Category Archives: FLASH FICTION

THE DAYS OF MY YOUTH by A M Smith ©


 

 

Periodically I post my short fiction on my blog.  The following short memoir could have been titled “Interview with a Monster” but I opted for “The Days of my Youth”  because it was written in response to the question: what happens before or after a famous fictional event? So I chose Thomas Harris’ famous fictional creation, and  wondered what sort of a childhood could produce such a complex, monstrous character? The character is being interviewed by a brave journalist:

 

 

I’m hoping to set the record straight, by agreeing to this interview about my earliest childhood experiences.  Everyone seems to think that people like me emerge from the womb dripping with wickedness, right from the start.  It’s not so – nothing could be further from the truth.  I had a perfectly normal childhood.  Normal –  whatever that is. It’s all relative isn’t it? But perhaps you don’t agree.

My earliest memory? Mmm, let’s see. I remember Mother pushing me up and down the garden path in my pram, humming quietly under her breath, trying to get me to drop off to sleep no doubt.  Father didn’t like to be disturbed, he made it very clear he would not tolerate a screaming baby, and once he was in his workroom he definitely didn’t want to be disturbed.  I remember being allowed to visit his workroom, I might have been four or five, maybe?  I was allowed in, on condition I sat on the stool and didn’t touch anything.  I remember the smell of the formaldehyde, and being enchanted by the box containing the glass eyes – I was longing to touch them, and play with them, but I sat on my hands, and looked around at the animal heads mounted on the walls, the glass fronted display case containing the most delicate examples of Father’s craft, the birds, seemingly caught in mid-flight. No, no, I don’t think Father’s taxidermy had anything to do with my interests in later life.

Oh – one of my fondest memories from my early years, was Spot.  My dog – I loved him dearly.  He had black spotty patches on his white coat, and so lively, as only fox terriers can be!  And I’d like to emphasize that I did not spend my boyhood  doing unspeakable things to small animals!  Really, you have no idea, no idea at all, of the dreadful letters I receive on this subject – I often wonder whether the authorities have locked up the right person when I read those letters. Trust me, some of those letter-writers ought to be in here, if what they write is to be believed.  I’m sorry, but I feel strongly about this and again it takes me back to my first question : what is normal?

You think my name might have been an influencing factor? Well – I must admit it is an unusual name – Mother was obsessed with the ancient world and she chose my name. Of course, once I went to school, I was teased mercilessly about my name. And then, later, the newspapers had a field day inventing that silly rhyming couplet to describe me.  So juvenile, don’t you agree?

My first love? Oh, that’s an easy question to answer: she was the prettiest little girl (I have a soft spot for pretty women – but perhaps you’ve heard). Anyway, she sat in the desk in front of me in Primary School.  She had long brown ringlets, and her name was Clare.  It’s a name that keeps recurring in my life, quite strange really. Very recently a young woman came to interview me and her name was Clarice.  But not a pretty girl, I have to say, rather thin mousy hair and a pale, strained face.

Another vivid childhood memory?  Well, let’s see. I know!  it was Uncle Gregor’s visit. I must have been about seven at the time. I found him very exotic, with his thick accent and funny foreign clothes. But what I remember most clearly is the night he took us out to dine, in a restaurant, what an occasion! The starched tablecloth, the smart waiters, the bright lights, the odours of food, wine, cigars, the buzz of voices – so different from our usual quiet life at home.  What? What did I eat? Do you know, I can’t remember, but I do remember what Uncle Gregor ordered. I’d never seen or heard of it before – hardly surprising, Steak Tartare was not a feature of our modest suburban cuisine. I remember being fascinated by the deep redness of the raw steak, and the intoxicating rich, sharp bloody smell of the meat – somehow it struck a deep note in the depth of my being. Hmmm. Now that I look back, perhaps a seminal moment.

What? Sorry, I was wool-gathering. More about my school days? Well, I don’t know – nothing really springs to mind.  My favourite lesson? Oh – biology I suppose, especially when I reached Senior School, and we started dissecting specimens. I was quite handy with a scalpel, Father’s tuition paid off there, and it was always so intriguing to slice through the muscle tissue and come to those perfect little organs, those tiny little mouse-hearts glistening with the blood … Are you alright? You’ve turned quite pale. Maybe you should call the guard and get some water?  Or should we stop now, perhaps it’s enough for one day.

But I must say I’ve enjoyed re-living my childhood memories with you, it’s not often that anybody shows any interest in Hannibal Lecter’s youth, no, they always want to hear about my later career. Oh well, that’s the way of the world, I suppose.

