Tiny Fiction: The Library Rebel

He slammed down the book and relished the ripples of shock and irritation as they echoed around the library.

“Sorry, so sorry,” he said, meekly, his head held low and so that his floppy fringe hid his small grin. The room was fusty, with dust collecting on every surface, weighing people down. They’d be slow to react, he’d get to enjoy every frown and tut as it unfolded around him. He lifted the book high a second time.

Once again, he was the master of chaos.

Trial By Fire

element-ember-fire-19063 Pexels

Every morning Cat would wake in a panic and rush to the bathroom where her make up was gathered around her sink like a jury. She’d work through the routine, layer by layer she would remake her face into something acceptable. Concealer, foundation, foundation powder, blush, neutral eyeliner, defining eyeshadow, eyeliner. She saw her face as a collection of flaws to be patched up and buried. Each year the slap had grown thicker and thicker as new wrinkles and blemishes popped to the surface and her true face was lost.

Some days she’d try to imagine how it would be to be loved for all her flaws, to show herself to the world, could she really be so disgusting to look at? She’d make a deal with herself that tomorrow she’d walk down the street with her face naked, just to see what would happen. Would people shout? Laugh? Would strangers video this hideous creature to stick up on Youtube? She knew she’d never do it. Sometimes she’d dare herself to just step outside her flat and take the lift to the ground floor, say hello to Mrs Robey who liked to stand in the hall smoking a fag, maybe pop her head out the door to where Salman would be playing with his kids on the grass. The dare would quickly evaporate as she imagined their horrified reactions.

And then the fire happened. At three in the morning, the fire alarm rattled through the block with such a raucous demand for attention, she found herself standing on the grass outside before she remembered her face was empty of disguise. As the street filled up with scared occupants in dressing gowns and duvets, she tried to keep under trees in the shadows. She saw Mrs Robey, already lighting up a fag to calm her nerves, even in the panic she had thought to bring them with her. She saw Salman huddling his children to him, trying to keep them warm. As people from neighbouring blocks joined them, it became increasingly difficult to hide, all spaces were filled with people, both dazed and bustling, slowly filling up the spaces and edging her out into the light. And then she was in the middle of the noise and fuss, being offered cups of tea and wrapped up in blankets. And no one was recoiling from her ugliness, it was as if they didn’t notice any difference, as if they didn’t care. She slurped her tea and chuckled with her neighbours about how silly they all looked, about how scared they’d all been; and for once she didn’t need to think about her make up slipping or lipstick on her teeth. And it was quite nice.

 

Stenny Johanssen

Living in a house converted to three flats, Jacky was only slightly surprised to see on the hall table, post for a name she didn’t recognise. It was a package the size of a bag of sugar, and the name on the front said Stenny Johansson. She checked beneath it for her own post, found none, and went on her way.

The package had been there for three days when the doorbell rang early on Sunday morning. A cheerful blonde-haired, ruddy-faced Swedish man stood on the doorstep, and Jacky peered at him through her hangover,

“Hello! Hello! I am so pleased to see you here. I was hoping that you had a parcel for me, Stenny Johansson?”

“You’re Stenny Johansson?”

“Yes, I’m over here from Sweden and my wife sent my parcel to the wrong house. Do you have it?”

“Oh, sure,” said Jackie, blurrily and confused, she handed over the package.

“Oh what a relief. It is parts for my vacuum cleaner and I’m leaving in a few days, so I need those parts before I leave the country.”

“Ah,” said Jacky, wondering vaguely why anyone would have vacuum cleaner parts sent over from Sweden if they were about to leave the country, but instead she nodded sagely.

“Oh you are a doll! You’re a lifesaver!” said Stenny, exuberantly, in a noisy way that hurt her head, and Jacky was relived to shut the door.

Three days later, on Wednesday morning when Jacky was still on her first coffee,the door bell rang and Jacky trudged down the stairs to open it. In the doorway stood another blonde, cheerful man.

“Ah yes! Hello! My name is Stenny Johansson, I’m hoping that you have a package for me,” said the man.

“No, someone called Stenny Johansson picked it up a few days ago,” said Jacky, feeling befuddlement flush her face red.

“No, no. I am Stenny Johansson, that is my package. Do you have it?”

