For more information on this competition, our judge Alex Davis and his comments please click here. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy the winners (in reverse order).
by Yasmin Chopin
‘Five minutes Miss Walden, five minutes Mr Brendan…’ Jeremy’s voice rings in unison with his knuckles. The urgency dissipates as he sashays down the corridor. I brush biscuit crumbs from my lap and annoyingly leave cigar ash in their wake; I’m the only dancer in the troupe who smokes. Short nicotine drags interlace with the taste of buttery coffee and I press the remains of my feet into the shoes. This is my last performance – my last exhibition as Valerie Walden – my last ballet. The rich tar smell of tobacco mingles with the pasty perfume of stage make-up. It sits heavy in the languid air of the dressing room, like the last serving of chocolate ice cream left to melt, in a plastic tub.
‘Hold your hands so,’ Miss Catherine said, as we formed a line in the ballroom. The red velvet covered chairs, head height, surrounded us like uniformed soldiers. Her relaxed bare arms lifted away from her hips as she turned her palms towards us. ‘Then point your toe.’
The big girls ignored me; at five years old I was nothing, a minuscule impediment. I practised every position until I could show it off in exchange for praise. And my little body grew, it developed into the ideal shape; out-turned feet, straight back, head balanced on a thin neck. I built up strength, in stretches and strains, all achieved with expressionless concentration.
By the time I was sixteen my determination dominated the feline competition. A talent scout picked me out at a rehearsal of Giselle, which led to an audition by a touring company. At the beginning I was content to work minor roles while understudying the prima ballerina. The chance, when it came, was deserved, hard earned. As principal dancer, I starred in performances at some of the country’s iconic venues: the Hippodrome – Birmingham, the Theatre Royal – Brighton, and even London’s Opera House.
‘Twenty years’, I whisper as I tie the lonely ribbons of my shoes. My life has been dedicated to the ballet, to this short punishing career. I feel cheated by time, ‘what will I do now?’
Tonight Richard is my leading man. He’s the perfect height for me. From the wings we travel to centre stage and fall into the routine. His wide hands circle my waist firmly but briefly. Our bodies correspond, then the music takes us into the air. I experience the sensation of flight and defy gravity. It’s momentary, but it’s real. The boards bounce as we land from the jumps and aftershocks track up to my hips, but there’s no time to flinch. The sequence moves us on, the spins get faster and faster, and with a final flourish I come to a dead stop, exactly on the spot. The audience is on their feet.
‘Bravo’, they shout, ‘bravo!’ Now I can smile. I smile into the darkness. I smile graciously as I take a deep curtsey and look up at Richard. He looks at me with satisfaction. Drops of sweat trickle between my breasts and disappear down inside my costume. The lights feel hot on my stationary body. With deliberation I lift myself and we move backwards taking exaggerated steps away from the apron. The curtains close, allowing me to snatch furious breaths to open my compressed lungs.
‘Well done, ol’ girl,’ he says quietly, respectfully. Tonight I cannot brush the words away with a grateful look, I stare at my shoes. Blood has seeped between the crushed marbles of my toes. The curtain lifts, we clasp hands with a flourish, and walk forward to take our bows.
‘Speech. Speech.’ Suddenly I feel vulnerable, frightened. A skin and bone dancer from the chorus skips towards us, all tutu and shoes; her arm stretches forward, offering a microphone. The house lights are up. I see thousands of eyes, tiny darts of light, that point and pierce my frame. The heavy stage make-up drags at my eyelids and cheeks.
‘Thank you, thank you. What lovely flowers… I haven’t prepared… oh dear,’ I stutter, embarrassed. People rotate and bend in time with each other as they take their seats; a collection of bodies turning on spindles, as if belonging to a theatrical machine. They settle, they’re ready to listen. Rising from the floor an extraordinary and powerful calm surrounds me. In the heat of the spotlight it’s cooling and courageous.
‘Ballet breaks your bones,’ my emancipated voice reverberates around the cavernous theatre. ‘It syphons life out of you and separates you from your family. It blocks out daylight, fractures friendships, and denies babies. It’s a gaoler, a jealous lover, an over-protective mother. I’ve sacrificed a normal life. I’ve punished my body. Today I am a ballerina. Tomorrow I am not. I leave it all behind, with you. How many lives will you see wrecked, and wracked with pain?’ I pause as fear intrudes. I hear soft muttering. A few people get up, stooping like cripples. I don’t have much more time. My lungs inflate. ‘You pay peak prices for your tickets. Who gets rich? I retire with little more than a month’s pay in the bank.’ I feel Richard’s body move. He steals the microphone from my hand – I give it up without a struggle – his fingers prod my back. We walk to the wings together, then he disappears, silently, into the darkness. With him goes my dignity but not my pride. Justice flushes my veins.
