This piece is part of our ongoing series ‘Short Story of the Month‘. Every month, the Writer’s Edit team selects their favourite submission and provides detailed feedback to the author.
Read more about Katrina‘s inspirations and literary influences in our exclusive interview.
‘Word-Flies’ by Katrina Kemp
Pyrrho was inspecting something he’d picked up in the park. So many belongings got left behind. He’d leave them for a day or two for whoever came searching, but mostly no-one came. That’s how he got his Bad Boy t-shirt and other little bits of stuff; a hat, thongs.
‘Hey mate!’ someone shouted from the beer garden. Pyrrho stood up, guilty, mottled with a hot flush of shame.
‘Just seein’ how you’re goin’,’ said a swaying Chupa with unfocussed eyes. ‘You wanna beer?’
‘Well thank you very much, but I can’t buy you one, you know?’
‘Yeah I know mate, I know, but you look like you wanna beer.’
‘I’m not a beer drinker, or never was before, but now it’s different. I think I could have anything at all and it would be wonderful. There’re so many things I never had.’
Chupa’s fingers touched his buttoned down shirt pocket, checking the safety of a joint he had ready. He wondered if the old guy would be up for trying a smoke too.
‘Siddown while I get us the stubbies. May as well do something useful while the surf’s so shit.’ Chupa turned back to the pub, aglow with generosity. He even thought to order some hot chips so the old guy wouldn’t get too pissed.
Pyrrho sat down as he was told and gazed at the flabby motion of the water. He was unconcerned about surf, but was troubled by the loss it implied. He had forgotten about the beer and Chupa when the smell of hot chips revived him to the present.
‘Oh my,’ he said with a watering mouth. ‘How thoughtful you are. I usually only find cold chips. Thank you, thank you…er… what’s your name?’
‘Everyone calls me Chupa, mate. Like the lollipops.’
‘I see… thank you, Chupa.’ Pyrrho had clearly never heard of Chupa Chups, but received their namesake’s offerings with humble pleasure.
They sipped at their beers; the chips open on the seat between them. Chupa kicked his feet at scavenging seagulls that got too close. He started to gulp at his beer between incoherent bursts of self-pity; lousy birds, lousy surf, lousy friends, all rolled into one long grievance.
‘You think you are alone, that’s all. Stay out here tonight, after everyone’s gone home and then you can see. The whole universe is with you and holding you and singing to you.’
Chupa recalled noticing something of the sort up at the Byron festival, unable to move from the ground after several bongs, the stars in his face, music flowing between, or from, patterns of light. But spinning, he had become afraid and crawled away to vomit.
‘Hey, you didn’t tell me your name did you?’
‘No, I am just a deserter. I sit in the sand for hours, picking up handfuls and letting it trickle between my fingers, wriggling my toes up and down through it, watching them do what they like now they’ve escaped from shoes. They don’t seem attached to me anymore, just like the people I thought I was attached to. They’re all like characters in a movie now, nothing to do with me.’
Chupa lit up and smoked quietly, not sure of an appropriate response, having never been troubled by human attachments or the oppressiveness of shoes. He decided against offering his joint. This guy was already far into some crazy trip.
The words buzzed around his ears like flies; returning words, whining and stinging mosquito words. He had to flick the top of his ears and send them spinning up into the heat-shimmer surrounding his head.
Pyrrho couldn’t capture them as he had, in neat formations on his papers, skewered by the point of a pen. There was no paper, or pen, to make a point with.
So they landed again, the eternal summer of word-flies, a multitude demanding to be heard. His fingers would check about his head and behind his ears, imagining himself bloody or putrid on the bits he couldn’t see.
But he was healthier than ever. There was no winter, no decline, no subtle ebbing of heat and light. His ears burned with their garrulous return. There was no death; all deaths fuelled the heedless insistence of living.
Even his pathetic old frame continued to wake each morning with the undimmed sun in his face, or the need to piss. That sun defied any claims of death, always victorious. As soon as it appeared, out came the real flies, the birds and lizards, the joggers and the children, to revel in its wake.
It was an assault, this fevered pulse that throbbed everywhere he looked, inside his own head, even still in an occasional absurd erection. Already rootless, he wished to be as boneless as the stormweeds, churned up from the depths to flaccidly drift and roll; more fodder for the great living hunger in the sea.
If he floated away with the weeds, the word-flies would be gone, his silly human life giving rise to something more noble down the food chain.
No, on it went, the life he was given, speaking loudly in his ears: admonishments from his mother, questions from his children, his own favourite sayings with no one to say them to; even awkward, meaningless snippets from the lives of passers-by.
But no paper, something he missed more than any comforts or company. Now he saw the point of graffiti. Staring at the side of the toilet block from his favourite bench, the clumsy splatters of colour and black outlines conveyed nothing more offensive than some person’s need to swat their word-flies.
Not given to these public performances of swatting, he took up remnants of charcoal from the graffitists’ bonfires. It would stay dry in the sandstone crevice where he sheltered at night. He kept it in a discarded fisherman’s bucket with other useful things he found offered up on the beach: a pair of sunglasses, a water bottle and a rusty knife.
