Chalk Circle Short Story Competition 

Winners 2020

FIRST PRIZE

Always Something to do on a Saturday

Tom Watling

Saturday. It was lunchtime. I was on the loo when I was told. I hear the phone ring. The voice is soft, sporadic. His words seem hollowed out, as if only their outline is perceptible. The bad reception keeps cutting him out. I go outside to hear what he’s really trying to say but he’s gone. I call him back. Looking out to sea, I hear him pick up. “He’s dead,” he says. “Sam.” He apologises, then he says more stuff but I don’t hear it. I was on an island.

Saturday. It was early evening. We were at his house. There’s maybe thirty of us in his garden. It backs on to the park but no-one seems interested in that. There’s a boy, a big boy. He’s in the middle of everything: the garden, the boys, the drinks. He’s got some sort of vest on. Looks bullet-proof. I can see Sam behind him. He’s drunk. So am I. So is everyone. On beer but really cider. In a while, we’ll all leave and go to a party. It’s a Saturday, after all. There’s always something to do on a Saturday. But not right now. Sam starts running towards him, I follow his lead. He comes from behind, I come from the front. He fly-kicks him in the back, I fly-kick him in the chest. Enlivened and impaired we neglect to plan for the future. We’d rather wait to see the consequences. Someone could get hurt … But then again they could not. Why waste time for nothing? He ended up breaking his wrist.

Saturday. It was dark. We were up north. There’s quite a few of us. We haven’t seen each other for several months. That makes a great change from two years ago. Back then we saw each other every day. The northern chill is unfamiliar to most but not me. I lie and say I don’t feel a thing. He laughs and calls me out, and then calls me a ‘pussy’. In jumpers and hoodies we drink, our breath like little plumes of white smoke. Cigarettes only make that more apparent. The smoke comes out thicker. What to do we don’t know. There is no plan. All we know is it’s a Saturday. There’s always something to do on a Saturday. We drink. He screams. He shouts. Soon enough he gets himself kicked out. We were in the pub but now we’re in the street. We haven’t seen each other in several months. Maybe we’ll go out. I forget if we did or not.

Saturday. It was midmorning. We were in the pavilion. The crowd is gathering. We can hear them from outside the changing room. There’s no singing but a buzz, an encouraging sibilance born out of hundreds of disparate chitter-chatters. In the grand scheme of things who cares. It’s not that important. But it is to us today. Nothing is more important than this game today. We need to win. For everyone before us; for everyone after us. And we all know that. Soon we’ll go out onto the pitch and play. We’ll work harder than ever before, that’s what our coach says. We have tape on our heads, Sam and Tom and Tom, tape that makes us look like Michael Hooper. Our shorts are short and pulled up to our waists. In some ways we look quite effeminate. He has ‘L’ and ‘R’ written on his hands so he’s knows which way is which. In that way he looks quite ‘rugby’. Soon we’ll go out on that pitch and we’ll win. After that we’ll go out. We’ll grab a few beers (cider) and go out and see what happens. There’s no plan but it’s Saturday. There’s always something to do on a Saturday. That Saturday was no different.

Saturday. It was late afternoon. We were on a roof in Brixton. It’s Sam’s place. Well I suppose it’s not Sam’s place but his parents’ place but we don’t care. They said we could have it for tonight. There’s a few of us, misbehaving. Right from the minute he opened the front door you knew there would be misbehaving. You could tell by his big grin. He gives me a cider and I roll myself a menthol cigarette. You can see for miles, though there’s nothing much to see, just the tops of drab buildings. But that’s not the point. The possibilities are endless, that’s the point. We’re on a roof. We’re misbehaving. And it’s a Saturday. After we’re done here we’ll go somewhere else and after that we’ll go some other place. There’s always something to do on a Saturday. The next thing, as ever, was just waiting round the corner.

