Once again, the W&A team have been inundated with entries for our annual short story competition, sifting through close to 1000 in total.
Writers' & Artists' Yearbook Editor Alysoun Owen takes over the W&A blog to announce the winner and commended entries for this year's competition...
Once again, the W&A team have been inundated with entries for our annual short story competition, sifting through close to 1000 in total.
In terms of trends, although there was no title or theme set this year, the subjects of death and loss featured widely, as was reflected in our initial shortlist and also the winning entry.
What am I looking for in a short story? It is highly subjective of course, but there are certain key aspects that I think the most readable stories share, whatever their genre. A ‘good’ short story for me is one that grabs the reader’s attention from the first line and paragraph, and continues to hold it right to its conclusion. It might do that in various ways – stylistically, through its subject matter and by condensing a narrative into a well-structured whole in a very short amount of space. That is an art. Rather like placing your cutlery to rest on your plate in a good restaurant, when I come to the end of a story that I’ve been engrossed in I want to feel satisfied and perhaps wishing there was a little more of the same to come.
The winner of this year’s competition amply manages to do that.
So without further ado, let's announce the winners!
This year's winner is...The Colour Forty by Lucy Grace
Feedback from Alysoun Owen, Editor of the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook:
The Colour Forty by Lucy Grace intrigues from the very start, not least with its title. The reader only becomes fully aware of what the ‘colour forty’ is until the final paragraphs and what it represents symbolically and literally in the lives of those in the story, in particular that of its narrator. This is a well-told story, with a clear sense of direction and theme, that builds a convincing sense of space, characterisation and atmosphere with a subtlety and skill.
It is a well deserved winner.
Scroll down to read The Colour Forty by Lucy Grace
It was a close-run contest. The three stories that very nearly made it to the winning spot, and are highly recommended are (in no particular order):
A Colder Light by Kay Sexton
Feedback from Alysoun Owen, Editor of the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook:
A well-crafted and very moving story that has loneliness, misunderstanding and mental illness at its core, leading to a terrible and heart-wrenching conclusion.
Christmas Carol by Daniel Shooter
Feedback from Alysoun Owen, Editor of the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook:
This is a story that starts out with humour and seemingly mundane events, well depicted through the eyes of the protagonist Carol, which turns into something much more significant.
The Wind in the Bellows by Dan Forrester
Feedback from Alysoun Owen, Editor of the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook:
A quirky tale that builds up a clear sense of character, mainly through its controlled and impressive use of dialogue. The ending is not neatly tied up and leaves the reader contemplating several what ifs.
Winning Story: The Colour Forty by Lucy Grace
The Colour Forty.
From where I crouched, I could usually see all forty of them. Each the same diameter, piled in a careful beehive rainbow. I coveted these smooth, perfect hexagonal spindles like nothing else. I wanted to touch them with my fingertips, roll them out on the floor, marvel at the colours and their symmetry, stroke and order them. But they were out of bounds - out of my bounds, anyway. So, I hid, and I looked. Until the day there were no longer forty.
“Who’s been at my things?” he raged, slamming down newspapers on the table and sweeping cutlery aside in a noisy rattle. “Which sneaky bugger has buggered off with things that don’t concern them?”
“If you’re going to have to swear, dear, try to do it more imaginatively,” said Auntie Shirley from the kitchen. She wasn’t my real auntie - she took the title posthumously following the death of my parents’ marriage, but when her own house emptied at the sound of a speedy gunshot dressed in white lace, fired towards her last careless boy, she simply relocated across the yard to ours and continued with her wifely duties. We quickly settled into Auntie Shirley’s calendar of market day Saturday, roast dinner Sunday and wash day Monday. On my favourite day, Tuesday, I would return from school to find a different Auntie Shirley, serene in a tented canopy of fragrant bedsheets and starched shirts. Condensation would creep across the windows, a bride’s veil hiding us all inside, and I could sit under the table on the cross of the barley twist struts and watch the people I loved behave as I imagined a real family did. On ironing Tuesday, the air pressure was released. Gone were the raised voices and barely repressed anger – the house smelled of home and swelled its belly, breathing out to make room for everyone. I thought it must have been the steam.
It was a Tuesday afternoon when the forty turned into thirty-nine. I remained in my hiding place under the table and watched from safety, as my father turned the kitchen and the back room upside down. Auntie Shirley simply continued at her board, pressing and lifting and turning, her face resolute and eyes neutral. When my name was mentioned, she glided a sheet down from where it hung over the pantry door and smoothed it over the table edge, shrouding me in secret and hiding me from view.
At bedtime there were still only thirty-nine, but the search was exhausted. My father had left for the pub but the heavy slam of the back door told us all how he felt. I listened to their heavy boots trudge down the ginnel and gingerly turned over in the lumpy bed, my face pressed into the shoulder blades of my bigger sister whilst the knees of my littler sister dug into the small of my back like knives. I hardly dared close my eyes, terrified that the night would bring an unconscious honesty to my dreams and I would speak the truth aloud, revealing myself to my sisters. These fears prevented me from sleeping, and I remained trapped in a twilight half world of colours and clouds which swirled around like emerald green weeds in lake water, catching the light to slide through the rainbow around me whilst I could only drown.
