The Writing Quarter February 2021 Competition Winner

Posted 3 weeks ago under Uncategorised,

Kevin McGowan is a writer based in Scotland. He has had numerous poems and short stories published. His first chapbook, ‘Eastern Thistles’, was printed by Hybrid Press (Dreich) in 2020.

Keelung Dragons

The tea eggs jostled in the bag as I quickened my pace to avoid another scooter. In the park across the street, giggling children hung from the climbing frame like castaways from a raft, squeezing that last bit of fun out of another short-lived summer’s day. The June sky was a premature black, but still hot. For every minute I wasn’t blinking vinegary sweat droplets out of my eyes, I was re-reading the text message. Again and again. Thirty-six hours and I hadn’t yet replied.

No, not ‘yet’; ‘yet’ implied that I would, in time, answer. I was the type to leave people on ‘seen’, that digital social faux pas extending even to family. And what an odd, seemingly contradictory, complexity I found in myself – I wouldn’t respond to my own mother from a different continent, but was fine to stand and teach English to a class of thirty-two kids every week.

Not that I’d done that either since the text. Called in, at least, but that stuff didn’t fly here.

If I wasn’t back in shortly, I would be out permanently.

Missing a day was a minor guilt trip in itself; the children were so earnest and attuned. I believed that was the only reason I could bear to do the job at all. Either sniggering and projectile warfare simply didn’t exist in this little island’s schools or I had landed lucky.
I stopped to sit on a crooked bench, only five minutes from my apartment.

Whoever invented luck, anyway? What a feeble concept.

I peeled one of the tea eggs and, biting in, was pleased to find that it had gone cold.
Humidity rippled through me again.

The Taoist temple opposite stood as if in silent contemplation of itself, its stillness tangible. Cars and scooters zipped past, their headlights throwing ornate dragon faces into reality. Flash after flash after flash, lighting up the night with exquisitely carved fangs.

Like a phone screen illuminated with unwanted texts.

Dad has been in an accident. He’s in critical. Can you come home?

*

It was with a fleeting jolt of relief that I rolled out of bed and into Saturday. A non-school day, and so, a little more time to beat my yolky mess of thoughts into some kind of form.

Instant noodles passing for breakfast, I took to the streets. Even at 8am, the day was a furnace and I was of half a mind to perform a rain dance right there in the middle of the zebra crossing. But the Xiaolüren was striding and the timer ticking down, so I put survival first.

I never suspected to miss the slanting, spiteful downpours of my birth land, but I needed that mirror: not just the rain, but the damp hills, cold lochs, the dreich grey towns and cities of the central belt. I didn’t want to go back, but I somehow needed the truth of its occasional misery. I could not see myself here; could not search myself.

And yet, it was this country, not that one, which I loved.

After what felt a long time, I came in a dripping daze to Dazhi Bridge.

The locale had become something of a comfort spot when life’s chaos rose from dormancy. As now, I’d lean over the railing of the pedestrian lane and water-gaze my way back to calm; a day-time counterpart to watching the stars – which you could never see in the city, anyhow.

Today, like most days, the Keelung River was mostly opaque. The sun laboured through the smog just enough to dapple the water with the sky’s secret blue, like a scattering of sapphires thrown from above in gratuitous offering.

My eyes roved the grassy banks. A man with a paintbrush was touching up the green scales of a dragon boat. Soon the holidays would begin and, with them, the annual festival race.

There’d be no school. No excuse.

‘Ni hao.’

A woman stood to my left. She was verging on old, her black perm laced with grey – what the younger generations respectfully referred to as an auntie.

I nodded. ‘Ni hao.’

She looked pointedly at my hands on the railing. ‘You are okay?’

‘Yes. Okay. Xièxie.’

‘But crying.’

‘Ah, no. No, no. Sweat.’ I wiped my arm across my forehead.

‘Hmm.’

‘Will you be going to the dragon boat festival?’ I asked, gesturing to the painter.

‘Always go.’ She smiled. ‘You know meaning of dragon?’

‘Luck, isn’t it?’ That word again.

‘Yes. See dragon, bring good luck. Where you are from?’

‘The UK.’ I hesitated. ‘Scotland.’

‘Wow, very far. Alone?’

‘Yes.’

‘Keep look for dragon.’ Smiling again, she began to move on.

And that appeared to be that, until she turned to say:

‘Crying okay. Okay.’

I watched her cross the bridge, grocery bags swinging at her side, then returned my wavering focus to the river. Before I knew it, the last rays of hidden sun had been blotted out by self-designed night.

The dragon boat sat steeped in shadow, untouched by the ceaseless glow of overhead traffic.

With a long, unsteady sigh, I took my phone from my pocket and typed.
How’s he doing?

*

Sunday brought rain. It fell straight and neat, drumming off lanterns and parked scooters. The growing gutter puddles bubbled and crossings streamed as the city glistened. I pushed through the torrential frenzy, umbrella erect, thankful for a temporary end to stifling clamminess.

Taxis, like exotic fish, slipped in neon streaks through this new water world. I could have caught one to the bridge, but wanted to go on foot. Walking had a way of leaving things to fate or chance or another of their cousins. And it afforded you the time and space to really think.

Too many people would drive everywhere to save time – and they did, but at the cost of time that mattered. Time management was seen as control. And then, as always, the storm wreaked havoc, regardless.

Maybe there was something to be said for luck and those who prescribed to it. Less self-destruction ensued in the passenger seat.

But that might’ve just been me sidestepping the situation again.

A half hour later, I was back at Dazhi Bridge.

I was and she wasn’t.

It made sense that she’d be less inclined to be out and about in such weather.

The minutes trickled away beneath my umbrella. I grasped the wet railing and peered down into the river.

Grey, churning and whipped into the closest to a frenzy that I’d ever seen it, I was fondly reminded of those vicious little burns frothing through the woods of home.

I was still caught up in its hypnotic turmoil when it happened.

Beneath the throes of the surface, barely visible, a long slender shadow snaked.
The slightest reversion to a coiled state as it moved, the inexplicable length …

I blinked. The rain thundered.

It was gone.

I searched, for almost an hour I searched, but could discern no shape from the carnage. Not long after that, the clouds began to migrate.

I considered crossing the bridge, but decided to go back.

My phone dinged in my jeans pocket.

A text.

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