Sunday Star Times Short Story Awards winner: Once had me
Wellington writer Tracy Farr has won the open division of the Sunday Star Times Short Story Awards with an entry judge Sarah Quigley describes as standing out for its confidence and creative inventiveness. Read her winning entry Once had me here.
The car winds between steep fields that sweep down, green, to meet the road. The high sides of hills make corners you can't see around. The sun's out, but everything's still soaking, the road steaming. Lucy presses the button and the window glass moves down, widens the gap, lets in damp fresh air.
'Go right, up ahead.'
ALSO READ: *Tracy Farr takes out Short Story Awards
After ten long days and nights of rain they're off for a drive, to see some church. Her dad's been here before, but years ago. He's in the front passenger seat, navigating. Lucy's been experimenting with calling her dad Paul, which is his name. Paul sounds strange on her tongue, out loud, but good inside her brain.
Her dad – Paul – has his new phone in his hand, the blue flashing dot that's them moving closer to the upside-down teardrop on the map. I dropped a pin to mark it, he'd told her before they left, showing her the bright tiny screen, pinching and swiping to zoom and pan, all proud of himself.
Kerstin's driving, the seat pushed back so far that Lucy, behind her in the back seat, has to angle her legs and wedge them in place. She's always called Kerstin Kerstin, ever since Paul got together with her, way before Paul and Kerstin had the baby. In the back seat of the car, behind Paul and next to Lucy, the baby's asleep in its backwards-facing pod, its hand clutched tight around Lucy's finger.
They pass a sign that says Norwegian Church 1. Paul's got his head down, looking at his phone, so he doesn't see it. Kerstin just keeps driving in the right direction.
'Yeah, it should be about here—' Paul looks up from the screen, 'yep, that's it, yep, on the left. They're amazing, these things, aren't they. Don't know what we'd do without them, eh Luce.'
He looks back at her for a moment, grinning, winking a big comedy dad wink as he swipes and clicks, pockets the phone. They've promised her one for her birthday, with the usual parental bribe conditions. Until then, she's still got the shitty old dumbphone she got at the beginning of Intermediate. So embarrassing. All it does is text and run out of battery. She pulls it out of her pocket, out of habit, looks at the tiny little dead screen, sighs, throws it back into her bag.
The car glides to slow, the indicator tick-tick-ticks even though there are no other cars for miles, and Kerstin pulls off the road at a white gate, parking on a patch of grass that's big enough for two cars, three max. Paul opens the door, stretches, gets out and walks to the gate. He rattles the chain that's looped twice around the gate posts.
He wipes his hands on the sides of his shorts as he walks back towards them, as if he's ready to give up, but Kerstin's already swung into action.
'Nah, come on. We can climb over.'
Kerstin's leaning in at the back door of the car, getting the baby out and into the backpack. Lucy gets out on the other side, slams the door behind her. She loops her bag over her shoulder, pulls her cardigan across itself in front of her, locks both hands up in her armpits, and follows Kerstin towards the gate. The baby lolls and nods in front of her, strapped to Kerstin's back. It's wearing the beanie Lucy knitted for it before it was born. Her mum found her the pattern and bought her the wool, but it was Kerstin who helped her with the knitting when she couldn't understand the pattern or even work out how to use the four endless needles. Double pointed needles, they're called. DPNs, hon, Kerstin had told her. Sticks and string; it's all just sticks and string. And patterns, like maths. Here, I'll show you.
Kerstin unclips the baby backpack and hands the whole thing, baby and all, to Paul at the gate, then clambers over. Lucy follows her. Paul hands the baby over the gate to Kerstin, then climbs over himself. Kerstin hands the baby back to him, and he heaves it around, clips the backpack in place. Lucy watches the baby pass back and forth between them, back and forth, changing hands. It reminds her of You've got to know when to hold 'em, a song her dad sometimes sings. Know when to walk away. Know when to run.
Ahead of her, Kerstin walks fast up the hill towards the church. Paul muddles along behind, muttering over his shoulder to the baby, words she can't quite hear. They walk in a line up the hill, under the trees – no, tree: it's one tree, enormous, the trunk as big as a bus, branches hanging low, dark, looping down over long grass and dropped needles. There are fairy toadstools, big and small, scattered through the grass under the pine, each with a curved glossy orange enamelled top, warty with white spots. Through the gaps between branches of the tree, and behind its trunk, she can see a building. It looks ordinary, just a wooden building like a garage, or a little house. To one side of it there's an old gravestone, dirty-looking, surrounded by a little square of fence, as if to keep the dead person in. The fence is made of metal posts, each post topped with a shape like an upside-down love-heart. If you could break off one of the posts, it'd make an arrow, or a spear.
