I arrived at the cafe at just after four thirty that afternoon and looked for Philip. He was sitting at his regular table in the far corner.
‘How are things?’
He looked up; ‘Ah James, hello. How are you?’
‘Very well thank you, and the work?’
‘Oh you know, rattling along’. He closed his book and shuffled a bunch of loose sheets of paper together into his notebook. He called for another coffee and then turned to me, ‘James, you’re a publisher, a man interested in stories, let me tell you something fascinating’.
I sat at the table next to him. It was my pleasure to sit in the cafe every once in a while, usually after a day spent proofing manuscripts, and over the summer we had moved from strangers frequenting the same cafe to casual acquaintances. His work as a writer and mine at Hackforth-Newman Publishers meant that our worlds intersected somewhat, though we did not publish any of his work.
‘There is a con, a very simple con’, he began, ‘Where a man at a station approaches a waiting traveler with a story that he has lost his credit cards, his wallet, his identification cards, and all he needs is ninety Euros to get home.
This was written for the Electric Literature Holiday Contest (a short short of 30 to 300 words, that uses each word only once). This being the holidays though I got distracted and didn’t manage to submit on time. Still, 111 words, no repetition. Worth posting up I think:
He beats the shit out of James.
Pounds his knuckles flat against soft pink skin.
Shatters cheek bones.
Me, huddled in a car park corner; streaked mascara, salt tears.
Tell myself: Close your eyes.
Two cracked ivory stumps glisten wetly by my foot.
Say: Scrunch them tight.
Imagine green grass and dappled sunlight.
Blood pools on oil-stained concrete.
Forget everything else.
Silence echoes off hard grey walls.
Crack each lid open. First one. Then another.
See him turn.
Thin, spittle coated lips now split apart.
A drunken grin.
Huge arms, giant belly, muscle turned half to fat.
I am screaming.
When I woke it was with a headache and a disturbing sense that nothing was quite right. The sun had begun to drop down behind the house and the shadow of the building was slowly inching across the lawn towards me. The book I had been reading was on the grass, the pages sprung open slightly from the sun, and the glass of water next to me was empty, though I didn’t remember drinking it. As I sat up I felt hot and dazed, dehydrated maybe.
I sat there for some time, leant forward and with my eyes closed, probing at the headache and feeling it sit heavy and numb in the centre of my forehead. A slight breeze began to blow, rustling the branches of the tree behind me and making the pages of the books flicker. Next to the book I found my packet of cigarettes and I took one and lit it, watching the smoke drift away behind me after each drag. When I had finished I stubbed the butt out by my feet and saw then that the sun had completely set and that I sat now in the dim half light of dusk. How long it had taken to smoke that cigarette I don’t know but the feeling of unease grew and I gathered up the few scattered things I had around me and walked indoors.
When I opened the front door I found a man standing there, arm raised about to knock. He jumped back and said ‘Oh I beg your pardon’. He was dressed in a suit, smart but crumpled, and wore a grey fedora that seemed slightly too large for his head.
I locked the door behind me and as I slipped th keys in to my pocket he introduced himself as Dr Syumers, of the Royal Huntington Psychiatric Hospital. After that he said straight away ‘I’m sorry to come to you directly like this but I thought it better you see. I have a responsibility to my patients of course, but of course I have a responsibility to the care of others also.’
He spoke quickly; patient confidentiality, ethics, consent, imminent danger.
‘I’m sorry’ I interrupted, ‘I’m afraid I have no idea what you’re talking about.’
‘It’s one of my patients you see,’ he said, ‘In our last session, Tuesday afternoon of last week, we had a break through.’
‘A break through.’
‘Exactly, yes. I have counselled this patient for many years now, but this was the first time he ever succeeded in mentioning the name of the man that he had killed.’
I don’t like your brother.
My brother? said the boy scrunching up his face.
Yeah that’s right, your brother. I don’t like him.
What do you mean?
I saw him this morning.
Walking down to the sea. I thought he was you to begin with.
He grinned, We’re pretty similar.
The weather has been growing cloudier all day, as if in anticipation of the Summer Party tonight.
Half an hour before the end of the day the girls from HR and reception start getting ready in the toilets. The smell of perfume seeps in to the office, rising unstoppably, like smoke from a fire. The low level blaze of laughter combines with errant plumes of hairspray and ignites, the perfume burns too and a noxious cloud of smog trickles out from the toilets, growing stronger each time the door swings open.
I continue working as best I can but the report on my computer screen greys out eventually and I duck down to the floor, covering my mouth and feeling for the leg of the desk. Looking up to the ceiling all I can see is the swirling grey and yellow smoke of perfumed vapour, a mirror to the low hanging clouds outside.
Someone is shouting ahead of me but in the confusion I can’t tell who.
The girl next to me is also kneeling, feeling her way to the wall that runs behind our desks. She spent the lunchtime preparing for this; post-it notes line the wall at knee height, the thick back arrows drawn on them point the way out .
– reading, reading, reading, wait, everything I’ve just read has turned out not to be? The best ones you won’t see coming, but read two dozen story submissions in a row and anything without a twist becomes a nice surprise.