BBC National Short Story Award 2018: The Minutes – Nell Stevens

And the final of the five stories, ‘The Minutes’ by Nell Stevens. The winner will be announced on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row on Tuesday evening.

The Minutes (Extract)
Nell Stevens

We are waiting for Peter to get here so the meeting can start. There’s a bad atmosphere in the room – something between Kat and Adam, I think – and I’ve volunteered to take the minutes so I can keep my head down, typing.

Location: Kat’s apartment, a low-ceilinged new-build place in Peckham, where everything feels too close together and tuneless singing strains through the walls: the neighbours are holding a prayer circle. Occasional shouts of “Amen!” and “Praise Jesus!” punctuate the droning.

Present: Kat, on the floor, her legs stretched out under the glass coffee table and her elbows resting atop it; Diya, curled up on the sofa, reading; Adam, at the main table, flicking through his phone and pretending not to be furious about whatever it is that Kat has done or not done that he is furious about. Now Peter has arrived, and is already talking too loudly, and everyone is gathering around the coffee table. Diya pours wine into tumblers. Kat spreads her hands over the surface of the glass, as though she’s trying to smooth out a crease, and says, “Let’s get into it, then.” When she shifts her legs, a flake of mud falls away from the sole of her shoe, like a stray puzzle piece. The meeting starts.

Apologies—or rather, conspicuous lack of apology—from: You.

Item 1: the dismantling of our exhibition of squatters’ art. The show is housed in an abandoned building with boarded up windows—it used to be a pub—and the plan was for the exhibition to be ousted, forcibly, by the landlord, hopefully in the presence of a photographer, and that the record of this eviction would then form the basis of a subsequent display. Except that the landlord has failed to notice the presence of the squatters’ art in his property for two months now, so the anticipated expulsion has not taken place, and we all have more pressing things to do than continue to man it, especially since everyone who was ever going to visit came to the private view, and hasn’t returned. Term is about to start: the final term of our final year of university; we need to spend more time in the library and less time supervising the exhibition. We will have to take the art down ourselves.

“Or we could just leave it there,” says Diya, “and see what happens to it over time. It might fall down, or get stolen, and we can keep a record, photograph it, the death of art.”

Peter objects to the concept of treating art as disposable.

Adam agrees with Peter, and says we should at least notify the artists that they can collect their work.

Diya: We could ask if they were willing to donate the works to a project examining artistic decay. What happens to a painting that nobody looks at? That sort of thing.

Peter, glancing across at me, at my fingers on the keyboard: Your suggestions are noted in the minutes. Thanks Diya.

Nell Stevens was born in Oxford.  Her first book, Bleaker House, was published in 2017 and her memoir Mrs Gaskell & Me(UK) / The Victorian and the Romantic (US, CAN), a blend of life writing and historical fiction, was published this year. Nell has a PhD in Victorian literature from King’s College London, and an MFA in Fiction from Boston University. She is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths University and lives in London.

The winners of the BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University will be announced on 2ndOctober on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row. The shortlisted stories are available in an anthology published by Comma Press, out now:


BBC National Short Story Award: The Sweet Sop – Ingrid Persaud

Day four, ‘The Sweet Sop’ by Ingrid Persaud.

The Sweet Sop (Extract)
Ingrid Persaud

If is chocolate you looking for, and I talking real cheap, then you can’t beat Golden MegaMart Variety & Wholesale Ltd in Marabella. Think of a Costco boil down small small but choke up with goods from top to bottom. When me and Moms had that holiday in Miami by her brother we were always in Costco. But till they open a Costco in Trinidad go by Golden MegaMart. They does treat people real good. As soon as I reach they know I want at least thirty jars of Nutella chocolate spread. And don’t play like you giving me anything else. I tell them I have my reasons and that is what I want. But they always trying. Just last week you should hear them.

‘Eh, Slim Man, we get a nice chocolate. It just come out. Rocky Mallow Road. Why you don’t eat a good chocolate nah man instead of this chocolate in a bottle?’

‘I good.’

‘Is Cadbury I talking about. Try one nah. On the house.’

