2014 Adults’ Short Story Competition Winners
We received a wonderful assortment of high quality stories and it was an extremely difficult exercise for our judges to choose the final ten. We thank everyone who entered and are sorry if your story wasn’t shortlisted but that doesn’t mean that you scored badly. The marks were just extremely close, sometimes with only one point between them.
The winning stories are attached below together with Hilary’s critiques. Hilary sent a message stating “I have finished reading the stories and made my decision, although it has not been an easy one. As you say, the standard is very high”.
“Grunewald” by Julie Hayman of Bath, Somerset
This is a very well written story. The structure is clever, with the fog at the climax of the action echoed by the green mist of the poison gas. I was a bit worried at first, as you seemed to be killing off your protagonist before the story had started; but I understood what you intended as I read on. Fred is psychologically believable, his violence springing from the insinuations of cowardice planted in his mind by the recruiting officer. There is a twist to the end of the tale; we expect that Fred’s mother will refuse her permission for him to join up and he will disobey her. In the event, it is she who orders him to go. Finally his death, succumbing to the gas, is seen as a just punishment for his attack on Elsa. The climax of the story is made more powerful by the use of pathetic fallacy in your description of the woods at night, which has an almost Gothic flavour.
One of two minor quibbles.
‘he’d sickly crossed’. You should not put the adverb between the noun and the verb. And I’m not sure you can use ‘sickly as an adverb, anyway. ‘He’s crossed in sickness’ might be better.
A man cannot be tall and stocky. Stocky is defined in the dictionary as thickset, short and strongly built.
I’m not sure about the name Sweetapple. It seems a bit contrived.
Be careful about changing point of view. Elsa ‘had known herself immune’. We are looking at her through Fred’s eyes. He may guess how she feels, but he can’t know; only she can know herself immune.
“Echoes From The Somme” by Frances Colville of Chideock, Dorset
This is an original and well constructed story. I like the idea of using the Egg Exchange as the basis for it. We see the war from the point of view of the women left behind but we still get images from the front line through the letters Chrissie receives. The first paragraph is extremely effective and I like the way the sound of the waves echoes the noise of the guns.
It is a good idea to differentiate between Chrissie’s present mood and her earlier actions by writing part of the story in the present tense narrative, which usually indicates a lapse of time, but in fact the conversation between Chrissie and Madge is continuous. I wondered for a moment if we have gone back to the present day.
The real difficulty comes in the final paragraph. We are back with Chrissie, sitting on the beach; but then you say ‘It is months….before she finally learns…’ And then ‘she will live with that knowledge and remain true to his memory’. At that moment in time Chrissie cannot know this, unless she can read the future. So you have introduced an authorial voice which does know. This is called in the jargon ‘third person omniscient’ and it is a device very often found in eighteenth or nineteenth century novels but not so popular now. The effect of introducing it here is to break the mood and distance us from Chrissie. Perhaps it might be better to include another paragraph in which she learns of his death – in the casualty lists in the papers, perhaps, or in a letter from one of his friends, or even in a letter from him, written to be sent in the event of his death. At that point she could vow to remain true to his memory – though even then she can’t be sure that she will keep the promise.
But these are small quibbles. You write very well and I really enjoyed your story.
“Waiting” by Dave Joy of Lytham St Annes, Lancashire
I enjoyed this story. It was refreshing to have a slightly humorous take on the war and its effect on the women left at home. I also thought there was originality in the choice of Kaiser, the horse, as the mainspring of the action. You bring the characters of Mary and her daughter to life effectively through dialogue, with a good sense of the local vernacular. (I was quite surprised to find a story set in Liverpool in the context of this competition.) You also manage to suggest quite subtly that the war and the absence of the menfolk is changing the way they see themselves.
There is a slight issue with point of view towards the bottom of page three. You say ‘both women were confident’. So far we have seen the story through Mary’s eyes, but that phrase introduces an external, authorial voice. This tends to disrupt the reader’s involvement with your characters.
You describe the difference between the smells and atmosphere of the city and the fresh country air Mary is used to effectively and her dislike of the local accent makes us realise that she is making her own sacrifice in coming to help her daughter.
The journey to deliver the milk is amusingly told and I did not guess the reason for Kaiser’s frequent stops where there were no customers until the end.
One small point. Isn’t Orlando a rather posh name for a Liverpool milkman?*
(*Dave’s reply – My 2nd grand uncle was one of many Dales farmers who became Liverpool cowkeepers and milkmen – his name was Orlando John Joy and as far as I know, he wasn’t posh!).
“Remembrance” by Nick Primmer of Dunton, Buckinghamshire
This is a very effective ghost story. You set up the atmosphere in the church very skilfully, using the sense of smell and the change of temperature, as well as sight. I love the prayer books ‘roosting like ranks of black bats”. You tell us that the church is no longer used by describing the faded notices and the damp mottled prayer book, the dead flowers and the mouse droppings. So we are ready for something strange to happen. You sustain the suspense quite well as Rodway tries to work out who the stranger is and what he is doing there, and there is a good dramatic climax wen the noise of the pew cracking makes the soldier react as if he is still at war. The final realisation is delayed further when Rodway decides the man is suffering from shell shock, a reasonable rationalisation of the situation. This allows you to have a few tense paragraphs while he searches the church, expecting to be attacked at any moment. The discovery of the memorial plaque is a useful device for bringing the final explanation to light.
My only quibble with this story is that it is rather predictable. I guessed from the start that the soldier was a ghost. Could you find some way of keeping your reader in the dark, as well as your protagonist?
“The Rose Tattoo” by Polly Harvey of Taunton, Somerset
This is a well constructed ghost story. I wonder if, in your efforts to give it a suitable period feel, you have not made the narrator’s voice a bit too old fashioned. I detect the influence of Edgar Allen Poe et al. I don’t think a man who was presumably in his late twenties around 1914 would be taking snuff years later, which is when you suggest he is writing. That habit belongs rather to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A pipe, perhaps, would be more suitable. I have to admit that that reference and the patronising attitude to his wife in the opening sentences did rather put me off on first reading. The same thing applies to the ‘dear reader’ towards the end.
