We are delighted to announce the well-deserved winners of our 2022 short story competition.

Jeremy Paxman and his judging panel were particularly impressed by all your entries, and after much deliberation are pleased to announce this year's winners.

 

 

 

YR 11 & UNDER

Winner

Isaac Crowhurst

 

Runner Up

Emma Hubenova

 

YR 12 & 13

Winner

Firoz Wong

 

Runner Up

Molly Pritchard

 


Isaac Crowhurst

Yr 11 & under winner

Age 15

Dorothy's Tale

Dorothy had an anecdote for any occasion, whether it was diving in Denmark, sailing in Singapore or hiking in the Himalayas. She had masses of tales waiting to be recounted yet today, like every day, Dorothy was alone.

After 90 years her frame had shrunk and her stature was hunched and protective, the wrinkles which now painted her face were so pronounced it was hard to tell whether she was ever young.

In preparation for her daily walk, she took her coat off the rack which sat – gathering dust – to the left of the oak door. A floral shawl older than Dorothy herself adorned her neck as she put her frayed fishing hat on slowly. She prized the door open - its metal hinges stirred and squeaked as she stepped out for a stroll.

The walk was a familiar journey, a routine, much like brushing her teeth or getting dressed. Today, Autumn leaves fell like a dusty orange rain in front of her, crinkling crisply under her feet. Before her stood the ruins of a once majestic church - hollowed out by the bombs of World War Two. Sinking graves were framed with weather-destroyed toys and half-blossomed plants which now wilted, bowing their heads in respect for the deceased. As Dorothy hobbled over to her father’s final resting place, she remembered childhood evenings sat by the warm embrace of the fire, listening to his tales of faraway lands and impossible adventures. They would travel the globe as his words painted pictures so vivid young Dorothy would feel as if she was inside them.

Inspired by their fantastical escapes, Dorothy had spent a life searching for the lands her father spoke of, climbing through caves and scouring seas just to re-live the tales she had been told, and one day she hoped to see her children do the same. However, life had not blessed Dorothy with love. In an era, which had been so often interrupted by wars she had journeyed alone; and now her stories lived solely inside her head.

Across the church sat a beaten bench which seemed to have been there forever – and ever since Dorothy had first visited this park of resting souls she had found solace in sitting upon it; a tranquil space. However today her comforting companion was occupied. Sitting on the scarred oak seat was the figure of a time chiselled man, slumped over a pair of wistful flowers. His folded shoulders told a story of grief and loss, a shirt which was once ironed with pride now lay creased on his body, missing the gentle woman who had once cared for them both.

“May I sit next to you?” Dorothy asked with the kindest of intentions, tipping her hat respectfully towards him. Looking up from his lap, he invited her to sit next to him; face cloaked with the smeared marks of tears. Her gaze followed that of the man’s eyes, and she spotted a glistening gravestone etched with the following words:
‘Here lies Mary Ann Smith, a loving wife and a wonderful mother’
“Was she yours?” Dorothy asked – looking back over at the man who was perched on the bench next to her.
“Yes, she was” the man’s words floated across the air, gently gliding towards Dorothy; voice soft like a blanket.
“You know I used to know a Mary myself,” Dorothy exclaimed in a bid to comfort him “her and I once went backpacking in the Bahamas…”
The man (for the first time) lifted his glassy eyes from the gravestone and looked towards Dorothy – and like a shooting star momentarily crosses the night sky, the man who sat slumped next to her seemed to forget – just for a second; and because of that Dorothy carried on her story of the Bahamas and followed with tales of taming animals in Thailand and safaris in the Savannah.

Before they had even realised three hours had passed and the sun was setting behind them as the evening chill started to sweep in – Dorothy pulled on her coat and stood up with caution. The man thanked her for the tales she had told him – and he slowly bent over, laying down the flowers to rest next to his wife’s grave. Clouds stretched across the horizon as they both parted ways – exchanging wishes of good health and making plans to meet again. As the days went on it became a daily occurrence this meeting. They sat on the bench as Dorothy recounted her bundles of stories, and the man listened – enthralled, relaxing in his new friend’s company.