“No, I just told you, someone picked it up.”

“But it’s mine,” said the man, sweaty indignation furrowing his face. “It’s vacuum cleaner parts, I need them to fix my vacuum cleaner. Did you check he was the real Stenny Johansson?”

“No, why would I check that?” asked Jackie, she was feeling indignant now. The second Johansson stormed off, shouting,

“Well you shouldn’t have given my post away! That’s illegal, you know?”

When the third Stenny Johansson appeared at the door, Jacky knew instantly. He had the same ruddy face, tousled blonde hair and look of optimism. Before she could speak, he tried to force his way in. Jacky put her foot against the door, but it took all her strength to keep the new Stenny outside.

“But those are the parts for my vacuum cleaner!” he shouted through the letterbox. “How will I clean my house now?”

The fourth Stenny Johansson didn’t bother announcing his name as he shoved the door aside with such force that Jacky went flying against the wall and knocked her head. With her thoughts still spinning, she was only dimly aware of Stenny Johansson stomping up the stairs to her flat, and then stomping back down a few minutes later. She didn’t really register the bright red object in his hands, and it was only later when she found her Henry hoover missing that she understood that he’d taken it.

Finding a Guru

Wade had a blister that had started out as three separate blisters but had grown into one. He’d run out of energy bars. He was sick of breath-taking views of endless skies above endless valleys.  His knees hurt. But he was finally here, outside the guru’s cave, waiting to have the meaning of life explained to him.

He’d first read about the guru Alodu on the Internet. People would write gushing posts about how he had freed them from the nagging doubts, given them a lasting sense of peace. For years now, Wade had been dragging himself through life feeling each moment as itchy with guilt and insecurity. He had visited therapists, taken medication, listened to CDs, but these things only ever felt like a temporary solution, a hiding of his problems, not fixing them. When he heard about Alodu he decided the chance to free himself was worth the price of a flight and a hike. He hadn’t expected the route up the mountain and to the cave to be quite so well signposted. Luckily, since he’d run out of food, there was a fast food kiosk selling burgers, but it felt a little tacky.

He ducked under the cave’s low roof, and was surprised to see a small speccy white man sitting on the floor in a cardigan. He was unimpressive, and Wade felt his hopes deflate as his blisters throbbed.

“So, I’m Alodu,” said the guru, “what’s up?”

This felt all wrong to Wade, but he had rehearsed this speech a hundred times and he wasn’t going to waste the effort.

“I’m plagued,” he said dramatically. Dramatic had seemed right when he planned this conversation on the walk up. However, sharing with this librarian of a man, his head cocked to one side politely, it seemed inappropriate to be dramatic. “I feel like I’ve done and said too much that’s wrong. I want to forget, stop caring and get on with my life, but I can’t stop thinking about all the mistakes I’ve made.”

“That’s unfortunate, “ said Alodu as if he was commenting on something mundane like a traffic jam, rather than Wade’s plagued soul. “Have you tried collecting stamps? I find that soothing.”

Wade shifted awkwardly on his rock, hoping this would convey his lack of satisfaction with this answer.

“Stamps?” he said.

“Yes or perhaps watch some Bob Ross videos about learning to paint, I do like a bit of Bob Ross.”

“Now look here!” snapped Wade, causing the guru to flinch inside his cardigan. “I’ve climbed a bloody mountain, I want better advice than my gran would come up with.”

Alodu looked at him thoughtfully, with infinite patience and calm. Then in hushed tones, whispered,

“You want meaning in your life? Serenity?”

“Yes!”

“Have you tried eating steamed broccoli?”

Wade stormed out on his blistered feet. As Alodu watched him go, he said sadly,

“Some people just don’t want to be enlightened.”

Not his Wife

Stanley was sitting in his favourite chair wishing he’d learned how to smoke a pipe so he could really enjoy not moving, when the woman who wasn’t his wife came home. She was wearing the right face to be his wife, and the clothes looked familiar, but without doubt, she was someone else. If he was asked, he’d have been hard pushed to explain exactly how he knew it wasn’t his wife, but it was a sense as fundamental as gravity, and the more she moved about the house chattering about the queue at the Post Office in a way that was similar, but not the same, as his wife, the more he knew.

