GALLEY BEGGAR PRESS SHORT STORY PRIZE 2018/19
SOME TIME AFTER OUR FATHER DIED the suitors arrived. We, the milky-faced twins, lay flat on the highest and hottest rock on our island and watched them, our hair drooping over our cheeks and necks, the poppies curving around our shoulders.
“There’s so many of them,” Mark said, and indeed we lost count after sixty, and the men kept coming.
The first men appeared in boats, yachts that cruised around the curve of the coast with their sails snapping, or small motorboats with chugging engines and peeling painted sides, men who only knew that we lived on an island and had never laid eyes on it before. Then they realised that the island lay a bare hundred yards off the beach. It could be walked, if you knew the path to take where the sea never came higher than a shin, and even if you slipped the water only rose to your shoulders with fish darting around your waist.
The suitors pulled up on the beach in shiny red motorbikes that belched smoke and oil. They parked powder blue convertibles at the top of a cliff and came jogging down the rock-hewn stairs as though they weren’t any older than Mark, and some of them weren’t. They walked the thin strip of shingled stone with their shoes slung around their necks, laces tied together. The nervous ones stumbled and waded across, holding briefcases or hiking backpacks or hard-shelled avocado green suitcases above their heads.
They came in groups, arms around each other’s shoulders and helping one another over the sharp rocks that lay outside our gates, or in twos, exchanging assessing looks. Some of them came alone, and these men had shiny black eyes and worried us most. But Anthony came surrounded by six or seven others, in sneakers and pale green swimming shorts, slapping each other’s backs, and so we were fooled for a while.
All day we watched them swarm over our island, chuckling over jabs from the cacti, pointing out scuttling lizards, chasing the kittens. Their faces were slick with sweat and pleasure. They wiped their sleeves against their foreheads and their laughter bounced against the rocks and the clear sea.
At dinner the voices of the suitors echoed and bounced through our hall. Noise was not unusual but it had never come into our home like this, the roar of a hundred jokes, flytings amplified so that the walls seemed to curve and shape themselves into a more suitable amphitheatre. We flung all the windows up but there was no breeze and it didn’t help. Our mother sat in the centre, her face calm, her hair sleek and tame as a snake nestling round her shoulders. There were too many men for her to serve each suitor individually, but she did her best to make sure each one had enough on their plate, beckoned and nodded and offered salt. Halfway through dinner Mark nudged me and I noticed Giulia, our cook, slumped in a corner of the room. Her face flat, so hot with sweat that the skin dripped off her cheekbones.
There were six dry turkeys on the table and carrots boiled so soft they collapsed on the fork, and buttered slices of four-cornered white bread, thin and stale. But the suitors didn’t care. The suitors’ fingers dripped with grease. They shoved thumbs into their mouths, licked at oil that slipped over their knuckles and around their wrists. They slopped wine over the rims of their glasses and it ran in dark rivulets over the smooth grain of the table and onto the cool stone beneath. We lifted our feet, sat neatly cross-legged.
“My children,” our mother explained, nodding at us. We shook hands with whichever suitors could reach us: thick, meaty hands, a dozen heavy gold watches knocking against my brother’s fine-boned wrist, callused thumbs that smoothed over my pulse point. “They sleep in the west tower.” It was unclear whether she was delivering a warning or a map.
“They’re beautiful children. A credit to you,” the suitor called Ethan said. He was an Irishman, with clear green eyes and a sharp jawline, a widow’s peak that made him look romantic like a nineteenth century novel. Most of the suitors were American or British or Canadian, though there were also a pair of Japanese brothers, a rough Australian or two, a good handful of Bengalis, and enough Italians to make sense. None of the Italians were from Sicily, which was no real surprise: the island of our island had never particularly warmed to our mother.
But Anthony said, “How old are they?”
Our mother was drawn away, an American’s gentle hand on her elbow, Ethan encroaching over the table, the young French princelet standing and raising his glass to her. Her attention skittering, bouncing. She was very gracious; I could never tell when our mother was afraid.
“Eighteen,” Mark told him.
“So not children,” Anthony said, and leaned back in his chair. His arms were dark with hair, his sleeves rolled up, his shoulders broad and muscular. He wasn’t tall, but he was bigger than both of us.
