Stephen Ross, to pick his top three.
Devil’s Eye, by Barbara Leahy.
Barbara wins £130 and is published in the current issue of Prole, Poetry and Prose.
Llosgi (To burn), by Melanie Marshall.
Tongue-Tied, by Kelly Hayes-Raitt
Melanie and Kelly both win £30.
The winning pieces are published below with the judges comments. Barabara's 'Devil's Eye' can also be read in issue 6 of Prole, available here.
Devil's Eye – Winner of the Prolitzer Prize, 2011
Last winter, when Grandad got sick, we had to go to stay with him for a few days. We didn't have a car anymore so Mum took me and Jamie on the train. All the way to Cork Jamie climbed on the seats and pestered Mum for sweets from the trolley. He was only five, a baby really. I was nine, too old for doing the fool. Even Mum said I was the man of the house now.
I turned my back on them both and looked out the window. It was getting dark and I could see my reflection shadowy and dim on the other side of the glass, flying along like a ghost clinging to the speeding train. One day, when we were going to Howth, the train stopped in between stations and the inspector came and told Mum that there was a body on the tracks. We had to get off and go home in a taxi. I wondered what it would be like to run over a body. The train would come off the rails. Or maybe not; bodies were mostly soft after all. It might just feel like a bump and then the train would keep going without anyone noticing. I wondered how far the bloodstains would stretch along the tracks.
Grandad didn't like me. Once I heard him telling Mum to "keep a sharp eye on that one, he has his father's glint." Then Mum caught me listening by the door and sent me out into the garden. I never let on I heard; I knew I'd get him back for it someday.
Grandad lived in a dirty old cottage that smelled funny. When we arrived Mum went around opening all the windows. There were only two rooms downstairs and a kind of bedroom up a wobbly stairs in what was really the attic. The toilet was in a shed outside the backdoor and there was no bath or shower. Mum always tried to clean the place up a bit but then Grandad would get annoyed and tell her to stop fussing.
At night Mum slept on the couch in the front room and I slept with Jamie on an old mattress next to Grandad's bed. Grandad made funny noises as if he was choking while he slept and sometimes he talked in his sleep. There was no electric light in the room and if he needed to go to the outhouse during the night I was supposed to help him down the stairs in the dark. I used to listen to him spluttering and groaning in his sleep and if I heard him heave himself upright I'd shut my eyes tighter and pretend to be sound asleep. Sometimes he'd call my name so loud that Mum could hear; there was nothing for it then but to go. His waxy fingers would clutch my hand and he'd shuffle his way to the stairs, breathing so heavily I could feel my hair ruffling in the draught. In the kitchen-light I would see his shapeless nightshirt riding up above his bony blue-veined knees. I tried not to look as the sagging skin swung loose from his legs as he stepped out into the yard.
On our third day at Grandad's it rained all day. There was no TV to watch and nothing to do. Mum said we were under her feet all day and we should go upstairs to chat to Grandad to give her a break.
Grandad was sitting up in bed with crumbs of toast and something whitish stuck to the side of his mouth. Every now and then he gave a rattling cough, sending spit and crumbs spraying across the bedclothes. I stood as far away from him as I could. Jamie didn't mind about the spit and he started bouncing on the bed. I thought Grandad would get cross but he only laughed his hoarse old laugh and told me to go and get the toy box from under the sink downstairs.
Jamie had never seen it before but I knew the box was boring; it was full of old toys that Uncle Jack and Uncle Michael had when they were small boys. There were tin soldiers with the paint peeling off, a mechanical crane that didn't even work, and a whole lot of marbles that I had never bothered looking at.
For some reason Jamie loved the marbles. He perched on the side of Grandad's bed rolling them around in his hands and letting them drip through his fingers. I watched them form a pool of swirling colours on the stained eiderdown. I had never seen them glow and burn like that before. Grandad wheezed and coughed as he started to explain some of their names to him: ox-blood, purie, devil's eye and tiger. He let him choose his favourite to keep. Then he remembered me and let me choose too. Jamie liked the tiger best but my favourite was the devil's eye. It had a red whirl around the edge and at the centre was a bright yellow eye. If I looked very closely I could see my own eye reflected in the yellow part. When I held it in my palm it looked angry and wild and seemed almost alive. But when I closed my fingers it felt just as cool and smooth to touch as the clear blue purie or the striped tiger.
Then Dr. Carling called to see Grandad, so we took the marbles downstairs and played with them all afternoon. I soon won the tiger from Jamie but he made such a fuss Mum made me let him win it back. I won and lost the ox-blood several times but I never risked the devil's eye; that was too precious to lose. I liked to know it was safe all the time in my pocket, like a secret lucky charm.
Before we went to bed that night, Mum told us that Dr. Carling said Grandad's heart was very weak and he should stay in bed for two more weeks. We'd have to stay to help him out.
“Just two weeks,” she said. “You don't mind, do you, love? You are such a big help to me.”
I hated her for asking me in her pleading voice, the one she used to use with Dad when he got angry. I knew she had already decided we were staying. I turned away from her and kicked the stupid toy box. If Dad was here he'd make her leave, he could always make her do what he wanted. It wasn't fair, she promised it would only be a few days. It just wasn't fair.
That was the last night we spent at Grandad's. I must have been dreaming deeply that night because I never heard him getting up. And he mustn't have called for me very loudly because Mum never heard him either. We heard him fall though. He crashed down the stairs from the first step to the last. I stood at the top of the stairs while Mum dragged blankets from the couch to cover him. She looked up then and saw me watching her.
I heard Grandad moan as I came downstairs. He was lying in a crumpled heap, one leg folded underneath him. His face was greyish and a line of spit hung from his lip to his chin. Mum tried to put a cushion under his head but he moaned again.
"I'm going to Mrs. Dwyer's to call an ambulance," she said. "Stay with him till I get back. Don't let him move."
He clawed at her arm with one of his bony hands and opened his mouth, trying to say something.
"Don't worry, Mum, I'll take care of him."
I sat down on the second step. He lay there staring at me in silence, his lips twitching, his cloudy eyes wide with fear while she hurried next door. I watched him as he lay shivering on the slate floor. I had a feeling we wouldn't have to stay in his house another two weeks after all.
