Short story competition: Dreamland by Rose McGinty (Joint 1st)
- Credit: Archant
Kent Life’s very first Short Story Competition attracted a wealth of entries and selecting the best of the best was a difficult task but we have them here for you to read
“Sleep tight,” Mum kissed me, and pulled the blanket up to my ears. It tickled, but I didn’t dare giggle, not out loud.
“Don’t let the bed bugs bite,” I whispered back. Mum put a finger to her lips. Too late. The Pig shouted from the kitchen, “You finished putting that brat to bed yet? Did yer get me a new lighter when yer were at the shops?”
“I forgot. There’s matches in the kitchen drawer,” Mum called back.
The flat shook as The Pig wrenched open and crashed shut every drawer and cupboard in the kitchen. I felt for the small cardboard box under my mattress; still there. I liked running my finger along the gritty strip on its side.
“Jesus Chris’ woman, there’s no bleedin’ matches. I’m going to the pub.”
The glass shuddered in the front door as he slammed it shut behind him. If only he’d go down the pub and not come back, like mum’s last two boyfriends. I’d never been there, but I liked the pub.
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The Pig slammed the door again when he came back. It was half past three in the morning; I saw it on the luminous dial of my clock.
“Andy? Where have you been all night?”
I heard Mum go out from her bedroom into the hall. The crack of her skull against the wall bounced off every corner of the flat.
My blankets didn’t shut it out; nor my pillow. I felt something warm run down my leg. I bit my fist. On and on it went. Old Mrs Kemp in the flat next door banged on the wall, hollered: “I’ll call ‘em. I’ll call the police.”
“Go on, ya old crow, I’ll come round and batter you next,” he screamed back, smashing his fists into the wall.
Make it stop, make it stop, make it stop, please. I pushed my hand under the mattress, found the little box.
“Evil mare, this one. Burnt all her family dead. Watch her, make sure she ain’t got no matches.”
The social worker shoved me through the doorway of the children’s home. In the dark hallway a tall woman, her bones pushing through her skin, poked at me.
“How old are you?”
“What’s that? Speak up, don’t snivel.”
“Is that all you’ve got?”
She nodded to my duffel bag.
“Upstairs, far end of the corridor, second door on the right. You can have the bed under the window. Go on now, hurry up.”
I went up the stairs, along the corridor; past eyes glinting from slit open doorways.
“Fire-starter, twisted fire-starter,” a voice screeched after me.
Yelps and howls, tore through the home. I ran to the second door at the end, my knees shaking, cheeks wet. I opened the door, looked in, no one was there. I didn’t register the colour of the walls or anything about the room. I just leapt at the bed, pulled back the blanket and still with my shoes on, got in with my bag and tugged the blanket tight back over my head. Make it stop. Gulls screamed at the window.
All winter, through a crack in the hoarding, I watched the men in their high-viz jackets. The only colour in this grey, liquid town.
Week by week the spaghetti lines and curves of the scenic railway took shape. I stuck my tongue out; sure I could taste the candyfloss on the wind. In my dreams the toothpaste striped helter-skelter swirled.
Back at the children’s home I found a book of old photos of the amusements and rides taken before the fire. I kept it under my mattress; no one missed it. When the others were out in the yard, licking squares of meow meow, I pulled it out. I sat on my bed, the book propped open on my knees. My fingers turned the pages slowly, tracing round the black and white images. I reached the last page, it scorched into colour. I couldn’t touch the paper, slammed shut the book, extinguishing the burning frames and struts. I shoved the book back under the mattress.
In the spring I measured my height. I had been at the home nearly a year. They still called me Twisted, I got used to it. We didn’t have real names in here, Gingerminger, Skank, Troll. The staff just called us ‘you’ or gave us a slap to get our attention. The bony one, she was in charge, she pinched or kicked. I called them Pinch and the Slappers.
No one came to visit, not my old school friends. I called Tina once, she told me she wasn’t allowed to talk to me and cut me off. Nor Granny, she probably didn’t know where I lived now and Margate was the end of the world.
But no one visited anyone at the home; only the Social and the men with tabs in their pockets. They smelt bad and liked the girls with gloss on their lips.
The men rubbed their fingers on the back of the necks of the girls and said they were taking them down the pub. They didn’t come back. I asked Pinch once if I could go and see the girls at the pub. Pinch swore and flicked her hand across my mouth,
“Shut yer trap and keep it shut.”
My lip bled. Later that night, I looked at the measuring tape, praying for another inch. Another inch would mean I was big enough to go on the fly-away swings when Dreamland opened its gates once more, next month.
The Ferris wheel winked in the moonlight. At night, when the darkness and stars stretched and warped my line of sight, I could almost reach the wheel if I stretched my arm out far enough through the rusting window grille.
We were all counting down to the grand opening. There wasn’t a kid in the home who didn’t want to go there, even the cool ones, smacked up in the yard. We had to be careful. We came up with the idea of a rota for every night of the first week when Dreamland would be open. We couldn’t all sneak out at the same time or Pinch and the Slappers would notice, even though we planned to stuff our beds with clothes to look like bodies asleep. Twos and threes, no more. Everyone wanted to get the first night.
After tea, one by one, we slipped out into the yard. Skank leant against the yard wall, as I
approached she stuck out her fist. She had blue spiky hair and a leather jacket. I reckon she’d nicked it, the Social didn’t give us clothes like that. In between her knuckles were the lots. I drew one.
“Should have known. It had to be you didn’t it, Twisted?”
She spat. I had got it, the first night.
“Well aren’t you the lucky one,” she laughed. I didn’t like her laugh, she sounded like the old fox that nosed around the bins at night, coughing.
“How old are you now Twisted?”
“Ha! Take this then.”
She handed me a stick of pink lip-gloss.
