Winners: Open Short Story 2016

Here are the winning entries from the 2016 open short story competition.

You can also view the full competition results.

First Prize Winner

Mrs Bonthrone's Last Day by Alison Wassell

Joy Bonthrone sets down her handbag on the desk and surveys her classroom for the last time. She has already taken home her personal things; the photographs of her cats and her grandchildren, the 'World's Best Teacher' mugs and the clumsy clay pencil holder made for her by the five year old who now manages her bank. She has been here long enough.

Years ago the classroom walls were covered with colourful posters plucked from Child Education magazine. Now, there are only charts. A chart to show how many children have been reading at home, another chart to show how many children have learned all their key words and one to show whether or not they know their number bonds. Joy wonders when learning stopped being fun. On her desk there is a ring binder that bulges with completed tick sheets.

"Measuring something doesn't make it grow," she said, at a staff meeting when she was still foolish enough to think that her opinion counted. The Senior Management Team stared blankly back at her, silently marking her card. Following that little outburst they started to observe her lessons on a weekly basis. She became a Cause For Concern. Joy is jumping ship, before she gets pushed overboard.

It's not considered good manners to retire in the middle of the school year. Joy wishes she had the energy to take this current class through to the summer holiday. But now, approaching the February half-term, she longs only for her bed, late into the morning, and the prospect of having no more boxes to tick.

Joy looks out of the classroom window. The sky looks as bleak as her mood, threatening snow. She wraps her voluminous cardigan more tightly around herself, shivering, although the room is warm. The door bursts open and Rhiannon enters, complete with laptop and briefcase, looking more suitably dressed for an office than a day in the company of infants. She shrugs off her jacket and drapes it proprietorially around the teacher's chair.

Rhiannon is to be Joy's replacement. For a month they have been uneasily 'team teaching'. Ostensibly, this is to allow the children to get to know Rhiannon before she takes over as their class teacher. In reality Joy, who is no longer trusted to be in sole charge of a class, has been relegated to the role of teaching assistant. She has been teaching for longer than Rhiannon has been alive. Rhiannon glares at Joy's handbag, which is creating a disturbance on the otherwise pristine desk. Joy pretends not to have noticed.

"Looks like snow," she observes, for want of something else to say. Rhiannon snorts, and say she hopes not. Joy launches into one of her reminiscences, mainly because she knows how much they annoy Rhiannon. Back in the old days, the promise of snow would have had the children wriggling on the carpet in excitement. The first flakes would have had them outside, hastily bundled into their anoraks, with their tongues outstretched, trying to be the first to catch a snowflake. Rhiannon snorts again, and mutters something about health and safety.

The school bell rings and the children begin to line up on the playground. Rhiannon strides out to collect them, leaving Joy scurrying behind her. Some of the children clutch cards, flowers and gift bags, and clamour excitedly to give them to Joy. Rhiannon stands sternly at the head of the line, waiting for silence. Finally satisfied, she leads the class inside. One of the mothers clutches Joy's arm.

"I think it's terrible, the way they're getting rid of you," she says, sympathetically. Joy mumbles something about leaving of her own free will. The mother looks unconvinced. She shyly kisses Joy's cheek and tells her to take care of herself. Joy thinks she vaguely remembers teaching her, more than twenty years ago.

Back in the classroom Rhiannon, who has an aversion to clutter, has begrudgingly allocated space on top of a cupboard for all the gifts. The children are sitting in regimented lines on the carpet; quiet children alternating with more chatty ones. Everything in Rhiannon's world has its designated place. Feeling like a tatty old piece of furniture in a minimalist apartment, Joy lowers herself onto a child-sized chair. The classroom door flies open. The pots of freshly sharpened pencils on the tables shudder as Tom Parker makes his entrance.

Joy is sure she detects a look of pure dislike on Rhiannon's carefully made-up face. She fights the impulse to giggle. Tom Parker is the spanner in Rhiannon's works, the square peg who will refuse to be rammed into a round hole. He howls like an attention seeking puppy as he makes his way to the coat pegs, swinging the bag which contains his PE kit around his head. Rhiannon tries and fails to fix him with a disapproving look. She clears her throat and points at the carpet near Joy's feet.

"Come and keep me company Tom," says Joy. The child makes himself into an aeroplane and performs several circuits of the room before finally coming in to land beside her chair. She pats his shoulder.

Rhiannon uses a PowerPoint presentation to introduce the first session's activities. The children, who have, with the exception of Tom, always been a biddable group, watch attentively. Some of them seem a little bemused as the Learning Objectives and Success Criteria for the lesson are displayed on the interactive whiteboard. They chant them anyway. Joy wonders what they will say at home when someone asks them what they did today.