The ambulance arrived within half an hour but Grandad was dead by the time he reached the hospital. We followed on behind in a taxi with Mum. He had been conscious on the journey - the ambulance men told Mum he was rambling that the devil was watching him, the devil's eye was on him. The old fool. It wasn't the devil's eye, it was the ox-blood. When we got back to the house I found it lying innocently where it had rolled into a corner by the kitchen door. I grabbed it fast before Mum saw it. The devil's eye was where it had always been, tucked into my chest pocket, keeping me safe from harm.
This is a polished, fully formed, and engaging piece of writing that works on every level. The young narrator's voice is perfectly rendered. We are easily drawn into his world and his observations of it. The conflicting emotions of childhood, family and responsibility, are effortlessly conveyed, and there is a subtext (almost explicit) that teasingly hints at a darker layer to the narrator.
Llosgi(To Burn) – Runner up, Prolitzer Prize 2011
To catch alight but not to burn, that was the trick. The thing Geraint had been seeking his whole career. His quest was to be consumed by fire and the everlasting life it would bring. Professor of Folklore and Early Magic at Amlwch University, he knew all the texts, how it was written in The Celtic Book of Living and Dying, dating back to 43 AD.
He’d related his studies to the ceremonies of Fakirs of India and the forgotten rituals of Kabbalah, but to no avail. He took students on a field trip to Puffin Island, and when the whisky bottle lay drained by the campfire, he suggested they begin chanting. On the Monday he’d faced a lecture theatre of empty seats.
Geraint slaved over articles for specialist necromancy periodicals, botched attempt after botched attempt until he was simmering in his own regrets, the antithesis of an unsuccessful suicidal.
And, when all else failed, he’d pitched his tent high on Penmaenmawr mountain. There under the velour sky he recited the verses exactly as they were written. He sprinkled yellow lichens and lungwort over the carcass of a sheep and sent the match spinning from his hand. Wind aggravated the flames, crept over soiled wool. The reek of barbequed lamb wafted over the village. Criminal damage charges from the farmer put an end to the matter.
This preoccupation left little time for anything else, no wife, no heirs, just a cottage on the beach and a library large enough to provoke envy in an Oxford Don. So when Angharad arrived back in his life one evening, like she’d always been there, he was feeble for her. She stood on the shore hurling a piece of driftwood for her black dog to run after; hair like kelp and peridot eyes. And somewhere, aching in his jaw, thumping in his skull, he saw the girl from school he’d mocked and kissed with equal delight. It was more than a sign, it was a portent. Where had she been since days smoking cigarette butts she’d found on the playing field, their lunchtimes spent huddled by the electric substation, listening to rain fizzing on the wires? He told her immediately of his mission. She did not flinch as others might have done.
“I know what to do,” came her thin voice. What was there to resist?
From the depths of her coat she pulled out a Zippo and a can of lighter fluid. They were teenagers again, no books mattered; there were no words to tether him to the shore. Geraint scanned the mass of beach, mountain and village. The glowing dot on the mountainside was the Pen-Y-Bryn pub, housing the nearest inhabitants.
Angharad poured the liquid over her hand and in one swift movement flicked the lighter. Mouthing rhymes. Eyes fixed on his all the while – not a flicker of pain.
He fought off dismay.
Nice trick. It only burns the fluid; your skin’s not alight.
“Your turn,” she said. He could see the Earth’s core in that smile.
He rolled up his sleeve, her cool white hands steadying the shake.
The fluid coated him, then the ignition, catching on his hairs. No pain, just blue and gold shimmying up his arm. He didn’t know how long had passed when he dropped to his knees and rolled over in the wet sand to the sound of her laughter.
They agreed to meet in the same spot the next night.
Until dawn, nightmares engorged in his bed. Tangled around his bare legs like seaweed, tentacles penetrating him, making him bleed. By dawn, his insides felt as contorted and dry as sand dunes, but the mattress was damp to the touch. He spent the day attempting to read by the window, watching for the demise of the sun. Once the lighthouse rays strobed over Menai straits, Geraint barely remembered to tie his shoelaces. Wind propelled him to the pebbles and sand. By the jetty, Angharad stood, coat buoyant and a jerry can at her feet. The panting shape of the dog fetched planks and MDF boards that were strewn on the beach. Together they heaped the dry bits of wood and branches high in a circle, shaped it like the mountain, left a human-shaped gap in the centre; the aperture through which to be born.
“We’ll meet on the other side,” she told him.
“Yes,” he said. “Yes.”
A douse of petrol hit the back of his throat. Panic tugged at his stomach. She would burn there in front of him. Or worse, be altered. Was there jealousy then, somewhere in the coils of fear?
Geraint stoked the blaze until the lights flicked off at the Pen-Y-Bryn. The moon’s molten wax spilled over the sea. Having Angharad standing over him like that was treading water and not being able to touch the seabed. Weight on his chest. She soaked herself from the can before pouring the remainder over him. A torrent coursed over his hair and ears, stinging, coating, bringing that curative old smell of being caught in his father’s garage, messing with something he didn’t understand.
With rivulets of petrol still running down his face,she called in rounded tones, “Every rock, every sod of earth, every drop of saltwater.” Chanting aloud, English words, Welsh words, words without language. She placed her cold, salted tongue on his. In that kiss, blind creatures stirred beneath the waves, dead things buried in the sand, writhed into life.
The Labrador went first, bounded into the fire. Angharad stepped in after it, into the burning gap at the centre. The fire shimmered, raged. She was encased in flames, yet repelling them. It was difficult to tell where she ended and the fire began, until there was only smoke. Geraint wanted to run in, screaming, abandon all remaining logic. But he’d been waiting his whole life. Very slowly he neared the flames, held his breath. Heat reached into his pores. Through the swathes of smoke, a black puppy sat on the sand.
Breathing again, he passed inside the orange wall. How beautiful, the colours, the searing, dizzying heat. He could not leave, would not. He was immortal, inflammable, beyond. It was hard to remember when he’d last felt joy like this. Cheap polyester melted, muscle buckled and shrank back from bone. He stopped moving, drugged by sweet smoke, pork crackling, singed hair.
On the beach ahead, an image disrupted by rising cinders: a little girl in a dark coat, on all fours, down on her stomach, slithering back into the sea.
The boil and mutation of each cell. The bubble and swell under his eyelids. But then the agony, itching at first, soon thrashing beneath the skin. Flames burst through the cage of his chest and devoured his still-beating heart.
