Nightjar by Georgina Aboud: the 2017 Moth short story competition winner
Brighton writer picked by Belinda McKeon as winner of €3,000 prize
The winner of this year’s €3,000 Moth Short Story Prize, judged by novelist Belinda McKeon, is Georgina Aboud’s Nightjar, a story in which a young girl tormented by feelings of inadequacy and guilt struggles to come to terms with the brutal murder of her sister on their quiet island. Her sister’s estranged boyfriend acts as a conduit, paving a way through her grief.
Much of Aboud’s working life has been spent in international development, focusing on gender, climate change and food security. She observed elections in Kosovo, Macedonia and Ukraine during the Orange Revolution, collaborated with forest and mountain communities in India and Colombia, worked on briefing papers in Bangladesh and pulled pints in Peru. She now lives in Brighton, England, where she is working on a novel and a screenplay.
“This is seriously the best news I’ve had all year,” says Aboud. “I am completely made up.”
Faith Merino’s In the Orchard, which won second prize (a week-long retreat at Circle of Misse in France), is a horror story of a kind that tackles questions of parental love and our deep-rooted fear of the changeling and of change. Merino, who lives in Sacramento, California, is the recipient of a Writing By Writers fellowship and the winner of the Jabberwock Review’s Nancy D Hargrove Editors’ Prize for Fiction. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Jabberwock Review, Calliope and Open Windows III.
Owen Booth’s sweeping story The Giantess Batsheba, a gothic brew of fairy tale and medieval foreboding, won third prize (€1,000). Booth lives in London, where he is finishing a comic/experimental novel. His stories have appeared in the White Review, Gorse, Hotel, Spur and 3AM Magazine, among others. He won the 2015 White Review Short Story Prize.
McKeon also commended stories by Julia Armfield (UK), Bonnie Etherington (New Zealand), Claudia Lambert (UK), KT Sparks (US) and Emily Vizzo (US).
The three winning stories appear in the autumn issue of the Moth, available to purchase for €5 in Eason and select bookshops internationally, as well as online at www.themothmagazine.com.
By Georgina Aboud
There is a door. And a set of stairs, covered in bone-coloured carpet. There is a hatch. And there is a bedroom, where honeysuckle ambles down the chimney in summer, and snow drops through in winter. There is a guitar. A snare drum. A rosewood xylophone with velvet-tipped beaters. There is silence. There are drawings of birds, taken from books and taped to the ceiling, there is bird-song strung notes on sheet paper piled on the desk, there is a huge inflatable globe on the floor. And up high, so that Diane needs to stand on a chair to see out, there is a window that gazes past the town and the port to linger on a sea that leads to the mainland, to waterways that taste of tangy foreign salts.
Once Paulina had left for music school this was going to be Diane’s room, but it is her sister’s towel that still idles on the floor, always her glass of water by the bed. When Ma sleeps in the room, which she does on Paulina’s birthday and on the anniversary, she brings in a blanket and sleeps on top of the bedding, unwilling to disturb anything. In the morning, Da is nowhere to be found, and Diane inches up the blind and gives Ma a mug of tea with sugar for shock, even though it’s been six years.
‘The girls have done well this morning. Poached or scrambled?’
‘I can’t breathe, Diane. I can’t, I can’t breathe.’ And Diane runs for a brown paper bag, and watches it inflate and deflate as she rubs Ma’s back.
‘Anyone would have been better than her,’ Ma says, lowering the bag and looking straight at Diane. ‘Anyone.’
And in moments of quiet on Paulina’s birthday or the anniversary, Diane goes to the room. She inhales the faintness found on the hairbrush, kisses the collar of Paulina’s favourite jumper and allows herself a small gulp of air from the wilting inflatable globe. She holds Paulina’s stale breath in her mouth and then swallows it, keeping it for as long as possible. When she blows the breath out, she asks Paulina to appear, but if Paulina did appear she would say, ‘Didi! None of us bloody exist, come on, you know our island isn’t even on that thing.’
