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International Short Story Contest

Fourth short story contest winners

The Fourth International Short Story Contest closed on May 1, 2008. Deliberation over the final line-up of winners was long and hard, but by July 2008 the following successful entrants were announced:

Winners

Congratulations to Paul McGuire of Merseyside, United Kingdom, who wins £200 for his story, "Alice's Bones". The story is published below.

Paul is 57 years old and was born in Liverpool into a working class family. He has worked in many different and diverse jobs, from building sites to office jobs and musician to driving instructor. Watching people and situations over the years has fed a vast reservoir of material which he uses in his stories.

He started writing when he was 17 but became distracted by unsuccessful marriages, four children and a degree in Law. But he never lost the desire to write and his observations of life went on.

Seven years ago he decided to seriously start putting into form these characters. He attended many courses studying under people like Jim Bennett (The Man Who Hugs Clouds) and Lynda Thompson (writer for Casualty and Doctors). He has also attended workshops at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool which were run by accomplished writers and directors.

In October Paul will be studying for an M.A. in writing under Jim Friel at Liverpool John Moores University. He is currently involved in writing a book.

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

Alice's Bones

By Paul McGuire

When I was a young girl, we had a garden. In the grotty part, between the garage and the fence, there was a flower. There by itself, fragile, out of place, but surviving – just.

Can you believe I use to talk to it? Tell it, the goings-on, things I couldn’t tell anyone else.

Do you know what I mean? Do you really? Because that was me, then.

History repeats itself, that’s what I say.

I’ve got two kids now; Thomas and Ellie. Or I did have until the social took them away. I’ve got two other kids, besides them, who also aren’t here. But they never were, not in the way that you imagine. They were like actors, they peeped through the curtain, saw the audience and thought no, not this time. They disappeared back into the ether, waiting for the next show.

All of my children have different fathers and my husband, Michael, isn’t the father to any of them. But my father is. He gave them his smile, through me. Vicariously stamped on their little faces – poor things.

So I wander around the house, trying to leave these thoughts behind. As I move forward, the breeze washes through the holes in my head, but the holes that let them out, let them back in.

Words are my friends at the moment. I look for them in books, magazines, anywhere. And they smile at me and I smile back. They sit comfortably inside me, warm and reassuring, speaking the same language as I do. I take the words and sit them on the page side by side, they try to make sense of me; telling the bones of Alice. I cry onto the page sometimes, and the letters swim and take on incongruous poses.

Michael works with computers. Everything to him is black or white, this or that. But I love him so much that it hurts not to be the person he wants and needs; no not needs, he’s a very independent person.

I’ve become nocturnal, because I don’t sleep with him anymore. But I peep around the bedroom door, when he’s asleep. He’s in the foetal position, snoring gently and dreaming his digital dreams.

I’m not independent, I just appear to be. I want to shout, ‘I’m a wreck at the age of twenty five,’ but I fear someone will come and eat me up once they know. Crunching impassively on Alice’s bones, and no one will ever know who she was, not even Alice. I think I want my children back before I get eaten, to shout, ‘Mummy, please don’t go.’

I met Michael in a club the year after the kids had been taken. We were both there because we had to be. Him, on a Christmas night out and me on the worst date I have ever been on. They played a dance version of Jingle Bells and he rolled up his jacket sleeves and danced like someone in the seventies and I fell in love with his vulnerability. It made me feel safe.

I was wearing a little black dress for this divvy I was with. Awkward though, after trackies and trainers, but I think I looked good. Had the figure for it; my best friend crack was looking after that.

I’m off it now.

Just one dance, then we escaped, got married and I don’t let him dance now.
I hope he waits for me, until I’m okay. I need to tell him I’m working on it like crazy. Michael, we will make love again one day, honestly, it’s just with my dad and all that stuff, you know how it does my head in.

Michael pops his head around the door of the study, ‘Good night darling, don’t stay up too late.’ And then, ‘Good morning darling, I didn’t hear you come to bed or get up.’

Bless him, that to him is being married.

Oh and by the way, Michael, don’t call me darling, I do have a name you know. It makes me feel amorphous, being called darling.

Oh yes, I have a study now. Michael’s provided a four bedroom house but all I can see are two rooms empty of a Thomas and an Ellie.

I call my study Wonderland. Get it? I have a sign on the door, ‘Alice’s in Wonderland.’

‘Do you think that’s a good idea darling?’

‘What?’

‘The Wonderland thing, you know, on your door.’

‘Why?’

‘Well in case you-know-who come.’

‘You know who?’

‘Social Services.’

‘Suppose you’re right.’ I just put it back up when he goes to bed.

The Social won’t say when they’re coming, they say they’re busy – I don’t know about that.

So I wait, look at pictures of them smiling in their foster-parent-bought school uniforms.

They did live with me, when I had the bed-sit. I went to the DHS one day for some money. ‘Would you send your kids to school without a uniform, love? No I thought not.’

I sat Thomas and Ellie on the counter.

‘Well you look after them, because I as sure as fuck can’t.’

They did look after them. I cried all the way home.

I get access, every two weeks now.

Christ, don’t put them up for adoption, I’m getting my act together.

I can’t smell a pillow or hold their unwashed pyjamas to my cheek. The parts of them I had, was lost in bin bags along the way, those precious memories on a tip somewhere. Maggots eating Ellie’s name tags, worms nibbling the crusts in Thomas’s lunch box that he drove me mad refusing to eat.

It’s the Saturday I get to see them.

Michael takes me to the end of the road where they live. I haven’t told them about him, Michael. Don’t want them thinking there’ll be strangers for breakfast, like there used to be.

They’d stare into their cereal, giggling or worried while this man’s hand crept up their mother’s dressing gown, still horny from the night before, wanting another morsel of my body before disappearing, never to ring. But I don’t care, I just want him to go and leave me some money.

As Michael’s car pulls up, I try to remember who those men at breakfast were. There’s a hundred faces on as many mornings. I flip through an identikit putting all the wrong features together, and then I remember that I am trying to forget.

I kiss Michael or he kisses me or we kiss this thing we call a marriage.

‘I’ll make my own way home.’

‘Okay darling.’ And the low hum of the engine takes him away.

The house where they are, is not as nice as mine, but it somehow feel better – there’s something mine will never have.

I want to see Ellie and Thomas, noses pressed against the glass, wanting mummy so badly, it hurts them in a raw, childlike way. But the net curtains hang perfectly undisturbed and I find myself wanting curtains exactly like them, even though I really hate nets.
Mrs Thompson appears, before I knock.

‘Hello Mrs Thompson.’ I hate myself for calling her Mrs Thompson, she’s not much older than me. I’m like my grandmother calling everybody Mr and Mrs because she thought they were all better than her, even the clubman was Mr Barton.

‘Hello Alice.’ She never invites me in. The kids are always ready. ‘See you in three hours then.’ My allocation is three hours, not a minute more. The price of getting to hold my kids’ unwashed pyjamas is to behave myself.

They look at each other with shy colluding glances, as though they’re going out with a strange Auntie; they feel safe but can’t communicate. I reach down to hold their hands which seem lower and stiffer as the weeks go by, and I feel like crying. But I smile at Mrs Thompson, who I know is reporting it all back.

May you rot in hell Mrs T. And I smile again.

Ellie and Thomas wave and smile at her, relaxed and willing and I wonder which side they are on.

And I now have three hours to kill. Poor kids.

I’m holding their hands too tightly, compensating for the limpness of theirs and this gulf which is between us.

There’s a lady at the Pier Head, I bet she has a really old fashioned name, like Rose. She looks kind. If she undid her hair, I think it would go down to her waist. Her husband probably hopes that only he has ever seen it that way, but is frightened to ask. I think she has a piano in her front room and an aspidistra which stands by the window in a pot, painted in pinks and greens.

We’re sitting on a bench, the Pier Head is salty. Ellie looks around me to attract her brother’s attention, but Thomas is elsewhere. I pretend not to notice, I’m watching the ferry go back and forth between Liverpool and New Brighton.

The old lady, Rose, loves pigeons, and they love her too, like I do. I want her to be my nana and show me her special aspidistra room (I bet she wouldn’t call clubman, Mr Barton).

Thomas, who’s eleven, has caught the eye of three girls sitting on the grass pretending to talk, but furtively looking at him. Their short skirts show grubby knickers and they wear bras which cover pimples on their chests – my son is hooked.

Ellie leans forward again tugging at Thomas’s trousers, but he isn’t registering.
They said you could get to America across this ocean, I only got as far as Seacombe before they brought me back.

Hi dad, business as usual?

Ellie leans forward again. This time she reaches over and tugs at the material of his trousers, again he doesn’t respond.

My kids’ clothes are old fashioned. They’re what Mrs Thompson thinks children should look like. My husband dresses our marriage in what he thinks it should look like.

Inappropriately clothing.

Ellie tries again, and I feel the soft skin of her arm on my bare leg, and I want Thomas to be preoccupied forever, so I can luxuriate in it.

Rose’s hair is in a bun and renegade strands move slightly behind the motion of her body. The sea breeze carries the smell of Lavender from her old black coat, forty denier stockings and leather shoes with straps across her still dainty ankles. She throws some grain in a well practiced arc.

Thomas, grumpy from his dreams snaps, ‘What do you want,’ at his sister, then smiles reassuringly at the grubby knickered girls. Then Ellie and Thomas look at me, suddenly realising, they’ve been completely unaware of this strange lady, they normally feel awkward with.

But there was something simple about that moment of anonymity, and I hope they noticed it. I think I just glimpsed what love really is. But as quickly as I do, it’s gone, and I launch back into the self conscious uncomfortable woman sitting between two children who don’t feel like hers. Ellie smiles at Thomas and Thomas smiles at the girls and I quickly look away.

My dad’s dead now, thank God.

But I can still feel him inside me.

The old lady pulls a plastic bag from her other pocket and reaches down to the feasting birds. I think her and the birds are so familiar, and so trusting that they’ll allow her to stroke them. She reaches out her still beautiful hand, but instead of stroking them it snaps tight around the bird. The action is nimble and well practiced; she’s done it many times before. The pigeon looks around shocked as she puts it into the plastic bag, and her index finger and thumb form a ring which slides up the bag tightening on the fluttering bird.

She looks at her audience and smiles angelically, then walks on.

Just like my dad.

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