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2017 Northland Flash Fiction Competition

Photo by Vivian Thonger

First: Going South

Damian Pullen

Today I did two things I’ve never done before: end a relationship, and pick up a hitchhiker – a Māori woman called Marama, with a whisky-and-cigarettes voice, and a breathless laugh. She laughs and swears a lot. She didn’t ask about the bruise on my cheek.

We talked about her: how she’s been living in her sister’s garage in Auckland with her three kids, but has been up north, packing kiwifruit, doing twelve-hour night shifts, and sleeping in her car, which won’t start, but her sister’s getting evicted, so she’s got to find somewhere else.

I was heading back to the airport, to return the campervan and get a flight home. I should have known this holiday wouldn’t work out, but everything was booked and paid for, and I was still devastated by his cheating, and the IVF failing again, and I couldn’t make a decision.

Yesterday was tense – jetlag, me premenstrual, him hungover, no talking. Separate beds.

This morning, driving along, he gets a text, which I open. From her. I throw his phone out the window. He loses it: pulls over, screams in my face – stupid bitch – then hits me once, hard, and gets out to look for his phone. I drive off, turn round, pass him, shouting and pointing at his phone.

Marama’s kids come running out to meet us – wide-eyed little livewires in bare feet – overjoyed to see her and full of questions. Who’s this lady? Can you take us on holiday? Can I sleep in this bed?

So tonight Kahu, Amiria and tiny Te Ako are asleep in here, while I babysit and Marama packs. We’re heading north in the morning. The kids want to show me the big kauri tree, 90 Mile Beach and the sand dunes at Cape Reinga.

Damian Pullen was born in England but emigrated to Botswana aged 1, on the day of the moon landings, 20 July 1969. Growing up he also lived in obscure places like North Yemen, Tuvalu and Ethiopia. Now he lives in New Zealand but probably not forever. He is a high school guidance counsellor which has elements of storytelling, and he also runs a play writing group. His latest play was about four sperm cells on their way to meet the egg.

A brief interview with Damian Pullen

Flash Frontier: We see this winning story is located in Northland. How long have you lived there, and how deep is your connection to the Far North of New Zealand? And does this place often inspire your creative endeavours?

Damian Pullen: I’ve lived in New Zealand for nearly 15 years, nearly a third of my life, and 12 of those years in Northland – because if you’re English you want to be somewhere reasonably warm… It’s an inspiring place because of the blend of cultures and the beautiful environment, especially the ocean, beaches and forests. I guess as a writer it’s impossible not to be influenced by where you live and the people you meet there. You see lots of white campervans up here, and I had an image of one arriving in an impoverished Māori neighbourhood, and loading up with deprived kids eager to go on holiday…

FF: We first read your flash fiction at 52|250 — back in 2010. Those stories had an edge to them that verged on the surreal. This one feels more aligned with realism – though the edge is still clearly there. Has your writing changed over the years – and how?

DP: I don’t know – I’m not really prolific enough to claim that it has changed over the years. I seem to work on a variety of projects when time and energy allow… in no specific genre or style. I’m interested in stories with narrative energy and direction which have something to say about things that matter. In New Zealand, like other places in the world, that includes increasing inequality and polarisation in our communities. Art is a way to resist that, and to show that we care about each other, and want to understand each other.

FF: We notice you have a female protagonist. Tell us how that came to be in this particular story.

DP: It’s interesting that people comment on that – I didn’t really think about it, but I hope that I’m able to write convincingly from a woman’s point of view… I guess writers need to be able to find authentic voices for all their characters, especially those from other cultures. I’d like to be able to tell the story from the male’s point of view, and the Māori woman’s point of view too. Maybe I will.

FF: You run a script writing group for young people. What do you tell your students is the most important thing about learning to write? And do you think lessons learned by young writers are different to those learned by more experienced ones?

DP: I tell them what I tell myself – believe in your idea, and finish it! Other things I tell them and myself include: the best way to learn to write is to write. Worrying about how it will be received, along with going to school, kills creativity. Getting good feedback, getting published, or seeing your play on stage or your film on screen is amazingly powerful and validating for writers of all ages. It’s the connection you make with the reader that counts. Believing that what you have to say matters is more important than how you express it. Be brave enough to try and communicate something.

