top of page
Search

Short Story Prize 2024 1st place prize winner: THE SCHEME - Victoria Manifold



Illustration by Andrea Ocampo // https://www.instagram.com/ancrioca

After the scheme was over, I started to meet David in a certain car park, the one opposite the discount supermarket, and behind the school building where, some years ago, an almost incomprehensible amount of asbestos had been found in the ceiling. The school was closed but, after securing a local government regeneration loan and erecting some demountables in the playground, had reopened as an ‘enterprise centre’. While I waited for David, I occasionally saw worried looking men with grey skin and crumpled suits getting into and out of mid-priced sedans, pointed fingers stabbing at phones, heavy sighs disturbing thinning hair. I’d lean against the rounded top of an errant bollard watching them until David pulled up in his own mid-priced sedan, with his own grey skin and his own crumpled suit.


David had an air of something I’d thought of to myself as “formerly successful dentist.” It was a smug little phrase, meant to convey that not only had he failed in some way but that this failure had the desperate and embarrassing stink of the petite bourgeoisie. I was pleased with myself when I came up with it, although it really meant very little. These sorts of things – these empty little vignettes I considered amusing – were a residue from my time in the city, where I’d often spoken meaninglessly and laughed cruelly.


In the end though, the joke was on me. In the end, even with the casual cruelty and the laughing with abandon as a ballast, I hadn’t been able to support myself there. In the end I’d found it too brutal to live among so many people, had found it too strange to see buildings stretched off into the sky like that – just to look at them had made me sick with that flip of the stomach that floors you – and, eventually, I’d had to run home crying, run home weakened with shame telling anyone that cared to listen that something in my skin had given me away.


///


I was the product of a certain toothy Prime Minister who had let it be known that people like me, whose mother scrubbed shit stains from office toilets and whose father had the macadam smell of daily physical labour, someone like that could go to university. Maybe not a good one. But one just good enough to give me ideas above my station. To give me a shallow understanding of say, Hegel. To allow me to cling to one fact about say, Heidegger, so that in certain circumstances I could find myself saying something like ‘he may dwell poetically but he’s très problématique.’


I’d moved from a small parochial town, dark and poor, to a well-lit prosperous city where I had acquired a set of qualifications and debts. Here I had lived in small mouldering rooms and found a version of employment that, in both its precarity and uselessness, caused a constant background hum of anxiety. Each month a sum of money would appear in my bank account that was enough to maintain a kind of lifestyle in this bright and expensive city but never enough to clear the debts, never enough to create a safety net, never enough to pay for anything other than brief and immediate pleasure.


In this city I’d had a boyfriend who’d taken pictures of me asleep and naked then circulated them amongst his friends. Not for titillation but for a kind of comedy. See, he would say, the single thick hair like a black wire growing just left of her nipple, see the red pimpled cheeks of the arse, the heavy matronly breasts drooping across the bed, the meaty wobble of the thigh, hahaha.


Another had slyly taken off a condom during sex but had admitted to it the next day – as a favour to me – so I could get the morning after pill, if I wanted. And I was grateful too. Thank you I said to him, it means so much to me and then I handed my last £20 over to the pharmacist. There was another time too when I’d gone to the doctor to get an abortion and he’d said that I wasn’t even pregnant and, in fact, there was a good chance I was still a virgin. I was surprised. What had I been doing all these years? How could I get it so wrong?


///


It was a scheme, an idea – no doubt – of that same toothy Prime Minister. Such schemes were common in dark and poor parochial towns, less for the opportunities they offered and more for the neat way they reduced the official statistics. So, we were not technically unemployed then but rather enrolled in state-funded confidence training. Six of us gathered in a small room at the back of an almost entirely vacated civic centre, the supposed administrative hub of the local council, where every spare corner seemed to be filled with the obsolete technology they couldn’t afford to recycle. Beige PCs and pale grey telephones teetered precariously every time we swung open the door.


Drastic cutbacks had led to major redundancies at the council and we hardly saw anyone as we shuffled, heads down, through the long corridors toward our dedicated confidence training room. To make it worse – at least for David – he was one of the bloated local government employees put out to pasture during the last round of cuts. The few people left working there were at pains to avoid him, their former colleague, ducking into empty cupboards and recently vacated toilets whenever he raised his hand in a greeting.


There was no way David would ever find another job, given his age, given his skillset, given the place where we lived. I didn’t stand much chance either. Too ill to work but with the sort of illness that invited scepticism rather than treatment. That invited “we think it’s better if you take a little rest, can you just sign here?” rather than “Mike B from Finance is going to run a half marathon to raise awareness of this debilitating condition.”


This confidence training then, this scheme, was supposed to give us the tools to deal with our new jobless circumstances. Donna, our instructor, told us useful things like “losing a job is sometimes not your fault but it’s always not not your fault.” There were other helpful hints too, like “once you’ve flared your nostrils you can’t unflare them so just try to be aware of your face and what it’s doing should you ever get a job interview.” But this advice only served to make us hideously aware of our faces at all times so that we came to sit expressionless for the entirety of our sessions, hoping that we weren’t revealing things to Donna that should’ve stayed hidden.


Donna had no desire to know us or anything about us, no real investment in our confidence at all. It was easy to see in the tyrannical shade of her blonde hair or the brutal slouch of her cowl necked top that she thought each of us was a lost cause.


Still, I wanted to be the youngest and prettiest and smartest person on the scheme. I wanted to succeed at the scheme in a way that no one else had but I also didn’t want to make any effort at all. I felt contempt for Donna but I also wanted her to like me, to praise me, even for her to be slightly jealous of me but with the sort of jealousy that invited ingratiation rather than conflict.


I wanted her to know that, although I had no formal qualifications in confidence training, I could easily do her job and that I was better than she was. I wished that my time in the city had taught me humility but it hadn’t. As far as I know, people don’t really learn anything from enduring something painful, we all just pretend, picking over the scab of our actions when we think we aren’t being watched and using that fresh wound to convince ourselves we did nothing wrong.


///


The city had ruined me then. Hardened me in a way that was irreversible but weakened the parts of me I actually needed to live. Sitting in the back of the civic centre – watching David shuffle his papers, take notes, wear a shirt and tie as if the scheme were a real job – I thought of the friends I’d had in the city and how we would’ve laughed at his BIG DIVORCE ENERGY, which had nothing to do with being married or otherwise and just a general slumped feeling that radiates from certain people.


I used to meet these friends at bars and cafes in the city and we’d smile and giggle at the one man eating a small bowl of tomato soup alone, the one man who seemed most like a divorced dad. We would flirt ironically with him, touch his arm and compliment his skin, his strength, his thinning hair. We’d carry this joke so far that we’d often end the night by giving him a blow job in the toilet of the café or bar. Yes, joke’s on him we’d think as we grazed our knees on the rough grout between the floor tiles.


These friends of mine were rich, horrible, unreliable. And I was those things too, except not rich. And because I was not rich and because I had never known anyone who was, it had taken me some time to realise that they were and even longer to realise the extent of this wealth. It was, to them, something immutable and natural and yet, something that they kept opaque in its technicalities lest they be judged not to have earned it.


They were so slim hipped and pale skinned, their hair so long and straight. They were like sleek horses who lived in large, empty apartments in the most fashionable parts of the city. They would arrive loudly at the parties I found so terrifying, gesturing wildly with their bony arms and long fingers, spilling cocaine from their pockets onto abstract rugs and polished concrete floors. They had all gone to art school or drama school or film school, had all interned at some cultural behemoth before they pursued their own artistic practice in some vague and hackneyed way.


I’d struggled to understand if these friends enjoyed the clothes they wore or if they were just another act of irony. They donned, without shame, all the wearable signifiers of poverty I’d avoided for so long and they did so with a kind of ease that astounded me. They borrowed tobacco to roll their own cigarettes and after every exhalation they would tell me how broke they were, how lucky I was to have my regular little wage, picking at their dirty fingernails as if they weren’t a source of embarrassment. And yet, still, they exchanged subtle looks when my accent became too obvious and they raised slight smiles when I lied about my parents’ jobs, as if they knew exactly where I came from, exactly what I was.


///


I was not the youngest, or the prettiest or even really the smartest person on the scheme. That was Courtney, who was also the sweetest and had the nicest laugh and the shiniest hair. She could chat to anyone in the unselfconscious manner I was so envious of and so I began to belittle her in ways I assumed to be subtle. I smoothed out my accent in a poor imitation of my rich friends and tried to give off some of the sophistication of the city, loudly talking of a swift public transport system or mercenary landlords. But she would just reply with “oh you’re so funny” and then smile genuinely at me.


Courtney had even, without irony, complimented the ancient Filofax David carried in a leather attaché case to every session of the scheme. He’d lay this on the desk at the start of each day along with his Parker pen and foolscap notebook. He took it all very seriously and I wondered how that was possible, how could he invest so much in something so pointless? How could he keep it up day after day?


He always got there before anyone else and saved the seat nearest the door for young Wayne. David knew young Wayne from before the scheme, they were distantly related or his wife had gone to school with young Wayne’s mother, something like that. It was something vague but solid enough for him to cling to, for him to say look young Wayne is my friend and must sit next to me, young Wayne is an innocent and I have to show him the ropes, I am useful despite it all.


But the ‘ropes’ amounted merely to Donna overseeing extended icebreakers of the sort I’d performed at a number of team building exercises in certain kinds of workplace. I would be paired with young Wayne and ask him to describe his mood in one word (“bored”) then young Wayne would ask me the same question (“hungry”). Or David and Courtney would have to draw portraits of each other without looking at the paper. Or Sarah, a woman I’d gone to school with and considered a liar, would join Courtney and David to form a team and young Wayne and I would be teamed with Mark, a failed electrician whose shoddy work had started a fire at the local primary school. Our two teams would race each other to solve a hypothetical yet specifically brutal murder or build a device to transport an egg from the top of the pile of outdated PCs to its bottom without breaking it.


It was both a waste of time and a waste of money but, Donna assured us, would teach us the skills necessary to give a presentation, on a topic of our choosing, at the end of six weeks. She was adamant that these were the sort of skills that all employers were looking for, the sort of skills that would give us, in her words, an edge. But it was difficult to see just how we would acquire them when day after day we blindfolded ourselves to play pin the tail on the battery operated donkey, or we engaged in quiet time whereby we would sit in a line on the floor, silent, unmoving and staring at the backs of each other’s heads for 45 minutes until Donna hit play on her combination CD cassette player and we began to rock gently back and forth when we heard “So I’d like to know where, you got the notion…


Six interminable weeks passed in this way, answering Donna as she breathlessly demanded to know which fictional TV doctor best demonstrated our outlook on life or listening as she told us that we just need to be more positive, as if a cheery disposition would stop young Wayne’s nightmares or give Mark an understanding of electrics.


///


Even I had to admit that Courtney’s presentation was brilliantly executed. She knew how to use PowerPoint very well. She knew Excel too, much better than I did, although I always listed myself as proficient in its use on job applications. She stunned us all with a series of complex formulae, with bar graphs and pie charts. And she did it all in her friendly and easy way, making it actually seem interesting and worthwhile. My own presentation would be nothing like this. I had decided to make it as difficult to understand as possible, using words not in the regular vocabulary of anyone else there, including Donna.


But, when it was my turn to get up and stand in front of Donna and Courtney and Sarah and young Wayne and Mark and, of course, David, it became so difficult for me to remember any words at all. Donna said “it’s okay, you can start.” So I picked up my bag, the backpack I’d had since school, and I took out the box of sandwiches my mam had given me that morning. I took a small bite, ate it slowly at first, chewing until the bread and ham and margarine were a liquid that I could push through the gaps in my teeth. I put the rest of the sandwich, just about all of the sandwich, into my mouth all at once, the bread soft and claggy and sticking to the roof of my mouth. There was so much of it that it was hard to chew, my cheeks puffed out and my jaw ached. I swallowed it all down in a lump that stuck in the space behind my sternum. I looked out at all of them, looked them straight in the eye – Sarah bored, young Wayne bored, and Mark with the kind of face that looks as if it were wet at all times. Courtney looked concerned, as if she cared whether I failed or succeeded at the scheme and then there was David, giving me a small smile, an encouraging smile.


It was Friday so mam had put a chocolate bar in the sandwich box too. An own brand version of one of the most popular on the market, made by a discount supermarket and thrillingly called Meteor Shower™. I put the whole bar fully into my mouth, the tip of it hitting the back of my throat, and then I pulled it back out again, the bar now covered in a wet bready residue. I repeated this gesture over and over, my mouth a small ‘o’ as I pulled it out and pushed it back in again, the motion becoming faster and the chocolate melting around my lips and the tips of my fingers, the wet bready residue gathering at the corners of my mouth and then dripping down onto my jumper. I closed my eyes and let out a small moan, a noise that could be mistaken for an involuntary expression of pleasure.