Next morning it was a relief to get to school to use the privy, so I could take a minute to screw the heels of my hands into my eyes to make a proper blackness, pressing and pressuring until the stars appeared and made little popping candy flashes in my head. I lost track of time and got in trouble when my answer to, “Where have you been?” was simply “The privy, miss” – only a simpleton forgot to call it the lavatory at school, and only a liar said they had been there for more than a minute or two. Everyone knew that your nose would not let you choose it as a place to linger. But today it was my only solitude - I was terrified of what would happen when I got home. My father was on afters this week, which meant that he finished at half two and was washed up and on his way home at a similar time to me. School was a few streets away from the pit, and if I cut through Jackie Bates’ back yard I could come down our street from the tip end and not tread the same route as him and the other pitmen, scarily white-eyed in their half dirt.
As I approached our house the air thickened. There was a knot of people outside looking up the road, and the noisy quiet coming from the small crowd hushed as I approached. Panicked, my heart started to beat faster as they saw me - they gave each other loud glances – how could they have found out so quickly? Did my father know? My steps faltered as I neared, mind racing but my movement almost stilled. Then in an explosion of sudden movement I saw my Auntie Shirley come flying from the ginnel entry towards me.
“I didn’t….” I began, but I was stifled by the grip of her worn red hands and the starched roughness of her apron. Half blinded by her clothing, I was hustled and bustled along, my feet hardly touching the ground, until Auntie Shirley dropped me onto the oxblood kitchen tiles. I felt their shined surface under my thumbs as I looked up, and it was plain in the aged paleness of the grieving face why the house was quiet, and why the neighbours were clustered outside like flies trapped in the corner of a window pane.
“He’s in the front room,” said Shirley, simply. I knew then that she would never be Auntie again. No-one went in the front room except for high days and holidays, and for days like today for which there was no friendly rhyme. Death days.
I stood at the stair bottom with my hand on the cold door knob, wondering if I’d have to touch his cheek, and whether he would be alabaster smooth like the angels in church or spiked like a conker shell. After a while I became aware of Shirley behind me.
“Go on, its ok – he’s your Da, he can’t hurt you now.”
Turning the brass knob very slowly, I tried to open the door. Cold sweat had gathered on my palm and it made the egg-shaped sphere slick in my hand, so I wiped it downwards on my clothing and tried again. The door opened into an unfamiliar dark room. Light poked its fingers around the heavy curtain edges and showed the shape of my father and the sideboard, both unrecognisable in their position. I had never seen my father horizontal or the sideboard stranded in the middle of the rug, and the new arrangement of them both was unsettling. Reaching out to my father’s rough hand, I touched his sausage fingers, grimed with the coal dust that crept into every line and crack making his skin look like something that had been screwed up and flattened out. My young hand looked alien next to his aged body, a different specimen entirely, an alternate genus. As if it didn’t belong to me, I watched my index finger slide along the length of his, from the nail tip into the joint with his thumb, quickly finding a home in his palm. I rested my finger in this small cave, knowing that he was never again going to close his hand around mine, and everything stood still.
From the blackness of the room, my mind was suddenly filled with colour. I saw the first Spring crocus in pearl violet and sun yellow, the new signal green grass of the top field, my mother’s warm orient red lipstick and the sticky traffic orange Shirley preferred. I swooned in periwinkle, cerulean, denim, indigo, ultramarine and Persian skies, and fell over and over into the rabbit hole until I could not feel which way was up. Shirley half carried and half dragged me upstairs and put me into bed.
I do not remember much else of the rest of the afternoon. I slunk listlessly in and out of sleep, dimly hearing the undertaker and his boy bring the empty coffin, noting the scrape of the sideboard and the curse of the man catching his shin in the darkened room, but that was all.
It was fully dark when I woke for the last time. Silently, I pushed back the blankets and stood unsteadily, listening. This would be my only chance. I stole downstairs into the back room and knelt in the corner under the window. Carefully, I put my fingernails in the crack between the boards and prised up the plank. My fingers scrabbled blindly before they seized on the roll of papers underneath. Without hesitating I took them into the front room where my father lay. The coffin was closed now; the peacock bruising from the roof fall was starting to come out, already making him a memory.
There was little light, but even in the pitch black I could feel the colours in the drawings on these pages. I remembered the evenings I sneaked down to find my father bent over the table, his rough hands caressing the coloured pencils in front of him. I would watch, hidden at the bottom of the stairs, as he selected a pencil and began to draw, creating a landscape of glowing colours that were not available underground. It was as if all the colours of a typical day were saved up in his mind whilst he was working in the black, and only in this his quiet, secret time was he able to let them flow out.
