First-person short story competition - Winner

Deborah J Smith

First-person short story competition


Deborah is a specialist teacher and mediator working in London. Her favourite place to be as a child was the library. She was encouraged to study English literature and to write by a teacher at secondary school although it took her decades to believe that she could do it. Previously she has been longlisted in a poetry competition and placed second in a recent writer’s weekend event. This is her first win, and she is delighted. She is currently working on the final edit of a young adult novel and very much hopes that it will be published.

Shai By Deborah J Smith

My Mum’s last spoken word on this earth was ‘lovely’. Her eyes had suddenly opened despite the blinking monitor which insisted her oxygen saturation was just 40% - a level at which the trillions of synaptic connections in her brain were curling up, drying out, switching off and so quickly like fireworks: brilliant and then gone. All that knowing and thinking and feeling and making and doing and mending and caring and loving and hating. Just erasing. The numbers on the monitor ticking down with the cold logic of evolution and numbers. Each click slowly unstitching my DNA, leaving it writhed, torched, twisted undone.
Despite this, my mum opened her eyes. The browns of them glazed but still deep. She nodded at me and my siblings – one at each hand and one with their head on her feet – she put her arms up in the air, despite being too weak to have been able to do this for weeks before; she put her arms up in the air and motioned for us to come and hug her. Lovely she said. Then she closed her eyes. And the numbers went down and down over the next twenty or so hours. Or it could have been seconds or minutes or days.
It was hot. My Mum loved the summer.
It’s the winter after or the next winter after, we’re in the car. Outside: thinned hedges, stark trees, sleeping fields blur past yet for moments are perfectly defined by the cold as if it has made everything honest. Not just a literal stripping bareness but a declaration of truth, a challenge – come, can you bear to see me without my coverings, my prettying flowers, my swagger and sway? This is the underneath of me. Can you bear to hear me without the glamour of my bird song and the hypnotic of my insects? Can you stand the smell of my decay?
In the hospital, I held my Mum’s right hand, rubbing the large, tear shaped mole sat in the web between her thumb and index finger. Once, I asked her where it came from, it was from where she’d eaten too much chocolate when she was a little girl even though she’d been told not to. She’d eaten the whole lot of it and made herself feel sick and she cried, and the mole was a reminder that she shouldn’t be so greedy or disobedient again. My six- year-old self had laughed, not because of the chocolate or the mole but because the thought of my Mum ever have being a little girl was just ridiculous.
At the services we get coffee, water, sandwiches. We buy things I like - salt and vinegar crisps, candy kitten sweets, Purdeys. You might fancy something a bit later? I nod. Maybe.
There is a steep track uphill. A closed gate. The latch is on the other side, the cold of the metal brands me. You need your gloves, Essie says.
Yeah, I know, I’m not sure if I packed them.
It’s OK, I did.
They gave us two bags of Mum’s things that had been in the bedside cabinet at the hospital. Few of the things were essential – her top teeth in a case, her glasses in a case, her phone in a case, her blue cardigan. I signed papers to give permission for strangers to take my Mum’s body to the funeral directors. I let others do it. I allowed it. I’d given consent to turn off life support. I’d nodded. I’d allowed it. By my name it was done.
The lodge is curved to its roof, boards so that it looks like an upturned boat hull. There’s decking out front with a table, chairs, a firepit. A breakfast box sits alert against the front door: local, organic produce nestled in straw. It’s like an offering, a votive to the gods. I sacrifice my time and energy so that you may smile down on us in your mighty benevolence.
I prayed so much for my Mum to live. I prayed to everything I could. I made myself say certain phrases a certain number of times and at certain times of day. Somehow, I reasoned that if I said things in threes then that would be best. The power of three. Even better if it were a multiple or a numerical power of three. I figured three to the power of three might seal the deal. I imagined it as a cube of prayer. It was red and revolving. So I said the same phrase twenty seven times. Morning and night. In my head - not out loud. That would have been some crazy shit.
We sit by the fire. Essie walks behind my chair. She stoops, puts her arms around me from the back. Her left cheek seals my right cheek. I put my gloved hand on her right cheek. We stay for a few moments then she goes back to her chair and we look into the fire, mesmerised until it dies.
It’s cosy inside. There are many lights: small, subdued, tasteful. They create hollows, shadows like niches, secret stores for important or ridiculous thoughts.
The nurse on night shift had left voicemail one morning, around 3:20am saying that my Mum had had another crisis, her oxygen levels had dropped to 70%, they’d called the emergency team in, they were working on her now – my Mum was calling my name - could I come in as soon as possible, they didn’t know if she was going to make it. The words were serrated and metal. Yeah, thanks for that, that’s exactly what I want to fucking know... No, I can’t just come in, I live fucking 200 miles away, which you fucking know ...... For months after the funeral, I still heard that ring tone in the early hours even when I had a new phone.
There’s no signal here at the lodge. I’m awake in the night, my eyes blinking into an understanding of where we are. The dark chews at the walls. The cold greets me like an old friend like we’ve been apart for a long time but nothing’s changed, we can pick up the conversation where we left it. I find a coat.
The trees out front are bare, their branches superimposed against a mist which swirls slightly, hangs, it is a cloud come down for a while. The sky’s layers are clear, they striate and lacquer across the horizon. There is a moon. It textures the space around it with a perfect corona of ice crystals. There are conifers to the left, their pine scent is everywhere. There’s a movement on the edge of my peripheral vision, something small but not trying to hide. I turn to look straight on.
There is a child.
They are standing half behind one of the conifers. They are perhaps seven or eight years old, certainly no older. They have dark hair, thick in spirals. They look straight at me. I stay still like I’m looking at a rare bird that will surely fly away if I breath.
The child is walking towards me. I see them now. Young and yet a face that already shows what it will look like when it is old. Their movement is vital, brimming, alive but they are cold. I know because they hold out a hand to me, and I take it. You’re cold, I say.
Yes. They nod. Their voice is a song where I can only recall snatches of the chorus but not yet the whole thing or the title. It will come to me. I hand over a hoodie that we left outside. The child puts it on. The arms dangle to the floor which makes us both laugh.
I went to the hospital for one day every week for six months. Train to London, underground to Euston, train to Manchester, tram to the hospital. I got there for visiting hours. I stayed until the end of visiting hours and reversed the journey back. I called the hospital twice a day. Mum couldn’t hold the phone so sometimes her nurse would relay messages. She said to tell you she loves you. I said to tell her I love her too.
Was it the nightmare? Essie says.
I say, No, I’m ok, listen, there’s a kid here, I was looking out and they were there behind a tree, they’re lost or something I don’t know and they’re cold, really cold, I gave them your hoodie and they’re sat on the chair now waiting to come in, so...
I’m sure it’s the most words I’ve spoken all together and out loud for a long time. My mouth feels a strange ache with it like a hand that hasn’t handwritten anything for ages even though it can do joined up writing really well.
My Mum knitted us all jumpers, cardigans, jackets; that metronomic click whilst she watched TV at the same time. She never really approved of my lifestyle choices. She still wanted us warm. She knitted me/ us a blanket. It’s made of 210 individual squares, sewn together so neatly it’s not noticed. Sometimes I get it out just to hold it for a while.
The child turns their head. And it’s there in the turn and the moon glance off the chin and the swivel of the eyes – the movement trips a déjà vu switch.
My name is Shai, it rhymes with why not hay, the child says. And there’s that song again, it’s caught at the ridges behind my teeth.
I pass the hot chocolate. Shai puts a hand out to take the cup. I see the smear of the tear shaped mole there on the web between the thumb and index finger on Shai’s right hand and it’s not a surprise because I have placed the voice, the song – I have the chorus, all the verses and the title. It is Mum’s, it is mine, it is Shai’s. And Shai is ours. The kid looks up at me: all wide, brown eyes as they blow across the top of the hot chocolate; the surface ripples forward and backward, backward and forward. 

