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Fiction | Quiet Mountain by Sally Jubb

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They got on at Vico Equense. The carriage was almost full, but the two of them managed to squeeze into a seat diagonally opposite, facing in the wrong direction. 

Immediately the kissing started. Not in tender brushes or exploratory pecks, but with desperation and much rolling round of their heads, as if they were merely resuming, and rightly, what had been interrupted on the platform seconds earlier. 

He watched from the corner of his eye; imagined they were no more than thirteen. Pockets of silky fat split from the slits in her jeans and she wasted no time in hauling her legs– thick-set, like her lips and half-closed eyelids – across the boy’s skinny lap. The boy grabbed them and held on tight, as if they were something feral that might escape, his other arm locked behind her creamy, willing neck. 

Repelled, he imagined her as a gift. Suckling. Bestial. A thing of the sty. He began searching about the other passengers for some kind of vindication. A shake of a head. Even a glance. But they were too busy gabbling in their mother tongue – lost, he imagined, in tales of what their neighbour had done the night before – to pay attention to the conjoined pair. How these people talked. 

He felt at home on trains; surrounded by foreigners, a world away from Turnpike Lane. Knowing that he was as fleeting in their minds as a fuchsia flash of bougainvillea, or those graffiti scrawls like weird owls with upside down beaks, on the notice board at the last station and every station before that. A thing barely noticed, then forgotten. 

By Via Nocera there were whimpers. He tried to ignore them. Nursed the camera closer into his crotch. Stared from the window, down into the tangled vines, the orange groves and lemon groves, towards a chink of glittering sea. 

Suddenly the girl squealed and jerked her head and as if being branded. She did it again. Each time she seemed furious, eyes blazing. Kept pointing her finger to the tip of her outstretched tongue, chiding him for putting his inside her mouth. Assurances were made. They started again. Still, no-one seemed to notice. 

The rhythm of the carriage began to soothe him, the ceaseless chatter to meld with the sounds of the engine. When he looked out of the window again, the sea had disappeared. Soon the volcano would come into view. As the carriage slipped inside another tunnel he closed his eyes, seeing only the girl’s finger touching the tip of her glistening tongue. 

The climb up Vesuvius had not appealed. Immediately he’d regretted it. Flesh. Couples holding hands. The predictable gasps when they finally reached the summit, sweating like pigs, and gazed down into the volcano’s gaping mouth. Then the iphones duly conjured; the group shots, the selfies, and not a proper camera in sight. Pompeii had been bad enough. 

Much better, like this, to observe from a distance. He’d decided that when the time came, he would stand. He may have to lean over slightly. Nobody could take issue with that. It would be clear what he was doing. He might even change the lens. 

After Ponte Persica, they entered a deeper tunnel. In the blackness outside, he caught his reflection. Noticed that the skin around his mouth seemed taut. Mused that if the train were to crash at this point there would be no hope of rescue for days, if not weeks. The carriages were like tin toys. He thought of his camera. In his mind, scanned the images he’d captured the day before. The children in Massa Lubrense. Then on the beach, beneath the arches. 

At Pompeii, the Italian guide had strutted ahead, swishing aloft her pink umbrella, like an ageing cheer-leader in sparkly gold trainers. She’d revelled in her commentary, her machine-gun laughter directed at everyone and no-one. 

‘And remember, Meester Vesuvius, he was full of surprise that day in AD seventy nine, he was so veeery angry, and so in the morning, when the people’s were going to the bakery to buy bread, he was Number One Boss.’ 

After the amphitheatres and the villas of the rich, it seemed the Lupinare was the final, most important destination. A stubby phallus carved into a paving stone nearby, indicating the direction to the brothel, was pointed out as perhaps Pompeii’s finest photo opportunities. The group closed round.

‘And remember, as the gentlemens enjoy themselfs before the lunchtime, where the ladies they howl like the wolf, Meester Vesuvius was not happy. And so this is why they call the Lupinare because the ladies make howl of pleasures, as you will see from the frescoes, please take photographs without the flash.’ 

She led the way inside the remains of a dingy, single storey building. Through the gloom he could see each windowless cell was taken up by a low stone slab. He scanned the frescoes, a visual menu of carnal pursuits which, he imagined, slaves and the spoils of war would have performed, in they weren’t simply pinned down and used like swine. 

‘So these ladies remember were veeery busy, for each time they make only one loaf of bread, or today we can say one euro?’ 

He thought she looked directly at him as she smiled beneath her false eyelashes. 

‘For even veeery ugly can have fun at the Lupinare.’ 

Then she laughed and went outside to light a cigarette. 

The last and smallest room intrigued him. A pristine toilet seat with polished chrome fittings, balanced on a squat stone shelf, indicated the place where customers would have excreted further. He imagined their unearthly screams. The vulpine howls as boiling pumice rained down on naked skin. The ungodly positions adopted as they petrified in the pitch of their pleasure tomb. Here he pulled out his camera, as the rest of the group jostled in front of the frescoes, flashing away to their hearts’ delight. 

