Friday 21 October 2022

Sara Waheed, "The Cut of a Feather"

Congratulations to Sara Waheed, winner of this year's John Coleman Prize! Below, you can read about Sara and her winning short story. Congratulations too to Priyan Majumdar, who was awarded an "honourable mention" for her story.

By Sara Waheed

My name is Sara and I’m a second year English with Creative Writing student. Along with writing short stories and poetry, I love to crochet and listen to music. 

My story "The Cut of a Feather" started with the thought of something as innocent as a reed hurting someone’s hand. This led me to think of a place very familiar to me, where you can find an abundance of reeds: Jenny’s Woods in my Lincolnshire hometown (see photo above). My family and I have been going on walks, runs and bike rides in Jenny’s Woods ever since I was young; it’s a very meaningful place to me. Because of this, I decided to set my short story there, and this made the writing process more heartfelt.

I wanted this short story to show how emotional devastation can arise from seemingly insignificant things. Subtle gestures, such as eye contact, physical proximity and word choices can have a deeper impact than more obvious displays of upset. I’m very grateful for this opportunity to share my short story with more people.  

The Cut of a Feather

Whenever Alice brushed her hands against the reeds on this path, they were harmlessly spiky. They had never so much as grazed her. But on this day, the reeds at her palm were sharp; Alice could feel them almost piercing her skin. She resisted the urge to pull her hand away, and instead let the prickling feeling press against her skin like an unwanted kiss.  

Although she could see Declan’s back receding further into the greenness beyond, she stayed put. She was waiting for him to turn around. She wanted him to walk back and ask her what she was doing. She wanted him to pull her hand away from the reeds and hold it for the rest of her life. 

But if she stood there any longer, Declan would walk too far, and Alice would have to foolishly make her way across the slowly-stretching distance. He wouldn’t stop. Alice tore her hand away from the reeds and briskly caught up. His outline became less like watercolour and more like charcoal as she got closer, and his hair was so tousled that it looked strangely at home amongst the overgrown grasses.

“I think you need a haircut,” Alice said as she reached him. Her hand still stung.

He didn’t look at her, even though they were now walking side by side. His gaze was fixed somewhere ahead, despite the path being completely empty.

“Are you offering?” he said after a couple of seconds. 

Alice put a hand to the uneven hairstyle on her head and rustled the jagged ends. Given the circumstances of the impulsive haircut, Declan’s comment was in ill taste. She didn’t honour it with a reply. 

“It would probably be a good idea to get it done before your birthday. It’s coming up soon,” she said instead.

“I’m not sure if three weeks qualifies as soon.”

“I think it does. I’ll book you an appointment with Calla when we get back.”

Declan said nothing. Alice took it as an affirmation, knowing that he didn’t care either way. 

“Have you thought about what you want to do?” she asked.

“What?” he said.

“For your birthday, I mean.” 

They were passing the picnic benches. In the dimness of the grey sky, they looked derelict, but Alice could easily remember the many times her and Declan had sat at them with a flask of soup.

“I don’t really want to do anything,” Declan said.

Alice wanted to stop and sit at one of the benches, but she already knew what he would say. She continued walking.

“We could have dinner at that new place that opened in town. I’ve heard it’s good,” she said.

A particularly strong gust of wind blew past them, and Declan pulled his jacket tighter around himself. Alice knew that his warm coat was hanging behind the kitchen door, but Declan had refused to heed her warning of the weather when they were leaving the house.

“It’s Italian too, I know you’ve been into that recently,” Alice said. She’d never liked the taste of basil but had become well-acquainted with it over the past month.

“I’ve gone off it.” 

His voice was nothing more than a mumble which Alice had to strain her ears to catch. In lieu of a reply, she nodded; her hand was beginning to ache and, whilst she suspected that her palm might be injured in some way, she couldn’t bring herself to take a look.

