Results of Short story competition 2013 (“Beyond”)
Well, the competition was intense, and we’ve done a lot of reading over the past two weeks, but finally we have the results.
1st Place - Alexandra Clare (“Show Me A Good Time”)
2nd Place - Carole Holland (“Ripples”)
3rd Place - Caroline Druce (“The Morning”)
Congratulations to the winning authors, and a big thank you to everyone else who entered the competition--every story was a compelling read, and deciding on the winners was a tough decision. Keep up the good work!
We will be posting each of the stories above on the site starting from next month.
The Morning (by Caroline Druce, 3rd place)
The Birdsong broke the silence through the window on a cold December morning. It was the beginning of a new month. The air was crisp and pure, with a satisfying taste of sweetness that the morning dew dispelled into the atmosphere. Still. Nothing but stillness filled the room. Stillness and silence in a roomful of wonder.
Eyelids stirred and opened in a sudden gasped response to the morning light and choral noises. Her eyes took seconds to adjust to the sudden brightness and be settled in the new day. Taking a moment to remember. Observing the dusky, claustrophobic room, realisation manifests itself to reveal memories of a night so mystifying. A damp smell still lingered from dirty laundry freshly aired. There was no settlement here. There was nothing but unease.
She lay still, not daring to move a muscle. Not wanting to stir just in case she woke him. His breathing was sporadic indicating he was awake but not wanting to move either. A stolen glance was all she afforded, catching it with an incensed heartbeat resonating in her ears, so alert and open. The breath choked in her throat as she tried to quieten the sound and resume composure.
Detecting his figure, turned away from her in a cold response from the night before. She allowed another look. A longer, lingering stare at the peach and brown freckly back that fronted her. Deep brown eyes soared into this back, as if it were a creature of marvel. Newly discovered and observed. Every hair, every line and crevice examined and traced in intricate detail. Delaying the inevitable, imploring that this moment would be frozen in time. Never having to face the next chapter. Wanting so much to reach out with her cold hand and place it reassuringly on the alluring skin but knowing that this would offer no such reassurance and would only serve as an electrifying shock for both, igniting the situation.
A sudden movement from him, so delicate, so impulsive but yet so planned. Their eyes met over the covers. Nervous smiles flickered as instantly as a light bulb blowing, at the same time as butterflies flickered in their stomachs. Searching for the words but nothing resonates from a throat so silenced and missing of the sound. ‘You’re awake early’ she finally uttered, with the previous sudden heartbeat un-silencing itself. ‘Couldn’t really sleep.’ Three simple muffled words issued, delivered with such a staggering blow.
Minutes of tossing and turning. Debating whether to move, hoping he would leave the room so she could dress. A thousand dashing thoughts; questions but no revelation of answers. As he stands and dresses first, his distant gaze divulges nothing, concentrating only on one thing after the other. Opening the wardrobe, finding his clothes, dressing, turning around to leave the room. No emotion. Not even a flutter towards her.
Laying back and letting out a refrained sigh, the soft cosy bed and feathery pillows provide the only comfort in this frozen world. Reaching for her clothes, she hurriedly dresses. Preparing. On his return, his one word question offers slight reassurance. ‘Tea?’ Sitting up with a soft smile, her voice easier to find in this instance. ‘Yes please.’
The sounds emanating from the kitchen, of the squealing kettle reaching its climax. The only climax in this troubled territory. Footsteps marking their way back, he tread carefully around to her side of the bed, setting down the cup so delicately, as if with such thought he couldn’t possibly disclose.
Taking the cup in hand, the flowery pattern stole her attention immediately. Processing the intricate lines and observing the array of colours depicted on the artwork. Offering focus and comfort for an erratic mind. The tea was instant from a packet, rather than brewed from a tea bag. The taste was bitter. She never had sugar in tea but maybe on this occasion it would have disguised it. Or coffee would have provided a soothing alternative.
He sat there, still. Resuming the earlier fixed gaze at nothing in particular. Deep sighs escaping at intermittent moments, betraying the invisible heavy weight on his shoulders. She turned her head in the opposite direction, out at the part open window and towards the leaves on the nearby trees, still autumnal in their look with the relatively warm winter they had seen up until this point. The noises had been replaced from the earlier morning birds, to the rushing of cars on the high street, the screeching of motorbike engines and the thunder of heavy lorries.
