Thursday 20 November 2014

First prize winner in Greenacre Writers Short Story competition

Mr E Plays Dead by Andrew Dutton

With a little practice, it is possible to distinguish footfalls; the familiar from the unfamiliar, the friendly from the not-so, the harmless sort from the keep-aways. Keeping ears cocked and eyes peeled, essential skills, those. Helps to avoid trouble; helps with seeing them before they see. Like an animal on the hot, wild plains.

Staying out of any conceivable eye-line is harder. In a bigger place it wouldn’t be so tough but in a two-up-two-down it isn’t entirely possible to hole up out of sight. There are lines of sight at doors and windows front and back, and a more-than-casual gaze can spot more or less any motion. Not so easy to get a bead on the upstairs but an imprudent movement could be spotted from the street or by a carefully-placed observer at the back. Closing the curtains helps, upstairs, but then even on the best days that makes the rooms a prison of semi-light, and besides who wants to live upstairs all the time? It’s do-able, but it’s not dignified.

We live too much on top of one another these days, just too tangled up in each other’s business like it or not, there’s no privacy even when no-one intends to intrude. God, imagine being famous, being doorstepped, the paparazzi starbursts every time you twitch a finger. Human beings aren’t meant to live like this. Rats go mad in similar circumstances, it’s been proved. Fight and kill, they do.

The windows: dead eyes of a house that’s lost its soul. Keeping the windows dirty helps make the place look neglected, unused. But press up against the pane and the effect starts to be lost. So make sure the nets are up – filthy, old things, keep nothing on the sills but dirt and dead flies, but even that isn’t illusion enough; too penetrable. No mirrors, not anywhere. Why help a predator to see round corners? Lights out and TV off, no light no noise, not even the glow of a fire. Live with cold and darkness and boredom, for safety’s sake.

The rooms must look the same day in day out, so move nothing, clean nothing, not a thing here must look used or loved. It’s necessary to make the place look half- empty and dead, and yet to try to keep alive within. It’s hard: a brown-grey vista, a dull and flat atmosphere, joyless. But the intruder eyes are looking for prizes and gewgaws, so if nothing glitters and nothing shines, maybe they will take their greedy magpie gaze elsewhere. Everything shut and locked, all the time. The doors are solid enough of course but maybe there are forces out there than can cut through the stoutest door like a winter blast. It would need more than a draught-excluder to keep them out, oh yes.

 The back of the place is too open too, no hiding places there apart from curtains and caution. Makes for tidy, thrifty habits; every cup and plate must be washed and put away so the kitchen looks the same every day, not a crumb of food in sight, no sir, the only food in here rotted to nothing long ago, far as invading stares can see. They won’t even find a scrap in the busted old tin bin as they lurk by the one-hinge wooden gate; they’re the sort that would look.

So tough to live like this - hiding like a rat. No, not like a rat – like a possum, playing possum, that’s the phrase. Or a dog playing dead; worse, maybe an ostrich, who thinks it’s hidden from everything but there it is in plain sight, arse in the air, without even a shred of dignity.

Surely they can’t be there watching the whole time, on street corners wearing fedoras and raincoats with turned-up collars like private dicks in a bad film? But it feels like they’re there, every moment. If every move is watched then every move must be calculated. Slow and deliberate, keep below window level where possible, scuttle to cover if out in the open; back to being a rat again. Slow-motion in the semi-dark, glide like a shadow and leave no trace, let them begin to believe in ghosts.  A defensive wall of sham death; there is nothing and no-one here, gone, all gone.

The wolves are at the door–wolves with warrants and the backing of the treacherous joke that is the law. Full of their own importance, biding their time, trying to penetrate the manufactured murk, trickster children tormenting the miser, the misanthrope who won’t open up and offer treats. But who can afford what they want, because they want it all.

When they come in sight they are shadow-figures, silhouettes caught in nets, they are looking, they are seeking, cracks to open, gaps to widen, spaces to climb through, they whisper, they call out; comeoutcomeoutwhereveryouare.

So it’s a siege; now what will you do, old dog, old rat, old comical ostrich: old possum? Succumb? Wait them out? Lie doggo until the flies come for you, uncaring of the difference between dead and alive?

