from AT THE BAY | I TE KOKORU
A new story competition for writers of short stories, hybrid works and flash fiction. Here we bring you the top ten from the 2023 competition, selected by judges Emma Neale and Catherine Chidgey. Judges’ comments can be found here.
Supported by Dunedin UNESCO City of Literature
by Bernard Steeds
And so, after everything, after all of the long years of waiting without hope, all of the attempts, the missteps, the seemingly endless gaps and silences, Esther is at last here, in the agreed place – Le Café Bleu on Boulevard Charles Guillaumont. She is drinking her third black coffee in a row (‘noir’, they call it), picking at a slice of amandier, licking crumbs from her lips, and she is waiting for a meeting she has longed for all her life, and desperately wants to flee. She has taken one of the outside tables, literally on the beach, between the café and a row of deckchairs. The day is hot and still. Although her table is shaded by a grey umbrella (they all are) she worries that she will perspire through her cotton blouse, that her guest will arrive and find her unkempt – hair in clumps, mascara running, shabbily dressed, unworthy little girl grown into unworthy woman.
They have arranged to meet here, she and her mother, or ‘mother’, for this is the woman who gave her up, who left her to her other parents, who did not stay in contact, did not search, waited to be traced and found. ‘Birth mother’ – that is the phrase, though it seems hardly adequate for someone who has conceived you, carried you within her body (what greater intimacy?), and then has let you go; ‘birth’ not as beginning, not as potential, but as termination. She has so many questions for this woman, whose name is Manel, a name that seems French but not quite. From the letters – yes, letters, written on paper that smells faintly of lilac – she has learned that this woman, Manel, was very young, and could not keep a child, for reasons that have not been stated but might be guessed at: matters of means, social circumstance, perhaps religion – these things might become clearer over lunch.
She glances back through the windows into the café, waiting for this woman, Manel, who is in her fifties, and will be dressed (she has promised) in a knee-length coat, fine wool, dyed the colour of the sky. But Manel is not here. The café has filled with little family groups, mothers and fathers with children who look bored but sit up primly, taking dainty bites of croque madame while billowing white napkins protect their shirts and dresses. The door opens; people look up to see who is entering, and at the nearest table a boy takes advantage of this distraction, leaning over, bending his little head, delicately licking his sister’s egg – but the person who enters is a man, completely bald, also an egg. He looks around distractedly, then smiles, joins his family at a table.
Esther checks her phone; it is already a quarter past the agreed hour. She has been waiting much longer, had arrived early in a bustle of anticipation, had been so nervous she had dropped the keys to her rented Uno, nearly kicked them into a grate, then spilled the first coffee and the glass of sparkling water that came with it, all the while muttering “Pardon! Pardon!”, begging forgiveness not so much for the coffee as for the mess of her existence.
“Madame?” The waiter appears – a new one, with handsome features, eyes the colour of almonds, slender hands which clear her coffee and plate. “Rien d’autre?” he asks. “Un apéro? Vous attendez quelqu’un?”
She uses her one phrase of French: “Je ne parle pas français.” Then, again, “Pardon.” She is about to add “Je suis désolée!” but he interrupts.
“That is okay, Madame. Would you like something more – perhaps a wine? Or a liqueur? Something more to eat?”
She looks at him dumbly, unable to think.
The waiter smiles. “Are you waiting for someone? A beautiful woman cannot be long alone.”
She nods. “Yes,” she says. “For someone.” Her hands are trembling. The waiter is kind, but not sincere – she cannot be beautiful, not her; she attracts only the wrong kinds, the ones who pursue her wildly, unhinge her, and leave. Sooner or later, everybody leaves. This is the one thing she knows. Her father left, her ‘adoptive’ father that is, before she could even say his name. Her mother (‘adoptive’) held on for longer, alternately drawing her close, muttering little endearments (‘my little pixie!’), using her (‘I have such a headache, darling; be a dear, run me a bath, massage my feet!’), and pushing her away (‘for goodness’ sake, can’t you be quiet, you are such a nuisance!’). She, too, went away, when Esther was barely sixteen: three words into another melodramatic sentence she stopped, opened her eyes wide in an expression that seemed to convey fear and hostility in equal parts, and fell down on the kitchen floor. Dead of an aneurism.
Esther turns towards the ocean and looks out. Somewhere out there is Africa, where this Manel might be from – perhaps from Tangiers, perhaps from Oran or Dakar; no one has told her these things, no one has told her exactly where she is from, where her ancestors are from, why her skin is different from her mother’s and father’s, how exactly she ended up with a mother (‘mother’) on the other side of the world – only that her parents (‘adoptive’), like so many others, were migrants from the United Kingdom, refugees from British winter to warmer southern climes. Esther’s life, she thinks, mainly comprises gaps – gaps in her knowledge, things she does not even know to ask (‘who are you?’, ‘where are you from?’); gaps where people could have been, should have been, but were not.
Oh, how she feels it! Now that she is allowed to, has allowed herself to. That, too, was a gap: all the things she could not feel. It has taken her years, but now she can almost inhabit her body, almost; she longs to feel all of the feelings, all of them, sharp and defined, one as true as the other – grief, loss, anger, love, shame, so many more she still cannot name; to truly know the sensations that rise in her – the welling in her stomach; the clenching of her thighs; the tightening around the heart; the strings of pain that knife her throat – oh, if she could speak them, name them, before they steal her breath, swamp her under their tide. Who even is she? Who exists to feel? Where, in this swell, might she locate her self?
The waiter brings her a lemonade, which she sips absently as she glances back into the café. The egg-licking boy has gone; the table is now occupied by three purple-faced men in pastel-blue suits. Identical. The door opens and someone leaves. It is now forty-five minutes past the agreed time. She opens her purse, pulls out a sheaf of folded paper, inhaling its scent, reads and re-reads: yes Le Café Bleu; yes, 11 o’clock.
“Mademoiselle?” She looks up at the woman who has addressed her. Not Manel; thin, pale, elegant in a tan coat. “English?” She nods, though ‘English’ is not how she sees herself, nor French, nor really much of anything. “May I join you? There are no more tables. I will be quiet.”
She considers for a moment, waves her hand; at least she will not be alone. The woman sits, calls the waiter, orders white wine and a salad.
