Top 25, December 2012 Fiction Open: Top 25 http://t.co/IyYiEgFf — Glimmer Train (@glimmertrain)
Ruth breathed on her bedroom window. Scratched boo with a fingertip.
‘Keep us,’ she whispered, scanning The Good Shepherd Centre’s gardens.
Mist dusted the oak. Gravel paths led to the gate. Eastward, far streetlamps twinkled.
A fairy migration, thought Ruth.
To the north, amber lights on bridge cables blinked in a dull sky.
Grace joined her at the window. Fidgeted with her zipper collar. ‘I had a bad dream.’
Ruth studied the bridge. Stark iron like a goliath mantis over the River Clyde. ‘Tell me.’
‘It was spooky.’ Arms folded, Grace rested her cheek on Ruth’s shoulder. ‘You were in hospital. I wanted to visit. A stairway led up to the building. I was stuck on the steps. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t move. People stared from the windows. They looked scared. Like they knew I could never reach them. Then I saw it was you and me. Every window. I woke crying.’
‘It creeped me.’
‘Poor babes.’ Ruth cuddled her friend ‘Let’s go. While it’s quiet.’
A portal cabin at the gate, a bald watchman opened the door. ‘Jackets, ladies.’
‘Hat, mister,’ said Grace.
‘My head’s immune to the cold.’
‘Doubt it. It’s red as a prick,’ said Ruth.
‘Cheeky witch. Hope it pours.’
‘Wicked man.’ Grace wagged a finger. ‘You’ll fry in hell.’
The watchman swiped a moth. ‘Vermin,’ he said, and shut the door.
Saturday nights, boy racers parked near the gate revving souped Fords. Funland cabs. Prize seats for hug famished girls. Today was Sunday. The road was mute and barren. Ruth and Grace linked arms and strolled toward the river.
‘How was Millport?’ asked Grace.
‘Good. We hired bikes. Stayed overnight at the hotel. Aunt Flo was quiet.’
‘She’s a worrier.’
‘I’m her worry.’
‘Might be planning a party for your sixteenth.’
‘Do you know something I don’t?’
‘I had a party once,’ said Ruth, sniffing.
‘I was four or five. Cousins were there. I had balloons.’
‘Nutter doesn’t remember my birthdays. Not one.’
‘She’s sick. Schizophrenia is a disease. I think.’
‘She’s the disease.’
‘At least you met her.’
‘Wish I hadn’t. I liked the thought of her.’
‘You needed to meet.’
‘She didn’t know me. Her own daughter. I don’t belong to anyone.’
Town centre, a tarmac piazza, four teenage boys, hooded in tracksuits, played footie with a cola can. The girls passed and play stalled. A lank hoodie sat on a graffiti carved bench. ‘They’re from the home,’ he said.
‘Taking your fleas for a walk?’ bawled a beak face.
Ruth squeezed Grace and hurried. ‘Ignore him, babes.’
A chin scarred beanpole stalked them. ‘Brollies, crawlies. It might rain. You’ll get a wash.’ He high fived the beak.
‘Remember soap.’ Beak bent, choked in hilarity.
The girls jogged. ‘Inbreeds,’ shouted Grace, shiny hair wild in a gust.
Up a cobble lane they halted outside a kebab shop. Pungent aromas hurt empty bellies. Ruth foraged a cigarette from her zipper pocket. Flicked a Bic lighter. She inhaled, face flared orange, and smoke drizzled thin from her nose.
‘Last one?’ asked Grace.
Ruth nodded. ‘Share it.’
They smoked in turns. Keen drags, passing the fag. Grace took a last puff and tossed the butt. ‘Wish we had money for a kebab.’
‘A large donner.’ Ruth smacked her lips. ‘Tons of onions.’
‘Stop it, Ruth.’
A man exited the shop carrying a family meal box. He dragged his eyes and loped to a sleek four by four. The fat wheeled guzzler pulled away, the man bloat with revulsion.
Her back sliding down the window, Grace sat on the cobbles. ‘He’s a stink.’
‘Pigs arse shite.’ Ruth kicked the curb.
‘Wonder if he has a daughter.’
‘I was a baby once. Funny that.’