Unrolling the papers, I carefully offered the first one up to the slit underneath the coffin lid. After a moment of jiggling, I managed to insert one corner into the gap. Solemnly I slid it further in, until it slipped from my fingers and disappeared. I gently posted all the rest to him. When the last one fluttered down to lie on his dead chest, I rested my forehead on the edge of the wooden box and gave a dry sob. Inside my mind I could see the colours growing up around him, a forest of flowers and fields and streams, a rainbow of life. Turning, I briefly wondered which picture had drifted nearest his heart – was it his early sketch of me and my sisters, playing in the yard, or was it the tender drawing of my mother, drawn from behind, as she stood at the sink looking out at the world? Neither mattered to me now. He was sleeping in a meadow of colour with all of us, at peace.
Back in bed, I reached under the mattress at the side near the wall, and dug around for the colour forty. It had taken me moments to whip it away from the others in the pile – I always knew which one I would take. Running my finger over the stamped gold lettering, my fingers read the words, chartreuse. Such a mystical colour, unknown yet familiar; I admired its ability to be two things at once. Green and yellow, chartreuse was exactly the mid-point between both. I loved it for its bravery and worldliness; the ugly abutment of the vowels in its name and the sickliness of its colour did not dim the brilliance for me. I saw chartreuse everywhere, in the apples I ate, in the moss on the yard wall, and finally, in the bruises on my father’s damaged body.
Putting the pencil softly under my pillow, I lay down to sleep. With my eyes finally closed, I could at last walk quietly in my dreams, through a world of colour and beauty, holding the hand of my father.
Highly Commended: A Colder Light by Kay Sexton
Richard knew, before he even saw her, that Jodie had made a mess of things again. There were clues, the car parked askew with its front bumper wedged in the snow, the bright red streamer of her scarf over the front seat instead of round her neck, and the fact that she was twenty minutes late for church.
“Richard, so sorry!” She appeared from the wrong side of the road, her coat unbuttoned, pressing her hands together in a joking supplication that had real contrition laced though it. He smiled, putting his arm round her, hugging her, not just to reassure her, nor because a Brussels winter brought out his Victorian bonhomie, but because he loved her and wanted her to feel the same expansive satisfaction that filled him.
He’d never imagined that it would be this way: he the successful civil servant, double-homed, enjoying the complex processes of disentanglement from the European Union, and Jodie - once the high-flyer - now a volunteer at the Brussels Botanic Gardens, no longer the driven, desperate, Deputy Head of a Sheffield secondary school, but leisured wife and mother.
He looked for Hadyn.
“He’s already gone inside,” she read his mind, as she always could. “He’s swapping something with Ollie.”
“New best friend. Ollie has a Playstation and they bonded over a game.” Jodie thrust her hands into her pockets and breathed out, a puff of white vapour obscuring her face like a caul.
Richard noted her wet coat and sodden boots. She followed his gaze and looked up, blinking rapidly at the trough of cloud that hung over them.
“What happened?” He pulled her coat closed and forced the buttons through the damp fabric.
“I fell over again. Right into a heap of snow – I’m soaked through.”
He couldn’t understand it. Something here made her skid and stumble when in the Yorkshire Dales she’d been confident and sturdy. She thought it was something to do with the pavements or the winter light - he thought it was psychosomatic.
She nodded and they walked into the church to hear Hadyn and other students at the international school sing carols. It was their last task of the year, the final twirl in the Brussels social spiral before flying out.
Over the past few months he’d charted the way they described their regular returns to Sheffield. Hadyn said ‘going back’ as though Yorkshire was a retrograde step, Jodie said ‘home’ and he himself had given up saying anything other than ‘Yorkshire’ – he liked straddling the continent, living in two places, being a minor colossus. Who would have thought he could bring his family this far?
Everybody had seen Jodie as the successful one, but a single sideways move, one little career convolution, and he’d outstripped her, zooming into the Brussels firmament, doubling his salary, trebling his pension .... he held her arm gently during the reading of the lessons, hoping she could feel his affection radiating through the layers of cloth. Brexit was making it even easier because soon there would be no going back - a choice had to be made - and it was obvious the decision would be to stay here.
“What now?” Hadyn stuck his head between them, making Jodie jump. “Don’t tell me how great we sounded, or I’ll throw up. It’s all too saccharine, this bloody carol singing.” He tucked his hands into his armpits and shivered. It was a Bruxellois affectation not to wear gloves, transmitted from teenager to teenager like a virus.
“If you put your gloves on, I’ll take you skating while your dad packs up the house,” Jodie said, forestalling Richard’s comment about bad language.
Richard frowned. He knew what that meant. An area of the National Botanic Garden had been flooded to make an artificial rink, safer than a lake, and popular with ex-pats and locals alike. But while Hadyn skated with his gloves off, Jodie would scoot away to her plants – checking seedlings being over-wintered in propagators, examining rare shrubs for frost damage or water-logging, counting seeds in the dehydrator, or shaking them into foil packs for the vacuum sealer. It was all part of her heritage seed project, preserving rare vegetables by growing, harvesting and storing seed.
