Home Tags Short Stories

Tag: Short Stories

Short Story Competition 2017


The competition will now be open for entries until November 15th.

Autumn is just around the corner, which means The London Magazine‘s Short Story Competition 2017 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 The London Magazine is looking for unpublished short stories, maximum 2,500 words, from writers across the world.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 2018.


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

Opening date: 1st September 2017
Closing Date: 31st October 2017

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


Supplied by Tibor Jones

Jason Cowley became editor of the New Statesman in 2008.
He has also been editor of Granta Magazine, the Observer, and staff feature writer on the Times.
He is the author of a novel, Unknown Pleasure (Faber & Faber, 2000), and a memoir, The Last Game: Love, Death and Football (Simon & Schuster, 2009).
In 2009 and 2011, he was named editor of the year in the Newspaper and Current Affairs Magazines category at the British Society of Magazine Editors awards.



Robert Peett studied Philosophy at University College London, then undertook postgraduate work in Political Philosophy at the London School of Economics. After a brief spells abroad he then worked in the art world for many years, dealing primarily in British works of art on paper.
He returned to researching, writing, and teaching and eventually set up Holland House Books in 2012.



Richard Skinner is a writer working across fiction, life writing, essays, non-fiction and poetry. He has published three novels with Faber & Faber, three books of non-fiction and two books of poetry. His work has been nominated for prizes and is published in eight languages. Richard is director of the Fiction Programme at Faber Academy.





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

Alternatively, you can download the Short Story Prize entry form 2017 to fill in and post with your entry. (N.B. There is no need to complete an entry form if entering via Submittable)

Please read our competition rules carefully before entering.
If you have any questions, please contact Emma 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!

Alas for the Egg by Hilary Mantel

image © doros partasides

First published in The London Magazine, Dec/Jan 1986/87


On Sunday, they went to Nicosia. On their right as they drove, but far in the distance, was the faint blue line of the sea. Nearer at hand, pylons were slung across the landscape between the outcrops of white chalk; knolls and tumuli arose from flat green fields. The road began to climb. Sage-coloured trees of perfect form stood against the skyline.

The sun — it was now midday — gilded June’s hare arm, and glinted on her nail polish; a shade called Frosted Peach, which she had applied freshly at the hotel that morning. An army lorry, its canvas top flapping, ate up the road before them. Beside the asphalt, anemones burned in shocking scarlet. When they stopped to admire the view, Gregory looked in the guidebook. The flowers, it said, were the tears of Venus, shed for the murdered Adonis and transformed as they fell to blood. It was a piece of information he decided to keep to himself.

They sat for five minutes or so, while Gregory read, and June, her face empty of expression, gazed – inland. Gesturing vaguely, Gregory said, ‘There’s a neolithic site up there. Burial mounds.’ June gave an affected shudder. ‘It wouldn’t take long,’ he said.

June consulted her watch. ‘We’ll miss the first race.’

`That doesn’t matter.’

`Oh, why bother then?’ she snapped. ‘Why go at all?’

A moment later she was climbing out so that he could photograph her, posed by their hired car. Her bad temper, even on holiday, never lasted long. She was a quick passionate woman, but inclined to over­look his failings. She knew he could not help them. He focused care­fully; the motorway was just on his right, and he wanted to keep it out of the picture. June stood with her feet planted sturdily, calf-high in yellow flowers. Ever since they arrived, he had been photographing her. She wanted something she could show her neighbours; something she could show her grandchildren, when Kerry and Dennis got round to it. He felt, as he looked through the camera’s eye, that he had never really seen her before.

Every morning so far they had taken breakfast on the hotel terrace, overlooking the sea. It was warm, even at 7 o’clock, and the hotel staff were affable and wide-eyed, bustling between the tables with their cheese omelettes to order and their straw baskets of the coarse under-salted local bread. He made do with cornflakes; he’d had indigestion for days. June said, ‘You’d think they liked being waiters.’ She sounded rather sour, but what she was doing, Gregory knew, was weighing them up as potential employees. You needed, in hairdress­ing, any amount of public pleasantness; but at the same time, you had to be able to stand up to the customers. Ever since they left home she had been worrying about Maison Sonya, and whether Kerry was coping.

`If we were in Abersoch,’ she said, ‘I could be at home in two hours, if necessary.’ Abersoch, a caravan site there, was their usual holiday choice; but this was their dream holiday. Gregory had retired, and they felt they should do something to mark it; the pension fund had paid out.

If there was one thing that had pleased June about Cyprus, it was the flourishing state of the hairdressing trade. Every taverna, every burger bar, seemed buttressed by unisex salons; Seville Hair Fashions, Youlia Crimpers, Maros Style International. It seemed that a whole people, if not engaged in chopping salad or building holiday flats, were employed in doing each other’s hair. On their third day they made for Paphos, over to the west, and June counted the salons through the Limassol outskirts. She was silent for most of the journey. Gregory didn’t make conversation. His eyes were for the seascapes afforded by each bend in the road. ‘Careful,’ June said, once or twice. At Paphos they saw the mosaics. He was moved, far more than he had expected, by the faces of the gods; by the ageless tiger, feral breath cast in stone; by the single pomegranate, two millenia in ripeness of flesh. June nudged him, to look at a young woman going around with a touring party. ‘That’s a good feather-cut,’ she said. ‘Look at her fringe, that’s what you call hairdressing.’ At the Baths of Aphrodite she saw a blow-wave that really pleased her.

He looked, when she pointed, obediently at the young men, but with a certain furtive interest, which he tried  to suppress, at the young girls. Sleek, shapely, they were shedding their winter layers; it was almost April, after all. But why not look, he asked himself. I am old now, it is my prerogative. I am retired, and must have hobbies. Buntings decked the roadsides, and wreathes of spring flowers. It was carnival week. Carne vale: farewell to flesh.

June had set out the pattern of their days, with attention to what she called Value for Money. Breakfast; an excursion, then an hour by the hotel pool; a bath, some titivation; then the descent to the cocktail bar. A drink or two; then dinner. ‘We have to try and cram it all in,’ she said. Some mornings, on a whim, they had their sunbathing before their outing. It amused him to see the patrons in the same places at the pool, day after day. Their habits overrode their need for sun or shade. `They’re territorial,’ he said to June. ‘The territorial imperative.’ June said nothing; went on reading her magazine. When Kerry was a little girl, she used to pay threepence at the sweet shop on the corner for something called a Lucky Bag. You didn’t know what you might get; you might pull out a lollipop, then an aniseed ball, or some sort of humbug. His mind, June said, was something like that.

