Second-place contest winner: “Fragile”

Our second-place winning story was inspired by several trips to Venice.
By Anthony Howcroft | Published: July 15, 2016


Alan framed them on the bridge with a ribbon of coloured houses as a backdrop. When the shutter-button was partially depressed his wife and daughter’s blue eyes whirred into sharp focus, smudging the houses into a gorgeous blurred-spectrum. Alan liked the way a camera could improve the world, in small degrees.

“On a count of three, shout ice-cream!”

They yelled in unison and Alan waited a moment to capture the laugh. Click. A perfect memory of a delightful Easter trip. Alan couldn’t help but think that it was only a high if there was a contrasting low, no peaks without troughs. Fleetingly, he thought about the glass heart they had bought in Murano, and he shivered.

“Let’s get a real gelato,” he said.

His daughter skipped towards the café. Alan glanced down at the camera’s screen, which kept the image frozen for a few seconds and tilted it for his wife to see.

She smiled and spread her arms out in the sun. “Mmm, I adore Venice. I feel like a different person.”

The lady at the café stuck a chocolate stick into his daughter’s ice-cream.

“You have the hair like sun rays,” the lady said.

His daughter beamed but was too shy to reply. All three of them were blonde mirror-images, drawing attention amongst the dark-haired locals. Wandering beside the canal they licked their melting treats. Alan’s wife spotted a picturesque cluster of buildings and they set-off to explore. The light was warm, but there were still cold shadows. Alan’s camera dangled from his wrist on a cord as they lingered on a tiny bridge and gazed downstream, basking in tiger-stripes of light.

“Un foto?”

A young man faced them with a shock of black hair and a broad smile. He made a charade of crouching and snapping a photo. Alan’s wife thanked the man and made the family huddle. There were hardly any pictures of them all together. Alan showed the man which button to press.

“Cheeeese,” the man said in his Italian accent, and the shutter clicked. Alan licked a drip off his cone that had been racing towards his hand while he posed for the picture.

“Hey!” His wife shouted.

Alan looked to see the youth sprinting away with their camera.

Instinctively, he hurtled after him, dropping his ice-cream to splatter behind. Anger propelled him forwards. He was mad for not trusting his instincts. He should never have given the man his camera. He was mad with his wife too. Their perfect weekend was fragile, like the delicate heart of Murano glass they had chosen together and seen gently enveloped in tissue paper.

Although the man had a head start Alan was gaining ground and confidence, until the man side-stepped into a lane. Alan suddenly appreciated how hard it might be to keep sight of his target in the labyrinthine streets. He raced past a candy store, a shop of leather journals, and a gaggle of oriental tourists. He called out thief. Nobody reacted. He tried to recall the Italian word for thief. Ragnarok?

“Rani!” he shouted. Then he remembered that meant spider or was it a toad? The witch’s familiar. Perhaps he was cursed. What was it that disturbed him so much about the glass heart the old lady had wrapped so precisely?

The thief was quick. The lanes were warped, skinny and dark, shadows and sunlight weaving over stones to create a bewildering carpet. Alan was athletic though, and closing in on his hare. Stamina was one of the few advantages of age. The camera was not valuable, only the memories. He mentally cataloged the stolen pictures. A holiday seized, three days of fun that were intensely more valuable now that someone had stolen them. With less than ten-yards gap, he wondered what he would do if he caught the man.
His quarry wore a loose polo shirt, jeans with a flapping belt and dirty designer trainers. He was thin but fast. Alan thought he could handle him physically, unless there was a knife. The man-boy slipped down an alley and Alan pumped his arms to make up ground. The man-boy glanced back at the echoing pursuit, eyes wide and white. Alan saw a flash of Nike swoosh and green water. The thief had jumped the canal. Alan leapt too, clearing the narrow waterway but staggering into the square beyond. A gondolier was yelling insults. The man-boy tossed the camera high in the air and Alan swerved to intercept it. The camera skidded over cobblestones towards the canal but hit a stone lip and stopped. Alan grasped it with sweating hands. A cursory inspection showed the glass screen was scratched but intact. The thief had vanished and people were staring. Alan slipped the cord back over his wrist, and held the camera tight. He was not going to jump back over the canal, where the gondolier was still pontificating. Embarrassed, he elected to follow the canal to a bridge.