Turning her head back to face him slightly, in search of something, anything to indicate comfort. Another breath from him with a look fear in his eyes, as if stunned by a sudden horrific event. A further intake of breath, this time sharp and rushed, followed by words gasped out with such tension and definition all at once.
‘This isn’t going to work out.’
Echoes of whispered promises broken in a sentence. A sudden numbness arose across the room, encapsulating her for what she felt would be an eternity. Numb. All she felt was complete emptiness in her heart, as if the blood running through her veins continued flowing to every part of her body, except this one vital organ - turned off in defence to such a cold blow. Inside, a thousand thoughts and questions, outside a closed exterior to mask the truth. Fighting back the tears, although the tears didn’t want to fall from this stunned spirit. Wanting to show strength and maintain the power she had constantly held, there was not the remotest of chances she would hand back the torch and lose this battle.
Words were exchanged, a conversation was had but no clarity revealed. A complete u-turn on the mystifying road of life was the only conclusion she could surmise. ‘There’s no passion from me’ were the words left ringing around the room as if someone had left the echo effect on a loud speaker, repeating until it faded into the background. He couldn’t bring himself to look at her, much less speak any sort of sense. His evasive eyes emptied of the once glowing spark that had been so clearly present in his pursuance from the beginning.
She began to rise from the bed and make for an exit; it was all she could do. Passing through the hallway and into the communal entrance, a final exchange of words and a forced hug were all that was left in this sudden empty relationship. One final look quickly dispelling every event, every kiss, every embrace that had occurred in their time together.
Incredulous confusion set in on departure. Her imagination was the only thing left by way of a rational explanation. Tracing his words, following his actions and enacting innumerable scenarios. She could visualise him, tiptoeing at the door as if fire walking on hot embers, briefly over the doorframe then back again so suddenly, darting from one decision to the next. Or was he back in the safety of his musty smelling room, reaching for his phone and staring at her number, a shaking finger hovering over the call button? If the call came, she saw herself saying yes and running back to him. But in reality she knew he had played the joker card and was the court jester fool in this dramatic ending.
Reaching for her phone in anticipation of such a scene, she looked blankly at the screen with nothing but a tranquil beach and blue sky screensaver gazing back at her. No sense of the intended calm exuding from the display. She knew he had turned this adversity around onto her, projecting his feelings of fear and emotional uncertainty. Left questioning what she had done and retracing every step in her mind, trying to pinpoint where she could have rectified her movements and save the situation. ‘No passion from me’ were the words that left his lips in defence. Those four words easily shifting the blame in an instant.
How could she go running back? He was weak, she knew this. He had watched her walk free, at the same time as giving her a harsh push along the way. Defecting from the war he had created in his mind. Fixated on the comfort of staying still, not moving forward, of avoiding confrontation. Beyond the doorway lay an unexplored pathway he had closed the door on forever, given up on without a fight, on something which could have been so cherished and precious.
Walking down the endless staircase for what felt like hours, the continuous thoughts of wrongful actions providing the only company at every step. Reaching the bottom, she had no recollection of the descent, both physically and metaphorically. Her body feeling as though it had crash landed from a great height, into a sudden spin, bringing her to a grounding holt. The recent euphoric feelings dispelled so easily, her once beating heart so cold and withdrawn. Feelings of regret were already overflowing like the topped up wine glass from the night before.
Conflicting thoughts battled in her head. Of giving up or staying strong; knowing inside that defeat was not an option. This could only serve as a harsh lesson on what was inevitably always going to be the ending of the story. But as she walked along the high street with no clear direction, she could not find this strength. Unsure of which path to take on the twisted road of life. Rearing her head in a bid for answers from the outside, she was greeted with the stares of strangers burning through the soul. Their eyes were enemies in a world so senseless.
The tears finally came but only in short bursts. More from the shock rather than sadness of the end. Taking one last look at the once familiar surroundings, she inhaled the sweet aroma issued from the nearby common - enticingly exposed in her earlier preview through the bedroom window - in an attempt to settle her mind and breathe new life into her lungs. She disappeared suddenly into the warmth and protection of the underground station, immediately swallowed up by the narrow walls. The only place in the world she would be safe from the prying eyes of the questioning universe. Moving slowly through the murky passages felt like a never-ending tunnel on this already infinite journey, trusting that the end would bring her out into a brighter place.
Ripples (by Carole Holland, 2nd place)
"Do you think we'll ever make a difference?"
"Not to anything important. How could we? We're just children of Baikal, no-one even knows we exist." Zoya lay back in the grass and stared at the sky. "Not even our fathers."
Katya laughed and looked at her best friend, sprawled in the early summer sunshine. It was the first time the snow had melted enough for them to find grass to lie on whilst the goats grazed on the hillside. As always, the thaw brought hope with it - perhaps this year would be different.
"They know we exist - we stop the bears from eating the goats and then, when we are older, we will marry and begin the circle again with our own goats and children." Katya sighed irritably. "All we ever see is goats, snow and water."
"It's not so bad."
"It's all we'll ever know and I hate it. Zoya, we could go to St. Petersburg and get jobs. Learn to speak Russian, maybe English, wear different clothes, travel. I don't want to be a goat farmer forever, it feels like the rest of the world has moved on and left us in the past, Guardians of the Goats and Water." Katya threw a stone at a snow drift still sheltered in the lee of a rock. "You saw those photographs the travellers brought last month, it was like looking at an alien planet. I want to see that, Zoya. I want to live it."
"You'd still just be another girl though, wouldn't you."
"Yes, but I wouldn't smell of goat all the time."
A distant whistle met their ears and they sat up, squinting down the hillside towards their home to see who was calling. They both flopped back when they recognised the figure climbing toward them, it was Pavel, known in whispers as the village idiot and, much to her despair, Katya's likely future husband.
"We are going to be famous!" He was practically skipping as he ran, leaping snowdrifts and splashing in muddy puddles, startling the goats. "Katya! Zoya! Do you hear? We are going to be..."
A young goat, frightened by Pavel's shouting, bolted across his path and tripped him face-first into some half-melted snow and cut short his shouting. Katya and Zoya could barely breathe for laughing and neither of them made a move to help him up, both seeing it as payback for the hours they were forced into his company, Katya particularly. It was hard, being the only teenagers in their village, there wasn't much opportunity to teenagers in their village, there wasn't much opportunity to socialise in the little free time they had. Particularly when the only person there to socialise with was a gangly half-wit with teeth like a mountain hare and the mind of a lemming.
When she eventually caught her breath Katya called out. "Sorry, Pavel. The goats today, I think they sense a storm coming."
Pavel walked the last bit of the hill in silence, trying in vain to wipe the mud off his clothes and blushing furiously, avoiding both girls' eyes.
"You need to gather the herd early tonight, there's a village meeting to be held at sunset. We are going to be famous around the world! Us, can you believe it?" Pavel's watery brown eyes were glistening with excitement and his voice was breaking even more than usual. "Viktor says it's going to be made into a new festival."
"What, Pavel? What is going to be a new festival? For heaven's sake just tell us already - the suspense is killing us." Katya stood up, using her crook for balance, and wrapped her shawl around her shoulders as a cold breeze began to stir across the hillside.
His ears turning pink to match his cheeks, Pavel tried to meet Katya's gaze, having to tilt his chin slightly to look her in the eyes - he was short for his fourteen years. "The King of England, William the Fourth, is to visit our village. We shall be on television, Katya, in front of the world!"
For a moment Katya and Zoya simply stared at Pavel as he stood before them grinning like a fool and panting slightly, then they burst out laughing all over again.
"Television?" Zoya spluttered.
"The King of England?" Katya asked, struggling to control her sniggers. "What on Earth could bring him here of all places? Oh Pavel, I think Viktor was taking you for a fool again. Remember when he convinced you that there was a wolf living in the trees behind the winter camp and that the Elders were going to sacrifice you to it to protect the rest of us? He's just at it again."
If Pavel had been blushing before, he was on fire now. It was months since his elder brother had left him shivering and crying near the trees in the snow at sundown, but the shame of being found in the dark by Katya, with his thick winter furs smelling of urine and tears frozen to his cheeks, was still fierce.
"He is not. Papa told me too."
Katya fought her face straight and resisted the urge to pat Pavel on the head. "Okay, Pav, if you say so."
She shivered as a cloud covered the sun, immediately dropping the temperature a few more degrees from the already chilly level it had been. She hadn't been entirely joking when she'd teased Pavel about the goats, she was sure she could smell snow in the air, perhaps a final storm before the summer really started. She hoped it waited until they were off the hill and back home, she hated chasing cold and grumpy goats back to their paddock - they got even more stubborn than usual in snow.
"You going to help us get this lot back, then?" Zoya asked Pavel, punching him lightly on the arm. "Katya can't resist a man who knows his way around a goat." She flashed Katya a wink then turned away, giggling.
Katya rolled her eyes and muttered instructions to Pavel before stomping off to usher the goats into a closer herd. It was infuriating being younger than Zoya, only by eight months, but that was enough to make her the next one down in the list of 'girls awaiting suitors'. Making her betrothed none other than Pavel himself whilst Zoya was intended to his older, more handsome, brother Viktor - it was just one of many things that fuelled her dreams of escape.
Twenty minutes later, they were on the way down the hillside toward the cluster of wooden gers that made they village. Already a crowd was gathering around the central fire pit and without realising it, they increased their pace, curious to discover the truth of Pavel's wild claims.
It took another twenty minutes to persuade the goats into their little wooden paddock behind Zoya's ger as half of them decided they really didn't fancy it tonight and scattered, two young kids following their mother into the tiny copse of woods beyond the village and getting caught in snares left out for rabbits.
By the time they arrived at the fire pit, sweaty and muddy, the rest of the villagers were there clutching hot drinks and muttering about the coming storm. It was dark now, the sky an eerie yellow colour rather than the usual twilight purple and the fire's orange glow only added to the weird light. Katya, Zoya and Pavel took their places with their families and hung their heads as they were quickly scolded for their lateness, relieved when their Village Elder stepped forward to speak.
Katya's eyebrows rose in surprise as she saw Elder Feliks was dressed in his full ceremonial attire, something he wore only for festivals and weddings, not village meetings.
"I must be brief, for the storm that is coming will be a harsh one and we must all be inside before it truly begins. However, there is great news that I must impart to you all, now, so that you may begin to make yourselves and your homes ready. In a few months time, when our summer will be at its height and the snow gone for those few blessed weeks, we shall have a visitor from across the world. His Royal Highness, King William the Fourth of England will be visiting our village. He is coming to view the wonder of our lifeblood, Lake Baikal, and to thank us, its guardians for helping to keep it pure in these times of darkness and insanity. You saw from the traveller's photographs that the world beyond our sanctuary is wild and dirty, filled with lights and technologies far beyond anything that is truly needed to live. They rely on electricity and sorcery and they fill their water supplies with oil and grime. To them, our home is like Heaven - pure and untouched, and the King wishes to see this for himself. You must all prepare - fix your homes, make new ceremonial dresses, brush your animals, cut your hair. They will be bringing their cameras and technology with them, they will show our world to their world and we must show them how perfect our world is. Then they might be saved from themselves and return to the ways of nature and tradition."
A murmur rippled through the crowd like the wind that was tugging on their clothes, this was bigger than anything that had happened in their village in living memory and the reaction was not all positive.
"He should not come!" The blacksmith called out, waving his dirty fist in the air. "Their visit would bring attention we do not need, the Baikal will be poisoned, our livestock stolen and our lives destroyed by people wanting to 'help'. We have worked hard to stay apart from everything in their dirty world, we should not let them in."
The crowd grew restless as other people called out both for and against the Royal visit and Katya used the disruption as cover and slipped away, heading for the goat pen so she had the excuse of checking on them if anyone noticed her disappearance.
The King of England was coming to their tiny village on the shore of Lake Baikal. Surely this was Katya's chance, her opportunity to make a change. She would ask to leave with him, perhaps not to England but just into Russia or wherever he was travelling next. She would discover the world that lay beyond the backward ways of her home, see electricity for herself, live in a house made of bricks and mortar, learn a language spoken by more than a handful of villagers. Katya Bekhterev was on this Earth to make a difference, to change the world, and something told her that this visit was the gateway to that change. She just had to wait a few more months.
The crowd opposite made Katya nervous. She had an itch halfway down her back that she was desperate to scratch but couldn't because a wall of cameras was pointing her way and Elder Feliks would have a fit if she wriggled around when the world was watching.
The King was currently being presented with a rough hewn wooden bowl filled with lake water and was trying his best to drink it without pouring it down his front. Katya resisted rolling her eyes, they could have just given him a cup, they weren't that backwards out here.