Their dinner table had become a surreal vista of black cabbages and green carrots; Richard had drawn the line at blue-skinned potatoes and Hadyn had refused to take brown strawberries to school in his lunch box. It was as if Jodie’s former scope, her talents, had become as dry and wizened as the seeds she garnered. Like something in storage. Desiccated. Old.
Richard insisted Jodie went for tests when she began to fall over, but there was nothing wrong, apparently. Or to put it another way, there was nothing apparent that could be described as wrong. But something was awry. In the perfect blooming of their future, a worm made holes in his happiness.
He didn’t want her to continue working with the heritage seeds – it sapped her resilience, made her silent. When she came back from the Gardens he and Hadyn tiptoed around her. It was stunting their family life. He would use the time back in England to persuade her to do something else. She could be a teaching assistant at Hadyn’s school – it would be good for her to mix more with other parents.
Schools and parents. Jodie wasn’t good at either, these days. It had started in Yorkshire, but there had been nothing serious: no misconduct or breakdown or violent attack by a pupil – nothing that could explain her failure to thrive. Just small things: a sore throat, migraines that lasted days, then both together, then laryngitis and neuralgia. Finally, long-term sick leave. The Education Department had suggested she consider retraining. That was when he’d seen the Brussels secondment and she’d encouraged him to apply.
“Perhaps a new start is what I need, love,” she’d said. “Can’t do us any harm, can it?”
It had done him nothing but good, and Hadyn had become a confident cosmopolitan - broad Yorkshire in Sheffield, Bruxellois in Brussels, at home in both.
But Jodie wasn’t thriving. Apart from her long hours at the Botanic Gardens, she’d stepped away from life. Sometimes, when Richard saw her from a distance, he believed she’d shrunk, she seemed diminished and, although he didn’t like the thought, shrivelled.
She was too young to wither. They could even have another child - she was only thirty-eight. She needed to be mixing more with people and less with botanical specimens. When they got to Yorkshire, he was going to take her out of herself, go dancing, maybe a spa weekend away together while Hadyn stayed with Jodie’s parents. Something, anything, to kick-start her back into enjoying life.
The skating trip seemed to be a success. Hadyn came back telling of exploits suggesting he’d be speed-skating in the Olympics any day, munching on caramelised peanuts he’d purchased from a street stall.
“That’ll ruin his appetite for dinner,” Richard said, meaning where were you when he was buying such rubbish?
‘Oh well, once won’t hurt,’ Jodie smiled and wandered off.
“What did your mother do, while you skated?” Richard watched Hadyn blink, obviously sorting through potential answers for the one that would cause least harm. He didn’t wait for the boy to answer. Instead he followed Jodie, finding her in the spare bedroom, with the window open. The air outside was as dense and grey as an old sock, heavy with snow still to fall. Jodie leaned out, as though supporting herself on the solidity of the twilight.
“What the hell are you doing?” It was louder than he’d intended, full of the frustration he felt, and Jodie flinched as though he’d lunged at her. A handful of something skittered across the sill and into the snow two stories below. She smiled again as she wiped her hand and ducked away from him.
“Come on, Jodie, this isn’t normal. What are you doing in here?” He took her arm to stop her leaving and leaned out of the window. There were peas on the blue-painted sill. “Peas?”
She held out her free hand, revealing three more peas, like shrunken fairy heads, pale and wrinkled. “It’s the Carruther’s,”she said.
He waited. She put her hand back in her coat pocket.
“The Carruther’s,” he said, finally. “That explains everything.”
She smiled and he wondered what it meant. A smile seemed to be her answer to all situations now. If this continued she’d be a village idiot – a turnip head with an empty grin for every occasion and the flickering light inside concealing rather than revealing.
“They’re a heritage vegetable,” Jodie said. “We’ve been trying to grow them – Carruther’s Purple Podded – but they don’t come out purple. The pods have a purple stem and a little bit of mauve veining, but that’s all. Then a woman in Kent wrote and told us that her granddad used to bury his dried Carruther’s peas in a snowdrift before he sowed them and they came up as purple as aubergines. We tried it in the refrigeration unit at the Botanic Garden but it didn’t work. So I wondered if the purpling came from water as well as cold – meaning snow, or maybe from the alternating darkness and light of the winter instead of just the darkness of the fridge. So I thought I’d try a change of light. Some things, some organisms,” she shook her head slightly, as though irritated at her own choice of words, “need specific circumstances to thrive. If they don’t have exactly what they need, they just … don’t make it.”
“Are you mad? Look outside. This is central Brussels, not rural Kent. You’re a wife and mother, not Mendel or … or … Hansel and bloody Gretel or something.”
“Breadcrumbs,” Jodie said.
“Hansel and Gretel dropped breadcrumbs, not peas.”
He released her arm. She smiled again and he relieved his feelings by running downstairs and hoisting the suitcases into the car. It had to stop, it really had to stop. Purple peas. Insane.