“Are you eating?”
She is not sure, but why not? Yes, also a salad. And some pomme frites to share? Another lemonade?
“Were you waiting for someone?”
“It is dreadful.”
“I don’t know.”
This woman has silver hair, cut in a short bob; she must be in her fifties, but seems younger – her skin is taut, as if she spent her days visiting spas, swimming, doing yoga in the sun.
“Christine,” she says, extending her hand.
“You are beautiful, Esther. Why do you bother with a mother who cannot make it to lunch?”
“I’ve never met her before.”
“But she is your mother? Is this lost in translation?”
“Mother from birth.”
“That is a long story.”
“I have a long time.”
“I don’t know where to begin.”
“The beginning will do.”
So she begins, but the words spill out sideways, she hardly knows herself what she is saying, how to piece things together, and she finds herself talking about secret drinking, nights in front of television, workaholism, lovers who come and go, the constant sense of never quite fitting in, of never fully being one thing or another. Then she spends quite some time talking about her ‘adoptive’ mother, her eccentricities and moods, her contrasting tendencies towards kindness and abuse. As Esther speaks she feels unburdened, untethered, yet also guilty, anxious, disloyal – this is her first time speaking openly about the harshness she experienced, the sense of never truly having been loved, never quite fitting in, never truly having been a child.
“I was once allowed a dog,” she says. “A small one, a spaniel, but it was too friendly and my mother sent it away.”
When, finally, she was worked her way backwards, beyond the current of her story, she thinks of Manel, and recognises a secret anger burning in her heart, and not a small one but something immense, so hot its flame burns clear. An anger that can never be expressed. She describes this Manel, and she describes her memories, her afternoons spent waiting for her real mother to show up.
“It is like a gap,” she says, finally, “an absence; an emptiness that can never be filled.”
The woman, Christine, listens to all of this, attentive to the last: her eyes alight, her pose adjusting to the twists and turns of the story, her delicate mouth uttering little sounds, ‘oh!’ and ‘ah’, as each new event is revealed. When the story is done, she says “Oh, I feel this!” She reaches across, and they sit for a moment, hands clasped, looking; seeing each other. At last, Christine breaks the silence: “It is all very shameful,” she says, “for you, for her, for everyone.”
Then she, too, must leave; that is the story. She suddenly breaks off, checks her watch, exclaims “Oh my goodness” and rises; she opens her purse, takes out a card and places it on the table. “Please call me,” she says, “I’m sorry. I must go. I would like to see you again.” But this will not happen, Esther knows this; she will not call, will not see Christine. It would only hurt.
Instead, as Christine leaves, Esther turns away, pointedly, towards the ocean. She stares past the deckchairs, past the bathers on the golden beach, to the translucent blue water, its gentle waves, its white-tipped breakers, and, above this a pretty sky, cloudless, spacious, its empty blueness spilling over everything – past the Spanish islands, out past Algiers. Out into the endless dead Sahara, out over the great desolation of it all. She finishes her lemonade, opens her purse, leaves cash on the table and walks down onto the burning beach.
Bernard Steeds is twice winner of the Sunday Star-Times short story competition, and was shortlisted for The Moth International Short Story Prize 2022. His work has also appeared in the collection Water and in several anthologies and journals including The Penguin New Zealand Anthology: 50 stories for 50 years in Aotearoa, and The Penguin Book of Contemporary New Zealand Short Stories.
Diving the Wreck of the F69
by Anna Scaife
“Who wants to hear the story of the luckiest birthday ever?” Sally said, sitting down at the head of the table. She was bone-weary from the hot oven, but buoyed by the faces gathered around her extendable dining table. She shook her hair back out of her eyes and watched her only daughter, Bernadette, help herself to the platter of roasted lamb, potatoes smashed with butter and crushed garlic, and broccoli, steamed and bright as a crayon against the white ceramic dish.
“Me!” Bernadette’s father Paul sang, appearing in the kitchen doorway, the pepper grinder swinging from his left hand by its neck.
“Me!” said Selena.
It was Bernadette’s thirty-seventh birthday. Around the table sat her ex-husband Tim, their sixteen-year-old son, Ryan, and her oldest friend, Selena.
“No, not again. Do we have to?” laughed Bernadette.
“But Selena hasn’t heard it,” her father grinned.
“Yeah, I haven’t heard it,” said Selena.
“Well,” Sally said, upending her glass of sparkling grape juice an inch from her mouth to avoid leaving a kiss of Big Apple Red on the rim. “I was ten days passed my due date, and Bernadette was a big baby. Nine pounds eleven ounces. I’d been in labour for ten hours, and all of a sudden, out popped her head. And then – she got stuck.” She laughed, her pointed chin in the air, her fingers squeezing the tops of her thighs.
A crimson flush slid up Ryan’s neck.
“Bernie had this big, round, overcooked face,” Sally said. “You know, if the head comes and the shoulders don’t follow, you only have six minutes to get the baby out.”
“Six minutes isn’t long,” said Paul.
Sally reached out and collected her husband’s hand and pulled it towards her across the tabletop. “But the doctor wasn’t there. He was on his lunch break. You’d think he’d be in the staff tearoom having a sandwich, but he’d driven to Island Bay. It was the day they scuttled the F69 navy frigate in the Cook Strait. The on-call doctor went down there with the rest of Wellington to watch her go under.” She looked around the table. “And there I was, lying on the bed with Bernie half out!”
Bernadette winced and Ryan pulled the hood of his sweatshirt up over his hair.
Paul plucked at the back of the hoodie, sliding the fabric back off his grandson’s head. “We laugh about it now,” he said. “But at the time I was bloody terrified. There must have been a heap of babies born that day because no one was coming to help Bernie get her shoulders free, and our young midwife nearly pushed the emergency button through the wall.”
Sally nodded, her eyes on his. “I remember how loud the clock sounded, like a bomb, and the air conditioning was roaring,” she said. “I asked you if it was raining, didn’t I, darling?”
“How much time was left?” Selena asked. Her fork, laden with potato, was suspended in mid-air.
“Well, Sally didn’t know this, but I had my eye on my watch, and four minutes had already passed. The midwife gave up on the emergency bell, and legged it out into the corridor.”