 

 

 

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Flash Fiction


This short flash-fiction piece needs an intro. The story is very South African and will probably not convey much to outsiders. ‘

MAKWEREKWERE is a (derogatory) term applied to all black foreigners. Xenophobia is alive and well in our complex country. 

Oddly enough all car guards are from the Congo. Also occasionally from Burundi. Why this should be, I don’t know. Speak to them in French, and they’re your pal for life.  Yes, we have Car Guards in all public parking spaces – to prevent theft and car-jacking. Like I said : a complex country. 

The reason Ouma (Grandma) Swart is scowling is because she’s from the bad old days, when no black man would put his arm around a white woman.

I hope this mini-story is now clearer to foreign readers. P.S. You learnt quite a bit about South Africa in this intro, didn’t you? Not much of it to our credit, sorry to say. 

 

MAKWEREKWERE SAMARITAN – by AMS ©

“Calmez vous!”  begs Alphonse, the Congolese car guard, tentatively putting his arm around the raving woman’s rigid shoulder. Ouma Swart  scowls disapprovingly, from her car.  Bee-ba, bee-ba: The cops jump out of their van.  “Los haar!” yells the cop, hand on his weapon. “Non, Non!” squeaks Alphonse, hands raised, backing off rapidly. “You are mistake – I am help!”

“Ja,” confirms the burly man exiting Sportsman’s Warehouse “the lady ’s drunk; been shouting in the parking lot for the last ten minutes; car guard’s just trying to help”. Alphonse rolls a relieved eye.  Why, oh why, did he ever leave   Kinshasha?

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QUESTIONS ABOUT MY FATHER’S INSURANCE POLICY- by A M Smith ©


(A piece of Flash Fiction)

When you’re a kid, you don’t get the whole picture: you might have all the facts right under your nose, but somehow you don’t join the dots, if you know what I mean?

For instance, I remember asking my Mum: “Mum – why don’t you ever wear your beautiful diamond ring?” I twirled it round on my ring finger, where it sparkled and shone like a gigantic Christmas decoration. I must have been about 6 years old at the time. Mum let me play with her jewellery, but only on our bed, so as not to lose any of the little pieces, like her gold studs. One of them rolled under the bed and it took ages to find, and when I finally found it, Mum snatched it from me and gave me a hiding. I think was more sore at the injustice, than at the hiding!

Asking Mum  about the ring was asking for trouble, even another hiding. Her expression always darkened, and she usually ignored the question; only once did  she let slip the  mysterious phrase “it’s your Father’s insurance policy, that’s why,” but as usual she didn’t elaborate. Another dangerous question was “When’s Daddy coming home? Where is he?” I soon learned not to ask.

When I was ten years old, Mum had a terrible cough, grew thinner by the day, and then she got dreadfully sick. I had to stay with Aunty Lynne while she was in hospital, but Mum never came back home. Nobody explained anything to kids in those days. Aunty Lynne was quiet and tearful for a week, until she abruptly announced I wasn’t going home, and that Mum was with the angels. I didn’t understand – not really – what that meant. Somehow my clothes  and my tatty toys appeared in my room at Aunty Lynne’s house, and that was that. Life with Aunty Lynne and Uncle Johan  dragged on for years.

But when I was sixteen, I started to join the dots. I had to do a Local History project for school, so I spent happy hours at the Library, flicking through the newspaper archives on the microfiche system. Why this particular banner headline caught my eye, I’m not sure. ROBBERY OF THE CENTURY!  screamed the headlines. JEWELLERY HEIST : DIAMOND MILLIONS! Intrigued, I read on. A gang of thieves had robbed de Beers Johannesburg Diamond Showroom, at 6 a.m. on a Monday, and made off with jewellery worth literally millions.  The story continued to page 3,  together with a foggy black and white photo of the more valuable pieces. In the centre of the display was a magnificent diamond ring. I peered closer at the screen and tried to adjust the focus. I gasped.  Stunned, I sat back. The stolen ring looked remarkably like my Mum’s ring. Come to think of it, where was my Mum’s ring?

That night I asked Aunty Lynne. She looked uncomfortable and muttered she didn’t know. Her expression was so like Mum’s black look, that I prudently dropped the subject. By now I was way too old for a hiding, but I knew trouble when I saw it.

Back I went to the newspaper archives. I joined more dots.  The jewellery thieves had been arrested, tried and jailed for twenty years. I eagerly scanned the blurry picture of the three men making their final Court appearance.  I didn’t recognise any of them, or their names.

