Charlotte Lindsay - Winner

Competition: Three Words Competition 2017

Charlotte Lindsay is a solicitor who works for an animal welfare charity in London and likes to write on her daily commute. She completed the Open University Creative Writing Course with distinction. Charlotte was ‘as surprised as she was delighted’ to receive the news of her win, which will be one of her first two appearances in print.

Charlotte Lindsay

Entertaining Strangers

When you arrived, I wondered how far you’d had to come to be here in this small kitchen in this small house in this frankly down-at-heel part of London.
I kept hoping the area would be gentrified so I could sell the house and move to the coast, but then Thursday would come around and I would walk through the market with my string bag and marvel at it all, at the pomegranates and dates and damsons, at the bowls and baskets and crates spilling over with gold and green and orange, the tall stems of purple and white in zinc buckets of water and the pots of lavender alive with honey bees.
Better even than that, the stall-holders knew me and would call out to me by name.
‘Hey, Zav! How are you?’ (my mother had studied Spanish at school and when she became pregnant with me, got a little carried away with baby names. To be fair, she was just seventeen, but it did mean I was the only girl in 1970s Norfolk called ‘Xaviera’).
And as often as not, the lady selling candles with flowers captured in the coloured layers of wax would hand me a greaseproof paper bag with home-made saffron buns in it, or fairy cakes, or dark fruit cakes with careful patterns of almonds on them, slightly crushed from having been transported from her house to the market.
So I stayed here, happy enough, I suppose. Which meant that when an angel appeared in my kitchen, I felt rewarded; vindicated somehow, for my patient acceptance of the tiny rooms and the rising damp.
You started as a vague shimmer in the corner of my eye. It was Saturday, and I was washing up the cup and plate I had used for breakfast, rinsing coffee grounds down the sink, watering my pots of herbs, that sort of thing.
My first thought was that I should have kept that optician’s appointment, the reproachful card still pinned to my cork board covered in postcards and receipts, a sad, uncatalogued butterfly.
I turned to look and as I was blinking to clear my vision, telling myself that it was all right, I just needed an eye test and an early night, you sort of... solidified... and I began to question my sanity rather than my eyesight.
‘Don’t be afraid,’ you said.
I don’t know why, but I wasn’t, even though behind your glorious banner of red hair, shining like a handful of newly-minted coins, I was sure I could see the shape of wings, huge, silver-feathered pinions which overshadowed both of us, their tips touching the ceiling. I think at that point I was still favouring the mental instability theory rather than admit that I was sharing a kitchen in SE14 with a supernatural being of great, perhaps almost infinite, power.
‘You’ve been chosen, Xaviera,’ you said.
For some reason, I took this at face value.
‘What for?’ I said as though I were at work, taking instructions from one of the senior doctors. This much of that drug between those times...
‘We’ll talk about that later,’ you said. ‘I’m starving. What’s in the fridge?’ This was awkward. I wasn’t much of a domestic goddess at the best of times and I was being careful with money — I was unemployed, living off my savings while I looked for a job that didn’t involve telling parents every day that their children were going to die.
Most of the food I had in the house needed preparation and cooking (pulses that had to be soaked overnight, end-of-market-day vegetables, the cracked remains of a piece of cheese that I hadn’t wrapped properly). My mother was a devout Catholic and the stories she’d told me about Biblical characters slaughtering a lamb and baking bread from the best flour to feed angelic guests popped into my head. I felt inhospitable, as though I had closed my tent against the widow and the orphan.
‘Well, let me see,’ I said, stalling for time while I inspected the sparse contents of the fridge, making a mental note to throw away a jar of jam that I thought might have been in the house when I bought it. What did angels eat? Better ask, I suppose.
‘What would you...’
‘Here, let me,’ you said. I stepped out of your way and you began to rummage through the fridge, pulling things out and setting them on the counter. Smoked salmon. I knew I hadn’t bought that. A fresh loaf of the sour-dough bread made by the shy, good-looking boy in the bakery opposite the market. Used to buy that, but not now — bread like that costs even more than smoked salmon. Time took on an odd, sticky feeling as you continued making all sorts of amazing things appear from that small plastic box with its broken light, piling them up on the counter.
A point of Brie, Parma ham, oysters. Muscat grapes, their velvet-dark skins covered with an evanescent bloom. Normandy butter glinting with tiny salt crystals... a heavenly picnic took shape in my tatty little kitchen.
‘Plates?’ You smiled and my heartbeat jumped as though a lover had touched me. Your wings flashed in and out of my consciousness, the soft, matte silver lighting up the room briefly.
‘There’s far too much here for us,’ I said, sounding childishly ungrateful. You smiled again.
‘Invite people, then’.
I stood there like an idiot until you pushed me gently towards the door. I stumbled outside and saw my neighbours, Mr and Mrs Lester and their four children about to go into their house.
‘I’ve got lots of spare food,’ I said. I knew that the Lesters were as down on their luck as I was and they were apparently unperturbed by my graceless invitation. They hesitated for a moment and then followed me into the house. You had found a tablecloth from somewhere and had spread out the food on my small table. The tablecloth was white, but little of it it was visible under the crowds of dishes.
‘Eat,’ you told us, gesturing at the plates. Mrs Lester looked at her husband, then at me.
‘What’s the occasion, Zav?’
‘Er... my... aunt dropped by and brought these things with her,’ I said, lying, sort of — admittedly you weren’t my mother’s sister, but the rest was true. Mrs Lester pushed the two older children forward. They looked suspiciously at the food but you gave them that smile and they began to pile their plates with food. The two younger children followed and their parents joined them at the table.
I looked surreptitiously at them as they ate. They didn’t seem to realise that you were an angel with huge silver wings, which worried me a little, but on the other hand their presence was reassuring. I thought that if I were having a psychotic break, I wouldn’t have dreamed up four such solid children with such bad table manners.
I was hungry too, having endured the pulses and vegetables regime for several months, and I took a big piece of brie and buttered three slices of sour-dough. The bread was chewy and moist, the butter salty and cool, also unlikely products of psychosis, or so I thought — I didn’t have much to go on, just some psych courses in my first year at St Bart’s and the odd conversation overheard in the staff room at St Faith’s over the last few years.
You sat down at the table and filled your plate, piling ham, cheese and oysters on top of thickly-buttered slices of bread. Being an angel must be hungry work. You politely offered the eldest Lester child the last oyster but even your magic had its limits, because the boy screwed up his face and turned it away.
‘Looks like snot,’ he said. ‘I ain’t eating that.’ You shrugged, the slight movement of your shoulder making your wings touch the ceiling, and lifted the shell to your lips, tipping the cold morsel down your throat.
You carried on steadily working your way through the food long after the Lesters had given up. They were sitting quietly on the bland furniture I’d bought from IKEA the day after I’d qualified, looking bewildered yet content.
‘Well, we’d best leave you in peace, Zav, dear, and thank you ever so much.’ Mrs Lester heaved herself out of the deep sofa at last and clapped her hands. ‘Home, you lot. Come on, get a move on.’ The children obeyed, wiping their hands on their clothes. ‘Say thank you to the kind lady.’
‘Thank you, Zav’s auntie,’ they all said in unison like a little choir. They followed Mrs Lester out into the street, followed in turn by Mr Lester. I closed the door behind them.
‘You’re not suffering a psychotic break, by the way,’ you said. You sat on the sofa in the indentation left by Mrs Lester’s generous backside. You must have folded your wings out of the way because I couldn’t see them any more. ‘Give me your laptop.’
‘What?’
‘Give me your laptop, Xaviera,’ you said patiently. I pulled it out from under a chair and switched it on.
‘Now what?’
‘Type this in. http://www — here, let me.’ You took the laptop from me and began tapping at the keyboard. ‘The server’s rather slow... that’ll be Gabriel again, I bet... download the executable – no, that’s the wrong one... ah, that’s it, “save as”. Do you mind if I save it on to your desktop?’
You continued without waiting for an answer, which to be honest would probably have been no — I hate other people using my laptop or my phone or my... my anything, really.
‘That’s it — we’re ready to go. All I need to do is —’ you traced a finger over the touchpad ‘— upload this, double-click on that... perfect.’
‘What are you doing?’ I leaned over your shoulder and peered at the screen. There was a blue dialogue box in the middle of the screen.
Are you sure you want to run the program worldpeace.exe? You clicked on OK. And suddenly everything was. OK, I mean.  

