We’re thrilled to bring you this special podcast episode celebrating the publication of our second print anthology, New Australian Fiction 2020. New Australian Fiction 2020 collects a number of brilliant short stories from authors from around the country, and in this episode you’ll hear excerpts from some of them. Tune in to hear Madeleine Watts, Mykaela Saunders, Jack Vening, Maame Blue and Jessie Tu read from their work, and don’t forget to pick up a copy of the anthology to read these brilliant stories in their entirety. You can purchase a copy from our online shop.
Want to be a part of New Australian Fiction 2021? Story submissions for the anthology will open in January next year.
Our theme song is Broke for Free’s ‘Something Elated’.
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Alice Cottrell: Hello dear listeners, I’m KYD publisher Alice Cottrell, and I’m very excited to bring you this special edition of the KYD podcast on the publication day of New Australian Fiction 2020, our second print collection of short fiction. This anthology features some of Australia’s best-loved writers alongside exciting new voices. And you’re going to hear some of those voices today! This episode you’ll hear Madeleline Watts, Mykaela Saunders, Jack Vening, Maame Blue and Jessie Tu reading from their brilliant short stories. Enjoy!
Madeleine Watts: My name is Madeleine Watts, and this is an excerpt from my short story Floodwaters.
We drive a long, straight road beneath slate-grey skies beside the flooded river. The floodwaters surge around trunks of oak and ash, a fast-moving membrane the colour of milk tea. The road is still dry, and safe enough for now. Traffic carries on. The levee isn’t expected to break.
But the water will soon get into the soil and rot the root systems, says the man driving me in his empty shuttle bus along the highway. The shuttle, which is really a panel van, collected me half an hour ago from the low-security airport bound by corn on all sides. I am its only patron.
The interstate takes us past lonely motels looming over carparks. We pass a Kmart, Trader Joe’s, Applebee’s, McDonald’s and then the town. It is, at first glance, like something out of a Golden Age film, a freeze-frame of small town America thatI’d absorbed as a child on the other side of the world in suburban Sydney lounge rooms. But as the shuttle slows down and the town resolves itself through the windows, I can see that it’s going quietly to seed. Empty storefronts, flaking paint.The trees are turning red from the top down, and the flooded river bleeds into the land. Nobody is alarmed yet. The river floods often.
The driver asks how long I’m staying. A week.
And why am I here? To see a friend.
He detects an accent. He can’t quite place me. Where am I from? How did I end up here?
August has lived in the town for two years. He has lived in big cities before, and that is where I think of him still—in a leather jacket, thumbing the screen of his phone, hunched over the bar in Greenpoint where we first met. But now he lives in this plus-size, windy pocket of the Midwest, and he is having the worst year of his life. Three times he has been hospitalised since January, in Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota. A week before I landed at the cornfield airport, he messaged to tell me he thought he might be hallucinating. He was sitting in his living room on a Tuesday night and he could hear murmuring. Hissing. Sounds issued by voices that originated from no human throat.
Are you all right? I asked when I saw the messages on my phone the next morning.
Yes, I’m fine, he said. It happens sometimes. It’s not a big deal.
The sunset is paling, settling into the colour of skin sapped of blood. I’m wearing a long dress and clogs. Back in the spring they were brand new shoes, but now the clogs are stained, the wood chipped, the suede watermarked from thunderstorms in the city. My toes are red with cold. The driver turns the heater on and the warm air comes upon me in a sudden gust, over the bare skin of my feet and up my dress.I haven’t seen August in over a year, since he got this job teaching at the small liberal arts college in a red state full of cornfields and Protestant churches, and it occurs to me as we slow down in front of a house that matches the address he’s given me that nothing is going to be how it used to be.
August lives on the top floor of a two-storey wooden building that backs onto an alley. The front door is always open, he told me.
There are bicycles on the porch, some rusty chairs, an empty bottle of sparkling wine filled to the brim with cigarette butts. I open the door, climb the flight of stairs to his apartment and knock.
Why do you have such a big bag? he asks.
I put it down in the hallway and look at him. His hair is unruly but he has shaved and he’s wearing his boots. It seems to bode well that he’s put on shoes for my arrival. He doesn’t look like somebody who, a few days ago, heard murmuring and hissing that wasn’t there.
It’s the only bag I have, I say.
