What you could have won

2,979 words – approx. 10 minutes

Lisa squinted at the terracotta-coloured folder that lay on the small, round coffee table in her living room. “Pock,” she read out. “What’s pock?”

“P-O-C, mum,” said Jessica, carrying two glasses of water from the kitchen. She gave one to Lisa, who dropped a paracetamol in and watched it dissolve. “It means ‘people of colour’?”

“Oh right. That’s what we’re supposed to say now, is it?”

Jessica sighed extravagantly. “It has been for a while, which you’d know if you ever spent any time around people who aren’t white.”

The gaudy sparkle of a gameshow’s opening credits distracted Lisa for a moment, then she turned to her daughter. “Are you calling me racist?”

Jessica always found it difficult to deal with her mum’s directness – there was something about its sudden force that unbalanced her, like the step back you have to take when opening a hot oven. “I’m just saying, you don’t have any black friends.”

“Well there’s Deirdre,” huffed Lisa.

“You hate her!”

“That’s nothing to do with her colour though, she’s just useless. I had to spend two hours on Wednesday re-doing her forms, you know.”

They were quiet as the contestant was introduced. He was a balding man in his forties called Bruce, dressed in jeans and a cardigan. “He shouldn’t wear that, not on the telly,” said Lisa. Jessica, from her armchair, said nothing as they watched. Bruce was doing well – he’d answered correctly multiple-choice questions about the location of the Solar System’s largest volcano (Mars) and which continent the now-extinct quagga had inhabited (Africa).

“I don’t know if this one will be a little trickier for you,” said the host. “Which footballer has scored the most World Cup goals?”

“Lenny Henry!” exclaimed Lisa, to a bark of disbelief from Jessica. “No not that,” Lisa waved at the television. “I mean, I like him. He’s black.”

“That’s one man. And anyway, he’s an entertainer. Black men have been figures of fun throughout history.”

“He wants to be a figure of fun! He’s a comedian, if we didn’t laugh at him he’d be out of a job!”

“That’s not the point.”

“Alright then, Audrey Harrison.”

“It’s Audley. And just seeing black men in terms of their physical characteristics carries on the stereotype of them as beasts, not people.”

Lisa opened her mouth with a wet click, inhaled, and raised her eyebrows. “Doesn’t seem like there’s much I’m allowed to like them for.” Jessica pretended not to hear. On the television Bruce was now one question away from winning £25,000, and Jessica listened wearily to her mum’s commentary on the show.

“What was the name of Oasis’ first number one single?” asked the host. “Was it Some Might Say, Live Forever, or Wonderwall?”

“Some Might Say,” said Lisa.

“Pop music’s not really my forte,” said Bruce, with a rueful smile.

“I bet it’s not. Smug sod.”

“The only one I’ve heard of is Wonderwall – so it’s probably not that!” There was a ripple of appreciative laughter from the studio audience.

“No, it’s not. It’s Some Might Say.”

“I think I’ll go for the time-honoured tactic of picking the middle option. Live Forever.”

“It’s Some Might Say!”

“He can’t hear you, mum,” Jessica broke in finally.

“Ssh!”

The host looked at Bruce. “You’ve said Oasis’ first number one single was Live Forever. Remember – get this right and you’re guaranteed to go home with at least £25,000. Get it wrong and you leave with nothing. Will that decision live forever in your memory? Or might some say you’ve made a terrible mistake?” He turned to the camera and pretended to whisper. “I’ve not got anything for Wonderwall.” The audience laughed. “Find out-“

“-after the break,” said Lisa along with him. “I don’t know why they make out like it’s a cliffhanger when he’s obviously got it wrong.”

“Not everyone knows that,” said Jessica, standing to draw the curtains. It had been dark for nearly an hour now but her mum normally left them open until she went to bed.

Lisa made a non-committal noise and muted the set for the ads. “Well I do.”

Jessica wasn’t going to argue that one. She took her jacket from where it had been draped over the white plastic kitchen chair. She stood on tiptoe to see herself in the mirror; the arms were a bit short, but it still looked good. “I’m going out.”

“Like that?”

“Like what? This is what I went to college in!”

“Is it.” With a gust of a sigh Jessica gathered her handbag and keys. “I won’t ask where you’re going, ‘cause you won’t tell me. But get some cigs, can you?”

Jessica looked at her mum. “I thought you’d given up?”

