Versions of Herself: A Piece of Flash Fiction
This is what she believes. That she can only be loved in small parts. In draft versions of herself. Sunday morning, car-boot-sale her. Cold and happy in a scarf and smile. Fingers dancing over the spines of books. Conversation as light as froth in her coffee. Her laughter is loud, in her hand is small change. She is make-up free but glows. Joy is blush coloured. The edges of her glint, like sun bouncing off water. When she walks, nothing hurts and people throw grins at her like slices of oranges, all vitamin C and effervescence. She can buy bits of other people’s lives and pass them off as her own.
But at home she is something else. Alone she takes off the scarf and the smile. The shape of her changes, her colours fade. Here, she has nothing to say. She spots cobwebs and dog hair, water stains and old teabags, browning on the worktop. She is lost under the weight of the humdrum, the never-ending. Her merriment has gone. No one could love her like this. If only she were blind to things that do not matter. How many more people will she lose before she learns that nothing really matters? This second… has now gone. And she wasted it. This one too. Today she found out that a woman she met in hospital last year just died. She got married in the morning, laid in a bed surrounded by flowers, and went to death for her honeymoon later that afternoon. Cancer is a lawnmower, decapitating life, and yet she still picks up dead leaves, tidies up the grass. Does she deserve her days, the minutes left on her clock?
If she were to press rewind, there are other versions of herself. Eighteen and full of pips. Using words that she didn’t understand the meaning of. Walking home alone through dark fields, her invincible cape of confidence flapping in her wake. Drenched in youth. Chain smoking, music too loud in her ears. Old batteries making the lyrics slur.
But burrow deeper and her laughter was brittle like gun fire. She was born with pellets of panic in her gut. Her heart was always a rabbit in a wide-open field, alone and unprotected. Something wicked watching from the line of trees. Her bed felt too high should she fall. She slept on floors, in the shape of the letter C. There was never any skin left round her nails. She sucked ice cubes to numb her brain. Her toothache spread into her cheeks, into her ears, but she never said, and no one ever asked. Smiling hurt.
She studies black and white photos. Is she in her great grandmother’s smile? Does she have her father’s knees? She wants to find herself, like pieces of a jigsaw lost under the sofa. Wants to dust fluff off tiny forgotten parts. She wants to know if she is capable of holding the sky up, of pinning the world down. She wants to trace her fingers around the corners of herself and know exactly how big she is. Where she ends. If this is as much as there is ever going to be of her.
Because she feels like she is disintegrating, old lace full of holes. The best moments of her life are over; her single moment of bravery, before she went over the handlebars of her red BMX and momentarily defied gravity. The first time he said her name. The slippery eel of a baby quickening inside her. The answer, yes. She wants to rake over the coals of her life, gather herself like a ball of wool. Knit a sweater of herself.
If she could start again, a bare, chubby foot on a sticky lino floor, fist in mouth sucking the remnant of a rusk. The world, a playpen edged by the rails of responsible adults that she did not have to be. Oh God, like an Andrew Marvel poem ‘had she had but world enough and time.’
But she’s been scattering on the wind for so long now. Her hair is leached of colour. Her skin is thin. The bags under her eyes can never be unpacked. All she can do is hold a net out in the wind, catching memories like grasping the head of a dandelion before the breeze beats her to it. Does anyone still love her, love her not.
Of course, it is too late now. When you grow up in a fishbowl, how are you to know that there is another world out there? Skyscrapers and nonfiction. Underground trains that fly you like a bullet, shoot you from a black mouth like a cannonball, into a faceless crowd of strangers all going in different directions. No one ever told her she could make up her own version of this life.
It is too late now. Her feet have stopped growing and her fringe has been burnt too many times. She could stand out in the rain all night, but it would never strip her clean, and she is scared of storms, the dark, of being alone. She is pinned down like a tent by guide ropes of responsibility, of fear. Her heart is a cheap carrier bag full of air, being blown down the street. She chases it in her off-white pants and stained t-shirt, the neighbours looking on. But when she drops the needle and those old chords play, she is temporarily timeless, suspended between the frets of a guitar intro, brand new and shiny.