Last month, the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012 was announced and with it, the winner of Grazia's Orange First Chapter Competition was too. We asked Grazia readers to send in a chapter following on from an opening paragraph written by best-selling author of Sister, Rosamund Lupton and you can read the winning entry by Jennifer Cullen in this week's issue, out now. And, because they were so brilliant, we're also publishing the two runner-up entries from Luan Goldie and Alexandra Jones (in no particular order) right here on Grazia Daily...
The Journey by Luan Goldie
The swaying of the train made her hands grip around her bag as if it was anchored and could support her. Outside the window, the trees were a blur of greens and it seemed to the woman as if it were the trees not the train which were moving, hurrying away from her, putting green distance between them. She’d started the journey with clearly defined logical reasons for it, which she’d neatly stacked up like a wall. But the rocking of the train, the judder as it had speeded up, had toppled them and the truth was now visible, poking out and ugly to her. Outside the window the moving haze of green trees was replaced by the still hard edges of a grey platform. She’d arrived.
The train stopped and eager passengers flung the doors open, but she waited, watching them leave with their practical belongings; umbrellas, overcoats, husbands. ‘You smell like a whore’s handbag,’ her mum had remarked as she left the house this morning, but now she could feel her armpits dampening and chose to dose herself with more Charlie Red. She played with the broken zip on her yellow raincoat. It wasn’t even waterproof, not really. She considered sliding down in the seat, hiding deep in it until everyone vanished and the train would simply reverse and take her back home. Home. That place. No. She straightened her back, checked the height of her hair in the window and stepped out onto the platform.
Of course she’d been before; British Museum for a school trip, Lyons Café for lunch with elusive Aunt Mable, Westminster Abbey to wave a flag at Princess Margaret’s wedding, but never alone. Her breath seemed to struggle as she walked through the grand station, maybe she would faint, right there, right in the middle of Kings Cross, lying on the ground in her knee high purple plastic boots as hordes of people stepped over. They might even point and laugh.
Once outside she found the correct bus stop by following a crudely drawn map, which was kept folded in her bag along with perfume, spare knickers, some mints and a packet of contraceptive pills prescribed by the doctor for ‘social reasons’.
The 73 bus was fuggy and she inhaled deeply, her last cigarette smoked away nervously on the train.
‘Where to love?’ The conductor asked.
‘Soho,’ she replied, as easy as a local would.
The conductor winked at her as the pink ticket unrolled from the machine. She took it and turned to the window, using her palm to clear a spot. Outside the traffic moved like cold treacle, the sky darkened by night and the streets brightened by the lights from a thousand cars and bars. How smart and refined everyone here was, all stomping along the filthy wet pavements. Were they so rich, so blessed that they didn’t care their best was being ruined by the rain and dirt? Her own boots were her best, bought from Ravel last Christmas. Back home in those boots she stood out, positively dazzled, but here…here she was surely drab. As she stepped off the bus the conductor patted her rear and whispered ‘fox’.
Her stomach now rumbled reminding her that cigarettes and tea was not a meal fit for a life changing journey and she found herself suddenly overwhelmed and lost on the streets.
‘Excuse me Sir,’ she called in her best Lady Penelope voice to the nearest passing stranger.
The stranger stopped and turned, his black face running with rain.
‘I’m looking for an establishment called Blue.’ And right then she felt so cosmopolitan, so worldly, standing there on the street talking to a negro that she knew her reasons for coming were valid.
‘Are you sure Madam?’ he asked in an English accent that surprised her.
‘Yes. Do you know where it is please?’
He pointed a long arm down the road; in the distance she could see a neon sign so she thanked him and tottered on, quickly now as the rain was falling faster. The water seeping through a hole in her left boot, the now sodden paper held over her head in an effort to stop the glue on her eyelashes from coming loose.
The twisted neon sign for the Midnight Entertainment Bar was pink, not blue as the name suggested. As instructed she took the side street, passing stinking dustbin cans, empty bottle crates and two cats curled and cold inside a cardboard box. She arrived at an unwelcoming steel framed grey door. This was it.
Her knock was dainty. Quiet enough that if no one heard she could simply turnaround and scatter back home on the last train out of London. But then she thought she could hear something from inside, maybe it was the mewing of cats, or the tapping of rain deceiving her, but she was sure she could hear the laughing of glamorous and red lipped women, the tapping of expensive and polished shoes on a dance floor, the clinking of glasses in toast to some brilliance. With each sound, each doubt dispersed. She knocked again, this time loud and definite. The door unlocked and a large man in a black suit opened it. His eyes flased down her legs before working slowly up to her face.
