This year's stories were ‘flash fiction’, 300 words in length, and beginning with “I remember”.
“The Blossoming of Minerva Stout”
Local Prize, Winner: Wendy Craig, Pukekohe
I remember what Mother always said. ‘There’s nothing like a funeral, Min, to make you think about your own life.’ I’ve been reminiscing a lot these last few weeks.
It was on the Monday after dinner that Rol died. We were watching television. He put down his cup of tea, gave a funny grunt (‘Oink,’ I thought) and that was it. Watching Seven Sharp one minute, dead the next.
He had never worried about his health, even though he’d got so obese. I’d become used to him sitting at breakfast with the newspaper propped up against the sugar bowl. Answering me with grunts, shovelling food into that big mouth, his little piggy eyes flicking along the lines of print. I’d imagine him as a big fat hog in men’s clothes.
‘Would you like more cereal?’ I’d say.
‘Did you hear the weather forecast?’
‘Pork chops for dinner?’
‘Oink, oink, oink.’
The funeral was three weeks ago on Friday at 11 o’clock. When the minister said, ‘And Rol’s beloved wife, Min,’ I snapped. I stood up and said firmly, ‘Minerva, my name’s Minerva.’ It came out louder than I’d intended. Looking at the mourners’ stunned faces, I realised I’d shocked them. A grieving widow isn’t supposed to shout out at her husband’s funeral, is she?
I’m tired now. For so long it was Rol and Min, Min and Rol. Like matching bookends or a pair of novelty salt and pepper shakers, never one without the other. Now I want to be my own person. It’s like I’ve been holding my breath for years and now I can relax and let it out. It’s that kind of feeling, of relief. I can be me.
I don’t suppose a widow should feel that way either, should she?
Local Prize, Second Place: Adrianne Hawkins, Waiuku
I remember the day our date palm explodes summer pollen. Drifting through sunbeams to lie like fine split flour on our dusty road. Salem, our Arab gardener, has rung. He is coming to plant our new lawn where we only have desert sand.
He unpacks long fronds from his van. Roots packed in twisted, damp newsprint.
Unusually he spreads more sand. Sweet sand, laced with dried camel dung. The he dibbles holes across the whole area. After the hundred bundles are honed in, we still don’t have lawn. Rather, an arid version of a moist Asian paddy field. Long green tendrils lie in sad streamers, their edges already brown and curling under baking hot sun.
Three weeks go by.
Each day I have followed the little channels between the stalks and watered. Always after the sun has set. Always before it rises. To no avail. My grass has withered, dried and died. I only have sweet sand blowing in little eddies in the wind.
I expect Salem to be sorrowful. Apologetic. Sympathetic.
I point to the destruction.
He nods questioningly. Brown face gnarled as a walnut.
I voice my concerns.
‘But Madam, truly all is well.’
We stare at each other.
Salem pulls me towards the centre of his handiwork.
‘Life happens beneath,’ he says in faltering English. ‘Not above.’
We bend down and Salem scrapes away sand.
He points to pale, spreading white tendrils.
‘Like little hands these roots reach towards each other,’ he says. ‘Hidden. Growing. Same unseen things good friends bring.’
Soon afterwards we move to the other side of Bahrain island. We’d paid Salem so we move both house and garden. The only home in our new road to have succulent, growing grass, the envy of every roving goat.
“An Unforgotten Thing”
Overall Winner: Susie Frame, Dunedin
I remember. I do, Jack.
He thinks one of my happiest memories has slipped into the black crevasse in my brain. I can’t blame him. Nearly everything else has.
I feel the warmth of his skin on mine.
“You worked so hard for that water tank, Maven. Remember?”
Yes, I remember.
He rubs his thumbs over the back of my crepe-paper thin hands.
“You knitted jerseys, fair aisle vests, socks. Oh, the socks!”
I remember. Only charged a halfpenny a skein.
“And when we finally got that tank ---”
It didn’t rain.
“It didn’t rain. For weeks. You had to keep making that trek to the well . . .”
Three times a day. Pregnant. Waddling like a duck.
“Three times a day. Pregnant. Waddling like a duck.” Jack laughs.
You called me Daffy.
“I know I shouldn’t have, but I called you Daffy.”
