The winner of the Portsmouth Short Story Competition 2016 was announced at the BookFest Launch Event on 9th February. This year’s theme was 1976 to celebrate the 40th birthday of Portsmouth Central Library in July 2016. Our winner was Stuart Parker with his wonderful story, Seven Spotted Ladybird, which made imaginative use of the theme.

Here is our winning story:

Seven Spotted Ladybird

 

Henry Drinkwater wilted. The clouded ice-cubes in his Corona orangeade creaked and cracked. Henry looked down at the lawn. The grass was the colour of a chain-smoker’s fingers. It had barely rained since May and now, twelfth of August, the country was parched. Like Henry, the rest of Tufnell Park was baking but unlike most of N19 Henry was in a position to enjoy the sun. With only a week or so to wait for his A level results he hoped, he dared to hope, that they would be good enough to get him in to Oxford to read History.

Henry laced his fingers together behind his head, his fingers buried deep in his thatch of sun-bleached shoulder length hair. He tilted his sun-creamed face up to worship the sun and dared to dream. Both of his parents, teachers at the local comp, had been to university but Oxford was one step beyond. Henry had studied hard, bloody hard, giving up a very decent social life consisting of football and girls not necessarily in that order. For now, life was good. His parents were out for the day and all he had to do was baby-sit his annoyance of a little brother. Henry had already put him to work giving him ten pence to keep watch through the net curtains for Georgina.

‘This is perfect,’ he thought, ‘Just perfect,’ hitching up his shorts as high as they could feasibly go and testing the boundaries of decency. The sky was clear and there was the barely audible whirr from squadrons of ladybirds around him. But Henry then got to thinking of the heat, the cooling glass of orangeade and the parched and brittle plants in this desiccated garden. These were the nagging thoughts of impending change. He had known that this time in his life would come, having to leave, but this ‘time’ was always a little ahead in the future just out of sight over the horizon. He nestled down in his  green canvas camping chair and buried those thoughts away for at least one more day. He supposed that he should at least keep a cursory check on Simon, see if he was OK and still on sentry duty. Just as Henry put the white paper straw to his lips his own name was shouted through the house accompanied by the double time thud of little footsteps, down the small wooden staircase, through the kitchen and out into the garden.

‘Henry….HENRY….she’s here and she’s coming out with her red bucket. Quick!’

Henry flashed a look at his watch which lay on the dry soil next to his chair.

‘Ten past two! She’s early. Thursday? Why’s she early?!’

Henry took a quick slurp from his drink and in his haste in putting it down, the glass tipped over. The fizz from the orangeade foamed over the dead grass, the rounded cubes of ice slid down and out of the glass as the sticky drink disappeared down between the fissures in the dry soil. The soil turned black. The ice cubes dissolved and danced and in the time it took for them to completely disappear Henry had slipped on his flip-flops, grabbed his own red plastic bucket and headed out of the front door.

‘Right, Simon, you have to come along but say nothing, schtum, do you understand? Nothing.’ said Henry, crouching down to Simon’s level for this conspiratorial conversation.

‘Yeah yeah, I know, usual drill.’  Simon dramatically closed his lips with a pop and drew his pinched fingers along them, zipping up his mouth.

Both of them ran to the front gate, the bucket swinging and then slowing right down as the gate slammed shut behind them. They then nonchalantly shuffled along the hot flagstones down to the standpipe up near the entrance to Tufnell Park Tube.

Simon certainly didn’t want to hold hands with his brother but Henry found that Simon was now dragging his feet. They’d miss queuing behind Georgina which was the whole point of the exercise. The ridiculous slap of their flip-flops sounded like a flock of migrating penguins, a sound drowned out by the passing 73 bus to Hampstead. Just around the corner Henry could see the long queue snaking back but…..disaster. There was Georgina at the back of the queue but following very closely behind was Mr Watkins, the Drinkwater’s’ long time neighbour. A small smile played around Simon’s lips, delighted at Henry’s thwarted plans for romance.

‘Look Simon, we can make it if we started running, come on, just a bit.’

