The Winning Stories 1st Half 2019, London Independent Story Prize
The Bone House by Alexis Wolfe
Father blames the lack of burial space on the refugees. He’s wrong, they’re buried in a different
cemetery, a piece of scrubland, re-designated after that late October weekend when almost every boat met trouble. Perhaps if he’d seen our hospital corridors. Shoes peeking from under white sheets. Trainers, laces unravelled and bright coloured leather, velcro straps. Same shoes we worry about affording, because our kids’ feet don’t stop growing. Our island’s been running out of space to bury the dead for years.
I’ve heard they’re stealing vegetables from gardens; their tents will frighten off our tourists. He disagrees with me ladling spoonfuls at the makeshift canteen in the port. Many of the locals eye the stockpiled food aid with resentment. With so many unemployed of our own, newcomers make easy scapegoats. Father’s grown tired of blaming the government for our empty pockets. Unable to rent my brother’s plot any longer, come this third anniversary, the gravediggers’ spades will press deep to exhume his skeleton. Unearthed, a wooden box in the Ossuary will hold him for as long as we can afford. Will they line bones up neatly like baguettes at the bakery or toss them in a jumble? Our neighbour, Maria told me how her husband’s shirt was still intact, how they shook out bones from his sleeves.
Every day they keep coming. Not enough food for ourselves. Father stands on the terrace. Shoulder blades prominent in faded vest, eyes fixed on horizon. Some days missing a meal, inhaling the aroma from his honey pots instead. No boats yet, just blue sky, calm sea.
They’re just passing through, I say. In the holiday brochures, these views are labelled breath-taking. Deceptive that water, as death-taking as the rope my brother tied to our gnarled old lemon tree.
Anaconda by Nancy Freund
It was killing her – running out of audacious means to prove herself. At first, unprotected sex impressed him. A bottle slipped inside her pocket. Her father’s watch. Tattoos. Her arm. Both hands. Her face. He said he thought she’d never do it, but she did. A butterfly that could also be a penis on her cheek. He said she was something. She installed the tank in their apartment. Pet yellow anaconda. Warmed with bulbs that kept her up at night. Whereas, like the snake, he always seemed to sleep. She watched him. She watched him breathe, his naked chest, his pelvis in his underwear. Biceps, the groove along his neck. Their place smelled like snake. At birth they’re two feet long and this was long past birth. He had to find a buyer fast. In the mirror, she watched her sinking eyes. Heroin chic, he laughed his throaty laugh, and grabbed her to him, straddled, while the snake feigned interest. Skin-and-bones. Afterwards, she cried, and he pressed a gentle thumb against her butterfly and tears. He slept again. She dropped the last rat into the tank by its tail. Its black eyes didn’t plead. She watched the serpent eye its prey. The rat twitched. Otherwise, the two remained unmoving. No venom. Just constriction, though they can eat a dog like that. A cow. It was happening in Florida, he’d told her, even now. Anacondas from Brazil – no predators. Unlike pythons that fire ants can kill. Now the snake would have to graduate to rabbits. He’d told her get over it, in other countries, human beings eat them. But with that last rat, she was done, even if it meant a shelter or the street. Loser, she said to the languid snake out loud, and she was out.
The Folding Stuff by Alexis Wolfe
The good thing: the Co-op security guard says I’m too young for prison. The bad thing: he insists on calling mum.
Entering the stockroom, Mum’s face is watermelon flesh. She glares at me and the incriminating tampons. ‘She’ll never do this again,’ she pleads. Gripping my forearm, she yanks me down the chilly freezer aisle to the exit. We pass tall fridges, full of long-lost lunchbox fare; cheese strings, cocktail sausages. These days it’s sandwiches with bread so thin my fingertips make imprints. Mum can’t stretch to clingfilm, you get used to curled edges, stiffening crusts. At lunchtimes I eye up Ella Smith’s leftovers, always fruit and sometimes yogurt too, unless it’s strawberry.
