On Saturday 16th June I hosted a Flash Walk as part of the National Flash Fiction Day celebrations. We invited competition entries on the theme of Urban Landscapes, between 40 and 400 words in length. Wonderful submissions arrived from all over the world, which we managed to narrow down to 12 winning entries.
The stories were performed by actors Ashley Green, Christopher Ryan and Poppy Hocken, during the #FlashWalk from Bristol’s M Shedon Bristol Harbourside to The GreenHouse It was a wonderful to lead our audience across the city, and attract a few curious folks along the way. The rain held off until the very last story!
The winning stories are incredibly varied. Some are funny, some moving, some thought-provoking, some a touch surreal. You can read a selection of them here.
No Such Thing As A Free Lunch by Grace Palmer. Performer: Poppy Hocken
The skyline’s full of triangle-topped houses but the breeze is blowing in as the tidal bore rises. Martha skips around the M Shed, hop-scotching the train lines, a fat ice cream in her pink hands.
Martha’s Mum looks at her phone, realises she cannot meet her lover.
Martha’s Dad looks at his daughter and thinks he is unbelievably lucky.
When they get to the bacon-hut they place orders for coffees now the wind is up.
Inside, Dave flicks fat onto his apron, dreams of when it will go right. His regulars are chewing the fat and chewing the rind.
Martha’s Mother pays.
And pays. And pays.
The Prodigal by Nastasya Parker. Performer: Christopher Ryan
When Edward Colston revisited the city of his birth some three hundred and eighty years later, he saw his name etched blood-red across the sky.
On further inspection, squinting through nightfall punctured by lights of every colour, he found his surname was embedded atop a dizzyingly high tower. For a perplexed moment he thought it was one of the almshouses he’d established to comfort the deserving poor. Impossible. The poor could fill it, perhaps, but properly deservingones were another matter.
Unruddered metal land vessels roared past, travellers snug in their bellies. More people hurried by on foot, each as loud and bright as the next. Where amid such clean, confident multitudes did the elite thrive? And with this tower obliterating the cathedral spire, how did commoners navigate the moral pitfalls of the flesh? Colston squirmed, his fine woollen clothes itching his renewed body.
‘You dressed up for a stag do or somethin’?’ A female voice asked Colston. Several young women surrounded him, shockingly unchaperoned, bearing silken pink sashes referring to poultry. And their colours! In the flameless glow, this handful of people boasted every hue of skin God had sprinkled over the earth.
The one who’d addressed Colston had the darkest complexion. ‘Or are you lost?’ She concluded.
‘I was observing that Tower.’ He indicated the beacon. ‘Is it…an educational institution, perhaps?’
A fairer girl shrugged. ‘I never knew what’s in there. Probably just banks, innit?’
The first girl nodded, her black eyes gleaming. ‘All about the profit, old Colston. Bet it doesn’t do him any good where he is now.’
‘You presume to know a man’s ultimate destination, a man of such rank and piety?’ He drew himself up, rallying his freshly restrung bones, but remained shadowed by the dark-skinned girl. Seeing her stature and self-possession, Colston wondered, queasily, how his traders had managed to subdue their cargo.
The woman seemed to read his mind. ‘I know where my ancestors came from, kidnapped in chains! There were a lot more of them than the few white people he decided were good enough to put through school.’ Her friends coaxed her away, night air whistling through the tops of their empty beer bottles.
Colston stood beneath the beacon with its raw, angry spelling, feeling pale for the first time in his existence.
My Idea of Paradise by Nora Nadjarian. Performer: Poppy Hocken
If you approach the building from a different route, you see it from another angle, and it looks phallic. Then you participate fully in the landscape, with your presence. It feels like porn, and you’re alert. Once, a jealous boyfriend told me: “Keep away from that building!” I knew, then, we were going in the wrong direction. So I kept walking
I went for a walk around the world and finally learned that Paradise is neither here nor there.
The Same Place Twice Cindy George. Performer: Christopher Ryan
I used to be a builder, you wouldn’t think it to look at me now, would you? Poured the concrete for the new bus station, me. Then I come home one night, have a bit of heartburn or something, fall over, and next thing I know I’m a cat. Fur, paws, whiskers, the lot. A black and white sodding pussy cat.
