(Photo courtesy of dp-multimedia ©)
Commenting on the story (entitled Ingrid, Audrey and Jean), judge Maria Donovan said: "This is a short story perfectly in tune with itself. From its enigmatic title and first arresting image to the underlying themes of escape and belonging, it always keeps ahead of expectations. Calm, confident and disturbing: a treat to read and re-read."
The full text of the winning story is below:
Ingrid, Audrey and Jean
When I was sixteen, I saw a man fall out of the sky. Then another. And another.
I was sitting on a beach in Devon at the time. Or Dorset. One of the clotted-cream, Enid-Blyton-for-grown-ups counties. A ‘nice’ beach. ‘Nice’ featured a lot in our lives back then.
I wasn’t supposed to be there. I should have been somewhere infested by bleached, feral sun-gods, or pot-smoking beach-bums, along with other teenage girls. Instead, there I was, reading ‘War and Peace’ – not Jackie Collins, or even ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’… sitting beside my mother. Something else I shouldn’t have been doing.
I don’t know what made me look up. A shadow? A movement? A sound? A particularly tortuous paragraph in my book? There were plenty of those.
‘Did you see that?’ I asked.
And what had I seen? It had happened so quickly. Perhaps I had been mistaken, and it was no more than the ramshackle tumbling of three crows across the cliff-face.
Or aliens. We had heard of such things, even in our safe little corner of England. Beings from other solar systems falling to Earth, intent on taking over our world - and our bodies.
Angels? But angels flew, didn’t they? And were white. Or gold. Definitely not black… except, perhaps, for Satan.
And so I decided it must, indeed, be men. But how could it have happened? I had read, once, of a fridge falling from an aeroplane and landing on a solitary sheep in the middle of a field. The sheep died, of course. I think it was in America. Or Australia. Perhaps these men had fallen from a plane, too.
I got up. ‘I’m going for a walk. To stretch my legs.’
Elsewhere on the planet, there was free-love and flower-power. People wore embroidered cheese-cloth smocks, ponchos, kaftans – if they wore anything at all. They decorated themselves with beads, bangles, petals, piercings.
My mother wore a twin set, even on the beach. She sat upright on a chair, brought to her by a ‘man’. She was fond of getting a ‘man’ to do things for her, as if, somehow, added together, they would make up for the one that was her missing husband. Her shoes were her only concession to the sand – she wore sandals instead of her usual high-heels. But, still, walking was not part of her holiday agenda.
So I was surprised when she put down her magazine, and began to rise from her chair.
‘There’s no need…’
But she had started following me, sashaying wildly, as if the unfamiliarity of her footwear made walking far more precarious than five-inch stilettos.
And now, some distance in front of us, we saw dark shapes scattered at the base of the cliff, and knew, somehow, that they weren’t rocks, or belongings abandoned by carefree swimmers. They, too, were something that wasn’t supposed to be there.
Birds were beginning to gather around them. And then there were shouts and cries, and people running from the other side of the cliff. Sirens growing closer, louder.
‘Come away,’ said my mother. It was the same way she spoke to me when I was younger, when we were in the park, perhaps, and came across something ‘not nice’. Couples kissing; rutting dogs; so many unpalatable tableaux of suburban life, all with the potential to contaminate. Once, worst of all, a flasher. ‘Come away! Don’t look!’
And I turned back with her, just as, back then, I hadn’t looked. Because I knew, this time, at least, it really was something I didn’t want to see.
I found out what had happened in the newspaper. There was no internet in those days. So no face-book tributes, twitter revelations, real-time photos taken by mobile phones. As it was, the information was scant. Enough, though, to tell me that it wasn’t a man I had seen – none of them were. And they hadn’t fallen from the sky. It was three girls, not much older than me. They had jumped together from the top of the cliff. I paused, then, in my reading. Why? It was the obvious question; the only question. Was it suicide? Or did they think they could fly, like Icarus and Daedalus…fly off the edge into the beckoning blue yonder, and on towards the sun? Or… what? They had been living with a ‘family’ in a big house a few miles away. The word ‘commune’ was mentioned. And the word ‘cult.’ But the people in the house said the girls had been quite happy there, and were free to come and go as they pleased. There was no need for them to escape. There was no need for them to have done this. ‘Escape’ was the word that stood out for me from all the others. ‘Escape’ was the word I lingered on the most.
I dreamt about them that night. I dreamt about them every night. Three bodies spiralling through space. Scarecrows cartwheeling downwards. Scraggy crows metamorphosing into androgynous humans.
They were not nightmares, as such. I never woke afraid, crying out, covered in perspiration.
After all, I had seen nothing horrible. True, I had watched three young girls dying, but I hadn’t known it. And there was no blood, or gore, or grey brain matter spattered on the rocks below for me to witness. No. My mother’s ‘come away’ had taken care of that.
In daytime, too, my thoughts would be full of them. I wanted to know more – so much more than the newspaper had told me.
Did they speak to each other as they stood there? Did any one of them have second thoughts? All? Did they hold hands? Yes - in my dreams, at least, they always clutched each other tightly, before some silent, unanimous signal sent them running towards the edge and their doom. And, at that final point of departure, suspended between solid ground and empty space, did they throw back their heads and laugh?
Round and round and round, variations of their final scene played through my head, like slides clicking from a film carousel. So many possibilities – a detail might change here, a whole passage of dialogue could be rewritten there. I swapped their faces around (for I had given them faces by then), interchanged with hairstyles and clothes, like a child’s paper-doll dressing game. And then I gave them new names.
For I decided I didn’t like the ones listed in the paper. They seemed too plain, too ordinary. So I rechristened them Ingrid, Audrey and Jean. Famous movie-stars, when film was the ‘open sesame’ to a world of magic – even my mother had fallen under its spell; it was her guilty pleasure. Hollywood was a fairy-tale realm, and its actresses the princesses who ruled there. They were not like us. And I didn’t want the girls to be ‘like us’ either.
How long was it before I realised the stars were not of my own choosing at all? I had picked my mother’s favourites. Actresses who also wore twin-sets, who had no scandal attached to them, who starred in tear-jerking dramas, or light romances. But, by then, I had grown used to calling the girls these names. It was too late to change.
In time, I left my dreams – and that day on the beach – behind. The girls hadn’t died – I (and the newspaper) had been mistaken. After all, it didn’t seem fair – they were so young, with so many years before them. I wanted them to have lives. So their faces became constant, and their personalities. And I made up stories about their pasts, their futures, and, most of all, their present. They were here, with me, now. It seemed the least I could do.
One day, my mother heard me talking to Audrey. She was my favourite – on that particular day, anyway. I was telling her she ought to change her hair – ‘Get rid of the bun, Aude!’ Or she was telling me. My mother stood in the doorway, and looked at us – me. She said nothing, and after a while, just walked away.
That afternoon, I found a newspaper spread out on the kitchen table. A big red asterisk was drawn by one of the headlines. It was an article covering the inquest and coroner’s report of the girls’ deaths. My mother had used her red pen to underline certain words, too. Drugs; hippies; sex.
My mother had decided that jumping off a cliff was something that happened to ‘bad’ girls. They were ‘not nice’. And I shouldn’t be mixing with them.
I didn’t read the article. I didn’t want to know more than I already did. Which was more than enough. Which was everything.
But, not long after that, I realised I was too old for imaginary friends. I knew that’s what they were. I should have had them long ago, when I was younger. My mother might have welcomed them, then. So I said ‘Goodbye’ to them – Ingrid, Audrey, and Jean – and wished them well. And decided that they were real, instead.
It was around this time that I went to work in a dress-shop in town. University was another ‘somewhere’ I was supposed to be (all that summer reading paying off, it seemed.) But every time it was mentioned, my mother became unwell with some vague, unsubstantiated illness, and in the end, I just knew it wasn’t going to happen.
The shop was the kind that sold clothes like my mother wore. It was a million miles away from Top Shop and Chelsea Girl; a whole galaxy away from Biba. But it could have been worse. The staff were kind to me. Every now and then, they would ask me if I would like to join them in a night out. I always said ‘no’, explaining I had plans of my own.
‘It’s the cinema with Audrey tonight,’ I might say.
Or ‘the four of us are going to Top Rank.’ Back in work, they would ask me how my night out had been. ‘Great!’ I would say. ‘We had fun!’ And we had.
Once the four of us even had a week’s holiday in Brighton, where the sun-gods and beach-bums lived. I spent the whole seven days shut in my bedroom and, the day before returning to work, applied fake tan.
‘How was Brighton?’ Marie asked.
‘Fantastic! Fabulous! Everything I hoped it would be!’
Then I met Joe. He came into the shop one day, wanting a present for his sister. I wanted to tell him he was in the wrong shop. We got talking. I didn’t mention Ingrid and Jean for the whole conversation. Not even Audrey. He asked me if I would like to go for a drink with him. And I said ‘yes.’
I said ‘yes’, too, when he asked me to marry him. I knew I shouldn’t have. I knew it was asking for trouble. I just couldn’t quite see how.
For a while, everything went well. Even my mother seemed happy, and liked Joe. The girls disappeared. I told any of the shop-staff who asked that they had moved away. And, perhaps, if marriage could have happened without a wedding, it would have all stayed okay. But the day my mother and I went to choose my outfit, she said she was feeling unwell, and talked of her ‘old troubles’ returning. The night before, Joe had been talking of the possibility of a new job the other side of the country. And somehow, before I knew what had happened, I had chosen three dresses for my three bridesmaids. I had given their exact measurements, and chosen the right colour for their complexions. After all, I knew everything about them. And, later, when Joe called, my mother took him aside, and said something to him. And after that, he didn’t call any more.
It’s my mother’s turn to go over the cliff, now. It’s not the same beach – because, of course, I’ve never quite remembered where that was. And she won’t somersault pell-mell over and over down to the bottom. She may never even reach there. The wind may catch her and send her up into the sky to be amongst the stars, or out over the sea, where she will float away. Or, if she should reach the beach, she will be lost amongst a million particles of welcoming sand. Dust to dust.
It doesn’t matter what happens. I don’t care. I won’t be coming back; there will be no pilgrimages to pay my respects, visits to talk to her spirit. She’s gone. At last. And that’s it.
I’ll walk back to the car, and drive away to a new life. Who knows – I’m not so very old. Anything could happen.
Besides, the girls are waiting for me there. Ingrid, Audrey and Jean. All of them, still. So I won’t be alone. They’ll always be there for me. We’ll always be there. Together.
© Diana Powell 2014