Stylist fiction competition: the winners

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This summer, Stylist teamed up with leading publishers Pan Macmillan and hit HBO series Girls in a competition to find the next generation of talented storytellers.

We asked you to write a 500-1000 word piece of fiction inspired by Girls, to win the chance to attend an exclusive workshop led by Catherine Richards, fiction editor at Pan Macmillan. Entries were based around four themes: living in the city, friendship, right relationship/wrong relationship and career first steps.

We were overwhelmed by the response. Nearly 200 of you wrote in with a fantastic, diverse selection of original fiction.

After weeks of re-reading and tough decision-making, the team at Pan Macmillan finally whittled down the entries to the following ten winners.

Catherine Richards said, "It was really difficult to pick the winners out of so many fantastic entries. We were hugely impressed here by the high quality of the writing and enjoyed reading all of the stories very much."

The ten winners will attend an exclusive workshop at Pan Macmillan on October 25 and will walk away with a goody bag of Pan Macmillan books, including From Pitch to Publication by leading literary agent Carole Blake, and Girls Seasons 1-2 on DVD boxset.

Read the winning entries (in no particular order) below and many thanks to everyone who entered.

Photos: Rex Features, please note title of the piece is also the theme unless otherwise stated

The Third Rule by Katherine Lofthouse

Theme: Friendship and living in the city

It had taken less than three weeks for Sarah to break her three rules for living in London. Number one: Don’t sleep with your flatmate. Well, that had barely lasted a full seven days before it gasped its way to an early death (Strongbow, a tragic Indie night in Dalston, convenience). Rule number two: Spend less time in Chicken Cottage (Her friend had made her a ceremonial t-shirt with the logo of the questionable late-night chicken shop on the front. Back home she used their toilets and was greeted by name, which was a trend that looked set to continue here). Rule number three: Never, ever, under any circumstances, take the tube. Ever. Every time she explained her rules of London life to someone, she could always tell how long they had lived in London long by how vigorously they agreed with her last rule.

But today an unholy collision of weather, time and location meant that she was already late to meet a friend who she’d stood up the week before (Stand me up again and I’ll assume I’m dead to you, only half joking), that made breaking the rule a necessary evil. Sarah yanked her bag strap over her head, growled, ‘Welcome to Thunderdome,’ under her breath and pulled her oyster card out of her back pocket, slapping it on the barrier with more force than was needed. In the first ‘screw you’ move of what she could only assume would be many, the barrier refused to recognise the card, and she was momentarily barred, which gave the crowd just the split-second they needed to unleash the Mexican wave of tutting that hissed back from her.

By the time Sarah actually made it on to the tube, she had already accidentally touched two people inappropriately – one of which was a man who worryingly didn’t look all that upset about it – black-eyed three people with her bag and hit another on the shin (the modern version of social contact) as she wriggled snugly into a vacant spot underneath someone’s armpit (cosy). Unsurprisingly, her hangover decided this was the time to make a guest appearance (the kind of guest that would invite itself over, eat your food and make out with your boyfriend) and being trapped in a sealed metal capsule worming its way underneath London was about as far from what she wanted to be doing as humanly possible. Sarah tried to surreptitiously manoeuvre herself away from the scent of office-and-‘working lunch’ rolling off the man next to her whilst also concentrating on not throwing up on her own shoes. Multitasking at its finest. And then she saw Emma. Her best friend/sometime competitor from school who she hadn’t spoken to for five years. Even submarines get escape hatches, thought Sarah. They were currently somewhere around Old Street and she was on til Euston, and there was no way Emma wouldn’t see her, as she was now basically straddling her.

‘Heeey Emma,’ Sarah began, looking down at her at a 177 degree angle. All she could think about was how – after five years – Emma could probably see up her nose, and also that her sisters had told her that when she tilted her head back like that she looked like a thumb. There would probably be a Facebook page in her honour within the hour: ‘Have you seen this thumb?’

‘Wow, Sarah??’

The two former-best-friends went through the ‘How are you?’ dance before awkwardly grinding to a halt. Thanks to Facebook Sarah knew that Emma still lived at home, with the same boyfriend she’d had when they left school, but the two hadn’t kept in contact otherwise. And if she even revealed that she knew that much, Emma would probably expect her to turn up outside her house with a boombox, burning her name into the lawn. Thus was the paradox of unsocial media: you knew a weird amount about other people’s lives but couldn’t reveal what you knew.

She tried to cover her awkwardness by explaining that she was hungover (bonding over borderline alcoholism never fails), ‘I shouldn’t’ve had that last pint – one minute I’m going for a quiet drink, next thing I know it’s 4am and I’m wandering the streets of Dalston, shoes in one hand and kebab in the other. I don’t even like kebabs!’ She smiled and shrugged.