He was not used to the sun. It made him sleepy. He would lie back, the guide book propped open on his chest, ostensibly planning tomorrow’s excursion, but really just day-dreaming. June asked him `What are you thinking about?’ and he said, ‘The future.’

`Oh yes,’ June said. She thought in terms of the summer ahead. In July it would be Abersoch again, but this time they would be buying their caravan, not renting. After all, this holiday was a one-off. They would not be able to afford it every year. They had tried other places —Anglesey, for example — but they had always come back to Abersoch.

When he thought of the future, it was the next twenty years he had in mind. June had the business. She was a lot younger than he was; they both, thank God, had their health. The shop had been nothing when June bought it; grubby nets at the window, fading photographs of rigidly-permed starlets flapping on the walls. Who were those starlets now? Grandmothers. When June took over she had the shop refitted in the latest glass and chrome and canework. She stood on her feet for eight hours a day. She ate her lunch standing up; or didn’t bother. There was a girl, at hairdressing college two days a week, ripping up the beauty magazines with a big pair of scissors, seeking out the latest trends. On Fridays and Saturdays they had late open­ings. `Mum’s a phenomenon,’ Kerry said. She couldn’t keep up with her, although she was half her age. June would never retire. She once said she’d run the salon from a wheelchair if she had to. But why should she have to? Something in her transcended ordinary health.

Gregory’s own job had never absorbed him in quite the same way. It had not used him up; left him free to cultivate his mind. He had not been sorry to retire, and yet there was something, a kind of weight on his chest, that he had not bargained for. It is a life-crisis, he told him­self, it is a rite of passage. After this indolent summer I will find things to do. Trifles; pastimes. June would not reproach him with inactivity. Her energy level had always been higher than his; it was a fact of life. Her earning power would keep them cosy. He had much to be grateful for. That, he supposed, was the weight he bore.

Tired of bearing it, he turned his head, for diversion; stretched his body along the sunlounger. He turned back, read his guidebook a little; but deliberately, sideways from half-closed eyes, he watched Nell. Nell across the pool; Nell somnolent, in her blue bikini. What age would she be? He remembered her pleasant low voice, greeting him on the breakfast terrace; greeting June too, but when June turned to interrogate the waiter she had given him a smile. The first time he had seen Nell sunbathing, he had thought she was topless. Sucking his lip, he had read furiously of the ruins at Salamis, until the moment came when he allowed himself to glance up again, his pulse quicken­ing. But she was not topless, it was an illusion; the half-cups of her bikini clung to the undershadow of heavy full breasts. She looked up, across the pool, and saw him watching her.

On their first morning, the two couples had only exchanged a greeting, but on the second day it had progressed. Ted, Nell’s husband, had asked him if he knew the cricket score. ‘Care for a look at The Times?’ he’d said, and passed it across the table. ‘It’s yester­day’s.’ They introduced themselves. They seemed a close couple. Childless, I’ll bet, June said later. Nell had this sleepy, warm smile.

June had warned him, when they were up in their room. ‘Leave them alone, Gregory, they’re not our sort. You don’t want to be palling up with them and getting towed off somewhere expensive for the evening.’ June despised people from the south of England, as much as she feared them. Nevertheless, he heard her telling Nell in the bar that night about the latest perming techniques, and confiding her fear that Kerry would not cope.

`Never mind,’ Nell said soothingly, ‘you’re on holiday. You must try to relax.’

`Relaxing never built up a hairdressing business,’ June said. She was afraid that Kerry would be conned by some customer, that some woman would come in and say her hair was falling out, and. Kerry, without the wit to say she wasn’t liable, would put her hand in the till and pay the old bag off. ‘ I could make your blood run cold,’ June told Nell, ‘with tales of what the public get up to.’

Nell seemed amused, but she held back her smile. He wished she would not hold it back; already by the second day he loved to see it, and as she turned up the corners of her mouth an adolescent heat touched his body, a feeling he thought he had forgotten. It was as if he had met some former self in the dank back alleys of the Old Town: halt, who goes there? Tentatively Nell patted her own soft brown hair. June said she pitied her; it had no body.

On the third evening of their holiday, they met by chance in the bar. June would choose cocktails from the bar list, and challenge the barman to mix them for her; he would do it with a flourish, humming while he plied his shaker, making a business of it. June stood at the bar counter watching him with a broad smile. It was the second thing she had enjoyed about Cyprus, and although Gregory found the show­manship embarrassing he couldn’t bear to spoil her pleasure. Stavros would deck out the frothy little glasses with sticky cherries, sprigs of mint, coloured sunshades of pleated paper. ‘You’re only young once,’ June said; and laughed, and winked extravagantly, to show that she knew she had made a joke.

It seemed — he was relieved — that Nell quite liked June’s company. There was a lively, admiring glint in Nell’s hazel eyes. Perhaps she was too calm, too kind, to pick holes in people. Pettiness would not be in her. ‘You must come and see us,’ she said, ‘if you’re ever in Horsham.’

Ted did not have much to say. ‘Enjoying yourself?’ Gregory asked. `We always do. Hotel seems a good sort of place.’

`You’ve been here before then?’

`Never away. Nell enjoys it. Friendly people. Stayed at the Churchill last year. Churchill’s a good sort of place.’ He paused. ‘Like a change though.’

`Oh yes,’ Gregory said warmly. ‘We all like a change.’

Nell did not have cocktails. She had a small, pale glass of Cyprus sherry, on which her neat pale fingers closed; in holiday mood, and yet discreet. When she was inside her clothes, indoors, Nell seemed a different person; trim, rather grey. You would never guess she had such a front; her silk blouse did not show it. He must, Gregory knew, put some name to his feelings about her. I have my feelings, like other men, he thought: gallantries, cravings, sudden despairs. Advance, friend, and be recognized.

The days passed too quickly now. The hotel held a Cyprus night; there was dancing and buzuki music. Stavros, the barman, showed unsuspected talents. He ran between the tables, bouncing and beaming, with ten glass tumblers balanced on his head. It seemed impossible; people threw money at him. At first June seemed to be enjoying it, but when she saw Nell clapping and laughing, she with­drew into herself, putting it down as Horsham entertainment. Often now, when he was drowsing by the pool, or just driving somewhere, June’s proprietorial voice would carve into his thoughts. Now he had retired, he thought, he would be at her mercy. At her beck and call. He went out on the balcony in the evenings, before they went down to the bar, and watched the girls passing in the street. His appetite was a smooth easy flow; not all in Nell’s direction. Who would have thought that sun and idleness would work on him in this way? He could not have predicted it. He had taken a whole reel of pictures of June now, and when he looked at her, it was as if he always looked through his camera, and she was there, indelible, the firm jawline, the dis­contented mouth, the outline of sturdy thighs under her dress. He had heard of holidays having this purpose; that couples got to know each other better.

