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Winner: Open Short Story 2013

First Prize Winner of the NAWG 2013 Open Short Story Competition

Below is the winning entry. You can also view the full list of competition results.

First Prize Winner

Jack in the Hedge by Petra McQueen

Cosmo stood on the empty platform. He waited for the train to move and reveal Magda waving excitedly at him. But there wasn't even a platform on the other side of the track, only great bunches of Alliara Petiolata growing through the railings. The sight of the plants reminded Cosmo of how long it had been since he'd lived in the country. It was only two days since he boarded his flight but already he felt nostalgic for New York and its solidity. In this small corner of England, the man-made structures – the platform, the little redbrick booking hall, and even the track itself – seemed subservient to nature. Weeds sprouted and paint was flaking, giving up its smoothness to the rain and frost. He shuddered and felt he needed to wash, or at least lay his forehead against something hard and solid.

Tightening his stomach muscles, Cosmo dismissed the feeling and looked around. Where was Magda? He listened for a moment, hoping to hear her heels striking the pavement, moving towards him, but there was only birdsong. He drew up the handle on his suitcase and walked towards a little wooden gate. There were three cars parked in the gravel car park, but there were no people. It was as though Cosmo had landed at the last place on earth. Why did Magda live in such a place? She was surely better suited to London. He had never asked, but then he couldn't remember having a serious conversation with her. They only met face to face for four days six months ago. And what did they talk about on the phone? Sex, mainly.

His mobile vibrated in his pocket startling him. It was Magda. "Hello!" he said.

"Darling!! Are you there yet?"

"I'm at the station. Waiting."

He had to hold his phone away from his ear as she screamed. "I'm soooo excited." He pictured her jumping up and down. "Honey," she continued, her mouth so close to the phone that he heard her breath, "Oo on't be cwoss wi' likkle me, but Magdie sooo late. Magdie can't find any clothes."

So that was it. He had travelled for two days straight to be there and she was running late over what to wear! "How late?" he said, sounding more annoyed than he meant to, "I mean, where are you? I'm waiting."

"But Teddy Bear, Magdie can't come with no clothes on."

Then he understood the game and felt himself go hard. He could forgive her anything if she was waiting in scraps of underwear.

She continued. "Oh, Teddy, please don't be cwoss with me."

Every bit of his focus was on the mobile. Being cross with her was a game they'd played the third night they'd spent together. He liked it because it felt so wrong, felt so false. "Magda," he said, sternly. "I'm very cross with you. You must be punished."

She laughed, and he pictured her white throat exposed. "Come to the house, sweetie," she said, dropping the little girl voice. "Then I don't have to get dressed." This was almost too much and he could hardly breathe while she gave directions. The house wasn't far away, she promised, her road was just down a country lane. She'd be waiting.

His hand was sweaty when he rang off. He put his phone in his pocket and began to walk in the direction she'd told him, dragging the suitcase behind. He was so excited that if he hadn't been afraid of perspiring into his suit, he would've run. He walked briskly, barely seeing the great swathes of May blossom that lined the lane, nor the sycamore trees that towered above. The path was laced with shade and sunshine, and he squinted as his eyes tried to adjust to the alternating light and dark. More than once the little wheels on his suitcase snagged on the unpaved lane, slowing him down. A moment later, one of the wheels dropped off.

"Damn," he said. He bent down to see if he could fix it, but the wheel had snapped right off. He tutted and picked the case up. It was heavy: full of neatly pressed clothes, and presents for Magda. It banged against his leg as he walked and he was forced to slow down, concentrate on the weight of the bag, his grip, the turn of his wrist. After a minute, he decided he needed the shoulder strap that was tucked inside the suitcase. He put the bag down close to a stile that led onto a meadow.

