The award for fiction by new BAME writers has selected an all-female shortlist, with subjects ranging across genres, generations and continents
A summons for jury service forces a student to reassess her father’s nurturing skills and the values of the British society in which they live, while a friendship between two schoolgirls reveals the murky depths of Nigeria’s political history. Jenna Mahale’s Packed Lunch and Arenike Adebajo’s The Hyacinth Girls are among six stories in contention for the 2019 Guardian 4th Estate short story prize, now in its fourth year.
The all-female shortlist was selected from nearly 200 entries. Both Mahale and Adebajo hold a fine balance between the personal and the political, as does Jameen Kaur in Once We Were Warriors, which explores the pride and the pain of a Sikh family struggling to deal with a drug-addicted son.
The summer before our family fell apart, a legend started on our estate. I was ten at the time, and like every other ten year old, all I wanted to do was spend summer riding around on my bike at the park near our house. The climbing frames in the park were rusty and completely discoloured – unless whoever built them had intended brown to be the colour of childhood excitement – so it didn’t appeal to many parents as an after-school site. Also, I’m pretty sure that drug dealers used to hang out there but I never met any, so how much of a presence could they have been really, you know?
“Hooligans,” my mother would say, shaking her head as the plantain simmered in the frying pan. She was cooking three things at once, as per usual, and the plantain was always the loudest, though no match for her voice. “That’s what you want to be, abi Marcus? One of those ye-ye boys who hangs around this place, anyhow?”
The night before I was due to begin jury duty for the first time, I asked my dad to help me make a sandwich to take with me in the morning. We had argued about something recently, though I can’t remember what. It was impossible to keep track.
So when I asked him to help me make the sandwich, I was partly extending an olive branch, but partly just seeking a non-hostile interaction with my father.
1964: the year his marriage ended. The year his record stopped spinning, the needle in his groove lifted haltingly, and with a snap returned his tone arm to its cradle.
He had never wanted Marilyn. Not her prim-girl curls hot-combed into place on her head. Not her full-moon face so earnest that the sight of it irritated him. He hadn’t wanted to hear, I’m eight weeks gone! We have to marry, the corners of her mouth drooping. He hadn’t wanted the ceremony in Hackney Town Hall, his signature and hers in the register (but he had wanted the tonic mohair suit that made him look like a prince). He hadn’t wanted to live in rented rooms above a shop, with Marilyn asking, But where will the baby sleep? He hadn’t wanted any of this. He had come to England to find work, to do something with his life, to send photographs of his handsome Jamaican self back home to his Grandma, make her proud. Dear Granny, I hope that when these few lines reach you they will find you well …
‘Check the time and date properly on the ticket. I don’t want us getting a fine. I’m still paying off your brother’s overdraft,’ said Mum, as she pulled herself out of the car.
I was pleased they had come. When they called this morning, I thought they were calling to cancel. It being a Saturday and we all knew what usually kicked off on a Friday night. The police were well versed to the goings-on. But here they were. ‘This is a Bengali area – Tower Hamlets. You know, there were race riots here,’ I said.
When I met Ọláídé, I was on punishment duty. Nabilah’s doing. She was being particularly vindictive after we stopped speaking; becoming a prefect had gone to her head and she’d banished me to the field to cut weeds. The elephant grass was thick, itchy against my calves as I thwacked at stalks furiously. The cutlass was too blunt. Wet ground underfoot sucked at my trainers, spat mud up my legs and spattered the hem of my skirt. I straightened up, and peered at the school building behind me, stark white against clouds that threatened showers.
My classmates would be in the canteen by now, gossiping over fried rice, cool in the air conditioning. Taking a water-warped book and an apple from my satchel, I moved towards the shade of a flame tree.
We are always barefoot. I try to explain this to the police officers who arrive from the mainland.
We’re quieter this way and we need to be quiet when we’re stalking wild animals in the pine forest. Heaven walks in front because she’s the oldest, then me because I’m the youngest, then Bluebird at the rear. When I tell the black policeman we were hunting, Heaven shakes her head. She tells him we were at home. He looks at me, then her, then back at me. We’re sitting at the kitchen table, the soles of our feet muddy and bleeding. Well, says the officer, which one is it?