Mercury and Sulphur

The following piece of fiction won the Tooth Soup Prize and subsequently appeared in Award Winning Australian Writing. More information about both of these excellent things can be found at the bottom of this post.

Her name is Vermilion.

He resists the urge to tell her that vermilion isn’t actually a name, it’s a pigment. Instead he decides to tell her that his name is Paul and then goes back to sipping cheap wine out of a plastic cup.

She waits a moment to see if he’s going to say anything else and, when he doesn’t, she continues the conversation she was having with her friend. Paul doesn’t move. He wants quite a lot to walk away from the painful awkwardness of this situation but his brain seems to have gone into meltdown. Walking has suddenly become a rather more manual operation. It’s a lot harder to walk when you actually have to think about it. He doesn’t go anywhere.

She’s pretty. That’s what struck him about her initially. She looked mysterious from the other side of the room. Up close she looks like she’s wearing too much eyeliner. Also she’s taller than Paul, which he finds irrationally off-putting.

He stands on the periphery of her circle and continues to drink so that he has something to do. This is probably a bad idea. His head is starting to spin a little bit. But the wine tastes better than it did at the start of the evening so that’s a plus. Paul is suddenly very aware that he has arms. This is very irritating. Arms are supposed to just do their job quietly. Instead his mind is very conscious of where he’s putting them. He sees one of Vermilion’s friends giving him a strange look. He quickly looks at the floor and takes a too-large gulp of wine. It gets caught in his throat. Were he alone in his room right now he would proceed to have a satisfying coughing fit. Instead he has to try really, really hard not to cough. This hurts. Paul spends a moment getting very cross at himself for his inability to drink without causing himself injury. He’s sure regular people don’t have this problem.

Paul wonders where Richard is. Right now it doesn’t look like he has any friends but he definitely does. This party was Richard’s idea. In fact, Richard was quite insistent that Paul should forsake any previous plans in favour of it. Paul’s previous plans for the evening involved lying on the floor of his room eating chocolate pudding and listening to his collection of autobiographies on cassette. He had been rather looking forward to it. Currently he’s listening to Mein Kampf. So far this party is not worth giving that up for.
Bloody Richard. His desertion doesn’t exactly come as a surprise but that doesn’t make Paul any less bitter about it. Paul and Richard went to school together. They were comrades. Comrades of the kind that stick together even when they grow up and go to university and subsequently realise they have almost nothing in common.

‘Vermilion,’ Paul says, in the imaginary conversation he and this woman are now having in his head, ‘is toxic. It’s made by mixing mercury and sulphur together.’
The imaginary version of this woman throws her head back and laughs. Paul finds it very difficult to believe any woman would react that way on being told her name smells unpleasant and causes insanity. He scolds his imagination for being so unrealistic.
He should probably be paying more attention to the actual conversation. His chances of being able to contribute would be much higher if he had some idea what was going on.

‘You know that bit between the train carriages?’ Vermilion is saying (in reality). ‘That part in the middle? Yeah, that bit. That’s where she got mugged.’
It’s called a vestibule. There is a tiny second between this insight entering Paul’s mind and the fear setting in, during which he could have actually told them about the vestibule. But he misses the opportunity and thinking about it makes it more and more difficult to muster the courage to utter any words at all. Then he realises that it probably wasn’t the kind of insight that would have advanced the conversation anyway. It seems quite unlikely that the group would be keen on discussing trains.

Paul likes trains. He likes that the people who work on them always seem to be cheerful. It must be nice to spend your days chugging through the countryside. Do electric trains still chug? Paul isn’t sure. They still make a kind of chugging noise. Paul would be a rail worker except that he likes words more than he likes trains and so he’s going to be a librarian instead. People at parties don’t tend to find his prospective career very interesting. Not even when Richard tells them.

Paul realises that he’s done that thing where he drifts off and stops being aware of what’s happening. During his absence Vermilion seems to have walked off. One of her friends is still standing nearby riffling through her bag. Paul ignores her and goes in search of more cheap wine. He skips slightly, almost falls over and makes a mental note not to skip slightly anymore. Someone might see him. Although, if they did see him, they might put any uncoordination down to drunkenness. This pleases Paul.
It occurs to him that basically everything he has done at this party (feel awkward, get slightly drunk, fail to get off with a girl) could easily have been done in the comfort of his own home. Plus he could have done them while eating pudding and listening to Mein Kampf. He wishes Richard was around so he could point this out to him.

Finally, Paul does spot Richard. He’s across the room talking to a girl who he appears to have backed into a corner. Paul would feel sorry for her but, judging by the way she is giggling, he assumes she doesn’t mind. Richard tends to have that effect on girls. It’s probably the fringe. Richard has a long fringe. Girls like that sort of thing. Paul would be willing to bet up to five dollars on Richard having his tongue down this particular girl’s throat within ten minutes. He checks his watch and makes a note.