Judges Comments

Given the challenge of incorporating three words ('bag', 'cheese' and 'upload') into the text of a short story, Charlotte Lindsay surpassed herself with Entertaining Strangers – a magic-realist account of what happens when an angel unexpectedly turns up in narrator Zav's scruffy flat.

Charlotte was also the runner-up in this month's open competition for 1,000-word stories. What both stories have in common is that they are highly imaginative yet grounded so believably in the real world that every part of Charlotte's narrative is convincing and plausible.

Entertaining Strangers is a beautiful, generous, compassionate story where Zav's everyday humanity is amplified by the possibilities opened to her by her angelic visitor. The angel also has human qualities – the feast they conjure is heavenly, and they scoff their fair share of it – and although Charlotte deliberately leaves us to draw our own conclusion, we can see that Zav has her own angelic, or at least compassionate qualities: she's a children's nurse, a little bit down on her luck but with a sense of wonder at the everyday beauty to be found if you look, doing her best to get by. Charlotte makes her immensely likeable, but not at all sickly or cloying – you can see why the angel chose her for a visit.

Good writing can have a transformative quality, transporting its readers to a world of imaginative possibility and enabling them to see things from a new persepctive, and that's precisely what Entertaining Strangers does. The element of magic (the angel's visit) is so neatly juxtaposed with the element of realism (particularly in the eldest Lester child, who thinks the last oyster 'Looks like snot') that there's nothing forced or fanciful about this uplifting story. Through Zav's eyes, we see the beauty in everyday things, food and flowers, as well as in the magic interventions of the angel visitor. The end is perfect: everything was OK. In the last lines, with lovely understatement, Charlotte has summed up what world peace might actually feel like. This is gorgeous writing that soared its way easily to the winning place.

 

Runner-up in the Three Words Competition, whose story is published on www.writers-online.co.uk, was Dominic Bell, Hull. Also shortlisted were: Michael Callaghan, Clarkston, Glasgow; Paul Dunn, Houghton-le-Spring, Tyne and Wear; Kev Edwards, Nuthall, Nottingham; Ronnie Karadjov, Remuera, New Zealand; Lesley Middleton, Retford, Nottinghamshire; Lauren Leigh, Borehamwood, Hertfordshire; Victoria Walklate, Norwich; David Woodfine, Sherburn-in-Elmet, North Yorkshire.

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