Content Warning: Death of a loved one
In this episode, we have three wonderful short stories. We start with a tale told by a grandfather on a walk with his grandchild. Then we hear the reminiscences of a woman caring for her sick husband. Finally we take a walk down to the waters edge to see its beauty in a whole new light.
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Hello and Welcome to ‘Scintillating stories’ in this show we read short stories by a variety of authors. Today we are reading three pieces of flash fiction. The first story is by Martin Anderson.
Martin Anderson is retired and lives in the south of Scotland. He is old, but he doesn’t want to be old and certainly doesn’t want to be dead. Most of all, he doesn’t want to be a tremulous old dementiac, a tattered coat upon a stick, who can barely recollect himself.
He nonetheless finds a beauty in the world that almost breaks his heart, a heart now prone to missed beats, flutters, uneven squeezes of its chambers, a heart that is failing. Water, the cat, football on the television... these are achingly more beautiful for being soon-to-be-lost. The world looks lovelier to him in the light of his leaving it.
This morning, as he writes this, he finds rapture especially in his daughter, Hannah, and his granddaughter, Caia, who are playing in the sprinkler in his garden, shrieking and larking as people should when they meet something as miraculous as water.
by Martin Anderson
I stop at my daughter’s house first to get my little Caia. We go for a walk together every day. Best friend I’ve ever had, my little lamb, my little chirping bird. Just five years old. As wide-awake as a mouse and keen as the frost. She runs to meet me, for she knows I always have a story for her.
We leave my daughter’s house hand in hand.
“Where are we going today, Grandad?” Caia asks.
I glance down at her and smile.
“We’re going to meet the lark.”
She scrunches up her brow as if this is some great puzzle.
“It’s the second of February. Today, the lark comes back to us out of the skies.”
Her mouth drops open in astonishment.
“What did she do up there?”
“She went to look for fire.”
“Fire to make the sunshine, fire to boil the kettle.”
“Did the fire go out then?”
“Yep! Every year, in November, it puts on its coat and goes out to brighten the stars.”
“And how do we get it back again?”
“Three little birds go up to fetch it.”
She trots along the road by my side, warmly snuggled in her soft white wool jacket and bright red hood and mittens. She doesn’t mind the cold. Her cheeks are rosy. Her nose is running.
“Tell me about the birds,” she commands.
“Well, once upon a time, towards the end of January, three little birds - a wren, a robin, and a lark - set off to find the fire.
“The wren, brisk and proud as quicksilver, soon saw it, a bright spark floating in the air. She snapped at it and cried, ‘I’ve got it, I’ve got it!’ But then she screamed ‘It’s hot, it’s hot!’ and rolled the spark from one side of her beak to the other before spitting it out.
“The robin whirred in to help her. He grabbed the spark and put it carefully into the pocket of his red waistcoat. But his waistcoat got redder and redder until the poor robin screamed, ‘My clothes are burning!’ and shook the spark from his pocket.
“The spark began to fly off to heaven, where it would be lost forever. But in flew the lark, who caught the spark, fell to the earth as swift as an arrow, and buried it in the frozen ground.”
I take Caia up onto my shoulders and climb the hill out of the village to the earthworks of the old iron age fort that melt over its crown. The sky is grey, and the snow creaks under our boots. The delicate little skeletons of the trees and bushes are wadded with white, and, down below, the steam plumes up from the heating flues of the houses.
And here we are, at the top of our little world. I put Caia down. Below, at our feet, lies our home, wrapped about by a loop of the lazy Clyde, covered with snow, frozen, chilled, and shivering. At the end of a long life, and not having died a winter yet, it warms my heart just to stand here and look at the place.
Suddenly, a ray of sunshine breaks through the grey sky. Caia claps her hands and jumps up and down.
“Grandad,” she cries. “I can hear it! The lark! I can hear the lark!”
I laugh and kiss the top of her head.
“I hear it too, little bird. I hear it too.”
The next piece is by June Gemmell, and is read by the author.
June Gemmell is an editor for Loft Books. Her short stories have been published by Gutter Magazine, Soor Ploom, Loft Books and Razur Cuts magazine. Her flash fiction has featured on Short Story Today podcast. She is soon to be published by the Edinburgh Literary Salon in their 2023 anthology. She is working on a novel which features a Scottish school janitor who wins the lottery, but keeps it a secret, and she has also written a children's novel. You can find her on Twitter @june_gemmell
Content Warning: Death of a loved one
Hovering by June Gemmell.
There was a hush in the garden that summer evening, and the window lay open to allow the breeze to cool the room. The steady drone of insects filled the air. Neglected in your absence, the tallest flowers jostled their heads to peer in the downstairs bedroom window. Their blossoms drooped, overblown and blowsy. I didn’t know their names. T, that was your domain.
You lay asleep surrounded by the hardware of your illness. Tubes, medication, water jug, and a plastic yellow cup. The white pillows made a frame for your pale face. I had hung a stained glass mobile by the window, one of our holiday finds, to cheer you up and you smiled and pointed when the sunlight caught it and washed the walls with colour.
The window gave a series of squeaks as I pushed it further open, and I checked I hadn’t woken you. Your lovely face was lined with pain, even as you slept. I turned back to the garden and the flowers, to remind myself life was beautiful sometimes.
The large exotic blooms made me think of our last holiday in Jamaica. You wanted to go somewhere different, you said. You were always captivated by new discoveries, new places, the joy in the world. You were impressed by the variety of unusual plants and trees, and said it was the most wonderful place you’d ever visited. The birds particularly caught your attention, tiny hummingbirds with streamer tails and the parrots and parakeets in the trees by our hotel, squawking and flapping in the sunshine.