‘Henry, Henry stop. I’ve got something stuck between my toes, a stone or something, stop!’

‘You little bugger, you’re doing this on purpose aren’t you, eh?!’

‘No, really! I’ve got somefink. I’ve got to stop to get it out, Henry!’

And so Henry looked ahead and saw Mr Watkins join the queue behind the floppy straw hat, all Ali McGraw in Love Story, with Georgina underneath.

‘Never mind, we’ll still have to queue up. We need the water for cooking tea and you are still staying right beside be, gottit!? Ratbag.’

Simon, suddenly back to full walking speed, tucked in line astern behind his big brother, flip-flopping their way to the back of the queue.

They both lined up behind Mr Watkins who himself was on his tip toes peering over the queue to see what was happening at the tap. Henry rolled his eyes at the impatience of the man but it was an unchanging routine. Mr Watkins huffed, took a look at his thin gold Omega and then huffing at the fact that he had to queue up for water, huffing that the people at the tap were taking an age but really just huffing at the indignity of having to queue with other people.

Henry had noticed the change of decorum in the queue over the last few weeks. He saw women, usually buttoned up in housecoats and curlers that were now in vests and cotton shifts, their puffy feet getting a rare airing.

When the standpipe had first been put in there were announcements, locally, that people would have to queue up for water. Initially there was an outcry but, as with most changes in life the ‘new’ soon became the ‘norm’. The queue had always been polite but now people seemed to relish the queuing, an opportunity to meet up, “Ooh, isn’t it just awful, when will it end?”- and all those usual conversations which people love in any sort crisis, a little bit of solidarity. And now, now there was almost a party atmosphere, indeed most of the current rash of late night parties were organised in this very queue. All of this, Henry could see, was of great annoyance to Mr Watkins. Despite it being 92⁰F there he stood clutching his large metal jerry can, wearing a close checked shirt, an army tie emblazoned with a gold insignia, crisp pressed trousers and the only item of clothing which might indicate to an observer that he was on holiday at all, was a pair of polished leather loafers instead of his usual ox-blood brogues. His hair, Henry noticed from behind, was plastered with Brylcreem and a fine toothed comb had been teased through it to produce those thin, sculptured lines. Mr Watkins took off his horn-rimmed glasses and dabbed an ironed handkerchief on to his brow, dabbing at the perspiration like a nurse tending a fevered patient. This action, on its own, showed that he was at least aware of the sweltering heat.

Henry wasn’t entirely sure that Mr Watkins was ignoring him and his brother and because he was facing away, still tutting towards the incompetence at the head of the queue, he might not hear Henry say hello and then that would be embarrassing. Henry bided his time, waiting for the traffic to pass, for Mr Watkins to turn back around, waiting for the simmering conversation to quell.

‘’Ello Mr Watkins!’ shouted Simon, loud enough to wake the dead at nearby Highgate cemetery.

Mr Watkins slowly turned around, stretching his chin upwards making all the dangling skin taut as a sail.

‘Ah, yes, Henry and er….Simon, yes, Simon,’ Mr Watkins mentally congratulating himself for remembering their names without a prompt leading to an uplift in his tone, ‘yes…..Messers Drinkwater.’

Henry smirked a little as clearly, by the time he took to turn, Mr Watkins had been ignoring them both, not wanting a conversation at all. But there was no ignoring Simon’s bellow.’

Mr Watkins, not having any sort of opening gambit for a conversation seemed quite happy to just bob up and down on his feet, lowering and raising his eyebrows in concert.

’92⁰ F Mr Watkins, if you can believe it!’ said Henry. At least, for Henry, the heatwave was a guaranteed conversation starter.

‘Is it? Is it indeed? Yes, well, I suppose it might be, yes,’ came the vaguest of replies, a reply that tried to snuff out any thoughts of continuing a conversation. Mr Watkins seemed a little absent, his eyes full of concern for the state of undress of the boys in front of him. Neglect was possibly the word floating around in his head. Henry stood there, smiling, with his long uncombed, unkempt hair, a touch of Ziggy Stardust about him and tennis shorts that were last white when Rod Laver won Wimbledon. Simon wore a pair of purple swimming trunks and what looked very much like a deer-stalker on his head. The quietest of tuts was emitted from Mr Watkins. However, Mr Watkins did at least turn around completely to look at the pair of them, a sign reflecting the fact that he had lived next door to the Drinkwater’s  for the best part of twenty five years.