‘Look don’t hurt me head with no foolishness. And hurry up. Man have taxi waiting.’

I never used to eat chocolate all the time so. If is anything, give me a pack of peanuts or green mango with salt and pepper. Anything salty and I in that. Everything changed when my old man Reggie died. Now the only thing I eat is sliced bread with Nutella. Moms think I am going mad. I might be going mad. That is a question for the doctor them to decide. But what is as true as Lara can play cricket is that I am getting fat. Man, let’s give Jack his jacket. I am enormous.

Computer work like I have mean you don’t need to leave the house. In fact, most of the people I work for operating the same way rather than in an office set up. To stop me and Moms getting all up in each other’s business, I turned the garage into a studio apartment as soon as I started working. I have my own toilet and bath and a small kitchen with a fridge. She is in the house proper but this way me and Moms don’t have to bounce up every day. I am not a man to take more than two-three little drink but you see that woman. Ah lord. When she start up with she stupidness I does want to take a rum straight from the bottle. Is always the same tune. Victor, this bread and chocolate thing is your father fault, god rest he soul. You should have followed my example and don’t have nothing to do with he. One minute you was a good looking, normal, young man and then that worthless devil sit on your head. Now look at you. You is one big booboloops. You forget how to reach the gym? I don’t understand what happen to you. You don’t go out. You only home eating this bread and chocolate morning, noon and night. Chocolate and bread, bread and chocolate, chocolate and bread. Watch me. Your heart can’t carry this size. Keep up this madness and you go be using a plot in Paradise Cemetery before me.

Born in Trinidad, Ingrid Persaud has had lives as a legal academic teaching at King’s College London, a Goldsmith College and Central St Martins trained visual artist and a project manager. Although she came to writing later in life, she has always been preoccupied with the power of words, both in her academic work and her exploration of text as art. Persaud is the 2017 winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and her work has appeared in Granta, Prospectand Pree Her physical homes are London and Barbados which she shares with ‘The Husband, teenaged twin boys, a feral chicken and two rescue dogs’.

The winners of the BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University will be announced on 2ndOctober on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row. The shortlisted stories are available in an anthology published by Comma Press, out now:

BBC National Short Story Award: Van Rensburg’s Card – Kiare Ladner

Day three, ‘Van Rensburg’s Card by Kiare Ladner.

Van Rensburg’s Card (extract)
Kiare Ladner

Greta drove fast along the rural road leading away from the small school where she taught maths. Fields of sugarcane mangy with drought gave way to mottled hills and grasslands. She sped past a scattered settlement of rondawels, some the colour of mud, others pale blue or green. Then a dry river bed, a couple of crudely penned kraals of nguni cattle and a rusted orange minivan in a ditch. She was bound to get another ticket to add to the mounting stack in the Ukhamba basket but she kept her foot on the pedal and turned the aircon up.

Eighteen months ago, she used to take pleasure in the drive between teaching and home. She would open the windows wide and blast out Miriam Makeba or Ella Fitzgerald or the Inuit throat-singing CD her daughter had sent from Canada. Tapping on the steering wheel, she’d sing and bop to the beat like an old fool imitation of her students, Fikile or Buhle. But these days music, any kind of music, was too much. The speedometer climbed from one twenty to one thirty. Children, perhaps those she taught, or their brothers or sisters, had been throwing stones at cars here recently. Going fast didn’t lessen the risk of being hit but it did help get the stretch over with.

What she dreaded wasn’t having the windscreen shattered, or even being a sitting duck for further violence, so much as the hassle of having to stop and talk to people. All morning she’d looked forward to being alone. Not in her home in Fairview Gardens complex with its quarry tiles and wildflower bedspreads and navy and cream batik curtains with ties – but out and about in the bustling distraction of the mall; out and about having a meal. She shifted her fleshy buttocks against the beaded seat cover picturing The Fayre and Square’s lunchtime buffet. A plate piled high with mealie bread, butternut and feta salad, chargrilled, smoky aubergine and cold, spicy frikkadels.

