Short story competition: The Unravelling of Mr Growler by Michele Sheldon (Joint 1st)
PUBLISHED: 10:58 18 March 2016 | UPDATED: 11:57 18 March 2016
Kent Life’s very first Short Story Competition attracted a wealth of entries and selecting the best of the best was a difficult task but we have them here for you to read
Mr Growler was a dog unlike any other during his trips to and from the harbour. It wasn’t that he didn’t enjoy all the usual canine pleasures like other less remarkable dogs. He enjoyed nothing better than chasing the skinny cats awaiting the arrival of the fishing boats, snuffling his way around the narrow, cobbled streets, the freshly-gutted fish sending him into a sniffing frenzy. Nothing could distract him from the stench except a well-placed kick from his owner, Mrs Emily Popkiss, a widow from the Dover Road.
No, it was his appearance that set him apart, often attracting squeals of delight from small children, and unkind and sometimes lewd remarks from the fishermen. It looked as though he was wearing an oversized and rather moth-eaten suit of thick brown fur. Emily was in no doubt that Mr Growler was fully aware of the effect he had on strangers. He often growled at passers-by who wandered too close and on occasions, objects, especially those that returned his own reflection. He even took offence against the waves that dared to wet his fat paws, snarling and biting at them as if their constant advance was a personal insult to his pride.
The pair made an odd couple. There was no real similarity between them as you sometimes see with certain dogs and their owners, except for both resembling pieces of furniture that Emily’s late husband had lugged around Folkestone’s West End. Emily resembled a well fashioned wardrobe, broad as wide, solid and dependable. On the other hand, Mr Growler was shaped like a tub of brandy similar to the ones smugglers sank and marked with a float until the coast was clear to bring them ashore.
Emily’s husband had died of pneumonia two years before and she’d been left without any income. She had no other option than to fall back on her four brothers and the family business that she so detested. It wasn’t that she didn’t like her brothers. She loved them dearly. It was their trade she loathed for taking her father when she was just six years old.
However, her brothers were very persuasive. Mr Growler would make her a small fortune. A dog was an unlikely business partner, although her brother, John, had assured her that stranger vessels had been used: pig bladders full of French brandy secreted under the voluminous skirts of ladies; hollowed out loaves of bread containing delicate lace gloves; fishermen’s boots stuffed with jewellery and petticoats lined with silk stockings. Even the dead lying in their coffins still had a purpose in life. They were sometimes gutted like the common cod and filled with lace, their heads, arms and hands remaining to fool any suspicious customs men.
Emily had found Mr Growler on the Warren one sunny May afternoon a year after her husband had died. She’d taken her nephew for a walk in the cliff-top meadows, and had momentarily turned away to admire the swathes of aqua green sea when James vanished. She’d stumbled through the long grass shouting his name, fearing that the child had fallen over the cliff. Then she’d heard barking and frantically ran towards its direction and soon discovered James standing, white-faced and frozen still, next to a steep drop, while a bony, flea-infested dog circled him, baring his yellow fangs. As soon as Emily appeared, the creature had dropped to the ground and wagged its stumpy tail furiously.
The dog had followed them home and never left. His coat soon grew thick and shiny, although his temper never much improved. And while his little belly expanded in all directions, this was not strictly down to Emily’s generous portions.
He had since earned a reputation as the Napoleon of the dog world, one that had been enhanced on their sixth return trip from Boulogne. A customs officer had made jest of his unruly fur and received a nip to his ankle. Emily had picked up Mr Growler and walked off without apology. Never again did any of the customs officers bother them.
Emily followed Mr Growler as he waddled down the gangway from the steamship. The customs officers nodded respectfully as she and Mr Growler walked past and out into the harbour where a reddened sky met them. It would give them just enough light to walk to The Valiant Sailor where her brother was waiting, as always.
She’d avoided the pub for many years after her father had died. It wasn’t the ruffians and the drunks who bothered her. It was the memory of her father’s death. His friends had carried him from the Warren and wrapped his body in an old rug before laying him in front of the fire, as if the flames could lick some life back into him.
Emily had knelt down beside him, while her mother and brothers unrolled the rug, recoiling at his bloated body. She’d touched his hand tentatively, feeling the cold, waxy skin of the dead and gently wiped the sand from his eyelids and from his blue lips. She then carefully peeled away the tiny strands of seaweed covering his handsome face and weather-beaten hands.
These were the same hands that had given her such comfort and love. They now lay useless, battered and bruised by the waves that had drowned him. They were the same hands that had surprised her with gifts of chocolate, and sometimes, beautiful hand-made Calais lace which London merchants fought over and for which smugglers died.
And it was here, where her father had lain all those years ago, that the unravelling of Mr Growler would begin. Sensing it was an important and sombre occasion, Mr Growler stayed perfectly still on Emily’s lap.
First, she’d unpick the fine stitches, sewn an hour before the steamship left for Boulogne, and peel off his hot, sweaty, and often foul-smelling rabbit fur suit. Then she’d slowly unfurl the fine lace from around his body, wrapping it around her left hand, until once again Mr Growler became just another dog.
Tell us a bit about you
I’ve lived in Folkestone for eight years after moving from London with my partner and three children now aged 12, 10 and nine. I trained as journalist on the Bucks Free Press and worked on the Portsmouth Evening News before freelancing for national newspapers. I now work as a writer and editor, mostly for different companies and organisations, but wish I could be a lady of ‘independent means’ to write fiction full time!
When did you first start writing?
I’ve always loved reading and writing stories and had some great English teachers. Some of my happiest memories are of my primary school teacher, Mr Bolton, reading to us in the afternoon and we’d often fall asleep…I think it subconsciously had some effect as the time before sleep, dreaming or just after I wake is great for story ideas. I started taking writing seriously about five years ago, realising time was whizzing by and I’d better just get on with it.
Have you had any of your work published before?
I’ve had a story published in Women’s Weekly and an anthology called Stories for Homes in aid of Shelter, as well as Born of the Sea and Other Stories as part of being shortlisted for the HG Wells competition. One of my stories is also being recorded by the University of Cork.
I’ve also been shortlisted for RTE Guide/Penguin Ireland Short Story Competition 2015, Bridport Prize 2014, Wells Literary Festival 2013 & 2015, Frome Literary Festival 2013. I’ve just finished an historical novel about the use of slave-labour in Brazil by British companies in the late 19th century. I’ve also written a couple of children’s books which have been gathering a nice collection of rejections from agents! I’d also love to put together a collection of short stories this year.
Do you belong to a writers’ group?
Yes, we meet once a month and it’s a great place to get constructive feedback, see what’s working and what’s not. We welcome writers at all stages. Draft of Folkestone
Who is your favourite author?
There are so many fantastic writers in the world that it’s difficult to pinpoint one. My favourite writer is always the last great book I read. I love short stories and have just read Irish writer Danielle McLaughlin’s brilliant Dinosaurs on Other Planets. I prefer odd stories that make you feel unsettled and Shirley Jackson’s novels and short stories are excellent at doing just this, especially my favourite, We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
What attracted you to enter the Kent Life competition?
History is full of incredible stories that are far stranger than any fiction I could write. Mr Growler was inspired by a pamphlet I read. There was a line about a woman using her dog to smuggle lace and an image of a fat, grumpy little dog, wrapped in lace and forced into a suit made from another animal’s fur, popped into my head and stayed with me until I wrote the story a while ago. It’s tough getting short stories published and entering this competition gives a writer a great opportunity to reach a much more varied readership than usual.
Read the other winning stories here