BACK TO THE 80'S - Winner

Liz Gwinnell

Will You?


Liz has written many short stories and has published two books on Amazon: No Milk Today and British Summer Time, based on real events from her favourite decade: the 1980s. When she is not writing, Liz is a novice beekeeper and enjoys spending time on her allotment.


Will You? By Liz Gwinnell

She wasn’t there when I woke at three o’clock in the morning tossing on the seas of a sheet-wrecked bed. I’d dreamt that Ian Curtis of Joy Division had just died. It was 18th May 1980. I was 14. He was 24.

I lay there for a moment, drifting on the waves of uncertain time. I could hear Hazel O’Connor’s Will You? floating up from downstairs with its haunting, insistent saxophone. I imagined Gail downstairs, dancing in the dark.

“Couldn’t sleep?” I asked her when she came back into the bedroom.
“No,” she said. “Too much 1980s on my mind.”
I switched on the beside lamp to chase away the shadows.

“I had a dream about Ian Curtis,” I said as she sat down on the stool in front of the dressing table and lit a cigarette. “Remember him? The guy from Joy Division who committed suicide?”
“That was sad,” she said, inhaling on the cigarette. “So sad.”
The raw sax from Will You? reached a crescendo in my head.
“Do you remember how we used to do this in the 1980s?” she said, cutting into it. “Smoke fags in the middle of the night?”
“I remember puking behind the bus shelter,” I said.
“I remember blue mascara,” she said.

I didn’t say I did too; that I’d once worn it to the Rocky Horror Show along with a suspender belt and fishnet stockings. Some scenes from the1980s were better left unsaid.

“I think I’ll go as Toyah,” she said, stubbing out her cigarette in a pot of face cream.
“You can’t do that!” I said.
“What’s wrong with Toyah?” she asked.
“Not Toyah,” I said. “The face cream.”
She smiled at me in the mirror.
“You were the one who first suggested it,” she said. “Remember how I never had an ashtray in my bedsit?”
“Didn’t you?” I said.

As the day of the fancy dress party approached, she became more and more 1980s. She backcombed her hair, she bought ten Coal not Dole badges on eBay and a Spitting Image puppet of Margaret Thatcher’s head.

“Now you’re going too far,” I said when the ghoulish spectre arrived.
“I’m only trying to get the feel of it,” she said. “It seems so long ago.”

By the day of the party, she’d already tried on – and discarded – a dozen glittering personas. Toyah was firmly in the trash as was Tina Turner, Debbie Harry and that lead singer from Bow Wow Wow who’d gone wild in the country. I suggested Wendy James, the girl from Transvision Vamp who’d lit a fire in me on many a teenage night.

“I’m too old,” she said. “For all of them. Too old.”
I was wearing a gas mask and a brown boiler suit when she came downstairs in black lace and ruffles on the night of the party. I’d found a booklet in the loft called What to do in the event of a Nuclear War. It brought dreams of bleak and scorched landscapes but also solved the problem of what to wear to the party. I was not of the age or the build to carry off the strut of Simon le Bon or any of those other slick 1980s wild boys.
“I thought I’d go as myself,” she said, walking past me in a cloud of Obsession. The perfume took me straight back to Christmas morning 1988 when I’d first smelt it on her young, soft skin.

The party was in a private house. Someone was feeling nostalgic and had decided to celebrate their sixtieth birthday by recreating the 1980s. It was hard to believe that the decade was forty years ago. Could you ever recreate it?

“I used to sleep under my bed in case there was a nuclear war in the middle of the night,” Gail told me as we walked along the road.
I had never known this about her. We’d met in school, split up, got back together, moved away, had children with other people, moved back and re-ignited about five years ago. I thought I knew her. Did I?
“You never struck me as the nervous type,” I told her as we shivered in the cold of a late October night.
“I wasn’t,” she said. “But it was always there wasn’t it? The threat of nuclear war? Everyone remembers the ‘80s as this glorious time of freedom, before mobile phones, when rock stars owned yachts and kids could stay out all night and no one noticed. But it wasn’t like that was it? Not really. My mum used to stash tins of spam and baked beans in a box under the stairs. Just in case.”

I remembered ice on the inside of my bedroom windows because putting the heating on in our house was as rare and as celebrated as Christmas Day. I remembered snow up to my waist in the winter of 1981 and my mum trading Green Shield stamps for dreadful soup bowls. I remembered the night the roof of the shed blew off in the storm of October 1987 which everyone, except Michael Fish, called a hurricane. She was right. It wasn’t like they portrayed it. That decade had been shamelessly air brushed.

She was stumbling along in high heel shoes and holding on to my arm. I felt a closeness to her that was often absent from our modern-day life.  We were both still working and had no idea when we might retire: the pension dream for our generation was a crock of shit. Our free time was spent picking up the threads of the families we’d created with other people. Oh the dreams of the sixth form common room. Where did they go?

