Natasha Pulley

The time has come. Natasha Pulley, author The Watchmaker of Filigree Street and this year's guest judge of our annual Short Story Competition, has chosen two runners up and her overall winner. So without further ado, here we go....

The first runner up, who will receive a copy of the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook 2016 is... 'What They Did With The Hairspray' by Chris Edwards-Pritchard

Feedback from Nastasha Pulley: This is an immensely detailed and understated piece. The way the characters speak is quirky and peppery, and never expositional; they talk about what people really talk about (music and traffic) and they’re always doing something else or thinking of other things while they speak. The use of language is marvellous, especially verbs —‘caterpillaring’ is lovely.  The sense of much bigger things swimming below the surface is effective too; Jack, family problems, the nature of the mother’s work. With a topic like ageing, it’s very easy to become tendentious, but this story never does, which suggests great narrative restraint.

I wasn’t too wedded to the title; it’s too shouty for such a subtle story. On the topic of subtlety, the story is very low key indeed, which is great, and certainly it belongs to the modernist nothing-happens genre, but that does mean the narrative arc peaks very low — really at the moment the narrator wonders what will happen when Jan dies. There’s no event to anchor things. I don’t want her to have a heart attack in the waiting room or anything, but something unexpected to bring everything together would give the story more shape, and perhaps more drive.

Scroll down to read Chris' story

The second runner up, also receiving a copy of the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook 2016 is...'Hugs For The Railway Man' by Sarah Baxter

Feedback from Natasha Pulley:

This is a very, very short story at less than three hundred words, but the idea is sparky and a touch disturbing. The simple style makes a strange idea very clear, and its being told in present tense gives it the feeling of a spoken anecdote, which at this length is effective. The narrator’s admiration for Stan and his or her cheery outlook on the whole thing is charming in the face of what could otherwise be a grim scene.

Although the length is punchy and restrained, it does mean that the piece is more of a snippet than a full story. There’s little in the way of cause and effect — only an event. Much of what could have been made into a scene is only told to us; that Stan found an arm, that the narrator will put it back on another train. That these things are told rather than shown is very true to the anecdotal tone, but at the cost of a sense of things happening and a sense of plot. Nonetheless, it does represent the idea in its simplest, tightest possible form, which is incredibly difficult to do.

Scroll down to read Sarah's story

And this year's winner, who will receive a cheque for £500 and a place on an Arvon writing course is... 'Home ageing' by Robert Montgomery!

Feedback from Natasha Pulley: There’s a glorious care over language in this story. Isadora, one half of the protagonist couple, has a cello voice, she’s pretty as a picture (Guernica) and makes a dead-dad snafu. Although this sort of language is something I’d usually expect of very literary, contemporary fiction about women who sit in houses and think about things too much, this story zooms into science fiction halfway through; there’s a nuclear war and phone signals must reach the moons of Mars, which stretches the scope unexpectedly and beautifully.

Toward the end, the story is a little truncated, which is doubtless to do with the short word count of this competition. It becomes slightly frenzied and slightly generalised, spiralling away from scenes into block narration that feels rushed. It’s connected to the rest of the story only with the ever-present emphasis on sex, which actually put me off Ralph and Isadora’s otherwise splendid relationship a bit. The world they end up in, with companies with names like Antique Lectronics and an expectation that employees have mechanical implants, is under-explored, so there’s a febrility to the last section that doesn’t suit the clear pacing of the first. I think it needs to be a thousand words longer, but if it had been, it would have been well over the word limit.

Many congratulations to Chris, Sarah and Robert, and thanks once again to all those who entered. Remember, enter the code #KEEPGOING before 31st March and receive 10% off any editorial service across the site. And if you're looking for another free writing competition with equally exciting prizes, visit our competition page.

Winner: 'Home Ageing' by Robert Montgomery

The sex really surprised him. Their few dates before had been an okay ride into merging interests, candor, and silences that slowly drained worry. But when hands finally went under clothes, her gushing wildness almost turned him marble – then jacked him with flux he didn’t know was on his grid. He felt he was meeting someone new, so much so he vaguely felt unfaithful.

Afterward, squinting at the ceiling – is it changing colors? – he thought of proposing. Instead he said, “I think I’m in love.” 