At breakfast the suitors patterned crumbs through our halls, they broke twenty-seven cups, they swapped beds and complained about the heat and sopped themselves down wherever they found water, cupping their hands in our crystal water jugs, hooking up a hose and soaking a nearby wall hanging in the resulting stream. They bounced through the house and over the island, inexhaustible. There were too many of them to track, wheeling like asteries of some foreign heaven, and they were determined to go over the rooms, the gardens, the island, take laps swimming around it or duck down and explore the caves. Everything required assessment, cataloguing. Everything was precious to them and it held the potential to be theirs, and so they opened every cupboard, leafed through every shelf, picked up each kitten and checked its gender.
There were always kittens on the island but only one cat, almond-eyed Mars who was ours and chased the kittens back across the low tide when they grew large enough to be a threat. Mars was a tiny cat in any case, fourteen years old and the runt of the litter, most of her was fur or fluff and in the mornings I woke up with my face pressed against her soft stomach. That smell of cornchips about her paws. She was our cat and usually we enjoyed the attention she demanded, the way she expected petting as a given right. Our aunt was allergic to cats, and when she visited Mars would stand behind her chair and scream, uninterested in any affection other than the one withheld.
Now it seemed dangerous. The suitors were so hungry; I was sure they would eat Mars up. On the first day they offended her sensibilities, picking her up and examining her, tossing her joyfully from one to the other, exchanging stories of the cats they had known themselves, old childhoods, old neighbourhoods, though, unsurprisingly, most of them declared themselves Dog People. Mars slunk off the moment she could to sleep in the newly-empty linen cupboard. On the second day she came out looking for treats and ate the sardines they let slip from their breakfast dishes. She came to me mewling and I found a salmon’s pin bone splintered in her mouth, hooked in the soft inner flesh. I clamped her between my knees and Mark stroked her head while she cried and I dug it out, merciless, grim. On the third day I woke up and she wasn’t there. I went and fetched Mark, sleepy-eyed and confused, and the two of us tracked our way up through the house until we found Anthony in the highest attic, the one with the porthole that looked out to sea, and Mars purring in his lap.
“It’s the children,” Anthony said.
I felt my hand twitch. Mark hovered behind me. Mars let her eyes slit open and watched me, her tail swiping in slow, smooth measures along Anthony’s bare knee.
Mark said, “There’s nothing up here,” though that made no difference to the suitors. They scrutinised our junk as much as our treasures, and the attic had its own collections. Shells with their layer of dust; an old school desk; several newspapers from recent years with headlines about the Corleonesi, whom our father had intermittently been interested in, though the Mattanza seemed to fade in and out of his viewpoint like the flimsiest of clouds.
Anthony sprang up, toppling Mars out of his lap, and agreed, “No. Let’s go somewhere else.” As he passed us he wrapped a firm hand around the back of each of our necks, so that we were dragged with him.
We went down to the underwater caves and played hide and seek. We played Marco Polo. Halfway through the game Anthony stopped answering, and some time after that Mark went quiet, too.
The suitors took long showers. They spent hours sitting in baths, reading thick international newspapers or playing with toy boats. They were unused to the heat and ducked their heads under every tap they came across, whipping water across the floor as they straightened up. They left the toilet seat up and in any case their aim was no good. After a week the cats, who had always been so well housetrained, gave up and began pissing on the floor as well. The poor little kittens stank of it; Mark and I took them down to the shore and carefully dipped them in salt, holding them by the back of their necks while they cried, and then lay them in the sun and stroked our fingers through their damp fur until they got the hang of it and began to clean themselves. The dishes piled higher and higher, and buzzing clouds of flies swarmed through our house. Our mother sat pale-faced, alone.
“Why don’t you ask them to leave,” Mark asked her.
Our mother kept her eyes closed, one arm hanging limp over her chair. Later some of the suitors would appear and hoist her boisterously about the island. Our mother would allow it to happen, upright on their shoulders and her eyelashes lowered, modest, almost shy.
