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South by Emma Martin

Posted on 16/09/2020
By Commonwealth Foundation

To celebrate 10 years of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize we are inviting previous winners to share something new with us—it might be a story, a podcast, an interview or a blog. Here 2012 Prize winner Emma Martin shares South, an extract from her novel-in-progress. To read Emma’s prizewinning story, ‘Two Girls in a Boat’, click here.

The apples were rattling in the boot. Margaret had stopped at an orchard two hours earlier and bought a huge box of them, and she had let the children gorge until their fingers and chins were dripping with juice. She gripped the steering wheel tightly with both hands and sped south like a bullet across the plains, the sun behind her, the mountains to her right, the children’s feet weasling through the upholstery and getting her right in the small of her back. Towering belts of macrocarpa had been planted as windbreaks along the fence line, and as the sun drifted west, their shadows slanted across the road; Margaret sped through these too, in and out of the flickering light. She had not slept the night before, but she was not tired. In fact, it seemed to her that this had been her mistake, to ever have allowed herself to capitulate to corporeal demands, not just her own but the children’s, caring whether they were tired or thirsty or cold – an unsolvable calculus anyway, for when one need was sated, another immediately arose.

‘We’re hungry,’ said the children.

‘Have an apple,’ said Margaret.

The mountains were moving with them. No matter how fast Margaret went they were still there, lavender-grey, sharply chiselled, snow clinging to the peaks and stretching its fingers down into valleys where the sun did not reach. Margaret pressed her foot harder on the accelerator and an answering foot pressed harder into her back.

‘Stop it,’ she said. ‘I don’t want to have to tell you again.’

The foot retracted; then, like a snail’s antenna, it tentatively returned, curious as to what it could get away with and what it could not.

‘Sadie!’ said Margaret.

‘It wasn’t me!’ said Sadie.

The heater was pumping out warm air, but cold draughts tricked their way through the seal around Margaret’s window and licked her skin. She did not want to stop, ever, reluctant even to slow for bends; luckily there were no bends.

But then Peter needed the toilet. His small voice piped up every half mile or so to remind her, never querulous, for that was not Peter’s way. Even when he had first learned to talk, his requests had been framed as neutral statements of fact: he would inform Margaret of what he required, politely and with perfect syntax, and then wait quietly for her to respond. Margaret squinted into the distance. A huddle of buildings was rising out of the yellow plains.

‘Okay,’ she said. ‘Just hold on a bit longer.’

There was a public toilet in a layby off the township’s main road. Margaret pulled over. She turned off the ignition and swivelled to face the children. Peter’s skivvy was wet, not just at the neck where he had been sucking at it, but over his chest where the moisture had wicked. He had taken off his sandals and, inexplicably, his shorts; his socks, however, were pulled up to his knees. Sadie sat with her legs folded under her chin, one of her dungaree buckles undone and the strap hanging loosely. She grinned at Margaret, her smile gappy where, envious of the missing teeth of older girls, she had managed to agitate and finally wrench out one of her own; the hole had bled for two days but Sadie, in possession of the five cent coin left under her pillow in exchange for the tooth, had considered herself vindicated. Scattered across the back seat was a graveyard of half-eaten apples.

‘Mummy,’ said Peter. ‘I’m busting.’

The toilets were in a concrete, bunker-like building. Margaret shepherded the children in. Though she had strapped Peter’s sandals back on, he hesitated at the threshold, curling his toes back at the sight of the wet floor.

‘Go on,’ Margaret said, giving him a gentle push.

Sadie insisted she did not need to go but when Peter had finished Margaret made her pull down her pants and sit on the toilet anyway. Sadie glared at Margaret, holding on for as long as she could before peeing with hot fury.

‘Hands,’ said Margaret, as Sadie tried to slip back out the door. She cupped her hands around Sadie’s in the basin, rubbing them with cold, soapless water and then shaking them dry. Peter was trying to fit both of his feet onto a patch of dry floor, which meant wedging himself between the basin and the wall. Margaret took hold of his wrists and he made a spidery leap to the exit.

Across the road the shopfronts were dark except for one, a fish and chip shop with a hand-painted sign showing a grinning cartoon fish holding a knife and fork in its fins. Speared on the fork was a smaller fish, looking fearfully at the large fish.

Margaret hustled the children across the road. Inside, the shop was empty except for a hamster-faced woman in a blue smock and paisley headscarf who stood behind the counter. Prices were written in yellow chalk on a blackboard above the deep fat fryer. Peter jiggled, his hands fiddling nervously at the front of his undies. Margaret regretted not making him put his shorts back on. But Sadie had grown docile, wary of disrupting the flow of events now they were going her way.

‘Please may I have a sausage please Mummy?’ she said.

