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by jturner 

Posted: 13 November 2010
Word Count: 1552
Summary: A story of one man's attempt to banish his past and move on...

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No one came to the front door that night. There were no voices, no steps, only the whistle of a breeze down the tree lined street. The driveway was empty, and behind the front door Thomas sat on the carpet, his back to the radiator. The gas pipes rattled, and he warmed his back for a few minutes more. Lifting the thick mug of whiskey to his lips, he filled his cheeks before swallowing back the liquid. Allowing that warm feeling to work down through his chest, he then pulled himself up by the front door handle and looked out through the peephole.
Where are you Francine? he said, turning his back to the door.
Beside the staircase sat two suitcases and several boxes, just as she had left them two days ago. Thomas picked the tape off one of the boxes. Inside was a collection of gift cards scattered amongst her books and magazines. Standing in the hallway he read through each Birthday message and remembered her smile, her laugh. Thomas closed his eyes and imagined her arms around him, his lips feeling the warmth of her neck.
Returning the cards and sealing the box, Thomas walked back to the kitchen. A shiver crawled up his spine as his bare feet stuck to the cold linoleum and the cat flap in the back door rattled. The last light of the day had sucked the colour from the room, and everything was quiet except the sound of the house settling for the night. At the sink, Thomas splashed his face with water and diluted his drink some more.
Out the window, the setting sun had turned the sky a deep red and his eyes were drawn to the dark mass at the bottom of the garden. No one had been out there since the summer, when he had worked the lawn mower while Francine cut back the bushes and the beech tree. Once they finished they collected all the branches and weeds together for their next bonfire. The dead waste had remained there since, any sign of life drained to black.
Thomas found a box of matches in the drawer under the draining board, and with his mug and the bottle of whiskey in hand, he slipped on his shoes and went out the back door. Against the sunset, the back garden consisted of a murky silhouette. Thomas stood for a moment feeling the cold air against his cheeks. Beneath him the patio tiles were covered in moss, and he kicked at the weeds that had worked up through the cracks. In the summer the patio caught the afternoon sun and they would sit out there drinking and Francine would lean back in the deck chair and look up at the blue sky. Thomas remembered how her freckles would come up when she had been out all day and they would share a bath to cool themselves off. Walking across the overgrown lawn he came to the bare patch of earth at the end of the garden, and nestled the bottle and mug under the beech tree.
Looking back, the house seemed a long way off, the only light coming through the kitchen from the hallway ceiling. A bedroom light filtered through the closed curtains from the neighbouring home. An elderly couple lived there who kept the spare key and had fed the cat and watered the garden while they were away. Thomas remembered the musty smell of the house and how the post was always neatly stacked up in an elastic band when they would return. Francine would go over with a gift of wine and biscuits while he took their suitcases up to the bedroom, where the duvet would be cold and spider webs had spread in the corners of the room. He would leave the cases on the floor and wait for her on the bed.
The house on the other side had been empty for years. Thomas looked through the windows at the old furniture and wondered who had lived there and where they were now. If they had found what they were looking for.
Thomas rolled up his sleeves exposing his pale skin to the cold air. Crouching down he took the box of matches from his trouser pocket and struck one against the side of the box. Holding his hand up to protect the flame he reached out to the dried up leaves and noticed something move. Leaning in closer the dark mass seemed alive, wriggling and squirming, in an effort to escape. The match went out and Thomas lit another and a couple of thin branches sparked for a second but did not take. He sat back and took a sip from the mug, looking up at the partly obscured moon, the dark clouds gliding over, smothering the street in darkness.
