Open Competition - Winner

Maria Dean

The Last Friend on Earth
Open Competition


Maria Dean is an author from Yorkshire where she lives with her husband, two boys, and her faithful Boston Terrier. Her short stories have appeared in various publications and range from fantasy, sci-fi and the supernatural, but for the long haul, her heart remains rooted in contemporary romance novels. This is her second win with WM.

The Last Friend on Earth By Maria Dean

Monday 4 July 2022
Doreen Saunders
Age: 89
It was as if Doreen Saunders had been waiting for me, passing the time until my arrival. She might as well have been sitting in a rocking chair, knitting needles clicking, jam tarts cooling on the side, the door wide open, waiting for the next visitor. She was all white hair like a bowl of cotton wool balls, her skin distressed leather, and a mouth like a dried-up creek.   
I introduced myself like I always do.
"I'm Nell, pleased to meet you."
Her memories were easy to conjure, nostalgia hanging in the air like a fine mist. I could see her as a young girl helping Elsa Warren rescue an injured bird that had flown into the living room window or cutting toffee out of Bethany Wilson's plaits. Doreen would've been the first person to call upon when one was in trouble.
Her sense of selflessness was apparent, and I knew she would want to hear about my past, a place I didn't want to dwell in as it wasn't as soft and sepia as hers, but I didn't want to let her down, not at a time like this.
She liked the story of when I assembled a brass band made up of ladybirds. They were hard to train but very striking to look at and one could've been forgiven for them not being able to carry a tune. I'm not sure why I told her about the time I'd been in the playground and Isabelle Finch had been handing out invitations to her birthday party. Of course, there hadn't been one for me. Isabelle Finch had never spoken to me even though we'd been in the same class for four years. Burger and chips in a cardboard box were not really my thing but everyone had a paper invite which they insisted on waving above their heads like screeching chimps.
I didn't cry. I just took myself off home and had my very own tea party with my real friends, Miffy and Mr Big Ears. I used my mum's best tea set, the one she saved for Special Occasions, bone China, fragile on the teeth. I got into trouble for using it, but it was worth it.  
My time with Doreen was over far too soon. I wished her well and thanked her for the pleasant company.

Tuesday 5th July 2022
Michael Forbes
Age: 73
It wasn't a coincidence I met Michael today. I was in a bad mood when I arrived as I'd been told off by Binks for leaving the lights on when I left last night. When I explained that I'd not wanted to leave Doreen in the darkness, I was met with the usual dumbfounded glare that I love to see on the faces of my superiors. Having no come back, I was told if I leave the lights on again, I will be paying the electricity bill out of my wages.
By the time I entered the room and joined Michael, I was seething, but I managed to settle into my normal routine.
His forehead was like a freshly ploughed field and his eyebrows arched steeply at each end and then dipped in the middle as if the whole thing was a bird with its wings outstretched. His jaw was firm set having never gone back on its word.
At first, I thought he was angry with me because I'd perforated his peace, but I soon realised this was not the case, and I had, in fact, discovered a kindred spirit.
I could see him very clearly, sitting at home on his trusty laptop, writing out a letter of complaint to his local fish and chip shop about how long he'd had to wait for his senior meal and how inedible the meal had been due to the quality of the potatoes, the greasiness of the cooking fat, and the slowness of the waitress.
Michael was the sort of man whose garage had been filled with footballs that had been unlucky enough to land in his garden.
He was, of course, head of the neighbourhood watch, the vigilant eye in his all-seeing watchtower. He managed every meeting using the voice of the common man, the fighter for every cause no matter how trivial.
I wasted no time with introductions - Michael was not the sort for small talk - and delved straight into my bad morning. He was as cross as I was and, together, we hatched a plan on how to get Binks back for his snappy remarks.
Fake parking tickets, eviction notices, and treacle under the bonnet of his car were all contenders, but in the end, we settled for a simple form of attack.
So, today turned out not to be so bad. I noticed Michael's eyebrows looked slightly more relaxed when I left, leaving the light on as I went.

Wednesday 6th July 2022
Dean Withers
Age: 92
Geography teacher, I was certain. He looked too soft to be maths, too mild-mannered to be English, and nowhere near wild enough to be science.
Day after day, he would've stood at the front of the class, telling tales of far-off lands, of places the kids couldn't even spell and he'd never been to any of them; at least we had this in common.
Dean was a sponge. He soaked up everything there was to know about anything. He was the kind of guy you needed on your quiz team and had led the Eight-Legged Bandits to victory many a time down at the Golden Crown. Only six weeks ago, they'd held onto their unbeaten record, the deciding question sending his teammates into a frenzy whilst Dean had already written down four of the five D-day landing beaches. Absolutely no common sense, but he would definitely be your Phone a Friend.
We talked for the whole hour about where we would travel to if we could go anywhere in the world. My destination changes daily; I don't like to think I'm predictable. Today's destination was Azerbaijan. I like the way it sounds, love the percussion of the consonants, and the roll of the phonemes as if the whole word is rolling down a giant hill. The fact it is bounded by the Caspian Sea (my favourite sea after the Dead Sea) and the Caucasus mountains just has my mouth watering not to mention the capital Baku with its inner walled city that houses the Palace of the Shirvanshahs and the old stone Maiden Tower - it's as if C.S Lewis imagined the place himself. Dean didn't quite agree with me. He was happy just pottering around the Lake District with his walking group and his book of British Birds. I haven't been to either place, or been part of a walking group, so who am I to judge?
It was a pleasant hour, leaving the confines of the small drab room behind us.

Thursday 7th July 2022
Harry Pullen
Age: 8 weeks old
I've never struggled to write in this journal and have always found it quite therapeutic. It's all part of my work, my mission to see that these people don't leave this world without a friend by their side. But today left me empty.
Tiny little Harry. So beautiful. So innocent. Never even got the chance to make one single friend. Adored, doted on, so very, very loved. Yet denied that one true thing that carries us through life making memories and sparking magic.  
He never got the chance to play thumb wars on the coach coming back from Flamingo Land, a memory that Walter Foster shared with me when I met him three weeks ago. He wouldn't feel the strong arms of his best friend holding him up after a few too many on a night out. And he wouldn't get to see the pride in his best man's eyes when they'd be standing at the alter on his wedding day.
And for the first time, I found myself crying, unsure as to whether the tears were for his loss or my own.
And then Binks arrived, face all red and contorted, his voice like that of the neighbour's lawnmower on a Sunday morning.
What did I think I was doing? I was paid to clean the room, not weep over the corpses. I didn't get a chance to answer before he launched into a long list of misdemeanours he'd catalogued since my arrival at the funeral parlour.
I was lazy, I was slow, I was odd, and why did I insist on talking to the dead?
I'd wanted to explain that they needed me, they needed to go into the afterlife with a friend by their side and not just the cold hand of the reaper. Death is the loneliest part of everyone's life, and so surely everyone deserves at least one friend to be there for them when they reach it. But when I looked into his hard eyes, I knew he wouldn't understand. There will be no one there for him when he leaves this earth, just as there will be no one there for me.  
And that is why I keep this journal, to catalogue the dead, to record their passing and that they weren't alone. I'm their last friend. I know the stories I make up about them are not true, but for me, they are. I've never had a single friend, but I don't feel lonely, not now I can share other people's memories, making them my own.   


Judges Comments

With an original idea matched with beautiful execution, Maria Dean's 'The Last Friend on Earth' stood out for many reasons as the winner of Writing Magazine's Open Short Story Competition. It's a strange, rich, otherworldly story that simultaneously reassures and unsettles; a piece of everyday gothic where the shadows are layered with shining moments of kindness and compassion.

Notably, this first-person story matches the liminality of its subject matter - the borderlands between life and death - with the layers of ambiguity that entice the reader across the borderlands of reality into the narrator's world. We don't know if they're a reliable narrator or not but we can't help see that their observations are full of tenderness. We're drawn irresistibly into the viewpoint of the narrator, who details their percceptive insights into four different characters so that we, the reader, sees what the narrator sees, or imagines. We're in their head, inhabiting their persona.

They mention exchanges with the characters without explaining how they occur. With the first three, we're told what their lives might be, and their personalities, their likes and dislikes. We know from the narrator's own voice that they have a friendless past where they had tea parties with characters with toy's names.

With the fourth person, Harry, there's a shift in the story. The other three are elderly; Harry is eight weeks old. This is where the 'reveal' of 'The Last Friend on Earth' occurs, as we realise that all four are dead and the narrative moves from the depictions of individuals into a beautifully layered piece of writing that blends the narrator's own story of friendlessness with a beautiful meditation on death.

A lot is suggested in this intriguing story, and although its arc would seem to be from strangeness into darkness, the unsettling elements in 'The Last Friend on Earth' are only a part of a complex exploration of life, death, loneliness, comfort, kindness and different ways of seeing, packed with otherworldly ideas and images that linger like ghosts in its reader's mind.


Runner-up and shortlisted
Runner up: Rosy Adams, Llangeitho, Tregaron. Read the story at
Also shortlisted in WM’s Open Short Story Competition were: Terry Baldock, Evesham, Worcs; Michael Callaghan, Clarkston, Glasgow; Jessamy Corob Cook, London; Alexis Cunningham, Woodston, Peterborough; Ellen Evers, Congleton; Stephen Leatherdale, Tollesbury, Essex; Jon Markes, York; Damien McKeating, Newcastle-under-Lyme; Patricia Minson, Falmouth; Sharon S Miles, Bridgwater, Somerset; Nicki Parkins, Whitford, Axminster; Peter Scales, Elvaston, Derby.