Fiction short story from John S Alty

 

The Captain

Without water and with no means to propel the liferaft he knew he was going to die.

It hadn’t been much of a ship. A converted fishing trawler carrying used oil-refinery spares from Colombia to Curacao. That wasn’t the only cargo; the more valuable cargo was going to the USA via a complex route of which this was just the first leg. Neither cargo was going to reach its destination. The refinery owner in Curacao would probably be less concerned than the desperate consumers on the streets of Miami who would have to pay a few dollars more for their oblivion, supply-and-demand being what it was.

The steel hull where it supported the propeller shaft had long ago lost its structural integrity to rust and finally disintegrated in the early hours of the morning. The sea flooded through the breach and the ship was doomed. Both crewmen had been below in their bunks at the time, the Captain alone on the bridge. The crew’s accommodation was submerged before the men knew what was happening. The Captain had stepped over the rail as the ship sank beneath him. Despite years of neglect, the liferaft automatically released itself from its mountings and inflated. Where once there had been a ship and a crew there remained only a rubber liferaft and the Captain.

*

He wasn’t a religious man but when he heard a voice calling and peered out of the canopy he was nearly converted. Gazing down at him with an expression of concern was a man with long hair and a beard. As his mind cleared and his salt-crusted eyes gained focus the Captain realised his raft was lying alongside a sail boat and the bearded man was offering a hand to help him climb the boarding ladder.

“My name is Nathan Jones and this vessel is Adriana,” the man said, “welcome aboard.”

The Captain, rehydrated and fed, was sufficiently recovered to chat with his saviour that evening. Michael Smith was his name but everyone called him Captain and he’d be obliged if Nathan did the same, he said. Over a glass of rum, Nathan explained how he’d come from San Diego and it was to San Diego that he was returning after three years cruising the Caribbean alone on his forty-foot ketch.

“Don’t you miss your family, being away so long?” said the Captain.

“I have no family. There’s just me now. My wife and son were killed five years ago. It’s why I took off, really. Perhaps I was hoping I might be lost along the way but I’ve come to terms with it all now and I’m going back to San Diego to try to start my life again. But what about you? How did you come to be hereabouts, you’re American aren’t you?”

“Yes, from Houston originally. Ten years ago, I took off on my sail boat seeking adventure on the high seas. Long story short, after a couple of misadventures I ended up selling my sail boat and acquiring an old trawler. I based myself in Colombia, hauling crap from one end of the Caribbean Sea to the other, scraping a living. She was all I owned, shit-bucket that she was.”

“Well, at least you were spared. You can replace a boat, you can’t replace people.”

“Damn right. I’ll always owe you for saving my skin, Nathan.”

“Look, do you want me to head into Colombia, we’d be at Cartagena in two or three days? No problem for me, there’s no fixed date for my Panama Canal transit.”

“Hell, no. Nothing for me now in Colombia. I’ll go with you to Panama and check in with the US embassy – I lost all my money and documents in the sinking. Besides, you really don’t want to be too close to the Colombian coast. Nice sailboat like this would be just what the drug guys are looking for.”

“Well, OK then, Captain, Panama it is.”

*

The Captain was a competent sailor and an engaging companion – the first to be expected, the latter a pleasant surprise for Nathan. During the day, as Adriana made steady progress towards Panama the two men talked about nautical matters and navigation. Each evening they would chat about other things. The Captain realised Nathan was relishing this unexpected opportunity to voice his feelings, rediscover the art of conversation; he showed no hesitation in sharing his personal affairs. This pleased the Captain.

“You know, after the accident I couldn’t bear to live in our house so I sold up and bought a condo in San Diego. I’ve never lived in it – just stuck the best of the furniture in it and locked the door” said Nathan.

“Didn’t you want to rent it out or, maybe, allow a friend to use it?”

“No. I guess I didn’t want any reason to return. I put my affairs in order. Everything I am is in a plastic pouch in the chart table – passport, boat papers, deeds, bank account details, the lot.”

The Captain nodded his understanding and Nathan continued.

“As for friends, well, we lived in a suburb way north of the city, and they were her friends, never really mine. After the funeral, I hardly saw anyone for months and that’s when I decided to set off on my boat.”

“And now you’re going back. A fresh start, a new life.”

“Damn right” said Nathan, “and I’m looking forward to it.”

Two days later Adriana made landfall.

*

At last it was his turn at the counter in the Immigration Office in the Port of Colon, Panama, and he addressed the immigration official behind the glass partition:

“My name is Nathan Jones of the sailing vessel Adriana bound for San Diego, here is my passport. I have no crew, I’m single-handed” said the Captain.

