The Mark has been partnering with the London Independent Story Prize to showcase the winners of their short story competition. You can read the winner's stories below! Follow this link to read the rest of the finalists!
The Tale of a Tail by Aarni Tuomi
Anrat woke up startled. He’d been working late, nodding off on the office couch. Last night’s party had really taken a toll. It had been Marcus’ birthday, and he’d made everyone stay up until 4 am. Forced, more like, that fucker. It was like he was going through some existential crisis, suddenly woken to the mortality of it all. Anrat had felt the same, of course, a few years back. But he’d learned what Marcus would have to learn, too: that there wasn’t a magic restart button. You just had to make do. Accept it, and move on.
It was still pitch black outside. Oddly quiet for a Friday. Usually, the izakayas downstairs drew in all sorts of folk, but now there were only a few stragglers, flocking around the dim light of Hiyoshi station. The last train must’ve just gone. The only reasonable thing left to do was to line up with the rest of the salarymen and get comfortable.
Anrat got up to wash his face. God, he looked tired. That dream had really done a number on him. He’d had a tail. A smooth, round thing, about an inch wide and three feet long. A soft extension of his tailbone, wrapped around his waist as it had always been there.
He felt a shiver run through his body and instinctively reached down to his waist. Nothing, of course, just the rim of his trousers. Soft fabric cool to touch. He felt relief, but something else, too. Disappointment?
The dream had seemed familiar, but somehow off. Marcus had been there, too, a short, wispy tail wiggling between his legs. He’d been smiling, caressing a baby. Curious eyes peeking from beneath the covers, giggling as Marcus pulled a face.
A face covered in thick, amber hair.
Sixteen by Kate Wickers
Agneza traces her finger in and out of the sixteen bullet holes that lie in a perfect diagonal across the stone masonry from the window to her front door. She was just a baby in 1991, three days from her first birthday, when out of the blue after her parents had been told the raid was over, the 16th bullet had shot through the stone and into her Mother’s head, where she stood trying to rock Agneza to sleep. She was the 16th civilian casualty on the 16th of November. Today is Agneza’s 16th birthday. The day she believes she will die.
Her father is giving instructions to Kruno, the local handy-man. “You’ll have to dig deep to get to the roots,” he says. “But get rid of it all.”
“Ah but Tata, I like it,” says Agneza, rubbing the variegated leaf between her thumb and finger. “How can you call your house Ivy Cottage if it goes?”
“Girls eh? Always romance over what is practical,” he says to Kruno, who has four daughters of his own. “It’s causing damp in the walls. It has to go.”
Agneza sighs, “Okay, Tata. Whatever you say.” It’s not really of any consequence to her, whether it stays or goes. She won’t be here to see it.
“Nearly time to leave you forever, Baka,” Agneza says, peering around her Grandmother’s kitchen door and breathing in the smell of the lavender that hangs to dry above the wood burner. “But promise me you won’t be sad.”
“Do we have time to roast the lamb for your birthday before you go?” her Grandma asks, waddling over to kiss her on each cheek.
“Can we do it outside on the spit? It’s still warm for November.”
“For your last supper, we can do anything you like.”
“And are you making me a cake?”
“Of course! With sixteen candles!”
Agneza wraps her arms around this small woman with a back bent from too many years of sweeping the mortar dust that she still imagines is there.
“I don’t want to die a virgin,” she whispers to Dajana, during their lunch break at school.
“Then let him do it for goodness sake. He’s been at you for months. Let him walk you home through the woods today.”
“Then Ivo will think it’s his birthday.”
The girls giggle and nibble at the cherry torte Dajana’s mother packed them as a treat for Agneza’s birthday.
Dajana sighs, “Your life is like a book. So romantic.”
Agneza reaches into her bag and pulls out her diary. “I want you to have this. I expect they’ll want to write about me once I’ve gone, so look after it. You are the guardian of my innermost secrets but don’t read it until I’m dead. Promise?”
Dajana nods, “But there’s something I want to ask you. How do you think you will die?”
“I’m not sure,” says Agneza, putting down her cherry torte. “Like a princess in a fairytale. I’ll just go to sleep and won’t wake up.”
