North & South’s Short, Short Story competition winners

by North & South / 11 January, 2017
Extra judges had to be recruited this year to break the “top three” deadlock; even a “super six” wasn’t achieved without heated debate. We finally reached consensus, with two very different – dark and exquisitely structured – mother-daughter stories. Congratulations to Zoë Meager for A Mother’s Touch, which wins the $500 first prize, and runner-up Nandini Ghosh for April. Originality of voice and style marked our second runner-up, Leader of the Pack, by Allan McEvoy. Both win $150. Three highly commended favourites, by Sandra Arnold, Marcus Hobson and Geoff Wane, all win book prizes from North & South.

WINNER

A MOTHER’S TOUCH
By Zoë Meager

The train pulls in to the sub-basement, where the dark masks the dirt and the faces of strangers. As they step onto the escalator, Ava feels it hum. Platform 3 awaits, floodlit with natural light that will expose every sweaty surface of the station, every muck-mouthed beggar sprawled among the coins that other people drop like waste.

Ava realises too late that her hand has brushed the rail.

“Don’t touch that!” Her mother snaps. “Other people have touched it.”

Ava waits with her palms facing the sky and they shake in time with her sobs, while her mother springs a pump head of sanitiser from her handbag.

At home, Ava strips. Boils her clothes and her blankets, vacuums, swabs her bedroom with bleach-soaked paper towels, scrubs herself with steel wool and soap, and shuts her bedroom door.

“You’re a good sensible girl,” her mother hisses through the keyhole. Her pursed lips mist over as Ava seals the door with stretches of cling film.

“You’ll be safe at least. I’ll ride the train, I’ll buy thin-sliced cheese.” Her mother’s telephone voice pierces the layers between them.

Ava holds her palm out, scanning for any draught on which particles of other people might insinuate themselves. There are none.

Her mother leans closer, one palm flat against the door.

“I’ll probably die of bacteria out here,” she ventures, and waits.

But Ava doesn’t say anything, because all the words have already been used by somebody else. Instead, she stands in the middle of the room with her palms facing the sky. This time she doesn’t cry. Her mother speaks again but Ava won’t hear anything, because that’s like holding something secondhand inside you. And Ava won’t think anything, in case other people have already thought it.

RUNNER-UP

LEADER OF THE PACK
By Allan McEvoy

Jimmy Dog watches Nate – all smooth like he owns it – lifting the latch – sliding through – security guards wall-leaning – barely a glance – just like Ben minutes ago – all dressed up – smart – like entering work – but Jimmy Dog knows their game – “coming-from-work-sneaking-into-a-festival” – he’s more street style – a punter looking for a free entry point – but shit those dudes walked straight in – do it like that – like you own it – glances back at the sidewalk posse – Idaho, Harmony, Bones, Warchild – all waiting for his lead – be in character – just do it – now – takes his own cue – steps out – feeling self-conscious – crossing the road – hitting his stride – head up – chest out – guards haven’t moved – up the kerb – over the sidewalk – body declaring I couldn’t care less – reaching out for the gate – “hey you” – they’re coming over – “yeah what” – blocking his way – “you got ID” – facing up – “I gotta be working man I’m late already” – “you got ID” – “lost it man but my boss has a new one for me” – “nice try mate” – “I’ll go get it” – “no ID no come through” – “I’ll bring it back to show you bro” – “go to the main entrance and they can radio your boss” – “I’m already late man” – guard points west – “that’s the only way you’re coming in” – damn this feels like oppression – brown boys stomping on brown boys – but holds his cool – maintains character – “damn you guys gonna get me in trouble I’m gonna be so late” – sidles off – the injustice stinging – even for a lie – gotta be another way – keep on circling – you’ll find it – the chink in the armour – the hole in their wall – you always do – that’s why they follow – the posse – doesn’t bother looking back – knowing they’re always there – watching – waiting turns – just a lag or two behind.

RUNNER-UP

APRIL
By Nandini Ghosh 

I could tear the limbs from April’s body, and then die from shame for having such a thought. What sort of mother wants to harm her daughter?

Of course I love her. But what makes me hate her too? Her careless complacency? How she hides in dark corners? How she manipulates her sisters? How she manipulates me?