That said a definite character comes through in the narrator’s voice, which adds credibility to his story. You make me see the young soldier throughh is eyes and that helps me to understand his fear and despair. The final climax is well handled and the revelation of the rose tattoo makes a satisfying conclusion.
2013 Short Story Winners
Amelia Carr said “The standard of entries was very high; judging them was not an easy task. Initially I looked for a well-written story that held my interest throughout; I then tried to ‘take them apart’, but in the last resort I had to go with my heart and my gut feelings. I hope the following crits explain something of my thinking.”
1ST PRIZE – NICOLA AUSTEN of Caterham, Surrey with her story “The Letter”.
Amelia Carr’s critique was – “This is a beautiful story, both heart-warming and heart-breaking.It captured perfectly the joys of sharing a life, and a home, with a much loved dog, as well as the inevitable grief on losing her and the torment of that final decision to make a last visit to the vet. Besides carrying me along emotionally, the story is very well written, capturing the ‘smile’ when Pheobe scratches, and the way it looks as if she is ‘skiing’ down the stairs.You can see Phoebe in every sentence; I felt I knew her, and could share in every adventure, and facet of her character.I could also identify with the owners – the good intentions to ‘do things by the book’ being overcome by that determined little personality.As for the bond that grew between her and the cats, I absolutely believe that too.With regard to lay-out. It might be useful for the writer to know that the accepted form for submitted material is double spaced type, rather than one-and-a half.No matter. The letter to Pheobe held me throughout, and ultimately made me cry. What more can one ask of a short story?”.
Writing has always been cathartic for me. Dumping my thoughts on a blank page has always helped me make sense of the confusing, rationalise events and reduce the worrying. Forgive me for writing all about you, but I want to make sure that I will always have something out there that reminds me of right now. Right now, with you right here.
You were there when everyone else had left. The summer of 2012 saw me screw up a hundred relationships, some that needed screwing up and some that didn’t. When I’d finished screwing them all up, you were still sat beside me, snoring your head off or trying to lick your own butt. At this moment you are sat at my feet, grumbling away, trying to hawk up god knows what, having a scratch, staring. Mainly staring. At what, I don’t know, but whatever it is, it isn’t here.
We got you only 18 months ago. We had wanted a dog for a while to add to the menagerie of 3 cats that were getting too big for their boots. I was overweight and the doctor had told me to get a dog to take for walks. We managed to select the only dog on the planet that doesn’t like walking, but prefers to go for a sniff, maybe making it 10 yards at a time before getting distracted and quite purposefully ignoring your calls until you see us dip a hand into a pocket and bring out a treat. When that happens, your fading hearing is suddenly turned up to 11 and your arthritis stricken legs can bimble at more than 0.2 miles per hour.
We went to the dog rescue on a sunny Saturday afternoon, and walked around that depressing place, falling in love with every dog that we saw, and being saddened seeing that some of them had been there for over two years. You were in a cage with another Jack Russell, and we had thought you were a pretty girl but had completely ignored you as an option to join the family – terriers chase cats, right? We showed the administrator our list of potential puppies to which she said ‘No, No and No’ because all of them were unsuitable to live with cats or be left on their own during the day. We were so frustrated. We wanted to give a dog a loving home but everywhere we went, there were obstacles. Some wouldn’t consider you if you worked full time, others we couldn’t because children lived next door, others still had medical issues that inexperienced wombats like us would have no clue how to manage. Dejected and sad, we started to walk away, when the woman called us back and told us she may have someone for us. Would we like to walk her?
Cinnamon, for that was your name at that time and a crueller fate I wouldn’t wish on any grown man than the prospect of yelling ‘Cinnamon’ across country parks and meadows, I loved you immediately. The woman said we could cat test you first, which rather than sitting you in a black leather chair, dimming lights and asking you questions about the history of the feline species, essentially involved taking you into a cattery and seeing if you tried to eat the cats. We took you into the cattery and you tried to eat the cat food and completely ignored the cats. We accompanied you for a walk round the field, you trotting along beside us and looking up every few steps as if to say ‘Am I doing this right?’ At the end of the circuit, you sat down, looked up and had a scratch. I picked you up in my arms, you turned and licked Steve and then me, and that was that.
As we were leaving, they added, almost as an aside, ‘By the way she is half deaf, has arthritis and a heart murmur’. They told us you were 11 and were found as a stray. Over the coming months, we would realise how you had become a stray. The time we went camping and thought we had lost you forever but found you in a random tent because one of the women had a red jumper like mine and you had decided THAT’S MY MUM! The time the hairdresser on the high street called me at work to say you had escaped our garden, clambered into a car outside the salon, sat there for ten minutes waiting to go on an adventure and were now licking people’s ankles whilst they got their hair done.
We had read all the books about making sure we were head of the pack, and you having your own bed downstairs, not letting you through the front door in front of us, not feeding you from our plates. Within a week you were leaping over thresholds, sleeping between our pillows and stealing whole steaks from plates. Training never really took off with you. You know ‘sit’ and ‘paw’ and ‘beg’ but it is really up to you whether you can be bothered or not. Living with 3 superior cats has perhaps meant you have adopted some of their ‘Mehness’. Perhaps it’s just because you are such a beautiful dog that a few treats after not working for them doesn’t really matter.
When we first brought you home, we kept you in the spare room for the first day so that the cats could get used to you, and you to us. Within 10 minutes, Esther had come up to the baby gate, you had sniffed too close and she had smacked you in the face. Audrey sulked on top of the kitchen larder for a week. We didn’t inherit Charlie until last Christmas, but even when he joined the family, you were nonplussed, letting him literally walk all over you, big cat paws squishing your face as you lay on the sofa. The past week, all three have seemed to always be where you are. Esther is curled up in front of the radiator. Audrey on the armchair and Charlie keeps coming in and head-butting you every now and again. Do they know?
We were too scared to let you off the lead the first couple of walks, in case we lost you so soon after finding you. You managed to gnaw through the extendable lead after three outings and even if you could run away, you’d be overtaken by a sloth before you got too far, so since then you have always bumbled along at your own pace. You never got angry at other dogs, letting even massive ones come and play. You’d only ever bark if a puppy got too playful around you, at which point you’d yelp like you’d smoked 40 a day for 40 years. Countless children come up to you in the street and stroke and kiss you. Adults smile when they see you waddling along or if we are being ‘those kind of people’ and have put you in your jumper because you tremble in the cold. You let toddlers ride you, grandmothers stroke you for hours and let us cuddle you and cuddle you and cuddle you.