Leaving his mug by the tree, Thomas returned to the kitchen to search through the cupboard drawers for anything flammable. He pulled out handfuls of coupons, takeaway menus, newspaper cut outs and receipts that Francine had saved but never used. Thomas thought of her carefully filling up the drawer in preparation for their future, imagining their lives together.
You never know when well need more weed killer, Francine had said, cutting a coupon from the local paper.
By the time I get to it theres nothing left, Thomas replied, tearing the newspaper from her hand. Why do you have to collect so much rubbish?
Well need it at some point, she said, tucking the coupon away with the others. She continued to fill the drawer by habit. Everyday cutting and collecting until the day she left. Thomas grabbed it all up and took it out to the bonfire.
In the garage Thomas emptied out a few boxes of paper and old stationary and carried them out and dropped them beside the pile. Flattening one of the boxes into a torch he lit one end and held it under the paper. The undergrowth lit up for a moment and the insects and the bugs shrunk away as the air was filled with the warm fizz of fire. The branches began to turn a deep orange as the paper disappeared to ash and Thomas tore up another box and threw it on the growing fire piece by piece.
Most of the garden waste remained untouched, so Thomas walked back up to house and through the kitchen to the living room to search for more to burn. On top of the chest of drawers were the photographs from their wedding over two years ago. Thomas removed them from the gilded frames and held them up in the light. In one their close family stood together, the two of them in the middle smiling. In another Francine was stood outside the church in her dress, her light blonde hair a mess from the blustery wind, with an awkward smile on her face. Thomas looked closer into her eyes searching for a clue. In the other the two of them were together outside the thick church doors, their hands gripped together. The day seemed like a decade ago, he no longer recognised himself in the photos. He pushed them to the back of a drawer, leaving the frames empty.
From the chest of drawers he picked through the dusty discarded items. There was a bill for the washing machine they had bought together on a wet Sunday last spring and he remembered the salesman telling them it would last a life time. They had returned it only ten months later. He fingered through a bulldog clip of old losing lottery tickets with the numbers all scribbled out; off licence receipts for wine and whiskey and bags of cashews that he would buy on the way home from work; plane tickets to New York last summer for Francines Birthday; a warranty for the television; a photo of her parents in the back garden over the summer, Thomas tending to the BBQ in the background.
A little deeper Thomas found Francines Valentines card, which he opened and read aloud. Dear Francine. You take my breath away...today and every day. Happy Valentines Day. With all my love. The message was accompanied with a huddle of kisses and a scribbled heart and Thomas remembered how real it had been at the time. Tearing the card in half he threw it down with the other items to burn and gathered them up in his arms and went outside.
A few embers still glowed as Thomas threw down his haul and added them slowly, letting each piece take light before the next. Soon enough the fire built and Thomas sat back against the beech tree, a full mug in his hands and watched the flames, feeling the heat on his eyes. The thick branches and dense bush cuttings crackled and the fire set in for the night, reducing to a deep glimmer, a slow pulse of heat that gradually ate through the waste turning it to black.
By morning Thomas was in bed, snoring loudly, his hand clutching the empty bottle by his side. There was nothing left of the fire but dust and ash and as the sun shone through the windows a key gently turned in the front door and it opened slowly.

