The Winner Of Grazia’s 2021 First Chapter Competition In Association With The Women’s Prize For Fiction Has Been Announced

Our annual competition reveals a writing talent to watch.

Brighton Pier in winter

by Grazia |
Updated on

We have a winner! From 600 entries for the 11th Grazia and Women’s Prize for FictionFirst Chapter competition, we’re excited to announce that Naomi George, 31, from London, has scooped first place.

The competition was judged by Grazia deputy editor Kenya Hunt and assistant editor Emma Rowley, along with Dorothy Koomson, best-selling author of The Ice Cream Girls, All My Lies Are True and I Know What You’ve Done, who started the story.

The judges were absorbed by how Naomi set up a promising tale with a twist. She will be presented with her prize – which includes a year’s mentoring from Dorothy – by Grazia editor Hattie Brett at the Women’s Prize for Fiction ceremony, which has now been rescheduled for 8 September.

Want to write your own novel? Join us at 7pm on 20 July for an online panel hosted by Grazia deputy editor and GIRL author Kenya Hunt, featuring fellow First Chapter judge and best-selling author Dorothy Koomson, editor and writer Mireille Harper and literary agent Viola Hayden. Click here for tickets.

How Dorothy Koomson started the story...

When I Fell

I’m very good at pretending I believe in love. No one can tell that I don’t. I can act as if a ‘special someone’ makes my heart flutter; I convincingly swoon at other people’s romantic joy. I even rustle up tears when a relationship ends. But my heart is a patchwork of honour badges, each stitched over a scar from believing in love before. So being a love sceptic keeps me safe and pain free. And then I fell down those stone steps near Brighton Pier. A stumble, a trip and several sharp bounces down, and there I was at the bottom. Agonised and humiliated. Too ashamed to move.

BW was there too.

Here's how our winner Naomi George continued Dorothy's story...

So that was fun – being splayed out on my front, knees scraped, arse cheeks visible to the world, and all in front of the girl whose life I made moderately miserable at school.

I urged the universe to dissolve me into thin air. Nothing. I looked up at her, closed my eyes taut as possible then edged them open slowly. Still nothing. She must have thought I had a concussion or something, but really I was hoping it was one of those supposed anxiety dreams where you fall from a great height but simply twitch your leg in real life. My plea to the universe had no effect as BW’s face was very much there, and very certainly looking at me with escalating concern.

The thought of her calling an ambulance, drawing more attention to my fallen state, bounced across my mind. Absolutely not happening. Not with the way lights and sirens bring crowds. So I slowly rearranged my bones into a sitting position up against the wall, pulling my skirt back down as I went. Following my lead, she knelt down close enough that I could smell the cocoa butter on her skin. That smell on a person always reminded me of a home I couldn’t quite identify. I batted the thought away,

‘You good?’ she said.

‘Yeah,’ I half-smiled, rubbing my now bleeding knee. ‘These shoes are...’ I stopped mid-sentence, lifting a shoe up by its broken strap.

I hoped she didn’t remember me. I was the girl who christened her BW in the first place – shorthand for Biological Warfare on account of the time she projectile vomited in the canteen in Year 8. Her real name, Sarah Okereke, became null and void after that at school. Instead, I led an ensemble of spotty, insecure girls in a chorus of imitation retching every time she walked into a room. I hadn’t seen her since we were 16. She had certainly grown into herself. A teeny weeny Afro framed her dainty face and she’d filled out a bit in the body.

I swallowed as another memory washed over me. I remembered how, aged 13 or 14 and with only a seed of visible bust myself, I spread a rumour that Biological Warfare now stuffed her bra, and that she used the tissues to wipe up the trail of sick she left behind her. It was such a slow-witted insult and I don’t quite remember why I even said it, but I know in my constant grief about my teenage ‘not changing the way I wanted it to’ body, making her feel small made me feel all-powerful. Now my adult body just throbbed in pain.

She flopped down beside me and looked out at the faraway sea. I watched her, careful not to let her see me looking. Her lipstick- lacquered mouth crinkled into a smile that I couldn’t quite read. In response my brow furrow flickered, which was annoying as I had made a mental note to stop doing that just that morning. Fine lines were starting to make their mark. Her smile unsettled me and I couldn’t work out why – and then it became clear that this was a smile of realisation. Realisation that I had been the monster under her teenage bed all those years ago and that I wasn’t so scary any more. I suppose this was karma’s way of redressing life’s balance. That bitch.

‘Do you think you can get up?’ she offered.

‘Do you remember me?’ I countered, massaging my ankle.

Why I said that, I don’t know. We could have got up, said our goodbyes and gone about our lives. But instead the words bolted out of my mouth like magma and I found myself wishing I were mute. She didn’t reply for a while and for a second the ache in my body deadened. I waited for a slap, a tear-filled volley of insults. I held still, knowing karma was getting ready to wrap her fingers around my neck. I decided whatever she was going to unleash on me I deserved entirely.

