Winner - Hope Street by Hayley Young

Growing up on Hope Street, you wore a metaphorical badge. Not one of honour, far from it – more a mark of the tainted. We were ‘bad’ kids from worse families, holes in our shoes and bruises in place of school lunches, apt to flatten you over an ill-timed glance. 

I was more of a runner than a fighter, and by necessity learned speed. While the after-school activities of most other neighbourhood kids featured fights in the McDonald’s carpark, I fled like a frightened rabbit to enjoy a few peaceful hours before my uncle came home. With the benefit of hindsight, I know those kids starting trouble were only avoiding their own versions of my uncle, staying away from home for whatever reason they could create. It just so happens that when you grow up with anger, most of your creations tend to be violent.

I had one kindred spirit on Hope Street, who I met in a bin enclosure when I was seven years old. My uncle was particularly angry that night, the pitch building in his voice; I knew better than to be around when he came stumbling down the hall. Despite the fact I was his blood, his rage towards his wife for taking me into their care was a dormant disease. Alcohol flared it up, and after a few beers he wore the rash of hatred red all over him. By seven, I was impressively nimble at escaping through my window. He had plenty of lessons to teach me, but I was a fast learner. 

It was cold that night, as I picked my way between bushes to the shelter of the bin enclosure, only to find it occupied by another. I recognised her, she was in the class above me at school, but you got to know the faces of the other kids from Hope Street. I knew her name was Bailey, and she was huddled between two otto bins. It was well past the bedtime of any civilised child, but sneaking out your window in the dark was something Hope Street taught us at a young age.

‘You hiding?’ Bailey whispered.

I nodded. ‘My uncle’s on the piss.’

‘Same with my Mum,’ she said, and shuffled to make room for me. We sat for what could have only been a few minutes before a red and blue glow reflected off the bins. Police cars were common in our street, but Bailey panicked. ‘I’ve got to go, Mum will think it was me who called them.’ 

With no plans of my own that ended well, I followed as she pelted down the footpath. I was nervous as we approached the park – it was unsafe at the best of times, let alone at night. I slowed as we reached the end of the streetlights and darkness stretched in front of us. 

‘Don’t worry.’ Bailey flicked a lighter in the air and led the way. Determined that she would not think me a baby, I followed.

Some civic genius had redesigned the park at the end of Hope Street in the preceding year, kitting it out with play equipment which was vandalised within weeks, and a skate bowl that remained entirely unused – no children from those parts had anything with wheels. The only thing that remained safe from arson was the shiny new toilet block; a haven for drinking and shooting up, protected from the weather and with running water.

We were smart enough to avoid that, and made for the skate bowl. The icy edge bit my calves as I eased myself onto the rim, but I have never felt so brave as I did sitting there watching over our small domain, our cold concrete crater glinting in the moonlight. I pulled a packet of fads from my pocket, proudly offering one to Bailey like a box of candy cigarettes made me king of the street, which I suppose was not a far cry from the truth. We sat on the side of the skate bowl, backsides growing colder, savouring the sugar slowly disintegrating in our mouths.

‘You didn’t nick these, did you Josh?’ Bailey asked. I remember being chuffed she knew my name.

‘Nah, I seen a dollar on the ground under the claw machine.’

‘Good.’ Bailey chewed thoughtfully. ‘You shouldn’t nick stuff.’

‘Why not?’ I asked her. I knew the other kids did.

She shrugged. ‘Doesn’t taste as good.’

I loved her instantly following that conversation, the easy way love comes when you are seven and haven’t known a lot of kindness. Even though Bailey was a year older, a big deal when you are a kid, I made my mind up that very night that I wanted to marry her. I had believed I could provide her some kind of sanctuary. I should have known I could never hope to save her in the ways she saved me. 

***

Escapes to the skate bowl quickly became routine. For two years I was too nervous to go there without Bailey, but one autumn afternoon anger overtook fear, and I made my first solo visit. It was still light, and I sat in the bowl by myself, lighting gum leaves on fire and feeling the bruise on my cheekbone spreading. 

Bailey found me of course, sliding expertly down the bowl, skidding to a stop in front of me to slap the lighter out of my hand and tell me to stop burning poor leaves that never done nothing.

‘What’s the point?’ I asked sulkily.

I must have asked that a thousand times during our friendship, and she always had an answer. The point in cleaning your fingernails is so they don’t fall off; the point in doing homework is so you don’t grow up stupid; the point in collecting cans for coins is because the-world-doesn’t-owe-you-a-bloody-thing-Joshua-you-have-to-earn-it.

I have come to understand that was what was strikingly different about Bailey. Unlike everyone else we were surrounded with; she really didn’t believe the world owed her anything. I’m not sure she even had the ability to feel self-pity, she simply lived with a calm acceptance of her life so far, and determination to take that destiny and shatter it like the beer bottles we tossed at streetlights. Unfortunately, sometimes it is destiny that shatters you.

***

When I was eleven, I woke to see Bailey squatting in my windowsill. I wish I handled that heroically, but instead I threw a shoe at her and swore.

‘Can we go?’ she whispered, and I knew from her tone it was bad. There had always been a crack in my window, and that winter’s frost had seen it spread. I remember the crack glinting in the streetlight above Bailey’s head, thinking it looked like a frozen halo. We went to the skate bowl silently; I could see her black eye even in the dark. We hunkered down with the blanket I had brought, my right knee touching her left.

‘You’re a nice boy, Josh.’

‘Am not,’ I said, immediately on the defensive. Might as well call me doomed as call me nice on Hope Street. ‘Just yesterday, I-’

‘It’s a good thing,’ Bailey interrupted, amused. ‘You don’t have to make up a reason for it not to be true.’

That was the first night she let me hold her hand, and the metaphor is not lost on me that I clung to Bailey like I was drowning and she was my oxygen. 

***

Visiting Mum in prison was always a disaster. Whether my mother was always detached, I couldn’t tell you – as long as I had known her she had been drug-addled or locked up, so I never knew what she could be like otherwise. My uncle never visited his sister, but my aunt took me once a month. She would get frustrated at Mum’s total apathy, and start a fight. The one thing that could get Mum animated was an argument, and their screaming matches were enough to make even prison guards cringe. 

After every visit, my aunt would stomp to the bus, and simmer in angry silence for five stops. We always got off the bus early, the days we visited Mum. My aunt would take me to McDonald’s and buy me whatever I wanted, scraping coins from her fraying handbag, never buying anything for herself. I always shared as we walked home, anyway. She never had to ask me not to tell my uncle, I knew we could not bear the true cost of six chicken nuggets if he found out. 

After one particularly bad visit to Mum, I stole four beers from the fridge. I knew my uncle would not notice that; beer was the one thing he could not keep accurate track of, on account of the amount he went through. The sun was setting, and Bailey and I went to the skate bowl and drank the beers. I remember not liking the taste, but liking the way it made me feel – not a great thing to discover at age twelve. We lay, heads spinning, and talked about dying.

You forget, as an adult, how often children talk about death. Like vampires and ghosts, dying strikes a resonant chord of fear, but talking about it makes you brave. Death swaggered down Hope Street, graceless and ostentatious, but it never came close enough to either of us to be more than a fascinating topic. 

‘I don’t care how I die,’ Bailey declared. ‘As long as it’s not on Hope Street.’

‘Hope-I-never-see-you-again Street,’ I muttered, and Bailey laughed. Her laugh was rare and genuine, an endangered animal. Seeing it in the wild was thrilling.

I suppose our macabre conversation did make us brave, because I kissed her. I forgot all about mortality as she kissed me back. Neither of us were to know that death would soon come close enough for us to see its triumphant grin.

***

As we grow, death holds less space in our developing minds as sex takes over. Children are philosophers, but teenagers are firing nerve-circuits. Things happened younger than they ideally should, on Hope Street, but this was one phenomenon Bailey and I handled with a delicacy and respect that defied the odds of our environment. I never considered her my girlfriend, but friendship has many faces and as always, we cultivated each other’s curiosity. Trips to the skate bowl became about something more than running away, and I guess that was a sign we were growing up. I think, thanks to each other, we were growing up alright. 

The world ended, more or less, when I was fifteen. My uncle snapping was a daily occurrence, but unpredictable as to timing. Alcohol made it worse. Every day with him was like pouring Coca-Cola over ice cubes, at some point cracks would appear, loud and definite, but you could never guess when.

My aunt had taken me to visit Mum. We made our usual stop on the way home, and she tossed our burger wrapper on the ground. I picked it up, joking she was a tosser and poking it into her handbag. Not littering had been another what’s the point lesson from Bailey. My aunt laughed, telling me to remind her to throw it in the communal bin when we got home. Catastrophically, I forgot.

I entered the kitchen and my uncle had her against the wall, burger wrapper in hand. ‘This what you spend my money on, you dogs?!’ He glared at me, elbow on my aunt’s neck. I know my heart was racing, but my mind slowed down: enough to recognise his pathetic entitlement, this man never earned a dollar in his life; enough for me to have the reckless, irreversible thought that I was taller than him now. I registered Bailey’s face in the window behind my uncle. I yelled to call the police, and she disappeared. 

‘Call the cops and I’ll kill you!’ my uncle roared, moving towards the door. My aunt slid to the floor, eyes so wide with terror I thought they might fall out. I grabbed the first thing my hand made contact with, an ashtray, and threw it at my uncle. To both our surprise, it hit him in the head, and I saw his simmering hate for me erupt. He lunged, and I reached again. This time, my hand found a half-empty bottle of bourbon, and I brought it down over his head. 

It’s my curse that I remember what followed perfectly. I remember the jolt that travelled up my arms, the blood spreading over the linoleum. I remember he twitched four times, and a fly landed on him, and then he never moved again.

Bailey clung to me as police cars pulled up. She was crying, tiny diamonds I did not deserve. She and my aunt begged the police not to take me, a little riot of two. The police did take me, of course, there was a body on the kitchen floor.

I never stood much chance at the trial – we are a species of preconceived notions, and I was a kid from Hope Street. Despite testimony from my aunt and myself pleading self-defence, the manslaughter charge stuck. Even at fifteen, I outsized my uncle considerably, and just because the truth is true, it does not mean it will be believed. I was sentenced to fifteen years, spread across juvenile detention then adult prison – a staggering number when it matches the years you have existed. 