‘Yeah?’ he asked.
‘Hello. I’m here to have my photograph taken. I’m Kitten.’
The Journey by Alexandra Jones
The swaying of the train made her hands grip around her bag as if it was anchored and could support her. Outside the window, the trees were a blur of greens and it seemed to the woman as if it were the trees not the train which were moving, hurrying away from her, putting green distance between them. She’d started the journey with clearly defined logical reasons for it, which she’d neatly stacked up like a wall. But the rocking of the train, the judder as it had speeded up, had toppled them and the truth was now visible, poling out and ugly to her. Outside the window the moving haze of green trees was replaced by the still hard edges of a grey platform. She’d arrived.
For a while now there had been much preoccupation with the facts. As she could see them, they stood like this: two Tuesdays ago Estelle Harris had died. The weather in Spend having taken an unseasonable turn for the worse had been dark and heavy. Somewhere off the south pier a storm raged and people swore that they saw a tornado touch the water and move like a serpent across the sky. The streets were sharp with rain that fell, then stopped, then fell again in hot heavy showers. Later, her body was found floating face down near the beach. It was bloated and white and missing some of its vital parts – an arm, a foot and so on. Her dead face was only seen by experts and her mother, which was lucky because by then it was a face only a mother could love.
Rachel, now standing alone on the platform, in possession of those few precious facts, was bowed low. As if the knowledge itself was a thing bigger and heavier than she had the strength to know. When the story seemed so thin, a wisp too slippery to hold in your hand, it was wrong for the facts to be so robust and present.
The real problem with it was where to start. Their relationship had been organic, childhood friendships are, but it had always been Rachel needing Estelle. After they met – a wholly unpleasant experience – an obsession had take root at the base of Rachel’s spine clicking up her vertebrae and flowering in her brain, blooms of love and despair. Estelle was imperious and hard-headed and completely certain of her place in life. Rachel was never certain. Now, she could see this was what had drawn her to Estelle and this was what made the story, the death, so difficult to understand.
And beyond the beginning there was the mechanics of committing it to paper.
Her editor, Simone, had skewered her. “Rach, you need time off, go home, go back to – erm – what is it?”
“Yes, go back to Spend. This must be awful for you.”
But Rachel didn’t go back. Not for two weeks after finding out; she knew why Simone wanted her to go.
“Love, I am so so sorry but please think about writing this up for us. I completely understand if it’s too hard but you could do as much or as little as you like and we’ll pop in the rest for you and the byline would be yours.”
Rachel was silent.
“Rach, it’s such a big story and the fact that you know so much, about Estelle Harris and the place, all of that stuff, it would be weird of me to ask someone else to go and cover it.”
“It’s weird that you’re asking me to do it.”
“Not now! God, of course not! But in a few weeks. Your insiders view and all that.”
“My insider views on what? Simone, I haven’t seen her in years. What do you expect?”
“Something about the two of you, your friendship, her life and what made her do it.”
“It might not be suicide. I’m absolutely not doing it, sorry.”
Simone huffed “No, you’re completely right. Of course you don’t have to.”
And now Rachel was on the platform in Spend unsure of w hich was true. Was she here to say goodbyes or here to write the story?
Their last meeting had been acrid. Between her and Estelle there was always the trust, lying gasping and goggle-eyed like a fish out of water. The truth, starved of pretence, stank. Although by then she’d moved away, Rachel had felt compelled to go back and give it one last try. Their friendship in all its dirty tatters was still previous and vast, spanning lifetimes, she thought. Now she was a grown-up though and perhaps it hadn’t lasted that long. They hadn’t spoken in more than two years.
The slush of the waves was memory itself, a beckoning hum that hovered just beyond the station’s edge. Rachel was breathless thinking how easy it would be to slip back into Spend as if nothing had ever changed. Here, on the grey platform, Rachel was still her, as she wanted to be. She stood for a little while longer and looked down the hill towards the centre of town and to the beach. Empty windows of empty shops reflected empty streets, a dank cloying stillness broken only by the lone figure of Robbie Harris striding up the hill towards her.
He was thinner than she remembered.
“How did you know I was coming?”
He stood a little distance away. “Your dad told me. I came to get you before the others…”
“Robbie, I’m so s…”
“You’re not very welcome here.”
Rachel pulled her bag across her shoulder, she’d brought one, only ever intending to stay for a day or two, and stepped onto the road.