“That’s enough,” said Donna.


No applause followed. Donna cleared her throat and gestured to the next person to start their presentation.


David was last to present. By that time the chocolate on my hands and face had dried, and I felt itchy, eager to wash it off. He fumbled with his USB, his heavy fingers dropping it a couple of times before he finally inserted it. The desktop of the ancient PC was projected on to the chalky wall. He was flustered, confused by the icons, clicking here and there until he got to the file he wanted – nice_view.jpg


It was a photograph he’d taken. The view was of the sea and sky. Very pretty. But it could only have been taken from the very edge of land and I recognised immediately the shape and substance of the waves, the texture of the sky, and, on the horizon, distant shapes open to interpretation. I knew that just out of shot there was a battered phone box that only connected to two places.


So, there was only one place it could have been. Where on average 37 people a year walked from the edge of the cliff into the cold air, then dropped many hundreds of feet into the water. I wondered if they walked out in a straight line and then realised like in a cartoon there was nothing supporting them? Did their legs scramble and spin in a blur as they tried to stop falling? Was there a plop, a splash, a whoosh?


“This is the view from B______” he said. “A nice view, I think.”


Yes, a nice view, he thought.


He had very little else to say. Donna asked some questions but he just repeated “it’s a nice view.” And when pressed “I’d like to think in another life I could’ve been a photographer… I have a good eye... I think… a good eye for a nice view, yes.”


“You can sit down now.” Donna said.


Afterwards I’d written my phone number on a piece of paper and, looking him straight in the eye, had squashed it into his hand. “If you need anything” I’d said. He took the number from me with a nod of the head, returning my gaze for an uncomfortable amount of time.


///


And that’s how I came to meet David in that grey little car park just about every other day. How I came to ride next to him in his nice but aging car, his reliable and solid car, always clean. How we came to drive out of the small and dark parochial town and toward the sea. How we came to admire the nice view together three or four times a week. We talked, sometimes. At first just about the scheme – he remained largely positive about the scheme and its overall impact on his life, whilst I did not. Technically we had both failed but, as Donna explained, there were certain repercussions for her if she produced failures. Repercussions that we, as the recently unemployed, would not understand. So, she had stamped our paperwork with the big tick instead of the big cross whilst making it very clear, as she did, that we had very much failed, that our presentations were incredibly poor in their execution, ill thought out and, in my case, indecent, perverse, unbearable.


There were times when I would almost suggest that we drove to the suspension bridge at C_______ or a particularly notorious stretch of rail track at P_________. But the views there weren’t so nice. Instead, I told him about how I’d lived in the city. I told him of all my various humiliations and laughed as if I were simply explaining the plot of a film, a sort of tragi-comedy with a reasonably happy ending. I told him about all the naked pictures, all the £20s handed over to all the pharmacists, all the meals I’d missed to pay the rent on all the rooms that I lived in with all the black mould growing in all their corners.


I told him a funny story about a man I’d had sex with a number of times, a man I was calling my boyfriend but who had shuddered at this description. We had gone to a café in an unfashionable part of the city, to an area where he was sure we wouldn’t see any of his friends. Here I had ordered coffee and a chicken baguette. But when I’d bitten into the sandwich it became obvious something wasn’t right. I opened the top and saw that it was filled with precisely trimmed pubic hair. When I’d gotten up to fetch a napkin or go to the toilet or when I’d ducked under the table to tie my shoelaces this man, who was not my boyfriend but who had – the previous evening – slapped my face as I’d choked on his dick, had done this. It had been a strategy to stop me eating meat. “He was vegan you see,” I laughed, “and I had eaten the pubes without knowing but I carried on eating them, even when I knew they were there.” I laughed again. But somehow David didn’t see how this was funny. He looked at me as if there must be more to the story, some secret at the heart of it that I had yet to reveal. “And what else?” he asked.


But there was nothing else, what else could there be David?