Three years had passed and now the man was sat on the bench, upon which he had first found friendship; gazing at a different polished tombstone – beside the weathering grave of his wife. It read:
‘Here lies Dorothy, who was a treasure trove of stories.’

Snow fell slowly in front of the man’s eyes, its icy tips caressing the man’s face and leaving a soft sting of the cold. His once maroon overcoat was now blotched with gentle white flakes and as he stood to brush them off he heard the crunching of gentle footsteps in the snow. He looked up to see a young woman who wore a jet-black oversized hoodie which consumed her like a jacket of grief. Tears cautiously rolled down her cheeks as if afraid to drop to the floor, and her trembling hands clutched some carefully tied flowers; clearly destined to be laid at a loved one’s feet.
“Who are you here for?” he asked her as she wiped her nose with the sleeve of her hoodie,
“Martha, my mother” she replied between sobs, crinkling her nose to try and stop it drooling. The man paused for just a moment and then, with kindness in his eyes, tapped on the arm of the comforting bench – inviting her to sit down.

“I used to have a friend, who once went kayaking with someone called Martha, in the Amazon of all places…”


Firoz wong

Firoz Wong

Yr 12 & 13 winner

Age 17

Oli's Last Coffee

Grim Reaper’; glorified taxi driver to the afterlife. Honestly, my job description was a bit vague about the whole reaping souls thing. Apparently, there’s been budget cuts; we used to have a ferryman take you across. Very ceremonial. Anyways, Charon’s retired now, and I don’t have all the dramatics, just a long black cloak and scythe. I’ve never been partial to the scythe bit really, causes some panic when I show up… strange man with big blade on your doorstep, freaks people out a bit these days. I leave it at home mostly.

Sorry. Where was I? Tuesday, maybe. I walked up to the door, composed myself, brushed the creases out my cloak and rapped on the door. A man answered it, not my usual client. He looked healthy, some creases around the corners of his eyes and in need of a shave but otherwise well. But there was a heaviness to him. His weary eyes sighed as he opened the door.

“Shit.”

To be candid I was not expecting that response. Being the harbinger of the inevitable I expect a little awe. His nonchalance was a mite insulting.

“Oliver Greene?”

“I take it you’re Death. Call me Oli.”

A wry smile briefly flashed across his face. A more resigned look followed. The grey of his untidy bristles washed a dull pallor over his face, making him seem hollow, almost translucent. Ghostly. 

“Not what I was expecting.”

“I’m sorry to disappoint.”

“Don’t take it personally, mate. I was just expecting, y’know... a skeleton with a scythe or that cute goth girl from the comics. You’re more normal. But it's cool. You seem ok.”

“I have a scythe at home if it makes you feel better.”

“Hard pass, thanks.”

“You don’t seem very worried about me?”

“I’ll make you a deal, I'll tell you anything you wanna know if we can go get a coffee before I die.”

“I am DEATH. I don’t make deals.”

“C’mon, aren’t you a little curious about how I knew you were coming?”

“DEATH isn’t curious.”

“Not even a little bit?”

“No.”

“I take it all back. DEATH is kinda lame.”

Ordinarily, I don’t bargain. But I am the arcane angel of the abyss, the cosmological nightmare, the never-ending end. I am not lame. And I like coffee.

“Fine. One coffee. But if management gets pissed, I’m blaming you.”

“Sounds fair.”

It’s a short walk to the cafe, few lefts followed by a handful of rights. We hit the promenade along the riverbank, a quiet Tuesday afternoon. We arrive at a small café on the street corner. Pushing the glass door, a bell tinkles as it swings open. A man stands behind the counter. His head flicks up as we walk in.

“The usual, Oli?”

“Thanks Hassan, same for my friend.”

We find a table in the corner, Oliver rocks back on his chair breathing in, heavily. I step over to my seat, swishing my cloak to sit down. It’s quite the art, swishing a cloak so it doesn’t crease under you. Takes a damn anvil to iron. Hassan is pretty quick. After about a minute, two steaming cups of coffee are on the table.

“So, you have your coffee, now you have to fulfil your end of the deal.”

“Well, you got questions. Shoot away.”

He rocks back and forth, picking at the corner of his thumb.

“How’d you know I was coming?”

“Brain tumour, we were gonna meet sooner or later.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Everyone always is.”

A pause. That kinda silence that hangs between people for just a passing moment.

“You don’t seem terrified to meet me.”

“Have you looked in the mirror recently, mate?” 

“I don't have a reflection.”

“Must suck.”

“Why?” 

“Make shaving hard. I’ve been expecting a visit sometime soon for a while now. I guess I got bored of being scared.”

I sip my coffee slow. We don’t get much coffee growing in the underworld, machine went dry around 400 years ago. Presently, I became aware of my lack of social skills, hanging around the dead eight days a week turns you into something of an introvert. I didn’t know what to say. You try making small talk with an existential, dying man. Conversation’s a bit dead.

“Hey, Death. I’m gonna pop off to the gents.”

“Be snappy about it. Don’t wanna keep upstairs waiting.”

I sit alone. Contemplating. Nothing philosophical mind you, more what story I’d spin to my line manager, when I got back. Azrael’s a dick. I suppose it's natural to get grumpy having been the most feared entity in existence since forever. Oliver! Should check he hasn’t run off or anything. I don’t get paid enough for this. I pick myself up leaving a few silver coins on the table. I glide to the bathroom door, pausing, listening to a soft whimper. Gently, I open the door. Staring intently into a cracked mirror, tears streak his cheeks. Oliver wipes his face as he sees me.

“You OK?”

“I can’t go yet. I have a little girl; I need to be here for her.”

“A daughter?”

Oliver pinches his nose sniffling back a tear, looking down at his feet.

“Yeah, and I’ve missed enough of her life already. I wanna see her grow up.”

“You worried about her?”

“She’s gonna need someone to look out for her.”

“Look Oli, I don’t get to decide when your time comes.”

“Can you promise me something?”

“I don’t know...”

“Please, just promise me you will keep an eye on her for me. Please, Death. I can go knowing she’s gonna be alright.”

I could see the pain in his eyes.

“I… Yeah, I think I can do that.”

And like that he was gone. Vanished. First, he faded away in front of me, his reflection in the cracked pane lingering. That cocky smile hovered, hanging between worlds for a moment. That too faded. That’s my job sometimes.

Shit. I'm late. I’ll be seeing you, sooner or later.


EMMA HUBENOVA

Yr 11 & under runner up

Age 15

Mrs Harris

When I was a child, I lived in an irritatingly quiet neighborhood. It was about a 10 “Are we there yets” and 6 “be quiets or I’ll leave you on the side of the road” car ride away, 3 games of go fish and the following 2 rounds of “you cheated” and sulking train ride, or about a 1 hour and 20-minute journey due north of San Francisco.

My road was meticulously constructed, brick by brick, stretching out over each house on our lane; the streets illuminated various hues of burnt reds and oranges which would tug at your eyes if you made the mistake of looking for too long. Each building an exact replica of its neighbor, arranged in a row like Russian nesting dolls. The exception being Mrs. Harris, who lived across the street.

Mrs. Harris was a knowledgeable woman, a term I had been told to use by my mother when referencing my mean old neighbor. Her eyes were like darts, targeting their gaze at whoever displeased her; they were slightly glossed over, giving her an absent presence. Framing her eyes were the deep etchings of wrinkles into her skin hanging tired and fatigued. Her hair, grey and wispy, was pulled back into a strained bun. Her hands worn and faded, tugged at roots, grasped at weeds, tending like talons to her beloved garden.

Her house, made to stand out from the others, stood tall and weathered. a colorful pastel shade of yellow chipped at its corners, revealing its age as well as the woman’s who inhabited the home. Her garden, wrapped suffocatingly around her estate, flourishing with pinks, purples, yellows and whites, bleeding with the sweet aroma of citrus fruits and honey comb. Mrs. Harris spent every morning and afternoon outside nurturing it like a child, despising everything that threatened her garden.

After breakfast, when I would leave for school, there she was, picking, pulling and watering. In the afternoons, returning from school at exactly 15:30, she would be there, mowing and whacking. After, I had supposedly done my homework, I would go out with friends and see her there, still, planting, and caring to her garden. On occasion, as we played outdoors, our ball would enter her side of the fence. The etchings around her eyes would deepen, her face would turn a similar shade to the bricks which illuminated the street, and she would glare at us through her glossy eyes.

One day, after experiencing a particular struggle with fractions, I went outside, football in hand, to play a few games with the neighborhood kids. The ball was old and tattered. As I held it, I could feel the seams between the hexagonal pieces of fabric tug at each other. What remained of the ball was now clinging together by patchwork and thread, covered in dirt and shoe markings. I walked out the front door towards the street. A cool wind ripped through the hot air towards Mrs. Harris’ house. The trees and other various sorts of plants rustled in tune with the cold breeze brushing past them. The crinkling sound of leaves melodically echoed in the background as we kicked the ball. Bundles of flowers rippled, twigs thundered and crackled, bushes ornamented with vibrant shades of colour crinkled.

Thump.

I watched her Chrysanthemum bush, the one which she ravenously watered, picked and pulled at, being flattened by my football. Petals fell out of clusters, blowing in the wind behind her house, weightlessly dancing in the air, mocking me. The once glorious array of pink and yellow was now on the floor, crushed. Panicked, I ran.

I had expected her to run out, screaming after me. But there was nothing.

The next day, on my way to and from school, I tried avoiding her house. The ball remained there, resting on the floor. The plants stood still, the leaves and petals which remained on the once beautiful bush shriveled turning a light shade of brown around the edges and fell. The next day I received news that Mrs. Harris had passed.

By each passing week, her garden became even more miserable. The leaves wilted turning brown in colour, the grass grew above my knees, wrapping, intertwining around trunks of trees and bushes. Ivy and thorns engulfed the garden and house around it, casting a shadow over the bright brilliant colours of flowers which eventually faded over time.

It was around 12 in the afternoon when I had finally decided to retrieve my ball from across the street. Walking up to the house I found my self marveling at the garden which used to be alive and fragrant with candied scents. Now gloomily gazing over me were the slouched remains of Mrs. Harris’ Garden. It was then that I realized the kindness Mrs. Harris had paid to her garden, tending to it so caringly.

The next day I returned. baring shovels, spades, pruning shears, anything that could break through the barricade of thrones and vines. I needed gloves, I tried to open the back door to her house assuming it would be locked, to my shockingly, it opened.

It screeched. The hinges creaked. my heart raced, I could feel it rhythmically thump inside of my chest, afraid it would burst if I continued. Stepping one foot towards the inside of the house I followed with the other. I was in the kitchen. Looking around, the place was covered in a thick blanket of dust, a soft mildew smell wafted throughout the house’s interior. Walking in further and further, each step echoing on the bare hardware floors, I looked. Dishes piled in the large porcelain sink, stained with the remains of breakfast, lunch and dinner. The cabinets, opened, showing the contents inside. How?

thump.

Something fell.

My heart raced faster,

My hands cold but sweating

My ears. Ringing

I turned, I saw a woman, she had grey hair, weathered hands, wrinkles framing her glossy absent eyes and for the first time a smile.


MOLLY PRITCHARD

Yr 12 & 13 runner up

Age 16

“Enjoy your weekend!” called out a voice from the other side of the office. Sarah, seizing her bag and stuffing the few papers strewn across her desk, nodded without turning and bolted from the office. As she clattered down the stairs, she grumbled inwardly – why did she have to schlep across town because of her brother’s thoughtless indolence? It was Friday, for God’s sake.

Finally emerging onto the high street, she was winded by the sudden wave of humid heat that rolled over her, and by the deafening clamour of jangling music from a bar, of taxi drivers pressing on their horns, irritated, of people laughing and quipping as they celebrated the conclusion of the interminable trek to Friday.

A slight pull at her handbag. She whirled around, indignant.

“Any money to spare? Please?” Sarah’s eyes barely skated over the figure kneeling on the pavement, sleeping bag and clothes strewn about them. She yanked her bag from those grasping fingers and resumed her march. The internal monologue continued, its timbre yet more petulant.

Finally, she reached the house. A few strands of loose hair clung to her damp neck. Fanning herself absent-mindedly, Sarah fumbled with the keys, and eventually managed to slot one into the lock. At last.

As she shoved the complaining door open, inexplicable apprehension suffused her – it had been months since anyone had been in, while she and her brother had squabbled about who should clean the place up. Well, the outcome of that was clear enough.

It was very still inside, unexpectedly cool and dimly lit. That smell – Sarah sniffed – it was the smell of childhood afternoons stretching into aeons, the tedium disrupted only by her grandmother’s rasping breath as she passed room to room, proffering faded board games, splayed paperbacks, and the ancient television, only to the last of which Sarah sullenly acquiesced. A faint cloying undertone, though, recalled more recent events – the clinging incense of the upstairs bedroom where she had lingered those last few months, comatose, as Sarah dutifully stood beside the bed and traced the carved lines of her grandmother’s face. The covers – they were red. An intense red, uncomfortably reminiscent of –

Lights on.

Now that she could see the hallway more clearly, she proceeded with confidence, trailing her fingers along odious wallpaper. Slight stickiness underfoot. Flickering bulb.

The kitchen light refused to cooperate, but by the rapidly dimming gloom of the evening, Sarah could make out barren surfaces, glaringly free of the customary clutter of her grandmother. The fridge, too, was empty, save for a withered apple cowering in one corner. She discarded it.

As she turned to leave the room, Sarah idly checked a drawer. Empty – but what was that picture? She scrabbled at it, and eventually levered up a postcard, wedged in one corner. On it, a photo of a robin, scarlet chest braced, precariously astride an emaciated branch bowing under its slight weight. She flipped the card, and in the semi-dusk made out frail handwriting spidering across its width, densely packed around a small rectangle for the address. She peered at it, squinting, and brought it into the amber light of the corridor. The letters were crabbed and overcrowded, and Sarah still struggled to decipher them. A few words were illegible, but she thought she read:

 

‘My dear Sylvia Dart,

I’m not sure that you will remember me – but I certainly remember you.

Lately, I have been’ - she held the postcard up to the unsteady light – ah – ‘considering the events of my youth, and I came to remember you, in London, in 1961. It was raining, and I (foolishly) hadn’t brought so much as a jacket. I was shivering, all right, waiting for my bus like a drowned’ - Sarah frowned – ‘ ferret. You walked up, and without so much as a greeting held out this marvellous umbrella – I do hope you remember – blue, with yellow lemons. Then you got on the next bus and never looked back. I called after you, knocked on the window, but you didn’t seem to notice.

I still have it, and since my twenties – can you believe that! – have pondered sending it back to the address on its label. I never have; it brightens up my room and I’m dreadfully selfish! But please know I remember this act, nor do I go a day without smiling as I pass the umbrella in its rack.

My very kindest regards,

Frank Douglas.’

Sarah swallowed. Heart curiously heavy, she clumsily lowered herself to sit on the stairs. Nana – never ‘Ms Dart’ – had been an overwhelmingly benign if neutral presence in her life, her constant reassurances a given in her childhood, troubled adolescence and even as Sarah’s visits thinned, justified by a myriad of pale excuses. Never – it sounded odd – had she considered who Nana was.

Sylvia was a person who had made an impact on an utter stranger, in a few moments of nonchalant thought. This Frank Douglas, who Sarah imagined would now be frail, with skin as translucently thin as Nana’s had been, had laboriously composed this message, in – she checked the date – February. An ineffable grief swelled as she registered it. February. Nana had died in January. She had never read the postcard.

She blinked and reread the message, combing through its lines in the forensic pursuit of more detail. She wanted to know more. Who had Sylvia been, the Sylvia who would later transmute into Mother, and then Nana, identities wholly shaped by her relation to others?

The return address was crammed into the bottom right corner. Grabbing a scrap of paper from her bag, Sarah copied it out, and sat, heart thudding slightly as the pen hovered in indecision.

Finally, she exhaled and began to write.