International Short Story Contest
Second short story contest winners
The Second International Short Story Contest closed on May 1, 2006. Deliberation over the final line-up of winners was long and hard, but by July 2006 the following successful entrants were announced:
Congratulations to Gabriela Blandy of Salisbury, United Kingdom, who wins £200 for her story, "Pistachios for a Lost Mermaid". The story is published below.
Gabriela Blandy currently lives in Mexico where she finds time to write in between the beautiful Pacific sunsets and her other more respectable job – selling chocolate brownies on the beach. She graduated with a first class degree in History, went on to study at the London School of Journalism and has been inseparable from her keyboard since. She has been awarded an Honorary Mention from Writers’ Digest, was longlisted for the Fish Short Story Award and has had several publications. At present, she is working on an application for a Creative Writing MA, which she has longed to do and only recently found the courage. She dreams of living in a castle and writing fairy tales.
Ten special commendations go out to the following entrants (in no particular order):
- Karen Lech, United States, "Brassiere Nuts ... and Angels";
- Ken Asquith, Canada, "Garbage Relationships";
- Rob Pollard, United Kingdom, "The Economy of Roland T. Philpin";
- Vanessa Gebbie, United Kingdom, "Dodie's Gift";
- Maggie Stanfield, United Kingdom, "Vania";
- Justin Edwards, United Kingdom, "Eye Contact";
- Richard Grove, Canada, "Uncle Girwood’s Chicken Story";
- Mac Pope, United States, "The Twenty";
- Susan Wingate, United States, "The Saber";
- Nanette Littlestone, United States, "Falling for Jenny".
All eleven stories will be published in issue 10 of firstwriter.magazine. The winning entry can be read below:
Pistachios for a Lost Mermaid
By Gabriela Blandy
I grew up by the sea. I lived my days covered in its salty mist, its roar an accompaniment to my life, like an organic soundtrack. When I lay in bed at night, the hum of the waves riding into shore and kissing the beach, sounded so close that I felt I could stretch my hands and touch them. My childhood was all about the water. When my mother left us I used to dream that she was a mermaid and had finally returned her body to the murky depths of the deep. Such a pull from the mighty ocean seemed an acceptable reason to abandon the two people that loved her beyond life.
I remember how she used to sit out on the porch eating pistachios as the sun slid past the horizon in a parade of oranges and pinks.
"I love you, mummy," I would say as I kissed her goodnight.
She would smile and say, "you’re a good girl."
I would lie in bed every night wondering how it would feel to be told me she loved me too.
My dad would come and read to me. He’d balance himself on the edge of my bed and I would lie very still next to him, feeling the warmth of his body, smelling the sawdust that clung to the fabric of his clothes, lending him the aroma of the workshop long after he had closed up for the night. He would bring me curls of wood, just like the ones on my head and tell me I was the best thing he had ever made.
His devotion was like the sea; I grew up with it, I was surrounded by it, it was amazing, but I just accepted it; I didn’t know how much a part of me it was.
"Why doesn’t Mummy love me?" I asked him one evening.
"She loves you very much," he said, kissing me as if to give me my mother’s love by proxy.
"But she doesn’t say."
"Words are just one way of communicating," my dad told me and then he leant over and asked me what Kato did when she was pleased to see me.
Kato was my favourite dog in the entire world. She lived for the duration of my childhood and was there for my eighteenth birthday, old and blind, but still bursting with character. She had a tail like a propeller, spinning relentlessly, and was devoted to anything that moved. So the night before my mother walked out, with a suitcase and cluster of unanswered questions, I learnt that, sometimes, actions spoke louder than words.
I was confused by the empty bed in the morning; by the sight of my dad, his eyes red and raw; by this last action of my mother’s.
I began leaving pistachios out on the porch each night. I thought that even if my mother didn’t love me enough to visit, she might come back for a portion of her favourite nibbles.
I was selective about the bowls because I knew she liked some
more than others. There was one I had made her at school, which had one side
higher than the other and wobbled on its base unless you propped it up with
something. She had it on her dressing table, leaning up against a carving of a
fish my dad had made her. A blue, pockmarked bowl and a wooden fish, two
unlikely companions on my mother’s table, abandoned, like her family.
I took it and filled it with nuts and put it outside with the fish. The next morning the pistachios were gone, the bowl was broken and the fish carving was splattered with bird poo.
Sometimes actions speak louder than words .
