In partnership with Commonwealth Writers, Granta publishes the regional winners of the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Harley Hern’s ‘Screaming’ is the winning entry from the Pacific.
My old friend Mere stands with me in a lift full of screaming flowers. Her silver cobweb hair brushes my upper arm as she stretches forward, pressing one wrinkled finger on the button. We wait in a tank of silence for the ‘ding’, then the doors moan open to the sound of out-of-tune children singing Haere Mai.
‘It’s the kapa haka group from the local primary school,’ the nurse explains, wheeling tubs of flowers out to the reception. ‘They do a performance twice a year in the hospital lounge. You can watch, if you like.’
‘No, we’ll sit out here in the corridor,’ Mere says.
There are orthopaedic padded seats with handle grips here, and in the corner, a framed picture of a warped pohutukawa tree, clearly painted by a resident. Opposite us, behind a wall of misted glass, the kapa haka group and its wheel-chaired audience are muted apparitions.
‘Do you think they’ll be long?’ I say it to make noise.
Mere huffs air from her nose. She is terrible at waiting. Nowadays, though, she doesn’t twitch her legs and roll her eyes. Her feet are rooted on the carpet, flat-shoed and sensible. I can’t get used to how still she can be. I was always the cautious pukeko, gawky and slow. Mere was the little piwakawaka – the fantail – restless and bold. Now only Mere’s fingers quiver, a slight flutter, a residual urge for flight. What was daintiness has turned to fragility. What was beauty has melted and painted her bones with blotted, wax papered skin. She still has her teeth; mine were moulded last year by a young technician with halitosis.
‘We could go in?’ I suggest.
‘Has he seen us?’
Through the koru curls of clear glass swirled across the misted wall I can peer without being noticed. In the lounge, they’ve rammed residents from two floors into one small space, wheelchairs arranged in jagged regiments, an irregular corridor down the middle. The window to the rear back-lights a room of assorted grey and white sparsely fluffed heads. Look at the old dears, I murmur to myself, superior, then remember: I am one. Parents and teachers hover on the periphery, faces metamorphosed into bluish ghouls by various devices raised to the moment. At the front, the kapa haka group strikes a new level of off-chords with much grimacing, thumping and swinging of poi.
‘That’s the blondest kapa haka group I’ve ever seen,’ complains Mere. ‘There’s only one Maori in the whole lot.’
‘That boy isn’t one of the whanau. He’s Indian.’
‘So he is.’ She sits back. ‘I applaud their enthusiasm.’
‘They’re going to hit a wheelchair in a minute.’ I wait for a homemade poi to burst or work itself loose and go flying. That usually happens. ‘They’re so young,’ I add, but I’m looking for Max.
Decades we lived together, then he started to forget things, like my name. Or he’d remember, but talk about me in the third person, as if I was an abstract idea rather than real. Now he’s hunched over in row three, a gleying stranger.
‘Mere, you didn’t have to come,’ I say.
‘Bev, you can’t shoulder it all.’ But Mere is gripping the orthopaedic chair as though rocked by seismic ripples in the carpet. She doesn’t want to die in a rest home. I want to touch her shoulder and tell her it’s all right.
‘Afterwards,’ Mere glares across at the glass, rigid. ‘We’ll walk on the beach.’
Max doesn’t drool at least, not like the others. He had a fall recently and his ankle is in a cast. He spends his days with the moaners and gibberers in the hospital communal lounge, and will do so until the cast comes off. That’s what I’ve told him. He doesn’t gibber, but every day his mind falls apart and rearranges its pieces into past versions of himself.
There is the next waiata – a poi bursts and flies free – the whakawātea, the final song, then sporadic clapping from the very mixed audience and gargoyle groaning from one loud resident who’s on too much medication, or too little. Kids trudge past us and down the corridor. At the far end, the nurse hands them plastic bags stuffed with lollies and chips.
‘They get goody bags?’ says Mere, too loud. ‘Did you see the live weight on some of them?’
‘Really,’ I complain, even though Mere’s smirk sets off that smile I feel deep inside, the one I never show.
‘A little thank you, that’s all,’ the nurse with the flowers says. ‘Would you like to go in?’
We stand up and step into a warm fug of medical vapour exuded from the grey skin of the terminally wheel bound.
‘Hello Max,’ I say. ‘I brought Mere.’
