Open Short Story Competition 2016 with Patsy Collins
Please scroll down the page to read the winning stories
Thank you to all entrants for submitting stories to our competition. As always, it was difficult to choose only 20 for the shortlist as we received such a mix of stories.
Debbie will email entrants in the next few weeks to inform everyone of our 2017 competition schedule. This will also be announced on this website soon.
We are pleased to announce the winning entries for this competition and scroll down to read them in full.
Tony Oswick - Mackintosh Man's Near Miss - FIRST - £100 prize
Patsy's comments This is a fun, lighthearted and believable story which I greatly enjoyed. Although not as irritated by Mackintosh Man as he was, I could empathise with the narrator throughout and found his behaviour understandable. This was helped by the use of first person and the understated tone
Joyce Evers - Message of Goodwill - SECOND - £60 prize
Patsy's comments At the start of this story it almost seems there’s not much going on, but there’s an unsettling undercurrent which grows stronger. Generally I’m not a fan of open ended stories, but done well they can work. Here the author has cleverly made it both joyful and very, very creepy.
Hayley Jones - Misreading The Signs - THIRD - £25 prize
Patsy's comments A sad story which touches on how people perceive disabilities and mental health and how this can impact on relationships. It is sad. Having it end happily ever after could have felt too glib. I feel the author was right to avoid that and instead end on a touching note.
Jenny Roman - Resolution - FOURTH - £15 prize
Patsy's comments This story is apparently about painting, but acts as a metaphor for many other aspects of life. How we see something depends as much about us and our distance from it as about the subject under scrutiny.
Jenny Roman - Never Far From The Tree - HIGHLY COMMENDED - free entry prize
Diane Simmons - Like a Mother - HIGHLY COMMENDED - free entry prize
MACKINTOSH MAN’S NEAR MISS - by Tony Oswick - First prize winner £100
Some people, like Mackintosh Man, know lots about most things. Others,
like me, know little about much less.
I later discovered Mackintosh Man’s real name was Gerald. I met
him last summer when I was on holiday in Great Yarmouth. My wife had
gone for a stroll along the Pier but I just wanted to relax.
It was a warm, hazy day so I sat on a sea-front bench and
meditated on the wonders of wind-farms. I was starting to doze off when
Mackintosh Man wandered up and placed himself beside me. It was the
middle of summer but he wore a blue gabardine mac, the belt tied tightly
around his middle. A black beanie hat sat on a small head and a pair of
horn-rimmed spectacles perched on a pointed nose. In his hand was the
biggest ice-cream cornet I’d ever seen.
I don’t usually indulge in idle conversation, especially with men in
gabardine mackintoshes wearing beanie hats eating enormous ice-cream
cornets, so I ignored him.
“Toffee ice-cream, my favourite.” Mackintosh Man stuck out his
tongue like a lizard and scooped a blob of ice cream. He licked his lips and
said, “Did you know the average man eats eight spiders in his life-time?”
I turned to him. “I’m sorry? Did you say something?”
“It’s a little-known fact but the first recorded military use of a hot-air
balloon was in 1794 when the French used it as an observation post.”
Had Mr Rossi put something in his ice-cream? I was beginning to
wish I’d taken the Pier option. Before I could reply, Mackintosh Man was
“Before sugar became readily available, parsnips were used to
sweeten cakes and jams. Isn’t that interesting?”
I didn’t think it was. “I don’t mean to be rude but parsnips, past or
present, are of no concern to me.”
“But were you aware that nitrogen makes up seventy-eight per cent of
the volume of the Earth’s air and your body is three per cent nitrogen in weight?”
“Look, squire, in case you didn’t realise, I’m on holiday.” My voice
was getting louder now. “I was hoping for some peace and quiet. So
please, would you mind buttoning it?” and I put my fingers to my lips.
Mackintosh Man either did mind or was deaf. “Not many people
know that there are two-hundred-and-eighty-two Munros in Scotland and
at 4,409 feet Ben Nevis is the highest.”
