2021 Newcastle Short Story Award

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Congratulations Lucy Nelson (NSW), winner of the 2021 Newcastle Short Story Award for the story ‘Swooping Season’. Nelson wins $3,000 donated by the School of Humanities and Social Science Here’s an excerpt:

When Lorna was fourteen, the driver of a white station wagon drifted off to sleep and sailed in a dream along a dimly lit road, through the front of her parents’ red hatchback and into their seated bodies.
         In the weeks that followed, Lorna and Aunty Roe — her next of kin and sudden guardian — did little more than follow each other closely from couch to kitchen, shrinking their lives down to a few square feet, giving the dead space to die. They made neat piles of dirty plates. One helped the other find a pair of glasses or a matching sock. They sat still, staring at the room, until one needed to stretch. A slow dance of only the necessary.

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Congratulations Kit Scriven (Vic) whose story ‘She Wore Red on Her Lips’ has won 2nd Prize – $1500 from Hunter Writers Centre. Here’s an excerpt:

She wore convent walls. She wore solitude.
          Her wardens wore a gaze profound and uncritical, and a confidence that could never have been gathered from the pages of The Australian Women’s Weekly. They wore their eyes downcast; not for them the jut of eyelashes against an infinite horizon. 
           The nuns wore pity on the smooth of their faces. Around their faces and tucked back into their habits, the nuns wore white garlands seamed from a fabric that could not have been nylon. They wore their portable haloes with a placid humility that enraged their guest. They wore her anger. Inevitably, their martyrdom wore her down. 
           She wore their advice. She knitted bootees because babies wore bootees and the nuns told her that she’d feel better if she gave something. She wore her guilt in a bubble that floated between her and the world, in a strange membrane where she lived with her head perpetually cocked, listening for the receding wail. 

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Congratulations Alison Gibbs (NSW) whose story ‘Baby Oil’ has won 3rd Prize – $1000 from Westfield Kotara. Here’s an excerpt:

Vicki was twelve. I was three years younger and still at primary school. She carried the amenities key on its big wooden paddle and I followed behind her, watching my feet, alert to the danger of guy ropes and tent pegs. The sand on the track was as fine as dust and stained a sooty grey by the tea trees. It was so fine and soft that our thongs barely left prints, except in the wet slurry around each tap along the way.
              At the bottom of the hill, the path met the gravel road that lead up to the kiosk and amenities block. This stretch of road was where the surfies parked their vans, backing them into the dank shade behind the dunes. Kombis and panel vans covered in surfboard logos and pictures of busty women and hibiscus. They were draped with towels and were sometimes pumping out music or thrumming with the sound of a single guitar.  
              We picked up speed along this stretch—we always did—Vicki increasing her lead and me pattering behind, barely stealing a glance as we hurried by. The girls who emerged from the back of these vans were nothing like the young women our mother expected us to become. Smooth, tanned, mussy-haired, wrapped in soft sarongs, they went about their business in the shadows of the dunes while over on the beach, their boyfriends rode the waves. I found them fascinating and disturbing in equal measure. Even at my young age, I could read in their languid movements and long tangled tresses the suggestion of salty sex in the back of a Kombi van. 

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Congratulations, K W George (QLD) whose story ‘Chopping Wood’ has won the Catchfire Press award. Here’s an excerpt:  

The kitchen light came on in the house and a soft glow coated the backyard, making the boy glance up. His grandfather was propped against the counter, one hand tucked under his armpit, the other scratching at his lowered temple. The murmur of voices reached the boy through the open window. She’d be telling him, which’d be a good thing. The old guy could have an apoplexy and then they could all move on … With nothing changed …
          The boy sighed and gazed into the trees. Tendrils of light crawled across the ground into the long spikey grass and up the papery trunks. Sometimes he saw his mother’s face here, but she’d been gone so long it was hard to remember what she looked like. Sometimes he saw a man who might be his father. Occasionally he saw his future, exotic and remote from here, but tonight only shadows shifted in the trees and in the patchwork of paddocks beyond. 
             He placed his left hand down on the stump and spread his fingers. Against his palm were sharp splinters and the wood’s warm cushioning. He jiggled his hand, adjusting the axe’s weight in the other, sliding the smooth handle backwards and forwards and backwards and forwards and then he swung the axe up and paused with it suspended in the air—  
              —Sharp and desperate, his grandfather’s shout came from the house and the boy dropped the tool and ran.