 

 

 

Venus of the Rags

This odd piece of, er, art is by Michaelangelo Pistoletto and it’s called Venus of the Rags. I photographed it on a visit to the Tate in Liverpool.

I think it depicts a lady looking for her cleanest pair of knickers and thinking it might be time to do the laundry. I may be wrong.

There is some wonderful stuff at the Tate Modern at the Royal Albert Dock in Liverpool, by the way. I recently saw a Roy Lichtenstein exhibition and before that a terrific Jackson Pollack display.

Hey, Venus, that pair of pink ones on the left looks OK.

Tea in Peshawar

I was nineteen when I was sent to Peshawar to supervise the start-up of a new flour mill in this city on Pakistan’s northwest frontier, thirty miles from the Khyber Pass. My boss hoped my youthful enthusiasm and enterprise would overcome my lack of experience for there was no one else to send, the order book was bulging. The tale of this three month assignment occupies a couple of chapters in my memoir, The Runner Stone, but here’s a small taste:

The client allocated to me a sort of batman, Rafik, who would take care of my laundry and bring my breakfast and evening meal. For lunch, I would join the office staff in the mill lobby, seated on the floor around a feast of spicy curries and chapattis which we ate with our fingers. Twice each day I’d be interrupted by Rafik delivering tea in a china tea service on a silver tray. He did this at ten o’clock in the morning and three o’clock in the afternoon wherever I was on the site and no matter in what activity I was engaged.

The mill had been built in an undeveloped area beside a river to the east of the city. One day in June a hoard of people and animals arrived on the far bank and erected a temporary encampment of rough wooden poles, patched tarpaulins and sheets of plastic. I was told these were Shia Muslims assembling to celebrate Muharram. The highest point on the six-story mill building was the stairwell roof and I climbed to it on a rickety wooden ladder left over from the building works, hauling with me an old rattan chair I’d liberated from the office. From this precarious perch I had a splendid view of the activities in the sprawling camp. Several fanatics were engaged in flagellation, enthusiastically whipping their own backs with chain flails. Blood flowed freely from their torn flesh while the crowd wailed and clapped; I found it fascinating if gruesome entertainment.

I became aware of some activity behind me and turned to see the ladder moving.  A china tea service appeared over the parapet followed by a black woolen Jinnah cap and then the sweat-bathed, grimly-grinning face of Rafik. It was three o’clock.

 

The Ecstasy of Betrayal – Laure Van Rensburg

Here’s an edgy piece from the talented writer Laure Van Rensburg. It was entered in a Writer’s Workshop competition last year.

Maybe it happened because we’d fought, or because I’d run out of reasons not to, or because it was a Tuesday, and what a shitty day that is, or maybe your anger had reminded me of my father. It didn’t matter anymore; all that mattered now was the flame licking the spoon. When it was ready, I dropped the piece of filter in and it swelled up like my heart anticipating the rush to come. Rolled-up sleeve, discarded morals, and a recycled hairband tied around my arm, I speared the soaked fibres like I ‘d done so many times before until you’d convinced me I didn’t need it, but the quiver of my skin reminded me I did.

The solution rising in the barrel stirred up a familiar tightness in my groin I thought forgotten. Lying on my back night after night I had lied to us both—you inside of me would never satisfy me as much as the warmth of heroin inside of me did. You would never compare or be big enough to fill the hollowness that needed to be filled. Your love for me was a windmill, a losing battle. What I was about to do to you saddened me but I took comfort in the thought that soon you would be like Tuesday—you wouldn’t matter.

The constellation of old scars mapping the veins running below the skin showed me the way. I tilted the needle before its tip tore the flesh. Skipping a breath, I waited until a cloud of blood uncurled in the syringe and the visceral excitement of hitting the vein uncurled in my stomach. Licking my lips, I pushed the plunger and every promise I made to you, myself and the people in N.A. dissolved in a chemically-induced ecstasy.

A flaming sun rose in my abdomen, its tangled rays creeping up my spine, firing upwards until they exploded in my mind, a tantalising wave of warmth drowning me. The radiating light bleached the memory of your face into oblivion. I let go of you. Untethered, my body collapsed back into bed and into the embrace of my old lover. I’d been so stupid for ever wanting to give it up, but it forgave me for my indiscretion. I should take the needle out and flush the blood from the syringe. I should. I should…

Days clean: zero

The Miller and the Painter – John S Alty

The millstones, four feet across and a foot thick, rumbled as they rotated one upon the other, the bed stone fixed and the runner stone in motion. The trickle of wheat fell into a hole in the centre of the runner stone and traveled outwards to the skirt, being ground as it went. Flour dust leaked from a thousand imperfections in the wooden enclosure, rising like smoke through the shafts of sunlight slanting through the windows. The meal was warm to my touch as it left the stones and slithered down a wooden spout into a jute bag strapped to a packing ring on the floor below. My fingers told me it was fine enough and would make a proper loaf, there’d be no complaints.

