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Story | ‘Waiting To Go On’ by Gill Blow

The second posting of short-listed stories from the Negative Press London/Foyles short story competition is ‘Waiting To Go On’ by Gill Blow – a writer from Lincolnshire. The story is her first attempt at writing flash fiction.

For the competition, writers were invited to contribute a new story (maximum 500 words) inspired by the photograph, ‘The Stage (Piano)’ – which was not included in literary art book/anthology Still.

Waiting To Go On

The Stage (Piano) by Roelof BakkerThere are different ways of waiting. There’s waiting on a platform for a train, or in a queue at Costas’, and at a level crossing when you pull on the handbrake and reach for a mint and chew it. There’s waiting for a reply to your e-mail or letter, or a birthday card from someone who was once special…who perhaps still is. There’s waiting for an operation, lying stiff and helpless in a white gown that lets in cold air to your back and exposes your bum, and you have no choice but to enter the world of letting it happen and allow strangers to have the power over what happens to you next. You wait for this intrusion, to be anaesthetised and thus forfeit all control. You wait to wake up afterwards. You wait for it all to be over.

Like standing in the wings, waiting to go on stage, taking in breaths that feed no air into your lungs, your body throbbing as your pulse pounds, you stare at the piano standing solid behind the thick golden folds of curtain. Solitary and immaculate, its black mahogany burnished, its ivory keys gleaming, its raised lid lifted high proudly exposing its highly strung insides. It waits.

A strip of light from the auditorium penetrates the curtains and plays over the steel pedals, that your feet will, in a few moments, compress and release, shifting the shafts of light and dark tone created by your fingers; one hand following the other, moving in remorseless memory of sound that is soft, lingering, sorrowful, jubilant.

A murmuring accompanies the light beam which filters thinly through the opening, it invades the stage space, its sound increases. Greetings are heard, the clunk of seats, a shout of laughter, a cough. You imagine lines of people filing down each gangway unzipping their jackets, stowing their handbags, settling in seats. You hear the babble of their voices, like rooks cawing and calling in a rookery, like the sound of the sea falling on sand. Their waiting is like a granite rock bearing down on your shoulders.

A silence descends and you hear nothing, become no-one. Into this void arrives a limbo into which you float; you disconnect yourself, become adrift in the wings, are translucent, invisible. You absorb the certain knowledge that you will not perform, you will refuse to play. You care not that the concert will be postponed and the ticket holders will demand their money back, or that your reputation will be in shreds, shredded with the sheet music of Beethoven and shoved into black bin bags. You care not that your career will be ended, and the piano will remain mute, and you will both go your separate ways; like used-to-be lovers whose enchantment became tarnished, it lost its appeal, until, in the end, it vanished.

Split Seconds by Gill BlowGILL BLOW lives at Knaith near Gainsborough in Lincolnshire. She previously worked with families and professionals in community development work and adult learning. She studied writing through The Open University and also Sheffield Hallam University, where she was awarded an MA Writing (Distinction) and received the AM Heath Prize for her short story collection. One of her stories has been broadcast by the BBC and others have been published in literary magazines and newspapers. Her monologue ‘Still Alive With Clive’ was performed at the Lincolnshire Festival of New Drama. She was recently shortlisted for the Bridport Prize and the Mslexia Short Story competition. Split Seconds, a collection of short stories was self-published in 2012.

GILL BLOW WEBSITE

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Story | ‘Chopin in the Dust’ by Tim Sutton

The first posting of short-listed stories from the Negative Press London/Foyles short story competition is by Tim Sutton – a composer and lyricist from east London.

Chopin in the Dust

The Stage (Piano) by Roelof BakkerThe woman from the theatre left three messages. So grateful… perfect for the… (What was it?)… some Chekhov on a shoestring.

She had said she would come to collect at eleven, yet it was nearly twenty-five past. Alice hovered by the front door, chewing the skin around her fingernails.

At twenty to twelve, a van pulled up and the woman rushed out, followed by two men in overalls. So sorry… left later than… terrible traffic.

Well. It’s through here.

The woman followed down the hallway. Her eyes took in Alice’s elegant grey coiffure, the exquisite silk of her floral pattern blouse.

Alice stood back to let her pass.

The antique grand piano stood in the study. The woman from the theatre made excited noises – Vanya’s dining room! And to think I might have missed your ad.

I was going to give it a polish, but…

No, no, we’ll take the dust too!

As the woman twittered, Alice seemed to see lines of music uncurling from deep inside the walnut case, gathering in skeins in the weak February light.

Are you sure we can’t give you anything for it?

Lines of Chopin and Schumann, his favourites, conjured endlessly and effortlessly by those long fingers. An air filled with life, that musical life which forbade all others.