A local man out for an early morning jog dragged a boy of no more than ten years old from a six foot bonfire. His body charred and his flesh still hot to the touch.
This is an intriguing and engaging story that works on an almost mystical level, as befitting its subject. There is an assured use of language and imagery, and the story successfully functions according to its own internal logic and flow. It is a rewarding read.
Tongue-Tied – Runner up, Prolitzer Prize, 2011
The one I want to wrap in my arms and bring home is Nebras.
I didn’t even know her name when I return to Iraq shortly after the assault on Baghdad. I am armed only with a photo of a beggar touching her nose with her tongue.
I had met her a few months before when I’d traveled to Iraq with a women’s delegation, just five weeks before the U.S. bombings and invasion. Unfazed by impending disaster, the little girl, old enough to be in primary school, had begged for handouts in a popular market. I had taught her to touch her nose with her tongue. We’d teased; clearly she wasn’t used to an adult making faces at her and delighting in her company. She’d followed me around the souk nearly swallowing her tongue in laughter as she imitated my nose-touching stunt.
She was cold. The dirty scarf wrapped loosely around her neck neither protected her from the chill nor hid her calculating ability to work the shoppers. Without a translator, the most I gathered was a photo of a gleeful girl with laughing eyes and an incredibly acrobatic tongue.
When I return to Iraq five months later to find how war had touched the people who had so deeply touched me, translators are reluctant to take me to the souk. The mood in Baghdad has shifted; gunfire is heard nightly and no one wants to be responsible for my harm. Finally, the day before I am to leave, I convince one translator to take me “shopping.” I canvass the cluttered shops for hours, flashing the little girl’s photo.
“Yes, that’s Nebras.” Finally, a shopkeeper recognizes the girl whose deep, brown eyes had humanized the smoldering CNN newscasts that absorbed my life back home. “But I haven’t seen her in a while. Not since before the war.”
I catch my breath. I had just learned Nebras’ name. She can’t be one of the thousands of nameless Iraqis we dismissively call “collateral damage.” I step out into the bright sunlight and my translator catches my arm.
“We need to leave,” he insists. The equally insistent gunfire across the river rattles my nerve. I feel conspicuous in the souk’s crowded narrow alleys. People dart, avoiding eye contact. Shops close prematurely. Barricaded soldiers seem hyper-alert in the edgy heat.
As we worm our way back to our car, I stifle my creeping panic. Behind me, a commotion suddenly erupts and I turn around to see a crowd of men shoving toward me. I freeze. The shopkeepers part, revealing the terrified eyes of a familiar elfish girl they drag toward me by the scruff of her T-shirt.
Nebras doesn’t recognize me at first. Not until I show her photos of herself does she smile. Backed against a shop facing a tight crowd of curious men, Nebras retreats shyly, studying her photo intently. I shoo back the men who had treated this beggar only as a nuisance and, kneeling before her, I ask the interpreter to tell her I had come from America to see her.
Without warning, the overwhelmed girl lunges forward and kisses me on the lips.
We buy her an ice cream from a passing vendor. She unwraps it and holds it out to me. My defenses melt. After two weeks of rigorous attention to all food and water that passed my lips, I lick the sweet streetfare sacrificing my intestines to this little girl’s pleasure at hosting a visitor with all she could offer.
She’s an only child who doesn’t know her age. It was particularly ironic that we had met outside the Al Mustanseria University, the world’s oldest science college, built in 1233. This schoolless girl’s only education is learned navigating the streets outside the university’s ancient walls.
I empty my purse of dinars, stuffing the oily bills into her plastic purse. She gleefully buys another ice cream for us to share.
Military helicopters zigzag overhead. Rumors that the American troops had closed bridges and jammed traffic make us jittery. Nebras escorts me out of the dicey souk, grabbing my hand and expertly keeping my skirt from being snagged by the ubiquitous wartime razor wire.
As we pass a store being repainted, she mentions it had been hit during the war’s initial attacks. She had spent the long nights of the early bombings in a nearby mosque.
I hug her harder than I intended. I feel her wiry hair against my cheek, her grungy T-shirt against my shoulder, her warm, open heart so willing to accept mine.
And then I’m gone.
There is clarity and lightness to the writing of this story -- a deft touch -- that never missteps into sentimentality. A good story should "show" rather than "tell", and this story succeeds. It captures the narrator's feelings towards the young girl with brevity and precision, colours in the story's setting equally so, and then snaps us with a perfect ending.
Kelly is the author of several award-winning articles. A recipient of five writing fellowships over three years, she has lived in writing colonies as far-flung as Bialystok, Poland. She is a popular college lecturer and accomplished public speaker and divides her time between Los Angeles, CA, and Ajijic, Mexico. She blogs at www.PeacePATHFoundation.org.
"Tongue Tied" is the first chapter of Kelly's forthcoming journalistic memoir about her experiences with Iraqi and Palestinian refugees. It originally appeared in Female Nomad and Friends: Tales of Breaking Free and Breaking Bread Around the World by Rita Golden Gelman with Maria Altobelli, published by Three Rivers Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., in June 2010. It was reprinted in The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011, edited by Lavinia Spalding, published by Travelers’ Tales, an imprint of Solas House, Inc.
Copyright for all pieces remains with the writers.
Copyright Prolebooks 2009 - 2016
Prolitzer Prize for prose writing, 2015
The results are in!
Many of the entries (both stories and essays) for this year’s Prolitzer Short Fiction Prize possess a darkness of mood and tone; almost all explore themes of uprootedness and uncertainty. The story I chose as the winner, ‘Dissolving’ (Melanie Whipman), is typical in that it is dark and introspective. It is also beautifully written – the sentences are taut and powerful; the reader has to work hard to piece together the details given to us in the story: a man is being held hostage, along with another. He is about to be executed. In the minutes before his death, he recalls aspects of his life, his upbringing in Sussex, his schooldays and teachers, his relationship with his father. A solemn tale, it is also devoid of self-pity and political polemic. No character is judged, including the protagonist’s executioners. In doing this, the writer, who weaves the story around the central and repeating image of a dissolving sugar cube, is able to portray how fragile life is, how quickly it passes and how, increasingly, global politics permeates all of our lives. It’s both a timely and stunning piece of writing, and a worthy winner.
