Tight Situation - Winner

Deborah J Smith

Tight Situation


Deborah is a specialist teacher working in London and online. Her mild obsession with clutter and clearing out, and her tendency not to rest very much is reflected in ‘Carol’. Her partner, cat and allotment bring her much joy and she is working on being able to spend more time with them.

Carol By Deborah J Smith

When Carol first wakes up, she thinks it must have been a dream. The ringing phone had been distant, muffled as if the landline device had been buried in a bag of something soft like cotton wool - the packing material stuffed so tightly into its bag or box that the seams were almost burst. She’s used to having auditory dreams, sometimes hearing voices and music in the early morning. She woke once to the clear sound of her daughter calling her name. But it was her Ellen’s voice from years ago. She’s fully grown now, working every minute. Miles away. Carol’s not seen her since…she doesn’t know when. Time is a watery grey tide these days. It comes and goes beyond all bidding.

Carol shifts, feeling the reassuring bulk of the three giant pillows surrounding her. She doesn’t like space in the bed. She doesn’t like space anywhere. Inching her way, she stands carefully, bowing her head to walk along the narrow tunnel that leads to the hall: a tunnel created with freestanding blocks of polystyrene. The material is both lightweight and insulating so she figures it will help to keep any warm in and any noise out. It also cuts easily with the bread knife, so she’s been able to fill any disturbing gaps with the bright, white stuff - between the fridge and the cupboard, underneath the toilet cistern, behind the radiators. All the places where ridiculous thoughts and bad ideas might collaborate and take up arms.

Beyond the ‘walls’ of her tunnel, stuff heaps itself in tottering towers: bric-a-brac, bags and bags of random plastics, papers, unopened tins of spam. She doesn’t like spam but it’s useful to have in. It’s all useful somehow - the sprawling chaos of charity shop clothes and shoes, the freecycle Barbie doll collection, the chair legs picked up from a neighbour’s skip. Stuff stuffed in every space in every room. And she’s not seen her phone since…some time ago.

Two hundred miles away, Ellen picks up her phone again. Was 8 o’clock too early though? She has no idea what time her mum gets up these days. Ellen herself has been up for hours already. There was the washing to put in, the dishwasher to empty, the cat to be fed, Gym at 6:30am, make the packed lunch, breakfast, the school run and, shit! The tombola prizes for the winter fayre haven’t been labelled yet and her first online work meeting is at nine. Later, there must be a small space of time later when she can call?

No! Ellen shouts much louder than she intends to at her six-year-old son, Caleb, who has a small fist grasped around one of the goldfish in the tank, his fingers magnified grotesquely by the water as he squeezes the stricken creature. She imagines it bulging with the pressure then bursting at the seams. Stop! Leave the poor fish alone and get dressed…please. The boy lets go of the fish, wanders back to his room, water dripping from his wrist onto the new carpet that hasn’t been paid for yet.

Carol side-steps past the lawn mowers and jet washer in the hall to get to the bathroom. All the garden things used to be in the shed outside but that’s packed tight full of other stuff. She can’t remember what now. It’s been a while since she’s been outside. The toilet is usable if she sits sideways but the bath and shower are holding collections of crockery and cutlery - the metal utensils pushing through their sodden boxes in rusting spikes. It’s damp. Mouldy. She’d clean it if she could get to it. The bathroom was always Paul’s job though and since…well…maybe later. She might feel up to it later.

The school traffic is always a nightmare. Ellen tries to take some deep breaths; this is not helping her blood pressure. Her work phone rings from her bag, she realises that she hasn’t connected it to car play so she can’t answer it. Fucking idiot! She’s supposed to be ‘reframing’ the negative self-talk – another failed task so far. She blows her cheeks out; she should just make it for the meeting. Waiting for the green light, her hands clenched on the steering wheel, she runs her tongue over what feels like a hole in a back tooth. She should go to the dentist but it’s not urgent, it can wait. Ok, call mum after the meeting. But there are emails and the invoicing and then the client calls she’s forgotten about.

Carol has no idea what the time is, other than it’s night. The tap is dripping in the kitchen and the sound gnaws into her bones. She’ll fix it, or at least put something more absorbent underneath so she can’t hear the insistent ticking. Manoeuvring past a head height pile of magazines, she slips on the shiny surfaces of the ones that have dropped to the floor. She grabs towards the kitchen worktop, her cold hands scrabbling for purchase on the mounds of loose detritus on the surface. Falling backwards, she clutches at an old, cracked goldfish bowl which had been Ellen’s for a pet fish - a prize from a fayre stall back in the day when there were no ethical concerns about trapping a living creature in a small plastic bag of tap water. Frank the fish is long gone but Carol can’t bear to throw the bowl away, using it instead as a general ‘bits and bobs’ container. The bowl has no weight to it so is pulled forward by her momentum, pushing the objects around it which causes a cascade of other things - place mats, rolls of wrapping paper, a jumbo set of pencil crayons - onto the already laden floor. Falling, she lands on a stack of cardboard boxes which sway then fall onto a neighbouring stack, starting an avalanche. Crashing sounds alternate with soft flumping noises as crates, boxes and bags collapse around her, their sides splitting open. She tries to get up, but her hands and feet slip and slide as if everything around her is ice or oil. She is nonplussed by it all. Disbelieving. She only remembers the old vhs video recorder is in the box just before it hits her head. There’s a smell of dust, mould and something acrid – hair caught in a candle flame, sodden woollen gloves smouldering on an electric heater.