She steps on a stick, and it flicks up behind her, catches in the dragging hem of her jeans. She shakes it free, looking down as she walks on, watching her shoes push through long, dry grass as fine and blonde as summer hair.
Kerstin has her phone out. Lucy watches her take photos of the church. Kerstin's downloaded a shutter sound on her phone, like a bullet sound from an old film. Puh-chow. Puh-chow. Kerstin points the camera back down the hill towards Paul and the baby, lying on the grass now, in the shade of the big old pine tree. Puh-chow. The baby's out of the backpack, lying on Paul's chest. The top part of Paul – his face, his belly – and the baby are in shade. Paul's legs are in the sun. Puh-chow. He lifts his head, calls to her.
'C'm'ere, Luce. Get a photo with your dad, eh?'
She pretends she hasn't heard him. She walks away, around the side of the church. The sun screams through gaps in the trees, gives the church's steeple a halo, a god light. Here is the church, here is the steeple. She has to put her hand above her eyes to shade them, to block the sun from flaring, as she looks up. The steeple's a classic witchy hat shape, or an upside-down ice cream cone. At the top it's got a sort of cross, but with spikes up at each side, so it looks like it should be on top of a viking helmet, not a church.
She hears dogs, and kids, the sound – crystal clear, as if it's right next to her – of a gate being unlatched, a chain clanging. She turns around and looks down, across the road and a stream from the church. In the farm at the bottom of the hill, three kids with three dogs are walking and barking and billygoating and larking diagonally across a big paddock. She can hear their voices, but not what they're saying. The kids're all wearing gumboots. The tallest, a girl, looks like she's wearing pink and purple pyjamas, or really ugly track pants. She's maybe Lucy's age, maybe younger. She's striding out front like it's her farm. The kid at the back's carrying a long stick looped with string, like a fishing rod made from some retro book for scouts. It angles back over his shoulder, bobbing and wobbling above him as he walks. The kid in the middle, the shortest one, has a cricket bat, and taps it ahead on the ground as he walks. One of the dogs looks like a labradoodle, the colour of apricots, or old wallpaper. A city dog with city cousins, visiting the farm for the Easter holidays, she thinks.
As she watches them, the kids and the dogs creak through another gate, then out of sight, in under some trees at the edge of the paddock. She can hear their voices, just for a moment more; and then she can't, as if they were never there.
Lucy sits down on the stone slab at the door of the church, not sure if that's disrespectful. She stretches her legs out straight in front of her, folds her arms, leans back against the wood of the doorway. Kerstin appears around the back corner of the church and walks towards her, head down, scrolling through photos on her phone. She looks up when she gets close to Lucy, smiles.
'Been inside yet?'
Lucy shakes her head, stands up. Kerstin opens the door, stamps to clean her shoes as she steps inside, and Lucy does the same. They're in a sort of tiny entry room, like a cupboard. There's a noticeboard on the wall, facing you as as you walk in. There's always a noticeboard in a church. The one at her mum's church has service times and community notices (crêche, playgroup, pilates classes, QUIT meeting, a cappella singing, youth group that no one goes to). This one has historical information, instead. It's all pretty homemade, not like information in a museum. Just typed A4 pages on The First Settlers and Building The Church, and a newspaper article from years ago, badly photocopied, smudgy and hard to read.
Kerstin is next to her, close. They stand side by side, looking at the papers on the noticeboard. Lucy isn't really reading them. She can't be bothered. She just stands there for as long as she thinks it would take to read the words on the pages. She reaches her hand into her bag to get her phone, to text Rose, or Caitlin, or anyone, before she remembers it's dead. Dumb phone.
Kerstin smiles at her. Kerstin is always smiling at her, mostly smiling with her mouth in a way that looks like habit, or manners. Kerstin turns, walks behind her, stands at the head of the aisle. Lucy turns and stands next to her.
Every surface is covered with flies. On their backs, on their sides, some still on their legs; legs still and stiff, or sizzling at the floor, or whispering in the air. Dead, alive, and every point in between. They're on the floor, the windowsills, the seats. They're on the altar, the organ. They're everywhere.
Lucy and Kerstin step forward together. They've linked arms, without meaning to. Lucy feels the flies crunching drily underfoot as she steps. The ripped hems of the back of her jeans drag under her shoes. She imagines flies tucked in, caught in the frayed white strings of denim.
