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Winner: Cheryl Nicol - The Remittance Man

Whether it's the wonderful voice that this piece of writing speaks with, the abject story of a dying man, or the dark kinship that we found in Henry, we can't say exactly - but all we know is that this story found a thread in us, and kept pulling on it. All the judges liked it for different reasons, but all had nothing but good things to say. Read Cheryl's work below.

3rd Place - Open Prose Competition

The Remittance Man

Cheryl Nicol

Henry’s breath rasps in his throat as he lies between the sweat-saturated sheets, struggling to draw air into his congested lungs. Getting it back out again is another matter; his juices are solidifying, his network of airways intent on self-destruction. He has fought this fight on and off for most of his life. Tired certainly, but not dead yet.

He feels his aloneness, an exile mostly of his own making. In the tiny kitchen Mrs Quick clatters about, preparing liver soup for his midday meal, adding percussion to the warm nor’ wester whistling through the eaves. Henry hates liver. Gentlemen don’t eat offal. Puréed or otherwise. The mercenary Doctor Mudford has already made several house calls in the last fortnight, a picture of ill-health with his battered Gladstone bag and jarful of well-trained leeches. He’d presented an outrageous bill but would not be coming again; Henry has had enough of his overpriced ministrations and vile pulmonic elixir. The taste had lingered, clawing the back of his throat, but gave no relief. Poison, no doubt. He will suffer just as well and more economically without it.

His situation has always been precarious, to say the least. If it wasn’t for Mrs Quick he’d starve long before he drowned in his bed, his unloved carcass prey for the jackals – or debt collectors – who will inevitably come. He owes her too; not just the last month’s wages. She’s his one unburnt bridge. Nearly twelve thousand miles away his estranged wife and children are living their lives happily without him – as far as he knows. Henry doesn’t much care to reflect on the past, but for the most part, it has been a fairly disastrous forty-eight years. No one would argue with that. He doesn’t understand people. They certainly don’t understand him.

Bare necessities he could almost afford, although sometimes not even that, if he’d drowned his sorrows half a fathom too deep. There are endless druggist’s bills, Mrs Quick’s wages, rent and mysterious plain-wrapped packages which don’t fool his chameleon-eyed housekeeper for a moment. She knows her way around a whiskey bottle as well as any man.

A meticulous dresser was Henry, before all this, his final unravelling. He’d had to pawn most of his best clothes, keeping his best boots to grow mould in the bottom of the wardrobe. Now bereft of its human flesh-and-bone filling, his last suit hangs forlornly, a remnant of his Great Colonial Adventure. His ‘going out’. Just nineteen, he was then; a well-dressed optimist full of prejudice and naïve aspirations in his bespoke gentleman’s suit, hand-tailored in London. Appearances were as important as influential connections for a young man, just starting out in a new land.

He had blundered into the Real World of Melbourne on his high horse, way back in ’54. Habitual inebriation was a trait particular to the common labouring man, he believed then; a notion nurtured by youth and a finely sculpted narrowness of mind. The experience haunted him for a good while afterwards, but his ears have long been deaf to recriminations from his superior, younger self.

His quarterly allowance goes only so far; just enough to keep him away, out of sight and mind. It had been a bitter realisation years ago, this conspiracy. He’d aspired to life as a gentleman farmer, lord of his own little manor, but his expected inheritance had not been forthcoming; it instead enriched the scoundrels who defrauded his father. A bank clerk perhaps, his uncle suggested. Work for wages? The very idea. An offence to his sensibilities and a waste of his expensive education. Acutely aware of his need of a bath, Mrs Quick had already said she was busy this morning. Later, perhaps. Not a proper bath, mind. He’ll get the once-over with a wet soapy cloth, and be jolly grateful. She struggles to prop him up, little more than a dead weight, stinking and unshaven. Administering a good thwack to the top pillow, she discharges a cloud of dust into the air. ‘Ow’s that, Mister ‘Enry? Comfy?’

Mrs Quick, a human whirlwind, keeps her empathy on permanent bypass. As far as she’s concerned Henry is little more than a pile of talking dirty laundry; never mind that his next breath could be his last. And no, he is desperately uncomfortable. The pillows feel lumpy, full of elbows. He coughs, painfully attempting to somehow wring out his saturated lungs, and in the process nearly upsets his awful soup. ‘Please don’t forget my wash,’ he wheezes, as she bustles back towards the kitchen. ‘And my suit needs attention.’

An unwilling invalid, he hates having to rely on the woman for every little thing, but if this is how it ends he wants to at least be a clean and tidy corpse. A matter of pride. Even so, despite his best intentions, things have a habit of turning out badly. Leaving the wrong impression has been one of the more memorable side-effects of Henry’s existence. He’d always maintained it was not his fault, what happened in Australia; circumstances conspired against him. He was just unlucky, that’s all.

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