The suitors sat us down and asked us for blueprints. When we told them we didn’t have any, they gave us fond, avuncular pats on the head and disappeared for several hours, then returned with plans they’d made themselves. I was impressed. They had turned our island, all of its rich childhood hiding places and twisting paths, into an easy sketch.
Yes, we said, tracing our fingers over the maps. They had it all. The lay of the tiny island, its gardens, its overgrown fauna, the palm trees and cacti and rocks running to the sea. The great house itself, built into the cliff, with four storeys and two towers. The kitchen in the cool underbelly, the cellars that led into caves with the first sea mists sweeping inside through October, the entertainment rooms on the second floor, and the nook where our mother sewed. All the bedrooms on the third floor and the best of the bathrooms, marble counters, huge deep baths, golden taps, pearlescent shells where our mother placed homemade soaps that caught between our fingers. They’d been through our father’s library and study on the fourth floor, enough to mark out the exact proportions between shelves and the cabinet of stamps and his guns hanging on the wall. They’d marked our mother’s tower, her own private quarters, with a boyish, crooked love heart, which they tapped, grinning, to ensure we didn’t miss it. And in the other tower, with the firm, sensible handwriting of men trying hard to be legible, they’d written: MARK & TILLY.
“But we have a room each,” I said.
“That part’s all yours,” they told us, smiling with the treat, munificent and pleased to give us this favour. “We won’t investigate.” Though of course they already had. “You can keep it to yourself.”
The weeks went by and we grew used to stepping over the men sleeping outside our doors, the way they knocked and walked in without waiting for a response to help themselves to deodorant, aftershave, a clean t-shirt.
“Your clothes always smell so nice,” Neo said. He was one of the younger ones, probably only a year older than us. He took my favourite t-shirt out of my drawer and drew it over his head. It was tight on his shoulders and he shifted, stretching it out, smiling when he was comfortable. He stayed in my room for a while longer, picking up the snow globes on my windowsill, pocketing a pretty bit of coral he took a liking to. On his way out he paused and stood in front of my bed. I was pressed against the corner, my back shoved up against the cool stone, the towel clutched around me. I hadn’t moved. I was very careful not to move. I was being very still, and my bed was large: Neo had to crawl onto the bed to reach me, which he did. He came over on his hands and knees, and then he knelt in front of me and put his hands on his shoulders and kissed my forehead. A fatherly kiss. He had perhaps been practicing, and he seemed pleased with himself as he got off the bed and left and I could, at last, get dressed.
It was that evening that I grew suddenly so tired over dinner that I felt as though I would sink onto the heavy stone right there, lie with my hair matting in the spilled grease and wine and gravy, with the suitors tracking new dirt across me each day. My head fell into my hands, my legs were stone, my ankles dragging me down. Mark looked at me from where he was trapped between two jolly suitors in their fifties, alarmed. I put out a hand and knocked over my glass, or thought I did: it wobbled but didn’t fall.
“Bedtime,” Anthony said, and helped me up, his hands under my armpits. I half-expected him to throw me over his shoulder but he just steered me out of the hall, up the stairs, toward our tower. MARK & TILLY, they’d written, nice and neat. I’d been expecting this to happen. I thought of Neo on my bed and my breathing picked up.
“You shouldn’t run wild over the island,” Anthony told me. “You’re all tired out. You have to save your energy.”
“For what?” I said.
Anthony laughed. He patted my back. His hand thumped right through me. He picked me up when we reached our tower, carried me over the men who’d already stretched out on pallets outside our doors. He put me down in my doorway. I took hold of the frame.
“You know what,” Anthony said, and went across the hall. He opened the door to my brother’s room. He padded across the floor, kicking off his shoes, unbuckling his belt. I watched him get into my brother’s bed, stretch out in the pool of lamplight, and reach for the book that was left face-down waiting for him on the bedside table.
I didn’t go to sleep. I found my mother.
“Why don’t you just pick one,” I said, “and send the rest away,” which made her laugh.
I swam further from the island than I had in some time. My arms were stronger that summer, though I wondered if they were strong enough. When I was shaking from the effort I made for the closest rock jutting high out of the sea. I stripped my palms and soles raw climbing it and lay collapsed and panting in the hollow on top. The sun beating at me, permanent strikes. I closed my eyes and felt it all go cool and soft.
