2022 Short Story Competition Winners!

Short Story Comp Writers Studio 2022Congratulations to our Prize Winners and to all who entered.

We were thrilled with both the quality and number of entries we received.

Our judge, Zahid Gamieldien has awarded the top 3 entries:

Congratulations, Zachary, Cassie & Laura.

1st Prize – Zachary Pryor – Aqua Profonda
2nd Prize: Cassie Hamer – The Thirtieth Anniversary
3rd Prize – Laura Kelly – Mr Penniforth Conducts An Assessment


1st Prize Winner

‘Aqua Profonda’ by Zachary Pryor


And the amber-tinctured daylight spilled into the room. The hospice hallway was ripe with the stench of chemicals. Adam lay supine, his breathing soft, rumbling. Slowly in, slowly out. A hollow sound. Eyes closed. His arms brindled with Kaposi sarcomas.

Our romance had been short, sharp—several summers of love splashing in suburban pools, dancing with drag queens at divey nightclubs, parties in rundown terrace homes, and greasy breakfasts over Formica tables. The medicinal fugue meant some days he knew I was here, some days he didn’t, some days he’d confused me with his brother, or the nurse, whoever might be on the tip of his tongue. Several summers of love and a lifetime of memories. And, ever Adam, always Adam, Adam I’d never forget.

I rocked in the chair, book in my lap, waiting, waiting, waiting.


And of course, when we met nearly three years ago it had been one of those delectable Melbourne days. We couldn’t have asked for better weather—the sky hazy and gold. Warm, cloudless. Adam was friends with friends of friends of friends—that’s how it always went. He knew Bobby and Terry and Ralph and some of the other boys who lived a little way out in Northcote.

I had come off nightshift at St V’s, where I’d stayed behind for hours to be with some of the boys, read to them, share stories, sometimes I’d just sit silent holding hands, providing small comforts—so many didn’t have families. I needed a dip at the Fitzroy pools to clear my head. Unwind. Recover.

Adam lay up ahead, surrounded by a throng of men. A blur of faces. I said hello to those I knew, nodded at those I didn’t. He looked up from his maroon beach towel, oiled skin, back glistening in the sun, peering over his aviators. There wasn’t anywhere else to drop my towel except next to him. I planted a seat and peeled off my tee and asked him what he was reading. Casual, nonplussed. He held the paperback in his hand, flicked back to the cover, the pages between his fingers. There was a laconic elegance to how he answered.

—Just one of the classics, trying to get through one of the Brontë sisters, he said, smiling. I spied the mole on the side of his left eyebrow and the way the beads of sweat gathered above his top lip.

The group around us chatted, murmuring, some dipped in the water, some stretched out on their towels, basking in the heat like languorous cats. The conversation of our group existed in extended references to other events, other parties, people we knew, our fathers who weren’t speaking to us, holidays we wanted to take, the funerals we’d recently attended. RIP him—he’s no longer in pain, he’s in a better place, the self-soothing maudlin carry-on.

We were only boys, barely men.

—I know who you are, Adam said as the day wore on. I’ve seen you out.

—I know who you are too, I replied.

—That’s that then. Adam put down his book. Swim?

Captivated by his magnetic brown eyes, I followed him into the water. We both jumped in, and the water eddied around us; surging, bursting, chlorine so thick you could see it, the squiggles of heat lifting from the concrete circling the pool.

He splashed me and swam ahead. He was visible, then invisible. A floating charm. The spell of watching him broken by the sound of faraway children giggling.

We slumped on our towels, reclining beneath the blue, blue sky. Slick, wet skin touching. Moments of electricity. One of the boys caught my eye and smirked, I shrugged. Adam turned over and picked up his book.

—Plans this evening? he asked. We’re going out.

It was decided, I was coming with.

The night went as expected. Sweaty bodies against sweaty bodies. Hot skin on hot skin. Shots of tequila, chased with yeasty beer. The DJ spinning records—Kylie, Madonna, Fleetwood; the walls thumping, the room losing its corners. Adam’s hand around my waist, pulling me close, his lips on mine, making soft work, a kiss that spilled into the next song, and then the next.

Back at his flat, lying naked in his bed. Adam pulled away from me.

—I’ve got it, you know, he whispered.

From the glint in his eye, the quiver in his lip, I knew he expected me to recoil, to storm out, to declare him dirtied, diseased, but I’d learnt so much over the last few years. The wreck of eighty-six, eighty-seven, the decline and decay of eighty-eight, eighty-nine.

—So many guys do, I replied, interlinking my fingers with his. Our thighs pressed together. Splayed, splayed.

