Flash Points: Sinéad O’Hart

FlashPoints3

Welcome to Flash Points, a totally un-terrifying (one hopes) feature in which a remarkable, noteworthy story from the most recent round of Flash! Friday is marked and noted. In other words, we nibble at it, bit by bit, to savor each glorious nuance. YUM!

Prompt: Gymnasts

Word limit:  140 – 160 words

Today’s chosen flash piece:  China in Your Handby Sinéad O’Hart

We were like one body – that’s what Mr Hardy said. Tumble, girls! Now, spin! That’s it! I’d do whatever it took to hear his ‘perfect!’, to dismount with my feet exactly right, to see the wide grin on Elizabeth’s face which, I knew, mirrored mine.

Four hours a day, six days a week. More when Regionals drew near.

‘You girls are closer than sisters,’ our teacher smiled. ‘No doubt we’ll see you on the winners’ podium in years to come, eh?’ I wanted it more than anything; I dreamed in gold. My mind was stuffed full of stretches and leaps, tucks and pikes.

Then Liz started falling. We let it slide for a while – distractions, or lack of focus. But when our rankings began dropping, Mr H took her aside. Her eyes found mine as he told her, but I blinked and looked away.

As she grabbed her stuff and left, I felt thick-fingered, like I’d dropped something precious.

What works

So many fantastic stories this week — there always are, of course — choosing one to blabber on about for a minute or two seriously tortured my poor little pea brain. What about David Shakes’ gripping last line:

The truth is, despite this wheelchair I’ve never felt more free… except when I was falling.

And you’ve got to love Rasha’s calculated numerical structure (didn’t you want to rise to your feet, cheering, at the end??), Todd Strader’s heart-panging parallel tales, and oh my, Lucia Gray’s wrenching story of pain and lostness. These balanced, naturally, by the guffaw-inducing tales by A J Walker:

‘That’s my girl,’ he shouted, writhing.

Annabelle looked down. ‘That’s not my dad.’

or Natalie Bowers:

I’d always prided myself on me observational skills – you don’t stay a pirate captain long unless you keep a weather eye on your shipmates – so when my landing was … softer than expected, I was somewhat vexed, both with myself and, son, with the woman who later became your mother.

In the end, however, this week it was Sinéad’s China that haunted me most. If you’ve read Flash Points for any length of time, you’ll know I love layers in a story, tension beneath the surface, the power of words that aren’t said. Such a feat requires writing two stories, one on the screen, and one… not. And this is precisely what China does. From hints, from the narrator’s comments, from subtle grammatical twists, we discover an entire world of story exists beyond what’s seen. Plunge with me for a moment into my mania, won’t you?

A story’s first line plays a crucial role, of course. It must set the stage, establish the tone, introduce the world to come. Sinéad does all three to perfection:

We were like one body – that’s what Mr Hardy said.

Effective first lines serve as bait, hooking the reader deeper into the story. Like this first line, they should prompt questions, in this caseWho is like one body? How can more than one person/entity act like one body (we’ve heard about twin souls, eg, but what does “one body” look like?)? Who is Mr. Hardy? 

Flash fiction allows no time for lingering, and Sinéad whisks the pace along accordingly. In the short first paragraph we learn the “we” consists of the narrator and a girl named Elizabeth, the setting (drawn by specific vocabulary: tumble, spin, dismount) is gymnastics, and Mr. Hardy, by implication, is the girls’ coach. Nice, right? A sweet, ordinary, non-noteworthy day of practice, isn’t it? 

No. In that same introductory paragraph, hinted at so quietly, the first stirrings of tension (that oh-so-critical story element!):

I’d do whatever it took to hear his ‘perfect!’

Someone willing to do “whatever it [takes]” can’t escape our notice. It’s a question on the brink of devouring all of us at one time or another: how far are we willing to go to get what we want? The question isn’t answered right away, nor is it immediately implied something else will need to be sacrificed. But it’s tension you can sink your teeth into, and the pace is fast, so we keep reading.

The second paragraph continues building tension in fragmented staccato, telling us just how grueling the girls’ schedule is:

Four hours a day, six days a week. More when Regionals drew near.

“Regionals” introduces the idea of competition, and for the first time, so lightly, so quietly, a crack appears in the mirror. It’s a crack that carries over into the split third paragraph. Look at the perfect division there:

‘You girls are closer than sisters,’ our teacher smiled. ‘No doubt we’ll see you on the winners’ podium in years to come, eh?’ // I wanted it more than anything; I dreamed in gold. My mind was stuffed full of stretches and leaps, tucks and pikes.

While the coach continues (for now) to view the girls as “one body,” a team, the narrator has already begun disentangling herself. Structurally, this split occurs at the exact midpoint of the story. In a novel such a point might be the crisis vaulting (haha, sorry) the protagonist to the plot’s awful climax. It’s true here as well on a micro level. Look at the very next sentence:

Then Liz started falling.

Our narrator has already separated herself from her partner, a division magnified by the other girl’s lagging performance. But the following sentence is the one I found most chilling.

We let it slide for a while.

Do you see that? It’s a sleight-of-hand worthy of David Blaine. Look at it again in slo-mo: 

We were like one body

We let it slide for a while

The composition of “we” has changed: narrator/partner to narrator/coach. The latter two now look at the new outsider in pitying condescension. Liz has lost more than gymnastics rankings; she is losing her mirror. It’s terrible, agonizing, like not being able to tear your eyes away from a car wreck. The breaking of the bond is then confirmed physically.

Her eyes found mine as he told her, but I blinked and looked away.

All that’s left now is the dismount.

As she grabbed her stuff and left, I felt thick-fingered, like I’d dropped something precious.

I love this sentence. It’s poignant, yes, and wrenching. But structurally it’s magnificent, because it concludes not the superficial story (the ending of a gymnastics partnership) but the sub-story, a girl’s choosing of ambition over friendship. The conclusion answers the question asked at the story’s beginning: for the sake of her goals, she is willing (and does) sacrifice the best part of herself. And – tragically – it appears she has moved on far enough that she can’t quite pinpoint what she’s given up:

something precious

It’s the age-old sirens’ song, the give-up-your-soul negotiation with ol’ hooves ‘n’ horns, the sibilant temptation in Eden. And it’s especially troubling because no concern is given to the ousted gymnast. Why is Liz falling? Is there an underlying physical cause – a tumor? emotional distress? abuse at home? The narrator doesn’t tell us. Of course she doesn’t, because this isn’t, in the end, a story of two friends. It’s the story of a human’s giving up her soul.

It’s magnificent structuring and writing, this story-within-a-story.  So beautifully done, Sinéad. Thank you!

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3 thoughts on “Flash Points: Sinéad O’Hart

  1. Congratulations Sinead. You’ve written a great story. After reading Rebekah’s breakdown i went over it again and I comes across even more powerful.

    Nice job.

    (and a another fantastic critique, Rebekah)

  2. Thank you for the honour, and for the fantastic analysis of my story. I’m really glad you enjoyed it enough to choose it for this week’s Flash Points, Rebekah. 🙂

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