Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Flash Fiction
1445 words
SHJ Issue 12
Spring 2015

Four Times Seven

by Stephen J. Groak

None of the headstones in the Waikumete Cemetery had the word mummy engraved upon them, except one:

In Loving Memory
Dorothy (Dot) Sorenson
12.7.1942 – 24.1.1971
Loving wife of Ian Sorenson
Loved Mummy of Nigel and Helen Sorenson

Ian Sorenson eased up on the accelerator as he drove the Hillman Super Minx south down Great North Road in Kelston, Auckland. There was no need to rush past Waikumete Cemetery; after all, none of the residents were going anywhere. The body of his young bride of seven years was in no hurry. She had checked in a month ago and was still adjusting to her new lodgings.

“January twenty-four: I’m never going to forget that day,” said Nigel earnestly, a blond-headed boy of six. “January has Jan in it, and Jan sounds like jam, and Mummy likes making jam. And twenty-four has a two and a four, and two plus four equals six—and I’m six.”

“That’s good,” said Ian as he patted his son on the head.

“Besides her death day, I also know Mummy’s birthday, Grandpa Paul’s birthday, Maggie’s birthday, and Auntie Sarah’s birthday as well.”

“Always remember, Nigel, always remember.”

“How old was Mummy when she...?”

Father and son glanced to their right and stared at the cemetery, as the car slowed down, its engine wheezing at the deceleration.

“Went to heaven,” said Ian purposely, wanting to believe his response. “Twenty-eight.”

At eleven o’clock on a Saturday morning, as cars, trucks, motorcycles, buses, and bikes bustled along this busy street, the cemetery rested in perpetual silence. Pine and manuka trees stood quietly in the background, their leaves waving a silent farewell. Green, green blades of grass muffled their responses as grieving family members and friends walked all about, visiting the departed. Headstones didn’t breath a sound, preferring the dignified sanctity of the written word. A cenotaph stood silently at attention in the Servicemen’s Cemetery, honouring the hectares of veterans, many of them Anzac, who were now at parade rest.

Nigel picked up his mouth organ, which he had been fidgeting with, and pressed his mouth and tongue along the small segregated spaces. Even though he had never had a lesson, he started playing the blues—his juvenile version, at least—slowly blowing and sucking pockets of air through the instrument. His rhythmic breathing blew through the holes in his heart, the holes of the instrument, transmuting his pain into harmonic wails. The funeral had been over thirty days ago, but the dirge continued.

Ian added a flame to the impromptu memorial, flicking open the top of his Zippo lighter and whipping his thumb over the flint wheel with the ease garnered through years of repetition. Like a dying man taking his last breath, he sucked on the end of his roll-your-own cigarette, reanimating it—and his own sense of well being—in concert with the flame. He exhaled through his nose, filling the interior of the car with smoke.

“I like that smell, Daddy,” said Nigel, as the smoke started permeating the cab like incense and tickled the inside of his nasal passage.

“Not enough to try it. Right, son?” said Ian with a tone that was both a question and a command.

“Right. Dad, why—”

“Shhh,” said Ian, raising one hand. “Enjoy the ride.”

Ian glanced up, catching a glimpse of himself in the rear-view mirror: A lonely, sad, angry man of twenty-nine scowled back. Unkempt, springy, dark brown hair, puffed up from his head, in desperate need of a comb or razor. A five-day black stubble was migrating around his face, and small, parallel lines were indented between his eyebrows, a physical reminder of inner turmoil.

He turned away, not wanting to indulge such misery, and glanced over at Nigel, whose normally ruddy, dimpled cheeks were now bright red with the frustration at being rebuffed.

“Here, have a banana,” Ian said, sliding a cluster of the yellow fruit closer to the lad on the seat they shared.

Nigel ripped off one banana, tore it open, and bit off the top like he’d seen his dog, Gus, do to Helen’s doll. He hated getting mixed messages from adults, especially his dad. His father had repeatedly warned him about the dangers of smoking, but here he was puffing away like a dragon. And why was Helen having a sleepover at her friend’s, and he was on his way to visit Auntie Vicki? They hardly ever went to her house. She had hair on her upper lip and made yucky curried eggs. Why, why, why?

