The Great White


Snow sifted down outside. It sifted past the third-floor window where a headphone-clad Emilie sat sketching, oblivious to the white flakes, and to the raised voices of her parents in the room next door. It sifted past the upturned, bearded faces of the old twins in the apartment below, who clung to each other, rapt. It sifted past José’s forgotten, frostbitten herbs resting on a windowsill that had not been lit from inside for weeks now. And it sifted down to the square of patio where Marc’s shadow fell, which, unmoving, belied the speed of his fingers spidering across the keyboard.

Muted sounds: the ding of a tram, a metal whisk in a glass bowl, a dog’s bark; all muted by the soft, perfect snow.

As if powered by the hood of silence, the slideshow in Marc’s mind had gathered speed until he had thrown his pencil aside and advanced to his computer, previously a fearful thing, a threatening thing, but this evening a channelling thing, a converter of these flying, fleeting images into words—into solid, sellable words.

For too many months the milky square of the computer screen had stared at him: empty months. Now, its white glow made him a silhouette, and he sat, unmoving apart from his fingers.

No movement above, either, but dust motes settling in the snow-light on José’s abandoned guitar. Further up, the twins turned their faces to each other, one mooning dreamily, the other a gawping mug. High upstairs, sobbing; but also the slick of a page turning, the scratch of a pen.

The falling snow seemed to change the building into a chimney, outside noises dampened and those inside amplified; and in amongst the funnelled, flicking pictures, Marc’s neighbours, too long ignored by him, began to solidify into crystal focus.

His hands worked furiously; a frenzied silkworm spinning lines, embroidering the zipping images into a digital tapestry—not to be unpicked this time but to be anchor knotted, preserved. A matrix unspooled before his eyes: black on white, a reflected negative of the fine-spun snowflakes drifting down beyond the glass.

Suddenly Marc stopped, the silence broken. He cocked his head. A sad, gentle melody had begun to tremble in the gaps between the floorboards, and José was lulling along to the tune in his wistful voice. The twins, hearing their musical friend back after all this time, forgot the snow for a second and why he’d been away and grinned at one another, each clutching the other by the elbows as happiness spilled out of them in noiseless laughter. Above them, Emilie raised one headphone to enjoy the silence of the flittering snow, but instead heard her father crying, and let it snap back into place.

Marc sat back, flexed his wrists, and in the middle of that great white canvas, that pristine, terrifying, optionless Big Empty, he could see a tiny germ greening its way through the crust.

This story was written as an inspiration piece for Mash Stories, a short story competition which gives writers 3 random key words or phrases, and a 500-word limit, to create their best pieces of flash fiction. The key words for this piece were: happiness – mug – converter.


Powder and Perfume

A grainy Saturday morning, and yesterday’s newspaper flaps past the dented metal doors of The Cockpit. The hour is early – not too early for a green-jacketed dog-walker huddled in her collar, but not yet time for the suit in the alleyway to turn away from pissing against the wall of the club and head home.

An hour passes.

Traffic starts to sound in the nearby streets, an alarm clock of sorts. The main doors crack open. Girls emerge, tottering to their taxicabs, ushered home by minders who know nothing of chivalry. They exit one by one: sallow, young, worn, smiling. They go by names like Jazz, Honesty, Chardonnay, Hope, and they look tired.

Men follow, still rubbing their noses and sniffing. Ties loosened and eyes staring, they scramble: tuxedoed cockroaches. In a few hours a couple of them will spoon cereal into their toddlers’ mouths, present their wives with bouquets to mask their own stench.

And right about now, Gina should appear out front, her cat-eye sunglasses her only defiance against the daylight. Stepping out into fresher air, she’ll cock her head on one side and light her cigarette.

The boss is the last to leave. He closes up, chain and padlock, and lapel fur bristles against his five o’ clock shadow. He pats himself down, chest pockets full of wads thanks to the girls, and beeps his Mercedes open. He nods through the windscreen at Gina as she crosses the road in front of him, but she doesn’t nod back. Instead, she strides off, fourteen blocks to her bedsit, where she’ll shower until the water runs cold, then collapse on her saggy mattress. If she dreams, she’ll dream about her son. Usually she dreams of nothing at all.

By the time Gina wakes again, the sun will have cast its low arc across the sky. She’ll smoke at the window, right elbow resting on her left hand as she watches the street below. She’ll sniff disdain at the orange film in the half-a-can of baked beans, but will upend it anyway onto butterless toast and hope that a minute in the microwave will be enough. Then she’ll dress in the same black uniform as yesterday, paint on the same black eyeliner, and make her morning journey in reverse.

