Hands Off by Jason Jackson

Ben sits in the back of the car, chewing popcorn so it squeaks against his teeth, and little Janey sits up front, sucking on a peach. Sometimes I like to take my hands off the steering wheel and wave my arms around to the music. Old AC/DC. The Arctic Monkeys. The Who singing My Generation, stuttering along while we laugh, the three of us, driving to Sainsbury’s on a Saturday, or down to the beach. It used to be something I did a lot, but now it’s only sometimes, and soon there’ll be a last-time, after which I know I won’t ever do it again.

‘Mum’s car smells clean,’ says Janey. ‘Like cherries, or vanilla.’

‘What does my car smell of?’ I say.

‘Just you, Dad,’ says Ben. ‘But that’s good too.’

I reach my hand behind, and Ben passes me a piece of popcorn. I chew on it, trying to make it squeak, but there’s something about my teeth that won’t let me. Janey’s face is covered in peach-juice — it’s all over her cheeks, her lips — and in her hand is the peach-stone, like a tiny, hard heart.

Later, we’re sitting on the floor in the living-room playing Scrabble. I’ve got nothing but vowels — AAAEIUI — and Janey’s got twenty-four tiles laid out all around her spelling three-letter words: Dog. Dad. Sun.

‘Look at that!’ says Ben, and he’s pointing at the bin in the corner where a line of maggots, each one like a fat, dancing grain of rice, is squiggling across the carpet towards us. More of them are balancing on the rim of the bin and dropping down onto the carpet to join the end of the line. I remember the peaches I had to throw out last week, how maybe one of them got stuck to the bottom of the bin.

‘What do we do? What do we do?’ says Janey, and she’s running around scattering Scrabble tiles everywhere. She’s got a Z stuck to her ankle, a Q on her calf.

‘Let’s squash them!’ says Ben, shuffling towards the leading maggot, making pincers of his hands, saying, ‘Squish, squish, squish!’ and I’m thinking how we could stay here forever, popping maggots between our fingers, writing nonsense with Scrabble tiles, instead of having to grow up. Instead of having to grow old.

Meg Pokrass writes the best flash fiction I’ve ever read. It’s a distillation of everything flash can and should be. The way she writes about families, and about childhood in particular, is incredible. I love the weird, surreal nature of her characters and the world which they inhabit, but what I love most about the weirdness is, it’s real; the everyday is made strange while staying entirely, sometimes painfully, true-to-life. Meg’s stories are often dark, often funny, and usually both of those things at the same time. It’s not an easy trick to pull off. Usually, in the stories about families — like the wonderful novella-in-flash The Loss Detector — the narrator is a child, but in Hands Off I tried to write about a family from an adult’s point of view: the father. I wanted to capture the same surreal-realness that Meg captures in her stories, but through the eyes of a father-narrator, looking on with love and disbelief at the wonderful, unfathomable things he helped to make. Meg uses motifs such as animals, insects, food, domestic situations, and I wanted to incorporate some of these into Hands Off. I love Meg’s present-tense stories, the ones which are short, sharp, seemingly-inconclusive but somehow poignant and full of truth. I wanted to capture that feeling in Hands Off. I’ve read and reread all the collections of Meg’s which I own many, many times. I find her work inspirational in the true sense of the word: when I’m struggling to find the words, I read some of Meg’s. It usually does the trick.

Jason Jackson’s prize-winning fiction appears regularly in print and online. In 2021 Apple-Fall won the Retreat West Flash Fiction competition, What Comes Next was awarded second place in The Phare’s inaugural Writewords competition, and Next-Door Charlie and Carol in Winter was shortlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction Award.  Jason is a co-editor of the online magazine Janus Literary. He is also a photographer, and his prose/photography hybrid work The Unit is published by A3 Press. Follow Jason on Twitter @jj_fiction

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