Michael Callaghan - Winner

Competition: Unreliable Narrator Short Story Competition

Michael Callaghan is a lawyer living and working in Glasgow. This is his second WM win, having previously been successful in the Ghost Story competition, and shortlistings in several others, including twice in the Crime Story competition. Other successes include first place in the Chorley & District Writers National Competition in 2015 and being shortlisted in the most recent HE Bates competition. He is working on other short fiction and the draft of a novel.

Michael Callaghan

Talk to Caitlin

Iknow what everyone is saying. What they’re thinking. But they’ve got it all wrong. If you just knew the truth you would understand.
Can I have some tea? Water then? Okay, doesn’t matter. I’ll start at the beginning. This started last February. I had been mail man at Turnbull Frank for 23 years. Still think of it as my new job. Funny how fast time flies. The job was fine. I kept myself to myself in the mail room. Most of the folk there don’t even notice me. I’m part of the wallpaper. They moan if the mail is late but that’s the only attention they give me. Suits me. I like my own space – nothing worse than people yammering at you. Sometimes the teams go for lunch or for drinks after work. They know better than to ask me. They know I’d refuse. I hate having to go to those things. I can do my own thing in the mail room – eat my Pot Noodle, play games on the PC. Be myself.
Then Caitlin started working for us.
First morning, she came in, smiling that smile of hers. ‘Hi!’ she says. ‘Sorry to trouble you – is it okay if I use the copier here? The one in our section is broken.’
I was surprised she even bothered asking. Everyone else just barges in and uses the copier all the time. I watched her as she did her copying. She had long curly brown hair down to her shoulders, and was wearing a pleated skirt and charcoal wool jacket. She had a sort of poise, an elegance, about her; in the way she stood, even in the way she absently brushed back her hair. When she finished, she smiled at me again as she left. I noticed faint freckles around her nose and how her eyes crinkled at the sides when she smiled. And I felt it – a connection. I know she did too. And I was lost.
Do you remember that advert, years back, that showed a paperboy delivering newspapers to a street? It was a cartoon, and the houses were all in black and white. But as the boy delivers the papers the cartoon turns to colour. That’s how it was with Caitlin and me. Our worlds were in black and white and when we met they turned to colour.
A spark had been lit, that started a slow burning fire inside me. I’ve not had too many girlfriends, I admit. Plenty of girls would have liked to, don’t get me wrong. I’m too choosy maybe. And I’m not one of those guys who just want to use women. I like to think I’m a better person than that. Got more respect.
Over the next few weeks, for the first time, I found myself looking forward to coming into work. Caitlin would start at eight o’clock. That suited me – gives you a good start on the day – so I came in then too. We would sit sat in the canteen, drinking coffee and chatting. She told me all about herself. She was six months out of university, this was her first proper job and she was ‘super excited’ about it. I was able to open up to her like I had never been able to before. And I would walk her back to her desk, still chatting. Sometimes it would be after nine and we hadn’t noticed. We were just so caught up in our own world.
We couldn’t say much expressly. Neither of us wanted the hassle of everyone knowing how close we were getting. But the connection between us grew stronger. I brought her little presents – a necklace with a half-moon on it. She was so happy when I gave it to her. She said it was beautiful! We started hanging about at lunch time, and after work I would walk her to the underground.
So everything was going great. Really great. But I should have known that life just isn’t that kind.
Last week Colin Rutherford emailed me and told me to come into his office. I sensed something was up. Rutherford’s only thirty or something but he’s manager and always acted like he knew everything. Everyone seemed to love him and sucked up to him. I didn’t – can’t be bothered with that game. Maybe that’s why he didn’t like me.
He smiled his smarmy I’m much smarter than you smile when I went in – the smile you would give if you were talking to a toddler.
‘Hi Harry, take a seat,’ he said gesturing in front of him.
‘I’m okay standing,’ I said.
‘Yeah, but I said take a seat so take a seat,’ he said, putting on his Big Boss voice.
For a quiet life I sat down.
‘Things okay with you Harry?’
‘Yes,’ I said, playing it straight.
‘Great. Well, here’s the thing. I’ve had some concerns expressed to me.’
I felt my neck prickle.
‘Concerns?’
‘Yes, about how you’ve been to Caitlin.’
I almost laughed! I was relieved really. If there was one thing I didn’t have to worry about it was Caitlin.
‘No, Caitlin and I are friends,’ I said. I didn’t want him to know that we were more than that. I didn’t want to betray the understanding I had with Caitlin.
‘Friends?’ He looked… amused. ‘She’s 22 and you’re what – fifty?’
‘46,’ I said. Thinking: what’s age go to do with anything?
‘Okay. Well that’s fine being friends. But I’ve heard that you’ve been waiting for her in the mornings. Following her around at lunchtime. Sitting with her at her desk when she’s trying to work. I heard you’ve followed her after work?’
I turned cold. Then furious. That anyone could try and turn what Caitlin and I had into something sordid and nasty.
‘That’s not true.’
‘No?’ He smiled his patronising smile again ‘Well okay. You’re being friendly – maybe overstepped. No harm, no foul. Just, maybe, back off, okay?’
I nodded. I couldn’t speak. But after I left his office I realised the problem. People were jealous of what Caitlin and I had. It’s a sad thing about people, but true. Misery loves company my grandma used to say. I decided I would discuss everything with Caitlin next time she was in the mail room.
But Caitlin didn’t come in for the mail that afternoon. Malcolm McColl arrived with his ‘Hoi Tumshy, give us the mail.’
Normally it annoys me when McColl calls me Tumshy. I’m not even fat. But this time I hardly noticed.
‘Where’s Caitlin?’ I couldn’t stop myself
His eyes narrowed. ‘I got told to get the mail Tumshy. Don’t ask questions, just hand over, good doggy.’
I was more anxious now. I arrived at eight the next morning, anxious to speak to her. But Caitlin wasn’t in the kitchen. I watched out. At five to nine, she arrived but she went straight to her desk. I watched her, willing her to turn round and see me, smile at me, make everything okay. But she didn’t.
At lunch time I took an early lunch and headed to Hannah’s, the nearby overpriced café. Caitlin often goes there. I got myself a table near the window and pretended to read the Metro while waiting for her. And I saw her come in. I looked up, smiling, and she looked straight at me. Then she turned and walked straight out again.
I try to convince myself that that’s not what happened. But it did. She saw me, and walked out.
And I thought – why would she do that? After everything we’d had, we’d shared? But back in the office I saw what the problem was. I played it too cool. I should have told her straight out how much she meant to me. She wanted the grand gesture. And I didn’t give it.
And now she was teaching me a lesson. Playing mind games.
So I had to work out how to respond.
I went into the staff profiles on the intranet. These are password protected but the mail guy knows all those. I found her address no problem. Decided to give her the grand gesture.
I buy the flowers at Tesco – nice ones, the ones that cost fifteen pounds – and the Green & Black chocolates. Then I get the underground along to the west end where Caitlin stays. My cold empty feeling is gone. I’m excited now. Taking action. Feeling alive.
I find her street, counting down the numbers until I get to hers. And I see it - her flat. It’s on the ground floor and I’m so buzzed that I’m just feet away from her and I imagine the look on her face when she sees me.
And then I look through the window. And I see them.
Rutherford… with his smarmy hands all over her.
Their faces pressed together.
And now I realise what’s been happening. It was him all along. Rutherford saw the two of us and was jealous. Decided to get her for himself. Poisoned her against me. And because he’s the boss she listens to him. In fact, maybe she feels she has to. Because I know that the Caitlin I know would never betray me like this.
I push open the door and walk straight in, through her hallway, into that room. I see the looks of shock on their faces when they turn round. Like I’m at fault – even though it’s me that’s been betrayed, me that’s been wronged.
I don’t remember too much about what happened next. But I defended myself. He came at me and I remember putting my arms over his face and squeezing, squeezing until his face went blue and he went limp. Then I’m listening to her screaming, screaming and those sirens getting louder and louder.
Then you arrived.
I’ve told you what I know. But now you have to speak to Caitlin. She’ll tell you the truth – what we had, how he manipulated her, how he forced her.
You just have to talk to her.
You just have to talk to Caitlin.   

