Without short story competition - Winner

Jenni Clarke

Without You
Without short story competition


Jenni Clarke was born in the UK but now lives in a quiet corner of France where she writes whenever life gives her the time and space. Her non-fiction writing has been published over the last twelve years, and  she has recently published her first fiction book of short stories. This is her first competition win after being a runner-up several times.

Without You By Jenni Clarke

I’m waiting for you to come home. I’ve been waiting for a week.
I am upstairs when I hear someone in the kitchen and almost fall in my haste to confirm you are here. But I find only your dirty plate and the dregs of your coffee. I pick up your mug and cradle it in my hands, touching my lips to where yours were.
I jump as the phone screams for attention. My heart races and my hands shake. I run to the hallway and pick up the phone. It could be you.
‘Mrs Jackson?’
‘Yes.’ I slip down the wall onto the beige carpet you were so sure was the best colour for our hallway, although I thought it was insipid. My fingers explore the roughness of the natural fibres, reminding me of the rare moments your face was covered in stubble. The voice in my ear falters at my lack of response.
‘Mrs Jackson? Are you there?’
‘Yes.’ I whisper.
‘Are you alright?’
‘I don’t know.’ I brush away useless tears. ‘Yes, of course. I’m sorry.’
‘No need to be sorry Mrs Jackson. It’s understandable. But may I ring back later? Or could you come here? There are decisions to be made.’
‘Yes.’ I put the phone down.
Later. Another day. Not now, not yet. You will come home soon and tell me it was all a mistake.
I stare at the phone. Why don’t you call and tell me you’re coming home?
My mobile buzzes on the kitchen table. It’s not your ringtone.
‘Go away.’ I shout to no-one.
My mobile chirps to let me know I have a message. Another message I don’t want to read. I go back to bed and wait for the sound of your keys in the front door.

I pull back the curtains allowing the weak light from heavy skies to fill the house. Your jacket hangs in its transparent wrap on the back of the door. I yank off the plastic, hold the jacket to my nose. It smells clean.
You haven’t worn it since I had it dry cleaned and yet you insisted it was done straight away. I wasted a lunch hour for you. Why did you not wear it? I hold it up, inspect the pocket. There is no trace of the red wine I spilt, and yet you said it was ruined. I carry it up to our room and open your wardrobe.
Your trousers ironed correctly, hanging at the exact length you specified. Your jumpers and T-shirts folded just so on shelves. Never to be worn by you again.
My stomach boils, and the heat rises into my throat. I am not going to be sick.
I grab your trousers, tearing them from their hangers, scrunching them into tight balls and I throw them across the room. The creases are in the wrong place now. How angry you would be.
Is that a small smile tugging my face?
I pull your jumpers and T-shirts from their tidy shelves, throw them on the floor and stomp them into a mountain of grey and black. What dull colours you wore. They’d suit you now.
My knees buckle and my hands become fists. I pummel your clothes. You are not coming back. My tears scold my cheeks.
I use the bed we shared to pull myself up. The room is a mess, but I don’t care.
You are not coming home.
I sleep on the sofa.

A thump awakens me. More envelopes piling inside the door. I don’t want to open them. I don’t want to read words of sympathy. I go upstairs.
‘I’m sorry.’ I stare at the bedroom floor, gathering your clothes in my arms and sorting them into piles on the bed.
‘I’ll put them back, just how you like.’ I handle them gently, cradling each one before I fold it as if they are the babies we never had.
‘Your jumpers are sorted. Look even shades of grey co-ordinated.’ I laugh but the sound is an old woman’s croak. I pick up the T-shirts, but several of them are stained and torn. Was it my nails that caught the threads, my tears that smeared their pristine whiteness?
I’m sorry.
I throw the damaged clothes in the bin and the rest into the washing machine. I choose the correct temperature and measure the powder. Just as you taught me.
If you come home now, all will be as you like it. Wait.
I run back upstairs and collect your trousers. It will take me hours to remove the creases, but I can. The task of ironing at the correct speed, with the right number of puffs of steam is soothing.
See how much I learnt from you? I hold up a pair of stone-grey chinos with the correct creases and smile. I hang them so the waist band is two centimetres higher than the bottom seam. Perfect.
If you come home, you’ll be happy.
By the time I finish restoring your wardrobe my back aches and the burn scar on my wrist pulls tight. I sit on the bed and rub in some cream before smoothing the sheets and positioning the pillows. I won’t spoil it. I’ll sleep on the sofa again, then if you come home, we can go to bed together, if you want.

