The day I danced

This story was written for my writing group in response to the prompt, “the day I danced”. It’s fiction.

The door slams. Chris has walked out on us – again. I lay my head on the back of the sofa and sob – again. The baby in my arms continues to scream, apparently without drawing breath. My shoulder is damp with drool and tears. I hold her out in front of me and look into her red angry face, screwed up like a paper bag. The noise scrapes across my every nerve.

“Your father is a git,” I tell her. The piercing yells continue unabated.

We have named the baby Alice. I can’t reconcile the name I loved so much with this creature who seems to exist only to torment me. People say babies look like their fathers so their fathers will love and protect them. This one looks like nobody but herself and her father can’t stand to be around her when she cries like this. Sometimes I walk out of the house too, when it all gets too much. The difference is that I take the baby with me. Somehow the noise doesn’t seem to overwhelming in the open air, but there is still no escape from it.

I stand and begin to pace the floor along the familiar route. Five rocking steps from the sofa to the kitchen door, a swooping turn, eleven steps to the dining room door and another four to the wall where I turn and sway and retrace those twenty steps in an endless joyless dance. Can it really be only six weeks I have been doing this? Sometimes she finally sleeps, but not this time.

“Oh, what’s the point?” I shove her into the Moses basket lying by the sofa, grab it by the handles and dump basket and occupant on the kitchen floor. She is clean, changed, fed and warm. What else can I do? I close the door and return to the sofa. The curtains are closed in the vain hope that the baby would think it was night, but I can’t close my eyes; the screaming has got louder and even more intense.

Fight fire with fire. There’s a CD of rock anthems next to the stereo. I slip it into the slot, press play and turn up the volume. Ah, the restful sound of wailing guitars, crashing drums and passionate vocals. For a moment I lean on the wall, drinking in the change in mood. Nirvanah. I almost laugh at the wordplay in my head, then catch a particularly piercing screech from the kitchen and inch up the volume again. I close my eyes and my head begins to twitch in time with the drumbeat. My mosh-pit days are long gone but the reflex is still there, like an itch.

I push myself away from the wall and lean in to the music. First a full-on neck-wrenching, head-spinning, hair-flicking mosh, hands on knees to stop me falling over. But even in the old days I could never keep that up for long and as I begin to feel dizzy I switch to flinging myself around the room like a crazy person. Jumping, stamping, waving my arms, I sing along at top volume to the screeching lyrics. I fill the small square of carpet between the sofa, the stereo and the walls with my writhing and gyrating and hardly notice as I knock the overhead light with my arm and set it swinging above my head. Limbs flailing, thoughts gone, I am the music. Energy I thought I’d lost is pulsing through me, moving muscles I’d forgotten I had, spinning me in all directions and swirling up a storm as I dance how I used to live – wildly, passionately, but distinctly lacking in grace or rhythm.

I’m panting now and my head is spinning. As the song comes to a crashing end, I stand still in the sudden silence and push my sweaty hair out of my eyes. A forlorn wail comes from the kitchen.

I listen for a moment, focusing on dragging gulps of air deep into my chest. The next song begins with a moody guitar solo: More Than a Feeling. I grasp the wooden doorknob and feel it smooth in my hand. Opening the door, I hear her sobs over Boston’s familiar lyrics. I look down at her. She is writhing helplessly in the Moses basket in her little pink babygrow, real tears squeezing from her eyes. Poor baby. I lift her to my shoulder, my right arm supporting her bottom, and stroke her back. I cup the back of her tiny head in my left hand. What little hair she has is wet.

Back in the living room I sway gently to the soaring vocals and big guitar riffs. We glide smoothly, following the ribbon of sound over a rolling landscape that flows on forever. My pulse slows and I rest my chin on her soft head.

“Ssshhh,” I whisper. “This is dancing. When you’re a big girl you’ll dance too. You’ll wear a beautiful dress and you’ll love the music just the way Mummy does.” She is still crying but I’m listening to the words of the song and thinking of my baby all grown up. We move to the music, floating around the room in the semi-darkness. “Sssshhh, little Alice. Mummy’s here.”

