The Writers Bureau Short Story Competition 2019
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The winner of 2010’s Short Story Competition

1st Prize - Caroline Bond with:

My Face

It’s a studio somewhere in the East End. Brick walls, painted white. We’ve been here since 8.00am. There is a strong smell of over stewed coffee. The usual crowd are flitting about looking busy, not really doing much; apart from Harry. At the moment there’s some sort of problem with the lighting tubes behind the corrugated plastic backboard. One of the fluorescents keeps flickering. Harry isn’t happy. The gown Camille just handed me has a long smear of foundation on the collar and a ratty, frayed hem, but at least it’s warm. I sit on a crate and think about the tiles for my new kitchen. I’m a bit worried that the blue might be too dark against the oak work surfaces. It’s taken months, but it’s nearly finished; just the tiling and the decorating to go. I sit and plan where I’m going to put the Gaggia and my new Bugatti toaster. The other girls spend hours leafing through Harpers and Vogue, desperate for the latest Manolo Blahniks and DKNY jeans. My retail porn is Homes and Gardens.

A camera click drags me back to the shoot, but Harry is still behind the screen giving the technician hell. I’m hearing things. Underneath the gown my vest and knickers are damp and clingy; a nasty, clammy feeling. I shift position. I wait. I’m used to hanging around. I’m used to going from being the absolute centre of attention to being utterly ignored. At the moment I’m just another prop.

For the first time this morning I can actually see who’s here. Normally the lights blind you to the rest of the room. Today it’s Sara on make up and Camille on ‘wardrobe’. I also recognise Charlie, he’s doing the video for the website. He’s talking to a really young guy with a camera. I don’t know who he is. Lynette is in a corner, in the shadows, keeping watch; she’s on the phone. She’s always on the phone.

Lynette handles all the bookings, organises everything, keeps everyone who matters sweet. You don’t want to get on the wrong side of Lynette. She looks straight through me as she talks; her mind on another shoot and another healthy percentage. The runner, Joey or Joel or something like that, is sprawled on a bean bag flicking through a magazine. He looks as bored as me. There is a crash and a splatter of swearing. So much for us getting finished by 12.00.

The door at the back of the studio opens and in walks some ‘suits’. I vaguely recognise the first guy. I’ve seen him around on shoots before. He’s something to do with Ad Sales. He always dresses expensive. He never stops talking. Following behind him are two older blokes; mid forties, less sharp. They look awkward and out of place. They hover close to the wall taking their lead from Mr. Slick.

Joey/Joel switches back on. He sweeps up to them offering coffee and bagels and plenty of theatre. Lynette, scenting money men, snaps off her phone and glides over, hand out-stretched. The fat guy on the left winces as they shake hands and she crushes his fingers. They talk and look over at me. The men laugh at something Lynette says. She strides over.
“Marcus wants you to come and say ‘Hi’. Make his clients feel welcome.”

As she instructs me on what to say she reaches up and strokes my hair away from my face, tucking stray strands behind my ears; an act of ownership, not affection. Another camera click. I flash a smile at the three men and jump down from my seat. Still she’s not satisfied. Sara is summoned and my lips are re-done. I pout, Sara re-applies lip-gloss. Lynette nods approval, the ‘suits’ sit and watch. Click.

“Shoes!” I cram my feet back into my heels.

As I walk over to them I feel a tug at the back of my robe. The gown falls open. Lynette has pulled off the belt. I keep walking and smiling and doing my job. The conversation is awkward. I bubble and fizz for them; apologising for the delay, explaining the lighting glitch, asking where they’re going for lunch, being suitably impressed when Marcus tells me. They take it in turns at making brief eye contact with me, so that they can take longer turns looking down at me. Really they just want me to go away and get on with it. So do I.

We are all relieved when Harry shouts that we’re back on. I go back to my proper job.

Camille comes over to get me ready. The robe goes. I immediately feel cold and shivery. Camille pulls the thong higher up over my hips and re-adjusts the skinny vest, making sure it is riding high over my belly and pulling tight across my breasts. We both look at my nipples. They are shrivelled tight and hard and small with the cold. Click.

“Get in front of the lights. You’ll soon warm up.”

I step onto the set welcoming the sudden heat and the fierce blindness of the lights. Harry looks at me critically for a second. Camille re-appears with the water spray and squirts, as directed by Harry. In seconds the vest is soaking. The water trickles down my belly and thighs, sliding off the oiled skin. I appreciate it that Camille has bothered to put warm water in the bottle.

“Turn round. We’ll get the bum shots first.”

