A Crack of Light by Christina Sanders
Forever Four Stone Walls by Niamh MacCabe
Lost within a Mash of Alleyways by Anne Goodwin
Luminous Things by Tracey Glasspool
The Road Movie by Richard Gibney
The Shadow Architect by Mandy Huggins
The Voyage by Margaret Bonass Madden
Three Mothers in Sixty Years by Roy Chadwick
Toothpick Bones by Laura Darling
Unmatched by Mary Whitsell
Clothes Make the Man by Margaret Goddard
In a Heartbeat by Jacq Molloy
Keeping Chris Alive by Ken McBeath
Mrs P, the Dog and Me by Sara Cole
Pass the Signal at Danger by Anthony Hilbert
Rainbow Days by Lesley Hawkins
Shopping for Connor by Joe Murphy
Single Speed by Joel Blackledge
To End All Wars by Richard Chalk
Welcome to the Street by Thomas Szendrei
Wildfire by David G. Gibson
Without Roots by Hanne Larsson
And the winning entries are:
FIRST PRIZE, £500
A day's work in the sun and he turns terracotta. He stands before the full-length mirror in the bedroom and the tan line at his waist is a glowing equator, so removed from that colour are his thick, white thighs.
He leans closer to examine the only flaw in that tint, a bruise by his shoulder where an errant plank struck him. But even that green-yellow stripe retains an earthenware sheen, a kiln-fired glaze. He presses it with two fingers and hisses out at the sting; though it was his fault, he knows, for not paying attention. They all had a good laugh on site, anyway, and if you went home and complained or cried after that then you wouldn't last long.
He doesn't cry now. The first month or two, yes, in the car, in the shower, but not now.
The arnica gives off a sickly sweet smell as he opens the tube, part processed chemicals, part rotting flowers. He's never especially liked using it, not since he used to play sports as a kid -- the welts on the backs of his calves where the studs had collided -- but it does make a difference. Removes some of the stain, some of the swelling.
He checks that he's still on his own -- no wife, no daughter -- before wiping his fingers on the foot of the duvet, and then reaching for another tube, this time of hand cream. Some of the other guys use it as well, it's quite common, but mostly they go for brands that at least sound intended for their line of work. Tradesperson's Friend, some shit like that.
He uses whatever's on offer at the supermarket when he needs a new batch. Hand & Nail Xtra Care, this time around. There's a faint scent of beeswax as he thumbs it into the palm of first one hand then the other, and then between the knuckles, then the tendons on the backs. As he works it into his fingers, smoothing it around the cuticles, he spots dark sickles at the tips of most of his nails. He picks at them, flicks the dirt to the floor, removing the evidence. Rubs it diffuse into the blue weave with his heels.
Every year, the first few hot days, it's always the same. With the grass and the overgrown weeds upturned and tossed into a wheelbarrow, he sets the shovel aside and squats down in the dirt. Takes off the thin black rubberised gloves and stuffs them both tight between denim and belt. Pushes his fingers into the fresh-dug earth, sifting it as a prospector might, hoping to find something afterwards in the pan of his palms.
Mostly it's just denser, claggier mud. The occasional pebble. An earthworm or millipede or woodlouse, things that he's been digging out of the ground since before any of this started; things that still disgust him a little, that he lets drop immediately as he senses them move.
Sometimes, he gets lucky. Luckier. Bottle tops are quite common, and he wipes the dirt clear on his jeans to see if he recognises the brand, if there's even a brand left to recognise. There are scraps of flint that show up, too. Probably they've been brought back from some seaside, or from a mountainous hike, a holiday in the Lakes, but they are often close enough to arrowheads or knives in shape that he can at least pretend.
The bone fragments, it's harder to gauge. The majority of those properties, if they don't currently have a dog, they probably did have at some point. Maybe the bulk of such finds are down to their actions, some long-forgotten canine stash. Or perhaps more directly they're the remains of a beloved pet; there was once a skull, already shattered, that one of the other lads turned up. A rabbit, by the size. One eye-socket still intact and idiot-blank, a tooth still sharp enough to cut if you weren't careful. He imagines their owners buried somewhere nearby, like Celts; imagines dusting at horse bones, the bronze fittings of chariots, though all of the timber has long since decayed.