Tom lounges against the leg of the chair and plays with the leather tassels on Joy's shoes. From time to time he looks up and attempts to engage her in conversation. Joy presses a finger to her lips, then points at the board. Tom sighs, plugs his mouth with his thumb and rests his head on the edge of the chair. Joy runs her hand over his Velcro-like hair. She will miss this, she thinks.

The first snowflakes begin to fall. None of the children notice. For five seconds Joy keeps the knowledge to herself. Then she recalls the way, last week, Rhiannon contemptuously swept the carefully labelled exhibits on the nature table into the waste bin, claiming that 'you never knew where these things had been'. Joy decides to have some fun. She nudges Tom Parker back to life and gestures with her head towards the window. She knows that Tom will do the rest.

He is instantly on his feet, trampling on toes and fingers as he makes his way across the carpet.

"It's snowing! It's snowing!" he squeals. He presses his face and hands to the glass, his whole body trembling. The children turn to look, then rise as one and trot in his wake pushing and shoving each other in a bid to secure a view of the playground, which is by now iced with snow.

Rhiannon has boasted to Joy, on several occasions, that she can control a class with nothing more than a pair of raised eyebrows. A shouting teacher is, apparently, a failing teacher. Joy suppresses her amusement as Rhiannon's eyebrows disappear into her fringe and her cheeks flush an interesting shade of crimson. The children, still jostling for prime positions, are oblivious. Toes are trampled on, hair is pulled and tears are shed. Rhiannon stands in the centre of the room and raises her right arm. This is the signal for the children to stop in their tracks and be silent. She remains unobserved. Joy hauls herself to her feet. She claps her hands.

"Come along now children, there is work to be done," she says, loudly and firmly, in her best teacher voice, which has served her well enough for the last forty years. This voice is heard so rarely that a startled hush descends. The children return to the carpet with only a little whispering and nudging. Rhiannon, without so much as a glance at Joy, resumes her lesson as though nothing has happened.

The snow continues to fall. Just before morning break an older child arrives with a note. There will be an indoor playtime today. The children groan their disappointment as Rhiannon tells them to take out their books and read quietly. The Head teacher patrols the corridor, anxiously wringing her hands. Pausing at the classroom door she mutters that if this weather continues, school may have to close early. She glances out of the window with eyes full of fear, as though the snowflakes are radioactive fallout.

Joy settles herself with a group of reluctant readers and attempts to engage them in a book. Their eyes keep wandering to the whiteness outside. Tom Parker tugs at her sleeve.

"Mrs Bonthrone, what's your real name?" he asks. The rest of the group abandon their snow gazing in the hope of an answer. Joy smiles. Teachers' first names have always been a source of fascination for small children. She has no need now, to maintain that professional distance that the Senior Management Team keeps going on about.

"My name is Joy," she says. All the children are listening now, not just the group she is sitting with.

"Joy means happiness," says Skylar, confidently. Bram sighs and shakes his head. He puts his hands on his hips as he prepares to voice his opinion.

"Joy used to mean happy, in the olden days. Now it means something different." The children gather round and process this statement.

"That's not joy, stupid. It's gay," says Tom Parker, who has more about him than anyone gives him credit for. Joy wishes her arms were long enough to embrace them all.

"Bram is right, in a way," she says. "Joy doesn't seem to have the same meaning that it once did." None of them have the slightest idea what she's talking about. Rhiannon resumes her place in the teacher's chair and launches into her numeracy session.

By lunchtime the snow has formed a luxurious carpet. The children itch and twitch over jigsaws and colouring books. The school secretary frantically sends out texts and e-mails, asking parents to collect their offspring as soon as possible. An atmosphere of crisis pervades the whole building. Joy wonders how these people would have survived the Blitz.

A path is cleared and gritted from the front entrance of the school to the car park. Children are collected from their classrooms and ushered out through the door normally only used by staff. They emerge into the dazzling whiteness like released hostages. Those that remain begin to fret that they will be left abandoned. The snow continues to fall.

The secretary arrives at the classroom door and informs Rhiannon that the Head needs to see her urgently. Rhiannon is clearly reluctant to leave the room.

"Keep an eye on them, will you?" she says to Joy, with a look that suggests that Joy is not really fit to be entrusted with the care of small children. Unsuitably high heels clip clop away down the corridor.

Joy knows that this is probably her last chance. She gathers the remaining children around her. They must creep like mice, she tells them. She will show them what joy really means. The children giggle nervously. On their tiptoes, with their hands held like tiny paws, they follow Joy as she makes her escape out of the door leading to the playground.