“Can you see an ashtray? I have. But Mark’s coming over later and you know how he likes a smoke.”

“Fine.”

“And be back for tea, I’m making something new with chicken. In fact,” Lisa called to Jessica, who was almost out of the door, “it’s a recipe from whatsisname, Ainsley Harriott! There you are, Ainsley Harriott. Or can I not like a black man who cooks, either?” She knew Jessica had heard – the pause before the door slammed was proof enough. “Not got an answer to that, eh?” she said, to the empty flat, and settled into her chair.

*

Jessica took the stairs to try to burn off her frustration, but by the bottom of the five flights she just had sore thighs to go with her furious thoughts. At least her mum’s request had given purpose to what would otherwise have been an angry, aimless wander, just to get out of the flat. Her teeth ground furiously even though she was walking as quickly as she could – and not because of the horrible thought of oily Mark all over her mum. She knew when he liked to have his cigarettes.

It was exactly as Marcus had predicted in last week’s tutorial: her mum might not be consciously racist, but her expectations of the world had been shaped by lifetimes of injustice and oppression. Jessica’s new understanding was heady and exhilarating – which just added to her sense of failure. If only she had been able to explain to her mum, instead of getting in an argument then storming out!

The self-recrimination didn’t last long, however, and was swiftly followed by indignation: how could anyone fail to follow the logic once it was set out for them? Perhaps there was something in the way Marcus had introduced the idea to his students, or in how Callum would stand and deliver his own impassioned explanations to, it seemed to Jessica, the admiration of the entire class. His interventions stoked a pride within her, as well as a protective instinct. He could explain it in a way her mum could understand, she was sure. But that didn’t seem like such a great idea right now.

She was starting to regret not having put on another layer against the evening air. The temperature had dropped, and she ducked inside the nearest shop for some warmth, as well as the cigarettes. What Kennedy’s Food and Wine lacked in storefront decoration or in-store upkeep it made up for with a 24-hour licence and a relaxed attitude to age restrictions. Jessica had been here several times to buy vodka or sparkling wine, and when she walked in past the piles of fruit and veg in half-collapsed cardboard boxes, there was a group of boys who couldn’t be older than 14 crowded around a magazine. Jessica doubted she wanted to see it.

“Twenty Marlborough Lights please,” she asked the assistant, putting on her most nonchalant voice. She even looked around the shelves at the back with their spirits as if considering buying a bottle. But she’d not seen this man before, and she felt her confidence seep from her as he looked her up and down. She placed a hand on her stomach. “They’re for my mum, not me.”

“Mmhm, And how old are you?”

“Nineteen.” You never said eighteen. It was too convenient, too clear a lie. The man nodded slowly. He was tall and bony, and when he looked her up and down again she shivered.

“Hey!” Jessica turned sharply, for a sickening moment thinking she’d been caught. Another man, one she recognised, came striding out of the back of the shop and started shouting at the group of boys. “What are you doing? You little shits, you’ve ripped it, you’ll pay for it!” Next he started yelling at the assistant, who dashed out and grabbed the nearest boy by the arm.

“Sorry about that love,” said the man she recognised, who’d slipped behind the counter during the commotion. “What can I get you?”

“Twenty Marlborough Lights,” said Jessica again, trying to avoid the boy’s flailing arm as he struggled to escape. She left with the cigarettes. On her way out she took an apple from the box outside – she should be eating healthier now, really. A backwards glance confirmed the shopkeepers hadn’t seen. They were arguing about the incident, while the boy looked forlornly out at the friends who’d abandoned him to his fate and were now watching with a combination of glee and fear, ready to bolt at any sign of a pursuit.

Jessica’s phone buzzed. “Hey.”

“Hey, it’s me.”

She laughed. “You know your name comes up on the screen when you call, right? What’s up?” She could hear Callum’s breathing down the phone.

“Nothing.”

She waited. It often took time for Callum to say what he meant. To other people it could seem like he was shy or stand-offish, but that wasn’t true. He just sometimes had to build up to what he wanted to say.

“Have you told your mum yet?”

Jessica huffed and rolled her eyes. “No, I told you, I-“

“When are you going to?”

“Jesus Callum,” she hissed, thrusting her free hand into her armpit to keep it warm. He’d been like this since she’d told him, the first person she’d told after Sam. It was like he wanted it to be public, like it wouldn’t really exist as long as it stayed a secret. He didn’t know that Sam knew too, but she’d had to tell her – she was her best friend after all, and anyway, she couldn’t have just said nothing after she’d come out of the Hyperbowl loos in tears. “I will, just don’t rush me, alright?”

