Barbara Young - Runner up

Competition: Back to School Competition

Barbara lives in the heart of wild Northumberland. Since retiring from Social Services, she spends the majority of her time wandering the fells with her horse and two border Collies, or indulging in a totally unexpected passion for writing. Her short stories and flash have found success in a number of competitions and she is absolutely delighted with this, her first placing with WM.


Barbara Young

Lessons Learned

Sensitive readers please note: in its uncompromising portrayal of teen life, this story contains some bad language and drug use.


“This’ll liven you up, Zoey.”  
Jordan hands me a rolled-up note. Leaning over the mirror, I close one nostril and do the line with one fast snort. A cold, sharp sting in my sinuses and I get the hit. It starts as a tingle under the skin then builds to a fizz of pure energy. It’s like all the dull shit that surrounds me has been dipped in luminous ink. Everything in the scuzzy room seems sharper: the grimy windows; the grungy carpet littered with roaches and empty lager cans; the boys on the sofa, playing an Xbox game, shrieking and giggling as they pass around a large glass bong. The pounding beat of Stormzy rattles the bones of me.
Jordan wraps his arms around my neck. “That do it?”
“Way. I’m buzzin’.”
“Darren be here soon, he’s sortin’ some quality weed.” Jordan flaps a hand towards the bong boys. “Not the mingin’ gear they doin’.”
“He’d better be on it.” My leg is bouncing. I’ve got enough energy to power a whole city. Trouble is, me and coke don’t always end well. “I could do with a little mellow.”
All my senses are heightened – Jordan seems thinner and taller, his skin under my fingers is hot and sticky, the Doritos he’s been scarfing make his breath smell like rotten cheese. I pull away and wonder, not for the first time, what I’m doing with him. The fact that he’s boss on our estate and all the girls want to be with him, doesn’t make him Harry Styles.
As Jordan reaches for my hand the door flies open, bouncing off the wall with a thud, and Darren comes lumbering through the door, one meaty arm draped around a skinny girl in an oversize hoodie. Her school skirt is turned over at the waist and it barely covers her knickers. She staggers as Darren drags her forwards.
“I brought somethin’ special.” Darren gives a sweaty grin, pulls off his red baseball cap and sets it backwards on the girl’s head. His eyes are wild, the pupils dilated.
Stepping in front of the girl, Jordan pushes back her hood. Dark, greasy hair hangs limp around her pale face. “Lookin’ a bit zip ghost, girly. Sure, you’re up for more?”
I shake my head, close my eyes, then open them.
It can’t be.
It is.
Suddenly, I’m totally straight. “Shona. What you doin’? School burnin’?”
That gets a burst of laughter from everyone in the room – we should all be sitting at desks, being bored to death by twitchy teachers, who are more afraid of us than we are of them.
Shona tugs at her skirt and gives me a wobbly smile. “Hey, Zoey. Darren said I could party. Innit.” Her words are slow and slurry.
My fingers wrap around the spider tattoo on Jordan’s arm, my nails digging into his tacky flesh. “He’s fuckin’ kiddin’. She’s twelve years old for Christ sake and she’s off her face.”
Jordan jerks his arm free, his dark eyes flat and cold. “Old enough.”
There’s a shift in the air; tension floods the room and flips my gut as my gaze sweeps the others, looking for something that’s not there. The bong boys are frozen on the sofa, watching, waiting for the inevitable. A girl on the floor, Gemma, who was totally out of it a minute ago, sits up, one finger twined around her dirty blonde ponytail, and gives a high, excited giggle. The sour smell of weed and sweat is sharp in the air and my stomach churns as anger starts its slow burn. None of these morons are going to open their mouths. I’m on my own.
I shake my head and lock eyes on Jordan. “No way. That’s my little sister, you wanksta.”
His face blooms red at the insult and his voice rises: “Zoey’s goin’ all emo on me. Bit extra.” That gets a snigger from the bong boys. “Girl don’t tell me what to do.” His hand flies out and slaps me across the face. I don’t feel the pain but the force of it knocks me backwards and I crash into a chair, bits of wood splintering beneath me. He pushes a grungy trainer into my nose, and leans in close. “You don’t disrespect me.”
Something hot and hard explodes in my head and I embrace the red mist, like an old friend. Never again will someone take something from me that I don’t want to give – and that includes my sister. The edges of my vision blur, as my fingers wrap around a broken chair leg; all I can see is Jordan’s thin face, his jaw set, eyes burning. My arm swings and there is a dull thud as wood connects with skin. He reels backwards, holding his neck, then steadies and brings his hands in front of his chest, clenched into fists. I scramble to my feet, grasp the stick two-handed and raise it in front of my body. I so want to do this – to smash his head into a bloody pulpy mess. It’s a better rush than all the coke in the world.
“Come on, you bastard. Fancy a go?” My voice is high and thin, hot blood pounding in my head. I feel alive for the first time since I left the hospital.
Nobody moves; they know Jordan is crazy, but I hurt someone last year, hurt them bad, and got sectioned for a while – I’m officially crazier than him.
I hold Jordan’s gaze. “You gonna stop me?” Grabbing Shona’s sleeve, I drag her backwards towards the door.
She tries to shake me off, wriggling and spitting. Yelling: “Get off me, you cow.”
Tightening my grip, I lean close to her ear. “Shut it. Out. Now.”
She digs her heels into the carpet, but I’m bigger and stronger and I pull her past Darren and the bong boys, through the door and out onto the street.
Looking over my shoulder, I check no one has followed us. The road is empty, just a few rusty cars sitting on bricks and a broken trampoline in the garden of the house opposite. The afternoon sun is high in the sky, it’s hot, hard to breath and I’m panting, my legs feel like jelly – adrenalin and coke all gone. Dropping the chair leg, I take a moment then pull Shona close. We are nose to nose. “You tool. What the fuck you thinkin’? Just cos my life’s messed up, don’t mean yours has to be.”
“What you so wound up for? You been tight with Jordan for months, doin’ drugs with them twenty four seven.” Her words slur into each other and she flips a hand into the air. “No biggie.”
Pushing a strand of hair from Shona’s face, I feel something crack inside me. I remember what it was like to be twelve years old, desperate to be running with the big kids. I was so damn innocent – until my stepdad ripped my world apart. He’s gone now and I’m going to make sure nobody like him gets anywhere near Shona.
“Cos, I’m angry and my life is fucked. But you, girl, are the only one in our screwed-up family that has a chance.”
She rolls her eyes, but there’s a tiny smile twitching at the corner of her lips. “Whatever.”
“I’m mean it. Stay away from Jordan. He’s poison.”
“Says you, who was wrapped around him like a snake. You’re so full of shit.” She thinks she’s so tough; she doesn’t know what Jordan can do. “My bad-ass big sister, who can’t be arsed with any of us since she started hangin’ with Jordan and his crew.”
“Yeah, after all that crap back there, I’ve had it with him and his dickhead bros.” I link my arm through Shona’s. “Come on.”
“Where we goin’?”
“Back to school.”
Shona pulls away from me. Her face is chalk white and there’s a smear of blood on her lip where she’s been chewing it.
She crosses her arms, swaying a little. “So, I’ve got to go to school, when you’ve never been near a classroom all year. How’s that fair?”
My little sister was always the clever one. I sigh. “Okay. Deal is – you’re not goin’ in today; the state you’re in they’ll kick you out anyway. Tomorrow, I’m walkin’ you to the gates.”
Shona sticks out her bottom lip and shakes her head. “If you’re not goin’ to school, I’m not. Simple as.”
I know that look. It’s the same one she wore when she was six years old and her Barbie doll lost a leg – she spent two days trying to fix it with an elastic band. Stubborn doesn’t even come close.
The thought of going back after all this time makes my stomach crawl. “I can’t.”
Shona stamps her foot. “You can. Ma never told you, but your year tutor came to the house last week. She told Ma to get you back to school any way she could, that you were one of the brightest pupils she’d ever taught. That you could go to university if you wanted.”
“Yea, right. Like that’s gonna happen.” I bite my lip. The words “brightest pupil ever” feel warm and good. I’m better than shithead Jordan and I’m better than my waste-of-a-space mother.
“Did too.” Shona says. “Ma was pissed, told her to fuck off and mind her own business. No shocks I don’t want to go in.”
 “Okay,” I say. “If that’s what it takes, I’ll come with you. I’ll go to my classes.” I grin. “Hey, maybe I’ll be partying with the wanksta uni students in a couple of years.”
Shona’s face lights up with a smile that I haven’t seen for a long time. “Course you will. It’s a deal.” She lifts a palm and slaps me with a wobbly high five.
“Now,” I say, “we’re goin’ home. I’m gettin’ you straightened out and then I’m gonna totally trash you at Minecraft.”
Shona bites back a smile. “Like that’s gonna happen.”