Stanley was a polite man, and the woman who wasn’t his wife seemed so certain of who she was, that after some quizzing that got him nowhere, he decided to let it go. Still as the days passed, a resentment grew. She kept moving the furniture round, and she cancelled his subscription to his model aeroplane magazine. She even bought broccoli and expected him to eat it. With each new and inappropriate behaviour, he felt lied to and manipulated, it just wasn’t on, but then she made lasagne.

He’d always liked lasagne before he got married, but his real wife’s cooking was dubious at best, and she made a watery, insipid dish; but his new not-wife made her lasagne crisp and tasty, so he decided, on reflection to just let it go. Aren’t we all imposters of one kind or another, he thought, philosophically, before wondering where the sofa had gone.

Short story: The Long Walk

“I screwed it up this time. I screwed it right up,” Toby muttered as he walked down the street-lit road with his shoulders up around his ears to keep out the cold. “Won’t answer her phone this time, I can’t even tell her I’m sorry.” Toby wasn’t sure what he’d done to upset Jennifer, but he knew it was something terrible. Last time he’d upset her, she’d finally explained to him that he hadn’t bought her the right birthday bracelet; it had taken three hours of texts and a desperate phone call, but he’d got there in the end. She never believed him when he said sorry, ‘You only say that because I’m angry,’ she’d say, ‘how do I know you really mean it?’ So tonight, emboldened with a few shots of whisky and three beers, he was trying to prove that whatever it was he’d done wrong, he hadn’t done it intentionally.

It was three in the morning, on a cold January night and he was walking the six miles to her house to tell her he was sorry. He fingered the carefully written note in his coat pocket, but now he thought about it, a note didn’t seem enough. He should have got flowers, maybe some jewellery to post through the door with the note. He hopped over a low wall into someone’s garden and picked a couple of snowdrops and held them in his cold fist as he kept walking. Snowdrops, no one can be angry when faced with snowdrops, he thought.

Up ahead a dead bird was lying in the road, its guts spilling out through its beak, and Toby felt suddenly hopeless, Poor thing, didn’t stand a chance, he thought. He felt a part of the bird’s death, seen and mourned only by him. The night streets took on a lonely, dramatic feel; as if he was in a Beckett stage play, as he walked beneath the surreal orange spot-lights, muttering to himself, like the sole cast in a tragedy.

He looked down at the snowdrops in his hand, and they just didn’t seem enough now, they seemed silly, pathetic. So as he walked, he kept an eye out for anything he could use as an offering, like a magpie. He found a shiny black stone, a ribbon, a toy car. He wondered if the streets were always so filled with abandoned treasure. She’d have to like some of these, wouldn’t she? She’d have to forgive him. He tried to imagine her finding his little collection and the carefully worded note. Surely she’d laugh when she saw the toy car, be touched by the snowdrops, tied up with the ribbon. Then he wasn’t sure at all, he wondered if anything he did could ever be enough, maybe he was just destined to disappoint her. His legs were getting heavy and the cold bit at his knees, he hadn’t gone more than a couple of miles and the hand holding the snowdrops was completely numb. His eyes were scanning the pavement, the walls, for any more gifts. Then he spotted the note, folded and discarded on a wall, the ink smudging with the damp. He picked it up and began to read. It didn’t feel like an invasion of privacy, because these were the night streets and this was his play, instead he felt an instant kinship with the writer:

“I’m sorry William, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what I’ve done to make you so angry. Please let’s talk about this, we can sort it out. I love you, Becky.” Toby stood under the streetlamp for a long time, just rereading the note, imagining poor Becky writing that heartfelt note, only for William to care so little he threw it away. He imagined her desperation and fear. He wished he could give Becky the snowdrops, he felt she’d love them, that she’d laugh as he handed over the small car. With a heavy sigh, he crouched down by the wall. With his numb hands and his knees creaking, he created a small alter with a toy car, snowdrops in a ribbon, and a shiny black stone. The note sat in the middle. It felt like the proper resting place for all things discarded.

“Don’t you worry about him,” Toby whispered, “he’s not worth it.” Then he turned and started to make his way home.

