Free Infinite Bard Story — Souvenir

Souvenir

Souvenir is the second free short story I’ve contributed to The Infinite Bard. If you’ve arrived here following a tweet or link from there, thank you for taking the time to visit. If you came here some other route, do check out the Infinite Bard site (and maybe subscribe to the @TheInfiniteBard?).

My story is an experimental science fiction tale about snow — there are stories everywhere if you look. It’s here to read now, or if you’d like to download a PDF version to take away, please click the download button below.

My previous tale The Princess and the Assassin is also still around.

Here’s the story…

Souvenir

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Margot tried to capture the view in her mind’s eye: the children playing, throwing snowballs, shouting, screaming; the continued, gentle fall of yet more snow; birds grouped together in the higher branches of trees as though seeking mutual warmth. There was a hum of happiness; contentment; life.  The early afternoon light brought a surreal quality to the scene, a quality she was desperate to capture.

She looked again at her sketchbook. She shook her head and reached for her coffee. She gripped it tight, pressing her fingertips into the container for warmth. Perhaps if her fingers weren’t so cold, she could sketch better.

In front of her on the café table a pair of thick woollen mittens (too clumsy), a pencil case of assorted pencils, a small plastic box of charcoals and her sketchbook.

She put the coffee back down, cupped her hands in front of her mouth and blew hard to force some heat into her numb fingers.

She picked a pale-blue pastel and tried a bring some life to her sketch.

‘Exquisite!’

She turned to see who had spoken. As she did, her elbow caught her coffee and knocked it onto the sketchbook. The plastic lid kept the remains of her drink inside, but, as she turned back, the cup rolled, and warm coffee dribbled across her work…

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She picked a pale-blue pastel and tried to bring some life to her sketch. As she worked, a man came into view, cutting across the scene from the right and heading towards the café where she sat.

She kept on sketching as the man made his way among the tables to the café door.

‘It’s exquisite,’ the man said, smiling as he did. His voice sounded educated; every word enunciated as though each a work of art in its in own right.

He was in his fifties, perhaps a little older, a long dark coat covering most of his tall form, a grey scarf wrapped around his neck. Something about him made Margot think he should wear a hat, maybe a homburg.

For a moment she wondered if he meant the snowy scene, the sketch, or perhaps even her. Was he coming on to her? She murmured a barely decipherable sound and concentrated again on her sketch.

The man went inside, leaving Margot to focus on her project. A few minutes later he returned with a small tray on which sat a large drink and a pastry. He took a table behind her and to the left where he could watch the park, her sketchbook and her. She tried to ignore him, but his gaze made her shoulder itch. Even at college she’d never liked the tutors watching her work, and this felt the same.

She put her pastel back in its case and packed her work away.

‘Don’t stop on my account,’ the man said.

Margot felt her face flush as she turned to the stranger.

‘No, I err just, I…’

She took a deeper breath.

‘I need to go. I’ve been out too long. Besides, my coffee’s gone cold and my fingers are freezing.’

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She kept sketching as the man made his way among the tables to the café door. As he walked past the table to her right, he paused and bent down to pick something up.

‘Excuse me,’ he said in a careful, cultured accent. ‘Are these yours?’

He held out a pair of navy-blue gloves. Unlike the mittens she’d removed and left on the table, these were of some silky material and fingerless. They were also the same shade as her shoulder bag.

‘I see they don’t have fingertips,’ he said. ‘I assume that way you can still connect with your implements as you draw.’

Margot took the gloves, saw no sign of a name, and put them on. They fit perfectly and cut the icy breeze as though by magic.

‘I expect they’ve one of those nano-fibre linings,’ the man said. ‘You should look after them.’

‘Thank you very much,’ Margot said.

The gloves weren’t hers, but she didn’t want to tell the man that.

‘Anyway,’ the man said, smiling again. ‘I’m just going to get a coffee. Can I interest you in a drink? You look like you’ve been here for ages.’

He pointed at her sketchbook.

‘No,’ she answered. ‘You’re fine. You’ve done enough.’

‘Well, if you’re sure.’

Margot watched for a moment as the man entered the café, then returned to her sketching. The gloves helped with her fingers, but she still couldn’t capture the scene how she wanted. This was her third attempt, and the snow was letting up. She pencilled in some children making a snow figure. She half-noticed the man sit at a table behind her.

It was no good. She couldn’t draw with an audience. She put her pencil down and sat back. She reached for her coffee—it was lukewarm. She thought about grabbing another, then wondered if the man would think her rude, then wondered why she cared what a stranger thought.

‘Did the gloves help?’

She turned. In front of the man, on a tray, were two cups and a plate on which sat two pastries. She took a proper look at him. He was mid-fifties, grey scarf, homburg and grey coat. Unlike hers, his hands were exposed to the elements.

