Short story competition 2021: the runners-up

·23 min read
Photo credit: David Lees - Getty Images
Photo credit: David Lees - Getty Images

For Bazaar’s eighth annual short-story competition, the theme of ‘threads’ produced hundreds of submissions drawing on ideas from clothes and culture to communication and chronology, which were eagerly received, read, discussed and debated.

But, over lunch at Claridge’s, the final-round judges - Bazaar’s Lydia Slater and Erica Wagner, the author Tahmima Anam, Bloomsbury Publishing’s Alexandra Pringle and Caroline Michel from the literary agency PFD - decided to award the top accolade to Jennifer Kerslake, for her tale about a father-daughter relationship. "Tin Man brims with warmth and such humanity," said Michel. "It could so easily have tipped into sentimentality, but never does. It remains on the right side of moving and utterly poignant." Anam agreed, praising Kerslake’s "compelling characters, darkly atmospheric setting, and an ending that will punch you in the gut – everything you want in a short story."

Kerslake wins a two-night stay at the Mitre hotel, Hampton Court, and her story is published in the August issue, out now, along with those by the competition’s two runners-up: a beautiful, bittersweet fiction by Rachel Blackmore; and Ashani Lewis’ modern fable that, aptly, spins a superb yarn.

Read their two spellbinding stories below...

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

Threads

By Rachel Blackmore

This is what I knew about my Grandmother: she gave birth to Mum on the platform at Bethnal Green during an air raid, then spent the rest of her life being a good wife and mother.

It was late August. Outside, the sun had cloaked the world in such a dense heat it had slowed to almost nothing. The days fell into each other like drunken friends, lost hours became days, became weeks. Even the boys on bikes had given up cruising the parched verges, and the barking dogs had been silenced by the brittle air.

I hadn’t expected to spend my 29th year babysitting a woman with no memory. But there we were, Gran and I, sat in heavy stillness with the curtains pulled to. I preferred it that way, the soporific gloom made it easier to hide from my grief.

Gran’s head rested against her wing-backed chair, skin stretched cadaver thin across her forehead, falling into crepey folds around her sunken eyes. Her hair, which had once shone in corn-gold glory, now stood in wisps, affording peeks of her liver spotted scalp beneath.

She didn’t look like my grandmother any more. I imagined she had swallowed a wicked ageing potion, which had turned her overnight from peaches and cream loveliness to shrunken, yellowed and curled. When she slept, Gran’s brain slowly emptied of words. She had always been a woman who liked to do things properly; tea served in bone china, a slip under her skirt, hair set once a week. Yet the order of her world was breaking down.

Sometimes I’d watch her opening and shutting the doors in her brain, forgetting where she’d been, what she was looking for, until she gave up completely and stared at me blankly. It was easier in our dimensionless world to sit in a soft, companionable silence.

A crying baby in a pram passed outside. ‘That baby wants feeding,’ said Gran without opening her eyes.

When Dad left without warning, Mum wore her heartbreak lightly. Every morning she’d carefully paint on a brave face before leaving for work. Gran stepped in to help out, picking me up from school, driving me to ballet, reading me a bedtime story and kissing me goodnight when Mum was late home.

That morning Mum had quizzed me over breakfast.

‘What did you do yesterday Amy?’

‘Looked after Gran.’

‘Did you take her out? Talk to her? Do a jigsaw?’

‘It’s too hot to go out. And she hasn’t the patience for jigsaws… can’t fathom the pieces.’ I hated my petulant teenage regression.

‘So talk to her then. It helps her memory. There’s some of her old things in the bottom of her dressing table. You could use those.’ Mum paused. ‘Try and do something today, love. It would be good for both of you.’ I noted the emphasis on both.

The truth is, Gran and I were refugees in Mum’s home, so had to abide by her rules.

We had both arrived with our lives packed in boxes. Gran first. It had all come to a head early one frost-bitten January morning when Betty Wilson from No 54 called Mum.

‘Is that Sue? Your mother’s standing under the monkey puzzle tree in her nightie and bare feet,’ Betty quivered. ‘I tried persuading her to come in, but she told me to “bugger off”.

When Mum finally jimmied Gran’s door open she found the gas on, and 102 tins of Del Monte peaches stacked under the stairs. Mum’s answer to this crisis was to bring Gran to our house, set her up in the ‘good room’ downstairs, install an electric hob and put a child lock on the front door.

My return was more prosaic. Steve, the man I loved – still love - cheated on me. He owned our flat, and all the furniture, so I had nowhere to go. I jacked in my job and came home to Mum. The loss made me timid and translucent, so I was better hidden away where I couldn’t be hurt again.

