meet the winners of the 2020 rachel funari prize for fiction: 3rd place, “touch starve” by maude davey
Maude Davey’s story, Touch Starve, placed third in the 2020 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction. Here’s a Q&A with Maude, plus her award-winning story!
Congratulations on placing 3rd in this year’s RFP for Fiction, Maude! Tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you?
I am one of twins, born in the early sixties in Adelaide, grew up in Fremantle, Western Australia. I have lived in inner city Melbourne for more than half my life, with a brief sojourn in Adelaide, living by the beach. I have a partner and two children, 20 and 13, and two dogs. I work primarily as an actor, mostly in theatre, sometimes in films and television. My passion is new work, creating theatre and short form variety performance with other artists. I also teach Performance Making and Acting.
What do you think makes a great short story?
Simplicity and detail.
What’s your writing process? Are you a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’? And does your process vary depending on what you’re working on – writing a work of short fiction versus writing for the stage, for example?
I am a mix of plotter and pantser. I get an idea and I write to see what happens – I ‘pants’ it. Then I try and figure out what it is and what it demands. Then I have to force myself to do the boring stuff, filling in the detail, finding an end. Finding an end is really difficult. The final arduous task is cutting. My rule of thumb is to cut by a third. My process doesn’t really change between stage and fiction… the first ‘dreaming’ stage is really good fun. Turning it into a thing is hard work.
Does a blank page excite or terrify you?
I love a blank page. I write longhand in my first stage, so I like to buy myself a nice writing book and sit with a cup of tea and see what happens. It is a solitary pleasure I don’t get much time for, so it is very sweet when I can partake.
When you’re working on something new, what comes first: the character(s), the setting, or the story? Or is it something else entirely?
Often it is an idea I want to explore. I respond well to ‘provocations’, as for this competition, starting from the idea of “future”. Sometimes I will give myself an exercise – I will find a picture on the net to write from, or a sentence to begin with, or I will task myself with finding three different actions which describe ‘systematic oppression’ or something else I want to explore. Then I follow my nose, identify bits I like and keep going along that path…
Dorothy Parker once said: “I hate writing, I love having written”. Do you find the writing process energising or exhausting?
I love writing. When it’s flowing it is the best thing in the world. I go deep into some other mode, in which I am less ‘conscious’ of time and place and the ideas take on sensory qualities, the work feels like a slippery object, or a succession of objects which I am manipulating. Those moments though, are few and far between. Most of the time writing is slog, forcing myself to sit in front of the computer and attend to it. However, no matter how hard I find it to sit down, I always come away from it energised.
Your story, Touch Starve (in your words) “imagines a world in which touch has become transgression” is particularly timely given we’re currently living through a global pandemic (in which touch has, similarly, become a transgression!). Could you tell us about what inspired you to write the story? And what (or who) inspires your work more generally?
Early in the first lockdown I was reading Marguerite Duras’ Wartime Notebooks, the section called Childhood and Adolescence in Indochina, in which she describes the extreme revulsion she felt when she was first kissed on the mouth. For me that resonated with how we were all beginning to think about contact because of the virus. So I began to imagine a not too distant future predicated on the conditions we find ourselves in now. (I have a quiet love of making direct references in my work. I do a performance of Patti Smith’s version of the song Gloria. In her recording she sings ‘atsmophere’ instead of ‘atmosphere’. So I sing ‘atsmophere’. Nobody ever notices but I am committed to it.) I am inspired by bold women and in recent years, young people who are reconceptualising how to exist in human bodies.
Let’s talk books. What’s the last book you read? What are you currently reading? And what’s on your TBR pile?
Last books I read were Orlando by Virginia Woolf, for work (I am working with a team to make a music theatre adaptation); Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders; The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel. I tend to read consecutively, unless the book consumes me. Right now I am reading Singing Saltwater Country by John Bradley with Yanyuwa families – which is about the recording of the ‘songlines’ of the Yanyuwa people from the eastern part of the Northern Territory – alongside The Isles, a History by Norman Davies – reasonably recent history of the British Isles – and Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor, a smutty, queer adaptation of Orlando, set in early nineties USA.
