We’d like to thank everyone who submitted a story to The Short Story Competition 2011.
The 2011 winners were:
SECOND PRIZE: Fiddlers Creek – Angela Readman (2013 Costa Short Story winner)
We would also like to give an honourable mention to the following stories:
Hanal Pixan – Giacomo Lee
Special Needs – Avital Gad-Cykman
We’ve written the reasons why we chose the winning stories. We’d advise you to read the stories first or we might spoil it for you!
Kerry says: After reading Delphine I knew this was a winner. It touched me to the core. Perhaps it is the simplicity with which it is told: a gentle, moving story of love between an American man and an African woman living in Paris. Delphine and the narrator have recently been told that they cannot have children. The story centres around this devastating fact and how they both cope with the news. It is in the intimate details of how Delphine deals with such grief that we learn about her as a woman, a teacher, a lover, a sister, a daughter and a friend to a family of immigrants from Africa.
When they first meet, the narrator is intimidated by Delphine’s confidence. She teases him in front of her classroom of children, not maliciously, but in a good-humoured way. This is a classic way of ‘showing’ not telling what a gifted teacher she is. Later, as they go on their first date, she watches him ‘flop about like a landed fish’ as he tries to tell her about himself. But we also get touching details of their lovelife, how they struggle to sleep in the heat of summer, how the damp air makes their clothes swell in the closet, how they first make love after hearing the bad news. Their story is bookended in the bedroom by their attempts to sleep, a beautiful touch. As a reader it felt like I was being offered a privileged peek into the private lives of others.
The meat of the story is in the misunderstanding between Delphine and her partner. She offers her old flat for the summer to a family of immigrants from Africa. We never know where exactly the family is from or what their back story is. What we do gather is that they are in need of help and Delphine offers it. Hers is an act of giving without reward. A selfless act, it seems. By sharing her flat, she is committing the ultimate maternal act: looking after people, giving them food, shelter and love. She doesn’t tell her partner what she has done and when he finds out, he also keeps it to himself. Without words, the misunderstanding is cleared and what is left is a stronger bond between them both. A remarkable story.
Katherine says: There is a wonderfully heavy sensuality running through this story, interlaced with the sadness and disappointment that Delphine cannot bear children. The footprints she choses to leave for herself as a constant reminder of this are painful and beautifully put; the scraps of paper tied to the fan in an attempt to cool down in the oppressive heat also serve as a constant and reminder to her and her partner of what can never be, despite the message Today you care. The narrator crafts Delphine as a strong, troubled woman who has lived through immeasurable sorrow and ‘spells of darkness’. Her toughness is playfully contrasted by her impish teasing of the narrator as their relationship unfolds. He is shy, bumbling and uncertain, ‘like an idiot’, and holds Delphine at a distance and with wonder while she slowly relents and finally gives in to his awkwardness. The narrator is protective and sympathetic, yet at the merest hint of betrayal he is suddenly gripped by an ‘immense anxiety’ then berates himself for his accusatory tone. The simplicity of this jealousy is at once understood, and the narrator becomes more likeable for revealing this simple human shortcoming which perhaps we can all share.
Kerry says: Simply loved this story. I’m a big fan of organising principles and the structure of this one is great. Aunt Patience and her nephew make a living out of the dead. The narrator lists the set of rules on how to ‘play the dead’ when in fact they are really playing the gullible living: holding séances to tell the grieving just what they want to hear, regardless of the truth. Each rule has a moral high ground counterpointed by their deception. Never Speak Ill of the Dead (even if they badmouth you) being Rule Number One. Aunt Patience might abide by this rule but her nephew in the final lines is about to reveal the story behind bully boy Wilbur Ford’s death at the hands of slow but sweet Bobby Wichell. Bobby Wichell bears a passing resemblance to Boo Radley, but not to the point of distraction.
One of the strengths of this story lies in its sense of place. Set in America in the early part of the twentieth century, we are in small-town, small-mind county. Wilbur Ford terrorised the weak and vulnerable when alive but on his death there were showers of grief for this ‘sweet gentle boy’. They even went as far as naming the library after the kid ‘who ate books’. It reminded me a little of the outpouring of grief after Diana’s death. The world press flipped from sleazy stories about Diana and Dodi to the death of a ‘saint’ overnight.
