The BBC National Short Story Award is one of the UK’s biggest prizes for a single short story. Writing Magazine is delighted to showcase extracts from this year’s five-strong shortlist.
The winner of the BBC National Short Story Award 2016 will be announced live on BBC Radio 4 Front Row at 7.15pm on Tuesday 4th October.
One day Mala lowers her mask and says to Jesmin, my boyfriend
wants to marry you. Jesmin is six shirts behind so she
doesn’t look up. After the bell, Mala explains. For months now
she’s been telling the girls, ya, any day now me and Dulal are
going to the Kazi. They don’t believe her, they know her boyfriend
works in an air-conditioned shop. No way he was going to marry
a garments girl. Now she has a scheme and when Jesmin hears
it, she thinks, it’s not so bad.
Two days later Mala’s sweating like it’s July. He wants one
more. Three wives. We have to find a girl. After the bell they look
down the row of sewing machines and try to choose. Mala knows
all the unmarried girls, which one needs a room, which one has
hungry relatives, which one borrowed money against her wage
and can’t work enough overtime to pay it off. They squint down
the line and consider Fatima, Keya, Komola, but for some reason
or other they reject them all. There’s a new girl at the end of the
row but when Mala takes a break and limps over to the toilet she
comes back and says the girl has a milky eye.
There’s a new order for panties. Jesmin picks up the sample.
She’s never seen a panty like it before. It’s thick, with double
seams on the front, back, and around the buttocks. The leg is just
cut off without a stitch. Mala, she says, what’s this? Mala says,
the foreign ladies use them to hold in their fat and they call them
Thanks. Thanks? Yep. Because they look so good, in the mirror
they say to the panties, Thanks. Jesmin and Mala pull down their
masks and trade a laugh when the morning supervisor, Jamal,
Jesmin decides it won’t be so bad to share a husband. She
doesn’t have dreams of a love marriage, and if they have to divide
the sex that’s fine with her, and if he wants something, like he
wants his rice the way his mother makes it, maybe one of them
will know how to do it. Walking home as she did every evening
with all the other factory workers, a line two girls thick and a mile
long, snaking out of Tongi and all the way to Uttara, she spots
a new girl. Sometimes Jesmin looks in front and behind her at
that line, all the ribbons flapping and the song of sandals on the
pavement, and she feels a swell in her chest. She catches up to
the girl. Her name’s Ruby. She’s dark, but pretty. Small white teeth
and filmy eyes. She’s new and eager to make friends. I’m coming
two, three hours from my village every morning, she complains.
I know, Jesmin says. Finding a place to live is why I’m doing this.