The fourteenth BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University revealed its shortlist on Friday 6 September, with writers exploring sexual politics, intolerance, community and immigration. We'll be posting extracts from all the shortlisted stories this week; today’s extract is from ‘The Invisible’ by former bookseller and videogame producer Lynda Clark, who previously won the Europe and Canada Commonwealth Short Story Prize with this story.
When he was a baby, Ghillie’s mother was mostly an orangutan. Like most mothers, she’d cradle him in her arms and blow raspberries on his belly, but unlike most mothers, she’d also change his nappy with her feet. In those early days, as far as he could recall, it was only at bath time she was other animals. A baby elephant to squirt him with water from her trunk, a porpoise to bat his rubber duck around the bath with her domed head, a dumbo octopus making him laugh with her big, flapping earlike fins, and grasping his bath toys with her many arms.
Ghillie assumed everyone’s mother was many things, and so didn’t worry about it at all for the first few years of his life, but when he started school, he realised his mum wasn’t like other mums. And that meant he wasn’t like other kids.
‘Your mum had sex with a pig!’ said Caspar, a boy in Ghillie’s year, but far larger and with much harder fists. ‘That’s why she’s all animals.’
Ghillie asked his mum about it when he got home. He didn’t really know what sex was, and he was worried it might make her cross if he asked, so he just parroted Caspar’s statement to her and asked if it was true.
‘Isn’t it nice that he thinks I’m all animals?’ she said. ‘I’m not even sure I can do them all myself.’ And she became a fat little Shetland pony and gave Ghillie rides around their living room, making the worn carpet worse than ever with her hooves. Ghillie kept the taunts to himself after that, because she didn’t seem to understand anyway.
Parents’ evening made the situation difficult to ignore. It was autumn and dark early, so Ghillie’s mother was a panther, prowling alongside him, amber eyes mindful of danger. She led him over the crossing and up to the school gate, weaving through the assembled parents and children who’d stopped to chat on the playground before going in. Ginny McClaren’s mum screamed, and Ghillie’s mum bared her teeth in response. Caspar elbowed his dad and they both stared, lips curled.
‘Please, mum,’ said Ghillie, and she became a racoon by way of apology as they went inside.
‘I’ve had some concerns about Ghillie’s language development,’ said Mrs Rodney, Ghillie’s English teacher. ‘Although I think now I see the root of the problem.’
Mum was sitting on her tail on the little plastic chair, scratching her furry belly with her small black handpaws.
‘Mrs Campbell! Would you at least do me the courtesy of being human while we speak?’
Mum became a naked, sad-faced woman, with dark rings around her eyes. ‘It’s Ms,’ she said. Her hair was long and covered her breasts, and she drew one leg up against her chest to hide herself further, but several parents had noticed and were covering their children’s eyes. Mrs Rodney was scandalised.
She took off her cardigan and made Ghillie’s mum put it on.
‘I think it’s time social services were involved,’ Mrs Rodney said firmly.
This story was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Friday 13 September; you can listen to it here. All of the shortlisted stories are available in an anthology published by Comma Press, out now. The winner of the BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University will be announced on 1 October on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row.