 

Judges Comments

The moment you know you're reading a first-person story, you know you're dealing with that character's interpretation of events: their narrative is always subjective. This means there's a fine line between a character whose version of events is told from their viewpoint but who is fundamentally trustworthy, and character whose version of a story cannot be taken at face value (ie, an unreliable narrator). In Talk to Caitlin, Michael Callaghan provides us with a prime example of the latter.

Harry is a long-term employee who becomes obsessed with a much younger female colleague. Michael handles the minefield of an inappropriate workplace relationship with consummate craft. Harry's version of events tells of his connection and growing mutual friendship with new starter Caitlin. Reading between the lines, the whole thing starts to feel uneasy, but as Harry tells it, the attraction is on both sides.

Halfway into the narrative, Michael tightens the screw and shifts the emphasis, with Harry being reprimanded by his boss, Colin Rutherford. As Michael adds the dimension of a new perspective, it's confirmed that what Harry describes as companionship looks much more like stalking. With each fresh insight, Michael ratchets up the tension between Harry's perception and our growing awareness of the extent to which he's deluding himself – and harrassing Caitlin.

With a masterly touch, though, Michael adds a crucial element – the fact that Colin Rutherford is himself in a relationship with Caitlin. Harry believes Colin has manipulated Caitlin. With jealousy and resentment towards Colin now in the inflammatory mix, Michael doesn't direct the reader, he simply presents a picture of what happens next, and leaves us to make up our own minds. It's incredibly well handled, as by the end Harry, delusional right up to the last line, has damned himself further with every word.

In a tense tale that is a credible depiction of an obsessive relationship, Michael deserves particular praise for his control over his material, and for the way he cleverly manipulates his reader's understanding by suggesting, but never overtly stating, the uncomofrtable truth behind this unreliable narrator's perception.

 

 

Runner-up in the Unreliable Narrator Competition, whose story is published on www.writers-online.co.uk, was Ben Howels, Pennsylvania, Devon. Also shortlisted were: Claire Buckle, Hornchurch, Essex; Ellen Evers, Congleton; Kathryn Goddard, Spalding, Lincolnshire; Jonathan Herbert, Leyburn, North Yorkshire; Andrew Hutchcraft, Peterborough, Cambridgeshire; Pauline Massey, Oxford; Jennifer Moore, Ivybridge, Devon; Pamela Scott, Glasgow.

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