—You? he asked.

—Healthy but unlucky, I keep burying my mates. But you seem fine?

—Diagnosis came two years ago. Now it’s all mouth ulcers, shingles, I’m forgetting things—like words in sentences. It’s coming for me.

The shadows from his bookcase lengthened across the room, our clothes discarded around the floor like unwanted thoughts. I sat up, nestling against his pillow. My heart quickened. Struck at once with survivor’s guilt, that I was still here, still breathing, still living, still just being, barely existing.

We didn’t fuck that night, we talked. I would be what he needed—friend, lover, whatever. We could only ever be defined by limitations, by endings. Months, maybe a few years. Expiration intimacy. Dating with the finish line in sight. All love stories end in tragedy, don’t they? Whether it’s six hours or six years or sixty years, someone always ends up alone.

So, I held him and listened to him talk—about his regrets, his fears about how his body was betraying him, and the small legacies he wanted to leave behind to those he loved, how he wished he could make amends with his nonna and mother and brother, how even though they’d abandoned him, resigned him to his fate, that fucking sick faggot, he wanted to extend the olive branch, benevolence, practice forgiveness. The better man.


And our friendship unfolded with bike rides to the pool, handwritten notes left on hallway tables, long phone calls that stretched into the night, Kate Bush singalongs in his beat-up Ford. Dancing. Dancing. Late nights, late mornings.

I worked my shifts at the hospital and went to meet him after the classes he taught at the University of Melbourne. He’d recently completed his PhD in English, examining queer writing in the nineteen fifties. He could rattle off snippets about Truman Capote, James Baldwin, and Carson McCullers. There was something so forward thinking about these men that filled him with melancholy at how constrained we still were. An era of hostility to sexual difference. Then and now.

He’d give me book after book, imploring me to read every paperback he’d ever loved.

—This is my favourite, he’d say with glee, chucking a collection of short stories onto my lap. I couldn’t keep up.

—You said that about Brideshead Revisited and Fiesta.

—Yeah, but this is different, he’d smirk.

We’d spend hours under the Aqua Profonda sign at the Fitzroy Pools, the one from Monkey Grip—his Aussie favourite, and I’d watch him read, watch how his eyes would light up as they scanned the pages, watch how his brow would crease when he stumbled upon something sad or angry, watch how his face would split open with delight or how he’d let out a small cackle.

The more time I spent with Adam, the more my world became only him.

As the year ticked on, he slowed, he started losing weight, red sores decorated his arms and legs, and the vomiting, the guts and blood that would come up in the morning, the afternoon, and late into the night. He moved into my ground floor unit, so he didn’t have to worry about stairs. Boxes of his books became my coffee table and propped up my bed.

He gave up his classes and his dream of turning his dissertation into a proper hardback with a spine that cracked. His only focus was on getting better, staying alive, reading the next Garner.

We said goodbye to Bobby and Terry, then Ralph—he was sudden, struck down with cancerous tumours feasting on his insides, he went into the hospital and never came out.

As thin as Adam became, he was always heavier than he appeared, his legs grew useless, and I needed to help him use the dunny. His arms wrapped around my chest, I lowered him to the bowl and closed the door behind me when I left. I’d linger outside, trying not to listen to the sounds he made.

It baffled me how much rubbish the human body could create—even when he hadn’t eaten a solid meal in days, when he’d barely sat up from his bed, spending his days drifting between worlds. On and on and on, all the things we loved best—eating at the pub around the corner, drinking Carlton Draughts, fucking, dancing at the Peel, chatting at parties, long walks through Fitzroy and Collingwood—all of it slipping away, bit by bit, until we were left with the undignified motions and movements, the essence of a body—shitting and bleeding and crying and pus and sores, and that body draining itself, until the very end.


And the disease claimed more and more of Adam—this once virile, now insensate shell of a man. Every hour of my day became worrying if he were too hot or too cold or just right or not right enough. The anxiety gnawed away at my belly. I would come off my shifts and race home to check on him. Every conversation I had was about Adam—yes, he’s fine today, no not fine, yes, fine—until there came a point where he just knew what came next and he wanted to see the ocean for the last time.

I roped in a friend, and we helped him into his beat-up Ford. We took the roads cautiously, I sat in the back with Adam, our fingers interlaced. His shoulder resting on mine. His face wrecked, eyes misty. Clouds shrouded the sky with the pinkish sunlight peeking through white folds.

At St Kilda Beach, waves rolled onto the shore with a gentle release. As we walked, wet, beige sand caught between our toes. I held him close, tender, and listened to the silence between his breaths and the carolling of seagulls.

