Last year, a local short story competition asked for entries on the theme of the future. It’s a huge subject to tackle in 500 words! I started at least two stories set in a dystopian future before I realised two things. One, I was writing the opening chapter for a novel with each story. Two, some people live in dystopia now, and might not have the luxury of thinking much about the future.
Dystopia isn’t only the stuff of fantasy novels, or dictatorial political regimes. It’s a state of great suffering or injustice. You only have to open a newspaper to see plenty of that on your doorstep. Here in New Zealand, a rich, developed country, there are huge swathes of people surviving on poverty wages, living in garages, tents, cars. It’s something I’d started writing about in a poem a year or so before, and I realised, this was the story I wanted to write.
Fiction has the power to make other peoples lives real to readers who may never have experienced anything like what the characters in a story face. I hope that’s what I’ve done with this story.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
You can’t pack a whole life into a small bag.
Mum dropped a rucksack on my bed that last day. My uniform took all the space. I put it on instead, shirt, skirt, jumper, over my jeans and t-shirt. That made room for more clothes, and school books. But what about my stuffed elephant from when I was a baby? Photos of Leo, of Dad? The snow globe Gran gave me? Inside it, tiny trees, a red house and four miniature people skimming across a frozen pond. Their skates carved figures of eight in the ice. Eternity symbol, Gran said. It meant some things last forever. She’d shown me how to shake up a swirling storm of glitter-snow, obliterating everything.
When the glitter-snow settled, there everything was still, the house, the trees, the pond, and four smiling people skating eternity.
There was no room in my bag.
There were four of us once. We lived in a house like normal people. But Leo got sick and Dad wilted and ghosted and finally shot through. Leo died, and then we were two. Mum’s job couldn’t cover the mortgage, then it couldn’t cover rent, and now we’re two in a car.
We’re stuck in a snow globe. It got shaken up too hard, and when the glitter-storm settled, everything was broken.
The first summer, we believed we’d find a new place soon. I pretended we were on holiday. We swam in the river, cooked on a camp-stove. The domain was peaceful at night, with the lullaby of breeze-riffled leaves. When it was really hot, we stretched out in sleeping bags on the grass and stargazed ourselves to sleep. I liked mapping lines between stars. Celestial dot to dots. Sometimes I made figures of eight.
By the time school restarted, we’d viewed a hundred places, received a hundred rejections. Landlords want references, deposits, rent higher than Mum’s pay. I’ll leave school, find a job, I said. No way, Mum said. It can’t be like this forever. Get your NCEA, you’ll have a future.
Winter wipes away summer illusions. Southerlies rock and rattle the car. The car windows weep from our breath, the tears freezing in sugar sprinkles. I brush them off the glass. They float like glitter, shining silver from streetlights.
After school, after work, we haunt the public library then nurse one coffee until midnight closing at MaccyDs. In the car, we cocoon each other, weighted by layers of blankets. Cold still drills into our bones.
We’re stuck in a snow globe. People stare through the windows. Drunk arseholes kick the doors, jump on the roof. The car lurches like an earthquake. Slashed tyres hiss. Reflected in street-light, Mum’s tears shine like glitter.
‘MaccyDs are hiring,’ I say. She nods.
At the interview, they ask where I see myself in a year.
I don’t tell them I want to skate. I want to skim across frozen ponds, carving figures of eight into the ice.
And one day, I will.
First place, Friends of Kapiti Libraries short story competition, 2021