“We were frozen, we didn’t know what to do,” said Sally. “I looked down and there was Bernie’s face, scrunched and furious, with a full head of dark hair like a Lego man.”
“Jesus,” said Tim into his glass of bubbles.
“So we waited, and then this woman appeared.” Paul continued “She thundered through the double doors, our wee midwife scuttling behind like a lamb after its mother.” Paul looked as if he might pop out of his seat. “She whipped Sally’s legs so far back her ankles were round her ears. Then she counted. One, two, three – and I remember thinking those were all seconds we couldn’t afford. Then she gave your belly a huge shove, eh Sal? She got in with her elbow and squeezed you out, Bernie, you slid across the bed like a bag of sausages.”
“Wow,” said Selena.
“Yes. Wow,” said Sally.
Paul relaxed and cupped his palm over Sally’s knee. “But the thing was, no one at the hospital had any idea who the woman was. She just appeared. She didn’t work there as far as anyone knew.”
“There was a real panic,” said Sally. “Everyone trying to nut out who the mystery woman was.”
“Maybe it was one of those people who dress up as doctors,” said Ryan. “Remember that random guy who was doing surgery on people for like three years?”
Paul raised his eyebrows and pushed his reading glasses back up his nose. “By then Sally had her baby girl, and she didn’t care much anymore how she got there. But I was wired, and I wanted to know. I went around the maternity ward asking questions. I tracked her down, and it turned out, the woman who delivered Bernie was there for the fish.”
“The fish?” said Tim.
“Yup. There was a fish tank in the family lounge. I found out she owned Fish Fleets, the business that leased the tanks out. They brought them in, installed it all and popped in once a month to clean them.”
“She just happened to be there that day and overheard the staff talking about our half-out daughter,” said Sally.
“But hang on,” said Selena. “How did she know what to do?”
“Aha,” said Paul. “She wasn’t always in the fish business. She was a midwife for the Red Cross for twenty-five years. She worked in Uganda and Sierra Leone, in the jungle, can you imagine? That woman had brought more babies into the world with her bare hands than everyone else in that hospital combined, I reckon.”
“Crazy,” said Ryan.
There was quiet around the table. Paul and Sally picked up their cutlery and began to eat.
“Maybe I was just unlucky to be born on the day they sank that boat,” said Bernadette.
“Or, maybe the hospital was lucky,” said Tim. “You could’ve filed a complaint.”
“Perhaps you were the lucky one, Tim, you never would have met Bernie otherwise,” said Selena.
“Or maybe Ryan’s lucky, he might never have existed,” said Tim.
Paul laughed, “We couldn’t have that.”
Ryan looked across the table at his grandmother. “Why did they sink the ship?” he said.
Sally paused and rested her wrists on the table. “So it wouldn’t be forgotten,” she said. “So that people in the future could dive down and swim through the wreck, and see how things were.”
Anna Scaife is a Christchurch writer and current MA Creative Writing student at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington. Anna’s short fiction has appeared in Takahē Magazine and the Pure Slush ‘Love’ Anthology from Bequem Publishing. Anna is currently working towards a short story collection with the working title Hiding Places.
All I Have
by Cathy Silk
I saw you again last night. It was the summer holidays and we were playing on the beach.
“Katie – bullrush! Tagged – you’re it!” I took in your panting, gasping face, ruddy-cheeked from the strain of chasing – your eyes of that marvellous transparent blue, flecked with silver straight from the reflections of the high, afternoon sun. Those coastal breezes that sand-blasted our foreheads, noses and cheeks, scuffed your hair into a tangle of curls. The soles of our bared feet were warm, calloused through summers of wandering and chasing along the bay’s shingled sand.
Then muscular clouds take over the horizon, the sun their hostage.
in the cloth
of the land
that raised him
kōwhai blossom, flaming rata and burning Decembers
Lower his eyelids gently, gently, line them with perpetual
frescoes of spring daffodils, pastel suns, lolloping lambs
let him lie
Nights we spend playing in the Wellington summer then I bury you, just before dawn. Grief never loosens its grip – sleep fails, retreats and tries to tip-toe unnoticed over my face. It’s then I feel your little hands clasped around my neck and the buttery smell of sleep on your head.
That’s all I have.
Cathy Silk was born in Lower Hutt and grew up in Masterton. She attended Wellington Teachers College and trained as a primary school teacher before heading to Europe in the late 1970s. She lives in the Netherlands (acquired the language, loves the cycle paths) and teaches English in the bilingual stream of a Dutch secondary school. Cathy has had work published in New Leaf (Bremen University), Northern Light (Scottish Universities’ Summer School) and the NZ School Journal.
Funny Ugly Little Baby
by Alex Reece Abbott
She’s limp, the stuffing knocked out of her.
Poor aul doll,
sitting on the pavement by the interface,
head hanging low with shame as much as exhaustion.
M. slumps, eyes blackened,
knees bunched to her chest, as best she can.
Bald as a badger, baltic in the curfew.
A strange, shivering, tufted, jet-headed, red-breasted bird
left tied to the lamppost for the longest while.
Seized at her home
by three masked women
who dragged her into the spitting night.
where the unrelenting sirens keen.
The damp winter air is tainted with coal and peat smoke
and acrid burning rubber.
Another double-decker bus on fire,
another blazing barricade,
there’s always something somewhere.
Well lit, her neighbours jeer and taunt
and jostle to get a good look at her.
Hurling missiles and abuse, they blanket the usual night music,
cracking the chill evening with the jangle of shattering glass
and their slagging.
She flinches from their bullet words
screamed at her and her mammy: Did ye not know what your wan was up to?
Shriek: Be grateful you didn’t get a wee bullet this time!
Warn: Ye should be ascared.
Promise: Next time, we’ll blow up yer house.
Knock it off, wind yer necks in, her mammy snarls to the women
And she bellows: Away ta fuck, the lot of youse!
unties her daughter and mutters: C’mon, off the street and no faffin.
She pilots her daughter into their daubed house
and slams the front door closed.
She stands beside her daughter
and they look in the mirror.
She tells her M.: Ah, quit yer gurning…you’ve a face on ya like a Lurgan spade.