“I’ll meet you by the burger van at Dreamland at ten. Don’t be late and put that on.”
“We’re going down the pub.”
She spat again, went back into the home; I could hear her laugh. I held the lip-gloss between my fingers, along with the match; my lot.
All week I waited, watching the gulls through the window grille, as they soared over the Ferris Wheel, beyond the fly-away swings. If only I could swing up there, then I could fly with the gulls into the clouds. Maybe Mum was up there, she always said the clouds were our night-time dreams, escaped through the window when we woke up.
At last the grand opening, I crept down the stairs. Skank and Pinch were sprawled on the settee in the TV room, cans in their hands. Out into the yard, the gate was open just a crack.
I ran along the seafront, past the brick tower that looked more like a block of flats than the entrance to an amusement park. Down the hill and under the yellow neon arrow, slipping through the queues. I darted around the roller disco and ran straight to the swings. The man pushed me up against the chart, shook his head. No, I was so sure.
“Under, by an inch, titch.”
On my tiptoes.
A smile, a drag on his cigarette.
“Ah, go on then.”
Up, up, sailing out over the fair. Higher, higher. A flicker down far below, beyond the walls of Dreamland, along the street, across the yard, into the dark hallway, along the corridor, second door from the end, a curl of smoke through the window grille. Slipping free.
A clip of white, an inch of wing. I see the gulls, the clouds.
Tell us a bit about you
I recently moved to Ashford, after living for the past 10 years in Sevenoaks. I have always loved Kent, because as a child my family took our holidays here, staying in a caravan on a farm in Painter’s Forstal. Some of my fondest memories are of sitting with my brother in the back of our Dad’s Triumph Dolomite Sprint.
We sat outside the Alma pub, drinking fizzy pop from bottles and covering our crisps with salt from the little blue packets you had to dig about the bag to find. We’d make up ghost stories while we waited for our parents.
I studied for my BA in Literature at the University of Kent, Canterbury and work for community health services in Kent. I would love to write full-time, but for now I write whenever I can, at weekends, on holidays and a lot on trains as I commute.
When did you first start writing?
I can’t really remember when I wasn’t writing. Creative writing was my favourite subject at school. However, a few years ago I went to work in the Middle East and had an extraordinary experience there, sometimes bewildering, sometimes magical and other times deeply troubling.
The working day in the Middle East ends at lunchtime, so in the afternoons I started to write. At first, long letters for friends and family back home telling of the strange events and encounters in the desert; then in time, a story started to emerge. I kept writing it once I came back, and shared chapters with friends, who encouraged me to seek publication.
I started to attend workshops and literary festivals to learn more about the business and at the West Cork Literary Festival met Richard Skinner, Director of the Faber Academy. He has become like a mentor to me and I subsequently took his novel-writing course in 2015. This course helped me to finish my novel, called Electric Souk, but also really energised me to start writing short stories, flash fiction and poetry. I have a blog about my novel, http://rosemcginty.wordpress.com
Have you had any of your work published before?
I have been runner up in March 2015 and now winner in January 2016 in the weekly flash fiction competition at the Faber Academy. The winning entries are featured on the Faber Academy website. I have just started entering competitions, so winning the Kent Life competition is a tremendous boost and start to my short story writing. I hope to build a collection of short stories and poetry through entering competitions.
Do you belong to a writers’ group?
After our course finished last year, my class at Faber has continued to meet as a writer’s group, called the Faber Falcons, as we meet in a building called Falconpoint. We meet once a month and sometimes for readings and other social events. The group is the most special group of people I’ve ever met. After years of writing alone and constantly being told to have a thicker skin, I feel I am with my tribe. We all have very thin skin, but you need this to be a writer, and the group cherishes this and also has an almost intuitive sensitivity to when each of us needs some inspiration, encouragement or just a glass of wine (there’s been quite a lot of wine!). The group gave me excellent comments on my Dreamland story to help me craft it, and pushed me to submit.
We don’t have a website (yet). I am also a supporter and have read at Vanguard Readings (Vanguardreadings on Facebook), a literary salon led by Richard Skinner in Camberwell, which is also associated with the Margate Bookie, a new literary festival (20 and 21 August 2016).
Who is your favourite author?
I love the Irish writer Jennifer Johnston, whom Roddy Doyle considers Ireland’s greatest writer. I’m Irish on my mother’s side and I’ve lived, studied and worked in Ireland, gaining my Master of
Philosophy degree at Trinity College, Dublin. Jennifer exposes the untold and brutal truths of relationships in tight domestic worlds, yet always set against and revealing the equally brutal realties of Irish culture and history.
If you haven’t read her before, I recommend Shadows on Our Skin. I have seen her talk twice and her advice on sitting still and letting a character appear in the corner of a room has really helped me.
This happened with my novel when one day a new, undreamed of character walked up to me in the garden and demanded to be in my novel. He turned out to be a really major character. You always have to have an eye out for corners where characters hide.
What attracted you to enter the Kent Life competition?
I entered because it made me write Dreamland. The idea had been scratching away at me all summer, but hadn’t quite settled into a place or a story. I had been captivated by the coverage of one of Kent’s legendary holiday attractions being re-born after a troubled past, and I knew I wanted to write about that too.
Writers and history have an intriguing relationship. History is always a series of vantage points, which not only look backwards, but also glimpse the future. This makes history ripe for story writers, and it was this angle that drew me to the Kent Life competition. I could be inspired by a local place or event, which helped me settle my story in local history and take a vantage point that not only looked backwards but also at the here and now.
Writing the story has also allowed me to start testing out ideas, characters and a setting for my second novel, which I am planning at the moment. Being chosen as a winner is such motivation, and the Kent Life competition might just be the catalyst I need for my second novel.
Read the other winning stories here