The London School of Journalism

November Short Story Competition Winners - 'The Journey'
1st - Julie Fox
2nd - Ruby Ingley
3rd - Emily Parker



A Pregnant Pause

By Julie Fox - 1st Place

On hearing the taxi beep outside, I grabbed my bag and paused in front of the hallway mirror to straighten the 'good luck' tie that Carolina had bought me before pulling the front door shut behind me, my mouth minty and shoes shiny. My mobile phone rang just as I got inside the car. Carolina's name was on the screen so I answered it.

'Hi darling, just wanted to wish you luck one more time,' she said.
'Thanks. I feel a bit sick, though.'
'It's just nerves; try not to worry.'
'I know, but I can't help it. You know how much I want this job. I'm fed up of living so far away from you.'
'Me too, honey. But you'll be fine, you're perfect for it; just remember not to sell yourself short.  Oh, and by the way, I've arranged for us to see that flat again on Saturday morning.'
'That's great. Better keep our fingers crossed for this afternoon, then!'
'Definitely. Call me when you're done.'
'Will do, speak to you later. Bye.'
'Love you, bye.'

I put the phone back in my jacket pocket and checked my watch; 10.35, which gave me plenty of time to buy my ticket and a newspaper for the journey. Or so I thought. I arrived at the station a couple of minutes later, but when I got to the top of the elevator and looked towards the long-distance ticket booth I was surprised to see a straggly row of people, some clustered around suitcases, others simply staring blankly ahead. As I got closer, I realised that there was only one cashier on duty, which explained the queue. I tried the ticket machine but it wasn't working so I took my place in the line.

A few minutes later, however, and I was no closer to the booth. Was it just me, or was the ticket guy taking a ridiculously long time? As the minutes sped by, the line gradually shuffled forwards but at this rate, I'd miss my train. Kicking myself for not listening to Carolina and buying the ticket online, I willed the man in the booth to hurry up. It seemed to work; seconds later, he'd despatched the group of backpackers at the front of the queue and there was a scuffle of shoes and a scraping of bags as we moved up to fill the space. My success was short-lived, however, and it soon became clear that no amount of telepathic persuasion was going to change the speed at which he methodically performed his tasks.

Sighing with frustration, I shifted my weight onto my right leg and glanced at my watch for the umpteenth time. Seven minutes before the train was due to leave and there were three sets of would-be passengers ahead of me. I could still make it but only if there were no more hold ups. My jaw was aching and I realised I'd been grinding my teeth, my usual reaction to stress. We edged forwards again as a couple headed off towards the platform with their tickets. Four minutes left. I was starting to panic now.  If I missed this train, there was no way I could get there in time. The next train was one of those poxy regional things that stopped every five minutes and took forever. And even if I had the money for a taxi, it'd take far longer than the train. I thought about asking if I could be served first but the people in front of me looked equally anxious, their suitcases implying that they had a plane to catch.

An indignant shout from by the elevator drew my attention and I watched a young woman with wild, dark, spiral curls striding in my direction, leaving people staring in her wake and muttering. She glared, defiantly, and stood right in front of me. For a moment, I was too stunned to react until I realised what this meant for me. 'Excuse me,' I said, tapping her on the shoulder, 'what are you doing? There's a queue here.'

She turned to face me, shrugged, and with an arrogant, self-righteous air pointed to her belly and said 'I'm pregnant.'

As directed, I looked down to where she had gestured and was confused when I could see no bump. How pregnant was she? I'd always thought that it was only uncomfortably and visibly pregnant women who made use of their priority status. Had I been suffering under a misconception or was she abusing this right? Was she even pregnant, I wondered. If I let her go in front of me, I was certain I'd miss the train. Whose need was greater here, hers or mine? Should I challenge her right to queue jump, or would that be an offence against all mothers-to-be which would bring the wrath of the crowd upon my head? Quite possibly, so I decided to swallow my rage and indignation and think of something else. 

