured his perceptions. When he finally got his head above the foam and recovered his bearings he’d been swept hundreds of metres down the beach. A funneling rip took hold of him. He was too exhausted to fight it. Within moments he’d been swept way past the headland and only the very top of the lighthouse was visible over the towering seas.

The stretch

‘Remember Henderson’s apples.’ Serge drilled his brother with a pointed stare.

‘What? Look. She’s gorgeous. I’m gonna talk to her.’ Jim slid off his bar stool.

‘Henderson’s apples, J.’

‘Eh? Oh yeah. Whatever. Eighteen months ago she was just another chick at school. What does it matter?’

It mattered a fair bit. Eighteen months ago Heidi Schwarz had ben plucked from the obscurity of their small town and into the international modelling limelight. Now as she swanned through the old hall heads turned and cameras snapped.

Everyone agreed she’d changed. Her voice was deeper and spokesmodel perfect. She walked with high steps, as exaggerated as they were light. She seemed taller. Her cheekbones more pronounced. Her eyes wider. The locals stopped her for autographs or to be photographed with her, or just to say, ‘well done, Girl, you’ve put the town on the map’.

Jimmy weaved his way between the throng, Serge, at his heels, reminding him, all the while, of those apples he’d wanted so much, just out of reach over the back fence.

Jimmy made a dive between a closing gap, to her side. ‘Eh, Hides.’

The model turned. Paused. Her mouth opened. Shut again. Then the eyes that had been searching the ceiling for a name lowered. ‘Jimmy Valos. Isn’t it? How are you?’

Serge sidled behind his brother. ‘Three months in traction,’ he whispered.

‘Yeah, good,’ said Jim. ‘Y’self?’

Half an hour later Serge was still hovering. ‘When the bough breaks, Jimmy,’ he whispered but his heart wasn’t in it. He had to admit a little familial admiration. How did Jimmy do it anyway? A nerd like him?

Ticking

I’ve been amiss, not posting for two months (while I swanned around the northern hemisphere waiting for the snow). I will continue to post to this site when I have new microfiction stories (such as the one below) or related material. But I’m also taking the time to focus on other writing projects. You can find out more at my new blog, smatter, (smatter.blog.com).

Ticking

Thornton’s watch weighed heavily on his wrist. The tick of it no longer measured an accumulation but a diminution. He wasn’t sure when this realisation had occurred to him. But time bound him twice now. It dictated his routine, dividing each week, each day, each hour into a series of repeated tasks. It marked the approach of the oblivions of age and death. It marked him as inconsequential.

Perhaps that’s why he’d slipped away at lunchtime, crossed the road to the gallery, and now stood in front of the work he’d found so inspiring in his youth, trying to reclaim that experience. But the work hung mute before him.

A woman close by motioned towards the wall. ‘It’s beautiful isn’t it?’

Thornton checked the label for an answer. ‘It’s the artist’s early period.’

The woman shrugged. She paused as if considering another enquiry, before turning slowly and wandering to the next gallery. Her floral scent draped behind her, lingering in the still air. Once he’d have kept her in his sights. But his thoughts were only of the sub-committee and the agenda he needed to circulate before three.

In front of him the painting, an image of a man alone in a snowdrift streetscape, dissolved. Thornton checked his watch again before turning away. He’d still have time to grab a sandwich from Sal’s before the team meeting.

The home front

It got so their partings seemed to no avail. Every time Lonnie’s battalion prepared to sail a new problem arose—dysentery in the barracks, a storm at sea, a change to battle plans. Four times she saw him off—kissed him among the steam and clatter of the locomotive, held him until the guard’s whistle, until the train’s slack carriages clanked taut and slowly moved away. Only to have him returned to her

On the fifth occasion they laughed about it. ‘What’ll it be this time? Maybe snow on the tracks—not likely in this heat?’ The guard called all aboard, the train whistle sounded and Lonnie pecked her cheek and leapt aboard. As he disappeared in the steam and smoke, Alice had the odd sensation of not having properly said goodbye this time. And all at once she knew. She knew.

(this is an edited version of the story Soldier boy, published on this day, 2010. See about small stories about love)

Classic

I was in love the moment she moved next door. I admired its curves across the fence; its chrome trim, its white-wall tyres.

She saw me desiring it. ‘All original inside,’ she said. ‘I’m going down the coast tomorrow. ‘D’you want to join me?’

The trim inside was star-specked vinyl. The bench seat was three wide. She stretched her arm across it as she backed out of the drive.

The suspension slopped like warm treacle. The gearbox popped out of second and crunched into third. The old motor spluttered like an emphysemic grandfather. As we threaded through the last of the suburbs she tuned the radio to a country station, a cowgirl song I half knew. At the chorus she came in, her sweet twang filling the cabin.

Pulling into her driveway at the end of the day I was still in love. But not with her car. No, not with her car.

(this is an edited version of the story Two tone and chrome, published on this day, 2010. See about small stories about love)

Her bedside

When she was first diagnosed Shelley’s friends came every day. But in time their visits dwindled. Her prognosis worsened. Only Lenny kept coming. Every second day he’d pop in on his way to work. Sit with her a while. They’d talk about what was happening at uni. Sometimes he’d bring in a new track he’d mixed and they’d share his headphones. He’d always seemed like just one of the crowd. But now he was everything she’d imagined about leaving school and leaving home and finding her way in the world. She’d always been the one with attitude—the one with the weird hair and a knack for staying just the right side of trouble. But when Lenny said, ‘Hurry up and get better, there are things you and me oughtta be doing,’ she smiled so much the nurses thought he might have slipped her something, or perhaps she’d had some sort of turn.