The apprentice, Tommy, bagged off the meal and sewed up the jute sacks with needle and twine. He’s a slight lad and manhandling the heavy sacks of meal had tested him at first but he’d the knack of it now and could swing the full sack clear of the spout using his thigh. After he’d sewn the bag he tipped it onto the hand barrow and trundled it off to join the others at the sack hoist, ready to be taken down to the warehouse. I’d do that tonight before I left.

Stepping outside, I took my pipe from my pocket and walked down to the sluice. The Stour was high, we’d had plentiful rain this summer and we’d not had to shut for lack of water. The great wheel trundled round, the river driving it with unimaginable energy. The wheel, in turn, drove the heavy axle which, through a devilish complexity of cogs and gears and flat leather belts, gave the mill its life.

I leaned against the wall and pulled on my pipe, drawing deeply; an agreeable Virginia. Across the mill pond, the painter cleaned his brushes and folded his easel, his day’s work done. His time was his own, being a son of the mill’s owner. I’d seen him in the Crown once or twice but hadn’t approached for he was with gentry and I was in my dusty smock and didn’t want to cause annoyance. I was told by some that know these things, his work was highly revered and sold for tidy sums. They said he painted at Flatford, too, to give variety, I suppose. I thought he lived in East Bergholt with his father but I hadn’t seen him for many months before he’d appeared this past week.
I finished my smoke, tapped out my pipe and went back inside to send the apprentice home and then count up the production, drop the sacks down the hoist and be away myself. The painter might make a handy income but there’s nothing like an honest day’s work to provide proper contentment. As I walked through the village the sun fell behind the church spire and shadows reached like fingers across the gravestones. I wondered briefly if I should call into the inn, perchance the painter would be there and I’d address him, but it was a grand evening for a stroll.

*

In the morning, when I’d recounted seeing the painter once again at the mill, Mollie said:
“That’ll be John, of course, Abram’s older brother.” It was to Abram that I made my weekly reports. “I heard he moved away from his father’s house and he’s married Maria. “
“Well he seems to be back. Maria, did you say?”
“Yes, his childhood sweetheart. They say her granny didn’t approve of the family and said there’d be no inheritance if she married John. P’raps the old cow’s gone to her maker and true love has triumphed.” She batted her eyelids in a most comical fashion and I laughed.
“I don’t know where you hear this gossip, my love.” I said, “Anyway, I’ll be off now.”
“All right then, Frank. I’ve put an extra wedge of cheese in your lunch bag for Tommy. That boy needs fattening up.”

*

Leaving the mill well set and running smoothly, I crossed the river at the lock, skirted the pond and approached the painter:
“Forgive me if I’m disturbing you, sir.”
“Not at all,” the painter said, turning on his stool to face me. He put out his hand, “John Constable.”
“I’m Frank Wells, miller over yonder.”
“Yes, Abram speaks highly of you, my father too. Did you know I once worked at that mill? Before your time, nearly twenty years ago now. Just labouring, really, sewing sacks and such. My father liked his boys to get their hands dirty.”
“I’ve been here nine years, now,” I said, “I was the apprentice and then assistant at Flatford mill, then this mill came free and your father gave me the chance.”
“Well, pleased to meet you, Frank. And I’m glad of your interruption for I’ve come to a halt with this damn work. I had a bad feeling after I’d done the sketch and putting the paint on hasn’t made it any better. Come and look here; the mill and the lock on the left are alright but this right-hand side with the trees is just a muddle.”
“I must say, sir, it all looks exceptionally fine to me. The only thing I can paint is a wall.” This raised a smiled.
“I suppose in the mill you have times when things don’t seem quite right? It’s like black magic to me, the way you millers set the stones to make the flour just right, but there must be occasions when you wish you were a cowherd or a clerk.”
“Oh yes, there are those times alright and they’ll have you scratching your head or kicking the cat. I find the best way is to go back to the beginning. If the wheat’s not right, nothing will be right. So, I check the wheat and if it’s too dry or too wet I’ll open a new sack. Then I’ll set the runner stone and if I still can’t get the grind, well that’s a worry because I’ll need to dress the stones. Whenever I need to do that I curse myself for the lost time and must make it up by milling into the night. Better to keep the stones in tip top condition. Mister Abram’s good with that, he lets me bring in the millwright regular and not wait ‘till the stones are hopelessly blunt, but sometimes it happens.”

