National Short Story Competition
This is held every year, entries accepted in February, and is open to all non-professional writers living in the UK.
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- 1st Place: One Man's Meat
- 2nd Place: Pink Squares, Yellow Squares
- 3rd Place: Having Your Cake
5 Runners Up: (in no particular order)
- A Cultured Palate
- Twenty Pence Piece
- A Delicious Alchemy
- Locked up at Christmas
- Taking Time
Judging this shortlist of well-written stories was no easy task. Although the theme was 'food and/or drink' the stories were very different and included: a burgeoning love story, an affair, abusive relationships, food addictions, a picnic, a ghost, people eating things that they shouldn't and a few stories set, unsurprisingly, in cafes or restaurants.
A couple of tips for all competition entrants that I would like to pass on, if I may:
- If you are given a word limit of 2000 words, then use them -- or most of them -- unless there is a very good reason for not doing so. If you submit, say, a 1000 word story, you'll be competing with stories that are twice as long. I have seen very short stories win competitions but they are usually exceptional. Why put yourself at a disadvantage from the start?
- Some of the stories gave away too much, either in the title or in the first few lines. If the reader can easily work out how your story will end, he's less likely to read on. Think about your title. Is it intriguing or unusual? Try to maintain the tension within your story by holding back some information. 'Drip feed' your reader and leave her wondering what's going to happen. Often, deleting the first line or even the first paragraph, will give your story a much more gripping start. Try it and see for yourself.
Rather than just picking the story I liked the most, I came up with a list of criteria, to make my judging more objective. I was looking for: good use of the theme, believable and well-drawn characters, an interesting story, a satisfying ending, a vibrant and well-evoked setting and good use of language.
My message to the authors of all the stories is: you can write! Keep practising the craft and honing your skills (as writers, we never stop learning).
Many congratulations on this result. I hope it will give you confidence in your work.
One Man's Meat
This story gripped me within the first few lines. It's powerful, although simply told and the tension is maintained almost until the very end. Through some lovely period detail -- the corner shop, a sixpence, sawdust on the floor of the butcher's - the writer takes us into the past, to a time and place that I could believe in completely. The main character is sympathetically drawn. I was rooting for her and her children. There's a dilemma in the middle of the story: the heroine decides on one course of action, then changes her mind, then the decision is taken out of her hands. But the tension doesn't let up -- in fact, it's ramped up, not once, but twice. This is skillful story telling and the ending, although perhaps a touch sentimental, is certainly satisfying. Well done.
Pink Squares, Yellow Squares
I admired the originality and quirkiness of this story, which is about a man's addiction to Battenburg cake. Battenburg is something that, I suspect, you either love or hate and I imagine this story might also provoke a similar reaction in readers. It's a brave concept, surreal at times and, obviously, I liked it, although I wasn't keen on the rather distracting 'headers' (I'd advise the author to think twice about using those again). That aside, this story is a great take on the theme and I enjoyed the mouth-watering descriptions of Battenburg. There's even a flashback to one of the character's childhood parties, which goes some way to explaining his fetish. I liked the eccentric, quintessentially English main character and this story's real sense of fun.
Having Your Cake
This story starts when Cath opens the door to George and he's greeted by the smell of cooking. George's affair with lonely widow Cath, is, it turns out, is as much about the delicious meals she cooks for him, as anything else.
My one niggle: the fact that poor little Jane isn't really George's daughter isn't fully explained and I felt that was an important point.
There's an honesty and earthiness about the characters (which is a real strength of this story). They sweat, they burp, they make love (not, I hasten to add, all at the same time). They're very human.
I wanted to read on to find out what was going to happen. Would George leave his wife, the miserable Marge, for Cath? I had my suspicions but the writer -- and George's daughter, Jane -- still had their trump card to play. Cleverly done and not the ending I was expecting.
5 Runners' Up (in no particular order)
A Cultured Palate
Scored highly for originality with its unusual and clever structure. Also, one of the few stories to make me smile. Sadly, a few typos let it down (eg: 'is has' in the very first line). A final read through before sending off could have made all the difference and might have resulted in a placing. The running theme of the dining companion (who gets 'fed up' -- pun intended) with the annoying critic and finally ends up with waiter Richard, was fun. I'm not sure you need the final section ('The Critic's Lair) -- it's something of an anti-climax. To end with 'some inconsiderate sort has put a window through.' would perhaps be more snappy -- and amusing.