In many previous situations both Mum and Dad had been there with them, chatting away over the fence with Mr Watkins and the boys had just stood by observing it all. But now? Now Henry was having to have a proper adult conversation. The last conversation Henry had had with Mr Watkins must have been about ten years ago just after the World Cup. Mrs Watkins had not long left and Henry had kicked Geoff Hurst’s goal far too hard into his imaginary top corner and it had landed in next door’s garden. Henry had timidly gone up to the fence, peering over and asked for it back. The ball that came back to him landed with a muted thud and no hint of a bounce.

‘It must have landed in my rose bush,’ said the disembodied voice beyond the fence, ‘Sorry about that. Still, you’re probably sick of kicking the ball against my fence, eh?’ Henry remembered clearly looking down at his ball seeing a neat, three inch puncture. The leather gaped open like a bloodless wound.

As Mr Watkins shuffled on his feet Henry caught sight of the angelic back of Georgina. Dungarees and a thin white T-shirt underneath. Oh, her swan-like neck, tiny tendrils of golden hair like silken tresses, beads of golden perspiration….

‘I like your new car Mr Watkins,’ said Simon, staring straight up into his face. Mr Watkins was somewhat troubled by his penetrating gaze.

‘What? Oh, yes, my car?’

‘Yeah, me an’ Henry were talkin’ about it. Rover P6, 3500. V8 engine ain’t it?’

‘Er, yes, that’s right,’ said Mr Watkins, not quite sure how to act in the face of all this sudden, positive attention.

‘We love it, don’t we Henry, ‘specially when you start it up in the mornin’. It growls, like a tiger! Don’t it Henry?’

‘Yes Simon, but I don’t think Mr Watkins really wants to hear you telling him all about his own car,’ Henry, trying to shut Simon up, now Henry looking up at Mr Watkins himself, ‘It is a very nice car though. Nice colour too, yellow.’

‘Mustard.’

‘Sorry?’

‘It’s mustard, not yellow but….’ and Mr Watkins started to relax, realising that he wasn’t being interrogated. They weren’t bad boys really. Mr Watkins raised one hand up to cosmetically adjust his glasses, pinching at the corner of the frame and all three of them looked back down the twenty or so yards to where the car was parked. It was beautiful. The rear lights, housed in a bright chrome gothic arch, the low slung boot reminiscent of the Citroën DS. Such curves.

‘Yes boys, a very nice machine. Cream leather seats, automatic gears, air conditioning which is an absolute must in the heat I can tell you.’

Simon’s jaw dropped just at the very idea of air conditioning.

‘V8 though,’ said Henry chancing his arm at talking like a proper adult, ‘bet it’s a bit thirsty.’ Henry was so proud of that short sentence. That’s what men said, it’s what his Dad would have said. Would Mr Watkins dismiss him, put him back in his place like an impudent little boy? And he was sure that Georgina was listening to all of this. Such pressure on so few words.

‘Well…er…yes, it does guzzle the old juice but it fair canters down the motorway.’  For just one moment there was pride in the air, pride from Mr Watkins with his car towards a young man who he now thought respected him. Georgina turned her head just enough, her face framed by her heart-shaped sunglasses to face Henry, to show Henry that she was listening and she might…..might be interested. All four of them shuffled forward as the next set of buckets at the tap had been filled.

 Henry looked across at the open sash windows, not a breath of breeze troubling the net curtains, a few ladybirds drizzled lazily through the air and Demis Roussos was warbling out of the tranny on the window-sill. Henry chuckled at Demis Roussos, such safe music, music his parents loved. Where was his own music, his Beatles? Nothing seemed to be changing as this summer went on forever and ever. The music had turned as beige as the grass.