Once he had drunk, he passed the bowl to his wife who sipped daintily before passing it back to Pavel who had been nominated as their 'guide'. He looked ridiculous in his traditional attire, some people pulled it off - his older brother Viktor, for example - but some people just looked stupid. Pavel was definitely one of the latter, the Elders had called it 'cute' and said he should be proud. Katya would just have felt embarrassed.
Finally, their Royal Highnesses began to walk through the village to where Katya and the other villagers were lined up waiting for their three seconds of honour saying hello. She rolled her shoulders slightly, trying to get rid of the itch, and stared at the crowd of strangers that had followed the Royal Party to the village. They varied from men with cameras as imposing as the ones held by officials, to families with tiny babies, all hoping to meet the King and Queen and gather stories to take home about their visit to the back of beyond.
As she studied their faces, Katya felt her palms begin to sweat as if she was nervous. She wasn't. She had given up on the idea of this being her breakthrough to the real world, everything was so regimented and timetabled she would never have the chance to plead her case and organise a way to leave. It was just another day where she was forced to wear a stupid hat and stupid clothes except this time strangers were looking at her.
The King was just three people away from her when Katya had the urge to step forward. There was no reason behind it, she didn't see or hear anything or have a funny feeling. She just stepped forward without thinking and then the world went white.
It was a very weird feeling, watching her own funeral. But here Katya was, hovering just above everything in a bodiless, floaty way. No-one could see her and she wasn't entirely sure why she was there herself. She hadn't been 'present' for anything since she had died, but now the entire village was gathered around her funeral mound and thinking about her at once, here she was - unable to leave and not entirely sure why she was back at all.
She looked around, the whole village was in attendance, as required by tradition, and a few people from surrounding villages were there - the lady who had taught her to make fishing nets, for example - along with a small group of people she didn't recognise at all who looked very out of place in their heavily Westernised clothes.
Concentrating hard, she found she was able to focus in on this group and hear what they were saying as they stood around waiting for the Elders to arrive and begin the ceremony.
"I still don't understand why she did it. The bullet probably wouldn't even have killed him, she's much shorter than him and the bullet was a square hit in the side of her head - it would have gone in his shoulder most likely." The man shook his head and straightened his heavy overcoat, it was still Summer but that didn't mean much out by the lake other than there was no snow on the ground.
"Instinct? She made herself a hero worldwide by doing it, I wonder if that's enough to let her be at peace?" The only woman in the group patted her hair flat with gloved hands. "Daddy was really angry that Security wouldn't let him come back to pay his respects, he had enough trouble getting them to allow me here in his place." She shot a scowl at the other men who were standing around her, scanning the crowd constantly.
Katya suddenly realised that this must be the daughter of King William, and her companions were her advisors and security. That explained why Katya didn't have a clue who they were.
Movement toward the back of the gathered crowd made Katya zoom back out and she watched with morbid fascination as Elder Feliks and her parents made their way to the front and stood beside the fresh soil which presumably hid her body. Zoya moved to stand with Katya's parents as they settled and it soothed her to see them all taking strength from each other, reassured her that they weren't all going to fall apart without her.
Elder Feliks stepped forward and began to deliver all the traditional blessings and Katya closed her ears. She hated this bit, it was all moaning and humming and wailing on cue and had always felt like the falsest thing. It wasn't grieving, it was a performance. If she'd had her way there wouldn't have been any of this, just her family and her friends somewhere on the hillside where she used to sit with the goats overlooking the lake. A few words, a simple burial - they could mark the spot if they liked, but she didn't really mind - not forced ceremony and strangers from a foreign State.
It was kind of touching that the Princess had turned up to show her respect, and Katya did appreciate it, grudgingly. Mostly she just wanted it to be Zoya because only Zoya could really understand how dying wasn't that much of a big thing to Katya. She knew Katya wanted more than Buryat life on Lake Baikal's shores; that she wanted to see what was beyond their life which went backwards as fast as the rest of the world surged forwards. Dying was beyond that, in a way. Katya wasn't sad about it, now she had the opportunity to think about it.
Katya realised that Elder Feliks had finished and stepped to one side and other people had stepped forward to take his place. Surprised at this break from tradition, she listened in again - concentrating close on the person who had moved to speak first.