I tapped her on the shoulder again and she turned towards me and said 'Now what?'  
'I'm sorry, but I really need to catch the 11 o'clock to Porto. I've got a job interview at two o'clock and if I miss this train, I won't make it in time. Can I just go in front of you, please?'
'Not my problem. I need to be on this train too, you know.' With that, she turned her back to me and followed the couple in front as the line moved forward again.
I couldn't believe she'd rejected my appeal. What an inconsiderate cow! Now what was I going to do? I looked at my watch again; two minutes to go and just one middle-aged couple and this dreadful woman between me and a ticket. It seemed there was nothing for it but to wait and cling on the the belief that there was still a chance I could make it.

The couple finished their business and hurried off. Rage, hope and despair battled away inside me as my eyes burned a hole in the 'pregnant' woman's back. I hovered impatiently while she completed her transaction. She grabbed her ticket and change and ran off towards the platform, her change still in her hand.  I pushed my cash through the semicircular hole in the glass,

'Return to Porto, please.'
'The next train to Porto is the Regional service, departing at 11.43,' the clerk replied.
'No, that's no good. I need to be on the 11.00, the Intercity.'
'I'm sorry, sir, but there are no more seats available on that train. The next Intercity is at one o'clock.'
'What?! Can't I just stand?'
'That's not permitted, I'm afraid. I can only sell tickets for available seats.'
'And there's nothing, not even in first class?'
'No sir, I've just sold the last seat. Would you like a ticket for a later train?'
'No, no thanks.'

I repocketed my money and walked off, dazed and drained and not quite ready to accept what had happened. Had I really just missed out on the chance of getting the job and with it the life I'd been waiting for because I let a rude woman push in front of me? Was it my fault? Could I have stopped her? I tried consoling myself with the knowledge that I had at least attempted to persuade her to let me go first. It didn't help.

Dejected and fuming, I made my way home, taking the bus this time to save money and because there was no hurry any more. Once home, I called the company to apologise and explain but they were sorry, they couldn't reschedule. I couldn't face telling Carolina just yet so I took off the tie, hung up my suit and grabbed a beer from the fridge. I flopped onto the sofa in my underpants and t-shirt, took a swig from the bottle and switched on the TV. Images of twisted metal and smoke appeared on the screen, emergency services scurried around the tangled mess and a reporter in the foreground was explaining that the Intercity train from Lisbon to Porto had derailed, leaving at least 60 people dead and many more seriously injured.

© Julie Fox. November 2010

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The Journey

By Ruby Ingley - 2nd Place

Chloe sat up slowly but smoothly, rubbing her weary eyes. She felt like she’d been sleeping for an eternity and yet was still tired. Her limbs felt numb from lying down too long yet her body felt younger and more alive than ever. It took a while for her eyes to focus and when they did she was surprised at what she saw. 

She thought back to the night before but the harder she thought the more her head began to hurt. She put her hand to her temple and took in a sharp breath, letting the cool air rush through her system. It felt like something was stopping her from remembering, but she couldn’t understand why. Was she hung-over? Chloe let her mind drift for a moment and the pain began to subside. She breathed out slowly.

She looked about at the place she found herself in. She felt she’d been here before, but that couldn’t be right. She lived in the middle of a large, busy city, with skyscrapers and people in suits who didn’t know the meaning of walking slow. There was nowhere as beautiful as this where she lived.  

She lowered her hand to touch the long soft grass that surrounded her, the source of her comfy sleep. It seemed greener than any grass she’d seen before, almost as if an entirely new kind of green had been created especially for this garden. She couldn’t blame it for making her tired- It seemed inviting even now, but the scene around her was too captivating to ignore. She was awestruck and for the few minutes she spent taking it in, her confusion faded away and she was overcome with peace and a sense of belonging.

The grass beneath her ran out what seemed a long way to the edge of the little field. It was enclosed by gorgeously wild, high hedges which held berries of every imaginable colour. Her stomach gave a longing grumble, but Chloe didn’t listen, her eyes were too busy enjoying the sights.

Further along, down a small sloping hill, she could see a line of petite, fruit bearing trees and through them she saw the sparkling sunlit water of a narrow stream, giving the illusion of diamonds slowly caressing the pebbles that lay beneath. When she was young, Chloe had always thought that the diamonds in the water were the same as the ones she saw at night lighting up the sky. The familiar thought made her smile and she stood up to check if there was anything even further down the field, out of sight, that she could admire. When there wasn’t she sighed in gratitude, knowing that this field was perfect as it was.