I’ve always known I was average. Averageness has its advantages. Not being of much consequence means you can move between worlds with ease, rub along with everyone, snag yourself a dazzling man.

Mum once described Steve as having ‘presence.’ As if she were more surprised than anyone else that he chose me. Secretly I knew why he had. I was his foil, my dim wattage made him shine brighter. In return, I glowed in his refracted brilliance. I became a shapeshifter, moulding myself to fit him. We ate his food, watched his films, saw his friends. Steve didn’t insist on any of this, but didn’t question it either. It was only once I came home I realised how imprinted he was on me.

Mum was right. I needed to do something.

I stood and opened the curtains, swapping the subterranean gloom for Mediterranean heat. The light momentarily startled both of us, and we readjusted our features to accommodate their sharper relief. The cat stood up reproachfully at the intrusion, stiffly arching his ancient back, before finding a patch of sunlight to lie in.

‘Fancy a cuppa Gran?’

‘Hmm?’

‘Tea?’

‘Yes, that would be lovely dear.’

I opened the mug cupboard, cereal giveaways jostled alongside Gran’s old Royal Worcester and picked out the brown Smarties mug I’d had as a kid, and a plastic sippy cup with two handles for Gran.

‘Make sure you’re holding with both hands now.’

‘Thank you love. What’s your name?’

‘Amy.’

‘I’ve a granddaughter called Amy.’ Gran looked at me unflinchingly. ‘Do you know her?’

I patted her hand. ‘Yes, I do. Now shall we have a bit of a trip down memory lane?’

The dressing table had been my great grandmother’s. A huge art deco affair, with winged mirrors which had been crushingly modern in its time. There were dainty, crocheted doilies under the glass top, which had been dulled over the years by a fine film of hair lacquer, and was crazy-paved with scratches from jars of night creams and glasses, hot curlers and ashtrays.

When I pulled out the bottom drawer it smelt of stale face powder and tobacco. Inside, Gran’s things were stacked in layers like sediment, compressing more than 80 years of life into a few fossilised remains; frayed albums and Grandad’s war medals, a tarnished silver teapot and two baby blankets, both knitted in perfect rows of tiny, identical stitches.

At the bottom, wrapped in tissue paper, was Gran’s wedding dress. I’d seen it before, but had forgotten how intricate it was, how immaculate the handmade embellishments were, the tiny pleated fan flowers on the puffed shoulders and the gathered bodice, the embroidered leaves, each one sewn onto trailing ivy stems around the bottom of the skirt. For a war bride, it was exquisite.

Lying on top of the albums was a photo of four women. Even in monotone they fizzed with energy, walking arm in arm, heads held high, staring straight at the camera. They cut a dash, with figures whittled by war work and rations, painted lips in a Hunter’s Bow, hair rolled precariously high on their heads, as they breezed along the pavement in their pretty summer dresses.

I placed it in Gran’s hands and she held it for a moment, tenderly stroking the women’s faces with her fingertips.

‘Me, Mo, our Dolly and Ethel’ she said, pointing at each one.

‘Where were you going?’

‘A dance.’ Her face clouded. Shit. I’d forgotten her sister Dolly didn’t survive the war. She was killed by a V-bomb in 1944. Without meaning to, I snatched the photo back and dug out the wedding dress.

It lay heavily across Gran’s lap. Her gnarled fingers traced the embroidery and flowers. I watched as her world opened up, words spilled out quicker than I had heard in years, as if another woman, long since gone, had been resurrected.

‘It came from a pool. The dress. A grand lady collected them, cleaned them up and lent them out. Every bride could have the dress of her dreams, coupons or not. Each one did 10, 15, 20 girls. My dress was as plain as anything. Mo said, “No girl of ours is walking down the aisle in that, come on we’ll spruce it up.” And we did.’

Gran picked at one of the flimsy petals.

‘Mo had gone to work on Savile Row. All the tailors had been conscripted. She begged her boss for offcuts, any tiny scraps we could use.’

She smoothed the dress out across her knees. A time machine in weft and warp.

‘We stayed up all night sewing. Lucky we didn’t have to let it out. Mam was beside herself, 'There’s your health to think of, not to mention the baby.' But she’d bring us tea all the same.’

Gran laughed, the truth seeping out between the cracks of her bones as she held the fabric, splintering worlds as she spoke.

‘But after all that work we couldn’t bear to give our dress up, so we made another one from lining silk and sent it back.’

I knew Gran was pregnant when she married, it was the worst kept family secret. We always said plenty of girls would’ve been in the same boat.

‘Bert was so good. Got special leave as soon as I told him.’

