We read a lot of work that broaches dark subjects. Often times, they are to do with death, depression, and suicide. It's an ever-present cloud that hangs over society, and it's one that few ever dare to look up at. And few who write about it as Robert have are able to do so in a way that not only draws attention to it as a growing issue, but are also able to capture the bravery and fortitude of those that it affects. We loved this story, and we're proud to showcase it in our shortlist.
Shortlist - Open Prose Competition
Right On, Says John
Alice dangled her bare feet in the cold wild air, staring down into the dark water far below. She ached to see her brother’s face in the waves, but there was nothing. She ached to join him, wanting only the courage to push herself forward. She ached to hear him again, with his faux hippie mannerisms, ending so many sentences with his annoying “right on, says John”, with fingers held up in a peace sign.
“Why did you do it?” she asked of the wind. “What was wrong with you?”
There hadn’t been anything wrong, at least not from outside. Mum had argued with the police when they’d said there was nothing suspicious. Dad had blamed himself: for moving down to Brighton, where “there were bad influences”; for having the confectionary stand on the pier, and thus keys to the pier; for not realising that John had long since made copies – and given a set to Alice, of course, which he still didn’t know. Dad had blamed himself, and then closed down. No one said anything at home any more. And no one had asked Alice, at any point, how she was coping. How she longed to hear “right on, says John” one more time, even though she used to try to punch her big brother, or clasp her hand over his mouth when she saw him about to say it.
And now, the cold waves looked welcoming. There was no conversation at home, and no feeling inside her. No, more like a heaviness, like a thick woollen blanket had fallen over her heart.
The funeral was tomorrow. That would be saying goodbye. That would be admitting that her big brother was really gone. That would be accepting that she, Alice, was going to live, in a world where her family was gone, her world was gone, the one person who’d ever understood her had turned out to be completely inexplicable himself.
She pulled her bag round and opened it. Mobile phone, probably best dropped into the water before she went. Packet of condoms John had insisted she always have, just in case, “because sexual health is right on, says John”. Home keys. Pier keys. Sweet shop keys, “because being able to sneak into your dad’s sweet shop is…” and that one she’d at least seen coming and stopped. A stick of rock, picked up on impulse, because John loved its sweetness so much he’d lost two teeth to decay. Not so right on. A purse, which would wash up on shore a few days later to make clear she was gone from this world. A notepad, “because if you have a good idea you’ve got to write it down, because art is,” and yes, he did add the “right on, says John”. Alice felt tears running down her face and watched them drip, then disappear into the darkness below. He’d always said it, and everyone had always groaned.
“Why, John? Was it because we told you to shut up?” She stopped and thought for a while. “Was that why? Why you kept saying that phrase, over and over? Were you crying out for someone to say yes? What made you so unhappy you abandoned me?” She realised she was shouting, but it didn’t matter – who’d hear her in this wind? “What did you want me to do, you selfish bastard?” She paused.
“Sorry. But what you did. It wasn’t right on, John. It was shitty. It was stupid. I love you, John. I don’t want you to be dead.”
She leaned forward and looked down. So easy. So easy from here to fall, to drop her things, to drop herself into that coldness. The currents around the posts were treacherous – even as a strong swimmer she’d struggle. It was cold, and the waves were high.
She rifled through her bag again and took out the sweet shop keys. She stretched out her arm and dropped them. Not even a faint sound of a splash with the wind and waves howling at her. Her feet were freezing. She didn’t care.
The rock was next, with its red-and-white lines outside, like that stupid toothpaste John had bought for her once because she was amazed they could do that – make the different colours separate in the tube. “These stripes are right on, says John.”
“You were loved, John,” she shouted, and smashed the one-inch-wide stick of sugar into the black wood of the pier. She smashed it again and again, as if somehow this tiny act, this movement of one arm in the darkness, was the conduit for all of the anger of the world.
By the end a shattered set of hard pieces hung limp in the plastic wrap.
She unrolled the plastic.
A piece rolled off and into the sea below.
Another rolled back and wedged in a crack between planks.
Another fell sideways.
The usual words “BRIGHTON ROCK” were shattered, leaving only half. Leaving only “RIGHTON”. Alice ran a finger along them, hearing the voice again at last. Hearing his voice saying those words, at least in her mind if not in the air. She traced a finger round the letters.
Right on, says Alice.
She looked one last time down into the waters below. The height made her feel dizzy. The cold below hit her. She grabbed the edge of the pier and pushed herself back, suddenly afraid. Suddenly wanting to live. She gathered the fragments of rock together, and knew that tomorrow, as other people threw earth into the grave, she would throw rock. This fragment of Brighton Rock. Right on rock. Right on, to John.
And she would remember the brother she had had, not imagine the one she now didn’t.