We have selected three brilliant stories from among many entries for the Short Story Book Club Live! Read all three below before 6pm on Saturday 11 November. Then get to BATS early to get yourself a spot joining Jesse Mulligan, Elizabeth Heritage and Tracy Farr to discuss these three short stories fresh off the press.
He arrived late. Right in the middle of the vows. He made a massive scene as he came up the driveway, honking and waving at everyone, as though we could all relax now he was there. Like the party was finally going to get started. When I saw his car, my skin went clammy and everything felt weird, like I was hollow. Just a shell of clammy skin and a heartbeat.
Emma, the bride, looked so angry. He had only been invited because my cousin Josh, the groom, literally insisted. I didn’t even know they were still friends. Josh probably thought having him there would make him look cooler. Sometimes, I used to wonder if Josh knew about what happened. If he ever said anything. I don’t know, I don’t know how much guys talk.
Anyway, after his big arrival, he went and stood beside my aunty. Right up the front, like he was part of the immediate family. He didn’t see me. I was further back with my sisters, trying to remember how to breathe.
It had been four years since I’d seen him. Since it had happened. I figured he might not even talk to me, at least not until he’d had a few drinks. It wasn’t like we were ever really friends, just people who ended up at the same parties. I was still in school then, and he was older, so I guess they were his parties.
Once the ceremony was over, I stood kind of away from everyone, facing the crowd. I needed to know where he was. To have a good view of his face. I’d only had one glass of champagne. I wanted to tip a whole bottle down my throat, but I didn’t want to be falling over when we first saw each other. Not after last time. I wondered if he would get a shock when he saw me. If he would look at me differently, or talk about that night at all. I’d only had like, two sips, when a waiter came over to top me up. I kept catching Mum checking how much was left in my glass with that face she does, like she’s terrified I might have one mouthful too many and set fire to the marquee, or take off all my clothes during the speeches. Like a warning and a punishment at the same time.
We’d been standing around for a while. Josh and Emma were still getting their photos taken, I think. He hadn’t come over to me yet – we hadn’t even made eye contact. Other people came over to talk, but I couldn’t concentrate on what they were saying. I had to keep watching. He couldn’t catch me off-guard. He was standing about two metres away with some of Emma’s friends, practically in the middle of their circle, all eyes on him. Everyone was laughing, like they were all auditioning to play the fun, fat guy in a shitty movie about taking a break from your wife. One girl had her head flung right back, like it was the funniest conversation she’d ever been part of. She looked over in my direction at one point. My stomach cramped when she caught my eye, but then no one else turned around, so it must have been a coincidence.
I never really told anyone about what happened. It’s just him, me and a couple of my friends who know. Unless he told people. I didn’t tell my sisters. I definitely didn’t tell Mum. I’d snuck out and...and I shouldn’t have been that drunk. That part was my fault. I was probably leading him on in some way, I don’t know, there’s so much I don’t really remember. And he had a girlfriend at the time. She used to go to my school. It was just easier to pretend it didn’t happen.
I wanted to walk past him. Just near him. I think I wanted him to see me, so it could be over with. I took one step and my stupid heel got stuck in the grass. It sank in so deep I couldn’t get it out without taking my foot out of it first. I had to hold my champagne glass in my teeth because I needed both hands to unbuckle the ankle strap. I was just pulling the skinny bit through the clasp when the glass fell out of my mouth. It didn’t break or anything but I got a fright and fell forward on to my hands and knees. Like a fucking dog. My little sister had to help me up. I heard a waiter mutter something about drunk girls, and I could definitely hear people laughing. Quiet laughing though, which was actually kind of worse. I imagined it was him and that girl. Dad came and stood by me until it was time to go into the marquee. The heel thing wasn’t even my fault, but no one filled up my glass after that.
When it was time for dinner, I went in first to find my table. They’d stuck me with my parents. Of course. I looked over and saw his name. Right across from me, next to Dad. I had the weirdest feeling when I saw his name there, like I was floating. Like I might spiral away into the marquee ceiling, like a balloon slowly losing its air. All this heat rushed into my face, and I thought maybe I was going to faint. I held on to the edge of the table.
I sat down and started counting backwards from ten. I tried to take a deep breath on each new number. I don’t know if I got past eight; I kept forgetting why I was counting. He was at the far corner of the marquee now. He had two full beers in each hand, stockpiling to get through the first few speeches. If I did that, I’d be locked in the car until the party was over. He was still talking to the laughing girl. Maybe I should have told her to be careful of him, but right then I didn’t care. She looked like the kind of girl who knew what she was doing. I moved closer to the table edge and covered my legs with the tablecloth. There was dirt on my dress from where my knees had hit the ground.