What is your earliest literary memory? Did you have any favourite books or authors growing up?
I’ve always read voraciously. A formative experience for me was driving across the Nullabor (from Perth to Adelaide) devouring Doris Lessing’s The Children of Violence series. I was around 16. I loved science fiction and read all the short story collections I could find in the second hand bookshops in Fremantle. I read Frank Herbert’s Dune series regularly.
Why did you enter this year’s Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction?
Lockdown happened. I’m a performer so that meant most of my work disappeared and I needed something to do that wasn’t applying for jobs for which I am supremely unqualified and unsuited.
What does this year’s theme, ‘future’ mean to you? Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
A mix of both, depending on the day. I know that the future never comes out the way we think it will, which gives me hope.
The Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction calls for stories by women and non-binary writers. What’s your view on diverse representation in publishing?
Too much to encapsulate here! In brief, we (cis white people) have to do some hard work to bring about some justice. It’s uncomfortable to have to learn, unlearn, relearn. But the way we are going about things at the moment is untenable.
What’s the best (or, perhaps, the worst) writing advice you’ve been given?
The best: A writer is someone who writes. So just write.
The worst: I don’t listen to bad advice so I don’t remember!
If you could invite three literary figures to dinner, who would they be, and why?
Virginia Woolf: because I think she would be a generous conversationalist
Melissa Lucashenko: because I would love to hear her talk to Virginia about systemic oppression
Ursula Le Guin: how does anyone get further than her? Every new way of thinking was presaged in her writing. What would she have to say about the world we find ourselves in now?
Where can people follow your work? (publications, social media, etc)
Terrible at the socials, terrible at self-promotion. Nup. Pass. This answer is a fail.
Warm water, streaked silver, pummelling their hands, slippery foam spreading out from their fingers. Wrapping, pushing, rubbing. 30 seconds. Thumbs. The left. The right. The fingers of the left hand pushing through the fingers of the right, like scissors or knitting needles. Washing away whatever has settled, whatever has been picked up from the train – the pole they held to stop them stumbling, the card they held over the reader, the air…
“People do this all the time.”
“It’s so risky.”
“Life’s a risk!”
“The instructions say head west out of the station and wait behind the big billboard.”
“Which way’s west?”
They wheeled their bikes across the broken bitumen. The billboard had a faded picture of a woman with her tongue out. Graffitied germs with eyes and legs skittered out from it.
They waited. Tracie took out her phone and they role-played discussing a route. Shelley wondered how convincing it was, their performance of suggestion, question and agreement. The shopfronts lining the street were dark. If there was anyone inside, they weren’t showing themselves.
It was probably only twenty minutes before someone approached on foot. They drew close, stopped.
Tracie produced the silver disc she had printed at home. The man pointed a code scanner at it.
“OK. You need to take a picture.”
They looked at him.
“Selfie. Beginning of the adventure.”
They got their phones out. Shelley felt ridiculous crouching in front of Tracie, who had her arms outstretched as if she were claiming the world. Really? Would I really do this?
“Leave your bikes and backpacks against the fence. You’re going through that paddock to the line of trees. Head west till the turn off for Riverview Heights. You’ll know you’re there.”
They wheeled their bikes to the fence and put their backpacks down.
They took their phones out of their pockets, where they had automatically returned them. That was a moment. Surrendering their phones.
They set off. Shelley turned back once to see the man and someone else on their bikes, wearing their backpacks, riding away from them.
“I hope nobody sees us.”
“Provisions. Exercise. Care. This is exercise.”
Riverview Heights had been one of the more expensive estates, five or six templates repeated along the curving streets. The first leavers would have sold as soon as the markets re-opened; they would have got less than they paid, but something. Their neighbours would have tried to last it out. Land never loses its value they would have thought. Things will turn around. They always do. Now all the houses were empty. Or not. Who knows what had been left behind? Motor mowers. Couches. Bodies.
