The Big Writing Challenge 2023 is organised by London Metropolitan University and is supported by Orion Publishing Group. Running across several months with student writers from London Met’s partner colleges, the project explores and develops the participants’ own writing via a programme of workshops and panel events. Writers submitted their work and three were shortlisted.
The shortlisted pieces were The One You Left Behind by Katie Pangratiou from Barnet and Southgate College; Matanoia by Tomoya Comrie of Croydon College and Redroom by Saffron Pennycooke from Winchmore School.
Author and Editorial Director for Trapeze, Sareeta Domingo judged the shortlist and selected Redroom as this year’s winner. Congratulating Saffron, Sareeta described how the story arrested her from the very first line with ‘…an excellent use of language and a creeping sense of dread which lead to a powerful, hauntingly ironic conclusion…’. She went on to say that the story was ‘…steeped in dark, gorgeous descriptions and a really assured tone that was perfect for this scary, emotion-laced story. Really well done.’
We hope you enjoy reading Saffron’s story and congratulations from the entire Orion team to Saffron, Katie, Tomoya all of the Big Writing Challenge writers.
Saffron Pennycooke, Winchmore School, N2
Basil stopped dreaming when his parents died. It had always been ‘Fend for yourself or die trying’ in his head. Quite self-destructive, he knows. There’s no time for stupid fantasies. They’re full of false hope and false security. If you’re trapped in a dream someone could kill you in your sleep. If your dreams haven’t done that already.
A fire! His parents couldn’t have been any less original. They had to Great Fire of London themselves in their cottage on Basil’s 18th birthday. What a gift! He was studying what his parents described as a ‘recreational’ subject (Fine Art) in a place as reputable as his family name. He begrudgingly admired the blanket of autumn that wrapped Oxford in its elitism.
Basil approached the darkroom door with its peeling red paint and shoved it open. Above him, images were pegged on wires like bunting, charming buildings and hidden corners bathed in shafts of light. His sanctuary. He flicked the switch, illuminating the room in a deep red hue. Time to work. Basil placed one of the few things he’d inherited from the fire on the table, ready to develop his latest works. The camera had belonged to his grandfather and to his father before him. A pain in the arse to use but the result was ethereal.
He knew every image from memory, like a mark engraved behind his eyes so he was annoyed to notice an addition to one photo. Not the result of an artistic eye that studies a picture to death and finds new meaning, this was an imposter in the sacred space of his snapshot. A tiny smudge that spoilt the otherwise unblemished photo stood in the dip of a hill. There was a silhouette of … something. It was far in the distance, a background character in a low budget film. A mistake. He didn’t make mistakes. My camera has finally reached the end of the line, he mused. The other photos his eyes darted to looked completely fine. Untarnished. He looked back at the culprit.
‘What the hell!?’, Basil exclaimed, the words forcing their way out of his throat. The blemish on the photo had grown and was now closer. There lay a man in uniform – the khaki and Sam Browne belt resembling that of a World War One soldier. His expression was harrowing. Eyes dull and lifeless locking on to Basil’s, hair sticky with globules of mud. A gash ran across his face, seemed to shift as his hand stretched out. Basil blinked. Rubbed his eyes. Repeated. Blinked again.
The intruder had disappeared.
But the photographic visitors came each week, replacing his landscapes with war scenes only to vanish before his tired eyes. An insane prospect – his camera was haunted. That, or he was developing dementia at the age of 20.
On the last day of term, Basil walked purposefully to his sanctuary. This had to end. As soon as he reached his destination, he bolted the door, flicked on the light with its invasive, red glow and dragged the chair with the uneven legs to the middle of the room. He sat down, deflated by weeks of exhaustion. If Father could see him now: hair dishevelled, dark like his, shirt ruffled and his eyes shadowed by dark charcoal smudges. He would sit here until he noticed a disruption in his photos, bathed in the blood of his red room.
Nothing happened for hours. His eyes were bloodshot and there was a storm in his mind. There! A flicker. He jolted forward and snatched the photo. The scene was the worst yet. Bodies littered about, appendages dangling from the stumps of trees, the same man reached out for Basil, only now his lifeless form moved towards him. Basil dropped the photo but the intruder appeared in another photo, closer this time. “What do you want from me?! My God!” He was going insane.
Reaching into his pocket, Basil produced an army style lighter and he flicked open the metal cap, watching the flame ebb and flow; his grip on the photo so tight his fingers bruised. Placing the corner of the photo in the firing line of the flame, he watched the swirling tones chased by black curling edges of the print. A pungent smell infiltrated his nostrils, though it felt empowering and almost like a drug. Addicted to this liberation, Basil inflicted the same fate on his other works. They would not turn him insane.
His lighter created burning temptresses that danced along the path of the wires. A molten glow, colour like the red of the overhead light. What destruction he’d made: his photos, his studio, his mind – although that was thanks to his father. He sat down, surrounded by flames.
A fire… what an original way to go.