This was too much. I had no idea what the Munros of Scotland were
and I had no desire to learn. The only Munro I’d ever heard of was Marilyn
Monroe, who had a couple of nice hillocks herself, but they weren’t on my
mind at that moment. I wanted to be away from this aggravating little man -
but I was determined to have the last word.
I stood up, towering over him. “And I suppose you also know that
‘Some Like It Hot’ was Marilyn Monroe’s last film before she died?” It was
the only thing I could think of quickly, the only thing I knew about Marilyn Monroe.
Mackintosh Man ignored the sarcasm and anger, and began to
smile. "How fascinating, I didn’t know that. Facts are so much more
interesting than people, don’t you agree?”
“No I do not and I’m not amused!”
“Now that is interesting. They say Queen Victoria’s comment ‘We
are not amused’ was inspired by the Honourable Alexander Grantham Yorke.
There are a number of variations on the story. One is ….”
I didn’t wait to listen. I fumed off, leaving Mackintosh Man spouting
to thin air. My peace and tranquillity shattered, I hurried to the sanctuary of
the Pier where I took my revenge on Mackintosh Man at the nearest coconut shy.
And that was the last I saw of Mackintosh Man until one evening last
January. I happened to turn on the television - and there he was. There
was no gabardine mac or beanie hat but there was the small head, the
horn-rimmed spectacles and pointed nose. He was sitting in the chair
opposite Chris Tarrant waiting to play ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?’
I called to the wife. “Della, darling. It’s Mackintosh Man.” I pointed at
the screen. “The bloke I told you about. When we went to Yarmouth in the
summer. The one who annoyed me with all those weird and wonderful facts.”
Together we watched as Mackintosh Man rattled through Chris’s
questions. Without the need of any lifelines, he knew that Benjamin Disraeli
was the Prime Minister who wrote ‘Coningsby’, that gazpacho is a Spanish
tomato soup served cold and that the earth’s core is composed of eighty per
cent iron. All the way to the £1,000,000 question.
Chris was almost wetting himself with excitement but Mackintosh Man
was calmness personified. “Quiet please, audience. Now Gerald, here is the
£1,000,000 question. What was Marilyn Monroe’s last film before she died?
Was it A - ‘The Misfits’? B - ‘The Seven-Year Itch’? C - ‘Bus Stop’? Or D -
‘Some Like It Hot’?”
Mackintosh Man peered at his console and scratched his forehead
but I was standing up, shouting. Hadn’t I told Mackintosh Man about
Marilyn Monroe’s last film when we were on Yarmouth sea-front six
months before? I was angry then but now, with the prospect of him winning
£1,000,000, I wanted him to succeed - especially as I’d told him the answer.
What a coincidence. What a stroke of luck for Mackintosh Man.
“For heaven’s sake,” I bellowed at the screen. “It’s D - ‘Some Like It Hot’.”
I watched as a light-bulb appeared above Mackintosh Man’s head.
He’d remembered. “It’s D, Chris. ‘Some Like It Hot.’ Final answer.”
“Can you believe it?” I cried to my wife. “Mackintosh Man has won a million!”
I waited for the confetti to fall. Chris was wearing his inscrutable face.
“You had £500,000.” He paused, just a little longer than usual. “Gerald, you’ve
just lost £450,000!” There was a collective gasp from the audience. “The right
answer is A - ‘The Misfits’.”
Bloody hell. Poor Mackintosh Man. He’d remembered that I’d told him
‘Some Like It Hot’ was Marilyn Monroe’s last film. Except I’d got it wrong and
now he’d lost all that money.
As I say, some people know lots of things about most things but others,
like me, know very little about much less. Mackintosh Man might’ve been an irritating
nerd but I’d lost him £1,000,000, poor bugger. I slumped in my seat. Mackintosh Man
had annoyed me like no-one else but, at that moment, I felt sad for him. And it was all my fault.
Della came over and gave me a hug. “Not to worry, love. There’s no
real need to be miserable. After all, he’s still got £50,000.”
I thought about it for a moment. Yes, she was right.
You can buy lots of toffee ice-cream with £50,000.