I go to work. Harry wants me on my knees, looking back over my shoulder. He is very clear about what he wants and I do exactly what I’m told. That’s how you build a reputation. That’s how you get the bookings. There are a lot of girls doing the rounds; no shortage of good boobs and bums, there’s a lot of competition.

My assets are not just flesh. I listen well. I can hold a pose. This really isn’t as easy as people think, not in four inch heels. Some girls can only do waist up, they can’t get the position right. Like now; Harry wants me in a crouch, with my legs wide, holding my boobs. It’s hard to balance, especially on a floor smeared with baby oil and slick with water. Now he wants me up on spread knees with my back arched. I’m hot now, a combination of the lights and exertion. There’s a flow and a rhythm to the session. I move from pose to pose in synch with Harry’s instructions. No one else is talking now. It’s quiet except for Harry and the camera. I can’t see the ‘suits’, but I know they’re there, beyond the lights, getting what they came for at last. I forget about them.


The other thing that gets me work is my face; my face, not my looks. There are lots of girls who are prettier than me. I need the heavy eyeliner and the false lashes; my eyes are nothing. I have an okay nose, thanks to rhinoplasty soon after I started modelling. My cheekbones are nothing special. I do have a good mouth, nice full lips; suggestive and soft, and my teeth are now pearly white. (A yearly investment that is definitely worth it.) But all together my face is really just a collection of fairly average features.

But I can work my face. I can sell a look. I can compose the lips and the eyes and the tilt of my chin, on demand, over and over again. A lot of it is in the set of the mouth. I can do sullen and dirty like now; act like my lips are too heavy and too full to bear. Hot and steamy is similar, but you part your lips a little, as if you’re breathless. To get horny you show your teeth and the tip of your tongue. Sultry and classy needs heavy lidded eyes and a side glance. For playful and cheeky you need to widen the eyes and tilt your head. Devilish needs sharp eyes and teeth. Sad and lonesome comes from the jaw line. Sated and spent is eyes closed, head thrown back.

When I see my published shots that’s what I think makes the difference, my face. Lynette says it’s got more to do with the growing trend for natural boobs and that I’ve got big nipples. She doesn’t like us getting any stupid ideas that talent and personality might come into it. But I know the photographers like working with me and that helps my bookings.

Vest off now. More water spray. More arching and fondling. A wrap.

Harry thanks me. Camille wraps me back into the towelling gown. With a scrape of chairs the ‘suits’ are off to lunch. I say ‘Hi’, to Vikki who is next up. Sara is applying a snaking trail of small, red, diamante hearts from Vikki’s navel to her left breast; a Valentine Special. I am finished and left to sort myself out. I peel off the false eyelashes and cleanse off the make up. Click. There’s no shower so I make do by rubbing off as much of the oil as I can with a towel. Dry knickers and bra, jeans and tee shirt, flat shoes and jacket. Click. Job done.

About a week later a courier delivers a package to my house. I sign for it and take it through to my beautiful, warm, sunlit kitchen. I slit open the end of the envelope and out slides a disc. It is labelled Glamour Shoot; Cherie Lloyd, January 2010. The label isn’t branded and is handwritten in black marker pen. This isn’t normal. We never get a copy of the shots, they belong to the paper.

I fetch my lap top and load the disc. It is the wet look job I did with Harry, but these aren’t Harry’s photos.

The first is a close up of me drinking coffee, small eyed and raw skinned in the early morning. The next shows me, mid make up, with one eye blackened and enlarged by false lashes and eye shadow, the other eye naked and small. I look distorted. Next there is a shot of Camille tying me into the thong. She is kneeling at my side, anchoring me with a flimsy, beaded strip of fabric while I stare off into the distance. Then there is one of me blurrily wiping water and oil from my greasy face. Me hunkered down on a packing crate, my body drowned in the ratty hemmed gown. Me stony faced in the grasp of Lynette. Me head tilted, open mouthed, ugly; laughing with the ‘suits’. Me caught pre-pose, in the glare of the lights, looking down vacantly at myself, Me, post shoot, stripped bare of make up, looking plain and tired.

I shake the packet and a note drops out. It is a note from Luke Armitage, Harry Armitage’s son; present at the shoot that day courtesy of his dad. The photos are for a college assignment. He wants my permission to submit them.

I look back through the shots. I see my face in each and every photograph. No glamour, no style, no falseness, just my face and I think that I just might say yes.



Critique by Competition Adjudicator, Iain Pattison

Every once in a few years I come across a story that is so beautifully crafted, so multi-layered, so professional, moving and truthful that it buries into my mind, refusing to budge. This is one of those rare and mesmerising gems.

