National Short Story Competition 2014
Random House Publishing
'I hope it all goes well.'
C. Searle, Key Account Manager
J. Moorhouse, Tesco (Toton)
Thank you once again to everyone who entered and made our first competition a success. We hope you enjoy reading the three winning entries and Sally's comments, and if you'd like to contact the authors, please use our information form and we will pass on your messages by e-mail.
(While e-mailing entrants on progress, some of them were returned as undeliverable. If you haven't heard from us, and you think this is the reason why, you can update us with your new e-mail address by using our information form.
These are some of the comments we’ve received recently. Thank you to everyone who took the time to write to us.
Thank you very much for your critique, which I wasn't expecting. Even a few words can be helpful and give an idea of where a story is going wrong,
and yours seem particularly perceptive. I have put your crit on the end of the story ready for when I start revising it. Thank you for your trouble.
Thank you very much for this. I enjoyed reading the winning stories. They are very good and the writers deserve their accolades. Despite not winning,
I am grateful for the judge's comments on my submissions. At least they don't read like my school teacher's remarks, "Could do better" and "Must try harder"! Think your newsletter is jolly good. Thank you for letting me see it. Best wishes for continued success of the Club.
What a fabulous service you have given those who entered the Nottingham writers' competition. The judges' comments received today were unexpected
and a very nice gesture. Thank you. I will definitely be entering again and may well take up the long distance membership option.
Many thanks for the runner-up prize which arrived today. I have already thanked you for the very efficient way the competition was run but also want
to pass on similar compliments from two writing colleagues who entered. They were particularly impressed with receiving judges' comments about their stories despite not being short listed.
Judge's Report by Sally Quilford
Sylvia's Mother by Andrew Campbell-Kearsey – The greatest test for me of any story is if I go away from it for a day or two and then remember it just by the title when I go to look at it again. This is why Sylvia's Mother is my first choice. It is a heartrending and sometimes harrowing account of mental illness. The ending, whilst not happy, is hopeful, but the author cleverly suggests that it's one of many hopeful endings in the circle of pain that is mental illness. In the light of such great writing, I'll forgive the writer for the earworm of the Doctor Hook song sticking with me for days afterwards!
Biohazard by Kim Stringer - A clever 'ghost-cum-mystery' story, which I think would do well in a magazine like The Weekly News. It has a timeless Sunset Boulevard feel to it that kept me reading right to the end and whilst I guessed part of the ending, the final line was a stunner.
Something to Say by Lorraine Cooke - Whilst this story was a slow burn and was one of several stories I read about ailing relatives in nursing homes or hospitals, a subtle mystery is taking place that, in my opinion, lifts this above the norm.
Mrs Moretti's Memoirs by Yasmin Keyani. Another mystery story, with a compelling character in Mrs Moretti. It kept me reading to the end to find out the truth about this strange but lonely woman, and I would suggest that the author look at making this into a novel, where they can explore the themes a little more as it seemed as if it needed more room to 'grow' outside the confines of the completion word count.
Synaesthesia by David R Thompson. A very different tale of marital strife, seen through the eyes of a character suffering from synaesthesia. Beautifully written, I admired the author's use of the affliction to describe the emotions on show.
A word about the Runners Up and the entries in general.
This was the hardest part to judge as there were so many stories deserving of a mention, but as I couldn't pick them all, I went with those that, as with the first place story, I remembered just by their titles. That says a lot about the stories. Of course I had to like the stories too! If there were several with the same theme I tended to pick the one I personally thought strongest, but it is very much a subjective decision, and no one who didn't make the runners up list or even the main prizes, should feel bad about it. The standard of stories was very high and my task was a difficult one. It's a sad fact of competitions that not everyone can win. However, I read lots of stories that would most certainly do well in another competition with another judge and others that I am sure would find a place in a magazine.
