[Flash Fiction] To Walk Where Once He Danced

To Walk Where Once He Danced Cover PhotoThe wrought iron fence still ringed the grounds of the ballroom as it had all those years ago. Back then even a half decent ballroom had been worth travelling a fair distance for and this one had been the best. Now, at 86 years old, Tom found little reason to travel, little reason to venture far from home and few enough places to venture to. Yet he had travelled today, a whole three buses and five hours’ worth of travelling. Now it was time to see if it had been worth the effort. It was still here at any rate, still standing, he hadn’t been at all sure that it would. Still here but time had exacted its cruel price. One time this ballroom had stood proud, shining and bright in the night, now it lay dark and derelict in the daylight.

Tom walked along the fence, rust had claimed it some time ago but flakes of black paint still clung on in places, pieces of better days. He ignored the warnings of the battered signs proclaiming ‘KEEP OUT’ in faded letters, and turned into the old car park. Each step he took with care, mindful of the tufts of grass, the weeds, and the cracked tarmac that they sprouted through. It saddened him seeing the place like this, years of neglect plain to the eye, the once grand entrance now boarded up, littered with beer cans and marred by graffiti. He didn’t bother even trying to mount the steps there. The plywood nailed across the double doors, worn and weathered as it was, looked far too sturdy for old arms to tackle. Instead he headed towards the back of the building.

The rear of the building proved even more overgrown than the front had. His feet found a roughly beaten path through the undergrowth. It led him to a back door, also barred with plywood. He tapped at the plywood with his walking stick, saw that it rattled a little against the doorjamb. In the gap between the doorframe and the wood he wedged the tip of his cane. Gripping tight to the cane with both hands, he mustered all of his strength and leaned in towards the wall. With a low groan the sheet of wood broke loose and fell to the ground beside him. He slipped the flat cap from his head and shook it at the air around him, trying to shoo away the dust that he was coughing out. When the air settled somewhat he stepped through into a small room and on again, through to the corridor beyond. The passage was dim, dusty and marked with more graffiti. His left hand he kept on one wall to steady himself and used his cane to push the rubbish at his feet out of his path. The passage brought him to a doorway that opened out into the ballroom. Breathing deep, he stepped inside.

Overhead the few missing slates let the sun shine through in spots of light. Long gone were the couples spinning in each other’s arms, replaced now with empty bottles spun round by the wind. The wooden floors that had once sounded out with taps and beats of happy feet now lay warped and twisted. No graffiti here, thanks be. The kids had left this part alone at least. He walked straight to the middle of the dance floor. His footsteps echoed softly but clearly in the still room. It was an empty room, any small thing of interest having been scavenged long before, empty now save for Tom and the memories he brought back. On the walls faded squares gently reminded where pictures had once hung. If any of those pictures had still remained he might have been able to find an image of the boy he’d once been or maybe the girl who’d taken that boy by the hand and taught him to dance in step with the beat of her heart.

On this dance floor Sheila had first slipped and swayed into his arms, into his life. This had been the stage for so many of their firsts: first words, first laugh, first fight, first tears, first dance, first kiss. He turned slowly in a circle taking it all in through half closed eyes, rocking his head from side to side as they had rocked their hips all those years before, side by side, in time to the music. He remembered when he’d looked into her eyes for the first time, not knowing that this girl would become the woman that became his life. A lifetime hiding behind a smiling pair of eyes, all the joy and all the sorrow, and neither one could’ve guessed it.

Sheila had been sharp in every way; sharp dressed, sharp minded and with a sharp tongue when she’d wanted. Not anymore though, those were all just memories. Memories were all that Tom had left and Sheila had none. Not fair. Her mind was clouded and getting more so every day. She held no memory of Tom, no memory of them and little recall of much of her own self. The past lay atop Tom’s present like dust, covering everything, and the future was dark, closed and ever shorter. For Sheila all three held no meaning, for her there was only confusion. She might not remember the life that had started here all those countless moments ago but Tom did, and this old dance hall still stood, battered and tattered by the years as it was. It still stood. A silent shrine to the songs of their summer days. The silence was suddenly shattered by the sound of heavy footsteps approaching.

“Don’t even thinking of running.” An authorative voice shouted. Tom turned to see a middle-aged Garda step into the ballroom. “I mean it now, if you kids make me… Oh!”

“Afternoon, Garda.”

“Jaysus, now you I wasn’t expecting. Who’d we have there now, Billy White, is it?” The guard asked, as he walked over. “No, not Billy White. You’re not from around here, are you, old timer?”