Back at The Cockpit, the girls are getting ready for the biggest night of the week. One straddles her friend at the makeup counter, deftly sticking false eyelashes. Another stands topless, hip jutting, brandishing her blow-dryer like it’s a gun, and maybe she wishes it was. Gina pokes her head into the dressing room and the girls turn and wave, coo greetings. Gina smiles grimly at the powder and the perfume in the air.

“Tonight’s the last time I do this,” she mutters at no one in particular, and ducks back out to serve punters at the bar.

“S’what she said last week,” grins the girl with the gun.

This story was written as an inspiration piece for Mash Stories, a short story competition which gives writers 3 random key words or phrases, and a 500-word limit, to create their best pieces of flash fiction. The key words for this piece were: honesty – blow-dryer – cockpit.



Daniel is poised on the edge of the flat roof. His view down – way down – comes to an abrupt end some ten metres below with a smooth expanse of freshly set black tarmac.

“Daniel!” His mother calls, the only one left to stick by him. “Come away from there, darling.” Her cry is plaintive, scared; pathetic. “Please.”

He looks back at her, but it is a brief glance, and meaningless. His attention returns to the ground below, his vision spinning with an almost intoxicating desire to fall… to fly. Another cry from his mother, and he is wrenched sharply from that lulling, tantalising possibility into a jagged-edged place of fear and dread.

“Please, Daniel.” She sounds exhausted.

But it’s like the time – although he was too young to remember, really – his devout aunt had taken him into the Notre Dame Cathedral during the Vespers service. They’d crept in late, and she’d told him to be silent, but that nasty urchin lurking inside of him had wanted out, and he had let forth an inhuman wail at the top of his lungs, lapsing into a fiendish giggle as she dragged him out by the collar, blushing under the glares of the congregation.

It’s like the time he’d just reached out and run his hand up the branch of the monkey puzzle tree in his nana’s back garden, even though he knew why it was called that, knew it would hurt. He does remember that, remembers watching the blood ooze up through his skin, hoping the urchin was satisfied with these ruby jewels he held out in his palm.

And it’s like the time on the beach, when he dropped the rock on his father’s sleeping head. He really should have known better at that age, but always, always, there was the urchin that inhabited him, his whiny demands derisive, relentless until Daniel eventually gave in. His father’d gone to hospital for that, and Daniel to his room for a month.

A breath susurrates coaxingly around him.

Jump, whispers the urchin.

Daniel thinks how odd it is that the urchin’s whisper is only that, a whisper, yet it can drown out his mother’s pleas, which should be deafening from the terror and love in them.

Jump, murmurs the urchin.

Approximately ten years from now, in a flash of clarity, Daniel will remember this moment suddenly, and look up from the passage he is reading on the theory of relativity, out onto a calm expanse of impeccable lawn dotted with zombies and their minders, and wonder if there is an answer in it for him.

In twenty years, Daniel will find himself vomiting into a cracked toilet bowl, the result of participation in yet another drug trial for which he did not entirely, not explicitly, give his consent.

Jump, hisses the urchin.

Jump, mocks the urchin.

And Daniel jumps. In that brief, beautiful moment between sky and earth, he exults in the bliss of the silence that fills his ears.

This story was written as an inspiration piece for Mash Stories, a short story competition which gives writers 3 random key words or phrases, and a 500-word limit, to create their best pieces of flash fiction. The key words for this piece were: monkey – cathedral – relativity.



‘And don’t forget,’ mum was yelling on her way out, ‘you both have appointments at the dentist on Friday!’

‘Just go, already!’ we yelled back in unison from either corner of the house. We heard the door slam, then calm slowly descended as the dogs and the dust settled.

‘Don’t forget,’ I grumbled, heading downstairs, ‘Half-bowl morning and night for Hector, full bowl for Hutch—’

‘—but only in the morning.’ Drew met me in the hallway – my twin, non-identical but still able to complete my sentences, and not just those drummed into us rote-fashion by a mother leaving on the trip of a lifetime.

