Once again, The W&A team have been blown away by the number of entries for the short story competition this year – 2,108 to be precise!
Although no theme was set for this year’s competition, we saw some common threads emerging.
These included stories about dementia and Alzheimer's, mistaken identity, near-death experiences and reflections on life and mortality more generally.
Overall, the tales were more contemplative and reflective and our winning entries reflect these prevailing themes. They are linked by characters experiencing grief, loss and longing.
Without further ado, let's announce the winners!
This year's winner is... Evie by David Simmonds.
Feedback from Alysoun Owen, Editor of the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook:
Evie is a cross-generational tale of family, love, memory, longing and untold stories. It has a quiet, reflective tone. It is well told, with a strong beginning, a clear, concise sense of time and space as we start the story right in the midst of an event. The ending is poignant and there is some excellent use of dialogue to propel the simple but absorbing story along in its understated way. It is full of unsaids and unknowns, locked away family secrets and hovering over the narrative is the spectre of 'what if' and what might have been.
A well-structured, well-written and absorbing piece, Evie is a deserving winner.
Scroll down to read Evie by David Simmons
In second place, highly commended, is... Into the Abyss by Louise Mangos.
Feedback from Alysoun Owen, Editor of the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook:
This is a story of the emotional and physical pain of grief caused by shock and loss and of the ensuing loneliness. It has confusion and dislocation at its heart, as the world of domesticity - chicken stock simmering on the stove - is upended. The everyday mixes with the extraordinary and, like the female narrator; the reader is not sure what is real and what imagined. The opening is excellent: original but a description of a feeling that we can totally identify with.
Scroll down to read Into The Abyss by Louise Mangos
In third place, is... One Moment by Amanda Staples.
Feedback from Alysoun Owen, Editor of the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook:
One Moment is an exploration of loss and longing and of actions that can result from grief. It has an unusual opening that grabs the reader's attention. The first-person narrative is well handled as the narrator gains greater understanding of her own and her mother's emotional hinterland as the events of the story unfold. The twist of an ending is achingly sad, and the switch from present to past and back again is deftly managed.
All three stories deserve to be read and re-read. We hope you enjoy them as much as we did!
Winning Story: Evie by David Simmonds
There had been no conversation in the attic for a while. Two women, lit by the September sunlight struggling through the grimy roof window, were bent intently over their tasks, opening boxes, shuffling papers, examining timeworn books.
Some items were put on a small pile between them; most went into a large plastic sack.
The younger of the two pulled down a small suitcase from a shelf, sending a cloud of dust into the air and setting the motes that had hung almost motionless in the sun’s shaft swirling and eddying.
Vicky coughed and waved a hand theatrically. ‘God, how long had Gran been storing this stuff away?
‘A long time’ said her mother, not looking up from a pile of old letters. ‘She lived in this house from the year she was married until the day she died, so there’s seventy years-worth of memories here’.
‘Any torrid love letters in that pile?’
Her mum smiled. ‘I don’t think so. There was only ever one man in her life, and I don’t think either of them was the torrid type, do you?’
‘No, ‘spose not’, said Vicky, lifting the lid of the suitcase. ‘Quiet contentment was more their style.’
The suitcase was full of old Christmas and birthday cards, but right at the bottom, she found something else.
‘Hello, what’s this?’ she said, holding up a square paper envelope. ‘There’s something written on it…… ’Tredwell. US Army issue’. Looking across at her mother with raised eyebrows, she slid a thumb under the envelope’s seal and carefully drew out a brand new pair of dark brown nylon stockings.
‘US Army issue! Well, there’s a turn-up’, said Vicky. ‘There were quite a few American troops stationed round here during the war, weren’t there? Just before D-Day? I remember one of our teachers at school got us to do a project on it.
‘So, what do you think – Gran had a bit of a romance with a Yank?’
Her mother seemed slightly flustered. ‘Don’t be silly, she wasn’t that kind. I don’t know, perhaps Granddad got them for her from a pal.’
‘I thought you said he was away in North Africa for most of the war? Well, just think – Gran and a mystery Yank’.
‘Vicky, don’t get carried away. I’m sure there’s some perfectly innocent explanation…
Evie liked watching the dancing couples. The vicar had been holding these twice-weekly socials in the church hall for a few weeks now, every Tuesday and Thursday, for the servicemen based around the town. Their numbers had grown substantially over the last six months, especially when the Americans arrived.