Tom Parker rolls in the snow like an excited puppy. Joy makes a snowball and hurls it at Bram and Skylar. They hesitate for a second, and then retaliate. Joy lowers herself to the ground and, not caring whether her knickers are showing beneath her tweed skirt, she flaps her arms and makes a snow angel. The children copy her, creating a heavenly host. Rhiannon, having returned, silently raises her right arm. She stands perfectly still as snowflakes settle on her head and shoulders like bird droppings on a statue. Everyone is having far too much fun to notice.


Second Prize Winner

One Mouth by Clare Pugh

A few hours before I was born, one of my father's cows gave birth to a two-headed calf. Four eyes, four nostrils and two mouths. This frightened the cattle boy so much that he ran back to our village without stopping, screaming as if he was being attacked by the long whip tongue of Mzanbele. When he described what he had seen to my mother, she was terrified too. It was then that I started to leave her body, without knocking five times on her belly wall to let her know I was on my way, which babies in our clan usually do.

My father went to the cattle post and killed the calf by slicing it down the middle of its wide two-headed skull. Then he killed its mother. He was frightened because Mzanbele had entered these two cattle. They could not be eaten because of this and were left for the hyenas – evil eating evil, my father said.

I know all this because my mother was always saying why she named me One Mouth – to thank the spirits that her son was born well on that day. I do not remember much else because it's so long since I was at my home. I think I was about eight when I was taken away, and think I am about fifteen now. I forget years sometimes. But here is what I can remember:

My sister, Happiness, carrying me on her back when I was tired, even though she was only small herself. I liked the smell of her neck and sometimes pretended to be sleepy so that I could be close to her. She smelled like the sky, bush, earth and the cooking pot all together in one tiny place.

My little brother and me chasing the chickens around the yard until we were so dizzy that we fell over and lay in the dust, laughing so much we just could not stop. I cannot remember now what my brother was named.

My mother screaming at the soldiers – "Please don't touch Happiness!" – but they would not listen and soon blood ran down my sister's legs and into the dust. Then they carried me away.

So that is what I remember about 'before'. And now you question me about 'after'. You say if I cannot speak of these things then I can draw them instead. But I cannot draw with those pencils, they are not the colours of my life.

I do not understand why you are writing down my words. And why can I not have ganja when my head is shouting so loud for it? Some beer? Thank you. Now I ask how long will I be in this place with tables and chairs? For as long as I want? But I do not like it; I do not live inside. I sleep in jungle and bush and I am only scared when I hear and smell Mzanbele in the black night. His tongue slashes through the bush and his smell is the same as dead bodies lying in the burning sun. I am not afraid when it is day.

What do you mean an 'inside home' now? I have just said that I live underneath the sky, and I will always. I will leave this room when I have finished my beer; that will not keep me here. We have beer most of the time anyway, starting when we wake. And always we have ganja; even when we do not eat, we have it. From the first day, they made me smoke it, even though it choked and made my eyes cry. But that was good because it hid that I was crying really for my mother. I do not remember when I stopped this crying for her.

Soon there were lots of boys, but I was the smallest for a few years. I think Major Angel Gabriel liked me the most. He always gave me more to smoke and drink than the others, and more meat sometimes. Once he let me have the heart of an oryx that he had killed. He was brave to hunt the big oryx because the horns are sharp like the blade of my knife. And it was me who he had most often in his strong arms during the night, protecting me from Mzanbele in the dark. At first I did not like his hot, fat smell, but soon it was alright.

I didn't know I was a soldier until Major Angel Gabriel gave me a gun. I never played with a gun before; I just played with Happiness, my brother and the chickens. I don't remember many things I killed when I was young, except once I shot a big bird who had wings that were green like a mantis and a chest the same colour as the sun rising after a cold night. After I had done this I did not feel nice and kept a green feather hidden, until one day Comrade Cedrick found me stroking it. He grabbed it from me, laughed, and kicked me in my face. I don't remember when my gun first shot somebody.

I want some more beer before I leave, thank you. What…? But I am going from here. You cannot keep me like a goat. Cha … rity? I do not know what this word means. And where are the other soldiers? I tell you that if you do not let me free, Major Angel Gabriel will come in this room and shoot you.

No! That is not the truth! No! … But where then is his body?

So, you say, 'One Mouth, we will try to make you forget the bad things, make you well again'. But I am well now – look, I am strong like a lion. I can kill with only my hands, not only women and children but men too. And I never want to forget Major Angel Gabriel, who helped me grow as brave as I am today.


