When I told you lovely people that my flash fiction 'November' had been successful in a competition, some of you wanted, quite reasonably, to read it. Well, I still have to wait for it to be published in its anthology, so here is a different story to keep us all going. I have tried to choose one which isn't too far into any genre to alienate lots of people.
I deliberated for a while before offering this because, once it's published here, it can't be published anywhere else (for money, I mean). But then I decided to switch off that crazy poverty-mentality and have faith that I have many, many wonderful stories to tell and, anyway, it's Christmas!
I wrote the bones of it ages before I started blogging, and the central character isn't me, but you'll probably see, as you read, how it reflects the 'Blimey, If I do this, someone might take notice!' anxiety/hope adrenaline mix which has been my experience of blogging.
I hope you enjoy it and, if you feel moved to generosity in return, please leave a comment or pass on the link. Thank you.
Only a Poem
Susan understood that to hear the poem spoken by her own voice and to know that people, many people, were listening; that was the coin flipped for triumph or desolation. And yet she stood, fighting nausea and dizziness, muttering the words as a mantra, futilely inhaling, exhaling, waiting for the contestant before her to finish. She became aware that some part of her brain was reflexively praying, a habit she had thought entirely gone forty two years after leaving Our Lady’s Convent School. She was not clear what it was that she was praying for, but she knew she absolutely meant it.
She realised the precious paper was damp and soft in her hand. In theory she had no need of it; each word, each pause, each inflection had become an indelible part of her during the weeks of intensive revision and rearrangement which followed its inception. Now, though, it seemed of literally vital importance that those written words accompany her onto the stage. She could not do it alone. To be sweating about a childish poem in this shabby, dreary town hall at the age of fifty eight seemed ridiculous, but she could not shake off the feeling that this was a momentous event in her life.
Her mind, desperate to escape the present moment, seduced her back to the night the poem came, by torchlight and against a backdrop of whispered complaints from the rest of her dorm. She had written many poems in her girlhood, but, at the furiously truthful age of fourteen, she had birthed into poetry some essence of her soul which had whispered to her all her life and would always be with her.
This was the only poem that mattered and so was the only one she would never share, never tell the existence of. Never, because she did not have the courage. Never, because it was too exposing. Never, because they did not deserve to be told what they could see for themselves. And never, because if anyone knew the true texture of her soul and said the mildest, lightest word of criticism, she would know she had betrayed her self and the punishment would be permanent exile from her body – left to drift in purgatory while her body smiled and got on with the business of pretending it didn’t matter; it was only a poem. Heads or tails, there was no retreat from this.
Entering this competition was the last thing she expected herself to do. She had read the advert in the local paper and huffed at the very idea. Then, as she passed the paper’s office, she popped in, curious to see who had entered. Kate, the receptionist, assumed she wanted to enter and it seemed rude to refuse the form, so she took it home and completed it in the absence of a crossword with her coffee, then left it for the recycling. Her husband had helpfully posted the thing on the way to work and so sealed her fate. She twisted her wedding ring and felt a surge of anger that he had put her in this vulnerable position.
Even now, as the compere gabbled his way to a close, she knew she could just say one of the many other poems she had memorised. None of them carried this sense of risk; some of them were good, and probably no-one would notice they did not fit the title she had given on her form, but some solid pebble of fire deep in her gut knew that she would speak the poem she had come to speak no matter what she decided or what bargains she made with herself. Already there was no return.
Another wave of nausea bent her slightly as she wondered why she had told all her family and friends that it was important they be here tonight. Earlier she had peeped through the curtain and almost fainted in horror and delight at the number of faces she knew, all waiting for her. Her husband and children were here of course, and the ladies from the allotment, but also the staff from several of the local shops, the couple who ran the Ring O’ Bells, Molly’s dog trainer, the postman, and friends she hadn’t seen for months or years. Susan wondered about running, now, to another town far away and starting again, but the knowledge that this was her only chance to share her self with the important people in her life was persistent. That thought, alone, had the power to get her onto the stage.
She imagined hearing her name announced with the title of the poem she had concealed for so long. She pictured herself stepping through the curtains, nodding thanks to the compere, folding the paper and putting it into her pocket, taking the microphone and standing solidly on the stage. The panic inside melted. She felt 14 again.
Only when her poem was halfway through being spoken by that powerful voice did she realise this was not imagination. Without a flicker of hesitation she continued, present and strong. It no longer mattered if they loved her, hated her, were indifferent to her. She was alone, her soul bared and brave.
When she finished there was a long pause and her fears pounced on her. People started clapping, but some were standing. She almost fell – she hadn’t considered they might just leave! Then more people were standing, and clapping, and not leaving. They were standing for her – some grinning, some crying, all standing for her and her poem and clapping forever.
She had no idea how she ever got off the stage or into a chair with the million babbling people and she returned to the stage to collect her prize and a shower of wonderful words and to speak her poem all over again in a barely lucid dream.
The next morning she woke with an unaccustomed champagne hangover and lay motionless, wondering how life would be as this newly revealed woman. When she finally got up and braved the world, she discovered that nothing and everything had changed.