Simon Collings: Micro-Fiction


On Thursday night my wife and I went to the annual concert organised by our local Chamber Music Society, though neither of us could remember why we had bought tickets. The programme was advertised as Mozart followed by Brahms, but just before the start of this ‘musical feast’ a chap in red trousers got up and announced that the musicians had decided to play the two works in reverse order, Brahms first, followed by Mozart. You can imagine the stir this caused. Well into the first movement of the Brahms much of the audience still looked perplexed, and some never seemed to recover at all from the confusion. The musicians, able professionals though they were, played with a studied lack of emotion, very little attack and a complete absence of dynamics, no doubt in deference to the audience, many of whom like to sleep through the concert and rouse themselves only when an opportunity to clap presents itself.  So effective were the players in their approach to the music that I was soon left wondering why we had ever liked Brahms, and by the end of the fourth movement I was convinced I had badly over-rated him.


The secret

What Claire and Sophie said to each other while they were closeted in Sophie’s bedroom remains a mystery. Something vitally important to the unfolding of this story I suspect, though I can’t be sure. When they came out of the room they were unusually animated, and their conversation struck me straight away as artificial. It was as though they were playacting, performing a charade for my benefit with the intention of throwing me off the scent. Are they aware of my eavesdropping? I have recorded every word of their conversations since, but they give no clue as to what passed between them that afternoon. They avoid any discussion of matters of importance, offering nothing of psychological interest. It’s as though they have entered into a pact to keep me in ignorance of their secrets, speaking only of the most trivial matters when in my presence, subjects too dull to be even worth repeating. Are they deliberately thwarting my attempts to bring this narrative to a satisfactory conclusion?


Burning ring of fire

There is nothing in the gallery, nothing to see, no exhibits. People wander from one empty room to another, exchanging bemused expressions, imagining that perhaps it’s a joke. The labels on the walls seem to be left over from a previous show, some partially pealed off, it’s hard to tell. There’s no information, no audio guide.  ‘Why did you come?’ one label asks. ‘What are you looking at?’, asks another. ‘Who are all these people?’ A teenage girl, dressed as an Italian Renaissance Madonna and with a small naked child in her arms, periodically glides through the rooms. She makes eye contact with those she passes, holding their gaze for a moment with a look completely empty of expression. In the corner of the final room is an old jukebox, like a piece of abandoned scrap. Every fifteen minutes it lights up and plays Jonny Cash singing ‘Burning Ring of Fire.’


The double

I first noticed him in a café, where my wife and I had just been having lunch. He was reading a newspaper, his face partly concealed, but there was something about his posture, and the way he moved, which reminded me of myself. Later that day I saw him again when I went out to post a letter. He was seated behind the wheel of a car parked just down the street. Our eyes met as I passed and the likeness of his face to mine was unmistakeable. I told Carol about him, but she thought I must be imagining things. A few days later we went to the cinema, and there he was again, seated a few rows behind us. ‘My doppelganger’s here,’ I whispered, ‘behind you and to the left.’ Carol turned around and surveyed the rows of seats. ‘Where?’ she said, turning back. ‘I can’t see anyone who looks like you.’ Then the film began, preventing further discussion, and by the time it ended the man had gone. Later that evening I found him in the kitchen, laughing with Carol. They were drinking, and he was wearing one of my shirts. Carol looked startled.  ‘Who are you? How did you get in?’ she asked nervously. ‘It’s me, Philip.’ I said, but she showed no sign of recognition. The man got up from the table where they had been sitting. ‘I think you’d better leave,’ he said. ‘But I live here,’ I protested. ‘Get him out of here Philip,’ Carol said, addressing not me but my lookalike. ‘Please, get him out of here.’ He was surprisingly strong, and despite my protests I found myself being bundled irresistibly towards the door. As we passed the hall mirror I caught a glimpse of my face, and was appalled to discover I no longer recognised myself.


Verne’s nemesis

Reading Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea it’s hard not to be struck by the fervour of Captain Nemo’s revolutionary idealism. His open-handed support for liberation movements around the world, financed with gold bullion recovered from the sunken wrecks of Spanish galleons, is unswerving. But Verne gives only one identifiable example of a struggle supported by Nemo, that of the Cretan Revolt against Ottoman rule in the 1860s. This uprising attracted considerable public support in Europe and North America, and the Greek rebels could have been financed by any number of liberal philanthropists. It did not require someone with Nemo’s beliefs to step in to support the revolutionaries, and we can only speculate about the other groups fighting tyranny and oppression which benefitted from the largesse of the inventor of the Nautilus. Verne, in the person of the bourgeois Professor Aronnax, eventually jumps ship, literally and metaphorically distancing himself from Nemo, a character seemingly too radical to be comfortably embraced any longer within the pages of the novel. Nemo had, after all, sunk a US naval vessel, with the loss of its entire crew. But Verne does not do away with Nemo. Whether the Nautilus survives the whirlpool at the end of the narrative is left open, the militant Nemo surreptitiously slipping away perhaps to continue the struggle, a surrogate perhaps for suppressed desires his author dared not acknowledge, even to himself. Four years later, in The Mysterious Island, we encounter Nemo again, strangely aged and failing in health, and with the dates of his exploits hopelessly at variance with the earlier book as though Verne wants to underline the fact that this is all just invention, a work of fiction. This time Nemo is put to rest, his corpse entombed forever in the scuppered Nautilus.


The evidence

That’s you, they tell me. Remember that happening? The locations I seem to recognise, but I don’t believe the person I am watching in the video is me. The filming was mostly done at night, and always from a distance. The blurry figure on the screen could be an actor, someone of my approximate build who had studied my habits, the way I walk, the way I hold myself. There are no close ups. The images seem to relate to something from a long time ago. They play the video again. I don’t remember any of the events shown, only the locations appear familiar. Try to remember, they say. I watch the footage over again. Filming in the streets I often frequented, the lobbies of office buildings, a railway station from which I travelled on occasions, would have been easily arranged. But why would anyone do that? This could easily be a case of mistaken identities. The evidence is circumstantial. Something about the figure on the screen doesn’t ring true. Is this a dramatization, a fiction? Try to remember they say, it’s important you try to remember.



Simon Collings lives in Oxford, UK. His poetry, short fiction, translations, reviews and essays have appeared in a wide range of magazines including Stride, Fortnightly Review, Café Irreal, Litter, The Long Poem Magazine, Ink, Sweat & Tears, Lighthouse, PN Review and Journal of Poetics Research. He has published two chapbooks: Out West (2017) and Stella Unframed (2018).




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