Twenty Pence Piece
This is a very short piece -- not even 1000 words -- which is a shame because it had some real potential. I felt the story wasn't fully developed and yet the dialogue between the two female characters was super (it reminded me of something the late, great Victoria Wood might write -- touches of gentle humour). I'd have liked a little more use of the theme of food and drink and also, I wanted to know more about the little boy who leaves the 20p tip. What is the link between him and the two women or how is he going to affect their lives?
A Delicious Alchemy
Great title and a good use of the theme but the first few lines give too much away. We know the narrator has become addicted to making marmalade from the start. Why not start a little later with 'It was that phone call from Mother...'? The mother is a good character and I liked the touches of humour and the mother-daughter relationship. The ending's a good and satisfying one but it doesn't arise from the rest of the story and seems a little convenient. Try introducing that new cafe - or the idea of earning money in some way - a little earlier in the story, if you can, so that the ending doesn't feel quite so 'tagged on'.
Locked Up at Christmas
This is a nicely written, enjoyable story but the title gives away too much and tells us exactly what we're about to read. Some lovely food-related imagery and the set-up is intriguing. How will Sally get out? Will she miss Christmas? And who is the old man? Is he dangerous? Will they become friends?
These days most people have a mobile phone so why didn't Sally use hers to summon help? I think this needs to be addressed -- it only needs to be a line or two. (No signal? Lost her phone? No charge?)
At the end, Frank knows the main character's name but we have no idea how. Then he disappears, with no explanation. Is he meant to be something to do with Christmas? He's an ex-vicar, an ex-con, is he also Father Christmas? It's not clear, so the ending felt a little flat.
The setting -- in the fish and chip shop -- is very evocative and the tension is built up well, by using the present tense and stressing the narrator's sense of panic that if she doesn't hurry up, Stuart, her abusive partner, will harm her. We're made to believe that she's in real danger. If she even thinks of trying to fob him off with supermarket fish and chips 'it could carry the death penalty'.
But then, as the story goes on and the writer moves from present to past tense, we realise all is not as it seems. The narrator talks about the trip to hospital that was 'Stuart's undoing'... and then we realise that she's been 'brainwashed', that although she's standing in the queue at the fish and chip shop, supposedly buying Stuart's supper, he is actually safely behind bars. I felt slightly cheated by that and had to go back and read the story, looking for clues. If there's a twist in a story -- and it's a great device if you can use it well -- then you can't mislead the reader. He/she needs to be able to go back, re-read and spot the clues to the truth. Great idea though and with a few tweaks, it could be even better.
The Winning Stories
Click on title to read story...
1st Place - One Man's Meat
She'd run short and needed fresh milk, just a bottle of milk from the corner shop. She grabbed her coat, fastening buttons, pulling up the collar around her neck. Then a quick look at the children sitting at the table sharing a book. 'I'm up at the shops, you two. Don't go near the fire and gas, and Timmy, do what Sarah says. She's fourteen now, remember.'
With her head down against the wet breeze, the dark falling, she walked briskly. She hoped her neighbours wouldn't notice her having to buy milk so late in the day. A good wife should be at home now, keeping the fire in, housework completed, seeing to her family. Hurry. Just get the milk. Jack would be in any minute. He'd be thirsty, wanting a drink, and she knew what he'd do if he didn't get it.
Letting herself back into the house, she saw his boots and jacket in the hall. Quickly she made tea and carried it through to him in the small dining room. She hesitated by his chair, waiting for the usual sip, grunt and nod, that would tell her he was satisfied. She glanced at her children, still reading at the table and then went back to the kitchen cupboard, pulling out the pans she needed.
'What've you got for my dinner?' he called.
'It's two eggs and tinned vegetables.'
She heard the thump of the mug on the table, the scrape of the children's chairs, their quick footsteps on the stairs. His voice came loud, an exaggerated whine.
'Did I hear right? Two fucking eggs!'
She stood by the door, wiping her hands on her apron. She knew she looked pathetic, guilty. She couldn't think what to say.
'You're bleeding' useless, woman. Have you no idea in your small brain, of the work I've done today? Loading up lorries in this cold and wet since six this morning, while you've been la-di-da-ing it here at home with a duster an' a spot of dirt. ''Oh hello Mrs. Blah Blah over the fence.... what a nasty day. Have to do my washing another time.'' And two damned eggs are all you've got!'
He stepped close. She smelt the sweat from his body. 'Housekeeping's run low, Jack. The children need...'
'No they don't! I'm the one who needs... a proper meal, with meat, in my belly now. I fancy sausages, two big pork sausages popping with juice an' the fat running all over my plate. It's a wife's job... feeding her husband after he's slaved all day. It's what I deserve!' His spit landed in small spots on her face.
'Alright, I'll get them.' She pulled on her coat again, praying the children would stay in their room upstairs. It was still raining, a December drizzle slanting under the street lights and as she walked, half ran, she checked her few coins. She was short by sixpence. The shops, busy before closing time, were lit with early evening brightness. People dashed across her and into doorways, and passing the fish and chip shop, she smelt the vinegar and warm batter. Her mouth watered. She couldn't remember the last time she'd tasted fried fish. There was never enough money. All those years ago... why had no-one warned her about Jack? Why hadn't she seen the tight-fisted bully for herself? She thought of the trap she'd stumbled into, the children they'd had, her struggle each Christmas. Would it ever change? Then she pushed those thoughts away. Just get through this evening.
There was chatter and laughter in the butcher's. Feet scuffed through sawdust on the floor and the meat was rosy under the red lamps. Mr. Suddins grinned at her. She asked for two sausages but said she'd need a small amount of credit.
'Course m'dear. A good customer like yourself? I've got two beauties here. Look, pink an' plump.' He dangled them above the counter, then dropped them onto the ready-cut paper and wrapped them deftly with his fat fingers. Relieved, she took the package, scurried back through the streets and into the quiet house. Her husband was again sprawled in the armchair, his eyes now closed. He mumbled as she lit the gas. She opened a tin, poured chopped carrots and beans into a saucepan and scooped a spoon of dripping into the frying pan. As it heated, it spat and gave off a salty smell. She unwrapped the sausages and instantly turned away, her stomach heaving, her throat tightening. They were going off. But she knew she couldn't return to Suddins for replacements. Bracing herself, she lifted one to her nose, sniffed the sour smell again... then decided. Damn Jack! He could have them. She'd disguise their taste and if they made him sick, or worse... well, he was asking for it. She'd had enough. She lifted the sausages into the pan and turning the gas high, jabbed their skin casings with the kitchen knife, allowing the soft filling to spill and crust, sprinkling extra salt and pepper and mixing in large drops of brown sauce.
There was another grunt from the dining room, the chair creaking as Jack changed his position. She looked at the supper tray, ready with bread and butter, and hesitated. But what if he got seriously ill and someone discovered what she'd done? She panicked and checked the larder again, stretching to the back behind packets of dried peas and tapioca. Her fingers found a tin of stewed beef. How had she missed it when she'd looked before? She took the tin opener, gripped the worn wooden handle and pushed the blade down into the metal lid.
'What're you doing?' Jack stood in the doorway, staring at her.
'I thought.... the meat's not...'
'You fucking thought, did you!' He stepped towards her, red-faced, fists clenched. Then he noticed the sausages, still in the frying pan. 'What's goin' on? I'll have those.'
'No! You mustn't... they're not... don't eat them, please.'
'I fucking will.' He tipped them onto a plate with the vegetables and carried the tray to the table.
'But they'll still be raw in the middle, Jack.'
'Too late, woman.' He cut into the meat, scooped it up on his fork, crammed the food into his mouth, the dark sauce oozing at the sides of his lips. He chewed, frowning at her. 'Mad, you are. Always fussin' about something. Leave me be.'
She hovered, unsure. She had to speak. 'But they've gone off, you'll be ill. I'll heat the stew quickly.'
He stopped, laid his cutlery down and stood up facing her, breathing heavily. His bellowing echoed through the house. 'Didn't you hear me? Now shut your mouth, before I shut it for you!'
She felt herself shrinking until she was small, like a child... and powerless. Backing away, she turned and saw her son and daughter standing in the doorway, their eyes staring in pale faces. She touched their cheeks. 'It's alright. Go back to bed.'
