Ahead of announcing the winners of our First Novel Award on Friday 27 September, here are the openings of the six shortlisted novels. The winner will receive £1,000 in cash plus an introduction to literary agent Nelle Andrew and the runner up, £250 in cash and a manuscript review from a BPA editor. The standard of entries this year was so high that the judges have also highly commended a third entry. Check the website from midday on Friday 27 September for the results.
A THOUSAND WAYS
In the end, we drove together to bring her home. Two of us going, three coming back, it was bringing her baby self home from the maternity hospital all over again. The achievements of the years in between – theirs, of course, not mine – washed away as the road drew out behind us and the wipers cleaned the birdshit off the windscreen.
We argued again in the car. No finer spot, in my opinion. There was just something so seductive about it, the boundaries clearly set by the duration of the journey, the physical space of the car itself. Argued was too strong a word, to be fair. We snarked rather than snarled, you could say. Close to thirty years of marriage gave every argument a recycled feel. Even when the words were different, there was a stale tenor to the thing.
‘They’re banishing her, Beth.’ Ro jabbed the steering wheel with the heel of his hand. ‘As if she’s committed some terrible transgression against whatever bourgeois idea they have of what she should be. As for their methods? Calling her parents?’ He snorted. ‘She’s an adult, for Christ’s sake. What purpose does it serve to infantilise her, other than to shame her into leaving?’
Bourgeois notions: tick. What purpose does it serve: tick. Honestly, stale or not, it was almost nice. It had been a long time since we had a common enemy. I couldn’t afford to let him build up a head of steam though. Ro arriving in a temper was precisely the wrong kind of distraction.
‘You’re right, it is clumsy. They’re worried about her and don’t quite know what to do, I expect.’
‘They’re worried all right. You bet they’re worried. They’re afraid we’ll sue or create a viral moment and they’ll drop a few places on their precious universities rankings.’
He didn’t need to play the hip artist for me. I wasn’t some starry-eyed weekend supplement interviewer.
‘Our daughter needs us,’ I said, instead. ‘Everything else is just … details.’
‘Don’t be naïve, Beth. Nothing is anything without context.’
I let my silence tell him that the whys and wherefores were only so much window-dressing.
It mightn’t have told him anything of the sort; that was the trouble with silence.
The hut was dark and filled with the metallic odour of blood.
Anabel’s eyes locked with those of her friend. Edith blinked, and a tear trickled to the mattress beneath her, spreading like ink on paper. Her smock clung to her like a second skin. They were losing her, and Anabel was forbidden to use her powers to heal someone this close to death. Edith’s pale lips lacked the energy to plead for help but the pain in her stare was clear.
“Stay with me, Ed.” Anabel’s voice cracked as she gripped Edith’s cool fingers.
Edith groaned as she writhed in pain and Anabel mopped her brow.
“I know it hurts.” She kissed Edith’s damp curls. “I wish I could help you.” Why can’t I fix this?
She looked over to her mentor, but Beatrix’s features were grim, her stare defiant.
Anabel sighed heavily as she turned back to her sick friend.
“You’ve done so well. Your son it beautiful. Fight, Edith. He needs you.”
Edith didn’t respond. Her laboured breaths stilled, and her mouth slackened.
“Edith … Edith?” No. No. No. Anabel shook her friend’s shoulders. She wouldn’t accept this.
Her knees gave way, and she sank to the floor and sobbed. Her mind numb with anger and regret. Edith was gone. She would never hear her friend’s innocent laughter again. She dragged herself to her feet, twisting her blood-soaked strings around her wrist. They would need replacing again as the colours were no longer visible. She ripped the strings and dropped them on the pile of soiled blankets on the floor.
When she forced herself to look on her friend’s body, the memory of Edith’s screams reverberated between her ears as if she was shrieking from the afterlife. Why her? Such a sweet soul ripped from this life. It wasn’t fair. She couldn’t comprehend the fact that Edith had died and not sure she ever would.
BLOOD IN THE BLACKOUT
He gripped her neck tighter, her eyes pleading with him one last time. Her mouth, opened in a silent scream, revealed a pink tongue just poking through twin rows of neat white teeth. His left hand held her right wrist to prevent that arm coming to her defence. Nothing he could do about her flailing left arm of course, her hand searching and nails clawing, but it was almost over.
He wrinkled his nose as the aroma of ammonia drifted up, fear and approaching death relaxing her bladder muscles, and made one final effort. With a powerful squeeze, he felt something give way and her body went limp. Unable to support her dead weight by wrist and throat alone, he kept hold as she slumped to the ground, keeping the pressure on until his fingers ached. Making sure.
He ducked at the sudden sound of metal scraping in the distance and stared into the blackout, the nation’s wartime defence against death from the night sky. He peered over the low wall and across the churchyard, the last service had finished hours ago, towards the Castle pub at the centre of the village. Being just after ten o’clock, he could make out some activity as drinkers wandered home. With any luck, the alcohol would have taken its toll and nobody would notice him.
The ARP warden’s nearby call of put that light out startled him and he noticed the faintest chink of light downstairs at the vicarage. The warden waited for the glow to disappear as someone adjusted the blackout curtain, even the Godly have to obey wartime rules, before turning away to resume his rounds.
Suddenly exhausted, he leant against the damp flint and closed his eyes but the vision of her replayed; young, fresh-faced, stylishly curled hair, happy and smiling.
