Necropolis - 2007 winner

Eleanor Catton was the open division winner of the 2007 Sunday Star-Times Short Story competition for her story Necropolis. Judge Owen Marshall said it was a delightful piece "funny, sharp and true. Sharon is both funny and entirely convincing as a character, and the hardware shop setting is captured with deft and economical touches. It is a story made of so little, yet enlivened by language skills, selective context and a sharp observation of human nature. A reader wants more and that's always a good sign."

"Look at those tide marks of coffee on the inside of my mug," Sharon said. "Look at that history. It's a weather-map of all the hours and weeks and years this place has sucked out of me. Look at it. The isobars of my runty wasted life."

She waved her coffee mug vigorously to emphasise the point. "I scrub it out every day and everything," she added as she turned back to the counter. "Got your docket number there? And your first name is." Sharon either bestowed eye-contact or a smile, but never both. The effect was disconcerting.

The punter fished for his docket and said, "Richard". He had an Australian accent and it came out "wretched". Sharon typed it in, then smiled at the light fitting above his head. He collected his receipt. Sharon turned off the smile and watched him leave.

"God, what an utter hell-hole," she said once the doors had closed. "I wish I was dead." She looked at me expectantly.

"Me too," I said. "I wish I was dead too."

"I can't believe we're still here," Sharon said. "Two years and we're still here."

"I can't believe it either," I said, just to be a good sport. "Why haven't we died from boredom?"

Sharon's favourite things to talk about were boredom and illness. Especially ones with lots of symptoms. She loved symptoms like some people love crosswords. Symptoms were her specialty.

"Bulimic," she said this morning, after a woman had stopped to place an order for coach bolts and weatherboard soakers and felt. "I'd bet you five dollars. Know how you tell? Dry lips and scaly knuckles. And black under the eyes."

But that was hours ago. We'd exhausted the topic now.

"Ten minutes till smoko," I said.

SHARON AND I sat on the bench next to the rubbish bin and smoked. The builders waved to us as they drove their utes in and out of the car park. They all had that sunburnt tobacco-stained look, pink and grey. And then Sharon took her cigarette out of her mouth and said, "What's that?"

I turned to look where she's pointing. There was an old rhododendron bush by the telephone box, all greasy and spotted and dying, planted just inside the gate where the trucks turned in off the main road. Underneath the rhododendron was a corpse.

"It's a dog with no head," Sharon said, sucking on her cigarette excitedly. "Let's go tell someone. Oh my God, a dog with no head."

She waved over one of the timber boys and soon everybody had come out of the shop and we were all looking at the corpse under the rhododendron bush. Hamish drove the forklift over. The accounts girls trotted out of the office to come have a look. We all crouched down and marvelled. But not too close. We kept a distance of about five or six metres, because after all, a corpse is a corpse.

"Who would cut off a dog's head?" everyone said to each other. "Sick!" And we shaded our eyes to see better, peering at the stiff short-haired lump with the sawn-off smear where the head should be. The dog was white and stiff and short-haired.

"We'll have to ring Animal Protection and Control," said Glenn from the dry store. He had taken his tape measure off his belt and was pulling out the tape again and again and letting it snap back into its plastic shell. "They'll bring a van. They'll come and take it away."

We all stood there for a moment longer, me and Sharon down to the butt end of our cigarettes and still sucking.

"I wonder how long it's been there," Sharon said, with a kind of relish.

Glenn said, "I like dogs." He sounded sad, like he had only just discovered that the universe was not benign. He snapped his tape measure and said, "I'm a dog man."

ANIMAL PROTECTION and Control said they'd be there within the hour. Our smoko was over and Sharon and I were back inside, slotted in behind the service counters, the two little blue booths that flanked the main entrance. We flicked rubber bands at each other and smiled at the punters as they walked in. They liked being served by women. It gave them something to look forward to. I smiled more but they all liked Sharon better.

"I wonder if it was dead first," I said, "and then they cut off the head after. I suppose that would be easier."

"I'm bored of the dog," Sharon said. She sighed magnificently.

An elderly woman approached and said, "Washers".

"Aisle four," said Sharon, smiling down at the woman's crotch region and pointing vaguely with one hand. "Zinc is on the left and galv is on the right." The woman shuffled off and Sharon sighed again. "Charlie in the trade office has six stalking convictions," she said. She gave up flicking her rubber band and began to make a tower out of caulking nozzles instead, stacking them up and up on the counter until it wobbled and began to sway.