It would be years before Nigel understood the meaning of the word hypocrisy, years before he could dismantle the pedestals that the adults in his world stood upon, years before he would have the life experience and understanding to realize that grownups were often doing the best they could in a bad situation.

By Manukau, Nigel had chomped his way through two more bananas, adding one at Pukekohe and another at Huntly. At Ngaruawahia, Ian pulled the car over at a rest stop.

“I need to use the loo. Coming?”

Nigel’s response was to sulkily open his car door and reluctantly follow his dad to the men’s toilet. Together but alone, two guys—one big, one small—stood in their separate stalls, doing number one. For one brief moment, Nigel had the urge to glance over at his dad—but resisted. Some things you did alone: peeing, taking a school test...dying.

After one last pit stop that included fish ’n chips, paua fritters, two fried sausages, a bottle of Lemon & Paeroa, and the remaining bananas, Ian and Nigel drove into the driveway of Auntie Vicki’s dairy farm. Nigel spent the afternoon playing hide and seek with his cousins, Brendon and Heather, and patting a pet lamb. Before he knew it, his father was calling him over to the car.

“I’m going to be leaving now, Son.”

“Can I wash my hands before we go?”

“You’re going to be staying—just for a little while...until I...until I come back for you.”

“But I want to come home with you, Dad.” Nigel could feel his lips quiver, and his eyes were starting to water. He had never seen his dad cry, and now was the time to show him how grown up he was.

“Soon, Son, soon.”

The next twenty-four hours were a blur...a white Super Minx fading away...a lumpy administrators...sitting in a new class of strangers...a bell ringing signalling lunch.

Nigel sat on the edge of the bustling playground. For the first time in his life, he wasn’t hungry. The overwhelming sensation was one of loneliness. He saw loneliness on the happy faces of kids as they raced by. He heard loneliness in a cow that mooed in an adjacent paddock. He felt the hard, lonely asphalt under his Roman sandals. He breathed in fresh waves of loneliness from the country air.

When the bell rang, announcing the end of lunchtime, Nigel raced to the boys’ toilet and locked himself inside a stall. He had no desire to do number two, no desire for any arithmetic, spelling, social studies, or science. He wanted to be alone.

The main door of the boys’ toilet creaked slowly open, prompting Nigel to raise his legs so they couldn’t be seen outside the stall.

“Nigel Sorenson, I know you’re in there,” squawked Miss Wendel, a plump woman with a hooked nose. “I’m going to count to three. One, two...”

Resigned to his fate, Nigel opened the stall door. As soon as he made eye contact with his teacher, he realized he’d been smoked out. Her warning had been a bluff, and he had voluntarily surrendered. Like a dejected POW, Nigel scuffed his feet over to his teacher. She grabbed him by the ear and led him to class.

For the final twenty minutes of class, Miss Wendel led the students in the rote recitation of the four times table.

“Four times five is twenty, four times six is twenty-four, four times seven is...”

“Twenty-eight,” stated Nigel loudly, joining the exercise for the first time. All eyes were on him. With the solemnity of a confessor wanting to relieve himself of a terrible secret, Nigel repeated his answer: “Four times seven is twenty-eight. I know that number.”

An uncomfortable silence gripped the room, as if Nigel had farted.

“That’s correct. Carry on, class,” said Miss Wendel, restoring order.

“Four times eight is thirty-two, four times nine is thirty-six,” the class continued in singsong cadence. Nigel wrapped his arms around his legs, dropping his head onto his knees, and rocked back and forth. “Four times ten is forty. Four times eleven...”


SHJ Issue 12
Spring 2015

Stephen J. Groak

is originally from the South, the Deep South—New Zealand, growing up in West Auckland. He currently lives in Los Angeles County with his wife and four daughters, and a menagerie of other critters. He received his bachelor’s degree in English from California State University, Los Angeles, and is now working toward a master’s degree in creative writing from Southern New Hampshire University. In his free time, he loves to play backyard cricket with his family and mates.

Groak’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Penmen Review and Tower Journal.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury