The winner of Stylist’s 2017 fiction competition is Alison Percival for her novel, Water Damage. You can read the 3,000 word extract that grabbed the attention of our judges below.
I keep his head in my room.
I know every inch of it, every dip, every curve, every plane.
I like running my hands over it – it’s as warm and smooth as marble.
The plaster captured everything – the ins and outs of his hairline, the contour of his jaw, the jut of his cheekbones. It even captured the tiny dent, the size and shape of an apple pip, a legacy from having the chicken pox when he was three. There’s another sickle shaped scar, which cuts through his left eyebrow – he got that from riding his trike through a plate glass window. He walked away scot free apart from that. I sometimes think I know his stories better than he knows them himself.
It’s not much to show for all these years is it – a plaster cast model of a head? I’ve watched them do it: orange foam plugs go in the ears, petroleum jelly up the nose, then they pour this green gloop over the whole head, like dumping buttercream in the middle of a cake and spreading it with a palette knife.
It’s about the only thing I have left of him. Because someone else is running their hands over his face, over his body, down his back. Someone called Isabel.
And now I’ve found her. It was easy.
Because someone else is running their hands over his face, over his body, down his back. Someone called Isabel.
Isabel only shares information with people she knows. If you know Isabel, send her a friend request. Her profile picture is of the sea, the water a blackish green. It doesn’t say where she works or where she went to school so she has given me hardly anything to work on. But I’m not stupid.
She has her settings on lockdown but I can still look through her 389 friends. 389 - is that a lot? Of the ones who have left themselves wide open, I skim their updates, flick through their albums. There’s weddings of people I don’t know, will never know, don’t want to know, but I scan them anyway methodically looking for clues. All her friends seem to be getting married or having babies; I wonder how she feels about that. There are endless black and white pictures of ultrasound scans which are just fuzzy indecipherable static, gummy newborns, babies crawling, babies in highchairs, pictures of food and memes and chain letters and quizzes and progress on games.
But it doesn’t reveal much about Isabel.
Next I find out where she works and there’s a picture. It’s just a head and shoulders shot but here she is.
Isabel Leugh has long brown, almost black, hair. It’s not cut in any discernible style, it just hangs there. She has a heart shaped face. She’s smiling but not showing her teeth. She could be from anywhere. She has a scattering of darker brown freckles across the bridge of her nose as if someone has blown them on like paint through a straw, a mole high up on her left cheek. Her ears are pierced but she’s not wearing earrings. Underneath the photo it says
Isabel is a fully qualified swimming teacher with over 5 years’ experience of teaching children and adults. She specialises in water confidence, stroke technique and water safety for all abilities and ages.
Stroke technique? I bet. Then there’s a list of her qualifications – a whole string of them. ASA and UKCC and STA and blah de blah de blah. Why does he need a swimming coach anyway? Is it for a part? He always said he would never do any of that method shit.
I shiver in the night air, pull the blanket from the bottom of the bed and wrap it around my shoulders and continue to look. Next I find her on Google Plus. Isabel hasn’t shared anything on this page with you. She’s in 15 circles and I have to know what they are. It’s like she’s behind a wall that I can’t scale but I know she’s behind it. I get up, pace up and down and sit down again. Now the information is coming all at once – like a river bursting its banks, like those poor people on the news who said the water just came up so fast they had no time to save anything and all their chairs are up on the sofa and there is thick brown mud ruining everything, leaving chaos and devastation and despair in its wake.
It’s like she’s behind a wall that I can’t scale but I know she’s behind it.
I look for her on Twitter and Bingo! Isabel Leugh is on Twitter. Sign Up for Twitter to follow Isabel Leugh. Don’t miss any updates from Isabel Leugh. Sign up today and follow your interests. Okay, okay, keep your hair on. Is it Leugh as in lewd? Or Leugh as in bleurgh? She hasn’t posted for two weeks.
@lidolove Drinks at @midnightapothecary
@lidolove Just eaten the best ever almond and polenta cake at @violetcakes.
21 days ago.
Flat hunting :(
Why is she so sad about flat hunting?
@lidolove Just posted a photo.
God, she’s everywhere.
I follow the link. And I find her pictures.
I can hardly breathe. My fingers are shaking so much I’m terrified I’m going to accidentally heart them. To think there she was, living her life, all this time, up until now and I didn’t know about her. Her pictures are mostly of swimming pools, a lot of pictures of a tortoiseshell cat, friends at barbecues, friends round a campfire, flowers shot from above, tomatoes in blue cardboard punnets, lemons in terracotta bowls. Who wants to see a bowl of lemons? Who gives a shit you’ve seen a bowl of lemons? Stop the presses. Ha. But there’s no mention of Iain. No photos of him either. It’s as if she’s not proud of him – doesn’t want to show him off. Why? She doesn’t deserve him.
