The Rough Patch
The branches of the apple tree throw faint shadows around the kitchen, dancing across its walls and surfaces. Under the sun’s scrutiny, the kitchen table displays it scars, the gloss of its oak veneer marred by the dents and cracks of four decades of service. She sits alone at the table in a straight-backed chair, wrapped in her dressing gown and an outsized cardigan. In her hands she holds a mug of half-drunk tea that is now quite cold. The clock on the wall behind her ticks the passing of time, but she does not hear it. She is staring across the table at the wall opposite, where a small patch of rough plaster is dappled by the late morning sunlight. And she is remembering Frank.
He is red-faced and shouting, his breath a cloud of alcohol and spittle. On the stove is the pot of chicken stew she has left to simmer. She jumps back as he sweeps it off the cooker, flinches as he smashes his fist into the wall, cries out as she turns and slips and smashes her hip into the corner of the kitchen table. Now it’s the next morning, and Frank is filling the hole in the wall with plaster. He winces as his hand manoeuvres the trowel, smoothing everything over. Later still, and the smell of fresh paint mingles with the scent of the roses that fill the vase on the kitchen table. The wall is almost as good as new.
She sips her tea and is surprised to find it cold. Her eyes return to the patch of wall and she watches the sunlight play over its surface. One moment the light catches it and every ridge and bump casts a shadow; the next, the patch is in shade, almost invisible.
She gets up from her chair and walks stiffly over to the cupboard next to the cooker. Leaning in, she digs around and pulls out the old pan. It had been her favourite, and she had kept it despite the dent and the shiny replacement that Frank had bought her from Woolworths. In the bottom of the pan there is a thin layer of dust and the husk of a dead spider. She tips the spider into the bin, and washes the pan out under the tap before placing it on the hob. She rummages in the vegetable drawer of the fridge and arranges what she has gathered on the table, then fetches a knife and a chopping board. Refilling the kettle, she puts it on to boil and sits back down in her chair. She picks up an onion and begins to peel.
para 1, sentence 1, typo: 'it' -> 'its'
para 2, 'dent' to 'hole', because I've used 'dent' too many other times.
This moved my emotions in a way I can’t quite explain. Your opening paragraph details assaults on the table to emphatically convey that violence is everywhere, as is coldness and its trope of rough patches being smoothed over by the wife/partner. In a sense, the whole story in brief (something evident in much fine literature, par 1 the bud before the flowering).
The assault by Frank and his sober attempts at redemption, the roses, patching his damage (again a non-being scarred). Her own recovery is to take the “scarred” pot he damaged suggest her independence and acceptance of life’s pulsing between violence and love. Glimpses of what lies behind or is the flip side of the “veneer” of daily life.
A stylistic note: I think you rely too much on SVO structures pivoted on “is”: a bit passive where you could make a stronger statement. Eg. Par 2, Frank is filling = Frank fills; Not sure you need “Now it’s ” there.
I like the fine use of detail as “objective correlatives” of emotion, sharp as in your poetry.
Added: It just struck me that this is a perfect contemporary rendition of Adam and Eve (as I see them).
L2 typo: its
Many thanks for your comments. I'm glad you liked it. Fiction is something I'd like to write more of but struggle with, and what I do occasionally write is very short, like this piece.
I see what you mean about the 3rd paragraph. Because it's flashback and I want to show three different scenes, so I went with the present continuous. This is happening. Now this is happening. I'm not sure if quite works if I change it to simple present, or not all of it. Certainly "Frank shouts" implies a single shout, where Frank is shouting doesn't. Similarly, I want to show him in the process of filling the whole, and during this he winces because his hand is hurting from punching the wall. (I hope it's clear why he winces? I'd had "swollen hand", but thought it better to leave that to the reader to work out). There is one sentence I can change, as below:
He is red-faced and shouting, his breath a cloud of alcohol and spittle. A pot of chicken stew simmers on the stove. She jumps back as he sweeps it off the cooker, flinches as he smashes his fist into the wall, cries out as she turns and slips and smashes her hip into the corner of the kitchen table. Now it’s the next morning, and Frank is filling the hole in the wall with plaster. He winces as his hand manoeuvres the trowel, smoothing everything over. Later still, and the smell of fresh paint mingles with the scent of the roses that fill the vase on the kitchen table. The wall is almost as good as new.
