‘Postcards are a Thing of the Past’ by Tracey Slaughter, The Moth Short Story Prize runner-up
Judge Kevin Barry: ‘It could be described almost as a kind of erotic travelogue’
New Zealander Tracey Slaughter has received many awards for her stories and poems, including the Bridport Prize and two Katherine Mansfield Awards
This morning I squatted in the hotel showerbox and shaved my snatch for my husband, the way I would have done for you.
So you can’t say I’m not trying.
It would have seemed like redemption, except that my lips swelled. Like they were moaning at the contours of you. Remember, you once did the job for me, demanded to, pinned me back, and left me sleek and nicked. Then bent to kiss a tiny slip-up, hauling at my slathery hips, to get your laugh into the blood. I remember. I was tempted to reload my fist with complimentary soap and crouch in the memory for hours. Watch my ugly needs in stainless steel. Such a hot-blooded cowering. But when I travel with my husband, we’ve always got a timetable.
On the flight here, I didn’t sit with my husband. Some booking glitch got us an in-flight divorce. The first thing I did was pick up my phone: but then I remembered, you didn’t want to hear from me. I sat beside a little girl selected by the hostess to hand around the sweets, the ones you suck for descent so the altitude doesn’t get stuck in your eardrums. She wore a pink tiger T-shirt, with blonde curls ponytailed, but a jackal face. She had a touchscreen baby PC, with games that ran on pink tracks, and her fingers triggered flowers and stars. Across the aisle, the rest of her family were strapped: dumber little sis, mother half-bothered to love the loud swaddled demands of a babe-in-arms, and father, sexily greying with long-haul exhaustion. The hostess made a special trip to brief them in the fitting of infant life-jackets, the recommended brace positions. Neither parent could muster more than a blink. The man who got the window seat by me was wild: he’d been stuck near the kid on his incoming flight too, and felt unable to make violent movie picks. The sound of the little girl winning over and over was glittery. I refused her stock of rainbow sweets when she skipped round. I thought about your reason, your daughter. I wished I could programme a bloody zoo to screen on the headrest in front of my seat, a reel of R18s. The attendant didn’t like me, made a point of checking that I’d fastened my silver-buckled crotch for landing. We could hear the quarantined dogs barking from the hold, stress soiling their cages.
No one told me of the drone of marital fucking, the habitual understated rut of it.
The bedside lights here are like black trombones. They pull out from the headboard on steel concertinas, pitched low, as if ready to conduct a gynaecological exam. I could imagine what you’d get up to with them. Angle my hips back on the plush basin of the quilt, search me for sulky details.
But my husband, post a kind of dull coitus, is watching men hunt on the backblocks of TV. ‘Well we went out and we found something,’ one guy says, scratching back his plaid cap. ‘Now we just got to shoot it.’
I lie here, breathing the vanished scent of your shirt.
No one told me the brace position for this.
We had a fried pile of fish today, bite-size, dumped on shells, a platter of withered scallops. It tasted like the estuary I used to swim as a kid, like seaweed, vinegar, chilled togs and snot. I had my first kiss there, under a bridge, and it tasted like that, with bubblegum mixed in, with a faint itch of the coconut that used to spritz the white cream of the school-issue Sally Lunns. I remember my pigtails catching on the sharp frills of shell that clung to the concrete, and a pincher coming at my demi-nipple until it hurt through my rubbery suit. I didn’t like the boy. I just needed to be kissed. It was time. There was a troop of kids watching from the rails of the bridge, yelling us on. I rotated my head the way I’d seen on telly, and tried not to gag on the complicated seafood of his tongue.
I’ve been doing this a long time, it seems.
Subtext: I’ve only ever loved you.
Tonight the wet skin between my thighs only knows profanity. I’ve used all the sachets in the bathroom, leeched out all the single-use tubes. I’m a slippery cocktail. My skin sounds gluttonous. Ylang ylang stroked into cavities, wheatgrass massaged over wide-open bone. Bergamot and neroli get me blossoming.
All this toxicology makes me miss you.
When I lie down the sheets will be foxed with me. There was an anti-theft notice slid into the pocket of the lush white bathrobe (a pair in bleached towelling with their arms tucked into each other like a cute origami hug): I love it here. Please buy my twin in reception. So I know everybody wants to steal a skin.
