A while ago, I entered a short story competition on the theme A Modern Fairy Tale. I didn’t win (boo), but I thought I’d share my story with you. It’s called The Current When It Serves, and it goes a little something like this….:
The Current When It Serves
By Lizzie Boyle
The world is made of sand at Weston when the water pulls away. The people pull away too: to chip shops, pubs, arcades. It becomes a place of animals: dogs play on the beach, pigeons forage the cafe floors, seagulls dive at parked cars, listless.
Three sisters brave the dry, windy world. Slender, dark, close, they huddle against the cold and tread their footprints on the sand. They have walked out to the water’s edge, felt the sea with their fingers, looked out into a nothing of blue. Now they are returning to the town, the piers welcoming them with an embrace.
Amy, the youngest at fifteen, walks between the other two. Across the sand, she sees the figure of a man, round and squat. Battling the wind behind him, a protest of balloons, every colour, every shape, pulling him this way, pulling him that. The man plants his feet firmly in the sand. His is a risky trade on a windy day. Amy points towards him, says to her sisters: “Look! Let’s get balloons!”
The sisters cross the sand and greet him.
“We’d like some balloons,” they say.
“Aren’t you too old for balloons?”
‘Are we too old for the sea? Too old to play? Too old for dreams?” The sisters smile.
The balloon seller bows low and tells them it is true, one is never too old for dreams. Because he has learnt this from them, he says, he will give them each a balloon.
To the oldest sister, Cara, he hands a red balloon. “This means great love,” he says. Cara is nineteen. She takes the balloon and thinks of her lover, dreams of a place by a lake on an autumn day, his nervous smile as he drops to one knee, the look in his eyes as he asks “will you marry me?”.
To the second sister, Jenny, he hands a white balloon. “This means a new life,” he says. Jenny is seventeen. She takes the balloon and blushes. Only she knows that she is carrying a child.
To Amy, he hands a silver balloon. He holds his hands around hers.
“This balloon,” he says, “this balloon means great tragedy.”
Amy feels the plastic ribbon in her hands, the silver balloon tugging upwards in the breeze. She would like to let it go but knows that it would not change a thing. The man has spoken and the tragedy will come.
Her sisters close around her, hold her, protect her. When they look around again, the balloon seller has gone.
It is hard for the sisters to live their lives knowing what they know. Amy goes to school each day and wonders whether it will be a bus that strikes her, or a disease. Cara sits in an office, starts at the banging of the door or the ringing of the phone. Jenny at her college cannot study, cannot think, always wondering if Amy will make it through the day.
Autumn comes and Cara is taken to a place by a lake. Her lover looks at her nervously, drops to one knee, says “will you marry me?” “No,” she says. “I cannot marry you. A great tragedy has been foretold for my sister Amy. I must look after her and keep her safe.”
Winter comes and Jenny in her worry feels pains across her belly. Her child comes, not breathing. There is nothing they can do.
Jenny and Cara in their heartbreak and their grief think only of their sister. They stay at home now, waiting, waiting. At first she calls from school each day to tell them all is well, but they fear the ringing phone will bring bad news. Now she goes to school, she studies, she comes home. They hold her tight each evening, feed her well, keep her warm. They live each day in their house of worry, forget to eat, waste away. As Spring comes, they are weak. By Summer, they are dead, a week apart.
Amy wears her grief like a winter coat, heavy on her shoulders. She goes back to Weston, ashen in the sun. She walks out with the tide, feels the sea with her fingers. As she walks back to the town, she sees him, the squat, round man with the fistful of balloons.
“There was something wrong with the balloons you gave us,” she tells him.
“My sister Cara had a red balloon.”
“That means great love,” he says.
“There was great love,” Amy tells him, “but now my sister who would have been married is dead.”
“My sister Jenny had a white balloon.”
“That means new life,” he says.
“There was new life,” she tells him, “but now my sister and her child are both lost.”
“I myself had a silver balloon.”
“That means great tragedy,” he says.
“But I am here and still alive.”
The balloon seller looks out across the sand, watches three small waves lap over on themselves far away.
“I know of all that has happened this past year,” the balloon seller says. “I know that all the things I promised have come true. There was great love – and it was the love that your sisters showed for you. There is new life – and it is the life that you must now lead alone. And there was great tragedy but it was theirs, not yours.“
“Why did you make us do these things?”
The balloon seller watches a seagull wheeling by. “I did not tell you what would happen; I did not tell you what to do. Each of you chose a path across the sand. Each of you followed a set of footprints that you thought was the only way.”
“But the balloons said…”
“Balloons are just balloons,” he says. He opens his hand and they fly away on the wind, like dreams.
Copyright, Lizzie Boyle 2012