Vanessa Couchman - Winner

Competition: Birthday Party/WM0111

Vanessa Couchman lives in France where she runs a business providing writing services to organisations in the UK. She has been writing short stories for some eighteen months and has been published in anthologies and in overseas markets.
Vanessa Couchman


I wake up with a start. The air is cold on my face, colder than it should be. Oh no, not
Dad again.
Pushing back the covers, I swing my legs over the side of the bed, feeling for my slippers with my toes. Stumbling down the dark staircase, clinging onto the banister, I see a rectangle of light from the streetlamp opposite where the front door should be.
I call upstairs. ‘Wake up, Dave. It’s Dad. He’s got out again.’
How does he do it? It’s locked and bolted. He can barely do up his shoelaces now, but he can open the door when he wants to. He must have seen me hide the key.
Without waiting for Dave, I pull on a coat over my nightie, exchange my slippers for Wellingtons and plunge out into the street.
I know where he’s gone. It’s where he always goes. At least that’s one less thing to worry about. Imagine if he got onto the railway line…
It’s more than half a mile from our house to the churchyard. A faint glimmer streaks the eastern sky and a blackbird carols from the top of a chimney pot. He and I are the only things stirring.
I pull the coat around me against the creeping chill of dawn and quicken my pace. By the time the wrought iron gates come into view, I am half running.
Down the central avenue, turning off to the right, past the recent tombstones with their too-clean faces and stark black inscriptions. Crisp brown rose petals from a faded bunch are strewn across a slab’s virgin whiteness. I shudder, only partly from the cold.
Breathing hard, I slow down. A hunched figure wearing striped pyjamas sits on a bench contemplating a large daisy in its hand.
The figure turns and stares without recognition. Then it turns back and resumes its reflection.
As I get closer, I hear Dad murmuring to himself. Always the same refrain; the words never vary. Even so, my heart turns over.
‘Do you remember the first time I kissed you? You really played hard to get. Always danced with that Billy Morton, but never with me. I got you in the end, though.
‘Got you to come to the flicks with me: Gone with the Wind it was. Stupid story, but you were keen to see it even though you’d seen it several times before. Imagined yourself like Scarlett O’Hara, even though you were blonde. All that romantic twaddle went to your head, so when I put my arm round you in the back row you didn’t protest. And when I kissed you, you pretended I was Clark Gable. Chalk and cheese we were, but somehow we made it work.’
He can’t tell you what he ate for dinner, but he can remember what happened sixty years ago as clearly as if it were yesterday.
‘Come on, Dad, time to go home. You’ll catch your death sitting here.’
Dad isn’t listening. He chuckles, cocking his head as he looks at the flower.
‘You had some funny hobbies. Pressing flowers, I ask you! I never understood what you saw in those dried up weeds, colours all faded. But you knew all the names.
 ‘You wanted to be a botanist, but marriage and children got in the way, held you back. I don’t know if you were happy. You kept on pressing the flowers, though. Whatever happened to your albums?’
 Oh, Dad. They’re still in your room at home. But he doesn’t even know they are there. Never looks at them, just sits in his chair staring at the wall.
I sit down next to Dad on the bench and put my arm around him. He starts. Tears squeeze from the corners of his eyes and slide down his ravaged cheeks. Gently, I take the flower from his hand and place it back on the tombstone opposite the bench. We stand up and I help Dad towards the exit.
We meet Dave coming the other way, who throws his coat over Dad’s shoulders. Dad looks back a couple of times then allows us to draw him away.
Mum’s name was Daisy.

Judges Comments

750 words is a tough call. It is a difficult word-count limit within which to write a short story, but that was the brief for this particular competition, won by Vanessa Couchman’s story Memory.
If you have a word-count much less than 750, you are in the world of flash fiction and can create a story around a single image. Have a word-count much more than 750 and you are back in the more usual word lengths for a short story and can work within the normal rules.
But 750 words is awkwardly between the two, not that this bothered Vanessa too much: she contrived to have convincing characters, plenty of emotion, and enough drama to draw us into the story, all packed well within the set word length.
The opening was excellent. It told us that we were in the middle of the night, and that Dad was the problem. At this stage we don’t know who was awakened in the night, nor who Dad was. But certainly the moment of drama was about to occur, so the opening was timed well and posed sufficient questions to capture our interest.
Vanessa does not give time for our interest to fall away: we quickly see that the front door is open and learn that Dad has disappeared. We also sweep in Dave, the third and final character in the story. We are ready to go.
At this stage, Vanessa needs to set a little back story. She does so informatively and swiftly, after all she has only a few words to get this story told. So we see that Dad is not really able to look after himself, but he contrives to get out of the house in spite of daughter’s efforts to keep him safely locked in. Now daughter is going in pursuit of Dad. This is all a sufficiently tense and involving beginning part of the story to have us interested in – even concerned about – Dad and daughter.
Here Vanessa sets the atmosphere for us very well. The sunrise, the birdsong, the loneliness, the cold. We can almost feel the chill of a dawn mist. And this chill atmosphere, this rawness, is totally appropriate for the problem that is about to be revealed.
Dad is sitting at Mum’s graveside, talking to her. It is a tear-jerking image, but Vanessa’s treatment of her subject is not maudlin. As Dad talks, rambles really, the words are all simple and direct, with few adjectives or adverbs. Dad is just remembering a past when his beloved wife was with him. Simple, but touching.
One problem is that you have to end a story of this kind. You cannot solve Dad’s problem, it is not capable of a solution. Nor can you either bring him an alternative happiness, which would not be believable, or have him die, which would be too dramatic.
So Vanessa just uses the image of the daisy to draw a poignant conclusion out of the events we have witnessed. That’s a powerful lot of story in just under 750 words.

Runner-Up and Shortlisted
Second Prize Winner in the 750-Word Short Story Competition was Daniel Durrant, Cromer, Norfolk. Entries shortlisted to final judging stage were from: Catherine Burrows, Eynsford, Kent; Josephine Dervish, Woburn Sands, Buckinghamshire; Caroline Gaitskell, Tamworth, Staffordshire; Pat Holness, Seacroft, Bigbury-on-Sea, Devon; Sue Igglesden, Hartley, Kent; Eileen Nightingale, Eastbourne, East Sussex; James Raven, Southampton; Veronica Ryder, Sandford, Warehem, Dorset; Julie Swan, Ashley, New Milton, Hampshire; Barbara Townsend, Buckingham.

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