Flash Fiction Friday 014: ‘One Christmas’ by Rosanne Dingli

Welcome to Flash Fiction Friday and the fourteenth piece of flash fiction in this weekly series. This week’s piece is a 994-worder entitled ‘One Christmas’ by Rosanne Dingli.

It was something to do: standing by the gate of the big house. She did not know whether it was big: invisible from the road, cloaked by lime trees whose foliage dominated the rise, the house was said to be enormous. Thirteen bedrooms, someone said. Hot and cold running water, someone else noted, envy making those words as sacrilegious as a father coming home drunk. Or a mother sending a child out with a jug to borrow milk.

Borrow – now there was a word. This Christmas, she would have to borrow Anthea’s blue dress for the school pantomime. They wanted her to play Ellie, although she could not see why. She was an assistant now after all, not a pupil. Besides, the play Mr Townsend wrote was better, but he was new to town, and they did not want to encourage him.

‘He might get ideas, dear.’ Her mother arched one expressive eyebrow, while she wiped the other on the back of her forearm. Changing babies was a two-handed job. Beatrice knew: she had changed, washed and folded dozens of nappies; could not remember a time when she did not. Except for the Christmas … but that was an odd year. The only time there was no tiny infant in the house. The year after Samuel died. She still heard his gurgled laughs as he drove his hoop right into the path of Doctor Fellowes’s dray.

‘Never knew what hit him, dear.’ Mother scratched the corner of an eye. Father stayed away longer and longer from then, and drank more, and they had less and less, because he lost his position at the printing press. And there was no new baby that November, was there?

Standing on that corner, watching lime tree leaves swish back and forth in the sharp breeze off the water made her dizzy sometimes. She should really walk down the path to where she could see the bay, and enjoy the small knot of excitement that never failed to tighten in her stomach when she thought of the sea, and ships, and freedom. She did not know she wanted to be free until she was told.

‘You have no idea what it’s like to be free, do you?’ He had an accent, squinted, and looked beyond where they stood, as if he could look at no other place than the horizon.

‘What do you mean?’

‘You smell of houses, and babies, and baking, and … dust.’

She took a step backwards. That was direct. Or rude. Or honest. She could not decide. His sailor’s cap was dark blue, and a bit dusty. What could he mean?

‘Where we sail, there’s nothing to smell but wild salty wetness, see?’

‘I must go.’ What was she doing talking to a strange man on the High Street?

‘Must is a word the free never use.’

‘Yes, they do. Mother reads me a poem by John Masefield. It goes …’

‘I must go down to the sea again …’ He threw his head back and laughed. ‘I like that! I like it when a girl looks me in the eye and tells me I’m wrong.’ He still did not look her in the eye.

‘Are you watching for something?’

‘Always.’ He drew a cuff under his nose, as if he could not stand her smell any longer. ‘Will you return on Wednesday? We sail that night. You can bid me farewell.’

He had sailed, and returned, twice. And he would watch for her to turn the corner, bearing the big wicker basket full of vegetables, or the shameful borrowing jug, in search of milk from Sara Tewes at the end of Gar’s Lane. He would touch his cap in recognition. She stood at a distance, hoping he would not smell nappies or dust.

‘There’s a war coming.’

‘Father said they would never dare.’

‘Last time you said he drinks.’

She looked at her shoes. She should have stayed by the gate of the big house and avoided the street. But talking to him was like breathing deep of the ocean air, of the scent of freedom from dust. ‘He does know.’

‘You mean he has an opinion. Good for him.’

‘What do you know then?’ She stuck out her chin at him.

‘I know I might go off and never come back.’ For the first time, he searched her face for a reaction.

Their eyes met. The jolt to her stomach was something new, precarious, needed.

‘So I’m coming to talk to your father, drunk or not.’

What?

‘Miss Beatrice Plum.’

‘How…?’

‘They know you, down at the Sail and Anchor. Nine children, all in a row. One dead under the hooves of the doctor’s horse.’ He was heartless.

‘You have no – no prudence.’

His laugh travelled down the street to where a child ran with a jug. Her brother Thomas.

‘What will you say to Father?’

‘That you’ll not have another Christmas in his house.’ He drew close and inhaled deeply. His nose very nearly touched her neck. ‘Miss Beatrice Plum … baking, babies and dust.’ He breathed deeply of her, like she would breathe of the ocean.

Beatrice did not know if she loved her freedom. It was too brief. Or whether she loved her sailor, Alfred Glover. Father, that December before the war – that came and went, leaving them numb and shattered, but there – had said one sentence. ‘Never believed our Bea would snare that Mr Townsend, anyways.’

Her mother said the rest. ‘Connie is old enough to help more, dear.’

It meant they could do without her. She would no longer stand at the gates of the big house and wish for hot and cold running water. Or hurry shame-faced to Sara’s for milk.

She was Mistress Glover, with her invalid husband, who lost a leg in the war and had a pension. And she had a basket of nappies to fold.

‘Aah – you smell of babies,’ he would say.

Wonderfully atmospheric, thank you Rosanne.

Rosanne Dingli is the Western Australian author of According to Luke, Death in Malta and six collections of short stories.

She is the award-winning writer who published All the Wrong Places, her poetry collection, in 1991.

Her travels in Europe, the UK, Australia and South-East Asia have informed her writing.

She lives in Perth, still loves cacti, and now collects yellow crockery. You can find her at http://www.rosannedingli.com and http://rosannedingli.blogspot.com (the latter has some wonderful fish!).

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