Flash Fiction Friday 012: ‘The grey stones and leaden cross’ by Issy Flamel

Welcome to Flash Fiction Friday and the twelfth piece of flash fiction in this new weekly series. This week’s piece is a 520-worder entitled ‘The grey stones and leaden cross’ by Issy Flamel. One thing, I’ve already learned about Issy is his skill for spooky – added to this was my selection of the date on which this piece would appear on my blog; December 9th, which meant nothing to me but when I advised Issy he told me that it’s the anniversary of the publishing of The Charge of the Light Brigade in the London Examiner. With this in mind, please read on…

Cold snakes of fog writhe from the sluggish flow of the Thames, deadening the clip-clop of the carriage horses that trot past in the gloom, harnesses clinking as they dissolve into the mists of Soho.

‘Shilling for one of the Six Hundred Sir? First to the guns for Queen and country.’ As the beggar thrusts a battered army cap forward with a reek of sour ale, a grimy eye-patch, set in a sea of scars that disfigure a shattered cheek and jaw, breaks into the flickering glare of the gaslights. Tennyson only published in The Examiner days ago, and surely this wretch cannot have been shipped from the Crimea in six weeks? But he gets a sixpence for sheer gall, and raises a knuckle to his temple as he turns for the gin-shop at the corner of Wardour Street.

A siren voice calls from the warm light under a painted sign announcing Mrs. Dawson’s Dress Emporium.

‘Care for a fitting, dearie? You look a well-built fellow,’ she trills, swishing her skirts so the material gleams in invitation. An acceptance will win passage through the veil of heavy velvet curtains at the rear of the shop to the narrow stairwell up which the real business is conducted. Under her feet, entombed in the dripping walls of the basement room, two sullen-eyed waifs watch as their mother vomits her life away, while Vibrio Cholarae breeds inside her. The industrious Pacini has this year identified the germ through his microscopical investigations, but what can a subject of that medieval fantasia Lombardy-Venetia know of medicine? Doctor Snow, who cannot be doubted on the grounds of being a feverish Latin, has also produced his outlandish theory of little unseen creatures – but everyone knows the science is settled and a miasma of foul breezes transmit the disease. So although the handle was removed from the pump on Broad Street in September, other sources of infection remain. The children will be buried in the same grave, as the parish coffers of St. Luke’s are drained by the epidemic.

Next door to the bawdy den the grey stones and leaded windows are covered in a spreading crust of green algae, as though nature is rebelling against the artifice of human ingenuity and reclaiming the façade. The curious potential customer extracts his handkerchief and wipes clear a viewing hole into the dank interior; he makes out an eccentric jumble of bric-a-brac, furniture and dusty piles of leather-bound manuscripts. A balding toy monkey sits expectantly, cymbals poised to clash, waiting for the maestro’s acknowledgement. A pair of russet enamel vases, one with an umbrella poking out of the top, the other blessed with a cascade of curling, desiccated lilac blooms, the promise of their heady, sultry perfume enticing one over the threshold through the glass. And perched atop a French Empire escritoire, eyes glinting ovals of night in the reflected brilliance of gold leaf patterning, sits a lacquerware demon. His tongue protrudes rudely between razor teeth, lolling down onto his blood-red chest as his gaze beckons. Entering, as under a spell, the traveller falls into the darkness of another world.

I asked Issy what prompted this piece and he said…

I had just devoured the first few chapters of Umberto Eco’s latest novel The Prague Cemetery, and I wanted to see if I could achieve similar effects. I’ve always admired his work (his books On Beauty and Kant and the Platypus are both accessible to the non-specialist and breathtaking in scope) with the incredible density of the ideas. So I sat down, gave myself half an hour, and this is what came out. In the modern age we are used to being bombarded with data from every angle, and his novels in some ways mimic this with an intertwining of narrative and milieu that is astonishing at times. When going through life we are aware of a multiplicity of events, thoughts and emotions, and in many cases we don’t know what is important as we experience them – they are just part of the background babble that is the soundtrack to our lives. I’ve tried to produce this feeling of a melting pot of immediacy. Whether I’ve succeeded or not is for others to judge!

Half an hour? I despair. <laughs> Thank you (again) Issy.

When not writing, and being mentioned on The Society of Authors website, Issy can be found hanging out on Twitter and in the depths of Radio Litopia and WriterLot where you can read equally atmospheric and haunting pieces from the minute-long ‘Cherry Blossom’ to a make-yourself-comfortable 12-minute ‘Gloriana’.

If you’d like to submit your 1,000-word max. stories for consideration for Flash Fiction Friday take a look here.

The blog interviews will return as normal tomorrow with multi-genre author Terra Hangen – the two hundred and thirteenth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, biographers, agents, publishers and more. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. And I enjoy hearing from readers of my blog; do either leave a comment on the relevant interview (the interviewees love to hear from you too!) and / or email me. You can also read / download my eBooks and free eShorts at Smashwords.