Saturday. It was night. We were up north again. I haven’t seen him for a long time. Maybe a year. We’ve been trying to hang out but couldn’t quite manage it. He travels a lot. I’m lazy. The last time we saw each other it had only been for a couple of hours in Brixton. But he’s here. I was told late that he might be coming but I didn’t believe it. Here he is, though, sitting in front of me, smiling. He’s smiling that same way he always smiles on a Saturday. He will be misbehaving tonight. You can just see it on his face, his fatter face. I’ve never seen him this fat. He won’t hear the end of that. He must have really stopped exercising. He says he isn’t playing rugby anymore and we all pretend to be surprised, but we’re not.. It’s pretty obvious. You can see he’s healthy in a weird kind of way, though. He’s happy. Fat people are always happy. We’re at the pub. It’s the same as always up here. It’s cold but I lie and say I don’t feel a thing. In jumpers and hoodies we drink, our breath like little plumes of white smoke. Cigarettes only make that more apparent. The smoke comes out thicker. No cider or menthols anymore, though, just lager and normal cigarettes. We’re men now. Or at least we’re not boys. Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves. Later that night I see Sam piss in a bottle, reseal it and give it to Robbie. “It’s apple juice,” he says. “I got it from Sainsbury’s as a mixer.” Robbie believes it. He puts it in his vodka and drinks it and no-one can believe he actually fell for it. Sam smiles that big grin, that same look he had at the start of the night has been affixed ever since. That’s just Sam. What to do we don’t know. There is no plan. All we know is it’s a Saturday. There’s always something to do on a Saturday. Maybe if we’ve all retained some soundness we’ll decide to leave the house later. We’ll just have to wait and see. No-one really cares. For now we’re happy to just screw around. Everyone spurring each other on. That was the last time I saw him.  

Saturday. It’s not easy carrying him like this. There’s six of us yet it still feels like I’ve got his whole weight. The coffin isn’t as hard as I thought it would be, though. I always imagined a coffin being made of thick, heavy wood. But this one’s not. It’s made of a lighter material. It doesn’t change the fact he’s still heavy, though. He really was quite tubby when he rolled over that car. The corner is digging into my shoulder as we swivel in the small chapel. The school song I’ve grown to find embarrassing is being sung, but I find it soothes me now. I suppose there’s always a time for something. I walk past my friends, our friends, and then past his family on my right. They look so sad. Everyone does. We make our way through the chapel then the courtyard then into the field on route to the river. A man in a kilt with bagpipes walks ahead of us and starts to play. That’s when it hit me. That’s when I started to well up a little. I’d always found bagpipes quite annoying but it struck me this time in a way I’d never been struck before. I suppose none of my friends had ever died before. The procession walks behind us, everyone silent. It’s the middle of the day. When we get to the boat we lower him in with help from others then stand back on the banks. We watch his family get into the boat with him. I think of my family. They sail off and we get on another boat behind them. It’s windy and cold but serene and quiet. I’ve never liked boats, and I’m dying for a cigarette. After we buried him an hour or so later everyone cries. Everyone drops stuff in his grave. I see Chris take his tie off and drop it in so I do the same. I wonder if that tie has decayed by now. Then after that we all leave sad, more sad than at any other point in the day. That was when it really felt like goodbye. That was the first time when it really hit you. After that we went back to the house and we drunk. There was food and conversations less about content than comfort. I hadn’t been in this house since his eighteenth party. That was one of the best nights of my life, I remember. We were all so worn out from two days of rugby that it only took one drink to get you nice and drunk. After food we all go next door, all of his friends, to leave the parents and grandparents and elder people in the main house. There’s a lot to drink and a lot of time to do so. The music goes on and everyone stands there for a bit wondering what to do. Can you get drunk and dance after burying your friend? No one knows, and we wait for the drinks to help us find our younger selves. Eventually we get there, and until as late as we can go we smoke and dance and laugh and scream and weep, and drink. We do all that because we don’t know what else to do. Truth be told it wasn’t really a Saturday that day but we had to pretend it was. There was always something to do on a Saturday.

© Tom Watling

SECOND PRIZE

Teacups are for Girls

Catherine Whitmore

One time I seen Shaun’s dad in a dress. Well, that’s not true, Gary seen him. I just heard about it. But, another time, I did see him talking to Mr Walker who lives up May Road. Dad said never to go up May Road. That’s where all them sorts go. I’ve done nowt but walk past, cos’ of what Dad said about it, but I still seen him once talking to Mr Walker, and everyone knows about him.