I knew how this would end and yet I couldn’t say no—it was as though a deleterious drug worked its way through my body, choking my heart. I would be with Adam until I couldn’t be with him anymore. Yes, that much I knew.

I was only thirty and when you were thirty, you loved everything and your body was for desire, but I had given so much of myself to care for others, to look after my patients, look after my friends, see how the life of these people I loved would evaporate before my eyes. Skin stretched over bone, until we were left with a husk. To look after Adam. That I was waiting for him to pass on, because then I could move on, and reclaim whatever vestige of youth I still had left.

We carried Adam back to the car, he stole one last glance at the sand and the waves, the people laughing mirthfully, the couples falling in love, picnicking and kissing. I bit down on my lip as we drove away, exhaling deliberately.

The rapid decline would follow, the last few weeks or months—if he were lucky. Our definition of luck was relative, its parameters designed by others. The doc saying he had a hope in hell, the nurse saying he didn’t seem as bad as some of her other boys.

The disease illuminated everything about who we were. It revealed more about our lack of progress, that understanding didn’t necessarily create more progress. That we needed to survive because of what we owed each other, to be here, be present, to just be. That the love we had for one another, the sex we loved was killing us, but we did it anyway, because we craved love.


And then. And then. And then. And then. We were back by the pools, where we first met, we were in our bed, tangled in the sheets, we were swimming in the ocean, riding bicycles down Brunswick Street, lying in a hospice bed and I was stroking his face, feeling his warm skin, wiping drool from his mouth, spoon-feeding him mush.

And he was floating, transcendent. The afterglow of his life.

Sunlight brightened the room, and I was sitting back in my chair, picking up his copy of Monkey Grip. Passages were underlined in pencil and his scratchy, sprawling writing was etched into every page. I flicked open the first chapter and began to read out loud. Something about bacon and summer and happiness and having someone to love. He murmured. I continued. And.


Zachary Pryor is an award-winning writer living in Melbourne on Wurundjeri land. He writes short stories, literary criticism, flash fiction, along with several half-finished novels. In 2021, he was longlisted for the Richell Prize for Emerging Writers. You can find his words here, zacharypryor.com. He also posts what he reads on Instagram, @literature_lad. 


2nd Prize Winner

‘The Thirtieth Anniversary’ by Cassie Hamer


Seven Days Out

Damn her fossicking. Damn this awful downsizing. Damn the attic and its stupid ladder that her husband can no longer manage. Damn the cancer that has made the 15-rung climb impossible. Damn his stupid size-14 clodhoppers with their EE-width that confirms this shoebox can only be his. And damn, damn, damn the contents of this crappy, disintegrating cardboard container which, according to the peeling label, once held a pair of white Reebok Club C sneakers but now contains enough fuel to blow up her marriage.

Winnie replaces the lid. Her heart taps staccato in her chest. Her breathing is ragtime. Her thoughts are too syncopated to be corralled into discernible rhythm.

‘Winnie? Win?’ The gravel of George’s voice filters up the ladder. ‘Cuppa? We’ve got time before the concert.’

Does she remember how to speak? She places a hand to her throat, fingers splayed. If she squeezes, she could choke. ‘Just a minute.’

‘Everything all right up there?’

Can he know what she’s found?

No, of course not. She’s up here to get the wedding album.. Their daughter, Janey, needs photos for the digital collage that’ll be screened at the party.

Damn Janey.

No, strike that. Her eldest child is only trying to do something nice for them, and finding the album had been an easy task for Winnie. It’d sat on a shelf with all the other albums that chronicled the marriage—from babies to kindy concerts, school graduations to family holidays.

The rest of the attic, however, was a disaster zone. Packing boxes she couldn’t remember. Boxes on top of boxes.

May as well get a little sorting done while I’m here.

She’d started with the toughest to reach, the one in the back corner, behind the Christmas decorations and assorted, long-unused sporting equipment. A box she was never supposed to open.

Now her fingers are wet from the wiping of tears, the ink on the letters has smudged and the cardboard box is softening in her hands.

‘Win? Are you coming or not?’

She flinches, blinks through the vinegar in her eyes, and returns the shoebox to its hiding place. ‘Put the kettle on. I’m coming.’

Tickets to the jazz concert were George’s gift for their pearl anniversary of 30 years. But sitting under the concrete eggshells of the Sydney Opera House, Winnie cannot focus. Her mind is a blast of thoughts, louder than the brass of the big band on stage. The lights gleam off the famous lead trumpeter’s bald head.

He had hair when we were first dating.

In smoky basement dives of the late 80s, the scatty improv had fused the eager young travel agents with its energy, its unpredictability.