Instead, she stuffed her hand into her coat pocket and fumbled around for her keys. The only keyring attached to them was one she’d received from Declan a few years ago. It was shaped like a daisy, but the petals were blue instead of white. Alice fidgeted with it so often that the blue had weathered over time. When she pulled the keys out of her pocket, she realised that the petals were now almost completely white, as daisy petals should be. Still holding on to them, she interrupted the quiet.

“Do you want me to get you those headphones you were looking at the other day? I’d like to get you a gift that you really want.”

“I don’t want anything.” He drew his shoulders up in an attempt to lend his red ears some warmth.

“Come on, Declan. Everybody wants something.” 

“Not me,” he said. 

“You don’t want anything?” Alice’s voice sounded shrill. She cleared her throat whilst Declan replied. 

“No,” he said. His lips were turned downwards in a hazardous frown, but Alice persisted.

“Are you telling me that there’s nothing I can give you? Not a single thing?” Clearing her throat hadn’t helped, so she forced a cough instead. It left her mouth with such surprising vigour that she was forced to stop walking. Whilst she spluttered into her sleeve, Declan stood to the side, and Alice wondered when their walks together had started to feel so lonely.

“You can’t give me anything that I want, Alice.”

The tickly cough swiftly retreated; Alice stared at him. He was standing stock-still, but his eyes were darting from tree to tree. When his gaze eventually rested on her, he released a long breath. 

“I don’t think you’ll ever be able to.” 

Alice had wanted Declan to look her way for so long, but not like this. He’d taken a step away from her, and his eyes were tight, as though there was something acrid in the space between them. The fine line that had been flickering between his eyebrows finally settled into place, and Alice knew that they wouldn’t make it to the end of the walk.

“I don’t want you to book me a haircut and I don’t want any gifts from you. I can’t do this anymore. You need to stop.”

Underneath the keyring Alice was still holding, her palm was throbbing. She clenched her fist around the daisy even tighter, until she could feel her pulse beating against it.

“Stop what?” she eventually replied. But he didn’t seem to hear her.

“I thought that you’d start to understand, or you’d see that things have changed. I was waiting, but I can’t keep doing this. If you’re going to keep pretending that this can work, I need to tell you now,” he hesitated and brushed his hair away from his face before continuing, “we stopped working a long time ago.” 

Even though Alice could see the distance between them, it felt as though his words had been spoken directly into her ears. When she opened her mouth to speak, she barely recognised her own voice.

“Why are you saying this now?” Her tongue felt as though it was coated in syrup.

Declan seemed to contemplate her words, squinting at her as though she was more of a vaguely familiar stranger than the girl who had offered him her hand all those years ago.

“I’ve already made plans for my birthday,” he finally told her.

Alice tried and failed to remember why they’d left the house in the first place. All she knew was that she’d been the one to suggest it. Without really looking at him, she took Declan’s hand and placed the daisy keyring into it. She closed his fingers around the white petals, and then she walked away.

Walking in the opposite direction, Alice discovered, wasn’t the same as retracing her steps. She didn’t recognise the trees she was passing, and she didn’t know which diverging paths to follow. The sky was quickly darkening, the greyness above melding with the deep brown tree trunks that were overlooking her mindless walking. The green leaves swinging from the tree’s branches were shrouded in shadow, and Alice was uncertain how long she’d been walking for. She sped up.

It was when she came across a familiar group of felled trees that Alice realised they hadn’t made it very far after all. They had been closer to the start of the walk than the end. The path gradually straightened up, and when beams of light cut through the thicket more frequently, she let her feet trail. When she eventually came to a stop, Alice felt as though she’d never moved at all. 

The reeds in front of her were deceptively sharp. Alice didn’t touch them. She straightened her stiff fingers, exposing her bare palm to the cool air and felt the sting all the way up to her wrist. When she finally looked, she saw a tiny tear in the middle of her palm. The speck of blood had already crusted.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful understated writing. Such an evocative setting.