And of course it’s true, because Paulina was always right. Their island, made from prehistoric rock and once common birds, is underwater on most maps and lost at sea on a cheap blow-up globe. It is only in the atlas found in the island’s library that they rise from the ocean. There on half a page, a few grains of paper for their town, a grain for their house and, if she tracks the hour’s stroll to the forest, the one that sloshes with celandine in February and bluebells in May, which is deep in the centre of the island, where its heart would be if it were a person, less than a grain for the spot where Paulina was found.
December. Snow-stained days and nights hardened with ice. The boats haven’t made it through for a week, and they aren’t expected again before Christmas. Diane curls on the couch waiting for Da. Third night in a row, and it is on night three that Diane usually wishes he wouldn’t come home at all. The telly is on mute.They only show repeats these days and this time it’s a famous chef from when she was little demonstrating a stew. He chops onions, carrots, he slugs wine, the meat is marbled with blue and white and seems the size of a small child; Diane cannot remember the last time she saw so much food.
Ma drifts into the living room, barefooted, freezing, no underwear, wearing a stolen hospital gown from one of her stays. Ma, a ghost of a ghost of a person, held together by only the thinnest of tissue paper.
‘Can’t you sleep? Come on. Come lie by me.’ Diane pats the couch.
‘Where are my pills?’
‘You’ve had them.’ Diane is soft, there is now no other way. The chef is flash frying the meat.
‘I want more.’
You’ve got to be strong for your ma, was what she was told, even as Diane wondered what that actually meant, and whether anyone got told to be strong for her. And after a few years when old ebullient Ma just never returned, and she was left with this shadow person, Diane packed a case and hid it under her bed, waiting for a time to leave.
‘No more pills. Come on.’
Diane pats the couch again, and Ma makes a song and dance but comes over and lies down, her head in Diane’s lap. She begins crying and Diane says, ‘I know. I know.’
Two summers ago Diane got close to leaving the island. She arrived at the port with the little suitcase and stood on the jetty. The boat rolled in, unloaded the cargo and rolled out. She watched it until it dipped back over the horizon, and when she walked up the hill to return to the house she knew it wasn’t just Ma that kept her here, it was something buried in her, a bit of herself she didn’t yet know.
‘It’s swallowed us all,’ Ma says, looking at the chef as he pulls out a ‘here’s one I made earlier’ and plates it in extravagant bowls. ‘No one gets out alive.’
Bullshit, Paulina says. It’s just a waiting game.
Doorbell. Diane wakes. Still darkness outside and Ma is out for the count. Doorbell again, and the fast climb of fear is immediate; Da can usually jam the key in the lock.
She trembles as she opens the door but Da is outside, sure as eggs, with his face sliding off him and his knuckles skinned to the white, saying ,’Get him off me.’
Because behind him, holding him up, is Jimmy.
‘Your da …’ Jimmy says.
Diane can only nod.
‘They took him round the back of the pub. They are …’ Jimmy coughs, ‘I hear people are losing their patience.’
Jimmy hands Da over, and from the hall light she sees he took a hiding too. Jimmy who has a Roman for a nose and Good Friday for a birthday, who taught her to be a gentle butterfly catcher and a repentant fisherwoman, Jimmy who would kiss Paulina with his eyes open. It is six years since she has seen him.
‘Blood on his hands,’ slurs Da.
Jimmy turns and begins walking up the garden path, disappearing into the night, when Diane calls, ‘I heard about your da. I’m sorry.’ Diane can’t see him but senses he has stopped, and turned around. ‘Are you back now?’
‘Just stopping over.’ Coming from the darkness his voice is loud, bounces like a glass marble on the path, certain to wake the neighbours.
‘Till the boats start up?’
‘Sure, till the boats.’
Diane nods. She opens her mouth to say something, anything to keep him on the path but thick history makes her wordless. Finally she says, ‘I still say a prayer for the fish – before I kill them.’
And thinks he is gone, probably half way home by now, until he says, ‘Take care, Didi.’
And Diane continues to stand in the doorway, with a dumb tongue and a heart that won’t stay still. She hears the click of the gate and still she stands, with Da’s soggy weight on her in air so frigid it makes her skin sore. She stands until words return and she can call out into the darkness.
