750-word Competition - Winner

Jess Crandon

Seven by Nine
750-word Competition


Jess Crandon lives in London, and is blessed (or cursed – depends on the day) enough to write for a living. When she’s not writing about all sorts of technology-related stuff, she dabbles in short stories and is attempting to write a novel. This is her first entry to Writing Magazine and she is thrilled to have had beginner’s luck on her side. When she’s not writing, Jess spends her time reading, horse-riding, and going on long walks.

Seven by Nine By Jess Crandon

I hate them.
Admittedly, I don’t know them. But I hate them all the same.
The way her dark hair looks like liquid in the spring sunshine. The way he holds the paper bag from the bakery ​and​ the two cups of coffee. The way they can’t bear to drop into single file when another person approaches them on the pavement, and instead walk in the middle of the empty roads.
I sit in the bay window of my rented room, propped up on cushions so I can reach my laptop. I log on to work at half-past seven every morning and make the morning rounds: the Guardian, the BBC, Twitter. Instagram. Facebook if I feel like a new conspiracy theory (will anything top 5G causes global pandemic? I doubt it). I attempt to write, but doubling down on the benefits of connected data doesn’t feel a pressing matter these days. I try to pull words from my brain and wonder if it’d be more pleasant to pluck out my eyelashes with the pink tweezers in my make-up bag.
Then they appear. I could set my clock by them. They walk arm-in-arm, her with the lollopy gait of a girl who’s never had breezeblocks of anxiety strapped to her ankles. Him with the stride of someone who should be walking chocolate Labradors through Surrey.
In the afternoons, they reappear. This time to use my street as the site of their government-mandated one-hour exercise session. They wear similar shades of blue and black. I wonder if she matches her outfit to his knowing it’ll look aesthetically pleasing on her Instagram feed. Or perhaps they’re just ​that​ in sync.
She side-skips and sprints and drops into push-ups and he times her and races her and cajoles her – ​What, is that all you’ve got? That the best you can do?​ – and she laughs and works harder and he kisses where the sweat glistens on her head. After twenty-five minutes, they leave and silence draws back across our road.
But as the days pass and the isolation creeps through my body and across my mind like ivy on an old house, I wait for them. I notice the idiosyncrasies that make their relationship, theirs. The way he wraps up his hand in her long ponytail, the way she tilts her head when he speaks, the way he scoops his arm around her waist, the way she yo-yos to and fro, never letting too much distance come between them.
I see the moments that no one else sees. The moments that perhaps ​they​ don’t see. The moments you only remember when it’s too late to revive them. But as they walk between the terraced houses of our south-west London street, there must be hundreds of eyes following them. Eager for distractions, to remember how spring should look, with lovers laughing and bumping elbows under blossom trees.
Then there are mornings when she walks a step out of reach. Mornings when she doesn’t turn to look at him at all, when his hands stay in his jacket pockets. Have they run out of things to talk about? Dread sits heavy in my stomach. Will they break up when this is over, if it’s ever over?
Would ​we​ have run out of things to talk about, I wonder. You never got bored of my endless hypotheticals – Could giant spiders destroy humanity? What name would you give me based on what you know? – and I like to think we could’ve lived in a shoebox and been happy.
One morning they stop coming.
I look for them the way I looked for you.
I wait by the window, where I waited for you.
After five days and no sighting, I start to ignore the notifications from my work email.
I pace the seven steps from wall to wall, the nine steps from window to bed.
After ten days and no sighting, I have to try harder to ignore the tightness in my throat, the nausea, the thumping behind my eyes.
I pick at my nails until they bleed, the skin rough and torn. (I hear you telling me to stop, saying it’s unattractive, and I do stop for a moment, but then I think what’s the f—ing point of having nice hands if you won’t ever see them again.)
After fifteen days, I let the thoughts in slowly, slowly, as slowly as you’d open a door in gale-force winds.
Have they gone where you went?  

Judges Comments

In 750 tight, focussed words, Jess Crandon presents the reader with an utterly contemporary tragedy. Seven by Nine, the winner in WM's 750-word short story competition, conveys the claustrophobia and anxiety of isolation in the pandemic, the inability to focus, the seeking distraction, the way so many of us will have found ourselves observing the daily goings on in our neighbourhood during the early, panic-stricken days of lockdown.

The opening - I hate them -  is arresting, and demands that the reader find out why. But as the narrator's observations about the couple in question mount up, it's clear to the reader that the narrator's feelings about the unknown couple are more than that. They're a distraction, something to take the narrator's mind off being isolated in the 'seven by nine' room of the title. In their closeness, they're a source of envy. When they stop appearing, they're cause for anxiety. Jess moves the reader carefully through her story so that they experience all these reactions with the narrator, building up to its tragic climax.

Jess's control over her narrative, and therefore her control over the reader, is impressive. From the start we're hooked into this edgy tale, which is full of tension from the start, so it's unusually powerful when it moves from observational to intensely personal at the end. As a tale for our times, it's taut, tense, racked with hard-won compassion, and enormously effective.


Also shortlisted were: Terry Baldock, Droitwich Spa, Worcestershire; Donna Booth, Wick, Caithness; Dawn Bush, Southam, Warwickshire; Jean El Faghloumi, Seaford, East Sussex; Andrew French, Redcar, Teesside; Jeanette Lowe, Sheffield, South Yorkshire; Amanda Marples, Rotherham, South Yorkshire; Pat Phillips, Holcombe, Lancashire; Linda Sainty, Bristol; Kirsty Sugar, Monmouth.