He laughs and he looks so young.
A heavy breath from Mere. A few muttered things. She must be finding the smell here as difficult as I do. But I’m remembering the aquarium at the reception. There are too many fish in it. Around me nurses glide about blowing bubbles of sound I can’t hear because the air is too thick for them to travel.
‘Mere,’ Max says. ‘Her beastie friend.’ I think he meant to say ‘best’.
Mere looks at me, eyebrows raised. I begin the weekly spiel: the receipt mistake at the supermarket, the moment with the cat and the claw, a dull litany of details. But I’m remembering how Max always needed a cooked breakfast before working at the yard. I’m remembering the sound the steak made, the smacking hiss when I flipped it in the pan, the smock-crack of bacon, its rind shrivelled into frills.
‘Shh, don’t be loud,’ Max says to Mere. ‘Bitch will hear us.’
I’m remembering Max, how brown and firm his arms were, sleeves rolled up, heaving the box of firewood out of the car. How he caressed that broken bird with the tips of his fingers. How he was too frightened to hold our boys when they were born. When they were grown men, how he was so terrified to let them go.
‘Pretty little cunt,’ says Max.
‘Dear God.’ Mere almost gets out of her seat.
I breathe in the fug, then talk about the car needing a warrant, and the neighbour’s ridiculous dog. I’m remembering the poor fish in the tank at reception, and how the kapa haka group had been pressed into too small a space for their performance; it’s a wonder they didn’t take someone’s eye out. Beside us a family has arrived with a bunch of strained chrysanthemums. A middle-aged man is bellowing to a staring, wheel-chaired woman as if she is an imbecile.
‘I’ll leave her,’ Max whispers to Mere, coarse and loud. ‘Said I would.’ He flicks me a sneaky, side-on face, then turns like a naughty boy and hides behind his hand.
Mere blinks away from him, pitching balls of rage across the fluffy grey heads. I’m surprised she doesn’t smash the window. I see how she mashes her lips, that grim press she does when she is furious.
‘He doesn’t mean any of it,’ I say.
Max makes a hissing sound, wetting me with saliva.
‘She’ll come round.’ He is smiling because he thinks I’ll understand. ‘Softest little cunt I ever had.’
It’s not a word I like, but it’s his fantasy that is difficult to hear. Mere pushes up from her seat, then has to steady herself. The room shifts in dense, hot ripples. Why do they have to slow cook all the residents, and the visitors too?
‘We’ll have to wait, Mere,’ says Max. ‘Until the boys are old enough.’
‘Let’s go for that walk,’ Mere says, but she is already on her way to the lift and the screaming flowers. She can’t hear the bubbles of silence that trickle from my mouth and burst in that thick, chemical mist. I scrabble, collect bag, coat, Mere’s purse. For a moment or two, I can’t breathe.
‘You don’t mean it,’ I say instead of goodbye. But Max is watching Mere.
I smack my knee on a wheelchair. I rap my hand getting out of the lift and then nearly jam my finger in the car door. Mere doesn’t snap and ask what the hell is wrong with me.
Mere always drives. Our whole lives, even before she got a car, she’s been driving. It rains a little all the way. The wipers screech. One faulty blade scratches a hairline arc on the windscreen. Little tears of rain are smeared flat and it seems they, not the glass, are keening in short, repetitive bursts. Mere pulls over beside a sand encrusted cafe.
‘Let’s get some chips,’ she says.
The chips look good, crisp and hot. We drive on and park to eat above the dunes, the ocean an undulating vista. Our fingers dip into the wrapper, never touching. Tendrils of silence creep through the car. Down there, on those foam tipped crests, a single female surfer skims left and right, arms out as though she is on a tightrope of water. But I’m thinking about how childhood trickles by, your teens ebb and gush, then those underwater years of domestic servitude accelerate the decades until the oceans part. Here you stand, suddenly old, walking across the seabed. You stare around, slow turning in the strange light, waiting for that last wave to fall, wondering who you are.
‘Let’s walk.’ Mere screws the greasy paper into a ball, kicks her shoes off and gets out.
‘You don’t mind getting a bit wet?’
‘We’ll take the umbrellas,’ she says.
