2021 Katherine Mansfield Short Story Award

 

Congratulations to Monty ORielly who was shortlisted for the 2021 Katherine Mansfield Writing Award...

 

...and to Fresh Avocado regular Cadence Chung who was the overall winner!!!!! 

2021-km-short-story-award-finalists.jpg

Coping                                   Monty ORielly

 

We all stood around the courtyard leaning on various objects. It was a cold night and under the orange streetlamp, the only way you could tell if the white clouds leaving people's mouths were from vapes or dragon breathe was the smell. Does secondhand smoke apply to vapes too? I thought to myself, wondering if in thirty years I’d regret coming to these things even if I wasn’t addicted like they were. But I know that I am fooling myself, my cold fingers felt frozen into place around the beer I am holding. I watched as grabbing hands reached out for the substances, I listened to the sound of something vaping through their t-shirt, I heard her suck in as the coils heat up. When she breathed out I could smell the burnt juice. It filled my nose and I felt my eyes water.

“What nic is this?” she asked. 

“Forty nic, my dad got it for me, it’s a bit harsh.” He replied with a sense of pride in his voice. He might have even been trying to puff his chest out but he looked so malnourished it was hard to tell. 

“Oi mate, can I have a hoon?” Asks Sam, no one likes Sam, he was born in Seatoun but talks like he’s from the Hutt cause he thinks it’s cool. It actually just makes everyone uncomfortable. But he gets given hits, like the other nicotine-addicted seagulls who crowd around whoever has a vape squawking until they get a hit of their own liquid gold. 

 

“Who wants to go back in?” Someone asks. I follow them, I didn’t spend ten dollars to stand outside and watch other people vape. I can do that for free at intervals. As I walk up the stairs and in the door I am hit by a combination of sound and sweat. I hang in the back with the rest of the people too scared to go into the mosh pit, we stand together in wiggly lines holding cans and cups slightly in awe of the people in front of us smashing together. As I watched them all bang and crash into each other I was reminded of the humor theory coined by Herbert Spencer, the basic idea being that humor is a way for us to overcome our social inhibitions. I realized that was the point of the mosh pit, of this display, it allowed them to let go. They all kept falling, tripping each other up like dominoes but they fell as if they wanted to, the animalistic side of the ritual bringing out a physical numbness.

 

 I watch one of the human dominoes fall then get back up and I realize that I recognize him. He was Marshall when I knew him, but I’ve heard his name has changed again, he was always a coward. But I knew him as Marshall, he was Marshall when I met him, lying about my age to get into a gig, he was Marshall when we stayed up at night talking, he was Marshall when he slipped his tongue into my mouth and he was Marshall when I tried to convince my friends that he was a good person. I watch him from a distance, watch as the chains attached to his body move but his hair stands stiff. I watch as he crashes into someone and helps them up, she looks young, her face clings to remnants of baby fat. I watch as she blushes shyly at his touch, I know how she feels. I know how she will hurt. 

“I need to go to the bathroom.”

 

After throwing up I catch a glimpse of my face in the bathroom mirror. My face looks hollow and my under eyes sag. They sag even more today because of the messy black eyeshadow I put under them, I’m tricking people to think I got less sleep than I actually did. Altogether it gives me the appearance of an anorexic raccoon. I wear every piece of jewelry I own, which sags my neck down, almost forcing me to look at the ground, I don’t mind. I can still hear the music screaming, I sit against the door as if that will block the sound out. I want to check the bus timetables but my phone is dead. So instead I have to wait it out. I imagine the bacteria from the bathroom floor climbing up my leg, I hope it makes me sick and I have to stay inside even longer. I shiver and feel tears drip down my throat, falling onto the dirty ground. This is how I cope.

Oxford                                 Cadence Chung

Oxford was head of the debate team at school. I knew this because I saw his face grinning out at me from the front page of the newsletter, his smile that didn’t quite reach the front because his teeth were too far back. Oxford lived in Te Aro, a 20-minute walk from my place. I knew this because I saw him get off the 27 every morning, holding some book all crinkled with its yellowing library shrink-wrap. Plath, Palahniuk, Whitman, Wilde, Rand ‒ I bet the ageing librarians told him he had good taste, looking up through their dated glasses and brains full of dust and dead people’s words. Maybe they even offered him a little stamp on his hand for being such a good boy. I called Oxford Oxford because of the way he spoke, a font dripping with derision and diction, words with the t’s crossed and i’s dotted. He even pronounced the ‘t’ in the word ‘exactly’, and omitted it in the word ‘often’. I hated Oxford, more than I had ever hated anyone. His laced-up-leather look, all bundled and pulled tight, made me want to loosen his pretty little image of himself and rip it all out. I wanted to scratch away the shine on his surface and show everyone he was nothing but hide.

He was the son of a diplomat ‒ I had seen him get into all-black cars with those silly diplomatic plates, all coyness and carefulness and mystery. He had stickers of flags all over his computer, just to show how worldly he was; India, China, Fiji, France. I knew all of the flags because I had been obsessed with them as a child, would trace over their lines, stars, block colours, and wonder how such bland designs were meant to invoke pride. There are four UN member states that have guns on their flags: Guatemala, Haiti, Mozambique, and Bolivia. Mozambique’s flag has an AK-47 on it. It’s meant to represent freedom and liberty or something, cross-hatched with a book and a hoe. 