The state of you…you’d scare rats from a stone ditch.
Tells her: Houl yer whisht now. You’re a mess but what’s gone is gone,
my dear wee funny, little, ugly baby.
M. looks in the mirror.
A few hours earlier, she was doing her hair,
dabbing her new perfume on every pulse point,
putting on her make-up,
pulling on her flares, all her best gear.
Excitement burning, lights dimmed, music thumping,
the young Irish girls
in the barracks
at the army disco.
Young girls knowing the rules.
Young girls knowing
that their mammys would put them out on the pavement themselves
…if they knew.
Young girls knowing the reprisals for stepping outside their tribe.
She looks in the mirror,
up to high doh
and sees a horror house distorted warp looking back at her,
one half of a banjaxed Bogside Romeo and feckin’ Juliet.
She’s as graffitied as her house,
daubed with black black tar, the clinging white white feathers and her scarlet red paint shroud
that will cling to her for days.
She runs her hand over the tufts on her head,
her dark brown shoulder-length hair sheared off for her crime.
Layers of her seared. Pride burned too.
She scrubs and scrapes, uses elbow grease
till her rough, raw skin smarts.
The removing feels worse than the attack.
and with a Protestant to boot
(who is converting to become a Catholic)
but all The Women’s Revenge Group see is that Union flag stitched on his shoulder.
She can still smell their fegs and the turps.
She prays to a god who knows no sides.
Leaves out that line: Forgive those who trespass against us.
The man on the news says: Mother Teresa is coming to start a mission.
The man on the news says: This war can have no winner.
She looks in the mirror.
Hard, painful, ancient punishment meted out,
a wee taste of citizen justice, Ulster-style.
Shamed for humiliating herself and her family.
The community warned.
She hopes that the vigilantes will melt off this earth
like snow off a summer ditch.
She looks in the mirror.
She’s on all the news forever now,
from Bogside to Bogota,
from New York to New Zealand,
that dark photograph of her permanently imprinted in her mind.
Those echoes still ringing in her ears:
Beware the soldier doll.
She looks in the mirror and cries, cries hard,
does not cry again.
Her engagement broken, her dream turned to a nightmare.
she looks in the mirror,
scundered that it’s to come to this
and she wonders…
who slipped up…
whose lips were loose.
She looks in the mirror
and to stop the shaking
she digs her nails into her palms
until her blood runs from crescent moon cuts
and she tells herself that this bit of sca will pass.
She looks in the mirror, all her feelings sharp and defined,
one as true as the other.
Catch yerself on.
Get yerself in check.
Never her real self for a moment now,
always acting a part now
always acting apart now.
She hears the sirens breaking into the night again
and she knows that they are not for her…
worse things are happening all over town
than a tar and feathering.
Late on Tuesday, November 09, 1971,
she looks in the mirror
and she says:
Beware the funny, little, ugly baby,
beware the wee soldier doll.
Behind a shield of military secrecy, one week after being tarred and feathered, M. married the British soldier. She wore a wig.
Alex Reece Abbott’s writing is a Penguin Random House WriteNow finalist and Irish Novel Fair, Northern Crime, Arvon, Crediton, Pulp Literature, HG Wells and Flash Frontier Summer Writing Award prize winner. Her stories appear internationally in print and online magazines, and in anthologies including Best Small Fictions, Bonsai: Best Small Stories from Aotearoa New Zealand, The Broken Spiral (UNESCO Dublin City of Literature Read) and Heron (Katherine Mansfield Society).
by Emma Hislop
Wai loved how tidy and quiet it was in Collections, aisles of stored artworks, everything in its place. So many clean surfaces. It was as if a window had been opened, the room full of what felt like a blast of clean, fresh air.
She came to work an hour early, like she’d been doing for the past few days, and sat on a stool at a high skinny table, putting the finishing touches on the diorama. When Paul, the head curator, first asked her to make it, she thought it seemed a bit colonial, but as the new intern she wasn’t going to argue.
She made an exact replica of the gallery out of white cardboard, with little to-scale versions of nearly 100 artworks, laid out inside.
“I hope you’re writing down your hours,” Chloe said.
Chloe was her mentor and Wai was living with her for the duration of the internship in New Plymouth – three months. Initially, she was renting a tiny overpriced flat miles from the gallery, but after a week, Chloe persuaded her to move into her spare room in town.
“You’d honestly be doing me a favour,” she said. “Pay me half what you’ve been paying and you can binge-watch Love Island with me on the weekends.” Wai was Kāi Tahu and Chloe belonged to three different iwi, Wai forgot which. She’d already asked her twice.
For the first few weeks of making the diorama, Wai resented the thing. It was fragile and awkward to carry and she had to transport it back and forth each day in Chloe’s car, so she could work on it in Chloe’s lounge in the evenings. She wanted to be working on the upcoming show instead, with everyone else, not with a polystyrene board, glue and knives. How was she meant to make a difference if she didn’t have a seat at the table? Secretly, she wondered if that was the point.
“Small steps,” her aunty told her on the phone last weekend. “One day you’ll look down and realise the ground has moved beneath our feet.”
“It’s exhausting,” Wai said. She missed Dunedin and her whānau.
“Tell me something I don’t know,” her aunty said, and laughed and Wai felt ashamed. She knew how much work the kaumātua did, always on call, never a moment to themselves. She needed to hold her own. She needed this internship.
Sometime, during the making of the diorama, she’d started to enjoy herself. It felt like a puzzle to be solved. She lost herself in the cutting and the details, forgetting to eat or what time it was. It was like the doll’s house she never had. She made it immaculate, exactly like the real gallery – new and shiny. The real gallery was a failure of infrastructure and planning, Chloe said. It was the reason they were charging the public. Art was no longer free.
It was 8.30am. Chloe would be here soon, then they’d grab a flat white at Mondrian’s, the gallery cafe, before work. Wai climbed off the stool and stepped back to look at her work. Infrastructure won’t fail on my building, she thought.
The door swung open.
“Yes, e hoa! Good timing, I’ve just finished it,” Wai said without looking up.
But it wasn’t Chloe, it was Paul. Shit, what was he doing here? He looked tidy in a green blazer and crisp white trousers.