My Face is a wonderfully nuanced and atmospheric tale, packed with bitter-sweet observation, a stark and graphic sense of location and character, and oozing that most elusive of narrative elements – total authenticity. It is completely believable – every word of this deceptively simple story offering insight and emotional punch – almost to the point of seeming a documentary, a piece of journalism.

Page Three stunner, Cherie Lloyd, is being readied for yet another topless photo-shoot, being preened and prepped to become every man’s ultimate unobtainable sexual fantasy. All around her cameramen, runners, make-up girls and wardrobe assistants work to turn her body into an illusion, a vision of photographic perfection.

But the seedy reality couldn’t be farther from the glamorous dream. Cherie sits cold, damp, bored and basically ignored in a clinical East End studio as bare as her goosebumped skin.

While she waits, she fantasises – not about sex, or the clothes and shoes that other models crave, but about the tiles and toaster for her kitchen – demonstrating that, for her, this experience is anything but erotic. It is a job, a 9 to 5 chore just like any other; and she is a normal person, with dull, unremarkable domestic concerns – not a celeb or star.

Ironically, she has no illusions about herself. She knows her looks are fairly ordinary for the business, but she can hold a pose, switch on one of the many ‘identikit’ sexy expressions that photographers seek. She also knows her career depends on being nice to the grubby men in suits who turn up to furtively watch the shoot.

But not every man there that day sees her as a pin-up. One sees the real Cherie and captures her true spirit, her soul, in ways she’d never have imagined.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this special story would have made the reader feel voyeuristic, have fallen into the trap of preaching or followed a predictable disapproving line. But this cleverly upbeat entry knows how to make a huge impact with a whisper. A great winner from a very talented story-teller.

2nd Prize - Sheila Llewellyn with:

The Dublin Judas

James Templeton. I haven’t seen him in over twenty years and now there he is, standing in front of my Caravaggio, holding forth to the Friends of the Dublin Gallery. The voice is low but it still fills the space, in that Oxford sort of way.

‘There’s light and darkness in all of us, and Caravaggio gets to the heart of that.’ The same old line, but he’s saying it as if he’s just thought of it, and the Friends, mostly women, twitter in agreement. I knew he was visiting the gallery but seeing him again makes my stomach flip over. I manage to keep upright by leaning against the archway between the Mantegna recess and my Caravaggio.

I always think of it as my Caravaggio. It hangs in its own room, and I’ve lost count of the hours I’ve spent looking at it. ‘The Taking of Christ’ it’s known as officially, but I prefer its informal name, ‘The Kiss of Judas’. The chaos of betrayal, frozen in the shadows. Soldiers, a terrified disciple, a solitary onlooker with a lantern, all crowded together at the front of the canvas, caught in pools of unforgiving light. And now Templeton, posing there with them, picked out by a ceiling spot.

I manoeuvre myself around the side of the group, making sure I’m not in full view. Not that he would recognise me now. I’m greying and shapeless, the sort of woman that men like him look through. He’s worn well, but then he would. His grey hair suits him. Probably didn’t have to work hard to stay slim and he’s still into his Missoni sweaters, this one an exclusive shade of aqua.

He could change your life, Templeton, the way he talked about paintings. ‘People’s secrets,’ he once told me, ‘that’s what makes a masterpiece. When they look at a painting, people share a love, a hate, a need. Every secret seeps into the canvas. Gets stored there. An artist creates a painting but people’s secrets give it a soul.’

He scans the Friends like a lighthouse. Caravaggio was his passion, his one true passion and he is in full flow. ‘Let’s see what we can see. Christ and Judas obviously, but we’ve got soldiers too. Look at that extraordinary armour – sixteenth century – just a few touches of white on the black to make it shine so smooth and cold... and the disciple here, top left, running away – notice his mouth, the way Caravaggio has painted him screaming.’

‘Isn’t that disciple supposed to be John?’ She’s young, wears a sparkly blue beret and stands just a little too close to him.

‘John or Peter, we’re not sure.’

‘You wrote it was more likely to be John, in your article – Art History Today?’

‘You’ve certainly done your homework. Yes it could well be. Great question!’

He smiles at her and she smiles back. His smile strips away the years like acid.
March 1990. The Berlin Wall was down. Nelson Mandela had walked his long walk to freedom. Even Oxford was buzzing about what was happening in the real world. But James Templeton just carried on living in his own little Baroque art bubble. I didn’t care as long as I was floating around in it with him.

