Spirit Short Story Competition - Winner

Maria Dean

Human Spirit
Spirit Short Story Competition


Maria lives in Yorkshire and writes in between working in a primary school and being a mum to two boys. She has self-published one novel and has two more in progress. This is her first entry to Writing Magazine and she is delighted to have won. When she’s not writing, she enjoys long walks with her dog and reading crime fiction.

Human Spirit By Maria Dean

Howard squints at the row of tins, the edges of them blurring into a kaleidoscope of orange and yellows that dance like ballgowns doing a waltz. He blinks, clearing his vision for a second. He isn’t sure if his glasses need cleaning or whether the optician, who had looked about twelve, had been fully qualified when he had visited last week. She had done numerous tests on his eyes involving various bits of equipment, the likes of which Howard had never seen in the seventy years that he has been wearing glasses. Howard had wondered if they had been testing other things unbeknownst to him. It wouldn’t have surprised him if they had been harvesting information from him and selling it on to a third party − but he’s drifting from the task in hand.
He focuses back on the beans. He can’t understand how there can be so many tins of the same thing, but he’ll be damned if he’s paying 97p more for a fancy advertising slogan. He carefully selects one of the cheapest brands and begins to scrutinise the ingredients when he’s distracted by someone loitering to his left.
The person is getting closer and he doesn’t like his personal space invaded; it makes him feel rushed. They probably want the exact same tin that he is holding. He doesn’t move. Usually, the oblivious pensioner routine works a treat, and they give up and move on, but this person isn’t falling for it.
He huffs and risks a glance, but the look leaves him perplexed. He’s not sure whether the person is a he or a she, or, heaven forbid, someone who is neither. He had read about these people in the newspaper and had found the concept so alien that Howard had checked the date on the paper in case it had been the first of April.
He quickly decides that it must be a she – although, he can’t be sure. Her hair is a strange colour. It reminds Howard of Parma Violets, the hideous biconcave sweets that he had been subjected to as a child, their highly perfumed taste leaving him feeling like he’d eaten his mother’s potpourri that had sat on the coffee table collecting dust.
Howard doesn’t understand why people can’t be happy with the hair colour they are born with. Marjory had never dyed her golden blonde hair in the 43 years that they had been married. Even in her last years when the cancer had drained all the colour from her, she had never entertained changing anything of herself and Howard had always been grateful for that.
He pulls himself back to the present and takes another look at the purple-haired woman. Her face is punctuated with tiny holes that are adorned with bits of scrap metal. She looks more like a toolbox than a human being.
There are drawings all over her arms as if a toddler has been let loose with a blue marker pen. He doesn’t understand why anyone would want to graffiti themselves. He imagines what her arms will look like when she reaches his age, the images slipping from the canvas like a Dali painting as her skin begins to loosen from the bone.
And her jeans are ripped beyond repair; they look destined for the bin. His mother would have been appalled by these. She had been the best seamstress on the street and could thread a needle first time, every time.
She’s closer now and he can see that she doesn’t want his beans, she is just wandering, no real purpose. Aimless shopping – what’s the point? Howard decides that she is probably on drugs − they all are these days. He despairs as he puts the tin of 39p beans in his trolley and slowly shuffles on.

