The Writers Bureau Short Story Competition 2019
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The Winner of this year’s Short Story Competition

1st Prize – M Whipman with:

This’ll Be The Day…

Hindsight is your irritating, unreliable friend. A tardy know-it-all. Today it pitches up at 7am. I can see the time on the fat, friendly face of one of those old fashioned travel clocks, with the green blobs on the hands and digits. I bought a tin of that paint once, potato-stamped stars all over my bedroom ceiling. Here, there’s just smooth white plaster, and when I turn my face sideways it’s the same blank whiteness, and I see that he’s gone. That’s when hindsight tells me I should have done it last night, when the wine was still eeling through my veins and the blade was still warm from my pocket.

I met him at the Bramble. I was just chilling out, cradling my drink and testing myself on the bottle labels. I only need a glance at the shape, colour, and the swirl of upside down writing and I can name every spirit. One day, when I retire, I’m going to have my own bar, overlooking the sea, with a row of optics a mile long. I was sitting there, contemplating my future, when I saw him walk in, a man-shaped shadow behind the bottles, and then there was the sound of the door sucking itself softly shut. I watched him come closer in the mirror. He didn’t check me out first, or the room, didn’t pluck up courage with a drink, then sidle up slowly. He headed straight for me, smiling like he knew me. It was a sort of benign smile, and he had this slight tilt to his head, like a puppy dog, a hopeful, apologetic sort of tilt, like he should have been fat and greasy, or balding and skinny, or short and ugly. But he wasn’t – he was tall and dark and quite alright.

“I’m Iain,” he said, “Can I buy you a drink?”

His approach was so wrong, it crossed my mind he could have been a cop, but the speakers were blasting out American Pie and I was lulled back to my teens, before Dad left, to a summer afternoon in the street outside my house, with the smell of hot tarmac and stolen ciggies and tupperwared ginger wine. My best mate filching drink from her parents’ G Plan cabinet and us sitting on the kerb, sucking and swigging and coughing.

“What are you drinking? Can I get you a refill?”

I was still thinking about the way the ginger made our lips tingle as we sang along to Don McLean blaring from our plastic transistors – Good ol’ boys drinking whiskey and rye. It made me lower my guard for a moment, and I nodded, smoothed my skirt and smiled back at him.

I should have done it last night, straight after we left the bar, as soon as we got to his place. But he was sweet in the cab, pointing out all the sights along the A1. And he said he lived in Musselburgh, because of the sea, so I told him I was from Brighton, England, and that I missed the water too, and the pier and the pebbles and the pavilion. You sound homesick, he said, as if he could see inside me.

I’ve never stayed the night before. He’s up and moving around in the kitchen. I can hear his footsteps approaching the bedroom door. I close my eyes. The pillow’s soft against my cheek, the weft and warp of the cotton sheets like a series of crossroads through my lashes. The knife’s in my bag, a million miles across the room. I should be a million miles away too. Maybe this time’ll be the last. Maybe I’ll go home. I screw my eyes up tighter and see Mum. The usual memory I have of her. She’s wearing her poppy dress and she’s rosy and radiant and she’s rolling her eyes at something Dad’s said. We’re all laughing. She’s biting a slice of toast. White teeth sinking into the red jam. There’s a blob of strawberry on her lips and Dad wipes it away with his finger. I shift my cheek on the damp pillow. It’s ten years since I’ve seen her.

I should have done it last night. I can feel him standing over me and I toy with the idea of a seductive stretch. A sleepy, feline smile as I nonchalantly sit up and stroll, naked, over to my bag. But I can smell the coffee he’s delivered to the bedside. Faded jeans move away and there’s the soft slap of bare feet on tiles. He said something strange last night.

“Do you ever cry?” he asked, leaning towards me, eyes on mine, his hand across the back of the stool.

“Never.” I said, and it’s true, not since I was fourteen, the day I left home.

He’s not offered me money yet. Not awkwardly delved into his jeans pocket, fiddled with his wallet, cleared his throat. But he’s under no illusions, I made it clear last night. I must be slipping though. In all these years I’ve never slept through, never stayed ‘til morning. Perhaps it’s being near the sea, the shush of the waves sounding like home.

I should go back to Kings Cross. No chance of sentimentality there. That’s where it started, on Belgrove Street, Jenny click-clacking across to me on the corner. Her legs pasty blue through the fishnets. Denim jacket pulled tight against the wind, a Marlboro clamped between electric pink lips.

“Suzie,” she says, “He’s done another one.” She draws a finger across her throat, rummages in her pocket.

“Here, take this. Just in case.”

She’d been a good friend to me; I was clueless at first. She took me off the street, let me shack up with her. She even tried to get me to go home, until I told her about Dad leaving us, and what Mum’s new boyfriend had done to me. She didn’t look surprised. When I couldn’t get a job she never pushed me into anything, just waited until I was ready then told me what to do and made sure I chose the right punters.

The thing she slipped into my hand that night was an Italian switch-blade. All smooth curves and reassuring solidity. I pressed the button and the blade shot out, shiny steel, slick and sharp. We’d been told to stay off the streets. It was all over the papers, there was some psycho around. He’d killed two girls. One only fifteen. No one I knew. But still.

