This week we have the second story from the Short Fiction Shortlist from our 2015 Creative Writing Competition, ‘Idle Tuesdays’ by Ben Halls.
We found this story engaging from start to finish, and thought that it stood out particularly in the way in which it plays with narrative structure.
Once again, our judge’s comments can be found at the conclusion of the piece.
The news report is given as traffic, not tragedy; a disinterested tone masquerading as solemn. “The southbound carriageway of the M25 was closed for two hours this afternoon following a fatal collision between a car and a lorry,” she says, her weary eyes playing a poor role in looking serious. It’s been a long day in the newsroom and this is the last broadcast of the evening. She knows just how few people would still be tuned in; it wouldn’t matter if she tuned out.
“The driver of the lorry was treated for shock on the scene, while the driver of the car was airlifted to Wexham Park Hospital where he was pronounced dead. The next of kin have been informed.”
She’d promised herself she wasn’t going to stop at M&S on the way home. She has food in the freezer, and doesn’t need the wine. But she also knows she’ll walk past it from the bus stop. After a beat she moves onto the next story and smiles; a lighter piece about a new wetlands project in central London to improve bird numbers. It’s run twice already today, and she uses the vocal beats of the chirpy reporter as a countdown until she gets to leave.
Jane Boylan does not hear the news report. She’s sitting upstairs on the bed she shared with her husband, rigid and staring through bloodshot eyes at the hairbrush left carelessly on the dresser. The family support officer is holding her hand, but it’s an impotent gesture. Nothing is getting through, her mind seized up thinking of memories, and trying to process that no more will be shared with her husband again.
From downstairs, she can hear the sounds of her two children watching Frozen with her mother. Occasionally she hears her youngest, five-year-old Jamie, telling his grandmother that this is the latest he’s ever stayed up, and how he knows he’s a big kid now because his bedtime is now so late. His grandmother shushes him. Jane’s eldest, seven-year-old Kate, is too old to blindly accept that her mother has to innocently speak to the police officer, and is heard asking where her dad is. No response is given aside from Kate being asked to watch the film.
The support officer tells Jane that she needs to go downstairs and tell them, that children are resilient and often more full of curiosity than abject grief, but Jane shakes her head viciously from side to side. Her eyes remain harshly focussed on the hairbrush.
The paramedic who first makes it to the scene is one who rides alone on a motorbike, designed for a quick response, and deftly cut through the torrid rain to arrive in minutes. He calls in for the air ambulance as soon as he sees the mangled state of Stephen Boylan’s body laying in the remains of what was once his car. The police are soon there, closing the carriageway and diverting cars to create room for the incoming air ambulance and fire engines to do their work. For privacy, too, as the experienced crews who attend the scene know well that despite their best efforts, it’s unlikely that life will be extracted from amongst the twisted metal.
The lorry driver sits on the grass verge which runs alongside the motorway, chain smoking soggy cigarettes. He looks at the front of his cab, crumpled inwards from the force of pushing Stephen’s small car for half a mile down the road. Shards of indistinguishable black bodywork are still sticking out of tit, and he swears he could see blood still trickling down the sheer white front, despite the rain having long since washed it away. A police officer walks over to him, not to question but to support; the few cars which came to a halt down the road after seeing the accident had said that it was nobody’s fault, just one of those things. The policeman instead holds out an umbrella over the lorry driver, who barely notices, too busy cursing the sky for the rain which had blinded him to Stephen’s small car. Another officer walks over, whispers into their colleague’s ear that it’s getting late, it will be dark soon and they need to move the lorry and driver so they can re-open the road. Neither of them make any effort to do so, and join the lorry driver in his vigil. They too have seen things that day which will take a lifetime to scrub away.
Stephen hears the three o’clock news come on Radio 2 and checks his watch in frustration, making sure that he hasn’t misheard the newsreader. It’s a pointless gesture; he’s been watching the figures on the dash’s clock creep up towards three, but a futile hope is better than none. He’s only just pulled onto the M25, and still needs to make his way around to the M4 exit in order to get to Reading. The wall of spray on the motorway has slowed most of his journey to a 40mph crawl, and it will be tight to get to the site inspection by four. He glances down at his phone on the empty passenger’s seat and considers sending a text to the foreman warning them that he is running late, but thinks better of it. The roads are bad enough as it is. It’s already taking most of Stephen’s concentration to keep a safe few lengths back from the car in front, and he’s forced further back as drivers in sleek business saloons take the safety gap as an invitation and swerve into the outside lane, brake lights glowing. Besides, he thinks as he tries to calm himself down, with weather like this the site will be all but shut down. He shouldn’t delay anything by being late.
From out of the dense mist of spray, the familiar blue signs emerge overhead and the four lanes of the M25 expand out as the M4 approach. Anger joins the anxiety of being late; it’s hard enough to move across all the lanes in good weather, now Stephen has to attempt it in the awful rain. He swears quietly to himself as he turns on his indicator and starts to peer at the lefthand mirror.
“Be careful today,” Jane says to Stephen as he stands in front of the mirror, holding up a rotation of new ties to see which one he preferred that day. He liked having to wear a suit to work now, although he still felt like a child playing dress up. He’d started his career on building sites as just one of the lads, going there now to check on the progress and having to put a yellow hi-vis vest on over a tailored jacked still felt novel.
“I will, don’t worry,” he says, looking back at his wife to see only a small portion of her head poking out from underneath the covers.
“Are you going wake the kids up to say goodbye?” she asks drowsily.
“No, if I leave them sleeping the won’t be up for another hour or so. If I wake them up now you’ll have to deal with them all morning,” he says, running a brush through his drying hair. He checks his phone to see the time, and gives the brush one more run over his head before putting it down on the dresser.
“You get some more sleep,” he says, smiling to her as he collects his jacket from its hanger.
“Ok, I love you,” Jane says, eyes half closed, propping her head up from the pillow with an arm searching for a kiss which Stephen duly gives before heading out of the door.
“Wait, hang on,” she says, sitting up in bed and rubbing life into her eyes. Stephen sticks his head back around the door.
“I’ve got to go shopping today. What do you want for dinner, or anything, this week?” she asks, the words trickling to her mouth.
“Whatever’s easiest for you. I shouldn’t be home super late any night this week,” Stephen replies, smiling at his still drunk-on-sleep wife.
“Ok. Jamie still doesn’t like carrots, and I can’t be bothered to do more veg just for him.”
“No carrots, then?”
“Yeah, I just, I don’t know why I said that,” she said, again trying to spur life into her brain by rubbing at her eyes.
“Don’t worry. Go back to sleep. Text me or something later on.”
“Ok,” she says, eyes closed before her head hits the pillow and asleep by the time Stephen gently shuts the front door.
Our fiction judge thought that the story’s neat use of reverse chronology made for engaging and somewhat unsettling reading, as we are invited to stop and think about the arbitrariness of life and how inured we can become to the traffic accidents that are reported in the daily news.
About the Author
Ben Halls attended Emerson College in Boston, MA, where he graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Writing, Literature and Publishing in 2014. He is currently studying for a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Kingston University. A sports writer by trade, he has written for numerous websites, most recently Here Is The City and Vice UK.
Join us again next week for our winning entry in Flash Fiction.