It's the online celebration of the Rhys Davies Short Story Award this evening, so book your tickets here and tune in at 7pm!
To whet your appetite Naomi Paulus, Swansea-born author of the winning story 'Take a Bite', has kindly let us publish it here. This wonderfully evocative story was described by judge Julia Bell as a "delightful, wistful, satisfying piece which echoes some of the best of Rhys Davies, for a few pages giving us a window into a world which is both tender and profound", and "a winner from the moment I read it."
And here it is, below. Enjoy!
Take a Bite
© Naomi Paulus
Esyllt arrived first.
She was the eldest of Rhian’s mother’s four sisters and it always mystified Rhian how a woman could have such a massive bust but be so completely not sexual. Just a kind of amorphous, fleshy protrusion from the front of her torso, like a benign cyst. Esyllt arrived through the back door, tits first, without introduction and seamlessly re-entered the conversation she had left on half the day before. The sisters didn’t bother with greetings, or other meaningless pleasantries, because they were in permanent celestial orbit around each other, never apart for long enough.
Rhian wasn’t sure whether Esyllt arrived with a tea towel in hand because she seemed to be already drying up as she crossed the threshold. A cog trained from birth to fit seamlessly into the mundane domestic machine. Rhian’s mum, Gwen, turned from the sink and handed her oldest sister a pot like Esyllt was always standing waiting for it and she replied like the conversation was never paused.
‘Well, finally, here we are.’
‘The others are on their way.’
‘Here we are.’
‘They’re on their way.’
There followed an unusual pause in conversation. If silence settled amongst the suds in that house, it never lasted long. Rhian watched the fairy motes swirl in the light from the kitchen window as they floated towards the black slate floor. Picking at the fraying end of the tea towel in her hands, she traced the light back to its source above the sink, where neat piles of dead flies were turning to dust on the windowsill. How apt, thought Rhian; dust to dust.
Her aunt had usurped her in the dishwashing receiving line, which downgraded Rhian from dryer to put-away-er. Eventually, she was handed the scrubbed and dried pot, giving her something else to do with her hands. It was the third Saturday morning in March and Rhian’s aunts were gathering for an important event. Rhian had come home to join the ritual. Her grandmother, the mother of all, was still upstairs but she wouldn’t be for much longer.
Once the pot was put away, Esyllt turned her attention to Rhian who was caught standing still again.
‘How is life in the city, you?’
‘Yes, good, thank you.’
‘You’re looking well. Is that a new haircut?’
Rhian nodded. There wasn’t much else she could say. She felt guilty for leaving, for trying to carve out a space for herself in a place full of strangers. It was terrifying but it promised the possibility of becoming someone entirely new. She reached up her hand to smooth down her fringe. She knew that ‘well’ meant ‘fat’ and that it was a compliment, but the haircut had cost too much, and it felt like she was wearing a Mercedes symbol on her forehead.
Gwen hadn’t noticed the new hairstyle yet but she didn’t turn away from the sink to look. It had been dark the night before, when she’d gone to get Rhian from the train station, and she’d been understandably preoccupied that morning. It was an unusual sight to see Gwen washing up because she usually refused while Rhian’s dad hunched his slipped discs over the bowl. The refusal was her one outlet of protest. She would not worship at the altar of domesticity; when it came to housewifery she would do everything but the kitchen sink. But that day was different.
The back door opened again and the two middle sisters, Helen and Wendy, came in chatting and let the cat in with them. They were both carrying deep pudding bowls wrapped in cling film and Rhian wondered how they had fitted through the narrow doorframe seemingly still side-by-side. Irish twins they were – well, Welsh twins. Born nine months apart within the same school year and, even though they were sixty, it still mattered. They took off their tall, dark hats and placed them on the kitchen table. Then they got to work.
‘How are you, Es?’
‘Any cake here?’
‘Upstairs. Bathed, dressed and ready.’
‘Bara brith in the tin.’
‘I’m putting my trifle in the fridge.’
‘Dew, dew the bus was slow.’
‘Strawberries fresh from the market in it, mind.’
‘It was going to happen one day.’
‘That’ll be nice.’
‘I still can’t believe it.’
