The Writers Bureau Short Story Competition 2019
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Short Story Competition Winners of 2009

1st Prize – Sheena Wilkinson with:

Local Pride

‘Don’t move the body,’ says the policewoman. She’s probably not a real policewoman; I suppose she’s in a call centre. I wasn’t sure which service I needed at first.

He must have climbed up the fence and leaned over to the lamppost to do it. He could have fallen, I think, which is stupid of me but my head’s not working right. His face is slumped sideways, all purple and swollen. I couldn’t even touch him, let alone move him. I always take the short cut past the dogfood factory when I’m on earlies. He must have known I’d find him.

I slide my phone back into my pocket. I’m shivering. I don’t know if I’m cold or if it’s because I’m standing at the side of the road at seven o’clock in the morning trying not to look up at the hanging corpse of someone I love. Loved. I curl my fingers around my phone. I feel as if I should let someone know. But there is no-one.

* * *

It started the day the carpet factory closed. Or maybe the day Piotr got here.

Here. Mid-Ulster; mid-nowhere. Three industrial estates, fifteen roundabouts, one crap shopping centre. A dour wee hole, my ma calls it. I tried to tell Piotr what dour meant. He went mad for new words; he’d been to college in Warsaw. It pissed me off the way he and his mates got treated like they were thick.

I’d been in the potato factory since I left school and it did me alright. Getting through the week and then heading out to McMaster’s for a few drinks on a Friday with Tony. Tony had his own bedsit and a good job in the carpet factory. He got Angela tattooed across the top of his bum, like David Beckham. Everybody knew we’d end up married.

But Piotr came, blond hair, dark eyes, gorgeous accent. Colin, the foreman, put him on the machine beside me - you feed in the peeled potatoes and chips pile out the other side - and I couldn’t keep my eyes off him.

None of the ignorant lumps round here even tried to get his name right. They just went Peeder. The way he said Angela was lovely. He lived with seven other Polish fellows - Galbraith bought the house cheap just like he hired the workers cheap. People said they were dirty hallions because their bin always overflowed. But there were eight of them and one bin.

Then one day Tony was waiting at the gate, shoulders hunched, leather jacket zipped up against the February wind, cigarette between his fingers.

I tried to look glad to see him.

‘I’ve been laid off.’ He tossed the butt away and it smouldered on the frosty footpath before giving up the ghost.
‘Shit, Tone, that’s awful.’

He grabbed my hand and laced his fingers with mine. We hadn’t touched for weeks. There’d been rows about me going frigid on him.

‘Anything going in there?’

I bit my lip. ‘You said you wouldn’t work on the potatoes if you were desperate.’

He looked right into my face. I smelt smoke on his breath. ‘That was before I was.’

‘Och, there’s other places.’ We were walking up the hill to the estate. Past the dogfood factory and the bus turning circle.

‘Where? Even Happy Dog’s on short weeks.’ He lit another cigarette and drew on it so hard his cheeks disappeared.

‘Does it have to be round here?’

‘Sure where else could we go? It’s the same everywhere. D’you not watch the news?’

We. I had to tell him.

He jerked at my hand. ‘Ange? What’s wrong?’

‘Nothing.’

‘You’ve been huffy for weeks. Look. I think I know what it is.’

I swung round, flooded with hope. If he’d worked it out it’d be easier. He’d be raging, but at least nobody could say I’d waited until he got laid off and then dumped him.

‘You’re pregnant, aren’t you?’

* * *

Tony’s bedsit smelt of smoke and socks. I’d lost my virginity here when I was sixteen. I’d thought he was great then, having his own place.

‘I’ll stick by you. Sure you know that.’ He paced the room, playing with the zips on his jeans pockets. ‘You wouldn’t have an abortion, Ange, would you? You wouldn’t kill our baby?’

‘Tony! There is no baby. I swear.’

‘Because I love you, Ange.’

‘Tony.’ I made him sit still and look at me. ‘I’m not pregnant. But I...’ The mixture of relief and disappointment in his eyes nearly made me chicken out. ‘I’m sorry. I kept trying to tell you, but?’

It was the worst row we’d ever had. Also the last. Because seeing Tony like that - raging, crying, even grabbing me by the hair - I knew I’d never go back to him.

But I felt like shit next morning. Everybody was going on about the carpet factory. At break time Piotr ran his finger down my arm. ‘Poor Angela,’ he said, his dark eyes full of sympathy.

‘I just wish I hadn’t told him the day he lost his job.’

‘Will he look for work somewhere else?’

‘God, I wish he would. I didn’t tell him your name but he won’t be long finding out.’

But I knew Tony wouldn’t go anywhere. People like Piotr went where they had to, sticking Irish spuds into the arses of chipping machines even when they were smart enough to go to college. People like Tony stayed home and whinged.

Piotr sighed. ‘You think I should be afraid of him?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Right, you lot, back to work,’ said Colin, trundling his belly in front of him like a balloon-shaped luggage trolley. He gave Piotr a dirty look. ‘Angela,’ he went, all confidential. ‘A wee word.’

I folded my arms. ‘What?’

Colin waited until Piotr was out of sight. ‘That Stephanie’s going back to Poland; says her ma’s sick.’ He sniffed as if he knew better.

‘It’s Stefania.’

He made a whatever face. ‘Look, Angela, there’ll be a job here. I’ve put in a word for your Tony. Tell him?’

‘Me and Tony’s split up.’

Colin looked past me to where Piotr was already sorting through potatoes on the belt. He didn’t ask and I didn’t tell him. But he knew fine rightly.

* * *

Tony was put on croquettes and fun-size bites with Julie so I hardly ever saw him. One time me and Piotr bumped into him at the shopping centre and I dropped Piotr’s hand, just to take the bad look off it.

One day Colin came round at the start of the shift. ‘Meeting at breaktime,’ he whispered in my ear.

Colin let us get out tea and then he stood up and coughed, all important. ‘I think you all know what this is about,’ he said. He held up a sheaf of leaflets. ‘Some of you have had these through your doors already,’ he said. I thought it must be Health and Safety, Colin always thought he was great when he had to give those out, so I took it without much interest. Then I saw the Union Jack and PUT LOCAL WORKERS FIRST. I looked round. No Piotr, no Marek, no Halina.

‘It was all very well letting these people in when times were good. But times aren’t good now.’ Colin punched the table. ‘Why should they take out jobs when our own people - our own people - are thrown on the scrapheap? Average wages in this area have went down since these people came. Tell me, friends, is that fair?’

There was a buzz of agreement. Tony was looking at Colin like he loved him.

‘There’s people in this community - our community - who need jobs. And I say - and I know you say too - that the time has come to show that we’re not going to stand for this.’

That night someone put shit through Halina’s letterbox and all over her door. I was mortified, as if I’d done it.

Wee lads spat at Piotr at the bus stop. ‘It’s only kids,’ I said, just trying to make him feel better.

‘Only kids?’ He looked at me like I was stupid.

People said there was going to be a strike if Galbraith didn’t sack some of the migrant workers and give local workers their jobs.

‘You can’t do that,’ I told Julie when we went on a smoke break. ‘People have rights. It’s to do with Europe.’

‘F*** Europe,’ she said. ‘My Alan’s on the bru. Four kids at home. What about their rights?’

I didn’t know. And if I said anything people would say it was just because of Piotr.

Colin held a meeting in the back room of McMaster’s. He put up posters: LOCAL PRIDE - OUR PEOPLE, OUR VALUES. I saw Tony on his way in. I was coming out of the chippy. I put my head down to ignore him but he spoke.

‘Right, Angela? Still with your Pole?’ He made it sound dirty.

I sucked my lips in.

‘Angela, why couldn’t you stick to your own? What’s he got?’

I was sick of not saying anything. ‘He’s got more than you, Tony. Look at you, going to your pathetic wee meeting with your new best friend Colin and a load of racist gets.’

‘It’s not racism, Angela. It’s about values. Pride. Belonging.’ He got that off the leaflet. His eyes were bright as if he was on something.

‘That’s bollocks. Local Pride - it sounds like a loaf of bread.’

‘So what about when your man goes back to Poland? He’s probably got a wife and ten kids; they all have.’

I hugged my packet of chips. ‘For your information, if he goes home I’m going with him. And we’re probably getting married.’ And I marched away. It wasn’t true. It was only what I wished was true.

That night they did Piotr’s house. It wasn’t shit this time; it was a petrol bomb. Everybody said they were lucky because they all got out okay.

Piotr wasn’t at work. I texted him but there was no answer. I felt so sick all day I kept letting lumpy potatoes through

At breaktime Colin stood up and clapped his hands. ‘I’d like to make it clear,’ he said in his important voice, ‘that last night’s attack was an outrage.’

People looked at each other and mumbled. Tony half sat up but Colin put his hand up like a teacher.

‘An outrage. Organised labour protest is one thing. Mindless vandalism is another. Local Pride stands for local values. For decency and hardworking people. Anybody who drags himself down to that level has no place in Local Pride. No place.’

Tony went to follow him out but Colin stopped him. ‘You heard me, Tony.’ He looked at Tony like he was dog’s dirt.

I went round to Piotr’s place and it was all streaked with black, a scarred corpse of a house. I rang him for the twentieth time and heard the phone ring from inside. I bladdered on what was left of the door and he came and stood in the doorway. His eyes were raw.

‘Angela,’ he said. ‘It’s OK. I would have said goodbye to you.’

‘G-goodbye?’

He gestured at the wreck of the house. ‘How can I live with this?’

I could only bury my face in his chest and sob, ‘Don’t go, Piotr, please don’t go.’

And he kept saying. ‘But it’s finished. Finished.’

* * *

The police and ambulance arrive at the same time. Someone holds a blanket round me like I’m the victim. When they’re cutting him down his jeans nearly fall off and you can see the skin of his back shining white round the black swirly letters of his tattoo. I want to cover him up.

Through the blanket he’s hugging round me I feel the policeman shiver. ‘I wonder who Angela is,’ he says.

 


Critique by Competition Adjudicator - Iain Pattison

We are currently living through the most turbulent, uncertain and fearful times in a generation - perhaps longer. Worries over potential unemployment, spiralling debt and home repossessions stalk us all. And in this recession, friendships and marriages are stretched to snapping point, lives are marred and mangled by poverty, panic and insecurity.

Local Pride captures this atmosphere of futility and despair so perfectly that it seems more like a gritty documentary than a piece of fiction. It turns the microscope on one small community’s pain - one relationship turning sour - and in doing so mirrors the heartbreaking stories of a whole nation under stress.

It’s a very small, focused, human drama - Angela has outgrown her loser boyfriend Tony; fallen out of love with his rough, brutish ways and small town lack of ambition. But on the day she determines to end with him, Tony becomes unemployed as the local carpet factory closes.

It’s a triple blow for Tony - he is alone, jobless and Angela has grown close to handsome, caring, well-educated Polish boy Piotr whom she works next to.

Embittered Tony sees Piotr as the living embodiment of all his miseries, of all the injustice that now plagues his life - the Pole is an outsider, a foreigner, who has come here and stolen his girl and one of the precious few jobs left in the downturn-hit Ulster town.

And as worried townspeople start a campaign to keep jobs for local workers, Tony gets sucked into the mood of misplaced nationalism and xenophobic fear. But he goes further than anyone dreamt, his personal resentment against Piotr turning to racism and violence.

The story has a strong climax that can’t fail to sadden and stun. But every part of this narrative is hard-hitting and chillingly truthful. It shows how easy it is for our darker emotions and suspicions to take over when we lose hope and blame others for our troubles. It shows how easy it is to hate; how easy it is to be engulfed and destroyed by that hatred.

Local Pride is a brilliant, pitch-perfect cautionary tale that offers us all a warning - a grim but enthralling story that resonates loudly in these challenging times.

 

 


2nd Prize –Martha Williams with:

The School Gate

She has a big nose, hooded eyes, lips that look like they might snarl every smile, and tiny breasts, but Kaye is still the sexiest and most beautiful woman Sarah has ever met.

Kaye’s house is mouldy, her lawn unkempt, and her husband is old, but Kaye has a million friends who drift in and out, bearing home-made biscuits, broad smiles and invitations to dinner.

Kaye laughs when her child kicks a ball over the fence and lets her many sons eat their dinner naked, if that’s what they want. She doesn’t do their homework and she never irons their school uniforms. So, how, in the name of God, do her children do so well at school?

Sarah’s deep eyes glower from under heavy brows as she watches Kaye waltz unevenly through the school gate, accompanied by a troupe of children, only half of whom are her own. Other mothers trust Kaye with their children, even the girls, even when daughterless Kaye will get them wet and dirty, and allow sweets. Even Sarah lets her children go to Kaye’s house, not because she wants to, but because she doesn’t want them to be the only ones not to go. Not to experience Kaye.

Before it all happened, Sarah had decided that, rather than sit in awe of Kaye, she would emulate her. When Sarah lost two stone, and Kaye put on a stone, there was only seven pounds between them. Sarah bought new clothes and make-up, and dyed her hair a rich chestnut, the day Kaye stumbled up to the school gate, wearing worn jeans and no make-up, tired from a late night. Finally, thought Sarah, the goddess falls within reach. With Kaye at her worst, and Sarah her best, she could finally stand tall by her adversary, and smile with friendly pity at the woman who had for so long overshadowed her self-esteem.

Kaye spoke, ‘God, I’m knackered. How are you?’

Sarah sighed luxuriously, ‘Ahh, we had a good night last night. The kids are all sleeping through now.’

Kaye smiled, ‘Cool.’

Sarah was, astonishingly, within reach of bettering Kaye. Her body was shrinking and her kids were sleeping through, whilst Kaye was on her knees, exhausted. Just seven pounds of fat between them.

Sarah left Kaye standing at the gate, absorbing Sarah’s good night. Let her absorb that today, then tomorrow let her realise that Sarah will be thinner than her.

But as she left the school, she spotted Kaye laughing with her head thrown back, and Gemma was handing her a card. An invitation? Sarah waved at Gemma, but although Gemma waved back, she didn’t beckon Sarah over, nor proffer any card.
That evening, Sarah went running. The diet was stalling as she neared her target: it was time to exercise. As the sweat poured from her sagging flesh, she willed herself through the pain barriers by imagining Kaye, slowly fattening in her exhaustion whilst she, Sarah, emerged sylph-like from her maternity years with long, lean muscles and glowing skin.

The next morning, Kaye wasn’t at the gate. Nor for three more days. Then it was weekend, and still Sarah was running and starving.

On Monday, Kaye was there. Sarah smiled,

‘Hi!’ Sarah stripped off her coat, showing her new smock and leggings, over her newly toned thighs.

‘Hey,’ Kaye was breezy. She beamed and didn’t notice Sarah’s legs. ‘That’s a nice top.’ Then she was gone, a twirl of mascara and expensive perfume. Looking surprisingly skinny.

Sarah glared after her, ‘You look like you’ve lost weight?’

Kaye turned to look back, ‘Oh, yeah, thanks. Been to the gym.’

Sarah snapped, ‘I thought your back was bad?’

‘Better, thanks!’ Kaye’s eyes glowed with friendly concern, ‘How are you?’

Sarah sent her husband to the school gate for the rest of the week, whilst she joined a gym and worked out. She lost three more pounds.

When Sarah next saw Kaye, she couldn’t speak. Kaye didn’t look any thinner; instead, she’d cut off all her hair. Now she looked like a dark Annie Lennox, an elfin genius, city stylish. Sarah skulked away with the biting thought that Kaye, only three years her junior, hadn’t even started to go grey.

The next week was rotten. Sarah spent hours helping her daughter with the Easter Bunny competition, but Kaye’s son won it. She sent her tiny daughter in with a box of chocolates for the teacher, but Kaye’s young son made the card that was put on the wall, and it was Kaye’s son who led the assembly, with a key speaking part. Kaye’s son who came out beaming to the school gate. Then, when Sarah’s daughter came out looking quiet, it was Kaye’s son who gave her a chocolate egg. How dare Kaye’s son pity her daughter? How did he get to win everything?

When Kaye’s son jumped up and down with delight, knocking Sarah’s daughter aside, Sarah grabbed him. ‘You just pushed my daughter! What do you say?’

The boy wriggled, panicked and spluttered, no, he hadn’t, it was an accident.

‘I saw you! You just pushed her.’ A sibilant retribution for touching her fragile girl-child. She gripped his arm, glaring into his baby face. The boy stopped laughing and jumping, started to cry, and his Easter Bunny chocolate prize fell to the ground, with a stream of snot and tears.

Kaye called her son to her. Kaye didn’t shout, nor speak loudly, and from her vantage point, Sarah couldn’t tell what was being said. When Kaye’s eyes met hers, they were appraising.

Kaye led her tearful son home without speaking to Sarah. Sarah figured, she was probably angry, but rather than meet Sarah head on, she’d crawl home to discuss it with her husband and, no doubt, their mutual friends. Kaye hadn’t even apologised for her son knocking Sarah’s daughter.

When Sarah went over to Kaye’s house, to clear the air, Kaye simply said she’d dealt with it. As Sarah left, she heard the phone ringing... it would be another mum, calling to collect the story. Damn it, now Sarah would be maligned to the other mothers, all because Kaye wouldn’t speak to her directly. Sarah bristled.

The next day, solemnified by the burden of her own importance, she spoke with the teacher about Kaye’s son’s behaviour, requesting that someone keep an eye on him. Was her quiet daughter so lacking in confidence because of bullying? She’d asked a couple of other mums, was she right in complaining about such a young child? How could she not protect her daughter? As she left the gate that afternoon, she heard two mothers discussing him and saw Kaye glance over at her. Still, Kaye didn’t speak with her directly.

Kaye had a dinner party that Saturday, but Sarah only found out on Monday, when several friends said they’d been to dinner and she’d asked, ‘Where?’ in the tone of voice usually reserved for replying to her mother’s list of her inadequacies.

It turned out Kaye’s had been the first of a series of dinners from which Sarah was excluded. Sarah understood. Kaye was threatened by Sarah being attractive, slim and well-groomed. Moreover, Kaye couldn’t handle her son misbehaving, being reprimanded, nor take responsibility for his actions. So now she was punishing Sarah for her own insecurities.

When Kaye held her big party, to which everyone would be invited, Sarah confided in another mother, about how Kaye was ostracising her, how lonely she felt, and how she and her daughter had paid a high price for standing up for themselves. She was surprised and almost embarrassed when she received her invitation.

The party was relaxed, Kaye drifted round, hugging someone else’s smiling baby and sliding her luscious eyes around the room with feline pleasure. She walked like a dancer and smiled like a star. When she spoke, people turned with magnetic immediacy, loving her attention, her food and her perfume, the heady Kaye love that she exuded whenever she asked, ‘How are you?’

When Kaye looked into your eyes, she made you feel like you were all she’d ever cared about.

Despite Kaye, with her green dress hugging her taut figure, Sarah enjoyed the party. It was as if the last few weeks hadn’t happened. Perhaps she’d been welcomed back into the fold. She bristled at the thought that she danced to Kaye’s tune.

It was only when she got home and saw herself in the mirror, with the smear of mayonnaise on her elbow and her belly hanging over her belt, that she realised that it didn’t matter that there had, for a moment, been only a few pounds of weight difference between them - Sarah was never going to be Kaye. For all Sarah’s efforts, Kaye had unfairly been gifted a magnetism and a power that meant other people would never see her faults, political playing, or failures. They would only see her warmth, beauty and effortless ability to win.

On Monday, Sarah was late and rushing to the school gate. It was raining and her kids were fractious. She saw the small child run into the road and slowed to accommodate her but then, instead of crossing, the child fell. Sarah’s eyes widened, as suddenly a figure sprinted out, swooped, grabbed and flung the child to the far pavement. Then all Sarah saw was that the figure left in front of her was Kaye. Kaye, whose magnetic eyes were wide as a deer’s. Kaye, whose slim body was poised for flight. Kaye, still wearing green.

It took a fraction of a second for the flash of hatred to pass, before Sarah slammed on the brakes, before her car spun and slid, before she felt the dull thunk of metal on flesh, before her daughter screamed. Before Kaye’s son shrieked, ‘Mummyyyyy!’

They all agreed it was an accident, that when people dash out into rainy roads in front of traffic, they get run over. They all agreed it wasn’t Sarah’s fault. They all agreed that Kaye had been heroic. They all agreed that Kaye was lucky to survive. They all agreed, it was a tragedy for a young mother to lose a leg.

When Sarah pulled up at hospital, she had changed. She didn’t feel in awe of Kaye, nor want to be thinner. Didn’t care about the dinner parties, didn’t feel jealous of the friends, the wins, nor even Kaye’s charisma. She just felt she should do the decent thing, give Kaye some flowers, and then it would be time to move on from Kaye.

As Sarah entered the hospital room, she reeled as though slapped. The room was stacked high with flowers and balloons. Adults and children had crammed cards onto every surface. The nurse pressed her hand onto the shoulder of her brave patient who, in her pain, never forgot to turn her beautiful eyes to the hospital staff and ask how they were.

Kaye was looking pale, pained and a slight hint of sorrow flanked her soulful eyes. Suddenly her beauty seemed haunting. She smiled, ‘Sarah!’ Her voice rich and hypnotic, ‘How are you?’

Sarah stammered. She was fine, she’d been shocked by it all. She’d not known what to do. She was so horrified. She gave Kaye the flowers. When she felt the nurse’s eyes upon her, she remembered to ask how Kaye was.

‘Surviving.’ Kaye smiled wryly...slyly?... and nodded toward where her leg had been, ‘finally got below eight stone!’

Sarah felt the walls close in on her. Kaye was joking. Kaye was friends with the nurse. Were they laughing at her? Had Kaye explained, this women caused my pain? Would Kaye, the heroine, vilify Sarah to the adoring world? Was Kaye teasing her? How could Kaye be smiling? How could she be wearing mascara? How could she be looking so damned beautiful? As Sarah stammered and left, she heard Kaye’s phone start to ring.

Kaye watched Sarah retreat. With appraising eyes.

 


3rd Prize – Debbie Thomas with:

Stolen

Miss Pullen breathes in the startled stillness of the classroom. She puts her bucket down softly, apologetically, as if interrupting some private activity: the lurching of numbers across the blackboard or the breathing of bags against chair legs.

She flicks her broom between the desks. It’s amazing what they drop and just leave. The broom turns up a fountain pen, a fancy pencil sharpener and, from under Sarah Payne’s chair, a pot of nail polish. Cheeky Cherry by Estee Lauder - a tenner at least - forgotten on the floor. But though it would never be missed, Miss Pullen pops the pot back in Sarah’s bag.

‘Miss P’s a treasure,’ Mrs Bennett likes to tell the girls. ‘You can trust her with anything.’

At the back of the room someone has upturned the big wicker basket that holds the lunch boxed. Miss Pullen strokes the broom round its rim. The wicker squeaks and judders. She shrieks backwards. Clare Garton and Nicola Barnes crawl out from underneath. They splutter past her.

‘We gave her a heart attack!’ Nicola squeals as the door closes behind them.

Miss Pullen puts her hand to her chest. One of these days they will, little cows. She drops the broom and reaches into the bucket. A good polish, that’ll calm her down. She sprays a desk lid, drinking in the deep safe smell of Mr. Sheen. She loves the way he waits on the wood, pale and polite, for her cloth to soothe him in.

She polished all eighteen desk lids. Eleven have chewing gum stuck underneath. Oh, what would the mummies and daddies say? Three thousand a term to teach their little darlings the habits of builders’ mates!

Sophie wouldn’t have chewed gum in school. She wouldn’t have bothered because she’d have been allowed it at home. Sugar free, of course, and only now and then.

Gum is stuck under the lid of Isabel Palmer’s desk. Miss Pullen doesn’t like to open it but what can she do? There’s a fluffy pink pencil case on top of Isabel’s books and she’s left her calculator on. Miss Pullen turns it off. Don’t mention it, Isabel.

Her work finished Miss Pullen snatches a smoke in the store room. There’s a knock on the door. She stabs her cigarette at a saucer, waving in the fumes towards the window.

‘The toilet’s blocked,’ says Sarah Payne. No ‘Hello Miss P’, no ‘Sorry to bother you’.

‘In the back cloakroom,’ adds Becky Tate. The girls giggle back to lunch break on their shiny brown legs with short white socks.

Miss Pullen glances at the flecked pool in the toilet bowl. Notices on all the doors and they still chuck in all manner of. This is the third blockage in five days. Miss Pullen’s beginning to think it’s deliberate, forcing her to stick her head in their muck. Well forget it. Mr. Gough can do the honours for once.

Looking for him in the playground she passes Clare and Nicola under the cherry tree. They’re so busy listing names they don’t see her scowl past.

‘Isabel!’ Clare says. She writes it down. ‘And Emma.’

‘Which one?’ says Nicola.

Clare’s eyebrows shoot up. ‘Cartwright, you noonoo. You don’t think I’d invite Emma Wills?’

Noonoo indeed, thinks Miss Pullen. Emma Wills gets her uniform from the second hand cupboard. Emma Wills is a scholarship girl who got into Greenwood High School through brains, not Daddy’s bank account.

Sophie would’ve been the same, what with Brian driving taxis. Course he might be doing something else now - but with his education he’d never exactly rake it in. And Sophie too would be off the party list. She’d be hanging out with Emma Wills, the high fliers from lowly homes.

Miss Pullen finds Mr. Gough weeding behind the netball court. She works up a smile. ‘Afternoon.’ He grunts into his spade. ‘Blocked toilet, I’m afraid.’ she tells his back. ‘In the underground.’

He turns round. ‘Can’t you fix it? M’busy.’

I’m fine Mr. G. Thanks for asking. ‘I’ve tried,’ she says.

Mr. Gough hurls his spade down. She follows him to the cloakroom and watches him bully out a crumpled ball with the toilet brush. Brad Pitt sags, drop dead and drenched, on the caretaker’s gloved palm.

‘Nearly blocked the ‘ole system,’ he mutters. ‘Couldn’t care less, could they, little gits?’

Why should they? Miss Pullen thinks, heating baked beans on her stove that evening. Arriving at school in their Jags and their Beemers, nibbling paninis while their mummies do lunch and their daddies arrange divorces - they can throw Brad Pitt wherever they like. Look at Clare and Nicola, born into friendship, sharing so much because they’ve so much to share. They’ll glide together through university on the calm wheels of wealth. At thirty they’ll put their toddlers in the same carpeted crΠche. At sixty they won’t look fifty. And at seventy Clare will say, ‘Remember Miss Pullen?’ Nicola will frown until Clare murmurs, ‘Wicker basket?’ Then Nicola will laugh till the tears streak her Dior Antiwrinkle foundation.

Miss Pullen looks up. Her face whispers back from the dark kitchen window. Her fingertips circle thin cheeks, ravenous eyes. Forty eight and all used up on a life that never happened. Would she look like this if Sophie had lived? How would Sophie look? Brown eyes like Brian’s: they were just turning when... but the rest is blank.

Miss Pullen lifts the pan and slops beans on her plate. She scrapes out the last streaks of sauce. Waste not want not. Those Greenwood girls don’t know the meaning.

Clare’s show-and-telling her presents before lessons next morning. Miss Pullen finds herself in the doorway, her sweeping abandoned. She peers over murmuring heads at the gifts laid out on Clare’s desk.

‘These are just the ones that fit in my bag.’ Clare explains. Gold earrings in a velvet-lined box, some electronic game thing and a pink cell phone.

‘Nokia N95,’ breathes Isabel. ‘They’re at least four hundred quid.’

‘It’s got an MP3 player. And the camera’s five megapixels.’ Clare’s voice is slow and thrilled.

‘Let’s have a photo,’ says Nicola. ‘Hey, Miss Pullen. Over here.’ The girls titter into place, smoothing their supersmooth hair, putting two fingers behind each other’s heads.

Miss Pullen pulls off her gloves. She holds the phone reverently between thumb and fingertips. ‘What do I - ?’

‘Oh come here.’ Clare widens her eyes. ‘You press this.’

Next morning the girls are bursting with Clare’s pool party. Mopping the corridor, Miss Pullen listens through the open classroom door.

‘Becky’s bikini...’ Isabel’s voice trails off.

‘The bikini wasn’t the problem,’ says Sarah.

‘Clare’s brother kept staring at me,’ Isabel giggles. ‘I was so embarrassed.’

