Winning Stories 2020
1. THE GAME by Gayane Vardanyan
It was a funny game for us at first. Landon said:
- Let’s revenge, Beth.
- How? – I asked.
And he knelt down and pulled out the ring and looked me in the eyes with so much concentration and will and pronounced:
- Marry me.
We laughed and laughed and then we went to a café and ordered chocolate crêpes and latte and then we talked some about the recent political events and then I showed him a new band I’d discovered and then I dared ask:
- Were you serious today?
And he said:
- I surely was.
And I don’t know how or why and maybe the crêpes were so truly good or maybe I loved the game, I said:
When Lucy called me later at night she sounded truly concerned, which was funny altogether given the circumstances we were in. She asked if I was okay and I told her all was perfectly fine and for the first time in the course of the last couple weeks I realized I wasn’t pissed at her. There was this strange feeling, as if everything we were doing was just a game. Lucy was a game and so was Eric. Then I asked her:
- Hey Lucy?
And she said :
And I said:
- So you and Eric? I mean... You guys are serious?
And she went silent and I pressed the phone closer to my ear as though to catch the sounds of her breath on the other side, to translate her lack of words into feelings, and I closed my eyes and I could picture her face at the moment, the sadness floating through her perfectly highlighted cheekbones in a cloud, her legs so tightly crossed on her pink bed and I wondered if the photo frame was still there on her little make-up stall across the bedroom, if it still held our photo from Junior High, with our arms wrapped around each other’s back and the silly grins on our faces and it all made me so sad and nostalgic and then I heard her voice in the phone:
- I’m sorry, Beth.
And I hang up the call.
The first thing Landon asked the next day as we met was:
- Have you started looking for the dress?
- The dress? – I asked.
- The wedding dress – he said.
And we laughed and I started looking for one. Funny it was, for all my life I thought I wanted a pale low-cut empire-waist fairy dress, naïve, simple, with loose waves and a flowery tight band around my hair but I started looking for huge sparkly ball gowns.
Lucy called me again. She was worried or so she said. I laughed her concerns away.
- We love each other, Lucy. – I said.
And she went silent and then she said:
- Don’t hurt him, Beth.
And I had no clue about what she meant but it was the funniest joke ever, for Lucy was surely not the right person to give such advice. So I asked:
- You remember Amanda?
- Amanda who?
- Big Amy. – I said.
And Lucy went silent and I felt like I can see her features melting, the regret struck in her perfectly blue eyes, the dread swelling under her polished porcelain skin, her lips losing color, dissolving in the silence of the graveyard. And the words of the pastor played back in my ears so real I could picture us, clenched together, Lucie’s head on my shoulder, her mascara smeared on her pretty face and Landon’s hand holding mine tightly as though telling me he won’t let go, and our broken embrace as the eulogy ended, and Lucy whispering under her breath:
- Rest in peace, Amanda. I wish I had the time to apologize for all the pain I caused you. I wish I could say I was sorry.
Landon asked who I wanted my bridesmaid to be and I laughed:
- Lucy, of course, who else?
- But are you sure? – he asked.
- Of course, - I said.
That was the plan, ever since Junior High, ever since the summer we wrote our pact on the pink wall behind Lucie’s house. Ever since we promised to be the mean girls forever and immediately became best friends.
- Are you sure? – Lucy asked, when I told her I wanted her to be my bridesmaid.
- Of course, - I said.
- Won’t that be weird?
And we went silent. And then I dared ask:
-Do you really love Eric?
And she said:
And I asked:
- When did you know you loved him?
Ad she said:
- The day you first introduced him as your new boyfriend. The day you brought him over to my place.
And we went silent and I remember the day, in early September, Eric was wearing a funny yellow sweater and I got mad at him for looking funny, I was worried Lucy might not like him. Lucy had made us fortune cookies and I remember I drew the first one and it read: “Happiness is knocking on your door.”
And I dared ask:
- Did you two get behind my back right after?
And she went silent and then she said:
- Almost. Two weeks later.
When Landon picked up the phone I didn’t let him say hello.
- We can’t get married, Lan – I said.
And he said:
- No, of course we can’t.
And I asked:
And he sad:
- Because you still love Eric.
And we went silent. And then we laughed. And then I said:
- I loved the game, though.
And he said:
- I know you did.
And we went silent. And then he said:
- But I actually love you, Beth. I have, ever since Junior High.
And I said:
- I know.
And we laughed.
