Robert Stone

Short Fiction


A fly sways drowsily across the sunny room until it hits the window with a bewildered thump. Then the ticking of the man’s watch is the only sound that anyone might hear. A paperback, white spine upwards, lies by his side making a shallow tent of itself, very near his dangling bony hand, just as though he had put it down a moment ago, pausing for reflection, and might pick it up again at any time. The back door to the garden is open but the air is still. A spider wraps a hoverfly in a dusty corner of the window frame, dulling its old gold abdomen with each successive turn of its cluster of needle-thin legs. There is a sky-blue envelope on the mantelpiece, the letter in it protruding slightly. The address, this address one assumes, is turned to the wall. There is a postcard beside it, partly obscured, a very bright yellow, that might be a gigantic sandcastle on a sun-soaked beach, or a desert. There is a glass near his hand, tinted blue, on its side, which he must have upset. At the bottom of the glass a crust of dark red and no other sign of what once was liquid, so the glass may have been empty, more or less, when it was overturned.


On the wall opposite the mantelpiece there is a painting, or a high quality print, framed. A suave man with a military moustache and red piping on his trousers and lying on a divan or a chaise longue or some other piece of nineteenth century furniture. His book is closed over his thumb and he holds it flat on his thigh. His hands look soft and white. An awkward cuff hangs down overlong. It might almost be a dressing. He wears a silk ribbon on his breast, a badge of courage. He looks too exhausted to have been reading. In fact, he does not look well. His eyes are red-rimmed. There is a jug of a clear liquid and two empty glasses on the thin-legged table by the side of the divan, or whatever it is. Also an unlit oil-lamp with a heavy bronze bottom and a glass like a moon. The sun has drawn a broad stroke of light across the canvas rendering much of the detail difficult to discern and yet some of the title of the soldier’s book may be made out: Two Short… The rest a cryptic scribble. A corner of the canvas, or print, looks damaged by water. The frame of the picture is heavy and golden apparently inlaid with bright blue jewels like teardrops but these, of course, are painted on. The fly has recovered from its collision and recommenced its torpid progress about the room. It does not seem aware of the broken meal which may now be too dry to stimulate its senses.


Sometimes there is a noise from outside; the wind in the tall trees, or the traffic. The paper on which the letter has been written looks older than the paper of the envelope, as though someone had taken an old letter, damaged by exposure to the sun, and posted it again. The corners of the postcard are crumpled, dog-eared, travel-worn. News of the weather a thousand miles away from a country with no weather. The shadow cast by the dangling hand might be a stain or a smear, darkening to purple as a cloud moves in front of the sun. His cheeks and chin are blue now. There are crumbs of wine at the corner of his mouth. In his book, marking a place, is a fold of silver foil perhaps from a bar of rich dark chocolate. The steady air is warming. The room might have that withdrawn feel, a sense of something having just happened. There is the almost imperceptible smell of a heavily scented flower like an undertone in a sophisticated drink. Heliotrope. There’s honeysuckle all around the frame of the front door but that could not be detected through the window.


A wood-pigeon flies into the room through the back door and flies straight out again. It may have seen him flat on his back with his feet at ten to two. Surprisingly large and ungainly like a creature from a dream, not like a very common bird at all. Its head is the colour of hyacinths and the pupil of its eye is as red as a poppy. The room feels oddly empty when the pigeon has gone. A void seeming opaque and obvious as when someone is asked a question which they do not answer. The smear on the plate could be an offering, or provision for the journey. The crumbs might be seeds. The ribbon of sunlight has moved up the wall and now a spray of flowers is revealed behind the man with the military moustache. Lilies. In a picture on his wall. Flowers left in a vase too long will thicken the air in a room with sweetness until the stench from the water overpowers this. The spider is still patiently turning the hoverfly. It will have poisoned it. All that is soft is beginning to harden. All that is wet is beginning to dry. The dial of his watch is painted with Roman numerals. It has no second-hand. There are no mirrors in this room. The silver foil winks but reflects nothing. 


The stain, or the shadow, under his hand seems larger, a dark pool. The plate with the broken meal and the sagging book cast shadows too. It would soon be too dark to read. There is a strain of music from outside but that is shut off as though someone had slammed a door. You wonder what might dare to come through that back door and what it could be that would attract it. A shadow stretches in like a claw. The sky in the postcard looks leaden now. The hot room begins to give back its heat. The hoverfly is a silver mummy, its old gold self a secret. The spider can begin to feed, swallowing its own poison. The soldier in the painting looks so sad. His thin legs stretched for want of a bed. A picture of languor, nonchalance. A shadow in a corner could be a little black dog but it’s too dark to tell. There is a clock above the shadow dog. Ten to two. If the room stays still for long enough, like the room in a painting, its air will fall to the floor in dust. Little pyramids of air everywhere. The paper would crumble and the silver mummy would be tossed from the web. The foil would last forever.