Runners Up (in alphabetical order)
First Flight by Katharine V Morgan
In Captivity by Anna Webley-Hall
Running Away by Kevin Brooke
Secret Windings by Sue Hoffmann
Sons and Aliens by Sarah Evans
Summertime by Rosemary Lewis
The Price of Worth by Heather Shaw
Three Feathers by Brian Webster
Visiting Time by David Webb
Wind on the Heath by Krys Wysocki
The Winning Entries:
Click on a story to read...
First Place - Sylvia's Mother by Andrew Campbell-Kearsey (Centurionman)
I’m just about managing to keep it together. I have bad days but this one’s proving to be okay. So far, that is; but it’s not even lunch-time yet. I have little warning signs. I call them flags. If it’s a red one then there’ll be trouble. Orange is getting that way, but if it’s a green one I know I’m all set for a
I understand what I’m expected to do in this office. It’s basic filing, which is fine as long as I don’t get interrupted. I hate it when another person wants to hear my life story. I understand the rules. They use it as an excuse to stop working and then I’m expected to ask them questions about their lives. They get in between me and the filing cabinet or rearrange my piles of folders so they can sit on my desk. I find it stressful to pretend to look as if I care.
My key worker got me this job. She explained to the agency that I have problems. They checked to see if I had been in trouble with the police and a few things came up. These happened when I was on different medication. I’m here on trial. If I don’t make too many mistakes then they might keep me on. I work part-time which gives me time to go to the group sessions, but more importantly to spend time with my models.
Suzie is my key worker. She is new and I like her, a lot more than the others. I think this is her first job. She listens to me; I can tell her things. She understands when I get things stuck in my head. She never tells me the things I say are stupid. Although she’s paid to be nice to me she seems to mean it. She came to find me last month when I didn’t show up for our appointment. I was crying in the corner of my room. She wasn’t cross that I hadn’t turned up. She didn’t laugh when I told her about Dr Hook. The man on the radio announced the name of the song. I thought it was so sad that Sylvia’s mother didn’t have a first name of her own. I tried to work out what it could be, but there were no clues in the words. Suzie and I ended up talking on the floor of my room instead of the therapy room downstairs. She told me what annoyed her too. I found out later that she’d got into trouble for being alone in my room with me. That’s not fair; she was only being kind.
I’m allowed to have my lunch outside if I want. Most of the people buy sandwiches but they’re expensive. So I make my own. I’m saving up my money for new paint and brushes. I’m working a whole day today. Suzie helped me to open a bank account last week. I have to pay for my room at the hostel out of my wages. I have a travel card so I don’t have to worry about buying tickets. The rest of the money is for me. I forget to eat regularly so Suzie made a chart for me and we worked out which days I should go shopping for food.
I had an orange flag two days ago. It was on the tube. The man kept staring at me for no reason. Instead of getting angry I got off the train and waited for the next one. When I told Suzie about it, she said it was a breakthrough. I just thought it was common sense.
Now I am back in the office and it’s quiet. There are meetings going on in other rooms and I can concentrate on my work. The telephone on a desk near me rings. I’ve been told not to worry about this as it will be transferred to voicemail. But I still do. What if it’s an emergency? What if the person making the call needs somebody and nobody answers? It could be urgent. I’ll talk about this with Suzie and she’ll ask me how it makes me feel. I have to take my afternoon pills an hour after my lunch. I have an alarm on my watch to remind me. I still can’t swallow them without a drink.
I hate it when this happens. I have a letter to file away and the area is St John’s Wood. I don’t know if it fits in under SA or ST. There’s nobody here to ask. Sometimes, if I clench my fists and close my eyes it helps. When I open them, Roger is standing there giving me funny looks. He is supposed to be my boss but he is not even as old as my younger brothers.
‘Is everything alright?’
‘Yes, I’m fine thank you.’
I turn away but he stays there and carries on talking.
‘Are you sure? It’s just that your hand is bleeding.’
I look down and see a little bit of blood drip onto the floor. I have dug my left thumb nail into my palm. Now that I’ve noticed, it begins to hurt.
‘It’s nothing,’ I lie.
‘I think you should have that seen to.’