That is where I am now, and why you might find my tone more educated than that in my childhood recollections. Fifteen years is enough time to master language, and if I had to grow up incarcerated, I refused to grow up stupid. Fifteen years is also enough time to reflect. I’m hardly the first in a long line of lawbreakers, but I had so desperately wanted to be different. I became my own ultimate failure, became everything predicted and expected of me. 

There is always some light, though, even in our worst stories. My aunt visits every week, and brings chicken nuggets for us to share. I respect that she found beauty in our memories, and has wisely never brought me a burger. She is lighter now, freer, and I realise she was the closest thing to a mother I ever had. She tried her hardest; there was a lot she could not protect me from, but she spent years washing my sheets, making me devon sandwiches, spoiling me in secret as best she could.

Bailey visits too, every few months. I appreciate that she still comes after all these years. She has done well for herself, and now lives far away from Hope Street. She has a decent job, and she has been to thirteen different countries. She shows me photographs of the places she has travelled, tells me she has souvenirs for me when I’m out. She has the good grace not to talk about her romantic life, but I can tell by the glow around her that someone loves her. It breaks some childish, idealistic part of my heart, but I am happy for her. It would have been a terrible waste for Bailey not to be loved. I have made peace with the fact she left Hope Street and all it contained behind, but now I need to learn how to get through my days outside without her, and it terrifies me. 

Every time Bailey leaves, she repeats the same mantra. ‘You’re a nice boy, Josh.’ She says it despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and I know she is trying to make me believe it the way she does. I think I have a way to go to deserve that faith, but I’m working on it, and I hope I will get there. Hope is such a necessary emotion, but it’s the thing that makes me saddest of all. The things I hope for are the things I have to lose.  

Next month, my sentence is up. Fifteen years of my life gone, the aspiring nice boy is thirty years old. I will return to living with my aunt on Hope Street, right back where I started. Good things happened so rarely for us, I feel like it would have been a terrific stretch of the fabric of the universe if both Bailey and I managed to leave. If only one of us was able to get out, I’m glad it was her. I would choose for it to be her every minute of every hour.

My aunt says Hope Street isn’t so bad anymore, regentrification is the order of the day. She sniffed as she told me one of the new residents opened a vegan cafe, vegan – like it was some disease of the wealthy, which to her I suppose it is. Apparently, kids actually play at the park now; a skate bowl full of happy squeals and skinned knees. 

I mean to find a quiet moment, when I can, and lay in that skate bowl again. It seems far-fetched, but I hope through some cheap trick of my mind the memories might deign to visit me. If not the memories, then at least the lessons. For all that our world taught us to be reactive, Bailey showed me how to be receptive. For every smack in the face, she had something to unfurl. She never needed anybody to save her, because she saved herself. Maybe, in that skate bowl, if I pay attention to all the things she showed me, I can do the same thing.

2nd Prize - The Coffee Drinkers by Beverley Lello



They meet at the café to solve the problems of the world. And talk about their health. They favour the tables on the footpath, even when it’s cold. Three older men, retired, with time on their hands, bodies going to seed and minds with pockets of fog collecting in the corners. 

‘Mind if I join you?’ A flirtatious smile on her lips, punctuating the question. 

Jack almost wrenches his bad knee in the scramble to find a fourth chair. Ralph makes polite noises and Frank, always generous, says, ‘Can I get you a coffee?’

‘I’m good,’ she says. ‘Already ordered.’                                                      

Jack manoeuvres the fourth chair so she will sit on his righthand side, next to his good ear. She slides onto the chair, tucking her long legs under the table and flicking her scarf, a creation of many colours, over her left shoulder. ‘I’m Ailsa,’ she says. ‘I’ve been noticing you guys ever since I arrived in town. Been wondering what you talk about every day.’

Hesitation. They are stunned into an unusual silence. No attractive, youthful person of unknown origin has ever stopped at their table and asked to be part of their group. Friends often pause and say a quick, G’day. How’s the coffee? Nice drop of rain yesterday. Going to be a scorcher, that sort of thing. This was taking stopping to chat to a new level.

‘So what do you talk about?

Ralph thinks, probably not interested in the saga of Frank’s prostate cancer. Hope he keeps his mouth shut.

Jack is the first one to find his voice. ‘Weather, weeds and medical matters,’ he says. ‘Oh, and the pattern the barista creates in the coffee froth. Our barista considers himself an artist.’

The timing is perfect. Her coffee arrives. Ben, the famed barista, appears in his Doc Martens and a kilt that offers a glimpse of tattooed calves; his hair is a version of short back and sides with a perched ponytail of dreadlocks. He places the cup in front of Ailsa and all eyes focus on the leaf, skilfully feathered in froth.

‘Perfect,’ she says.

‘Top marks for that one,’ adds Jack. 

‘Thanks,’ says Ben, and disappears back inside. 

‘He created a rabbit with erect ears at Easter,’ Frank says. ‘An artist.’

They all nod.

‘So, Ailsa,’ says Frank, ‘Any interest in those topics?’

Ralph scrapes his spoon around the inside of his empty cup. Politics, the state of the world, poetry, thinks Ralph. We’re not senile

She lifts the cup with two hands and takes a sip. ‘Happy to start with the coffee.’

Ralph, now attentive to the young apparition at their table, resists an impulse to reach out with his finger and brush the line of froth from her upper lip. She is like his daughter, many miles away in Queensland. Is this wave of tenderness a longing for the absent daughter, or this lovely look-alike? Does she even resemble his daughter, or is it just her youth? The spark in her eyes? He likes young women. Not in an inappropriate way, he tells himself, he just likes them.

‘And does the coffee meet your expectations?’ asks Frank.

She runs her tongue across her lip and the froth disappears. ‘It’s great. I’ve tried the other cafes in town. Ben’s coffee is the best.’ She pauses and fixes her eyes on each of them in turn. ‘I just haven’t had the courage to ask to join you.’

‘Courage,’ says Jack. ‘Do we look that scary?’

‘Not scary. More like a club. Self-contained. It’s hard when you’re new to decide what club to join. I’ve noticed you’re here at nine and disappear by ten. That’s suits me. I don’t want to be too distracted from my work.’

She thinks she’s going to join us every day, thinks Ralph. They’d been on the cusp of talking about something significant before she arrived, now he’s struggling to remember what that was. His attention is caught by the wine-barrel planter next to the table. The bloody council, they’ve let the soil get too dry. That will go on the agenda for the next garden club meeting.

‘What work is that?’ asks Jack.

‘I’m finishing a novel.’

‘You’re writing a novel!’ Ralph latches onto the word novel, forgets about the planter. All his life he’s wanted to write a novel. He’s tried several times, but life seems to get in the way. He’s only ever finished poems. He has one in his pocket now. He’d considered reading it to the group this morning. Jack has a good ear for verse – not the deaf side – and often helps with a tricky bit of rhyme or suggests a more appropriate word. This poem would be staying in his pocket today. No way was he going to expose his scribblings to a real writer.

‘I’ve finished it, actually.’ She grins at him and their eyes lock. Hers sparkle. His wife would have called them hazel. Ailsa continues, speaking just to him: ‘I’m working on the final draft. This town seemed like a nice quiet place to do it. I’m renting Sarah Dean’s house. Do you know it?’

Ralph nods. They all nod. Sarah Dean had died recently and her daughters were renting the house out until they had the time to fix it up for sale. 

‘I live in Paris most of the time, but my parents are in Melbourne. Too many distractions in cities.’

They all laugh. They know about cities even though none of them has ever lived in one. 

‘Another round of coffees?’ Frank pushes his chair back. ‘Was that a latte you had, Ailsa?’ 

‘A skinny one, thanks.’

‘Same for you lot? Regular cappuccinos.’

Nods all round. They never have two coffees. Jack would tell them that one a day is extravagant. Two coffees a day could approach the terrifying, pension-sapping amount of seventy dollars a week. Frank, usually the most budget-conscious of the three, is throwing caution to the wind.

Ralph wants to keep her talking about the novel. He’s pleased Frank has gone inside to order. ‘The novel, what’s it about?’ he asks, hoping to stop Jack from launching into a lengthy dissertation on the real estate situation in town. 

‘You don’t have to tell us,’ Jack says. ‘We’re just a bunch of nosey parkers.’

Shut up, Jack, thinks Ralph. He pushes the bubble of irritation down. Wants Jack, sprouting his ridiculous nosey parker idioms, to disappear too. He serves them up regularly. Too regularly. Why are they even friends? Was their friendship as tired as the clothes they wore? – Jack in his too short shorts and long socks, Frank in his misshapen cardigan, creases in his pants. Him in his vest and beret. Why did they keep meeting every day? The comfort and security of it. The knowing that they could berate or argue against an idea put forward by one of them and it wouldn’t cause offence because if they took offence who else would listen to their ramblings.

He’s hoisted back into the conversation when he hears Ailsa say, ‘I don’t mind talking about it.’ She traces her finger around the lip of the coffee cup and licks the creamy froth. ‘It’s more of a memoir, a creative memoir about how I came to be living in Paris.’

Ralph knows about Paris. That’s where he got the idea to wear a beret to disguise his baldness. He and Maggie had gone on a tour in the first year of his retirement. Five days in Paris: Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Arc de Triomphe, Sacre Coeur, Le Louvre. He remembers it now as a series of photos. Maggie in the foreground, the famous icons in the background. He couldn’t imagine writing a novel about that version of Paris. He had wanted to do more wandering. He thinks of the word flâneur and drifts, briefly, into a different version of that time where the light is filtering through the oak trees lining the street, highlighting the chestnut streaks in Ailsa’s hair. They’re wandering along the banks of the Seine, on their way to a café on the Left Bank or a poetry reading in that book shop with the antiquated façade he’d glimpsed when he and Maggie had done the tour on the Paris double-decker bus. It comes to him in a flash – Shakespeare and Company – and he feels a stab of satisfaction in his ability to recall it.

‘Ralph’s a writer,’ offers Jack, pinching out the daydream.