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Congratulations J.Anne DeStaic (NSW) whose story ‘Scissor Tango’ has won the Officeworks pack. Here’s an excerpt:

Mr. Clive is having a ballroom costume made–high-waisted elegant pants, a close cut shirt and a pink cummerbund to match his partner’s dress that hangs on the rack behind him. Their mother fusses now with his jacket, making him wear it inside out so she can tack the lining close and correctly to his fattening frame.
 … Their mother’s voice cracks through the window.
         “Girls, where are you? Come in now.”
         They don’t move. April whispers:
         “If she marries him, I’ll kill him. And her. I mean it.”
         “I know where you are. Get a move on. Miss Cilla is here and she wants to see  the red tutus.”
         They stand and start giggling because it all seems so funny in the dark heat with mosquitoes whining and biting and cars splashing them with yellowed light as they drive slowly over the speed bump on the road in front of their house. The girls walk inside chewing gum. April always has gum in her pocket. She chews with her mouth open.

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Congratulations David Brewster (Vic) whose story ‘White Water Glimpses’ has won the Foghorn Brewhouse Cash Prize. Here’s an excerpt:

It had not been the skeletal remains of their house that most shocked her. That unveiling had involved little more than the disappointingly familiar feeling of visiting a tourist site viewed many times beforehand on the internet. Rather, the scorched and still glowing hillsides that stretched into the haze had lashed her, viscerally, almost physically. In the morning sun, the contours and ridgelines, once a soft wink behind canopy and understory, lay sharp, exposed, awful and unwanted in their clarity, like a parent seen naked for the first time in decades.
              ‘It felt like something in my DNA broke,’ she had confessed to Jan the night before they were forced from the park. ‘That the land was part of me, and that part was dead.’ She’d had too much to drink, their move the next day to a motor lodge they could scarcely afford necessitating prophylactic sedation. ‘I mean I’ve always understood there was a connection between Aboriginal people and their country, but for the first time in my life I caught a glimpse of what that really meant. I felt what it meant. I’m so ashamed that was what it took to make me understand.’ Jan had patted her hand, to a frown from John at the next table. ‘Joyce, what’s done is done.’ She had excused herself to sit under the inadequate flouros in the toilet block and cry in a cubicle. Jan meant no harm. Perhaps at this point in life being well-intentioned was the best she could hope for.

Congratulations Lee Franklin (WA) whose story ‘Playing Hide and Seek’ has won the Booktopia $100 award. Here’s an excerpt:

Three brothers sit silent in the hollow of a large boab tree. They are the best hiders ever, their mother tells them that all the time and there’s no way they are ever going to find them. All they have to do is wait quietly and patiently for a signal from one of their mothers. Mandu, the oldest at five, feels the pressure of keeping the younger two safe from the devils on horseback. Gelar is a whole year younger, but resents Mandu telling him what to do all the time, thinks he should be in charge some times. The youngest, at two, is Kulan who finds it very hard to keep quiet at the best of times. Several times Mandu has to signal him to be quiet.
           A bee flies in, lands on Kulan’s nose. The boy looks at the bee, can see it looking back. He silently asks the bee not to sting. Mandu watches the bee on his brother’s nose, gets annoyed that it just sits there. He swings his hand and squashes the bee. The sharp stinger penetrates the skin of Kulan’s nose, but he doesn’t cry out. He shuts his eyes and thinks about the kangaroo their uncle will bring home and cook on the fire. Thinks about the taste of its roasted flesh on his tongue and the full feeling in his belly. Already the area has turned red, makes Mandu feel bad that he squashed the bee, but there is nothing he can do but wait for one of their mothers to send them the signal.

Congratulations Eleanor Ratcliffe (Vic) whose story ‘With Eyes to See’ has has been selected. Here’s an excerpt:

           And there it was: a little dog, a girl, with straight, pointed ears and a white stripe down the bridge of her face.
           ‘Anna!’ he exclaimed again, but she was already there behind him, crowding to meet the pup at eye level.
           ‘Papa!’ she said, and beamed at him, ‘She is perfect.’ And for a short moment Vladimir allowed himself the feeling of being self-satisfied, even though he’d questioned himself as he brought the little creature home. For a brief moment, he saw a snatch of Anna once again as a little girl, when her capacity for joy could be ignited by as little as new buttons on an old coat.
             Anna knew it would be silly to ask what breed the dog was when it was so clearly a mongrel, albeit one who had been washed and fed, not at all like those who she saw strolling the streets of Leningrad. And anyway, nobody she knew had a dog of any particular breed.
             Alexei was immune to the dog’s clear lack of education. ‘Sit!’ he commanded so incessantly that it began to sound more like a bark more than any noise the dog herself was making. The little dog herself just spun around wagging her tail with delight and made a survey of the room by sniffing its perimeter diligently.
             Anna preferred to observe. She noticed when the dog had made her way back to its starting point in the corner of the room, and approached calmly. Then she held out her wrist as an offering. The little dog licked Anna’s fingers before calmly submitting to patient, gentle strokes of her back.
              ‘She’s perfect’ Anna said again, then, ‘how did you know I wanted a dog?’