Sunday 16 November 2014

Second prize winner in Greenacre Writers Short Story competition

The Scales Fall by Freya Morris

My heart turned cold over the popping bubbles in the sink. I stood there, a palm on my chest, the cold bleeding into my fingers. The pain was crisp, like submerging into liquid nitrogen. But there was no steam for me. My heart had to be pumping hot for that.
The promoter was microscopic; the tiniest of word-sequences. But they always are. At first, I’d hoped it was a glitch and that my heart would thaw in the afternoon sun, or after dinner, or by the end of the week. I strapped hot water bottles around me, drank tea, watched heart-warming films, but nothing worked.
I thought I was lucky that nobody could see it. But I was wrong. This wasn’t symptomatic. It wasn’t a sickness that would go away. It was genetic; an alien gene in my very DNA. Not long after, my blood ran cold too. My son reached for my hand and pulled away. ‘Cold hands, warm heart,’ I said, more to myself than to him. My husband kicked me away under the duvet. ‘You’re too cold,’ he said, and I was.
I hoped and prayed that my heart would spark and spring to life again. But when our Little John came to our room in tears, he asked for his daddy, and the tongue in my mouth flicked out in front, thick and forked. And I was so ashamed, mortified even, that I didn’t speak after that unless my back was turned.
Silence followed, and then scales. They were dull grey. I thought I’d slept on a pumpkin seed, but when I picked it off, it bled. More followed. I scratched them off in the shower at first, bleeding blue into the plug hole. But it couldn’t last. They were coming in thick and fast. People were going to see it soon, my heart on my sleeve, frozen cold. They would see what I had become.
My husband noticed first. I wrapped myself up in reasons, blaming it on the weather, him, work, the weather again, God, my dead mother, my super-sister with five kids, the next door neighbour’s voices that came through the wall, the city, hormones, my age, not being able to have any more children, and then, just when I thought I had more excuses to come, I had none.
He didn’t say anything.
He sent me to hell in a stare, picking out his beard hair, squinting. He pulled his lips in, the way he does when he smells dirty nappies. He was glancing over every scab and every scale I couldn’t scrub off. He had a million ideas that could fix me, and I pretended that they could work, that my genome was pure, untouched, human.
But nothing worked. My eyes were fading to yellow, blank and unblinking. His gaze switched poles, pushing away from mine when I drew near. ‘I’m not sure it’s safe for John to be around you,’ he said.
And he was right. I wouldn’t have a heartless reptile near him either. I stood at the door, a green-grey shadow with no bags, ready to leave. But something inside of me knocked over, spilled out, fowl and messy.
“I’m glad,” I said. I drew a deep breath. A run up. “That we couldn’t have another.”
He tilted his head. “Another what?”
I nodded to Little John’s picture framed in wood.
“Well,” he said. “It’s good we didn’t bring another child into this.”
“No, I mean. I’ve always been glad.”
“I didn’t want another,” I said, and I wasn’t sure what made me say it, or why I hadn’t said it before, earlier, way earlier than now.
“But what about… you cried for days after.”
“From shame.” I felt a bubbling in my stomach, a warming in my veins. “I didn’t grieve for her. I just felt…”
I threw my hand over my mouth. I should have kept it buried. Good people don’t say these things; they don’t think or feel these things. Good people love their children.
“No,” he said, grabbing my arm and pulling it, scales falling to the floor like coins. “Say it.”
My heart broke in two, spilling out fire and pain and heat through me. It melted the ice until it ran down my face. “Relief,” I said, my voice cracking like burning wood. “I felt relief.”
He stepped back. His face was shock and horror, frozen. “But why?”
I shook my head, but I could feel my heart beating again, throwing itself against me, pummelling me until the numbing cold became sore. I felt something again. “I don’t know.”
He didn’t move; he just stared at the floor. He’d gone in, away from me and into himself. “Jim?” I said.
He looked up at me with slow blinks and murky stares. “Your eyes. They’re not yellow anymore.”
“Do you hate me?”
He pulled away. “I…” he sighed. “No, I don’t. Look, let’s go sit down and talk about this.”
He took my hand, but his was cold and clammy, and when his eyes caught the light, his pupil narrowed into a slice of darkness, and I knew then, that he was lying to me.  