Emma gave a sympathetic chuckle (was there judgement laced in that?), ‘That sounds rough. Hangovers are always worse when you mix – and I drink wine which is definitely the unpopular kid of the bar – never mixes well! Though what’s that saying: Beer then wine, you’ll feel fine; Wine then beer, you’ll feel queer?’

‘Ha, with me it’s more like: Wine, Strongbow, Sambuca, beer: vomit in your knickers and then pass out in Kebab World.’

Sarah had – mostly- meant it as a joke but Emma, who probably had a totally normal un-vomity life back home, definitely had a flicker of horror in her eyes for a second before laughing along: an almost-moment from their past intimacy that dislodged itself quietly and bobbed to the surface before sinking quickly again. Emma jumped up ‘It was really good to see you, this is my stop’. (There was at least another minute before they pulled into Kings Cross, which would mean they’d be stood awkwardly post-goodbye trying to look busy.)

‘Yeah, good to see you too…’ Sarah knew what she was expected to say even though she almost rolled her eyes as she said it. ‘Let’s go grab a drink soon.’

‘Yeah, definitely, of course.’

And then Emma squeezed past armpit-guy, wedging herself between a girl with a box (that was making disturbing shuffling noises) and another guy who was deeply engrossed by Fifty Shades of Grey, smiled once more and then turned to face the door. Sarah stared at her for a second longer before settling herself between the welcoming chest of a strange woman and cursing herself for ever breaking her third rule.

First Run by Lucy Clayton

Theme: Living in the city

I have just been for my first ever RUN. Here is a list of things I didn't like about it:

1. It was muddy.

2. It made me cough.

3. The outfit.

4. The trainers. Now muddy trainers.

5. Everyone kept looking at me funny.

6. I spent the whole time thinking of better things I could be doing (i.e. any other activity).

7. When I got back Marg told me I'd only been gone 11 minutes.

Here is a list of things I did like about it:

1. The bit where I sat on a bench and read all the interesting notices about events in the park.

There’s a Twilight Badger Walk happening in October (£6 for adults) that was beginning to sound pretty unmissable, when I decided it was time to go home.

This episode proves what I’ve always instinctively known about exercise – it’s a myth. All that stuff about the benefits, like endorphins and shit. You know what exercise makes me feel? Tired and hungry.

On the way home it started to rain because this is London and it’s illegal to go on any excursion outside your permanent residence and not get wet. The rain made it harder to do the dog poop avoidance slalom that is depressingly necessary on our street. The water made the poops mobile, segueing across the pavement, attracted to my muddy trainers. This didn’t help my endorphin levels AT ALL.

Marg said I must have sat on the bench for 9 of the 11 minutes. She said I should have been sweatier, a totally pointless comment since I was drenched with WEATHER - which would have washed away any evidence of sweat. Marg is hardly Tracy Anderson anyway; she’d spent those 11 minutes with our leftover duck spring rolls. But her glory days as lacrosse captain in Year 9 gives her some credibility on the subject of sport, so I take her advice about stretching and having a hot bath.

First it took 15 minutes of wrestling to get me out of the hideous specialist bra. Marg had to help and let’s just say her old contact sport skills were very much in evidence. Despite the no-sweat-situation the beast (the bra not Marg) steadfastly stuck to my skin and in the end we gave up and used kitchen scissors to cut me out. Now the miserable thing is in the bin, in a grave of old takeaway containers and I am trying hard not to think about the cost-per-wear ratio. Because I’m beginning to resent the £55 spent in Sweaty Betty and the terrorism used by the sales assistant when she merrily revealed that “When we run our nipples move 15cm up and down, with every stride!” She didn’t mention that the alterative involves being trapped for life in a Lycra harness. Feel pretty smug that I didn’t do too much genuine striding this morning. Turns out, I prefer my nipples not to go wandering around doing impressions of other parts of my anatomy like the collarbone or navel. Or both, with every stride. I like them front and centre and nowhere near a sports bra.

In the bath I definitely think my thighs look somehow...beefier. I’m not going to risk another run because I really don’t want those bulked up muscley thighs like you see on athletes or Beyoncé. And honestly? I’m not sure running is my thing.

Right Relationship, Wrong Relationship by Alice Stride

My vagina is a truffle. Only pigs can find it.

This is my conclusion.

“Don’t be silly! He LIKED your status on Facebook last week! It was a very funny status; a tiny pair of windscreen wipers on your glasses WOULD be super useful in the rain!”

So says Friend A, a woman who can see the positive side of the people in the flat below not cleaning up their dog’s shit up from the garden.

“At least it shows the dog gets outside! So many people don’t even exercise their dogs! It’s such a happy dog!”

Friend B specialises in tough love and even tougher relationship rules.

“If he doesn’t text you back within three hours, sack him off and also shag his friend - twice, for maximum impact. He doesn’t deserve you, and you don’t deserve his penchant for wearing sports socks pulled up to the knees.”

