We proudly present the opening pages of the six children’s novels shortlisted for this year’s £2,500 prize:
Month 6, year 16, DILL 5
Body is reaching maturity and optimum fitness
continue monthly measurements and supplement regime
discuss transfer procedures and staff requirements
The greys change all the time, so at first I don’t notice this one is new. The tracksuit and the running shoes are the same. We head through the gate in the high wall around the building and it clicks shut behind us.
The grey stops just outside the gate. ‘Shoelace,’ she says, and squats down to retie it. I stand and wait. She has dark brown hair which curls over her ears and falls onto her neck without touching her shoulders.
When she stands up, she looks at my face very carefully, like a white-coat who thinks I might be unwell.
‘You are Dill, right?’ she asks. We haven’t started running yet.
I have to answer questions.
‘Yes,’ I say.
‘Ok.’ She lets out a long breath, her eyes still tracking around my face. Then shakes her head and says, ‘Hi. I’m Yvonne. Let’s run.’
This new grey has a name.
Some of the indoor greys talk to each other, but the ones I run with outside never speak, except to say things like ‘left here’, ‘time for a sprint’, or ‘slow down now’. And we run every day, so I know all these instructions, the points where they are given and what happens then. The tall, orange-haired grey sprints as fast as the black-haired one, so I can run hard with them both, but the one with the string of light hair down her back is slower than me, so I don’t push the pace. The greys I run with are all female, like me, and wear the same grey tracksuits. That’s why I call them greys.
* * *
I breathe in the muffled silence
of the empty planetarium,
staring up at scattered electric lights
against a black-felt fake sky.
A Victorian dome, beautifully lit,
but nothing like the real thing outside.
I turn off the power switches,
the solar system.
I let my finger linger
on the switch for the moon
for just a moment,
its crater-scattered glow.
Then I flip the switch,
and feel the darkness
like a sudden blanket.
I unpin my badge,
run my thumb
over the letters
spelling my name,
Then I tuck it in
my skirt pocket,
ready for next weekend.
A SLICE O NIGHT
I’m always last
in the staff room.
The only one
not scared of the
in this creaky old
I stretch out
on the empty bench
and take out my phone,
with its smooth black and gold,
There’s one message from Dad
and a ton in the chat
with the girls called
BEANS ON TOAST,
(the only thing
any of us can cook.)
I will be the one in the
white ford behind the trees
at five past twelve
hundred hours. D x
I think he’s being funny,
but I don’t get it.
He’s on another planet.
At least he’s agreed
to pick me and Haz up
around the back,
and not INSIDE
the ice rink,
like he wanted to.
I open BEANS ON TOAST.
Final decisions. What you
wearing tonight, girls?
Shorts and a belly top…
And a massive hoody,
to get past the parent-police.
ERM… BETH, you do remember
we’re going ICE skating?
I’m wearing two pairs of leggings
and a vest under my dress.
* * *
Meiji 33 (July 1900)
As the first morning train of Tokyo groaned awake, as the boiler heated and piston rods cranked wheels into motion, Haru Maeda removed the previous night’s lanterns from the railcars.
Haru, whom everyone called “Hai,” perched like an oversized grey dragonfly on the railcar roof and slid open a panel. He was small for seventeen, and the oversized goggles he wore only made him seem smaller. His handspun coat and hakama were patched with embroidered strips of cotton, stained with soot and grease—nothing like the railway workers in their tidy uniforms—but he knew the timetables of the entire railway by heart and even now was counting down the minutes to his next task. Seven minutes from Shimbashi to Shinagawa, nine more to Meguro… Bare feet gripping the roof for balance, gingerly, he raised the first lantern and hooked it to a rope over his shoulder. With the lantern bumping against the small of his back, he moved opposite the train’s motion and hopped over the coupling links to the next car.
At Meguro he disembarked briefly, seven lanterns in tow, and hurried across the platform to a bento shop owned by the family of his childhood friend Toshi. Toshi had left long ago for the theater, but his mother still ran the shop, where Hai’s stepfamily kept an open tab. As he came up to her now, she was patting rice into balls and pressing wrinkled sour plums in the center of each with her thumb. The sleeves of her dark blue yukata were tied back so they wouldn’t drag through her ingredients. Behind her, skewered whole fish roasted over coals on a low grate, water and oils beading on the silver skin, dripping, sizzling.
“Haichan,” she greeted him. “Right on time!”