He stands there, watching me wander through the rooms of his apartment piled high with books and strewn with orange vials of pills and half-drunk bottles of Gatorade. He doesn’t touch me for a full hour, and when at last he comes up behind me, he gently punches the small of my back, holds onto my waist, turns me, pushes me up against the doorframe and coaxes my underwear down my legs. So that’s how it is. The wind picks up, and the rain begins to sound on the windowpanes and in every part of the dark cornscape that stretches away from the town.
We get dinner at a bar, although he warns me that there aren’t many vegetarian options. It’s a perennial problem in this town, he says. We first bonded, five years ago, picking pieces of bacon out of soup during that evening in Greenpoint that at the time was not described by either of us as a date, but was. Now the waitress wants to see some ID. I hand over my green card and it takes her a moment to process what she reads. Then she smiles. Welcome to America, she shouts. I nod. I have lived in this country for five years. I order a black bean burger and whiskey. He orders grilled cheese.
Do you want it deluxe? the waitress asks. Sure.
The sandwich arrives with a blue cheese dipping sauce and many fatty, pink pieces of bacon.
I feel rude sending it back, he says.
You could take off the bacon? It’s a waste. Waste is immoral. A sin. I’ll just eat it.
His sensitivity to sin is new to me. The very word ‘sin’ sounds strange in his mouth. Once a loud representative of America’s young socialists, lately August has been talking about becoming a priest. He’ll need to lie on the application forms (though by his thinking that should only count as a minor sin) because one isn’t supposed to enter the priesthood when diagnosed with a medical condition, especially one that might lead you to believe that the government has installed a computer chip in your brain, or that aliens are keeping tabs on you from their perch in the sky, or that one is a vessel for the voice of the Holy Ghost moving one along a river of divine purpose.
To be fair, he hasn’t believed in any of those things for some time. In the last year, the problem has been his quicksilver moods, the cycles of mania and wild depression, the sudden bursts of weeping. In those very bad months last winter,I would check our message thread on Instagram to see how many minutes it had been since he had last logged in. If he was still checking Instagram, I reasoned, then he was still alive.
The doctors have increased his medication since those hospital visits, and he adheres to a routine of sufficient sleep, regular exercise and therapy. He’s stable, he says.
Mykaela Saunders: My name’s Mykaela Saunders, and this is an excerpt from my short story Long Road, Becoming.
You flick the lamp on, lace your running shoes up and make your single bed, tucking everything in tight. Soft beds breed soft men. The bed’s out from the wall—must have been those dreams making you toss and turn again. You knee the bed flush into the corner and sniff your pillow. You strip the sweaty cover off and chuck it in the laundry on your way out.
The streetlights pop off as you jog down the street. Ahead of you, a thin slice of horizon brightens, and the black sky around it silvers, bruises, then bursts into orange flames.
Closer to town, you pass the big flash houses emerging in the dawning light. You wonder for the fifteenth time what nice things they’ve got locked up inside. And for the fifteenth time you punch the thought down, leaving it for dead on the of the road. This is easier to do each time. You pick up the pace, light-footed.
Nobody’s at the park except for a few fishermen on the jetty. You do your circuit, focusing on your arms today: push-ups, pull-ups, burpees. Your muscles are growing powerful and hard; soon you’ll be able to lift your own weight.
When you’re finished your heart is pelting and every pulse point vibrates, and you feel so good that no bad thoughts can get anywhere near you. This is the time you feel safest outside, so you sit and enjoy it while it lasts. The river’s skin glimmers in the early sun. The shedding bark on the eucalypts reveals satin-smooth wood glowing opal in the light. One of the fishermen catches a bream. He scales it quickly, divesting it of its armour. Hopefully they’re still biting later when you comeback down with Dad.
You’d like to stay here for longer but Terry’s coming at nine. You run back home with tunnel vision, ignoring the flash houses, burgeoning light brightening behind you, chasing the shadow shortening in front of you.
As you approach your house, a bit of the old shame claws around inside you. The dirty paint is peeling, long flakes clinging to the cheap wood. But, look, at least the place is tidy these days without all the shit in the yard for everyone to see.Everything’s packed up under the house now being eaten by mould and mice.
Maybe you can see if someone’s got some spare paint lying around for you to spruce it up a bit for the old man. He’d like that. When you feel stronger you should put the feelers out.You know from last time that things can go wrong if you start getting big ideas too soon. Wait and see how you go for a few more weeks.
Inside the house the mustiness hits you in the face. It’s an old person smell, which doesn’t make any sense because your dad is only forty-four. But, then again, that’s nearly old age fora blackfella.
Or maybe it isn’t anything to do with age—maybe it’s the closeness to death, the mustiness of dying. Might be the smell of cancer eating through your old man’s lungs and excreting the waste, or maybe it’s the residue from radiation burning through the cancer.
You go check on him. He’s still asleep, wheezing in and panting out. He looks so different. So fragile. You open up some windows to clear his burnt-out breath atomising through the house.
Under the hot shower you scrub your fingers through your scalp and run sudsy hands over ink-stained skin. There’s no cohesion to your canvas as none of this work was planned or designed. The whole thing was ad hoc—expanded on visit by visit, stint by stint, changed in small increments to what it is now. Most of them are blackwork—amateur renderings of hard-arse imagery—except for the oldest one, which is just shy of twelve years old: a bright-red heart tattooed over your chest withRIP MUM inked inside. The heart’s black outline has grown fuzzy. Ink bleeds across the lines.
You should ring your sister and see if she’ll bring the kids up soon. You’d like to see them more, but you’re not allowed over at her house these days. You know she does love you, but that didn’t stop you hocking her shit the last time you were out.
You missed them all inside—missed her warm hand on your shoulder, supportive, as the jarjums gurgled away in your lap, or played with your hair and traced your tatts, crawling all over you as though you were a statue. Well, you are in a way. You gotta be. Gotta be hard and still, otherwise everyone will think you’re up to no good.
You wipe the steam off the mirror and check yourself out from every angle. Not bad at all. You don’t look like a walking skeleton anymore but you’re still as hard as you were inside. Best to stay this way so as not to become soft.
You’ve got a good day ahead of you today. You like to have your days planned out. If you control the input, you can predict the output. Makes it easier to stay on track.
Jack Vening: Hi, my name is Jack Vening and this is an excerpt from my story After the Stampede.
I’m alone watching cartoons when the animals come down from the mountain. There must be hundreds of them. A stampede. They churn up our flower beds and shit over the traffic islands. They void the warranty on our tyres. They break the tiny penises off the pissing cherub statuettes in our gardens. Goats stick their long tongues through the letter slots in our front doors and frighten the children inside. Chimps do unspeakable things to one another outside the corner store, all of which is captured on security camera. They seem to want to take everything we have.
It is Saturday. Always disappointing when trouble arrives on a Saturday, a day reserved for selfish virtues, and it being early everyone is standing at their windows, dumbfounded and afraid. Waterbirds break against our roofs like hail.
My parents have taken my little brother Kenneth to his specialist and will be gone for hours. I’m forbidden to leave the house unless in their presence. I never feel more sleepy, I have learned, than in the first few minutes of an emergency.As a little boy, I stood before the burning orchestra building, the heat like a hand closing around my face.
Some horses kick my side gate off its hinge and get into the backyard to drink from my brother’s wading pool. The water in the pool hasn’t been changed in about two months, so I can’t say if drinking it will be good for them.
I take some photos through the flyscreen in case I need proof to show my parents. They don’t often believe the thingsI say, even my most realistic stories, nor do they defend me when the folks from the neighbourhood take a swipe or treat me like a thing washed up in a storm. They are popular themselves. All summer they make love loudly with the windows open. They call each other disgusting names. The whole street listens to the ritual.
Kenneth, too, is considered a gift despite his conditions.His body resembles a jigsaw puzzle. He is sweet-eyed and warming to speak to. Visitors beam as they watch him quietly read Bible stories to himself. Due to his illnesses—his laughable immune system, his bones which grew as if in conflict with one another—my parents allow him the pleasure of scattering his toys around the yard and leaving them thereto decompose over many thousands of years.
I’m not alone in here, I call to the horses. Do you hear me? I have powerful friends and tools at my disposal. I have nothing to interest the likes of you. You can just do your business and leave, thank you.
The morning is bright. I am confident the horses can’t see me through the flyscreen. All the same, one of them raises its head and charges right through the nice new patio door.
Outside, folks are counting the dead. They gather at the fountain, which is rank and murky with the bodies of rodents. Everyone looks wounded and sorry for themselves. A heavy man with a head gash spits on the ground as I ride past on my bike, a bloody tooth dribbling slowly down his chin.
Most of what’s left has been trampled—the corpse of a wolf, some woodland things. A few household pets evidently inspired by the wild violence of the stampede. A dog wearing one of those anxiety vests. Something that seems to be a mule or skinny horse and about half a dozen long-legged, mud-coloured wading birds that couldn’t keep up. You’d think they’d all been run over by a tank. The street stinks like a nest.
A group has formed around my neighbour Jennifer, surveying the dismal scene. Her husband Lloyd is there with their baby Margaret.
Are you okay? Jennifer asks me. What are you doing outside? Where are your parents?
There were some horses, I say. They kicked the shit out of my patio. I was lucky to get out.
A big bobcat got into the kitchen and scratched Lloyd on the hand, says Jennifer. We scared it off with a bar stool. Lloyd’s hand is hastily triaged with a towel. There doesn’t seem to be any blood, and he can hold Margaret just fine.They’re a fine young family. Many think they’re wise because they don’t own a television. When they first told me Margaret’s name, I thought they were making a joke.
This is it, Lloyd says gravely. This is our reckoning. We must think carefully about what we do next.
Are you sure it was a bobcat? I ask. What did it look like?
You don’t think I’d know what a bobcat looks like? When it’s right in my face, trying to kill me? You’re dumber than I thought possible.
I gesture for Lloyd to pass me Margaret, but he moves her further away. Where are your parents? Jennifer asks again.
I’m on my way to meet them now, I say, wheeling my bike around. They’re enjoying lunch nearby.
You’re going out there?
I am, I have some chores to do.Nobody tells me that it’s too dangerous for a child; nobody thinks of stopping me, though Jennifer does look concerned. Once, I called their home and left a message—Leave him, I said. Leave Lloyd. There’s so much we both have yet to experience. Bust me out of here; it’s time to start our journey—but as far as I know she never listened to it.
Take it easy when you see Kenneth, she says. This might be too much for his little body.
I leave the folks to comfort their families. The younger, unsupervised kids chase after me, holding the bones of something small above their heads. Everyone I pass is hugging or whispering or weeping, talking with their heads close together, looking at the dirt or at the clouds like they’re waiting for rain. They stare into each other’s eyes, doing the things strangers do when they’re alone, things I’m usually forbidden from seeing.
Maame Blue: My name is Maame Blue, and this is an excerpt from my short story Howl.
Fat chance. Black girl, curvy, sporting a short afro that prompted an Aussie friend from work to label you Afrocentric.You’ve been called vibrant before, but tonight you feel invisible, lost in this woolshed bar conversion dropped in the middle of an open parking lot in Brunswick. You think about your arrival, how you rushed out the house frantically and skipped past Anstey station in a sweat, the street art along the train tracks turning into the blur of a rainbow in your haste.
You were worried.
I can’t be late.
Still, you wanted to have a moment to take it all in—this new life, the frankness of Melbourne. You pushed down how much you missed the London accent, the muddy green of Hyde Park, the chewing gum-stained streets of CamdenTown, street food and punks and yummy mummies and bad gyals. What were you really without all those things?
A visitor, belonging nowhere and looking to reinvent yourself, like everyone else.
You sip through your straw and look back at the bartender. Bearded in a Hawaiian shirt. They’re always bearded, with soft eyes and soft accents, trying to guess your order before you’ve said it. Like how he knew you wanted something with zest, reached for it before you had finished speaking. You weren’t looking for the hard stuff tonight.Perhaps through the layers of makeup and a dewy glow of sweat he could see you were hungover.
Or maybe he just saw the words first date taking shape in your mouth, your anxiety and bubble of excitement the only true markers. You were grateful for it, for the drink and the time to catch your breath. You let in relief when you entered the bar and saw that your date hadn’t arrived yet.
Others were there, though—silhouettes just like his. Tall bodies with a slight heft, carrying themselves like surfboards.Something in them spoke to being outside on the weekend, enjoying the fresh air before the rapid deterioration of everything natural was complete. They climbed mountains, kayaked down rivers, hiked through forests.
You often wondered what feats you could achieve if you only stepped out further than the day before. You were too used to being trapped in comfort and routine back home, until you came here. Your first act of daring was getting on that plane, dreaming about being surrounded by trees. There’s a kindness to communing with nature, letting its peaceful warmth be the thing you tried to absorb. But once you arrived, you grasped desperately for the familiar again, sinking into the slow simmer of it. Now you think about the heat of your date.