FF: Who are some of your favourite writers, and why?

DP: I can think of specific books rather than writers… For example, I bought my son a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions for his birthday recently, and luckily he liked it. I enjoy Vonnegut’s ideas and satirical humour. At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien is another novel you can reread. I’m a JM Coetzee fan – particularly his novels Waiting For The Barbarians and Disgrace. I’m a Harry Potter hater and tell anyone who will listen that A Wizard of Earthsea is a far superior novel about boy wizards. I also have some guilty pleasures like Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller and Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth. And The Road by Cormac McCarthy. As with writing, I don’t spend enough time reading. I need to stop working and dedicate my life to art. One of my favourite quotes about being creative is by Henry Miller: “Imagination is the voice of daring. If there is anything godlike about God, it is that. He dared to imagine everything.”


Second: A Gift from the Sea

Rob Burt

See the old woman, eyes dark, wide-open, alert. A marble moon hangs high in the dawn sky.

The kuia begins her descent. The empty whare stands bereft of colour in the muted light. Kikuyu snakes up and ensnares its uprights.

Three months already? She shakes her head. Work, he had said. Cash in the pocket – eh, Mama? Anger surges then fades. Can’t complain. Money in the mail, kai on the table.

“Why the hell are we way out here?”

Yet it’s her mokopuna who still spear her heart. Ata marie Nan, they would cry, as they clambered over her.

Are they eating proper kai down there? Are they warm?

“An old Māori woman’s in the town, talking to herself, singing to the sun.”

“Sooo…?”

She squats on the black sands. Her long-still-supple fingers seek out the plump tuangi. Soon her kete is chocka with this gift from the sea.

“Let me finish! It seems she parcels up shellfish and sends them to her whanau down the line. Two days, they’re a rotting mass, taking everything in the mail bag with them.”

She struggles up, ancient limbs groaning. Hoisting her bag, she will climb to her whare and start readying the kaimoana for its journey.

“The police got involved; talking to yourself is one thing, destroying His Majesty’s Mail is another. A court order to Mental Health and here we are.”

See the old woman. Her known world recedes behind her. Darkness descends. She is weary, weary of trying to understand what cannot be understood.

She closes her eyes, leans against the seat, resigning herself to whatever lies ahead.

Rob Burt is new to Te Tai Tokerau (Northland district), having moved from Auckland two years ago. As a retired social worker and counsellor, he now has time to burn and thus has started writing. He swims regularly and loves the beauty of the north.

Third: They came that night

Kim Martins

“It was April and your father, Moshe, loved to walk with your mother in the Alexandrovsky Garden to see the yellow tulips and purple lilacs.”

Rosa listens to my story. She lifts the teapot, pours me another cup of tea as if I need encouragement.

“Your father would light the Shabbat candles in our tiny apartment, after the first three stars appeared at sunset on a Friday night.

We would go to the synagogue the next morning, carrying plates of pickled herring and, on this Saturday, matzah. I couldn’t sleep the night before, worrying about how we would make it through the streets, the warm smell of the unleavened bread giving us away.

Moshe, your mother would plead, you know the secret police hide in the bushes outside the synagogue, it isn’t safe to be Jewish these days.

We walked through the mud-puddled streets with our suitcases full of matzah. Pillars of snow were melting and you gripped my hand, fretting that your new shoes would be ruined.

A lean-framed man in a dark grey suit stood watching nearby, his milky skin stretched over jutting cheekbones.

A couple of kicks to the ribs and heavy blows to the head was all it took. He looked down at your father lying in the brown mud, tiny pearls of blood peppering his face, and hissed: Moshe Rabinovich. We are building a Russia that you have no place in.

Your father printed banned texts and passed them around. Every night, we would hear the elevator creaking as the Soviet secret police searched the apartment building, taking people away. One night, they took your father.”

“He was tall with kind eyes,” Rosa says. “I should remember his voice, but I don’t.”

I falter when I hear her words.

Kim Martins is originally from Sydney and lives in Northland. She writes flash fiction and poetry. On days when she isn’t walking her two English pointers or riding her horses, she likes to take photos using black and white film. With degrees in history and law, Kim often writes historical pieces.

