And the moon descends on the temple that was
Long Way to Come for a Sip of Water
About the Authors
About the BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University
bbc national short story award 2022
First published in Great Britain in 2022 by Comma Press.
Copyright © remains with the authors 2022.
This collection copyright © Comma Press 2022.
‘Flat 19’ by Jenn Ashworth first published in Close to Midnight (Flame Tree Press, 2022). ‘Green Afternoon’ by Vanessa Onwuemezi first published in Dark Neighbourhood (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2021). ‘Blue 4eva’ by Saba Sams first published in Send Nudes (Bloomsbury, 2022).
The moral rights of the contributors to be identified as the authors of this work have been asserted in accordance with the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, or otherwise), without the written permission of both the copyright holders and the publisher.
A CIP catalogue record of this book is available from the British Library.
The publisher gratefully acknowledges the support of Arts Council England.
Printed and bound in Great Britain by Clays Ltd, Elcograf S.p.A
In many respects, I am underqualified for the job of writing this introduction. I have never won or even been shortlisted for a short story prize myself. In fact, I remember entering my first as an enthusiastic seventeen-year-old. The competition in question was run by a local writers’ circle in Malvern, where I went to school. I poured my heart and soul into my story, which ran to several typed pages and contained sentences of great earnestness as I attempted to relay the entire life of a married couple, from their meeting at university to the tragic early death of the wife from cancer. The judges were kind to me, and said they’d enjoyed reading my submission but that it felt more like a synopsis for a novel than a short story.
It was a perspicacious observation and it stayed with me. In the years that followed, I wrote a few more short stories and tried to get better but I spent more of my time reading the work of others. As I made my way through the collections of Katherine Mansfield, Raymond Carver, Helen Simpson, Jon McGregor, George Saunders, Alice Monroe, Lydia Davis, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jhumpa Lahiri and many more, I could see quite clearly what those judges had meant. When, in our early 30s, a friend and I set up a live initiative called Pin Drop which involved authors and actors reading short stories in beautiful settings, I understood even more deeply that the success of a short story relies not only on the read sentences, but on the ones that have been edited out.
As ever with this competition, there was a notable omission from the start of the judging process. My fellow judges and I read the stories without knowing the author’s name – a crucial element of our decision-making, which meant none of us was swayed by anyone’s professional reputation or lack of it. When it came to deciding our shortlist there was a great deal of common ground between us despite our varied professional and personal backgrounds. We were impressed by the high quality and struck by some recurring themes.
This was a year which saw a lot of writers trying to make sense of the pandemic – Covid made an appearance in several stories, while other entrants transposed our lived experience to invented apocalyptic scenarios. There were quite a few stories which featured clones and artificial intelligence, and I for one was convinced that Kazuo Ishiguro must have entered several times over as so much of the prose seemed close in tone to his bestselling novel, Klara and the Sun (I mean this as a compliment). The idea of outsidership cropped up repeatedly and some of the most moving stories concerned themselves with the concept of not belonging; of being cast adrift by a society shaped by a wilful misunderstanding of otherness.
But although so many of these short stories were good, only a few of them were great. A good short story says something meaningful. A great short story keeps certain things hidden. The best short stories find their power on the page precisely because of what the author has decided not to say. The space around the words gives sense to the words themselves, in the same way as a striking piece of sculpture makes us look not only at the object itself but at how it changes its surroundings.
When we reach the final sentence of a great short story, we should feel that the world imagined by the writer is so coherent, so encompassing that it exists both within and beyond the page. We do not need to know everything about this imaginative world, but we need to have confidence that the author does. Above all, reading a short story should be a satisfying experience in and of itself. To do all this, while resisting the temptation to write too much, is a real talent.
The five stories in this anthology are fine examples of this talent. Their subject matters are varied – step-families, road trips through America, AI clones, a post-apocalyptic love affair, and urban knife crime – but they are connected by a surety of touch. Every one of these writers has taken great care to choose the shining details that arrest our attention, to inflect their paragraphs with precision and unique lyrical flair without ever losing grip on the pace or purpose of the story in question.
In ‘Blue4Eva’, Saba Sams lures the reader in with a sun-soaked holiday setting, before sowing the seeds of an altogether more discomfiting atmosphere lurking beneath the blue surface of the swimming pool. It is an authentic portrayal of the often tense dynamics of blended familial relationships, with a truthfulness to the dialogue that impressed us all. We were particularly enamoured by Sams’s portrayal of twelve-year-old Stella whose likeable warmth and strength of character was more than equal to the creepy power of her voyeuristic stepfather, whose attachment to his new, expensive camera prompted us to ask questions about the male gaze and ownership.
Anna Bailey’s ‘Long Way to Come for a Sip of Water’ is a gorgeously written evocation of modern America. In this story of repression and emotional damage, the disputed inheritance of a family home mirrors the broader issue of who is given the right to exist authentically in a country still at war with itself. Individual sentences were written with deftness and beauty, and the exploration of sexual identity was sensitively done.
This was also the case in ‘And the moon descends on the temple that was’ by Kerry Andrew. Of all the post-apocalyptic stories we read this year, the judges felt that Andrew’s story spoke of a real human compassion that made it stand apart from the others. The use of imagery in the story was praised, as was Andrew’s ability to write sexually fluid characters without judgment or prurience. It felt as though there was a beating heart underpinning each carefully judged paragraph. Although much of the story concerns itself with the ever-present shadow of a deathly virus, the vividness of the characters ensured there was still life to the prose.
While Andrew’s story concerned itself with a dystopian future, Vanessa Onwuemezi’s ‘Green Afternoon’ opens with a boy dying of a stab wound in the arms of a narrator in the present day. Out of all the shortlisted stories, this was the one that the judges felt most benefitted from re-visiting. The evocative richness of the prose demands our sustained attention, and every new reading reveals some integral detail we might previously have missed. The freshness of Onwuemezi’s narrative voice, combined with her Joycean prose style and her rhythmic, captivating command of language left us all breathless.
As you might have gathered, there wasn’t an enormous amount of humour on display in this year’s submissions. But ‘Flat 19’ by Jenn Ashworth did contain welcome flashes of laughter in its skewering of middle-class pretension and the sometimes stultifying demands of a long marriage. Our narrator is a successful artist, but also a put-upon mother, wife and daughter, who finds her own identity flattened by her efforts to meet everyone else’s needs. She hits upon an unexpected and ingenious solution (spoiler alert: it involves clones). The strength of Ashworth’s writing distinguished this particular clone story from many of the others, as did its readability and ability to engage from the first sentence. The ending lodged in my mind for weeks after I finished reading – a perfect example of leaving a story at a point of interest, rather than tying everything up too neatly.
These stories represent the new vanguard of British writing. My judges and I were pleasantly surprised, when the names of the authors were revealed, to find that only one of them (Kerry Andrew) had made the shortlist before. Although many of 2022’s entries imagined post-apocalyptic dystopias, perhaps in response to our current troubled times, I am confident that the short story, at least, is in safe hands. The writers in this anthology will ensure its future is bright for many years to come.
And the moon descends on the temple that was
The next town is the same.
Leaves in the drains, making a lake of the road, water furling beyond his wheels. No flags. The