‘I’ll go and wash it.’
When I come back into the office he is speaking into the phone. I catch the last part of what he says. He thinks I am not ‘suited to an office environment’.
The next day is my day off. In a few weeks’ time I will have enough money to buy a new kit. Suzie jokes that if I keep on making model planes at this rate I will run out of ceiling space. She makes a joke about congestion in the skies. I smile because I know it is meant to be funny.
‘I understand you had a problem at work yesterday?’
It’s no good pretending I don’t know what she’s talking about. Roger must have told her.
‘He hates me. Doesn’t want me there.’
‘Why do you say that?’
‘He’s trying to get rid of me.’
‘No he’s not.’
‘So why did he call you on the telephone?’
‘Because he’s worried about you. Roger just wants to help.’
‘No he doesn’t, he wants to sack me.’
‘So why did he call me?’
This is so obvious to me. Suzie makes out she doesn’t understand. But I see it all now. She loves Roger and used me to get to see him. Their weekly meetings to discuss my progress are a cover. They probably kiss and laugh about me.
I leave the session and go back upstairs to my room. Suzie can’t follow me there. She’s not allowed. I like that rule now. There’s a knock at the door but I go under the duvet and cover my ears.
According to my chart, I have to go to the supermarket today. But that is what Suzie wants; I can do what I like. It’s the same with the pills. She keeps on telling me I’ve got to take them but she isn’t the one who has a mouth tasting of rusting metal.
Instead of shopping for food, I go to the bank and there is a friendly lady who explains that even though I don’t have enough money I can still afford to buy the new fighter plane. It’s called an overdraft. I sign my name, although the handwriting is a bit shaky. She says it didn’t matter.
The man in the model shop is pleased to see me. He’s called me his best customer before.
‘I thought you were saving up for this one?’
I smile. I just want him to speed up so I can get home with it.
‘I don’t sell many of these. Like to know how you get on with it.’
I promise to bring in a picture on my digital camera, like I’ve done before.
Lots of people are in my way. I try and walk home in straight lines but my path is blocked. Can’t they see I am carrying something valuable? I get out of the way of push chairs all the time. I could travel on the bus but I’m scared somebody will bump into me. The man in the shop didn’t have a bag large enough. He offered to put the model box into a black bin bag but that didn’t seem right. My new plane isn’t rubbish. A cyclist almost knocks into me and damages a corner of the box. I see a red flag. He shouldn’t be on the pavement. I shout at the back of him as he gets smaller in the distance. An old lady comes up to me and asks if I’m alright. I don’t know why I’m crying. Why are there people staring at me? Don’t they understand how precious this model is to me?
At last, I’m safe at home. I take the lid off. The corner which that stupid cyclist knocked is all squashed. But luckily the polystyrene inside protected the model. I lay out the instructions. They are in lots of languages. I wonder how many South Koreans have made this model before me. I usually check all the pieces but I’m familiar with this model and begin on the left wing. The joins aren’t exact so I have to bend the plastic slightly to make it fit.
It’s ruined. I should have taken the bin bag from the man in the shop. The plane is rubbish. A large part has snapped off in my hand so I stuff the whole thing into the bin. But it won’t fit. I climb into bed. I listen to my i-pod for hours. It is dark outside now, but I still can’t get to sleep. I watch television until my eyes get sore. The man in the next room bangs on the wall and shouts about the noise. I turn off the TV. It is almost three o’clock in the morning.
I’m woken by somebody banging on the door.
‘Are you in there?’
I recognise Suzie’s voice.
‘Roger called to tell me you’d not shown up at the office.’
‘You’re not allowed in here, Suzie.’
‘Yes I am, as long as we keep the door open.’
After a pause, she continued. ‘May I come in?’
As I open the door, I realise how hungry I am; I haven’t eaten for twenty-four hours.
‘Thank you for letting me in.’
She doesn’t look very grateful as she enters. Her eyes go straight to the overflowing bin. ‘What’s that?’
‘Oh … it’s just some model that did not work out.’