Until recently she’d never gone for a meal on her own anywhere; not a proper one, not a lunch or a dinner. Years back in Gauteng, she’d imagined herself doing it. Calling in sick to the boys‟ school where she taught and driving to a hotel in the centre of Jo’burg for a steak with monkeygland sauce. Or catching a minibus to Chinatown for sticky jasmine rice and sweet and sour prawns. But before Harold died, eating out was something they did only together.

She’d always told him exactly where she was and what she was doing as if he were her keeper.

Quite possibly, he’d thought it was the other way around.

Kiare Ladner’s debut novel, Nightshift, will be published by Picador in late 2019. She wrote it together with short stories as part of a funded Creative Writing PhD at Aberystwyth University. During the PhD, her short stories were shortlisted in competitions (including the Bridport Prize, the Short Fiction Competition, the Short Sharp Stories Award and South Million Writers Award). They were also published in journals and anthologies in the UK, where she lives now, and South Africa, where she grew up (these include Lightship Anthology 1, New ContrastandWasafiri). Before the PhD, she was given the David Higham Scholarship for her MA Prose Writing at the University of East Anglia. Before that, she worked in a range of jobs for academics, with prisoners and doing nightshifts. Kiare was born in Pretoria, South Africa, and is now based in London.

The winners of the BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University will be announced on 2ndOctober on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row. The shortlisted stories are available in an anthology published by Comma Press, out now:

BBC National Short Story Award 2018: Sudden Traveller – Sarah Hall

Day two of my BBC National Short Story Award coverage and it’s the turn of my all-time favourite writer, Sarah Hall and an extract from her story ‘Sudden Traveller’.

Sudden Traveller (extract)
Sarah Hall

You breastfeed the baby in the car, while your father and brother work in the cemetery. They are clearing the drains of leaves and silt, so your mother can be buried. November storms have brought more rain than the valley has ever seen. The iron gates of the graveyard are half gone, the residents of the lower lying graves are being made moist again. Water trickles under the car’s wheels. The river has become a lake; it has breached the banks, spanned the valley’s sides. And still the uplands weep. On the radio they have been talking about rescue squads, helicopters, emergency centres in sports parks and village halls. The army is bringing sand. They have been comparing measurements from the last one hundred years. The surface of the floodwater is decorated with thousands of rings as the rain comes down.

Inside the car is absolute stillness. When he is finished, the baby sleeps against your side. There are only two small feeds a day now. His mouth has become a perfect tool and you no longer have any marked sensation, no tingling, no pressure across the chest wall as the milk lets down. His mouth remains slightly open, his cheeks flushed. There are bright veins in his eyelids, like light filaments in leaves. He rests heavily against you, hot, breathing softly, like a small machine, an extra organ worn outside the body. You could try to place him carefully on the front seat, under a blanket, get out and help clear the leaves. You would like to feel the cold air against your face and hands as it streams over the mountains. You would like to work with the men. But you dare not move. If the baby senses a temperature change, he will wake, he will want more of you. You could wear him in the sling to work, but the rain keeps coming, slanted, determined to find everything.

You sit in the car, watching reefs of cloud blow across the valley, watching the trees bow and lean and let go of their last leaves, hearing the occasional lost call between your father and brother, and feeling the infant heat against your side. So often it is like this – suspension from the world. Waiting to rejoin. Nobody warned you about this part. The baby is some kind of axis. He is a fixed point in time, though he grows every day, fingers lengthening, face passing through echoes of all your relatives, and the other relatives, heart chambers expanding, blood reproducing. It is like holding a star in your arms. A radiant new thing, whose existence was unimagined before it was discovered, illuminating so many zones, and already passing. All stories begin and end with him. All the moments of your life, all its meanings and dimensions, seem to lead to him and from him.

Sarah Hall is the prize-winning author of five novels – HaweswaterThe Electric MichelangeloThe Carhullan Army, How to Paint a Dead Man and The Wolf Border. Her first short story collection, The Beautiful Indifference, won the Portico Prize and the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. The first story in the collection, Butcher’s Perfume, was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award. Her second collection, Madame Zero, was published in 2017 and is currently shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize. The lead story, ‘Mrs Fox’, won the BBC National Short Story Award in 2013 and the last story, ‘Evie’, was shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. ‘Sudden Traveller’is an original commission by Audible for the Bard series of short stories. Sarah was born in Cumbria and now lives in Norwich.

