Flash Fiction by Mary Byrne
On Mondays I cycled for piano lessons, the first in our house to learn an instrument formally. An old leather music case, handed down from friends, whacked about the handlebars, its whorls and stitching far too delicate for me. Accompagnato My friend Maxi joined me on the way.
Miss M gave lessons in her front room overlooking the street. Inside, it was always twilight and cold. Miss M often complained of a migraine. To me this meant she didn’t want to give a lesson at all. The headache could have been due to the untalented banging she had to listen to all day, or the lesson she was about to give me, inadequately practiced on our piano with the sticky keys, first piano in the family. Or it could have been due to Sunday nights, when Miss M played in a céili band. Maxi and I agreed it was hard to picture Miss M having fun.
On days when she had migraine, Miss M would send us to buy a smoked herring for her tea. We could see no connection between herring and migraine, and considered this confirmation that the problem was us.
Maxi would wait her turn while I struggled. Then I sympathized in silence through her lesson. Miss M commented on Maxi’s hands, purple from Raynaud’s disease, implying there was something wrong with Maxi’s parents. She also tut-tutted at Maxi’s deeply-bitten nails. Maxi herself often wondered if bits of nail building up in her stomach could give her cancer.
Sometimes we went to Maxi’s house. Their house was so big that her mother had a whistle to summon us from the garden for tea. I never mastered buttering the thin toast, which broke and shot off in all directions in the huge room, while Maxi and I tried to quell our giggles. Then I’d watch Maxi play, much better than she did for Miss M.
Maxi’s father made her mother keep a notebook of household expenses. Her mother invented items so she could squeeze the money for twenty Craven A, which Maxi smuggled home in the pocket of her dress.
Years later, both Maxi and I are still unmarried. One day, Maxi phones to say that Miss M has found a man she loves and who loves her. Maxi thinks this wonderful. He is from over the border, unaware of Miss M’s migraines or spinster status. Their marriage blossoms.
Maxi and I are still spinsters. Maxi phones to tell me that the former Miss M is pregnant. At fifty-two, this is something of an exploit, as much a surprise to the rest of the county as a cause for celebration for our former Miss M and her husband.
Maxi thinks it a sign of how kind God can be.
As I put the phone down, large snowflakes fall fitfully and sparingly outside, the way software can be made to do on your computer screen for Christmas.
Above the car engine on the evening air, and before we could see the crowded street, we heard the lively hum of talk as the locals strolled their evening promenade, a paseo at the center of a mountain village, blissfully unaware of its own isolation.
The hotel was empty, the room carpet stained.
The waitresses wore navy blue sandals strapped high around the ankle. The restaurant had nothing left but liver.
Next day, in the city, the wide streets were summer-empty. English editions of Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet sat on bookshop stands in the hot street. In the evening, there was a tropical storm. We fled to the coast.
A young man on a lilo near pink rocks was finishing Durrell’s Monsieur. Stuck there by more storms, we bought it from him.
Eventually the storms abated sufficiently for us to drive off again. Children sat bawling on the roadside beside wrecked caravans, mesmerized parents picked family belongings off the rocks.
Local peasants opened gates and charged us a small fee to peg our tent in their fields. People came to the tent at night asking to change money, but we couldn’t even spend the currency we’d been obliged to change. In butchers’ shops we moo-ed and bleated in order to buy meat for our barbecue. Road signs were tricky or non-existent. One adventure took us hunting for a gas factory in the middle of nowhere, because refills for our fancy camping gas couldn’t be found.
Storms continued to fly over our heads and along the coast. They never went far enough inland to hit Lake Balaton where they were awaited (and might have relieved the monotony of the flat lake and the grey sky) by women sitting on white plastic chairs, arms folded, watching a TV flicker inside the caravan door.
I felt cut off from the world. You didn’t say how you felt.
At home, there was unheard-of drought. On bad phone connections our mothers shouted that the fields were yellow, and gave us news: a local paper reported that a farmer had paid £250 for sex (in the bedroom) with two prostitutes who had knocked on his door. At the time it seemed reasonable, he said, little more than the price of a bull calf.
Crystal factory in the rain
All our other excursions had gone according to plan. I paid for this one to keep equal to things you’d paid for. We’d already seen the glass blown, checked and packed, now here was the essential: dusty rooms of silent engravers, their lab coats covered in the damp grey powder their skills produced, hovering beside their temporarily-silent machines on each of which sat a dusty transistor radio. The shapes to be cut into the crystal objects were illustrated by plans on the walls. Their silence was for us, and although it was decades since the Berlin wall had fallen, I recognized a persistent obedience to orders, authority, rules that I remembered from the time I’d leaned over copybooks coloring maps of places I hoped to visit one day, while a bored nun walked the aisle between the desks, hugging herself up long black sleeves, slipping mints to her mouth from somewhere under her guimpe. But she’s irrelevant here. The silent workers probably couldn’t wait to see us gone so they could switch on their dusty radios, or shout above the noise, and tease and laugh and rail.
At lunch the sadness of the damp wet village was palpable. You said you hated the feeling of being closed in by a large landmass. A wine called Carl Jung did nothing to warm us. Later, in the coach, the guide handed out gifts of glittering little crystal owls. You gave me yours. ‘They put lead oxide in the molten glass,’ you said, staring out the coach window at damp Bohemia. ‘That’s what gives it its sparkle.’
Mary Byrne is the author of the short fiction collection Plugging the Causal Breach (Regal House 2019). Her award-winning fiction has been published, broadcast and anthologized widely. She was born in Ireland and lives in France. She tweets at https://twitter.com/BrigitteLOigno
Flash Boulevard is edited by Francine Witte. Banner photograph Wes Candela