Jenni Blackmore - Short Story Excerpts
Excerpts from short stories in Counting Crows
Jenni Blackmore

Excerpt from the story, Fortunes Told

Aunty's genius transcended recipe books and laundry hampers. Home-making was definitely not her forte, but fortune telling was. When Aunty delved into the metaphysical realms it was with elegance, strength and accuracy. Even as a child I welcomed her visits as brilliant cracks of light filtering into the stolid egg of my staid British upbringing. I relished every moment, treasured every word and I still remember the mystery, the enchantment, the colour in her eyes: a fragile bluer than blue, shifting like water under ice. Many times I stared through the ice as she took my hand and gently moved her fingers across its palm, leaping effortlessly back and forth through time, telling me what had been and what was to come. The final time she did this was also one of farewell; I was about to leave England, to explore the unknown, life in Canada.

That time seems so long ago. In spite of the canned salmon, the hard boiled eggs and the flattened vowel accents of the north it seems like several lifetimes past, so much has happened. I shudder at the glib elasticity of time; stretching . . . stretching . . . stretching out as if forever and then snapping back with painful emphasis. It's been too long since Aunty Evie last told my fortune. I need her to tell it again. I need her to tell me where I am going. I'm impatient to know my destiny. I don't want it sneaking up and pecking from behind or swooping down with vengeance on a day that seems like it has only to be lived through.

"Aunty, have some more tea, and I'll have some more tea and . . ." and then I notice the innocuous paper tags momentarily fluttering from the tea pot lid before the cozy snuggles over them like some obese woman settling down to ingest. It's not the suffocating, over-stuffed cozy or the pot or the cup that alarms me, sending zigzag rays of panic down my arms, across my chest; it's the little tags of paper, each hanging from their individual string, umbilical to their own particular tea-bag. No tea leaves free to float and swirl, to draw my future on the bottom of my cup? The haze of destiny re- thickens, is once more impenetrable and worse, just as I am feeling so bereft Aunty manages with surprising dexterity, almost slight of hand in fact, to spill the newly replenished cup of tea all over Mother's couch.

It is a historic moment. No one has ever done such a thing before. "Oh dear, look what I've done." The words in essence have the right meaning, it is the way they are delivered which supports my suspicion that one of the things Aunty Evie had planned to do while in Canada was to make a mess in my mother's living room.

Mother rushes into the kitchen, returning immediately with several wet cloths but Aunty is already doing penance, daubing at the wet upholstery with the voluminous silk scarf which is draped around her neck. The scarf itself is not overly gaudy but it does not go well with the dress Aunty's wearing which in turn is incompatible with the heavy floral pattern of the couch, an unlikely melange of day- lilies and hibiscus against a background of petunias fraught with vines. The serenely correct British tea ceremony is suddenly transformed into a riot of hideous shape, colour and tension.

"It's alright, I've got it." snaps Aunty, by now on her knees, still daubing haphazardly with the tea saturated scarf and obviously annoyed by what seems, to her, the unnecessary fuss Mother is making.

Mother is equally annoyed by the glaring stains which somehow manage to make themselves quite apparent upon the fecundity of the couch.

"This will work better." Mother's tone is reined in tightly but she thrusts the cloth forward like a gauntlet and the duel begins. The scrubbing is strenuous. Uncle Will wiggles his toes and watches them intently. Father excuses himself and goes to the bathroom, with the newspaper. I know it is not the time to suggest a tea cup reading.

(excerpt from the story, 'Fortunes Told' (c) 1997, Jenni Blackmore)

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Excerpt from the story, Charts and Journeys

The bus was packed and we were fortunate to get seats. We both needed to sit but Paul soon offered his place to somebody's grandmother. What a nice boy, the thought flickered in her eyes as he swayed and stooped in front of us, trying to look through the windows and keep his footing as the bus careened through the dusty countryside. What a nice boy.

Before this ancient woman scurried off the bus like some engorged, black-winged insect she took Paul's hand and pulled him down towards me so that we were once more sitting side by side on the back seat of the crowded bus. A Greek bus, a bus where people socialize, joking and laughing, where they sing and argue, eat and drink and indulge their erotic fantasies.

Though not tall, the man who assumed Paul's standing space seemed to tower above us. Directly in our line of vision, he effectively blocked out all view of the interminable olive groves and we had little choice but to stare at the profile of his sex. When he first began his sensuous gyrations I found it hard not to laugh. Instead I coughed and pushed my palm against my mouth.

The man's tight jeans emphasized what he obviously considered to be one of his more redeeming features. The rest of his body was short and subtly disproportionate, almost simian. Most disturbing was his smile which was reminiscent of ancient jaw bones, the fragmented remains of our predecessors.

At first glance the woman who wedged in by him was almost beautiful, with strawberry blond hair cascading down her back in lose curls. However, on closer inspection she too displayed subtle incongruities which gave her a certain ugliness in equal measure to her beauty, an apparent freakishness which was hard to define.

The bus swayed and rocked vigorously. She moved with it, holding tightly onto the overhead hand grips. I wondered if Paul would forfeit his seat for a second time to this woman but I sensed that he didn't like her. I imagined how he would categorize her: has never believed in dragons or fairies, will always be sceptical of love and is expert in an least ten sexual practices. Her aura was tarnished but she did also exude a childlike wholesomeness which further strengthened the anomalous impression she created, nevertheless Paul remained seated.

As the bus swayed and rocked the man rubbed the front of his body against the woman's back. Soon her spine began to arch as she pressed her buttocks closer towards him and moved her hips rhythmically from side to side. Her head went back and the golden curls brushed against the man's face. He put his tongue out and pulled a lock of her hair into his mouth.

