Winners: short story competition 2009/10

We are pleased to announce the winners of the Exeter Writers Short Story Competition 2009/10. The stories are online; follow the links.

First – Rowena Macdonald - The Silent Isle
Second – Sarah Evans - Us
Third – Amanda Bartlett - Where the Devil Lost his Poncho


Alison Bacon - Mouse Years
Sarah England - The Madness Within
Annette Keen - The Self-Preservation Society
Norman Kitching - A Matter of Time
Daniel Knibb - Daughter’s Song
Jenny Knight - I’d Do Anything
Michele McGrath Edwin - Don’t Mess with Meadowside and Five Lamps
Tony Oswick - The Writing Group
Ann Stevens - The Golden Goose

Thanks to all our entrants.


We're sorry, but we have recently had so many new applicants to join the group that we are not able to accept any more at present.

The Silent Isle / 1st in 2009/10 Competition


by Rowena Macdonald

‘"I am half sick of shadows," said
The Lady of Shalott.’
- Tennyson

On either side of the Whitechapel Road chaos is in full flood. Market stall-holders hammer out their patter: “bowl for pound tomato pepper onion bowl for pound”, “seventy pee coriander parsley parsley coriander seventy pee”. An African woman stalks through the customers shouting about God through a megaphone. Behind her is another African woman with a banner that reads ‘Christ is Risen’. A white woman spits at a Chinese woman who is selling pirate DVDs on her patch. A fight breaks out and a bottleneck of people forms around it. The police are called. An air ambulance lands on top of the Royal London Hospital. The noise of its blades obliterates all other sounds. A police car carves a swathe through the traffic and halts between the stalls with a brief whoop of its siren. Even the car’s blue lights seem loud. In Fresh Eatz next to the station the Turkish boy behind the counter cranks the Gaggia and blasts hot steam through the hundredth coffee of the morning.
          Halfway down the Whitechapel Road, overlooking this anarchic carnival, is a cool, lily-scented, dimly-lit island: the Shalothi Beauty Salon. Embowered in this island, languidly waiting for the tinkle of the bell which signals a customer, Shruti reclines on a treatment chair that she has pushed back to the most horizontal position and thinks about the Turkish boy. He is the most handsome boy she has ever seen with his coal-black curls, his broad clear brow, his dark liquid eyes. So much more handsome than the men her family keeps making her meet. Every day, passing Fresh Eatz on the way to and from work, she glimpses him through the window and he always smiles at her.
          Any moment now, Ramesh will put his head around the screen and tell her to wipe the spotless mirrors or sweep the shiny floor. The screen is patterned with peacocks and tigers and divides the main salon from the reception area where Ramesh sits behind a desk reading the Inqilab. Ostensibly the screen is there to protect the customers’ modesty from the eyes of the street – although the truly intimate operations, the Hollywood, Bollywood and Brazilian waxes, occur in a back room – but sometimes Shruti wonders if it is also supposed to stop the beauticians from being distracted by the excitement of life beyond the tinted salon window.
          The only customer is a white girl with dreadlocks whose upper lip Anjali is threading. She keeps waving her arms to make Anjali stop, then sitting upright and dabbing her watering eyes. They both laugh and the girl says something that contains the phrases “oh my God” and “pain”. “Next time…better…not so pain,” says Anjali in English and then, turning to Shruti, she says in Sylheti, “These English girls make so much fuss, eh? So much fuss over a little bit of threading. Though it is true she did practically have a full moustache when she came in.”
          Shruti smirks and Ramesh says loudly from the other side of the screen, “Stop talking about the customers in front of them. One of these days one of them will understand Sylheti and you’ll end up ruining my business.”
          A surprising number of white girls come into the salon. They are attracted by the low prices and the efficacy of the treatments – Ramesh’s beauticians are, under his strict regime, skilful at their jobs. Shruti also suspects they feel adventurous and liberal coming to the Shalothi. She is as interested in them as they are in her. She wishes she could answer the questions they ask when she is divesting their nether regions of pubic hair. But her English is limited to the basics necessary for her job: “Sit here”… “Head back”… “Open legs”… “Sorry for hurt”… “Finished”… “Good?”…On arriving in England a year ago she was given a job in the Shalothi as Ramesh is her father’s cousin. No one has considered that she could go back to school. Every time she suggests it to her father, he changes the subject or says “yes, yes…we’ll think about it…maybe when we’ve got more time and money…” But there never seems to be time or money and so she has gradually started teaching herself English using books borrowed from the Idea Store further down Whitechapel Road. She is definitely getting better at it but there is rarely any chance to practice, except with the white girl customers and, unless she is the back room with them, Ramesh filters their questions, relaying them to her in Sylheti, so Shruti is never sure if Ramesh is giving her the full translation or a mangled paraphrase.
          She supposes she should feel lucky that she isn’t stuck at home and that she has a job she generally enjoys. As she is trying to hang onto this positive thought, the doorbell tinkles, and behind the screen she hears an English voice making an inquiry. “Shruti,” Ramesh announces, “Girl here wants a mehendi. Come out, please.”
          The girl is white and wearing a tiny skirt. It is mid-June and very hot but Shruti can’t believe the girl has actually walked down Whitechapel Road in a garment that barely covers her private parts. Actually, she can believe it, since she sees girls like this every day though the window but, even so, it amazes her. Still, the girl is smiley and full of appreciation as Shruti takes out a fresh foil sachet of henna, snips off the pointed end and begins drawing a swirling spray of leaves and flowers down her left arm, which she plans to extend over her hand and down to her ring-less ring finger. Shruti is the best mehendi artist in the salon and she particularly enjoys decorating white girls because they are impressed by whatever you do, so you can lose yourself in the pattern and not stick to the designs in the template book that Asian girls tend to choose.