Judges Comments

The winner of WM's First Person short story competition, Shai by Deborah J Smith is a layered internal monologue that tackles death and new life.

In using first person, Deborah has chosen the only point of view possible in which to tell this story. Shai so skillfully evokes an individual thought process that first person is the only choice of POV that could convey the immediacy and interiority that draws the reader so profoundly into the narrator's world.

As in real life, the thoughts are fragmented, repeating patterns - but delivered, in this amplified narrative, with a quiet lyricism that shows the writer revelling in the use of language and consciously using it to convey a private, personal processing of bereavement's grief and anguish, the solace of the comfort offered by the narrator's partner, and the renewal and sense of life's circularity that comes with the child, Shai.

Another outstanding aspect of this winning story is how unafraid it is as it tackles the realities of death and grief, and does not shy away from conveying their impact. Shai's narrative plays with the elements within it, the jumble of thoughts, each one of which - love and science, knitting, moles, hot chocolate - reveals something about the narrator: not just the events in their life, but their response. It's raw, individual poetic, complex and full of emotional truth - a memorable winning story whose ripple effects linger in the reader's mind.



Runner-up and shortlisted
Runner-up in the First-Person Short Story Competition was Micha Horgan, London E5, whose story is published on
Also shortlisted were: Michael Callaghan, Clarkston, Glasgow; Ruth Clarke-Irons, Kingston-Upon-Thames, Greater London; Deborah Hugill, Northallerton, North Yorkshire; Mark deMeza, High Legh, Cheshire; Lorna Fraser, Fochabers, Inverness; Valerie French, Bournemouth, Dorset; Andrew Hutchcraft, Peterborough, Cambridgeshire; Damien Mckeating, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire; Charlie Place, Whitstable, Kent; Jane Scampion, Ilkley, West Yorkshire.