Judge Fiona Wright nominated three works for commendation in addition to the first three places:
LITTLE POPS OF ESTEEM –
‘Wanna suck my lollypop?’
The blonde girl with plaited pigtails comes up to my waist, her arm stretched out, holding a glistening lollypop the size of her head. She is a walking cliché plucked from a nearby advertisement. Almost. I expected pink ribbons or a teddy bear, something to complement her sweet voice to complement her sweet lolly.
I look around the platform, someone to take ownership of their genes, during which time my mouth opens a fraction and my brain starts to stammer. I see suits. I see rings. I see shoes that tap, shoes that squeak. I see briefcases. I see bags. I see other things tucked under arms. I see wet hair. I see scarves. I see beanies. I see a beanie with a felt bird perched on top. I see pigeon crap. I see billboards. I see puffy eyes, empty stares. I see iPhones. I see headphones. I see an apple. I see a lollypop.
I look beyond the tracks, pretend to count the number of utes with ladders in the back. There is a little girl staring at me.
The girl’s mother intervenes with a glossy smile, with messy hair that won’t tie back.
‘Sweetie, don’t bother the man.’
‘But he’s not doing anything.’
‘I’m sure he is.’
‘But maybe he wants a lick.’
The mother smiles again, bends over to rub the corner of her daughter’s mouth, doesn’t seem to realise she is showing the top of her black bra.
‘I’m really sorry about this.’
I scratch the top of my head, where my hair ties back. She reveals more of her black bra.
‘I’ve told her before.’
Don’t seek acceptance from strangers? At this time of the morning my faded jeans with authentic knee holes seem inappropriate for the train. I fiddle with the piece of leather choking my wrist.
‘Don’t bother nice people when they’re busy.’
There is probably a Centrelink nearby and I continue to fiddle. I can hear occasional words like ‘appointment’ and ‘budget’ and ‘assignment’; people are gravitating towards patches of yellow light. The morning sun is tender but in the shadows coldness chills the bones. Waiting passengers seek out the warmth, not wanting to get too close to others, knowing that ‘The next train to arrive on Platform Three goes to City Circle. First stop, Lidcombe…’ will squish them together for at least 40 minutes. I should have at least been carrying a newspaper.
The mother stands up and straightens her top, brushes strings of hair behind her small ears. She takes her daughter’s sticky hand and says something to me and something else, the little girl waving at me with her other hand, with her lollypop.
When the girl boards the train with her mother, she skips between the anxious flock of passengers. Almost a walking cliché.
The doors close with a hush and I see the mother look over her shoulder to gauge her womanly appeal, her glossy lips, black bra.
I stand still with cold knees.
I am thinking how nice it was to be called a man.
Image: J. Hemsley
ON AN ORDINARY NIGHT – Maryam Tayyaba
A dark horse –
his presence emanates
casting a shadow
over the kitchen.
He pulls fear from a pocket
inside his jacket
along with a paper folded to a square,
creased like the lines of worry
that snake across her face.
She wipes her hands
down the sides of her dress
the world of her insides, pulled tight –
an arrow drawn to a bow,
and she wonders what is stranger:
the soldier or his news.
WESTERN SYDNEY GRASS – Bronwyn Lovell
After Nanna died,
I stayed for a while in her house in Western Sydney –
a few blocks from where I’d been born;
a few streets from the concrete playground;
a few hundred metres from the gang violence
that regularly erupted on the News.
Broadcast over suburban streets
was the familiar soundtrack of my childhood –
freight trains rattling, semi-trailers thundering,
car alarms ricocheting off stained fibro and red brick –
a deep, thrumming drumbeat.
You couldn’t hear the cries from the detention centre,
but you knew they were somewhere underneath.
When I felt weak, I’d go out to Nanna’s backyard
and sit, bare-legged on that thorny grass,
and think how tough it was. How strong.
Marvel at how it grew green on exhaust fumes
and smoke from industrial towers,
how it could go weeks without water,
and withstood the sun even after the old tree had gone.
I remember how as kids that grass had hurt.
It had bitten our skin until our white arms and legs were red
with welts and rash and sting. And to this day,
I know that grass is still in my blood,
Western Sydney is still scratching through my veins, sticking to my throat,
stinging under the surface, prickly to the touch,
still seeking to mark my skin in red, to brand my real postcode,
still printing its name next to mine on my passport
so it comes wherever I go,
to remind me why my vowels are long
and my elbows are worn,
so I won’t forget where I’ve come from,
so I’ll remember where I was born
and how I grew up on gritty grass
and am the stock of a resilient lawn.