We're delighted to present an extract from the title story from Show Them A Good Time, the acclaimed short fiction collection from Nicole Flattery.
A returned emigrant struggles to get her life back on track in the grim little town she previously couldn’t wait to leave; two beleaguered students take to the stage in a desperate bid to assert their autonomy; a school teacher gamely keeps on searching for love or distraction as the world teeters towards ruin. The characters in Nicole Flattery’s stories are haunted as much by the future as they are by their pasts...
The schemes were for people with plenty of time, or people not totally unfamiliar with being treated like s**t. I was intimate with both situations. Management interviewed me—bizarre questions through an inch of plexiglass: How long, in hours, have you been unemployed? Did you misspend your youth throwing stones at passing cars?
‘This can be a tangential process,’ management explained and I said sorry. ‘Only peasants apologise,’ management stated and returned to her obscure markings.
The interview was an all-nighter, designed to break my spirit and ensure I pledged organisation and responsibility for the rest of my days. I emerged from it, not completely sure of anything except my own name and my age, which I knew was somewhere in my late-twenties. In the morning, I was taken to the bathroom to be measured for a uniform. The toilet stall had the dark, depthless feel of a place where a body may have lain undiscovered for days. The shirt gave me breasts, the regulation boots gave me legs. All those parts I had worked so hard to forget were now reunited under surprising polyester circumstances. When I was dressed, management offered me a manic thumbsup. Management was round, almost perfectly so, and given to spontaneous bursts of laughter. She looked at me, at my white and empty face, and asked, ‘Isn’t it a great thing to be able to give yourself a giggle?’ I saw in that gesture her former life as a farmhand, the crazy ease with which she sent animals off to be slaughtered.
Management explained the procedure again. Our function was to be near the till, maintain the presence of the garage and, most importantly, believe. Management left the room as I screened the demonstration video. In it three participants, with the sexless, good looks of catalogue models, spoke of the joy of being back at work. Whenever they did something spontaneous, or something considered outside their remit, a large X popped up on screen. As I watched I felt giddy and ashamed, as if I were witnessing a particular type of vicious pornography.
Management suggested if I ever felt like I didn’t believe, I should go for a short, furious walk—maybe up and down the motorway path—and stay away from my colleagues, as my attitudes and sulky face could be hazardous. She said I seemed like a nice person and if we had customers they would probably like me. I had a personality that was best suited to short interactions.
‘Should I get a business card made?’ I asked.
‘It’s something to consider,’ management said and she repeated her manic thumbs-up.
Before the garage, my hometown was famous amongst people with carsickness. It was here they stood retching and spewing before moving on somewhere better. When I came back from the city I thought we both might have changed in bright and glamorous ways, but we hadn’t. We were both long acquainted with disappointment and the joys of being used.
I’d been home two months and the house felt strangely empty to me, as if all our furniture had been sold. Somehow, a hundred, tiny, unspeakable events had happened in my absence. I was reunited with my mother—two flirts, two women who might find themselves in abusive relationships and not even notice; two true suckers, back together.
Every dinner time, she questioned why I ate the way I did, why I stuck my fingers in so many jars and rooted around. Did I eat vegetables at all? Did they serve peas in many restaurants in that city? I said I didn’t know. It wasn’t something I thought much about and she pointed her fork at me, that absurd vegetable speared on it, as if we shared a private joke.
‘Were there boys there? Did you have a boyfriend?’
‘Was he nice?’
‘Not really. He was irritating, you know. He said things like: I will have a small espresso. Stuff about coffee that people already just know. He wasn’t funny at all. And he kind of hit me, sometimes, in my sleep. Though I suppose I was just pretending to be asleep so it wasn’t totally honest of me either.’
‘It’s important for a man to have a sense of humour.’ A confiding, motherly smile. Her optimism was of the terrifying, impenetrable variety. It could burn through entire periods of history.
My parents had a fierce bond I admired. They had refined the habits of the long-married—saying nothing, and then saying everything twice. They disregarded me, but in a practical way: the way you might ignore the weakling in a bomb shelter. Their days had their own sedate, private rhythm, punctuated by the sharp slam of the dishwasher. There was a strange, daily pattern— down the street; go to the supermarket; wave at a slight acquaintance; glance at the same patch of sky; come back home. They had seen boredom, stared it straight down, and survived. And still, they were less drained, less aged than I was. My father, who had always worn black, suddenly had the energy and enthusiasm for colours, and sported a pink shirt under a red golf jumper. My mother encouraged me to support his developing style. They had new friends, couples they had allegedly met in the supermarket. When these new people called on the telephone, I answered and said, ‘Who is this?’ and they said, ‘No. Who is this?’ like they might have stumbled across a burglary scene, a dramatic horror show that would strengthen their ties to my parents.
I lay on my lumpy bed and dreamt up inventive ways of leaving my own body. I looked down at it—slack, star-shaped—and closed my eyes, re-opened them. Still there. It didn’t seem to be going away. I made lists of things I cared about, things I did not care about. One of these lists was always significantly longer than the other. I was restless. I made many visits to the rain barrel in the yard. I felt the rain barrel was a measure of time—all the rain collected in my two-year absence. My mother sensed the world might run out of water and this cracked, aluminium barrel was our security, our secret plan. I wanted to say, ‘It’s the twenty-first century,’ but it sounded self-important and foreign in our hostile little house.
I had no interest in redemption. I didn’t believe in it—it was for crackpots, squares—but something about that rain barrel made me want to be reborn. I could see myself sailing through the murk, the dirty leaves framing my face, the blueness of the barrel bringing out my inner-Virgin Mary.
It was necessary for me to get out of the house.
Show Them A Good Time by Nicole Flattery (published by Stinging Fly Press) is out now.