At Walthamstow Central
The old woman—back hunched, stooping small head wrapped in the tight white veil prescribed by her religion—drags her feet as she brings her trolley to a halt. Pigeons sense—perhaps even recognise—the charitable silhouette of her feeding hand, ignore the harassing efforts of the blonde toddler, insistently screaming and gesticulating at the group, to spook them into flight.
The veiled lady turns away from the park to face her haul. More and more birds land at her feet and the little blonde girl finally takes notice of her crippled body. The woman bends over, looks for something in the trolley, nearly buries her head inside it. The toddler is frightened by the sinister image of the withered stranger doubling up inside the cart but she is also mesmerised by the pigeons gathering around her, oblivious to her threat. She is now free to reach to them, she can almost touch them without scaring them off, as if all of a sudden they couldn’t see her any more, as if an invisible cloak had magically been thrown over her shoulders. She hisses and snaps at them but their feathers are hardly ruffled by her threat and they still pay her no attention at all.
The aged woman resurfaces from the depths of her trolley with a plastic bag in her hands. The little girl is paralysed, on the spot, caught halfway between fear and curiosity. In the distance a loud foreign voice calls “Laura” like only a mother can. The pigeons are now all frenzied, crowding the old lady, landing on top of each other, launching themselves at random, pecking in anger, fighting for something that hasn’t yet arrived. The woman fumbles the bag in her hands. The girl relents to curiosity and takes a step in her direction. The birds are close to despair. Another step. The plastic bag rips. The child shrieks, flaps her arms, hops, takes two more confident steps and still the pigeons take no notice. “Laura”.
Birdseed flows from the torn bag, falls to the ground. The gluttonous creatures are so engrossed in the prospect of eating, so densely packed into such a narrow area that they could all be squashed into nothingness by the weight of a single tumbling pallet. The toddler again tries to scare them off with her shriek. Nothing. She waves her arms at the nearest ones, her hands coming alarmingly close to the animals’ heads. Nothing. She swings a leg, catches one or two specimens on their sides. Suddenly, the woman offers to share the rest of the birdseed with the little girl. Gnarled, wrinkled, dark hand, partly covered by loose robes, not quite stretched out in the direction of the child. Small, white, frail arm angled upwards, fully—pliantly—outstretched in the direction of the bird lady. One hesitant step forward and the distance separating both hands is halved. The final step takes more determination than anything Laura has ever experienced in her brief life. “LAURA”.
Old skin and young needn’t touch for the birdseed to change hands but as soon as the seeds land on the child’s open palm a double-decker bus drives off with an explosion of fuel and torque that snaps the pigeons out of their obsession and sends the whole kit flying on a short loop around the park. Laura doesn’t know what’s happening. Her hand is still wide open, her eyes can’t find a still bird on which to focus. She finally follows one of the stragglers of the group, taking small steps as she maps the pigeon’s round flight path. Only when she comes full circle does she notice the cloud of ravenous beasts plunging from the sky, beaks menacingly parted, heading straight towards her.
Author’s note: so here’s an easy example of what I like so much about this format: scroll down, read the additional paragraph as an alternative ending and gauge the effect of five lines on the feel of the whole piece.
Stiff with horror, Laura’s heart stops. She shuts her eyes as hard as she can—as if that could protect her—and wishes the world away with all her might. A hundred beaks pour on her at the same time with the force of a river and even her cry is muted by fear. Calamity seems unavoidable, until a pair of arms materialise out of nowhere, as if by an act of god or magic, to make the little girl’s wish come true, lifting her out of this minefield and restoring order in her life.
Author’s note to the note: This example is not without its trickery in that the ending clearly determines the mood of any narrative, be it short-short or not. Hence, for instance, the perpetual argument revolving around the ending of Casablanca. But in micro fiction the significance of any change is proportional to the lack of context, emphasising the importance of both what is and isn’t being said in the same measure.