My choice for second place is ‘The Enormous Building Site’ (Aiden O'Reilly). This story, about a young Irishman working on a building site in North-west London, is a vivid, evocative story with characters that stayed with me long after I’d read it. It’s a real gift to be able to create characters who leap off the page in a few sentences, who the reader will care deeply about - and this story manages to do that in spades. I felt it could go on for a lot longer and was perhaps the basis of a novella or novel.
Third place goes to ‘Bedtime Drink’ (Karina Vidler). A dark tale about a woman who slips back into the lives of her children once her ex-husband and his new wife are out of the house. Though the woman has a dastardly plan for herself and her children, the writer does a wonderful job of conveying this Medea-like character’s private despair and hence the reader has a greater understanding of her dark motives. A distilled, poetic piece.
Also commended: ‘This Story Could end in Tooting Bec’ (Shauna Mackay), ‘A Very Tall Lady’ (Catherine McNamara) and ‘Girls on Motorbikes’ (Emma Timpany).
The guard holds the white cube between his finger and thumb. He’s the one who smokes menthols, who hawks up his phlegm so violently he sounds like he’s going to choke. In the gloom of the cell I can’t make it out. I think it’s a dice, and then, when I see what it is I doubt myself. He clears his throat, bangs a fist against his chest, shoves out his chin and gobs onto the dirt floor.
There’s the damp weight of him against my shoulder, the flabby give of his stomach and a waft of mint and sweat. He pulls me away from the wall and I feel the soft scrape of his nails on my palm as he pushes it into my hand.
I identify it by touch - a sugar lump.
I think of Mrs Shepherd. Holmbush infant school. Delivering the registers with Graham Streader. Our fingertips leave moist prints on the coloured covers. One per class. The teacher’s looking up, smiling, holding out a hand; coming to meet us in a waft of chalk and perfume. Thank you Graham, thank you Michael. Mrs Shepherd smelled of parma violets; she had a giant screw-top jar of blurred-edged-sugar-lumps. She let us ram our hands in, pull one out and stuff it in our mouths. There’ll be a rule against that kind of thing now, health and safety or something. We’d run across to the prefab huts, breath steaming the air, the second cube safe in our pockets, saved for break-time, to have with the milk. Bottles clinking, blue straws. Everyone else not being able to get enough of the stuff, but me hating the warm, rancid creaminess, and sticking my sugar lump behind my front teeth and sucking the milk through it.
‘Did he give you one too?’
He hasn’t spoken before. I didn’t know whether he was asleep or unconscious or dead when they brought me in this morning. I recognised him instantly from his shirt. He was curled up, a human-shaped husk in the corner of the room. I recognised the floral fabric. A blue that was once azure but is now a grubby indigo. You can hardly make out the swallows and daisies. He worked on the same floor as me. He was there when they took us. Afterwards, we were moved on and kept apart. They brought us together again as a group once, a few weeks ago, to make a video. One of the journalists read from a script. I knew him vaguely. He was from Solihull. Played golf. He was the type of man my dad would have been proud of - the sheet of paper quivered but the golfer kept his voice steady and his shoulders back. Solid. I’ve not seen him since.The man on the floor is a foreigner. European. Slight, effeminate, immaculate and camp. Was all those things. Odd he should have lasted this long. Perhaps he’s been dishing out favours. It seems churlish not to answer him now.
‘Yeah, he did.’ I say.
‘A sugar lump. What the fuck’s that about?’
When I’ve deciphered his words through his accent, broken teeth and swollen lips I shrug.
‘It means it’s our turn.’
He looks at me. I see him moving out of the corner of my eye, twisting on his feet and backside to face me. It makes me feel uncomfortable. This isn’t the place people look at each other. The guards are careful to avoid eye contact. His shoulders start to shake and he makes a wheezing, choking sound. At first I think he’s crying, but it’s laughter.
‘Isn’t it supposed to be a cigarette? Executioner’s last gift?’
‘Would have liked a ciggie. Slave to the weed, me.’
A phrase my dad used. Never be a slave to the weed boy. I can still see him. Rolling his own, finger-tipping the tobacco onto the little Rizla sheet, running the tip of his tongue along the edge and tucking in the stray ends with the end of a match. The phrase sounds anachronistic here, in this place, with this man’s accent.
‘I don’t smoke.’
He shuffles towards me.
‘What was the point? We can’t fucking eat them.’
He’s right. Our hands are tied behind our backs, the grainy cube squeezed tight in our palms.
‘We could stick em up our arses.’
I smile and my jaw hurts and something splits open in the corner of my mouth.
I clench my fist tighter to feel the shape of it. The sharp edges crumble as I squeeze. I used to know a girl in junior school who had a horse. She wore her hair in a high, shiny pony-tail. When she trotted, both tails used to swing and bounce in time. She’d feed it sugar lumps and I’d watch its tongue on the skin of her palm and I’d get a hard-on. We went out for a while, but it didn’t last. Even Dad said I was punching above my weight.
His accent could be Italian or Spanish. Something sing-song.
‘Most of them have gone already.’
All morning there have been the sounds of departure. Shouts, truck doors slamming, the clatter of cans, the slap of folding canvas, engines revving and the spit of sand from accelerating tyres. And gun shots.
‘We’re the last.’
There were sixteen of us at one time. Five from my department. We usually ate in the canteen but it was someone’s birthday that day, so we went to the mall for lunch. I didn’t even know his name, the guy whose birthday it was. Last week the menthol guard told me the others were dead.
‘They might take us? They could still use us, right? For an exchange? Why else would they keep us this long?’
He reminds me suddenly of my father. The deliberate blindness. And physically. The thinness. The bones of his face look like they’re trying to push through his skin. It spikes a memory of Dad at the end. I remember the shock of him in his hospital gown. How diminished he seemed. He was always such a big, explosive man. A pint drinker. A three-sugars-in-his-tea man. A difficult-to-live-up-to man. A don’t darken my doorstep again man. The type of man who would call this foreigner a chutney chaser, a shirt lifter. At the hospital I wasn’t sure he’d agree to see me, but he beckoned me into his private room. Hospital’s a leveller, son, he said. He was propped upright against his pillows, ramrod straight. He was always like that - clear in his views, sharp and crystalline. There was never any giving way. No crumbling. No dissolving. He was a performer, my dad, even at the end he was acting. The ‘son’ was for the pretty nurse. If he’d had the energy he’d have clapped me on the shoulder and winked at her. Never Say Die eh?
