Courtenay Place, Two Sections Please

This story placed third in the Tandem Press short story competition for young New Zealanders in 2001, written when I was 17 years old. The accompanying anthology was published later that year. It was one of my first pieces of flash fiction and my first published story.

When Olivia’s parents separated, her mother went to live on Mount Victoria. Her father Liam got the better half of the bargain: house in Wadestown, swanky Merc, nice collection of children.

Olivia’s life was conducted in a kilometer radius from her home on Grosvenor Terrace to Wellington Girls’ College and back again. Some nights she went to Island Bay where Tom lived, the boyfriend at the time. A skateboarder, all her friends disliked him.

Her father was often stressed. His job involved much driving out of town to the Hutt Valley and up the Kapati Coast. She saw little of him after beginning Year 13. A lot of the time she was alone at night, watching the Interactive Shopping Network on television.

Liam started bringing home women, too. Olivia didn’t know how old they were, but he was forty-five and they weren’t. She guessed the youngest to be in their mid-twenties. The one who lasted the longest was Emma, thirty and a bank clerk.

‘You don’t talk much, do you Olivia?’ Emma said one morning, out of the blue, standing in the doorway of the kitchen. Olivia spun around, caught unawares as she stared out at the road below and the people in their suits and trainers walking to work.

‘Huh?’

Emma strolled in, wiping her hands on her silk dressing-gown. Olivia wasn’t sure about the way Emma walked around in her pyjamas. It reeked of the fact she and Liam were sleeping together, that it wasn’t his wife in his bed anymore.

‘I notice that you never talk. Why, Olivia? Is there something wrong?’

Emma’s hair was sleep-tousled. It was dyed a dark red although Olivia could tell it had been blonde before Emma had taken to it with her rubber gloves and supermarket Nice ‘n Easy. She stared at the cherry-topped, silken princess.

‘Of course there’s nothing wrong,’ she said. Emma pulled out a mahogany chair and sat down. She was eyeing the half-full French press but Olivia wasn’t about to take the hint.

‘Your father was wondering if you wanted to talk to me about your plans for next year?’

Next year Olivia would turn eighteen. She was smart enough to know what was being asked. When was she moving out?

‘Because,’ Emma continued, ‘Liam and I are thinking of selling this place and moving to an apartment in town.’

Her hands were clasped in front of her. Olivia’s eyes wandered to the window and gazed out over the water. The prison on the other side of the harbour was grinning at her.

‘You needn’t worry about me, Emma,’ she said. ‘You won’t see me again.’

School beckoned downtown. She didn’t go. She boarded a bus at Grosvenor Terrace and rode to her mother’s house. Courtaney Place, two sections, and she had left home. It was quite funny, really. She had always hated public transport.

Pretty Girls In Places Like This | Flash Fiction

This story was longlisted in the London Independent Short Story Prize in December, 2019. My interview with LISP talks about the story’s theme and writing in general.

Waiting for the bus, by Leo Hildago on Flickr.

By the time I was standing on stage at the Congress Centre in Bloomsbury, plastic clicker in hand and a mic tucked behind my left ear, my sense of being othered was keen enough. He stood up in the middle of the full crowd. His hands rested on the back of the chair in front of him, inhabited by a woman whom I found myself watching as he spoke. She leant forward as if the embarrassment of touching a stranger in a crowd was on her, not him.

He was gesturing, almost shouting. You’re fundamentally wrong, he bellowed. I’ve been in this industry for twenty-three years and it’s never been done like that. You can’t waltz in and say, I’m the expert!

He stood back. I noticed a flex from the woman as she checked: is it okay to move? She eased back cautiously. He was still standing, waiting for his answer.

I think, I said, that we’ll have to agree to disagree.

Chuffed but indignant: could you be both at once? He puffled.

Whatever, Melissa, he said.

It sounded like a cop-out but I had spent thirty-five minutes delivering a presentation with the opposite opinion to his, an opinion based on my ten (not twenty-three, woe is me) years’ experience. Pray: pray to the ceiling-mounted stage lights, pray to the softly brushed floorboards, pray to the MC, pray that nobody else asks a question. The man sat down and folded his arms. A quick turn of the head to nod at his neighbours. Showed her.

His review of my talk, emailed to me by the organiser two weeks later, called me shrill. Another reviewer noted that I was hot.

How can you tell me you’re lonely? I’ll show you something to make you change your mind.

We need more female speakers, they’d kept saying. Females, they’d said. They’d copped some shit on Twitter last time because there weren’t any, they’d said. They hadn’t put it like that. How few could they get away with? As a first go-around they’d settled on one.

Afterwards, we were shepherded to a pub, far too small for the five-hundred attendees. The soles of my Mary Jane heels made sick cracking sounds, sticking to the lager-soaked floor.

What’s a pretty girl like you doing in a place like this? the next bloke asked, jovially overbearing, and for a moment I became the woman in the seat, leaning in embarrassment away from an awkwardness that I didn’t create and that would sound fake when I retold it later. He grabbed my chair. He used the ‘pretty girl in a place like this’ line. Five-hundred people, and here were two of them, making their mark.

I did the talk about attribution modelling.

At least he blanched. I’m sorry, of course. Of course! Here are my thoughts. Have you ever considered that fact that you know nothing?

I took my beer with me on the bus home. A bitter, a free token, like it knew and it understood.