Open 2014: Short Story Winner

Below is the winning entry from the open short story competition, judged by Tim Wilson.

To see the full list of competition results, click here.

First Prize: What have I told you? by Valerie Thompson

Mum collected them, the flotsam and jetsam, waifs and strays, the woebegone and discarded destined to spend their festive seasons alone in front of a flickering TV with a meal for one. Even if she didn't go out looking for them they found her as if she was a magnet, like the one Mr Baxter showed us in Science.

"Pour iron filings on the paper, Violet. Don't spill them! Oh, wipe them up you silly girl."

Mum's iron filings didn't disappear down the cracks and gouge holes of desks scored by the compass points of a hundred bored children. Instead they clustered about our home with their dandruff and frayed cuffs, their neediness and disappointed-by-life faces. Coming home from school I'd find another body sat at our kitchen table. "This is Mrs Ribblestone," Mum would say. "The council's changed her locks, she's out on her ear." Or "Violet, say hello to poor Mr Prout. His son wants him in Sunny Meadows nursing home. Got his eye on Mr Prout's mock tudor semi, that's why."

I'd have to say "hello" and "how are you?". I'd endure twitching fingers plucking at my plump arms, smoothing my hair, even sometimes – shudder – soft, pouty kisses. "Don't they grow fast, Monica? Mine used to shoot up, got through shoes like nobody's business." I had to tell complete strangers where I went to school, who my best friends were, how many lengths I could swim. The questions they asked were relentless. Did I have to supply so many answers because they had none of their own?

Because they didn't know how they'd ended up where they had, sat in Monica Newbolt's kitchen, relying on kind words from a woman they hardly knew. How had it come to this? Mere pennies in their purse or thin air in their wallet. Nothing in the fridge, if they had a fridge. Ungrateful sons and daughters, neglectful grandchildren, nieces and nephews who didn't know their name. What had happened to their dreams, their unlined faces, their taut flesh? Why had love not favoured them like it had other people? Other people with pulsating lives, who had rows of birthday cards and party invitations, who had romantic meals for two or family outings to safari parks. Other people with well stocked pantries and top of the range kitchen appliances.

They knew those kind of people existed. They saw them in supermarkets. As they rooted around the marked down sections, fumbling among dented cans and battered boxes sealed up with parcel tape, they saw them buying organic coriander and pesto, dithering over tubs of olives, slinging Duchy biscuits into trolleys overloaded with scented candles and rye bread.

I knew all this because they told me. Mrs Ribblestone, Mr Prout, sad Edie from sheltered housing. The defrocked vicar. ("It's alright, love. I'm not a kiddie fiddler, just got caught with my hands in the till.") On sunny days I'd sit on the back step playing Greensleeves on my recorder, and they'd drag out a kitchen chair and sit nearby. Or on rainy days they'd huddle in the kitchen, often staring into space. They'd talk, mouths running away with them. Yak, yak, yak.

I was a lovely girl, my mum was a saint, where was my dad? Well, that's fathers for you. Slippery as eels are men with mouths to feed.

Women would tell me of men they'd loved, men who'd loved them, men who'd used them, knocked seven bells out of them, knocked them up, got banged up themselves. There was a frail old dear who sneezed and coughed up fur balls like a cat. "Four husbands I've had, and not one of 'em around to keep a body warm at night. Divorce is a dirty word in my family. Not one of my sisters speak to me. Not one."

If the women talked of men, the men talked of money or things that money can buy. Cars they'd owned or borrowed or stolen. Cars they coveted. Specky Nigel who'd got laid off from the bacon factory and blamed vegetarians ("I see them in the mini mart buying tofu, Violet. Give them a piece of my mind, I do. That should have been a job for life.") even he talked about cars.

"You can't drive," I said, but he didn't care.

"I just want a Ferrari," he said, rolling the word around his mouth like a sherbet lemon.

If the men weren't talking about cars they'd talk about buying lottery tickets or investing in pyramid schemes, about horses they bet on, about emails promised fortunes resting in Nigerian bank accounts. "Just £50 admin fee and it'd be mine. Half a mil, Violet. Worth taking a chance, eh?" They'd tell me how they'd got shafted, scammed, ripped off, swindled, had the wool pulled over their eyes and the rug pulled from under them.

