Winning Stories - 3rd Quarter 2018- The London Independent Story Prize
'A Great Time' by Renée Jacobs
“I don’t usually find black girls attractive,” he held out this compliment and waited for me to take it.
“What about Beyoncé?”
He shook his head.
“Thanks.” I rolled onto my back.
The white ceiling of my small room hung above me. The curtains did little to block out the light. It felt very bright. How long had that crack been there?
I sighed. In the silence, it was strangely audible.
He was looking at me. He wanted something.
I sat up, allowing the duvet cover to fall to my lap. “Well…” I slipped out of the bed and put on my jeans and top, that had been waiting on the floor. I walked out of my room and to the kitchen. He would be dressed by the time I came back, if I was lucky he would be gone.
My flatmates were making breakfast. They must have been used to seeing my morning-after face, a little too much alcohol and a little not enough sleep, just as I was used to theirs.
“Is he still here?” I shrugged, filling a pint glass with water.
“I had a great time,” he was standing in the hallway, half out of the door, “maybe we could…” “Thanks,” I started to close the door. “Can I call you?” “Sure,” I paused. He was still wanting something. “When you exit the building, the tube station is straight down the road and to the left.” He stepped back. I closed the door.
I closed my eyes as the water rushed over me. Salty tears mixed with the soapy water.
It took me years to work out why he made me cry.
2nd Place 'The Locked Box in my Closet' by Annie Dawid
Here I keep the letters Sharon wrote from Harvard, which I didn't show to the detectives because they're personal. I think she was in love with her roommate:
She's one of those Jews with blond hair and bright blue eyes. But she's RELIGIOUS. She keeps the Sabbath!!! (For Christ's sake, I keep thinking, in 1994!!!) And she's also a virgin, another anachronism. (If you don't know that word, look it up, as Dad would say.) But she has this calmness about her I've never seen anyone younger than Grandma possess. Could this be because of her "faith"? I use quotation marks because whenever I think of that word, I picture Mom and Dad's "Blind Faith" album, with that gorgeous half-naked girl on the cover. My roommate looks a lot like her.
I didn't want the doctors to read this. As much as I wish they could know the "real" Sharon -- as much as anyone is real -- I'm scared of bursting their proverbial bubble. I don't think they could handle the truth. It wouldn't fix anything.
After the murder, Dr. Mom sent me to a shrink. Coincidentally, I was into wearing all black then, but I stopped. Sally the punker, Sharon the hippie: both of us behind the times. Maybe that's why she got so much over on the doctors, because she appealed to their sense of nostalgia. She was going to change the world, too, via her journalism, just like the doctors once thought they'd do with medicine. After the Peace Corps, Dr. Mom became the yuppie gynecologist, and Dr. Dad the Silicon Valley cardiologist huh. I suppose you would call Sharon an idealist. Dr. Dad called me a nihilist when I was 13; it's pretty accurate -- before and now.
3rd Place 'Darkness' by Sue Lennon
I’m in dad’s chair facing an empty black hearth as dusky darkness falls, lights off, chilly, remembering. He was always funny about the electricity, my dad. If the lights were on when you were only remembering, well;
‘Why’s thouse lit up like bloody Blackpool?’ he’d say. ‘Tha’s nobbut thinkin’.
He was a queer fella, my dad. He’d sit in this chair that smells of hair oil and engines and ask,
‘What ye’ rememberin’ anyroad?’
And if it was today I’d say,
I’m remembering when I was little and learning, you guided my chubby finger-pointed hand, to measure a too big space between pencil words. The fat cat.
‘It’s so’s them that’s readin’ can mek sense o’t sentence.’
I’m remembering, older now, practice on the battered family fiddle. Drill, stand, shoulders back, eye contact, smile. You listened, sucking teeth.
‘It’s t’space either side o’t notes that gives them their value, look out fut spaces.’
I’m remembering the time we went to London in our best clothes. Rattled on the slowing underground. A metal voice instructed,
‘Mind the gap between the train and the platform.’
You turned to me, stage-whispered, gravely,
‘Aye, them spaces are alluss tricky divils’.
Then you winked and pulled me through the smelly crush, whistling.
I’m remembering when we’d go walking on a Sunday in the hills. At the top, you’d lie on your back, no matter the wet, look at the sky and say, with wonder,
‘All that space’.