          It takes her half an hour to produce an intricate design that rests on the girl’s skin like a mud-caked spider’s web. The girl asks her a question which Ramesh immediately answers.
          “She wants to know how long you’ve been doing this; whether it’s taken you a long time to learn,” he explains. “I told her my wife taught you everything you know.”
          Shruti says nothing but this isn’t true. She has been doing mehendi since she was very young. She and her friends used to practice on each other during the breaks at school. She remembers her best friend, Samhita, lounging against the schoolyard wall, impatiently picking off the curlicues of dried henna before it had even had a chance to properly imprint her skin.
          The girl asks another question and again Ramesh replies before Shruti can find out what it was. His answer makes the girl gaze in beatific wonder at the pattern being created on her.
          “What did she want to know?”
          “She wanted to know whether this mehendi you’re doing means anything. I told her it meant Allah’s love was shining down on her.”
          He and Shruti snigger.
          “Why does she want a mehendi anyway?” Shruti asks, “Is she going to a wedding?”
          Ramesh and the girl exchange a few sentences in English, of which the only words Shruti catches are “party’ and “Bollywood”.
          “She’s going to a Bollywood theme fancy dress party.”
          It bemuses Shruti that the English have suddenly caught onto Bollywood. Her bemusement is mixed with something else, something she can’t quite pinpoint – irritation, perhaps; irritation that they never get it right. She imagines this girl and her friends turning up to this party in lengths of cheap shiny cloth fashioned into ill-tied saris, lipstick bindis on their foreheads.
          “Tell her the darker the colour turns out, the more her husband will love her.”
          Ramesh translates the old proverb into English and, after some frowns and demands for Ramesh to repeat himself more clearly, the girl beams at Shruti. She obviously has no husband but Shruti is curious to know if she has a lover.
          “She says she isn’t married but she hopes the colour will show that her boyfriend loves her very much.” Ramesh relays the sounds that come out of the girl’s mouth in reply. Shruti conceals her envy with her most decorous smile.
          The girl leaves the shop in a flurry of delighted gratitude. Shruti watches her disappear into the sunlight with her bare legs and her confident strut and feels a silent sob swell up inside. For half an hour she had been happily lost in her talent for making pretty patterns, but it is not enough. She is sick of the shadowy salon, sick of her hidden away life. She looks at the gold mirrored wall clock. Suddenly she feels brave enough to come out with what she has been daring herself to say for days.
          “Ramesh, can I go out for lunch today?”
          “I want to go out for lunch today.”
          “Haven’t you brought something from home?” Usually Shruti brings in last night’s leftovers.
          “Well.” Ramesh peers behind the screen to see what Anjali makes of this extraordinary request but she is performing further depilations on the dreadlocked girl in the backroom. “You can have some of my lunch. Or I could go and buy something from the corner shop for you.”
          “I want to go out for lunch.” Though she is wobbly inside, Shruti is determined. “I was reading about English employment law and, by law, if I work for more than four and a half hours I am allowed a half hour break spent away from the place where I work if I want.”
          “Where did you read this?”          “A Government leaflet in the Banglatown Women’s Centre.” Helpfully the leaflet had been translated into Sylheti.
          “Well, if that is what the Government says and that is the law…” Ramesh trails off, completely thrown by Shruti’s boldness and the threat of higher authority. “But if any customers come in and Anjali is busy then you must come back. I will ring you on your mobile. Don’t go far. Where are you going?”
          Shruti smiles mysteriously.
          Out in the market, the blue unclouded sky beats down and the bustle, heat and noise slaps her in the face. Without her usual scarf, Shruti feels exposed and noticeable in the pure white shalwar kameez that Ramesh insists all his beauticians wear. She feels foolishly clean as she weaves through the grubby confusion of the market. She heads to Fresh Eatz. Yes, he is there, the Turkish boy behind the counter, his smile as charming as usual, his dark eyes welcoming her as she points to a pastry then to the word on the menu which she knows means coffee. She is too nervous to attempt any English. Her heart is thumping. Here she is, alone, standing opposite the boy she loves.
          He asks her something complicated of which the only word she understands is “milk” so she simply nods. She sits at a table in the window so he can see her and she can glance at him surreptitiously as he works. This is the first time she has ever sat alone in a cafĂ©. She feels even more out of place and self conscious than she did on the street. Her white outfit seems to glow.
          The fact he must be Muslim will work in her favour; she clings onto a crumb of hope that eventually she will be able to persuade her father, even though she knows Turkey is irredeemably Westernised in his eyes. She yearns for the boy to come over and speak to her but customers keep crowding up to the counter. He is friendly to everyone and she realises with a hollow drop in her stomach that his beautiful smile, the one she thought was for her alone, is given to all. Beyond the window she sees, with a flutter at the coincidence, the girl with the mini-skirt entering the shop, holding her left arm out so as not to smudge the drying henna. Shruti is about to say hello when the most terrible thing happens. The girl doesn’t notice her at all and instead walks straight up to the counter, where the Turkish boy is pouring hot milk into someone’s coffee. In front of everyone, she kisses him full on his red lips and he kisses her back. Shruti’s heart cracks from side to side.

