Chekhov Short Story Competition
We're delighted to announce that the winner of our Chekhov Short Story competition is David Guest, for his story The Lottery Ticket. Well done to David.
Ian McMillan and Janice Galloway also enjoyed stories by Tricia Durdey, Joe Hakim and Adrian Benson - who all went for the title Difficult People - you can read all of them below.
A big thank you to everyone who sent in entries.
The Lottery Ticket by David Guest
The Lottery Ticket
by David Guest
She had been restive all day and I had dropped in twice to
check on her. By the afternoon however, the sedatives were
taking control and her features assumed a more refined
composure. Outside, the trees and shrubs in her garden
were ravaged by a fierce north wind but behind heavy
curtains, the house was silent. I located the thermostat for
the heating system and raised the temperature a little
more. She might as well be comfortable for her final hours.
Late in the evening I returned to the property and took
her pulse. She was still sitting in the armchair, her tiny
frame almost swallowed by the ample cushioning of its
upholstery. The pulse was faint but regular, her breathing
shallow and light.
Don’t worry, Clara, I said to her. It’s nearly over.
I boiled the kettle and made a cup of coffee for myself,
then went to join her in the sitting room. She turned her
head slightly and swallowed as I came in, her eyelids
flickered momentarily. Then her head fell back, too heavy
now to be raised to the world. I stroked the sallow skin on
her wrist, so soft and warm to the touch. Then I gently
raised her sleeve and fastened a tourniquet on her upper
It’s been a long life, I told her gently. You’ve lived a long
life. You’ve made it to the end.
Her blood pressure was very low.
And here you are in your own home, my dear. Not for
you the indignities of the hospital ward.
For her to suffer in a cool, impersonal environment
would be an injustice. How much better that she had
retained her own dominion, the independence for which
she had fought so vigorously in her younger years.
I opened my bag to make sure I had everything she
might need. An insulin syringe, several ampoules of
diapmorphine then I tapped her gently in the crook of her
elbow to check the cephalitic vein and saw it pulsing
silkily, the thin blue cord.
But not just yet. I sometimes despair at the impatience of
my younger colleagues to rush straight to the brink. A
moment like this should be treated with respect. It is not so
much the end of life as its culmination. Clara had drunk
deeply from the draughts of sorrow and joy and now in the
final moments of existence, took on a luminous quality. Her
body was preparing to journey on into that pathless land,
with no earthly trappings, just the bare fact of her own
She murmured slightly but although I bent close to her,
the words were lost. I carried my bag through to the
adjoining dining room where I set out the pad of death
certificates and my fountain pen on the teak table-top.
Then I contemplated her bookshelves. The eclecticism of
her interests was apparent in the titles of philosophy and
art history. Even a smattering of church history, and a two volume
edition of Gibbon, well thumbed and broken at its
I read some verses of Manley Hopkins and skimmed
through a glossy new hardback on English cathedrals
before my attention was captured by the framed
photographs on her walls. The thread of her existence was
traced through them. The young woman with dimpled
smile embarking on an ocean voyage, posing with her
fellow actors on a dusty stage or clasping the hand of some
long-forgotten dignitary. In later shots, her posture limned
in assurance and authority, she was captured beside
ministers of state, royalty, conferring degrees on students.
The clock in the dining room was chiming midnight as I
dealt a deck of cards onto the table and played a few hands
of patience. I have always preferred games of chance. Some
may revel in the skill of a knight’s gambit or the athleticism
of the sports field, but in the stillness of Clara’s rooms, each
turn of a card was singing with the probabilities of the
Later, I slid the purse from her handbag in the kitchen
and was not surprised to find over a hundred pounds in
cash. So many of my elderly patients seemed happy to
carry around that kind of money. I left the cards of course
and the car keys though she would have no further use for
either but the notes I transferred to my own wallet. Tucked
into the side pockets of her bag were other papers, a clutch
of receipts and then, neatly folded, a brand new lottery
ticket for the weekend’s draw.
I was struck by a sudden irritation. I knew very well she
had no children, no spouse and had designated a number
of worthy charities the beneficiaries of her estate. The
futility of this final gesture annoyed me.
You silly girl, I told her. What are you wasting your
money on this for? The chances of winning are next to
I shook my head sadly and fumbled in the kitchen
drawers for a box of matches before burning the square of
paper over the sink, dropping its embers into the waste.
Some time later, as I was pushing the expended syringe
into the clinical disposal can, she stirred and filled the
sitting room once more with the tenor of her voice. There
were no distinct words by this time, only the echo of some
distant memory. It is often the way in these fading
moments, as old footsteps are re-trodden for a final time. I
seated myself on her elegant furniture, to wait. I could not
consider leaving her to face the fading light alone.
She was well dressed, her expression calm, retaining the
dignity which had been apparent throughout our
acquaintance. At one thirty-five, I took up my pen and
wrote out her final chapter.
Difficult People by Joe Hakim
I’m outside, searching my pockets. My keys are gone. I look around and then check my pockets again. I repeat this gesture a further two times before accepting that they are, indeed, lost. A few muttered curses and one fore-head slap later I begin to formulate some kind of plan. My landlord’s office is within walking distance so I set off.
The whole world is against me.
I arrive at the office to find a note attached to the door. It says: “Gone out. Back at 12.30.”
I walk to my friend’s house. Thankfully she’s in. She makes me a coffee, and as much as I try, I can’t help but start up. “I think the whole world is against me,” I say.
“It’s January. I feel the same,” she says. “Everyone feels the same.”
“I guess you’re right. But I could do without this right now.”
“The weather doesn’t help. It’s like this vast impenetrable grey. I miss the sun.”
“My landlord won’t have a spare. He strikes me as that kind of person. There’s a crack in my window that’s been there since I moved in.”
“And everyone’s skint. I’m really skint, Christmas wiped me out. And the kids are driving me mad. It’s like hormone central around here.”
“So it’s going to be a case of breaking in, getting the lock replaced…”
I borrow her phone and ring my landlord. He answers.
My landlord is an angry mass of liver spots and wrinkles buried beneath an ill-fitting toupee. I explain the situation.
“I don’t have a spare key for that room,” he says. “If the keys don’t turn up you’ll have to get the lock replaced. And you’ll have to pay for that, your rent doesn’t cover it. It’s in your tenancy agreement, you can check it if you want.”
“I would, but it’s in my room.”
“I can recommend someone.”
“I’m sure you can. I’m ok for now, but I’ll keep you posted.”
I imagine him sat there, rolling the spare key around in his hand, examining it, a grin scrawled across his face.
I ring a couple of locksmiths, but the basic call-out charge is £75, money I simply don’t have. I roll another cigarette.
I have an appointment with the dole, so I put the key situation on hold. I’ve hit the six-month mark so I have to attend an interview on the third floor of the Job Centre.
When I get there, the place is busier than the town centre on a Saturday night. The unemployed shuffle around, all waiting for their names to be called. The security guards are hovering, hoping a riot doesn’t develop. The staff wander about, tense, sweating, nervous. A young woman waits by a photo copier while a guy who is obviously drunk complains about ‘all the lazy bastards’. “I should have scratched on fifteen minutes ago,” he says. “I’ve got things to do.”
After a while my name is called. I go over to a desk, sit down. Rob, my personal advisor, is taking panic gulps from a bottle of water.
“How’s it going Rob?”
“As you can see, it’s all a bit mental,” he says, reaching up, squinting and pinching the bridge of his nose. “They said moving some of the signings up here would help, but Jesus, I’ve never seen anything like this…”
“Well, a lot of people are out of work at the moment.”
“…it never ends, I don’t know how long I can take this…”
“I’ve been checking the paper every Wednesday, and I regularly look on the internet.”
