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Winners: Richard Hooton - Capacity

We loved how Richard took an every day exchange, that moment when you're asked if you want a bag at a checkout -- and used it as a leaping off point, or perhaps breaking point is more apt. An internalised story that we can all relate to, this piece was enough to win a place in the shortlist.

Flash Fiction 1000 - Shortlist


Richard Hooton

My brain has reached full capacity. Can’t handle any more information. Will not compute. It happened on a Tuesday in the Spinningfields branch of WH Smith when the shop assistant asked me if I wanted a plastic bag and I paused to consider. The one-litre plastic bottle of water, newspaper and

hardbound book “The History of British Vegetation”, published by English Universities Press, would be quite cumbersome to carry and I’d forgotten my reusable canvas bag.

But did I really want to spend 5p?

I was also certain there was something else I intended to purchase. Should have written a list, like Sandra said. As I opened my mouth to answer, my brain became a steam train jarring on rusty tracks. Then shuddered to a halt. A cataracts-esque haze descended over my vision and thoughts flashed then fluttered out like dying fireflies.

The words “capacity full” repeated over and over and over in a monotone voice until I’d do anything to be rid of it. Was it only in my head? The assistant stared at me, her tight ponytail swaying slightly in the air-conditioning’s breeze. I presume she heard only silence.

This can’t happen, came a fast fading thought. According to my rudimentary knowledge of biology, brains can store unlimited amounts of information indefinitely. Memories are stored in neurons in the cortex that fire up when retrieved; short-term memories in the pre-frontal lobe, long-term memories in the hippocampus. Perhaps I was the first human to be full to the brim. I blame Sandra for insisting on me attending those salsa lessons. Remembering the steps and hip action of the cucaracha had been too much. I’d told her that I’d never be able to recall all that shuffling.

‘Nonsense,’ she’d said. ‘You’re just worried you’ve got two left feet.’

Or possibly absorbing all that information in last night’s TV documentary “Crossrail: The Fifteen Billion Pound Railway” had pushed me over my limit.

I stood immobile, goldfish mouth agape, tongue lolling like a dog, eyes as wide as an owl’s: nothing human. A queue was forming behind me. I could feel the cold metal of coins pressing against the clammy skin of my palm.

‘You alright?’ the slack-mouthed girl asked between chews of gum. I couldn’t place her cloying perfume.

‘I’m not a machine,’ were the only words I could find.

‘But do you need a bag?’

I became obsessed with trying to guess which speck of detail had boggled my humble, middle-aged mind. Perhaps trying to remember what I’d done with Geoff’s spanner, which I’d borrowed to fix the dripping kitchen tap and had misplaced and now couldn’t recall for the life of me where it was, had gotten too much.

Surely the brain has a way of deleting memories? Don’t the old or useless ones just fade away to be replaced by brighter, shinier recollections? I’d longed to forget that drizzly day in Margate or that excruciatingly sweaty-palmed interview at HMRC. Is there no recycling basket in the mind to dump them? Or maybe store them somewhere else, say the gut or appendix?

The words changed. Now “cloud storage is full” repeated endlessly. Isn’t the space infinite? There can’t be none left. Maybe all those holidays abroad had filled my mind with too many wondrous images of sparkling blue seas and golden sands. I must find a way of deleting all the things on my mind: arranging payment of utility bills, council tax, house and car insurance and TV licence; posting Aunty Irene’s birthday card before the 15th; returning all those library books on time and putting the green wheelie bin out on the right day. Don’t forget to defrost the cat and feed the turkey. Or is it the other way around?

‘Look, do you want a bag or not?’

‘I’m not a machine.’

I could feel my body shutting down. My fingers unfurled into a five-digit spread, the coins spilling from my open hand to clatter on the dusty floor.

Maybe my circuitry had gone haywire. Struck dumb by some terrible affliction. Or all those Friday night drinking sessions with Geoff in the Pickled Sprout had been too much, the pale ales sloshing out the brain cells until there weren’t enough left fizzing to function.

Murmurings and mutterings began behind me. Shuffling feet and coughing, like a bad case of the fidgets.

Whatever it was, something had gone seriously wrong somewhere in the mass of flesh and goo between my ears. The girl’s lips moved but I heard no sound. She cancelled the transaction. Served others instead. The queue swerved around me as if on a newly-opened bypass that avoided the blockage. Carried on past like I wasn’t there; a ghost in the machine. I stood as limp and useless as a scarecrow that no longer frightened birds.

My body’s functions ground to a halt. Darkness descended.

Perhaps retaining all the worries of the world had got on top of me. Trying to understand the delicacies of economic uncertainty, fiscal policy, exchange

rates, social inequality, human rights, health concerns, relationship problems, existential crises, devolution, Brexit, political corruption, immigration, mass unemployment, violent crime, cyber attacks, climate change, environmental disasters, Islamic fundamentalism, worldwide terrorism, any other word ending in –ism, nuclear Armageddon and all that stuff in Venezuela and North Korea and whatever the hell is happening in the Middle East and Africa and Catalonia had overloaded my grey matter. At least they’re no longer of any concern to me now that they’ve just disappeared from my head. I’m now free to gawp motionless at a till repeating the words ‘I’m not a machine’ ad infinitum.

Eventually they will have to rummage through my pockets to find my wallet and my identity, to find the scrap of paper where Sandra’s new mobile phone number is scrawled. Ask her to retrieve me. Take me home. I just hope they don’t ask her if she requires a bag. Until then I will just stand and stare because I’ve run out of ...

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