He squeezes my hands.
“They were hard days, weren’t they?”
I command my head to nod. It doesn’t obey.
I look around. Myrtle’s dribbling. Stan’s crying. Sheila’s showing everyone her knickers.
Yes, they were hard days. But not as hard as the ones I’m living now.
“They were great days.”
They were great days. And don’t forget the nights. The nights you held me gently in our old creaky bed.
“And, oh! Remember when the big dry finally ended?”
You pulled me out of bed in the middle of the night and we danced around the tank, the rain drenching our skin.
“I pulled you out of bed and we danced around the tank and . . .”
The activities girl strums her guitar and sings “Show Me The Way To Go Home”.
Jack pulls me to my feet.
He holds me gently in his arms.
And the rain drips down our cheeks.
Second Place: Anne Cleary, Tauranga
“I remember when this town was respectable.” Melba Purdie scowls across the road at the carload of teenagers outside the dairy. “Riff-raff wasn’t tolerated.”
Mrs Ngatai pats Melba’s forearm. “Live and let live, dear.”
Raindrops speckle the steps of Mrs Ngatai’s turquoise house.
She drags an umbrella from the doorstep and hands it to Melba. “Go home, stick your feet up, have a nice hot cuppa.”
“I’m telling you; folk like us are an endangered species,” says Melba. “Good old-fashioned integrity’s what’s lacking. You won’t find a scrap of it in the likes of those hooligans.” She opens the umbrella. “I’ll see you tomorrow for bingo, Mrs Ngatai.”
Melba goes down the path, and onto the street. She glares at the offensive vehicle. The car is matt black and low slung, as though weighed down by its five burly occupants. A plume of vapour billows from the driver’s window.
What on earth is this ridiculous habit they indulge in? Puffing and blowing like steam engines.
Melba Purdie’s footsteps are louder as she leaves the houses and shops behind. She passes a water-logged sheep paddock.
Teenagers. Ruthless, unpredictable monkeys. Clambering onto rooftops, drunk as devils; spray-painting every clear surface in sight. Melba shakes her head.
A car speeds past. The young thugs. The slide to a stop in the gravel. A door flings open, and one leaps out. He jogs toward her.
Melba’s heart pounds. She snaps shut the umbrella. Metal spike; it has become a weapon.
Of mass destruction, if you so much as…
She’ll thrust this umbrella-sword into his privates. She will!
The youth is almost upon her.
He’s grinning: a madman.
“Random act of kindness,” the boy shouts. He hands her a king-sized Crunchie bar.
Open-mouthed, Melba takes it.
The boy whoops, and dashes away.
“Uncle Bill's Story”
Highly Commended: Trish Palmer, Wakefield
‘I remember . . .’
Oh no, Uncle Bill’s off again. Everyone laughs at his stories, but it’s Bill-shit. You don’t need me to tell you who comes out good in his tales, eh?
This time it’s about when he shot the boar up on the ridge behind town. That animal was bigger than a horse, with tusks like an elephant, and man-o-man, it was grumpy as hell. Worse, the boar had been getting into farmers sows, stealing them. I don’t know why Uncle Bill held that against him. Maybe because Uncle Bill only ‘borrows’ wives, or daughters.
Without prompting, Uncle Bill goes straight into his next tale; how he saved the day when the big flood roared through. His truck was the only one powerful enough to check on outlying farms. He came back with sheep he’d found stranded in the river. They’d somehow managed to lose their ear-tags. With no way to identify the owners, he reluctantly kept the lot. Such a good citizen.
Someone asks about the scar strangling from one side of his neck to the other. He modestly admits almost hanging himself on a strung-out washing line when he jumped out of a burning barn.
Funny how he forgets the rest of that night. In the top of our barn he’d found young Sarah. His trousers had somehow fallen around his knees. Sarah’s screams summoned us all. My Dad roared up the ladder, and smacked Uncle Bill fair on the mouth, laying him out cold.
Sarah fled. Dad was so red-hot, his matches lit the barn hay. We ran for water, but the fire took hold. I don’t know why Dad said ‘bugger’ when he saw Uncle Bill jump. Maybe it was because the washing line nearly garrotted Uncle Bill.
I asked Dad once. He doesn’t remember...