But now Friend B has fallen in love and her wry, dry advice has fallen with her - one extreme to the other. I ask her why my vagina is so unlucky, and she muses, dreamily: “Provence or Rome? We just can’t decide where to take a long weekend.”

“Am I only going to be with pigs? Will my vagina be lucky in Rome?”

“Of course it will! You’ll meet a prince and you will be his princess! But, like, not this time because James and I want to go just the two of us. It’s important to spend quality time as couple, you know.”

She smiles. I remind her that she has spent a lot of quality time with James over the past two months. ALL of her quality time. She ignores me and goes to call him.

My vagina is a truffle and even my friends don’t care.

Princess? I do not want to be a princess. I am a woman, not a fantasy. I want a relationship that is conducted in real life, flesh and blood, warm hands and bodies, tangled hair and sweat deep in the night. I do not wish to decipher the significance of his ‘like’ on Facebook, or wonder is his Tweet about a new app on his phone is really him saying to me, “I LOVE YOU. YOU INSPIRED ME TO TRY NEW THINGS, AND THIS WEATHER APP IS ONE OF THOSE THINGS”.

(I am now leaning towards the conclusion that no, that Tweet was not a secret message to me. Why do I do this to myself?)

Friend A: “At least he is trying new things; the weather is so changeable in London!”

Friend B: “Rome? Provence? Provence? Rome?”

I forget about him.

Two weeks late, he texts me. It is a picture of him at a food market, holding a bottle of truffle oil.

Truffles are luxurious. Truffle oil is luxurious. I am going to pour this on cheese and toast and be luxurious. Come join me? The weather is gonna be good tonight. We’ll eat it outside.

I stop forgetting about him.

My vagina is a truffle. I don’t know what the conclusion is yet.

Career First Steps by Heloise Wood

Dear Sarah

Hello, I hope you’ll be very happy here. I am writing this on my last day while Tabs is having her afternoon nap. When I realised I was leaving this place, I started thinking about how I felt when I first started. I mean the fear and the uncertainty and the general panic. You’re probably much more of an optimist than me but I’d never travelled or worked much before and only took this on really because I did really badly in my A-levels and I panicked and thought, why not try a city you don’t know anything about? Anyway, I thought I should give you some tips on au pairing, living in Stockholm, what to do, where to go, that kind of stuff. Also about looking after Tabs. Not in any particular order though. A list of recommendations really – what I wish someone had told me when I first started.

1. Tabs is not really Tabs but Tabitha. Mrs Västerort will tell you off if you call Tabs Tabs but the problem is that she doesn’t really answer to Tabitha any more. This is a problem I've created I’m afraid.

2. Tabs is eleven months now, she crawls and she’s very fast. Keep her away from plug sockets because she loves them and they don’t love her.

3. Try and chat to the other mums in the playground when you go because otherwise they will spread rumours behind your back. Watch out for the one with plaited hair, she’s a bitch.

4. Try and do an evening class to make friends. This is really important. Otherwise, you just won’t know anyone and you’ll have to stay home and watch really crap Swedish telly.

5. Ostermalm is the richest district in Stockholm apparently but it is also apparently the district with the most prostitutes. Dress properly or people will think you are one and this is just awkward for everybody concerned especially if Tabs is around.

6. Incidentally if Mr Västerort tells you he likes what you're wearing, probably best not to wear it again.

7. Tabs likes the mangey teddy best. There’s a new one which Mrs Västerort bought recently but she looks at him suspiciously, I think she knows it was bought through guilt. The mangy teddy smells but you get used to it – don’t try and wash it or all hell will break loose.

8. Your room will look big when you get there but really this is just because it’s painted white and doesn’t have any furniture in it. It is actually very small. Or you will feel small in it anyway, I suppose that’s not the same time.

9. Mrs Västerort will offer you wine if you have dinner with them but don’t take it because she will just make comments under her breath the next day about you looking ‘worse for wear’. This is one of the only English expressions she knows and so she uses it all the time.

10. There is a nice café down the street, opposite, which does a mean carrot and ginger soup.

11. Tabs will always lose one of her socks if you put her in the buggy – it seems to just be inevitable, maybe there is a fault with how they make baby socks or maybe a fault with her foot. I don’t know. I just know that when she leaves the house, she’s got both socks on and then when she comes back one of them has gone and there always someone around to point it out.

12. Don’t worry if you never learn much Swedish because it turns out almost everyone that matters speaks English anyway.

13. If Mr Västerort tells you he has to talk to you about something important in a private place, make sure you meet him in the park.

14. Tabitha doesn't like the baby food with the strange monkey baby face on it. I don’t know if it’s because of the packaging or the taste or what but she’s very sharp. Much sharper than her mother.

15. If you run into trouble of any time, don’t worry, it’s not your fault. Apparently it’s a bit of a ‘cycle’. I wish someone had told me this. Ask for Dr. Jonasson in the surgery further down the road. She is really nice and won’t make you feel bad.