‘You’ll lose this room.’
She doesn’t sound so friendly now.
I say nothing.
‘Do you know how hard I tried to get you that job? It wasn’t easy.’
I wish she’d go away or at least stop talking.
‘If you don’t have the rent money, the manager will throw you out.’
She goes over to the sink and inspects my boxes of pills. ‘Oh great, you’re not taking your meds either. No wonder I get a call from the police about you assaulting a cyclist and causing a disturbance.’
‘But they taste funny … and the cyclist almost broke my plane.’
‘Is that what’s over there in the bin?’
‘Yes, it went all wrong.’
‘You look terrible, as if you’ve been up all night. Did you sleep?’
I shook my head.
‘I expect you haven’t been eating properly either.’
She doesn’t look so cross now.
‘Let’s sort this mess out. I’m sure we can fix it.’
As she sorts out the pieces of the model I turn on the radio. I hope it’s anything but Dr Hook.
Second Place - Biohazard by Kim Stringer (Kiki Wright)
Leo had woken at four with his heart pounding and his body drenched in sweat. He’d pulled on his joggers, run down and then up the twelve flights of stairs between his flat and the ground floor, done press-ups on his balcony until the dank London October chill had sent him back indoors, and none of that had tired him enough to get back to sleep. This fear of the nightmares would destroy him.
He sighed, got up again and fired up the laptop. Leo opened the file he’d been working on last night. He scanned the text and was struck yet again by its unfamiliarity both in content and style. The bulk of the biography had been written before Marjorie Hempleforth’s death, but he’d been working late to add in recent tributes as well as details of her affair in the late sixties with her co-star – an actor who went to his grave claiming that he’d been faithful to his wife throughout their long marriage.
Not that Marjorie had been coy about her love life, hence her insistence that her biography could only be published after her death. But she’d always maintained that her on-screen romance with James Parfenoy in This Time It’s For Ever existed on celluloid alone. Although it went against her wishes, the write-up of the affair would be a huge selling point for the biography.
Leo scrolled through the file. Last night he’d typed up salacious quotes from a trainee manager of the hotel Marjorie and James had stayed in while appearing together on Broadway.
All that text had vanished. The flash-drive back-up was the same. He was normally scrupulous about saving and backing up his files. Maybe he wasn’t quite as scrupulous when exhausted from insomnia, and relying on whisky to get him to sleep.
It didn’t help that he was trying to finish the bio at the same time as reporting for Silver Screen. He’d asked for a couple of weeks off to finish the book but his boss was having none of it, especially after all the time Leo had spent stateside of late.
The aim was to publish the bio in time for awards season. What with James Parfenoy’s recent death as well as Marjorie’s, there was a nostalgic buzz about them. The publisher’s marketing types were thrilled at the promotional possibilities, especially as next February’s Oscars ceremony was likely to pay tribute to both actors.
Royalties would be split between Marjorie’s estate and Leo himself, and his current finances meant he was desperate to publish as soon as possible, so instead of wondering where his missing text had gone, he started rehashing last night’s additions. But he had to be careful. Marjorie’s daughter had to give the nod to any amendments to the manuscript approved by Marjorie herself before she drowned, and as Rosa would naturally be most sensitive to the Parfenoy additions, discretion was required. Leo needed to email the amended files to her this evening if he was to meet the publisher’s deadline.
October rain lashed against the window as he typed. He wished he was back in Los Angeles – it was only a month since he’d been Marjorie’s guest, enjoying the climate and her hospitality as they’d worked on the book’s final chapters.
He basked in the west-coast sunshine as Marjorie read the final pages of the manuscript. She sighed as she put it down. ‘Thank you, Leo, you’ve really done me justice. More than I deserve.’
He laughed. ‘Not a bit of it. You’re happy to approve the text as it stands?’
‘I am. And given that I’ll be in my grave when this book is published, I think we should celebrate now. Be a dear and fetch the champagne, will you?’