Margaret paid for the order with a two dollar note, peeled from the heavy wad of one hundreds in her purse. The woman looked at her curiously, but said nothing, just counted out the change and handed Margaret a parcel wrapped in newspaper. They ate in the car, the fish and chips steaming up the windows. Margaret realised that she was hungry after all – not just hungry, ravenous. The chips burned her oesophagus as she gulped them down. Peter ate the batter from his fish, then deposited the fish itself, a pearly white slab, back onto the newsprint. Sadie had licked the salt from her sausage as if it were a Popsicle and was hoovering up the crispy fragments at the bottom of the parcel.

‘But who will feed Kipper?’ Peter suddenly said.

‘Daddy will, stupid,’ said Sadie. ‘Won’t he, Mummy?’

Margaret wrapped the newspaper around the remnants of their dinner and licked the grease from her fingers. When she looked up both children were watching her with unblinking eyes.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Of course he will.’

They drove down the deserted main street, past a boarded-up hair salon and an agricultural machinery yard, and back onto the open road. They tried to play I Spy, but Peter did not know the beginning letters of words. Margaret pointed out a hawk circling over a paddock, but Sadie was consumed with rage when Peter spotted it and she did not. For a long time they monitored the number plates of oncoming cars: an S was a point for Sadie, P a point for Peter. Then there was an argument about the tallying of points. Then there was another argument about whether to continue the game following the first argument. Sadie played solo for several miles, updating Peter on her score as it soared beyond his, but eventually even she fell silent. Peter was sucking on his skivvy again, his eyes closed. They crossed a wide, braided river. On its far shore the plains began to wrinkle and rise up around them. The road wound to the crest of a hill; at the top was a farmhouse with puffs of smoke rising perfectly from its perfect chimney like smoke in a child’s picture book.

On the far side of the hill, in a prettily wooded valley, Margaret found the road blocked by sheep moving from one paddock to another. A farmer in a maroon jersey stood with his crook extended, while a black and white dog trotted eagerly back and forth. Too many sheep had crossed into the road at once and they had become confused, a breakaway group ambling towards the idling car. They looked at Margaret with baffled eyes. The farmer whistled and the dog sprinted down the fence line, head down and coat rippling. It looped around and came at the sheep from in front, standing very still, facing them, one paw lifted off the ground. The largest sheep, which also had the blankest expression, gave a stomp of its hoof, looked as if it were about to charge, then turned and ran back towards the flock; the others followed, joining the morass of woolly bodies as they squeezed through the gate in the failing light.

It was almost nightfall when they reached the coast. They rounded a bend and suddenly the hills to their left fell away, revealing waves breaking on a long stretch of shore.

‘I can see the sea and the sea can see –’ began Margaret, but before she could finish, Sadie cried, ‘I can see the sea and the sea can see me! I said it first!’

The water was purple in patches where huge swathes of kelp swirled beneath the surface. Further out, it was impossible to distinguish the darkening sea from the darkening sky.

‘Mummy, what’s that noise?’ said Sadie.

‘It’s just the apples.’

Peter was the first to fall asleep, curled on the back seat hugging a pillow with both arms and legs, like the koala bear keyring an aunt had once sent Margaret from Australia: when you pinched it at the shoulder blades its paws opened as if in a welcoming embrace, then snapped shut on whatever was placed between them. Shortly afterwards, with a clunk, Sadie rolled off the seat, stirring only to moan ‘I’m still hungry’ before falling back to sleep on a mattress of discarded jerseys on the floor.

As it always did when the children slept, a part of Margaret that was kept locked away in the day crept out of its cage and stretched its bent and cramped wings. It stared into the darkness out of Margaret’s eyes. Margaret concentrated on navigating between the posts that flanked the road, which were white with red tips, like unlit matches. She felt she could have carried on like this forever, were it not for the temptation to close her eyes on the longer, straighter stretches. She was driving now through what seemed to be a glimmering dreamscape in which animal-shaped forms hovered just out of view – like those iced animal biscuits, the hippopotamus and the deer and the rabbit all roughly identical, which she had fed to the children when they had the mumps, Peter sucking at his but unable to swallow so eventually they liquefied and become so ingrained in his pyjamas the colouring from the icing had never washed out.

It was not the apples. This was a different sound, not coming from the boot at all but from under the bonnet, a dull vibration, camouflaged sometimes by more familiar noises, but at certain speeds or certain cambers of the road drawing attention to itself as something not familiar at all. The needle on the temperature gauge was edging towards red. The car smelt faintly of hot metal. Margaret eased her foot slightly off the accelerator but kept driving. For several miles she found herself stuck behind a sheep truck which forced her to change into low gear as it ground slowly up hills but hurtled downhill with its trailer bouncing and clattering, Margaret following in its wake as if her car were attached to it by a towline.

