meet the winners of the 2018 rachel funari prize for fiction: 2nd place, “post” by emily clements
Emily Clements’ story, Post, placed 2nd in the 2018 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction. Here’s a Q&A with Emily, plus her award-winning story!
Congratulations on placing 2nd in this year’s RFP for Fiction, Emily! We first met last year when your story, The Glass Half was highly commended in the 2017 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction. For those who missed your Q&A last time, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m a 25-year-old writer and editor based in Melbourne, where I work as a closed captioner for broadcast television. My work generally cycles through memoir, fiction and the occasional ill-considered poem. At the moment, though, I’m answering these questions from a pokey little travel agency in Zadar, negotiating a non-QWERTY keyboard!
What do you believe makes a great story?
I’m always and forever drawn to language – anything that startles, beguiles, works its way under your skin.
What’s your writing process?
I’m still working on it – I wish there was a single set of steps I could work through and come out the other end with a piece of writing clenched in my hot little hands. As it stands, each story is different and demands a different process. The glass half, which I submitted last year, was written in one four-hour block. Post, however, is about three years in the making – coughed up, cut out, spliced with another piece and coaxed into cohesion.
How do you know when a story is ready to be sent out into the world?
When I can’t stand the sight of it anymore, usually.
What (or who) inspires your work? Particularly, what inspired you to write Post?
I quite literally get stuck on an idea and can’t move on until I’ve played it out on the page. Like I said, I started Post three years ago, when I got stuck on the idea of a 21st century changeling and was addicted to all these grim stories of witchcraft and infanticide I was coming across as I followed that thread. I submitted it somewhere and got some great feedback, basically advising me to ditch the medieval stuff, which at the time was half of the story. So I had to wait a while for the other half to come along, which was partly the mainstream media’s treatment of the Stolenwealth Games protests and partly this beautiful little anecdote about an ancient seed from Attenborough’s Private Life of Plants that brought the note of hope that the piece (and me, really) needed. So in the end, the story retains little to none of my original ‘inspiration’ (and is all the better for it).
Let’s talk books. What’s the last book you read? What are you currently reading? And what’s on your TBR pile?
The last book I read was ‘Her Body and Other Parties’ by Carmen Maria Machado, which was meaty and playful and sexy and dark (and I would absolutely recommend). My favourite part of packing is always poring over my bookcase and figuring out what I’m going to take – so I’ve started with ‘Anaesthesia: the Gift of Oblivion and the Mystery of Consciousness’ by Kate Cole-Adams, then next up is ‘The Name of the Rose’ by Umberto Eco and ‘A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian’ by Marina Lewycka.
Why did you enter this year’s Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction?
Everything just coalesced at the right moment – the story was ready (I couldn’t stand the sight of it) and submissions were open!
What does ‘metamorphosis’ mean to you?
Kafka, obviously. But story-wise, I just took it as movement from one point to another.
Where do you hope to see yourself, and your writing, in 10 years’ time? What’s your ‘dream goal’?
Ideally, the manuscript I’ve been working on for ages now would have found a home and I’d be working on my next, or rather, next-next-next project. My dream goal is pretty close to the little niche I’ve already carved out for myself – writing, reading, travelling, slowly but surely amassing a house full of plants. I’d like to be financially stable enough to have a cat.
Where can people follow your work?
One of these days I’ll get a website together but for now I’m on Instagram @emily_clementsy
New line, white. The protestors burned the countdown clock. A 51-year-old woman allegedly sent to hospital with a dislocated knee. The police had run out of patience. New line, yellow. I think it’s just such a shame, especially on such a beautiful day on the Gold Coast. New line, blue. Just can’t let the rest of us go about our business. Disgraceful. New line, green. It’s important to send a strong message – Australia won’t put up with this kind of behaviour. New line, white. Bail will be posted tomorrow. Court?
I pause. The screen flickers, the question hanging. Script unfinished, for fuck’s sake. What are they doing up there? Not like much else is happening in Brisbane at 4:30 on a Monday. I open the clip but they haven’t yet recorded the voice-over. Just silent footage chopped together: an old woman wrapped in the Aboriginal flag, rolling on the ground. A boy yelling, arms twisted behind his back. The clock in flames. A policeman, collar neat, earnestly addressing the cameras. Rolling grabs from the indignant public. I sigh, open Solitaire, and wait for the script to come in.