They’d caused quite a stir, especially among the younger women. They wore smarter uniforms than the British and they had money, good manners and an indefinable glamour. So much so that Evie’s dad had been very wary of letting her help out with the refreshments, but the vicar had said he’d be very grateful for having a sensible girl to help out and her father had relented.
And those Yanks could dance, too. She was studying their moves, trying to remember them, when someone stepped in front of her.
‘Pardon me, ma’am, but I’ve been trying to attract your attention. Could I get a cup of tea and a slice of that cake, please?’
‘Oh right – yes, sorry, I was day dreaming a bit.’ She loved the way they said ‘cup-a-tea’, it never sounded quite right. ‘There you are, tea and cake. I made it myself actually, so I hope it’s all right.’
He took a bite and chewed carefully for a few seconds.
‘I do believe this is the finest cake I’ve had since I left the US’.
She felt herself blushing.
He put his tea down on the table and extended a hand. ‘My name’s Jake, Jake Sotherby from New York State. And you are…?’
‘Evelyn Davies, but everyone calls me Evie’.
They shook hands solemnly and she looked at him properly for the first time. Tall, slim, with dark, straight hair and colouring and very soft brown eyes; a bit older than most of the other GIs, with stripes on his sleeve.
‘I guess your boyfriend, or husband, is it, will be away in the forces?’ he said.
‘Yes. Barry – that’s my fiancé, sort of, we’re not actually engaged – he’s in the Eighth Army in North Africa, in the artillery.’
‘I’m sure he can’t wait to get back – I know I’d be pretty keen to get back, if I had someone like you waiting.’
And she blushed again. ‘You haven’t got anyone then?’ she asked, thinking this seemed to becoming very personal very quickly, but they were like that, these Americans, they said what was on their minds.
‘No. There was once, but she got tired of waiting, I guess.’
He went on to tell her about the girl who’d left him, and she told him about Barry and how they’d met when they were still at school, how he’d joined up as soon as he could, how she’d just started her first job in the council offices… And then she was really surprised when the vicar closed the gramophone and thanked everyone for coming, because the time just seemed to have flown by.
‘Can I walk you home?’ he asked.
‘Oh no, that’s fine, I’ll be all right’, she replied, wishing very much that wasn’t what she was expected to say.
‘Really, I’d like the walk, it’s a lovely evening.’ He smiled. ‘No funny business, I promise.’
There wasn't, and it became the pattern of their meetings. He would stand next to the refreshment table, talking to her in between customers, and sometimes they’d dance. She’d been worried at first that she wouldn't know the moves, but it was ever so easy, dancing with him, he just seemed to take charge and put her in the right place every time.
And she’d loved the smell of him when they were close – clean, fresh but with a faint tang of something else, something masculine, maybe cigar tobacco, although she never saw him smoke.
When they walked home she’d tell him about growing up in the town and how the war had changed everything, so many things they used to take for granted were rationed now and the girls all longed to get stockings again, and he’d laughed when she said that some of them put gravy browning on their legs and draw a line down the back with a pencil for the seam.
And he told her that he was a paratrooper and he didn't live in New York city but about 200 miles north up towards the Canadian border, the most beautiful place in the fall, when all the leaves turned a thousand shades of red and brown.
Sometimes she wondered if she should tell Barry about Jake… but perhaps not, she thought, it might unsettle him, and it wasn’t like there was anything going on, was there?
Then, one dance night, the hall was virtually empty. A few local civilians, all the girls, but none of the servicemen. No one had any idea what had happened, but the vicar and some of the men looked very serious, and there was talk of ‘the big push’.
The hall emptied early. Evie had almost finished clearing up the virtually untouched refreshment table when Jake burst in wearing a uniform she hadn’t seen before, drab and functional rather than the usual smart dress uniform.
‘Evie, I’m so glad I caught you’. He looked tense and anxious and he reached urgently for her hand. ‘Can we go now? I’m not supposed to be away from camp.’
As they walked, he told her that he’d be going away later that night. He couldn’t give her any details, he didn’t know when he’d be back, and he wasn’t sure how long it would be before he could write to her – but he would, he swore he would, just as soon as it was possible. She walked in a daze.
As they stopped by her garden gate, he rummaged in a pocket of his jacket and pulled out a paper envelope.
‘I wanted to give you something before I left. It’s not much, but I remember you saying about the stockings…’
Her eyes, wide with fear, never left his face as she took the small package. Then she was in his arms and he was kissing her, urgently, passionately. She responded instinctively, pressing herself against the lean, hard body as if she needed to remember the feel of him, this moment, always.
‘I will come back, Evie’, he whispered as he held her close. ‘I will come back, I promise.’