Come back. I’ve forgotten the terms of the standoff.
It would only take a short-lived kiss to flip me over and fuck me to the marrow.
I’ve never seen hills with such secret velvety creases, all this high-country pasture combed and moist. Clouds easing over them, into their mellow smoothness, glazing their curves with sky. In declivities, the unmoving slick of a lake: a single black swan, stillness. The slope and roll of everything golden green, like earth brushed into slow waves.
Or maybe that’s just me.
I look like a slice of motel hell this morning. You wouldn’t even recognise me. My vision is equal parts gin and mascara. There’s hotel soap in my wedding ring. There’s a married taste worn into the back of my mouth. The window of our last room had no vantage point. But this one is high-rise, a vast pan of glass over town. Late night, an epic stretch of lights changed the alleys, dressed all their grime in an optical shivering. I downed a whole bottle in front of it. My husband sat around for a while, in indecisive underwear, then opted to snooze. I wandered over once, held my face close to his snores: he smelled like yesterday. Then I just sat and stared at the glass in my grip, like there was a lot there to swallow. And out at the view, hoping something was zoned for demolition.
He’s been enjoying the driving. Though we can only tune our rental car into shitty stations, retro radio that spits up lyrics where love ‘cuts like a knife/but feels so right.’ ‘I hear the secrets that you keep, when you’re talking in your sleep.’ That was today’s pop offering. And somehow its corniness put him in a playful mood. He crooned along, with toots of cheesy send-up, underlining it in full disco delivery. ‘Don’t you know you’re sleeping in the spotlight,’ all jazz hands and loony tongue. But I didn’t sing the harmony.
It’s not like him, to let his sombre outlook go on holiday. He even got an on-road semi. ‘Touch it. Oh go on, just touch it.’ But that particular traveller didn’t last long. We got stuck behind a truck that read ‘Waste Management’ crawling the range with a streak of black leaking from its tail plate. Our windshield went gauzy in its hissing trail of filth. Pinned in its wake, he dropped gears, raked the wipers, yanked the steering wheel in a spasm of rage. ‘They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it. Who the hell knows what the slime is belching out of that thing.’
But I was face down, unzipping memory. Forgetting white lines, in your oncoming thrusts. Laughing at the brake jerks, filling my squeals with come.
There was a number on the waste truck to report it. I imagined it was mine. Or yours.
Let me tell you exactly how I wish you were here. Since you tell me that you’re not jealous.
I wish you were here on the refit seventies carpet that is chic again, an asphalt pile with accents of tangelo and teal.
I wish you were here on the balcony that floats over tussock.
I wish you were here to tell the neighbours’ kids to shut the fuck up with their jandals and coke and happiness. I wish you were here to snarl harder when they gave you sass.
I wish you were here, exactly, on the long back zip that bisects my dress, your knuckles slipping and unco on the top hook and eye, always tricky since it washed kinky. I wish for the scent of your whispered swearwords to curse at the base of my cervical spine. I wish when you finally mastered its teeth you breathed in, prolonging its metal reversal. I wish that shudder that comes from the graze of your thumb could never stop travelling me, scalp to tailbone.
I wish I could strip you back, here, where this green light is planetary, bare you in the sway of its globe, and get you to kiss me, my whole face, smearing off its legacy of lies and eye-shadow.
Then I wish you take me fast, wish your grip on my hips, a soundless monopoly so hard it blackens me.
But I guess: if you can’t be with the one you love … then get on all fours on the room-serviced bed.
Sun so sharp the mountains are cubist, black geometries cut from light.
We stop at a café boasting a kissing gate. Turns out that’s nothing to do with Valentines. It’s a basic contraption, in rough board, hinged so it doesn’t let the animals in.
The café’s a crinkled villa, set in a garden unruly with frilled and salty herbs. I take a ladies break in an old shearer’s hut, gussied up with green gingham drapes. Antique washhouse utensils on the wall, copper cistern, oak toilet seat. Wood ironing board for a baby change table, and calendar of carthorses hitched to a post. So all in all it’s like taking a yesteryear piss.