After the Cyprus night, with its charcoal grills and sticky puddings, his indigestion seemed worse than ever. June was not sympathetic. He should have less of the local cuisine, she told him, less garlic; have what I have, a nice plain piece of fish. It’s an island, isn’t it, so you know it’s going to be fresh.

Ted and Nell spent most of the first week by the pool. They would hire a car at the weekend, they said, and go somewhere, but mean­while they were glad to be lazy. ‘You’re always on the go,’ Nell said, expostulating. ‘Dashing hither and thither.’

But June said they were bent on getting their money’s worth; other­wise they might as well have stayed at home, where she would have had less anxiety. ‘Besides,’ she said, ‘Gregory is fond of culture. He likes these icons, etcetera, don’t you? He finds the rock formations very interesting, too.’

Ted and Nell nodded gravely. There was no irony in June’s tone. She was proud of him; they understood this. ‘I’m just off upstairs to see if I can pick up the World Service.’ Ted said. He leapt up from his lounger and flapped off in his sandals. Gregory’s eyes snatched at Nell’s. I saw you half-naked, his gaze said, I thought I did; I know more of you than other people know. Her glance was gentle; but without complicity.

On Friday they drove into the mountains. They climbed; five thousand feet, six thousand feet. Drifts of snow, rather yellow now, still lay in the hollows, but the ground was carpeted with flowers. ‘I wish I’d brought my flower book,’ Gregory said. Then `Do you know, June, what we’re standing on? We’re standing on the ocean floor.’

`What?’ she said. `Up here? What do you mean?’

`You see,’ he said, and made his hands the landmasses of the world: `Africa, you see, is crashing into Europe, like this; the continents are sliding together. The Mediterranean used to be an immense ocean. And this mountain range is really a bit of the sea-bed, cast up.’

June stared at him. ‘What happened to the water?’ she said.

He was at a loss. ‘I expect it drained away.’

`Well, how can they make that out? How can they make that out, that it was the sea-bed?’

`By the fossil evidence. By the microscopic fossils. And by the composition of the rocks.’

`So Africa’s crashing into Europe, is it?’ She sounded not so much alarmed, as affronted. ‘Does it mean there’ll be an earthquake? Is it happening now?’

`Yes, it’s happening now,’ he said. ‘But it’s happening very slowly.’ He closed his eyes. Suddenly he felt very tired. ‘I’m talking about millions of years, June, tens of millions of years. No disaster is imminent, I can assure you. I’m sorry the drift of the continents can’t be held up, because we are on holiday. But we’ll be on that plane on Tuesday, don’t you fret.’

On Mount Olympus the air was damp, but sharp and resinous. A single bird called, on a high insistent note, and beyond that there was silence, except for the click of June’s heels on the tarred road. Hearing them, she said, ‘These have been a good pair of shoes.’

By the time we leave for home, he thought, the snow here will have melted. The sun blazed fiercely over the radar station. ‘Don’t think I’m not enjoying myself,’ June said, ‘but I half-wish we were going back on Sunday, then I could get into the salon for Monday afternoon. It’s the pensioners’ half-price on a Monday, you know, and some of them are devils. I don’t know that Kerry can cope. They don’t respect her. They treat her like a bit of a kid.’

`I’m sure she can stand up to them.’

`No, she can’t stand up to anybody,’ June said. Her voice was matter-of-fact. ‘She’s susceptible to people. She gets it from you.’

`Just stop a minute,’ he said. He put his hand on her arm. That niggle of pain again; like the tip of a knitting needle, worked between the ribs.

‘All right, are you?’

`Yes, I’m fine.’ He stared down at the ground. The golden pine-cones and shards of stripped bark were alive with tiny ladybirds. A cloud passed over the sun. He looked down, down into the abyss, to the villages, the monasteries, the vineyards. He felt, for a moment, the presence of the gods; then June’s hand on his sleeve. The gods don’t interfere in our lives nowadays, he thought; more’s the pity.

When they went down to the bar that evening they found Ted and Nell there already. June perused the bar list, held Stavros in conversation, then ordered a White Lady. She seemed oblivious to Nell, waiting to launch out on a story.

`Our first day out, and we were hijacked,’ Nell said.

`Oh, yes?’ Gregory cocked an eyebrow at her. ‘Hijacked, how?’

`We took a turning, off the Nicosia road, and there was an old chap thumbing a lift —’

`Ancient,’ Ted put in. ‘Decrepit.’

`So we stopped, and he begged us, positively begged us, to take him to the top of the hill.’ Nell moved forward a little in her seat, holding them in suspense. ‘And when we got there, it was one of these tiny villages —’

`Poor sort of place,’ Ted said.

and he asked us, well, insisted really, that we should go to his home and meet his family and take coffee. We were quite over­whelmed, but then —’

`He wanted to sell you something,’ June said. She nodded. It was her experience of human life.

`Yes, table linen.’ Nell raised her glass of sherry to her lips. ‘They embroider it. It’s terribly expensive.’

`Couldn’t get away,’ Ted said. ‘Brought in coffee, preserved fruit,

you name it – whole family crowding round – talk about the hard sell.’ I hope you sent them packing,’ June said. ‘That’s unscrupulous.

Putting you under an obligation. Or trying to.’

Ted and Nell looked at each other, smiling slightly.

`They’re very poor people,’ Nell said.

`You mean you bought?’ June was shocked. ‘You let them prevail on you?’

`I’m afraid we did, and the great joke is —’ they exchanged another glance, enjoying it ‘they foisted off on us eight napkins and this enormous round table-cloth —’

`And we haven’t got a round table,’ Ted said. ‘Never have had. Never shall.’ He popped a potato crisp into his mouth and crunched it happily. ‘Most useless purchase we ever made.’

Gregory and June did not look at each other. If this had happened to them, the mutual embarrassment, the recriminations, would have soured their whole holiday.

`I was foolish,’ Nell said, more soberly. Her eyes flickered over June’s face. ‘Ted tried to tow me off, but after I’d eaten all these little pots of jam — and by the way they were quite delicious —’

`You were too soft,’ June said crushingly. She swept a glance over her husband, as if to say, where would you be with a creature like this, thank your lucky stars you have me.

