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That Thing in the Box on the Top Shelf that Susan Never Talks About

Alison Wassell

Susan’s friend Claudia sells high-end kitchens, spends her days convincing people with more money than sense that they can’t live without wine fridges and warming drawers, promises pristine, clutter-free living with an abundance of storage space and everything in its place.

In her spare time, Claudia is taking a short course in psychology with the Open University. She’s planning to start a side hustle as a life coach, and she asks if she can practise on Susan.

The mind, says Claudia, is like a house with different rooms. One of these rooms is where memories are stored. Think of it, she says, as that box room or cupboard under the stairs where you shove things you don’t need but are afraid to throw away: outgrown toys, old newspapers, broken hairdryers, bulbs for lamps you no longer own. It’s liberating, says Claudia, to give this room a good clear-out from time to time. She’s very persuasive. She is a saleswoman, after all.

Susan imagines what Claudia would do if she let her loose in her memory room. She would be a woman on a mission, armed with a roll of black bin liners and a cross-cut shredder. Out would go disappointments, humiliations, failures, grudges held, offences taken. Anything granted leave to remain would be digitised, alphabetised, chronologised, arranged in neatly labelled folders. A spreadsheet would undoubtedly be involved. Claudia would stand back to admire her handiwork, arms folded, smiling at a job well done.

Susan knows exactly what Claudia would do if she drew her attention to that dusty box on the top shelf with the rusty hinges that contains the thing she never talks about. She would fetch the stepladders, bring it down and, when she found it locked, she would search until she found the key or, failing that, she would work some magic with a bit of wire. She would open the box, take out what she found inside and crumble it to dust in her fingers.

“See?” she would say, “It can’t hurt you now. You’re free.”

But what if, thinks Susan, that thing in the box on the top shelf turns out to be like asbestos, and does the most harm when it’s disturbed. No. Best put the box back; leave it be. Better still, don’t mention it at all. Claudia sells posh kitchens for a living. What the fuck does she know?

Alison Wassell is a short story, flash and micro fiction writer from St Helens, Merseyside. She has been published by Bath Flash Fiction Award, Retreat West, Reflex Fiction, NFFD, Litro, The Phare, Roi Faineant, Funny Pearls and Ellipsis Zine. She has no plans whatsoever to write a novel and wishes people would stop viewing short fiction as a stepping stone to longer work. Nobody ever asked Usain Bolt when he was planning to run a marathon.

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