Flash fiction: In the boat

I found this painting when I was looking for something else, and was intrigued by the strength of this couple. Who were they and what was their story? This is one possibility.




The sun was hot for April, and she could smell his man smell over the heavy muddy scents of the riverbank. He sat in profile, his head bowed over the almanac in his hand, as he pored laboriously over the predictions. This was not what she had imagined, not now, after waiting for so long.

She had done nothing wrong. Nothing anyone would ever discover at least. The old man had been ailing for years. Gout, the doctor said, though the drunken idiot possibly wouldn’t have known gout from a broken ankle. She’d treated the pain with morphine and he’d got a taste for it. She dosed him liberally and let him swill it down with as much vodka as he wanted. Only the priest had ever voiced any disapproval, but she had listened, silent and stony-faced to his concerns, remembering his dismissal of her complaints about the beatings the old man gave her.

For months she had thought of nothing but her lover’s face when finally she was able to announce that the old man was dead and she was free. He had smiled, rather distantly, and reminded her of the mourning period.

“No point going against custom,” he’d said. “Let them see that you’re a respectful widow.”

So she had waited, even though she howled inside with impatience. Even after death, the old man was keeping them apart.

The mourning period over, she had flung the black shawl into a corner and run to him, breathless and flushed, like a young girl running to her first flame.

“We’ll talk on the river,” he’d said, in that slow, quiet voice of his. “We’ll take the boat to our place and we’ll talk.”

He’d hummed to himself as he pulled on the oars, while she squirmed with impatience, twisting her scarf in her fingers, the words on the tip of her tongue. But she held her peace. He pulled into the creek beneath the willow. The bank was wet after the rain. The smell of wild garlic filled the air, and unseen birds scuffled through the new leaves. She took no notice of these things, her eyes fixed on his face, waiting for him to tell her what they would do now. She had been making plans since she had first seen the strong, soft-eyed farmer and decided he was the one who would have her heart. But he had never told her exactly how he saw the future, and only now was she beginning to wonder if he saw it at all.

Ignoring her silent pleading, he rummaged beneath his seat and took out the almanac, the only reading material she had ever seen in his hands.

“It’s all in here,” he said. “The predictions always come out right. Just takes a bit of working out.”

He hummed. The water slapped as the boat rocked against the bank. The birds called to one another as if the humans were not there. He sat so still, he may as well have been a rock in the river. She leant forward, unable to stand the silence, the humming, his indifference.

“Well? Will you see the priest tomorrow?”

“Priest?” He looked up absently from his reading.

“About the wedding.” Her voice was loud, panic replacing impatience. His expression was mild and open as ever. He smiled, slowly and tapped the page of the almanac.

“I’ve been back and forth over the predictions,” he said. “Looks all in order to me. Says I’m to be married in September.” His smile broadened. “To a rich widow. With hair the colour of bright copper.”

His mild brown eyes, that had always seemed so full of tenderness, were like empty pools, where she saw only her pale face reflected, framed in thick dark curls.



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Jane Dougherty

I used to do lots of things I didn't much enjoy. Now I am officially a writer. It's what I always wanted to be.

23 thoughts on “Flash fiction: In the boat”

  1. Oh, this is a wonderful painting with a story. Perhaps I will write another version when I have a chance.
    I feel sorry for the woman in your story, but I think she’s probably lucky to be free of this guy (and the old man).

  2. What a perfect story to go along with this painting. And oh dear, she was definitely laboring under a misconception of his feelings! Although it seems that he couldn’t have misinterpreted hers, what with the comments about waiting for the mourning period. He was just leading her along, the jerk. Well, she’s better off without the old man, at least, and can move on without this chump too.

    1. Thanks Joy! She thought that tradition and the priest were problems enough. I don’t think she was banking on the superstitions of the almanac. I hope she found someone more suitable 🙂

      1. I think that women in C19th Russia had more than their fair share of difficulties. I’m counting on the old man’s savings to give her a breathing space. Mr Right might still turn up.

  3. This was so beautifully written – loved the descriptions of the river, of her feelings and his blankness. And love his reliance on the almanac too, to determine his future. Maybe when it comes down to it, he doesn’t want to hitch himslef to a woman capable of killing a man when he’s down – that could be him one day!
    Wonderful interpretation of the painting Jane

    1. I’m so glad you liked it, Lynn, and understood the characters. It’s a painting that really got to me. There’s something in the woman’s expression, as if she’s been caught in a brusque movement, so full of energy compared with the man’s immobility. Feel free to borrow it if it speaks to you too 🙂

      1. You’re right about their expressions, so different. The way she’s hunched, watching and he ignoring her. That’s what gives the painting such tension, isn’t it? It’s a great interpretation, Jane

  4. So, the old man is gone and she’s no better off with this guy. I’ve known people who have gone from one bad egg on to another. She’s better off without either of these jerks.

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