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Short Story Competition: Retreat

11th December 2015

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“Lily. Please come out.”

The phrase was repeated several times. Then silence. Much better.

“Lily, I’m asking you nicely. Come out, now!”

This one-sided conversation had been going on for nearly 20 minutes, and Lily still had absolutely no intention of coming out. He could ‘ask her nicely’ all he wanted. He could even ask her not nicely and she would still ignore him. She was just fine where she was.

“Get your arse out of there now. D’you realise how easy it would be for me to just…”

In her mind’s eye, Lily imagined herself twirling a small dial, and slowly, deliberately, she muffled Peter’s voice. Stillness. Peace. All she could see was a vast swathe of blue above her; it was like she was floating just under the surface of the sea, her nose tipped up towards the crested waves that must be crashing above her. Lily could almost hear them. She was below, safe, removed from the spitting sea-spray and high winds and instead, just floating, gently, like a bubble of green seaweed, only an inch away from danger.

She had to turn the dial slightly further because Peter was getting louder. She turned it three notches… good. Perfect. It was like he’d floated away, pulled across the ocean by that tide that still couldn’t touch her.

Lily stretched out her limbs, feeling her warm cotton cocoon pull and strain around her, accommodating her unfurling body. Yes, she liked it in here. In here, she was untouchable, and she hadn’t felt like that in a long time. She turned over, crushing her head into a pillow. The dial had stopped working again.

“Lily, I’m telling you…. it’s a fucking bed-sheet, sweetheart, it’s not a suit of armour, I can get you out whenever I like, but I am trying – holy Jesus – I am trying to be reasonable. I am not going to “manhandle” you, like you said, because I know you don’t like it. And I know that Doctor Partham has said it won’t help. But you know what also doesn’t help? At all? You not talking to me. Lily. Fucksake, Lily! Get out!”

Lily felt a hand thump down on her ankle. No. No. He was not to manhandle her. He was to leave her alone. She reached again for her dial but it had broken altogether and was hanging by a broken frazzled wire in her brain… he was pulling on her leg, he was pulling her off the bed. Stop. Stop. She had to say something.

Opening her mouth was like working an ancient and rusty wrench. When was the last time she had spoken? It was only this morning. That was when she had decided to stop. She worked the wrench harder.

“Let go.”

The hand stopped pulling and loosened its grip, but did not move away. Lily scrunched the beautiful, soft bedclothes tighter, tight enough to hear her nails scrape against the cotton, tight enough that she could barely breath through the muffling haze. The sheets were paisley, and the kind of blue that reminded you of Greece, or Turkey, or of yellow-gold sand and shiny brown pebbles. That kind of blue. The sheets had travelled with her to the new flat, one of only a handful of things that she’d wanted to keep. They’d lain on her childhood bed too. That was odd to think of, now that she slept in them with Peter, now that they made up her marriage bed…

“Lily, if I let go, you have to come out.”

“I’m not coming out, Pete.”

“Jesus – fine. If I let go, you have to poke your head out. Just your head. Not even your neck. So we can talk. You’ll be fine. Ok? Alright? I’m letting go. You don’t have to come out.”

Lily took a very deep breath and reminded herself that no, she did not have to come out. But she might.



It is deathly dark, and all that Lily can see is one small crack of light reaching from the very top of her vision to the very bottom. Through it, she can see a shadow passing back and forth, almost with the precision of a grandfather clock. It is her sister. She imagines her sister stuck in the face of a grandfather clock and smiles. She only smiles because, with her spine against the wall and the doors closed, no one can see her grin.





“Why are you even in the wardrobe? You’ve not even told me why you’re in the wardrobe.”

“Not gon’ to.”


“Mam says don’ have to do nothin don’ want to.”

“Talk properly.”

“Don’ want to.”

“You’re so weird!”




“I’ll get Da!”

There is a pause. Lily does not want her sister to get their Da.

“Don’ get Da.”

Another few second of quiet. Lily’s sister knows exactly how much Lily doesn’t want her to go and get their Da. But she might anyway.

If Lily’s sister goes and gets their Da, he will wrench open the wardrobe doors like he did last time, breaking the lock again which will upset Mam, and he will grab Lily by the ankle, and he will drag her out and pick her up and she’ll kick her legs but he’ll just hold them down and then he’ll drop her real hard on her bed and it’ll hurt again and he’ll stand there and shout at her and every time she tries to get under her favourite covers he’ll pull them away from her and shake her and Lily’s scared he might rip them one time and then she’d cry and he would shout again…

“Don’ get Da.”

“Then come out, weirdo.”

