‘Semper Fidelis’ A flash fiction story from LA.

I was sitting in a cafe in Huntington Beach, California at the weekend. This is not to brag; that is  simply where I was. There was some surfing event taking place and the boardwalk was jammed with people, the vast majority young and out to impress. It was fascinating viewing. I was particularly intrigued by the tattoos most of the guys seemed to be sporting; many were of dubious quality and of the pseudo gangster variety, but there was also some beautiful artwork. I was already planning a tattoo-based story by this point, when the perfect character walked by: an old woman, dressed for some other season (it was hot out there), and carrying a metal detector in a very determined fashion. Hey presto! Story time.

Please feel free to comment and don’t forget to take a peek at my fellow #fridayflash writers over at fridayflash.org.

Carpe Diem.

Carpe Diem tattoo. Google images.


Semper Fidelis

Mabel Delaney pushed on through the wave of naked torsos and pert breasts bobbing on their tide of bejewelled navels. To an outsider she appeared oblivious to the urgent youthfulness of the crowds around her; oblivious also to the sneering insults hurled at her by the strutting youngsters.

‘Hey, old lady, where’s your surf board?’

‘Who brought their granny?’

‘Soup kitchen’s that way.’

Mabel hoisted her metal detector under her arm like a lance and pointed it at a gap in the wall of gleaming skin and sun-bleached hair. As she moved, she was vaguely aware of flashes of ink on the arms and chests of the young men: names, phrases, lines of songs, needled into firm flesh; off-the-peg declarations for the emotionally illiterate.

Leaving the throbbing boardwalk, Mabel shuffled onto the beach and stopped. She adjusted the worn scarf round her neck, re-packed her wild hair under a faded cap and switched the detector on. An old sieve swung from her belt as she slowly made her way across the sand towards the shore line. Her route, like her expression, never varied: up and down, determined concentration etched into her sun-wrinkled face. Occasionally, she was forced to negotiate prostrate forms on the sand, muttering annoyances under her breath; occasionally, the forms answered back.

‘Fuck off back to the home.’

‘Crazy old bitch.’

‘Found your sanity yet, weirdo?’

Had she and Larry been as dismissive back then? Mabel couldn’t remember them noticing anybody else in those few brief months before the draft, lying together on the warm sand, kissing in gritty embraces.

Her headphones whined insistently and Mabel swooped down on the small patch of sand, piling grains into the sieve. Another quarter. She placed the coin into her pocket; later it would join the rest in the giant jar by her bed.

She continued towards the surf, passing more tattooed boys playing volleyball.

Larry had got himself ‘inked’ before leaving: “Semper Fidelis” on his left bicep; it might have been the Marine’s motto, but she knew he meant it differently. He’d had it done after she lost the ring and Mabel liked to think it was his way of saying it didn’t matter.  In any case, Larry had promised to replace it when he got back.

Another whine. Another quarter. One day she’d get round to counting these damned coins; one day there might be enough to get her east to the memorial.

Mabel straightened up and rubbed her back. One last sweep and she’d call it a day; for today at least. She adjusted the headphones and set off, eyes down to avoid the midday sun. After five or six paces, the alarm went off again; simultaneously, Mabel collided with someone. She looked up at yet another smooth torso, unmarked save for his left arm.

‘Found something?’


‘Have you found something?’

‘Oh, I don’t know. Might have.’

The young man knelt down.

‘I’ll give you a hand if you like.’

Mabel was momentarily shocked into silence.

‘Pass me your sieve then.’

He was reaching out, smiling.

Mabel read his tattoo: “Carpe Diem”. Not very original, but at least it was spelt correctly.

‘Do you know what that means?’

The man smiled again.

‘Of course. It’s my motto.’

‘It’s a good one,’ said Mabel, ‘if you mean it.’

‘Oh I mean it alright. Now, let’s see if we can find your treasure.’

Mabel laughed. It was an unfamiliar sensation.

‘It’ll probably just be a quarter. Usually is.’