‘Blah, blah, blah,’ I added for good measure. We laughed at her, though really we were proud: last year, the news of her disease had transformed her. Where others would have crumbled, she became a fearless explorer. She’d already travelled to The Yukon to witness the aurora borealis; now she was on her way to Arizona for the American Astronomical Society’s Annual Meeting, telescope in tow. Her flight to a Nagano observatory to see the Andromeda in a few weeks would complete her Trio, and then, she said, she would settle down and deal with her final months in a more conventional manner.

Her example was impossible not to follow: insistent, infectious positivity. We’d grown up on it, but last year she’d lit the nitro and really kicked it up a gear. At only fifteen, we’d been praised by the doctors for our outlook. But to be honest, now it was mostly her meticulous planning that was holding us together: there was simply no time for misery.

*     *     *     *     *

Later, the kitchen TV was droning the early evening news while we messed around with dinner, a die-hard habit from when granddad was still with us.

‘Where’s the appointment card?’ Drew asked me. He was at the fridge, leafing through the thousands of notes and reminders stuck to it.

‘No idea,’ I replied absently, following recipe instructions with a floury finger.

‘Need to know what time on Friday.’ He always was the more organized one.

…continues on whether Russia’s democracy—’ sound from the TV cut suddenly.

—We’re just getting news in of a train crash near Heathrow,’ a familiar news anchor’s face appeared. I froze mid-stir, looked across at Drew to see that he, too, had paused to stare at the TV. I went cold as footage of a mangled train rotated on the screen. The reporter was talking over pictures of a battered, shredded tube of metal, bent up unnaturally like a broken bone poking through skin.

Drew cleared his throat, tried to speak. ‘Where did mum put her itinerary?’ His voice came out much more quietly than usual.

We looked at each other. Then I dropped my spoon, and we were scrabbling through the papers on the fridge, emptying drawers, frantically trying to find the detailed plan of her journey that she said she’d leave us.

And just then, the telephone rang.

This story was written as an inspiration piece for Mash Stories, a short story competition which gives writers 3 random key words or phrases, and a 500-word limit, to create their best pieces of flash fiction. The key words for this piece were: Andromeda – democracy – dentist.



Bergamot. A scent that has sat in my memory, nameless, for over two decades – until now. I’d popped the tea tin’s lid, and a cloud of floral recognition had puffed up into my face, fresh yet musky, leafy green but citrus-white. Yes, I remember now: those samplers of beauty products which, at age eight, had seemed like a key to the gateway of adulthood. The one, in particular, that I washed my hair with once, and then saved for years until it had all but dried up, because that smell was just too good to waste on a few days of perfumed hair… I remember now, that shop’s leaflets I used to collect with a Mother Earth-loving fervour, recycled paper filled with bright colours giving a generation of children guidance on how to care for the environment, on animal rights, even on business ethics.

I pour the just-boiled water over the tea leaves, and picture again those summer days in the West Country. The vast field of the school’s playground with its grass dried almost to hay, where on sports day I discovered the power of my arm in a tennis ball-throwing competition, my aptitude for catching during the rounders match, and where my dreams of becoming a baseball legend germinated; the entire weekends we’d spend on roller skates as if these wheeled boots were merely an extension of our own bodies and nothing like a fall, grazed palms, cut knees, and tears.

I sigh, blow on my tea. It’s rare that I look back with such fondness. I inhale the bergamot; blame it; then, with a twinge of compassion towards my younger self, thank it. I take a tester sip, and to my surprise discover it’s already at a temperature cool enough to drink. I must’ve been reminiscing for longer than I thought.

That summer had turned to autumn eventually, and with it, the return to school, a new collection of textbooks, and a trip to the region’s nuclear power station. On a day grey with endless drizzle, we were led up and down caged staircases, shown switchboards and emergency stop buttons, and ushered into a large metal room that acted as a bunker in case ‘things went wrong’. I gathered more leaflets, these ones preaching the opposite message to those already in my collection. We took a walk out onto the headland to get battered by the wind, and I looked across the sea, wondering what could be out there for me, knowing I didn’t want to end up there, at least.

My teacup sits cold in my hand. The leaves, swollen with water, cling to the bottom, arranged in some pattern, some code. I peer into the cup, try to empty my mind. I focus, desperate now to read what the tea leaves want to tell me about my future, but suddenly my eyes are leaking, and the leaves blur, and I see nothing.


This story was written as an inspiration piece for Mash Stories, a short story competition which gives writers 3 random key words or phrases, and a 500-word limit, to create their best pieces of flash fiction. The key words for this piece were: bunker – tennis ball – animal rights.