Her father and I argue. His rage escapes through a gap underneath our bedroom door, and haunts the younger girls. “Leave April alone,” he says, flaying my centre, soft as an undercooked egg. “She’s only a child.”

April is a child, but she has an ancient soul. She is her father’s favourite. Today. Tomorrow may be different. For now, he’ll parade her on a pedestal, until she outsmarts him. Then May might take her place. And if both sisters fall from grace, June will pick up the crumbs of his affection.

When they fail to meet his expectations, they are mine alone.

April is like her father, crisp with the heat of success, a shark with coal-dust eyes. She is a child on the brink of adulthood.

When she has pushed enough, April alters her course. She throws me a line of empathy and memories of mother’s milk. She rescues me from my own autumn. I stroke the down on her cheek. Draw in her scent. Remember who she was.

Sometimes the sun rises in the same corner of the sky in which it sets.       

HIGHLY COMMENDED 

MARLANE
By Sandra Arnold

His colleagues told him he must be lonely rattling around by himself in that big old house.  He said no, all he needed to be happy was a fire, a clock and a good book. But they still kept on giving him internet dating sites. To shut them up he tried a couple, but the women he met had no interest in the things he loved. Sunsets. Storm clouds. Wind in the trees. Against his better judgement he allowed himself to be persuaded that a budgie would be better than nothing. Just as he got used to it, it died. His contentment quotient plummeted. One morning on his way to Menswear he saw Marlane in a corner with a group of others relocated from Womenswear. He was struck by the quiet beauty in her face. The decision was easy and this time it felt right. That evening he and Marlane were sitting on his verandah watching lemon light wash over the sky and a sliver of moon swing over the Southern Alps. The earth smelt rinsed clean. Together they listened to the silence and he realised he had never felt so happy. Colleagues noticed his whistling as he stacked the shirts and sorted suits and asked him if he had a secret woman stashed away. He smiled. When the manager said one of the store mannequins had gone missing and it surely couldn’t have just bloody vanished into thin air, he replied that some things were simply not explainable.    

THE BOTTICELLI KISS
By Marcus Hobson

The gallery is hushed with the muffled shuffling of feet from room to room on light wood floors. A woman is holding a blind man’s hand as they stand in front of the vast canvas by Botticelli. The bob of her bright blonde hair falls forward and brushes his cheek as she whispers in his ear. Her language is strange, but the young man stands soaking in each word, mesmerised. I see him breathe in her scent, letting that too speak to his missing senses. Venus lies on the left, half smiling. Sated. Mars is sleeping the soft spent slumber of a satisfied lover. The woman with the blonde bob wears a horizontal striped top that makes her look French. She speaks a language of colour that makes each pigment a pulsating adjective. She speaks Burnt Sienna and Chinese White. Nothing is as it seems, but everything is perfectly bright in the blind man’s head. The striped jumper slips from the woman’s shoulder as she leans a little closer, lips moving furiously to describe the whole complex story before her. Her silk-soft skin brushes against his bare arm. I see the charge, like an electric shock, pass deep into his consciousness. I see his unseeing eyes widen as the electricity between them fires. Her lips are close to his ear, her breath warm and exciting. I hear her talk of passions, deepest reds of rust and lust, skins of creamy silk. He kisses her full on the lips, a long lingering kiss of wildest passion. She steps back, away from him, her face full of shock and surprise. Then, looking deeply into his blind eyes, she smiles. She slides her bare shoulder closer into his chest and returns that kiss with interest.

DAWN SATISFACTION
By Geoff Wane

The rising sun stabbed through warming my back. Lost dewdrops lay on leaves. Verdant green began to sparkle.

I loved dawn.

I moved slowly, enjoying an easy pace. There was plenty of time. Birds did their vocal exercises and warmed up before their collective song. The sun lit a fire in the sky as it rose, getting smaller as it crested the horizon.

I loved dawn.

I moved faster, more rhythmically so less tiring. Movements in the forest joined me as everyone came alive. The morning chill evaporated with my rising heart rate as much as the rising temperature.

I loved dawn.

I moved as fast as I could now, nearing the end. My heart beat like pounding tympani in my head. This would be no diminuendo; this was a crescendo climax.

I collapsed, exhausted................and then she bit my head off.

 

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