Ralph winces. He hates labels and the way Jack says it in the same way he’d say, Ralph’s a cyclist or Ralph’s a builder.

 But the lovely Ailsa, widens her eyes at him. ‘Are you,’ she says. ‘What do you write?’

He closes his eyes because he doesn’t want to see the disappointment on her face. ‘Mostly poetry,’ he says. There’s only silence. He opens his eyes and sees her turning away. Disinterested or distracted because Frank reappears and scrapes his chair on the concrete path as he sits down and drags it up to the table. 

‘Coffees are on their way,’ he says. ‘Bit of a queue in there.’  His spotty hands reach out for Ailsa’s glass and saucer. ‘I’ll take these.’ He lifts the glass and clatters his own cup on top of the saucer, repeats the process with the rest. It’s all noise. Paris and novels and poetry readings are out the window and Ralph feels angry. He concentrates hard on the sign on the window that says the muffin of the day is apple and date. He’ll buy one and cram it into Frank’s mouth so he’ll shut up and sit still. Now Frank is standing up again and saying, ‘I’ll take them inside. Maybe you could hold the door open for me Ailsa.’ Ralph watches her smile, say, ‘Sure’, extricate herself from the table and glide across to the door. 

That’s when he sees her bag, a large cloth one, has fallen open revealing a bulky notebook, coloured tags marking pages. A diary, he thinks. Of course, she keeps a diary. Real writers are always on the job, observing, jotting things down, listening.

His latest poem, in his pocket, rustles through the fabric of his trousers. He’s never kept a diary. His jottings are scribbles on scraps of paper. They inhabit the house: kitchen table, bedside table, desk, next to the basin in the bathroom. Images, words, fragments of ideas littering his otherwise empty house. They are attempts to make meaning out of a life that seems bent on making him feel lonelier and more isolated every day. Maggie gone; daughter far away assuming he can survive on a birthday card, a Christmas card, a rare, rushed phone call. 

Then the poem is out of his pocket and clenched in his hand. His arm, and the hand holding the poem, seem to act independently. The hand drops the poem into her bag, nudges it between the cover of the diary and a tapestry wallet. The hand tries to pull the flap closed, but Jack’s voice intrudes. He looks up. His old heart flutters, but it’s only Jack chatting to Anne from the garden club. They’ll be talking about rainfall, or compost, or the best way to eradicate cape weed. Jack’s raking his fingers through his thick white hair, pushing his glasses so they sit higher on his nose. He hasn’t noticed Ralph drop the poem into the open bag. Frank and Ailsa are moving back to the table. He’s doing that gentlemanly thing he does when he’s around a woman, guiding her by a gentle prod on the back, pulling out her chair, shifting the table slightly so that she can slide into it. Why did men of his generation still think women incapable of pulling out a chair? 

Ben is behind them with two of the coffees. Ralph wants to retrieve the poem and return it to his pocket, but Ailsa reaches down and raises the bag to her lap, flicking a tag across the opening and pressing a clasp into place. The bag stays coiled on her knee like a sleeping cat. She even strokes it as if it needs settling and soothing. 

Ralph wants access to that bag. He would retrieve the poem. Eat it. Swallow it. Never write another one. Ever. But if he reached for the bag, she would look at him aghast. Frown at him. Think, oddball. Crazy old guy. He sighs. Sips his coffee. Says nothing more. Leaves it to Frank and Jack to keep the conversation going with the mundane. Finally, she’s standing up, saying she needs to go, thanks for the coffee and conversation, maybe she’ll stop by tomorrow.

She loops her bag over her shoulder and looks straight at Ralph. ‘And thanks. I’m looking forward to reading your poem.’



3rd Prize - Grief in Four Movements by Naomi Currie

Movement 1 

I follow closely as the woman shuffles into a living room crowded with floral sofas. She gestures towards an old upright piano as I place my bag of tools down on the carpet. 

Oh dear, one of those pianos. Unable to think of something more tactful, I say, “I rarely see this model of piano anymore.” (Thank goodness.)

The lady beams and the shaking of her blue-veined hands becomes more pronounced. “It belonged to my Auntie,” she explains, pride in the quavers of her voice. “It is ninety years old, and a good quality piano.” 

“Lippman was one of many brands from the early 1900s,” I say carefully. “Every household had a piano, and there was such a demand for instruments that the quality of workmanship suffered. Few of the pianos from that era are in working order today.” 

“That makes my piano special, doesn’t it?” 

I must have been too tactful. 

My fake smile vanishes as I remove the upper and lower sounding boards to reveal the piano strings. The outer shell of the piano smells of fresh polish, but the mechanism reminds me of a Jewish proverb; They paint the sepulchres white, but inside are rotting bones.

“Some of the strings have frayed badly,” I tell the woman.

“But I always took great care of the piano!”

I choose more direct words. “The reason there are few Lippman pianos left today is that mass production sometimes led to poorer quality workmanship and design.”

“Oh, but my piano is handcrafted!” She adds, “My grandson is showing promise. His family does not have a piano, so he will be coming over to practice on mine.” 

Oh dear. I play some simple thirds, but the lack of harmonisation and horrendous pitch compel me to stop. Some of the keys are warped, and the internal mechanism is disintegrating as time compounds the issues created by poor workmanship. 

I’m a piano tuner, not a miracle-worker. 

I explain that no matter my efforts, playing the piano will expedite its decline. 

But she still smiles. There is something about the smile that makes me think of Celeste. I push thoughts of Celeste away and listen to the woman’s words. 

“I know it is not a grand piano,” she says, “But it is wonderful to think that my grandson will learn to play on his great-great-aunt’s piano.”

“I know you treasure this piano, but perhaps you should consider retiring it. If your grandson tries to learn piano on this instrument, he will be unable to recognise the correct sound of each note and chord, and he likely will develop bad techniques to compensate for faulty keys. A modern keyboard would give him a better opportunity.”

“A keyboard! Oh no, not when he can learn on a family heirloom.”

I hint that she could spend my quoted fee instead on a keyboard for her grandson. But at the end of my explanations, she asks me to tune the piano. 

I try. I work my way along the keyboard, one string at a time. It is a disheartening task. The felt has worn off the hammers and the keys still stick. The tuning pegs are too smooth and the wires too brittle for me to be confident that my work will hold. How could the lady not see and hear that this piano is beyond tuning? How can she continue to believe that there is nothing wrong a check-over and tune can’t fix?

Even in my frustration, I know that she is not the first or last person to lie to herself. Bother, I’ve done it myself, and with more important things than pianos. My thoughts jolt back several years and I think of Celeste again…

Celeste is sitting at the table, her dark head resting on her arms. She tells me she is “just tired” and that the cure is iron tablets, rest and vitamins. We need to give the treatment more time, it’s too early, she says. We both know she has lost weight without trying, and the doctor seems concerned. Yet we choose denial for too long. 

I turn a tuning peg hard and the frayed wire protests. I loosen the peg, thankful the wire did not snap and whiplash out. Never ignore warning signs. 

Eventually I reach the last key. I play Handel’s Largo, simplified so that the notes do not jar or stick. The lady tells me that Largo was played at her daughter’s wedding. 

She says Largo speaks to her of love and faithfulness. 

Yet I hear only discord. 

*   *   *

Movement 2 

Several days later, I stand in front of a different piano, in a different house. My hand reaches out involuntarily towards the sleek blackness of the baby grand piano. 

“What a quality instrument,” I say sincerely, “Your Yamaha is always a pleasure to tune.”

“The piano is decent enough, I suppose,” the owner says, gathering up the sheet music dumped on the stool, the book ledge and top of the piano. With effort, I remove my eyes from the piano to look at him. And coincidently the room. There are music books and papers everywhere, and glass-fronted cupboards reveal the narrow spines of hundreds, perhaps thousands more music books.   Alongside the piano sits an electric keyboard, and near that a desk with a double screen computer, box speakers and elaborate sound mixing set-up. 

“Sorry about the mess,” he says, offhandedly. “Been busy composing this week. Have a deadline coming up soon.” 

“How’s the composing going?”

“There are several notes drastically out of tune.” He demonstrates. He’s right – sort-of. Three notes are minutely off-pitch, making several chord intervals too wide, and one too narrow. 

He rolls up some sheet music and smacks the piano stool with it. “If those notes were in tune, I would have finished composing the second movement last week.” 

I quirk an eyebrow into the recesses of the piano and turn the conversation to tuning. The owner is more particular than most of my clients, but his ear is excellent, and this is the fourth or fifth visit I have made to his studio. We work together in mutual respect to account for the idiosyncrasies of his instrument.  

After an hour and a half, he nods grudgingly. “I suppose that will have to do. This Yamaha is a nice enough instrument and fits my space, but my dream piano would be…” He expounds, anger in his voice as he jabs at a note on the keyboard. “If I had my dream instrument, think what I might accomplish!”

I remember he said those same words last time. He has said it so often has persuaded himself that the ‘flaws’ of this piano mean he never had the opportunity to achieve his dreams. It is not his overindulgences, his skill set or the existence of more accomplished competitors. It is all the piano’s fault. 

The cycle of anger and bargaining is a self-destructive one. 

As he keeps talking, the sound I hear morphs into my own voice. If only I had more time, I hear my voice say; if only life wasn’t so cruel, if only I could change the unchangeable. I see the hurt in Celeste’s face, the wet redness of her eyes, and I hate myself for taking it out on her. I should be the one helping and supporting her. Instead, I’m angry about everything I can’t do, and trying to bargain away the un-bargainable. 

I would tell him not to do this to himself, and instead focus on being the best composer and pianist he can be. But he’s still talking, so I say none of it aloud. 

It was a long time before I would listen to Celeste, and this man isn’t ready to listen to the piano tuner.  

I pack up my tools and shuffle my feet. Eventually he seems to realise I am leaving and stops talking. In the lull, I say, “Life is short, dreams are shorter still.” 

“What did you mean?” His face is puzzled. 

I don’t explain, but I grip his hand a moment longer than normal as I say goodbye.  

*   *   *

Movement 3 

The next house visit that I remember was weeks, perhaps even months, after the Yamaha. 

