Victoria Walsh sends us another piece of flash fiction in which readers are able to see into a fraction of the protagonist Alice’s memories. Walsh invokes a ‘quotidian’ aspect to this short story as A Delicate Thing reminds us that what we consider to be the most insignificant of tasks or objects often holds more meaning than we may first think.
A Delicate Thing
Alice scrubbed her hands vigorously, watching as the water, which at first ran grimy brown off her skin, turned clear. She continued to hold her fingers under the gushing tap, relishing the cool feeling; the cleansing of dust and mould and dirt. Most of the books she had just sorted through had been damp – the result of sitting untended in cardboard boxes in a garden shed for far too long. Even just looking at some of them, not to mention touching them, had sent tremors of revulsion through her. Only occasionally had she found one worth salvaging.
Alice had never shared her brother’s passion for books. All his life, he had grasped every chance to feast his eyes upon whatever he could lay his hands on, swallowing words with the fervor of a glutton. Everything he had read, he had kept; carefully ordered on shelves in his minute flat. The rest of his living space had resembled a pigsty. On the rare occasion that he’d had guests, he would have to clear the clutter on the sofa just for them to sit down. His books were his companions and literature was his one true love.
“Sell some of them,” Alice would advise him on one of their infrequent phone calls. “You could use the money. They’re no use to you.”
“They’re worth more to me than any amount of money,” he would reply.
Alice would sigh and let her eyes wander until they fell on the family photo on her office desk. On each end stood her parents who were both well respected doctors in their time. In the middle was her elder sister who had become a newly qualified dentist when the photo was taken. Alice stood on her right, beaming, anticipating the maths degree she would spend the next three years of her life completing. Finally, on the left was Daniel who that very day had received his GCSE results. Most of his grades had deepened the frown lines upon their parents’ faces.
Freshly washed hands hidden in her pockets, Alice returned to the table where Daniel’s books were stacked in mountains. Most were waiting to be returned to the soggy cardboard cells from which she had released them. From there, they would be imprisoned in the boot of her car and transported to the dump – in their shameful state they were good for nothing else. She picked up one of the salvageable ones, a rare gem which she had stacked in a separate pile, and flicked through it. A rush of air slapped her in the face and she could almost hear Daniel’s voice. Don’t do that, you’ll bend the cover. In her mind, the words would be followed by him snatching the book from her hands and cradling it as if it were a delicate thing.
Daniel had been a stain on the family – unkempt, driven by pleasure, capable but unambitious. He had no concern for the future and, as things turned out, had not needed to have concern for the future. The careless driver responsible for knocking him down had seen to that.
Alice cast her eyes over the books again. The pile she had saved was a fraction of the size of the one for sacrifice; an insignificant bundle amidst the precarious towers of rotting paper. She had overlooked these jewels and left them to rot. In her pockets, a residue of remorse made her fingers itch and her hands no longer felt quite so clean.