She paused for a moment and looked at me. I was worried she’d lost her flow, and was relieved when she started again.

‘When I broke it off, he said he’d wait. And he did. Came as soon as he could. Said he didn’t care the baby wasn’t his, he’d only ever loved me.’

Breath caught at the back of my throat and my eyes flickered to the photo on the dresser. Mum in her early twenties, dark haired and deeply tanned in a vest top and flared jeans. Next to her Grandad, carrying a little extra weight around his middle, hair the reddish end of blonde, a pale porcelain arm falling over his daughter’s shoulder.

‘Two peas in a pod,’ Gran used to say about Mum and me, with our dark hair and sallow skin. ‘We’ve Irish blood. On both sides.’ The swarthiness of our complexion was always put down to a throwback. We were descended from the Spanish sailors who landed with the Armada four hundred years ago on Ireland’s West Coast, when the colours of honey and sand were mixed with olives and coal from an ancient wreck.

I tried not to catch Gran’s eye for fear of shutting down the words. I needed to know who he was.

‘I was luckier than some. Their boys either left them, or they didn’t have anyone. Those GIs were all glamour. And there we were. All drab, no clothes, no food, being bombed every day.’

Gran fell silent again, clutching the dress.

‘Marty looked like Rhett Butler. Told me lots of things; about his family coming from Italy to America, that I smelled like the jasmine on his Mama’s porch, that he loved me. Can you imagine, a GI choosing me?’

She looked lost.

‘It’s all we wanted. To be special. He was like spring, everything new, with cigarettes, whisky and stockings. Said he wanted to marry me. But after we’d gone over the precipice, it turned out he’d already got a wife.’

Mum had put some late blooming roses in a little silver vase on Gran’s nightstand. The petals had turned brown at the edges and I could smell the musty water.

‘Does Sue know?’

‘Sue. Do you know Sue? You mustn’t tell.’

For a moment Gran looked panic stricken. Then the late afternoon sun shifted in the sky, briefly illuminating her face, wiping away the decades to reveal the girl in the picture. A tear tracked down my cheek.

Gran raised her hand. It felt like a delicate bird wing, shakily wiping my face, her veins shimmering lavender and green under the skin.

She looked surprised, like she hadn’t noticed me, and her voice sounded as soft as the first drops of summer rain.

‘Is it a boy or a baby that’s upset you? It’s usually one or the other.’

That’s when I felt the lines between us dissolve. I was her, and she was me. We were all the women of our line, a thousand hands wiping away my tears, acknowledging their silent truths: the pain and betrayal, the longing and loving of daughters. We are cut from the same cloth, our generations bound by a golden thread, light as gossamer, strong as steel, mending me, making me whole again.

Then, as quickly as it had opened, our liminal space closed, and Gran was once more comforting a stranger.

‘What’s your name?’ she asked, hands still on my face.

‘Amy.’

‘Pretty name. I have a granddaughter called Amy.’

‘I know,’ I managed, smiling.

Photo credit: Getty
Photo credit: Getty

Threads

By Ashani Lewis

Karen Rispoli is copying out the same letter three times, once for each of her significant exes. She is considering breast augmentation surgery. The letters invite the three men who knew her breasts best to share their opinions on the procedure, or their touching memories of the breasts themselves, before she goes any further. The first letter goes to Thomas Doty, who definitely would have been happy with an email. As the only boyfriend to break up with Karen, his opinion will carry the most weight. Thomas isn’t good at anything except for skiing, which is only because he’s rich, but he has beautiful blonde hair and his voice is low and private like a root vegetable. At the moment, Thomas Doty’s seeing Riya. Riya’s a diamond; she lives in Shadwell and has a fondness for untalented men. Thomas doesn’t know but suspects that she’s seeing a lot of people. Really, she’s mainly seeing Lorrie, who views the fact that Riya’s still having sex with men as a sweet oddity, an adorable, possibly temporary, quirk of personality. Of the three women that Lorrie’s dating, Riya’s take on the open relationship is probably the closest to her own. Riya texts Lorrie on her way out of some man’s house to combat any kind of post-sex comedown or calls her up if the mystical power that comes over her most nights fails. Lorrie cooks for Riya; that’s their thing. Tapenades and loaf cakes are kind of in-jokes; a Caprese on a blue plate is an act of love. In the summer they’d wrestled with the idea of artichokes for a salad, strimming five or six artichokes down to their hearts. But the armour and choke bewildered them and Lorrie had cut too much away and was left with almost nothing. Lorrie is also seeing Bec, who thinks, but never says, that having a third of a girlfriend really suits her. Occasionally, dosing up her brother or walking through Chinatown – it’s autumn and the red lanterns smoke in the cold – Bec does the girlfriend maths. Lorrie has three girlfriends. Each girlfriend had a third of Lorrie. Squareness always strives for a midpoint. Sometimes in her head there are four women; sometimes there are only Riya, Bec, Grace and the abstract core of their rotation. When Bec closes her eyes she can see their quartet, not as faces but as constellatory shapes: four stars or one four pointed star, the four faces of four-lettered love. The shapes have points and shine – like stars, like glass, like cut angels. Sometimes she wonders if Lorrie is the centre that will not hold. Grace thinks Lorrie is the centre and the sun. On their dates they walk through an exhaustive litany of the famous houses and gardens of London. Grace has looked the other girlfriends up. She knows she’s the oldest. She’s especially scared of Bec whose profile picture has her iconically sullen in a yellow dress, the yellow of light apples and dry grass, artichoke hearts. Lorrie minimises talking to her about the other girls; she knows, maybe, that Grace is holding on to the idea of being the main one, someday the only one.