While the rest of them tipped the laughing guide he slipped off down a long avenue of mausoleums and found himself alone on a white road. 

The road was wide, with olive groves either side, and the trees and ragged verges covered in a sugaring of dust. There was a high pavement to the right, as if, at some point, someone had had the idea for a residential development.

The sun was starting to cut into the back of his neck; he felt for the shirt tied around his waist; realised it must have slipped off some way back. He imagined it on the floor of the Lupinare, trudged by thousands of feet, ground in, as the guide declared it to be part of the original fabric of the building, as garment, once, worn by some desperate customer. The sound of her laughter went jag-jag-jag inside his head. 

A dog sniffed around a stack of tyres on the cracked forecourt of a derelict villa. Its thick coat had turned grey with dust, but he could make out a brindled back, tan face, strong hind legs. It peed among clumps of scorched weeds, then moved on, engrossed in its quest. He was pleased to see it; this thing that moved to its own rhythm. It scavenged with a purpose, going back every few yards, as if to double check its investigations. He reached into his bag for the camera. He felt the animal was, if not exactly a good omen – he had no truck with superstition – then a worthy fellow traveller

The dog started towards the rose. Closer, he saw it had mange, its rump patched with sores. He felt a rush of pity. Squatting, he rummaged inside his bag for the dry cheese sandwich provided that morning by the hotel. The sun beat the pale, freckly crown out of his head. When he looked up, the dog was standing over him, its orange eyes on his. 

He backed off slowly, leaving his bag in the road. Immediately, the dog came forward, nosing the sandwich out of the wrapper. It licked once, and the food was gone. It climbed on top of the bag, turning out the contents with its teeth and large paws. He heard a crack as the camera tipped into the road. Finally, the dog lifted its leg and walked off. 

The heat clamped like a vice on his scalp and his mouth tasted of chalky metal. He pulled his phone from his pocket. There was no signal. 

The dog had stopped, nose down, a little way ahead. As if sensing fear, it looked up and watched him. 

He waited a long time. When the dog moved on, he trod more carefully, putting one foot onto the kerb, as if those few inches might afford some distance. When the dog turned again, he placed his foot softly back onto the road. 

Some way off he could hear a car horn. He slipped his map out of the bag, but the edges were wet, and the paper fell apart between his fingers. He tried to laugh, but no sound came. 

In the distance he could hear the car approaching, see clouds of dusting rising up behind in white plumes. 

He’d stand in the middle of the road. He’d make them stop. Make them understand. He wasn’t afraid of dogs, no way. He’d make a joke of it. Maybe bark or bare his teeth. Even a little howl. 

As the jeep approached, he put up his arms, a desperate grin on his face. When the vehicle gained speed and swerved passed, he found himself on his knees in the kerb, blood pouring from his tongue, the noise of the cicadas deafening. 

Ahead, the dog waited. 

Back at the hotel, he slept. One moment there were screams from the pool. The next, he’d painted the dog sky blue, let it into a Disney palace, where it licked between the fingers of giggling dwarves, then lay down by an open fire and whimpered. When he lay beside it, leant in to kiss its massive dreaming head, it disappeared. With a stab, he knew it was inside him, splitting him apart, his bowels, his belly, and the paint took on a colour of its own, where the dog went jag-jag-jag inside his head. Now he was in the tin carriage with the girl, and she let his tongue find the insides of her creamy throat, his howling tongue in search for her heart, deeper into the gaping hole where he must push his tongue to stop the bleeding. 

*

They get off at Napoli Garibaldi, the girl’s lips so swollen that she feels more beautiful than she will ever feel again. 

The carriage behind them is empty. Except for the freckled man who’d seemed to be watching whenever she looked up. The man with the camera, who’ cried out in his sleep things nobody understood and nobody wanted to, because as he did, his lips peeled back from his teeth in a way that made the woman sitting next to him get up and take her children to the far end of the carriage. And somewhat near Leopardi, when he’d thrashed his arms like a man in flames and the camera smashed to the floor, people finally stopped talking. 

They leave the carriage, one by one, pushing forward more urgently than they might have done another day, suddenly grateful for the so who never rings; their dank apartment with neighbours who fight at all hours God sends; even for the child they lost, safe in the confines of a sunny plot with roseate marble angels, away from things they’ll never have to see. Like, one morning, a quiet mountain exploding above them; or a man with a febrile tongue, hands cupping his empty crotch, foretelling the void inside them will never be filled. 

 

By Sally Jubb

 

Fiction | Sylvia Plath Watches Us Sleep, But We Don’t Mind by Victoria Richards

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Sylvia Plath Watched Us Sleep, But We Don’t Mind was the third prize winner in our Short Story Competition 2017.