Anyway, Gary said he went round Shaun’s last Monday to knock for him, and he weren’t in. And then his dad answered the door in a dress.

“It was blue and yellow,” he said, “with little frills on it, like me mam’s apron.”

His eyes lit up all excited, and he traced this outline with both hands and stuck his tongue out. I said that Father O’Cane says liars’ll perish in eternal hellfire so he’d better stop pulling me leg.

“I don’t care about Father O’Cane, me mam’s a protester anyway.”

“You mean a prot-es-tant, y’idiot. And protestants still gan’ to hell.”

He shrugged then, and we kicked the bark off the tree in Mrs Muller’s front garden for a bit. He kicked off a cracking bit, and said he was taking it home. I said to him to do what he wanted with that bit of bark and he said I was jealous cos’ I couldn’t kick off shit with them knock-offs. So I stood on his bit of bark.

Then Gary said he only went round Shaun’s cos’ Shaun’s older sister promised she’d take her bra off for him. Shaun’s older sister always has the top three buttons of her school shirt undone, smokes menthol fags, and is in the top set for maths. Plus, Shaun says she’s got a boyfriend in the Navy, so I knew Gary was making it up. I told him she wouldn’t show him her tits if he were the last beggar for five million miles. “And besides,” I said, “fornicators go to hell ‘an all.” He shut up after that, and we went off to pinch crisps from the shop at the corner.

But the next day was when I seen Shaun’s dad talking to Mr Walker outside the shop that sells carpets. He wasn’t wearing ne’ dress. He was wearing trousers and a shirt. He had his hand on his hip, like ladies do in the pictures. Mr Walker had his hand on Shaun’s dad’s shoulder. They were laughing, but more like giggling, like when someone lets rip a fart during Boxing Day Mass, and you can’t help but squeal because you know it’ll be all them sprouts from Christmas dinner what’s done it.

I ran straight back to knock for Gary, to tell him that he was full of it cos’ Shaun’s dad just wears normal clothes but, as I ran past mine, I could hear Mam shout ‘us in for tea. She’d done spam and egg but by the time I’d washed up me egg had gone cold. Dad was back from the quayside, and he was thick with dirt, except for where he’d washed his hands.

“What you been doing the day, lad?” He asked.

I told him about finding some good skimmer stones by the roadside, and about how Mrs Ramsay’s cat had its kittens already. He nodded and asked if I’d said me prayers this morning, and I said yes I did, sir, but I hadn’t.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to tell him about what Gary had said, so I just asked him what Shaun’s dad did for a job. Mam had sat down to eat then, and when I asked Dad that, she looked up at him. She answered me.

“Never you mind what other people do for work. Just mind yourself, and the Lord will mind you.” She said. “Eat your egg.”

I looked at Dad, but he just kept on looking at his plate, breathing out and chewing at the same time. The silt from the quay had turned his hair black. I tried to imagine him in a dress, but I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t see Dad’s brown hands buttoning up a blouse. I couldn’t see him patting down a hem against his thick legs. The colours of a dress seemed wrong, against the colours of him. Dad was black, and dark brown, and red. He was nothing like Shaun’s dad, who combed his hair into a middle parting like Mam did, and wore shoes without laces.

Later that night, I heard them both arguing. Dad’s voice sounded like a ship’s horn up the stairs. I heard Mam say, there’s no harm in his asking. I made a fort out of me bedding and was reading one of me annuals when he came in and I heard him sit down on the bed. He smelled like the cupboard I’m not allowed in.

“That man…” He started. His breath was hoarse from shouting. “Don’t you ever go up to see that man, or go near where he lives. Do you hear me, lad?”

He never said his name, but I knew straight away who he meant.

“The way some people live their lives…” I saw the outline of his back, hunched over and quivering with rage. “Well, it just makes me sick to me stomach. Don’t you ever let me catch you consortin’ with him or his. Do you hear?”

I said okay, Dad. Then he sighed, got up, and shut the door behind him.

The next day, Gary asked if I wanted to come and see Shaun’s pigeons, but I knew he really wanted to see if he could peep in Shaun’s sister’s window again. Shaun kept pigeons in a wooden cage he built. In the summer holidays, we’d helped him nail the wire to the front. I remembered what Dad had said the night before, and told Gary that we shouldn’t be consortin’ with them and theirs.

“Don’t be daft,” he said. “You’ve just gone wimpy about what I said.”

He started kicking an empty crisp packet up the street. He was smiling cos’ he thought he’d spooked me, and I was scared. Only, it wasn’t Shaun’s dad that had scared me.

“To hell with that, I’m not scared of nowt. I just don’t care about them manky pigeons.”

“Suit yersel’ then,” he said, and legged it off up to the top of the road.

-

When I got back, no one was in. Dad was back at the quay, and Mam had started her shift at the chippy. The house felt really quiet, and calm. Straight away, I went to the cupboard where Dad keeps his bottles. Father O’Cane called it the devil’s drink last Sunday at mass. He told us all about this story of a man who drank so much he turned yellow and it killed him, and about how that man was in hell now. I’d told Gary the story after, and he’d been impressed. He’d reckoned he could drink as much as he liked and never die. I bet him I could drink more.

I undid the cap of one of the bottles and glugged the hot, bitter drink back until me eyes watered and I had to stop. It licked back up me throat and spat out me nostrils. Suddenly, the room felt warmer. I wiped me nose on me sleeve, and tried it again.

It was already dark outside when I went to Mam’s wardrobe. It smelled like it always did, like sweet, wet paper. I traced me fingers back and forth against the nylon dresses, and woolly cardigans, and slick, cool slips. It took no time to pick one out and, as I unhooked the hanger from the rail, the room swung out of focus for a second. It was like the way it feels when you get off the teacups at the Hoppin’s fair. Dad had taken us last June. He’d smoked a tab while me and Mam went on the teacups. I’d loved it so much, we went on twice again and, afterwards, I threw up in the car on the way home.

Dad had said, “Pull yersel’ together, man.”

Later, he’d said the teacups were for girls anyway, not men like him and me. I thought about this, as I looked in the mirror at the way the fabric bunched in unfilled ripples across me bare chest. I thought about how I’d never seen it in the Bible about not wearing dresses. I thought about Shaun’s dad, and Mr Walker, and whether they had their own dresses or borrowed theirs from their mothers too. I thought about everything, and how the colours in the mirror were the colours of me.

© Catherine Whitmore

THIRD PRIZE

Chick

Emily Jane Bell

Her chest clenched around its own emptiness, seizing on the nothing there as though desperate to confirm the unthinkable: no air left. If you don’t take a gulp, let breath back in, you are going to die. She imagined a black shoe, big as a house, crushing down on her. The bones, crippling. You are going to die now, if you don’t breathe. But it didn’t happen. She could not remember how.

But something happened, didn’t it?

The morning something happened, Billie’s mother gently shook her shoulder. Wake up, baby. Time for school. A minute later, the curtains were flung apart. Sharp, gold, May sun fell across her quilt on the bottom bunk; a straight line was cut. Billie’s head was in shadow, her covered body lit; her brother, on the top bunk, was higher up than the light happened to fall.

          Billie was eleven. Her daydreams were a mystery to her. She didn’t like to talk. Talking was all their eyes on you, waiting for you to make a mistake. Daydreaming was different: the words, the pictures, came like a flood, rose up inside, easy like lifting your eyelids on a summer morning. All the light rushed in, and it was yours. Sometimes, they frightened her. Sometimes, it was hard to tell if she was inventing them, or if they were more like night-dreams, beyond taming.

          Once: a daydream about crows’ feet (her mother had used the phrase while examining her temples in the rear-view mirror) creaking and splitting until her whole head broke open. Billie saw it. You could die of crows’ feet: once they had chosen you, the giant crows came in the night and pressed their black, reptilian talons into the corners of your eyes. Then you were doomed. Who would want to imagine that?

And who would want to imagine being crushed by a big black shoe?

But Billie did.

