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International Short Story Contest

Third short story contest winners

The Third International Short Story Contest closed on May 1, 2007. Deliberation over the final line-up of winners was long and hard, but by August 2007 the following successful entrants were announced:

Winners

Congratulations to Christine Cox of St Leonards on Sea, United Kingdom, who wins £200 for her story, "A Child's First Dictionary". The story is published below.

"I was very surprised and delighted to win this competition.

I've loved writing stories since I was at primary school, but I've only ever done it sporadically, having been busy with the family and my work. I have several jobs: I'm a counsellor/hypnotherapist, I teach personal development classes (assertiveness, stress management etc.), and sometimes English as a Foreign Language. I live in Hastings, England with my husband. We have four grown-up children, five grandchildren, and the number is growing...

I've made a few attempts at short stories over the years. One of them came second in a local competition, but this is the only one that has ever come first, and none of them has been published. Nor has any of my other stuff, except a few magazine articles, several years ago.

My latest project is a magic realism novel about colourful monkeys. The theme is friendship, learning to get on together, and how this can make people happy. So far it's been rejected by all the publishers and agents I've sent it to. But it's been tried out on a class of 9-10 year olds, who all loved it, so I know it's worth persevering to get it into print. Winning this competition has given a big boost to my confidence, and has made me more determined than ever to do it somehow."

Ten special commendations go out to the following entrants (in no particular order):

A Child's First Dictionary

By Christine Cox

dictionary n. a book that explains the meanings of words. I wished.

Ours was a very respectable street. The houses were detached, with large gardens front and back, and the verges full of trees that blossomed in the spring. Our neighbours, tall and gangly Mr Amos, short and fat Mr Nicholson, said: "Good morning," and raised their hats to my mother as we passed them on our way to the bus stop.

"Always so gentlemanly!" exclaimed Mum, as though she were surprised by their good manners. I had no idea why she should be. Mum had a habit of making remarks to me that I couldn't understand, without explaining them.

"Are Mr Amos and Mr Nicholson brothers?" I asked. My mother laughed, the sort of knowing laugh she gave when I asked her why Mr Greaves and Mrs Keeting, who lived at number 22, had different surnames, or told her that Roberto Gigli's mother was only going to marry his uncle if he got promotion.

"No, just friends," she said.

"Why do they live together, then?"
"Friends do, sometimes."

"Did Mr Amos get lonely, after his mother died?"

"That's enough questions. We'll miss the bus."

But I knew Mum had been shocked when she discovered that Mr Nicholson was living with Mr Amos, because I was there at the time. It happened a few weeks after old Mrs Amos's funeral. Mr Amos invited us in to watch the Coronation on his television, because we didn't have one. We were sitting there on the sofa, Mum and I, while our host tuned in the TV, and we heard clinking noises coming from the kitchen. "You've visitors, have you, Mr Amos?" asked Mum, and at that moment a short, round, baldish man appeared at the lounge door, carrying a tray of tea and delicious-smelling shortbread. As if this were not surprising enough, he put the tray down on the table, and proceeded to pour the tea. This I had never seen a man do before. But what truly astonished me was his apron: the fact that he was wearing one at all, and the fact that it had flowers on it.

I must have been gaping, because Mum nudged me vigorously.

"This is Mr Nicholson," announced Mr Amos, without any further explanation.

Mr Nicholson beamed at us. "Delighted, I'm sure," he said, in a posh, fruity, old-fashioned voice. "Do have some of my freshly made shortbread!"

"Is Mr Nicholson a baker?" I asked on the way home. But I only got the laugh, the maddening laugh, that mocked me for my ignorance whilst keeping me in it; and Mum went back to muttering: "Well I never! Would you believe it? Oh dear, oh dear, that apron!" to herself.

"What is he then?" I persisted.

"Oh – a solicitor, he said, retired. Though I can hardly believe it. It's a blessing the poor old lady's gone, that's all. She'd turn in her grave if she knew." My mother's voice had taken on a more sombre tone. "Turn in her grave," she repeated.

"Didn't Mrs Amos like solicitors?" I asked.

solicitor n. a lawyer who advises people and defends them in a lower court of law.

This was the first word I looked up when Granny gave me "A Child's First Dictionary". She brought it when she came to stay, and I, a solitary, serious child, who liked words, was delighted. I decided to learn a new one every day.

I was glad of the dictionary, too, because I was chosen to represent the family in accompanying Granny to Chapel, in my Sunday suit, white shirt with the scratchy, starched collar, red tie and red sleeveless pullover that Granny had knitted me. The Bible readings were full of strange words that no-one explained.

The dictionary wasn't any help with most of them though, as it turned out. "Harlot" simply wasn't in there, and neither was "circumcision", even when I looked under "s".

I looked up "queer" after I heard it from Colin Smith. It was when my ball landed in Mr Amos's garden, and I went to knock on his door to ask if I could search for it. Colin, who was big and scary and had a reputation for wildness, had parked his motorbike on the pavement, and was sitting on it, smoking and chatting to a friend. "You don't want to go in there!" Colin called out to me as I carefully opened and closed the garden gate. "They're queer in there, they are!" The friend sniggered.

I knocked in spite of them, but there was no reply.

queer adj. 1. strange, unusual. 2. unwell.

I knew this of course, because my father always said: "That's queer!" when he thought he'd left his pipe or false teeth in a certain place, and they weren't there; and Granny often talked about Auntie May's "queer turns", and how Uncle Albert had passed away so suddenly, having only been "taken queer" the day before. But none of this explained the snigger.

I was squeezed into my favourite hiding place: the space between the gooseberry bushes, where, they said, I had been found as a baby, and Mr Amos's fence. I was studying the dictionary when my ball came flying over my head, skimmed the bushes, and landed on the grass beyond. I stood up and perched one-legged on a thin tree stump to look over the fence, and saw the short, round figure of Mr Nicholson, inspecting a row of beans.

"Thank you, Mr Nicholson!" I called out.

"Ah, Peter! There you are." He came over, beaming at me. "I've just made some jam tarts. And Mr Amos has some things for you. He's been clearing out his loft. Would you like to come and see?"

I returned from Mr Amos's house carrying "Pirate Tales for Boys", a stamp album, and a box labelled "Meccano".

I was late for tea, and there were guests: a thin, nervous-looking man in round glasses and a dog collar and a pretty, plump, kind-looking lady beside him. I deposited my trophies on the table, sat down, and took the lid off the Meccano box.

Disappointingly, it contained lead soldiers and old coins; but there was also a penknife that looked promising.

"Manners, Peter!" snapped Granny. "Say 'Good afternoon' to Mr and Mrs Trimble.

You know Mr Trimble, don't you?" I recognised him now: the young minister who had appeared at Chapel to "fill in" while the old one was – somewhere I couldn't remember. "Mr and Mrs Trimble won't be with us long," continued Granny. "They're off to the missions." It sounded as if they were due to board ship as soon as we'd finished tea. "He's missed grace and I'll vouch he's not washed his hands." Returning to the subject of me, Granny addressed this to my mother. But I knew Mum wouldn't do anything about either of those things.

"What have you got there, Peter?" Mrs Trimble asked me.

"Some toys and books from Mr Amos next door. He's been turning out his loft."

"You have a nice, friendly neighbour then."

"Yes. And Mr Nicholson is very nice too. He gave me jam tarts that he'd just made."

"Peter! You've never – you've not been in –" began Granny, aghast. "Marjorie," (to my mother), "he's been with – You shouldn't let the lad – You never know what he might – Well, if I were his mother, I wouldn't allow it." Granny at last managed to finish a sentence.

Ever willing to stand up for people, but in awe of her mother-in-law, and suffering from a similar sentence-completion disability, my mother said feebly: "Oh, I don't know – They always seem – I mean, you'd never think – He's a bank manager, you know, Mr – and his mother was very –"

"That's as may be," interrupted Granny. Then, in a whisper, but still loud enough for us all to hear: "but it is an abomination, Marjorie!", then louder: "An abomination. Leviticus Chapter 11. Is that not right Mr Trimble?"

The nervous young minister, in the act of eating a shrimp sandwich, looked confused and then alarmed, went red, said: "I – er –" and appeared to be struck with an even worse dose of sentence-curtailing disease than the other two. Attempting to swallow the piece of sandwich in his mouth, Mr Trimble choked.

"We shall miss you both when you're in Africa," my mother told our guests emphatically. "Things won't be the same without you at all," she added with apparent feeling, though she was C of E, and had never met either of them before. She poured Mr Trimble more tea, while his wife thumped him on the back.

But Granny stuck to her point. "Well, it's not a healthy place for a little lad to go visiting, that's what I say" she pronounced. "It's not healthy at all."

"Oh!" I piped up, because at last I had understood something they said. If it was health they were worrying about, I could set their minds at rest. "It's alright," I continued eagerly. "Mr Amos and Mr Nicholson aren't queer any more. They might have been queer, but they're not queer at all now!"

In the silence that followed, it became clear to me that my words had not had the desired effect. I slid out of my seat and bolted to the gooseberry bush. The word-destroying sickness must have finally struck them all dumb, because no-one even called me back for leaving the table without permission.

I took the lid off the collection of valuables I kept in a half-buried cake-tin: conkers, a box of matches, a compass for my planned trip to the North Pole, half a packet of Spangles and the dictionary. I added the penknife, which I had sneaked out in my pocket, knowing they would say it was too sharp for me, even though it was rusty.

I took out the dictionary and looked up "abomination". It wasn't there; "abominable" would have to do.

abominable adj. hateful, as an abominable crime.

But our neighbours hadn't committed a crime; they had only been kind to me. What could be hateful about home-baking and handed-down toys? Disgusted with its unhelpfulness, I put the dictionary back in the tin.

It was over a year before I got it out again. The conkers were mouldy, the matches damp and unlightable, the penknife jammed with rust, and the Spangles a squishy mess. The compass still told me where North was, but I knew, by then, that there was more to Arctic exploration than that. The pages of the dictionary had black spots on them, but I could still read:

solicitor n. a lawyer who advises people and defends them in a lower court of law.

During that year, I hadn't been allowed to visit our neighbours' house again, and, while Granny was with us, my mother had only nodded to them, instead of chatting over the fence, as she'd been accustomed to do. But Granny wasn't there when Mr Nicholson died suddenly from a heart attack: she'd gone home. So Mum went to Mr Nicholson's funeral. A few days later, I went with her to take a fruit cake she had baked round to Mr Amos. He thanked us profusely, but the gift seemed to depress rather than cheer him. Mum's cooking was not a patch on Mr Nicholson's: the cake had sunk in the middle, and Mr Amos's heart seemed to sink further when he saw it.

He continued to go to the bank each weekday morning, in his pinstriped suit, but he never appeared in the back garden, which Mum said was "going to rack and ruin". I lost several balls in it, because she wouldn't let me bother him by knocking on the door to get them back.

I had taken to reading the Daily Express, frightening myself with tales of children who disappeared and were later found dead in a cellar with their feet cut off, or buried in a shallow grave. But it was in the local newspaper that I saw the headline: "Bank Manager Charged with Soliciting", and in smaller writing, underneath: "Arrested in Public Convenience." The newspaper was removed from under my nose, but not before I had seen the name: Mr Walter Amos.

"Soliciting" was another omission from my dictionary, but it was obvious to me that it must be what solicitors did. Mr Amos was a bank manager, of course, not a solicitor, but perhaps he had learnt soliciting from Mr Nicholson, who had been one. Only what could be wrong with telling people about the law, even if a toilet was an odd place to do it? I sighed, and chucked the useless dictionary into Mr Amos's weed-choked garden.

The next day, there was a commotion at Mr Amos's house. Looking out of the landing window, I saw a policeman standing outside the front door, and an ambulance parked in the street. Two men came out of the house, carrying a stretcher. I recognised Mr Amos's feet, which the red blanket did not quite cover. It covered his face, though, and I knew what that meant. I knew it was an abomination.

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