Student poetry

Winner: Lennox Tait


Though at a glance, this piece appears
Extremely plain and plaid;
A rather mundane tradition, a
Far cry from Orwell's '84.

Please observe, with eyes and ears
Your caution, should be paid;
Behold my dystopian expedition
To the grocery store.


Basket in hand,
Confronted with brands.

What chicken should I opt for; skinless or skin-on?
Looking at the prices, am I sure they're not wagyu and filet mignon?

Basket in hand,
Did they touch land?

Were these creatures looked after in their life?
Or brought up in cages, a practice running rife?

Basket in hand,
Should I take a stand?

The guilt to be the predator, it preys upon my mental.
So I leave the delicatessen, and opt instead for lentils.


Less Soma, more Roma.
Too many tomatoes for which I can opt,
Diced or pureed? Whole or chopped?
What am I doing? That one's price's dropped!

Less Soma, more diploma.
Fish oil is brain food for the student,
So tuna seems the choice most prudent,
If only the odor was less pursuant.

Less Soma, more goma.
Drawn to the maple syrup and other baking stuff,
I remember that I could do with some egg whites to fluff.
Oh, you use aquafaba? Please, I'm calling your bluff.


Oh no.
They've seen me.
A fairly distant friend.
You don't know them well.
And they don't really know you.
But the mutual eye contact was made.
We each approach, anticipating a stilted, awkward chat.

Use it –
Half for this;
Half remembering the list.
“How is your flat going?”
I can't forget about trim milk.
“I saw your Linkedin, congrats on the job!”
Have they dropped the price on oranges yet?
“You going to check out the gig this weekend?”
Shoot, was it wet food or biscuits the cat needed?

Eventually, the conversation gives way to awkward silence.
Promises to catch up soon are made.
Smiles are shared; he paces away.
Relief! Mental list still intact.
Now I just need –
Wait a minute.
Oh no.


In spite of utopian beliefs, cheese isn't four dollars a block.
Wow, what a shock.

It's never been more timely, to have a hate for lactose.
Fair, I suppose.

Almond, soy, coconut, and oat milks everywhere in sight.
But prices aren't slight.

Don't even get me started on the prices for prisms of butter, I say
With a shudder.


I'm lost as to the reason,
Is Foodstuffs performing treason?

But whenever I try,
The produce I buy,
Is never the stock that's in season.


The first dilemma
Avoid the chocolate bars
Resist temptation.

The welcome message
From the pre-programmed AI
Is little comfort.

Yes, swipe the Clubcard
Can't wait to save so many –
Cents? Fourteen cents?

What was I thinking?
There's no way this haul would fit in
One bag alone.


Passing out the gliding doors gives rise to some reflection;
Fabric bags within my claws, I leave with this perception.

To the staff, I owe my gratitude, for the service they provide;
Without their selfless attitude, there's no way we would survive.

Huxley's magnum opus got things right and some things wrong;
Now dragged into focus, I write a poem far too long.
Although Aldous' tale may not be the future which we seek;
Braving New World is something I do almost every week.

Student fiction

Winner: Jessica Bent

My Friend, The Stranger

I'm often asked what the most significant moment in my life was. I usually spin some line about being accepted into the academy, but that's not strictly true. It was an important moment in my life – I don't know if I've felt prouder of myself as I did that day when the notice arrived congratulating me on winning one of ten spots in the Star Searcher programme. Despite that celebrated event, the real moment my destiny changed forever was much earlier.

When I was only five or six rotations old, one of my favourite pastimes was to crawl through the small, dusty tunnels on my father's property. I'm still not sure what they were originally for, but to a little girl with stories in her head and curiosity in her blood, they were the height of excitement.

I'd found a new tunnel near Father's laboratory, and every warning he had ever given me about not playing near the building flew from my head. I reached down, my small fingers curling around the bars covering the entrance to my new hiding place.

With the grate out of the way, I wiggled down into the opening, dust and vendmal webs clinging to my robes. I had fun exploring the tunnel's twists and turns. That was, until I heard a strange sound. I paused, my fingers curling into fists, causing my nails to bite into the sensitive skin of my palms. I'd never heard anything like it. It sounded almost like a cross between a juka pup and a mu'ugal chick. It crooned and changed tones and pitch, sliding up and down in an eerie but enticing way.

The sound continued to echo through the tunnel.

I chewed the inside of my cheek. Part of me wanted to crawl out of that tunnel as fast as my small hands and knees could take me. The other part, the much larger part, burned with curiosity. I had to know what was making that sound. The possibility that it could be one of Father's experiments never even crossed my mind.

