Surfacing by Mary Róisín McGill
What the judges said about Surfacing:
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne: I liked the rich style of this classic story of self-discovery. Sometimes, it feels slightly overwritten, but compensating for this linguistic exuberance are gems, like ‘Now her backpack sat stuffed like a turkey on the end of her bed’ and ‘It was like being Gulliver in Lilliput, if Lilliput was candy pink and frilly with faded outlines where her teenage posters used to be.’ Recession theme seemed somewhat marginal, but it’s a lovely, focused, well-shaped story.
Donal Ryan: Extremely well done, insightful, realistic and with a heart-stopping, triumphant ending.
The other waitresses at the Hari Café on Cuba Street tried not to raise their eyebrows when Aoife, the forlorn-looking new girl, announced she would hike to Karapoti Gorge that Saturday.
‘On your own?’ Maia asked, as they restacked the pastry display, piling warm cinnamon rolls and miniature kumara pies onto the silver cake stands that sat in a polished row above the deli counter. Maia’s broad shoulders were turned towards Aoife, her onyx curls twisted into a bun held in place by magenta cloth that glowed in the murk of the rainy morning. Privately, she referred to Aoife as ‘Little Noodle Arms’, wondering why she always looked so glum – wasn’t travelling supposed to be enjoyable?
‘According to the guide book, it’s easy to moderate, so I should be fine,’ Aoife replied, swallowing the hot nausea creeping up her throat like an evil vine. She tore open a bag of coffee beans, tipping it into the grinder, closing her eyes against the sound. Maia shrugged, wiping her hands on her apron. What was the point trying to argue with white girls and their guide books? She’d only lived in Wellington her entire life.
‘Well, good luck with that,’ she said, slipping a pen behind her ear. Before Aoife could ask what she meant, Maia was on the floor, handing out menus to a dreadlocked man and his grubby-faced daughter, all of them smiling, as if being happy were effortless.
Aoife stared hard at Maia’s back; caught between impending, tsunami-like vomit and the feeling she’d once again said something stupid. Sweat burst across her skin like a flash flood, herding her into the bathroom where she thrust her head over the bowl, feeling the cold tiles dig into her knees as the gagging began.
Racked with spasms, she curses herself for not saying ‘no’ to Sinead, for giving in to homesickness.
The previous evening she’d arrived in from work, clutching a flyer for a yoga class, something she’d always meant to do but never got around to. Sinead was in the kitchen, can in hand, face painted, hungry for the craic, waiting for her because in Sinead’s mind they were as good as sisters, two Irish girls who’d never met until now, on the other side of the world.
‘But I don’t have any going-out clothes,’ Aoife protested, imagining with longing another night of sitting in with Brett and Jonno, chatting and watching Kiwi soaps. She smelt of burned coffee and glass cleaner. Her leg muscles ached as if bruised. In her backpack, she had all the ingredients for a huge, cheese-sodden lasagne.
‘But sure no one gets dolled up here,’ Sinead said with disdain, popping a can of cheap cider and handing it to her. ‘Just stick on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. Ah come on will ya! This job-hunting shite is killing me.’
Six hours later, The Green Fields of France tinny in her ears, everyone hoarse, red-faced, somewhere between laughing and crying, Aoife wanted to leave O’Kiernan’s, regretting coming at all. Sinead was sitting on the lap of a lad she knew from home, the very one she’d quietly pointed to earlier in the evening, saying, ‘whatever you do, keep me away from that prick’.
At 4am, her blood sluggish with whiskey she’d downed to make the time pass faster, Aoife managed to peel Sinead off your man and into a taxi. Once they got home she left her in the sitting room with the lamp on, sprawled on the sofa like an octopus in glittery hot pants, talking nonsense.