Peter Caunt - Winner

Competition: Unhappy Ending Short Story Competition

Peter Caunt has been writing seriously for the last twelve years. He has had thirty short stories published, including first prize in the 2010 short story competition organised by the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. He is currently looking for anyone interested in publishing his first fantasy novel while trying to write the sequel. His website is:

Peter Caunt


William held his handkerchief to his face and waited. After five minutes the door opened and the doctor re-emerged. William scanned his face for any information. All he saw was fear.
‘So, is it true?’
‘I don’t know. I’ve never actually seen any cases before.’
‘But you’re the doctor.’
‘It could be. It probably is. But I can’t be sure.’
William took a couple of deep breaths. ‘Whatever it is, we don’t tell anyone. We burn the body and hope it doesn’t spread.’
William paused. ‘Doctor? You agree to this, don’t you.’
The doctor glanced back to the closed door, then turned to William and nodded.
Three weeks later there were five more victims, spread throughout the village. William called on the doctor. He was slumped in a chair with a half-drunk bottle of cheap liquor.
‘How many have died?’
The doctor opened his eyes, then fell back in the chair.
William shook him awake. ‘How many have died?’
‘All of them.’ The doctor took another swig from the bottle.
‘Can you do anything about it?’
The doctor waved his hand. ‘I’ve read everything that has been written. When it takes hold, there is nothing that can be done. It just has to run its course.’
‘What about masks?’
The doctor shrugged.
William turned to go then felt something gripping his arm.
‘What are we going to do?’
William removed the hand from his arm. ‘These are good, God-fearing Christian people. They will do the right thing.’
It was late, but before he took action, William knew that he needed to make one visit. He knocked and stood at the door. After a long wait it opened. The figure at the door yawned and rubbed his eyes.
‘William, what on earth do you want at this time of night?’
‘Thomas. I’m sorry it’s so late, but we need to talk.’
Thomas looked into his eyes. ‘So how many more are there?’
‘Five. All dead.’
He stepped back to allow William to enter.
Thomas sat at the table and motioned William to take a seat opposite.
William shuffled. ‘I know you have not agreed with a lot of things I’ve done since taking over.’
Thomas smiled and nodded. ‘I know. When I first took over as rector, I did things my own way. No matter what I think, the job is yours now.’
‘But these are extraordinary times. And I think I need to take action. And...’
Thomas looked up. ‘And some of the people are still loyal to me.’
William looked across. ‘Look, I’m doing this for the spiritual good of the villagers. And for the good of the neighbouring villages.’
‘Neighbouring villages? What on Earth are you proposing?’
‘I think we need to close the village. To stop the spread.’
Thomas stood up and paced the room. ‘Have you finally lost your mind William?’
‘If it spreads to the other villages, they will blame us. And they will think that God has forsaken them. Then what would become of all the work you have done over the last forty years?’
Thomas stopped and looked at William. ‘But you’re asking people to stay here and die.’
‘They have faith. Without that, they are nothing. They will have their reward in Heaven.’
‘But what about the doctor?’
‘The doctor’s science has failed. He’s given up. Thomas, this is a good opportunity to re-establish everyone’s faith. To re-establish the old regime.’
Thomas sat back in his chair. ‘But do you think this is what God wants?’
William shrugged. ‘Does it matter? If we can also strengthen the people’s faith in the Church then what is the problem?’
Thomas eased back in his chair. ‘You had better call a meeting in the village hall.’
Word of the deaths had spread quickly and every family was represented at the meeting.
First to speak was William. ‘I would like to thank you all for coming. I shall not prevaricate, I’m sure you have all heard about the recent problems.’
A cry from the audience rang out. ‘So is it the plague? That’s what I’ve heard people saying.’
William turned to Thomas and the doctor who were with him on the platform.
He stared into the crowd. ‘Mr Hancocke. I can’t pretend otherwise. It does look as though the plague has spread from London.’
The hubbub in the hall rose to a crescendo and William had to wait for the crowd to calm down.
‘But how did it get here?’ This question from Edward Cooper.
William turned to the doctor. ‘Perhaps you would like to answer this?’
The doctor struggled to his feet. ‘We think the plague spreads from a miasma, a bad air. I presume some of this must had been transported up from London, by a traveller.’
Members of the crowd looked from one to the other.
William raised his hands. ‘Please stay calm. If we all stick together, we can be strong. God will make us strong.’
Thomas stood and tried to calm the crowd. ‘Please. William and I are in agreement about what must be done, please listen.’
‘Thank you Thomas. We have decided that no one should leave the village.’
‘But how are we to live?’
‘Please, let me finish. Knowingly allowing the disease to spread to other villages would be a sin. Would any of you good Christians want to be responsible for killing your fellow man?’
The crowd fell silent.
‘The bible tells us that it would be a sin, and none of you here want to be sinners, do you?’
‘But where will we get food if we can’t leave?’
Thomas stood up again. ‘I have written a letter to the Earl. I have appraised him of our plan and asked for help.’
‘Thank you Thomas. Now go back to your homes and have faith that God will provide.’
As the crowd dispersed, Thomas turned to William. ‘Do you think they will comply?’
‘I’m sure that most will. But just in case I suggest we station a few, trusted individuals on the roads leading out of the village.’
In the next few months, the body count grew and William held regular services in the open air to strengthen the resolve of the faithful. The doctor’s drinking increased in tandem with the numbers dying.
William rubbed his eyes and went back to updating the records for the day. He looked up as the door to the church swung open and the doctor was silhouetted in the evening light.
‘Good evening doctor. Good to see you back on your feet.’
‘I’ve found the answer.’
‘I beg your pardon.’
‘I know how to stop the spread.’
William got up and beckoned him to enter.
As the doctor stepped through the door he saw another figure behind.
‘Thomas? What brings you here?’
‘The doctor came to see me first. He was most insistent.’
The doctor was talking rapidly, and William tried to calm him.
‘Please sit down and tell us slowly.’
‘It’s not transmitted from person to person. Everyone can leave.’
William and Thomas stared at each other.
The doctor continued, ‘I’ve had a few letters from friends in London who have been thinking along the same lines. The three of us have not been infected but we have come into contact with a lot of victims.’
‘We have God to protect us.’
The doctor bit his tongue. ‘It seems to be something to do with the squalor that people live in.’
‘We don’t live in squalor.’
‘None of us do. We visit the sick, but we don’t come into contact with the victims’ squalor. That must be the source of the miasma. And maybe the rats help to spread it.’
William shook his head. ‘I’m sorry but that can’t be so. The people have always lived as they do now.’
‘I don’t fully understand it, but I’m sure the miasma has been imported from London and now is entrenched in the squalor.’
Thomas stood up. ‘So what if you are right, what difference does it make.’
‘It means that the best thing to do is to leave the village. None of the people are contagious.’
William looked across at Thomas. ‘Thank you for that doctor. Now why don’t you step into the vestry? Have a rest, you’ve obviously been working too hard. There’s a bed in there, have a lie down. Thomas and I will work out what to do next.’
William walked the doctor to the vestry then closed the door behind him, turning the key in the lock.
‘William, what’s that all about?’
‘If he is right then all these deaths could have been prevented.’
Thomas looked up. ‘And if he’s wrong?’
‘Then we spread the plague to everyone else.’
‘What do you think William?’
‘What I think is that we have promised the people they have God on their side. If he is shown to be right then they will turn away from God and start to believe in the doctor’s science. Do you really want that Thomas?’
‘So we keep to the original plan?’
‘I can see no other option.’
Thomas pointed to the vestry door. ‘And what about the doctor and his theory?’
‘He’ll be fine in the vestry. I haven’t used it much since we started giving services outside. The verger just uses it to store our rubbish. It’s getting a bit squalid in there. We’ll keep him in there for a while until this has all blown over.’
Thomas looked up. ‘Are you sure?’
‘We let God decide. But it wouldn’t do any harm to employ someone else to keep our homes extra clean, just in case.’
Thomas nodded.
As they left, all that could be heard from the vestry was the doctor’s snoring and the gentle, but very persistent, scratching of the rats.  