It was the English Princess. Her hair was blowing around her face and she kept patting it, in the same motion that Katya had noticed earlier. Katya put it down to nerves when she realised that the Princess was doing her best to speak Buryat.
"I never met Katya but I owe to her my father's life. There is no way I can ever thank her enough, not as a Princess, but as a daughter. I will never know why she did what she did, or how she knew what to do, but I will thank her every day that she did because it means that I still have my father."
With that, the Princess walked over to Katya's mother and pressed something into her hand before walking back to her security guards. They looked angry that she had gone forward alone, but Katya suspected that the Princess had pulled rank on them and refused to allow them up with her.
Curious, Katya focused on her mother to see what she had been given. It was a small silver brooch in the shape of the Royal Crest, the details picked out in tiny coloured stones that caught the light in every direction. Beautiful in its simplicity and a tasteful way of reminding the family of the English Monarchy's gratitude.
Zoya had moved into the Princesses place whilst Katya had been distracted and her voice, tentative but clear, startled her slightly.
"Katya was my best friend, the closest thing I will ever have to a sister, and I miss her more than words but I am not sad. I don't think she would want anyone else to be sad either."
'Definitely not,' thought Katya and she could have sworn a smile flickered across Zoya's face and her voice became stronger.
"She was never truly happy here with our simple life. She understood the importance of our role but didn't feel she was meant to be a part of it - she wanted to see the world outside our lives, taste the foods, smell the air in other countries. More than that, she wanted to change the world somehow. She wanted to make a difference that would matter.
"What Katya did when she stepped into the path of that bullet might have done the opposite of what she wanted - she didn't change the world, she helped it to stay the same - but it made a difference that mattered to a lot of people. I hope she knows that and I hope it makes her happy. I like to think it does."
Zoya had a small smile on her face when she finished speaking but as she turned to walk back to Katya's parents the sun caught the tears on her cheeks much like the jewels on the brooch and Katya knew how much her friend was hurting, despite her words.
'I did change the world, Zoya,' she whispered, 'what if he was supposed to die and I stopped it?'
Katya spared a final glance for the Princess, who was wiping her face with a handkerchief.
'What if she was meant to be Queen now, Zoya? So many things changed because I moved and it sent a ripple across the world because the world was watching. They saw me and I changed it all. It was easy, I didn't even have to think.'
Show me a good time (by Alexandra Clare, 1st place)
For my forty-ninth birthday, I have set myself a mission to go ‘beyond the pale’. The expression was a favourite of my mother’s, and represented anything wild, reckless and irresponsible. As these words are however open to interpretation, I have redefined these woolly terms into proper tangible objectives, with success criteria and deadlines. After many drafts, a final list read:
- Purchase a pair of cowboy boots and blue jeans to wear on my birthday.
- On my birthday, drink a bottle of whisky, of at least 500ml. At least half (by
volume) to be drunk from the bottle.
- Go to a heavy metal concert at a venue holding more than 500 people. Purchase a t-shirt. A maximum of four weeks before or after my birthday.
- Sleep with a prostitute, to have full penetrative sex. Timescale as objective 3.
- Take mood-enhancing drugs until I have an out-of body experience (exact parameters to be confirmed).
A number of possibilities were considered and rejected. For example, I have always been impressed by the look of a Cuban cigar, but find smoke deeply unpleasant. Reviewing the list the following day, it appears that my mother’s early prohibition of ‘the devil’s music’ has influenced me more than I thought. True, I have never listened to it. But it has always been there as a possibility and abstinence will make the pleasure sweeter when finally indulged. My mother has been dead for a number of years as are all of the friends she had appointed as unofficial guardians to ensure her vigilance extended beyond the grave. I live, as I have always lived, within the parameters laid down by my mother to secure my health and respectability, which are now an unthreatening routine. I presume that I live ‘within the pale, whatever that means. However, the recent publicity (in even the most respectable broadsheets) accorded to a rock star on attaining the age of sixty, despite a lifetime of indulgence, has convinced me that some of these prohibitions may be overly severe. A birthday seems a suitable excuse to behave in an unorthodox manner, accepting that I must take care that my actions are not seen as a mid-life crisis precipitated by the date, but a carefully organised strategy to penetrate the dark that is ‘beyond the pale’.
