Thursday, 2 June 2011

Flash Fiction: An Unexpected Guest

I've decided to have a try at one of Chuck Wendig's flash fiction competitions and this is my first go. The upside is all you lovely people get to read one of my stories, such as it is. Chuck Wendig does these weekly so if you're inclined to have a go (I recommend it, flash fiction is fun) you can find him here: He's also well worth a read in general as his writing advice is spot on and he is very funny.

So without further ado, here is my entry to the flash fiction competition.


An Unexpected Guest

Wailing pierced Ned's skull, scraping away a little more of his patience. He hadn't wanted to have a birthday party (in Ned's opinion birthday parties should stop after you turn forty-five, at the latest.) but his daughters had insisted. And then brought along their children and newly arrived grandchildren. What a way to make a guy feel young on his ninety-third birthday. They'd all been so excited, putting up streamers and balloons all over the house, which seemed to pop just as any kid so much as looked at them, resulting in the cheerful sound he was now being tortured with. Even sitting out in the garden like this wasn't enough to improve it, with them all floating around him like he might keel over any second.

Finally his eldest came running up and carried away the screeching child from "Great Gran-da". Ned hated that name but was resigned to it, much as he was resigned to his dodgy hip, his aching knees and his inability to go longer than two hours without needing a piss. The joys of aging. Sometimes he wondered why he bothered to wake up in the morning. He'd done as much as he was ever going to. Unless farting became an Olympic sport.

Eventually the party seemed to continue without him, which suited Ned fine. That old ache in his chest was back, but to hell with them if was going to mention it. He was in his nineties for Christ sake, what kind of condition did they think his health was supposed to be in? He bent down to reach for the glass by his foot, his fingers finding a purchase even though they didn't bend as well as they used to. But when he sat back he was surprised to see someone sitting next to him. Surprised because he didn't know him and even more so because a moment ago there had been no seat there for someone to sit on.

"Who the hell are you," Ned asked, in his usual direct way.

The younger man smiled. He seemed to be in his forties, and was wearing a smart pin stripe suit. But no tie. Ned's mouth wrinkled in distaste. What was the point in wearing a goddamn suit if you don't put a tie on?

"You know who I am Ned. I certainly know who you are."

"What are you talking about? I've never seen you before in my life." Ned took a sip from his drink, looking at the man from the corner of his eye.

"Oh Ned, you know better than that. Or don't you remember me sparing your life all those years ago?"

Ned had a flash of memory. Korea, an explosion ripping his unit apart, blood everywhere, some men screaming, some men silent. Ned had been next to Pete, holding the man's guts together while trying to stop the flow of blood from his own leg.  A hand had appeared from behind him, taking his away from Pete, a voice telling him it would be alright, and then his friend was dead and Ned was still alive. There hadn't been anyone else around and Ned had always suspected some other force at work that day. Apparently he'd been right.

"You got a hell of a sense of humour turning up on a man's birthday."

"Well," the man smiled, in a kind but inevitable way, "as they say, when your time's up, it's up."

"Who says that shit?"

"You do, Ned. All the time. Whenever you hear about one of your old friends popping their clogs, off you go with your wisdom."

Ned looked at him for a while, then burst into laughter.

"Well, it's true ain't it? Can't fight what you can't control," Ned replied.

They sat in silence a moment, both with small smiles on their faces. Then Ned asked, "Why now instead of then?"

The man looked down at the ground, as if working on a puzzle, before replying, "It wasn't your time I guess. At least that's what my files said."

"Your files? Since when did you become some paper pushing pussy?"

"Since the dawn of the new age old friend. I don't go around dressed in a cloak or carrying a scythe anymore either. Thanks to the Pratchett chap no one takes that seriously anymore."

Ned had never heard of this "Pratchett" but smiled anyway before turning his eyes back to his family, buzzing around the garden like a hive of bees.

"Does your file say anything about what happens next? Do I get some cloud in heaven? A dozen virgins all to myself?"

"I don't know about all that Ned," his smiled wavered a little, his eyes a little distant, "I just collect you and send you on your way. I never get to go that far so have no idea what lies beyond. You get to find that out for yourself."

