Flash: A Short Story

I will meet my husband tonight.

I’m not yet sure what he looks like. But, like the perfect pair of shoes, I’ll know him when I see him. I’ve met him in my mind, in these daydreams I call ‘flash forwards’: a hazy, pale face with brownish hair.

Well, that narrows it down.

Tonight is the Saturday before my thirty-second birthday. I have always known that this would be the night.

As a little girl, I thought everyone knew the future. Once I saw an elderly woman fall in a lifeless slump to the kitchen floor. I was eating cornflakes at the time and asked my mother if we could check on her.

“We can’t see Grandma today, dear. She’s got her bridge.”

Mother regretted it later. She sat erect and silent across the drawing room, expressionless upon the wing backed chair. She wondered, no doubt, how much I understood.

I knew more than she. I’d known the last time I lip-brushed my grandmother’s downy cheek that I would not be kissing her again.

“The wisdom of children.” That’s all Mother ever said about it. She spoke to my father in a whisper as he rested his wet face against her shoulder. They didn’t know I watched.

I learned from Mother’s unsettled looks and withdrawal of affection that I was not to speak of flash forwards. I haven’t mentioned them since. For one thing, I can do without the inevitable epithet of ‘Clare the Clairvoyant’. Also, I can’t understand those who choose to make a living out of their eerie gifts, destined forever to live on the fringes of polite society, lurking in shame with others of their caste: prostitutes, drug dealers and ex-cons.

The emerald dress I pull from my closet has waited four and half years for this occasion. When I saw it on the mannequin I knew this garment had been sewn for me. I’m not the first girl to say that of a dress. My friend Emily has similar feelings each time she visits the mall.

“It was meant to be!” she says, striding out of another store in another pair of heels. Emily tries on many dresses. If one happens to fit she considers herself married to the thing. My own relationship with the emerald dress runs much deeper.

Whenever I envisage my husband I see him through the lingering white haze. An auburn head rests against his chest. My own. Grandma always had a wing mirror above her dressing table. Whenever I looked into that mirror I saw my own face from three different angles. That’s how I see myself now, as others do, gazing down from an omniscient point in the ceiling or sky. These visions play out in black and white. Except for the dress. Whenever I meet my man I am wearing emerald green.

I tear the dust cover from the dress and hold soft fabric against my skin. I purchased the garment one size larger than required, knowing that four years later I’d be three kilos heavier. I accept this as my lot. We only need look to our parents to know our physical fate. Each of us thickens around the waist. Our skin thickens too, in a metaphorical sense. I don’t mind the transformation from youth into womanhood. Unlike Emily, I don’t bother with broth diets and weight-loss shakes and yearly donations to the gym.

“Oh Clare, you’re such a fatalist!” Emily pinches her waist. She is disgusted by the two centimetres of tissue she can now grasp between her thumb and forefinger. “If we learned to enjoy sit-ups we could have our twenty-year-old stomachs back. No?”

“We’ll never have our immaturity back,” I say. “Let’s be grateful for health.”

Emily doesn’t know it, but she will die young. I wish to tell her. But it’s not the sort of thing one mentions to a friend.

Emily’s right. I am a fatalist. We are all on a predetermined path. We like to think we’re free but this is mere delusion. Each of us makes decisions based only on the synapses which have already formed in our brains. Past experiences dictate our present. Even a murderer thinks the killing was a good idea at the time.

My own life path is an easy one. For that, I’m grateful. I’d loathe these flash forwards if I knew I was in for a lifetime of woe. But Emily’s fate pains me. I want to shake her. This week she’s picked up another inappropriate man at some bar.

“I know you’re going to love this one!” Emily’s memory is conveniently short. I haven’t liked any of her boyfriends. Neither has she, come to think of it. Not after the first three months of pheromonal bliss.

Emily believes in the ridiculous concept of ‘Soul Mates’. She overlooks all shortcomings in a bloke while wishing, hoping, praying he’s The One. Emily doesn’t understand that there is no One. For Emily there are three Ones – four if you count The One she had in school. But he’s long gone, married to one of his other Ones, and I once told Emily she shouldn’t have dropped him just because of an easily remedied bad haircut.

Apparently I know nothing about life and love. That’s because I’ve not been with a man. My chastity is not a religious thing.  I just don’t bother. Knowing for certain that I’ll meet him tonight, the Saturday before my thirty-second birthday, I haven’t required a series of romantic stuff-ups to bolster my sexual ego. It’s easy to relax when I know, for certain, that I can’t hurry love.

My future husband is not so lucky. I sense he has had many women. I see a white dress and a tuxedo and know that he has married before.

By the time I move in with him he’ll be fully house-trained and grateful for any woman who doesn’t nag him about his driving, even if I can’t cook like his mother.

I’m not bothered by his past, even though my parents won’t like it. We women are fortunate like that. We can overlook the previous lovers, just not the subsequent ones. Men like to think they’re both first and last on our lists. Men, of course, are delusional.

This fellow will be my first. But he won’t be my last. I’ll marry again, at the age of sixty-seven, to another wonderful man who, like me, must lose his first spouse to cancer.