2. STAY RUDE by Charli Faux
“I don’t understand why it’s bad that’s all,” he says, shrugging.
“What’s not to understand?” My frustration is growing. I have that prickly feeling again. I flex my fingers under the table.
“Because he didn’t know me,” I say. It’s so fucking obvious.
“Yeh but he didn’t say anything bad or do anything wrong. I just don’t get it. Calling someone darling...” He trails off, shaking his head impatiently. So convinced is he in the total rectitude of his own opinion that he can’t even be bothered to finish the sentence.
“And squeezed my bare shoulder,” I add. Though I have already mentioned this. Twice.
“Its not like he squeezed your arse is it?” he says motioning for the waitress in that way. (You know the way I mean. I know you can visualise this guy already right? I have given you no physical description whatsoever, but you know him. We all know him. He is everywhere. If you’re thinking, no, actually I don’t know this guy, then you are this guy. Just FYI.)
“No Adam, he didn’t squeeze my arse because that would actually be assault and a bit more serious,” I say. Flex, clench, flex, clench go my fingers.
‘Assault!’ he says. The word comes out furiously, venom wrapped in a laugh. I imagine him choking on it. (The word I mean. In my head, his face turns beetroot and a waiter comes running and performs the Heimlich manoeuvre until the word ASSAULT, misshapen and soggy like alphabetti spaghetti leaps from his mouth and lands with a splat on the floor and all the women in the café rush from their seats and stomp on it.)
“See this is the problem with the whole Me Too thing,’ he continues, mouth full of cake. A tiny crumb drops from his lip onto the table in front of him and I stare at it. He doesn’t notice. Just keeps talking with his mouth full. I start to silently count to ten.
“Like, I get it,” he says. “You know, there are people out there who have seriously been assaulted, or abused or raped or whatever,” he wipes his mouth and take a sip of his coffee. (‘Whatever.’) “And the people who do that stuff to women, they are scum and deserve to go to jail. But some of the accusations now are just dumb. Oh, he made a joke that was a bit sexist or, oh we were in bed naked then I changed my mind for no reason and he was a bit annoyed. I
mean, wouldn’t you be annoyed if you went to bed with a guy then halfway through sex he changed his mind? How come men aren’t allowed to change their minds,” he is getting louder now.
‘They are,’ I reply. He doesn’t hear me of course. He is too busy loudly missing the point.
‘That comedian, you know, the one where that woman wrote a whole story about how she went home with him and he was a bit pushy and made her feel a bit uncomfortable. How is that even a story? Why didn’t she just leave? And the poor guy’s career is ruined,” he is gesticulating wildly now. I don’t mention the comedian’s new Netflix deal. I worry that will tip him over the edge of the mountain of fury he is teetering on. I imagine saying it and him slapping me straight across the face and inexplicably the thought makes me laugh out loud.
“What’s funny?” he asks.
“Nothing, I just imagined that you slapped me.” I say.
“What?” he says. (Oh the fury, the fury, I feel it rising. Can you feel it?)
“Nothing, sorry,” I say. (Why am I apologising? STOP APOLOGISING.)
“So, what I mean is, I think you need to calm down a bit. Men just don’t know what to do anymore, nobody knows what’s allowed. All this woke bullshit.” He makes the universal sign of the bill. The waitress, a beautiful teenager with hair braided into a messy golden chignon nods, bored, and makes her way to the till in that loose limbed, unhurried manner possessed only by the young. (Oh the things you’re yet to learn about men. I am exhausted just thinking about it.)
“I need the loo,” I announce and make my way across the café.
They look, the men, it’s instinctual. Some look purposely, daring us to react, others don’t realise they are doing it. The looks I get are brief, fleeting, disinterested. I am old now. When the waitress passes in her denim shorts, white tshirt skimming her navel, with her sinewy walnut legs and those almost invisible soft, honey coloured hairs on her thighs, their eyes linger longer, their gaze moves from their coffees, their girlfriends, their children to watch her gather the dirty cups and plates. They imagine pulling her t-shirt up and discovering that she isn’t wearing a bra. They imagine their mouths closing around her nipple as their fingers undo the buttons on her shorts and work their way into her cotton knickers, probing at her wetness.
I sit on the toilet and stare at the graffiti on the door in front of me. It is positively encouraged here. There is a marker pen attached to a string with
gaffer tape hanging on the back of the door. When I have finished, I reach forward and grab it.
For a good time call Stacey 07989 413 262. I imagine Stacey answering the phone to another drunk idiot and I scribble repeatedly over the last three digits.