His moaning woke her in the night. Frightened, she switched on the light and looked at him in the bed. He'd begun to writhe, twisting the sheet, sweat glistening on his skin. The meat had done its work and guilt fell on her like a suffocating shadow. She ran out of the house, her thin nightdress clinging to her legs and hammered on her neighbour's door, breathless. 'Jean, help me...please! Get Dan to phone from the corner box. It's Jack. He'll die.'
An ambulance was called, its bell ringing from streets away. Now the terrace was alive with its light and people stood in their doorways, peering, muttering, their arms folded over their dressing gowns. She took the crying children to Jean's and watched while the stretcher was carried out and lifted into the ambulance. Then she wrapped her coat around her shivering body, pulled her own front door closed and stepped up into the vehicle.
At the hospital she sat in a corridor. A doctor appeared, but ignored her. Nurses bustled through swing doors, pre-occupied. She re-called the kitchen scene. She'd told him not to eat the sausages but he'd wanted his own way as usual. She heard her own weak voice, saw his bulk looming over her. She should really have thrown the sausages away or hidden them in a cupboard before he could see them.
A doctor called her into an office, looked at her sternly. 'Your husband's seriously ill with food poisoning. He's been ranting about some sausages. Would you know if...? We've pumped out his stomach but it may be too late. Blood pressure and temperature... both dangerously high.'
Through the night she remained in the corridor, sometimes sitting, sometimes pacing along its length. She thought about the children and how she'd cope if Jack died. She stared through a window, out over the hospital grounds where the dawn light touched the sides of buildings and threw long damp shadows across the grass. Then the doctor approached, shaking his head. Her husband had suffered a fatal heart attack but there were queries regarding the food poisoning. His case would have to be referred to the coroner. A nurse took her into the room where Jack's body now lay under a clean sheet, his face and arms showing. She touched a hand, the rough skin fast cooling. She looked at the broad forehead, its normal ruddy colour draining away into greyness, and then at the lines around the mean mouth which would never shout at her again.
At home she slipped inside and sat in darkness, the curtains closed, grateful that the street outside was quiet. Jean had taken the children to school but their father's death would have to be explained when they got home. His body was now in the mortuary. Other people would be examining it, filling in the documents.
She dozed fitfully in an armchair until late afternoon when a knock on the front door roused her. Two men from the coroner's office were 'checking the address... the paperwork, you know'. They glanced over the kitchen, took their time shuffling through tins and packets in the cupboard, looked over the bread and cheese in the larder. They asked about the supper she'd made the previous evening... where she'd bought the food, how long it had been stored and how she'd cooked it. She stumbled with her answers. The men gazed at her with bland faces.
'Regarding the sausages, when exactly...?'
'I wanted to take them away.'
'But you cooked them for your husband. Didn't you?'
'I tried to...' She began to cry, her head in her hands. She had never known such tiredness. There was a sound from the hall, light footsteps, and then her daughter's voice in the doorway.
'She was making something else for him. But he shouted at her. He wanted the sausages so he fried them himself and ate them. I saw him.'
The girl stood calmly, staring at the men and then crossed the room to the armchair. The mother reached out for her hand, looked up into her eyes and nodded.
The family sat together at the table. The mother had grilled thick slices of cheese on toast for her son and daughter. They bit into the warm bubbled layers, and laughed as the strings stretched and dangled down onto their plates. Then, enjoying their excitement, she carried in the mysterious fruit bowl covered with Christmas paper. She was earning enough now from the morning cleaning and her afternoon grocery job to save a little extra for a treat. The wrapping was pulled off and the children gazed at the tangerines. They picked them up, stroking the tight orange skins, sniffing their tangy scent. She showed them how easily they could tear the peel, and watched as they bit into the miniature segments.
'They're like oranges but sweeter. Got them new in the shop, special for Christmas.'
2nd Place - Pink Squares, Yellow Squares
I knew I'd miss England. And sure enough I missed drab autumn skies that make gold and copper leaves seem all the more vivid; the sounds of an expectant crowd at the football as the home team storms forward; rows of Georgian town houses -- these brought a lump to my throat when I thought of them. But they weren't the one thing that made my exile impossible, that made me realise that life with Madison in Florida was never going to last...