We took you to the Caterham Carnival and entered you into the dog show, ‘Best Veteran.’ Considering you’ve hardly any teeth, a coat that looks like it’s made of wire wool and dubious weird patches on your tummy, you did well coming fourth out of fourth. The judge asked if you did any tricks. We asked you to beg and rollover but you just sneezed twice and looked confused. But you were saving it all up, weren’t you? Waiting for your moment in ‘Dog with the Most Appealing Eyes’. You did your beg, gave a big yawn and turned on the charm and came first out of 17, the crowd awwed and cheered for you and you had sausages for tea that day and a rosette for keepsies.
When we pick you up, your tail starts whirring like a helicopter. When you are walking, your ears flap up and down. When you are having a scratch you look like you are smiling. When you walk down the stairs your bum goes from side to side, like you are skiing down them. When you are dreaming, you yip and twitch and imagine being boss of the house, ruler of cats. You get intent on licking Steve whenever he gets back from a run, trapping him into a corner and standing on him with steady purchase, licking his face for half an hour at a time. I haven’t peed alone in 18 months.
Last summer, that awful time when our family broke apart for a while, you were confused and became stressed. Barking lots when we left the house, sleeping in the hallway at the top of the stairs between our bedrooms, unsure who you should comfort first. As the weeks passed, you’d start the night in one room and wake in another, making sure we both got attention. You’d try and sit in your spot on the sofa, slowly edging us closer together on the chair. I’m being sentimental of course, but perhaps you were trying to fix us in your own way. Walking you allowed us to talk to each other and realise what was important to us. Each other, you and the other fluff buckets.
You are a constant. A wagging tail and a face so happy to see us when we walk in the door. We used to try and trick you, walking past the front window so you saw us, then waiting until we came down the steps to the front door and seeing you scramble up on furniture, craning your head to get another look at us. We have a 100 bones buried in our vegetable garden, dog hair on every item of black clothing we own and have never finished any kind of food at any time ever without you poking your snout in it at some point. You like Prawn Crackers and whatever substance is on the street outside of Pizza Express in town. We have spent hundreds of pounds on every dog food available, but after a week of eating it, you’ll turn your nose up and demand a menu change. Your refusal to ever walk up the hill to our house is a source of mirth to neighbours and the people at the bus stop at the bottom of the road.
And now you are fading. The vet thinks you are much older than 11, maybe 15 or 16. When you had your first seizure in November, it was terrifying, seeing you look so lost and frightened and then thinking you were dying in my arms right then. You started peeing in the kitchen and slowing down, some days not wanting any walk at all. We thought it was your arthritis playing up in the cold weather. Then you fell down the stairs. Then you ate a bar of Green and Blacks and scared the hell out of us. You had more fits. We brought a new animal into the house, a lovely young thing but you hated her and wouldn’t stop barking or snapping and you weren’t the placid girl we knew. There was something wrong. We made sure Bo had a good home to go back to because it was upsetting you, her and us. 2 days after she went, you had another fit – your worst yet and we realised that you were slowing down. Like a robot running out of batteries. You started staring at the front door, scratching to be let in and out of rooms, walking in circles.
The vet said you had dementia and your kidneys weren’t looking too hot and you had epilepsy. You got worse. The next visit to the vet following a tumble down the stairs and a bloody nose said the kidney issues meant that there was probably heart failure on the cards. It means you are constantly coughing and hacking and your poor body is wracked with effort. Arthritis, deafness, heart murmur, heart failure, kidney problems, dementia, epilepsy. A list of all the reasons we should think about letting you go for. The vet said we needed to make a decision because your quality of life just wasn’t there anymore. But there is that one reason to keep you with us that outweighs all of them, for us, anyway. It’s amazing how selfish you can be when you realise you are going to lose someone you love.
You have turned from a happy, bouncy, silly dog in November to what appears to be an empty vessel now. It’s all happened so quickly. The Phoebe we know is rarely there now, disinterested in your treats, wanting stillness and sleep, not playing, not exercising. You and I sat in the sunshine on the back step yesterday, you in my arms like a baby, for over an hour. You looked at me in the eyes for ages. You were so tired and your eyelids kept dropping until you fell asleep in the warmth.
This morning, you slept until midday, in your basket, on my feet. You woke up and walked upstairs then down, into the bathroom and back, into the garden and back then sat in the middle of the front room and just looked at me with your sad eyes and I knew you were too tired for this.
We are taking you to the vet for the final time on Monday. We are being selfish again and having one last weekend with you. We’ll take you to the park and feed you steak and give you cuddles and make sure you know just how loved you are. We aren’t ever going to have children. You’re as close as we will get and people may think we are mad for letting a dog have such an effect on us but you are family. I am so sad we didn’t get to have you for longer. I’m so sorry if anything we did made any of this happen. I hope you have been happy and know that we just want you to be free to chase rabbits somewhere else where your legs don’t hurt and everything isn’t quite so confusing. I got very angry a while back at somebody who said I couldn’t possibly know what unconditional love is because I don’t have children. Well I do. I can’t ever recall being angry at you, just a constant affection and love. And I see unconditional love every day in your eyes.
When you are gone, the empty space here will resound with echoes of you and the joy you have brought us and you will never, ever be forgotten, nor could you have been loved any more than by us these past months.
We love you Pheebs – let’s make this weekend the best ever, eh?
2ND PRIZE – ANDREW KEARSEY from Brighton with his story “The Reunion”.
Amelia Carr’s critique was “A lovely story, well written, evocative, and clever on several levels. The first paragraph is intriguing – it immediately draws the reader in and excites curiosity. I also particularly liked the way the character of the narrator is shown in many little ways – and a very different narrator to the usual, too. I see this big, perhaps not very bright, boy who grew into the sort of man nobody really notices, but who has wonderful values, a lovely nature, a story that has shaped his life, and a love he has cherished since boyhood. The fateful incident of the prank gone wrong is utterly believable. And the end is perfectly rounded, even down to the strawberries, and the fact that Ellen says: ‘I’m sorry about your legs.’ This story could very easily have taken 1st place – it was a very close run thing.”
