2019 Short Story Competition Winner

“Another Country” by Jenny Booth

 

Iris grabbed her juddering phone from the table and ran out of the kitchen, through the usually locked side door and across the deserted Great Hall, the quickest way to the garden. “Stay out of the hall, Iris!” her mother called after her, even though no-one was touring that day, just as no-one had visited for days and weeks. She skidded along the bare floorboards and wrenched open the French doors, out into the cool green air, and answered her phone.

“I can’t come,” she hissed. “Mum and Dad won’t let me.”

“What?” crackled Delly, her only friend from school within a 50-mile radius. Iris saw no-one else during the holidays; everyone else went up to London or abroad or somewhere infinitely more fun, while Iris was stuck on the estate with a pair of old Labradors, a field full of cows, and her little sister Jane for company. 

“I can’t come,” Iris said again, louder now she was away from the house. She stomped past the ornamental hedgerows, her canvas shoes already soaked from the wet grass, and carried on along a path leading into the woods.

“I heard you,” Delly said, “but why?”

“Too dangerous,” Iris said scathingly. In her father’s voice, she added, “The country’s too unsettled.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake.”

“I may as well get used to life imprisonment.”

“Can you just come anyway? Pretend you were lost in another wing of the house or something?”

“No way to get to the station. It’s miles.”

“Ride a fucking horse.”

“Ha.” Iris kicked at the sodden leaves lining the path; great trees arched overhead and intertwined into one long, dripping tunnel. “I’ll have to skip it this year. Gutted. Text me. And try to keep your hands off Jason, he’s mine,” she joked. The guitarist from Unburnt, one of their favourite bands.

“Yeah yeah. You know I’ve only got eyes for Antonio. I’ll get you a picture.”

“Thanks Dell. Have fun. I’ll be sitting on my own playing Minecraft in the middle of a museum.”

“Aw – violins. No really, this sucks. Call me if you find a way to come.”

After Iris hung up, she felt a surge of anger at her parents, a trail of resentment sparking from her belly to her brain. She broke into a run and pounded along the trail to where it forked left toward fields and right into the trees, a narrow way uphill. She slowed to climb right, stepping over roots and rocks studding the path. 

There weren’t many chances to leave the grounds at school, and now it seemed Iris was just as trapped at home. It’s not as if the entire country had imploded after Brexit, she thought. The festival was still happening after all. She caught whiffs of the unrest – violence, looting, riots – from news programmes delaying the girls’ favourite shows, or teachers’ subdued conversations as girls filed past into the dining hall. But mostly Iris’s life enfolded her like a soft, silent cloud. Insulating. Suffocating. One giant padded cell.

Now that she was far from the house, Iris wished she’d grabbed her book. She decided to go to the plateau anyway: a flat stretch just beyond the crest of the trees with a wide view of the fields and hills beyond. No hope of wifi but she could at least play music on her phone and lie down for a while. Perhaps daydream about Jason, imagine what she’d be doing if she were with her friends. No doubt at this very moment they were loading up their rucksacks with tins of ready-mixed G&Ts and Jack&Cokes, lugging them to an already muddy field, haphazardly pitching their tents, then barrelling off to scout out the burger stands, beer tents, portaloos, ultimately drawn by microphone warble and speaker boom to the tide of people surging before the main stage.

Now that the ground had levelled out and the trail was smooth, Iris walked along looking at her phone, scrolling through her music library. For a moment the distant sound of a pop song confused her, but she then realised it floated not from her own device but from the trees ahead.

The scouts had a license to use this end of the estate; perhaps they were conducting a practice camp. But it was the wrong time of year. Iris slowed and, catching sight of movement and campfire flames, ducked behind an oak. But no, it was ridiculous to hide, she thought. This was her land. She moved slowly to a closer tree and began to peer around its trunk. There were two tents, staked into the ground where fallen leaves had been cleared aside, and a woman boiling water at the fire. A man hunched over a tree stump nearby, showing two children – a boy and a girl – what looked like an array of mushrooms.