He looked up and handed her the find.

‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘not even a quarter.’

Mabel brushed the sand off the dime.

‘There’s always tomorrow,’ she said.

‘Exactly,’ said the man, jumping to his feet and tapping his arm, ‘as it says, seize the day!’

‘Thanks for your help.’

‘No problem, better luck next time.’

Mabel clutched her ring finger. Maybe tomorrow. She dropped the coin into her coat pocket and heard it chinking against the others. She closed her eyes and pictured Larry, wiping the sand off his tattoo to show her the art work.

Semper fidelis,’ she whispered, allowing the words to be caught by the breeze and fly out across the waves.

© flyingscribbler 2011








14 comments on “‘Semper Fidelis’ A flash fiction story from LA.

  1. Richard Bon says:

    I love the description of beachgoers and the subtlety of Mabel’s loss, “one day there might be enough to get her east to the memorial.” The theme of how strangers are affected by the words and actions of others, negative and positive, and the lives of those strangers, past and present . . . it’s a powerful one and it’s well done here. Great stuff, Justin.

  2. Anne Michaud says:

    Awww…I loved it! Vivid imagery, cute guessing game, great character – brava, fellow fridayflasher:)

  3. Sonia Lal says:

    Vivid descriptions! Really loved this line: One day she’d get round to counting these damned coins; one day there might be enough to get her east to the memorial.

  4. Helen says:

    I loved the picture you painted with your words, and the reason the old lady had a metal detector. There was an element of sadness in the memories and yet the hope of another day always existed.

    Very nicely done!

  5. John Wiswell says:

    Haha, that’s a heck of an opening. Wondered where the heck they were – a charnel house? Abattoir? No, of course, the beach! Kept me loopy from thereon.

  6. Icy Sedgwick says:

    Was she looking for her ring? My gran lost a cross that my granddad gave her on the beach up at Marsden and by some miracle she actually found it again a while later.

    I’m so glad someone stopped to help her though.

    There’s some beautiful descriptions in this.

  7. TEC4 says:

    Sweet and sad … a very well written story.

  8. Steve Green says:

    There is a sense of tragedy and sadness in the old lady’s search, a guilt for losing the ring and a belief that maybe finding the ring will at least set some things to rest.

    Powerful and thought-provoking.

  9. I was really hoping you were going to let her find the ring, but I feel the story worked better they way you did it.

    One thing you did really do was pull me into the character of Mabel and make me really feel her tragedy. Well done!

    • Richard: thanks for that. I didn’t want to push Mabel’s loss too much and focus instead on smaller things which illustrated it. I’m glad that worked for you.

      Anne: her character grew on me as I wrote the story so I’m glad you liked her too.

      Sonia: thank you. I played with a bit of repetition in this story to see how it felt.

      Helen: Yes, I wanted an element of hope at the end without making it too obvious. Having her find the ring was too easy. It needed the melanchloia I think.

      John: something for everyone, as they say!

      Icy: thank you Icy. The descriptions were my favourite part of this story.

      Raven: thank you. I wanted to create emotion this week.

      Tec4: Sweet and sad: but hopeful too.

      Steve: Thank you Steve. I’m not sure she will ever find that rest; I thiink it’s the search that keep her going.

      Michael: Originally, she was going to find the ring, but it felt like a cop out. I hope the story is better for changing it.

  10. Chuck Allen says:

    Nice! I love the contrast between the way people were responding to her and the way the man at the end treats her. The slow unveiling of her mission was fun as well. Such a touching story – and the perfect title.

  11. Hi there Justin – You’ve got some lovely writing in here and some fantastic imagery. Loved it. There seemed a slight lurch when the guy turned up to help (mostly because I wasn’t sure if she’d take any sort of help so rapidly from the strangers she’d just been berating), but that was a minor thing. Great story. St.

  12. pegjet says:

    This was touching. I so appreciate you didn’t make her find the ring, that would have negated the gentle story you told. Great pacing, and the descriptions pulled me into your world.

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