This was our tenth award and we thank everyone who entered. Nine hundred and thirty four fictions from thirty-two different countries:
It’s always a privilege to judge a literary competition, as judge you’re seeing what’s white hot, what writers are writing about now and the way they’re writing about those things. If the long list is representative, popular occupations in 2018 include predatory stepfathers, lost love, childhood traumas, and more benign childhood memories featuring, particularly, the smells of youth. War and dead babies feature too, as they usually do in story competitions. A lot of stories were written in the second person, a POV I have a strong attachment to. Second person alone, though, is not enough to carry a piece if there aren’t several other things going on, in terms of language and story.
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by Fiona J. Mackintosh
In the wet slap of the haar, the lassies slit the herring mouth to tail and pack them into briny barrels. I see her head move among the rest, brown curls escaping from her shawl. She has the juice of silver fishes in her veins - it’s in the raised blue of her wrists, her raw fingers, in the taste of oysters when I lick her down below, her skirt canted up and knees apart.
They say despair can be a man’s making, but that’s not how it feels to me. I give her everything I have - primrose plants, stockings, greenhouse fruits – and everything I am, a stiff-collared man behind a counter at the bank. She says my palms smell of money and loves their smoothness on her skin, but then she sees the brown sails coming, the lads home from the draves, swaggering in their thigh-high boots. She rests her elbows on the bar, pink mouth open, as this one tells of breaching humpbacks and that one tells of waves the height of mountains. I loathe their muckled arms and sunburnt faces and wish them at the bottom of the sea.
She knows the only times I venture out are on the calmest days, sometimes to cast a line and once a year to watch the puffins hatch. It’s not an epic life, not one likely to inspire the poets. But when the Reaper goes down with all hands lost, it’s my door she comes to and cleaves herself to me from head to heel. She says, “I need a man who willnae leave me wantin’.” Afterwards, cross-legged on the bed, she hangs a pair of cherries over her ear and, giddy with my unexpected luck, I take them in my mouth, stones and all.
by Zahid Gamieldien
Bita, drenched, shaking—her bones are shortbreads soaked in mother’s milk, her knuckles white, red, gripping, numb. She’s crouched against the gunwale of a boat that’s not much more than a skiff.
A wave whumps her crown, skittles those on deck. Recovering, they shuffle crab-like in their orange vests and latch onto whatever they can.
Brine is in her eyes. She can't tell what comes from her and what from the ocean, and she's forgotten about the child. But he's there, in a pink life vest, chapped lips near her belly, too old to be wet-nursed.
Three weeks ago, she was nursing her own baby when a soldier with a port-wine stain on his brow snatched him from her nipple. Spiked him headlong into the ground. Bita’s scream curdled in her throat.
Her chest still heavy with unsuckled grief, she hears the child whimper. For an instant, she can see the coast. Then she can't. The sea climbs, forms a snow-globe around them. They're encased—a fossilized moment.
Now she's under; everyone's under. In her ears, a roar, the memory of shelling. Around her, tumbling limbs, snatches of color, costumes of skin.
Motes of air drift upward. Twisting, trying to follow, she feels a hand snatch at her ankle. She kicks, kicks, kicks, connects with a face, and she glides, seeking the surface.
It doesn't arrive. Seawater slushes down her gullet. Suddenly there's wind cutting up her trachea. She wheezes and her lungs expand.
In the distance, a shock of pink. Her arms flail, shovel water, will her toward it. When she reaches it, it's just the child's life vest, empty. She holds it to her cheek. The tide ebbs and swells, hoists her toward the sky.
Beyond the tumult, she can finally see the coast for what it is.
The Local Pool
by Emma Neale
Turn a corner, into air tangy with chlorine. The smell removes memory’s stopper and an anxious genie swims out. What about the turquoise of a small town pool? What about concrete, dark with Rorschach marks that wet bodies left behind after boys egged on and watched?
Police, phoned by a passerby: the next day, when their own girls cried, ‘See ya!’ over pop-radio falsetto, did the cops saloon-door from their bathrooms, half-Santaed with soap, then gruff up quick hugs, foam-chins hooked over their daughters’ shoulders, to hide fuel-lines of dread in their eyes?
The mothers of the pool-girl’s friends: did they slash open packets, shove cupboards shut, slam on about hemlines, and torn black tights peep-showing lucky pennies of skin, because grown women can’t just wish-link pinkies, to ward off a suburb’s sons?
