First Chapter

Read the Grazia First Chapter competition winner

The Women’s Prize x Grazia First Chapter competition ran for 12 years and has now been discontinued, with 2022 being the last year the competition was run. We keep an archive of past winners and runners-up to inspire future writers to tell their stories. Scroll on to read the 2017 entries that stunned the judges and participating author Maggie O’Farrell. Feeling inspired? You can enter our Discoveries programme for emerging writers. Learn more here.

We’re delighted to share with you the winner of the 2017 Grazia and Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction First Chapter competition!

In its 7th year, the First Chapter competition received an unprecedented 700 entries, and we’re excited to reveal that 37-year-old Georgina Roberts from London is our winner.

The competition, taking entries from aspiring female writers, was judged by Grazia’s assistant editor Emily Maddick and features director Emily Phillips, along with brilliant best-selling novelist Maggie O’Farrell, who wrote the opening paragraph called Always The Quiet Ones.

The judges said they found themselves truly involved in the relationship drama unfolding in Georgina’s chapter – which set up a promising story of betrayal and intrigue and definitely has the potential to unfurl into a novel…

Georgina was presented with her prize of £1,000 by Grazia’s editor Natasha Pearlman at the Women’s Prize for Fiction ceremony last week – which was won by Naomi Alderman, author of The Power – and stayed for the night at The Dorchester as part of her prize.

How Maggie O’Farrell started the story

I was in bed with the viola teacher for what turned out to be the last time, when the doorbell rang. We had moved on to talking about exam pieces, certain pupils of his, whether my daughter would need a new bow soon. He was smoking a cigarette; he would give up soon, he said, inhaling and his eyes, his rosin smelling fingers laced into mine. A languid, hirsute dishevelled man, he had a habit of leaving the ends of sentences unsaid, of always tripping over the bedroom rug, of about the house, barefoot, examining the photos on the walls with forensic zeal.

Georgina Roberts: winner

The doorbell rang again. Followed by some impatient knocking. I put on my towelling robe and hurried downstairs to open the door. It was my wife.

“You need to take Lilly. She’s being a nightmare and I have a pitch to prepare for the morning.” She sighed dramatically, but I knew she loved the thrill of a deadline. I’d taken paternity leave when Lilly was six months so she could go back to the design agency job she loved. And I could get away from the one I hated.

Lilly looked glumly at me through the car window. I gave her an empathetic smile. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted the viola teacher’s push bike locked to a lamppost across the street.

“I’m a bit busy at the moment, Jen. Can you give me half an hour to get myself together?”

“For fuck’s sake, Jeremy. It’s your daughter. Not an Amazon delivery. No I can’t bring her back in half an hour!” She said, impatiently motioning to Lilly to get out of the car.

“It’s alright for you freelancers,” she continued, “still not dressed at four o’clock on a Thursday, but some of us have work to do.” She sniffed. “Have you been smoking?” I quickly changed the subject. “Actually, I’ve had the day off.” She rolled her eyes.

“Hi Dad,” Lilly said as she trudged up the path carrying her school bag on her shoulder. She looked angry. But I couldn’t tell if this was just her eyebrows, which seemed to have grown significantly since last weekend. “Hi darling. Why don’t you go through to the kitchen and get yourself a drink. Daddy will be in shortly. The freelancer needs to get dressed.” I shot a look at Jen.

“Still playing the good cop I see,” said Jen. Lilly dipped under my arm, which was holding open the door and headed down the hall to the kitchen. The door slammed.

“I thought we’d agreed not to do that to her, Jen.” I said calmly. “And what’s with the er…?” Raising my eyebrows.

“Oh that’s Pearl. Wants to be a makeup artist or something. They’re all into in it now. Spend hours on YouTube. Eyebrows like caterpillars! She laughed, and her mood softened. “I’m sorry,” she sighed. “I’m finding things a bit hard is all.” We stood in silence.

“If we love each other then I just don’t understand why we couldn’t make it work,” she said in a small voice. I put my arms around her and hugged her. “I’m sorry too,” I said quietly.

We stood like that for a moment, very still. Until she pulled away, like a small child being hugged by a grandparent. “I’m just so fucking angry with you!” She cried, storming off and climbing into her Range Rover. The engine started immediately.

I gave an awkward wave, mainly for the neighbours’ benefit. Then closed the door and sighed. There was no going back now. It was my fault. My doubts. My decision. I took a deep breath.

Lilly’s viola teacher hadn’t been fazed by the interruption. “Kids, hey?” he said as stubbed out his cigarette and pulled on his cords.

He’d had no sense of urgency as I hurried him down the hall. Still stopping to interrogate the photos that lined the walls. I kissed him briefly at the front door. Neither of us said that we’d call. But we had never made things official. He’d called by to drop off a grade 4 viola book for Lilly a few weeks before – I lived near the school – and things had gone from there.

I walked into the kitchen closing the door firmly behind me. “I thought you were getting dressed, Dad.”

“Yes, yes, shower for me and homework for you, young lady.”

She scowled at me with her newly-oversized eyebrows. She looked miserable.

“What’s going on, darling – with mum?”

“SHE is the nightmare, Dad. She doesn’t care about me at all.” She stared blankly at the wall, avoiding my gaze.

“She’s been through a hard time, love. We all have,” I offered.

“You don’t understand.”

I continued with the speech I’d practised in my head only days before. “The separation is an adjustment. Your mother and I love you very much. And we still care for each other too.”

“Whatever, dad. You know she’s dating my viola teacher, right?”

Second place: Lizzie Martin, 26, Washington

…Christopher had been dead for three years by then, but before he was dead, he was alive, and so was I. We met at university. The viola teacher’s precise opposite in nearly every way, Christopher was tone deaf and fresh faced, round cheeks baby smooth even when we got married, even after. Chris was impulsive, made me laugh on purpose and without trying. He proposed at 4 a.m. the night before graduation. There weren’t roses, but he tugged loose a sprig of ivy from back wall of Witherspoon and held it between his teeth, bending to one knee with a flourish. We were desperately young, dizzy-drunk, and disheveled, whirling in a wistful haze of sleep deprivation, relief, regret, booze. I didn’t know at all where I was going; the night before, after dinner, I’d zipped shut the last duffel bag and thought with a pang of nausea of how it’d feel to unpack it that evening in my childhood bedroom, where I planned to stay until a better option presented itself.

A better option had presented itself, and Christopher and I were quite blissfully happy until the diagnosis, and then we were quite forcefully happy until the end.

I opened the door, knotting my robe. It was early enough that the girls were still asleep upstairs. On the porch, a man with smooth, round cheeks ran a hand through short dark hair, a suitcase at his feet.

I crossed my arms. He cleared his throat.

“We’re a match,” he said.

I raised my eyebrows.

“Through Death Switch,” he said. “We’ve been matched.”

I shook my head. “You’ve got the wrong house,” I said.

“No,” he said, glancing at a paper in his hand. “It says here, number 14. Your husband, Christopher—he set this up.”

I stiffened, swallowed.

“Come in, then,” I said. “No, wait. I’ll come out. Wait here. Five minutes. We’ll have a coffee, and you can explain, and then we can go our separate ways.” I shut the door before he had time to respond, threw on the clothes I’d worn the previous day, still puddled on the floor by the bed, and asked the viola teacher to stay, in case of an emergency. I’d be back before the girls woke.

It was an app, Death Switch, the man explained, “You know how it is: an app for everything these days.”

Apparently, Chris had arranged it. The app was designed to pair young, widowed spouses with other young, widowed spouses who had similar qualities to those who had been lost. Apparently, Chris had fancied himself to be something like a round-faced, clean-cut accountant, and he’d fancied me to be something like David’s wife, Annette, a blonde writer with a musical laugh who had been hit by a car during a bike ride just six months prior.

Because I’d been waiting longer, the protocol was for David to come to me, move in to my home, so as to neither disrupt my fragile peace nor force a new family into his own fresh wound. His daughter, a bookish girl the same age as my youngest, was staying with her grandparents and would join us in two or three weeks, long enough for us to get settled, but not so long that she would feel excluded.

By the time David explained all of this, we had arrived back at the house, and the coffee I was carrying had gone cold in my hand, untouched. We paused on the porch.

“And you’re all right with all of this?” I asked.

“Of course, of course. Annette and I both thought it’d be for the best; we discussed it at length. Didn’t you?”

Of course we hadn’t. Of course Chris, impulsive, bright-eyed, hopeful to a fault, had arranged it all as a cosmic surprise, banking on my being as game as ever for his dreams, even long after he’d stopped dreaming them and shrugged them off and left them behind, something akin to stepping out of a limp puddle of abandoned clothes and into bed.

I opened the door to find the viola teacher hopping on one foot as he tried to pull his other boot on.

“This is David, the man my dead husband picked to replace himself,” I said, thinking it best not to bury the lede. The viola teacher looked back and forth between us, confused, trying to work it out.

“You should—” he said, “I’ll just—” I made gestures at telling him to stay, but we could all tell I didn’t mean it, and that was the last I heard from him, save a collegial wave at my daughter’s recital that winter. The photos on our walls hung unexamined; there were never any more cigarettes in the nightstand; I did not again find myself in tangled sheets listening with ambivalence to another languorous monologue about the pedagogical merits of Bartók.

You might think we’d have kept it up for a bit, at least until things settled down with David, but that didn’t happen. Instead, I came to be raising three girls, two mine and one his, with an absolute stranger, which made everything that happened next all the much more complicated. He’d said she was quiet, his daughter, which was true, but when it comes to this kind of thing, it’s always the quiet ones you’ve got to watch out for.

