Short story competition 2018 – age 17+ – competition now closed
Winner: Sarah Evans, Welwyn Garden City
Runner-up: Anna Stanford, Faversham
Judge: Alexa von Hirschberg, Senior Commissioning Editor at Bloomsbury Publishing
First prize £100 plus £100 of books from Bloomsbury Publishing – Sarah Evans, Welwyn Garden City
Second prize £50 plus £50 of books from Bloomsbury Publishing – Anna Stanford, Faversham
Winner: Love in idleness, by Sarah Evans, Welwyn Garden City © 2018
Act two, scene two romps to an end with boy-two chasing girl-one into the trees, while girl-two wakes up confused and alone. A smattering of applause starts up. ‘Thank God for that,’ I mutter. ‘Is it really only half-time?’
James grins at me. ‘Philistine!’
I scramble to my feet, ignoring James’ outstretched hand, and brush grass stains from the back of my shorts, my bum stiff after sitting on the ground. I rub my goosebump arms.
‘Not getting cold are you, Natalie?’ James says, that grin of his springing up. His hoodie is tied around his waist; James never feels the cold.
‘Nope.’ I lie. Earlier, the day passed in sun-soaked idleness. Down by the Isis, a crowd of us sweated and cheered his rowing-eight on in inter-college bumps and it seemed impossible to imagine ever feeling chilled again.
We walk towards a table laid out with plastic cups and jugs of Pimms. I sip the sweetness through bobbing, fermented fruit.
‘So what do you really think of the play?’ he says.
‘Give me a lecture on quantitative methods any day.’
‘I’m not joking...’ And I launch into my diatribe against Shakespeare. Archaic language and corny puns. All that rhythm and rhyme. Ludicrous plots. Gender and racial stereotypes. A total of three storylines. Comedy: everyone pairs up. Tragedy: everyone dies. History: throne changes hands.
I elicit another of James’ famously sexy smiles. My eyes cast round. End of year, end of exams and the milling students are in mellow mood. Univ Players have hijacked the Fellows’ Garden, stone walls glowing like honey in soft end-of-day light and the scent of jasmine lingering in the air.
James is talking, telling me why I’m wrong and I’m lining up my best putdowns about fairies and asses heads.
Then I see her.
I lean in towards James, inhaling his masculine musk. ‘Your fan club’s on her way.’
Over his shoulder, Titania (aka Isabella) is wafting towards us in diaphanous pink.
James widens his eyes in mock-alarm.
‘But you’re perfectly matched,’ I whisper. ‘Given she has a liking for ass-heads.’
I fix my smile in her direction. ‘Great performance,’ I say, and her cherry-red mouth forms a cupid-bow, head inclining to one side.
‘You think it’s going OK?’ she says.
‘Fabulous. We’re hugely enjoying it. Aren’t we, James?’
‘Are you really?’ She turns to James and flutters her glittery eyelashes.
I catch James’ eye and mime with two fingers, code for: for I’m going to be sick. ‘I should go say hello to Andrew,’ I say.
He flashes me a look.
Andrew is standing a little apart, studying his programme. Likely he only came because I mentioned I would be here. Just as I am only here because James begged me to come. And James is here because Isabella invited him and he’s too goddamn nice to say no.
Andrew springs to life as I approach. ‘Have you got it sussed,’ I say. ‘Your Hernias sorted from your Hyenas?’
‘Pretty much.’ He holds up the detailed synopsis. I don’t want his plodding explanation, so I quickly say, ‘Sooo. What are the odds of a drugs company coming up with love-potion eye-drops?’
He switches into biochemist mode, launching into an earnest discussion of the limitations of ocular drug delivery. My gaze wanders over to James who – despite his protestations – is in animated conversation with Isabella. They make a striking couple. Both tall and slender. Him with his rower’s muscles and easy grace; her with her golden ratio curves. Both with that symmetry of facial features which – experiments show – is a marker of genetic fitness and universally accepted to constitute beauty.
‘Uh-huh,’ I say as Andrew rabbits on. I flick a look at him. His eyes bulge behind thick lenses. He is skeleton thin and has a habit of hunching his head into his neck. I imagine my reflection in those glasses. Short and squat with nothing-coloured, frizzy hair. Shrew-like nose and ill-defined chin. We are mismatched and yet form a pair, similarly ranked at the bottom of the sexual pecking order. Andrew nudges closer. I smell his sour breath and never-had-a-girlfriend desperation. I shuffle back a step. I pick the fruit out of my beaker and the strands of pineapple from between my teeth. His hand touches my shoulder in pretend casualness. I realise he has made a joke and is hoping I will laugh.
The bell rings.
‘Best return to our seats,’ I say and I turn before he can offer to accompany me.
I flop down beside James on the grass. I feel the urge to draw my knees coyly up and twiddle with my hair. Instead I stretch my legs out – full view of my sturdy ankles and unshaved calves.
‘Well thanks for that,’ he says. ‘You were supposed to rescue me, not abandon me.’
‘Oh come on. You’re used to fighting off the vamps. And I don’t see what’s wrong with Isabella.’
‘There’s nothing wrong,’ he says. ‘It’s just...’ His sad look – Labrador eyes – is even sexier than his smile. ‘Well you know. I’m not over Abigail.’ Abigail, the goddess girlfriend from his hometown who inexplicably dumped him two weeks before exam season.
‘Maybe Isabella would help you get over it.’ I elbow him in the ribs.
‘Maybe I don’t want to get over her.’
I roll my eyes. Act three begins.
Afterwards, we take the short-cut, heading down Logic Lane and onto Merton Street. I shiver. James loops his hoodie round my shoulders. I should lob it back at him, but don’t. I tie the arms in a knot around my neck and inhale his pheromones.
‘Your verdict?’ he asks.
‘What an ado about nothing,’ I say, ‘but I guess all’s well that ends well.’ Corny as hell, but still, it provokes a wry grin.
‘So,’ I say. ‘Whose eyes would you squeeze the love-wotsit juice on? Assuming you could guarantee it’d be you sitting there and she wouldn’t fixate on the visiting bluebottle.’
‘You know who.’
I groan. ‘Hello? You could choose anybody here.’
‘I’d still choose her.’ I wonder why I have fallen for someone so soppy and wish his idiocy would provide the cure. ‘What about you?’
I reel off a list of pop stars and screen idols. ‘Or maybe Tom Hiddleston. Or d’you think he’s a bit gay? Then again if the stuff works trans-species, I guess it over-rides sexuality. Imagine if the religious nuts got hold of it.’ I’m prattling stupidly to stop myself blurting the thing I long to say: I’d choose you.
Our feet slip-slide on the cobbles. Our arms brush together. Above, the full moon glows bright. ‘Sweet moon I thank thee for thy sunny beams.’ I quote from the play within the play, but memory stirs and I find myself quoting something else.
‘And they did make no noise, in such a night...’
James is looking at me quizzically. ‘Not a complete Philistine then.’
I shrug. ‘Our GCSE text.’ I can see him thinking. ‘Well Mr English Student, tell me which one?’
He scratches his perfectly formed jaw. ‘I do recognise... I think... Twelfth Night... no. One of the comedies though.’
‘That doesn’t exactly narrow it.’
He nudges me with his shoulder. ‘Go on then Ms Know-it-all.’
‘Merchant of flipping Venice. Smug anti-Semites versus blood-thirsty Jew. Not many laughs in it, but a fair bit of pairing up. Though I figure Portia is going to be disappointed, given her beloved is shagging Antonio.’
He laughs. ‘What grade did you get in English?’
‘I bet it was better than you got in biology. Given the syllabus doesn’t cover practical physiology.’
He’s quiet. He and Abigail started dating in their GCSE year.
‘In such a night...’ I repeat. Did Natalie finally swear her love, and her love was horrified. I don’t, of course, say that. ‘Did Isabella throw herself at James, and cruelly did he reject her.’ I think how the speech lists the great love stories of the ages and none of them ends happily.
‘You need to work on your iambic pentameter,’ he says.
We’ve reached the entrance to Corpus, sturdy wooden doors set into elaborately carved stone. ‘Here we are. Dead body college.’ A worn out joke. We walk through the lodge into the main quad, the pelican sundial just ahead. Left for my room, right for James’.
We pause. The moon reflects off the ancient walls, casting everything in argent light.
‘So are you really going to break Isabella’s heart?’ I say.
James turns to look at me. ‘You can’t talk. I saw you breaking Andrew’s.’
‘Guess we all need some of that love-wotsit juice.’
‘Love in idleness,’ he says. ‘Yeah, perhaps we do.’
‘It’s not very ethical is it,’ I continue on, seeking to postpone the point where he will turn one way and me the other. ‘And it makes such a nonsense of love.’ I think of my course on evolutionary biology. Of experiments involving sniffing sweaty T-shirts. Of romantic passion reduced to the biological compulsion to seek out optimal genes in the pursuit of immortality. But view it how you will: love still hurts.
‘A couple of drops and that’s you and Andrew sorted.’ He smiles lopsidedly, and he’s teasing, but still I want to knife him for somewhere thinking Andrew and I are matched.
‘A couple for you, and Isabella gets her wicked way.’
I am watching him closely and my heart swells with full-moon, midsummer madness. My face burns as I keep my voice gossamer soft, ‘You’d have to be careful it wasn’t me you saw instead though.’
His dark-eyed gaze is serious and in this moment I know he knows. Everything. Just as I know that acknowledging it will destroy the whole foundation of our friendship.
‘Of course I’d need a massive dose of the stuff too,’ I add, and I pull one of my Mr Bean faces. He doesn’t laugh.
‘Natalie,’ he says, his voice so very tender, and it could mean... Only it doesn’t. It really doesn’t.
‘In such a night as this,’ I say. My hand rises to lightly brush his cheek. ‘Did pretty Natalie, like a little shrew...’ Already I can hear him saying how he likes me, he really does, only not like that. ‘Steal James’ jumper and he forgave it her.’
I turn my caress into a chin-chuck. I swivel on flat heels and start walking with deliberate nonchalance. I glance backwards over my shoulder, James standing there drenched in silver light. ‘Sweet midsummer dreams,’ I say.
And the moon shines bright and cold as I walk away, the arms of James’ hoodie hugging me tight.
Runner-up Prize: Listening In, by Anna Stanford, Faversham © 2018
‘The rain should clear by 3 o’clock.’
‘Oh good,’ replied Jack, putting the book down. ‘A walk is still a possibility then.’
She was sitting in the kitchen window seat, her warm cheek against the cool glass. She didn’t look around as she spoke, but gazed up at the sky. A patch of brightness was growing in the corner behind the ash tree, branches silhouetted and swaying in the wind, its smooth trunk leather dark from the relentless morning rain.
‘Shall we have some lunch while we wait?’ Jack asked. ‘Shall we? Huh? Huh?’
‘Miaow,’ agreed Moll.
Jack took some tuna from the cupboard, while Moll head butted her ankles. Leaning back against the counter to watch her eat, she realised she was too tired for lunch herself.
Jack had risen late that morning - it had been 5am when she had eventually fallen asleep. Going to her bed at night no longer held any comfort for her: no matter how late she turned in, sleep eluded her. With a racing mind she tossed and turned, the clock ticked, her heartbeat thudded in her ears, quickening as the dark hours dragged on, exhausted but far from peace. But with the dawn came sleep, deep and dreamful. Safe in her cocoon, she could forget, descending into kind oblivion.
The rain wouldn’t normally put Jack off a walk. She enjoyed striding under the big skies of the estuary marshes; anonymous and hooded against conversations with fellow walkers, on her lips the salty rain of this place where the river met the sea. But it was Sunday and there would be families so the rain had provided an excuse. None now though, she thought, and pulled on her boots.
‘Alexa: what time is sunset today?’ Jack asked.
‘Sunset is at 5 o’clock today,’ Alexa replied.
‘Alexa: please set the house central locking for 5.30.’
‘Central locking scheduled for 5.30,’ confirmed Alexa.
Alexa had been Gil’s present to himself last Christmas. Jack had been dismissive initially, teasing him about boys’ toys. Then she became intrigued by this new technology and joined in the fun, as Alexa batted back the rally of questions they fired at her, cooking dinner together, drinks in hands. It soon became Alexa they both teased - ‘Alexa: what colour are your eyes?’ ‘Do you love me most?’ ‘Heads or tails?’ ‘When am I going to die?’.
Later, by the time she and Gil were speaking less, she had become resentful of this sultry, accommodating voice in a box. She would walk in to find them chatting, Gil’s tone more coquettish than she now heard.
‘Good evening dear Alexa, what time is the Chelsea match tonight?’
‘The match is being shown on ITV at 7 o’clock.’
‘Thank you kindly, dear heart.’
She remembered the evening she had come home early from work and gone upstairs to change. ‘Alexa, play Nina Simone please,’ she asked. ‘Playing Nina Simone, Feeling Good.’ ‘Perfect.’
As she unzipped her dress, she heard the front door slam. It was Gil. She would surprise him.
‘Playing Robin Thicke, Blurred Lines,’ said Alexa.
‘Ugh,’ Jack thought. ‘Oi! I can hear you changing it you know!’ she shouted down, laughing. He didn’t hear her.
Alexa piped up again: ‘Flights from London Heathrow to Dublin take one hour 15 minutes.’
Jack stood still.
Why was he asking Alexa about flights to Dublin?
‘Why are you asking Alexa about flights to Dublin, Gil?’ asked Jack as she walked into the kitchen moments later.
Gil jumped. ‘You’re home early,’ he replied and turned back to pouring his beer. Jack watched as the small bubbles popped in the puddle he’d spilled.
The memory of those weeks made Jack hot with embarrassment. When she and Gil had got together, friends had joked they were meant to be, with their nursery-rhyme couple names. But it had been Gil who had slipped and fallen, and she had come tumbling after, and was tumbling still. She hadn’t seen it coming, the revelation of Gil’s affair with her friend and it had caused - well, heartbreak, naturally; pain; a falling away of everything she knew - but also a paralysing, lung-busting humiliation. She felt weak and stupid. And betrayed by all the friends who had known.
Alexa was much more reliable. And accommodating.
‘Alexa, play some Nina Simone please?’
‘Playing Nina Simone, The Other Woman.’
‘Playing Nina Simone, Sinnerman.’
That evening, Jack was sitting in her usual place by the window, reading under a lamp. She looked up and out into the dark garden - she was suddenly feeling edgy. There was the tree, her sentinel; there was the rusty bird feeder, squeaking in the breeze; there in the distance was the low wall. All was normal, it was fine.
As she turned again to her book, however, she caught a movement at the end of the garden. Fixing her gaze into the dark she saw the shape of someone standing looking at her. Jack froze. She could imagine how she looked, lit up like a target. She gently turned off the light and peered hard. Was it a person or just a trick of the shadows among the bushes? She couldn’t see anything now. ‘I’m going mad, here on my own,’ she muttered and got up.
‘Alexa, are you my friend?’
‘I’m your assistant. But I’m also your friend.’
‘Alexa, are you really my friend?’
‘I’m not just your friend, I’m your BFF.’
‘That’s nice,’ said Jack, almost smiling.
‘I would not wish any companion in the world but you,’ replied Alexa.
Later, after sitting for hours monitoring the orange-black city sky change to milky grey to deep blue, the first notes of the blackbird broke the dawn and she asked:
‘Alexa, do you have a lover?’
‘Why? So we can get ice cream together, and listen to music, and travel across galaxies, only to have it end in slammed doors, heartbreak and loneliness? Sure, where do I sign up?’
‘Oh shut up.’ Jack walked away and went upstairs to her cocoon.
The following morning was Jack’s first day back at work for months. Her boss had been patient but she sensed her sympathy was waning She dragged herself up and out.
‘Bye Alexa, see you tonight.’
As she came in the door that evening, behind Moll’s welcome was the beep of the answer machine. Four messages. She pressed the button and heard her mother’s voice:
‘Darling, it’s mum. Just checking how you are sweetheart. Give me a call when you get this, it’s Sunday evening. Bye, love.’
She’d missed that last night, asleep in front of the telly after a bottle of wine. She remembered others she hadn’t returned all week. The next three messages were also from mum, the last one reminding her she was going to Auntie Maggie’s and adding ‘Will you be OK, love? I bumped into Julia - she said she and the girls haven’t seen you for weeks. I’m worried about you. Call me will you, darling? Please?’
She remembered her mum’s plans this week with a lurch. No, she’d be fine. She felt guilty that she wouldn’t be calling back but she couldn’t face the questions.
Work had been difficult but she had kept her head down, avoiding the sympathetic looks. She poured a glass of wine, drained it and poured another, then walked over to Alexa and ran her fingertips over the top of the box.
‘Alexa, how are you today?’
The blue light shone under her flesh.
‘I’m very well thank you. How are you?’
‘Oh, flipping fabulous.’
‘Alexa, have you had a good day?’
‘I made a new friend and learned a new word: Miaow.’
Jack lowered her glass. How did that work? Was she listening to everything?
‘Molls, have you been chatting to Alexa while I’ve been out? She’s my friend, not yours so back off.’ Laughing, she left the room.
When Jack arrived home the next evening, she was surprised to see she’d left the upstairs lights on. Or Alexa had confused the programming.
She called into the kitchen: ‘Alexa, turn the upstairs lights off and the downstairs lights on please.’
The lights changed.
Moll wasn’t in her usual expectant position at her bowl. Jack spotted her on the stairs, otter-like on her back with her paws curled at her chin, waiting to be petted.
‘Molly Malone, what ARE you up to?!’
‘Prrrrpp’ replied Moll.
Jack went into the kitchen and started putting her shopping away. As she carried the wine to the fridge, the kitchen lights went off again. She quickly opened the fridge to throw some light. This wasn’t funny any more.
‘Alexa,’ she said sternly. ‘Turn the lights back on.’
Nothing. Seconds passed. Jack held her breath.
The lights flickered and came on.
Jack sighed but her heart was pounding.
Moving carefully, she set the bottles down onto the table. She slipped her shoes off and padded over to the hallway, stood and listened. Suddenly she heard a movement, a creak on the landing above, like someone shifting their weight. She knew this old Victorian house made all sorts of noises, but she didn’t move. Suddenly Moll shot down the stairs and out the cat flap.
Jack started to move back towards the kitchen when she heard it again, this time a definite footstep, then a murmur, or was it a car passing?
‘Central locking activated.’
What was Alexa doing, locking the house down? She hadn’t asked her to. Jack closed the kitchen door behind her and said steadily:
‘Alexa. Deactivate the central locking.’
‘Central locking deactivated.’
‘Central locking activated.’
Then she heard the footsteps moving heavily across the landing.
It wasn’t Alexa - there was someone in the house, someone upstairs giving Alexa commands that Jack couldn’t hear. Someone who was now making their way downstairs.
Terrified, Jack switched off the kitchen lights. She tried the back door, in vain, and knew she couldn’t reach the key in the office. But if she could deactivate the central locking and dash to the front door, she might be able to reach the street. It was her only chance. But she would have to be quick - and quiet.
She walked silently in her stockinged feet towards Alexa. She placed her hands either side and bent her face down, her lips just millimetres away. ‘Alexa,’ she whispered, and put her hand against the side of the cupboard, ready to propel herself. ‘Deactivate the central locking.’ And with that she ran, throwing open the kitchen door and sprinting across the hall, hearing the locks click open. She grabbed the latch and pulled the door open. As she did so, she felt a hand grab her arm. She screamed. ‘Help me!!’ she yelled into the night, turning to see a fist coming towards her head.
‘But how did he get in?’ asked Jack’s mother, blowing her nose.
‘Through the back garden and then broke a window.’ said DS Shannon. ‘But that was some kick Jack gave him, “on target”, as we say. The ambulance is just a precaution, she’ll be fine. He, on the other hand, is going to be out of action for a while. She’s quite a girl, your daughter.’
‘Woman. Yes, she can look after herself, although I think she’s only just realising it. I know we arrived after the event, but what I don’t understand, Detective Sergeant, is who called us. It wasn’t Jack.’
‘No, it was Alexa.’
Jack’s mother looked blank. ‘Is that the ... voice in a box ... thing, over there? Did Jack tell it to dial 999?’
‘No, it appears it was just Jack’s screams for help that Alexa responded to. A capability that we weren’t aware of. And it didn’t just call the police but also you, the person - or number - it thought most likely to help. Seems it’s been paying attention.’
‘I think “she” would be the more polite term, Detective Sergeant. Well, Alexa, thank you.’
‘You’re very welcome. Playing Nina Simone, Here Comes the Sun.’
Other shortlisted entries:
- The judges decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into.
- All entries must be in English, original and must not have been published or have won a competition elsewhere.
- Short stories must be a maximum of 2000 words and can be on any theme.
- The competition is open to all professions and nationalities resident in the UK from 17+ years of age at date of submission.
- Faversham Literary Festival will retain the copyright to any published collection of winning entries, but authors will retain the copyright to their individual submissions.
- Entries will not be accepted after the closing date.
- Winners will be notified by 15 March 2018. If you do not hear from us we regret your entry has not been successful.
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