I went to work the next day anyway, but it had all changed. The bus station was finished and they’d started putting up a big posh hotel just off the river. Grez was still in charge, he was looking a bit rough, but he smiled when I went up to him. I thought he’d recognised me, but then he patted me on the bastard head! Right between the ears! Cheek. Then he took me in the prefab, said it wasn’t safe onsite. I’ve got awardsfor safe working practice, mate! I would have said so, only it came out as a sort of mee-oww noise.
Some character called Ben who I’ve never seen before turns up with a saucer of milk. Well I don’t mind if I do, never mind where he got a saucer on a building site. Turns out Ben lives in the new townhouses off the big roundabout. I did some of the brickwork there, but I never went inside one till Ben invited me in that day. Met his lovely wife, nice kids. Little Leticia, she’s so gentle, never happier than when I’m purring at her. Oh yes indeed, purring, I’ve got all the cat moves down now. Been here for a while, you get the hang of it.
You’ll love this, they only call me Mrs Jinks! Turns out I’m not even a bloke cat! I was bothered. But then I wasn’t. All those years building and working, raising the city up, making it nice for people, helping them bring in the money. Never really got to enjoy it myself.
I do now, though. Lovely house to relax in with my family. Nothing to worry about except for the odd scruffy fox. And when I go out at night, I always know exactly where I am. I made this city, it’s mine, and I’m going to enjoy it.
The Colours of Bristol by Margaret Histed. Performer: Ashley Green
A necklace of coloured beads strewn across the skyline, the houses of Bristol stretch row upon row.
Plum, lemon, olive.
The earth heaves under a tree as roots clutch at the soil. Branches are tossed by the wind and leaves blow onto the neighbouring house.
Primrose, cornflower, violet.
A solitary monkey creeps stealthily along a branch, tail held aloft.
Emerald, sapphire, ruby.
A honeysuckle in full bloom flaunts its gaudy beauty.
Mint, ginger, lavender.
Sheep graze on a hillside. A balloon floats slowly across the sky. A tidal wave rears up from the river, threatening the peaceful scene.
Slate, rust, ivory.
We’ll Always Have Paris by Cath Bore. Performer: Poppy Hocken
The world outside throws a gloss of lemon early morning light into the room, and nudges her gently from her slumber. This bedroom, his bedroom, has high sash windows and there’s a half full bottle of cabernet sauvignon on the table. Like the wine, his kisses last night were delicious, and very French.
The sun inches its way up into the sky through the open window, she’s curled up against the warm of his back and in her woozy half dream she lazily paints a wild Parisian romance, cars gliding past the window, engines purring softly, neat cobbled side streets so easily, magically, navigated in heels, air sweetened by an accordion, cafes, Gauloises cigarettes and tiny cups of strong black coffee carrying a single mouthful, no more.
She blinks herself awake and gets ready and up and out of there. Her shoes clatter onto a pavement dotted with flattened splats of chewing gum, urban glitter. In the street the sun is so bright it hurts her eyes and everything’s loud, and big. A postman in a jacket of a far too cheery red hisses a tuneless song through his teeth. He holds a raft of junk mail and brown envelopes from the government in his hand. He scans her thigh high hem and sky scraper stilettos. His mouth puckers into a smirk.
She slaps him down with a tight look, and lifts up her chin. The postman’s not saying walk of shame out loud, but thinking it. In the bathroom she’d found a tube of Colgate, squeezed it onto her finger and rubbed her teeth minty, and put a fresh layer of lipstick over the one that got snogged clean. She’d combed her hair with her fingers, fluffed her fringe just right. There’s no shame in her walk. She holds her gold clutch bag high, the new morning turning the sequins into diamonds. They sparkle and shine for her. She tosses her head like a queen, ‘cos that’s exactly what she is, right? A bus across the way honks in tribute and rattles in applause. She says thank you silently, to herself, for choosing a top showing her décolletage at its finest advantage. Curving her lips into a smile, she brushes flecks of invisible dust from her skirt and, swaying her hips, sashays home with a strut.