On this occasion I follow the lady and her aura of perfume across marble tiles, past great potted palms and under a glass roof that mimics a conservatory. The music room is left of the main staircase and the centrepiece is grand piano.

Not just any grand piano. I step forward quickly, my eyes mesmerised by the black keys at the base end of the keyboard. I count all nine of them, knowing that these extra keys give the piano the impressive range of eight full octaves. 

“An Imperial Bösendorfer, 97 keys in total,” I whisper. 

“Handcrafted in Austria. One of the only 300 they made last year. We had it specially imported for this room.” 

There’s something about the lady’s voice, a strange and weary flatness, that makes me momentarily more interested in her than the instrument. Her monotonal words are at variance to the proud words. 

“Your Bösendorfer is a magnificent instrument,” I say. It would also be valued between three and four hundred thousand. Additional costs would also include the cost of importing it, and ongoing insurance. Additionally, most owners would pay to fly in a Bösendorfer-approved tuner from Austria. 

So why was I contracted to tune a piano worth more than my house? 

I play several notes in the base end of the keyboard, and the perfection of the resonance thrills me. The extra base notes themselves I have little interest in, but the added volume and tonal quality they lend the rest of the standard base notes is thrilling. 

The lady moves away and I barely notice; my interest absorbed by the piano. I have never tuned a piano of this calibre, and may never again.  

I uncover the tuning pegs and sound the A below middle C. Precise, immaculately pitched to my ear. I sound the D; infinitesimally over pitched; one of the note’s strings could be tightened a little. I touch the G. It’s the perfect pitch of an unplayed, untouched piano. 

Through my excitement comes a sharp spear of disappointment and comprehension. How many Imperial Bösendorfers become symbols of status, yet empty of life and joy?

I tune the piano carefully. When I finish, I play my usual cadences to check my work. But the emptiness of the room and the coldness of the tiled floor seep through my hands, and out through the keyboard. Heavenly cadences morph into something much more sober. The echoes die slowly, the space killing them at last. 

With a start, I discover the lady has returned and is standing inside the room. “That was a nice piece,” she says. She gives a small smile, but the stretch marks around her face speak of something that is not a smile. “It had repeating chords.”

“It’s a famous piece by Frédéric Chopin, a great composer of the 1800s,” I tell her, “Part of one of his sonatas.” 

I don’t tell her that the name of the piece is Marche funèbreThe Funeral March. Two centuries later, its chords still speak to human hearts of death and grief. 

I want to tell her that I understand. That I know what it is like to go through that numbing stage, when the pain becomes so unbearable, it encases you, claiming to protect your fragility until things improve. Instead, it perpetuates hurt and divides you from those you love.  

It separated Celeste and I from each other, it betrayed the vows we had made to each other. 

“Here’s a livelier piece,” I say quickly. But after a few bars, I realise that I’m playing a section from another of Chopin’s symphonies. On a piano like this, the notes are crying, expressing a depression and pain deeper than human words. I try to play something different, even a few bars of waltz. But my fingers and heart fight my hands.

My fingers are shaking. Really, I’m a grown man, how could I be so unnerved by the melancholy of this room? No, it’s not really the room. The French doors lead directly to green, sunlit garden, the lack of much other furniture in the room draws attention – rightly – to the centre piece, and the acoustics are – I’m running out of synonyms for ‘perfect’. It’s not the room, it’s the lady. 

I pack up my tools and discuss the bill. The lady seems to be hardly listening. I leave behind a piano designed to be played and admired, but now sitting silent. 

But for one moment, as I shut my van door, I think I hear something. A perfect note A, a precise 440Hz coming from inside the house.  And then just silence.

*   *   *

Movement 4 

At the next house, a woman opens the door, with a toddler on her hip, and holding a dog by the collar. Another child, perhaps five or six, is holding onto her leg. 

“I’m here to tune the piano,” I say.

“Oh, of course! Ben, pick up your toys! Come in! Stop barking Rover!” She relaxes slightly when I’ve stepped over the toys and shut the door behind me. “We don’t have a gate on the driveway yet,” she explains, “So I can’t let any of these out into the front yard.” 

I nod as though I understand, and she shows me where the piano is. As expected, there are small fingerprints all over the polished wood, and little chips where the piano stool has been shoved in. Several cushions sit on the stool to make it the right height for little hands. 

“Anything particular issues that you’ve noticed?” 

“Just give me a moment to put him outside.” I assume she’s referring to the dog, but she puts both dog and children outside. She returns and points out a key sitting a little higher than the rest. “Maybe one of my boys shoved something underneath the key. I’m not sure whether he used a dinner knife or whether there is something still under there.” 

I unscrew the nuts holding the flat wooden pieces at either end that lock the keyboard in place and investigate. There is something under the key, something red. I manage to poke it out. It is a playing piece of some sort, a fake coin from a game. 

She looks at it. “Oh dear. I thought there was something in there.” 

I grimace and take off the bottom sounding board to reveal the lower part of the piano harp. 

“Oh!” Sitting on a little ledge inside the cavity is a toy dinosaur, a star-shaped paper clip, a five dollar note, a couple of game pieces and a small plastic figurine. 

The lady hasn’t noticed what I have found. She’s frowning to herself in a resigned sort of way as she runs her fingers over a long scratch above the music book shelf. 

I wonder if I should say something. No. It’s just a child’s secret spot for hiding their treasures, and it’s unlikely to be affecting the tonal quality of the piano. 

“How are the children finding playing the piano?” I ask instead.

“Sometimes they seem to make progress, other times they only seem interested in making as loud a noise as possible. One of them can play a semi-recognisable ‘Happy Birthday’.”

“They’re still young.” 

“I accept that the fact that none of my children appear to be musical prodigies. I’m still going to encourage them to practice and challenge themselves, but I realise that they are not achieving anything boast-worthy. They may not while I am alive.” 

Something in the tone of her voice makes me look at her sharply. She’s wearing an open-neck shirt, and for the first time I notice the start of a vertical scar starting just under her collarbone and disappearing into her shirt. 

My stomach sickens. I fumble with my tools, pretending that I am looking for something, but my mind is numb. I’ve seen that type of scar once before. A vertical scar that will run the length of the breastbone; a scar caused by a surgeon’s scalpel. 

As the lady keeps talking, I now hear the faint wheeze on the end of her sentences, the pauses when she catches her breath. They are audible when one knows what to listen for. 

The person I remember seeing with the same scar was an older man, showing me his proof of open-heart surgery after a heart attack that had almost killed him. But the person my thoughts turn to is Celeste. 

Celeste had physical scars of a different sort. A matching pair of horizontal scars slicing across her breasts. To no avail. 

I blink back the wetness in my eyes and focus on the lady. “I think being realistic is very important,” she says, “You need to face life’s challenges squarely and honestly.”

I nod. “And to hold onto hope. True hope is grounded in the realistic weighing of facts. Hope enables you to keep going, whatever or whoever you lose.” 

She looks at me sharply, as though she’s just realised that we might be talking about something other than her children’s musical abilities. Her hand creeps up and bunches her shirt at the neckline to hide the scar. 

Then she gives a cautious smile of solidarity. Because somehow, as two strangers, we recognise we have each reached the fourth movement of the sonata. We have played through the turmoil and the heartache, and have found ourselves in that final movement, that movement of acceptance and hope. 

The End

Highly Commended - Creeping Pines by Ana Louisa Davis

 

It’s absurd to suppose that periods empty of love are blank pages in a woman’s life – Collette

The little bus shifts gears, wending up the steep incline, moving deeper into the snow country. Open fields fall away, replaced by an arena of mountains with clusters of snow-covered pine trees—matsu, I recall from my school-girl Japanese. I also remember reading about the hai-matsu, an alpine, creeping pine that clings to rocks and endures the severe winters. 

I trace a love heart shape in the window condensation, press my nose against the damp glass and peer into the quickening evening. The village is nestled at the foot of the ski resort. I can see families of multi-coloured ski-suits gliding down the lower slopes. They seem far away, like I’m watching them in a silent movie.  

The road is rimmed with low-roofed, traditional Japanese houses and shops, their eaves fringed with snow. Smoke puffs from chimneys.  

I imagine the scent of wood burning, combined with the salty-sweet aromas of soy sauce and sake drifting in the crisp air. Inside the sealed bus, all I can smell is a waft of stale artificial cheese as a passenger rustles a snack bag. 

Must be a gaijin, I think, annoyed. A Japanese person would never eat on the bus.  

As I continue to gaze into the thickening grey, the reflection of a passenger opposite takes shape in my window. A thin-faced, non-Japanese man. His head jostles as the bus judders along the uneven road. He is looking at a book or a phone — from the reflection, I cannot tell which — so that he appears like a disconnected head swimming, suspended. The determined cut of the man’s jaw, his broad nostrils, remind me of Robert. For a moment, I convince myself it is him: floating there, lit up by the interior lights of the bus, superimposed against the darkening mountains. 

It’s not the first time I’ve seen Robert in strangers. I’ve stared, shamelessly like a small child, at ghost doppelgängers, my heart thrashing in my chest. 

But this time, I’m determined to let it flow over me. I am alone. And free. 

***

I meet Sam on my first night in the village. 

I’ve found my home in a basement bar, where it’s warm, dark and grungy. 

‘The Latin Bar’. 

‘Sangria: buy one, get one free’, tempts its lurid sign, drawing me in, damp and shivering, from a sleet-filled night. 

The cultural pastiche of sangrias in the Japanese snow country is just too sweet to refuse! 

Irashaiimaseeeeeee!!!!’ comes the shrill welcome from the diminutive Master-san beaming from behind the bar. There’s hardly anyone in the little cavern. A typical backpacker bar: currencies of all denominations preserved beneath the clear Perspex counters; the rough-hewn walls covered with the autographs of the travellers who have passed through. Apart from its solicitous owner, the only thing that marks it as uniquely Japanese is a vintage Asahi beer poster. After the usual small-talk centred around the Master-san’s amazement at my ability to converse in Japanese, he bows and leaves me to settle into a dark corner with my book and a jug of sangria. 