She took another long, deep breath in, letting the sweet scent of summer filter through. She thought if everywhere could smell like this, there’d always be something to be happy about. She stood still for a moment, completely content before turning about in a full circle to look for how she might have ended up here. To her surprise there were no gates. No visible gaps in the fences. In fact, there seemed to be no entrance at all, which left to be concluded that there wasn’t an exit either.

Chloe’s renewed confusion showed on her face as the endless questions tumbled through her mind. There were so many that she didn’t know which one to figure out first. She was just about to start yelling for help when a sudden summer breeze hit her, lifting her hair gently from her shoulders and stopping her screams before they left her mouth. She closed her eyes momentarily and let the air surround her.

Those who don’t look will not find.

Chloe let the words fill her ears as the wind settled back down. Had the words been in her head? Chloe couldn’t tell, but she felt as if someone was with her, trying to help. Those who don’t look will not find? The phrase echoed in her mind for a moment and then she heard a rather disturbing creaking noise. She would have covered her ears from the noise, which felt quite out of place in the peaceful garden, but she was glad to hear something other than what was in her own mind (or not in her mind, as the case may be).

She turned quickly and stared hard at where the noise was coming from, her heart racing faster with every breath. She didn’t see anything. Was her mind playing tricks on her again? As she took a few wary steps towards the hedge she began to see a small entranceway. There was a door, hidden completely among the vines and branches, which would be almost invisible to anyone who wasn’t looking for it. Chloe stepped up to it cautiously and placed one hand on it. She searched with the other for a handle, finding her way through the leaves till her hand hit something round. She twisted it and slowly pulled the door towards her, trying to stop it from making the inevitable creaking noise that she knew would follow, and possibly attract some unwanted attention from whatever was inside.

Once the door was opened a little way, she pushed her face up against the gap and peered through. She didn’t know what would be on the other side or why this would help her, but something in her gut told her to do this and at a time like this, her gut was all there was to trust. She hesitated a moment, not wanting to get herself into any trouble that she could avoid.

Take the journey.

The whisper came again in a rush of wind, which knocked her off balance and pushed her gently through the open door. She looked behind her briefly at the garden; it looked unusually peaceful in comparison to her racing heart, and then she shut the door and turned around.

The heat surrounded her immediately, washing over her bare arms and legs, making her feel warm and safe. The light was dim and her eyes took a moment to adjust. She could hear voices inside which sounded happy and relaxed, setting the atmosphere perfectly and inviting her to take a closer look. She quickly realised that whatever was about to meet her eyes wouldn’t be a bad scene.

She took a few steps into what she now noticed must be an inn. Maybe there’d be someone here who could answer her questions. She peered around a wall that blocked her from the main room. No one had seen her yet and she took the opportunity to look around before she was interrupted. The room was magnificently simple with its high ceilings stretching up into lofty wooden beams where Chloe could see patches of the thatched roof poking through. The walls were a rough dark brown and all the furniture matched. A variety of trinkets were hanging around the room, some on little shelves, some dangling from the ceiling on bits of string, some sitting neatly on the bar. They gave Chloe the feeling that she wasn’t in the 21st century anymore.

She gazed over the people that were spread across the room. They were all dressed in fantastical clothing, making them look like something from Shakespeare’s ‘Midsummer Night’s dream’. Chloe loved Shakespeare and a smile appeared on her face, making her feel instantly more relaxed.

Suddenly a girl looked up from by the wooden bar which stretched across one side of the room. She had dirty blonde hair that started out curly at the top but straightened out as it fell past her shoulders and midway down her back. She was wearing a green short flowing dress and had a ring of vines around her head with a small droplet-shaped diamond hanging in the middle of her forehead. She reminded Chloe of a real-life Tinkerbelle. Her face was young and her eyes kind, so much so that when her gaze fell upon Chloe she felt immediately welcomed.

“Chance!” the girl yelled, in a voice far bigger than Chloe thought could belong to a person with such a tiny frame. “She’s here!”

She hopped down from her bar stool which wobbled furiously under the sudden freedom. Chloe had no choice but to come out from behind the wall, beginning to cringe a little as more heads turned her way. The girl skipped over to her, holding out her hand to shake. Chloe took it gingerly and was surprised at how strong her grip was. She noticed matching vines wrapped intricately up her right arm with shining yellow gems woven in, making it seem as if the mighty sun itself was shining out from her body.