He puts his head in his hands, composes himself, and then enters my details into the computer. He sighs, says, “I’m sorry.”
“What is it? It’s nothing bad is it? I’m having a rough day as well…”
“It’s Working Links.”
“Oh no… not Working Links,” I say, deflated. “What’s Working Links?”
“It’s the Job Club. You have to start attending from next week, I’m sorry,” he says, clicks the mouse, gets up and shuffles towards the photocopier. A bloke with a mouth like a dirty sandwich-toaster heckles him as he waits for the letter to appear. It only takes a couple of minutes, but by the look on his face the short journey seems to have cost him another fifteen years of his life. “I think the whole world is against me.”
“It’s January. I feel the same,” I say. “Everyone feels the same.”
I go home and hang around the front door until someone shows up. Eventually, Marvin, the hippy from upstairs, lets me in. My room is at the back of the house, just off the kitchen. I walk up to it, stare at the door, boot it a couple of times and then sit down on the window sill. I think about my things trapped behind the door, my clothes, books and CDs. Over three decades of existence and nothing to show for it other than barely enough stuff to fill three cardboard boxes from the supermarket. The only real object of value is a laptop that I bought with the money from my first (and so far only) writing commission, its sleek, shiny surfaces placing it at odds with rest of the room, like an alien artefact that has somehow found its way onto a shelf in a charity shop.
I check the fridge and my milk has gone off, so I settle for a black coffee. I’ve always denied the existence of fate and luck, but sitting here now I am convinced that some malignant force is interfering with my life. Where are my keys, and why is the whole world is against me?
So I sit back down, lean my head against the window and sigh until a patch of condensation forms beneath my left nostril.
It’s January and I try and comfort myself with the fact everyone feels the same.
Difficult People by Tricia Durdey
The wind had dropped in the night and now the morning was fine. Nicholas Glass had no intention of staying in the house all day so he decided they would go to the Palace Hotel for coffee. His wife, Marianne, despite being fully occupied with the laundry, knew there was no point in arguing. She draped the sheets in the airing cupboard and went upstairs to get ready. Ten minutes later, Nicholas was impatient. He spun his wheelchair round from his place by the window, and across the parquet floor to the foot of the stairs.
‘I’m waiting,’ he bellowed.
Marianne stared from the bedroom window at a magpie squatting in the Scots Pine, the few battered daffodils on the lawn. She stabbed the pin of her brooch into her scarf, and put on her coat.
Nicholas and Marianne Glass left the house and made their way to town; Nicholas sallow of complexion and gaunt of feature, his girlish white hands folded on his lap, Marianne, younger than her appearance suggested.
She wheeled him downhill and past the opera house towards the hotel.
‘I can’t imagine why the opera house is hosting the Chinese State Circus,’ Nicholas said.
‘It’s popular’ she replied. ‘It fills the theatre, and the children must love it.’
‘Popular,’ he snorted, ‘I’ve told you before. An opera house is there to perform operas of excellence to a cultured public, Marianne, not open its doors to the local kindergarten so they can watch a lot of foreigners monkeying about.’
The chair juddered as she tried to manoeuvre it down the kerb.
‘Watch out.’ His arms flailed, as if he were about to be tipped onto the street.
‘Did I hurt you?’
‘What did you say?’ he snapped.
‘I’m sorry you’re in pain today, Nicholas.’
They reached the hotel. The revolving door was impossible with the two of them and the chair. She stood back and watched his hands scrabbling at the wheels as he moved through and away into the lobby. When she reached him he was already at reception.
‘Good morning Mr Glass.’
‘Good morning, Peter. The weather’s cheered up considerably since last night. Bitterly cold though. Could you ring for a pot of coffee, and pastries for us?’
Nicholas wheeled himself over to the window over-looking the terrace and Marianne followed a pace behind him.
‘It’s important to have opinions, Marianne,’ he said, as she sat down. ‘You don’t appear to have any. You should read more, cultivate your mind. Without opinions a man is only half a person.’
She was distracted by the vase of oriental lilies on the table beside her.
‘What are you looking at?’
‘Lilies,’ she said. ‘They give me a headache. They remind me of funerals.’
‘Don’t be so morbid.’
A girl came in with the coffee. Marianne poured, passed him the plate of pastries. She watched as his hand shook, bringing the cup to his mouth.
Nicholas Glass, oh he’s a great character, such a courageous man! She’d often heard people say it. They liked her husband. She too had once thought him a brilliant and fascinating man.
He was talking about Pompeii. He had talked about Pompeii before, many times.
‘Now I’m practically housebound, I travel in my mind, Marianne. The mind has no boundaries.’ He put down his cup and patted his damp lips with his napkin.
Outside the starlings chattered in the trees. She watched them gathering. A light rain began to fall.
‘One day everyone in this hotel will be dead,’ she said. ‘Those two people sitting over there will be dead, and you and me, everyone in Buxton, everyone in the world in fact. There’ll be a totally new set of human beings busy getting on with their funny little lives.’
‘What did you say?’
‘It’s comforting, like the tide washing everything away. A fresh start.’
‘Sometimes I wonder if you’re mad, Marianne.’
He bit into his pastry, scattering crumbs down his front. A flake of pastry stuck to his jowl and trembled as he breathed. She waited for it to fall onto the table. When it didn’t she leant towards him to brush it away.
‘What are you doing?’
‘You’ve got a crumb on your chin.’
As he swatted her away he struck the coffee pot. The coffee dribbled down the table and onto his lap.
‘Now look what you’ve made me do. I’ll have to go home to change my trousers.’
‘Can’t you mop it up?’ She handed him a napkin. He dabbed at the damp patch on his leg.
‘Nicholas! How are you?’
Maurice King was striding across the room, his hand out-stretched, his shining face beaming down at them.
‘Maurice! Do join us. I’m well; I’m very well, thank you. Would you care for a coffee? Or something stronger? Marianne, call for the girl. Tell her to bring a cloth. The table needs wiping.’
She got up. There was nobody on reception so she rang the bell. Whilst she waited she looked across the room at her husband, his face quite animated now, leaning towards his great friend, his white hand gripping Maurice’s arm.
When she was very young she had wanted to be good, to please people. Now she was middle-aged she knew goodness was irrelevant. It struck her that if she walked out and left them both, they wouldn’t notice her absence at all. Not until Nicholas wanted to go home.
The girl emerged from the kitchens.
‘I’m sorry, we spilt the coffee, the table needs wiping. And my husband would like to order something else.’ She smiled. She didn’t say, ‘Tell him I’ve gone,’ though the words rang in her head. ‘Tell him I’ve gone to Pompeii.’
As she walked back towards them, she heard his voice booming across the room.
‘I’m reading Chekhov, you know. When I’ve finished, I’ll tell you what I think.’
Difficult People by Adrian Benson
A new week. Clean paper on the wall.
"Write a good short story", the difficult woman said, straight into his good ear. "Now you've no excuse. It's your turn. Write it." She put down the phone.
The difficult man stared at the phone handset for a while. It was ivory-coloured. He looked away at the day sharpening outside the window then returned his gaze to the phone. The handset seemed to writhe in its cradle and turn – slowly, like something gradually melting - into some sort of tusk, lolling there, rattling, ill-fitting, until it sprang up quickly and bit into his side, piercing the skin like a surgeon with the DTs on the last operation of the day, scrawling itself across his belly before withdrawing to its cradle, its kinked cable dropping in tentacle loops, back towards the surface of the desk.
The difficult man looked down at his ripped belly. Even upside down, he could make out the word "WRITE!" He dipped his finger in the dot of the exclamation mark and licked the tip. Sweet as fudge.
The difficult man picked up his pen, and sat down before the pile of paper. The tusk melted back to a handset. (Still ivory-coloured.)