‘You’re the artist aren’t you?’
My cellmate shakes his head.
‘You always had a sketch pad. I used to see you drawing in the canteen.’
He doesn’t seem so camp now. That irritating ebullience has gone. He used to watch me from a distance. He’d stand and stare in his buttoned-up floral shirts and narrow jeans and pointed, polished shoes. He’d approach me from an angle. Would meander past, trailing his fingers along the back of my chair.
‘I used to draw a bit. I’m married. Pictures of my wife.’
Lately I worry that I can no longer draw her from memory. When I try to picture her face it dissolves and distorts.
Outside there’s a watery cough, a rasp of movement, the jangle of keys. The guard will have taken the last drag from the butt of his cigarette, will be crushing it out between thumb and forefinger and will be chucking it on the pile by the wall.
My cellmate has levered himself up and is kneeling with his back to me, his tied hands pushed up towards my face.
His fingers tremble. They’re black with dirt and blood. The sugar lump gleams white against his curled palm. He jiggles it up and down.
I’m sitting cross-legged, leaning against the wall. I shake my head but he’s facing away from me. He came this close to me once in a bar. It was a departmental night out. I’d got separated from my colleagues and he found me, or followed me. He pulled up a stool, and bought me a Tusker, sliding it along the sticky bar. He was so close I could smell the leather of his jacket and the spice of his after-shave. His knee-cap was pressed against my thigh. He touched my wrist when I took the bottle and looked me straight in the eyes. You don’t fool me, he said, swirling his fingertips along the inside of my arm. I punched him off his stool.
‘Please.’ his voice breaks.
I still remember the feel of his long, slim fingers against my skin.
There’s the grate of the key in the lock. The sound of bolts being drawn.
I feel hot and prickly.
‘He’s coming. Get up.’
The door bangs open. The sun pours in, as smooth and sweet as lager. A gust of wind eddies the dirt floor. Anthony is still on his knees. I’m worried he’ll cry. He looks up at the guard standing in the doorway and he laughs.
‘Weather for drying.’ he says in his Italian accent.
Weather for drying. I see Mum with a basket of washing and the tips of her slippered feet beneath the folds of cotton as she pegs out the sheets.
‘What you say?’
The guard scowls and scratches his groin.
Something that feels like a laugh bubbles up in my chest.
‘How d’you know those phrases? Where did you learn them?’
‘Everywhere. I lived with a boxer in Lincoln once. Six years. Now take the fucking sugar.’
I get onto my knees, spread my legs for balance, lean forward, push my face into his hand, feel the rasp of his finger nails against my lips and then the square of sugar shoved into my dry mouth.
‘Now me. Quick.’
The guard is motionless in the doorway.
I draw up one leg, fold my chest forward, grunt and push up from the other toe. I’m up on both feet, swaying. My cellmate is on his knees again, shuffling behind me. I open my hand, and hold it steady. There is the damp huff of breath, then the weight and warmth of his lips and I remember the pressure of Graham’s lips on mine in the geography hut and the sticky, rising swell of pleasure before I hit him so hard his nose cracked.
The guard is coughing and thumping his chest.
I keep my tongue still, holding the cube against the side of my cheek. We had the polio vaccine on a sugar cube. The nurse squirting it on, the gentle swell of her blue uniform against the shiny, complicated buckle of her navy belt, her fingers cupping my chin and the soft weight of her hand on my head and then the sugar dissolving on my tongue.
‘Time.’ The guard gestures with his chin.
He supports us both as we come squinting and shivering into the glare. We stumble like boys in a three-legged race. School sports day, Graham’s calf and thigh against mine. They call it the bear sun this time of year. There’s no warmth in the brightness. Every country has its colour. Here it’s sand - the low lemon sun, the dusty ground, the pale buildings, the scattered handful of tan goats, the beige canvas trucks. I try to picture the green of home, the soft Sussex sun on the field behind my parents’ house where I used to lie hidden in the grass as a boy, chewing the sap from stalks, waiting for the farmer to drive the sheep in, the herd milling around me like grounded clouds.
There are half a dozen of them left, in desert camouflage, cradling machine guns. One is holding up a video camera. They fall silent when they see us.
The menthol guard shoves us onto our knees and we kneel in the dirt, eyes closed against the brightness. Our shoulders touch and steady against each other. I feel the shivering warmth of him through his shirt. We turn to look at each other. He smiles.
‘My name’s Anthony.’
‘I know.’ I say.
His teeth are chattering.
‘Reckon we’ll be on Youtube?’
There’s the clunk and metallic rattle of chambers being loaded. I press closer to him and work the cube between my teeth. I focus on his eyes. They are a deep blue, the only real colour in this beige faded landscape. I think of the blue of a summer Sussex sky. As they fire I bite down and the cube dissolves, my mouth flooding with its sweetness.
The enormous building site
Fergal peeled off his sock and exposed his foot. He dipped it in the toilet bowl and flushed. The foot shone translucent like something extracted from a jar of formaldehyde. He closed the lid of the toilet, turned, sat down and set to work. This quick-set concrete they were working with now was lethal stuff. It burnt into the skin and bonded within seconds. He nipped the edges of a scab with the Stanley blade, coaxing a flake loose, making skirmishes against the pain barrier.
The noises of the site took on a woody tone through the toilet walls: whine of a drill, rumble of a dumper, flutter of tarp in the wind. They would notice him missing. Not that it mattered, he just didn’t want them laughing at the idea of him spending half an hour on the jacks. He folded a wad of toilet paper and dabbed the seep of red on his heel. The plasters from the chemist were barely big enough to cover the area of raw flesh. He patched on several layers criss-cross. Now he was girded and ready to take up the shovel again.
Dermot gave a nod and straightened his back.
"There's work enough there yet for four days. For three men for four days. He didn't leave us with our hands in our pockets."
Fergal laughed and swung a few stabs at the clay to carve a clean edge. He liked to listen to this London-tinged Fermanagh accent.
"People don't know what hard work is any more. In my day – Manchester it was – it was fourteen hours a day of digging. Digging digging digging. Till there was muscles on your muscles. Like a workhorse. Not even a horse. The horse can keep his neck straight. Arragh."
