The Best Australian Stories 2014

BOOK: The Best Australian Stories 2014
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Published by Black Inc.,
an imprint of Schwartz Publishing Pty Ltd

37–39 Langridge Street
Collingwood Vic 3066 Australia
email:
[email protected]
http://www.blackincbooks.com

Introduction & selection: © Amanda Lohrey and Black Inc. 2014
Amanda Lohrey asserts her moral rights in the collection.
Individual stories © retained by authors, who assert
their rights to be known as the author of their work.

Every effort has been made to contact the copyright holders
of material in this book. However, where an omission has
occurred, the publisher will gladly include acknowledgement in any future edition.

ISBN 9781863956963 (pbk)
ISBN 9781922231895 (ebook)

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
No part of this publication may be reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any
form by any means electronic, mechanical,
photocopying, recording or otherwise without
the prior consent of the publishers.

Contents

Introduction

*     *     *

Julienne van Loon

Bring Closer What Is Left to Come

Shaun Prescott

The Coffee Table

Lucy Neave

The Horse Hospital in Dubai

Anthony Panegyres

Submerging

Nicola Redhouse

This Is Who You Are. You'll See.

Edwina Shaw

Mrs Sunshine

Claire Corbett

Snake in the Grass

Adam Narnst

Blue People

Fiona Place

Now I See

Kate Elkington

The Interpreter

Arabella Edge

The Peacock

Claire Aman

What I Didn't Put in My Speech

Angela Meyer

Too Solid Flesh

J.Y.L. Koh

Civility Place

Rebekah Clarkson

Something Special, Something Rare

Ryan O'Neill

The Stories I Read as My Mother Died

Mark Smith

Sugar Bag Dreamin' Country

Anna Krien

Flicking the Flint

David Brooks

The Panther

Leah Swann

The Green Lamp

Kirsten Tranter

Pet Name

Lisa Jacobson

Blood and Bone

Melanie Joosten

Just Like Us

*     *     *

Publication Details

Notes on Contributors

Introduction

Amanda Lohrey

Some readers are drawn to the promise inherent in a novel, and it's true that the longer form can offer a slow and seductive immersion, but the short story offers pleasure of another kind – the quick fix, a shot of adrenaline to the mind and heart. And whereas a long novel may pall, a short story can leave us in awe of just how much a good writer is able to accomplish in relatively few words.

The title of this new collection is something of a misnomer. It would be more accurate to call it a selection from the best stories available, since there were too many good ones for them all to be included here. Of the just over six hundred stories that I read, around one hundred and sixty were self-selecting, and in another year any one of them might have made it onto the final list. This may strike the inexperienced reader of short fiction as improbable; the experienced reader will know that the short form has always been a great strength in Australian writing.

To be eligible, a story had to have been published between August 2013 and August 2014, either in magazines such as
Island, Griffith REVIEW, Overland, Meanjin, Southerly, Westerly, Kill Your Darlings
and
The Lifted Brow,
or in anthologies put together by small publishers that specialise in short fiction, such as Sleepers and Spineless Wonders. In addition, many unpublished stories were directly submitted to Black Inc.

Faced with the dilemma of choosing a mere twenty-five or so stories from a painfully arrived at longlist of seventy-two, I decided that, inevitably, the final inclusions would reflect my own taste. How could they not?

I've always been drawn to stories about the workplace so I was bound to include J.Y.L. Koh's wry and surreal account of life as a bored corporate lawyer (‘Civility Place'), and Adam Narnst's portrait of the Gold Coast casino culture from the perspective of a young man working behind the bar (‘Blue People'). Beyond that, I aimed for variety. There are stories so raw they grasp hold of your ankle like a feisty terrier that won't let go (Edwina Shaw's ‘Mrs Sunshine', or Shaun Prescott's ‘The Coffee Table'), and stories of such subtle and lucid complexity that you immediately want to reread them (Nicola Redhouse's ‘This is Who You Are. You'll See'). Some of my favourite writing resembles music, as in the hypnotic pacing and rhythmic flow of Julienne van Loon's ‘Bring Closer What Is Left to Come'. Then there are stories that begin in a mode of conventional realism and end in a revelation of surprising poetry (Antony Panegyres' ‘Submerging').