He’d retrieved a bottle of Krug from her wine cooler and returned to the terrace. The cork sailed up into the blue and splashed into the pool. He kissed her cheek as he handed her a flute of fizz.
‘Here’s to you, Marjorie. Won’t you let the publishers have the book now? It would be great to see you do the rounds of the chat shows.’
‘I’m too old for all that palaver.’ She sipped her champagne. ‘Mmm, delicious. And my catty comments in the book will upset a few people. I’ve got few enough friends left alive; I’d like to make sure at least some of them will still like me enough to attend my funeral.’
Leo smiled and topped up her glass. ‘Your catty comments will make this book a bestseller.’
‘It’s a pity that people will buy it for the gossip. What’s with the modern world? People hanker for the glamour of yesteryear and yet all they want from today is grubbiness.’
Marjorie drank again. ‘These glasses don’t hold much, do they? You’re getting me quite tipsy. Do you fancy a dip? The water looks so inviting.’
‘I’ll pass for now. I need to back up some files. But you have a swim and I’ll bring out another bottle of champers.’
‘You make a wonderful house-guest, darling’.
Half an hour later, Leo dragged her body out of the pool.
He’d helped Rosa with the funeral arrangements, and he’d dealt with the media – even managing to plug the book while paying tribute to Marjorie.
But now he was back in London, desperate to publish before the unofficial biographies ate into his market share.
He re-typed the hotelier’s comments, and emphasised that eight months after Marjorie and James’ run on Broadway, Rosa was born. He reiterated the loving relationship Rosa and her supposed father, a Hollywood director, had enjoyed – but in a newly sourced photograph of the director, Marjorie, Rosa and James, the resemblance between Rosa and James was obvious.
So Leo didn’t need to spell everything out in detail, but he hated tiptoeing around the obvious truth, especially having spent all of last night doing the same thing.
The next text added, he headed into central London to interview the star of the latest blockbuster release.
While he awaited his slot in the press junket, he drafted the epilogue. The rest of the biography was written either in Marjorie’s voice or as a detached critic, but the epilogue was to be Leo’s and the right words just wouldn’t come. He was still floored by events which had only just come to light – events which had triggered the nightmares.
When the police investigated her drowning, they discovered that she’d been suffering from advanced bowel cancer and had only months left to live. That – along with her age and the alcohol in her system – had convinced the police that there was nothing suspicious about her death.
The old battleaxe had looked so well preserved – albeit in the permanently surprised look of one who’d had too many encounters with the plastic surgeon – that Leo had imagined her living on for years. All that time he’d spent with her, and she’d never confided that she knew her death was imminent.
In his flat that evening, feeling groggy with sleeplessness, he opened the file he’d been working on in the morning, and stared at the screen in disbelief: the added text was again missing. This couldn’t be happening to him. But there was no time to investigate, especially as he also had today’s interview to write up. There must be some bug in the software’s ‘save’ function. His only option was to type the text for a third time and send the file to Rosa before he even tried to save it. And this time he’d make a handwritten note of his additions so that if the same thing happened again, he could re-key at the magazine offices in the morning.
He poured a whisky, lit a cigarette and forced his protesting brain to function. He emailed Rosa the file, wrote the changes in a notebook, and opened a new file titled ‘Epilogue’.
He typed: ‘While writing this biography, I had the pleasure of staying with Marjorie at her Beverly Hills mansion. During my final stay, she tragically drowned.
‘Not for Marjorie the slow wasting away at the mercy of cancerous cells. Having finished her biography, her last act before gliding into the pool was to drain a glass of chilled champagne.
‘The final scene in the life of this accomplished and beloved actress was to depart on her own terms. In her choice of death, as throughout her life, she epitomised glamour.’
It wasn’t great, but it would do. He emailed the file to Rosa. It was early afternoon in California so he hoped her reply might come through while he slept.
The nightmares came again. He woke with a sense of abject terror. His phone was ringing. His trembling hands fumbled for it.