A crater opens overnight in Kenya, swallows part of a highway. This man spends 362 hours carving the royal family out of walnuts. Mission accomplished, says Trump, after a coordinated 105-missile strike on Syria. Syria, yet to retaliate. Quokka selfies – a thing of the past after this Instagram warning? A nail-biting finish for the Australians against the old enemy. Our girls won but it wasn’t pretty. Man jailed over incest ring, women rescued looking particularly sorry for themselves. Australia’s secret shame: child pornography discovered to be most accessed in the richer eastern suburbs. Surprisingly – shockingly. Prince Harry reveals how he pretended to box his brother’s wedding cake. What a trickster. Dead greyhounds. The new changes to the Births, Deaths and Marriages register which follows the same-sex marriage legislation in a slippery slope to boys forced to wear skirts to school. Newborn babies to be registered as “intersex” and “non-binary”. How you can have your say.
Outrage, outrage, outrage. My nerves are painfully, methodically, cauterised closed.
‘See you, Jeff.’
He barely glances up, his earpiece slightly askew. ‘Yep, you too.’
The door bangs hard on my way out. We are on the sixth floor, nestled amongst lawyers who, I suppose, peddle their own brand of bad news. There is a mass of blankets to the side of the train station entrance. Two heads stick out, eyes closed. The dog they had this morning is gone.
The bathroom sink is waiting for me the next morning. My stomach contracts, releases, contracts. A hand is inside me, pushing everything out. I am more tired than I have ever been. My nose is too sharp. I am convinced there is something dead in the apartment. I’ve spent hours tearing through cupboards, under my bed, thrown every item in the fridge in the bin. The stench stays. Something wet and rotting.
I am anxious to get to work; the bland, recycled office air is comforting. My walk takes me along the long row of law firms, past a thick border of strip clubs. I’ve always found it ironic; I suppose I shouldn’t. Not by now. Sometimes I pass the journos setting up outside the Magistrates’ Court. They’re younger in real life, with faces that are only attractive on television.
Cardinal Pell makes his first appearance in court. Mate, he grabbed me by the back of the head and he pushed my head out the window and he asked me if I wanted to die at twenty. Justice for Tialeigh Palmer. Justice for Justine. Two black men arrested in Starbucks. Starbucks tweets an apology. I think it would be great, yeah, but it’ll never happen. Baby found to be malnourished after an extreme diet prescribed by this naturopath. Find out why they did it. Manslaughter for child murderer. Family mourns. The search continues for mother of two. Woman raped. Woman still missing after three days. Woman trying to escape her Tinder date falls from her balcony. Woman stabbed. Woman kidnapped at local petrol station. Woman beaten. Woman’s body found by cadaver dogs. Woman still in hospital after acid attack. Woman takes two steps back and pitches herself over the edge into the black, black sea.
I can’t do it. I can’t do it. Outrage, outrage, outrage. Rage, out. This is no place for a new life. Past the door that cracks the air, past the closed law firms and the open strip clubs, past the blankets at the station and back to my apartment and the stench of death and my bathroom sink, waiting for me.
The labour pushes through my body like a stone. It is here that I understand fate, standing with my feet splayed on the blue linoleum. Why are the women always lying down in the movies? More demure, maybe. No, no – so they can control the tearing. As if you can contain this kind of violence.
The stone inside me grinds through my innards. No pebble, nor rainbow geode; something rough, pillaged from an ancient place. Strange hands grip my limbs, steadying me like shackles. Like they’re afraid I’ll run for it. Maybe I already have. I begged for the epidural. They wouldn’t give it to me; maybe later I will understand why. I am cursing. The nurses nod, rocking on their ankles, summoning momentum on my behalf. ‘Let it out sweetie, let it out,’ I hear one of them say, and grit my teeth. Mercy is heavier than most things.
My hair is flat to my neck. I am a cavern, a pocket of emptiness deep within the earth; the hands speak to me and their words fall forever. I think of the word ‘swallowed’, which seems wrong. Everything is spewing outwards. Look down; my skin is gleaming, translucent. There is no barrier between inside and out. The stone drops, and a howl is ripped from my lips.