Message of Goodwill - Joyce Evers - Second Prize winner £60
We stand, taking it all in, not able to believe the perfection of the cottage. My beautiful child, sprite- like in her Elsa dress is stroking the stone walls as if coming home. I shiver. Cassie never fails to amaze me at her otherworldliness. She stands tiptoed on princess silver sandals to peer through the window. The cottage is ours, well for six months at least, and if Cassie likes it. Life is always what my almost four year old wants. I cross fingers behind my back.
‘What do you think sweetie?’
She turns then with a smile and lift of her shoulders. She sweeps her long fair hair behind her ears.
‘Love it Mummy! It’s like a fairy tale house. I’ll make up wonderful stories here!’
I exchange looks with Logan who is juggling with the picnic basket. He gives his usual wry smile. ‘I want my room to overlook the woods,’ she declares impatiently as Logan fumbles with the lock, letting her in. We hear the clatter of her feet on the staircase.
‘Like it Sarah?
I slide my arms around his middle.
‘It’s absolutely perfect.’
We eat our picnic in the garden at the back marvelling at this wonderful place. We lie after stuffing ourselves with the delicious food as Cassie runs around the garden pointing out features that she is already weaving her imagination around.
‘Shall we move here for a little while Cassie?’ I ask as we pack up.
Her wide silver eyes hold mine and it is hard to remember that this child is not yet four. Her gaze moves to Logan.
‘Will he be here too?
I flush at her rudeness but Logan tries his Irish charm.
‘If that’s alright with you. Mummy wants me to stay, don’t you darlin’?’
Cassie gives him a stare that would have floored lesser men but she doesn’t answer.
It has always been just the two of us, Sarah and Cassie. I’ve never cared for men, or women for that matter and it seemed the natural way to have IVF and a sperm donor. I want my child to myself with no interference from anyone – selfish perhaps but that’s the way it is. My mother, the conservative that she is was horrified and I wish I’d never told her the truth about Cassie’s conception. She has never taken to her granddaughter which saddens me because she can’t get over that.
‘She’s been here before.’ My mother states darkly, a reference I suppose to Cassie’s unexplainable feyness. How this has any relevance to the way she was conceived I do not know. I cannot understand it but I accept the fact that my child is different; I celebrate it and her intelligence both of which must come from her father.
‘How do you know what you’re getting?’ my mother would ask unmoved by my patient explanation of the process. She would shake her head as I itemise all the tests safeguards and checks that are part of the Fertility Clinic’s reassurance. Eventually I give up and know I will never change her mind. It’s Cassie and Sarah against the world.
But meeting Logan at the London Book Fair changed everything. Our love at first sight was totally unexpected. He’s a writer of children’s fantasy and I an illustrator - a match made in heaven. I almost blush to think the romantic words but I feel every one. We decide to leave East London and come here off the beaten track for six months to create the book that in Logan’s words will ‘kick Harry Potter’s ass!’
It is inevitable that Cassie is suspicious of another adult. She treats Logan with icy distain or ignores him hoping presumably that such treatment will make him disappear.
‘She’ll be fine when we’ve got chance to know each other better,’ states the ever optimistic Logan. Perhaps six months in Nutkin Cottage will do the trick. I cross my fingers. I do that a lot.
The move is trouble free and we settle well into our new lives so that it is hard to imagine London. Cassie loves the cottage garden and the woods. I try to encourage other children to play with her; she even attends a lovely nursery for a few days but she says she is bored and finds the other children such babies. I watch her as she bosses them around and if they won’t comply she doesn’t want to know. So she plays her solitary and imaginative games to her heart’s content.
One balmy evening as we are finishing supper Cassie looks steadily at Logan who smiles cautiously back.
‘You’re not my daddy.’ This was a statement. Logan raises his eyebrows. He knows all about the sperm donor thing but as yet I haven’t managed to explain it to Cassie. I vow when she is five before she goes to school I’ll tell her. What exactly I’ll say I haven’t quite worked out. How do you explain a sperm donor to a five year old? Luckily I have a year to think of something just as long as Cassie doesn’t start asking questions now. Logan is silently disapproving. He feels it should be dealt with sooner than later. Easy to say.