‘Wouldn’t you love to play like that? To get inside the music.’

The passionate yearning of the 28-year-old George had been as intoxicating to her as his good looks, his innate decency, his kindness. Neither of them played an instrument and both were too busy trying to make it in the world of corporate travel to do anything as indulgent as learn the saxophone. Like her, George was passionate and exciting, but also ambitious and sensible. Perfect.

At the Opera House, the middle-aged woman next to her wears a surgical face mask and a cross expression every time Winnie clears her throat. They’re too old now and too wealthy for smoky basements and sticky floors, and yet, on the other side of her, George leans towards the stage, eyes glassy, still yearning, as he did three decades ago.

Where it wooed her then, today his youthful enthusiasm sets her teeth on edge. She wants to stand and scream into the petal-shaped reflectors that droop off the ceiling to deflect the sound.

This is what she knows. You can love a piece of music. You can hum every note, sing it back ways and front. But you can never get inside of that song, no matter how well you think you know it.

You cannot be the music.

Six Days Out

Snatches of the cardboard’s contents come to her at the most inopportune moments.

When she buys the meat for dinner. Beef tenderloin.

When she grape vines in Zumba. Harder, ladies. Push it.

When her tongue licks across the envelope seam for Janey’s birthday card. Is this how she does it?

In the past 24 hours, everything in her life has taken on a purple haze, an erotic taint. When she closes her eyes, she visualises George’s bare, square bottom bent over a faceless female. Who is this woman who signs herself ‘Me’ (arrogant), writes far too frequently of their ‘Fine Romance’ and references Billie Holiday like an old friend?

While George plays golf, Winnie packs rarely used kitchen contents into boxes. Their only Billie Holiday album, a best-of compilation, plays in the background. She takes a Royal Doulton dinner plate with the fleur-de-lis pattern—a wedding gift from Auntie Ray—to swaddle it in newspaper. Holiday’s voice is smooth as porcelain. It slides and swoops. But there’s sex in it, too. The twang, the way she’s always a second off the beat. It’s a slow, sweaty afternoon in bed, salty bodies tangled in sheets, and that voice drifting like a fluky breeze.

Leaning against the bench, Winnie’s grip on the plate loosens. Then she lets go altogether and watches it smash to the floor, like a galactic big bang, shooting out a million, sharp-edged stars.

Five Days Out

She doesn’t like the way the removalist walks about the house and judges her goods.

‘You’ve got a lot of stuff,’ says Ahmed.

‘We’ve been here for thirty years. The kids have finally gone.’

‘Downsizing, eh?’

Winnie hates that word. Like they are a nest of Russian dolls, getting ever smaller. Yes, their nest has emptied but what that gives them is permission to fly. Travel overseas. Go cruising for half the year. Life would enlarge, not diminish. That’s what George said.

Ahmed takes a pen from behind his ear and scribbles some notes.

‘Do you have children?’ says Winnie.

‘Four. Two boys, two girls. All under eight. The baby is six months.’ He holds out his phone and the faces of four dark-haired, dark-eyed cherubs beam off the screen.

‘They’re lovely,’ says Winnie. ‘Enjoy them while you can. Before you blink, they’ll be all grown up.’

She curls her toes. God, she’d hated that same advice when her kids were little. What’s enjoyable about being stuck at home while your husband gets to live and work in the world?

‘It’s so quiet here.’ Ahmed puts the phone back in his pocket and his face returns to business. Or is it another kind of gravity?

The glimpse into his own small and silent future.

Four Days Out

At the bakery, the shop assistant asks what she’d like written on the white chocolate mud-cake slab. It’s big enough to feed their 60 guests with a generous wedge and therefore offers plenty of scope for an elaborate message.

So far, nothing has come to mind, except for the unprintable.

Here’s to Us! Thirty Years of Lying and Still Going Strong.

Happy Anniversary, you cheating scumbag.

And her personal favourite: I hope you choke on this cake and die.

She imagines her bewildered friends and family trying to swallow the rich buttercream. She can’t do that to them, or herself, or the children.

He still loves her. That’s what she can’t get past. Theirs is a happy marriage. The prostate cancer had made the sex less spontaneous, but it still happened. They rarely argued. They still laughed at the same things. Sure, there’d been those years when the kids were young, the business still taking off, when the intimacy had diminished. But that was normal. It was the bridge in the song of their marriage, a shifting period to get them from one verse to the next. Now, they were back in a rousing chorus.

Or so she’d thought.

The shop assistant shifts her weight, bored.