‘You don’t even use tampons’ Mum snaps once we’re outside. She marches down the hill, staring straight ahead. I don’t say a word, but it’s obvious you can’t fit sanitary pads into a coat pocket. ‘I told you before,’ she says, ‘fold kitchen roll into rectangles. It’s really absorbent.’ In my other pocket, sits folded paper, a school trip letter. I probably won’t even bother asking.
The first clue was Mum stopping my violin lessons. Next, the Bikeability form elicited a groan. ‘Cycling Proficiency in my day,’ she sighed. ‘Doesn’t matter, Mum,’ I said. ‘I can already ride.’ I’ve plenty of ability, but my bike’s way too small.
Passing school, I spy the usual lone magpie on the roof, he likes balancing on the wind vane. School looks sad, lights off, playground deserted. I imagine the empty cloakrooms, PE bags hanging on pegs. My PE shirt shows my midriff now and my plimsolls squash my toes, but I’ll make them last. I’m a fast runner and I’d probably win the 100m race at Sports Day, but not in those plimsolls.
Don’t Look at them Ashes by Melissa Ganendran
When my sister Cee-Cee was little, Auntie told stories: spirit whisperers and psychic dreams and hell-hounds chasing people through graveyards. She looked forward to those Sunday afternoons when, sleepy after patties and tamarind balls, she’d curl up with Auntie and listen while the breeze teased the edges of the reddish- gold drapes, making the curtain rings clink. Duppies, wendigos, banshees. Stories from every culture. It was okay in the daytime, but those nights she never slept. The headmistress spoke to Ma about it ’cause she kept dozing in geography. The worst story was about ashes. Auntie said when someone’s ashes are brought back home, women and children mustn’t look at them else the devil might steal their soul. Oh, that tale made her so scared she couldn’t breathe. Ma told Auntie off. “Wha’ you wan’ tell her all this guzumba stuff for? She be up all night.” Guzumba means Jamaican black magic. Ma always taught us to be scared of anything against God. Behave right, pray right and maybe the devil leave you alone. “She needs to know,” Auntie said. “Cee-Cee, listen when I tell you. I don’ want your soul bein’ stole away.” She forgot when she grew up, didn’t believe it anymore. Until one day, Auntie died. When Uncle Bembe brought the ashes home, Cee-Cee remembered, but she thought those things couldn’t happen, not here, not these days. So she looked at them. “Cee-Cee!” Auntie’s voice came from the urn, a harsh whisper. “Listen when I tell you. Wha’ you do?” But nothing happened. At least, not until dark. Nobody knows the whole truth and Cee-Cee’s still here. But maybe she saw something, maybe she met the devil himself ’cause now she tells my daughter, her niece, the exact same thing.
“Don’t look at them ashes. Just don’t look.”
My mother, her mother by Robbie Taylor Hunt
The bus stop’s childlike graffiti shows a woman with uncomfortable eyes holding a pāua shell. I hover near my mother, who rifles through her bag for the phone. It’s her mother, muddled and disappointed. My mother’s free hand clutches at nothing in the air, quivering, quietly throttling something invisible. Her voice is clinical, but when she relays the ordeal to me she stifles a smile.
My mother is up before me, which is unusual. Her mother called again at 5am confused as to why she wasn’t being collected, she tells me while looking at the table. We eat Marmite on toast that is drenched in butter.
Arriving brings relief and remorse, as my mother’s support is easier to give but even harder to receive. Her mother’s famous selflessness manifests itself as misdirects and white lies. My mother speaks slower, her logophile’s vocabulary lessens, her emotions bury deeper underneath thick layers of responsibility. In the car she tells me that I will have to do this for her one day.
We wander without talking through the woods that straddle the beach. Burnt-orange pine needles litter the ground. A beat-up tyre dangles from a branch, held by tough rope. My mother lays down the wrappers and empty beer bottles that she has collected, before clambering into the tyre-swing. As she launches herself off, she yells out for me to push her, shrieking joyous laughter and beaming with glee.
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