The True Meaning of Secret Santa (short story)

hat
Picture from here

I found Secret Santa fun at first. Tashinda got me a fluffy turkey hat that made gobbling noises, and Malcom made a clay ashtray, delicately painted with flowers. It didn’t matter that Malcom’s Secret Santa recipient didn’t smoke or that I’d never wear the hat again once Christmas was over, that isn’t what Christmas is about, it’s about fun and happiness. So Secret Santa was great for the first two years, but then things started to change, it started to get competitive. People stopped keeping to the ten pound limit; no one specified a new limit, just that ten pounds wasn’t enough. Then everybody started using sparkly wrapping paper and ribbons on the presents, even though you can’t recycle either and they just get thrown away. Last year, in the big pile of shiny presents tied up with curly ribbons, mine stood out as the only package sellotaped together, in cheap red paper with bells on, and everybody laughed at me. But at least I didn’t get Dennis’s present.

Dennis is scary. Mostly he’s just sarcastic, but that can bubble into rage. It’s difficult to know when, it could be someone sitting in his spot in the canteen or a splatter of tomato sauce on the floor. Everybody is too frightened to leave unwashed mugs in the sink anymore, or crumbs around the microwave. And then when we passed around the Secret Santa gifts at the Christmas meal last year, Dennis smashed his new mug in fury.

“What is this?” he screeched.

Tashinda said nervously, “You don’t like it?”

“It’s thoughtless tat!” shouted Dennis. “This could be for anyone! There’s no thought in this, there’s no effort!”

So this year, when I pulled Dennis’s name from the bobble hat, I felt my stomach drop into my shoes and I haven’t rested since. What can I buy him? He’s not my friend, I don’t know what he wants.

I woke up at two in the morning, fretting. I tried to calm down by writing a list of all the things I knew about Dennis and possible presents: likes custard creams (buy twenty packets), doesn’t like it when people leave crumbs in the kitchen (dustbuster), has neat beard (beard trimmer). No present seems thoughtful enough. So, unable to sleep, I went looking on his Facebook page. I discovered he liked Metallica and is a member of a biker group, but he doesn’t have a motorbike. He often wrote bitchy lectures to people he called ‘A waste of oxygen’, people who needed to ‘Stop whining and starting winning’, this made me more nervous. I searched a bit harder, googling various nicknames he used for himself on his wall, following the friends he had, the groups he was part of.

If you really pay attention to what people write on social media, it’s not that difficult to pull the threads together. You can find forums they write on anonymously, Instagram and Twitter accounts under different names, even old Myspace pages they’ve forgotten existed. So that’s how I found out that Dennis writes poetry about his feelings. He started as a teenager, but hasn’t stopped, he just keeps it hidden. I’m normally a pretty mild-mannered chap, I don’t like to ruffle feathers, but I kept thinking of Tashinda looking crestfallen after Dennis broke her mug, and soon I was thinking: maybe if I frame his cheesiest poem, or find a photo if him posing as a teenager, maybe that would be funny. So I kept looking, and found more poetry, more blog posts about how lonely and misunderstood he was, but as dawn came round, I didn’t want to laugh at him anymore. I felt that all the bluster and complaint was a way of covering up for feeling unhappy and out of place, which are things I know quite well. I felt he needed a hug more than to be mocked.

I wasn’t with Dennis when he got his present, but I heard he liked it. I got him a book of Sylvia Plath poems and Ten Simple Steps to Happiness. I was told the books made him smile, and that’s what Christmas is all about.

Justice in the Age of Bubble Living

“You have never known vulnerability,” boomed the judge, enjoying the echo of her voice. “You have lived a life eased by your looks, and taken it for granted that you could have whatever you want. You have never worked, simply charmed your way to an easy life. And then when faced with an item you couldn’t have, a car you didn’t need but wanted, and that the owner wouldn’t just give you, you stole it!” The guilty man with the dimpled smile looked at her quizzically and then his eyes twinkled as he tilted his head. The judge’s heart hardened, she hated it when people tried to manipulate her.

“So your punishment is to know vulnerability. To lose your ticket to the easy life. To learn what it is to struggle and be rejected. You shall spend the next five years…ugly!”

She enjoyed the horror on his face, the struggle as he was dragged away, protesting and sobbing. The programmers could work out the details: a few warts, a wonky nose, hair in all the wrong places. Judging was so much more fun in these days of virtual reality.