On the main road a church service had ended, congregation flooding the square. The girls fused in the flock, red and lime zippers loud in a beige spill.
‘Excuse me, lass.’ The old lady poked Ruth’s arm, her face flush and glad. ‘Have you seen my Malcolm?’
‘I don’t know him.’
Pencilled eyebrows rose. ‘He’s an inspector.’
‘Sorry.’ Ruth shrugged. ‘Maybe he’s in the church.’
‘Don’t be a plum. Malcolm hates church.’
‘Are you all right, Mrs?’ asked Grace. ‘Shall I get the priest?’
‘Mother.’ A neat man cut between the girls. ‘Can’t leave you for a second.’
‘She’s looking for Malcolm,’ said Ruth.
‘They’re angels, Malcolm.’
The man led his mother to a car. He turned and saluted the girls, a stiff middle finger.
Elbows looped, they weaved out of the crowd.
‘She was sweet,’ said Ruth.
‘Oldies are always nice.’
‘Pigs arse shite.’
Shivery, Grace nestled into Ruth. A road sign read half a mile to the dual carriageway. Traffick picked up. Cars, vans, trucks moaned past. Exhausts spewed black smoke, rising sour and noxious in the dusk. On the grass embankment, Ruth squatted and retched.
‘Fuck.’ Grace spanked her spine. ‘You should have eaten something.’
Folded on her knees, Ruth vomited bile.
Grace massaged her neck. ‘Dump it up, babes.’
She heaved and puked a fizz pool.
‘Chuck it out.’
Another sore retch, yellow slime threads swung from her mouth.
Ruth spat in the dirt. ‘I’m done.’ She rested sucking and blowing.
‘Take your time.’
‘That was grotty.’
Grace touched her hair. ‘Feel better?’
‘Much.’ Ruth rose and sleeved her chin. ‘I nearly fainted.’
‘Maybe we should wait.’
‘It’s nothing to do with that. You were right. We should have had lunch.’
‘I couldn’t. I felt weird all day. Hungry now though.’
‘Me too. I’d kiss a shit for a fish supper.’
‘Freak. You spew your guts, now you could eat a whale.’
‘Mental, isn’t it.’
Zippers shut at the throat, they walked on, teary cold. Rain hit and died. A crow squealed. They glanced at each other, shied away, fixed on the path.
Close to the bridge a van slowed and parked on a moss bank. The girls saw a man adjust his side mirror.
‘Here we go.’ Ruth nudged and tugged. ‘Paedo patrol.’
The door window rolled down. ‘You hitching?’
‘No thanks,’ said Grace.
‘Anywhere you want.’
‘We’re out for a walk on the bridge,’ said Ruth.
‘I can run you.’
‘It’s right there.’ Grace pointed, her face crunched.
‘I can run you.’
Arms locked, they rushed up the embankment. Ruth glanced back. ‘Wonder if it has a daughter.’
Stairs led to the bridge’s paved walkway. ‘Last one up is a fart.’ Grace ran the steps nimble as a foal. ‘I can taste the sea,’ she yelled.
A truck grumped past. Ruth flagged a hand at her ear. ‘What?’
‘The sea. Taste it.’
‘I love that.’
They dallied along the footpath. Leaned on the chest high railing. Below, broad waters lifted and fell and clapped.
‘Choppy, isn’t it.’ Ruth gobbed a frothy blob. ‘It’s not the sea. It’s a river.’
‘Smells like shells.’
‘Maybe it is the sea.’ Ruth watched blue hills, her hair a windy mess. ‘Grace.’
‘Do you believe aunt Flo is planning a party?’
‘Probably sorted it weeks ago.’
‘Thanks babe.’ Ruth climbed the rail.
Grace scrambled over and stood beside her, tiptoed on a girder.
Vehicles horns blared. The girls held hands and stared down at the syrupy blackness. ‘Do you thing God is real?’ asked Grace, chilled and lost.
‘There’s a Devil. We know that.’
‘Pigs arse shite.’
They stepped off the girder, into slappy air, and Ruth shouted: ‘So there must be a God.’
Black sea mirrored the moon. Liquid will-o’-the-wisp. Slow tide creeping the sand. Footprints a step apart.
