meet the winners: veronica sullivan, “quarry” and q & a
Veronica Sullivan’s story “Quarry” came third in Lip‘s 2014 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction. Here is an interview with Veronica, plus her award-winning piece. Enjoy!
Q & A
Tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you?
I’m a writer, editor, feminist, book-lover from Melbourne. Currently I work with Kill Your Darlings, the Emerging Writers’ Festival, and the Stella Prize – all organisations whose work I’m passionate about, and which I feel hugely proud to be associated with. I’m also studying a Masters of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing, and work as a bookseller and a freelance book reviewer.
What do you think it takes to write an award-winning story?
Oh, I don’t know! Depending on the award, a solid understanding of the theme or appreciation for the sensibility of the awarding body. But mostly, hard work, a preparedness to be rejected, a shitload of luck.
Why did you enter the Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction?
I’ve loved Lip since I first discovered it several years ago, and have been contributing features and book reviews since then. The quality and egalitarianism of all things associated with Lip is a big part of what continually draws me back. I saw the Rachel Funari Prize as an extension of that high standard, and wanted to see how I would go in the competition.
What does the term “women’s stories” mean to you?
Gender representation in literature is something I’m hugely passionate about. This personal interest informs and shapes my definition of the term ‘women’s stories’. To my mind, women’s stories are works which deal with the lives, experiences and psychology of female characters. Often, these works are consequently labelled ‘women’s writing’ and are solely marketed to and read by women, with the implicit assumption that men won’t find the work interesting or relevant. The segregation of fiction according to the gender of its subjects absolutely infuriates me. Increasing the space, coverage and consideration given to women writers is vital, because too often their work is sidelined or undervalued purely because of their gender. ‘Women’s writing’ and ‘women’s stories’ are writing by and about women, rather than writing for women. In a perfect world, all writing would be viewed as written for and read by anyone and everyone, free from artificial gender divisions. We’re a long, long way from that ideal.
How do you plan to spend your prizemoney?
Look, I will probably buy some books. I’m just happy to have money and a room of my own. I hope Virginia Woolf would be proud.
On the first day of this summer, I lie like an old dog in the sun, letting the cement warm me from the belly up. My brothers wrestle on the edge, the water lapping darkly below them. When they fall they do so together, locked in an aggressive embrace which looks tender if I half close my eyes.
They sink and for a moment the surface ripples weakly and I imagine its eddies pulling them down. Then they emerge, and swim spluttering to the side where they haul themselves up with skinny arms. They run back to the edge, showering me with icy drops as they leap over my prone body, and continue making each other walk the plank like pirates in a kids’ cartoon.
The water isn’t blue, but opaque. It simmers, calm but with the threat of things withheld. I picture the depths and shiver as a breeze skips across the surface and traces cold fingers over my skin.
On the first day of an older summer, a single horse with two riders picked its way over scree and through scraggly bush. The ground was uneven and sweat sheened the horse’s neck and dripped from its muzzle. On its back a girl slouched over, leaning so far forward that when the horse’s ears twitched back to dislodge a fly, her lips grazed against them. The boy sat straight in the saddle and clenched her waist with white knuckles. His eyes looked everywhere but to the ground.
‘Relax Teddy, it’s safe. We’re nearly there,’ she said. She felt him nod against her back. The boy’s breathing slowed in time with his horse’s careful steps.
She pulled the horse up. Before them, light glinted off water. ‘Here we go.’ She vaulted off so quickly he couldn’t quite see how she’d done it. One moment, she was sturdy before him, her weight counterbalancing his in the saddle. The next, she stood beside the horse, holding a hand up to help him down. Her face was open and happy. ‘Come on. You can do it.’ She spoke with the same gentle tone she used to coax the horse over obstacles. He half-jumped and half-fell down, slithering into her arms and sending them both sprawling onto a carpet of leaf litter. Above them the horse shifted but stayed steady.
On the first day of the oldest summer, seventy men stood with hands on hips, and arms crossed, and other gestures of assertion and brio. Cigarette smoke haloed them; and circles of sweat ringed their armpits. Before the men was clear ground, a treeless expanse of rocks and packed earth. Their hungry eyes converted the minerals below into profit.
Behind them a jagged row of earthmovers and dump trucks and clumsy cranes sputtered into life. The first machine dug in, metal grating against stone. The ground broke, and the men’s collective roar of joy was drowned out by throbbing engines.
On the first day of last summer, I lay on the deck in undies and a singlet, sucking ice cubes and trying not to let any part of my sweaty body touch another. My parents’ low, urgent voices floated out through the screen door, and my treacherous ears strained to hear their conversation.
‘We’re asking too much,’ my mum said. ‘It’s a buyer’s market.’
‘So we should give this home away?’
‘Of course not. But the house is old and we’ve let the land go to waste.’
‘We packed the mud and laid these bricks ourselves, Elise! This isn’t some shitty fixer-upper.’
‘No one cares.’
My dad snorted. ‘I care. Even if you seem to think that’s not worth anything.’