Stephen lets me do some of the gardening. It’s all first names here. As long as I shown him my receipts they let me buy whatever plants I want. My favourites are peonies. They remind me of her.
When Stephen arrives, he always salutes me. Must think I’d been a military man. I never bothered to correct him. I was never called up on account of the accident.
The joints are playing up today. Mustn’t grumble. At eighty-seven I’m only too pleased to be alive. Many of the residents here are younger than me. It’s the wet weather. Sets off my rheumatism. I know many people think Autumn is a depressing time of year. I just see it as Mother Nature recharging her batteries.
I’d go conkering as a lad. I had one that just kept on winning. I must have won twenty matches with it. Then it started to crack. That was the year her family moved into the village. There were three daughters but I’d only eyes for Ellen.
Her family caused quite a stir. Their father liked his drink and was arrested a couple of times. Never seemed to be able to hold down a job. Their mother took in mending and washing and somehow kept food on the table for them. We only had two classes at our school. A husband and wife ran it in those days. She was in charge of the little ones where they just played and he taught the other class and tried to prepare us for secondary school. The male teacher gave extra lessons and homework to the ones he reckoned had a chance of getting into the grammar school. They didn’t bother with me. I was bigger than all the others, even the older ones. He’d get me moving furniture and when he spotted I had a talent for growing things he let me weed the school gardens. That was until my mother found out. She marched me down to the school and tore a strip off him. I can still remember now her voice as she said at him, “I send my Thomas to school so that you can knock some sense into him. God knows I’ve tried. He’s a kind soul but God never doled out his share of brains. If I wanted him to pull up dandelions I’ve plenty at home on the farm.” She feared nobody. From that day the teacher tried extra hard with me but for some reason the letters made no sense to me. They were all a jumble to my eyes.
Ellen was smart. When she joined our class the teacher never had hard enough books for her. Her sisters were clever too, but she was the brightest. Even I could tell that. She’d wait by his desk while he marked her sums. She never got one wrong. My numbers book was like a one sided game of noughts and crosses.
Ellen picked some peonies out of somebody’s front garden and gave them to the teacher on his birthday. He blushed. She would count the dinner money and if he ever needed a messenger she was asked. I was struggling with my work one morning and he told Ellen to sit with me.
“Can’t you do this? A big lad like you!”
“I could do this when I was four. How old are you? Twelve, thirteen? Have they kept you back because you’re simple?”
“I’m nine. Just big for my age.”
“What does your mother feed you? Whatever it is, it does the trick.” I loved the way she laughed, even if it was at my expense.
I couldn’t follow when she explained how to do the sums. In the end she just told me the answers. It was strange to see ticks in my book the next day.
I didn’t dare approach her at playtimes. Ellen was never alone. It made me happy just to see her. I didn’t need to speak with her. Besides, what would I say?
I was surprised one morning, just before lining up to go into class, one of her sisters passed me a note. I could just about make out the few words. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Ellen wanted to meet me in the woods after school.
I thought she’d wait for me when the school bell was rung but she rushed off. I was excited about finally being alone with her. I knew the part of the woods she meant. There was a rope swing over a little stream. When I reached the spot, I was disappointed to see that she was not alone. Her sisters were whispering to her and there were quite a few other children from our class. Lots of them were grinning.
Ellen came towards me with a red scarf. “We’re going to play a little game Thomas.” I don’t really remember much. She was egged on by the others. They were shouting and cheering. The wool felt scratchy over my eyes. She took me by the hand and then left me standing. She called me to follow her. Her voice seemed to be coming from all sorts of different directions. She must have climbed a tree as I could hear her calling from above my head. She wanted me to follow her so I began to scale the tree. I recalled the shape of it well and the location of the lowest branches. The others started shouting “Higher, higher!” I must have been near the top. The last thing I heard from her was “Over here” before the branch snapped and I fell.
The doctor told my mother I was lucky to be alive. My mother had a load of questions for me. She wanted to know who had been there in the woods and whose idea was the blindfold. She had her suspicions but I never betrayed Ellen. I just told her I was playing with the other children. I was off school for months. My mother nursed me but couldn’t seem to help mentioning all the extra work my accident had caused her. One day she came into my room and announced “You’ve got a visitor.” I know she wasn’t impressed.
I turned and saw Ellen standing near the window. The light was streaming through and seemed to make an orange halo around her abundant red hair. I thought an angel had visited my bedroom. She had a brown paper bag with a few pink stains from the contents inside. “I picked these for you. I’ll fetch more if you like them.”
I recognised the strawberry smell. I pretended I liked them because she’d done something kind for me. My mother hovered about on the landing. Ellen sat down on the chair next to my bed. She looked around the room, “You’re lucky to have your own room.”
My mother couldn’t resist adding “But not so lucky to have both his legs broken. The surgeon said they might never be straight again.”
There was a long silence. I thought that Ellen might take his as her cue to leave but she carried on, “Everybody misses you at school. When will you be coming back?”
“The doctor says I might be back in the Autumn.”
My mother couldn’t resist butting in again “And missing out on the harvest work! August is our busiest month. I don’t know how I’m going to cope.”
“My father could help if you need a farmhand,” Ellen offered.
My mother just grunted and went downstairs.
Ellen leaned forwards, “M parents have just had a letter. I’ve won a scholarship to St Agnes. It’s a school a long way away. I’ll be a boarder.”
I’d never heard of St Agnes before but whoever she was, I hated her. I couldn’t even pretend to be happy for Ellen. I lied and said I wasn’t feeling well. The doctor had only said the previous day that I was making good progress but now I had a sickness in my stomach. I turned over in my bed towards the wall with my back to her. I was worried I might start crying and she’d tell everyone I was a baby.
She stood up to go. “I thought you’d be happy for me.”
“I am,” I mumbled, without turning towards her.
She must have been standing there for a couple of minutes. I’d hoped she’d left. I turned over in the bed and she was still there, standing in the doorway. She looked down at the floor and muttered “I’m sorry about your legs.”
That was it. She never came to see me again.