Dermot dismissed the toiling horse, spat on his hands. He wore a suit so worn it only occurred to Fergal one morning with a jolt of recognition that it was a suit.
A metallic clang sounded high in the air. Fergal looked up to watch the scaffold team setting up the fifth storey platform. An aluminium tube snaked upwards, passed hand over hand. It kept knocking against the horizontals and ringing out. The right-angled structure shone in the sun. Fergal thought of how nice it would be to be a skyworker, slotting bright poles together to make such airy constructions.
"Maybe they're right, and hard work is only for donkeys. My son now, he stayed on at school. The building sites were not for him. The next thing is, he tells me he wants to join the police force. To be a bobby."
He made the word sound shameful and ludicrous.
They worked together staking out the new trenches with orange twine. The site under their responsibility was just one small part of a massive construction project. Bands of caution tape closed off their section from the rest.
As he washed his boots by the barrel that evening, Fergal was shadowed by a feeling of re-enactment. What was he doing here? What were his plans? This was the age of Grand Theft Auto, of interpersonal skills and career consultancies. He should be playing a game called Construction Site, not here working on one, with the skin cracked on his hands, his feet leaking blood and his head a muddle after five hours sleep. Soon a whole year of this would have passed.
"Boysoboysoboys. Another day another dollar. We're on a winner now," Shane whispered behind him. They shared a flat in Willesden. "I can see you're getting good at this. I learned you well."
Fergal had run into Shane at a house party in the early days. Although they were both about the same age, Shane had already been working an indeterminate period of time in London. The way Shane sprinkled his sentences with the word 'sorted' made an immediate impression on Fergal. A job, DSS, a cheap flat, a place to buy booze at two in the morning – all was within Shane's power to sort. On a tip that same night, Fergal had landed a few weeks’ work in a pizza factory in Kingsbury.
"Fuck the Jobcentre, that's only for the natives," said Shane.
"Hakeem’s Digitals across the way, he’ll sort you with a decent iPhone," said Shane.
At home that evening, Shane perched on the windowsill and smoked. He inhaled the smoke deeply according to the maxim what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
Fergal peeled and chopped his booster combo of fruit: kiwi, bananas, cantaloupe and raspberries. When you push your metabolism to the brink every day, you need a vitamin charge. That's what the Nigerian greengrocer had said. If Shane were to fall from the windowsill he would hit the pavement splat just opposite the greengrocers.
"I've called in the concrete pourers for Thursday morning."
This was news to Fergal.
"How did you do that?"
"I told the concrete crew we're ready."
"But we’re only labourers."
Shane emitted a fart noise. "There’s a central supply for the whole project. You just need to give them the green light."
Fergal touched the scab on his heel. When the pump had kicked in, the concrete flowed out from the tube in a huge gush. Big snaky coils remained distinct for several seconds, then merged into the mass. Their job was to spread it across the hardcore with rakes and spades. Once he had stood too close to the tube and the concrete had welled up over his boots.
"Is it not too soon?"
Shane swung his legs down from the windowsill.
"You not feeling up to it?"
"Of course I am!"
This came out peevish, so he tagged a joke on.
"Sure haven't I got my potassium turbo-charge here."
"That's the stuff you need to wrestle with the quick-set. That's the stuff."
Shane sat down opposite and selected a fruit for himself. He cut it in two and studied the insides.
"Tell us. What do you make of old Dermot?" Fergal asked.
"Hardy old warrior."
"Do you not think there's something odd about him?"
"Just that he's working with the likes of us."
"What’s odd about that?"
"You know, he’s like sixty or seventy and he’s cracking the same jokes as us. Pushing a barrow and digging and complaining about the boss and skiving off and just doing the same things."
But Shane had no idea what he was talking about and the conversation moved on.
The steel fixers wore check shirts and leather toolbelts. They laid out steel rods in a lattice and clipped them together. The look of this reminded Fergal of something but he couldn't put his finger on it.
"Here mate, did you dig this trench?"
"Tell you wot. You're handy with the old spade."
A fixer in the adjoining trench poked his head up and guffawed.
Fergal had no point of entry to their humour and walked off stony-faced. He crossed over to where Dermot was pinning a mark and took up a pickaxe. He hacked at the ground for a while. This was the detritus of centuries tramped down hard.
"Hey Dermot," he said, and jerked a thumb back. "Do you know what those lads carry around with them?"
Dermot did not immediately understand.
"You know, the spray, tss tss. Doused in it."
"Ah Jaysus," Dermot said. "That's what it's coming to."
He gripped an upright to haul himself to his feet.
"Them boys will not work the skin off their hands. No more a notion of sweating to earn a living than – puppies. Puppies in a box of wood shavings."
Fergal laughed heartily. This would make a good story to tell Shane later.
"Nip that there," said Dermot, holding the twine taut. "Is it this section has to be done before the pourers set up shop?"
They worked together in silence. Stretching and tying the twine between stakes was a break from the real work.
"Awful man that foreman," breathed Dermot as he put his weight behind the spade. "Puts us here on the site and says he’ll be back by next Monday or Tuesday. Neither hilt nor hair of him since. We could be all sitting in The Crown for all he knows."
"I have to post a letter home," he said as the others headed for the cafe.
His hands tingled into life as he walked, his backbone straightened out. The streets were crammed with people walking with purpose. He spotted the blue and red symbol for a tube station. Under his feet, an old shore grate with a royal coat of arms. And moments later, a red bus manoeuvred its bulk around a corner. He took a secret thrill in noticing these little things which reminded him just what city he was in.
He bought extra-large plasters at the chemist, and then, on a whim, he ordered a kebab – an authentic shish kebab – from a shopfront vendor. Lebanese, he noted. The rows of meaty skewers arranged amidst fronds of parsley had attracted his eye.
Twenty minutes passed and still the skewer sizzled and the charcoal smoke drifted skyward. The side planks had to be hammered into place. The hardcore layer needed to be tamped down on the far stretches of the foundation. And maybe the concrete truck had already arrived. It would be waiting there, engine running to keep the big drum rotating, and the others wondering where the hell he had got to.
If they had a foreman who actually stayed on the site, he would give Fergal a bollicking for being late and Fergal would blame the Lebanese kebab maker and that would be the end of the matter. But with the way things were now, it was a headache pure and simple.
A woman was standing at the entrance gates. She tapped the toe of her shoe on the concrete driveway to check it was solid.
"Hall-ooo-uuu," she called. She bent her right knee to loosen a shoe strap and shake out a stone. Her arms and face were pale and freckled. She wore an implausible summer dress.
"Are you looking to see someone?" said Fergal.
Shane emerged from behind a Portacabin.
"Well halloo there," he said.
"Which site is this?" she asked.
"We work for a subcontractor," said Shane.
"Yes, but which one?"
"Walton. No, the company name is actually Sermat, Seromat – something like that."
"You mean to tell me you don't know who you're working for?" Her mouth tightened to one side.
"It's just we never need to use the company name," said Fergal. "It’s printed on the Kango handles."
He looked about him for one.
She regarded them with her calm blue English eyes. She was maybe twenty-five or twenty-six. If dressed slightly different, she could be a girl they might try to chat up in Tony’s late bar. Someone from the investment company, he reckoned, just scouting around for a laugh.
She walked towards the four storey structure. Shane and Fergal followed her, caught themselves at it and exchanged glances.
"Is this the HBC block?"
There was no immediate answer.
"Do you boys even know what you're building here?"
"Of course we do. Financial services, yeah," said Fergal.
"Is there someone called Dermot Feeney here?"
"No. Wait. Well there is a worker called Dermot," said Shane.
"Dermot ... out at the lobby unit," said Fergal, puzzled at how he had nothing more to say to identify the man.
Fergal and Shane left her gazing up at the empty shell and went around to the rear of the block.
"Freaky chick," said Fergal.
"Hear the way she said 'boys'?"
"I got that."
They found Dermot on his hunkers, pushing mortar into a seam with a straight-edged kitchen knife. In a rush to meet deadlines someone had forgotten to set down a layer of damp-proofing. Now he was cementing in a thin strip of black vinyl to satisfy the suits.
"Dermot. Some lady out front to see you."
"A lady?" said Dermot. "A lady? Did she ask for me like?"
"Yes, she gave your name and all."
Dermot continued to slap in the mortar.
"Is she, like, your daughter?" said Shane.
Fergal's mind balked at this juxtaposition of the woman and the aging labourer. Yet there it was, and Dermot skited and slapped the mortar and grumbled and sighed.
"It'll do," he said.
They went back out front to the Portacabins. The woman looked demonstratively at her watch.
"Traffic peaks at quarter to five. What? Where are you off to now?"
"I'm going for a wash," said Dermot.
She emitted a sound of exasperation. The cabin door banged shut.
"Do you have showers in there?" she asked.
"Showers? No," said Fergal. "Just a washbasin."
"Well I suppose he can't be too long then."
"Where do you have to go?"
"Family dinner thing. It doesn't matter so much if we're late, but I want to get on the road before the traffic peaks."
She walked over to the base of the scaffold. A single plank stretched between the bars at each level.
"Does my dad have to work up on that?"
She sat on the lowest horizontal and studied the boys.
"How long have you been working cash in hand?"
"Couple of months or so."
"You two should get on some training course. Or apply to college."
"Do you just like, go around everywhere handing out free advice?" said Shane.
"Oh all right," she said and turned away from them.
Shane's stab of petulance surprised Fergal. Never had Shane been at a loss for words, never on the back foot like this. And now the woman's cheeks were flushed as she walked past them with face averted.
"I have to get things sorted out first," Fergal said. "And the money’s okay."
"I suppose it's not bad for a while."
"Will you still be as happy five years from now working with a shovel all day?"
Not yet, not just yet. Fergal was not ready to relinquish this vision of freedom on a building site, this redemption through hard labour, this, what he was establishing here, what could never be conveyed. He wanted to evade all claims on him, all charters awaiting his signature.
"You make it sound like it's purgatory here," he said.
"I never said that," she laughed. "Why would you come out with something like that?"
Dermot emerged and slapped down the front of his trousers. His daughter walked ahead of him and beeped the door of the car. Dermot leaned to Fergal in passing.
"Will you throw a bit of dust over that job out the back so it doesn’t stand out? Have to keep the white hats happy."
Fate, as punishment for a lifetime of defiance, had taken his son to be a policeman and his daughter to be a schoolteacher. He eased himself stiffly into the passenger side of the car and it proceeded out the gates.
She took the carton from the fridge, used the pink mug as a measure and poured exactly the right amount of organic full-cream milk into the saucepan. She remembered to not quite fill the mug. It was odd how milk seemed to expand so much when you heated it.
She turned on the gas and, as she caught its pungent smell, lit the hob with the manual lighter – click, click, click. How long was it since the automatic ignition gave up? Several years. One of the many things in her life that had just stopped working. One day things were fine, and then suddenly, something would decide to stop doing its job, or die, or leave you. But she had found that there was usually a way round these things, a way of managing without. When the automatic ignition went, she had bought the silver manual lighter the next day in Robert Dyas. When the screaming babies were born but her mum wasn’t there, she had found the answers to her many questions in practical baby books. And when he moved out, she had visited the cat rescue centre and allowed a needy long haired tabby to rescue her from late nights in front of the telly without cuddles. There had been ways of getting along, of replacing. But it had been getting harder. Every loss seemed to build on the ones before, to chip away another piece of marble from her heavily chipped form. These days she needed a bit of help to keep herself solid and relied on the doctor to prescribe something just to round the edges and help her sleep. But she was by no means alone in that. As the Doctor had said, half the population was on some kind of medication.
She reached up for the tin of organic cocoa on the shelf, took it down and lifted the plastic lid. The aroma caught her, as always: that unmistakable, delicious smell of real chocolate. She sniffed at the open tin and breathed deeply. She took the teaspoon from the drawer and heaped spoonfuls of the dark brown powder into the pan of warming milk. She began to stir with an old wooden spoon, tracing the lines of powder swirls on the surface until they disappeared. OK, so wooden spoons supposedly harboured all sorts of bacteria, but she much preferred them to surgical, metal spoons which would scrape the bottom of the pan, when a bedtime drink of hot chocolate was all about comfort and warmth and being enveloped in smoothness which would not hurt you.
