BBC National Short Story Awards 2019: ‘The Children’ by Lucy Caldwell

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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 Children’ by multi-award-winning novelist, playwright and short story writer Lucy Caldwell.

Trumpington Street is sculptural in the sunshine: slashes and rhomboids of light and stark shade. Traffic is heavy and the taxi travels slowly, the driver giving me the tour. The Fitzwilliam, the Pitt Building, Peterhouse. We’ve already had The Backs, the Mathematical Bridge, designed by Isaac Newton and made, the taxi driver says, without a single nut or bolt. Students took it apart once to see how it worked and were unable to put it back together. I know this isn’t true. Newton died a quarter of a century before the bridge was built, and it does have bolts, iron spikes driven in at angles obscured from sight. I walked over this bridge almost every day for the best – or worst – part of three years. But somehow the moment to say this passed, and so I smile and nod and let my mind drift.

I’m writing a story about Caroline Norton, who changed the lot of mothers forever with her battle to reform child custody law, or so the blurb on her biography says. I have the biography in a tote bag, though that’s as much as I’ve read of it so far, along with a sheaf of her poems, newly-joined now by a raft of photocopies about marriage and Victorian law and women’s quests for equality. I’ve just come from Girton College, the first women’s college in Cambridge; dusty sunlight in high-ceilinged, book-lined rooms, parquet-floored corridors and a lunch buffet (poached salmon, potatoes, mixed sweetcorn and peas) under the patient lights of a hotplate in the Fellows’ Dining Room. A communal jug of tapwater, tasting faintly of pewter. Polite tones in respectable surroundings; it all sounds eminently reasonable; Caroline Norton’s letters to the Right Hon.s, her pamphlets, her famous essay condemning child labour; her Bills presented to the House of Lords. I’ll read the texts, write the piece.

The ghost of my former self, indulged all this June day long, weaving on a rusty bike to and from the Sidgwick Site and the UL with a backpack of books, sitting earnestly on threadbare sagging armchairs, is lost to a sudden battery of car horns from behind and an outburst from the driver, who’s pulled up abruptly somewhere he shouldn’t. We’re here. My husband and children are waiting for me in the Botanic Gardens. I pay him and sling the tote over my shoulder and go, all else forgotten.

The following day, I find a lump in my breast.

It’s not unduly concerning at first. I’m breastfeeding; it’s probably nothing; it will probably go. It doesn’t go. A week passes, then another. It is larger now, and definitely there. I Google: breast lumps when to be concerned. Google suggests, as Google always does, that it could be terminal and it could be nothing. I phone the GP surgery, who – uncharacteristically – say they can see me tomorrow, name a time. Ok, great, I say, not sure if I feel reassured or more worried.

This story was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday 10 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.