3rd Place in the TSS Flash Fiction 400 Competition (autumn, 2018)
You can’t blow up a balloon without picturing the dolphins you worked with one summer. A dropped can of jalapenos broke your foot, and every morning you’d slip off one shoe by the pool. The work was simple: socialise with the dolphins, jiggle buckets of mackerel, fish heads slapping against steel.
Their owner was researching communication. He wanted to know, if you speak to a dolphin enough, will it reply? It was important to speak slowly and fill your voice with praise. The trick to it, was to picture each word as a flower opening in your mouth. After a while, your boss made you wear lipstick, so he could see every shape your lips made.
You didn’t fuck him, though you slept with almost everyone else. Your friends had all left for dance school and you made sex your new ballet. After, you’d lie back and tell your boyfriend about the dolphins. Those funny faces they made in front of the mirror underwater. They swam against the glass, rubbing the algae off with their bodies to see themselves better. The boyfriends interpreted this as meaning you wanted to go again. This time on your knees.
You didn’t expect anything to go anywhere. You slept with this older guy once and met him again at work in October. Learning the language of dolphins was over. The funding dried up. You didn’t think about it much. Standing on a chair in the cafe, you cleaned yellow fog off greasy windows while a customer watched. He told you the way you reached up with a dishcloth reminded of him of Swan Lake.
You married him and quit work instantly. He has enough for both of you, he says. He means money, but you know money means love. His kids keep having birthdays and parties, it’s that sort of house. They scoff cake and run in and out of the sprinkler squealing before they throw up.
You kiss their foreheads, dip their sticky balloons into the paddling pool and think about dolphins. Swimming to the lip of the pool, rising in the water each morning you arrived. You understood the smiles boned to their faces, the glee sounds they made when there was nothing else to do. Everyone would be able to speak dolphin, you think, if they’d given it longer. The experiment ended too soon.
Angela Readman’s short story collection Don’t Try This at Home won The Rubery Book Award and was shortlisted in the Edge hill Prize (2015.) Her stories have won The Costa Short Story Award, The Mslexia Competition and The National Flash Fiction Award. She also writes poetry, her latest collection The Book of Tides was published by Nine Arches (2016.) In January 2019 her debut novel Something like Breathing is coming out with And Other Stories. Angela is also one of the judges for the Cambridge Short Story Prize 2018 (top prize £1000) which is now accepting entries.