I’m very happy to have been invited by Johanna Harness to post my #fridayflash today on the #amwriting website. This beautifully designed website has plenty of terrific articles by writers who use the #amwriting twitter hashtag to connect. If for any reason, you can’t access or comment on the story there, here it is:
It was the 70s, sideburns and plaid. There was a birthday party. Gertie had seen the trifle with the sugary spongey fingers and the hundreds and thousands on top. It must have been Saturday because the man who was her Dad was there, he was in the garden trying to catch butterflies with a net, actually a fishing net – it still had straggles of seaweed wrapped round it. Gertie had seen on the telly that nets were made in Bridport by a woman who was very skilled at hooking the twine round. Bridport had a tradition of net making the programme said. They started with fishing nets but later they went on to other nets for things like football. The netmaking people said that one of their brilliant nets had been used in the 1966 World Cup between England and Germany. That wasn’t very fair to Germany then, was it? Dad’s net didn’t come from Bridport, it came from the seafront in a place they had been on holidays.
Gertie was under the table. From out of her pocket she took out the string of a cat’s cradle. She wound it round her fingers in the long parallel strings of candles and the concertina of diamonds. One, two, three, four, five. Gertie wasn’t sure what age she was. No-one had told her.
Gertie thought about the food above her head, about the rows of sponge fingers at the bottom of the trifle, about the bowl in which the trifle was made, pale green glass with a pattern of repeating diamonds, the plaid on her skirt, repeating intersecting bands of colour. The wallpaper’s repeating rhomboids.
The birthday party wasn’t for her, she didn’t think. She wasn’t sure who it was for although that girl from next door was here, the one who’s right thumb was half the size of her left and was constantly spongy. And there was the girl who sat beside her in school and stole her fancy pencils. And there was her cousin Lily who had a very thin and delicate name but a wide body like a descending parachute and fat black boots and a heavy stomp. She was affectionate, like a Great Dane, she often came up close to Gertie whispering gibberish intimacies while spraying a mist of spittle against her skin.
What Gertie wanted right now was a person, a person she supposed you might call a friend who would know how to do the cat’s cradle with her, pinch out the strings, help her turn it into something else
A head appeared under the table, upside down so that he had a beard of curly black hair and his eyes spoke. “You aren’t real” said the boy. “You don’t talk normal. What’s wrong with your mouth?” Gertie didn’t answer. Sometimes she didn’t feel she had a mouth. Sometimes she felt like those special post boxes where you pulled up the lever to see all the letters inside and then pulled it shut again so it was just metal, boxed up. The boy disappeared and then it was just feet. Patent shoes, a pair of wellington wellies, scuffed runners. Then legs, skinny pales ones like cricket bats turned sideways.
There was a lot of noise from the garden. From under the table Gertie could just see out the kitchen door but only through a gap that was triangle shaped like the segments in her aunty’s special tray for what she called ‘nibbles’. From what Gertie could see, her father had put down the net and was helping Barry arrange fireworks beside a realistic cardboard model of an Apollo shuttle. They had laughed at Gertie because she called it a Polo shuttle. She had been thinking about those round sweets with a hole in the middle that came in mint or fruit. Barry and her father had forgotten her, and her mother was busy talking to her Aunty who was holding the nibbles tray. Gertie looked back down at the cat’s cradle. It was lovely once she held it tight but she couldn’t do that forever.
When Gertie’s was three months old her mother left her in the pram outside the butchers and went home. Once they forgot her when they went on holidays – her grandad found her when he called round to put out the bins. He said that her parents were away with the fairies. She thought they had gone with Barry and Gary. When her mother told the stories of her family they always left her out. She heard her grandmother say once that she had been an afterthought. Somehow that made her think of after dinner mints with the green stuff inside. That cheered her up. But then \again there was the time when her mother leapt up after a dinner party exclaiming – “The after dinner mints! I forgot to put them out!” There was always some kind of tragedy or commotion.
Gertie had been hopeful for her mother, despite her forgetfulness until she started hanging things up, wind chimes, dream catchers, those yellow sticky strips that caught flies. Gertie used to dance in front of her, trying to catch her attention but it never worked. It was as if she wasn’t there, as if she was an after dinner mint from the after life.
But if she had been from the afterlife they might have seen her. Gertie’s family were always looking to the sky, to the butterflies and the UFOs, the trajectory of comets, the parallel vapour trails of airshow jets. Gertie looked at the cat’s cradle. She heard the fireworks whoosh in the dusk, she heard the cheers of all the faraway people. Perhaps it actually had been her birthday, but now she was utterly forgotten. She sat quite still under the table until she could not longer be seen, until, in fact she disappeared, in the finger shadows of chair legs.