from the editor's desk

‘Tissue Paper Skin’ by Kelly Harrison

The Edith Cowan University’s School of Arts and Humanities’ creative writing prize, the Talus Prize, gives ECU undergraduate students the chance to explore their creativity and express themselves through poetry or short fiction. Prizes are awarded to the most outstanding works in two categories, ‘Short Stories’ and ‘Poetry’. The Talus Prize is open to enrolled ECU undergraduate students across all campuses from any discipline.

The Talus was established in 1971 by the School of Arts and Humanities’ writing staff, led by Professor Glen Phillips who continues to support the prize today. Westerly is proud to support the Talus Prize alongside our friends at The Peter Cowan Writers Centre and Fremantle Press.

‘Tissue Paper Skin’ by Kelly Harrison won First Prize in the short story category for the 2021 Talus Prize. We’re thrilled to share this excellent work with you on our Editor’s Desk blog here.

Carefully, I run the clippers through the snowy white hair. A thin downy halo around a skull marked with liver spots. Tissue paper skin a reminder of the vulnerability spawned by time.
 So much about end of life is similar to the beginning. The soft wisps of hair that fluff about the ears, the tender skin on top of the head; the smell of soap and powder not quite masking the faint smell of urine. Being fed and naptimes. Someone else knowing what is best for you as you navigate the fluidity of each passing day.
 Gently, I fold the top of Brian’s ear back to get to the hairs bristling from what used to be healthy sideburns. He sits quietly, towel tucked neatly under his chin to stop the loose hair falling down the back of his dressing gown. Silver tufts fall silently to the white tiled floor.
 I unplug the clippers, careful not to knock the Call-for-Nurse button. At the same time I wonder, would they hurry? Or would it be just one of many buttons to be answered during the afternoon shift? The dying room, Brian calls it. A bed, chair, a little cabinet, a little table. Everything on wheels so that it can be moved out of the way in the event of an emergency. Just enough personal effects to make it personal but not too many that they wouldn’t all fit into a box labelled Resident’s Belongings—To Be Collected—Ward B, Room 43.
 Untucking the towel, I notice Brian has fallen asleep. Eyes closed, hands loose in his lap. Feeling like an intruder, I watch him doze. Weathered skin sags with each line of grief running from his mouth to his chin. Turning away, I drop the comb into the sink and turn the tap on, creating just enough noise to give him a chance to stir, dignity made intact.
 When Edith’s dementia worsened, Brian’s role in anchoring her mind became more and more important. What room is this? When am I going home? Who is that visitor? What medication are they giving me? Why are people hurting me? His quiet assurances never wavered. Even as she recoiled from him in fear when he, too, became a stranger in her betraying mind.
 I remember not long before Edith’s mind left completely, she said to me, ‘Every now and then, Julie, I remember everything. I remember everything that is real and everything that isn’t. And then I realise, my mind is tricking me, every day replacing what is real with what is not. And I’m so scared, Julie. What will happen when all my memories are gone, will I be gone too?’
 I held her hand and said, ‘Never.’ But inside, I was just as frightened as her, trying to imagine the monster in her mind robbing her of memories and slowly replacing them with madness.
 ‘All done, Brian.’ Returning to the present, I untuck the towel and brush away a few stray hairs that have settled in the folds of his shirt collar.
 I carefully help him out of the chair to the bed. ‘Would you like to go for a drive down by the river?’ This monthly ritual has become precious, and I am reluctant to relinquish it too soon.
 Shuffling out of his slippers, Brian settles back into the pillows and readjusts his hearing aids. ‘Not today, Julie, I’m a bit tired. Might just have a lie down now.’

Kelly Harrison is an aspiring author currently living and working in Perth, Western Australia. After many years living in the Pilbara, Goldfields and Wheatbelt regions of Western Australia, Kelly discovered a love of writing about place and the people that thrive in often harsh environments.

She confidently draws on her experiences and aims to give voice to the quiet moments that often slip past unnoticed. Kelly is currently using her writing skills in the private sector undertaking a Strategic Projects role but is hoping to return to creative writing soon.

The full list of 2021 Talus Prize winners:

First Prize – ‘Thanks Again’ by Andrew James Macleod
Highly Commended – ‘Hometown’ by Donita Cruz
Commended – ‘Yesterday’ by Seth Christopher Barne

Short Story
First Prize – ‘Time’ (renamed ‘Tissue Paper Skin’) by Kelly Harrison
Highly Commended – ‘Licking the Virgin’ by Andrew James Macleod
Commended – ‘You’ by Courtney Guagliardo

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