He slammed back into the house, finding Jodie in the kitchen making an omelette from everything left in the fridge; Yorkshire thrift in action. His words bubbled up like vomit, “Has it occurred to you that these bloody plants haven’t survived because they’re not fit for purpose? They’ve just about died out because we don’t need them any more. Have you thought about that?”
She smiled and cut the supper into three – a piece each. They ate silently. Hadyn left half his meal and Richard ostentatiously shovelled it into the waste disposal.
“You were right,” Jodie said, smiling.
When he woke up next morning, she was gone.
He knew, he knew, he bloody knew she’d gone back to the Botanic Gardens to get more peas. Bloody purple peas. Her car was gone, her scarf was gone, her mobile was on the kitchen table - there was no note. She’d probably skidded again and was sitting on the side of the road, half the bonnet in a snowdrift.
He drove slowly, anger compressing inside him, weighing him down so that steering and gear-changing became measured. What the hell was wrong with her? It was almost as if she couldn’t function here, didn’t fit in, hadn’t transplanted … he shook the idea away with a shrugging movement.
Her car was by the side of the rink. The colder light of early morning made the ice into a pool of mercury, bouncing sunshine like something tangible. Then he saw the red scarf in a tree, hanging straight down, and Jodie, like an obscene fruit, dangling from it. He tried to run, but he knew it was too late.
The peas were scattered in the snow beneath her feet.
Highly Commended: Christmas Carol by Daniel Shooter
“That’s a good name to have at Christmas!”
Carol smiles, scans his items, and inwardly curses her name-badge. Its not Christmas though is it you idiot? It’s November twenty-ninth. Ready-meals for one, bag of ready-made salad, small tins baked beans. Early fifties, doubtless single, paunch, probably a can’t-cook divorcee. She does not offer to help him pack.
“Sorry, ‘bet everyone says that”.
Only people who think its Christmas in November. The ‘seasonal’ music has been playing since Halloween. The manager says customers want it. He means Head Office.
Chic pensioner next. Bright purple coat partners an invisible cloud of perfume. Small loaf, English breakfast tea bags, finest quality deli ham.
“Bit early for Christmas music isn’t it,” she shakes her head and tuts.
“Bit early for some people.” Best to be non-committal, might be a secret shopper. She’d had great feedback last time; praised for her ‘engaging conversation’, and for hitting the seventeen items per minute target. She offers to help the lady pack.
“Must drive you mad I imagine”.
“It’s not December yet,” Carol says carefully. Christmas Eve would still be too early. Ninety minutes of Christmas music repeated every day for two months. She is trapped – the effort to tune it out is huge - with little energy left over for chit-chat. Each shift consumes her. One hour until her solitary break.
John and Elsie next. She caught sight of them a while ago, shuffling arm-in-arm. They shop slowly but always for the same items. Twice a week when it’s quiet. Never at weekends; too many people, too overwhelming, too noisy. They always come to her checkout, even if she’s on baskets. Carol always packs, doesn’t bother to ask.
“Hello dearie”, says Elsie. Hunched over, spine like a willow tree.
“Hello you two. How are we today?”
“Never better. Never better,” says John. He puts things on; Elsie does the money. A mini trolley full of value items in two-tone packaging. Nothing fresh. No treats. Luxury dog food the only extravagance.
“How’s Bobby? Any change?”
“Not really. Vet says it’s only a matter of time,” says John.
“Not sure what we’ll do when he goes,” says Elsie.
Arthritic hands pass over a purse. Carol takes out the money and puts the change back in. Elsie had a brief flirtation with bankcard and PIN, but her trembling, nervy hands kept forgetting the number, or pressing the wrong buttons on the tiny pad. Carol wishes they could still take cheques. The modern world has surpassed these two. Is it overtaking her?
Natalie, Section Leader, self-confessed Christmas lover, reprimands her for accepting a mini-trolley when on baskets. Cow. Instead of listening she focuses on ignoring her stupid Santa jumper and reindeer antler hairband.
New father next: breast pads, nappies, wipes, four frozen pizzas. The sleeplessness in the bags under his eyes, and stubbly face, evidence a broken routine. He struggles to remember what to do.
“Your card’s the wrong way round”, she says. “There we go.”
He remembers his PIN at the second attempt.
“Girl or boy?” she asks.
“Er…boy”, he smiles, “they’re both doing fine.”
“It does get easier you know.” And then they grow up and leave. And don’t call.
This exchange has ruined her focus – a melody has wormed its way into her brain. She does not wish it could be Christmas every sodding day.
Another single, elderly lady. Why do the men always die first? Four boxes of packet soup, two bags of boiled sweets, incontinence pads. She avoids eye contact with Carol, embarrassed. Another window into her future? Will she be wearing nappies in ten years?