The abandoned biscuit tin lid perches precariously on the unhappy proportions of the dressing table, anticipating the slightest movement that will send it clanking to the concrete floor. I soak up the left-over odours of a past life. Wasted. Street clothes cling to my limbs with nicotine and grubby unappetising memories. The cold grainy residue of coffee disturbs as I unfurl my arms and put the mug down. It’s time to go. The tin lid tries to resist, it argues for space, then begins its descent…
by David Duncombe
Meeting Harry In a betting shop in Derby was a shock he was older than Joe remembered, but unmistakeably Dad’s brother.
Joe had emigrated to Australia with his parents, so Melbourne was his home. He even talked Australian. They said that at the University here, where he’d been seconded, lecturing in statistics.
Harry was the one figure he wanted to track down. He was an army officer when Joe was a boy. He’d met him at a family funeral. Fond of the horses, Dad said, but they’d lost touch.
In the betting shop, Harry stood out in his decent overcoat, silk scarf and neat grey hair. You’d guess he was ex-infantry. His voice had the tones of a Derby man, though the accent was smoother.
“Quiet here,” said Harry. “The silence of losers.”
They met regularly then, Harry always in the same outfit. Joe had good days and bad days. Yet his uncle never mentioned his own luck.
One day they were in the bar of a seedy pub. “Dad will be pleased I’ve tracked you down.”
Harry frowned. “Don’t tell him.” He switched the conversation. “Two kinds of gamblers” Harry said. “Those spending a few quid on their hobby and those who are committed.”
“Which are you, Harry?” Joe couldn’t see a high roller scribbling on betting slips and jostling to look at pages of the Racing Post. “And which am I?” he asked himself.
Harry sipped his beer. “You can’t be sure of a winner. Probabilities – that’s what you need.”
Joe fetched more beer, nearly tripping on a tear in the carpet. Why did Harry come here? He was always pointing out shabby people in shabby places.
The system was called Clawback. “You’re allowed mistakes, but you’ll recover. If you’ve got a decent float. Big ‘if’. Simple. Decide how much you want to win each day – twenty pounds, a hundred. When you’ve built a sufficient pot, raise the target. Check the tipsters for the most napped horse. If one loses, don’t despair, divide the debit into three and add it to your stake on the next three bets — oh you need to multiply by thirteen to eight to take account of the average odds-on — with me?”
“Harry, I’m a statistician.”
“If that goes down, add a third of that loss to the next race — and so on. Don’t lose your nerve. When you win, stop for that day. You’ll need a big reserve if it fails three times, but one in three favourites usually succeeds.”
Joe started modestly and made a tidy profit. He kept an account and didn’t spend the winnings. But why was Harry scuffing about in betting shops and rough pubs? “Come on Harry, why drink in dumps like this?”
“To remind myself how low I sank.”
On the next betting day, Joe lost the first two races, but won the third. He was thinking of stepping up his target.
“Let’s get some lunch. Do you fancy fish and chips?”
They sat inside Jimmy’s Plaice, somewhere else where Harry seemed incongruous, but the food was good.
“I tried sticking to my system, but I needed a thousand a day. Needed! Debts. I didn’t have enough float. I had a couple of days’ success before two full day’s without a single winner. Which means?”
Joe had done his homework. “Something like £20,600, mate.”
“I had to get it. Worst possible sources, ridiculous interest rates. Bad to worse. They want security. Car, house, business. No chance at the bank: ‘Please Mr Manager I’ve made a mess of the business, I’ve lost a small fortune gambling and I need money to win it back’. If you’re £20,000 in debt and you can’t pay it, you might as well be £200,000 down. Soon I was.”
Joe tried to pay for the meal. Harry wouldn’t have that. “I pay my way now. Officially, I don’t owe a penny. Bankrupt. Let me take you somewhere else.”
They walked to a side street to an empty shop. Inside were boxes, dust and rubble. “Mine once. Changed hands a couple of times since the fire. More failures.”
