meet the winners of the 2017 rachel funari prize for fiction: 1st place, “pools 2007” by alexandra philp
Alexandra Philp’s story, Pools 2007, won the 2017 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction. Here’s a Q&A with Alexandra, plus her award-winning story!
Tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you?
I’m a Brisbane-based writer who writes prose and short films. Most of my work focuses on exploring complex female relationships. I’m also doing my PhD in Creative Writing at the Queensland University of Technology, where I research sister relationships and female body experiences in contemporary Australian fiction.
What do you think it takes to win an award-winning story?
I think the key to any good story, award-winning or not, is to be selective when writing. By ‘selective’ I mean that a short story only has room for one or two main concepts, and so you’ve got to cut down on everything that is unnecessary to building the main concept. Having beautiful images and symbolism is lovely, but they’ve got to be working towards the main premise of the story otherwise you risk clouding the piece. Having one main idea, and then having all your little images and ideas build to your main idea, gives you a good chance of having a sharp and layered story rather than a story that might be gorgeously written, but lacking in definition. But of course, any piece of advice can be broken! Take a risk. With the right voice, you can pull nearly anything off.
Where do you write?
I write all over the place! I can write at home, at uni, on holiday, which is productive for my work because I can never really find a good enough reason not to write. I actually love to write on the notes app on my iPhone, strangely enough! Every good story I’ve written has started with a paragraph or two typed into my phone as I walk home after work or something like that.
What inspires your work? Particularly, what inspired you to write Pools 2007?
This is definitely a common answer, but I’m inspired by other stories that I like (whether they be oral stories, novels, films) as well as my own life. I always start with an image that I can’t seem to let go of, and then build the story around that. For Pools 2007, I started with the image of the dead snake and the dust floating in the pool. My work always starts in visuals (maybe because I also write films?), and putting different images together in a way that works, which is probably why my work is usually episodic. In that way, I guess my writing process has defined my writing style.
Let’s talk books. What’s the last book you read? What are you currently reading? And what’s on your TBR pile?
My favourite topic! The last book I read was The Idiot by Elif Batuman – it was insanely good. I loved it. I’m currently re-reading Sleeping Dogs by Sonya Hartnett. It’s one of the books that has most influenced the way I want to write. Hartnett is amazing. I have so much on my TBR pile: Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The Hate Race, Han Kang’s Human Acts, Callan Wink’s short story collection Dog Run Moon, the new George Saunders. I’ve just picked up Toni Morrison’s Sula as well, which I’ve never read, so I’ll probably start that one next.
Why did you enter the Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction?
The Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction is one Australian prize that places real value on the stories of women. The prize is a pure celebration of female-identifying and non-binary voices, and this legacy is something that I am incredibly grateful and proud to be a part of. The Rachel Funari Prize, generously run by Lip Magazine, has an undeniably important place in our community, in not only providing a platform for our stories but also for fostering emerging and established writers alike. This prize, standing for equality and agency, is something that I was honoured to write for. Seeing past prize winners and shortlisted writers go on to achieve in their writing has encouraged me more than I can say. I was so excited just to make the shortlist alongside some truly amazing writers: to win is icing on a pretty great cake.
What does ‘rebirth’ mean to you?
To me, ‘rebirth’ is the process of forgiveness, especially of forgiving the self. It is giving yourself and your body the autonomy (and the space, the territory, that may be granted with autonomy) to breathe, to exist, and to let go. To be reborn is a process of growth, and a process of navigation, and I hope that every rebirth, whatever that means to the individual, leads to a site of agency, respect, and joy.
The local pool is being drained. The pump throbs and water sucks down slowly, thickly. Some kid found a red belly in the filter. She was curled up, scales like a woven cane basket. Ellen and I watch from behind the wire fence. The other kids yell at the council workers, lob sticks and gum nuts at their high-vis vests. A boy in the grade below me at school rams his scooter repeatedly against the fence. When the pool is closed there’s not much else to do. The water drops and reveals grime caked into the spaces between the tiles. The kids grow hot and tired; they spin their bikes and pedal away, leaving a cloud of ochre dust that hangs in the air before sinking into the pool. By the time Ellen taps my arm and we leave, the snake is floating on top of the water and someone is trying to scoop up her body with a noodle.