16. If you ever need a taxi, don’t try the place across the street, they are really expensive.

17. You will feel bad every time you leave the baby and you will feel great when you see her again but remember – she’s not your baby.

18. Did you know the Stockholm region is home to around twenty-two per cent of Sweden's total population, and accounts for about twenty-eight per cent of the gross domestic product? I leaned this on Wikipedia.

Anyway, I hope you find this. Lycka till! (That is Swedish for 'good luck!’). I’m sure you’ll do fine.

The Soup Cup by Clare Harris

Theme: Living in the city

I arrived in 'that London' with a rucksack, a Tupperware of uneaten cheese sandwiches, and a lump, still in my throat, from waving goodbye to Him. I'd got a six month contract at a music magazine that I didn't think would last,'I'll be home by Christmas so I won't need much,' I'd said.

It was the time before the 3am parties that were hidden behind old shop-fronts called 'Vision's Videos' or 'Oscar's Barbers', before the late-night taxis across the city when the text suggested it'd be fun, and before the Sundays I could make disappear if I turned over and closed my eyes enough times. It was the time before I knew the rules.

I bought my Oyster and swiped onto the bus. And off. It was late at night but there was an office party in the aisle and out the window were a hundred cafes I'd like to visit with a book and a late night coffee, like I imagined they did in London.

I traced the journey in my A-Z. 'Is this the stop?' I asked for the third time. He nodded.

'But you didn't need to touch out,' he said. Of course you didn't.

With the dead weight of my bag on my back I climbed the five sets of stairs and pressed the bell. The girl who'd later become my friend, and not my friend, answered wearing a slouchy jumper and orange hair that would in time become black, lilac, pink and blonde.

'Oh hey! Emma? Come in. Tea? Wine?'

I walked into the tiny hallway where one wall was entirely consumed by a painting of a naked man.

'It's from my life drawing class...don't you just wanna fuck him?'

I smiled politely, thinking she probably had, or was doing.

'That's your room there,' she said, pointing through a door into what looked like a child's bedroom, with a single bed and a port-hole for a window.

I dropped my rucksack and sat down at the table to drink my tea which was poured into a cup that was more like a bowl; old, Grandma china, with two handles.

'Sorry, we don't have any mugs. I got these from a charity shop, I think they're for soup, but they totally work for tea.'

I put my fingers through the handles and stared into the familiar milky brown that didn't taste quite like it should.

My phone buzzed and I excused myself.

'Hey Ems, it's just Mum! Did you make it ok?'

'Yeah, I'm in one piece.'

'And how's the room?'

'Yeah, it's nice'. I say, turning to look out of the port-hole to see only an iron staircase scattered with fried chicken boxes.

'Andy popped round, I think he misses you already...Did you do a food shop?'

'Nah, not had time yet. I can just get bits from the corner shop.'

'How's the housemate?'

'Yeah, she's ok. She drinks tea from a soup cup...'

'A soup cup?! I can send you down some real mugs if you like, I've got some...'

'Nah, don't worry, I'll get some this week when I do a proper shop.'

But six months turned into six years and I never did do a proper shop. (Except the time just after I'd broken up with Him when no-one went home for Christmas and we shopped in Waitrose for a treat.) And I never did get around to replacing the soup cups with real mugs either. Because the things that seemed odd to begin with quickly became more normal. I learnt the rules of the city about Oysters, escalators, when to leave the party and when to stay, when to text in the night and when not to. And I realised that feeling at home wasn't about having a matching set of mugs, but staying somewhere long enough for the odd ones to feel strangely familiar.

O Tell Me The Truth About Love by Laura Grace

Theme: Right relationship, wrong relationship

Sundown. All day the air has been heavy with that sticky, oppressive heat before a storm. I am curled up on the threadbare suede loveseat by the window, letting the half-light fade around me. I have placed electric fans on the tables in the sitting room and watch as they spin gently, turning back and forth in steady semi-circles. I think of you.

You know the way runners get in position for a sprint? They lean forward, in this kind of off-balance way, just wavering there for a moment before they shoot off at the starting pistol. And I always think that if you want to move fast in life, if you want to get that thing you desire above anything, if you want to go zip zoom hell-for-leather with your blood singing in your ears - you just need to be a bit off-balance.

You said this to me (or something like it - I embellish, I always do) while half-cut, wagging an unlit cigarette, outside an All Bar One near Oxford Street. Rain falling around us, sliding off the tarpaulin overhead, pinging in tiny bullets at my feet. You were warming me up, of course. And I drank it in, your words, your touch, like brandy in the November air.

