BBC National Short Story Award 2017: ‘if a book is locked there’s probably a good reason for that, don’t you think?’ by Helen Oyeyemi

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Read an extract from Helen Oyeyemi’s short story ‘if a book is locked there’s probably a good reason for that, don’t you think?’, which has been shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2017. You can read extracts from all the other nominees on our blog.


Every time someone comes out of the lift in the building where you work you wish lift doors were made of glass. That way you’d be able to see who’s arriving a little before they actually arrive and there’d be just enough time to prepare the correct facial expression. Your new colleague steps out of the lift dressed just a tad more casually than is really appropriate for the workplace and because you weren’t ready you say, ‘Hi!’ with altogether too much force. She has: a heart-shaped face with subtly rouged cheeks, short, straight, neatly cut hair and eyes that are long rather than wide. She’s black, but not local, this new colleague who wears her boots and jeans and scarf with a bohemian aplomb that causes the others to ask her where she shops. ‘Oh, you know, thrift stores,’ she says with a chuckle. George at the desk next to yours says, ‘Charity shops?’ and the newcomer says, ‘Yeah, thrift stores . . .’

Her accent is New York plus some other part of America, somewhere Midwest. And her name’s Eva. She’s not quite standoffish, not quite . . . but she doesn’t ask any questions that aren’t related to her work. Her own answers are brief and don’t invite further conversation. In the women’s toilets you find a row of your colleagues examining themselves critically in the mirror and then, one by one, they each apply a touch of rouge. Their make-up usually goes on at the end of the workday, but now your co-workers are demonstrating that Eva’s not the only one who can glow. When it’s your turn at the mirror you fiddle with your shirt. Sleeves rolled up so you’re nonchalantly showing skin, or is that too marked a change?

Eva takes no notice of any of this preening. She works through her lunch break, tapping away at the keyboard with her right hand, holding her sandwich with her left. You eat lunch at your desk too, just as you have ever since you started working here, and having watched her turn down her fourth invitation to lunch, you say to her: ‘Just tell people you’re a loner. That’s what I did, anyway.’

Eva doesn’t look away from her computer screen and for a moment it seems as if she’s going to ignore you but eventually she says: ‘Oh . . . I’m not a loner.’


This story was read on BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday 20 September; you can listen to it on the BBC website. All of the shortlisted stories are available in the BBC National Short Story Award 2017 Anthology, published by Comma Press, price £7.99.

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