But it's the pottery that gets him going most. The wayward little shards of it, white or brown or drained-out blue. Only a few little crumbs of the lacquer remaining. If he finds two such pieces, the same hue and thickness, he gets almost stupidly excited, tries to fit them together. He gets carried away. Sits there on the edge of the trench like a kid in a sandpit, until one or another of his co-workers gives him a shout, or a sly kick, a knock with a spade or a spirit-level.
Or a plank.
The arnica works, but he wishes tonight it would work faster. Risks pressing the area again, the edges of it, testing how far the pain extends. Winces. The experience is worsened by the fact he has a pretty savage headache starting, probably because he was sat out in the dirt for half an hour on what should have been his lunch break, and so he hasn't had much to eat, and didn't drink enough tea.
They'd stayed on site late, until about seven, with the weather being so good, and by the time he got home he'd missed dinner as well. The cheese and lettuce sandwiches he'd packed this morning were soaked and squashed and rubbery, having melted in the van. He had a packet of prawn cocktail crisps instead, and a couple of slices of marmite on toast.
Neither Meghan, his wife, nor Kelsie, his daughter, had asked about his day. They'd done Kelsie's maths homework and her spellings and were watching TV. Britain's Somethingest Somethings. The kind of home video guff-parade he thought they'd stopped making when YouTube took off.
Thankfully, he thought, Kelsie wasn't paying too much attention. She was drawing something bright in a fat A4 pad. Coloured pencils were arrayed on the cream arm of the sofa, neat and precise like a fine set of tools.
He was going to join them, check out the picture, but Meghan, without looking, said, "Don't sit down in those jeans."
There'd been a visit to a museum when he was back in year four, a school trip to an exhibition on 'Ancient Greek Treasures'. They had models of theatres and of the stadia used in the original Olympics, and one of the Parthenon in something like 1:300 scale, which he'd stood over and felt like a Hollywood god. Like Laurence Olivier.
In other rooms, on other plinths, there were both original and replica amphorae and vases, patterned either black on red or red on black; decorated with monsters and ancient Greek heroes. There was one of Hercules wrestling a lion that he can still recall vividly.
There were sepia photographs of these artefacts being unearthed, piece by piece, by distinctly un-Herculean figures. Anti-Herculean, even. Linen shirts that had yellowed like chain-smokers' teeth, and scrawny, sinewy forearms reaching out, waving small trowels or pointing where somebody else (unidentified in the captions) should scurry along to and dig.
He studies himself in the mirror and he's gotten so much bigger, so much broader than he ever thought he would, and looks nothing very much like those archaeologists now. His forearms alone, from all the lifting he's done over the past seven years, are much more than sinew. The size of them is almost cartoonish, in certain lights. Almost mythic.
Getting carried away, ignoring the ache, he bends over to grapple an imaginary lion. Glances sideways at himself and notes that at least his penis is a bit bigger and more proportionate than they used to paint them back then.
In another time, he thinks. Another path.
"Stephen," his wife says, as she walks into the room. "What the fuck are you doing?"
He jumps; she doesn't swear often. He didn't hear the door open. He must not have closed it.
"Nothing, nothing," he says, "just stretching," he says. And stands up, and swings his arms out from his chest a few times, not letting on that the shoulder-bruise hurts.
"Ok," she says. She looks at him funny. She looks at the mark. "I thought I smelled arnica," she says. "You know I don’t like you using it before bed. It bloody stinks."
Stephen had hoped the beeswax would cover it, but obviously not.
No matter. Meghan's attentions have already turned to his member, watching as it dangles this way and that.
"Put it away now, would you, and come on to bed. I thought you'd got an early start?"
"I do, yeah," he says, still stretching but more slowly.
"What time's your alarm? Is it still the same place?"
"Yeah," he says, dropping his arms by his sides. "I'll have to be on site for half six, to get plenty done before it's too warm. There's a good half-acre of land that still needs mowing, and weeding, and then we've got to strip back another third of it and lay more decking and flags,"
"Decking and flags?" she says.