That night I tried another question on Aunty Lynne: “What was my Father’s name? And why’s my surname  Phillips, like your maiden name?” Surprisingly it was Uncle Johan who answered. “Girlie,“ he said “it just is. Leave it be. It’s what your Ma wanted. It’s better this way.” He gave me a long, hard look.  So I shut up and left it.

After Matric I wanted to go nursing, but how was I going to pay for it?  Uncle Johan wanted me to join the Railways as a clerk, but I wasn’t interested. I brooded,  moped around the house, irritating everybody, including myself.

Two days later the city was abuzz with news of a massive fire at Pretoria Central Prison.  An entire wing burned down, and eight prisoners died of smoke inhalation.   For some reason the domestic atmosphere  was tense, heightened by the arrival of a telegram for Aunty Lynne. She waited until Uncle Johan came home that afternoon, before she opened it. Pale-faced, she shoved it across the table for him to read. He read it, looked at Aunty Lynne and nodded. She got up, and disappeared into their bedroom.

Aunty Lynne returned, slowly handed me Mum’s trinket box, and said “Now we can give you your father’s insurance  – maybe if we sell it, you can go nursing.”

Stony faced Uncle Johan added:” And your name’s still Phillips – get it?” I mentally joined up the last dots.  I got it.

 

 

 

 

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SHORT-SHORT #5


THE JAG ENIGMA

Jaguar's motto of "Grace, Space, Pace&quo...

Jaguar’s motto of “Grace, Space, Pace” was epitomised in the 1958 Mark IX (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Hello Mom! Guess what? I saw the coolest car today – it was a Jag Sports – silver – and ..” Davey looked at his mother bent over the ironing board “that’s weird, the lady driving it had a red jersey same colour as yours.”
”Really? how ‘bout that? Hurry up and get changed for soccer – you need to leave in ten minutes.”
Phew – that was close! thought Isobel, folding Charles’ shirt. He was very fussy about his shirts. He liked them to be ironed just so.

 

Isobel’s sudden death from a massive aneurism left Davey bewildered and Charles rigid with suppressed grief.
“I’ll help you clear out her things” volunteered his mother-in-law.
“No thanks, I’ll manage” was the curt reply.
Charles tackled the job that weekend. Get it over with, he thought.
“Davey: stop digging in your Mother’s handbag.”
“But Dad, I was just helping” whined Davey “Look what I found”. He dangled a key ring with a set of car keys and a Yale key, on a Jaguar trademark fob.
Charles frowned. “You found those in your Mother’s handbag?” he said
“Mmm” said Davey “look at this cool Jag emblem”.

Whose keys were these? Charles asked himself. They didn’t own a car. Charles felt private car ownership was environmentally irresponsible when there was a perfectly good public transport system. And anyway, Isobel couldn’t drive. He fingered the bunch of keys. On the back of the fob were engraved the initials I.R.F. and a telephone number. Slowly his brain registered the facts. These were Isobel’s initials. This was their home telephone number. Had Isobel owned a car? It appeared to be a Jaguar, one of the most expensive cars on the market. It wasn’t possible. They had no spare money. And where was the car?
Systematically Charles searched the house for car related evidence : registration papers, garage bills, motor insurance, road maps. He found nothing. Which was not surprising, because Isobel had been meticulously careful to keep her car paperwork in a locked metal toolbox in the Jag’s garage.

When the garage lease expired, the exasperated owner, fed up with Mrs Robinson’s non-response to his phone calls, forced open the doors. The discovery of a dusty Jag Sports XK3 Roadster made a brief flurry in the local papers. ABANDONED JAG MYSTERY trumpeted the headlines, but nobody came forward with information.

Davey, like all kids, never read newspapers. Charles was in Dubai on a contract job at the time, so the headline escaped them both.
Davey hankered after a Jag all his life, to no avail. Charles fretted over the mystery car keys for years. He simply could not align his passive, obedient Isobel with a Jaguar sports car. Had she bought the car with Lotto winnings? Did she have a rich lover who bought it for her? Surely not, he thought, recalling her reluctant lovemaking.
Ironically he spent more time thinking about Isobel after her death than he ever did during her lifetime.

500 words

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SHORT-SHORT #4 : TRADITIONAL GARDENING BY THE ALMANAC


The tea steams up my glasses, as I lift the mug to my lips. Very satisfying, that hot mug of tea after a night’s gardening.  The sinking moon is still bright enough to highlight the black raked rows of my newly prepared bed.  It took a while, but I got it all finished.  I like to do the whole job in one go, at full moon.  It’s easier that way.  Tidier.  And I do like tidy.