Congratulations Sue Brennan (NSW) whose story ‘Inertia’ has been selected. Here’s an excerpt:

She guessed the password to his phone by watching the pattern of his fingers whenever she could. An L formation. 1478 or 2589. One evening about two weeks later, she had her chance. They’d finished eating—Vanessa had picked up some food and wine from Marks&Spencer’s—and he’d gone to take a bath. She knew she had a good thirty minutes.
            There were many work-related emails and, unsurprisingly, everything was sorted into folders. Mark was an organised man, something she’d teased him relentlessly about when they first met.
            ‘It’s because you’re Swiss,’ she’d said.
            He’d taken it good-naturedly and said, ‘So all Australians are funny because you’re funny? Uh-huh. I see.’
            Back then he’d found her very amusing, a little shocking at times, and she’d played up to it.
            She pressed on the WeChat icon and scrolled through the contact list. There was only one Echo. Her profile picture was a Persian cat. She swiped her finger up and down the screen, trying to get to the starting point of the conversation, but it went on and on. Most of it was variations on a theme—arrangements for meeting up. There were lots of emojis—hearts and smiley faces—which surprised her. He rarely used them with her, even when they were dating. 

Congratulations Todd Alexander (NSW) whose story ‘The Great Easter Let Down’ has been selected. Here’s an excerpt:

When Mum and Dad sat us down to have one of ‘those’ chats in early 1989, I secretly hoped it was to tell us they were getting a divorce. I thought being a child of divorce would make me more edgy, more interesting. A small part of me wanted to get lost in the drama of it all. There would be the division of their possessions and sons, us choosing who we’d prefer to live with. Grant, the eldest, would undoubtedly choose Dad so they could get lost in a world of sport, Glen and I would, of course, choose Mum. Glen was the self-elected President of the AGA (Anti-Grant Association), and had recently taken to waving placards calling for the EPFG (Equal Punishment for Grant). Without having much say in the matter, I’d also been recruited. It just seemed Grant could get away with murder whereas Glen and I were punished for the slightest offence.

Congratulations Dan Prior (NSW) whose story ‘Eid Ma Clack Shaw’ has been selected. Here’s an excerpt:

         ‘He needs to get his head to a shrink.’ Kelly’s eyes narrow as David walks from around the other side of the object, looking it up and down like a bogan Michelangelo before the marble. Oversized jumper, undersized footy shorts, thongs with the Aussie flag and a durry tucked behind his ear. ‘Why doesn’t he just tear it down?’
           ‘He did,’ says Sharon, blowing gently at her cuppa. ‘Twice. He even had me tie him down to the bed one night, but he just screamed and thrashed around, speaking tongues like that woman in The Exorcist.’
            Kelly laughs, ‘Was his head spinning and spewing his guts up?’
            ‘Nothing so much as that,’ says Sharon, shaking her head. ‘And he is seeing someone about it. We both are.’

Congratulations Thomas Hudson (NSW) whose story ‘War Stories’ has been selected. Here’s an excerpt:

         She followed his gaze off the balcony and over the rooftops, the sun gone now. Bugs buzzing around the streetlights.
         ‘I guess I do want to say that I’m a different person now. And I like to think I got different before we met. But maybe that’s just because I never went near a serious relationship again till now,’ he said.
          ‘Is this serious, is it?’
          ‘I don’t know.’ He shifted in his chair, struggling to choose his next words. ‘But just … I don’t know, being here with you now … I just can’t think of myself not finding you kind of wonderful and beautiful even if you were covered head to toe in a rash. And maybe I like the idea of sticking by you if things ever get rough again.’
           She let him squirm in the silence, enjoying him unsure of himself for once. Then she made that motion like putting two fingers down your throat to vomit. ‘Whatever, Romeo, you just like that I don’t have much stuff.’
           He cracked up laughing and she couldn’t deny how wonderful things felt in that moment.
           ‘You really do have fuck all here,’ he said, laughing again.

