Congratulations to all our winners!
1st Kim Martins
Sometimes you look at that grainy photo when August clung to your hair in hot breaths and promises were made between kisses and gelato. The two of you seated on a wooden bench, tucked in a corner of Piazza Testaccio, edged by trees.
You fitted together like puzzle pieces. Sei cosi bella, mia moglie, he’d say. Ti amo. He smelt of anise and tobacco, and laughter poured out of him, deep and full. You used to wear your hair arrow-straight with a middle part; a jangle of plastic bangles snaking up your arm.
Behind you is a terracotta-hued apartment building, and on that afternoon so many years ago, windows were thrown open onto people’s lives. On the third floor, you see a young woman dressed only in a slip, brushing long strands of hair, a man’s arms wrapped around her slender waist.
There on the fourth floor is Signora Rossi swathed in grandmotherly black, watering her thirsty marigolds. And there on the second floor is appartamento sette with its green wooden shutters closed against an oven-hot day.
That apartment is as familiar to you as the constellations in the night sky. You can still feel the coolness of tangled bedsheets against your legs, and the surprise of another man’s urgent hands.
It reminds you of how it was once between you and Giuseppe. You say a few hail marys and regret the extra helpings of castagnaccio over the years - the chestnut cake he so loves because you spike it with orange rind and extra fennel seeds.
You wonder if you should burn the photograph. If this will make the memories easier to carry. You glance at Giuseppe as he reaches for your hand, his face a map of old age.
I know, he says.
2nd Michael Botur
Shot for the Croc
Safe in my Plexiglas interview booth, I slide through an Ethics Committee-licensed bribe: a Mars bar and a child-sized juice. You sign consent.
So tell me where you grew up. Tell me bout the morning-after-parents’-party beercan with a cigarette butt that made you throw up. Tell me bout your father, the snarl of his Harley. Tell me bout hidings. Tell me bout hiding from the hidings. The aunty in Ngaruawahia. Sleeping in a skate bowl. Cold concrete. Hot Kronic. The surprised eyes of the dairy owner. Ciggies and liquorice whips. 18 bourbons for breakfast. Brag to me – I’m here to listen! – bout the jawbones cracked with baseball bats. Bail tomorrow, you reckon? Depends what mood the judge is in, heyyyy. Clink your juicebox on the Perspex, cheers. Imaginary beers.
Course you’re gonna be guilty, realistically. You’ll be remanded in custody and couriered to maybe Wiri, Pare or Ngawha, nah, faaaaa, dispatched too far for whanau to drive a dodgy-radiator car, weekly visits, nah G, try once a month for me, no sleep at night, clutch the blanket tight, scrape a beef bone into a bayonet if you wanna stay buoyant.
So my form’s done now. Wasn’t much. Eight minutes twenty five. Summed up your life. We can fill in your next few gaps if you want. Trend: obvious.
Thanks for the data, you’re heaps of help to the university.
‘And shot for the choc,’ you tell me through gooey brown teeth, chirpy, as if we’ve been hanging out. A spark of pleasure in your amygdala. Suck the caramel from the cavity between your teeth, momentary morsel of glee.
After the interview, tear off the suit. Hang it on a mirror in the changing room.
I don’t wanna look at you.
3rd Rob Burt
Never heard a man cry like Thomas. A nightly wail, plaintive and persistent. Nurses flocked around, fussing, soothing. My belly still raw from surgery, kept sleep at bay. I lay listening to him, till dawn fractured the darkness.
“What’s up Thomas,” I asked one morning, “you sound like you’re in a rough place?”
Recounting his time as a soldier, in the Malaysian jungle two years earlier, he spoke of being taken by a tiger one night, its jaws a vice, dragging him off. “Mates yelling, guns firing, the animal dropped me and vanished.” Thomas paused, “dreams ever since, I’m in the animal’s mouth, sharp teeth, fetid breath.” He displays his brown belly littered with pink, puckered scars.
My tiger dreams started a week after discharge from hospital. A mansion of spartan, silent spaces. The tiger exits at the far end of the hall, only its rear-end and swinging tail visible. I see it again in a room to my left, its black-eyed head protruding through an open doorway. It seemed oblivious of me.
So it goes, night after night, the tiger coming and going. Approaching darkness becomes a time of dread, a river of swirling terror coursing through my body.
Two years on I see Thomas in town. He glows with well-being.
“How’s it Thomas?” I enquire.
“Flying mate,” he beams, “bloody flying.”
“And that tiger in bed?”
He shakes his head. “After hospital, no dreams, no tiger! I feel blessed!” Looking up and crossing himself he adds “yet even now I ask myself again and again, where that bastard went?”
A smoldering anger ignites as I turn, walk away, silently asking, “do you really want to know Thomas, do you really want to know?”
Highly Commended Martin Porter
Diving for Pearls
I dive beneath the lighthouse, collect pebbles of jasper and chalcedony. I hunger for sea kale and scallops. I thirst for sweet rainwater, drink sunlight from the waterfalls. I wear my nakedness like an oilskin, protection against harsh seasons. The Argand lamp shines across the headland. I have lived here forever.
Now there is an intruder, a moth-girl, attracted by the subtle light. The wind blows over the grass, scented with wild thyme and chamomile. The cliff descends to the sea with a sudden drop. The submerged rocks are sharp with shellfish.
Moth-girl suns herself on the rocks, stretched like the cover of a book foxing with age. The beach offers safe entry to the sea. The sun strikes the lens, refracting across the cliffside. Moth-girl wets her feet in pools of salt water.
I am distracted by moth-girl.
I am floating on the surface, back-crawl style, looking to my brown wing-like skin. I move shoreward.
Moth-girl flits near the strandline, without confidence. The lens floats on a sea of mercury, rotating once every seventeen seconds to make a flash, flash, half a flash.
My skin shines softly in the sunlight. My skin shines brightly in the summer sun. My skin glows with the soft sheen of pearl.
Moth-girl flutters towards me.
The shadows criss-cross like the astragal bars of the lantern above. They embrace the blue light scattered by the lens. They embrace in the green light scattered by the lens. They depart as the red light is scattered from the Fresnel lens in the lantern house, patterned into diamonds from the windows.
We suck the flesh from clam shells, savouring the salty taste. We dive for pearls. We dive for pearls, suck the flesh from fresh oysters. I am hungry for pearls. I am hungry for soft-glowing pearls.
Commended Tania Aslund
Both Sides Now
Thirty years on, she still doesn't know why she bothered to climb that mountain.
Roped together they trod his unmarked and frozen road. Crossing rucked and buckled ice fields barren of life, they traversed en echelon arrays of rifts and clefts wrenched from staircased glaciers. Pillow drifts of snow concealed the cracks and fissures and muffled their isolation. Every breath and step was taut. Or had she imagined that?
Sipping iced tea in the thin light of winter, she reflected on their particular mix of indolence and ambition, dominance and manipulation. Her grey mouse coupled with his black dog, loyal and constant companions.
Seven years to the base of that mountain. Exhausted, childless, already defeated. No base camp littered with oxygen bottles here. Their destination, the peak, was shrouded in cloud.
On and on, one boot in front of the other, a dogged stubbornness that was punctuated by the unexpected betrayal of a collapsing ledge. The shriek of nails gouging slate. She slid right to the edge, fingertips ground down to the quick. She could have let go then - even the rope would not have saved her. Yet, on and on she trod, seeing only her scuffed toecaps and the rubbled track leading to the backs of his heels.
Then he stepped away and allowed her the view from the summit. Looking up at last, she saw they were above the cloud. An uninterrupted carpet of cumulous unfurled at her feet. Overhead arched endless blue emptiness. For all that she could see forever, she may as well have been blind.
But that was not the end of the story.
Feeding the mouse on her shoulder with crumbs of cake, black dog faithful at her heel, she sipped her tea. The nostril-curling scent of charred rope still lingered.