“I’ll be with you if you want.”

“I’m not scared of her. She was younger when she had me.” Her words sounded thin in the night air, like second-hand smoke. The shop owner appeared at the door, sending the boys scattering. Inside the assistant was talking to someone on the phone.

Callum broke the silence. “I love you.”

“I love you.” She meant it, but still the words sounded dulled. She was upset at his insistence, and his certainty that he could make it easier for her. Upset, too, that he was right: it would seem less serious if he were there when she told her mum, or at least less catastrophic if there were two of them, physical proof that whatever her mum said or did she wouldn’t be on her own.

“Do you want to come over?” asked Callum, hesitantly. “Dad’s out, and Lee’ll be in his room all night.”

The cigarette packet pushed against Jessica’s jeans pocket, which was barely big enough to hold it. “Yeah alright. Got any pizza?”

“Domino’s menu and dad’s card?”

“Amazing.” Jessica set off towards Callum’s house. She’d already made up her mind to stay over, and Callum wouldn’t make her leave. Mark would just have to go without.

*

The buzzer rasped through the flat. Lisa pressed the release button to let Mark in and put the door on the latch. She stretched her arms above her head to the ceiling, feeling her shoulders move beneath her skin. She was supposed to do this three or four times a day, that’s what Marie at her class had said, although she rarely remembered. Still, she was doing it now, and Mark said he’d noticed a difference since she’d started going.

As she went back into the kitchen she knocked against the living room table, which rocked and shed its load of folders onto the carpet. “Watch yourself Lis!” she tutted, and set about gathering up the untidy pile. Why Jessica had to leave her college work there she didn’t know – she’d got her a desk from the British Heart Foundation last year, but that’d just ended up as somewhere to keep her nail varnishes. The top folder was the one she’d seen earlier, with its unfamiliar acronym in thick black pen. People of colour. The phrase felt strange and accusatory. In defiance she lifted the flap and pulled out the first sheet of paper: it had three slides down the left-hand side, and a space for notes that was filled with what Lisa recognised as Jessica’s looping handwriting. It was no use trying to read the slides; she couldn’t get any purchase, her gaze kept slipping over the words.

She heard the door open. “I still don’t know why you won’t give me a key,” called Mark by way of greeting. He hadn’t changed out of his paint-spattered overalls, and held a bunch of paintbrushes out like flowers. He’d want to wash them in the sink again.

“Hiya,” Lisa said, ignoring his complaint. “Busy day?”

“Been up since five, doing that house out in Dewsbury.” He put his free arm around her and kissed her on the lips, then moved to her neck.

“Mark don’t, Jessica’ll be back soon,” protested Lisa. It had no effect. “I’m cooking,” she said, and wriggled away from him. Mark relented, then followed her to the kitchen and grabbed a beer from the fridge.

“It’s rattling again, should get that fixed.”

“I will,” Lisa lied. The last time it did that they’d had to get the electrician out – the landlord had paid for it, but she didn’t want to complain again. It might sort itself out.

The oil had begun to spit in the pan. She pulled the recipe book from the shelf and gave a short laugh at Ainsley Harriott’s grinning face on the cover. It would take 50 minutes, the recipe said, although she knew from experience to add at least another twenty – she only had one pair of hands, and preferred doing all the chopping first, so she knew everything was ready.

Soon the smell of frying onions spread through the flat. The rooms were all adjoined except for the small corridor that connected the front door with the rest. Lisa liked that, it made the place feel airy, unlike their last flat which had by some failure of construction stayed darkened and claustrophobic the entire day. Right now the only closed door was to Jessica’s bedroom; no doubt if she tried to open it it’d catch on some discarded tights or a damp towel left on the floor.

“Smells good,” said Mark, who’d wandered back in search of another beer. He patted her arse as he passed her.

“Give Jessica a ring? My phone’s on the arm of the chair I think.”