“Hmm. I think I might need to check the wheat, reset the runner and dress the stones on this painting.” He seemed to ponder this idea and then said,” Yes, you’ve made up my mind for me, Frank, I’m going to start again with a clean canvas.”
The original “Dedham Mill and Lock” painted c1817 was never finished.

Snap! by John S Alty

The river below the weir tumbled and swirled and dashed to its destination but above the wall it was broad and placid and deep. The sun was setting behind the trees, the water’s surface like quicksilver washed with red and orange streaks. Only a few leaves and myriad skittering insects  marred the pond and Adam wondered briefly why no fish rose to the evening hatch. He knelt at the edge and focused the Nikon. Not long now and the sun would drop behind the far bank and just before it did he would catch that final flash of light and its wondrous effect. A competition-winning shot. 

The thing stirred. It detected movement and awoke from the torpid, energy-conserving state in which it spent most of the day. It hadn’t eaten since taking a pair of waterfowl the day before and it would need to restore its protein levels soon. It turned slowly, allowing the receptors on its flanks to locate the tiny vibrations that had aroused it. Then, with a flick of its powerful tail it slid towards the bank, its eyes seeking prey.

Adam pressed the shutter as the last rays of the sun flashed across the water. It came for him then, lunging up through the lily pads that fringed the pond. Jaws locked onto his throat, it carried him upright and with a twist of its body jerked him from the bank. It was cold at the bottom, in the slime, among the bones, but Adam didn’t feel it.

This piece was published in Reflex Fiction, Feb 2018.

Canvas Of Life  by Terrie Avery

The soft cry of a newborn breath paints the first muted mark on each folio of life and the pastel colours tint the opening sheet with purity.

Swiftly, childish scribbling and daubs coat those innocent years as the canvas grows; swelling, until the impulsive brush strokes of youth are able to stuff the small dimpled challenges of its surface with splashes of coloured hopes, dreams, laughter and tears.

Then, striding in, comes the strong, confident, engravings of a drafted and planned future, all carved with self assured strokes of maturity.

Specks of sadness punctuate this part of the design, alongside brightly coloured swirls of joy and contentment, which mark intervals along this great work of life so the creation is outlined with tenderness. Those lines thicken, lovingly, here and there along the path but, in places, spidery ink trails down the porous vellum, running from one lie to the next, placating adjoining portraits of life, or satisfying self-guilt, as it drips.

Sometimes designs are erased and drawn anew but still the work continues; spreading fully and more obviously with the passing years until you can almost guess what the next marks will be.

As time trickles forward the work becomes smudged and torn through age and use. Wrinkled and thick with dye, the canvas cannot cram another thing onto its forlorn face. Slowly, then the varnish flakes and the careful designs grow fainter until they are just memories of a life lived.

Curling and crusting at the edges, the canvas begins to fail and no amount of knowledge gained through the years can halt its papery decay. Every breath becomes a reminder and a challenge until death tiptoes in and folds the crumbling work into her mottled and silted portfolio of human art.

In time, snowy wet tears of other folios trailing in its wake will try to remember the colours and artistry of this intricate work as it fades away but now they are focused on the pale, fresh canvas, rising and another soft newborn breath making its first mark.

 This story was the winner of the regular short fiction competition at Writer’s Workshop

The Colour of Her Name – Laure Van Rensburg

This story of unfulfilled love was first published in Across the Margin magazine and put on their Best Fiction of 2017 list.

I slip out of bed with slow, considerate gestures my sturdy body is not accustomed to. The darkness enveloping her bedroom recedes until the dark shape of a chair emerges. I lift my shirt and trousers from it, and carefully dress, leaving the silence of daybreak undisturbed, so as not to wake her. She rests on her side, the cotton sheet hugging the lines of her body. My eyes follow them up to the delicate curve of her neck that calls me for a kiss, but I resist its siren song.

The affair only lasted three days, but she will never know how much it all meant to me. How much she means to me. That’s why I don’t wake her. If I do my courage will leave and I will stay, and the train is waiting for me and after that a plane. The Pacific — my final destination — awaits. And there, a war. My time with her resembled the promise of a life I’ll never have, but to her I was just a passing adventure.

