Open Short Story Competition - Winner

Steven Holding

Until the End of the World
Open Short Story Competition


Steven Holding lives with his family in Northamptonshire. His stories have been shortlisted in several contests, including The Henshaw Prize, Flash 500 Quarterly and a WriteStars competition. One of his pieces was recently selected to be performed as part of a project at Northampton’s Royal Theatre and his adaptation of Alice in Wonderland will be produced later this year at Northampton’s Derngate Theatre by the Open Stage Performing Arts Company.

Until the End of the World By Steven Holding

You said that you would wait for me forever.
I keep the letter, handwritten by you over twenty years ago, hidden in my purse, safely tucked away in-between my driving licence and supermarket loyalty card. I have folded and unfolded the single sheet of A4 paper so many times, that over the years it has begun to resemble a treasure map from some boy’s own adventure story. Strange really, as I don’t need to read it in order to remember your words.
You said that I shone like the stars.
I was your first, I suppose. For me, well, there had been others. Crushes, flings, the usual crazy teenage infatuations. Even something so serious that at the time it had convinced the seventeen-year-old version of myself that I knew absolutely everything there was to possibly know about the thing that soul crooners seemed to spell L-U-R-V-E. I was slap bang in the middle of the heavy aftermath of that particular experience when you wandered into my life. I can recall it all with a clarity that seems so exact, that it shocks me to actually calculate the distance between then and now. Sat in that dingy old pub, where the only good things going for it were the jukebox and the landlord’s lax attitude towards underage drinking, nursing a broken heart and a half of Woodpecker cider. I was crying onto the shoulder of my best friend Mary when you stumbled in, leaning on your mates, singing along to that song that I had wasted all of my change on playing it on constant repeat.
You said that from the moment you first met me it felt as if you had always known me.
Mary knew you from sixth form. I was at a different college and had never seen you before, which was odd considering how small our town and its limited social circles were. She waved and called you over and even though you were a little drunk you behaved like the perfect gentlemen, furiously insisting that we joined you for a drink. I was reluctant, but Mary twisted my arm. A little while later the barman rang last orders and we looked up in surprise at an empty room. Everyone else had disappeared off into the night, searching for that elusive after-hours shindig. We were so wrapped up in our conversation that we hadn’t even realised that they had all gone. You blushed a little, as if you were embarrassed at how absorbed you had become in our discussion about our favourite bands. I just shrugged and laughed, impressed by your passion for the things that you liked.
You said that from the very beginning you really liked me.
I didn’t see or hear from you for a little while. It feels peculiar now to think of how out of touch people used to be. It was about a week later when our paths crossed again at a party. Saturday night hi-jinxes in an empty house whilst someone’s parents had foolishly gone away for the weekend. I was searching the kitchen for something to drink, when I heard your voice. Out in the garden there seemed to be a hundred boys and girls, all huddled in tight-knit little groups, talking and drinking and smoking and giggling. The thick fragrance of dope smoke hung heavy in the late evening air. A stereo had been perched on a disused barbecue, pumping out a homemade mix tape, the bass thumping like an accelerated heartbeat. You were stood next to it, chatting to your friends, head nodding slightly in appreciation of the tunes.
You said that you would never grow tired of the sound of my voice.
The parties were wild back then. So was I. We all were. You ambled over, grinning, eager to join me in my search for more booze. Back in the kitchen I was thrilled when you discovered wine hidden away inside the washing machine. When I suggested that we should head off somewhere quiet to crack it open, I remember telling myself that you were just a cool guy to hang out and get high with. Nothing more. The late summer evening was sticky and close, and every house in the street we strolled down seemed to have their windows wide open. When we heard an especially vocal bout of love making echoing down from one bedroom, you roared with laughter as I gave them a round of applause, both of us crying ‘BRAVO’ at the precise moment their performance reached its climax.
You said that everything happened for a reason, and that I was your reason.
The play-park was lit by a single street lamp. In the darkness and the shadows, the children’s rides looked like the skeletal remains of long forgotten beasts. We stretched out on the roundabout, lying on our backs, each slow revolution taking us further away from the real world. As we gazed up at the night sky, losing ourselves in the infinite blanket of stars, I think I told you everything. You seemed to do the same, the cheap supermarket plonk opening you up as we spoke of a million things and then a million more. Hopes and dreams. Fears and sorrow.
You said that we had all our tomorrows.
We chased each other, tripping blindly over the uncut grass, stifling giggles as we collapsed in a messy heap in the centre of the cricket pitch. Lying side by side, your laboured breathing seemed to be the only sound I could hear. I slowly slipped my hand into yours. You squeezed my fingers gently and I swear I could feel your pulse quicken. When you turned your head to look at me, I couldn’t help but smile. For a fraction of a second, considering each other’s eyes, it felt as if we really were the centre of the universe. That elusive moment, as fleeting as the rainbow after the rain shower, where things are as good as they ever can be; like a Lou Reed lyric where everything was just ‘ALRIGHT’.
You said that the first kiss never really ended; that it went on forever.
Summer’s remaining weeks disappeared as they always do. We spent them together; sometimes just the two of us, sometimes hanging with the gang. A haze of lazy hedonism; picnics, parties and gigs defining every day. Not a thought for the future. So lucky, really, the way youth affords you the luxury of thinking that time isn’t against you. Then, as quickly as it had begun, it was almost over. It became the end of a season in so many ways, for so many reasons; but mostly it was the realisation that a road really did stretch out ahead for of all of us. It suddenly made every good time feel like it was the last time.
You said distance could never really separate us; that true feelings transcended time and space.
I remember tearing open that brown envelope. Four simple letters of the alphabet deciding where I was going. The joy and excitement when it finally sank in. That I had been accepted. Three years in the big city, university and everything that went with a brand-new beginning. That afternoon a burning sun shone down on the beer garden, turning freckled skin bright pink and elevating moods even further as a near riot began to brew. Most of us were drinking to our own and each other’s success, but even those sad few drowning their sorrows soon got swept up and carried along in the charged atmosphere of possibilities and potential. When you finally arrived, I could tell straight away something was wrong. Linking arms, I walked with you down the embankment and along the canal path. I wanted to talk, but you couldn’t seem to get your words out, stuttering that you would meet me later that night. Back at the children’s playpark. Before you ran off, you thrust something into my hand. Another envelope. Another letter with the power to change the shape of things to come.
You said that you loved me.
When the time arrived to meet you, my head was reeling. A dizzy spell conjured up by too much to drink, too much sun and the words that you had written for me. I was so moved, and that’s the truth, but I knew in my heart that it was all too much, too soon. I did what I thought was for the best. I put an end to us. The look on your face as I turned and walked away is a ghost that still haunts me. Your words, first written and given, in the end were simply spoken;
You said that you would wait for me. Forever. Until the end of the world.
Everything is forward, no matter what we try and do. Before I knew it, I had been hundreds of different people in countless different places, but I could never seem to let go of you. The letter was the proof. It was always with me and years later, older and still wishing to be wiser, I would turn to it often. What it told me, was that somebody, somewhere had once felt so much. So much, about me. Even at my lowest, it gave me comfort; gave me a sense of worth when for a moment, I thought I was nothing. Which is why, after all this time, it has brought me back here. Now. Today. To this place. To our place. As my beautiful daughters run and play, I sit on a bench and unfold the piece of paper. With a tear in my eye I look up from it, across the way to the opposite side of the park. The man who sits there, knotted beard, bleary eyed, tatty coat and crooked frown, is surrounded by his life crammed into a handful of plastic bags. Swigging from a can, he looks around, but doesn’t seem to see anyone. Doesn’t even seem to see me. But I recognise him.
You said forever. You said until the end of the world. And god forgive me, I think that’s what you really meant.  