Secret Snobberies

There’s a great article in Mslexia this month about writing – and selling – short stories. It focuses particularly on writing for popular magazines, as opposed to literary ones. The reasons for doing so are simple and compelling (I paraphrase):

• They pay
• They have pages to fill every week or every month, so they want your story
• You get published
• Did I mention that you get published and paid?

And yet…

I don’t think of myself as any kind of snob, much less a literary one. (Confession: I heard a Dylan Thomas poem read out on the television last night and didn’t really understand it at first encounter. Heresy, I know. But I do love Under Milk Wood, so don’t shoot me down.)

But here’s another confession: today I stood in front of the magazine stand in a supermarket for a good five minutes trying to talk myself into buying one of the popular magazines to check out the kinds of stories they print. I thought I knew, you see, and I thought they were the kinds of stories I didn’t want to read, much less write. In the end what made my decision was that it wasn’t expensive and nobody need ever know.

So I am, it seems, a snob. But the financial implications of both purchase and potential publication were too good to ignore. Which probably makes me something else, but I’m not going to explore that particular metaphor!

And the stories? I haven’t read them all yet, but, yes, they seem at first reading to be simpler, ‘easier’ than more literary stories.  But is that such a bad thing?. They are well crafted and carefully written by their authors, and it takes skill to write a decent short story that people want to read, whatever the subject matter. Anything which helps us practice our craft has to be a good thing, so perhaps it’s time to ditch the snobbery and get writing!

When Darkness Falls

This is a story I wrote for my creative writing group last year, to the prompt “Nice.  Very Nice.  Very nice indeed.”  It was good fun.  Any suggestions on where I take it next?

Please remember that all the stories I post here are my own work and are fiction.  There are no real people or real events.

Nice. Very nice. Very nice indeed.

“The first time it happened I was on a dig on a farm in Kent at this Roman villa. I was the one who found the mosaic, well of course we knew it was there from the geophys, but I uncovered the first part, and it was a dolphin. Well, dolphins have always been guardians and guides for me since I was a little girl, so I was watching and listening for what this one had to tell me. The thing was, you see, I was in this relationship with a faith healer at the time and he wanted me to go to Bolivia with him but something wasn’t right, only I didn’t know what it was. So I went and sat with the dolphin one evening when all the others had gone to the pub and I took this article I had about Bolivia with me, and that’s when I realised: Bolivia doesn’t reach the coast so the dolphins wouldn’t be able to follow me. So I didn’t go.” Skye trailed off and continued her slow, gentle trowelling through the damp soil as she knelt at the edge of the trench, unaware that Will was watching her with a mixture of amazement and unashamed lust.

“Are you seriously telling me you run your life based on what you find when you’re digging?”

She looked up at him, shading her eyes against the sun. His curls were blowing in the breeze as he stood over her, trowel dangling unused in his long fingers. “At least some of us actually do some digging. You’re not going to find anything stranding there like a tin of milk. My Gran used to say that. Did milk used to come in tins? She only ever used dried milk anyway. I suppose that does come in tins…”

Will laughed, and jumped into the neighbouring section of trench where he was supposed to be excavating. “You’re bonkers. Did your Gran tell you that too?”

“She called me Dilly Daydream and said I had remarkably little common sense for someone who was supposedly so intelligent.”

“I reckon she had a lot of common sense, your Gran. What else have you found that’s altered the course of your life then, Dilly Daydream?”

“Sod off. Not telling you if you’re going to take the piss.” She put down the trowel and sat back on her heels to re-tie her tangled brown ponytail. She stretched her arms over her head, gazing softly over the open, grassy landscape to the grey sea beyond, and Will’s appreciative gaze moved from her slim behind, where it had been lingering when she was in her crouched position, to the curve of her small breasts.

“Not taking the piss, honest. I’m interested.” His brown eyes caught hers and were almost convincingly earnest. He had been watching her for days and this was the most conversation he’d had out of her. He wasn’t going to waste the opportunity.

“I dunno. Doesn’t seem like much really if I just list them, you need to know all the background. You know what archaeology’s like; most of the time you’re up to your elbows in mud or sieving soil and finding mouse bones. You kind of have to be there to find the excitement in something. You ever found anything that you could, you know, go home and tell your mum about and have her understand why it mattered? Not just a patch of soil that’s darker than the rest, or a tiny bit of pottery that she has to take your word is part of an Anglo-Saxon burial urn? Some kind of statue, one of those Venus figurines maybe, or a skeleton, or something gold? Mums like gold.”