I take in her beauty one last time and remember my body in her arms. I trap the memory in my skin, an invisible tattoo of our encounter, so if I die on a field or in a trench I can do so with her arms around me once again, one last time. How long before another soldier lies within her embrace, before she replaces my body with that of another? I don’t blame her. Life goes on. She may not miss me, but I will her, and the purr in my ear when she called me “sugar.” I’ll miss never kissing her mouth again, that ripe cherry that tasted so sweet. I’ll never have the chance to properly love or disappoint her. The army may have my body but she has my heart.

Boots in hand, I quietly close the door on her and our story. Goodbye, my darling. I will forever remember her as the girl at the fair, eating candies with lips the color of her name, with a body under her dress that would make any grown man fall to their knees. Outside, down on the street, the air is stiff like a cheap drink. Dawn is starting to stain the sky with hues of yellows and oranges that reminds me of the warmth of her skin, of her arms around me. My heart swells and breaks within the same stride.

*

There’s a slight shift in the mattress as the weight of his body leaves the bed. A rustle of fabric spoils the silence, as he gingerly lifts his clothes off the chair. It’s clear he doesn’t want to wake me, but I’ve been awake for some time. Still I pretend with my eyes closed and my back to him. Blind, my ears stalk him, from the subtle rise and fall of his chest, to the graze of his strong limbs diving into sleeves and trousers, ready to leave me. It was only a three-day affair but he will never know how much it meant to me and how much I’ve fallen for him already. To him, I was only was a distraction of curvaceous warmth, something to forget the impeding coldness of the front. I will miss him and his kisses. They tasted like a one-way ticket out of my world, yet only hinted at the promise of a life we would never have.

My hand held against my chest and I close it into a fist, strengthening my resolve not to turn around. If I do, I will pull him to me. I will plead and beg until he is back in my bed, making him a deserter. I won’t let him break his promise for me. He will forever be the burly man with the slick backed hair and the worn-out leather jacket with a half-smoked cigarette jammed in the corner of his mouth. With those wounded eyes that looked at me as if I were a real respectable lady. I will never have the chance to fully love or fail him. Other men may have my body but he will have my heart. I pray war will spare his life, but I may never know.

The click of the lock as he closes the door behind him slices through me. The feeling of loss swells under my eyelids before rolling down my cheeks, trapped inside the delicate slivers of my tears. I have nothing left of him to hold onto, just the fading warmth of his body and the memories in my head — the brush of his whiskey and tobacco breath on my skin, the echoes of raspy “my darlings” in his smoky voice. I count his steps and when I place him turning around the street corner I finally open my eyes. The sunrise filtering through the window casts a rectangle of fiery light on my bedroom wall and reminds me of the warmth of his arms around me. My heart swells and breaks within the same stride.

Laure Van Rensburg is a native of France currently living in the UK. She studies creative writing at Ink Academy in London and is working on her first novel.

 

Scaredy-Cat by Stephen Frame

From guest author Stephen Frame, a bit of fun:

A sub-basement, somewhere under the Johnson Space Centre, Houston, Tx.

“Hey, man! You got coffee on my shirt. This shirt cost fifty bucks.”

“Never mind your damn shirt. Pay attention. See this. See this number that’s not getting smaller?”

“Holy shit!”

“Yeah, Brainiac, they’ve stopped the countdown.”

“So let the jet propulsion boys deal with it.”

“The on-board AI has locked out all the systems.”

“That’s so bad.”

“It’s not responding to any inputs.”

“That’s a level of bad I can’t even begin to identify with.”

“How can this happen? How can a gazillion dollars of computer thats going to drive a starship through a worm hole just not work ? Its got a brain the size of a planet. It can’t just not work!”

“We told them to build it in orbit. Didn’t we tell them that? Don’t risk a launch, we said.”

“Yeah and the project director who made that decision is being staked out on the front lawn as we speak, the better that the wild dogs can feast on his cojones. But we made it smart.”

“Oh man, we are screwed. We are beyond screwed. We are uber-screwed.”

“We can be screwed later. Now we need ideas.”

“Run a diagnostic?”

“It’s got over ten to the twelve lines of code. Any IDEA how long it will take? You hear that sound? That’s the sound of wild dogs finishing their starter and waiting for their main.”

“We could always switch it off and -”

“Don’t. Do not say that.”

“The sandbox! Entry level input. Remember we used it to introduce the AI to first principles of thought?”

“The sandbox! Brilliant!”

“Uh, man. Too much personal contact.”

“Sorry, yeah, call it up.”

“What do we ask it?”

“Uhm … what’s wrong?”

“Doing it.”

+++INPUT/WHAT IS WRONG/INTEROGATIVE+++

“It’s responding!”

+++ANSWER/SCARED OF HEIGHTS+++