• Alan John Ward

At Ditchford Pier

The water pulls at her clothes, tousles her hair like a father would. She fights this urge every time they visit the pier. The urge to jump in. To feel the cool liquid on her skin, to lick her lips and taste the salt. To be weightless in the water.

She stands with her hands on the railings, her pretty shoes on the very edge so beneath her toes she can feel where the boards turn to air. Sometimes she grips the railing until her knuckles turn white, to stop herself from swinging over. Today she has failed. She’s flown. And the nurse and her mother shrieked and came running as her skirts slapped the air, her arms flapped briefly like wings and then embraced the waves.

It’s a queer thing, to be in the sea wearing her Sunday best, looking up to mother and the nurse. They lean over the railing and share a parasol halo. And the tide is taking her. And even though there's salt in her right eye she can't help but laugh out loud, the look on their faces is so pleasing. They are stunned at her lack of dignity, "one shall be ladylike at all times," her mother told her only this morning before they left the house. Last week she stuck her tongue out at the paper boy and the reprimand had been severe. Today it will be worse.

The current is swinging her about as if she's on a ride at the fair. She's beneath the pier now, marvelling at the pillars holding it. Limpet-clad trunks growing through the surf. She enjoys the shade. The waves sound different here, there is an echo, and the odour of stagnation. Still looking up, she sees the light split apart by the boards. The lines are broken by the rectangular ice cream shack, the bandstand where once she watched grandfather play, and the people parading in their best clothes, unaware there is a child below them. Two of the shadows are running to catch her up. She wonders who will make it to the shore first, her or the nurse. Mother won't be able to run all that way, she'll be wheezing already.

A seagull swoops low over her head, passing through the spindrift, and squawks, surprised to see her. Pigeons have made nests on ledges at the top of the pillars. She likes this. It is her secret. She wishes she could live here too. The shore approaches, and with a final push the waves release her from their embrace. Her feet touch the bottom, and she sobs for father.

A while ago now I used to take part in a weekly writing competition which sadly doesn't run any more, on write-invite.com. At a set time on a Saturday the competition would open and stimuli would be revealed. Participants would have twenty minutes to write a short story based on one of them. The piece of flash fiction I've published above was one of the stories I wrote for that competition. I loved the experience of writing to a theme within a strict time limit – it forces you to make some quick decisions about your story. Needless to say, most of my stories didn't come out as neatly as this one, and I've polished this up a bit since. Ditchford is a fictional location from an (unfinished) story of mine about vanishing villages, but in the heat of writing I couldn't think of any where else to set it. Even though my other fictional Ditchford isn't by the sea it seemed a shame to change it once it had made it into the title.

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© Alan John Ward