Nina Hollier - Winner

Competition: Twist Short Story Competition

Apart from writing, Nina likes crochet, spreadsheets, coffee and giraffes. She started going to a writing class for the opportunity to write something more imaginative than work emails. This is her first time placing in a writing competition, though she did once win a candle in a raffle. She works for BT and lives in Hampshire.

Nina Hollier

Tom

Tom can be very sweet sometimes. He makes me laugh. He knows what to say when I’m feeling sad. We have two bright, chatty little girls. This is exactly how life was supposed to turn out.
I think they will all have to go.
I see my counsellor on Wednesdays. I came to Heather because of the creeping discomfort I feel about life at home. I’ve told her all about me and Tom and the girls. She says that it would be good for me to find something that is just for me, for fun, something other than work. I’m not sure how I feel about leaving the house by myself, but I do start to think about what I might do. I look at the local adult education centre and ponder learning a language, I fantasise about a new life in France or Japan.
Last Wednesday, Heather asked me if I felt I was practising enough self-care. I’m never sure what that means. I don’t wear make-up or use an anti-ageing moisturiser or do yoga, but I shower enough. I don’t hurt myself anymore.
‘Self-care isn’t the same thing as the absence of self harm,’ she tells me. ‘What about diet, are you eating enough, do you eat healthy food?’
‘Yes,’ I say, but I’m looking at my hands and they’re bony. I seem to have lost weight without noticing. ‘Sometimes Tom cooks, sometimes I do.’
‘Emma, you need to do all the cooking, okay? I want you to take charge, you deserve to take care of yourself.’
I have to do everything it seems. I work all day, Tom doesn’t. Not that taking care of the children is easy, of course it’s not, but I don’t see why I have to do all of the cooking. I don’t always like Heather. Sometimes I think I might stop going to see her.
At home that evening, I make pasta with pesto and broccoli. The girls like broccoli, we tell them the florets are little trees. Grace declares it her favourite dinner ever. Lily climbs into my lap and kisses me before I manage to wipe her face. I laugh and cuddle her and wipe pesto from my cheek.
When the girls are in bed I tell Tom that I’m thinking about taking an evening class, and ask him what he thinks.
‘That sounds like a great idea.’
‘You wouldn’t mind?’
‘Of course not, you don’t mind when I go out with my friends, do you? I think it would be good for you to do something that’s just for you.’
At the weekend, we wander into town and around the park. On the way home, we pass the village hall and Tom stops to read the notice board. ‘Look at this, Ems!’
I look at where he’s pointing. ‘Stitch and bitch?’ I laugh and shake my head but read the rest. ‘Whether you’re a knitter or a knotter, a beginner or an expert, come and join our friendly group. All welcome.’
Tom wraps his arms around me. ‘ALL welcome,’ he says.
‘‘All’ could even include me,’ I say quietly. My eyes fill with tears, but I can’t quite explain why.
On Wednesday, I show Heather a photo of the notice on my phone. ‘This looks great,’ she says. ‘How do you feel about it?’
‘Nervous,’ I tell her. ‘My stomach is churning. I don’t know if I can walk in to a room, by myself, where I won’t know anybody.’
‘I know you can.’
Her confidence bolsters me a bit, and that was the moment I decided that I would go. ‘What if they don’t like me?’
‘What if they do?’
Sometimes I wish Heather would answer my questions without asking one of her own.
The next night, I kiss my sleeping children and stand watching them from the doorway. Tom comes up behind me and puts his hands on my shoulders. ‘We’ll be fine,’ he tells me. ‘Go. It’ll be good.’
‘What if no one likes me?’
‘They will,’ he says. ‘We love you.’
Outside the village hall, I’m staring at the door and trying to convince myself to go inside. A whirlwind of a woman comes around the corner. ‘Hiya! Are you here for the stitching group? What’s your name?’ She has a nose ring and is wearing dungarees. I wish I had thought to change after work, I’m wearing a suit and feel like I’m getting this wrong already.
‘Yes, hello, I’m Emma.’
‘I’m Shy.’
‘Me too, I’m feeling really nervous actually.’
She bursts out laughing. ‘No, no, I’m Shine, it’s my name.’
I put my hands on my face, feeling horrified. ‘I am so sorry, I misheard, I didn’t mean -’
‘Don’t worry, it’s fine! No one’s ever met a Shine before. Come on, come and sit with me, I was nervous the first time too. It’s a lovely group, really.’
Shine is right, it is a lovely group. After a few weeks I realise that I really look forward to Thursday evenings. I’m growing to like the people here and I learn little bits about their lives as well as their craft projects. Shine has a brother called Phoenix. Julia has a brand new granddaughter. Emily was a child actor but now she’s an actuary. Sometimes I share things about myself too.
Tom is being distant. He used to tell me during the day what he and the girls were getting up to, but he’s stopped doing that. He goes out with his friends a lot more than he used to. Never on a Thursday though; he stays at home on Thursdays so I can go to my stitching group. He knows how important it is to me.
One Tuesday we argue, a stupid argument about washing up. I wish he would do it now that I do all the cooking. I’ve put some weight back on and it’s good, my skin isn’t so dry, my ribs only show when I breathe right in. Washing up is piling in the kitchen and I’m standing staring at it, feeling overwhelmed. He isn’t here. Again.  
‘You look sad, Mummy.’ I wheel around. I thought Grace was in the living room playing with her sister, but she’s here, watching me.
‘I’m fine, darling.’ I smile, trying to look reassuring.
‘I don’t think you are fine. I think you look sad.’ Her little face is determined. ‘You’re sad because you want to invite your new friends over for dinner, like they invited you. You can’t, though, because there’s washing up all over the kitchen.’
She vanishes before I can respond and I wonder how someone so small can explain how I feel so much better than I can. I wash two sinks worth of dishes before I go to bed, plunging my bare hands into water so hot I can scarcely stand it. I crack a glass and have to throw it away.
I tell Heather all about the argument, what Grace said, and the broken glass.
‘So, the cracks are starting to show in all senses?’
‘Yes,’ I sigh, ‘but at least the kitchen is clean. I cleaned it all myself.’
‘You deserve to live in a nice environment. That’s self-care too.’
The next week, I start crying before Heather can even ask how I am. ‘Julia asked me if I’m married and I said ‘no’.’  
‘How did that feel?’
‘Horrible. Strange.’ I wipe my eyes. ‘When I got home they’d all gone. I feel really alone.’
‘You’re not alone. I’m here for you.’
Sometimes Heather says exactly what I need to hear.
As the months pass I start to feel more confident, more secure in my new friendships. I have a few of the stitching group over to dinner. I start going to a badminton club on Mondays. I get a new job and walk in on my first day feeling excited rather than terrified. I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time.
In May, I tell Heather ‘I’m going on a date at the weekend.’ It feels strange to be saying that.
‘Oh? How do you feel about it?’
‘Excited, mostly.’ I pause to think. ‘I am nervous, but it’s more like butterflies, not great flapping dragons.’
Heather laughs, and I do too. ‘Who is the date with?’
‘Phoenix, Shine’s brother. I met him the other week when a group of us went to that pub quiz. He asked Shine for my number.’ I look at the floor for a moment, embarrassed by how schoolgirlish I sound. ‘Shine promised me that his name is the weirdest thing about him, and I thought he was really nice, so we’re going out on Saturday.’
‘That’s really good to hear.’
‘Thank you.’ I mean it. I know my life would still be the same as it was if it weren’t for Heather, and I like this new life a lot more.
The session comes to an end and I get up to leave.  As I reach the door, I pause and turn back towards Heather. I just need to make sure of one thing before I go. ‘Phoenix is real, you know. He’s not another Tom, he’s not imaginary.’
Heather smiles, widely. ‘I know.’
I leave her office with a spring in my step.