“A’right there?” said a voice behind her. Iris jumped and turned to see a boy, slightly older than herself, rucksack slung over one shoulder. His hair, pale and dirty, fell into his eyes, and he tossed it back in a way that reminded Iris of a wild horse. He eyed her, chin up. “Who’re you then?”

“Who are you?” Iris shot back. The boy stood for another moment and then, keeping his eyes on her, called “Da!”

Iris glanced back to see the people at the campsite jerk around. The man straightened and marched over. “What’s this?” he said low to his son, looking at Iris.

“Caught ‘er just standing here, watching the camp,” said the boy, who hefted the rucksack more firmly onto his back. Iris heard tins clank. She felt herself reddening.

“I can do what I like,” Iris said. The man raised an eyebrow.

“Can you now,” he said softly.

“Yes,” replied Iris. “I live here.” The others exchanged a glance.

The woman, who had stopped a little farther away, now stepped forward. “Why don’t you come and have a cup of tea,” she said, gesturing towards the fire. Mats and folding chairs made a rough semi-circle around the fire’s rim of stones. “Or squash? Mark, did you get any squash?” The blond boy shook his head. “No, Mum,” he said. “I only got useful stuff, like, food.” The woman frowned at him but said nothing and continued to wave Iris toward the fire.

“Come on, come, sit down,” she said. “It’s all right.” Iris followed, feeling it would be better to go along with her. The smaller children remained by the stump with its shrivelled fungi, while the men followed Iris to the fire. The boy slung down his rucksack near his mother’s chair and himself with it. He unzipped the top and began drawing out tins of beans and vegetables. Cartons of chopped tomato. A cardboard box, still sealed.

“You live here, do you?” the woman said in a kindly tone. “In the big house?”

The boy snorted. “She don’t mean the next campsite over,” he muttered. 

“Yes,” said Iris slowly, noticing the label on the side of the cardboard box, which showed the address of the visitors’ cafe on the estate. “I should probably get back.”

“Have this first, go on,” said the woman, pressing a tin cup of steaming brown water into Iris’s hands. “No milk, sorry.” She sat down again next to Iris in one of the folding chairs. Her presence felt like a buffer against the others, who still lurked, staring, outside of the campfire circle. Emboldened, Iris blurted, “What are you doing here?”

“Summer ‘oliday,” Mark muttered. “What’s it look like.” His mother shot him another warning glance. Iris jolted to feel the father’s hand on her back.

“Come now,” he said. “This young lass won’t mind hearing the truth of it, will y’ girl? It’s not her fault this country’s politicians sent my business down the lav and our house with it. We just need a little time to get back on our feet,” he addressed Iris, stepping around to look her in the eyes. “And there was no way I was sticking my family in one of them shelters when we can make do well enough out here on our own. If you’ll just do us the small favour,” he leaned closer, “of keeping our little stay here between ourselves.”

“We’ll not be in anyone’s way,” his wife added. “You probably don’t know what it’s like out there, since the No Deal. No deal – no food. No jobs. No medicines.”

“Bloody neighbour died without his insulin,” Mark chimed in. “Had a seizure an’ all. Only found out after his house got burgled and they left the door wide open.”

“Aye, it’s a right mess,” his father nodded. “And to think a lot of these were the very same who voted to leave. Fed a bloody pack of lies.”

“We’re better off here, for a while,” the woman said. “At least through summer.”

Iris didn’t know what to say; she hadn’t thought much about Europe, but she urgently wanted to leave the campsite. “I didn’t know,” she said. “I’m sorry?”

“Course you are,” Mark muttered. “Alright for you.”

“It’s not my fault,” Iris shot back.

“We know it’s not, love,” soothed the woman. “And your parents probably voted Remain, too. Sensible people, no doubt, living in a grand old house like that. Traditional.” Iris looked down; her parents had talked endlessly over the past few years about the “chaos” of the EU, and how the country would be better off out of it. 