In the weeks after my mother’s leaving, I walked the beach and ached for her familiar sounds. My dad sanded wood and told me she’d be back soon. After a while when people told me soon I thought they meant never and when Kato wagged her tail I thought she’d leave me too. The pistachios were attracting squirrels, which began making a mess of the porch. My dad asked me to stop my nutty offering to the night, saying that Mother would know we had a bag in the cupboard and perhaps she’d come when the weather changed.
"When will that be?" I asked.
"Soon," my dad said, and I knew.
Then Kato had puppies. I knew something was happening to her as she’d grown so round and slow and her nipples had begun to hang down all big and swollen. I was on the beach looking at dead fish. Two had washed up on the shore, their cheeks all puffed up and their mouths gaping. I stared into their eyes and felt sad for their lifeless bodies.
"Two dead fish eighteen paces apart," I noted to myself as I heard my name. I looked up and saw my dad bounding across the sand, waving frantically.
The pistachios! I thought. She’s come.
He was smiling
when he reached me and he took my hand in his. "I’ve got something to show you,"
he said and led me into the house, through the kitchen to the utility room.
She’s in the sink, I thought, chewing my lip.
When I saw the puppies I forgot all about the mermaid. I held their tiny bodies up to my cheek and looked at my dad.
"I didn’t want to tell you in case something went wrong," he said.
That’s how I learnt about keeping secrets in case. In case someone got hurt.
Eight years later I found out it wasn’t just pregnant dogs that you kept quiet about. It was mothers in general; mothers-to-be; mothers-not-to-be.
I found the letters in my dad’s office; three pink and five white ones. They were all dated around my birthday. One for every year the sea had owned her, or not, as I found out.
"I did it to protect you, Suzy," my dad whispered as I shouted at him. He was fidgeting with a scab on his thumb and I was breathing heavily. Fidgeting and breathing in the kitchen, with a bag of pistachios in the cupboard.
"I could have known her."
Suddenly the handmade bowl and the wooden fish became characters in a different play. My dad was a shit and I was hurting all over again.
"We were happy," he said. "You were happy."
"Were," I whispered as his words popped, spluttered and burnt out. My mother’s letters and his deadly deed rose up like a spectre in front of me, wagging its tail, making me feel sick.
A bag was packed as my dad loomed in the doorway and pleaded. The smell of wood filled my room and made me think of puppies and secrets. I thought of a kitchen sink I had forgotten in a moment of distraction, of a mother’s existence I had been diverted from. His words were a lie, his actions were mean.
"I love you," he said as I walked down the stairs, but I did not know what he meant. He spoke a code I couldn’t decipher.
"See you soon," I said to Kato in the hallway, unable to say goodbye. She squatted down and pissed on the carpet. Poor blind baby, I thought, misinterpreting her code as well.
"You’re making a mistake," she told me with her smelly pee and feeble propeller, "I’ll be dead when you gat back."
I was on a bus an hour later with eight years of lies. From my new setting my life looked miserable. I forgot the sea, the beach and its shells. I forgot my dad with his stories, his woody scent and love. I was trying to paint a new picture. To find a love that was real. But of course I was going the wrong way.
I read my mother’s letters over and over; first the pink ones and then the white ones. I knew if I had received them on my birthdays I wouldn’t be here now.
"There, there," an old lady cooed as I acquainted myself with a new brand of salt water. She passed me a yellow handkerchief and I blew my nose as four other passengers watched. "Life’s not all that bad," she said.
But I’m a tiny broken bowl, I thought.
My mother couldn’t fix me. She was a stranger with nothing to offer. I had stood in front of my dad, in a cold kitchen, him quietly fidgeting and me loudly breathing and cut off my nose to spite my face.
"I didn’t want to lose you," he had told me. "Not both the girls I adored."
"Well you’re going to," I said punishing myself and him.
He gaped at me like those fish on the beach, all puffed up with nowhere to go.
An altercation in a kitchen by the sea followed by a meeting with a stranger two hundred miles away and all because of eight letters and a portion of hostility. There I was staring at my mother on a doorstep in a busy street; one woman with a new life and no tail, one daughter without a nose and a spited face.
She was with Bob now. He wore shoes that went clippety clip on the kitchen floor. He scrubbed his hands with a nailbrush every time he washed them. He cleared his throat a hundred times a day. I didn’t like him. Not because he was with my mother, but because he was nothing like my dad and he made me realise that there was no-one in the world like that man who smelt of wood.
