Game: Winner of the HastingsLitFest short story competition 2018


    In a doorway, John unfolds himself from his newspaper bed. A flash of orange catches his eye. One two. One two. The jogger always disturbs his sleep, regular as clock work. Each day John ponders what the chap in the orange trainers does for a living, he never looks at John, never puts a penny in the hat although it’s obvious he could afford it. No, it’s generally the have nots who spare a few pence. Once John had a good job, felt he was climbing the ladder, but then the recession hit like a fat snake. Swallowed him up and dumped him at the bottom of the pile. One error of judgement, one wrong roll of life’s dice, lost him his house, his family; everything.

    John tries to make a plan for the day, where he’ll go to find the choicest pickings from bins, where best to sit and beg a few quid. ‘If I get enough money I’ll buy a coffee’, he thinks, but then changes his mind. He’ll buy cider, of course. The coffee would be warm but the fancy lattes and the like are more expensive than a bottle of cider which could last most of the day.

    Norman Smith climbs into bed shattered after a long night on the road. “Night love,” he says to Tracey. “Night love” she responds. Tracey is getting up and dressing in her polyester uniform ready for work. She keeps the curtains closed, though daylight is spilling in where the fabric panels don’t meet properly. Quietly she leaves the room, glad to escape the stale smell of lorry cab that clings to her husband. Every time she goes out, Norman goes in and vice versa. Like a weather house, she thinks. Norman is asleep by the time Tracey is getting breakfast. He dreams of road maps winding their way through space. An endless maze that he must escape from.

    Tracey puts out cereal, the box a cheap version of the best brand. It always tastes soggy. When she married she thought she’d go up in the world. Well, she has in the physical sense, living on the tenth floor of a concrete block.

    She knocks on her daughter’s bedroom door, “Come on Norma, you’ll be late for school.”  

    However long Norma takes to get ready, she always appears bedraggled. But Tracey remembers thirteen is an awkward age. As Tracey leaves the flat on her way to the supermarket, the postie arrives, hands her a letter. A brown envelope with a bold headline, ‘FINAL REMINDER’. Tracey can see the glimpse of red writing within, which can only mean one thing. Tracey sighs. That’s her life, two steps forward, one step back.   

    Reginald Longbottom tries to move out of the path of the jogger he can hear pounding the paving behind him. It’s awkward with the rollator. Reginald likes to get out early; it’s in his blood from his years in the army. A life of discipline. He used to be like that jogger in his flashy trainers; a man with the world at his feet. Now every step is a struggle. Still, he thanks God for each extra day he gets through. After all he’ll be ninety nine next year. And to his mind, each year after three score years and ten is a bonus. He wonders whether he’ll make his hundredth. That sounds good. A century. Like a cricket score worthy of applause.

   On Sundays Reginald goes to church. He can’t bend to kneel anymore, but thinks God probably has better things to concern himself with. He prays and asks forgiveness for shooting a man in the war. It is the one memory which haunts him. As a soldier he was told “Kill or be killed”. And his life turned on that moment, like the random toss of a coin. It could so easily have been him who lost.

    Robert Blewitt, called Bobby Blue by his colleagues, likes the sound of his trainers hitting the paving. One two. One two. He sees the familiar people and things on his run but they don’t impinge on his conscience. There’s the beggar, the bus queue, the corner shop displaying another torrid headline. And then on Hampstead Heath the same dog walkers, the old guy with his frame. But they blur into insignificance. He views the distant city, the tall buildings which are shrouded in haze this morning. That’s where he works, creating wealth. He sees light glinting off skyscrapers. That is the hub; the beating heart. Though the masses don’t appreciate it, Bobby knows it is he and his colleagues, dealing on the stock market, who underpin the whole success of Britain. Bobby stands for a moment stretching his back, hands on his hips. Takes a few deep breaths. This is my city he muses. He knows he’s winning at life.

    John marks the passage of days by how cold he is, how quickly the dark comes, the mass of people going to and from homes. Today is a weekday because children are in school uniform. Oh, here’s the little lass, always looks scared as if somebody might jump out and say ‘Boo!’ Occasionally, he thinks he might do it, see her jump like a scared rabbit, but that would be mean and he doesn’t have the energy for leaping.

    A ten pence piece lands at his feet; Norma always donates this as payment to ward off bad things happening to her. She walks to the bus stop, avoiding cracks in the pavement and keeping to the shadows hoping that she won’t be visible to the bullies who patrol the open spaces.

    At the bus stop, Norma hides beside the bulk of a woman; large and with a screaming child in a buggy, carrier bags hanging off the handles. “Shut up, Jayden,” the woman shouts, pushing a dummy into the infant’s mouth. The woman looks at Norma and smiles as if Norma might have some idea of what it’s like to be a mother. Norma looks away.

    Every day is like an obstacle course, Misha thinks, as she adjusts the carrier bags. It doesn’t matter how many times she does it; just getting out of the house and then onto and off the bus with a pushchair is difficult. Who designs these things; buses and buggies anyway? Somebody who’s never had a screaming child, a pregnant belly and three carrier bags of stuff.

    Norma sidles into the classroom and takes her usual seat at the front corner. She looks forward. Today’s topic, ‘The Norman Conquest’ is written in red pen across the white board. Already the second ‘n’ has been smeared to a bloody streak. Norma’s stomach flips and groans, ‘No this will be bad’. She can hear sniggering from the back of the class as other pupils enter. She can hear them murmuring, trying to think up insults which will hurt Norma most, hear them scrabbling for strips of paper they can use to bombard her with.

    Why did her parents have to call her Norma? They said it was tradition, to be handed down to the eldest child. But it’s a heavy burden.

    A moist pellet lands by her ear with the cry of, “Strike!” Norma brushes it off, hoping teacher will arrive soon. One day she’ll stand up to the bullies. But she always puts it off until tomorrow.

    On the bus Misha watches London streets go by, reminding her of a Monopoly board. But she feels she’ll never ‘Pass Go,’ never ‘Collect two hundred pounds.’ Misha’s unborn baby kicks, catching her under her rib cage, so she has to take a deep breath. She wants a girl, then she can stop. A boy and a girl is the perfect number. She’ll call the baby Beyoncé, an empowering name.

    Inside her womb baby-to-be Beyoncé, is a boy. He turns and twists unaware of his future; his name, the house, the school; and his mother’s regret at having another boy.

    Gamemaker, leans back and surveys the creation. Amazed how a simple idea flourished. When it began it was based on the cutting edge technology available but now has developed a whole new complexity and just keeps on growing. Grown beyond Gamemaker’s control. More brilliant, more intricate than had ever been thought possible. The initial coding has progressed into a universe of planets and stars and life. One planet is populated with sentient beings; humans, who are trying to understand the origins of the Game. It amuses Gamemaker to see them struggle to grasp the concept. Gamemaker hasn’t named this creation but humans appear to like labelling things. They might call it Quest… But would be wrong; there was never a point to the Game, no end point, no grail or prize.

    Perhaps Conquest would be better. These humans have caused so many conflicts and obstacles to overcome. Gamemaker shrugs. The Game is worthy of admiration… but now it’s time to move on to the next challenge.

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