We’ve been married three years when Sylvia Plath appears in our bedroom. There is a chair in the corner, an old French Louis XV-style copy in walnut and cream. The seat is soft, flecked with grey fur at the edges where the cat likes to sit. The cat doesn’t sit there any more, though. There’s no space. Where there was once the cat, now sits Sylvia.

When I first see her there, collar like a ruff of white lace around her neck, I assume she is a new cleaner sent by the agency, that she is waiting for me to give her instructions on bleach versus white vinegar, to tell her whether we want our sheets ironed or left creased, because of the bedspread. Nobody can see what’s beneath the covers if there’s a bedspread. You can leave behind the detritus of a day – toast; those crunchy, black paper envelopes that hold After Eights; condoms; tear-splatter stripes of mascara. Life’s hidden intimacies.

She sits on the chair just so, and I can tell she isn’t a cleaner by the way she crosses her legs at the ankle, like she doesn’t have anywhere else to be. She doesn’t say anything. She just looks at me, her face open and closed at the same time. It is a look that says, I see you. I stare back at her, confused, and then it dawns on me that it is eleven at night and you are downstairs, watching TV, and it is Friday, and she is Sylvia Plath.

I know her from the reddish-brown of her hair, the girlish Alice band, the plainness of her dress, her eyes. Those haunted eyes. I know her from that old copy of The Colossus from 1998, a first edition, the one we have on the bookshelf with her name in orange on the front. The Colossus and Other Poems. She sits on the cover like she is sitting on our chair: young, cross-legged and decidedly, stubbornly alive. Yet I know she is dead. I know that she took her own life at 30, the age I am now. I know this, and the knowing leaves questions hanging in the air like smoke.

Ten… nine… eight… I let most of my breath out in one go, like the helium in that shiny-red, heart-shaped balloon you gave me with some flowers for my birthday. I moved it from room to room, hoping it would snag on a nail, the cat would prick it with a razor claw, hoping it would wither. In the end, I snipped it with scissors in the kitchen when you weren’t looking and stuffed it in the bin.

Three… two…. My lungs deflate, making me dizzy. I breathe in again, look at Sylvia and nod. She nods back. We share a mutual sense of resignation. Then she settles back in the chair, her hands neatly stacked in her lap.

Your shoes are heavy on the stairs. They make the glass lights on the ceiling below jingle and shake. You come into the bedroom. You look from me to Sylvia and back again. Spit foams at the corners of your mouth. You remind me of a goldfish with pop-eye.

What the fuck is she doing here?” You point accusingly, as though she is mine.

I shrug. “I don’t know,” I say. This makes you madder.

What do you mean you don’t know?” Your voice has risen a couple of octaves. It sounds the way you sounded when we were fourteen, when you’d throw gravel at the porch to let me know you were waiting, leaving a spider-web of cracked glass. I’d tell Dad I was going for milk and slip out of the door sideways, in a dress with lemons embroidered on the collar. I would mutter, “Alright?”, my heart a snare, and climb up on the saddle behind you. I’d press my face into the back of your black-and-white striped Adidas tracksuit top and close my eyes, breathing in ash and beer and salt. My toes would drag along the concrete as we coasted down the hill and it would burn red-hot but I wouldn’t lift my feet up.

How did she get in? Did you let her in? Why isn’t she talking? Jesus Christ, what the fuck is wrong with her? Is she homeless or something?” You go close to Sylvia, wave your hand in front of her face, punch the wall. Paint scatters.

It goes on like this. You’re still talking, but I can’t make out the words, and I wonder if I’ve gone deaf, or if your voice is so high with rage that it’s reached that mosquito alarm pitch only young people can hear. We’re not young anymore, so I can’t hear you. We’re not young anymore.

Later, after you’ve stalked off to the bathroom to brush your teeth, to shave, you get into bed, one eye on the chair, watchful and wary. You are wearing the underpants I asked you to throw away two Christmases ago, the ones that hang down to your knees.

Is she just going to sit there like that, or what?” you say, grunting with displeasure the way you grunt when someone asks us for money when we’re outside a restaurant.

I shrug again, but this time I don’t say I don’t know. We sleep.

You’ve left for work by the time I wake up, and I don’t know if you kissed me goodbye. I feel sluggish and press myself deeper into my pillow, tiredness like a coat I can’t take off. Then I remember her. Sylvia. I open my eyes and rub grit from the corners. I stare at the ceiling. I imagine what I’ll say when you come home, when I tell you about the dream I had.

I dreamed Sylvia Plath was sitting on that chair in the corner of our bedroom,” I’ll say, my voice sounding at once amused and tinged with irony. “We had a fight about it. You punched a wall.” I’ll probably run my fingers through my hair in that way you once said made me look cute. I’ll be ready to laugh or to dismiss the conversation, depending on how your day has gone. You’ll say, “Who?”, as disinterested as if she was someone I work with.

I push myself up on my elbows, shaking off pins and needles. I look across the room to the chair, and there she is.