When Mum sat down she grabbed a jug and flung water into my glass, like she was putting out a fire. Everything is always so dramatic. My heart was doing a weird throbbing thing, like it had taken over my whole body. He was moving across the marquee towards the table. The throbbing filled my throat. Behind my eyes. I was desperate for Mum to leave, but would have clung onto her arm if she’d tried. I wanted a drink. I wanted a freak storm to wash away the marquee. He stopped at the table next to us. He clinked one of his four bottles against someone’s glass and they laughed loudly. It’s always so loud around him. He was so close, I could smell his last cigarette. I reached out for my water but didn’t pick it up, I didn’t trust my hand to hold on to the glass. He’d smelled like cigarettes that night, too. Cigarettes and Jim Beam and something sour, like washing left in the machine for a day too long.
I’d spent four years practising a cool glare for this moment, four years glancing upwards at mirrors and mouthing words that had seemed just right, but when he got to the table my body was trembling and my eyes wouldn’t leave my lap. I couldn’t look. I could hear him introducing himself to Mum and Dad, could feel Mum rising from her seat to shake his hand. They all laughed. I heard Mum’s laugh and I just wanted to cry. It was like, I just wanted her to pick me up me and carry me to the car and take me home and tuck me in. I knew I had to look up. I had to prove to him I wasn’t afraid. I made myself take another deep breath and I forced my eyes up.
He was looking right at me.
He leaned across the table. He smiled and stretched one big hand out towards me, like I was someone’s aunty. Like I was no different to Mum.
“Hi,” he said, “I’m Felix. I’m a mate of Josh’s. And you are?”
Staring at him, I searched for a smirk, or guilt maybe, but his expression was just…nothing. He looked right through me.
"You got a name?” He was laughing.
My name fell out of my mouth, all awkward and wrong. He tilted his head to the side like he hadn’t heard me, but then straightened back up like he realised he didn’t actually care. I shook his hand. It was cold and clammy from holding his beers. I told him I was Josh’s cousin. There was this rushing noise in my ears though, so it was hard to tell if I’d actually made any sound. I was drowning.
“I didn’t know Josh had cousins,” he said. “Nice to meet you, anyway.” He smiled in my direction, his eyes already drained of interest. He turned to Dad and offered him a beer. Everyone laughed as they rearranged the table so all four of his drinks could fit. The tablecloth shifted and uncovered my dress. All I could see was dirt. My knees burned, like they had branding irons against them. I stared down at the mess, while Mum poured me another glass of water
Copyright Helen O'Connor. All Rights Reserved. Please do not republish without consent of the author :)
She met him as an image on her phone, as pixels. His pixels were pretty, and he looked like fun. In real life he said, ‘it’s too dark in this place to see the colour of your eyes what colour are they’
And she said, ‘they are blue they are both blue but murky’
Then, to romance her, he said, ‘colours are funny things aren’t they’
She immediately thought yes, then no, and then said, ‘what’
And he said, ‘there are no colours there are only wavelengths of light’
Wavelengths. The lengths of waves. Had he asked her the question about colours so he could say that about wavelengths? Was it a plan? She asked, ‘what colour is the wine’
He looked at the wine in its glass, and said, ‘red’
She could make a memory of the wine. A memory made of the light that shimmered off the bevelled rim of the glass. A memory of that colour and those shapes might be enough to keep her going.
Seductively, he continued, ‘the wine reflects only red light so if anything it’s every colour but red because it absorbs every colour of light but red’
‘but the red is so dark how can it be made of light’
A plate of five croquettes arrived, and he cut four in half and divided them evenly across the hemispheres of the plate. Fat-riced gloop flowed from inside the croquettes; it firmed like cooling lava and formed a skin. He hesitated with the fifth before sliding it intact to her side.
He said, ‘you look sad and sadness is only dopamine and it’s only serotonin and their absence across synapses’
She saw shapes move under his shirt each time he lifted a croquette. Thick ribbons of deltoid and biceps and trapezius. Later, while he was fucking her, and while he panted like a racehorse and was both full of breath and out of breath, he said, ‘my neurons are firing my neurons are firing and here they go again firing away’
And then, orgasmically, he said, ‘it’s bioelectrical impulses and sodium and potassium ions across synapses and oh my god’
He was sweaty both during and after, and he dripped his brine on her. He apologised, and that helped, but she still found his excretions foul.
She said, ‘I don’t mind really I needed that’
He fell asleep quickly and softly, and he was beautiful, and she watched him for a long time, and then she closed her eyes and kept watching him, reliving it all in her memory, across her synapses, while she clasped her hands together.