"Who told you that?"

"Willie."

Sharon's tower collapsed. She swept all the caulking nozzles off the counter in an irritable swoop and said, "It's like working in a graveyard. How can we stand this for another whole summer? I'm going to go insane."

"Who would cut off a dog's head?" I said. "Who would actually carry through? That's what I want to know."

The woman from Animal Protection and Control had sounded excited on the phone. "A dog with no head!" she said. "That might mean gang activity, something violent. That's serious. A dog with no head is serious. We'll send a van right away." And as she was hanging up I heard her shout "Hey Marlene!"

SHARON WAS upstairs cleaning out the tearoom when the van arrived. I ran out into the carpark to greet them properly, before anyone else got the chance. The delegate was a youngish girl with short hair and leather cuffs around her wrists. "Let's see this headless dog, then," she said, and she rubbed her palms together and clapped them twice.

We walked over to the rhododendron. It was late in the afternoon now and the trade was thinning out. There were only a few trucks in the car park and the sun was turning brightly golden as it sank lower and lower behind the billboards and the overbridge and the tram wires. Up the ramp behind us Glenn was sweeping out the dry store, pushing a little cloud of white cement dust further and further down the asphalt towards the drain.

We got near the rhododendron and the Animal Protection and Control girl walked right forward and pushed a big armful of leaves and branches aside so she could take a better look at the dog with no head. I hung back and watched her embrace the greasy diseased plant, struggling a little as the leaves slapped back in her face. A cloud of flies plumed up and dispersed like smoke. She paused. Then, still with her arms flung stiffly out, the woman called out, "Come here and have a look at this."

I came forward, stepping lightly and respectfully, and looked down at the headless dog, nestled on its side among the flattened cans and the leaves and silver crisp packets torn to dirty shards and half-buried in the dirt.

The dog wasn't a dog at all. It was a cat, a huge moggy stiff-haired cat, with a vague bloody smear down the side of its head. Its eyes were open. It was dead.

"Oh," I said, and that was all I could think of saying for a moment.

"I suppose you didn't get this close," the woman said. "Close enough to see it properly."

"We didn't want to," I said.

I moved back a few paces and put my head on one side and looked again at the cat, not a headless dead cat but an ordinary dead cat lying on its side under the rhododendron.

"Oh," I said, "see if you put your head like this, the side of its forehead looks flat and sawn-off. See? It looks like a dog with no head if you do this."

The woman released the rhododendron and retreated a few steps. She copied my angle and we both stood there for a second, half leaning-over with one shoulder dropped, squinting.

"Yeah, I see," the woman said after a while. "I suppose a cat's head is so much smaller than a dog's head. You don't have that snout."

"Yeah," I said quickly. "No snout or anything."

The woman straightened up and rubbed her face. She looked tired.

"What you probably won't understand," she said, "is that a dog with no head is quite a bit of excitement for us. I mean, a dog with no head is violent. We'd have to ring the police, just in case it was some sort of a clue. A dead cat is never a clue. A dead cat is just a dead cat. It was probably hit on the road and someone tossed it over the fence. That's normal."

I was nodding and nodding.

"I'm going to have to go back to the office with a dead cat," the woman said in a voice of perfect misery. "Just another dead cat for the furnace. F–-."

Above us the trucks whined up the overbridge and out into the blue. The woman clutched absently at the leather cuff around her wrist. Then she sighed and clapped her hands again and said, "Can I have a couple of your plastic bags to pick it up with?"

I fetched her a couple of plastic bags, thin grocery-type bags with our bright blue hardware logo on the side. She crouched down with a bag over either fist, and seized the cat by its paws. It stank. I moved back a few paces. She bagged the cat, roughly, and then double-bagged it just to be sure. When she stood up, holding the thin plastic handles out wide, the cat's hind legs were poking over the lip of the bag, pointing stiffly up towards the sky. Somehow I found it strange that she'd put the cat in the bag headfirst. It didn't seem right.

"It was a cat," I said to Glenn as I walked back through the dry store to the shop. "A cat that had been run over. It still had a head, we just couldn't see it because of the angle."

"It was a cat?" Glenn said. He sounded pleased. "It was a cat. Good. Well, good." And he wandered off, still sweeping.

When I got back in it was almost time to close. Sharon was counting the till and she looked up at me with both fists full of ten-cent pieces and said, "That woman was a lesbian." She was using her special diagnosis voice. "I'd bet you five dollars she was a lesbian. Know how you tell?"