With four of the five sisters in the same room, the conversation got harder to follow. Rhian pondered the mathematical conundrum: if there were four of her aunties in a room, how many different conversations could be had at once? Well, there was Mum and Esyllt, Mum and Helen, Mum and Wendy; then there was Esyllt and Helen, Esyllt and Wendy, and finally Helen and Wendy. So that was six in total, not including Rhian. However, there was no reason to assume that Esyllt was having the same conversation with Helen that Helen thought she was having with Esyllt. The relationship between the conversations was not necessarily reciprocal and that brought the total number possible to twelve. Although deafening, Rhian found the noise soothing. It rested just above the flapping tea towels, filling the air like a fine Welsh mist, drenching everything and drowning out her own thoughts.
Occasionally, one voice would shrill above the rest, amplified further when it bounced off the thick, stone walls of their cottage. It was the reason Rhian’s father had slipped out earlier and was sitting outside in the cold. He had previously suggested that the women in the family he married into were descended from banshees, Cyhyraeth, because of the pitches they could reach. Comparing middle-aged women to decrepit, wailing harbingers was not particularly imaginative.
‘You know I’m not good at all that. I’ll come back in when they’ve settled,’ was what he told Rhian. It is women’s work, was what he meant. Women marked life’s rituals, its comings and goings, with ceremony and compassion. Rhian’s family was certainly not short on women. Her grandmother upstairs, Nana, was the oldest of fourteen girls. Rhian came from old breeding stock who had learnt the hard way that breastfeeding was not a natural contraceptive. She sometimes thought it was strange that all the sisters only had daughters. There were rumours in the village, usually sparked by the birth of yet another baby girl. Like Welsh Russian dolls popping out of each other in a long, long line stretching back to the beginning. A womb, within a womb, within a womb. Rhian didn’t like to think about it, she had run away to try to break the chain.
‘Seriously though, where is Alys?’
‘Rhian, grab the broom, will you?’
‘On her way apparently.’
‘Helen’s already spilt the sugar.’
‘She lives next door, mun!’
‘I’ve cleaned the table, ready for mixing.’
‘Make sure you’ve hidden the curry powder.’
‘The butter is already out to soften on the counter here.’
‘Bloody hell, yes, we don’t want a repeat of Wendy’s last “coffee” cake.’
‘Is the oven on ready?’
‘Blew my bloody head off that cake did.’
Rhian did as she was told and mostly stayed out of the conversation, although she kept hold of every entangled thread because very occasionally interesting gossip was revealed.
She wondered when her grandmother would finally be able to come downstairs and what would happen when she did. She was still the matriarch after all and it was her party they were getting ready for. Last night, Rhian had painted Nana’s nails while Gwen bathed her. Rhian chose Nana’s favourite colour, Revlon Cadillac red, for her long thick claws which were all knuckles and gold rings like a hardened Mafia wife’s. If Rhian’s Nana had had the will to throw a punch – god knows she had the temper – she could have done some serious damage to a jawline. While the talons were drying, Rhian brushed out Nana’s hair and curled it into a neat bun on the top of her head. Her chosen outfit was a deep purple suit from David Evans department store. It was well worn and well loved.
There would be many mouths to feed later and so there were many cakes to be baked. Welsh cakes, more bara brith, a Victoria sponge, scones and apple tarts. All of Nana’s favourites had been specially requested. The bowl of shining apples, buffed to a sparkling crimson, was particularly appealing to Rhian. But they would soon be chopped and cooked until the fibres were denatured, the skins crisp and burnt, and the insides turned to mush.
The smell of charred flesh started to overpower the sweetness in the air as Esyllt’s fingers melded to the oven and the first shriek rang out.
‘Ow! I’ve burnt my bloody hand.’
‘Rhian, grab more flour and sugar from the pantry, will you?’
‘The oven is on then.’
‘Welsh cakes need mixed spice too, Gwen.’
‘Run it under the cold water.’
‘Hocus, they just need cinnamon.’
‘Do you have a sieve? I’ve lost a nail in the flour.’
‘It’s a family recipe.’
‘Helen stop fussing, you’re doing my head in.’
‘There’s cheek! I am the bloody family.’
‘Have you called Alys? She should be here.’