‘Jimmy. I’m sorry.’
And in the morning, when she brings Da paracetamol on toast, and a flask of coffee with a tot of whiskey, he says, ‘Diane, I half killed someone last night, but who saved me, eh?’
And Diane can only feel unease as she blots his hands with antiseptic, sliced as they are, and says, ‘Don’t know, Da. I woke up and there you were.’
A day in January. Arctic swirls. The ocean is a rink and skies are bruise purple and birdless. No boats for over six weeks and the island moves into supplies and rations. Diane puts the hens into the kitchen and leaves Ma in the living room with tea and toast and a fire so fierce it puckers the paintwork. Diane wraps herself in thermals and wool and goes into town to open the salon. When she first started at the salon she wondered if she would get winter off work, but the island is forged on pride, with or without the crawl of hunger.
‘I’ve brought some nearly new tennis shoes. I’m sure that’s enough for a cut, set and dry, dear.’
‘Are we bartering, Bunny? Are we now bartering?’
‘Well, the girl can hardly spend cash now, can she, Teddy?’
‘Bunny. Come on now, what on earth is Diane going to do with tennis shoes?’
‘They are special, Dolly. They belonged to my late sister.’
‘Who can live off a tennis shoe?’
‘A tennis player?’
‘Fine. Tennis shoes and half a dozen buns. Now, what are you getting your hairdo with, eh?’
‘I’ve got two litres of vegetable soup, three cans of pilchards and some chicken feed.’
‘I wasn’t asking you, Teddy. I was asking Dolly.’
‘Diane sweetheart, what do you need?’
Diane secures the last tightly curled roller and walks each of them to a hairdryer. She is cleaning up the setting solution when the shop bell rings.
‘We’re full,’ she says, without turning around.
‘It won’t take long.’
Jimmy’s voice is soft. She turns and he is standing in the doorway, shivering. She hasn’t seen him since he brought Da home. She committed herself to look for him, to be prepared and make sure she brought her tongue with her, but it became easier to decide the apology had already been delivered, even if it was swallowed into the winter air.
The old ladies watch, Bunny expects a show, so Diane says, ‘Best shut the door then, you’re letting all the warmth out.’
She places a hairdressing cape around him and indicates to the sink. The old ladies swivel owl-eyed from their hair dryers.
‘Can you hear? I can’t hear,’ one of them says.
‘Let them be,’ Dolly says, closing her eyes. ‘Just let them be.’
Diane pours shampoo into her hands.
Up close Jimmy smells of sea and smoke, and she breathes it in. His hair is thick and curly, sticky to touch. He tips his head back over the sink and she is so tender at first, his face, his familiarity is overwhelming, and the hair washing belongs so clearly to another time that she wonders if she could be mistaken and Paulina is alive. And Diane is awash with this idea and forgets herself and massages the shampoo harder and harder into his scalp, until he winces and says ‘Easy’. Once she finishes she hangs onto this pretence and jokes around; she wraps his head in a towel turban, which grazes the light fittings when he walks to the cutting chair, and the old ladies titter and even Jimmy half smiles.
‘Well…’ she says, picking up the hair between her fingers and letting it drop.
‘Take it off. The whole lot.’
So she does, and the dirty curls just keep dropping, making errant question marks across the floor. When Diane reaches the front, snipping the sides and checking the hair is all even, she can’t help it. She leans close to his rediscovered ears and whispers, ‘Is she alive?’ And he starts so violently she almost nicks his lobe.
And now she knows that the parallel life she tried to climb into doesn’t exist, and she wonders if it’s his pity she can detect or a reach of sadness, but it’s neither. He stands and looks to the floor, he half kicks the cutting chair before saying, ‘I heard we’re bartering, I hope this is okay.’
From inside his coat, four huge oranges, and to Diane they are like a glorious string of small suns. Diane holds them up to her face feeling their full weight, their perfume belonging to a soupy August, their skins warm to the touch.
She says, ‘Yeah, these will do.’