I went back to the school in September and had crutches for a while but I soon worked out how to get by without them. Ellen only came back in the holidays and then a few years later the family moved away from the village. Her dad had left for good and Ellen’s mother took her daughters to live nearer her own mother. I heard all this from my mother. I feigned a lack of interest but inside I was desperate to hear anything about her.
By the time the war started I was ready to leave school. There was no way that my services would ever be called upon. I did learn to walk independently but I always had a pronounced limp. I spent the war years driving a bus. Ellen married and had a family. That’s what my mother told me.
“She was the only girl you were ever soft on. You can’t trust people with ginger hair. She would’ve led you a merry dance.”
I wanted to leap to Ellen’s defence and explain her hair was strawberry blonde and that she was kind deep down. But I didn’t bother. There was no point disagreeing with my mother. Once she had an idea fixed in her head there was no budging it. She always had it in for Ellen and her family as soon as they moved into the village, always criticising their clothes or the way they spoke or the fact that her mother didn’t keep the front step clean.
My mother was right about one thing though, there was never anyone else I was sweet on. It’s daft really. I’m not saying I’ve lived a life of a monk over the years and I’ve had several lady friends over the years. It’s just that there was nobody who made me feel the way she did. I didn’t want to settle for second best.
Here’s a car I don’t recognise. I know all the vehicles of the staff and regular visitors. Maybe it’s a new resident. There was a death last week and they’ve had the decorators in smartening up the room. Yes, I was right, there’s an elderly woman in the passenger seat. Must be her daughter bringing all the belongings through. You’d think she’d attend to her own mother first. She opens the passenger door and releases her mother from her seat belt. The elderly woman simply sits and stares out in front of her. Several members of staff come out to assist and I overhear the daughter telling them about her mother over the old woman’s head. The words “dementia” and “stroke” sit in the air. They lift the woman into a wheelchair. You’d think that one of them would have given her a blanket to cover her legs. It’s turned chilly. As they pass me, the woman turns to face me. It can’t be her. The hair is white. But the smile is the same.
The receptionist was surprised to see me back at the nursing home that afternoon. “Doing some overtime, Thomas?”
“I would like to visit somebody. There was a lady who came in at lunchtime. I think I know her.”
The receptionist joked about me being a dark horse and whether I needed a chaperone.
Ellen’s room was on the first floor. I took the lift. As I waited for the doors to close I took a proper look in the mirror and checked my tie was straight. My mother had a put down for all occasion. Todays would have been, “There’s no fool like an old fool.”
Ellen was lying in her bed. The journey must have exhauster her. I could see her fine hair spread out on her pillow as her eyes were facing the ceiling. I knocked on the door. There was an orderly putting her clothes away. She must have been from an agency as she didn’t recognise me. She must have thought I was her husband. I did have a bunch of flowers in my hand. She took the flowers from me, saying she would put the peonies in water. I hovered in the doorway.
The orderly returned with the flowers. “We’re a bit short staffed. Would you mind feeding your wife?”
I didn’t bother to correct her. I helped her sit Ellen up in bed and adjusted the table so that it was in front of Ellen. The orderly placed the unappetising supper on the table. I fastened the bib around Ellen’s neck and managed to feed her a few mouthfuls of the nondescript meal. She simply refused to eat anymore. She kept her mouth shut and shook her head. I placed the tray on her bedside table. I began talking about the past. I didn’t know how much she understood. I listed my precious memories; the smell of the blackboard when it was newly repainted at the beginning of each term, the excitement of being given a new exercise book and the day our teacher was sick so we were sent home early. But the best of all was the day she came to my school.
The orderly returned with the dessert. “Maybe she’ll like this. The food’ll take time to get used to. It says on the menu “Strawberry fool. Looks like yogurt to me.”
As I spoonfed Ellen the pink pudding a small smile appeared on her face. I wondered whether she remembered the reversal of positions. For me, even after all these years it was as clear as yesterday when she came to visit and I was in bed with her gift of strawberries.
When she’d finished every last bit I dabbed her face with the paper serviette. I placed the bowl and spoon on the table and moved it away from the bed. I put on my coat and went to leave. I turned to say goodbye one more time and to have one last look. She no longer gazed up above. Instead she looked straight at me. I couldn’t hear what she said so I walked slowly towards her and knelt by her bed. My knees creaked as I lowered myself down. I could feel her hot breath on my cheek as I turned my ear to her face. It clearly took her a great effort to whisper, “I’m so sorry about your legs.”
3RD PRIZE – GILL GARRETT of Cheltenham with her story “The Journey”.
Amelia Carr’s critique was “Again, an arresting opening, and a story that held me throughout. It moves well, and each scene is brought to life by well-chosen detail. I particularly liked that the two strands of the story – the quest for the main character’s identity, and her differences with her husband – are brought together by the denouement. This makes for a satisfying ending. I would, though, have liked to know a little more about what happened to Hilary’s mother, even a sentence or two to explain her death, and perhaps her affair with the (presumably) married Canadian. I realise most of Hilary junior’s questions must remain unanswered until she meets her half-sisters, but I am slightly worried by the picture the given facts paint of the man who was her father – a mature father of two, who for some reason commutes between two continents, getting a teenage girl pregnant, (though to his credit he does seem to have made some provision for the baby). My instinctive reaction isn’t sympathetic, nor, in fact, to the widow for that short, cruel note. And since her daughters would have been almost too young to have such fond memories of their apparently oft-absent father, wouldn’t her anger, hurt and bitterness have been conveyed to them? It would also be lovely to know why he was in England when he had the affair, and why he was back in England when he died (so young! Why?) If the answers could be hinted at somehow it might make the reader more optimistic about the kind of family Hilary junior is going to meet. If I were writing this story, I would be inclined to change the time-frame. I’d think about setting the affair during the war, after which he returned to his young family, and I’d set the date of his death a bit later, to ensure his legitimate daughters would be old enough to have their own fond memories of their father. Nevertheless, an intriguing and well written story which I very much enjoyed.”
An empty cheese and pickle sandwich box cartwheeled along the platform and discarded sweet wrappers gusted around her ankles. The information screen flashed the unwelcome news of a 50 minute delay to her connection. She sighed, pulling her jacket closer around her; further out from the station awning she could see a fine rain falling. Although it was not long past three, the November afternoon sky was darkening perceptibly. Nearly an hour to wait. The grey metal seats, clamped to the ground against vandals, stood damp and uninviting, so she made her way to the brightly lit but deserted café and ordered a latte from the monosyllabic girl behind the counter. She sat down by a radiator only minimally warmer that its surroundings.
