Grazia's Marianne Jones and Victoria Harper judging the Final Chapter comp with Sarah Waters [instagram]
After receiving over 500 entries for this year’s Grazia and Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction First Chapter competition we were very happy to present winner, 24-year old Maia Jenkin’s with her prize of £1000 prize last week at a glittering ceremony on the Southbank.
Her winning entry is published in this week’s Grazia and the entries from our two runners up – Anna Mazzola, a human rights/criminal justice solicitor and Jodie Gardiner, a teacher from Cheltenham - are now published here on Grazia Daily. The contest for aspiring authors was judged by Grazia’s deputy editor Marianne Jones, special projects director Victoria Harper and critically acclaimed and award-winning author Sarah Waters who started the story off for them with a carefully crafted first paragraph.
Here’s how Sarah’s story started...
We lay calm in our beds that night. Even the baby, for once, slept soundly; even the dog, out in its kennel. And perhaps that was the odd thing, after all; how trustingly we slumbered. As if fate had gifted us a few last wholly innocent hours, before innocence fell away for ever. For when I woke, in the early morning – what was it? A difference in the quality of the light? Some new texture to the silence? But I opened my eyes, and I knew it. Something had changed. Something was wrong….
And here’s how our runners up finished it...
1. First Chapter Prize, runner up: Anna Mazzola
At first I thought it was the snow. When I drew back the curtains, I saw that the night had covered the sooty rooftops of London with a thick layer of bright whiteness. In the street outside, the noise of wheels and hooves was strangely muffled and, when the church clocks sounded the hour, their bells were muted and soft. But it was not that.
In the breakfast room, I found mother and my sister, Rosie, already pouring the tea and helping themselves to buttered toast from the pile before them.
‘Have you seen the snow George?’ Rosie asked. ‘Isn’t it glorious?’ She wore her patterned silk dressing gown, but with a woollen shawl around it. Although the maid had lit a strong fire in the grate, the house remained cold and I wondered how it was that I had slept so well in the chill night air.
By eight o’clock we had finished the toast and jam and the tea had gone cold in the pot, but still father did not come and my sense of unease returned. I thought better than to ask mother whether he was still sleeping. They had kept to separate rooms since the baby was born almost a year ago. As with many things in our house, it was not spoken of.
It being Christmas Eve, I had no studies to attend to and so curled up before the parlour fire with our dog, Jip, and my copy of Robinson Crusoe. The mantelpiece and windowsills were decorated with evergreens and paper snowflakes. Rosie brought in her workbox and sat on the sofa sewing Christmas gifts and humming. At thirteen, she only had a year on me, but seemed much older, with milk-white skin and nut-brown hair which she wore pulled back into a sleek knot.
We had not been there long when mother entered the room, agitated.
‘It seems your father has gone to the office,’ she said. ‘I hope he hasn’t forgotten that your aunt and cousins are arriving this afternoon.’
Rosie put down her sewing. ‘Surely he cannot have gone to work today.’
‘Where else is he, then?’ asked mother, her voice rising. Upstairs , the baby had begun to cry.
‘I could go to his office,’ I suggested, rolling over and propping myself up on my elbows. I had been there only once before and was intrigued to see the place where my father carried out his mysterious work.
A short time later, wrapped in my greatcoat and scarf, I left our house on Montague Street, noting that there were footprints in the new-fallen snow on the pathway. Later, I would curse myself for not having paid closer attention to the prints: to whether size matched my father’s foot. To whether they had been made by one person alone.
The sun shone white in the sky as I walked across London, my head low in my collar. I stopped briefly on High Holborn to peer into the holly-lined windows of the pudding and pastry shops at the glistening mince pies, sumptuous plum puddings, and carefully constructed pyramids of candied lemons, figs and nuts. On Fleet Street, omnibuses, hackney coaches and carriages navigated the icy road and young crossing sweepers- coatless and hatless in the cold- ran nimbly between the vehicles to sweep the snow to the side of the street. Around me whirled the smells of baked apple and roasting chestnuts, but with something sour and unpleasant underneath.
The solicitors’ offices where my father worked were in a narrow building on a discreet alley of Bouverie Street. One might not have noticed them at all but for a small bronze plaque on the soot-blackened wall which read, ‘Littimer and Fleck, Attorneys’. I pulled the bell which rang dully and was admitted after a time by a porter with a sullen, ash-white face. As I entered the office, a clerk seated on a tall stool raised his eyebrows at me. Asides from the clerk and the one other man, the polished wood office was deserted and only dimly lit.
‘Can I help you?’ the clerk asked in a tone which suggested he thought this was unlikely.
‘I am looking for my father, Charles Flint. He is an investigator here.’
The clerk blinked at me. ‘No one else has come in today. The office is closed for Christmas.’
The second man had risen from his desk while we spoke and now stood behind the clerk. He was a broad man with a flat pink face like a boiled ha,. I recognised him from my previous visit to the office as one of the senior solicitors.
‘Your father isn’t here, boy,’ he said. ‘He hasn’t worked here since November.’ Something passed across his face that I could not read.
Bewildered, I murmured my thanks and stumbled back out into the street where snowflakes had begun to fall silently from the sky. Only yesterday, father had said he needed to come here. He had taken us skating at St James’ Park and sat on a bench, watching, as Rosie and I slid and slipped amongst other woollen-clad figures on the vast expanse of ice. We wanted to stay longer, despite our frozen fingers and wind-burnt cheeks, but father insisted he needed to attend the office. Where had he gone?
When I think back now, I try to remember whether there appeared to be anything troubling him. Any word out of place. Any gesture which might provide a clue to as what happened next. But there is nothing. My memory of that day is that he was as calm and closed as he always was, sitting motionless on the park bench, his expression unreadable. That was the last time I saw him alive.
2. First Chapter Prize, runner up: Jodie Gardiner
We lay in our beds that night. Even the baby, for once, slept soundly; even the dog, out in its kennel. And perhaps that was the odd thing, after all: how trustingly we slumbered. As if fate had gifted us a few last wholly innocent hours, before innocence fell away for ever. For when I woke, in the early morning – what was it? A difference in the quality of the light? Some new texture to the silence? But I opened my eyes, and I knew it. Something had changed. Something was wrong.
I lay completely still and stared up at the ceiling. Had I been dreaming? Whatever it was, it had faded and gone. I could not remember what I had seen before I woke, but something had made me feel uneasy.
After a few minutes, I rolled over onto my side, bracing myself for the awkward squeak of the camp bed as my weight shifted. Facing that way, the tall wooden desk was just a few inches from my face. Over the last few months, waking in the study on the temporary bed had been comfortably familiar. I knew the shadows of the furniture in half-light; I felt reassured by the faces in the photographs. It had been nearly eight months now.
I listened for movement in the rest of the house. My sister, Eleanor, was probably up already, padding around the kitchen with baby Sophia in her arms. Was that the sound of the kettle and the chink of mugs? I heard voices talking quietly and then Sophia’s contented giggle.
I prepared to hoist myself out of bed and tried to shake the unexplained heaviness that hung over me. I hoped it was nothing; I had been feeling so much better recently.
The dog outside began to bark excitedly. That was unusually a sign that there were visitors. Chester always sounded delighted to see anyone; he was not the fierce guard dog that Mike had intended him to be. I climbed off the camp bed and dressed hurriedly. I heard the doorbell rings as I was pulling on my jeans. I strained to hear but the voices were drowned out by the kettle, which began to boil noisily. The click of the front door closing was the only thing I managed to identify.
Making my way through to the kitchen, I was surprised to find it empty. We always gathered there. There were hushed voices coming from the living room. Timidly, I peered around the door and my stomach flipped when I saw two middle-aged policemen with inscrutable expressions sitting on the brown sofa. The hand I rested on the doorframe became clammy. My thoughts began to race and blur; I struggled to settle on any possibility long enough for it to become fully formed.
Sophia had also sense that something was not right and began to cry. Her cries quickly reached a crescendo. Mike took her from Ellie’s arms and carried her into the kitchen. As I stepped through the doorway out of his way, I caught Ellie’s attention.
“Izzy, sit down.”
I shuffled awkwardly to the only vacant chair. One of the policemen cleared his throat. I perched on the edge of the seat and clasped my hands between my knees.
“Isobel, we have some information regarding Daniel. Daniel McPherson.”
The sound of the name I had been expecting still came as a shock to me. Dan.
I remembered the last time I saw him, two days before he disappeared. I was watching the news in our flat, but I turned it off as soon as I heard his key in the lock. Feeling jumpy, not sure what to do with myself, I got to my feet when he came in. I stood there as he took his shoes off, desperately trying to think of the right thing to say.
I had left court a while before him and I knew I should have waited. My excuses seemed valid: he would be talking to his solicitor or his parents; he needed some space. Nevertheless, they were only excuses.
I recalled the conversation with his mother earlier that day. She was angry with me. Dan was innocent and she needed me to be unwavering and outspoken in my loyalty and my support. I couldn’t be vocal or passionate; I couldn’t play the role she demanded of me.
The guilt I felt was crushing. I cried for her and the others I had let down. My understated performance of the part of loyal girlfriend was not enough to convince anyone. Even my mother quietly asked me, “You don’t think he did it, do you?” All I could do was shake my head and try to stop the tears.
I had tried not to think about that evening for so long, and now it emerged from my memory as a series of disjointed images and sensations. The unfamiliar anger etched onto his face as he looked at me. The metallic taste of blood as he bit my lip. My shaking hand on his arm, trying to calm him. The moment after the door slammed when I stared at the broken glass on the wooden floor and I realised I was still holding my breath. These tableaux had assaulted me almost constantly in the first few weeks. I had seen them even when all I wanted to do was forget. As time had passed, the images had become less vivid and appeared less often.
But, time had hardly weakened their impact, so I forced myself to focus on the room again. My gaze settled on a packet of scented candles on the coffee table. I read the word on the packet silently to myself. Patchouli. Strange word. I traced the shapes of the letters with my eyes until the sound and the meaning were lost.
Ellie was looking at me, concerned.
One of the policemen repeated again, what I realised he had already said.
“We believe we’ve found his body.”