“Let’s enjoy it while it lasts,” came her cello voice. “And when that burns off, we’ll see if what’s left is love.” 

“Yeah,” he said. “Not time to say ‘I love you’ yet.” 

“Too soon,” she said agreeably. 

The overish in-love aura took about four months to fade. They toked its last gasp in the graveyard shift at the law firm where they both worked IT. Hard to imagine a more deadening setting than small hour fluorescence on messy desks in a landscape of half-gutted PCs, but glimpses of the other kept them on the qui vive. Her job was backing up daily files, his was asking coffee-ticced callers if they’d reboot for him or read him the error message word for word (please). After one glimpse too many she came over and straddled him, launching the unnatural but natural enough course of office in-lovemaking. She was murmuring something in alienese he grokked as Big Bang related when the phone rang, and three hours later they were flying to London and her father in a coma from a brain stroke. Do-or-die time for love, with its concomitant certainty of terrible grief when the loved one goes. 

“Daddy, this is Ralph,” she said to her simulacral pa tethered to various bag-lines and pinging hardware. Oh, so this is Ralph he didn’t say, but his eyes sprang open and darted in alarm at speed-of-light implications. “Daddy it’s me it’s all right it’s all right,” she said, putting the back of her hand on his unshaven cheek with ultimate gentleness. “It’s Isadora, Daddy, I’m here with mom and Ralph, you’re hospitalized, you’re getting good care and we’re sending you light.” She kept streaming him gigs of love, her sonata tones closing his widened eyes at electric garage door pace. 

That night she got sick on Guinness and stress, and spent time in the loo throwing up. He held her hair back from her great face, thinking even now she’s pretty as a picture (Guernica). 

“I love you,” he said. 

“Me – you – too,” she said, and ralphed a final time. 

On the flight home, he told her, “I want you to marry me.” 

“Why?” she said louder than the roar of the plane. 

“You know why.” 

“You don’t like me.” 

“I don’t?” 

“You condemned me for what happened.” 

“I totally didn’t!” 

They had driven for an hour to the seaside for the scattering when she remembered the ashes were still in the garage where she’d left them to run back in the flat for a scarf and forgot to retrieve them coming back. When she realized her error, her self-laceration flung itself brazenly at hysteria. He stayed a paragon of patience as they U-turned and drove back for the numinous to the brink of nerve damage, then swallowed a Fibonacci series of shrieks a tick before they pierced her organ of sanity. “Why didn’t you check if I had the ashes?!” she wailed. He said he’d been too busy trying not to worry about driving on the left, at which point he turned right into the right (wrong) lane, faced a blaring oncoming semi, swerved and crushed the left front fender into an English Elm. 

During the ensuing calls and towing and hitch to the seaside, she looked in vain for friendliness from him. The scattering took place in the sunset dusk, fiery rose shmears in a blade-gray sky, he and she singing a choked “Going Home” to that tune from The New World Symphony. Later, in the airport hotel, their duet was “Silent Treatment.” They fell asleep without touching. 

Waking up was a new day, and the vibes of the night were down from heat lightning to a lifting fog. Loud sex in the bathroom sealed the deal and cracked the mirror. Their silence over coffee and the paper glowed with resurrection secrets. 

But the dandelion of her dead-dad snafu hadn't been dug out by the roots. With sunlight and grief’s humus, it had sprung up sixty-thousand feet above ocean. 

“I condemn profit-gouging,” he said, “and the sex trade and sexism and homophobia and all institutionalized unfairness. But you I do the opposite of condemn.” 

She looked out the window at the stuff that covered three-fourths of the earth and spawned its life. “I know,” she said finally, staring at it harder. 

They put off the wedding till her mom felt up to traveling. His folks, barely functioning drunks, mingled as stiffly as totem poles, cementing his gladness at gaining a family. As honeymooners, they enjoyed tracking her brother’s fling with a bridesmaid, which ended when she hid his glasses for two days after a fight. 