A good short story has a distinctive form so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It should develop beyond its initial premises or scene-setting, it should be surprising and it should arrive at a form of resolution. Why does this story exist? we ask ourselves. What are its politics? When I ask this question I'm referring to the questions of who gets what, why, when and how, and the best stories artfully reveal this, often with a shock of last-minute recognition (see especially Anna Krien's ‘Flipping the Flint').

The art of the story is mostly about the journey, and the economy of means with which the writers here carry us a great distance is at times breathtaking. They may do this with a bardic fluency of style that has the quality of song, or they may do it with short, sharp sentences that are like jabs in the ribs. They do it in their own way and on their own terms, and we willingly surrender. But the reader's inclinations and psychology are always a critical factor, and what I am disposed to surrender to is what you may be disposed to resist. It means that, in the end, the editor of a collection can only choose the stories she likes best and hope the reader will like them too. It's a rare privilege to be invited to make such a choice, and I am grateful to all writers who submitted their work.

Amanda Lohrey

Bring Closer What Is Left to Come

Julienne van Loon

It is peak hour in the City of Light. A woman cycles backwards up a steep incline. The woman might be travelling home or to work. Other commuters flash past her on the crowded city cycle path. There are black swans on the river. A train passes on a nearby bridge.

Wilhelmina Blomme is forty-one years old. She wears knee-length black cycle pants, a bright pink jersey. Her body is lithe, her legs long. She has the physique of a serious cyclist. Wilhelmina – those who know her call her Wil – is humming something under her breath. There are beads of sweat on her forehead.

Wil commutes to work in the CBD four days a week. She prefers the shared cycle paths along the Swan to road cycling. The river, with its black swans and cormorants, an occasional dolphin, soothes her. There is something about its broad expanse, its gentle currents, that keeps her pedalling, despite everything.

Look again at the woman on the bicycle: Wilhelmina Blomme. She is not cycling backwards. How could you? Perception is only ever partial, tentative. Perception is a game. Wil is moving forwards at considerable speed. And it's a steep descent.

*

Only weeks ago, she was sitting beside her old friend, Siri. They were studying a day-long course on Buddhist approaches to hospice care. It was a field in which they both volunteered, if irregularly. The two friends had enjoyed a long lunch and it was almost time to go back into the seminar room. They had caught up on the usual gossip when Wil made the admission.

‘I have a major problem at work.'

‘What is it?'

‘A man.'

‘What?'

‘I'm trying to see it for what it is. I don't want to act on it, but it's difficult. It's such a strong pull. Physical. Intellectual. Emotional.'

‘Is he in a relationship?'

‘I have no idea. I haven't dared ask. I am, though. The point is:
I am
.'

Something about saying it out loud made it almost seem real.

‘Everywhere I look, there he is,' she told Siri. ‘The image of him, but more than the image, a kind of sensory shadow, his body, a corporeal ghost. I turn left: he's there. Right: he's there. Like, he's right there close.' She placed a hand up at her own face. ‘It's like I carry him with me.'

‘Is it a mutual thing?' her friend wanted to know. ‘I mean, usually, when this has happened to me, you can sense it's a mutual thing, because you're both sending out some kind of signal.'

‘That's it. I think so.'

‘Do you work closely with him?'

‘Sometimes.'

But not usually, she thought, and didn't say. Most of their communication was electronic. Twice, perhaps three times a day. Which is what made it all the more difficult to get a handle on what was going on. It seemed there was something between them, but she couldn't be sure. Was it mutual or not? There was something between them, yes, and yet, there was also nothing.

*

At home, of late, she had watched the boys playing war games with jets and fighter planes made from Lego and felt strangely distanced from them. In some ways, she had already left them. She watched her husband draining the pasta, steam rising in the kitchen, witnessed the shrill tap-tap of the strainer as the last of the water drizzled into the sink. She loved these three, their shared home overlooking the forest, the nest they'd made. In times of late, she had taken to looking at them as a mourner might, as only someone who is about to instil damage into the hearts of her loved ones can.

She would get up from the chair she always flopped into after the hugs and kisses of the home-time greeting and turn down the hall towards the bedroom she shared with Frane. She would take off her cycling gear and throw it into the laundry basket, and as she was searching for the comfortable linen pants she usually wore around the house, she would sense the stranger. He was there in the shadows. She liked to shut her eyes and breathe him in and call him to life, close.