Crawling forward, I followed the sounds echoing up through the narrow space. It only took me a few more minutes before I reached another grate. This one wasn't so easily removed. I tugged at it, straining with all my might, but it refused to budge. None of the other grates had been difficult to shift, even for a child as young as I was.

I must have made a lot of noise as I tried to move the metal bars because the strange sound stopped. My eyes widened as I realised I'd disturbed the creature.

I was just about to turn around and make a break for the surface when a terrifying shape appeared on the other side of the grate. I'm not ashamed to say I screamed.

The creature in the other room stumbled back and pressed what I assumed were its hands to its head.

When I stopped screaming, it lowered those odd five-fingered hands to its side and smiled at me with yellowed teeth. It spoke strangely with sounds that made no sense to my ears.

I frowned and then looked fervently behind me into the dark mouth of the tunnel I was sitting at the edge of. Maybe I could still escape…

When I didn't respond to the creature's strange words, it moved closer to me, its odd dark eyes crinkling at the corners.

“You am little chuunga,” it said stiltedly, startling me when it spoke in my tongue.

“I,” the creature said, placing its pale hands against its funny flat chest, “am Ben.” It then reached out its hand to me.

I squealed and scrambled back.

The creature lifted its hands up in the sign of peace and made shushing sounds.

I crawled back to the grate, my heart pounding but my mind curious as to what this strange creature was. It looked nothing like me, with heavy lines on its face, a pointed nose, and fluffy white stuff that danced about the top and bottom of its head. My grey eyes looked at it between thick, heavy strands of hair – every chuunga had twelve that by the deity's decree were never to be cut – why were there no strands on the stranger's head? Its fluff seemed like it had no beginning and no end.

The creature rose his hands once more to his chest and repeated the word, “Ben.” I'd never heard such a word before, but when he held out his hand and asked, “You?” I knew he was asking my name.

“Tuta'al,” I said quietly.

The smile he gave me was dazzling. “Hello, Tuta'al,” he said as his hands fluttered in front of him in an official greeting.

Against my better judgement – though what child of my age even has any – I smiled, my lips parting to reveal my small teeth. They had just been sharpened on my fifth rotation, signalling that I was no longer a baby. I was very proud of my teeth.

“Hello, Be-yn,” I said, trying to get my tongue around the stranger's unusual name.

I didn't know it then, but that night would change my life forever.

I would crawl down that tunnel at every chance I got to see my strange friend. We would exchange stories and try to speak in each other's tongues. It usually went badly, and we'd be left laughing as we made silly sounds and said rude things by accident.

One day, it was close to my eighth rotation, I think, Ben told me about his planet and his family. I cried for a week when he said it'd been more than twelve rotations since he'd crashed on our planet and that he knew he'd never see his son again. He hoped that Charlie, his son, had grown up into a fine young man and that his wife – Ben never told me her name – had found someone else who could love her as much as he did.

It didn't seem fair, this kind stranger from the stars not being able to get home.

When I asked him if he would go home if he could, Ben looked at me sadly and explained that his planet was sick and he was part of a team trying to find a new place to live. The people who had lived on his planet weren't like the people of Chuuna. They couldn't hear the songs of the trees or the speech of the ocean or understand the chittering of the animals. They weren't connected to their planet – their bodies didn't bleed when the planet bleed. They weren't born from the flowers of the tuf'ulla plant.

I asked him why they didn't try to make the planet – Earth, he called it – better.

He told me they did try, but some powerful people cared more for money than the ground they walked on.

And then he told me about the wars and the fighting…

I was so horrified that I ran away before he could finish the story and didn't go back in that tunnel for almost twelve moons.

Shortly after my thirteenth rotation, I realised that it was almost impossible to fit in the tunnels anymore. Going forward was okay if I stayed on my stomach but getting back wasn't possible anymore. I cried the night I realised, thinking I would never see my strange old friend again. I yelled and screamed and begged the deity to make me small again, to stop changing my body into a woman's and let it stay like a child's. But the deity didn't listen. I kept growing.

It was almost an entire rotation before I worked out how to break into Father's lab. It hadn't been hard to figure out where Ben was kept. What was hard was trying to figure out how to get in. Though our people are peaceful, we are not perfect, as my father often reminded me. If we were, we wouldn't need the deity, he would say. Instead, he argued, we would be the deity. I thought that was silly, but he believed it, so I didn't argue. Unfortunately, Father's belief meant he kept the laboratory secured with more locks and funny devices than any other place I knew.

But I was curious.

And stubborn.

And I missed my friend.

One night I managed to get in.

I was terrified. I snuck through Father's lab like there was a groumbal in the building which would find me and eat me if I made any noise. What did I know? Maybe Father really did have a groumbal locked up in there too.