We’d lie in bed a lot. Talk about art. Or rather, I’d talk. He’d respond, occasionally. I’d sometimes prepare clever observations just to impress him. I remember once I came up with Medusa, Munch and The Scream.

‘It reminds me of Munch.’


‘Caravaggio’s Medusa. It reminds me of Munch. The Scream.’


‘You can hear her scream, Medusa. How does he do that? How does he paint a scream so you think you can hear it?’

He turned to me and stroked my hair on the pillow and smiled that smile.

‘Great question! That’s what I like about you. I think I know a painting inside out, then you ask something that makes me think again.’

The aphrodisiac power of thinking you’re someone else’s Muse. I wonder if sparkly Blue Beret is aware?

The Friends shuffle off at 4.45pm on the dot. He doesn’t give them more than he’s paid for but they’ll think he has given his all. His hand is on the hem of Blue Beret’s short woollen tunic, at the point where the ribbing touches mid-thigh. He hasn’t lost his touch then. Caravaggio as foreplay. His speciality.

I turn my eyes back to Judas. There’s a greasy sheen on the reddened rim of his ear and the knuckles of the left hand gripping Christ’s shoulder have grime in their creases. ‘Never one to shirk the sweat and the dirt of the human body,’ Templeton would say.

‘We’re closing in ten minutes madam.’ The attendant comes up behind me and makes me jump. He’s made his final patrol, past the Fifteenth Century Room, detouring into the Mantegna recess then back through the archway to the Caravaggio. So, he’s not around for the last quarter of an hour with Templeton and the Friends.

That’s useful to know for next week. It’s Templeton’s final lecture.

* * *

I get to the Gallery early so I can spend some time soaking up Caravaggio’s genius. The earthy reds he uses to paint the disciple’s robe. The way it swirls round in the darkness and the soldier grasps the free end of it, ensnaring them all in the colour of passion and violence.

A group of fidgety youths pushes in front of me, project leaflets in hand.

‘This may be a portrait of the artist himself.’ The guide points to the figure with the lantern, the face illuminated by breathtaking, opaque light. Just two brush strokes make a dark-lashed eye and a heavy eyebrow. ‘He’s struggling to see what’s going on. Any ideas about what he’s thinking?’ the guide asks.

‘Should’ve gone to Specsavers!’ some idiot at the back says, and the group explodes into giggles. The idiot turns round to check out the wider audience.

I keep my hands in my pockets, curling my fingers and digging in until the palms hurt. He catches my eye and the grin on his face fades. A second idiot next to him punches him lightly on the shoulder and they both begin to snigger again. The guide sighs, cuts his losses and shepherds them towards the exit.

‘Back to some peace and quiet, thank God.’ The attendant again. I ignore him but he carries on anyway. ‘I like his Judas. He paints him like an ordinary working man. Dirty hands. Poor robes. Makes me feel sorry for him.’ I was going to move away but this remark is too much.

‘Sorry? For Judas?’

‘Maybe he didn’t have a choice. Or maybe he just thought he didn’t have a choice about doing what he did.’

‘There’s always a choice.’ I spray a bit as I say this and a tiny bubble lands on the Martin part of the name on his badge. That seems to do the trick. He steps back, out of my space. ‘Perhaps, madam,’ he says and walks off towards the Mantegna.

There’s always a choice whether to betray someone or not. The day before my finals, Templeton told me he wasn’t going to give me the scholarship. I was a certainty for a first. Everybody said so. A first, then the scholarship, then a study year in Rome. That’s how it was going to be.

‘That’s how we planned it, James.’ I remember the leather sofa in his study squeaking as I sat down in shock after he told me the news.

‘That’s how you planned it.’ He stayed his side of the desk. ‘But it’s an open competition. There are others.’

‘What exactly are we competing on? How good we are in bed? I deserve that scholarship. I’ve worked so hard, done everything you’ve asked.’

‘Therein lies the problem, sweetheart. You’re a follower, a good interpreter of other people’s work, but it’s originality I’m looking for and sadly, you just don’t have it.’ He gathered up his papers and gestured towards the door. As he bustled me out, he kissed me lightly on the cheek. ‘You’ll do well tomorrow, I know you will.’

I was lucky to get a lower second. I often wondered if he’d done it on purpose. Told me near to my finals so I’d muck them up. No comeback on him. I just hadn’t made the grade. Second class degree. First class breakdown. Third class job.

Nothing to do with the art world. Mindless work. No lightness or darkness. Just grey. Art was never an escape from life for me. It was my life.

Thinking about all this makes me feel tight in my chest. I need to look at my painting. For four hundred years, this Caravaggio’s been listening to people’s secrets. Now, it’s about to share mine.

