Interview with Graeme Lay


This month, we had the pleasure of talking with writer and editor Graeme Lay. Here’s what he had to say.

On his own writing

FF: You’re a versatile writer. Your repertoire includes travel writing and YA novels, fiction and non-fiction. Do you find inspiration in familiar places, or in sometimes surprising places? And do you find it easy to switch between different genres?

GL: Responding as a travel writer, inspiration comes more from unfamiliar places. I love going to new areas (especially islands), learning about their history and culture, then writing about them. A recent example: the Gambier Islands, which I hadn’t been to before. These are strikingly beautiful, and they also have a fascinating history which I subsequently wrote about. The story was published in the Sunday Star-Times.

I don’t find it at all difficult moving between fiction and non-fiction writing. I just slip into whichever genre happens to be in front of me on my desk at the time. For example, while on Mangareva Island I worked on the manuscript of an historical novel in the morning, then on a travel story about the island in the afternoon.

However it also has to be said that I find writing fiction ten times harder than writing non-fiction. This is because there are totally different thought processes involved. Writing non-fiction is a kind of reportage, whereas writing fiction puts great demands on the imagination.

FF: Whether working as editor or writer, you are always writing about place. Or is it people? Which comes first in your writing? And how does home as place affect your writing, even your travel writing?

GL: Place is very important, but it can never be written about in isolation. Instead it should be used as the setting for, or background against which, significant actions by my characters occur. For example, my young adult novel ‘One Foot Island’ trilogy is set mainly on Aitutaki, in the Cook Islands, but the heart of the narrative is the relationship between Tuaine and Adam. Events are played out against the background of the island setting, which is crucial to the story, but it doesn’t supersede the relationship between the two young people. Similarly, in my adult novel, Alice & Luigi, the nineteenth century settings (Italy, the West Coast, Makara and the Kapiti Coast) needed to be recreated authentically, but it is the developing relationship between Alice and Luigi which is the most important aspect of the novel. Nevertheless, in historical fiction, all the details (e.g. clothing, transport, furniture and so on) have to be convincingly evoked. Those period details are very important in “transporting” the reader credibly to a very different time and place.

On keeping it short

FF: George Orwell famously said, “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” Do you agree or disagree?

GL: Generally, I agree with that statement. The most effective writing communicates well because it’s unadorned and therefore lucid. There’s great beauty in simplicity. That’s why I hate reading the writing of academics, which in most cases is stuffed with polysyllabic words and abstruse jargon. Ghastly stuff. But English being the wonderful language it is, sometimes I find a long word in the dictionary (yes, I browse through the dictionary) which is so perfectly suited to what I’m looking for that I have to use it. Three examples: “rodomontade”, “termagant”, and “tergiversate”. They all say a great deal in a few syllables. Interesting words don’t have to be long, either. “Doxy”, for example, is a great word. But a writer must employ these obscure words with care, otherwise it is just showing off.

FF: You’ve edited the Short Short Stories series in recent years. As an editor of short fiction, what do you look for in a short story? What makes one story stand out from the others? And who are some of your favourite short story writers, Kiwi or otherwise?

GL: It’s not greatly different from what one looks for in a standard length (e.g. 2-3,000 words) short story. I look for an ability to create credible characters and a plausible narrative, preferably one with some meaningful conflict at its heart. The saying “conflict is the essence of drama” also applies to prose fiction. All this is much more difficult when the writer has a maximum of 500 words to work with, but as the “short short” anthologies demonstrate, in the hands of a skilled fiction writer, it’s entirely possible. Anything extraneous to the central event/s must be left out, and the power of suggestion becomes very important. Very short stories must make the reader read between the lines. Take Hemingway’s shortest story as an extreme example i.e. “For sale, baby boots. Never worn.”

The best stories always jump out and grab you. We had many, many submissions for the short short collections, but the publishable ones always rose to the top. Usually they did so because they had an arresting opening sentence, then subsequently held the reader’s attention through engaging characters and original events. As with all fiction, characterisation is the paramount consideration.

FF: As a writer, what’s the most challenging thing about writing short short fiction? What’s the most enjoyable thing about it?