Sunday travel was always a nightmare. Paul had been right – she should have left it a day or so. But, not acted upon, the knowledge would have been too much to bear. She had waited more than fifty years to find out and now the prospect of understanding things at last, or at least of piecing together some of the jigsaw, demanded instant action. She would have left yesterday but for the Act of Remembrance that morning. Ever dutiful, her annual task of shepherding the cub pack at the memorial had delayed her departure. But this year the service had passed in a haze of impatient expectancy and she had left directly from the church.
It wasn’t that she had ever been impulsive she thought, looking down at the slim hands clasped around the cardboard mug; anything as frivolous as spontaneity had been knocked out of her at any early age. “Life is harsh, Hilary, and the sooner you learn that the better”; she could hear her grandmother’s sharp tones now, see her scrawny arms reaching into the washing machine to heave out the sodden clothes and feed them into the mangle as she obediently turned the handle. “Your mother found out the hard way – and too late too.” Strange really – she had looked so old then, careworn and drawn, yet she couldn’t have been more than in her mid forties. Who would have guessed that she’d go on to make 98?
Startlingly loud in the quiet café, the mobile phone rang in her handbag. “Well on your way now, pet?” enquired Paul.
“No, sitting drinking coffee, waiting for the connection you thought I’d miss. Engineering work on the line or something near Chippenham”.
“Bad luck, pet. Just wanted to let you know I’ve found some cheaper flights to Vancouver if we go in April – quite a bit cheaper too”
Couldn’t he let it rest? He knew she wasn’t keen, in fact was completely set against splashing out when things were so unpredictable, the future looking so insecure. Retiring precipitately after his operation had thrown what financial plans they had had into disarray, but he was determined – Australia to see the Barrier Reef or Canada to do the Rockies. A couple of times they’d dipped their toes in the Mediterranean but they’d never ventured further and now wasn’t the time to start.
“Look, we’ll talk when I get back.”
Her exasperation must have been apparent. “Let me know when you get there then”; a click as he rang off.
It was only when she was on the train later, gliding slowly through the dark Somerset countryside, alone in the carriage but for her reflection as she gazed out of the window, that she tried to look at things from his point of view. Her “quest”, as he put it, had obsessed her for so long that she had ceased to think about much else. Could he not see though that to her, it was not a “quest”: to her it was part of that lifelong journey towards finding herself. She may have rationalised her feelings about a post-retirement trip – the cost, all their other commitments – but her focus for the past year had been unwavering. And now the end of her journey, the attainment of her goal, seemed almost within sight. Ever since her grandmother had gone into the nursing home, ever since clearing the old woman’s clutter of decades, ever since finding the letter. *
When she had looked for inexpensive accommodation the Rose Villa Bed and Breakfast had certainly fitted the bill. Now, being shown up to her room, a vague feeling of familiarity swept over her. Yes – the nursing home; brown and cream walls, heavily patterned carpet, the smell of air freshener. The owner, a small, grey haired woman in a plaid skirt and a long cardigan was civil but not chatty. When she enquired briefly about the graveyard, the woman showed no curiosity but assured her it was perhaps half an hours walk along the front and up the hill on the coastal path, you couldn’t miss the church as you turned in towards the next bay. Would breakfast at eight o’clock suit?
The room was small and overfilled with dark, heavy furniture. Throwing her jacket on the single bed, she washed her face in tepid water at the tiny basin squeezed between a cavernous wardrobe and a tallboy bedecked with china ornaments. As she dried her hands on the thin towel left hanging on a chair, she surveyed herself in the plastic framed mirror. Would she be any the wiser about herself this time tomorrow? Would she be a 60 year old woman with a family past at last or still the dislocated remainder of – of what? She sighed, undressed quickly against the chill and slid under the covers into bed. It was an hour later when, still awake, she realised she had forgotten to ring Paul. She made no move to do so.
Tea and toast would have done her at home but she had paid for breakfast and she had no idea when she would eat later in the day. No other guest joined her in the shabby dining room and, except for an enquiry about fried or poached, the owner served her in silence. She was glad of the seclusion; she had slept badly and certainly wanted no discussion of her plans for the day. She ate quickly, paid her bill and was walking down towards the front, overnight bag across her shoulder, shortly after half past eight.
Perhaps on a summer’s day in the 50s the small seaside town had had its attractions. In the thin drizzle of this morning it looked what it was, a halfforgotten backwater of closed shops and shuttered take-aways. How on earth had he ended up here? As she turned at the sign for the coastal path all the other unanswered, probably unanswerable, questions crowded in again; she knew from experience though that she must focus this morning just on the one in hand.
The tarmac path narrowed as it began to climb the hill. To her right the Bristol Channel was obscured by mist; to her left a sodden hedge dotted with rotting blackberries and the odd Carling can clung to chicken wire fencing. She had not imagined it like this. But her imagination had had little to work from – and what there was had been a muddle.
Not many families welcome dementia. But the loosening of her grandmother’s hold on the present had unleashed a torrent from the past, that previously unacknowledged past of secrets and shame. Told spasmodically in rambling, sometimes incoherent snatches, much did not hold together – but enough did to allow a picture to begin to emerge. And when the old lady ceased to recognize her only grandchild, to confuse her with her long dead only daughter, to rail against sluttish behaviour and its inevitable result, she had felt she stood in her unknown mother’s teenage shoes.
She realised that for some reason her steps were slowing as she gained the hilltop. Stupid to have second thoughts now. But what if there was nothing to find, no revelation here? With an effort of will she quickened her pace as the path turned inland and the hazy outline of the church came into view. She stood motionless for a moment; all sound seemed to be blanketed out except for the blood rushing in her ears. Then, taking a big breath, she walked purposefully towards the lychgate. Pushing it open, she entered the churchyard.
To her left the squat church stood solemn and silent. Graves spilled down the slope to a dismal shoreline in front of her, a rising sea mist shrouding the furthest from view. Where to start? Her feet crunched on the gravel as she moved slowly down the central path, scanning the closest headstones. After a few fruitless minutes she realised that a concerted strategy was required; identify an area of graves from approximately the right era, check the inscriptions along the uneven rows systematically. It had to be there.
