The Grand Prize 2016 Winner: Anne Petrie – Space Wars


Space Wars

“Rules are there for a reason,” Eric said, for probably the twentieth time that evening. “When I was assistant manager at the bank, there were rules. Everyone had to keep the rules because otherwise it would have been chaos. The same principle applies here.” He put his pipe back in his mouth and leant back, arms folded across his waistcoat.

“But Eric,” Moira said, also for probably the twentieth time, “what are the reasons, exactly? You still haven’t explained. Surely it is the quality of the writing itself that matters.”

The clock in the church tower across the road struck eight. They had been in the Memorial Hall since six and still had made no discernible progress in their deliberations.

Brian, who was acting chairman in Gwen’s absence on an excursion to the Ideal Homes exhibition, stubbed his cigarette out in the saucer he was using as an ashtray. It was already overflowing. He picked a stray strand of tobacco from his tongue.

“I think that we really must take a vote now, or we will be here all night.”

Or until the pubs are shut, more likely, Moira thought. Brian’s hands, as he tidied the papers in front of him, betrayed the slight tremor of a man who has been too long without a drink.

“So,” Brian continued, “to sum up, the situation is this. You have decided by nine votes to three that the winner of the 1972 Hampton Minor writing competition is er…” he put on his reading glasses and riffled through his papers, “Paula Sykes with her short story I am Nemesis. Eric has suggested that young Paula’s entry should be disqualified because she has not abided by the rules, specifically,” he searched his papers again until he found the one he wanted, “specifically, rule number three, para. two, which states ‘entries will be typewritten and submitted with double line spacing and a double space dividing sentences.’ Paula has consistently used a single space between her sentences.”

“Except on page four,” Eric interjected, “between the fifth and sixth sentences. I checked them all.”

“Yes, thank you, Eric. So, I will ask you to vote on this proposal: that Paula Sykes be disqualified from the competition for failing to follow the instructions. All in favour? Six. Against? Oh, dear, six again. Well, as acting chairman I believe I have the casting vote.”

At home, Moira poured rather a large cream sherry. This was a bloody disaster. All those hours spent with the girl, working on that stupid story, making suggestions, correcting punctuation and spelling, and she couldn’t even be bothered to follow the damned instructions. Now she must call Phil and tell him that his princess was not going to win five pounds’ worth of book tokens and have her photograph in the Hamptons Gazette, nor have her story printed in the quarterly village newsletter, nor be able to say on her university application form next year that she was a published author.

Halfway through her second large sherry the first glimmers of a face-saving tactic came to her.

“Look,” she said, after Phil had digested the information that his treasured, and in Moira’s opinion spoilt rotten, only child had missed out, “look, I think we should fight this, don’t you?”

“Yes, we should,” he replied. “Come round tomorrow.”

She replaced the receiver, ecstatic. ‘We,’ he had said ‘we’. They were a team, a couple fighting together for justice against the odds. At last he had recognised what a true helpmeet she could be. Feeling reckless, she poured another sherry.

“Come in,” Phil said as he opened the door the next morning. “I’m sorry, we weren’t expecting you so early. The house is a bit of a mess. And Paula is, well, you know, upset.”

Moira could hear pathetic sobs from upstairs. She cleared a space for herself on the settee and sat down. She would have this clutter sorted out pretty damn quick, she thought, given half a chance. Men were so bloody useless. Mind you, Phil’s late wife had been a bit of a slattern, too.

“My plan is this,” she said, after declining a cup of tea—she had seen the state of the kitchen before Phil had shut the door. “On Monday morning we will go to the press. That gives us the weekend to prepare a statement and get some support. I already have the names of the committee members who voted with me against Paula being excluded, but there will be others on our side. Let’s start a list.” Rummaging in her handbag, she produced a notepad and biro and started to write.

In a neat villa on the other side of the village, Eric answered his telephone on the third ring, as always, just as they had done at the bank. It was Miss Parkes.

“Oh, Mr Gardener, I’ve just heard. I can’t thank you enough,” she said.

“I beg your pardon?” Eric had no idea what the woman was talking about.

“That was such a clever plan, bringing their attention to the spaces. What a wicked old thing you are.”

Eric cringed and then the penny dropped. Miss Parkes had been runner-up in the competition, and now, with Paula’s disqualification, was de facto the winner. Surely she could not think that he had done this to help her? The idea was preposterous.

“My dear Miss Parkes,”

“June, please.”

“Miss Parkes, I can assure you that I acted out of purely disinterested motives. Those spaces are important. They are part of our heritage. Books are always printed with a double space between sentences, and it is important that we maintain standards, even in our little village.”