“I’m Fayette,” she said, rolling her eyes in mock annoyance at her own name. “Call me Faye...please,” she pleaded.

Chloe smiled and was about to introduce herself in return when she heard a loud bellowing voice coming from somewhere in the back of the inn.

“Faye? I hope you’re not scaring her. You know how overwhelming this can be,” said the voice as it grew nearer. A smiling man came round the corner. He was big in both weight and height and contrasted Fay perfectly. He was wearing brown trousers and a red and white striped top which made him look a little like a circus ring leader. His hair was a messy brown and he had a small stubbly beard and moustache which framed a wide, toothy grin. He held out his hand to shake Chloe’s and she noticed a bracelet on his wrist made from the same vines that rested in Faye’s hair, mixed with the same yellow shine.

“Welcome, Chloe. I hope you found your way in alright? Some people take forever,” he let out a hearty chuckle from somewhere deep in his stomach, like he’d just remembered something funny, “Let’s go through to the back and I can tell you all you need to know,” he said and plodded his way back to where he’d appeared from at a rapid speed for someone his size.

Fay was the only one who noticed the confused expression on Chloe’s face. She giggled and nudged Chloe teasingly with her elbow, “We’re told everybody’s name before they arrive. That's how we know yours. Makes them feel more at home,” she whispered, as if letting Chloe in on a huge secret, and walked away after Chance through to the back and out of sight.

Chloe stood still for a minute, unsure of what just happened. She took another glance at the door she’d come through, thought seriously about leaving, and then quietly followed the others. “Take the journey,” she said to herself as she went.

© Ruby Ingley. November 2010

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The Journey

By Emily Parker - 3rd Place

         I suppose there is never a good time to die.
Although I do believe there are inconvenient times for one to pass away and I would most definitely classify dieing on board a train, an inconvenient time for one to die.

Having said that, I could think of a more inappropriate time to kick the bucket. 

So yes, I am dead. And it is some comfort that I did not die a boring death.
         You see my departure from this world took place on a grey and wet September morning, back a few years ago now. I was boarding the train from waterloo. Can’t quite remember where I was heading too, but that’s pretty irrelevant now considering I never arrived there anyway. Well not alive.
       
        Back then when I was alive my name was Charles. Charles Clay.
Known fondly and perhaps not so fondly as Charlie.
I was seventy-six years of age the day I died. Not that you’d of known, I took age in my strife and so remained rather youthful. Both in mentality and appearance.
      I was a wealthy man.
Wealth in the monetary fashion of course.
However any other kind of wealth to which one should obtain in life was debateable in my case. Yes, I was a married man. Married to my wife Ethel for forty years, which was approximately thirty-nine years excessive. Yes, I had children, three. Two boys and a girl. Adults now.  I even had grandchildren. Several of them.
 But a large family does not mean a particularly content one.
          I had the mansions, fast cars, shiny boats, expensive clothes and the outdoor pools. I had everything. Everything money could buy.
    I travelled the world, several times. And then several times again. I wined and dined and danced and laughed in all the greatest places this earth had to offer.
And yet still something was missing.
     Thus as spiritual wealth goes I was a poor man.
Not that I expect you to feel sorry for me. I don’t even feel sorry for myself.
I was a hideous creature in life, as your about to find out.   
      As my journey commenced that damp morning, I decided to dedicate my attention to the window. Surveying the scenery outside, I gazed vacantly at the never ending fields of green that lay before me which provided residency to the sheep and their lambs.
    I listened to the stable pace of the train huffing fiercely down the tracks. Although an intense noise, I felt it a slight comfort. It told me we were going somewhere.
         
      Then I heard another noise.  A familiar nose that led me to believe I was hungry. So took out the ham and cheese sandwich I had packed in my bag beside me. I had always had an admiration for a good ham and cheese sandwich.
Thick white bread. Minus the crusts
I took a bite.
Delightful.   
Then once again turned my attention back to the window whilst mindlessly chewing.
       