GL: The challenge is to create a story which other people find worth reading, whether for its insights, entertainment value, or humour. Writers always thinks that what they write is brilliant, the trick is to make other people react in the same way. Rewriting is crucial. Because every single word must contribute to the story’s effect, ruthless self- editing is vital. The stories must go through many drafts. Of my own short short stories, The Christening (in Volume 1 of 100 NZ short short stories) and The Mural (Volume 2) seem to me to be the most successful, the first for its sadness, the second for its humour.

The enjoyment comes from responding to the challenge the short short form presents, successfully meeting that challenge, then seeing the finished story in print. Nothing beats that.

On New Zealand

FF: Your collection of works includes so much of the landscape of Aotearoa. One of the books you edited, for example, The New Zealand Book of the Beach (in two volumes), stands out as a particularly Kiwi collection. Tell us, what is essential about the beach in New Zealand? Is it the landscape that inspires you most as a writer? And do you think landscape is central to evoking emotion and finding meaning in New Zealand writing?

GL: Landscape is very important  Zealand writing. Because the background of most of us is rural, the impression of landscape remains strong, even after we have moved to the city. In my case, “seascape” is even more important. Because I grew up beside the sea, it always fascinates me. The coastline is very close to New Zealanders’ sensibilities, because it is omnipresent. The sea is also mysterious, and beautiful. Hence the books of the beach, which I very much enjoyed compiling. And when you think of the best of our fiction writers – Janet Frame, Maurice Shadbolt, Katherine Mansfield, Owen Marshall, Maurice Gee – land and sea are integral to much of their work.

FF: In his judge’s comments for the BNZ Flash Fiction Competition 2011 Graham Beattie said he had noticed a preponderance of morbid themes. Is this tendency towards dark subject matter characteristic of the Kiwi voice?

GL: Yes, the dark element is definitely there. Whether this makes the writing “morbid”, I’m not so sure. For example, Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s fiction is thoroughly dark, but it’s also very funny, so the two elements are not mutually exclusive. Much of human nature is dark, so it’s unsurprising that that’s what inspires writers. If you examine Australian, British or American literature, there’s a great deal of morbidity. Irish writers, for example, often wallow in their own misery. But they too can be very funny.

On collecting and other pastimes

FF: The collections you edit tell the reader a lot about New Zealand’s social, historical and cultural fabric: The NZ Book of the Beach, Boys’ Own Stories, Home, even the photographic journey with Holger Leue, The Magic of New Zealand. Are you a collector beyond stories, or are stories your main means of collecting images of Aotearoa?

GL: Most of those books I was commissioned to write, but I would not have accepted the commissions had the subject matter not been of interest to me. In all cases I became immersed in the subject and relished putting together thematic anthologies, such as “the beach”. And if the collections have added something to New Zealand’s “cultural fabric”, then so much the better.

FF: What are you writing this summer?

GL: I have just completed a long (124,000 word) novel based on the early life of a notable historic figure, so I’m feeling a bit bereft, having kept imaginative company with this amazing person for over a year. But I’ve just been commissioned to compile and edit a collection of the best New Zealand travel writing, so that marks the start of another literary journey. Since I love travel, and I love writing, that’s an intersection I should find interesting. New Zealanders are inveterate travellers.

FF: What are you reading this summer?

GL: I will be reading the new book about the Parker-Hulme murders, by Peter Graham, along with the many travel stories which are contenders for the new travel writing anthology.

And finally…

FF: Care to take a crack at FRONTIERS in 250 words?

GL: Okay, I’ve had a go. Here it is.

Thank you, Graeme Lay, for the interview and short story this month. 

Photography of New Zealand scenes provided by Bernard Heise.

January 2012: FRONTIERS

Jenny Baker, Motokaa

Jenny Baker has exhibited work in South West England and New Zealand. She works primarily in the photographic medium, most frequently in colour.  Baker resides in Northland, New Zealand, the perfect place for a photographer who loves landscape and outdoor photography. She works on personal projects, including portraiture and commissioned pieces.  Baker can be contacted at jbakerphotos [at] gmail [dot] com.

~ ~ ~

Graeme Lay, Balance 
“It’s the most isolated place on Earth,” the man told him. “Only accessible by sea.”

James groaned. It had been calm in port, but once in open sea the ship had begun to roll and he found himself unable to stand. What in hell’s name had possessed him to accept the man’s offer to go?

He turned over in his bunk. He hadn’t vomited, but that would have actually been preferable to the ghastly giddiness he felt whenever he stood up. He staggered along the passage, then climbed the companionway, clutching the rail.