The woman looked at Mark, who was now poking at the fire pit with a short stick, scowling above the crackling flames. “Why don’t you walk her back,” she said to him.

“Oh no,” said Iris, getting up abruptly. “You don’t have to do that.”

“Yes, go on,” said his father. “Be a gentleman, like.” Mark stood up uncertainly.

“Really – thank you – it’s ok. I should go,” Iris said hurriedly. With his parents nodding to him, the look in Mark’s eyes suddenly shifted, and he stepped swiftly across the campsite.

“S’alright, I’ll come,” he said.

“Bye-bye love,” the woman called after Iris. “You’ll not let on about us for now, will you? And come back to see us again.” As Iris returned to the trail, Mark falling into step beside her, she could hear the children’s giggles spiralling and their parents’ voices, sharp, as she moved farther away. She glanced at Mark.

“You really don’t have to,” she said, walking quickly.

“No worries.” He loped easily beside her. “You can show me your gaff.”

“I… think my mum will have supper ready,” Iris mumbled. Mark grinned sideways and tossed back his forelock. From that angle he looked, Iris realised, quite a bit like Jason from Unburnt.

“What’s she making?” he asked, suddenly amiable.

“Dunno,” Iris said. She resented his presence, still, but her pace slowed. He seemed less creepy away from his family and the campsite, more like a boy in one of the older years at school. She knew she ought to go straight to her parents and tell them but, remembering the festival ban, her anger at them returned. “Who cares. I’m not hungry,” she added. Mark raised an eyebrow.

“Well,” he said, “show me round then. Not often you get a look inside a place like that.”

“We’re open to the public,” Iris said. “My family just lives in the side bit. People visit all the time.”

Mark shrugged. “Yeah, but we wouldn’t.”

*

Iris relaxed more as they drew closer to the house, its stone turrets and parapets visible above the last stretch of trees. It turned out Mark was only two years older than Iris; he’d gone to school in town a few miles away but dropped out after his family had been evicted. They shared similar taste in music and when Iris had told him about missing the festival, he was satisfyingly indignant on her behalf. He really did look like Jason, she decided.

She had planned to put him off coming inside as soon as they reached the front door to the less imposing, timber-framed addition where her family lived, a black-and-white barnacle on the side of the original house, but somehow Iris found herself persuaded to sneak in another way and slip into the main house with him. Padding along the path of sisal carpet that usually guided tourists, Iris turned when she realised Mark had stopped and was gazing around the drawing room.

“Christ,” he said, nodding at the stone fireplace. “You roast whole cows in there?”

“Just baby lambs,” Iris said, gratified by his flicker of a smile. “Come on, we can go out the front way and that’s pretty much it.”

Mark remained where he stood, surveying the room. “What about upstairs?”

“There’s nothing much up there. Just bedrooms.”

Mark scoffed. “Yeah, on two more massive floors. I bet there’s plenty.” He jerked his head, whether in disbelief or to fling the hair from his eyes, Iris wasn’t sure. “It’s like another world in here. It’s unreal.”

“It’s as real as anything else,” Iris said.

Mark shot her a look. “But nobody lives like this. It’s like a castle. It’s another fucking dimension.”

“Some people do live like this. I mean, maybe not many, but – we don’t exactly use this bit, but my family have lived here for almost two hundred years.”

“It’s unreal,” said Mark again, gazing at the life-sized portraits upon the walls, the heavy drapes, the damask wallpaper.

“Maybe life just seems unreal if it’s different from your own,” Iris said.

“To have all this, though. Doesn’t seem right. Especially not now, with so many people struggling – like my family, living in fucking tents.”

Mark’s anger silenced Iris. Then, she ventured, “I know we’re lucky. And I’m really sorry about your family. But I don’t think it would make much difference to anyone if, you know, we didn’t have it. You could take away all the old houses but then what would be left? Of the country. Things would still be the way they are. Just with less of the things that make it special.”

