We have a winner! From 600-plus entries for the 12th Grazia and Women’s Prize for FictionFirst Chapter competition, we’re excited to announce that Carmel Boyhan Irvine, from Plymouth, has scooped first place.
The competition was judged by Grazia’s deputy editor Emma Rowley and acting senior editor Maria Lally, along with Tayari Jones, acclaimed author and 2019 winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction with An American Marriage, who started the story – and will now mentor Carmel as part of her prize. Tayari said, ‘She pairs a poet’s attention to language with a novelist’s sense of urgency and plot. I can’t wait to read what she writes next.’
Read Carmel’s winning entry here, and those from our two runners-up, Estefania Cortes Harker and Emma Zipfel, below.
How Tayari Jones started the story...
I’d lost my job at the start of the pandemic and there really wasn’t much to fill my afternoons, so you can’t blame me for day-drinking. Returning home for a nap, I found a tall woman sprawled inelegantly on the front stairs, surrounded by candy wrappers.
She didn’t recognise me. To be fair, I had changed a lot in the last 12 years; it’s called growing up. Still, having planned the encounter, she should have been prepared.
As I opened the gate, she smiled and asked if I knew a girl called Teresa.
‘It’s me,’ I sighed. ‘Mother, it’s me.’
Here's how our winner Carmel Boyhan Irvine continued Tayari's story...
She paused, mid-rise. I stood still and met her eye. In that five-second gap before she looked away, a lifetime of memories raced through the dead space in my head. Her tone was an octave lower than I recalled but still had that bellicose inflexion I remembered from my birthday party. ‘Blow out the candles with one puff, Teresa, one puff, my best girl.’
Even at the age of 10, before I knew of cognitive dissonance, of gaslighting, of the easy way a human can mean one thing and do the opposite, I recognised this for the spin it was. I was her only girl, her only child, in fact. The superlative she used as a put-down. ‘Be careful,’ is what I heard her say. ‘Everything is conditional.’ Blowing out the candles, I made a wish that had yet to come true.
It was a shock seeing my mother again. They call it taking stock, when the earth jars on its axis. My dreams drift in a stream of diaphanous thinking, high above my spinning world. Now, memory collided with reality to a magnitude of five on the Richter scale, not quite the upheaval of being escorted from my office – that rated a six – and certainly nothing like the blast waves extending outwards in concentric circles since Thomas had left, or rather, had not returned, but it was a blow nonetheless and, like all disturbances, it rendered what was hidden suddenly obvious. Mother is here for a reason, I realised.
I was in what the anthropologists term fight or figure-it-out mode. The ropes tethering my happiness held fast. My mother gave birth to me but I was raised by the state. Running was not an option.
It briefly occurred to me to wonder what the etiquette might be in this situation. I owned every inch of this space, at least for the moment. It remained my house, my front porch, as defined by the notary and the land register. Technically, I was the host. How do you greet a mother whom you’d last seen driving away from a children’s home which you had entered only an hour before?
I could tell that she too was grappling with a dilemma, less to do with manners, I suspected, and more to do with her frustration at the scene unfolding before her. Despite her planning, she’d been
caught unawares. She must have been annoyed that she had looked less than perfect for our meeting. ‘First impressions, Teresa! You never get to make a second entrance!’
I admired her calculations. She had exploited the advantage of surprise and deliberately chosen to occupy the high ground of my staircase for what she hoped was an uninterrupted hour or two, the better to reconnoitre my life through the place where I lived. These were military tactics and this was surely a war.
There was no car on the driveway, mine having been removed when my licence was revoked. Alcohol dependency is so good for the planet. She must have come by taxi. The pandemic was a gift to people like my mother; with its Government directives to isolate, shelter-in-place, withdraw. Of course she had shielded, not because she was clinically vulnerable but because of the state’s endorsement of the very sociopathic behaviours she had been perfecting over two generations. She would never have taken public transport.
She stood up. ‘Teresa,’ she said, in that ambiguous way that relatives who haven’t seen one for 12 years, two months and five days seem thrown by the unnatural acceleration of time evident before them. I’ve always wondered if this surprise is an expression of delight at one’s growth or dismay at their sudden realisation of days running down to the grave.
My mother looked directly at me. ‘Teresa,’ she said again, extending her arm in a parabolic sweep over my head, from the boundary fence to the water. ‘I never expected this.’
Was she referring to my detached and substantial house or my early afternoon appearance? Who expects a 34-year-old professional to be at home on a Thursday during cocktail hour? Pre-sacking, I was indeed the personification of my postcode; river views, gallery memberships, solid, unshowy success. I had read that the sound of the pebbles on one’s driveway was a signifier of one’s wealth. My oval white chippings make a faint squeaky noise underfoot. From a height, one could imagine me standing in a garden of compacted snow.
I angled my head to one side, adopting a listening pose. Five minutes earlier I’d been on the point of tipping into an afternoon of mellow anaesthesia. After three vodka martinis and a round of chasers I can assume an easy nonchalance that is sometimes mistaken for intoxication but is, in reality, a philosophical mien. An hour into drinking my thoughts become less tethered to the here-and-now and form a balloon which carries me high above the detritus of my life. The elevation affords a broad perspective. My liquor companion, Amanda, describes we two as existential addicts. We drink because we think, she likes to say, though I believe we drink because we care.