Karen Rispoli’s second letter goes to Jacob Becker, a gallerist and self-identified aesthete. He will tell her not to get the implants. He writes reviews of perfumes for Tatler in which he’ll describe something that’s pretty obviously the smell of roses as being the smell of a meteor landing in an open field. He’s in love with his cousin, a Harajuku goth in her first year of law school. She has tiny breasts, like flowers in an open field. The final letter is addressed to Joshi Ruth. The handwriting on the envelope floors him; he carries it over to the open window, reading as he walks, totally consumed by memories of Karen’s breasts. Serena Ulman comes down from his bedroom. They’ve been sleeping together for a couple of months; she’s wearing his shirt, rust checks. She finds Joshi completely still and tries to speak to him. She’s hurt when he doesn’t reply. Serena keeps her parents’ wedding invitation from 1997 in a drawer with their divorce papers from 2008. The invitation is beautiful, printed on gold card with English on one side and Malay on the other for the benefit of both families. The divorce papers are all in English. Serena Ulman’s mother had broken things and noses and written on walls and gone missing for weeks. If she could trick two men into being married to her for a sum total of 16 years, then Serena could make herself loveable, make herself loved by one man for at least a month. All she needs is a month. ‘You don’t need a month,’ Barrie Cradshaw tells her at Café De Provence, ‘you need therapy.’ Barrie is biased, having fallen in love with her former therapist. The attraction is the same as in any paralysingly long relationship, which is to say you’ve unfolded so much of yourself to that person already that it’s impossible to imagine packing up and relocating. Also, of course, there’s the idea that a therapist will be immeasurably well-adjusted and constantly working on themselves. Barrie’s therapist has more or less stopped working on herself. She’s saturated with working on herself. And she’s already quite good: she has perfect dark hair, she’s Cali sober. She tells all of her clients that men know nothing: nine times out of 10 they prefer the Zara perfume. Lisa Fourat sees Barrie Cradshaw’s therapist twice a week. She started therapy after feelings that she’d miscategorised as workplace anxiety resulted in her developing trichotillomania. Lisa’s managing better now and wears extensions. In her recent sessions she’s concentrated on unpacking the obsessive hatred she feels for her one-time yoga instructor.

Maria eats cherries with a fork and has no idea that anyone hates her. She’s about to pay the bill at Pavel’s when she feels someone standing behind her chair. It’s Sam Rothmeyr, looking anxious, looking beautiful, looking like Antinous in a long black coat. This is the first time the two have seen each other since she’d had a short story published in The Atlantic about the day that he put his hand between her legs without asking on an escalator at Waterloo Station. They’d been dating at the time and – though she’d been stern about it – it hadn’t caused a real argument; the story, however, was categorised as Me Too (or Me Too adjacent) literature, and it originated a lot of discussion about Sam’s character from those who knew him. Maria smiles at him. He smiles gratefully back, and for a second all of Pavel’s lights up. The man who owns Pavel’s but is not called Pavel is smoking outside the restaurant. Normally, he would be slapping backs and making chat, but he’s subdued by the recent departure of his long-time girlfriend Tanya. The man who is not called Pavel loved Tanya. He loved her so much that he stayed with her after the Venlafaxine made her gain weight and shit herself in the front room of his parents’ house in Kempsey. But she broke up with him when she found out about his secret holiday puffin-shooting in Iceland. These things are not the same, but, he argues, were equivalent. Tanya is passionate about animals to a fault. Years ago, her college boyfriend bought a corn snake to impress her. It was a perfect red coil under glass, two years old. He asked Tanya to marry him. A couple of months later, when he found out that corn snakes could live for up to 20 years in captivity, he freaked out. She came home to find the vivarium smashed and her fiancé disappeared. Now she co-owns a Russian Hairless with her flatmate Carla in their Highgate basement flat. ‘If ever there was a cat that didn’t need to see the light,’ jokes Carla, who has Carol Kane hair and who needs to get a job. Until recently she’d loved being introduced as ‘bankrolled by her parents’ – she thought it sounded like she was (1) loved and (2) rich. It was getting stale now, and embarrassing. Miranda-but-Swedish lets herself into the flat every weekend; Carla and Tanya tend to wallow, and someone needs to feed the kitten. She’s a redheaded lawyer, distrustful of men, and enjoys herring and strange meats.