He picked up his pen, took the top off with his mouth, and let his hand scratch it across the cartridge paper. He looked down. No letters, just a line-drawing of a lined face in the shadow of a cross-hatched high wall with barbed lines curving and tangling above it. A woman's face. Somehow sagging towards the ground.
He gazed at the phone. Wrote a word. ONCE. The letters increased in size as they moved away from the woman’s face, creating a blaring sort of perspective that forced the face back and diminished it.
He wrote three more words. UPON A TIME. The way he had positioned them, they seemed to come braying from her mouth. He closed his eyes and his hand jerked like a jolted piece of livestock and started to scribble of its own accord, but when he opened his eyes, the scribbles were just shapes: a halo of bayonet-thorns around the woman's head.
He glanced across at the phone again. The handset seemed to be vibrating slightly, as if another metamorphosis were in the offing. He picked up a cardboard box from the floor, emptied papers from it, and put it over the phone, forgetfully using his bad hand. He clenched his eyes, and the pain dripped through his body and flowed away.
He picked up the drawing and went to the photocopier, the drag of his crushed toes causing one of his shoes to squeak on the wooden floor. He made a single copy.
He picked up his scissors. He cut off the thorn-bayonets from the copy, wincing again at the pain in the left hand, and formed them into six straight-lined letters, which he pasted to the original. He drew a circle in the middle, completing two words. A WOMAN. He put two eye-dots and a frowning mouth-line in the O.
He then started to scrawl in a sort of calm fury on the original paper and drew thorns, horns, tusks, knife-blades, finger-nails, all in a stumpwork series of shadows across her face. And they seemed to curve around and hook into her skin. And the way he had drawn it, the face seemed to hatch uneven dark droplets of blood that froze on the page, scabbing into hieroglyphics.
He closed his eyes, and rubbed his left hand over the shapes, feeling the pain-messages from what was a sort of electric-shock bastard child of Braille and Morse code.
He pushed away from the desk and snatched up his marker pen. He scrawled lines and shadings and symbols all over the lining paper that covered the walls and interspersed them with just a few words. DIFFICULTY. PUNISHMENT. CRIME.
It was probably only five minutes, but he still felt exhausted. He looked at the dirt-circle on the wall where the clock had been. He tried the door. Still locked, as it had to be, because the difficult woman possessed the only key.
He drew a pair of handcuffs and tried to draw smiley mouths and eyes inside the two circles but they fell through the gaps and went invisible.
He stared at the walls for a second, looked at the scratched cartridge paper, then wrote down a sentence.
The phone rang again, dulled this time by the surrounding cardboard.
"Finished yet?" asked the difficult woman.
"How much have you done?"
"ONCE UPON A TIME A WOMAN WAS FOUND IN A PRISON HOSPITAL. HER CRIME WAS THAT SHE WAS DIFFICULT. SHE WAS PUNISHED."
"Is that all?" asked the difficult woman.
"Yes," he replied.
"Well, that's not good enough, is it? That’s not much more than a haiku!"
"Look, I know I was supposed to produce a short story, but actually writing it is just too hard. I can see it in my mind, but I can’t put it into words."
"Because she was your mother?"
“Because you’re an officer of the law?”
“Why not, then?”
"Because it resists being described in words."
"Because it’s true."
"It’s difficult with the truth. You have an obligation.”
“Tough. If the truth’s too hard, lie.”
“I can’t. Lying’s even more difficult than telling the truth, because not telling the truth seems like a form of betrayal.”
"Well," said the difficult woman, "nobody said it was easy being difficult. Get a grip. Get a move on. If you don’t write something in time, no one will be saved. Don’t forget that: they’re relying on you." She put the phone down again.
He covered the phone with the box a second time, leant his head on it, and wept: wept stiff, difficult tears that etched damp salt on the cardboard. When he looked up, his mother’s face was staring in through the window, slowly shaking her head.
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