A selection from Digby’s collection of one-page stories Dancing Alone and Other Lessons

Thermaling

My brother Joe taught me about crows. “They crave intimacy,” he said. “They grieve for the dead.”

A pair of the birds had nested on our roof. They would stare down at Joe through his skylight. When he played his violin, they cawed along with him.

Joe had this way of speaking—through his nose, puffing between words. His chest would rise and rattle, and his lips disappear, he pressed them so tight.

The night Joe died, Mum said, his airways just closed up on him. He was fourteen.

For weeks afterwards, Mum sat in a lawn chair on the grass verge outside our house and waved at passing cars.

I’d hear squawking in the distance.

I often wonder about that night. If Joe felt alone in the world as he struggled for breath. Or if he looked up from his bed and saw those crows watching over him.

In my dreams Joe returns as a crow, gazing down at me through the glass. I reach up. “Don’t be afraid,” he says, before he leaps, and I’m not. I cling to his feathered back and we soar upwards into a tail wind. Gaining altitude. Our trail a whisper.

~This story was first published in Blue Five Notebook, August 2017, and was chosen to appear in The Best Small Fictions 2020~

His Wife, the Flier

His wife makes a swooping sound whenever she comes in to land. He keeps hearing the sound, but when he looks, no one is there.

On top of Devils Dyke, 1,000 feet above sea level, he sits behind the wheel of the lone car.

Wind buffets the windscreen.

“Tonight I’ll probably climb to 3,000 feet,” she’d said—her highest yet—as if it were really nothing to write home about. “Don’t fret,” she’d said. “You know I’ll always fly back to you.”

But that was another lifetime ago, and now all he sees is starlight in the clear night sky.

~This story was first published in Flash Frontier, December 2015~

Bird Table

Breakfast: Greek yogurt with blueberries, and banana French toast.

“Not hungry,” Sara says, turning in bed away from me.

I put down her tray and draw back the curtains. Next door the neighbours have built a snowman, its pebble mouth forming a wry smile.

Back downstairs I go out to the recycle bin. A small, dark object is lying on the lawn’s crust of snow—a dead bird, a chaffinch. I fetch a shovel and dig a shallow grave.

*

Lunch: homemade pumpkin soup with fresh, warm rolls.

“Not hungry,” Sara says again. It’s been 72 hours since she ate. Fleetingly, I consider hurling her tray against the wall.

I load the dishwasher, then try reading to Sara: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. By the end of Chapter One, where Alice eats the cake, Sara has sunk into a troubled sleep.

“It’s chemical,” the doctor told us. He tried Sara on a gamut of drugs, but she got no better—was still lost inside herself—so I took early retirement from the postal service. That was last spring.

*

Dinner: baked Florentine omelette, and green salad.

Sara still doesn’t eat. I have no appetite either and spend the evening constructing a bird table: a two-foot square marine ply top, mounted on a five-foot stand. When it’s finished, I place the table in a sheltered spot by the back garden fence and stock feeding bowls with stale bread.

*

I wake early the next day, leave Sara sleeping and hurry out to the bird table. The bread hasn’t been touched.

I check again at midday. The birds still haven’t come. So I move the table to the middle of the lawn, where they’ll have an unobstructed view of any predators as they feed.

That evening the food remains undisturbed and after googling for advice on food for wild birds, I replace the bread with sunflower seeds, cheese and fruitcake.

Birds call from the tops of neighbouring trees and bushes.

I call back, “Look, all the protein and fat you need. You don’t have to die.”

*

The next morning Sara’s side of the bed is empty. And her coat and boots are missing from the hall stand. I rush into the kitchen for my car keys. Something flickers outside. Birds have gathered around the table, and Sara’s standing there, arms outstretched, feeding them from her palms.

~This story was first published in Rose and Thorn Journal, Summer Issue, 2011~

Sobriety

The train moved off again. The boy shuffled to the edge of his seat and faced the man sitting opposite him. “That was a surprise, wasn’t it, Dad? Running into Amy like that?”

The man turned from the window, where he’d been watching the woman leave. “Yes, it was.”

The boy tilted his head. “Was she sad?”

“Sad? I don’t know, son.”

“She seemed sad to me.”

The man loosened his tie.

“She smelled nice,” the boy said—more to himself.

The man stared out the window, at the backs of the houses rolling past.

“Will we see her again?” the boy asked.

“I don’t know, son. I don’t think so. She’s got another boyfriend now. A new life.”

The sky was clouding over. The man reached forward and buttoned the boy’s coat. He remembered how the woman’s eyes had brimmed only moments ago, when he told her this was his sixth month of sobriety.

“She reminds me of Mum, Amy does,” the boy said. He sighed. “Mum smelled nice.”

“Yes, she did, didn’t she?”

The boy nodded. “Mum would have liked Amy.”

He stepped up close, put his arms around the man’s neck and turned his head to one side, resting it on the man’s shoulder. They held onto each other. Soon they were out in open countryside. Wind rushed at the window as the train gathered speed.

