Short Fiction ~ Ruth Geldard
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 11
Ursula was on form. Holding court in her inimitable way, Hannah noticed her pause, as she made certain of her audience’s attention,
“So, there I am,” here she paused again to turn her palms upwards in mock helplessness, “doing a bit of light-dusting in the bedroom…”
Her husband on cue, said,
“You don’t do light-dusting my love, not even weightless dusting.”
“Don’t interrupt. So, there I am, looking through my bedroom window and what do I see across the road?”
She sat back in her seat with a little rhetorical, shoulder shimmy. Everyone at their table, who had gathered in the intimate space of the wine bar to celebrate Hannah’s significant birthday, was looking at Ursula, all trying to work out what she might be going to say next.
Ursula turned her attention towards John, Hannah’s husband, who, catching her gaze shifted in his seat and picked up his beer. Ursula continued.
“You know the house opposite me, the one that’s been on the market for ages because they want a ridiculous amount of money for it? Well, the estate agent from Select Homes was standing right under the For Sale sign, with a whole family of Pakistanis!”
There was an immediate hush. Hannah opened her mouth to speak but noticed John clearing his throat to say something. She held her breath, curious to see how he would react and whether he would be able to suppress his natural inclination to avoid confrontation. He looked straight at Ursula and said,
Hannah flushed this was a first. Ursula looked bewildered, as though John couldn’t possibly have understood her, because surely if he had, he would have agreed?
She said, “Well would you want a hoard of foreigners living right opposite you, I mean really? It would bring down house prices for a start, never mind the nuisance from cooking smells?”
John shrugged and said, “Wouldn’t bother me.”
The sheer unexpectedness of Ursula’s remarks and casual assumption, that they were of like mind, took Hannah’s breath away. Recent political events had opened a Pandora’s box of previously suppressed racial intolerance in Hannah’s small, seaside town, but to hear it from the mouths of friends was unthinkable.
The echo of Ursula’s hateful not-in-my-backyard comments became a righteous slow-burn inside Hannah threatening to flare, and the strain of holding back was almost too much, but not wanting to upstage her husband, she tamped it down.
Later, after the candles had been blown out and the cake cut, the talk turned to the safer subject of this year’s Oscars ceremony, comparison of the various films and much lightweight talk of celebrities and their dresses. But Hannah, still burning, said,
“It’s a shame there were no black prize winners though, did you see that incredible speech by that actress about the lack of diversity? Oh, what’s her name, she’s been in everything?” John helpfully supplied it but did not look at her.
“She was so inspiring brought the house down.” Oh god, what was she thinking of? She was no match for Ursula, who looking at her quizzically, said,
“All this fuss about a few prizes, they should be able to give them to whoever they like simply on merit.”
“Yes, but as black Americans make up over ten percent of the population in the U.S.A., it would be reasonable to expect at least some representation, and of course on merit.”
“Why can’t they have their own Oscars, better all round for everyone?”
Hannah folded her arms, lowered her voice and said,
“Because that would be apartheid.”
Ursula drew a sharp breath, Hannah watched as she rearranged her face, softening her features into something syrupy, indulgent. If she was at all angry it didn’t show.
“That’s so typical of you Hannah, always contrary, I think you secretly enjoy being on the side of the underdog.”
Hannah was lost, unable to make sense of the disconnect between Ursula’s words and her facial expression, she would never understand the rules of this game. She looked across at John, willing his support, but he was deep in conversation.
The remaining birthday cake was cut up and wrapped in carry-home parcels. Hannah kissed everyone goodbye, when she got to Ursula, they managed to air-kiss without touching. Oh, the relief of stepping outside into the cold, de-toxifying night air. John caught her up and getting into step took her hand.
She didn’t answer just gave him a straight look.
“Well, I think that all went off okay didn’t it? It could have been worse…”
“In whose bloody universe? Our friends are racists for God’s sake! How could we not have realised?”
“I know! When she was talking, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.”
A sudden gust snatched at the left-over balloon, someone had insisted she take home with her, it danced stupidly on its’ artificial string hideous, gift-shop gaudy in luminous pink and silver with that unrecognisable number…
“Don’t take everything so seriously…”
Hannah was weary, she knew from experience that having said his bit, John would not want to rock the boat.
As they walked home the damned balloon began again to fidget, its’ annoying, urgent bumping suggesting a desire to escape. She didn’t want it anyway. It would only mope around half-mast between floor and ceiling, reminding her of birthdays past. She unwound the balloon’s string from her hand.
No longer earthbound the balloon soared off into the indigo sky, then slowed to linger over the church roof, as if struck by a sudden gravitational nostalgia, before picking up speed to smooch gargoyles and nuzzle chimney tops, before finally venturing off into unknown deep space shrinking to the size of one of those sherbet-filled, papery sweets, from her childhood, shaped like flying saucers, Spaceships? She remembered sating that unique, biting after-school hunger, walking home with friends, shoving Spaceships into their mouths with inky fingers, unified in the sole purpose of keeping them from dissolving for as long as possible.
Artist/writer Ruth Geldard has exhibited artwork throughout London including The Royal Academy. She has made written contributions to many Art Publications, worked in adult education, and has been an art materials demonstrator and contributed to art videos.
She once painted a portrait of Timothy Spall’s mother, Sylvia, live on air, for Radio 4’s Home Truths.
A 2018 Faber graduate, her short fiction has been shortlisted for the Fish Prize and published in various anthologies. She was awarded the sapphire Award for Excellence in Contemporary Narrative in 2015. Ruth was a finalist for The London Independent Story Prize and received an honourable mention for Spaceships in the International Flash Fiction Competition.
Ruth is currently editing her novel Lemon Yellow.