© Rowena Macdonald, 2010

back to competition results

Us / 2nd in 2009/10 Competition


by Sarah Evans

We gather up along the way to school.
          Gemma’s first. Then me, watching for her at the bottom of our road. She’s never when she should be; I always wait. Next is Jess, a few more roads along. Sometimes she walks back to meet us. Last is Trish. It’s off the straight way there. We twist along her narrow street with houses tightly packed, right up to her door. The window is on the road, and the paint blisters and flakes on the sill, and you can’t see in through the grime and net curtains. She opens the door just as we get there, her hair straight and dark, cut to points around her ears – four sets of studs – her jumper tied round her waist, no matter that it’s April and cold.
          Then we’re four.
          Trish is always at the centre.
          We shuffle, jostle and josh our way along. We talk and have a gag. It’s hard to explain just what it feels like, being us. How we’re like bigger, stronger, filled-up and warm on quick-fire laughter. Wicked!
          Close to school we see her: Simone.
          You can tell from her name she’s dead posh.
          Trish has a way of saying it. Si-moan. Miss Moan. She tried to tell us once, Simone did, that that’s not how you pronounce it.
          But what Trish says, goes.
          Simone has ginger hair. It’s not just about the colour though. It frizzes out on top, like a bird’s nest, a bird that isn’t very good at nests, Trish says. Like frigging candyfloss. And then – here’s the really good bit – it goes twisting round in ringlets.
          Who’s ever heard of them?
          They look like copper piping, or rolled brandy-snaps, or the cardboard applicators for tampons for them’s so posh they don’t like to use their fingers.
          Tampax tubes, Trish calls them.
          Simone never laughs. Though you’ve got to admit, it’s funny.
          Tampax tubes. Simone’s face goes red when you say that. It starts like a rash on her neck and creeps upwards. She has freckles too.
          Perhaps she’s too posh to use tampons at all. She might use panty liners that smell of lavender. Or perhaps she’s too bleeding posh to bleed at all. Or she bleeds blue blood, like them adverts on telly.
          Trish has us all in fits of giggles.
          The problem with Simone is, she has no sense of humour.
          That’s what Trish says.

Today Simone’s just ahead of us. Her head is all hunched down into her neck, like she’s a hedgehog. We hurry up to catch up on her.
          ‘Hello!’ Trish says, and you should hear the way she says it, like the Queen. Simone’s eyes don’t hardly leave the pavement. Not exactly friendly like. She just keeps on walking.
          ‘He-llo!’ Trish says it again with a rise on lo, demanding an answer.
          ‘Hello,’ Simone says.
          You’d think she’d learn, wouldn’t you? Only the clever bit is, there isn’t really a way out. Trish is good at that. No reply means Simone’s a stuck-up bitch. But anything she does say provides Trish with ammunition.
          ‘Hiya,’ Trish says back. And then she’s back to posh: ‘So how are you this morning?’
          Simone’s face is turning beetroot. She half trips over the curb into the road, and that’s because Trish is slowly crowding her that way. The rest of us huddle close behind, our faces hot too, from all that holding in of laughter. We’re waiting. For the good bit.
          ‘OK,’ Simone mutters. ‘You?’
          ‘Me? I’m very well thank-you.’ Trish pauses. We wait. ‘Tell me is it true?’
          ‘Is what true?’
          ‘That you bleed blue?’
          It’s almost like a poem.

It’s Gemma and me together in class, with Trish and Jess behind. Us four. Simone’s in front, by herself.
          It’s English. Dead boring.
          Miss Lavender hands our poems back. Trish has come out tops, the way she always does. A big round zero marked up in red. She shows us what she wrote. The pussy. Sat on the hussy. Half-rhyme. Clever like.
          Simone is told to come to the front and read hers. Some complete bollocks about her Siamese cat. Does she ever learn?
          We look out for her in the break, spot her in the corner on her own. Sally used to hang out with her till Trish started on her too. Mostly everyone ignores her. Not us though. We’re dead friendly.
          ‘I liked your poem,’ Trish starts.
          Simone doesn’t answer; she tries to walk away. Only we’re four and crowd in around her.
          ‘All about your pussy,’ Trish continues, and that red colour is rising in blotches up Simone’s neck and clashing with her hair.
          ‘Your grey furry pussy.’ Trish keeps on.
          ‘My cat.’ Finally Simone snaps back.
          ‘Your pussy,’ Trish says. ‘Why don’t you show us her. I never seen a grey one. Does that curl in tampax tubes too?’
          I catch the wildcat look in Simone’s eyes, along with the scent of talcum powder and sweat. And just for a moment the April wind razors through me. Then we run off, laughing.

We look out for her on the way home. Only she isn’t there. Running on ahead or left cowering in the loos, we don’t know.
          Not like we care. We huddle together against the wind as we light a single fag and pass it round.
          ‘Show us yours then,’ a group of lads shout over.
          ‘We’d never find yours,’ Trish shouts back.
          One by one we split off.
          Then I’m home. And it’s just me.

We don’t see Simone the next morning either. Something is wrong when we get to school. We feel it soon as we walk into the class. Mrs Buxton is at the front and the whole class is quiet and still, and her face is like she’s eaten a lemon.
          ‘As I was saying,’ she says, glaring at us, and normally that would be a cue for Trish to mimic it back the minute she looks away. Only today she doesn’t. ‘The police are conducting a series of interviews. The school day will carry on as normal. You will all be called one by one.’
          The police? Interviews?
          We look at one another and shrug. Has to be better than double maths. In front of us, Simone’s chair is empty. But then so’s Kieran’s and Sally’s.
          Then the door opens and Sally comes back. ‘The next one Miss,’ Sally says. ‘They said to send the next one along.’
          She sits down looking smug. Like she’s in on something. She looks over at us, then down at her desk.
          It’s an hour later and no one has even whispered what it’s all about. It’s unnaturally quiet. I’m doodling hearts and flowers, but Mrs Buxton doesn’t seem to notice.
          ‘Katherine,’ Mrs Buxton says. Like she doesn’t know that everyone calls me Kat. ‘You next.’
          I have to wait outside the headmaster’s room on a hard plastic chair. I try not to pick my spots. I fidget and think how if Trish was here she’d turn it into the biggest laugh. The door opens and hands are beckoning me in and Rachel, who was before me, flashes me a look.
          There’s two of them, a man and woman. He’s grey haired and in uniform; she isn’t. He sits behind the headmaster’s desk. She’s perched, one leg half resting on the desk, her skirt stretched tight over her thighs. Like this is dead informal.
          Her lips are glossy red and her hair is black and sleek, and she smells of citrus scent. She smiles. Not friendly though.
          ‘Well Katherine,’ she says. ‘We just have a few questions. Perhaps you could tell me who your friends are.’ Like she’s interested. I stare at her. ‘Your friends,’ she repeats. ‘You do have friends?’
          I feel like it’s a trap, only I can’t find a reason not to mutter ‘TrishGemmaJess’ under my breath. I get a feel of cold, though actually it’s hot in here. My arms are goose-bump tight, but my face is burning up, and I’m sweating. Bloody rashers. I think how Trish would say it. Rashers, bacon, pigs. It’s clever like.
          ‘Trish?’ the woman pig repeats. ‘Patricia Parkinson?’ I look down at my hands, partly because that name doesn’t sound right and partly because something in her look, hard and frozen, tells me I’ve said the wrong thing. I nod.
          ‘And how well do you know Simone Hindmarch?’
          ‘Simone?’ and I say it like she does, without the moan. ‘Not very well.’ Well I don’t.
          ‘Do you talk to her?’
          ‘Sometimes.’ Except usually it’s Trish who does the talking.
          ‘What do you talk about?’
          I shrug. A classic Trish shrug, only instead of making me feel don’t-care, I feel small and tight.
          Pig-woman keeps going on and on. When did I last speak to her? What did I say? What did she say back? Did I talk to her on my own? What did Patricia say?
          I keep saying I dunno, I can’t remember. Only in between other stuff keeps creeping out. Everything I say feels wrong.
          ‘You congratulated her on her poem?’ The woman’s voice is sarcy, almost like Trish’s.
          The room is very quiet. A radiator clanks. I hear voices outside. Must be break-time. I shuffle my bum, even though the seat’s a posh one with tapestry padding.
          ‘You see,’ the woman says. She’s talking dead slow like I’m a learning difficulties case, and her teeth are brilliant white against that red lippy. ‘The picture I’m beginning to get. What people are telling me. Is that Simone has been subjected to systematic bullying. And that there are four main perpetrators.’
          Bullying? The bloody little snitch. I try to hear the words in Trish’s voice. Only I can only hear my own.

I’m not allowed back in class. I get sat in a classroom on my own with Miss Davies, the soppy games teacher, who comes to school on Mondays with high necked jumpers, which fail to cover up the chewies on her neck. She gives me a maths book and tells me to work through it, only the book’s too far ahead and the pencil she hands me is broken. Only she doesn’t seem to care. Her eyes never once meet mine. The headmaster comes in and he doesn’t look at me either. He says something to Miss then leaves. His face is grey and grim. Grimshaw. Grimjaw. Grimy-paw.
          ‘You’re being sent home,’ Miss Davies says. ‘Your mother’s coming to collect you.’
          That can’t be right. She has her shift in Asda and she doesn’t get off till late. Only I don’t say anything.
          Just like Mum doesn’t say anything to me, not as we walk to the car, not for all the ten minutes it takes to drive back. Ten minutes takes longer than seems possible. It’s not my fault they sent me home, I want to say. They’ve not even said why.
          The house is colder in than out. Inside, Mum takes hold of both my arms and looks right at me. She’s borrowed that frozen-hard look that everyone is wearing today. She’s looking at me like she’s never seen me before.
          ‘Is it true?’ she asks.
          ‘Is what true?’
          ‘Don’t play games with me.’ She shakes me. ‘Is it true that you’ve been bullying that poor girl? Simone.’
          That poor girl?
          I want to explain. How she’s dead posh and how she asked for it with all her airs and graces and ringlets and putting her hand up in class and writing poems. We were just having a laugh.
          ‘Up to your room,’ she says, like I’m a five year old. ‘I can’t bear looking at you.’
          I’ve not had lunch, and I’m hungry, but I daren’t say anything. I curl up on my bed. Just me.

It’s six when Mum comes up again.
          ‘It’s on the news,’ she says. ‘You should come and watch.’
          What? Only the word doesn’t make it out.
          There’s a picture of our school and Grimjaw looking into the camera and I catch the tail end, ‘…serious incident. We are co-operating fully with the police.’ The camera switches to the hospital and a regimented row of flowers. A man and woman stand there wearing smartly tailored clothes, but looking crumpled. The woman has ginger hair and red eyes. Their lawyer makes a statement. Simone has lost a lot of blood. Her condition is still serious but stable. It’s lucky her mother found her when she did.
          My Mum still won’t look at me, but Simone’s Mum’s eyes seem to be razoring right through mine.
          And it’s just me, and I feel small and sick and hollow.

