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 ‘My Beautiful Millennial’ by novelist and part-time civil servant Tamsin Grey.
It’s a Friday halfway through December, my day off from my shit job. I’ve got a cold, and would have languished in my lumpy, scratchy bed, but Paul Fildes has summoned me to Amersham. He wants to have a discussion about Christmas, but not over the phone, because he finds our phone calls impossible. When I fall silent, it’s like I’m howling in pain, and he can’t reach me.
I take ages getting dressed, i.e. even longer than usual. I have finally gone for my black velvet dress with the flouncy skirt, bottle-green tights and my lace-up boots. Amethyst lipstick. My strange curly hair in spikes. My Napoleon coat, black beret, black leather gloves. My green carpet bag, yes, the same green as my tights. Paul Fildes says I wear ‘dressing- up’ clothes, that it’s a sign of my arrested development. He has offered to take me shopping, for a suit, blouses, inter- view clothes. It would be fun to try things on in classy boutiques instead of charity shops, but I’m trying to disentangle myself from Paul Fildes.
Leaving my room in disarray, I creep out of the house that I share with around five other humans. (As they’re mainly invisible, I can’t be more precise.) It’s biting cold, with a rose-gold sun throwing long black shadows. I pick up my wages from Mingles, and head for Aldgate. Outside the station a man in a gold paper crown is holding out a white paper cup. He has decorated his dog with tinsel, and the dog is all agitated, shaking and pawing himself, trying to get the stuff off. I drop a twenty-pence piece into the man’s paper cup. He frowns.
‘Is that all you can afford, love?’
Totally thrown, I dig in my bag for the brown envelope I’ve just been given, which I know contains ten twenty- pound notes, which I’m planning to hand over to Paul Fildes, and two tenners, which need to last me a whole week.
‘Joking!’ He’s laughing, putting his hand over mine, to stop me opening the envelope. I flee into the station.
The Metropolitan line is a maroon colour, and Paul Fildes and I are marooned on either end of it. The train is waiting, silent and stately. I’m the first one on, and it feels like I’m spying on a secret world. Each way, the walk-through carriages, on and on, repeating themselves, the yellow poles, the yellow nooses, and the black strips saying AMERSHAM, AMERSHAM, AMERSHAM. Amersham is the resting place of Ruth Ellis, the last woman in Britain to be hanged. I know this because the last time I went to Amersham, Paul Fildes took me to see Ruth’s grave.
I cringe, and sit down, putting my bag on the seat next to me, and as I pull off my hat and gloves I remember the cup man’s raw, chapped fingers, and cringe again. I kind of hate him, and hate myself for hating someone who’s slipped through the cracks and hung onto his sense of humour.
This story was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday 11 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.