`Mm.’ Nell looked into the depth of her glass. ‘You’re probably right, June. It certainly set us back a few pounds.’ She raised her face. `But it was fun.’

Ted leaned forward. ‘It may be useless to us,’ he said, ‘but it seems a very good kind of table-cloth.’ Fleetingly, he touched Nell’s white hand as it lay on the table; Nell smiled. Gregory turned his face away. Two tears, unprecedented, sharp as flint, stood in his eyes. He rose from the table. ‘Call of nature,’ he said. ‘Excuse.’ He blundered out of the bar, and stood blinking in the marble lobby, by the door of the Coffee Shop. June was crushing him, he thought, crushing him utterly. The process was imperceptible, merciless; it was the worst kind of destruction, the one to which not even its victim bears witness. Until this week. The air in the lobby seemed close, stifling. Stavros the barman, lean and curly-headed, came out bearing a tray. He paused.

`You feeling okay, Sir?’

`Yes, thanks, I’m okay.’ The moment had passed. June would have explained it to him; to be crushed was in his nature. There was a Cypriot proverb, translated in his guide book, which seemed to fit his situation. Alas for the egg when the stone falls on it; alas for the egg when it falls on the stone.

Sunday came. ‘What do you do on a Sunday?’ June asked. He’d said he wouldn’t mind driving into Limassol and going to an Orthodox service, just out of curiosity.

`Church?’ June said. ‘But you’ve never been a church-goer.’ `No . . . all right then. Why don’t we got to the races?’

`Races? Where?’

`Nicosia. It’s a proper track. I’ve been reading about it. It would make a change.’

It was true that it would make a change. They had never been race-goers either, but June did not find the idea so revolutionary as that of divine service. She even warmed to it; did her nails. ‘You usually just want to do cultural things,’ she said happily, ‘I could have a flutter. Just for once.’

They took the old road to Nicosia, but even with a pause for photo­graphs they were there in an hour. He pulled up near the city walls and spread out the rather inadequate map provided by the car-hire company. It was no use asking June to read it; she could not tell left from right, and navigation provoked the worst excesses of her temper. When she made errors she claimed that signposts had been turned around, as if in a country at war.

He set off cautiously, through the shuttered Sunday streets. Here was the Museum of Antiquities; here the Municipal Gardens. He wound down his window, letting in the sun and the light breeze; `Lovely day,’ he said to June. He propped one elbow on the window ledge, careless, his other hand loose on the wheel. Homer Avenue, Gladstone Street.

June said, ‘We’re lost, aren’t we?’

`We do seem to be running out of town. There should have been a roundabout —’

`Here, give me the map.’ June unflapped it confidently.

`You ought to head back for the city. Go at it again.’ She looked at her watch. ‘The first race starts at one-thirty,’ she said.

He did as she told him, reversing, heading back. All the routes from the middle of town seemed to look alike. It was one-thirty already when he found the roundabout. ‘Right, here we go,’ he said. June gave him advice. She also said, why do we always get lost, Gregory? He thought, but did not say, because we are too proud and stubborn to ask he way.

It was five minutes before his doubts set in; ten, before they hardened. ‘This can’t be it, can it? I’ll have to go back on myself. Back to the roundabout, then find another road off.’

Now June was growing exasperated. ‘We’ll miss it, we’ll miss it,’ she cried.

`Heavens, woman,’ he said, ‘they go on till half-past five.

June said, ‘Don’t you woman me.’

It seemed a low point. The whole week had been coming to this: the frank quarrel. Soon, if he did not find the right road, she would accuse him of getting lost deliberately, to spoil her pleasure. He felt he could hardly stand it; a week of her hairdresser’s conversation, the nagging ache in his side, his sudden insight in the lobby. He stopped, reversed sharply into a driveway, and swung the car around.

 The narrow roads running out of town were lined with small bungalows, recently built, their walls washed with orange and blue. Chickens ran in the road; the householders, with their families and dogs, were taking lunch on the verandahs. Beyond a small row of shops — fruit and veg, video rental — the road ran out on them, a wire fence strung across their path. ‘I thought this was the way,’ Gregory said. He turned left; the car crawled along. In a moment he had to stop again. A barrier confronted him, and a wooden sentry hut; a young man in camouflage gear, with a sub-machine gun.

`What’s going on?’ June demanded.

Gregory said, ‘It’s the border.’

`But we want to go up there,’ June said, outraged.

`That’s a Turk,’ he said patiently. ‘That’s a Turk, June. We can’t.’

The border guard watched him. He did a three-point turn. The young man’s expression was curious, even amiable. How would it be, Gregory wondered, if I pushed her out into the road? Would he shoot her? Would he shoot her dead? His own rage shocked him. His hands tightened on the wheel. There had been a time when he had thought his wife’s stupidity a misfortune; now he knew that it was a vice. Yet what to do? He had heard of worms turning, but eggs have not that capacity.

As it happened, the programme was running late and they had only missed two races. They had trouble parking, but they squeezed in, and they hurried through the Tote Hall, through the weekend crowds. The breeze got up. ‘Button your jacket, Gregory,’ June ordered him. Yes, anything. He hurried to obey. What can an egg do, but most treacherously crack, before you can consume it? The twenty-foot-high figure of a Marlboro cowboy dominated the sky beyond the winning post; behind him, the mountains of Kyrenia.

It was all new to him, all fresh; the horses dancing in their stalls, the roaring glee of the crowd as they pressed against the rails, the flurry and speed with which the action was over. Between the races, he had plenty of time to look about. The spectators were mostly young Cypriot men, with a sprinkling of the black grannies, in their head­scarves and wrinkled stockings, who were already familiar to him from pictures of Greece. And there were the girls in the crowd, always in pairs it seemed, arms entwined, turning their avid faces on each other, not the horses; chattering, dressed alike, mouths splashed with vivid lipstick; then looking about them, faces raised to the sun and wind, long hair blowing, tiny waists, hands like temple dancers; their smiles scattered towards him down the track, bowled towards him in the dust kicked up by the horses’ hooves. He thought of Nell. The crowd surged down from the stand as the seven runners in the 3 o’clock rounded the final bend: Super Nova, Wild Boy, Touch Me Not.

When the race was over and the winner was led off, the crowd drifted away in search of refreshments. ‘Sporting afternoon, eh?’ a voice said.

`It’s Ted.’ June jogged his elbow. ‘He’s on his own.’

Gregory was glad to see him. It seemed an age since they had met at breakfast; a geological age. Ted appeared and disappeared, bobbing in the crowd, as if he were at sea. ‘I say,’ he said, ‘I’ve got a radio in my hire car, I can get the Test score.’