Amina is by the giant refrigerators trying to work out how much milk she needs whilst also trying to keep an eye on the time. She has less than an hour before she must pick up four children from four separate classrooms all at 3:15. She wonders how she is supposed to be in four different places at the same time, but even so, she manages to do this five days a week and still upset all four children by not picking them up first.
She heaves the six-pint carton into her trolley and quickly adds another as the woman passes her. Amina does not normally have time to gawk at other people, but the sweet smell of the woman reminds Amina of shahi tukray, the rich bread dessert that is drenched in hot sugar syrup and cardamom and saffron infused milk. She is instantly transported back home to when Amina was a child and would help her mother with their Eid preparations. She can still feel the slight sting on the back of her hand as her mother would playfully swat her hand away from the bowl of chopped roasted almonds and pistachios that would be waiting patiently to be sprinkled over the finished dessert.
Amina stares at the delicious-smelling woman, her purple hair, and piercings, all of which would be enough to raise anyone’s interest, but it is the way she moves that has Amina transfixed.
The woman is floating down the aisle like she has all the time in the world.
Amina feels a stab of envy, not just for her carefree spirit or her radical fashion statements, but her aura screams a uniqueness that Amina can only wonder about. She would love nothing more than to take off her hijab and cut her long thick hair and throw on some jeans and a vest top and feel the coldness of the fridges on her bare arms. The mere idea of roaming the aisles, only buying what she wanted, or, even better, nothing at all is completely out of Amina’s reach. She can only fantasise about what it must feel like to cruise round the supermarket with no time restraint or mental shopping list that can’t be deviated from, the whole family reliant on what she brings home.
Amina can only imagine.
Lilly kicks the wheel of the shopping trolley with her sparkly pink trainers whilst her mum analyses the cereal like it is some sort of test. Pretending to have a stomach-ache had seemed like a good idea this morning. She had thought that it would have been a day of Netflix and Haribo, but her mum had only huffed and said that she would have to come shopping with her.
Lilly wonders what her friend’s Sam and Farrier have been doing without her. She bets that they have been playing the Superpower game − her game. Lilly guesses that Farrier will have moved the secret base from down the side of the benches to near the grit bin and that Sam will have taken her power of invisibility. This thought annoys Lilly.
She’ll go back to school tomorrow. The supermarket is boring.
Then she sees a woman at the end of the aisle. She is tall and beautiful with the most amazing purple hair. Her skin is coloured in with strange pictures and decorated with fascinating trinkets, like she has been all over the world and collected something from each country.
Lilly turns and looks at her mum, the black leggings, brown hair, and yellow raincoat. She then looks back at the woman. Her boots look like men’s, large and clunky; her T- shirt has a picture of a crown with lots of colourful flowers growing around it. She doesn’t have a coat, a trolley or even a basket. She doesn’t look like a mum.
Lilly decides that she must have powers and wonders what her powers are. Could she be a good witch? Maybe she is a shapeshifter or a sorcerer and has been sent here to fulfil an important mission. Either way, Lilly can’t stop looking at the woman. But then the woman stops what she is doing and looks straight at Lilly. For a second, Lilly thinks that she is a mind reader and has heard all the things that Lilly has been thinking. Lilly closes her eyes quickly, squeezing them tight shut.
She keeps them closed and counts to ten.
When she opens them, the woman is gone.
It is when they are outside that Lilly sees the woman again. She doesn’t notice her at first as there is a small crowd gathered around the trolley shelter. Her mum is ushering her away, talking wildly about something and Lilly knows that this is because her mum doesn’t want her to see what is going on, but Lilly is curious.
She sees a woman wearing a scarf around her head and she is talking frantically into her mobile phone. Lilly can hear her asking for an ambulance. Then she sees an old man on the floor, his shopping bag discarded, the contents strewn across the tarmac, a tin of beans having rolled into the tyre of a parked car. A teenager has his phone out and is filming whilst a woman in a supermarket uniform is shouting at him to have some respect.
The crowd parts a little and that’s when Lilly spots the woman with the purple hair. She is kneeling on the floor next to the old man. She has both her hands on his chest, and she is pushing down on him repeatedly, like she is trying to pump him up.
‘What’s that lady doing to that man, Mummy?’ Lilly asks as she jogs to keep up with her mum who is being pulled down the car park by the overloaded trolley.
‘She’s saving his life,’ Lilly’s mum replies as she steers her over to the car.
Lilly smiles knowing that she had been right all along.

Judges Comments

Maria Dean's story Human Spirit, the winner of Writing Magazine's competition for spirit-themed short stories, takes an ordinary, everyday situation - shopping in a supermarket - and amplifies it into a luminous story of connections and possibilities.

We're shown vignettes of the lives of three characters: pensioner Howard, busy mum Amina and Lilly, who is small and bunking off school. They're all going about their daily lives, each busy and/or preoccupied, each in their different ways wishing that they were somewhere else or in difffernt circumstances.

The uniting strand in this simple yet profound story is the unnamed figure who stands out in the otherwise dreary uniformity because they look visibly different, with theirbpurple hair and individual dress sense. They don't conform to conventions - they don't even have a shopping basket! Howard and Amina are in their own ways discomfited by this unusual apparition, but Lilly's child-sense allows her to see more clearly: this is a creature with exceptional powers.

The end of the story, which brings all four characters together and unites them in a common aim, proves Lilly right. It's a touching story that works because of what's implied and left unspoken - is this person, so visibly different, an angel or saint or highly-evolved spirit that walks amongst us? Does their gloriously self-determined exterior set them apart to signal that they are unique in other ways?

It's a lovely story, simply and well-contruscted, about looking further than the exterior and seeing what is inside people, and how people make snap judgements based on appearance that are wrong, and how people come together to help - and how spirits - human or otherwise - can be kind and amazing and wonderful.


Runner-up and shortlisted
Runner-up in the Spirit Short Story Competition was Ian Dodsworth, Tunbridge Wells, Kent, whose story is published on www.writers-online.co.uk
Also shortlisted were: Terry Baldock, Droitwich Spa, Worcestershire; Michael Callaghan, Glasgow; Sarah J Davies, Bristol; Jo Fitzsimons, Chelford, Cheshire; Deborah Hugill, Northallerton, North Yorkshire; Fhionna McGeechan, Larkhall, South Lanarkshire; Jill McKenzie, Newton Stewart, Dumfries and Galloway; Cathy Seddon, Barton-upon-Humber, North Lincolnshire; Richard Thomas, London N6; Darren Whitehouse, Buxton, Derbyshire.