I look at the shaft of light on Christ. Palest of pale light, shining on the deep, deep sorrow in the face. No attempt to avoid the kiss. No pushing away. No defensive raising of his hands. I focus on his fingers clasped in gentle acceptance. And I realise something new.

The submissiveness of Christ irritates me beyond all measure. There is altogether too much forgiveness here. I find this thought strangely satisfying. I move away and stand near the archway and wait.

Templeton ushers in the group and stands there next to Christ and Judas, like some surreal 3-D tableau. I noticed last time that he tended to stand at the edge of the horseshoe on the left, and face to the right, so I wander round behind him, standing between him and the painting.

He’ll finish with a flourish. He always did. Something to wow them with, something they can impress people with afterwards.

‘We weren’t sure at first if it was a genuine Caravaggio,’ he begins, ‘so, sometimes you have to look for the pentimenti,’ he lingers over the pronunciation, ‘the little corrective touches, the marks that tell us it’s the work of a specific artist.’ I notice Blue Beret write the definition down.

He points to Judas. ‘Here, for example, he re-did the ear – made it smaller.’ They all murmur their appreciation of this detail. His open palm reaches towards Christ’s forehead where the light is at its most cadaverous white.

‘And here, just close to the hairline, see this squiggle to suggest a curl? Probably done with the butt of his paint brush. It is so Caravaggio, this little touch.’

He leans forward to show them and they lean forward with him.

I see the vein on the left of his neck stand out.

The release within me, as the knife punches in.

The canvas rips open. A ragged edge flaps inward, curving from Judas’s eye to the face of Christ and one across his cheek.

There’s the sound of a scream.

Templeton grabs me by the hair, his breath puffing on my cheek as he struggles to keep hold. I squirm round, and up close, I see revulsion and fear on his face. He yanks my hair even harder and tries to pull me to the ground. Someone says ‘I’ve got her sir. You can let her go. I’ll take over from here.’ Martin, the attendant, pulls me away and coos at me. ‘There now, there now, Madam.’

* * *

I’m an interesting case study, apparently. They are struggling to understand.

‘Why the painting? Why not Templeton?’ they ask. Templeton knows why.

His beloved painting will be restored, but it’ll never be perfect again. And he’ll know it’s his fault. He’s learned now that betrayal leads to punishment. Whenever he stands in front of a Caravaggio, he’ll remember. The pain will come back. And you have to be alive to feel pain. Which is something that Judas worked out. Eventually.


3rd Prize - Annalisa Crawford with:

Irish Green

I paint my toenails green: Irish Shamrock green. I shiver by the gaping French window as the eager March sun vanishes behind a rogue snow cloud, a piercing winter breeze taking its place. Once the Irish Shamrock is dry, I swaddle my feet in thick woollen socks, hide the colour away, and warm them by the fire.

My toes are camouflaged as I walk barefoot. I carry my shoes, swinging them from the tips of my fingers and dance through dew-damp grass to early morning lectures. My ankles are garnished with a small Celtic cross tattooed just above the bone and three delicate gold chains. My pale, freshly-shaved legs are shrouded in drifting Indian silks printed with patterns of the rainforest. And by the time I reach the grey stone building at the end of a long stretch of prefabricated huts, the sun is strong enough for me to remove my cardigan and feel the soft breeze on my arms.

People call me Gypsy. Either The Gypsy, or simply Gypsy, as though this is my name; and truly, I’ve almost forgotten my name, it has been so long since anyone has used it.

These people who do not know my name stare after me as I walk past in the late afternoon heat, my clothes slick with a salty glow. The drooping lawn is covered with layers of supine students showering in the lingering sun after a hard day in the library, or lecture hall, or seminar room 5 with its lack of ventilation and single antique rattling fan in the corner. Books, pens, magazines, are scattered next to them, ignored; there is a low hum of voices, but no one is really talking. It is too hot to talk or to listen, or to eat or drink.

I spend the shimmering sultry evening alone, gazing from my window as people head in droves towards the students’ bar, hand-in-hand in oblivion, or in large rowdy groups. I feel an anomalous urge to follow them, to sit in a dark corner and watch. I change my clothes and slip in unnoticed, downing bottles of beer with foreign names. As I push through the throng of dancers to leave, a hand brushes my waist, then grasps as though to pull me back inside. I do not see whose hand, and I am dragged the opposite way by the swell of drinkers at the bar.

