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Short Stories School Years 11 to 13 Highly Commended Chava Bayles with ‘Within Four Walls’

Sometimes, she wonders how she learnt to read. Perhaps it is not that she is reading at all, but the book is talking to her. Or maybe, the book contains no story; her imagination is the author. She’d discovered the book in one of those dank, musty corners which were always home to thick drapes of dust. Heidi. An obvious work of fiction; the book spoke of other people, of animals, of colour. She wonders about who might have written it for although the front cover reads “Johanna Spyri”, she knows that she is the only one left in the world. Her world.

Her world is dark. So, so dark. The four walls tower up, up, up and she’s not sure if there’s a ceiling at the top or if it’s just an empty, colourless sky sinking down on her. It’s a void; a vacuum, perhaps. She reads about the sun but cannot fathom a light so bright. Swinging like a pendulum, the chandelier hangs above her, suspended from nothing, mesmerising her with its incessant oscillations. Perhaps if she combined its two thousand candles- perhaps she could create a sun.

Every time she reads her book, she ponders about what the world must have been like when there were humans. She’d never seen anybody besides for the ghosts which come streaming through the walls at random intervals, shimmering like the forsaken silver cobwebs which adorn the walls.

Is she a ghost? It’s a question that plagues her like the mites camouflaged in the cracks of the cold brick ground. Her long, pale, pearly white hands would convince anyone that she is a ghost, but the tangled forest of black ringlets tumbling down her back confuses her. She cannot be a ghost- no ghost has hair as dark as coal. And besides, she cannot glide through the walls, she cannot appear out of nowhere, she cannot dissipate into the unknown.

She wishes she could. She wishes she doesn’t have to walk around in order to move. Every time she walks, she needs to use both hands to carry the billowing black dress, for otherwise she would stumble and enlarge the gaping holes in the lace. And even when she walks, she feels no purpose to it. She hopes every time she walks that she’ll stumble upon something new, something within this small world of four walls that she’d never seen before, the way Heidi discovered new objects, new creations, new sceneries.

Where do the ghosts go when they glide out of the walls? Is there anything in the world besides for this constricted gloom? She’d tried going with the ghosts, tried travelling through the rigid stone structure, but the only effect it had had was the purple, red and green hues snaking up her arm -like a ravenous boa constrictor, squeezing the life out of her- where it had made contact with the wall.

It became the only time she ever saw colour.

Closing the book now, she gets up. Cramped, her legs aren’t able to support the rest of the body. You shouldn’t have stayed seated for so long. She lifts her head skyward, closes her eyes in a futile attempt to withhold the tears threatening to cascade down those skeletal cheekbones. Rolling her shoulders back, she stands a little straighter. As if that would help. She lifts one leg, lifts the other. A cyclical activity, never taking her anywhere. But this time... this time... is she getting somewhere?

She always feigns enthusiasm, striving to encourage herself to continue. This time, she takes eleven steps. Eleven whole steps from her familiar, dank corner, and she’s exhausted; her breath coming in short bursts from within her chest; dew-like droplets formulating above her eyebrows. The cushioned black stool is in front of her. Briefly, she wonders how many moths would fly out of it the moment she sits down, and then perches on its edge.

And then she thinks she’s just discovered something new.

Black, grey, black, grey, black, grey. Eighty-eight thin slats.

What is this? It stands in front of her, a huge black cabinet. Cautiously, she lifts the door, peers inside and sees what looks like hundreds of strings. Thousands of strings. Millions of strings. She stares, entranced. It's a paradox, a monochromatic enigma.

Tentatively, she reaches out and allows one long, bony finger to touch a slat. Her finger presses down. She jumps as a low, groaning sound escapes through the lid of the structure, and discovers that below the thick, grey carpet of dust coating the slat, the slat is white. Ivory-white.

Black, white, black, white, black, white. No grey areas. Just black and white.

And suddenly, everything is clear.

She allows her fingers to explore the eighty-eight keys, coaxes them into dancing across the structure, and, ignoring the blistering black wax dripping down onto her shoulders from the chandelier above, watches as each note is emitted from the heart of the instrument, gazes at the intangible, crystalline notes hovering majestically in front of her and then evanescing into the magical glow of the air.

She plays on, completely oblivious to the great rumbling around her; oblivious to the four walls crashing down; oblivious to the rays of light piercing the darkness and bathing her world in an enchanting golden glow.

Finally, she looks up, inhales the panorama of colour and holds her breath, not wanting to let this beauty leave her. Then she lifts her skirt and runs, runs, runs, until she has moved beyond the remnants of the crumbled wall; until a pink flush begins to creep up her cheeks and her heart is alive, racing; until all her energy has been exhausted.

As the sun begins to descend behind the grass-covered mountains and plunge the world in washes of shadow, she stops and shields her eyes, wondering where her book is. Did the book ever exist? Or was Heidi just a figment of her own imagination?

Or perhaps-
Is she Heidi?

Adjudicators Comments:
An interesting take on the quiet but profound inner life of a reader, and the desire to escape to other worlds whilst also seeking a sense of identity within the pages of a book. The story has a strong opening that pulls the reader in, while the narrative allows us to see the reader’s thoughts as she searches for something profound in her beloved novels. Bold use of prosaic rhythm makes for a mature and meditative work

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