Yes, you read that right. Chuck’s flash fiction challenge was a car chase. I can’t think of anything more boring to write about, although I can think of a couple of car chases in movies I enjoyed – Bullitt, The Blues Brothers (and The French Connection although I wouldn’t call that one enjoyable, as in, I don’t care to watch it again). I did consider writing a peregrine chase, inspired by my nature writing course last weekend. But as I didn’t see one, or any other sort of chase, it doesn’t make ‘writing from observation’ ring true.
So I’m giving you a piece I wrote for the first day of writing masterclasses, on a marsh in Norfolk. I want to get more of the essence of the marsh into my stories, and I also get more of the essence of trees into the trees in Pete and the Swede’s stories, so there is method in my madness. I hope you enjoy these 750 words, even if it isn’t a flash fiction car chase.
Flashes of orange and white dash across the reedbed and pause on the the drowned tree stump. A butterfly, an orange tip, flies off to the pale pinky-mauve mallow daintily dipping its head over the water. Rejecting the sweet scent, the butterfly dances away on the wind, only to twist and return to the shelter of the bushes where Jack-in-the-hedge stands – orange tips must prefer their dinner savoury, since this plant is better known as garlic mustard.
The pond surface moves: a sloppy linear wave created by – a fish? a frog? a newt? Somewhere underneath the sluggish surface, sodden with slimy blanketweed, it holds life, or life holds onto it, grimly carving out its niche between air and rotting leaves. A belch of marsh-damp assaults the nostrils, to prove this pond is in need of salvation. It could be invaded by the reeds, standing to attention at its edge, sunlight spilling silver and gold through the bowed leaves and shaking flower-heads. Seeds drift off as fluff on the wind, landing on the surface of the water and adding to the matting.
There is a constant ripple of cascading part-song; three willow warblers are ululating their rippling descending challenges to the world and to each other, while a flute briefly announces a blackcap in the thicket, making his mark on the soundscape. He skulks nearby, watching me with a beady black eye underneath his smart dull cap. He doesn’t bother with the slapping of small willow branches against each other, rattling in the constant marsh wind.
The unknown pond animal leaves a brief trail in the surface muck again, raking up more gas bubbles. It clearly doesn’t mind dead wet leaves.
A reed warbler can contain itself no longer, bursting with complaints, huffing to itself – and the world – ripples of real song in amongst the chatter. Is it a metaphor? Somewhere among the chatter there are gems of truth, things worth saying? Is the pond just an oasis surrounded by people going about their business? Chatting on the phone? Building their own territories? Raising the next generation while I stand and watch, observing, listening, not really engaged? Or does the act of observing engage me, complicit with the activity around me? Everyone has his or her own business. The newt (or whatever) in the pond may be observing me. What does it see? Friend? Foe? Threat? Opportunity? A temporary disturbance in its world? The dunnock starts up in conversation, contradicting me. The newt does not care about its observer, and the dunnock only sings for advertising, or alarm, not to sweetly add its notes to the harmonies around. A long way off a bird calls for bread and no cheese. My perfect partner: I’ll take the cheese, dear yellowhammer, thank you.
The light shifts, and the natural sounds are intruded by traffic, train and tractor. There are cows nearby, occasionally expressing their disgruntlement with their regulated world. Would cows like this pond? Is the water, good enough for a newt, good enough for a cow to drink? Do deer visit it? I search for signs of nocturnal visitors, unseen by daytime observers. There are two places where perhaps larger animals have been to the edge, if not in. Or maybe they are traces of the person who has pulled piles of debris from the depth, hoping to restore its health and vitality before the decay smothers everything. My exploration reveals a bank of iris holding back an upper pond, green with duckweed and floating moss-furred limbs, branches cracked off the willows above by autumn storms. In another place the floating log might turn out to have eyes. Or maybe a green anaconda would leap from the encrusted surface to drag me to a watery grave, a raft of green leaflets my only memorial.
Not here, for this is Norfolk. A corner of the marsh that could extend as far as the land of the princelings. Miles of reedbed shivering in the ever present sailor’s friend, which turns off by magic at six every evening. We are too far away from the popular parts to see white sails moving in state above the reeds, a magical apparition caused by hidden waterways. The marshes are full of people, constrained to their boats, their cars, their walking tracks. Here, in this pond, a private world continues its daily round, oblivious to the observer in their midst.
Do not disturb.
(c) J M Pett 2015