Third place: Avri J Evitts, 45, from West Sussex

…God he was a bore.

‘Aren’t you going to get that’? I enquired.

‘No point. It’s a delivery, the guy …’

Gerry didn’t need to finish his sentences; he never said anything worth listening to. I peeled my hand from his tacky grip and felt around for my clothes. I had already stayed longer than necessary, weeks longer. Zipping up my dress and shoving my knickers into my bag I resolved not to complicate things again.

‘This is my last visit, I won’t be coming again’ Not that I’d ever come with Gerry.

‘Probably best’ he grumbled back at me.

I waited until I heard the delivery driver release the handbrake.

‘Chocks away’ I called as I stepped out into the June sunshine. I had two hours to kill before meeting the girls, no point making my way across town this early. Beckoned by the certainty of coffee with anonymity, I slipped into Costas, one more Mum keeping out of the cleaner’s way after the school run.

I could still feel Gerry sticking to me, like some stubbon cheap price label. I fished into my bag for a tissue and wiped away the residue. One more thing to do, and Gerry would be well and truly bagged and binned. I got out a small indexed notebook and pen. Flicking through to V, I felt a satisfying shiver of excitement as I noticed three entries in S. Frustrated by the others slow progress, I had flexed the Rules of Engagement and paused on S to let them catch up.

Gripping the pen and applying more pressure than necessary I wrote in capitals VIOLA TUTOR. Regarded with detachment it looked erroneously impressive, as personal triumphs often do.
Looking up and taking in the beige décor and patrons I smiled as I recalled the day the girls and I had sat in a similar coffee bar and drawn up an agreed plan of action. I had written the rules in the front of my notebook with the purpose of a clinician.

  1. One for each letter of the alphabet.
  2. Threesomes count as 1.
  3. School hours only.
  4. No money to change hands and finally
  5. No entanglements.

I felt the remains of a particularly nasty dish of guilt being churned from the pit of my stomach. I forced it back down with gulps of Americano. I wondered if the girls would agree with my argument that racking up a viola tutor, my daughter’s tutor, was an impressive and creative solution to bagging a V, even if it necessitated a protracted involvement. I concluded that only a Vicar could beat a Viola Tutor, and was confident they would agree. I turned my thoughts to W.

Window Cleaner? Too easy.

Web Designer. There would be the added excitement of adopting the habits and wardrobe of a cougar. My prowling of a 24 year old primary school teacher called Assan had bordered on stalking and very nearly got me arrested, forcing him to explain to his Head that he knew, and could therefore vouch for, the woman cruising by the school at regular intervals. Whether he ever declared it was carnal knowledge I don’t know, but I was relieved when Assan decided to leave the village and head back to the safety and seclusion of central Manchester.

A lightbulb went on somewhere, it was obvious, W was for wanker. When Melissa got hopelessly stuck on T, we relaxed the rules and allowed her a Store Manager on the pretext that he taught his staff to stack selves, thus promoting his profession to Teacher. I thought Teacher was too general and fulfilled T with an elderly, but surprisingly obliging, Taylor.

Having settled W, I turned my thoughts to our meeting later. With an x-Ray Inspector, Yoga Practitoner and Zorbing Supervisor already in my sights, we needed to think about the various options to keep Mummy Top Trumps going. Faye had suggested we worked our way through the A-Z of Christian names. Melissa thought MPs would be fun, but with only one sitting UKip member, none of us were that enthusiastic. All I could think of was the first one to gather ten under 21 year olds. Whatever we decided, I was anxious for a new challenge.

I drained the last of my coffee. Still an hour to go, curse this butterfly nature of mine, I wanted to be out flitting and flirting. A bright yellow taxi pulled into the lay-by outside. I grabbed my things and flew into the back of the cab.

‘Where to Ma’m?’ asked the cabbie.

‘I need to collect some prints from my office in West Norwood, then back to Victoria for a meeting. Are you free for an hour?’

‘I’m yours all the time the meter is running’ he replied. I settled back and gave Gerry and his pretentious collection of scene-of-crime photographs one last thought. No one was ever just a Viola Tutor or a Store Manager.

‘You do this full time?’ I asked.

The cabbie paused before he replied.

‘No. I play with otters and such. I’m a Wild Animal Trainer.’

London cabbies are not the only ones that know London Streets. As I eased up my skirt, I directed the cabbie to a quiet cul du sac that led to a cemetery.

‘Can you pull over, I’ve lost a contact lense. I’m blind as a bat, you’ll have to help me look for it’.

Stepping out of the cab to meet the girls, I planted my feet firmly on the ground, like some conquering hero. V and W in one morning. I even impressed myself. Like some commanding officer I stood up straight and prepared to march into the Forum. Faye and Melissa were sat at our usual table, in deep and animated conversation with a man. They all turned as Faye leapt up and waved ‘Over here.’

Shaken, I tripped over the door mat as Gerry nodded in my direction.

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