2014 Polperro Festival short story winners

Wednesday 4 March 2015

For the 2014 Polperro Festival short story competition, adults were asked to contribute stories up 2,000 words, secondary pupils up to 1,500 words and primary pupils up to 1,000 words. Patrick Colquhoun was the primary school winner, Erin Kearns, the secondary school winner and Jackie Taylor, the adult winner.

Richard and Judy are delighted to publish these stories here and congratulate all three winning writers. ‘We sincerely hope they will be encouraged by this well-deserved success to continue writing and pursue their dreams of authorship. These are all tremendously good starts. We hope you enjoy reading them as much as we did.’

R&J.

Starfish Dreams by Jackie Taylor.

People always seem to be asking me how I feel these days. How I’m holding up. They wait anxiously for my

reply; you can see them willing me to say something pleasant and stoical back to them. It wouldn’t do to blurt out anything awkwardly truthful, anything too raw. They mean well, after all.

So, how do I feel? Well, today, I feel old, that’s how I feel. I’m sitting in my car, watching the waves muscling into the shore. It should be exhilarating but it’s not. It’s just there. Scenery. The car park is empty except for a VW camper in the corner which looks like it hasn’t moved for months. Behind me, a long line of squat bungalows facing the sea. Faded B&B signs swinging in the wind. No vacancies. No-one home.

The day is a study in grey. I’m sitting in my car while the windows steam up around me. I’ve put my flask of tea on the dashboard and I feel older than I’d ever realised it was possible to feel. I close my eyes and concentrate, and I can see her walking along the beach, her thick grey-streaked hair whipped up like the surf’s edge. Just like when I first saw her. Except her hair had been blonde then. She wouldn’t be sitting in the car today, she’d be out there, laughing in the wind and the bitter cold and the salt spray. No flask on the dashboard. Not her style.

She said to me once, during one of those airless, endless hospital visits: When I was little I used to write my name in the sand in huge letters, right across the beach. And I’d build a dam to keep the sea back for as long as I could, but I could never build a dam big enough. Then when I was older I started to write your name, in different styles, trying it out. In small letters at first, almost secret but not quite. Then your salty lips, and I added a heart, and a little ‘ +’. You + Me.

She said this, and I had to leave the ward. It was two days before I went back, coward that I am.

She loved the sea. But in the end, she died a land-locked death, stranded on a hospital bed about as far from the sea as it’s possible to be in Cornwall. During those long, last days, she ebbed and flowed in a morphine pool, dreaming of starfish and seahorses. Gentle drifting dreams. Unlikely, but it’s what I like to think. I like to think there was no pain. Not true of course, but it helps.

Since then I’ve been stranded. Beached. Not knowing what to do, how to behave, what to feel. And people always seem to be asking (kindly, concerned, bored, or a mix of all three): How do you feel? How are you holding up?

Well, today, as well as feeling old, I am also feeling - prosaically – overdressed for the task ahead. It’s her birthday, and alongside my flask of tea is a single red rose which I had intended to lay gently on the waves.

It’s all wrong though. She would have laughed, called it corny, trite, a silly sentimental gesture. But people seemed to expect something of me and I didn’t know what to do. It felt like a test. And she wasn’t here to tell me what I should do.

So. I decided on this gesture of love and remembrance. People seemed to approve and this gave me some confidence. But this morning I got up and I didn’t know what to wear. How banal is that? And of course, I’ve got it wrong. I was thinking: formal, respectful, but not funeral black in some sort of nod towards hope for the future. So a suit. A grey suit and suede loafers. I bet she’s laughing her head off, wherever she is. Between me and the Atlantic lay barnacled outcrops and flat rock faces sheering out of the sea, slippery as whale skin. And I’m dressed as if I’m popping out for a nice lunch in town.

I am a fool. How did I think I was going to get this rose into the sea? I can hear her now: didn’t you think? The simple answer, I didn’t think. I can’t think. I am lost.

‘You OK mate?’ A man is touching my arm, gently. ‘Excuse me. Are you alright?’

I nod. ‘I’m fine, thanks.’

But I’m not, because I don’t remember getting out of the car. Yet here I am, straining to hear the man’s voice against the sea-and-wind rush. And I’m holding the red rose against my grey double-breasted suit while the rain makes dark splats on my suede shoes.

The surfer’s wetsuit hangs from his hips like flayed skin; his naked chest is so pale it’s almost blue. He’s older than I’d expect for a winter surfer; mid-fifties, I guess. About the same as me, in years, at least.

‘I think it’s clearing up,’ I say, although it’s obviously getting worse. I want to laugh but it doesn’t come out.

So instead I start to sob, in the rain, in a car park by the sea, holding a red rose. And then the laughing starts. I’m laughing at myself as I try to explain everything to my new friend, the bare-chested stranger. And once I start to laugh, it’s hard to stop, and I can’t really tell the difference between the laughter and the tears. They’re joined like strands of fishing line and kelp, woven together on the tide line.

My saviour, the stranger, offers to take the red rose down to the sea on my behalf and throw it into the waves. The man – why didn’t I even ask his name? – the man walks down the steps and then when he reaches the first spread of rocks, clenches the rose between his teeth to free his hands as he scrabbles out. It seems to take forever. He reaches a small outcrop that juts into the water, and he turns to me and lifts the rose into the air. And then then it’s gone and I am relieved that this whole stupid business is over.

So how am I? How do I feel now? Relieved, yes. And also better. The tears have done me good. Can you be saved just by being a bit of an idiot? Perhaps I should try it more often. She always said I was too buttoned-up for my own good.

I find a stretch of blank-canvas sand and write our names. You + Me. Big letters. It’s a tiny, almost-OK moment; not a happy moment, but something other than blackness. I’m wet and cold, but I’ve just had a memory of what normality used to feel like. It won’t last, but it’s good, and it’s a lifeline.

Next time I come here….next time, I’ll bring boots and sensible, waterproof clothes. She tried for so many years to get me to appreciate the beauty she saw here. I could only see treachery; soft floating tentacles that sting, rip tides and undertows waiting to pull you under, fag-ends and Zippo lighters, washed up with the tide. But the only treachery came from inside.

She loved the sea and I should have tried harder. Not just about this, but about everything.

Before I leave the car park, I drop the flask into a rubbish bin. Perhaps I’ll dream of starfish and seahorses tonight, or something similarly soporific. I hope not. I’m not sinking. Not yet.

Untitled by Erin Kearns.

They always come at the same time, every single day. Just after 4:30 they come around the corner, having just been to the shops and finished school. A big pack of them there are, about seven or eight of them, and they can’t be any older than fifteen years of age. How I hate them, and how they must all hate me, except I’ve don’t nothing wrong, nothing wrong at all. They’re the ones that should be punished and should be the ones having to suffer. But I’m always the one that has to put up with it. I always mind my own business, and I’m not looking for trouble. I’m just in my front garden all alone, sitting in my chair in the sun, opposite to the rose bush near the front gate. My wife Phyllis planted that a good eight years ago, getting on for nine now. She died four years ago, and she sure isn’t coming back. How I miss my Phyllis.

Phyllis wouldn’t have put up with this sort of nonsense that these kids give me. She would have told them good and proper, and I wouldn’t have to face all of the trouble they give me. She was strong, Phyllis was. Phyllis had gumption, and that’s a quality that I can only dream of possessing. Apparently gumption and bravery isn’t enough to scare off cancer though, once it’s got its hands on you. The cancer was stronger than my Phyllis in the end, and the word cancer got a stronger hold on us as it began to take her over. At first the word cancer had just been a word, and it seemed pretty distant, and not so much a threat to my Phyllis, and not so much a part of her. But then it began to take her over, it sunk into our everyday vocabulary, and a cancer care nurse was assigned to her. The word sunk into our lives, into our nightmares, and finally into her bloodstream. Then it killed my Phyllis. And there is nothing I can do to bring her back, the only connection I have with her is the rose bush.

They’re coming around the corner now, laughing and jeering, happy after having spent a small fortune on sugary sweets. I feel the familiar feeling of dread as they approach my front garden. I turn my back on them as they come closer, so they don’t think I’m staring. That would only make them angry at me, and give them ammunition. I mind my own business, and stay completely still, just like a statue and not daring to move a muscle. I don’t even look up when one of them kicks out at my gate and stay as still and silent as can be when the iron does the opposite.

I just sit in my chair, and kept my eyes fixed on the grass, willing myself to stay stony still not daring to move a muscle. I shouldn’t be this scared, and to be quite honest with you I’m pathetic. These kids are a fifth of my age, and I’m the one cowering? That’s shameful, and I feel a pang of guilt when I think about how Phyllis would have shook her head at me and my fainthearted nature. Then one of the boys who must be the leader of the pack calls out ‘Hey lads, do you think he’s died?’ I do not react, and maintain my statuesque stance even as I hear the laughter. I can feel all of their eyes on me, and the familiar feeling of panic wells up inside me. They’re laughing and jeering but I still will not give them the satisfaction of a reaction. That’s all they want from me, a bit of a spectacle and something to laugh at, something to poke fun at, and I just happen to be their entertainment. They continue to kick my gate, trying to wind me up, but seeing as this isn’t working and they aren’t getting the reaction they want, they seem to think that it’s a good idea to take it to the next level by beginning to deface my garden. A crisp packet flies into my lawn, and land on my geraniums, and then a lolly stick gets thrown into my bird bath. More and more rubbish gets thrown into my garden, and I try not to react.