Wai had no idea how Chloe worked with this guy. When she met Paul, she’d just felt relieved he wasn’t her mentor for the internship. He didn’t even try to pronounce things properly. The Director’s reo was awful too, but at least he tried. Also, whenever Paul smiled, he looked like he was thinking something dirty.
It was hard to tell what Paul did all day. There was hardly any information on the upcoming show, and Chloe said when she tried to ask about the exhibiting artist, Paul was vague.
“I’ve taken her out for beers a few times,” he said. “We’re on good terms.”
He said that twice. That was the kind of man Paul was. Smoke and mirrors, trying to look like he was busy and not doing a blind thing. He was one of those guys who drank with the artists and sometimes went home with the attractive female ones, though less since MeToo, Chloe said.
“Reckon he’s greasing up to cover for his lack of knowledge of Te Ao Māori,” Chloe said, then covered her mouth with her hand to pretend she shouldn’t have said that.
Wai laughed, but also felt whakamā for not knowing the waiata. They sang different ones up here in Taranaki. Paul had turned up late to the pōwhiri, and stood at the back, scrolling through his phone while his colleagues sang the waiata they’d been practicing for months.
“Oh sorry, I thought you were Chloe,” she said.
He looked at his watch. “I don’t think you’re meant to be in here unsupervised, Mai.”
Another thing no one had told her.
Even with the temperature in Collections set at 21, the perfect temperature for artwork, Wai felt heat creeping up her neck. No one had told her – she was just supposed to know.
“Oh. I’m sorry. I wasn’t aware,” she said. She didn’t correct him on her name.
He walked past her and disappeared down an aisle where the artworks were stored.
“There’s a sign on the door, I think you’ll find. And you definitely shouldn’t have that water bottle in here.”
“Oh. Sorry. I wasn’t aware.”
Somehow this was her fault. She wondered if she would have to keep saying it, or whether he might ask whether she could read.
He came into view again. He was putting on a pair of rubber art-handling gloves.
“You’ve been busy,” he said, looking at the model. No longer a private space.
“Extremely.” She nodded, probably looking too much like she meant it. 120 hours in total, she didn’t say.
Paul was carrying a small painting. He put it on the table along with her diorama. He stood there looking at the diorama intently.
What made her decide? To be honest, she didn’t know. Later, she’d think it was her tūpuna having her back.
“My name is Wai. With a W.”
He shifted his weight slightly. The silence felt awkward. Clearly, he wasn’t expecting that; it unsettled him to be confronted.
“It’s actually Waimarie,” she said. “But most people call me Wai.”
He nodded. In the month she’d been here they’d never had more than a morning greeting.
“What do you think of it?” She meant the diorama.
“It looks extremely well crafted,” he said, relief flooding his face. Art was his department. “Quite astonishing.”
“Thanks,” she said, like it was nothing to her. “Look closely and there are even miniature replicas of the Don Drivers.”
She watched as he leaned in. If she had to shake things up, so be it. “Don Driver has a room of his own,” she said. “I’m not sure we can do that shit anymore.”
Step too far? She remembered her aunty’s words. Small steps.
“Working at this tiny scale drew me in closer, so I really paid attention,” she said. “One thing I noticed, Paul, was how low Māori and Pacifica numbers are, amongst the collection.”
“I think it’s fair to say the collection has probably got a bit of fat that needs trimming,” he said, straightening up.
The conversation felt like a weird dance, like he’d deliberately misunderstood the brief, her applying pressure, but not too much.
Nobody could deny she’d done a good job, he was saying. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t be using it. She missed the next part, or maybe he mumbled it. His lips were chapped.
Her suspicions had been correct. They’d given the job to her simply to keep her occupied, distracted from institutional concerns.
She briefly thought about quitting, before deciding she wasn’t going to make it easy for him. She acted like she wasn’t aware of the new arrangement.
“There are an awful lot of white men in the collection.”
“Curating isn’t simply a matter of taste,” he said, a statement that seemed to herald its own contradiction. “No doubt you’ll discover that if you finish your internship.”
His voice was patronising. The thing happening here – the diorama, his voice, the room temperature – had made her tired. The dance was over. Where was Chloe? Soon, they’d be sitting in Mondrian’s drinking coffee and moaning about Paul, or talking about going shopping. She didn’t mention the tiki paintings. She picked up her water bottle and her phone. Save that for another day.
Emma Hislop (Kāi Tahu) is a writer currently living and working in Taranaki. Her first book of short fiction, Ruin, was published in March 2023 with Te Herenga Waka University Press. Her writing has been published here and overseas, including Sport, Action Spectacle, Ora Nui, takahē, Hue and Cry, Metro and The Spinoff. Emma is part of Te Hā Taranaki, a collective for Māori writers, established in 2019. She is currently working on a novel, set in Ōtepoti.
by Mary Raleigh
All her feelings…, sharp and defined, one as true as the other held tight in her arms as she walked. She couldn’t share his idiocy with him – that would be unkind. He was kind, was all over her. He actually adored her. Told her so every second day. Adorations piling up in text messages like dead mice cat-gifts on the doormat. A southerly gust off the harbour slapped a rope of loose hair into her mouth. She spat the strands and tried to rein in her thoughts.
Shit. Distinct memory, sitting up in her bed journalling. Writing JD for the perfect lover. Was that last year? Where was that journal? She must find where she’d shoved it. Asked the Universe on one A4 page for a man who would cherish and adore ’cetera, ’cetera.
Now the very man himself was trudging the coastline with her. Being cherishing and adoring. And also a dick.
She was sure he was nervous. Of course he was nervous. Talking incessantly about everything. What that bird was over there. Where should they go for dinner tonight. An unsolicited précis of the latest mass murderer documentary he’d watched. She knew in her bones that he wasn’t one, but why he’d watch documentaries on them, she’d never understand.
He’d told her last night in the hotel bed that he wanted to hold her forever. Her arms tensed at the memory, and she felt around in her abdomen for a curl of affection. Where were those hormones when you needed them? Damn bitches be gone. Fuck this peri-menopause bollocks. She felt robotic in that first-week-of-new anti-depressants kind-of-a-way.