‘I’m—I’m sorry,’ says Winnie. ‘What do people normally get for a wedding anniversary?’

‘I dunno. Happy 30th anniversary, I guess. Or nothing. Up to you.’

‘I think, let’s go with plain. No words.’

Three Days Out

‘Look at how young you two were. And your hair! So 80s.’ Janey has come around to show her the digital wedding collage.

‘It was 1992, if you don’t mind. And I was thirty. You married younger than me.’

Winnie hates revisionist histories but she can see that Janey is too busy marinating in nostalgia to notice her mother’s irritation. ‘Check out Dad’s suit. What was he thinking?’’

Mother and daughter sit shoulder to shoulder at the laptop, and one image melts into another. Taffeta, baby’s breath and tulle for Winnie, a baby blue suit for George.

Winnie’s father wasn’t a fan, and not just of the suit. Ronnie Whaites—her footy-loving, Saturday-punting, lifelong car mechanic father—had a habit of watching his new son-in-law with the wide-eyed curiosity of a visitor to the zoo. Ron was intrigued by his son-in-law’s bursts of flamboyance, but it confounded him to think they were of the same species called ‘man.’

Fine with Winnie. She wanted someone different, and her father’s confusion was proof she’d found it.

Janey touches her arm. ‘Mum, are you okay? You seem a bit… I don’t know. A bit distracted. Is it the party? Is Dad okay? He’s not sick again?’

‘We’re seeing the doctor on Friday. Just a check-up.’

‘You’d tell me if something was wrong.’ Janey frowns. ‘I’d rather know the truth.’

‘Everything’s fine. Just party nerves, I think. You know how I get.’

‘Have you written your speech?’

‘Not yet. I’m not sure I’ll speak. I can’t think of what to say.’

Janey smiles and puts an arm around Winnie’s shoulder. ‘You’ll find the right words.’

Two Days Out

‘No cancer on the scans. PSA levels undetectable. From our point of view, everything is clear.’ From behind an antique writing desk, the doctor peers over his glasses. ‘But tell me about things on the home front? Urinary control back? Sexual function?’

‘A few hiccups here and there, but nothing we can’t manage.’ George smiles and takes Winnie’s hand. ‘I’ve got a terrific nurse here. The Kegel-Commandant, I call her. Makes me do the exercises every day.’

The doctor’s expression is inscrutable.  ‘Keep that up. It’ll help in the long run.’

He sends them on their way with a bill for $325 and a fresh Viagra prescription that George folds and places in his top pocket. On the way to the car he whistles a tune that Winnie discerns as ‘Strange Fruit.’

On the busy city footpath, she stops. ‘That song? Must you?’

George turns. Office workers rush past. ‘What? It’s one of Holiday’s best.’

‘It’s so macabre.’

‘It’s powerful.’

‘It’s sad is what it is. All those lives, the cruelty. It’s awful.’ She takes a tissue from her handbag and tries to bury her grief in the fibres.

‘Oh, honey. Oh, no. I didn’t know. I’m sorry. Come here.’ He wraps her in his arms. Over the years, his warm and generous hugs have been a balm to her. But today, standing on the street as life unfolds around them, she finds herself gasping for breath.

The day before

Maria sips her champers and glances about the spotless kitchen. ‘You’re all prepared, then?’

‘About as ready as I can be.’ Winnie pulls spinach triangles from the oven, a small portion of the larger batch she’s prepared for the anniversary party tomorrow.

‘Seeing us is probably the last thing you need right now. But when Ivan gets an        idea…’

‘You’re more than welcome, honestly. It’s not a bother.’

Seeing their oldest friends is the last thing Winnie wants, but Maria’s husband is a force of nature. Ivan wanted to give them their anniversary gift privately before the party. How could Winnie possibly say no?

In the lounge room, the old school mates sit on the couch, heads inclined and deep in conversation that breaks when the women enter the room.

George raises his champagne flute. ‘I was just telling Ivan the good news. Officially cancer-free.’

‘Stuck with this one for a few more decades, eh? Just our luck.’ Ivan gives a mock grimace.

‘I’ll drink to that.’ Maria takes a large gulp. ‘You going to open it, then?’ She gestures towards the slim, square gift on the table.

‘I’ll give you a hint.’ Ivan sits up on the couch. ‘It’s not pearls.’

‘Thank goodness for that,’ mutters George, tearing at the silver wrapping.

‘I wouldn’t mind a nice strand of pearls.’ Maria reaches for another triangle. ‘But Ivan said you’d like this more.’ She takes a bite and catches the crumbs under her chin. ‘I’ve never seen a man so determined to get the right gift for a couple. And I know you all love your jazz.’ She shrugs. ‘Just a jumbled lot of notes to me, but what do I know?’