Kerstin and Lucy walk slowly to the altar, their arms still linked. There's a hum, resonating low in the church, up to its blue rafters: the flies, humming, living, dying. On the altar there's a visitors' book. There's a note clipped to the empty page. It's written in shaky old-person handwriting.
We apologise if you find our Church full of "Cluster Flies".
We try to maintain it as best we can, but "there's no holding back Nature". If you're not in your "Sunday Best", and you have the time to spare for a quick sweep of the floor, we'd be Most Grateful.
Kerstin unlinks her arm from Lucy's, walks back towards the door, to the broom in the corner by the noticeboard. She sweeps it straight back down the aisle, pushing a buzzing black mound towards Lucy, a soft mixture of life and death, and life in-between; of half life, of not-quite-death.
As Kerstin sweeps, Lucy creeps on tiptoes around the outside of the pews, past the buzzing windowsills, to the back of the church. There's a gallery above, the railings painted butter yellow, luminous against the dust-blue rafters and walls. Raw wood steps, steep spaced, lead up to the gallery. There's a half sheet of paper taped above the middle step, at eye height for Lucy, written in the same shaky handwriting.
The blue baits are "Rat Poison".
Warn Your Children.
The writing is faded. There are brown pellets on each step, but it's dark, and she has to peer in close to tell whether they're rat shit or flies.
Climbing the stairs, she feels the need to hold the rail to balance herself, but she doesn't want to touch anything (rat, fly, or poison). She rests her fingertips lightly on the step above her as she climbs, just enough to steady herself, to lean in on. She doesn't see any blue baits, just brown pellets (rat poo or flies, she still can't tell).
She can hear the shush of the broom, but she can't see Kerstin. Lucy leans out over the wooden railing, careful not to touch it. The brush of the broom peeps out from under the gallery, pushes out like a tongue, out and back, out and back, appearing and disappearing, reaching out and pulling back flies. The church smells dry. There's no smell of rat. The flies don't even seem to smell. It's strangely odourless, not a smell of old building, or old church, no incense or anything. It's as if the flies have feasted on whatever life there might have been – even on the smells – before lying down to die.
There's a door leading from the gallery, skinny and low like a half closet, or the space under the stairs. She opens it. Inside, at chest height, is a bell, not huge, about the size of a netball. There's a stick, sort of a handle, hanging down from it, from its – what? Its mouth? She has an urge to ring the bell. She wonders how far the sound would travel. She touches her finger lightly to the dark metal of the bell, feels cold mixed with dust.
Thick wooden slats cover the small window behind the bell. Through the slats she can see the paddock, can see sheep moving in front of a windbreak of trees. Closer to the church, right below her, Paul lies on the grass, the baby on his chest. If she leaned out, she could just about spit on them.
She hears the baby cry, grizzly as if it's just woken up. She hears her father's voice, murmuring.
I once had a girl
No, not murmuring: singing.
should I say
He's singing, under his breath. Sotto voce. Under his voice. She can't catch all the words.
once had me
The baby settles, murmurs along with its father. She presses closer to the gaps in the slats. The words drift up to her, clearer.
isn't it good
Paul and the baby must be directly below her, a few metres below, at the head of the building.
Kirsten clatters the broom back in place. Lucy turns around and leans over the gallery railing. The church is almost completely clear of flies. The seats of the pews are clean. Here and there flies still spot the floor. The hum that was there before has gone. It's quiet now. Inside and outside. She looks around, past the bell. Paul has stopped singing. The baby is quiet. She can hear Kerstin's voice now, low, then Paul's voice. She moves back closer to the window. She looks through its slats, so she can only see slices of outside. Below her, at the foot of the church, Kerstin is lying next to Paul. She is on her side, facing him. He's on his back, the baby lying on his chest. His head is turned to face Kerstin, who has her arms around them both. Her leg forms an angle over Paul. Lucy watches. Paul kisses the top of Kerstin's head. Kerstin's hand is on the baby's back, rubbing in little circles.
There's a shout, then, a sound like a bell, or like laughing. She looks down the hill, looks beyond Paul and Kerstin and the baby. She can see the kids and dogs again. They're on the other side of the fence now – the church side, her side – and they're holding on to the top wire of the fence, scooting along the bank above the stream. Pyjama Girl is still leading the way, but sticking close to the others – slower, more careful – behind her. The littlest one no longer has the cricket bat, the fishing rod is gone; it's just the kids and the dogs. Pyjama Girl jumps down the bank and into the water below and the other two and the dogs all follow her. They're all in the stream, kids in their gummies, splashing and whooping, triumphant, dogs barking and jumping and biting the air. All of them – dogs and kids – kick up water, and it catches the sun.