First Prize Story Winner
2021 Short Story Competition
By Trish Veltman
He was Joseph first. Maybe Joe, Joss, Joey?
Joseph was locked down in a prison of time and amnesia. A footnote in official certificates. He was uprooted, transplanted.
Luke was a shell, a skin other people constructed for him. He was grafted into a white weatherboard house owned by a white weatherboard family, where blue agapanthus spilled over a lawn kept short for ball games. Over the fence, tūī sang in the shade of the bush. Luke was a quiet kid. The family liked that. He was a flanker, good in a line-out. He mowed straight edges on the lawn. The family liked that too. He learned to play the high notes on the trombone.
Luke tried hard to ignore Joseph.
But Joseph seeped through cracks in the shell, lived on in dark crevices. Joseph wanted his mum. The mum his body remembered, by the strawberry scent of her hair, the musk of her skin, by the resonant pulse of her heartbeat and the soft breeze of her voice.
Twelve thousand miles from childhood, Luke sits in his kitchen – a yellow room with red quarry tiles. A pendant light on a long chain swings in the draught from an open window. It makes him think he is moving, but he isn’t. He hasn’t for a long time. When he looks out of the window, he can’t see the esplanade three storeys below, only the North Sea crashing its grey fists against the sea wall, and white gulls wheeling. He is wheeling too, against the wind, getting nowhere. He has been for years.
I can’t do this, Emily. His words fall like pebbles. He drops his phone on the table. In his other hand, a letter trembles like a late leaf in an autumn breeze. He hunches in his chair, a smudged bruise against thin, lemon light slicing through the bay window behind. The light carves an echo of a man in a charcoal shadow on the floor and Emily thinks it is his secret self leaking out. She brings coffee, and scrambled eggs.
Eat something, she says, taking the letter, anchoring it with his phone.
This letter is not like the thin paper they filled the airways with, back and forth between hemispheres all through high school, through university, so light, yet heavy with all the things they could tell no-one else. He told her how birthdays made him feel like a ghost in his own body. How he avoided mirrors, and stayed at the back in family photos, hiding the awkward blond of his hair, the blue of his eyes with his shades and baseball cap. Not smiling, so the dimples branding his face as changeling wouldn’t show.
This letter is a lifeless document in Times Roman 12pt on watermarked paper. Sent by a stranger in a government office, a bare-bones list of facts he’d never known. And finally, a name – Marianne Tyler – and a phone number. The keys to the door of Joseph’s prison.
Outside, in a paradox of nature, winds whip the sea beneath a wide sweep of empty blue sky and the sun blares. The water is in a frenzy, smashing against the sea wall, and arcing over iron railings, crashing in a splinter of diamonds on pavement. Benches are empty today, wooden slats wet with spray.
I can’t do this, he says again. What if she doesn’t want to know?
Emily doesn’t argue. She doesn’t say but you waited so long, you need this so much, you’ll regret not going, never knowing. He knows all that.
Look. She touches his shoulder, and points to the distant dark line separating two blues. A lighthouse rises from the sea like a white exclamation mark against the sky. They only see it on clear days. The sun glances off the glass beacon in a shimmer of light.
Luke stands, gazing beyond the turmoil of breakers. He is an exclamation mark too, tall, skinny in jeans and tee-shirt. Emily squeezes his hand, and he turns back to her, smiling.
Thanks, love, he says.
And he picks up his phone.
They drive fast on wide roads. The windows of their Fiesta rattle with the batter and clatter of drums. He wanted music, something loud to drown his doubts. Their shoulders brush every time she changes gear, but he wears silence around him like a shroud and she thinks in this moment he is further away than he ever was all those years they poured their souls onto thin blue paper and wondered if they would ever meet.
A hundred miles from home, they leave the rush and bustle of the motorway, and follow green signs to places with names that whisper – Staithes, Dalehouse, Loftus. He holds the map on his lap, one finger tracing the route.
Only a few miles, she says. Single-lane roads wind through fields of corn separated by hedgerows of thorn and Queen Anne’s lace. She paints their journey in her mind, an aerial view, grey ribbons snaking through a trellis of green and white and yellow, a blur of car following the ribbons.
A village interrupts the fields. Squat white cottages tiptoe down a cobbled street so steep the car smells of burning rubber. The road flattens and skirts the quayside. Lobster cages lie in heaps between nets and ropes. Red sails rise and fall on the rippling sea in the horseshoe harbour. A horseshoe for luck, she wants to say, but his jaw is rigid and he is staring at the floor. Locked down tight in his thoughts. The road climbs again, the engine grinds. A sign says one mile more.
After Loftus, they lose their way.
They pass a field with the same red tractor twice. It strikes Emily that all gates look the same, five-barred, wooden, dotted with lichen.
I’ll ring again, Luke says, taking his phone out. But there is no signal. Only emergency calls.
They’ll have reception back in the village, Emily says, reversing into a rutted gateway. The back wheels bump off the road into the dirt and when she pulls forward, the tyres spin against the thick, scalloped edge of the tarmac, spraying dust in a film over the rear window.
Crap, she says, and thumps the steering wheel.
Take a break, says Luke. Then I’ll push.
The sudden rush of wind coming into the car carries a kelpy tang of ocean. They rest their elbows on the gate, and lean together, shoulder to shoulder. Beyond the sweep of grass lies a shimmering sheet of sea.
It can’t be far now.
No. She said you can see the sea from her place, Luke says. Then, Look!
He points north, across the field. On the distant horizon, a white exclamation mark anchors the line where sea and sky meet. The same lighthouse they see from home on clear days.
Luke stands on a low stone step, in front of a black door. A brass chain dangles beside the door, swinging in the wind. Luke grabs it and pulls. The bell clangs, behind the door, clanging, on and on, and Luke realises he is hanging on to the chain, white-knuckled. He drops his hand and the bell fades. He listens for footsteps.
The wind breathes song into the trees behind them. In the distance, sea, keening gulls, bleating sheep. His blood pulses in his ears. He is a pale question mark, his head bent forwards. Behind the door, silence.
He steps back to scan the windows. Splinters of sunlight bounce off the panes and he blinks, hard, and blinks again.
Luke, Emily says. He turns around. She points to the corner. There, where a flagstone path curves round the house comes the sound of feet slapping in eager steps. Luke’s breath stalls in his chest. His stomach kaleidoscopes.
And there she is. Marianne. Tall, slim. Blond hair cut close around her face. His mother. Calling out,
I’m so sorry, I was in the garden, picking strawberries for our tea.
Her voice is a soft breeze.
Luke holds out his hand. Marianne clasps it between hers. Her blue stare twin lakes of recognition.
At last, she says. You’re here.
Luke shuffles out an apology – late, we got lost, got stuck.
No, she smiles. Dimples appear in her cheeks. I mean I’ve been waiting for you to find me.
Joseph. My darling Joe.
And a locked door swings open.