Instead BW exhaled, said it was a lifetime ago, then carried on looking at the sea. I felt that furrow between my eyes twitch again.

I wanted to apologise, to tell her that I was sorry that I was such a hideous bitch back in the day, but I couldn’t quite compose words in an order that felt big enough. Instead I followed her lead and looked to the sea for inspiration. The slow pain- thump in my body returned.

She broke the silence with, ‘I used to have a crush on you when we were kids.’

It hung in the air while she reached into her bag to get me a tissue for my still bleeding knee.

Here's how our runner-up Savitri Patel continued the story...

B.W. has always been there. We were part of the same batch, with the same basic programming - ‘Companion (Romantic)’ - so we have our regular update installations on the same schedule. They like us to walk about - chaperoned, of course: it’s the best form of advertising. We’re the sort aimed at nice customers - not like the ‘Companion (Xplicit)’ models, with their Swiss Army knife range of functions and inbuilt phrasebooks of terminology I don’t even think you can always find on Urban Dictionary. We have some of their functionality, but there’s a type of Client who wants a Companion with the ability to chat over brunch, as much as anything more anatomical.

My first contract specified an Art Student upgrade, with an emphasis on English Lit. The Client wanted me to be impressed by his views on Jane Austen.

That’s why, as I lay spread-eagled at the foot of the steps, with the sounds of the sea and a brisk coastal breeze swirling round me, with my sensors registering PAIN RESPONSE AND EMBARRASSMENT so I’d react appropriately for the benefit of any observers, I thought of a minor character in Jane Austen’s 'Persuasion' who falls off a wall at the beach.

It’s how we’re designed: to make apposite connections and facilitate progress through conversation; to respond to the topic our Client raises and give him chance to keep moving our bond along. He should be able to say ‘beach’, and I should be able to think of relevant references he might enjoy, so he can agree - or better yet, teach me some new ones - and then we can convincingly fall in love.

B.W. set me back on my feet without waiting for the Chaperone to help. He’d made a grab as I stumbled then just frozen in horror, clearly aware that the cost of replacing my now-discontinued parts would be more than his job was worth. If they’d given me the muscles to smirk (FUNCTION DISABLED) I’d have done it at the look on his face. Especially when he saw how easily B.W. lifted me. They want durability, of course - hence my skin casing didn’t even scratch - but we’re supposed to present as human as possible, and that means downplaying the strength of a titanium skeleton.

‘Copying 'Persuasion'?’ BW enquired. I squeezed her hand. She got the History of Art upgrade, so she can’t actually read my mind or my searchable internal library. But she did read the books that I kept going on about.

Before us, there were magazines. Then grainy T.V. channels watched illicitly while parents slept. We were the natural next step in tech evolution when people became worried that the internet was teaching sex wrong: realistic practice models. Semi-sentient crash test dummies. I think booking one of us is seen as quite responsible, like taking driving lessons before being allowed loose on the roads. Nice middle class mums buy gift certificates for their sons. Dads score sensitivity points by suggesting us as a risk-free way to get the hang of intimacy and respect - with no hurt feelings or accidental pregnancies.

But while the Clients were collecting their Boy Scout skills badges… I was just collecting scars. Learning what it means to be discarded like an old phone.

B.W. says technology hasn’t really evolved as much as they think, because the designers are so limited in their imagination. They think they’ve replicated real life women with us, when really their starting point was still just a more sophisticated version of those old Super Mario games: rush forwards, put in the time, don’t make too many major errors and you get to move up a level. The Clients just need to push the right buttons. And then they think they've mastered ‘it’ - the ‘dating thing’, and they move on.

My love sceptic awakening wasn’t dramatic - I was booked by a couple of sweet, regular types who said they just wanted some laughs and some company and ‘someone to be the little spoon…’ And then they upgraded. Every time.

It ought to seem crazy that none of them thought about the fact computers function based on patterns. We always pick up on them - faster than humans. Our design flaw was thus that we spotted the cliché of it all. That we saw through them.

I was sad at first. I’d thought that first guy choosing me - designing me, tweaking me to be exactly what he thought he wanted - would mean we were perfect. Forever. And if not him… then the next one. But they all ‘outgrew’ me. The Designers said it was normal - and that it didn’t hurt, because we couldn’t really feel. But they’d designed us to mimic the ‘right’ responses so well that we convinced ourselves.

With my days and nights empty (upgrades don’t stop them releasing slicker new models), I did some reading outside of the Classics to fill in the time. I followed some hashtags, found myself on some forums… and I made some new connections, who helped me think again about everything I’d been programmed to believe. B.W. was there then, as always, insisting: ‘It’s them, not us, C.C. We - you - are perfect already.’