No, I’m simply glad it can be of use to someone.

And now, just a piano, untouched for forty years, while sheets of grey settled on it, on her. Alice watched as the men conferred, the heels of her hands digging into her hips.

Do you play?

The men closed the lid and tilted the instrument onto its left side.

No, it was my husband’s. He was a concert pianist.

They disconnected the pedal mechanism, removed the legs, wrapped the frame in a blanket and strapped it to a trolley.

A concert pianist! What an amazing life you must have had.

For the first time Alice looked the woman directly in the eye. The woman in turn took a step back, her hand moving reflexively to her stomach. There was silence.

Alice’s gaze dropped to the swollen abdomen. From somewhere: a smile.

Oh, the bump! Yes, she’s due in August. Honestly, mummy brain is the last thing I need right now. But look, we’ll leave you in peace.

The piano on its trolley rattled its way up the drive. Alice could hear the keys clattering like broken teeth. Those keys his long fingers had stroked…

His fingers… had stroked…

She shut the front door too quickly on the woman from the theatre, and leant against it, breathing heavily, watching the startled dust careen in the winter sunlight.

That was the last of him.

TIM SUTTON is a composer and lyricist for musical theatre. His first opera, Cycle Song, written with poet Ian McMillan, was performed as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. He teaches the craft of music theatre songwriting at BML and hosts a podcast, Voice of the Musical, featuring interviews with creators of great musicals. He is an Associate of the Inner Magic Circle and lives in east London with his wife and two children.

TIM SUTTON WEBSITE

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Q&A | AJ Ashworth, winner of the Negative Press London/Foyles short story competition

Interview by Roelof Bakker 

AJ Ashworth Negative Press LondonToday is the end of this year’s National Short Story Week, a perfect occasion to post an interview with AJ Ashworth – winner of the Negative Press London/Foyles short story competition and writer of the award-winning short story collection, Somewhere Else, or Even Here (Salt, 2011).

I found your story ‘Piano’ – winner of the Negative Press London/Foyles short story competition – incredibly evocative even though it has less than 500 words. Did you enjoy writing to a word limit?
It was a bit of a challenge as I’ve never written such a short story before. My stories are usually around the 3,000 word mark so having to stick to 500 words was interesting! I usually stop when the story reaches a natural conclusion and when I’ve said what I wanted to say – the same applied with this one.

Where did your inspiration for ‘Piano’ come from?
Most definitely from your photograph – there was no story until I looked at that piano on the stage. I just got the first line in my head and had this idea of someone standing in the wings waiting to go on stage. And instantly I knew it was a woman looking back over her life as she neared the end of it, remembering a childhood event which had happened on that stage – an event which had caused ripples throughout her life.

Did you play the piano as a child? If so, was it a happy, sad or frustrating experience?
I did – for about a year – but there were reasons why I couldn’t continue. I have felt sad about it since, because it’s something I’d really love to be able to do. I just don’t feel as if I have the time to do it now though… maybe one day.

Does music play an important part in your life?
I like music but it doesn’t have as big a role in my life as it used to. And I can’t write or work and have music on in the background – I prefer silence.

When did you start writing?
I’ve written since childhood but have had long periods of time throughout my life where I haven’t written anything at all. I got more serious about writing seven years ago and took some courses, which really helped. It’s a big part of who I am and if I don’t have some kind of writing on the go then I don’t feel right.

Somewhere Else, Or Even Here AJ AshworthWhy short stories?
Because I love them. They’re so concise and precise and are therefore quite a challenge. I like that they only contain the essential, the necessary (or they should do) and that everything – every word, every incident – has to count and contribute to the whole. They’re such a rewarding read too – you get so much for so few words.

What or who inspired you to write?
I’ve always wanted to write but I don’t know where that comes from. There are people who’ve fuelled that fire – people such as Raymond Carver and Woody Allen – but I’ve no idea what the inspiration was, except a love of language and wanting to use that to communicate some feeling or mood.

How do you find combining writing with working full-time (in publishing)? Do you set time aside to write?
It can be difficult, especially if you’re busy in the day job – the last thing you want to do is to start again when you get home. I don’t write every day. I don’t worry about it though. I just trust that I will write when the time is right for me.

What are you working on at the moment?
More short stories and a novel, which I’ve just started.

Any advice to budding writers?
Write for the right reasons (because you love it) and don’t let rejection stop you.

The short story ‘Piano’ is exhibited both in the Gallery and Café at independent bookstore Foyles, 113-119 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0EB (until end of November 2012).