If he were dreaming, he might dream of the woman who had written the letter or of the country on the picture-postcard. He might think he was the soldier in the painting with the red piping on his legs, the drowsy fly, the desiccated mummy, the pigeon. He might dream of the people in his book, that crazy adventure, the encroachment of the sun and its shadows, of the slow ingestion of poison. He may not be dreaming. He has not moved for a long time which must be very uncomfortable. A few more seconds of music before the door shuts again and the cry of a child, perhaps. The hair on his chin is sprouting, too long to be blue. The fire under the mantelpiece is a mouth full of ash. That could be burnt paper. It has not been more than warm for ages. If a breeze could be imagined that would float the postcard or the letter into the fire they would come to no harm. No fire visible in the soldier’s room but it would help to explain his somnolence, the droop of his moustache, his sore-looking eyes. What might he be remembering? Old comrades, barracks and battles. Perhaps there is a glow on his cheek, if only of yellow light. It may be snowing outside falling like sprinkles of sugar.


He walks slowly through the old town keeping to the shadow in the alleys. The walls are all blinding white. Walk slowly. He knows it will be cooler when he sees the ocean. There are no people in the streets at siesta time. The air is bevelled in the haze. His suit is white, everything is white but the piping on his trousers. He sees a pyramid of dates on a single square clay plate. He would like to buy these but no shopkeeper is there. He has one gold coin only and that is too much for dates. He toys with a frayed cuff then lays the coin by the plate, stuffing the dates into his pocket. Something scowls at him from the open door, perhaps a small black dog too lethargic even to growl. The darkness is impenetrable, despite a bronze lamp that only makes the room darker. In the window-boxes there are poppies and hyacinths. His fingers are stained with the sinister juice of the oozing fruit. He wants to hurry but he knows he must walk slowly. He looks at his watch. It is ten to two but he does not know what that means. He brushes away a drowsy fly with his shapeless hand. On the battlements he sees her turn and wave, like a mirage, a distortion of light. She wears a white dress that might be made of gauze and a gold pendant set with blue stones and a ribbon in her hair, like a girl. He cannot offer her the sticky dates.


The fly has landed on the plate with the broken meal. Its investigation is sluggish and appears unsatisfactory. It takes to the air once more, tracing its invisible maze, in search of sugar. The dangling hand sways a little, or appears to. There may be crumbs of chocolate at the corner of his mouth. Rich dark chocolate. The spider casts the hoverfly mummy to the dust. An unseen ashen structure, secretly decayed, collapses inevitably and the fire breathes a warm sigh. The stain in the wine glass is quite black now. No one has seen any of this, so none of it can be remembered. Like the dreams you dream in your deepest sleep. Like the pages you turn when you are thinking of something else, not reading, only turning pages. The sky in the postcard brightens suddenly as though a brilliant moon had risen in the bay. It draws a silver path across the water turning the rest of the ocean black. The battlements are deserted. The city is a labyrinth of empty corridors. The honeysuckle taps against the window. The mummy tumbles along the sill. The spider contracts like a clenching fist. If the wind gets up it may rain.


The soldier in the painting is the ghost of the real man he once was, that actual soldier. He would have lived beyond being painted. He may have finished that book, or he may have simply turned its powdery pages and thought of the woman on the battlements and his offering of dates. All painted people are ghosts. What had she said in that letter, or even written on the back of that postcard? Life is too short. The fly almost makes it through the open back door but swerves away just in time. Watches don’t tick any more. Surely his fingers are stained as though he had dipped them in the purple-black shadow cast by his hand. Then there is a pen in the tent of the book, just its silver nib protrudes, occluded before by the glittering foil. He may have made a note in the book. The crumbs of the broken meal darken to a crust. Some dead things do not rot, they dry out. The fragrance of the flowers has gone. The soldier’s lilies have gloomed over once more. The room is becoming its outline, its silhouette, merely the indication that it has gone.


As the room cools, darkness starts to seep in. A few brittle dead leaves blow across the mat like skeletal mice. There is a whisper in the room. The fire has no breath at all for a sigh. The soldier is a ghost, the postcard is a dream and the letter is merely the memory of a letter. All the shadows look like stains that will never come out. The air becomes solid with absence, untold secrets, obscure mysteries, unanswered questions. The music again. For longer this time and a raised voice calling a name that no one catches. The spider begins to spin a fresh and hopeful web. The old one is full of dust. The foil is more golden, the sun at this late angle, and the pages of the tented book more yellow. The nib remains a dry silver but looks as sharp as a needle. The wine glass holds a diminutive rainbow and oceanic blues and greens. The wind is harsher in those tall trees. It will rain. The mummy gambols into its last corner, cushioned in its woolly sepulchre. His face is golden now and his hair is blue. His other hand lies on his heart as though he had died making a promise. A whisper would ask, Are you asleep? The fly hits the window with a final bewildered thud.

Robert Stone was born in Wolverhampton in the UK. He works in a press cuttings agency in London. Before that he was a teacher and then foreman of a London Underground station. He has two children and lives with his partner in Ipswich. He has had stories published in numerous British, American, and Canadian magazines, including Stand, 3:AM, The Write Launch, Confingo, The Decadent Review, Westchester Review, and Lunate. More details can be found on his website. He has had two stories published in Nicholas Royle’s Nightjar chapbook series. A story will soon come out in the Westchester Review. A story appeared in Salt’s Best British Stories 2020 volume.

Photo Credit: Chitto Cancio on Unsplash

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