But then one boy does it. One boy goes too far. He jumps over the low wall of my garden, and stands on my rose bush. My head flies up, fury blazing in my eyes. Seeing the reaction he so badly craves from me, he begins to jump, trampling the bush to the ground without a hint or remorse in his eyes, carried away in his own sick pleasure. I’m not sure how I managed to move so rapidly, but in a flash I was on my feet, and putting all of my weight on my walking stick I hobble over to them. Rage is boiling inside of me, and I’m more furious than I ever have been before in my life. There is another feeling too, one I have never felt before.

I think, maybe, what I am experiencing is the liberating and overwhelming sense of bravery, and perhaps, gumption! Damn those vandals, for once in my life I was going to take control of the situation and I was going to teach them a lesson once and for all. I’m a good head shorter than all of the boys in front of me. There are eight of them and one of me, but no amount of outnumbering could suffocate my determination. With a growl of pure indignation and madness from the back of my throat akin to a wild animal, I lift my stick above my head, and pause, ready to hit out at them, my eyes squinting and my feeble arms quivering like a tense violin bow. As I get ready to lash out, the rose-bush-trampling boy gets there first, and tips the rest of his sticky fizzy drink all over my head.

I gasp, blinded and shocked by the freezing cold liquid that’s made its way into my eyes and up my nose. The only thing I am aware of the warmth of the grass and the jeering of the boys getting quieter, suggesting that they’re moving away from me. I stagger. I’ve dropped my walking stick in the confusion, and now I have no way of standing up, let alone walking anywhere. I can’t even see where I am. I desperately try to rub the vile substance out of my eyes, and I try to blink it out, still shocked by the events of the last twenty seconds. By the time I managed to open my eyes, the obnoxious adolescent boys have all run off, with my walking stick in their revolting hands and yelling raucously amongst themselves. I’m completely stranded on my lawn with nowhere to go, and no way out of here. I don’t trust myself to move, I completely rely and depend on my stick and now that I am without it, I have no idea of how I am going to move, or get anywhere at all. Then I suddenly realised how helpless and vulnerable I am; I am all on my own, stranded, with no one to help me at all. Even if I call out, who will hear me? Who will help me? Why would anyone help me? No one. That’s the problem. I’ve always been completely self-reliant, and when you get yourself into a situation where you need a helping hand, you’ve really got yourself a mess. I attempted to shuffle back to my chair, small steps, baby steps, unsteady and extremely cautious, all too aware of what the consequences would be if I wasn’t careful. I swayed this way and that, oscillating from side to side on my unreliable feet.

Finally I reached my chair, and sat down, relived that I had reached my destination unscathed, or as unscathed as it’s possible to be after being half-drowned in a sticky, carbonated fluid. There I sat, reminiscing for a remarkable amount of time. I thought about Phyllis, and how she might, maybe be proud of me. I thought about our last days together. I thought about her hands lots, her nimble and agile hands braiding hair at a tremendous speed. Capable hands packing up shopping quicker than the cashier could scan, proud hands clapping her brother in his play. Holding her limp hand in the hospital the day she died. It must have been getting on for five hours I sat there, because when I came back to my senses it was dark, and I felt more alone than ever.

Are you there? by Patrick Colquhoun, aged 10.

One day, a boy went into the basement of his house and found a blank book. He went back upstairs with the book and couldn’t find his parents so he thought they must have popped out. He looked in the book and suddenly found detailed pictures of his mum and dad with their names on top and thought that quite strange.

He then decided to go to his friends house next door. After he knocked on the door, his friend’s mum and dad told him that they didn’t have a son. The boy was beginning to feel sick and odd so he went to the hospital and told the doctor that he felt unwell and afraid.

The doctor then went to get some equipment for examining the boy who waited for a long time, but the doctor didn’t come back either. The boy left the room only to discover that there was no one there.

There were now three slots left in the book when he returned home and he guessed “that will be grandpa and grandma and me” so he rushed to his grandparents house. When he arrived, his grandpa wasn’t there, now there was only two slots left. He went into the kitchen to get some water (because he had been running so much and was thirsty). He returned to the living room to find his grandma had also disappeared!

He looked in the book again and noticed that on the last page the words “its time” and then he was completely sucked into the book.

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