Wheelton: a town named for the wheel standing at the heart of it, tall and wide and orange as an autumn oak. Everyone in town knows the wheel, but its origin and purpose are lost. Maybe it once spoke of travel or industry. Now it says only this is Wheelton, and people make of that what they like.
Paint peels off the wheel every year, revealing dull mottled patches. Orange flakes litter the town, confetti picked up by the high wind that tunnels down the valley. The wind celebrates the place with it until the rust and sun motes seem also to be just flakes from the wheel.
It needs a repaint, but the town can’t bring itself to do it. They can’t get the right shade. Anyone who grew up in Wheelton can tell you how different it could look, amber in the morning on the way to school or a brassy tone in the afternoon on the way back home. No one there can stand the idea of that first brush of paint and how wrong it would look next to the old colour. So they carry on as always, waiting for the day the last fleck casts off and blows out of sight.
When that day comes, they will paint it. Everyone will agree it is just like the old shade. But each person will remember privately the right shade, the colour of their childhoods or the day they moved to town.
A woman pulls a scale of paint from her hair. She kissed her friend Catherine by the wheel when they were fifteen. That day the wheel was the colour of apricots. Later, Catherine moved away. Her hair smelled like warm sun cream.
Had she stayed, she could have asked her what colour she thought it was that day. Apricots or something else? Had she stayed, so many other things might have made themselves possible.
God, the woman thinks, looking at her child’s blue eyes. How much more of this endless mourning.
Some nights she gets out of bed, tired of waiting. She goes and quietly scratches paint off the wheel with a knife or rubs it with metal bristles, trying not to memorise the colour under the torchlight as it crumbles away. Never removing enough for anyone to notice, just enough to hurry it along.
Everyone has done it at some point, in Wheelton.
Natalie Bradbeer writes short fiction and poetry. Her work has been shortlisted for the Bridport Flash Fiction Prize and has appeared in Tears in the Fence, Litmus, and otheranthologies and publications. She currently works for a charity in Bedfordshire, UK.