“No, I travelled a ways to get here. We used to do that when we were young, all pile into a car on a Saturday evening, heading off in search of a dance. This hall,” he said, gesturing around them with his cane. “This was my favourite. It was where… Well, it’s really sort of special to me and I just wanted to see it again.”

“Here now, we can’t have you in here, it’s bloody dangerous is what it is. Whole place is liable to come down on your ears if you sneeze too loud.” The guard’s eyes settled on the liver spotted hand that held the cane in a shaky grip. He sighed. “Look, I’ll tell you what, let me take you down to Hogan’s Pub and buy you some lunch. My Uncle used to work here, I’ll give him a ring, see if he’ll meet us. He might have an old photo or two of the place that you can take home with you. Okay?”

“He used to work here? Maybe, maybe I knew him once so.”

“Yeah, you never know, maybe you did at that. Now how about we get out of this place and grab some lunch?”

“Hmm…Huh? Oh, yes! Lunch, yes, and the photos.”

“Yeah, and the photos, of course.” The guard said, gently taking a hold of Tom’s elbow and guiding him out. “I tell you, it’ll be a lot safer and a lot nicer now to be looking at some lovely photos over a quiet pint than poking around here in this dusty old death trap.”

“That’s true.” Tom said, throwing his eyes about for one last look. “Maybe sometimes it’s best to remember things the way that they were instead of how they are.”

***

(Ciaran Tolan)

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[Flash Fiction] The Last Day

The Last Day Cover Photo“Sorry, what did you say?” Oisín asked, stifling a yawn.

“I said: wakey-wakey, pally, gimme my payment and hit the pavement.”

“Yeah, of course.” Oisín said, fumbling in his pockets for cash to pay the cab fare.

Jet lag had taken a hold of him so he double checked each note to make sure he didn’t accidentally hand over a hundred dollar bill. Twice he’d done that the first time he’d been to New York. Twice bitten, he thought, and twice… however the rest of that went. He handed over a wad of cash. Bidding the cabbie keep the change and goodbye, he stepped out into a New York day. The cabbie got out too, threw Oisín a bemused look, walked to the boot, yanked out a bag and set it on the sidewalk.

“Figured you might need your luggage too, pal, even if you don’t think so.”

“Thanks.” Oisín said, offering a sorry smile. “My head’s a little messed up from the flight.”

The cabbie waved the thought away and was gone. Oisín really was feeling disorientated. He had expected to see Sadie at the airport but when he’d turned his phone on after landing there had been a voicemail waiting instead, with instructions to hop a taxi to Union Square and meet her at Starbucks. That was all. She had sounded stressed though. She hadn’t said much besides ‘Union Square’ and ‘Starbucks,’ but there had been a worrying tone to her voice. He had tried ringing her back. It kept ringing out. He’d meant to try again from the cab but had fallen asleep.

Sadie’s probably fine, he thought, I’m worrying over nothing. It was a sunny day and here he was in New York. With a smile on his face he looked around intent on soaking in the city. The smile faltered as his eyes took in the scene around him. He’d felt the crowd as soon as he’d stepped out of the cab. There’s always a crowd in New York, that bustling sense of urgency all about. He had felt that straight off but had been too spaced out to catch the mood. He was catching it now. The streets were packed with people, their faces distraught, pained and anguished. A sense of panic was in the air. He saw an elderly couple crying in each other’s arms. A younger couple approached them, to offer comfort it seemed but then they too burst into tears. All four wept openly in the street. Oh my God, Oisín thought, something has happened. Sadie!

He rushed across the street. Starbucks, she’d said she’d be at Starbucks. There was a line at the coffee shop that stretched out around the block. His eyes skimmed along, searching her out.

“Oisín!”

Thank God. Sadie offered him a faint, sickly smile under listless eyes. Twitching arms were folded awkwardly across her chest and he thought she might be close to tears. He threw both his arms around her neck and held her tight.

“Thank God you’re okay.” He whispered.

“I am, for now.” She sniffled into the small of his neck. “But it’s the end, Oisín, it really is the end.”

“Whoa, hold up now.” An angry voice shouted out. “No queue skipping.”

“It’s okay, she’s a friend of mine.”

“Oh, she’s his friend, that’s cool everybody. Yeah, nice try, buddy, I don’t care if you’re Jay-Z and she’s Beyonce, the line starts back there.”

“Ah, don’t get all bent out of shape.” Sadie shouted back. “Nothing to worry about, he’s Irish.”

“So what?”