‘Mum! Tell Robin to put that tractor down. He shouldn't touch my things. He's a baby.'

The little ones would storm in, breaking the dream, as if they had an extra sense for when their mother's attention strayed too far. They grabbed at her trouser seams, climbed onto her bed. They were territorial, all-knowing. On a bad day, she despised them. And yet, so many of the observations she had made of them of late seemed all the more precious and beautiful under the premise that this could all be about to end.

*

How bad could it get? The tarot card reader Siri had recommended had given a spectacularly dramatic reading. Wil could still see the card the woman placed before her: the hanged man. A fantasy artist had taken great pleasure in giving form to a doomed character: suspension, change, abandonment, reversal, sacrifice. The card was all blues and silvers. The hanged man was suspended by one ankle, the other leg crossed behind the knee, his hands behind his back. Around the man's head was a golden halo.

Wil was not, ordinarily, a suspicious person. But these were not ordinary days. She already knew that the woman's reading was to serve as a warning. She needed to slow down, the tarot reader told her, to reconsider. But Wil also knew she would not. She could not.

*

Her bicycle frame is white and gleaming. The tyres are black, the accessories polished silver. In the sunshine, the whole thing sparkles. She had bought it second-hand on Gumtree. It used to belong to a man named Alan, a lawyer. He had kept it meticulously maintained for ten years, and then he had upgraded to a more expensive model. Sometimes Wil wondered about the journeys the bike went on with Alan before she came to own it. Did it know the river? Did it know this hill? Had it ever been dropped before? How fast had it gone, between the legs of the lawyer? What did he teach it in the way of grace?

Lately, while commuting, Wil has been listening to an audiobook via iPod. It's a book about wisdom. Initially she pondered what might qualify the author, an American journalist, to write about such a topic. At the same time, she was interested in what he was saying, which was that wisdom was not just intelligence, it had to include emotional even-handedness, and a degree of optimism. The journalist gave a list of wise people stretching back through history. They were mostly men. Mother Teresa was the only woman. It was the old whore or saint thing again, Wil supposed. She pondered this. Weren't women, especially mothers, often perfect examples of emotional intelligence? Why the hell weren't there more of them on the journalist's list? Oh, but you had to be grand scale about it, of course. You had to be grand scale to be notable. In the private sphere, women had no meaning. And in the public sphere, women who were leaders were always accused of moodiness, or being flighty, or of not having the required degree of emotional distance. Or, of the opposite: being cold.

Wil had, just quietly, a bit of a handle on wisdom, or so she thought. It was something about turning forty, perhaps. Small conflicts got to her less often, especially at work. She knew something of how things changed, and how quickly. She found she could solve problems with little effort, a sense of detachment, a kind of efficiency.

But the journalist was irritating. ‘The thing about wisdom is,' he said, in his twangy north-American accent: ‘ just because you have it, doesn't mean you get to keep it.'

*

They had a meeting: she and the Deputy CEO and another colleague involved in a joint project. Wil could barely look at him. It was a game. She knew that. The whole of adult life was a game. Strategy, chance, winners, losers, profits, losses. Good sportsmanship, or lack of it. She had to pretend to be efficient, scholarly, able to map her way through a dark problem. She could do that. She had been doing that for years. This is how a game becomes real: you play it until it is convincing.

‘If this gets into the newspapers,' said the Deputy, whom she had taken to calling the hanged man, and she looked at him and nodded, ‘I can just see it,' he said. ‘They would have a field day with this.'

‘Yes,' they agreed, and they came up with a strategy. Corp C would be saved, narrowly once more, from a tattered reputation. You had to be careful, these days. Social media, and so on. And the minor issue was no longer. And she went back to her office. But she did not go back.

During the meeting the hanged man had said, ‘Perfect.' He had said it in relation to something she had read out loud from a document. He had said it and she had paused and she had tried hard not to look up from the page, but then she did look up, too late. Their colleague in risk management had already started to speak about
prevention of a similar future event
and the hanged man was looking at the colleague and so Wil also turned to look, and the moment was lost.

But as she walked back to her office, the word was there again:
perfect.
And she thought: ‘Come here and say that. Come here.'

*

She could not remember which happened first: the loss or the gain. In her memory they had welded together: joint missiles.