As soon as I got there that I realised how much it was a part of my life. It sounds like a joke, I know it does. I can't help the truth though can I? And I couldn't help how I really felt. Maybe it's all connected but I don't feel I'm some nostalgic Goodbye Mr Chips Englishman that couldn't adapt. I'd think of the rough yet soft dark yellow surface, like its own shell with the precious softness inside and the feeling when cutting it as though the knife was an extension of my fingers. My mouth would water and I'd think of a good, strong English cup of tea as the perfect accompaniment. A square and within this square four small squares; pink square over yellow, yellow over pink; pink next to yellow, yellow next to pink. At nights I'd dream of a palace of pink and yellow squares, pink and yellow tiled floors, walls and ceilings; a giant chessboard of pink and yellow with pink and yellow pieces.
I met Madison completely by chance and it just clicked. Everything seemed right, everything was right. And how often does that happen? How could I know moving to Florida would be such a disaster? I'd had enough of dear old England and a new start was just what was needed. Maddy's parents would put us up while we found our feet. We were engaged and life was exciting if uncertain. Should I blame myself? I say again I couldn't know I'd feel this way -- I didn't even know you couldn't get it in Florida -- hadn't even checked -- that's how little an issue I'd thought it.
Once it was in my mind there was no shifting it. It came back with alarming frequency, germinating between my ears though I purposely tried to discourage the notion and shut it out. The nutty sweet smell as you open the packet, the pattern of the checkerboard squares inside the yellow case -- it was like when as a kid you find a particularly satisfying conker, the warm polished-wood gleam only revealed after splitting the green jerkin case and seeing it there perfect lying snug and tight, waiting for you and you alone to prise it free. It was something I was suddenly aware could be no more.
I know people won't understand. They'll think I never really loved Maddy. How could something this trivial be more important than being with the one you love, the one you feel it written in the stars that you should be with? And of course, it's not. I picture her now -- in sunglasses on the beach, that white perfect smile and that infectious laugh that could break through at any moment. Then the image changes and I'm looking into her lambent dark pools of eyes, losing myself as she looks back and I return to that feeling of connection, the same way a piece of music plays with something inside of you that there's no way of defining. Maddy's gaze from underneath her chestnut fringe gave me the same turbulent, exciting, exhilaration of Grieg's piano concerto. It's magic can't be explained in words.
It wasn't a choice. I don't care what anyone says. It's not like I woke one morning and thought I'm going to choose Battenberg cake ahead of Madison Jarvis -- anymore than when I went with her to Florida or asked her to marry me I was choosing her over Battenberg cake. Something inside me changed, made me miserable. Something nagged -- I persuaded myself that maybe the cake was symbolic for England as a whole and that I just couldn't cope with the change. That's what I had to tell her and her family and anyone who asked. That's just about acceptable. What isn't acceptable is the truth -- I couldn't be in a place where there was no shop selling cake of pink and yellow squared crumb surrounded by smooth marzipan.
There are times I hate Battenberg cake -- the smell of it, the taste of it. Yet I can't leave her alone. Her hold over me is vice-like. She's my very own Salome, my Mildred from Of Human Bondage. She has to merely click her fingers and I'll come running, breathless with anticipation, willing to obey her every whim. Poor Maddy had no chance against this pied piper leading her fiancee a merry dance. So, I did her a favour in the long run, ending things when I did -- how wonderfully altruistic of me...
Back in England I had to regroup. I slept on the floor of a friend or two for a while and then I got employment and my own cell-like room in a shared house. Life drifted along in the unfocused way I'd been accustomed to -- reverting back to similar patterns -- the commute that soon meant you were going through the motions each morning and evening in a state of half-stupor; going out with the work crowd on a Friday; tea in bed on Sundays; an occasional exhibition or concert; a quick awkward chat with housemates whilst making a basic evening meal. I'd think of Maddy but most of the time it was as if she'd never happened and it'd all been a dream. She was part of another life belonging to someone else.
I almost forgot why Florida had gone wrong. In the back of my mind I had it down as one of those things -- that it wasn't meant to be, had been a decision made by both of us and that it was best. It was easier that way, of course. It was only when I ate the cake I couldn't persuade myself of anything other than the truth. Then I'd feel awful guilt and shame and would go for weeks without having any until the habit formed of popping into a corner shop on the way back from work to pick up milk and she'd be there, lying on the shelf, content and patient, waiting just for me. Every time I bought milk or cereal I'd also buy the pink and yellow squared cake. It was painful but I was an addict and this was my drug. It wasn't about being happy or miserable or anything other than compulsion.