Joe shook his head. “Why are you finally telling me this?”
“My name is Harry and I am a gambler. I need to tell somebody. In prison, you tend not to talk about why you’re there.”
“Whoa! Prison? Fire?”
They went to a pub, this time a decent one near the cathedral. The fire was an insurance job. “A clumsy one,” Harry told him. “I hung around, got caught. Bookshop. You can imagine the flames. Marjorie, you see, your aunt.” Joe couldn’t remember her. “Followed me, called the police. There before the fire brigade. I’d walked from home, earlier in the evening. Marjorie left me. Arguments, about money. And she thought I was seeing someone else. Never had the time for that. So no prison visits. Seven years.”
“I go to the shop every day, Joe. To remind myself. The betting shop, too. To look at the losers, recognising I’m the worst of the lot.”
“But you’ve passed the system on to me.”
“Nothing wrong with the system, Joe. Take it to Australia. I want you to win.”
“Come and see us Harry. Dad won’t turn you away.”
“Sounds good, Joe, but I’m too fixed in my ways.”
“Let me sub you for the trip. Don’t shake your head, mate, I owe you.”
Before Joe returned to Australia, he treated Harry to a meal but failed to pass on the cheque he had written.
“I don’t want you remembering me as a charity case.”
Harry came to the station to see him off. “The whole world seems on the move here,” said Harry. “That was the dream, when I was locked up. Taxi to the station. Ticket to anywhere.”
“You can still do it,” said Joe, but knowing that Harry had given up. Just as he knew that he himself would never bet again.
by Fay Dickinson
When I was a young man I could run like a furry, beige lolloping thing. I can see it, but I can’t find it… can’t find it. It’s not even my line. Rabbit. That’s it, rabbit. It’s like fumbling for slippery fish in a dark pond. That line was from a play I saw on television about getting old.
I always knew I could cope with physical infirmity, but not with losing my marbles. Here’s a page photocopied from a medical book. I have written the source on the sheet, “Oxford Handbook of Clinical Medicine”, but I don’t ever remember reading it before. “Memory loss is not like loss of land with a rising tide; the last memories to be sunk in the sea of forgetfulness are not earliest or latest, but the deepest, the most personal…”
I don’t want to sit here waiting until the dark pond is empty of fish and I am staring uncomprehending into its meaningless blackness. Strange, I feel more lucid and in control than I have for days, but it’s a mental mirror, no not.. . not mirror, shimmering desert thing, mirage.
A carer says looking after a relative with Alzheimer’s disease is like being “chained to a corpse.” I don’t want to put my family through that. If my Jane were alive I might not be able to leave, but she’s been dead for… what month is it? I hate this. I remember our wedding day June 16th 1941. It was glorious. Such a sunny time and everyone happy for us despite the war.
It’s winter now. Snow falling fast outside. I have given away most of my important possessions by choice, but my important memories are being stolen day by day and I can’t guard them. It was good to hand over my old pocket watch, Jane’s rings, my ancient chess set. The children and grandchildren were thrilled and I could enjoy my living will. The other stuff, furniture and things, doesn’t matter.
I’m not going to say goodbye to anything or anyone or I might want to stay, fishing hopelessly until I am a blank burden. What date is this? I have a date thingy here, but it doesn’t tell me. I need a big sign pointing “You are here”.
The time has come, whatever time it is. I have turned the heating off and now I am going to open all the windows. I am a little stiff. Stiff. I shall be a little stiff. A corpse of a joke, but the connection between the senses lifts me a little. All the same, it’s unfair that I should still be fit enough to live yet my mind is dying.
There will be no note explaining all this. I think everyone will understand.
They say hypermarket, hydrophobia… It’s there. I know it’s there. Please just let me have a few more minutes of success, of proper thoughts. Relax. Breathe in out.
Hypothermia. Hypothermia. I have remembered the word. Hypothermia. It’s painless, a warm sleep. This is a good place to die; at home with my memories. The memories are the most important thing. Without them I am already dead.
I shall sit here in my chair with Jane’s photograph on my lap. There she is.
It’s our wedding day. The sun is a soft friend, drowsing me to sleep. All the guests are happy for me, happy for us. Plenty more fish in the… in the… big green-bluey water shape. Not for me. It was only ever Jane. I never wanted to fish. Shall stop now. Ready to stop now. No more fishing again.