Will laughed again, scraping his trowel gently along the bottom of the trench. “I found some Samian ware in Cirencester last summer. A whole bowl, I mean, not just bits. But – I probably shouldn’t say this here – pottery doesn’t really do it for me. Gold, yes, bones, yes, Venus figurines, definitely.” He leered at her and she tossed a pebble at his head. “But I haven’t done much pre-Roman digging – this is my first really ancient site. Always wanted to come to Orkney though.”

There was a long pause. Will had always found it fascinating that digging and sieving soil could make such a loud scratching sound. He waited for Skye to tell him more of her daft tales, but she was silent, intent on sketching the profile of the trench with a blunt pencil. Although the sun was shining for once, the wind was still blowing – did it ever stop? – and he was beginning to think about lunch. Then the gravelly journey of his trowel across the bottom of the trench was interrupted by just the hint of something smoother underneath. He stopped and leaned down closer to look. Hard to say yet. Might be something, probably nothing. Keep scraping, but more slowly.

“So how do you know which finds are the ones with a message for you?” He glanced up at her as he spoke. She was glaring at him again. “I told you, I’m not taking the piss. Seriously, is it every little thing you find or just some of them? And do you know before you find it, I mean, do you decide, ‘the next thing I find is going to give me the answer’, or does it just come to you once you find it? Come to that, how do you know what the question is?”

“That’s easy. The question is whatever’s on my mind. Surely even you know what’s on your mind, that thing which preoccupies you when you’re digging?”

Will leered again. Skye sighed, and he went back to his methodical work, grinning to himself.

“So, if there’s something bothering me I just think, ‘ok, let’s see what turns up.’ And usually something does. That’s it.” She shrugged, then caught sight of what he was doing and scrambled to his side. Before she could speak, he held up his hand to stop her.

“Right, whatever this is, it’s my answer to today’s conundrum. So let me dig it in my own way. And pass me that clipboard and pencil; I’d better record it properly or Mike will be on my case again.”

It was made of sandstone and had a rounded top, maybe a couple of centimetres across, but that was all he could see for the time being. Could be larger; only time and his trowel would tell. He was aware of Skye’s eyes on him, though whether she was watching his face or his hands he wasn’t sure, and he wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction of looking up to check. She had given up all pretence of working now and was sitting cross-legged on the edge of his trench, like the pixie she was.

‘Do you mean it? You’re going to let it give you your answer, like I do?”

“Yup.”

“Are you going to tell me the question?”

“Nope.” He was enjoying this.

“Fair enough. I’m off to find some lunch. Coming?”

“Nope. Better things to do.” In spite of himself, he could feel the excitement building up and couldn’t leave this little stone even for food. There seemed to be a second bulge to it now, like two pizza-house doughballs stuck together. He didn’t know much about the Neolithic – had blagged a little to get a place on the excavation – but something about carved stone balls was nagging at the back of his mind. Hadn’t someone found something like this at the Ness of Brodgar last summer?

Will reckoned he didn’t really have the patience to be a career archaeologist. Always, when he got to this point, he just wanted to yank the damn thing out of the ground so he could see it properly, and sod the context and positioning. But he kept slowly scraping, measuring, drawing.

It was three hours later when he finally got to hold it. The wind had dropped at last and he was sweating in the August sun. Skye was off chatting to some of the girls at the other side of the site, and he was glad. It had been an interesting few days digging at her side and he was looking forward to finding out what the stone would tell him about his dilemma. He lifted it in his cupped hand. It was a little smaller than his fist, heavy, smoothly carved and looking for all the world like six grey lumps of playdough that some kid had dropped.

He held it up and turned to face where Skye had been. She was bending over now, peering into one of the nearby trenches, backside in the air. Slowly he moved his focus from the rounded curves of the stone to the rounded curves of Skye’s behind, and back again. They matched perfectly and he nodded slowly, glad to have such an obvious answer, and one that he could use.

“Nice. Very nice. Very nice indeed.”