The character of Aunt Patience seals this story for me. From the offset she is set apart, living in a house ‘half way between a small town and nowhere’. She does not belong, is shunned by the townfolks, seen as some sort of latter day witch, and yet neighbours call on her to make contact with their dead. Both feared and admired by the community, she passes her caustic judgements left, right and dead centre, ‘Boy like Wilbur Ford, if a dog bit him it’d be the dog that caught rabies.’ Other great lines litter the story: ‘Now Wilbur Ford was in the ground, a mouthful of dirt where his curse words used to be’.
Despite the moral muddiness of how Aunt Patience and her nephew earn their crust, it felt right that the narrator was finally going to spill the beans on how this monster child met his end and I’m egging him on to ‘Speak Ill of the Dead’.
Katherine says: I really enjoyed the supposed innocence of the boy’s voice here. While he clearly understands what he is doing and what he is part of, he is also conscious of the disapproval of the community. ‘No Auntie. They don’t say that.’ he pleads when she mentions why she is labelled a witch. There are some magnificent tricks the boy learns and shares with us, amusing perhaps to the reader, cruel and devastating to the unknowing victims. He is however not without a heart or conscience altogether. The ultimately tragic bullying of the village idiot irks him and he feels moved not to humiliate the boy/man altogether, ‘Don’t wave Buddy, OK? Stay here. I’ll go get you clothes off the line.’ he offers when the bullies steal the idiot’s clothes.
There is an ongoing and complex tug of war between sympathy and perhaps disgust towards these characters. We are shown a raft of grieving women whom Auntie knows just how to tap into to make her spiritual whisperings seem plausible. She adopts a child’s tongue to trick a grieving mother, she goes into trances and all the while the boy stands in the background moving objects and tripping switches to trick the living into believing in the dead. Interestingly, the story is laid out as a set of rules which must be obeyed but which in fact are broken at every juncture as a mark of disdain for these rules and ultimately perhaps a lack of reverence for the dead themselves.
Kerry says: This is a tale of class. The narrator and Rico are a poor couple. They work as servants for Madam. We never actually get to meet Madam in person. She rules her household from the other end of a phone, away from the home the narrator is supposed to maintain, but she impacts on their lives in many ways. The action begins on the very first line when Madam buys four puppy dogs for her daughter, Liana, as a gift. The servants have no choice but to look after these dogs. As time passes, Madam’s daughter never arrives, the dogs get bigger, their cages dirtier, and the house and gardens more and more unruly. There are some beautifully evocative descriptions of these animals: ‘He howled so sad I thought his heart might spill from his throat and he would die’, ‘…his tail spun like a whisk’, ‘the thin dog came back with a plastic apron around his neck, like he had been poured backwards down a funnel…’
Throughout this story, there is a great sense of expectation. What will happen when Madam turns up and sees the ‘dog toilet’ all over the lawn? How will Liana react when she finds a puppy with his tail chopped off and his ears pinned back, still with the funnel round his head? Disaster looms with these impending visits. Only they never happen. The couple muddle through the chaos and the narrator’s loyalty shifts to the dogs as her relationship with Rico falls apart. He spends money on drink they do not have, has sex with her without consent and only does the bare minimum of work. The upkeep of the dogs lies with her alone. Madam by now has forgotten all about dogs. She has moved on to yet another extravagance and it is the poor left holding the baby, or in this case, four pups. When Rico finally leaves (and good riddance!), the narrator is left holding the fort, a prisoner not only to Madam, the house, and the four dogs, but to poverty itself.
Katherine says: There is a wonderful sense of confinement in this story, the humans are stranded in a gated house/community and the dogs confined within cages lending a strange detachment from the outside world. The protagonist is constantly anxious and put upon with no real sense of any allies until the puppies become dogs and they are left with no choice but to become allies, after all, she says ‘I have no objection to dogs.’. The hapless Rico abandons her with false claims he has to return to his village because of a death in the family which she knows to be a lie, yet she is willing to continue in her role as carer for the dogs despite making the garden full of ‘dog toilet’. She is brimming with compassion for these creatures she cannot communicate with, and because she confesses, without objection, ‘I am their prisoner’.
There is an interesting further thread of divide here. The gated community is a symbol for the social divide that exists in this country. Apart from the servants the house remains unoccupied and the absence of the owner – Madam – rightfully suggests she simply ‘did not care’. This is in turn reflected in the house being left to ruin, never maliciously, but simply because the poor protagonist cannot keep up and her sympathy towards the dogs allows them to run riot. As the dogs become more feral despite, ironically, being cared for by a human, they also become more endearing to the reader and most notably to the protagonist. Finally she relents when she understands she can never really be free of them, nor sadly of the life she leads, stranded with ‘four dogs I cannot leave, and it might be forever.’