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Short Story Prize 2024 3rd place prize winner: HARBOUR CONTROL - Shauna Mackay


Woman with dogs watches young girl staring at the river, a harbour in the background
Illustration by Ian Craigie // https://www.instagram.com/itsiancraigie/

A ferry recalled, no bridge ever. Someone with a good arm might see this river as nothing more than a stone’s throw to there, that place on the other side. Was it a place of its own or nowhere if not the north of here? Marion’s never been. All the years of her life in which to go but she hasn’t gone, won’t go now. The only journey is the journey within. She has seen it printed on bookmarks free to take from the library counter, hopes she read it right, didn’t make it be right for her. She has never wanted to travel too far outside of herself. Until reading those tiny words on the bookmark she had, well, felt a bit ashamed, she supposes.

Not dark yet, though a sense of it. She pulls up her hood, the wind’s having none of it, has wailed it off again. One of the dogs has stopped to crouch out some business. She waits, girding herself for the bend. Here goes, has to be done. The poo bag with the warm little turd inside gets battered by gusts she’d swear have been specially waiting, a job to get it tied, the smell confined. A couple in a car parked by the bin appear to be breaking up, maybe it was only the shadows of shifting wind turbine blades, slink of river reflected against small windows. She’s trying to rid herself of the poo bag, it keeps knocking against the lip of the bin’s already full mouth, with a focussed lob she gets it to land on a protruding pizza box. She’d like to leave the bin better than she found it, press everything in and down, but she’s got three dogs pulling one hand and the other really doesn’t fancy it, there could be anything in there.

Nothing surprises her now. She thinks she can remember what it felt like to be sniffing out the smell of the world, its secrets, to be as curious and panting as these terriers. Was she ever that feisty for life? Knocking sixty, she has started to remember herself at six, how switched on she was back then.

Divorced by twenty-four. What a foolish thing to have done; be a wife. Not fair to herself, and cruel to him, she would say that, cruel to take on the role of someone’s leading lady, for that’s what it had been, performance, staging of a well-known play. No children though, not one child. She knows now, suspects she knew then, she wouldn’t have been able to cope with such an intense relationship. Not the first five years anyway. She has seen mammies and their babies.

She hopes he went on to make a better choice, that he’s loved right now, so far from then, still alive, a wife and grown kids, grandchildren. She doesn’t know where he is in the world, feels no need to know, though she wishes him every good thing; a woman who doesn’t find it hard to share a bed, let alone her heart, one who holidays, holds hands at home and abroad.

The dogs, after the smell of rats, pull her onto the jetty. She adjusts her steps to suit wood she can feel assessing her worth as a load, that might decide at any moment to snap and have her fall on salty stones. The dogs would fly, she knows this hardy lot. Soon she’ll get back on pavements safer to her feet.

When the scream comes, she is so deep in the beat of her own footing the sound seems internal. Gull scream, girl scream, awareness of one strange chord. She brings herself back into the world to hear engine revs, the car being driven off too fast, its tyres seeming to lose their grip on the road for a second. A girl on the pavement freed of a bad ride, and one scream. Marion would hesitate to call any girl with that face on her adrift; such a delicate one to be carrying so much stubborn strength. Brave girl, no coat. No coat, in this weather. Jeans and a red jumper, or purple, some sort of blue even; day’s darkening. She keeps her softness somewhere deep, Marion thinks, notices the girl has spent twenty quid on nails to set herself up for the next fortnight of life, rock-hard veneer. And now a sound comes from Marion’s mouth she can’t quite catch as hers, a throwing out, instinct, a question without sixty years of mind plaited through it. ‘Are you alright?’

‘Aye.’ The girl has answered as if it was the river who asked.

She lets the dogs pull her closer. ‘You’ve no coat on.’

‘I’m fine, man.’

The dogs have submerged the girl’s feet, all over them as if her white trainers are bones. Now that Marion’s back in the world, with a worldly memory, she can re-hear the scream. This girl is not, aye, aye, fine, man. ‘Well, so long as you’re sure?’ she says. The words have come out scratched and flat, an alien tone even to her own ears. She hasn’t spoken since Saturday. She’s on her days off from work and the dogs have only needed baby noises. She clears her throat, tries again. ‘So, you’re alright, then?’

The girl closes her eyes to nosy parkers. ‘Aye.’

She doesn’t want help, Marion thinks, doesn’t trust help, doesn’t know what help is. She turns to go, tugs on leads, a smile to say sorry about the dogs, sorry about something. The girl looks at her and the sky throws on its night face. Her mouth is full of blood and some of it drips down the front of a jumper that could be red, or purple, not blue she can now tell.

‘What’s that?’ she says, as if blood could be something other than blood.

The girl uses her sleeve as a swab. ‘Nowt.’

‘He hit you?’