We walk through the arches of bougainvillea and go into the house. Ellen and I sit on the kitchen bench while Mum spoons out tuna bake onto three plates, not four. I want to ask where Dad is but I don’t. When she passes me a plate, she does so carefully, makes eye contact as if to ask, Have you got it? Won’t drop it? I nod, my hands tightening.
Ellen tells Mum about the snake. She scrapes the last of her dinner into a large pile on her fork and stuffs it in her mouth. She tells Mum that the snake was a metre longer than she actually was.
‘Red bellies don’t grow that long,’ Mum says.
‘This one did. She lay eggs in the filter.’
Mum raises her eyebrows and smiles.
‘Red bellies give birth to live young, Possum.’
Ellen picks up the dinner plates. I follow her into the kitchen and she runs the sink. I pour in too much detergent and can’t see what’s in the sink under the bubbles. I reach my hands into the oily, frothy water and imagine that a snake emerges from the drain. She erupts quickly, black and long, sliding over my shoulders and down my legs to slither across the floor.
I go into my bedroom and peel off my clothes. I lie on the bed sheets and close my eyes. I can hear Ellen talking to Mum through the door. Her voice is low, like a humming, and it calms me. When I fall asleep, I dream that I’m swimming in the pool. The red dust and the sticks swirl around me and I feel the dirt sediments glide through my hair. My toes touch the bottom and the dust settled there lifts suddenly, like a tiny explosion. Silent fireworks, I whisper to myself, my words bubbles in the water. In the morning, I wake easily. I open my eyes and stare at my wardrobe, my window, my desk. I whisper the words again. Silent fireworks.
In the afternoon, Ellen and I sit on the front steps. We’re cleaning our parents’ shoes. We each have a cloth, and we wipe off the grass seeds and dust, dipping our cloths every so often into a bucket of water. It’s humid. I can smell our sweat, syrupy like warm apple juice. Ellen holds her cloth under the water, letting it fill, before squeezing it out over her arms and legs. She closes her eyes and I know she’s thinking about swimming.
We’re not allowed to go inside. Aunt Dawn is here.
For the last couple of months she’s been coming over every few days to sit in the kitchen with Mum. Mum tells us to stay outside. Dawn brings Cal, our cousin. Cal doesn’t want to hear what they talk about; she wants to kick around the soccer ball. She’ll go deep into the yard while Ellen and I try to listen. If we sit on the verandah we can hear faint words. If we go around the side of the house, where the kitchen window is, we can hear more. We take turns drinking water out of the tap while the other listens. Mostly it’s just conversation about our dad, or the drought, or Cal’s dad. Sometimes Dawn cries.
Today they speak so quietly that we can’t hear a thing. Cal stands near the shed. She doesn’t want to clean shoes. She unravels the garden hose so that it lies flat, then she blasts on the water. The hose rises, erratic. It spits and swivels. Angry as a snake.
Ellen and I go to the pool at opening time and stand outside the gates. We wait, staring into the empty hole and at the dry terracotta tiles around the edge. After half an hour the owner comes outside the office and takes off his glasses.
‘Not until tomorrow probably, girls.’
Ellen doesn’t say anything, and so I nod for us and smile. He goes back into the office. We turn and walk home. Halfway up the road, Ellen grips my arm.
‘Practise saying this under your breath,’ she says.
‘Practise saying: Fuck you!’
‘Do it. Like this,’ she lets go of my arm and stops. ‘Fuck you. Dickhead.’
She slaps my hand when I don’t say anything. I mumble. She waits patiently for me.
‘Fuck you,’ I say.
When we get home, Ellen tells me to keep my togs on. We stand in the backyard and she turns on the tap. We watch the water splash into the earth. The yellow grass inflates, the dirt becomes mud. After a while, she turns off the tap, and lowers herself into the wet ground. The puddle isn’t very big, and when I sit our knees bump together. Ellen sighs and lies back, rests her legs over mine. I dip my finger into the mud and draw on her legs. A sunflower. Two elephants, their tails entwined. Stick figures of me, and Ellen, and Cal. When it gets dark, Ellen sits up. She looks at her legs carefully, turning her head on different angles. She traces her finger over the drawing of the three girls. She draws a circle around us, enclosing us in a womb. She looks like she’s going to say something but she doesn’t. Instead, she puts her palm in the mud and wipes at her legs. The pictures blend and dissolve. She stands up and her tog bottoms are high cut. I can see the spiky, dark hair around her bikini line.