‘Nothing, darling. You know nothing, but I still love you.’ Ivan tips his flute in her direction.

‘Oh, my.’ George has removed the wrapping and stands the gift on his knee. It’s an album, that much Winnie can tell, and an old one, judging by the tatty edges.

‘Well, don’t keep us in suspense—which one is it?’ she says.

‘It’s an extremely rare Billie Holiday. One I’ve wanted for years.’ George speaks with wonder and wheels the record around to reveal the longed-for treasure.

Winnie’s eyes rove over the title.

Songs for Distingué Lovers.

The Party

Winnie is a ghost at her own anniversary party. Floating. Untethered. Bloodless. She accepts kisses and hugs without feeling a single touch. After lunch, George makes a speech about his wonderful marriage and the jazz quartet plays a moody version of Happy Birthday. The old photos spool on the wall.

Like we’re dead.

Together, she and George blow out the thirty candles, a flotilla of flame on the pure white sea of her cake. It takes only a single elongated breath to extinguish them all. How stupidly easy it is to snuff out something so bright and alive.

The knife slices the wordless slab with ease and George clinks a spoon against his champagne glass to dull the rapturous applause. The silence is a caesura, the briefest pause that allows the trumpeter to take a breath and play once more.

In Winnie’s chest, candle smoke mingles with oxygen, mixes with the paper of those letters, sets fire to the shoebox.

‘Now, my wife said she wouldn’t speak today but I think we’d all like to hear her side of the story.’ He turns to her. ‘The floor is yours, darling.’

Winnie steps forward.

Her heart beats staccato, her breath goes ragtime, but now she knows, she knows, the song she’s going to sing.



3rd Prize Winner

‘Mr Penniforth Conducts An Assessment’ by Laura Kelly


Mr Penniforth was in for a big day, and no mistaking it. It was the fifth time Eleanor had been to the park in as many days, and he’d need to get creative with how to make subtle associations with her other memories.

He sighed and watched the scene ahead of him. Dull grey skies, the rhythmic creak of the swing-set, the unyielding focus yet again on the child and his perfectly ordinary stumpy little legs. Eleanor’s recent foray into motherhood was providing fertile ground for complex connections, but it was going to be another long morning.

Having lived inside Eleanor’s mind for a number of years, Mr Penniforth regarded his host with benevolent contempt. She was like a pet that had never quite been useful or adorable enough. But she was adequate, yes, and certainly receptive.

Mr Penniforth knew he was one of the best in his field. He was a neat little man, trim and birdlike, with small feet and an impeccable beard. He carried a small wooden clipboard with reams of paper attached, always calculating his equations in miniaturised shorthand that only he could read. When a suitable equation had been created, he recited it like an incantation and waited to see if it had taken effect.

It was the synthesis that excited him—the many ways in which current events could be intersected with any number of the host’s feelings or memories to create new categories of self-judgement. He’d been an accountant in life, but this new line of work—Intra-psychiatric Eternal Self-Assessments—suited him perfectly well these days.

He lifted his pen to his lips and observed the scene before him. Rich data indeed.


Eleanor had made it out of the house at last. Patrick had been fretful all morning—two-year-old molars already—and she was still in yesterday’s clothes. Most of her mothers’ group were back at work by now, had been for months, and they seemed to have moved into a state in which they were no longer consumed by their mothering. Or perhaps it just appeared that way. At least they seemed to have washed their hair, while she was still stuck in the mire of chaos that had consumed her since the first day home from the hospital.

She’d fallen asleep beside Patrick’s little mattress again and only dragged herself off to her own bed at three in the morning. Tom kept telling her she needed to start looking after herself, but she simply swallowed her rage at his gall and kept going. She couldn’t be apart from Patrick’s breathing, his cheeks, his eyelashes closed and his fists curled up, and it was easier to stay in his room than to go back in and out eight times a night.

And today had been lovely so far.

Playdough, Play School, yum plate, park.

The park had become Patrick’s favourite outing. She loved him climbing the steps to the slide and sending himself down, over and over, and she rarely admitted to herself how benumbed her senses had become and how far away she was from knowing herself anymore. The love sustained her, the way heroin sustains an addict. It took everything, and it gave everything. The price wasn’t even worth considering, because she would always pay it.


Mr Penniforth was glad of his waistcoat this morning, under his suit jacket. The bleakness of the park reminded him of what it once was to feel cold. His host pushed her offspring in the swing with a listlessness that he wondered…yes. It could possibly be linked to Item #23469 from the previous day: Boredom.