I want to feel affection for him, she chided at the driftwood tousled along the stony beach. I do feel affection for him. Just not right now. God it hurt to argue silently with yourself. Especially while in the company of the guy you were arguing about.
“You all right?” He swung his head to face her. He looked haggard. This was weirdly sexy.
“Hmmm?” Christ. He asked me a question.
“Oh.” This seemed a surprise. Did he realise she never. Stopped. Thinking. Thinking dragged her awake at 3am, her head full of crackling cellophane.
Thinking was so exclusionary.
“Sorry. I’m thinking about my thesis. Ideas for my next stage.”
“Yes.” Said in shutdown yes. The yes of I will not speak of this. The yes of No, you can’t come into my head. It reminded her of that time when she was 17, engrossed in writing her history essay. A skinny white boy had knocked on her door. He lived on her road and proudly told her one day that he ate so much, his mother had to go to the supermarket every single day. He seemed to be saying this as a chat up line, unaware she had no interest in mothering him. Nor paying his grocery bills. Skinny white boy stood there when she opened the front door, head full of Elizabeth I.
“Writing an essay.”
“An essay.” It was a fight on his face between the desire to mock and the urge to gain entry.
“Yeah. I’m pretty busy. It’s due tomorrow.”
“Yeah. So. Umm.”
“So. Yeah. Seeyalater.” She shut the door on his shocked little white boy face and stalked back to her bedroom, her essay a long stapled railroad track of paper across the carpet. She’d frowned, then barked a laugh and promptly forgot annoying boy at door. She had queens to deal with.
A seagull scream pulled her back to the now.
“Sometimes I will go very quiet.” She looked out past the harbour headlands, whitecaps on waves, a cargo ship making the gradual turn in to port. Navigate with care. He said nothing. “Sometimes I am deep within myself.”
“You scare the crap out of me when you do that.”
She smiled at him. Oxygen. Grabbed his puffer jacket and pulled him close.
It was such a relief not to be 17.
Mary Raleigh is a writer from Kirikiriroa / Hamilton. She graduates with a Master of Professional Writing from the University of Waikato this year. Mary’s work has been published in Poetry NZ Yearbook and Mayhem Literary Journal.
by Norman Franke
Both of them were eager, serious travellers, absorbed in understanding what was to be seen and discovering what was hidden. He approached her, as if by chance, 13.8 billion years after the first singularity, on a small planet in a small solar system that had produced further singularities including self-conscious life. In a student café in Bloomington, Indiana, on a Saturday morning as she was reading Gödel, Escher, Bach under an historical poster for Droste’s Cocoa. He sat opposite her, but saw her and the poster best, unobtrusively, in the reflection of the window.
It was a little while before he caught her eye, and he found his own amazement and shy joy mirrored in it. Fixing his gaze on the poster he said: “Mise en abyme, isn’t it?” She nodded, smiled, and pointed to their plates, each with a half-eaten mille-feuille exposing the symmetry of the layers, five distinct lines, staves of puff pastry and custard: “And a culinary mirror fugue.” She had noticed his cello case, and he had noticed that she had noticed but she was still referring to the cake: “A favourite?” – “Deified!” he replied enthusiastically, although it was the last slice in the cabinet and he didn’t really like mille-feuille; “Madam, in Eden, I’m Adam.” She had the last palindromic word: “Are we not drawn onward, we few, drawn onward to new era?”
And so, after exams, he followed her to Aotearoa, and, creating their own playful palindromes, turned it into ‘a ora e toa’ together. They settled in a city near a river where she had paddled a canoe as a child. Every Saturday morning she brought him over a mille-feuille when he studied the composers’ ideas and biographies and then practised the cello. “Deified!” he said. And every Thursday he returned the ritual, bringing her and her maths students mille-feuille and a thermos of cocoa to the waka; and she said, laughing: “E Doc, note I dissent: a fast never prevents a fatness. I diet on code.”
Shortly after their children had left home, she was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder. She dragged herself to the baker for him. “Our eternal pudding love,” she said. “Deified!” he replied and started to play the first canon from Bach’s Musical Offering.
Translations and notes:
Text based on motifs of Douglas Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize winning book about consciousness Gödel, Escher, Bach, an early classic also of AI research. Mise en abyme [French]: a picture within a picture; Aotearoa [te reo Māori]: New Zealand – ‘a ora e toa’ is the palindromic reversal of the indigenous name, it means ‘live and win’; waka [te reo Māori]: a canoe. A visualisation of Johann Sebastian Bach’s canon on a Möbius strip can be found here.]
Norman P. Franke is a Hamilton-based scholar (MA, Hamburg University; Ph.D. Humboldt University, Berlin), poet and filmmaker. He is a Research Fellow at the University of Newcastle, New South Wales. He has published widely about 18th century literature, German-speaking exile literature (Albert Einstein, Else Lasker-Schüler, Karl Wolfskehl) eco-poetics and at the intersection of religion and poetry. Norman’s poetry has been broadcasted on radio and published in anthologies in Austria, Germany, New Zealand, Switzerland, the UK and the USA.
Lucky Little Creature
by Tim Saunders
There was another sheep in the pen to keep it company. They chewed at weeds through the rails and regarded us with yellow eyes as we pulled up next to the loading ramp, gravel crunching under the ute’s thick tyres.
“Not much meat on her,” said Uncle Syd from the passenger seat.
“She’ll do,” said Dad. “Better than nothing. Lucky little creature.”
The morning coolness was already evaporating, and hills lay flaccid on the horizon. The moon was still up but fading fast as the sun gained traction in the cloudless sky. Blowflies tapped the ute’s windows, black and fat and heavy. Dad waved at someone up on the landing, but the man dissipated back into the woolshed’s darkening shadows.
“Poor bastard,” said Dad.
“It’s a shame, alright,” said Uncle Syd.
They mentioned his wife and kids and subsidies and interest rates, bloody this and bloody that, as a hawk circled the sheep yards and watched everything from above. Tūī balanced on tall harakeke flowers, and magpies strutted malevolently around the empty pens, warbling weird requiems to the morning.
“Reckons we can have the meat for free,” said Dad. “But we better give him something.”
“Yeah, better give him something,” agreed Uncle Syd.