Third Prize Winner

Level Heaven by Michelle Pilkington

Everyone is dying. My Uncle Bill said so. My Aunt Sue too. Even my Auntie Lizzie nodded. She said it's all over Twitter, and Twitter knows everything. That's why I brush my teeth twice on the nights she babysits. If I don't, she might find out on Twitter.

It's not stopping either, all this dying. Every time my Dad picks up the paper he shouts out, "Oh God! Not another one."

Then he cries. He's been crying a lot recently, even though Aunt Sue says we should actually all be very happy about because so many people turned up for Mum's funeral. There was standing room only for some, Uncle Bill said.

Dad's tears are totally suboptimal. I heard Uncle Bill say that too. Aunt Sue told him it was for me to tell Dad, not him. So the next day I walked into the living room and took the newspaper from Dad and said it.

"These tears are totally suboptimal."

I counted all his fillings as his mouth opened and closed, just like my goldfish does when I scoop him out of the water so we can clean his bowl.

Some snot dripped from his nose and splashed on his trousers, but there were no tears! I turned to Uncle Bill and Aunt Sue and gave them both the thumbs up.

Aunt Sue told me I was just like my Mum, only she didn't smile when she said it, which was weird because everyone smiles these days when they talk about Mum.

I wish I had a sister. Mum told me that Auntie Lizzie was like her very own baby doll when she was young. She used to dress her up and take her out for walks. Aunt Sue said Lizzie was a mistake but that's OK because my Mum said that some of the best things in life come out of mistakes.

And she's right. It was like the shoe box farm I made for Topic at school. I'd made sheep from the wool I found on the fences in the fields and Lizzie and I used bits of old watches from Dad's workshop to make real mini tractors. It took ages to make.

Then when I showed it to Mum, she fell over and squashed it. The red paint on the roof hadn't had time to dry and it looked like the sheep had been run over and killed by the tractors.

The ambulance lady said she was sure my teacher would understand. But what did she know? She'd never met Mrs O'Reilly.

At breakfast the next day, Auntie Lizzie said it had been a mistake and Mum was very sorry, but I could tell she was cross about it too because her eyes were all red from crying.

At school, Auntie Lizzie told Mrs O'Reilly and then Mrs O'Reilly gave me a hug. She took me to see the Headmaster and he asked me all about my farm and said that it sounded worthy of five house points. Then he let me eat two of his special biscuits that he saves for visitors! So, you see, I know that good things can come from mistakes.

Not everyone is sad about people dying. Uncle Bill said the takers are laughing all the way to the bank. I asked him who the takers were and Aunt Sue said I shouldn't ask so many questions. I asked Auntie Lizzie when she got back from work and she said they help people who have died find their way to heaven.

Heaven is a long way up in the sky that alive people can't get to. That's what Aunt Sue told me. Uncle Bill said you can buy a staircase to heaven. He said it in a big shouty voice that made my chest tremble.

I asked him if Mum had bought one before she died and Auntie Lizzie told him he was an idiot, which is a very unkind thing to say but Auntie Lizzie said it was OK, she'd say sorry another time.

Eliza Morgan at school said that people don't use staircases to get to heaven anymore. That was for olden times. Her grannie lives in a big house with lots of old people and there are two lifts there, ready to take them to heaven when they die.

It's a good job mum died in hospital because we don't have a lift at home. They have lots of lifts in hospitals because people die there all the time. I know. Eliza Morgan told me.

Mum took me to London once to visit a singing lift. When you pressed the button, a voice sang in a really high voice if you were going up and a really low voice if you were going down. Mum joined in and the people in the lift laughed. You could hardly hear what it said at the top but I think it might have been Level Heaven. Maybe that's why we went. Mum wanted to check if she could get to heaven in the lift.

I told Dad we should go and check it out but Aunt Sue told me to stop talking about lifts, for goodness sake.

Dad coughed and I thought he might start crying. He walked over to the bookshelves and pulled down Mum's old dictionary that she'd had since school and opened it up and read out loud.

"Lift. To move something from a lower to a higher position."

He pointed to the floor then pointed up at the sky and said, "Isn't heaven up there?"

Aunt Sue said stop it but he said she should stop it. He said I was a clever little girl and Mum would be proud that I'd figured it out.

I skipped to the door as Aunt Sue and Uncle Bill left.

The next day Dad took me to the singing lift. I pressed all the buttons and the voice sang all the way up to Level Heaven. We looked out of the big glass windows at the sky and Dad let me cry.

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Author: Kevin Machin Date: November 26, 2016 11:34 am
Categories: Open, Results Tags: winners
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