`Where’s Nell?’

`She’s gone on a picnic. Some of the staff asked her. The hotel staff.

Splendid day for it. Her little whim. Get to know the locals.’

`Oh yes?’ June said, half to herself; breathing hard, in Gregory’s shadow. He turned away from Ted, as the crowd bore him off again, looked into June’s face. He saw contempt. June gave a low, merciless chuckle. ‘Some picnic,’ she said.

`What do you mean?’ he demanded.

June said, ‘I can read her like a book.’

A group of British servicemen jostled by them, young faces, pinkly porcine, each one under shorn fair hair. The general good­ humour seemed to have entered into them as they crammed together on the stand, for they were laughing, and swigging from beer bottles, and showing each other their tattoos. The sight of them pleased June; It made her feel patriotic. She gripped his upper arm, ‘Gregory, go and put me some money on that one.’ She pointed to a lively bay with a jockey of minuscule proportions. ‘He’s only a little lad,’ she said fondly.

`He’s probably a grandfather.’

Put me a pound on.’

He looked over at the bay. It seemed what Ted would call a good kind of horse. `To win or for a place, June? A Cyprus pound, or an English pound? Anything, June.’

`What?’ She looked up at him, and then her toothy grin invaded her face. ‘What, anything?’ she said lewdly. She has no idea, he thought, how much in these last few hours I have decided to hate her.

`Speak now,’ he said, ‘or forever hold your peace.’

`You must have been drinking,’ she said.

By four o’clock the novelty had worn off, for June at least. The wind was keener; her horse had lost, she was cold, she wanted to go. She said she was looking forward to her bath, and to putting her blue frock on, and to getting down to the hotel bar. ‘We’ll be on our own tonight,’ she said. ‘They won’t be in.’

`Perhaps Stavros won’t be there either,’ he said. ‘Perhaps it’s his day off.’

`No doubt it is,’ she said, with a kind of saved-up bitterness. ‘No doubt it is. But I suppose somebody else can mix my drinks.’

They pushed their way out through the turnstiles. The wind had struck russet into June’s cheeks; her skin seemed roughened, fran­gible, like the skin of a pear. ‘Oh, bloody hell,’ she said. ‘We’re blocked in.

He walked around the car; around the van that was parked slant­wise across the space where he had hoped to reverse out. He looked at his watch. It was only 4.30, and it would be more than an hour before the last race began; more than an hour and a half, perhaps, before the van’s owner, having collected his winnings and perhaps enjoyed a drink, decided to turn up and free him. It was one of those things that happen. June’s small blue eyes blazed at once with frustration. Home, she’d said, bath, bar; she didn’t expect me to be thwarted.

`Don’t blame me,’ he said meekly.

`I’m not blaming you.’ She aimed a great kick at the van’s tyre. I’m not holding you responsible.’

He shivered. What else can an egg do, but get left on your face? ‘I think I could back out,’ he said. ‘Just about. But you’ll have to guide me.

`Okay.’ She glowered. Rubbed her hands together. He edged for­ward, edged back. Wrenched the wheel over, once, twice, three times forward and back, creeping out by inches, tensed for the clank and scrape. In the end ‘You’ve got it this time,’ she shouted.

Yes, he was out; an inch to spare. She strode around to the pas­senger door. He leaned across, as if to open it for her; then, instead, snapped the lock down. He saw her cardigan, flapping in the breeze; her fingers, wrapped around the door handle, wrenching at it. Her face was up in the sky somewhere, in the scudding clouds. She banged on the roof; once, like a thunderbolt.

And then he was off; bouncing over the loose white stones, swerv­ing at a reckless speed out of the car-park and into the narrow white lanes of the suburb of Ayios Dhometios. The verandahs were deserted now. Lunch guests were leaving for home. He had to slow up, by the video rentals shop, he had to wait at a cross-roads by a Coca-Cola sign, and he half-expected her to appear, sprinting along the road in her Clark’s sandals, banging on the roof again, swearing at him, smashing him up. His heart raced. He had acted on impulse, like an animal, he thought, like some dim vegetable creature; an egg has no forethought, it has no sense of responsiblity. He drove on; he did not turn back. He remembered the moment when the car had shot forward; his sudden and last glimpse, in the rear-view mirror, of June’s face. She had no need to chase him. She could wait.

Through Nicosia he took the old road again, heading back towards Limassol. Although the late afternoon had grown so chilly, a fine mist of perspiration covered his neck and face. He fumbled his handkerchief out and wiped it away. Was it so terrible, what he had done? Ted would find her, and bring her back to the hotel. He would be home before them; he would sit on his twin bed, waiting, and hear the clatter of the lift doors, and June’s hand rattling the doorknob, and June in the corridor, clearing her throat. It would be a new era in their rela­tionship; a new era, and a worse.

And then later, after he had locked himself in the bathroom to re­cover himself, and a temporary repair had been effected to June’s face, they would have to take up their lives again. They would have to go down to the bar, and face Ted and Nell. What would Ted have told her? He imagined June, crammed into the passenger seat of Ted’s hired car, restrained by a seat-belt at Ted’s insistence; June smouldering in her furious embarrassment, while Ted fiddled around with his radio, trying to get Sports Round-Up on the World Service. Ted would not say much. But he had stumbled by accident on Gregory’s private life; and being British, he would recoil when next they met, as if from a poisonous snake.

Gregory stopped the car. His indigestion was making itself felt again. Ever since he had left the suburbs, the pressure behind his ribs had seemed to build up. Below, to his left, the ground fell away, small hollows screened by trees. He released his seatbelt, opened his door. Breath of air, he thought. He sat half out of the car, legs dangling. Are you sorry? he asked himself. It was evening now, and long purple shadows slid like fingers into the valleys. He saw, first, the litter left behind by a picnic; the fierce glow of dropped orange peel, luminous in the half-light. Then the white table-cloth, like a perfect circle cut out of the dimness, sailing before the wind. It twisted and knotted as it blew up the hillside; like a fleeing human form, or a ghost, skimmed across the road. Nell followed it; climbing, breathless, laughing, her face flushed, and a blanket clutched about her. Her bare legs were blue with cold. Stavros waited below in the hollow; naked, a minor deity, among the rocks. Nell saw Gregory. She stopped dead by the roadside. She seemed to peer at him, her head jutting forward on her neck. For a second her face showed fear. But then she smiled, and advanced on him; a warm, slow, forgive-me smile. She held the blanket up, over her breasts. ‘Get in, Nell,’ he said. Her feet, he thought, must be bleeding. He opened the passenger door.