Now I had the list, I considered how to implement the objectives. Clearly, my birthday being a fixed date, objective 3 was the logical place to start. Ideally, I would time the purchase of the cowboy boots and jeans to be able to wear these to the concert. The search engine brought up a gratifying number of concert options, but investigation showed I would have to travel to attend a venue of a suitable size within the given date range. The prospect both excited and daunted me. I have never enjoyed travel, finding it time-consuming, dirty and frequently subject to disruption. The destination never fully matches its description and there is the unnecessary additional time required to find one’s way. However, I concluded that a trip was sufficiently outside my usual sphere of activity to be consistent with my stated strategy and I have therefore revised point five to read:
5. Take a week’s holiday, timescale as objectives 3 and 4.
This is more satisfactory, as the previous objective 5 was rather hard to define and involved a loss of mental control, which is hard to write specific objectives for.
I have found a suitable event occurring on the day after my birthday and booked a ticket, followed by a reservation at the local branch of a chain hotel. My birthday will occur whilst I am away, which is an unexpected bonus. Now, I must find a source of cowboy boots and jeans.
I have found the last month passed slowly. I felt a sense of temptation to try the outfit, but am glad to say I have resisted. Arriving at the station, the journey has thankfully been uneventful. Taking a taxi from the station to my hotel, I was gratified to see the expression of surprise on the driver’s face when I answered his rather familiar question on plans for my stay. However, it made him take his eyes off the road for longer than I would have liked. He pointed out the concert venue as we went past. On external inspection, it is tatty, but rather than putting me off, it adds to the sense that I am doing something forbidden. The hotel is on the edge of town, with a shop on the corner, where I purchased a bottle of whisky, of the designated size, ready for my birthday tomorrow night. So, my progress is well underway, with the exception of objective 4. I have not yet started the procurement process for a prostitute. Now that I consider it further, there is a considerable advantage of combining it with the holiday, even though I have a month before the expiry of the deadline. It would conform to my designated timescale and, because I am unknown in this town, there is less chance of discovery. The neatness pleases me and I slept well, despite the unfamiliar surroundings.
As it is my birthday, I permitted myself both toast and cereal at breakfast and read two newspapers. As I left the dining room, it occurred to me that the computer provided in the lobby was for guests looking for local information. I therefore started the search to find a prostitute. It seemed prudent to have a number of options as I did have concerns as to whether this type of occupation would operate an effective booking system. Perhaps it was the child that loitered behind me for a minute who told someone, because suddenly the manager was there, asking me to join him in the office. In vain, I pointed out that I was seeking local activities. I retired to my room, disappointed and contemplating the potential failure of my project. Before I could formulate a revised plan, there was a knock. I assume the fellow was one of the kitchen porters because he wore a brown smock-like garment and trousers. He looked both ways before speaking.
‘Are you looking for some fun?’
The voice startled me. I had assumed the person was male, but the voice was too high. That made the request even more confusing as I considered. I could not imagine what would constitute fun for this person and how I could be involved with it, but they seemed to take my silence for assent.
‘I hear you were looking for something on the computer. Well call this number, she'll do you anything you want.’
A folded piece of the hotel’s notepaper was thrust at me, with the name Nikki and a mobile number. The person loitered while I read, rocking from foot to foot in a rather distracting way. I was wondering what they wanted but the lift beeped and they vanished down the fire stairs before the doors opened. On the whole, I am inclined to regard this as a positive development. Even though I have not been able to make the selection myself, I have a potential objective. However, given the unnecessary attention I had been subject to from the management, I was reluctant to use the hotel telephone and I have no mobile. Finding a payphone in the streets took considerable effort and a great deal of time. Enclosing myself in the box was not pleasant as it was full of discarded takeaway packaging.
‘May I speak to Nikki?’
‘Speaking. What are you looking for?’
My requirements were very clear, but the earlier experience encouraged caution.
‘I am looking for some, ah, services.’ Lying does not come easily to me.
‘Certainly. When do you need them?’
‘Thursday. What, er, hours do you keep?’
‘Any time you want. I’ll come to you. What’s your address?’