Dajana is quiet and Agneza is sorry that the conversation has turned this way and the festive birthday atmosphere is over.
“But I could, for example, just choke on a cherry stone,” she says grinning, picking up her torte again.
“My mother would never forgive herself. Better you don’t finish that slice.”
Ivo glances nervously at Agneza and then over his shoulder once more. Agneza wants to laugh. She can see he’s excited but tries not to stare.
“Relax,” she tells him. “No one will see us.” She hadn’t expected to be the one in control.
“You’re sure about this?”
“You will be my first and my last.”
“My mother says you’re a drama queen.”
“Your mother washes fish in the market. What does she know?”
“But what if you get pregnant? If you’d given me some warning, I would have got something.”
“You forget! I won’t be here.”
“Come on Agneza, you don’t really think you’re going to die?”
“I don’t know but I hope it’s ecstasy,” she says, pulling him towards her.
Walking home she doesn’t feel as different as she hoped she might, just a little stickier than usual. Ivo had tried to make it special. He’d sucked a mint before he’d kissed her and put his jacket on the floor. He murmured that he loved her too, like an actor in a bad film. What they don’t show in the films are the stains that are left behind. There’s one on her school dress, dried to a crust, that she must wash off before anyone sees. She covers it with her bag. It’s five o’clock and the sun is low, enflaming the terracotta roof tiles on the cottages below, as she winds down the cobbled streets polished by centuries of footfall, past the late brown-tinged dying blooms of oleander, to her cottage by the quay. Suddenly she feels tired of it all and wants the day that she’s anticipated for years to be over. She better had die in her sleep because how else would it happen? Nothing exciting ever happens in this boring place. She feels cheated that she can’t remember the scenes of despair that others speak of in the days after two thousand bombs blew the city apart. All she’s known is the beauty that the tourists come to gawk at. They stuck everything back together so well she wonders if her mother was ever really here. It’s only the bullet holes that make it real.
“Agneza! We’re going to be late. I promised Baka fresh rosemary for the lamb.”
She glances at her watch. Only five more hours left of the day and she plans to be in bed by eleven. She fastens the clasp of the necklace her father has given her for her birthday; a silver heart that belonged to her mother.
“I gave this to her on her 16th birthday,” he’d told her this morning and Agneza had tried not to see the tear he’d quickly wiped away, or hear the crack in his strong voice as he chose to ignore the inevitable and told her how bright her future would be.
“Coming Tata! Stop shouting!”
“Am I smart enough for you?” he asks, standing to attention for her to inspect as she runs down the stairs.
“Who will look after you when I’m gone?” she says, picking a bit of imaginary fluff off his shoulder.
“Oh, I’ll muddle by, I expect.”
“I am so glad to hear you will. I’ve been worried.”
“Yes, I’ve seen the lists you’ve left around.”
“Just little reminders of things you mustn’t forget when I’m not here.”
“Agneza, you have always been a dramatic girl. If you have a sniffle it is flu, a headache and there’s a tumor behind your eyes. A storm can never be a storm, always a hurricane.”
“Better to expect the worst.”
Her father wraps her up in the blanket of his warm arms and whispers, “Darling daughter, the worst is over. It can never be as bad again.”
He doesn’t comment as she stops by the door to trace the bullet holes with her finger, counting each one in a whisper, but she knows that this habit irritates him. The house looks naked, almost embarrassed, stripped of the ivy.
“…. fourteen, fifteen, sixteen……”
Her father strides on. “Catch me up,” he calls over his shoulder.
After the war, Tata had wanted to fill in the bullet holes but an official from UNESCO came and told him that they were part of the city’s rich heritage. “We must keep some,” he had said. “No good papering over all of the cracks.”
And then she sees it, for the first time. Another hole. It’s apart from the rest, a meter away at least and out of line with the others. She stoops and sticks her finger in to check. It is exactly the same size as the others. Was it really there, all those years, underneath the ivy? “Seventeen,” she whispers.
She counts again, not quite believing that she has had it wrong all these years. “Oh shit,” she mutters in acceptance when she reaches the seventeenth bullet hole once more. She scrunches her eyes tight as she thinks of sex with Ivo; imagines Dajana reading her diary; and how embarrassing it will be when she does not die.