Despite my slow advance through the building, finding Ben didn't take me long. I forgot the need to be quiet and rushed toward the glass wall that'd been hidden from my view when I'd been crammed into the tunnel.

“Ben! Ben!” I cried, waving and smiling through my happy tears.

He looked up at me from where he'd been sitting on a small couch. His eyebrows raised in surprise, and a watery smile pulled at his lips.

I was shocked at how much he'd changed. While I'd grown larger, gaining height and weight, Ben looked like he'd shrunk. The funny lines that had always marked his face looked deeper, and his skin had a weird yellow tinge. His cheekbones were sharp, and the hands he shakily reached out to me were skin and bones.

My tears of joy turned to tears of sorrow – what was happening to my friend?

We talked for a while through that glass wall before he grew too tired to speak. I told him about my last year and everything I'd been learning at school even though I knew he'd fallen asleep pressed against the transparent barrier.

It isn't fair, I thought as I hugged my knees and picked at a few flaking scales on the back of my hand. I'd worked so hard to see Ben again, and he was sick.
I was still sitting there watching him when my father walked in.

“Tuta'al!” he said in shock.

I sprung to my feet and winced. I was going to be in a lot of trouble for breaking into his lab.

“Good evening, Father,” I said, straightening, trying to appear that it wasn't unusual for us to meet like this.

He looked at me fondly – for all the things you could say about my father, you couldn't say he didn't love me. “I see you've met Ben,” he eventually said, breaking the tense silence.

I nodded and turned around, placing my palm flat on the glass. “What's happened to him?” I whispered.

My father's eyes flashed with understanding. He knew this wasn't the first time I'd encountered the stranger.

“He's sick – dying. I've tried everything, but I don't know how to save him.”

Father then explained that when Ben was first discovered, he'd petitioned the council to let him study the strange creature instead of killing and dissecting him in fear of who and what he was. Upon receiving permission, Father built the laboratory and tried to make Ben's stay comfortable even as he observed the stranger.

“It wasn't long before the Receivers chose me to be gifted the next child born of the tuf'ulla flowers that we finally started to understand each other. Ben became my friend,” Father finished sadly, his hand reaching out to settle on the cool glass next to mine.

Father let me visit Ben every night after I'd finished my homework. That time has been seared into my memory and is why I do what I do. Ben spoke more about Earth during that time than he'd ever done before. He mourned the fact that he'd never be buried with his family. I'd had to ask him what he meant and was surprised to learn that on his planet, they often placed the bodies of the dead beneath the grass and soil. Here, the spirits of those who passed live with the stars and light the deity's path. Their unneeded bodies are returned to the tuf'ulla plant so another child can be born.

It was three moons before my fifteenth rotation when my father met me at the door of our house after school. I didn't need the green robes to tell me someone had died. The tears in his eyes would have said it just as plainly. I dropped my school pack to the ground in sorrow – the echo of its thump as it hit the floor still reverberates through my mind almost twenty rotations later.

Without a word, I spun around and ran to the laboratory, my feet flying across the ground. Ben was still there, lying in his bed. I could almost imagine that he'd just fallen asleep while we'd been talking. But I knew that wasn't the truth, his eyes stared blankly up at the ceiling, and his chest was still – there was no more rattle as he breathed, no more coughs that shook his body. I fell to my knees and cried, curling into my father's embrace when he joined me and lowered himself to the floor to comfort me.

My thirty-fifth rotation was last week, and today, me and my team of five are leaving Chuuna. We are Star Searchers and have been travelling among the lights of our ancestors for many years, always remembering to return home to our fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters. Today though, is special.

We found Earth.

I'm going to take my friend home.

I'm going to fulfil the vow I made on the cold floor of the laboratory that day. Just as I will be given to the tuf'ulla plant, Ben will be buried with his people.

We smile and wave for the newsfeeds before ascending the ramp onto our star flyer. The journey is long, and we almost turn back – perhaps one day, I'll tell the story of our adventures and mishaps as we are guided by the lights of our ancestors just as the deity is. But we prevail.

I stand here this morning on the ground of a new planet squinting in the foreign yellow light surrounded by a hundred curious faces who look so much like Ben that I want to cry.

I take a deep breath, summoning my bravery and willing my tongue to speak in words long forgotten, “Hello, I'm Tuta'al, and I've come to bury my friend.”

This world is old and scared by wars and neglect, but to me, the white fluffy clouds and the kaleidoscope of colours made by the skin and hair of the people around me signal something new, something exciting, something to love and explore.

It is a brand new world.

And maybe…

We can help her live.

Staff poetry

Winner: Abby Smith

Falling, Falling

Somewhere a child cries because her block tower has fallen down.

