The fifteenth BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University revealed its shortlist on Friday 11 September, with stories exploring race, family politics, millennial relationships and inner-city life. The last extract is from 'Scrimshaw' by Creative Writing Lecturer at Royal Holloway and winner of the James Tait Black Prize Eley Williams.
And again we were messaging late at night until the early hours of the morning. I pressed my face closer to my phone screen and imagined you doing the same. A whole town stretched between us, and I considered the surface of our separate skins blued or bluewn or bluesed by pixel-light as we typed against our own private darknesses.
We dispatched small talk, sweet talk. Sweet nothings. Then your message said that you were feeling unhappy. We’re all feeling unhappy, I thought but also flushed with responsibility for taking charge of your state of mind. I flexed my thumbs.
I couldn’t ask you about your day because perhaps that had been the cause of your unhappiness and would just further it. I couldn’t tell you about my day because it was the cause of my unhappiness and might exacerbate your own. I couldn’t comment on the weather or the politics or the price of either and neither of those things because unhappiness unhappiness unhappiness. I kept typing the first letter of possible responses to you even though I know that this causes three rippling dots to appear on your phone screen. These dots change in character depending on your mood: ellipses, Hansel and Gretel breadcrumbs, Polyphemus’ sockets, the side of a rolled dice. As I trialled potential first responder letters, the trailing three dots must be shifting minutely on your phone screen. Three dots undulating while I dithered, modulating the colour of the blue light hitting your face as you waited for my message to materialise. I drafted a breath then deleted it.
The word unhappy implies something of a void. A state of not-happiness, sure, but not necessarily one featuring a person in an active participation in despair. I looked up synonyms for unhappiness and wondered where on the scale you might place yourself if given the option: cheerlessness, desolation, despair, despondency, dolefulness, downheartedness, gloom, gloominess, glumness, malaise, wretchedness. I would list them to you in alphabetical order like this so to not imply my own personal hierarchy in terms of the terms.
Perhaps best not to dwell on the word unhappiness. ‘You cannot be in control of another person’s feelings,’ was a phrase I had once overheard on a bus. It spoke to me. It resonated, and I thought to save it to my Notes on my phone and embolden the text. So: no need to draw attention to your unhappiness by querying it or requesting context: I cannot hope to lance that boil for you without first dragging out descriptions of the boil, handling the boil, prodding the boil and haranguing it unto carbuncles. This metaphor has run away with me to the fair. What I mean is: questions, as with boils, can cause irritation from direct pressure and over time the inflamed area enlarges. Better then to dwell apart from your unhappiness in my answer. You cannot be in control of another person’s feelings. Undwell, antidwell, disdwell, dedwell.
This story is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Friday 18 September; listen to it live at 3.30 p.m. or catch up online 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 Tuesday 6 October in a special short story edition of BBC Radio 4’s Front Row.