English teacher’s winning words claim short story prize
Laura Morris, an English teacher from Caerphilly, has won the 2022 Rhys Davies Short Story Competition for her story ‘Cree’, described by guest judge Rachel Trezise as “bristling with an irresistible melancholia and brimming with a bold confidence.”
The competition recognises the very best unpublished short stories in English in any style and on any subject up to a maximum of 5,000 words by writers aged 18 or over who were born in Wales, have lived in Wales for two years or more, or are currently living in Wales.
‘Cree’ is a story about the unconventional friendship between a 55-year-old junior schoolteacher Meryl Williams and her young pupil, Ben. With a school inspection looming, Meryl and Ben build a time machine in the classroom, hoping to impress. While Meryl feels life trickle away like ‘sand through an hourglass’, it is Ben’s kindness which offers her a safe place, her very own version of ‘Cree’.
Laura, 43, earned an MA in Creative Writing from Bangor University. Her work has been published by Honno Press and broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Recent short stories have appeared in The Lonely Crowd and Banshee. She now lives in Cardiff where she is the Head of English at Ysgol Gyfun Gymraeg Bro Edern.
Established in 1991, there have been nine Rhys Davies Short Story contests to date. The competition was relaunched by Swansea University’s Cultural Institute on behalf of The Rhys Davies Trust in 2021, in association with Parthian Books.
Laura wins £1,000 and has her winning entry featured in the Rhys Davies Short Story Award Anthology 2022, which is published by Parthian in October. The stories from the other 11 finalists in this year’s competition will also feature in the anthology.
This year’s guest judge, the multi-award-winning Welsh novelist and playwright Rachel Trezise, said: “Laura Morris’ ‘Cree’ bristles with an irresistible melancholia and brims with a bold confidence. It’s maturity of tone lived long in my memory bringing me back to the story, bittersweet though it is, time and again.”
On receiving the award, Laura said: “I was introduced to Rhys Davies’ short stories at university, when I was just starting to write. Davies’ portrayal of women continues to fascinate me, as women and womanhood are central to my own stories. I am delighted that my short story ‘Cree’ has won this award, but I am even more delighted for the story’s protagonist, Meryl, as she has never won anything! It is an honour to receive this recognition from Rachel Trezise, a writer whose work I admire.”
Born in Blaenclydach in the Rhondda in 1901, Rhys Davies was among the most dedicated, prolific, and accomplished of Welsh prose-writers in English. He wrote, in all, more than 100 stories, 20 novels, three novellas, two topographical books about Wales, two plays, and an autobiography.
Guest judge Rachel Trezise, editor Elaine Canning, overall winner Laura Morris and the finalists of the 2022 Rhys Davies Short Story Competition will talk about the collection and the short story form at the launch of the anthology in Swansea’s Waterstones on Thursday, 13 October at 6.30pm.
You can read the beginning of the winning story here:
By Laura Morris
Parents gather at the edge of the playground, not sure how close they should get to us – the teachers – as if we are strange beings from another time and place. Fathers send their children from the railings to the middle of the playground, ready to line up. Mothers get a little closer, teary, seeking reassurance from the eyes of others. A boy in Year 3, who reminds me of my Rhys, runs around the playground chasing the girls.
‘I’m on cree-ee. You can’t tag me,’ one shouts.
Cree – the pre-determined safe place; the place where you can’t get tagged – is, today, according to the children, the small patch of tarmac on the playground that’s slightly lighter than the rest. When you are on cree, no one can get you. You are safe. You are home.
Year 6 stand on benches, carried out to the playground from the hall. The photographer’s assistant shuffles and draws children, while the teachers take the seats at the front. John, the headmaster, surveys us, then joins the photograph. Deborah, the deputy, sits by his side.
‘Knees together, ladies,’ says the photographer. Obediently, we snap our legs closed. The men are asked to sit with their legs apart, to make fists and place them on their knees. We smile, in unison say, ‘Caerphilly cheese,’ but in my head, I’m saying just take the bloody picture.
Later, I hand out exercise books, and tell the children to turn to the first page.