Alys was the youngest sister. She had been babied, as youngest children are, and the other sisters blamed that for her maladjustment. Her name was followed in conversation by the phrase ‘bless her’ and a sad smile. Single and childless, she was a failed woman in her mother’s eyes, infantilised forever. Rhian had inherited this feeling of pity but she had always been closest to Alys. The aunt who lived next door and always brought back holiday trinkets for the display shelf. Slowly the feeling was growing into a sense of admiration for a woman daring to live a different type of life. Alys had a secret and she had only told Rhian. It was so small and yet so radical that it gave Rhian hope.
‘Someone put the kettle on, I need a brew.’
‘Gladys up the road was stuck in the bath for three days last week.’
‘I’ll have one if you’re making a pot.’
‘Three full days, mind.’
‘Is there another baking tray about?’
‘I just thank god she was at the tap end.’
‘Tea for me too, please.’
‘You know, so she could drink from the tap like.’
‘Bloody hell, there’s times I can’t be bothered to get out of the bath.’
‘Pass us that rolling pin by there.’
‘It’s not funny, Esyllt, that’s what kept her alive.’
‘Rhian go check on your father, will you?’
‘The tap end? Iesu Mawr.’
The excuse to leave was a welcome release for Rhian who loved her family but, well... but. She let herself out the back door with the cat twisting through her feet. The familiar feel of its fur against her shins was a small comfort. Outside, the morning shadows were long and low on the crispy grass. It was going to be a brilliantly sunny spring day, Rhian observed, as her socks stuck to the frost on the path.
Her father was sitting on a stool in the front garden, weekend broadsheet in his left elbow, cigarette in his right hand. He looked like a doorman and Rhian realised that from this position he would have welcomed each and every aunt on her arrival. Maybe this wasn’t such a cop out after all; he was out here taking the edge off, softening their approach.
‘Mam wants to know if you want some tea.’
‘Yes please. That would be lovely. How’s it going in there?’
‘Okay. There’s a lot of shouting. They’re baking.’
‘Lots to prepare for later. Best I stay out the way.’
As he puffed on the cigarette to catch his breath, Rhian could hear every single word coming from the house. It was difficult to keep secrets on that street. She paused, next to the man who never felt the need to say anything at all, and enjoyed the relative quiet until her toes went numb. The heat of the sun was on her cheeks, so bright that when she closed her eyes she could still see the light. It felt good to be back somewhere on the slope downwards between the low mountains and deep valleys, even though she was back for a bad reason.
When Rhian reopened her eyes and readjusted to the brightness, the last of her aunts was waiting at the front gate, arranging her courage to enter. Alys was quieter than her older sisters; having to hide something can do that to you. It makes you afraid to talk for fear of giving yourself out. Stood still at the bottom of the garden, elbow deep in a family packet of crisps, she nodded a hello at Rhian. For a brief moment the sound of Alys crunching on roast chicken flavouring overpowered everything else, even the birds. Then came a clatter of falling pans and the second shriek. It was so loud and so piercing that even though Rhian knew it had come from inside the cottage, it felt like it came from someone standing right behind her.
Alys and Rhian’s father were unfazed by the sound, they had been around the sisters too long, but the deafening call reminded Rhian why she was there. She wriggled her toes to bring them back to life and led her youngest aunt into the house. The act of accompanying was partly for Alys and partly for Rhian herself. She always felt stronger in a pair.
Rhian and Alys were put to work as soon as they opened the back door. Esyllt was growling orders from in front of the sink. Gwen was on her hands and knees picking up the contents of the pan cupboard that had fallen. Helen and Wendy were kneading and rolling out the Welsh cake mix while correcting each other’s techniques.
‘No, not like that, Wend, let me do it.’
‘Sally Morgan is coming over later, I saw her this morning—’
‘—when I was on my way to speak to the priest.’
‘Where is the sugar kept, Gwen?’
‘I heard her husband was in trouble again.’
‘Who wanted tea?’
‘In trouble from shagging around, is he?’
‘Everyone for tea it was.’
‘Alys, make yourself useful please.’
Alys was instructed to join her middle sisters and stack up the fat, flat circles, ready for the griddle. On hearing this, the look Helen and Wendy exchanged made Rhian grit her back teeth together. She glared at them from her dusty mixing station at the other end of the kitchen table and tightened her fist around the wooden spoon. Rhian was combining ingredients – butter, sugar, flour – into the biggest bowls her mother could find. She felt each strained turn of the spoon around the circumference of the sludge like a crank forward in time, lurching them closer towards the countdown. With every turn of her hand, the temperature in the kitchen increased. Sweat was starting to form on the menopausal jowls that hung off the faces of her aunts, running down their flapping necks and crevices, to the sagging nipples that ruptured from their bulging, waxy skin. Rhian kept churning the mix, thickening it up for the oven.
‘I’ve been so busy the last few days. I haven’t had time to swing a cat.’
‘Poor sod she is, that one.’
‘It’s room, you idiot, room to swing a cat.’
‘We’re lucky I’m on the parish council to have got the hall at such short notice.’
‘Sally Morgan, mun!’
‘Ooh, la-de-da, Esyllt. We’d have found somewhere else if we needed.’
‘I think it’s disgusting, treating your wife like that.’
Rhian whipped the eggs into the flour in such frenzy that white splatter covered the front of her black suit. It was difficult to stay calm when the activity level around her was not so much a flurry as an avalanche. The sisters, although each had different personalities and preferences, shared a manner of interacting with physical objects. It was immediate and impulsive; an object would have to move to them, not them to it. To be handled by one of Rhian’s aunts was to be graunched and broken. Dismantled. Even Rhian sometimes found it difficult to stay whole around them. Gwen could sense even mild misery in just the rhythm of Rhian’s breath. It wasn’t that they picked on weakness; they sought it out with their grotesquely well-meaning demands.
Rhian was singularly focussed on what she was doing but all the flour and sugar in the air kept making her cough. The bustling bosoms that raised her were slowly suffocating her. She was choking on the new voice that was rising in her throat. All Rhian wanted was a slightly different life. Just different, exactly like everyone else. Everyone needed a little rebellion, a small protest. She looked over at Alys, quietly collecting the pale, raw Welsh cakes at the other end of the table. Biding her time, as always.
‘I think Mam will be happy when she sees what we’ve put together.’
‘I heard Sally Morgan was... you know...’
‘Mam’s not going to bloody see it, is she?’
‘You heard she was what?’
‘No, Mam won’t, but I know she’d like it.’
‘You know... a “Lady of Llangollen”.’
‘She’ll be brought down to see soon enough.’
‘Well good for Sally Morgan, I say.’
Rhian concentrated on the sustaining rhythm of batter being beaten into submission. At least you were safe by the sink, she thought, safe in the kitchen. Safe from your own potential. You knew what to expect, even when your husband slammed your skull against the porcelain, like Sally Morgan’s did.
Looking around at her aunts, Rhian knew she could not fool the fates forever. When her body had softened and bled and her pores opened up, its function began to change. Expectations seized up in her joints and the flexible fabric of potential tightened around her. She had heard two wails and the third would signal the finished transition to the next stage, the new generation with Esyllt at the helm. It would push Rhian into her daughter-bearing years, increasing the volume of the biological bomb that ticked at her from her aunts’ mouths. Until her blood ran dry and the hunting stopped, because with the raw smell of it gone, mutton wasn’t supposed to attract the wolves.
A sharp knock at the front door shocked Wendy into dropping her rolling pin onto Helen’s foot and, with that blow, came the final yelp. It was softer and more wounded than the previous two. Rhian felt it deep within herself somewhere far away.
Without needing to be told, she went out into the hall to open the front door. Silhouetted in the bright light was her father, probably coming in for his cold cup of tea that never arrived, and behind him, the undertakers. Rhian led the small, solemn parade into the kitchen.
‘Come in, come in!’
‘She’s upstairs ready.’
‘Sit down, sit down!’
‘We’ve done her hair and dressed her.’
‘Have a slice of cake while you’re here.’
The body planters had finally arrived; ready to put Nana back in the ground. They politely declined refreshments before going upstairs to collect her. Then they ceremonially processed her swollen, brittle body downstairs for the last time and took her straight out the front door, feet first. Following closely, the sisters dusted themselves down and headed one by one, in their long black dresses and tall black hats, down the frozen path to the chapel.
Rhian watched them from the doorway with her father. She watched with quiet hope as Alys, at the end of the line as always, slipped away to meet Sally Morgan at a different type of shrine, to receive a different type of sacrament.
You can order your copy of Take a Bite: The Rhys Davies Short Story Award Anthology from your favourite bookshop, or right here.