Judges Comments

The stark, matter-of-fact tone that Peter Caunt uses in his winning story Quarantine makes the point that whilst this may be historical fiction, these are recognisable characters dealing with an unfamiliar disease - a scenario, post Ebola and ZIka epidemics, with very contemporary resonances. Quarantine's location in the past, and in the genre of historical fiction, is not made clear immediately, and this is very effective: we might equally be reading contemporary or dystopian fiction, but all that matters is the sense of urgency with which Peter's characters are dealing with the dilemma on their doorstep.

Too often in attempting to write historical fiction, the emphasis is on creating a sense of a past which is then not inhabited by realistic characters. Peter has done the opposite in Quarantine and emphasised his characters and their situation. Later, when the drip-feed of detail increasingly suggests that this story is set in the past, the reader is hooked by the human interest, and able to see the characters as people rather than representatives of historical 'types'. At this point, when the debate about the tension between 'faith' and 'science' kicks in, placing the story firmly in a historical context, the reader is firmly onside.

In terms of unhappy endings, plague stories have an inbuilt advantage, with multiple, horrible deaths an inevitable conclusion. It's the handling of the story that matters, and in this case Peter has opted for a delicate approach that showcases the arguments for and against containment as people of authority attempt to do what they think is best to arrest the spread of a fatal epidemic. Peter plays with the reader's prior knowledge of history, which means that we understand implications of which his characters are unaware. He doesn't need to spell out the unhappy ending, because we know it already, but the 'gentle, but very persistent, scratching of the rats' with which he ends his story is a sinister image, full of quiet foreboding, about the horrors that await his characters.




Runner-up in the Unhappy Ending Competition, whose entry is published on, was: Tracey Glasspool, Tiverton, Devon. Also shortlisted were: Mark Dorey, Pontypridd; Linda Fawke, Winnersh, Berkshire; Sumana Khan, Reading, Berkshire; Elinor Lobban, Wendover, Buckinghamshire; Chris Mawbey, Chellaston, Derby; Jennifer Moore, Ivybridge, Devon; Linda Nicklin, Heighington, Lincoln; Carey Powell, West Kirby, Wirral; Katherine Searle, Sandhurst, Berkshire; Laura Standen, Budapest, Hungary; Tim Worth, North Whilborough, Devon.

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