‘No, he never.’ She spits, tries to lose blood that’s too sticky.

‘You’ll need that looked at.’

‘It’s nowt, man.’ The girl’s fingers are inside her lip, being too rough. ‘He was fending me off with his elbow if you must know. I started on him.’

‘Will he come back?’

‘Not when I’m like this.’

‘Bleeding?’

‘Off on one.’

Marion looks beyond the scrubby bit of field, to the terraced houses behind it, their backs to the river. ‘That’s me,’ she says, pointing to her bedroom window, her finger covering it completely though whenever she has to lean out to clean the thing it requires a giant’s arm. The girl’s not looking, has stretched her mouth into a soundless roar. ‘Come and get a glass of water at least. Can you ring someone? You’ll have a mobile?’

‘It’s dead.’

‘A flat battery,’ she says, not liking the word dead. The word had to be used often enough as it was, no need to have it out on parade for plastic, metal and glass. ‘Well, anyway, the offer’s there.’ What is she saying? The offer is not there. Under this coat her leggings are a state. She’s wearing a cream top, its sleeves are stained with muscle and joint ointment, an oily brown stuff, likely looks like something else. She’s got no bra on and her bladder’s full. She does not want a stranger in her house, doesn’t want anyone in her house. She knew this girl would refuse kindness, it’s why she was kind, being kind again. ‘Come on, you can give your face a quick wash.’

‘Nah, you’re alright.’ The girl leans into the jetty railing to try for a better spit.

Marion checks her pockets for tissues she knows aren’t there. ‘Well, mind how you go,’ she says, lets the girl be. Across the road she walks on kerb to avoid any dog muck on the grass. Some lads are coming riverside, still a way off, passing the tugboat, nearing the massive ship that’s been docked up for weeks. Some incident, she’d heard, a fuel leakage or something, harbour control had to issue a spill-kit, whatever one of those was, couldn’t take a mop to it, she does know that much, couldn’t bottom a river like she does with her bathroom and kitchen once a week. Over the wubwubwub of the ship’s electricity generator she hears the throaty honks of young lads’ laughter; its imbalance. She can see a glint of beer can. One of the lads is on a bike that’s too small for him, he’s steering it all prowling tiger-like, trying to keep it slow enough to match his mates’ pace. Marion turns, sees the girl is still staring at the river. One of the dogs, Ralf, is peeing on a drain. She lets him finish, then goes back to get her.


~


Her name’s Sash. In the side of her nose she wears an earring so tiny and clear Marion doesn’t notice it for days. Feeling the girl as safe — in the way she is so contained — she has let her stay. Sash does not play any part that might be expected of her. Marion is yet to hear a thank you or, even now, several weeks on, insistence that the dishes is the least she can do.

The satisfaction she gets from washing the girl’s clothes has come as an unexpected thing, the fabric conditioner for once feeling worth its price when the steam of the iron pulls out the perfume from a jean leg.

She knows Sash stays with her because there is nobody else she can stay with in this way. And what way was this? Time would tell. But whose tongue can time use? Time can tell nothing, it’ll have to run silently into a future neither of them can ever know from here.

She has shown kindness and the girl has accepted it: the phone charger from the kiosk in the middle of the covered shops, the clothes, some new, some from Leanne at work. She told Leanne about Sash so someone besides her own self can know she is not hiding anything, anyone. Sash says she is seventeen, so free there is nothing she needs to fetch from anywhere. Marion believes her though she’d use a different word than free.


~


An end of the month Wednesday and Marion’s got no queue, not one customer. Probably wet out, hard to tell stuck in the back of here. She should take this chance to give the chiller front a proper wipe. That tiny ghost hand a child has left behind is bothering her. What was it with little kids and glass?

She’s wondering how Sash is doing at her job interview, suggested to her she might call in here afterwards, let her know how it’s gone. Had the girl’s lifted shoulder meant aye or nah? Whatever, she’s not holding her breath.

Marion has worked in this supermarket for forty years, over three names—the supermarket’s not hers—she’s had only two. The one she’ll die with is the one she knows she doesn’t deserve. Still, it will be on the headstone she has already picked out from a brochure, affordable if paid for in advance with monthly tenners, a pre-planned engraving to be hammered into stone when the forever time comes though she’s hoping it’s not coming too soon. She’ll have to work till she’s sixty-seven now they’d gone and raised the retirement age. Would be grateful for a few years of rest, to get properly burrowed in at home, read, see out her dogs.

Forty years and she still feels out of place here: another wrong role, standing under this white hat, spotless, smug for getting through twice as many transparent gloves as Leanne does though they work the same hours. Leanne’s gone home with diarrhoea. She doesn’t have diarrhoea, only kids off school and a moody bloke who demands a quiet house after he’s done a night shift. Marion’s never off sick, gets called manager’s pet for cracking on with what she’s paid to do. She’s got a painful right wrist but refuses to succumb to a support bandage like half the till staff with their repetitive strain sleeves and moans to any customer who’ll give them half an ear. Seven more years and she can hang up her hat.

