This short fiction contains examples of, or links to, content that features (or alludes to) verbal abuse/threats, dysfunctional relationships and households, divorce, and cheating/affairs.
Reader discretion is strongly advised.
Isaac ‘Zack’ Montgomery:
At rest on 15th June 2016 at Staffordshire Area Hospital, Isaac ‘Zack’ Montgomery, aged 74 years, of Stoke-On-Trent, Staffs. The husband of Fiona nee Bruce and much adored father to Thomas, Isobel and Joseph. Zack will be sadly missed by many of his friends. A Private Funeral will take place on 7th July, with a service open to wider associates of the family taking place on 8th July.
The Kiln-Town Crier
Zack woke up, finding himself naked, covered with unfamiliar sheets. It was difficult for him to tell where he was in the near dark. Light came through the gaps in the blinds, like prison bars, across the bigger-than-usual bed. He coughed as the seedy air tickled the back of his throat. Fiona’s usual scent of lavender and rosemary was replaced with the sickly tang of sweat.
The bedroom was uncomfortably quiet, save for the soft breathing coming from the mouth of somebody else. It didn’t take Zack too long to find who the voice belonged to. To his left Zack felt the presence of somebody else. With their back turned away from him, in darkness, it was difficult to see who it was. The hourglass curves revealed a figure of a woman underneath the sheets.
But it wasn’t his woman. This person’s frame was too small, too tight. Too beautiful, he guiltily thought. “Alright love?” the woman uttered in a voice that wasn’t Fiona’s. That’s when Zack realised the terrible mistake he made.
‘Don’t you know who I bloody am!?’ Zack chided. Although the street is choked with parents sending their children off to school, no one bats an eyelid as if the unfolding quarrel was simply part of the scenery.
‘I do,’ she replied, a flatline of apathy running straight through her thick accent. The cobbles clacked as she carried on walking.
His face reddened. Zack knew of plenty occasions when women were beaten black and blue for much less. Something wanted him to do the same.
‘You’re just another tart,’ he shouted, ‘a cheeky bitch who needs to kner her place!’
‘And where’s that, Isaac Montgomery, eh?’ she retorted, turning around to glare at him with contempt and pain. Compared to Zack’s burly frame, earned from years of work in the steel factories, she was as small as a pencil. It spoke volumes of her inner courage to undermine him.
‘It’s here,’ Zack replied as he jabbed a finger to the cobbles under his shoes.
‘Nah, she said, ‘never again.’
‘You’ll be back.’
‘No. No I won’t.’
On that day Zack, the well-respected man in the community, appeared so small in stature. Like a child in a tantrum he was ignored, as another woman was disappearing from his life. Semi-lucid, he seemed so powerless in stopping Fiona from going up and over the street, bags in hand. Her blonde hair, fluttering like a pennant, was the last thing to disappear from Zack’s view. She no longer belonged to him, and that made him weak, and so desperately alone.
‘Don’t leave me,’ he muttered. Children’s laughter echoed across the terrace.
A round of cheers and applause went around The Working Men’s Social Club, as Zack went up to the centre table, where his nephew—the groom—sat next to his bride. Although it was now the eighties, the function room looked like it hadn’t moved with the times. The wallpaper was bleached from decade’s worth of tobacco residue, while the tables—despite the staff’s best efforts—were sticky and stained by the rims of many a pint glass.
However, being a second home to many of the working men attending, here it was: Hosting a wedding for a nephew of Zack’s. Although on the plumper side, and now sporting a working man’s walrus moustache, he still thought of himself as a strong man, a pillar of the community. Certainly, hearing the guests cheer him on didn’t deflate his sense of self-importance.
‘Thank yer, thank yer, Gentlemen,’ Zack announced, patting his cream jacket to find the scrap of musty paper which his speech was jotted on.
‘We all kner of how wank the bitter is here, so I apologise if I don’t slur ma words.’
A few chuckles came from across the smoky function room. Zack looked down at his nephew and the bride. He weighed up the words for his speech, and found them heavy. Nigel was young, and so enthusiastic about the married life ahead of him. The dough-eyed optimism in his eyes reflected some sweeter past that Zack barely clutched.
‘Now, it’s not ma’ place to make big talk about the religious importance of marriage an so forth. I’ll leave that for the Father. But, that’s not ta say that I kner of a few things to say about marriage. From my experience I kner that marriage is very important to a great many folk.
‘Fact is, vows canna be taken with a light heart. Long and ard graft is ahead of our lovely couple now. There’ll be ups and downs for sure. Bad days might outweigh the good days at times, and it’ll feel like yer entire world is coming down around yer. Mistakes will be made. Most can be forgotten. Some unforgivable.’
Suffocated pangs of unhealed pain and numbed pleasure disappeared—just a single tear the only memorial to its passing.
‘Nig, you’ve got a good one here, jus like Fiona once was. Hold onto her. Learn from what I’ve done, and don’t become like me. There’s too many men like me already, who’ve made many regrets in their marriages. I’m living with those mistakes right now, and no doubt I’ll take them to my grave.’
Isaac buried his face deeper into his coat as the breeze swept through the terrace. Transformed into a canyon’s basin by rows of council houses, it was one of the few places in the city that was unwilling to let go of the past. As skyscrapers grew in the distance, the street contented itself with stunted chimneys.
He had breathed the same gritty air and felt the same cobbles under his feet for years. This was his everything, a place frozen in the past—as life started to forget about a time of terraces and factories. He liked it that way. As he saw it, he was too old to enjoy a future with glass houses and computers. The past was all he had left.
