Flash fiction: Bikes and Barges

Speaking to Mamie I learned that she really did ride Harley Davidsons in her youth. Humanity is full of surprises that are only revealed by talking to people. I feel I should do it more often.

photo ©Michiel1972

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She walks carefully, a little unsteadily these days, her cane tip-tapping the pavement before her. She ferries back and forth to the market, a small package at a time in her basket. She has the whole morning, but not much strength. Always, a smile hovers, a pale, faded butterfly, on her lips. Eyes, big and blue still bright, but often absent as she watches memories unfolding in her head.

Bikes, Harleys, throb. Mother and big sister with her in the sidecar, roaring up the routes départementales of the Entre-deux-mers countryside. They followed the river, the majestic Garonne, barge people, plying up and down the canal from Bordeaux to Marseilles in their péniche. I can hear it in her voice, the ‘r’s of her accent rolling like pebbles in the current. Barges and bikes, back and forth between ocean and sea, a childhood to be envied. The memories glow in her features, the alleys of platanes that bordered the long, straight roads, narrow boat sliding along slow and stately between the trees, beneath the southern sun.

But, oh, the bikes, the Harleys, she says and her voice is reverent. Papa loved Harleys and they had so many of them. On the péniche, gliding slow, with its cargoes of wine, or olive oil, and papa’s bikes, shiny, powerful.

She tip taps her way back and forth to the market now, her eyes on the pavement, but not seeing, listening to the birds, perhaps the birds chattering in the trees along the canal du midi, or the lap of the water, the cries of the other bargees queuing at the locks. And the throb and purr of the motors as she tears up the dusty southern roads with papa—a small child with wide blue eyes, laughing in maman’s lap.

 

 

 

Two people

Two thoughts from this morning. Two people. Old acquaintances.

Photo ©Laura Hadden

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Homeless man on the park bench sitting,

Bread between his fingers crumbling.

Fluttering flock gathers, waiting.

He tosses breadcrumbs, smiling,

The best for his favourite saving,

A pigeon with twisted feet, hobbling.

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Mamie

Mamie stands, feet planted apart for balance, with her stick, and her wild hair a-prickle with pins. Mamie gazes, rapt, at the herd of Harleys waiting outside the shops. Her eyes bright with wind tears, wander over the sleek metal, the shiny chrome, marvelling at their tall-antlered handlebars, the long powerful stride of them. I wonder if she sees them now, or then, and if she feels a waist beneath her arms’ tight grip, a shoulder beneath her cheek.

The bikers return, big-bellied, black-waistcoated, pony-tailed, heavy arms swinging, their faces frowning. Worried that the demented old bat with the stick will damage their machines? Mamie smiles and points with her stick. She mumbles, tongue stumbling as it grapples with unaccustomed words that elicit no response. The bikers turn their backs and throw their corpulence onto the leather seats. The herd throbs. Mamie smiles still, nodding happily as they tear away in their borrowed agility. On her face is the same beatific expression that sees the amber magic in a jar of honey; that hears the rippling sweetness in a robin’s song.

She stares at the place they have left empty. Perhaps in her waking dream she soars, weightless, wrapped in the arms of honey sweet memories of a pulsing heart, wind in her hair, and love brimming over the too-short days of the past.

 

 

 

Flash fiction: A jar of honey

Photo ©Pedro Ribeiro Simões

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She plods back and forth to the market, the little old lady, as she has done for decades. First it was to feed husband and children, then just husband, and for the last lonely years, herself alone. The daily routine—three potatoes, two carrots one leek. Occasionally she braves the expense of the butcher for a chop, a slice or two of ham, and on Fridays there’ll be a bit of fish.
Back and forth, day after day, she treads the same path to the same market stall. She has always gone to the Pollo’s stall. Remembers Luciano Pollo when he was an eager immigrant, keen to get on and make his mark. Now his two sons run the stall, stepping back in their turn, to hand over the reins to their own children. She knows where she is with Pollo. The prices written in big chalk figures, and they never change much anyway.
The supermarket is another thing entirely. The isles crammed tight, crammed full of things she doesn’t recognise. Prices written so small she can’t read them, shelves too high, too full, too close. And at the checkout, the hollow fear that the bill will be more than she can afford, and no one to ask with a smile to just give her a half a bunch instead.
I often see her on the library steps on her way home from her shopping. They get the full sun and she sits, face raised to the sky, eyes closed, letting her parchment skin absorb the gentle warmth. I always assumed she sat because she was tired. I know better now.
This morning she was there, her stick at her side, basket on the ground by her feet. She’d been on an expedition to the supermarket, had the plastic bag to prove it, and she’d bought a jar of honey. She held the jar up to the light, turned it round and round, inspecting every centimetre of the label, the smooth glass, the rough stippling around the edge. Her face was alight with pleasure, her lips slightly parted, her old, watery eyes shining. She held the jar up to the sun, ran a trembling finger around the shiny gold lid. Then her attention changed, her head tilted to one side as she listened. Above, in the guttering, a robin began his song.
I waved, she smiled, and nodded her head, unable to find even the familiar few words of greeting. She still held the jar to catch the sun, raised her eyes to the bird, smile broadened in complicity, too full of joy to speak.
I slowed my steps and thanked the ancestors who made me, that I too had the eyes to see the little things, the ears to hear music on a city street, and a heart to love every feather of a robin’s wing.

Microfiction: Pasha

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She watches as the big brown cat lopes along the guttering and drops out of sight. Pasha wouldn’t be long. He’s as old as she is, she reckons, in cat years.
He’s all she has now. Joe is dead these twenty years, but she still catches the occasional whiff of his cigarettes when she moves the cushions on his chair. Springtime is the hardest. Each time like the first spring after Joe died, when everything else was growing, opening, faces smiling.
The baby too, the only one, is just a vague white-robed memory, but the pain is always there, just beneath her ribs. Today it seems sharper than ever.
The sun sinks and Pasha has not come back. She replaces the cat biscuit in the pantry with trembling hands. Her own slice of ham and tiny pat of butter remain untouched. Rheumy eyes spill over. Sometimes the smallest things are the hardest to bear.
She sits and waits.
In the gutter, the dull eyes of a large brown cat gaze unseeing at the rising sun. The last dampness on a papery cheek catches the light. But she has gone, following Pasha’s stripy tail and the growing smell of cigarette smoke.