Ralph kept being surprised by the Isadora variations that came out of hiding in saturant married sex: the great listener dethroned by a dictator tolerating no further discussion; the sylph who danced with kids at the reception – morphed into a hippo stomping free from a cage; her velvet alto meting out phrases that neither overplayed nor undercut her import – now yelping and grunting like a concussed tackle getting goosed. It wasn’t until their third anniversary that her range of sexual expression feathered wind chimes of familiarity for him. A lovely sound, that grew sharper over the next five years until she pulled his hair too hard for the third time in a month. “Ow!” he snapped – and abruptly left his ministrations to go pee, after which he turned on the shower instead of returning to kneel at her altar. As he soaped up and tried with little success to stop being pouty – whoosh, the curtains part. She takes over the soaping. 

“Honey, did I hurt you?” 

He didn’t answer, his Poutman persona hanging tough – but sloughing off like snakeskin when she tilted up her rain-streaming face and said, “It’s nice you’re so strong and I’m so light, you can so easily lift me and move me on you.” 

Then comes baby and things really get wild. Feral screams crumbling the civilization of night. Violent spasms of real death-door fear. New species of other rearers; the novae and black holes of school; terrible dressing crises (thirty barrettes, one head); psycho teachers and exhibitionists shadowing play zones. Committed to parenting, they hack their jungle relationship down to a weed-tending garden of good-naturedness. Their sex hushes, its arena shrunk to one room. He can now name the planets where her alien ecstatics transport from. The poem he wrote kid cracks its glass with a laser app. 

A nuclear war causes quite the buzzard flap, and the spin doctors crow that it’s really the war to end all wars this time. Voice-run buttonphones now reach Deimos and Phobos faster than dial-up in the old days. Astronomers report that a pattern of data from EZ Aquarii B seems to be saying dark energy equals dark matter times c to the power of ði. They each confess that their eyes yes sometimes do yes rove to others for variety from their same ol’ same ol’ multiverse of sexual wonders. Their withering discussion of open marriage gets euthanized when he finds her on the floor one night, eyes quivering up in her head. Turns out she walked into a half-open door and is fine – but the jolt of thinking she died sears in him how much the home base of his being equates with all that’s familiar in her (e.g., her little wrists, her froggy belch, the strange constellation in her lumbar curve). She too is more than happy to give up their probing of openness in favor of opening her legs only to him, which she almost always does now in missionary. 

Their kid ascends to ethicist for a cloning cum genome lab, and final-approves the tryst of a Nobel Peace Laureate’s egg with Olympic Skyboarder seed. Before the new-made man reaches driving age, he frees Tibet. World skies doppler with all sorts of vehicles, including a few flying horses. It’s getting real hard to tell protests from raves. Isadora and Ralph stay in tune with the times enough to be hip with their daughter, which serves them well when they socialize. Izzy retires from Organic Motherboards™ when asked to get a scanner the size of a Milky Way sewn on the side of her thyroid – “to help you transmit at competitive rates.” Ralph quits his job at Antique Lectronics™ to do more golden year time with her. 

They work on a singing act, composed of nostalgic gangsta rap and Abba/Beatles/Cohen/Dylan samples made popular by best-selling moviebooks. They only have rows now over how much to sing stuff as originally recorded and how much to add their own twists. As outside life keeps getting wilder, their sex gets predictable as sunrise, surer than night. Being in her is his home of homes, and being in the world starts to feel similar. 

Runner up: 'What They Did With The Hairspray' by Christopher Edwards- Pritchard

Mum asked me to change the CD in the Waiting Room because we’d had nearly three weeks of Ultimate Panpipe Classics on loop. Jan Gruber was in there thumbing through an issue of HELLO magazine.

‘I’ve come to liberate you from this racket, Jan,’ I said.

‘Don’t mind me,’ she said, sitting forward. She didn’t know my name. She only knew me as one of Dr Huntley’s boys. She was still in her coat even though the radiators were up full blast. It was a long puffy purple affair, caterpillaring from neck down to shinbones.

‘I got here nice and early,’ said Jan, smiling at the clock on the wall, and then at me. Her smile was thin and dependent on springy eyebrows, which had been freshly pencilled. I imagine she had to stretch her skin as she pencilled.

‘Roadworks okay on the overpass?’ I asked her.

‘Nightmare,’ she said. ‘I cut through town.’