Anyway, of course he was head of the debate team. I’ve never understood what’s so glorious about it ‒ argument for argument’s sake, just a handful of teenagers all dressed up in their button-down shirts just to yell at each other in a room like they do every lunchtime. I’ve seen better debates in the Level 3 linkwells, when the boys from the next school over scrap about some girl and make the walls shake, all the posters with rhetorical devices trembling on their rusty pins, in fun colours to seem more engaging ‒ piss yellow, smudged lipstick red, energy drink green. Oxford looked stupid when he was debating. I’d seen photos ‒ unflattering photos, in that way that candid photos always are. Though of course, nothing he ever did was candid. I could tell that he thought hard about every little action he did, from the way he tucked his book under his arm so the title showed, or the way he stared at me when I was reading, or the way he always tried to talk to me in class, just so he could make me look stupid, I’m sure.

It was at some museum that he properly talked to me, one of those leaky, despot heritage houses that are really only heritage to a myriad of unique fungal spores. I’d much rather tear them all down than have poor children have to wander through their refrigerator emptiness and learn about dead people. Fucking dead people. I always read living poets, got out the trendy little paperbacks with titles in all-caps Sans Serif and charmingly minimalist abstract front covers. Oxford read dead people. I didn’t.

It was in the reconstructed larder, surrounded by the candelabras caked in beeswax and fake preserved lemons in jars, that he spoke. He was reading a placard, those plasticine pieces of information that everyone cares about for a day and then instantly forgets.

 

'They’re all such tourists, aren’t they?' he asked, though it wasn’t really a question. He pointed to our English class listening intently to the tour guide. 'Wow, you’re telling me people lived here? Of course people lived here, and it was miserable. They make it seem like such a novelty, seeing how all the maids slaved away in here and everyone shit in that horrible little outhouse. I’ve been to a lot of museums, and people are always like this. Tourists of the past.'

 

'I guess people just don’t know what to say, when they’re confronted with it. I don’t know. You can’t act miserable about every bad thing that’s ever happened. This is kind of entertainment, after all.’'

 

Why was I engaging with him? Why had I said that? It made him smile at me ‒ which was a terrible thing ‒ before he turned back to the placard, his hand splayed out across the words. I noticed his ring, faded and coppery, with initials scratched into the surface: an L and an H.

 

'Have you ever been to the Louvre?' he asked idly.

 

Of course I haven’t, you stupid diplomat’s son, I wanted to say. But for some reason I shook my head and asked him what his favourite painting there was.

 

'The Angry Swan,' he replied. 'Not sure if it’s actually called that, but that’s what it depicts, anyway. Hissing and flying away and all that.'

 

'Out of all of the paintings at the Louvre,' I began, then stopped. 

 

'How would you know? You’ve never been.'

 

And then he left me in the larder, among the lemons and the candles that would have once lit the room and dripped wax onto the tables. 

 

The only other time I really saw Oxford was when I was walking home on some stupid, rainy summer’s day. I think I was crying ‒ either that, or the rain was blowing into my eyes. And of course, somehow, in his way that he always did, he found me, in that black car with diplomatic plates.

 

'Get in,' he said.

 

'Is that your car?' I asked, hesitating at the door.

 

'It’s my dad’s technically,' he said, and I wondered briefly why he was even out here, or if he'd stolen it.

 

He was a bad driver ‒ I clung to my seat which was becoming uncomfortably wet beneath my legs, leaning to stabilise myself with every swerve. It surprised me, that he was a bad driver. I thought he would be good at everything.

 

'I’m going to Cambridge next month,' he said, eventually. 'Going to eat in the dining halls with all the candles, go punting on the river, all that.'

 

'Looking forward to it?'

 

'I guess.'

 

'I read Fight Club for you, you know,' Oxford suddenly said. 'I saw you reading it once. I always noticed you. All that poetry and shit. I thought you’d like me for it. But you didn’t, did you?'

 

'I thought the narrator was so self-absorbed. It was miserable. He annoyed me,' I replied, because all of a sudden, all I could do was criticise a goddamn Palahniuk novel.

 

'Me too,' he laughed, smiling with those too-far-back teeth. He suddenly looked like a boy, gap-toothed and ruddy-cheeked and bashful. All that diplomacy, the debating, the antique rings and the perfect accent and the Cambridge next month, and the way that smile sat on his face still gave it all away.

 

'I looked at the painting,' I said, after I’d directed him through the darkness to my house, opened the black door into the rain. 'The swan. Painted in 1650. Some Dutch guy.'

'I said that as a joke, actually,' he said. 'That painting’s not even at the Louvre.' 

 

And that was the last time I ever spoke to Oxford, without ever telling him, telling him how much I hated him, more than I’d hated any other person. How much I hated the black car slicing through the night with its floodlights. How much I hated his ideas about museums. How stupid that swan painting was, or what a dumb joke it was, too. How it was weird that he wore that ring with the initials on it, the L.H. that I spent nights wondering what it stood for. How idiotic he looked when he stood up on that podium and argued for something he didn’t care about, just like how he read Fight Club, held it under his arm to show the title, all to try and impress some boy who had always hated him for the way he made him feel.

 

But of course, I couldn’t tell him any of this. He was already at Cambridge, amongst all the dead people, reading dead men’s poetry, in that building that dead men made, with those columns designed thousands of years ago by the Greeks. He was probably halfway down the River Cam, rowing through those dead men’s pond weeds that Keats probably wrote about, and wouldn’t give a damn about stupid boys who hated him.