She’s wearing different clothes to yesterday. A cardigan, heavy wool, though the heating is on and the brass thermometer on the bedroom wall reads 22 degrees. There is a brown-and-white checked hem running from her neck to her waist, decorated with buttons. She is pregnant, which is strange, because in that instant I realise that I am too.

Of course,” I think, staring with wonder at Sylvia Plath, at her belly’s gentle roundness, at her sober smile. She wears the same downturned lips and high cheekbones as yesterday. I guess she is six months – seven? – gone. I know it the way pensioners in the street tell young women who didn’t ask that it’s “definitely a boy”.

I feel it stir somewhere deep within me; tiny, sunflower seed, not 2mm long. I picture myself like Sylvia, months from now, belly like a road map, filled with the whirls and ripples of impatient life. I imagine myself, stumbling from bed, cow-heavy and floral, like her Morning Song.

I wonder what you’ll say when I tell you. The last time, the time it didn’t work, you grew flat and distant. I used to catch you staring into space, your hand close to your mouth but not quite touching. If I asked, you’d look at me blankly for a few seconds, then say, “Huh?” and, “I’m fine”, but the top of your nose would wrinkle with irritation. I couldn’t help myself. I asked you ten, twenty times a day, willing you to give me any other answer but “fine”, willing myself to believe you.

“This time,” I say to Sylvia, determined, nodding my head like it makes a difference, “it’ll be okay. This time it’ll stick.”

I place the flat of my hand against the softness of my belly. This time, I tell her, I will do pregnancy yoga and antenatal classes. I won’t skip out because I am embarrassed by the demonstrations, by the teacher’s giant, woolly model of a vagina, by the photos of huge, swollen women who don’t look a bit like me in birth pools, stained red. I’ll take 400 micrograms of folic acid every day, and extra iron, and omega-3s. I’ll stop smoking. Drinking. Coffee, vodka. Maybe even wine. I won’t clean out the cat’s litter tray any more when it’s overflowing and stinking, that will be your job, and I’ll stop eating cheese with mould in it. I’ll go to bed early and I’ll – we’ll – take a photo of my belly, every week. We’ll go for gentle walks in the forest on Sundays and I’ll set aside two, five to ten-minute periods of the day, every day, for mindfulness, to bond with the baby. I’ll even join an NCT group.

Did you do all of those things?” I ask Sylvia, doubtfully. She places her left hand on her belly – she looks about eight months pregnant, I decide, not six – and stares dolefully out of the window.

I was amazed when I found how easy she was,” she tells me but doesn’t tell me: Ted and Sylvia, 1961, an interview, uploaded to YouTube. I place the words in Sylvia’s mouth now, like a kiss. “I had wondered if I would feel swallowed up by motherhood and never have any time to myself. But somehow, she fitted in beautifully.”

You loved Ted, didn’t you?” I ask. I fancy she is telling me with her eyes what I’ve read about, about how she wanted to meet Ted Hughes because she’d read some of his poems, and she’d been impressed by him, and they went to a party in London, and then somehow, ended up married.

I think about how we ended up married. It didn’t begin at a party, like Sylvia and Ted, but at the back of the bus, in 2001. You called me “babe” and stuck your hand down my top to feel the silky lining of my bra.

We “did it” for the first time two weeks later in the park in Bethnal Green, after it was dark and the wardens had locked the gates. You helped me climb over the metal spikes. I put my hand in somebody else’s piss and wiped it on my jeans, but you didn’t mind. You held it anyway and led me to a bench where we drank cheap, warm cider that tasted like sweets. It made my head spin as I looked up at the stars. This, I thought. This is the love I dreamed of.

It” happened. I could feel the wet grass against my back, the cold air on my thighs. It was rough, like holding my hand under the cold tap until it was numb and aching; hot, like carpet burn on my knees; sharp, like the stitches the doctor said I had to have, and I knew I had to have them, though every fibre in my body wanted to pull away. When it was over, you kissed me and said I was special, that you’d never let me go.

I lay back against the pillows again and ask Sylvia what it was like for her as a child. “I was happy, up to the age of about nine, very carefree and I believed in magic,” she says-said through the small speaker in my phone. “At nine I was rather disillusioned. I stopped believing in elves and Santa Claus and became more realistic and depressed.”

I nod sympathetically. “I understand,” I say.

When I was a child, everything was cold and I had to sit in my room while my parents got drunk in the kitchen. I would stay perfectly still in the quiet dark, listening to them laugh and joke and fizz and sometimes my mother would stamp upstairs and throw open the door and hiss, her teeth bared like the wild cats in the alley next to the supermarket. Sometimes she’d grab my arm so tight it would leave bruises and tell me I was a “bad girl”.

I like it when you call me a “bad girl”, though. I know it turns you on, because you growl a little bit and slap me and say, “oh, yeah, oh, fuck, yeah.