‘Daddy says it’s better here than in London because it’s easier to find me. It won’t be long now he says.’ She looks at Logan as she slips from her chair and escapes into the garden. He’s shaken by this unexpected announcement. My stomach churns. What can she mean?
‘Have you said anything about her father?’ asks Logan.
I shake my head.
‘She’s talking as if she’s been in contact with him.’
I laugh at the stupidity of the remark.
‘Has she asked about him?’ I shake my head again because I don’t want her to talk about him, not until I’ve got my story straight.
‘Tell her Sarah, get it sorted. Look on- line. There must be sites that will help you with the right words, give you an idea what to say.’
Oh yes. I’d done that, looked at all the ways to get the message across. I can’t put it off. I sigh and decide to do it now.
In the garden Cassie is swinging and humming, the picture of contentment. Before I can even think how to begin she scrapes her shoes to stop the swing and looks steadily at me.
‘I know what you are going to say Mummy but you don’t need to explain anything about Daddy to me. He’s already done it.’
I feel an unexpected lurch of unease. How can that be? She senses my distress and throws her arms around me.
‘Don’t be scared Mummy,’ she whispers, ‘it’s simple really. Daddy can send me messages in his mind. He knows all about us and now I can send messages back from here he’ll be able to find us.’
I panic. ‘Cassie, listen to me. Your…daddy… just wanted to help me have a baby. He doesn’t know me and he can’t know you. He’s a very special man but he will be a daddy to lots of children,’ I am struggling now,’ so he won’t be able to see all of you because there’s too many.’
She steps back and frowns.
‘But he wants to see me because I’m like him. I have his gift.’ Her eyes fill.
‘Read the Message of Goodwill if you don’t believe me!’ She runs indoors and upstairs. I hear a door slam. A cautious Logan comes out bearing large glasses of red wine. I slump at the patio table bewildered at the exchange I’d just had with Cassie.
After several gulps I tell Logan who looks just a tad sceptical.
‘You know what an imagination that child has Sarah. She obviously wants a daddy and has just made this up, like,’ he ponders, ‘an imaginary friend.’ That child has the imagination of fifty kids.’
I feel relief. Of course, that makes sense; probably one of her stories.
‘What did she mean a Message of Goodwill?’
I force myself to remember.
‘The donor gives all the information, physical appearance, skills, intelligence, you know the sort of stuff and then if they want they can write a Message of Goodwill to any child they may …create.’
Logan sips carefully.
‘Did Cassie’s donor do that?’
I think hard.
‘Yes, but I didn’t read it. It’s supposed to be private for Cassie and when I tell her about … then I’d let her have it. It’s in the safe sealed up.’
Logan drains his glass and I follow suit.
‘I think we ought to take a look at it. Agree?’
I nod. This is getting out of hand. How did Cassie even know about the Message of Goodwill?
We creep indoors and upstairs to our bedroom to the safe. I can hear Cassie’s door open and I wonder if she knows what we are doing. I open the safe and find the envelope ripping it open as quickly as I can. When I see what is written I throw it down and Logan snatches up the sheet. Cassie stands at the door, watching.
‘He knows my name and where I am. He loves me. He will find me.’
I find myself crying. Logan is pale as he reads the message.
My dearest Cassie,
We share a special gift that bonds us together. Wherever you are I will be sending my love and I will find you.
Find her? My stomach clenches with fear. I should have read this before.
‘How does he know your name?’ She had always been Cassie. It was the only name I’d wanted. How did he know?
She shrugs. ‘He knows everything about me, I told you. Of course he knows my name. And I know everything about him. I look like him and I am clever like him.’ Her glance at Logan is pitying.
There has to be an explanation for all this. I force the message back into the envelope and thrust it in the safe. Book or no book we will return to London and get some help. Cassie is obviously disturbed and we have to sort it.
There is a noise outside. The doorbell peals impatiently. We all stand frozen until Cassie runs from the room and clatters down the stairs. We follow, pushing her to one side as we open the door. A tall fair stranger stands there with eyes sharp and silver.
