I wrote the following story as flash fiction at a writing course I attended recently (links in bold italics are to other posts on this site). Unlike my recently-released collection, Seven Hotel Stories, it is not a comedy. Comments welcome.
I was born in sadness. My mother, bless her soul, was not killed by my arrival on this world. But she was ruined, my father said.
The doctors agreed. My head was too big, they said. I ruined her.
Maybe the doctors in our village were not too great, either.
I never knew my father before I was born, of course. I never knew whether he hated my mother before I ruined her. I never knew if he hated me, either, before I arrived.
What I do know is that after I arrived, he wanted neither me nor her.
Maybe my mother tried too hard to please him, after he said she was ruined. It made him angry that she could no longer climb the stairs of our small house, to where the bedrooms were. She made the front parlour sparkle and the kitchen smell of bread and herbs and put wine on the table for when he came home.
Still, my father was angry.
One of my first memories was of her, dragging her poor broken body to the kitchen table, a plate of food in each hand, an eager smile on her pale face. He waited until the food was in front of him: grilled fish, crisp and hot, with sliced onions and half a baked tomato.
Then he slapped her, hard.
‘The maid could do better,’ he said. ‘At least the maid can climb the stairs. The maid is better for everything.’
My mother did not cry out when he slapped her. She stood, her swollen body and thick legs heavy on the kitchen floor, the shape of his hand reddening on her cheek.
‘Maybe you should marry the maid, then,’ she said.
My father did not look ashamed. He smiled, and cut open the steaming fish with the knife and fork which my mother had put on the table.
This is not fair, I thought. I have to fix it.
It was the first time I had felt this way. I was only four years old. I could not yet see how I could make things right, how I could solve this problem. But I was beginning to think I could make a difference, and studying to see how I could do that.
Maybe my father taught me something after all.
He married the maid when I was five years old. My mother was hardly cold in her grave.
The maid was a slim girl from the village with dark skin and sunken eyes. She smiled at me, and pinched my cheek when my father was not looking, and gave me cubes of sugar from the café in the town.
Even after he married the maid, my father was angry. Her dark cheeks did not redden when he slapped her, but he slapped her anyway.
This is not fair, I thought.
I decided to try and help the maid.
I was older now, I could clean and cook and make things better. I emptied my father’s ashtrays before he could complain that they were full. I carried the trash to the street corner before he could tell her it was stinking in the heat. I cooked the tea when I saw him turn the corner on his way back from work, and woke her so he would not find her sleeping, exhausted, on the couch in the front room. I fetched his newspaper and put it on the table by his favourite armchair, with its shiny back. I made sure the bottle of wine on the table was always full.
Still my father found reasons to punish her. The yard was not tidy, he would roar. My school grades were not good: she should help me to learn. The tea was too strong, or too weak; too hot, or too cold.
The maid was pretty, but she could not read or write. I wanted to make things better. I wanted my father to stop shouting.
I could not make the tea better: he always wanted it hotter, or colder, or weaker, or stronger. But I could study hard at school. By the time I was eleven, my reading was the best in the class. My mathematics teacher said I must be something remarkable. My history teacher said she wished all the children worked as hard as I did.
On my twelfth birthday, I brought home my report card. I glowed with pride. My father surely could not slap the maid today.
I stood before him in the parlour and held out my school report. My body was fuller. I was becoming a woman. I have fixed it, I thought. I have prevented an injustice. I allowed myself a smile. Did I smile too much? Perhaps I did.
My father looked into my eyes. He smiled back at me, but his eyes were cold. For the first time, he did not slap the maid. He slapped me.
‘You are like her,’ he said. ‘You think you are better than me. You will learn. I will teach you.’
I felt the sting on my cheek and imagined my skin turning red. I did not cry out.
This is not fair, I thought. I must fix it.
All my life I have tried to fix things. Some people say I am good at this. It is true that I do not like it when people behave badly.
After the first slap, I started to work even harder to make my father happy. I bought better wine, in bigger bottles. When he had drunk half a bottle he still tried to slap me, and his wife, but his aim was not so good. When he had drunk a bottle, he fell asleep. As the months went by, I began to turn off the electric lamp when he was sleeping, so that the bright light would not wake him. But I also lit a candle so that he would not be angry if he woke up in the dark.
I put the candle on the table by his armchair, along with the wine and his newspaper. Sometimes, he fell asleep before he had read his newspaper, but I left the older copies there, in a pile, so he would not be angry that I had taken them away.
The maid and I would take our chairs and sit in the yard, talking about how we hoped one day our lives might be better.
In those days, we did not yet have mobile phones. When the fire broke out, it spread quickly, and the flames stopped us from going back into the house to call the fire brigade. It took an hour before the first engine came. My father never suffered, I am sure. He had drunk a full bottle of wine before he fell asleep. I do not think he ever knew that the candle had burned down and set alight the pile of newspapers which spilled across the floor.
People say I cannot stand an injustice. I do try to fix things. But sometimes it is best when problems solve themselves.
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