As the chicken cooked through something niggled at the back of Lisa’s mind, something that had to do with the folders on the table. She’d never thought much of school, and Jessica’s accidental arrival had choked off any discussion of sixth form. University was never even considered for girls like her, and the graduates who filled her television screen may as well have been royalty, so removed were they from anything she could relate to. A familiar dismissive sneer rose within her as she thought of Jessica’s accusation. This time, though, it lacked the usual sharpness. It was one thing, after all, for some polished stranger to lecture her from a studio somewhere; it was quite another when it was her own daughter. Jessica was clever, she knew that, but Lisa had never imagined her as the sort of person who might one day sit in the city centre cafés with her laptop, and a hoodie that proudly displayed the name of her institution.

“No answer,” said Mark from the living room. “I left her a message though, saying she’d better be back quick or else.”

“Oh you didn’t,” sighed Lisa. That’d be another conversation with Jessica about how no, Mark wasn’t her dad and he wasn’t trying to be, it was just his way of messing around. But she couldn’t be angry. The thought of Jessica’s future had already spread into a fantasy, growing like something contained for too long and suddenly released. Not that she regretted the way things had turned out for her, she’d never say that, but there were opportunities for Jessica: a degree, a proper house, someone reliable. Not living too far away, near enough for weekend visits, but somewhere with her own space, where her mum wasn’t on top of her the whole time, smothering her whatever she did. Already it was so vivid in Lisa’s mind that it seemed inevitable, and an unfamiliar glow grew in her stomach. The library was open late tomorrow: she’d print off some brochures after work and surprise Jessica with them. Maybe Mark could drive them to a few places in the van when he wasn’t working – and hadn’t Sue’s lad gone to Leeds? She must still have her number somewhere.

But that wasn’t for tonight, Lisa told herself. Tonight was for the three of them, the family she’d fashioned for herself in spite of everything: her, Jessica, and Mark. Maybe she should think about getting that key cut; it had been long enough. She hummed to herself under her breath as she tipped in the tin of chopped tomatoes and watched with satisfaction as the sauce bubbled and popped.

Carole

3,258 words – approx. 11 minutes

It had been dark for hours when Carole switched off the lights and turned the key to bring the shutters down. From behind her counter she’d watched the light leach from the sky through the gaps in the posters plastered to the windows, advertising special offers that were still more expensive than the regular prices at the supermarket two miles down the road. Even she’d started shopping there, but what could she do?

She’d never liked this time of year, not just for the darkness and cold, but for the way it showed up problems that she could usually ignore: the broken lights in the forecourt, the temperamental boiler, the stiff lock on the staff toilet. All things that needed fixing and paying for that in the summer were minor annoyances, but now seemed to press constantly on her mind.

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A trip into town – at The Short Story

Back in June, I was very excited to have been selected as one of The Short Story’s writers for 2016-17. I’m now very excited to say that the story I submitted to them has been published on their website. I’m very proud of this story, and I really hope you enjoy it.

There’s a fantastic range of stories, articles, and interviews all about short stories on their website, so once you’ve finished reading, keep exploring!

The teeth of the sun

Author’s note: I wrote this for Storgy’s Exit Earth competition, and had a lot of fun doing so. It didn’t make the cut, which means that if you enjoy it there are 14 better stories out there – and who doesn’t like better stories? Please consider backing their Kickstarter to get those stories out into the barren, blasted physical world!

3,102 words – approx. 10 minutes

Ever since it was announced that the Earth was drowning, the traffic had been dreadful. Adrian drummed his fingers uselessly on the steering wheel. Cryogenix provided state-of-the-art company cars, but there was only so much that the latest in dynamic flow-management and hazard-evasion technology could do to counteract the rush hour congestion, even without the waves of people responding to the latest rumours about evac points or making what could be their final trips to see family.

At least he could leave the painfully slow progress to the car itself. He sighed and looked out at the clear blue sky, searching for something to occupy him. A change in one of the billboards caught his eye: it now showed a familiar tanned face with an artificial smile that gleamed at the world. This was Richard Kimmler, one of the key financiers of the evacuation. He must have looked at it for several seconds, because a notification appeared on the dashboard: Accept connection?

Continue reading The teeth of the sun

Birdie

3,698 words – approx. 12 minutes

You can also hear me read this story below, or at my Soundcloud page

Birdie Williams won his nickname in the rushed last week of a summer that had never gathered any momentum. Days worthy of the season had been sporadic that year, and no sooner had a promising stretch been put together than a sudden bank of bulging grey clouds appeared and kept everyone indoors, their endless games of Mario Kart made monotonous by lack of alternative and punctuated by the crack and roll of thunder.