And when finally they look at each other, he says in front of everyone, in front of the old ladies who are lingering with their coats half on, half off, ‘Do you want to meet up?’
And the old ladies whisper.
‘It was his cousin, wasn’t it?’
‘Girl was unrecognisable when they found her in the forest.’
‘I’m glad he’s waiting at the Gallows.’
This is what you wanted, isn’t it? Diane thinks.
Go on, Paulina says. You’ll see.
They meet in the pub in the fields, the one for raggedy farmhands and their snaggle-toothed dogs. Diane watches Jimmy’s leg jiggle, his hands bend a beer mat back and forth. With the haircut, he looks exactly like himself, and the memory shames every cell in her body.
‘It’s okay,’ he says, seeing her discomfort. ‘He’d only just been charged.You were distraught.’
It was true. She’d gone out that day looking to feel anything other than what she was feeling, the animal part of her clawing for some relief, when she saw Jimmy.
But now she says, ‘Jimmy. It wasn’t okay.’
Her shouting had drawn a crowd as she repeated her mother’s words, vile words. A mounting fury made her spit and scream, as the men at the front goaded her on, waiting for their turn.
‘I knew, even then. That … That it had nothing to do with you.’
And his look, before she was pushed aside and they descended, was the innocent look of the bewildered, and she had felt so powerful, and repulsed for how quickly her nature had rotted.
‘You know, every year my da paid someone on the inside to break each of his fingers.’
Diane looks up.
‘He loved Paulina.’ Jimmy begins ripping the beer mat. ‘Everyone loved Paulina. It shouldn’t have been your sister. It just shouldn’t have been.’
‘I know. I know,’ Diane says. ‘I know, it should have been me.’
Jimmy stops with the beer mat, looks at her. ‘It shouldn’t have been anyone.’
Didi! Paulina shouts. Listen to the man.
‘Didi? Come on now.’
‘The blackbird sings in a D sharp melody, did you know that?’
‘Yes, she told me back then.’
‘It starts with a D in quarter-note tempo, soars to a G and holds half a beat, then moves to a staccato F. Paulina could hear that, I couldn’t. I can hold a note but Paulina, Paulina could hear the nightingale’s trill begins in a G, the mistle thrush in a fruity B. And the corncrake is pure percussion, it’s the scrape of a rattle, you know.’
‘I’ve seen the sheet music.’
‘It was my idea.’
Jimmy knows this, but Diane tells him again, as if by confessing it, it might affect the outcome. Create a side step one way or the other, a hop, skip and jump over the invisible hairline fractures that move beneath them all.
‘Everyone knows Paulina wouldn’t have been out in the forest if it wasn’t for me.’
‘It’s not your fault.’
‘Have you heard a nightjar?’
‘No one has heard the nightjar.’
‘Paulina was waiting for one. She wanted to hear one. That would have completed it. Put us on the map.’
Jimmy touches Diane’s face, his thumb sweeping across her cheek, before withdrawing his hand and returning to the beer mat.
He says, ‘If they blame you, they are still mad with the infection of it.’
Walking home, over hard fields lit by pinhole stars, Diane allows herself to remember spying on Jimmy and Paulina, how Jimmy always used to seek permission before touching her, how his final kisses goodnight moved across her face, her ears, to be caught in her hair. She remembers the three of them carrying all the instruments downstairs, and Jimmy looking entranced while Paulina played her almost completed Nocturnal Symphony. Paulina moving from guitar to piano to xylophone, bringing life into their low-ceilinged living room, her fingers moving quicker than God. And there is acute pleasure in Jimmy’s cousin’s annual punishment because, of all Paulina’s injuries, it was her broken fingers that stays with Diane the most.
Diane isn’t through the front door before Da is up and pacing, awakened to some long absent fatherly duty.
‘Him?’ he says.
‘You used to love him. “Son you never had”, that’s what you’d say.’
‘Come on, Diane. That was before.’ Da sucks on his teeth. ‘Nothing good ever came from that family.’
‘Paulina loved him.’