Love is capricious, I knew this. Like the seasons, it slips in unnoticed and leaves again unseen, its absence filling the air for weeks before I notice the change, feel it in my bones. In winter you were a love to wrap myself in, to block out the relentless thrum of this new city glittering outside in an icy rainbow darkness. It is summer now, and you are a phantom, our time together an ellipsis. Blankness I will conjure up after writing this. Cosmo’s 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover (July issue, 2013) directs me to eat ice cream with my girlfriends, and ask my hairdresser for a new fringe, and write a letter to you that I must burn. So, I am writing this for you. An exorcism. A last fiery kiss.

Is four months a relationship? Is it love? The girlfriends with their tubs of chocolate fudge brownie say no. But there are many kinds of love, and this is mine. A love you have no use for.

I am letting myself think of you one last time. A gift. An indulgence. One I will suffer for later, but now I let myself luxuriate in it, cast myself adrift. Because love was the boat we made for ourselves, to drift across this dark sea that stretches from horizon to horizon. We built it plank by plank, till our hands bled, till we fell down exhausted and watched the sky turn above us, felt the waves stir under us. And now the water pools at my feet, the boat lurches and creaks, crusted with salt (past fixing, you had said, throwing hammer and nails overboard).

The last day, the last night. The half-packed suitcase, shirts in neat rolls. Afterwards, after you had walked away that last time, I stood on the tube platform watching your train move away, and thinking that to do those things we did, that I did, you don’t just need to be off-balance, you need to be on the edge of something too – on that circus high-wire above the crowds, and you might slip at any moment, but you only have to keep looking straight ahead. And we all fall, you know, one way or another. You’re probably falling right now, my love, like a star in the sky, a guttering flare. And that is love, the unrequited kind at least - falling into the dark.

I know I must form myself again, finger by finger in the night. But that is later. Now there is blistering in daylight, there is shattering with each step. There are these endless fucking metaphors that try and try to get closer to something, that circle around it. Because I cannot look at it. I cannot name it.

I will let this sit a while before I burn it, let it flutter on the coffee table as the fans whir, as the shadows stretch to the ceiling. I will sit and sit in the thick darkness, feeling it shift and swell and cover me, like sand rising in a storm.

The Girl in the Green Dress by Olivia Fisher

Theme: Living in the city

She gets on the northbound High Barnet train at Euston. Tall, tanned and lithe, she’s the kind of girl you look up from your newspaper at. Her green dress is beautiful; a simple summer shift with a pretty floral pattern. She sits down a couple of seats away. I go back to half-reading the paper; Syria’s chemical arms; Colorado kidnapper hanged in cell; GQ awards; half-counting down the stations until I can get off.

The next station is Mornington Crescent. I know exactly where I’m going but I’m re-tracing old steps, checking off each stop as a matter of course. I’ve done this journey almost every day for the past five years, except for the last few weeks. Now, on my way back to the old flat, I feel like someone else. The next station is Camden Town.

The midriff is in. Daisy Lowe, Rita Ora, Jessie J - they’re all doing it. I look down at my own soft tummy and add ‘Get fit enough to bare midriff a la Daisy Lowe’ to my imaginary ‘things to do now I’m single’ list. I wonder if the girl in the green dress has heard my internal monologue as she’s now looking over my shoulder at the crop top feature. The next station is Kentish Town. She’s probably planning her own midriff-baring outfit. She doesn’t need to get fit.

The woman sat opposite me is wearing a fluorescent yellow top that looks garish under the lights of the tube. Her friend has long fake acrylic nails that remind me of the plastic witch fingers I would always insist on wearing for Halloween. They chat about their day ahead, their northern accents audible over the noise of the train. The next station is Tufnell Park.

The girl in the green dress gets up. Backpack slung over her shoulder and paperback in hand she hops off the train, her green dress fluttering in the underground gust of air. I wonder briefly where she’s headed before my attention turns back to the women opposite. The next station is Archway.

As we leave the station I start to think about the next part of my journey. The thought of the old flat brings up unwanted tears. I breathe them away. Highgate, East Finchley and Finchley Central come and go along with my Northern travelling companions. Finally, I get to the last little bit of the journey. The next station is West Finchley. As I step off the train all I can think of is the moment I first arrived at this suburban spot of North London. The sun was shining then too.

After leaving the flat I can’t even get to the end of the road without the tears coming up. When they do I don’t even try and wipe them away. They don’t even sting. I let them wash the makeup off my face and as I walk to the station the warm sun dries my cheeks. When I get on the train I sit in the end seat and rest my head against the glass. I wish I could fast forward the next 20 minutes.

As the doors open at Tufnell Park I look up and see her. It’s the girl in the green dress. As she walks past to an empty seat on the other side of the carriage she looks over for a second and I wonder if she recognizes me. What a coincidence. I’m used to seeing the same commuters on the same train of a morning, but seeing the same girl in the middle of the day on two random trains seems uncanny.