My dad used to cook me fresh fish on the fire, smoky tasty loveliness. We would sit out on the porch with plates on our laps and peel the oily flesh with our fingers. Bob took my mum and me out for pizza. We sat on bright green chairs under strip lights and I stared at wooden-handled cutlery. Bob had Calzone and went clippety clip as he got up to go to the bathroom. My mother had a salad and I forgot to use my napkin. There was a big blob of tomato on my jeans as I told them about the pistachios. I watched my mother and Bob forking mouthfuls of food into their mouths as I poured out what I had clung to in my childhood.
"I thought that bowl was purple," my mother said.
"No it was blue," I said, wondering why we were
talking about colours, why my mother was missing the point. Or maybe I was.
I was sleeping in a strange room, watching them watch TV and telling my mother I loved her, not because I did, but because I wanted her to tell me. She didn’t even put her fingers in my hair and tell me I was a good girl, she just gulped. When I lay in bed there was nothing to make up for my mother’s lack of emotional dialogue. I wanted a bedtime story, I wanted something that was real; I wanted my dad.
I climbed back on a bus; a miniature woman with a canvas bag, a red tomato stain and a lump in her throat. I waved goodbye to the stranger and the noisy shoes.
"Come back soon, Suzy," my mother called out.
Soon, I thought and sat back in my seat and sighed long and hard like the wind. I stared out of the window and watched the city retreating; skulking back into my dreams. I love you, I wrote with my finger on the misty glass as I thought about my dad.
We used to have a bazaar every summer at the local church. All the mothers used to bake cakes and cookies and stand by their sweet treats, their skirts blowing in the wind, and stare at me with sympathetic eyes.
"Poor little button with no mother," their weepy faces said to me. One year my dad hammered and sawed and made me a shiny happy stall. We stayed up half the night making truffles; rolling the tiny balls in our hands; dipping them in nuts and chocolate flakes.
"Truffles!" we yelled at the mothers with their billowing skirts. I beamed, next to my great big dad and we made faces at each other. The two of us ate lemon meringue pie for lunch and then entered the three-legged race, coming first. We had hopped and walloped towards the finish line like convicts on the run. I was the happiest person in the world as we sat on the beach that night, eating barbequed corn on the cob and the left-over truffles. I remember finding my dad in the bathroom later; he was rubbing antiseptic on his ankle where the rope from the race had rubbed him raw.
There wasn’t anything that man wouldn’t do for me.
Another bus journey, more tears, but no old lady with a yellow handkerchief. We had been a perfect family. He was twice the dad of anyone I knew and better than any mother. Who needs a stranger with a clippety clip boyfriend when you’ve got a woodchip dad bursting with love?
Who needs soon when you’ve already got forever?
When I got back, the sun was shining. "Hello," it said as it blazed and burst with brightness. "Glad to see you again, little woman who took a wrong turn."
I went down to the beach with my bag and my tomato stain.
I stood on the shore and watched the waves breaking on the beach, the
white-water rushing up over the sand, fizzing and disappearing again. A crab
scuttled in and out of a hole near my feet. I thought about the sea, knowing now
that it was my existence, its roar as essential to my life as a heartbeat.
I remembered all the times my dad had brought Kato and me out onto the beach after sunset, with a flashlight. All the crabs would be out investigating the shore and he would shine his torch as we chased the scuttling hard shells, Kato’s tail spinning round. We’d be breathless and starving by dinnertime. We would drag ourselves back up to the house and eat dry food straight from the cupboard; the one with the bag of pistachios. Shovel and munch we went as we grinned big mouthfuls of food at each other. Kato would spin her propeller and gobble up any treats we threw at her.
I turned and walked up the path to my house and saw my dad standing out on the porch, squinting in the sun.
"Saw you get off the bus," his mouth said. Are you still mine? his eyes said.
I wriggled and stretched, trapped under the sticky slime of awkwardness. "Where’s Kato?" I asked, looking for the propeller. I saw my dad’s eyes go shiny and I knew.
"Stupid letters," I said. "Why couldn’t she just stay a mermaid?"
"She loved you."
"So did you."
I was wrenched in two and made whole again. I left a dad that made me smile and a propeller that loved through spinning. I went looking the other way, but I never stopped caring. Big dusty hands reeled me in and warm arms encased me; my touchstone, my backdrop. I was home, by the sea, where I belonged.