Congratulations Hannah Goldstein (NSW) whose story ‘A New Sun’ has been selected. Here’s an excerpt:

Perhaps it was the smoke that was making her stomach churn. A greasy, brown haze had fallen over Sydney in the past few days as fires tore their way across the country. On the news, the anchor had looked down the barrel of the camera and announced that the air quality was at dangerous levels. People with asthma were advised to stay indoors. Lena suddenly felt a little frightened to be outside in the park. She regretted the deep breaths that she had taken and worried that she had done permanent damage to her lungs. She glanced up at the evil-looking sun—syrupy, poisonous pink. She imagined herself and Ruby in gas masks, fighting their way through black smoke; the last two creatures on earth. Perhaps this was how things would always be now.

Congratulations Marie McMillan (NSW) whose story ‘Der Kuss’ has been selected. Here’s an excerpt:

Arthur and Johnno, arrived in their studded boots, thick with the muddied soil of their school’s rugby pitch. An exchange of feigned, indifferent glances and the trio went up to Joe’s room but returned soon after and suggested a game of Spin The Bottle to which, after some giggling and nodding, we acquiesced.
          But where to find a bottle? … What to do? Spin a vase? But then Lucy ran to the porch and returned with an empty milk bottle. Eureka. We were ready to roll. She placed it in the middle of the rug, we formed a circle and Joe reminded us of the rules. The first two spins stopped in due course, but in front of a chair and sofa – not a schoolgirl’s – leg, but soon after, with a few more vigorous whirls, Joe and Miriam were designated, left the room – closing the door with a definite bang – repaired to the hall and duly returned, shoulders hunched and blushing awkwardly. When it was Lucy and Johnno’s turn, the interval in the hall was a noticeably extended one, after which they returned, shyly holding hands. A few more abortive spins and the bottle’s neck paused in front of Arthur; more spins later, it halted in front of me.

Congratulations Andrea Campbell (Vic) whose story ‘Beyond Patchy’ has been selected. Here’s an excerpt:

          The man scratched his head.  He was almost out of diversions.  It had been a long trip, and come hell or high water, they must get to Hildy’s.  They’d used up the fruit-picking money, and his pension wasn’t due until next week.  That welfare woman had been good, handing out fuel vouchers, but things were very tight.  The worst moments were in the shops, where you’d have tins of food and soap and a tube of toothpaste and hope that they’d make it through.  Most times, you were bailed-up at the end, and you had to choose what needed to go back.  He’d hold onto the food, and let the rest go. 
           Lucky that he had his little system in place. When he was too broke to get everything he wanted at one place, he’d drive to the next town, and buy one of two items at the usual shop that sold hot food and doubled as a supermarket.  He’d stand casually at the checkout, his arms resting against his jacket, feeling the items poking into his ribs that he’d lifted off the shelves.  Although he wouldn’t go so far as to believe in guardian angels, he had an idea that something was keeping an eye out for him in these moments.  He knew he’d been seen slipping packets of lollies and shaving gear inside his jacket, but somehow, nothing ever happened.  He always left the shop a free man.

Congratulations M McQuillen (Vic) whose story ‘The Storm’ has been selected. Here’s an excerpt:

Sean worked in insurance. Does that make sense? He probably still does. If I ever forget where, I just need to check the skyline.
          My mind goes strange places when I don’t eat lunch. Why do big buildings never just fall? The city must have hundreds. What are the odds?
           Sean probably could have told me.
           His building is near the big department stores. That’s where I went on Fridays until he finished. Testing out couches in fake apartments. Reading book after book with my feet up. Checking my phone at the bottom of each page. Wondering if I’d ever be moved along.

To be clear, I hope his building stays up. But I wouldn’t complain if it was twenty metres shorter.

Congratulations Christine Kearney (ACT) whose story ‘Curriculum Vitae’ has been selected. Here’s an excerpt:

               Sophia is currently racking up debts from eating, from living, from paying her rent. For the past eight weeks, her paymaster has been a pink credit card. Yesterday, with that card Sophia bought a huge stainless steel pasta pot. It came with a lifetime guarantee, and promised dinner parties in which Sophia would dish out spaghetti vongole to friends seated at a long, rustic dining table. She glances up at the pot now and winces to think that it cost almost half her weekly rent. Where do you even buy vongole? As if! Sophia lives alone, cooks only for herself and is squeamish about raw seafood.
             But I am not unemployed, she reminds herself. She has learnt never to utter that word in the small rooms a block back from Northbourne Ave where she is grilled by recruiters. Unemployment is contagion. Everyone fears it and no one in the world of recruitment is interested in ministering to the unemployed. I am a contractor, she repeats. Contractors are flexible young people who can pick up their skills and take them anywhere. Bright young people who’ve seen the lie of the land and have set out, keep cup in hand, to negotiate role after role after role.