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Comments by other Members

Becca at 09:32 on 16 November 2010  Report this post
Hi James, and welcome to the short story group.
I felt that this story might benefit from more dialogue though which the reader could get to know more about the characters and maybe about what caused the breakup - without, that is, actually spelling it out or explaining it. At the moment, there's a lot of description around the simple act of Thomas burning 'the relationship' - I felt it would have more shape and depth if more was shown about the two of them during the process. We know she's a collector of things, but what does that mean and how does it affect him and their relationship?
I take it that she comes back at the end?

Desormais at 14:29 on 16 November 2010  Report this post
I enjoyed the story James, and thought that it was well written. I was left with an unsatisfied feeling, perhaps that I was missing something so I had a second read through. I still am missing something. I think the reader needs to know just a little more background to the desertion for the full impact of the piece to come through.

And if that was her coming back to him, boy, is he in a heap of trouble now after his burning spree. Well done, thanks for the read.

Account Closed at 17:17 on 17 November 2010  Report this post
Hi James

I quite liked this, although I'm left wondering whether Francine is returning to him or just to pick up her suitcases and boxes.

I felt I wanted to know more about the things he was burning rather than the process of trying to burn them. They could perhaps have been used to illustrate the stages in the break-down of the marriage in some way?

But the flow of the piece is good, I think, structurally sound but with a little de- and re-emphasising needed here and there.

Hope this helps.


Catkin at 00:44 on 21 November 2010  Report this post
You have done a good job of creating atmosphere in this piece. You use the five senses well, and convey, accurately and effectively what it is like in the narrator’s house and garden.

This type of story, in which one person is alone, is very difficult to write. In stories where the main character is on his own, there is no interaction with anyone else, and there is no dialogue (unless it is remembered dialogue, given in flashback). Considering the difficulties, you have succeeded very well in making the story interesting.

Because the narrator is drinking throughout the story, and even takes his drink outside (and is also drinking whisky from a mug, which seems like the behaviour of a person past caring) I got the feeling that he had a drink problem, and is possibly an alcoholic. I wanted to know more about this – was it his drinking that caused the break-up, or is his drinking a response to it? What are his feelings about his drinking? Does he hate himself for it? Does he think that there is no hope of stopping, and does he see himself as an alcoholic? Does he believe that he would stop if Francine came back? His drinking seemed like an important part of his situation, and it wasn’t addressed. Does he burn the significant things because he is drunk, and is he going to regret it in the morning?

At the end, I really, really wanted to know why she came back. Was it just to pick up her stuff, or was she coming back to him? I love the fact that she comes back, and I think it makes a great ending to the story, but it would make it so much more powerful if we know why. It would work well both ways – if it’s just to pick up her things, then that’s a good sad ending. If she’s coming back to him, then there would be wonderful irony in the fact that he’s just destroyed all their wedding photos, etc. (And with the ending where she comes back to him, then whether or not he would have burnt the photos if he hadn’t been drunk (if he was) becomes important, and whether or not drinking caused the break-up is also important.)

The story could be tightened up in places. There is a lot of detail that isn’t adding anything – things like “he took the box of matches from his trouser pocket and struck one against the side of the box”. It doesn’t matter where he was keeping the matches, and where else would he strike one but against the side of the box?

I think you should cut quite a bit of the detail, and add something about why the relationship went wrong – and by doing this, you may be able to add in a bit of dialogue, in a flashback scene or two.

I wanted to know how long they had been married, and how old they were. The coupon-collecting suggests a middle-aged person. It doesn’t make her seem very attractive or likeable – it seems fussy and over-careful. Collecting coupons doesn’t suggest an attractive woman whom it’s worth trying to hold on to. I’d consider getting rid of that aspect of her behaviour.

Minor things:

In the first line, the use of “night” suggests darkness. Then we find that it isn’t quite night yet.

When we first see the mug of whiskey, and he’s filling his cheek with it, that really does seem like extreme behaviour, because it’s apparently neat. Later, we find out that he’s diluting it.

I don’t think the term “gift cards” exists. I think it’s an attempt to avoid a repeat use of “birthday”, but it doesn’t work.

The word “birthday” doesn’t need a capital letter. I don’t think it’s a typo, because there are two occurrences.

“Returning the cards and sealing …” would be better as “After returning the cards …” because otherwise, it sounds as if he’s sealing the box at the same time as he’s walking to the kitchen.

The last light of the day sucking the colour from the room doesn’t seem quite right. Light can’t suck colour from anything. It’s rather more that because of the low light, the room looks as if it has had the colour sucked from it.

From “they would sit” you have a run of “woulds” close together, and then there’s another three from “they would return”.

“Walking across the overgrown lawn” would be better as “He walked across the …”

“Looking back, the house seemed a long way off” sounds like he’s looking behind him, and you don’t need “looking back” anyway. How about just “The house seemed …” ?

That dark mass that wriggles and squirms … what on earth is it? That seems too dramatic just to leave unexplained.

Why did they return the washing-machine? Because they were breaking up?

Good luck with this – there are a lot of good things here, and with tightening and smoothing, I’m sure it will be an effective piece.

jturner at 17:50 on 05 December 2010  Report this post
Thank you so much for reading and leaving the extremely helpful comments!
I will certainly return to this story with your feedback in mind.

Happy writing.



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