"Mostly flags," he says, "but we're putting decking down in one corner because they want a gazebo. One of those Japanese-style ones, you know, with those fancy curled gables? Red and white I think they want to paint it, so the decking will have to be cedar, or at least cedar-treated, to fit in more with that…" He's aware of his volume fading, the longer he talks.
"Oh, ok," she says. She's already under the covers and turned onto her side.
He sneaks a last glance in the mirror. The colour always sets him off, even when he hasn’t seen it for a while. Exactly the same as on those amphorae. He tenses again, checking his torso, his forearms. Checking his hair and thinking he may need to start dyeing it soon, or else it'll be too late. You can't go from grey back to black without somebody noticing. The lads would never let him live it down.
"I can see you," she says.
You aren't even bloody looking, he thinks. But he backs away from the reflection, the colour, regardless.
"And put it away," she says, in the gap between his pulling back the covers and shuffling underneath.
He can't imagine anyone ever immortalizing him on a vase, or a wine-jug, or even an ash-tray. Kelsie had painted a plate once, at an arts and crafts café in town, but that had just been a picture of a lion on its own. It was a portrait of her favourite soft toy, and he can understand, he supposes, because she probably spends more time with it than with him; but she'd painted it for Father's Day and hadn't even written on 'Daddy'. The lion doesn't even share his name. It's called Thimble, because that's how she'd said Simba when she was little. Littler.
Still, it was a good portrait. She'd captured its button-eyes, the sparkle within them, and the thin dark w of its mouth. At last November's parents' evening, Miss Bellew -- blonde hair, C-cup -- had been enthusiastic about a fairytale castle that Kelsie had drawn. Pointed it out to them, pinned up on a board trimmed with crepe-paper pumpkins, and Stephen had nearly cried, right there and then, it was so bloody good.
He'd managed to hold back, though.
Lying here, he finds that he's aching all over, not just at the site of that green-yellow bruise. That smear in the clay. There is black behind the red on those old jigsaw-pieced vases, and he finds it as soon as he closes his eyes.
His daughter is only six and already she knows what she wants to do with her life.
"Miss Bellew says I'm going to be an artist, daddy…"
After a minute or so more the blackness turns sepia. He has another long shift to rest up for tomorrow, but he doesn't fancy his chances of an undisturbed sleep.
SECOND PRIZE, £100
Picture a Small Bird by Marilyn Messenger
For weeks she came in every day and, perhaps because the building was warm from the summer heat, the smell was bad. The stench that radiated from her clothes, and from the grimy body that shifted within them, ought to have appeared as an aura of pollution that she inhabited. I sometimes visualised a cloud of cartoon flies enveloping her, excited by her filth. When it became so dreadful that I had to walk away before I retched, she would flick me a sideways glance, tilting her head to one side.
Each morning she waited for the library doors to open. One shoulder drooping, she leant against the sign that displayed the opening hours. She always held a carrier bag flat against her chest, her arms crossed over it. Each morning, I turned on the lights and activated the automatic doors. That the doors opened when she took a step forward always amazed her and because her reaction always made me shake my head, we shared that moment of a Groundhog Day.
Though not a spacious building, she tried to vary the route she took to reach the small table in the farthest corner. Her walk was uneven, as if the carpet were stony ground. Sometimes she turned and shuffled along the length of non-fiction, then doubled back, covering the distance to the table at a trot. Other mornings she stood for a while behind the shelves of biographies. I saw her squinting at me through the gaps between the glossy lives of celebrities, to where I sat scanning barcodes - checking books in, checking books out. Now and then, I heard her echo the scanner's beep like an abandoned chick.
Sitting at the small table, her back was to the room. Once seated, she dragged the chair forwards repeatedly until the edge of the table must have been jammed into her stomach. From the carrier bag she brought out pencils and a sheet of paper that she smoothed and straightened on the table. Though no was likely to approach her, she curved one arm around the paper like a small child crayoning in class. Within the privacy of that crooked elbow, the pencil moved fiercely and with assured.
After an hour, sometimes two, a cough, delicate, refined, and at odds with everything else about her, summoned me to the photocopier. I tried ignoring the cough. It annoyed me that she could talk, but refused to speak clearly. Her words were mumbled, and they disappeared into the front of her cardigan to join the stains there. In time, we established a routine of sorts and speech became unnecessary.