‘Sweet Jesus, look where that got her. Don’t you think you’ve caused enough damage? You know how bad Ma can get.’
But the next week when Jimmy comes into the salon she tells him to meet her in the forest, away from the eyes and tongues found on corners, in shops, at the bottom of beer glasses.
February. Days are blizzards and a couple of Western trawlers are lost at sea. Impossible to get across the island to the forest, Diane can barely make it into town. The grocery shop is closed. Under the bed, the apples grow soft and shrivelled.
‘It’s worse than the flood. I’m telling you. Worse than the flood.’
‘Worse than the nine-year famine, Bunny?’
‘Oh yes Teddy, much worse.’
‘Worse than the twenty-five year war?’ Dolly winks at Diane, but Diane is distracted.
‘Well … no, Dolly, not worse than that, but it’s only going to get worse. This is going to become the norm.’
‘Actually we could all be underwater in fifty years, Bunny.’
‘Well you know, I won’t actually be here in fifty years, Teddy. But Diane will. Diane will take care of the island.’
‘She better not,’ Dolly says, again looking at Diane who this time half nods.
At bartering time Dolly hangs back. She strips her fingers of her rings and says, ‘Consider this your ticket to the mainland.’
‘Have you ever heard a nightjar, Dolly?’
‘What? No, not since I was a little girl. I thought they were extinct.’ Dolly holds her rings out. ‘Here.’
Diane shakes her head. ‘I need to stay. There’s something I need to finish.’
By mid-month, the salon closes too and the whole town is shut up. The island aches with hunger. Da collects all his bottles and gamely makes a bar under the stairs, and when the drink is gone Da also disappears.
Diane builds fires, her and Ma live off eggs and packet stock and bread made from weevil-ridden flour.
Later on in the month, before dawn, scratches at the kitchen door. When Diane goes to answer, no one is there but a gift lies at her feet: a small snowman with a pale yellow grapefruit as his belly. She gives half to Ma and then takes three hours to eat her portion, pressing each segment to the roof of her mouth, thinking of Jimmy and drenching her tongue in its taste. A day or so later the snowman has a new double set of buttons; rows of dates, and she enjoys the sugar coating and fizzing on her teeth. Then staggered throughout the rest of the month, bananas (as a comb over) , more oranges (as feet) and a pomegranate, held in snow hands, against his snow body, the only fruit presented as an actual gift. She leaves eggs, wrapped in sheet music of nightingales and song thrush. She leaves homemade vouchers promising haircuts. She writes ‘thank you’ in the snow, with trailing Xs leading to her gifts.
Ma never asks where the fruit comes from but she complains, she says she dreams of a different life, that this life isn’t the one she deserves. Ma says she wants meat, she tips the fruit onto the floor and says she only wants meat. This goes on for days and Diane is surprised by her hot tears when she decides which of her named hens to slaughter. Ma gorges on the chicken, only briefly using cutlery before eating with her hands, and Diane can’t bear to watch, but Ma is finally sated and Diane coaxes her out of her dressing gown and guides her to the edge of the bath.
‘Come on Ma, lean your head back, just a little more.’
Diane tests the water and wets Ma’s hair. She picks her favourite shampoo of heather and lavender, rubs it gently into Ma’s scalp. Ma’s eyes close. Rinse and then conditioner, more open heath lands in their tiny bathroom.
Gently, Diane combs through the tangles, the days, the weeks spent lying down.
‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry Ma, not many more.’
Rinse and then pull water from the hair until it squeaks.
She wraps Ma’s head in a towel and guides her to the bedroom. Ma’s T-shirt is soaking, clings to her breasts and her little pot tummy, a tummy which had once held Diane and before that Paulina, her desperately wanted first child. And Diane sees what Ma has lost, sees Ma as an apple that’s been cored, and the love she feels for her mother is almost maternal. Towel dry, and Diane finds the right parting and sacrifices the last of their daily energy ration to give Ma’s hair a soft curl. Maybe next time she’ll find Ma a nice frosted brown dye. Maybe she could part with another hen. Maybe she could make things okay. Ma lies down and Diane lies next to her.