It’s dark in the house. I’m keeping the curtains closed hoping everyone will take the hint and leave me alone. I don’t need them, and I don’t need sunlight. The table lamps give me sufficient light to wander from room to room, searching for a trace of you.
I stare at the interior of our fridge, then close the door. It’s too much effort to cook. I order a pizza and wait, resting my head on the kitchen table.
Your mug still sits there. It’s a garden of green and black. I poke it with my finger and filaments of white float to the table. I turn my face away as my nose twitches and I see the kitchen sink.
It is overflowing with dirty plates and half full mugs. Your plate now buried beneath an unwashed mountain of filth.
You’d hate it. I hate it, but it’s too much effort to clean.
The doorbell bleats its two-tone call. Chosen by you of course. I plan to change it, but what’s the point.
The young man on the doorstep flinches and gulps as he hands me the warm box and hurries away. I watch him jump on his bike and speed down the road before I kick the door closed and turn, glancing in the hallway mirror.
A haggard ghost looks back with glazed eyes and rat-tail hair. She is clutching a pizza box as if it was a lifeline.  
I stagger to the sofa and wrench off the lid. The smell sickens me. I shove the box onto the floor where it collides with another.
I flick on the TV and grab a cushion pressing it into my empty stomach, rocking slightly, seeing colours and shapes on the screen, but making no sense of anything.
If you came home, you’d be shocked.

The house is quiet, you are no longer here to shout, throw things, slam doors. And you never will be. You are never coming home.
I savour the words in my head and finally understand what your leaving has done to me. What I have let you do to me.
I am alone and I smell. The house smells.
This is not how I want to live without you.
I walk up the stairs, stripping off my grimy sweatpants and T-shirt, dumping them on the floor before entering the bathroom.
Standing in the shower, washing the grime of the last few weeks away I set the water at the perfect temperature for me. No more red skin. I use the softest flannel and the floweriest fragrant soap.
Now you are not coming back I can do things my way. The room fills with steam and my stomach reminds me I haven’t eaten for days.
I wrap myself in the largest towel and drew a happy face on the mirror. I’m about to wipe it clean but you are not coming back.
I find a packet of crumpets in the freezer and toast them, slathering on peanut butter and honey, not caring when it drips. I lick my fingers and make a cup of tea. Sitting on the back step to eat it, I breathe in clean fresh air.

It’s time to change.
I fill six bags with rubbish. Some of it mine, but most of it yours. You are not coming back so you don’t need it.
Your clothes are neatly folded, in boxes by the front door. Waiting to be collected for the homeless shelter. I smile.
I can imagine your disgust at the thought, you’d be so angry. A shudder travels up my spine and I rub the tiny round scars on my inner arms.
I walk into the lounge. The shelves are empty. Your collection of model cars is in a bag hanging off the fence waiting for the two boys who live next door to come home from school. Those noisy children you hated, those children whose ball you punctured when it dared to land on your pristine grass.
The ugly china dogs you inherited from your mother. They too are in a box. Tomorrow I’ll take them, your music collection, your magazines and books to the charity shop in the high street. Everything else is going to the dump.
Apart from your mug and the plate from which you ate your last meal. They are on the kitchen table.
I pick them up and roll them in a towel. The wooden rolling pin, which my ribs know too well, smashes the evidence to dust. I dump the towel in the last bin bag.
Without you I can live.  

Judges Comments

In Without You, the winning short story in our themed Without competition, Jenni Clarke has used the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – to structure her account of a woman coming to terms with the loss of her partner. It's a device that works well, allowing Jenni to create snapshots of the woman's life that reflect each stage and at the same time give the reader a deepening insight into the relationship that's being mourned.

We are not told about the circumstances of the partner's departure or the form the loss takes. The focus in Without You is tightly on the first-person narrator, Mrs Jackson, as she comes to terms with her loss. It's clear from the way the story has been structured and compartmentalised that every detail within each section is significant. The concise, clipped narrative style is very effective as the narrator confronts the reality of each stage head-on: there is no point in, or space for, reflection as the immediacy of each stage of the grief process overwhelms the narrator.

Without You is a story told with insightful emotional intelligence. Deftly, Jenni leads us through a series of impressions that build into a picture that suggests that the relationship the narrator is grieving was an oppressive one. The shift within the narrator as she begins to understand that she is no longer trapped in a relationship that harmed and diminished her gives this story its powerful twist: by the end, where Jenni adds an extra stage, It's time to change, and her narrator chooses to determine a new life for herself, we see that the 'without you' of the title has a double-meaning; that loss and grief are complex and that people can mourn the things that hurt them. And finally, that 'without' in this context is turned from a negative into a positive. With each carefully controlled narrative stage, Jenni shifts the reader's understanding of the untold dynamics underlying each stage of the narrator's process of grieiving and moving on, and creates a layered, satisfying story with a hopeful resolution that is earned, and deserved.


Runner-up in the ‘Without’ competition was Lolita Parekh, Harrow, Middlesex, whose story is published on www.writers-online.co.uk. Also shortlisted were: Dominic Bell, Hull, Humberside; Gillian Brown, Peyriac de Mer, France; Celia Jenkins, Trowbridge, Somerset; Spencer Lawrence, Rudloe, Wiltshire; Jennifer Moore, Ivybridge, Devon; Jenny Morris, Crowborough, East Sussex; Karen Rodgers, Chard, Somerset; DJ Tyrer, Southend-on-Sea, Essex; Hazel Whitehead, Bishop’s Waltham, Hampshire