Bored mother pushing child on swing: what to match this to?  He was up to Daily Incident 17 already and it was only 10:30. Immediately, he saw that boredom could be run concurrently with any number of judgements he’d already planted in the host’s mind, and that with any luck a new association could stick.

He’d try the equation:

[{Boredom}*Guilt x Shame / Low Self Worth + Loose Memories of Middling Previous Performance as Aunt + Memories of IVF]

But with a footnote on Worthlessness to reduce the Retaliatory Response Rate of the host and give time for the judgement to take hold.

Females made the best hosts—always had—but at times they were too persistent in their efforts to resist the assessment loops that kept them productive. They were always trying to spin the internal judgements into something more palatable. What Eleanor failed to realise was that ‘ad infinitum’ was the nature of this beast, and it couldn’t be stymied with a few ill-conceived attempts at ‘self-care.’ The yoga and parenting books and podcasts: it all simply added more categories to his ever-expanding list of possible associations.

Each new meditation she tried could be added to Item #32567: Failure to Adequately Achieve and then not much more needed to be done. It’d been a good day when he’d come up with that little line item. Honestly, sometimes it was pitiable the way she kept feeding his machine in her attempts to make herself feel better.

The trick was to use some of the information Eleanor acquired about her mothering and to turn it into a new category before she had time to process it. He’d become increasingly efficient once he realised the matrix for motherhood was so complex in and of itself, regardless of which Host Memories he had to draw upon. If he could modify her behaviour somewhat—expose her to as many new ways of achieving perfection as possible—then the program of ongoing assessment would run itself.

Once he’d matched Item #43: Generalised Anxiety Disorder Diagnosis with Item #2785 Desire to Achieve and run it through the filter of Item #456789 Perfectionism, he’d hit upon something spectacular:

Relentless Pursuit x Unreachable Standards {* Societal Pressure}

= Ongoing Perception of Failure x Painful Striving {in Perpetuity}


In the park, Eleanor experienced a bittersweet rush of pain that started as a long sigh and ended with a catch in the soft padded skin of her throat. She didn’t have an awareness of thoughts or words, but she watched her son on the swing and it brought her pain. She could see his mortality encasing his chubby little body, and she could feel her own. It hovered over them.

This pain was familiar by now, but she would never get used to the visceral longing she had to halt the moment and cling to him, to forever catch him suspended this close. His chubby star-shaped dimpled hands. His impossibly fat cheeks and jovial brown eyes. His smile that started on one side and swept across his face. The drunken determination of his meandering adventures.

She would never see him grow old, and he would lose her one day, and she couldn’t bear any of it. She continued to push the swing and felt bereft.

He was right there, and so was she.

They were there together, and yet already they were not.


The start of Daily Incident #30 was innocuous enough—a new mother arriving at the swings. Mr Penniforth knew that sometimes these Motherhood-In-The-Park conversations led to positive emotions within the host and made his lines of communication difficult for some time afterwards. But he also knew he might be able to glean something valuable, to twist the new circumstance into a Negativity Loop. Humiliation perhaps, or self-doubt.

This new mother-woman was attractive and rather tall. She had bright red unbrushed hair and a loud woollen jumper with what looked like mashed banana on it. For the life of him, Mr Penniforth couldn’t fathom what modern women were doing to themselves.


“I feel like I’m trapped in a B-Grade Groundhog Day,” said the new mum. Her daughter’s swing creaked rhythmically next to Patrick’s, and the children stared at each other with open mouths.

“One. Hundred. Percent,” replied Eleanor. “I haven’t showered in two days, and I don’t even have the excuse of him being a baby anymore. It’s starting to feel like I’ve been at this park every day of my life. The only thing I feel good about is my newfound lack of shame about wearing socks with sandals.”

It seemed to Eleanor as though they’d stood there together before, companionably, and that this was the continuation of a conversation that’d been going on for years.

“I feel you,” said the new mum. “I’ve been wearing maternity clothes for three years, and now I can’t picture getting back into proper clothes. I’m not sure how, but I do feel like there’s a freedom in this that I can’t quite appreciate yet.”

“Yep. The freedom from dignity?” Eleanor said.

The other woman laughed, and her smile was lopsided like Patrick’s.


Mr Penniforth snorted derisively and began to run an equation:

[Abandoned Personal Standards x Shame]*{Lack of Direction}

+ Unpredictable Routine / Insecurity Over Looks = Shutdown Response.

But it didn’t seem to be taking. Eleanor ignored the messaging.