Teenagers spill into the store entrance. Kids on their way home from the school next door. A group of boys arrive shortly after. They don’t see her - the invisible checkout assistant. Eyes glued to their phones or the gaggle of schoolgirls at the self-checkouts next door. Nudging, giggling, nose picking. She scans sweets, fizzy drinks, crisps. That’s not going to help your acne is it?
Scan, beep, scan, beep. Busier now: the post-school mums and after-work lot have arrived. Perhaps the increased noise level will help drown the music. Damn it – she has let her guard down again: an American singer warns her of Santa’s imminent visit.
“Can I use this checkout? I know I’ve a trolley, but I’ve only got a few items. Look”. Harassed mum: tracksuit, trainers, lopsided ponytail of greasy hair. Daughter, school uniform encrusted with lunch residue and mud, sits in the main trolley compartment, eating a banana. Son sits in the trolley seat, sticky hands clutching a tiny box of raisins. His tongue is exploring a tendril of snot that has reached his bottom lip.
“Of course, dear.” Hopefully Natalie won’t notice.
“I would’ve come earlier but this one needed a nap.” Apparently the snot tastes good. Wipe his nose!
“You got kids?” Oh no, not this conversation. Grown up chat by all means but not about children.
“Just the one. Grown up now. Lives in Australia.”
“Gosh. You can’t see him much then!?”
“No. I don’t”. Not for years. Fish fingers, grapes, bananas, cereal, baked beans.
“She can’t wait for Christmas, can you Poppy? So excited. Understands it all this year.” Does she? Does she really? Mum takes the banana skin from the girl and drapes it guiltily next to the bunch. How am I meant to weigh that?
“Sorry, she needed something to eat. She’s always starving after school.”
Carol weighs the bunch, breaks one off and weighs it again to make up for the other.
“Would you like help with your packing?”
A childless couple bicker about packing strategies. “Don’t put tins with the bread Craig! It’ll get squashed. Goodness me.”
“But it goes in the same cupboard.”
Another familiar face. An onion, a carrot, small pack minced beef, spaghetti, large bar of chocolate, gossip magazine. Same as last time. A lonely, single thirty-something. Carol imagines her preparing a dinner-for-one, reading about distant celebrities whilst the TV fills the silence.
A loved-up young couple next, hands literally in each other’s pockets. Carol is invisible again. Pastries from the bakery, packet of ribbed condoms. They are not embarrassed, as purchasers of these items often are, safe in the cocoon of their exclusive invincibility. They smooch and nuzzle as Carol tries to remove the tag. The mechanism on this till is dodgy. She tugs violently with the packet, then reluctantly presses the bell to summon Natalie. Whilst waiting, she glances at the queue. All men. All impatient.
“I thought this would be quicker,” one says loudly. There is a murmur of approval from the others. Carol is secretly pleased that Natalie is also struggling to de-tag. A man at the back shouts, “What’s the hold-up?” He stomps off to a trolley checkout. The others are restless, like bullocks. The couple are still wrapped up in their own universe. Finally the condoms are released. The girl pays, one hand still glued in the boys right buttock pocket.
She clears the queue, apologising to each for the wait. No-one thanks her. She puts out the ‘till closing’ sign, and stands up for the first time in six hours. A pin-striped middle-age man skids to a halt with a basket of wine.
“No! Not so fast. You can serve me before you go.” He starts unloading.
“I’m sorry, I’m on my break now.”
“You can serve me first.”
“I’m afraid I’ve already logged out. I did put my sign up.” She indicates the clearly visible sign and picks up her bag. “Once again I’m sorry, but you need to find a different till.” He stares, incredulous.
“Well I’ll be damned!” he says with real effrontery. “That’s not exactly the festive spirit is it? Merry bloody Christmas to you too.” He mutters to himself and clanks his bottles back into his basket. The people in the queue opposite are all staring at her. Natalie is at her station peering over. Carol scuttles away to the ‘staff only’ door by the newspapers, enters the PIN and runs up the stairs. Music is still audible in the stairwell. And then the tiny staff room. Tired furniture, bruised kettle and microwave. Beige, bleak, windowless. Not much of a refuge.
But it is silent.
She sinks into an uncomfortable chair, closes her eyes and rests her head. Time passes. No one else has come in yet. Many staff don’t. Without opening her eyes she fumbles in her bag for a cereal bar. Her breathing slows.
The door opens.
“Christ Carol. I thought you were asleep!” Steve, the Store Manager. Cheap suit, silly pointy shoes. Couldn’t work on the shop floor in those. He opens the microwave and studies packet instructions. He starts whistling the naughty or nice Christmas song. She bristles. Please stop. Please stop.
He removes scissors from a drawer and stabs the film lid loudly. Stabs it rhythmically. Stabs it in time with his whistling. Every. Other. Beat. He slams the door with a flourish and turns around, ready to chat. He is wearing a novelty Christmas tie. Please don’t ask about…
“So what plans for Christmas Carol?” Bastard. Didn’t leave a gap between the words. Some people do, out of politeness. No plans. Nothing. No family, no presents, no bloody trimmings.