At 9 pm exactly, I’m shocked out of my reading reveries by Ricky Martin blaring from speakers behind me. I’m surprised to discover a small crowd of travellers have gathered and cleared a space.  

In slides Sam. 

A propulsion of raw, electrical energy.

He’s wearing black trousers with a diamante belt that circles his slim waist and a loose white shirt, open at the chest. I watch his polished black shoes tapping, grinding, spinning on the sticky floor. With a practised flourish, he flings his shirt off to reveal his torso, brown and glistening in the semi-light. He flicks a long fringe off his face with an alluring tilt of his head as he gyrates across the room, cheered on by the appreciative audience. Then, he zeros in on me — perhaps because I’m sitting alone — and I find myself pulled into the cheering centre of the circle. He pushes his bony pelvis against me and twirls me around, adroit and confident. I’ve had sufficient sangria that I loosen and follow his lead. My hips move with his in sensual curves and his body softens into mine. 

With the dying strains of the music, he steps back, still holding my hand; he gazes at me from under that fringe with dangerously dark brown eyes. Having threaded me into his moment, he unceremoniously discards my return gaze as if it was a thing, letting it fall to the floor, and he sweeps out of the room. Up the stairs into the cold night. 

I’m left standing in a puddle of lust and feel shaky as I sit back down. It’s all I can do to respond to the compliments and nods around me with a weak smile.

***

I meet Michael at a ski lesson the next day. 

Long curls escape from underneath his beanie. Charming but professional, he encourages me when I fall on my face for the tenth time. You’ll get it! he says. Just dust yourself off and try again! The day is brilliant and sunny. The snow melts quietly in the morning sun. Japanese children who seem barely old enough to walk, zip past me — no need for ski poles. I feel big and heavy, too high off the ground.  

It’s so warm that Michael tosses aside his ski jacket. Underneath he wears a check shirt, revealing an alpha-male chest — puffed and rounded with muscle. Perfect to rest your head on, I think as I careen down the beginners’ slope. 

I give up before the end of the lesson. I’m sweating, my legs are wobbling, and, I simply don’t like falling over: that feeling of the ground slipping from under me.  

Michael chases me as I drag my skis towards the travelator.  

‘Drink, later?’ His green eyes have flecks of brown in them, like sea pebbles that glint when they’re wet. 

I give him a half-smile and shrug my shoulders.  

‘Maybe, if I get enough writing done.’ 

As my ski gear and I drip down the moving walkway, I marvel at the perverse nature of the universe. Just at the very time that I’ve committed to a year of ‘eat, pray’ and no ‘love’—celibacy, two alluring men have appeared to test my resolve. 

When I get back to my rice paper room, I fall into a deep sleep. I dream of two children. They are blonde and tangle-haired, back-lit with halos from a golden summer sun. Like puppies they tumble in long grass. 

I spend the rest of the afternoon drinking green tea and writing at my low table to the sound of snow-water rushing in the drain below my window. 

***

‘Where’d you get that accent?’ I ask Sam.  

We are lying propped up on pillows in my room. He rests his head in my lap. I stroke his hair back. 

‘I grew up in Manhattan. I was adopted. I’m more American than Japanese,’ he says sleepily, through closed eyelids. 

That explains it. The vulnerability. The compulsive need for attention and approval. I once had a brief liaison with a half-French, half-Spanish man who was also an orphan, and he was the same.  

‘Now, you answer my question.’ His lids flash open, and those eyes fix me. 

I realise this is not the most flattering angle for him to see me, so I flip him off my lap and get up to make tea. It will help sober us up. 

‘Why won’t you sleep with me? Don’t you like me?’ He sounds petulant. 

‘No, it’s not that… I…’ I can’t find words for it. It feels too private. I busy myself washing the cups. The air in the room seems to thin, as if it’s harder to breathe. My shoulders tighten. This was a mistake, I think, as I as pour hot water into the little Japanese teapot. He has stolen behind me. I can feel his heat. He pulls me into the centre of the room, and I protest. But he says, no, it’s just to dance. Go with it

In a silent dance that needs no audience, we weave intimate patterns. He enfolds me then draws away, dropping into a push-up, arching into a serpent backbend and tumbling back to the corner of the room. I lunge and stretch, roll through my spine, let my head hang free. Hair wild. 

In the quiet of the deep-snow night, we flow around each other, within each other, creating shapes with our bodies that respond to the other, riff off the other. My shape sends him into rebound; his rebound initiates another shape from me. 

We thread in and out of space: separate, together, separate. 

When our choreography feels complete, we collapse onto the straw tatami mat that smells of earth. Side by side, our limbs splayed languid and soft. I watch as his breathing slows, and he falls asleep. 

I feel powerful, but—entirely alone.  

***

For the next few weeks, I dance with Sam and hike with Michael. 

My two ski-village men circle me, tantalised by my lack of need.

Sam and I salsa in the Latin Bar, in my rice paper room. He often comes to my room late at night. Jaded and too weary for his young age, he tells me about his client-lovers: older women, some men even. And I hold him. Like a mother.  

With Michael, I wade through thick snow and wander into mountain temples shared only with the lonely calls of crows. We ring the temple bells, bow clumsily and clap, trying to be sacred, praying for ourselves. 

One day we discover a temple set atop a hundred steep steps flanked by ancient stone statues. The figures have round, Buddha-like faces, covered in moss with robes draping to the ground. They are oddly adorned in faded red aprons. I wonder aloud if they are jizo—the guardian spirits of babies and the unborn ones. But Michael is already inside the darkened building and does not hear me. The impassive faces of the jizo spark a memory: years ago — a visit to Tokyo with Robert. 

It had been one of the happy times. Robert was relaxed — away from home. Uncharacteristically he let me control our holiday itinerary, bowing to my superior knowledge of the country and culture. Perhaps he also felt able to loosen his grip because travelling meant we were tethered to each other: day and night. There was no need to wonder where I was or what I was doing. 

We had done all the usual touristy things that people do in that crazy metropolis, but, for the full cultural experience, I insisted on taking Robert temple hopping. He could not afford the time away from work to visit the ancient capital of Kyoto, so we took an afternoon to explore the older parts of Tokyo instead. Tokyo in winter was the perfect time to wander its old Yanaka district. There were barely any other tourists. All of its ancient treasures, we virtually had to ourselves.

It was in this meandering older part of the city that we happened upon a Buddhist temple boasting 84, 000 of these jizo statues. A sacred number said to equal eternity. Under a washed-out Tokyo sky, we strolled, arm in arm, along the crammed avenues of the temple filled with the peculiar moon-faced statues, as if we could not hear the footsteps of the lost, the not-quite-born, nor their cries beneath the cawing of the crows. 

***

When I’m not with my two men I cruise the onsens. It’s a town with nine hot spring baths so I choose a different one every day. Lolling amongst the eggy-scented steam, I chat to the grandmothers of the village. These old obāsan are the only ones hardy enough to stand the scalding temperatures of the hottest baths. The tourists and younger Japanese stick to the cooler, 39-degree baths. However, I’ve set myself the goal, by the end of my time in the mountains, of slipping into the same baths as the village obāsan, with their drooping breasts and gentle smiles. 

In between, I write.  

I write to ameliorate the pain and to carve out a me that I know is buried there, somewhere. I still dream of Robert. I spool back to how he looked the last time I saw him, before he died. He had a strange dark line on his hollow cheek that I did not understand. 

***

On that same trip to Tokyo with Robert we took a side trip to the coast. We found ourselves sitting in the tea garden of Engakuji temple, drinking thick, fluorescent green matcha tea. The Zen Buddhist temple was directly adjacent to the station — a mere one-hour train journey back to Tokyo city. Yet, it gave an impression of having transported us thousands of miles away. It was nestled in a thickly wooded ravine, peopled by gardeners and monks. 

A persimmon tree flanked the entrance to the little tea house. We purchased o-mikuji, paper fortunes from the lady in an old wooden ticket box. I don’t remember what Robert’s said, but mine read: ‘Your path will be a lonely one’. At this, Robert said, ‘Not if I can help it!’ and squeezed my hand. 

But his eyes were cold as the stones in the garden. 

As we sipped our tea and nibbled on traditional sugared sweets, I could feel the quietness of this place settle into my bones, eliciting a long, low wistfulness that I hardly knew was there. Back then, I had imagined that this little Zen pocket was somewhere I would like to stay. For a very, very long time. 

After our tea, we visited the Tokeiji Temple across the railway line. I was moved by its feminist history. Nicknamed the ‘Divorce Temple’, it had originally been a temple for Buddhist nuns. Since 1285 it had been a sanctuary for women who had fled their husbands, a kind of ancient women’s refuge. Often the only way a woman could be free of the hegemony of a bad marriage—throughout Japan’s feudal history—was to take on the Buddhist robes of a nun. 

‘Tokeiji is the place where men are deprived of their pride’, declared the temple brochure. 

Our monk-guide told us that the temple is the subject of many ancient poems, one of which records that the local people would direct ‘any woman in a hurry’ to the temple. ‘Just over there!’ — they would cry. 

If I ever manage to leave Robert, this is where I shall come, I had secretly thought as my husband yanked me by the hand to the station, eager not to miss the train back to the city. 

***

It’s late afternoon, my last day in the village. Michael and I walk back from the bathhouse. I’m flushed and warm, my skin silky from the hot spring’s sulphurous waters. Snowflakes drift silently. Michael puts his arm around my shoulders as we stroll through a little laneway. I feel like I’m in a postcard. Steam rises from the hot spring drains and blurs into the icy flakes that keep falling, soft and persistent. A fresh coating of snow sugar-dusts the needles of a gnarled pine tree. Just before we get to my ryokan, he turns to face me. He says that he doesn’t want me to go home, he wants me to go to Switzerland with him, where his next job awaits. 

I look up at him, expecting to be arrested by those green, green eyes. 

But their colour is muted in the fading light.  

Nevertheless, I see my children reflected there. 

At some of the most critical turning points in my life, something seemingly random — call it ‘divine intervention’— has happened to rescue me from an alternative destiny. 