“I know, I know. Still, it was sweet of you to do it. It will be our little secret. Byeee.”

Eric started to protest again, but she had hung up. The woman was impossible. Ever since he had given her a lift to the library in Hampton Magna, when the mobile service had broken down, and she had insisted on buying him a cup of tea and a fondant fancy at Ye Olde Copper Kettle, ever since then she had been behaving oddly. He thought sometimes that she might be sweet on him. It was a horrible idea. She was not his sort, not his sort at all.

On Monday he was surprised, and not a little gratified, to find a reporter and photographer from the Hamptons Gazette on his doorstep. He agreed to an interview to set the record straight, just in case Miss Parkes had been spreading tittle-tattle. He spoke at length, quoting Hart’s Rules, the Complete Manual on Typography, and, to show that he was in no way parochial, the Chicago Manual of Style. They took a picture of him in front of his bookcase and left, seeming content.

Wednesday’s edition of the Gazette carried the story on page two, as the whole of the front page was taken up with the story of a Hampton St Mary parish councillor who had been caught stealing ladies’ knickers from washing lines. He had never done it before, he said, but twenty-seven other pairs were found hidden in a box labelled ‘brackets (assorted)’ in his garden shed, together with an unspecified number of brassières and two roll-on corsets.

The report on the writing competition was headlined ‘Space Wars’. The larger, by some way, of the photos was of Paula, pouting prettily and wearing a tight, skinny rib sweater.

Talented schoolgirl author Paula Sykes, 17, was stunned to learn last week that despite being voted winner of the annual Hampton Minor writing competition, she will not walk away with the prize. In a surprise move, the judges decided that she had broken the rules—by not putting enough spaces between her sentences.

Her widowed father, Philip Sykes said, “Is this any way to encourage creativity in our young people? Paula is heartbroken. She says she will never write again.’’

Retired bank clerk Eric Gardener, who the Gazette understands was behind the decision to put paid to Paula’s hopes, was unrepentant on Monday.

“Rules are rules,” he said.

There was a small picture at the bottom of the page of Eric, looking sour.

Eric was dismayed. Bank clerk indeed. He had been assistant manager for just over nine and a half months before he retired, as he had told them. He would write a letter. Moira, reading the Gazette with her morning coffee was thrilled. She was just about to pick up the phone to call Phil when he rang her.

“You won’t believe this, Moira, but the Sun has been on the phone. They want to run the story.”

After that, things happened very quickly. ‘Space Wars’ became national news. Using a combination of tears, wheedling and emotional blackmail, Paula overcame her father’s misgivings, and a picture of her wearing a very brief ‘Space Girl’ outfit and thigh-high white boots appeared in the paper on Friday, with the headline ‘No Space for Paula’. Every copy in Gwen’s village shop had sold out by lunch-time. Paula held court on the green for a gaggle of tongue-tied, gawping youths and giggling girls who basked in her reflected glory. In the public bar of the Waggon and Horses grown men who should have known better passed the paper between them and winked knowingly. Moira was aghast. This vulgarity was not what she had intended.

She was mollified when The Guardian took up the literary cudgels on Paula’s behalf, and printed excerpts from both Paula’s story and Miss Parkes’s effort, which they had cajoled Moira into giving them.

‘One of these pieces is original, clever, and although naïve, shows a real, raw promise. The problem is, it has the wrong number of spaces. The other is whimsy of the sort that, thank goodness, has largely disappeared since the nineteen-fifties. Never mind, its spaces are all present and correct, and in middle England, that is crucial. There are no prizes for guessing which was the winner.’

A distinguished author appearing on a BBC2 arts programme was invited to comment on the story, and reminded viewers of James Joyce’s lack of reverence for the punctuation mark, let alone the double space, which, had he ever been asked, he would almost certainly, based on the available evidence, have dismissed as inimical to the true expression of genius. Later in the Green Room, the distinguished author and the programme’s presenter, a man much given to sarcasm and paisley cravats, admired the ‘Space Girl’ photo as they shared a brandy. They did not discuss Paula’s creative genius.

In Hampton Minor, Phil and Moira watched the programme together on Phil’s settee, sharing a bottle of Asti Spumante to celebrate the Guardian article. As the credits rolled, Moira, emboldened by drink, placed her hand over Phil’s and told him that she knew how difficult it must have been for him since his wife died. To her horror he started to weep, and subsided, sobbing, onto her bosom. She stroked his hair soothingly and after a while he raised his head and kissed her, rather wetly. Their brief and unsatisfactory fumble was interrupted by Paula’s return from the youth club. She stared at them suspiciously before leaving the room in quite a pointed manner, Moira thought. She left soon afterwards.