‘Feel that paper with your hands,’ I say. ‘It’s lovely and smooth, isn’t it? I always think a fresh page is like a fresh start.’
The children look up at me. Waiting.
‘Our theme for this year, Year 6, is The Future. We will be looking ahead to the Year 2000 and beyond – considering issues like science, technology, the environment, travel, and of course, any ideas you may have. Copy the date down neatly,’ I say, tapping on September, the fourth with my whiteboard pen. ‘Notice how we spell fourth. Remember the ‘u’.’
There’s too much noise coming from the classroom opposite: raised voices, laughter, the sound of chairs scraping across linoleum. I put my head around the door to find out what is going on. Sheets of newspaper, pots of glue and packets of straws are strewn over the tables.
‘We are building bridges,’ Emily, the new teacher, giggles. ‘Literally and metaphorically.’
I smile, nod, and close the door.
‘What are they doing?’ asks Charlotte Evans, now out of her seat.
Shhh.’ I hold my finger to my lips.
The familiar feeling of pain behind my eyes.
John has set up a flipchart in front of the stage. He invites us to sit in a half circle, to peel a pink Post-it from the pack.
‘What are we meant to be doing?’ I ask Mari.
‘We are writing down key words for the school’s new mission statement.’
‘Why can’t we just say them out loud?’
‘I think he’s been on another course,’ Mari whispers.
He invites us, one by one, to place our Post-its on the flipchart, to explain our chosen word to the room.
Freedom,’ I say. ‘I don’t think I need to explain that, do I?’
Emily’s word is ‘progress’. John’s word is ‘standards’.
I have misunderstood the task.
‘Deborah will gather all of the Post-its, collate the information, and get it typed up,’ says John.
Deborah clicks her pen, writes in her new notebook.
‘Number 2 on the agenda: the Christmas concert… I’ve been thinking,’ John says, ‘it’s time for something new, something modern.’
‘But… we always do the nativity… always,’ I say, aware that I’m interrupting, aware that my voice is higher than it usually is.
‘Last year, when training, I…’ Emily begins.
‘It’s time for a change, Meryl. If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always got.’
But the parents enjoy it,’ I say.
‘I’m sure the parents are just as bored as we are, Meryl.’ He holds his pale hand to his mouth, performs an exaggerated yawn.
‘But it’s what Christmas is!’
‘Deborah, if you could oversee the concert, please?’ Deborah nods, makes a mm-hm noise, and writes down John’s instruction.
‘Number 3 on the agenda: the inspection. We haven’t had the exact dates yet, but we think it will be at the beginning of the spring term. Deborah has been in touch with a school in Gwynedd – inspected last March – and has learned that inspectors like to see original takes on theme work. Our themes are: Year 3 – Wales, Year 4 – Heroes and Villains, Year 5 – Animals, Year 6 – The Future. Creative ideas, please?’
‘I thought we could dress up as dragons,’ says Mel, ‘for Wales.’
‘Excellent,’ says Deborah, repeating Mel’s words slowly, before writing them down.
‘What about Year 6?’ I ask. ‘The Future? They are a bit too old to dress up?’
You could build a time machine,’ suggests Emily.
‘Yes,’ everyone agrees. ‘Great idea, Emily.’
I say nothing. I’m thinking of the mess, the time that constructing such a thing will take. But later, driving home, queueing at the Piccadilly lights, I realise that it is a good idea; it could elicit some wonderful writing from the children.
Rhys’s halls are clean and modern, not like the digs I had in my first year at Aber. An en suite! I nod politely at other parents as we pass on the stairs with boxes. So much stuff piled up in the boot, but it doesn’t look like a lot once we’ve unpacked and arranged his new life on the narrow shelves above the desk.
‘If you get homesick, I will come to get you. I will pick you up,’ I say. ‘You know that.’
‘He can get the Trawscambria,’ says Bill.
‘I will be fine, Mam.’
I want us to walk along the promenade, like Bill and I used to, but Rhys’s new flatmates have asked him to drinks, and Bill isn’t keen – The clouds are thick. Full of something,’ he says, staring up at the darkening sky.
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