When I opened my eyes the sky was entirely white, like snow coming to Sicily. My breathing picked up but the rain didn’t come and neither did the sun. Eventually I jumped off the rock, plunged deep into the cold blue, swam back, sustained two jellyfish stings, a lash against each palm. I walked back up the beach of our island sucking at them.
It was after lunch, the island quiet, the suitors tucked into every corner of our house and dozing. On the beach facing the ocean there was only Anthony, his arms stretched along the top of one of the benches my father had installed, and Mark in his lap, my brother’s head bent against the curve of Anthony’s neck. I walked toward them and Anthony looked up and smiled.
“Where have you been, Tilly?” he said, and stroked a huge palm along my brother’s back. Mark didn’t raise his head. His eyes were very slightly open, his lips parted. He looked tired, too.
I walked further up the shore. The suitors had been playing cricket and there were wickets knocked over in the sand, bats thrown aside and discarded. I picked them up, gave them a peremptory tap on the sand. They were the real thing, solid wood. I counted four tennis balls before I gave up looking for the cricket ball with its stitched leather and weight.
I put a cricket bat over each shoulder and walked back to the house. I put one under Mark’s pillow and one under mine. I went to the bathroom, treading gingerly. When I came back the bats were gone. At dinner that night the suitors all made a big joke of trying to take butter knives away from me, slicing my meat for me like a child, holding sharper forks out of my reach. “Ho ho, Tilly!” they said. “You’re the one to watch!” They broke down laughing, patting each other on the back, took my hand between theirs and told me I was a good girl.
Mark only picked at his food. His eyes were glassy and bright, like something we’d picked together out of the ocean. Anthony’s gaze wandered between Mark and our mother. He looked very pleased with himself. When he saw me watching he winked.
I went into the cellars, searching for cold, and sat on the damp, dark stone. It smelled of the sea, like always, but there were new things underlying it: rot and urine and mould, turning the atmosphere sour. I breathed through my mouth. I was dazed and tired and so it took me some time to hear the low, thin mewls, and longer still to find the cupboard they’d put Mars in and let her out, shaking and ragged onto my lap. She pressed her tiny grateful face to my collarbone and I fed her with tiny mouthfuls, pellets of the tuna that she liked best and butter on her paws.
At night I heard my twin say, “No, please. Please, don’t—”
“Don’t beg,” Anthony said. “It’s embarrassing.”
Mark said, almost frustrated, “I’m sorry,” and I put the pillow over my head.
The next morning I was late to breakfast. Anthony waved me over. “Tilly, take a look at this, will you?”
He was sitting next to my brother. I went and stood dumbly beside them and Anthony hooked his thumb into Mark’s mouth and dragged his jaw apart, his free hand spanning Mark’s chin and cheek, ring finger shoved under Mark’s nose. He slid his fingers further into Mark’s mouth, pinching his tongue in an affectionate way. He tapped the molar at the back of Mark’s mouth, shiny with spit.
“Does that look rotten to you?”
Mark looked at me, then blinked several times, quick succession.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Does it hurt?”
Mark tried to say something, garbled around Anthony’s thick fingers. He let out a high, panting breath, and shook his head.
“It’s probably fine,” I said. My heart was beating very fast. “You can leave him alone.”
“Hmm,” Anthony said. He slid his fingers around Mark’s teeth, tapping like he was counting them. “I’m not so sure. I think it might have to go.”
He wanted me to hold Mark down but Mark and I shook our heads. Instead we went up to my bedroom and Mark lay on his side and I spooned up behind him, tucking my face against his neck, reaching around to lock our fingers together. Mark was breathing very quickly but he didn’t make any noise until the very end, and it blended into the triumphant shout Anthony made when he pulled back the pliers. The root of Mark’s tooth was as pink as my curtains.
“Much better,” Anthony said. “Isn’t it, Tilly?”
I was so relieved that Mark’s mouth was empty again and able to close that I admitted it was. Mark lay still, his eyes closed, soft between us on the bed while his breathing steadied out. His fingers twitched in mine.