Congratulations Jenni Mazaraki (Vic) whose story ‘The Nun’ has been selected. Here’s an excerpt:

             I fumble with my phone and switch to another track that I listened to when I was sixteen. One that we used to listen to together. I wonder if the nun is still looking at me but I don’t check. I wonder if she can tell that I am thinking about the first time I felt bare thighs against my own. I wonder if she is judging me or blessing me or just thinking about lunch.
             I think about the nun and her neat position. All tidy and tucked up tightly on the tram, knees together. Hands placed gently side by side on top of her black leather bag, it too, neat and small and compact. There is no ring on her finger. But isn’t she married to Jesus, forever? My thoughts sound childlike to me, as I think about her one and only invisible man. I’m not wearing my ring today either. Left on the windowsill after doing the breakfast dishes.

Congratulations James Turvey (NSW) whose story ‘Splinter’ has been selected. Here’s an excerpt:

I ask Splinter if I can take photos of his tattoos because I’m interested in that kind of thing. He has tattoos by the same people as Dad; Big Pete from over near the train line and Greg Ardron who owned Sleeve Masters in The Cross.
          Splinter is suspicious but agrees. There’s a parrot on a branch, and the lines are all blown out. The black ink has turned that dark blue colour that old tats get after years in the sun. It looks great like that though, better than it would have new and it’s wasted on someone like my uncle.
          At the top of his right arm, where the leathered skin hangs down around his bony shoulder socket, there’s a naked woman in a martini glass. Her legs hang over the side and behind her are the four aces from a deck of cards. A banner across the glass reads ‘Man’s Ruin’.
          For the first time, I see the irony of it. Women aren’t responsible for this pissed old fart. I try to imagine what a ‘Woman’s Ruin’ tattoo would look like. In Mum’s case there’d be some fists, a bong and some blank space where Dad should’ve been.

Congratulations Claire Riley (NSW) whose story ‘Helen’ has been selected. Here’s an excerpt:

Baskets of lasagne were falling from the sky. Sticks of garlic bread wrapped in aluminium foil were missiles aimed at her front door. The food avalanched into her foyer, spreading a sickening slick of red sauce along her white tiles. Flowers, too, rained from the ceiling, suffocating her. She was buried alive, weighed down by the cheerful faces of pink dahlias. And then her mother was closing the lid of the cherry oak chest and darkness was descending on Kate as she crouched, folding herself into an apologetic ball, watching Helen’s face shrink and disappear before the dark was permanent.  Kate gasped and become aware of Paul’s face hovering over hers in the murky dawn light. 
        ‘You alright?’ he asked, a hand on her leg. ‘You were crying.’
         Kate saw her mother’s eyes again, watching her as the lid came down. She felt the claustrophobia, the impression she was being put in her place.
          ‘A nightmare,’ she said. ‘Over now.’

Congratulations Susan Bennett (Vic) whose story ‘Tent’ has been selected. Here’s an excerpt:

Tonight this suburb with its frenetic, three lane highway, seems a gateway to freedom places.  They eat dinner in a near empty pizza joint, and this too, with its American-style booths seems somewhat cosmopolitan, even if the pizza is lousy.   A flower vendor nears their table carrying a basket filled with cellophane-wrapped red roses.  To spare her beau this blackmail, she quickly says, oh no.  No, thank you.  She is so pleased with herself for not needing a flower, but the restaurant’s only other customer, a drunk puffing a cigarette calls, oh go onnnnnnnn.  Buy the lady a flowerrrrr. 
         After dinner, they look at tents.  In these heady days of new love, he wants to know who will pay for this tent?
         She says, I thought we’d go halves.
         In these heady days of new love, he wants to know, what happens if we split up
         In the end, he pays for a portable gas stove, she pays for the tent.

Congratulations Michelle Wright (Vic) whose story ‘From Where They Came’ has been selected. Here’s an excerpt:

Each of the villagers carried as much as they could bear to take, as little as they could bear to leave behind. An old man with a pole across his shoulders, woven bags attached at either end, filled with cans of food and clothes; a middle-aged father bent in two beneath the weight of the small refrigerator he balanced on his back, his chest trickling sweat beneath his open checkered shirt; an old woman leaning on a carved and crooked walking stick, a lighted candle melting in her other hand, wax dripping down her knuckles and trickling between the thick deep veins. Running to keep up with her mother and older siblings, a girl of two or three – a small brown and white chicken clasped to her chest, its head bobbing like an old stuffed toy with each wobbly, clomping step. Most of the people in the line carried small white flags of surrender. They waved them above their heads with every stride they took.
           The last person to leave was a young father. He carried nothing, his cheeks slack and flushed with fear. He ran to catch up with the others, his empty hands grasping at their shoulders.
           ‘Have you seen Felipe?’ he cried. ‘Have you seen my son?’
            He ran from person to person and each one shook their head and sighed. 