Judges Comments

A twist ending is one that changes the reader's perception of everything that has goen before, and that is precisely what happens in Nina Hollier's Tom, the winner of our Twist Short Story Competition.

Throughout Tom, we're led to believe that Emma, the first-person narrator, lives with Tom and their two daughters – we're introduced to them right at the beginning of the story. More than that, she brings Tom and the girls to life: he makes me laugh and the daughters are bright and chatty.

Nina cleverly plants the seeds for her twist (I think they will all have to go) immediately after this introduction, and then follows it with Emma saying I see my counsellor on Wednesdays. With great economy, she has set up everything she needs us to know about Emma to make us believe in her and her story: she has a family; there is something wrong; she is seeking help.

Because Nina has so effectively set up her story, we go along with everything we subsequently read. The narrative is equally well-paced, building up into a satisfying picture of a woman doing her best to overcome troubling issues. Emma builds into a likeable character and so, apparently are Tom and their daughters. Heather, the counsellor, and Shine, the supportive new friend from the stitching group, are equally likeable and equally well-conveyed, and as we read this narrative of Emma's gradual recovery, we are increasingly rooting for this sympathetically conveyed narrator.

The cleverness of Nina's twist is not that she completely changes the narrative and presents us with a different picture of Emma, but that she tells us something about her that makes new, and startling, sense of the story we've so far been told. Emma becomes more, not less, sympathetic once we realise the magnitude of what she's been struggling with. Unlike many contemporary twist endings, it's uplifting, and like everything else in this meticulously crafted story, it's been carefully seeded and skillfully planted.

 

Runner-up in the Twist Story Competition was Helen Shine, Dublin, whose story is published on www.writers-online.co.uk Also shortlisted were: Christine Bryant, Crawley, West Sussex; Jenni Clarke, Le Vaudioux, France; Stephen Fitzsimmons, Castle Donington, Derbyshire; Alan Grant, Plymouth, Devon; Jean Grey, Morecambe, Lancashire; Tracy Mackenzie, Torrance, Glasgow.

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