17 September 2020

BBC National Short Story Awards 2020: ‘Come Down Heavy’ by Jack Houston

Posted by Jack Houston

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 fourth extract is from 'Come Down Heavy' by Keats-Shelley Prize runner-up Jack Houston.

& what happened was the breadknife’s serrations flashed in the fluorescent lighting of the Jobcentre                                           Plus & the advisor’s routine smile fell from his face as Simone pulled with                                           her teeth the elbow-length lace glove from her free arm & tried to flick it
                                           into the advisor’s face with a movement of her head but the glove only
                                           flapped & landed at the edge of his desk & slowly slipped down to disappear
                                           into his lap as Simone began to slash, slash, slash at her now bare arm; & as
                                           the computer monitor, keyboard, mouse-pad, mouse & countertop in front
                                           of her were flecked with small, dark beads of blood, the advisor squealed &
                                           pushed his chair back against the wall, raised his palms placatory toward
                                           Simone’s quiet growl, the quaver in his voice betraying the calmness with
                                           which he attempted to tell her to please not further hurt herself, do
                                           anything stupid, please stop; Jackie, caught in her new friend’s story, could
                                           picture easy the advisor’s need to urinate into his trousers, the blood drying
                                           dark on the desk, the screams of the other service-users as the security
                                           guards stomped across the worn & grey carpet towards them, the bearing
                                           with which Simone wore her black mini-dress & top hat, how she held the
                                           knife & yelled into the sparse atmosphere of the job centre; Luna, Jackie’s
                                           dog, came into the small kitchen, whined, turned on the spot & sat down by
                                           the door at the back of the room & Jackie stood to let her out onto the small
                                           section of roof the extended back room of the empty pub below them
                                           provided; I’d just had enough Simone said & smiled & seemed to expect
                                           applause &, receiving some in the way of Jackie’s impressed grin, said the
                                           two of them should hang out more.

& what happened was Jackie & Simone would take Luna to the small park by Haggerston Station with
                                           the overland trains smoothing in & out above their heads on the rails that
                                           ran high on the viaduct, a pile of feathers where a pigeon had been got by a
                                           fox, a handbag hung on railing, probably stolen by someone swift & moving
                                           through a local pub as Simone & Jackie bonded over a shared love of Neue
                                           Deutsche Härte music, other dog owners entering the park & Simone &
                                           Jackie watching, tensed, for the tetchiness that would likely explode from
                                           Luna at any moment as she circled the new dog just arrived; Simone
                                           mentioned she had a small one-bedroomed council flat, hers & in secure-
                                           tenancy, the block set back from Hackney Road on the Tower Hamlets side
                                           & Jackie could have the other bedroom, Simone already using & only
                                           needing the larger room, telling Jackie it would be better than there, flicking
                                           her eyes to the where the Belgrave Arms was sat at the other end of a side-
                                           street; & Simone asked what happened to your dog?

This story is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 17 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.