Last night at a glittering ceremony at London’s Royal Festival Hall, A.M Homes picked up the Women's Prize For Fiction for her novel May We Be Forgiven. Grazia also announced the winner of our First Chapter competition.
Well we can now reveal that the winner of the prize, which was co-judged by novelists Kate Mosse and Rachel Joyce, was DUN DUN DUN... Susan Wallman (pictured above with Grazia editor-in-chief Jane Bruton). The former journalist and mother of three, admits that her dream is to become author. Well her victory last night was a really, really good start! To read her winning story in full, be sure to pick up next week’s Grazia magazine.
In second and third place were Rose M. Bradbury and Manisha Ferdinand (whose stories you can read below).
Meanwhile the others who made the short list were:
Melissa Elena Reiner
Jennifer Karen Sturzaker
Here is runner up Manisha Ferdinand's The Return...
When she heard his voice, she had to sit. He told her he had something to say. He couldn’t do it by phone. She said yes, she would be there, it had been such a long time, all the things you say to someone you no longer see. She knew she wouldn’t go.
The day came, and she spent the morning in bed, watching the rain at the window, the way it moved in cold, flat curtains between herself and the world. Then, without thinking, she was pulling on clothes. It was only as she crossed the road, her body stiff against the wind, it occurred to her she had something to tell him too. She had been waiting to say it for years.
Even as she berated herself for being silly, even though she knew it was ridiculous to be affected by the prison – it was just a building, after all – she shivered as she approached. It had been a long, long time since she was last here. Eleven years since she’d walked up to these gates; and they looked exactly the same as they had then. The Visitor’s Centre looked cleaner on the outside; but the front desk, manned by the cheerily efficient charity worker, still had the same nicks in it that she’d resolutely kept focused on the first time she’d been here. Nothing, and everything had changed.
‘Have you pre-booked your visit? What’s your name?’
She gave it along with her ID, spelling her surname carefully as always. B-A-I-G-N-T-O-N. Teresa. No, no H. Thanks, she’d always liked the name. No, she hadn’t been named after Mother Teresa. And finally, inevitably, her standard gambit for ending this conversation; the conversation she’d had so many times before – her mum had always knew she was going to be a sinner, not a saint, so there’s no way she’d have named her after her.
She took her pass, put her bag in the luggage locker and sat down. It felt like she was in one of those stop motion videos you saw on YouTube; totally still, as the world moved around her at dizzyingly high speed. In those videos, usually you saw the transition between light to dark; small to large; alive to dead. But she was hovering, in stasis. Waiting. All these years, and she’d been waiting, and she hadn’t realised that until now.
The sound of her name being pronounced incorrectly – ‘Banton? Teresa Banton?’ – snapped her out of reverie. A guard waited patiently by the door, and she walked with him to the security gates (it’s like an airport, just like going on holiday, she thought idly), submitted to the search and was directed to the canteen. She felt a hysterical laugh bubbling up as she realised what was about to happen – this meeting, this moment for which she’d been waiting eleven years, without even realising it – was going to take place in what might as well have been a school cafeteria. Formica tables, metal chairs, little touches of colour and light to make the whole thing seem more palatable but no amount of Glade room plug-ins, artificial flowers or brightly-coloured posters on messy cork-boards could mask the stench of despair; of loathing; of resignation; of exhaustion – but worst, of hope.
She glanced around, looking for the best place to sit (the best place to make a quick getaway, she admitted to herself) and saw him. Just like that, there he was. He studied his hands as he waited for her. To the impartial observer; it looked like he was absent-mindedly cleaning his fingernails, but she recognised it for what it was – his one tell; the nervous tic that gave away a deep apprehension. He hadn’t noticed her, and she drank him in. That wonderful head of hair, as luxurious as ever – defiantly luxurious it seemed, in a place like this – but now the grey chasing the brown across his scalp. His rangy frame; ever more defined by what she assumed were hours in the prison gym. He had never been the gangly, awkward type. Even now, on those ridiculous school chairs, his body had arranged itself perfectly; insouciantly but gracefully draped. Others that tall apologised for their height in the way they carried themselves – they entered rooms with a hunch, they hunkered down when people spoke to them; they let their shoulders drop and folded themselves almost in half. He never did. He wore his height as a badge of honour; using it to announce his arrival with all the bearing of a soldier standing at attention. She remembered now how he would wrap himself around her at night, how his long arms would-
He looked up.
Her breath caught as he found her, and his eyes crinkled at the corners. Then, there it was.
That smile. That bastard smile. It could still undo her.
Teresa. He didn’t really say her name so much as he exhaled; and the sound of it carried to her. She walked to him, and he stood up, towering as ever, but with something else behind the dominance this time, something even she couldn’t define. Then she was in his arms, and he was holding her and she was catapulted back to fifteen years ago; the first time. But this time was better, because there was so much more risk and so much less caution.
He held her at arm’s length, and looked at her.
‘You’re back. You came back.’
She smiled, and started to say of course, why wouldn’t she – but then he was holding her again and even through the prison overalls, over the stench of canteen disinfectant, he smelled like he always had.
‘I need to say it quickly, Reese; I need to tell you why I asked you here,’ he murmured into her hair.
She pulled away from him, and looked up expectantly. They hadn’t even sat down – god, he hadn’t even kissed her. He was the same as always: impatient, always ready to dive in head first; but different too. There was a new restraint to him; an angel on his catastrophically impulsive shoulder, who seemed to be cautioning him to think about things before he said or did them. She realised that the angel had never been there before. It had always just been the devil, operating in isolation.
‘I’m getting out, Reese. They’re letting me out early, and I’m going to find out what the fuck happened to me on that night.’
Everything stopped, for one moment.
They looked at each other. She knew she should tell him what she’d come to tell him, but she knew she couldn’t. Not yet. He started crying, and she took him in her arms. And everything changed.
Here is The Return from our other runner up Rose M. Bradbury..
On the way out the door, she checked the post, although she didn’t really have enough time. Force of habit. One letter for her, which she put in her bag without glancing at.
Before she knew it, she was there, shivering in front of the dingy café window. She’d meant to pause, to collect herself, but the freezing rain prevented that, the door bell’s tinkle jarringly cheery.
He was sitting in the corner, gnawing at the skin on one of his fingers. At the sound of the bell he looked up, and raised his eyebrows in greeting. She raised a hand weakly in return- could he see her shaking from where he was sitting? – and ordered without thinking. She wasn’t ready for this; but would she ever have been?
He looked so much the same as before that it took her breath away; skin a little lined around the eyes, but the same eyes, constantly animated by a secret amusement. Dark hair - thinning slightly but no grey- curled wet around his hollowing temples. He hadn’t been here long, then.
She expected him to speak, but he waited for her instead. The urgency of their phone conversation was gone; leaving that irritating insouciance that he had applied to his whole childhood - doubtless his whole life.
An arm extended into her line of vision and set down coffee. It was too bitter, but she made herself take measured sips, trying to slow her heartbeat, ignoring the scalding heat on her tongue. He gnawed at his other hand, the thumbnail, and she saw that he was trembling, too.
He wasn’t waiting for her, she realised. He was trying to make himself say it, whatever it was. She would have to help him.
“What is it, Daniel?”
He drew in a shaky breath, and replied.
Hearing him say the name again sent all the words, the ones that she had steeled herself with on the way here, falling away from her in a cold, nauseous jolt.
“What about him?”
“He’s come back.”
He was irritated. “I told you. He’s back.”
“Back? How can he be back?” She was conscious of speaking too loud, although there was only one other couple in the cafe, who were busy in an intense conversation of their own.
“I got a letter.” He pulled two grubby sheets of paper out of his pocket and smoothed them out.
“From Mrs Cottingham. She said that he’d appeared one night, knocked on their door like he’d only been out for the day.”
Her hands were freezing, despite being clasped around the hot cup. This couldn’t be happening. It wasn’t possible.
“You can imagine what I thought at first. Old bat finally went mad. But I checked the local newspaper’s website, and it was true. There was an interview with Andrew, a photograph of him when he was a kid. Remember the day we spent at Littlehampton? You found that anamite fossil on the beach. You were so proud of it.”
“You don’t have to remind me,” she said, irritated. He continued as if she hadn’t spoken.
“The article said he was pleased to be back with his parents and would be working with the relevant authorities, etcetera.” Daniel’s voice dripped with sarcasm, and he sighed deeply before speaking again.
“They didn’t say where he’d been.”
“How could they?” she murmured. “He hasn’t been anywhere. People don’t come back from where he went.”
The couple on the other side of the cafe were breaking up, she realised; the boy was starting to cry in loud, inappropriate sobs, the girl more embarrassed than regretful. She would have given anything to be either one of them, to feel the simple, searing pain of rejection, then the loneliness that would predictably subside, allowing one to insert oneself back into a reliable world. Not an option for her, now.
The letter had been scrawled - obviously in some haste – and she had to squint to decipher Mrs Cottingham’s spidery writing. She remembered it well - the notes left on the kitchen counter to find at the end of a hot summer’s day; the ones that punctuated their admittance to the Andrew’s house. Ices in the freezer. Orange for the boys, and raspberry for Melissa. Back at six.
Slowly, she drew out her own letter from her bag, ripping it open and lying it next to Daniel’s. It was the same, word for word.
…could barely believe it when he knocked at the door, though of course I recognised him straightaway. I sent a letter to Melissa, too- thought it best. He’s at home now, and waiting for you both. He says he can’t wait to talk to you- he’s been missing you terribly.
Missing you terribly.
She’d bet that phrase was word for word, and the thought of Andrew dictating it to his mother to write suddenly terrified her. She could imagine them both in the stuffy sitting room, the traditional venue for endless games of hide and seek, with the spiralling dust particles which had always made her sneeze and give herself away.
Dan was staring at her. Her tongue lay heavy in her mouth with the secret. She couldn’t tell him- not here. Not now.
“What do we do?”
Dan leaned toward her and grabbed her wrists, hard. That slow-burning, unquenchable anger at the world waited again, just below the surface of his features, glittering through his eyes.
“What do you think we do, Mel?” he whispered harshly.
“We know the truth. Andrew hasn’t been missing, because he died. We watched him die. So whoever that person is, it’s not Andrew.”
“Dan, you’re hurting me -“
“We’re going back. We’re going to find out who’s waiting for us, and why.”
Be sure to pick up next week's Grazia to read Susan's winning entry!