"Hmph, figures. In life there's no answers, and in death there's even less."

"Yes," the smile changed again, reaching up to touch the man's eyes, "yes, that is very true."

They both watched the children playing some sort of tag game, which seemed to involve pushing each other over when they were caught and then looking innocent when the other started to cry. The breeze was cool and the sun was bright.

"Well, no point in waiting I suppose," Ned said.

"Don't you want to say goodbye to anyone first? I can give you a little time."

"Nah, I said enough to them all through the years. If they don't remember it, well, it will give 'em something to do when they all get together for the wake. The only people I want to talk to now are the ones that are up there... or wherever, waiting for me. Pete especially. I've missed that old sot. And the wife I suppose. Even if she is still complaining."

"Okay Ned. Just take my hand and we'll be on our way."

Ned reached out his old hand, the veins protruding along the back and even along the fingers and took the man's cool firm hand in turn. He stood up from his chair and walked some way with him, looking back once at the slumped shape he was leaving behind. He turned around and walked into the unknown, his companion by his side.


  1. Thanks for posting this.

    This is the part where I should chime in with a bunch of wise suggestions, and impress you with how helpful I am... but I can't see much I would change about this.

    "That old ache in his chest was back, but to hell with them if was going to mention it." That sentence seems to be missing the word "he". Nitpicking, I know.

    The whole thing's very engaging. It's comfortable without being boring. There's just a little bit of meandering tension -- it wouldn't be enough to keep most stories going. But you pull it off here, I think because Ned's crankiness allows the tension to keep changing its focus, like a bee going from flower to flower. And there's a general curiosity that you satisfy at a steady rate as the tale goes on.

    Ned's family seems to be irritating him, but I get the sense he still loves them --- and that they're not particularly irritating people, they're ordinary people seen from the point of view of a curmudgeon. (And that the same holds true for Ned's late wife.) I also get that in the next couple of days, everyone will be laughing about how Ned died at his own birthday party.

  2. Bugger, I knew there'd be something I'd missed. Thanks for the feedback. I was sure I'd put a "he" into that sentence... a lesson that there's no such thing as too much proof reading.

    Glad you liked it, and I love that you mention "curmudgeon". That was exactly what I had in my head when I was writing it, and am relieved it comes across that he's not a horrible person, just cranky and very unsentimental.

  3. I'd also like to point out that you use the word "even" effectively as an adverb, and outside of dialogue. That's rare.

    I call attention to it because a lot of people hate adverbs in fiction, and implement it by just eliminating all words ending in "-ly" (thereby eliminating adjectives like "friendly" and "lovely"). The worst adverbs are "quite", "just" and "even".

    Early in the story, you describe Ned's mood, and then say: "Even sitting out in the garden" like this wasn't enough to improve it. Some people will tell you that adverbs are always useless, but that's not the case here. In one word -- "even" -- you go way beyond saying that Ned's mood didn't improve. You also imply that sitting in the garden normally DOES improve his mood.

    That's especially critical in a piece like this, where the short word count demands that the words be used efficiently. Moreover, it reassured me that yes, there are SOME things that Ned likes --- he's a "curmudgeon" rather than a truly unpleasant person.

    Nine times of out ten, the adverb "even" can be cut from a third-person narrative. But in this story, the word is gold. That's rare.

    Relax about the word "he". That's the kind of thing that gets by everyone, unless you read the work out loud.

    It wasn't until after my last post had been sent off, that it finally occurred to me you hadn't actually asked for comments! I'm glad you didn't mind, thanks for being gracious

  4. Thanks, I always welcome comments and feedback - I think it's vital for anyone wanting to write to be open to what people think, for better or worse. How else can you improve?

    And a big thanks for the adverb mention, it's something I've been working on to make sure I don't over do them or under do them, as I have in the past been blind to it. I put that bit in about the garden as in the first draft of this it wasn't clear at all where Ned was - he just launched into a conversation with "the man". And it also gave me a chance to show that Ned does indeed like some things. Mainly things that involve him being on his own and in a quiet setting.

    I personally think adverbs have a use but they're a bit like salt - wonderful in moderation but can destroy a meal when used too much or leave it bland when not used enough.