Suddenly I’m sobbing again. I don’t even know what I’m crying for. I try and wipe the tears away as soon as they spill out so that no one feels obliged to say anything. I can see the girl in the green dress looking over at me. I try to avoid eye contact. The tears are now running down my neck and one drops off my chin onto my chiffon top making a midnight blue spot. I see her once again glancing over at me from behind a page of her book. It’s funny though; I can see she’s genuinely concerned, not just gawping at my sadness.

As we leave Camden Town the girl in the green dress puts her book away and starts looking for something in her backpack. Through flickering glances I can see her hands doing something under the cover of her bag. I’m not quite sure what, but I know at this moment, and it’s so clear to me, that she’s going to give me something. Her face is so serene, so open and honest.

The train pulls into Euston and she gets up, pausing for just a second in front of me. She holds out her hand and in it is a small square of folded paper. She looks at me with eyes that say, “Take it”. I reach out, take the paper from her fingers and unfold it slowly. On this torn square of thick notebook paper she’s scribbled a heart surrounded by a cloud in blue biro. It’s so childlike, done in the spur of the moment, yet so thoughtful. I can’t help but smile. Before I can look up and thank her, she’s gone.

I look around expecting others to be watching, also amazed at this random act of kindness. But it seems that in those few seconds London is back to its usual aloof, uninterested best, and the other faces on the tube carriage are oblivious. I wonder whether to dash out in pursuit of the girl in the green dress to thank her, but quickly decide against it. To acknowledge it would spoil the sweet and kind simplicity of the gesture.

Coming up from underground I walk out of the station into the bright September sunshine. I take the paper heart token out of the zipped pocket of my bag and hold it out in front of me just to check I haven’t imagined it. Looking down at it I think of her kind face, and all I can see on this little square is the light reflecting back from the sun.

Living In The City by Philippa Dunjay

It's possible to live in this city all your life and not know its secret ways. How, if you dare to pull back a broken slat from a fence round the Barbican, you can climb into a quiet churchyard. How you can push through a gap in the hedge into a locked garden in Soho. That there's a way into the hollow legs of one of the grand columns, and you can walk up and up until you find yourself looking over the whole of the city, on a level only birds and bankers go.

It was Danny who showed me the secret ways in and out and around this city. Someone has to show you: how the first people discovered these paths, I don't know. They seem impossible to find. But those urban pioneers must have passed the word on from mouth to mouth, and for me, it was Danny who showed me the way, who taught me so much. Danny, who made me stop thinking of the city like this: yours and mine, private and public, up and down, allowed and forbidden. He loved the abandoned parts, the ugly parts, the outcasts. He once cried when he looked at a dried-up fountain, and told me his heart was made of concrete. But I think it's because, despite trying so hard, he knew he didn't quite work either.

Danny I'd met at a warehouse party, last July maybe. The summer heat had pressed the whole city down flat, commuters walking to work with their tongues hanging out, crumpled suits and sweaty ties, hands running around the brims of foreheads. The pavements outside pubs roared with life in the evenings. I would have given anything to have stood outside that summer, holding a weak Pimms and throwing my arms around in pantomime. I longed for pockets of people to hold myself in, for new conversations, new friends. Instead, I'd had sat at home fiddling on Facebook, looking at the names of people I'd forgotten I'd liked, and drinking icy gin and tonics to fill the gap between work and play.

But that July evening, there was a party, and I was sat on the bus up east, fussing with my hair, eyeliner, lipstick, trying to re-adjust my face to the world. My friends were always already there – had arrived together – and I was always late or early, it seemed, two drinks ahead or behind, always travelling alone.

And so, plunging into the mass of the party, it was a relief to find them so quickly. My crew, our crew. We'd only drawn together in the last year maybe, tightening up old friendships, crossing bonds, splicing new connections together. It was their friend's flat-cooling party – developers were knocking down the entire block – and so we could paint the walls with whatever we wanted. And we did - electric blue daisies and yellow dogs, green butterflies and in red, all our names in a giant heart.

Danny was painting too, in an oversized jumper, and I might have thought him too posed, with his thick rimmed glasses and high cheekbones. But he laughed as I painted the petal of my flower into his cat's tail, and we swirled paintbrushes around, getting more abstract, playing with colour. And after, we crouched on the floor, paint-flecked, and shared a can of warm beer, and talked about things like – if this was art - and who we knew, and where we went out and what the world was. And laughed and got on and joked and talked, until he said, finally – I've got to go.

A missed chance, there, a connection that was hanging in the air, and yet I felt too tired and too old and too weak to say – come back to mine, yeah? But if I do, will you still call me tomorrow? Maybe we could date? Though maybe I don't want that – what do you think? But then maybe I'd change my mind, or you'd change it for me? And we could drink expensively in dive bars east, and drink cheaply in the posh ones west, and watch the sun oil up in the south on top of a multi-storey car park, and have fights in supermarket lots near warehouses far far out, and argue over films and books and football matches and music, and meet each other's friends, and maybe, just, find each other?