The winners of the BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University will be announced on 2ndOctober on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row. The shortlisted stories are available in an anthology published by Comma Press, out now:


BBC National Short Story Award 2018: ‘To Belong To’ – Kerry Andrew

The thirteenth BBC National Short Story Award shortlist was announced just over a week ago. On it are five stories written by female writers: ‘To Belong To’ by Kerry Andrew, ‘Sudden Traveller’ by Sarah Hall, ‘Van Rensburg’s Card’ by Kiare Ladner, ‘The Sweet Sop’ by Ingrid Persaud and ‘The Minutes’ by Nell Stevens. Because I love short stories and writers who happen to be women, I’ve teamed up with the award and will be bringing you extracts from each of the shortlisted stories, as well as videos from some of the writers and some of the judges talking about the work. One every day this week, in alphabetical order.

To Belong To (extract)
Kerry Andrew

This is a good place to die.

He stands at the edge. The height sends the hangover lurching to his stomach. The closeness of toes to air.

Below, the sea is bladed, black. A thousand fulmars stipple the cliffs either side of him, their cries a blur. On the lowest rocks, a little way out, are the thicker brushstrokes of seals, resting. There had been talk of hearing their song, but if it is there, it is blunted by the wind.

He curls his toes. The ground curves, falls away gently, almost inviting it.

There will be a short moment of great pain. His head might catch on a rock. His back break. But once he has made the decision to jump, he will have to take whatever comes.

One movement. A footstep, into nothing.

In the sea, by the seal rocks, there is a small spot, bobbing. A lone adventurer perhaps, going further out to find the fish.

Another moment or two, to listen for the singing.

He closes his eyes, holds his arms out. The Angel of the North, transported to the outer edge of the country. He stands as still as he is able.

When he opens his eyes again, the spot has moved past the others, towards the cliffs.

He watches, wind pummelling the length of his arms.

In the shallows, it rises, and is not a seal. Long slabs of flesh, dark at the ends. The woman stands for a moment, looking back out to sea, and he thinks he hears something, words or a melody. Then she is turning, walking the few steps over the paler stones to a strung ladder that he had not noticed, tucked in at the bottom of the rocks. His eyes trace the journey that she must take, move just ahead of her as she scrambles over turf and quickly crosses two unsecured planks of wood. A rope, glinting silver, zigzags up the cliff and she ascends, once or twice leaning outwards, very close to the edge.

She disappears for a moment in the fold of the hill and he waits, his eyes on the sodden green line where she must appear. He puts his arms by his sides.

A fulmar passes at head height. He can see the architecture of its beak.


She walks towards him, clothed now. Sports leggings, a fleece. The gloves and socks she was wearing gone. Her hair is mostly slicked back, a short cap of it, glints of blue or green, almost mineral. Her arms are folded, shoulders hunched. She keeps walking towards him and for a moment he wonders if he hasjumped, that his body lies dismantled on the stones, before she stops right next to him.

Push me, he thinks.

She stares up at him. Hard, brown eyes. ‘Come on,’ she says, before striding past.

And he does.

Kerry Andrew is a composer and writer. Her debut novel, Swansong, was published by Jonathan Cape in January 2018. She performed her debut short story One Swallowon BBC Radio 4 in 2014. She is the winner of four British Composer Awards and has a PhD in Composition from the University of York. As a composer, she specialises in experimental vocal and choral music, music-theatre and community music. She made her BBC Proms debut in 2017 with No Place Like for BBC Ten Pieces and was Chair of the jury for the BBC Young Musician of the Year 2018. She performs alternative folk music under the banner of You Are Wolf and sings with award-winning a cappella trio Juice Vocal Ensemble. Originally from High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, Kerry lives in London.

The winners of the BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University will be announced on 2ndOctober on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row. The shortlisted stories are available in an anthology published by Comma Press, out now: