Type
Short Story Prize

Eva and Tobias | Neilma Sidney Prize, runner-up

Eva loved Tobias, same as anyone, but he wasn’t what she wanted so she left. Tobias was all right. He was a lovely and charming baby when he wanted – he made ducks with red paint on squares of white paper and called his father Twebba, which Eva adored. Eva did adore Tobias, same as anyone, but he wasn’t what she wanted so she left.

She drove south. She stuck mostly to the left lane, closest to the cliff, and did not break the limit. But now and then when she went around a bend she saw herself adjusting the wheel and putting the car nose first, fast, into the cliff. The little car would crumple. She’d swallow her shattered teeth. Her torso would fly out and her head would crack the screen and somewhere below all that her chest and her legs would be pinned down in one place, by the wheel. Lately these pictures had been coming at her. They came in like a train, crash, and then they went away again.

 

Eva drove as far south as she could go in the state and when she crossed the border Tobias occurred to her. She experienced a connection to him that sounded like two plates of metal colliding in the space between her lungs. Or perhaps it was hunger – she had driven through lunch. She’d stop, she decided, in the next country town. She’d get something fun to eat, like bacon French toast. A cocktail with an umbrella in it. Or a big banana split.

 

At the Crown Motel in Baker’s Fall Eva sat down on the bed. She considered the walls, a baby shade of pink. There was a desk in the room which pulled out from the wall and a sink next to the bed, also pink but more in the way of musk – a penetrating, glandular pink. Eva put her fingers to her temple. She had an ache in her skull that went right down her back and she stood up with the intention of getting painkillers from her bag. But then she sat down again, lay back on the bed, the pictures came in – they rolled so easily in. Tobias in the bath. Tobias in the high chair with yoghurt on his neck. Tobias and his chubby fingers after painting, like bleeding silkworms, and his yellow smell after sleep, of saliva and scalp. The cruellest picture was of Tobias standing in his cot knocking the ball. The ball was plain wood, painted with silver stars, and it descended from the over-sized neck tie belonging to the cloth duck hanging on the wall. Tobias banged rhythmically in this critical way, alerting her to some serious situation. She snapped open her eyes and got up off the bed.

Eva drove along the highway, through the night. There was a hollow wind behind her eyes and a white window she had to close which rattled somewhere. It was still dark in the sky when the restaurant appeared.

The restaurant was empty. It was one of those places directly off the highway which is conveniently located but doesn’t know what it’s about. Everything was on the menu but the menu had been put together at different times with different fonts and as a result it didn’t seem to say anything specific. The cloths on the tables were white and made of paper and the drink coasters were square with round edges and featured jokes. Eva picked up one coaster and found she knew the joke: What’s big and grey and wears a mask? The elephantom of the opera. She selected another. What did the grape say when the man trod on it? Nothing – it just let out a little wine.  Eva sat down. A waitress came along.

Good evening, the waitress said.

Just a tea, Eva said.

She watched the waitress disappear. Suddenly she couldn’t recall if she’d paid for the room at the Crown Motel and it came to her some man was after her life. She’d be found out any minute and she’d get taken off. She’d get put in a boot, definitely raped, she’d get stabbed to death with a screwdriver and she’d feel it all as she died and she knew this was possible because she’d seen this happen, once, in a dramatic re-enactment on daytime television. The feeling was that this was inevitable, it was just a matter of scary time, but then she remembered making the payment and the feeling went away. She put her head in her hands, closed her eyes.

When Eva looked up she saw a family had arrived. They were seated at the table directly adjacent to her, and they were fat. The whole family was fat. There was a woman, a man, a teenage girl and a boy, about twelve. The boy was the fattest. He was sitting on the chair closest to Eva’s table and she saw how his enormous legs exploded sideways out of his shorts and how his vertebrae baulked in a desperate curve against the chair where his flesh leaked out in various theatrical waves, slabs and rolls. It was spectacular, Eva thought, how fat the boy was. His upper arms were like two milk bottles but they met in an unhappy crease in the centre, at the elbow, and they were very pale these arms and smeared with orange freckles.

Here you go, the waitress said.

She set down a glass filled with ice and a bottle of water and a pale green tea cup and a steel pot of tea. The steel of the pot was grimy with fingerprints and the string from the teabag hung, dead, off the side.

No, Eva said.

Is everything okay?

You have to take it, Eva said.

The waitress picked up the tea.

Would you like anything else, the waitress said. Something to eat?

Eva shook her head. She took up an ice cube and put this in her mouth, moving it around and then crunching it down. She repeated this process with each of the cubes and felt better.

A bell dinged.

