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There’s a stag party staying at The Balmoral where you clean. Three blokes to a room. Their beds need making but it’s a quick job to re-tuck and tighten the sheets. You leave them fresh towels for showering, six sugar sachets, twelve UHT milks in sippy cups on the tea tray and screw the lids back on the wet shampoo bottles. You jab into the corners of the shower tiles for slimy grot, the cloth held tightly around your forefinger to pick out the muck and pubic hairs. Careful not to touch the mouth end, you hang their three dry toothbrushes in a chrome holder above the sink. The glass ashtrays are full of Marlboro filters smoked down to the brown and the ash always makes you gag, the smell seems zingier and more metallic somehow when it’s not your own cigarettes.
You count out fifteen stubby bottles and black bag them, then you bin the untouched pizza boxes of cold deep pan. Such a waste, they haven’t touched them. You would. You think how hungry you are nowadays even during the night. Once, you used to think you could ignore hunger but the body’s designed to defy the brain. You eat to fill. After the scan, your mum took you for an elephant’s foot at Birds – her treat – but you thought it best not to order coffee. Just in case. Your mum reckons it’s all changed nowadays, there’s too much stuff women can’t eat. She said you must take extra care when you mop the floors, you could break your neck on those tiles.
You work fast, trying to get done before the men finish their breakfast downstairs. Only one bed’s left but underneath the duvet you find the bottom sheet’s wet with a marigold yellow bloom, the stain brilliantly pretty if it wasn’t someone else’s body fluid. He didn’t even strip it. Poor sod. You get fresh starched sheets from the cupboard in the hall and hear male voices moving up the stairs, dark and husky, scratching out last night’s anecdotes with a booze and tobacco cadence, the hoarse soundtrack of depravity and excess. You consider that there’s only one exit and it’s past the men anyway, so rushing’s pointless. It feels vulnerable to clean in front of the guests though, it makes you feel self-conscious. You hope they’ll wait in the corridor until you’ve finished.
Bending to tuck the clean sheet over the crinkly mattress protector, a man comes just inside the doorway. He’s the stag according to the antlers on his chest and the name, Tony Banks, STAG printed across his personalised T-shirt. Black monobrow, hairy hands. Eyes like up river after a storm.
Don’t mind me; I’m just after my wallet. He doesn’t ask.
I’ll leave you to it. I can finish off later?
No, I’ll be in and out. His accent is one you know well but can’t place. There’s a rising inflection at the end of his statement. It unlocks a memory of some other time.
You stand up straight in the room that feels smaller now with two of you in it and lean back against the wall to signal that you’ve stopped work whilst he gets what he needs. The single bed’s between the two of you like an interview table. You realise the wet sheet’s his because he retrieves a wallet from a Timberland rucksack underneath the bed and you feel sorry for him, the humiliation he must feel at you sorting his mess out.
Then he looks at the open door, the empty white-walled corridor outside and he leans towards you over the bed – it’s hardly any distance to make at all because he’s a giant in a doll’s house. His hand comes between your legs. Abruptly, roughly. What he does with it is hidden beneath your green tabard but the force almost lifts you off the ground, his hand grinds against your pubic bone, the grabbing hand fierce, fingers knuckling your insides, the sheer force of his entitlement silencing you. It’s utterly unexpected and conversely, precisely what you expected, what you were waiting for. Call it intuition, something in your gut.
He says Thank you pet in his nasal accent and you realise it can’t have been for any length of time. He lets you go so that you seem to drop back in to your own bones and space, your thighs shaking, you don’t reply – can’t speak – and then he’s gone and absorbed back in to the burr and brush of male voices in the corridor. It happens quickly. So quickly that later your manager questions if it actually happened at all. He says that he’s so sorry for the upset, especially in your condition but it would be your word against the man’s and he isn’t looking for trouble.
Our Flash of Inspiration this month is Rachael Smarts Burr, Catherine McNamara, sits with Rachael Smart to talk inspirations.
CM:Who was the reader you had in mind for this story?
RS: Working class women. To say: I’ve got your back, I see what you’ve seen, put your hand in mine. ‘Burrs’ is everyday stuff, it happens routinely. Men still run the show on council estates and in back street offices, on car sales forecourts, in dimly lit hotels. The social beef is that feminists should stop bleating now, that their work’s done. It isn’t.
CM:What were you doing when your best ever idea came to you?
RS:Doing a night feed with a milk-drunk baby in my arms. All of my decent ideas are formulated during night feeds, it’s a precious time for silence and space and that semi-conscious slow pattern of thinking.
CM:Are your ideas generated/borrowed/stolen?
RS:All three. I’m a magpie. There’s an understandable defensiveness amongst writers about using the word ‘steal’ in the same sentence as ‘ideas’, but art gets excited by other art. I often tend to steal strange objects hanging around in author’s narrative kitchens and gardens, or in their sunlit attics, then I make them authentically grubby.
CM:What do you do with an unconvincing piece of work? Rework/recycle/reject?
RS:All three. Every sentence leads somewhere. A poem often becomes prose and vice versa. That takes so much work, doesn’t it, hours of re-writing and temporary insanity then it’s so clear: it wasn’t meant for its original form at all.
CM:Who do you admire in spades?
RS:Julie Myerson. Jon McGregor. Alison Moore. Their work is staggering and they’re such likeable people.
CM:Urban or rural? Domestic or exotic? Language or plot? First, second or third person?
RS:Urban domestic. I’m language obsessed, particularly in describing minutiae like body fluids and refuse, the things we discard. I use all narrative perspectives but I’ve been experimenting with second-person recently. Burrs felt right in second, the original spewed out in first but I realised that second person located the reader as voyeur, victim and witness to the assault. That three-fold position heightened the emotional dislocation, I think it toys with the reader’s mind more.
CM:What’s the best or worst rejection you’ve ever received?
RS:The rejection that still stings was addressed to Mr Smart.
CM:What are your cardinal rules for writing flash fiction? How often do you bend them yourself?
RS:Write in one intense burst of adrenalin. Start with the closing line. Use Shaun Levin’s Writing Maps for inspiration. Rules are stifling: break every one.