The Invisible Woman by AA Abbott. Performer: Ashley Green
No one in the café noticed Linda Schiff. Their eyes flicked past without resting on her black biker jacket, jeans and ponytail. It might have been different if she’d dyed her locks blonde, or they’d stayed the flame-red of her youth, but age had dulled the copper and dusted it with grey.
It was obvious that the nervous brunette, eyes darting everywhere, would be Joanne. Linda waved.
“I expected you to look more business-like,” Joanne admitted, slipping into the seat opposite.
Linda shrugged. “I have to blend in,” she said. Whether here, in a St Paul’s crack den, or a swanky hotel in central Bristol, she was part of the landscape.
Joanne’s story was depressingly familiar. Her husband, Dan, went out every Tuesday evening with a sports bag, saying he was going to the gym around the corner. Joanne had discovered it had closed. Then there were the text messages.
“He’s meeting someone called Lou for a cocktail at Browns,” Joanne said. “She’ll be wearing a bright blue dress.”
Linda took a credit card payment, thinking it wouldn’t end well.
Browns was a cocktail joint in upmarket Clifton. On Tuesday evening, Linda sat at the bar sipping lemonade. Although in jeans as before, she’d brushed her hair out and applied red lipstick.
Other customers ignored her, including the heavily made-up blonde perched on the adjacent bar stool. Was this Lou? She was wearing a cobalt blue dress, but didn’t seem to be waiting for someone. Another girl sat with her, pale pink tresses nearly touching her black miniskirt. The pair were drinking lurid cocktails and talking about clothes.
“I love your stockings,” the blonde said, her voice husky.
“And your shoes, babber. Are they from Dune?”
Linda tuned out of the conversation. Hours ticked by. This was the annoying side of her job, the boring moments when nothing happened. Nobody else wearing a blue dress turned up, and nor did anyone who looked like Dan.
After more cocktails, the two women stood up to leave. The penny dropped as Linda saw how tall they were.
The mini-skirted girl pecked the blonde on the cheek. “Goodbye, Lou.”
“See you next week,” Lou said. “Same time and place.”
“The only time and place I can be myself,” Dan replied.
Linda took a discreet photo, stifling a giggle. You needed a sense of humour. She just hoped Joanne had one.
Night Site by Elisabeth Standen. Performer: Christopher Ryan
“It’s happened three times now,” said Marjorie.
“I know,” Tim Thornby replied, “But the camera should have nabbed Jake red handed. Well, we’d better start.” Clearing his throat he began, “Can everyone see the screen?” they all nodded. “I’ll introduce Peter James he’s our technical support for the evening.”
“As you know, Ladies and Gentlemen I set up the camera in Tim’s spare room, overlooking the Grove for 3 nights. The First two nights, there was nothing of particular interest. Then last Wednesday … Well, let me show you.
At approximately 2.35 in the morning something happened. But first, I’ll show you some slides from the previous evening to give you a feel, for what can be seen.”
The television screen lit up, and the whole of Briavels Grove was laid out before them. Tim Thornby’s gate, at the bell-end, the lamp post outside Annie Jones’s house and Marjorie’s dustbin. Across the Road the Fotergill’s drive was clearly visible with their car and Jake’s motorbike.
“Now if I move it on to approximately 9.30 last Wednesday, well, you’ll see for yourselves.”
Jake came out of the Fothergill’s front door and pushed his bike into the road before riding off. Twenty minutes later the motorbike reappeared, and stopped outside Annie’s front door. Dismounting he took a bag to the door and rang the bell.
“My fish and chips,” giggled Annie. Jake often goes to the chippy for me.” “He’s such a good lad.”
“Now, if I wind it on to 1.30, you’ll see,’ a car turned into the road and stops outside Ginny’s bungalow, and Bob Barnes gets out.”
“Goodness, these things are really clear, aren’t they?”
“Now look here, this happened at 2.35 on Thursday morning. At first the street seemed to be empty, then something was seen slinking along in the shadows, towards Marjorie’s dustbin. It was so quick that they hardly saw it. The dustbin up ended, the lid dislodged, rubbish spilled. Broken glass everywhere. A dark streak sped off. Something dangling from its mouth.
“If I slow it down, you’ll get a clearer view.” In slow motion, they see a fox push over the dustbin, and run off with a chicken carcass.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” said Tim in astonishment. “A fox not Jake after all.”