“So all they drink is tea, that’s all they care about. Believe me, this guy’ll happily blather on this tea and that tea, and the right way to stew a pot, and a whole laundry list of other crap and in the end it still tastes like boiled wee in a cup to me. So I’m telling you: this guy, you don’t have to worry about.”

“Hmm” The guy looked down to the ground then back to Sadie. “How do I know he’s Irish?”

“Sure, you only gotta listen to him; he’s got an accent as thick as tar.”

“Okay, then.” He said, locking eyes on Oisín. “Talk.”

“Eh, about what?”

“About more than two words so we can hear if you’re full of crap or not.”

“Okay, em, my name’s Oisín, I’m from Ireland and… all I’m going to drink today is a cup of tea.”

“Okay then, Irish, but if I see you sipping on anything but tea in there then we’ll be having more than just words, if you catch my drift.”

“Understood.” Oisín said, turned away and whispered to Sadie. “Jesus, that guy’s really on edge.”

“Everyone is, now that it’s actually happening. I mean we all knew this day was coming but thought we still had time, you know, that something could be done… Everybody said it’d be six months at least before anything happened. Then they dropped the bombshell last night: today would be the last day. No more coffee for me, no more coffee for anyone.”

“Christ, how can you worry about coffee at a time like this?”

“Oisín,” Sadie said, giving him a strange, sidelong look. “What is it you think is going on here?”

“I don’t bloody know, the streets are full of panicked people, you’re talking about bombs being dropped…”

“Bombs! I didn’t say anything about bombs, nobody’s dropping any bombs. It’s the goddamned FDA that’s the problem. Last night the government announced that they’re instituting a ban on coffee, effective from midnight tonight. This is it. This is the last day.”

“Coffee!” Oisín exclaimed. “This is all about coffee, hell, I thought this was something serious.”

“You listen to me Oisín Higgins,” Sadie said, jabbing a finger under his nose. “And you listen good, this here is deadly serious. A bunch of goddamned pencil-necked, paper-pushing jackasses that call themselves politicians have decided to take away my life blood, that’s about as damned serious as it gets.”

“Okay, okay, I hear you.” Oisín said quickly, holding his palms up. “Calm down.”

“Jeezum crow! When they were handing out pen pals back in the day I sure wish they would’ve paired me up with a nice Columbian instead.”

Oisín decided, wisely, to keep his gob shut. They stood on line like countless others across the fifty states, all hoping for one last cup of coffee shop joe before the end, one last sip to steel them for the dark days that lay ahead. Across the nation on this, the last day, the streets were jammed with broken people: the poor, huddled masses yearning to drink caffeine. Soon the baristas would turn in their tampers and come the stroke of midnight, a person could land behind bars if caught holding an ounce of pure Columbian brown beans. Tomorrow the sun would rise on these new United States of America, one nation indivisible, with coffee, regular or decaf, for none.

***

(Ciaran Tolan)

[Flash fiction] Between Shafts of Sunlight

Between Shafts of Sunlight Cover PhotoTim stood at the cliff’s edge looking out over the water. A sharp wind gusted at his back, flapping his jacket’s lapels softly at his chin. A voice blew a soft ‘boo’ into his ear.

“Christ, Lisa!” He said, turning around. “Don’t be doing that, I could’ve…”

“Ah, relax, you’re miles from the edge.” Lisa said through a smile. “I’m glad you came, wasn’t sure if you would.”

“Messaged you back to say I would, didn’t I?”

“Aw, did you? Sorry, didn’t check my messages after, was deep in research, you see.”

“So, why am I up here?”

“Why? Because there’s something in the air up here. All my time spent seeking out the weird and the wonderful on the web not knowing it was here all along, right on my doorstep. Or cliff top I suppose I should say.”

“What?”

“Sheesh, Tim, didn’t you read the stuff I linked you?”

“Lisa, I don’t have the time to read half the odd junk you send my way. I remember reading something about strange lights over… Peru, was it?”

“Oh, yeah, that! Aliens, I’m certain, though might be willing to consider the possibility of ghosts.” Lisa said, her eyes lighting up. “We’re not in Peru though, are we?”

“No. So, c’mon, what did you drag me all the way up here for?”

“Couldn’t take five minutes to read the bloody…” She muttered to herself, took a deep breath and laid it all out for him. “Right, short version, so there’s this Australian girl, Kristi, that I know from this message board I’m on, well she messages me out of the blue and goes, “Oh, my God, so you’re from that Blackwater village, with the cliff and the wind that blows from another world.” So I was all, ‘What?’ Then she launches into this big thing and I’m thinking to myself if this was for real I definitely would’ve heard this before but later I asked my granddad and it’s all true!”

“Ah-huh.”

“So I jump back online, chasing leads and posting questions when up pops this email from Lucy.”

“The Australian girl?”

“No, that was Kristi, she set me on to all this, then Lucy saw something I posted somewhere and sent me on even more details. Really interesting stuff. First off there’s the Soft Man.”

“Soft man?”

“Yes, the Soft Man, who walks the cliff’s edge wrapped in colour and light with a voice that’s as the whispering of the wind.”

“So that’s who you’re up here looking for.”

“No, not really, I’m after the ballroom. They say the Soft Man comes to show you where blows the wind from out this world. Find him, find the wind, find the ballroom.”

Wind, ballrooms and soft men, Tim thought, if there was a way they were all meant to fit together he couldn’t figure it.

“Okay, well whatever about your soft man but there’s no ballroom hiding about up here.”

“Ah, but there is. Somewhere. The entrance is at least, trapped between shafts of sunlight or hidden behind a breeze.”

“If you want to go dancing I know plenty of clubs.”

“The dancing days are long gone,” Lisa intoned gravely. “The party ended, ages past, and empty now stands the hall. Only one soul still roams… You know I really wish you’d read the article.”

“Yeah, well, I didn’t. So who is this soul?

“The Veiled Mother in White.”

“And who’s she when she’s at home?”

“The woman who weeps and never sleeps,

The woman who seeks yet never speaks,

Forever nursing to an empty carriage,

Forever minded of an empty marriage.

With…”

“Alright, alright, I get the idea. D’you learn the whole thing by heart or what?”

“Yeah actually, I did.” She said, folding her arms defiantly. Her eyes held his, then bulged wide and lifted over his shoulder. “It’s him! Look, it’s the Soft Man.”

Tim looked to where she pointed. In the distance an old man was ambling along, head bowed into the wind. Lisa gripped Tim’s arm and started to walk. He held his ground and took hold of her shoulder.

“Hold on, you can’t go bothering some poor old chap.”

“That’s no poor old chap, that’s the Soft Man. He’s…” She frowned. “He’s gone!”

“Ugh, he’s not gone.” Tim said, turning again to look. “He’s…”

Tim couldn’t see the old man now. He ran his eyes along the horizon again. Where had he gone? Behind that boulder maybe, he thought, or… Behind him Lisa talked excitedly.

“Soft Man shows the way. See the Soft man, see the way, so they say, hee hee!! Well, I saw him. Is it enough just to see him? Hmm. I wonder if…”

“Ha. Hey, this is like a real life Where’s Wally.” Tim said. No reply. He turned. “Did you hear that, I said…”

Lisa was gone. He spun in a complete circle. She was still gone. That was impossible, nowhere for her to go except… Of course. She always pushed a joke too far, took stupid risks. He hoped there was ledge on the cliff side, that she wasn’t just dangling over the edge by her fingertips, afraid that’s exactly what she was doing.

“Not funny, Lisa, pull yourself up already, I’m not laughing.”

No answer. He took a tentative step towards the edge. The wind gusted against his back, nudging him onward. He heard Lisa’s laughter. His head turned at the sound. He blinked, rubbed his eyes, blinked again. He was sure he had just seen her laughter dancing on the air. He swallowed deep. The wind came again at his back, he dug his heels in but still that incessant force pushed him on. He threw his right hand back and felt resistance. Slowly he turned, staring at his hand in wonder. He raised his left hand beside the other, both resting on nothing yet something. Stretching out both arms he felt something give a little. He shook his head and bit at the corner of his mouth. Then he pushed as hard as he could. He pushed out, parted the wind and stepped on through.

***

(Ciaran Tolan)

[Short Story] The Cat in the Chair

IMG_0323Billy finds it harder and harder to get to sleep these nights and even harder again to get back up in the mornings. Some nights he think of Misty, the cat he had when he was a boy. Misty the cat, who would sit in her chair and survey the room through half lidded, watchful eyes as if she were the queen of all creation. His sister Kate had been the one to name her: the cat was hers and the dog was his. Or so it was supposed to have been, but it quickly became the reverse.

With the amount of pets they both had their parents were fond of calling the house more zoo than a home. But of all of them Misty was his and he was hers, they fit together like Lego. If ever you had a pet like that then you’ll know what I mean. If you haven’t, well… it was like she was family or shared a piece of his soul or… something. She was always there when he was feeling down, nuzzling in beside him and licking his wrist with a sandpaper tongue that tickled. Ever at his side when adventure needed to be sought out or there was a tree that just had to be climbed.

A cat can live a good and long life. With luck they can live for, oh, 14 or maybe even 15 years. Or else a father can run them over with the car when he brings you home from school. Such happened to Misty when she was only three years old. They heard the crunch, the wailing, the screech of brakes and then a horrible silence. His father told him and Kate to both stay in the car. Then he went inside, got an old shoebox, scooped Misty inside and closed the lid. Ever so gently he settled the shoebox on the floor at the passenger seat. He didn’t notice the one bloody paw poking out of one corner, but his kids did and they saw that it was still.

He smiled back at his son and daughter, told them Misty was going to be just fine and drove to the vets. The vet nodded gravely when he took possession of the shoebox and walked away with it. Their father sat them down and they waited. He hated lying to them, hated that he was raising false hope and he wondered how he would, how he could, break the news to them. In the end there was no need. The vet managed stabilised her, saved her life.

Two weeks later they were allowed to bring her home. Misty was alive but she was not fine. Her hind legs were now mangled beyond fixing and forever useless. To move about she had to crawl by dragging herself along by her front paws. For Billy it was agonising to watch and his father felt pained for both of them. He wished there was…

The Saturday morning after they’d brought Misty home from the vet Billy was awoken to his father’s smiling face and and a gentle shake at his shoulder. Still half asleep he was carried downstairs to the sitting room. His father stopped just inside the sitting room door and set Billy down on his feet. Then he hunkered down next to Billy, drummed his fingers loudly on the carpet and started murmuring softly: pish-wish-pish-wish.

Across the room Misty stirred at the sound, yawned, stretched wide her front paws, claws popped. Billy frowned over at his father, this was cruel, this was not funny, this was just not on. Misty started to move. Then Misty started to… run? She was bounding towards them! Billy could only stare openmouthed. Misty halted at Billy’s feet, her left paw playfully swiping out at his father’s hand. His father lifted his hand to point towards Misty’s hind legs but Billy’s eyes were already fixed there. Shaking his head softly, a smile rolled across his face.

Misty lived on until she was fifteen years and seven months old. Billy had just turned twenty-one when she had finally passed on but he had cried like the eight year old boy he’d once been. Though most of her years were spent strapped into a makeshift wheelchair, fashioned by Billy’s father from a belt and an old meccano set, for Misty it had been a long and happy life. They buried her beneath the apple tree in the back garden with her little bell collar but not her little wheelchair. That Billy kept so that he would always hold onto a piece of her.

Billy finds it hard to sleep at night. Worries and woes cloud his mind, more and more, it seems, the older that he gets. Some nights he remembers Misty when he closes his eyes but that doesn’t help, that just makes him sad. Even though he’s almost forty six now and she’s been dead for over twenty years, he finds that he still misses his cat.

The nights are hard but the mornings are harder, he needs to fight himself to wake, to force his eyes to open and then and again to keep them open. Sometimes his eyes will alight on the windowsill, focus on the little rig of mecanno and leather, faded and worn, that sits in the morning light. Thoughts of Misty in the mornings don’t make him sad though. Rather he finds himself thinking back on a cat that was never bothered nor hindered by the harness she bore. Misty learned to make do and make life fit around her. Those thoughts bring a smile to his lips; somehow, after all those years, his faithful pet still finds a way to pick him up when he’s feeling down. He seems to walk a little taller on those mornings when he sets out into the world thinking back to the cat in the chair.

*****

(Ciaran Tolan)

Ruminations on the Not-So-Reluctant Renegade

Review stock photoThis post is in response to an article in the NY Times written by Siddhartha Deb; Arundhati Roy, the Not-So-Reluctant Renegade.

Deb delineates between Arundhati Roy as a writer of fiction and a political activist. Roy herself remarks that: “The ways in which I have thought politically, the proteins of that have to be broken down and forgotten about, until it comes out as the sweat on your skin.” To my mind she means that the story is paramount and that any political meaning one can derive from a story must arise organically rather than being consciously imposed. I wonder if she has considered the opposite, that her skill as a fiction writer may influence her political activism. I say this as I bear in mind the quote from George Bernard Shaw, “Some look at things that are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were and ask why not?” For those who must commit their lives to a cause, who give their time to make the world a better place, what sustains them? I would argue perhaps it is this power of imagination, the ability to dream a fiction that yet may be. Deb seems to posit that Roy holds two separate and, at times, conflicting roles of fiction writer and political activist. I tend to believe that these are not two separate, distinct aspects of Roy but rather they form a symbiotic relationship that strengthen and nourish one another.

(Ciaran Tolan)