I used the knife for the first time that night. In the back of some punter’s transit van. He was grunting and grasping and groaning on top of me. His elbows were on my hair, pinning me down. Nothing new, but the white walls vanished, and I was suddenly back in my old bedroom. Posters of Take That and my gingham heart pinned with gymkhana rosettes. And I saw a different face. Mum’s boyfriend. His hand over my mouth, heaving and humping. I tried to count the stars on the ceiling, but in the daylight they were just beige stains against the plaster. Mum was outside hanging up the whites. It only took a few minutes, and when he left, with his fingers on his lips I went to the window and watched Mum, still there, humming in the morning sun. I could just see her hands, neat and quick on the pegs, and the flap of the double sheet and the tips of her sheepskin slippers, stained with dew.

In the van that night, something snapped and I was yelling, “No!” And he wouldn’t get off, just rammed his sweaty hand over my mouth and I had the knife out and was shoving it up and in, again and again.
I set light to the van afterwards. Watched the flames eat him up. It felt good. Later, in the bar, his wad of cash heaving in my pocket, I prayed he was the killer. Jenny came in.

“Any news?” I said.

She perched on the next stool, peering at her face in her compact, fingering her swollen eye. “Wanker! He didn’t pay.”

I bought her a drink, the money eager to leave my hands.

“So? Any news?”

“He attacked another girl, but she’s alive. He’s got an accent and a tattoo,” she said, “a dragon on his hip.”

My man had stinking English breath and white crepy skin. Unmarked.

And then I did it again, and after that I couldn’t stop. The next one easier. And the next and the next. Only the ones who wanted it rough. Chosen carefully. Expensive cars, wads of cash. Then I headed North. Manchester, York, Edinburgh. My hunting ground plush clubs and hotel lobbies. Designer clothes and softened vowels and cash to bribe the doormen. Then over to Dublin. Accents different but the men all the same beneath their tailoring. Eyes blank, all sweating and shoving and shuddering and slapping. I even tried Paris. First class on the Eurostar. Felt like a tourist until I met some tosser in Montmartre. Amongst all that gallic art, the scum still there, rotting beneath the romance. But last week something drew me here. And I come across Iain, or Iain comes across me. In a bar in Queen Street. And he looks at me and his accent’s the same as my Dad’s. Something shifts and I feel real again.

I should have done it last night, because the bed’s too warm and my bag’s too far. And I can see on the side, over by the window, the bottle of ginger wine I found at the back of his drinks cabinet last night. We toasted each other, to him, to me, to us, the ice clinking in the smooth liquid. Melting into the gold. The ginger sharp and sweet in my mouth and I could almost smell the hot tarmac and feel the sun on my face. And this stranger with his innocent eyes could have been any boy from down our street.

The clink of crockery crashed into my thoughts and I finally sit up, banish the memories, swing my legs over the edge of the bed. But before I can get my bag he’s back again. Bare chested, grinning, a plate in his hands.

“Toast. Hope strawberry jam’s okay.” His eyes are grey.

Maybe it’s time to stop. I take the plate and he pads across to the Bang and Olufsen and pushes a button. Don McLean’s voice fills the room. Bye, bye, Miss American Pie.

He’s smiling. “You said it was your favourite last night.”

I nod and stare at the toast, wondering what Mum’s doing now. Whether she still starts at the sound of the phone, whether she ever thinks it might be me.

“Would you pass me my bag?”

He nods, but picks up a piece of toast and holds it to my mouth. There’s no escape, so I take a bite and wonder if there’s jam on my lips and whether he’ll softly, sweetly wipe it off. I catch myself and drag my hand across my mouth and gesture towards my bag. He rises to get it, and as he turns, his jeans shift slightly, and I see something on his skin, on his hip. A picture in ink. Flared nostrils, flickering flame, roaring out its rage. A dragon’s head. Black as tar.

He comes towards me, my bag dangling from one hand, ginger wine in the other. In hindsight I should have
left a long time ago. We smile at each other across the room and join in with the chorus:

‘This’ll be the day…’

Critique by Competition Adjudicator,
Iain Pattison

Dark, disturbing, punchy and unnerving, this story sets the adrenalin rushing. It feels like being dropped into the middle of a modern film noir nightmare. The writing is crisp, dynamic and pared to the bone, the storytelling breakneck – yet, it stills manages to find time to paint a stark and compelling backdrop, to weave a hypnotic spell of menace and anticipation.

The question that powers this enthralling story is just who is most in jeopardy – the prostitute narrator or her “john”? Who has most to hide, who poses the bigger danger? The writer pulls off the clever trick of making us empathize with the narrator, while simultaneously being appalled by the truly horrifying act she is contemplating. The narrative grips all the way through to the sucker punch ending that’s guaranteed to make the reader gasp.

Apart from the chilling plotline, I was particularly impressed by the amount of background information that was subtly woven into the tale – and the beguiling, but still Spartan, descriptions … sound of the door sucking itself softly shut…tupperwared ginger wine…a Marlboro clamped between electric pink lips…
A worthy winner that sticks in the memory long after reading.

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