I go back through her pages, loading more and more photos and then there’s a shot of two orange coloured drinks, a slice of real orange floating on top and a green olive on a cocktail stick. And lots and lots of ice creams in waffle cones, tagged gelato, as if we didn’t know, two hands side by side holding them at the base, her hands, his hands. I’d know those hands anywhere. They’ve been everywhere.
There’s a picture of her in a floppy black straw hat with a pattern of little cut out squares round the brim, making tiny little square shadows on her skin and bare shoulders. And in the next photo she’s in a costume the colour of emeralds, standing on the edge of a white boat, guarded by a silver rail, the turquoise sea all round, the bluest I’ve ever seen, grey towering cliffs behind. She’s hash tagged it #SantaMarinella, so helpfully. There’s a little video camera sign; I click play and she comes to life. She’s actually moving.
She’s looking at the camera and she’s mouthing something but I can’t make out what it is – something like ‘come in’. I can see the tendons in her calves flex, the muscles in her brown thighs contract, her hands are held together as if she’s praying, arms above her head tapered to a point. She bends her knees, oh so slowly, and she springs off. She dives in in slow motion, in a perfect graceful arc. Just her arms are under, then she’s halfway, then all the way in apart from her feet, pointed like a ballet dancer’s, and then she disappears and white spray blooms. The water sparkles and glitters and then at the very, very last second, I hear his laugh. He sounds so happy.
The water sparkles and glitters and then at the very, very last second, I hear his laugh. He sounds so happy.
I play the video again and again. I don’t know how to save it or else I would. I search for it on Google Earth; the little cursor flutters and flies, the earth spins on its axis, zooming over the sea so blue, so many fathoms undiscovered, until it gets closer and closer and lands, little points popping up everywhere. I can almost smell the bougainvillaea, see the trees heavy with plump lemons. I can picture them there on their veranda, sipping their drinks, and then at night, or in the heat of the day, the bright blazing heat, in cool cotton sheets, they are making love.
I flick back to Twitter. Something is gnawing at me. Why is she flat hunting? Why is she sad about it?
I wade through her most recent followers – one of them is an estate agent she’s been exchanging tweets with. I follow it through to their website – and look at New Instructions. It doesn’t take much working out.
Ideally located moments from London Fields, this bright and airy one bedroom flat offers well-presented interiors throughout situated on the first floor of a converted period house.
I peer and peer at the photos, trying to blow them up, to enlarge them to a higher resolution, to see more, to see everything. If only I could swoop through the bedroom window and land on the bed like Peter Pan, I would hover over them, wrap myself in an invisibility cloak.
First thing in the morning I will phone the agents and make an appointment to view.
Where’s the harm in that?
I am already on the stone steps outside of her blue front door waiting when the estate agent pulls up in one of those squat cars with no bonnet, the company logo screaming from the side.
‘Hiya you must be Rachel. Sam. Sorry I’m a few minutes late,’ she says as she shakes my hand vigorously. Rachel? Who’s Rachel? And then I remember as I made the appointment on the phone, the book I was reading was open on my bedside table and it happened to be the first name I saw - the name of the main character.
We go into the hall and then up a flight of stairs. Sam makes a big deal of rattling the keys in the lock.
‘Hello?’ she calls. Christ – it hasn’t even crossed my mind that Isabel would be here. What if he’s here? I shrink back. I have gone to great lengths to avoid him.
But it’s okay, panic over, there’s no one in. We’re straight into the living room.
‘So this is the living room, says Sam, stating the obvious. ’It’s a lovely light filled room.’
‘It is lovely isn’t it,’ I parrot.
It has two arch shaped sashed windows on the far wall and the light is streaming in. The walls are white and the floor is dark. It’s pretty empty. She has a teal sofa in velvet or velour or something like that, a sheepskin throw tossed casually over it. Everything is begging to be touched, to be stroked. On top of the fireplace there’s a towering glass vase of white lilies, one of those pouffes in caramel biscuit leather, a lamp the colour of mustard, a purple yoga mat rolled up by the door. There’s a lovely smell coming from somewhere. Is it a candle? Is it her perfume, lingering in the air? What is that wonderful smell?
‘She has made it nice hasn’t she?’ says Sam. ‘The landlord let her lacquer these floorboards, but they could be put back to how they were originally.’
‘Has she lived here long then?’
‘Um, quite a long time I think. I don’t really know. We’re not privy to that information.’
What if he’s here? I shrink back. I have gone to great lengths to avoid him.
The kitchen is tiny – little more than a corridor - and white again, the only colour coming from the spines of her cookbooks, lined up on a shelf. She has a lot of cookbooks. On the side there’s a bowl of posh fruit and one of those expensive blenders that takes your fruit and veg and shreds them, skins and all, with steel blades. I open a cupboard door – it reveals just an assortment of bowls and glasses. ‘Just checking on storage,’ I say. ‘Oh that’s fine – go ahead. Again, that cat flap in the window can easily be taken out. Do you have a cat?’
‘No, no I don’t.’
