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Surreal Portraits of the Future Us by Matt Kendrick


In “Surreal Portraits of the Future Us,” Matt Kendrick takes the compression so often necessary for flash fiction to achieve tension and urgency and expands it in two directions in narrative time. Written in descending chronology, this is at first the portrait of a mother’s love for her child, with gradual revelation about the two main characters taking us from five years in the future back to today; and then, when read in reverse, the piece takes on a whole new shape, adding a complex layer of struggle to the promise and hope we as readers already felt, tracking alongside the narrator’s emotional arc (see the author’s note for discussion of hope, balancing structure and character, and more). Kendrick shows us so much in this piece of flash fiction, with beautiful language, rich, specific details (“Your socks will no longer double as glove-puppet aliens from Mars”), and a clear, strong form (each paragraph opens with the same phrasing, setting the timeline) doing work that would need many pages more in telling. Please enjoy—in both directions. —CRAFT


 

In five years, on Space Mountain, we’ll blast asteroids to clear a path through the Milky Way, buckle up and hold our breath as we journey into the void of darkness. When we disembark through adverts of outer space cruises, you’ll say, ‘Yeah whatever,’ but secretly want to go again. We’ll see Buzz Lightyear outside. You’ll tell him all about black holes.

In three years, we’ll be licking sticky spareribs sauce from our fingertips as we sit on separate sofas in our cinema room. Woody and the gang on the flat screen for one last hurrah. You’ll look down at a message on your new iPhone and absently knock your Coke glass so it spills onto the carpet. I’ll call you butterfingers but won’t think to worry about the stain. The cleaner will scrub it away in the morning. There won’t be any more landlord inspections from Mr No-Shoes-Inside-The-House.

In two years, I’ll buy you a telescope for your tenth birthday. We’ll take it up to the Downs and have a midnight picnic huddled in ski jackets and mittens (not that the cold will bother us). You’ll learn the constellations at your new school where you’ll not be bullied for wearing charity-shop trousers two sizes too small. Your socks will no longer double as glove-puppet aliens from Mars.

In one year, I’ll paint the edges of our solar system in subtle hues of grey that’ll entice a gallery’s owner to take a chance on a complete unknown. She’ll say things like, ‘It’s all about saleability, darling’—and fling out prices as if they’re confetti. At the gallery, the patrons will call me the corner-shop surrealist. ‘Surreal?’ I’ll ask and they’ll say, ‘Of course.’ And I won’t contradict them even though they’re wrong.

In seven months, you’ll help me hide everything under the bed so Mr No-Shoes-Inside-The-House (who has turned up, as always, completely unannounced) won’t know I’ve been painting in the living room. On an experimental canvas, I’ll have transformed the veins of bathroom mould into an ice giant tentacle in decay, the flickering hallway light as a white dwarf with an asbestos beard.

In three months, you’ll have halloumi cheese for the first time. You’ll laugh at it squeaking as you chew, say it must be from the moon. It’ll be out of date and destined for the waste before I ask if I can take it. The manager at the corner shop will raise an eyebrow but I won’t care. I’ll take fruit and blitz it into smoothies. The bruised skins will become the focus of a still life. I’ve not done one of those since leaving college under a cloud, aged nineteen.

In one month, the makeshift tarpaulin that Mr No-Shoes-Inside-The-House has nailed to the roof in the attic will come loose and we’ll creep up there at night and peer out at the stars. During the day, there’ll be a drip, drip, drip, drip of rainwater collecting in a bucket but I’ll be at my new job and you’ll be at school. And you’ll be a brave boy, won’t you, walking there by yourself? Remember you’ll get to meet C-3PO if this all goes to plan.

In one week, I’ll put on my duck-egg blue uniform and think of clear summer skies, bubble gum ice cream. Each tinkling of the bell as a customer walks inside will see me with my newfound smile. I’ll buy you an astronaut figurine from the pound shop on the way home. The next day, I’ll buy myself two small tubes of paint—black and white—and my hands will start to itch.