But late August brought with it days of unbroken golden sun, and with the new school year looming ever-larger on the horizon, the children of Kendrick Road were determined to make the most of the weather’s newfound benevolence. At 12, Sean wasn’t quite the youngest of the group, but Patrick made it clear that his involvement in their ragged games of football or cricket was due to his older brother, not any acceptance that Sean could lay personal claim to. Within the boundaries of Ma Williams’ orders – “If you’re going outside, take your brother now” – Patrick would do little to hide his reluctance, often waiting until the last minute to call “Going!” leaving Sean to stampede breathlessly downstairs and pull on his trainers (formerly Patrick’s) in a desperate hurry. Whether or not they were late, Patrick would always apologise to the others as Sean pulled the back gate to.

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Rosewood Drive

3,838 words – approx. 13 minutes

The house at 12 Rosewood Drive had seen better days, but even those had been far from magnificent. ­­Its paint, though, had once been more evenly spread, and the wooden panels the peeling white coats covered had not always seemed to be folding in on themselves. The front yard, too, had once been subject to a measure of control, in contrast to the sprawling, spiked wilderness that now welcomed its few visitors.

It had, once, seemed to shine – with the slick sheen of a realtor’s suit, but shine nonetheless. Now unidentifiable green shoots sprouted between the cracks in its walls, and the second floor front window had been smashed and left unrepaired, the floor of the room it led to sagging into the bathroom below like a spider’s sac. Time and the misfortune of its neighbourhood, one without inhabitants whose money, or regard, or simple stable presence could maintain or improve the property, had taken their toll.

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Remember, remember

3,189 words – approx. 11 minutes

The house, or what remains of it, stands empty over the park. Its position on a slight hill gives it a vantage point from which to survey the unkept grass and the thin winding path below. There have been people in the park today: old and young, some with dogs on thick red leads, others pushing children in covered prams as droplets race each other down plastic visors.

Among the red-bricked terraces that line the surrounding streets the house’s solitude seems out of place. It shares no walls, hears no arguments, feels no shudders as doors slam in anger. No-one really knows who it belongs to, or where its grounds begin and end. If it has an owner, they are content to let it sit unclaimed. Age and stones thrown from boredom have pocked its face, but the fence of trees has shielded it from the worst of the weather. Tonight the dark drapes it in a bruised shawl. Even in this blackness the windows and door look darker than the rest of the house, hollowed, as if it is in mourning.

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No fit state

3,246 words – approx. 11 minutes

He knows he shouldn’t have shouted. He shouldn’t have shouted, but it had been a long day. He’d started at 8:30 in the back room, with the pile of clothes on their hangers. Sometimes, if he was in early, it was his job to look through the rack for clothes that needed taking off, pushing them along the rail one by one, checking the little tags for today’s date. He’d slide the hangers up his arm then take them into the back, and say “Not many today,” or sometimes “Cor, there’s a lot of them!” so that everyone knew.

But today Alison had been in before him, so the pile was there already. He slid each item from its hanger, paying particular attention to the dresses, with their thin little straps that might snag. These were the clothes that no-one had bought in the two weeks they’d been on display. Their fabric might have been rubbed between fingers, they might have been held up against bodies, or even tried on in the little changing room with the red plastic curtain, but no-one had taken them to the counter to buy. Now they’d be moved on. Martin didn’t know where – maybe to another charity shop, or maybe they would be recycled. All he had to do was take them off the hangers and put them in the big black bag that gaped below the table. He should ask, really.

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Pretty bubbles in the air

4,184 words – approx. 14 minutes

“How old’s the lad now?” Col jerked a thumb at Davey to his right.

“Twelve.”

“Twelve, eh?” said Col in wonderment. “I remember when you were so big,” he said, addressing Davey, and he spread his hand face down, level with the bench they were sat on.

“He ain’t much bigger now,” said his dad. “But you will be, won’t you? You’ll be big and strong, like your old man.”

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New England, 1873

3,581 words – approx. 12 minutes

The light that George Hepworth held up to the window was close to extinction. His eyesight was good, but even with this advantage and the aid of the forceful moon overhead he could barely make out the figures against the horizon. Four men, each with a spade and a belief. In the half-light George fancied that he could see them, creeping in the night as though it were an ambush, moving closer to the copse that he knew to be there even though it was too dark to see. Moving closer to the graveyard.

Closer to Elizabeth.

Continue reading New England, 1873