There was a cane sofa on the after deck. But while making his way towards it, the terrible giddiness came again. The world tilted, alarmingly. He dropped to his knees, crawled across to the sofa and clambered up onto it. The giddiness continued.

All day and all night he remained prone, unable to put his feet down without the world spinning out of control. His sense of balance had gone entirely, as if he had become drunk on overproofed spirits. Yet he had drunk nothing more than water. And could eat nothing.

Daylight. He heard the crewmen shouting. Leaving his bunk, he climbed the companionway to the deck. The ship was still rolling, but the dizziness had entirely gone. He went to the midship rail, then stared.

Rising sheer from the ocean was his destination. He saw soaring cliffs, bluffs, headlands. There was rainforest, and headlands crowned with solitary pines. A rugged, utterly beautiful fortress.

Pitcairn Island.

Graeme Lay is the featured author this month. To read the Flash Frontier interview, go here.

~ ~ ~

Tim Jones, The Beginnings of America

The ice age receded. The land rebounded, higher and better than before. With our crew of cut-throats and cartographers, we set off to discover America.

When we came off the boat we made straight for the nearest Walmart to check our makeup and hair.

The assistants bowed and scraped, their feathers waving. The goods on the racks waited silently for us. We would need them as we moved across the countryside, establishing the Rust Belt, the Sun Belt, the mortgage belt.The assistants moved around us, lulling us with their chants. We established condominiums in the turkey woodlands. Various persons departed in their Conestogas, vanishing from view as they entered shallow depressions, becoming visible – though foreshortened – as they crawled up and over mountains.

We found ample resources conveniently close to a system of navigable rivers that ran generally south by east. Great herds roamed the land: the buffalo, the passenger pigeon, the investment banker. Each fell before our guns. Upon this rock, upon on this butte, upon this mesa I will build my church.

So much to celebrate. We retired to our ships at night, and in the morning, praised the Lord for our safe deliverance. Our assistants, unused to our ways, watched from the edge of the forest. In the morning, when we called for them, we found that they had gone before us. In years to come, we would find traces of them: discarded arrows, campfires, bones, always pointing west.

Tim Jones writes novels, short stories and poetry. He was awarded the New Zealand Society of Authors Janet Frame Memorial Award for Literature in 2010. His latest book is the poetry collection Men Briefly Explained. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook too.

~ ~ ~

Gus Simonovic, Spinning the Real

It was raining, one young girl, my mother to be, rushed into the cinema for shelter. Nobody at the box office, she walked into the dark but predictable theatre and found a seat. After the movie she realised that it was still raining outside. She liked that movie, it was so real, so she stayed for another session.  It’s been raining for nine months now.

The young man, who wasn’t at the box office, was my father to be. He had been popping corn since he was fourteen. At sixteen he was an expert, they even allowed him to sell tickets. And ice cream. Now he is spinning the reel.

When I was born in Japan, it was not November. Nor it was the month when cherry blossoms. I waited patiently. Waited waited… for the rain to stop. For the corn to pop. For an I to scream.

When the day came it was just like a movie premiere. Big noise, press-push, red sheets, bright lights. It was May, or it may have been June.  June, the month when most great movie directors were born. Like that big, fat one that made those scary cult movies. Or that guy with glasses that filmed the best comedies. I grew to like the young longhaired one even after he had a bad haircut.

And I popped the corn, I creamed the ice and I sold tickets. Spinning the real.

Gus Simonovic has lived in other countries and spoken other languages. Just back from his UK/Europe tour he is suspected to be in NZ, writing and performing, producing and tirelessly promoting… poetry. Apart from his own poetry collection, his work has been published in a few NZ magazines and anthologies. You can find Gus at Printable Reality.  

~ ~ ~

Katharine Derrick, The Ghost of My Father

The ghost of my father arrived at sundown. He was hunched over, carrying on his back a book so huge that at first I thought it was a slab of concrete. As he came nearer I could see in black gothic lettering Lexicon of Theology scrawled across the cover.

I’d been shooting rabbits from my chair on the porch and put down the gun as he approached. I rose to greet him but he climbed the steps and walked on past me.

He stopped on the deck, offloaded his burden and opened it. From the middle pages gods of every religion oozed out and swarmed around him. I cowered against the wall. Subtle and shaky memories of my childhood snaked unbidden into my mind. My father tore a limb off the wisteria growing along the railing and thrashed at the gods. They backed away. He tottered towards me like a child, offering the branch. I reached out.

