Brighton Festival, nabokov and exclusive short story writing competition based on the Brighton Festival 2017 theme of ‘Everyday Epic’. Competition entries extracts.

Ridiculous, unsettling coincidences

Across the cliff top she walked for a while, picking her way along the path by the light of a low moon that hung over the sea. She paused occasionally to shoot her voice over the water that surged against the rocks far below. Seagulls flew around with angry moans. By now it was three in the morning. Liz couldn’t bear the thought of another night coming on. The void calling beneath her was something she would fall into, never to rise again.

Silence. Nothing. No one. That was it then. For three or four minutes, Liz stood, suspended on the edge of the abyss. She could not turn herself back to the solid cliff behind and prepared to take a step into the ultimate experience of nothingness.

A co-incidence. A ridiculous, unsettling conjunction; two separate points of the universe colliding that should never have come together.

As Liz took a step into the chasm of sea and darkness beneath, just then, the phone rang. What on earth? Here? Of course it was the mobile phone still in her coat pocket. As if wandering disconsolately along the cliff at Beachy Head was unreal enough, this was surreal. “Go on, answer it,” she said out loud. Instinct took hold as the curiosity of the self she had been about to extinguish rose from the abyss.

“Hello?” she said. She couldn’t believe it. Rev Bill?! Here. On the phone? Now? This time of night! It had to be the oddest thing that had ever happened.

“Liz, I had the strangest and strongest impulse to phone you. I know how late it is. And you will tell me to back off and go to bed. But something has made me call. Tell me you’re all right?”

Liz took a deep breath and couldn’t resist smiling at the situation. Maybe all her experience did not have to be a long extended conversation with oneself. Perhaps there was someone out there able to break in upon us. What should she say?

“Yes I’m all right”. Even as she said these words, she felt herself struggle back over the cliff to find a foothold once more. “Look, thanks for phoning. I’ll go back now” (though she didn’t say where she was), “come and talk to me soon” she added, almost as an afterthought. Liz thought she saw a crack in the sky. There were choices to take and moves to make. And she sat there for an hour until pale flecks of morning began to line the eastern sky. A new day.

(Christopher, Brighton area)

In the slave room

Later that evening there were no punters for an hour, and I was able to sit and talk with Sylvie. “I have a right to be here and I live only in fear,” I told her quietly, but she said nothing, just looking at me sadly for a few moments. She seemed about to speak when Angela came in, and stood watching the rest of the news report while sucking on an e-cigarette, and cursing the lack of business.

She paused to draw on the e-cigarette again, its tip glowing with cold heat, then gave a strange smile to us. “You two should be glad the punters couldn’t care less where any of you come from. You’re just a collection of holes to them!” She paused, then waves her e-cigarette at Sylvie. “Though you’re a bit special, of course, Sylv. Brown sugar special request…. A taste of the exotic with our wild African temptress.” She laughed.

“I wish I was back in Africa,” said Sylvie quietly. “It’s not exotic to me – it’s home.” This defiance made Angela go mad. She slapped Sylvie, and called her a “f****** ungrateful bitch”, then threatened to get Danny upstairs to brand her. “Put the f****** mark on you like a prized cow,” she spat out. “The closest you’re ever going to get to Africa is if you get moved to the flat in Brixton.”

The buzzer had rung during Angela’s outburst, and now rang again, which made Angela stop suddenly, swear, then compose her greeting face. She snapped at us: “Get back in the lounge, and look f****** ready – ready for f******.” Then she left to go and greet the punter and take their money.

Sylvie had a strange blank look on her face as she walked past me towards the lounge. I gulped down the last of the tea, then took a few moments to swoosh out a sludge of Hobnob in the bottom of the cup, then began working on my punter face.

When I walked into the lounge I just stared, trying to take things in. Sylvie had taken a tasselled cushion from the sofa where we sat for punters with our skirts high up our legs, and she had set it on fire using the bars of the heater. Now she was walking quickly, precisely around the room holding the flames to anything that might burn. She turned to me sharply, and with a fierce voice told me not to make a sound. “Help me push the sofa against the door so that bitch can’t get in,” she spat. “We have to keep her out until someone out there sees the fire and calls for help.”

We pushed harder than we had ever pushed before, slowly pushing the sofa until it was against the door. All around us cheap fabric began to burn – a chair, a worn rug – then flames began to destroy the dark curtains that blocked the outside looking in. We retreated to a far corner of the room and began praying that someone would see.

(Norman, Brighton)

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