The canal twisted as crazily as the lanes, and soon there was no path and Alan was forced to veer off at a tangent. Disorientated, he wondered if he would ever retrace his route back to his past existence. Swivelling like a compass Alan moved along the heading where he felt his wife and daughter were stranded. He felt uncomfortable, and began to think it would be more accurate to say they had been abandoned.

Alan inspected each building for recognizable features, something to show he was getting closer to home. There was a mask shop. He stared at the grotesques on display. A dainty cat-mask with diamonds and huge feathers, and several harlequins glaring with menace. There was a black mask with a tiny picture of a broken heart in one corner. Alan began shaking. It was shock, he told himself. There are many secrets to glass-blowing, the lady in Murano had said. You must care for this, she’d whispered when presenting the bound heart, and had gripped his hands longer than was comfortable.

His wife would return to the hotel. They wouldn’t stand on the bridge forever. If the tables were turned he wondered how long he would wait. What was the etiquette for vanished partners? He hoped his wife hadn’t called the police. All that foreign paperwork. He would erase the incident. Alan would make an album at home with his photo’s, his narrative. The theft and the glass heart would be lost, like all dangerous episodes that accumulate in a relationship, shoved under carpets and behind curtains, barely showing. He wished they’d never bought the fragile heart.

There was a café. It might have a phone he could use to call the hotel. Alan pointed to a coke and the waiter gestured to a table. Alan sat and inspected the camera. Nervously, he flicked it on. The lens extended with a comforting mechanical purr. He pressed playback and the Grand Canal appeared. That was wrong. It should have shown the last image, three blonde heads on the bridge. It was two days since the Grand Canal. He flicked forwards through time, hoping the memory wasn’t damaged. Different perspectives cascaded past, the ferry, Napoleon’s seized house, a bronze lion. He paused on that photograph. It was pin-sharp with excellent composition. Alan couldn’t recall taking the photo, but they shared the camera. It could have been his wife.

Rapidly panning through the pictures he saw architectural angles, gondolas, magnified elements, silhouette art-shots, and finally a family picture. Wife and daughter posing with umbrellas in a thunderstorm. Except, it wasn’t his family. The wife and daughter were olive-skinned brunettes, with doe-brown eyes. There was no doubt the two people were related, with such similar features. He flipped to the next picture, which was a portrait of the woman. She was beautiful and seemed familiar, like a face in a dream. He raced through the remaining pictures finding only images of the woman and daughter – together, individually, in different scenes, scattered across Venice like confetti.

The waiter placed a glass at his table with a wedge of lime and a handful of ice. Alan waited impatiently for the waiter to leave, and considered how he’d been tricked. The thief had switched cameras. Was it a scam? Most likely the man-boy had been stealing cameras all day, and tossed one randomly to throw him off the trail. It seemed a coincidence that it was the right make and model.

He gulped down the coke and reviewed the images again, dwelling on the woman’s portrait. She seemed so familiar, like his ex-girlfriend from university. The same sheen of black hair and bewitching eyes. He didn’t possess a single photo from that era. Life had been for living then, not recording. Trying to recall  her face now all he could see was the camera-imposed image. With different life choices would this have been his wife? His daughter? Alan decided to return to the hotel immediately.

Although the waiter gave precise directions, Alan was lost again within minutes. The passages mirrored Alan’s confusion, images and memories switching places at every twist or fork. Everywhere seemed to be a knot of floating structures or ideas held together by bridges and washing lines, bumping and scraping into new shapes and patterns. Crossing one small footbridge he saw an old-fashioned printer’s shop that he definitely remembered. Inside was a Heidelberg machine, like his father’s business years before. He was sure that he could reach the hotel from this solid anchor-point. Confidently, he took the right-lane and walked to a thoroughfare lined with tourist trash. Five minutes at a determined pace and he would be at their hotel.

