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Runner-up Best Adult Story in the English Language Tom Smith with ‘Castle Steps’

Tom Smith with ‘Castle Steps’

The summer fun quickly forgotten. Back to school. No more Med Rowing Club for Tommy. No more tin-foiled roll with queso plato. No more ice-cold coke; the hiccup, the tingle in the back of the throat, the inevitable brain-freeze from drinking too fast. No more diving off the floating raft or racing his friend Lili to the boat and back or snorkelling for old clay gin bottles on the seabed. One day they found one that still had its cork and took it to the museum where it was stored with other gin bottles. Check it out next time you visit the museum. You'll see a barnacle encrusted bottle on display. If it's not theirs, it'll be one just like it.

Tommy – his family called him Tomishi – dreaded the 6:00 o'clock call from his mother the days he had choir practice. Afternoons that started with rushed jam sandwiches and a cool glass of orange squash. Why did the inevitable call come when the game was getting interesting, when the match was evenly poised? Why couldn't he stay and finish the game with the others? If it was up to him, Tommy would play to the end making another last ditch save for his team, ending up with another grazed knee, yodo morao and more scabs to pick.
“Venga mum. Five more minutes p-lease!”

It never worked. Not even when there was a penalty to save or when 'last goal wins'. He learned the hard way to do as he was told the day he decided to stay and finish the game and ended up punished. It was January and Tommy 'accidentally' lit a left-over firework in the house. If you ask Tommy why he did it, he'll promise that it was boredom. He'll swear it wasn't out of malice or mischief and you should believe him; he never meant to char-grill the kitchen. Tommy remembers it happening like it was last week. His mother's panicked screams, the uncontrolled giggles of his bed-bound grandmother, the canary's desperate chirps and his uncle clambering out of the bathroom with his trousers round his ankles.

Maybe it didn't happen quite like that. Memories embellished and well-polished in Tommy's mind over the years, but it's what he told his three boys when they asked him for stories of growing up in Castle Steps.

El Barranco – the "Theatre of Dreams" – with its uneven concrete ground, green wire fencing and the markings on the pitch Tommy had painted with Lili one lazy afternoon with old toothbrushes and a tin of Humbrol blackboard paint. Tommy is sixty-four now and when he bumped into Lili recently, they remembered going to buy the paint from La Ganga with its estampitas for the girls in tidy drawers at the back of the long narrow shop, Airfix models for the boys, a grotto bursting with games, toys on top of toys and the paint they bought with their pocket money.

Tommy mostly played in goal. If you think it was because he wasn't good enough to play on the pitch, you'd be right. He'll say otherwise and insist that in the lottery of taking turns to pick players, the youngest – he, Lili and Ernestito – were always the last picks. It's not as if he cared. Anything was better than choir practice at the Cathedral. What's the fun in practising protestant hymns when the others were secretly sipping communion wine behind Father Carter’s back? Tommy asked his mother once if he could go to catholic church with her instead. That didn't go down well. His father explained, but Tommy didn't understand, the story of the pope falling out with Henry VIII over his many wives. His mother tried convincing him that Albert Hammond had sung in the choir before becoming famous. That made even less sense. What made sense was getting paid two shillings – two shillings – for the privilege of singing in the choir and reminding the others of the financial benefits of being a Protestant.

For Tommy and his friends, every match, every evening, was a final. Tight, high scoring games punctuated by the ball flying over the green fence to Castle Road below followed by a chorus of “ball please…. pelota por favor!” to the steady stream of men coming in and out of El Café – the Artillery Arms. The novices and the unskilled jeered and embarrassed by failure as the ball pinballed down el peñasco while the skilled – those understanding the physics of angle of elevation and power – successfully returned the ball to noisy cheers.

They loved it the day his uncle waved at them as he nonchalantly kicked the ball back before disappearing into El Café. Apparently, he'd been a decent footballer until an injury stopped him playing. Maybe it was his old injury, or tiredness after another shift at la Fabrica de la Luz when he re emerged a little unsteady. Or maybe it was the Bells.

It wasn't just football. When it was too dark to see the ball, it was just right to squeeze in a twilight game of Hide and Seek, running and hiding behind the doorways of Richardson's Passage till the coast was clear for the triumphant "one, two, three – taco" and the safety of home base. Have Tommy tell you sometime of his other adventures growing up in Castle Steps. Of kamikaze slides down the Caño Real on broken linoleum strips, of picnics with his friends in El Arbol Hueco or taking off-cuts from Mustafa Caja Muerto to the wood-fired oven in Abecasis Passage for the reward of cakes destined for La Predilecta. It doesn't matter to Tommy – it did when they moved to live above the Post Office – that the Med was replaced by yachts and a floating hotel, that the barranco lost its green fence and the markings on the pitch or that El Café is now a garage! Those never-ending days were the best. When unforgettable memories were made, and lifetime friendships forged.

Adjudicators Comments:
‘The protagonist, Tommy, is 64 now and the narrative explores his childhood. Some details relate to a time gone by, many of which ring true for me from stories told by my own father, although I am old enough to remember the ‘estampitas’ in La Ganga with the long, slim drawers! Although many parts have changed or fallen into disrepair now, in this story Gibraltar’s Upper Town becomes a magical place of adventure and fun. With so many familiar moments of Gibraltarian life this story is a delight for the reader.’

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