She hesitated, then eased herself in beside him. For a moment neither of them spoke, but each appraised the other. Then, ‘What have you done with June?’ she asked.

He didn’t answer. ‘I’d better drive you back to the hotel. Don’t you think so?’

`But my clothes .

`I could always retrieve the table-cloth.’

It had come to rest in a hollow at the other side of the road; a swag of it billowed in the half-light, and then subsided.

`Look,’ she said, ‘Ted understands.’

`But I don’t. I don’t understand.’

As he spoke, panic gripped him; he choked. His mouth opened, gasping for air. Pain moved deeper into his chest, slow, silent, implo­sive. He put a hand to his rib cage, an almost casual movement; but he thought he was dying. How can dying go on, he thought, and on and on, so that half a lifetime is dragging by? He struggled. There was a scraping intake of air, an alien sound, too far away to issue from his chest. For a second it seemed to him that he had been jerked out of his own body, and that he looked down on a stranger; but what he saw was not a dying man, but a man laughing, and nightfall, and an empty road.

Nell’s face loomed over him. Her eyes were huge. ‘Are you ill?’ she demanded. ‘Gregory?’ Her cold fingertips brushed at his face and neck. He exhaled, a noisy shudder.

Almost at once, and perceptibly, moment by moment, the pain began to ebb. His breathing slowed, and became steadier. He repossessed himself; here you are half-dead, half dying, in your hire car, and yet still alive, and the evening, seven o’clock, night coming down; nothing predictable now. The attack, he realized, could only have lasted for a second. There was a sensation of emptiness in his chest; and in his mind, a chilly incredulity, that he was surviving any of this. He cast an eye into the rear-view mirror, to see his own face; he touched the synthetic tweed of the seat beside him, and the tacky vinyl trim, and put his hand against the glass. He heard the breathing of the woman beside him, and noted the mottled, loose flesh of her upper arm, marbled by the blood beneath; and he remembered the gods at Paphos with their amber hair, and their chipped garlands, and their curving mouths. He felt a moment’s lightness, as if he were new born. He glanced up, away from the sea and towards the hills. The ‘space the pain had occupied filled up, creepingly, with relish.

He thought, if we sit here long enough, Ted and June will come along. ‘I’m all right,’ he said. ‘I had a turn.’ His voice sounded hollow, malicious, remote. I can’t drive yet. Let’s just sit a while.’ He tried, hedgingly, a deep breath. ‘June’s with Ted at the racecourse,’ he said. `Funny what holidays do to people.’

She pulled away from him, diving for the door handle, but he stopped her with a hand around her wrist. ‘I’m not fit to be left,’ he said. ‘Let’s just stay here and sit still.’

Nell collapsed back into the passenger seat. Her face looked pinched, but the features were growing indistinct; in the nacreous twilight, sea and mountain merged, earth and air. Nell, silent, stared at the dashboard. He moved his hand heavily and dropped it on her thigh. From the ditch across the road, a corner of the tablecloth lifted in the wind and flapped at him slowly, like the wave of a seaside trip­per from the water to the land. He imagined June, left gaping in the parking-lot; and, death, left gaping on the road. Soon they will be here, he thought; and then, as June would say, the fat will be in the fire. Let others fry, and I’ll roll on. He put his arm around Nell’s bare shoulders, feeling her flinch at the contact, then sigh, then close her eyes. Stavros climbs shivering up the hillside; headlights creep through the gloom. Details vanish, colours fade, the eggshell of the old life is chipping away; out hatches the surprising future.


IMG_20160428_0001This story first appeared in The London Magazine Dec/Jan 1986/87.  TLM published several short stories and reviews by Hilary Mantel throughout the 1980s.


We Don’t Know What We’re Doing


Editor of The Stinging Fly, one of Ireland’s top literary magazines, Thomas Morris is no stranger to reading and writing short fiction. In the final countdown to the deadline for our short story competition we spoke to the writer and editor about his debut collection We Don’t Know What We’re Doing, heritage, habits and the art of disguise.

Many interviewers have made much of your identity as a Welsh writer living in Ireland – do you think this is problematic? How do you identify yourself? How should we identify ourselves? If we should at all…

There aren’t many Welsh people living in Ireland – and a lot of people here in Dublin wouldn’t be able to name a contemporary Welsh writer – so I guess I’m something of a novelty in that respect. In some ways, it does feel as if I’ve gotten slightly caught between two poles, but it’s not really problematic; it just makes for a lot of parentheses in the opening paragraph of reviews (‘Welsh born, but living in Dublin for 10 years…’)

At the moment, the book seems to be better known in Ireland than in Wales. But I think that’s inevitable: there are so few Welsh outlets for cultural criticism, Wales is a lot much smaller in terms of media infrastructure, and there doesn’t seem to be the same kind of conversation around books. As for further afield, I sometimes wonder in what ways things would be different were I Irish: there’s a worldwide appetite for all-things-Ireland that doesn’t quite exist for all-things-Wales. A current example: Gareth Thomas, the former Welsh international rugby player and first openly gay international player at that. Micky Rourke was signed up to play Thomas in a film based on his life – they developed the script together for a long time – but in the end the studio said they’d prefer a fictional account instead, one where Gareth Thomas was actually an Irishman named Mick ‘The Blade’ Collins. ‘It’ll do better in the States’, was apparently the reasoning. And if that was the case, it’s hard to fault the logic: a film about an Irishman will likely do better than a film about a Welshman. (Not to mention the fact that fiction can probably provide a more satisfying narrative arc etc etc.)

But anyway, how do I identify myself? I’m Welsh first; I live in Ireland second; and I grudgingly accept that I’m British. But I’m embarrassed by the British thing. I’m embarrassed by the government, the monarchy, the class system, the empire, the arrogance, the cultural and historical amnesia, the fact that so many cities are now essentially just indoor shopping centres. But I love the BBC, the idea of the NHS, and anything made by Armando Iannucci.

I’m not sure what I’m meant to do with all the embarrassment. It seems a bit rich to just identify with all the good parts, while neglecting the fact that I had the privilege of growing up in a UK that gained its wealth and status by being so fucking awful to millions of people – home and abroad. This all sounds ranty and naively liberal in a way that I would have taken the piss out of if I’d read it a few years back, but every time I see George Osborne’s smug little privileged face I am drawn to the idea of violence.

Do you go back to Wales often?