The one they wanted was obvious, festoons of coloured lights strung from the veranda posts. A woman gestured them inside. No mask. No gloves. That was a shock. So much skin. Afterwards Shelley couldn’t remember what colour she was wearing. Purple? Brown? She remembered the flesh at the top of her arm, the glimpse of underarm hair.
Tracie pulled out the silver disc again. The woman scanned it. She looked up and smiled.
“Welcome.” Shelley had to stop herself from stepping back, away from the droplets of moisture from her mouth: protein strands, amino acids and micro beasts spinning through the air.
“The first thing I’m going to get you to do is take off your masks and gloves and then you’re going to shake my hand. No hand shake, no entry. OK?”
They took off their masks and outside gloves, putting them in the cotton bags the woman held out. Tracie smiled at her. “Here goes” she said, and stripped off her inside gloves. Shelley took two quick breaths. “Here goes.” Her fingers felt twice as big as normal. She fumbled with the right glove. The woman punched an electronic tag onto each of the bags.
“They’ll go in a sun box and be ready for you tomorrow morning. Now…”
She put her hand out, offering it first to Tracie. Tracie grasped the hand, for a moment… several moments. Shelley shuddered. The woman turned towards her, put her hand out. It was a neat hand. Long fingers, short nails. It looked clean. But hands are never clean, everyone knows that. She started to feel nauseous, imagining the accumulation of dust particles, with their attendant feeders and growers settling on the already teeming skin.
“No hand shake, no entry.”
Shelley reached forward and clasped the woman’s hand, fingers under, thumbs on top. The hands pumped downwards once then separated.
“Very good. Some say that’s the hardest bit.”
It was a party. A perfectly normal party, except no one was wearing masks or gloves. Not even the waiters, who must be getting a significant risk loading Shelley thought. An older woman, very tanned, perfect makeup, was feeding a man an olive from her martini. His lips closed around her fingers. She pulled them out of his mouth and licked them. The man produced the chewed olive pip and dropped it carelessly on the floor. A waiter removed it efficiently with a swab.
“I feel a bit sick.”
“You said you were up for this.”
“I know, I just…”
“Please don’t wreck everything now. We have spent a lot of money; I want to have a good time.”
“Are you OK?” He was tall and too close.
“It’s just my friend’s a little overwhelmed, but you’re fine now, aren’t you?” Tracie looked at her.
“Can I get you both a drink?” he offered.
Shelley sipped her whiskey soda and watched Tracie flirt. His name was Vaclav and he worked in a bank or maybe he was a chemist, Shelley wasn’t listening. The whiskey was helping. Her skin had stopped crawling. Vaclav was touching Tracie’s hair. He had pulled out a lock and was curling it around his finger. Tracie was laughing. Vaclav pushed his face close to Tracie’s. She recoiled slightly then stopped herself and put her smile back on. He said something Shelley couldn’t hear and she nodded. “We’re just going to look at the upstairs rooms, you’ll be OK, won’t you?” Shelley watched Vaclav’s hand on Tracie’s back as they walked away.
She found a chair in a corner. She wished she had her phone. She wished she had her gloves. She wished she had said no, stayed at home. Clearly this was a sort of lobby space; there was continual movement in and out. The older woman went upstairs with olive man. When they came back down her lipstick was immaculate, but her hair was crushed at the back. Ten minutes later Shelley saw her going up with two other women and a man.
She got up and moved over to the bar area. The bar person smiled.
“Can you tell?”
“You look like you might run.”
“I just might,” she said.
As she moved away, she saw Tracie coming back down the stairs, Vaclav trailing. Shelley made her way to her corner and Tracie followed. They sat in the two chairs, Vaclav settled on the floor, leaning on Tracie’s legs. He was clearly quite drunk, happily so.
“The thing is” Tracie was telling her, “touch is an animal need.”
Shelley shook her head. “We can touch, we touch all the time.”