A friend of a friend. You had discarded the introduction apps months ago; the last time was a precursor to nothing.When you met the one black guy you had so far found online, he was only a familiar face on a stranger. He carried your shopping home after one coffee and you fucked him on the sofa where your flatmate had strummed his way through‘Yellow Submarine’ the night before, the twang of the guitar keeping you awake as you lay in bed in the next room.
Afterwards the man didn’t want to stay, and you didn’t want to be friends. It left you with a meaningless gape. You sauntered down to Sydney Road and bought a Lebanese pizza and too much baklava and ate your weekend away.
What was it about being both invisible and under a spotlight at the same time? You had never wanted to hide your black skin until you came here. Where boys, the whiter ones, wanted to prove how open-minded they were by engaging you. Blond-haired bachelors pumping closed fists against their chests in a crowded bar, two times, as a greeting just for you. Brunette-moustachioed whiskey lovers sending explicit messages on Tinder that reference your dark exotic hue as reason and rhyme for seduction purposes. And the redhead sending up-to-the-minute texts, until you bumped into him with his mother on Flinders Street and watched him turn her around so she wouldn’t witness your shared eye contact, or witness you.
Jessie Tu: Hi, this is Jessie Tu. I’m going to be reading from the beginning of my short story called Three Iterations of Love.
I’d spent the afternoon trying to work on my paper, but the light from the window was distracting, and I ended up going out onto the balcony and clipping my toenails instead.The pieces fell onto the floor and I swept them up and tossed them over the balcony. I didn’t care that they’d land on the balcony of the apartment below. It was probably full of pieces of human. Dead pieces. I like to imagine that area filled with parts of us that mix in with parts of strangers we’ve never met.
We walk the streets, my brother and me. It’s cold. ‘Bitter winter,’ I say. He picks dumplings.
The dumpling house is a hole in the wall. The tables are street level, the kitchen is downstairs. The man and I have eaten here a handful of times. We were always given a table outside. Tonight, my brother and I sit inside because it is draughty and because all the outside tables are occupied. We are seated opposite each other on a tiny table against the wall.People have to squeeze past us down the aisle to get to the cashier to pay.
My brother’s phone rings. A cousin from Taipei. Our uncle is trying to reach Mother. What possibly for? we ponder aloud. Is he dying? Writing her into his will? No. He has more important people to give away his money to; he has grandchildren now. I did not know this. We order a plate of greens. Pan-fried dumplings. Steamed dumplings. My brother calls Mother. Mother says she’s not been sleeping well.Experiencing dizziness. Sore muscles. Dry throat. ‘Jet-lagged?’ my brother offers. ‘Maybe go out for a walk. Getsome fresh air.’
The food comes, very late. We eat and talk about euthanasia and cycling and carceral feminism and Jackie Chan.I tell him how funny it is that when you do an internet search of the word ‘euthanasia’ the pictures that show up are of one hand holding onto another hand. He tells me about his lover and I tell him about mine. We are both with the wrong people. If we’d not been siblings, I’d have wanted to marry him. But I’d be the kind of wife who would withhold sex when I wanted something, only relenting when I really, truly had to. Otherwise it would be a sexless marriage and he’d have to be okay with that. Because my brother is the most perfect human being who has ever existed. I have no doubt. We are both going to marry the wrong people.
Next to us, a young, white couple have just finished their meals. They are waiting on dessert. The woman is blonde, pretty and round. She is wearing a leather jacket with silver studs and black jeans. She and her boyfriend are sitting side by side. She has one arm slung around his neck. His elbows are propped on the edge of the long table, fingers weaved together. She wants love. He wants space.
While my brother is texting back to our cousin, I study the boyfriend’s face. He is very handsome. A young Tom Cruise.He could be on the cover of GQ. He’s also got the deferential gaze of someone who has been used to a life of being wanted.She wants love and he wants space. Every time I look over, the woman has rearranged her arm around his neck—a new contortion of limbs. It looks awkward, contrived. Like they are teenage drama students in a dress rehearsal for a play, faking it real bad. I pity her. Her high-pitched voice and all that effort. Their dessert arrives. Mango sago pudding. The man and woman are sweet and polite, thanking the Asian busboy (he is not a boy but a man, roughly my father’s age). He clears their table and places the bowl between them. She gets out her phone and shows her boyfriend something. He gets out his phone. She looks at pictures. ‘Which one is me?’ she asks him sweetly.
‘The sexy one,’ he says, barely smiling. As though a smile costs him something he needs to keep in reserve.