I’ve just written a post lamenting the fact I haven’t posted more short stories on this blog. I’d love to do more; at the moment, they’re probably my favourite literary form as a practitioner. The trouble is that once I’ve put a story up here, it becomes published and thus ineligible for consideration in the vast majority of competitions. I don’t really want to use this site as a repository for those second division stories which don’t stand a chance in the real world but at the same time I’m aware that once I’ve posted a story here there’ll be nowhere else for it go. Defeatist thinking, I know, but defeatist thinking formed around a kernel of narcissism. The following story was one I wrote for an Authonomy Flash fiction challenge. There were a number of specific words I had to use-I don’t remember them all but they included nail polish, watch and tissue. This one got a few votes from fellow authonomites and then sunk. It’s been in Wattpad a while and has been seen by about 10 people. If you read it, I can’t guarantee thrills, but you’ll be joining a select crowd.
She sighs, and there’s an unwelcome, impatient edge to her words. She’s getting older. In my day, we’d call it growing up but they don’t do that anymore. instead, they just get jaded and embittered without needed to acquire a sheen of maturity. Along the way, of course, they’ll mess around with make-up and nail polish until they get to a point they’ll spend the next fifty years desperately gripping onto. The boys probably have an equivalent, though I’m buggered if I know what.
“Never you mind, duck. Just get the shoebox.”
I watch her walk to the garage shelf, stand on her tiptoes and take the box down. She’s nine, but her gait’s already taken on a peculiarly adolescent self-consciousness. It can’t be long now, till she decides to lock herself in her room for five years, coming out only to tell me she hates me.
“But why? Can’t I go out with Jacinta ?”
If I weren’t trying for a seminal father-daughter moment, I’d say she was whining now. I’d probably let her go, too, but I know I won’t get too many more chances at this; whether she likes it or not, she’s staying. I feel a wave of irritation,swallow and ignore it. There’s no place for that sort of thing today.
“Just open the box, love, tell me what is is.” I try to keep my tone even but it’s hard. I know she’ll love this; when I found it, I could barely believe it. Back when I was her age, I used to take it out on the green with my dad. I remember building it with him, long afternoons in the workshop, breathing in the smell of dust and creosote, desperately hoping I’d grow up to be like him. I didn’t, of course, and in a few years I went off the rails. Those are my last happy memories of my time with him. But beyond the proustian rush, my thought when I chanced across it had been that I could show it to Cordelia.
A thrill of childlike excitement flashes over her face as she unwraps the object in the box, discarding the tissues I wrapped it in when I decided I was too old for toys. After a moment, she realises she’s smiling and rearranges her features into a petulant scowl.
“It’s a car.” She doesn’t bother to conceal her disappointment. “A toy car,” she adds in clarification and I begin to wonder whether my optimism was misplaced.
“Not just any car,” I say, trying to maintain an enthusiasm I’m no longer feeling, “A radio controlled car. I thought we could take it for a spin, see if it still works.”
She exhales sharply, lets her shoulders sink. She looks both older and younger than her years. “Do I have to? Jacinta’s mum’s taking her down the precinct.”
They say rejection cuts like a knife but it’s subtler than that. Rather, it leaves a hollow feeling, a numb realisation that I’ve left it too late. I’ve had years to be a father but it was too much effort and the opportunity to change, to put it right, has gone. When I reply, I don’t bother to hide the anger,
“Yes, you do. We’re taking it for a spin, like I used to do with grandad.”
Five minutes later we’re standing on the driveway, not bothering to talk, not making eye contact, pretending not to feel the October cold. It’s a relief when my ridiculous toy car stops working and we can go in.