“You know what I mean. Flesh on flesh.”
“I know what you’re going to say, inhibited magnetic resonances, synesthetic neural processing, I’m not convinced. You’re just fetishising the forbidden. Desire is created by the taboo. It’s so reactive and predictable.”
The older woman was coming back downstairs with her three companions. They went to the bar, and then wandered away in different directions.
“Why did you come then?”
“Because you wanted to.”
“That’s not true.” Vaclav was suddenly engaged. Leaning forward, finger wagging. “Nobody comes all this way, without wanting to be touched.”
“Hold my hand” Tracie challenged her.
“You held the hand of the woman at the door. I’m your best friend. Hold my hand.”
Tracie put out her hand. She had that look. She would insist and insist until everyone was uncomfortable. She needed to win. Shelley put her hand out and Tracie took it. Her fingers were sticky.
“There. Not so horrible.”
She forced herself to hold on until Tracie let go. But she couldn’t stop herself from wiping her palm on her jeans.
“Now kiss Vaclav.”
“I don’t want to kiss Vaclav.”
“Vaclav won’t mind. He’ll kiss anybody, won’t you?”
“Oh yes. I am a slut of the highest order.” He raised himself on his knees and faced her.
“Come on. Don’t be a baby.”
She could see beads of perspiration on his top lip. He grinned. His teeth were right in front of her.
She closed her eyes and leaned forward. She felt a warm and moist contact with her lips. There was wetness on her top lip and she could feel his nose pressing into her cheek. The revulsion that overtook her was extreme. She pulled her face away and wiped her lips on the back of her hand. Then she rubbed the back of her hand with her other hand. She needed to spit. She felt sick.
“Good girl! You see?” Tracie’s eyes were too bright and her mouth was too open. She was laughing. Vaclav was laughing. Then they were kissing; horrible, wet fleshes pressed together, Tracie watching her over Vaclav’s ear. It was as if the kissing was a performance. Shelley found her glass, swirled the warm liquid in her mouth, spat it back out. She wanted to vomit. She could feel some portion of Vaclav’s saliva inside her mouth and she spat again and again without stopping into the glass. The glass full of spit disgusted her and she got up, heading for the bar.
“Can I have a napkin please?” She held it against her mouth and spat into it some more.
“Three vodka shots,” said Tracie from behind her.
Tracie and Vaclav were right there, wrapped up together. She pressed her back against the wall. The bar person set down three shot glasses.
“Can I get outside?” she asked them.
“Through the glass doors.” They pointed.
It was cooler out here. She opened her mouth to the breeze, but each time she closed it her saliva would flow again and she could feel tendrils of his saliva mixing in with hers. She spat and spat again, wiping her lips with the napkin.
Tracie had followed her, Vaclav trailing behind. “Can I touch you?”
She nodded. Tracie pulled her in close, held her. Shelley closed her eyes and tried to steady her breathing. She had an image of their two bodies, separate and at the same time one agglomeration of teeming particles, barely contained by membranes controlling an unceasing passage of materials in and out.
“This is the best bit.” Tracie whispered. “The fear is part of it. You just have to go for the ride.” She pulled away and looked at her.
Vaclav held out a shot glass. “This’ll kill anything.”
Shelley took it.
“To life!” said Tracie. They drank.
No one else was visible when Shelley and Tracie emerged from the house they had been assigned. Their gloves and masks had been left for them, still in the cotton bags. Clean gloves almost made up for slept-in clothes.
They made their way back across the paddock. When they got to the billboard their bikes were already there, leaning against the fence with their backpacks hanging on the handlebars.
Waiting for the train they scrolled through their photos. There was the photo of her and Tracie in front of the billboard. After that came photos of a campfire, two swags laid out on sand, multiple shots of one or two figures on bikes, poorly lit so she couldn’t see the faces, a sleepy lizard on the edge of a road. Tracie had a glorious sunset over the ocean.
“Looks like we had a great time” said Shelley.