29 January, 2013

Handrails and Parachutes

At the beginning of the month, I was happy to report I'd won the Speakeasy Short Story Competition with my "psychodrama", Handrails and Parachutes. At the time I was expecting it to be published on the competition website. However, as it hasn't turned up yet and so many people have asked to read it... here it is. There are many edits I would make now, but in the spirit of honesty, I've left it exactly how it was when it won the competition.

Handrails and Parachutes

    Three hundred feet below them a single car speeds its way northwards. Lining the strip between road and river, traffic lights change from red to green and back to red again. The tide is low. Even in this, the darkest hour of the night, the lights from the city illuminate the sloping mud flats oozing their way down to the water.

    When she squeezes his hand, he looks down into a face radiant with possibility.

    “Are you ready, Leo? Shall we do it?”

    It has all converged to this point. Every toss of the coin and roll of the dice has led to this edge, this dizzying view into the gorge. Perhaps he should’ve known it would. Perhaps the signs had been there the first night he met her. In the pulsing, sweating club he should’ve felt the pull of fate, dragging him closer and closer until this moment where his toes brush the void beyond the crumbling cliff edge.

    But he hadn’t known. When she’d struck up conversation at the bar he’d had no idea.

    “What star sign are you?”

    It wasn’t a question he’d been asked in Acid Attic before. Even in this bar at the back where it was possible to talk without screaming, he’d never got much further than first names.

    “My star sign?”

    “Yeah. When’s your birthday?”

    “August 8th.”

    “Makes sense.”

    She was tiny – barely five foot to his six and a half. Pale skin, green eyes, purple hair. No black mini-dress and sky-high heels, she was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, polka dots and stripes. Not his type at all.

    “Why does it make sense?”

    “You’re a Leo.” She paused, as if expecting him to understand. “You know – the lion: big, sort of handsome.” She tilted her head on one side. “Generous too, probably.”

    Despite his snort of laughter and his, “You don’t believe all that rubbish do you?” he’d found himself pulling out his wallet and paying for her drink.

    “Why shouldn’t I believe it?”

    “Because it’s superstitious crap.”

    “Probably.” She took a sip from her glass. “I’m nothing like my star sign.”

    “Why? What is it?”

    As she disappeared into the crowds he just caught her answer.

    “Virgo. The virgin.”

    It’d taken him an hour to find her again. She was sitting on the curb outside, smoking something that didn’t smell like a cigarette. He’d sat down next to her and she’d offered him a puff without speaking.

    “Why did you ask me all that stuff about star signs in there?”

    She took a long drag and blew the smoke upwards. Loops and spirals hung above them.

    “I liked the look of you. Wanted to know if we were compatible.”

    “And are we?”

    “Probably not. You’d do better with a Sagittarius, I need a Taurus or a Capricorn.”

    He shrugged. “I could try and be a Taurus if you want.”

    She laughed and took another puff before stubbing the roll-up on the pavement.

    “I don’t think that’s how it works.”

    “Then how does it work?”

    “Not sure it does.” She sighed and lay back, staring up at the haze of light pollution above them. “Virgos are meant to be control-freaks – order and details kind of people. That’s not me at all; I don’t believe in order.”

    “What do you believe in then?” He leant closer. “Chaos?”

    “I believe in destiny and living in the moment.” She propped herself up on her elbows so their faces were only inches apart. “I believe in Fate.”

    She’d said it with a capital F. Fate. Six months later as he stands looking down at the river, hand-in-hand with her, he remembers noticing that. Even half-drunk the word had sounded important, the name of a god.

    “So if Fate says you should come back to my flat with me, you’ll overlook that I’m a Leo?”

    “I never argue with Fate.”

    It is cold. The breeze rifles through his pockets and tugs at his t-shirt. She is shivering too. Her thin dress clings to her, showing off every curve and angle of her breakable body. He looks down at the road below again.

    “The ultimate test of Fate.” Her eyes are wide, as if they can’t bear to miss one photon of life. “The ultimate freedom, Leo.”

   “I don’t know, V.” He grips her hand tighter. “Is this really the right moment?”

    “If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be here. But we are, so it must be.”