So much care, so much time, so much attention
 We spend on our things:
  Building towers of blocks.
Making calls, making meetings, making progress
 We focus on our things:
  Our handmade towers of blocks
Growing taller, spreading wider, becoming older
 We carefully nurture our things:
  Our growing towers of blocks
Gathering, planting, making, singing, painting
 We collect and create our things:
  Our pretty tower of blocks.

Alas, humans --
 Every tower falls.
  Every dream dies.
   Every temple goes to dust.
    Even you, even you.

But shall we not care? Not build? Not nurture? Not create?
Is transience a fatal flaw?
We all come, we all go, after all, after all.

Could we learn, slowly, that things have value, though they will not last?
Like a sandcastle
 Like a sidewalk painting
  Like a posy of daisies
   Like an apple pie
    Like me, like me.

Let us care about things, though they pass
 Let us joyfully build, though it will fall
  Let us carefully nurture, though it will die
   Let us create and make again, until we are gone.

Somewhere a child picks up her blocks and begins again.

Inspired by Verse 2 of All My Hope on God is Founded by Joachim Neander, translated by Robert Bridges:

“Human pride and earthly glory, sword and crown betray God's trust
Though with care and toil we build them, tower and temple fall to dust.”

Staff fiction

Winner: Gini Jory

A Discovery; Donor Unknown.

You find a lot of interesting things, working at a historical library. You never know what might be donated, or what you might retrieve for a patron. For example, just last week we received donations of early newspapers, artworks of cats, early photos of the area, and I retrieved an archive that contained pictures of my grandmother. It's all very interesting, and the people who bring them in always have long stories to tell about how these items came into their possession. But it's all run of the mill, standard historical fare. Never anything unexplained or unusual.

That was, until the donation I received on Saturday afternoon.

We have fewer staff on the premises on the weekend, so it was just the four of us, and I was in the office covering a lunch break when he came in. He looked frazzled, glasses askew on his face as he pushed through the doors with a giant box, full to bursting with the lid teetering dangerously on top.

I started going through the usual process, filling out the receipt form with him, but he was being oddly cagey with his details. The material, he said, belonged to his late mother who had recently passed, so I could use her estate's information on the receipt. Under no circumstances, he emphasised, did he want any of the material returned if we didn't want it for our collection. He would rather see it burned, he said, than back in his spare room.

When I asked what sort of items were in the box, he waved his hand. Oh, some marine biology stuff. She was an enthusiast he said, studying the local marine life off the coast by her house. She collected all sorts, but he had thrown away a lot of the junk, shells and bits that weren't “archive quality” he said, making quotation marks with his hands. When I pressed further, saying I might need to pass items on to different curators, he said there were some publications, a lot of personal papers, some recordings she had made, as well as a few photo albums.

No sooner had I obtained his own unintelligible signature and given him the copy of the receipt than he rushed off, scrunching up the form within viewing distance of my desk and hurling it into the bin outside. Just like that he was gone, and I would never see him again.

I took the box back to my desk after lunch, resolved to sort through it so I could send items off to the relevant curators before Monday. Many items were as described, photos of a coastline I could vaguely pick the location of, a book on molluscs, sketches of rock pools, a scientific community newsletter and what looked like papers detailing some sort of research project. There was also a dusty pile of labelled cassettes, and a portable deck player, the kind I had as a kid in the 90s with tinny headphones that looked like you could snap them in half. There was already a cassette in the player.

Curiosity got the better of me.

It would be helpful anyway, to know what was on them. The labels were old, peeling and smudged. On this one I could only make out a short word that started with S on the B side.

I put new batteries in the player and shut myself in the breakout room. I hit play.

It was crackly, and fuzzy at first. Like it hadn't been played in a while. Then I could make out the sounds of the seaside, seagulls cawing overhead, and the gentle rocking of waves, as if they were hitting up against something. It was pleasant, but nothing ground-breaking. Just the sounds of a life lived, like so many other items in our collections.

There was a static hiss, and for a second I was sure I had wrecked the cassette and the tape was about to come spewing out all distorted and unplayable, and I was about to be in big trouble.

The static stopped. And a song began.

It was the most beautiful sound I have ever heard, and in that moment I was obsessed. My heart caught in my throat as this strange voice reached into the depths of my very soul, pulling out emotions I had long since buried. There were no lyrics, only notes somehow layered over each other, despite it being clear there was only one voice. It couldn't be human. No music had ever expressed such a yearning that hit so quickly to my core. I felt a huge pressure around me, as if I were diving deeper and deeper into something unknowable. And then the pressure was gone.