That tissue thin sheet of airmail paper, devoid of envelope or return address, had at least been dated: January 1956. Then just three lines: “Dear Mrs. Ward, This is just to tell you that my husband died last month on a trip to England. There will be no more payments for the child.” The signature was hard to decipher – McStephen she could read but the first name defied her attempts. But McStephen had been enough; it validated the sole piece of information about her father she knew, gleaned from the birth certificate her grandmother could not hide from her youthful searching.
Past rows of Victorian angels and neglected stone urns, in a corner close to the west door, she eventually located several black marble memorials halfhidden in the long grass. Gingerly stepping off the path, she made her way along the first row, the wetness soaking the bottom of her trousers – and almost immediately, beside a wizened thorn bush, she found it. The remorseless winds and weathers of 55 years had not dimmed the gold lettering that hit her hammer-like “Hilary McStephen. 18.10.20 – 10.12.56. May he rest in peace”. As blood drained from her face, she began to sway. She clutched wildly at a neighbouring stone for support.
But within seconds a rising panic gripped her. Was this all? She had anticipated more – not just a name and dates over a rectangle of nondescript stone chippings, bounded by unadorned marble sills which disappeared into overgrown foliage. Where were the family details, a place of residence, any reference to the person he had been? She had expected to somehow feel a connection with this unknown man who had sired her, a thrill of recognition – not this nothingness that so rapidly followed on the shock of discovery.
Tears of frustration welled up. Taking the overnight bag from her shoulder,she rested it on the chippings, reaching down for a tissue. And then she saw it. Concentrating so hard on the headstone she had missed the small wreath at the foot of the grave, lying all but obscured by the long grass. A circle of evergreens with a rain soaked card tucked inside a plastic tag. She picked it up and wiped away the droplets of water with a glove. In bold capitals a message read “DAD. ON YOUR BIRTHDAY. DESPITE SO MANY YEARS, NEVER FORGOTTEN, ALWAYS LOVED. SHEILA AND MARGY” She stared in disbelief. Her hands, clasping the greenery, began to shake; a tightness gripped her throat. Whatever she had expected, it was not something as concrete as this.
Thank God the church was unlocked. She stumbled into the dim interior, collapsed on to a pew, the wreath still in her hands. And there, with the past exploding into the present, shellshock rendered her frozen. But her thoughts teemed, shattered into a thousand questions that physically pained as they ricocheted around her brain.
When at last she got to her feet, she did not know how long she had been sitting there. The wreath had dropped from her hands and she stooped to retrieve it. The names stared up at her from the card, names whose owners had visited her father’s grave, who had called him “Dad”; the names of halfsisters she would never know. Her shoulders sagged as she turned out of the pew and walked slowly to the west door.
Why did she stop at the small table, a jumble of leaflets, offering envelopes and prayer sheets? She suddenly felt an overwhelming need to put her own name in the Visitors Book, to leave evidence that she too had been there. Laying the wreath by its side, she picked up the biro and opened the dusty, dog-eared volume. As it fell open at the last used page her heart lurched. Three entries from the bottom, again in those bold capitals, an entry read
“OCTOBER 18th 2012SHEILA ANDREWS AND MARGARET THOMPSON. ON A FAMILY QUEST” and in the next column “JASPER, WESTERN ALBERTA.”
In weak early afternoon sunshine she sat on the quiet platform. She took the mobile from her bag and her fingers moved rapidly over the small keys. When she had finished she re-read and considered the text. “On my way home. Let’s make it the Rockies – ASAP.” As the train pulled into the station, she pressed “Send”.
COMMENDED – ROSANNA LUKE from Brighton with her story “The Reunion”. amelia Carr’s critique was “This is an extremely well written, very professional short story, with a clever twist in the tale. I really like the idea, and the style, and the author is clearly very competent. However, I feel that by its very nature, it would be better suited to being a ‘short-short’ – i.e. 1,000 words or less. It feels to me like a ‘twist in the tale’ story that has been expanded, and although the padding is well-written, it actually diminishes the impact and creates an imbalance. (I can’t tell you how many times sections of mine have ended up in the bin, not because I didn’t like them, or because there was anything really wrong with them, just that in that particular context they weren’t working, and my gut feeling is the author needs to be similarly ruthless here). If this were cut considerably it would, I think, be very saleable as a short-short to one of the magazines that use these little shockers on their last page. But of course this is only my opinion – a magazine editor might disagree with me and like it as it is!”
I don’t know why I agreed to attend the reunion in the first place. Curiosity, I suppose: a little bit of nosiness on my part wondering what my former school friends and enemies were up to, twenty years after we’d all left.
My best friend Alison talked me into going along. We’d missed the previous get-togethers for the ten and fifteen year anniversaries and she thought we could provide moral support to each other: two nearly-middle-aged women whose teenage dreams and ambitions had been subsumed into the daily routine of kids and husbands and boring jobs. We were both afraid that the other kids would have grown up to be doctors, lawyers, City high-fliers.
Alison was a full-time mum; I’d wanted to be a teacher when I left school and had even made it halfway through the course before I dropped out, realising I hated the kids in the concrete jungle of an inner-city school where we were sent for our placement. I work in Asda now, part-time; the shifts fit nicely around the school runs for Josh and Emily.
Three days before the reunion, she dropped out. Her mother-in-law had been rushed to hospital so Alison and family hurried down to Taunton to be at the old lady’s bedside – and left me with a ticket to a school reunion that I really didn’t want to go to on my own.
But you know what they say about curiosity killing the cat; the more I thought about it the less I could resist the chance to go along. Even in these Facebook days Alison was the only friend from school that I still kept in touch with, and I was interested to find out what had become of the others.
I wondered if Steve would be there too: Steve Brennan, the love of my life when I was sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. Steve from my class, with the motorbike that my mum said would be the death of him, Steve with the shoulder-length brown hair, twinkling blue eyes and black leather jacket that made the other girls bilious with envy. I could never work out why he chose me to be his girlfriend out of his dozen adoring fans in our year.
