Swanwick Short Story Competition 2023 - Winner

Sonia Haddad

5.5 on the Richter Scale
Swanwick Short Story Competition 2023


Sonia's story is the winning entry in the short fiction category of the Swanwick Writers' Summer School Win Your Way to Swanwick Creative Writing Competition 2023, run in conjunction with Writing Magazine.

5.5 on the Richter Scale By Sonia Haddad

The inky black sea laps against the rocks of the jetty, deep, dark, you could easily disappear beneath it’s oily surface, be swallowed up peacefully. It’s just a fleeting thought, less than a second, absurd when you look down into the buggy at your child, asleep, protected with a mosquito net, with your absolute love.
You push on towards the clubhouse, all lit up. He’s inside playing tric-trac, drinking beer, probably sneaking out the back to smoke hashish while you do the rounds, walking aimlessly. You’re an empty shell, no weight at all, the body of a teenager, not a woman, he said. You can’t keep weight on; you put cream in your coffee, eat Muhallabieh or Manoosh, (how the club ladies, gossiping over Fattoush salad to kill time, envy you). You smoke L&Ms on the balcony with the glass sliding door shut so you can watch over the child while keeping out the fumes. Later, you will open the chilled Kefraya wine, then watch another glorious sun slip swiftly beneath the waves.
You gave up the cigarettes first thing yesterday morning but then the milk incident happened. That’s all it took; all motivation was gone yet again. It shouldn’t be like this, you know that. The child is curious, playful, all children climb out of cots, don’t they?  Poor baby opened the large tins of Nido, the kitchen was like a snowstorm, white stuff everywhere, the ants already tucking in. You should have laughed together cleaning up the mess, but he didn’t want to smile. You were still in bed, oblivious, when he steamed in, dragging you from under the sheet. He hurt your arm, pushed you against the wall, screaming in your face while the terrified child cried. And then, even worse, he threw you out of the apartment in your dressing robe, calling you a pute. You could feel the neighbours from across the hall gawking through their peephole at you, the foreigner. When he let you back in, he was calmer, but the red eyes gave it away. Leaving for work, he knocked over the hall table and lamp before slamming the door.
Bad daddy said the child. All you could do was cuddle and kiss and cuddle some more. In the evening, it was as if nothing had happened. Why should you be upset? Why the big face? Most men give their wives a few slaps.
You keep walking round the Sporting Club, yachts jangle softly together. Tomorrow, you think, I’ll start again tomorrow.
He wants rid of you both even if the child remains something to threaten you with. Once he said he could throw you over the balcony. It’s the early nineties, no one talks about abusive relationships or coercive behaviour, so you don’t understand what is happening. You grow thinner every day and tired. Some days you just lie on the bed with the child, giggling together in your own little bubble where monsters are forbidden.
You have tried to stop the cigarettes but every time he mocks you, his spiteful sneering sends you straight to the L&Ms. Sleep gives some respite, but it’s laden with dreams that have you tossing and turning. Today you wake to the early morning soft grey, forgetting for a second. The shutters closed just enough to let in a few slithers of light into the bedroom. He lies next to you a million miles away. You hear a noise; it begins like a rumble as if the road is lined with lorries moving slowly uphill, carrying heavy rocks whose weight makes the ground shudder. You creep out into the bathroom as the noise gradually grows louder, and then you realise as the whole building starts to shake, things fall off the bathroom shelf onto the tiled floor, crashing. You run to the other bedroom, lifting your sleeping child from his cot until the trembling stops within seconds. Later, everyone is talking about it, they say it was 5.5 on the Richter Scale, some damage to buildings in the city centre but they are still standing, a few mild aftershocks. You watch the news, understanding nothing except what he translates for you. He is subdued today with the hashish and the earthquake, leaving late for work, disturbing your routine, your peaceful time alone with the child.  No words are exchanged between you; two strangers in a huis clos. You can’t remember why it came to this.
You are like the buildings in the city centre; some damage but you are still standing, just about.
 This evening, the L&Ms are calling from the kitchen table, inviting in their shiny red and white packet, the light brown filter tips waiting to be kissed. You enjoy the ritual of holding the packet in one hand, your Dupont lighter ready to spark up, enjoy the curling smoke weaving its way upwards. After yesterday’s mishap, any flicker of belief in him was extinguished. Today’s quake has triggered something, yes, you are weakened, but you still have enough strength to push on, you have your child. You walk over to temptation that has tried to goad you all day, and taking the packet, you crush it, you use scissors to further cut up the offending sticks. No one will ever drag you from your bed again, no one will scream in your face, and you will never ever smoke another cigarette. You know that because you have a new hope inside, a feeling of a different life in the future. You have read it only takes seventy-two hours to lose dependency on nicotine, after that it is purely psychological. In seventy-two hours, you will be free, you will have already started a new life. You survived 5.5 on the Richer Scale, with a few aftershocks. Standing on the balcony, you hold the child in your arms as you both look out towards the sea, to the horizon. A gentle wind blows from the Sahara, no sand, even the mosquitoes are quiet tonight.

Judges Comments

The runners up in this year's contest were:

• Second: Split-nose Jenny by Stephen Welsh

• Third: Park by Deborah Smith