He woke up and said to her, ‘you don’t look sad any more I guess good dick has a positive effect on dopamine and serotonin’
She killed him with a knife from the kitchen, freshly whetted, and bigger and sharper than it needed to be. These were the words that left his mouth on the last of the air from his collapsing lungs: ‘blood is a suspension of haemoglobin and proteins that absorbs every wavelength of light but red and it carries dioxygen to the body’s cells usually’
He bled and purged in a way she had not expected, in so many wavelengths of light, and his eyes went so very large with bioelectricity, and then so very still with its absence. She was sorry afterwards, for so many things she could not organise them, and she cried from lack of dopamine and serotonin, and from the clean-up job that lay ahead of her. She asked, ‘where are you dopamine where are you serotonin’
She dissolved his body using a 50-litre tub of lye she found in the garage. It took a while. He held his shape so long that she thought it wasn’t going to work, but then, suddenly, he collapsed, like poked dough. His deflating brain bubbled with the words, ‘every atom in the body I was born with has been replaced a thousand times over but I am still me’
In the end he became an oily slurry, like warmed lard, that absorbed every colour but grey. She looked at the slurry-of-him, and thought, ‘not-grey is the colour to which every bright hue returns’
She remembered the shape of his deltoids, and his apology about sweating, and his generosity with the fifth croquette, and she thought he was probably the best man she had ever met, and would ever meet, and she was sorry.
She diluted him with tap water, which is hydrogen dioxide and dissolved minerals, sometimes laced with fluoride. Slowly, slowly, because that is how time moves, she poured him into the storm-water system, and he flowed out to sea.
She ran to the edge of the ocean, not many days after she had emptied the last of him into the infrastructure. She said, ‘I’m sorry for so many things you were the last man I loved’
He washed over her in steady wavelengths of brine. He was water that was every colour but blue, but only because it was a reflection of the sky, which was every colour but blue. He was cold and salty, and he mingled with the sodium ions, the chloride ions, the potassium and magnesium, and up he splashed onto the beach and over her legs as if trying to clean her, and she felt him separated from himself in the most fundamental way. She imagined him, beautiful, bonding with the sparkling silicates on abandoned beaches in a million years, when we will all be free from the absence of dopamine and the absence of serotonin, and all the colours will have come home, returned to every colour but grey.
Copyright Allan Drew. All Rights Reserved. Please do not republish without consent of the author :)
This time the earthquake wouldn’t stop. It just kept going. Obviously this was weird and completely against seismic theory. On the Richter scale, they put the quake at 3 but it kept changing, and one afternoon (during a rainstorm) it almost hit 4. This being Wellington, head office at EQC was expanded and everyone got on as usual.
Of course some things changed. Most construction work stopped now it was so hard to get anything level, and lots of surveyors moved to Christchurch (the rest did repair work on their homes). Household pets went missing, and not all of them returned. The Qualifications Authority removed a titration standard from Level 2 Chemistry when students couldn’t get an accurate reading, and most people drove to Palmerston North to get their dental work done, which was understandable.
But after a while people stopped talking about the earthquake, and some even grew to enjoy it. People at the gym said it was like living on a vibration trainer. Sea water sloshed at the edge of the city and everyone walked with a side-swell gait. Light bulbs swung. People who got off the cruise ships said they felt right at home. That’s how things were.
Except for Clodagh Burrows. The earthquake created a schism in her life to which everything else became relative, like a meridian line. Positioned on one side was her life before the earthquake, and on the other, a life which had been forced to accomodate low level shaking.
There was no reason for Clodagh not to adjust. Everyone else managed to manage - why not her? It wasn’t like the earthquake was a problem at work. Most of the time she couldn’t even feel the shaking when she drove. Actually, things were a lot better on the Number 3 route since the trolley buses had been replaced (although for Clodagh, without the need to regularly disembark and reconnect the wires, she was getting bigger).
Nor was the problem domestic, although you might think so with her flat being so close to the zoo. The animals were always restive now with the tremor. They carried on all night, particularly in the tiger enclosure, and sometimes it sounded like somebody had fallen in. Clodagh quite liked the sound. It made her feel safe.
So what was Clodagh’s problem? Well, according to WebMD, she had equilibrium disfunction. She discovered this at the Newtown library while googling ‘continuous earthquake’ and ‘feelings of being unsteady’. The inner ear (she learned) was as sensitive as the most finely-tuned piece of scientific equipment, and for some people earthquakes could interfere with this internal setting. Now Clodagh lived with a mechanical thrumming in her head which was like pressing both ears to the door of a fridge (if, indeed, this was possible). When she closed her eyes to sleep it was like an electric toothbrush pushed into each ear. Clodagh was advised by WebMD that she would feel angry and frustrated for a while, dizzy and nauseous. But it was okay because earthquakes were short and the effects would pass. But this earthquake was not short. This earthquake was continuous, and the effects did not pass.
