BBC National Short Story Award 2017: ‘The Waken’ by Jenni Fagan

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Read an extract from Jenni Fagan’s short story ‘The Waken’, which has been shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2017. You can read extracts from all the other nominees on our blog.


Her Father’s corpse was staring out over North Atlantic swells. Nobody knew exactly what cliff top. The women only came to host The Waken out of goodness and the men only took his casket on their shoulders to make sure he was gone.

He had fallen with a thud.

In the hallway his long torso paled at-the-end of huge feet.

His tongue as thick as it was in life.

There was still ash in the fire from where he’d hurled a book into it the night before. Not keen on reading her Father. Not interested in opinions (other than his own) found women idiotic (useful mostly only for cleaning and bedding) and men weak (less-than-himself-in-every-way) and he regularly declared all children to be — total arseholes. His use of language was delicate as his fist and laced with a similar fury. That clunk in their hallway was one of the sweetest moments of Jessie’s life.

There is an order to things.

On the island this has not changed for generations.

First things first: open all of the windows so the soul can get out but snap them quickly shut again, lest the soul dare return. Similarly: turn each kitchen chair over so if the soul does find a way to come back there is nothing for it to sit upon (and refuse to move like an unruly spirit toddler) (this can happen) (honestly don’t test it) finally throw a shawl (or Disney towel) over any exposed mirror. It doesn’t have to be a towel, an old t-shirt will do. Make sure the mirror is completely covered, do not leave a new spirit even a half-inch of reflection with which to lose themselves — they are easily distracted.

Stop the clock at the time of death.

Jessie tipped out the battery and sat their small clock back on the mantlepiece. Their whitehouse was now about as soul-return-proof as it could be. Jessie made herself some peanut butter on toast and surveyed the precise stage-of-ritual she had achieved, in the hour since he’d died. If he had been hovering he would have seen her tip over his favourite walking cane and kick his work-boots out her way. She had selected a good roll-up from his tin, take three drags, coughed and flicked the rest of the dog-end away.

The nearly-departed are vain creatures.

It’s wailing they want.

Incurable grief.

Jessie just sat there, with her feet up, in his armchair — reading a book he loathed for a good half-an-hour before she let anyone else know, would have done nothing for his ego at all!

Spirits are prone to confusion.

The ghost must leave the house. It is bad news for all if it does not do so quickly.

Jessie went outside to paint the front door black.

She found the box of white wooden teardrops (under her old Monopoly board) and carefully stuck each teardrop into well-worn gouges (trying and failing to not get black paint on her fingers) they were the same tiny holes she had pierced for her mother last year God Rest Her Soul and her little brother before not long before that.


This story was read on BBC Radio 4 on Friday 22 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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