She ran through her evening checklist of jobs. Had they all been done? Feed the cat – yes. Take out the rubbish from the swing bin – yes. Lock the front door –
She reached for the jar of sugar and took off the lid. Why they kept the sugar in an old glass jar, she didn’t know. Everything else seemed to have a decent container, but the sugar had to make do with an old peanut butter jar. It was probably something to do with keeping the sugar temporary, not granting it permanent place, given that its primary purpose was to make you fatter and unhealthier and more likely to die of a stroke or heart attack. She spooned the sugar into the pan. She liked her drinking chocolate sweet. She hesitated, then spooned in some extra.
From the living room she could hear that Scooby Doo had just ended and the kids had put on the next DVD, The Little Mermaid. The two of them were all bright eyes and clean pyjamas after their bath. They were loving the evening, being able to stay up late with Mum, watching the videos they usually only got to watch in the afternoon when nursery was over, Mum was still at work and Jackie was giving them their tea. She heard them talking to each other as the movie started up. She pictured them both snuggled under her blue duvet on the sofa, leaving a gap between them for her to return. They were seeing this as a huge treat.
She stirred the hot milk again as it began to bubble around the edges of the pan. She put her hand into the pocket of her fleecy blue dressing gown and took out the small plastic bottle. She needed two hands to open it so she put the pan onto the back ring for a moment. She pushed the plastic bottle into her left palm, forced the lid down and gave it a sharp twist. Click, click, click. It wouldn’t come off. A child-proof lock working against a grown woman. She tried again. If at first you don’t succeed.... This time the lid gave and she placed it on the work surface to the right of the cooker. How many? She knew exactly how many. She was always very careful with her pills. She was not going to make a mistake over the number.
She put the pan back on the heat and soon the milk began to rise. She picked up the pills and let them fall into the pan from her open hand, and stirred again with the wooden spoon, this time vigorously. Soon the pills were completely dissolved.
She poured the bedtime drink out then ran cold water into the pan and left it on the hob. On second thoughts, she took it over to the sink and washed it up, dried it with the red and white checked tea towel and put it away in the cupboard.
She placed the drink on the tray, covering the smiling face of Bob the Builder and switched off the kitchen light, click. She walked up to the front door and turned off the porch light, click. Then she turned on the answerphone on the hall table - whrirr, click, and went into the living room.
As she entered the room, the kids didn’t even take their eyes off the screen. The crab was in mid song and the mermaid was dancing with him along the ocean floor. The mermaid who needed to fall in love to regain her voice. As if love could give and not take, take all you’ve got and then a bit more. Take your children to a new life in another country with their daddy and a new mummy.
She set the tray on the coffee table, beside the plastic plate with its biscuit crumbs and climbed under the duvet between the two of them. She loved it like this, the three of them cuddled together, forming one mass: inseparable.
Waiting for the hot chocolate to cool, they watched the film together. She felt their small, warm bodies against hers and she loved them more than anything in the world, more than the world.
Once the bedtime drink was cool enough, she handed them their plastic mugs and took her own earthenware mug. The mug they’d bought on their first family holiday to Cornwall, when she hadn’t known that his frequent calls ‘to work’ were not to work at all. They all drank the soothing warm chocolate and cuddled and the film played on. The princess was going to find her voice. Love was, in its way, going to win through. She knew that love would always win through. When the mugs were empty, she took them from the pudgy little hands, leaned forward and placed them back on the tray. She snuggled back in. Nothing more to do now. All was peaceful, all was well. After a while, she felt first one and then the other of them growing sleepy, leaning more heavily into her, breathing more deeply. She was getting sleepy herself.
Time to sleep. She closed her eyes and held both children to her firmly, making sure to take them with her, as the mermaid swam towards the surface, towards her new life.
Winner: £200, Publication in Prole 18 in December 2015
Publication on the Prole website
2 x runner up prizes of £50, possible publication in Prole 18
Publication on the Prole website
Jaki McCarrick is an award-winning writer. Her play, Leopoldville, won the 2010 Papatango Prize for New Writing, and her most recent play, Belfast Girls, developed at the National Theatre Studio, London, was shortlisted for the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and the 2014 BBC Tony Doyle Award and is to premiere in Chicago in May 2015. Jaki’s short story, The Visit, won the 2010 Wasafiri Short Fiction Prize and appears in the 2012 Anthology of Best British Short Stories (Salt). Her critically acclaimed story collection, The Scattering, was published in 2013 by Seren Books and was shortlisted for the 2014 Edge Hill Prize. Jaki, who was longlisted this year for the inaugural Irish Fiction Laureate, is currently editing her first novel.
Represented by AM Heath
The Prolitzer Prize for Prose Writing, 2014
The winners and runners up for the Prolitzer Prize for Prose Writing have been chosen by our judge, Sue Pace.
Winner - KM Elkes, with Anyplace is Paradise
Runner up - Melanie Whipman, with Marissa's Bike
Runner up - Catherine Hokin, with Now You See Me
I was impressed with the overall quality of the submissions. Every time I read, Anyplace is Paradise by KM Elkes, I felt both the throb of joy and the pinch of sorrow. In other words, the author grabbed me by the throat and thrust me into the story. A very worthy winner.
Although very different from each other, Marissa’s Bike (Melannie Whipman) and Now You See Me (Catherine Hokin), illustrated how the voice of the author could carry the tension of a story from beginning to end. Both are excellent runners up.
Thank you to Prole for ushering these stories into the world.
Special commendations to The Shoe Thief (Andrea Stephenson) and Weedkiller (Ian Denning) too. I felt these were ready for publication.
The winning pieces are published in issue 15 of Prole, available from our homepage, and will be displayed here in January, 2015.
Sue Pace has over 120 short stories, personal essays, poems and non-fiction articles published in regional and international formats. This includes not only literary journals in the USA, but also journals in Australia, the UK and Canada.
Her poems may be found in several "Open To Interpretation" coffee table books. Her plays have been produced in Seattle, Portland and at the West Coast Ensemble in Hollywood, CA. She was a "Distinguished Writer in Residence" at Seattle University and recently received an Honourable Mention in NIMROD'S Katherine Anne Porter competition. Most recently, her work may be found in CALYX, SKIVE, PROLE and EP;PHANY, and she has work forthcoming in NIMROD.
Sue has been a presenter at several writer's conferences and workshops in the United states and is excited to be making a trip to the UK this coming fall.