I nodded, said "oh dear", but mostly I was quiet. Mum thought it upset me hearing so much bad news but it didn't. When you're young other people's troubles don't become yours. They bounce off you like tennis balls on tarmac, they don't soak in like rain. I observed Mum's waifs and strays like exhibits at the zoo, some strange exotic species. It was Mum that organized their food, scratched their backs and petted them, keeping up a steady stream of inane chatter. If not a zookeeper, she was a collector like one of those Victorians with their butterfly nets. Back she'd bring them to our house, our boxy new build with paper thin walls. In this box they'd sit on spindly legged chairs, pinned down by their sorrows.

"Why do you do it?" I asked. "You could rescue kittens or take in foreign students?"

Mum would shake her head.

"These poor souls need me. Who else have they got?"

Season followed season. Winter, spring, summer again, still the town's world-weary migrated to 14 Saxon Drive. They'd stay a while, drift away, drift back. "Monica, hasn't Violet grown? Quite the young lady. Are you courting, dear? Have you got a sweetheart? A boyfriend? A date?"

I spent less time with them, the interested expression slipping off my face, leaving Mum to sat at the table with them, cocking her head like a bird, patting their hands in sympathy. When I got accepted at college Mum's lip quivered. I knew she thinking about what it would be like when I moved out. Was she, I wondered, getting tired of collecting butterflies? Did the net weigh heavy in her hand?

Then he came back, appearing out of the blue on the doorstep clutching a bunch of cellophane wrapped daffodils.

"Hello Violet. Is your mum in?"

He could've been another piece of flotsam washed up on our shore, but I saw something familiar in the hazel of his eyes.

"Are you my dad?"

"Yeah, I am."

"Took your time coming back."

"Didn't I just? Is she in?"

Mr Warrington and Fat Bob were in the kitchen going through job adverts in the paper, but Dad got their feet from under the table pretty smartish.

"Give us some space lads. A bit of privacy, eh?"

He and Mum were still talking when Stacey came round for her tea and ciggies.

"Not now, love. Me and Monica are sorting things out. You can't smoke here anyway, it's not healthy for our Violet."

Dad stayed the night. The next morning Mum sang songs from South Pacific when she made breakfast while Dad told us about his tool hire company and his acre of land with planning permission in Essex. When Trudy phoned ("Monica, we had another row. Paul's got an internet woman. They flirt in chatrooms.") Mum didn't linger.

"Sorry, dear, can't talk now. Look, just take the battery out of his computer."

Over the next few days and weeks the flotsam found the back door locked when they tried to visit, Dad having taken me and Mum to look at this acre in Essex. They'd peer in at the windows or call through the letterbox. Their tales went untold. They lay in wait for me on the way to and from college, trying to update me on their loveless lives, but Dad noticed and offered me a lift. "No sense in you walking when I've got the Jag."

Bit by bit Dad peeled them off like labels. At Christmas it was just us. No extra chairs were borrowed from the neighbours, we didn't need the wonky stool from the bathroom. Only three sets of fingers and thumbs rummaged through the tin of Quality Street, and the Queen's speech was free of Fat Bob's running commentary or "isn't she good for her age" from the ladies on day release from Sunny Meadows.

I liked our nuclear family. It was small, compact like those tiny cars that whizzed through the estate on their way to the new shopping mall. Dad bought me one. "Need a car now you're a career girl."

At the bank I sat behind a desk with a smooth expanse of wood veneer and a reinforced glass panel between me and the general public. They couldn't touch me and I didn't touch them.

My parents decided to move to Essex, and Dad built Mum's idea of a Georgian townhouse in red brick. I followed the huge removals van out of Saxon Drive in my nippy little car. We drove through the precinct, past boarded up greengrocers and long gone ironmongers, past graffiti marked metal shutters. Down past the old bacon factory, the crumbling industrial estate, the pot holed car parks.

Everywhere I saw them. The flotsam, like animals released from the zoo with no cage to call home. The schizophrenics who found no care in the community, the jobless, the feckless, the fearful, the wastrels, the pushed down and despairing. The unwanted, the unwashed, those whose hope was ground into dirt like cigarette ends. The thin who couldn't afford to eat, the fat who ate to fill a gnawing need they couldn't name. I saw them and drove on, kept on driving. Away, away, away.

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Author: Kevin Machin Date: January 11, 2015 9:12 pm
Categories: Results Tags: winners
Responses: 0 – open Article: 3582 – published
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