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Short Story Prize: Second Place

Short Story Prize

I was thrilled recently to find out that one of my stories had been placed second in a Writing Magazine short story competition. The story is called One Day in the Life of Hassan D and you can read it here on the Writers Online website.

Below is the first part of a story that was shortlisted for the Bristol Short Story prize in 2010.

Born Not Made

“Go on, Mozza, chuck it, you idiot,” Luke yelled.

Hubcap in hand, Mozza was close enough to the car to be sure of smashing the glass. It was just the right type – silver paintwork that gleamed so much your acne shone back at you, starchy leather seats that looked like torture even for the fattest backside, and tinted rear windows behind which some toffee-nosed git could flick you V-signs without you knowing. The poser who’d been daft enough to park it round here, was begging for it. He could well afford a new windscreen, but Mozza was still hesitating, enthralled by the car’s radio that had been left on. It was giving off a sound like honey, sweet and slow, that oozed into Mozza’s head and trickled down to the heart. Most people would think it was a violin but Mozza knew it wasn’t. Mr Leopold had explained it once in class. It was a viola.

“What you waiting for? It’ll be insured. That sort always are,” Luke said.

Mozza didn’t move, not wanting to let the honey go rank.

“Just chuck it, you nutter.”

Mozza couldn’t hear him. The viola was well lux. It was like being allowed to stay over at Nan’s when Naomi was having one of her bad days. At Nan’s there was always a soak in a proper bath before bed. Soapy and warm.

“You’ve bottled it, haven’t you, you girl,” Luke shouted.

That did it. The warm bath turned arctic-cold. Giving it some real welly, Mozza frisbeed the hubcap through the windscreen, watched for the splintered spider’s web to form around the hole, and then belted away. But as the car alarm ripped the viola music to shreds, Mozza couldn’t help but slow down to listen. If the pitch of the screeching could be varied, the beat would be strong enough to make a decent tune. Mr Leopold had a tune with the same rhythm on his iPod. He’d passed it round class once for them all to have a listen. Some famous dead bloke had written it for flutes and trumpets and stuff.

“Leg it now,” Luke shouted again, crashing through Mozza’s thoughts.

Mozza speeded up and overtook Luke as the pair nipped up the steps to the flats. Luke dived through his front door, lobbing a breathless “See you tomorrow” over his shoulder. Mozza galloped onwards, dodging a couple of foil trays of half-finished curry on the concrete, and trying not to breathe in too often. The stairwell had a stink all of its own, although their bog got a bit like it, too, sometimes, when Naomi was on a bender.

Four flights up and after a hefty shove to the weather-warped front door, Mozza reached home and found Naomi picking shards of glass out of the kitchen floor. There seemed to be a new orange stain there, too, but it was hard to tell the new from the old anymore.

“It just fell,” she said and kept her head down like a toddler caught doing something naughty.

“Leave it, Mum. I’ll clear it. You can get back to bed,” Mozza said.

Naomi rose unsteadily to her feet and leant back against the cooker. “It was an accident. It could happen to anyone.” She wrapped her dressing gown over her tracksuit.

Mozza fetched the dustpan and brush.

“You’re a good kid. I’m going to get you a present. Show how much I love you,” she slurred, twiddling the redundant cooker knobs. They hadn’t noticed at first when the gas had been disconnected. Mozza survived mostly on pizzas out of the microwave, as Naomi wasn’t much of a cook, and even less of an eater.

“There’s no need for a present, Mum,” Mozza said wearily, setting about the wreckage of Naomi’s cider bottle on the mottled lino.

“I mean it this time. I can get you a keyboard,” she said.

“A keyboard?” Mozza looked up again, suddenly playing the child, an excited one. “For real? Wait til I tell Luke.”

Naomi’s gaze hit the dirty floor. “You’d best not tell anyone, love.”

“Why not? Are you saying it’s knock-off?”

She tried a lopsided grin. “I won’t say if you don’t want me to.”

Mozza stared at her, refusing to smile back but feeling guilty when her face turned in on itself, full of hurt.

“I know it’s not quite what you wanted but where would we put a blinking great piano in here?” she said. “And, besides, no delivery bloke would risk a hernia to shove the blasted thing up this high even if you paid him in solid gold scratch cards. Keyboard or piano – what’s the difference?”

Mozza didn’t answer but pictured the piano in Mr Leopold’s classroom. You had to hang around for ages waiting for the music toffs like Toni Salieri to push off so there was a chance to have a go on it alone. Mozza wanted to tell Naomi that the sounds you played on the piano didn’t just move from your hand to your ear like the tones of a keyboard, they went into your belly. You kind of ate them, but slowly, like ice cream. With strawberry sauce. And a chocolate flake. They were real.