He kissed me outside the chip shop one April lunchtime and my heart missed two beats; I thought I was going to faint right there on the pavement. I doodled and day-dreamed my way through double Maths that afternoon and Mr. Terry had to shout my name twice before I came back to earth.
We were the star couple of the sixth form, Steve and I. He would give me a lift home on the back of his bike from school and we’d lie in the park during the summer holidays and drink illicit bottles of cider in the sun. We were inseparable and told ourselves over and over how much we loved each other; he bought me a gold necklace for my eighteenth birthday and I bought him a watch for his. We took each other’s virginity, cuddled like otters and shagged as if the world was about to end.
And then it did, as far as I was concerned: our relationship barely lasted until the end of our first term at uni. He’d gone to Lancaster to study English whilst I’d stayed in London and was doing my teacher training at a modern red-brick college the wrong side of the river. We made weekend trips to see one another whenever time and money allowed, but he muttered something in a phone call just before Christmas about trying to find himself, and how we were never going to be close to one another properly, not with hundreds of miles between us.
I raged at him: we were soulmates, he and I; didn’t we miss each other so badly after a week apart that it hurt us to breathe? Didn’t we write pages and pages of letters nearly every day? He said nothing and I raged some more and cried for the whole holiday, until mum threatened to take me to the doctor.
We lost touch after that. I couldn’t trust myself to even be civil and write any more, and we went our own ways with brutal efficiency. I heard on the grapevine that his parents moved to Basingstoke not long afterwards – whatever the reason, Steve stopped coming back to London during the holidays. I did my best to put him out of my mind and threw myself head-first into university life to make up for wasted time.
But I still wasn’t over him and I disengaged from the course, dropped out and took the first job I could that didn’t involve trying to force feed education to children who cared even less than I did.
The thought of bumping into Steve at the reunion grew in my mind over the next day or so. I got my hair professionally cut and highlighted for the first time in forever. My husband Kevin didn’t notice my new hairstyle and I said nothing, but I knew that Steve would have complimented me on my new look straight away.
In the back of the wardrobe I found a smart navy blue dress and a matching pair of high heels that I had bought for someone’s wedding last summer. I got dressed, took a deep breath and looked at myself in the mirror. I was surprised to see that I scrubbed up reasonably well.
On the day of the reunion I wake up early and feel butterflies flutter in my stomach. I waver and almost decide not to go: the day will be boring, I tell myself, there won’t be anyone there that I know. Steve will be there (bad). Steve won’t be there (worse). I get the kids up and washed and fed, and hand them over to Kevin for the day. He’s forgotten that I’m going out and I practically run to the car in my unfamiliar high heels before I change my mind again and stay.
I drive the thirty miles in a blur and arrive at the school early. There are laminated signs tied to the iron gates that direct me to park on the playground. From the outside everything looks exactly the same as in my mind’s eye: the playing fields, the dining hall, the media block. The trees are much taller than I remember; has it really been that long?
I park and am not entirely surprised to find that I am shaking; I lock up the car and walk to the main entrance with a confidence that I do not feel. The smell is the first thing to hit me as I step inside: wood, varnished floors, unwashed gym kit, children….fragments of long-forgotten memories bob to the surface of my mind like icebergs. I feel sick and a wave of nausea turns my stomach.
Two of the Year 13 students have a registration desk set up in the lobby. There is a small knot of people standing off to one side; I feel jealous of them until I see Kerry, the one-time captain of the netball team: she’s put on a huge amount of weight and her once-perfect blonde hair is now mousy and dull. Kerry is talking to Tom, who I shared a desk with in Geography, he’s luminously bald and looks as if he sells used cars for a living. I wonder if Steve has become fat, or bald, or both and realise that I can barely remember him as he was; the passing years have pulled my mental snapshots out of focus.
With unsteady hands I point at my name on the students’ list and I hand over my invitation with the embossed school crest. In exchange they give me a leaflet telling me the location of the various meeting rooms and the arrangements for lunch.
I take a sticky circular badge with “Charlotte” written in bold felt-tip and stick it onto my dress. It reminds me of an almost identical badge we were given on our first day as wide-eyed eleven-year olds.
I feel quite sick now. An instinctive sense of direction kicks in and my legs hurry me away from the reception desk to the girls’ cloakrooms behind the Main Hall. I sit on the toilet and take slow, calm breaths to head off the panic attack that is surely coming.
I tell myself to relax, that he won’t be here, no-one has seen him in nearly two decades. After five minutes of repeating that mantra and carefully doing breathing exercises I stand up, flush the toilet, and go to wash my hands.
There is a woman standing at the mirror, touching up her lipstick. She’s tall, even taller than me in my high heels, and she has long auburn hair that makes me think of Rita Hayworth. Her name badge tells me she is called Helena. She’s expensively dressed – that jacket is surely a genuine Chanel – and she is impeccably made up.
I can’t remember a Helena, but it’s been a long time and there were a hundred and eighty kids in our year. Maybe she was one of the ones who left to go to the technical college instead of sixth form. She does look familiar though, there’s something about the eyes.
‘Hi,’ I say, desperately trying to place her as I run cold water over my hands and wrists.
‘Hi Chas,’ twinkles Helena and that makes me start. I’m Charlotte again these days, just as my parents intended; sometimes Charlie at a pinch if you’re a very old friend. Chas was just a stupid nickname no-one’s used in years – Steve started it but I hated it when anyone else called me that. I stopped using it as soon as we split up.
‘Have you been to one of these before? Only it’s my first time…’ I laugh, sounding slightly desperate. I turn off the tap and dry my hands on a rough paper towel. Its familiarity is reassuring.
‘It’s my first, too,’ she replies. ‘Perhaps we can look after one another?’
I relax a little, realising that despite appearances Helena is just as nervous about this reunion as I am.
‘That sounds like a great idea. Now, remind me, which class were you in?’ I say. Helena looks at me with that amused expression again.
‘I was in Turner, the same as you.’
My brain starts to freewheel; there is a perfect blank in my memory where Helena should be. Maybe I’m going senile already.
‘I’m sorry, but I don’t…’
Helena laughs – it is a pleasant, practiced laugh as if she understands my predicament completely, as if this happens to her a lot.
And then I understand that Steve is here, after all.