With a crow of triumph Cassie squeals,
Misreading the Signs by Hayley Jones - Third prize winner £25
The waves rumbled over the pebbles on the beach and I stood close to the surf to feel their vibrations. The wind whipped my hair across my eyes and chilled my hands, but I made Dan stay out longer, until my nose was numb and my hair damp from the spray. I dragged him to the beachside café, licking the salt from my lips as we stepped into the warm, greasy air. He sat down and I bought myself a cappuccino – he said he would get his own in a minute, when he figured out what he wanted. I signed, please yourself.
I sipped my coffee as Dan jittered across the table, tapping his fingers on his thighs. I offered to get him something, but he shook his head. I tried to engage him in conversation, but he kept looking out of the window at the murky sea.
He went to the counter after we had been in the café for several minutes. He returned to the table frowning, his cappuccino shaking on its saucer. It sloshed a little as he set it on the table and when I tried to wipe up the spill with a paper napkin, Dan waved me away.
– Only trying to help, I signed.
– How much did your coffee cost?
– Three fifty, why?
– Mine was two quid.
– Bargain, I grinned.
Dan shook his head. Signed, I feel like I’m ripping them off. He went to the counter and came back with his face flushed.
– What’s the matter?
– Nothing. He swiped his hand over his face. There was a sheen of sweat on his forehead.
– Tell me.
– Do you want me to go up there and ask?
He held out his hand to stop me from getting up, Signed, no. Please don’t.
– So tell me.
He took a deep breath, his chest rising to fill out his sweatshirt.
– The guy said it was a carer’s discount.
– But you’re not a carer.
– I told him. He said not to worry about paying the extra.
I saw the opportunity to have some fun. When people see me signing, they assume I can’t talk to them, but I can lip read and my speech is comprehensible. I ignored Dan’s desperate gesturing and went to the counter.
The guy behind the counter was stocky and had a scattering of acne around his mouth. He looked younger, but I guessed he was probably in his mid-twenties. He wiped his hands on his stained striped apron as I approached, his eyes darting from side to side.
I cleared my throat and concentrated on projecting my voice, shaping the vowels and sharpening the consonants like Mrs Bradley taught me. ‘I thought you should know that my boyfriend is not my carer. In fact, I’m more of a carer to him.’
‘Sorry,’ said the guy.
‘It’s cool. I’m just taking this opportunity to point out the fallacy of making assumptions based on external appearances.’ I stopped to catch my breath, unused to saying so much in one go. ‘So you know, I don’t consider myself disabled. I’m a very successful graphic designer and probably earn four times what you earn, assuming you work full time.’
The guy picked at the acne on his chin. ‘I didn’t mean to…’
‘I know.’ I smiled. ‘Consider this a lesson. I’m curious though.’
‘If I were unable to work and if I did need a carer to help me live my life, why would they need a discount instead of me?’
‘It’s just our policy. I didn’t make it.’
‘It doesn’t make sense though, does it?’
‘I guess not.’ He looked down at the floor and I decided I had tortured him enough. I bought two slices of carrot cake and returned to Dan.
– That was fucking embarrassing.
– I was just having fun.
– It’s not the guy’s fault.
– I know.
– So why did you do it?
I ate my cake as Dan picked at his slice. Truth is, I get these impulses when people make assumptions about me. I suppose it’s anger, though my response is to challenge and poke fun rather than shout or hit out. Dan’s reaction made me feel guilty, as if I made a huge scene – though the café was empty apart from us.
I reached across the table and stroked Dan’s hand. Caught his gaze and tried to convey what I can’t express through language.
He raised his hand so that it touched mine, palm to palm, his fingers each an inch longer than mine. We pressed our hands together for a moment and he smiled.
I drove us home when we finished our cappuccinos, back to my little cottage. I sketched Dan as he watched TV, trying to capture his troubled eyes and the folds of his sweatshirt. Going to the beach reinvigorates me, giving me the energy to work on my art and think about the things I want to do. When you have spent most of your life being told what you can’t do, it pushes you to set goals.