Every night I lay awake, listening to my parents move about below, I heard every one of their toilet flushings, all their nightly ablutions. I heard their tired sighs and the crack of their knees as they sat down, the soft whisper of their loose skinned elbows bending to their tasks. They were disappointed in me but not vocally so. They knew I’d never go back to the city now and they wondered why I’d even gone in the first place, after all, wasn’t I worse off now – with the debts and the snobbery, with the shame and the pretentious little phrases that endeared me to no one? My sister asked me how things could have turned out this way, wasn’t I supposed to be the clever one? How could I have been so stupid?


///


In the enterprise centre carpark, we had seen, as usual, one of those defeated looking men with the slumped shoulders nervously lighting a cigarette, but this time he had looked straight at David and had recognised him, had not been able to stop the thin line of his serious mouth broadening into a wide smile.


“Dave, Dave,” he had shouted across the tarmac and David had lifted his head with a queasy grimace, winding down the window as this man bounded toward us. “Now then Brian,” he had replied, “how you keeping?” “Oh, just doing something enterprising down at the enterprise centre haha,” Brian had said leaning in and looking at me rather than David.


David had answered him in a clipped tone, “sounds promising, best of luck with it,” and then tried to start the car. But Brian leaned in through the window and, with an oily wink toward me, said, to David “don’t worry I won’t tell your Kathy.”


I saw the colour in David’s face change then as, wordlessly, he pressed the button that wound the window up and turned the key that started the car. Smoothly he reversed out of the carpark and onto the same old road that took us to the nice view. Brian stood there watching, smiling with only one side of this mouth, flicking his spent cigarette toward the enterprise centre.


What Brian didn’t know, of course, was that – apart from putting the phone number in his hand – we had never touched each other at all. David hardly even looked at me, his eyes constantly on the road, or the nice view. He’d never noticed the times when I hadn’t worn a bra, when those matronly breasts of mine wobbled salaciously at the merest provocation, he’d never noticed when I’d gotten up from the front seat and left a wet smear on the leather, never made an off-colour remark just to test the water, just to push the envelope, just to make me squirm. He had only blushed when I’d told him of my indignities, had only tilted his head sympathetically and, with a soothing tone of voice, changed the subject.


Still, he seemed worried that this would somehow get back to his wife, that she would find out what we did, which was, I tried to explain, nothing. What could Brian, or anyone else, actually tell her? That we sat beside each other? That I once gave him a drink from a polystyrene cup of coffee but he drank from the opposite side to me? That I left a greasy red stain on my side of the cup and he left nothing on his?


It didn’t matter he said, his wife would never have approved of us spending so much time together. He didn’t want to upset her he said. He told me about her health problems but they didn’t sound serious to me, more of a stick to beat him with, a grab for a certain kind of attention. But she needed him, he said. All they had was each other, they hardly ever saw their children who had made successful lives for themselves in minor cities some miles away. His wife had a burdensome family who demanded their fair share of attention too, who frayed his wife’s nerves further with their longings. He detested his brother-in-law, a slick and litigious individual, who had wanted to sue the council on David’s behalf after he’d slipped on some wet leaves and dislocated his knee.


This brother-in-law had even gone so far as to call a no win no fee lawyer who advertised on afternoon television but David wouldn’t hear of it. The council had been good to him he said, that is until the redundancy but, even then, hadn’t he got the scheme out of that? Hadn’t he met some interesting young people? This almost aggressive optimism couldn’t hide the slight limp he still had from the dislocation, I could see it as we made our way to the edge of the land and looked out.


It is a nice view, when you look at it. The sky and the sea, grey and darker grey. Look how hungry it is, he says. It is simply ravenous, he says. He’s said something similar before but now, when I look out at the sea, even when it’s churning so wildly, I think it’s not really hungry at all. It’s just the thought of a body sating something so vast that is satisfying. In truth the sea would never really accept your body. It would only ever offer up resistance. You’d hit the water like it was a solid floor, breaking your bones before you even went under, before you were ever really wet. You’d hit it like an explosion. You’d hit it and then what? And then what?


 

Victoria Manifold is a writer and trade union worker from County Durham. She was shortlisted for The White Review Short Story Prize in 2016 and 2018 and a runner-up in the 2019 Berlin Writing Prize. She was also shortlisted for the 2021 Desperate Literature Prize and was a runner-up in the 2022 Mslexia Short Story Prize. In 2023 she was shortlisted for the Richell Prize for her novel-in-progress The Election of the Mayor. The Scheme is the first place prize winner in the Short Fiction International Short Story Prize 2024.

Comentarios


bottom of page