“Nothing out of the ordinary really.” Will that shut him up? She opens her bag and pretends to rummage for something.
“The twins can’t wait. Really mad for it this year.” Oh God he’s carrying on.“They love this tie.” Don’t press the button. He presses the button hidden in Rudolph’s nose. She is assaulted by a grating, synthetic version of Jingle Bells. He grins and starts moving from side to side. It is grotesque.
“Please can you not play that in here. It’s the only place without Christmas music.” He stops.
“Oh ok. Yep. It’ll stop in a minute. Didn’t realise you weren’t into Christmas Carol… Aha – Christmas Carol! I just got that!”
A red mist descends. Carol’s speed surprises her. She leaps from the chair, grabs the scissors and Steve’s tie, yanking him towards the door. He stumbles, surprised, lets out a cry. She opens the door but can’t pull him out - he is regaining balance and resisting, fearful surprise on his face. She steps into the corridor and pulls the door to, trapping the tie. She pins it against the doorframe with one prong of the scissors, stabbing Rudolph through the eye. She holds the door handle firmly. Steve cannot move, face pressed into the door with the tie beginning to tighten and strangle. Winter Wonderland is floating up the stairs.
“Carol, what the hell is going on? You’ve just attacked me!” Steve shouts.
“I would like the Christmas music turned off please,” she says calmly. “I am not going back to tills unless it’s turned off.”
“What? Loosen my tie! Now!” He can barely turn his head to see through the safety glass. “You’re finished here, you got that? This is gross misconduct. Assault.”
“Get on your radio and tell whoever to turn the music off.”
“Fucking well LET ME GO”. He yanks his end of the tie with both hands. It tightens further. He starts to cough, going red in the face.
“Turn the music off.”
He radios someone and a short time later the music stops mid-song. She pulls the scissors out of the doorframe and opens the door. Steve slumps to the floor gasping. She steps over him, and retrieves her bag, dropping the scissors. She goes downstairs. It is blissfully and eerily quiet on the shop floor. She smiles, and then stops.
Two store security guards are waiting at the tills.
“We’ve been instructed to escort you out of the store Carol.”
She is taken past the twin altars of chocolate tins and beer multi-packs, led by the elbows out into the dark. The music begins again as she is ushered through the outer door. Nat King Cole singing about chestnuts.
Highly Commended: The Wind in the Bellows by Dan Forrester
“Do you really think it’ll work, Prof?” Herbert asked, his face betraying his own judgement.
“I wouldn’t be climbing into it if I didn’t, would I? And I’ve told you before, I’ve not spent twenty years with a chair for you to call me ‘Prof’.”
“Professor, it’s bloody Professor!”
“What?” Prof halted mid-clamber and looked at Herbert, who was now occupied with pulling a loose thread from his cloak.
“What chair have you had for twenty years?” Herbert asked, holding up the length of thread for inspection.
“At the university, obviously.”
“Must have sagged after all that time; no wonder you walk funny. You got any scissors?”
“There’s some under that—what do you mean, ‘funny’? What the hell’s wrong with how I walk?”
“You waddle,” Herbert said, demonstrating an exaggerated sway of the hips.
“Waddle? I’m not a bloody duck.”
“Oh, will you look at that, now the seam’s come away.”
“Look, can we get on?” Prof took his watch from his waistcoat pocket and flipped it open. “It’ll be dark soon and I’d rather be able to see where I’m going.” He swung his trailing leg over to join the first and reached up to check some knots.
“Not sure that’ll make much difference to be honest, Prof. It’s not like you’ll be able to steer the thing.”
“Ye of little faith.”
“Me of little money. You sure I did the right thing putting my allowance into this?”
“Definitely, young Herbert. This will make us both rich.”
“That’s what you said about the elastic dog lead.”
“Pah!” Prof waved his hand. “Teething problems are all part of the process.”
“Tell that to the dog. Did they ever get it down?”
“No idea, I don’t concern myself with details. But this,” Prof said, patting the contraption, “I’m going to retire on this baby.”
“That’s what I’m worried about, retiring injured.”
“Where’s your passion, boy?”
“She’ll be in bed by now,” said Herbert, peering through the window at the darkening sky. “Exactly where I should be.”
“Nonsense, we’re busy changing the world. When this thing takes off—”
“Don’t stand under it?”
“—everyone will want one. You mark my words, it’ll be the transport a la mode that the horseless carriage could have been.”
“What are you going to call it?”
“Ah, I was thinking: ‘The Warm Air Floating Inflatable Thing with Wicker Basket’.”
“And I have a surprise,” said Prof, as he climbed out of the basket and headed to a trunk in a corner of the barn. He lifted the lid and rummaged inside. “Aha! Take a look at this,” he said, and unfurled a long strip of white cloth on which letters had been painted in a vibrant red. “Ta-da!”
Herbert looked from the bundle of cloth to Prof’s grinning, nodding face and then back again. “What’s it say?”
“Here, grab an end.”