Emily does not understand. “Honestly, Clare! You’ll never meet anyone if you stay home every night, slumped on your sofa in jim-jams.”

Emily tells me chocolate is laced with ‘bad fats’. I know not to worry about such things. I’ll live til ninety-two and a quarter. That’s plenty old enough for me, thank you very much. I’ll die peacefully in my sleep of ‘myocardial infarction’. The heart attack will be painless, and will finish me off just months before a growth in my bowel starts to deposit blood in my stools. I do prefer the quicker option.

Not that I have a choice.

Twin boys will attend my funeral. Their names are Eric and Joel. These unborn children have labelled themselves. I’ll give birth at the age of thirty-eight, releasing two eggs at once just before my fertility gives up the ghost.

My parents, bless them, don’t speak of my failure to fill their house with grandbabies. Perhaps they chide themselves for placing all their eggs in the one child. It hasn’t escaped my notice that Mother has lined the wall in their entrance hall with photographs of other people’s grandchildren.

Just last week, Dad sat me down for a heart-to-heart. I knew it was coming, not because of any extra sensory perception but because he invited me fishing for the first time since he informed me about birds, bees and STDs. It took him three and a half hours to get to his point. But he eventually summoned courage to mention what I knew was coming. As usual, he couched his sermon in academic terminology.

“It’s a great shame,” he said, “that human physiology hasn’t kept up with the cultural shift.” He was interrupted by a tug on his line and reeled in another jellyfish. Symbolic, I thought, of a human foetus.

He told me of all the thirty-something professional women visiting his surgery, each asking for IVF referrals. He wanted to have The Conversation so neither of us would look back in regret.

“Don’t worry, Daddy,” I said. “Everything will work out.”

He ruffled my hair. “You’ve always been such a trusting child.”

Emily pulls up outside. I open my front door, dressed in emerald green.

“Oooh, you haven’t changed your mind, have you?”

Emily is about to chide me for failure to apply make-up. Princess Emily, who has plastered her face in L’Oreal and bathed in Chanel, insists I’d look far healthier with rouge and lippy.

But the painted look might remind him of his ex-wife. I’ve seen her, too, through the haze. In flash forwards I notice the red of her lips blowing him a kiss. She hasn’t left his life yet. But she will.

Emily grasps me by the shoulders. “You have to let your hair down. Men prefer long hair.”

She is deluded. Perhaps this is her downfall. She thinks she knows far more about men than she really does. My man prefers an exposed nape, perfect for kissing. Over the years my hair will get shorter.

Emily scrabbles through her handbag and thrusts out a pink wand.

“No.” Tonight I expect a lingering kiss, and there’s nothing worse than a slimy snog.

“I know you don’t like set-ups,” Emily says, “but if you don’t like Donny you might go for Paul, though I think his floozy’s still in the picture.” The expert on men flaps her lips again.

The man-expert drives like a maniac. If I didn’t know the future I’d worry for our lives. I grip the seat out of instinct. Emily zips through town while I close my eyes and pretend I’m elsewhere.

“And what’s Paul like?” I’ve not heard the end of Donny and his musculature. I’m more interested in the other workmate.

I knew his name started with ‘P’. I’ve always been on the lookout for a Peter. My flash forwards have their own perverse sense of humour and can lead me astray. I’ve known only two Peters in my life: the smelly man who works for the local butcher and a family friend of my parents, recently divorced. When I caught Peter sizing me up over a cocktail in my father’s drawing room I got the heebie-jeebies. But when Emily mentioned a Paul in passing I knew I’d got the name wrong. Much relief. I remember retreating to the bathroom to hyperventilate.

“Paul’s all right. Balding, though.” History repeats. Emily has written off my future husband due to a few missing strands.

At the age of forty my husband will settle for the number zero look, banishing hair from his life forever. I’ve seen his smooth head many times in flash forwards and I’m more accustomed to the bald image. Tonight, my man will have the most hair I’ll ever see him with. Two strands fewer tomorrow, four fewer next week. He worries about it. He needn’t.

Emily is holding my hand. She doesn’t need to pull. I recognise the loud group of twenty-somethings. I recognise the bar staff. I’ve visited this night many times in my flash forwards, enjoying the excitement of first love. It is quite possible that by over-imagining, I have memorised every word of the evening. I realise now: the novelty has worn off.

Emily mistakes my ease for boredom. She squeezes the skin on my upper arm. I’d jump, but I was expecting her pinch. I see my future husband, perched upon a barstool. I know that Paul is always half an hour early rather than five minutes late. Tardiness stresses him out.

Another man, wearing black leather, leans against the bar. From a glance anyone can tell this bloke owns the room. His smile is easy, his shoulders relaxed. He looks me directly in the eye.

Emily presents him like a well-chosen birthday gift which, quite rightly, he is.

Donny leans forward to kiss my cheek. I’ve never been comfortable with the custom, ducking and diving as I try to predict which side my new acquaintance homes in on. I wish I could foretell these things but the problem, you see, is that I cannot read the future until the future has been written, and my fellow kisser is in the same boat.

I have a nanosecond in which to get it right.