A snuffing yellow dog dawdles nearby. Spiky grass glistens, though the rain has passed. The sea is yellow-grey under the amber sunlight. On the flat sand, in the pale sun, we push the bright umbrellas open and they blossom; when I look up, it is through a glowing canopy of flowers. Alongside us, knee-high waves drift in, heaving against the weight of themselves, latticed with foam patterns, before one by one they crack and break, hot fat hissing in a pan.
Mere wades in a little. The surfer glides past and it’s eerie how she sounds like the sea.
‘Careful,’ I say.
Seaweed swirls, encircling Mere’s frail ankles.
‘Hang on.’ She bends slowly down, wrists buried in the ocean, then teeters. I stare at her backside, at that soft, secret part of her with the word I do not like. A wave looms. I only have to warn her.
Instead, I push: a quick, stiff shove. It feels so good.
Mere falls with a cracking sound into the foaming water. The ardent wave gropes over her body.
‘Oh! Oh!’ she spits and cries out. I lean in as water swirls over that soft, wet cunt. I imagine stomping her breasts, bashing her face with a rock, sandy water curling bloody spirals through her silver hair. The umbrellas roll away, unhurried, scudding the sand with their pin-point edges. I think about the hospital lounge and those fluffy heads, and wonder if they’ve wheeled Max away yet, or if he’s still there laughing to himself about the bitch, and about the beastie.
‘Are you all right?’
It’s the surfer. She has dropped her board on the sand and raced up. Her shoulder length hair is slicked back, wet suit pasted to her taut body. She is magnificent in her concern, bent over to us, no makeup on her generous, lovely face.
‘I can’t get up.’ Mere’s arms are out in a gesture of supplication. The water slaps her sideways.
‘Help us,’ I say to the surfer, but I’m hoping Mere’s hip is broken, or that she is fractured in a darker, secret way. I want her to be like those grey gibberers drooling over their wheelchairs, parked so they can say how they’re leaving the bitch, when the boys are old enough.
‘Do you think,’ says the woman. ‘If I gave you a hand?’ She already has her palms in Mere’s. As she pulls, the muscles on her forearms are like those hard ripples of sand when the tide is out. Mere rises up, dropping globules of wet, her slight weight threatening to crack her elbows apart, or wrench her arms from their sockets.
‘You’re soaked,’ I hear myself say, only I’m full of bubbles of silent screaming that do not rise and pop, but fizz with a terrifying gentleness.
‘Can you walk?’ says the woman.
‘I think so.’ Mere takes a step, and stumbles. ‘I’m cold.’
We clasp a wet arm each, the surfer and I, and lead Mere back up the beach, up the stairs, carrying her almost, and settle her in the front seat of the car.
‘Shall I call an ambulance?’ The woman has found the blanket that protects the back seat and is tucking it around Mere’s hips.
‘We’ll be all right,’ Mere says. ‘It was the shock. I’ll get some dry clothes, get warm.’
‘You sure?’ Then the surfer looks at me, and I know she saw, or thinks perhaps she saw, but she’s turning it over in her mind, wondering whether to believe herself. ‘I really think we should call someone.’
‘I’ll call my husband.’ I feel the surfer watching me as I fumble through my bag for the mobile phone.
‘Let them go.’
‘Carry on, please,’ Mere says. ‘We’d love to watch you.’
‘Really, I –’
‘I insist,’ Mere says.
A fug of greasy potato clings, the breath of an old man who leans too close. On the mat Mere’s bare feet have gone from brown to blueish grey. Her wet head is a spindly-haired, wrinkled skull. The windscreen is steaming up, so I rub it with my handkerchief. We watch the surfer strut back down the beach to her board. She hoists it up, runs into the water. I let my phone slip and fall. It’s flat. I never use it.
‘We should take you to a doctor.’ My voice is flat too.
‘We’re not going to do that.’ The car seat is a pool, rivulets trickling down. Mere shivers. Our umbrellas slow tumble way down the beach.
‘We need to go.’
‘Not yet.’ Mere watches the surfer. ‘Do you think she’d teach us?’
I look across at the woman, her firm derriere jutting out above the board, almost making a right angle of her, toes gripping the slippery surface as though she is a sleek sea bird that has landed there, poised once more for flight. The board slithers over the wave, then the wave crumbles and the woman does not fall so much as pirouette and step into the foaming water.
‘You pushed me,’ Mere says.
