Winning Stories 2018
1.Slipstream by Alison Woodhouse
He doesn’t speak when he comes in. Maybe he hasn’t noticed, but he doesn’t kiss me either.
‘Don’t you like it then?’
‘No, not really.’
He’s carrying two bags of shopping. Food covered in plastic, quick and easy, microwave meals. I’ve told him to stop but he doesn't listen.
It’s the plastic’s fault. It’s poisoning the food.
I give him a twirl so he can see my shaved head from all angles. I had such fun in the bathroom and now he’s leaching all the energy.
‘I borrowed your razor.’
Then I feel dizzy and instantly he’s at my side, telling me what do I expect if I won’t eat?
He’s in the kitchen making us a pot of tea. I only drink proper stuff these days. Real leaves. Strainers. Tea bags are full of plastic too. I’m still in my nightdress and dressing gown and I study my bony knees. They started to ache when I turned forty: too many long distance runs. I thought they’d be the first thing to go, them or him. Grace says she can’t understand how he puts up with me.
You never say anything nice to him.
Last Christmas, she took him for a long walk. She’s very pretty, my sister. I asked him what she’d said.
I don’t know if she meant him or me, but we could all do with a bit more.
He brings our tea and a packet of biscuits; forgetfully offers me one. I look at him like he’s just drowned our cat.
‘For god’s sake, Sissy.” His mouth is full of plastic permeated crumbs.
I have a laptop full of evidence but he won’t look at it. He carries on eating plastic, sugar, saturated fats, processed foods as if he’s blind or deaf. As if he’s immune.
He’s my rock.
Grace is right, I ought to tell him but I can only play it this way: if we pretend it doesn’t matter, maybe it won’t go wrong.
It was Grace who called me Sissy.
My Sissy, she’d say, lifting me out of the cot or feeding me biscuits. My mother wanted to name me Anne. Sometimes, when I’m on my own, I carry on conversations with the woman in the mirror who could have been an Anne. She has fierce eyes and strong opinions.
‘Are you coming to see Grace?’
Of course he’s coming. I don’t drive anymore. But he’s in a mood, not talking to me. I knock again. It’s not really a study, more of a hiding place. My father had a proper study full of books and a leather armchair, a drinks table and a real fire. The smell of pipe smoke was throat coating even when he wasn’t home.
I’m wearing an emerald green kimono and I’ve tied a blue silk ribbon around my head. The kimono belonged to Grace but she gave it to me last year, along with a lot of other silky clothes that she said would suit me better. They were all too small for me then, but I couldn’t tell her. The silk feels so nice against my itchy skin. I’m covered in eczema. I hate that word. To boil over, in Greek, which is exactly how it feels. The man in the chemist said I looked like I needed vitamin D.
When did you last see the sun?
Grace is flaxen haired but she’s got special skin that never burns. In the summer her hair gets whiter, her eyes bluer, and she turns a kind of bronzed holiday advert look. People think she’s Swedish. That’s a compliment.
Vitamin D? Don’t you know how dangerous the sun is?
He’s not coming out from his hiding place so I yell that I’ll go and see Grace on my own then. I hear strange noises, snuffling, like an animal, then a loud blowing of his nose. When he finally opens the door his eyes are red rimmed.
He doesn’t comment on my unusual ensemble but I let him off and take his hand during the short distance from the front door to the garage. He squeezes my fingers. It’s so cold our breath mists in front of our faces. I’m light headed again and don’t want to let go. How many more times will be doing this?
His car’s a mess: styrofoam coffee cups, sweet wrappers, sandwich cartons. It looks like he lives in here. I want to tell him again about landfills and how many trillions of years it will take to recover from the plastic onslaught, if it is even possible, but his silence is so solid I just move it all onto the back seat.
I miss being the driver but I like watching the view. Our house is at the top of a wooded hill and the road winds down in steep bends. He takes them more slowly than me, but that’s okay. Each time we sweep around a curve I get a glimpse of the bay. The sea glitters. The sun’s out and inside the car with the heating on it’s easy to pretend it’s summer and the two of us are heading down to the beach with a picnic in the back; fruit and bread, cheese and wine. I used to set up the bread maker the night before and we’d rise to the smell of it, but now it’s no longer okay to eat gluten or drink alcohol and we haven’t had a picnic in so long because what food could we share?