‘Henry,’ said Simon, rubbing his tired eyes, ‘You did also say somefink else about Mr Watkins’ car, didn’t you?’

‘Erm, I don’t think I did, Simon.’ Henry frantically trying to remember exactly what he had said but also trying to get Simon to stop talking, full stop.

‘Yeah you did, you said it at breakfast, you said “’ave you noticed just how clean that car is” and you’re right, it is clean.’

Simon, shielding his eyes from the reflection from the gleaming car, checking to see that the car was indeed spotless. Henry gave a little embarrassed laugh, trying to end the conversation diplomatically.

‘Yes, er, I suppose I did say that, though perhaps I meant the clean lines that the car has, sweeping chrome edges an’ all.’

But the fragile fledgling conversation was dissolving fast. Mr Watkins looked somewhat quizzical, a furrow forming on the recently dabbed forehead. Perhaps, thought Henry, he could get away with it as a misunderstanding… ‘Yes, Mr Watkins, it is very clean and what a fabulous machine it is…good day to you, come along Simon….’ But Henry’s parents had brought him up to tell the truth even if the truth was the most painful option. It had served him well in his studies so far and if he was going to Oxford then wouldn’t he have to  cleave the truth from the bonfires of smoke and lies that History was filtered through? With a heavy heart Henry spoke, almost wincing at the pain he would have to endure. This conversation would not end well.

‘Well, I merely mentioned it ,’ started Henry ‘because it was so noticeably clean, in a street where every other car is positively filthy. I read about it in the Guardian the other day. A filthy car is a badge of solidarity, it shows that you’re only using water for the barest essentials,’ and Henry felt, for a moment that he was back on the debating team, where arguments were monochrome.

Mr Watkins’ face soured, his eyes darkened as his brow arched over them like an enveloping canopy. Henry, out of the corner of his eye saw Georgina shuffle away, sensing danger, no longer looking back.

‘Guardian eh…..?……Solidarity!….’’ Mr Watkins fumed and Henry thought better of interjecting at this point.

‘Are you,’ Mr Watkins spat the words out like nails, ‘lecturing me about my car and how clean it is…..are you?’

‘Well I…’ and for another moment Henry thought about backing down, it would be so easy to do, just to say the polite thing but maybe not the right thing. But, at the back of his mind, a thought struck him. He felt the sticky orangeade on his fingers. Times were changing. He would be gone soon and this was a rare chance to stand up for what he thought was right, and if it improved his chances with Georgina then so much the better.

‘I wouldn’t call it lecturing, no, but, well, with a proper drought, I mean, here we are queuing up for water and surely washing a car isn’t a priority, is it?,’ Henry lifting up his bucket and shaking it as if it were exhibit A.

Mr Watkins stepped forward half a pace.

‘Do you know why I clean my car, do you? Hmm?! Standards. That’s why,’ said Mr Watkins, not giving Henry a chance to reply. ‘I have a job, I sell insurance. I drive to see clients and I have to present an image. Pressed suit, trilby hat and a very clean car. Standards.’ Mr Watkins looked down again at both Simon, Henry and then the rest of the queue in their various states of undress.

‘I suppose we’ll have everyone cavorting naked in the streets soon, in fact I’m surprised that people are still queuing. They’ll be anarchy in the UK soon if this carries on, anarchy! Mark my words.

Mr Watkins turned his back on Henry indicating the end of the conversation but Henry couldn’t let it go.

‘But people are queuing. They all know that there is a shortage of water and we are all trying to get along as best we can, “Save water – bathe with a friend”, isn’t that the message, eh Mr Watkins?’

At this Georgina turned back around and got a cheeky wink from Henry.

‘I suppose, Mr Drinkwater, you find all of this very amusing.’ Mr Watkins spun around using all of his frame to tower, as much as he could, over Henry, ‘Water, a commodity that we all rely on, and pay for I might add, and in this day and age we are queuing up for it. What is this…this….shambles of a Labour government doing?!’