I recalled the heat, the scent of flowers, the flavours of our time there. Your happiness in the brief respite from your illness. We drank rum punch, the colour of the sunset, with chunks of fresh pineapple and paper umbrellas. I wiggled my bare toes in the warm sand, and you reached forward and kissed me.
I remembered these things as I watched you sleep. Then I leaned out of the window and caressed the soft petals of a flower, the pink deepening in shade as the sun slipped lower. I plucked it from its stem and laid it on the windowsill. I would put it by your bed in a tumbler of water.
In the silence there came a soft noise, a buzzing, and I watched for the bee that was surely close by.
The buzzing turned to a gentle whirring and became louder, and closer to me. But instead of a bee, a bird fluttered into view, a small, brightly coloured thing. A hummingbird? I knew they didn’t live in this part of the world, yet here it was. I think I laughed out loud. The dying sun caught the feathers on its upper body, and it shone with liquid gold as it hovered just outside the window.
I breathed your name, softly, so I didn’t scare the magical creature away. But you didn’t stir. Sleep had eventually come after a restless night and I was loathe to wake you.
I watched spellbound as the miniscule bird flitted from flower to flower, slender beak lined up to reach the nectar, wings a blur as it hung in mid air.
I don’t know why, but I held out my hand. I had never done that to a wild bird before, but I sensed it might come to me. And it did. It landed with two light feet on my outstretched fingers. So light that I could barely feel the touch. Weightless. As it turned its head its feathers caught the light, turning from gold to forest-green, then a vivid, shimmering emerald. A tiny jewel on my hand.
I glanced your way in the vain hope that you would at that point open your eyes and see the miracle. Your eyes were still closed, but your face had changed, and the low evening sun gave your skin a glow I hadn’t seen in months. There may have been a slight smile about your lips.
I looked back at the hummingbird. Its bright eye seemed to look my way, then its wings fluttered as it rose. A flash of colour, a fluid movement.
Then it was gone.
I waited a moment to see if it would return. The world was quiet without the hum of my tiny companion, and the evening lay still. The last flash of sun at the horizon blazed, turning the sky the colours of a Jamaican rum punch.
I moved to kiss you goodnight. This would be a wonderful story to tell you in the morning. But your lips were cold to the touch. Something had gone. Something had come.
The rays caught the stained glass mobile in the window, splintered the light into tiny pieces and illuminated the wall behind you. Just you and me and the colours of the hummingbird.
Last, but not least is a story by Birgit Itse.
Birgit Itse is a published author, both poetry and prose. As a story architect, she enjoys working on memoirs and how-to business books. As a speaker, she has a unique way of sharing universal stories the same way she writes - being inspirational and a bit thought provoking at the same time. She also does translation work and coaches people who don't like writing. Her articles, poems and inspirational short stories have been published by the BBC Radio Scotland, numerous international magazines and collections. She writes in two languages: Estonian and English.
By Birgit Itse
In the shadow of Glen Avon, water rises in the peat in the Grampian mountains, and starts its 82 mile expedition towards the distant North Sea. The waters of River Don will be greeted by many historic bridges, old villages and valleys, younger towns and agricultural fields.
Although its water levels change quickly, the banks are stable. Unlike where its waters are meeting the waves of the North Sea. Donmouth. The perfect reminder of change being the only constant thing in our lives.
What's Donmouth like this morning? Does it have a new bend like three weeks ago? Is the river closer to the northern or southern bank? This time last year, there was a wee sandy island, stroked by the sea on one, and by the river on the other side. Safe spot for all the birds to rest and enjoy the feast created by the outgoing tide.
Nothing is visible yet because of the huge yellow wall that smells like a coconut. Gorse. So beautiful. So dangerous. Wild. Resistant. Connecting and creating impassable boundaries. Evergreen and ever-yellow, even during the gloomiest December days. By the end of March, but especially in April, this fragrance fills your nostrils and even your taste buds.
So many footpaths, all leading down to the beach. The sand is crunchy. Strong frost has painted it white. The nippy air is pinching your cheeks and the tip of your nose.
After making your way through the sparkly beachgrass, the traffic noise disappears into the sound of waves wrestling with the sand. Hollows, bays, even little lakes, sharply cut slopes - all carved out by the recent past. It's only when you're descending from the dune, that the coconutty smell makes space for the sea saltiness in the air. It's not as noticeable in a quiet morning like this, but you'll find out it's there soon enough. You can taste it on your lips even hours later.
Today, the Don is going straight on, and the North Sea gives river-currents firm bosies, still barely noticeable if you don't know what to look for. Crows turning dead crabs upside down and sandpipers Latin-dancing between the waves. Seals, going with the flow towards the new day rising from the sea.
Even mornings like today, when the wide grey scarf blends into the horizon, sunrise-time never disappoints. Soon enough, clouds make space for the sun to appear, and suddenly you're blinded by the brightness. Reminded of the limelight given to you. Every day.
The golden, scarlet red or Barbie-pink reflections on the wet sand, washed away and then revealing themselves again. Sea-foam disappearing into footprints, soon to be taken out by the ninth wave. Breeze playing with the beachgrass covering the dunes behind. The natural rhythms silencing the sound of the frantic thoughts and to-do lists in your head. Waves from the river and the sea intertwining like fingers of loving hands.
Old trunks forming obstacle courses. Dead seaweed, pieces of broken pottery, and flat chunks of asphalt-coloured granite, sizes of a perfect coaster, ready to use. It's not the end of their journey.
Pebbles are outshone by the sea g lass, whose sharp, dangerous edges are long gone. Who will be here first? The treasure hunters or the next tide, mixed with the waters of River Don, ready to change everything.
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