5 October 2023
FICTION Winner Grace Sweet – Hachette Australia Prize for Young Writers 2023
Grace Sweet’s story Paper Plates has been awarded The 2023 Hachette Australia Prize for Young Writers in the category of Fiction. Grace was presented with the award online at the National Young Writers Festival at a special event, and won a $500 cash prize, an exclusive book pack from Hachette Australia and acknowledgement of their winning entry in Express Media’s flagship publication Voiceworks.
Read Grace’s winning piece below.
Heavy, dense clouds finally move forward on the horizon after 1859 days of drought. At first, the gentle pitter-patter sounds like the corrugated, iron roof expanding under the sun. It’s only when drops run down the window that I bother looking up. The heavens open up and water pours into empty tanks, streams down hills and pools on top of the dusty ground. An earthy scent drifts up and the sharp smell of eucalyptus layers the air, as the gum’s sigh with relief. It’s like suddenly I’m seeing the world through a lens finally focussing; shapes sharpen, no longer blending, and colours emerge I’d forgotten existed.
I reach my hand out of the window, drops of water prick my fingers. Similar to the pricking of my ears at the sound of my fathers sobs that morning 1427 days ago.
The first time I saw my father cry, my world became a little darker and a little more frightening. His gentle face hardened as he fought off an emotion he didn’t want witnessed.
Throwing his hat to the ground, he kicked the dust that used to be green pasture. Tears streaked down his dusty face, creating grooves and crevasses that mirrored the land around us.
A moth flapped in my windpipe.
He’d taken a risk, keeping on the 1500 head of cattle, praying for a break in the weather. He’d lost the gamble.
I watched as he entered the shed, the furrows on his forehead growing deeper, his lips pressed into a thin, straight line. Placing the shotgun in the back of his ute, his face was one of grim resolve.
Gunshots rang through the air that afternoon at a steady beat, like the rhythm of a funeral march, each one sending a shudder through my body.
That was the first day of 432 where dad was forced to wash blood from his hands, never having enough water to scrub it from beneath his fingernails.
He became more like a shadow than a man in the passing months, as the land scarred, clawing itself for water. Hills shifted into mounds of dirt and a faint breeze threatened to coat everything in a layer of dust. Mighty trees became skeletons and animals road kill as they ventured to lick dew off the bitumen road.
We showered in town at a friend’s house that morning. Though dad got the dirtiest he never joined us for this new habit. They tried to make their cheerfulness infectious, but clutching at our toiletries bag it was hard to offer anything but weak smiles. Eventually, the water turned brown and stank of mud as the town dam shrank to a puddle.
Mistrust in the world settled in further each day we went without rain, and I learnt that life has no certainties and nothing in Australia is done in moderation. Cruel, dark clouds taunted the dry, cracked land as they banked on the horizon. But no one said they think it’ll rain. Only the visiting city-goers would venture to make such a foolish and risky observation.
Mum saw a flyer for free water at the showgrounds and while in town we joined the long line of cars that snaked down the street. Each car contained grief-stricken faces, though no one had died, and looking at my mum’s grey, lined one I realised we didn’t look all that different. We reached the front and a woman who called us “darlin’” and “lovey” commanded two men to fill our boot with 15L containers of water.
Mum and I carried the plastic tub that served as our sink outside in the evening, the heat of the day threatening to evaporate any water before a plant could soak it up. If any of the grey, murky water sloshed over the rim mum would let out a sharp “careful!”. Her prize-winning rose bushes greedily sucked up any moisture. I noticed the edge of their leaves starting to curl and brown. I learnt the difference between necessity and luxury; water is a necessity and 10 heirloom rose bushes a luxury.
Dad came home late that night, expressions flickering across his face as constant as waves on the surface of the ocean, his dinner cold on the paper plate.
Lying in bed, I could feel the world move beneath me and clearly perceive our house becoming out of rhythm. The chasm between my parents grew bigger each passing day, as the hope of rain diminished. My skin was sticky beneath the sheets, I could feel each layer of sweat and dirt distinctly. At night my thoughts ran a million miles an hour. A farmer had died in a single vehicle car crash the previous night. He went out at 11pm and just drove, crashing into a tree 20 minutes from their house. Whispers circled down the hallways at school for weeks.
While inside the silence was deafening, outside, barks of wild, hungry dogs and pitiful mewls of weak cows echoed through our property. Dad yelled a curse, a weight curling into the pit of my stomach, and he stomped outside, the ute skidding away. Mum called his name. The air bit at my lungs as I forced myself to breathe normally. I could hear her crying in the room next door and I wanted to go out but my limbs were tense, as if a spring had been wound up inside me, and thoughts flew through my mind, not a single one slowing enough for me to comprehend any. Shouting carried through my open window, the words indistinguishable, a horn blared, and dogs barked. A single gunshot jolted me out of my stupor and I raced into the arms of mum, curling into her lap.
The night was silent at last.
Together, we waited up for dad, fear choking any words we would use to comfort one another. A far-off rumble of a ute pushed mum from the chair and onto the front porch. She cried and screamed at him when he emerged from the dark vehicle.
In the morning a wild dog was strung up by its hind leg outside our long driveway.
I hear laughter outside; the sound foreign to my ears. Looking out I watch as mum and dad dance in the dirty puddles, splashing grainy water at each other. The moth in my throat gives way to a giggle and I join them outside.