Some Nights, Like Tonight
by Conor Houghton
Second Prize in the Bare Fiction Prize for Flash Fiction 2016
Some nights, like tonight, I get a stretchy feeling inside. I feel that my feet are odd and my eyes are too small and my body is as huge as a balloon. Once it starts, the feeling grows like excitement, like a promise, like the damp air of early spring through a half-open classroom window in the long hour before school ends. I feel my torso turn long like the gloppy string when spitting goes wrong. I put my hand on my tummy to check it was still in reach, although I know I don’t need to, and once again I’m amazed at how nice it feels and, somehow, that makes me lonely. I think about that instead, but the stretchy feeling carries on behind my eyes.
Trapped, absurd; every day I get the train from my tiny flat to my temporary job, the job I have while I study to retake the translator exams. This morning at the station I saw something odd. I was going down the station stairs behind an old man. His steps were too jaunty, like someone pretending to walk; he gripped a blackthorn walking stick with a false-bone handle, his skin like paper. A youngish man was coming up; beard, pea coat, he had a disappointed look despite his fashionable clothes. At the moment when you would have expected them to pass each other the old man hit the younger with the top of his walking-stick and kept hitting him cudgel-fashion. The first blow probably hurt, after that the younger man had his arms up around his head. It was so sudden I remember it like photographs, without sound; five or six blows before the old man, his mysterious anger apparently spent continued down the stairs; his victim started to shout something, thought better of it, kind of shook himself and carried on upwards.
It was awful but marvelous, like a protest, like an art work. I was shocked but I thought how I wished it was me who had been beaten. I didn’t mean to think that and, of course, it would have been awful if the old man had actually hit me, but the thought carried on regardless, like the stretchy feeling tonight is carrying on while I stroke my belly. I imagined the old man beating me and me shrinking from his blows. I imagined the pain, the day shattered and everyone watching. I imagined other things, I imagined a nuclear bomb falling and burying us. I imagined the world destroyed, almost everyone dead and my body packed in dust and rubble. I imagined a hundred thousand years later the dust being excavated and our skeletons found. We would be utterly alien to those future archaeologists, they would marvel at our multitude and would mistake our everyday items for artifacts. I imagine that despite the years separating them from me, they would see something familiar in the cowering and exultant posture of my remains.