Herbert took a handful and backed into the opposite corner of the barn, releasing folds of cloth as he went. Opened in all its glory, the banner revealed the words: ‘RONSON’S RAZORS. CUT PRICE (HA-HA!) – SPCL OFFR. QCK!’
“I see you ran out of banner.”
“I’m sure it will get the message across,” Prof said with a huff, rolling the banner back up.
“But what’s it for?”
“They pay us money for showing their name around the place. We’ll attach it to the basket so it flies behind us.”
“Flies? How fast do you think you’ll be—hold on, what do you mean, ‘us’? You don’t think I’m going up in that thing?”
“Of course, flying the Warm Air Floating Inflatable is a two-man operation. You’ll need to hoist the balloon, pump the bellows, pull up the sandbags and unfurl the banner. And that’s just to take off.”
“And what will you be doing?”
“Ah, I’m an intellectual,” said Prof, tapping his temple. “I’ll be thinking.”
Herbert looked at the crosses of tape testament to numerous tears in the thin balloon fabric, the coffin chic of the fragile basket, and the fraying ropes joining the two together.
“No chance, Prof. Think on that.”
“Oh, don’t be so dull. Don’t you want to be the first at something?”
“I’ll be happy enough not being the last. Why do I go along with these hair-brained ideas?” Herbert looked up as though the answer was hidden somewhere in the beams.
Prof sat down on the trunk and stared up at the balloon that now sagged gently as the air within it cooled. “We’ve become friends, haven’t we, Herbert?”
“So far.” Herbert slouched against the wicker gondola.
“You never met my Elizabeth, did you? It’s been three years since the good Lord called on her,” Prof said. “She always said I was destined to achieve something great. She never stopped believing that.”
“I’m getting old,” Prof said, a little louder than he had intended. Embarrassment stalled him and he composed himself, stroking his beard. “But I intend to prove her correct before I join her.”
Herbert straightened up. “Right then, come on. We’d better shove it over a bit.”
Prof looked up in surprise. “To what end?”
Herbert thought for a moment and pointed to an empty corner. “That one.”
“No, I didn’t mean—”
“All the way to it, I reckon.”
“Yes, quite. But what for?”
“We’ll need a run up.”
“A run up?” Prof strode over to the basket and placed a protective hand on it. “This isn’t the long jump.”
“No, but there’s no way we’ll get this thing off the ground without a bit of momentum.”
“You mean you’ll come?”
“I need to look after my investment, don’t I? Make sure it doesn’t finish up in a tree.”
“Like that dog.”
“Very probably.” Prof’s attention was now entirely on the varnished weave of the basket beneath his fingers.
“I can’t make it through another term without any funds,” Herbert said, pulling at another loose thread. “This cloak’s fast becoming a vest.”
“That’s the ticket,” said Prof, tugging at a rope.
“Prof, are you listening?”
“Come on,” Prof urged him, “it’s straining to be released, it’s almost alive!”
Herbert eyed the balloon; it looked like straining was the last thing on its mind. “We’ll need the banner,” he said.
“That’s the spirit. Although it’ll be dark for the first ten hours or so, of course.”
“We’ll take off before we lose the light, get in a bit of practise whilst folks are in bed, and then, first thing in the morning when no-one’s expecting it, we—”
“—we unfurl the banner and start earning our fee.”
“No flaws in that plan.”
“Time to see what you’re made of, my boy.”
“Not difficult in this cloak,” Herbert replied.
They dragged the basket to the far corner, ready for the run up. For a moment they stood there together, both primed and leaning forward, gripping the lip of the gondola.
Prof looked sideways at his student and best friend. “Ready?”
They pushed forwards, struggling at first but with the inertia overcome they gathered pace and rushed out of the doorway and into the dusk.
“In!” Prof shouted.
Herbert threw himself into the basket using his belly for leverage and grabbing hold of whatever he could reach. Prof followed suit, abandoning his pacey waddle and using his head to cushion his fall once safely inside.
“Drop the bags,” he shouted from the floor.
Herbert grabbed the sandbags and hurled them over the side, giving them the lift they needed to break free from the earth’s gravity. Very slowly.
Prof clambered to his feet, picking up a notebook that he’d dropped in the commotion of take-off. He opened it to reveal a diagram, annotated with measurements and equations.
“That, Herbert, is our next project.”
Herbert groaned. “What is it?”
“I call it: ‘The Fabric Gliding Wing with Hanging Bar’.”
“Looks more like: ‘Certain Death’.”
“Fiddlesticks, we just need a bit of working capital for the prototype.”
“Trust me, nothing can go wrong.”
Herbert looked down over the side, mumbling the Lord’s Prayer as he watched the ground disappear into the darkness. He glanced behind him at his tutor and best friend. “You said Elizabeth.”
“You told me your wife’s name was Edith.”
“Again with the details,” said Prof with a wave of his hand. He was looking down into the empty basket. “Herbert?”
“Where’s the bloody banner?”