The night time loses potency with a sudden shift. It is silent and empty out here, calm and cold. I wrap my arms around my body for a little extra warmth; the coolness catches out the t-shirt wearers who are pursuing the last allusion of warmth. Back in my room, I make hot chocolate and wear a thicker t-shirt to bed. The curtains are open when I wake. Rain hangs in the sombre morning mist. Soon I will be compelled into my heavy brown boots to protect my feet from puddles settling along the roadside. I will no longer paint my toenails because they will not be seen.

“Hey, Gypsy.”


I flinch at the mockery in his voice and refuse to turn. I stare instead at the path ahead and fight my blushes. If I turn, there would be a group of Freshers ready to laugh at my hope, or third year Economics girls who eye me, in belligerent groups, with a mixture of envy and resentment.

People, the people who do not know my name, gossip about me in corridors, with voices hushed like the purr of wind between branches, eyes darting in case I am just around the next corner listening in. And when I have no choice but to pass them, they laugh at private jokes – with gleeful giggles – as though I care what they think of me. I have seen them only because they want me to see them. In truly secret moments, they hide from me, as though this were a war.

“Hey, Gypsy,” comes the call again, louder this time, a little closer, a little breathless.

I slow my pace, curious; a vague desire that this time it will be different, this time the voice calling my name will be different. And my heart sinks at my own naiveté.

I hear footsteps running behind me. “Hey, Gypsy,” he says softly. So this time I turn around. It is growing dark and the path is deserted, the lights from the library building cast an orange glow across his face. He smiles at me; I wonder what I look like with my nose red and my ears numb. His dark hair, brown or possibly black, is tangled across his illuminated face and he pushes it from his eyes with a hand wrapped in the sleeve of his outsized jumper. I feel my own hands tingling through thick woollen gloves.

“I don’t talk to strangers.” My breath hangs between us in the frozen air.

“We don’t have to be strangers.” He puts his hand on my waist and it feels familiar.

Two black-cloaked Halloween witches run past laughing and wailing on their way to the fancy dress ball. We feign fright and continue in the opposite direction. I stare after them, long after they have merged with the dark shadows of the large oak trees. I wonder, for a split second, what it would be like to be someone else, someone who does not spend her life being ridiculed and mocked.

A firework fizzles and cracks overhead. I squeal with a childlike delight. We cower as the sparkles crackle down upon us, and he takes my hand and we run to safety. Our eyes shimmer in the coloured glow. We laugh. He turns my head towards him and kisses me. I weave my arms inside his coat and he wraps me up; my frozen cheek rests on his chest, and he strokes my hair. And everything is perfect. We drink piping hot chocolate from the dining hall vending machine and sit out on the steps, engulfed by other couples sharing our moment.

“Are you Irish?” he asks me, stretching out on my floor and looking up at me. I paint my toenails pure blue, like the deepest of oceans; only there are glittery specks in this, as though the rising sun is glinting on the serene surface. I almost smell the far-off summer as I apply the polish.

My small heater is turned up high. A harsh wind gusts around the courtyard that my room overlooks; the single tree is battered and weary. And then the rain comes, icy and unabated. I close the curtains, and the instant intimacy of the room hangs thick and crushing.

“My father is Irish,” I reply, wondering why he asked the question. I have a soft Irish lilt and my name is O’Keefe. I reach forward to my feet and paint the last nail. Having colour gives my feet definition, like the dark wooden frame on a painting or the sketched line of the horizon during an explosive purple sunset.

He tries to reach out to me, but he gets in the way and I have to shrug him off – he may smudge the varnish and I’d have to start over. This is a precarious time, because I am leaning over my body with my knee digging into my breast and, yet, I am still trying to be accurate.

“Do you love me?” he asks from my bed, exhausted and content. I fold myself into the curve of his naked body and stare at the discoloured ceiling. I hope he doesn’t catch my sigh, my uncertainty, my anguish. Why can I not answer? His arms loosen around me; his smile begins to fade.

“Goodbye,” he says sadly as he leaves the room; his shirt is untucked, his hair more unkempt than usual. He sets down a small Christmas-wrapped present on the desk, but does not look back at me. I open it tentatively when I can no longer hear his footsteps echoing on the cold linoleum of the empty corridor. It’s a ring: a ruby, which is my birth stone. For a friend, says the card. I have never been anyone’s friend before.

“Yes, I love you,” I say through the frosty January air as he sits inside with a red-lipped blonde from his media course, who laughs at everything he says, and leans close and forward, touching him like I never did. They share books and write in each other’s notepads. His eyes wander to hers with tormenting tenderness and his hand strokes hair from her face, like he often did for me. “Yes,” I whisper again, “I love you and I am a fool.” The wind whips around me, but I do not feel it. I am paralysed where I stand. I tremble and withdraw.