I hope the damn birds don’t go pecking up my newly planted leek seeds, but I think I’ve covered them up with enough soil. I do like leeks.  One of my favourite vegetables: those lovely fat white stalks, with the short roots at the base. They always remind me of little worms.  Amazing  that such short roots are able to suck up enough nourishment to produce those long green stems and grey top leaves. But then my garden beds always contain very good nourishment for my plants.  It’s a feature of my gardening.

People  comment on the abundance of my vegetable garden,  the superb quality of my vegetables.  And I always reply “Give plants nourishment, and they’ll give it right back at harvest time”. People love this.  They smile indulgently, and talk about quaint old country customs, and folk wisdom.  And then they say how rare it is these days to find a traditional old village, so quiet and peaceful, no litter, no vagrants, none of those pesky travellers.

Well, I work hard to keep it that way, don’t I?  Us Howards always have. Our family’s been in this village for hundreds of years, yes hundreds. We’re  caretakers in a way, protecting our little village from riff-raff,  and  tramps. They don’t last long here, I can tell you! Mind you, we have to time it carefully so we get the benefit of the full moon.  We’ve always done it this way.  It works for us. We’ve been known for centuries us Howards, as wonderful gardeners, with a real knack for vegetables.  I expect it’s all the bones we dig into our beds. These days people buy bonemeal in them little plastic bags at the garden shops, but we prefer to do it the old way.  You can’t beat blood and bonemeal, I always say.

Ah well, time to put away my shovel and catch a bit of shut eye.  It’ll be dawn soon and I’m not as young as I used to be. My cousin Seth is sending over his oldest boy today, I told him it’s time we trained up someone to carry on the gardening work once I’m gone. It does take a while to explain our traditional system to the young ‘uns. I remember when my Uncle Daniel first told me about our family gardening habits, it took a while to settle down to it, I found it difficult at first, but you get used to it, you get used to it.

 

 

 

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SHORT-SHORT # 3 : A LESSON IN LIVING & DYING


 Here is another short flash fiction piece, at under 500 words.

 

Lifting-moving-placing; pausing; lifting-moving-placing; pausing;  with exquisite care Karen is doing her walking meditation. Each step a slow, attentive ballet.  Her careful feet make a crisp crunch on the dry winter grass.  Her nostrils register the dusty smell. Her ears pick up the wind in the gum tree plantation at the bottom of the hill.  Otherwise its quiet, really quiet.  No voices, cars, music; just the muted sounds of the countryside at the hermitage in Kwa-Zulu Natal.

Karen reaches the end of her allotted ten paces, stands momentarily, before slowly engaging with the process of turning her body, 360 degrees, so that she can embark on the return journey, ten deliberate steps in the reverse direction.  Her eyes involuntarily fall on the ground to her right.  What is that on the ground? She looks at the dark form on the grass. It takes a second or two for the image from her retina to register in her brain.

It’s a dead bird.  Her gaze take in the thin, stiff  legs, the curled claws, the buff chest feathers, the black head and tail, the white marking around the eye, the slightly opened beak. She looks steadily.  It’s the first dead bird she’s ever seen. If you live in central Joburg you don’t come across dead birds.  Apart from squashed pigeons on the road, but they’re usually a mashed smear of feathers ground into the tarmac. They don’t count.

She tentatively nudges the tiny corpse with the toe of her takkie.  It’s so light! Suddenly a torrent of little black ants boil out of the beak, onto the grass, running in frantic random patterns.  She draws back, startled.  Until now the dead bird has been impersonal, a little feathery husk, but now …. all those ants ?  Her heartbeat quickens, her palms are sweaty, she can’t take her eyes off the rigid scrap of feathers surrounded by the swarm of little black ants.

Those frail  leathery legs, those curled claws – they remind her of something; no, of someone. Her mind skitters to the Joburg Gen, visiting her Gran just before she died. Gran’s arms were frail and leathery, Gran’s fingers were little curly claws, Gran …. blood roars in her ears,  her breath catches, her throat spasms, red-hot tears leak out of her eyes.  She takes in a gasping lungful of air, then another, then another, but still the sobs build in her chest. She holds her ribs, gasps, wails, bends over, stands up, clutches her arms around herself, wails, throws her head back , scrunches her eyes closed, but still the tears stream down her hot cheeks.   She never cried at the hospital, or at the  funeral, but she’s crying now, alone, under the midday sun in a clear blue sky, mourning her Gran, and understanding the flavour of impermanence, death and dying, way beyond the Teacher’s dry lecturing. This fleeting world – like bubbles in a stream.   The words echo in her mind, sink into her heart.

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