Not to panic. These mother-women always seemed to think of themselves as kindred spirits, launching into unmentionable secrets the moment they clapped eyes on each other, as though birthing a human child somehow made them understand one another. He tried again.

[Memory of Feeling Left Out] x {Guilt Over Incident # 452677 (refer to missed phone call, best friend) / Jealousy of Other Woman’s Style = Freeze Response.

Again, nothing.

Clearly the host was too distracted. He’d have to chalk this one up to Positive Bias and come back to another interaction with renewed vigour later.

Time for a cup of tea and a biscuit after all.


Eleanor pushed Patrick on the swing. “I think I’m so in love with this kid that I’ve forgotten how to interact with the rest of the world,” she said. “But I’m also bored. Of being at home with him, I mean. And I’m so shit at it. We’ve watched three Playschools already this morning, and he’s meant to have zero minutes of screen time per day.”

The other woman seemed to study her for the first time, smile crooked and blue eyes shrewd. Something passed through Eleanor, and she knew they would become friends. They already were. It was the same as attraction. Bone deep and certain.

The mum said, “I’ve actually been talking to myself today, so maybe I’m reaching some new lows.”

Eleanor paused and waited for rest of the story.

“Um, and also my name is Emma.” Emma gave a deep laugh. “Maybe I should’ve said that bit before oversharing about my questionable mental health.” She laughed again, ready to abandon the serious subject, but it was safe to go on; Eleanor wanted her to.

“I’ve been going to counselling since I got pregnant,” Emma continued, “because I’ve been really struggling mood-wise. I’m so flat and angry. I know it’s normal but it’s also…not normal. And I think it’s all about the way I talk to myself. I’ve been figuring out there’s a voice in my head trying to fuck with my mumming, and I’ve decided to call him Bob.”

“Like from Twin Peaks?”

“Yep. That double denim asshole. Anytime I get something through my head saying I’m not doing a good enough job, which is most of the time, I’ve just been telling Bob to fuck off.”

Eleanor didn’t often swear in front of Patrick, but she didn’t mind Emma swearing. In fact, it felt sort of glorious.

“Like, when I’m putting Bella to sleep and I’m lying down next to her and I’m telling myself I’ve created an insane system that I now need to break before the new baby arrives, and that maybe I only stay with her because of my own unmet needs and I’m probably a co-dependent narcissist….”

“…you just tell Bob to fuck off?”

“Exactly. I tell Bob to fuck off back to the Red Room, because he’s not welcome in this body or in this mind.”

Eleanor smiled. “Hmm. I like it. But you’ve picked a pretty terrifying voice to have in your head.”

“Well, he is terrifying. I’ve just named him accurately. He’s bloody out to get me, and I’m sick of him running the show.” Emma rested one hand on her belly and smiled back at Eleanor. “I just want to enjoy the bits of this that are beautiful and to have the strength to endure the rest.”

“Yeah, I get it. Maybe I should try that,” said Eleanor. “I think I’ve got my own crazy talker in there. I was just standing here pushing the swing before you got here, thinking about how I’m never going to be a good enough mum and how one day he’s doing to die and that I hope it’s me before him, but I can’t bear the thought of him losing me first.”

She’d tried to deliver this speech as a weird self-deprecating joke, an exemplar of the type of craziness that mothering brought on. Instead, she could feel tears gathering in her eyes and threatening to spill over.

“I feel you,” Emma replied.

A tear ran down Eleanor’s cheek and she knew she should feel embarrassed, yet somehow she didn’t. She felt seen, but the feeling was soft.

“So I guess I can tell my own Bob to fuck off too.”

“Yep. I think it’s just finding the right name and going for it.”

“Maybe I’ll call mine Harold.”

“Go on.”

“Fuck off, Harold.”


The name echoed throughout the chamber of Eleanor’s mind, and Mr Harold Penniforth sat back and let out a strange exhalation. He put down his clipboard. There was no denying it. The bitch had stumped him. That lumbering, leaking, lactating Human Labrador had somehow managed to jam the communication channel. If he didn’t know better, he’d almost feel admiration. But defeat?


Absolutely not.

There was always tomorrow. And there was always more work to be done.


The two women continued to stand side by side, pushing their children back and forth on the interminable swings that kept tracing half-moons through the air, over and over. Eleanor didn’t care that there was a hole in the toe of her bright patterned sock, clearly visible beneath her Birkenstocks. None of it mattered on that morning that went on forever and was over so quickly.

The swings continued to creak, and the air had lost its crackle.

From inside, Mr Penniforth watched Daily Incident #30 with hard eyes—two women mothering their children and chatting in the brightening morning light, with no voices to be heard but their own.




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