Reality. Delusion. Gain. Loss.

She lived with delusion, of course. Didn't everybody? She lived with Frane. And Toby. And little Robin. She would go on living with herself.

*

Wil had worked at Corp C for fifteen years. During this time, the operation had grown three-fold. She had worked her way up. She had seen some good colleagues take early retirement or resign in frustration. She had seen others take stress leave. The place had its bullies. Wil had managed, mostly, to steer clear of the bullies, or to placate them, and so to keep the corporate narrative in perspective – to let go of it on weekends, to keep it, mostly, out of her dreams at night. She dwelled in it deeply at times, but felt, on the cycle path home, that she had the power to loosen its threads. She was a survivor.

One Sunday, around the time she realised she had fallen for the hanged man, she had ridden in along riverbanks crowded with family picnics, swiped her ID card to access the building, taken the shaky lift to level four and then stood outside her locked office door, key in hand. The corridor had that quiet, deathly hum known to tall buildings whose windows are not designed to open and whose inhabitants have fled or disappeared. The office door bore her name in silver lettering and she looked at that name as if for the first time and wondered: what if Marcus was right? Whose reality am I propping up here, arriving at the office on a Sunday? Marcus was her nephew, a kind of godson. He had come and gone from her and Frane's house many times over the years, kicked out by his parents, or his latest round of flatmates. He was addicted to heroin. Wil pictured Marcus slumped at her dining table, his face resting dangerously close to the surface of the hot pumpkin soup she'd placed before him. Lately, his presence horrified her all the more for the display it offered her own sons. But that Sunday, for the first time she thought: perhaps Marcus is right. Perhaps drugs are the only true form of resistance. If you want to change the world, first change your own mind. So, it was she who had been duped. Yes? She slid the key into her office door and turned the handle and sat down in front of her computer to work on the latest document.

She wrote. She wrote speeches for the Deputy CEO. She knew how to uncover obscure material. She knew how to get the most out of an interview. She knew how to spin. Wil Blomme was capable of writing a position paper on a position she felt incapable of adopting herself. This was perhaps why the company valued her so much.

Corp C was a force of energy. Corp C was a labyrinth. Corp C was a means to support her family, it was a narrative of means. It was a mean narrative.

Corp C was a mess, and she was always relieved to cycle away from it at the end of the working day. Only it would never be too long, of course, before she would have to cycle right back in.

*

Loss and gain and loss and gain and loss.

Motherhood changed you, there was no doubt. After Toby, she went back to work two days, then three, then shifted up to four. Then she fell pregnant with Robin. Something happened to her, at home with the second boy. Time went black. She resurfaced, apparently looking very much the same, twelve months later. People commented on how well she looked. But something crucial in her had shifted.

Work could be a reprieve. Perhaps this was why the hanged man arrived in her mind the way he did. It wasn't as if he hadn't been there, in the building, all along. It's just that, after Robin, especially, she saw things differently. There was so little sleep. The raw energy of the boys climbing into her bed far too early in the morning. Their raucous games while she played with them or while she checked her email at home or whenever she tried to think. Then at night-time, tears and shouts and tantrums. Their feeble 2 am murmurs. After dark, only Mummy would do.

She and her husband had no time alone together. She sometimes felt him watching her from across the room, as she did him sometimes, mid-task, mid-childish-emergency. They were like hired help, there to serve the children. They just happened to be sharing a house together, eating at the same table. It seemed they no longer had anything else in common.

Then there was the hanged man: did he really not have the slightest clue?

*

On the Thursday before the accident, Wil had lingered at the edge of the kindergarten car park with Artemis, the mother of Toby's best friend. Artemis revealed that her husband was having an affair. ‘I've asked him to leave,' she said, ‘but he won't. He wants the best of both worlds.' Their conversation stopped and started and stopped again, as the children moved in and out of earshot. Mostly, the boys were examining rocks in a ditch some metres away, but sometimes they grabbed hold of one another's backpacks and looped and chased and squealed, coming close to the two women for protection, then lurching away again. The fact of the affair was marked heavily on Artemis's face.

‘I've caught him red-handed, and yet he won't admit it,' she complained. ‘They say DENIAL stands for Don't Even Know I Am Lying.'

BOOK: The Best Australian Stories 2014
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