In Bali once, long before I met Robert, while I was getting changed after a massage, my potential lover had suggested we have a bath together, when, the cubicle curtain-frame crashed down, revealing me in my plastic spa underpants. Covering my breasts, I was taken by helpless laughter. That moment of ridiculousness was all it took: it rescued me from what was sure to be a torrid affair with a notorious narcissist.  

Generally, though, I have spent my life being chosen by men, and, the changeroom curtain has not collapsed at the opportune moment. I’ve followed along with Robert, with all of them. Passive and obedient. 

This time it’s different. 

I’ve been alone for almost a year — enough time and space to mourn Robert; to consider what, and who, I really need in my life. What I want is to write and continue to discover me, not follow a man around the world, become mother to his children. I just need a moment to remember this. 

That moment is provided by Sam.  

As Michael and I stand on the corner in front of the okonomiyaki shop, one of the other ski instructors speeds up in a tiny Toyota: It’s Sam. He’s been hurt, real bad. He’s asking for you, Michael. He wants you to get him down the slope.  

***

I hear a muffled cry. My bus is winding down the hill, out of the village. Through my window I see Michael lit up by a streetlight. He’s struggling down the steps from the ski resort. In his arms is Sam looking pale, with one of his legs dangling at a weird angle. Michael’s hair hangs in wet ringlets, eyes wild. 

Sam looks so small in Michael’s embrace. 

I know Sam will be okay. And Michael, too. 

I look back down to my book and take a slow breath, as I return to my story. 

Highly Commended - Jesse, Jessy, and Me by Alexandra Svoboda

 
I.

In my Grade 3 class, there were two kids with the same name as me: Jessy H and Jesse R. Everyone called me Jessie T.

Jessy H was tall for our age; she towered over me like the kids in Grade 6. Her hair was blonde, thick and curly, held back from her face with a purple headband that she wore every day. When I first met Jessy H, I felt bad for her because she was the only kid who still wore the old uniform that they had stopped selling in the school shop. Instead of using a lunch box, Jessy H carried her food in a plastic bag.

Jessy H’s mum looked tired and jumpy and didn’t come into school very often. If her dad picked her up, he would park by the gate and sit in his big ute, holding down the horn so Jessy H would have to run to the car, schoolbag bouncing up and down on her back. He never got out to say hi like the other parents.

Jesse R had black hair that was slicked back and shiny. His skin was so pale that the rims around his eyes were pink and you could see the light blue quiver of veins on his neck. His uniform was always clean and his parents bought him a new blazer every year.

Our PE teacher, Mr Martin, liked Jesse R because he could kick a ball the furthest. The other teachers liked Jesse R because his mum organised fete stalls and his dad wore black suits and shiny shoes. Jesse R’s dad usually hung around the gates saying hello to the parents at pick-up time, except for my mum, who jumped away when he reached out his hand to touch her back. It made Jesse R’s dad pull a nasty scowl.

Jesse R took charge of the boys’ recess and lunchtime activities. He decided what they would play and who could join in. The games were usually kiss chasey or kiss tips and we weren’t allowed to tell the teachers.

Jessy H never tried to join in with the boys at playtime. She spoke softly and spent recess and lunch reading in the shade. One day, I noticed her reading The Song of the Lioness—a fantasy book about a girl who dressed like a boy so she could train to become a knight. It was my favourite. We learned that we both loved Harry Potter, Deltora Quest, His Dark Materials and the Abhorsen trilogy. 

Jessy H didn’t make fun of me for being smaller than everyone else; she liked that I looked the opposite to her, with my thin straight black hair and blue eyes. We said that we looked different on the outside but were the same on the inside. From then on, we avoided the games of kiss chasey and played wizards and knights on our own. 

II.

One night, Jessy H’s mum called my mum and asked if Jessy H could come to our place after school sometimes. As they spoke, the hand Mum was using to hold the phone clenched around the handle, the old scars changing from pink to white as her skin stretched. Mum saw me watching and frowned, then went into another room. They spoke for a long time.

When Jessy H came over, I showed her my secret spot in the backyard where I liked to go to read. The first time that I disappeared in there, Mum got scared because she couldn’t see me from the house. From then on, I had to always tell her before I went there, so that she knew where I was.

My spot was in the far corner, where a large tree overhung the fence, creating a cubbyhole just large enough for us both to fit. We had to squeeze past spiky bushes to get in, but inside, it was cosy and smelled of earth and eucalypt. 

Jessy H sat with her back against the fence, knees drawn up to her chin, head thrown back to gaze at the branches of the trees above us. The light made dappled shadows on her face as she assessed her surroundings. After a moment, she spoke. 

‘Voldemort could probably get in here.’

‘What? Are you sure?’ In this secluded cradle of the backyard, away from the protective spell of Mum’s watchful eye, I didn’t want to think about where Voldemort could reach.

‘He can get in anywhere. He could slip between the cracks in the fence, climb down the tree or even tunnel from underneath.’ Jessy H was matter of fact. As she spoke, my heart raced. I imagined a tall, cloaked man with a pale face and icy fingers sweeping into our spot. The sun moved behind a cloud and I shivered with cold and fright.

‘I guess so,’ I said dubiously. ‘But he’s not real anyway.’

Jessy H grew serious. Her eyes were wide and black and I noticed that her legs had more bruises than anyone else in our class. 

‘Yes, he is. He can go anywhere he wants and do anything he wants.’  Two bright red spots appeared on Jessy H’s cheeks and her voice trembled. ‘He even comes into my room at night—’

‘That’s not true!’ Far from the house, I imagined what kinds of creatures lurked in the nooks and crannies of the bushes. The gaps between the leaves were full of hidden eyes and twisted faces. ‘Voldemort isn’t real and he doesn’t go into your room.’

‘He does!’

‘Don’t make stuff up!’

‘You’re just like my Mum!’

Then Jessy H pushed her way out of the hidey hole, scratching her face and arms and tearing leaves off bushes. I followed her inside, terrified of being alone in that evil place. 

III.

Jesse R liked to pull up my skirt.

The day after Jessy H came to my house, I spent recess outside. As soon as I stepped out of the canteen, Jesse R started to chase me, flicking up the hem of my skirt and making fun of my undies. I decided that the playground wasn’t so fun and went to the library with Jessy H, our fight in my backyard forgotten. 

A week later, during music, Mrs White made me sit next to Jesse R because we could both already read treble clef. Jesse R liked that, because it made it easy for him to pull up my skirt while Mrs White was distracted by the other students. I pretended to have a sore tummy so I could spend the rest of the lesson in the sick bay.

The next day in PE, Jesse R was even worse. In PE, we wore shorts, so he pinched my bum. He didn’t pinch it on the fleshy part of the cheek, but deep in the crease, digging his fingers in hard, squeezing and reaching. When he did it, I yelped in pain and surprise, leaping away from him as quickly as I could because it made me feel weird and sad and angry and gross all at once. I told Mr Martin, but he said he hadn’t seen anything and that maybe it meant that Jesse R liked me. That didn’t make sense. What a weird thing to say.

Mum can always tell when something is bothering me. That afternoon, she knew straight away.

‘What happened?’ Her voice was panicked.

‘Nothing.’

‘Come on Jess, you can tell me anything.’

So I told Mum what Jesse R had done and what Mr Martin said. Mum was furious. She called the school straight away. Even from the other room, I could feel the anger radiating underneath the door while she spoke on the phone. It made me think of shouting and fights and things being thrown and broken. I counted the tiles on the kitchen floor until my arms stopped feeling shaky.

The next morning, instead of dropping me off, Mum parked down the road and walked with me into school. She didn’t seem surprised to see Jesse R’s dad at the front gates, but I felt her hand tighten around mine. Our palms stuck together with clamminess.

‘Good morning Jessie T.’ Jesse R’s dad knelt in front of me, bringing his face close to mine. He smelled like aftershave, which made me sneeze when I breathed in. 

‘Sorry,’ I said, as I wiped my nose. Mr R’s smile looked fake while he wiped his face with a silky white hanky.

‘I hear you’ve been making up stories about my Jesse,’ he said, as he tucked away his hanky. A spot of blood from where he had cut himself shaving had smeared across his chin. The way he said my Jesse made it sound like he had the better Jesse. ‘He could get into lots of trouble because of you.’ My heart was pounding with fright from Mr R’s closeness, so I concentrated on the crispy peeling paint on the fenceposts, traced the trail of a thin spiderweb along a branch to the secret nest of eggs on the trunk of the tree.

‘For God’s sake. Leave her alone. She’s just a kid.’ Mum let go of my hand and pushed me behind her protectively.

‘She’s old enough to face the consequences of her actions.’ Mr R stood up, now speaking to Mum.

‘But your son isn’t? Funny, how that works.’

None of the teachers spoke to me about Jesse R that day, but I was moved to the back of the class for music and told that I could go to the library instead of PE. It didn’t seem like Jesse R got into any trouble at all.

IV.

On Thursdays, our class split into ‘co-curriculars’. The sporty kids played games with Mr Martin, the super smart kids did extra maths with Mrs Long and everyone else had double art with Mrs Harris. Even though she hated it, Jessy H was made to go with Mr Martin because she was tall. I liked art with Mrs Harris. She let me draw whatever I wanted and didn’t stand too close. 

At lunch after co-curriculars, Jessy H wasn’t in the library. We had agreed to meet there to eat Mum’s brownies and read the scary parts of Lirael. She wasn’t on the bean bags that we sometimes lay on while we read. She wasn’t in the fantasy section of the stacks or at the computers where we played Bubble Trouble.

As I was about to give up, I heard a shout from outside. It didn’t sound like a normal playground noise, it sounded sad and scared. 

I raced through the stacks until I reached the windows overlooking the yard. Below me, I could see Jessy H standing surrounded by a circle of kids. She wasn’t wearing her purple headband—it lay scrunched up and dirty on the ground—and her hair was huge and messy. Thick black muck covered the entire front of her uniform, from her shoulders all the way down to her knees. Her face was pink and she was clenching her fists. 

In the circle, opposite Jessy H, stood Jesse R. The bucket of compost juice from the worm farm dangled empty from his hand. Unlike Jessy H, he looked happy. Happier than I’d ever seen him look before. 