My idea of a year is still shaped by school years: I come back to Wales for the half-term holidays and always for a few weeks in the summer. I’ve just taken a month off The Stinging Fly to come back to Wales to decompress a bit. I turn 30 very soon, so I’m entering a period of Sober Reflection. God help us all.

But still, it’s important that I come back as much as I can. I still have family and friends here, who I miss a lot, and there are certain parts of myself that don’t get the same kind of outing in Dublin.

You’ve said before that you think you had very ‘romantic’ notions of Ireland – did Irish writers have a part in that?

No, the romantic notions were shaped entirely by a few Sunday episodes of Ballykissangel. When I moved to Dublin, I knew nothing about Irish writers or its literary heritage. I’d read a few stories from Dubliners, but I didn’t really understand them. Once I got to university, though, the legacy of Irish writing became apparent to me, but still I wasn’t sure if it was just a propaganda mission by the Irish universities – in the same way that Sky TV keeps saying the Premier League is the best football league in the world. But no, it turns out that Irish writers are pretty important after all. From a purely selfish point of view, living in Dublin really gave me the kick to write. Had I had been living in Wales in my twenties, I don’t think I’d have thought that writing was something I could conceivably do.

I’ve heard you love Dylan Thomas’s short stories despite the fact they’re rarely talked about – which ones?

His story collection Portrait of the Artist as A Young Dog is really wonderful. The stories seem to me quite autobiographical, and there’s something of Frank O’Connor in a lot of them: the gentle humour and the grave sadness side-by-side. I find Dylan Thomas’s poetry difficult – almost too obscure, perhaps too poetic at times – whereas his stories are more direct but imbued with the kind of beautiful observations that only a poet could conjure. The opening of a ‘Visit to Grandpa’s’, for example:

It was the first time I had stayed in grandpa’s house. The floorboards had squeaked like mice as I climbed into bed, and the mice between the walls had creaked like wood as though another visitor was walking on them. 

When I’m writing a story, I often turn to other books to solve the problems in my own work. When I began writing ‘all the boys’, a story about a Welsh stag weekend in Dublin, I struggled with the pacing and the handling of so many characters. Then I re-read Dylan Thomas’s ‘Extraordinary Little Cough’, a story about a group of boys hanging out on the beach, and everything clicked. I love the breathlessness of the prose in Dylan’s story, the ways the sentences are almost panting as they try to keep up with the action.

But yes, amid all the celebrations for Dylan’s 100th birthday last year, his stories did seem a little overlooked. But Wales has a habit of not shouting loud enough about its prose writers. Leslie Norris wrote beautiful short stories; Caradoc Evans was a serious hellraiser, but they’re writers who are rarely talked about except for anniversaries. I’m not sure how to go about it, but I’d love to set up a short story competition in Leslie Norris’s name, like the way there’s a Rhys Davies Award. Again, the Irish excel at this kind of thing – The Frank O’Connor Award, the William Trevor/Elizabeth Bowen Award, The Sean O’Faolain Award, and most recently The Colm Toibin Award etc.

You’ve said the key to a good short story is intensity – what kind of intensity do you strive for in your own work?

Emotional honesty; I don’t want to fudge things.

You switch wonderfully between writing as a man and writing as a woman, which perspective do you enjoy writing from more? Do you find the experience very different for each or do you even think about it?

It’s very nice for you to say that, but to be honest, I don’t really think differently when writing male or female characters.

I’ve always been confused by the expression ‘strong female characters’ – like, do you want these women to be weightlifters? Or do people mean ’emotionally strong’? Or just well-rendered and well rounded? I think the temptation for many men is to write women who are emotionally strong, or rather, in the end, women who are just ‘long-suffering of men’ – and this all as a strategy of pre-empting and avoiding criticism for writing ‘weak’ female characters. But that kind of mentality can lead to two-dimensional characters, passive women who just shake their head and say with an exasperated sigh and knowing wink, ‘Men, eh?’

When I’m drafting a story, a character can go from being a man to being a woman in a matter of minutes. I don’t really do physical description of people – I’m terrible at it – so I try and compensate with psychological detail or a lot of behaviour. This seems to have worked so far, and I’m not sure what conclusions to draw from that: are readers lying to me? Or are men and women really not all that different? Or is that I’ve yet to write about the key differences?

On a technical level, I wonder what difference it makes when you’re writing in first or third person, for example. I’ve read stories by women where they’re writing first person male, and stories by men where they’re writing first person female, and it seems as if the writer is insecure or worries the reader will be confused, and the writing gets sticky with stupid exposition and self-declarative statements: ‘I’m an honest man…’ ‘I wasn’t like other women’.

If you could get any aspiring writers to read a single short story what would you pick? Why?

‘Good Country People’ by Flannery O’Connor: it’s brilliant.

Do you have any writing ‘ticks’ – specific words or sentence structures – that you find yourself using again and again?

Absolutely, but I’m not ready to admit them in public.

Do you think habit is a friend or foe for a writer?

I think routine is important, I’m less sure about habit. Do you mean habits in the writing itself?

If someone is struggling to find a good writing routine or are concerned about the nature of their own process, I would really recommend reading Daily Routines. So many writers were lunatics in the way they settled down to work, but the routine was everything.

Writing the book, my own routines were fairly terrible. I wrote late into the night, gorging on sweet tea and Pringles and M&Ms to keep awake. But staying up into the early seemed to be the only way I could key into the kind of emotional intensity I was hoping to reach. You only need to walk the city at 2am to see that the id is often freer at night.

You’re very good and picking up on the minute details of relationships and human interactions – does a lot of this come from observation? Do you find you source a lot from life – do you see a person and create a character around them – or are they more firmly abstract?

There’s a lot of observation, yes. But perhaps the word ‘observation’ is misleading, a little too deliberate-sounding. In my early twenties I did go round with a notebook, writing things down on trains and buses – but I reckon the best bits are the things you don’t need to write down, the things that just survive. If I remember something – a snatch of speech, an image, an anecdote – months after hearing it, then it’s hopefully a strong enough to linger in a reader’s memory. But when I’m writing a story – and I’m fully invested in it – the right things seem to rise to the surface. The exception is stuff from childhood. My memory is getting worse each year, so I’m grateful for a phase I went through ten years ago when I wrote out pages and pages of childhood memories. Reading those pages now acts as a sharp prompt. I likewise won’t let my mother throw out any of my old toys or clothes: they’re some of the few remaining threads that allow me to vividly connect with my childhood. That probably sounds awfully sentimental.

