Short Fiction ~ Pete Armstrong
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 14
My legs were heavy, whinging against a daily walk after two months summer vacation, so I took a quick breather on a bench at the far end of the forest. It was half way, not bad for the first day back. Percy stared up at me, aghast that I would do such a thing, tail drooping with disappointment. But then, resigned, he quickly reconnoitered the area and settled down himself. Might as well join 'em.
Trees wafted to and fro in the lightest of winds, ground soggy after recent skyfall, not a wisp of cloud surviving from yesterday's thick blanket. Birds serenaded each other from upper floor balconies but there was no sign of deer or anything else worth posting home about. There never is since we adopted Percy to join in our forest walks.
"I like this place, and could willingly waste my time in it."
I started at the interruption. A gentleman of the road had joined me on the bench, somehow I'd missed his entry from the wings. He contemplated me with smiling frown, mildly disappointed in the quality of dog walkers with whom he had to share his living quarters nowadays. Dirt lined the wrinkles around his eyes, he twitched mahogany-stained hands. I tried not to stare.
"That's Shakespeare isn't it? Twelfth Night, or As You Like It or something. Are you a fan?"
But he turned away to peruse the view offstage, his deep-set eyes preferring to focus on distance. Mine are like that too, a feature of middle age. Percy gave him a quick olfactory checkout and clearly approved. The heady brew of outdoor life and lots of it, which steamed from the chap's lower garments, apparently an improvement on the fabric conditioner and domestic sweat which petered out from mine. He settled down again at the feet of the new arrival, lingering in the reek, hardly shy in his preferences.
"There's a lot to be said for the outdoor life on a day like this," just casual chat, no harm in being friendly. "Do you know the forest well?"
"The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together."
"Right. I don't do much Shakespeare, I'm afraid, I prefer to read modern stuff."
Now he pivoted round, eyes burned up my petty views, hands flicked away the ashes. He pouted his lips and turned up a thin, straight nose. His opinion in sign language perhaps. There's no point getting shirty with tramps quoting classics but, of course, it's a pet topic of mine and I was drawn now.
"It's cool that you like him, but really! Shakespeare is an anachronism."
"Time is very slow for those who wait. Time is eternal." Each sibilant a studied hiss.
"Yeah right. In sports, in science, in everything measurable the best performances come from the modern age, but in classical art we keep hankering back centuries, but we really shouldn't. Judgement of his work is not literary analysis any more. It's just a personality cult, turning youngsters off literature by regurgitating irrelevant manuscripts on to them. There's so much good stuff written today that addresses the issues of our times. Any Pulitzer Prize book is a better read than a Shakespeare play. It's tragic that modern works aren't loved more dearly."
He scrabbled at his chin with soft hands. The beard was surprisingly well groomed considering the state of the trousers, clearly his had not been a rough life. Fallen on hard times recently, I suppose. Whatever his background, the boots which peeked out from under ragged trousers were those of a tramp: stained and worn, rough, patched, both ill-used and cherished. They had long roads behind them, no doubt, sights seen, yarns told. He had gangling limbs, profile of an adolescent stork against the back of the auditorium.
"You cannot call it love, for at your age the heyday in the blood is tame."
"OK. Sorry that I can't place your quotes. I still don't read Shakespeare. You should try Richard Powers' classic from couple of years back. Might make a change. I'm sure the library would have it."
He unfolded jerky legs and we stood up together, which caused Percy to jump up too and shake himself down hopefully. My new friend flexed his shoulders to warm up for the trek ahead of him, pushed a filthy hat to one side to scratch his head. Under it he was bald at the front, a gorse bush behind curled down to meet his shoulders. The eyes crinkled although moustache barely rippled, he raised an arm to the side of his head.
"Farewell." Then he turned and marched down the path we had come. I never saw a tramp who didn't march onwards with clear purpose. They lead busy lives.
I half shook a hand, rippled a wave towards his back.
"Farewell," I replied, "parting is such sweet sorrow."
Percy looked loth to let him go, puckered his nose to catch remnants of the rich stew that still flickered in the air, then he sighed and looked up at me. Stuck with the devil he knew. He wagged his tail in anticipation of new adventure, smells, rabbits and home. I waved his leash and grinned. Dog walking is definitely more fun now that I have an actual dog to join in.
"Come on then, last one home is a dead, white man," and we meandered off down the path, savouring the moments.
Pete lives on the shores of Lake Vänern in central Sweden. He spends his days in blue jeans looking after children, reading, writing and playing a little Bach on the guitar. He has been commended in many writing competitions, including LISP, Segora and New Millenium; and won a competition for Globe Soup. His work has appeared in numerous journals, notably Wells Street Journal, Strukturriss and Strands Magazine. He has also published a book of irreverent hiking anecdotes. On days off he hikes through Swedish skog, trying not to bump into moose. Again.
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