Congratulations Kali Napier (QLD) whose story ‘Umbilical’ has been selected. Here’s an excerpt:

22.5 weeks 

The ob-gyn slides the tissue box to the edge of her desk. I should not be expecting this. 
      ‘Just so you can be informed and make a decision,’ she says. 
      The ribbons are too secure. The tides of our blood depend on them. 
      Paul holds my clammy left hand. To stop me from slipping. 
      ‘Tell us plainly,’ he says, in control. 
      The name of the condition had flown my ears the moment she’d uttered it. Between Dr Wisenberg’s outstretched hands I see a cat’s cradle of coloured threads. As she lists off the statistics – the chances of survival – and, if then, possible life expectancy – the loops unfurl from her fingers. Then, the procedure itself. 
       ‘It’s more than dilation and curettage. It’s a major operation and you will need recovery time.’ 
        All I can hear is the screeching of balloons as they bat against each other. Our hearts beat furiously. 
        I nod. Paul, mouth tight, grimly clenches my fingers in his fist. I have made the right decision.

Congratulations, Emma Rennison (Vic) whose story ‘The Game’ has been selected. Here’s an excerpt: 

The only things that got us through our parents’ habitual Sunday afternoon pub visits were the range of cordials, the guarantee of a packet of prawn cocktail chips and the possibility of her presence. This weekend we scored a hat-trick. There she was, glowing like phosphorus across the smoky bar.
            Translucent skin clung to her skull, exposing shadows that gave her concave cheekbones. Thick black liner charcoaled each eye, which emphasised their sunken dark holes, rather than any past beauty she may or may not have had. Jean Harlow brows framed them, tall and arched in permanent disapproval. Until she washed them off. Blood red lips matched the dress draped across her boney shoulders. Lavish and twinkling with sparkles as though she’d turned up at the wrong venue at the wrong time.
            She dragged hard on a cigarette, a long gravity-defying trail of ash crept towards the filter. When she removed it her mouth remained in the exact same position as though the muscles didn’t know what else to do. Small lines pinched around it from decades of this repetition.
             Last of all, the part that fascinated us the most – the short black-blue curls of her hair, unnatural and wig-like, perched in perfect contrast against her pale ghastly skin.
              We stared at each other, thrilled. The Ghost Lady was here.

Congratulations Tina Morganella (SA) whose story ‘Set in Stone’ has been selected. Here’s an excerpt:

When she had emailed to ask if she could visit, she convinced herself that it was just to seek out a familiar face in a foreign land. She was travelling through Italy alone and knew that she would soon enough crave company. They had been close once. He had immediately responded that she should come, absolutely. There was the odd update – she knew he was married with a son – but they hadn’t seen each other in person since he left Australia and returned to his birthplace.

 … Sandra tried to smile encouragingly, but knew it was fixed and grim. She kept her eyes on the stark mountain scars, following the lines of rupture. She admitted to herself that it hadn’t just been company she sought. Her memories of Sydney had led her here. Just to see, just to know how it all worked out, just to find out if he still laughed devilishly, if he still played music, and if he ever sold his screenplay. She didn’t expect anything, nothing at all.

Congratulations India Rose Thomas (Tas) whose story ‘Firstborn’ has been selected. Here’s an excerpt:

There’s been a fragile peace in these last months between Jude and his father and Annie yearns for it desperately. There’s no way she’ll bring up a child in the presence of an alcoholic. She knows what it’s like. She’s lived that.
           Surrounded by cricket song and the sweet smell of the grass, she takes a deep breath and lets it out slow, but images still erupt behind her eyes. The bright smash of bottles on the ground under her small bare feet – an accident, her father pleads – him wild eyed and inconsolable by eleven am, mouth open and slack, the bitterness of her own fear, the dank odour of the house, rain pressing close at the windows.  