Does that seem any better? Though maybe then it's not wholly clear she's cooking and not him (gender stereotypes aside).
Thanks for the typo. I've also changed 'dent' in para 2 to 'hole' as I've overused 'dent', I think. I'm also wondering if I need to say that her tea is cold in para 1, since I also say so in para 3.
I like this very much. I also like thought Ralph had to say about the table suggesting ongoing violence was spot on. I have no quibbles with the writing. I think setting in the present tense works well and whatever problems that might pose did not trouble me. Although in your suggested revision I would say that you do not need, "Now it's" just write, "The next morning…"
Structurally I might try starting with the unnamed She looking at the damaged wall, then go on to your lovely description of the quality of light, then return to the narrative of her memory of the violent episode which made the now-repaired hole.
One more thing. Following on Chekov's caution of mantles and shotguns. I'd try having her take out a knife at the beginning, this would create more menace by its constant presence. If you, for instance, moved the knife up and put it on the scared table, it might hang my mind, as a reader, so that when it is picked up at the end, it has come along with her in the narrative and what she is going to do with it is open.
Once more, I must say that I enjoyed the quality of the prose – the diction and the images very much. Lovely writing, quite equal to – and informed by – your poetry.
Many thanks for your thoughts on this. I'm glad you liked it.
I tried reorganising the first paragraph to open with her at the table looking at the wall, but couldn't seem to get it to work as well that way round. I think it was a good idea to try it though.
Regarding the knife, I can't see how to get it there at the start, as it seems to need to appear after she's had her period of reflection/remembering -- in response to the memory and the decision to make a stew. It has no reason to be there beforehand, I think, and if I give it a (different) reason -- peeling an apple say -- I don't know that hangs there menacingly.
This is a strong piece. It resonates. I can't help but wonder if we need this much information about Frank but I have a minimalist inclination that is hard to control. Bottom line is I like what you've done here. You're a strong writer Matt.
Thanks John, I'm glad you liked it.
I'd be interested to know what information about Frank you'd lose? Specific things, or keeping the same actions with but less detail and more concision?
I don't want to screw up what you have. I see no way to revise it without Frank. I am enamored of the leave-it-out school of fiction. That may be dangerous. I like this piece.
I do see the attraction of writing a piece with no mention of Frank, but like you, I see no way to do it with this one. That might be another story, though.
Incidentally, if you (or anyone else reading this) know of a good place to send short fiction like this, I'd welcome suggestions.
Thanks for coming back.
I wish this board (Prose) were more robust. Perhaps we could inject some excitement with a contest -- Though that would likely break some rule I've forgotten...
I like this piece; just a couple thoughts:.
The clock on the wall behind her ticks the passing of time, but she does not hear it.
Though the piece is very much about time and shifts from present to past and back to present, I don't know that you need the phrase "the passing of time". Without it the sentence sounds balanced: The clock on the wall behind her ticks, but she does not hear it.
P2 conjoins the flashback with the present and then "later still". I think this sentence:
Later still, and the smell of fresh paint mingles with the scent of the roses that fill the vase on the kitchen table.
reads more smoothly without the "and", though not sure about that...
P3: The metaphoric quality of the patch is great in this sentence: "Her eyes return to the patch of wall and she watches the sunlight play over its surface. One moment the light catches it and every ridge and bump casts a shadow; the next, the patch is in shade, almost invisible."
It captures the turmoil that the woman is coping with.
Is there more to come?
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