This week, we’ll be posting one short story a day from this year’s Toulmin Prize competition. The Toulmin Prize is open to amateur writers over the age of 16.
The stories entered have a north east focus, and can be written in Doric or English, or a mixture of the two. Throughout the course of the week, four commended stories and the overall winner of the Toulmin Prize will be posted.
Below is a piece written by Ruth MacLure, the second runner-up!
Sheila Buglass is in my shed.
“Fit are ye dein?”
I blink at the looming girth of her, eclipsing the August sun.
The door is still swinging in protest, scattering fragments of rust onto the hissing concrete slabs.
I shrug and look away.
Now she is squatting, toad-like, podgy pocked knees bulging over her too-tight socks. I can see her yellowing knickers beyond the hem of her gingham frock. Her breath smells of bubblegum, bacon and piss.
Last week, this very Sheila Buglass had broken a whole box of crayons, one by one, slowly and deliberately, explaining that I would have twice as many… and that way we could share.
My mother slapped me hard across the face and said I should not be given nice things, because I was not a nice child.
“An’ oan the Sabbath an’ a?! Slant chiel!”
She put the box on the top shelf of the pantry, behind the mousetraps, far from reach.
I shrink back from Big Sheila, fumbling in my pocket for my best friend: the tiny china fish that fits exactly over my pinkie finger, cool and smooth and silent. My granny gave it to me. I loved my granny. I stroke it gently and the waves of calm wash over me.
“Y’air feel!” she judges and starts to sift through my box of treasures.
I keep my peace, but my heart is pounding in my ears.
Outside, the uneven rasp and grunt of a lawn mower next door. My father’s walking stick is tripping his path to the greenhouse with a thump and a kick. The hum of the paper mill. Working men playing careless football on the field beyond the garden wall. I hear my father stop to watch them. I can’t see him, but I know he is rummaging for a cigarette, propping himself up against the clothes pole for balance as he strikes a match and lets it fall on the grass with a hiss. He stamps out the flame with the rubbery base of his stick, takes a drag and coughs, a great raggedy retching cough. He’s not supposed to smoke.
Sheila Buglass sifts and rejects. Broken sandals, a headless doll, a hand-wound alarm clock that has lost its spring.
The thwack of a boot on a ball.
The resentful clank of my father’s stick against the clothes pole as he gathers himself and continues on his way.
I am making a pie from the leftovers of summer.
My old tin pail is marbled slick with fairground pinks and blues. I fill it with good garden earth and pat it down. One flip and the pie slides turd-like onto the raffia mat with a satisfying plop. I plant a flag in it: the lion rampant.
A glittering golden crust of sand catches the light and I cough, salt tears at the back of my throat. A rush of heat to my cheeks.
Sheila Buglass has chosen a hat from the box of treasures. Mushroom-spotted fur with a crackling grey lining is clamped down over her greasy brown hair as she chomps on a lollipop.
I feel sick.
“Far’s the glaiss?”
She snatches up a mermaid’s mirror and stomps to the window to appraise her reflection, ripping the brown paper curtains apart, showering me with spider’s webs and stoor.
A gust of creosote and putty.
“Nah!” she crows “Yair mither’s gote nae fashin sins. She’s al- fashint.”
An ugly laugh.
“Yair mither’s really REALLY AL! Thon wifie’s niver yair mither a’va! She’s an AL BAG!”
Then she is right in my face, spitting out her words:
“Yair a-dop-tit, ye ken that? A-DOP-TIT!”
She settles back on her heels, arms folded like a fish-wife, shaking her head in mock pity.
“Naeb’dee wants ye. Yair a selkie’s bairn!”
I gaze green into her empty eyes and a smile swims up from the well of me.
I inhale a gasp of tar and salt and the gulls are reeling overhead, keening for the sea.
On the outbreath, both hands scrabble on the floor and I am hurling muck and grit and pebbles into her face, wild with it.
A broken shell catches her cheek and the next thing, she has turned and run, wailing, screeching, heaving great sobs of outraged delight.
Moments later, the shed door is flung wide again, and there is my mother, taut and grim and grey.
“Can ye no jist play nicely wi’ the ither bairns? Fit’s a die wi’ ye? Ye’re no chiel a’ mine!”