Dad walked to the back of the ute and clunked around while Uncle Syd leant on the wooden rails and stared at the two sheep. They huddled in the far corner of the pen and stared back. Fred jumped off the back of the ute and pissed on a post. Lichen feathered the rails in green and white and red splotches, dry and flaky like sunburn. Fred pissed again, a braided yellow stream pushing its way through the dust, and I wondered just how much piss a dog could hold.
“The slaughter room is up that ramp,” called Dad. “Chase them both up there.”
The blowflies followed us up as we flapped our arms and yelled “hut hut hut” to scare the sheep into action. Fred loped along beside us, his tongue a fat slab. Some of the wooden rails were missing, leaving gaps like bad teeth. Others were broken and jagged.
“Are you sure you want the boy to see this?” asked Uncle Syd.
Dad put his knives and the long thin sharpening steel on a dusty, rust-stained shelf.
“Yeah, I reckon it’s time he knew about this stuff. You want to see, don’t you?”
I nodded and Fred leant on me and I scratched him on his black and tan head. The sheep looked at me, breathing fast, their nostrils flaring.
“You know what I’m going to do to this sheep, and that we’re going to eat it?” asked Dad.
I nodded again and scratched the scab on my knee. The sheep pressed themselves further into the corner as if trying to get as far away from me as possible.
“Good,” said Dad as he took a knife from the shelf and lightly flicked the curved blade with the edge of his thumb.
Uncle Syd walked towards the sheep and hooked his big arm around the throat of one of them as they tried to run past. He twisted its head back along its body and the sheep lost balance and flipped onto its back. Uncle Syd held its front legs, pulling its body upright against himself.
He passed the sheep to Dad, who sliced its throat and bent its head backwards until the bone crunched and hi-vis blood sprayed across the concrete. He wiped both sides of the knife across the wool, leaving red smears like paint, and then stepped away and let the sheep kick like it was running and leaping. It kicked and kicked some more, and I watched as the kicking got slower and slower and the head was dangling as blood surged and spread and soaked into the cracks in the concrete, and the light was swimming and then the sheep wasn’t kicking anymore. The sheep’s eyes were open, but its head was on the wrong way.
There was a funny smell like metal, and Dad started cutting around the sheep’s legs. Fred slurped the blood that puddled on the ground, and Uncle Syd handed Dad what looked like a metal coat hanger. Dad threaded it through the holes he’d made in the legs, then he and Uncle Syd hoisted a rope so the sheep swung upside down, its head drooping until Dad cut it off and let it fall thump into a plastic bucket.
The flies were going nuts, twirling frantic circles around the sheep, and the sun pushed shadows into corners and up walls. The moon had dimmed to a slight smudge.
“You alright?” asked Dad as he gave his knife a few rasping swipes over the sharpening steel.
I nodded, even though I wanted to look away at the hills and the yellow grass and the macrocarpas where sheep gathered quietly.
Uncle Syd gave Dad a hand to pull the skin from the sheep, using his fists to punch where it stuck around the ribs. Thick white membrane peeled and snapped. Uncle Syd hung it over the fence like a wet rug. Dad let all the guts out, bulbous and soggy, slap slop into the bucket. Green and white and red, and the smell was bad, real bad. Dad glanced at me, but I didn’t turn away.
The sheep swung and swayed, although it didn’t look at all like a sheep anymore. It was just something dead.
“Here, take this out to the ute,” said Dad.
He handed me a limp chunk of meat. It was warm and flabby, and oozed through my fingers like it was alive.
“It’s the liver,” said Dad. “We’ll cook it up for lunch.”
I took the lump down the ramp to the ute, and Fred came too because he thought I was going to feed him. He pressed his cold nose against the back of my leg and I told him to get out of it. But it was actually quite nice to have Fred with me, and the air outside the slaughter room was fresh and awake. The sun had swept a wide arc over the woolshed, and the moon was nowhere to be seen. A shadow flicked across me as the hawk rode a thermal in search of death and sustenance. I could hear Dad and Uncle Syd talking and laughing and the rough sawing of meat and bone, but I liked it out there, the sun warming my face and the birds all doing what birds were supposed to do.
Fred was sniffing around the woolshed door as shadows gobbled up the sunshine, probably on the trail of a rabbit or a possum. He pissed again, then ran up the steps and through the open door.
“Fred,” I yelled. “Come behind, Fred.”
That’s how Dad had taught me to call him. Never come here or this way Fred, always come behind.
The hawk was a dot now. The magpies were fighting over worms, and the tūī were hopping from tī kōuka to harakeke and back again. Fred was barking. His voice boomed from the cavernous woolshed, and I reckoned he’d baled up the possum or whatever he was chasing.
“Come behind,” I called as I walked up the steps. “Come behind, Fred. That’ll do, Fred.”
The air in the woolshed was cool, much cooler than outside, and it took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust. There were cobwebs in the woolshed, thick sheets of them, and along one wall a row of tall, grey wool bales. Shearing gear was scattered across a bench. Everything was brown, dark brown. As brown as trees. It reminded me of church, although we hadn’t been to church since Mum’s funeral, and I couldn’t really remember that.
Fred was barking at the rafters above the wool press. Barking and barking like he would never stop.
“Shut up,” I yelled. “Shut up, Fred!”
Fred was staring up at the corrugated iron ceiling, and I looked up too, and suddenly Dad and Uncle Syd were there, and Dad said “Get the boy out of here,” but I had already seen the boots swinging, and the legs and the limp shoulders. The drooping head. I can still see it.
Uncle Syd put his big arms around me and guided me back towards the door, and the light outside was so bright that I shut my eyes. I could hear the whistle of the hawk, the low mournful whistle, and the constant lament of magpies.
“I’m sorry you saw that,” said Dad after the police and ambulance arrived.
I just nodded. Dad didn’t hug me or anything, because Dad doesn’t do that. Not even when people die.
“Why did that man do that?” I asked.
“Because some people feel like they just can’t go on.”
The shadows had moved, and the sun was now over the old pines that creaked and popped in the heat. The magpies had gone in search of shade, and the hawk sat on a fencepost above a dry drain.
“We’d better go home and cook some lunch,” said Dad. “Are you hungry?”
“Does dying hurt?”
The hawk preened rust-coloured feathers as the tūī cracked flax flowers, sucking nectar through curved beaks.
“Sometimes,” said Dad.
Uncle Syd wrapped the sheep in an old wool sack, but it didn’t really look like a sheep anymore. It didn’t really look like anything, lucky little creature.
I put my arm out the window as we drove away, felt the air lift my hand as I imagined what it would be like to fly. To fly above everything and look down. To look down and just watch without feeling.
Tim Saunders farms sheep and beef in the Manawatū. He has had poetry and short stories published in Turbine|Kapohau, takahē, Landfall, Poetry NZ Yearbook, Headland, Flash Frontier, Broadsheet, Best Small Fictions and RNZ. He won the 2018 Mindfood Magazine Short Story Competition and was shortlisted for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Tim has had two books published by Allen & Unwin, This Farming Life (2020) and Under A Big Sky (2022).
by Renee Liang
For years, she’s watched the layers peel off her father. The first time he said thank you after she brought food, she was startled. He never expressed gratitude, not humbly like that. Yet there was his text. Thank you for the egg rolls, I appreciate it. And again the next time, and the next.
The waves roll, grinding grains, licking the sand away. She wonders if she’ll wake to find the beach bare, bleached bones of driftwood exposed like a skeleton. Once she arrived after a storm to find deep grooves carved into the sand, the imprints of stripped-away arteries. Fruit and shrubs torn from backyards were tossed as if the wind had decided it was a tip. She posted pictures of the apocalypse and wondered online, will this beach ever be the same? A few days later the sand had renewed itself like newborn baby skin.
She begins to wonder if the father she knew her whole life wasn’t her real dad. For years she’d followed him as he made his way in the world; short, upright, his skin so tough he seemed to bounce like a rubber ball off challenging situations. After his diagnosis she became aware of a softening. He craved touch. Now as she feeds him, his mouth opens to receive the chopsticks, his eyes birdlike. She looks at him and sees her son as a baby.
She doesn’t like to look too long in the mirror in case she finds the deep grooves carved into her skin from decades of blinking. In the shower, she rubs exfoliant in, rolling the grains against her face, rinsing away dead skin. Later she’ll replace the missing layers with moisturiser, maybe even foundation. I’m always acting a part. I’m never my real self for a moment.
Before her father had his memories washed away, she had recorded oral histories on her recorder, the sound bars cascading as her father’s experiences were digitised. He had been feisty as a boy. His father had beaten him. He charmed the nuns who were his teachers and got extra food. He worked hard to help his mother, her grandmother, who saved every sugar packet she was given; she’d been through two wars. He was a kind boy; a sweet boy. Later he’d bulked up and posed shirtless by the pool to impress girls.
As sunset peels off the beach she skips to avoid an incoming wave. Water fills her footprints; the ocean swallows, erases. She thinks of the rock beneath the sand and its beating heart of magma. She decides to go home and look deep into the mirror so she can see her father’s eyes.
Renee Liang is a poet, playwright and essayist. She has toured eight plays and collaborates on visual arts works, dance, film, opera, community events and music. Some poetry and short fiction are anthologised. You may recognise her from hosting two previous National Flash Fiction Day online awards ceremonies! A memoir of motherhood, When We Remember to Breathe, with Michele Powles, appeared in 2019. In 2018 she was appointed a Member of the NZ Order of Merit for services to the arts.
by Deb Jowitt
The oyster-crusted legs of the old wharf stood exposed at low tide. The boy had been drinking for hours before he dived out over the shallow water.
“Idiot,” his friends shouted, groggy with sun and beer, “didn’t you see the rocks?” They staggered over to the rail, just alert enough to look for signs of him surfacing.
The morning had started dry and warm. Ideal for Viking Chess on the grass, the slight breeze off the sea too light to blow the throwing sticks off course. A day without rain at last. Mrs Johnson had been up since dawn, making last-minute preparations.
Twenty-four players, twelve spectators, ten children. The big garden absorbed them all. Behind the house stood tall karaka, kohekohe and giant pūriri. Below, a long flat lawn with spectacular views: the rugged volcanic range in the distance and morning sun glinting off the sea, that marvellous transparent blue, flecked with silver.
Play started at ten o’clock. The names of the teams were marked on an old blackboard: Brown and Sticky, Lob You Long Time, Sticky Fingers, Twigs in Space, Heart of Grass. Everyone helped put up the marquees, except the children who vanished at the mention of work.
The first two rounds went smoothly. The third dragged on in a stalemate. Mrs Johnson had a lavish spread set out in the conservatory, with cake for afters. Everyone looked forward to the tournament – Mrs Johnson’s cream sponges were legend.
The children arrived on cue and disappeared just as quickly with laden plates. No one minded, least of all Mrs Johnson, who was partial to independent children. Play was well into the fifth round when Mr Johnson burst onto the lawn, short of breath after his climb up from the wharf.
“A boy’s been hurt,” he said. “Badly. I need a few of you to give me a hand. Meet me by the car. I’ll get the first aid kit and…”
His daughter interrupted him with a frown. “Our first day this summer with no rain. Our tournament day. There’re always people down there fishing. Why us?”
“He’s badly hurt. End of play till we’ve got him sorted.” Her father turned back towards the driveway. Several men, glum-faced, followed. They’d planned an evening relaxing once play ended.
“Why does he always spoil things?” the daughter said. Her mother gave her a sympathetic glance. Her husband must always do the right thing. Even if it meant disrupting everyone else.
“That poor boy,” she said loudly. “Let’s hope he recovers from whatever damage he’s done himself.”
Attention turned to the best timing for a swim when the tide came in. In the meantime, cold drinks on the lawn. A few players slipped away to their tents. Nothing would happen to their children at the Johnson’s. Let them wander and play. Where were the parents of the injured boy at the wharf, they wondered, as they drifted off to sleep.
Deb Jowitt lives on the Whangārei Heads, where words compete with bird calls, waves, wind, and the sly rustle of subtropical growth. Her short fiction has appeared in Flash Frontier, At The Bay and the anthology You Might Want to Read This: a collection of stories from Whangārei Library 3.30 Flash. She is currently co-editing an anthology of Northland flash fiction.