Short Fiction ~ Yvonne Clarke
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 14
I must have been about eight years old. Our new house overlooked the water meadows and beyond to the river. When they started building opposite us, we local kids were thrilled with the promise of new adventures. We used the exposed clay to make models, filling breeze-block shops with fingernail-sized fruit and cakes which we painted with modelling enamels stolen from my brother’s bedroom. House foundations became fishing boats; we walked the plank on builders’ ramps, imitated high-wire circus acts on pine floor joists and climbed Everest on the rudimentary walls. Upstairs was the bridge of a cruise ship. I wanted to be the ship’s captain, like my father. David, the boy next door, was the chief officer.
One evening, strange voices called us from the bridge. Had we been overrun by pirates? Did we have a mutiny on our hands?
The characteristic cat-piss smell of damp plaster merged with the stink of cigarette smoke. I felt like Alice in Through the Looking Glass, or Lucy in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe as we stepped off the ladder onto the rudimentary upstairs floor, hearts pounding like waves on rocks.
Squinting through a fug of fag smoke we saw half a dozen youths perched like parrots on a pile of unlaid floorboards. They looked like the teddy boys who huddled together on street corners. Troublemakers, my dad always said. An amalgam of excitement and fear nailed us to the spot.
Peppering their sentences with profanities, they told us to sit down and asked us about our families. I didn’t know the meaning of their swear words, but I could tell they were bad. They asked about my dog who I had taken for a walk earlier that day. I relaxed. They must be OK if they like animals, I deduced with the naivety of a child, so I chattered animatedly about my yappy terrier, how my Dad had just taken him to the vet for an operation, how I wouldn’t see him until the next day.
They handed cigarettes to us. What good manners, I thought, although we handed them back. When it was our suppertime, they let us go, making us promise not to tell anyone about our meeting. The secret, like my guilt, remains with me to this day.
Everything of value was taken from my house that night, but what I remember most vividly was a half-eaten tin of Spam left on Mum’s prized dining table and the juices had eaten away at the varnish. Even if my dog hadn’t alerted us to the robbery he would have barked at the scent of Spam. What a coincidence, the police officer said, that our dog was not in the house that night.
The police told my parents they were still hunting for a gang who had escaped from a young offenders’ centre – they called it Borstal.
As soon as I could, I climbed the ladder again in the half-built house.
All that was left was a scattering of cigarette butts.
Yvonne has spent most of her life in the publishing industry, followed by teaching English as an Additional Language in secondary schools and 1:1 business English tutoring. She recently fell in love with the genre of flash fiction and short story writing and has had numerous pieces published online and in printed anthologies. She was a finalist in the 2019 London Independent Story Prize and won the Glittery Literary long short story prize Autumn 2021. She re-edits her work compulsively – old habits die hard!