I tell Sylvia about the day my mother died. I was nine, and she forgot to pick me up from school, and so I walked home, and climbed through a window because I didn’t have a key. Inside, everything was messy and smelled of wet, and she was in the kitchen, slumped over a bowl of milk. The milk had a film across the top of it, like custard. I touched her and she was a mannequin, one of those plastic women with both arms cut blunt at the wrist, smile fixed, eyes blue and glazed. She wasn’t my mother anymore. I wondered if she ever was.

Thinking about this makes me feel sad. I get up and put on a dress, something pink to draw my mind towards daylight. I go downstairs and watch TV, and somehow, the day passes. Nervous moths bash and crash into my ribcage.

When you come home, you don’t hug me or say hello. You slump on the sofa in your crumpled suit, the remote-control slack in your hand, your laces undone and trailing like worms on the carpet.

I’ve got something to tell you,” I swallow, hovering at the edges. You sigh and nod your head sideways to tell me I’m in the way of the TV.

I’m pregnant,” I say, biting my lip until I taste blood.

You turn to me, frowning. “What?”

“Pregnant,” I repeat.

You stare at me. The remote slips from your hand and clatters off the sofa to the floor. You press your fingers to your temples. You breathe in, your cheeks filled with air, and out, in one, quick burst. You push yourself up with your hands and stand. The sudden movement makes me flinch. I take a step back.

“I’m going for a walk,” you say, not looking at me as you leave the room. I put my arms around myself and hug myself tight as the front door slams. I don’t know when you’ll be back. The cat wanders in and winds himself around my legs like a question.

Above my head, the glass lights jingle and shake like bells, and I feel an aching. I stare up at the ceiling and wonder if Sylvia has gone or if she’ll stay another night, tonight – please, just one more night – and watch over us while we sleep.

The London Magazine Short Story Competition 2016 | Winners

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Thank you so much to everyone who entered The London Magazines Short Story Competition 2016. We were delighted to see such a large volume and high standard of entries. Judges Max Porter, Erica Wagner and Angus Cargill have made their decision, and we are very pleased to announce the winners:

First place: The Match Factory by Emma Hughes

Second place: I Have Called You By Your Name by Anne O’Brien

Third place: The Ideal Husband Exhibition by Dan Powell

Each of these short stories will be published in upcoming issues of The London Magazine as well as online. The winners will be awarded their prizes at a ceremony held at the House of Commons Terrace Pavilion in March.

We would like to extend a special mention to those who were shortlisted, your short fiction also impressed our judges and magazine staff:

Shortlist:
The Fog Harvester – Marie Gethins
Strange Monument No. 1 –
Kevin Klinskidorn
Five Parts – Amanda Oosthuizen
Big Fish – William Pei Shih
Snow – Sally Syson
London City Ghouls i: Matt and Rakel Don’t Go Out – Toby Parker Rees
Take The Well – Mark Wagstaff

We’d also like to thank our judges for all the time and effort they put into reading the submissions, and thanks also to our readers, Ludovico Cinelli, Rufus Cuthbert and Victoria Lancaster, who aided the selection process!

Short Story Competition 2016 | An interview with Angus Cargill

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With just over a month until our Short Story Competition 2016 closes, we caught up with judge Angus Cargill and found out about his favourite short story, what he’s currently reading and what he sees as they key elements of a short story (take note, competition entrants!).

 

What are you currently reading? And what specifically did you like about it?

The three last novels I read, away from work, were My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, Transit by Rachel Cusk and Willnot by James Sallis – three short novels that would be said to be from different genres (the first two ‘literary’, the third ‘crime) but were similar in many ways – spare and enigmatic, and yet they all manage to be both gripping and intensely moving. I’ll be doing well to read anything else as good this year, and would highly recommend all three.

What is your favourite short story, and why is it your favourite?

‘Two Boys and a Girl’ by Tobias Wolff, the perfect story (with the perfect title), about the confusion, pain and excitement of adolescence, which still, whenever I re-read it, seems truthful and alive.

Which writer’s work can you always rely on to inspire your creative process?

Lorrie Moore’s short stories, and Raymond Carver’s, anything by David Peace, George Pelecanos or Megan Abbott, Robert Cormier’s YA novels, Adrian Tomine’s graphic novels.

In your opinion, what are the key elements of a good short story?

I love stories that feel like you’re just getting a moment or window onto something, almost like a glance, and that the author knows what not to write, what to hold back, as much as they choose to put in.

What advice can you give entrants to the Short Story Competition 2016?

Be brave.

 


Angus Cargill is Editorial Director at Faber & Faber, where he was worked since 2000. He edits and publishes writers such as Kazuo Ishiguro, Sebastian Barry, Jane Harris, David Peace, Nadeem Aslam and Lucy Caldwell, as well as non-fiction authors Peter Pomerantsev, Nick Kent and Barney Hoskyns. He also runs Faber’s crime list – which includes Peter Swanson, Chris Pavone, Laura Lippman, Stav Sherez and Alafair Burke, among others – and has published a number of graphic novels, by Emily Carroll, Craig Thompson and Adrian Tomine.