I wish I could say I felt guilty about what I did next, but that would be a lie.

I stole the cassette. And the player, and the papers, and a book on Greek mythology I found squashed in the bottom of the box. I flicked through the sketches, grabbing some anatomical drawings, and rifled through the photo albums. One photo stood out; I ripped it from its plastic enclosure and stuffed it in my bag.

And then I walked out, trying my hardest not to run. Even with the player in my bag, the song was still echoing in my head.

That was four days ago. I have called in sick to work each of those days.

I have not been sick.

I have been frantic.

I have been examining papers, looking up biological terminology I had no reason to understand before. Researching oceanic exploration, deep sea creatures, and even conspiracies like the aquatic ape. Matching the photo to image searches of the local coastline. I have been reading Greek mythology and tracking similar myths throughout time. I have spent four days with one song stuck in my head, calling to me.

The song lasts for the entirety of side B on the cassette. On side A, there are seven words spoken in a soft, quivering voice: “Come with me, Calliope. Come with me.”

It is the singer. I am sure of it.

Calliope must be the marine biologist.

Her papers are all so well written, so backed with scientific fact; at least, from what I can make of them. But I can see why they were never submitted for peer review.

Calliope was researching Sirens. The mythological women who lured sailors to their watery graves. Creatures who have somehow survived from ancient stories to modern media. Is their fictional pervasiveness based in fact? Calliope seemed to think so.

And that photo. It was an old square polaroid, the colour faded with age. It showed the head and shoulders of a woman in the ocean, behind a rocky outcrop. With the fading it was hard to tell, but her skin looked blue. And every time I looked at it, the song in my head got a little louder, the pull a little stronger.

I called in sick again. My manager texted to ask if I was all right. Instead of replying, I called the estate's lawyer.

Mr Whitcliffe was very confused when I told him I had come into some of Calliope's possessions through her son. Ms. Johnson was, he told me down the phone, a spinster. She never married and she certainly never had children who had been keeping her possessions in their spare room. Did I think they were valuable, he asked, stricken. No, I replied, trying to sound casual. Just some research papers. But she seemed like such a fascinating woman, based on her research, I implored, and didn't she live locally? Just down the coast? Was there any chance a fellow researcher could perhaps see her house, and any other papers the estate might hold?

Mr Whitcliffe was not happy about this. He was, he told me, unfortunately, a very busy man, in charge of several estates and accounts. He would not be able to meet me to tour her house. He paused. However, he saw no reason why I couldn't go to her house and look around the property- it was after all a lovely example of colonial architecture, and even boasted its own private cove. He gave me her address, and an awkward silence hung in the air.

I just had one last question, I said. What happened to Calliope? Oh, Mr Whitcliffe said, his tone suddenly soft. She drowned, in that cove. You be careful if you go out there, he told me. I said I would, and he hung up.

The two hours I spent waiting for my flatmate to get home so I could borrow their car felt like years. But then I was leaving and I was going and it felt right and the song in my head was louder and clearer than ever before and I almost didn't need my phone snapping directions at me the pull was so strong.

Come with me. Come with me.

The words turned over and over in my head as I navigated the curves of the peninsula, their pull thrumming in my ears.

Come where?

The road eventually led to a dead end, with a small gate the only sign of humanity amongst the flax and fern. I left the car and let the song lead me through the gate and down a steep gravel path. The cottage was small, all white worn wood with a sky blue door.

I knew the cottage would not contain the answers I was looking for.

The gravel path led down further among rocks and long grasses until it revealed the small cove, as promised. Large rocks lined the shore and I clambered over them, slipping as I fumbled in my pocket. I pulled out the stolen photo, the shoreline with the figure floating in the water. Holding it up, I jumped between rocks until the photo lined up with the coast and horizon. Here. It was here.

I lowered the photo, and was met by an almost exact replica as a head broke the surface of the water in the exact spot she had been photographed.

Did you know that only 15% of the ocean has been explored by humans? We have explored more of space, other planets and the stars than we have the water beneath our feet. Are we afraid? To sink below, where light can no longer penetrate? Would we rather explore far reaches of cosmos where we might never see another human again than dive into the Bathypelagic zone, the Abyssopelagic zone, into the trenches of the Hadalpelagic zone? Or were we stopped by some primal instinct that knew what ancient creatures of myth wait in the depths? Telling us this world below is not for us, that we must stay within sight of the bright reflective surface. We have always been afraid of the dark.

Stay above, so what lives below doesn't find you.

I am staring at what lives below.