I recognised that I was in what the anthropologists term fight or figure-it-out mode. The ropes tethering my happiness held fast. My mother gave birth to me but I was raised by the state. Running was not an option.
I mounted the steps and sat down. Their broad tread was a feature of these brownstone stoops, almost wide enough to hold an outdoor table. I patted the warm smoothness. ‘Come and sit by me,’ I said to my only mother, careful to maintain enough distance to satisfy an epidemiologist and proximity to reassure a social worker that we posed no danger to one other.
She faltered again, clearly now wondering who was the mother and who was the child. I could have told her then, at the age of 10, but that would have broken the spell.
Here's how our runner-up Estefania Cortes Harker continued the story...
She squinted, wiping a chocolate stain off her chin with the back of her hand, and staggered up, heaving her body against the banister. Her skin was an uneven map of hollowed out craters and crevices and powdered plains, framed by long, dark curls. Upright she looked shorter, but then I was taller now: children grow and grown ups shrink, and we all shake hands somewhere in the middle.
“You can’t expect me to remember all of you,” she replied, still smiling.
“We remember you,” I said, slightly hurt. Yes, I wasn’t the only one. But wasn’t I her favourite - she had told me at the time. But even then, even at the very beginning, she’d always been quick with a line and a lie.
She swatted me away with her hand. “I’ve no time to dance around you and your feelings,” she spat the word out, so alien to her that she had to expel it fast before the concept took hold and left a stain. Towards the end I’d realised there were other words she did not like: loyalty, love, mercy. To her they meant something else entirely.
“We should go inside,” I replied, “but first you should clean that shit up.” I dipped my head at the wrappers in overt disgust. “You’re a mess ...Mother.” She cackled at that, and an avalanche of make-up powders crumbled from her cheek.
I made her a cup of tea. “It tastes like cardboard,” she declared, once we were sitting in my small front room. “It has no depth, no follow through - no character.” She rustled a wrapper in her pocket and produced the end of what might have once been a Twix, placing it whole on her tongue and sucking loudly.
“That’s what you get when you turn up unannounced,” I said. I still hadn’t decided how I felt about her visit. Unnerved, I thought, with a hint of something else - excitement, maybe. I swigged at a beer to blur the edges, not that I needed a reason to drink.
“You’re very sensitive. Were you always like this?” she asked, cocking her head to one side. “I can’t imagine you’d have been very popular with the others.”
She was right, I hadn’t been.
The girls and I used to sleep head to toe on Mother’s narrow bunk beds, our limbs and breaths and heartbeats entwined so tightly I couldn’t tell where I started or ended, back at the big house across the way from the Grand canal. Training would go like this: she’d wake us up with a whistle before dawn and we’d sprint into the misty fields behind the barn, straight into the morning drills. We wouldn’t even get dressed out of our nightclothes, because “death doesn’t care if you’re in pyjamas.”
She taught us to shoot by throwing fruit into the air with a hand held cannon; you started on a melon, then moved to grapefruit, lemon, clementine and grape. If you got a grape mid air she’d look back and give you a wink; if you missed a grapefruit you’d be left with no food for days. We learnt how to use knives by dancing with each other, while Mother stood by the sides eating Kit Kats and keeping time with her foot, chanting “front, front, duck and stab. And again!” We learnt how to use axes and clubs, how to slit a throat and spear a body. We learnt how to make use of random household items: 10 extra points if you could knock someone out with a banana. We learnt how to fight and claw against each other, and we’d practice until our faces were bloody and our knuckles pulped - I lost two teeth in one afternoon and cried because I thought I’d never be pretty again. Mother told me I didn’t need to be pretty to get the job done.
Some of the girls had parents, others - like me - were orphaned by choice or circumstance: the odds and sods, the left behinds. But we’d all been picked by Mother, we’d had that in common at least. I kept something back from the other girls because we were competitive and petty, and I didn’t trust them not to scratch at my face or kick me in the shins to gain favour.
But Mother. It had always felt safer, somehow, to put my love on her. She felt more solid, more of a sure thing. Ha! What a fool.
“Do you really not remember me?” I asked her. It seemed implausible. How could I have meant so little to someone who meant so much? I wanted to cry into her skirt.
“There were too many of you” she shrugged. “No offence.” Mother still had a Spanish twang - I could hear it on the R’s, but it had softened with time. “So, Teresa. Te-Re-sa,” she said, and swirled the name around her mouth. “I like it. Better than the old one.” “How do you know I changed it, if you don’t remember me?” I counter.
She tapped the bag next to her. “It’s in the dossier, Sasha.”
Oh. “I’ve been Teresa for nearly eleven. I needed a rebrand, after everything.”
“Teresa is a good name. Holy.” Mother nodded in approval. “All the young girls now, calling themselves Pear and Moonlight and Ass-beam. Bah!” she exclaimed, slapping the arm of the sofa. “Nobody wants to be introduced into the world with an honest name anymore.”
