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2020 winner

The winner of our 2020 competition is Madeleine Atkinson! Read her entry, "Disinfect and Bleach", below.

View the 2021 winning entry here!

2020: Disinfect and Bleach, Madeleine Atkinson

I was ten years old when my cousin Arya got hit by a car. It is my most vivid childhood memory. I didn’t see it happen, but I was home from school when my mother got the call. Falling to the floor, she shook and sobbed and then she was silent. She said my name like a curse.

I hated the way it sounded in her mouth, hated the way emotions I couldn’t understand distorted something so familiar. It was like it wasn’t mine anymore.

The car ride to the hospital was silent, the click of the indicator devastatingly loud amongst the stillness. Sound has a way of hanging heavy in quiet air. We were living with my father then, and his car ran so soft and smooth you couldn’t hear it moving if you tried. The tiniest remains of cigarette butts stacked tall beside the driver’s seat; he smoked them to the bone.

My mother did at the time too, occasionally at the start and often towards the end. Then, one day she threw them out with all the things he gave her and said his habits were staying in that house. She’d kill me if she found out that I did. So would my teachers and my figure-skating coach and my great-grandmother in the nursing home with her oxygen tank and sinking flaps of Botox round her chin. ‘Capitalist excess’, she said it was, betraying herself to the people she fled from before we were born.

I don’t know what my response would be to that. I don’t know why these things all muddle together in my mind. Perhaps it’s that the stench of chemicals in the hospital remind me of the ones in my great-grandmother’s room. Perhaps it’s that the way my mother cried when she saw my cousin reminds me of the way she cried in the hostel after we left my dad. Memories have a way of bleeding into one another, coagulating into some solid, organic monster you didn’t know you’d given birth to.

When I saw Arya I felt like a monster. I felt like a monster because I saw her face in pieces and all I could do was look away. I didn’t hold her like my mother did. I didn’t want to. I wish I wanted to. I wish I had some response to her suffering other than disgust and discomfort, both so acutely mine. That was the first time I wondered if there was something wrong with me. I haven’t stopped thinking about that, but I have stopped thinking about Arya.

Isn’t that just awful.

A drunk driver. A day-drinker. That’s why she was there, and that changed everything. My father’s dirty habits were suddenly intolerable. I was ten, but even I understood that. Downstairs, the day we got home he was staggering and barely lucid. Papers and plates in pieces on the floor, the stench of rum and vomit, the usual. It had gotten dark before we got back, and it was in that dark I saw my cousin’s face projected onto the ceiling and the space beneath my eyelids when I blinked. I saw her in my father’s drunken noises. I saw her in the way he drove away after my mother told him he was awful, awful, awful, and all the ugliest words in Russian that she knew. I saw my cousin Arya that night and the next, and she only really disappeared when we moved away.

Hostels are full of runaway kids and druggies and battered women, and my mother and I were none of those things. It was the last place he’d look, she said. She was too proud for it, even then, and yet there we found ourselves. It was the first night I slept peacefully since the day at the hospital, and one of many after she shuttered me off to boarding school with the eventual divorce settlement. 

Boarding schools with their well-groomed children and their well-groomed lawns are no place for bloodied faces, so Arya never came back after that. She lives only in my memory, and somewhere near our old house that I can never bring myself to visit. My mother says she looks almost normal now. I like to think I’d be able to look at her and feel empathy, I really, really do, but I don’t want to test it. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t.

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