Dawn calls that night to yell at Mum. Ellen and I listen from the bathroom. We only hear Mum’s side of the conversation, but it’s pretty clear what Dawn says.
I shut the door, muffling Mum’s voice. Ellen sits on the edge of the bathtub, her eyes closed and her head against the wall. I sit on the floor and paint my toes. When Ellen opens her eyes they’re red, her blue pupils wet and bright. They look the same as when she comes home from the pool. She stays under the water from open to close. The chlorine makes her eyes hurt and her hair textured and green, like kelp. In the evenings we fill Dad’s shot glasses with milk and line them up on the bathroom sink. She watches me with itchy, glassy eyes. I take her head in my hands. She blinks when I tip the milk in. Droplets of milk run down her face like tears: I wipe them away and suck them off my fingers.
In the morning, the pool is still closed. The council workers are back. They stand inside the pool grounds.
‘We’re getting ready to fill it again,’ one of them yells to us.
Ellen picks up a handful of bottlebrush flowers but doesn’t have the guts to throw it at them. Instead, she crushes them between her palms, seething, and throws them into the air. They land, pink and feathery, in our hair and on our shirts. We turn to walk home and I see Cal riding past on her BMX. I call out and she looks up. She slows down and I think she’ll circle back but she doesn’t. She rides away, her hair falling out of her ponytail.
We’re eating dinner when Cal calls. I pick up the phone slowly, expecting Dad, drunk, needing a lift, or Dawn, struggling to breathe.
‘The pool is open tomorrow,’ I say.
‘I need to tell someone.’ Her voice is rough but steady.
She doesn’t say anything for a while. I hear her move the phone away from her face. The receiver fills with static, like she’s resting the mouthpiece against her shirt or her hair.
‘I didn’t want there to be anyone else.’
‘It’s my fault. I made a wish that it would just be me. Just me and Mum.’ She’s quiet for a moment. I can hear her breathing.
‘It’s not your fault.’
‘I’ll see you at the pool,’ she whispers, before hanging up.
I sit down at the table and tell Ellen and Mum that a friend at school needed help with a maths question. I twirl the spaghetti around on my fork. The bolognese sauce is oily and tomatoey. It runs to the edges of my plate. It makes me think of blood: a graze on the elbow, a wobbly tooth, a perfect circle on bedsheets. I take a bite and feel the spaghetti, slimy, curled in my mouth like the snake in the pool. I run to the kitchen and vomit, hot and wet, into the sink.
Ellen and I walk through the hot gully. The grass is itchy and long; it’s up to my waist. Ellen’s breath is ragged beside me. She puts a hand on my shoulder but groans and takes it off when she feels that my shirt is wet.
There’s a line up at the pool and we stare into the water. The sun makes it sparkle. I can see Cal inside the pool grounds. She has sunglasses on and I can’t tell if she sees me. The owner outstretches his bowl at the gate for our money. I put in our coins and walk through. When Ellen tries to follow me, he looks her up and down.
‘Have you paid?’
‘Yeah. Pinky paid for two.’ Ellen nods her head at me. The owner counts the money in the bowl. It takes a couple of minutes. He finishes counting, licks his lips, and steps aside to let Ellen in.
When she walks up to me, I’m standing by the edge of the pool with the other kids. We look at the ground next to the pool filter. On the concrete is a milky sac. It’s dried out. The baby snakes are dead inside. I feel Cal move to stand beside me. She smells like sunscreen. She’s still for a moment before she touches my hand. She points to the lower half of the sac, where there’s a tear in the thin, filmy tissue.
Someone dives into the pool and water swells over the edge. Streams of pool water run down the concrete, slide between my feet like the baby snakes that might have survived; pushing, pushing, to reach the warm, dry earth.