Fourth: The Librarian

Clare Matravers

The buzzer scared the quietness away, summoned the reference librarian. He stood up, joints creaking in chorus with the swivel chair.

“Wednesday’s edition of The Advocate, please.” Middle-aged ewe, dressed as spring lamb, flirted with him. Wafted cheap perfume – he stifled a cough, displayed his wedding ring, handed the periodical to her.

“Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?” She primped a compost-heap of bleached- blonde hair – the wedding ring hint clearly hadn’t worked.

He turned a wince into a polite smile and said nothing.

A shriek of triumph: “I know!” Readers stared. “You look just like that Jeff Ivory!”

“Who’s he? An All Black? Or does he race a V8?”

“No!” Impatient now. “British rock star, famous in the eighties – you must have heard of him? Lose the beard and glasses and you’d be the spitting image – well, an older version at least.”

He seethed quietly. No need to remind him he was aging.

“Ever thought of trying out for Stars in their Eyes? You’re bound to win!”

He gave a dry laugh. “Just because I look like this Ivory chap, doesn’t mean I can sing.” He trilled a note off-key, delighted in watching her wince.

“Of course you’re not him. What would he be doing working here, in a backwater town library?
No, he’s probably living it up somewhere, surrounded by adoring fans.” She shrugged. “He might even be dead.”

“Excuse me, I have work to do.”

“Of course. Sorry to keep you.” She didn’t sound it, and reluctantly moved away.

That was close. Fed up with the high life, he’d craved obscurity – and found it on the far side of the world.

Perhaps he should try out for that programme – it might be fun to impersonate himself. Jeff sauntered back to his desk, humming a tune. In perfect pitch.

Clare Matravers lives in Northland, and while care-giving for her elderly mother has time to write. Although she enjoys dreaming up short stories including two flash fiction prize-winners, she has also self-published two novels with a third underway. Her work background is in Financial and Office Administration, but it’s her Social Science degree that has proved helpful when writing.

Fifth: Heartbreak Hotel

Sue Otto

After the walk, we returned to the hotel. In the dining room, I sat with strangers for the meal. Mother didn’t sit with us: she helped serve the meal, seemed interested in the others too. She hovered round me, and these others, as I ate. One person she had to feed. Don’t know why she was staying here; the woman seemed aged, not like a baby.

This afternoon Mother took me for a walk in the garden. The hebe were out. Coloured scimitars, covered in bees. Purple fronds drooping as if it were the end of day. The gardener was a young Englishman with felted hair. I don’t know why he wears it like that. I have seen similar thick-spiked hair before. On our honeymoon in Jamaica. Derek took photos that time. The man was angry and tried to grab the camera. I must tell Derek about the gardener.

Mother helps me get ready for bed. I kiss goodnight the black-and-white photo of Derek. I turn and say, “Thank you, Mother.” Her eyes grow bigger. Holding my hand, she takes me to the mirror. I gaze at two figures. I see her, and hear her speaking beside me. I don’t know the other person. She says, “How can I be your mother? Look at us.” I move my hand to my cheek, and watch the old woman do the same. I turn to face Mother, she who was Mother. I hurry to my bed and pull the bedclothes over my head. I hear a wailing, feel tears fall.

Who am I?

Sue Otto is a retired nurse, emigrating from England in the late 60s. After many years in Auckland, she now lives in a retirement village in Whangarei. What she likes best about flash fiction is that it is an interactional event, where writer and reader both have a part in the experience of the narrative.

About the Judges

Nyree Sherlock is a fairly recent arrival to Whangarei Libraries, where she enjoys her role within their Outreach Team. Nyree, who has a BA in English Literature and Screen & Media through the University of Waikato, is an artist and a review writer, but her greatest passion is to support adult education opportunities that encourage life-long learning across all communities.
Vivian Thonger is a Kerikeri NZ writer, poet and actor with degrees in psychology and creative writing. She previously lived in Cornwall, the Netherlands, Washington DC and London. Her flash fiction appears in n www.writeupnorth.co.nz, Flash Frontier, International Flash Fiction and Bonsai: The Big Book of Small Stories (2018), and she won the Northland Short Story of the Year 2017. She is a member of Whangarei’s peripatetic Poetry Posse and ImprovMob, performing at events and festivals.

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