She picks me up and carries me to the kitchen, sits me on the draining board and forbids me to move.
The cold ceramic scald the backs of my legs as I cling to the rim of the sink.
Then she is scouring my grubby hands with a nailbrush and carbolic, muttering all the while, punctuating her words with a wrench of the green brass tap, a slap of the soap, scrubbing my face til my eyes sting red.
And then I am in my room, damp and musty dark.
The key is turned in the lock.
Must I stay here til morning?
I lie face down on the floor, pressing my burning cheek against the cold green linoleum. Out of the corner of my eye I glimpse a spider, scurrying away under the bed. I have a double bed, high and wide, because I sleep in the guest room. We never have visitors, so it doesn’t matter: nobody else is ever going to sleep there.
But it does matter, to me, that this is not really my room. That I do not have a place here. That I am out of place. My toys are in a cardboard box, under the bed. You would not know that a child lived here. I am invisible.
I roll onto my back and start to count the violets on the wallpaper. I already know there are 36 on each and every row across the longest wall. I also know that number 25 on the bottom row is missing. I know this because I dug it out with a raggedy fingernail and replanted it behind the chest of drawers, in an egg-cup full of earth. I am waiting for it to grow. It has been 27 days and still nothing. I have crossed off the days at the back of my spelling book.
I know I will be in trouble when my mother sees the rip in the wallpaper. She sweeps my room every week, but only dusts the skirting boards once a month. So by my calculations, she will spot it soon.
It amazes me that she has not missed the eggcup, as we only have three. It was a set of four until I dropped one on the kitchen floor in a row about runny yolks. Eggs must be hard boiled. Runny eggs are slippery and smell like fish. I do not like fish either.
Correction: I do not like eating fish. I like watching them, swimming in the quarry. Sticklebacks, or “beardies” as Sheila calls them. We go there with her cousin, while their mothers drink sherry and look at the Avon book on a Saturday afternoon. My mother does not drink sherry because she Signed The Pledge and she certainly has no dealings with the Avon Lady, who does not go to church and paints her face like a Hoor.
I am not supposed to go to the quarry, of course. I have never outright asked my mother if I can, but I know, I absolutely know for definitely sure that she would not like it.
“Dancing Cairns.” I roll the words around in my mouth and remember the tadpoles swirling and the beardies swimming and the newts jumping under the weeds. We take jam jars out with us and fill them to the brim with dirty water, watching the mud settle, waiting to see what we have caught today. The essence of summer.
A rising bubble of excitement. I sit up. She will not miss me. I have climbed out of the window before and spent the afternoon in next door’s raspberry patch. She never knew. I was back before dark, full of fruit and at peace with myself. The strange pink stains on my dress went unexplained, blamed on my paintbox.
I pull open the bottom drawer of the chest, where she keeps the spare blankets. Mothballs roll into the corners and I try not to breathe in. I use it as a step and clamber up, knocking a brass elephant onto the floor with a clang. I freeze, listening hard. Silence. She must be out the front, pruning the roses. My knees hurt. Reckless now, I fling a crocheted doily onto the floor and rub its pattern from my flesh. A wisp of wind lifts my fringe and I gather the strength to slither up and out of the gap, my fall cushioned by the shrubbery below.
I crouch there for a minute, catching my breath, listening to the seagulls, the football players, the radio next door.
Then I’m off.
Across the garden, and over the back wall, before anyone sees me. I keep to the side of the wall all the way up the playing fields. It’s not as warm as it was and I wish I had put my jumper on. Too late.
Past Sheila’s house, past the flats where George has a rabbit and his father keeps pigeons, all the way up the hill. Stop to catch my breath and grin to myself. I am free!
Over the bridge. Count the cobbles. Past the church. Through the minister’s garden to the main road. Lots of cars. A bus. It’s noisy. There are people at the shops. I mustn’t look at them. If I don’t look at them, they won’t see me.
Faster! I run across the road when I see a gap in the traffic and then through the barbed wire and down to the burn.
I wait a moment and have a little sit-down. There might be frogs now, grown from the tadpoles. I’ve seen a beardie here, I know I have. I might not have to go all the way up to the quarry to see one. It’s still a long way, all the way up that hill, and now I am not so sure. I have only ever been here with Sheila and her cousin. They are good at fighting off the Bad Boys with bad words and stones.
Dancing Cairns, though! I think a cairn must be like a fairy. They come at dusk and flicker across the sky. I’ve never seen the mirrie dancers. I’m sure they live in the quarry. Maybe they will take me to their queen and she will make me into a princess and I will live with them in the sky and I can spit on my mother from up there and she will think it is rain. I can PEE on my mother and she will think it’s rain!
I am laughing so hard now that I do not hear the man come through the bushes. He is just… there. He does not have a dog and I don’t know why a grown up would come here without a dog. He is just standing there, looking at me. I try looking away, to make myself disappear, but he can still see me. He takes a step towards me.
This is worse than my mother or a Bad Boy, this is a Bad Man. He is going to catch me and I am going to die.
I run and I run and I run.
When I can’t run anymore, I crawl under a gorse bush and make myself very very small. It smells of coconut and I am very hungry. It is getting dark now.
I will wait here for the fairies to take me home.
“Fit are ye dein?”
I startle awake. I didn’t know I had been asleep. There is a boy kneeling down, looking under the bush at me. I don’t know him but he looks like a nice boy. Yes, I decide straightaway that he is a nice boy and I decide to tell the truth.
“I’m waiting for the Dancing Cairns”.
He laughs. “Ye winnae find em in the whins, quinee!”
“Have you seen them?”
“Aye! It’s nae far. A kin show ye if ye like. Comin’?” He sticks out a hand and I hold fast as he pulls me out.
“Yer mither’ll flay ye fur clartin’ yersel’ wi’ dubs an’ stoor!”
He sees my expression change and squeezes my hand.
“Aw, ye’re a pair craitur! Dinnae fash yersel’. Come oan!”
And we are off along the path, hand in hand.
He talks to me all the way. His father is “In the fish”, he says, which is “Nae as guid as the ail but he’s ayeways din it”. I think about the story of Jonah and the whale and I imagine his father in his little boat, with the ribs of the giant fish arching overhead. I shiver.
“Are ye cal? Div ye want tae ging hame?”
I shake my head. I have come this far. There’s no going back.
We skirt the fence til we find the gap. He leads me deep into the quarry, til the sheer rock face is all I can see, looming dark in the fading light.
“Where are the dancers?” I ask.
He frowns. “Duncers? Fit are ye oan aboot? It’s jist calt Dancing Cairns, it’s jist its name, quine!”
I start to cry. “I wanted to see the mirrie dancers!”
I am tired and cold and hungry and I don’t want to go home.
“Aw, no, dinnae greet!” He hunts in his pockets and hands me a rag “Here! Dry up, wee wifie! Ye’ll gie them a fricht and they’ll nivir come oot tae play!”
I smile at him. He really is the nicest boy I ever met.
“Look fit I kin dee!” he shouts, and takes a run at the wall, scrambling up a good five feet, before tumbling back to the ground like a clown.
I laugh. He starts to caper, taking flying leaps at the rock, scattering me with chips of sparkling grey.
He gets braver, and starts to climb. Slowly, deliberately at first. He finds a foothold, a handhold, and then I realise he is scaling the quarry face, picking up speed. He has done this before.
“That’s high enough!” I say.
“Niver that!” he yells back, disappearing upwards, so all I can see is the back of him, the soles of his boots, the showers of dust.
“Stop!” I shout. “Please, boy, please stop!”
It is almost dark now and for the first time that day I am afraid. I am scared for me, all alone here in the quarry. And I am scared for him, my new best friend, who is beyond my reach. He isn’t listening to me. He is leaving me.
“See me, quinee? See fit ah kin dee!” he yells.
And then he starts to sing. I can’t hear the words. But he sounds wild, intoxicated, swept up in the rush of his ascent. He is a pagan king, a chieftain, howling an ancestral call to war. Higher and higher. Up and up.
I am sobbing now. “Back, boy! Come back! Here! Come heeeeere!”
I hunker down and hug my knees.
And so it is that I do not see him fall.
I do not hear the cry, the change of pitch as his foot slips, the granite shifts and he falls.
In the sky, the light flickers. Magenta and turquoise and emerald and gold.
The dancers have come for him.