She watched him walk away, striding out purposefully into the gathering gloom, while she clutched her present in both hands and felt the emptiness grow within her.
He never did come back.
In the days that followed, she scoured the newspaper reports of the Allied invasion of Europe, looking for stories of the American forces. Some of the earlier ones did mention the parachute landings and the casualties they’d taken, but soon they became less frequent as the armies drove on through France and into Germany.
The weeks passed and she heard nothing. The war ended, and Barry came home. They married, just as Barry had said they would, and with the help of her parents, bought their first and only house. The stockings were hidden away, with some of her other childhood memories, in the attic.
She did make one attempt – she promised herself it would be the only one – to find out what had happened to him, but the American Embassy in London wasn’t very helpful. Other than his name, she couldn’t give them very many details, and they pointed out that they had a great many more urgent matters to attend to.
The children came, and she and Barry were, by and large, happy. But sometimes, when she was alone, she’d climb the stairs and pull down the attic ladder. She’d find the paper packet, still unopened, and then sit holding it in the quiet darkness, lost in her thoughts.
Was he happy now with his own family, she wondered, watching the seasons change the New England leaves into the russet shades he loved? She tried to picture him there, in a place she’d only seen in travel brochures. And sometimes she thought of him lying somewhere in Europe, sleeping with his fallen comrades.
Then she’d carefully put the paper package back in its hiding place and go down, back to the real world.
‘Want to keep them, or shall I chuck them in the rubbish?’ Vicky asked her mum, tucking the stockings back into their wrapping.
‘Well, that kind of thing is quite collectible now. Put them on one side and I’ll see if I can find a vintage clothing shop that might want them.’
Vicky dropped the stockings onto a small side table and picked up the rubbish bag. One by one, they climbed down the attic ladder, slamming the trap door shut behind them.
Again the dust motes swirled in the gust of air, again they slowed and began to settle, falling gently, gently onto the paper package where it lay, lit by the fading light of the autumn sun.
Second Place: Into The Abyss By Louise Mangos
This story has been removed at the request of the author.
Third Place: One Moment by Amanda Steeples
It’s always the way, isn’t it? You never notice the number of yellow cars until you buy one, thinking you are unique then finding it’s common. You never notice happy couples all cosy and cuddling until you are single. You never notice the numerous babies in every shop, on every street. On every TV advert. Everywhere. Until you can’t have one.
I used to play yellow car with my brother. He was easily car sick and mum would distract us with games such as I-spy and yellow car and making words from letters on number plates. There are far more yellow cars these days than there were back then, they’re ten-a-penny now. I don’t know if you’ve played it but when you spot a yellow car you punch the person you’re playing with. Or, at least, that’s what happened with us. He would bruise me with his punches, Derek, on purpose. I tried to give as good as I got but he always managed to punch harder until I couldn’t take it and despite my best efforts, cried. Then mum would reach behind and smack us both on the legs as hard as she could manage from her twisted, constricted position. Then she’d turn back and moan to my father, usually saying she wished she’d never bothered to have kids or had at least stopped at one.
That would have been Derek. So, I wouldn’t have been born. I don’t think she meant us to overhear her, believing her words drowned out by our squabbling and the radio. But I grew up believing she never wanted me. I wish I’d be brave enough to ask if that were true but I was afraid of the answer.
I never expected to be one of these women who become desperate for a baby. My mother was hardly a maternal example. I had no inkling at all, then wham! One day, I caught myself watching a nursery on a day trip to the park. All the little children like ducklings following a duck. Their hi-vis tabards swamping them and reaching their knees, hanging wonkily off their shoulders. It was Autumn. They were collecting twigs and leaves and conkers. No doubt for some craft activity. Shortly after that, I found out I couldn’t have children after undergoing various rigorous investigations. My husband would not entertain the idea of adoption; couldn’t love another person’s rejected child that would doubtless have ‘issues’. I was still trying to get my head around the idea of IVF when he left me. I haven’t spoken to my mother about any of this. We don’t talk about personal issues in our family.
My brother never married and died young of a heart attack. Well, actually he was on a treadmill and had a heart attack, collapsed, fell off the treadmill and hit his head. That’s what killed him, apparently, the head injury. I don’t know how they tell these things. I don’t want to know. He was thirty-five years old. So, I have no nieces or nephews to spoil in place of a child of my own. My mother has never got over it. She’ll never have grandchildren now. She looks at me as though all her hope died with him. Maybe it’s true that she never wanted me. But she certainly wanted him, or at least, she does now. I am single and childless. We were never close. I am a poor consolation prize.