“You’re awfully judgemental, considering you kill people for a living,” I said.
She laughed, delighted. “Oh Sasha.”
“Why are you here?” I asked. I should’ve asked before, the second I saw her, but I was in a lull - dazed by the brightness of her, even after all these years.
Mother smiled. She opened her bag, pulled out an envelope and held it towards me.
“No,” I said, slapping her hand away. “I don’t want it.”
“Aren’t you a doll,” she replied, “to think you have a choice.”
Here's how our runner-up Emma Zipfel continued the story...
“Terri!” She scrambled to her feet, all tangled heels and flippy weave, “Darlin’!” beaming at me through brightly-painted lips, the remnants of a lemon Maoam chew stuck to her gums. I tried to look away but she was tottering down the steps, arms reaching towards me like tentacles. I didn’t want to be sucked back in.
“You look so…” Her eyes travelled from last night’s chunky twists down over my unmade-up face, the smile contorting into something else as she took in the oversized sweatshirt and over-stretched leggings all the way down to the sports socks ‘n’ Crocs combo that had become a life-staple. Slowly, her gaze crawled back up again, as if she were hoping that her presence might have magically transformed me, like a modern-day east London Cinderella, into something appropriately on-trend and suitably uncomfortable to pass as ‘aspirational’.
I watched her visibly searching for the right word to describe the disappointment that I had never failed to summon in her. “You look so…different,” she smoothed her neon-check pencil skirt over her lean thighs as though this would somehow make me more presentable, her glossy tangerine lips twisting and unable to hide her obvious distaste.
“It’s Rees, Mother. Everyone calls me Rees now.” I could feel the fur of that last glass of rose coating my tongue and dulling my irritation, grateful that Casey had convinced me to knock back one more before she returned to the monotony of her home office and another decidedly uninteresting Zoom meeting. I’d sympathised while harbouring a secret longing for the days when I too could moan about being bored by virtual meetings in my pyjama bottoms.
It wasn’t only my rapidly diminishing savings that were gnawing away at the sober portions of each day, it was also that the days were just. So. Long. In my bag, I felt the cool weight of the chilled bottle of white I’d picked up at the Tesco Metro ‘round the corner to help the rest of the afternoon melt into evening and decided it’d be best saved until Mother had left. No doubt I was going to need it.
“Rees?” her nose wrinkled, “That’s not even a name, is it, hon?” she dipped her hand into her tiny Chanel handbag and pulled out an orange sweet, deftly untwisting the wrapper with one hand and slipping it between her Tangoed lips, chewing loudly, waiting for me to admit that in fact, no, my name was not even actually a name and I’d go back to being Terri. I’d go back to being who she wanted me to be.
“I like it.”
She dipped her hand back into her Chanel and pulled out a strawberry flavour this time, holding it out to me like an olive branch. “No…You’re supposed to be thousands of miles away across an ocean. Mother, what is this about?”
“You won’t believe it, hon, but my flight was a week earlier than I thought - I almost missed it completely!” She laughed, shaking her head and holding her palms up to the sky as if to say, ‘What am I like? I went out for milk and bought everything except the milk!’ “In the end, I just didn’t get a chance to let you know I was coming.”
“That’s ridiculous, Mother, but that’s not what I'm asking. I mean, why are you here? After all of this time? Why did you come back?” I noticed a small shiny faux-alligator wheelie case hiding behind the bins like it was preparing to spring out and snap up an unsuspecting bin man. Definitely Mother’s. I wondered why she had tucked it back there.
“Well, hon, since your dad, you know, passed on, I didn’t want you to be alone, I thought you would need someone. To be there for you?”
In twelve years she hadn’t cared enough to visit, even a Christmas card wasn’t a dead cert each December, and I was supposed to believe that she was here for me?
“Mother, Dad didn’t die. He moved on, not passed on: got remarried. It's not the same thing; he’s still here for me when I need him. And Letitia is actually lovely - really makes an effort to make me feel like family.”
At the mention of Letitia, the sour twist had returned to her lips reminding me of the garnish on an overpriced whiskey cocktail. She sniffed deliberately and flipped her ice-brown weave behind her shoulders. Her eyes flitted judgementally over my ringless fingers and I became aware that I was picking at my cuticles - I hadn’t done that since I was a teenager. “I see you haven’t found anyone yet. It must be very lonely for you - seeing your father move on and find happiness when it should be your own wedding that you’re planning…”
“No, not really. I’m happy for him. He deserves to be happy.”
“Well.” Her eyes flickered towards the alligator behind the bins. “Are you planning to catch up on ten years right here on the doorstep, or are you going to invite me in?”
“Twelve years. Where are you staying? A hotel?”
“Shall we go inside and I’ll fill you in? Grab my case will you, hon? I don’t think I can manage it in these heels.” She teetered back up the stairs, ignoring the candy wrappers crushed beneath each step; the sugary smell of synthetic fruits wafting behind her. I sighed, picking up the suitcase and heaving it up the five stairs to the front door, praying to any god who might be listening that this case did not mean what I thought it meant.