Eva watched, mesmerised, as the waitress delivered the fat family their food. There were burgers and bowls of hot chips and spaghetti with meatballs and plates of garlic bread and a bowl of potato salad and Thai beef salad and Caesar salad with hard boiled eggs cut in half on the top along with shredded bacon and shredded parmesan cheese and whole hairy anchovies, criss-crossed. There was a seafood platter in the dead centre of the table which sat high above the boy’s head on fine, shining silver legs.

Eva waited to see what the family would do. They ate. As individual people they ate but as a group they ate the food like a glorious machine. The woman ate a chicken burger as big as her face. As she did this, the mayonnaise and chilli sauce pushed the fine strips of lettuce out between the soft buns and these rained heavily down onto the woman’s heaving plate. Now and then the woman set the burger down and took up a fork, winding spaghetti around it and putting that in. The teenage girl had her phone in one hand and with the other she was heaping corn chips with mince and sour cream and melted cheese and putting that to her mouth and sucking it in. She didn’t seem to chew or even breathe – it was like a special trick the girl had, this way she could eat. The man sucked on BBQ ribs one after the next, a paper napkin slashed with dark sauce fixed under his chin. He alternated the ribs with the prawns, snapping off the heads. Sometimes he’d remove the head as a favour to a member of his family, throwing the prawn so it landed with a crisp thud on someone’s plate. Once a prawn fell on the boy’s empty plate. The boy wasn’t eating anything, apparently. His face was expressionless but he was doing something with his left hand, underneath the table. His right hand was where anyone could see but his left hand was making a stabbing action, underneath the table.

He’s doing it again, the girl said, scraping back her chair.

She stood over the table with a fat grin on her face.

He’s doing it again, she said.

Frank, he’s doing it again!

There was the unmistakable sound of a fork hitting the floor. The girl disappeared with surprising speed under the table.

I got it, she said, stabbing the fork in the air.

I got it, I proved it. I told you people so!

The man looked from the girl to the boy, a bright red prawn shuddering between his forefinger and thumb.

Stand up Walter, he said.

The boy held onto the chair and moved himself off. It was some big effort. It seemed to Eva he left his self behind – that when he stepped towards the man his self remained on the chair, looking on. The man took a hold of the bottom of the boy’s t-shirt and yanked it up, exposing the boy’s great, flabby abdomen which was marked just above the waistband with four bloody red punctures, evenly spaced. The man let the shirt go and stuck the prawn in his mouth.

Time out Walter, he said, tearing off the flesh.

The boy looked around, as if for the first time he understood where he was. The width of his face and the thickness of his chest and his handmade breasts seemed to look about, too. His legs were firmly wedged into his trunk and he stood there, immovable.

But where will I go, he said.

There’s nowhere to go.

The girl, her mouth full, pointed repeatedly with her phone.

There’s seating by the door, she said.

You can do your thinking out there.

The man dropped the prawn tail and reached for another BBQ rib. The boy walked away. The girl was smiling at the man, like together they’d achieved something significant. The woman said nothing, but she watched the boy go. Then she picked up the burger and opened her big wet mouth.

Eva stood up. She had to make a move but she did not know what it was. Some light moved through the window in the night but it was only the sun, she realised, rising over the highway.

On her way out of the restaurant Eva paused before the boy. He was sitting on his hands, swinging his legs back and forth and looking out towards the car park. The boy considered her a moment, his pale eyes ice blue in his fat white face. Then he accepted her hand. They left the restaurant easily, like old friends.

 

As Eva drove, the boy fell asleep. His breath was milky, in the chest. His head collapsed now and then, pushing forward and sideways onto the window, and Eva used her left hand on his hot forehead to push it back up against the seat. But it stayed put just a moment before it dropped back down.

She gave up, drove on.

In the parking lot of the Crown Motel Eva woke the boy gently by stroking him with the back of her hand on his soft, fleshy cheek. He climbed the stairs heavily, as if drugged, and when they arrived in the room Eva pulled off his shoes and lay him down on the bed. She touched his hair, which was slightly damp from sleep, and pulled the blanket over his large, round body. She sat by this body, watching it for some time, then she lay down herself and fell asleep at once. In her sleep she saw a silver pool of what appeared to be glitter expand in the liquid dark out of which the shape of a sitting duck grew then burst, expectedly.

In the middle of the silver burst, a child cried out in the night.

 

 

 

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Ashleigh Synnott lives in Sydney. Her stories and essays have appeared in print and online in publications such as Overland, Meanjin, Antipodes and Award-Winning Australian Stories. Ashleigh is represented by the Jane Novak Literary Agency.

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