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W&N and UEA short-story partnership produces first winner

Fiction, Prize-winners, Uncategorized

Amy Davies - January 23rd, 2014

We have joined forces with the University of East Anglia’s creative writing programme to showcase the best short stories written by its students. The partnership will run four competitions a year to find the best short stories written by UEA creative writing students. Each quarter, a panel of PhD students from the creative writing course will draw up a shortlist of ten stories, which are then submitted to W&N Fiction editorial team for judging.  Find out more here

Victoria FinanThe winner of this quarter’s competition is twenty-two-year-old Victoria Finan. Victoria was born in Yorkshire and is currently in her final year of a degree in Literature and History at the University of East Anglia. She divides her time between a small village near York, and Norwich. She is currently working on a creative writing dissertation.

 

 Mary Pannell by Victoria Finan

Before Jack got sick, he used to tell me stories. He’d coax me out from behind Mam’s skirts, pull me up so I sat with my legs dangling over the bar and give me a penny mouse to suck on. Then he’d start to talk, and Dad would get cross because I wasn’t supposed to be in the pub past nine o’clock.

He was my Dad’s best customer at The Chequers, and he’d sit with his ale, supping it down as he spoke. He had a queer way of speaking, did Jack, quiet and low and Yorkshire – yet I always listened. He had a way of telling stories like no one else, much better than Teacher at school. When Miss told us about Mary Pannell, we all laughed and said it was a sissy’s tale. But when Jack first told me, I had to sleep in Mam’s bed that night. ‘Sinful!’ she said to Jack the next day as she pulled his pint, ‘Teaching our lass stuff and nonsense!’

‘Did you ever see her?’ I’d say to him. But on that note, Jack was always silent.

We let him stay in the chamber above the tap room when he got sick. He’d never married and Mam said it was a crying shame that he should be alone in his cottage when he died, that he needed a woman’s touch to nurse him. I was a young woman by then, not the little lass he’d told stories to, and Mam would send me upstairs with bowls of runny soup, though all he wanted was ale.

He was failing fast by the time autumn came, and he liked me to sit with him a while, as if afraid that death would come for him the moment I shut the door. We didn’t talk much, but one day I came in with his chicken soup and he was different. More tired, yet his eyes were searching over me quickly, furtively. They lingered a little too long on my hips.

‘Tha’s grown up, lass, while I weren’t looking.’

I didn’t answer.

‘Once.  I seen her once.’

I wanted to catch a bus into town, and wasn’t in the mood for Jack’s chatter. ‘Who?’

‘That lass on’t hill. Mary Pannell.’

‘I’m too old for Mary Pannell now, Jack. No one else has seen her. It’s just an old tale we tell the children on All Hallows Eve.’

‘I seen her. On’t hill. I didn’t tell yer when yer was a lass, but I seen her. Once. I never told a soul, not these sixty years, but I seen her as clear as I see you.’

I humoured him. ‘What did she look like, Jack?’

‘If yer sit with me, I’ll tell yer. You’ve got all the time in the world to be rushing off, Elsie, but I’ve got none.’

I thought back to the kind old man who’d sit me on his knee and slyly give me a drop of ale when Mam’s back was turned, and I thought of Jenny waiting for me in town. ‘Go on then, Jack. Tell me what she looked like.’

‘I’ll tell yer more than that, lass.’ His eyes closed as he began to speak.

*

It were the end of spring when they sent our Sarah up to the hall on the hill. She were going as a housemaid and Mam and Dad were proud as punch. I was jealous, you know, not of her silly pinny o’course, but of her getting to go up to the hall every Sunday morning, and bringing her money back every Saturday on her half-day.

There were a lad up at t’hall back then, the mistress’s first-born, back from university or wherever it is that young men wi’ nowt to do went them days. He came in’t pub sometimes, but he wouldn’t talk t’likes of our Dad. Our Sarah would go bright pink whenever we teased about him on her half-day, but she said the young master had no time for housemaids.

I wanted to go visit her at the hall, but Mam said I wasn’t allowed up ’til I were fourteen and able to be an under-gardener.  Sarah would tease me when she came back. ‘Ey, Jackie, tha can always go up to Mary Pannell wood on a morning if tha’s bored of sitting round here, or is tha too scared?’

Well I weren’t scared of no silly ghost or ghoulie, even one that were supposed to be a witch, but the wood on’t hill was bigger then than it is now and I didn’t like to go alone, not unless Sammy Cutter came wi’ me, and he had the measles that summer.

‘She in’t even real, that Mary Pannell. Sammy Cutter’s mam told me that the grown-ups made her up to scare us.’

‘Oh yes, she is’, said Sarah, ‘She was burnt because she gave her mistress at the hall a brew to make her babby come too soon hundreds of years ago, and if you see the old crone, it means someone in your family is going to die. I saw her once, Jackie, and she whispered your name…’

‘Shut up, Sarah!’ said Mam as my sister fell about laughing, ‘Mary bloody Pannell. We were scared of her when we were girls. Take no notice, Jackie, it’s just a silly old tale. Your sister’s head is being filled with rubbish at that hall.’

It was being filled with rubbish, because the next time she came home, Sarah’s face were as white as Mary Pannell herself, and when Mam set down the beef that she’d bought especially, Sarah ran outside to the bog and I could hear her chucking up.

‘Now she thinks there’s a ghost of some cow on’t hill, Mam,’ I said, but she didn’t laugh. Her lips were so tight.

I was sent to bed early that night, but I was still awake when Mam sent Sarah up, and she’d been crying. Her fingers were shaking as she lit her candle and I was worried that she would drop the match. The smoke smelt stronger and as the shadow of the flames danced on the floor, I thought I could see the shape of something behind Sarah on the bed, dark grey hands reaching around her belly. I turned around to face the wall, and Sarah blew the candle out.

Autumn came as it always does and the men began to look at Dad funny when he went into the pub. I went with him once and the landlord patted Dad hard on the back and said it were a hard blow. Mam came back from the butcher’s one day shaking wi’ rage because some old crone told her she should be shamed for raising a whore. And when I started school again, Sammy Cutter wouldn’t play with me, so I decided to bunk off. I knew I couldn’t go home or Mam would box me ears, so I ran up to the wood. I wouldn’t be scared now, no matter whether Sammy came with me or not. It smelt of moss and the faint remnants of a bonfire that had just been put out. The sun was lowering down the sky.

I were sat behind a tree with two twigs trying to make a fire and I heard her before I saw her. The sound of a branch under her feet cracked like the breaking of a neck. She was whispering over and over, ‘Bark and tansy, nettle. Bark and tansy, nettle.’ I peeked around the tree and saw her walking through the wood, her pinny and hair both come loose. I saw her belly grown big and soft, and then she saw me. For a moment I thought she was going to run, then I saw she was mouthing something at me.

‘Don’t tell, Jackie, please don’t tell.’

My sister did not look back as she continued to rush through the wood, but I could still hear the breaking branches – yet now they sounded more like the crackling of flames. I concentrated on rubbing my sticks, and for some reason I wanted to cry as the crackling seemed louder and louder. I could smell the smoke now, and thought it’d be some lads from the village come back for another bonfire. I didn’t want any of them to see me.

It took me some time to make my way out through the trees, and I knew Mam’d be cross because I’d be late home. It were dark then and as the wood began to taper out, I saw the flames for the first time between the trunks, not far off. I was surprised that I couldn’t hear the village lads laughing or the pop of bottles opening, but the only noise was the crackling, and though I knew I ought to be home, I stepped closer.

I think I knew she’d be there before I saw her, stood in front of the fire, gazing in. Her hair hung low down her back, and I could tell by her gait she was no old crone. She was younger than the boys at school said she was. Her hands were on her swollen belly, and I could hear her crying to the flames. I couldn’t move closer, the idea of her seeing me rooted my feet to the ground, but I could just about hear her call, ‘Bark, tansy, nettle. I didn’t do it, Mistress, I didn’t! It were for me, not for you, he took me too, it were for me, not for you!’

I ran past her, out of the woods, not caring if she heard, fearing to God what I’d see if I looked back, fearing to God that her flames would come for me too.

The door was locked. ‘Mam! Mam!’ I shouted, banging on the door, ‘Mam, let me in! I saw her! Mary Pannell, in the woods!’ The door opened and I squeezed through the tiniest gap that she’d let in. Her face were about a thousand years old that night.

‘Sorry I’m late home, Mam.’

‘Go upstairs Jackie’. That was when I heard the first cry from the kitchen, the wail that I didn’t know a human lass could make.

Sarah was on her back on the table, her little body strained under the weight of her belly, blood slowly dripping onto the wooden floor. Dad was next to her, crying ‘I’ll kill that bastard from the hall, I’ll kill him.’ The smoke was up my nose, yet Mam and Dad didn’t seem to notice.

Mam marched me upstairs, and I sat on the bed. I thought back to the girl I’d seen in the wood earlier, calling to the flames, and to my sister downstairs. To the fire in her belly that she wanted to put out. I couldn’t stand the sound of her screaming.

The babby came that night, a six month child of bark, tansy and nettle, and when God came to collect the little lad, He took my sister with Him too, and all Mam was left with were the stains on the floor to wash out. Before I blew my candle out that night, after Dad came back from the pub drunker than I’d ever seen him, still crying ‘I’ll kill that bastard, I’ll kill him,’ I thought I saw Mary Pannell’s shadow on the floor, darting in the flame, whispering words that I couldn’t make out.

*

Jack’s eyes were screwed tight, and I turned away, knowing he wouldn’t want me to see him cry. I looked out the window, towards the hill and the wood. I don’t know what I was expecting to see but the dense lines of trees.

‘Don’t say owt, Elsie,’ Jack said, his voice strained slightly. ‘Some of the old boys in the tap room remember our Sarah, but they don’t know how she died. Don’t say owt.’

I continued to stare out the window. The sun was setting below the hill. ‘I won’t Jack. I’m sorry.’

‘I never told no one. Never told no one that I’d seen Mary Pannell either. No one else ever said they’d seen her, meaning it. They’d all have thought I were mad. Poor lass.’

‘Perhaps she’s gone now, Jack. Perhaps now she’s just a story.’

‘Aye. Come hold my hand, love. I could do with a sleep.’

So I took my chair and the old man’s hand until he was in a place where only troubled dreams of a boy running through a wood could disturb him. And then I took his empty soup bowl down into the pub to Mam, who asked me what had taken me so long. ‘Just Jack and his stories,’ I said.

That night, when I blew out my candle, I thought of the girl Jack saw in the wood, and fancied that the wind was the sound of someone far away crying, and that the night clouds gathering low on the hill were the rings of smoke as the villagers’ feet cracked the branches to see a young witch burn.

 

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This entry was posted on Thursday, January 23rd, 2014 at 10:58 am and is filed under Fiction, Prize-winners, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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