Congratulations Jennifer Hand (ACT) whose story ‘Anyone Home?’ has been selected. Here’s an excerpt:

Carol made me go for treatment after Mum died. The psychiatrist said I wasn’t too bad. He said that Carol could look after me. That I could have treatment and I could be an outpatient. He said someone could come to our house and talk to me about my condition and help me. He said I should challenge myself a bit. A little at a time he said.
        After that I tried going out at night. I’d go out on dark nights, when there was no moon. Or when there were lots of clouds or even rain. I would go into the front garden. I would walk across the lawn down to the hedge. It wasn’t so big and thick then and I could see through it. There aren’t any people around in the middle of the night. I would imagine walking over to the drive and going through the gate onto the footpath. I will be able to do it soon I thought. I’m building up to it, I thought. I still trembled and my head and my hands still shook but I wasn’t so fearful. Adrenalin rush. I’d read about it on the net. Some people like it, they said. Especially teenage boys and young men. They called it excitement not fear. I will like it, I decided. One day I will like it.

Congratulations Sagamba Muhira and James Page (Qld) whose story ‘Escape from Execution’ has been selected. Here’s an excerpt:

I remember that the rifles of the soldiers were not merely slung over their backs. They were holding them at the ready, with fingers on the triggers.
        One soldier walked up to the pick-up. He looked at those in the back of the pick-up  and then pointed at three of us. He gestured towards the ground and called out: ‘Get down!’ In circumstances like this it is best to comply with instructions, so I jumped down from the pick-up. At no time did the soldier ask what my ethnic group was, although from his actions it was quite obvious that he had made an identification based upon our ethnic appearance.
         ‘Show us your ID,’ was the soldier’s next command. I complied, showing him my student card. He looked briefly at the card – I think he wasn’t really interested in this but rather just wanted to see if I had any ID at all. Initially I was told to sit down at the side of the road. He just pointed to a place beside the pick-up truck and said ‘Sit there!’  At that stage, he waved to the driver of the pick-up to drive away, which he did. This worried me. It meant there were no witnesses to what might happen. 

Congratulations Nicole Hodgson (WA) whose story ‘Divergence’ has been selected. Here’s an excerpt:

Tess and I kept walking, towards the back boundary, up and down the rolling hills that used to look like some Anglophiles dream. Now they are striped by the discomfiting lines of a struggling tree plantation, where even the older saplings were showing signs of stress. Dead trees don’t absorb any carbon. Dead trees are like a set of matches, stuck into the ground, ready to ignite. People in town are always muttering about whether this summer will bring the big fire that’s got to be heading our way. Or else they are on their knees in the small weatherboard churches, praying for rain.
            They ought to be praying for the drowning Bangladeshis, the Indians dying of thirst, for all the people fleeing the Middle East. Where things are truly catastrophic, instead of just really bad. Personally, I’ve given up on thoughts and bloody prayers. If there is a God she’s got her headphones on and the music blaring, just like our kids on the rare occasion they make the trek down from the city. I’ve taken that up with our eldest, but all she’ll say is that it is too depressing to come back.

Congratulations Greg Burgess (Tas) whose story ‘The Smell of a Dog’ has been selected. Here’s an excerpt:

Emma and David weren’t like other parents, it was as if they had never got used to being a family. They even wanted Robert to call them by their first names – though he never did – and were forever inviting people over, as if they were afraid of being on their own, just the three of them.
           When there were visitors Robert stayed up until the last one had left, no matter how late. He would sit on the floor in a corner of the room, reading a book or playing electronic games. Some nights he just watched the adults. 
            If anyone asked why he wasn’t in bed, his parents looked puzzled, as if the idea hadn’t occurred to them. It’s up to him, they said.
            One woman, who had a seven-year-old as well, couldn’t bear to see Robert on his own. She sat cross-legged beside him and asked the usual things: Did he like school? What would he be when he grew up?
             Robert stared at her. He didn’t want to grow up, not if you had to sit around all night laughing at nothing. But it was no good telling her that.

Congratulations Ben Brooker (SA) whose story ‘Tattoos’ has been selected. Here’s an excerpt:

Bess had known her flight had been delayed since just after she had woken up in her hotel room at 5:00am. She had gone to the airport as planned anyway, arriving hours before her flight. She would not get back to sleep if she tried, and anyway the room had stopped making her happy. It had on the first night, with its luxurious sheets and hospital corners and faintly exotic view of the esplanade. But he had not showed up, and he had not answered her messages on the app. The room, once full of illicit promise, seemed to have grown cold in the increasing sureness that he was not coming, that, perhaps, he had been lying to her since the beginning. In the circumstances, she did not mind Ubering out into the cool 6:00am world, the hotel room – a coffin of silenced possibilities – receding into the bluish, pre-dawn distance behind her. 