I get it wrong. That’s how I find my lips brushing against Donny’s. Paul watches with interest, glancing up from his gin and tonic. An old man’s drink, always the fogey. I love that about Paul. He’ll be wearing his vest tonight too, with the last frost expected. And that’ll be Paul’s Old Spice competing for airspace across the crowded bar. There’s nothing like a fragrance to provoke vivid flashbacks and flash forwards.

“Isn’t he brilliant?” Emily whispers in my ear.

But Donny is too confident. Too handsome. I don’t trust men who scan the room for other available women as they engage in phatic communion with me. Emily doesn’t see through his charade.

Paul sips his drink. The voice of Elvis fills the room. The patrons talk louder. Intimate strangers speak into unfamiliar ears, the perfect excuse to hover close. I hover near my man.

“Another drink, Paul?” I might as well be saying, “Fancy a cup of tea, love?” I speak to my future husband with the familiarity of a wife. I see myself calling Paul as I stand behind a bench. Our kitchen will look hopelessly outdated long after stainless steel has gone out of fashion. It comes back in again, eventually.

Oh God. I’ve almost done it now. My hand just cupped Paul’s. I’ve done it out of habit. It was only a fleeting touch but I feel him startle. To Paul, my touch is electric. He will reveal this later. For me, Paul’s large hand is familiar and comfortable. I enjoy our brief touch but for different reasons. I regret that I’ve visited this moment so many times in my head; what would it be like to experience the initial throes of love? I’m not yet thirty-two yet this moment seems a lifetime ago. I want to feel this so-called electricity. I want to feel it for myself.

I study Paul’s face. I’ve seen him only through the haze. This is what he looks like before he chips his front tooth. He’ll tumble off his new ride-on mower. I will suggest he peruse the instruction manual, but will he listen?

Paul smiles, that uncomfortable grimace of his, and looks into his beer. I admire the friendly crinkling around my man’s eyes. I realise we haven’t yet settled into the easy companionship of loved ones. Beads of sweat glisten on his upper lip, but it’s not hot. We’ll need to make polite conversation.

“Nice night for it,” I say.

“Yep.” Paul has never been one for small talk. I know his favourite topics. But if I ask him about gardening I’ll never shut him up. How many years will I have to listen to tales of pruning and glasshouses and Paul’s blasted vegetable patch?

Paul downs the dregs of his second drink and I succumb to temptation.

“First day of spring, tomorrow,” I say. “Lots to do in the yard.”

Paul is relieved. He laughs, rubs the side of his face and relaxes his shoulders. “God, yes! I just spent the afternoon laying sheep manure over the spuds.”

He talks of calcium and nitrogen and compares the shit of different farm animals, all in that animated way I know so well. I am nodding. A string pulls my head from above. Is this my other self, looking down? I don’t understand how it works. But I can’t stop nodding.

Paul thinks I want him to carry on.

He’s onto mangel-wurzel now, which apparently needs full sun and well-composted soil. My head turns.

Donny catches my eye. I am attractive to him now, a prize to be snatched from a man of lesser hair. I hold Donny’s gaze for two seconds longer than I would prefer. I do not pull these strings. This is my fate.

Moments later I am startled by a warm, firm body pressed against mine.

“So sorry.” Donny touches my elbow. I feel the so-called electricity. I have seen this before, from above, but have not dared linger upon the flash forward. This all feels far too much like adultery. But I’m starting to see what all the fuss is about.

Paul has stopped talking. He looks into his empty glass, and even takes a sip of nothing. I can’t bear it. I feel Paul’s pain as if it’s my own. But my heart pounds for another reason, equally. For the first time, I am swooning over a tall, dark stranger. I am not in the habit of using a word such as ‘swoon’. Not lightly.

“Thought I’d rescue my date.” Donny leads me away.

I don’t turn back to check on Paul. But I know, from many flashes forward, that he sits with his elbows on the bar, head in hands.

My man cannot fall in love with me yet. I’m too forward, too self-sufficient. He knows I don’t need him yet.

But he will prove his chivalry, if only to himself. Dear Paul will rescue me later on, after I’ve been ravished and abandoned in the car park. I’ve resisted these adulterous flash forwards with the muscled man in leather because I need to understand that other kind of flash: the electricity of spontaneous passion.

Just this once.

The illustrations for this short story are edited images produced using Stability AI.


On paper, things look fine. Sam Dennon recently inherited significant wealth from his uncle. As a respected architect, Sam spends his days thinking about the family needs and rich lives of his clients. But privately? Even his enduring love of amateur astronomy is on the wane. Sam has built a sustainable-architecture display home for himself but hasn’t yet moved into it, preferring to sleep in his cocoon of a campervan. Although they never announced it publicly, Sam’s wife and business partner ended their marriage years ago due to lack of intimacy, leaving Sam with the sense he is irreparably broken.

Now his beloved uncle has died. An intensifying fear manifests as health anxiety, with night terrors from a half-remembered early childhood event. To assuage the loneliness, Sam embarks on a Personal Happiness Project:

1. Get a pet dog

2. Find a friend. Just one. Not too intense.




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