The winner and runners-up from North & South’s Short, Short Story competition.
Congratulations to winner Renata Hopkins of Christchurch for her poignant, beautifully crafted story “The End”. Originality of voice and distinctive writing styles also marked our runner-up stories by Michael Botur and Jenna Heller.
By Renata Hopkins
When they’re buzzed into Dementia, Mercy is in the TV lounge, a tiny goddess in easy-care.
“I tried to get him back to bed, but no,” she says, waving at the resident who lies blocking the doorway.
“Stew-art,” she sings down to him. “John’s family has to cross over you.” As if the man in blue pyjamas was a river – the Lethe, the water of oblivion. They ford him, one by one, but are flooded, instead, with remembering.
In the small room they watch the work of breathing. They inhale fastidiously, trying to set a good example. His tongue looks parrot dry. They’re allowed to wet it with a sponge on a Popsicle stick, but his fierce commitment forbids it.
Instead, they make him an offering of himself: opera, sung sweetly drunken; engine oil on his hands; patient hours on sunburned ground, teaching them to bowl overarm.
You’re running a race, he’d told Kelly, the week before. There’s a black ribbon at the end and everyone cheers for you. They know about the war. It was lunchtime, and he’d frowned at his fish and peas. It’s lucky we don’t live here, he’d said, reaching for her hand. Kelly had felt guilty for enjoying the untethered poetry, for looking forward to what would come next.
He always could hold his breath the longest. She leans in, dazzled by the immaculate trick, and hears the muffled roar of a crowd through the wall. A game somewhere has ended, with no call for extra time.
By Michael Botur
Coming out of the stall you bump into Gerard Chan from marketing and he’s clutching some dark drink in a Pump bottle and at first you’re both going to leave the bathroom without a word but you pause at the door. Being ashamed is pointless. Gerard Chan meets you for more drinks at 4.
It’s not just the kinship or the wince, the stinging liquid lip. It’s the magic mirror. In the glass dimension there’s a happy you.
Paul Govind, too, is in with a grin. Wobbling back to your desk to send off emails gets you noticed, there are murmurs, noses peering over the cubicle, but one drink with you in front of the magic mirror, people come around. It’s a confidence boost. You help your team carry out business with boldness. You tell the cleaning lady you love her.
Bottles on the hand dryers. Ice in the handbasins. Little umbrellas, straws, chips of ice melting on the tiles. The stock price soars and lurches. The boss occupies the disabled loo, puts her feet up on the rail on the door, leans back, tells you she’s always admired you. Your resourcefulness. How you find creative ways out of problems.
Someone bangs on the bathroom door.
You grip the mirror, blink, splash water on your face, swig and swallow, stash the bottle in the curl of pipes beneath the basin.
Listerine and Lynx. Fix your tie. Tiptoe back to work. Steady legs.
By Jenna Heller
Her grandmother had disappeared in a pond at 49, her own mother in a lake at 48. After the hot flashes and mood swings, they’d slipped through the night in search of water. And now she watched her own body change in unexpected ways. The skin between her fingers grew sticky and webbed, her eyes red and itchy. And when five faint scratch marks appeared at both sides of her neck, she knew it was only a matter of time. Then one night, after a day of gagging in the thick summer heat, she stacked the diaries of explanation on the table and allowed the sea breeze to lull her to sleep.
The next day, the house was silent, the back door wide open, and her clothes found tangled in the kelp at high tide.
That Time We Didn’t Fall on the Floor Laughing
By Rachel Smith
We arrive late. The only empty table is close enough to smell the tang of alcohol on the comedian’s breath. She isn’t funny. We agree on that at least.
Somehow your handbag ends up on the stage, right at her feet. You would say – later on the car ride home, the windows steamy with unsaid words – that I’d pushed it up there with my long fidgety legs.
She empties it onto the dirty wooden floor, picks out a couple of condoms, one blue pen, the glossy business card of our fertility specialist, a Post-it note with the name and phone number of some guy. A packet of mints, peach lipstick. Laid out there, your life seems less than it should.
“So are you trying or are you not?” she asks, and lets rip one of those jokes about putting it in the right hole. The same line as your brother at Christmas two years back, when he asked if we were ever going to get procreating.
Both times we up and leave. You are always hard to read after one of those moments: when a friend, worn bare by lack of sleep, passed you her newborn and pleaded for just one moment of peace, or that time your work colleague joked about getting knocked up again, as if she hadn’t learnt the third time round.
Tonight you pull into the drive, leave the engine running. I wait. You clamber out of the driver’s seat and onto mine. Hike up your dress, tug open my pants. I hear our breath fill the empty spaces, wait for the sound of your laugh, brittle as a single blue line.
By Catherine Clarke
Isabel thought she would be condemned to a life of alopecia, her scalp pale and freckled like a monstrous quail egg. “You’ve been under a lot of stress, Isabel, give it time,” her friends had commiserated. Indeed, the hair she’d lost grew back in a fuzzy auburn halo that bestowed a saintly aura, as if she’d stepped out of a Renaissance painting.
She remembered going to see the recreation of an 18th-century silk-weaver’s house in London. Visitors were asked to imagine what they had only just missed, domestic scenes which their sudden intrusion had forced the inhabitants to abandon: a letter recently opened, a cup of tea half-drunk, the whiff of urine from a chamber pot, an overturned chair. Now, Isabel lived her own contemporary version of this still-life spell.
If she had fed her lover pomegranates, Isabel wondered, would he then have stayed? Sometimes she caught a fleeting glimpse of his loping stride, the set of his shoulders, the whorl of an ear, a certain angle of his jaw, but with the face of a stranger. She imagined that he followed her – but like Orpheus, if she turned to look, he would vanish. Isabel donned a Victorian mourning cape adorned with ostrich feathers. She prayed that once she had departed for the service, he would return.
Down by the harbour, the celebrant resplendent in a red and gold brocade coat shivered in the whittled air. Men in black coats turned up their collars while they waited for the rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture to begin. Isabel stood on the wall above the promenade and covered her ears when the cannons fired. A smoky haze of cordite drifted back, as her lover’s gritty ashes sprinkled like rain on the dead calm surface of the sea.
These stories were first published in the May 2019 issue of North & South.