Dan signed my name, Harmony, sweeping his right hand lengthways over his left palm.
– Do you think this is working?
– My drawing?
– Yes. Why wouldn’t we be?
Dan shrugged, pulling his sleeves down over his hands. I wondered if he realised how passive aggressive that appears to a deaf person.
– You’re just having a difficult day. You know it makes you question everything.
He didn’t react; he stared at the TV screen, his expression blank.
I thought perhaps I should take him to the doctor, see if his medication needed increasing. Dan would object, say I was being bossy again, but that’s better than watching his personality erode away as the anxiety and depression grip his mind.
The café situation annoyed me. I don’t need a carer – I have never needed a carer. I hate people making assumptions. It makes me feel like I have to prove myself over and over.
I finished my sketch: the proportions were wrong. I couldn’t be bothered to try and fix it, so I screwed up the paper and threw it in the kitchen bin. I made us a cup of tea and left Dan’s on the coffee table while I went out to sit in the garden.
Aggy, my black cat, nuzzled up to me. I tickled her chin and felt the purr in her throat. The garden was dull and dead, but green shoots were beginning to emerge. Most people would overlook the leaves budding on the trees, seeing only the muddy lawn and bedraggled shrubbery. It’s the same with Dan. I see glimpses of what he could be and I want to help him become that person.
Of course, we have rehashed this argument many times. He doesn’t believe his life can change; I get frustrated. I know I can’t rescue him, but what’s wrong with offering support?
Aggy leaps into the middle of the lawn, chasing an insect. She traps it under her paw, lets it go and stalks it again.
Dan wasn’t watching television when I went back inside. I checked the bathroom first, but it was empty. I went to the bedroom and found him standing over a pile of holdalls and rucksacks on the bed. He didn’t seem to notice I was there. Aggy had followed me upstairs. She slithered past Dan and jumped onto the window sill. She settled behind the curtain and put her nose to the pane.
I watched Dan pull his jeans out of my drawers, his shirts out of my wardrobe. I frantically signed, but he wasn’t looking at me. I tried to speak out loud, but shock stopped me from shaping the words and I felt a guttural moan squeeze through my throat. I grabbed his arm to get his attention and he snatched it back roughly, causing me to stumble.
He stood still for a moment, sagging against the chest of drawers. I sat on the edge of the bed, in his eye-line, struggling to catch my breath.
– Why are you leaving?
– Because the guy in the café was right.
Why was he still thinking about the café incident? He wasn’t the one who was insulted.
– What are you talking about?
– We’re not in a relationship. You’re my carer.
He started packing again. Belts, ties, shoes. Things I never saw him wear in the three years we had been together. It was like watching a stranger’s luggage being packed.
– That’s ridiculous.
– You pay all the bills. I live here rent-free.
– I can’t carry on like this.
Dan stopped shoving clothes into bags and stood with his hands on his hips. The posture was disconcerting, matronly. I held his hands and took a deep breath as I prepared to speak out loud. ‘Please don’t go.’ He dropped my hands and signed that he had to go.
– We should get married. We could be happy.
– No, Harmony.
I blinked, reading ‘no harmony.’ The fight drained out of me. It’s a painful but apposite epitaph for our relationship. Later that night, I put something in the bin and realised my discarded sketch of Dan was gone.
Resolution - Jenny Roman - Fourth prize winner - £15
There was paint in her hair. A glob of Cadmium Yellow from where she’d paused to hook a strand behind her ear. The canvas took up almost the whole of one wall of her studio, but she was working in only one corner, close up against the thick texture of the paint, brushstrokes full of a wild energy. When critics talked about her work, they used words like abandonment and vitality, said she broke all the rules.
She didn’t agree about the last part. Her adherence to rules was precise, but they just couldn’t see it. Appreciation of art was not simply about staring at a painting. It was about context, perspective and viewpoint.