(this is an edited version of the story Lifer published on this day, 2010. See about small stories about love)

Covered

The walls of Skeeter’s room are smokey yellow. Next to his mattress there’s a bottle of pills, cheap whiskey and a radio. No one visits. No one would know if he got up the next morning or not. He unscrews the cap of the whiskey.
A song crackles onto his old transistor. He knows the chords. He wrote them decades ago in the glimmer of fleeting fame. Top ten for a couple of weeks.

Ronnie Madison yelps when she hears the chorus drifting from her daughter’s room. ‘Turn it up. ‘
Out of habit the volume drops.
‘I said up.’ Ronnie opens Rebbekah’s door. ‘I know this song.’
‘Yeah, Hangin’ on his Words. It’s Cyrus Blake. It’s huge.’
‘It’s a cover. It’s The Metronomes. I knew them.’

Skeeter’s thinking about her now. The song he wrote when the world was at their feet.

‘You OK Mum?’
Ronnie laughs. ‘I wonder whatever happened to him.’
‘Who, Mum?’
There’s no answer.
‘This is about you, isn’t it?’

The song slips into a minor key.

The long haul

The first thing he saw was the dust cloud beside the distant line of river gums. Dean put the kettle on. By the time Hattie eased down through ten gears and rumbled to a stop he had her coffee made the way she liked it, milky instant with three sugars.

‘Good run?’

Hattie jumped down. ‘Easy. Bit of rain outside Dubbo.’

‘They fixed up the road yet?’ He’d driven that same pot-holed two-lane a thousand times before his back went.

The injury could have been the end for them. Everything they had was in that truck. That’s when Hattie said, ‘teach me.’

‘You mean it? It’s no picnic.’

‘You want us to chuck it all in instead? Nah, I reckon I’m up for it.’

Now she was known in every roadhouse on the East Coast and the loan on the rig had been paid. Hattie acquired a cowboy hat and her own line in truckstop small talk along with the girth of a long distance driver. She rolled across the continent while Dean waited, the way she’d once done for him.

With the sun setting across the dam Dean and Hattie settled into yarning.

‘Like a couple of old sheilas,’ said Dean, chuckling. Crickets struck up nearby. Stars flecked the darkening sky.

 

2011-Richard Holt / small stories about love (smallstoriesaboutlove.wordpress.com)

 

C.S.

You said, ‘Tell me a story?’

‘What sort of story?’

‘A story about love,’ you said.

‘Ah, but I know nothing about that.’

‘Nothing?’ You moved closer, your breath warm on my neck. You whispered, ‘please.’

So I told you about my grandmother’s letters. How we found them in a parcel beneath folded linen.

After we’d read the first we regretted our intrusion. But we read the rest regardless.

They were addressed to her but written in her own hand and signed with the initials she’d had before she married. Your love forever, C.S.

My Grandfather, though his surname was Hansen, had the given names Charles Stanley. A blacksmith by trade, he never learned to read or write. He’d had her write his love letters to her. ‘Imagine that. Sitting together across a table dictating your affections.’

When I finished telling Grandma’s story you said thank you. You kissed me and asked if I’d tell you another the next day. Each night you repeated the request. I fear one night no story will come. But more than that I fear the night when you no longer ask for a story the next day.

 

2011-Richard Holt / small stories about love (smallstoriesaboutlove.wordpress.com)

Persona

I cannot move so I cannot touch. Only be touched, which is not the same. My limbs do not respond to my desires. My body resists. All I have is my voice, and, now, this machine that writes what I say. It heeds my commands. I tell it to send my messages to you. It sends them. And I wait.

You respond, describing our intimacy.

I tell the machine what to write back.

We are responding each to the other. Our words touch, stroke, explore. Our words admire.

Our words deceive.

Bidding farewell I rise and stretch. I make a sandwich then logon again. Another site. Another fiction. Your message describes what I cannot see.

 

2011-Richard Holt / small stories about love (smallstoriesaboutlove.wordpress.com)

The smallest stain

When Donna stepped into the white expanse of the dress Martina couldn’t help but think of her own wedding; the borrowed dress, the local magistrate, the daughter forming within her. She’d always wanted so much more for that daughter.

Martina took up her needle. As she hemmed she went through the arrangements—catering, flowers, photographer. Her finger caught in the tuille and her needle pricked her finger.

A drop of red fell onto the silk, a tiny spot inside the hem, but it was enough for Martina. A tear formed and when Donna said, ‘Mum?’ more tears followed.

‘Mum? What is it?’

Martina looked at her daughter and saw herself at the same age. And she thought of the struggles she and Desmond had been through and the marriage, which, like a weed sown between paving stones, had survived but never flourished. For the first time she knew the question she’d been avoiding had to be asked. ‘Who are you doing this for?’

‘I’m doing it for me.’

Her mother raised her eyes, mascara streaking beneath them.

‘And I do love Peter,’ said Donna. It seemed  an afterthought.

‘I think you do. Really,’ said Martina. ‘But how much?’

2011-Richard Holt / small stories about love (smallstoriesaboutlove.wordpress.com)