Then I saw his hand; gnarled and claw-like, fingernails long and crusted with years of shame. I reached instead for the shotgun, took aim and fired. The book shattered into a thousand tiny pieces and the gods spiralled away towards the heavens, lighting the sky in a glorious display of colour. My father toppled down the steps and dissolved into the night.

In the end, freeing him was easy.

Katharine Derrick lives in Kerikeri and writes mainly for children and young adults. She once had a 50-word story published in Brian Edwards’  Book of Incredibly Short Stories but most of her published works are with Learning Media. Her latest projects include tidying up a junior fantasy novel and reviewing New Zealand children’s books and interviewing their authors at NZ Children’s Book Reviews

~ ~ ~

Raewyn Alexander, Etta on Edge
At the door, a man apologised, “Didn’t mean to wake you up.”

Etta snapped, “I never sleep in the daytime.” Hungry, she’d been slicing beef for sandwiches.

“I represent local councillor, Graeme Bloomfield.” The stranger smiled hopefully.

She snarled, “Council only raise rates, disadvantage the elderly.”

“No, no dear, not really.” He smirked patronisingly.

Etta still held the carving knife and somehow just slid it between the man’s ribs. Breathing heavily, the old woman didn’t feel a bit like she didn’t matter, now.

The thin stranger collapsed, his white shirt-front blood-soaked. He made no sound when she rolled him out of sight of the road.

As a diversion, she regarded the cottage her stepfather built. Saw herself younger, under the steps. Hidden from her mother’s hard slaps or angry stepfather. Etta frowned, despite her parents being long gone to hell (she hoped).

Where there was no verandah railing and only a few spindly weeds grew below, she dug deep. The man’s body rolled off the porch easily, plopped into the hole like a bag of fertilizer. She piled on dirt, sowed hollyhock and pansy seeds. Imagined lush, colourful flowers growing. Imagined all the compliments.

The front of the house needed a good scrub. Etta got to it with the hose. Next, she’d carefully apply a decent lick of paint.

Raewyn Alexander is a novelist, poet, short story and non-fiction writer who was placed in the top five for the Landfall Essay Competition, 2011. Her latest book, A Bee Lover’s Poetry Companion, is published through Earl of Seacliff, and she’s going on a Poetic Tour to America in 2012. More about Alexander here.

~ ~ ~

Stephen Garside, Turbulence
The stars were twinkling – light viewed through turbulent air. Damien liked to know these things.

The moon was at quarter, very low in the west. The streets were quiet but the noise from inside hummed behind him. He spat and shook the last drops into the garden.

“Damien?” It was Gregg.

“Shit,” he said, zipping his fly. “Give me a fright why don’t ya.”

They laughed. A laugh because you’ve drunk your share laugh. Nothing was funny but you laugh anyway.

“Jill’s a mess upstairs. What’s that about?” Gregg asked.

Damien shook his head. “We’re through,” he said.


“For sure.”


Damien wished for another drink.

“Why? Why anything?” he said, though he was just being honest not trying to sound philosophical.

“Christ. What about the kids?”

He could see Gregg’s face in the light from upstairs. He wasn’t laughing now.

“I don’t know. It’s hard to think through.”

The moon embraced the black tips of the pine forest. Damien saw it because he couldn’t look at Gregg.

“Shit Bro! That’s serious.”

 “I know. It’s not what I want Gregg.” He needed to say that.

“I’m sure. But nothing’s final right?”

“Sure. Nothing except this.”


“Apparently. It’s been brewing a while.”

Damien spat into the garden again. “I need another drink,” he said.

The stars were forgotten as he followed Gregg into the house; electric light filled stairway. But the enormity of the night sky remained. Damien could feel its turbulence deep within.

Stephen Garside is a Wellington writer who has written full time, in and around three children and a shift-working wife, for two years but will be training to become a primary school teacher in 2012 so is wondering how much sleep he can go without in order to maximize writing hours.

~ ~ ~

Sally Houtman, Safari Hats and the Colour Green

Your partner loves the morning. He likes his coffee strong and black. He is not afraid to touch wet paint. You are hopeless with directions. You have a tendency to blurt and stutter. You can’t seem to finish a thing. He loves footprints and footnotes and patched blue jeans. You are known to brood and oversleep. You can’t imagine why he loves you. You wish your life had liner notes.

He abhors abbreviations. He loves pure, unbridled language, the ladder-bump of compound words. You prefer your language neat. He is suited to the highlands. He loves safari hats and the colour green. He longs for fields with no fences, the gravel crunch of new frontier. You are suited to the grasslands. You like map-dot travel and compass points. You’re accustomed to long, grey winter mornings, to dust-fogged windows and dream-splintered sleep. You love nothing more than daydreams. He loves nothing more than you.

He loves the bite of ripe, tart apples. He lives for take-offs and landings, the throat-catch thrill of flight. He is crazy about jazz tempos, loves the music’s dervish spin. You are troubled by things that have no entrance or exit, by music that has no beginning and no end. Mornings he rises, shaves quickly, never lingers. Mornings you dawdle at the mirror. You stand, head cocked at an angle, eyes screwed up tight, staring hard into the glass. One day, you think, you just might see what he sees.

Sally Houtman is a Wellington writer. She began writing fiction and poetry in 2007 and threatens not to stop.

~ ~ ~

Matthew Zela, Unrequited 
Mother didn’t so much collect things as ideas for collecting.

“Tragedashery,” she’d say. An assortment of clothing parts left at scenes of destruction.

Regretymology. An assembly of words best left unsaid.

Mother instructed me in the ways of the collector. First Phillumeny, which I quit in despair after learning of Yoshizawa’s unassailably huge collection.

I moved on, trying them all: Arenophilia, Tegestology, Plangonology, Entredentolignumology. My rootlessness stemmed not from the fear of failing to achieve completion, but from Mother’s prior command of every available topic.

I determined to create my own, unique hobby of acquisition, one she could not name. It would be my triumph.

I collected trowels – ceremonial types, used to lay foundation stones. Insufficient on their own, each was then paired with a plaque which displayed the names of those rumoured to be buried within their respective buildings.

I gained the friendship of mobsters and thieves. I promised I’d write a fine history one day.

“Cosa Nostalgia,” Mother said.

My collection expanded slowly over the years. Mother grew frail, her memory weak. She moved in, to the very room where my trowels glinted in their finery, at the foot of her dying bed.

One night the bell sounded. I entered in panic. Mother’s arm stretched blindly toward me, then out toward the trowels, waving urgently through her ragged, hollow breaths.

I drew close.

“Got it!” She said, her face like a victory lap.

Her eyes grew still, reflecting fine steel and buried names.

Matthew Zela is a writer of poetry, prose and fiction, currently at work on a final draft of his first novel. He neither lives with his mother, nor collects anything. He is a graduate of Massey University, an institution that boasts its own fine collection of foundation trowels. Matthew lives in Northland, a gardener by trade.

~ ~ ~

Jac Jenkins, Leaving Here

I drive north from Emporia, past the darkened roadhouses and the flashing signs of pay-by-the-hour motels; then west through the swamp to the coiled razor wire that marks the correctional centre. I stop at the end of the blacktop. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird is playing for you – the wailing of the lone guitar – as I walk the halls to your cell.

We sit. A cigarette hangs from your lips. Ash fills the ashtray. It’ll kill you, I say. The clock ticks like a death-watch beetle. Click. Click. Click.

We talk. Baseball. Books. Family. Funeral. I twitch, dammit, like the last spasms of a dying bird. You want us to be strong, ongoing. You pass me your last Marlboro. I don’t smoke. You laugh and order six toasted cheese sandwiches, french fries, ketchup, six Cokes.

Click. Click. Click.

The Death Squad in black suits stand guard. I bear you no ill will, you say, and we walk the short Walk. Six steps. We feel cheated – it should take eight. They strap you to a gurney. The phone rings.  No, this is the Death House. Wrong number.

Later, I get back on the blacktop and drive east, away from the razor wire; south to Emporia, past the bright and busy roadhouses, listening to the wailing of the lone guitar on my radio.

Jac Jenkins lives rurally near Whangarei with a teenage daughter, two cats and five chickens. She currently works as a librarian, a thousand times removed from her initial career as a veterinarian. She has been writing poetry since she was a teenager and recently completed a poetry-writing course through NorthTec. 