I knelt at the table with the CD player on it, and picked up a pile of CDs. There were some old plastic tractors and books and magazines on the table, and a sign above the CD player that said: You’re Welcome To Choose Your Own Music, but nobody ever paid much attention to it. It was laminated and peeling at the edges and the words were in a rainbow of Comic Sans. It was one of the first things Mum created on the computer after Dad left. It took her hours.

‘I heard there’s some down Longford now?’ I said.

‘A three-way,’ said Jan. ‘I zipped through a red, truth be told.’

‘You didn't?’

‘They give you bags of time on the reds, love,’ she said. ‘Everyone does it.’

Jan had fluffy white hair. I imagine she had it permed every five or six weeks.  It  looked like it  had recently been permed.  I  began to sift through the CDs, putting them in piles of yes, no and maybe. They were mostly classical and instrumental.

‘Anything interesting?’ I asked, nodding at Jan’s HELLO magazine.

‘This?’ she said. ‘I just wanted something to look at.’

She put the magazine back in the pile.

‘Probably an old copy anyway,’ I said. I shuffled over and picked it up to have a look. I caught a whiff of her perfume. It was kind of nice, if a bit overpowering, somewhere between a florist and a launderette. Pippa Middleton was on the front cover of the magazine in a red dress. The magazine promised details of Her Incredible Journey. ‘One of Jack’s, probably,’ I said.

‘Jack,’ she said, as if remembering an item on her shopping list.

‘There you are, July 2014,’ I said, pointing at the date.

I looked some more at Pippa.

‘That arse of hers is a national treasure,’ I said.

‘Oh now,’ said Jan. She rolled her eyes and did some long drawn out tuts, sucking the roof of her mouth with her tongue. ‘I thought you were Jack,’ she said. ‘You all look so alike, so tall. Which one are you then?’

‘I'm the youngest,’ I said.

She studied me as if I was a crossword.

I put the Disney Instrumental Essential Album into the no pile.

‘Kenneth, is it?’ she asked.

‘Kenny,’ I said.

‘That’s right,’ she said. ‘Your mum’s done a good job raising you three boys on her own. I was one of her first patients when she moved here with your father. My old homeopath, Mr Gibbons, was retiring and a bit of a letch if we’re honest, and he recommended your mum. Your brother had just been born, what’s the oldest called?’

‘Jack,’ I said.

‘Jack’s not the oldest, is he?’

I nodded.

‘Of course, Jack then Peter then Kenneth. That’s it. I remember playing trains with him when we used to have to wait in the living room. I knew then he was different, the way you can just tell sometimes.’

We turned the study into a Waiting Room when Dad left. It’s slim and has no windows. That was eighteen years ago. Jan looked out through the doorway to the living room. Our dog, Bailey, was slumped behind the living room door with his nose up against the glass. He wasn’t allowed in the Waiting Room because some of the patients were allergic to dogs, and others were afraid of them.

‘Classic FM Hall Of Fame, or, Music Of The Royal Swedish Navy?’ I asked.

I held up two CDs.

‘Pardon?’ said Jan.

‘What music would you like on?’

‘What were the options?’ she said.

She leant towards her bag, which was dark leather. She kind of struggled, but I didn't know if that was because she was weak, or if all those layers of coat were getting in the way. Reams of purple polystyrene lapping inwards. I imagine she wanted her glasses.

‘Basically between classical and classical,’ I said.

‘Oh,’ she said, flapping her hands at her bag as if telling it to go away. She squinted at the CDs. ‘Not got any Slipknot?’ she said.

I almost dropped the CDs.

‘Slipknot?’ I said.

With a large blink to emphasise my incredulity.

‘I've lived a life, haven’t I? Their music is awful shouty, but it’s shouty for a reason,’ she said.

I told her that that’s a very astute review. Her eyebrows went up and she did a thin-lipped laugh. Her hair wobbled as she laughed. I wonder how much hairspray she had used each morning. I wonder what they did with the hairspray when she died, whether it was given to somebody else, a daughter, granddaughter, relative or friend, or just thrown in the bin.

‘Max used to listen to them,’ she said. ‘Only ever on his headphones. So I plugged them in one night he was out, whilst I was doing the ironing. And you know what? It was the quickest I ever did the ironing.’

I laughed.