Out of my greyness comes baby pink. Blonde women giggle like children, pouring over absurdly large Valentine’s cards sent by men who will never reveal themselves. The identity is unimportant: the excitement is reliant solely on having more cards than anyone else, particularly those classed as close friends. I see him in the corridor, receiving a kiss from his blonde. She holds a large pink card and giggles like a child.

“Hey, Gypsy,” he calls. We are not strangers. I turn instinctively, openly, hopefully; and he laughs with his friends. They pat him on the back as though he’s done something worthy. I do not laugh back. I feel my eyes burning; and I can see he has noticed. I stand and look only at him and say, “Yes, I love you.”

He doesn’t laugh anymore. We stand and watch each other, not moving. I feel my ruby ring through my glove. I wish he knew that I wear it and that, when I look at it, I think of him until my stomach knots and my heart beats savagely. His friends fade away and we are left alone. I think of what I’d like him to do next, think back to my dreams when we have been stood similarly. Then we both walk away without another word, fighting tears and regret.

I kick through the hail, crunchy underfoot, my toes becoming numb because I have been here so long, walking around outside his halls, which are not near my own. “Hey, Gypsy.” I ignore the voice because it’s a whispered delusion. It has been calling for me day and night, but I refuse to listen any more.

Then I feel his hand on my waist, a gentle touch like no one else’s, and he is behind me. He holds out an Easter Egg. “I bought you this.” He bends hesitantly and kisses the back of my neck. He wraps his arms around me, enclosing me in a tight muscular circle. “Can we start again?” he asks as the red dawn breaks free from black clouds and casts watery shadows across the campus grass.

4th Prize - Mrs C. Cox with:


Marsha and I were not natural friends. We lived near each other and walked home the same way, that was all.

Marsha was the class dunce, in an age when nobody minded using that word, and dyslexia was unheard of.

“Do you want this in English or Marshan?” Miss Kildare asked the class, Marsha’s latest composition in her hand. We giggled, and she read aloud: “Satday dad druk sen pint an cut baji bik of”.

Perhaps Miss Kildare did not realise what this meant until she reached the end; or perhaps she was as insensitive about exposing Marsha’s difficult home life as she was about ridiculing her work. Had the poor budgie survived, I wondered?

Marsha didn’t have looks on her side either: skinny, round-shouldered, with frizzy mouse-coloured hair framing her pale face, she was afflicted by a nervous squint.

Marsha did have a saving grace, however. She painted amazing pictures. They were mostly of vegetables: Marsha would paint carrots with eyes and noses and green hair, or potatoes with arms and legs and little hats, which somehow had a charm that made people laugh.

She could paint real vegetables too. Every year at Harvest Festival we were expected to bring an offering for the celebration in church. For some reason, by tradition, we were also expected to do a painting of our offering. The whole junior school took part in a Harvest Painting Competition. Each year my basket of apples and plums looked like a circle divided into two halves: a yellow check pattern in the bottom half, green and red blobs filling the top. Marsha’s marrow, by contrast, looked like a marrow: and, more amazingly, a marrow that managed to be attractive, even exciting. Two years in a row, Marsha’s marrow had won the Harvest Painting Competition.

Marsha got the marrows from Mr. Moss, our school caretaker. Mr. Moss was taciturn and morose, and mostly had as little as possible to do with us children. But Marsha qualified for the yearly marrow by dint of being a distant relative of Mr. M’s and her mother’s having no compunction in asking for anything that might relieve their straitened circumstances.

I found Mr. Moss scary, and years later, when I thought about what happened to Marsha, I hoped it had been that scariness that had stopped me accompanying her on her visit to Mr. M’s allotment. But in truth, I didn’t want to be seen going places with the class dunce. My best friend would have dropped me, had she found out.

Perhaps, if I had gone with Marsha, if there had been two of us, we could have stood up to Mr. Moss. Perhaps I could have taken Marsha’s hand and pulled her away, and we could have run off together.
I can’t say that I worried about those things at the time. It was only as an adult that I wondered if Marsha was as damaged as people said one could be by experiences such as hers, only then that the guilt kicked in.

Mr. Moss beckoned to us from his allotment plot as we walked by the fence. I would have carried on, but Marsha stopped. “Uncle George wants us. I ’spect he’s got a marrow for me,” she said.

“It’s not Harvest Time yet,” I objected.