Paul locates the table with the chips on it. He crouches down and fills his plastic cup from a cask of wine that is balanced precariously on the edge of the table. A fairly substantial amount ends up on his shoes. It seeps gently into the canvas and makes his socks wet. Paul stands sipping his wine and watching the liquid spread slowly across the laces. He wiggles his toes.

When he looks up there’s a girl standing beside the table with the chips on it. It’s obvious that she has been watching him from the way she glances quickly away. There are far too many girls at this party. It’s not that Paul doesn’t like girls; they just make him feel uncomfortable. He does his best to grab a handful of chips without making eye contact. They both stand leaning against the table, eating chips with one hand and holding plastic cups with the other. Paul can’t decide if this is more or less awkward than the evening’s previous encounter with a female. At least he has something to do with his hands this time. He wonders if this one has a silly name as well.

She’s got blond hair of the slightly mousy variety and extremely long eyelashes. He isn’t sure why he notices the eyelashes.
She catches Paul glancing sideways at her.
‘They’re barbecue,’ says the girl, waving her right hand (the one with the chips in it). ‘But they don’t seem to have anything else.’

Paul winces slightly. He can’t think of anything to say. He can’t even think of witty things to say to the imaginary girls in his head; how is he supposed to deal with the real thing? He settles for smiling awkwardly and then shoves five chips into his mouth. They are barbecue flavour. He doesn’t like barbecue flavour .
Paul blinks at the girl. He must be able to think of something intelligent to say to her. Anything at all. The acceptable response time is rapidly ticking away.

‘Did you know the bit between train carriages is called a vestibule?’
There is a pause. The kind of pause that really only lasts a second or so but which is long enough for Paul to contemplate crawling under the table with the chips on it and never coming out again.
‘Isn’t it a great word?’ she blurts. She quickly closes her mouth again.
‘Vestibule,’ she says more tentatively ‘Isn’t it a great word?’
Paul nods. He has now entered uncertain territory. His abysmal attempt at conversation seems to have worked. This is a rather unexpected turn of events.
‘What?’ he looks at her again, willing his brain to catch up with her train of logic.
‘Spoon … is a really … good word.’
Paul has never really thought about the word spoon. It’s such an ordinary word. She’s right, though. It is good. Paul panics slightly and looks at the floor. She’s wearing canvas sandshoes. They match his shoes. They don’t match her dress.

There is a significant pause but it is a less awkward one. Paul feels as though they have scaled some kind of mountain together. Or maybe not a mountain. Perhaps just a small hill. They have scaled a grassy little hill together, emerging on  the summit just as the sun is rising. Paul gives himself a mental slap for getting sidetracked.
‘I’m Paul.’
‘I’m Ginny.’
Another pause.
‘That’s a nice name. Is it short for—’
‘Virginia. But I don’t really like being called that.’

There can’t be a lot of girl names that start with a ‘V’, surely. What are the chances of encountering two at one party? Paul tries to work out the maths involved but he thinks that there must be a lot of factors that would affect the result and also he’s never been much good at maths. Besides, Vermilion isn’t even a real name.
‘Did you know that Paul means small?’ says Ginny.
She blushes very hard. Paul smiles. It’s an involuntary kind of smile. He blames the wine.
‘Also,’ she adds, in an obvious attempt to regain some control of the situation, ‘it means modest. I think it’s Latin.’
Paul smiles some more. She notices this and, ever so carefully, smiles back.
Paul looks over at Richard and then down at his watch. He mentally awards himself five dollars.


The Tooth Soup Prize is a pretty excellent thing. Phill English set up the prize and funds it out of his own pocket, purely because he wants to support and promote new writing. So often entering a writing prize feels like throwing your work (and often your cash) into a black hole. Tooth Soup has a real (and very nice) person behind it and that makes the submission process so much less intimidating. Plus, for a mere $5 donation you can get feedback about your entry, whether you win or not! Seriously, I’m so enamoured with the whole thing.
The second round of the prize has just been announced. You can check out the winning stories and find our more about the prize here. Follow Tooth Soup on Twitter for updates and to hear when the next round is open for your entries.

Award Winning Australia Writing is an annual anthology showcasing, well, Australian writing that has won things. While that might sound a little intimidating, one of the great things about this anthology is the way it places big name awards alongside smaller ones (like Tooth Soup). Submission is free and is open to any piece which has placed first in a writing prize over the last year. Submissions for the 2013 anthology are now open. Find out more about the anthology and how to submit here.

Further reading

December – home

I spent the first minutes of 2018 on the beach. I’ve never actually spent New Year