An Old Lover
It seemed she was my constant. Nothing could take her away from me. A slice or two as pudding after supper; a day off and the satisfaction of laying out perfect domino slices one on top of another. I have a green plate with a leaf design that came from my parents and the pink and yellow looks so fine on it. I spin the plate, see a kaleidoscope of whirling colour and am able to believe anything I want.
Back In Time
That's got to be a habit too -- spinning the plate. I have a flashback as I watch the spinning colours -- my sixth birthday. On the table there are sweets, jellies, biscuits, crisps and cakes. I see the hand with the knife, carefully slicing through the marzipan crust, letting thin slices fall gently and my father's voice. 'Can't beat a bit of Battenberg, eh, Alfie?' Then I hear the gentle rumble of his laugh. He's arranging the slices on the tablecloth in front of me and I realise he's making pictures. A bourbon biscuit is a door and then two slices of the pink and yellow checked squares become windows. Then a different composition and a face appears --a slice of the pink and yellow is the nose. Two jammy dodger biscuits make the eyes. The mouth is a wafer biscuit turned on one side and dark horizontal lines going across the pale yellow body. I laugh wildly and my father, carried away by his success makes himself a set of teeth from orange peel, resulting in screams of joy from me and my little friends and tinkling laughter from my mother. It may sound stupid but I sometimes think it the happiest moment of my life. Where did those days go?
Antonia was a friend of a friend. We made each other laugh. She came to my place, I went to hers. We went to the cinema and to restaurants like a normal couple. For a while it seemed like I might have a chance of a healthy relationship and a healthy existence. And this was safe. Or so I thought.
I don't know how seriously she took my poetic musings. I'd talk of the sweetness of the shell-like case with the grains of sugar sporadically placed and on the way on biting into a slice one quarter would separate into your mouth, would ease away from the glue, leaving the three companion squares forever -- then again, even I didn't know how serious I was being -- I really didn't. It made her laugh and that made me happy. And why would it matter now? I could enjoy Battenberg and have a girlfriend at the same time.
Then came the moment when it all came to a head. Things had been going so well. Antonia now had a key to my flat. I'd finished work one day and was weary. I hadn't expected her to be there but it wasn't that that bothered me. I heard her call out as I opened the door and went in. She was sitting at the table and in front of her was an empty plate with crumbs on and an empty wrapper. It was my Battenberg -- she'd finished off my Battenberg. My face must have told her everything as she suddenly looked frightened. ''I hope you don't mind but I was hungry and this was all I could find'' she squeaked, large-eyed, mouse-like. She gave a little smile and then I had no control. I wasn't me. I was someone else, something else...
Antonia fled. And thank God she did. I was mad -- literally insane. Now I know what's meant by the term 'seeing red' -- there it was -- a block of vivid, pulsing colour in front of me and I could hear my own voice shouting -- I have no idea what -- and Antonia was scurrying out of the room and the flat and then down the staircase onto the street and away. I looked down and was surprised to see I had a knife in my hand. I put it down, went to the bathroom and filled the basin with cold water and plunged my head in. As I came out it felt like it couldn't have happened. And it surely couldn't, could it -- not over the last bit of Battenberg cake...
Trying to convince myself
I wonder if Antonia will have informed the police. I wonder if she'll ever speak to me again. Am I mad I ask myself again and again. I sit and try to brainwash myself. I play 'A Man Loves a Woman' over and over. You might think you know it but play it again and really listen. It starts off like it could be a piece of classical Baroque music; then suddenly Percy Sledge's voice comes in with such power and heartfelt yearning that it has to be real. It's about how love for a woman is all important. It's about me and Antonia and of course she's more important than Battenberg. But the second the music dies, I'm back to dreaming of pink and yellow squares...
3rd Place - Having your Cake
Cath opened the door at his first tap. George sidled in, shucking off his mackintosh. His stomach rumbled as the smells from the kitchen pervaded the hall. He closed his eyes as he gave her a hug and a squeeze. He sometimes thought that being with Cath was the only thing that made life bearable. Mind you, he'd have to be careful. The Prudential took a dim view of their agents getting too cosy with clients. He'd consoled her after William's sudden death -- and now they comforted each other.
He savoured the aroma as he followed her down the hall to the sitting room. The routine never wavered. He kicked off his shoes, undid his tie, slipped off his jacket as she waited to hand him his Guinness and newspaper. With a sigh of pleasure he sank into the warmth of his very own chair (the dear departed husband had liked his creature comforts) as Cath returned to the kitchen. The table was laid for two on a snowy white cloth and he quickly assessed the cutlery. Three courses. He carefully undid his trouser button as these wonderful meals were doing nothing for his waistline. Not that George cared, not a jot.
As he tasted the tomato (hot from a tin) soup he smiled at Cath. She'd discarded her pinny and her face was flushed from the heat of the oven. Her blousiness was sexy in an old-fashioned kind of way. She fixed her hair like the stars of wartime films and its fair waves fell to her shoulders. He could see the plump contours of her breasts and little rivulets of sweat as she leaned over him to tuck the napkin under his chin. She so wanted to please.
She told him in rather monotonous detail how she had selected the ingredients and cooked them. All he had to do was to 'umm' a few times. The home-made bread, thick with butter he dunked until the grease left a pleasing pattern over the surface of the bowl.
'More soup George? There's plenty.'
He made appreciative noises.
'I'm saving room for the main event, darlin'. That was very tasty indeed.' He burped to give emphasis to his words. She giggled, flushing even deeper with the pleasure of the compliment and collected the dishes. George slipped his braces down. Even they were becoming a little tight.
She smelled of sweat, hasty hygiene and a mingling of all the food they'd eaten (steak and kidney pie followed by spotted dick and custard) as they coupled in her big double bed. It was quick, (it always was) and he had the feeling that she only put up with it so that she could have a cuddle. She whispered that it was having no one to share her bed that made her feel so lonely. He didn't have time for that. He gave a discrete belch. It was time to make for home.
'Can you come Friday George? I know it's your birthday. I want to make you something special.'
George considered this as he scrabbled for his socks and clothes in the half light of the bedroom. Marge served behind the bar at the King's Arms every Friday as Cath knew. As long as he was back to look after Jane she wouldn't bother where he was. He was certain that his birthday would not change the Friday night ritual. He tried to remember if there ever had been a time when Marge wanted to make him something special; if she had the memory was long gone.
He let himself in, closing the door with a careful click. The house was silent and unwelcoming, the ashes long cold in the grate. They were both in bed then. He was relieved. Switching on the kitchen light he could see a tin of spam sitting forlornly on the Formica table beside two slices of sliced white bread. She never asked him where or what he ate when he was on his travels. Food did not interest Marge. As long as she had her fags and a drop of sweet sherry she was happy. Frustration and disappointment rose to join in the indigestion as he thrust the tin back into the cupboard.
The week was hectic and tiring but the thought of Friday and the pleasures to come kept him going. He had to be home before eight so Marge could get to work. It would be a mad rush to get around everyone on payday and enjoy his birthday treat at Cath's but it would be worth it.
He smiled at Jane over breakfast. She was a funny little thing -- plain as a box of nails with none of her mother's hard good looks. She'd made him a card and had bought him mint humbugs out of her own meagre pocket money. She called him Dad but she knew he wasn't her real Dad though they never spoke of it. He could have been a dad; he married Marge when she told him she was in the family way. 'Up the duff,' she'd said crudely and of course he'd believed her, why wouldn't he?
He did the decent thing but it was a false alarm, apparently. He never knew the truth but he was suspicious, feeling the foolishness of many men before him.
He stopped himself from becoming maudlin. Marge removed her cigarette long enough to peck him on the cheek and deliver a pair of socks in a brown paper bag.
'Happy birthday George.' Her boredom showed in every word.
He thought of Friday.
Cath's table was laid with best crystal and flowers like a posh hotel probably looked; George had little experience of such things. The meal was magnificent. He'd never eaten Dublin prawns before, plump, glistening in the aromatic Marie Rose sauce with crumbly freshly baked rolls. She'd even bought white wine which George realised should have been his contribution. Ah well, It was his birthday after all. Sweet and rather warm, George didn't think if was a patch on Guinness but he loved the experience and kept his preference to himself.
'That's Friday fish taken care of. A man like you needs red meat George.'
He couldn't remember when he'd last had steak. She must have spent a fortune.
Cath produced a second bottle -- this time a rich burgundy.
'Must have red wine with steak George.' He couldn't have agreed more.
The meat was melt-in-the-mouth; it cut as a knife through butter and was cooked to perfection The sauce was mushroomy; the chips crisp and delicious. If he could have licked the plate he would.
Ah, to top it all off ... pudding.
Not a cake but his favourite, lemon meringue pie. Cath carried it in singing 'Happy Birthday' slightly off-key. The golden crispness of the mounds of meringue made his mouth water. Carefully she cut into the case easing out the first slice. The meringue was pristine perfection and beneath that glistened the gold of the lemon filling.
He admired it from every angle. 'It looks too good to eat!' He breathed in the citrus sharpness. Slowing, savouring every moment, he took his first bite.
He had seconds; too much he knew but he couldn't resist. He would have liked to curl up under the eiderdown and drift into a blissful sleep but he still performed, with speed if not finesse. Dressing quickly he realised he'd have to hurry to get home for eight. Cath pressed herself into his back encircling him, slowing him down.
'I don't know how much longer I can do this George. This hole in the corner affair, surely I'm worth more than just being your bit on the side.' She wiped away her tears with a shaky hand. 'You said you don't love Marge -- how she makes you miserable and if it wasn't for the kid you'd walk out so why don't you? Think of the life we can have together!'
This again. Every so often she'd get upset and spoil a lovely evening. He tried hard not to show his irritation; he usually managed to talk her round.
'I mean it this time George. You just want your cake and eat it and it can't go on. You'll have to choose. Them or me. Promise you'll think about it.'
He thought of nothing else on the journey home. He had never been so adamant. He could not contemplate a life without Cath and if it meant leaving Marge then he would but what about Jane? He cared for her, sure he did but it wasn't as if she was his flesh and blood was it? She'd be okay and as like as not Marge would find another sucker to take his place. By all accounts she had plenty of admirers across the pub bar.
Yeah, Jane would be fine and before you knew it she'd be leaving home anyway. Besides, it wasn't as if he saw that much of her with school and work. She'd soon forget about him. Pleased with his resolution and now eager to put things into motion he arrived home.
He was late. Marge had already left. Jane was washing up at the sink standing on a stool to reach, her skinny frame wrapped in Marge's apron. Poor kid. She never complained, was never any bother. He felt a stab of guilt as she scrambled down to give him a wonderful welcome, hugs with wrap-around limbs. He decided then she'd be the first to know his decision. Only fair, get her used to the idea that he was going to leave before he told her mum.
But before he could start Jane said, 'I've a surprise for you Dad. Sit at the table ad close your eyes.' He obliged, feeling the gurgling of too much food. He needed his bicarb. She closed the pantry door and placed something in front of him.
'You can open your eyes now.'
'You said it was your favourite and I found out how to make it. Mum said it was alright as long as I cleared up after and I bought a packet and it tells you how to do it.' She was anxious now, concerned at his stillness.
Lemon meringue pie.
The baking tin sat on the table, black and slightly rusty looking as if it had lain untouched for a long time at the back of a dusty cupboard. He hoped she had washed it well but stopped himself from asking.
The pastry, lumpy and pale, was covered thinly with a yellow layer that George could only describe as bilious. In the middle lay a puddle of egg white, not long enough baked.
'It doesn't look much like the picture on the packet but I've never seen a lemon meringue pie so I didn't know.' She frowned and pressed her lips together. Her disappointment was tangible.
His treacherous mind was already comparing the two dishes; and despite himself his dismay showed on his face.
'I wanted to make you something special,' she whispered, 'cos you work so hard for us and ... I wish you were my real dad.'
His self-disgust overwhelmed him. How could he even think of leaving this child who loved him unconditionally? She deserved better, better than her mother and better than him. He'd sort something out but hurting Jane would not be an option. Cath would see sense; he'd make sure she did. He reached out and pulled the tin towards him.
'It looks delicious, darlin'. Get a knife and cut me the biggest slice you can. I'm going to eat every bit!'
About our Judge
Helen Yendall writes short stories and serials for women's magazines and is a former Poet Laureate for Warwick. She's been placed in several short story competitions, has taught creative writing since 2008 and often runs flash fiction writing competitions on her blog: