A few weeks ago, I received an email to say that a short story of mine was one of fifty entries being put through to the final round of judging for the Dragonfly Tea Short Story Competition 2017.
I was thrilled, as this was a competition I’d entered on a whim, after writing a story inspired by a pair of shoes I’d found outside Marylebone Station. I happened to stumble across the competition by chance and realised that my story quite aptly fitted the competition’s theme of ‘Journey’. I gave myself a modest pat on the back, keeping the proud news to myself, hardly expecting to hear any more about it.
I was then completely euphoric to hear from them again a couple of weeks later, and be told that my story, The Interloper, had reached the final six - and that they were kindly inviting me to attend the prize giving ceremony at Henley Literary Festival on 8th October. It was quite possibly my proudest moment – better than getting my degree, better than getting my first job, better than the time I won Aqua’s first album on a Nickelodeon phone in.
I didn’t plan on telling anyone, in fear of jinxing the whole thing, but the news kind of burst out of me by accident. In a bid to be cool, I tried my best to play it down (Short story competition final? Whatevs…), but the truth was I was unashamedly proud and the giddy excitement of my friends and family carried me along. Every now and again, I had to give myself a little pep talk, and push all romantic notions of winning out of my head, insisting that I couldn’t possibly come first with all the potential talent that must be out there in the world. But deep down, I was hopeful, and as much as I protested, I really wanted to win.
My dad drove all the way down from Manchester the day before the festival, insisting that he wouldn’t have missed it for the world. He’d told everyone from the fork-lift truck driving instructor at work to the guy in the corner shop, that he was the proud father of a short-story finalist, and numerous poor souls even had a printed copy forced upon them. When he got round to telling the woman in the taxi office in Henley-on-Thames, it brought the official figure to Everyone He’d Ever Met.
The morning of the festival was beautiful and bright, unseasonably so for October. What a perfect day for some prize giving! Our collective mood was decidedly buoyant and in that moment, there was nothing that could have dampened our spirits. My dad asked what I’d spend the prize money on (“Oh I don’t know….” A lap top.) and René asked if I’d prepared a speech (Nah...Not a proper written down one).
The prize-giving took place in a beautifully ornate high-ceilinged room on the upper floor of Henley’s Town Hall. At the back of the room, where the kind people from Dragonfly Tea provided refreshments, we noticed that they were also proffering copies of Journey, a printed edition of the six short stories that had reached the final. I picked up a copy and flicked to the contents page where my eyes fell upon the words I’d been so desperate to see since I was about eleven years old: The Interloper by Katy Rigg. I was published!
The award ceremony began with the children’s prize-giving. The finalists of their 'maps' competition were published in a book of their own, and the winning stories were read out by actress and comedienne Helen Lederer. Stories about pirates and treasure maps, lost bunnies and magic fidget spinners were brought to life by the actress’ brilliantly animated story-telling voice. Beaming girls and beaming boys skipped onto the stage to collect their prizes, dressed in their Sunday bests and Oscar-award winning grins.
Everything took a more serious tone when the children’s awards were complete and we’d all clapped until our palms were a bit red and raw. My heart started thumping in my chest, not only from the prospect of winning, but also because it looked like I was getting up in front of all these people whether I’d won anything or not.
A hush fell over the room as second and third places were introduced, along with some of the judges’ commentary about the chosen stories. The words sounded a bit like they related to my story: poignant and touching… a sudden twist… touches of humour in unexpected places. But the names that followed weren’t mine. I squeezed my husband’s hand that little bit tighter, but I couldn’t look him in the eye. If I was going to place, I told myself, it would only have been second or third. The chance of winning had now slipped through my fingers.
Unless, in some fortuitous twist of fate, I had in fact smashed it, and first prize was indeed heading my way! Ha! Did I really dare imagine that?
The suspense was clearly sending me a bit mad.
Looking back, I don’t know what I actually believed, but there must have been a small part of me that thought I was in with a chance, because when the winner was announced and it was not ‘Katy Rigg’, I felt instantly crushed - like the air had been sucked out of my lungs with a giant hoover. The huge weight of disappointment was quite simply, suffocating. As I joined in with the wild rapture of applause, my best Hollywood smile etched upon my lips, my eyes pricked with the faintest hint of tears and I could have easily cried.
I didn’t want to listen to Helen Lederer read out the winning story. I didn’t want to go up and claim my runner up prize. I didn’t want to pose for a photo. I wanted to go home and hide under a blanket. And this is exactly what I was thinking about when the winning story reached its conclusion and my dad kindly whispered, “Yours was just as good as hers, love”, and I had to confess that I hadn’t actually taken in a word.
Up until that moment, I had never considered myself a competitive person. But the truth is, I’ve never really been in any sort of competition – not one that mattered so greatly to me anyway. And this was the reason behind my bitter disappointment – I know it’s only a short story competition, that it’s completely insignificant compared to other fantastic achievements that occur on a daily basis, but to me, in that moment, it was everything.
On the train home, and later that evening, and even more so today, (after plenty of time to lick my wounds), I’ve been able to be a grown up once again.
I can now appreciate the brilliance of being part of something, the privilege of being surrounded by such wonderful, creative people. I’ve even accepted that my certificate says ‘finalist’ not ‘loser’ and this allows me to feel a little bit proud. I can see that my initial reaction, deep down, came from a good place. It shows how much I cared.
I've re-read the winning stories and I can see that they’re all so well deserved, full of rich language and poignant turns of phrase that I can learn from. I’ve read back over my own work, spotted things that I could have improved, and I’ve noted how much I need to raise my game for next time.
Because of course there will be a next time. You don’t win prizes and book deals for bitching and moaning and feeling sorry for yourself, you win them by trying again and getting back out there and working that little bit harder.
I looked back at the photos we took in the moments before the ceremony began, me sandwiched between my dad and my husband - my two biggest fans in the world - and I know the result doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference to them. They’ll be there again the next time I’m runner up for something, in as much as they’ll be there for the big win. And that, surely, is enough of a prize for anyone.
My short story, The Interloper, is available to read here on A Mile in My Shoes.