Men from the press descended on the village, lurking behind bushes in the hope of photographing ‘Space Girl’, and knocked on doors to get the villagers’ opinion on the debate of the day. Gwen, who was furious that she had missed the only truly interesting meeting the committee had ever held, especially as the coach had broken down on the way to Olympia and they’d only had time for a cup of tea and a pee before coming all the way back, told them it was a lot of fuss about nothing, and more importantly, what was being done to protect her underwear from predatory councillors? Some of the pack, scenting new prey, headed off to Hampton St. Mary. Gwen restocked her newspaper racks: business was booming.

The remaining journalists in Hampton Minor tried a new tactic and sought out those committee members who had supported Eric’s veto. Moira had given them a list. Two had gone away for last-minute holidays and one was indisposed, his wife told them. Olive Sheen burst into tears on her doorstep and said it was all horrible and her life was ruined. George Stapleton slammed the door on them but then returned, waving a revolver he had stolen from a dead German in Normandy nearly thirty years before and ordering them off his land. He got the idea from a western he had seen at the Odeon in Hampton Magna, and the fact that his land comprised a very small lawn and a rose bed did not deter him. He was delighted when, just like in the film, his callers disappeared at speed. Brian was tracked down to the saloon bar of the Waggon and Horses, where he had been drowning his sorrows since the story broke, and when questioned gave the press a slurred rendition of ‘My Way’ before falling asleep with his head in a puddle of beer.

Then, because it was June and the sun was shining, a protest group popped up at one of the Oxford colleges, led by a bright young man who had political ambitions in the Conservative Party. ‘Save Our Spaces’ he called his campaign. SOS badges were made, and demonstrations discussed. The bright young man invited another distinguished author, who happened to be his godfather, to address a public meeting. In fulsome phrases, the author praised Eric’s stand against the relentless march of modernism and the collapse of cultural orthodoxy. Eric, had he been there, would have been jubilant, but the organiser had unaccountably overlooked his invitation.

In fact, Eric had hardly been outside for days. He was maintaining a dignified silence. His curtains stayed shut, and he did not answer the door or the telephone. Miss Parkes had put a note through his door after the Guardian article had appeared and told him, quite plainly, indeed forcefully, that she was going to stay with her sister in Bridlington for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, she wrote, she wished to have no further contact with him or with anyone else on the writing competition committee. She also said that, as the newspaper had printed her words without her permission, she was suing it for breach of copyright. Whatever whimsicality she possessed had entirely deserted her.

A week after it started, it was over. A junior government minister was snapped in compromising circumstances on Clapham Common, and the nation demanded to be told the truth. The press obliged and the Space Wars were forgotten.

The headmistress of Paula’s school wrote to Phil and said that her pupil’s behaviour, which she could only describe as unseemly, fell short of the standards she expected of her sixth formers, who should be setting an example to the younger girls. He and Paula were invited to attend an interview with the governors to explain themselves. Paula locked herself in her bedroom and refused to speak. Phil blamed Moira. Moira told him it was no fault of hers if his daughter wanted to flaunt herself for all to see in a rag like that and she hoped that the girl had learnt a lesson. Phil told her she was an interfering old bitch and that she should keep her nose out of his affairs. She never forgave him that word: old.

An extraordinary meeting of the committee was called, which only managed to reach a quorum when Brian was fetched, protesting, from the Waggon and Horses. The seven people present agreed to abandon the competition for this year and give the book tokens to the local Dr Barnardo’s Home. The rules, they agreed, needed to be looked at, carefully.

Eric drew back his curtains and prepared to face the world again. Tie straight, shoes polished, moustache trimmed, he went to the village shop and bought a quarter of mint imperials and a copy of the Hamptons Gazette.

“Nothing much in it this week,” Gwen said, “except that my knickers are safe again.” She pointed to a quarter-column item on the front page. The Hampton St Mary councillor had driven down to Beachy Head and thrown himself off. He had left a note saying he was sorry. Fortunately, as it was dark, he had misjudged his jump and landed on a ledge only fifteen feet below, but had badly broken both legs and his pelvis and would be in hospital for months.

Eric folded the paper under his arm and walked home. Crunching a mint, he made up his mind that if the committee thought the rules could be changed so easily, then they had a fight on their hands.

As events had so clearly shown, rules were there for a reason.