‘I thought you might appreciate a drink anyway,’ the man said. ‘Please. Don’t feel obliged.’

Margot considered. It was a public place; it was only a coffee, and she was hungry. She caught the scent of cinnamon, and the pastries looked enticing.

‘Here,’ she said. ‘Why not sit here? I’ll make some room.’

She re-organised the table to make room for the tray as the man sat down.

‘Margot,’ she said.

The man paused for the faintest fraction of a second.

‘Jacob. Please take a coffee before it gets cold.’

She reached for the nearest drink and took a sip. It was exactly as she’d have ordered herself—cappuccino, no chocolate, and two sachets of brown sugar on the side. While she stirred in the sugar, Jacob took a second plate from under the pastries, placed one pastry on it and left the other for Margot. They smelled good.

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Margot washed down the last of the pastry with the dregs from her cappuccino.

‘Thank you for that,’ Margot said as she brushed crumbs from around her lips.

‘You’re welcome. I wonder, may I see your sketches?’ Jacob asked.

Margot paused.

‘They’re only rough, not really that good.’

As she spoke, a sense of discomfort descended upon her.

‘Any way, thanks again, but I should be going.’

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Margot flicked through her sketchbook until she found the picture she was looking for.

‘Do you see?’ she asked. ‘Here there’s a genuine sense of movement. I know it’s only a piece of paper, but the snow was falling steadily yesterday and I was just in the zone. The trees and people don’t work, but even so…’

Jacob looked at the sketch. He leaned towards the book and studied the pencil markings as though they were the map to a fabulous treasure. He sat back and nodded.

‘Yes,’ he agreed. ‘The moment as a souvenir you can revisit. Much better than taking a photo with those phones. It’s like a river, at no two times are the drops of water the same, yet the river remains. The same with the snow, constantly changing yet still the one snowfall.’

Margot smiled.

‘But no two snowflakes are the same either. I don’t draw them that way. It would be ridiculous.’

She realised Jacob wasn’t smiling. His eyes had darkened, brow furrowed, lips tight. He opened his mouth as though to speak, then changed his mind.

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Margot listened as Jacob finished speaking.

‘Wilson became known as snowflake Bentley and because of his thousands of close-up photographs, his book Snow Crystals and his years of study, that’s why people say no two snowflakes are exactly alike.’

‘I’d never heard that before,’ Margot said. ‘When I was at high school a teacher explained something about crystals and fractals and how millions of molecules stack to make unique designs. Something about it being mathematically certain no two snowflakes in the universe would ever be identical.’

She was pleased both at the memory and how well she’d described it. She understood the snowflake science as much as she understood how WiFi worked. She was less pleased when Jacob spoke next.

‘And that’s why the universe had to end.’

Margot shouted her response.

‘What?!’

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Margot shouted her response.

‘What do you mean, end?’

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Margot shouted her response.

‘What do you mean, had to end?’

She knew his words made no sense, and realised she’d been talking to a madman, yet something about how he sat, how he spoke made her want to challenge him further.

‘The universe hasn’t ended,’ she said. ‘It’s right here.’

Jacob shook his head.

‘No, it isn’t.’

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She was pleased both at the memory and how well she’d described it. She understood the snowflake science as much as she understood how WiFi worked.

‘But how do we know?’ Jacob asked. ‘What if you had to prove it beyond all doubt?’

‘I don’t follow.’

‘Just imagine the maker being challenged. Being challenged to prove or disprove their creation’s logic.’

‘You’re getting surreal,’ Margot said, checking her phone’s time.

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She was pleased both at the memory and how well she’d described it. She understood the snowflake science as much as she understood how WiFi worked.

‘Just imagine,’ Jacob said. ‘Imagine if you had to check every snowflake. Not just in Jericho, where Wilson lived, but everywhere on Earth, and throughout history. Then add all the other planets around all the other stars.’

Margot tried to think about a number that huge.

‘You’d need a huge notebook!’

‘Or something like a computer,’ Jacob spoke in a more measured tone than before. ‘Perhaps a computer big enough to simulate the whole of existence. A computer that dedicated every resource to with the task and nothing left to run the universe.’

Margot shivered as he spoke — and not from the cold.

Jacob continued without pause.

‘Eventually the maker would have to abandon the project and move on to another, every time changing, tuning, refining. Never creating that same existence again. Everything gone, too much information to keep. Nothing left. Except perhaps a small souvenir. A moment. A momento.’

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Margot put the coffee back down, cupped her hands in front of her mouth and blew hard to force some heat into her numb fingers.

She picked a pale-blue pastel and tried a bring some life to her sketch. As she rubbed, the crayon broke, scattering fragments of blue dust into the wind where they joined the whirling snow.

She watched the coloured motes as they spread and vanished from her gaze. She looked down again at her work, shut the book, collected her possessions and left the park.

She realised memory was the only souvenir that mattered.


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