The Writers Bureau Short Story Competition 2019
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The Winner of 2014 Short Story Competition

1st Prize

Glenda Cooper with:

Kissing Him Goodbye

I am now officially worth four guineas. That’s three guineas and twenty bob more than anyone would pay for me before I bobbed head down along the Thames. It is early morning. The mist is skimming the surface of the river, the watermen are rubbing their eyes as they unloop the ropes that tie the wherries to the bank

Then suddenly my forehead grazes against wood. The planks leave a red kiss on my skin. My red curls snake out. I begin to drift away from the bank back into the faster flowing water.

But there is a shout and someone snatches at my filthy skirts.

“S a woman.”

The wherry rocks and slices against my arm.

“Comeoncomeoncomeon.”

A rough, gruff voice – followed by a pull on my arm, then a grasp of my bodice. With a succession of bumps I land in the stinking bottom of the boat. Sweat, urine, bad beer; gah. They turn me over; my sightless eyes face them.

Immediately there is a high-pitched gabble of benediction, a belch and the unmistakeable smell of vomit – a young lad I would guess: seeing his first body.

But the others are harder. One runs his hands over my body greedily, looking for a concealed pocket, a locket, a handkerchief of coins. His fingers pummel the contours of my shape, grasp at my breasts but he finds nothing. He howls as he is pushed aside. My arm is lifted up and held to a bristly cheek.

“Still warm – just. We need to get her to the Duke’s Head. Jem, for Christ’s sake stop spewing.”

There is a sob, another belch and a bout of swearing.

* * * * *

He kisses hard, his lips finally sealing the two of us together, pressing his soul into me. I can feel the warmth of his breath, the softness of his lips, his hands encircling my face.

And me? After all these years, I feel – nothing.

* * * * *

Everyone at the Duke’s Head, Putney has read the notice that Dr William Hawes has nailed to the lantel.

Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned

Instructions:

  1. As soon as THE OBJECT is got out of the water; a great coat or two of the bystanders should be wrapped around the body, which is to be carefully conveyed to the nearest receiving house.

  2. IN COLD OR MOIST WEATHER the body is to be laid on a mattress or bed near the fire.
 

But the puckering of my skin continues, despite the two great coats. My head lolls back, bouncing against the waterman’s upper arm, as they scuttle up to the inn in excitement.

I can hear the calls for Dr Hawes. He has primed people like my waterman all along the river, offered them a reward for all those who will attempt to recover man woman or child taken out of the water for dead provided they had not been under the water for more than two hours.

But what they care about is this: There is four guineas on offer if the patient is restored to life. Close on a year’s wages for a housemaid, a good six months for a labourer, or almost enough for a good bay gelding if you’re one of the gentry.

So for once, I’m given the treatment due to a fine lady; no more sly kicks, slaps or spitting in my face. No, this time my body is rubbed with salt, a flannel sprinkled with rum is laid to my breast, my wrists are massaged with brandy, a heated brick blisters my foot.

And directing all this is Jack Delinpole, eldest son of the house, wastrel, liar. Jack Delinpole, whom I’d loved from an early age and who’d traded on it; who’d told me he’d look after me but turned pimp.

Now he pushed the waterman aside, and swears.

“Nell?” His voice is faint.

“Is Dr Hawes coming?” he asks, as he brushes back the tendrils of hair that have become stuck to my forehead and bends over me.

I have dreamed a hundred times of this. There is no pain this time, no insults spat in my ear. Instead his fingers are skimming the hairs on my arms, tracing the pulse on my neck, and then his lips press down on mine.

But he jumps back and my head bounces back on the mattress.

“Eurgh….shite,” he exclaims. “There’s half the Thames in there.”

But he bends over my body once more. Then I realise why; the sound of an educated man, querulous and excited. Jack steps back and Dr Hawes’ periwig laps against my forehead. In the Duke’s Head they make jokes about him – a madman who talks about pneumatic chemistry in dephlogisicated air, in blowing breath to revive the body when all right-thinking people know that to embrace a corpse is to embrace the noxious fumes that killed them.

Still four guineas is four guineas. For that Jack Delinpole would kiss a flea-pocked dog.

So his kiss now is not for any love of my fine eyes. So I should be glad that his touch now feels no more substantial to me than the skittering of a waterstrider across the river’s surface, that the barley of his tongue is melting and slipping off my lips.

“She’s breathing!” he says. And then adds uncertainly: “Isn’t she?”

And they all crowd round now, the learned doctor beating them back. “No more than six people! No more than six – pure air is essential.”

And even though it is harder to hear, and the world is more blurred and the scents that filled my nose before have vapourised, there is a speck in time when I consider ignoring the inviting call of an endless sleep.

And then I think: what is the revenge?

And so, Jack, I don’t breathe.



Critique by Competition Adjudicator,
Iain Pattison

Bleak, sinister and unnerving, Kissing Him Goodbye is a brooding, flint-edged historical chiller that immediately grabs readers by the throat and won’t let go right to its sad but strangely uplifting and triumphant conclusion.

Set in the oft brutal 18th Century, it chronicles the fate of a young prostitute found floating face down in the Thames. We aren’t sure if she has been murdered, or has taken her own life unable to face the life of degradation and destitution forced upon her – but it isn’t her demise that concerns us, but her possible future. For there is the tantalizing hope that even now she can be revived, snatched back from death’s grip if her still warm body can be transported swiftly to the physician who is experimenting in resuscitating those poor wretches who have recently drowned.

The Doctor is believed mad by many, his revolutionary medical ideas seen as foolish delusions, but the watermen are happy to take her dripping corpse to him nevertheless. If Doctor Hawes can bring the young girl back to life they will receive four guineas as reward.

Will he succeed? Is he demented or possessing an almost supernatural gift? The beguiling uncertainty is seductive, but the tale has one further shocking conundrum to pose: will the girl be willing to be reanimated when she discovers the very man about to give her the kiss of life is the lover whose same lips betrayed her into prostitution in the first place?

By turns, enthralling and gruesome then tender and poignant, this story is mesmerizing – a mixture of mystery, morality tale, and damning examination of man’s most corrupt and pitiless nature. And it offers a master class in short story writing – from the economy of language and crisp, break-neck pace to its authentic recreation of the Georgian capital and its callous and disturbing atmosphere.

I particularly like the device of the story being told from the viewpoint of the drowned girl – echoing best-seller The Lovely Bones – and the skilled and powerful opening that fires the drama and creates an entire world, revealing everything you need to know about the era, and the girl’s background and plight in just two short sentences.

This is one of those magical narratives so wonderfully different and compelling that it completely captivates, burning into the memory. It’s brilliant storytelling and a worthy winner.

 

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