Judges Comments

Replete with drugs, bad sex and bad language, Barbara Young's Lessons Learned, the runner up in our Back to School competition, is not a story for the fainthearted. But that's the point - the stakes are high in this edgy, energetic story that is ultimately a modern-day morality tale where good triumphs over evil.

The outstanding quality of Lessons Learned is its vivid energy. It fizzes along at a kinetic pace, reflecting the thrill-seeking crew's own wired, jittery vibe as they bunk off school and hang out, dissing each other and taking drugs to a confrontational grime soundtrack. Narrator Zoey is a willing participant in a scenario that seems the embodiment of parents' nightmares – or at least, she is until her younger sister is dragged into a setup that seems the very definition of dysfunctional.

In a story notable for its immediacy, Barbara makes clever use of misirection to hint at Zoey's life before the events in this story begin. She's 'officially crazier' than Jordan; for a while she 'got sectioned'. In the context of the crew she makes it sound like a boast. It's only later that information is slipped in about the stepfather who 'ripped her world apart' and we understand the true awfulness of what her life was and how she, the brightest girl in her year, ended up with the dead-end thrill-seekers.

The 'happy' ending, where the rescued Shona cleverly plays Zoey at her own game to persuade her back to school, (and implicity, towards hope and redemption) is perfectly in keeping: a rewardiing payoff that redresses a major wrong in this gritty but ultimately warm-hearted story of a life that went off the rails.

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