Aided by the rocking of the bus their movements assumed the mesmerizing beauty of a dance, as they writhed and pressed their bodies together in pre-orgasmic oblivion. The other passengers seemed unaware of this overt eroticism and before my eyes the tawdriness of their public display evaporated, leaving only a residue of sexual purity.

Finally the bus reached its destination and everyone disembarked. The man began to walk away and as I watched, the woman turned and started out in the other direction without a word.

I kept their ecstasy with me as I swam in the warm, turquoise water, knowing that their incidental coupling was at one end in the maze of human relationship where I must strive to find my destined place among the narrow corridors of misogyny and concupiscence. As I lay next to the man I planned to leave, I wondered if he would understand when I tried to explain and I wondered if I would regret being lured away from his safe haven by murmurs from lost empires and vague memories of unconditional happiness.

(excerpt from the story, 'Charts and Journeys' (c) 1997, Jenni Blackmore)

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Excerpt from the story, A Blizzard of Angel Feathers

Between a rock, du-du-du and a hard place!

Between a rock, der-der and a hard place!

The sounds are amplified into tangible vibrations, sinews of sound that lash out; loops, coils of raw noise that tangle around and tug the man towards the beer tent.

Sweat is running down her forehead and into one eye as she leans back for the final finale, the final lurch forward towards the mike', final flourish of fingers fighting keys. She blinks away the sweat bead and catches sight of the solitary man standing in the doorway, nothing more than another cut-out dark space.

Final song, final set and all that's left is the residue of smoke, scattered ashes on deserted tables and a littering of plastic cups that spill their dregs as the mid-night wind brings in the fog.

The crowd has straggled off taking her sweater with it and she shivers. The burly waiter with the steroid pumping neck confirms it - He ain't seen no sweater - and this is when the man with the melancholy face and the garbage bag under his arm asks her if she wants to buy a T-shirt. If there are lower than low places, places wedged between the toughest rocks and the meanest of hard places, for her this feels like one of them. She knows before looking that the shirts will have pictures of tall masted ships lurching across the front of them and the labels removed from the back seam, just to confirm their inferior quality.

"You wanna' buy a T-shirt?" Even as the words spring board from his tongue he knows their dive is doomed.

"Do I want to what?" She doesn't need to call him roach-head, her tone says it all.

"I'm sorry. I've been saying that all day. You can have one... I mean please take one. There's only a few left and after tonight no one's going to... well I don't imagine...

The waiter is stacking chairs with brutal efficiency.

"Closin'", he grunts above the racket he's creating. "Bar's closed."

The man looks over his shoulder, assessing the empty space surrounding the chair he sits on. In one corner a couple huddle together against the red vinyl wall of the tent, oblivious to all but the subterranean language of love which absorbs them.

The barman follows his gaze and walks toward the lovers. The piano player also turns to leave and for whatever reason the solitary man can't stop himself from blurting out, "Parade of Sail - short sleeved or long, take your pick. I don't have any sweat-shirts left but a T-shirt would be better than nothing".

"I think I'd rather be seen dead, thanks just the same."

Her skin already has a sallow cast and the flesh of her cheeks is slightly drawn by the constant effort of keeping her lips pulled together over protruding teeth. The man thinks she must surely snore when she sleeps on her back but this is fine with him. He does not want to see her sleeping, he does not want to see her dead, he just wants to be rid of the T-shirts and as he stands, before he disappears into the fog, he shoves the garbage bag to the end of the table.

"Help yourself if you change your mind. They're no good to me anymore."

(excerpt from the story, 'A Blizzard of Angel Feathers' (c) 1997, Jenni Blackmore)

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Excerpt from the story, Living in a State of Grace

Confucius, you were wrong. Wrong! Confucius... YOU... were... WRONG. I savour the words like silky- soft candy, rolling them around inside my mouth, across my tongue. Self indulgent? You bet! And when I become bored with the sound of my own voice I assume a new persona, affect a different enunciation: a ruthless Russian spy; a sexy Swedish starlet; Her Royal Highness; Elmer Fudd.

"Confucius, you were wrong," they say, with my permission. What a glorious copyright, and it is mine.

Confucius, there is a State of Grace, I know because I have lived there. Your mistrust of the twenty second configuration in the ancient Book of Changes was invalid. When you threw the yarrow sticks, when they indicated fire from the secret depths of earth, blazing to illuminate the mountain, heavenly heights, you should have trusted their message, should have allowed yourself to live in the State of Grace, enjoying its tranquil beauty: clarity within, quiet without, pure moments in a capsule of gentle time, un-affected by the past and without influence on the future.

Imagine a feather falling, slow motion, dreamscape, spiralling slowly, never landing; this is the state of grace. Nothing really counts. Nothing really stops but neither do things progress. It's a suspension, this State of Grace, a bubble which does not burst when poked.

See me, inside the bubble, little woman with big problems and see him, as he stands at my door displaying all the fashion sense of a retired sausage vendor. I never did like satin ball-jackets. His is blue. I can't look at him too closely, or is it that I can't see him clearly beneath the brim of his ball-cap? or is it that I'm not able to compute the fifty year-old eyes, the thirty year-old smile, the boyish black curls and the fake tan into one cognizant image.

I search for a clue, a defining feature that tells what the man is. A failure! The words, shunted forward from the archives of some past dismay, categorize this mixture of absurdities, shovelled onto my doorstep, wearing satin and sneakers in the snow.

See the capsule enlarge. I am cooking. He is eating. We don't talk of past or future. We don't discuss love or money. We savour yams in stir-fry. I ask him a personal question - Does he like yams in stir- fry? He pretends to, while wishing for fries and fat meat.

(excerpt from the story, 'Living in a State of Grace' (c) 1997, Jenni Blackmore)

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