The hut is big enough for us to bang around in. That’s what I’d be doing with you. Wrangling you into the calico, while bumblebees doze into the weatherboards bombed with rosemary.
Every small town we drive through has a Coronation Hall. And at least one place where I would fuck you.
Mountains thinking prehistoric thoughts. Sunlight all over their soft switchbacks. How does their altitude look so gentle? I know they’re not asleep.
The rub of sun on grass tips, windows open to pale gusts of heat.
My husband says, ‘Just think of how far away we are from our lives.’
And then he says, ‘I love you.’
I’m going to the restaurant smelling like my own come, as the light in this hotel room is my five-star witness.
So it’s fitting that the waitress in the backstreet joint I pick wears a T-shirt that reads ‘Hot Secret Shame’.
I chose it because it was the only place in town I could find that was promising (kind of) live music. The entertainment turns out to be a balding hippy of blues riffs and long cedar beads. All the songs are jangling synonyms for each other, one Eagle-esque verse, one lonelier chorus (because somewhere on his journey, peace and love got a little hurt by one ole Calfornia gal). After the bridge, he gives his braced harmonica a spurt, a growled choo-choo of irony. I clap because I love him. I clap more, and knock back chardonnay. My husband has started counting.
And it’s fine until the cover he plays that’s just a muddy stomp, and a chord progression aimed at your roots and the lyrics, ‘Come back baby, come back, come back to me.’ I’m fine until he downtunes for dirtier frets, and the howling starts in a minor key that makes you know that your soul is sitting in your gut just below where you shovelled your dinner, just above where your lover has been, a place he can’t reach. And doesn’t want to. Though the words won’t ever change, ‘Come back baby, come back to me’.
There was this island we always used to pass when I was a kid, from the motorway, a fern-tangled hump. By the time I saw it I was deep into grizzling at the journey, the long vinyl miles filled with my whining, the backseat airless and crammed with shins and sweated out with peppermint singing (the two things my mother always had in the car was a packet of Oddfellows and a list of jolly pass-the-time tunes. She’ll be coming round the fucking mountain). The island was a black dome in the mangroves, just a chunk of off-cut clay topped with bush. But I imagined someone was living there. Made up stories as the island passed, pretended I could see the glint of a hut, a stab of telltale lamplight. Some runaway was in residence. Someone had stumbled out there, through the shallows, hid out, staked their claim to unauthorised twilight. Or two people, living rough on each other, wild skins sleeping out.
So: are we there yet?
Tonight at dinner, I must look encouraging because a man comes over to our table and bends down to me. He’s pasty, kitted out in smart casual cosy tones I can see his wife packing for him. ‘Tell me,’ he says, ‘where do the dancers go?’ A gesture at the town, with a travelling salesman’s hand. He wants the music of moving bodies: he blinks at me with a balding kind of hope. But I just shrug, ‘Oh I’m a stranger.’ And my husband heads back with my top-up, gives him a glare. This guy’s not up to fighting territory.
It’s a good question though, don’t you think. Tell me where do the dancers go?
Back to their wives, in your case.
Do you get road rage? Today, at the servo, my husband was steaming over two young dykes playing on the forecourt with the windscreen brush, as if they had all the time in the world. One flicked the other with foam while she was pumping the gas, and then had to fend the brush from a tackle. The reprise was cute, and not at all butch: they squealed and fondled in the counter-attack, splashing suds up their camos. Their windscreen bubbled. They had matching black beads round their wrists and their biceps were glazed and beloved. I couldn’t help smiling at the struggle (would that have been the same if one of them had a cock?). But my husband went straight to boiling point. Was about to thump the horn when they panted to a final fizzy kiss and slapped the brush back into the bucket.
I can’t imagine road rage getting you. Taking the miles with a boner the way you do. The way you once let me watch you. Cruising the plains with your strokes on lazy repeat, highways ideal for in-car handling. You didn’t even ask me to touch it. Just brought yourself to a hazy finish, dabbed with a rag that doubled for the windscreen, and sent me a self-sufficient pleasured grin.
Oh my grubby unstoppable love.
There’s a blue mine, suddenly, steppes of it, gouged in like an amphitheatre where nothing but death’s showing. It’s ruled out the ground in such rigid lines, each grey level scored so straight, descending to a brilliant azure trough. A pattern of orderly wounding.