Above the crevice formed by the collapse long ago of a huge slab of rock shelf, there were other spaces in the sandstone, white and cleanly eroded. He approached with the burnt end of a tiny stick. But despite all the words authoritatively written in his lifetime, he quaked with anticipation as he brought the blackened end into contact with the gritty white stone.
It was too loud. The capital letters yelled like a graffitist. He turned to check that no-one was looking up to see what the old man on the headland was shouting about.
Everyone said ‘here, I am here’ as they surged about in the great life-storm, as if they could pinpoint their raindrop of existence in time and space, separate from all the other droplets pouring down upon the earth and sinking trackless through the soil.
So he added a ‘w’ and a question mark, calmer now in uncertainty.
But then ‘WHERE?’ seemed to require an answer, reminding him again of when his children were young, the expectancy on their faces after those kind of utterances; where, why, who, demanding that he provide an antidote to their momentous need to know.
Whatever he said, however insufficient it sounded in his own ears, it was astonishing that a child, his child, would skip away quite satisfied with his reply. How had he become so learned in disbelief?
No longer the learned professor adrift on the fringe of humanity, there was something awaiting him; his life meant something, even in that one word.
He tried another, quieter this time: ‘look’. That brought him back to his ‘WHERE?’ Where to look?
There was only HERE, he had to stay HERE. He did say it aloud this time, swatting at his ears: ‘HERE!’
He was happy then. Just two words and he could go down to the park for a drink of water.
He sat and watched Chupa and his friends out in a scrappy surf. His ears quietened for the moment with the image in his mind of the two words up on the rock like a spell to subdue the flies.
Look here, look where? Look here.
‘Hey my friend,’ saluted the wet Chupa.
‘Have I been here too long, Chupa?’
‘Naa, only a bit more than a month,’ Chupa told him confidently.
He never enquired about what Pyrrho had left behind for the freedom of wandering on the beach all day. He didn’t care really. Pyrrho was all good as he was; it made perfect sense at any age to drop out of a burdensome existence. ‘No flies on him’ Chupa might say, oblivious to the swarms feasting on Pyrrho’s sanity via wax-lined tunnels in his head.
‘Have you had a good morning?’ Pyrrho asked him politely, still uncertain how to judge the waves. Their relentlessness awed him, the noise and motion, the greedy rush and suck of the break on the sand.
‘It’s just shit again. I’ll have to go somewhere else this arvo. You had any brekky?’
‘Well…’ Pyrrho never asked for anything.
‘You know what I’ve got for you? A bloody great piece of chocolate mud cake from me birthday. I’ll never eat it all.’
‘Chocolate’, or ‘chocklet’ as Chupa had said it, stabbed at Pyrrho’s ear like a shaft of nausea to the brain-pit. Chocklet. Chocklet. Chocklet would certainly attract flies, turning sugar-sticky and soft in the sun.
‘You comin’ or what?’
Chupa’s mates had sauntered up with an air of cynicism. Unsure of Pyrrho’s claims on their saline world, they would have mocked but for Chupa’s solicitude to the old bugger; a mysterious sentiment never offered to each other. Had they taken an interest they would have discovered Pyrrho’s aspiration to the status of plucked seaweed.
‘Yeah, yeah, no hurry is there?’
He grinned at Pyrrho. They both understood the absurdity of hurry. Pyrrho squinted against the unguarded camaraderie exuding from Chupa’s stubbled smile. He was at a loss with friendship. He was another species.
They walked away dripping, still attached to their umbilical leg-ropes. Pyrrho stood up to find some shade. He was very hungry and dizzy in the sun. The thought of chocklet began to torment.
‘Happy birthday, Chupa!’ he suddenly remembered to call to the wetsuit-black back, not the right moment. The six dry little flecks of sound from his throat scattered in the fresh air like moths released from a dark cupboard.
Some people always knew what to say and said it at the right time. They were popular people, like Marigold. They oozed chocklet cake and candles, thought of all the trimmings and lovely gifts that made people happy.
Marigold had loved chocolate; one of her harmless pick-me-ups. He would often buy her a box, not for occasions but just when he saw them. With feet propped up on a footrest, her toes would curl back and forth as she put one after another in her mouth, light from the television reflecting off her glasses. She was very easily satisfied.
He would leave her in a cacao dream to search in his study for the book that would help him make sense of his next lecture, then, when he had things to do. Now he dozed in the shade, as bookless as Adam and almost as naked, inviting ants and flies to crawl over his unprotected skin.
He awoke to the afternoon sun and a roar from the pub. Chupa had not yet returned with chocklet cake. He rolled onto the pain of sunburn and a stiff back, getting up to search the bins as the day’s beachgoers dumped their leftovers.
He didn’t think of the future any more than a jubilant seagull leaping on a skerrick of food. He had been there long enough to be untroubled by scavenging. He watched for opportunities and, with his supply of charcoal, kept the word-flies at bay.