I switched on the photocopier, lifted the cover, and looked away as she placed the paper face down on the glass. Turning my head was an instinctive move that enabled me to breathe through my nose for a short time. It was also because no one was meant to see what was depicted on the paper. But I did see.
When the photocopy appeared, I opened the lid, she removed the paper, and took it to the window, tilting it towards the light. On the first day, I saw the drawing reflected in the window. After that I was curious. Each time it was birds, and always with wings outspread. I glimpsed a hawk, the vee of its tail, the ripple along feathered wing tips as it hovered. An owl, its blunt head swivelled in flight, stared at me, its prim beak as cruel as a pursed mouth. I saw the prehistoric angles of a heron, legs drooping as if it had lifted at that moment, ungainly, from marshland. There were small birds, sometimes flying in a vast pattern, an intricate shape across the page, like smoke from a bottle.
Once she was satisfied with the image she went back to the photocopier and muttered a number. Sometimes she asked for as many as fifty copies. I stressed the total cost to her. I emailed for advice from those in a higher command, but they sent back an electronic shrug of their shoulders, so I put her crumpled money into the till, and sprayed air freshener after she left, clutching her carrier bag.
The last day that I saw her, the library was drowsing after an early morning flurry of people. Most of those who came in during the week were retired, and keen to get home to loll in their scorched gardens, doze in the shade with their borrowed books. The smell of her was strong that day, and I felt it would cling to my clothes, would follow me into my car, that I would take it home with me, take a part of her into my home.
The routine began. I checked the paper tray was full, and set the copier going. Once the paper was churning out, regurgitating copies of the image, I returned to my desk. It was too hot to concentrate. The automatic doors swished open and I fashioned a look of welcome for whoever had arrived, but there was no one there. The photocopier continued to drone so the woman’s agitated muttering irritated me. I caught one word, bird, repeated again and again, bird, bird, bird, as if she thought the repetition might make the word fly to where I sat.
House martins often swooped around the library entrance, dipping to catch insects on the wing, and one must have triggered the sensor and flown in through the open door. It was on the floor, the gloss of its blue black plumage exotic against the grubby beige of the carpet. I thought it would take off as I approached, but saw that its feet were caught in the looped pile. She paced the room, pressed her forehead to the window and spoke the words with her breath on the glass. Poor bird, poor bird, bird.
I knelt by the bird, put my hands over its back, and held it loosely captive. I inclined my head towards its feet, as if I were then the one who couldn't articulate words and had to get by with gestures. I remember that her hands were shapely, the fingers slim with a dark smudge of graphite down the side of one, where a pencil was often gripped. She freed the bird's claws one by one, carefully unhooking them, though the bird's heartbeat still became frantic against my hands. Her eyes were grey, the lashes wet.
I stood with difficulty, cradling the bird. She put out her hands, then withdrew them, pushing both arms behind her back and shaking her head as if appalled at herself. I walked towards the doors holding the bird out in front of me, and her weaving from side to side at my back as if herding us both to freedom. Her hands fluttered towards me again and, when I nodded my head, she hesitated before she enclosed my hands with hers. Linked in this way we moved awkwardly through the doors. Clear of the building, she looked directly at me and nodded her. We opened our hands and watched the bird take flight. Bird, she whispered.
I didn't see her again. The following day, I arrived to find carrier bags piled up against the doors. I didn't need to look in them, for I knew what I would see.
THIRD PRIZE, £50
Demons by Deborah Tomkins
Today the demons are after me.
I stand forgetful at the sink, dishcloth in hand, or slump into the sofa intending to read Sunday’s paper, and find that hours have passed but no news has gone in, it is all meaningless and pointless, and meanwhile the children are squabbling, clamorous with hunger or tiredness or lack of parental attention.
The demons reach out with their clawed fingers, nails rasping at my jeans, scratching inside my head, pulling me down into the floor.
I can take it, I can live through this, I’ve done it before. It’ll take a few months, maybe when it’s summer again, and I’ll wake up and they’ll have gone.
Today I woke too early. I barely sleep anyway when the demons crowd around my bed, plucking at the duvet and at my heart strings. I thought maybe I could have a cup of tea, steady my nerves, it would give me something to do in the dark at three a.m. Perhaps I could do the ironing. It’s quiet, wouldn’t wake anyone.
