Portrait of the artist as an out-of-shape middle-aged failure with an expanding waist, receding hairline, shrinking horizons and the feeling of living through the Beginning of the End Times (again) while struggling to make sense of a world he has long since given up even trying to understand by Terry Holland

I can’t remember how long it’s been there. Probably forever. A constant weight on my shoulder – sometimes the left, sometimes the right; always there, always pushing down. I call it The Burden. Sometimes it’s almost tolerable; forgettable even, for a while. Sometimes it’s just crushing: grinding me into the ground, bending my back this way and that. It’s not a hand on my shoulder. It’s not your cliché celestial harpist or brimstone-scented trident-waver. It’s more like… Sometimes, I swear it’s visible. I’ll catch a glimpse in the mirror as I’m shaving (and jump and cut myself). A dark blur that’s gone by the time my eyes have locked onto the gaping hole where it was lurking. Sometimes I’m sure other people can see it too. The look of mild dread on the face of the man in the off-licence as I approach the counter with my six-pack. The woman on the bus that looks round and goes to smile, but then snaps her head back to her phone and keeps it locked there till she jumps up and gets off, quicker than she needed. The doctor who keeps glancing over my shoulder at the door, when she’s not hiding her face behind her monitor or fiddling with the pens on her desk.

So anyway. I’m sitting in the bar one afternoon – The Last Hope it’s called, but some wag’s climbed up a ladder with some black paint and painted an o over the a – when she comes in. Out of the blue. Marches straight up to me, sits down, looks me right in the eye, lights up two fags at once, like she always did, hands me one. The same brown/blonde/red/black hair, same brown/blue/green/grey eyes. Smiles that enigmatic smile. Breathes smoke in my face. I know she can see it. She glances at it, dismissively, like it was a stain on the sofa or a pair of manky y-fronts discarded on the bedroom floor. Plonks her bag on the table – still the same bulging, chaotic portable Tardis – and rummages through it, like she always did. Brings out a big packet of salt, one of them with the twisty lid so you can have it coming out fine or coarse, and a bottle of Sarson’s vinegar. “Here”, she says, holding them up like she’s in an advert on the telly. “Now slather that all over it, eat up and get rid! Have a pint after to get rid of the taste – and then get on with it!” And then there’s like a bang and a flash and suddenly she’s gone. And so is it.

Terry Holland grew up in England and lives in Utrecht, the Netherlands. He has been longlisted for the Retreat West Flash Fiction Prize and the Cranked Anvil Flash Fiction Competition and published by Almond Press, the Bath Flash Fiction Anthology, Stukah! magazine, Full House Literary, Free Flash Fiction, Stereo Stories, Daily Drunk, Voidspace and Pure Slush. Twitter: @terry_geezer

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