‘We’re one then,’ she said.
‘Would you die for me?’
‘A million times.’
‘Only a million.’
‘A billion times.’
‘That’s not infinite.’
‘I would forever die for you.’
‘I dreamed this.’
A rose dawn. Far pink hills. He carried her. Breath on his neck. Citrus hair on his face. Pearl hemline trailing wet.
He inhaled, devoured, kept her.
Hilltop, the cottage shone. Yellow brick. A saffron nest.
‘I’ll make coffee,’ he whispered.
Eyelashes parted, swept his chin.
Mid morning she slept. Silk sheet lifting with sighs.
He sipped wine in the balcony. Tasted oyster air. Rain scratched a window. Cooled his bare torso. A foghorn blew, tanker on the horizon, shiny red. Seagulls bawled.
Bedside, he touched her fingertips. Shut the blinds and headed to the beach.
Past the sand dunes he hiked a trail. Clean pebbles and shell. Along the path he reached a gate. It opened to a churchyard.
Rainswept, a lady placed flowers against marble angel wings. White petals on grass. A child’s grave.
He stayed a discreet distance, watching.
Dark hair stuck wet on her cheek. She looked serene. Perfect. Holy.
The vision seared and penetrated. He felt he would always keep it. Vivid as now.
Back on the path he wished his wife’s presence and hurried to tell of the mythic woman.
Dachau’s fat lice abandoned Adele.
A child rag.
Papa called her Eva’s shadow. The sisters had black hair and raisin brown eyes. A warm tolerance to papa’s bad jokes. Adele was delicate. On the train east, herd in a foul freight car, she had turned fifteen. Mother touched her chin and said, ‘Tulip.’
Eva tugged Adele’s coat. Two years older and droller she yawned, ‘Weed,’ at her ear.
‘My angels.’ Papa winked at his girls. ‘Close as toes.’
‘You say that nice,’ said mother
‘Our Adele. Tails Eva like a cub.’
‘Am I your cub?’
‘Lady. I have always been yours.’
One precious day, back when he was spruce, papa said it at the bakers. ‘Our Adele,’ he bawled, and slapped the bread counter. ‘Tails Eva like a cub.’
Asher the baker squint his eyebrows. When papa left the shop, Asher informed his wife he was silly hearing it. ‘Eva this, Adele that,’ he said, arms flung like a snared bear. ‘That’s all I get from him.’
The baker’s apprentice, Sal, told Eva this. They were best friends. Loyal and candid. Eva promised not to tell papa. She said it would hurt his spirit.
Eva adored her friend. Sal was kind and blunt and sincere when he smiled.
He didn’t pass a day in Dachau.
Eva had wished to be a musician. A concert cellist. Papa praised her devotion and mother nurtured her gift. Adele swore Eva had the guts. No matter what Eva’s ambition, Adele would swear this.
Adele often reminisced about a chilling event at school. Plainclothes Gestapo crashed in the classroom and seized sweet Mr Kurz. Eva kept stubborn for him. She didn’t cry until she got home. Adele saw grace in Eva. She prayed Mr Kurz saw it too.
Grave and wan, Eva shut her eyes when Adele was lugged from the bunk. Eva too was dead. Faith wilted with grief. She didn’t cry. Not even when they scooted off her shadow in a barrow. Eva’s eyes were dried up and pruned like her heart.
‘Your head is shiny,’ Adele had said on the first morning. Twenty five days ago. The day a lean man in a white coat ushered Sal from his father and said, ‘Left line for you, mister.’
Mother gripped Adele’s and Eva’s shoulders. ‘Play stilts my darlings.’ Her voice was fast and blowy. ‘Tiptoe stilts. Who’s the tallest tree?’
Later, in the dim barrack, as Adele fretted in sleep, a cadaverous woman, witness to the sly abduction, tapped Eva’s arm and said, ‘Tears are an offence.’
‘It’s barbaric.’ Eva sleeved her eyes, mashing soot on her cheek. ‘Why did he take Sal?’
‘His walk.’ The woman shrugged. ‘It marked him.’
‘Killed him, you mean.’ Eva had rarely noticed Sal’s limp. She didn’t know what polio was. ‘Say it. Kill. Murder. Burn.’