That ghost of a tiny hand will have to stay a while longer for Sash has come, rain glittering on her coat.

‘Pissing down, Marion.’

‘Well, come on then?’

‘They said they’ll let me know.’

‘That’s what they always say. What I mean is, did you get a feeling? Do you feel like you’ve got it?’

‘Nah.’

‘Don’t write yourself off. Anyhow, I could always put a word in for you here. It’ll be a zero hours contract but you just need your foot in the door somewhere.’

‘I’m not wearing one of those hats.’

‘You won’t have to, not if you go on tills, or shelf-stacking.’

‘Wouldn’t be caught dead.’

‘What, in one of these hats? Nobody would see you. I’m standing here in the brightest light in the world with my name pinned to my chest but people come towards me looking down, wanting to be home already, in the warm, fed, they never actually see me, and all I see of them is roots and partings.’

‘Stop pretending you don’t like it that way. What job would you have done, then? If you’d had a choice?’

‘I think I did have a choice, I just couldn’t see it, at the time.’

‘Here we go, she’s off on one,’ Sash says, making a neck-slicing motion with her hand.

‘No, I’m not. Anyway, what does that even mean? Off on one? Means nothing that, does it?’

‘You’ve lost it, you have. I only asked what job you’d have liked.’

‘Librarian, maybe,’ she says, embarrassed.

Sash bangs a finger to her mouth. ‘Shhhh!’

‘I think there’s a bit more to it than that.’

Sash is making a loudspeaker with her hands. ‘Shut the fuck up you noisy fuckers.’

‘You’ll get me the sack, you will,’ she says, looking about to check nobody’s coming. ‘Oh, I know what I’d have liked to have been, some sort of researcher.’

‘Of what?’

‘Interesting things.’

Sash is spreading her arms to take in the whole chiller. ‘This isn’t interesting, then?’

‘Oh, it’s fascinating here; the conversations I have with people. You know, I live with the knowledge that no sane person would approach me for anything other than cold meat: best ham, crumbed ham, honey roast ham, ox tongue, liver sausage, corned beef, saveloys, haslet, and some salads that aren’t cold meat but next to it and just as easy to fill a hole with if you aren’t scared of mayonnaise. You coming to see me now has changed my boring day into a different day, so thank you, I’ve enjoyed this chat.’

‘It’s been very meaty.’

‘I hope that’s not your way of calling me a cow, mind?’

‘Nah, man, I’d just call you a cow if I thought you were a cow, or a haslet.’ She’s screwing up her face. ‘What’s a haslet?’

‘Entrails.’

‘You mean, like, guts? That little white paper flag should have GUTS written on it, then. You’re trying to trick people.’

‘Ring the Trade Descriptions.’

‘I just fucking might.’

‘Less of the swearing. Anyway, best you skedaddle in case the manager comes, I’ll bring something in for tea.’

Aye, nowt fishy though, you can keep your haslet,’ she says, giving Marion eye contact, an almost smile.

She watches the girl’s small frame disappear down an aisle with no hard promises at the end of it, then she goes to find a cloth and some sanitiser spray to get rid of that tiny hand on the glass.


~


Sash isn’t about when she gets home, neither are the dogs. The quiet strangeness in the hall makes her drop her bag, call out, look for leads, but there’s nothing. She’s standing in the middle of the living room looking at all the things Sash might very well call dead; the unplugged telly, empty chairs, the half-chewed pig’s ear lying on the rug. This is a test I have to pass, she tells herself. I will do this little eternity, it could be a test run for death. Should she go upstairs and lie under a cool white sheet, stroke herself slowly under a cool white sheet to calm this unbearable tension, or do the opposite, something faster, see herself off in an explosion.

The last time she’d felt this flooded with fear she’d taken the ferry to nowhere, but that ferry was gone now, no more. She hadn’t wanted the baby. Did she wish it away? Had that secret child left her because she’d wished it away? Wrapping up the tiny grey-pinkness in toilet paper, her unripe raspberry child, she’d headed out to catch the ferry. The wait had given her time to get herself down the rusted dock ladder. She’d chosen some stones to lie with that lost part of her, the part she’d put inside a plastic bag taken from a bin on the ferry landing, it had smelled of the river already.

The ferryman had been puzzled. Lost the feelin’ in your legs, lass? he’d asked, when they’d reached the other side. He’d noticed she was making no effort to go ashore. She told him she was just after the fresh air, would stay put until he was ready to go back: back past the middle, she’d thought, back past that part of her slowly sinking self, a part of her husband too, a part he’d never know about. Toilet paper. It was the shock. It was the shock, Marion, she’s telling herself now, forgive yourself.

