Dialogue-Only Short Story Competition - Winner

Lee Irving

Toeing the Line
Dialogue-Only Short Story Competition


Born in North Yorkshire, Lee Irving is a part-time History Teacher living in Oxfordshire. When he isn’t cycling or teaching, he can usually be found writing, whether it be micro-fiction, full-length novels or everything that lies in between. Gratitude won the March 2022 #FlashFiction101 competition, and Assisted Suicide has just been published in the Anansi Archive’s anthology Gambles and Balances. He really enjoyed the dialogue-only challenge, and he is delighted with his first win for Writing Magazine.

Toeing the Line By Lee Irving

What are you doing that for?
Doing what for?
Taking off your shorts.
Why shouldn’t I take off my shorts?
There’s people.
I know there’s people.
But that man’s watching.
So, let him watch.
He can see your pants.
They’re not my pants.
Yes, they are.
No, they’re not.
Yes. They. Are.
No: they are my bikini bottoms.
Well, whatever they are, it’s rude.
It’s not rude.
Is so.
Is not.
Is so.
If you think that’s rude, wait until you see this.
Stop it!
It’s all right.
It isn’t all right. Why are you taking all your clothes off?
I’m not taking them all off. I’ve finished now.
But that man is still watching. Now he can see your bra.
It’s not my bra. Anyway, how does he look?
I don’t know.
I mean, is he smiling, or does he look… disappointed?
He isn’t smiling. What does disappointed look like?
Like this.
He isn’t sticking out his bottom lip.
That’s a good sign.
Why are you showing him your bra?
It’s not my bra. It’s my bikini top and I’m not showing him. I’m taking off my outer clothes and he’s just watching. It’s a free country.
Why? Are there countries you have to pay for?
No: it’s a turn of phrase. Do you remember we talked about those?
I think so. What does it mean?
It means that I’m allowed to strip down to my bikini and he’s allowed to watch and nobody has to pay anything.
Unless I want to charge him some money for watching.
Do you?
I’m starting to wonder if I should.
You could charge him three pounds and I could buy an ice cream with it.
That’s a good idea. The trouble is, I think there might be laws against asking people to pay money for watching you.
It’s got something to do with prostitution.
What’s that?
Look it up.
Okay. How do you spell it?
That’s not how you spell it.
Yes it is.
No it isn’t.
Yes. It. Is. I.T. spells it.
But I know how to spell it.
So, google it then.
But I don’t know how to spell it.
So, you know how to spell it but you don’t know how to spell it?
Okay, okay. Stop stamping your feet. There’s no need to get yourself so worked up. Prostitution is spelled: P-R-O-S-T-I-T-U-T-I-O-N.
No: U-T-I-O-N.
I-O-N. Hmm. It says it’s someone who performs sexual acts for money.
That’s right but keep your voice down, darling.
Well, not everyone wants to hear our conversation.
Hmm. What’s sexual acts?
That’s how you make babies.
You can make babies by looking at a lady wearing that thing?
No but the two are connected.
How are they connected? Do you want a baby?
No but you can do the thing to make a baby and not have a baby.
Well, it feels nice, I guess.
How do you do the thing to make a baby and not have a baby?
That’s complicated. Like really complicated.
You are too young to understand.
Am not.
Am too.
Am not.
Am too.
Am not.
Am not.
Am too.
See: you agree.
No. I. Don’t.
Well, anyway, I’m not about to explain sex to you here and now, so you’re just going to have to accept it.
Are you going to get him to pay for doing the thing without the baby then?
No! That would be prostitution and there are definitely rules against that.
I’m not sure exactly. Do you remember how we discussed the fact that I don’t know everything there is to know about absolutely everything?
I think so.
This is one of those times.
When will I be not too young?
I don’t know. When you turn eighteen?
But that’s in… lots and lots of years.
I know. Look: aren’t you a bit hot in all those clothes?
You have to be. It’s gotta be like thirty degrees out here. At least take off your coat.
Why not?
That man is watching.
That man is not watching you; he’s watching me.
That’s because you are in your bra and pants.
I’m not! I told you: it’s a bikini.
How do you spell it?
N.I. Is that all?
Yes. What does it say?
A small two-piece swimming costume for women.
See: I’m not being rude.
Yes, you are: it could be bigger and you are not swimming.
Not yet but I am going to. First, I need to put on some sun cream.
What’s that for?
To stop my skin burning in the sun.
How does it work?
It puts a protective layer between the skin and the heat of the sun.
Why don’t you just keep your clothes on to stop your skin burning?
Because I want a tan.
What’s a tan?
That’s where your skin goes brown.
Why do you want your skin to go brown?
That’s a good question. I suppose it’s because I have been conditioned into believing that tanned skin is more beautiful than untanned skin.
I don’t understand.
I know, darling: another complicated one, I’m afraid.
Please explain it to me.
Oh, you’ll work that one out for yourself, I imagine. Is he still watching?
Tell me how he is watching.
With his eyes.
No, does he look interested or bored?
I don’t know.
Is his face showing any expression?
I don’t know.
All right: is he staring or does he keep looking over then looking away?
Mainly staring.
Good. How does he react when I do this?
Why are you stroking your chest like that?
Never mind about that. What’s he doing now?
He just licked his lips.
Why excellent?
Honestly Ash, I’ve had just about enough of your questions for one day. I really think it’s about time you took off some of your clothes. You’ll overheat and it’s weird.
Look around you, darling. Do you see anyone else round here in lots of clothes?
There’s that man in a white coat.
Ah, but he’s a waiter: he has no choice.
Why does he have no choice?
Because it’s his uniform.
Like I have a uniform?
He looks too big to go to school.
He is.
So why does he have to wear a uniform?
For work.
Like a police officer.
What does a waiter do?
Do you remember last night when we arrived and we had some supper and a man in a black jacket brought us our food and drink?
That was a waiter.
Why does this man wear a white coat?
Must be their day uniform.
Hmm. A day uniform and a night uniform.
That’s it.
So, if I want an ice cream, would I ask him?
You would but ice creams are afternoon treats.
Because that’s the rule and I know you know that one.
Now, you know you can’t go in the pool with your clothes on, don’t you?
I’m not stupid.
I never said you were. I’m just saying that there will come a time when you want to go in the pool, so there will be a time when you have to take off your clothes.
I know that.
Remember: you’ve got your costume on underneath and it’s not a small two-piece costume, so you won’t be nearly as rude as me.
I know!
Don’t kick the sun lounger, darling. It’s not yours to kick. And remember you will have to put sun cream on before you can swim.
Because your skin will burn if you don’t.
But it’s all slimy.
Only when it goes on then it sinks into your skin. Look at my arm.
I wouldn’t want that sinking into me.
Why not?
It’s slimy.
No sun cream, no swim. That’s the rule.
I won’t swim then.
But you like swimming. I know. Here: put some cream on my back for me and you’ll see it’s not too bad.
Please, darling: I can’t reach and my back will burn if you don’t.
You don’t want me to burn, do you?
Will you then?
Thanks for nothing.
If you burn, I’ll get some water from the pool to put the fire out.
That’s kind.
Or I could get the man who likes watching you to help me throw you into the pool.
Even kinder, except I’d rather not burn in the first place.
Why don’t you ask the waiter to do your sun cream?
I don’t think that falls under his job description.
What’s that?
The list of jobs he has to do in his uniform.
He’s more involved with delivering food and drink, you see.
Then why don’t you ask that man to do it?
Oh, I don’t know if that’d be a very good idea.
Why not?
Well… It’s just… I’m not sure if I can really ask a stranger to rub sun cream on my back.
But he’s not a stranger: he has been watching you for twenty-eight minutes.
How do you know that?
I’ve been timing it.
O-kay. It’s just that I feel a bit too shy to ask him dressed like this.
I could ask.
You could.
Do you want me to?
Okay. But be polite.