     The train steadily came to a halt. Relieving the noise and its frequent beat and releasing a sigh of steam from the engine. Out the window, the platform was filled people. Pushing. Pushing into one another. All with somewhere to go. All wanting to be on time. All of them wanting to get out of the rain.

      What happened next was something I could not have expected.

       “Hello Charlie.”
I jumped.
“It’s me dear,” said the hushed voice.
“Ethel?” I squinting my eyes to see the figure that was stood to the left of me.

This was a curious situation.

She stood dressed entirely in black. A long black wax jacket and a hat that seemed to hide her face. She was wet from being stood in the rain and yet still did not remove any of her wet clothes.
     
       “Ethel darling, what are you doing here?” I asked.
She sat at the end of the seat that was opposite me and then shuffled her way down till she was directly facing me. “Ethel? What are you doing here? And why don’t you take off your hat. It’s wet.”
 
She paused for moments, just staring at me and then replied, “I know Charlie.”

“Know what dear?” I said naively.

“Charlie, I know.” She said again in the same mellow tone.

“Know what Darling?!” I asked forcefully, beginning to lose my patience.
    I have no idea as to why I call my wife darling. Darling is a term of endearment and I am afraid I lack endearment for me wife. Not through any fault of hers but more of mine.

         “Charlie, I know about you. You and Mrs Appleby.”

“Mrs Appleby dear?” I said trying to sound innocent, although innocence was never something I did well.

“I know about your affair. With Mrs Appleby.” She replied, still remaining totally mellow as if in some sort of calming trance. Although if I looked into her eyes I could that inside of her an avalanche of emotion was taking place.
       To be fair, I wouldn’t really call Mrs Appleby and I ‘an affair’. More of a ‘fling’.
Mrs Appleby is married to the baker in the town. They do the most wonderful iced buns. We got together back in the summer of that year, Mrs Appleby and I. Once, maybe twice.
      
     I looked into Ethel’s eyes. After forty years she knew me so well that she hardly knew me at all. And I wondered what I should reply to her inquisition. She would know if I were lying. And a train from waterloo did not strike me as the place for pretence and theatricals. And after forty years I think we had both overcome the charade of our life together. Although I knew that deep down Ethel did really love me. She had given up hope.
So, I felt I was doing her a good turn by telling her the truth.
I shrugged, “What can I say … I’m a sucker for a lemon tart.”
It was a cruel thing to say, I know. And by the tears that began to roll down Ethel’s cheeks I could see that inside she had began to crumble.
        This was not the first time I had done this to her. We had this conversation many a time before in the past. Except perhaps a little more heated. But now, towards the end there was no need for uproar as Ethel had become a custom to my spiteful ways.

But this time was different. She had finally had enough.

     “Charlie Clay,” she whimpered; “I have devoted my life to you. Looked after you. I’ve done my best to make you happy. “She wiped the tears away from her face and looked down at the wet residue on her fingers.
In her hushed voice she continued, “I mothered your children, looked after them. I gave you all my time. I sacrificed for you. I forgave you. I loved you. And I wasted my time.”
    
She had never said this to me before. Never.

Despicably, even at the age of seventy-six I had not learnt to convey the word sorry.

So I took another bite of my sandwich.

And this is when it happened. That’s when I died.

     Ethel, with tears in her eyes dug her hand deep into her pocket. Her face had turned white as a ghost and her eyes widened, fixated on me. I could see her shaking all over, her lips trembling as she gasped for air, surprising even herself by her actions. She lifted her hand from her pocket, withdrawing a small gun. She lifted the gun every so slightly, pointing it directly at me but never taking her eyes from me. She shook even more at this point and still continued struggling to breath. She was terrified; more so than even I. Tears began to roll down her cheeks and all I could was stare.
 This is what I had done. This is what I had reduced her too. Poor innocent Ethel.
Although I doubt she would ever have pulled the trigger, even had she the chance.

       You see this was not how I died.

Yes my wife had planned to kill me.
But she didn’t. She didn’t get the chance. In fact she even ran to my aid.  
You see I was so shocked, so flabbergasted to see my wife pull the gun from her pocket, and at the moment she did I had a large clomp of cheese and ham sandwich in my mouth.
 
I choked. I choked on a ham and cheese sandwich.
That’s how I died. 
I told you it wasn’t a boring death.

© Emily Parker. November 2010

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