The bed is a lonely plateau. We are its only guests.
We book into another room that’s been hoovered, semi-glossed a soporific shade. I’m so tired of what I’m here to mimic, staring back at me from the practical furniture. But I still flip through the plastic-coated highlights, a swatch of prosaic reasons to stay, and ‘things to do’ while in this stunted metropolis. Shortcuts to companionable fucking.
Café today with zoo bars so you sit and feed up against the railings. (The dogs are still barking in their cages at a cruising altitude of 10,000 feet). There is snakeskin everywhere, the roar of plaster creatures, and bar leaners mottled with leopard print. A sticky build-up on the knowingly carnivorous menu, the tropics of plastic foliage. I chew and look at the people in a wall mural, bodies broken into bone and hide, so you can’t tell them from animals as they fork and bend, beasts gliding through the edges of each other. Your eye thinks it’s picked out a figure, but it’s lost the scent.
Subtext: I want you. And I can’t change my spots.
The pisser in this place looks like a wedding cake. Cushioned wallpaper of faux white leather, stamped with fat buttons and stencilled with gold fleur de lis. Meringue of white nets gathered at the louvres. And a pull-chain toilet, porcelain handle still damp and swinging from the last in the cubicle.
Inside the stall, there’s a full-length mirror where you can watch yourself urinating. I think about sending you a spread, white span of my flanks on the china, wet pink interruption. I’ve never even thought of taking photos before – I’m a collection of impulses that never crossed my mind. I shuck my jeans right off, line myself up in the gilt frame, tilting the cold of my pelvis. Swipe until the focus is a white square round my gash. It’s turning purple under the spotlight. The nets above the cistern ruche with radiance, trim me like a dirty bride.
Then I just squat and cry.
Last night we stayed at a B&B, each room named after the iron flowers in the ceiling, roses, tulips, orchids torqued into colonial tin. We got Lily. My husband was unsettled by the high weathered storeys of the place, its latticing of cobwebs, its parched boards and spire. He hated Lily on sight, its cornflower quilt, its periwinkle windowseat. The doll on the scotch chest, with her antique death stare and chilled enamel limbs, made him expect a ghost. So I christened her Lily, teased him. (It was nearly like old times). Every draft that whistled through the keyhole was her calling. She was lonely. She was jilted. Her ceramic nails were signalling. Supernatural drips oozed the jet lashes anchored to her eyes.
In the morning, he grunted from a good sleep, saying ‘Well, Lily didn’t come to visit.’
But I’m not so sure.
Then a dam settlement, vertical acres of concrete bolting back the water. Everything vacant, the bare range of worker’s stone huts.
I want to stay in one of them. Teach you how we can’t control this. Over me the dark eaves of your ribs.
We stop in a junk store today. It’s not even a town we stop in, just a fork in the road, clustered with a few shops - or hunches of building that used to trade, signs now snuffed and windows boarded up. Everything’s mangy. In the store we step into - through the flak of insect blinds - the woman looks taken aback. She pats the beige tines of her spiral perm and blinks at us, as if she wasn’t ready to receive. The tattoo that slithers down into her cleavage reads ‘Davey’.
Everything inside crawled here to die. Trinkets, doilies, taxidermy. Ice skates, swastikas.
I scratch at the odd vinyl, poster, souvenir, try not to release dust.
Then the woman springs to life, wags her hand over at me.
‘I don’t spose youse could let me use a cellphone. Mine’s munted. And I need to call my man urgent.’
I know, of course, that my husband won’t be budging. I can feel him stiffening instantly. But there’s something about the woman’s fried hair. I hand mine over. Her crimped tan grins at me. She’s missing canines and her eyes are rolled with yesterday’s kohl.
The conversation she has isn’t long. But it isn’t with a husband. My own has gone out to wait in the car, clipping the driver’s door to mark his huff. I glide round the dim stands, feign speculation on brooches and tools. The woman’s voice is greasy. A whine of bargaining that tries to be sexy, plea and purr. Her fingers worry at the bra line of her stretch-lace top. He cuts the call off for her. The wattle of her throat keeps swallowing. She’s too unglued to say thank you as she passes me my phone.