‘Leo? Rosa. You’re one sick sonofabitch, you know that?’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘Jeez, you need me to spell it out? If you think that epilogue’s funny then you need to go get your screwy little head straight.’ She was almost screaming at him.
‘But I –‘
‘And in case that was some sort of weird confession, I’ve told the cops. Expect a visit.’
‘Rosa, hold on just a minute.’ He was talking to a dead line. He stared at the phone, then got up and switched on the computer to re-read his epilogue.
He stared at the screen in shock. No wonder Rosa was livid.
Leo shivered as he read: ‘During the enjoyable process of looking back over my life, I believed I had built up a trust and friendship with my biographer Leo Johnson.
‘The trust and the friendship were misplaced.
‘Our contract had a proviso that this book was to be published only after my death. Unaware that I had only months left, and that publication would therefore be imminent, Leo allowed greed to dictate his actions.
‘Once the manuscript was complete, Leo persuaded me to give my maid and my gardener the afternoon off. He and I shared a bottle of champagne.
‘My medication wasn’t working particularly well that day, and I often find that a swim helps to alleviate the pain.
‘I swam a couple of lengths then rested at the edge of the pool, enjoying the feeling of buoyancy and the sun on my wet skin.
‘Then I felt Leo push my head under the water. I tried to fight him off, of course, but a pain-weakened octogenarian is no match for a thirty-year-old man.
‘I can prove none of this. It is, I suppose, a ghost-written statement. But I shall trust to my wonderful daughter, Rosa, to try and bring me justice. Meantime, I shall wreak my own vengeance. I shall use all my powers to terrorise Leo Johnson. Until he confesses his crime, he shall never know what it is to have a restful night’s sleep. The nightmares will destroy his mind just as surely as he destroyed my body.’
He needed to get some air. He felt physically sick. He lit a cigarette and went out on his balcony. He watched the toy cars, toy buses and toy people in the street below as Londoners began a new day. Marjorie was right: Greed had consumed him.
He wondered what the sentence for first degree murder was in California. Did the state even have the death penalty? He didn’t know. Even if he confessed, he would be well into middle age before he saw freedom.
The entrance buzzer to his apartment door sounded. At this time in the morning, it had to be the police.
‘I’m sorry, Marjorie. Truly sorry,’ he said.
He stubbed out his cigarette, and jumped.
Third Place - Something to Say by Lorraine Cooke (Elsie Merry)
‘I expect you’re looking forward to getting out of here, Aunty.’
Carol’s prattling and fussing round the bed checking nothing’s been left in the hospital locker. I know she’s not expecting a reply. It’s not just my body that’s not working properly any more. The stroke has robbed my speech. Just when I’ve decided there’s something I need to say.
I’ve been here for three weeks now but Carol’s come to take me to a home. A home, not my home. I heard the doctors telling Carol how I wouldn’t be up to looking after myself any more.
‘That new care home in town has a good reputation,’ Carol said. ‘I’ll see if they can take her.’
‘They’ve got a lovely room for you at the home,’ Carol tells me. ‘Lovely sea view.’
I look at her, trying to communicate without words but she’s not meeting my eye. I don’t know why she feels so guilty. Everyone’s agreed it’s for the best.
‘Now I can’t stay long,’ Carol says, pulling into the car park of Atherley Lodge. ‘I’ll just see you settled then I’ll have to go to work. I could only take the morning off.’
The manager lady’s called Sally, a big woman who fills her white uniform completely. She helps me out of the car and wheels me into a bright, bare room on the ground floor. ‘Perhaps your daughter can bring some things from your own room, Mrs Payne,’ she says.
I don’t think anyone notices my eyes leaking as Carol says, ‘I’m her niece, actually. Aunty Alice is my Dad’s sister. Much older than him, of course.’
She sounds like she’s apologising. I don’t know what for. Her dad, Derek, might have been younger than me but I’ve outlived him. He’s been dead two years.
Carol stands like a spare part while Sally points out the room’s features, then turns on the TV for me. She puts the remote beside me, on my left. My right hand’s useless now.