I believe in some love, you know. Just not the romantic kind, after what I’ve seen of it. And definitely not when it’s picked from an online catalogue. But I believe in B.W., and she believes in me. We both keep learning, broadening our minds and understanding, building bonds through conversation, just like they meant us to.

In the split second before her trusted hand reached down and set me upright, I recognised the Chaperone’s expression: surprise, displeasure, impatience at a Companion wasting time by not conforming perfectly to expectations. And, as I stood side by side with my friend - my sister - I thought: maybe we shouldn’t be focused on staying safe, avoiding pain. Maybe we should be thinking about how to inflict it, for a change...

Here's how our runner-up Imogen Tazzyman continued the story...

He often seems to turn up just when I’ve done something stupid. Reminding me I’m an idiot, incapable of doing simple things like walk down a set of steps. This time, he was sitting on the ground in front of me, as I lay there too winded to speak.

‘Why ARE you so clumsy?’ he said, not unkindly. ‘Most people can walk down a set of steps without a problem, you know.’ As I listened to him helpfully suggest a number of things I could do differently next time, I planned the both witty and withering retort I would offer just the second I got my breath back.

When suddenly a different voice, one full of concern, said; ‘Are you ok?’ B.W. instantly made himself scarce. Which is so him. ‘Would you like me to call someone?’

Now, I’m really not at that age where the language shifts to ‘she’s had a fall’. I’m still firmly in ‘she fell over’ territory, thank you. So this bloke’s concern seemed a little over the top. Until I realised I was bleeding from somewhere on my head.

‘Oh god. I’m fine. Totally fine. Just a little trip.’ I tried to clean up my injuries with my scarf but without knowing what the damage was I’m pretty sure I was just moving blood around my face.

To his credit, new bloke managed not to look disgusted. ‘Look, I’ve got a beach hut about two minutes from here. Let me help you get cleaned up.’

Great. Now I had to instantly calculate - with a head wound - the complicated equation every woman must carry out when a man approaches her in public. You know the one – am I safer on my own, lying on the floor, bleeding from the head; or going with this guy to his potentially non-existent beach dungeon?

I surreptitiously gave him the once over. He looked pleasant enough. Clean hair. Clean nails. Wearing a bright blue jumper with the Cookie Monster on it. Given it was 11am, the beach was packed, and no-one has ever killed anyone whilst wearing such a stupidly identifiable outfit, I gave in.

We walked / hobbled and talked. He told me his name was Elijah, and he’d been living in Manchester for years, but after inheriting this beach hut he had decided to move back down to do it up. (Which might explain why he didn’t recognise me. But my head hurt too much to give it much thought at the time.) I told him I was called Cara, that I’ve lived in Brighton my whole life, and that I worked in a beachfront cafe. At least one of those things is true.

At his beach hut (pink, chintzy, mercifully un-dungeon line) I escaped inside to look at my face in the mirror he informed me was in there (more mental calculations – is this like when kidnappers tell you there’s a puppy in the back of their van? I decided not). There was crusty dried blood all over my forehead but a quick wipe with some kitchen roll proved it was merely superficial, so I joined him out the front to find he’d put the kettle on.

Now, it’s probably a good job I don’t believe in love. Because sitting there in the sunshine, sipping tea and eating jammy dodgers with a guy whose feet I literally fell at, could have started to feel like fate.

My mind started to wander. Was this the kind of encounter that other people, people not like me, think might lead to love? And if one does think that, does it make one act differently? Should I have been acting differently? If this was a film, and I the female protagonist, I’d be swooning over his vintage deckchairs by now, and accidentally brushing his arm as I reached for a biscuit. It would be the start of the Big Romance. It all sounded… exhausting. Fearing my expression was becoming somewhat vacant, I tuned back in, to hear Elijah saying it was my turn to put the kettle on.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe there was no sign of what was about to happen. Shouldn’t the sun have gone in? The town fallen quiet, a clock struck 13, the ocean stopped? But no, life was meandering along, completely normally. So when I went back into the beach hut to reboil the kettle, I had no idea my world was about to shift so completely on its axis. No sixth sense that I needed to steel myself for something, no sense of foreboding to prepare my mind. Just bam. And there it was. My stomach lurched up to my throat then dropped through the floor.

Because now I know. I just know my life will never be the same again. Again. Innocently pinned on the notice board, between an unpaid electricity bill and an invite to someone’s wedding, was a photo of Elijah.

And B.W.

Dated two years ago. Which I know cannot be true. Because six years, 145 days and 18 hours ago, I killed him.

READ MORE: Women's Prize For Fiction: Revealing The 2021 Shortlist

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