Naomi had stopped fiddling with the cooker and was gazing down expectantly. The hurt had gone from her eyes and been replaced by a more familiar look. Mozza called it her “pick and mix” face. With excitement, desperation and vulnerability in equal measure, she’d used it several times to good effect when the catalogue woman came for her money. She was unleashing it on Mozza now.

“A keyboard would be great, Mum. Thanks a lot.” Mozza kissed her soft, booze-breathy cheek before heading for the bin with the dustpan full of glass.

 

“Are you coming down the arcade this dinner time?” Luke asked at school the next morning.

Luke could be a right wind-up merchant when he wanted. Why did he ask that same stupid question every Monday when he must have known the answer by now? Mozza swallowed hard, knowing damn well what would come next, and said, “I’ve got choir practice.”

Luke grinned and took his cue. “Singing’s for sad gits.” He pretended to retch.

“No, it’s not. It’s…” They didn’t just sing at choir. Mr Leopold told them stuff about music. He was well sound – the only teacher allowed to use Mozza’s real name and not get silently cursed to beggary and back. Choir was solid, apart from when Toni Salieri and the other singers treated Mozza like something they’d trodden in. They could make you hate the feel of your own skin sometimes, but it was worth it for Mr Leopold’s music. That was all that mattered most of the time. Music took Mozza away from Mozza. When Mr Leopold played piano, you didn’t just listen, you breathed it in.

Mozza looked at Luke. He was the best mate in the world, the one you wanted on your side, the one you’d fight tooth and mobile for if you had to, but some things were best left unsaid. Saying true things caused bother sometimes, and the things that caused the most bother were the truest of all.

“You’re right. I only go to choir to get an early dinner pass. They’re all a bunch of losers,” Mozza said, putting on a show of retching too.

“How do you stick it with those show-offs? That Toni one is so up herself ’cos she’s in the choir and plays the guitar,” Luke said.

“It’s a cello.”

“You what?”

“She plays the cello. It makes a rich, mellow sound.”

“Except when she’s playing it.” Luke drew an imaginary cello bow across his throat and let out a painful wail. They ran off laughing as Luke continued his impression of Toni’s playing into the playground.

 

Mr Leopold tapped his baton against the music stand and asked the choir a question. “What note do we start on?”

Mozza’s hand shot up but it was pushed aside by Toni’s.

She called out, “It’s a D, sir. I’m learning the same tune on the cello. I’ll be able to perform it in assembly soon.”

Can’t wait for that, thought Mozza.

Mr L. peered over his stand. “Thank you for that expansive answer, Toni. Just what we’ve come to expect.” He raised his baton. “Now, everyone, after three.”

The choir came in on time, some of them hitting the note more accurately than others. The music bubbled joyously inside Mozza’s chest. Mr Leopold always picked good songs for them to try. This one was beautiful – apart from the middle, which was too “samey” for Mozza’s liking. It got like that with tunes sometimes. It was the same with teachers. They started off all smiles and full of promise at the beginning of term, but then they’d rumble on for weeks in a colourless routine. There’d be a flurry of excitement the first time they shouted their faces off at Luke and sent him out, but even that became predictable after a while. And as for the detention slips they doled out, they got like confetti at a cheap wedding: a lark at the time but a beggar to clear up afterwards. Why couldn’t teachers – and tunes – perk up before they reached the home straight? It was all very well handing out chocky bars and quiz sheets in the last week, but what about chucking in a few mid-term videos and a hotdog? All Mr Leopold’s song needed was a change of pace in the middle with a few more highs and it would be a cracking melody.

Mr Leopold put down his baton and the choir dribbled to a halt. He looked at Mozza. “Was that a descant you had going there? You sang eight bars of notes I’ve never heard before.”

“Mozza’s tone deaf, sir. Didn’t you know?” Toni sneered. Most of the others sneered along with her. Mozza was a joke specially arranged for their amusement.

Mozza, ready to reposition Toni’s vocal chords, but managing to keep calm in front of Mr Leopold, said, “I thought it sounded better with a what-d’ya-call-it, a key change.”

Toni and her entourage sniggered but Mr Leopold told them to shut up and tossed Mozza a hearty thumbs-up. “I think the idea has some merit – good thinking -but for now let’s all stick to what the composer intended. Like this …” He took a deep breath and demonstrated what he meant.

“Tone deaf, tone deaf,” Toni chanted in Mozza’s ear under the cover of Mr Leopold’s singing. She was silenced when Mozza’s fist connected with her jaw.

 

To be continued in next blog, 23 July 2016.

 

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