What did he say?
He said, ‘I haven’t got any cash on me.’
Why?! What did you say?
I said, ‘My mum would like you to rub sun cream on her back but it costs three pounds.’
You didn’t!
Yes, I did.
Then what happened?
I said he might be able to get it off the waiter.
And then what happened?
He laughed.
And then?
He said I was the weirdest pimp he’d ever seen, and then he got up and went inside the hotel.
Great. So now he thinks I’m a prostitute.
Does that mean you are going to have a baby?  

Judges Comments

A fine ear for voice and a talent for pacing and comic timing have given Lee Irving a well-deserved win in WM's Dialogue Short Story Competition.

Lee's winning entry, Toeing the Line, is an unforced pleasure to read. Riffing on the gulf in understanding between an adult and a child, it's packed with humour. The underlying story of the mother's thwarted atttempts to flirt with a man at the seaside as a result of her child's 'logic' is allowed to play out in minute increments, with the dialogue conveying character at the same time as moving the story along with each beat.

The naturalistic quality of the dialogue, unimpeded by speech tags or authorial intervention, is impressive. The old saw about writing is that the easier it is to read, the more work has gone into crafting it, and this feels the case with Toeing the Line. The humour is all in the conversation but it's never overdone; nothing outstays its welcome or feels forced. The relationship between the mother and child and the evolving events in the situation that makes up this story come across convincingly. The child's voice rings true, conveying their age-appropriate knowledge and understanding of the world, and so does the mother's attempts to explain adult concepts in way that makes sense to a child.

The reader is led seamlessly though Lee's narrative without feeling forced or directed in any way. It's so well observed, and the character-led comedy is such a pleasure to read, that it stood out to the judges for all the right reasons.



Runner-up and shortlisted
Runner-up in the Dialogue-Only Competition was Kathy Goddard, Spalding, Lincolnshire, whose story is published on www.writers-online.co.uk Also shortlisted were: Ken Balding, London SE2; Charlotte Dale, Walsall, West Midlands. Jess Amy Dixon, Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire; Genevieve Flintham, Wells, Somerset; Vivienne Moles, Winford, Isle of Wight; Bev Morris, Bishops Stortford, Hertfordshire; Elizabeth O’Mara, Malvern, Worcestershire; Charlotte West, Weymouth, Dorset.