She chewed toast slowly at the kitchen table while her mother flapped in and out of the room, and her brother complained about not hungry and don’t want to and why does Billie always? She played the game with her eyes: by a discreet slackening behind her eyeballs she could not explain, Billie could make colours blur and the edges of forms become furred with light. She did it to the cereal box, to the teapot, to her little brother’s whingeing face. She liked the strangeness she could create. It was friendly.

*

Just as she did every break time, Billie sat at the edge of the playground. She sat against the wall, between two young birch trees planted in allotted squares cut into the asphalt. Day after day, Billie would draw over those sharp squares with her eyes, repeatedly – playing their four-beat rhythms with her head. She was trying to soften them, to learn them so well they would become unfamiliar. This was the job she gave herself: to prove even lines that mean and hard could be made strange and friendly. She did not watch the leaves fluttering overhead; she paid no attention to the jackdaws’ coming and going, their convivial hubbub on the roofs of buildings beyond the playground. She did not watch the brown mother blackbird fly off, over the wall. Instead, Billie worked hard on the squares. 

“Mate, mate! Look at this chick!”

Billie’s small body jolts. They are very close, too close; how did they get so loud and close? She knows this boy’s voice. It’s not yet broken, not even cracked. But it is whining and threatening at the same time. She does not move; with her eyes, she holds onto the corner of one of the squares.

“Oh my god... sick.”

Three boys, now, are standing over what must be – a baby chick, fallen from the blackbird’s nest in the birch.

“It’s dead.”

“Nah, look it’s moving its wing.”

“It’s eye blinked!”

Billie blinks. She winks with each eye, one after the other. Her square shifts with each switch, like at the opticians the other week, when a new lens was slotted into place. Is it clearer now? Or now? The optician asked her the question over and over, but Billie didn’t know the answer because she cannot trust herself. Now, her eyes’ hold on the corner of the square cut into the asphalt is lost. She grips the straps of her rucksack. The butterfly light filters softly. With her nails, she scratches at a ridge of stitching. Playground noises sharpen, lose focus; and all there is – impossible to shut it out a second longer – is the bully, laughing.  

          He has his back to her for now, so she can’t see his face. But she can imagine it: she has seen him countless times, smirking, boasting, laughing – hurting anything that happens to fall (and so much seems to fall) at his feet.

“Ewww, look – it’s disgusting!”

“Touch it, go on! Ewww!”

Billie is here and there, inside, outside: in his laughter, on the ground obscured by the standing boys, their heavy black shoes, in the overhead flutter of weightless light, in the dilating, contracting surround-sound of playground shrieks and chatter.  

          She stands, pulls at the straps of her rucksack to steady herself. He senses her movement. He turns. He sees. His smirk jabs in her belly, spears, a pin in an insect; he turns to the boys, addressing Billie (she knows):

“Know what? I think I’ll pluck        

its feathers               

                                 out,                    

one

 

             by one.                      

 

I’ll pull                        

                         its stupid

 

legs off

 

then its beak,           

 

                                     then its eyes!”              

           

The girl is walking towards the boys.  

 

Billie doesn’t know anymore, in this moment, what she is, or what she is meant to be. She doesn’t like to talk. Talking is all their eyes on you, waiting. For you to make a mistake. But something has happened. A big black shoe, suspended. The scene in front of Billie now opens, easy like eyelids on a summer morning. Her words, rushing in, are the dream they catch.

 

Her words come from somewhere else, somewhere higher than her throat.

 

“Don’t you hurt it.”               

 

A deaf lull; a blood rush in her ears. The stunned seconds. Billie watches as the boys’ grins broaden: there’s nothing like performing to the audience you wrote for. They mimic her, flouncing and flapping:

 

“Ooo don’t hurt it,” they taunt. “Don’t hurt it!”                                  

 

Billie is so small. Her body is loose and heavy on her, like once when she tried on her mother’s coat. Small and tight, like a fist under its weight, she repeats:

 

“Don’t you hurt it.”

 

The bully laughs. He just wants to play with it, he says; he just wants to snap its stupid wings off like the ones he likes to eat, covered in barbecue sauce.