TELL ALL THE BEES
Estelle always said my mother left us for a car, not a man. A Ford Dodge, sky-blue body and a cream roof which looked like it should roll back but never did. The owner of the car wore patent loafers, and yet, as my father said disbelievingly more than once, he turned out to be more reliable than the Dodge.
At least you weren’t abandoned for a Morris Minor, Arthur consoled me in those first few weeks. Those were not the most comforting words to choose, but we were at a loss for the right ones that summer. I was sent to stay with Estelle, while Daddy spent hopeless weeks driving around England, hunting for flashes of sky-blue guilt on forest roads.
Seeing Estelle’s name typed on the solicitor’s papers fifty years later, reminded me of this event for some reason. Maybe it was the shade of azure on the binding, or simply the solemnity of the occasion. It was the first will-reading I’d ever attended. Daddy hadn’t left a will, in truth he had little to leave but the toys.
William arrived shortly after me. Estelle’s one-time pity child, housekeeper, friend—he shook hands with the solicitor and nodded at me. I’d last seen him cleaning cobwebs from The Lodge’s windows with a scarf wrapped around his hair.
‘William. Have you met Celie Dawkins, Estelle’s niece?’
‘We know each other well,’ I replied.
William blushed to the tips of his ears. At Estelle’s funeral, William had been drunk and confided to me that his worst nightmares were of podiums and forced speeches to blank faces. Mine too, I’d lied. Perhaps he was recalling that confession now.
‘We’re waiting for one more person.’ The solicitor tapped the wad of papers on the desk. She was a velvet-gloved, steel-fisted type of person—I had established that in the first five minutes of meeting her. The handshake with no eye contact, the way she mentioned what a sad day it must be for me, and what a busy day it was for her in the same breath. A strange choice of Executor for Estelle, not her type. Observe her Celie, would she save you if soldiers knocked on your door? Or would she exchange you for a hunk of bread?
THE PRICE OF BLOOD
My first ever line up, there were six of us. Naked. We posed under blank screens that would show the prices for our blood.
Edith’s voice was in my head.
Most customers will want to see skin.
I’d thought she’d been exaggerating.
If there’s a viewing, run on the spot for a bit before it starts. They’re looking for a healthy glow.
Selection centre was freezing. Cold air from wall vents touching my nipples. It was like being on display in a huge chiller; I was as fresh as I could ever be.
Didn’t know how to stand. I’d heard rumours that Townsmen Minors paid for lessons on how to sell themselves right – posture, the way to walk, where to look. But there were no Townsmen on the shortlist that day to show me how the wealthy did it: only skinny Shorescrubber boys thrusting out their hairless chests. The girls had pinched their cheeks for colour and turned to the side of the viewing platform for the prettiest angle.
Me standing there – it should have been simple. But no position felt right to me. Not with the doctors watching and the cameras recording. Found the prick of the drugs test easier to bear, even the metal pincer searching out body fat.
I had none, not anywhere. Whole family was on the brink.
You look younger than 16, and it’s your first time. That’ll help.
Was anxious to see the scores as the Bank calculated our grades. I’d eaten every crumb of the doughnut that should have been shared between four of us at breakfast, and my stomach felt heavy for the first time in forever, but for some reason, all I could think about was the smear that’d been on the icing where a stranger’s lipsticked mouth had bitten it the day before. It was making me want to puke.
Wasn’t like me to be squeamish. I was feeling too much of everything.
Screens blinked and came to life. Sick thrill inside me dancing. I’d been waiting for so long to be worth something. Question was: how much?
THIS IS JUST AN OBSERVATION
David Hall is a pig, the tabloids agree. Since the news broke they’ve been gleefully printing pictures of him looking positively porcine, his baggy hooded top and dark glasses doing nothing to hide his paunch. One day in October the Enquirer runs a full-page picture of him outside a bodega,in tracksuit bottoms and an ill-fitting t-shirt, buying wine and a packet of double-stuffed Oreos.
Even David is surprised by the person staring back at him. He knows he has put on a little extra weight recently, but he had thought of it as a temporary thing. Now he is confronted by it as a part of who he is. Looking at the picture of himself, clutching the Oreos to his chest as he realised he was being papped, is making him hungry. He takes what is left from the counter and begins to eat. Talk about subliminal advertising. Holed up in his third-floor apartment in the West Village, and beginning to feel the after-effects of last night’s moderate drinking, David is having difficulty believing that the paper is real and actually being purchased from newsstands across the country. Or flicked through on screens more like. Scanned for any new and scandalous detail. Thumb and forefinger pushed apart to zoom in on his gut.
Accompanying the paparazzi shot is a picture of him at the height of his fame. He is twenty seven and his body is solid with muscle not fat, all hair and hopefulness. The article tells how it has been three months since his split with TV chef Anna Karlsson, and four days since Cat Everard accused him of harassment and of groping her on the set of his new film, Aftersun. David wonders if Anna will see the paper in Stockholm and have a good laugh at his expense, but this, he knows, is self-pitying; Anna is not unkind. In fact what he wants to do most of all is phone her. They are six hours ahead in Stockholm, she will probably just be breaking for dinner… But he keeps his phone switched off. Something won’t let him — not pride exactly, more like inertia. He isn’t ready to begin a life where she is an amicable ex-partner. He will stay in this lacuna, and pretend there is a way back to how they used to be.