~ ~ ~

Karen Phillips, The Challenge 
The clarity of light surprises Lisa but it’s the absence of Alan’s voice that helps her relax gently in the current, stroked by ribbons of seaweed.

“How do you think it looks if the boss’s wife refuses to go?” he had blasted when she’d  said she didn’t want to go on his staff team-building exercise.

“You know I’m scared of the sea,” she’d snapped, reminding herself that she could still   walk out.

“You’re scared of any challenge,” he had snarled.


A cluster of black rocks guards the harbour entrance. Last week, he had meticulously plotted their course through these, impatiently sweeping the children’s homework from the table to clear space for his charts. “Think of the rocks as difficult customers foiling your sales targets,” says Alan to his staff huddled around him at the water’s edge. “Just kick on through.”

He leads them in like an underwater Pied Piper. Lisa soon falls behind, unexpectedly entranced by the peacefulness of this new frontier.


Surf pounds the rocks ahead. Lisa sees that the younger, fitter staff have overtaken Alan.  They group together, gesticulating enthusiastically as if at a sales meeting, then turn, splashing, kicking through the rocks with shouts of laughter. Alan is struggling. A wave pushes him under. He bobs up; his arms frantically slice the air. His face is white, the veneer of success washed away. He looks lost. Lisa holds the peacefulness to herself for a moment longer then turns and kicks towards him.

Karen Phillips lives in Ahipara, Northland. She has been privileged to win some short story competitions since starting to write in 2009. Her characters tend to take their own unexpected paths leading to much frenzied re-inventing of plots. This story was no exception.   

~ ~ ~

Simon Minto, Chase 
Without his border collie cross, Iris, nothing would have happened. He wouldn’t have climbed the high brick wall to retrieve her green plastic dumbbell he had accidentally thrown there and been chased by the disabled man who limped towards him with a gladiator eye and a pot plant, yelling “Trespasser, killer.” And he might have chosen a better place to leap back over the wall and not dropped in front of a trolley bus, which braked so hard the poles came off their wires and clashed, sparking a chaos of shouting and smoke. Then he wouldn’t have crept away to a lunch bar and dropped his shoulders in heart-breaking resignation when he read the sign that said “Absolutely no dogs.”

And then she wouldn’t have said, “It’s okay. I’ll make you a coffee and bring it out.”

He wouldn’t have smiled and looked at her nametag and said, “Thanks, Alexandra.”

And if he hadn’t said that, she wouldn’t have said, “Call me Alex.”

“Thanks, Alex.”

Then she wouldn’t have let him walk her home to her flat on the Parade at the end of her shift.

Simon Minto lives in Wellington and works as an editor. He has been writing for a few years and has had pieces published in various local journals. He gets a lot of help and support from many people, especially his partner Bryony and his friend Ashleigh. 

~ ~ ~

Lesley Marshall, Homecoming 
Home today. The train’s tickety-tack rhythm seeped into his soul.

Five years ago he was desperate to leave the tin-pot town. Not now – tin-pot towns didn’t have clinks, or gangs that left you to carry the can.

Lightning sizzled across the mountains ahead but when he finally jumped down onto the platform the wind was easing.

Memories marked the three-mile hike – here he’d pinched peaches from Old Man Dickson’s orchard; there he’d broken his leg falling out of that macrocarpa.  His mum had stayed in hospital with him the whole seven weeks.

He should have written to her – but hell, everyone knew he couldn’t spell.  And once he got busted, what could he say?

The track steepened, trenched by runnels of muddy water, then opened out – and towards him came a trudge of people, all clutching belongings, many battered and bloody.  Tubby’s aunt; the butcher; that bitch from the dairy who caught him nicking a chocolate fish… .

When Old Man Dickson staggered past he grabbed his arm. “What’s happened?”

“The storm,” the old man mumbled. “Half the mountain slid off. Buried the town. Only a few of us left.”

What about his mother?

“Lovelace Avenue?” the boy asked with dying hope. Already the pitiful line was dwindling.  “Over by the supermarket.”

“Nah,” old man Dickson said. “That’s where the worst was. No one survived there.”

The boy’s hand dropped. He took one last look up the empty mountainside, then headed back down the rutted, bleeding track.

Lesley Marshall lives in Maungatapere and divides her time between teaching and editing, and answering needy phone calls from various children, both biological and surrogate. It makes for a very interesting life. 