Lily stands up in the wardrobe, and it creaks under her weight. She is not heavy, but the smooth old boards are meant to hold dresses and hats and shoes and scarves; pretty things. Not a slightly plump five-year-old. She slides her Mam’s stolen hairpin out of her plait and pushes it into the inside of the lock. When she comes out, they will ask her why she went in. They always ask her why she went in. She never knows what to say. It is just better in there. Nobody talks and she can concentrate on being very, very quiet. In there, she can start to unfuzz her brain without anyone saying anything at all.

The lock clicks.


She did not have to come out. But she might.

“Lily, I’m not going to ask again. I’m really not.”

“If I come out…”

“Are you coming out?”

If I come out… smile at me.”

She felt Peter strain at the demand. So often he reminded her of whinnying, wild-eyed horse, bucking and kicking, trussed up by harsh ropes there to force calm upon this volatile charger, there to keep it from inadvertently stampeding the people around it. She held tight to her end of the rope.


“Smile at me.”

“Why the hell do you want to see me smile, baby! I smile at you all the time!”

“You’re not smiling now.”

“You can’t see me!”

“I can hear it.”

She heard his teeth grind. Then, a sigh. She liked his sighs. They were many, and they were all different. He sighed when he took his first sip of coffee, or first, long drag of a cigarette. He sighed when he shut the front door after coming home from work. He sighed when he slipped her nightdress off at midnight and ran his hand down her body… and then there were these sighs. The sighs that showed he had decided something. He never changed his mind after one of these sighs.

Lily waited to see what he had decided.

She did not have to come out. But she might.

“Sure. I’ll smile at you, baby.”

That was good. That was very good. Lily thought harder about coming out. He carried on;

“Shall I tell you why?”


“Because it would make me real happy if you came out of there. I’m gonna be smiling so wide it’ll touch my fucking ears.”

Lily felt a bubble of laughter well up in her at the thought of that, but it died down again when she thought about what she would have to do next. She would have to let go of the sheets, for one thing. She did, and felt her fingers immediately start to ache as the blood rushed back to them. Next, to find the opening to the world, somewhere in the tangle above her. She scrabbled a bit, fingertips throbbing, and her heartbeat began to quicken. Despite her best efforts, Lily felt herself reaching out to the big blue sea-sky all around her, don’t let me out, don’t let me do this, don’t let me…

A hand on her ankle again. Lily stiffened.

“Hang on, baby.”

She felt Peter’s shadow move up the side of the bed and lean over her.

“You’re all in a knot.”

Lily felt the sheets move around her, snaking steadily, apparently of their own accord; her azure ocean had come alive.


She felt his shadow retreat again.

She did not have to come out. But she might.

She could.

Lily felt like a caver as she levered herself up, like she was pushing herself back into a place of sunlight, starlight, moonshine, back into brightness. She opened her eyes and saw the bare bulb dangling from the ceiling, swaying a little in the draft. She turned her eyes slowly around the room. Huh, blue walls. She’d forgotten that. She turned to Pete.


“I noticed you’d disappeared after I made eggs and you weren’t there to eat them.”

“What kind?”


Lily’s favourite. She looked at Peter properly for the first time. He was frowning ever so slightly, but as soon as her eyes caught his, a smile started playing around his lips.

“Thanks for coming out, Lil.”

Lily clambered down the bed to hold him. She flung her arms about his neck and felt him reach around her thin body to hug her close. She thought of the half an hour she had lost.

“Are the eggs cold?”

“Ohhh yes. But I can make more.”

They stayed there for a while. Lily felt like she had been around the world since she had held him last. He was looking at her like he’d never seen her up close before.

“What made you hide, baby? You’ve been doing so well. Did I fuck up? Did I say something?”

“No. Never. It was the radio.”

“What happened on the radio? I’ll chuck it out.”

“It was nothing. It was just… it was the song.”

Lily put her head down on his shoulder. She had to stop doing this, responding so stupidly to these tiny triggers. She had to get her life back in proportion, and stop looking at things through a magnifying glass. Everything in moderation, everything in moderation. That’s what Doctor Partham had said.

“Lil, I’m sorry I got mad. It’s just… this hasn’t happened in such a long time. You caught me off guard, babe.”

“You know you don’t have to say this.”


He got up, pressing her gently back onto the bed, and made for the door.

“Coffee with your poached eggs, milady?”

Lily smiled. Her mouth no longer felt like a wrench.


As Peter left the room, Lily got up and faced the bed. She ran her hands up and down the now forlorn-looking sheets. Blue as a bluebird. She re-made the bed, quickly, carefully, tucking in each corner and smoothing each crease, each sign of her being there, and she stepped back.

It was a hot day. Perhaps tonight they wouldn’t need the covers.


This is an entry to The National Student's short story competition. The text has been edited for grammar and punctuation only. 

The National Student's short story competition is in association with the Home Entertainment release of Mistress America. Mistress America is available on Digital HD in the UK on 7th December, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. Watch the trailer below: 

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