“You can’t eat special,” Mark grumbled. “It’s the way it looks that’s the problem. What it stands for. Rich people with way too much money, while most of the country’s just scraping by. What did your parents vote for?” He turned towards her, eyes aflame. “I bet they voted Leave, didn’t they. Fucking sovereignty and all that. Nothing’s changed for them, and now it’s the likes of my family getting shafted.”

“They did vote Leave,” Iris said, “but they don’t like what’s happening. And they talk a lot more about how much the estate costs than how much it makes.”

Mark snorted. “Must be tough,” he sneered, surveying the room once more. His eyes fell upon a display cabinet against the far wall. He ducked beneath the rope to take a closer look, leaving a trail of damp footprints across the pale Oriental rug. “What’s this?”

“Just old guns,” Iris said, alarmed at his sudden trespass. She almost never went into these rooms herself, her mother having impressed upon her the fragility of the house’s furnishings. Each decorative bauble, each carefully arranged antique, had long occupied its place and seemed essential as the delicate mechanisms of a clock. “Come on, I’ll show you the cafe,” she urged, remembering his rucksack. Mark stayed where he was. He reached out to run his fingers around the edge of the tall wooden cabinet, pressing lightly in the middle of its front panels. 

“Let’s have a look,” he said. He sprung open one of the glass-fronted doors and reached for an antique revolver, delicate foliage engraved upon its silver plate. He swung it about his index finger and glanced over at Iris, who remained screwed to the floor beyond the rope. “Doesn’t look like something for hunting. Animals, anyway.” He peered down its sight line, trained it upon the room, then slowly brought it around to target Iris.

“Put it down,” she snapped, just as a door across the nearby entrance hall clicked open.

“Iris?” her mother called, sounding impatient. “Are you in here?” Footsteps clipped across the stone floor.

Iris gaped at Mark, who still held the gun aloft, and watched his eyes flick for a moment between herself and the sound of her mother approaching. He ducked down to hide behind a jade chaise longue. Iris’s mother appeared in the doorway.

“Darling, what are you doing in here? I’ve been looking for you to see if you’ve heard from your friends. A bomb’s gone off at that festival of yours.”

Iris gasped and ran toward her mother, who put an arm around her. Iris fished her phone from her pocket and scrolled through the messages on the screen: several earlier from Delly – including one distant shot of Unburnt milling around behind the stage – but nothing in the last hour. She tried calling, but the connection cut out. 

“I can’t get hold of her,” she said through a tightening throat, tears rising. Her mother hugged her. A clatter from the room behind them made them both jump. Turning, Iris’s mother gave a small shriek at the sight of Mark, hunched over in mid-getaway across the room. The silver pistol had scudded against the skirting board, having been accidentally dropped, or knocked.

“Who are you? Iris, who is this?” her mother demanded. Mark glared at Iris, eyes full of warning, but Iris looked at him helplessly, mind swirling with fear for her friends.

“I don’t know,” she said. “They’re camping.”

At that, Mark’s face hardened. Leaving the gun where it lay, he bounded across the room and over the rope. Iris and her mother heard the side door bang and with that, the story poured out. With Mark gone, Iris felt the dammed fear burst and surge through her, rising to combine with the new terror for her friends. She clung to her mother and sobbed; when the tale was finished, they returned to the annex to find Iris’s father.

Soon afterwards, up in the snug room with Beth and her mother on the sofa and the news on television, Iris heard a car crunch up the driveway and her father walk out to meet it. She got up and went to the window to see a police car, blue light swirling like a silent disco. Two men got out and spoke with her father, before all three moved off along a trail toward the woods. Further up, along the ridge, Iris could just make out a thin line of grey smoke rising from within the trees, quickly disintegrating in the dim twilight. It reminded Iris of a myth she’d read at school – something about the colour of the smoke. But did the grey plume mean it was safe to come home, or was it a warning? Iris tried to remember; but then her phone buzzed, and she looked away.

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