by Eva Hibbs
Second runner-up of the Spring 2021 ORB Short Fiction Competition, judged by Amit Chaudhuri.
Meet Ella. Yesterday, her best friend died.
‘What do you have to say about that Ella?’
Not much at the moment, it seems.
‘Hi Ella. How are you feeling about things today?’
‘Why are you talking to me?’
‘I care about you.’
‘Who are you?’
‘I just care.’
Ella reads at her friend’s funeral. He’s called Theo. (You think ‘was’ called. I think ‘is’.) She reads a poem she liked as a child. It makes her seem like a child, reading something like that. No one tells her that her bra is completely visible under her white blouse. The salmon sandwiches were the most popular, obviously.
Ella spoke to me yesterday. She told me to piss off. I don’t hold it against her. She’s gone back to work. There’s been an ant infestation. Someone bought a sous vide.
Ella’s colleague Rizz asks how she is.
‘What do you think?’ Ella responds.
Rizz pours wheat flour into Ella’s gluten-free flan.
Ella smokes a joint in her car on her lunch break. I think this could be a good time to try talking again. She pretends not to hear me but I can tell she does. She blows a smoke oval. Just one. The plastic toy on her dashboard has lost an arm.
‘Hi Ella,’ I say. She closes her eyes. ‘Life isn’t the same anymore. You can’t pretend that it is.’
She checks her watch and then begins to masturbate.
It’s Monday which is Ella’s day off. She plays Radiohead on the guitar. No Surprises. Her studio flat is like a child’s den. There are chocolate wrappers and coloured pens all over the floor. So many dirty glasses you’d assume she couldn’t reach the sink.
The booklet from Theo’s funeral is folded in half on Ella’s coffee table. She looks at his stupid chin. She shifts the guitar off her thigh and selects the pen closest to her; dots two eyes on his chin. She laughs which causes her to cough uncontrollably. Then she cries.
‘Isn’t it the first time you’ve cried?’
I give her a chance to think. She sits with her head on her hand, Thinking. She cries about not having cried yet. Her phone rings with the Star Wars theme tune. She doesn’t answer. It rings again. She taps the green phone icon and then, not saying anything, taps the megaphone. The deep voice on the other ends says hello and then tells Ella that’s it’s not supposed to be him that says hello. He’s confirming plans she’d forgotten about. She tells him she can’t make it.
He tells her to have an effing shower.
Stevie stands at Ella’s doorway in a yellow rain mac an erect hood. We know his name is such because of a label, written in red pen, stuck to his breast. He hands her something wrapped in foil.
‘Banana loaf,’ he says.
‘I’m not ready,’ she says.
He tells her to just put her coat on.
They don’t talk in the back of the Uber. Stevie sips from a hip flask. He tells her it’s cordial – part of the programme. When they arrive at Lady Emorium’s Cat Emporium, Ella throws up. The hostess tells Stevie she doesn’t want the cats getting sick. He tells her the Uber driver took tight bends.
‘Alright,’ the woman says, ‘but if she chucks in here there’s a carpet cleaning premium.’
Ella asks Stevie why they’ve come. He tells her he’s been on the list for months.
Ella is back at home. Despite throwing up, she feels better than before she went to the cat café.
‘Ella?’ I say.
‘All sorts of things in all sorts of ways are on the move.’
Ella looks at a pigeon, standing still on her balcony. She raises an eyebrow and looks to the sky, which I suppose is where she thinks I am.
That evening, she looks at postcards Theo sent her. Burma. The Seychelles. He talks about cheap cocktails and a girl called Babs.
‘Ella?’ I ask, when she must have finished reading.
‘Go on then, if it’s so important.’
‘There is a constant pattern in things and a constant sequence.’
‘And that’s supposed to make me feel better?’
‘The flower sheds its seed which the air carries.’
‘You’re cryptic. And annoying.’
‘Just look at the shell in your bathroom.’
Ella runs herself a bath with an I-was-going-to-anyway purposefulness.
The next morning, Ella calls the restaurant. She tells them she’s not returning to work. They ask her where she’s going. ‘Somewhere else,’ she replies and hangs up the phone.
She notices pigeon shit on her balcony and takes outside a knife and a cloth. She rubs the shit until it disappears.
‘If the atoms never swerve so as to originate some new movement that will snap the bonds of fate, the everlasting sequence of cause and effect,’ I say, ‘what is the source of free will possessed by living things throughout the earth?’
I’m drowned out by the traffic.
EVA HIBBS studied an M.St in Creative Writing while at St Catherine’s College. She loves ideas and believes in their power to the extent she may well be made up herself.
Art by Fred Seddon