‘You aren’t being fair. You know I love this place. But whoever buys will want to start again. The stables are the only modern thing we have to offer.’
‘Maybe we can throw in the horses for them too. Is that what you want, Elise?’
‘You know I don’t want to sell at all. But I don’t want to live next to a fuckin’ tip and have the kids inhaling burnt tire fumes all day.’ She sounded old, tired, defeated. I crammed four ice cubes into my mouth and held them on my tongue until my mouth went numb.
On the last day of this summer, the sunlight shifts and dapples through the eucalypts. Strong new saplings and sedate old trees grapple for space. Shrubs burst from the rock face, clinging on and trailing tendril roots greedily into the depths of the old quarry wall. The water is shallow now. I don’t trust it, but I’ve come to doze on the warm cement as usual. My tan’s grown deeper and richer every week, but I still haven’t ever gone in the water.
My brothers kept walking the plank every day, until Andy did a pin drop off the edge and shattered his ankle on a submerged outcrop of rock. He had three steel plates inserted in his foot and has to wear a big moonboot that smells of sweat, but he isn’t fussed because it gives him an excuse to lie on the couch and play Xbox all day.
When the evening wind becomes louder than the birdcalls, I shove my book and my water bottle into my backpack. As I stand to leave, I feel a sharp wave of heat in my foot. The surprise of it makes my knees give, and I totter awkwardly into a crouch, breathing heavily. I turn my foot over and find a fat wasp embedded in the tenderest part of my arch. I hold my breath and count to one then wrench it out. It feels like piercing my own ear.
I favour my good foot as I walk back through the trees to where Flinty is waiting placidly. She sneezes a little bit and I snuffle back at her. I jump up and settle in the saddle, then lean forward and kiss her mane. ‘Good girl.’
On the last day of an older summer, two horses bore their riders steadily along a path they knew well. The boy sat straight in his saddle and clenched his reins in white fists. The girl had led the way for most of their ride, but now she slowed and fell back to ride beside him. She leaned sideways half out of her saddle and poked the boy in the side. ‘Give me your hand.’ He shook his head, his eyes looking everywhere but to the ground. Her voice softened. ‘Teddy.’
He licked his lips. Slowly he gathered the reins and bunched them all in his right hand. The girl took his other arm at the elbow and let her fingers trail down until they laced with his. They rode on slowly, joined across the space between them. He glanced sideways and smiled shyly. She squeezed his hand. ‘You’re doing so well. She trusts you now.’
At the clearing, the horses pulled up automatically. The girl jumped down, and a moment later Ted did too, with less grace but equal enthusiasm. While the girl tethered the horses to a tree, he unpacked towels and a bottle of wine.
‘Drink or swim first, Ellie?’ he asked, turning. The girl was already half-naked, and now she stepped out of her underwear and hung them on a tree. She grabbed the wine from Ted as she walked past him, and sat on the warm edge of the quarry to ease herself in. She unscrewed the bottle and held it aloft like the Statue of Liberty’s torch.
‘Why not both?’ she said. She took a swig and smiled crookedly.
On the last day of last summer, I watched from my bedroom window as the real estate agent came over to drop off the paperwork. He hooned down the driveway and pulled up on the swampiest part of our front lawn, spattering Mum’s sunflowers with mud. He knocked and entered without waiting.
I went into the kitchen and made cups of tea for everyone. Mum sat at the table, reading the contract with shaking hands, and I stood behind her massaging her shoulders and trying to press strength into her.
‘This is a pathetic offer,’ Dad spat. ‘It’s offensive.’
The real estate agent smarmed a little bit, but could hardly be bothered. ‘I don’t know what else I can tell you, Ted,’ he said. ‘It’s reasonable given the size of the property, and the settlement period is almost unheard of. The buyers will be tied up overseas for at least twelve months. You have plenty of time to clear the place out.’ He looked pointedly at the collage of childhood artwork blu-tacked around the dining room, my wonky stick figure horses and my brothers’ multicolour fingerpaintings. The yellowed paper curled up at the edges and covered the mudbricks like wallpaper. I wished evil things on him.
He handed Mum a pen stamped with his agency’s name and pointed at the coloured sign-here stickers. Dad grabbed her free hand and I felt her shoulders relax minutely. She signed, and pushed the stack of paper over to Dad.
The agent’s wheels spun in the mud as he left. For a moment I thought he would bog, but the land released him and he drove without looking back.
The sunflowers’ faces were turned away, in shame or disgust.
On the first day of next summer, the council will finally approve the permit for the waste refinement centre at the site of the former quarry. Men in suits will pass down orders to men in workboots, and the water which has seeped into the rock-lined hole over winter will be drained in preparation for it to be filled with things no one wants.
We will have moved to the fringes of the outer suburbs, and live in a small, modern house with a plunge pool. I will fall in lust with a boy my parents disapprove of. He will pick me up on Friday night, and as I climb onto his motorbike I will feel it lurch beneath us like a wild thing. His ponytail will be escaping from under his helmet, its soft ends tickling my nose. I will clutch his waist with white knuckles and bury my face in his shoulder.