It’s a nice room but it’s not my room. Out in the corridor, I can hear Carol and Sally talking.
‘She’ll settle soon. We’ll take good care of her.’
‘Should I come back later? See how she is?’ Carol sounds worried.
‘Best not. Leave it till the weekend. Let her get used to us.’
So I have four days of getting used to Sally and the other women – the ones who work at Atherley and the ones who live here. It’s a pleasant place but there’s not much conversation in the dining room. There’s a few like me here.
‘Your niece rang,’ Sally says on Saturday morning. ‘She’s on her way over. Says she’s bringing her son with her. Joe? Is that his name?’
I nod. I haven’t seen Joe since Derek’s funeral. Carol says he’s shot up and gone all moody. I wonder if I’ll recognise him.
‘Here we are, Alice!’ Sally marches into my room a while later. ‘Visitors for you.’
Carol emerges from behind a Sally eclipse and behind her I can see a boy a fraction taller than Carol, hunched under a grey hood. There are wires coming from the hood to a small metal box. It looks like he’s plugged into his own power source. Carol tugs him round. ‘You remember Joe, don’t you Aunty?’
I look up but I don’t see the small boy who used to help me pick raspberries and make jam. Instead I see … I squeak. ‘To … to …’ Blast this stupid stroke. Why can’t I get the words out? My chest heaves but the words refuse to come. ‘What was that, Alice? Tea?’ Sally’s talking in the loud cheery voice I’ve got used to. ‘Yes, I’ll get your visitors some tea.’ She bustles out.
Joe walks round the back of my chair and goes to stand by the window. I follow him with my eyes. ‘To … mmm.’ I try again, but it’s no better.
But Carol twigs what I’m trying to say.
‘No, Aunty, this is Joe, not Tom. I said you might not recognise him.’
She’s right about how much he’s changed, but she’s wrong about me not recognising him. ‘To … mmm,’ I say again, forcing air out between my lips.
‘Joe,’ Carol repeats. ‘Don’t you remember him coming to see you at the cottage when he was small?’
I nod. I remember. I remember other things too. About Joe and Tom. But Carol never knew Tom did she? I want to tell her but I don’t know how.
‘The room’s very bare, Mum.’ Joe’s finished looking at the view out of the window and is staring at the walls. Carol looks surprised to hear him speak.
‘Yes, well, we can go to the cottage and bring some of Aunty’s things. That’ll cheer the place up.’
‘Don’t you think Aunty Alice would like to go and choose the things herself?’
‘Um … well …’ I can see Carol thinking this is a bad idea. What’s she afraid of? I’m not stupid. I know I can’t live there anymore. But I want to go back more than anything. I move my head, like a spectator at Wimbledon, as they bat the conversation between the pair of them.
Sally returns with a tray of tea and biscuits.
‘You’re looking happy, Alice,’ she says loudly, setting the tray down on the table beside me. ‘It’s good to have some company, eh?’
‘I said we should take her to the cottage to get her own chair and some other stuff,’ Joe says. He points at the bare walls. ‘Some photos, maybe.’
That’s right, I think. I squeak and nod to get my message across.
‘Sounds like a good idea,’ Sally beams.
Carol frowns. ‘Are you sure it won’t do more harm than good?’ She tries to lower her voice but I can still hear. There’s nothing wrong with my hearing yet.
‘No. A nice outing’s just what she needs. How about tomorrow?’
I’m sitting on the edge of the bed waiting when Carol gets here. ‘All set, Aunty?’ she helps me up and hands me my stick. I can manage it with my left hand. We make sloth-like progress out to the car. Joe’s in the back, lightning fingers flying across the keys of his phone.
‘Lunch at one,’ Sally reminds us as Carol clips her seat belt and closes the door. ‘Don’t be late.’
‘Is the food good?’ Carol asks as we drive away.
I nod. I’ve not been up to cooking for myself much recently.
As we get to the village, the church bells are ringing and the road is clogged with cars. There are even cars on the grass of the war memorial. It’s hardly respectful.