He’d memorised the route, though the online map had neglected to mention the grimness of the area. From the railway station, he used the pedestrian crossing, then turned right, walking alongside stop-start traffic, fumes rising like dry-ice. By a skanky pub, windows covered over with graffiti-sprayed boards, he turned left, stepping carefully along the edge of a narrow pavement, past the bins, and the dog turds, and the broken bottles. The road ducked down by a disused church, and he passed hard-edged flats with forbidding railings, knocked about Edwardian terraces with ugly new porches, and cars parked on tarmacked front gardens.
The pavement broadened, and the road began to rise again. The houses were larger, the cars parked on proper drives. The rumble of traffic grew louder, and he reached a junction with another main road. He waited for a gap then darted across. Behind him, he heard the hoot of a horn.
Working up close like this, the colours of the canvas glowed in her peripheral vision, oranges and pinks, so warm she could almost feel the heat on her face. She was immersed in colour; like white noise, blocking out everything else. Under her fingertips, the brush moved almost of its own accord, dancing over the canvas. She felt the glow inside of her. I love this. It was like flying.
A noise penetrated the hum of her creation. She paused, the brush stilled in her hand, and cocked her head. How long had the doorbell been ringing?
There was paint her hair. And on the first two fingers of her right hand. Yellow paint, so that she looked as if she was a heavy smoker. She clutched the front door, and did not step back in invitation, so that he felt disadvantaged on the bottom step, gazing up.
‘This is my New Year’s resolution!’
He’d got it all prepared, his little speech. Had imagined all kinds of reactions, but her stillness unnerved him, so he got no further.
‘It’s April,’ she said, flatly.
He shrugged. ‘Timing was never my strong point.’
She stared. The silence lengthened between them. The seconds stretched out agonisingly. He dropped his gaze. Swallowed. Heard the blood singing in his ears.
‘Sorry. Stupid of me,’ he said. He felt defeated. Had worked himself up to this over weeks and weeks. Had not slept the previous night, but tossed and turned, sweaty in his bed. Now he was washed out. Exhausted.
‘No,’ she said. ‘Surprising. Not stupid.’
The front room was a tip. She bundled up some unopened mail, newspapers, an old jumper, so he could sit down on the sagging sofa, but there was no embarrassment in her briskness. You turned up unannounced, she seemed to say, take me as you find me.
She went through a narrow door to a kitchen at the back, and he heard sounds of the kettle going on, the chink of a spoon against a mug. He sat with his knees poking up to the ceiling, paralysed by self-doubt, and waited for her.
While the kettle boiled, she stood by the back door, staring out blankly at the yard. It had rained overnight so that the wooden fence was dark with moisture, the paving slabs dull grey. There was no colour.
In the glass, her reflection stared back at her. She shivered. She didn’t know why he’d come. Not now, after all this time. What was there to say?
‘Sorry, it’s black. There’s no milk.’ She held out a mug towards him, and was careful that their fingers didn’t touch as he took it.
‘It’s fine,’ he said, though it wasn’t really. He sipped the coffee, bitter and too hot.
Another silence. Other people he knew would have made conversation, broken the ice. But she simply waited for him. He was the one who’d decided to come, after all.
‘How’ve you been?’ he asked at length.
‘Fine.’ She shrugged. ‘Good.’
‘You’ve got an exhibition I hear?’
She nodded. ‘In two weeks. It’s in a converted warehouse. So people can stand back to view the paintings. They don’t really work in a gallery.’
He nodded, pretending he knew what she meant.
‘Oh…you know.’ He couldn’t begin. His life was an empty crater. He got up, went to work, shopped for food, maintained the flat, did his laundry, filled up the car with petrol, watched telly, slept.
He stared at the pattern in the carpet, frowning. It couldn’t have been her choice. It was hideous. When they’d lived together, he’d always felt he’d been a block to her self-expression. He’d expected her own place to be tastefully, if eccentrically, decorated, filled with beautiful objects. A physical reflection of her artistic mind. But the house was ordinarily shabby, disappointing.
She didn’t sit down, but parked herself against the windowsill, arms folded across her chest. She wasn’t trying to shut him out, but hold herself in.
He’d aged. Of course. His face was more drawn, his hair a little thinner. There seemed to be altogether less of him.