© Sarah Evans, 2010

back to competition results

Where the Devil lost his poncho / 3rd in 2009/10 Competition


by Amanda Bartlett

She was Spanish and a little bit crazy. He was English and a little bit dull. Her name was Mariaje, a contraction of Maria Jesus. In the first weeks of their relationship, she coached him without cease or mercy on the correct pronunciation. It was the Spanish jota, the ‘j’ in the middle of Mariaje, that he found so difficult to manage.
          "List-en," she said, as they lay in bed together, her syllabic, sing-song English and habitual tone of command ensuring that he did indeed listen, ensuring also a certain ripple of unrest deep in the pit of his stomach. “It is Mariaje. Mariaje, with a jota. Like the ‘ch’ in you-er Scottish lochs.” But David had always pronounced ‘loch’ as ‘lock’ and though he could, with effort, produce the required sound, or an approximation of it, an effect he achieved by imagining he had a hair stuck at the back of his throat, he could do so only in isolation. However much he practiced his jotas before the mirror in the morning, he could never find a way to slide that awkward, hawked-up sound into the folds of her name. For a while he called her Marica, which was easier for him to say and still had a Spanish ring to it, a charming compromise he thought, until one day she threw a plate at his head and informed him that ‘marica’ was an insult. He looked it up in his new Spanish dictionary; the entry read: marica [1] NF magpie. [2] NM sissy. That didn’t seem such a terrible insult to him, certainly no reason to break half the plates in his cupboard. (He only had two, so technically this was no exaggeration).
          “You think I don’t know my own language?” she spat. “My mother tong.” She pronounced it tong. “Mi idioma. That I have been es-speakin’ all-my-life?”
          The real meaning, she maintained, was closer to the English ‘gay-boy’ and though she had put up with his ignorance in private, he had pushed her too far by using the nickname in front of her friends, her Spanish friends, who were laughing at her now behind their faces. Did he still think this was nothing, she demanded, nothing to break plates over. Meekly, David shook his head. He dare not tell her that in England people did not laugh behind their faces, they laughed behind their hands.
          “Abortion is a horrible, horrible es-sin.” Those were the first words she ever spoke to him. He had been a little drunk when he met her and later could not remember, or even imagine, what he must have said to set her off. Probably nothing. She was always coming out with such statements, iconoclastic in the right-on confines of the college, where being pro-choice was the only choice, unless you wanted to become a social leper.
          It was one of the things he liked about her, the way she flung her opinions around with no regard for where they might land or who they might squash. That and her eyes which seemed to flash like those of a pirate in one of his mother’s romantic novels. She was piratical altogether — at least, in his imagination — with her low, almost gruff, voice, her dark skin, and wide, swash-buckling gestures. She made the other girls, with their pronounceable names and manageable tempers, seem suddenly flat and sort of colourless.
          ‘Horrible’: that was her word, a word she made her own not just by the frequency with which she reached for it, but by the pronunciation she forced upon it, the initial ‘h’ being transformed into a jota like the one in the middle of her name, the one he couldn’t pronounce, and the ‘r’s ferociously trilled. Hhhorrrible. The weather was horrible. The food was horrible. The music, the beer, the ambience: all horrible. For the wine, she must break into Spanish to do justice to her feelings of repugnance. The English, themselves, were horrible, with their horrible marmite and their cups of tea. Maybe her words should have worried him more, worried or offended him, but just by virtue of his relationship with her, he felt himself shorn of Englishness, the woolly fleece of mumbled excuses and muddling through being lifted off to reveal a new, lithe, dynamic David, ready to take the leap into a wider, more cosmopolitan world. Besides, marmite had never been his cup of tea.
          She was longing to get away, from the moment he met her. She talked of nothing else, considering in turn every country under the sun, though strangely she never mentioned Spain. David hadn’t been planning on a year out, but he rang UCL and they agreed to defer his entry to the MA programme.
          “After finals,” she said, with accustomed finality, “we go to France. Not Paris. Paris, it will be atiborrado with the English. And Americans.” She had a particular horror of Americans, would reel back if she met one in a bar, grabbing hold of her friend Enrique and growling, “Vaya. Hombre. Que dientes!” It was her assertion that American teeth scared her, that they were too big and brick-like, that they made their owners look like horses. She invented a new brand of toothpaste called Antinamel for slimming down oversize molars. Sometimes, on a night out, she would pretend to be doing market research on behalf of this new product, would seek out the JYAs in the bar and ask them if they wouldn’t jump at the chance to achieve ‘a more European dentition’, smiling up into the faces of big, bluff guys called Chip and Stet, who responded with baffled grins, vaguely aware they were being mocked, not minding all that much.