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‘Still’ competition: winning story ‘Piano’ by AJ Ashworth

Negative Press London is excited to post the winning story of the Still/Negative Press London/Foyles short story competition. To celebrate the publication of Still, writers were invited to write a story up to 500 words, inspired by the photograph ‘The Stage (Piano)’ by Roelof Bakker.

The winning story, ‘Piano’, is written by AJ Ashworth and was selected from over one hundred submitted stories. Judge Evie Wyld said: ‘It was the voice that attracted me and Nicholas Hogg to this one. Her story is strong and understated at the same time.’

‘Piano’ is also on display at Foyles on London’s Charing Cross Road until the end of November 2012.

Piano

The Stage (Piano) by Roelof Bakker

Photograph by Roelof Bakker

This is not the place she thought she’d return to.

She imagined she’d be with Arthur. Strolling up the promenade as grey, northern skies broke open above them. Or lying beneath him, as he moved over her that first time – the second night of their honeymoon in a B&B in Blackpool.

Perhaps she might have returned to the births of their three children. To the first glimpse of each old face in her arms. Each a miniature Arthur, right down to the wrinkled brows and thin lips, the pale, translucent skin. All of them with long pianists’ fingers too, just like her own mother, even though none of them ever played or ever showed any interest in wanting to.

If they had, perhaps things would have been different for her. Better.

But no. Her failing mind has brought her here. To the stage of the concert hall. Standing in the wings and hidden by the curtains – those heavy ripples of yellow velvet which she would touch, if she knew she wouldn’t get her hand smacked for it.

Her mother stands just behind her, not touching but close. She can’t see her, facing towards the piano as she is, but can feel her, as if the woman is a tall, thin planet at her shoulder. Pulling on her and dark with gravity. Unaware of how she is able to draw in whoever she wants, whenever she wants them – even those she doesn’t.

There is a burst of noise from the auditorium, sudden as rain on a tin roof. The announcer looks at her his hand out towards the piano. He says her name again and then, ‘Young pianist extraordinaire’, his eyes growing wider each second she fails to move.

Finally, her mother pushes her arm. ‘Go on then,’ she says, the applause dying. ‘And don’t embarrass me.’

And she is out, beneath the hot lights, walking towards the piano. Scraping the seat out and sitting down as a sigh of air escapes from a small hole in the side of the cushion. She notices the overwhelming smell of lacquer and, then, how a tiny yellow thread from a duster has become trapped by a hairline crack in one of the keys.

‘In a grand piano,’ she recalls her mother saying during one of her lessons, ‘it’s gravity that brings the hammer to a rest after it’s hit a string. It helps you play faster.’

But when she tries to lift her hands from her lap to place them in their starting position, nothing happens. It is as if they too are being pulled down by gravity.

‘Nobody should have been left there like a sitting duck,’ her father said, later. Her mother in the mirror fussed with a curl at the back of her ear.

She’d never had another lesson after that – not from her mother, not from anyone. In all honesty, she’d probably never had the right kind of hands.

AJ Ashworth was born and brought up in Lancashire and is a former journalist who now works in publishing. She is the winner of Salt Publishing’s Scott Prize 2011 and her debut collection Somewhere Else, or Even Here was published in 2011 by Salt. This collection of short stories was also shortlisted for the 2012 Edge Hill Prize and nominated for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.

A Q&A with AJ about her life as a writer will be posted here soon.

AJ Ashworth blog

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‘Still’ short story competition: A.J. Ashworth announced as winner

A big thank you to everyone for submitting stories to the Still short story competition organised by Negative Press London and Foyles – London’s iconic independent bookseller.

All the entries were read by Roelof Bakker (editor, Still) and Lisa Bywater (local marketing manager, Foyles) who together selected a shortlist of ten stories.

These ten stories were consequently read and judged by contributing Still authors Nicholas Hogg and Evie Wyld. Stories were supplied without the writers’ names.

Nicholas and Evie have selected what they felt was the strongest entry and the winning story is by A.J. Ashworth from Lancashire.

Judge Evie Wyld says: ‘It was the voice that attracted me and Nicholas Hogg to this one. Her story is strong and understated at the same time.’

Roelof Bakker, Still editor says: ‘The ten stories shortlisted were all stupendous and each highly original. I would have happily included all of them in the Still anthology. Congratulations to the shortlisted writers, but also to everyone else for entering – Lisa Bywater and myself greatly enjoyed reading your work.’

A.J. Ashworth will receive a copy of Still, a print of ‘The Stage (Piano)’, a copy of The Hummingbird And the Bear by Nicholas Hogg and After the Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld and her story will be exhibited as part of the Still exhibition at Foyles on Charing Cross Road from Friday 26 October 2012 in the first floor Café. Her story will also be published on the Foyles and Negative Press London blogs and we look forward to interviewing her for the Negative Press London blog.

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