Then I remember the grapes I got from the market. Sitting in a colander in the sink because you have to wash the pesticides off, even when they say they’re organic.
‘I forgot the grapes!’
‘It doesn’t matter.’
‘We can’t turn up with nothing.’
‘She won’t mind.’
But I mind. I want to turn back and we have words, so heated that I have to open the window and the freezing wind tugs at the scarf around my head and I can’t touch it because it sends me crazy with the itching.
‘Go back,’ I scream.
‘No,’ he says. ‘No, no, no, no, no, no, no.’ He sounds like he’s howling so I don’t ask again.
The hospital car park is always full so we don’t even bother looking for a space, just wait by the entrance until we spot someone then track them back to their vehicle.
Today, we’re lucky and we’re parked up pretty quickly. He’s very gentle when he helps me out of the car.
I hate turning up with nothing. I haven’t got the right words when I walk in the door. I need to say look what I’ve brought you.
Grace is propped up in bed. There are tubes in the back of her hand coming from a bag full of a thick white liquid, a smaller one with clear fluid, and an empty one. There’s a clamp on her finger and electrodes stuck to her stomach linked to a machine behind her head monitoring her blood pressure, body temperature, cardiac output (dystolic and systolic) and the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in her blood. An oxygen tank and mask are on the other side. Her little heart symbol beats next to the blue and green numbers. The blinking, beeping machines cheer me up. No one is talking palliative in here.
Her eyes are closed but I know she’s not asleep and touch the plastic tag around her bony wrist, wishing I could cut it off. Mum is dozing in the chair next to her but wakes up immediately.
‘Oh Jesus, Sissy, what have you done now?’
‘Shhhh’ I say and kiss the top of her head.
‘But have you seen yourself?’
She can’t help herself, that quick glance at my sister.
‘Yes mum, every day. ‘
My rock puts his hand on my shoulder, reminding me she’s hurting too, before I lash out. Mum struggles to her feet, stiff after sitting so long.
‘Well I’m going for a coffee.’
I nudge him and he follows her out of the room, managing a smile that’s just for me before he shuts the door.
I lie down alongside Grace, carefully moving the tubes. We’re both so skinny now there’s room enough for two and our bald heads just touch.
‘Hey’ she says. ‘Copycat.’
‘I forgot the grapes’.
‘Get out of here.’ I can hear her smile. She shifts in the bed, moves further away. I feel her looking at me, really looking.
‘Sissy,’ she says and the smile has gone. ‘When you get home, will you please just eat the grapes? Don’t juice them, put them whole in your mouth and taste how good they are. Would you do that for me?’
She’s making me promise but she’s doing it so graciously I can’t refuse, can I? She settles back beside me with a sigh and we link hands, loosely.
2. The Vortex by Richard A Shury
The plastic was my whole world. I never knew any different. Then they cleaned it up.
Our home was an accidental creation, the product of a delusional economic model which favoured greed above sustainability. Luckily for you, the model changed just in time to stop the scales from tipping too far.
It’s pointless to ask upon which part of the Vortex my family and I lived, for the composition was always changing. We’d stack up pieces and use the cement bugs to glue together entire houses, but they never lasted more than a few moons. A storm would come and wash it all away, and you’d cling on, as Mama taught, and wait for the currents to bring you back home again. Then, the plastic would swirl and crowd together and islands would form and be named – Mount Styrofoam or the Toothbrush Valley – and the cycle would begin again. Quite literally.
There was always movement, too. The constant ebb and flow, the spinning and twisting, the whims of the waves and winds. I was born into it, and it soothed me. The first time I set foot on land, I felt sick. It was so solid, so still. I hated it. I still can’t get used to it, not really.
The first time I saw seaweed it disgusted me. So slimy, so ethereal. It faded away in days. Nothing like our homes. No matter how you shattered them, no matter how the storms came and smashed them apart, the plastic would find its way home again, like it knew where it belonged.
People say it’s funny how it was concern for the planet which destroyed my people’s pieces of it. But I never find myself laughing. People say it was a modern miracle, the creation of a creature which could break down our home, swallow it as the sea swallows those who fail to cling on during a storm. But I never believed in your gods.
