BBC National Short Story Awards 2019: ‘Silver Fish in the Midnight Sea’ by Jacqueline Crooks

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The fourteenth BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University revealed its shortlist on Friday 6 September, with writers exploring sexual politics, intolerance, community and immigration. We'll be posting extracts from all the shortlisted stories this week; first up is ‘Silver Fish in the Midnight Sea’ by writer and social worker Jacqueline Crooks, previously longlisted for the 2019 Orwell Prize and shortlisted for the Wasafiri New Writing Prize.

Muma’s foetal-curled like dem white crick-necked flowers in the garden’s sunken flower bed; their silvery hairs deflecting heat.

She works nights at the old people’s home, six days a week. She’s gotta sleep in the day. But the cussed summer light and heat’s messing with her. Laying in that boxy bedroom of hers, frowsy with ganja smoke and sticky-sweet body heat.

She’ll be drifting soon, spliff burning. Dreaming she’s buried in the garden with termites and millipedes crawling over her face, leaving slime and white powder trails. Dream-travelling back to the starfish island she came from fifteen years ago. An island that erupted from sea crust millions of years ago. Raining nightfall ash.

We live in an old pebble-dashed house on a housing estate in a city south-east of this bone-grey island where Muma’s lived since she was eighteen.

Muma yells the drill on Day One of the summer holiday:

‘Ycara, Macca, Carlos – come yah!’

We children step - quick-time.

‘Oooonuh mus’ not be seen. Not heard.’ She slams the metal gate that opens to the dead-end street; bolts it top and bottom. Flings me one of her sting-fe-touch looks.

‘Keep de pickney in the yard,’ she tells me, before she slow-times it back inna the house.

Locked in. Locked out. Three bendy-boned, streggae- streggae children left to ramp in the garden. I’ve gotta keep my brother and sister quiet, morning, noon and night, so Muma can sleep.

Day Two of the summer holiday and Sound-Ghost’s winding all over me – a strangling vine strung with bitter berry eyes, watching me standing on the chair, trying to unbolt the rusty lock from the top of the kitchen door. A kitchen of wooden shelves lined with old newspapers, stacked with tins of cocoa beans, and musty island herbs. Blackened stove in the corner and a grave-size enamel sink by the window.

We’re allowed out through the kitchen back door that leads into the garden where bushes and trees make island-shaped shadows on the ground.

Lemon light; air fizzing with insects. Elderberries swarming like a disease across the zinc fence.

No way Sound-Ghost is coming inna the garden. Sound-Ghost prefers the blooming black spores on the damp walls of our house where her memories are.

‘Come, nuh’ I shout. Macca and Carlos come wid bruck-neck speed and we’re standing on the red, polished back-door step like we’re getting ready to dive inna the sea.

I shuub Macca and Carlos out – out inna the overgrown garden, with dead yellow grass stacked like the straw houses of before-time people from Muma’s starfish island.

I watch Macca and Carlos in their too-tight polyester tank-tops and denim shorts – bare-footed, open-mouthed, soaking their bones in sunlight.

My sister and brother have got the same black whorl afros, coral-brown skin, noses broad as portholes but they’re as different as Sound-Ghost and Muma.

Carlos is six. Macca is eleven, four years younger than me. Mahena Anita Caye Ayiti Macca – she has more names than any of us put together, and more attitude.

This story was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Monday 9 September; you can listen to it here. All of the shortlisted stories are available in an anthology published by Comma Press, out now. The winner of the BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University will be announced on 1 October on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row.