According to a counsellor I saw briefly, grief will explain away unusual actions; uncharacteristic behaviour. It doesn’t make it right but you can say you weren’t ‘in your right mind’. Grief can make you mad. Literally. Grief is a plausible excuse. I wasn’t close with my brother but his death was a dreadful shock. Events like that make you examine your own mortality. Not that I am old. I am three years younger than him. Though now he will cease to age and I am thirty-seven. He died five years ago and I recall his death every week, whereas my mother consistently lives it every day. I guess you never get over losing a child. It drove her and my father apart. I believe this is quite common. Both of us have been abandoned due to childlessness in one way or another. You’d think people would cling to each other at these moments, that they’d become each other’s life rafts. Perhaps she wanted to drown and he wouldn’t let her. Some people don’t appreciate being saved. Especially when they feel they don’t have much to live for.
So, all of this has brought me to where I am today. Sitting in a police station. Surprisingly, I find the police are very good with these issues. Very understanding. Even though my brother’s death isn’t recent, the grief card can be played to effect. The WPC is very understanding, if a little condescending. Using the sort of voice I imagine she’d use with a lost or frightened child. We’re in one of the interview rooms and she brings in hot sweet tea. I hate sugar in tea but I drink it anyway, because it’s shocking to find myself here.
It’s so easily done. Taking a child. I mean, people really should be more careful. They sit with their phones, texting or chatting. Or they get distracted with the dog they are trying to walk at the same time or another child or another mother. Just something. One moment. That’s all it takes. One moment. It can change everything. Turn your world upside down. That moment.
The gate on the play area in our park never shuts properly. The hinges are wrong; it bounces back open. No-one is bothered. I was watching the child on the slide. He would climb the few steps on the ladder and slide down and do it again. His mother had tied their Weimaraner to the railings outside; dogs aren’t allowed in the children’s play area. Didn’t seem fair to me, tying it up. Not much fun for the dog. But then maybe she doesn’t have time to walk it separately. Another bouncy dog had come over and her dog was clearly bothered by it and frustrated at being tied up. It got itself tangled and was making an awful noise. I was tempted to intervene but feared being bitten. She hopped over the railing and began remonstrating with the other dog’s owner and dealing with her own dog.
And the boy just stopped sliding and walked out of the play area. I thought he would go to his mother but he didn't. I watched him. I moved a little closer to him. Then he broke into a run and headed for the gates. It never occurred to me until then that they had cited the play area perilously close to those gates; to the road. His mother was still struggling with the dog. I should have alerted her, but I didn't. I ran after the boy as he reached the gates and scooped him up. And then it hit me again. Wham! A maternal instinct or something. I don’t know. But a warmth, a yearning in my heart. I wanted to protect this child. I suddenly and desperately wanted a child to mother. That’s why I understand why she did it. But to be arrested. How humiliating.
‘Is that Mrs Hyde?’ a voice I didn't recognise asked as I answered my ringing phone.
‘I’m calling from Frampton police station.’
‘We have your mother. She’s been arrested for attempting to abduct a child.’
So, here I am. In interview room two with her and that nice WPC and I don’t know which of us is more shocked at her behaviour. Me or my mother. The WPC isn’t shocked; this is not her first experience of this. We are waiting to see if the mother of the child will press charges. She has apparently calmed down, so the WPC says.
‘He looked so much like Derek as a baby.’
My mother says this as though this relieves her of her crime. But it doesn’t. I cannot condone her behaviour. These are the only words she has uttered so far, her voice small and distant. She doesn’t look at me.
The child’s mother has been told of my mother’s grief. How she is struggling with the loss of her own child, albeit he was not a child. We are waiting to see if, as a mother herself, she can empathise.
I think about how grateful the mother in the park was when I returned her child. How she cried and pulled him to her and he wriggled away, wanting to play, not understanding the upset he had caused.
And I look at my mother and see, she has not understood the upset she has caused.
I cannot understand how as a mother who has lost a child, she can cause that pain to another mother. But then I remember. Grief makes us mad. In that moment she wasn’t thinking straight. In that moment that other mother wasn’t paying attention.
She is still and silent and staring ahead, my mother. She appears dazed. She has not acknowledged me. I reach over and take her hand. Initially, there is no reaction from her. It’s cold. Then, as though she is responding to the warmth of my hand, she curls her fingers around mine and in that moment, I understand.
A massive thank you to all of those who sent in entries. Next year's Writers' & Artists' Yearbook Short Story Competition will launch in July this year so keep your eyes peeled!