I buy a burnout top that reeks of BO, a civet acidity leeched into its velvet. And a black deathrock T-shirt, tattooed with cannibals, that reads ‘Everything Up Louder’.
When I get back in the car, my husband’s silent. He passes me the sanitizer, suggests I wipe ‘that crack whore’ off the screen.
‘That movie sounds terrible,’ said the old bird at an adjacent café table today. ‘It’s about a concentration camp.’ She tutted, like dirty historical laundry was the last thing she’d part with good money to see. They’d been on a peony talk, sat nibbling at their lamingtons and chattering about deadheading and fair climate. Now their shrilling had switched to the flicks they’d like to see.
‘No,’ the other one sucked on her dentures. ‘Apparently there’s quite a nice love story with it.’
This is how sick I am. If you loved me, I would take the apocalypse.
Someone else’s waterline lingers round the bath, grey silt where another body sank. The spare blankets harbour the smell of flaking skin. The unconditioned air feels inhabited. Fingerprinted dust runs the tongues of the blinds. The lamps have given out, gooseneck.
My husband is calling reception, dressing them down about the lapse in hygiene. I don’t know what he expects. This whole town has a chickenwire, plywood feel, a place of harsh luck, smelling of kerosene and one crammed schoolroom. We’re privileged the door has a latch. But he’s not wearing it: the stains of others. He booked a room for two only, he tells them, not three.
I stroke the tideline, feeling for your soot.
It’s like you’ve been here before me.
Since it’s silence you want between us, let me tell you what the silence is like here. You can taste the ice age in it. I’m standing in a piercing wind and letting myself be gusted by it. The cold is trying to howl me to my knees. There’s a roadside of frozen light and a fleet of stripped trees, a long black arcadia. I don’t know if I’m breathing. I don’t want to love you. It’s bleeding me out. But I can’t find the tourniquet.
Clouds like spilt milk. Nothing to cry over.
A woman on television is telling us about her kilos of weight loss. A woman on television is telling us about a miracle bleaching agent. A woman on television is describing the outfit her loved one was last seen in. A woman on television is having her face reset along deep butchered lines.
When we pick a channel it’s a doco on long distance romantics that are finally getting to meet. It doesn’t matter that their ages are way out of synch, that the brides are dialled from third world cultures. Or that’s what the stagey theme music wants us to think, stringing us along with violins. Planes land, and there’s a gate to bring flowers to, to bring the bouncy logos on helium balloons, to bring handmade signs from ghetto cardboard that read ‘Welcome Home!!!!’ They clasp each other, and you feel that word clasp. ‘I’m just happy he’s not a ghost,’ beams one woman.
How many kilos are there in a heart?
There’s part of the lake where you can walk out on a tiny peninsula, to a picnic table. The kind of lake where nothing’s moving. The water and the sky one reflection of staleness.
We met at a river once, but you were so afraid of being seen you would barely talk to me. I remember there were flowers floating on the current, no doubt the victims of some dreamy kid. Frilly pink decapitations, spinning in the flow. I think we could hear the faint giggle of the girl who was drowning them, rippled by the trees.
They weren’t marigolds, so not set adrift for a grief.
There should be marigolds here. You should die now. Set me free.
Just die, why don’t you?
I’ve been sightseeing with my eyes closed. Until we get to the stone church. Then in the window of the Good Shepherd I’m an atrocity. There’s an angel on a plinth wearing carved arcs of feather or petal or claw or armour. There’s a rope across the altar, thick knots like a mooring, or a noose. Then just a window.
These mountains are enough for any Messiah.
On my left there’s an old white woman trembling. On my right there’s an Asian family. The man takes off his navy bandana and drives it, with thumb joints, round the salt of his eyes. His wife lays one hand on his crew-cut, one finger tapping on his fontanel, like a bird’s beak. When he doesn’t stop, she fumbles at a baby, packed in her lap in a fat Antarctic pouch. She wobbles it onto his knees, and yanks off its bonnet, so his sobs thrum its fine black pigtails.
I think of your little girl.
And then I cry too. I don’t know how – just my chest gets full of the glare and the landscape, and the stale gentleness of the hymn they’re playing on a tape deck that says things like ‘oh redeemer’ and sings of wanting to be worthy, and the woman who puts down the mauve mohair purl of her knitting to pass me a psalm card as I’m leaving fans them like we’re facing off over a hand of poker, and I see her faith and raise her the sound of the south wind shrieking, I see her sympathy and raise her my deranged heart, which won’t give up your blasphemy in my life, and outside there’s a thornbush, black and spiked, like the barbarous alleys my blood goes down, cunt, scalp, thorax, every time I think of you.
My husband is touched by my sentimentality. Takes a photo of me on the stone steps. Still holding my little ticket to heaven.
Yea though I cry like a bitch in the chapel, I cannot stop tasting you. I still want to sin. You maketh me to lie down in dirty hotel rooms, parting wet paths through myself, and I want you to take all of them, till my skin runneth over. Restoreth my dress to the floor, and leadeth me to drown again. Preparest a feast from the minibar we can smudge across tastebuds and splash on the sheets. Annointest my scalp in the still of the downlit mirror till my mouth makes the sound of Thou, Thou, Thou. I don’t care. The pastures outside can turn red. I will dwell in whichever shit room will let me touch you. I will swallow the key. Cross off the days of my life, I’ll kneel in all of them. Grind me open on the bright quilt of temporary comfort. I’ll tell you cute jokes about your rod and your staff. The valley of you leaving me has fed me enough shadows. When the shepherd left this place, his dog would not stop stealing. I’m ready to tear the throat from every last sheep. To follow you.
White lime town with black steel ornaments. We go to a phantasmagorical foundry, walk through working beasts of industrial dream. Spined dresses and shattered machines, the sound effects of nightmare piped. Metal arcana welded into creatures, shadows that clank with uncivilized promises. Steampunk headquarters isn’t to my husband’s taste. He stalks through the weird black garden ahead of me.
So he misses the door which invites you in, like Alice. It reads: Open Me. And I do. And it’s not me that stretches or comes apart inside. It is the entire cosmos. I’m standing on a thin silver walkway. And it hangs on an abyss that is mirrored blackness. Below, it plunges down, streaming to infinity; above, it races up into a nothingness that shrinks you to a quivering speck. And all is lit with the hover of stars that echo in endless panes of forever, radiant strands of grenade that set obliteration sparkling. It takes a while for the trick to sink in. Of course, it’s just a mirror-lined room, narrow, a slightly outsized coffin, glinting surfaces warping the watching mind. The awe turns my gut over, almost makes me cling to the rail: for a moment I believe my gangplank reels over sheer drop. Then my heart rate starts to get a kind of focus. I begin to see the cords on the stars, their calculated dangling.
I’m not on a brink. But then I see the bird. It’s a fantail. And I know what it means, to have one enter a room. I know that it brings death flicking, its tiny claws pinching at the ropes of the stars. It cannot be still. Its flitting is relentless. It tries to beat itself against the edges of the light. It can feel the black box, but its universe keeps vanishing beyond the borders where the mirrors meet and part. And I open the door, so a piece of the world can come back into the frame, a thin window of the real enter the circuit. But of course, it’s twinned, picked up in the infinity, and even if the bird can see it, there is only an endless corridor of false doors opened in its night.
So I seal the door closed on our panic again. And watch the bird circle in its beautiful insanity. Trapped forever inside the bars of its fall.
And I know I still love you.
Tracey Slaughter, who is from New Zealand, has received many awards for her stories and poems, including the Bridport Prize, two Katherine Mansfield Awards, and shortlistings for both the Manchester Fiction Prize and the Manchester Poetry Prize. Her most recent work is a collection of short stories, deleted scenes for lovers, and a volume of poetry entitled conventional weapons is due for publication in 2019. She teaches creative writing at the University of Waikato, where she edits the literary journal Mayhem. Postcards are a Thing of the Past, which judge Kevin Barry awarded second prize, is ‘a narrative that shows the boundless possibilities of the short story as a form – it could be described almost as a kind of erotic travelogue, but the important movement is internal, or within,’ says Barry. ‘It’s about the heart, essentially, and there is real intensity in the writing, and some astonishing jolts in the language.’
The three winning stories appear in the autumn issue of The Moth, available to purchase in select bookshops and online at www.themothmagazine.com.