‘So, why was this your New Year’s Resolution?’ she asked.
He gazed up at her. ‘Because I’ve never stopped thinking about you.’
‘I don’t expect you to say the same,’ he said quickly. ‘I know I’m easily forgotten.’
‘I’m not having a go. Honestly. I didn’t come here to make you feel bad. I just made a promise to myself, that I’d come and see you. That’s all.’ He forced a grin. ‘I’d kind of hoped you’d got really fat and old, but no such luck.’
She made a face.
‘Could I see something you’re working on?’ he asked. ‘In case I don’t make the exhibition?’
She gazed upwards for a moment, as though trying to see through the floorboards to the studio above. She hated taking people up there. Showing people work which wasn’t quite finished. A chef wouldn’t invite someone to taste a dish before it was cooked. But she found herself saying, ‘Yeah, course.’
She pushed herself away from the windowsill and led him up the creaking staircase to the studio which stretched across the back of the house. She tried to see the canvas in the way he would see it – for the first time, with no idea of what it meant. A cacophony of colour.
His eyes darted over the painting, and she saw him frown.
‘It doesn’t work in here,’ she said quickly, ‘you’d need to stand much further back to get the effect.’
‘It’ll look beautiful. Difficult to believe, I know, but it will.’
‘What’s it supposed to be exactly?’ He gave a self-deprecating laugh to indicate that his lack of interpretation was a failing on his part, not the fault of the painting.
She ran her hands through her hair. ‘OK. You know when they send back pictures from space, and the earth is this beautiful blue green swirling globe? It looks perfect?’
‘Or when you’re flying, and you look down on a city and it looks amazing. But you know that in reality, down on the ground, there’s all kinds of ugliness – run-down buildings, landfill sites, people doing awful things to one another. When you look at something from a distance, you don’t see the gory details. That’s what this painting is about – you look at it here, up close, and there’s chaos, and clashes of colour, and ugliness. But when you stand back in the exhibition hall, it’ll look beautiful.’
‘But you painted it in here?’
'So how do you know?’
She shrugged. ‘I just know.’
They went back downstairs to the scruffy lounge. The weight of his visit hung over them once more. He tried to focus, to remember the point of it all, a nebulous idea of what Americans called ‘closure’.
From his pocket, he withdrew something wrapped in tissue paper. He held it out to her and she took it uncertainly.
‘I want you to have it back,’ he said.
She unwrapped the package. In a tiny frame sat an exquisitely painted miniature; a tree, the fine detail breath-taking, and in the trunk of the tree, their initials, as if carved. Forever.
‘Do you remember painting that?’ he asked.
‘You said the tree was us. You can’t see the deep roots in the picture, but you know they’re there, holding up the tree – you said that was how it was with us.’
She nodded, miserably.
‘Afterwards, I thought it was funny,’ he went on. ‘Turned out we didn’t have any roots at all.’
'Please…’ she said.
‘Sorry. I didn’t mean… I wanted you to have it back, to remember the kind of artist you used to be. The kind of person you used to be.’
She said nothing, but he saw moisture glittering in her eyes.
‘Anyway, that was all,’ he said. He was aware a weight had shifted. He smiled at her. ‘Thanks for the coffee.’
He moved towards the front door to let himself out. She didn’t move.
The sun had come out. His skin reached out towards the light and heat. He walked quickly, the blood pumping round his body, the energy flowing through him. He’d done it. He’d bloody done it.
The world had been brought into high definition. Branches of trees, edges of buildings stood out sharply against the sky. He walked back to the station and the world was alive around him. This time he didn’t notice the dog turds, or the broken bottles, or the graffiti.
There was paint in her hair. She stood in front of the mirror with the miniature in her hands, looking from her reflection to the image and back. He was right. She wouldn’t have been able to paint such a thing now. She was a different artist, and a different person.
She looked at the painting, and then at the crumpled tissue paper, and then at her own hands. She’d never noticed before how lined they had become. Skin mottled, dirty paint colours ingrained in the creases and wrinkles. Up close, you could see such detail. Up close was the ugliness.