Anthony took the tooth to the sink and rinsed it and then put it in his pocket and winked at me. “For safekeeping,” he said.
Mark and I went to the caves, tucked ourselves in a corner. Mars came stepping through, pressing close against the walls, ragged and wary-eyed. I touched Mark’s hair and said, “You could just stay away from him. Sleep in my room,” and he gave me a look like I was stupid. He kept touching his tongue to the tender space in his mouth. I could see from the way his cheek bulged, the way he flinched afterward. He looked worried and proud.
After some time Anthony found us again and hauled us up, an easy hand on each elbow. He was wearing a pair of bent sunglasses and a blue linen shirt that made his mouth look very red. The collar rumpled, the buttons undone so we could see the curls of hair on his chest. His hair stiff with salt. He’d been swimming since we last saw him.
“No sulking,” he said, though we weren’t. He let us go and put his hand in his pocket. I knew he was touching the tooth. “I’m hungry.”
“You ate so much at breakfast,” Mark said, and quietly slipped his hand into Anthony’s pocket, too. I wondered if he was also petting at lost bone. I saw the fabric bulge and change shape as they linked fingers.
“Your cook isn’t very good,” Anthony told us. I saw him again: buttering toast with his big hands, yolk dripping, stringing the fat off his bacon and dropping it on the floor. “Why don’t you get someone local?”
“She is local,” I said. Giulia was not allowed to cook Sicilian food, though occasionally she brought fish that her brother had caught up to our mother in her tower, enticing, desperate. Our mother always made a face. “Thank you, no, Giulia,” she said, “I believe we’ve spoken about this before,” and Giulia was exiled to the kitchen to make heavy roasts or soggy trifles or potatoes crisp with starch and greasy pools of gravy.
Mark looked at me. “Our mother prefers English food.” He cleared his throat. “The food of her childhood.” That was how she always said it.
“Hm,” Anthony said, “well, come on,” and he dragged Mark away and up the stairs into the cool larder and the kitchen where Giulia worked. He made up his mind very quickly. He was already leaning over the table and giving Giulia a boyish, enticing smile by the time I caught up with them.
“Just a treat,” Anthony said. “I’d love to try. We don’t have anything like that in Maine.”
“A whole other meal,” Giulia grumbled.
“It could be something simple,” Anthony said. “Whatever you like.”
Giulia glowered. Mark said, “Please,” and her gaze softened: he was her pet. Anthony gave Mark an approving look and Mark went to the sink to wash his hands. His fingertips were stained pink and there was pink, too, caught between his teeth, giving his whole mouth a faintly luminescent appearance, as though there was a red backlight in his throat.
We watched from the window as Giulia crossed the sand, dragged a splintered round motorboat down to the shore, and pushed herself out to sea. She sat very primly on the wooden seat, like a schoolchild, steering with a careful arm and squinting at the line of the horizon and the moment of fade between sky and sea. We watched her chugging around the close curve of the coastline until we couldn’t see her anymore, and then we turned to Anthony, who was juggling tomatoes.
She made him spaghetti al nero di seppia, when she returned, arms full of stinking squid in brown paper. She banished us from the kitchen and we went to the sea, lying on the baked warm rocks. Anthony told us about growing up in Maine, running wild over the hills, learning to surf on the baby waves. Better than here, he said, and stretched his hand dismissively over the easy lap of our ocean. He’d been friends with the fishermen and eaten lobster fresh, he told us, and then he mimed how to crack apart a lobster, where to drive your knife into the head, the sure, confident way to twist flesh free of shell. He grinned the whole time he told us, looking younger. Mark lay languid and still, like he was conserving his energy. I ran my tongue over my teeth, trying to count each one, and after two hours Giulia brought out three bowls, but Mark said he wasn’t hungry, so it was only Anthony and I who ate, cross-legged on the sand.
Anthony laughed when he first looked down at his bowl, something full and hearty that caught in our throats. He picked up his fork and spoon, twisting the pasta round so that black gleamed and clung to silver. I ate neatly, startled by its sweetness. It only tasted like fish bit by bit, building up on my tongue until I was hacking up ocean.
Anthony was no good at handling it. It slid around his cutlery and plate like a shadow spreading. Spores of black mold.
“You’re lucky kids,” Anthony asked. He wasn’t looking at us, hands occupied and eyes searching the beach. There were lizards baked into the rocks, but they didn’t move, weren’t a threat; his gaze skipped on past. “This is paradise. You must have been so excited when you arrived.”
“We’ve always lived here. Our father bought the island when our mother was pregnant with us.” Mark paused. He added, tense and defiant, “We’ll always live here.”
“As long as there’s room,” I said, and looked to the west, where some of the suitors had set up deckchairs, shirts stripped off, boasting about their tans. Their shadows tracked all over the island. We were running out of sun.
“There’s room.” Anthony was laughing, baring his teeth, black all between, his tongue gone grey. He slurped up the pasta. It was so densely black: Giulia didn’t believe in garnishes and had served the pasta only as itself, black and inky. Our sea was so clear, so blue. We’d never found the depths the Ionian promised. The fish came right up to our faces and away, knowing they had nothing to fear. Our mother stockpiled tuna in cans.
“Do you know.” Mark ran a hand through his hair, twitched. “Do you know how long you and your friends will be staying?”
“Oh, I don’t know most of them. Tilly,” Anthony said, his mouth full. I watched his tongue move, stained and busy. “It might be time to compromise.”
At night all the suitors came in from their wanderings and filled the house again. I didn’t mind it so much at mealtimes, when I could watch them all and know where each of them was, but after they shoved their plates away they started to stir, move about. They seized corners and played cards. They stretched out on yoga mats in the hallways and talked about their mothers. They wrestled sweaters over my shoulders when a breeze picked up and one of them always insisted on standing by the sink while I brushed my teeth to make sure I lasted the full two minutes.
The cool stones of our house were sticky underfoot. The bathrooms reeked of piss and curly hairs blocked every drain. Mars pressed her small body against the walls when I went near her and Mark looked ragged and hungry all the time. For some time I toyed with the idea of blaming our mother, but when I looked at her over dinner she only looked back, steady and pale, holding the frayed body of the house together with two fists.
I daydreamed for some time about triumphing, but that seemed childish and, at any rate, time-consuming.
When the first cool day came, a hint of grey at the sky and the smell of rain a long way off, I went up the stairs to my father’s study. I told the suitors I was cleaning it and they liked that, they moved merrily out of my way. I closed the door behind me, and looked for some time at the lock that they’d splintered in two. I picked up the cat, winding close around my ankles, and put her on a shelf out of the way. I waited for Giulia to ring the bell for breakfast and heard them come stampeding through the house, like a herd, jocular and jostling in the stairwells.
Most of my father’s guns were old and stiff with disuse and the only ammunition I could find was for the Remington Magnum, a beast of a thing that felt like lifting a small child to my shoulder, just as quarrelsome. It was very heavy and it made growling, clicking noises when I attempted to load it that made me wonder if it would even work. I had never fired a gun before.
Anthony strolled in, hands in his pockets. The collar of his yellow polo shirt was askew and his hair curled over his forehead and he looked very handsome.
“Mark’s in my room,” he said. “And I told Giulia to lock the main doors and then go back to the cellar.”
“I’ll get your mother. Keep her out of the way. Don’t want my lady bride to get hurt,” he added, and laughed, pleased with himself, boyish. He took the gun out of my hands and loaded it, quiet, effective, his hands sure. I pictured him for a moment on the beaches in Maine, or wandering through scrubland. He would have had a father, I supposed, and perhaps that was who had taught him, guiding his hands, passing down all that secretive masculine knowledge, pressing power bit by bit into his small fingers until Anthony could manage it himself.
Anthony lifted the gun to my shoulder. It sunk deep in, like it needed to break my bone and make a space for itself. I hissed. I felt the hot forge of it. I stood still for a moment, arms shaking, and thought about being out in the surf again, the cut of salt water against my elbows. I took a step back, and then I was holding it on my own.
“Bravo,” Anthony said.
I swung the gun slowly, scanning. For a moment Anthony was in my scope and he ruffled his hands back through his hair, throwing his chest out, posing.
“Pretty,” I said. I had the hang of holding it now.
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