She shouldn’t run, no need to run, but she’s running out the front door, running on legs so tired they’d be comical if they were seen.

She gave the girl a key only last week. Before that the worry of coming back to find her home a haunt for druggies, god knows. She’d waited, watched for signs of missing things, other clues, nervy dogs, smell of strange sweat or drink, but there’d been nothing. Sash didn’t even use her mobile much, preferred the telly. Marion has enjoyed figuring out murderers with her, the sniff of affairs in the air of the soaps, watching Sash as she watches the telly, seeing what makes her laugh, her response to things. Handy, too, having someone there to keep the dogs away from the biscuits whenever she needs to nip to the toilet. Truth is, she’s grown very attached to the girl. She hadn’t wanted her, but she got her, and it has been a lovely change. She’s tried to ask Sash about the lad in the car, about other stuff too, family or whatever, but wanting to keep that bolted self, Sash has given her nothing. Stop bumping your gums, man, Marion.

She has reached the river. The gusts of wind are here to make her more alive to her suffering, it’s hers to feel. Between the tugboat and the big freighter she can see a bland-looking ship over on the other side losing its load into a silo. She knows her run to be a hobble, knows herself to be a hobbling, frightened joke of a woman. Crossing over the road to the jetty now, looking for the dogs, poor things could never tell anyone the whole story, not when all they had was yips and yaps. This was her own stupid fault. She should’ve known better. People are dangerous, they leave you. She’s seeing her husband’s young face again, broken up by hurt, by her, then she’s seeing what she’s desperate to see, and relief has come to let her cry.

‘Thought I’d save you a job,’ Sash says, when they’ve reached each other.

Bending to greet the dogs, Marion hides her eyes. ‘You could’ve left a note.’

‘Aw, come on, why are you being like this? I’m helping you.’

‘Well, I wasn’t expecting it, was I?’

'Aw, funny.’

Marion’s putting out her hands for the dogs. ‘I’ll take them.’

‘It’s alright, I can manage.’

‘I hope you picked up after them?’

‘Well, I would’ve if one of them had done a shit.’

‘There’s better ways of saying it, Sash.’

They’ve started the walk towards home. The freshness of the wind is pressing itself into Marion’s face to settle down the prickles of her sweat. Her feet are killing but she feels happy now and they can just about bear her. ‘It’s a deep river,’ she says. ‘Submarines used to come here in the war.’

‘I knew you were auld, Marion, but I didn’t think you were that auld?’

Flapping her hand at such cheek, Marion’s fingers have caught the top of Sash’s arm. She’d like to give the girl a hug but she wouldn’t know where to start. She lowers her hand for the dogs, gets given the two bitches. ‘And you try to tell me he’s not your favourite?’ she says, nodding at Ralf, giving Sash a face.

‘He’s not, he’s a dick.’

‘You’re still a lovely boy though, aren’t you, Ralfy,’ Marion says, baby-voicing him, twisting her head around Sash so she can find the dog’s soulful eyes. ‘Aren’t you lovely, Ralfy boy? Yes, you are, you’re just lovely.’ They should get a move on.

‘Come on, you lot, we’ll never get home at this rate, I’ve still got tea to sort.’ She nods to the other side. ‘I’m off tomorrow, I don’t suppose you fancy a trip to there with me? I’m not sure about the buses but we can check when we get in.’

‘What do you want to go there for?’

‘Because I’ve never been.’

‘There’s nothing over there.’

‘They might say the same about here. Do you want to, or not?’

‘Alright then.’

‘You’ll come?’

‘Aye, man.’

‘I can knock up a few sandwiches for us to take.’

‘And we won’t even need to catch the bus, I’ll get my lad to take us in the car. We’ve made up.’

‘Made up?’

‘Aye, he wants me to move back in with him tonight.’

‘Tonight?’ Trying to keep up with the girl, trying not to show breathlessness.

‘We can still have a nice tea, Marion . . . if you want? Just us and the dogs?’

The girl has tried to take her wrist, her sore one. ‘Don’t,’ she says, ‘don’t.’

‘He won’t mind taking us tomorrow, honest, he won’t.’

‘No, it’s alright, there’s no need.’

‘Please yourself, then. He wouldn’t mind. I’ve told him how good you’ve been.’

‘I said there’s no need.’ She’s walking fast now, so fast Sash has started to tail behind.

‘I don’t know why you want to go there for anyway.’

‘I’m not in any big rush.’ She stops. ‘Look at that,’ she says, trying to sound as if she’s got breath to spare, ‘look at that.’ She points to the river. Both of them are watching it together now, the way the wind pushes it on, regardless.


 

Shauna Mackay is an award-winning writer who has stories published with several journals, most recently AGNI and Fictionable. Harbour Control is the third place prize winner in the Short Fiction International Short Story Prize 2024.

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