It seems wrong that my apartment looks exactly the same. That nothing else in my life has changed. I hadn’t wanted to baby-proof anything and suddenly all I see are sharp corners. Cabinets should be bolted to the walls, power points taped over, frames nailed in. At the time, it had seemed too much like preparing for a hurricane.
I close the door behind me and the thin, metal smell curls back into my nostrils like an animal that has waited patiently for me to come home. Blood, bile, rot, death. It makes me see maggots. I’d thought it was the pregnancy. I glance at the baby, swaddled tight in his basket. Just psychological, I tell myself. My breath comes faster. The stone has left behind an empty space. A sinkhole opened up under my heart. I’m not ready. I can’t do this.
My hand reaches for the remote. I need to not be alone with the baby. The captions race across the bottom of the screen. White for the main speaker, cycling through yellow, blue and green. Yellow is always the female host. Green is least legible. The rugby player breaks down in his interview. I can almost sense the journo’s jubilance; they’ll use this as the teaser. He played four games with a broken neck. Could have lost everything. Then the baby starts crying and I am pulled towards him.
The sinkhole has taken my heart somewhere wet, somewhere deep. My insides are rubbed in salt. The baby won’t stop screaming. He is telling me he hates me. He knows I am not made for this. He knows this was a mistake: my mistake. He screams at me with my own voice. It hurts. I want him to stop. I suckle him but that hurts too, and I try so hard but he slips and screams and his gums are a vice. The nights are long and the days flash fire from reflective surfaces. I avoid mirrors. My fingers thump down my ribs like stairs, one at a time.
I have him lying in my bed. Swimming in my sheets, he is back to the jellybean he must have been when I learned of his existence – somewhere between the Christmas Party and the talk with HR. I’m not due back at work for months but I itch to call and tell them it’s fine, I found someone, feeling great, put me on Adelaide, Perth, Melbourne, something, anything. I roll on my side and check the time. 2:05 am. It’s been days since I slept; the smell is worse at night. My vision has gone strange, bits of light pushing in at the edges. I see things moving out of the corner of my eyes and as soon as I turn my head, nothing is there.
I stand and watch him sleep. The night is grey, foggy. Something you can feel on the back of your neck. I sway from one foot to the other, keeping the blood flowing. I remember seeing something on the news about how doctors tell the time of death; gravity pulls the blood all in one direction, leaving the rest of the body drained and pale. They call it lividity, which makes me think of livid. Rage.
It’s the smell, if I can just find whatever has gone and goddamn died in my – the pillow. I pick it up and inhale. It’s the pillow. There’s something in the pillow. I throw myself out of bed. The bedside drawer hits the floor and fuck, everything’s gone everywhere, but I’m throwing things around and there they are, the scissors are there. The baby is woken, I am making a lot of noise but if I’m right and I can finally get rid of this fucking blood and guts in my brain then he’ll be happier too, what’s better for me is better for him, too, surely. I’m stabbing the pillow and the cotton stuffing is everywhere and no, no, there’s nothing here there’s nothing here at all.
I catch myself. In my long singlet, scissors open in my hand. The baby is screaming but I can’t see him. Terror strikes my heart. My vision is dancing. Cotton is everywhere. I can’t see him. I can’t see him. New line, white. They found her the next morning. New line, yellow. It was an accident. New line, blue. We would never have known, she was such a nice girl. New line, green. I wish… why didn’t she call?
The pillow drops to the floor, makes the sound of a breath let go. His kicking legs come into focus. I am trembling but I scoop him up anyway. He doesn’t stop crying but I rock him and hum to him my mother’s songs. He hiccups and settles and it is like a miracle. Carry him with me to the living room. Dawn gilds the windows, rose-gold. I can see us in the panes, our faces hovering over the city skyline. My chest is not the gaping chasm I had expected: the babe fits in my arms, almost perfectly.
New line, white. The seed was found buried with ancient rice grains in the old city. New line, yellow. We had no idea what we had found. New line, white. They had to wait ten years to find out. New line, yellow. It may be a long time but nothing compared to how long it’s had to wait for us! (laughs) New line, white. The seed, upon germination, appeared to be the same as the old species – with just one crucial difference. New line, yellow. We don’t know if it’s about the age or the environment but it could be, maybe, something entirely new. New line, blue. We are really, really excited.