Jessy H yelled, and I realised the first sound had come from her. For a second, I thought Jessy H was going to attack Jesse R. But she stopped and changed her mind. Instead, she ran out of the circle of kids, toward the boundary and the busy road that roared with traffic. She looked like she was going to jump the fence and run away. 

Small Mrs Harris realised where Jessy H was heading. She moved to step in front of Jessy H, offering her outstretched arms. At first, Jessy H faltered. Then Mrs Harris said something and Jessy H jerked like someone had snuck up behind her and given her a fright.

‘No!’ she screamed. ‘I don’t want him!

Then Jessy H hit Mrs Harris, which made her take a step back, holding her hand to her cheek.

Mr Martin ran over, gathered Jessy H in his arms and carried her roughly away. Jessy H was sobbing, shouting ‘please’ and ‘sorry’ over and over again, kicking to be free. I hated seeing Jessy H being held by Mr Martin. I knew how strong grown men could be; the power in their muscly arms.

Just like the times before, I pounded on the window and screamed ‘Put her down!!’ But he couldn’t hear me. Just like the times before, it didn’t do any good. He kept walking across the playground, cutting across the tanbark, the grass and the sandpit, sand spraying out from under his heavy feet.

V.

During maths, I was called into the principal’s office. My teacher, Mrs Wu, nodded as if she knew what was happening and all the kids went ‘oooooo’ and giggled as I walked past. It was embarrassing.

Mrs Butt, our principal, sat behind a large dark-wooden desk with her back to a window that looked out across the oval. I could see Mr Martin teaching a class; the kids were playing soccer.

Mrs Butt looked pointedly over her shoulder and then pulled down the blinds. Her hair was salt and pepper and cut like a boy’s. She was taller than the other teachers and skinny like a rake. 

‘Jessie, you know it’s wrong to go around writing your name on things. I’d like to understand why you did it.’

‘Did what?’

‘Jessie.’ Mrs Butt looked stern.

‘Please, Mrs Butt, I don’t know what you mean.’

‘The excursion that you went on yesterday was very special. The only reason you got to go was because Daniel’s dad arranged it with the Defence Force. Now that you’ve written your name on that plane, we won’t be allowed to have any more excursions to the air base and Daniel’s dad will get into lots of trouble.’

‘I didn’t go on the excursion yesterday. I was at my appointment with Dr Radcliffe.’

Dr Radcliffe was a young doctor who wore red lipstick and coloured nail polish. Every Thursday afternoon I went to her office to play with Lego and talk about how I was feeling and everything that happened last year. Dr Radcliffe always asked about Dad and I knew he was the reason I had to go. I always told her I was happy with Mum and that seeing Dad made me feel scared. Dr Radcliffe sometimes asked if Mum told me to say that. But she never had; it was the truth.

Mrs Butt’s face turned red and she stuttered like a jammed printer.

‘Can I go back to class now?’

VI.

Daniel said his dad found the security footage from the base and it showed Jesse R hanging back from the rest of the group, taking a rock out of his pocket and writing something on the wing of the plane, exactly where my name had been written.

That afternoon, Jesse R was pulled out of class. He didn’t look happy anymore.

We could hear his dad shouting as he was marched down the hallway from Mrs Butt’s office and off the school grounds. The class sat in silence as we listened to the tall man with the shiny black shoes yelling angry words—words Mum said I’m never ever allowed to say—at his pale, skinny son. Every now and then, we could hear Jesse R crying and saying ‘please’ and ‘sorry’ just like Jessy H in the playground.

I squeezed my eyes shut tight and counted to ten just like Dr Radcliffe said I should when I felt really scared.

By the time I’d finished counting, Mr R had gone. I put my hand up to ask Mrs Wu a question.

‘Yes, Jessie T?’

‘Why did Jesse R write my name on the plane?’

‘Boys usually do things like that to girls when they like them.’

But I didn’t think Jesse R liked me very much at all.

VII.

When I went to bed that night, I asked Mum if we could go through the old routine. We hadn’t had to do it for a while, so she frowned, but agreed.

We made sure the knife block was in the back of the pantry so that it wasn’t easy to get to.

We made sure the motion-activated video camera was fully charged and turned on.

We took our panic buttons out from above the fridge and hid them under our pillows.

We made sure the doors and windows were deadlocked and the sensor lights were on.

Then we put on our pyjamas and cuddled together, enjoying the crowded warmth of the narrow bed. I imagined we were a mother and baby possum; I wished she had a pouch I could climb into.

Mum wrapped her arms around me and I took her hand, examining the scar on the inside of her palm that was reflected on the back of her hand, from where the knife went straight through, from where she had to hold it so it wouldn’t stab her throat.

She clenched her hand around mine and tucked our entwined fingers back under the doona.

‘He can’t get us here, Jessie.’ Mum assured me for the thousandth time.

For the thousandth time, I nodded, but it still took me a long time to fall asleep because I was listening for the sound of a car on the street, for the slam of the front door, for heavy footsteps down the hall, for the short, mean words that meant angry shouts and heavy fists were on their way.

I was thinking about Jessy H and her dad with his loud horn and Jesse R with his dad with the shiny black shoes and I wished I could bring them to our safe little haven, where no bad men could find us.

Highly Commended - Fragment by Keren Heeana

She wakes to white: cold gleam of moon on every surface and frost blanketing the ground. The sheet covering the window has slid off during the night. Standing at the window, Angie looks out, her forehead pressed against the glass. The smooth chill of glass presses back. Condensation trickles down the window and she follows its trail with one finger. She can’t see the moon but knows it’s there, the yard so bright it’s like daylight: stepping stones white as bone, the yuccas and gladioli like silver blades, water in the bird bath as polished as a mirror. And so still she can almost hear the walls breathe, hear her own blood, torpid in the cold, heaving through her veins. She closes her eyes. Thinks, everything in this place is hollowed out. 

Rowena had paraded in her dress – frothy ruffles at the neck, long sleeves and nipped in at the waist. As icy-white as the early morning view from the window. ‘But don’t you tell your father anything, not even a hint.’ 

Angie had replied, ‘Absolutely not,’ thinking, there is no way I’d be talking to my father about your dress! Her mother dead for only a little over two years, and already Rowena is wiping away her footprints. 

Nothing is the same in Angie’s old room. Smell of paint, synthetic smell of new carpet, no curtain. It’s being ‘made over,’ as Rowena put it. In other words, all your stuff is making way for my study. The bed has made way for a fold-out sofa; a most uncomfortable contrivance. But she’s only here for the wedding. One night, and she’ll be back in her own little flat above the florist. Memory tap-taps: creak of the floorboards, whoosh of passing cars, echo of Luke’s voice. 

She closes her eyes for a moment, opens them again and looks out. Sees the apple tree, globes of silver fruit, and her mind spills to a primary school poem – ‘silver fruit upon silver trees’. She has more respect for Walter de la Mare now. He wrote what is, that still and silent moment: the fruit, the leaves, dog’s paws, the gleam on every turned surface. So like the morning out there now, waiting for light. Slowly, silently

Her forehead is cold and damp from the glass. She turns away, wipes the back of her hand over her forehead. Pulls the blanket from the sofa-bed and wraps it around herself. She wants to hate Rowena with her puerile little phrases – ‘You’ll be warm as toast in here.’ No, I’m cold as a fish! ‘It’s my super-duper new study.’ It’s my old bedroom. Wants to hate her for her dull clothes, her permed hair and sensible shoes. But she would have to hate her father too.

She goes into the kitchen, the blanket trailing behind her. Takes a saucepan and pours in milk, heats it with honey. She looks up at the little mosaic plaque her mother had made, on the wall above the stove. Blue sky, green hills, and the dark patches her mother had said were cows, though they’re not cow-shaped and could be anything really. She’d been pleased with her first mosaic effort and hung it proudly, ignoring Angie’s father’s comment – ‘It’s a bit wonky isn’t it?’ 

Angie stands with her hands near the hotplate, holding them out as if it were a fire. When the little bubbles appear, she pours the milk into a mug, puts the saucepan in the sink and returns to the room. She sits on the sofa-bed, sipping the warmed milk. 

Outside, the gleaming white and dark world is becoming lighter. A fox trots by, its tail streaming out behind. After it passes, Angie wonders if it really had been there at all. Looks back to the point it appeared on the lawn near the stone path, and there on the frosty grass, the paw-prints, dark against the white. And when the frost melts, the paw-prints will disappear as if they’d never been there pressed into the icy grass. 

She thinks of the things seen that hide the things not seen. Atoms and molecules, the minute things of the world, all busy doing whatever it is they do, but invisibly, behind the scenes. Behind what we see. There is a world going on that we know nothing about. Unless we’re scientists or physicists equipped with microscopes and complex mathematical equations. And even then. She’d read somewhere that chaos theory, when represented pictorially, is seen in the shape of a paisley design. She’s not sure what that means, but it seems somehow significant, something unexpectedly beautiful. 

The whole time her mother was busy dying, her father had been busy, with Rowena. ‘Just giving her a lift to the shops,’ he’d said. Then: ‘She’s been such a comfort after your mother’s death.’ And no one to comfort Angie. Her father’s arms already full. 

She’d never worried much about her old room once she’d left home for university. But after her mother’s death, the room, the house, took on new significance; the place she and her mother had grown to love each other. Though she, Angie, had almost killed her through being born, and then driven her to the edge with her inability to sleep, her constant screaming. Yet they’d pulled through. Become as close as best friends. And then the diagnosis, and the illness that ripped her mother away. An illness that did not announce itself but worked away ferociously, quickly. Unseen, until it was too late. Where was the fairness in all of that? 

Luke had seemed an indulgence then. How could she continue to be happy when her mother was dying. Then gone. She wanted to feel alone, really feel it. To feel as alone as her mother had in that moment before death. Only then could she be with her, as she hadn’t been when her mother died alone, in the white and stainless steel of the hospital bed. Luke hadn’t understood at all. She had to send him away. Yet the warmth of his skin next to hers, the way she fit so neatly into the curve of his legs and the drape of an arm: these things would not leave. She tried to inhabit the space of her flat but the shadows remained. She’d sought him out on Facebook, saw he was getting on with things; new faces in his life, new interests. She withdrew quickly, turning away as if slapped. 