Every time we went.
‘All that space’.
And I am sitting, cold now, the darkness heavy with hair oil and engines and echoes, thinking.
I’m thinking, it wasn’t really the depression, or the beam, or the rope that killed you.
It was the space between your feet and the floor.
Highly Recommended Story 'SELF PORTRAIT #42' by Adam Lock
First the canvas is washed industrial-evening blue. Then the shoulders, turned away, the face centred, peering out, eyes copper: the left, pretentious, the right, apologetic. Male, white, middle-aged, unsmiling. A three-lined forehead beneath a shaven scalp — a white flag raised in 2008 to male pattern baldness. A grey-flecked stubbled chin surrounds thin lips that can’t hide Black Country English. The left ear is an electric guitar, the right a violin’s f-hole. Each brush stroke is broad, expressionist, because form matters, is an interpretation of reality (look into the left eye for pretentiousness). Colours: dark pinks, yellows, browns. The stare is time. The stare was a child’s, has always been a son’s, is now a father’s. Good art is confessional. So, at one end of the straight mouth is regret — the inability to take back those words said to a little girl before leaving: You’ll have two bedrooms now. At the other end of the lips is the faint upturning of relief — the little girl now a woman: kind and happy. With self-portraits, the subject is not important; it is practising the craft that matters. The frame is the two hundred thousand years our galaxy takes to spin through its circuit, our star a fingernail on one spiralled-arm. He was dead for billions of years and is now half way through his eighty given years — maybe, hopefully. But ten years was forever once and now is only a decade.
Highly Recommended Story 'Only The Living' by Emma Bradley
In school we were always taught to be safe. Some kids listen, others don’t. But school doesn’t prepare you for the bogeyman hiding in the wardrobe.
Mary doesn’t like the graveyard, even though we go every week. I tell myself it’s normal for a nine year old to be frightened of ghosts and ‘skellingtons’. She talks in vivid dreams of faraway things as though she’s not afraid, but she doesn’t like the graveyard all the same.
“Footsteps in the corridor of a deserted school are OK.” Her voice carries clear and bright. “The whine of a gate’s hinges in an autumn storm isn’t frightening. Even the echo of a ghost whistling isn’t bad. But I don’t like the graveyard.”
We both look at the photo of Mum and Dad. Always it goes with her, back and forth wherever she goes. Now she’s holding it as we stand at the tall iron gates to the past.
I tell her that it’s always us against the world. In many ways, it is. Her eyes are like Mum’s, a startling dark green, and she’s got the same wispy curls of faded blonde. Sometimes when she’s mad at me, I feel like Mum’s right there scolding me too. I look like our dad, more’s the pity.
When Mary asks if we really have to go in, I nod. We always go every week.
I push the gate to the graveyard open. It whines a welcome. I tell Mary that I remember being scared of graveyards too. She looks up at me, doubting.
“You’re not scared of anything.”
I smile, full of wistful memories of times before reality ruined us. For once I tell Mary something that our Mum told me, a long time ago.
“It’s not the dead that hurt you, only the living.”
Highly Recommended Story 'You Because You Disrespect, Harass, Are Guilty, Too' by Mahesh Nair
The broader area of the machete reflected the dying sunlight, the rest dripping. That swing to her neck, the six-inch gash had splattered the most blood. And you tossed the machete into a nearby well, the gurgle sound of the drop. In this parched, remote region you were thirsty, unzipping your jeans again to assault, this time, a dead woman before you dragged her over and into the well.
Later that month, you brought her 15-year-old sister. Your hanky strapped around her mouth, so tight her gums turned red - you’d used a rope for me - and since you were wobbly from hooch, she kicked you. You heard the receding sounds of her nervy escape, those panicky slips and squeals on dry leaves. Your separated wife’s escape was unsuccessful, years prior, since the stab had punctured her lung. Our poor, innocent mother.
You tottered across to the deserted well, cemented with a tawdry paste of grey, quarter-filled with mucky jade water. Soon to be buried. Not your patriarchal lawlessness bullshit.
A moonless night, yet bright. You leaned on the three-foot wall and smirked at the dead water.
Hours later, you were lying next to the well, naked. Your last memory was of your hands holding onto a piece of wood that once penetrated the pulley before that nasty hit from me. Time’s fucking up.