And I think he saw a glimpse of this too, this moment hanging in the air, or maybe he just saw time ticking away, but something made him say:

“Find me on Facebook, yeah? Danny Ruban. Or I'll find you. And we can hang out, yeah? And I'll show you some of the cool places in this city.”

And I said,

“Yeah, yeah, okay. Cool. Yeah.”

And I kept watch on his back all the way down the stairs, as he went out onto the city street.

So back here, in maybe July, where I'm back on the night bus alone, pressed up hard against the stained seat, with the smell of kebab drifting through, and a pair of girls are yelling about boys at the back, and a hoodie is playing music too loud so I have to put my headphones in too, and I run my nails along the edge of my Oyster card, and wrap my arms around myself for comfort more than warmth, and ease off my shoes, and I think - I'm alone again - but maybe it matters a little less, maybe everything will change tomorrow, perhaps one good night, one chance meeting, is all we can ask for sometimes, perhaps he will change everything and perhaps he won't, and so I press my nose up against the grimy window and watch the city flicker by underneath me, and I whisper:

“I'm alive, I'm alive, I'm alive.”

Right Relationship, Wrong Relationship by Rosie Hore

Every couple needs a pastime. Like baking or video-blogging duets or reading Postsecret every Sunday over peppermint tea. Their pastime was making coffee-shop girls feel uncomfortable.

He worked in this particular chain of coffee shops whenever he came up for meetings in London. He had given up his office in Soho after the recession hit, and here he could work without getting harassed by right-on young professionals who secretly loved the super-sweet coffees but had to boycott after the entirely predictable revelation that this chain had an annual tax bill lower than the price of a grande mocha. He worked in the branch off Hyde Park Corner, which had sofas and working plug sockets and a manager (or ‘baristocrat’ or whatever made-up title they gave them) who was sensible about the air-conditioning.

She had just started work at a legal publishers nearby, her first job after graduation. She was the scullery-maid of proof-readers: sweeping up Oxford Commas and split infinitives left there carelessly by the masters of the house. She smiled at him in that coffee shop on the morning of her second day and had been back every morning since in the hope of seeing him. A week in, he’d come over to her table and asked her out for dinner.

It turned out that they didn’t have much to say to each other. He asked her about her degree and her move to London. She brought up the tax bill/grande mocha thing, as a joke, and it didn’t go down well. He told her, kindly, that she might feel differently once she had actually had to pay tax. She was being more polite than usual, like she was speaking to a male teacher or a friend’s dad, but with the same amateur attempts at school-girl flirtation.

The silences over dinner were long and frequent. She used the silences to eat her burger. The restaurant was the culinary equivalent of one of those grown-up coffee slushies - entirely bland, a big sugar and fat Americana hug-in-a-bun. He hardly ate, just drank and looked at her, with a slightly amused look on his face. Sometimes she’d try to stare him out, but invariably failed and went back to dipping chips in mayonnaise.

They both knew that as first dates go, this was a pretty terrible one, and soon they stopped going for dinner. But he started coming to the Hyde Park Corner coffee shop to buy her breakfast even when he didn’t have any meetings that day, which meant getting a peak train. They’d meet outside and kiss like they’d woken up next to each other. It became the only time they saw each other. By the time she finished work, he’d caught the last train home, and she wasn’t allowed visitors in her rented room in any case.

They still didn’t talk much in that twenty minutes of cinnamon swirls, but she’d tell him little amusing things about the office and he would listen like it was the most important thing in the world. Their pastime started to develop, gradually.

“Pop your card in the machine please, sir,” the girl behind the counter said one Monday. She was their favourite. She never had make-up on at this time in the morning.

“Would you like me to stick it in?” he growled. His voice still sounded unfamiliar, because he used it so rarely.

The girl looked unsure. “Yes please, sir. In the machine.”

“It’s nice when you stick it in, isn’t it?” He said it totally casually and the girl didn’t say anything. It was only when they collected their coffees and sat down that they got the giggles, bad.

Soon, they started to dare each other to say more and more outrageous things. When she asked for a ‘fuckachino’, he actually cracked up and had to go outside to calm down. It was the most out of control she had ever seen him.

One Thursday morning - the point in the week when she was trying not to count the hours left - they went inside to order.

“Good morning, sir.” (It was the girl behind the counter with the fringe half way up her forehead, whom they’d encountered before.)

He put on an American accent , and badly. “You know what, it is a good morning! Because I just woke up next to this little piece. Nice, no?”

The micro-fringe grit her teeth. “Can I take your order sir?”

“You’d like a piece of this ma’am?” he continued over her. “She likes the ladies, don’t you darlin’?.”

She took the plunge. In her best New Yorker: “Sure do, honey. And you look mighty fine, I must say.”

The girl looked annoyed, then angry. They didn’t really notice, high on the glee of getting away with murder over that half metre of coffee bar, but she was calling over her manager.

