A couple of months ago, my University (Nottingham) newsletter announced a short story competition for alumni. How could I resist?
The story was to be set on one of the campuses, and had a limit of 2000 words. Quite a challenge for someone accustomed to writing fantasy novels of epic length, but I decided to have a go, and chose a setting I knew well – the Sutton Bonington campus library, where I studied for so many hours, writing assignments for my mammalian physiology degree.
Drawing on my experiences writing for various magazines, I found hitting the word count less difficult than expected, and in due course, submitted two stories (the other set in the student’s bar – perhaps one for another post…), and then forgot about it.
A week or so ago, I remembered it, checked the Uni boards but found no mention of the competition, and chalked it up to experience, then forgot about it again.
So imagine my surprise when, at the end of last week, I received this email:
I am delighted to let you know that last week you were crowned winner of our alumni creative writing competition for your short story “The Librarian”. Our judging panel were impressed by your clear characterisation, engaging narrative structure and cleverly-crafted ending. Well done!
Our judging panel:
Your story was originally shortlisted by a panel of 8 creative writing and English students and graduates, who carefully read all 53 entries to the competition and assigned scores for: creativity and premise, characterisation and dialogue, plot and structure, presentation and grammar, style and tone. A shortlist of six stories were then presented to the final judging panel. All stories were judged blind, with all personal details related to the author removed.
The final judges with the casting vote were:
Jon McGregor – our creative Writer-in-Residence, whose latest novel Reservoir 13 is currently on the longlist for the acclaimed Man Booker Prize 2017.
John Miller – celebrated BBC television and radio producer, who has published books on many famous actors including Dame Judi Dench, Sir John Gielgud and Sir John Mills.
Lauren James – British Young Adult author of The Loneliest Girl in the Universe and popular The Next Together series.
What happens next?
We are delighted to publish your story as the winning entry in our next alumni magazine, due to land with alumni from mid-October. We will also publish your story as the winner on our website. Your other story – A Magical Karnival – will also feature in our online top 20 shortlist.
I’m thrilled! Apparently the competition was fierce, and I look forward to reading the others in the top 20 shortlist on the Uni website. I have also been asked to read ‘The Librarian’ at a future event – scary!
I may one day publish a selection of short stories (now I’ve been bitten by the bug), but in the meantime I thought I’d just publish my winning entry here for everyone to read.
‘Closing 2pm today’.
Mary Hope eyed the sign with mild annoyance. In all her years as chief librarian at Sutton Bonington campus, the library had never shut early. She huffed silently and turned her attention to the neatly ordered card index laid out on the main desk. Two books due for return that day were still outstanding. She glanced at the clock above the door and nodded to herself. There was still time.
The intrusive sound of smothered chatter caught her attention and her head snapped around. Students! What did they not understand about the meaning of the word ‘silence’? She drifted towards the culprits where they huddled over a textbook. Their words were unclear, but their body language strongly suggested they were not discussing the finer points of the anatomy of the stomach, despite the pages open before them.
The boy’s foppish long hair swung back and forth in time with his laughter, while his female companion nudged him with her shoulder, the wide wings of her collar tickling his cheek to cause more amusement. Mary pursed her lips. She found the current fashions ridiculous – surely no one could find platform shoes comfortable? And as for flared trousers, well! She was quite certain that had she been forced to wear such ridiculous apparel she’d have tripped herself up within the first few steps.
“Tsk, tsk,” she hissed, close behind them. They both jumped, and huddled closer together.
“Perhaps we should get out of here. Come on, Ron; it’s nearly closing time anyway.”
Mouth clamped shut, Ron nodded. He returned the book to its rightful position on the shelves and the couple scurried away. Mary nodded to herself; they’d be back when they were ready to study, but clearly they had other things on their minds right now.
Moving further into the library, Mary came across one of her most regular visitors: Professor Jones, an environmental scientist. Whilst unfailingly polite, Mary had the distinct impression he was always slightly looking down his nose at the library staff. They weren’t academics, after all.
Professor Jones had been scouring the archives for a very particular reference every day for weeks now. If only he’d ask, Mary knew precisely where to find it. But the Professor had his pride, and it showed now in his stiff back as he stood scowling at the shelves, his magenta floral shirt setting off the tendency of his cheeks to turn a fetching puce colour as his frustration grew. In fact, today, his face almost matched the deeper red colour of his corduroy slacks. Mary was concerned he might be heading for a heart attack.
Engrossed in scanning the titles on the shelves with his back turned towards Mary, she slipped closer and opened one of the tomes he’d already stacked on the table. Leafing through the volume, she found the passage he sought and left the pages open with a bookmark underlining the spot. She smiled to herself as she slipped away, heart warming with satisfaction that it was she, not the mighty professor, who knew where to find the critical information.
“Shhh!” came the predictable responses from other patrons to Professor Jones’s outburst, but for once Mary refrained from joining in. She’d done her job even when he hadn’t requested her help, and proved once again that the librarian knew best.
Gliding on silent feet past occupied tables, Mary recognised two figures browsing the shelves while carefully ignoring each other. She sighed. These two had been dancing around each other for weeks. They were obviously attracted to each other, yet neither was willing to make the first move.
Perhaps such shyness came with age. Mary had never felt that pull for another human being – she was too wedded to her precious books – but the library was a marvellous place to study humanity, and whilst the young, brash and eager students fell in and out of each other’s arms with dizzying rapidity, older people were more cautious. Doctor Stevens from agronomy and microbiologist Doctor Ehlers were not old as such, but they were definitely beyond the ‘anything goes’ student phase.
Mary squared her shoulders. She could bear witnessing the hesitant mating ritual no longer. Sneaking behind the shelf Doctor Ehlers was browsing, Mary tiptoed up the ladder to the top shelf, spread her hands out, and pushed.
Half a dozen solid volumes teetered then fell, narrowly missing Doctor Ehlers’ head.
“Oh!” she gave a little shriek.
Doctor Stevens was by her side in an instant. “Are you hurt? Did any of them hit you?”
Content that her little nudge had broken the ice between the pair, Mary moved on, coming at last to the library’s rearmost alcove, where the periodicals were stored. She swept up copies of ‘New Scientist’, ‘Nature’, and ‘Scientific American’, and restored them to their rightful slots on the racks.
Turning back to the reading table, she reached for the final magazine, but stopped, her hand hovering above the copy of the ‘Sutton Bonington Parish Lines’, open at the page displaying local news and notifications of services. Today’s date, June 10th 1974, caught her eye.
Flustered, she left the offending paper on the table, an untidiness she would never, under normal circumstances, countenance. She hurried through the now deserted aisles between the bookshelves, gaze lifted to the clock above the door.
‘2.04’ it read, and Mary halted, staring at the locked door. The library was shut, and she no longer had a key.
Mary Hope straightened her back, smoothed her grey hair over her skull and clasped her fingers around her neat bun, checking for stray hairs. The final moments of opening hours had passed her by, and sadness welled up inside, but she firmed her jaw and gave herself a small shake.
No matter, she’d finished all her tasks and contentment filled her.
Floating forward, she passed through the solid wood door and headed towards the village church.
It really wouldn’t do to be late for her own funeral.