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Short Story Competition 2023 Adult Category Highly Commended Coppelia Aitken ‘A Brief Connection’

Photo by Johnny Bugeja

I'll be on here for a while. I know... A book. I can read! That'll pass the time... What are my options? Dante's Inferno? Why did I even bring this? Oh, I know. I want to look pseudo intellectual. Yeah, I've read Dante's Inferno. Have You? That would really get people going. Reading is so strange, isn't it? It's just a bunch of words on a page... I wonder how he's doing... Ah, stop thinking about it! I could use my laptop and get started on some work? Can't lose my laptop, it's my life. Anyway, let's be real. I won't do anything. Let's? It's as if I'm always talking to someone. I wonder how much people's inner monologue has changed since like... the 1800s. Or before. I wonder if, because of technology and how interconnected everyone is, that's why I always talk to myself as if I have an audience. Going home. I can't wait to be home. Or can l? What will I even do? Everyone's gotten the hell out of there. UGH. It's just to pass the time. Everything is just to pass the time. When will I do anything meaningful with my life? Will I ever?

When you get home, you'll miss me. You'll see. Shut up! Stop it! I'll find someone else to fill the gap. Just you watch, the perfect man will just fall into my lap. It could happen any time.
"Hi, is it okay if I sit here?"


Endless stretches of tracks ahead. A dimly lit train carriage with wafting noises of hushed speech. A woman; book in hand. Dante's Inferno. She pretends to understand.
"Hi, is it okay if I sit here?" A voice jars her out of complacency.
A man: clad in a waistcoat and a top hat. Holding nothing but a plastic bag. She looks up, happy to be distracted from the words that jumble on the page and the harsh thoughts that lie in a liminal space somewhere between her and the page. He has already sat down before she replies.
"Of course."
He flashes a smile. Falsely timid. His boring eyes reveal confidence. He sits right opposite, eyeing her. Her eyes return to the book, but her leg twitches slightly.
"Dante's Inferno, huh?"
"Yeah. It's... confusing," she laughs, in spite of herself.
"Well, it's very impressive if you finish it! Not many people nowadays can say they've
read it."
"Right?! That's what I was thinking! That's mostly the reason I'm reading it in the first place if I'm being honest."
"Well, there's no shame in that! I still couldn't read it even if I wanted to."
"I'm not sure I can either. We'll see!"
They both laugh. Silence emerges and envelops the two. To look busy, she quickly buries her head back into her book. He still doesn't remove his gaze from her.
"What do you think about its attitudes towards death?" He asks, suddenly serious.
"l thought you haven't read it..."
"l haven't, but I'm acquainted with the story, of course."
"Oh. Well, I'm not sure yet. I'm not very far in, sorry. Ask me again in a few hours?" She laughs again.
"You're not very far into death either, one might say."
"Excuse me?"
"Sorry, I phrased that weirdly. I just thought your response was quite metaphorical.
Like, you're not very far into the book, just like you aren't very far into life."
"Oh, right! Ha-ha, yeah. I guess so."
A second of suspicion comes over her, until it washes into relief as he sends her a saccharine smile.
"Erm, why are you dressed like that?" She asks, waving her hand up and down his
stiff figure.
"l have business to attend to," he answers in a way that refuses elaboration.
"So where are you going?" He deflects.
"Northampton. Well, home."
"Are you a university student?"
"No, no. Just had to move for my job. I only graduated two years ago, though."
"Did you enjoy it?"
"What? University? Oh, yeah. A lot. Oh well. All good things come to an end, I
"You all reach the same end," he whispers.
"What did you say?"
"l said, 'it's a shame it has to end."'
She nods but doesn't look entirely convinced. She picks up her bag and puts it on her lap, hugging it. She puts her fingers through the loop and idly twirls them. The man's lips twitch.
"What's in the bag?"
"Can you keep a secret?" He nods. She smirks, leans in and whispers: "My life."
The man raises his eyebrows. She laughs hysterically, slapping her knee, but doesn't
elaborate further. The lights in the carriage dim. The remaining light presses onto the heads of the victims, suffocatingly.
"I'm so thirsty. I forgot to buy water," she groans.
"l have this drink if you want it. I don't really like Coke."
He gives her a faux-casual smile - the kind of smile reserved for someone's who's about to pull off a neat trick - and holds out the bottle for her to take. She looks at it briefly, hesitatingly.
"Sure, thank you."
She sips it.

Half an hour takes its course in time's blissful manner, such as it does when the connection between two people flourishes. When time seems to meander, rather than consume itself. And then she yawns. Can't stop yawning -
"You know, I'm really, really tired. I want to keep speaking to you but... I think I need
to pass out." She says, barely able to keep her eyes open.
"Don't even worry about it! I'm going further than Northampton, anyway, so I'll
wake you up when we're nearby."
"Oh, thanks. That's so nice-" Her eyelids droop slowly, shutting the stranger and all
the worries of her material existence out with it.

The man waits. A mischievous smile etches on his face. His eyes flicker — bag; exit; her; bag; exit; her. The train screeches to a halt. A split-second decision. He pulls the bag from the woman's grasp and runs. She doesn't stir but looks finally at peace.

Judge Charlie Durante’s Comments:

Highly Commended: Coppelia Aitken with A Brief Connection. This story could be a fitting beginning to an Agatha Christie crime novel. The situation is quickly and succinctly sketched: young woman on a train, reading, of all things, Dante’s Inferno, travelling to Northampton. A smartly dressed man sits beside her; they engage in conversation; he drugs her so that she falls asleep (or dies), he grabs her bag and runs off with her laptop which, she earlier confessed, contained her life.

Interestingly, the story starts inside the young woman’s mind. We have direct access to her thoughts: her intellectual pretensions, her reliance on her laptop; her recent bust-up with her boyfriend. The elegant stranger then bursts into her private world with his innocent sounding: Hi, is it okay if I sit here? What could be more natural during a train journey?

Though the conversation seems normal and banal, occasionally though, there are hints that something surreptitious and threatening lies beneath the exchange of pleasantries. The man mentions death in veiled form; the young woman is non-plussed but brushes aside what seems an unimportant misunderstanding. If we focus on the book the woman is reading, we remind ourselves all the inhabitants of Dante’s Inferno are dead, except for Dante himself. Enigmatic sentences alert the reader: ‘you’re not very far into death either’ modulates into ‘you aren’t very far into life.’ It’s almost as if the deeper the woman penetrates Dante’s kingdom of the dead, the more precarious her hold on life becomes.

The offer of a drink, again, sounds natural and a sign of good manners. Again, just as in an Agatha Christie novel, we suspect the stranger has an ulterior motive: he’s a common thief, or worse, a murderer too. Coppelia has written the beginning of a first-rate thriller. A pity she doesn’t bring this very promising start to a satisfactory end-one of those stories that leaves the reader on tenterhooks!

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