And the ringing again. Carol tries to reach out a hand as if the phone is right in front of her. Maybe she sees it there but only for a second.

Ellen shudders wide awake. It’s the middle of the night. She tries to catch her breath against the dread weight of the dark which coils tight around her. Her heart bangs against her ribcage, she places a hand on her chest to steady it, but her hands are shaking. Every part of her is shaking yet sweat itches down her back. She clutches at the damp sheets, is she ill? Food poisoning? Menopause? No. Shreds of her nightmare float up to her consciousness which, unbidden, stitches them together. Mum. Something awful has happened to her. Ellen’s knowing of it is as definite and absolute as granite. It just is. She panics, the flood of adrenalin pushes her up, pulls clothes on, gets her grabbing, banging into doors and cupboards, keys, money, car – she must go there. Now. Caleb. Shit. He’ll have to come with her, he can sleep in the back seat. He’ll be ok. No. he’ll be upset. But she can’t leave him. She stands in the kitchen doorway, looking up towards Caleb’s bedroom and then at the front door. Up or out. Up or out. Growling in frustration, she picks up her phone. Calls her mum already knowing they’ll be no answer. OK, OK, Jody. Jody. Please answer. Please. Whasswrong? Jody’s voice thick with sleep but already edged with alarm. Alright, alright, take a breath, listen, call the police, you’re hundreds of miles away babe, you’re not thinking properly…don’t cry, no, do cry but, listen, ok, I’m on my way. Yes, I’ve got the key, OK. It’s going to be fine. Right. As long as you need. Love you too.

Ellen fires up the car, calling the police before she hits the motorway. It’s not an emergency yet so they can’t do anything. A sonic boom of guilt triggers an avalanche of emotions in her head. She should call more often, visit more often, but her mum’s house is always such a state and the memories and the …excuses. She rages with herself. Then hits a patch of numbness as if all her conflicting thoughts have cancelled each other out.

The motorway is clear. Dawn soothes the horizon as she arrives on her mum’s road. Ellen stares hard at the house, half-expecting it to be burned down to the ground. But it is still there with its peeling paint work and broken front wall. She parks haphazardly, runs to bang on the front door. Nothing. It’s early, she tries to reassure herself. She bangs again, shouts through the letterbox. Fear spirals through her. Too late. She’s too late. Almost collapsing onto the doorstep, Ellen holds her head in her hands, tears fall through her fingers leaving dark splodges on the cracked concrete.

She doesn’t hear the door open behind her, only turns around when she feels the hand on her shoulder. Ellie? Her mum, standing over her, a blood-stained tea towel wrapped around her head. Ellen looks up, caught for a moment in a memory of being a little girl and gazing up at her mum in absolute awe and wonder. What an amazing woman she was. She is. They both are. Ellen stands up, head and shoulders tallest now. Mum, please let me help you? Carol smiles, takes hold of Ellen’s hands. Only if I can help you back. Ellen laughs, the melody like a songbird’s tribute to the spring. Ok, she nods. Deal.

Judges Comments

'Carol' by Deborah J Smith, the standout winner of WM's Tight Situation Short Story Competition, is an apparently hectic, yet tightly controlled, description of two chaotic living scenarios, both of which are teetering on the brink of implosion.

Carol, the mother in this compassionate story, is a hoarder. Her mental health issues make her unable to part with anything, desperate to create a physical reality where there's no space for thoughts to intrude – as Deborah brilliantly puts it: All the places where ridiculous thoughts and bad ideas might collaborate and take up arms. With this, we're shown that Carol is, in her own way, fighting a battle.

Her daughter, Ellen, is also fighting a battle of her own, but in her case it's with time: there's never enought of it, and too much to cram into what there is. The pair, mother and daughter, are each, in their own ways, struggling with their own 'tight situation' but Deborah ups the ante again by introducing a thread of narrative urgency and sense of emergency as Ellen, sensing there's been a catastrophe, races to get to her mother.

'Carol' conveys a frantic sense not just of unfolding events, but racing interior lives. It's so well crafted. Every element in this humane story has earned its place and adds to the reader's experience as it builds towards its unexpectedly hopeful conclusion, where the pair can help each other heal.


Runner up and shortlisted

The runner up in WM’s Tight Situation Short Story Competition is Alexis Cunningham, Woodston, Peterborough.
You can read her story at www.writers-online.co.uk/writing-competitions/showcase/
Also shortlisted were: Nicky Albrecht, Mosman Park WA, Australia; Terry Baldock, Evesham, Worcs; Ellen Evers, Congleton, Cheshire; Christine Griffin, Hucclecote, Gloucestershire; Kevin Hopson, Glen Allen, Virginia, USA; Tara Karillion, Mickle Trafford, Chester; Lynne King, Sheerness, Kent; Chris Morris, Dundee, Tayside; Sarah Mullins, Doncaster; Eileen O’Reilly, Wrexham, North Wales; D. Whittaker, Ripon, North Yorkshire