Saturday 8 November 2014

Third prize winner in Greenacre Writers Short Story competition

Hollow Oranges by Deborah Bowkis

Frank left the oranges so she’d find them. He’d arranged them carefully, in a heap, like cannonballs. Elizabeth looked at them, rolled up the sleeves of her blouse, picked one up and weighed in it her hands; it felt light, as though it was hollow. She tumbled them into the sink where they bobbed about in the water.
            ​‘Seville oranges are in,Frank had said, the day before, and hed dumped a carrier bag, full of them, in the kitchen, ‘make marmalade.
             She pressed down on one of the oranges and held it under.
            ​Elizabeth pulled the plug out of the sink and the drain sucked at the water, like a child drinking through a straw. She picked up an orange and sliced it in half, squashed it in the juicer and the citric liquid gushed out. She poured it into the pan and threw the skin to one side. As she worked the skins piled up; they lay, like empty bellies, only bitter pith left inside them. It beat her why Frank liked the stuff.
            ​‘Course, a blob a jams good enough for you,hed said when she complained about making it, ‘you wouldn’t understand a sophisticated palette.
            ​With the edge of her metal spoon she scraped at the inside of the discarded skins, scouring out the pith and flopping the pulp onto a square of muslin. A faint perfume misted the air but as she sniffed, it faded. Scraping again at orange after orange she pared away the flesh like fat from a hide. Each orange was purged until the mound inside the muslin grew. Finally she tied the muslin tight and plopped the ball of pulp into the pan with the juice, where it bobbed about helplessly. The bitterness would seep out and taint the marmalade.
            ​‘Poor bloody blob,she said as she watched it float.
            ​The hollowed out skins remained, cupped inside each other. She split them apart then shredded them. The tiny slivers scattered about the worktop. As the sun shone beneath her window nets it picked them out like sunbeams. Elizabeth lifted a piece of the rind and put it on her tongue but its bitterness splintered through her mouth.
            ​The marmalade was beginning to bubble. She tipped in the shredded rind and for a moment the pieces of peel glowed like sunshine. She poured in some sugar and turned up the heat. The slivers of orange began to rise up and roll over like dead goldfish. Bubbles rose to the surface turning the liquid the colour of autumn.
            ​‘I want it thin cut,Frank had insisted.
            ​‘But Frank itll take me hours,shed said.
            ​‘Youve nothing else to do woman.
            ​That was true.
            ​In the pan small glass domes appeared on top of the liquid, swollen by the heat, they grew bigger and bigger, like boils. One burst. Then a second, and a third, until the pan bubbled like a cauldron. Elizabeth stirred. The steam rose and her face shone with the moisture; her hair frizzed. She seized the spoon and held it above the broth like a wand,
            ​‘I wish, I wish …’ she said, but no wish came.
            ​ She spooned out the pulpy muslin bag and threw it into the sink,
            ​‘Useless bloody blob,she said.
            ​Scum frothed on the surface of the liquid and settled, like litter, around the rim. After a while it hardened to a white crust. She skimmed it away, glad to be busy, glad not to think. All that wishing ... The marmalade boiled, she stirred the bubbles down, scared they’d boil over. The hands of the clock ticked towards the end of the day.
            ​The old jam jars were sterilising in the oven; she opened the door. A whiff of fusty old air wafted out.
            ​‘Those lids!she said and waved the smell away.
            ​‘Use the old ones,hed said when shed asked for money.
            She slammed the door shut, lifted the pan off the heat and puddled a dollop of the marmalade onto a saucer. Pushing her finger through the warm pool she watched it crinkle. It was set. She licked her finger, and then shuddered at the taste.
            Elizabeth looked at the clock, then at the door. Frank would be home soon. She imagined him walking in and the sound, like sandpaper, as he rubbed his hands together in expectation. She rushed to finish. Sloshing the marmalade into the jars, it dribbled down the sides and onto her hands making them sticky. Pushing jar after jar aside she fumbled, lost her grip, one fell on the floor and smashed. The broken jar oozed its liquid across the lino’. The front door clicked open. Frank. She froze. The metallic zing of his zip undid the silence. He be hanging up his coat, on the hook, then hed walk into the kitchen, and see the mess and…
            ​She grabbed a paper towel and tried to wipe up the goo. Swishing from side to side she wiped frantically but it was so thick. Damn! She ripped another towel and wiped again at the floor. As she smeared she looked closely at the tiny slivers of peel shed cut so carefully. They looked like insects trapped forever in amber.
             ​The door cracked open.
            ​‘You stupid woman!
            ​For a moment she just stared up at Frank. Then she stood. Looking straight at him, she swept the jars off the worktop. A million fragments scattered like spent ammunition across the floor, but the marmalade flowed.