He came over from behind the counter, into their – invincible – space. “Excuse me, but I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” he said. “You’re making my staff feel extremely uncomfortable and I’m afraid it’s not the first time we’ve seen you in here.”

Her face burned and she looked towards him, for some guidance, at least. Suddenly, they both ran. Turned, and ran out of the door, down the street, scarves and bags flying. They ran and ran until, in the middle of Hyde Park they fell, breathless, on the grass laughing and panting and loving that moment and each other.

Immaculate Deception by Naida Redgrave

Theme: Right relationship, wrong relationship

“Is there any chance that you would believe that this is an act of God?”

Grace reached for a croissant and attempted to meet her mother's eyeline across the kitchen table. Her mother was sat, arms crossed and glaring out of the window.

“You don't believe in God, Grace. You've made that abundantly clear...”

“Mat's mot I mean,” she replied, mouth full as she reached for some jam. “These are really good by the way. Where are they from?”

Her mother snatched the jam out of reach and slammed it at the other end of the table. “Do you have to talk with your mouth full?”

Grace swallowed exaggeratedly. “May I continue? So, what I mean is, it's the nay-sayers who get proven wrong, you know? I mean, for all we know, Mary didn't even believe in God until the immaculate conception...”

“Mary was married. Not running around London doing Lord knows what with Lord knows who.”

Grace slumped back in her seat and rubbed her stomach. “Do you have any ginger tea?”

Her mother stood up and walked over to a cupboard. “I have ginger and I have tea. So do you know who the father is?”

“Well, not exactly...”

“Really Gracie? Come on! What's the matter with you? How did you turn into...this? This isn't how I raised you.” She walked over to the sink, filled the kettle until it overflowed and stood, unable to turn around.

“Well actually, and this is really quite embarrassing for me to say, but actually, I've had very little sex. Compared to my peers. I mean, I haven't even been in a properly, serious relationship. So the sex I do have isn't even regular, you know? It's like grab it while you can for me. So really, this is absolutely not my fault. It would be more irresponsible had I been in a relationship if you think about it, because I would be knowingly having sex all the time and increasing my chances of pregnancy. This way was the least likely way to conceive. So actually, you taught me quite well.”

Her mother spun around with the kettle in hand, spilling water all over the floor.

“I think you overfilled the kettle, mum.” Dropping it back into the sink, she threw a tea-towel onto the floor and ran her foot over it.

“Do you know how far along you are? What has the doctor said?” She knelt down to pick up the wet cloth and wrung it in the sink.

Grace reached for another croissant. “Oh, I haven't been yet.”

“What do you mean you haven't been yet?” She wiped the kettle and set it on the dock, flicking the switch forcefully before sitting back down.

“They're so ridiculous at the GP. You have about a ten-minute window between eight and ten past in the morning to call them to make an appointment, and they never answer the phone anyway, and it's just such a stressful experience, you know?”

“Well when did you take the pregnancy test?”

Grace reached over for the jam, tearing a piece of croissant and dipping in the the jar.

“I haven't yet.”

“What do you mean you haven't yet? How do you know you're pregnant?”

Grace stood up, pulled a mug from the tree and rifled through the cupboard.

“It's hard to explain. I just have this feeling. Like a sixth sense. Where are the teaspoons?”

Her mother gestured to the drawers on the opposite side of the kitchen.

“When was your last period?

“Oh my god! Am I not entitled to some privacy? Why is it suddenly appropriate to ask about my vagina? Do you not think that's a little bit weird? I don't go round asking about yours.”

“Grace, when was it?” Her mother stood in front of her, hands on hips. Grace picked up her mug and rushed to sit back down. Her mother followed. “Grace, for God's sake, just tell me! Why are you being so difficult?”

“Okay, okay. Well, it's kind of complicated.”


“Alright. I have it now. But it's a thing that can happen, you know. Don't you remember that storyline in Eastenders?”

“So you haven't taken a test, and you have your period. Have you even had sex recently?”

“So wait, you were annoyed because I was having sex, and now you're annoyed that I'm not?”

“So you're not actually pregnant?”


“What is the matter with you Gracie? Are you trying to give me a heart attack?”

“Okay, okay. I got fired. But I was scared to tell you, so I thought if I made up some worse fake news, you wouldn't take the real news so badly. So, surprise! I'm not pregnant. You're not going to be a grandmother!” Grace stood up and held out her arms, ready for an embrace. Her mother looked up at her, gazing as if trying to place a stranger's face.

“Surprise!” Grace repeated, as if she hadn't been heard the first time. Her mother stood up, slipped past her open arms and headed towards the door. Grace turned.

“Mum – mummy, before you go. Could I maybe borrow a little bit of money?” Her mother paused for a second without turning, then slammed the door behind her.

“I'll pay you back, I promise,” Grace shouted after her.

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