“Come on,” I said, taking off my gas mask and veering across the road. “There’s somewhere I need to go.”
“We’ll be late for the party,” she said.
“So?” I said, feeling dangerously spontaneous. “When did we ever care about being late?”

For the strong minded, firecracker of a woman she was, she surprised me by going along with my plan. I had this urge to go back and a 1980s party wasn’t the only way to go back. Not in my mind.
“I hope you’re not planning to buy last minute flowers and cheap wine from the all night garage,” she said as we moved out of the street lights into the area we used to call the no-go zone. Now it had been gentrified and no one remembered the nights of the riots when black and white reached boiling point and fire lit up the dark skies of the neighbourhood. She was right. It hadn’t all been rosy. Some of it had been darker than dark.
I hadn’t walked along these streets for years. I had no need to. We had a car and I worked from home. I was no longer the foot soldier of the 1980s treading the volatile boundaries of teenage territory.
I stopped on the edge of the playground. That had been gentrified too. When we were children the swings and slides and roundabouts had stood on tarmac squares and no one cared if you fell and smashed your head in. Now it was all rubber mats and cottonwool.

As we ventured further into the dark, I held my breath. It was still there. Amazingly. Still there.
“Oh no Terry,” she said as I pulled her on to the astro turf. I had no idea how high heeled shoes would cope with artificial terrain but I remembered this tree-climbing rebel of a girl letting nothing phase her.
“I’m not getting on there,” she said as I boarded the wooden train. “Not in these tights. They cost a fortune Terry don’t be daft.”
I sat inside and looked out at her the way I’d done that day when I first brought her here. It was 1984. We were 18 and I’d bunked off my history lecture to meet her by the train with a box of Week End chocolates tucked under my arm.
When I didn’t move, she stepped forward and stuck her head inside.
“I’d forgotten about our train,” she said. “How could I have forgotten about the train?”
“Life,” I said. “It makes us forget nuclear war and freezing cold houses and bus shelters being set on fire.”
She closed her eyes and breathed in.
“It still smells the same,” she said, lifting her skirts and climbing inside. “God! Do you realise how young we were?”
“I remember this is where I first kissed you,” I said as she got in beside me. It was cramped, it was a wooden children’s train and it was the place, the place, where we’d go after the clubs were closed and the parties kicked out. One simple humble wooden train. Still here. How many promises had soaked into its wood, this silent witness to teenage secrets?
I put my arm around her shoulders and she leaned in to me. This wasn’t a Gail-like reaction, not these days anyway. She often pulled away because we were always busy, going somewhere, doing something, at risk of being late. But not now, not now.
“Do you remember how you used to say you were going to drive us to our future?”
“Well,” I said. “I did, didn’t I?”
“Sort of,” she said. “We thought we had it all planned didn’t we? It’s funny how life doesn’t always work out the way you think it will.”
I pulled her into me. The night was cold and the same stars which had shone upon us all those years ago were white and bright against the black night sky.
“Well,” I said. “At least there wasn’t a nuclear war.”
And we sat there in the cold and dark on a wooden train in a children’s playground while just a few streets away, people dressed as Boy George and Tina Turner danced to Duran Duran and Wham!  We didn’t need a party and we didn’t need to dress up as anyone else.

We had found our own way back to the 1980s just as we were.

Judges Comments

'Will You?", the winner in WM's Back to the 80s Short Story Competition, is a terrific piece of writing that demonstrates the elasticity of time and memory in a story about a couple revisiting aspects of their youth as they prepare for a 1980s theme party.

This device has allowed writer Liz Gwinnell to seamlessly incorporate iconic 1980s motifs - music, films, perfumes, even the name of a box of chocolates - into the personal memories of the decade for Gail and narrator Terry in a warmly resonant story about two people navigating the passage of time together. Their recall of markers of the decade is used to trigger their own memories, not just of each other but of the texture of life when they were younger. 'Too much 1980s on my mind,' says Gail at the beginning, but the way Liz tells it, the trappings of the 1980s are only the beginning of the importance of the decade to this couple.

An extra layer of poignancy is added to the story by the fact that although the 1980s were the 'beginning' of Gail and Terry, they spent decades apart before being reunited. The 1980s, then, are shown through their naturalistic conversation to hold a particular significance for the couple: not just when they were growing up, but when they were new and made the memories that brought them back together. This gives a wonderful weight to the end, when they find their own 1980s, not in the hits and fashions of the decade being played for laughs at the party, but crammed into the same kiddie train on the playground where they planned their future as young lovers. 


The runner up in WM’S Back to the 80s short story competition was Terry Baldock, Evesham, Worcs. You can read his story at:

Also shortlisted were: Dominic Bell, Hull; Daren Carpmail, Smethwick, West Midlands; Sharon Cook, Chudleigh, Devon; Hull; Antony Crossley, Chobham, Surrey; Ellen Evers, Congleton, Cheshire; Melanie Francis, Harrow, Middlesex; Andrew Hutchcraft, Peterbrough, Cambs; Lisa Williams, Tiverton, Cheshire.