‘Can’t say I noticed,’ mutters Sarah.

Miss Pullen looks up. Outside the huddle Emma Wills is slowing unpacking her school bag.

‘Ah, Miss Pullen.’ Mrs Bennett sails up the corridor. ‘Such a lovely day.’ She claps her hands. ‘I think I’ll take English outside. That’ll give you a chance to clean the classroom. Then could you do the art room after lunch? It’s in such a pickle.’ Her beam suggests that she’s the one doing the favour.

Through the window Miss Pullen watches the girls spread rugs under the cherry tree. Mrs Bennett is sitting with her back against the trunk. Her sunhat lolls round her face like a barmy poppy. Her skirt billows out in careful chaos. She thinks she’s in a painting: Bountiful Mother with Eighteen Daughters.

Miss Pullen wipes a hand across her forehead. It’s so hot. But she wouldn’t dream of cutting corners. She dunks a mop in the bucket then circles it over the floor, moving the desks so that every spot smarts with the spite of Flash Floor Lemon.

‘I’d hate to be a germ in this classroom,’ Mrs Bennett likes to joke. ‘Nothing escapes your eye, does it Miss P?’

Nothing except one thing. The only thing. The thing that began with a niggling cry. That turned into an ambulance, a coffin, accusation and abandonment.

‘Didn’t you see the rash? Why didn’t you call them sooner?... How can I stay? Every time I look at you I’ll see her.’ For twenty two years Brian’s blame has warred against the doctor’s consolation.

‘It happened so fast. There was nothing you could do.’

Miss Pullen knows that. She knows Sophie was stolen.

She reaches for the comfort of Mr. Sheen. She polishes the desks, legs and all. Then she lifts every lid to check all the calculators are turned off.

Mrs Bennet was right about the pickle. But Miss Pullen’s in the mood. She spends an hour rinsing the crusting scabs of paint from pots and kneading glue out of brushes. Then with a knife she scrapes every paint flick off the window.

At three o’clock she goes out for a smoke. Hurrying past Mrs Bennett’s classroom she glances through the door. The teacher is sitting at her desk. Her face is smooth and grave. Though hearing nothing, Miss Pullen can tell she’s speaking slowly to a silent audience.

There’s a crowd round Clare’s desk next morning. Miss Pullen pops in to empty the bins, which she should have done last thing yesterday.

‘My dad called her parents last night,’ Clare’s saying. ‘They ended up having a shouting match. Her dad said she’d never steal anything.’

‘But it was in her bag!’ says Isabel. ‘I saw it there when Mrs Bennett made us search the classroom.’

‘Weird, though,’ says Sarah. ‘Why would she take it? Her dad could buy her one any time.’

Clare shrugs. ‘Mum says it’s jealousy. Cos I’m prettier.’

Sarah and Isabel exchange looks. ‘But why would that make her steal your phone?’

‘I dunno.’ Clare’s face is all wounded virtue. ‘Ask her.’ But they can’t because Nicola hasn’t come in.

Miss Pullen takes out the bin bags. In the corridor she leans them against the wall and reaches for her map.

‘Miss P!’ Mrs Bennett rushes up. ‘Can I have a word?’ She looks tired. ‘You didn’t see Nicola Barnes going into the classroom yesterday, did you? Alone?’

Miss Pullen frowns past Mrs Bennett’s ear. ‘Yes,’ she says slowly, ‘now you mention it I did. During lunch break. Why?’

‘Oh dear.’ Mrs Bennett drums her fist against her mouth. ‘Oh, dear dear. She stole a cell phone from Clare Garton’s desk. A birthday present. Really pricey.’ She sighs. ‘I had Nicola’s father on the phone last night. Saying he’ll take her away if we don’t withdraw the accusation. But now -‘

Miss Pullen shrugs. ‘It was definitely Nicola.’

‘Why would she do that? They’re best friends!’ Mrs Bennett stares at the turmoil of Miss Pullen’s mop,

Miss Pullen agrees it’s very strange. Though in her opinion it’s not just Nicola who’s to blame. If the phone was so precious, why did Clare leave it in her desk? Flopping the mop in the bucket, she murmurs that those girls should really take more care of their things.

 

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