Now, your hungover head, hitched hands and legs. Mouth towel-tied. The blast of your truck horn. The odor of pouring concrete. Your trained son at the wheel.
A steak knife caressed your manhood, petting the rotten pride to soar. And with the dawn about to crack, I stood there with the knife, waiting for the rise.
Highly Recommended Story 'Momma Knows We Watch.' by Paul Beckman
She’s showering with the curtain open and then steps out and towels her hair her large breasts swaying as she puts one leg then the other on the tub to be dried off and she chooses her thong makes up her face with her paining kit and slips on her dress without a bra and takes a pair of tall heels from her closet but before she puts them on she takes off her thong and tosses it in her dresser drawer and she starts out of her room and we jump down and are sitting in our beds talking when mom comes in to tell us boys to be good while she’s gone and then when she comes home we wake from pretend sleep and watch her undress and shimmy in front of a man with a big belly and a cigar coming out the corner of his mouth and then she unbuckles his pants and drops them along with his underwear to the floor and bends over her bed as he shuffles two steps behind her and Momma yells out Daddy Daddy and we watch until he’s finished and she washes him off and he gives her money from a fat roll of bills and he still has the cigar in the corner of his mouth as they walk down the stairs not bothering to open our door or check up on us.
Recommended Story 'A World with Great Acoustics' by Barclay Rafferty
I awoke to the sound of thunder. There were great acoustics over the ocean at night and I drifted into profane–sacred dreams: I was making a stupid joke about speaking in tongues, black tea and waxy lipstick notes filling my lungs as we met. She told me to just shut up and focus on the radio. I didn’t want to end up at the bottom of the river so I complied.
Ooh-wee-ooh. Arpeggios jangle a D major chord. Somehow beautiful in the dark, unzipping from stonewashed denim. Ooh-wee-ooh-oOoh-oOoh. No players, instruments: just speaker. Stem of a rose tattoo cascades down a forearm; obsidian pleather a starless puddle; monochrome scarf spirals to the last sandals of summer. Faces clear at vespers:
Across surf-dark water beyond the dashboard, cheeks flush like gothic orbs: I go red ’cause it’s you—my cheeks are such a giveaway. Sigh. You know what? Normally I’m really open and don’t care about what I say but with you I think about my words carefully. I was confident until you came along and made me unsure of myself. And I do genuinely worry that one day you’ll wake up and just stop talking to me. I lovehate the effect you have on me—and the way you say what I’m thinking—oh, and the way you look at me not saying a word...
Scratchy projector behind the eyes flickers to another reel, pure and black: I should be home by now. Crisp green apples and redolent new-mown grass. Open the door, quietly. Dank portent of alcohol: looming, sour. Feeling my way upstairs in slow motion—Dad grabs me from behind, makes my whole world dark...
I awoke again to the sound outside the window. I never really sleep anymore because of the thunder.
Recommended Story 'Manchester' by Steven Moss
You say ‘What was that?’
Soon, sirens and people start appearing on the street; a helicopter zones in overhead.
You approach two women to ask them but they don’t know and they hurry away.
The next people you ask if anyone’s hurt.
‘Yes’, they say, then they too are gone.
Eye witness accounts at this stage are: two loud bangs, people running for the doors and smoke, nails, though your phone died halfway through your shift so you know nothing of this.
You stop a man in his thirties.
‘Somebody bombed the place,’ he says. ‘Young kids, all young kids, all injured, like fucking dying up there man, on the road, blood everywhere.’
Then he’s gone too.
You walk between people moving away, to get closer to the noise. The sirens are overwhelming; there’s smoke and burning and people lying injured, on pavements and the road; some sitting, some being helped and held up.
Keep your leg raised love. Keep it up so you don’t lose blood.
Hang on a minute, which leg is it? This one?
Call an ambulance.
Quickly, someone call an ambulance.
[Shouts] Can someone get an ambulance NOW?
Later, you walk home. You read the messages on the internet. You watch the news and pour yourself a drink, send messages saying you are home safe, all the while thinking about the girl you saw wrapped in a t shirt, with someone, maybe her mum, cradling her.
You send more messages.
When you try for sleep around 5 am you drift and turn unsettled, you pull the sheets close.