It was after nine when she came to the turn-off. The signpost materialised suddenly out of the darkness, and she had to brake hard to take the bend. She drove for half a mile along slithery gravel before a scattering of houselights came into view. She slowed for a cat which, caught in her headlights, revealed itself not to be a cat after all but a possum, its eyes red and perfectly round.

‘Hello,’ said Margaret.

The possum blinked and shuffled away.

On the floor in the back of the car Sadie was snoring. Peter, though, suddenly sat up and cried, ‘Where are we?’

‘We’re almost there,’ said Margaret.

They drove over a small bridge and past a shop, a community hall and, she could just make out, a petrified tree, its massive trunk split completely in two. She made her way more slowly as the road dwindled to sandy tyre tracks. Moths thudded softly against the windscreen. Finally, it appeared out of the darkness in front of them: a small structure, flimsy even for a crib, with a low-pitched, corrugated iron roof and two small square windows on either side of the door. It was surrounded by long, feathery grass which swished against the underside of the car as Margaret drew to a halt. She turned off the engine.

‘Mummy?’ said Peter.

Margaret climbed out of the car. The air smelt of salt and rotting kelp. A full moon shone through swirling high clouds. As her eyes adjusted, she could see, beyond the crib, a rolling landscape of sand dunes. A moth whirred close to her ear. She swatted it away. From under the bonnet came a gentle hissing.

‘Mummy?’ said Peter again.

Margaret opened Peter’s door. He reached up and clung to her as she lifted him to the ground, his arms around her neck half-throttling her. Sadie was almost impossible to move, as insensible as if she had been drugged.

‘Sadie,’ said Margaret. ‘Wake up.’

She tried to get her arms under Sadie’s armpits and lever her up off the floor, but the door would not open wide enough for her to get on the right angle. She put her hand on Sadie’s shoulder and shook her. Sadie did not open her eyes, but there was a subtle shift in the nature of her stillness.

‘We’re here.’ Margaret shook her again. ‘Sadie.’

Sadie, eyes still closed, allowed Margaret to manoeuvre her off the floor and out of the car, where she stood gently swaying in the moonlight. Margaret placed her hand between Sadie’s shoulder blades and steered her through the grass and onto a white pebble path that led to the front door. Sadie walked with slow, deliberate steps, arms held out zombie-style in front of her.

‘Sadie, people who are sleep walking don’t actually do that,’ said Margaret.

But Sadie persisted all the way down the path, while Peter followed, whimpering, behind them. There was a throng of garden gnomes by the door: Margaret lifted each in turn until she found the key. She stepped onto the fruit crate positioned in front of the doorstep in lieu of steps, unlocked the door and grappled against the inside wall until her fingers found a switch.

‘Watch the step,’ she said to the children.

She reached out for one of Sadie’s wooden arms. Sadie’s eyelashes flickered as she stepped onto the wobbly crate and in the door. Peter tried to hop up onto the crate on one foot.

‘Not like that,’ said Margaret. ‘You’ll trip.’

She took hold of him and hoisted him inside. The door opened directly into a small room which was painted lemon yellow and coral pink. There was a brown sofa, a three-legged wooden stool and a gas heater in a beige-tiled hearth.

Peter was still whimpering. He was standing awkwardly, holding one foot off the ground.

‘What’s the matter?’ said Margaret.

She picked him up, sat him on the sofa, and knelt in front of him. The path, it turned out, was not made of pebbles at all but of fragments of shell, one of which had embedded itself, like the horn of a tiny, malignant unicorn, deep in the soft flesh of Peter’s instep.

‘Hold still,’ she said, trying to get a grip on the shell, but Peter jerked his foot away at her touch.

Sadie, who had been exploring the room with arms still extended and eyes half closed, dropped all pretence of being anything other than wide awake. She crouched next to Margaret and peered at Peter’s foot.

‘Ow,’ she said.

‘He’ll be okay,’ said Margaret. ‘It’s just a piece of shell.’

But when – holding Peter’s kicking ankle tightly with one hand and pincering the shell with the other – she managed to pull it out, blood welled darkly from the wound. She groped in her pocket for a handkerchief, which she used to staunch the blood. Peter had gone pale.

‘Hold this,’ she said, picking up his hand and clasping it around the handkerchief. ‘I’ll be back in a minute.’

The bathroom was a lopsided room at the end of the hallway, with a grimy louvre window over a cracked and dusty basin. Margaret found a bottle of Dettol in a cupboard along with a hank of cotton wool and a box of yellowing sticking plasters. She mixed a slosh of the Dettol in a teacup with water. When she returned to the living room carrying the cup, Peter looked up at her warily. She sat on the sofa next to him, lifted his foot into her lap and dipped the cotton wool into the cup. Then she removed Peter’s hand, still clutching the handkerchief, from his foot, and dabbed the cotton wool on the cut. Peter flinched, but the fight seemed to have gone out of him.