She bobs in the water, and her head slowly cocks as she appraises me. I feel my own copy her movement. Her skin is a mottled blue-grey, her eyes abnormally large. Her hair floats gently around her and appears to have odd lights tangled through it. Bio-luminescent, they give her a compelling glow as she lies in wait. She moves slightly closer, and I see the tip of a tail breach the water behind her.
“What are you doing here?”

As I hear her voice, really hear it this time, I realise that for the first time in almost a week, the song in my head is silent. All I hear is my heart, pounding in my ears.

“Oh. I uh- I found the cassette.” I hold up the tape player, strapped to the waistband of my pants. “With your song.”

“Oh.” She says it softly, and a smile starts to play across her face. She moves closer still, right up to the edge of the rocks. “Did you like it?”

I am already nodding when I notice that behind her delicate smile is a row of needle sharp, pointed teeth. I feel my whole-body tense, my flight response trying to kick in. I want to step away. But she is beautiful in an ethereal, otherworldly way and I find my feet moving closer to the edge. Her wide eyes are dark pools, and I see myself reflected in them.

“I can sing you another?” She reaches out a hand and I see that her fingers are webbed, her nails sharp. But again I am nodding and suddenly I am on my knees before her, supplicant, my hands grasping the edge of the rock. Her hand rests atop mine. Not cold as I expected, but soft, and a little slimy, not unpleasant. This close I can see the gills on her throat move in and out as she breathes.
It doesn't even seem that her mouth moves as I hear a new song, full of that same yearning. Again there are no words, only layered melodies but I still derive their meaning. I feel the pull again. I feel the need to swim deeper than any person has before, to go past where light can reach. I will be safe there. Warm. Wanted. Home.

“Will you come with me?”

The break in the song pulls me back to reality and I feel myself pulling away, scrambling back up the rock. The hurt is palpable in her face. “Aren't you brave?”

I take a breath and shut my eyes.

I am a librarian. I am a historian. Is that not a type of explorer? What if, instead of finding new worlds in books, I could find one for myself?

“I can be brave,” I say.

Looking behind me for a rock that will be above the tideline I neatly stack my boots, rings, and the tape player. I take out my phone and ping my location to my flatmate so they can find their car, and then I sit it in my shoes. I turn around.

“Come with me.” She holds out a hand, imploring.

Again I kneel, and I take her hand in my own. Slowly pulls my hand, arm, and body into the water. As she pulls me close to her, I am not afraid. Her song sings again in my head and I know those teeth will not be used on me. Our noses are almost touching now.

“Come with me.” She whispers it into my ear.

And then I am pulled below.

Alumni poetry

Winner: Giles Graham

It Was Not the New World I Feared

I thank the Lord; it was not as we expected
From our first child:
The drowning sensation,

Taut days
Pressed as leaves from a fraught wilderness,
The anxiety undercurrent;

When, in open-mouthed anguish ,our second son
Drew a small and shuddered breath
The old grip of fear found

Instead, a cry soft as a plum falling in summer,
Smaller than a periwinkle,
Gentle as a pasta shell;

For the weight of the bedcovers on the first night;
For the coolness of dark;
For the same world I loved, just richer.

Alumni fiction

Winner: Rebecca Styles

Stock Levels

It's my job to match the facial recognition image to the customer's loyalty card data. Customers get scanned at the entrance and again at the checkout. Once they swipe their loyalty card we've got their face, name and shopping data.

 “It's to help stock levels,” David the manager, a balding middle-aged man with a beer belly says. The polo t-shirt of his uniform doesn't quite tuck in at the front, so you get occasional flashes of hairy belly when he reaches for anything.

 There's three of us matching faces to loyalty cards. My workmates Barb and Deb are eagle-eyed.

 “I think I know everyone in this town, now,” says Barb, the senior inputter.

 “But they don't know you,” says Deb, laughing.

 Barb and Deb have been working together for years. They sometimes call me their underling. I take it as a term of endearment. They do look after me. They take turns bringing in baking, and always make sure I take my breaks.

Through one-way black glass we can see the shop floor. The bank of checkouts, the displays of two-for-one chips for $3.99. A row of sanitary and beauty products faces the checkout – a security measure. They are the most frequently shoplifted items.

 When we've got a name from the loyalty card and image, we can bring up the customer's file which will have any previous warnings for shoplifting. Whether we let them off or call the police. Whether they've been banned. If we do clock someone coming in who's been banned, we ring security, and they escort them out.

 They scream usually, when that happens. Last week it was Verona Milne, 35. Her most purchased items were two litres of blue milk and cans of baked beans. Nappies are her most expensive item. She was caught stealing depilatory cream. When the security guard apprehended her, he said she smelt like off milk. She had screamed at him, “there's nowhere else to go, how am I going to feed my kids?”

 She's right. There is nowhere else to go. The closest supermarket is an hour's drive away. There's only two major chains and this one – where I work – bought up all the surrounding land so no competitors can open up nearby.

 You can only hope Verona has a friend who can do her shopping for her.

 There are customers we recognise straight away. Regulars.

 Teddy, the eighty-year-old, who comes in daily at 9 AM to buy a fresh half-loaf (white, unsliced). He scans the magazines, flicks through some pages, reads an article or two, but never buys one, before he heads to the checkout. Every Thursday he does a full shop which only fills up half a trolley. The items week-by-week are near exact. The three tins of whole tomatoes, 500g of mince, kidney beans and a sachet of chilli con carne mix. Three bananas and two apples. Easy cook rice – three sachets.

 The fluorescent lights shine on Teddy's head. He moves freely for an 80-year-old. He just lives around the corner. When we match his grocery data with his power data, we can confirm he's frugal. He only heats one room. The TV's on all day. The chilli con carne is on the stove for 40 minutes and the rice takes two minutes in the microwave. The bread he eats for breakfast and lunch. The toast pops up after two minutes – he likes it quite crisp.

 His data isn't as valuable as others. Data from households of three or more people is better to get an accurate picture of the larger population's habits, their wants and needs. What they do in their spare time, how long they're out at work, that's the data that gets the top price because it can be mined for so many variables. That's what David says anyway.

 While we send Teddy advertising on a more balanced diet – the analysis suggests he's not eating a variety of fruit and veg – others are sent more personal advice.

 To Tracy, a 45-year-old public servant and mum, we send skin-care advice. Her skin is prematurely aging – too many hours in the sun. The freckles and moles could turn cancerous if she doesn't take more care.

 In that way, it's saving the health care system valuable money. It's preventative. There are other teams who check on whether people are taking the advice.

 Some commentators say we have too much data, that it's using people's private information to punish them, but when it's saving money and people's health it's a bit hard to argue against.

 I've only been sent a few emails to correct my behaviour. They're for my own good, of course, I don't fight it when I get it. Not like some who don't even open the emails but delete them straight away. There's no point in that, really, we can tell when that happens. It just means someone will end up at your door to talk you through some corrective behaviour.

 I must work on eating more protein. It doesn't have to be meat, the email said, dairy and non-dairy options are available. I have been trying, but it's expensive, all the protein. I buy the recommended amount each week at the supermarket, though I don't get through it all sometimes, which is a terrible waste. And some days I just can't get it down. I nearly gag on the steak or chicken, but I get encouraging emails telling me I'm doing well. I don't feel any different – health wise – but the experts know best, I guess. They say I'll have more energy and feel fuller for longer.
 Barb asks me about my protein levels. She's meant to cut back on sugar because she's pre-diabetic, while Debs needs to get more exercise.

 “Easier said than done, I can tell you,” says Deb.

 She's not terribly overweight, just a bit of extra padding.

 “You've got to have something to fall back on,” says Deb.

 Ed, the morning fill supervisor, stops as he's passing. “You'll probably get an email saying that's a myth,” he jokes.

Ed starts work at 4 AM, Monday to Saturday. Sunday, they don't fill. At the end of every shift, at 8 AM, he comes up and chats to Barb in the office. He is quite short, just over five foot. He doesn't shave often, his facial hair is about a centimetre long, and grows down his neck over his Adam's apple. I wonder whether the display of testosterone the facial hair suggests is to compensate for his lack of height.

 He's friendly enough. “Alright kid,” is his greeting to everyone, except he calls Barb and David by their names.
Ed is always in charge of the toilet paper aisle. He fills it. He might get one of the younger ones to go up top and push some stock down, but he fills the shelf. He was always very particular about the right stock numbers – it must be packed.

 “There's always a run on it,” he said.

 The numbers back this up. From all the customer data, toilet paper is the one thing 95% of shoppers buy.

 No one likes to dwell on the toilet habits of the other 5%.

 “There can't be that many bidets?” Ed said.

 The morning fill are filmed, of course. Yet there are a few blind spots in the supermarket. A few corners where the cameras don't reach. One is in the corner of the bakery – by the packs of pita bread. The other is in the first aisle, down by the toilet paper. They've tried many different angles to get a camera on the area, to no avail. Aside from installing another camera for those spots, but the manager said that would be overkill.

 “What could anyone possibly get away with in that tight spot,” David asks.

 Barb is always early to work.

 “It just gives me a chance to catch my breath,” she'll say when asked why she is so early. “A chance to have a cuppa in peace.” Her two grown-up sons are at home, and one of them has a partner and baby who are living there, too. “It's a madhouse some days,” Barb says smiling.

 After her cuppa she'll go over the tapes, just to see if anything untoward happened overnight.

 “Things have gone missing in the past,” she says.

“What happens to the people who are banned, like Verona?” I ask Barb. It has been playing on my mind at random moments. Like when I'm cooking tea or standing at the lights waiting for the cross signal.

 “Oh, I wouldn't worry about her. I'm sure someone is looking after her.” Barb turns around to face me from her screen where she had just identified someone at the checkout.

 “But who?”

 “Family, most likely. I'm sure she's not starving.” Barb picked up her tea and took a sip. “Why are you so worried about her?”

 “Well, she had kids, didn't she? I mean, it's not just her, but anyone banned. The nearest store is miles away.”

 “Yes, it's a shame, alright. But what can you do?” She shrugs her shoulders and turns back to the screen. “She shouldn't have nicked stuff.”

Ed doesn't turn up for work on Monday. Barb looks worried.

 “Where the hell is he? This isn't like him at all.”

 When he doesn't turn up on Tuesday, she starts calling round, and trawling through data. She put requests into central data support for any recent sightings.

 “They say they don't have any sightings,” Barb said. She looks on the verge of tears. “The bastards have got him.”

 “What?” I was surprised she swore and unsure who it was that had him.

 Deb swears, too. “Jesus Christ, what will we do?”

 The pair stare at each other, and I know I'm missing something but I'm too scared to ask what. They turn to me at the same time.

 “How would you feel doing a morning shift, just to fill in until Ed's back,” asks Barb.

 It feels like they are sizing me up. I'm about the same height as Ed, just a bit thinner.

 “Well, if that'll help, sure.”

 “Good. I'll meet you at the side door at 4 tomorrow morning,” said Barb.

 I go to protest, she doesn't need to meet me, but the intensity of her stare keeps me silent.

 “I asked you cos you seemed concerned about people,” says Barb the following morning standing outside the door to the stock room.

 “Right?” I was puzzled, I didn't think you needed to be worried about people to fill some shelves.

 “Now, before we go in, I need to explain a few rules.”

 The air was brisk, and it was so dark, Barb's voice was disembodied.

 “You need to do what I say, no questions asked. And what you see in there, you can't tell anyone, or else you might disappear like Ed did, okay?”

 I nod, which of course Barb can't see in the dark.


 “Yes, of course.” This obviously isn't just about filling some shelves.

 The other morning fill staff look at me with suspicion, while Barb says good morning to everyone.

 “Right, so you'll be on toilet paper later, okay?”

 “Sure,” I said, not really knowing if that was a good or bad thing.

 “I'll help you this morning, and then you'll be on your own.”

 It was what I expected, at the start. I filled up the beans, dried pasta and canned soup. Then Barb takes me to the toilet paper aisle. There's a gap in the toilet paper. It almost looks like a door to an igloo. It's just big enough for me to go into.

 “Right, you go on through there,” said Barb.

 I crouch down and go through the opening. I was just expecting to see more toilet paper, but what I find are stacks of canned food, milk powder, pasta and rice. I turn back to Barb, who follows me into the gap with some difficulty. She is taller and a bit wider than me. Her body not as pliable in small spaces.

 “It's for all the people who get banned. We bag it up and send it out.”

 At the far end of the cave is a door leading out to the stock room. It's on camera, but every morning Barb wipes the footage from that area.

 “How does the food get in here?”

 “Well, it comes out of the stock room, and some boxes just don't get put on the shelf. It's a camera blind spot at the loo paper, so every filler drops off a box on the way to the shelf. Ed would sort it and bag it up, ready to be shipped out.”

 “How long has this been going on?”

 “It's best you don't know. But you can put your mind at ease about banned shoppers – we're looking after them.”

 “But doesn't David notice the stock levels?”

 “Ed fudges the numbers. Some of the drivers don't note it's come off the truck. There are ways.”

 After my initial surprise, I got down to work putting groceries into bags.

 The head of accounts was in on it, too. She'd make sure the stocktake figures married with what had been sold.

 “All the health tips they give us have made us so sharp we know how to get around the system,” Barb laughs.

 So began my covert morning fill.

 We never saw Ed again. Barb said he'd been in touch with her.

 “He could feel them circling, so he went off-grid. We won't see him anytime soon,” she said.

 She had a worried look in her eyes. Whether that was from missing Ed or wondering whether she'd have to do the same thing one day, I wasn't sure.

 “What would they do, if they got him?”

 “They don't share that data,” she shrugs. “No one really knows what happens to people who try to live off-grid. They're not valuable, then, if they're not producing data to be sold. They're expendable.”

 I nod, knowing that one day I could be expendable, too.

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