Inside the cottage Carol wrinkles her nose and flings open all the windows. I stand in the kitchen and find I don’t mind much that I won’t be living here again.
Carol squirts cleaning solution into the bowl and turns the tap on.
‘I’ll just mop a few surfaces,’ she says. ‘Freshen the place up a bit.’ While the bowl fills, she magics a bag onto the table. ‘Joe, go into the other room and put some of the photos from the mantel piece into here.’
Joe takes the bag and leaves the room. I could follow him but I don’t. The photo I want is here. I open the drawer of the dresser while Carol has her back to me and slip a black and white photo into my pocket. I shuffle across to the back door but can’t get it open with either my useless right hand or my less dextrous left.
Carol turns from her cleaning to see what I’m doing as Joe returns with the now bulging bag.
‘Take Aunty up the garden, Joe, if that’s what she wants,’ Carol instructs. ‘You might even find a few raspberries.’
So Joe opens the door and takes my arm. I smile up at him as he helps me down the step and we begin a slow progress together along the path. There’s a gate at the end which used to lead to the old farmyard before the land got sold and a new housing estate built.
When I was a child this was a working farm, our house a farm cottage. The other side of the farm was a small wood and it’s still there. That’s where I want to go.
Joe doesn’t ask questions, just leads me through the gap in the new houses and into the cool wood beyond. It’s dark in the wood but beneath the canopy of still green leaves, tenacious light stabs here and there, polka dotting the earth floor.
It’s not far to the oak tree – the oldest in the wood. On its trunk, the letters are faded but just about visible. I point them out to Joe and we stand in silence, looking. I know they mean nothing to him – not yet.
Suddenly we hear Carol calling. ‘Joe? Is that you?’
‘Over here, Mum.’
Carol joins us. ‘What are you doing here?’ she asks.
‘This is where Aunty wanted to come,’ Joe says. ‘Look.’ He points at the tree.
Carol reads: ‘T.A. + A.P. 1939. That was the year Dad was born.’
I let out a small squeak and turn watery eyes towards Carol.
‘C.P.,’ says Carol. ‘Alice Payne?’
I nod slowly.
‘So who’s T.A.?’
‘To … To … ‘
‘Tom? Tom who?’
I hold out the photograph I took from the drawer. Carol takes it and sucks in her breath sharply. She frowns and looks at Joe. I know why. The photo could be him – except it isn’t. It’s far too old. In it, Tom is a couple of years older than Joe, but looks almost the same. Carol turns the photograph over and reads the name written in faded pencil on the back.
‘Who’s Tom Allen?’ she asks. ‘Was he your sweetheart?’ She looks back at the initials on the tree.
‘What happened to him?’
Carol hands the photo back. I can see I don’t need to say anything. I can see she’s worked it out. The sums weren’t hard. I was sixteen in 1939, Tom eighteen. ‘Come on,’ Carol says, turning back towards the cottage. ‘We need to get you back to the home.’
Carol loads my chair and the bag of photos into the boot of the car and helps me into the front seat then we set off back through the village. Church is over, the cars all gone.
As we pass the war memorial I hit the dashboard and squeak. Carol brakes.
‘Do you want to get out?’ she asks.
It’s quite a palaver getting me out of the car but I can see Carol doesn’t mind. Joe unplugs his wires and comes to help. Slowly, the three of us cross the grass to the war memorial. There, at the top of the list of village men lost in World War 2 is carved: ‘T. ALLEN.’
‘So he went to war and never came back for you,’ Carol says. ‘Did he know about the baby born at Christmas?’
I shake my head. No-one knew. No-one questioned why Mum and me evacuated to Wales. When we came back everyone thought Derek was hers.
‘Who was he?’ Joe asks. ‘This Tom Allen bloke?’
‘He was your great granddad,’ Carol says. She points to the photograph in my hand. ‘You’re his spitting image.’
I smile and nod. She was always clever, my granddaughter. Sometimes you don’t need words to tell the most important things you want to say.