‘You crack me up,’ I said. I fake-looked through some of the CDs.

‘Damn, Jan, no Slipknot in this pile.’

‘Shame,’ she said. ‘How is Jack, then?’

Dad left when Jack came out.

‘He’s living in Paris now,’ I said.

She gave me a that-makes-perfect-sense nod of the head.

‘My husband  died  three  weeks  after  he  retired,’  she  said.  She wasn’t looking at me, she was staring at the other side of the room, at the cork noticeboard which was pinned with thank you cards and a leaflet about a play called CrackerJack at GL1, the leisure centre in town.

‘This may sound stupid,’ she said. ‘And I’m not saying it to make you laugh, but I always thought he was gay, my husband. I had no proof, I just knew. The way you just know. I often thought about leaving him. I couldn’t give him everything he wanted. I guess he was only with me because he wanted children, and he knew a man couldn’t have given him that, not back then.’

I wondered if she’d forgotten she was talking to me and not my mother. I put some of the no pile CDs back on the table. I’d whittled the yes pile down to The Best Of Beethoven and Mozart The Masterworks.

‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ I said.

‘I’ve embarrassed you? I’ve said too much?’

She pulled a tissue from the sleeve of her coat and dabbed her nose, and then tucked it back up her sleeve, pushing it up her purple arm.

‘No,’ I said. ‘Not at all.’

‘It’s just, I sit at home all day,’ she said.

‘I know,’ I said.

‘I'm glad Jack’s doing well,’ she said.

I held up the two CDs.

‘What’s it gonna be then?’

I read out the titles to her.

‘Your choice,’ she said.

The doorbell went.

‘One minute’, I said to Jan.

I hopped up and went to the door. Bailey was barking from the living room. It was Mr Rockwell, another regular. ‘Bloody roadworks,’ he said, pointing down our driveway with his walking stick. He was wearing a brown suit. I could see all of the pores on his nose, most of them blackheads. His daughter was just parking up under our big oak tree.

‘Afternoon Mr Rockwell,’ I said.

‘Roadworks everywhere,’ he said, ‘but nobody actually has a clue why they’re doing them.’

He grabbed at both sides of the door frame to guide himself in, and I offered my hand, and then my arm. His daughter came up the path and supported his shoulders from behind. I imagine they were boney. She nodded hello, and sniffed. Her nose was running. I walked them through to the Waiting Room at a slow pace. We found the Waiting Room empty. Jan must have gone through already. I went to change over the CD’s but I heard Mr Rockwell say to his daughter that the music was soothing, so I left Ultimate Panpipe Classics in the player and went upstairs.

Runner up: 'Hug For The Railway Man' by Sarah Baxter

When I discover Stan dead in bed, I know not to move him, but am sure to tidy away before dialling 999.

‘No family?’ the young doctor asks after he certifies, picking up the only photo on the mantelpiece: Maud and Stan, him dressed in his GNER uniform.

‘She died a while back. Never had kids.’

‘Shame. Must have been lonely.’

‘Stan wasn’t lonely,’ I smile. ‘He was very resourceful.’ The doctor raises an eyebrow.

‘I did his cleaning.’

The funeral men from the Co-Op arrive two hours later and load Stan into their grey ambulance.

‘I’ll lock up,’ I say as I wave them off.

I close the front door and head to the kitchen. I unfurl a bin bag from a roll in Stan’s pantry before sprinting upstairs.

I reach beneath the valance of the double bed to retrieve what I stowed earlier – a false arm wearing a cut-off sleeve from one of Maud’s flowery nighties. The arm was wrapped around Stan’s waist when I found him – an improvised comfort, the memory of his wife’s embrace.

Stan had been a railway man, but not on the engines – he managed Lost Property until retirement. When a commuter left a false arm on the fast train to London, the story made the papers. It remained unclaimed, so Stan took it home.

‘It was amazing what folks left behind,’ Stan had chuckled, after I’d startled on first sight of stiff fingers poking out from beneath his pillow. ‘Helps me sleep.’

We never spoke of Stan’s homemade hug; it was an old man’s secret, and I kept it.

I wrap the arm inside the black bag. Tomorrow I’ll take a train to London and leave it in the overhead luggage.