And now, her father’s marriage to Rowena. ‘A better neighbour you wouldn’t find,’ he had continually reminded her. Not a neighbour anymore. Angie had to try harder than her father. Make sacrifices. Make sure her mother was kept alive

With the blanket draped over her shoulders she dresses in yesterday’s clothes. At the front door she pulls the hoodie over her head, takes a woollen scarf from the hook – one of her mother’s, and marvels at its presence there by the door still, despite Rowena’s purging. She puts the scarf up to her face, breathes in, but there is no lingering reminder of her mother. 

Outside, she pulls on her boots. Rowena doesn’t like shoes inside. ‘Can you just pop them out the door, love.’ Angie wishes for a spider, large and hairy, in Rowena’s shoe then presses her toes against the leather of her own shoes in sudden alarm. She hates that word from Rowena: pop! Always trying to soften an instruction or a request. Something unreasonable. She can imagine Rowena asking her father to pop her mother’s clothes down to the op-shop, or pop the wedding photo into a drawer, for safe-keeping, so they can pop their own wedding photo up on the shelf in the lounge.  

Angie tucks her hands under her arm-pits. The air is bitingly cold and her breath fogs in a cloud in front of her. She pulls the scarf up over her nose. Every frozen thing is revealed as the sun rises, a pale hyphen, between the distant hills. She stops at the bird bath, two leaves delicate as lace work are trapped in the ice. She presses one finger to the marble-cold surface, pulls her finger back and rubs the icy tip against her thumb. Hunches her shoulders and walks down the path and out the gate, the frosty air honing her senses, the light fog rendering everything in the distance a shapeless blur. Just her in this white world, the heels of her boots tapping on the bitumen. The only other sound a rustle in the bushes off to the right. She remembers the fox, wonders where it disappeared to. She studies the bushes for any signs of a pointed nose, bright eyes. But the sound has stopped. Foxes are timid creatures, she tells herself, no need to be alarmed by its presence. 

She and her father had said very little about the approaching wedding. But she’d had words with him in her head. Harsh words. Imagined his shoulders slumping, telling her yes, you’re right, it is too quick. Now she feels nothing but a heavy sadness whenever she hears the echo of her hollow, ‘Congratulations, of course I’ll be there.’ And the equally hollow response from her father; ‘That’s good Ange, so glad you can make it.’ Nothing more, apart from when she had arrived yesterday, the gushing Rowena; ‘I’m so pleased, such an honour, just so lovely to have you here—’ and her father’s curt, ‘Righto then, Rowe, we’d better let Ange get out of the car.’ Then the cold room, the sagging sofa-bed, the quick fix of a white sheet over the bare window, and a clock tick-tocking on the wall. Angie had put it in the wardrobe under a pillow to muffle the sound. She’d wished for an old friend still in town, someone to catch up with over a meal to avoid the prattle of Rowena at dinner time. But there was no one she’d kept in contact with from school, no one who still lived in town anyway. Besides, Rowena was going home to her own house for the night. ‘It’s bad luck you know, to see the bride the night before the wedding.’ Then she had put both arms around Angie’s father and rested her head on his chest. Angie looked away, caught her father’s glance as she turned, and put her hand up to shade her eyes, straining into the distance – the light on the far mountains casting a purplish haze, the line of pines dark against the lighter green of the paddocks. ‘It’s very green,’ she said. ‘Has it rained a lot lately?’ 

The toc-toc of her heels accompanies her down the road. She reaches the bridge, stopping for a moment half way across to look down into the creek bed. Remembers gumboots and cold wet hands as she and her friends tried to catch frogs down by the water’s edge. Just a trickle now. She rests her chin on her hands and follows the dark scar of the creek until it disappears behind a hill. Not a living moving creek anymore, but a wiry looking scratch on the landscape. They’d swum in there once: shorts and tee-shirts, the sun a blazing ball, and a picnic of too-warm ginger beer, sandwiches and something with pink icing. Just Angie and her mother. Scurrying under the bridge whenever a car approached, just to hear the sound of the tyres pounding across the wooden bridge. Cars wouldn’t be so frequent now. Only her father’s house and a handful of other farms further up the hill, Rowena’s house one of them. All the others had sold out to the blue-gum plantations now. Nothing is as it once was, she thinks, pulling her hood close around her face. 

A crow calls from a fence nearby, breaking the stillness. Angie turns and walks back across the bridge, slips down the barely visible track beneath the bridge and stands a while, listening to the echoes, all moving uneasily in her chest: thrum of car tyres, splashing, shouts, raising glasses of ginger beer as if it were wine, her mother’s laughter, her teeth white and bright in her tanned face. Angie picks up a stick and pokes at the ground then tosses it in what was once the rushing creek. Imagines it twisting and turning in the flow on its way downstream. Looks back to see the stick lying where she’d tossed it. She makes her way back up the slope to the road, towards her father’s house through the rapidly lifting fog. 

Movement catches her eye away to one side. The fox again, or perhaps a different one, streaming across the paddock then over the fence in one fluid arc, tail held out like a banner. The rising leap and the landing in a single flowing action. An introduced species, but now so much a part of the landscape. She watches it disappear into the dark thread of the creek. 

When she reaches the house the sun has risen to an icy warmth. The metal on the front gate blanches her fingers. Frost has disappeared from the grass leaving a wet shine, the fox’s paw-prints deleted by the sun-melt. She stops near the bird bath, water now half thawed. Flicks a leaf out with her fingers. At the bottom, under where the leaf had rested, she sees a small yellow and blue triangle. There’s a familiarity to its pattern and colours. She reaches in and pulls it out to the light. A fragment of broken china. Her mother’s tea cup. Sliding from her hand as she’d stumbled to the kitchen chair, just before she’d gone back into hospital. For the last time. Angie flicks water from her fingers, wipes them on her jeans. 

She closes her fingers over the broken piece. Feels an ocean surge through her chest and keep rising. She presses the triangle against her cold fingers, wiping at her eyes, her nose. Looks up as the door opens and sees her father there. ‘I found…this,’ is all she can say, and she holds the small fragment out to him on her palm.

 

Judges Comments

Hayley Lawrence

Winners and Highly Commended

1st Place – Hope Street – Entertaining and well written walk on the darker side. Engaging, with a strong voice and connection between characters. A bittersweet ending to match the irony of the title.

2nd Place – The Coffee Drinkers – What an unexpected and surprising little gem of a story. Humorous, a joy to read, and a literary lover’s delight. A story as bitter and awkward as the characters and as vulnerable and charming as them too. Understated and clever with a great ending!

3rd Place – Grief in Four Movements – A wonderfully structured story about a man carrying on his ordinary day job through his grief. Each new home, a window into his own grief and a reconnecting with a world he no longer wants any part in. Because it is a world without. The love of pianos and the varying instruments, homes and characters he met were surprising.

Highly Commended – Fragment – A beautifully written story of loss and change told through the eyes of a daughter. Gorgeous imagery. Vulnerable, raw writing. Engaging and poignant.

Highly Commended – Creeping Pines – Feminist, unapologetic, unexpected and visceral. I loved the line “Generally though, I have spent my life being chosen by men.”

Highly Commended – Jesse, Jessy and Me – A timely story about toxic masculinity and the patriarchy.

Overall entries

The quality of entries was high. There were entries that did not make the top six and yet were thoroughly engaging and enjoyable to read and I wish I could personally shout them out. Maybe I can. They were ‘It Doesn’t Look Good’ And ‘Ocean View Crescent’. There was some masterful, understated styling in those stories which were well written, topical, engaging. Some stories made clever use of the passage of time in the telling of their tales or engaged with modern world events. Other entries made me laugh or brought tears to my eyes, and others were more contemplative because that’s what us writers do. Ask questions. Of ourselves, of others, of the world.

Elements that were well executed: fresh prose, analogies, imagery, themes, voice.

Things that could have been improved: Some of the endings were a little disappointing and the ending is especially important in a short story. Some writers were a little too verbose when simpler words would have improved the pacing of the story and been more engaging for the reader. Some stories required more shades of grey to make them believable. Very few people (none that I know) are entirely good or bad, and the most interesting stories are the ones that explore the grey areas.

Leonie Harrison

Hope Street – Sometimes the only place to find sanctuary is sitting on the edge of a disused skate bowl. The author makes good use of character and imagery to take us into the world of two young friends who find solace in other away from the drunken abuses at home. The story explores friendship, hope and the possibility of escape from the only life you’ve known. 

The Coffee Drinkers – A quirky story that drops us into the lives of three older men, retired and gone to seed. Their daily routine is turned upside down when a young woman sits herself down at their table. As the men vie for her attention, Ralph wonders what any of them could possibly say to her, when all they have to talk about is weather, the weeds and their failing health? In a small slice of time, the author evokes a wonderful sense of setting, each of the men, and their reactions to the young woman.

Grief in Four Movements – A piano tuner explores the stages of grief through his interactions with his clients. Each house, each piano, from the baby grand to the worn old upright with kids toys stuck in the hammers, gives him insight into his own grief and how he sees that reflected in others. The author gives vivid descriptions in each setting that tells us something of each of the occupants. 

Creeping Pines – Set in the Japanese ski slopes, this story is told through the eyes of a young woman who, for the most part, has been defined by the men in her life. Twelve months after the death of her husband, she is still trying to figure out who she is and what she wants for herself. The author weaves together a story of memories and self reflection, set against the backdrop of a casual encounter with two men she meets on the ski slopes that test her resolve to be herself. 

Fragment – A young woman comes home for her father’s wedding. Two years on, all she can see is the wiping away of her mother’s memory. Told with beautiful imagery, this story explores the themes of loss and grief. and how when a father cannot find the words to connect to his daughter, a small fragment of china can say so much. 

 

Jesse, Jessy and Me

This tale of three classmates explores the male view of the world and how it shapes and impacts women even from a young age. The story is told through the eyes of Jessie T. Jessie notices things, particularly the way the other dads act with their kids and the women around them. She notices how the behaviour of the men and boys is dismissed as prank or harmless. The author uses description of behaviour and mannerisms to give a strong sense of character.