Judges Comments

We expect a very high standard in WM's annual Open Short Story Competition because effectively, without giving you a theme we're asking you to send us your best short story – or at least, one of your favourites. This year's winner, Steven Holding, set the bar very high with his entry.

Written with the ring of emotional truth, Until the End of the World is a love story and a coming-of-age narrative that builds through a well-paced series of recollections to a crushingly sad ending. The narrator is looking back at a formative relationship from her younger days: one she has treasured in her memory though in her life she has moved away from her childhood home, and on from the teenage boyfriend she left behind. Her words come in torrents as she recalls events surrounding the unfolding teenage love affair; the friends, the pub, the parties and the places are as much part of her memories as the boy who gave her the letter she has kept for more than twenty years. For her, the love and the relationship were beautiful and memorable, but as Steven tells it, they are only part of her story. It's a one-sided account, told entirely from the narrator's voice - and it's a voice that rings true, with occasional colloquial grammatical inaccuracies ('sat' instead of 'sittting') adding to the authenticity of the emotional, conversational tone.

The remembered words of her un-named boyfriend, in contrast, are sparse and spare and absolute. He fell in love with her, and his love is the fixed kind. For him, she was 'the one', and when he said the things that lovers say ( ...that you would wait for me. Forever. Until the end of the world.) he was telling the truth.

Steven's story is made particularly poignant because he presents two kinds of love, makes no authorial judgement, and leaves his reader to read between the lines and interpret the story as they will. He implies his narrator loved her teenage boyfriend, but she had her eye on the future and knew that he was not it, and she wouldn't let herself be trapped by his love into staying in a place where her opportunities are restricted. She tempers romance with pragmatism, whereas he is an absolute romantic.

There's a theme of intoxication woven subtly through this story, in terms of romance and also drink and drugs, and Steven leaves this idea, also, open to interpretation. Does the boyfriend end up a homeless derelict because he never got over his teenage romance? If the narrator had jettisoned her university place and stayed with him, would there have been a happy ever after or watching him gradually slide into the hopelessness of addiction?

Until the End of the World is a story that begs a lot of deep, intense questions and holds back from imposing any neat answers. Life and love, this story says, are complex and messy and devastatingly sad, but also full of moments of beauty and wonder. This is a love story cannot have a happy ending but if there is no hope for the future of that relationship, there is emotional growth: the narrator has the absolute, humbling realisation that her teenage boyfriend, whose remembered adoration sustained her as she grew through her life, meant every word he said – and she has to live with that knowledge.




Runner-up in the Open Short Story Competition, whose story is published on, is Jack Wedgbury, Swinford, Leicestershire. Also shortlisted were: Peter Astle, Ambergate, Derbyshire; Dominic Bell, Hull, East Yorkshire; Alison Evans, Carmarthen; Avery Hohman, Walton-on-Thames, Surrey; Damien Mckeating, Penkridge, Staffordshire; Amanda Staples, Bristol, Gloucestershire; Sherri Turner, Thames Ditton, Surrey; John Webb, Letchworth, Hertfordshire.