* * *
My life before The Home was 9.5 seconds long.
It comes to me as an old film, flickering sepia scratched at the surface. The rolling reel’s gentle heartbeat sounds like a butterfly caught in a jar.
Scene one: a family road trip. I’m in the back. Dad’s driving and mum’s talking animatedly in the passenger seat, a slim cigarette balanced between her fingers. The windows are wound all the way down and fields of yellow flowers pass us on either side. I am happy. Scene two: I’m outside – there’s music playing and people all around. I’m watching mum dance, swaying hypnotically with her arms held high above her head. Her eyes are closed and she looks beautiful. I am happy. Scene three: I’m standing at the water’s edge, surrounded by a cove of brown rocks with foamy waves circling. I am shivering as the sun slips away, but I am happy. Scene four: a bridge. This part of the film is just a flash, a blink-and-miss-it moment. There’s no one on the bridge, just a small stream trickling feebly beneath it. I have no feelings about this bridge. The End.
I play the film before I sleep, projecting it on the stark white wall in front of my bed and ignoring the screams that bounce up the corridor past my room. Once the bridge has faded to black, I settle for the night.
At 8am I wake and dress. By 8.30am I’m eating breakfast with the rest of the girls to the rhythmic tapping of plastic cutlery on plastic plates. Then, at 9am, the twitching black hands on the wall have us queuing for our pills. We take it in turns to neck them with a shot of water before showing the prescriber our mouths.
* * *
When the soldiers’ boots come to the door, sharp and loud, my father grabs my arm. The fork I am using falls out of my hand, clattering, scattering potatoes wet with sour milk off of my plate. Baby Leo startles and sucks in a big breath, readying a wail. Mama quickly clamps her hand over his mouth. She winces when he bites her, but she keeps her fingers firmly pushed into his sticky cheeks.
“Pan Tadek! Open this door!” The deep voice echoes, too big for our little room.
“Relka, quickly. Out the back.” Tata commands quietly, his six-foot tall frame rising from the table. The pounding on the door shakes the painted wooden plates that hang on our wall, images of Jesus quivering as the banging continues.
I listen to my father. Of course I do. Me, Aurelia Tadek, the meek little mouse. I was a poet. Not a fighter. When I am faced with a nightmare, I don’t think. I obey.
I don’t even look back as I run for the bedroom I share with my brother, my black school shoes skidding on the polished wood floor. I shove the window hard with my shoulder, because it always sticks, before yanking it up. It shudders open with a whine that is too loud.
“Pan Tadek! You will open this door or we will break it down!”
My white stockings catch on the windowsill as I throw my leg over, a flesh colored bloom inside of my thigh. I bend my knees as I land on Mama’s marigolds, grinding their orange heads into the dirt.
The moment I stand up, the front door slams open so hard that the whole house trembles.
* * *
Little Tulip Orphanage, Amsterdam, 1886
Little Tulip Orphanage
Rules for Baby Abandonment
Rule One: The baby should be wrapped in a cotton blanket.
Rule Two: The baby should be placed in a wicker basket.
Rule Three: The baby should be deposited on the topmost step.
In all the years that Elinora Gassbeek had been matron of the Little Tulip Orphanage, not once had the Rules for Baby Abandonment been broken. Until the autumn of 1886. Five babies were abandoned at the Little Tulip that autumn and, despite The Rules being clearly displayed on the front door, not one of these babies was abandoned sensibly.
The first baby arrived on a bright morning in August, as dew glistened on the cobbled street.
Swaddled in a pink cotton blanket and placed on the appropriate step, was a baby with cocoa-bean eyes and blond fuzz on its head. However, the way in which Rule Two had been disregarded left no room for forgiveness. The child was snuggled inside a tin toolbox, which had been wrapped with emerald green ribbon, as if it were a present.
‘Ugh!’ Elinora Gassbeek squawked, looking down at the toolbox-baby in disgust. She signalled an orphan to retrieve it. ‘Put it upstairs.’
The orphan nodded. ‘What name shall I put on the cot, Matron?’
The matron curled her lip. Naming children was tedious, but necessary.
‘She’s got a’lotta fingers, Matron!’
The baby was sucking its thumb, making loud slurping noises that sent ants crawling up the Elinora Gassbeek’s spine. She counted the child’s fingers. Sure enough, it had an extra digit on each hand.
‘Name it Lotta.’
* * *