Short Story Competition 2016

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This competition is now closed.

Thanks to all who entered. The longlist, shortlist and winners will be announced over the next few months. Keep checking our ‘Competitions’ section and sign up to our newsletter for updates.


Autumn is here, which means The London Magazine‘s Short Story Competition 2016 is upon us.

The London Magazine has published short stories by some of the most well-respected literary figures over the course of long history. Our annual Short Story Competition seeks out new voices to join them. Established to encourage emerging literary talent, the award provides an opportunity for publication and recognition, as well as rewarding imagination, originality and creativity. The London Magazine is looking for unpublished short stories under 4,000 words from writers across the world. The story that wins first-place will be published in a future issue of The London Magazine. The second and third place stories will be published on our website. Prize winners will also be invited to a reception in early 2017.

Entry fee: £10 per short story (there is no limit to the number of entries you can submit)

Opening date: 1st September 2016
Closing Date: 31st October 2016
Deadline Extended To: 14th November

First Prize: £500
Second Prize: £300
Third Prize: £200


Judges:

Erica Wagner is an author and editor. For 17 years literary editor of The Times, and twice a judge of the Man Booker prize, she is now Lecturer in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London, a contributing writer for the New Statesman and consulting literary editor for Harper’s Bazaar. She is the author of Gravity: Stories; Ariel’s Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of Birthday Letters and Seizure, a novel. Pas de Deux/A Concert of Stories, co-written with storyteller Abbi Patrix and musician and composer Linda Edsjö, tours around the world. First Light: A Celebration of Alan Garner, has just been published by Unbound, and her biography of Washington Roebling, chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2017.

Max Porter

 

Max Porter is an editorial director of Granta and Portobello Books. His authors include Han Kang, Eleanor Catton, Ben Marcus, Sarah Moss and Caroline Lucas. His debut novel Grief is the Thing With Feathers was published in 2015. It won the International Dylan Thomas Prize and will be translated into 23 languages. He lives in South London with his family.

 

Angus CargillAngus Cargill is Editorial Director at Faber & Faber, where he was worked since 2000. He edits and publishes writers such as Kazuo Ishiguro, Sebastian Barry, Jane Harris, David Peace, Nadeem Aslam and Lucy Caldwell, as well as non-fiction authors Peter Pomerantsev, Nick Kent and Barney Hoskyns. He also runs Faber’s crime list – which includes Peter Swanson, Chris Pavone, Laura Lippman, Stav Sherez and Alafair Burke, among others – and has published a number of graphic novels, by Emily Carroll, Craig Thompson and Adrian Tomine.

Read The London Magazine’s interviews with the judges here.


Submission:

As of 1st September, you’ll be able to apply via Submittable here:

submit
Alternatively, you can download the Short Story Competition 2016 Entry Form to fill in and post with your entry. (N.B. There is no need to complete an entry form if entering via Submittable)

Important:
Please read our competition rules carefully before entering.
If you have any questions, please contact Abi at competition@thelondonmagazine.org.
To receive competition updates and all the latest news and offers, sign up for The London Magazine‘s Official Newsletter.
Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and Facebook for updates!

 

The Mother of the Child in Question by Doris Lessing

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Doris Lessing in 1962. Photograph: Stuart Heydinger for the Observer

When Doris Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007 she was the eleventh woman and the oldest person to ever receive the award. The judges marked her out as ‘that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny’. A prelude to these qualities could well be said to appear within the short story ‘The Mother of the Child in Question’ published by The London Magazine in September 1988.

The story follows a social worker who tries to convince a poor Pakistani family to send their disabled daughter to a special school, and acts as an acute illustration of the clash of home and state as both are brought into the confines of a working class sitting room. What Lessing artfully shows in the tale is the conflicted attitude of the social worker towards the maternal love he encounters, a love that is at once unnerving and admirable in its ferocity. Mrs Khan, unable to speak English, gives orders ‘with her eyes’ and mutters in Urdu to her son Hassan who acts as a translator throughout. Both mother and social worker fight with love, reason and conviction. The arguments within the tale are not clear-cut, the answers – and the characters who desire them – are not simple, and it is precisely this ambiguity that makes Lessing’s fiction so intriguing.