It was his wife that had broken the heart, the night before, accidentally swiping it off the bedside table with her handbag. He’d been irritated but had tried not to show it. This was one more small annoyance, an extra piece  of accumulated damage to their relationship. The heart was broken. The blame could not be transferred though. The shop owner had made it clear that she had entrusted it to Alan. His mind wandered, considering what might have been, with different choices.

A few paces after the patisserie stood the hotel, much to his relief. At least one piece of his memory was intact. If the police were there he would have to surrender the camera, and he felt a sting of regret. He wanted to keep the portrait of his dark-haired woman, and possess a life that might have been. Her image was filling his head, the one that got away, the wife of his dreams, if he’d taken a different route through a chaotic life. He would quickly take the elevator to their room before his family returned, and copy the woman’s image to his iPad before passing the camera to the police. Nobody would know, a tiny theft. He wanted to keep his dreams alive a little longer. He knew how easily they could be broken and crushed, but he wondered if they could be pieced together differently.

“If I could make a wish…” pushing on the gilded revolving door he stepped into the hotel lobby.

His wife and daughter were at the reception counter, along with two carabinieri distinctive for their pale blue shirts and terminator-style shades. His daughter saw him first. She shouted, and his wife, the carabinieri, two receptionists and a tall man with blonde hair turned to look. Alan stared at the
doppleganger holding his wife’s hand.

“That’s him,” his wife shrieked. “The thief!”

She pointed a finger at Alan, their wedding ring glinting like a knife. The carabinieri were on him before he could react. His mouth opened and closed but the words that fell out were foreign, strange and distorted. As the police dragged him outside he twisted his head to see his family but Alan succeeded only in catching his reflection in the hotel’s polished glass mirrors; he saw jeans, scruffy polo shirt, dirty trainers and a shock of wild black hair.

 


Anthony Howcroft’s short stories have been published in a variety of English periodicals such as 
The London Magazine, Brand, Words with Jam, Riptide and Trespass. His work has also appeared in multiple anthologies and been broadcast on BBC Radio. His first short story collection, Nobody Will Ever Love You, was published in 2015. He lives in Southern California, where he works with CEOs to help them tell their company’s story. Anthony is also Chairman & Founder of InkTears  which champions the short story and encourages more people to fit short fiction into their busy lives. 

 

Anthony Howcroft on writing “Fragile”:

howcroftI wrote Fragile three years ago, and it was inspired by several trips to Venice – one with my wife and daughter during Easter, which included a detour to the island of Murano. There’s something ancient and magical about this part of Italy, and it’s very easy to get lost wandering through the narrow streets that wind and thread themselves over the Venetian canals. I wanted to write something that captured the atmosphere of this place, and coincidentally I was thinking about that nervous feeling you (or maybe just I) get when someone offers to take a photo with your precious camera. As a writer, I set the scene, but after the incident [spoiler alert] where the camera is snatched, I didn’t really have any plan. Just like the narrator, I chased the thief and wondered what would happen next. I probably wrote two-thirds of the story, and then paused – something I often do – and came back to the writing a week or so later. Reading through the material, I could see this tale was obsessed with memories. Good, bad, stolen, confused, reconstructed, everything was pointing towards the same theme, from the bits and bytes on the digital camera, to the descriptions of the city and the thoughts of our primary character. With that in mind, the ending presented itself quite naturally and I was able to finish the story, and then edit to reinforce the key concepts. I did say I wrote this three years ago. I must have subsequently edited it at least twenty times more. My writing process involves an hour or two of intense editing, then several months of ignoring a piece. I repeat this pattern until a story gets published, or dies. I’m delighted to see Fragile find such a great home with The Writer magazine – thank you.

P.S. The narrator is named after my brother, who lives in London, and yet I stumbled across him, slightly lost, wandering the streets of Venice… like I said, it’s a magical city.

 

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