Checking the stile for bird mess, he sat on it, opened up the bag and found the shoulder strap. It was while he was fixing the strap onto the metal clips on the side of the bag that he smelt the Alliara Petiolata. He looked beyond the stile and into the meadow. The vivid light green leaves showed up clearly against the hedge of blackthorn. Their tiny flowers, like white cross-stitch, were partly hidden by the may blossom which had fallen and lay scattered among the leaves. Without effort, without really wanting to, he recalled the other names for the plant: Hedge Garlic, Sauce-all-alone, Poor Man's Mustard, and his mother's favourite, Jack-by-the Hedge. His mother and the other women would use it for all sorts of things: pungent sauces, salad garnishes and poultices. Once they'd mixed it with honey to make a cough syrup. The taste must've been repulsive but his mother had barely grimaced as she swallowed. The recipe had come from 'The Family Herbal', an ancient thick leather-bound book that his mother had made him read aloud from. "When the oil runs out," she'd say, "there won't be any pharmaceutical companies. You'll have to make your own medicine." "When the oil runs out…" was the refrain of his childhood.

Cosmo had been the only child when the commune first went to live in the woods. Babies came later, growing into fat toddlers, but he was always years ahead, caught between the adults and the little children. He never got out of the habit of being solitary. Once, he'd found a discarded comic rotting under a rowan tree. The mildew was not so far advanced that he couldn't decipher most of the words and make up the rest. He read and reread the story of the Numbskulls who lived inside a man's head and controlled everything he did. Cosmo liked to think the numbskulls crawled out of his own head every night. He chose that they should play in the leaves and plants depicted by the bright illustrations in 'The Family Herbal' rather than the actual plants in the woods that surrounded him. It was though, even then, he preferred the facsimile to the real thing.

Without thinking about what he was doing, Cosmo climbed over the stile. The meadow felt spongy beneath his shoes. He walked towards a large bunch of Jack-in-the-Hedge and smelt it. The action brought back memories that came in a series of pictures, as though, at some time, there'd been photographs and he'd recreated his memories from them. He saw himself as a child in a red knitted jumper frozen in the centre of each image, beyond him lay the fields and valleys of the land the commune owned. Gentle English countryside: as quaint and as ancient as an Arthurian myth. But there'd been no gallantry as far as he could remember, no fair damsels, or magical animals, just hard work, idealism growing sour, and his mother's hacking cough in the night. They'd buried her in a wicker casket beside a large oak. The commune gave scant resistance when his mother's sister drove up in her Mercedes and asked for him. She took him to her home in Southgate, London, where he'd fallen in love with television, cars and the microwave oven. As an adult he'd moved to New York, and that wonderful city had, until now, kept all memories of his mother safe under concrete.

Now a blackbird sang loudly. He looked up and in the thick bramble of the hedgerow he saw a flash of yellow beak. He found himself wondering if it was a reincarnation of his mother, and then shook his head at his own stupidity. The sun, the beauty of the meadow, and the thick pungent smell of the Jack-in-the-Hedge was softening his sense. Without stopping to wonder why he was doing it, Cosmo bent and pulled the thick stalks of the plant. He made a bunch and then buried his nose in the soft green leaves. It smelt of garlic and onion and home. Keeping the bunch tight in his fist, he climbed back over the stile. The bag was heavy when he lifted it on to his shoulder but he concentrated on walking, the crunch of gravel underfoot, and the sun that warmed his face. At the end of the lane, he came to a tarmac road, just as Magda said he would. Her house was number 22. He counted off the numbers as he walked, 10, 12, 14, nearly there. And then, there it was: a small yellow house. He stopped, hung back in the shadow of an apple tree that hung low from someone's front garden. Magda was leaning up against the wall smoking a cigarette; her silk dressing gown barely covered her. How his mother would have hated Magda: "Just a puppet of consumerism. No soul beneath the bauble of a woman." Cosmo realised that he felt that about Magda too, but had rejoiced in it. Now, without warning, it seemed wrong to think of anyone that way. What was he doing? What was his life all about?

He was about to turn when Magda saw him. She threw down her cigarette and waved. The grace of her thin white arm held him. She took a step towards him and his gaze broke and he looked about him, wondering how he could leave, if he should stay. It was then that he noticed her front garden. It was filled with dozens of thick terracotta pots. They held basil and thyme and tomatoes and peppers and flowers of all sorts. Magda walked towards him, barefooted but as though she were on heels. He hesitated for a moment and then knelt and held out the Jack-in-the-hedge as though it was a fine bouquet and he was just about to ask her to marry him.

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Author: Kevin Machin Date: June 3, 2014 8:32 pm
Categories: Open Competitions, Competition Results Tags: winners
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