I remember above all else, though, the day that it happened. The days. People began muttering that the cement bugs weren’t as good as they used to be, that the plastic wouldn’t stick like it used to. We made do. If there was anything we were masters of, it was making do. The sea provided our food, and the plastic provided everything else.
But it got worse. After a time, we couldn’t make shelters, couldn’t make homes. Nothing would stick like it used to. The storms came, as they always did, but the pieces for clinging to were fewer, and smaller. More and more people were blown away, and never came back. That’s how we lost Uncle Deen, Pietro, and Bobbie, and Sara. And others. And Papa.
Mama and I were together until the end, when the mountains came. They were so big, we’d never seen anything like them, giant hulks of metal swaying through the sea. They looked like they didn’t belong there. And I was frightened.
Mama must have been frightened, too, but she held me close and I trusted her. We have to go with them, she said. Our home is being eaten, and we will have nowhere to lay our heads.
I wanted to argue, but I looked around and saw what she said was true. Where once there would have been off-white glades and grey hills in all directions, now there was nothing but the roof of the sea, restless and empty. The plastic we clung to was shrinking, and soon we would fall away.
We climbed aboard the metal mountain, and its rocking and swaying were a comfort to me. In my hand I clutched the last piece of home I would ever see. A bright red bottle cap.
Mama and I were given a room, and food, and water different to any we’d ever seen. It came in bottles like those we’d used for collecting rain, but it tasted like things I couldn’t name. (Later I found out they were called rocks.)
Others who had been saved were around us, people we knew. Mama talked with them in hushed tones, but I knew she was asking after Papa and Bobbie. The others were a comfort, speaking in the long tones of my people, but so many of us had been blown away, and even then it was clear to me they wouldn’t be coming back.
We comforted each other, and marvelled over the strangeness of the things in the caverns of the mountain. Soft places for sleeping, miles and miles of metal. And food whose smell passed through you and left you changed.
How many of you are there, the other people asked.
There were many, we said.
But what is many?
We did not know. My people moved and swelled like the sea, and came, and went away, in the before days. We did not keep stock of such things.
The mountains searched for a while, and then, when the next storm came, they moved away. It was only a small storm, but the other people seemed afraid.
I didn’t like it, down in the caverns of the metal mountain. I felt trapped. I asked Mama if we could sleep on top of the mountain, but she said we weren’t allowed.
The mountains took us to the land, and left us there. Like I said, it made us ill, and at first no one could walk straight. But we had nowhere else to go. The other people left us with the land people, and went away. Mama and I stayed with our own, the people we knew, and asked where we should be. The land people all came out to look as we swayed along the dirt and fell down in the place they pointed to. They stared at us for a while, and went away.
I opened my hand, but the bottle cap was gone, all eaten away.
Walking was hard at first, but I’ve almost mastered it. And I’m almost used to the food. There’s a lot of almost, here.
Later, I found out that the Vortex (as you called it) was destroyed by bugs made for that purpose. The land people designed living things to eat plastic, to rid the sea of our home, which was considered a pollution. Did the land people know there were people living in the Vortex? Did they care? Did they hope we’d drown and save them the trouble of looking at us through troubled eyes?
The land people ask me, how did you even get there?
Like I said, I was born into it.
But there must have been others, they insist, before you.
How do people get anywhere, I counter.
We used to ask our parents about it when we were kids. They told us the secret stories of our people. You’d call them myths. We don’t tell them to outsiders, even now our world is gone, and we are the outsiders, clustered together on scrub lands at the fringes of your towns and cities. You tolerate us, because we take the things you don’t want and make them usable again. There will always be things you throw away, and the people along with them.
3. Rock, Paper, Plastic by Amanda Pavlov
Trudy kisses me — a diversion while she drops a stack of shiny magazines into my cart. Lucky me, I never close my eyes, not even to kiss. Especially not to kiss. “Just the essentials, Sweetheart,” I fish them out and hold them towards her.
“How is that essential?” she points to a case of Miller-lite.
“Cheapest way to cure the headaches you give me.”
“I’d show you a better way if you weren’t so cheap,” she pouts.
I’m hurt but not surprised. Our relationship is transactional and it’s as much my fault as
hers. I knew her modus operandi the moment I told her my name. “Rich?” she had repeated breathlessly, her green eyes glowing like the neon sign above the bar behind us. At first I didn’t even realize how I’d say it: “Hi, I’m Rich. What’s your name?” Once I caught her drift, I didn’t correct her. Let her learn the hard way.
“Magazines are a waste of money,” I say, “Wanna know what celebrities are doing? Follow them on Instagram.”
“That messes with my follower count.”
Trudy rolls her eyes, “My follower count! If you follow too many people on Instagram
then people know you aren’t cool.” “What people?”
“Ugh! Nevermind,” she snatches the magazines, “I’ll buy them myself.”
“I have money!” Trudy shouts before rushing off to the registers.
With a defeated sigh I follow her. The way her hair flows down to the small of her back,
the sway of her hips, that ass in those jeans — I find myself falling for her all over again. I sidle up behind her in line and caress her waist, “Give me the magazines.”
She turns around to assess me, her nose crinkles adorably as she concentrates. “No. I’m buying them. I’m sick of you acting like I don’t contribute.”
I laugh. “You’re contributing by buying yourself magazines?”
“Yeah, well at least I EARN my money. Unlike some people who just sit on their asses and wait for a check!”
I sigh, “If I could work you know that I would...”
“There are jobs you could do, Rich, you just think they’re beneath you,” Trudy hisses. The line moves forward but I take a step back. Maybe she’s right. I always pictured
myself doing something grand — like being a Professor or an Astronaut or a Brain Surgeon. Applying for some menial, part-time gig felt like giving up.
Trudy ignores me while she loads my groceries onto the conveyor belt. I guess she’s changed her mind about buying her own things. The mousy teenage girl ringing us up smiles at me, “Thank you for your service.”
I smile back and nod. How did she know — I’m in civvies. I look down and notice my dog-tags. They must have fallen out of my shirt when I bent down to retrieve the magazines. I always wear them so I don’t notice them anymore.
“Paper or plastic?” the cashier asks.
“Plastic,” I answer.
“Paper!” Trudy howls as though I’ve stepped on her toes, “Plastic destroys the
“Where do you think paper comes from?” I reply, “How many trees do you think died
for your precious follower count?”
“I don’t care about my follower count!” Trudy shouts as though she’s making an
announcement to the store. “You were just saying...”
“Since when are you so worried about killing trees?” Trudy bellows.
I calmly hand my debit card to the cashier. “She sure doesn’t have a problem using thiskind of plastic. Just give us the plastic bags — I’ll reuse them.”
“How are you going to reuse them?” Trudy demands.
On the drive home Trudy whines because I refuse to stop and put gas in my truck. “It’s
“We can make it home,” I turn the radio up to muffle her protests.
The moment we’re inside, before I even take off my pants, Trudy asks for my keys. “I’m
going out with Kayla — so don’t wait up.”
“I won’t. Just don’t bring her hillbilly ass over here.”
Trudy cocks her hip and props her hand on it, “Why do you hate her so much? She’s
my best friend.”
“She’s an idiot.”
“You think everyone is an idiot.”
“Kayla is especially dumb — remember when she said we should give teachers guns?” “You’d rather kids be sitting ducks at school?”
“Do you know what the accuracy of the N.Y.P.D is in an active shooter situation? The
fucking N.Y.P.D that spends their whole careers training for this type of thing?” “No, but I bet you do.”
“Eighteen-percent. Those are terrible odds.”
Trudy rolls her eyes. “Whatever you say, Genius,” she grabs my keys and heads towards the door, then pivots back towards me. “Can I have some money, please?”
“I thought you had money.”
“Whatever! I always drink free!” Trudy storms out in slow motion. She expects me to come after her, I always do. Not this time.
I crack open a beer, sit down at my desk, and dig out my laptop from beneath a stack of bills. Maybe I’m no genius but I’m smarter than she is. I went to college for a few semesters, only class I really liked was Statistics.
Most people hate numbers, but not me. They comfort me. The cold, hard truth of them. Unlike Literature and History, they cannot be twisted into someone’s interpretation. My mind wandered too much in those classes. Landed on the more macabre things I’ve seen, the sins I can’t forgive.
My worst mistake happened when I heard something moving behind a rock — so I lit it up. In the report I wrote I saw an insurgent with a weapon, but the truth was I just got jumpy. It was a boy. Maybe nine or ten, but not any older than twelve.
“No worries,” my Captain said, “He would have joined up eventually. You cut the hydra off at the head.”
Death is a taste some Soldiers acquire. Not me. It always makes me retch, but it’s especially bitter when it takes my friends. People who may as well have been me. I thought when we returned stateside it would stop, but it never did.
Hines went in a motorcycle crash — his body too mangled to warrant a toxicology report but it didn’t matter, everyone who knew him knew. Patterson put his training to use, methodically shot himself to make quick work of it. Kelly got two D.U.I’s and went through a stint in rehab before finally overdosing, that was Kelly, even his suicide was a big production.
The others died in other ways — even if their obituaries hadn’t been printed. They showed up to bbq’s and funerals with glassy eyes, like shells with nothing crawling around inside. What was the point of living like that?
I kill my third beer and catch a buzz. I open an email, no need to leave everyone guessing. “Trudy, this is mostly your fault,” I type but quickly delete it.
She’s terrible but this isn’t her fault. My pain began long before she entered my life and would have continued even if she left. Not that there was much risk of that. She had no other options, just how I like my women. Shallow with no real ambition.
Deep women ask too many questions. Not Trudy. Even when she got stoned and silly the most she’d ask was, “Did you ever kill someone?” Her curiosity was satisfied with a simple nod, no need to dive further down that rabbit hole.
“Everyday, twenty-two veterans commit suicide,” I type, “I wish I could save them all but I know I can’t. Statistically speaking though, this will save one of them.” I plug in the email addresses of people who might still give a shit and hit send.
I drain my fourth beer, my throat muscles sprinting, knowing this is the last task I will require of them. Then I put the plastic bag over my head and tie a Becket’s Bend knot. It’s embedded in my muscle memory from the SEAL underwater dive test. Just like riding a bike off a cliff.
Everything goes black.
When I wake, Trudy is hovering over me, her face streaked black with mascara. “Lucky I came back... truck ran out of gas! What the hell’s wrong with you?”
Dazed, I rub my eyes. “Didn’t realize you gave a shit.”
“Course I give a shit... if you die, the checks’ll stop.”
“Just dump me in the swamp.”
“Too much trouble. How bout you go back to the VA and get help?” “Okay,” I cough, “I will.”
“Really, Rich? You’d do that for me?”
She hugs me and I wince. It was a lie. I can’t get well for her. Or even for myself. But
I’m gonna do it. I’ve got an obligation to make my life worthwhile; a debt to pay to the Soldier that Death took in my place.
4. (C2H4)n by Leonieke Baerwaldt
Melting point: 115–135 °C (239–275 °F; 388–408 K), Density: 0.88–0.96 g/cm3, Abbreviation: PE
I have been floating for a long time now. Beneath me there is darkness.
I bob on the waves that form the surface of that darkness. I will never be able to sink into the abyss. You might think that certainty is of comfort to me. It is not. I would love to wallow into a deep silent black space before I find my permanent place to rest. That longing, that yearning to belong must be a cruel hoax of some kind.
I will never rest. I am always wandering.
Bobbing, jouncing on this quavering surface. I was made to be indestructible, to recycle at best but never to stop existing.
Although nobody ever did. Recycle me, I mean.
I guess it was easier to just leave me behind. I was abandoned. You know what that does to you? It makes you feel like trash.
The sheer conviction of not being good enough. Not even good enough to use. I shouldn’t be offended, being disposed and all.
I am just this thing. I am not supposed to think.
I can feel though.
Do you hear the voices? I hear voices. I definitely hear voices.
A bird rests on me for a while. That happens sometimes.
The first time it made me really uneasy. The rapping of its scrawny little claws.
Then it gave me hope. I hoped the bird would pick me up and fly with me to a surface that is not blue and liquid and endless. To a place where someone might find me. Use me. Make me into something else. A nest maybe? Birds build their nests out of almost anything. But the bird sat on me in silence, reposing for countless nautical miles, the sea breeze quivering through its feathers. Before it flew away.
I have lost all hope now.
Am I mad at my maker you wonder? Well, isn’t everybody?
I do loathe the one that left me behind.
Yes, I have feelings of hate. I want him to suffer the superfluous blues and endure the endless greens of the sea in their most desolate, isolated state. I want him to idle over acres of water. I want him to never find peace. I want him to feel abandoned.
He never even looked at me properly, before he threw me away.
I was discarded on a beach. Nobody saw me fall. At least that’s what I thought in the beginning. In retrospect I think they looked the other way. On purpose. They did not want to see me. From the moment he was done with me I ceased being an object.
I became abject.
It must have been days. The scouring heat of the sun perpetually alternated with the crisp dark chill of night, exhausting my properties. The wind blew grainy sand against my exterior. There was nothing left inside me. The one that had abandoned me drained me till the last drop. I felt like an empty shell amongst the others. I was at a graveyard. A final resting place for the leftovers of the ocean. The waves roaring and crashing on the beach. I felt at peace there. I thought it was the end. I thought there was an end. That this was what it looked like. That there would be just me and the sand forever.
I never felt so close to anything as to that place in my entire existence. I hoped the sand would absorb me.
I hoped I would become that beach.
Instead the winds increased. I got lifted up and jerked around. The moment before I met my fate I dislodged. I was displaced, hurled into the surf. A long body of water swelled, arched and broke down trapping me in its centrifugal force. The sea spat me out and picked me up and spat me out again. Breaker after breaker after breaker. Still I stayed unscathed.
And then it went quiet. The storm dissipated. The sea became eerily inanimate, like she had given up. Like she had put her everything in fighting the storm and now she was empty. I felt a connection to the ocean right then and there. I thought I knew her. I was wrong.
One thing I have learned in this undulating spell is that the ocean is a barking mad woman. She has no logic. She has no stability. She just does as she feels towards whatever is coming her way. She does not act, she merely reacts, and rather unpredictably. For something as static as me there could not be a worse place.
I know that there must be some peace and quiet in the oceans deepest darkness. The beach doesn’t stop at the surf. It stretches below me underneath these distorted waters. My beach, I feel like it travelled with me. If I could just get down there. Anywhere but here.
There must be others. I can hear them. Their voices become louder. But maybe I am imagining things. Maybe it is just her erratic waters trying to trick me.
The voices are getting closer it seems. Something is pulling me towards them.
She has gotten a hold of me. I am at the mercy of her tides.
I am no longer languidly floating. She is forcing me to go somewhere now. I am resisting. I am being dragged. It feels involuntary and yet it excites me. I am being pulled and shoved in one particular direction. At last I am going somewhere. For the first time. A destiny of sorts. A place where I might belong.
There is an Island. It is a barren Island. It is a plastic Island.
We have a history enclosed somewhere inside our existing forms. We were made, we had a purpose, we were intentional. Or at least intentional enough to be made. That’s right, there are more of us. And each of us was meant to be useful.
We are the Island.
We were dragged here by the ocean. She culled us with her coercive currents. She wanted to get rid of us, yet the opposite happened. We grew into something. Together we are like an organism, amassing the scale of whole countries, growing into the size of continents. We are the new world. We will never rest. Shapeshifting, adrift in this vast blue biosphere, we thrive faster than any vegetation, killing birds and fish and plants in the process of outgrowing the ocean itself. Consequently, we will kill you. You have been warned.
We are an evil Island. A product of your ignorance. Of your ineptitude to see the truth. We are your conscious. We are your legacy. We will never stop haunting you and your children. Try to forget that we are here? Try to look the other way? We will not let that happen. We want to be seen. We want you to know what you have done. We call out to you. We want revenge.
5. Twenty Twenty by Maureen Gallagher
I’m thinking subluxation. On my way home from chiropractic after an adjustment. Subluxation. That’s what I’m thinking about when it happens. A pesky mote in the eye! And there I am, in a stream of traffic, with no way to pull over.
Open eyes wide, let tears rinse freely, allow the lens to loosen and grit flow out from underneath. Usually does the trick. But not today. And its rush hour traffic. Cars bumper to bumper.
Ladies and gentlemen, meine Damen und Herren, this way please. Today we take a tour of Sarah’s eye. Follow me, mind the lashes. You will be guided by a beam of light channeled through the natural lens. Now see where I shine the torch, that is the point of central vision – the fovea centralis. Please people, do not lean on the fovea centralis! The fovea is where beams of light entering the eye normally come together. In Sarah’s case, however, they join short of this and cross over, creating what is known as myopia. But enough of that. Time for a break. Who’s for volleyball? Good. Sort yourselves into teams. One of you grab the ball.
