It was on Short-Sleeve Day, as their beloved President’s birthday was known, that the invitation arrived. The letter was embossed with the President’s insignia, and Malic felt a wave of excitement as he opened it. He was to attend at the Palace the following Wednesday. There was no RSVP. One would not dream of rejecting the honour of a summons from The Decorator, as the President was popularly known.
‘Ooh!’ said Malic’s wife, ‘I bet he’ll give you the Order of Artisans Devoted to the Country’s Good. You deserve it!’ For Malic was a sign-writer of great skill, whose work decorated many a shop front and ale-house.
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ he said modestly. ‘I’m small in the business even if I am the best. Why should he give me such an award?'
‘I’ll tell you why,’ she whispered, suddenly remembering that walls have ears. You don’t talk loudly and speculatively without being very careful what you say. ‘He wants you to do something for him, maybe a sign for the Palace or a Government Building, and it wouldn’t do to employ someone without a title! He’s not called The Decorator for nothing. Won’t it be grand!’
So it was with secretly nursed excitement that they went out to join in the festivities that accompanied the President’s birthday. The country’s coffers were generous on this day. Pigs were roasted, dances danced, fiery torches juggled, plates spun, and gallons of ale quaffed – and yet the crowds were not dense. Every year it struck Malic that a remarkable proportion of the population remained indoors, perhaps working despite it being a public holiday. Threading amongst the revellers were the ever-present Military. The only danger on this day was not to be wearing short sleeves. They would descend on anyone not complying and rip the sleeves off their shirts or blouses. It was a curious practice, but it was they way things were. You conformed or stayed indoors. The fun was contagious, nevertheless, and as the beer flowed, patriotic songs filled the air, praising their noble President, the much-loved Decorator, and his benevolence.
The next morning, Malic had a hangover, but the excitement remained. The week seemed an eternity before the time came for him to put on his best suit and enter the Palace gates. He was not alone. The small fidgety queue was checked against a list and ushered into a grand gilded room, where they sat nervously and neatly on overstuffed chairs, not talking because their heads swirled with possibilities.
In due course, Malic’s name was called out, and he was led by splendidly uniformed officers into an even grander room with a huge desk, from behind which the President rose, beaming.
‘My dear fellow,’ he cried. ‘Malic,’ he added, glancing at a piece of paper. ‘This country is a marvellous place to live, you will agree.’ Malic nodded furiously. ‘We have the finest, most able, most skilled craftsmen of anywhere in the world,’ the President continued, his eyes gleaming. ‘And they are all loyal to me. To a man. Are they not?’
Malic nodded all the more, his heart thumping.
‘Then tell me why,’ the President growled, ‘you were observed in an ale house two weeks ago singing scurrilous and slanderous songs against my person?’
Malic thought frantically. He remembered the occasion vaguely; it was after the wedding of his best friend. He had overimbibed. ‘I must have been drunk,’ he spluttered.
‘No excuses,’ said the President. ‘We do not recognise you as a citizen. You live in shame from henceforth. Take him away!’
Officers forced him into a backroom, so very different from the grandeur of the Presidential chambers. A brazier burned in the corner. There, with no haste or emotion, they branded his right forearm with the word TRAITOR in two inch high letters. The smell, so like and unlike that of the spit-roast hog of the birthday celebrations, made him gag. The pain was indescribable.
As he stumbled home mortified in the twilight of that day, the awful significance of Short-Sleeve Day sent ice through him. How many countless others were disgraced like him, who could not and would not talk for the shame of it? His agonising arm told him that indeed the President was The Decorator.
The Tea Spotte
As you open the door of the Tea Spotte, it makes a bell tinkle incontinently. There are, what, half a dozen customers inside? They go silent and turn and look at look at you as you enter. When you sit at your usual table, facing the wall in the corner, the murmur of conversation starts again.
‘What can I get you?’ You turn to see a waitress whom you do not recognise. She is wearing the Tea Spotte’s polka dot apron, but you’ve never seen her before. You feel slightly outraged. You’ve been coming here for months. Ever since you started working at home, and found you tended to fall asleep at 3:30 in the afternoon. And felt isolated. Hence the brisk walk to the Tea Stoppe and a strong coffee. And a slice of cake as a reward.
‘Are you new?’ you ask. It seems everyone has fallen silent again, as if holding their breath for the answer. You think you hear a giggle.
‘No,’ she says. ‘What can I get you,’ she repeats, ‘sir?’ The ‘sir’ sounds like a sneer.
‘A black filter coffee and a slice of lemon drizzle cake, please,’ you say. ‘As usual,’ you add, to establish that you are a regular, not some passing tourist.
‘There’s no lemon drizzle cake.’
There is always lemon drizzle cake.
‘Well, what do you have?’ you ask.
‘Without drizzle, I suppose?’
She doesn’t deign to answer.
‘All right,’ you say, ‘I’ll have a black filter and a slice of lemon cake.’
Again you think you hear a giggle being suppressed. You turn round. Everyone is looking at you. One woman has a hand clasped over her mouth. A child says too loudly, ‘Mummy, why’s that man...’ before his mother hisses ‘Sssh!’ and cuffs him on the ear. The child whimpers softly.
Seeing you looking back at them, the diners turn away and talk again unnaturally. Surreptitiously, you check your flies, examine your shirt to see if you’ve spilt something embarrassing, check your socks. They match. You have shoes on, not slippers. All seems in order. To make sure, you decide to go and look in the mirror in the gents. As the door swings to, you hear the giggling again, unmistakeable. You look in the mirror. Your usual unremarkable self. Nothing untoward. Perfectly normal.
So you start to leave, but you can’t open the door. It must be locked. You hammer on it. You cry out. You do this for a long time, with increasing fervour and anxiety, louder and louder, on and on. Nothing happens. Nobody answers. Your phone is at home because you only popped out for coffee and cake. You look vainly at the frosted glass of the window. There is no opening.
Hours pass. It is growing dark outside. There is no light switch that you can see. You give up hammering and yelling. The café staff must have gone home long ago. You feel sick.
Then, there in front of you, in the gloom, in the half-light, in the murk, in a way that seems like you’re imagining it, one of the cubicle doors slowly opens.
You scream. A long time. But there is nobody else – no other thing that can hear you.
Geoff Gillanders enjoys coffee and chocolate, and likes to be a bit of mystery. He lives in Abergavenny in Wales. This is the first time his stories have been published, though he’s been writing lots of flash fiction for quite a while. His cat is getting really fed up listening to them.