I can’t look at her. A dark spear is tearing through my memories, through the pēpepe wings of each fragile, shimmering year: that time we belly flopped off the rotting bridge; that day we scratched with our fingers to bury the old cat; that night we spewed the stolen sherry; the way Mere was always out front in our kapa haka group, so small and strong; the times we duvet snuggled in our rooms, plundering every detail of school, friends, then later, her failed relationships, my motherhood, her restless travels, my problems with Max. The bubbles rise up and burst. The car is full of silent screaming. I start to weep. That makes me angry, so I stop.
‘It hurts –’ I snarl.
‘I tried to leave –’ says Mere.
‘– so many times!’ Mere cries.
You bitch, I think. You beastie BITCH!
I scream at Mere.
I scream at the way Max snored, his scatological humour, the thousands of meals I prepared, and his unconscious expectancy that I existed to administer the minutiae of every day. I scream at how my life was a warm vein he methodically siphoned in the selfish pursuit of his dreams and thoughtless disregard of mine. I scream because out there, far beyond that misty amber light, lies the dusty continent of Australia and the shimmering lands of Papua New Guinea. Or up the beach. If I keep going I could reach the rocks at the tip of Te Rerenga Wairua. I could slide down the roots of the sacred pohutukawa that clings to the cliff, down to the underworld, Te Hinenui o te Po, and follow the spirits of the dead before they begin their long journey back to Hawaiiki-A-Nui. I could float like a waka over the crisp tipped waves to the Pacific Islands, land on the white sands spread wide, and gather Matariki in my arms.
I scream because I am a fool.
The sound inside, so gravid with rage, issues forth cracked and weak. It’s the dry screech of an old woman, in a small car, in a fug of hot chips and seaweed. I thrash the steering wheel, weep again, then stop. Latticed waves sizzle and sigh. Now I’m remembering the flowers in the lift. I know why they were screaming. They’ve already grown and bloomed. They’re cut off, stems in the water, waiting to die.
‘You were so beautiful,’ I spit it out.
‘So were you.’ Mere’s dark eyes are so sad. She stares out at the beach, at the gulls rising and plunging into the water.
‘Why did you stay?’ I say.
‘Bev.’ Mere looks at the surfer. For the first time, she seems angry. She shifts again, that flutter. She fumbles with the blanket, but it still falls. ‘You know why.’
Down the beach, the slow umbrellas scud gently along, locked together so tight they are a colourful new creature. I think about things that are so important: the grades we get at school, the cars we drive, the houses we live in, how passions come and go, the choreography of fortune and misfortune, right choices, terrible mistakes. I think about what floats above, delicate but untouchable, unspoken things like love and sorrow, lace foam on the waves. Regret is a kind of grieving and it too, floats.
‘The waves,’ Mere says. ‘They roll in one after the other, like years.’
‘No,’ I whisper. ‘Waves don’t stop.’
Now I see young Mere up ahead in the kapa haka. Afterwards, she always glanced back at me, the one who sang off tune, who swung too hard, the one who broke the poi. I remember that same look when she watched me cooking breakfast, raising my boys, and all those times she found me crying over Max. I always complained Mere was terrible at waiting. These are the lies we tell ourselves, a kind of waiata we sing through time, as we make all the right moves, and pull all the right faces.
‘Let’s not go back,’ I say.
‘We’ll buy tickets.’ Mere’s lips are strange; she slurs a little. ‘Go on a cruise.’
‘To Antarctica,’ I say. ‘To the Mediterranean Sea and the Northern Fjords.’
‘Or the marvellous land of Madagascar.’
‘Yes.’ I pull the blanket up and touch her shoulder. ‘We’ll do that.’
‘When we get back, we’ll join a kapa haka group,’ says Mere.
‘We’ll sing the whakawātea.’
Seagulls soar and cry. I remember the poi, the way they spun out, pinned by their strings into an arc, and the one that burst and flew, shredded innards of plastic floating like a feathered soul. We watch the surfer dancing on water, and white gulls sliding through the amber sky. We watch apricot and rose light speckling tips and crevices so that everything is a moment of art. We imagine we hear the crackle of shells scumbling back and forth, each time a few molecules of sharpness shearing away; one day they will be mere nubs. The umbrellas somersault in the distance, in their own time. Foam tumbles in, smashing our footsteps into sand. We hold hands, screaming inside, and waiting.
Image © Bernard Spragg