 

High on a walkway connecting two tower blocks Stephen Bentley, social worker, stopped to survey the view. Cement, everywhere he looked. Stained grey piles went up into the sky, and down below lay grey acres where only one person moved among puddles, soft drink cans and bits of damp paper. This was an old man with a stick and a shopping bag. In front of Stephen, horizontally dividing the heavy building from pavement to low cloud, were rows of many-coloured curtains where people kept out of sight. They were probably watching him, but he had his credentials, the file under his arm. The end of this walkway was on the fourth floor. The lift smelled bad: someone had been sick in it. He walked up grey urine-smelling stairs to the eighth floor. Number 15. The very moment he rang, the door was opened by a smiling brown boy. This must be Hassan, the twelve-year-old. His white teeth, his bright blue jersey, the white collar of his shirt, all dazzled, and behind him the small room crammed with furniture was too tidy for a family room, everything just so, polished, shining. Thorough preparations had been made for this visit. In front of a red plush sofa was the oblong of a low table, and on it waited cups, saucers and a sugar bowl full to the brim with a glinting spoon standing upright in it. Hassan sat down on the sofa, smiling hard. Apart from the sofa, there were three chairs, full of shiny cushions. In one of them sat Mrs Khan, a plump pretty lady wearing the outfit Stephen though of as ‘pyjamas’ — trousers and tunic in flowered pink silk. They looked like best clothes, and the ten-year-old girl in the other chair wore blue tunic and trousers, with earrings, bangles and rings. Mother wore a pink gauzy scarf, the child a blue one. These, in Pakistan, would be there ready to be pulled modestly up at the sight of a man, but here they added to the festive atmosphere. Stephen sat down in the empty chair at Mrs Khan’s (Stephen particularly noted) peremp­tory gesture. But she smiled. Hassan smiled and smiled. The little girl had not, it seemed, noticed the visitor, but she smiled too. She was pretty, like a kitten.

‘Where is Mr Khan?’ asked Stephen of Mrs Khan, who nodded commandingly at her son. Hassan at once said, ‘No, he cannot come, he is at work.’

‘But he told me he would be here. I spoke to him on the telephone yesterday.’

Again the mother gave Hassan an order with her eyes, and he said, smiling with all his white teeth, ‘No, he is not here.’

In the file that had the name Shireen Khan on the front, the last note, dated nine months before, said, ‘Father did not keep appoint­ment. His presence essential.’

Mrs Khan said something in a low voice to her son, who allowed the smile to have a rest just as long as it took to fetch a tray with a pot of tea on it, and biscuits, from the sideboard. They must have been watching from the windows and made the tea when they saw him down there, file under his arm. Hassan put the smile back on his face when he sat down again. Mrs Khan poured strong tea. The boy handed Stephen a cup, and the plate of biscuits. Mrs Khan set a cup before her daughter, and counted five biscuits on to a separate plate and put this near the cup. The little girl was smiling at — it seemed — attractive private fancies. Mrs Khan clicked her tongue with annoy­ance and said something to her in Urdu. But Shireen took no notice. She was bursting with some internal merriment, and the result of her mother’s prompting was that she tried to share this with her brother, reaching out to poke him mischievously, and laughing. Hassan could not prevent a real smile at her, tender, warm, charmed. He instantly removed his smile and put back the polite false one.

‘Five,’ said Mrs Khan in English. ‘She can count. Say five, Shireen.’ It was poor English, and she repeated the command in Urdu.

The little girl smiled delightfully and began breaking up the biscuits and eating them.

‘If your husband would agree to it, Shireen could go to the school

we discussed — my colleague William Smith discussed with you —when he came last year. It is a good school. It would cost a little but not much. It is Government-funded but there is a small charge this year. Unfortunately.’

Mrs Khan said something sharp and the boy translated. (His English was fluent.) ‘It is not money. My father has the money.’

‘Then I am sorry but I don’t understand. The school would be good for Shireen.’

Well, within limits. In the file was a medical report, part of which read, ‘The child in question would possibly benefit to a limited extent from special tuition.’

Mrs Khan said something loud and angry. Her aimable face was twisted with anger. Anxiety and anger had become the air in this small overfilled overclean room, and now the little girl’s face was woeful and her lips quivered. Hassan at once put out his hand to her and made soothing noises. Mrs Khan tried simultaneously to smile at the child and show a formal cold face to the intrusive visitor.

Hassan said, ‘My mother says Shireen must go to the big school, Beavertree School.’

‘Is that where you go, Hassan?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘My name is Stephen, Stephen Bentley.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Your father should be here,’ said Stephen, trying not to sound peevish. There was something going on, but he could not make out what. If it wasn’t that two daughters were doing well at school Stephen would have thought perhaps Mr Khan was old-fashioned and didn’t want Shireen educated. (The two girls were both older than Hassan, but being girls did not count. It was the oldest son who had to be here representing the father.) Not that there was any question of ‘educating’ Shireen. So what was it? Certainly he had sounded per-functory yesterday on the telephone, agreeing to be here today.

Mrs Khan now took out a child’s picture book she had put down the side of the armchair for this very moment, and held it in front of Shireen. It was a brightly-coloured hook, for a three-year-old perhaps. Shireen smiled at it in a vacant willing way. Mrs Khan turned the big pages, frowning and nodding encouragingly at Shireen. Then she made herself smile. The boy was smiling away like anything. Shireen was happy and smiling away like anything. Shireen was happy and smiling.