~An earlier version of this story was first published in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, June 2010~

Ring of Fire

Her name was Mia, she said, or sometimes Gia, depending. She laughed. “Gia’s a slut.”

She’d picked me up after my old VW had given up the ghost near Heathrow and I was hitching a ride back to the city. She wore a tiny black dress and wide-brimmed black hat. Her Jeep Cherokee had an earthy smell.

She’d just broken up with her boyfriend, she said, and mentioned two other breakups before this one. “I know what you’re thinking,” she said. “Sounds like a pattern, right? Well, what the fuck do you know?

The look she gave, I thought she was about to bite off my face.

We drove on, then she turned with a half-smile, like she’d remembered a beloved pet dog who’d died. “Sorry, that was harsh,” she said. “I haven’t taken my meds today. You want to do something?”

Barely six months into the divorce, I considered what I had to offer. “Cocktails at the Voodoo Lounge?” I said.

She wrinkled her nose, said no, she couldn’t do that, and anyway, she craved open spaces, somewhere she could take the shirt off her back. “Let’s go to Primrose Hill,” she said. “Sleep out all night, under the stars.”

She flipped the door of the glove compartment and reached inside for her stash of grade A plus Afghan Kush, behind the seven-inch, high-carbon, combat knife she liked to keep handy.

The Jeep picked up speed. I leaned back in my seat as Johnny Cash powered out “Ring of Fire” on the stereo. And by the time Johnny got to the “burns, burns, burns” part, the two of us were singing along with him.

~An earlier version of this story was first published in KYSO Flash, Issue 7, Spring 2017~

Tourist

He loses things: a pair of paisley socks, computer files, the old gold Rolex watch his father left him, his job at Panasonic.

He loses his beloved cat, Basil, to complications from a urinary tract infection, his kind neighbour, Mr Tomashevsky, in a road accident, an hour or two of his own life here and there.

Somewhere along the line, his famous easygoing free spirit deserts him, along with the desire to sing the old songs. Soon after, his trust in the goodness of others follows.

Then his wife says she’s leaving. “Something’s missing,” she says and he agrees.

Months pass. Years. Always wondering, What will be next to go?

Until he picks himself up, taking long walks around the city, where the streets look familiar, but he swears he’s seeing them now for the first time.

~An earlier version of this story was first published in Microfiction Monday, 63rd Edition, September 2017~

Let’s Never Be Apart

Late afternoon, I’m sitting alone in the lounge of the Brighton Holiday Inn remembering Ed, when we were kids, how he’d always want to play the Joker to my Batman, Lex Luther to my Superman.

I drain my whisky glass. A woman in the doorway stares in my direction. Early forties, low cut top, cropped hair bleached pure white.

I look away. When I turn back, she’s making her way over.

“Dean? Oh, my God. Dean, it is you.”

I start to say no, she’s mistaken—

“How are you?” she says. “You look great. Love the beard. Suits you.”

She sits, green eyes wide, ash-grey flecks in her roots, and I try again. “I’m—”

“I had a weird feeling about today,” she says. She moistens her lips with her tongue. “So what are you doing in Brighton? Down on business?”

I want to tell her: a funeral, my best friend, Ed. The thought makes me lightheaded.

She glances back at the doorway, gives me a little, lopsided smile. “So you didn’t give it all up and become an organic farmer, after all?”

I try to smile back. It comes out a twitch of the lips.

Moving her face close to mine, she lowers her voice. “I always knew we’d meet again.” Her breath smells of tobacco and toothpaste.

I envy this Dean she believes me to be. Why did it end between them? I want to touch her hand, say I never gave up hope, in all the years—the dreams, the disappointments, the loneliness.

A waiter appears, asking if we’d like to order something.

This is where I come clean, I tell myself. Sorry, I’m not who you think I am. Like I wasn’t for Ed. I couldn’t save him from jumping in front of that train.

I turn to the woman. She places her room key on the table. I picture the two of us sharing a bottle of Pinot Noir before leaning into each other all the way up to her room, where she’ll transform into Wonder Woman with me her arch-enemy Hades, holding onto bodies that don’t want to die. And for a time, at least, we won’t think of the darkness falling outside.

~This story was first published in The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, June 2015~

This Story

This story gives stories a bad name. It sends out the wrong message. Gives off a bad odour. Truth is, it has no business appearing alongside other stories at all.

Don’t just take my word for it. The story itself agrees. “Nothing to read here,” it says as it grabs its wool coat from the hall-stand and hurries out the back door into the windblown cobbled alley.

So what lies ahead for a story like this? A move overseas maybe. A beach community. Thailand. One of those small islands off Phuket. Hole up in some ramshackle, bamboo hut. Venture outside under moonlight. Run up tabs for hard liquor and fried pork rinds in unlit corners of all-night dive bars. Gaping tourists will point. “I know what you’re thinking,” this story will tell them. “But no, it’s not me. Really. That was some other story altogether.”

~This story was first published in Boston Literary Magazine, February 2020~