    Her logic – that flawed, beautiful logic – had been his undoing. From that first morning of bacon sandwiches and coffee made with milk past its best, he’d been captivated. For the first two days he’d been unable to even leave the flat; they’d talked, slept, had sex and philosophised until his head ached and he wanted her to leave and he felt like he would go crazy and he wanted her to stay more than ever.

    “If we always lived in the moment, we would never worry,” she had told him, and it’d sounded like a promise. “We’d never worry about tomorrow because it’s so many moments away it might as well be a different life altogether.”

    “But then we’d never make any decisions at all.”

    “Course we would!” She’d bounced up from under the duvet, his old Bon Jovi t-shirt hanging off one shoulder. “No decision would ever be hard again, because the only thing that would matter is what we wanted in that moment.”

    “So if I wanted a bacon sandwich, I would have one and not worry about whether there was enough bacon left for tomorrow?”

    He’d laughed, but she had only nodded.

    “Exactly. Living any other way is a compromise.”

    “But what if I do want a bacon sandwich tomorrow?”

    “Then you buy more bacon.”

    She allowed herself to be pulled back down under the covers.

    “That’s a crazy way to live.”

    “It’s the only sane way. What if you spent years sacrificing everything to get your dream job and then got there to find you hated it, or were crap at it, or you had terminal cancer? It would be such a waste.

    “We never let life just happen, Leo. We give it handrails and parachutes and emergency exits. We’re too afraid to take off our seatbelts. I don’t want that.”

    Laughing and arguing into the night, she had worn him down. She never mentioned leaving. He never asked her to go.

    On Monday he’d tried to go to work. He really had.

    “Heads or tails, Leo?” She grinned at him over her mug. “One to go to work, the other to stay here with me.”

    “You can’t be serious?”

    “Why not? I thought you agreed with me about Fate. Or was that just a line to get me into bed?”

    “I do agree.” He found his car keys and began hunting for his wallet. “And as I recall, you didn’t take much persuading.”

    “Prove it.” She raised an eyebrow. “Heads you go, tails you stay.”

    How he found himself agreeing, he would never quite know. And why, when the coin flipped on to tails, he didn’t laugh it off and go anyway, he couldn’t later recall. Perhaps it was because he knew that if he went to work, she would not be there when he came home.

    Every day the coin came down tails he told himself that it didn’t matter, he would go to work anyway. And every time, he didn’t. Sometimes Fate was on the side of common sense and would flip to heads three days in a row, and he’d leave her watching television as he disappeared to battle the rush hour.  But not often. Not often enough.

    It was simpler once he had no job to go to; easier to give Fate free-reign. As soon as she’d convinced him that the rent would either pay itself or it wouldn’t, he relaxed. She was right, of course. She was right about everything.

    The roll of the dice became their consultant, the draw of a card from the pack their financial advisor. The colour of the first car they saw when they opened the curtains, or the number of people that passed the cafĂ© window dictated where they went, what they did, whether they ate like kings or beggars. And they were lost. Virgo and Leo: incompatible, inseparable, hostages to nothing but chance and each other. Every moment was there to be lived: sucked-in, spat-out and discarded for the next. Fate was their god.

    “What if Fate’s wrong?”

    A gust of wind catches him off-guard and he clutches at the rusty railings behind them with his free hand.

    “Fate can’t be wrong.”

    “Then maybe we are.” He is beginning to feel giddy. “What if we’re meant to be getting married in Vegas right now, or trekking in Peru? We could’ve taken the wrong turning, V.”

    She is looking disappointed. He has disappointed her.

    “So what? If we made the wrong decision yesterday, or last week, or even that first time we met, it doesn’t matter. Those moments are past, aren’t they?” She pulls her hand from his and folds her arms. “There is only this moment, Leo. You can only live in this one.”

    “Or die in it.”

    Somewhere in the city an ambulance is wailing. Two lorries, driving too close together, thunder by below.

She turns to face him and he feels the tug of her convictions.

    “You can’t die in the moment you’re in,” she says. “Maybe in the next moment you’ll be dead, or the moment after that perhaps, but that’s not your problem. You can only choose what to do now. No handrails. No parachutes.”

    Nausea rises in his stomach. He needs to step back from the edge, climb back over the railing. But he is trapped by his addiction; by her.

    “How can we do anything, unless we do this?” She reaches for him again, wrapping her arms around his waist. “We aren’t really trusting in Fate unless we know that She wants us to be alive. Once we know that, imagine how free we’ll be. We’ll know that Fate has picked us out to live. She’s chosen us.”

    He is nodding before he has even processed her words. Isn’t this what he wants? Isn’t it what their religion demands?

    She holds up one clenched fist in front of them, palm up. Slowly, as if performing some rite of worship she uncurls her fingers. The two-pence coin has left marks where the edges dug into her flesh.

    “Heads or tails?”

    The coin loops upwards, flipping over and over in slow-motion. And as each rotation catches the light, it seems to reflect another step, another stopping point on the inevitable journey that brought them to this edge.


    At first they had been content with the smallness of life. Diamonds, we watch a movie.


    Spades, we go to the pub. But it hadn’t been enough. Fate was not a game fuelled by minutiae.


    It was an extreme sport which could not contain them. They always needed more; life in fast forward. Clubs, we jump the train tracks.


    Hearts, we go 100 on the bypass. Odds we leave without paying. Evens we catch the first flight we see.


    Heads or tails, Leo? Heads or tails? Heads? Tails?


    This was the only place it could’ve ended. Yes, he should have known.

    She snatches the coin from mid-air. Right hand slaps down on to the back of left.

    “Heads, we jump. Tails, we go home. Right?”

    She removes her right hand and lifts the oracle for him to see.


    He vomits. Chicken tikka, cheap beer. Sour and acidic. Without waiting for her, he climbs back over the railing, huddles down against it, hands and jeans stained with rust.

    She is laughing. She turns her back to the edge, looking down on him from the wrong side of the barrier; life pouring out of her.

    “See?” She raises her hands in the air, throws back her head to the night. “Fate wants us to live. Don’t you feel free, Leo? Don’t you feel alive?”

    And in that moment, he knows that she really believes it. Before she slips – before the rocks crumble away under her feet and her hands just fail to grab the railing in time – she believes completely in her god. And she is completely free.



  1. Wonderful. I can see why it won. Well done.

    1. Thank-you! That's very kind of you :)

  2. Excellent - totally had me at the end! Felt a bit sick myself. Great stuff.

    1. Thanks, Teresa. Im' a bit rusty with short stories at the moment, so it's nice to have a bit of encouragement.

  3. How come they've not put it up!?

    Great story. Have some similar themes running through my stories at the moment - how funny!

    I like the style of the "flips" building up the tension. Nicely done. And this is beautiful: "We never let life just happen, Leo. We give it handrails and parachutes and emergency exits. We’re too afraid to take off our seatbelts." But you knew that. : )

    1. Not sure. I sent it to them and they didn't reply. So I asked again (when I thanked them after receiving the prize) and still nothing. To be fair, they did say it was to promote the competition in future, so maybe they're keeping it for next year?

      Anyway, thanks! You said you explored fate in your novel - one of the reasons I wanted to read it! I think it's an endlessly fascinating subject (endless as in across the whole of humanity over the whole of time - not as a subject for one writer for a whole lifetime!)

  4. Quite simply: brilliant. And deftly followed to an intelligent and visceral conclusion. Well done!

    1. Oh wow, thanks! Good enthusiasm! It's not at all the thing I usually write, but it became one of my favourite pieces as I was writing it.

  5. And here's a governess' approval to seal the above! I wonder how he goes on to live?

    1. The approval of a real-life governess is the icing on the cake!

      I think he probably spent the rest of his life being normal during the day, and at night trying not to let her haunt him, but mostly failing.

  6. A belated congrats on the story! I like the way you bring the characters to life and make them feel real in such a short story.

  7. A deserving winner, Chloe. Well done!

    I like stories of escalation, although they can be difficult to bring to a satisfactory conclusion. I think you've got it spot-on here. Nicely done.

  8. So I'm a little slow finally getting to read this.

    I loved how you took a coin flip, something that only takes seconds, and drew it out. It totally drew me in. :)

    I myself prefer handrails and parachutes. So I like reading stories like this where you can safefly step out of your bubble!

    Great job. And congratulations again!!

    1. Thanks :) Yeah, I'm definitely a handrails and parachutes kind of person too, so I like to create people who aren't. I've only just realised in replying to your comment that that's exactly what I've been exploring in my novel!


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