Leaning on the ledge, each of them with arms folded. Foreheads resting against the dulled, damp wood, like so many before. Terns and whimbrels and redshanks sheltering as they could from the sky. In a long, slow measure he told her everything he wanted to say, everything she wanted to hear, everything that ever mattered in that moment, everything that ever could. Rain fell like a shield of promises.
His smile on leaving, the idle phrasing of ‘an hour or so?’, even the feel of his leg, all hung in the piles of the deep blue carpet like suggestions.
She lay down and rested the same cheek on the floor, protecting it from feeling the absence of his thigh. There were stray hairs weaved into the carpet. Mostly hers, longish but not too long, shades of brown from tip to root. She spotted a few of his lighter hairs yet they were so short there could have been more. But she had sat on the chest to brush her hair every day for, how long? In the mornings, her weight keeping it tightly closed as she got ready for work. The space beneath her.
“Fancy forgetting to buy vanilla essence,” she says to the cake tin. It will have to do without. Bran won’t notice. Or if he does, he won’t say anything. She smooths the batter and layers apple in concentric circles, harder to cut once cooked but prettier to look at. The oven is hot. The last shake of sugar on the top of the cake will burn nicely. She picks up the red, egg-shaped kitchen timer, a present from her two-year old grandson, or so the label said on the wrapping paper, and turns the dial past the wide segments of four and five minutes of egg-timing to the narrower bands of ten.
from “Safety Measures”, in Issue 4 of The Bolton Review, out this week.
“We regret that your story has not been successful on this occasion.”
…as familiar as the rejection slip or email. So I didn’t get short-listed for the 2016 Commonwealth Short Story Prize . This is not a surprise, of course. Nor is it particularly disappointing. “We again received nearly 4,000 entries,” they tell me, so the chances of making the 26-strong short-list were somewhere in the region on 0.0065%.
3974 of us didn’t make the cut. That’s a lot of competition to handle. I’ve dutifully entered the BBC/National Short Story Award, with similar expectations of greatness being thrust upon me – I have no idea how many entries that will have received, but the odds must be equally long. And this is basing the chances purely on mathematics, rather than aesthetics; should I worry about whether the stories I’m entering are any good, given the weight and strength of others’ work? No, better not to, for that way lies a falseness that ruins the point. Far better than I should simply write them as well as I can, because I need to tell a story, and leave the judging to the judges.
I’ve entered other competitions, too, and over time won a few of them – smaller ones, where the odds may be higher and the returns lower but the feeling of reward is just as great. Nothing will stir you to break that empty page more than having a stranger say they like what you do. We should all enter these competitions and ignore the ‘big’ ones, that can look after themselves.
Focus instead on the regional, the collective, the festivals…they need our help to survive and to promote what they do, to make voices heard, to give space in which those voices can speak. Let’s celebrate the small and the innocent, where writing happens not to make money or create fame but because it needs to, because expression is all we have, and if from time to time our writing is noticed then that’s good too. At least 3974 other people should all be feeling the same way today.