meet the winners of the 2016 rachel funari prize for fiction: highly commended, “the tallest girl in the world” by laura mcphee-browne
Laura McPhee-Browne’s story, The Tallest Girl in the World, was Highly Commended in the 2016 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction.
Tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you?
I am a 31 year old social worker who writes short stories, and sometimes other stuff.
What do you think it takes to win an award-winning story?
I’m not sure I know yet! I think practice might be a very big part of it, and a slightly higher than average sense of one’s own ability! If I didn’t have a fairly healthy ego in regards to my writing at times, I would never submit anywhere. One of my problems is that I’m not actually a perfectionist at all, so I have a tendency to submit before something might be truly done. Learning how to take the time (my writing friends and I call it “putting it in the top drawer”) has been something that has taken me a long time, and has certainly helped me get my work to a higher level.
Where do you write?
I write almost always in my bed! We have an attic where I live now, and when I moved in I had romantic notions of writing up there, looking out onto the world, rugged up in a blanket with a cup of herbal tea. But I haven’t done that once. My bed is comfortable, and my books are piled up next to it, for easy access.
What inspires your work?
The short stories of others, particularly female short story writers. Peculiar stories by writers like Jean Rhys, Clarice Lispector, Janet Frame, Tove Jansson and Joy Williams make me want to write, write, write and give me a sense of freedom and chaotic creativity that helps me to be bold.
Why did you enter the Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction?
Because it’s a highly regarded award that supports female Australian writers, and that it what is most important to me.
What does ‘Other’ mean to you?
‘Other’ to me means the underdog, the scapegoat, the people in this world who have something wonderful to say but who never get a chance to be heard.
The Tallest Girl in the World
Once, some time ago (though not as far back as imagination), a little girl child was born who was as long as a tomato plant pole. She was so long when she slithered out that the midwife gasped and the doctor called his friends in for a look, at her feet that were dangling off the edge of the baby bed and her arms lolling almost to the floor. The girl’s mother, exhausted after pushing out such a long piece of taffy, hardly blinked as people crowded into the room – nurses, doctors, other patients and reporters with cameras, small children with mouths as wide as canyons, and cleaners still holding their wet mops – to ogle this incredible creature. It was a miracle, most of them proclaimed: this long thing, with its shy and certain smile.
The long baby turned into a long toddler, and a tall child. Having been born into the world a figure of awe and confusion, the girl was given no chance to know what it was like to be understood, and as she grew each day a little older and a little taller, she began to wish she was normal, for the staring and the gasping had not stopped since that first day in the hospital with her poor, careworn mother lying dazed by her side. Every day had been like the first, and now when she left the house the eyes upon her felt painful, as if they had left bruise upon bruise upon not-yet-healed bruise. It did not help the young girl that her mother was ashamed of her, that she would not take her to the local kindergarten for fear the other mothers would smirk and sneer and chase her away with their understanding. The girl had to stay home with her mother and watch daytime soaps and eat baps full of tinned eggs for lunch, and she knew she was missing out on something. She knew, also, due to some wisdom in her that had been there since the womb, that her mother was frightened, that her mother was right to be frightened, and that she must stay with her mother to keep her safe from what she was frightened of. She knew this as she shifted down into her bed at night, her legs hanging off the end like the ham that doesn’t fit under the bread of a sandwich. She promised herself she would never leave.
As she grew, faster than anyone around her and in a way that seemed to happen in the nighttime so that she was taller every morning, the girl’s personality also grew, and she became brave for both herself and her mother, who seemed in both body and mind to be shrinking. By the age of ten she was taller than any doorway in their small, stale flat and the curve of her back hurt from all the ducking. It seemed to annoy her mother, the way the girl’s body could not stunt. She would sigh and avert her eyes in the morning as her daughter dragged her length to the kitchen table, and would place in front of her small portions of breakfast – half a grapefruit with salt, a dry toast square – in case it was food that was lending her the extra metres. This worried the girl, for she loved her mother and did not want to be angry with her. And the lack of food did nothing to calm her bones.
One day when the girl was almost a young woman, sixteen years old and so tall she had to double over and curl in on herself to fit inside the rooms, there was a knock at the door at an hour when no one would have ever usually knocked and the girl’s mother was out at the supermarket buying as little food as she possible could, short of buying nothing. The girl decided she would answer, and as there was no peephole she did not know what to expect when she unhooked the latch and pulled the door wide. Standing there on the mat was a man with a camera around his neck and a pencil behind his ear. He had a look on his face of hungry curiosity (almost salivating), a look the girl knew oh so well and a look that she was weary of. He was young; older than the girl but younger than her mother, and he wore a suit made of stiff khaki green material that fit him like the skin of an unripe banana. He smelt like an unripe banana too; he itched at the girl’s nose and she felt as if he was not yet ready, for anything, for whatever he was doing here.