I went first to the toilet, pulled down my pyjama bottoms, sat on the seat for the tiny trickle of urine that I didn’t need to pass, listened to the wind howling around the house, pebbles of hail crashing against the glass, stared at my feet.
The demons and I agree that I’m not that great a human being. I try to be kind, loving, thoughtful, humorous, a good cook and nice to my husband. We know this is a sham, the demons and I. They have a good laugh about it sometimes, and I just want to jump off a railway bridge when an express is coming through. It would be messy but quick.
I draped a bath towel around my shoulders for warmth and went downstairs. I thought how odd it was that I was trying to get warm at the same time as wondering if I would be killed if I stuck a fork into the plug socket, if it would work better if I stood in a bowl of water. I would have made the water warm because my feet were icy, but the cat came in and miaowed so I fed her first, and then the kettle had boiled so I made a mug of tea.
I stood in the centre of the kitchen, far from knives and gas and other dangerous things, and cradled my mug, hanging onto its warmth while the wind howled outside and I thought of typhoons and hurricanes and the doom of the world. Is this it, then? I thought. Is this the end of it all? And I have three small children who will have to make their way through the end-times – if not nuclear apocalypse then death by global warming, like little frogs heated slowly in a pan of water until it’s too late to jump out and they cook to death. I began to weep, pulling grief out of the depths of me, pulled down by it into the depths; and I wept quietly, so as not to wake a soul, though my heart was breaking. I’m not strong enough any more, I no longer want to resist my demons, and they cackled with pleasure. Sprawled across the quarry tiles, I counted the ways I’ve been tempted: red lights, wrong carriageway, bridges, rivers, painkillers, sleeping tablets.
I’ve been dreaming there’s someone at the door. I don’t open my eyes because I know there’s no point, it’s a dream. The demons are on my lap and clinging to my ankles, weighing me down. But something’s poking my eyes and it damn well hurts. It’s two little fingers pulling my eyelids up, and the weight on my lap is the baby, and there’s a cool breeze where before there was a humid smelly fug. The smell is still there. It’s the nappy. I open my eyes and the baby puts his fingers in my mouth, and above him I see the smiling face of my sister-in-law, whose name I can’t quite recall at this moment.
‘Hi Cath,’ she says. ‘The kids let me in.’
For a brief moment I feel a flash of fear. They could have let in anyone at all, an axe murderer or a child molester or a man to read the meter. A lone demon chuckles, somewhere behind me.
‘You look tired,’ she says.
She puts her head on one side. ‘I’ll put the kettle on.’
I stare at the chaos. It looks terrible. And I can’t work out what she’s doing here.
I remove the baby’s fingers from my mouth and lower him to the floor. He crawls off to the kitchen where I hear Paula – that’s her name, thank God I remembered – coo at him. I imagine her picking him up and wiping his face, smiling and singing, and I think he’d be so much better off with her, they all would, and they wouldn’t miss me, so why don’t I just make it happen? I could write out my last wishes and leave them in the bathroom cabinet. I hear a sort of demon-cackle in the distance, and I close my eyes and see myself asleep in bed, the kind of sleep people don’t wake up from.
Paula comes back with two mugs of tea, the baby crawling after her.
‘I came a bit early,’ she says as she hands me my mug, ‘so you’ll have enough time to get ready.’ She smiles again. ‘Have you worked out where you’re going?’
I’m dumbfounded. I can’t reply, so I shake my head.
‘It’ll be lovely, such a treat.’ The baby clasps her legs and she pulls him up so he’s sitting between us.
‘Ten years. Seems like yesterday, doesn’t it?’
I sip my tea to hide my confusion. Our anniversary. Not only have I forgotten, I’ve been working out how to kill myself, on our anniversary.
I hold down a rising sob, I force it back into my chest, I feel sick with the effort.
She’s speaking again. I watch her mouth, concentrate. ‘You get upstairs while you’ve got the chance, have a nice bath.’ I nod, following the instructions carefully. ‘Don’t worry about supper, the kids and I will work it out. We’ll have a rummage.’ She makes it sound like some exciting game and the children are bouncing around behind her. There’s too much going on and I can’t work out what I’m supposed to do next, so I sit and watch them.
