How Big Its Smallness – Peter J Coles

They’ve closed off the street. Both ends. Police cars strewn across at angles roped together with yellow tape. The threat of arrest hangs in the air. I want to get home. My dog, my poorly little cream-coloured lab, left alone all day with nothing but her chew toy to feed on. I’m laden with shopping. A rucksack full and two carrier bags in each hand. I want to go home.

“Can I get through?” I say to the policeman, except I have to say it in German and I’m not sure if I’ve said it correctly. He frowns, seems to double in size before my eyes and shouts something, a stream of hot stinking words, that spins me around on the spot.

“I need to go home,” I try, but he shoves me back, holds up a black-gloved hand and puts the other to the gun at his hip.

Moving away, I spot a neighbour standing to the side. An old Turkish woman, a flowered veil framing her face, who I’ve never had a conversation with except to say, ‘Guten morgen’ or ‘guten abend’ as I pass her in the corridor of our building.

“Guten abend,” I say, sidling over to her. She tries to ignore me, to look past me down our closed off road. She’s biting at her nails in rabbit-like nibbles; her cuticles are bleeding.

“What’s happening?” I ask her in English, but she won’t focus on me. She won’t give me the attention I’m after. So I step closer and block her view.

“Hello,” I say, “What’s —”

“No, no, no, no, no, no!” she says, wagging a finger in my face before shoving me out of the way so hard I stumble backwards, the shopping bags like pendulums in my hands propelling me back, only just keeping myself from falling hard into a man behind. His hands are on my back, there to stop us colliding, and chastises me to be more careful, to take this moment more seriously like the rest of us, to which he receives murmurs of agreement.

“Sorry,” I say, turning to look at him with his beer gut distending his stained polo-shirt and his razor-sharp sideburns making his bloated alcoholic face look almost angular.

“I’m just trying to find out what’s going on. Can you tell me?” I ask him, this time in German. German for Germans; English for everyone else.

“Isn’t it obvious,” he replies in English, pointing down the road, flashing anger red. “You only have to open your eyes.”

I follow where he is aiming with his finger, over the heads of the crowd, passed the line of police cars, to the bank of our apartment block, all sandy-yellow against the wet-blue of the tarmac. They look normal. Sometimes, in the mid-summer light, the buildings can glow, radiating a Mediterranean warmth. But in this dull, grey light, there’s nothing special about them at all. I check again to where he is pointing, to make sure I haven’t been mistaken. But I haven’t.

What’s different? What am I not seeing?

Is someone on the roof? A hidden figure getting ready to jump? Is there smoke billowing from a window? Are the police out with the weapons drawn, willing to take someone out? No, none of that.

Everything just seems to be how it always is. In fact, despite the crowd and the presence of the police, the street is so mired in its own mundanity as to look boring, not worthy of this attention, this amount of fear.

“I don’t see it,” I say. The man stares at me with the contempt of someone who is long tired with the stupidity of someone so ignorant. “Help me understand,” I plead, but he just dismisses me with a wave and steps back, mournful, to merge invisible into the crowd that has thronged around us.

I don’t understand. I want to, but I don’t. I just want to go home. To feed my poor little lab out of the tins of meat I’ve brought for her. To pack away my shopping and collapse on to the sofa and remain there for the rest of the day. To forget the day, to let it fade until there is nothing left and I can begin again tomorrow.

I don’t want to open my eyes, I want to close them.

But as I start to pick my way through that mass that has gathered, pausing on their terrified faces, watching bitten lips, and wet eyes, making my way closer to the police barrier, an anxiousness begins to pool in my temples. When I reach it, I shuffle along the front, giving a wide birth to the police who themselves can’t help but snatch glances over their shoulders. I step onto the pavement, pushing my way forward, hoping to get an unobstructed view of whatever the obstruction is, and I find a gap, a space wide enough to see and then…

When I first see it, I don’t.

Not at first.

It was only after does it become clear, and even then it is obscure.

A point, no bigger than anything I’ve witnessed before and yet, when I think on it, I think, God, good God, how big its smallness! How vast its emptiness. How solid can something so devoid of shape be? How endless its limits? I want to get closer. I want to run far away and the more I stare, the more I want to forget what I’ve seen, but also to make it indelible on my memory so that I can tell others about it, forever. Because that’s how long it will take. I will need forever to discuss it, and forever again to never talk about it, to never utter a word about it in case I misspeak and the dishonesty of its truth were to be made apparent.

I drop my shopping bags at my feet and hear glass smash and the pulping of fruit. I step back and merge fearful into the crowd.


Peter J. Coles is a blog editor for, an editor for The Mechanics’ Institute Review 15, and a graduate of the MA Creative Writing programme at Birkbeck University. He is currently working on his first novel and has read short stories at MIRLive and the Writers Room. Find him on twitter @peafield.

Contents Drawer Issue 14

Image via Pixabay

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