I gave her the name of the hotel and my room and agreed the time. I had addressed all of the objectives on my list and my birthday stretched before me. Walking back to the hotel, I saw the children leaving school and this emphasised the fact that I was not at work. I am pleased at how easy it is to be reckless, with proper planning. Returning to the hotel, I carefully unpacked the jeans and removed the rolled paper from the cowboy boots. Standing in front of the mirror and surveying myself in my new outfit, I could not help thinking that the effect was somewhat spoiled by my flannel shirt and knitted tie. Perhaps I would be able to purchase the band’s t-shirt before the concert started? But I would still have to walk to the hall in my shirt, taking a bag with me, and find somewhere to change. Recklessness must be habit-forming as I decided there and then to buy another new t-shirt today, one more fitting for my new outfit. Flushed with what I took to be excitement, I unscrewed the cap of the whisky bottle, wished myself a happy birthday and took a gulp. Being accustomed only to the small glasses of white wine at the office’s Christmas parties, I was not prepared for the harshness of the alcohol and choked. Some went onto my shirt and some on the carpet. I could now justify the new shirt as a practical step, and I remembered passing a suitable shop whilst looking for the phone box. Fitting my purse into my new jeans was difficult. Despite the waist size being correct, the fabric was much tighter than I am used to. The heels of the boots made walking awkward and the stiff leather pinched in a number of places. However, it was not until I tried to cross the shiny laminate flooring in the lobby that I realised the risks from the boots’ leather soles. I found myself unable to keep my feet and ended up sprawling in front of the desk and the manager. He helped me up, but I noticed he sniffed pointedly a few times. It is a shame that I have the prostitute booked, otherwise I would move hotel.
I am back in my room and quite dismayed at what has occurred. Even in the short distance to the shop and back, my feet have been cut and blistered by the boots. I took them off to see the damage and padded the bloodied areas with toilet paper, but had to put them back on to fulfil objective 1. Next is objective 2 and to ensure that this is conducted properly, I have brought with me a small measuring jug, so that I could check the proportion drunk from the bottle. The glass supplied in the bathroom has a strip on it which proclaims it to be sanitised for my protection, but is still smeared. I am disappointed that I did not think to bring a suitable one. Still, it will do. I alternate sips between the glass and the bottle. The effect is not as marked as I expected and the primary sensation is one of slight nausea, combined with feeling very warm. I try to open the window, but note that the catch takes a number of times to come into my hand when I try to grip it. However, my feet have stopped hurting.
I look back on the last day and shudder. I fulfilled objective 2, but did not consider that the consequences would be so extreme. My first memory was of being roused by someone banging on the door, possibly the chambermaid, though her language was not ladylike. The chain I had prudently secured delayed them but did not stop their attempts to enter and eventually I resorted to jamming the door handle with a chair. I do not know where the following hours went, but the next time I could focus on my portable alarm clock, I was able to ascertain it was an hour before the concert was due to start. Rising was difficult. I did not have to dress as I had have fallen asleep in my clothes. I was surprised by how loud the normal noises of the hotel seemed and how unnecessarily bright the lights appeared. I think after all that I will change into the band’s t-shirt when I get to the concert, as it appears that I have been sick on this one. As I approached the concert hall, the noise of the crowd increased and the oppression of the bodies became more pressing. I am pleased to note how much I seem to fit in with the crowd, who are dressed like me and appear of a similar age. It is warm in the hall and I pause, as a wave of sickness overwhelms me. I am trying to be discreet, but suddenly, hands are under my arms and I find myself outside. The crowd are tutting. They sound like my mother and her friends.
I sat for a while outside in the cool air, hearing snatched bursts of really unpleasant sound from the concert before the cold and the urge to be sick again drove me back to the hotel. The manager tried to block my way, wishing to complain again, this time about the state of the room – they must have entered it whilst I was away. I had apparently been sick on the bed and my feet had left bloodstains on the carpet. I think he is adding something to the bill – I must check it carefully, but all I want to do now is sleep again.
It is light again, but my clock appears to be in pieces, so what time it is I do not know. The room is stuffy but the windows do not open. It must have been the knocking at the door that woke me. I fear another confrontation with the manager and decide to ignore it. It comes again, more urgently. It is not welcome but I feel more able to answer it and the air would be welcome. A body flicks past me before I can stop it. Focusing, I see a dumpy woman in a drab frock and glasses. Without a proper introduction, she has found the chair and is unzipping the dress, casting it across the back. Her underwear is a pale grey, presumably after inefficient washing. Her make up was rather heavy, and now that she has removed her glasses she appears to be the same age as me.
‘You can’t be too careful here as they do keep an eye out. Now darling, I’m Nikki, what can I do to show you a good time?’