Congratulations Alison Lloyd (Vic) whose story ‘Nest Egg’ has been selected. Here’s an excerpt:

          Rosie was vaguely sorry she didn’t see much of the landlord after she moved in, except for the occasional wave. So she didn’t ask permission for the extra tenants of his backyard. She’d thought it was a brilliant idea, giving her nephews real, fertilised eggs for Easter. Until the five hatched chicks grew big enough to climb out of the incubator and plop on her sister’s carpet. Her sister drove the whole cheeping boxful round to the bus – on a Saturday afternoon when Zhou was out. The rental ad hadn’t specified ‘no pets’. 
            Rosie bought a second-hand coop and painted it to look like a Swiss chalet, heart motifs and all. It took a bite out of the nest egg, but what else should she do with the chicks? Besides, she’d fallen in love with them. Adorable puff balls, the lot. A couple of white silkies, two gorgeously marbled Pekins and an odd-chicken-out with glossy midnight plumage. They were exotic, and a balm to her heart, after last year’s breakup. She christened them ‘la famiglia’

Congratulations Sean Wilson (Vic) whose story ‘Whitecaps’ has been selected. Here’s an excerpt:

‘I want to see the ocean,’ he says.
          He says it in a casual tone, as if he’s asking her to pass the salt. A simple request. A nice to have. But when she turns and looks at him, lying there, as thin as she’s ever seen a person, a sheet where there should be blankets, she sees a pleading in his eyes. This is not something she can turn down. This is not something she can refuse.
           She grinds her teeth at every bump on the highway. She strangles the steering wheel with both hands. The shock absorbers on her old Mitsubishi feel like hardwood carved into the car.
He’s in the passenger seat, tensing and relaxing. Tensing and relaxing. Potholes in the shoulder of the road and tree roots snaking under the bitumen. Every shift in the highway surface rattles his body. He wears clothes that look like hand-me-downs. They look like an older brother or cousin’s clothes, passed to him too early. She knows this isn’t the case. He bought the grey hoodie and black tracksuit pants he’s wearing. They belong to him. These are comfortable clothes, bought long before everything changed. They’re all wrong for the season. There’s far too much material for the weather. He needs the extra layers these days. Without the layers, his teeth rattle and his hands shake.

Congratulations Mike Morell (Vic) whose story ‘Nebula’ has been selected. Here’s an excerpt:

         Our family act was one of the top-billing acts. We were constantly passing each other as we moved between the front and back of the curtain. The motorbike routine though, was the one time all three of us were together beneath the lights. It involved my parents and I performing a series of balances while riding a circling motorbike. The balances got increasingly difficult, leading to our finale where we all stood atop each other’s shoulders. Me on top, then Mum, and Dad at the base driving with his feet.         
         The most precarious part of the act for me was the middle bit. Dad drove, and Mum sat on his shoulders, arms stretched upward, holding me while I balanced above in a handstand. Upside-down, looping in circles, distracted by lights and faces, I’d struggled for a long time to nail it. I’d assumed it was my mother’s pillar-like arms that held me up. Her contrary advice still echoes.

Congratulations Julie Fison (Qld) whose story ‘The Bloodwood Motel’ has been selected. Here’s an excerpt:

          ‘What exactly are you up to?’ Nadine croaks from the single bed in the corner.
          Five hours of eighties anthems on the road from home have clearly taken a toll on her vocal cords. Following the Communards into the falsetto register was never going to end well.
          ‘There’s a bag at the back of the wardrobe,’ Alice says. ‘Just a bit worried what might be in it.’
           Nadine gets to her feet and inspects the contents of the bar fridge. There’s a bottle of champagne that Alice put in there ten minutes earlier, two lonely cans of beer and a cluster of jam packets.
            ‘Some of these have definitely been opened,’ Nadine says, holding up a tiny packet of apricot conserve.
             ‘What about the bag?’ Alice says. ‘What do you think’s in it?’
             ‘Could be a bomb.’
             ‘A bomb?’ Alice repeats. She lived in London in the nineties when the IRA’s campaign to kick Britain out of Northern Ireland gave everyone reason to treat all abandoned packages like lethal devices, but Alice hadn’t even considered a bomb.
              Until now. ‘Who’d want to blow up the Bloodwood Motel?’
              ‘Someone offended by the low standards of hygiene.’
              Alice glances around the room, her eyes reluctantly settling on a polyester bedspread. ‘I haven’t seen geometric prints like that since Duran Duran ruled the charts.’

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