Go on, take a chance! I flick the left eye sideways and out pops the lens. Oh, the relief! I’m driving without a safety net now. If anything happens to the right lens, I’m a killer on the road. And wouldn’t you know, on cue, my right eye suddenly feels itchy. On account of the tears.
Sarah! What are you doing, mein pumpkin? Do you want to kill us all? We were just taking a spot of recreation – next thing you’re playing Russian roulette. On no account go near that other eye. Whatever you do, do NOT massage that other eye!
I massage the other eye. A quick look into the rear-view is all it takes. The right lens slips out of position and free-floats off the cornea away up under the eyelid. Two lanes converge into one after the roundabout and there is jostling for position. Road rage honking. And I’m driving blind.
People, we’re in trouble. Big trouble. Please be seated. And for God’s sake don’t anyone move. Sarah was always a dreamer. Would you ever stop dreaming, Sarah! her mother would say, how many times have I to tell you and so on and so forth. When she was sixteen, she locked myself into a back bedroom with The Art of Seeing, took on herself the task of retraining the eyes. Didn’t work, obviously. But here, there’s a job to be done. We have got to guide Sarah safely home. Those oblique muscles are in spasm, and press down on the eye so it has an oval shape instead of a natural sphere. Hence the blur. But enough of that. Ground control to Major Tom. Sarah, listen up! Remember what you learnt all those years ago. Concentration. Focus. Memory and imagination – all aids to vision.
Which is better? This one? Or this?’
‘That’s better, no wait, let me have the other one again. Yes, that one – Y L K T, is that right?’
‘Good, we’ll go with that one.’
‘How bad am I?’
‘You, my dear, have twenty-twenty vision.’
‘Thanks to the miracle of gas-permeable plastic, with these lenses you have twenty-twenty vision. And your retina’s in great shape, considering…’
Considering… I’m in a stream of traffic. Everything’s a blur. I can just about make out the rectangular shape of a van in front. A white van. Focus on the crimson brake lights. Where am I? Remember! Remember! I’m between the Browne roundabout and the turn off to the Glenview estate. A quarter of a mile. A to B. Driving blind. Concentrate. Vision isn’t everything. Use the imagination, as Bates said.
Still behind the white van, following its rear lights. Got to keep all my wits about me now. There’s the Westside church. I can make out the shape of the cross on the gable end. After the church? Yes, that’s it, the library. Vague shapes. The van has stopped. Traffic lights. I need to recapture in my imagination, every building on this road. On the right, Dunnes. On the left, the new office block. Lights green. Speed has picked up. Keep after the white van. More traffic lights ahead. Green. Good!
Now the tricky bit. Negotiating the right turn-off to the Rahoon road. Moving slowly over to the yellow box, getting ready for an opportunity to turn. This will be scary, knowing when there’s a gap. But what’s this coming at me? In the yellow box. A shadowy El Greco. Coming straight at me – merciful hour! Please, dear God, not another subluxation. Oh, relief! Only a bicycle. Phew!
Sarah’s taking a chance. She’s turning off. Great! One last turn left. Look! She’s indicating left. She’s seen it. The turn off. She’s seen it. A round of applause, everyone. Home and dry. Nearly. Nearly there. Nearly. Just down the hill, three quarters down the hill on the left. No more turns. Pull in there, Sarah, like a good woman, and stick in the left lens.
I can’t believe it. I’ve done it. I’ve done it! Against all the odds. I could stop now and put in the left lens. Pull in here. But hell, I’ve made it this far. Only a few yards to go. Which gate? Which gate? Silver. The one opposite the park. This one? No, the next. Home sweet home!
And now we see Sarah turning in. She’s cutting it fine. Oh, God, she’s cutting it very fine. Sarah, darlin’, you’re cutting it fine. Oooh! She’s taken the bollard. We weren’t expecting that. Is everyone all right?
Subluxation is the chiropractic term for a misalignment of the neck after a sudden jolt. I think, folks, we’re looking at another subluxation.
6. A Cat Named Toska by Poppy Damon
I collect words. I hear them spoken, seize them in my mind and stuff them in my pockets for later. I troll websites and scour books to find the rarest, most beautiful, surprising, ugly, frightening, powerful words on the planet. Like seashells some last – others crumble into dust. I like foreign words best. Hidden in their definitions are concepts English can’t even touch. I can’t speak any other languages. I wish I could. English to me is flabby - it cannot stretch my imagination the way foreign words can. Why is that?
Toska is the name of my cat. It was the first word I collected.
Toska was a rescue. A tabby with a white chest who immediately got pregnant and gave birth to a litter of four upon arrival in our home. Mum nearly lost her mind. Shouldn’t rescue cats be neutered? Neutered. A word that sounds like it comes straight out of a dystopian sci-fi to describe eliminating the enemy. We gave away her kittens to the neighbours. Then Mum made sure it wouldn’t happen again. I felt like Toska was sad about the whole affair but Mum said she wouldn’t even know what had happened. I felt strangely glad that Toska had been able to become a mother.Anthropomorphism on my part perhaps.
At school the nuns are suspicious of my interest in other languages and cultures. I get a kick out of that. I throw in as many complicated words as possible and watch them sigh and ask me to explain myself.
The ability to gauge mood of others, read the atmosphere, and react appropriately.
I do not have Nunchi. I always get things wrong. When Tracy Simms said things about my Dad I hit her in the face. That’s when I got suspended. They asked me why I did it and I told them that Tracy Simms had a Backpfeifengesicht.
A face badly in need of a fist.
So that’s when I got suspended from the school run by suspicious nuns. During that time it was mostly me and Toska sulking around the house in equal measure. Mum kept shaking her head and crying and asking what she should do with me. I wasn’t entirely sure if I was the best person to answer that. She said she couldn’t do it anymore without Dad around. I suggested I went to live with my grandma. She cried even more. I said I’d be better at the school with the suspicious nuns. She sniffed. Nodded. And we didn’t talk anymore about why I punched Tracy Simms.
The suspension of disbelief that occurs in good storytelling; a story that feels like reality.
Words aren’t always what we think, are they? My Dad left when he found out who my real Dad was. What is a real Dad? The Dad I have always known feels real. Even though I don’t see him anymore. I can see his face and hear his voice. In my dreams I scream and shout at him and that feels real.
This word is used to describe a deep, dark feeling of despair. It’s the ultimate feeling of yearning and hopelessness. It’s the kind of pain that tortures the soul. It’s pure, unadulterated, heart-wrenching
While I was suspended I took a bus to the Town Hall. I had seen a flyer on it with a man’s name I recognised. It was a 2pm and the hall was crammed full of people with issues they wanted to put to the newest MP. A recent controversy had led many to call for his resignation. Apparently he had a sixteen-year-old love child. The girl was not named for legal reasons. If you can have a love child, does that mean all other children are not loved?
I went and watched him speak. Was that my nose on his face? Were those my eyes? Hard to tell from so far back. His voice was reassuring, after all mistakes happen. He had no knowledge of the child. Inquiries would be made. Proof either way would be provided. He moved swiftly on to the policies at hand. Changes to taxation. Transport. He wanted to eradicate plastic. Clean the oceans. Save the planet.
Everyone applauded when he bought that up. It was a crowd pleaser. I could see him visibly relax. I thought back to the one time Mum had taken me to the beach. I stood for hours on the edge of the water. Mum was up to her neck with a large sun hat on. She kept calling my name and trying to get me to go in. But I couldn’t see the water. All I could see was the plastic bags and debris. I felt sick to look at it. She said this was because I was ‘neruologically diverse’. Where everyone else saw blue water, I saw the rubbish floating beneath the surface. I have a tunnel visision for crap. Excellent.
The MPs family appeared at the back of the stage for the final photo call. They were blonde and angular. His wife looked like she had just stepped out of a catalogue for Swedish knitwear.
I approached the MP at the end but he was surrounded by security and PR people. He unveiled a large sign which showed a picture of a plastic bag with a red cross through it. A happy cartoon turtle smiled next to it. My eyes darted across the scene as cameras flashed. I kept staring at his wifes hand bag, I could see some plastic bags petruding from an inner pocket. The kind you use to pick up dog poop during long walks in the country.
Later, Toska sat on my knee, and the next day I would be back at school. “Goya.” I said to myself out loud. Again and again and again and again.