‘Look,’ said Stephen, smiling but desperate, ‘I’m not saying that Shireen will learn to read well, or anything like that, but . . .’

At this Mrs Khan slammed the book shut and faced him. No smiles. A proud, cold, stubborn woman, eyes flashing, she demolished him in Urdu.

Hassan translated the long tirade thus, ‘My mother says Shireen must go to the big school with the rest of us.’

‘But Mrs Khan, she can’t go to the big school. How can she?’ As Mrs Khan did not seem to have taken this in, he addressed the question again to Hassan. ‘How can she go to the big school? It’s not possible!’

Hassan’s smile was wan, and Stephen could swear there were tears in his eyes. But he turned his face away.

Another angry flood from Mrs Khan, but Hassan did not interpret. He sat silent and looked sombrely at the chuckling and delighted little girl who was stirring biscuit crumbs around her plate with her finger. Mrs Khan got up, full of imperious anger, pulled Shireen up from her chair, and went stormily out of the room, tugging the child after her by the hand. Stephen could hear her exclaiming and sighing and moving around the next room, and addressing alternately admonishing and tender remarks to the child. Then she wept loudly.    Hassan said, ‘Excuse me, sir, but I must go to my school. I asked permission to be here, and my teacher said yes, but I must go back quickly.’

‘Did your father tell you to be here?’

Hassan hesitated. ‘No, sir. My mother said I must be here.’ For the first time Hassan was really looking at him. It even seemed that he might say something, explain . . . His eyes were full of a plea. For understanding? There was pride there, hurt. ‘Thank you for staying to interpret, Hassan,’ said the social worker. ‘I wish I could speak to your father . . .’

‘Excuse me, excuse me,’ said Hassan, and went running out. Stephen called, ‘Goodbye Mrs Khan,’ got no reply, and followed the boy. Along the dismal, stained and smelly corridors. Down the grey cement stairs. On to the walkway. A wind was blowing, fresh and strong. He looked down and saw Hassan four stories below, a small urgent figure racing across the cement, leaping puddles, kicking bits of paper. He reached the street and vanished. He was running from a situation he hated: his whole body shouted it. What on earth . . . Just what was all that about?

And then Stephen understood. Suddenly. Just like that. But he couldn’t believe it. But yes, he had to believe it. No, it wasn’t possible . . .

Not impossible. It was true.

Mrs Khan did not know that Shireen was ‘subnormal’ as the medi­cal record put it. She was not going to admit it. Although she had two normal sons and two normal daughters, all doing well at school, and she knew what normal bright children were like, she was not going to make the comparison. For her, Shireen was normal. No good saying this was impossible. (For Stephen was muttering, ‘No, it simply isn’t on, it’s crazy.’) Anyway, he found these ‘impossibilities’ in his work every day. A rich and various lunacy inspired the human race and you could almost say the greater part of his work was dealing with this lunacy.

Stephen stood clutching the balustrade and gripping the file, because the wind was swirling noisily around the high walkway. His eyes were shut because he was examining in his mind’s eye the picture of Mrs Khan’s face, that proud, cold, refusing look. So would a woman look while her husband shouted at her, ‘You stupid woman, she can’t go to the big school with the others, why are you so stubborn? Do I have to explain it to you again?’ She must have confronted her husband with this look and her silence a hundred times! And so he had not turned up for the appointment, or for the other appointment, because he knew it was no good. And he didn’t want to have to say to some social worker, ‘My wife’s a fine woman, but she has this little peculiarity!’ And Hassan wasn’t going to say, ‘You see, sir, there’s a little problem with my mother.’

Stephen, eyes still shut, went on replaying what he had seen in that room: the tenderness on Mrs Khan’s face for her afflicted child, the smile on the boy’s face, the real, warm, affectionate smile, at his sister. The little girl was swaddled in their tenderness, the family adored her; what was she going to learn at the special school better than she was getting from her family?

Stephen found he was filling with emotions that threatened to lift him off the walkway with the wind and float him off into the sky like a balloon. He wanted to laugh, or clap his hands, or sing with exhilara­tion. That woman, that mother, would not admit her little girl was simple. She just wouldn’t agree to it! Why, it was a wonderful thing, a miracle! ‘Good for you, Mrs Khan,’ said Stephen Bentley opening his eyes, looking at the curtained windows four floors above him where he had no doubt Mrs Khan was watching him, proud she had won yet another victory against those busybodies who would class her Shireen as stupid.

‘Bloody marvellous,’ shouted the social worker into the wind. He opened his file against his knee then and there and wrote, ‘Father did not turn up as arranged. His presence essential.’ The date. His name.


AugSept 1988 cover

 

 

This story first appeared in The London Magazine in September 1988 alongside poetry by Sean O’Brien and Simon Armitage among others.

It is reproduced here with an introduction by Thea Hawlin.

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