In two days, I’ll go to the job centre for the last time and they’ll say, ‘Gosh, it’s the end of an era’—and—‘How long has it been?’ I’ll say, ‘Eight years on and off.’ And they’ll say, ‘That’s right.’ They’ll be sceptical, of course, just like my mum was sceptical when I went off to college with a fistful of secondhand brushes and little in the way of a plan. At the job centre, I’ll tell them how it’ll all pan out and they’ll smile and say, ‘That’s lovely.’ Then onto the next—

Tomorrow, I’ll need to beg for credit on the meter again. Because it’s cold lying here without the heating, the lights off, hugging you to keep you warm, hearing the wind rattling the attic tarpaulin. Mr No-Shoes-Inside-The-House is overdue and he’ll grumble if he sees the meter is in debt. He’ll imagine marks on your bedroom wall and accuse you of crayoning blueberry spaceships like you did when you were four. He’ll remind me I’m lucky he lets me stay here with a child. Then he’ll give me that look that asks how I’m old enough to be a mum.

Tonight, I’ll dream of the young man who thought he was Paul Gauguin reborn. I’ll imagine him with a hipster beard and a stud earring and he’ll have two models posing with pineapples, sitting cross-legged back to back. In a fissure of the night, I’ll half-wake and think of the weekend we went to his parents’ and how they were the original No-Shoes-Inside-The-House. There’ll be a portrait of him at my exhibition offering a bag of silver for his unborn child. And there’ll be a humorous sketch, seen through the hole in the roof, of Mr No-Shoes-Inside-The-House shoeless inside a rocket ship hurtling towards a ravenous black hole.

 


MATT KENDRICK is a writer based in the East Midlands, UK. His stories have been published in Bath Flash Fiction, Bending Genres, Fictive Dream, FlashBack Fiction, Lunate, Spelk, Storgy, and elsewhere. He has been listed in various writing competitions and won the Retreat West quarterly flash fiction contest in June 2020.

 

Author’s Note

Writing a story where the overriding emotion is one of hope is something that tends to elude me. I’ve often set out to write hope-filled pieces only for that sense of hope to get contorted in the writing of the story or for things to end up being too cliché for my particular creative sensibilities.

In this piece, I asked myself the question: what would happen if I started at an imagined point of happiness and worked back towards the present day. I wanted the furthest point in the imagined future to be distant enough that it—the trip to Disney World, the big house with the cinema room—could believably become reality despite the present-day situation of the characters. And I hope some readers will read the piece in that more optimistic light.

I wanted this to be a flash fiction because I felt that distilling the story down to its bare bones would give it a rawness that might have been lost in a longer piece. However, balancing this with the five-year timeframe proved quite tricky. I originally tried to write it like a stream flowing backwards, explaining the transition between each time point, making sure the rhythm of the writing was smooth around the edges. It came to about 1,600 words and wasn’t what I wanted to achieve.

On my second draft, I implemented the structure of each paragraph representing a specific scene. I envisaged them as stepping stones, as portraits showing the mother and son’s changing situation and relationship. Each paragraph starts with a temporal anchor and, without being too precise about it, I’ve roughly halved the time gaps between each paragraph to create the impression of spiralling back towards the present day.

I think, as human beings, our long-term goals tend to be painted in broad brushstrokes rather than focusing on the finer details—but taking this approach would have made the opening far too wishy-washy. Instead, I’ve tried to explore the problem of long-term goals in that, when we get there, we will no longer be the same people that we are right now. In five years, the son will have grown up and won’t get the same unbridled happiness from going to Disney World that he would do if they were to go tomorrow.

Finally, it felt important for this imagined future to be rooted in a concrete past. I often envisage backstory in terms of questions. Here, I wrote down: ‘Where did she learn about painting?’, ‘Who is the boy’s father?’, ‘Family / friends?’—along with the statement: ‘Show a determination in how she acted in the past so a reader believes she’ll be able to make the imagined future come about.’

I’m not sure I necessarily achieved all of that but if at least one reader is left with a sense that these ‘surreal portraits’ might turn into something ‘real’ then I’ll be happy. I often worry as a reader that I’m not reading a story as the writer intended for it to be read but, ultimately, that shouldn’t matter. How we connect with a piece of writing is something quite personal. So, I’m sure there will be lots of readers who don’t feel the note of hope I’ve tried to weave into this piece.

And, as the mother says about the imaginary patrons at her imaginary art exhibition, ‘I won’t contradict them even though they’re wrong.’

And I’ll go back to the drawing board to have another go at writing a hope-filled story.

 


MATT KENDRICK is a writer based in the East Midlands, UK. His stories have been published in Bath Flash Fiction, Bending Genres, Fictive Dream, FlashBack Fiction, Lunate, Spelk, Storgy, and elsewhere. He has been listed in various writing competitions and won the Retreat West quarterly flash fiction contest in June 2020.