As for sourcing material, I have a disclaimer at the start of the book: ‘These stories are works of fiction. Any resemblance to life is purely inevitable’. It’s half-joking, but I think it’s half serious, too. Where the hell are you meant to find things that are true if not from life itself? When I was at university I published stories in the college magazine under the pseudonym Harry Block. I stole the name from the lead character in Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry. His character is a bit of a callous bastard, stealing everything from everyone’s lives for his fiction and then not even remembering which bits he made up and which bits are real. (‘Me and Janet’ he says longingly about an ex at one point, only to be corrected: ‘Jane. Janet is the character in the book.’) I don’t identify with the callous thievery, but there’s certainly an autobiographical impulse in my stories. (He says loftily, having only published only one book.) As George Saunders often says: fiction is lying when everything knows you’re lying. It sometimes takes a bit of truth to convince people of the broader deceit.

Drafting is a crucial part of the writing process for any writer – what does the role of re-writing mean for you?

It’s about solidifying intention. It can take me three or four drafts to work out what the story is about. But once I find out what it is about (and it’s often different to what I set out with) then it’s a matter of sharpening everything in service of that intention. I love rewriting: it’s the only time I feel like I’m doing anything good. I think of each draft as an experiment. I’ll literally re-save the document to something like ‘Goat story – taken on as experiment 3’. Having the previous draft there, on the computer, gives me license to fuck about on the next one. I know I can always go back.

In a past interview you mentioned how you wanted each tale to have a rare emotional core of sorts – so each story has a drop of reality, or came from a place of real emotion in your life. Do you find blurring the lines an easy process or one that takes work? (Are there times you’re self conscious of ‘true’ content and have to work hard to disguise it or do you like to tease those details out?)

That’s a good question. In the opening story, ‘Bolt’, the narrator escapes to the bathroom to take some time out, then he goes to take a piss and remembers he doesn’t actually need a piss: he’s just there to have some peace. A friend of mine said he liked that moment, though he felt it was clearly taken directly from real life. It made me pause for a bit. I wondered if a detail could be ‘too real’. And it is something I think about a lot: is this or that detail too idiosyncratic? I have a few friends to whom I show early drafts, and a big part of the drafting process is wheedling out the bits that take the reader out of the reading experience. So I use statistical analysis: if one friend things something isn’t quite working, it’s worth considering but it might stay in; if three people point their finger to the same thing, I know it needs tinkering or removing. Most often, though, people point out the things you always suspected yourself. Once you think that something is get-away-with-able, it never actually is.

But the ‘disguising’ you mention is a big part of the fun. I like to take a detail from life, then try to shape a story around it. This is especially true when it comes to stories driven by the details of strong emotional impulses. The story ‘Fugue’ came from the horror of being away from home for a long time and then returning and feeling distinctly alien.

Have you had much input into the production of the book as a finished product? What did you make of the cover art? Was it what you were expecting or envisioning for the book – did you even have an expectations or visions for it at all?

I love the cover. Luke Bird at Faber did such a wonderful job: it was his idea from premise to execution. I did chip in with the occasional suggestion (I really wanted the horse on there, just for the fun of it) but the cover is very much a response to Luke and Faber’s feeling that the book is all about people. It sounds funny to say now, but I hadn’t really thought about the collection this way. Writing the stories, I was driven by emotional truth and formal concerns and certain images I wanted to follow.

As for my expectations – I just wanted something with a bit of life in it, something which told the reader, ‘Don’t worry, this isn’t another bloody collection of quiet, respectable literary fiction’. But at the same time, I really didn’t want a cover that looked as if was designed to be sold solely in Urban Outfitters or HMV. In my humble opinion, Faber got the balance perfectly right.

Where next? You’ve spoken about a novella you once wrote before – do you think that might resurface any time soon? Are you interested in exploring longer forms?

I haven’t written in a while, partly intentional, partly not, but I’m excited and daunted to get back to it. I’m going to write a novel. Or rather: I’m going to write something that we can hopefully call a novel. But there’s so much in novels that I can’t stand: so much fat and so much stuff that has to be there because it’s a novel. I can’t be doing with that, so I’m going to try and find a way around the problem. I loved Jenny Offil’s approach in The Dept. Of Speculation, and reading that book really made me reconsider what you need and what you really don’t need in a work of fiction.

I also have an idea for another anthology I’d like to edit, but it could take a few years to get going.

But yes, the novella in question is dead and gone. I stole the best bits for the collection.

Do any of us know what we’re doing?

I’ve got no idea.

We Don’t Know What We’re Doing by Thomas Morris published by Faber & Faber is out now. 

By Thea Hawlin

Short Story Competition: A word from the Judges

Yasutaka Tsutsui / Luigi Pirandello

With just a few weeks left till the end of our annual Short Story Competition we spoke to the Judges to find out exactly what the short story means to them.  Today we spoke to Alessandro Gallenzi, writer, publisher and founder of Alma Books about writers, short stories and what to read to be inspired. 

What do you look for in a short story? 

Economy of language, humour, a well-devised structure and, above all, a satisfying ending that makes you laugh, cry or think long after turning the last page.

Which short story writers do you admire? 

My favourite short-story writers from the Western canon are Boccaccio, Chekhov, Fitzgerald, Gogol, Conan Doyle, Poe, Pushkin, Saki, Pirandello and Carver. Among the contemporaries, Ian McEwan and Yasutaka Tsutsui.

What possibilities does the form of short fiction present to a writer that the novel doesn’t offer? 

A short story enables the writer to develop a particular idea or describe a situation or set of circumstances without having to create too much context or dilute the narration with excessive description. A short story is compact and pithy – it is, to the novel, what a sonnet is to a long poem: the shorter form helps to condense the thought and delivers a punch more effectively than the diffused narrative of a novel.

How would you describe yourself as a reader? 

Curious and omnivorous, with a penchant for the sapid.

If you had to recommend one short story for contributors to read what would it be? 

Five, please: ‘The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Fell Out with Ivan Nikiforovich’ by Gogol, ‘The Queen of Spades’ by Pushkin, ‘Berenice’ (or ‘The Tell-tale Heart’) by Poe, ‘Chichibio and the Crane’ (Decameron, VI, 4) by Boccaccio and ‘The Wheelbarrow’ by Pirandello. Hang on, there’s also…


Alessandro Gallenzi is the founder of Hesperus Press, Alma Books and Alma Classics, and the successor of John Calder at the helm of Calder Publications. As well as being a literary publisher with almost ten years of experience, he is a translator, a poet, a playwright and a novelist. His collection of poetry Modern Bestiary – Ars Poetastrica was published in 2005 to critical acclaim.




Click here to submit your entry

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on info@thelondonmagazine.org. Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.