Reaches out and holds her hand.
‘You look lovely, Ma.’
‘I bet she’d be doing amazing things by now,’ Ma says.
Ma will always love the dead more than the living, says Paulina.
March. No boats, and still freezing. Robins blaze red in bushes. The trudge to the forest is a fight against snow drifts, which can rise as high as Diane’s waist.
They meet at the hunter’s cottage. Jimmy always arrives first. The cottage, unbuilt by salt, unplumbed by weather, is locked up on the outside and broken down on the inside, half stairs leading to a half roof.
He picks the lock and says, ‘Give me your hand.’
He climbs over the crumbling ceiling, adrift on the floor, and she gives him her hand, as the rubble pinches her ankles. Inside, he sweeps aside the debris and lays out blankets, sleeping bags, furs on the ground. He lights a fire.
‘Hey, look what I’ve brought.’
He pulls out pillowy marshmallows. The fire is fed and it crackles. When they aren’t quick enough, the mallow plops into the flames. They lean back, and through the hole in the roof watch the sky turn to ink, the moon show its craters.
‘Hear that, it’s a robin … And that’s a dunnock …That scurrying, it’s a badger … And that. That’s foxes making love.’
‘Foxes don’t make love.’
‘If humans can, then foxes can. We are all animals after all.’
Every night he moves a little closer.
‘Dolly says the nightjar sounds electric. It’s a churring sound. It signals the beginning and end of the night.’
‘It’s the bookends to Paulina’s symphony.’
Diane falls asleep turned into him, her breath burns through his clothes to his skin. When they leave just before sunrise, he takes her hand again, guiding her through the wreckage and as they say goodbye an awkwardness hangs like a lantern between them. He sometimes brings her fingers to his lips, but often places her hand back down by her side.
April’s first day, the sea is all coy, flashing frilly white at the glinty sun. Most of the island have turned up on the port, cheering as each boat docks. But it’s a child’s excitement, one that can tip over into hysterics. The laughter is jangly, people begin to shove as each freight is unloaded so that the portmaster forms a cordon and passes out fruit and chocolate.
‘One each. Only one each.’
Diane moves through the crowd, thickening now with farmers and the fishermen. Women are in bright cardigans and their best frocks, and children play hide and seek in the crowd.
‘Diane. Thank God eh? Thank God.’
‘Where’d you want the shampoo drums?’
‘Hey, Thursday okay now?’
‘Diane, sweet Diane.’ Da is swaying, already made use of the whiskey freight. ‘Don’t you wait up for your daddy now.’
Diane keeps moving until she sees him, away from the crowd and almost out of sight, at the far edge of the port.
Diane smiles at the portmaster and grabs a clementine and walks over. She gives it to Jimmy and his fingers are delicate deskinning it, its peel spiralling onto the ground.
‘Are you leaving then?’
‘Tomorrow.’ He pauses. ‘Come with me.’
She shakes her head. ‘I need to wait.’
‘Then you’ll be here forever.’
‘Then I’ll be here forever.’
‘I can stay with you.’
‘And do what?’
‘Then come with me.’
That night she arrives first at the hunters’ cottage. The earth is showing itself through the receding snow and the trees drip with the melt. Jimmy is late. She picks the lock and prepares the insides, lighting the fire, laying out the blankets and furs.
She brings her cutters, and when he arrives she leads him into the cottage and unwraps him. She takes off his coat, his jumper, his T-shirt and sits him down on the single chair. She stands above him and pulls her jumper over her head, unbuttons her blouse. And then she shaves his head, shorter than it’s ever been, and it is navy velvet beneath her fingers. And as she brushes away the hair filings, she kisses his face, his neck, his shoulders, he’s salt and smoke on her tongue.
An owl sits above them, a bird of flash and quicksilver in the moonlight. The sedge warblers and nightingales are still a few hundred miles from the coast, still caught in the hinterland between sea and sky. Further out still a thousand miles past the mainland, a single small brown bird flies in a fierce midnight heat, red dust still caught in its feathers and a churring in its throat.