Henry could see Mr Watkins winding himself up. Although still talking to Henry he was now staring up the road, a cloud of dust rising up from another passing 73. Henry shuffled Simon behind himself like a protective Mother Goose. Mr Watkins, used his palm to wipe away the sweat and then continued with his hands on his hips.

‘This country, I’m afraid, is going to the dogs. Inflation is twenty percent. Twenty percent! It’s like a Banana republic! Do you even know what that means? Prices for everything are going up by twenty percent but don’t think that anyone’s wages are going up by the same amount, oh no. Manufacturing is falling apart, strikes every bloody day, unions tearing the country to pieces. This country is on its knees, boy. Solidarity you say, eh?! Well, why don’t we just become a communist state, isn’t that what you want, reading your leftie rag? And I suppose you are off to university, on my taxes I shouldn’t wonder. History is it?’

And at this Henry couldn’t help but smile, almost beam. Even Georgina turned around, peering coquettishly over her glasses in admiration. However Henry’s bask in the spotlight was short-lived.

‘Well, how wonderful, all we need in the country is another historian. Yes, I’m sure that will solve our engineering and science crisis(!)’

‘Woah, wait a minute there Mr Watkins, I worked really hard to get into university’ said Henry, now genuinely upset.

‘Ah yes, of course, at school, at home, meals made for you,  growing your hair, must have been agony for you, such a sacrifice(!)’

‘Well,’ countered Henry, ‘if you are so bitter why didn’t you go to University?’

‘Yes, well sadly just as I was about to go to university a certain Mr Hitler invaded a country called Poland and my education was unavoidably postponed. You might have read about it in one of your liberal history books or has too much time passed for that to remain relevant.’

Henry said nothing. Mr Watkins calmed himself and took a breath, another adjustment of his glasses. He put down his jerry can and stared wistfully at the pavement, a film of grey dust had collected on his shoes.

‘I was in the tanks if you must know, Sahara, Libya, out in the sand against Rommel. This heat?’ pointing upwards, ‘Nothing. I saw men burn. Charred bodies unrecognizable as men sticking out of the tanks. Some clambered out, screaming in agony, escaping the flames and heat, escaping being roasted alive only then to be shot which was sometimes a merciful release. Unless you experience something like that, you cannot understand it. You can never understand it. My wife didn’t and I don’t expect you to. I can still hear their screams today. Nothing has changed, nothing. I was fighting fascism, communism, fighting for my country and now, here, I’m queuing for water and I could almost weep. And you wonder why I keep my car clean?’

Mr Watkins lowered his head, pinched the bridge of his nose and in doing so lifted up his glasses a few inches. Henry also found himself lowering his own head. It was only Simon, peeping out from behind Henry who saw one, two and then three ladybirds land on Mr Watkins’ shoulder, all at the same time, the same distance apart like tiny cherry epaulettes. A small breeze finally stirred them and they flew off one by one. Simon blinked but said nothing.

An ice cream van in the distance played a discordant version of ‘Greensleeves’ and this seemed to snap Mr Watkins out of his trance. He bent down to pick up his jerry can and then, with long military strides marched back to his house.

Georgina, Henry and Simon all stood, heads down and speechless. Demis Roussos started up again and a small trickle of water came down the gutter in the road where precious water from the tap had been spilt. Two sparrows swooped down from a roof and twisted their beaks in the water, fluffed up their feathers in the dust before flying off leaving tiny dark footprints and in an instant they were also gone. Normal life resumed and Henry told Georgina all about his future.

That night just after ten, Henry crept out of the house with a bucket of cold water and a squirt of Fairy liquid. The air was thick with parties and Bowie belted out of a nearby house, the big brass opening…

“Still didn’t know what I was waitin’ for…”

Henry slapped the heavy wet sponge onto the vast mustard coloured bonnet. As he squeezed the sponge a light went on upstairs in the house next door. He froze. He thought he saw a figure there but the light went out before he could really look. In the midnight blue of the sticky summer night, squeezing the sponge as hard as he could Henry found himself thinking how lucky he was. He was no longer afraid of whatever was to come. He smiled to himself as he sang along…

‘Turn and face the strange…’