In some way, that was why he chose to be here.
Stopping on the doorstep of one of the houses, he stood there for a moment, looking at a rough blue door. He sighed as he extended a hand towards its surface, a rapid beat echoing as the knuckles rapped against the wood.
There was no answer for a few seconds, until there was a click from behind the door. A warm lavender and rosemary greeted him before a figure emerged.
Isaac knew that she must be sixty plus, but she still looked the same since the last time they saw each other. Her golden locks still flew down to her shoulders, and her eyes still had that all-consuming energy.
‘You,’ she said. Isaac placed a hand on the door before Fiona locked it.
‘Please, give me a chance,’ he pleaded, ‘I’ve changed!’
Fiona rapped her nails against the door. Her whole posture was like a brick wall—completely unmoveable. Isaac noticed her wrinkles tightening along her cheeks, as the memories of living in turmoil—a turmoil he created—resurfaced again in her mind. Fiona sighed before she talked.
‘Do you remember the day I left you?’ she asked. Isaac nodded. Of course, I remember, he thought, like yesterday.
‘It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life,’ she continued, ‘every fibre of my being wanted me to remain chained to you, believe me. I just couldn’t walk away from the man who said he loved me. There were so many that I kidded myself into believing that the poison you put in my ear was for my own good. How you tortured my body at night was you way of loving me—‘
‘I’m sorry! I’m sorry!’ Isaac was on the verge of tears, ‘If I could take it all back I could!’
‘I know,’ she replied, ‘but when you had the chance to do good, when it really mattered, you didn’t. So I made your choice for you.’
‘Every step up that street and away from that house, the home we tried to make for so long, was pain. Imagine that you’re trying to hold back the tide itself. How can you?’
‘But I did,’ she said as she tapped a finger on her chest, ‘me.’
Isaac started to crumple underneath the shame. He felt like the sky was a giant press, crushing him into the ground, the only place where he thought he belonged.
‘It took me years to realise that when I left you,’ she continued, ‘I had given myself another chance. Not at redeeming yourself, that’s for you, but at…reliving. And by God I gripped it with both hands. I was touched by new sensations that I thought I’d never feel without your presence. For the first time in a long time I loved myself before anyone else.’
‘But still,’ she continued, ‘somethings will never be proper again.’
They stood there for a while, each one summing the weight of the words in their heads, as though they were tying to solve an inexplicable riddle. Isaac spoke first.
‘What can I do,’ he paused for a breath, ‘to make it right?’
‘Nothing,’ Fiona replied as she shut the door. Isaac stood, paralyzed, as another part of his life was closed.
Writing Isaac ‘Zack’ Montgomery was a rewarding challenge, going through at least three major drafts throughout the writing process and grew organically from there.
Unlike my previous short fictions, there was no singular plan that I adhered to throughout the writing process. Originally, I felt pessimistic about my abilities to succeed with this different writing approach. But, I soon let go of my fear of watching Zack become an uninspired cliché that fails to offer a new perspective on the world: That was the eureka moment.
The writing approach for Zack stems from a suggestion made by one my tutors at Man Met Uni. The tutor recommended that the group should watch ‘George Saunders – On Story’ (RedglassPics, 2017), a YouTube video wherein George Saunders warns of “overmanaging” a story. Saunders argues that a story can form from the “tiniest kernel” of detail, where your “ideas about the story are left at the [allegorical] door.” His words inspired Zack to a tremendous degree. I interpreted from his ideas that a story shouldn’t be continually trimmed to fit a pre-conceived narrative, but instead a story should be allowed to grow naturally—to allow it to transform into something that defied your original expectations.
My “kernel” of a detail originated in a writing exercise where I had to write an obituary, followed by three scenes focusing on a different moment in a character’s life. I liked this exercise because of how it humanised a fictional character, giving it a whole life worth of stories that they want to tell the reader. The person I created in this exercise was the prototype for the eponymous character in Zack.
From there, I had the instinct to turn Zack into a traditional (albeit sexist) working-class man who eventually recognises his mistakes in a confession of sorts. I don’t know why or where this instinct came from, I just felt a writer’s equivalent to a ‘gut instinct’ when it came to this—an instance where the story grew organically as per Saunders advice.
In order to make Zack’s obituary as believable as possible, I looked at an actual obituary featured in a local newspaper. It was an uncomfortable experience: Here I was, reading about a stranger’s life and significance to others—their loves, their passions, their desires—all summarised into a handful of words that’ll never feel like enough. It felt voyeuristic, but it set my ambition higher when it came to Zack. If I could imbibe but an ounce of the sense of the lived-in life this person had, then the story would go deeper in its depiction of the human condition.
Nevertheless, other challenges were faced throughout the writing process. One such was the phonetic pronunciation of the main character’s dialogue, which was difficult to maintain throughout the whole story because of the urge to write English ‘properly’. However, re-drafting Zack through university workshops ensured the consistency of the voice’s style. In hindsight, the pronunciation took inspiration from the working-class dialect of Stoke-On-Trent, which contradicted Zack’s Irish roots. As I wanted the voice to be authentic, I moved the character’s cultural background and the story’s setting to Stoke. Fortunately, this only required a few changes to the basic descriptive elements in the obituary.
What do you think? Let me know by either commenting, sharing, or liking! Don’t be afraid of sharing your opinions!
© Thomas Gallimore Barker, 2021
George Saunders – On Story (2017). YouTube. [Online] [Accessed January 30th, 2021] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1-1xNNrABw8.