‘This is the best bit.’ Sam opens the sash window as far as it will go and there is a tiny flat roof – the details had said it was a balcony but it’s technically a roof. ‘I won’t go out but you’re welcome to.’ I have to stoop down so I don’t bang my head and my skirt will hardly let me scissor my legs but then I’m out. There’s not much of a view – just the back of a tower block in the distance, roofs, trees. You can just about fit two people out there. There’s a row of zinc pots blooming with herbs, one of those sling deck chairs that’s seen better days and a battered old tin stool. I crush a head of lavender between my fingers. The scent is intoxicating.
I climb back in.
‘Can you picture yourself out there of an evening with a glass of something cold?’
I can. I really can.
There‘s nothing to see in the bathroom – just cold white brick tiles, with a narrow strip of black, but I notice there’s no sign of him. No tell-tale razor in the bathroom cabinet.
‘And this,’ she says, opening a closed door, ‘is the bedroom.’ She stands behind me as I walk in. A tortoiseshell cat, the one from her pictures, is curled up asleep on the virginal white waffle bedspread.
‘They always find the best spot, don’t they?’ The cat stirs, stretches a paw, exposing its white slack tummy, then curls back, oblivious to two strangers in the room.
It’s small, the bed squashed up against the wall. A pale floor, a grey padded headboard, the walls are painted a subtle green or blue - I imagine it could be grey in some lights - like the changing colours of the sea.
I wish Sam would just leave me alone in there. I want to look through her wardrobe, touch her things, root through her cupboards. There’s an intriguing clutter of glass perfume bottles, perhaps I can locate the source of that smell.
I want to look through her wardrobe, touch her things, root through her cupboards.
I suddenly get a picture of Iain with his head between Isabel’s legs, tangled in the sheets. No, no, that way madness lies.
I quickly go out.
‘So let’s go back into the living room and I’ll just sit here and let you have another quick look,’ she says, looking at her watch.
She clicks her pen on and off a few times, impatient, a big bunch of the keys in her hand, like a gaoler.
I wander a little round the room, feeling Sam’s eyes burning into my back. I run my hand over the sofa, leaving a little trail in the pile, like rubbing a cat the wrong way. They hate that. I stand at the mantelpiece – there’s a little collection of junky trinkets, some shells, a shell with a perfect hole in – they’re supposed to be lucky aren’t they? – a tiny jade Buddha, some old bits of dirty glass. In the mirror I can see her looking at her phone, distracted.
‘So when are you looking to move?’
‘So what’s your situation? Do you have something to sell? Is it on the market?’
I can tell she thinks I’m a timewaster. I fudge the answer to that one to appease her for a while.
‘So do you think you’ll take it? It is lovely isn’t it? The tenant has been given notice and has to be out by the end of August.’
‘I do really like it.’
‘I can tell you now it will get snapped up. I have more viewings planned later today and tomorrow.’
‘Sure. It’s a big decision though – I don’t really know it round here.’
‘Ah I see, well you should look around then if you have time. London Fields is two minutes’ walk that way, with the Lido and a leisure centre, there’s Broadway market of course. And that way there’s a lovely little row of shops. It’s such a nice area, really.’
And then I’m bundled out on the steps again, locked out, my nose pressed up against the glass. I don’t really want to go.
‘Lovely to meet you and speak soon. Yes?’ says Sam and off she goes.
I should do what she suggested and look round the area. It’s my day off so I have nowhere to be.
It feels odd to be walking down Isabel’s street, seeing things that she sees every day, as if I’m looking through her eyes. The area is pretty grimy, edged in by housing estates. No wonder she wants out. I can hear the rattle of the overground train in the distance. People have tried to make an effort – lots of the houses have a small flight of stone steps leading up to the front door and people have put pots of brightly coloured flowers at the edges and the windowsills too have narrow planters filled with geraniums perched on them. There are several double buggies parked at the bottom of steps – how trusting, I think, until I notice they’re padlocked on.
There’s a coffee shop just round the corner, with bright orange canopy blinds. There are some tables on the pavement with people sitting outside, their legs stretched out before them, in little clusters of twos and threes. I order a coffee as straightforward as it comes. It’s an odd little place, with its rusty madeleine pans displayed on the walls as if they’re art. There are no seats downstairs so I go up a narrow white wooden winding staircase where there’s another room and as I enter and take a seat, I feel people’s eyes on me. I drink my coffee quickly and leave.
On the way home, I can’t remember details from her flat already. I have a lasting overall impression of white and calm and light. I wonder what was the name of that paint? But were the kitchen cupboards white or grey? Or birch? What were the bathroom tiles like? Where were her clothes – I can’t even remember a wardrobe.
A second viewing won’t hurt.
Alison Percival receives a three-month agency mentoring programme with literary agent Hellie Ogden of Janklow & Nesbit, as well as a place on a 2017 UK residential course or retreat run by creative writing charity Arvon. Her winning entry is also published right here on stylist.co.uk.
You can see the nine shortlisted entries to the competition here.