 

“If you won’t leave it alone,” says Billie, “I’ll kill it myself.”

 

He scoffs, nudges his mates; they all scoff: “whatever.” They turn, and crouch

around the chick. Quite a crowd has flocked. All their eyes on her, waiting. She is dislocated, in this moment; and the scene itself has splintered, its elements hung in suspension around Billie like iron filings revealing a magnetic field. She is the cause, the centre; she knows it. Her sudden movement disturbs the filings –

 

Billie barges, blind – the boys wobble, some topple –

 

Then she is at the centre of something else: the circle of gathered children; all their eyes, waiting.

 

The sight                    of that sticky brown chick

by her black trainer

                                    lodges

 

           in her vision. She is nothing

 

but its frail form – so tiny,

its head the size

                                   of her own eye –

 

Such a strange deafness, this: boys’ jeering, boys’ greedy mouthings, shouting, muted, desperate to have their fun; and Billie –

 

Billie

 

Billie

 

Billie brings her black shoe down on the chick’s head.

 

The bones, crippling. The chick’s paper skull and bones relent under the pressure she exerts, deliberately. All their faces, watching. They waver as though through heat rising off hot tarmac.

          There is sticky stuff, blood, fluff on her black trainer as she lifts it. The boys are now appalled. Their faces have changed; they’ve changed; how could they do that? Her small, tense body trembles at the betrayal. Blood rush, again – heat, this time, to her face –

 

“She’s a psycho,” they say. 

 

“Murderer,” they say.

 

“What did you do? You think we were really going to hurt it?” they say.

*

There will always be before and after.

 

*

 

By home time, the new knowledge had sunk from the lump in Billie’s throat to her stomach. There it sat: what it had felt like – the tiny chick’s body under her shoe – soft and alive; its minute, perceptible fear, resistance; then gone. By her act. And what about that shock of red hatred? With her little brother, they used to bite each other’s arms, sometimes. It was a game. His soft, fleshy forearm between her teeth made her jaw tremble. With fear, or desire? Whichever it was, it was terrible, terrible. She would never play that game again.

          Shrieks – of girls – broke through the churn of Billie’s thoughts. What did that sound mean? Higher than the general noise of the playground. I am a girl, she thought. She had never thought it before, but now she did. And did they run about together like that, she thought, laughing and shrieking; did they chatter together like that with such ease because they had nothing bad inside them? So they could allow themselves to unclench – to talk and talk and talk like that without fear that they would give the game away? Because there was no game, for them, thought Billie; no game had been played on them.

          I will have to live like a clenched fist, for the rest of my life, she thought. And all because Billie had known, or not known, something, and the boys had tricked her.

          Because I am bad, thought Billie; because I am not like the other children. That was why the boys had chosen her. How she hated them, and how ugly hating them felt. She kept seeing – over and over, and in slow-motion – their innocence dawning in triumph on their faces, the moment they saw what she had done. Over and over, their faces: clean, young, smug; their foreheads smooth, their shoes new, spotless; no sticky stuff, no blood or fluff stuck to the soles.

 

What had they given her? And why had she taken it? But of course now it seemed to have been always inevitable.

 

And what about the little chick’s ghost? This fear had reared up, right in the moment of contact between Billie’s shoe and the chick’s tiny head. When she had felt the extinguishing of its life under the weight of her act. Where would it go? She felt so certain – in a vague, terrifying way – that it would come to ‘get her.’

 

When she saw her mother at the school gate, Billie felt a dreadful surge of tears. But almost as suddenly as the tears came, something inside her sealed shut.

 

“Hey, what’s this crying, Billie?” 

 

“I’m not crying, Mum. I’m hungry. Are there biscuits at home?”

*

Her chest clenched around its own emptiness, seizing on the nothing there as though desperate to confirm the unthinkable: no air left. If you don’t take a gulp, let breath back in, you are going to die. She imagined a black shoe, big as a house, crushing down on her. The bones, crippling. You are going to die now, if you don’t breathe. But it didn’t happen.

 

It didn’t happen.

 

She could not remember how.

© Emily Jane Bell

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