Today I am posting an extract of my short story that won the Bath Short Story Award in 2013. I remember with great excitement when I read the email! I was staying at my friends in Liverpool, and that evening we were seeing Bon Jovi in Manchester! I then had a phone call and told them I would be celebrating the win at the concert!
I later had the pleasure of meeting the lovely team when I went to Bath with Mum, just about the same time as my debut novel came out, and they did afternoon tea in my honour (oooh!) and then I ran a workshop in Bath on how to write a psychological thriller!
I am still in touch with them and met up with the lovely ladies at the London Short Story Festival last year. I always congratulate the new winner each year, but am very proud to have won the inaugural competition.
Learning To Fly
My brother always cried when he watched TV movies.
“I thought scousers were supposed to be ’ard,” I told him.
“Everyone’s got a sensitive side, Jen.”
“Not me,” I said.
“Even Tom Boys are allowed to cry.”
“Yeah, whatever,” I said.
It was my brother that found the blackbird’s nest that spring. It was my brother that taught me to believe in happy ever after. And it was my brother that was killed in Afghanistan.
We found out on a Wednesday. It was raining. Mum said the rain meant something. Yeah, it meant the washing was wet on the line. It meant the blackbirds didn’t fledge. And it meant I was never gonna see our Robert again or make fun of his bright orange cagoule.
Dad was standing in the doorway holding a plastic milk bottle and saying all we needed was another cup of tea, like that would bring him back; like that would make everything alright.
“I don’t want any more tea,” Mum said.
“Nor do I,” Nan said. Then she said, “People always do that.”
“Do what?” Dad said.
“On the telly. When someone dies they always make tea.”
“Oh,” Dad said.
And then he just stood there fiddling with the green lid of the milk bottle and looking at me. So I said, “Go on then, I’ll ’ave another brew,” even though I never wanted one. But I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I didn’t know anyone that had died before, not really. Floss died, our dog, but that was different, she was old and she died in her sleep. That’s how I want to go. I don’t want to be blown up by a bomb in Afghanistan.
It went quiet for a bit when Dad made the tea, we heard him clinking a spoon and it was ages before he came back in. When he did he looked liked he’d been chopping onions again. Mum looked up then and said, “I knew.” She was sitting at the table looking down at her hands, holding a photograph of our Robert. “I dreamed about it last night.”
“Don’t be daft,” Dad said.
“I did,” she said. “I dreamed our Robert was standing by the bed telling me he had to go. He was with his Grandad Harry.”
“But Grandad Harry’s not dead,” I said.
“I know,” she said. Then she added, “Best give him a ring to make sure.”
“I wish ’e was dead,” Nan said and she got that look when she thinks about the trollop from the chippy – the one Grandad ran off with.
“He was there,” Mum said. “I’m telling you, he was really there, stood at the bottom of the bed.”
“Shut up,” Dad said.
They buried Robert in a box with a flag draped across it, while some fella played the trumpet, only Dad said it wasn’t a trumpet, it was a bugle. I told him I didn’t care what it was.
“It’s to do with the shape of the bell,” Dad said. “A bugle is conical.”
“Conical? How can a bugle be funny?”
Nothing about that day was funny.
“Anyway, what does it matter?” I said. “What does any of it matter?”
“Everything matters,” Mum said. Then she sat in the dark and cried.
And Dad got drunk.
And Nan said she would stay with us for a bit, until we felt better but Mum said we’d never feel better. So Nan sat in the dark and cried too. And she said it was a pity Grandad Harry wasn’t dead and then she started talking about the trollop again. That’s when I went outside to see the blackbirds because I promised our Robert I’d look out for them.
But I was too late. The blackbirds were gone.
Our blackbirds had all left while some fella in a poxy uniform played the bloody trumpet. I felt CRAP. Crap in bold and underlined. Only really I felt worse but I couldn’t think of a word for worse.
“It’s not fair,” I said. I said it out loud, in the garden with no shoes on and wet grass between me toes. I said it as I looked up at our Robert’s bedroom window, where we used to watch the blackbirds making their nest. And I said it to God, not that I believed in God anymore. What kind of God lets people like our Robert get killed? Mum says it’s not God’s fault, she says it’s the Prime Minister’s. But it’s too late now. I hate God and I hate the Prime Minister.
“It’s not fair,” I said. “None of it’s fair.”
I don’t know if I meant about the Prime Minister, not seeing the blackbirds fledge or our Robert getting killed in Afghanistan.
It all felt the same.
My brother said the Latin name for the blackbird is Turdus merula. I laughed. “It can’t be,” I said. “Turd? You’re making that up.”
But he wasn’t. Robert put on his Birds DVD and David Attenborough said, “Turdus merula is one of the commonest British birds.” I couldn’t believe David Attenborough said the word turd; and on the TV. He also said, “It’s only the males that are black, the females are brown.” And he said, “The female is the one that builds the nest.”
“That’s the same as girls,” Robert said. “When I get back from Afghanistan I’m gonna find a nice girl to marry and start a family.”
“I’m never building a nest with a boy,” I said.
“You will,” he said.
“You’ll find your wings one day.” And then he looked at me really hard and said, “Til then you’ll ’ave to share my nest.”
“Yeah,” I said and he hugged me.
“Don’t get killed in Afghanistan,” I said. Only I never said it out loud. I whispered it into the hood of his sweatshirt when he was hugging me.
Nan stayed for the whole of the summer after our Robert got killed in Afghanistan. I don’t even know where Afghanistan is. My mate says it’s where them dogs come from, the ones that look like greyhounds with long hair. I said I hope none of them get killed because of the Prime Minister. Our dog, Floss, would’ve been dead scared of guns. On bomby night Robert used to sit with her under the stairs and hold her till she stopped shaking.
Dad said he was fed up not being able to watch his programmes on the TV when Nan was there. “Why do we have to watch Emmerdale Farm?” he said.
“It’s called Emmerdale,” I said. “They dropped the Farm.”
“Oh,” he said.
“Not like Corrie,” I said. “That’s still called Coronation Street it’s just that everyone calls it Corrie.”
“Oh,” he said. Then he said, “We ought to watch educational things.”
“Like David Attenborough?” I said.
But Dad said he didn’t like David Attenborough so he wouldn’t watch Robert’s Birds DVD. I reckon that’s not the real reason though.
But even when Nan left, Dad still watched Emmerdale. And he still called it Emmerdale Farm. And Mum still sat in the dark. She would watch home movies of me and our Robert. She cried all the time so I told her David Attenborough said we ought to use recyclable tissues. She looked at me weird.
“It’s about being ecologic,” I said. “We get through loads of tissues in our ’ouse.”
But then I wondered: if we did, would Mum’s tears come ’round again on the recycled tissues. So I told her I’d changed me mind…
©Debz Hobbs-Wyatt 2013, published in full in: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Good-Reads-Short-Story-Award-ebook/dp/B00GIIZYXG