Read the winner of our Grazia First Chapter competition

At our star-studded awards party earlier this month, Queenie Durkin was crowned the winner of the 2016 Grazia and Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction First Chapter competition. Queenie was presented with her £1,000 prize, had her talent flagged up to some of the biggest names in the industry and her story printed in the pages of Grazia.

Acclaimed author Marian Keyes this year helped us in our quest to find a new female writing star, writing the opening paragraph of a story – and our entrants were challenged to finish the first chapter.

Here are Marian’s notes on Queenie’s winning chapter:  ‘This is a great start to a story because it cues it up but still leaves a lot to be said. She’s got a nice command of dialogue and the energy of her chapter convinces me – those moments of incredible intimacy with someone you used to be close to. I could definitely see this spreading out into a whole book.’

We’re delighted to be able to reproduce Queenie’s wonderful story here:

The doorbell rang and Sarah decided not to answer.  Nick had only just left; she’d had enough drama for one evening. But when it rang again Sarah took a sneaky peek through the living room curtains and was shocked to see Nick’s wife, Jess. What the hell!

For a moment she contemplated pretending none of this was happening, but that wasn’t the person she was, so she went down the hall and opened up.

‘Nick doesn’t know I’m here.’ Jess’s face was distorted with fear. ‘But I need to see…’ She gazed at Sarah’s clearly pregnant stomach and she wept.

‘There’s so much… Sarah, please let me in.’

Sarah hesitated.  It had taken months – years to extricate herself from Jess; that delicate, tear soaked, crumpled doll of vulnerability that stood before her.  She knew there was still love between them, somewhere.  But it clanged like a death knell for her, giving way to nauseating feelings of anxiety – a sense of claustrophobia that made her want to rush past Jess, into the street and gulp down the chilled night air.  But what if Nick had still been outside, watching? Sarah reached for Jess and pulled her inside, past the bike, the handbags, the countless shoes abandoned in the hallway, the detritus of barely keeping up with life, of saying ‘yes’ to too many things, too much time spent away from the nest. Jess took a seat in the kitchen while Sarah busied herself filling the kettle.  She didn’t want to look at Jess in the light. She could hardly stand for their eyes to meet.

‘Anything stronger than tea?’ Jess asked.

And then they were facing one another, Sarah’s heart pounding. Instinctively she reached a hand to her tummy, hoping the negative emotions wouldn’t be playing out in cinematic form to the life unfolding inside her.  ‘There will be plenty of time to live through your own messes without sharing in mine” she would say, communicating by osmosis.  Or at least hoping to.

IT had been so long since she’d seen Jess.  The silence between them felt bleak and heavy.  The kitchen, which would once have been filled with their laughter and the joys of shared mischief, was now steeped in long suppressed hurts, internal battles, monologues and diatribes struggling to reach the surface, desperate to be both heard and long forgotten.

“Jess, I have gin, no, I don’t have tonic, I have vodka, but crap mixers.  I don’t know. What are you doing here?’

IT was clumsy, it was garbled, but it was a silence broken at last.

‘You were right Sarah, you were right, I’m leaving him… or I’m trying to, but its so, so… difficult’.

Jess was struggling to say the words, she was looking to Sarah to take the lead, to guide the conversation, ask questions, interrupt, anything, but Sarah was determined to let Jess do the talking, to keep her own counsel, to give nothing away.

‘I think he’s looking for me, has he called you?’

Sarah had been living this meeting in her head ever since her friendship with Jess had come to an abrupt and traumatic end.  There had been countless sleepless nights, agonising over words that could never be said, emotions that could not be expressed. Those hurts that had lain dormant, pitted in tight knots in her stomach were rising to the surface to feed on the oxygen of fresh attention. She didn’t want to unnerve Jess by alerting her to Nick’s stormy earlier visit.  There was so much she needed to know. She needed time.  Just the two of them.

‘5 months’

‘I’m sorry?’ Jess replied.

‘I am 5 months pregnant Jess, well 5 and a half actually, and it’s a little boy.  Caspar’.

Jess shook her head in disbelief that she could have paid such scant regard to the monumental changes visibly taking place in Sarah’s life.

‘Wow Sarah, I just, I don’t know what to say, I can hardly believe it…’ She paused, ‘… do you even like babies?’

Something about the crassness of the comment made them both smile.  There it was, a glimmer of their shared history.  Their joint vows to be party girls till the end.  The unstoppable, heel clicking, hair flicking disco girls.   Well the wheels had certainly come off that joy ride.

With the faintest hint of light heartedness Sarah replied, ‘ Well I’m planning on liking this one’, and she slumped rather ungracefully into the chair next to Jess. The farmhouse dining table, a much loved piece of furniture, rescued from  Sarah’s Grandmothers house was strewn with paperwork, books and magazines; evidence of many evenings working late into the night and countless tight deadlines.  Propped against an open laptop was a mood board, depicting the sedate and minimalist interior choices Sarah would be making had she ever found the time.  Aspiration, inspiration, whatever it was, it was a long shot.

‘Everything is exactly the same’ said Jess, ‘I love it; your cosy chaos, Nick cant stand chaos’. She trailed off.

It had been two years since they had last been in such close proximity. How could it have come to this? Virtual strangers…

‘Sarah, I’m devastated by what’s happened to us, I just had to come to you, before I face anyone else.  Shit, I’m glad you hadn’t moved house.’

‘I think I know why you’ve left Nick’, Jess glanced up at her sideways, ‘It’s because he’s become a bit porky isn’t it?  You’ve always been a bit of a ‘fattist’.”

The absurdity made both girls burst out laughing.  Tensions were lifting. There was the faintest hope of a rekindling, of more laughter.  Still they had no idea how long they would have to wait.

‘He would drop dead if he heard someone call him fat’, laughed Jess.

‘Oh well’, Sarah deadpanned.

Just then Sarah’s phone rang.  Nick’s number flashed up.

He was going to make this hellish and they both knew it.

Make sure you keep an eye on TwitterFacebook and Instagram for all the news from the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, plus look out for the First Chapter runners up stories, coming later this week!

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