‘Off you go, now, you’ve got loads of time, pamper yourself. The taxi’ll be here at seven.’
I have obediently climbed the stairs and run a bath with bubbles and got undressed and now I am lowering myself into the hot water. I screw up my face when I lie back as there is pleasure and pain in equal measure in this almost-scalding water. I have been told to consider what to wear this evening so I do so, obedient again. I think I should wear the red dress. I need to wash my hair so I sink beneath the bubbles to wet it in the very hot water and I gasp as I go under, and then I think how easy it would be to lie there for a long time and not surface ever again and I lie there for quite a long time holding my breath thinking about lying there for ever until there are suddenly hands gripping me around the back of my neck and my shoulders, the fingers pinching and scrabbling and scraping. They are pulling me up, slipping and sliding over my bubbly skin and hurting me.
I splutter and gasp and pant and push the bubbles out of my eyes and peer through my screwed-up eyes at my attacker, and it is Paula. She is staring at me with her mouth open and she looks ridiculous and I feel superior because she looks more ridiculous than me. I am clothed in bubbles and look dignified, but she is wet all down her front and her sleeves are soaked and her smart tight skirt is soggy and she’s standing in a puddle.
Suddenly I begin to cry. I watch myself crying and I don’t know why I’m crying at all, it’s a mystery to me. Paula fetches a towel from the rail and kneels beside me on the wet floor and wipes my face and says ‘ssh, ssh,’ which is the most ridiculous thing, really, to say to a hysterical woman in a bathtub.
Then she stands and goes to the door and murmurs something quietly. I think of Anthony but then I remember he’s not here and I’m meeting him somewhere. I don’t know where but I do remember - and now I feel triumphant - that it’s our tenth anniversary. So I pour shampoo into the palm of my hand and wash my hair with shampoo which smells of strawberries because it’s the children’s and I giggle because it’s really not very sophisticated for a grown woman to go out smelling of strawberries. Paula has come back and is sitting on the edge of the tub watching me, seriously, and I want to tell her to lighten up but something tells me that this wouldn’t go down well.
‘I didn’t get much sleep last night,’ I tell her, instead.
‘I see.’ She clears her throat. ‘I’m sorry about - ’ and she gestures towards the bubbly water. ‘I knocked and you didn’t reply.’ She runs her hand through her damp hair. ‘I just popped my head around the door and you were, well, you know.’
‘You’re all right, though?’
I nod again.
‘Let me rinse this for you.’
She rinses the shampoo out of my hair with the shower attachment. Hah, I think, I know why you’re doing this. But there’s nothing to stop me drowning myself on another occasion, when you’re not here to stop me. And then I remember the children, and tears trickle down my face and neck and plop gently into the bubbles.
Paula wraps the towel around my hair and wipes my face again. She kneels beside me on the floor while I sit in the hot water and bubbles and she hugs me and leans her head against my betowelled head and holds me tight, wet and slippery as I am, and we rock slightly backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, and she says, ‘I know, I know, ssh, ssh.’
‘You - you - don’t - can’t - ’ This is my voice. It is harsh and gasping and I can barely get any words out as I am very angry and upset and I want to scream but I can hardly breathe for sobbing. All this is flashing through my mind at the same time as wanting to lie down and die.
All Paula says is ‘I know, I know’, over and over, and I know she can’t possibly know anything at all so I say ‘NO NO NO YOU DON’T,’ as loudly as I can but my voice is all distorted and it’s more like a groan.
And she stands up and pulls up her sleeves and I think that’s a bit late, they’re already wet through, and she leans forward and shows me first one forearm and then the other, and there are faint silver lines crisscrossing her wrists, dozens of them, and she says, very quietly, ‘I know.’
The children have eaten supper and had a bath, all three together, and I’ve listened in my bedroom to their laughter and Paula singing silly songs and she has come in and out of my room supervising my packing – we’re going away for the night, Anthony and me, and although I’m supposed to know this it’s a big surprise to me – for she is staying here tonight, and she’s wearing some of my clothes because she got so wet bathing me. That’s what she’s told the children, and I really don’t know what they’ve made of that but who cares.