Threatening rain by Anita Goveas. Performer: Ashley Green
The people at the bus-stop on the main road have wrapped themselves up against the weather. It’s not raining now, but they all know it might at any time. Wool caps, shiny macs, welly boots all form a barricade against the slate-grey clouds, so dense they look like sheets of concrete. They’ve built up their distrust in layers, a callous developed from being let down so often. A woman with curly black hair is so buried in her quilted coat only her tip-tilted nose peeps out. The passing cars spit up dirty dribbles, causing grimaces and feet-shuffling.
A dark-haired woman in a light turquoise jacket and chinos stands near a thigh-high boy who’s holding a crimson scooter. She looks ready for summer, he’s got all the warm clothes on. Bobble hat, thick coat, fluffy gloves. His boots don’t match, one a Spiderman welly, one plain beige suede, a hint at battles already fought. She’s trying to get him to put his scooter down.
“Leave me alone”, he says so loudly that in-their-own-heads Londoners turn round. “You said daddy was coming.”
Her mouth droops, her body stills from humming-bird vibrations to icicle-frozen. She watches a laughing couple push a pramful of giggling girl until they disappear into the park.
A watery sunbeam filters through, strikes a leafless tree, bronzing fruitless branches. The people at the bus-stop burrow deeper into their self-made bunkers. They know what a false hope looks like.
Fate Folly by Shelley Sweeney. Performer: Poppy Hocken
Hottie alert at Starbucks. He squeezes in next to me on the sofa. Good vibes. He hasn’t shaven in a couple days. He notices I notice. I never lie. It’s not a lie if it’s none of anyone’s business. His almost beard looks amazing. I straighten up and put my coffee on the table. The energy is apparent. Never mind, this is it. Haven’t I seen you before? Perfect.
Buuuzz kill. Two kids crowd in, ‘Daddy, daddy.’ He scoops them onto his lap as if I’m invisible.
I’m going to lie now and say I didn’t care.
Home by Robert Burton. Performer: Christopher Ryan
My eyes crack to a squint, creaking under a hangover’s weight. They find another Airbnb; muted tones with a feature wall, quirky objects in nooks, striped wood veneer, fresh flowers. The owner’s ‘individuality’ was expressed as a bowl of sweets. It appears, from the wrappers sharing my pillow, I ate them in bed.
Some iron industrial mechanism strains through wax-thick thoughts to tell me there’s an urgent need to rise. My phone’s alarm says now; the fact it’s sat on top of my passport supplies the reason.
I shower, retch around my toothbrush, put on fresh clothes and push last night’s into a bag, squeezing-out a whiff of recent history. Beer and scotch, sweat, someone else’s perfume or aftershave or gin. I can’t find the inclination to care which.
A tight green lift clatters me to a barren lobby. Grey skies beyond are still too bright. I guide myself by sound to busier streets. Bleary instincts dismiss internationally ubiquitous storefronts before my attention can alight. Instead they catch the transnational sign of ’authenticity’ in a hand-painted no-brand. It’s global-hip; antique trinkets and dead radios, soft beats through hidden speakers. This one has soft toys hanging by their feet from the ceiling, so when I look-up it’s like I’m the claw in an arcade grabber game. Flags I don’t recognise might declare the restaurant’s identity, where it’s situated, both, or neither. I order in English, picking the most expensive breakfast and ensuring I get the receipt. The waiter’s curt reply is softly accented, but I can’t place it as it meanders through his magnificently coiffed beard. He seems irritated I’m bringing something as unfashionable as an expense account into his café. He brings a dish involving avocados, eggs and seed-filled bread. Coffee that a chalk sign assures me is squeezed from unicorns might be wrung from tarmac for all I can tell.
My phone beeps politely. Past me arranged a cab; good past, drunk me.
I snooze through the airport run. Dirty concrete bones lead into clean glass and steel, the theatre of checks and security, the blaze of things I don’t want offered at insignificant discounts.
A flight number on a carrier I don’t recognise. Two three-letter airport codes three hours apart. I recognise neither, but wince at the lack of opportunity for sleeping.
I wonder if I’m going home.
Then realise I always am.
I order a Bloody Mary.