James Patterson's a prick. I add the forgotten apostrophe.
Big up all the rude gals. STAY RUDE, I add.
3. THE GOODBYE by Kerry James Clark
The boy climbed the steps up to the faded red door and struck loudly
against the wood with the heavy brass knocker. He remembered having to stand on his tip-toes to reach it, and briefly felt a melancholic stirring for the quick passing of time. There was some shuffling within; slippers on carpet.
“Nan? It’s me.”
He heard the many locks being clicked and unbolted before the door was gently opened to reveal a small, elderly lady in a bright purple jumper and red trousers. The boy took in the outfit and then promptly rearranged his face, disguising any surprise at the onslaught of colour.
“You hadn’t forgotten?”
“Of course I had. But your mother comes in handy on the odd
occasion,” she rolled her eyes and tapped a post-it note next to the door. The boy hugged his grandma briefly before glancing at the note.
“S coming Sunday 11am.”
They walked through to the kitchen in a comfortable silence and the old lady busied herself with the kettle. The boy took in the room with its reminder notes on every cupboard door. There were twice as many as when he last visited a few weeks’ ago.
“So what brings you here on a Sunday? I feel very honoured, you’re usually around at that girl Suzie’s house aren’t you?”
“No Nan, we broke up remember? Today’s my last day, I’m flying out tomorrow. To the US?” Hope of recognition seeped off his last word. He couldn’t bear to inflict the news of his leaving on her again.
“Tomorrow? To California? Well I still don’t understand why you couldn’t just choose an English university like most people.”
He smiled at her, unwilling to engage in combat on already established territory. It seemed to work as she sighed and sat down beside him, pouring their tea.
“Your mum keeps telling me off for being rude. She says it’s the Alzheimers -that it’s changing me, making me aggressive.” The last word
was pronounced with a fitting staccato rhythm. A self-sculpted onomatopoeia.
“Is that because you told Doreen next door to fuck off again?”
She slapped his arm gently then, after a brief pause, replied: “No, that was Deirdre, three doors’ down.”
They laughed together for a moment, enjoying each other’s wit. “Come on then, what did you actually do?”
He saw the flicker of alarm in her eyes before he’d finished the sentence. That moment of panic when she loses track of a conversation.
“Why is mum saying you’ve been rude? Ruder than usual anyway.” He winked.
“Yes,” she smiled vaguely, “Yes, that’s right.”
He traced the familiar dots on the tablecloth with his forefinger, hoping the memory would return to her without the scrutiny of his gaze. The old lady fell silent as her mind whirled, searching, or possibly didn’t whirl enough. Sometimes these days he caught a blankness about her eyes as her mouth made patterns of words, as though running through a back catalogue, then deciding against them. She stood, picked up the milk and turned towards the fridge.
“Fish -that was it! It was in the supermarket last week. There was a young lad, about your age actually, at the fish counter. He had his headphones in -one of those personal stereo things, ignoring customers as though we were inconveniencing him.So I gave him what for, I did, I told him to buck his ideas up and get off his arse.”
The boy spluttered on his tea, laughing as he imagined the spectacle unfold.
“I suppose it was a bit rude, Pamela is probably right,” She reflected, sitting back down at the table.
“I’m not always sure who I am anymore.” She laughed, falsely, the corners of her mouth turning upwards unnaturally to meet her grey eyes.
The boy felt very old suddenly. He reached across the table and took his grandmother’s hand. She startled momentarily, gazing down at their conjoined hands as though one didn’t belong to her.
“Nan, I mean this in the nicest way possible, ok?” He paused, considering his words. “You’ve always been rude. You told me the cake I baked for you when I was nine tasted like horse shit. I was nine!”
She removed her hand from his grasp to cover her mouth as she chuckled at the memory.
“Well, someone needed to tell you.”
“I know -mum realised I’d forgotten the sugar. But that’s just it: you tell it how it is, that’s who you are. You’re no ruder, or, god forbid, politer than you were twenty years’ ago, trust me. I’d be more worried if Mum told me you’d..... stopped swearing.”
She laughed at the boy, then brought her hands to either side of his face and held his gaze for a moment, smiling up at him like she hadn’t truly seen him for years. She nodded ever so slightly -a gratitude, too rich for words, before letting go.
“When will you be back then, Christmas?” He shifted in his seat slightly.
“Well, the flights are pretty expensive, so Dad’s arranged for me to stay with his cousin Pete in LA over Christmas. So it’ll be next Summer that I’m back.”
“Summer?” She repeated.
The rapid advancement of her symptoms over the last few months’ hung in the air between them, like decay.
The boy broke the silence, “We can write to each other? I’ll tell you all the gossip...”
Over the last few months, the old lady’s hand writing had morphed into an illegible, curled scrawl. A betraying sign of her unfurling mind. The knowledge of this showed plainly on her face in an unspeakable sadness.
“That’d be nice.” She managed, in a cracked voice.
He felt his throat constrict, and the boyish shame of threatening tears. “Nan, just promise me something.” He clutched her hands again, this time with conviction. “Promise me that you’ll stay rude.”
She smiled, kissed his hands and nodded briefly, “Now it’s time for you to piss off.”
4. TWO LETTER WORD by Talia Samuels
Clarke sits back in his chair, his face pinched. He spreads his ruddy red hands out across the desk between us, gesturing to the invisible facts of the case against me.
“The last thing we want is a hostile work environment.” His brows rise to meet his pepper-grey hairline. “We really don’t have space for anybody – on either side of this – being rude.”
There it is. Rude. I think it’s been almost a month since Clarke last called me rude; a rather impressive streak. That last time, it had been because I’d smiled at Jamie, the intern who sits in the cupboard-turned-office off of the break room. On a Wednesday, he’d emerged from his hidey-hole at around 11 in search of a cereal bar and had instead found me. Me and my hair. He just loved those curls, he’d said – I looked like one of those big sponges you use in the shower, did I know the ones? He meant it in a nice way, obviously, and would looove to touch it. That was when I’d smiled, tugging my lips into a crescent and taking a small step away from him, towards the sink. He’d taken another step forward, arm outstretched. I was still smiling when I’d taken a quick step off to the side, carrying my empty mug with me as I left the room, citing something about a call in five. That, Clarke told me the next day, had been awfully rude.
A few weeks prior, a day or two before Jamie had moved into the cupboard, I’d been rude outside of the office. We’d all gone for drinks on a Friday – it must have been someone’s birthday – and Louis had lent towards me, forearms flush with the sticky bar. He’d thanked me again for the beer I’d got him, and I’d told him he was welcome, sipping on the watery remains of my gin and tonic. I was welcome too, he’d told me, for all his help in getting that creep off my hands. I’d nodded, and put my empty glass down, and he’d inched into its place, head tilted at an angle that must have hurt his neck. I’d scraped my bar stool back, muttering something about needing the loo. Clarke described it later as a violent jerk of the head and a bellowed refusal, which was rather rude and horribly embarrassing for Louis.
The week before that, I’d asked Claire whether Frank Polanski could be taken off of my client list. I’d noticed, not for the first time, that he spent a significant portion of our time together looking at my chest, and that he’d recently stopped wearing his wedding ring on visits to the office. I’d explained I’d be far more comfortable focusing on other clients, and that Louis had already agreed to swap with me. He’d take Frank, and I’d have Kara Phillips. Claire’s lips had formed a straight line. She completely understood where I was coming from – she really didn’t want me to think otherwise – but I shouldn’t have gone about rearranging clients willy-nilly before coming to her. It just wasn’t how things were done around here, and it was actually a little rude. Clarke had agreed with Claire, giving her a grateful squeeze of the shoulders as we stood in his office together, but now that it was done it was done, he supposed, and Louis seemed happy to do me the favour.
Not long before that, I’d been –
“Can you understand that, Jada?”
I look at Clarke now, his wide face flushed. I can see the vein pumping all that blood into his cheeks, swollen and pulsing on his forehead.
I nod. The problem this time is that I didn’t smile. Mike, the guy who brings our mail round every Monday and Thursday, had reckoned I’d look nicer if I did, and I’d reckoned he’d look better doing his job. I hadn’t said that to him, of course, but saying so to Liv, within ear shot of Karl who I surely know is good friends with Mike, had really been incredibly rude.
Clarke sits across from me, his fingertips white where they press into his desk.
It is important, I know, to respond carefully. I’m aware that Clarke has a mountain of deadlines stretching out from here to July, and we’ve all just heard that Frank Polanski and a few of his golf-club friends will be taking their business elsewhere. It’s clear that there’s more going on here than a bog-standard case of Office Female Rudeness, and I know that the wrong reaction could send Clarke right over the edge. It is absolutely imperative that I’m nice.
Liza had warned me against being nice, though. She’d told me, once about a year ago and then again last week, that I should simply walk into work naked. Ass out, tits loose, the whole nine yards. I’d laughed both times, but last week she hadn’t laughed with me. If they want rudeness, she reckoned, they can have it. I thought it sounded more like a reward than a punishment, and she’d laughed at that, at least, but she’d still insisted that I have to stay rude somehow.
I don’t agree with her, naturally. Waltzing into the office naked really isn’t on the agenda for me, and rudeness, contrary to popular belief, isn’t really my style. So I keep my cardigan firmly around my shoulders, and my skinny black belt remains fastened firmly around my slacks, and I even keep my smile painted on as Clarke tells me, in a low and rumbling voice, that I’ll need to apologise to Mike when he’s next in.
I remain fully clothed as I smile over at my boss.
5. RUDE BOY'S REPENTANCE by Okah Ewah Edede
I entrusted my soul to Christ during a trip.
It was on my way back to Asaba from Lagos. The sky was blue and the midday sun hovered in majestic brightness in the sky like an alien spaceship. At Ore, a small town between Lagos and Asaba, we got down to eat. I wasn’t hungry, so I got out my weed, wrapped it and started to get high. People were giving me the look, but I didn’t care. I be rude-boy, I no send, I thought to myself in pidgin English.
After a while, the driver of our bus came and was asking for two drags from my pot. I studied him with glaze eyes as I argument with my clone if it was wise to share my weed with him. When you are high on marijuana, you have two persons living within you. One was you, the other a silly clone of you the weed made. The clone won the argument, so I gave him my joint and our drive took two long drags.
After these two tokes, driver started smiling strangely. Shor! Why him dey smile na? I decided to ask him. “Guy, why are you smiling?”
Driver merely shook his head and smiled some more. He had a dreamy look in his eyes. I argued some more with my clone on the wisdom in giving the driver the weed.
Actually, as our driver, I shouldn't have given him weed, but doing that would have broken the stoner’s creed of never refusing another stoner a drag. Added to that was the fact that I was sitting beside him in the front seat and we have been chat mates so far in the trip.
From the moment our bus moved after he took the two drags of marijuana, I knew I had messed up big time.
He was playing an Igbo song by Chief Osita Osadebe on the bus stereo. It wasn’t my kind of song, but I was cool with it. Where I knew that trouble had started was when he asked me, "Nwanne, ina fu ka ukwu osisi ndia si agba egwu (My guy, are you seeing the way the trees are dancing)?"
I was like, "Dancing gini? Oga, please don't play rough play, focus on the road."
I was high too, but when we realized the danger of the situation, my clone absconded immediately and I was left alone.
I started thinking of my family and friends. I had hundreds of porn videos, so I quickly deleted them in case I died and any of my family members had access to my phone.
After a short distance, driver was like, "Nna Tupac dey sing die!"
"Oga, Tupac? How? Na Osadebe be this na." I told him. How on earth is Chief Osadebe sounding like Tupac to him? I mused, stealing a glance at him from the corner of my eye.
But the driver said, "Nna forget that thing! If to say you dey hear Igbo, you go dey understand wetin Tupac dey rap. Ona kpofe'm a kpofe (the song is transporting me to the great beyond)."
Immediately I heard ‘great beyond’, the call of nature beckoned on me. I felt the urge to pee and stool at the same time. I knew I would die for sure.
I gave my life to Christ immediately!
A short distance on, the bus jumped into a big porthole, I gave my life to Christ a second time, in case he didn't collect the first one.
Driver was speeding; I was doing signs of the cross. Only I and the driver knew what was happening. Other passengers were shouting, I wanted to turn back and advise all of them to give their lives to Christ like I did. At least let us make heaven, but I didn't want to cause alarm.
Then driver said, "Abobi, jidegodi steering kam yiri shoe ofuma (Boy, help me hold this steering wheel so I can wear my shoes well)."
Ha ha ha. Me, hold the steering for you? No, please, I'll pass.
I ignored him.
For want of what to do, I plugged my earpiece to listen to gospel music. What better way to usher my soul into the bosom of Father Abraham?
The first song was ‘Jesus take the wheels.’
Naah, that's not a good song, Jesus please leave the wheels where we can see it. I changed the song!
Thankfully, two drags of weed only causes momentary paranoia. So after about 20 minutes, driver was back to his senses. “Abobbi, that weed was strong o!” He said.
“Oga, please, next time, never you get high while driving. You almost killed us.”
“But I see you where you dey do the sign of the cross na! Abi you no like as you repent?” Driver replied smiling.