Eleanor Patrick - Winner

Competition: 1,000-word Short Story Competition 2016

Eleanor Patrick, Elsdon, Northumberland, has been writing for many years and loves pitching to magazines and newspapers and selling articles, but has become too busy editing a journal and proofreading for various clients to do any pitching. She has completed two novels that await a home and has several picture book manuscripts on the go.

Eleanor Patrick

Cool or what?

“Lewis!’
Mr Morton’s voice breaks into the division sum I’m working on. I wish people wouldn’t shout at me. They never remember that a hundred and twenty decibels damages your ears.
I look up, but I’m careful not to stare at his eyes. I don’t like him looking inside me. And I don’t like green.
“Lewis, I asked you to put your books away, so why are you still working?”
Connor Martin giggles. I hear whispers of “Loopy”, but I’m used
to it now.
“It isn’t the end of the lesson,” I tell Mr Morton. “Maths finishes at half past two.”
“Not today it doesn’t. It stops when I say.”
When he’s angry, he looks a bit like a horse. But not like our thoroughbreds, more like a Welsh cob––”
“NOW!” thunders Mr Morton.
I feel a volcano rise in my throat and I know I’ll explode any minute. I just want to do my maths till half past. But I suddenly notice the new girl, Beth. She’s staring at me.
I turn away so she won’t see my anger trying to get out. I don’t want to frighten her. She has a kind face. When she arrived this morning, I thought maybe this new girl can be a friend. I’d like a friend.
Everyone calls me Loopy Lewis because I tell them interesting things, like how long they’ve taken to eat their lunch. Ben was fastest today at eight minutes fifteen seconds. Like a wolf protecting its prey from the enemy. Ahmed took as long as the cormorant I saw in Whitby harbour trying to swallow an eel. The whole dinner hour – sixty minutes exactly.
Beth doesn’t know any of this because she was with the girls. So she doesn’t call me Loopy. But there’s something in her face now that I don’t understand. It isn’t like the way most kids look. It isn’t cross, sad, funny or scared. I’ve learnt those faces and know what to do back.
So I watch Beth secretly for the rest of the afternoon, worrying about what sort of stare it is. She’s looking at me but not seeing me, even though I try waving. I want her to see me so I can smile at her. That’s how Mum says you make friends.
When the bell goes, I decide to follow her and find out where she lives. Perhaps talk to her. She looks back once and says, “You following me?”
Beth walks faster now. I have to run to keep up.
She goes past the wood yard, where the sparrows fly in and out of the stacks of timber, catching insects. “Sparrows can live for 13 years,” I tell her. But she doesn’t hear. Maybe someone has told her I’m Loopy.
We pass along by Yardley’s farm, which has six-hundred acres, five-hundred-and-fifty sheep and some horses. She turns in at the house after the farm. I follow her right down her drive. She doesn’t seem to mind. I keep following as she pushes through a rickety gate into the farm meadow behind the house. It’s not her land, but I know the farmer allows people in.
Someone has cut down one of the twelve trees since I last came. I feel the volcano rise inside me again – eleven is my unlucky number. And it’s prime. But you shouldn’t cut trees down anyway.
I’m still looking at the tree lying there with its cut edge showing all its growth rings, when Beth suddenly cries out, “Mum! What’s wrong?” and starts to sprint over the grass towards her.
Even from here, I can see immediately what’s wrong. A horse is standing right beside a wet foal, newly born and not moving. The mare is nudging it, but it doesn’t respond.
Mum and I once saved a foal when it was slow to suckle, so I dart over to the horse.
My hands flap because I’m too upset to control them. The look on Beth’s face changes to scared, but I know scared, so I quickly say, “Help me get the foal on its feet. We have to make it suckle.” And she doesn’t argue.
Her mum says, “Thank goodness someone knows about horses. We haven’t met the farmer yet but we saw the horse in labour this morning. Beth didn’t want to go to school. I’m glad she’s brought a friend who knows what to do!”
I tell her mum to take the foal’s weight – new-borns are usually about one hundredth of the mare’s weight, so it’s lucky this horse is not eighteen hands like ours.
“Hold the mother still,” I say to Beth. She doesn’t argue or ignore me like the other kids do when I suggest something. But her face has the funny look on it again. I think she might be worried. I’ll ask someone later.
Her mum holds the foal up, and I open its mouth and talk to it gently. I clamp its tongue and lips onto its mother’s teat and stroke its throat to make it swallow.
While we are trying to save its life, I hear two blackbirds singing and a lorry and a bus going down the main road. But what I notice most is Beth’s voice as she keeps saying, “Go for it, Lewis. You can do it.” I don’t know why she wants me to go when I need to be here, but I like the sound of her words – and suddenly we see the foal pull hard on the teat and draw milk. It splatters over my hands but I don’t care.
Actually it’s not milk, it’s colostrum, but I remember, just in time, how the boys laugh at me for knowing things they’re not interested in, so I don’t tell Beth. I just grin and say, “Cool,” because that’s what the other kids do when something fantastic happens.

Judges Comments

Eleanor Patrick never uses the words 'autism spectrum' or 'Asperger's Syndrome' in her winning story, Cool or What? Rather, she introduces us to Lewis and by letting us see the world as it affects him, reveals him as an individual human being, not a representative of a condition or a collection of symptoms.

Writing in first-person, present tense both gives Cool or What? a vivid immediacy and enables Eleanor to show Lewis's interior life as events provoke a reaction in him. Rather than observe him, readers see the world through his eyes: it's normal, for instance, for him to remember the numbers and facts that make his schoolmates call him 'Loopy Lewis'. Eleanor's empathetic, observational storytelling, showing Lewis as a curious, intelligent, compassionate and highly self-aware individual, is an object-lesson in how to convey diversity, or what can be perceived as difference, in a way that gently provides insight and broadens the reader's understanding.

Lewis, of course, exists in the context of a short story, and in this case it's action-driven as well as character-driven. Within the tight structure of the 1,000-word limit for this competition, Eleanor introduces a problem and has Lewis find the solution. There's a simple economy to her narrative structure that satisfies the reader's need for resolution and at the same time, allows the main focus of the story to be not just on the character of Lewis, but on the reader's journey of understanding. There's a lot of depth to this story but it's been achieved with deceptive lightness. There isn't a wasted word in this lovely, original take on the 'unexpected hero saves the day and gets the girl' theme, and Eleanor shows beautifully that you don't need a lot of words to convey big themes and create fantastic characters.

 

Runners-up in the 1,000-word short story competition were: Tracy-Ann Neville, Comberton, Cambridgeshire; Daniel Tuck, Quedgeley, Gloucester; Jill Mirza, Canvey Island, Essex; Angela Walmsley, Blaenffynnon, Pembrokeshire; Margaret Wood, Wick, Caithness; Keith Willey, Redhill, Surrey; Merry Ashby, Sheringham, Norfolk; Joan El Faghloumi, Seaford, East Sussex; Martin Strike, Newbury, Berkshire.

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