Uncle George, as Marsha called Mr. M. outside school, beckoned to us again. We didn’t move, so he came up to the gate. “Come on girls, got something to show yer.” And that was when Marsha followed him, and I ran off home.

Marsha didn’t say anything to me about the allotment incident the next day. But she wrote about it in her school diary the following week.

In addition to her usual shortcomings, Marsha had recently added to Miss Kildare’s frustration by abandoning the use of the letter ‘s’ on the end of words. It had started after a test on irregular plurals. Exasperated by the ‘oxs’, ‘mans’ and ‘childs’ on Marsha’s page, Miss K had given her such a telling off, and kept her in for so many playtimes, that Marsha had become terrified of plurals.

So Miss Kildare was especially cross with her, and on this particular morning she peered over Marsha’s shoulder, snatched up the diary from her desk, and read aloud: ‘Ia wek wen to lotmen’ mis ter m sho me his zoo tingy he say I can tuch an bit it.’ “Last week, Marsha,” remonstrated Miss K. “Was it the allotment you went to? Does Mr. Moss keep a zoo on the allotment? And pray, what is a ‘tingy’? Is ‘tingy’ a Marshan word, I wonder?” Miss Kildare looked round at us. We smirked. We hooted.

“His zoo-zoo-,” floundered Marsha. Then suddenly, she said loudly and clearly: “His thingy. Mr. Moss showed me his thingy. And he let me bite it.”

We gasped. We gaped. We tittered behind our hands.

Miss Kildare’s face flushed deepest red. She told us to take out our arithmetic books.

By the end of dinner break, the whole school knew that Mr. Moss had shown Marsha his thingy.

We didn’t entirely believe her story, because once, after she and her mother had visited Mr. Moss and his fat Italian wife in their flat above our school, Marsha told us that she had found the strangely-named “Auntie Cloudier” boiling snakes in a pot. Nonetheless, as we queued to go back into class, we quizzed her.

“What’s Mr. M’s thingy like?”

“Like a marrow,” said Marsha thoughtfully, “but not as big and fat.”

“Did you really touch it? And bite it?”

Marsha nodded. “It was hard and it tasted yucky”.
A policewoman arrived at the school that afternoon, and Marsha was called out of class. She came back looking quite pleased with herself. I suspect she liked the attention. The next day, she didn’t come to school at all.

She didn’t bring a marrow for Harvest Festival that year. And her painting of a tin of beans won no prizes. Not long after that, Marsha left our school. Her parents were moving to the seaside, Miss Kildare said, to Hastings, where there had been a famous battle.

And it was in Hastings that I found myself on holiday earlier this year. I would not have gone into the art exhibition if it had not been tipping down with rain. When I did, I was pleasantly surprised. Amongst the dull, badly-executed seascapes, and chocolate box cottages, some masterpieces shone out from the walls. A series of lettuce paintings especially drew my attention. I had never realised how beautiful a lettuce could be, nor how many shades and variations of colour it, and the rich earth around it, could display. These lettuces looked as if they were growing, as if they were moving gently in a breeze. I could almost smell them.

They might sell for a lot of money, I thought. It would be interesting to get a catalogue and look at the prices. As I approached the table near the door, where two women were sitting, one of them stood up. She was middle-aged, skinny, pale, with frizzy hair dyed red, tamed into neat curls. She was not hunched though, but upright, and met my gaze unblinkingly. Her clothes were smart too. Otherwise, she had not changed much. I would have known her, even if one of the expensive-looking gold chains around her neck had not held a heart pendant, inscribed with her name: Marsha.

I turned away, unsure whether to say who I was, and found myself face to face with a large man pushing a wheelbarrow full of courgettes. The painting was almost life-size. The figure stood at an angle, but with its head turned to face the viewer. Mr. Moss glared at me out of the frame, as if I had just dropped a crisp bag on the playground.

I didn’t need to look in the catalogue to get the title of this one. It was inscribed along the bottom of the picture: “Uncle George with his Thingies.” Marsha had clearly mastered the use of the spell-check, and overcome her phobia of the letter ‘s’.

Then I remembered Auntie Claudia. Having an Italian wife, it would be quite natural for Mr. Moss to refer to his baby marrows as zucchini: a difficult word for a not-very-bright nine-year-old. I felt sure Marsha had misled us all innocently at first. But had she, I wondered, at some point, realised our mistake and allowed us to persist in it? It would probably have served us right, especially Miss Kildare: Marsha the dunce knowing more than everyone else, for a change.

I turned back to the desk, and we caught each other’s eye again. Marsha said not a word, but I saw recognition there; and something else. I think it was a smirk.

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