First Prize

First Prize Story Winner
2020 Cooney Insurance Short Story Competition

FISH AND CHIPS
By Tim Saunders

Preface from the Author, Tim Saunders:
I hope this story, Fish And Chips, highlights the abhorrence of domestic violence. Family violence is never OK. Every night, over 160 women and children are too afraid to stay in their homes in New Zealand because of violence. It is time that, as a country, we said enough is enough. I strongly urge people to support organisations that work with victims of domestic violence.

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Fish and Chips

It was 3am. But then, it was always 3am somewhere in the world. Half the planet perpetually bruised by darkness. Sometimes I wondered what it would be like to stay at one exact moment in time and let the world slip by like the outgoing tide.               

It was 3am, and I listened to the ebb and flow of his breath. I felt every surge and dip like a boat at sea, the tempestuous rise to a spume-flecked crest followed by a gut-wrenching plunge. I lay spindrift beside him.

I had bled on the pillow. I tried to shift my head, but the skin stuck to the sallow polyester. A crust had formed between my lips, the fragile skin pulled the scabs loose when I opened my mouth. The full moon gaped down through a slice in the curtains, its face the colour of uncarved bone.

He’d go nuts again if he saw the blood, the ruined pillowcase. I slowly ripped my face away from the fabric, as quietly as I could, felt every tiny nerve tear and crackle. I thrust the pillowcase in with the clothes that needed washing, camouflaged within their crimson streaks. The sudden light of the bathroom struck my face. My complicated, crumpled face.

It was 3am. Black and blue clouds bloomed over the wine dark ocean.

He didn’t mean to do it. He lay on the floor next to me afterwards, said he was sorry. He stroked my hair, said how pretty it was. His large hands slid down my neck, he kissed my forehead with tender lips. They came away smeared with a thin veneer of blood.

The greasy paper from dinner lay flat on the table, a few bits of batter soaked up the salt and oil. A bottle of tomato sauce stood tall and upright beside where he had sat, a maroon monument to a wrecked meal.

He kept saying it, over and over.

I’m sorry.

I’m so sorry.

I love you.

The world spun. I think the world spun. Perhaps it was me spinning, the world and time standing still. I thought of how we had spent the afternoon digging for pipis. I’d laughed as he dug his toes into the soft sand and put his hips into it, like Mum and Dad had danced in the 60s.

You look like you’re doing the twist, I had said.

We both laughed as Kāpiti’s lump blushed, engulfed by clouds. Smudged gulls threw malevolent shapes against the sky.

Do you know what the collective noun for driftwood is? he asked.

No, I replied.

Didn’t think so, he said. That’s because you’re useless.

Then he twisted again until the outgoing tide slid the world from under our feet.

He didn’t mean it, though. It was just one of those stupid things he said sometimes. He’s sensitive like that. If a moment was too heavy or emotional, he’d hide it behind a wave of staunchness.

He took me to the hospital. He wouldn’t have done that if he’d meant to do what he did. He helped me out of the car, put his strong arm around my shoulders as we shuffled into the harsh whiteness of the reception.

He told the nurse I’d fallen down the stairs, tripped over one of the kid’s toys.

She’s always doing clumsy stuff like that, he had said.

The nurse glared at him, I could see her judging him just because of the way he looked.

Bl**dy kids, I spat to back him up.

We didn’t have kids, but she didn’t need to know that. I dreamed of kids, but she didn’t need to know that either.

How dare she judge him like that. Stupid b*tch, all high and mighty in her white uniform. Thinks she’s better than the rest of us.

Two broken ribs, eight stitches and a few bruises. The doctor smelled of the same deodorant my man used. Not so different after all.

They gave me some brochures about abuse. Slipped them to me as I walked out like it was some sort of conspiracy. They’re still fluttering in the gutter by the hospital carpark.

I deserved it, anyway. I shouldn’t have said that stuff about his mates.

*

It was 3am again. The moon was not much more than a needle. Its crooked grin smirked through the open window.

He made me clean it up this time. Down on my knees on the lino, he plonked a bucket of soapy water down next to me. It slopped over the side, foam slipped slowly to the floor.

Here, he said. Use these for rags.

He dropped a couple of my t-shirts into the bucket, the dress my mum had given me for Christmas. The one with the blue flowers that he’d said was sexy.

The red wine had diluted the blood that spread across the floor. He watched as I sloshed water around, a crimson tide smudged into the corners. The lino was already peeling away at the edges like dry skin after sunburn. He sat on the chair. I stared at his brown boots, felt their shape under my ribs.

The blue flowers turned pink as the mess receded.

Don’t get any of that sh*t on my boots, he said.

I squeezed rusty water into the bucket, twisted my dress into a rope and let the drops trickle away. The shoulder straps stretched and the stitching came away. I screwed the fabric into a tight noose around my arm, felt it bite into my skin.

Stop playing with it, he said. I haven’t got all night. Look at the mess you made.

My right eye was already half shut, and the numbness in my cheek was losing its grip to the pain. Stupid girl, I thought to myself. Stupid, stupid girl. What did you have to go and say that for? It would have been all good if you hadn’t opened your stupid mouth.

I knelt by his feet, the lino hard under my knees. I wiped his boots clean.

Go and clean yourself up, he said. You look disgusting. I can’t even look at you.

He said goodnight so tenderly when he came to bed.

*

It was 3am again. The world kept spinning. It made me giddy. The moon had b*ggered off to wherever the moon goes when it leaves, but I was still there. Eternally turning. Forever falling.

My best friend, Megan, had come round in the afternoon. He wasn’t at home, off with his mates after work, so we broke out the chardonnay.

You look like fish and chips, girl, said Megan.

I picked up my glass. There was a tiny chip in the rim that caught my lip and pulled at a scab I thought had healed. A drop of blood balanced momentarily on the edge of the glass before sliding down into the wine. A purple cloud billowed through the liquid, an opaque bloom that bulged like a closed fist.

I look like what? I asked.

Like fish and chips, Megan replied.

My glass left half a circle on the table, a broken ring. I ran my finger around its wet circumference.

I mean with your battered skin and salted cheeks, she explained. You gotta move on before he kills you, babe.

And then she went back to talking about the hoons down at the beach again, the price of food at the supermarket, the racist woman across the road who kept calling the cops every time the kids went out to play.

I don’t know if she actually said the thing about fish and chips. She couldn’t have. I stared in the mirror after she left. I didn’t look like takeaways. I was wearing makeup and sunglasses.

*

It was 3am. The storm that replaced the moon was silent. The only noise was the buzzing in my head, the gentle hum of time moving on.

He lay down beside me, the springs in the mattress groaned as they caved in to his weight. I stopped my body from rolling towards him as I breathed in stale beer and vinegar. His greasy hands were on my shoulder, my neck, my hips.

Not now, hon, I said. I’m tired. I’m sleeping.

I should have known better. I shouldn’t have said anything, just kept my trap shut.

He made a meal of me.

In the morning, he threw the sheets in the bin and made me buy new ones. My dreams stained the white porcelain, and I flushed them away.

*

It was 3am. It was always 3am. I stood by the door and listened to his soft snore like the ocean through a shell. Dark marks lay across the hightide line of my cheeks like driftwood, I felt the tide pull the ground from under my feet. I stepped through the door.

It was 3:01am. Time to move on.