The man let out a small, fluttery laugh from the left side of his mouth. He was nervous. He had wanted to see this creature in the flesh for such a long time, had even rented a house across the street in order to catch her. But she seemed never to leave the house anymore, and now he could see why. She was bent over in a ninety-degree curl, her head reaching out in front and her bottom pushing out at the back. Her face was strained from the position, though he imagined it was one she often took in order to fit in. The flat was dusty and small and poorly lit and there was no sign of life apart from her strapping great body, squirming like a snake in a rabbit warren. He had imagined this moment for so long and now it was here. She was monstrous, and he licked his lips with wonder and fear.
When the girl’s mother got home from the supermarket holding a drooping bag containing one yellow onion, a selection of tinned eggs and six floury baps, the house was empty. This had never happened before. Her daughter was aware that outside was no place for the body she lived within. The mother’s heart began to beat faster, for she knew she would have to go looking for her daughter, and that when she found her there would be a crowd, with questions and bowl-eyes and shouts, and she would have to admit that this was hers – this gargoyle girl, this unnatural threat to all of them. She did not love her daughter; she could feel that now. She could not love something so long, like a worm wrapping its pink length around her heart. It was suffocating her.
The young man and the girl had not gone far. They were sitting on a log in the knoll that sat to one side of the block of flats the girl and her mother lived in, hidden by the foliage of a cork oak tree. The girl’s legs were stretched out in front of them both like garden hoses and she was bent down and forward to hear the young man’s voice over the rustles of the dead leaves that lay everywhere. The young man was telling the girl how he had first heard about her, as a boy whose mother was a nurse at the local hospital. He told her how his mother had come home after her shift one evening red with excitement and shock at the baby she had seen that afternoon, sticky and limp straight from its mother’s vagina, and as long as the alphabet, as tall as a horse. The man told the girl that he remembered the excitement he felt in his belly as his mother spoke. The girl wondered how she should take this.
The girl had very few people to talk to in her life, and this young man seemed to care about her, or was at least fervent about her condition in a way that did not make her feel like a giraffe in a too-short cage. She wanted to tell him something special, something that might keep him coming back for more. The girl started on the story of when she was nine, and had found the newspaper clippings from the day of her birth, kept by her mother in an ice cream tub at the back of her shoe cupboard. She watched the young man’s face as she told the story. He was carefully eyeing her and every so often moistening his lips with a round pink tongue.
Every newspaper in the country had a story about me.
She expected him to nod, to widen, to appear sad for her but he didn’t. He opened his mouth and let out a long, decadent laugh.
You were famous! Everyone wanted to see you!
The girl now realised that the young man was merely a combination of every reaction there had ever been towards her: fear, curiosity, hunger, intolerance, grief. He was not a real person; no one was when they were around her. Her heart felt like it was crusted with fake, heavy diamonds and tarnished clasps.
Your body is longer than a river! At least longer than the rivers I have known.
This sounded poetic to the girl, so at least there was that. She was a river, a body of water connecting the people around her to what they wanted – something to stare at, to recoil from in horror, to pity and gossip about. She could feel now, as one often can when it is just about to happen, that the young man was planning to touch her. She wouldn’t mind the touch, would welcome it in fact, if she did not know where it came from, but she did know and when she looked at his face it was contorted with the effort of not licking at her open wounds. The young man moved his arms towards her and puckered his lips. She thought that he thought they should kiss, but she couldn’t imagine how he could kiss something so large and strange.
My mother will be worried.
The girl hoped this would stop the reaching hands.
Your mother can wait.
The girl felt a rock behind her lungs and waited as it grew to the size of a cheap watermelon. She wished she was back at the start of the walk with the young man, when she thought that maybe he could know her, but she knew that this was just a broken wish (of many more to come). The girl let her arms spring forward towards the young man and push at his body until it dropped off the log and onto the leafy floor. He spurted angry words but she could not hear them. She lifted herself up and ran long from the scene like a madman, a madwoman, a thief. All those things she would never be.
When she entered the flat she saw that her mother had pulled out some of her hair and was sitting at the table looking at it. It lay grey and dead on the waxy wood as if burnt, or electrocuted. She asked the young girl where she had been through barely moving lips. The girl told her sorry. That was all there was to say. She could not explain where she had wanted to go, for suddenly she knew that it was nowhere.