And yet Clodagh wasn’t angry or frustrated. Work was pretty much the same. She’d always prided herself on her patience, never going too fast or cutting corners - and this didn’t change. If anything, she was more careful now the hillsides slumped unexpectedly. There were small rockfalls and pieces of falling masonry. And while Clodagh had always been polite to passengers, now she was even more polite. Everyone had to be cautioned when disembarking because it was like getting off an escalator, requiring the same sort of sudden weight-shift, and not everyone was successful. Still, Clodagh was safe in the feeling of everyone being on the journey together. She knew her passengers would always help if a shouty person got onboard, or she needed to reverse the bus from a difficult situation.
After work each day, Clodagh still went to the Golden Takeaways Bar near the hospital for tea. She had been coming here for years, first drawn inside by the canola sign. Clodagh had lost her parents to pulmonary heart disease, both dying within months of each other; and while statistically rare, this was not (as evidenced by Clodagh’s parents) impossible. Saturated fats were to blame, which explained why Clodagh only ate food fried in canola oil.
In fact, the only thing that really changed was her dancing. Clodagh no longer went to salsa classes. Equilibrium disfunction had disrupted her rhythm like a whale is disorientated by sonar sounds. And a moving dance floor didn’t help. Nobody noticed when Clodagh stopped going to salsa classes, except for Clodagh. She missed the feeling of her body-weight spinning away like she was a giant centrifuge.
And no-one noticed when Clodagh stopped speaking. There was no reason for her to stop speaking, just as there was no reason for her to continue. She liked the peace of not having to shout over the noise in her head. But gradually (as if WebMD were becoming her online prophet) Clodagh noticed herself becoming more tense. She drove more quickly, as if to finish the day sooner. Once she stopped so suddenly outside the Pita Pit that a man started shouting, calling her a stupid bitch. Nobody on the bus disagreed and Clodagh was careful to keep her bus-face on. But inside she shook like a low-level earthquake.
Now Clodagh felt separated from her passengers. They were no longer on a journey together and, because she didn’t speak, Clodagh stopped warning passengers about the earthquake when they disembarked. When a shouty person got onboard, or she had to back out of a difficult situation (of which there were many now), Clodagh could feel the scorn of her passengers. It was like they were willing for a disaster - anything to relieve the boredom of their trip and their frustration at the shaking.
One afternoon, while passing Wellington Hospital, Clodagh stopped so quickly that a tall woman in hiking boots lost her footing. An employment arbitration meeting was scheduled for the following week and there were health and safety forms to fill in. The lawyer from the bus company said it wasn’t so much that Clodagh braked too quickly (although this was certainly grounds for disciplinary action), but that she abandoned her bus in the middle of the road causing traffic problems. Furthermore, Clodagh hadn’t offered first aid assistance to the fallen passenger (who insisted on being referred to as the victim). If anything, Clodagh seemed more concerned about her lunch.
Clodagh Burrows was represented by a union official who was extremely busy with an important case that afternoon. Still, he didn’t think this one would take long. They were in a meeting room on the sixteenth floor in the city, a vertical blind clattering noisily as the room shook. The union official shuffled his papers and said his client (Miss Burrows) was unable to verbally participate due to traumatic mutism and equilibrium disfunction. He would be arguing three points on her behalf.
The first point was that Miss Burrows did not brake too quickly (although he must concede there had been previous complaints). On this particular occasion, Miss Burrows (and, he would contend, some of the passengers) had been surprised at just how easily the victim had fallen over (could almost be said to have acquiesced) given she was wearing tramping boots on a Number 3 bus in favourable weather conditions.
The second point was that Miss Burrows did not offer medical assistance (or avail herself of the onboard first aid kit) because the incident had occurred outside Wellington Hospital. A hospital (it should be pointed out) that boasted state-of-the-art emergency facilities and a post-op department.
Number Three: that while Miss Burrows accepted it was wrong to abandon her bus, she rejected any accusation that she’d left in order to have lunch. The grounds of this were twofold, the first being that it was not lunchtime and the second being that she was not eating when apprehended. Her reason, in fact, for having made her way to the Golden Takeaways Bar was that, with all the shouting on the bus, it was the quietest place she could think of.
Everyone at the hearing listened with sympathy but, in the end, said it was impossible for Miss Burrows to keep her position due to her medical condition. They wished her well in her future employment and made it clear that no police charges would be laid.
Clodagh Burrows moved to Upper Hutt where the shaking wasn’t so bad, but the noise in her head continued to get worse. People in Wellington carried on as usual, with an unspoken satisfaction at knowing they were a resilient lot - it would take more than a continuous earthquake to unsettle this city! And eventually, without even noticing, the earthquake disappeared. Building work resumed and the surveyors returned. Several cats made a miraculous reappearance and the Mayor organised a fireworks display. Everything (and everyone) returned to normal. Except for Clodagh Burrows. It was too late for her.
Copyright Philippa Swan. All Rights Reserved. Please do not republish without consent of the author :)