The girl’s friends, asked by social workers to tell when she skipped classes, because she had to get back on track, mustn’t let one summer dusk haunt her with that boy crisping her open, peeling her back like the winding-key on a tin of imported sweets — did those friends stop reporting because tears skirred free as she begged please don’t? Or because they learned she’d agreed to meet the boy again, at a bus shelter’s cold bunker, and the red folded mystery of how a wound could drag her back to its own start was too confusing? As disorienting as the acrid smoke they heard about later, when a schoolbag, schoolbooks, stockings, wasp-striped school tie, were soaked in art-room turps and set alight, as
a girl prayed for flames to leap a pine plantation’s firebreak, hive for the new subdivision and one blue house, its yard junked with bikes and a boy’s outgrown clobber, slung into trash bags slumped limp as drunks.
Particularly Complicated When The Snakes Show Up
by Simon Cowdroy
The mice slow them down.
During dry spells, I never spot the tiger or brown snakes as they slide away, slaloming through the sinewy grass of the paddock, keen to see the back of me.
Give us heavy spring rains, like this year, and the mice arrive in torrents, a scratching, squeaking, stinking tsunami. For the snakes, a bumper crop mercilessly devoured into increasingly torpid, bulging sheaths.
“Watch yourself.” Mum warns.
Dad finishes the arvo shift at three, gets home by quarter-past, a handful of workmates in disorderly tow.
At five, Benny, who is slurring the least, lights the barbie.
“Red-headed idiot using a Redhead match.” Dad says, and everyone laughs like they hadn’t heard it yesterday.
I’m on the shuttle run, beer fridge to back-yard, so I keep my boots on, the ground littered with discarded bottle tops, serrated edges that bite into your feet like fangs.
The charcoal infused choke of recently incinerated meat slides away on the breeze along with their mood. They sit in silence, half-drunk stubbies gripped in coal mine calloused hands, Dad with his head down so you can’t see the scales slide across his eyes, the flick of his tongue.
The brooding lingers until they call it a day and drift home.
Cleaning up means I don’t have to go inside, not be around when it kicks off. If mum says nothing the bruises won’t show and she can walk us to school tomorrow. My sister hides in her room, fearing: the knock, the cruelly gentle first touch, the venom that hardens her heart.
I load the empties into the bin and the clatter almost drowns out the first slap.
Still only dusk, so I jump the fence and head for the paddock, not caring where I put my feet.
How can a woman sleep when the Master is in pain?
by Rosie Garland
In her room beneath the eaves, she listens. Laughter twists up the screw of the back stairs. The Master struggles to be heard above his wife’s shrill squeal. She knows how men are trapped in marriages; how women entice and steal what is not theirs.
Her cheek beats a heavy pulse against the Master’s bedroom door. She stretches the small hours with the pricking of her blood into the Master’s shirt cuffs. She unpicks the seams of the Mistress’s gowns, sews them a shade tighter. Slides a curtain ring along her finger.
The Mistress writes. It is poetry, says Mistress, although no question was asked. She heats the tongs; curls Mistress’s hair, peers at the dapple of ink on paper. She does not need the skill of letters to know the telltale shape of lies about the Master. All that twittering of the quill, when all a woman needs to do is spread her arms and cry, God. Yes.
She will show him. She will mend his prisoned heart. Will keep her eyes down and never laugh unless he draws it from her as a man persuades a shy beast to his outstretched hand.
When he is away, for men must go in order to return, the house-bones creak. At night, she sifts sugar into the ruts between the boards, loosens stair-rods, rubs the banisters with buttered paper, peels back the rug and polishes the floor. The half-hour before dawn finds her sharpening knives. She breakfasts on oats and water; doesn’t hold with honey, milk, things that distract the tongue’s attention. On the driveway beneath the yews, the crackle of rooks.
Nuala O’Connor lives in Galway, Ireland. Her fifth short story collection Joyride to Jupiter was published by New Island in 2017; her story ‘Consolata’ from that collection was shortlisted for Short Story of the Year at the 2017 Irish Book Awards. Nuala’s fourth novel, Becoming Belle, is published in 2018.
Nuala has won many flash and short fiction awards including the Dublin Review of Books Flash Fiction Prize, The Gladstone Flash Prize, RTÉ radio’s Francis MacManus Award, the Cúirt New Writing Prize, the inaugural Jonathan Swift Award and the Cecil Day Lewis Award. She was shortlisted for the European Prize for Literature.
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