The demons are lurking in the corners of the room. I can almost but not quite hear their snide remarks as I pull on new tights, fasten my bra, slip into the red dress. It still fits me, they can’t mock me for carrying baby weight; I’m thinner than I was. Scrawny, is what they’re trying to tell me. But I’m not listening. I’m not. Instead, I look inside my overnight case, the one I bought for our honeymoon. It has pale pink satin lining, matching little satin cases for shoes and brushes and make-up, a leather strap and brass buckles, and while I look at it I’m able to block out those demonic voices muttering away in the dark corners, and I’m able to remember that I’m married to a man who loves me and that we have a comfortable home and three wonderful children.
I’m counting… I’m counting.
Judging the Words With Jam competition has been an enormous pleasure and I have been hugely impressed both by the invention of the fifteen short-listed stories and by the quality of the writing. Two stories were set in hotels – the hilarious, deadpan In a Heartbeat about a strings-free liaison between two middle-aged people, and Clothes Make the Man about a divorced salesman delightedly re-inventing himself in a Midlands motel. In some of the stories I learned about new worlds, notably in Pass the Signal at Danger, about a young man working in the signal box on British Rail’s Yorkshire line. The mechanics of this are described in vivid, often lyrical prose, and the writing is also filled with gut-twisting tension as the threat of a collision looms. In Keeping Chris Alive I learned about the dangers of daily life in a South African mine. This story delineates the emotional legacy of an accident that years before had killed the protagonist’s best friend. In Wildfire, set in Montana, a woman steels herself for the impending disaster of a forest fire. The inferno is beautifully described – ‘the edge of the fire was seeping over the ridge like blood from a wound, its glow backlighting billowing smoke’; the story also contains an element of mystery as the fire uncovers grisly evidence of an old crime. In Mrs P, The Dog, and Me a Bulgarian cleaner is taken into the confidence of the rich, pampered divorcee that she works for. The disjunct between their lives is explored with subtle humour and indignation. In Shopping for Conor a father prepares himself for the sadness of his son leaving home. In the shocking payoff Conor does indeed leave home, but not in the way that anyone expected. Two stories are dystopian. To End All Wars is a hellish vision of a conflict set in WW1-like trenches in which the enemy is Death itself, and Without Roots is set in a pollution-saturated Chinese landscape. In this powerful tale Mrs Yu and her grandson, encased in protective clothing, venture outside into the ‘death-tinted’ rain to soothe the spirits of their ancestors. Single Speed is a rites of passage story in which a teenage girl receives both a new bike for Christmas and a lesson about the rise of Fascism and the Spanish Civil War. Welcome to the Street is a vivid story of a fugitive struggling to survive on the streets of South Africa and finding an unusual sanctuary. Two of the stories are about mental illness. In the insightful Rainbow Days the author plays with the idea of the spectrum, as an autistic child’s inner ‘dragon’ compels him to colour code his every action. In Demons, a young mother with severe depression battles the inner demons that ‘reach out with their clawed fingers, nails rasping at my jeans, scratching inside my head, pulling me to the ground.’ The details of her domestic life are casually interspersed with her violent impulses to self-harm. I found this story emotionally engaging, shocking and illuminating and have therefore awarded it third place. In Picture a Small Bird a derelict looking woman visits a library every day, where she sits and does beautiful drawings of birds. When a real bird gets trapped in the building she gently liberates it – and herself. For its wonderfully evocative atmosphere, fine writing, and its ability to make me think about it long after I had read it, I have awarded Picture of a Small Bird second place. Last but by no means least, is Labours. This is a very fine story about a landscape gardener who once hoped to become an archaeologist. The writing is exquisite. ‘A day’s work in the sun and he turns terracotta. He stands before the full-length mirror in the bedroom and the tan line at his waist is a glowing equator, so removed from that colour are his thick, white thighs.’ I was also impressed by the successful scheme of the story with its subtle, enjoyable ambiguities and its undertow of disappointment beneath surface content. For all these reasons I have awarded Labours first place in the competition, but I want to congratulate every writer for their excellent stories which I have enjoyed reading, and thinking about, so much.
London February 2017