          “We will go for three months,” she decided. She had a way of pronouncing ‘months’ with such a pure round vowel that he would have agreed, without demur, to go to the ends of the earth and not come back until she said so.
          “Yeah, great, France,” he said. “We’ll cycle. Live off chocolate and baguettes and drink coffee out of bowls —”
          But here he was interrupted by the trill of the phone. They were in bed, Mariaje’s bed, and she had to reach across him to get the receiver.
          “Papi!” Her voice gave a swoop of delight, something it only did when she was speaking to her father, and she nudged at David with her hip, edging him out of bed so she could snuggle up with the phone.
          The next day, before his calculus lecture, he stopped off at the Student Union bookshop and purchased both the Rough and Lonely Planet guides, as well as a copy of Bill Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There, but before he could read them, or even show them to Mariaje, the plan had changed. France was horrible. Even in four-star hotels, the chambermaids didn’t do their jobs. Her Papi had been to Lyon on business and there was ‘e-somethin’ horrible’ in the shower. They would go to Italy, instead. Her Italian was better than her French, so it made more sense. But then it turned out that Papi had been to Italy, too — to Rome — and found it not at all simpatico. She proposed one country after another and David began to fear that the volunteers in the bookshop were laughing at him. Behind their faces, so to speak. But Papi put an end to them all. They were horrible, horrible, horrible.
          “How about Canada?” he said, one day in the library, hoping that Papi had yet to reach that snowy country. Across the table, a crop-headed girl in dungarees looked up from her book and shushed them. David gave a compressed smile of apology and lowered his head, but Mariaje was not about to be silenced by someone who dressed — as she later put it — like a lesbian carpenter.
          “No. Vaya. We get right away. We visit Argentina. Or Chile. Chile is good. We go to ‘Donde el Diablo Perdio el Poncho’.”
          And this time the plan seemed to stick. David held off on the purchase of a guidebook to Chile — already, he had half the world up there on his little shelf crowding out the Schaum’s guides and the spiral-bound notebooks — but after a week, when she was still insisting that they must visit ‘Donde el Diablo Perdio el Poncho’, he relented and made another trip to the bookshop. He couldn’t find any reference in the index, but his knowledge of the Spanish was still virtually nil, so he asked her to write it down. He wanted to check he had the spelling correct. She looked a little puzzled by the request, but lots of things he said or did produced that crinkle of puzzlement between her brows. She scribbled the words on a fluorescent pink post-it and pasted it onto his sweatshirt, smoothing it flat with the palm of her hand. He went back to the book, but still couldn’t find it. The words appeared neither in the index nor in the body of the text, but this did not worry him unduly. Mariaje had said they would be getting right away, far from the beaten track, far from the backpacker track, so it wasn’t surprising that the name was obscure.
          He took the pink post-it with him when he went to buy the tickets, open return, non-refundable, flying to Santiago with a layover in Miami. He handed it to the travel agent and she tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, pursed her lips, and turned to the computer. As she tapped away at the keyboard, drew squiggles with the mouse, clicked on this and that, David saw the confidence, the projected expertise, begin to fade from her face. Nothing: no place names, no hotels, not even a backpacker’s hostel. But David did not let this setback perturb him. Mariaje knew what she was doing. He paid for the tickets in cash. He’d had to sell his car to raise the money, and though they rarely went out in it, since his timidity behind the wheel drove Mariaje into a fury and her habit of leaning over to thump the horn both alarmed and embarrassed him, he still had a hard time explaining its sudden absence from the parking lot outside his halls and an even harder time explaining the absence of a corresponding rise in his bank balance. He could have told her the truth and spared himself an unpleasant and rather thrilling interrogation, but he wanted the tickets to be a surprise. He was aware that some people — Mariaje’s friends in particular — thought him a little bit dull. He wanted to show her that he could be audacious, that he wasn’t afraid to take chances.
          Apart from the tickets, he bought: two rucksacks, two sleeping bags, two aluminium water bottles, a map, a compass, a package of water purifying tablets, fly repellent, all sort of first aid supplies, a set of stackable, lightweight cookware and a camping stove. He also bought a simple diamond solitaire in a velvet-lined box. Actually, the ring was a little more simple than he would have liked, but he had to hold some money back for expenses.
          They had reached the last month of their revision, slogging out sixteen hour days, taking breaks only for Ramen noodles and moonlit strolls around the quad. One evening, at bedtime, it occurred to David that he’d forgotten to shower. He tried to think if he’d showered the day before, but couldn’t remember. “When did I last have a wash?” he asked Mariaje, but she was deep into Beowulf and only murmured that cleanliness was overrated. As if on cue, his skin broke out in a rash of hard white pimples, spreading across his cheeks like the wings of a butterfly. It was not just the lack hygiene, he decided, but the poor diet and all the late nights. He filled page after page with his neat black symbols, kept a bin-bag by his desk to hold all the screwed up sheets of paper. He wrote till his hand cramped, then read till his eyes felt stiff and grainy and sore. His back hurt him. He fell into bed exhausted, yet as soon as he tried to sleep, cruel numbers began to dance before his eyes. Nonsense mathematics filled his dreams and Mariaje complained that he talked in his sleep. One night, he sat bolt upright in bed and shouted out in panic, “That can’t be right. The matrices are all messed up.” Mariaje was angry; he had woken her up.
          “Las’ night,” she said. “I dream a whole Shakespeare play about a mouse that went to live in Genoa. And I do not feel the need to wake you up.” She refused to believe this was something outside his control. He could stop if he wanted, she said.
          At times like these, David would sneak next door to see Gunter, a taciturn German with alarming blonde eyelashes that always put David in mind of a camel. It was Gunter who was hiding all the travel gear, and David needed only the briefest glimpse of it piled up in the bottom of the wardrobe for all the friction and the fractious bickering to melt away. It seemed a little mean to continue with his secret, for Mariaje could also have done with something to hang on to, some emblem of a life beyond exams, but he was wedded, now, to the idea of surprising her.
          Their flight departed two days after his last exam, a paper he jokingly called the final final, because her exams were over a full week before his. It was hard to watch her steal in at one or two in the morning, smelling of summer, sweet liquor, cigarettes, fun. But then, at last, he was finished too. They went out to celebrate, sat in a rooftop beer garden in the sinking heat of evening and drank from a bottle of jerez, smuggled past the bar-staff in the handbag that Mariaje had bought herself as a reward. They walked home arm-in-arm, singing a song that to David was gibberish: eye, yie, yie, yie — went the words — can tanyo your-ays, poorkay cantando say allie gran.
          When the porter phoned up from the lodge, it was barely dawn: Mariaje had a visitor. They went down together wondering who it could be and found a piratical, pot-bellied man with grizzled black hair combed back from his face in crisp corrugations.
          “Papi!” Her hand was gone from his before her voice had finished its familiar swoop. David watched as Papi took his daughter by the shoulders and planted a kiss on either cheek.
          Later, outside a pub where they had meant to eat, but now could not, because Papi found the lack of tablecloths uncouth and unhygienic, the two men found themselves alone.
          “So you will miss my daughter, yong man, when she comes home to Es-spain.”
          David gave a smug smile. He didn’t think Mariaje would ever go back, not without him.
          “Actually,” he said, “that might not be for a while. We’re going on a trip.”
          “A trip!” Papi waved his hand in what seemed to David a gesture of derision. “What trip? When?”
          “Tomorrow, actually.” David’s voice was already a little tight.
          Papi reared back, regarded him coldly. “It is a surprise,” he said, “to me.” He laid a hand on his chest. “I do not say it does not happen, I just say I am not informed.”
          “It’s a surprise for her too,” David said, feeling suddenly, unaccountably, foolish.
          “So!” Papi leaned back in his chair. “That is the essplanation. My daughter is not tellin’ me, because my daughter does not know. But, yong man, how did you choose the destination? It is a dangerous thin’ to make a choice for a woman. You might get a slap when you esspect a kiss.”
          “She chose it.” David was defiant. “She’s been saying for months she wanted to go. So I…I just bought the tickets, for a surprise. We’re going to Chile.”
          “Chile?” Papi arched his eyebrows in salty surprise. “Vaya. My daughter is a remarkable woman. Remarkable and surprising. In what part of Chile do you intend makin’ you-er trip, if a father may be permitted to ask?”
          David had heard Mariaje repeat the words a hundred times, they had become a kind of refrain for her in the last few weeks of her studies, now he must screw up all his powers of mimicry in order to be understood. He framed his lips and opened his mouth:
          “Donde el diablo perdio el poncho.”
          For two full seconds, Papi’s face remained completely blank. David’s heart sank: his Spanish was pathetic. Then Papi let out a bellow of laughter. He leaned over to place a hand on the younger man’s shoulder and would not let him shrug it off.
          “But don’t you know what this means?” he asked, looking into David’s face and laughing, genuinely tickled. “It is not a place, but a phrase. A very amusin’ phrase. South American. Quaint. Vaya. What will be the correct translation? It is like your ‘boondocks’ or your ‘back of beyond’. Literally, where the devil lost his poncho.” He interlaced his hands behind his head, leaned back. “Mariaje is a good girl. Her studies are over; her mother wants her home. An’ I —” he freed a hand to place it on his chest — “I do not say who is right, who is wrong. I only say that my wife is a remarkable woman, a woman who gets what she wants.”
          Mariaje came out of the bar and into the sun. She shaded her eyes. The two men in her life were sitting in silence. She walked towards them, greeting their smiles with a smile of her own.

© Amanda Bartlett, 2010