~ ~ ~

Campbell Taylor, In the Motion
There are many ways to gather comfort. I remember spinning; spinning with arms out, leaping to go faster on the gentle slope of our front lawn. This was the favoured game I would play with my sisters when we were children. The rules were simple. Spin as fast as you can. If you fell, you had to stay down until another tumbled. It was a competition with no end – we all liked to spin.

Were we autistic or druggies to-be? No, we are the usual mix. Kate made a career of travel while Jo has her brood. I have sudden parenthood and a new mortgage. We live in different cities (on different islands) but we all make an effort.

The first Christmas after Mum died was at Jo’s. Zac, my boy, was overseas visiting family with his mother – a trip I was not asked to make. Jo decided to cook the turkey on the barbie, but there was a disagreement over basting, so I took my wine round the front where the kids were testing the limits of their new toys.

I wasn’t drunk when I started to spin. At first, they just watched and laughed while Jo’s eldest went to tell her mum.

They still talk about it. How Kate travelled the most in one spin; how Jo went the fastest; how I was sick in the roses newly transplanted from Mum’s garden.

Campbell Taylor is a phlebotomist and soundman. His short stories have been published in New Zealand, Australia and the USA. Born and raised in Christchurch, he lives in Titahi Bay with his young daughter who loves to spin.

~ ~ ~

Sian Williams, Malaria Nights
I remember, vaguely; elegant lawns, flamingos’ legs through Rift Valley acacias, and an air of faded colonial charm.

More vividly I recall lying sweating as the ceiling fan malevolently swirled my dreams around the room; fluorescent red and yellow Lariam hallucinations that span and eddied in throbbing vortices. The cure, it seemed, would be worse than the affliction.

But most clearly of all I remember you, waking at dawn; refreshed, purposeful, and wryly dismissive of the brainstorm which had raged through my head in the night.

Yes, you, who had always understood my innermost thoughts, you, my love, were entirely without empathy. This was no creeping separateness, which I could perhaps have expected, but rather a sudden tear in the fabric of our togetherness; a rift in our Africa. Later, strung out, packing our bags, I saw the needle of the compass swinging back and forth, seeking its magnetic pole, but by then the world had shifted on its axis.

That morning we left Lake Baringo and the Club, with its verdant artifice of watered gardens and shaded verandas, and headed north towards the border and Somalia. Soon we came into a hard rocky country with a five o’clock shadow of thorn scrub where giant hornbills walked amongst termite mounds as tall as a man. A dry land under a harsh sun.

And although we left long ago it is a place I have reluctantly become accustomed to, and where I often find myself, still.

Sian Williams is editor at Flash Frontier. She’s been to the Rift Valley in Kenya where she failed to catch malaria but became infected with Africa. She’d like to take her husband and children wandering there one day – until then the Bay of Islands is home.

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Michelle Elvy, The Long Way
She stroked her last stroke and kicked her last kick, and then Gemma found herself on an unfamiliar beach. Washed up. But alive. She tasted salt, heard the snuffle of a dog. And she smelled sun-sea-air: life itself. She crawled under a palm tree and slept for days, maybe years.

In a dream.

She dove deep into sleep, met Tangaroa. Asked for pocket change for the bus but he laughed, scolded her for wearing fins instead of growing them herself. She swam on smoothly, did not say Goodbye or Nice to meet you.

In a dream in a dream.

Gemma swam into a kelp forest, pulled herself down. When she got to the holdfasts, she kept going, deeper. It smelled damp and rotten all around her, but she liked it here, down under the root of things. She glimpsed rootdwellers, small antlike creatures with lights in their windows but she forgot to ask them for change, forgot the bus. Anyway, how could ants have change in their tiny pockets? But one told her to keep going. Gave her a surfboard and said his name was Bernard. Moitessier? – the first thing she’d said in days, maybe years. But he’d already vanished into the kelp forest.

In a dream in a dream in a dream.

So she took the long way. And years later she landed, this time with a surfboard, here. A beach. A palm. A sleep.

Frangipani floated on the air. Gemma stroked the dog, named him Bernard.

Michelle Elvy is the founding editor of Flash Frontier. She lives and writes in the Bay of Islands. If she meets Tangaroa one day, she will not ask him for pocket change; she has other pressing questions. For more about Michelle, visit her at Glow Worm

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Coming in February: stories about heat