Sunken eyed beat, the woman shrunk into a bottom bunk. ‘It is a work camp.’ She tucked a torn blanket and faced the wall. ‘I make lampshades.’
The trauma broke mother. Mute on the third day. Ash on the fifth night.
‘Swine smoke,’ a grinning kapo told Eva. She squatted and waved her ox tail whip and widened her leech eyes and said, ‘Puff puff puff.’
Eva recalled papa, three months before the ghetto, taunting mother at the dining table. ‘You are a fluff woman,’ he said, mocking her for giving cheese to an accordian playing beggar. ‘Soft as a moth.’
Spatula in hand, mother rose from her chair and papa boomed, ‘Sweet as a deer.’
Eva used to miss papa. She was too worn now. Empty and sick and sad.
In the slow afternoon, hours after she was squeaked away in the rusty cart, Adele visited Eva. When Eva was safe in sleep. They were in a glade, warm and glad, the birds rowdy in yellow trees. Eva smelt fern, petals, leaves. It felt real. Adele was there. Eva lay lost when she woke. Awake and hurt and alone, Eva longed for Adele. Her shadow.
Curled in her bunk, Eva watched night creep on a skylight. The fear thrived. A contagious dread. Eva heard it. The female camp was loud. Kapos were keen with their batons. Women were ordered outside and kapos lurked at the barrack doors swatting as they came out.
‘Pigdogs,’ a kapo squealed, mouth foamed like she was diseased.
A skip, stoop, and run, Eva took one hit on her shin. She daren’t stumble. No matter how hard they strike, to fall is the end. She had seen it. A week ago a lady fell and kapos mauled her like wolves on a lamb.
Outside, Eva could barely stand. Her wooden clogs were deep in snow and her leg ached. Her stomach cramped. Lame with hunger. Ashamed as she was to admit it she could steal from a famished neighbour to rest the crude pain. She had often considered doing it.
The women lined up near the barracks. Parade still and skeletal. Eva stood in the middle row. Raw hail hit from the north and skirts rippled like they might shred.
‘Caps down. Caps up,’ the kapos shouted, rubber batons spanking palms.
Caps were swiped from skulls and scuffed against thighs and flapped back on bare chilled scalps. Everything was grey. The striped ragged uniforms. Gaunt haunted faces. Barracks and watchtowers. Barbed wire fences. Dead grey snow.
For an hour they were marched near the high fence, drilled fast and sore, the kapos snorting vapour breath. ‘Legs up. Caps down. Caps up. Arms out.’
Women jumped and bent, arms raised, caps down belting thighs. The weakest fell and were booted and ox whipped to their feet. A woman lay quiet in the snow and kapos circled, teeth bared, a frenzy of batons, and wheeled to the coals.
Watchtower spotlights flared and blinded and held them in wide shifting beams. Blackcaps leapt from trucks and baited with leashed fiend dogs. It was a day without soup and bread and Adele and God.
Eva’s strength failed. She folded on her knees and was lifted, her clogs raking slush, two women with hands under her armpits. They bossed and begged and Eva was standing when the obscene drill halted. She had spoken to these women and was aware their children were thieved on arrival. Perhaps they saw a daughter in her, thought Eva. It was easy to perish for this charity.
Blackcap dog handlers raided the barracks and trooped out hidden children. Eva’s two guardian’s tried to shield her. Dogs were set on hysterical mothers as infants were dragged from them. A chief saw Eva and tapped his chin with a gloved finger. He snapped his fingers and yelled and pointed. A dog handler sprinted, silhouetted in the fierce light, steam spewing from the beast’s liver nostrils.
Eva’s guardians squeezed her and one of them ordered, ‘Up, child, chin up,’ and it felt like mother was with her.
‘Tiptoe stilts,’ said Eva, but she had no feeling of her feet and she stumped frail in the snow.
Kapos led the children toward the chimney. Smoke wicked ghostly, the only white in a world of grey. Orange sparks fled up in the draught and died in the gusty dark. A boy no older than five came beside Eva and held her skirt.
‘It’s on fire,’ he said, pointing at the sparks.
‘No.’ Eva held his hand. ‘Those are stars.’
The boy watched the black sky. ‘Must be baby stars.’
‘That’s right.’ Eva studied the blackness with him. ‘Baby stars.’
‘Are stars in there?’ asked the boy, nodding at the grim building.
‘They’re born in there.’
‘Can I see one?’
‘Yes. But you have to shut your eyes until the starman is ready to show it.’
‘Shall I shut my eyes now?’
Not yet. I’ll tell you when.’
‘Will there be lots?’
‘More than you could count if you lived to be a hundred.’
‘My grandma is more than a hundred.’
The boy kept at her side as they undressed and entered the icy block of showers. Iron doors bolted and screams rose. In chaotic darkness, Eva knelt and held the boy.
‘Close your eyes,’ she said, and cuddled him hard. ‘The starman is coming.’
I live on Scotland’s west coast. I swim in the sea. Tarzan miles. I wear a wet suit.
Four times a year I visit the Orient. Tokyo, Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea. I have good friends in those places.
My parents are readers. Mother wrote poetry. Father liked Beckett and Cormac McCarthy. Grandpa favoured Joyce and Hemingway.
They were my bedtime storytellers. Father and grandpa, not Joyce and Beckett.
Grandpa was my pal. He was witty and wise. Gran said, when grandpa was in his twenties, he looked like John Garfield.
She also said living with grandpa was like living with Groucho Marx.
Grandpa’s garden was famous. People travelled miles to view it.
One July dusk, grandpa, gran, and nine-year-old me, were having ice-lollies in the conservatory. A young couple walked up the path. They had driven from Nairn. A six hour drive. They had read about grandpa’s garden in a magazine. Wished to see and smell the champion roses.
Gran served-up tea and her legendary cinnamon cake. Grandpa insisted the couple stay overnight. The following June, grandpa, gran, and ten-year-old me, scoffed cake at the starry couple’s wedding in Nairn.
Boyhood, I liked folklore stories. Witches and goblins. Dark tales of pot stirrers, forest peddlers, and fireside connivers.
Wind in the Willows was magical.
Roald Dahl had his own bookcase next to my bed.
On my tenth birthday, grandpa’s gift was a Jack London anthology. Birthday-bedtime, I read White Fang. Within a week I had written four stories.
I have since crafted many fables. Enough to fill a dozen books. And perhaps a dozen stories that would fill one good book.
Late teens, I joined a writers group. I learned about the craft. Read books. Past masters and contemporary writers. After six years I left the group.
I read more. That is how I learned to write.
In 2011, I was shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. And The Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award.
December 2012, I was a Top 25 Finalist in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open Prize.
I was tapdance happy.
The Fiction Open is Glimmer Train’s top prize. Unpublished writers take on established published authors.
My novel – Eden Dust – is written. Three years work. Ninety thousand words. A literary apocalyptic story.
My story combines naturalism – the way people talk and behave – and big unnatural, dehumanising situations.
How I describe my novel – Think esoteric Twin Peaks.
My novel extract – Eden Dust – has been accepted for publication in Unthology by Unthank Books.
Mother was chairwoman of a book club.
She read the classics. Encouraged me to read the European, South American, and Asian authors. I recall her reading while cooking. A spatula in one hand. An open book in the other. She looked like Jackie Kennedy.
Cherished masters: Charles Dickens; Joseph Conrad; Fyodor Dostoevsky; James Joyce; Samuel Beckett; Flannery O’Connor; Katherine Mansfield; Carol Shields; Emily Dickinson; Shirley Jackson; Elizabeth Taylor; Muriel Spark; Ernest Hemingway; F. Scott Fitzgerald; Sherwood Anderson; Louis-Ferdinand Céline; Saul Bellow; Alexander Trocchi; Don DeLillo; William Gay; Cormac McCarthy; Richard Ford; Charles Frazier.
Poets; Elizabeth Bishop; Robert Frost; Robert Tannahill; Robert Burns; Sorley MacLean.
I like many contemporary authors. I love a few and reread their books.
Sadie Jones’s prose is clean as a stream.
Jenni Fagan is Queen of the Scots.
Ashley Stokes is a wordsmith.
A book I often read: Kilvert’s Diary.
I like John Fante. I recommend his book, Ask the Dust.