‘Mummy,’ said Sadie.

Margaret taped over the cut with sticking plaster, then lifted Peter onto her lap and brushed back the hair from his forehead.

‘Are you okay?’ said Margaret.

Peter didn’t answer. Margaret wrapped her arms around him. She felt his body tighten.

‘I want Kipper,’ he said.

‘Oh sweetheart,’ said Margaret. ‘We need to stay here for a while. Kipper will be okay.’

‘Why can’t Kipper come too?’

‘He just can’t, sweetheart. Cats don’t like going away.’

She rested her face on the top of his head and breathed in the musty scent of his hair.

‘Mummy,’ said Sadie again. Margaret looked up. Sadie was standing by the open front door looking out. ‘The car’s on fire.’

Still holding Peter, Margaret stood up and walked slowly to the door. Flames were emerging from under the bonnet of the car. Even in the moment it took for Margaret to understand what she was seeing, the fire took hold and quickly spread. The inside of the car was now also alight. Smoke billowed across the yard and into Margaret’s eyes. She squeezed them shut; when she opened them, Sadie was halfway to the car.

‘Sadie!’ she shouted. She put Peter down, took him by one hand, ran forward dragging him, and grabbed Sadie with her other hand. Sadie grinned at her. The car was already a furnace, the flames unbelievably hot. Sadie tugged at Margaret and Margaret allowed herself to be led, and as they circled the car the smoke seemed to come at them deliberately, as if their presence had attracted its attention, as if it wanted to feed on them too, and might have done, had Margaret not kept a tight grip on the children’s hands. The fire smelled terrible, a suffocating mix of burning fuel and acrid smoke, thick black palls of it, but it was the heat, the heat blasting off it, which sent them, finally, staggering backwards, and it was amazing to Margaret that no-one had come, that no-one had heard the explosion of this new little sun, that it was private to them; and looking at Sadie and Peter, she saw that in a sense it was private to each of them, that they may not even be watching the same fire, Peter’s face solemn and unmoving and Sadie’s eyes bright.

The wind picked up and fanned the flames, until sparks rained down like fireworks on the grass, setting it alight in patches. Sadie, extricating her hand from Margaret’s, ran across the grass and stomped on the flames to extinguish them.

‘Sadie!’ cried Margaret, lunging for her as a piece of burning debris loosened itself and was whipped across the lawn by a gust of wind. Sadie saw it and stood, frozen, as it windmilled past her. She was such a tiny figure, dwarfed by the scale of the devastation. In the car something exploded; Sadie stepped back into Margaret’s arms, coughing and suddenly cowed, as a new plume of smoke enveloped them. Margaret groped for Peter and led the two of them back towards the house, where they huddled on the fruit crate and watched in silence as the fire reached its peak and began, finally, to subside.

Peter had fallen asleep, his head resting heavily on Margaret’s collarbone. Margaret’s opposite arm had gone numb where Sadie was leaning on it. As the radiant heat of the fire diminished, they grew cold; Margaret could feel Sadie shivering.

‘What about our things?’ said Sadie in a small voice. Margaret did not answer.

They sat there until the fire had burnt itself out, and only a darkened husk of the car remained. Margaret hoisted Peter, still sleeping, a little higher over her shoulder, and drew herself and Sadie wearily to their feet. Inside, she navigated Sadie into the bathroom, sat her on the toilet and then roused Peter enough to have him do the same. She stripped off their outer layers of clothes, which stank most strongly of smoke, half guided, half carried them into the main bedroom and tucked them up on either side of the double bed. She scanned the room looking for additional bedding; in a wardrobe she found a raggedy eiderdown and a coarse woollen blanket but no spare pillows. She would have to share Peter’s, Sadie having laid irrefutable claim to her side of the bed by splaying her arms and legs like a starfish and promptly falling asleep. The bedsprings sank, hammock-like, as Margaret climbed in between them.

‘Where will Kipper sleep?’ mumbled Peter.

‘What?’ said Margaret.

‘He always sleeps with me.’

But Margaret’s eyes were closing and she could not think of where Kipper might sleep. And then the three of them were falling, down and down and down, bunked up in a submarine together and dropping into the depths of the ocean, where sounds were magnified and at the same time muffled, everything dim, the weight of the children’s bodies beside her, and where the only living creatures were strange and misshapen – spiny, luminescent things, mouths bigger than their bodies, carrying their own lamps over their heads or swimming blindly in the silty blackness.

Emma Martin grew up in Dunedin, New Zealand and has lived in Melbourne, Manchester, London and Edinburgh. She currently lives in Wellington with her two teenage children. She is the author of a short story collection, Two Girls in a Boat, and is working on a novel and a collection of essays. She won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2012.