Miranda-but-Swedish is currently representing Anita Whitbeck who was left feeling naked by the news that her horoscope was selling on her data. At first Anita imagined that this would consist of hard content (names, addresses, phone numbers); in fact, she was horrified to learn that it was how you interacted with your horoscope: which lines you scrolled past or paused on, which prognostication you enlarged on screen between your fingers, not quite able to believe it. This is far worse for Anita. What this conflation of stars and robots would reveal is that she wants romance more than anything, wants deep exclusive love, taps urgently through the planetary configurations that told her it was coming. These days she reads her horoscope in a local newspaper. Saul Nguyen collects the same newspaper, though not for the horoscopes. He emails his old girlfriend every time he’s in the paper. This week he’d won the crossword prize; the month before he’d been one of a deployment of 20 from Hampstead Garden Suburb who’d helped clear debris from the cannery blast in Perth. Adelaide doesn’t mind. She likes to picture him tidying away the factory shrapnel, a little ash on his pretty nose. She wishes she could really love him. Today, underneath an advert for a real estate agency, the front page hints at an interview with sculptor Harper Gorrick. Harper hates reading over his interviews almost as much as he hates looking at his sculptures. They’re all completely different from how he intends them to be and all hugely popular. If people could see the massive, twisting creations he imagines, he wouldn’t have a career, but he’s carved the material down into almost nothing before he knows it, into little wiry knots. His tiny sculptures became larger after he married his wife Isabelle, but the larger they grew, the thinner they became. Their daughter, a Harajuku goth in her first year of law school, is extraordinarily slender. She runs into the designer Marta Prynne at Caffé Nero and taps her on the shoulder. ‘I lost my virginity in one of your dresses.’ (She puts a hand in front of the stiff outlandish frills of her skirt as though to hide it. Her new look has nothing on the casual protean seamlessness of a Prynne sundress. Marta’s designs are famous for being shot through with microscopic chains, which pass over each other like bodies in a city and make the fabric glitter). Marta smiles. ‘I’m always hearing that.’ Marta Prynne takes her loaf cake to go. A wash of cool air from the river passes through her hair. It feels blue, and she’s grateful. At home, she prepares to make a plaster cast of her boyfriend’s penis with plaster-of-Paris bandages obtained cheaply from hospital suppliers. Olive oil has staying properties that baby oil does not; Vaseline works better on the parts with more hair. She wants to put the plaster cast in her store on the King’s Road. Her boyfriend lets her know that the plaster has set and is ready to be removed. For a moment she thinks about leaving him like that. She knows he would lie helplessly on the bed for hours rather than remove it amateurly and risk splitting open her work. She relents, removes the cast; she has to go for drinks anyway. She meets an old school friend at Fait Maison who tells her that he recently proposed blindfolded sex to his very sweet girlfriend, Lea. He hadn’t realised that Lea thought blindfolded sex meant two blindfolded people having sex, exploring each other in equal darkness. How tender. Marta aspires to it. She’d blindfolded her boyfriend for sex once; she’d left him like that. Lea worries that she obsesses over her boyfriend. She thinks about him 30 times an hour, all of her friends are really his friends, she checks his Facebook instead of her own. When he goes out to see an old school friend, she smokes a joint by herself in the garden of his Hampstead house. This is just for me, she thinks.

It’s autumn. Lorrie cooks for the women she loves; the leaves are gold in the streetlight and blue plates shine in her kitchen. London glows and people feel things: the therapist shakes out her hair; the junior researcher thinks of monsters; Anita will meet a stranger. Joshi Ruth doesn’t write Karen back. He calls Serena Ulman to apologise. The leaves are gold in the streetlight and everywhere things begin and end. Out the open window he can see her on his doorstep, standing under an elm tree the sight of which will come to break her heart, but not for years.

Read the 2020 winning entry by Huma Qureshi

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