The Winner of 2015 Short Story Competition
1st Prize – Anne Goodwin with:
A Daughter Your Age
Call it habit, call it obsession, but as soon as I hit the bend, I’m readying myself for the bus stop. Even today, when I’m hardly in the mood, I hold myself more erect in my seat. Even though for weeks there’s been no-one but chubby-armed women off late-night shopping, my gaze is drawn to the shelter, holding my breath until I can pick out the shape of a girl.
I tap the brake, eliciting an angry flash from the driver behind, who speeds ahead as I pull into the layby. I lower the window and lean across, unhooking my seatbelt and smiling. Smiling in a fatherly way.
The girl stares beyond me and the car to the bend in the road. Her dark hair is dyed red at the tips and her faded jeans are fashionably torn at the knees. On the pavement beside her, a bulging backpack displays the badges of her travels. I try to guess, by virtue of what’s missing, where she might be from.
She hesitates when I call her over, but she’s too polite to pretend she hasn’t heard. Polite, yet not lacking in assertion: before I can speak she throws me a question about the accuracy of the timetable, inclining her head towards the slim noticeboard to emphasise her point. Her confidence is more a mark of class than culture; rooted in a place where every problem has a solution, where fear is an inconvenience to be overcome.
‘It’s a bit hit and miss around here,’ I tell her. ‘Hop in. I’ll give you a lift into town.’
She smiles, shakes her head. ‘No thank you. I will wait the bus.’ She speaks inflected English as if her errors are an embellishment, like the rips in her jeans.
‘Could be another hour. Might not come tonight at all.’
‘I will take my chance,’ she says.
I pull away, go to turn the key in the ignition. Slip it out again, shake my head and lean right back towards the passenger door. ‘Look, it’ll be dark soon. I don’t like to think of you waiting here all alone …’
She frowns, scans the road beyond the car. She’s uneasy, and uneasy at her own unease. She’ll have known, from an early age, never to get into a car with a strange man, yet here she is, considering.
I tell her what I told the others: six words to settle her mind. ‘I have a daughter your age.’ Of course, it does the trick.
She keeps her backpack between her knees in the foot-well, declining my offer to stow it in the boot. Seated, the tears in her jeans gape wider, exposing a patch of tanned thigh. I imagine a father teasing her about her cultivated dishevelment. I imagine her laughing, telling him he’s too old to understand.
As we leave the village, I spot the bus rounding the corner in my rearview mirror. Fingering the strap of her backpack, the girl stares straight ahead.
I chat about Jasmine, about her gap-year adventures and her ambition to do aid-work after her degree. The girl softens slightly, tells me she’s got a place to study architecture, that she writes songs in her spare time. When I compliment her on her English, she softens even more.
I think of her mother helping her pack her rucksack with the bare essentials: easy-wash T-shirts; toiletries and cosmetics in doll-sized containers; a lightweight towel. Perhaps there’ll be a fluffy bear treasured since childhood; a diary with a flowery cover; her father’s American Express card – for emergency use only – tucked into some secret place.
She doesn’t react initially when I slow down and indicate to turn onto the minor road through the woods. Only as we accelerate away from the junction does she bite her lip and cast a glance over her shoulder. The headlights turn on automatically as ranks of trees steal the light.
‘I sought you direct taking me to hostel.’ Her English isn’t so impressive now. ‘Use hostel in town centre. Station nearby.’
I nod, and I reach across to turn on the radio. She leans a little closer to the door, her knuckles white as she clutches the strap of her backpack.
I hum along with the radio as she wakes up her phone, taps frantically at the screen and puts it away. Makes no difference what brand or network she’s using, she won’t get a signal out here.
‘Jasmine used to love this,’ I say, turning up the volume. The same patter with every single one of them, no matter what the tune might be.
‘I sink this not way to hostel,’ she squeaks.
‘I want to show you something first,’ I say.
‘Thank you but I rather go straight to hostel,’ she says, one hand on her rucksack, the other on the door.
‘Careful!’ The speedometer hovers around sixty. ‘You could do yourself a nasty injury jumping out of a moving car.’
She sinks back in the seat. Sucks, like a child, on the fiery tips of her hair. For the first time in her life, she’s unsure how to play it. Unclear how big a mistake she’s already made.
‘My house is around here,’ I tell her. ‘It’s a wonderful place to live. So peaceful. So quiet. No neighbours for miles. Did you notice we haven’t passed another car since the turnoff?’
Sometimes they start begging at this point, but this one stays cool. ‘Your wife is home? Jasmine?’
I wonder if her parents knew she’d be travelling solo. If they did, whether they tried to dissuade her or, unwilling to puncture her exuberance, kept their anxieties to themselves. Daddy, she might have said. What’s the problem? Everywhere I go it’s somebody’s home. ‘Not right now, I’m afraid. Can get a bit lonely out here at night.’
‘My friends,’ she says. ‘Expecting me right now at hostel.’
I smile. ‘Jasmine used to have an imaginary friend.’
‘I certain you my friends are real.’
Real or imaginary, I think, makes no difference out here in the sticks. ‘Would you like to take a look at my house? It’s a bit different from anything else you see around here. Based on a Swedish design.’
‘Sank you. I not interesting.’
‘I thought you were into architecture.’ It’s not often they provide me such a hook.
‘I junior champion martial arts. Three years together.’
‘Smart girl.’ Playfully, I slap her leg, just above the rent in her jeans.
‘I prefer you not touch.’
In this situation, I think, when you get in a car with a stranger, what you might prefer is immaterial. ‘So like Jasmine,’ is what I say.
‘You should sink of your daughter,’ she hisses.
I want to assure her that I do, but she wouldn’t hear me. Her panic has taken her beyond the bounds of ordinary conversation; nothing registers but the two poles of freedom and captivity battling it out in her head. What she can’t appreciate is that I’m tired of this charade too.
We emerge from the woods as if from a tunnel. Instead of trees, unremarkable red-brick semis line the road. The girl’s confused. ‘Your house?’ Mostly they’re so relieved to return to dependable brick and concrete, they don’t even ask.
‘Back there. Deep in the woods like I said. I did invite you to take a look, but you said you weren’t keen.’ A mini roundabout disgorges us onto the main road. I slow, but fortunately don’t have to stop. My effort would’ve been wasted if she jumped out now. ‘What would it look like, an old guy like me taking a girl like you to his house in the middle of nowhere?’
She doesn’t answer. Up ahead, a bus pulls into a layby. ‘Perhaps I get out here.’
‘Please yourself,’ I say, signalling to come to a stop behind the bus. ‘There are buses every couple of minutes from here, I think.’
She opens the passenger door, but she doesn’t get out straightaway. She’s thinking, trying to figure out whether she’s had a narrow escape or the danger was all in her head. When she turns to face me, she’s livid.
‘You perverts man. Why you like to frighten young women?’
‘I had a daughter your age,’ I tell her. ‘She was brave. Adventurous. Thought she could look after herself.’
‘You lying man,’ she says. ‘You have no daughter. She only a story to make pretend you trusty man.’
‘It’s true, I have no daughter now.’ After all these years, I can’t say the words without a break in my voice. ‘But I had a daughter. Lovely girl, she was, right up to the day she got into a stranger’s car.’
"I’m delighted to have won the Writers Bureau's Short Story Competition. I was excited enough five years ago when one of my stories was placed fifth; gaining first prize this year is a real honour. Thanks to the judges for such a lovely endorsement of my writing."
Critique by Competition Adjudicator,
This tense, disturbing tale grips from the opening paragraph and doesn’t let go, the taut storytelling holding the reader hostage every bit as much as the young victim trapped in the car. As the jeopardy and danger grow, we want to escape having to witness what seems the inevitable gory fate of the young, helpless girl. But we can’t. The story’s power insists that we stay to the chilling end.
The sense of malevolent darkness is overwhelming. It twists the emotions. Our feelings of repulsion are heightened by the lead character’s calm determination and callousness towards his prey. He accomplishes his heinous task with a professional detachment, a signal that this is a ritual he’s repeated over and over in the past. His coolness and attention to detail makes him seem all the more evil.
This entry stands out for three reasons:
- The economy of language and the focus of the plot. It’s a cracking psychological thriller pared back to the bone. Every word, phrase, description is crucial. The story unfolds at a crisp pace, making this a breakneck journey into terror.
- The expert use of viewpoint makes us see the unnerving events unfolding through the middle aged man’s eyes. We hear his thoughts, understand his instincts, watch as he calculates each predatory move. Yet, despite inhabiting his body – and in some ways becoming an unwitting accomplice to what he plans – we never lose our abhorrence. While ‘being’ the abductor, we also want to shout a warning to the girl; want her to take flight. This clever conflict adds to the story’s tension.
- As with all great stories, there’s a surprise waiting at the end. And the twist here is as shocking as it is unexpected.